|Jewish Brethren , Hold Stead Fast!|
1. The Ghetto in
On The Way To Eretz
personal memoirs of Shumel Mordechai Rubinstein z"l
On The Way To Eretz Israel
At Salzburg we found a camp of refugees on their way to Eretz Israel. All the talk was of Israeli soldiers, emissaries from Israel, ships sailing from Trieste, and so on. Apparently all you had to do was make your way to Italy and already you would be in Israel. Fool that I was, I believed it - I was burning to go...I so much wanted to realize my dream, my glorious dream of going to Eretz Israel. Now it was almost in my grasp and I didnt want to lose it. After 3 days in Salzburg once again we found ourselves on a train. Tickets and money were apparently not required, total chaos reigned, but we were off... I took no notice of the beautiful scenery, the forests and the mountains, all I could see was Eretz Israel. Another week, another few days, and I would be there. What would it look like? Who would I see there? What would I do there? Nothing mattered but to go to Eretz Israel.
We arrived at the border between Austria and Italy. There was a great deal of confusion about passports and visas - after such a war how could there be borders? Passports? Nonsense! In fact nobody asked questions and nobody was required to give answers - the important thing was to go to Eretz Israel and fulfil the dream I had in the hell of Evenzy. Every station we passed had been bombed and destroyed by warplanes and kilometers of railroad track had been torn up. We had to walk to another train, which took us to the next station where the story repeated itself. Everything was damaged, everything was destroyed, and we kept travelling and walking. Fortunately nobody had anything to carry... In this way we reached Livorno, where they placed us in another camp, but this one was clean and orderly and most important, it had no Germans! We went for a walk to see the town and when they saw us the women wept! The men dragged us off to have a drink while their wives gaves us ration cards for bread. The bakeries refused to take our money, they treated us like saints - it was very touching. None of us could speak the language, we didnt undertand a word, although we all felt the genuine warmth of these good people, but we didnt know how to accept it. It was like a dream in place of the nightmare, a dream that we wanted to continue as long as we could.
The town is divided in two by a river, but linked by many bridges, all of which had been destroyed by bombs. Of the bitter war which had been waged, these were the signs which remained, along with the mass graves of the millions who had perished, and the smell of ash from millions of people burnt by the Nazi beast. Only one bridge had been hastily erected over the river to permit the passage of people from one side to the other. There were hardly any cars, only pedestrians and cyclists. We had to wait a long time to cross the bridge but time was one thing we had plenty of. Everything looked so fresh and new to us, as if we were newly-hatched fledglings. We wandered the streets, trying to grasp the meaning of freedom. I couldnt believe it. Subconsciously I kept turning my head to make sure I had not strayed too far from my SS guards. It took a long time, many months, before I could accept the fact that I was free and nobody was standing guard over me.
In the market place peddlers were hawking their wares but nothing interested me.
Women wrung their hands and men crossed themselves when they caught sight of us. Under normal circumstances they would have thought I was crazy - a man wearing an army coat but no hat, trousers of a peculiar shade, neither blue nor green, a sort of faded colour, which barely covered his knees, the hems sewn with white thread all my own work, and a pair of army shoes without socks. In addition I couldnt speak their language, so I signalled with my hands and uttered sounds nobody understood. But in those days I was accepted as a tourist - weird but a tourist...
I asked about a synagogue. Suddenly a women rushed over, hugged me and mumbled Synagogue? Hebrew? Jewish synagogue? She left her stall unattended and took us to the synagogue. It was beautiful and tidy - it only lacked Jews. As I approached the Aron Kodesh I began to cry. I wept bitterly for the destruction of the Jewish people. I sobbed for the loss of my flourishing family, my parents, my brothers, my sisters, my wife, my son, my aunts, my uncles and my cousins. They had all departed, all of them, none remained, and I was left alone to to travel the world in search of a new place, a new home. Every day found me somewhere else, not knowing where to lay my head. I prayed daily that some generous soul would provide me with a piece of bread. No longer could I remain in accursed Germany, waiting in a camp. I didnt want any favors from anyone, I wanted to go further, to distance myself from it all and arrive in Eretz Israel as soon as possible.
When I finished crying in the synagogue my heart was eased somewhat. I felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from me. I went back to the others and told them who I met and what I saw in the town and everyone wanted to see the synagogue. I learned some Italian that day: si (yes), pane (bread), gracia (thank you). Next day we were back on the train, travelling further, closer to Eretz Israel. We arrived at Bologna where the picture was repeated - everything was destroyed, the station, the bridges, every strategic target had been bombed. We arrived at a huge camp full of refugees milling around - millions of refugees, sky, earth, sand and refugees as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They were giving out soup but you could die of hunger before your turn would come. G-d in heaven, where have you brought me? Never mind, Eretz Israel is acquired through suffering. Its all worth it because Im going to Eretz Israel.
