Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 29, 2011

Through a child's eyes

Menlo Park man's story of being interned at age 10 is part of 'The Gurs Zyklus'

by Rebecca Wallace

The pencil drawings are straightforward and simple, done in the hand of a 10-year-old boy but with the surety of a boy who would become a mechanical engineer. They focus on buildings: a kitchen, a washroom, a small heating stove at the edge of a stark room.

"The only stove in the barracks for 80 people," Manfred Wildmann says.

Wildmann did these drawings in the 1940s, when he and his family were taken from their native Germany and interned in the Gurs concentration camp in southern France during World War II.

One drawing shows the camp buildings as small, with the peaks of the Pyrenees in the background. "I was imagining what the camp would look like from far away," Wildmann says.

Images of the drawings will be seen in Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium on May 14, used as part of the artist Trimpin's multimedia work "The Gurs Zyklus," about the Gurs camp. Wildmann had spoken before about the war, but when he learned last year that Trimpin was doing a project about Gurs, he was struck by the coincidence and shared his story again with the artist.

"He's describing the train ride from Germany to Gurs, and I was on that train," he says. "There are not too many of us who can tell about that train ride."

Wildmann says he definitely plans to attend Trimpin's premiere. "He's a very interesting fellow."

Wildmann is speaking from his sunny, comfortable home in Menlo Park, the city where he and his wife, Sylvia, have lived since 1962. Polite and reserved, he tells his story matter-of-factly, with a methodical attention to detail.

In 1940, Wildmann was 10, growing up in southwestern Germany. That was until the morning in October when he and his family, along with all the other Jews in that area of Germany, were deported, he says. They could tell only that they were heading south, he says. They didn't know about the camps.

In some ways, the family was fortunate at first. They were on regular trains, not cattle cars, and Gurs "was not an extermination camp," Wildmann says. The French guards mainly left the prisoners alone to live their lives inside. Wildmann even went to school in camp, with his mother among the teachers.

Still, conditions were rough. "You had 80 people sleeping in one barracks," with beds packed next to each other, or people on mattresses or straw bags on the floor, Wildmann recalls. The food was bad; there were lice and rats; and people young and old died of dysentery.

"My grandmother died seven weeks after we got there," Wildmann says. "She wasn't that old — she was 70, which is 10 years less than I am." He smiles quietly.

Further deportations began in August 1942, Wildmann recalls. "Everyone who was still in the camp was sent to Drancy (a French transit camp) or Auschwitz. Luckily, most young people had left." He and his sister wound up in a children's home run by the Swiss Red Cross.

Wildmann's parents, however, perished in Auschwitz, and he also lost a brother.

After the war, Wildmann and his two sisters were sponsored by distant relatives in America and crossed the Atlantic. Wildmann met his wife, also a German survivor, went to college and settled in California.

Today, Wildmann sometimes tells his story at schools and to small groups. When asked what he hopes people learn from his wartime experiences, Wildmann points out that his parents were Germans, his family had lived in Germany for generations, and his father had fought for Germany in World War I, and still they were deported, he says. "You never know what will happen."

Still, he has a few soft, powerful words to add: "One has to be lucky. One can always manage."

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