MEMOIRS OF SHERESHEV
By MOISHE KANTOROWITZ
After spending the night in Linz, the only thing we were capable of thinking about the next morning was food. We go out in the street. There is some traffic. Now and then a truck or jeep passes by with a white star painted on its side. A couple of soldiers throw us their K-rations. We admire the packing and open it carefully. Realizing that it is food, we gulp it down quickly. This only makes us even more hungry. Some civilians are on the street, mostly women of middle age or older. We can see some old and older men, but no young men in sight. After wandering aimlessly for a few hours, we return to our new found home. We see an American truck parked nearby and a few soldiers are loading boards on it. We come over carefully and start helping them. When we have finished, they throw some K-rations our way and drive away.
Next morning they were back again and we earned our breakfast. We walk again the streets looking for our next meal. There are a lot of young people around, survivors like us, but the majority are Russians, not former inmates, but forced laborers. They were taken by the Germans from their homes to work as farm hands or as factory workers. They were not internees, but they were not permitted to go back home or to change their place of work. In return they received board and room and a minimal allowance for cigarettes and alike. Their pent up hatred of Germans manifested itself in those early days in an unbridled lawlessness. They gathered themselves in groups, breaking into German homes and helping themselves to whatever they wanted. Some of the German homes or apartments were abandoned. They must have belonged to prominent Nazis who grabbed their families and fled, leaving everything behind. After some Russians were through with one such home, they told us to go in and help ourselves. We run in and I remember seeing a basket with onions. I grabbed it. On top of the basket lay a pair of mans shoes which I threw away, not having the presence of mind to exchange them for the pair I had on from camp, with wooden soles. Going out I notice a brown envelope on the floor. I pick it up and look inside. It contains cancelled postal stamps which trigger my childhood hobby and I took it with me.
Onions do not make a meal and we continue our wandering around the streets. We passed by a large gate that seemed to lead into a subterranean passage. The gate is guarded by two American soldiers. We ask some locals passing by and are told that it is an entrance into a huge underground German supply depot and that the watch comes at six in the morning. We were there the next morning at five. The gate is open. Somebody beat us to it. We go in and look around. We do not believe our eyes. The warehouse takes up the entire block and is filled to overflow with all kinds of food, in boxes, crates, drums, sacks, huge glass jars and heavy laden shelves. The few that got in before us are in the same situation as we. They cannot decide what to take first. We finally make up our minds. Each takes something and we start going to the gate. Suddenly American soldiers appear at the entrance. We are trapped. Behind us we hear a voice: This way! We turn around. One of the early comers points in the opposite direction. We drop everything and run after him. Sure enough, on the other side of the warehouse is another open gate. We get there just in time to see a group of American soldiers getting ready to take up guard positions. We run by them and disperse. The soldiers are giving chase. I find myself running side by side with Leibel WASHKEVITZ (WASZKIEWICZ), the one that helped me up the hill from the rail way station to Mauthausen at the end of our infamous march. He is hanging on to a paper bag full of sugar cubes. The bag breaks and the cubes start pouring out. We run leaving a trail of sugar cubes behind us, thus making sure that the Americans do not lose us. Yet they soon give up the chase and we end up with some twenty kilo of sugar.
More and more American trucks keep coming for lumber. We began to know them and load their trucks. In return, they showered us with food, particularly K-rations and canned food. No more did we have to go looking for food. We could not resist eating. Not being accustomed to such rich food, we soon developed diarrhea. I recall making myself nightly promises to stop eating so much during the day, yet when day came and I saw so much food around, I could not resist it, paying for it by spending most of the night running to the toilet, which in our case, was the entire timber yard. In free hours, I used to walk around the neighborhood to look at the destruction brought about by the allied bombardment. Once we came upon what looked like a giant factory that was leveled to the ground. The space took up about 4-5 square kilometers. The extent of the destruction was such that it was impossible to tell where the buildings stood and where yards began. One could see rail car after rail car destroyed on the track with some of the rails twisted like wire around them, dozens of destroyed locomotives in different positions, some on top of the other. I have seen two locomotives as if sitting on their bottoms, the wheels of one entangled with those of the other as if in a final embrace. There were countless open cover freight cars with their contents of sand, cement, gravel and stones spilled around them due to the blown away sides or bottoms. One could get the impression that the Germans had hope of rebuilding that destruction.
There was not a living soul to ask what stood there before. It was only after we got off the place that we found a local to ask about it. The answer was,” It was Gerring Werke.” Yes, we had heard of the largest and well known tank factory in Germany that carried Herman Gerring’s name. We walk away feeling grateful to the allied airmen for doing such a thorough job. A couple of days later, we have a visit from three Germans. They are in their early-middle age. One of them says that he is a butcher and that he would like to butcher a horse in the empty part of our shed and in return we will be rewarded with a choice cut of horse meat. I recall that day not even a month ago when by chance I got a piece of horse knee in my soup in Gusin and the promise I made to myself. We agree. The next day the three of them appear with a horse in tow. They lead him into the empty part of the shed. I do not like to see it nor do I want to be around when they kill it and so I walk away. I must have taken a long walk for I remember being in the centre of town when I suddenly bump into “Harry.” Harry was half a dozen years older than I. A German Jew who was arrested during “Kristal Night” in 1938 and was taken to “Buchenwald”. He never saw freedom, but after going through a few other camps, was taken to Auschwitz in early 1944 and from there to Sosnowitz. Upon arrival by coincidence he was asked by our camp commandant what other camp he was in. Hearing that he was in Buchenwald in 1938 where our commandant was there an ordinary SS man at that time, the commandant made him immediately a capo.