Suddenly I saw a crowd of Jews. I apologize for not explaining earlier that all the millions of refugees were not Jewish - 99% of them were gentiles from the whole world. They were exploiting the opportunity to receive aid and thus not return home empty handed. We, or at any rate I, had no such intentions. We were like baby birds. Im considered big, so you can think of me as a large, stupid turkey. Just as a turkey seeks one grain after another, I was seeking the way to Eretz Israel. When I saw that crowd of Jews I rushed to join them, and with my own eyes I saw a real soldier, and not just a soldier but a soldier from Eretz Israel. He had insignia, not just any military insignia but a Star of David! I felt as if I had just seen Elijah the Prophet with my own eyes! I touched him and he was real! A real soldier!! Another one joined him, and we eagerly absorbed every word he said. He showed us a scrap of newspaper - unbelievable - it was written in Hebrew!!! I felt as if I was already there, in Eretz Israel. What happiness, what joy... But they were false prophets, they were frauds, they spoke not one word of truth! How could we know? We believed because we wanted so badly to believe. We believed because we had no choice. A drowning man clutches at a straw. They took us to the station, loaded us into boxcars, and threw two boxes of dry biscuits and cartons of condensed milk into each. Choke yourselves! The only difference between this journey and our train journey to Auschwitz was that the doors were not bound with barbed wire! Nobody asked whether we had eaten or drunk, if we were tired or had rested - nothing!
We travelled all night, arriving in Rome at dawn, when we climbed down, stretched and went in search of some water to wash, and to find out where we were. What did I see but a Russian NKVD agent looking for Russians. Whats going on here? Im on my way to Eretz Israel. Now I find myself in Rome with Russians? Thats all Im short of! I was terrified. I began running across the fields until there was a fair distance between me and the station. I lay down to hide under a bush and there I stayed for a few hours. I didnt care if the train left and my friends went on without me, all I cared about was that I shouldnt fall into the hands of that thief! Someone saw me lying there and asked what I was doing. I told him, and he said I had nothing to worry about, the NKVD man was long gone. I rejoined my friends, who told me that the agent was looking for Russian citizens in order to assist anyone who wanted to return to Russia - to speed him on his way to the next world...
They suggested that we go to Cine Citta - my forefathers never heard the name and wouldnt know where it is. So off we went, not caring particularly where we went as long as we reached Eretz Israel. This is a place surrounded entirely by a brick wall. It is said that once they made movies here, but now it was just a place for statistics! Before we had a chance to rest the NKVD agent was once again with us, looking for Russians. I told Shmuel that if he comes over to us we dont understand or speak a word of Russian! He left and in the evening we returned to the train - the same boxcars, everything sealed shut as we travelled in darkness. Everything was so secretive, we knew nothing, and those in the know were lying to us.
Twenty four hours later we arrived at the heel of Italy, in the south, and halted at a station by the name of Nordau. From there we were taken on trucks a distance of 7 kilometers to Santa Katerina, a place of lovely houses but empty of people, in fact, empty of everything, nothing but rocks and sea around us! We were totally exhausted. They gave us two blankets each - some bright sparks went back for more, twice and even three times! The stupider people were happy to find a corner to curl up and rest. Food wasnt even mentioned, and nobody bothered to point out that we needed to be fed. Nobody asked: Do you have clothes? Do you need anything? Nobody paid us the slightest attention, and we had nobody to turn to. The bright sparks began selling their extra blankets, mattresses, every rag had its value in southern Italy. The population was very poor, they were so short of food that they were willing to work all day for 1 kilo of bread.
