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Our Escape From Europe

03/27/2006Margit von Mises

When Hitler invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940, I really became frightened. I had to talk to Lu. He did not want to leave. He never had been so happy as he was in Geneva, and he did not feel any fear. I reminded him of the night the Nazis came to Vienna. I told him the Nazis would never take him off their blacklist. I begged him, I implored him to leave, to think of me, if he would not think of himself.

It took the breakdown of the Maginot Line, the occupation of Paris on June 14, and the raising of the German swastika on the highest point of the Eiffel Tower to make Lu aware of the danger. Finally, he gave in and promised to make the necessary preparations for us to leave for the United States.

In his heart, of course, Lu was reluctant to leave, not only because of his love for the work at the Institute, but because he feared how America, the home of young people, the paradise of youth, would receive him, a man of almost sixty. He was also afraid of language difficulties. At that time he was more at ease with French than with English. He had studied French for at least six years in the Academic Gymnasium, and he spoke it fluently with almost no accent. English, he had first learned by reading, and that, he always insisted, was the wrong method. Often he said, jokingly, "If you don't learn a foreign language as a child, you later have to learn it with a sleeping dictionary"

The change of languages meant more to him than it would to an average citizen. Language was his most important tool, his essential device for communicating his ideas, his means of earning his living. I was not frightened of anything. My belief in him was unshakable and so was my confidence that a man of his stature could neither be suppressed nor overlooked.

From the moment German troops moved into France, every line of communication between Switzerland and that country was closed. Starting June 11, no cars were allowed, no trains were running, no planes were flying, no buses were moving, no letters or telegrams came through. This was another source of worry for me. I knew we could not hear from Gitta [now Gitta Sereny], and in no case could we manage to get her on our visa to take her with us. She would have to stay in Besançon, where we had taken her a few months before to study at the university She was living with friends, but she was so young, and now she had to be on her own.

On June 21, the armistice between France and Germany was signed, at Hitler's demand, in the same railroad car where, in 1918, the Germans had to accept the armistice and the conditions dictated by General Foch — an armistice that gravely wounded their pride and aroused much hatred in Germany.

Finally Lu started to act. He got in touch with Professor Benjamin Anderson, a good friend of his, who at that time was chief economist at the Chase Bank in New York. Professor Anderson immediately took the necessary steps and got both of us a non-quota visa, which allowed us to enter the United States immediately. Lu had his library packed, and whatever else we planned to take along with us was prepared for shipping. Every day we went to the various agencies to hear whether and when we could leave, but Switzerland was surrounded by German troops and no one could move. The airlines as well as the bus authorities had promised us seats on their first trip out. Since we had to cross through France, Spain, and Portugal, we had to get all the necessary visas.

The news from the shipping agencies never changed. It was nerve shattering. The Ropkes also pondered whether they should leave. Ropke even went so far as to travel with Lu to Zurich to get his American visa from the American consul there. But in the end they decided to stay because of their three young children, and besides this, a good while before, they had applied for Swiss citizenship. The uncertainty and tension grew from day to day. We tried to get passage on the American Export Line from Lisbon, but they could not promise anything. The only thing they could do for us was to put our names on the waiting list.

On June 18, Lu received a telegram from Dean Robert Calkins:

"Invite you accept position lecturer and research associate professor University of California, July to December."

Lu was in no way happy about this offer, but it meant a possibility and a way out.

A few days later, Professor Potter received a letter, dated June 18, 1940, from E.F. Penrose, professor of economics at the University of California. It read:

"He [Mises] has been accepted as an American nonquota immigrant and his arrival to take up a position in the United States is eagerly awaited at the University and other American universities. I trust that in the present unsettled state of Europe, he will not be obstructed or be in anyway interfered with in reaching the United States. If he should be interfered with in anyway, the fact will become known in the United States and would certainly influence public opinion strongly against whatever persons or whatever country prevented him — as an accepted immigrant — from coming to the United States."

On July 1 we were told "still no planes". On July 2, we again went with Professor Potter to the French consulate, since we still did not have the visas required to cross France. But again we were turned down. The next day, in response to a letter from Darius Milhaud to the French embassy we got our visas. Milhaud, the well-known composer, was married to a famous French actress who had been teaching Gitta. On the same evening, our luggage left and we got the news that we would have seats the following day on the first bus leaving Geneva for France.

On July 4, 1940, at 6:30 PM, the first bus that went through France left from the American Express office. Though we arrived long before the appointed time, Lene Lieser and Tiny our housekeeper were there to see us off. We never saw them again.

There was a big crowd in the street and great excitement among all the passengers who were about to leave. Many were crying. No seat remained empty, and the passengers very soon became acquainted with each other. Everyone had a story to tell, and soon we were like one big unhappy family with one wish in common: to avoid the Germans. Our destination was Cerberes, France, a tiny town on the shores of the Mediterranean at the Spanish border. To get there without encountering the Germans, the driver had to change his route frequently after seeking information from French peasants and soldiers. We had to make a great circle, going via Grenoble and Nyon to Orange, which was to be our stop for the night. The German troops had advanced very fast, and they were everywhere. More than once our driver had to backtrack to escape them.

