MEMOIRS OF SHERESHEV
By MOISHE KANTOROWITZ
In the fall of 1947 the relations between Italy and Yugoslavia became strained over Trieste. As a result, displaced people and refugees of Yugoslavian origin or descent in Italy became suspect or worse, “Persona Non Grata.” It must have been in October 1947, as we got up early in the morning, we found ourselves surrounded by Italian police, very much reminiscent of the old German days. There was a cordon of police around the camp fence, and dozens of them inside, a couple of them at each entrance to the barracks front and back. The few employees of the camp and the camp director, a Britisher, who was permitted to move about, were surprised as we were. They were going from barrack to barrack telling us not to go outside. All we knew was that the police were conducting searches, but what they were looking for no one knew. I still had in my possession an Italian twenty two-caliber Beretta handgun and did not want to get caught with it. There was no place in our room to hide it. The stone floor and sailcloth walls did not offer any hiding places. Not being able to take it outside the barrack due to the police at either entrance, I stuck it into the toilet flush box, which was suspended near the ceiling, thus beyond the reach of a human eye, flushing the spare bullets down the toilet. The curfew lasted all morning. The police finally left. We found out that all refugees from Yugoslavia were taken away. Their possessions thoroughly searched and every scrap of paper taken too. There were organizations that prevailed upon the Italian authorities to let out those who had on the way papers to go abroad. I only hope that the rest of them were let out to go to Israel, after the establishment of the Jewish state.
After this event, there was always a presence of Italian police at the camp gate. True, they did not interfere with the comings and goings of the camp, except the from time to time checking of the “Sengiorno”, a paper issued to every refugee by the Italian authorities in 1946, in order to stop the influx of new refugees from Germany. They never came into the camp to check it, but from time to time we used to be stopped by police on the streets of Bari demanding this document. I will say that the experience with surrounding the camp, the searches and arrest, which were so reminiscent of the dark days gone by, reawakened in us an almost uncontrollable urgency to get to our destination, wherever it might be. Still there were attempts by the “Bricha”, the former members of the Jewish brigade, to bring survivors from Eastern Europe into the allied controlled Germany, while at the same time smuggling survivors from Germany into Italy. In the middle of 1947, two such people were brought into the transit camp. They were Gotl WEINER from Shershev and a man some 8-10 years older than I, whom I knew from childhood, who was with his wife, Sara, from Pruzany, both survivors in Auschwitz. They knew each other from before the war and got married in a refugee camp in Germany. As they came to Italy illegally and had no “Sengiorno”, they could not take a chance of going out of the camp. To make matters worse, Sara took sick and had to undergo a serious operation. She was sent to the main refugee hospital in southern Italy, some forty kilometres from Bari. As her husband, Gotl, could not take a chance in leaving the camp for lack of “Sengiorno”, he asked me to go and visit her. Twice a week, an ambulance used to go from our camp to that hospital and I was always in there. I did not understand it then, but with every trip I used to get sick. Yet as soon as the trip was over and I was out of the windowless ambulance, I was fine. It was only after I came to Canada that I found out that it was carsickness. Yet I made those trips for three months despite the unpleasantness, until Sara was well enough to get back to camp.
Gotl WEINER had two brothers in the land of Israel living in Benyamina. They left Shershev in the mid twenties. I did not remember them nor knew of them. Now Gotl WEINER and his wife were on the way to them. Of course they too had to go the illegal way with the hope of not getting caught by the British. The situation in then Palestine was getting worse by the day. Well armed Arab bands were attacking Jewish settlements and there were daily casualties. The Arabs were getting their arms from the neighboring Arab countries, from the Trans Jordanian legion that was brought into Palestine and was commanded by British officers, and from the British forces themselves that were stationed in Palestine. The Jews were surrounded by Arab neighbours bent on slaughtering every Jew. Openly hostile British forces were trying their best to bring the Jewish population to its knees and then beg the British government for protection. The Jews had no way of obtaining arms for its defense. Every weapon was priceless and the Jews of Palestine began to improvise ways of bringing some in. A call went out in secret to all refugee camp to contribute any available arms that will be sent to the land of Israel. There were some among us who had side arms, mostly former partisans, but some like me, former inmates who saw no worthier cause than the defense of Jewish lives, parted with their most cherished possession. It is then that I parted with my “Baretta.” A much more difficult task was to get them into the land of Israel. As the only functioning port was Haifa and was under strict British control, sending them by ship was out of the question. The people involved in it came up with an ingenious idea to seal the dismantled revolvers in tins of canned meat or fish and send them by mail as parcels of food to previously prepared private addresses. There were much greater fits of ingenuity performed in those days, but others have already written extensively about it.
When the U.N. voted for partition of Palestine on November 29, 1947, we in our camp spent that night glued to the few radios available. The next morning the camp community ordered a full barrel of wine to be put in the middle of the camp, free for all to drink. Interestingly, the best customers or celebrants were the couple dozen non-Jews in the camp. The majority of the refugees in my camp had, by that time, papers to go to the United States, Canada, South America, or Australia. If not, they were expecting them momentarily. Yet the news of the partition moved us deeply, even though apprehensively. Particularly when the British declared that they will be out by the middle of May 1948. That statement triggered continuous discussions. I recall staying in a circle and talking about the most pressing event of the day, namely: The future of the “Yishuv”, the Jewish settlement in the land of Israel. We must have been deeply absorbed in our discussions, for we did not notice that we were joined by another person that would have been easily noticed. It was the deputy camp commandant. He was a tall man of 6 foot 4 inches, with a very Arian appearance. He spoke several languages with a slight Hungarian accent in all of them. Being the deputy to the British camp commandant, we suspected that he was a raving Anti-Semite. Even though he was always polite, yet he was strict. Our conversation was being conducted in Yiddish, but as the participants in the discussion were from different parts of Europe, the Yiddish took on a German intonation, and he found it easy to understand. As arguments were flying back and forth he kept quiet for a while, than suddenly he spoke up saying: I do not believe the “Yishuv” (the Jewish settlement) has a chance of survival. It will perish as soon as the British pull out. We looked at him in shock. One, not being able to control his rage, spoke up, despite the fact that he was addressing the deputy camp commandant: Sure, he said, isn’t it what you anti-Semites and your British sympathizers were hoping for since the collapse of Nazi Germany? The deputy commandant looked at him with an ironic and sorrowful smile and answered: Don’t you think that I too am praying for the survival of the Yishuv, that I too have seen enough of our blood spilled on the fields of Europe, that my heart cried out to those brave defenders of the land of Israel. But we Jews have to be realistic. We have seen how far our optimism got us during the war. To me, two and two is four. How many are we in Palestine, six hundred and fifty thousand. Men, women and children surrounded by five independent Arab states with a population of eighty million people and five standing well armed armies. What chance have we got?
