When Europe Was a Prison Camp

When Europe Was a Prison Camp

Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-1941
Otto Schrag and Peter Schrag
Distribution: North America
Publication date: 7/28/2015
Format: cloth 328 pages, 25 b&w illus., 1 map
6 x 9
ISBN: 978-0-253-01769-7
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2016 AAUP Public and Secondary School Library Selection, Outstanding Rating
In a compelling approach to storytelling, When Europe Was a Prison Camp weaves together two accounts of a family’s eventual escape from Occupied Europe. One, a memoir written by the father in 1941; the other, begun by the son in the 1980s, fills in the story of himself and his mother, supplemented by historical research. The result is both personal and provocative, involving as it does issues of history and memory, fiction and “truth,” courage and resignation. This is not a “Holocaust memoir.” The Schrags were Jews, and Otto was interned, under execrable conditions, in southern France. But Otto, with the help of a heroic wife, escaped the camp before the start of massive transfers of prisoners “to the East,” and Peter and his mother escaped from Belgium before the Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Yet, the danger and suffering, the comradeship and betrayal, the naïve hopes and cynical despair of those in prison and those in peril are everywhere in evidence.

Author Bio

Peter Schrag is a lifelong journalist and author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future (a New York Times Notable Book), and Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America, among other books. A former executive editor of Saturday Review and editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, he has written for The Atlantic, Harper’s, the Nation, New Republic, the New York Times, and other major publications.

Otto Schrag (1902-1971) was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Germany. Among the last Jews to get a PhD from Heidelberg before the war, he entered his grandfather’s beer malt–processing business. In 1935, he fled Germany, eventually settling with his family in Brussels. With the start of the German invasion, the Belgians arrested him as an enemy alien, thus beginning the events narrated here. In New York in the 1940s, he wrote three well-regarded novels. He returned to Germany in 1950 and successfully rebuilt the business the Nazis had seized. There he wrote another novel and translated
From Here to Eternity into German.


"Powerfully written. A book that deals with paradoxes, dilemmas, and insolvables . . . in an unusual, highly affecting narrative of the World War II experience of Jews but also of non-Jews outside the Nazi concentration and death camps." —Emily Miller Budick, author of The Subject of Holocaust Fiction

"This book takes a unique approach to a World War II memoir, combining not only the stories of a father and son, but both men’s years apart writing about the subject. . .The dual perspectives are invaluable, and create a fresh approach to an important story." —Foreword Reviews

"Schrag combines his father’s narrative with judicious research and documentary reference to insure clarity and historical accuracy; he also inserts parts of his own memoir, which he wrote before discovering his father’s manuscript. . . . 'Through the fog of war,' Peter Schrag observes, 'little can be seen very clearly.' To their great credit, these father-son memoirs help us see through this very dense and sinister fog." —Jewish Book World

"With his book, Peter Schrag has vividly added the emotional dimension of his personal experience to the tragic events endured by our families during WWII." —Marcel Bervoets, author of La Liste de Saint-Cyprien

"The Schrags’ captivating story of emigration, statelessness and internment, which is so shrewdly voiced and dialogued by father and son, transcends the margins of intimate memoires and becomes a surrealistic, yet real, collective testimony of the “tragic farce” (Ionesco) forcedly played by millions of “undesirables” on the absurd theater's European stage." —Pnina Rosenberg, author of L’art des indésirables: l’art visuel dans les camps français

"When Europe Was a Prison Camp is a brilliant, eloquent, and compelling intergenerational memoir about the escape from Belgium of the Schrags, an assimilated bourgeois German family leading the good life, who overnight became Jews (again) when the shooting started in WWII. Civic order was fractured as these ‘heroes without courage’ endured the grossest inhumanities. A timely reminder that life for Jews in the Diaspora is inevitably contingent and perilous." —Mark G. Yudof, President Emeritus, University of California

A powerful account of the forced exile and internment by Belgium and France of refugees from Nazi Germany. Otto Schrag's story brings to light the life-and-death choices these refugees had to face and their dauntless survival strategies. His son, Peter, places his own memories in perspective and supplements the work with a rigorous commentary, revealing the sensitive balance between history and memory, knowledge and emotion." —Anne Grynberg, University Professor, l'Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris, and author of Les Camps de la honte: les internés juifs des camps français 1939-1944

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Table of Contents

Part I
1. The End of the Great Illusion
2. The Forty and Eights
3. La Panne, Dunkirk and Beyond
4. Le Vigeant
5. Another Cattle Train
6. Boulogne
7. Saint-Cyprien
Part II
8. The Larousse
9. “There’s a Letter from Papa”
10. Les Martys
11. Cavallo’s Bus
12. Brussels Encore
13. The Paper Chase in Marseilles
14. Across the Spanish Earth
15. Lisbon
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