As I mentioned many time before, not all capos were beasts. He was a decent fellow and conducted himself exemplary. We often used to conduct political discussions in the quiet. He never failed to defend his communistic leanings. Here he suddenly appears before me from nowhere. He looked well fed and well dressed for that time. We start talking and I see that he is even more committed to his cause than before. He asks me why I do not go back to my shtetl which is now the Soviet Union. I look at him as if he lost his mind. We part never to hear from each other again. When I return to our quarters, there is no sign of the three Germans or the horse. They have taken away the meat and the hide. The rest they buried and covered up not leaving a trace. As payment they left a chunk of meat from the neck, no knee. I really did not want the knee anyway. I did not have the strength to control my eating habit and suffered for it. While others kept putting on weight on their skeletons, I could not put on an extra kilo on my thirty seven kilo frame after liberation. From occasional meetings with survivors, we learnt that a small refugee camp for Polish Jews is being opened nearby. We did not lose much time and came to see it for ourselves. It was a small former labor camp, consisting of 3-4 huts. Each hut partitioned into 3-4 rooms. In each room some half a dozen cots with straw sacks. It had running water, and what is more important, it was already set up with a little office run by an elected committee from among survivors. They were registered with the local authorities and were receiving a daily allotment of food. We liked what we saw and we joined them. Gone were the American K-rations and the cans of bully beef on which I gorged myself during the day time and the cause of my being sick at night. Here I was back on a close to camp diet of coffee and bread for breakfast, a bowl of thick soup at noon and again coffee and bread at night. None of the above to excess. Within a week I was cured and slowly began to put on weight.
Not more than half a kilometer away were former German military barracks. Now Americans were quartered in them. Those were solid brick modern buildings that were connected by one central heating and water system that was located in a basement of one of the buildings. Exactly how, I do not remember, but the six of us had succeeded in getting the job of furnace attendants and stockers. We had to be at work five in the morning to make sure there was hot water by six when the soldiers started getting up. We worked two shifts until nine at night. Having permits we could come and go as we pleased. In return we used to line up with the soldiers at breakfast and lunch, never failing to impress them with our non satiatable appetite. And eat we did. The cooks used to give us all kinds of goodies like canned food which, either there was not enough to go around for all or, they were too lazy to open. There was a private shower for us in the basement and soldiers who did not want to wait in line upstairs, used to use ours. Many used to leave us presents, like cigarettes, chocolate, even sometimes their discarded clothes like pants and shirts. Working, we missed the meals in camp but we sure made up for it at the American kitchen. Some of the canned food we used to take to our room, where we kept it for an emergency.
There was another survivor camp a kilometer away, which housed former inmates and forced laborers from different countries. I was told that in that camp is also my friend Leibel BLISKOWSKY with whom I shared any extra food in Sosnowiec. We came together from Sosnowiec to Mauthausen and from there I was taken to Gusin leaving him behind. I had not seen him nor had I heard from him. I got to that refugee camp at sunset and began to look for him. In the light of the setting sun, somebody pointed out to me a small figure squatting by a small fire in an empty field. As I came closer, I noticed that he is tending the fire that was heating something in a small tin over it. He recognized me, extending his hand but keeping an eye on the tin can. I looked in it and saw the tin contained chicken feet. Without saying a word, I kicked the can with my foot and the can went flying spreading the chicken feet all over the place. He looked at me asking in an angry voice, “Why did you do it? It is my supper.” I answered; Come with me. I have something better than this. That very same evening, he came to our room where he had his first proper meal six weeks after liberation.
A couple of weeks later, we began to hear a rumor that our part of Linz will be handed over to the Soviets and that the dividing line is the river Danube. In order to get to the other side we had to go over the bridge which was guarded by American soldiers and one had to have a pass proving that he lives on the other side. If a foreigner, he would have to have a special permit from the American authorities. All of us in our small camp, without exception wanted to get to the other, American, side and began to make preparation for it. A few days later a jeep pulls in our refugee camp and four military men got out. We see they have the word “Palestine” sewn on their upper sleeves. They greet us with the word “Shalom” and start a conversation in Hebrew. Those of us, who do not speak Hebrew, conversed in Yiddish. They are soldiers from the Jewish brigade and now looking to establish contact with other Jewish survivors. They are telling us that the British government is blockading the shores of Palestine and that the “Yishoov”, the Jewish community in Palestine is trying to break that blockade by smuggling in the survivors illegally. They, as allied soldiers can move about former Nazi occupied Europe, finding out where there are remnants of European Jews and help them in their effort to come to Palestine. Their missions is right now to get out as many Jews as possible from the territories overtaken by the Soviet Union, like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and others. We too fell into this category as the Soviets were about to take over this part of Austria from the Americans. A week or so later, soldiers of the Jewish brigade began to carry small groups of us boys across the bridge. Some of us were told to try and make it on our own as the soldiers found it difficult to get us all across. The American base where we six worked began to pack up, but we were asked to stay on so that to the last moment, they would have hot water. The officer in charge promised to take us over the bridge when the time came.
My friend Leibel BLISKOWSKY left with the others, and only we six remained from the couple of hundred. Sometimes at the end of July, the American officer told us to get ready. We got in a small truck. Two soldiers in front and we left the base and the suburb of “Auhoff.” Crossing the bridge the truck did not stop in the city but continued further. Unable to communicate with the driver who sat in the cab, we did not know where we were going. After a long drive passing through villages and towns, we drove into a good side city through a big gate and into a big and crowded yard. The truck stopped and the two soldiers motioned for us to get out. We took our meager belongings, shaking hands with us the soldiers got in the truck and left. We were in “Saltzburg”, in a large refugee camp filled with people from all earlier Nazi occupied Europe. We soon found some of the guys from our camp who left a week or two earlier. Surprisingly the Americans knew where to find them and took us all the way there. We were given a corner in a room to serve as accommodation and a piece of bread and tea in the morning, a bowl of soup at noon and tea and bread at night. There were neither sufficient facilities to wash nor toilets. The crowd could be divided into two main groups: Former inmates of concentration camps and former forced laborers. The majority of the former were Jews, some Russians and some Poles, but all the forced laborers were non Jews, among whom former Nazi sympathizers and collaborators as well as capos of camps were parading as refugees. Surprisingly, some were recognized and dealt with in a harsh manner.