We stood for a moment dumbfounded, not because of what he said about the
chances of the Yishuv, those calculations we had made a thousand times daily ourselves, but about his statement and identification as a Jew. It had never occurred to any of us in the camp that he might be a Jew. And we thought that we were experts at it. With the results in the U.N. about partition of Palestine into two states, the Arab attacks on Jews in the land of Israel intensified. They began to take place in the cities, on Jewish settlements and on the road. The Arabs were trying not only to disrupt the transportation but also to isolate Jewish settlements and either to starve them out or simply to over run them. We used to spend many hours at the radio in order to get the latest news, tuned to the B.B.C. as they used to allot many hours of their foreign program in Polish. We could have sworn that it was a deliberate attempt by the British to antagonize and upset us survivors, knowing that a large proportion of us understand Polish, for their reporting was so clearly anti Jewish and pro Arab that it bordered on the disgusting. If that was not enough, there was a British controlled radio station operated by the Polish so called “General Anderson’s Army” which broadcasted constantly in Polish. Their bulletins and news reports from the Middle East could have been compiled by nobody but a raving anti Semite. As the sources of our information used to come from such venomous places, we used to go to the city of Bari, for more balanced news. That of course was at the head quarters of the agency on “Via Garuba”. The entire building was taken up by the agency, with many rooms in which the atmosphere was very relaxed. We used to walk from room to room trying to pick up bits and pieces of news that were more encouraging than the ones we used to get from the radio. Once, while there, I approached a door where a man from Pruzany worked. He held a high position there, but we knew each other well and I was never refused entry to him. This time I was told to wait as he had important business to attend to.
After a long wait the door opened and a man in his mid thirties walked out. He was tallish with a military gait. I was ushered in. After a greeting, I said to him: Zelig, what’s the secrecy? His answer was in the Jewish tradition, with a question to a question; did you see the man that just walked out? Yes, I replied. Well, Zelig said, he is an Italian fighter pilot who served in Libya during the war. While the allied forces were retreating the Arabs killed his wife and children. He sees a chance now to take revenge on the Arabs for the slaughter of his family. He came to volunteer into the secretly forming Jewish air force. Even for us refugees in the camp, those were trying days, for the Jewish people in general and for those in the land of Israel in particular. Maybe because we had so much time on our hands to think and worry, and because we have witnessed first hand what happened to our people recently, that our concern was so great. In any case our camp was in a state of tension and constant discussions. The illegal departure of boats to Palestine had intensified, even if, had its boats been captured by the British navy, it would result in the consequent shipping of all the passengers to Cyprus. Never the less, it was a conclusive fact that as soon as the British pulled out of Palestine, all the internees on Cyprus will be taken to the land of Israel. And so the year 1947 came to an end. New Year’s Eve we had a party in the camp with an orchestra and dancing. During which there was an incidental shooting of a young refugee of Spanish nationality by an Italian policeman. It was rumoured that the bullet was intended for a husband of a young Jewish woman with whom the policeman supposedly had an affair. It was never proven and the shooting was declared accidental.
Early in 1948, I was informed by the Canadian immigration that I will soon be called to the Canadian consulate in Rome to arrange needed formalities. At the same time my roommate, received his. Surprisingly with his letter came an immediate call to come to Rome. Within a week he was back with a visa to Canada. BLUESTEIN did not waste much time. He got in touch with his uncle in Philadelphia who was fairly rich and childless, asking him to pay for his passage to Canada. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed with the developments. After all, it was my parent’s friend from way back that originally started the wheels in motion to bring me to Canada. My roommate was only an onlooker. Now he had the visa to Canada and I? Who knows when I would get my visa. Particularly upset with the turn of events was my uncle Shlome (Salomon) in New York, who expressed the same sentiment as I. He too knew Mrs. ZBAR from Shershev, and was in contact with her through all those years. However, all we could do was wait. And wait I did. Yet contrary to the general opinion that waiting is a boring and weary time, that was not the case for me or for the others at that time in camp. It happened to be for us Jews one of the most critical, tense, strained yet hopeful moments in our history, a moment at which one had to be privileged to be conscious of, as well as to be present at. I think that most of us were to a large degree aware of it. We were witnessing the “Khevle-Leyda”, the pains of childbirth of our Jewish old-new homeland.
Events were taking place at head spinning speed. The British were pulling out of Palestine. Everyday they were clearing out from different areas, handing over their police forts and strategic positions, even their arms to Arabs, while at the same time maintaining their blockade of the shore of Palestine diverting every illegal ship load of refugees to Cyprus and arresting every Jew in Palestine if caught with a weapon. We, survivors of the Holocaust, could easily compare the actions of the British, with that of the Nazis at the beginning of 1945, when Nazi Germany in its death throes, deprived of its gas chambers were trying to dispose of the remnants of the Jews by marching them to death in those infamous death marches. So were the British dead set to leave behind them the legacy of total commitment to the Arabs, right or wrong. Showing flagrantly its anti Jewish bias and contempt of justice for the world to see. If the above few lines sound a bit extreme, one has to be able to turn the clock back some fifty years and get into the shoes of a survivor of the Holocaust, who had nobody in the world and the only place someone is willing to extend a helping hand and a warm welcome smile is in the land of Israel. But here again, as a couple of years earlier, an allied power that tried then to hide the slaughter of Jews that had taken place, so it is now literally handing the sharpened knife to the sworn enemies of Israel saying: Here are the tools. We are moving out leaving you a bunch of defenseless Jews. Now go to it.
