Friday afternoon the maquisard (a guerilla fighter in the French underground) arrived and informed us that we were ready to leave. We headed to the Swiss border. We attached rubber soles to our wooden shoes so that they wouldn’t make noise. We met up with a French policeman who spoke with the maquisard. The marquisard then gave us very specific instructions. Pointing to a house, he said, “If the light goes on in this house then it means that the coast is clear and you should continue on this road over the wooden bridge and you will be in Switzerland. The first soldier that you see will be a Swiss soldier. When he stops you, inform him that you have come as refugees.” One more thing that he warned us was never to reveal the name of the French policeman.
Can you describe what happened once you were on Swiss soil?
The soldier who met us took us to the Swiss customs house. The Swiss police began to question us. When they asked for the whereabouts of our parents, we told them that we had been informed they were refugees in Switzerland. They did not take our word so quickly but they began inquiring how we found our way to Switzerland. We remembered our promise never to reveal the name of the officer who helped us.
We were made to sit and wait for a truck that was to take us to the territorial police headquarters where they would question us further. Upon arrival at the headquarters they began inspecting our belongings. Final permission for our entry into Switzerland had to come from the capital city of Bern. It is there that they decide which refugees will be allowed to stay in Switzerland. After many hours of waiting, our acceptance was issued. Another truck arrived to take us to an overnight residence where refugees in-waiting spend the night before being transferred to a more permanent refugee camp.
In the morning we were given a real breakfast and then we were taken to a camp called Charmilles in Geneva. The camp was surrounded and protected by Swiss army guards. There were about 100 refugees staying there. There were two big rooms, one for men and one for ladies, with a foot of straw spread across the floor. Each refugee was given a blanket and this was our bed. There was a dining room.
I had my tefillin and a siddur which I had put into my rucksack and I wanted to put them on and daven. It felt awkward to daven in a room with so many gentiles. I decided to use the dining room to daven before the specified time for breakfast. However, people arrived early for breakfast and when I was finished I was bombarded with questions. The people were interested in hearing about Jewish customs.
We were not able to eat most of the food that was served, for it was not kosher. One morning some women came over to us and discussed with us the fact that we were not eating properly. They offered to give us extra bread since they were impressed that we were keeping to our religion.
Your parents were already in Switzerland. When did you meet up with them?
When we first arrived, the commander in charge promised us that he would help us locate our parents. At this point we were in Switzerland for a week already and there was no word from my parents. By now, everyone in the camp knew that there were two Jewish boys among the refugees who could not find their parents. There were a number of other Jewish refugees among the refugees in the camp. One refugee was reading the Jewish newspaper. He chanced upon a small note which stated that in the refugee camp of Buren there was a Chanukah celebration, and Rabbi Jacobovits spoke at that celebration.
Buren was quite a distance from Geneva. We decided to send a letter to Buren. Every letter was censored and stamped before it left the camp. We waited anxiously for an answer, [hoping] to be united with our parents. In the meantime, since our camp was overcrowded, it was decided that we were going to relocate to another town in Switzerland, Champel.
Here the living conditions were better than those in Charmilles. However, I faced opposition from fellow Jewish refugees who were not pleased with my display of Yiddishkeit in public. They were actually scared that the gentiles would not take to it well. On the other hand, the gentiles were very kind to us and actually respected us for keeping to our religion. The Swiss did not like that we were idle, and they arranged for a teacher to teach us for a few hours a day.
One day we received a telegram from our parents. A long process followed until we were granted permission to travel to my parents. There was tremendous excitement in the camp, for we were going to be reunited with our parents. However we were only going to be able to visit with them and then we would have to make plans for permanent residence. At that point it was decided that we were going to join the Hachsharah.
It was eight weeks since we had arrived in Switzerland when we were finally able to meet our parents for a weekend before joining the Hachsharah.
What message can you impart to future generations?
There are a few lessons to be learned from these experiences. One should be flexible in one’s attitude to life and not always look for comfort and soft surroundings. In addition, while in many cities children are not in contact with non-Jews, they must know how to act and relate to non-Jews properly. But foremost, always keep up one’s bitachon.