The Long Drive to Freedom: From Nazi Germany to Pre-state Israel

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The Schiffs prior to their epic journey from Hamburg to Haifa with their trusty Chrysler, August 1933. From left: Martha, Kurt, Paul and Ellen Schiff.Credit: Kurt Schiff
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In the summer of 1933, the Schiff family sold their Hamburg home, packed their personal belongings into four suitcases and got into the Chrysler they had recently purchased. There were four of them: Paul, his wife Martha, and their two children – Curt, 13, and Ellen, 9 and a half. They took their car all the way from northern Germany to Palestine.

Curt, who was born in 1920, will celebrate his 95th birthday this year. Despite his age, he still remembers the extraordinary journey, which enabled the family to escape from slavery to freedom, rescuing them from the fate of European Jewry under the Nazis.

Armed with a camera his father had previously bought for him, Curt documented the family’s route and stops along the way. As befits a proud yekke [a Jew of German-speaking descent], he still has the well-preserved photo album, 82 years on.

“Here are mother and father. That’s my sister and that’s me. And here’s the famous car with which we left Germany,” says Schiff, proudly showing Haaretz his old photographs. “I’m surprised it didn’t cause us any problems. It was a used car, in 1933,” he adds, sitting in his apartment in an assisted-living home in Kfar Sava. “This Chrysler had no problems from Hamburg to the Haifa port. It’s fantastic. I don’t think there were a lot of cars with which we could have done it,” he admits.

Schiff clearly remembers the reasons why his family left their home, just a few months after the Nazis came to power [in January 1933]. “They persecuted the Jews. It was in the air. Father wanted to leave Germany as quickly as possible. It seems he sensed the future. He understood that we needed to cross the border as soon as possible,” he recalls.

The Schiff family’s journey began in the port city of Hamburg on August 27, 1933, and they reached Haifa a month or so later, on October 1. They drove through Germany, Switzerland and Italy – including stops in a great number of cities, including Berlin, Kassel, Frankfurt, Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. On September 21, after some 4,000 kilometers of driving – and with just a few flat tires as their only problem – they boarded an Italian steamship, along with the car, and sailed to Israel.

They had many adventures and experiences along the way. Twelve days before leaving Europe, they encountered a German officer who was driving a BMW. He told them he had run out of gas and asked for help. After the family helped, he wanted to thank them by giving them a picture of “Our Führer.” Paul politely refused. “An uncomfortable moment for the officer, but not really for us,” wrote his mother in the travel diary where she recorded their journey. She noted that the best part of the trip was their visit to St. Moritz in Switzerland. “The city lights were reflected in the lake. Thousands of stars twinkled in the clear and beautiful sky. It was, and continues to be, the most impressive memory of our trip,” she wrote.

A grand tour, of sorts

Curt recounts how his father wanted to show his family the cultural riches of Europe, since he thought they would never be able to see them again. So the family extended its journey and visited Venice, where they rode in a gondola. Despite all the beauty there, his mother wrote of unpleasant smells and mosquito bites in the famous Italian city. The next destinations were Padua and Florence, which Martha described as noisy. “There is no discipline on the roads,” she complained. “The cars pass on the right and left.”

Thirteen-year-old Curt’s responsibilities were to take photographs and fill in the car log book. He has kept the little book – which describes the maintenance of the car in detail – to this day. Line after line of detailed expenses, and dates and times of when they filled up with gas along the way.

The family boarded their steamship in Brindisi, southeast Italy, bringing the Chrysler onboard. “You could hear Hebrew everywhere,” observed Martha. “The ship was filled with British, French, Italians and Germans. It is unbelievable to see how this small place has turned so international,” she wrote.

She also had a lot to say about the quality of the service onboard, which failed to meet her standards. “It is impossible to compare the level to English and German ships,” she wrote. “The salad and fruits for dessert are served on the same plate. There are no towels in the cabins ... We sat on two chairs during mealtimes because of a lack of space. The discipline we are used to on German ships is completely missing,” she noted, adding, “The service, cleanliness and food were so bad that we very disappointed by this journey, which we had waited so long for after the exhausting trip through three countries. We had really hoped we would be able to rest and enjoy the trip.”

The ship stopped in Larnaca, Cyprus. When they finally reached the port of Jaffa, a ship adorned with a swastika awaited them, testimony to the German Templer community in Palestine (the British were to deport them during World War II). The Arab longshoremen unloaded the ship, but the Schiffs were worried that their car would be damaged in the process and decided to continue on to Haifa, which was a much larger and more established port.

But they faced more disappointment in Haifa. “We expected that they would welcome us with open arms in Palestine, as was reported in all the Zionist documents, and as was said in endless meetings,” Martha wrote in her diary. “But no one met us here. No one from the Zionist movement came to advise us,” she complained.

Unprepared for Yom Kippur

Their first stop after docking was to receive vaccinations, which made them all ill. This was how the immigrant Jewish family from Germany came to find themselves sick on Yom Kippur, weak and hungry. “This may have been the weak point of the liberal and non-Orthodox family from Germany – they were so well-prepared for the road, but actually Yom Kippur in Palestine caught them unawares,” says Tamar Livne, the assistant curator of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum (part of the Jeckes Museum) in Tefen.

The cost of living in the Holy Land also worried the new immigrants. “Everything here is more expensive than we expected. Very quickly we started thinking we must sell the car. My husband thought of the idea of becoming a taxi driver,” wrote Martha as her diary continued to document their new life. “Goods cost more or less the same as in Hamburg. The apartments are very expensive and hard to get. People move into houses, even if there is a roof in only one room.”

In the end, the Schiffs left Haifa and moved to Jerusalem. Paul opened a laundry that mostly served British soldiers, including those from the Sarafand army base (near Ramle). “He would travel to bring them their clothes,” recalls Curt.

“We don’t know the language and the roads well ... The question is whether we can learn Arabic and Hebrew well enough at our age,” wrote Martha. But she also remained optimistic, adding, “If you have a roof [over your head] and work, I think life here can be very pleasant, free and respectable.”

A few years later, Curt enlisted in the British army and served in Egypt. Later, he was an aircraft mechanic in the Israel Air Force and worked for Israel Aerospace Industries. He met his wife, Ruth, in Jerusalem in 1946, and they later lived in the Tzahala neighborhood in north Tel Aviv. They had two daughters. One of their four grandchildren, Shai, is studying today in Berlin. “I have mixed feelings about it,” admits Curt. “To study, yes – to live, no.”

In the 1930s, most immigrants from Germany came to Palestine by ship. Travel in private cars was expensive, and rife with danger. But a pamphlet was published at the time entitled “By Car to Palestine – a Driver’s Guide,” showing that there were Jews who preferred to enter the gates of Palestine in their own vehicles. The booklet was found a few months ago in the archive of the Jeckes Museum, with Livne telling Haaretz that hundreds of copies were printed in Germany at the time. Last October, Haaretz ran a story (in Hebrew) about the pamphlet (“From Nazi Berlin to Jerusalem by car,” October 8).

After this article appeared in print, it was mentioned on a radio program on Reshet Bet. Meir Levi, 96, who lives near Schiff in the same assisted-living facility, heard the program. He then remembered that, a few months earlier, he had read a story in the assisted-living facility’s newsletter, in which Schiff had told of a similar journey by car with his family. From here, with the aid of Livne, the road to a meeting with Schiff was short.

At the end of our conversation, Schiff reminded us that he had taken all the pictures in the album. He wanted to make sure we did not forget that all the intellectual property rights belonged to him.

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