My father was obsessed with the news. He interrupted meals to listen to the broadcast of WQXR’s bulletins “every hour on the hour.” He read the The New York Times daily and fussed about keeping the pages in correct order and the paper properly folded. In later life, half-conscious after surgery, fingering the newspaper’s pages gave him comfort, and, on the night before he died, age 90, in 1995, the day’s paper hung neatly on the guard rail of his hospital bed. I began to understand the source of his fixation only recently when I looked more closely at the Polish passport he had never thrown away. This was the passport that enabled him, together with my mother, to escape his homeland for England on August 24, 1939, just one week before Hitler invaded Poland on September 1.
It was not easy for my father to move around Europe in the late 1930’s. He had to have a transit pass from each of the countries he traveled though to get to an ultimate destination. In the stamped and re-stamped document issued to Oskar Spitzer in October 1938, German, Czech, Hungarian, French, Dutch and Swedish permits pepper the pages. Many of those official seals reveal his response to shifts in Nazi policy and I could see that he tried to hold on to his way of life as long as possible.
By the 1930’s my father was the heir-apparent of the expanding family enterprise. What had started out as a small tannery for turning a few hides into leather had become a large factory that was one of the town of Skoczòw’s major employers.When, age 33 in 1937, he married my mother, he felt so secure in his way of life that he commissioned the Viennese architect Jacques Groag to design a house for them. It was to be a modest villa built on a hillside just outside of town with a view of the Vistula River and the distant Beskid mountains. They were a modern couple. In their free time, they played tennis, went skiing, took trips abroad. But less than a year after their wedding, the world of Central Europe changed drastically. In March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria; the following September, the Munich Accord allowed the Nazi dictator to begin his dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Following these bloodless conquests, the Jews were treated just as they were in Germany. They lost their rights as citizens, were forced to give up their occupations and businesses, and were vilified in the press.
The first entries in Oskar’s passport center around a business trip to Stockholm in early November 1938. His trip home by train through Western Prussia took place on November 11, two days after Kristallnacht. In almost every city he passed through– Stettin, Schneidemühl, Glogau, Breslau and the border town of Beuthen, where his passport was stamped as he entered Poland–he could see the results of the vicious Nazi pogrom that had raged throughout the Reich. In all these places Jewish communities had flourished for centuries, but now their synagogues lay in smoldering ruins and the glass from shattered Jewish shop windows still littered the streets. (Among the houses of worship destroyed was the Neudeggergasse Synagogue in Vienna where my parents had been married fifteen months earlier.) Oskar’s reaction was immediate. Only four days later he went to the nearby city of Katowice where he arranged for a visa from the British consulate. This invaluable piece of paper pasted into the passport and marked “business visitor” was good for one year. He relied on it immediately, traveling to London where the tannery had several customers. Using the address of one of them, he opened a bank account
In mid-March 1939, Hitler tightened his grip on Central Europe. He broke the Munich Accord and took over the rest of Czechoslovakia. A week later, he bullied the Lithuanians into ceding the port of Memel. Now in possession of outposts along Poland’s northern and southern borders, he became increasingly belligerent toward the government in Warsaw. These events impelled my father to take a second trip to England, this time with my mother. She was granted her own one-year British visa justified by the phrase “accompanying husband,” and dated March 17.
The situation got worse while they were away. On March 31, after the Czech debacle, the English finally took a stand. Prime Minister Chamberlain guaranteed that Britain would come to Poland’s aid if its independence was threatened. France soon followed suit. In response, Hitler announced on April 28 that the 1934 non-aggression pact with Poland was no longer valid. Newspapers reported that Germany was gearing up for war. And yet my parents returned to Skoczòw in early May. My father was not yet ready to leave the place to which he was uniquely tied by his personal history. There was also his responsibility for the tannery. In 1939, it had over 100 employees. Probably, like many in Europe, he was relying on what appeared to be the last possibility of averting hostilities–an agreement between Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Throughout May and June newspapers were optimistic that such a treaty, with its implied threat of a two-front war against Germany, could be a viable deterrent to Hitler.
My parents did no more traveling in the early summer of 1939. My mother was pregnant. By August she was in her third month. These were pleasant months in Skoczòw. They enjoyed the garden of their new home and, like the other locals, went swimming in the Vistula River. At the tannery, productivity was high. Each week tons of skins were transformed into a variety of leathers for bags, shoes, gloves, book bindings. In a photograph taken on July 24, 1939, exactly a month before his departure, my father sits young and dapper amid the factory’s volunteer firemen.
Then the unthinkable happened: the ultimate push to leave came without warning. At 11:00 p.m. on August 21, a news bulletin interrupted regular radio broadcasts throughout Europe for a shocking announcement: The two countries considered arch-enemies—Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia—had consented to a non-aggression agreement. The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, named after the two Foreign Ministers who had negotiated the settlement, would do away with the two-front threat that everyone had assumed would serve as a brake on Hitler’s military ambitions. My father remembered that a close friend in town was so shaken by the news that he rang the villa’s bell at midnight to urge my parents to leave before what was now the inevitable Nazi invasion of Poland.
With the two British visas in hand, my parents could return to England. But with war imminent, there might not be time to collect the transit passes needed to reach the Channel ports. And there was another problem. Oskar had served in the Polish army in 1926. Mobilization was sure to occur soon and he might be conscripted and not be allowed to leave Poland at all.
The very next day my father had solved the two dilemmas. The only way to avoid the transit issue was to go directly from Poland to England. In the same file in which my father had kept his Polish passport, I found the fragments of two airline tickets purchased on August 22 for a flight from Warsaw to London two days later. British Airways Limited, then a fledgling airline, was the only company offering that connection to England with flights just once a day. There is still an unused coupon on my father’s ticket for a return trip to Warsaw. If there had been any questions about the mobilization at the airport, he could show his intent to come back.
On August 23rd my parents locked the door of their new house, said a few good-bys to friends and business colleagues, and boarded the train to Warsaw. Their Lockheed 14 aircraft, carrying only nine passengers, left the Polish capital at 11 a.m. the next day and two hours later made a forty-minute fuel stop in Berlin. My mother recalled that before the flight continued on, she had to leave the plane briefly in the capital of the Reich because she was suffering from morning sickness. At 5:25 in the afternoon they landed at London’s Heston Airport, an arrival stamped in both their passports. Two days later when the Soviet-Nazi pact was actually signed, my parents would have been trapped. On August 26th all German airports were closed and German airspace became a restricted zone.
Germany invaded Poland on September 1. King George VI declared war on Germany two days later. In the next five years, my parents were to experience all that the war brought to England—the blitz, the food shortages–but they were not rounded up to be killed as they would have been in Poland. In the last minute, my father had saved his own and my mother’s life. And mine as well. I was born in London in February 1940. Many factors contributed to our escape. My father had money, contacts abroad, experience as a traveler. But none of these would have helped without his foresight, his early recognition of the tinder box under his feet. The Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact caught him unawares, but not unprepared. And though he did not have to confront such a threatening situation again in his lifetime, he never ceased to keep tabs on world politics, just in case.