This is a story about the collapse of the world. However, it would not be a story at all but for the stubbornness of a smart woman who said: “I will not allow this family to die.”
The 12-year-old boy was shaken awake by his father. “You don’t have to go to school today, Jack.” The boy blinked the sleep out of his eyes. His quizzical look asked why. “The Germans invaded Belgium today.”
The date was May 10, 1940. The place was 43 Montenegro St., Brussels.
Not a good date nor a good place for young Isaac “Jack” Keisman to start his day. It was the beginning of a not-very-good year for the young Jew and his family.
Keisman, today an 85-year-old retired Chicago manufacturer and a Cardiff snowbirder, can look back 73 years on those events with the clarity of a picture album, but one with some pages best not lingered on.
What was facing young Jack, his family and all of Europe was the beginning of full-scale hostilities.
The British army had landed on the continent months earlier, in September 1939, to join with the French and Belgian armies to resist the expected German offensive. But when it happened, it took the wehrmacht less than a month to overrun France, the Netherlands and Belgium, forcing Allied armies to the shores of the English Channel. Swept along was a road-clogging stream of refugees who recalled the German cruelty of World War I only 22 years previous.
The human surge ended at the French coastal town of Dunkerque, or Dunkirk, almost 100 miles northwest of Brussels, and at oceanfront towns for miles in both directions. During the following two weeks, about 1,000 ships and boats from England would rescue over 300,000 soldiers. But until that happened, desperation reigned.
The Keisman family, parents and two young sons, had joined the exodus and ended up in Coxyde, about 15 miles from Dunkirk. A half-mile in front of the empty home the family occupied were thousands of British Tommies trapped on the beach, hoping for rescue from the sea, but fearful of the German juggernaut that approached from the land.
“It was a big adventure for me,” Keisman says. “I went down and wandered among the soldiers on the beach. They were trapped. I saw guys just a half-dozen years older than I. Some were dumping heavy equipment they figured they’d never need again. Some were sitting around in the sand playing cards or writing letters. Everyone was smoking cigarettes and most were pretty quiet. No one was laughing or joking. Nothing was funny. A lot just stared out to sea, hoping for ships that might or might not show up.
“They knew the Germans had whipped them. They figured they were coming and couldn’t be stopped. And from the way they kept looking inland, figured they might be just over one of the nearby hills. The lines to the latrine were long. I didn’t realize it at the time, but most probably figured they’d be taken prisoner or killed within days.”
Excited by his new adventure, young Keisman was unaware that as events unfolded, death would be more likely for him than for most of these soldiers.
Reality intruded on the scene when Keisman watched a German fighter swoop down and strafe his 6-year-old brother playing in the street. To this day, he can hear the sewing-machine sound of the guns and the roar of the plane’s engine. “I watched the bullets hit and kick up dust just in front of him and just behind. He came within a few feet of dying, but he just kept on playing.”
On June 3, the day the last of the British were sea-lifted out, the artillery barrage was especially strong. He can recall the whistle of the shells arching over the town to explode on the beach.
The next morning the British were gone, and the day dawned quiet. Eerily quiet, considering. Then came the muffled thud of boots as lines of German infantry marched into town.
There was nowhere to go except back to Brussels where they arrived on the 21st day since they fled.
“No one knew what would happen, but everyone was worried,” he says. “However, in the Jewish district, there was straight-up panic. It was no secret what the Germans had been doing to the Jews — the jailings, the beatings, the confiscations and all the rest. Hitler hated Jews. We knew that. We didn’t know at the time, however, just how much he hated us.”
The Keismans lived in an upscale gentile area where they operated a prosperous leather-clothing company. The concerns in that neighborhood were more muted, but Fannie, his mother, 37, wasn’t fooled. In 1938, she had deposited $16,000 (about $250,000 today) in a New York bank, believing that proof of affluence would make obtaining U.S. visas easier. It did. She got them.
“My dad was an optimistic salesman-type. He believed he could talk himself into or out of anything, and usually he could. To him, business was good, so why leave? Mom, though, had a sharp eye for what was going on. She got it.”
Frequent companions were Keisman’s two cousins, Sarah, 10, and Leidish, 20. Today, he remembers them by showing their pictures in the Holocaust website, Yad Vashem, where their photos are frozen in time as victims of a Nazi death camp. They, their parents, and other Keisman relatives now are found only in a digital file, their dreams unfulfilled, their careers unrealized, their children unborn.
Keisman said the mood in the city was resignation. “They weren’t mean to us; they changed a few things, but they didn’t bother anybody at that time. We hated them because, you know, they were the Boche. But collaborators were all over the place. You could see it all around you. People look for easy ways to make money, to have power. My dad could be called one; he did business with them.”