There were UNNRA officials in the DP camp. In time 4 such camps were set up in the area. Eretz Israel emissaries came to see us. Some of them pretended to be UNRRA officials, while others used false names. They all had the same purpose - to direct the refugees to Eretz Israel. There werent many options, because all immigration was illegal. Most of the UNRRA officials were British, and they were on their guard not to permit anyone to immigrate to Eretz Israel. Some of the British officials were also informers. The refugees were helpless pawns in the ongoing battle between agents of the Jewish Agency and those of the Intelligence Services. The British had weapons, in addition to the support they received from various other countries, but the Agencys weapon was the will of the persecuted, hungry refugees. How long could one live as a free man while remaining hungry? People began to deal on the black market, to steal, to cheat the UNRRA representatives in the camps. At first I assumed that the remnants of the Jewish people who had remained alive would finally unite, forgetting their divisions and factions, but each emissary who arrived from Eretz Israel representing a different group fanned the flames of dissension and incited fights, as if nothing at all had befallen the Jewish people and Eretz Israel was already ours, leaving only the problem of which ideology should prevail. Groups of every stream were organized, and those who, like me, werent affiliated with any of them were considered beyond the pale and labelled wild animals. Is this what I had prayed for? What bitter irony! Everyone in the camp was a brand plucked from the flames, the stench of ashes still clung to them, they had not yet assuaged their hunger or decently clothed their bodies but they were all arguing over ideology!
Thousands of people wandered aimlessly, without occupation, because there was nothing to do! We simply waited for our ration of bread and soup, continuing to exist as we had in the concentration camp with the difference that now we were permitted to lie on the beach, swim in the sea, or lie on our beds staring at the ceiling! A Refugees Committee was organized. It included representatives of each ideological stream as well as one or two of those who preferred to live at the expense of others. Two cooperative shops were established but their prices were the same as prices in other places, and any profits disappeared. When clothes arrived some were shared out between the groups and the rest found their way to the black market... Those who were not affiliated with any group or kibbutz were labeled thieves - nothing had changed! Some people were righteous, the others were villains... I stayed at home or lay on the beach, refusing to participate in any activities. I was ashamed to go outside because I had no clothes. All I had was what I brought with me from the concentration camp.
I had decided only to eat kosher food from now on so I attached myself the kitchen run by Agudat Yisrael. My mistake! These righteous ones had set up a kibbutz of their own which was joined by some of those wild animals. They didnt steal, G-d forbid, instead they simply traded some of their wares on the black market, and with the profits they organized for themselves fine Shabbat meals and Melave Malkas as befits Hassidim... Taking is not the same as stealing, G-d forbid...
I remembered the address of my aunt, the righteous Rivka æ"ė from Chicago. I wrote to her, explaining that I was the only one of our family to remain alive. I didnt want to ask for anything, just that they should know I was alive, and for me to know that Im not alone in the world, that I have a connection with someone. Her reply arrived soon afterwards. She wanted to know why I didnt request anything and asked whether there was anything I needed - money perhaps, some food or clothing? I wept so bitterly when I received her letter that they heard me out in the street. When I calmed down somewhat I began to compose a second letter. I thanked her for her generosity. G-d has watched over me until now, I hope he will help me further. My only request is for a pair of tefillin, a tallit and a siddur. A woman from
was with them when they received this letter and she begged for the mitzva of providing me with the tefillin, tallit and siddur, saying that my aunt could add other things to the parcel. And so it was that I received a suit, a few shirts, underwear and cigarettes, and suitably garbed I could step out in the street.
One evening I saw a crowd of people clustered around three men who had arrived from Rome to organize the Oved. I stood nearby to find out what its all about. The following day a committee of representatives of all the refugees would be set up in the town of Bari. Mention was made of the Zionist Organization of Eretz Israel, which would also be represented. On the spot they also decided to include 3 or 4 representatives of those people who had remained unaffiliated - the wild animals, and I was nominated. I hadnt expected it because I wasnt even aware that anyone knew who I was. I was chosen against my will, but after the meeting I invited the three visitors from Rome to my house, to find out a bit more about this Oved. Who was in charge of it? What do they do? And so on... In this way we established the Oved. The following day we traveled to the conference in Bari, where I met many acquaintances and old friends. The conference went on for three days and involved a great deal of talk but nothing else came out of it. The longer we remained in the camp the more clearly we realized that we would not be going to Eretz Israel at any time in the near future.
Everyone returned to his camp and I decided to call a meeting of all the wild animals on Shabbat afternoon, to report what had happened. I wanted to tell them what was discussed, and to hear their suggestions as to what we should do to make sure that nobody stole our share, and to expose the true thieves. It was a most successful meeting, the hall was completely full. This was the first time people really organized themselves and became united. We were now a force to be reckoned with. We insisted that a new council be elected and I was chosen to join the council together with two other men, in addition to the kibbutz representatives. The first thing I demanded was to see the books of the shops and other enterprises. When the members of the previous council saw that we were taking matters seriously they tried to bribe me, in the most elegant manner imaginable! I replied: Gentlemen, this is not a question or a problem of one person, this is a problem of 50% of all the people. These people have consistently been robbed of their rights, they have been labelled wild animals and thieves. Meanwhile, at their expense you have done exactly as you pleased, but its all over now. Having no alternative they appointed me manager of both shops. In the tailors workshops, when they received cloth for shirts they would steal half and somehow fill the orders with the other half. The shirts they produced were only suited to the body of Christ on the cross!!!
