By Eugene L. Meyer
May 10, 1940 is a date “graven in my memory forever,” 90-year old Monica Ullman Friedman says. That was the day the Germans bombed the airport in the port city of Antwerp, Belgium, where she lived with her family. Six weeks later, on June 21, she would be evacuated in a small fishing boat from the French coastal town of Saint-Malo. It was the day before France officially surrendered to Germany, leaving Jewish refugees to uncertain fates, most likely to perish.
This wasn’t Dunkirk, further up the coast, where 338,000 mostly British soldiers were rescued by an armada of small private vessels from across the English Channel. But it was close enough for Friedman to say of the current Oscar-contending movie “Dunkirk” that “I don’t have to see it. I was there.” Her family's rescue was part of Churchill’s post-Dunkirk maritime mission known as Operation Aerial, to save 150,000 more soldiers and civilians from capture or death.
From their large rented house at 40 Rue du Vélodrome in Berchem, an Antwerp district, they could hear the bombs falling on the airfield of Belgium’s second-largest city, also a center for the diamond trade, in which her father Otto worked. Monica was the third of six children in an Orthodox Jewish family. In their religiously mixed neighborhood, they had a Hebrew tutor and attended public schools, opting for the French- over the Flemish-speaking wing. But the Ullman kids missed music classes on Saturdays because they observed Shabbat.
It was a Friday when the aerial attack began. “We heard a lot of noise. We thought it was exciting,” Monica says. But her father knew better. He insisted the family leave at once, overruling his English-born wife, Irene, who wanted to stay for Shabbat. After digging a hole in the garden to hide some silver items, they left — along with two grandparents, a nanny, a very pregnant aunt and cousins, 26 in all. By bicycle and taxi, they went to the seaside town of La Panne, near the French border. There they had Shabbat, eating whatever little dairy food they could find. Early Sunday morning, they walked to the border.
The French were allowing only Belgian citizens to cross. Their entourage included a Polish nanny. Hastily, Otto handed over a large stack of ID cards, which the soldiers didn’t bother to check, and they were all allowed through. On the road inside France, they joined other refugees on foot and had to lie down when German planes seeking to clear the route began strafing. Somehow, they got to Paris, where Otto had a cousin and where Monica’s aunt went to a hospital to give birth to a girl she named Francine, in honor of the country.
The Paris cousin had a Jewish friend who had abandoned his large summer home at Saint-Lunaire on the Brittany coast to flee to England. The house had large grounds, a big garden and barns that were formerly horse stables. Otto’s German-speaking Polish-born mother had to stay at an inland hotel “because the French were afraid she would signal the German U-boats with a flashlight.”
“Through most of this, I must say I had a very good time. Our parents must’ve been worried sick, but they managed not to show it that month,” Monica says. “Every night on the radio news, we heard, ‘Our French troops are retreating in good order.’”
Thinking they would be there for a while, her parents sent her sister to a local Catholic school. “She came home reciting all kinds of Catholic prayers.” For the rest, the older children tutored the younger ones. After a month, as the Germans were approaching, it was time to go. The nearest port town was Saint-Malo, the setting for the recent best-selling novel, “All the Light We Cannot See.” Her father had to rush to fetch his mother and another daughter, who, Monica says, was “off swimming and flirting. My father was livid, because every moment counted.”
At first, British officials would allow only Irene and the children on the boat, but Otto said, “As a British gentleman, would you allow your wife to go alone?” which won the day. They boarded a small English fishing boat in the afternoon. The Channel waters were calm but mined, and they saw a sunken fishing boat standing upright in the shallow water. They shared the boat with British soldiers, who gave them oranges and cigarettes, “though we were kids, which we later smoked in secret in England.” The captain gave over his cabin to her grandmothers.
After 10 hours, they landed in Weymouth, England. With her British mother and aunt, they went to stay with relatives in London. Her father had a cousin in Great Neck, N.Y. who sent the requisite affidavits for them to immigrate. After six weeks, they boarded a ship for North America. They landed in Quebec City, and from there took a train to New York City, where her father’s brother met them and helped them find an apartment in Riverdale, in the Bronx.
Almost immediately, her father went to work in Manhattan’s diamond district, resuming his career as a broker and meeting his brother for lunch every day at the famed Diamond Club. Monica and her siblings, who spoke English, resumed their education in September at P.S. 7. She went on to graduate from Brooklyn College as a sociology major and to earn a master’s degree in social work from Hunter College. She met her husband, Ezra, a Justice Department attorney for 30 years, when they were college students with summer jobs at a Catskill hotel. They married in 1950 in Israel, where one sister still lives, and have a son and a daughter.
Years later, Monica and Ezra went to see the house where she’d lived in Berchem. It had been subdivided into apartments. After they’d moved to Maryland, buying their Silver Spring home in 1973, she ran into a Jewish school friend from Belgium who had also escaped, but to Cuba, and then immigrated to the United States. “She told me about all my classmates who were rounded up and perished,” Monica says. “The Germans wanted to use them as prostitutes for the troops and they committed suicide.”
Monica made a career for herself as a clinical social worker and family therapist, and she also ran a nonprofit agency for home health aides. “My sister thought God helped us escape. I thought it was the family, so I became a family therapist,” she says.