By Susan Samardjian
Content Warning: Genocide
Sonia Caplan, Passport to Reprieve. Canada: Azrieli Foundation, 2021. xi + 209 pp., with illustrations. ISBN: 9781989719169 (sc). Price: CAD$14.95.
“The complexity of our lot struck me so forcefully that I was staggered again and heard myself exclaiming, ‘If I live to tell the story, nobody will believe it.’”1
Sonia Caplan’s Passport to Reprieve is a timeless piece with its chilling and candid account of survival in the Polish ghettos. Her work demonstrates the disastrous living conditions for Jewish civilians in German-occupied zones during the Second World War. In particular, Caplan’s experience as a Jewish woman attempting to flee from occupied Poland and later from the ghetto in Tarnów effectively portrays the global movements of people in times of crisis. Passport to Reprieve is a first-hand account of how the German invasion of Europe catalyzed mass diasporic movements of Jewish civilians. Moreover, Caplan’s portrayal of the forced migration of Jewish civilians under German occupation introduces the notion that camaraderie is strongest among victims, regardless of nationality. Although many memoirs from Jewish, Roma or Communist survivors note the moral ambiguity of prisoners in concentration, death and labour camps, such as Primo Levi’s “Grey Zone,” Caplan’s experience illustrates the underlying message that camaraderie and perseverance in the face of brutality was the key to survival during German occupation.
With the aid of the Azrieli Foundation, a Canadian-Israeli organization dedicated to providing a platform for Jewish survivors, Caplan was able to share her story of how she used false identification to protect her family from systemic genocide. Passport to Reprieve begins with a talk of Zionism with her friends and the hope of one day “reclaiming” Palestine, as Caplan claimed to be a devoted Zionist in her youth and it shaped her outlook on life.2 She notes that Polish Jews felt vulnerable since the Anschluss3 and the invasion of the Sudetenland4 but did not believe that Hitler would risk invading the buffer state in order to get to the Soviet Union. Many Poles were so blindsided by the invasion that they viewed Caplan’s father as foolish when he liquidated his business and fled to Canada to prepare a home for his family. Caplan’s story quickly took off when the war began, and Tarnów became a “lawless” state occupied by the Germans.5
Through her wit and resourcefulness, Caplan frequently dodged the Gestapo, making illegal trips to the visa office by removing her armband and disguising herself as a German in Warsaw. When her father obtained Nicaraguan citizenship, Caplan forged Nicaraguan and Aryan paperwork for her family with the hope of repatriation.6 As the war waged between the Germans and Soviets, the SS placed Caplan’s family in the Tarnów ghetto, where the SS killed 12,000 Jews by 1941. In the chapter titled, “Silence in the Cellar,” she vividly describes the brutality of the ghettos, particularly the violence against children who could not partake in labour. Caplan recalls an incident where the guards heard a crying infant, who his mother was hiding, and she witnessed the Nazis throw the infant against the wall.7
Forced resettlement of Jews from villages and small cities in Warsaw District to the Warsaw Ghetto. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made. First published: T. Berenstein, A. Rutkowski, Pomoc Żydom w Polsce 1939-1945, Wydawnictwo Polonia, Warszawa 1963, photo between pages 16 and 17.
When the Nazis captured Caplan’s family and sent them to an internment camp in Liebenau, she regained contact with her father and discovered that he had become a Canadian citizen. Soon after, the Canadian government chose Caplan’s family out of the list of Canadian repatriates in exchange for German prisoners of war in 1943. Many of the Nazi guards softened their resolve towards interned Jews and tried to make a last-minute good impression on them in hopes that they would testify on their behalf in future war crimes trials. In Caplan’s experience, she noted a German soldier telling her family that he hoped they would one day be able to forgive them for their crimes. On the road to Geneva for the exchange, she was acquainted with and aided a nameless and “near lifeless” woman.8 The woman had survived Bergen-Belsen at the cost of her husband and child, appearing to be a shadow of a person, desensitized by her trauma.9 From Geneva, the Canadian government repatriated Caplan’s family to Montreal, where her father greeted and embraced them.
Global Movements Under German Occupation
The theme of migration and cross-border movements presents itself in many instances throughout Caplan’s work. When the German invasion began in 1939, Caplan highlights that the people of Tarnów fled to different countries, including Romania, Hungary, Palestine, Nicaragua, the US, and Canada. Before the SS blocked the exit visas for Jewish citizens in occupied zones, Jewish Poles abandoned all their belongings and began new lives elsewhere. In many cases, for the Eastern European nations, forced migration during the Second World War made civilians resent the fact that they were forced to leave their established lives in their home country.10 Caplan notes in the concluding paragraphs of her work how she reminisces about her old life as well as her friends whom she had not heard from since the SS sent her to the internment camp. This forced migration during wartime can impact how people integrate into their new country, as many struggle to let go of their homeland. Consequently, the loss of one’s homeland, as represented in Passport to Reprieve, shows how the global movements of people can impact identity.