In general the camp in Saltzburg was one big mass with hundreds of people coming and leaving daily. Here again I was reunited with Leibel BLISKOWSKY and a few days later, we were sent to “Innsbruck” to a camp for Jewish only survivors. A couple of days later a small group from the Jewish brigade arrived. One of the officers addressed us. I still remember some of what he said: “From here you are going to Italy. It is as close to Palestine as we can get you right now. You know that the road by land is closed to us for we are surrounded by an unfriendly people and the only way is by sea which is being blockaded by the British navy. You might have to wait in Italy a long time and we are not promising you anything in Italy except a beautiful blue sky. So if anyone wants to back out, now is the chance.” Of course he spoke of other things. Above all, about our struggle for a Jewish homeland, but I will not go into it now. Within a few days we boarded a long freight train which was carrying Italian repatriates back to Italy and we were on our way. The train was a very long one, consisting of only freight cars. As it was early August, we kept the sliding doors and the openings that served as windows constantly open and had a good view of the countryside as we moved south. We traveled very slowly, stopping at every station. Some of the stations had Red Cross stands where they used to hand out bread and bottled water. At times we used to stop in the middle of nowhere surrounded by beautiful nature. The fast flowing little rivers looked inviting and we used the stops for a quick bath. I still remember the scenery moving slowly through the “Brenner Pass” as we entered Italy. What a beautiful view!! After three days travel, we arrived in Bolonia, where we, the Jewish survivors were put up in tents provided by the Jewish brigade. Two days later trucks from the same brigade took us to Modena. Somewhere in the middle of the city was a huge building, built according to late nineteen century Italian architecture with spacious rooms and hallways, something to be admired. Its purpose was to be a military academy. It was used as such until the end of the war. Now it became a refugee center for Jews only, except for one distance corner where a few dozen SS women were kept, supervised by American military police.
In this esthetic building and its huge halls, the allied forces had squeezed in some five thousand of us. We were told to find a place to sleep, which meant anywhere on the stone floor. How many we were in a room depended on the size of the room, but to have an idea, I will say from a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred. We used to lie along every wall and in rows in the middle of the rooms. This very spot served for each of us as a bed at night and as a chair or table daytime. In the morning we used to line up for our piece of bread and black coffee; at noon for the macaroni and at night again for a piece of bread and coffee. Needless to say we were hungry. True, not the same hunger as in the camps. Never the less, we were always ready to eat. In order to supplement our diet, some of us began to sell some of our few belongings. Having brought with me a few pair of discarded American military pants and shirts, I too started to sell my things. A few hundred meters away was a bakery where some of us used to buy bread, rather rolls. I did so too, but the baker had no bag to put them in. After stuffing my pockets full, I took the rest in my arms. Some fell on the ground and while bending down to pick them up; I lost two or three more. I do not remember how many I came back with, but I remember telling Leibl BLISKOWSKY that it is no good my going by myself for rolls, as I keep losing them. This remark was overheard by a man that had his sleeping spot not far from us. His name was Berl BLUESTEIN. He came from a village twelve kilometers from Pruzany, which was a railway station, by the name of “Linovo-Oranczyce.” After the German arrival, he, his wife and two children moved to Pruzany. When the Jews of “Linovo” were slaughtered, his move to Pruzany proved to be a correct one. This Berl BLUESTEIN was some twenty years older than I, yet surprisingly survived Auschwitz, leaving there his wife and children. Leibl BLISKOWSKY and he knew each other from the ghetto Pruzany but I did not know him at all.
This Bluestein says: I will go with you and help you carry the rolls. I gratefully agreed. On the way back, without asking or saying anything, he starts eating the rolls, never stopping until we get back. Ever since he used to go with me to the baker and became a third partner. In no time I managed to dispose of my possessions. We ate up the value of the couple pairs of pants and shirts I had and we were back to the bare minimum. There were rumors that in some refugee camps upon arrival one got a new pair of shoes or pants or both. In other camps one got a few hundred liras, which was worth a dollar or two, but to one who had nothing, a hundred or two hundred liras was money. Not having anything else to barter, and unable to fill our stomachs, Leibl BLISKOWSKY and I had decided to go to Milano. There was no regular transportation yet, and the only means available was hitch hiking. At the entrance and exits of each city in Italy there was a check point and every vehicle was stopped by the police to be checked for papers. During those few seconds, the bunch of hitch hikers used to climb on top of the vehicles. Of course there was never enough room for all. But some always managed to get on. As this was the only way of getting around, we two joined the mob of hitch hikers at the outskirts of Modena in the direction of Milano. All we had with us was an address of the Jewish community centre there, which I still remember; Via Unione No. 5
After a long wait, we succeeded in getting on a truck which took us as far as Parma, from there the whole story repeated itself until we came to the river “Po”, where we joined a long line of waiting vehicles to cross the pontoon bridge erected by the allied soldiers. We could see the nearby destroyed by the retreating Germans original bridge, and I must admit, they had done a good job in destroying it. Every one of the massive supporting pillars was blown up separately never to be used again. I can see them now heavy huge pillars, some dozen of them, all toppled over, lying on their sides as if pushed over by a giant hand. The pontoon bridge could carry one way traffic which alternated every hour or so. We arrived in Milano before dark. Sitting on top of the loaded truck, I looked at the people on the street thinking to myself, that there must be many Jews in Milano, for they looked very Jewish in my opinion. The truck let us off somewhere in the city and we began to ask for directions to Via Unione No. 5. Getting there after midnight we found the office closed but a few refugees like ourselves were hanging around. They directed us to a couple of rooms in the building partly filled with sticks. We found others lying on those sticks and we joined them. The next day we received instructions to register in a camp which was right in the city. The sleeping accommodations were on the floor and to cover ourselves, we received a blanket each. The food situation was as bad as in Modena if not worse. So after a couple of days, BLISKOWSKY and I decided to return to Modena. Taking with us the blanket we set out to the railway station, having heard that some trains are running.
