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After the Darkness of Deportation, a Bright Life
Shortly after Yom Kippur 70 years ago, my father, grandparents and some 6,000 other Jews were deported from the border region of southwest Germany to internment camps in southern France.
For the next 18 months, my father, Kurt Lion, endured deprivation as he nursed his ailing parents first in the Gurs, and later in the Rivesaltes camps. His father, Philip, died from the putrid conditions; his mother, Rosa, was transported to Auschwitz, where she was gassed.
Both had reiterated to him the same burning wish -- that someday he make it to America for a new life and a reunion with his two elder sisters, living there since 1937. My father, just 16, vowed to survive.
At Rivesaltes, he hid in crawl spaces from the Nazi SS squads that increasingly sought young Jews for lethal work details. Certain that he must flee to live, he slipped away, was later arrested and taken to a holding depot for shipment to another camp. But that night, he managed to escape by squirming through a sewage pipe into a nearby river.
Attaining freedom, he lived on foraged food, and was eventually able to get I.D. papers for himself under a gentile name. With this alias, he found work as a farmhand for a landowner in a village in east-central France. There, he managed to replenish his strength from the camp deprivations.
With his increased strength, something else within him grew stronger -- his desire to strike back against the Germans for their crimes. And strike back my father did, first by attacking German troops and supply lines as a member of the French underground. Later, he served as an aerial gunner in a "Free French" B-17 bomber that rained explosives on Germany during raids coordinated by the U.S. Air Force.
After a dozen or so successful bomber missions, my father's plane was shot down. He lived, ending the war performing other duties for the French military. After V-E day, his status gave him access to trucks, and with these, he secretly helped in the clandestine smuggling of Jewish refugees to then pre-state Palestine.
Today, my father is 84, and resides in central New Jersey. He has three grown children, including a daughter and grandson living in the Philadelphia area. Age, my mother's death and the passing of friends have given my father a philosophical outlook on life in general.
But when we, his children, ask about his early years, he talks not like an old man, but like the teen he was on Oct. 22, 1940, when he was deported from Ihringen, his birthplace village, near the French border.
His voice resonates with a gamut of emotions -- nostalgia for his childhood, then sadness and anger over the people deported via packed trains to the filthy, flea-ridden Vichy-run camps. But usually, when he is done recounting his wartime experiences, a measure of satisfaction comes into his voice. It is derived from the fact that, yes, he fought back; and yes, he fulfilled his parents' wish, reuniting with his sisters and building a life in America.
One of the only possessions my father had when he arrived in 1946 was a Hebrew-German prayerbook. He came of age five months after Kristallnacht -- a time when Nazi persecution had left German Jewry in despair. The only gift he received on his Bar Mitzvah was this tiny siddur.
Eighteen months later, SS officers pounded on my grandparents' door. Everyone was ordered to assemble on the street within 20 minutes with only a small bag of possessions. My father had no inkling of where he and the others would be taken; instinctively, he packed the prayerbook.
He managed to retain it during the war, concealing it as he could -- in his clothes, burying it or storing it in a hiding place. When he worked as a farmhand and joined the French resistance, he hid it under a loose brick in the wine cellar of his employer.
The book remained there until my father retrieved it and carried it to his new life in America. He kept it in a bedside table. But when his grandson Sam, of Chester County, Pa., celebrated his Bar Mitzvah five years ago, he decided to pass it on to him.
On this anniversary of his deportation, I reflect with pride on my father's life. The story of his Bar Mitzvah prayerbook seems to represent so much: the age-old Hebrew prayers; our heritage; the survival against all odds of both my father and the book; and his passing it along to yet another generation in the unbroken chain of the Jewish people.
Ed Lion, a former United Press International journalist, lives in the Poconos.