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“Nobody might believe me” - The Story of a St. Maartener caught in the Holocaust

1_-_cBy Lisa Davis-Burnett

History can sometimes feel distant and disconnected from the here and now. Of course, in truth, nothing could be more wrong. History is how we find ourselves in the here and now. Any community, no matter how remote, can contribute threads that are ultimately woven into the fabric of major world events. Even our little island, we discovered this week, is tied to the most profound history of the last century: the Holocaust of World War II.

WEEKender had the opportunity last Saturday to speak one-on-one with Mary Romney-Schaab, daughter of St. Maarten native Lionel Romney (1912-2004) who was that unlikely person. His story was little known until recently, as this survivor of the concentration camp Mauthausen had kept silent on his experiences for over 40 years.

Mary told me: “My parents were very old when I was born, so they already had a lot of history behind them by the time I came along. And my mother talked a lot about her family; I never had to ask her. She was from St. Maarten and her parents were born in the 19th century. She was always talking about their stories and her own recollections of the island.”

Mary, born in theUnited States, shared that, while both her parents are from St. Maarten, they had met inNew Yorkafter the war and made their life together there. “But my father never talked about his family or his history and I was so curious; so I asked him, and he would talk about his childhood a little bit and then he would talk about his life in theUnited States. But as I got older, I realized that there was a gap, and eventually, I realized that the gap was World War II. So I asked him, ‘Where were you during the war?’ And he would never answer me. So I asked my mother and eventually she told me, ‘He doesn’t want to tell you, but he was in a concentration camp.’ When she said that, I was in shock! And she said, ‘He doesn’t want anyone to know; he doesn’t want to talk about it because he suffered; and you must never tell him that you know.’ At that time in my life, I didn’t know much about the Holocaust and World War II. So for the next 20 years, I tried to pressure him to tell me and trick him into telling me about it and he never would.”

Like many survivors of traumatic events, Lionel could not or would not allow himself to relive it. Mary became a professor with multiple degrees and one day decided to do an oral history project on her parents. “I started the oral history project because I wanted to preserve a lot of what my mother had said, but I also wanted to access some of what my father remembered. But I was doubtful because he just didn’t open up as much.” It was 1989, the video camera was running, and she sat down next to her father and broached the subject. “It all came out then,” she said, remembering with emotion. That video was shown to the attendees of the presentation at the library last Saturday night. This is Lionel’s story, as told by his daughter, Mary.

LIONEL GREW UP here and some of his relatives are here still, siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews. He knew Emilio Wilson and others of that generation. When he migrated to Curaçao, Aruba andVenezuela to work in the refineries, he was still quite a young man. By his mid-twenties he began to work as a Merchant Marine, sending money back home all the while. “My father was from St. Maarten, his parents and all of his grandparents were all from St. Maarten, he was from the Dutch side. His mother was from the French side and his father was from the Dutch side,” Mary explained. “He probably entered the Merchant Marines because it was a good financial opportunity, and he had an uncle that had done similar work.”

In June of 1940, he was boarding a Greek ship loaded with coal inCardiff,Wales. Lionel was 28 at the time, and the decision to sign on to this particular ship turned out to be pivotal – it put him on a path to near destruction. The merchant sailors were careful in those war torn years (1939-1945) to avoid getting in the middle of the conflicts at sea. So when the chance to board a ship headed forArgentinacame along, they were happy to sail far away from European waters. But the captain and/or ship owners deceived the crew and instead of heading to South America, they sailed right into theMediterranean Sea.Greece, it seems, notArgentina, was the destination for their cargo.

LIONEL’S SHIP hit a mine and sank on June 17, 1940, betweenSicily andTunisia. The crew was rescued by the Italian Navy and taken prisoner. The Italian Prisoner of War (P.O.W.) camps were humane, and the prisoners there were relatively well-treated. Through 1940 until 1944, Lionel was held in various Italian P.O.W. camps, but as the allied front advanced northward throughItaly, the Germans and the Italians were in retreat. That is when the Germans came and took the prisoners to relocate them so they wouldn’t be freed and perhaps join the Allied Forces. Lionel and the others were loaded into trains bound for concentration camps. He knew this was bad and said, “We goin’ to hell, now.”

ThecampLionelwas deported to was called Mauthausen, and it was located inAustria. “The Nazi regime ran many different kinds of concentration camps,” Mary explained, there were labour camps, death camps, prison camps, but Mauthausen was the only camp that was officially designated as a “Death through Work” camp.” In other words, it was the only one that was designed to work the prisoners to death. The work they were to do was mining a quarry, cutting and carrying large blocks of granite. The able-bodied were forced to carry stone blocks each weighing 50 kilos (110 pounds) on their backs, up a stairway of 186 steps. “This was known as the Stairway of Death and is rather famous in Holocaust history,” she informed me. “Many people died there, or simply through torture or starvation. Records show that between 100,000 and 195,000 people were put to death at Mauthausen through such cruel labour along with malnourishment.” Others perhaps were too weak to work and were exterminated upon arrival. Those records are not as clear.