As we had no money we could not use the street cars and it took us a couple of hours to get there. The front of the station was very imposing with its columns of pillars and the two large lion like figures on either side. It was already dark but there was a mass of people in that huge station. Some looked like they had been sitting there a long time. Speaking the few words Italian and mixing it with German, we found out that there is a train to Modena in the morning. We settled down for the night on the stone floor. After midnight it got quieter so we could see what is taking place. Almost all the travelers were civilians but there was a sprinkling of military personal, mostly allied soldiers who knew exactly where to go. But there were a few in Italian uniforms. What caught my eyes was a group of unsoldierly or sloppy looking soldiers that I have ever seen before. In age, they were between twenty and twenty two, they wore British uniforms which made them look like a caricature of British soldiers that even Goebbels could not have conjured up. They were a noisy bunch who spoke in a strange tongue. The man in command, the most and only soldierly looking among them, kept on trying to line them up in a line. But to no avail. By the time he got to the end of the line, the head was coming apart. Yet he would not give up and kept on trying. They became the main attraction to the many hundreds that had to spend the night there. In answer to my question of where are they from, one bystander shaking his head in disgust said: North Africa. I think to myself: for what purpose did the British permit such a bunch of ignorant, untrained, undisciplined North Africans to wear their uniforms? The answer became known to me a year later. The British needed it to counter balance the contribution of the Jews of Palestine and to minimize their effort vis-à-vis the Arabs in the defeat of Germany.
Coming back to Modena, I remarked how much more, we survivors, are noticeable here than in Milano. Not surprising, while in Milano, a city of over two million people, there were a few hundred of us. Here in Modena, a city a quarter the size of Milano, we were five thousand strong. There was another group of people that were more visible than us in Modena. Those were American soldiers. They were of course more respected, better treated and most sought for, and why not? They were the liberator for many Italians too. Particularly for those in the northern half of Italy, who were under the rule of Nazi Germany longer than the southern half. They were the rich; even the poorest had their pocket full of cigarettes, chocolate, gum and ladies hose. They used to take senioritas to the amusement park just at the outskirts of town and go on rides. Take them to restaurants, dances and so on. Who can blame the young American soldiers? The legitimate, and they were legitimate houses of ill repute all over Italy had signs on either side of their doors. A large white circle with an “X” in it, over it with large painted in white letters was written “Off limits”, making it clear for allied soldiers not to go in. But even we could notice the gradual decline in numbers of the American service men, for they were going home. My friend, BLISKOWSKY who was a smoker used to follow the Americans and pick up their cigarette butts. With less American, there were less cigarettes butts, forcing him to smoke less, which eventually led to him giving up smoking.
My only enjoyment used to be going go movies. The movie houses used to be open right through the night and once in, one could spend the night there which happened with some of us, not so much to see the movies as to be under a roof in a strange city or town. Even though entries to movie houses were cheap, one still had to pay something and I did not have that something. Leibl BLISKOWSKY and I decided to undertake the long trip to Torino, where we heard that there too was a refugee camp and it might be better there. We set out the same way as the first time, namely hitch hiking, and got as far as Piacenza. The truck we were on did not go any farther. We got off at the police check point on the outskirts of town and waited. As usual there was traffic and some of the hitch hikers got on, but we were not the lucky ones, and as usual, military vehicles were not stopped. After a long wait in the midday Italian sun, we see an army truck pulling up and stops almost in front of us. Nobody runs to him knowing that army rather allied vehicles; do not pick up hitch hikers, nor do we. They are dressed in British uniforms; two get out from the cab and half a dozen or so from the back of the truck. They gather around and are having what seemed like a little discussion. We look at them and see “Palestine” on their shoulder markings. A little hesitantly we approach and try to listen to their conversation. They notice us and look around inquisitively yet with a sense of recognition. We somehow see brethren in each other. We find out that they are a group of entertainers that travel to the bases of the Jewish brigade to entertain them. In that group there were two girls. They all surround us showering us with questions. I recall that one of the soldiers was from “Bialistok” and as BLISKOWSKY was originally from a village by the name of “Jalowka” near Bialystok, that soldier kept asking him about his family that he left behind. They realized that we have nothing, so they started bringing us tin of meat and fish, loaves of bread, chocolate and even a suit case of military work clothes from the truck. After a long and amiable conversation, they apologized that they can not take us closer to our destination as they are turning off the main road and left. The impression they left on us, the feeling of having seen, spoken to and physically touched Jewish soldiers in a strange land amongst strangers after years of Nazi tyranny, I am not sure I could have described it then and I will not attempt now. All I know was that this encounter injected in me a new hope, a kind of happiness that I had not felt in a long, long time. We looked at our unexpected riches and realized that with all that food, we can not continue to Torino. Besides, who needs Torino with all this food. So we cross the road to get on anything that moves back to Modena.