We stayed glued to the radios day and night. We knew of every Arab attack and every British betrayal. Of the Arabs over running the four settlements of “Gush Ezion”, and ensuing slaughter of the British abandonment of the thirty five Jewish doctors to the Arab murderers on their way to the hospital on Mount Scopus, and of many more like it.
We waited almost “holding our breath”, for the fourteenth of May, when the last of the British forces will depart the land, wondering and hoping for a miracle. At the end of April, I received a note from the Canadian embassy to come to Rome for an interview. It was just couple of days after my roommate BLUESTEIN left for Canada. On the fourteenth of May we, in the camp, shared the excitement with the rest of the Jewish people all over the world. Enough had already been written about it, so I will just say that we celebrated the occasion the same way as the day the partition decision passed in the U.N., with a barrel of wine in the street. Yet we all remained glued to the radios, knowing that not only the fate of the six hundred and fifty thousand Jews in the land of Israel hung in the balance, but also our two thousand year old dream of returning to our Promised Land and maybe G-D forbid the fate of our entire people.
At the end of May I left for Rome, checking into a private home converted to a small hotel by the name of “Albergo Italia”, owned and run by a widowed woman and her two young beautiful daughters. Actually it was not a home but a large apartment with old-fashioned large rooms. Each room held six beds, which during my stay were all occupied, all by us survivors. It seemed that the place was popular with us guys and I am not surprised. I recall being comfortable there too. We have long before forgotten what privacy was, so sleeping six in a room meant nothing to any of us. Besides speaking the same language, Yiddish, we had a common language, a common past and experience. We understood each other instantly, as if we knew each other for years. It was a kinship that it is difficult to understand unless you are one of it. Sadly, much of that has unraveled among those of us that are still around. I am not surprised it’s been a long time. The years and the experience of our younger days had taken its toll. The next day I went to the Canadian consulate where I was given some letters to different medical offices for an array of tests, also an appointment with a Canadian doctor for several days later, giving him time for checking my test results. Those few days I had a chance to walk over the streets of Rome. On the elegant Via Nazionale, look at the fronts of its beautiful shops, the many piazzas, statues, monuments and fountains. I have seen them before but now, I have not even got the visa yet, just the same, I began to miss it. On the appointed day I went to the consulate doctor. He had in front of him all the reports. They must have been in order, so he went through the motions of giving me a check up and gave me a couple of sheets of paper telling me to present them in the consulate the next day. When I showed up the next morning at the consulate, there was quite a crowd a head of me in the large waiting room. I sat down and looked around, expecting to see only survivors like myself. To my surprise, we were in the minority. Most of the potential immigrants were Italians of all ages. That puzzled me, for I was under the impression that Canada is interested in young and able bodied people and here I saw quite a lot of children and elderly and even what seemed to me to be infirmed people. Some did not spend more than five minutes behind the door. Some a little longer, some of us refugees came out with radiating faces and some with expressions of deep disappointment. We immediately began to ask them what is going on behind the door and came to the conclusion that politics play a role in receiving a visa. That is if one of us had spent the four years of the war in the Soviet Union, stood very little chance of receiving a visa.
I recall one young man was refused a visa for having lost partly his hearing in one ear due to a blow he received in concentration camp. A second had the same problem with an eye. Another one mentioned to the man who issued the visas, that he had a brother in the U.S., to which the consul or whoever he was said: You do not want to go to Canada. You want to go to the United States. All you want is to use Canada as a stepping stone. We can not allow it. And so it was for us survivors in those days, a selection of another kind. When it came my turn, I was taken into a small room. A well dressed woman of about thirty five came in. Sitting herself down opposite me, she said in German; Give me a short resume of your life. I told her where and when I was born, that I began school in 1929, what school and to what year. When we got into the ghetto, when we were taken from the ghetto to Auschwitz, when and where I was liberated and where I spent the last three years. The whole story took maybe 3 minutes. The door opened and a bureaucratic (official) looking man came in saying: What is his story? She answered: Very simple: Till 1941 in school, from 1941 to 1943 in ghetto and from then in Auschwitz. Saying this she handed him a folder she was holding in her hands. Taking it from her, he motioned to me to follow him. In the next room opening the folder which he placed on a desk, he glanced briefly through it, looking up at me once, picked up a stamp and stamped my stateless passport with it. Without a word, he motioned I should pick up the passport, which I did. I said Thank-you and walked out.
This door led into a large corridor with many offices and it was right opposite his door that I noticed the sign with the name of Nisht on it. I have written about it earlier. The visa was good for three months. Shortly after returning to transit camp, I was notified that passage for me from Genova to Halifax on a ship by the name “Sobiesky” was paid by my cousin Irving ABERBACH and that the booking was for the first of July 1948. I had one month to my departure, but my time and attention was constantly occupied with the events in Israel. I went to sleep and wake up with a feeling of guilt. If I am not being harsh on myself, I would say I felt like a traitor. Many times a day I would chastise myself for going to Canada, while my brethren in Israel are fighting for their and my existence. Only three and a half years ago, I would have been happy and would have felt privileged to die for such a cause. Now that I had the chance to fulfill my childhood and adolescent dreams to stand in line with other Jews in defense of a Jewish homeland and Jewish lives, I am abandoning them to their fate. True, my uncle used to remind me in his letters, that I am the sole survivor of our entire family and that I owe it to them to stay alive to perpetuate their memory and their name, that they would want me to stay alive for that reason. Besides, wrote my uncle, after what I went through, I more than deserve it. Never the less, that feeling of guilt had never left me through all those years and is part of the feeling of guilt and remorse, as indelible as the very fact of remaining alive that haunts the survivor.
