Hertha Pauli’s “Journal of an Escape” from France

From October to November 1940, writer Hertha Pauli published a three-part account of her escape through German-occupied France via Spain and Portugal to the USA in 1940.

Hertha Pauli’s „Flucht“ (Escape) in the Aufbau from October 11, 1940, p. 3 © Archive Aufbau in the Jewish Media AG, Zürich


The author of this report is the Viennese writer, who is particularly well known for her Raimund novel. 11refers to the novel published by Hertha Pauli, “Toni, ein Frauenleben für Ferdinand Raimund” (Toni, a Woman’s Life for Ferdinand Raimund), Vienna 1936

The persecutors on their heels and themselves in a car that does not move forward – wedged in the mass of refugees – it was like a torturous dream of fear. We had left Paris on June 11 and still had not been able to reach Orleans on June 15. The German planes crossed above us, leaving behind a dark circle in the blue summer sky, visible from afar: the marker for the bomb drop.

That is where we got stuck. There was no more gasoline. The migration of peoples continued, interrupted by troop transports, nobody took us along, my feet were swollen and bloody. I wanted to sit on the side of the road, I would rather die than walk. It was hopeless after all. The Germans were already behind Paris. “How much further?” I asked again. A French officer replied strangely: “Passez le pont et vous serez tranquilles.” (When you have passed the bridge, you will be reassured.) Which bridge? We did not understand what he meant. I dragged myself along to the first houses.

A dull roar resounded above us. The wandering crowd faltered. With fingers we pointed up to where the squadrons of bombers with swastikas were coming out of the clouds like giant, flashing birds; we counted eight. “Away from the road,” shouted the soldiers, “machine guns are being fired at. I wanted to run to the soldiers in search of protection, they had antiaircraft guns with them. But they waved to me: “No, no – we are without ammunition, Madame, without defense.”

Orleans – without defense … In vain we rattled the front doors right and left, everything was firmly locked, the inhabitants were gone. We ran on and on until finally a small gate gave way. We could enter a kitchen with the others. You could hear the rattling of the machine guns, the hissing of the bombs, the falling of walls and the clinking of glass. One mother cried out and threw herself on the floor over her child, as if she could protect it with her body. She muttered something to herself, maybe she was praying. Words in all languages got the same meaning: Our Father and Sh’ma Israel.

The muffled hum of the airplanes seemed further away. The mother picked up her child. “Are you the housewife?” I asked, and she nodded. “What should we do, I don’t think we can go any further today.” Then she looked at me with a big look: “You must leave. We all do. Yes, don’t you know that our two Loire bridges are to be blown up between eight and nine today?” I thought of the officer’s words. So that was it. The French or the Germans? I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t get a word out.

The German planes kept circling above us as we stepped outside. My comrade went ahead, suddenly screamed out and stopped in horror: at his feet a dead woman lay under rubble across the sidewalk. Her eyes were still staring wide open up into the sky, but she could no longer see the circling planes. I can never forget the sight again. And we had to keep moving away over the dead woman and further and further over the rubble. The road was so thickly covered with broken glass that it cut the soles. It was a quarter to eight. A truck turned the corner, loaded with gas tanks and crowded with people. “Will you drive over the bridge?” I shouted, and when the driver nodded, we jumped up. Reluctantly they made room for us.

The two bridges were blocked by a thick row of cars. Shortly after 8 o’clock we were the last ones standing. Only centimeters forward. The chauffeur’s hands were trembling so much that he could hardly shift into gear. They screamed loudly. The bombers circled deeper and deeper above us. It was eight ten o’clock. When was the bridge to be blown up? And by whom? Perhaps the Germans beat the French to it? Now, yes, now one of the airplanes suddenly came down low towards us …

“Il pique!” cried my comrade. I looked at the precious fuel beside us. Just a tiny spark on it and it tore us apart with the car in the air. I didn’t move, but my friend suddenly jumped down onto the bridge and raced towards the rescuing bank.

Somewhere an explosion sounded. But, strangely, the bridge held and very slowly the train started moving. The Loire was already behind us, and there, there the comrade was waiting; no one saw him rise again, because everyone stared spellbound up to the sky, to the planes. The Loire separated us from the city. A shrill cry was heard, louder even than the noise of the bridge collapsing behind us. And while we took the bank as quickly as possible, the evening sky turned bloody red, far above the city of Orleans. It was in flames.

