Peter Feigl was a young teenager desperately looking for a way out of Europe. He was trying to get to the United States, not only to ensure his own safety, but also to be in a position to help his parents to get out as well. Peter’s parents were Jewish, but their outlook on life was entirely secular. As a result, they had never practiced the Jewish religion in their home. In 1937, Peter’s parents had him baptized into the Catholic Church. They probably thought it would help to hide his background, even though the Nazis considered Judaism to be a racial, rather than religious identity. Was Peter Jewish because of his ancestry, or was he Catholic because of his religion? Who should have the right to decide? This question of identity would come back to haunt him in an unusual way.
Peter was originally from Germany, but his family had moved several times by the early 1940’s. At first, they moved for business reasons, but later they sought to avoid Nazi persecution. By 1940, they had moved to France, but they had not fled far enough. Germany invaded France in May of that year. The Feigl’s then faced the dual problem of being both Jewish and foreign refugees. Peter’s parents were able to find shelter for him at a Catholic summer youth camp, but were not able to stay there themselves. The family had to split up in order to keep Peter safe.
Mrs. Cavailhon, director of the youth camp, tried to help Peter to leave for the United States. She was working through a Quaker organization in Toulouse that was dedicated to helping endangered refugees. Obtaining permission to emigrate required a great deal of paperwork and approval from various agencies, both in France and the United States. Much of Peter’s diary from this period concerns this slow, frustrating process. He thought he would be able to leave by ship in November, but a new obstacle emerged to stand in his way. On his diary entry for October 23, he quoted a letter that had just been received regarding his case. “The emigration forms were returned to Marseilles to Mrs. Cavailhon saying to wait for the board in Toulouse and as far as the young Feigl is concerned, if he is Catholic, it is not certain whether he’ll be able to go.”
Even though Peter was an observant Catholic, he was in danger from the Nazis as a Jew. Now it seemed as though he would be removed from an emigration list because, as a Catholic, he was not endangered enough. Such was the bitter irony of his situation. Eventually, this emigration opportunity would fall apart for other reasons. Peter finally made it to the United States by other means, but not until after the war when it was far too late to help his parents.
You may read excerpts from Peter Feigl’s diary in by Alexandra Zapruder.
You may see a photo copy of one of the pages of Peter’s diary here.
Find out more about the relief and rescue efforts of the Quakers in France here.
June 17 to June 21
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July 21, 2013 at 1:59 PM
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