Keisman’s father made a lot of money selling full-length, green-dyed leather coats to German officers, the type you can see in war movies.
His mother’s intuition was raging. Things seemed pretty normal, but Fannie Keisman knew better. She told Joseph that it was time to go. He protested that times were good, and young Jack heard the arguing. Finally, with her American visas in hand, she said, “I’m taking the boys and you can come if you wish.” That settled it.
Keisman says he was in downtown Brussels when he saw a line of people stretching around the corner. Curious, he walked up and learned they were Jews registering to be given the yellow cloth in the shape of the Star of David to sew onto their coats. One man was dressed in the cassock of a Catholic priest, obviously one with Jewish “blood.” The patch was supposed to be a badge of shame for being Jews.
Two days later, in December, the family departed Belgium wearing no yellow stars.
The Germans gladly gave them exit visas through France, and the Spanish allowed them to transit to the Portuguese border where the plan was to board a ship in Lisbon for New York. The only things young Keisman knew about the U.S. was Roosevelt, the Statue of Liberty and that everyone had an automobile.
All went well until a Portuguese border guard noticed their American visas had expired. Keisman remembers his mother shrieking and crying when they were denied entry into Portugal. She knew their lives were at stake.
He speculates his mother must have known the visas had expired; she was too smart not to, yet must have decided to gamble that harried border guards would carelessly overlook it. By then they’d have a refuge in neutral Portugal. Desperation has its own logic.
No choice remained but to return to France. They left the train at the border town of Hendaye, where they lived in a boardinghouse for three months, sharing a dinner table with German officers who generally ignored them.
That early in the war, before things started to turn against the Axis and Europe was still a Nazi fortress, life was at least a semblance of normal in France. There were food shortages, arrests were sudden but not very common, and if a German gave an order, people were quick to obey. They still found it manageable.
One day, a knock on the boardinghouse door gave entry to two German soldiers who told his parents to come with them. The dreaded arrest.
Keisman, then 13, assumed he would never see his parents again. In fact, just before leaving, his father reminded him of the diamonds sewn into the lining of a briefcase. He watched them grow small walking down the cobblestones with a soldier on either side.
But to his surprise, and probably theirs, his parents were released. He was never told why, and assumes his parents didn’t know either.
Keisman witnessed a telling breach in his father’s upbeat veneer when he broke down in tears at being rebuffed for new visas at the nearby American Consulate in Bordeaux. Consequently, his parents decided to move to Paris and plead at the American Embassy.
When they first saw the embassy, their hearts sank at the lines circling the building like the coils of a rope. Inundated by refugees who, like his mother, had finally figured out that only persecution lay behind them, embassy officials had given out numbers to the desperate petitioners. Keisman saw that the numbers were in the hundreds.
The next day, his father disappeared, and then returned to show them the number he had obtained for the next day: one.
“How?” young Jack asked.
“It cost more than a can of chicken soup,” Joseph said with a smile.
While the family waited in Paris for the promised visas to be approved, they spent much of their time just trying to eat regularly. Meals often consisted of rutabagas and leathery, stringy meat from unknown animal sources. Again, Joseph worked his charm. Once, he told a shopkeeper he was an opera singer and needed onions to maintain his voice. He got them.
As the Jew-hating ratcheted up in the Third Reich, the pressure was felt in Paris. The refugees had little to do except wait and hang out, often together. Keisman remembers one Jew who wore his Iron Cross won in the first war and was frequently saluted by German soldiers who walked past. The proud ex-soldier told them Hitler would have been good for Germany, except, “Why did he have to persecute the Jews?”
Young Jack hooked up with a street-wise refugee of his own age from Germany named Leon Schmaltz who showed him the naughtiness of Paris. Leon took him to a burlesque house. That was the moment, he says, that he discovered there was more to manhood than a bar mitzvah. With eyes fastened on the stage, the all-knowing Leon cautioned him, “They don’t have anything like this in America.”
With new visas gripped tightly, the family again made the trip through Spain, and this time were admitted to Portugal and on to Lisbon.
On May 10, 1941, one year to the day of the invasion of Belgium, Jack Keisman and his family embarked for America to see the Statue of Liberty on one of the last refugee ships to leave Europe. It was a good day to be alive.
Today, as an old man looking back over a long and successful life, Keisman reminds us that in 1940, Europe, not the U.S., was the center of the world. And he was in the middle as it teetered on the fulcrum of history. He further knows that, were it not for a mother who refused to let her family be Nazi victims, he would exist today only as a teenage image on the Holocaust website.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected]