Sunday, September 19, 2010

19 September 1939, Paris

Dear Frank [Sadler]:

Only a few blue lights are burning in the Gare de Lyon. The windows of the station are painted black. Stacks of sandbags are piled around key pillars in the big building. About fifty feet from the baggage wagon on which I am sitting, a group of nuns are ladling soup for refugees from the outlying districts. Why women and children should be brought into Paris is more than I can guess. There must be a hundred guards in the stations. Stretched out beside our luggage on the platform below me, Rosa is catching up on lost sleep.

This is our fourth day out of Bucharest. Ordinarily the trip to Rotterdam would take about 48 hours, but that would mean a trip through Germany. When we succeeded in getting tickets on the Holland-America line from Rotterdam to New York, we thought it might be possible to go by way of Berlin, but the consul at Bucharest wouldn’t even consider issuing a visa. Consequently we have had to make a detour half way around Europe: through Jugoslavia, Italy and France. By now we agree with Sherman about war. 

Rosa with the bagged up boat, May 1939
When we left England Rosa and I were travelling with exceptionally little baggage. We had our portable typewriter, a duffle bag and a small grip. By the time we were ready to leave Roumania, the situation was different. In the first place there was our boat, the Romur. It was in two big bags, one of which resembled a fat laundry sack and the other an overgrown golf bag. Then we had a cheap but enormous suitcase loaded with souvenirs, camping odds and ends we couldn’t bear to throw away, books, newspapers, napkins, a sun hat, a broken flashlight, and a Roumanian nightgown. Or course we still had the little grip, the duffle bag and the typewriter. The crowning touch, however, was the pottery with the blanket wrapped around it. While we were in Rucar, we saw the peasants making enormous wool blankets. They sheared the sheep, carded the wool, made the thread, wove the blankets, dyed them and combed them. We bought one. In Bucharest we found a little shop where we could buy peasant pottery for ridiculously low prices—so we bought a complete tea set. With the blanket tied around the ceramics for protections, Rosa has coddled that tea set halfway across Europe now. 

Adding to our baggage woes have been our travelling companions. Although half-back Paul, our fellow American, is travelling light, our Australian friend and his wife have fifteen suitcases between them. He has all the goods he accumulated in three years away from home while she, a refugee from Germany, has everything she ever owned. 

We left Bucharest on the fifteenth at 11 a.m. It took two taxis, crammed unbelievably full, to get us and our baggage to the station. European third class couches are divided into compartments designed to seat eight or sixteen. We piled into one for eight, managed to arrange our baggage so that we could find seats afterwards, and then locked the door. We refused to open it until the train was well under way.

Everything went smoothly until about one o’clock the next morning. By that time we were in the middle of Jugoslavia. Then the train stopped at a squalid little station and we were told we had to change trains. Paul opened a window while Howard and I dashed out to the platform. Then he passed the bags out to us. The porters came to help, were refused because we had no extra money for tips, and stayed to admire. It was like one of the old fashioned comedies in which fifteen men got out of an Austin. The poor porters almost dislocated their jaws their mouths fell open so far as bag after bag poured from the window. We had an hour and a half’s wait in a pouring rain before our train puffed into the station. It was impossible to find a compartment to ourselves this time, so after stowing the baggage as well as we could, and finding seats for the girls, Paul and I alternated at pacing the hall until the train pulled into Zagreb at eight in the morning. From then on we had the compartment to ourselves until we reached Trieste at about noon.

We had three hours in Trieste, so we went sightseeing. Down at the waterfront we scandalized the natives by going wading. In several places I tried to cash an American Express Check, but no bank was open during the lunch hours. When we returned to the station we had to fight for seats on the train to Venice, but managed, by wild flailing of the Romur’s paddles and accidental dropping of small bags onto other passengers’ heads, to get a compartment to ourselves.

In Venice we paused long enough to change trains and to catch a glimpse of garbage and gondolas by the Grand Canal. Rosa and Howard gave us a real scare by almost missing the train. There was an awkward wait in Milan—from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. The benches in the waiting room were crowded so we slept on the floor. Rosa, Howard and I went to see the cathedral at 5 a.m. and almost missed the train.

At Torino there was an especially long way to shift baggage between trains, so we stole a porter’s wagon, loaded the luggage onto it, and started to move. Then the porter saw us. The repercussions were nearly international. All the porters and the station cops gathered around to stick out their chins like little Duces and their hands like any porters. After screaming like wounded eagles for ten minutes we finally settled for 5 lira, telling the porters to apply the rest to Italy’s war debt to us. 

No sooner did we cross the French border than that French secret service grabbed us. We were led into a little room in the station and a gaunt and Gallic man with an enormous nose began to question us. At first we thought our visas, acquired in Roumania after a two day fight with the U.S. and French consular officials, were no good, but it developed that the Intelligence Officer wanted to know if we had noticed anything about troop movements in Italy. We told him all that we knew and in return he waived customs examination for us. 