In the next two or so weeks, I took in all the movies I could, two after lunch and two at night. In the mornings, all the five thousand of us used to line up, along the balcony that ran around the large cobble stoned yard of the academy to watch the American MPs taking the women SS for a walk around. We were not even permitted at that time to remain on the ground floor, so we used to hurl abuse at them from above. I must admit that we were good at it. After all, we had learnt it from them. I would like to say that a good part of us did not understand the meaning of the many words we used, including me. In my experience, it seemed there was no end to the profusion of offensive and abusive words in the German language. Whoever challenges this statement has not been in Auschwitz. After a while, the American MPs were replaced by British, whose escort of the SS women became very comradely. One could get the impression of chaperonship. It looked more like a contest between British gentlemen to win the favor of the fair maidens than what should have been between guards, upholders of justice towards imprisoned vicious beasts, who participated in murder of hundreds of thousands of defenseless and innocent human beings. Now they were being paraded in front of five thousand witnesses whose families were slaughtered by those very beats and who themselves were victims of their brutality and beastliness. Than again British twisted “objectivity or impartiality” toward Jews especially in the years after the war are well known and documented.
No more than two weeks after my encounter with the soldiers of the Jewish brigade I was back in the poor house. A few guys were talking of going to Torino and I joined them. Leibl BLISKOWSKY refused to go along. The trip was a difficult one and took a long time. Upon arriving we asked and were directed to a Jewish centre, a building with several rooms, one of them served as an assembly room where in the evening, the few young people, the remnants of the once fairly large and prosperous Jewish community of Torino used to gather and spend the evenings in loneliness reminiscing about their families that were taken away never to be heard from. We decided to stay that evening. About a dozen young people of our age showed up, mostly girls, for they had found it a little easier to hide among the Italians than men. However, there was the problem of communication. They spoke Italian or French, being close to the French border. We spoke neither until one of the girls said something in Hebrew. None of my group spoke Hebrew except me. Here I was in my element. That girl was the only one amongst them and I amongst ours. So the entire conversation passed through the two of us. Later on in the evening a couple of Jewish soldiers from a South African detachment stationed nearby, came in. They were frequent visitors we were told. One of them played piano and we started to dance, the first dance after those night march years and my first as a mature man. I will say that the evening spent in Torino holding a girl in my arms even only while dancing, awakened in me feelings that I had forgotten existed. Torino had no more to offer than Modena and we returned back.
Sometime in August, I bumped into a Shereshever I never expected to see alive. His name was Eli SHNEIDER and older brother of my friend Hershel SHNEIDER, who came with me from Pruzany to Auschwitz and with whom I walked on Sundays in the birch alley in the spring of 1943. Eli SHNEIDER was the son of Berl, by name like his profession a (Shneider) tailor. He was born in 1916. He was a tall, good looking young man, active in “Hashomer” (left Zionist) from his youth; a polite well behaved young man was drafted into the Polish army in 1938. He was one of many that never returned home after the collapse of Poland. Unable to trace his where abouts due to the partition of Poland, his family mourned him among others as a war casualty. And so it was accepted generally, for me to have seen him in Modena which meant a return from the grave. That is what he told me: His battalion surrendered to the Germans with the surrender of the remnants of the Polish army. In his battalion were a lot of soldiers from our neighboring villages. As neighbors they felt kinship towards him. When the Germans were picking out the Jews from among his battalion, they advised him not to admit to his Jewishness, and they did not betray him. As the Germans were making the list of the non Jews he gave his name as “SNEIDER,” which is more German than Polish. With some of his comrades he was sent to work on a German farm and his friend never betrayed him. In fact sometime in 1942 he decided to go home after hearing in Germany of mistreatment of Jews, not realizing how serious it was. He set out for the railway station and his friends ran after him and persuaded him to come back. With the end of war, he came to Italy with the intention of going to Palestine. Because of his experience in leadership of “Hashomer Hatzoir”, in Shershev, he was put in charge of a group of minors in a small camp outside of Modena. However, every time he was in Modena, he used to visit me and constantly kept on asking abut the last months before and after the expulsion from Shershev, the life of his family in ghetto Pruzany and about my few conversations with his brother on Sunday mornings in Auschwitz. One morning he comes to me and says: Do you want to go to Palestine? Sure I do, I answered. Then get ready. In a few days my entire group of minors will be taken to a secret place from where they will go at night to a ship to board for Palestine.
At that time it was not a too well kept secret that ships departed from Italy with illegal emigrants, namely survivors and refugees of the Holocaust. Destination: Palestine. The British tried with any means possible to stop this activity, mostly by continuously keeping an eye on the Jewish brigade that they knew is the main force behind this action. By checking all suspected vehicles on the roads of Italy looking not only for potential travelers but anything required for longer journeys over land or sea. Trying to find the spot of embarkation so they could seize the boat and finally blockading the shores of Palestine with their navy. I jumped for joy but then I remembered my friend, Leibl BLISKOWSKY who was eighteen years my senior. I said; you will have to take the two of us with you. He, already having met BLISKOWSKY through me earlier, said; No, this can not be done You I can pass as a minor, but not him. They will not let him aboard I was caught between my life’s desire to go to the land of Israel and loyalty to a friend with whom I shared so much suffering and trust, whom I have known to be the most honest and unselfish person I had ever met and a true friend. I answered; I will not go without him. Eli left. For almost a year we were in touch. But suddenly I stopped getting letters from him. Later I found out that he committed suicide, a victim of love. He succeeded to cheat death as a Jew in Nazi Germany only to kill himself by his own hand in the land of Israel.