Finally late at night, we arrived at Orange. We left the next morning at six. At Nimes we stopped for breakfast. The roads were empty. We saw fewer peasants and more and more French soldiers. Some soldiers were walking alone, trying to get home to their families; others were in groups, but all of them looked beaten, humiliated and unhappy exhausted and hopeless. There were no waves, no greetings, no jokes, no smiles. Once we had to stop suddenly and turn back; some soldiers warned us that the Germans were right behind them. But the driver knew the country well. Never, not for a moment, did he lose his nerve.

At 2:30 PM we arrived at Cerberes, beautifully located on the sea. But we had no eyes for beauty or landscape. We had only one thought: would it be possible to cross the border today? We tried — and were sent back. On this day only French, American, and English citizens were allowed by the customs officers to cross into Spain. "Come back tomorrow," we were told.

As calm and composed as Lu seemed, he was in a terrible state of mind. He was not made for adventures and uncertainties of this kind. I needed all my courage to help him overcome his desolation.

For the night we found quarters in the railroad hotel in Cerberes. You could not really call it a "hotel." Above the office and restaurant of the station, a few dark rooms were reserved for transient passengers. Dinner in the hotel, more than anything else, showed the straits the French were in. As hors d'oeuvres, we got a single, lonely sardine served on a large plate, and as a main course they gave us some spaghetti. There was no meat, no bread, no vegetable. But as a consolation we were given a bottle of good red wine. The room we stayed in overnight had one window, which opened to the railroad platform. Though there were few trains running, just when we tried to get some sleep, a freight train rattled into the station. People shouted, strange red lights flared up, and then again came darkness and silence, until another train passed through. We woke up in the morning without really having slept. There was no bath; one small gray worn-out towel had to suffice for both of us. After we had a cup of coffee, we tried again at the border. The day before the officers had not even opened our passports. This time, after they examined them, we were told that our Spanish visa was not good anymore and that the Portuguese visa also had to be renewed, since it had been issued in June and only those written in July were valid for this month. We were ordered to get new visas from the Spanish consulate in Toulouse.

Very early the next day 4:00 AM, Lu boarded a train to Toulouse. He took with him the passports of all the passengers on the bus, including those of seven Portuguese. Late that night Lu came back, totally exhausted. He had managed to get visas for all the passengers except the Portuguese. They were turned back for the third time.

The next day finally, we crossed the border, immediately got a train for Barcelona, and caught a plane for Lisbon. It was a rather small plane and my first flight. I cannot say that I enjoyed it.

When we arrived in Lisbon, we took a deep breath. Our first days there were fully occupied with visits to the police (every foreigner had to register), to the various transportation offices, and to the American consulate. We were staying at a small but beautifully located hotel on the coast. Many of our new friends from the bus were also there, and we frequently met the other passengers in town. We still were like a big family.

Lisbon was the most picturesque city I had ever seen. The houses were painted either a brilliant white, a light delicate pink, or, sometimes, a soft green or a bright yellow. Some of them were decorated with a Moorish painted pattern, others were completely covered with green tiles, shimmering in the sun like a fresh green meadow. The city is divided into an upper part and a lower part; the streets run up and down, completely hilly. I hear they now have elevators to the upper and lower parts. In 1940 they only had a sort of tramway and comfortable paths for pedestrians.

There was great poverty in Lisbon, and as a consequence, there were many many children selling newspapers, polishing shoes, and often begging for money. Once in a while a policeman would chase them, but more often he kept his eyes shut. The little boys liked to hang onto the boards of the tram — a favorite game of theirs. They were too poor to pay and the conductors chose not to see them.

The poorer women were either pregnant or carried their latest baby in their arms or hidden in their shoulder scarves. They did not have perambulators. Often they carried a basket of fish upon their heads.

These female-fish-vendors and the smell of fish were characteristic of the city. Everything smelled of fish — the tramway the streets, the harbor, the little cars. Early in the morning the women moved in long lines from the harbor to the markets with tiny pillows on their heads, on which they carried large flat baskets full of fish. These women, though mostly short and stout, carried themselves erectly and proudly. Only when they had to cross a sheet, one of their hands held on to the basket, otherwise they walked without touching it. They were unbelievably modest, and their needs were few. The tramways, as well as the tiny taxis, moved very fast, and often the conductor rang the bell before the last passenger could jump on board, forcing the would-be passenger to run, get hold of a handle, and pull himself aboard while the tram was moving.

People were friendly in Lisbon, and the policemen treated foreigners very well. Once, Lu and I wanted to visit a friend of his, and the street where the man lived was rather far from our hotel. We asked a policeman how to get there, but as we did not know the language, we had difficulty understanding him. Lu decided to take a taxi and started to walk toward a nearby taxi stand. When the policeman noticed this he followed us, took me by my sleeve, led us to the tramway stop and signaled us to wait. When the tram arrived, he made us enter, followed us, and explained to the conductor where to take us and when to let us off. Since the tram had already started to move, he himself had to stay on until the next stop. There, as if nothing had happened, he said good-bye, got out, and walked back to his place of duty.

