Sixteen year-old Elisabeth Kaufmann was caught up in a dilemma during the spring of 1940. It revolved around a basic question that cut to the heart of her personal identity. Was she an Austrian or was she a Jew? Of course, there was no real reason why she couldn’t be both, but Nazi racist ideas didn’t allow for that possibility. The irony of Elisabeth’s situation was that she no longer lived in Austria; nevertheless, the question followed her when she left.
Nazi Germany had taken over Austria in 1938, so Elisabeth and her family fled to France to escape. In France, the government should have recognized German and Austrian Jews as refugees, but that isn’t what happened.
Instead, when World War II began, the French government required many German and Austrian men, even refugees, to be interned as “enemy aliens”. This happened during the so-called “Phoney War” period from September 1939 until the beginning of May 1940. During this time, Germany attacked Poland in the east, but made no move against France in the west. The “Phoney War” ended on May 10th when Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Then rumors began to circulate that the internment policy would be greatly enlarged.
On May 13th, Elisabeth wrote, “We, as Austrians, are in a great state of anxiety. The official decree does not clearly state whether Austrians fall under the internment order, or whether we have been excepted. Mother and I – I skipped school today – are running from one office to another and are being given evasive answers. One commissioner says ‘yes’ and another ‘no’. They play with our nerves as if they were toys. This kind of day is nerve-wracking and filled with doubt about losing in the next three days what one values most in life, what is left of our personal freedom.”
As it turned out, Elisabeth was not sent to an internment camp as she had feared on this day. Instead, she ended up fleeing for her life as the German army got closer and closer to Paris. When France fell, Elisabeth found refuge Le Chambon-sur-Lignon with the family of André and Magda Trocmé. Eventually, she and her parents were able to escape to the United States. She had won back that person freedom that was so important to her, but she was one of the lucky few to be able to do so.
You may read excerpts from Elisabeth Kaufmann’s diary in by Alexandra Zapruder.
Click here to learn more about the “Phoney War” period during the early months of World War II in Europe.
You may find out more about the Holocaust rescue activities that took place in famous village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon here. Please note that this article begins with a quote from Elisabeth Kaufmann.
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