Seated at a table in his Menlo Park family room, Manfred Wildmann pulls out copies of the sketches he drew at age 10, while he and his family were interned in the Gurs internment camp in southwest France.
The Wildmanns had been evacuated to Gurs in 1940. His sketches depict a French gendarme approaching a small boy, the camp’s makeshift outdoor kitchen, the Pyrenees mountains on the horizon, and latrines atop a high platform with buckets underneath the holes.
Gurs, where some 7,500 German Jews were deported, was not an extermination camp, and Hitler’s Final Solution was not yet in place. Nonetheless, 15 to 20 people died every day of such diseases as typhoid and dysentery, according to Wildmann. One of them was his grandmother.
“The cold, the mud, the rain, the crowded living, the sickness, the lice, the fleas, the bedbugs and above all, the lack of food, made living conditions difficult for everybody and impossible for old people,” he writes in the “Deported to France” section of his memoir, at www.wildmannbirnbaum.com.
Trimpin’s “The Gurs Zyklus” includes Wildmann’s recollections of his train ride across France as well as copies of his drawings. The original sketches are in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Looking back, Wildmann, 81, describes his childhood as fairly happy. The youngest of four children, he grew up in Phillipsburg, a bucolic town in southwest Germany, where his grandfather was head of the Jewish community. His father was a printer, and his mother had been a schoolteacher. Phillipsburg’s 30 or so Jews spoke German, not Yiddish, and were integrated into the community, where there was little anti-Semitism. His father had fought in the First World War; his mother’s brother, Hugo, was killed on the Western Front.
After Hitler came to power, the Wildmanns tried to immigrate to St. Louis, where they had relatives willing to sponsor them. But for a family of six with limited means, it wasn’t easy. In 1940, their visa application was denied by the United States.
“The State Department was very anti-Semitic,” Wildmann emphasized. “They did everything in their power to make immigration difficult.”
As Wildmann tells it, on Oct. 22, 1940, Phillipsburg’s 21 Jewish residents between the ages of 10 and 80 were marched to the center of town, transported by truck to an assembly point, and marched to a railway station, where they boarded third-class coaches. When the train crossed the Rhine river into France and headed south on a four-day journey, the Wildmann family tried to look on the bright side: They were not bound for Poland (at least not at that point).
Despite the lack of food, the mud and the cold, life for the children in the camp was not exceedingly difficult, according to Wildmann, and most survived.
For the adults, particularly those with health problems, things were much tougher. There was no sanitation, running water or plumbing, food was scarce, and unlike the children, they were not allowed to go outside the gates of the camp.
In 1941, the entire family, including Wildmann’s grandfather, was transported to Rivesaltes, in the eastern Pyrenees, where things were more comfortable, thanks to French and Swiss relief organizations. His mother was able to get Wildmann’s two sisters, Margot and Laure, into safer homes in France. In February 1942, Wildmann was sent to a boarding school in France, later joining his sister Laure.
Authorities at the schools knew he was Jewish and kept him safe. Although conditions in the French concentration camps were “inhumane,” he said, many French residents did not cooperate with the Vichy government and hid Jews. As a result, the majority of France’s Jews survived.
But for Wildmann’s German parents and brother, there was no survival. His father, mother and brother Hugo were killed at Auschwitz. His grandfather managed to survive the war in France.
“Let us hope that we will be reunited in good health and then my most tenderly loved youngest we want to compensate you, who have had to suffer so early in life by being deprived of your loving parental home,” Wildmann’s mother wrote in a letter Aug. 20, 1942, the day of her departure to Auschwitz.
Hugo added: “Remain strong so that you will survive these hard times.”
The last letter from his father, who was deported to Auschwitz from a hospital in Perpignan, France, was dated Nov. 2, 1943.
“We always hoped that our parents would come back,” Wildmann said. “We couldn’t understand that people would be exterminated, since Germany needed workers. We didn’t realize that death factories had been set up.”
Wildmann and his sisters eventually made it to St. Louis and later New York.
In 1950, on a weekend excursion with French-speaking young adults, he met Sylvia Birnbaum, who was from Leipzig, Germany, but had been hidden in Belgium. They were married in 1954. Their honeymoon was a road trip to California, where they began a new life.
The Wildmanns have lived in the same ranch house in Menlo Park since 1963, raising three children. The Wildmann name in Hebrew graces a plaque on the front door, and a pillow on the sofa says, “Grandchildren spoiled here.” The Wildmanns have eight grandchildren — five in the Bay Area, three in Israel.
Considering everything he went through, Wildmann displays no bitterness. “All in all, I didn’t have an unhappy childhood,” he said. “I had a happy family. I didn’t suffer that much. At my age, it was easier.”