The trip from the border to Paris should take six hours. We were on the way for nearly two days! There were four changes of trains, four fights with porters, a mad scramble for forgotten baggage, and several interesting talks with a little Scotch lady who was doing refugee work in Poland when the war started.

Adding to our fun has been the fact that we ran out of money in Italy. Actually we are not broke for I have an American Express Check and Howard a Cook’s Traveller Cheque, but nobody is willing to cash them for us. With the last of our Italian money we brought fruit, bread and jam. The fruit and jam are all gone, but we still have a little bread. There is a penalty for mentioning food in our compartment. 

"The morning papers are full of the news of the Russian invasion of Poland. We heard of that for the first time from the French official at the Italian border. None of us can figure it out and we’ve decided to study surrealism rather than international politics. At least surrealism isn’t supposed to make much sense."
We pulled into Paris about five hours ago, and while the Australian and his wife slept, Rosa, Paul and I went for a walk around the darkened city. The streets are not completely dark. Every other light is painted blue and left burning. There are guards on all the bridges and near each important building. Surprisingly few of the buildings have sandbag protection and there are no balloon-barrage sausages floating around. We saw no anti-aircraft guns, but all of the windows in the stores are webbed with tapes, which is supposed to keep them from breaking in case of an explosion nearby.

The morning papers are full of the news of the Russian invasion of Poland. We heard of that for the first time from the French official at the Italian border. None of us can figure it out and we’ve decided to study surrealism rather than international politics. At least surrealism isn’t supposed to make much sense. The people we have talked to are angry and disappointed about the Russian defection, but they still feel that they can and must beat Hitler. The most common statement we have heard is: 

“It will take longer now.”

Our train is supposed to leave at 9 a.m. for Brussels. We hope it won’t be much longer now.

As ever,

Saturday, September 11, 2010

11 September 1939, Bucharest, Romania

Murray and Rosa got married March 5, 1939 and left for Europe on a freighter that same day. He was 23, she was 20. Their plan was to buy a kayak, learn how to paddle it, and take it down the Danube to the Black Sea. They almost made it. This letter to Murray's childhood best friend Frank Sadler describes the end of the river trip.

Dear Frank,
The Roumanians have persuaded us to discontinue our paddle to the Black Sea, but they had to toss Rosa and me in jail yesterday to put the clincher on their argument.

For the last week Rosa and I had been debating whether we should call off the paddle, fold up our boat, and start at once for home. The last 400 kilometers of the Danube are very slow and abound with mosquitoes, but we didn’t even figure that in our decision to quit. Slow water and biters wouldn’t be enough to cause us to stop when we are so near to our real destination. Our new worries rose from the war.

A few days ago I asked a Roumanian official what he thought of our going down the river now that the war had started.

I don't know who the woman in the middle is.
“The Bulgarian border patrol would probably shoot you,” he replied.

Not exactly encouraged, I asked one of our friends at the American Legation what he thought.

“Listen,” he said, “The Roumanians are nice people, but the boys they have watching over the river are young and excitable. They’re just as likely to shoot first and ask any questions that come to their minds later. Besides it isn’t going to be long before all hell breaks loose in this section and you had better get out of here while there are still some frontiers open.”

That made a lot of sense to us, but we still wanted to paddle that last 400 kilometers. When we took the train for Giurgiu yesterday, Rosa and I still hadn’t reached a definite decision. We were going to see how we felt when we saw the boat. Our passport was at the Ministry of Propaganda getting stamped with the official exit visa and our arrangements for tickets home are nearly complete, so we thought we might be able to spare five days and dash down the river to Vilkov, the Black Sea port.

When we had landed at Giurgiu we had not counted on the cheapness of living in Roumania or the many attractions of Bucharest and its hinterland. We had told the commandant of the port that we would be back in three or four days, and he had given us permission to leave our faltboat beside his flagship—an armed tug which was used for river patrol duty. That was five weeks ago.

The train from Bucharest goes only as far as the city of Giurgiu. The port, which is government property, lies about three miles away. Rosa and I hired a droshky and told the driver to take us to the commandant’s office. We got as far as the bridge which crosses a small tributary of the Danube, just below the quays of the port, when our troubles started.

One of the soldiers on guard at the bridge wanted to see our passports. I told him in English, French, Germany, and pig-Latin that our passport was in Bucharest at the office of the Ministry of Propaganda being stamped with an exit visa. He was both polite and firm. We must go back to police headquarters in the city. He came with us.

At police headquarters we were allowed to cool our heels in an anteroom for about half an hour before being ushered into a tiny office and the presence of an official in a worn khaki uniform which would have looked better with a little washing. So would the official. We were told he could speak French, but someone had been fooling him—or maybe we were wrong. Anyway, it didn’t sound like French to us.

