State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
When Juliane Heyman and her parents and brother walked up into the Pyrenees Mountains one night, the object was not a moonlit picnic in the foothills. The Pyrenees range (as the geographically inclined will recall) forms the natural border that separates Spain from France, and thus from the rest of continental Europe; and in November of 1941, continental Europe was just approaching full boil. Juliane’s family had, through several desperate relocations, crossed 1500 miles of denuded European countryside since fleeing their hometown, the Free City of Danzig on the Baltic coast.
Poland, Switzerland, Belgium, France – the family’s flight kept it scarcely a step ahead of a Nazi war machine that daily expanded the frontiers of the Third Reich, a lacerating tempest of metal and blood, anti-Semitism spreading like a virulent plague spore. Now from temporary lodgings in unoccupied Vichy France, which they’d managed to enter with painstakingly forged papers, 17 year-old Juliane and her family stared up at the Pyrenees range.
Was all this really happening? Lengthening shadows pooled in the mountain’s valleys as the sun edged lower and evening approached. A driver they’d hired at some risk in Marseilles would take them to the foot of the Pyrenees. 1941. It was a date that would, one month later, ring with infamy.
The Roots of Mercy
History is a tapestry whose densely woven threads are the lives of the uncounted and unsung individuals who comprise it, and some of these vividly colored threads weave right through the middle of history’s most chaotic change events and emerge with a particular tensile strength. President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order 10924 established the Peace Corps, in 1961. Shortly thereafter, a woman named Juliane had a chance meeting with the founding Director of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver. She was working in a city in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) on an assignment to establish a library there.
The once frightened and bewildered schoolgirl from Danzig was now an unstoppably determined young woman traveling alone, and doing whatever she could to see that the misery and stupidity of war she’d witnessed with the terrified, unfiltered eyes of a child, would be banished from the world.
Juliane would be among the Peace Corps’ founding staff, signing on as the first female Training Officer of that storied organization, and would otherwise give her life over to embracing and lifting the dispossessed. Some would suggest that, as a child, Juliane had simply been born in the wrong place, and at the wrong time – a victim of history’s bloody caprice. It’s a common lament. But are we history’s pawns or its masters? There was a cataclysm of fire and blood that engulfed the world, yes. But there was something else; its ringing opposite, ushered in by a generation of young people who’d seen the ruin brought on by inaction and ignorance. First there would be a killing, transfiguring storm, though. Its approach began as a whisper in the ear of a little girl on a playground.
The End of Childhood
“It was very sudden. I was perfectly happy in grammar school,” Juliane says. We’re speaking in her apartment, walls and bookshelves festooned with the mementos of a life lived abroad in the service of others. The storm that would define Juliane and provide her a lifelong compass first announced itself as an uneasy breeze.
She was eight years old living with her family in the Free City of Danzig (today’s Gdansk), at that time a “semi-autonomous city-state”, a former Prussian metropolis that had been given special consideration after WWI. Belonging to neither Poland nor Germany, the Free City status of Danzig was one of many humiliating terms of the treaty that ended the First World War, and particularly rankled the new German Chancellor, Adolph Hitler. In 1933, the year Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the Nazi party gained electoral control of the city government in Danzig, and very shortly thereafter a chill was in the air. “Within several weeks of the change I was told that I could stay in school, but could not play with any other children. My very close friend used to come over to my house and we would sit in the garden and talk, but then she was told she couldn’t come to my house any more.”
A Last Recital
Life in Danzig began to change perceptibly, particularly for the city’s Jewish citizens. One day Juliane’s father and mother, who together ran a successful grain export business in the city, received a visit from the local Nazi party. The “inspectors” traipsed into the company offices and turned the place upside down, looking for any pretext to haul Juliane’s parents away and to close down the business. They found nothing amiss, and in their frustration took Juliane’s parents away to the city jail anyway.
“For three days they were in that jail. For no reason but that they were Jewish,” Juliane says today. When Juliane’s parents were released from jail, they went back to their home and to their business and by all appearances carried on as before. They knew, though, that they couldn’t stay in Danzig. They began methodically planning a hurried but orderly departure. Soon that sense of order, and much else, was taken from them. Juliane’s voice catches here.
“There was soon a rumor that the Nazis were going to come again to visit my parents at their business. And so then we just…we just left in the middle of the night.” Coincidentally, Juliane had a violin recital that night, and her parents told her she mustn’t let on, by her appearance or demeanor, that she and her family would be leaving thereafter. “I’d never played the violin so badly as I did that night” she says with a weak smile. Her smile quickly fades. “And I never picked up a violin again.”
With the help of friends, the family were spirited out of Danzig and driven over the border into Poland proper, and the nearby coastal city of Gdynia. A year before, Juliane’s older brother had been sent to school in England to be educated in a place free of the increasingly routine anti-semitism that was plaguing Europe, and he would rejoin the family at this time. He would not return to England, as it was now widely rumored the Germans would attempt to occupy the island nation. In the weeks before the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of unbridled war, Juliane’s parents sent her off to a boarding school in Switzerland, the 13 year-old traveling alone by train across Poland and Germany.
