Kurt and FriendsIMERETHIE II

It was 8:30 a.m. when Kurt sat down next to Hugo and read each painted letter on the hull of the “I-M-E-R-E-T-H-I-E.” Kurt walked to the posted notice. “Hugo---the ship’s not leaving until late afternoon.” Hugo grunted an indiscernible acknowledgement, while Kurt grabbed at the bars of the locked gate that led to the 3,713 ton French ship. Kurt refused to look at Hugo. His red eye stare at the cargo ship’s double masts, single black funnel, and white hull confirmed the reality that like Hugo, he too was thinking of his family.

Built in 1924 by Marseille Campagnie de Navigation Parquet, it became the first company to schedule service between Marseille and its important North African neighbor to the south, Morocco. The company’s growth allowed it to open a chain of hotels in Morocco, and purchase other cargo ships in order to import Moroccan fruits and vegetables to France. But more importantly for the children, the company’s long standing business connections between Marseille and Morocco, a French protectorate since 1912 would hopefully draw no special interest from either the Vichy or Nazis.

“Good morning boys and girls,” began the invitation to join the escort. “My name is Frederick Alberti and this is Paula Pfeifer and Mauritas Kahn. We would very much like to join you on your trip to America.” He reached for his son, whose repeated spinning and falling to the ground brought a needed round of laughter from the children. “This little one is my boy, Jean. Some of you have already met my wife, Illse.” He put his arm around his wife. “I expect my wife is going to be busy with my son; but if you have any concerns or questions we are all here to help you.” He clapped his hands together in front of the disheartened children. “Good then. It’s time to go to America.” When Kurt took his first steps towards the opening gate, a cautious collective breath was taken by many people in Europe and America who had taken on the final complicated process of obtaining for Kurt on June 10, 1942, Sauf-Conduit No. 3761 and on June 16, 1942, Immigration visa No. 1892.
Hours after the children followed the instructions to go to the lowest deck on the IMERETHIE II, they heard short bursts from the ship’s horn. At the same time, Kurt felt an almost imperceptible swing as he lay in his hammock. No words were said before Hugo, Richard and Ernst rushed past Kurt on their way to a metal ladder. “It’s moving, it’s moving,” shrieked Rolf, as he watched the sprinting boys run down the hallway for one last chance to see their parents. They strained to push open the heavy metal door. “This way!” yelled Kurt to the others who frantically following him up the ladder. The ship’s horn sounded again as Kurt, the Weilheimers and Hugo made their way onto the deck where the brilliant sun light temporarily blinded them. Kurt cupped his hands around his eyes. He made his way to the railing where he joined the others and screamed “Opa, Mutti is that you?” to the tiny faceless figures waving in the distance.

While a tug boat slowly pushed the IMERETHIE II past the pedestrian bridge and out of the harbor, the weeping parents of the brothers and sisters of Aspet stood at the dock waving good-bye. Hours later the parents wrote to their children.

“Hotel de Levant
Marseille, June 25, 1942

My Dear Hugo,
It is 9:00 o’clock in the evening. We just finished our dinner and we were talking about last evening which was one of the most beautiful ones in my life….The great love and kindness which the Quakers and OSE have rendered to you and us, we will never forget and we will be grateful to them forever. I don’t want to miss mentioning the excellent and plentiful dinner. For the first time since my internment on Oct. 25, 1940, was my hunger completely satisfied. This morning we tried one more time to see you on board, but it was in vain. Now we know that you departed at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and will arrive safely with God’s help. When you sail into Casablanca this letter will be waiting for you and we hope it will make you glad…. On Sunday… we have to return to Gurs…. Be well and stay as you are, only learn to speak up a little louder….Many cordial greetings and kisses,
Your Loving Papale.
The dear Papale has already written everything. Be as diligent and as good as ever and be reminded that your mother told you that you can accomplish anything, just be courageous and not bashful. Write to us often and do not forget us.
Cordial greetings and kisses,
Your loving Muttel”

“Friday, June 26, 1942
My Cherished Children!

I went in the afternoon to the jetty on the harbor and saw the Imerethie II anchored there. But I could only come to the gate, some 200 meters away from the ship….At 4:00 o’clock, I saw the gang plank retracted and anchor pulled, and shortly after, your ship was towed out by a small tugboat.…soon the boat was out of sight.…So my dear, good children, I again wish you all the best and above all, good health. Travel with God. May he protect you and keep you well. May he provide you with a joyous future filled with good luck and may he allow you to grow into healthy, Jewish youngsters who can stand tall among men in this difficult world. …I pray to God daily for you and your voyage which will hopefully be good. Take care of yourselves, especially in the heat, and you, my dear Richard, always look after dear Ernst. All will become right with God’s help. You don’t have to be so serious, my dear Richard….…Now my beloved boys, stay well, and write to me as often as it is my greatest joy and only wish to hear from you soon again.
Regards and kisses, your loving Papi.
My address in Gurs remains the same as before. Good Shabbos!
And at the same time
A good Week
I will continue to collect stamps for you.”

Five days before these letters were written Adolf Eichmann issued the Nazi’s Final Order for the destruction of the Jews. On Thursday morning, August 6, 1942, Oskar and Selma Schiller were 2 of 1,000 prisoners transferred via train transport number 17 from Camp de Gurs to Drancy, a city just outside of Paris. Oskar and Selma Schiller were part of the first convoy of Jews from the unoccupied French zone who had been handed over by the Vichy authorities to the Nazis. On August 10, 1942 at 8:55 a.m. the parents of Hugo, Oskar and Selma Schiller were transferred from Drancy to Auschwitz, Poland where they were murdered by the Nazis.

On Tuesday morning, February 26, 1943, the father of Richard and Ernst, Max Weilheimer was transferred from Camp de Gurs, to Drancy. On March 4, 1943 Oskar Schiller and 1,002 other Jews were transferred from Drancy via train transport number 50. The records remain unclear as to whether he ultimately arrived in Maidenak, Sobibor or Auschwitz. In March of 1943 Max Weilheimer was murdered by the Nazis.

Kurt Walker was the only child who did not receive a letter.

On August 22, 1944, three days before the liberation of Paris and 10 days after “Operation Dragoon,” the allied invasion into southern France, the IMERETHIE II was scuttled and sunk by the retreating Nazis in the harbor at Marseille.