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Some Notes on Safe Conduct

A few years ago, a woman with whom I had worked in a publishing house showed me a rough manuscript of someone’s experiences during the Second World War years. The notes were fascinating although difficult to decipher with the less than perfect English. I was asked whether I would be interested in working with Dolf Ringel, on his story. I spoke with him several times on the phone and decided I wanted to meet him.

When we began working together, I suggested to Dolf that he tell me his story in the most personal terms, the story I couldn't find anywhere else. There are many history books on the Holocaust and a good number of memoirs have been written since Anne Frank's diary came out. But Dolf’s story had many things not found in other Holocaust books. Over a period of about two years, Dolf came over and talked while I took notes. Sometimes, I’d go to his place and then I’d get to spend some time with his wife, Totye, who was a major figure in the story. They arranged for us to get together a few times with their friend, Max, the third member of the story, and so I was able to talk to all three of them.

The Tennis Club in Amsterdam was the meeting place for Dolf, Totye and Max. It was where they not only met each other but other young Jews who played tennis or merely went to socialize. Dolf, Max and Totye also were neighbors, which turned out to be an important factor in their story. Dolf began speaking of the years immediately preceding the war and the sudden nightmare of the early Occupation.

The early Occupation in Holland meant, among other things, the wearing of the Yellow Star, and automobiles as well as bicycles being taken from the Jews. When public transportation was also denied them, the three neighbors, virtually thrown together, became closer friends. By this time, newspapers and radios had already been confiscated. Dolf related how the Nazis systematically identified and segregated the Jews. When young Jews all received notices to prepare to be transported for “work,” all three of them remembered how most never suspected the call ups to mean anything more.

I began to think about how Dolf, Totye and Max came to be identified as Jews. They weren't in any visible way different from anyone around them. They were young adults in an urban upper-middle class setting who spent their free time at the Tennis Club. But they never denied their religion. Of course once they fled the country, they kept quiet about it.

Dolf discussed the process of attempting to escape and how they acquired counterfeit identification and found passeurs to guide them through the escape routes. He told of how so many people helped them while others tried to betray them. It is difficult to find Holocaust literature where complete strangers go out of their way for people who they know are fleeing from the Nazis. There are stories of people taking in, even adopting children, but not of total strangers giving shelter to adults on the run, risking their lives for people they don’t know and will never see again.

Of all the places they traversed on their escape route, only in occupied France did they note a different attitude toward the Germans. Dolf marveled at the spirit of collaboration in Paris and how the French appeared to be on such friendly terms with the Germans. It was in France also that they had perhaps their closest calls. Going to visit a friend of Max’s father at his place of business in Paris; they never considered that the Nazis would have taken over a “Jewish” business. They literally ran for their lives. Later, on the bus heading toward the French demarcation line, they were unaware that the Nazis routinely stopped that bus every evening looking for Jews. On that night they did not.

As the Nazis entered Vichy France, Dolf and his friends had to be smuggled across the Pyrenees for their hoped-for freedom in Spain. An old family friend in Spain was not enough to keep them from being thrown into prison and then concentration camp. This was the first I heard of a concentration camp in Spain during the war. The ordeal of the camp was recounted in great detail. Dolf was the first man of military age to be released from Campo de Concentracion de Ebro.

What Dolf, Totye and Max went through to survive is a remarkable story. But also remarkable is the courage and generosity of the strangers they met along their way. A farmer, an innkeeper, a miner, a furrier -- all knew they were risking their lives to help anyone fleeing from the Germans. And yet they helped. I wonder how much they were influenced by their youth or charm or personalities. Or perhaps it was a political or moral reason. Who knows? But to flee from Holland, which was at the northernmost part of western Europe, to Spain, on the southern end of Europe, was unheard of. Even today, it is difficult to fathom how they managed to get across not one but four heavily-guarded borders successfully.

Their story is further testimony to the insanity of that period of history called the Holocaust.