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Escape

In 1995, when Morawetz' health started to fail, his daughter Claudia visited him regularly and asked to hear stories from his earlier years. The excerpt below was the story of Morawetz' escape from Europe to Canada during the Second World War, as related by Morawetz and transcribed by his daughter.

After studying forestry for two years, my father finally gave me my chance to study music. In the fall of 1937 I left for Vienna, one of the European centres of music. I wanted to become a pianist.

Vienna

For several months I thrived on my music lessons and the cultural environment I was in. However, the atmosphere in Europe was becoming more tense as Hitler made increasing demands from the other European powers, and made life for Jews more and more unpleasant.

It was not a good time to be a Jew, and I experienced some unpleasant situations myself. I had had several music teachers, and in the spring of 1938 my current music teacher was Mr. Pichier, who was obviously a strong supporter of Hitler. He made no secret of his views, even though he knew I was Jewish. I remember once his housekeeper coming into the room and raving, "Oh Mr. Pichier, Hitler is such a wonderful man, look what he does for us". I should have left him and found another teacher, but I thought he was such a wonderful music teacher, and so I continued to study with him.

The family I was living with in Vienna were also obviously anti-Jewish. One day they told me that I could no longer stay with them, and that I would have to leave. I went to live with my cousin Peter Glaser's family.

In March 1938 Hitler invaded Austria. I stood on the balcony with the Glaser family, and we watched as Hitler marched through the streets of Vienna. Then the degradations of Jews began. One day about a month later, I was walking home from my music lesson and I stopped in front of a store which had a sign that said: "Entrance to dogs and Jews forbidden". Suddenly from behind me, a Gestapo SS man grabbed me by the collar and yelled "you were thinking of erasing the sign, weren't you?". He took me to the police station and questioned me:

"What religion are you?"
"Jewish."
"I could have guessed it. What do you have in your briefcase?"
"Music."
"Why do you have music?"
"I am coming from a piano lesson."
"Why are you in Vienna?"
"Vienna was always the place where people wanted to study music."
The SS man looked at me angrily and in a mocking tone said:
"And you think you are going to tell me that you came all the way from Prague to Vienna only to study music?"

The Gestapo were not always very intelligent, but wanted to show everyone how much power they had. He began to leaf through all the sheets of music, holding them up to the light, trying to find something he could hold against me to arrest me. All the time he yelled at me, and I tried to be as polite as possible so as not to irritate him. I used the polite form of speech in German, ending all my answers with "Mr. Policeman". Finally he exploded, saying he was not just a policeman, and proceeded to tell me about his big, long title which he had probably received from a promotion only a few days before. There was a door at the back of the room, and through the door I cold see an old man sitting and reading a newspaper. The old man, who was probably also irritated by the conceited Gestapo man finally spoke up and told him, how could Mr. Morawetz know about his promotion. The Gestapo man was furious, but told me to go home, and he would call for me the next day. However, by the next day, I had packed my bags and flown home to Czechoslovakia.

Return to Czechoslovakia

Although the situation in Czechoslovakia was not a whole lot better, my father was optimistic. We all thought Hitler was crazy, and that if Hitler tried to do anything, France and England would stop him. We thought France and England were so powerful, and that Hitler was some kind of a nut to think he could get away with anything.  The big blow came in September of 1938 when the Munich pact was signed. France and England gave Hitler all the German sections of Czechoslovakia, which were basically where all our fortifications were.  Czechoslovakia was now defenceless.

My father was still optimistic. He now hoped that Hitler had what he wanted, and would leave us alone. One third of Bohemia was gone, the rules against Jews began: Jews could not study in universities, Jews could not participate in any athletic activities,...

France

Finally in December of 1938, my father sent me to study music in Paris.  I did not actually have a music teacher there. I practised piano on my own, and benefited from the cultural environment in Paris. This continued until March 15, 1939 when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia.  My brother John and sister Sonja were in England, but my parents and Herbert were still in Czechoslovakia.