Sometime in late August or early September the municipal authority of Milano or some other authority through the municipality began to pay refugees some fifteen hundred liras monthly. By then the trains began to run, and we refugees did not have to pay passage. In general the railway system was at that time in confusion and most of the Italian travelers did not pay either. It is difficult to imagine traveling in those days in Italy. Not only was there standing room only, but some sat on the roofs, having to duck or drop flat on the roof entering a tunnel. That trip to Milano I remember, for we were so tightly squeezed together in the car, that in the morning upon arriving in Milano and getting out of the car, I noticed that the back of my hands were swollen. A result of having kept my arms straight down for over twelve hours pressed tightly to my body. I and all the others that came with me collected the fifteen hundred liras. At that time the value of seven dollars and by nightfall we got on the train. On my way back I was not lucky enough to get inside a car, so I sat on the buffer between two cars all night hanging on with my hands to some protruding bolt of the car, keeping myself from falling down to the tracks in between the cars. When we got off at Modena station, one of my friends noticed a long cut down the back of my pants. It seemed that my pants got caught in the buffer spring and over night they chafed a long hole down my only pair of pants. Sometime in October we were informed that our entire refugee camp is going to be transferred to other camps, further down in south Italy to its very heel. Shortly afterwards, every few days some of us were being taken by truck to the rail way station, put on trains going south. By then our partnership consisted of three. Berl BLUESTEIN joined the two of us and when our turn came, we traveled together. The means of transportation was the same as the ones from Linz to Modena; ordinary freight cars with wide open doors on either side. We sat on our knap sacks which held our meager possessions and when possible stretched out on the floor for a nap. For food, we were each given a few packages of biscuits and a couple of tins canned meat.
Here again we were thrown together with survivors from all over central and eastern Europe; the great majority of men between the ages of twenty to thirty. About ten percent were women of that same age. The others were a couple of years younger, or a few years older. Yet we felt a kinship that holds us together and which expressed itself in the way we approach one another and speak to each other, as if we had known each other since birth, made easier by a common language, Yiddish, despite the fact that we come from at least half a dozen countries. We travel south, to the right in the distance I can see mountain tops and to the left no more than a few hundred meters away, a steel gray very leveled plain. To my remark, someone tells me this is the sea, the Adriatic. So this is what the sea looks like, I think to myself. After three days of travel we come to a very small railway station named “Otranto.” So small that one could by pass it without noticing it, except that this is the end of the line and from here on the train goes back. We get off the train. There are several open trucks waiting for us. We climb in and we take off. The road continues down hill, on either side was rocky terrain alternating with small plots of red soil which is being utilized to every square inch. Every ten or fifteen meters apart, there is an olive tree. Some seem to grow out of a rock. In the distance we see the sea which is getting closer, despite the fact that the road is very winding. It is still down hill when we drive into a village. We stop in front of a building where we are being registered, given an I.D. card and given an address. We wander in the village that has some beautiful villas. Some surrounded by palm trees and some gardens, some with both. But they look terribly neglected, as if nobody had touched them in years. In the few streets we met some refugees. They too are from our part of the world. They too do not go home, even though they have their family and close family, like maybe parents, siblings and others. We know them. We know them too well. They are the ones that welcomed the Nazis as soon as they came in to our shtetls, the ones that pointed us, and our homes, out to the Nazis. To take in there the Nazis and to help themselves to whatever they wanted, in payment giving the Jewish owners a good beating if not worse. They are the ones that joined the local police organized and supervised by the German authorities. They are the ones that helped the Germans round up the Jewish, drive them out of town and shoot them at the edge of the ditches that they, the Jews, had just dug for themselves. They are the ones that volunteered into the SS to fight with the Germans against their own country, their own people. And now they cannot go back home knowing that they will be tried as traitors and mass murderers. I will take my case a bit further and say that they were the ones that got priority to enter the democratic countries, like Canada, the U.S, South America, Australia, New Zealand and others before any of us Jewish refugees had a chance. They entered those countries with the knowledge of the above mentioned governments, with their help and what is more, were protected by those governments from persecution in those very countries. Those very same countries refused to extradite them to the countries in which those crimes were committed.
We do not know the street on which there is the house we are assigned to us, but we won’t ask them. We will look by ourselves. The house we are assigned is a two story house. It is built on a slope so that it has two entrances. The bottom floor has an entrance to a street below. The upper floor has the entrance in the other direction to another street. The two floors do not connect. The bottom floor is occupied by a family from Yugoslavia. They are not Jewish and we wonder why they are not going home. The upper floor has several rooms. They must be part of the entire house, for there are no kitchen facilities. Each group takes a room. The rooms are assigned according to size of the group. We three get a room whose window faces the street. There is a palm tree quite neglected in front of the window and so is the stone wall surrounding the front of the house. No trouble to see that this must have been a nice villa once. The place we are in is called “Santa Marina Di Leuca.” One of some half a dozen summer resorts along the shore of the very tip of the Italian heel. The place has many beautiful villas. They belong to the former Italian ruling class who are sitting now in their homes in the cities or estates, unwilling to claim their property for fear of “rocking the boat” due to their sympathy and support of the former fascist government. So now their property is neglected, really abandoned after first being used by the demoralized Italian army, then by the allied forces and now by refugees. This refugee camp is better organized. It has been here for a while. Here the war has ended a year ago. The administration is run by American and British semi military personal with the paid help of qualified Italians. The villas these people live in have been repaired and furnished. They have housekeepers, cooks and gardeners who were paid allied wages, so are the administrative personal, the Americans and British; particularly the British who seem to be running the show and be everywhere. It would be wrong not to mention that among the Americans there were some volunteers. Apparently from religious denominations who got little pay if any and were there for humanitarian reasons. To them, I tip my hat.
