Whenever Oscar and I go for a walk, it’s obvious he’s the one walking me. I’m just the schnook holding the leash. He loves to meet new people and I merely tag along for the ride.
Three years ago, Oscar befriended an intelligent 83-year-old woman sitting on a bench enjoying the sunset. She quickly observed that Oscar seemed more human than canine, a phenomenon I had noticed long ago.
A week later we ran into the same woman. She introduced herself as Salome but in an accent I couldn’t place. Her explanation was fascinating. Even Oscar seemed to listen.
Salome was born in 1923 into a Jewish family living in Antwerp, Belgium. In early 1940 her father passed away. And then, on May 10, Salome awoke wondering why the woman next door was beating her rugs so early. Moments later, her mother rushed into the bedroom with the terrifying news that the Germans were bombing the harbor.
Two days later, Salome, her younger sister, Doris, and their mother were on an overcrowded train to France, never to return to Belgium again.
With bombs still dropping, they spent eight days packed into that train, which had no bathrooms and often no food. Out the window Salome saw desperate souls walking dazed or passed out, suitcases and bundles scattered over the landscape.
Salome’s family eventually wound up at a French government “Welcoming Center” for refugees. There were artists, professors, musicians, actors and politicians. It was like a college education for 17-year-old Salome.
But, as Germany spread its occupation throughout France, the “Welcoming Center” morphed into a barbed wire concentration camp with food rations cut to subsistence levels. Doris, who was flirtatious with the guards to obtain information, learned that the camp was going to be “liquidated.” That night they escaped.
They managed to board a train for Marseilles and upon arriving felt enormous relief. Then they spotted French collaborators with the Nazis inspecting people’s documents. Nearby were trucks to take the undocumented to what likely would be death camps. Salome suddenly noticed the “toilette” sign and knew from experience that there might be a door that exited onto the street. She was right, and, once again, her family was saved.
In 1942, Jews were being arrested everywhere. During nightfall, Salome’s family sneaked from place to place to stay one step ahead of the Nazis. Doris had befriended members of the resistance who planned a dangerous escape to Switzerland.
For three weeks Salome’s family lived in caves by the ocean reachable through a railroad tunnel. One night the tide came in so high that they feared they might drown. In the tunnel, Salome still remembers hugging the walls when a train suddenly came through. She also remembers holding her mother, who was so distraught that she wanted to throw herself under the train.
With their last money, Salome’s family took another train to Chamonix, near the Swiss border. But collaborators boarded and began checking documents. Among those arrested, and likely sent to their deaths, was a family with three children, all of whom Salome knew well.
The agents approached Salome when suddenly a whistle blew and they hurriedly exited the train. Fate had given Salome’s family another miracle.
From Chamonix, Salome’s family began their journey to Switzerland. If caught, the Swiss military would send them back. But if they made it over the border they would be refugees and allowed to stay.
They met their “contact,” who was dressed as a priest. He gave them a map detailing how to avoid the border guards. In darkness, they walked endlessly. Every time they rested Salome’s mother begged them to leave her behind so they might live.
After 20 hours, literally crossing the Alps, Salome heard the sound of cowbells. They were in Switzerland!
In 1943, Salome met her future husband, Bert. To escape the Nazis, he swam across the Rhine, arriving in Switzerland barefoot. They married in 1944, came to America in 1946 and became U.S. citizens in 1951. They were married for 51 years.
Today, Salome is 86, a widow with two children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Her mother lived to be 94. Doris, whom Salome phones weekly, lives in Zurich. After raising her children, Salome went to UCLA, got a master’s degree in two foreign languages, and taught college for seven years.
Most of Salome’s extended family did not survive the Holocaust. And yet the idea of mechanized mass murder is still inconceivable to her. Remarkably, she always looks for the best in humanity. “After all,” she said, “think about how many people risked their lives to save mine.”
A voracious reader, Salome’s active in politics, including the Santa Monica Democratic Club and Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights. She’s passionately anti-war and anti-racism. She also favors the rights of undocumented workers. When some of her grandchildren disagree, she points out that had she not been given undocumented haven in Switzerland, none of them would have been born.
At my urging, Salome recently wrote a longhand account of this living history for her family. I edited and entered it into the computer. She generously offered me money but I held out for tea and cookies.
Reflecting on her survivor experiences Salome said, “They are the foundation for who I am today.”
Perhaps they are where she gets some of her abundant wisdom. It’s so true. Oscar introduces me to the most amazing people.
When he isn’t busy with tea and cookies, Jack can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.