My father was in a very difficult situation. Apart from the fact that he was Jewish, he was friends with both Masaryk and president Benes, was wealthy and was the president of a Jute factory, and later the textile industry. Furthermore, when Hitler started to rise to power in Germany, he had diverted much of his business from Germany to Italy, through a Count Parisi, who was later to become an instrumental figure in saving my life. The most infuriating thing my father had done as far as the Nazis were concerned was a deal he had made with a Jewish supplier from Germany. In order to help this person out, my father made a very large order of raw materials with him, and told him to get out of Germany, and he would pay him for the materials in whatever country he decided to go to. On hearing about this, the Nazis had my father very high on their target list.

My parents went into hiding, and finally managed to get an exit visa. On the 1st of April, they boarded a train for France at 6am, and sat terrified for the 24 hour ride until they reached the border. My father later learned from the housekeeper that the police had come to arrest him two days after they had left. When I saw my parents, my father was a nervous wreck. He had had several nervous breakdowns, and he cried all the time. I had never seen my father so distraught before.

Five weeks later my parents were in England applying for a visa to go to Canada. They asked me if I wanted to join them but I declined.  I was in the middle of great music circles, and enjoying myself in Paris. All the pictures I had seen of Canada were of vast, barren lands, with horses. It seemed to me like going to the wilderness, with no musical culture. As for my safety in Europe, everyone talked of the General Maginot lines, fortifications all around the French border, which everyone claimed would take Hitler 10 years to break. In reality, France sat smugly feeling a false sense of safety and power, while Hitler continued to build more and more weapons.

The possibility of a war became imminent and I regretted having declined my parents' offer to join them in Canada. At the end of August, they set sail from England, and were to stop in Cherbourg before continuing on to Canada. I took the 6-hour train ride to Cherbourg in the hopes of saying goodbye to my parents. I arrived late in the evening, and the officials were adamant that I would not be allowed onto the ship. I was desperate, and cried all night. In the morning, they finally took pity on me, and 2 or 3 policeman took me on a motorboat out to the ship. I had breakfast with my parents, and it was one of the most upsetting moments of my life. I feared I would never see my parents again. When the war broke out, my parents were already safe on the Atlantic, but the next ship after theirs was sunk by the Nazis.

On September 1st, Hitler invaded Poland, and two days later the war broke out. Things started to become very difficult for me. A new law was introduced that no non-French citizens could take any money out of the bank. My father had made an arrangement with a banker in Paris to give me an allowance every month, but when I went to the bank the next time, the banker looked at me disdainfully and said "oh, you again" and didn't give me any money.

Non-French citizens were also quickly immobilized: we were not allowed to travel more than 10 kilometres from our residence without a permit.  The government was suddenly flooded with permit applications, and it was impossible to go anywhere. It was also dangerous to walk in the streets of Paris because the police could stop me anytime to ask for documents. The Czechs were considered enemy aliens of the French. If they saw a Czech passport, they would laugh, and say you have a passport to a country which no longer exists, and then turn you over to the Nazis. I became terrified, and took refuge by rarely leaving the place I lived.

My cousin Walter Stein came to my aid, telling me I had to get out of France. His plan was to send me to Portugal. He had friends in Portugal, and it was the only country that was still accepting refugees.  The first hurdle was to get an exit visa from France. I travelled to Clermont-Ferrand, and by luck, or perhaps because they were still a little disorganized in the military building, I got an exit visa.

My cousin Walter obtained the visa to Portugal for me on October 16, 1939 (visa # 1593) by paying a bribe of more than 6000 Francs. With an exit visa from France, and a visa to Portugal, however, I was still not able to go to Portugal since the train must travel through Spain, an ally of Hitler. The only way I could go through Spain was to get a transit visa that would allow me to travel through the country, as long as I did not get off the train. Walter thought my only hope of getting this transit visa would be to show up in person at the Spanish border, where they would often do things they would not normally do though the formal process.

I left Paris illegally (since I did not have a permit to leave Paris) one afternoon, and took the 8-hour trip to Néris-Les-Bains. Upon my arrival, I immediately went to apply for the transit visa. As I walked in the streets, I was stopped and asked for my papers. "Where is your permit to leave Paris?" I was asked. I knew that I was not supposed to go beyond the 10km limit of my residence and didn't know what could happen if I did. I showed the policeman my exit visa from France and lied to him: I told him the exit visa was only good for three weeks (which was true) and that if I didn't leave France within three weeks I could get into trouble. The policeman believed me and let me go.

