Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 September 2018
September 1939 arrived. The Germans invaded Poland; the French and the English declared war. It was the third of September, 1939, a date that will always have its place in the history lessons.
For us emigrants and our families, who had finally begun to settle in France and to stand on new ground, that ground now began to shake. A few days after the declaration of war, there was an order for the men to appear before the police commissioner. “You understand that you are all German citizens. Are you ready to declare yourselves refugees and to fight for France?” The first part was no longer accurate, since we were one and all completely expatriated. We were between two empty chairs, and glad to be allowed to balance on the edge of the French one. We signed without exception.
“Ne perdez pas cettefiche, Monsieur,” the official said when he handed me the confirmation slip, “Vousêtes maintenant presque Français.”—Do not lose this piece of paper, sir, you are almost a Frenchman now.
Notices were posted the next day ordering our relocation, with a blanket and three days’ food, to the stadium at Colombes. We used all our connections to find out what was in store for us. The prominent French figures we knew, themselves surprised by the outbreak of the war and uncertain about their own situations, advised us to go, that this could be nothing more than a sifting process by which the authorities hoped to identify and remove suspicious elements.
So I drove to Colombes. A legion of men holding small suitcases was lined up in silent rows. An atmosphere of terrible disappointment, as stifling as the heat and the dust, settled over these thousands standing in rows of four, to whom their beloved France had first offered asylum and on whom it now turned as its enemy.
We began to fear the worst. Rumors circulated that no one would be allowed to keep knives, scissors, or razorblades. Why such things should be taken from men who were about to be “sift ed” was unclear to me. I asked one of my groupmates, Tommy. He didn't answer. Again I sensed a familiar tautness in the area of my diaphragm.