I went into each shop and delivered my ritual speech: they were to account for every last farthing - they could trust me to examine the books, because I knew exactly how to do it! Prices would be set by me and clearly listed on a board! I visited the workshops and gave instructions as to what should be done and how it would be achieved, warning them to forget their old customs. I would personally see to it that everyone would earn exactly what they are entitled to - honestly and not through thievery. I organized some more workshops and all sorts of training courses. The most important thing was to stop people wandering the streets like sleepwalkers, because there had been some incidents of murder, as people began to take the law into their own hands. Many unpleasant episodes occurred as the result of idleness and hopelessness. People knew there was no chance of leaving for Eretz Israel but there was nowhere else to go. I opened barbershops so everyone could have a haircut and shave at minimal cost, I arranged training courses for drivers, electricians and bookkbinders, and all this delighted the UNRRA officials so they gave me all the help I needed. I also contacted people from the Joint Distribution Society who were happy to provide assistance. The emissaries from Eretz Israel were particularly pleased by my activities because they realized that it was essential to keep people busy and avoid boredom, especially on Saturday nights, so we arranged evening programs. I set up similar programs in four camps situated 20 kilometers apart. They provided me with a jeep, a driver and a letter of recommendation from Mr. Zimmerman, the chief UNRRA representative for southern Italy. This letter instructed the heads of all the refugee camps in southern Italy to provide me with any assistance I might require. I never asked for anything other than the vehicle, neither food nor money, to avoid any suspicion of graft or double-dealing. The Joint gave me a salary - 3000 lirettas per month. The person who liked me the most was Mr. Chiess, a UNRRA representative and a very smart gentile. He was an India-born British national and a member of the Intelligence Service.
One day a general meeting was called of all UNRRA employees and official emissaries. I was the only attendee who didnt fall under one of these categories! I understood very little of what they discussed because they all spoke English. In the middle of the meeting Mr. Chiess suggested that I become a salaried UNRRA worker. When I asked how much he was offering, he said 3000 lirettas per month which was approximately $10. I refused and he was most surprised at my decisive answer. Look, I said, right now the Joint pays me 3000 lirettas. I expected you to offer me 6000 and then I could quit working for them. For the same amount I may as well stay with them. He explained that it was not possible to pay a refugee more than 3000 lirettas, so he suggested that I work for both places and earn a salary from each. I pointed out that since there are only 12 hours in a day, I could not work double the amount in the same time, nor could I take two salaries for the same days work. He was overcome, and brought me by the hand to Mr. Zimmerman, the Chief UNRRA representative for southern Italy. He introduced me and told him the whole story. They said that Zimmerman was a real Nazi and Jew hater who believed that all the refugees were thieves, scoundrels and worse. Now he was presented with a Jew who would not accept money, even in an official capacity, contrary to all he believed. Thats when he shook my hand and gave me the letter. Later I related the story to one of the emissaries for illegal immigration, a man who went by the name of Haim Appelbaum, although his true name was Abraham Hecklis. He was an honest man and I liked him very much. He highly appreciated my conduct and told me that if ever I was short of money he would give me whatever I needed... I thanked him but assured him that I was satisfied with what I had - Im very proud that I never took money from anyone.
Some of the UNRRA clerks were Jewish girls from England who had volunteered for work with the Joint Relief Unit which was stationed in Santa Maria di Bagni. One of the girls was Chana Ettinghausen, who was known to everyone simply as Chanaleh. She didnt work according to a fixed schedule. You could disturb her early in the morning, or find her in the office after 10 or 11 at night, providing assistance to everybody. She always wore an army uniform and a smile on her face. She was responsible for the warehouse of raw materials. There was a lot of hostile talk about the refugees - it was rumored that they were all petty thieves, Certainly there were a few, but they gave a bad name to everyone else. These stories affected her as well, and she didnt trust anybody. I needed her help to obtain raw materials, and to translate for me in my dealings with the British. It didnt take long for me to convince her that I was not a criminal or a thief, on the contrary I was concerned with everyones welfare. Whenever someone applied to her for something she asked them to bring my authorization, and she assisted me a great deal. I managed to instil a sense of order everywhere. The British commander who ran our refugee camp appreciated my work.
