Journey Story: Sarah Gutwirth

Mar 9, 2012

This is a family story, a story of loss and exile, and of the intersection of personal history with large historical events.  It is also a quintessentially American story of arrival, and of a second chance.  This is a story so close to me I seem always to have known it.  It is the story of how my father came to America.

My great grandfather emigrated from the plains of Galicia, now Poland, to settle in Antwerp, which housed a considerable population of Jews, most in the diamonds trade, as was my father’s family. When I saw my father’s childhood home, it proved to be a beautiful three story stone house on a wide boulevard.  My father is fuzzy on the details of when and for how long his father lived in America, but after World War I he and my grandmother lived in New York long enough to receive naturalization as American citizens before returning to live in Antwerp, where my father was born.

When the Second World War began, in earnest, in 1940, he was sixteen, and in one recollection, channeling his sixteen-year-old self, he complained that the Germans got his new bicycle and his camera when the Belgian army collapsed as the German offensive crashed through the mountains of the Ardennes.

My grandfather’s plan of escape involved his Belgian business partner, a gentile named Mijnheer Coppens, who had a large car. They set off, three days into the invasion, for the French border.  In the car were Coppens, my grandfather, his two children, and his son-in-law.  My grandmother, too ill to travel, had to be left at a Catholic hospital, where she was sheltered by the nuns and survived the war.  My father says of this moment, that he felt helpless and ashamed, but surely those words do not convey the emotion of that horrible Hobson’s choice.  Although they did not know the ultimate danger, my family fled the war, unable to travel with a sick relative, they desperately hoped she would remain safe, others too were left behind for lack of place in the car.

The roads swarmed with refugees, but the little group crossed easily into France.  They waited in Bordeaux for the outcome of the battle of France, which was proving a rout, while my father turned seventeen and consulates were besieged with scenes of terror and misery. By June they had to try for the Spanish border, but the French, so welcoming to the refugees coming in with everything they could carry, were not anxious to see those same assets leave.  In the long line of refugees, the rumor traveled that you would be turned away should you try to smuggle valuables out. The diamonds, which constituted the business capital belonging to my grandfather and Coppens had been sewn into a sack my grandfather wore next to his skin under his clothing and into the lining of his clothes. When my grandfather was searched, the man tapped his chest and asked “small change?” my grandfather coolly answered “yes”.  My mother once said,” surely he knew and perhaps let you pass”.

Germans troops were arriving and could be heard exchanging salutations with their Spanish Fascist counterparts Arriba Espagna! Arriba Allemana! After a tense wait in Bilbao, the American Secretary of State sent a last ship to rescue stranded American citizens from Europe. The travelers were put on a sealed train to the port of Lisbon whence the S.S. Manhattan sailed for Manhattan, my father, American solely by virtue of his father’s citizenship, on board, on his way to discover his new country.