“There were to be no embraces, no more goodbyes, no kisses, only tears known to me and an unresponding God.”
At age 10, Richard Weilheimer and his younger brother, Ernst, left behind everyone they knew in the world and boarded a ship bound for America. They were among the lucky ones.
As Nazi policies threatened Jews across Europe, many sought to flee to safe haven but few made it out.
In October 1940, German authorities rounded up Jewish families in Ludwigshafen, Germany. Among them was Richard’s family, who was forced to leave the home that had belonged to generations of Weilheimers. They were deported into southern France. There the French Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis, forced them into the Gurs internment camp.
At Gurs, Richard’s mother, Lilly, grew increasingly ill from breast cancer. With her husband, Max, she agreed to send her sons to an orphanage with the help of aid organizations. She hoped the family would be reunited soon.
But Lilly died at Gurs. Max relentlessly petitioned the Quakers, formally known as the American Friends Service Committee, to include his sons among the refugee children who’d been given clearance to immigrate to America.
Max was able to get a pass from Gurs to visit his boys days before they left. Richard had prowled the streets and gutters with an empty tin, collecting cigarette butts, which he stripped down to the tiny bits of unused tobacco to present to his father. Max gave Richard an address book with the names of all of the family.
It was their last visit, though none of them knew it then.
Max had hoped to see his sons again when he came to the pier on June 25, 1942, the day they set sail. But they could not find each other in the masses. Richard and Ernst left with no last embrace.
Max later wrote to his boys: “Take care of yourselves … and you, my dear Richard, always look after dear Ernst.”
After the French government handed Jews interned at Gurs over to the Germans, Max was deported to Sobibor killing center. He did not survive the Holocaust.
As we observe World Refugee Day later this month, watch live on Facebook on June 17 at 9:30 a.m. ET to learn more about Richard and Ernst and their rare story of escape.
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Photo: USHMM, gift of Richard Weilheimer