In a feat of deft literary juggling, former Sacramento Bee editorial editor Peter Schrag has written a memoir with his father about their escape from Europe during the early years of World War II. The literary juggling comes into play because Schrag’s father, Otto, passed away in 1971. However, he left behind a manuscript of his journey through Vichy France, a French concentration camp, and the agonizing search for exit visas to escape the terror of war in Europe.

Peter Schrag found his father’s manuscript only after he had written his own memoir of his time as a young boy, along with his mother, playing a serious and deadly game of hide and seek from the Nazi occupiers in Belgium and France. The family was separated when Otto Schrag was placed in a boxcar overcrowded with others classified as “extreme suspects” because of their Jewish religion and/or German roots, and shipped off to the French camp at Saint-Cyprien at the French/Spanish border near the Mediterranean Sea.

Otto Schrag, a novelist, wrote an account of his journey in the third person using pseudonyms for nearly all those who appear in the tale. However, after doing extensive research, the son believed the father’s work was more memoir than novel.

Peter Schrag’s contribution to the book, When Europe was a Prison Camp, consists of his own first person memoir of his adventures with his mother trying to reconnect with his father—dodging the German army in Northern France as the British were desperately evacuating soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk; watching as a British Spitfire and German Messerschmitt dueled in a dogfight in the sky overhead, and running through the woods in the moonlight, suitcase in hand, guided by a smuggler to cross the Line of Demarcation between Occupied France and Vichy France without the proper papers.

Peter Schrag is able to weave the two stories into a single emotional narrative of fear, hope, and escape. No one who has listened to the narrator opening the classic Oscar-winning film, Casablanca, will miss the similarity with the Schrags’ tale:

Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so, a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train, or auto, or foot, across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco.

Peter Schrag and his mother, Judith, escaped through Paris while his father got out of the French camp and made his way to Marseilles in search of visas. While they never crossed to Oran and Casablanca, that route was suggested to Otto Shrag. The family finally connected in Lisbon and found a ship to the New World.

The hero of the escape was Peter’s mother, Judith. She managed to keep her son with her while trying to make contact with her husband. Finally, she went in search of Otto and went back to Belgium to retrieve Peter. She found food, dealt with war profiteers, avoided the Nazis and made sure the family would once again become whole.

Reading about the refugee trials of 75 years ago, I had to wonder how Peter Schrag related to the stories focused on the refugees of today.

Schrag responded to my question:

I’ve thought a lot about the Syrian refugee situation and have been asked about it at my book talks. They’re a little different. I’m not sure that any European refugees in the 1930s and early 40s were ever thought (by anyone) to include terrorists — maybe a possible spy or saboteur or two, but that’s all. I think the same argument about Syrian refugees today is also far fetched. You know all this: that real terrorists can get in through all sorts of other means, that they can buy guns here without background checks, etc. 

There are real terrorists in the West, many of them from the Middle East and we have to try to screen them from coming in. But not by simply slamming the door on thousands of desperate people. 

One final note of interest: Otto Schrag wrote time and again in his memoir disguised as fiction that while in the French concentration camp an urgent need for the prisoners was to acquire a newspaper so that they might learn what was happening in the world beyond the fences. Son Peter grew up to spend a lifetime as a journalist.