The first Passover was nearly upon us and everyone was very concerned that it should be a kosher holiday with enough food for all. The director of the Joint announced that he would give the kosher kitchens 2000 lirettas per head, while the non-kosher kitchens would only receive 500 lirettas per head, which came out to approximately $1.25. This provoked an enormous outcry and accusations of discrimination. Despite the fact that I was not affiliated with Aguda or Mizrachi I felt that all the kitchens should be kashered for Passover. Together with a Yugoslavian Jew whose name I unfortunately cannot remember, a fine and decent man with the title of doctor, I travelled to Rome to speak to the overall director of the Joint, whose name was Dr. Schwartz, I believe. I brought with me two American newspapers published in Yiddish - Der Yorker Morgenzhournal and Tag Blatt. They featured heartrending articles by the Joint, aimed at American Jews: Tens of thousands of refugees are hungry, lacking clothes and shoes. Now Pesach is coming and they need matza, meat and wine and so on and so forth... Our mission was not to ask for more money for the observant Jews, even though 2000 lirettas was also a laughable sum. We were hoping to do away with discrimination and arrange for everyone to receive the same amount, so that all the kitchens could be kashered, at least for Pesach, and perhaps they would remain so after the holiday. Dr. Schwartz maintained that the observant Jews were entitled to a larger sum because of their religious lifestyle. The others would receive 500 lirettas so that they, too, could enjoy one festive meal. None of our arguments had the slightest effect on him. We pointed out that it was unthinkable to make distinctions between Jews, we claimed that theres a difference between eating treif food and eating hametz on Pesach - no reaction! Then I brought out the heavy artillery. Dr. Schwartz, I remarked, I just wanted you to know that at very moment that you sit down at your delicious Seder table, a huge demonstration will be taking place in southern Italy, complete with black flags, and all the Italian news media will be invited to take photographs and distribute them to the entire world... With that I brought out the two American newspapers, with the remark that our protest would no doubt help the Joints cause. Dr. Schwartz jumped as though hed been bitten by a snake and started yelling. He warned me that I would be held responsible for whatever ensued. But I held my ground, and quietly replied: Dr. Schwartz, I have only one small favor to ask. Do whatever you think best, just dont send me back to Auschwitz... and with that, we left.
But I still had no money. We went to the Agudas Israel headquarters, explained the situation and asked for assistance. They had plenty of advice for us, but no money. When I described the scene with Dr. Schwartz, someone said that was the best way of handling it, and we shouldnt worry because the money would be forthcoming! Meanwhile we returned empty handed. No sooner had we arrived when we were informed that the Joint had sent the sum of 2000 lirettas for every person in the camp. We promptly began to kasher the kitchens and appointed a mashgiach to supervise the kashrut.
The commanders office was right next to the kitchen, with only a dividing wall between them. The post office was on the other side. On the last day of Hol Hamoed I sat writing letters in the post office when Chanaleh rushed in: Come quickly, theyre fighting in the kitchen - theyre trying to kill the mashgiach and the cooks. Theres a rumor that tomorrow there wont be any food... I ran to the kitchen, where a real battle was in progress. I threw my hands in the air and yelled Gentlemen!!! Silence!!! The noise ceased as if I had waved a magic wand. When I asked whats going on, they said that tomorrow there wont be any food. I replied that if thats the case they have time to wage their war tomorrow - why now? I told them to take their food and go home, and I promised that there would be food for them the next day. Chag Sameach!!! Everyone calmed down, took their food and left. The commander of the camp witnessed the entire episode. I then told Chanaleh that we must take a jeep and go as fast as we can to the next camp, Santa Cezaria, 25-30 kilometers distant. Two Mizrahi sponsored emissaries from Eretz Israel were staying there, Avner and Baruch Dubetzky z"lė. They were both gentle souls, really fine people. I told them what had happened and what was likely to happen tomorrow if we have no money for food. They gave us 20,000 lirettas and we flew back to the camp. By now it was nearly nightfall. I gave the money to the commandant with the request that before dawn the next day he should send a truck to buy fish. The fish arrived in the morning and the remainder of the holiday passed peacefully.