Apparently somebody in the “UNRRA,” (United Nations Refugee Restitution Assistance) organization realized that putting Jewish survivors of the Holocaust together with central and eastern Europeans so called “refugees”, in fact Nazi collaborators, was not a good idea and within two weeks they were transferred to other refugee camps consisting of their own kind. Those two weeks gave us a chance to get organized and take over positions previously held by the now departing refugees, like electing a committee to run the internal affairs of the camp, cultural committee, work shops, training courses for all kinds of trades, even some to police and keep law and order in the camps. Not that it was needed. We were murdered but we were not murderers. Everything was stolen from us but we were no thieves. Besides we had nothing of value. We were strong armed but we did not impose our will on others. In fact it seemed that this is the safest place I had known since the beginning of the war and maybe even earlier. During those early days, we have even received a sort of bed. It was a wooden frame supported on four pieces of two by fours a foot off the ground which one could call legs. For a mattress, there was hammered on a chicken netting stretched across the quadrangle wooden frame and we each received a straw sack. It was better than the stone floor of Modena. The bed also used as a sitting place. For a table we found a discarded crate and thus our room was “furnished.”
Some larger groups over thirty souls or more, who know each other from camps, or came from the same vicinity or neighboring towns, or shared the same political Zionist affiliation organized what they called “Kibbutz” meaning as a group they occupied one building. They drew rations from the camp “magazine” (store) for all the members and cooked it in their separate kitchen for their group. This way they could decide their own menu. They could exchange the unwanted food for something else and supplement their diet with more preferable produce. Approximately a dozen groups, Kibbutzim, existed in “St. Marina Di Leuca,” yet I would say that half of the camp used to go to the main kitchen. It was a converted movie house to receive their daily ration of bread with coffee in the morning, their soup with some pieces of meat at lunch and coffee only at night. When there was no more meat cooked with the soup, we used to receive a 4 ounce tin of salmon, which happened once a week. Regularly, every morning, many of us used to line up in front of the kitchen with all kinds of containers for the coffee. In our case only one of us used to go taking with him our three ration cards. Each card used to be made out for the month ahead, clearly indicating the day and each meal. When one used to present the card, a hole for that meal was punched out. The amount of food used to be given according to the presented card. I will admit that in the early months, I used to go to bed hungry.
True to the promise of the soldiers of the Jewish brigade, I have so far not seen a cloud in the beautiful Italian sky. More than this, here we were on the tip of the Italian heel where we could jump almost from the window into the blue Mediterranean Sea. It is not much of an exaggeration, from our living quarters to the sea there was no more than several hundred meters. True, the shore was completely rocky except for a stretch of shore some twenty five meters wide, and the rocks were of volcanic origin and very sharp. The waves were strong at that point and one had to be careful not to be thrown on the racks getting out of the water. Yet not only was it for most of us the first time in the sea, but we also became not bad swimmers for amateurs. That fall the majority of our camp numbering some thousand people, spent most of the days at the sea shore of the Italian heel, true not on full stomachs. Never the less the sea and sun worked wonders for us. The Milano municipality was still paying out to those earlier registered; the three thousand liras monthly and those of us who qualified had to travel by train, a trip of three days in one direction, to collect it. We refugees took advantage of being able to travel on the trains for free, but we put up with the inconvenience of spending a week traveling in order to collect it. Converting it into dollars, it amounted to fifteen dollars. Hardly a paying proposition, but when one has not got even this much, it was of some help. But this did not last long. It stopped by November 1945. In early December, the camp committee announced that a marine school for survivors is being formed someplace in Italy and applications are being accepted. I applied and was accepted. I was sent to Bari where I joined three other men. One man of about fifty, an engineer by profession, the second of about thirty, the same profession, both were from Hungary, and succeeded to avoid being shipped to Auschwitz. The third too was an engineer from the Soviet Union, who claimed to have been the Capitan or first officer on the Soviet submarine “Stalin.” Others that came from the southern part of Italy were collected in Bari and sent on further north. The reason that I was attached to the three mentioned above, was my knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish because they did not speak a word of Hebrew and little Yiddish, and all the arrangements of the school was conducted in Hebrew. It was organized by people specially sent from the land of Israel. Those three were to be the future teachers in that school.
In order to get an idea of what the school should be like, we were sent via Rome to a place some thirty kilometers west of Rome on the Tyrrhenian Sea, called “Ostia,” where such a school has already been operating. After spending there a few days, we were sent to a small fishing town some fifty kilometers north west of Ancona on the Adriatic Sea by the name of Fano, a town of some ten thousand inhabitants. A large percentage making a living from the already over fished Adriatic Sea. It was there that I saw for the first time ships, or rather wooden schooners being built, which gave employment to some of the townspeople. We joined there the already settled body of students and staff in what must have been a former school for this purpose built facility. The total body of students came to some one hundred and twenty, plus the kitchen, maintenance and teaching staff. We were some hundred and fifty souls. The accommodations were very primitive, for, from what we could deduct, there was nothing left from furniture or even kitchen utensils. They must have been stolen by the Germans during their retreat, or taken by the local population, which looked impoverished even in our eyes, taken during the change of governments. Food was not any more plentiful than in the previous refugee camps, except for bread and a large barrel of lard full to the rim, which stood in the corner of the kitchen. The door or window of the kitchen was always open for us and to which every one of us used to return every couple of hours for a slice of bread spread thinly with lard, passed out to us by a member of the kitchen staff. As some of the teachers were Italian living in town, it was concluded that the lectures will be conducted in Italian. Besides, the books we had to use were written in Italian. So the first item on the agenda was to teach us the Italian language which started right away. The three Jewish teachers that came with me from Bari began meantime to teach their subject, which were temporarily conducted in an unspecified language. That is, in any language the teacher could make himself understood and could make the students understand.
