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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Flight from France: The Demarcation Line (2/4)

In 1943, Dr. Richard Neumann and his wife, Alice--already refugees from Nazi-occupied Austria--arranged to have themselves smuggled out of France. In part one of this narrative, we saw them make arrangements with a guide known as "Mr. P." to leave their temporary home in Paris and make their way south, bringing only a few pieces of luggage and some currency obtained by selling part of their art collection. In the next stage of their journey, they must cross the border from Nazi-occupied France into unoccupied Vichy France.

Dr. Neumann and his art collection are the focus of WAM's ongoing exhibition, "What the Nazis Stole from Richard Neumann (and the Search to Get it Back)," on view until January 2022. This narrative was written by Dr. Neumann, and shared with the permission of his family.


The plan for the forthcoming border crossing made me very concerned, especially in light of the amount of French francs and foreign currency we carried, which in the event we fell into the hands of the Germans might result in our being severely punished not only for crossing the border illegally, but also as currency smugglers.

A map of Europe showing the journey from Austria to Paris, south through Vichy to Bilbao Spain and across the ocean to Havana
Richard and Alice Neumann's journey, from Vienna, Austria to Havana, Cuba

In any case, I wrapped the briefcase in which we had all our money in a plaid blanket, and gave this to our French guide, and hid as best I could from my wife the worry occasioned by the change in the program. In the farm, we were forbidden to go near a window, or even to venture into the open courtyard, because of the danger that someone might notice our presence. Meanwhile, a number of people assembled in the kitchen, one man with a dog, and several equipped with bicycles. The weather had, if anything, gotten worse, and it rained buckets. After a rest of about three-quarters of an hour, a genuine creeping patrol was organized. First went the man with the dog. Then the various bicyclists, at distances of about 500 feet apart. [Behind this group] went my wife and I. Finally, our guide brought up the rear. We were cautioned not to make the least noise, and to cross open areas where we might be seen bent over and as rapidly as possible.

We waded along behind bushes, in roadside gullies, through patches of forest, being always careful to wait until the person ahead of us gave a sign. […] After about twenty minutes, we were climbing a steep hill, when suddenly a dog’s loud barking could be heard from the top, and those ahead of us made wild signs to back up, whereupon we turned around as fast as possible. We ran as fast as we could down the hill, and I saw our guide throw my briefcase, wrapped in its blanket into a thick bush […] he led us, quite agitated, into a gully which was hidden from the forest, and there he had us lie silently in deep water and covered with dirt. […] We heard two shots, and the man with the dog never returned to us. Only later, after we were over the border, did we learn that he was stopped by a German sentry and arrested, and that thereby attention was diverted from us others.  

After three quarters of an hour, the old peasant woman was the first who dared to leave our hiding place, and gave a sign that the coast was clear. With one person less, our little group started to move again. We now made a detour, over very difficult terrain; we had to jump and scramble, and my wife had to be carried or lifted repeatedly over difficult passages by our guide. After a time we saw a road in the distance, which we approached carefully, taking every opportunity to remain in cover. Our guide reconnoitered the possibilities for crossing, and gave a sign to cross the road as rapidly as possible. About 600 to 1,000 feet beyond the road, as we went through a high cornfield, he told us “...the German line is now behind us, now we only have to cross the French border…”

A simple wooden barricade surrounded by barbed wire crosses a street. Beyond it are a Nazi flag, two German soldiers, and a sign in German. Black and white.
German control post on the Demarcation Line, 1941
(German Federal Archives)

We made a small rest-stop between the two lines, the French and the German, because Mr. P. wanted to cross the French line only at noon, when he knew that the French sentries would be at lunch. From a distance, he showed us the French border station house, and our march to a guesthouse, which was already in the free French zone, was relatively trouble free. Here we ate a rather bad bowl of soup, which was nevertheless very welcome after a fast of 16 hours and a four hour-long march. 

We already felt we were saved, and—according to the arrangements by our pilot, who left us at this point—were to await the arrival of an automobile to take us to B., the object of our voyage…


The Neumanns were not safe yet; still they needed to cross the southern border of France, and secure passage on a ship across the Atlantic. In the next installment, they begin this leg of the journey, only to immediately run into trouble with the local police...

(German Federal Archive image shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.)

Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-017-1065-44A / Becker / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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