WHY DID THE NAZIS need the Mauthausen stone? Ironically, it comes down to geography and vanity – Hitler’s vanity.Mauthausen,Austria, sits on top of a deposit of very beautiful, light-coloured granite, and Hitler was born in the nearby city ofLinz. He wanted to create, at his birthplace, a new capital ofEurope – a beautiful city of granite in his own honour after, of course, he conquered the entire continent. In Hitler’s mind,Linz was destined to become a monument to himself as the emperor ofEurope, if not the world. Towards this end, Lionel and the other prisoners were forced to work until they died. If they needed added motivation, the captives were forced over the edge of the cliff above the quarry – falling 50 metres to their deaths. Sometimes they jumped of their own accord, unable to carry on. Other times the prison guards coerced them to push each other over the edge. This was known as “parachute jumping” in the Nazi literature; it was a tactic they used to demoralize the prisoners.

Today the camp has been transformed into a museum, and a huge monument stands at the top of that cliff and other monuments are located around the entrance to the camp. Each monument remembers a different nationality or culture that was diminished at the Death-through-Labour camp.

Lionel Romney was at Mauthausen Concentration Camp from June 1944 until May 1945 when the camp was liberated by Americans troops. How did he manage to survive those eleven months when so many others did not? That is an open question, but certainly many factors came into play. “He had a lot of languages, and he was a very fast learner. He may have been allowed to survive because he could communicate between the Germans and the other prisoners. English was his first language and of course he had Dutch and Papiamentu. He could understand German and learned to speak it because those languages are so similar, but he also had Spanish, and so inItaly, he could follow that because it’s all so similar. Also he was tall and thin, but strong and used to physical work; so he was very able-bodied.” He was assigned to work, not in the quarry itself, but as a lumberjack, and that was a bit of luck, but it might also have been due to his language skills. While he was cold working in the forest, he wasn’t pushed beyond his limits.

THERE IS ALSO a mention in a report that Romney may have received extra food as a lumberjack. This information comes from an American Navy pilot who had been shot down over Austria and interned at Mauthausen, Lt. Jack Taylor. His 30-page testimony is very well known in WWII history, and it’s from that testimony that Lionel Romney’s presence at Mauthausen is documented, although, through Taylor, quite some misinformation about him was entrenched into the record. Taylor recalled meeting Romney, but referred to him as an American, although of course at that time he was Dutch. He also reported that no one knew what became of Romney, which in those days was almost a code phrase for “he probably died.” This same information has been repeated in books and on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website. In the book Hitler’s Black Victims, by Dr. Clarence Lusane (available at the Philipsburg library) there is about a half paragraph about Lionel Romney which ends with: “It is unknown whether Romney survived.”

Romney didn’t die, though; he lived and was liberated in 1945. He went to theNetherlandsand then emigrated to theU.S.He had an aunt inNew Yorkthat helped him get back on his feet and he stayed there for the rest of his life. He met and married Mary’s mother and, in the 80s, he was naturalized, becoming aU.S.citizen. He worked for decades as a maintenance worker for a building in the garment district of New York City. He worked there with a gentleman that had been in Auschwitz Concentration Camp, and perhaps there were some conversations there – but the details of that we’ll never know.

MARY WAS ABLE to contact Lusane, author of Hitler’s Black Victims, and he was grateful for the information that Romney had survived. She also was able to access records through the Austrian Ministry of the Interior that list her father as a prisoner at Mauthausen. She has acquired two different copies of handwritten legers that listed prisoners, and on both of these, she found her father’s name. Another registry of his internment is typed. On all of them, his number is given: 76,548. A number he remembered even decades later.

“He was severely traumatized,” Mary shared, “by watching people being killed every day, and knowing he could be the next victim. So he reacted the way most people on whom severe trauma has been inflicted do, and that is with silence. He was virtually silent for over 40 years.”

Mary encourages everyone to do an oral history project with the older members of their family. “Everyone has knowledge that is unique. Fifty years from now, young people will ask us what it was like to live through the events of September 11 or what it was like when Barack Obama was elected President. These events changed the course of history and we have lived through them, so our experience is valuable in similar ways. Start with the oldest people because they are the most vulnerable. Their memories may fade, or their health may deteriorate very suddenly. But everyone has witnessed very important events in history and has experienced them in very personal ways that other people can learn from. To me, St. Maarten’s connection to World War II and the Holocaust go partly through my father.” Her research is continuing and she hopes to publish a book on the experience in the future.

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