Here is where my knowledge of Russian and Polish came in handy. The teacher from the Soviet Union could hardly speak Yiddish, so most of the lecture used to be conducted in Russian and I would immediately translate it into Yiddish or Polish, whatever it was better understood by the students that particular time. The two Hungarian teachers had a harder time. Poor in Yiddish, not knowing Polish, they faced classes consisting of ninety five percent Jews from Poland. They had to make do with a mixture of German and Yiddish. During those early weeks, I became befriended with the Russian teacher, who might have needed me more than I needed him. Never the less, he made sure that I knew and understood the lecture before it even started. As in every group of students, there are some who show more promise than others. Out of the hundred and twenty, they picked out thirty most promising, the rest were divided into navigators, mechanics and some other specialized trades. I was assigned to most preferred Captains. Out of the eight hours of daily lectures, four were taken up with Italian, and slowly we began to master the language. The only draw back was the fact that the moment the classes were over, we used to revert back to Yiddish between us. Since we were quite busy during the week, we hardly left the school grounds. The only bit of free time we had to ourselves was on the week end, when we used to go into the town for a short visit, as we had to be back for meals, unless one did not mind missing it.
I remember on New Year’s Day 1946, a group of us took a walk along the sea shore away from town. The shore was not sandy but covered with small pebbles. We could have been a couple kilometers from Fano. There was not a soul nearby we decided to take a swim. I remember remarking; “Where in the world could I imagine swimming in the sea on January 1st.” It must have looked strange to the local population, for they were staring at us from the distance. Friday afternoons, I with some of my friends used to go to the wharf, watch the fishing fleets returning from the sea with the catch. This little town Fano must have been the docking harbour for some twenty schooners. They ranged from fifteen to twenty meters long with a displacement from thirty to sixty ton, more or less. Standing at the very edge we could see clearly what was taking place. After tying up the boat, we used to see on the deck a box full of small octopus. One of the crew, of which there used to be from ten to twelve, would divide the contents into as many parts as there were crew members. The crew used to come over, one used to turn around while another would point at a portion and ask; who for? The one who was turned around would call out the name of a crew member. In this way, the lot of the octopus used to be divided among the crew member It was very much reminiscent of our dividing the bread in Sosnowitz. The crew used to take their 10-15 pounds of octopus and go home for the weekend. We used to get permission to come aboard to see the catch, and I must admit that I was disappointed. Most of the time there was not more than two tons of fish. This had to pay for the fuel and food for the trip. The owner of the schooner had to get paid for the use of the schooner and whatever was left, if anything was then divided amongst the crew. I remember thinking then, how can they exist? How can they live and support a family? They used to leave home Monday before sunrise and return Friday late afternoon, all for 6-8 kilo of octopus. I was hungry myself. Yet felt sorry for those Italians and sympathized with them. Coming from a part of Poland where most of the terrain was covered with forest, an abundance of all sorts of wood, I was watching the boat builders in Fano selling the pieces of wood and wood chips by the kilo and wondering if this poverty has always been here or is it a result of the war? Of the life that was going on, and around the wharf, I was not envious of.
We the privileged ones that were picked for the captain course were kept busy with studies or shall I call it homework. In the second half of January, during a lecture, we began to talk of what is waiting for us after graduating this four year captain course. The instructor answered quite honestly, that our captain’s papers (ticket) will entitle us to command a boat or schooner the size of the ones we saw in the local harbour. The bubble had burst. Our dream of commanding a Queen Elizabeth had in a second evaporated. The life we had envisioned was in stark contrast to the reality we saw on the fishermen’s wharf in Fano. The idea of staying away five days and nights a week from a home that some day we hoped to build did not appeal to any of us. Shortly afterwards, some of us began to leave and return to the refugee camps they came from. My Russian instructor tried hard to persuade me to stay on. Even promising me that by the time the course will be finished, I will know everything he knows, and that I should not squander such an opportunity. I knew he was sincere and meant every word he said, but at twenty two, to spend four years with the promise of becoming a fisherman with the pay of 10-15 pounds of octopus per week, did not appeal to me.
In a group of about half a dozen we left. Still enjoying the privilege of traveling on trains for free we came to Rome. We registered in a refugee camp which was on the premises of “Cino-Cita,” the place where Italian movies were being produced before the war. It was a large place with some hangar like buildings surrounded by a high fence. A gate led to the inside. At the gate was a guard house manned by unarmed police from among the refugees. They were husky men from Yugoslavia who like others from central and Eastern Europe, were afraid to go home for fear of prosecution for collaboration with the Nazis. Yet despite their doubtful status of refugees in the eyes of the Italian hosts, and plain Nazi collaborators in ours, they looked at us survivors with an air of contempt, reminiscent of the days they wore their “Ustasha” (Croation Nazi party) uniforms. I had the feeling that they would react even with violence toward us were they not afraid of our numbers or repercussion from the authorities. In those hangar like buildings, that were movie sets, were quartered thousands of refugees of all nationalities in Europe. I doubt if anyone knew exactly how many were there. The hangar floors were covered with rows of cots from wall to wall. As new comers, we received a blanket to cover our self with, nothing else. Understandably those huge spaces could not be kept warm even in an Italian winter, so there was no attempt made to do it. We used to line up for our morning bread and coffee, our soup at noon and bread and coffee in the evenings. Because of the cold, we did not undress, except for the shoes which were kept in the knapsacks under the head. Waking up in the morning due to the cold that affected mostly my feet, I used to put on my shoes, run outside to shave and get washed at an outdoor facility. Then, get the morning bread and coffee and, with the group, start walking the streets of Rome. In that week I spent in Rome, I have not been warm even once, and when one is cold and hungry, one does not appreciate beauty. Despite all this and despite the fact that I came from a small Eastern European shtetl and never had a chance to see or learn about architecture or to be introduced to its beauty, I could not help but notice the beauty of its magnificent palaces, the splendor of its villas and edifices and the grandeur of its monuments. There and then I made myself a promise to come back someday to look at it on a full stomach.