Murray's father and Rosa's mother were back in Tacoma, waiting for news.
Our inability to understand him must have looked suspicious to the little functionary. He glared for awhile, began to shout, and finally, when I thought that he would burst or pop an eye out of its socket, he jumped up and left the room.

Another long wait, and then we were led into the office of the local big shot. I don’t know his position, but he was either chief of police or representative  of the federal  government for the district. He spoke both French and German and we had no trouble making him understand us.

I explained that we had a boat down by the river, that we wanted to take it away, and that our passport was in Bucharest. I suggested that he telephone either the Ministry of Propaganda in Bucharest or the Commandant of the River Police at the port. Either could identify us, I pointed out. He replied that he regretted that we had been subject to delay, but that we would be allowed to go as soon as he had made the necessary
The kids are all right.
telephone calls. It was all smiles and thanks as we bowed ourselves out. A matter of minutes, we thought. 

The guard led us back to another section of the building and put us in a little room with two narrow benches down the side and a heavy desk nailed to the floor in one corner. The window was barred. There were several Roumanians sitting on the benches, but none of them paid any attention to us. We sat down to wait. An hour later we were still waiting. 

I began to feel restless and irritated. I opened the door and walked down the hall toward the big shot’s office to see if I could stir him into action. I was intercepted by my friend in the khaki uniform and steered back to my little room, where Rosa and I waited for another half hour. Then she went foraying through the building, but the guard led her right back. We were both beginning to get sore. Another hour and no news. It was late and our plans for the day were completely disrupted. Mad clear through I started down the hall again.

My khaki uniformed pal met me about ten steps from the door of our room, grabbed my arm and started to pull me back. I didn’t feel like being led, and he annoyed me anyway. I yanked my arm free. He grabbed at it again.

“Just a minute,” I growled at him. “You’re pushing around an American citizen, and you’re going to get your nose smeared all over your dirty face in about another ten seconds.”
He didn’t understand the words, of course, but the tone must have given him a pretty good idea of what I was driving at. He flared right back at me, shouted Roumanian some more, pointed back to the cell.

All at once it clicked. I hadn’t realized before that we were really prisoners. 

“OK,” I said, decided that I had better take it easy. “I’ll go back, but you telephone Bucharest.” I repeated Bucharest about five times and made the motions of telephoning. He looked as stupid as ever. Then I turned around and started back to the cell. Evidently feeling that he had me on the run, the dirty-faced dope made a lunge for my arm.
That was one too many. I let him have it with my elbow in his stomach and he grunted. By the time he straightened up I was in the doorway and facing him. He took a couple of steps toward me, so I cocked my right and started jiggling my left around a la Freddie Steele. He moved one step closer and I was all set to let him have a right when I saw a soldier coming down the passage. Roumanian bayonets are 18 inches long, so I decided to sit down. My pal slammed the door.

About an hour later he came back and looked in. I was foxy this time. Instead of making any passes at him, I whipped out my pen and notebook, walked over to him, and bending quite close looked at the numbers on his uniform collar. Then I wrote the figure down in the notebook.

It worked. He decided maybe I was someone important. With a dazed look in his eyes he clicked the door shut and we could hear him hurrying down the hall. In a minute or two he returned to show us back into the big shot’s room. I decided to follow through on the act. I raved and ranted in English for about ten minutes, and finally subsided into German and French to tell the braided boy behind the desk just what I thought of officials in general, him in particular, and nincompoops as a class. I larded my talk with enough references to America and President Roosevelt to make him think that he must have at least the vice-president in his office.

It was only half effective. I think I convinced him that he had made a mistake, but I didn’t make him believe that he should make an exception. He had to check up some more. The commandant of the port, he said, had been transferred. The Harbormaster had no record of us. He hadn’t phoned Bucharest. We would have to spend the night in the jail and then we would be released after he had phoned Bucharest in the morning.
At that, I went into my song and dance again. We were not spending a night in jail. I called upon the Greek Gods, the Supreme Court, the Constitution and the Marines. I screamed and yelled and beat my chest like Tarzan calling his apes. Finally he gave up.
“You may stay at the hotel,” he said. “You may phone Bucharest yourselves tonight and see if you can get one of your friends to identify you.”

With that I subsided. It was too late to fold up the kayak, so we might as well stay. We were given a guard to go to the hotel with us. On the way we passed a telephone station and put through a call to our best friend in the propaganda department. This official at once asked to speak to our guard. We took great delight in watching him reel under a tremendous verbal attack at long range. By the time that conversation was over, we were persons of importance in Giurgiu. We weren’t even guarded at the hotel room, and this morning we were escorted to the river where we found the Romur intact.

Our troubles had decided us that we’d never get to the Black Sea in the five days we have to spare, so we folded up the kayak and came back to Bucharest. We expect to start home on the fifteenth.

As ever,