Can you tell me where you were born?
My name is Solomon Jacobovits. I was born in Cologne — Köln am Rhein — Germany. However, I was three years old when I left Cologne and I don’t recall much about that city. My family moved to Strasbourg, on the border of Germany. Strasbourg was the biggest center for frum Jews. There was a large Ashkenazic kehillah besides many other kehillos from Poland and other lands. Strasbourg had many minyanim and youth groups. It was considered a fine Jewish community.
What memories can you share with us about your family?
My father was the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Chachmei Tzorfas in Strasbourg. We were five brothers; three older [than I] and one younger.
What kind of education did you receive?
There were no Jewish schools in Strasbourg. However, on Sundays and Thursdays the secular schools in town were closed so we went to a Talmud Torah run by the community, where we got a Jewish education. When I got older I learned with my father.
Did you feel anti-Semitism in the town before the war?
Yes. The Germans’ behavior influenced the population. Strasbourg was a bilingual [French and German] city; they had an affiliation with Germany which was just across the river, so they spoke German as well. Often as we walked in the street German-speaking youth would scream Juden, Juden!
When did you begin feeling the pressures of the war? Did you realize that war was imminent?
Absolutely! We knew that being on the outskirts of Germany was very dangerous. We also knew that the French government intended to evacuate Strasbourg at the outbreak of war, and we would have to leave our house.
In 1938, before the famous Munich peace [agreement], the French army organized itself and called up the reserves. The fear of war had made its mark. Many Jewish residents began looking for new places to live inside France. My father took his entire library and shipped it to the interior of France for storage. The Munich peace only gave us one more year.
My father was the Rosh Yeshivah and had to take responsibility for his talmidim; our family could not just pick up and leave. In addition, it was not simple to get to the interior of France and there were not many frum Jewish communities other than in Paris. The people who did leave were looking for a place where rents were cheap so that they could maintain their apartment in Germany and rent another apartment in France.
The peaceful times ended in 1939. Because Strasbourg was part of the defense line of the French army known as the Maginot line, which ran along the Rhine River and the town of Strasbourg, Strasbourg was viewed as a fortified city; therefore the Germans did not attack Strasbourg right away. In 1939, before France was ready to declare war, they had to clear out all the civilians from Strasbourg. The Jewish people living in Strasbourg knew that this would be the case. My father dreaded the idea that this might happen over Shabbos. If they evacuated Strasbourg over Shabbos we would have to go onto trucks, destination unknown.
In September 1939, when sounds of war were imminent, those of means immediately went to places in the interior of France; however, those who did not have the resources waited and hoped that another Munich peace [agreement] would take place and there would not be a war. But when a pact was signed and Poland was divided, we knew that war was coming, and fast. The only solution was to get out of Strasbourg.
What plan of action did your family have?
It was the end of the summer and the Jews of Strasbourg sent their children out to the countryside about 100 miles from Strasbourg. There were some houses that were uninhabited and the Jewish refugees were given permission to live there. My family moved there temporarily.
We remained there for a few weeks until after the Yamim Nora’im. My parents and two older brothers traveled to the interior of France to find a place to establish the family. They first went to the town of Lyons but that did not work out. Next they went to a town called Vichy where my father was able to rent a cheap apartment, and eventually we were able to join my parents in Vichy.
My father was an Austrian citizen. France was at war with Austria; my father was considered a foreign enemy. He was interned and sent to a camp in a faraway mountainous area. There he met many other Jews who were citizens of other foreign countries and had been detained for the same reason.