When Michael Newman read the personal account of his grandfather's journey through France during World War II, he immediately wanted to retrace that path. At 17, the opportunity wasn't there, but by his junior year at Northern State University, the opportunity came in the form of his honors thesis.
Newman's grandfather, Heinz Najman, who later became Henry Newman after immigrating to the United States, spent nearly four years of his life in exile. Born in Vienna, Austria, his Jewish family was ordered to leave the country in November 1938. What occurs in the next few years is a tale of separation, heartbreak, reconnection and survival.
An honors thesis is required of NSU students who look to graduate with honors. In searching for a topic, Newman spoke of his grandfather's ordeal and was encouraged to follow his path for his honors thesis. With a topic now in mind, Newman said, the only remaining piece was covering the cost of traveling to Europe and predominantly around France. This became possible through a $2,882 undergraduate research grant awarded by NSU that covered lodging and travel. Newman is one of two students who have received these grants.
"I wouldn't have been able to do this without the grant," Newman said.
Newman speaks fondly of his grandfather, who died in 2009, but was surprised to discover his grandfather's story in a journal.
"I grew up next door, and he never spoke of it," Newman said.
By the time he discovered the journal, however, Newman's grandfather had Alzheimer's.
"I was very interested, but I couldn't learn much from my Opa," he said.
Heinz Najman's story begins in Vienna. Shortly before his 10th birthday, his family became refugees and crossed the border into Belgium, settling in Brussels in December 1938. The family had no travelling papers and had to secretly cross the border at night. Not a practicing Jewish family, Newman said, his grandfather didn't identify himself as Jewish until the Germans provided that label. During the next few years, Newman said, his grandfather often struggled with questions wondering why his family was targeted by German soldiers.
His family consisted of his mother and father, Moses and Chana, and two older sisters, one of which was already married and living in the United States. While living in Brussels, his oldest sister sent funds for two members of the family to leave. His sister, Helene, left, but Newman said, Heinz Najman refused to leave his mother.
The war reached Belgium in 1940. Seen as a potential German agent, Moses Najman was arrested and sent to Camp Gurs in southern France. Now left with only his mother, Heinz and Chana Najman departed for Paris, where they stayed first with Chana Najman's sister and then with Moses Najman's brother. After the Germans arrested his uncle's family, Heinz Najman and his mother, who were hiding during the arrest, returned to his aunt's house, where they were encouraged to leave immediately with four additional relatives. Their destination was southern France, which was considered free France, as it wasn't under German occupation.
The remaining members of Chana Najman's family were arrested soon after they left, but their group never reached southern France. Germans searched their train and arrested Heinz Najman and his family, detaining them in Chalon-sur-Saone.
"They were held in a building converted into a jail for the purpose of the Holocaust in Chalon-sur-Saone," Newman said. "It was here that Opa befriended a French policeman."
Heinz Najman and his 13-year old cousin were able to escape using a ladder the guard left outside. They used the ladder to get over the wall surrounding the house.
"Leaving his mother was the hardest moment in my Opa's life," Newman said, explaining that Heinz Najman's mother was eventually transported to the Pithiviers Internment Camp near Paris as well as another internment camp in Drancy before boarding a train for Auschwitz in Poland, where she and the other family members likely perished with 90 percent of the passengers who arrived.
Following his escape, Heinz Najman and his cousin boarded a train heading for Pau in southern France. Their journey was spent hiding from the conductor and was interrupted multiple times as they were kicked off the train, but they eventually arrived in Pau, where Najman discovered his father was no longer at Camp Gurs — he was now in Switzerland at a refugee camp in Lucerne.
"After a while, the Germans wanted to take over free France," Newman said. "So, just before the Germans took over, (one of the guards) released a couple hundred prisoners and burned their records."
Moses Najman was among those released prisoners. Heinz Najman's final journey was from Pau to Lucerne, but crossing the heavily guarded border into Switzerland meant relying on guidance from a priest at a church near the border at Leon. The priest pointed to a specific bridge where Heinz Najman could cross. The trick was to mingle in with a group that was crossing.
Once in Switzerland, soldiers helped Heinz Najman find his father. Three years later, Heinz Najman and his father moved to the United States, where they settled in New York, reuniting with Heinz Najman's sisters.
For Newman, his four-week trip this summer was more than simply traveling the same path of his grandfather.
"I found the names of my great-grandparents and 12 new family members killed in the Holocaust," Newman said. "The trip itself was incredible."
As he struggles to bring all the elements of his grandfather's story together, Newman said, one thing he doesn't want to get lost is the human elements that allowed his great-grandfather and grandfather a chance to be together again. For his grandfather, it took the kindness of a French guard who aided in his escape; a family on the train who gave him and his cousin food; and help from a priest to cross the Swiss border. In the case of his great-grandfather, it took the actions of a guard releasing the prisoners and burning all records.
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