Hertha Pauli’s „Tagebuch einer Flucht“ (Journey of an Escape) in the Aufbau from October 25, 1940, p. 7 © Archive Aufbau in the Jewish Media AG, Zürich

Journal of an Escape

II. Fight for a Ship

In the following, we continue the description that the Viennese novelist Hertha Pauli recently began in “Aufbau” of her escape from France.

Our flight from Paris had no more goal when the armistice 22The armistice of Compiègne on June 22, 1940, decided the occupation of the northern part of France, including Paris, by the German Wehrmacht, thus signifying the de facto capitulation of France in World War II broke out. We were on the road for two weeks. Fifteen kilometers from Bordeaux we stood helplessly on the road. It seemed too late to reach a safe port. We were caught in the mousetrap. We knew that the Germans would block every exit from Bordeaux.

The next port, Bayonne, was about two hundred and fifty kilometers to the south. But it was said that the Germans wanted to occupy all the coasts, far into the interior. What remained to be done?

I wanted to stand in the middle of the road and try to stop every passing car, in whatever direction. On both sides they rushed past me. None of them stopped. Then I saw a small luxury car speeding from Bordeaux. It was probably no use, but I almost threw myself in front of the wheels. And the car stopped. Shocked, I recognized two French officers in it. But I dared to ask where it was going, and they answered friendly: “To Bayonne.” That was a judgment of God – and they took us with them.

At a speed of more than a hundred kilometers, we took the route nationale southward. Yesterday it had been bombed. To the left and right were fallen telegraph poles along the way. Every connection seemed cut off. The country was unrecognizable. It lay lifeless before us, like a body in whose veins no more blood flows.

But we, we lived – we moved on – and the car had enough fuel. In little more than two hours we covered a distance that had taken us two weeks from Paris to now.

“Now we will find a ship,” I said in Bayonne, deeply convinced that we were destined to do wonderful things. The Germans might not be here for a day or two; there would still be time. So far we had only been hours ahead of them. We had caught up because of the speedy drive. Yes, it was a miracle.

Two more ships were to leave for England from the port here. An endless crowd of people piled up in front of them. They were put off: there is room for everyone. But first, only the English and military personnel were to go. The mass of people stood in rain and storm. The embarkation with the small, wildly swaying boats lasted all night long until the morning. Soaking wet, the people waited in the harbor without giving way.

When it became light, we saw the women of soldiers crying and kneeling before the English captain. They begged him to let them get on the ship with their men. The tall, young man stood motionless before them, seemingly calmly repeating the one word: “Sorry.”

At noon I was able to reach the captain myself. “Are you English?” he asked. I could only shake my head. “Sorry” he said again and his blue eyes avoided me. It sounded like a death sentence. I thought about just jumping into the water. But others had thought of that before me. Polish women threw themselves into the sea beside the boats. They were brought back to land.

There was no way out. The Spanish border should be closed. Battles had taken place in front of the Portuguese and Spanish consulates like in the harbor. Women pushing forward beat the soldiers back with rifle butts. Women were no longer valid.

We talked about getting Polish or Czech uniforms. It was too late. The first German motorcyclists came through the city. Panic broke out. The ships were overloaded. The first one left. It never landed. …

It was our salvation that we did not come. But we thought we were lost, even when a Polish military transport took us away at the last minute, which itself had no place on the ships.

In St. Jean pied de port, the gasoline ran out. Again on foot, we continued on our way and expected the Germans to catch up with us. We agreed to throw away our identity papers at the last moment before. St. Jean pied de port remained the border of the zone to be occupied. We could go further.

From Oloron a bus went to Pau. It was as if the whole migration of peoples was crowding together here. We were taken with the others to a “centre d’acceuil”. There were no free rooms and it was not allowed to spend the night outside. We slept on mattresses in the mass room. When we wanted to leave early, the door was locked. The refugees were to be picked up and taken somewhere in the country so that they could be better distributed. We begged to be allowed to go to any American consulate. We were refused.

After waiting for three hours, we suddenly discovered that a small back door was open. Completely unnoticed. Without even a moment’s hesitation, we sneaked out – into the open.

Only much later did we realize that this mousetrap with the small open door in the background resembled the whole big prison in France.