While I was in the Post Office in Néris-Les-Bains to send a registered letter to my parents, someone must have heard me say my name.  Suddenly I heard someone call out in Czech and ask my if I was the son of Richard Morawetz. The voice belonged to a man who had been in business with my father in Moravia. He was very friendly, and told me if I need any help that I should come to his place.  He invited me for lunch, and I met his wife who was very musical, and his son Peter. Peter Newman eventually married my brother John's sister-in-law, Pat.

Néris-Les-Bains was a very small town. One day I was confronted by the mayor of the town who again asked me where was my permit to travel away from Paris. When I told him I didn't have one, he said I must leave. I was in a real quandary, as I still had not heard about my visa application. I asked the mayor, where should I go? and he replied that there was a camp 5km up the road, and that I should go there and that if I don't go, I will be called upon the next day and taken there. After this encounter, I was distressed, and called upon Mr. Newman and asked him what I should do. Mr. Newman said to me very simply that I should not go. Unbelievably, this had truly not occurred to me. My father had taught me never to lie or disobey a person of authority, and I told this to Mr. Newman. He answered: "Well, you have two choices: either you go or you don't go. If you don't go, and they come to take you away, then you will be no worse off than if you had gone. But they may not come at all." I took Mr. Newman's advice and did not go, and was grateful for his advice since the police never came.  But by far the biggest service Mr. Newman did for me was to teach me to fend for myself, and to realize that it may not always be right to obey the authorities. This was a valuable lesson, and saved my life many times over.

In the end, I was refused the transit visa through Spain and returned to Paris. On the return journey, the train was raided twice to check for permits. Both time I locked myself in the washroom, and no-one thought to look.

On the strength of my Portuguese visa, Walter's next plan was to get me a transit visa through Switzerland to Italy, and from Italy I would go to Portugal. I obtained the Swiss transit visa, and an Italian visa, allowing me to stay a maximum of two weeks.

On to Italy

In October 1939, I took a sleeper train, and on Walter's advice, gave the wagon conductor a large tip in the hopes that he would "take care of me" in case of trouble, and not wake me at the border for customs.  Unfortunately the conductor couldn't withhold the customs officials and I was awoken at the Italian border. The customs official looked at my visa and asked me "what religion are you?" Luckily I was still so sleepy I didn't have time to respond before the wagon conductor quickly said "Catholic, of course." I did not correct him, and they asked me no further questions.

Upon my arrival in Genoa, I went to the shipping company to buy my passage to Portugal. However, by this time Portugal must have been flooded with refugees, and did not want to take in any more Jews. I was asked to produce a document saying that I had no Jewish ancestry as far back as my grandparents. Of course I could not produce the document, and they would not sell me passage to Portugal.  In fact my cousin Walter did eventually get me a falsified document saying that I was baptized in Úpice, which I still have today; however, by the time I received the certificate, my Portuguese visa had expired, and I had other plans of escape.

I was now very nervous being in Italy, an ally of Hitler, with only a two-week visa, and desperately short of money. Walter told me to go to Trieste where he had a friend, Saraval, who kindly gave me a little money to last a few days. Soon after, both my parents and my brother Herbert sent me a telegram telling me that I should go to see Count Parisi, my father's Italian business associate whom I mentioned before.


Count Rodolfo Parisi

Count Parisi was a very wealthy business man living in Trieste. He had a gorgeous home and was a very kind person. Before I took my leave the first time I met him, he asked me if I needed any money. I could feel my face flush with embarrassment.  I desperately needed money, but I was too embarrassed to admit it, and so I told him that I would be all right. However, Count Parisi was not stupid, and when I arrived back at my lodgings, there was a letter there for me with some money from him. He continued to supply money to me on a regular basis, and that became my sole financial support.  My father did eventually repay the Count, but I could not have survived without his aid.

