The Great Escape

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Chapter 1
Leaving Oostende

I do not know the exact time they came. I do know that it was in the early hours of the morning on 10 May 1940. The Nazi soldiers came banging on our door. ‘Wake up, you yellow Christians! We’re coming to get you!’ they yelled with rage. Even as we had been deeply asleep in the basement we were suddenly awoken by the terrible, loud noise. We knew they were coming, we were already prepared. We grabbed our little belongings, said our prayers and hurriedly escaped through the small door in our basement. We knew how risky it was but we just had to escape the unforeseen torture that we knew was about to come. The door led us to our backyard, where two of my Papa’s friends, were waiting for us. They showed us to their cars, which were parked at the very end of our street, so they wouldn’t be caught by the Nazi’s. I could see the soldiers’ humongous army trucks, barricading the houses. You could tell that they were on a mission to eliminate every Jew in the suburb, just by looking at the number of army vehicles everywhere and don’t forget the frightened screams and loud banging.

I knew we were running away, I just didn’t know where we were going. When I asked Mama all she said was, ‘My child, somewhere safe, somewhere better than this,’
We escaped with great caution, taking all the short-cuts there were. We finally reached Montgomery Dok. The driver was asked for his licence and ID. He produced a fake Id and driving licence. Of course he couldn’t let the officer know that he was a Jew. We drove on to the dock. Montgomery was the only dock in the Oostende region. Ships from all over the world would stop here. Our parents thanked the drivers and we took our belongings from the boot.

My baby sister, Jeanine, who was six at the time kept crying, ‘Papa, Mama, I’m hungry, I’m really hungry!’ My mama was annoyed at the cries as people began to stare. She grabbed her little hand and they went to the nearby canteen. My brother, Erik, Papa and I waited patiently with all sorts of thought running through our heads. ‘Where are we going?’ was a thought that popped up the most in my head.

Mama and Jeanine brought back three bowls of porridge and two soups with two flat breads. The soups with bread for my parents and the bowls of porridge for us. The five of us ate our breakfast in silence.

After breakfast, Papa stood up and went to the ticket and migration station. Even though U.S had placed strict rules on immigration, we were astonished that Papa came back with two ship tickets and visas stuck in Erik’s and my passport. The tickets were to the U.S.

‘Fabian and Erik will be going to America,’ he said slowly. When Mama asked why he said, ‘It’s easier for the boys to go ... we cannot afford to go without little Jeanine,’ We knew that because Jeanine was born in Belgium, we’d have to seek immigration advice and she’d need special permission to enter the U.S.

‘Papa, we do not know anybody in America, who will we stay with?’I impatiently asked. Yes, Fabian does have a point there, besides will we go straight into hiding? And what if we want to come back? Where will we get the money from?’Erik asked anxiously. ‘You may be able to find a camp there... even if you don’t by the time you two get to America, you’ll be old enough to fend for yourselves,’ our Mama advised us. ‘You could get jobs and after the war come back to Belgium,’
‘Don’t worry boys, God shall provide. America will be much better than here; you wouldn’t have to worry about the Nazi’s. It will be better if you go,’ Papa assured us. We had no choice, it would be better if we did go. We’d be in a peaceful environment. But what about our parents? Where would they go? When I asked Papa this he said they’d probably stay in Oostende or got to Holland where it was much neutral at the time.

We gave up arguing with our parents knowing that they were right and only wanted the best for us. Erik and I were showed off by our parents and sister. My Papa gave me a compass watch. ‘Keep it, treasure it, and use it,’ were the words that came with the gift. Papa gave us each fifteen Euros (equivalent to twenty-four Australian dollars) and Mama gave us some of her shortbread and sachets of powdered milk. Mama gave us what she had; she wasn’t expecting her boys to leave her that day. Jeanine hugged us both and gave us a big kiss on the cheek. I won’t forget that petite little girl with big hazel eyes and fair blonde hair. She was very sweet.

After we said our goodbyes, Erik and I climbed aboard the H.M.S Koepmannon with our belongings. We were not the only young boys onboard without a family. There were about eighteen boys who seemed to be Erik’s age. Erik was twelve years old before we came to America, I was fifteen. I was supposed to be in high-school, at this age but instead I was running away like other boys had been during the Holocaust.