One day a large shipment of used clothing arrived from Eretz Israel. Chanaleh came to ask me what was to be done with them. I told her that first of all they must not be stored in the main warehouse because half of them would be stolen on the spot. She should put them in an empty room, lock it securely, and begin sorting and distributing the clothes without delay. She did as I suggested, storing the goods in a large room in the commandants building. She asked me and a very honest Jew named Samsonov to help. I agreed on condition that she remain on the premises and hold on to the key herself. If she had to leave the room we asked her to lock it. We spent a few days sorting the clothes and dividing them into bundles, separating mens clothing from womens clothing. Each bundle was numbered: 1-1, 2-2 and so on, because the population were equally divided. Half belonged to the kibbutzim and the others were unafilliated. Half of the bundles were delivered directly to the kibbutzim. That was easy because they distributed the clothes themselves. The other half were shared out according to a lottery system. Numbers were placed in a box, and everyone drew a slip and received the parcel with the corresponding number. All went well, with no harsh words or criticism. I was told to choose what I wanted but I said Im not taking anything. I think thats when Chanaleh fell in love with me, because my conduct made such an impression on her. She was also impressed by the fact that she always saw me wearing the same shirt, but it was always so clean... She didnt know how I did it. Finally one day she dared to ask me, and I explained that its very simple - I wore it every day, and every evening I went to the sea to wash it. It dried during the night and the next day I would wear it again...
One day the men from the workshop came to complain that they were short of tools and needed a large amount of money to buy what they needed. I asked for a jeep and travelled to Lecce, about 50 kilometers from Santa Maria di Bagni. There I found Mr. Chiess and told him that I needed about 30,000 lirettas. He handed over the money without a word, and without requiring a receipt, and I went on to Bari, a harbour town about 120 kilometers from the camp. I entered the largest hardware shop in town - it contained every tool imaginable. I picked out the merchandise I needed, offering half or slightly more than half of the marked price for each one. The shopkeeper objected at first, but eventually he agreed and prepared the bill, which came to 28,000 lirettas. I told him that I only have 22,000 lirettas, and the shopkeeper made a great fuss What do you mean? Its impossible!! I cant do it!! and so on and so on. OK, I said, If you cant, you cant! I wont buy the tools! In the end he agreed. I counted out the money and asked him to deduct the difference from the bill. He stared at me Dont be a fool. Is it for you? But I insisted that he do as I asked. I thought he would go out of his mind, it hurt him so much to do so, but he deducted the 6,000 lirettas. On the way back I stopped in Lecce and handed Mr. Chiess the bill and the change. He was amazed - Im not sure whether he was more surprised by my honesty or my stupidity. At any rate, from that time on I had free access to him. To this day I have a letter of recommendation from him, which I presented to the British embassy in Rome the first time I went to England. What a warm letter. I had no passport or other documents, but when I went to UNRRA they drew up a letter according to what I told them to write, and on the strength of that letter I received British, Swiss and French passports.
On a trip to Lecce one day to buy merchandise I wandered around the streets. In my wildest dreams I never expected to find myself there someday... I saw a lot of people but I didnt recognize any of them and they didnt recognize me either. Suddenly someone came over to me and began hugging and kissing me. Then he said: Do you remember once, in Auschwitz, you dragged a man with a broken leg during the bombing raid? Its me - Botzen... I was very happy to see that yet another Jew had survived, and that I had helped him. Praise G-d. I finished shopping and went back to camp. After handing over the goods and sitting down to balance the accounts I discovered that I was 6000 lirettas short. I was ashamed to admit it, for fear that I would be suspected of stealing the money myself. The following day I returned to Lecce with a Yugoslavian Jew who spoke fluent Italian. I returned to the shop I had visited the previous day, because I thought there might have been a mistake with the bill. I spoke to my Jewish friend, he translated, adding a bit of his own, and the cashier firmly insisted that the extra money had not remained with him - his accounts balanced! We left the shop without the money and I said to my friend: You know why we didnt get the money? Because your Italian is too good (And because you added all sorts of remarks of your own, I added to myself). I left him outside and returned to the store, where I demanded to see the owner. When he arrived, I explained, using my hands, my feet, the odd Italian word, a bit of Yiddish and some English, that Im a poor man and I dont understand why a rich man like himself would want my 6000 lirettas. He looked at the cashier and asked him something, the cashier answered something else, and then he opened the till and gave me the money. When I showed it to my friend outside he almost went crazy...