I had a month before my departure. It suddenly dawned on me that a few of my acquaintances had left the camp during the month of May. After inquiring I found out that they had left for Israel. In fact many left before the state of Israel was proclaimed, arriving at its shores on the day or a couple days after the Declaration of Independence. In the excitement of the last two or three months, I did not notice that some others had left for the states, Argentina and some for Canada. It was time for me to get ready too. I still had most of the money I came with from Leuca that my uncle Shloime (Solomon) AUERBACH used to send me a few dollars from time to time. As it was as good as a fact in the minds of all eastern European masses that once you come to the shores of North America one can find gold in the streets, I decided not to come looking as a beggar, but as a human being. I still remember going to a tailor to order a double breasted brown suit. A refugee seamstress in camp made me six dress shirts. In a clothing store, I bought two pairs of pajamas and six sets of under wear. After much deliberation I bought six Borsolini hats for Mrs. ZBAR’s family. Not knowing what to buy, I bought a nicely decorated musical cigarette box, a couple cameos and a table lamp made from a large seashell with beautiful carved designs. Having heard that accordions are expensive in North America, I bought a new one “Scandalli”, which came in its own case. Along with it, I acquired two suitcases and got ready for the trip. Surprisingly enough, I filled up the two suitcases. True, one was full with the presents and my new wardrobe, but the second contained besides a pile of letters from my uncle, also letters from my relatives in Israel, as I do not like to part with any written material that is of sentimental value to me. I filled up the suitcase with some clothes that I received in the last year in parcels from my uncle Shloime. So here I was, a refugee with two suitcases and an accordion, traveling to Canada. From my traveling experience in Italy, I preferred to be earlier than later and decided to leave a week before my boat was due to depart. My friend Leibel BLISKOWSKY offered to accompany me to Genova, which I gladly accepted
That train trip is still vivid in my mind. Those small crammed compartments made for eight passengers, four on a bench, but always ended up with five on each. As farther north we went, and some passengers got off, the new ones that got on were larger. Somewhere along the trip at a station when some of the passengers from our compartment got off, they were replaced by a group of Italian middle aged and matronly women, who made themselves very comfortable. I knew that if I would get up, my seat would disappear beneath them. So I sat. One of the women initiated a conversation with the two of us. We, being peeved at them for making our trip even more uncomfortable than even before, and not even pretending to notice it, were not inclined to go into a conversation with them. So we pretended to speak and understand even less Italian than we did. All they found out from us is that we are going to America. That did not deter them from keeping a conversation going among themselves. I hear one saying to the others: Look how lucky those two are. They are returning home to their families and parents, to comfort and riches. And they continue describing life in America as much as their imaginations would permit them. We two are listening to their conversation without uttering a word. I do not know what in my friend BLISKOWSKY’s mind was going on, for he not only lost his parents, brother and sisters, but also a wife and a child. I felt like jumping up and yelling; Stop talking. I can not bear it. I am not with you think I am. I am not a returning home G. I. I am not returning to my family nor am I returning home. I have neither family nor home. I have been driven out of my home seven years ago and two years later I and my family were brought to a place called Auschwitz where they were mercilessly murdered and now their ashes are fertilizing some Polish farmer’s field. But I do not. I sit listening to their conversation of my life. Of the life of my family that could have been. That should have been, but was not.
And so the train rolled on, from Bari to Barletta to Foggia, to Caserta, past Rome, past Civitavecchia. I looked out at the city of Civitavecchia. It was badly damaged either by air bombardment or by artillery. I have never been here before but I knew of it from the late thirties, when the “Beitar” under ZABOTINSKY established there a marine school for Jewish boys. It took me back a dozen years, how much has it changed since then. The train continued to Livorna, Pisa, Spezia and finally Genova. (Genoa) There too, we checked into a similar place (hotel) like earlier in Rome. We slept several in a room. Unlike in Rome where there were survivors only, here we met Jews even from North Africa. We got acquainted with one North African family in particular. It consisted of an old patriarchal dressed and looking man of an indefinite age and his wife, who looked much older than her age. The third person of that family was a daughter of about twenty six or twenty seven, and who wore no make up of any sort to hide her age. So judging by the daughter, her mother could have easily been taken for the grandmother, which she was not. The older couple spoke only Arabic, but the daughter spoke a fluent Italian, as she was born and grew up in Libya. They were on the way to Israel. The young woman had her hair coloured an unusual red. She explained that where she came from, all young women of marriageable age dye their hair this colour as a sign of matrimonial availability. Yet she was never out of sight of one of her parents. She would not even be with one or the two of us alone for a moment in the lobby of that small hotel, even in the presence of other guests.
Genova, particularly in the direction of the harbour was not made for walking because of its uneven terrain, especially in late June, so we spent the noon hours indoors, talking with the guests of the hotel. All of them were there waiting for the departure of their boats, a few to Canada, some to the United States, others to South America and still others to Israel. As my friend Leibel BLISKOWSKY liked to talk to that Libyan girl, and why not? He was fifteen or eighteen years her senior and available. Inescapably I was drawn into their conversation, which was very general and very public. It was interesting to hear her stories about Jewish life in Libya and their matrimonial problems. In the evenings we men used to go for walks in the neighbouring streets. What impressed me most was a particular street along the harbour with its bars, cheap coffee houses, and the blaring music from every bar and above all the human diversity. Characters, which I always thought, were fictional, portrayed in movies only. There I saw them in real life, every bit as exact as in movies and more. I was told that Genova is the largest Italian port. From the top of a rock overlooking the city, it certainly was a huge port.
The day of my departure arrived. Checking out, I paid also for my friend BLISKOWSKY’s stay, despite his objections. Taking a carrozza (carriage), we drove to the port. After paying the coachman my last few liras, I noticed that all I had in my pocket were twelve American dollars, which were at that time on par with the Canadian dollars. After saying good bye to my friend Leibel BLISKOWSKY, which was not easy for either of us, for we had learned to trust each other and became good friends during the last five years. In a sense I felt guilty for leaving him behind, while I am going to that “golden land”. I went through Italian customs and immigration where they took my Italian residence paper (segiorno) and tried to make me pay duty on the accordion. Getting on the boat “Sobieski” that had a mostly Polish crew, I stood on the main deck to have a better look at the harbour and city from the ship and wave at the crowd on the large pier, which was surrounded by a marble like stone balustrade. There the only one sitting on it was my friend BLISKOWSKY. We were too far apart to hear each other, but we sure could see one another. I did not want to move for fear that he will lose me from his sight and stood there in one spot for a couple of hours, until the boat began to move. Everybody on shore started waving and so did he, not stopping until he was completely out of sigh. I had the feeling that I left behind one of the best friends I ever had if not the best. My cabin held eight passengers, mostly Italians. Having deposited my baggage under my bed, I went on top to explore. There was no trouble to recognize who were the passengers on the ship. We Jewish survivors found each other pretty soon. We soon saw who the fellow travelers with us were.
