When Europe Was a Prison Camp: Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-1941

When Europe Was a Prison Camp: Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-1941

When Europe Was a Prison Camp: Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-1941

When Europe Was a Prison Camp: Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-1941

Synopsis

In a compelling approach to storytelling, When Europe Was a Prison Camp weaves together two accounts of a family's eventual escape from Occupied Europe. One, a memoir written by the father in 1941; the other, begun by the son in the 1980s, fills in the story of himself and his mother, supplemented by historical research. The result is both personal and provocative, involving as it does issues of history and memory, fiction and "truth," courage and resignation. This is not a "Holocaust memoir." The Schrags were Jews, and Otto was interned, under execrable conditions, in southern France. But Otto, with the help of a heroic wife, escaped the camp before the start of massive transfers of prisoners "to the East," and Peter and his mother escaped from Belgium before the Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Yet, the danger and suffering, the comradeship and betrayal, the naive hopes and cynical despair of those in prison and those in peril are everywhere in evidence.

Excerpt

In the summer and fall of 1941, shortly after our arrival in New York from Europe, my father, Otto Schrag, wrote the draft of a book-length narrative about his internment in a concentration camp in southern France and our escape—his, mine, and my mother’s—from Nazi occupied Europe in 1940–41. Was it to be a novel? Or was it a fictionalized memoir? After extensive research, I found the story to be so surprisingly well corroborated by the documentary record and by other accounts that it looks at heart much more like a meticulously observed personal chronicle than it does like a novel—a memoir of a harrowing year in our lives, as it was in the lives of thousands of others.

That record includes official lists of prisoners interned in the French concentration camp at Saint-Cyprien, my father’s Notice Individuelle (his dossier), and other documents in his camp file, some now in French government archives, as well as memoirs, many never published, of internment by Rabbi Jehuda Leo Ansbacher, Ernest Simon, Gerhard (later Jerry) Breuer, and others arrested in Belgium and interned in the French camps. It also includes ship manifests, interviews with survivors and their descendants, and personal visits (or post-war returns) to the places in Belgium and France in which these stories took place. It’s also eerily true to what I personally recall about my own wartime experience

1. These are mostly notes handwritten with classic formality and sent from one official to another: “In regard to your inquiry about the subject Otto (or Othon) Schrag, I have the honor to inform you that the subject escaped on 20/8/40.”

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