Journey into the Unknown

In the excerpt from his work “Schicksalsreise” (Journey of Destiny), Alfred Döblin tells of his continued flight from Paris as soon as news of the threatened occupation of France by the German Wehrmacht reached him.



Paris in anticipation of the blow

The radio announces

On May 16, 1940, a Thursday morning, I finished a job that had occupied me for many months. The radio sounded from the next room. The announcer reported: the “pocket” on the northern front of the French army could not have been closed. The announcement said nothing about a breakthrough, about the front being torn apart, but anyone who had ears to hear could hear. The pen was knocked out of my hand. I was not unprepared. For days before, strange figures had been moving through our home, St-Germain near Paris. The magnificent park was in summer bloom, the paths were full of excursionists and walkers, the children were playing in the squares. But on the wide roads that ran through the park and the small town, strange, eerie cars rolled, not tanks, not cannons, but – cars, strangely loaded and tied up, with beds and mattresses on the roofs, with household goods. And inside, crowded together, whole families.

They were refugees from Belgium and northern France. They carried the horror into our peaceful landscape. Between the mattress cars drove slow farm carts, with horses and covered with oxen. The old people and the small children lay and sat on them in the hay, and the strong men and women marched ahead and behind with great strides. Apparently whole villages were on the move. Many men and women, farmers in boots, pushed carts in front of them with their small children and their tools. All this stopped in front of the station square and was fed.

And once, late in the evening, 17 military trucks also stopped in the station square. Upstairs, young soldiers squatted and smoked. They did not speak or sing. They looked down on us in silence and dull. It was said that they came from the front and went into a resting position. They obviously did not come from a victorious battle.

Now, on May 16, when the speaker, in a veiled voice, reported the terrible breakthrough in the north and the fateful name “Sedan” appeared in the army report, I drove to Paris and contacted a friend who worked at an agency with which I myself was in loose contact. Together we discussed what to do. He had a high ranking military officer as a relative and was always well informed. His own case was simple. In an emergency he would be taken away with the authorities.

The very serious, wise man advised me to at least consider the worst and not to delay my departure from Paris too long. For Paris could be “war zone” and evacuated from one day to the next. And what the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people would look like at the last moment, I could imagine after the experiences of the last year. When my friend urged me to leave immediately with my family and I was not inclined to do so, we came to the following agreement: He would inform me immediately if he heard anything bad. Then my wife and child would leave under all circumstances. He suggested to myself that I stay and leave with the authorities at the last moment. The authorities were then instructed to leave their place only in the most extreme case and only on the orders of the government. We stuck to that.

And so I waited restlessly and with growing tension in St-Germain until the arranged call came in the evening of the 25th. We set off early in the morning, the three of us, to escape from our refuge. We had sent a heavy suitcase ahead of us, hoping that it would arrive. We each went armed with a suitcase, the boy with a backpack and a blanket for the night.

This is what our belongings looked like on this escape: one large suitcase, two small ones and the backpack. Like an animal that sheds its skin, we had thrown everything away since the beginning of the war: first the furniture of an entire apartment with the library – they were stored somewhere – then the laundry, clothes, a remaining stock of books; they remained in St-Germain. We shrank more and more into what we could carry directly. – But we still carried too much.

We arrived in Paris in the morning, in the cheerful old Paris. The wonderful city welcomed us with the same smile as always. She did not seem to notice what was going on – and what was about to happen. People sat on the terraces of the cafés and watched in amazement some heavily loaded mattress cars mingle with the others. But not two weeks will pass, when the splendid and splendid city will be touched by a breath of death. From countless garages similarly loaded vehicles will be released. And after three weeks a heavy wave of people will rise from the city and throw themselves over the same roads that the Belgians are now taking. On that day we stayed in an apartment in the center of the city where my friend had put furniture. Then late at night I accompanied my wife and the boy to the train. The sight of the giant train station at night was eerie. It lay apparently abandoned in the dark of war. But upon entering it, we were swept away into a wild human gear. Almost all of them were families here. It looked as if they were pressing for vacation trains. But there was no trace of happiness here. Inside the city, one could have had the impression: everything is not so bad, the newspapers exaggerate, the war is still far away. Here – it looked different. Every train to the south ran with a forward and backward train. People crashed into the wagons, sat and stood with their children in the corridors. Families who were otherwise content with the cheapest class had thrown down their money for the first and second class to come along. They shouted “en voiture”. I said a hearty farewell to my wife. The child cried on my face. He held me and said, “We’ll be back in a week.” He did not want to leave, he thought of his playmates in St-Germain and of his dear dog, Zita. We two adults thought: The trip is just a precaution. We do it for the sake of the child, maybe we are too afraid. But a dark presentiment, a premonition overcame me when I stepped out of the station alone and onto the dark street: “It’s war, you never know what will happen in a war, you shouldn’t really part in such times.” But they were already on their way south.


Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a psychiatrist and writer famous for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. He had his own psychiatric practice in Berlin and wrote works that dealt with proletarian life in the big city. Because of his Jewish origins and literary activities, he fled from Berlin via Switzerland to Paris already a month before the Nazis’ assumption of power. He lived in Paris with his wife Erna Reiss and their son Peter, remained active as a writer and took French citizenship in 1936. Due to the threatening Nazi occupation of France, which took place in June 1940, Döblin fled further south as early as May 1940: He reached Spain via the Pyrenees and from there to Lisbon, where he was reunited with his family. From there they came by ship to the United States. In Hollywood, Döblin found a job as a screenwriter and converted to Catholicism after he had left the Jewish community three decades earlier.

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, in 1946, Döblin returned to Germany as a literary inspector appointed by the French military. He had hoped to play a valuable role in the political and social reorganization of post-war Germany, but was disappointed by the denial of Nazi crimes present in Germany. So he returned to Paris in 1953. Since he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, however, he continued to receive treatment in clinics in Germany, where he died during a stay in 1957.

Döblin describes the day of his escape from Paris in his exile report “Schicksalsreise” (“Journey of Destiny”), which was first published in 1949. On May 16, 1940, he learns about the Wehrmacht’s advance into French territory and, following a conversation with a friend in the authorities who had connections with the military, decides to bring his family out of Paris in view of the looming threat of war. From the Parisian suburb of St-Germain, where he lived with his family, they left on the evening of May 25, 1940. Erna Reiss and Peter boarded a train to the south, and Alfred Döblin himself remained in Paris for several days. The family met again only in southern France, from where they traveled on to Spain.

Döblin, Alfred: Schicksalsreise. Bericht und Bekenntnis, erstmalig veröffentlicht 1949, München 1993, S. 17-20.

Translation © Minor Kontor.

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