After some conversations with the crew, who were glad to use their mother tongue “Polish”, we found out that there are some twelve hundred passengers aboard. There were roughly one hundred in the first and second class and the rest in our third class, among them some fifty Jews. For supper, which was to me more like a feast, we were ten passengers at the table, and as in my cabin, I was the only Jew. The others were mostly Italians, except for a couple who never said a word. The majority of the waiters were Italian and so was ours, which made the whole meal pleasant. Before midnight, we stopped in Cannes, France, where a part of a “Yeshive” (an institution of higher Talmudic learning) came aboard. Some seventy five young men, all except for a few older men, apparently their teachers or Rabbis. They went down to their cabins from which they did not come out throughout the entire trip. We were told that there was a kosher kitchen set up for them in a separate dining hall. It was enough of an exciting day for me and I went to bed before midnight. Sometime during the night I awoke with a feeling that I am being lifted up and up, when suddenly the direction changed and I was going down. Instantly I had the sense as if my entire stomach is pressing upwards and an uncontrollable urge to vomit over whelmed me. Not losing a second I jumped off my cot and in my underwear and bare feet, I ran to the door of the room, which led to the hallway at which end were the public washrooms. To my surprise and chagrin the whole hallway was full with people trying to get there ahead of me. There was no way in the world I could make one step forwards. I looked about and saw people unable to keep themselves in control vomiting on the walls on the floor and on each other. I joined them. For a moment I felt a bit better, just enough to see what is going on around. I saw men and women half naked in such misery that they could not care less how they looked like and I thought to myself: If somebody would take a picture of this and show it afterwards to the very same people, they would be ashamed to appear on the deck. This thought did not linger long in my mind for the nausea returned with the same intensity, needless to say that I did not go into the dining room the next day. That day in the afternoon we passed the Gibraltar. Sadly, I did not feel well enough to appreciate the event.
The following morning when I did show up at the breakfast table, there were three there including me. I came, but could not eat anyway. I used to feel better walking on the deck than lying on the cot in the windowless cabin. There on the deck, I had a good chance to see the other passengers or fellow travelers. Out of the eleven hundred passengers in the third class, I would estimate one hundred and twenty five were Jews, and that included the seventy five that joined us in Cannes. One hundred were Italians and the rest were all of eastern European descent; at least ninety percent of them were Ukrainian. With the passage of hours and days, I began to feel better, maybe because I got used to the motion of the boat or maybe the sea calmed down. Anyhow, I started to come to the dining room for meals. Yet I spent every hour of the day and evening on the deck, going down to the cabin only to go to sleep. There on the deck I could meet and converse with survivors like myself. Share with them our experience. I even dared to speak of the future, with a good measure of apprehension. But my favourite occupation was to sneak up on those eastern Europeans, whose faces were so familiar to me from a few short years ago, when they wore the Nazi uniforms as watchmen at Auschwitz or as volunteers in the local police or auxiliary police under the Nazis command while in Shershev, Antopol, Drohiczyn, Chomsk and Pruzany. They too stood in small groups or were leaning on the ship’s railing close to each other, so as not to have to speak loudly and kept up conversations. I was curious to know what they were talking about. While we were telling each other of our suffering and losses, what were they telling each other? How they had inflicted it? I tried time and time again to pass by such a group close enough to hear something, a sentence even a couple of words, but no luck. They were so much on guard as if obsessed by it. I could only assume that it is for good reason. The moment I came within ear shot, they stopped talking. Among us survivors, this fact was a good topic for conversation. Others among us had the same idea as I and had tried to overhear something but with the same results. We were not oblivious nor were we ignorant of the element and moral quality of immigrants that we are traveling with to Canada, and were wondering what moral qualities can they pass on to their children. Now, over fifty years later, I can say that we were not entirely wrong. Whatever they left behind, this they took with them; their racial hatred and intolerance. Is it because you do not even have to pack it in a suitcase? Not likely. It is in you always, unless you really want to leave it behind or simply get rid of it.
On July 10, we docked in Halifax. We began to disembark right after breakfast. Almost all the passengers got off except the seventy five Yeshiva students, the first and second class and half of the Italian travelers. They went on to New York. We were told to collect our luggage and line up to be processed at the immigration. It is not an easy task to deal with a thousand people who do not speak your language. As if in spite, my suitcases came off the boat with the last load, which caused me to be among the last to go through immigration. The immigration officer began to fill out the questionnaire: Family name, first name, parents’ names, profession, education. How many languages do I speak? I mention some half a dozen, but not Yiddish which is my mother tongue nor Hebrew. I see the satisfaction on the inspector’s face. He is dealing with a literate. After the dozens and dozens of illiterates he has just seen. After a couple more questions without even looking up, he says to me: You have your train ticket to your destination? I see he is holding the pen to tick off a place on the questionnaire. I answer: No. He looks up and says: Just a moment. He calls over one of the two or three men that were mingling all the time with the eastern European immigrants and says to him: How come he has not got his ticket? The man asks for my name, looks at his list and answers: He is not on my list, you better ask Mr. ---- I do not remember the name, but it was a very Jewish sounding name. The immigration inspector’s face becomes somber and he says to me very cautiously yet softly, as if probing: Are you Hebrew? I say, yes. Instantaneously his face turns stern and comes closer to mine. I look at the blond smoothly combed hair and the very light blue eyes. At the face that seemed so friendly a moment ago listen to the words that are coming out of his mouth. You are a Jew!!! It sounded to me like both a statement and an accusation. Yes, I am. I said. He straightens up and starts to walk away saying in a loud voice so that the other inspectors can hear: I got here a lou-lou. He is back within thirty seconds in company with another man. Pointing to me with a motion of his head, he says to the second man; He is yours.