The first time I met Count Parisi, we had lunch together and talked about many things. At one point he asked me what I was studying, and when I told him I wanted to be a pianist, he was very interested. He had a piano at home that never got played. He invited me to come to his home anytime and practice on his piano. And so that is how I spent the next few months. Everyday I would go to his home and spend several hours playing the piano. Often, if I was still practising late in the afternoon, the Count would invite me to join his family for dinner. I was also invited to partake in the family meal every Sunday.

When I was not at the Count's home, I would frequent local drinking houses where I met other Jews trying to leave Italy. Among them were my school friend, Bass, and my brother John's school friend, Vantoch. At night I would return to my boarding house to sleep. I spent as little time there as possible since the landlord could not afford to heat the place very well. It took me sometimes four hours to fall asleep as I shivered between the blankets trying to keep warm. My daytime hours in Italy were therefore spent divided between sitting in warm cafeterias, and playing the piano or visiting with Count Parisi and his family.

I continued to stay in Italy applying for visas at regular intervals since the visas were only issued for very short periods of time.  I wrote to my father regularly saying that I had to find a way to get out of Italy as my situation there was becoming more and more precarious.  My father did not realize my position was as bad as it was. He thought that under the Count Parisi's protection, I would be safe in Italy. But I knew that if Italy ever actively entered the war, not even Count Parisi could protect me.

One of Count Parisi's daughters seemed to have taken a liking to me, and thought she would try to help me out. We went together to the shipping company to see if I could get a transit visa through the Canary Islands, a protectorate of Spain. The person issuing visas told us it was absolutely impossible. Then this daughter of the Count looked at the man with a coy smile and asked him "do you know who I am?" When the man said he did not, she answered "I am the daughter of Count Parisi". The man's face lit up with recognition, saying "oh well, why didn't you tell me that before?" and quickly issued the visa for me. And that was it.

The plan was that I would take a ship from Rome, stopping in the Canary Islands, and then on to America. However, I had heard that the German U-boats monitored the straight of Gibraltar, and that if I sailed through there, the ship was likely to get searched, or even sunk. Because of that fear, I decided instead to fly from Rome to the Canary Islands, and then board the ship only at the Canary Islands. This is what I did finally leaving Italy in March of 1940. The ship was not sunk, and arrived safely in the Canary Islands where I boarded it.  However, even sailing away from the Canary Islands, I was still nervous for four or five days, because I did not know how far west the German U-boats would go.

Citizen of Santo Domingo

The ship I was on was bound for Santo Domingo. [Today Santo Domingo is the Dominican Republic.] My father had "bought" me the citizenship of this country, which was possible at that time.  Santo Domingo had just finished being at war with Haiti. The Haitian prisoners of war were treated very cruelly, often just thrown to the sharks. There was such an outcry in America that when the war was over, the leader of Santo Domingo, Trujillo, wanted to pacify the Americans somehow. He decided to allow the citizenship of his country to be purchased. He then scorned the Americans, saying his was the only country admitting refugees. It was also a good source of income for Santo Domingo.

I arrived in the beginning of April and stayed for six weeks while my father tried to obtain entrance for me to Canada. This is where I learned the little bit of Spanish that I know. My strongest memory of the place was the unbearable heat.

Finally in Canada

When I was finally able to go to Canada, my father said I should stop in New York first and spend a week visiting the World Fair which was being held in that city in 1940. I spoke no English, but enjoyed myself nonetheless. Finally on June 17, 1940, I arrived in Canada.


The Blair story

Although Morawetz gives an accurate account of his escape from Europe, his chronicle does not include the impact on his escape of the Canadian Director of Immigration at the time, Mr. Frederick Charles Blair, who almost cost Morawetz his life. Mr. Blair was a great anti-Semitic, and his refusal to admit no more than a mere 5000 Jews to Canada during the whole war certainly cost many Jewish refugees their lives. His famed response to how many Jews should be accepted into Canada, None is Too Many, became the title of a 1983 book by Abella and Troper. Morawetz is one of the many refugees quoted in this book.