“My parents could not leave Gdynia, and I was anyway quite self-sufficient at that point. The Germans stopped me at the border and made me go into a little room, and a Nazi woman searched me. I was frightened, but what choice was there?” She immersed herself in the study of French at the Swiss boarding school while her parents worked to establish a semblance of a new home in Belgium. When Juliane returned, it was to an apartment there, in Brussels. Then on May 10, history again caught up with Juliane’s family. As she tells the story now, recumbent in a cream-colored easy chair, I’m briefly struck at how crazily varied and fraught a single human life can be. To say the very least.
Morning Bombursts from the Balcony
“I’ll never forget that day. At around five in the morning there was a sound of distant bombardment and shooting. At first we thought they were doing practice maneuvers.” The family ran out to the balcony to see what the noise was, and Juliane saw that all the balconies around her were likewise occupied with families in their nightclothes and pajamas, blinking in the early morning air and looking worriedly at each other with ashen expressions. “It was so traumatic because no one expected it at all. And it was later that morning that the Belgian government admitted that the country had been invaded. We fled again.” They just managed to get aboard a jam-packed train headed for the Belgian coast. “Ten hours and no sitting down,” Juliane says. “And it wasn’t just Jews on that train, it was all the Belgians. Nobody wanted to get caught by the Germans. People were scared. They remembered 20 years before. The First World War.”
“I’ll never forget. The Stukas, they come like that,” and she makes a swooping gesture with her hand to indicate the diving of the German single-engine precision bombers.
The train reached Ostend, on the Belgian channel coast, and disgorged its cramped and exhausted passengers in their hundreds. It was there that Juliane’s family finally capitulated to the inevitable, wearily falling in with thousands of the dispossessed on foot, a bewildered, slow-moving river of humanity pouring southward through open country with only one goal – to keep moving. The impeccably equipped and trained German Army seemed to be in hot pursuit from every direction, unstoppable, spreading like a mechanized stain. People left everything and fled before the onslaught. Juliane’s family and many others made for the French border, about 30 miles away from Ostend. As they crossed open country, the slow-moving stream of humanity was an open target for a military machine that saw no dishonor in murdering civilians.
Flight Across No-Man’s Land
“I’ll never forget, the Stukas, they come like that,” and she makes a swooping gesture with her hand to indicate the diving of the German single-engine precision bombers. “They just bombarded all the refugees!” she says, still in wonderment. “This is something I never forget. I threw myself into a ditch during such an attack, and the man next to me had just lost his leg. It was…it was clear that it was all finished.” And so between unheralded and terrifying attacks from the air and the harassment of German detachments, they continued south. The goal was Paris. One day a German Panzer tank appeared and moved past them. “The tanks were so washed, so clean,” Juliane says. “And the soldiers, so disciplined, their uniforms unmarked. And they were marching and marching. To compare them to the European soldiers, who were running and taking off their dirty uniforms…I really felt the war was over then, just looking at those soldiers and tanks.”
Once walking through a village, Juliane and her brother were stopped by German soldiers, who leveled their guns at the two. “Juden?” Her brother began speaking rapid French to Juliane, who quickly took up the scheme, pretending they were both French and couldn’t understand the increasingly agitated soldiers. Or as Juliane says very plainly now, “If they found out that you were a Jew, the Nazis would simply shoot you down in the street. As a child, you didn’t understand, there was no depth of understanding. You only knew they were against you.”
Finally, to buy time, Juliane’s brother gestured as if to say to the German soldiers ‘Just write down what you want’, and, palms out to show he was not reaching for a weapon, gingerly offered the angry Germans a slip of paper to write on. He produced it from his shirt pocket. “My brother was 17 and had been in a book club in England, and he had some kind of letter from that book club, and that was the paper he began to hand to them! And, oh my God, I saw this letter in English! English! To be English at that time was almost as bad as being Jewish, because the Germans wanted to take England. But another soldier arrived at that instant and said “Oh leave them alone, they are French.”
On June 22, 1940, after heavy losses in battle, France submitted to Germany, asking to sign an armistice. At Hitler’s insistence this armistice was signed in the Compiègne forest, and in the so-called Compiègne Wagon— the same rail car in the same wooded area where Germany had been made to sign the debilitating instrument of their surrender that ended World War I — the Treaty of Versailles. This new armistice partitioned France into, essentially, a Nazi occupied north and a “Free” Nazi puppet south that would become known as Vichy France; named after the town that housed the Nazi-supported French state there. Unoccupied Vichy France became the new goal then for Juliane’s family. They continued south, for a time (by agreement with a village mayor) working an abandoned French farm for the absentee French family who had fled, and later sheltering and taking work at a French winery for many months. The winery’s brawny foreperson, a Nazi informer, had heard Juliane’s brother listening to BBC radio in the night, and dutifully reported the family to the Vichy French police. The family braced for arrest and the inevitable deportation, but nothing came of it. Years later Juliane learned why. “Those Vichy police were actually in the French Resistance,” she laughs.
