The Last Train Before the War


There is a photograph of my father and grandfather, taken on Sunday, Aug. 27, 1939, at a spot overlooking the Rhine above the Lorelei Rock, where the chasm of the river tightens and the quickened flow makes a murmuring sound, which has mystical resonance for the Germans.

My dad had emigrated to Canada in 1934. He was in Germany that summer visiting his parents for the first time in five years. His name was Hermann, but even his German friends called him Billy. My grandfather was Heinrich, but his Anglo-Irish wife called him Bobs.

They had come out from Frankfurt, on a Sunday jaunt, in a little car that my father had borrowed from a friend. Their lives were insecure, jangled by history, and dressing well was very important to them. They always had to be perfectly tailored and groomed, as they are in the photo. Bobs ordered suits he really couldn’t afford from his English tailor in Hamburg. The American soft-collared shirt he’s wearing in the picture was a present from his son, who had made a quick stop at Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue between getting off his train from Montreal and boarding the New York, a Hamburg-American liner.

Five days after the photograph was taken the German Army invaded Poland and the Second World War began. When I look at the photo, it seems to me my grandfather is seeing the war coming down the river. Billy has a hand on his father’s shoulder, as if to reassure him — but Bobs sees what he sees. Or maybe he’s listening to the Lorelei. In some legends the river’s murmur is a bewitching sound made by a beautiful woman, luring men to their death in a dangerous place.

Maybe she’s whispering, “War.”

They were Catholics, not Jews, not socialists, so not especially vulnerable. Bobs had been scolded by a febrile shopkeeper, a local Nazi Party boss, for declining to return the “German greeting,” the “Heil Hitler” gesture, but that was nothing compared with the insults and terror that others experienced.

My grandparents had met and were married in London. They were living in a seaside villa on the Isle of Wight when World War I began in August 1914. Bobs was arrested and interned as an enemy alien for four and a half grim years, then deported. His health was shattered. Their savings were exhausted. English Quakers gave them enough money to pay for their tickets and food on the journey to Germany. Along the way their trunks of clothes and household goods were looted by French occupation troops.

When they stepped off the train in Frankfurt in January 1919, neither my grandmother nor my father spoke a word of German. She never learned, but Billy taught himself by reading and rereading the novels of Karl May, romantic tales of German adventurers and noble Apaches on the high plains of Texas and New Mexico. May was Einstein’s favorite writer. Hitler’s, too.

That summer of 1939 Billy had hoped to persuade his parents to leave Germany. But applying for exit visas meant posting bonds and paying an extortionate “flight tax,” with no guarantee the visa would even be granted. And my grandfather doubted that England, Ireland or Canada would welcome him, well-dressed or not, any more than they welcomed German Jews. He was a deportee. If they did let him in, he was sure to be interned if another war began.

Five days after that moment on the Rhine, with the war underway, Billy received a telegram from the British consul in Cologne, warning of “strained relations between His Majesty’s Government and Germany” and suggesting he leave the country immediately.

He had booked his return on another Hamburg-American liner sailing for New York in the first week of September. But waiting that long was risky. And he couldn’t afford to be caught aboard a German-flagged ship if England declared war (which it did on Sept. 3). According to the Nuremberg racial laws he was a German. The Nazis wouldn’t recognize his British passport in time of war; he would owe the same duty to the Fatherland as anyone else. Which meant military service or a one-way ticket to Dachau.

He decided to aim for Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and a Holland America ship. His train from Frankfurt was oversold. The mood on the platform was near hysteria: In a few hours Britain would declare war on Germany. He said goodbye to his parents, in English. Bobs was concerned the German border police would board the train as it approached the frontier and take Billy off, but he reached Rotterdam safely. After three fraught weeks, he was able to get passage on a ship for New York. Reaching Montreal, he immediately applied for a commission in the Royal Canadian Navy. He was turned down for being “too German.”

My father did not hear from his parents for years, didn’t know they were still alive until a friend serving in the Canadian Army found them living in the rubble of Frankfurt in 1945.

My grandparents were not Jews. Nothing else in their story probably mattered more than this: They weren’t Jews. They’d bartered their English shoes and silver picture frames for potatoes, their city had fallen down around them, but they were alive.

Decades later I was with my father in a hospital room in Montreal. He was dying, and slipping in and out of a coma. No one had shaved him or combed his hair in a couple of days and he wore one of those demeaning hospital johnnies. He looked pretty wild. Every now and then he’d start climbing out of bed. Then he’d calm down and, sounding very lucid, ask me to fetch his suit out of the closet, and his shoes, and help him get dressed, quickly. Properly dressed, because the last train was leaving for Rotterdam, and he had to get himself aboard, and across the frontier.

Peter Behrens is the author, most recently, of the novel “Carry Me.”

Originally published HERE.