The man comes over to me. I have to look up to him. He is tall. He puts out his hand to me and says; Shalom Aleichem. My name is so and so. I am from “Hias”. Welcome to Canada. Outside this building there is a train waiting which will take you to your destination. Saying this, he pulls out a train ticket from his pocket. Handing it to me, he says; Good luck. At the exit of the building, I am given a package of tobacco “McDonald” and a folder of “Vogue” cigarette paper. Both are still in my possession, over fifty years later. From the exit door of the immigration office to the train is only a few dozen meters. The train conductor directs me to a coach. Intentionally or not, all the Jewish passengers from the boat are in the same coach. We are excited that we finally came to our destination and glad to be together for a little while longer. It seems we are on a railroad side line. We are not moving yet and we are getting hungry. Someone found nearby a neighbourhood store and bought a loaf of white bread paying for it twelve cents. We are impressed with the low price and in no time we are all buying and eating bread. We move out of Halifax before dark. A conductor comes by to check our tickets. We try to strike up a conversation with him. He is patient with us and tries to understand and answer our questions. It turns out that I am the best English speaking person in our coach, so I become the spokesperson for all. There are many questions; how much does a tailor make an hour, a shoe maker, an upholsterer, a hat maker, an electrician, a brick layer, a carpenter? It seems that everyone can make up to four dollars an hour. MY G-D!!! Four dollars means thirty loaves of bread. Who could earn thirty loaves of bread a day in Poland or in Italy? Yet here one can do it in an hour. No wonder that it’s called “The Golden Land.” We are too excited to sleep that night. In the morning we all sit by the windows trying to see as much as possible of our new adopted country, which is so vast yet hardly populated.
We travel for miles on end before we see a settlement. In the distance we see four lonely houses. One of us points out the fact that there is a car parked near each one of them. Is there a car at every Canadian house? The day goes by in expectation and excitement. It is evening and the train still continues to gobble up miles of track at an immense speed. Shortly before midnight the train stops in Montreal. Here about half of the passengers in my car, all of them survivors, get off. I feel a pang seeing them go. We have become close aboard the ship and more so in the one coach for the last thirty six hours. We felt good, comfortable and safe together. Now in the half empty car, there is silence. I guess we all felt the same way. When the train started moving again, we tried to resume our conversation, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the conductor passed by announcing that the next stop is Kingston, Ontario, my stop. I began to wonder what will it be like to meet Mr. And Mrs. ZBAR. The so nice yet to me, total strangers. My, until now total composure, began to leave me and a nervousness even a touch of apprehension started to seize me. Around two thirty in the morning, we stopped at the Kingston station. Grabbing my two suitcases and accordion in its case, I got off the train into an empty space between the train and station. The conductor got on the train and the train pulled away leaving me as far as I could see alone and lost.
As the sound of the train faded in the distance, I began to hear voices coming towards me from down the railway tracks. In a few seconds I could make out shadows of some people and could discern some words. They were speaking Yiddish. I was standing under the lights of the station and they were coming out of the dark. I heard a woman’s excited voice saying, “He looks just like his Uncle Shevach.” This statement caught me by surprise. My Uncle Shevach perished somewhere as a Czarist soldier on the Russian German front, a casualty among many millions in the First World War. My older sister Sheva was named after him. Where does this so far strange woman know of my Uncle Shevach who was older by a year or two than my father? As they got closer I could make out in the dark three men and one woman. One of them I recognized immediately by his gait. It was my former roommate from Italy, Beryl BLUESTEIN. The others were Mr. and Mrs. ZBAR and their business partner, Mr. BERLIN. After an excited and nervous introduction, we got into their car. But instead of driving to their home in town, we drove to their summer home, or cottage, by a lake side. Every body was tired. I was shown a couch in the living room and we all went to bed. Despite the long and sleepless trip from Halifax, I could not go to sleep. As soon as I heard someone moving around in the next room, I too got up. Soon everybody was up. It turned out that the cottage held more people than I thought. The ZBAR’S had a son. He was a doctor who lived in New York who was visiting them now with his wife and four year old daughter. They also had a daughter who married a doctor who was living in Windsor. They too, with their four years old, were in the cottage. Counting their business partner, Mr. BERLIN, my former roommate BLUESTEIN and me, there was quite a crowd. Not to mention, the two maids. One was a young Ukrainian girl who hardly spoke English and the second, a university student who worked in summer to put herself through university.
Despite the fact that all of them tried to make me comfortable and put me at ease, I was not. Even BLUESTEIN’s presence did not help. I could only see that the three months since his arrival had no affect on him what so ever and he was still the refugee he was in Italy, which to a degree, embarrassed me. The cottage was a few years old with running water, plumbing and electricity. A well kept green lawn reaching the lake, some twenty meters away. The cottage was surrounded by flower beds pampered by Mrs. ZBAR herself. Everything looked so beautiful, the cottage, the lawn, the lake, the heavily forested small and larger islands on the lake. The quiet, the family ZBAR, their married children, and the two four year old grandchildren, the children’s giggles and happy shouts, their parent’s laughter and grandparent’s joyous and beaming faces, it was not real. It was like a fairy tale. It was so unreal, so out of my world. Surprisingly, there was no envy in me, only the opposite, and my gladness for those people that are so nice to me and trying to make me feel at home with them. Our conversation was conducted in Yiddish. Mr. And Mrs. ZBAR spoke as good a Yiddish as if they had just left Shershev. So did Mr. BERLIN. Their children and spouses understood almost every word and spoke some. At that time I was sure that the ZBARs and Mr. BERLIN spoke to me and between themselves Yiddish for my benefit. After all, they had been in Canada twenty years by then. Today, after me being here almost fifty years, I am not so sure, for I am still more fluent in Yiddish than English.
In the evening after supper unexpectedly arrived Mr. And Mrs. H. ABRAMSKY, the gentleman farmer who was my sponsor in coming to Canada. Every body was surprised by their unannounced arrival. He was close to fifty. He was on the short side and average characteristics. She was of the same height, a bit plumpish with a strikingly beautiful face noticeable well taken care of. After introduction and a short chat at which he proved to speak some Yiddish, ABRAMSKY proposed that I come to work tomorrow morning on the farm. Despite proposals by Mrs. ZBAR to let me stay on another day or two in order to recover from my trip, his suggestion turned into insistence. I from my side, not wanting to over stay my welcome, agreed to come. The next morning BLUESTEIN and I took the bus to Picton getting off three kilometres before Picton where the ABRAMSKY’s farm was located next to the highway. The farm consisted of four hundred and fifty acres of land on both sides of the road formerly belonging to 3-4 owners. Their houses still stood, now belonging to one owner. In one lived the manager of the farm by the name of Milan, originally from Slovakia. In the second lived a Canadian family by the name of Robinson who looked after the thousands of chickens and some cows. On the side, in the middle of an overgrown field, stood a couple of sheds that must have served to accommodate some temporary workers. In one of them BLUESTEIN was living since he came to Canada three months ago and I moved in with him. The shed had two rooms. The first served as a kitchen and a living room and the second as a bed room that had two single squeaky beds and just enough room for our meagre possessions. The kitchen had a wood burning stove, a small table and a couple of wooden chairs that were held together with wires. A few meters behind the weed surrounded shed, was an outhouse and for washing, bathing and drinking water, Lake Ontario was pointed out to me down a gentle slope some fifty or sixty meters away, which formed one side of the farm’s boundary. I changed my clothes and went right to work.