The integration process can exacerbate the feeling of a loss of identity. Nevertheless, Caplan’s work portrays the crippled sense of identity after one’s homeland has been dramatically taken from them and destroyed. In the Afterword, Caplan’s daughter writes how her mother struggled to let go of the richness of her life when she lived in Tarnów. Displacement from the war drastically impacted Caplan’s identity, as even when she had adapted to life in Montreal, the fact that the war tore her from her homeland made her feel alienated for decades. It was common among many displaced people to revisit their homes after the war to find closure. However, oftentimes people did not wish to see their homes destroyed or feared to return because of the memory of the conditions from the war. Caplan, for instance, never went back to Poland or saw her family in Bialystok.
The children of Polish Jews on their arrival in London, 1939. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made. View license here.
Camaraderie Among Victims
Central to Caplan’s work is the idea of camaraderie and perseverance. She displays many relationships throughout Passport to Reprieve, such as with her family, neighbours, and the prisoners in the internment camp. Caplan maintains a very close relationship with her mother and sister throughout the work and strives to protect them from certain death. Despite dealing with floods of grief and sorrow, she maintains her resolve and continues to work to attain passports and visas by illegally travelling to Warsaw on many occasions. Most notably, Caplan holds a close relationship with her father even when they are on opposite ends of the Earth. Throughout her work, she highlights that she would have imaginary conversations with her father to ease her pain. Caplan’s relationship with her father is one of her work’s strongest forms of camaraderie. Caplan and her family similarly share a bond formed through suffering with their neighbours, whom they shared a house with when the invasion began, providing comfort and advice for each other on obtaining visas to flee Tarnów. Later in her memoir, when the SS send her family to the internment camp in Liebenau, Caplan is greeted by a British prisoner of war who gives her tips on how to survive in the camp.11 She develops strong relationships with other prisoners, and it makes her feel like a human being for the first time since the invasion.
In Caplan’s experience, the desire to be a witness through storytelling and advocacy was stronger than the feeling of despair, and what strengthened this perseverance was her support system. Passport to Reprieve reinforces the notion that camaraderie between victims can save people from being victims of depravity in times of crisis and mass brutality. Caplan and her family formed bonds in every situation they found themselves in, whether in the ghetto or the internment camp. Camaraderie allowed victims and survivors to lean on each other for support and gave them hope. The ability to lean on one another for support and guidance immensely impacted Caplan’s firm resolve throughout her journey, as it not only provided her with a foundation but also gave her a reason to continue fighting for her family’s freedom. Caplan’s experience solidifies the importance of maintaining humanity amid brutality and mass displacement through bonding with others.
1. Caplan, Passport to Reprieve, 174.
2. Caplan, Passport to Reprieve, 10.
3. In March 1938, the German Wehrmacht invaded Austria. This is commonly known as the Anschluss, or the “link up” with Nazi supporters in Vienna.
4. In March 1939, the German Wehrmacht invaded the Czech territory known as the Sudetenland. The Sudetenland held a sizeable German population, leading Hitler to claim that it belonged to the German Reich.
5. Caplan, Passport to Reprieve, 21.
6. The Nazi race-classification system used “Aryan” certificates and passports known as Ahnenpass to prove that one’s ancestry was of pure German blood. The Third Reich used Aryan paperwork to divide the “pure Germans” from those of Slavic or Jewish ancestry. Ilya Altman and Joshua Rubenstein, “The Destruction of the Jews in German-Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union,” in The Unknown Black Book, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008), 18.
7. Caplan, Passport to Reprieve, 114.
8. Caplan, Passport to Reprieve, 183.
9. Bergen-Belsen was one of the first concentration camps in northern Germany. Initially intended for prisoners of war, the camp also held Jews, Roma, Poles, and Communists. It was most notably referred to as “hell on earth.” Alice Lok Cahana, “Oral History Interview With Alice Lok Cahana,” interview by Linda Kuzmack, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1990, 27, https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn504445.
10. Anna Wylegala, “Resettlement and Identity,” in Displaced Memories: Remembering and Forgetting Post-War Poland and Ukraine, (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2019), 266.
11. Caplan, Passport to Reprieve, 154.
Altman, Ilya, and Joshua Rubenstein. “The Destruction of the Jews in German-Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union.” In The Unknown Black Book. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.
Cahana, Alice Lok. “Oral History Interview With Alice Lok Cahana.” Interview by Linda Kuzmack. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1990. https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn504445.
Wylegala, Anna. “Resettlement and Identity” In Displaced Memories: Remembering and Forgetting Post-War Poland and Ukraine. Berlin: Peter Lang, 2019.