Hertha Pauli’s „Tagebuch einer Flucht“ (Journey of an Escape) in the Aufbau from November 1, 1940, p. 10 © Archive Aufbau in the Jewish Media AG, Zürich

Journal of an Escape

III. Rescue

In the following, we conclude the account that the Viennese novelist Hertha Pauli recently began in “Aufbau” of her escape from France.

There are two American consulates in Marseille. One in the middle of the city, on Place St. Ferreol, which is only for Americans, the other a little outside, on Avenue Montredon, for immigrants and those who want to become immigrants.

It looks more like a castle than a consulate, located in the middle of a giant park near the sea, with a rocky mountainous landscape in the background.

The sadly waiting tired crowd in the magnificent park was in strange contrast to the festive surroundings. People crowded the wide steps of the castle entrance and read the inscriptions of the opened double doors with consternation:

Quota transfers from Paris blocked. Registrations from Central Europe closed. Ship places from Lisbon sold out for months.

Once again they found themselves behind prison walls. New rumors buzzed through the city every day: Marseille will also be occupied by the Germans at the end of the week. The Gestapo is already supposed to check the registration lists. Those who apply for an extension of their stay will be sent back to the concentration camp.

We did not want to disturb the American consul with a new, ridiculous question. Surely it was no use. But at least we dared to hand the dismissive porter a piece of paper bearing our names, asking him whether one of us was on the alleged invitation list after all.

Strangely, instead of a few hours he only let us wait a few more minutes. So there can’t be anything to it, I deduced shrewdly. And already I got the note back. My name was marked with a cross; what did that mean?

“The consul is waiting for you to issue the visa.”

But I had to sit down again first. Never during the long flight had my knees trembled as they do now – during the rescue.

Miracles still happen – if there was a visa to the new “Land of Promise”, a way had to be found to get there.

The telegram from a young friend, who was the first to arrive in Lisbon, determined our departure and its direction.

We were held for twelve hours at the Spanish border. With ever new interruptions, the crossing of the small country took more than three days.

There were no cigarettes on sale in the free market. One would have had to have tickets for them, like for some food. Coins seem to have completely run out. Small change is generally replaced by stamps. They are completely worn out and no longer stick.

In Lisbon, I immediately wanted to look for the young friend whose message had given us the courage to go. I could not find him anymore. He was dead. After the happy arrival he had taken his own life in a fit of paranoia. We were too late to thank him.

Feverishly I came on the ship. At midnight we saw the last lights of Europe sinking blood-red into the sea.

The ship carried us into the new world – to the old ideal of freedom.


  • 1refers to the novel published by Hertha Pauli, “Toni, ein Frauenleben für Ferdinand Raimund” (Toni, a Woman’s Life for Ferdinand Raimund), Vienna 1936
  • 2The armistice of Compiègne on June 22, 1940, decided the occupation of the northern part of France, including Paris, by the German Wehrmacht, thus signifying the de facto capitulation of France in World War II


Hertha Pauli (1906-1973) was an Austrian publicist, actress and activist anti-fascist. She grew up in Vienna and lived in Vienna and Berlin until the “Anschluss” of Austria by the National Socialists in 1938, where she played in various theater productions and wrote novels. Her first place of refuge was Paris, where she lived in a circle of refugee artists around Joseph Roth. After the occupation of France by the German Wehrmacht in June 1940, Pauli was forced to flee to the south of the country. Via Marseille she reached Lisbon, where she obtained a visa for the USA with the help of Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee. She reached New York in 1940. There she processed her experiences in literature and became known as an author of books for children and young people. In 1973 she died in New Jersey.

Shortly after her arrival in New York, Hertha Pauli published three episodes in the exile newspaper Aufbau, which was founded by German-speaking Jewish refugees, reporting on her escape through and from France. She describes the life-threatening advance of the German Wehrmacht – “the persecutors on their heels” – as a “torturous dream of fear” from which she can finally escape on a ship to the USA.

Pauli, Hertha, 1940: Flucht, in: Aufbau, Nr. 6, Bd. 41, 11. Oktober 1940, S. 3.

Pauli, Hertha, 1940: Tagebuch einer Flucht, II. Kampf um ein Schiff, in: Aufbau, Bd. 6, Nr. 43, 25. Oktober 1940, S. 7.

Pauli, Hertha, 1940: Tagebuch einer Flucht, III. Rettung, in: Aufbau, Bd. 6, Nr. 44, 1. November 1940, S. 10.

Published here with kind permission by the Archive Aufbau in the Jewish Media AG, Zürich