Another time I was in town, another Jew rushed over to hug me, saying: You dont recognize me but I remember you. You saved my life! You never noticed me, but I always tried to work near you, because I loved hearing your words of encouragement, your warm exhortations: Yidden halt zich. When we climbed that hill in Evenzy camp we were so weak and hungry, but your trust and your faith never faltered - Hold on, Jews, well soon be free. Thats what kept me going, and its thanks to you that Im alive today. I felt a rush of warmth. No amount of wealth or riches could give me greater satisfaction that hearing his words, because in truth I never stopped praying. The words Yidden halt zich were my constant prayer - Hold on Jews, well survive - how often they seemed to be merely empty words, but now I had living proof that they helped. This is not why I came to town, I needed to buy merchandise - rope and threads. I paid a hefty price, the shopkeeper prepared the bill and then he helped me load everything onto the jeep. But when I came to pay he said Go in peace! I wanted to pay but he said the bill was already settled. I wanted to pay but he insisted! I asked whether he spoke German, because I hoped to explain to him in German that I had not yet paid, but he showed me a check and informed me that he would take it to the bank and receive cash. Then I realized his mistake: he had removed the cash box from a drawer. Under the cashbox were a number of papers and checks, one of which had stuck to the box. When he returned the box to the drawer the check had remained on the counter, and by coincidence it was for precisely the sum of money that I owed, so he thought it was my check. I showed him that it wasnt mine and he clasped his head in both hands, then he came out from behind the counter to hug me, crying out in amazement Pole! I told him that Im not Polish, Im Jewish. He repeated the word Jew over and over, accompanied me to the jeep and parted from me with a shower of kisses!
My friendship with Chanaleh grew and deepened. People assumed that we were a couple, but she didnt even consider it, and I never even dared to hint in that direction. Everyone thought she was very rich. They didnt know that all her wealth consisted of her battledress and the army skirt she wore.... Her monthly salary was a mere pittance - a few pounds sterling, a bottle of whisky, four rations of American cigarettes and 400 grams of chocolate. That was her entire salary! She ate her meals in the UNRRA dining room but the food was not kosher, so she made do with bread, margarine and jam, and a cup of tea which the cook prepared specially for her in a tin mug. She donated the whisky to the gentiles because they like it, the chocolate went to an old lady living in the camp and the cigarettes were shared out to various people. She never gave them to me because she knew I dont smoke, and I couldnt bring myself to tell her that they could be sold for a lot of money.
Illegal immigration to Israel was conducted by the underground in the utmost secrecy. The British used all their resources to combat it. Some of the UNRRA clerks in each refugee camp were intelligence agents, whose job was to spy on people who left the camps and to locate the centers where candidates for immigration gathered together. The immigrants disappeared quietly but their names still appeared on the camp rosters and the kitchens continued to prepare food for them. This surplus food was secretly collected and transferred to the ships that conveyed the illegal immigrants to Eretz Israel. There were many curious incidents, including several blunders. I once brought 10 people from Santa Cezaria to Bari for transfer to the port where the ship lay at anchor. At the time food was only available with ration cards. The portions were small and conditions were very harsh, particularly in southern Italy, where most of the population was extremely poor. There were roadblocks on the way and we were stopped by police who wanted to search us. Our truck held blankets, mattresses, a great deal of food and 10 illegal immigrants. I always had a solution for such situations. A loaf of bread served as an effective bribe and a tin of meat was even better, because the entire population was so very hungry. I handed it over, the barrier lifted and we were on our way.
Once I was asked to transport 100 people to Lecce and put them on the train for Rome. As we reached the station the guard was raising his flag, signalling for the train to move. I waved frantically and dashed towards him. With a few words and a lot of gesturing we managed to get the driver to add on another carriage, and off they went. The station manager received bread and two tins of meat for his cooperation. As for tickets, we didnt even know where to purchase them... Once a large assembly was called in Rome, and representatives of every refugee camp in Italy were required to attend. The meeting actually took place in Ostia, not far from Rome, in a magnificent resort by the sea. The place was beautiful. About 50 of us met in the south of Italy and approached the station manager with my tried and tested solution. He knew exactly what to do, and without even saying a word he added a carriage to the train. We settled down and began singing, when a poor woman entered carrying a large, tattered bundle. She asked us to have pity on her and find her a place to sit. We were most hospitable and made room for her. When the inspector came to see our tickets we told him that we were all Congress attendees. Catching sight of the woman, he asked who she was but we assured him that she was a member of our group. He saluted and left... We Congress people certainly commanded respect!!!
