When Europe Was a Prison Camp

When Europe Was a Prison Camp

Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-1941
Schrag, Otto; Schrag, Peter
Distribution: Antigua and Barbuda Barbados Bahamas Belize Canada Costa Rica Cuba Dominica Dominican Republic Grena
Publication date: 08/03/2015
Format: Hardback 25 b&w illus., 1 map
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.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.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.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.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.

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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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