In 1939, my quota number finally came up. I told Mr. Salabert that I was going to visit my brother and see the World's Fair in New York. While I was there, my father called and told me he had been contacted by the Gestapo. They asked him if he had any sons. When he told the interrogator my name, the officer told my father that we had been in school together and let him go. My father was quite shaken and asked me to help him leave Vienna; he was very much afraid of being sent to a concentration camp. I immediately started trying to get him out: a boat named the St. Louis was leaving Hamburg, Germany for Havana, Cuba. There the passengers could stay until they were allowed to come to the U.S. My brother and I bought the tickets, which were quite expensive (the tally included passage, a deposit on any return fare, and a landing fee), and we sent them to my parents. We proceeded by bus to Miami (we did not have much money left) and then by hydroplane to Havana. The St. Louis arrived, and I went every day to see my parents, but it was nearly impossible to communicate since they were on an upper deck and I was in a little boat. The St. Louis was forced to leave after about a week because the Cuban officials refused to authorize sanctuary. Although their demands were met for $500 for each passenger and for a bond guaranteeing living expenses for the refugees during any stay in Cuba, no personal gifts offered were satisfactory to government officials, among whom was Fulgencio Batista, Chief of Staff of the Army. When the ship departed, we had no idea where it was going, so my brother and I returned to New York.
Three weeks later, a declaration by President F.D. Roosevelt was published in the newspapers: no one from the boat would be allowed into the U.S. Many of the people on the boat had come from concentration camps. This became a major propaganda opportunity for the Nazis, who used it to show that no one wanted anything to do with the Jews. The St. Louis remained on the open seas for about two weeks until four countries-England, France, Belgium, and Holland-agreed to take in 200 or so refugees each. The 287 people who went to England were saved. The other 619 people were picked up by local police and turned over to the Germans, who took them to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Of those-excluding my parents-only 70 survived. After I found out that the passengers of the St. Louis were going to be distributed among the four countries, I borrowed some money and bought a ticket to Paris on the Normandie. From Paris I went to Boulogne-sur-Mer, and when the St. Louis landed there, I picked up my parents and brought them back to Paris. They couldn't stay with me, though, because there was an ordinance that immigrants could not stay in the city. So I put them in a hotel in the suburb of Saint Cloud, while I was in a hotel in Paris.
When the war broke out in September of 1939, my situation became absolutely impossible. I had dinner with a man in my hotel who was a double agent (an Austrian working for the French Police), and he told me there was a place for enemy aliens like myself. He told me the police would come and take me to Drancy, an assembly point for enemy aliens, and a distribution point for concentration camps. Practically all of the people who arrived in Drancy did not survive the war: they were eventually gassed or worked to death by the Germans. The Austrian told me to get a certificate from a doctor-which I did-so I wouldn't have to go. But the French police came in civilian clothes, took my papers, and asked me to go to Drancy. I couldn't leave the hotel anymore because a rifle-bearing soldier on the next street corner was asking everyone for papers, and I had none; so I appealed to my friends to help get me to the American consulate. Once there, I explained that not only had I already emigrated, but also that my parents had been on the St. Louis and were now outside Paris. They gave me an affidavit in lieu of a passport; later it saved my life. I also went to the Spanish and Portuguese consulates to ask for transit visas, and had no trouble getting them. In the meantime, the police refused to accept the doctor's certificate and told me I must go to Drancy. What I really needed now was an exit visa. I was afraid of the police but I did go to police headquarters to ask for one. I had to leave my papers there and return in a week to see if I had gotten it.
In the meantime, the pressure to go to Drancy became a situation of life or death. I called my doctor and asked if he could give me a shot that would cause a high fever; he said he could and would do it the next day at 7 a.m. I had an idea and called an ambulance for that time. The ambulance came, and the doctor gave me the shot. By the time I got to Drancy, I had a high fever. A Nazi doctor there saw me; he spoke to me in German and I vomited all over him. That saved my life: he said to come back when I felt better and sent me home. I went home in the ambulance. Two days later, I saw a very close friend of mine, a prominent writer named Steve Passeur. He was living with a very beautiful woman who was a friend of the Chief of Police of Paris. I asked if she would go to the police to inquire if my exit visa had arrived. She was kind enough to do so and came back with my papers and the visa.
I went to see my parents in Saint Cloud, and told them I had to leave Paris at once but I would do everything I could to get them out of France. Because there was a rule that people over 60 did not have to go to Drancy, they could stay where they were even though they too were enemy aliens. I took the train that night and ended up in St. Sebastien in France. I was safe there, and stayed a while to recuperate from all of the stress I had been under since the war had started. From there I went to Barcelona, then to Madrid, and on to Lisbon to wait for a boat that would take me to the U.S. I left on the Rex, an Italian boat, and arrived in New York in November of 1939.
Once in New York, I did everything I could to get my parents to the U.S. Since the U.S. had not yet declared war on Germany, I found a functioning American consulate at Bordeaux. I told my parents to go to Bordeaux and get in touch with the Jewish Committee helping people who had been on the St. Louis get out of France. They then got everything they needed to come to America. They arrived here in the early 1940's. Saving my parents' lives is one of the things in my life of which I'm most proud. My father was over 60 and my mother over 56. They spent their last twenty years together in the U.S. with my brother and me. They were enjoyable years for all of us.