Expecting to work on a farm I was looking forward to it, as I never did this kind of work. What it turned out was entirely different. The part of the farm that lay between the main road and the lake was unsuitable for farming due to the abundance of all sizes of rock in the ground. In the middle of this land stood a beautiful stone cottage which the owner converted into a summer home for his family. This cottage had all modern conveniences like electricity and running water from a well in the basemen and all that goes with it. The owner’s intention was to extract all the stones from the upper layer of the soil so it could be leveled and seeded with grass, creating a leveled nicely manicured lawn in front of the cottage all the way to the main road. To this purpose there was a tractor hooked up to a plow. After the foreman used to plow over a piece of land, we used to unhook the plow, hook up a big box on wheels. Then the foreman used to drive the tractor and I and BLUESTEIN used to follow and pick up rocks throwing them into the box. It was humanly impossible to pick out all the stones from the ground for there were more stones than soil. Some neighbour farmers used to come over to look at us work and say, “This is not farming. It is mining.” The working day used to start at six in the morning with an hour for lunch. Then continue until dusk, which in July, meant until nine in the evening. That gave us enough time to cook the fish that we used to catch at lunch time and keep them alive in a pail with water until the evening. We were receiving forty five dollars a month payable every two weeks.
The only free day was Sunday, so we used to get up early Sunday morning to take the bus to Kingston in order to spend the day with the ZBARs. We would return in the evening. After having to pay for the trips to Kingston we did not have much to pay for food which we used to buy in the nearby little town of Picton. What helped us in those days was the weekly visit by the ZBARs with their business associate Mr. BERLIN who used to visit us from Kingston almost every Wednesday afternoon due to the fact that the stores were closed those afternoons. They used to bring with them baskets full of sandwiches, pies and other goodies. When they used to come, we used to take off an hour or two and picnic together under one of the many trees. We knew that we owed all this to Mrs. ZBAR’s good nature and generosity, for she used to spend many hours preparing all the food, knowing well that it is humanly impossible to finish it all at one picnic. Of course, they never took anything back with them, leaving us enough food to last for two or three days. Thus, we got into a routine. Work from dawn to dusk with an hour’s break for lunch. There was no time for anything else, not even to think about the friends I left in Italy. In order to start work at six we were up before five. After a hurried ordinary breakfast of bread and jam or butter that we used to buy in Picton, we worked until noon when we always took a few moments to catch a few fish for supper before making our way to the barrack. We picked up on the way a dozen or so eggs that were lying all over the farm from the thousands of hens that Robinson looked after but could never collect them all. After a lunch of fried eggs and bread, we worked until dusk and before even returning to the barrack, we plunged into the lake to wash off the sweat of the day.
Having returned to the barrack, cleaned the fish and boiled up a pot full of fish and potatoes, by then it was close to eleven or later and it was time to call it a day. In those days one could find one or a few Jewish families in almost every small town of Ontario. Picton was no exception. One Sunday, a man appeared introducing himself in Yiddish. He lived with his family in nearby Picton where he owned a chicken business. He used to buy up chickens from the chicken farmers and ship them with his own trucks to New York. He drove us over to his home where he introduced us to his wife and young children. During our conversation, I found out that he came to Canada as a young man from our part of Eastern Europe. When he found out that we are making forty five dollars a month, he offered me on the spot forty five per week to work for him and that was besides living accommodations and board. As he said then: You will be able to save every penny of your pay. To my question why he was willing to pay such a good wage, he answered that he wants me to drive one of his trucks with a load of chickens to New York because his drivers are not dependable. They drank and caused accidents. He knows that Jewish boys do not drink and it is worth it to him. Oh how badly I wanted that job but I was under the impression that I must stay a year on a farm. Of course it was the wrong conclusion for while it was true that our employer guaranteed the government to keep us employed a full year so we should not become a burden on the government, there was no law that prohibited us from working somewhere else. But we did not know it. So I refused that offer.
The ZBARs and their friend, Mr. BERLIN in particular could not stand to see us two working twelve-fourteen hours a day, six days a week for a pittance. They decided to do something about it. Assuming wrongly that we have to stay on a farm at least for a year, they reasoned that we could stay on our own farm and decided to help us buy a farm. We two of course did not have a penny to our name, so they turned to my and BLUESTEIN’s uncles. My Uncle having come with his family to the states at the age of fifty did not have any money. Never the less, he succeeded to collect some from his children. Three of whom spent the war years in the front lines as U.S. service men and the two daughters who worked in the N.Y. sweat shops. He collected two thousand dollars and sent it to the ZBARs. BLUESTEIN’s uncle in Philadelphia who was very rich and had no children, promised to send the same amount too, but never did. However at that early time we all expected his part of the bargain to be kept. The ZBAR’s and BERLIN began to look in the for sale section of the newspaper for a farm. After looking at a couple farms, they decided on one in a place called Greenbush, eleven miles north of Brockville, Ontario. It was a parcel of one hundred acres of land, consisting of fifty five acres of arable land, ten of pasture and thirty five of woods. On that strip of land, a quarter of a kilometre wide and two kilometres long stood an old house and a stable for the ten cows and two big horses and a barn. All of them were in a run down state. The house had a kitchen, living room and a bedroom downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. Next to the kitchen sink was a hand pump that drew water from a cistern located in the basement. The water in the cistern used to come from the rain water on the roof that was diverted to it. In the basement whose walls were of stacked up crude stones without even cement, was a wood fired furnace. There was a well on a green lawn some dozen meters from the house with a small electric pump that used to pump water into a trough for the livestock. This water was clean and suitable for human consumption. There were ten milking cows and a team of two large horses, a disc plow and a binder in poor state. The farmer had just threshed his forty five acres of oats and had half a barn full of straw as well as seven hundred and fifty bushels of oats-grain. There were also four acres of standing corn and four acres of sugar beets to be pulled and taken in. Besides the house, there was a vegetable garden with a fair amount of potatoes in the ground. The farmer wanted to sell it as a going concern and would not let it go for less than seven and a half thousand dollars, which was at that time a high price. They decided to wait a while.