We had to wait for thirteen days in Lisbon before we were able to get passage to America. Originally, the Export Line had given us tickets for August 15. But this meant waiting more than four weeks, and I could not imagine how Lu would stand it. So I went to the shipping office every day Lu got so tired of this begging and asking, he refused to go anymore. So I had to take over.

I was lucky enough one morning to get hold of the manager — a Mr. Heart — who was very, very friendly and promised to do for us whatever he could. "But," he said, "you will have to call the office every morning and tell us exactly where you are during the day and what you will be doing." That was not easy for Lu was seeing many people, among them Professor M. Bensabat Amnzalek, the Portuguese minister of finance. Lu had various meetings with him, and Amnzalek also arranged a meeting for Lu with President Salazar and a seminar, which Lu held at the statistical office. He was busy all the time and I had to report all this to the American Export Line. When we went out sightseeing, Lu did what he always did in a new city: he took a tramway or a bus and crisscrossed the town with me. "The only way" he said, "to really get to know a place."

I generally spent half a day on the telephone calling the Export Lines office. Lu made no further move. He could neither relax nor enjoy what he was doing. He was uprooted. For the first time I noted what I so often had the opportunity to see later: he could fight for a cause, but never for himself. And when he could not work he was listless. He once told me: "A writer who has something to tell only needs a pencil and a sheet of paper — that's all." Looking back, I think he forgot something more important: a writer also needs peace of mind.

Just as between 1938 and 1940, every political refugee at one time or another came through Geneva or stayed there for a while, now Lisbon had become a haven for people without a home, without a country. All sorts of nationalities were gathered here, and every day we met more people and heard more sad stories. We frequently met Count Coudenhoven, the fighter for Pan-Europe, who had a Japanese mother and was rather exotic and good looking. He was married to a famous Viennese actress, Ida Roland, who was much older than he and had a daughter, already in her thirties, whom the countess always spoke of as "the child." It really sounded more tragic than funny.

On July 24, I once again returned to the Export Line and got the message that Mr. Heart was waiting for a cancellation, but so far nothing had turned up. I was asked to come back in the afternoon; I did, but it was in vain, for no space had opened up.

The next morning, I went to the hairdresser, left my number with Mr. Heart's secretary, and was just being put under the dryer with all the pinclips in my hair when I was called to the phone: "Export Line. Come here at once. We have a cancellation, but you must be here with all your documents before noon."

Everyone at the hairdresser shared my excitement. The pinclips thrown out, my hair all wet, I took a taxi to the hotel. Thank God, Lu was there, waiting for me. I made him give me our papers and raced to the office. I was in time and was told we had a cabin on the Exochorda, sailing that afternoon at 5:00 PM. We had to embark immediately. Back at the hotel, the tickets in my hand, I saw Lu smile for the first time in weeks. It was this smile I loved so much and would have done anything to bring about.

Our luggage had never been unpacked, so we were ready to leave in a very short time. The Exochorda, one of the three or four ships of the Export Line that were regularly crossing the Atlantic, was neither large nor a luxury vessel. But it was comfortable, and we had a very good cabin. Even before the ship left the harbor, Lu got terribly sick, so sick that I had to call the doctor. At that time we did not know that Lu had gall bladder trouble. Later on I realized this must have been the first of the many serious attacks he suffered in later years. This one, of course, could have been the consequence of all the excitement, the discomfort, the irregular food, and the inner suffering he had gone through for weeks.

He recovered after two days, but he never felt happy on the ship. In fact, he never felt happy on any ship; ships gave him claustrophobia. I, on the contrary, enjoyed every day. The Atlantic crossing took nine days, and the weather was marvelous. One of Lu's good friends from the Institute in Geneva, Professor Potter, was traveling with us. During the entire passage we met only one other ship, an English freighter. There was nothing but the ocean and the bright blue sky.

We arrived at noon on August 2, 1940, at a pier in New Jersey. The greatest impression I had that day was not the beautiful skyline — I had seen that long before in films. What impressed me most was the terrible wastefulness in the kitchen. Shortly before our arrival I noticed that the galley help threw not only the remnants of food overboard, but also fresh fruit, vegetables, potatoes, and bread. We had come from Europe where so many people had so little to eat, and when we saw this waste of food, we could not help but feel angry.

A good friend of Lu's, a former participant in his seminar, Dr. Alfred Schutz, was at the pier to meet us. It was a great relief for Lu and me to see someone we knew waiting for us, happy to be of help and to welcome us to the United States.

Margit von Mises (1890-1993) was an actress in Vienna who married Ludwig von Mises in 1938. After his death in 1973, she dedicated herself completely to making his writings better known, including in her capacity as the founding advisor to the Mises Institute. Comment on the blog.


Margit von Mises

Margit Serény von Mises (1890–1993) was an actress from Hamburg, and the wife of Ludwig von Mises. They met in 1925 and married on 6 July 1938. She wrote a memoir, My Years with Ludwig von Mises, of which Rothbard writes: "Margit's greatest achievement in the Mises industry was her wonderful memoir of her life together with Lu, a touching and romantic, as well as dramatic, story, on which she embarked after Lu's death in 1973, and which she published three years later..."