I’ll never forget my Mama’s tear-stained face. After all the escaping, running away to countries for refuge who wouldn’t be crying. This was our third time of escaping. I remember I was born in Germany on the 17th of March 1925. We spent five years of my childhood there. In 1928, it all started, Mama was six months pregnant with Erik, when we moved to Croatia to hide. My brother was born on the 21st of September 1928. My Papa had started a business in Croatia for four years. It was closed down by the Nazi officials in January 1934. Papa came home with a letter in his hand. We had received an entry permit to Belgium. Since my parents and I were German we were allowed into Belgium in April 1934. Soon after we moved to Belgium, Jeanine was born. I was nine years old when we came to Oostende.



Chapter 2
Life Aboard

For a year and three months we were on the H.M.S Koepmannon. We had made friends with some of the other boys. There was another Jewish boy, Fredrick, who too was escaping to America. We were very close with Fredrick. He was the only person who knew we were Jewish. We too were the only people who knew that he was a Jew. Most of the other boys were Belgians who escaped being called up for the war.

At times, we’d help the men who carried bags of coal to and fro the ship’s powerhouse. Erik would the bags of coal we carried and multiply it by two. A euro for each bag you carried. I was often able to carry twelve bags each day. Twelve bags were a lot considering that these bags weighed up to 5kg. Erik and I were able to earn a few Euros with the work we did.

We didn’t eat much on the ship. We worried too much that we didn’t bother about eating. If we did eat, we’d have a weak tomato soup for breakfast, two rolls of buttered bread for lunch and if we were lucky, we’d have tea with a scone for dinner. Food was scarce on the Koepmannon, so we did not eat any lavish foods, mainly stable foods like soup, bread and porridge, sometimes dried meat and canned vegetables. I didn’t mind eating these as long as I was full, taste didn’t matter.

In March 1941, there was an outbreak of dysentery on the ship. Some people said it was caused by the cook’s food poisoning, so we weren’t served any food for 3 days because the cooks had gone on strike. During those three days, my brother and I drank the powdered milk Mama had given us. Since that day we kept the shortbread and powdered milk for an ‘emergency’.
After the three days (Dizzy Days), Erik and I were very careful about what we ate. We made sure we washed our hands before eating even a sweet. We didn’t want to get sick. God did not allow us to fall ill though.

As we were Jews, we had to say our prayers three times a day; we had to say our prayers three times a day. In the morning, noon and evening. We often said them in secret. If the others knew we were Jewish we’d have been killed straight away.

To entertain ourselves, we’d play chess or ‘battleships’. About six boys would pretend to be Germany and its allies while the rest of us would be the enemies to Germany and its allies.

Yes, life aboard the H.M.S Koepmannon was simple until one day...


Chapter 3
The Attack

On the 12th of May 1941 the H.M.S Koepmannon vessel was torpedoed by a German submarine on the way to the Grand Isle, Florida.

At 9.26am we heard loud rifle noises. The ship made a sharp turn to the right which made everybody panic. Erik and I were calm grabbing our belongings from the cabin. ‘We can’t take everything with us. Won’t our suit cases be too heavy to carry in the lifeboat?’Erik asked suggestively. He was right; we had to take our necessities, so we threw away some of our clothes. All I had in my old suit case was a pair of trousers, slippers, two shirts, my toothbrush and toothpaste, a container of Vaseline, a sud of soap; of course Mama’s shortbread and the compass watch Papa had given me.

Everybody ran outside the cabins hoping to enter the five large lifeboats. Erik and I jumped into the third boat that came our way. ‘Children and women only,’ a man with a thick Belgium accent said to of the two men in front of us. God really saved us that day, as many people were still on board the vessel. I think thousands would have been saved on 12 May 1941 if that incident didn’t happen.

We were on the boat for 3 weeks. We were then rescued by a cargo ship on its way to Beaufort, one of the docks in Virginia. Erik and I said more prayers than often during this period. I didn’t really hate God for putting us in the position we were in, I was glad. I think He was trying to help me get stronger in such a difficult situation. I was glad because my brother and I were alive and He saved us from the most tragic events.





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