The family finally made it to the French capital, and through the shadow system that then existed in occupied Paris managed to secure precious, expertly forged papers allowing them passage to unoccupied (Vichy) France. And it was from there the family made their treacherous night journey over the Pyrenees Mountains, in utter darkness and silence. Alighting in a small village on the Spanish side, the nearly beaten family was welcomed with caring and open arms by a rural community that had grown accustomed to bands of ragged and exhausted refugees coming down from out of the darkened mountains.
The family was given food and a room, and they traveled from there by train to Lisbon, Portugal, where they managed to board the SS Excalibur, one of the last ships to leave the embattled European continent before the attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the War. Juliane remembers the Excalibur stopping twice in the transatlantic journey to pick up survivors in the open Atlantic whose ships had been sunk by German U-boats.
The Lady in the Harbor
The sea voyage to New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty’s dramatically hoisted beacon of freedom took 12 days, and during that time Juliane did what she could to learn English from some American boys on the ship. “It’s a cliché, but that statue is the symbol of our salvation.” Her parents settled in Manhattan, where her father had family. Juliane had effectively been out of school for two years and was sent to a private tutoring school to immerse herself in English language studies and American history and culture.
“It was only later that we found out. It wasn’t until after, in 1942 or ‘43, when we didn’t hear from our relatives, that we learned they had died in the camps.” Juliane would take a degree from Barnard College in New York, and two graduate degrees from Berkeley; International Relations and Library Science.
Following an internship with the Library of Congress she applied for a job with the United Nations, whose hiring quotas hoped to build a diverse, post-war workforce in the U.N. But Juliane’s somewhat unrecognizable Free City of Danzig passport worked against her, and she didn’t get the job. “They had no quota rules for Danzig!” she says, smiling. She was already forming a loosely defined but ironclad desire to go back out into the wounded world and bring back to it what she could.
Juliane and a fellow UC Berkeley grad took jobs as civilian librarians on an Air Force Base in Japan, agreeing to save their earnings for a year and then travel around the world together. When the appointed date came, though, her friend opted out, and Juliane went on alone, traveling by freighter to India, where she worked for a time for the U.S. Information Service (USIS), and lived among the Indian people, unlike her more handsomely paid State Dept. counterparts there, and Juliane was in turn adopted by the Indian friends she made. The country still occupies a place in her heart.
Restless Globehopping and a Chance Meeting with History
From India she travelled to Afghanistan, Turkey, Yugoslavia, drinking in the colors, scents, textures – the panoply of humanity in the places she visited. She returned briefly to the States to see her parents, then, pining for Asia, took a Norwegian freighter from San Francisco to Vietnam, working from 1957-59, one year for the Asia Foundation as library advisor to a new university being established in the ancient South Vietnamese city of Hue, and the second year in the same role for Michigan State University, which also had a development program in the city. She saw the coming denouement of the French presence in Vietnam. Her next assignment would formalize her international mission of mercy.
While working as a consultant in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) Juliane crossed paths with the charismatic Director of the newly launched Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver. He just happened to be visiting the town of Comilla, where under a pioneering administrator named Akhtar Hameed Khan, a new model of rural development was being tried. Shriver very warmly and keenly received Juliane’s ad hoc reporting of how the program was playing out, and his assistant spoke to her further when Shriver departed.
On returning to the States, she was summoned to Washington D.C. and asked to throw her lot in with the Peace Corps, and she jumped in with both feet. She served from 1961 – 1966 as a Training Officer with the storied program, and was later appointed deputy director of training and university relations for NANESA (North Africa, Near East, South Asia), thereafter consulting abroad in her expertise of Library Science in places like El Salvador and Mauritania.
Juliane has recorded her story for Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. At this writing she is working closely with noted filmmaker Alana deJoseph to produce a comprehensive film of the Peace Corps story, a project to which PBS has committed broadcast time. Ms. Heyman’s experiences are also represented in the Jewish Federation’s permanent exhibit “Portraits of Survival” at the Federation’s downtown location – 524 Chapala Street in SB.
The kid whose whole world had been a panicked sprint through a bombed-out and often nameless countryside, became the young woman who hopped freighters to parts unknown and threw herself at the mission of sowing an ordinary peace. She has been monogamous to the mission.
“I had a friend, an Indian doctor who wanted to marry me at one point. And I thought I would take a freighter back to Asia from San Francisco and visit him and think about it. I had no job but thought I could make contacts once there. Well, freighters make many stops along the way, and the ship put in at Ho Chi Minh City on the way (formerly Saigon), and I went ashore and a man from the Asia Foundation offices said ‘we’re setting up a new university in Hue. Could you go up there and see about establishing a library?’ I’m afraid I forgot about my Indian friend. I spent two years there!”
The writer would like to thank Shari Pulcrano Childs for her invaluable help in collecting materials for this story.