Since I arrived in Canada, I was in constant touch with my uncle Shloime (Solomon) in New York. My family in the states was very eager to see me and decided to send my cousins Helen and her brother Harold. I remember them when they left Shershev in 1930. Harold was then twelve years old and Helen was around twenty. I, being at that time only six, it was no wonder I did not recognize them. I had the chance to spend with them the Sunday at the ZBAR’s cottage at which time they had other visitors and I found it difficult to speak with them alone and to share with them some of the memories and pass on the message from my mother which I carried with me throughout the last seven years and expounded on in my mind to endlessness. Yet it was for me a very stirring and moving moment to see again my two cousins whom I did remember from my childhood. But more than this, they were part of the family that lived in New York. The family that my mother loved so much, who never left her mind nor did she let it leave ours. The next day my cousins left. The following Sunday the ZBAR’s and Mr. BERLIN took us to see the farm. The decision was made to buy the farm. The truth is that I had very little to say in it. It was the ZBAR’s and Mr. BERLIN’s say and money except the two thousand dollars that my uncle sent. But it was mostly on the grounds that my friend BLUESTEIN claimed that he was a farmer at home and good at it. We decided on a day to come to Kingston and arrange all the formalities at a lawyer. On the day we came together all there. All the ready cash was the two thousand dollars that my uncle Shloime AUERBACH sent from New York. We were short five and a half thousand dollars, a very large sum in those days. Mr. BERLIN offered right away to extend us a loan for this amount. I can still recall as the lawyer was making out the agreement between us and Mr. BERLIN, he was writing down every word and pronouncing it loudly and clearly so as we, the two newcomers could understand. He was saying; “We, the two undersigned undertake to repay the above mentioned amount at the end of five years with the interest rate of?” Here he stopped to hear from Mr.BERLIN the amount of interest he was going to charge us. Mr. BERLIN answered calmly, “none.” The lawyer who had his eyes glued until now to the paper jerked up his head. His face staring unbelievingly at what Mr. BERLIN said. “What?” Mr. BERLIN repeated this time with two words; “No interest.” The lawyer held his gaze on Mr. BERLIN for a few long seconds more. Then he turned to us two and said, “ You are lucky men.”
That night getting back to ABRAMSKY’s farm, we decided that one of us should go to our own farm to get acquainted with the work and the established order of looking after the animals. Besides we did not know how long the former owner will be willing to stay on, for he said that he will not remain much more than a week. The next Sunday as we were getting on the bus for Kingston as every Sunday, I took with me all my belongings. That same day yet the ZBARs and Mr. BERLIN took me to our farm. The former owner, a man in his middle thirties with his wife and young children tried to make me comfortable. As it was almost the end of September there was a lot of work on the farm. The first and main thing that had to be done twice daily, morning and evening, was to milk the cows, a task done with the help of an electric milk machines which I had never seen before. Some of the cows sensing a stranger near them, who approached them awkwardly, were not above kicking with their hind legs. Never the less, I had learned to operate the milk machine and got used to the cows and they to me. In late summer and fall there are many things that have to be done besides milking cows. Even on a dairy farm like ours was. There were four acres of corn to take in and four acres of sugar beets. Some of the beets were so large they would not fit into an ordinary pail. They had to be pulled out of the soil and taken into the barn and that is what I had been doing by myself as the former owner felt no responsibility for the farm. A week later he and his family left. The same week BLUESTEIN came. I had begun to learn a lot of things about a farm, especially a dairy farm where there is livestock. I had learnt soon enough that one can not leave a farm for a whole day only for part of it. That there is never a moment when a farmer can say; “Now I can relax” and that no matter how long the day is, it is never long enough. Here our day used to begin at five in the morning. At six we were already milking the cows. After milking, the milk had to be carried to the road in metal containers and deposited on a wooden stand from where it used too be collected by a truck and delivered to one of the three dairy plants that were at that time in Brockville. There, each can used to be tested for its milk and milk fat. The farmers used to receive a cheque every two weeks.
After milking the cows, we had to drive them outside to be watered at the trough and clean the stables of the manure and straw from the previous night, replacing it with fresh straw. The part where the horses stood had to be cleaned too. After watering, the horses and cows had to be driven to the pasture. By that time it used to be eight in the morning, time to wash up and eat breakfast, which never varied. It consisted of boiled potatoes from the previous night that we used to dump in a hot pan with freshly fried onions. After the potatoes got hot, we used to crack over them half dozen eggs, mixing the whole thing for a minute or so. We then sat down to the meal washing it down with milk. I will admit that it was a nourishing and calorie rich meal but only one of two a day. As soon as we finished we left the house not to come in until after milking the cows in the evening, which was never before eight. The first couple of weeks, we spent the hours of the day bringing in the sugar beets from the field into the barn. I would estimate that there was approximately sixty tons of it from which the leaves and roots had to be removed first and carried into the barn in a sack on our backs. Next we had to do the corn. As we had no silo, we had to cut the stalks down, tie them in sheaves and bring them into the barn. There was still a fair amount of potatoes in the ground that seemed to be a bit too much for our needs. We decided to sell some. I deliberately timed myself one day and kept on digging from after breakfast until milking time. By six in the evening, I filled up ten sacks of potatoes. When we sold them the next day, all we got was seventy five cents per one hundred pound bag. For my nine hours of digging plus the thousand pounds of potatoes, I got seven and a half dollars. Counting the labour of plowing, fertilizing, seeding and weeding, I am sure that if I would have gone to do the same potato digging at a neighbour, he would have given me ten dollars for that day’s work. No plowing, no seeding and no weeding.