an underground railroad
Most Americans are familiar with the Underground Railroad that spirited slaves out of the South during the Civil War, but few people know of the underground channels that helped Jewish children escape the Nazis during World War II.
Alix Kowler was happily living in Vienna when in 1938 German troops marched into Austria and the country became a part of Hitler’s Third Reich. The persecution of Austria’s Jews began almost immediately and many Jews fled the country. Although Alix begged her parents to leave, they had no intention of doing so. Finally in 1940 she was allowed to join friends in Antwerp. At the age of fourteen Alix began a solo journey that would not end until her liberation in 1944.
When Alix first arrived in Antwerp she stayed with family friends, but she soon found permanent lodging in the Home General Bernheim, a way station for children escaping from Germany and Austria. When the Nazis invaded Belgium in May of 1940 the children were transported to southern France. Alix and the group lived for almost a year in an unfurnished barn near Toulouse until the Swiss Children’s Aid stepped in and moved the group to the abandoned Chateau de la Hille near the Spanish border. In August 1942 the French police raided the chateau. As one of the older children, Alix was sent to Le Vernet internment camp. She would have been sent to Auschwitz had the Swiss Children’s Aid not demanded immediate return of the children. The Vichy government released them but it was no longer safe for Alix to stay in France. Immediately plans were made to smuggle Alex and her friend Ruth into Switzerland or Spain.
At age sixteen the two girls left with a little food and 500 francs each. By foot and on trains they began a trek to reach Switzerland. Their journey took them to safe houses and convents. Ordinary French citizens and a succession of nuns working for the resistance hid the girls. Finally the girls reached Grenoble only to learn that it was impossible to enter Switzerland because the Nazis now controlled the borders. In Grenoble Alix received false French papers and found work as a maid. She remained in Grenoble for 18 months until France was liberated from the Nazis in August of 1944.