Times Past

Cambria woman recalls escape from Nazi-occupied Austria

Special to The TribuneApril 25, 2014 

“Uniformed and booted Gestapo and Brown Shirts stood over young men, like my 16-year-old brother, Ernest, forcing them to scrub sidewalks and public toilets. My brother was thrown out of the university he had attended. All Jewish children were sent to a segregated Jewish school in a basement, where I finished my mandatory school term.”

The events of March 11, 1938, changed the life of 90-year-old Ruth Cairns Baker of Cambria. The red, white and black flags with their swastikas emerged from thousands of windows in Vienna. Ruth recalls that “My father was called to Gestapo headquarters and ordered to leave the country with the family within three months under the threat of being arrested. He was devastated! We had no place to go. My mother said, ‘Thank God, we’re getting out of here!’

“We needed exit documents, and we had no entry visas.

“Fortunately, my 21-year-old sister Edith’s boyfriend (later husband), Otto Schönwälder, a Roman-Catholic, was well regarded by the Nazis as a known sports figure, youth leader and pro-ski instructor. He and my sister met in one of his ski classes. As such he was above suspicion with the Nazis, while secretly part of the underground, helping Jews escape occupied Austria. At great risk, Otto followed his conscience and beliefs in compassion for the persecuted, and hating the brutalizing Nazi regime.

“Following Otto’s escape route, we took a train to Cologne in the German Rhineland. At the station and on the train, we were surrounded by cheering Hitler Youth shouting and saluting ‘Heil Hitler’ on their way to summer (indoctrination) camps. It was very frightening and we felt very much at risk of being discovered. My dad and brother who both had Jewish features, putting them at greater risk, traveled in separate compartments from my mother, sister and me on the train, putting them at greater risk. So in case of discovery, not all of us would be caught and arrested.

“In Cologne we left the train and checked into a small hotel until the dark of night. We were picked up by a car, which took us to a farm village at the border between Germany and Holland. We walked silently on foot under protection of the night, crossing the Dutch border illegally, without entry visas. I was fearful and frightened! The dogs were barking along the path. The villagers might have been aware of us but were seemingly compassionate and not letting on. We could not be sure.

“Another clandestine car ride took us to an overnight in a Dutch farmer’s house. At dawn another car transported us to a nearby town. From there, a streetcar ride, filled with the local workers, brought us unnoticed into Belgium and to Brussels, where we checked into a cheap hotel.

“Through all this we had hardly eaten. Upon arrival my mother said: ‘We’ve got to eat!’ My response was to faint. At 14 years old it was a traumatic and frightening journey.

“Belgium was willing to allow us to stay until our American immigration documents cleared.”

Ruth’s father had relatives in America who sponsored the Rosenthal family.

“It took a year and a half for our documents to clear. In Brussels, my mother’s solution to our financial need was to rent a three-bedroom apartment with extra beds to sublet cheaply to other refugees, cooking for all to help us and them to survive. I mended the renters’ socks!

“We were immensely fortunate to be able to sail on the last ship for America in November 1939.”

In May 1940, Belgium and the Netherlands surrendered to the invading Nazis. The Jewish refugees remaining in those countries were soon at the mercy of Hitler’s henchmen.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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