In October 1939, Morawetz had just arrived in Italy. His parents were already in Canada, and his three siblings were more or less safe in England. Although Morawetz was surviving on the patronage of his father's business associate, Count Parisi, he knew he had to find a way to get out of Italy. Morawetz' parents desperately wanted their children to join them in Canada, and his father, Richard, was running from office to office trying to obtain visas for them. On October 18, Richard sent a cable to his son Herbert saying that permission had been received to issue visas to Herbert, Oskar and Sonja and that he should proceed to Canada House in London. However permission came with the stipulation that they all three pass a medical examination in London, and that they only be allowed into Canada if they travel together. This seemed like an insurmountable obstacle as Morawetz was far from England, and the British were reluctant to issue transit visas, since the Canadian permit was conditional on the outcome of a medical examination.

Richard Morawetz had met a lawyer in Toronto, Mr. Danserau, who persuaded him that he had contacts with government officials in Ottawa who could be helpful in this situation. On October 24, Danserau cabled the Commissioner of Immigration in London as follows:

Regarding Morawetz file 663567 children would much appreciate enable Herbert and Sonia sail immediately without Oscar.

Upon learning of Danserau's intervention, Blair sent a furious response to him. In his letter of Oct. 27, he writes:

I have a lengthy cable from our London office today about Herbert and Sonia Morawetz, in which I am advised that you have been cabling our London office direct. I have told London to hold up Herbert and Sonia Morawetz until we know whether Oscar can accompany. I would suggest that in future you do your business with this office instead of annoying our London office with cables which they are not in a position to act upon.

Click here to view the original of this letter.

However for reasons which remain obscure, Blair changed his mind and in a letter to Danserau on Nov. 30, he wrote:

[...] in the case of Herbert and Sonia Morawetz who are in London, I may say that on review of this matter this morning, Commissioner Jolliffe and I have decided to allow the sailing of these two on the distinct understanding that it does not involve us in any obligation to accept their brother Oscar whose admission, however, will be considered when he is able to make his own way to one of our inspectional points which are now at Paris, Antwerp and London. A cable has today been sent to our London office conveying this information.

Click here to view the original of this letter.

Although this was good news for Herbert and Sonja, it seemed to put Morawetz in an even more precarious position, as it looked as if Blair was particular resolute in not allowing him into Canada. Just before leaving for Canada, Herbert asked Jan Masaryk, who was at the Czech Embassy in England, if he could obtain a British transit visa for Morawetz. He also asked a friend if a Belgian transit visa could be obtained. However nothing ever came of either of those attempts. On December 15, Herbert and Sonja set sail on the Duchess of York. Although their trip was relatively uneventful, the Duchess of York was sunk by a submarine later in the war.

Meanwhile Morawetz was desperately trying to find some way to obtain a medical examination somewhere that was acceptable to the Canadian Immigration office. In January of 1940, he had heard that Canadian visas would be issued to Slovaks who passed a medical examination in Budapest. He cabled Danserau to see if he could somehow be included in this group. The inquiry was forwarded to Mr. Blair whereupon Danserau received another angry response insisting that Morawetz had heard rumours that were completely unfounded.

Click here to view the original of this letter.

Morawetz' father realized he was not getting anywhere with the Canadian Immigration, and so decided to travel to New York to see if he could obtain a visa for Morawetz to some Central American country. On the 25th of February, he wrote to Morawetz saying that he had a visa for him to Santo Domingo. Morawetz left Italy just three months before Italy entered the war as allies of Hitler.

Once Morawetz had arrived in Santo Domingo, Blair miraculously had a change of heart and decided that Morawetz could get his medical examination and visa at the British Consulate. The irony of the much sought after medical examination is that when Morawetz went to see the consul about obtaining a medical examination, the consul looked at him and said: "Why should I have you examined? I can see that you are in good health."

In the end, it was Norman Sommerville, head of the Red Cross, who arranged for Oskar Morawetz to gain entry to Canada from Santo Domingo. Morawetz' father had developed a tremendous friendship with Mr. Sommerville, a lawyer who was an affable person, and had no reservations about meeting new people. Morawetz later recalled witnessing Mr. Sommerville at a restaurant at Cleveland House approach someone saying: "Hello George!". When the confused person replied "I'm not George", then Mr. Sommerville replied, "well, I am Mr. Norman Sommerville," and holding out his hand continued "I'm glad to meet you!".