In due course Chana and I decided to become engaged. She left for a vacation in England, and I planned to join her at a later date. I handed over my job to my friend David Rappaport, with whom I had become acquainted in the camp. He was also a member of the Oved. There were a number of us who had become very close friends. One of them was Ohrbach, very intelligent, honest and fair, an ex-Bundist. I was also friendly with the two Aboush brothers, although I was always a bit wary of them because they were so impulsive. One of them married an emissary from Eretz Israel. The other one supervised the clothes warehouse. One day he informed me that thieves were stealing the clothes at night. I was most alarmed by this. I asked all sort of questions and from his answers I believed that he was speaking the truth. I advised him to prepare a bundle of clothes and leave them in a conspicuous place so he could be sure that the thefts took place at night. He should also make sure to be the last person to leave the warehouse at night, keeping all the keys safely on his person. He did exactly as I suggested but when he arrived the following morning the bundle was gone! I warned him not to mention the incident to anyone because nobody would believe him and wed all be accused of theft. I was very frightened, and all five of us got together to discuss the matter. What could be done? How could we catch the thief? I suggested that he and his brother return secretly to the warehouse at night, after everyone was gone. They should take their gun and a strong flashlight with them. I told them to make sure they remained hidden, because the thief was bound to shine a light into the warehouse to make sure the coast was clear. Once he was inside they should shine the flashlight full in his face, both to frighten him and to check whether hes armed. I repeatedly asked them not to do anything in haste and under no circumstances to use their firearm except in self defence, and even then to take care that nobody got killed. The first night nobody came and they returned empty handed. The second night they asked me to keep watch with one of them. I really didnt want to and tried to get out of it - why should I get involved? I had nothing to do with the warehouse and didnt want suspicion to fall on me. On the other hand, was I their friend or not? All night I remained at his side, repeating over and over again, For G-ds sake dont use the gun. I had a stout stick ready to break a few bones if necessary - it can be very useful when dealing with villains! The second night also passed peacefully but I encouraged him not to despair, the thief would come! He just needs a bit of time, hes probably still selling off the spoils of his last theft. The two brothers kept vigil on the third night, and when I woke up the next morning the whole camp was in an uproar. The thief had broken in that night - a Hungarian Jew who made his entry through an open board in the ceiling. He would choose the best clothes, stuff them into a sack and clear out. The two brothers impulsively fired on him, hitting his spine. He was taken to hospital where he died a few weeks later. He had one or two sons who fled to Rome, fearing reprisals.
Travelling to England
Soon afterwards I went to England for a month, handing over my duties to my good friend Rappaport. I went to the UNRRA offices in Rome where I received a piece of paper with my photo - this was my passport! I took it to the British embassy together with my letter of recommendation from Mr. Chiess and they gave me a visa on the spot. In Rome I found cheap lodgings with an old woman who lived in a magnificent apartment with her servant. I never spoke to her because I couldnt speak her language but she treated me very well. Every time I came to Rome I would visit her and bring her a small gift - some food or a few lirettas - in exchange for a place to sleep.
This time I came with a companion who was also travelling to England. Also in Rome was the old woman, close to 90, to whom Chana regularly gave her chocolate ration. She had a daughter living in England and the Joint was responsible for bringing her over. The people at the Joint knew me and asked me to take care of her on the journey. I agreed without asking for money. I never asked for payment when I was doing someone a favour or fulfilling a mitzva. When the other fellow discovered this he went to the Joint and persuaded them that he would bring the old lady to London if they paid him, and they agreed! He came back joyfully to report that she had been handed over to his care. I informed him that if thats the case Im leaving tomorrow. Now I had no reason to remain in Rome, although I had expected to stay for another 3 days until the old ladys arrangements were completed. He asked me to wait for him because he spoke French and fluent English so we would both benefit. This was another opportunity for a mitzva, although he had gone behind my back, so I agreed. That afternoon he went out and when he returned he was seething with anger. He packed his bags and prepared to leave immediately. I asked what happened and he told me that hed been to the Joint to ask for a ticket in exchange for his work, but they refused, telling him that Rubinstein was doing it for free. I asked why he wasnt prepared to wait for me, the same way that Id been willing to wait for him. Nothing doing, he took his bags and left.
The next day I was called to the Joint. They told me they had not managed to obtain a place for her on the sleeping coach, instead they bought two first class tickets so she would be able to rest. First class? Was I dreaming? Where would I find the money for a first class ticket? I was prepared to travel on the roof as long as it didnt cost much. So I asked them where that leaves me. I joked that I had travelled to and from Auschwitz first class - wasnt third class good enough for me? The old woman must be sent to England, but if a nurse was sent to accompany her she would not be expected to travel free or at her own expense. I suggested that they pay me the difference between a third class ticket and a first class ticket. The director saw the justice of my suggestion and gave me a first class ticket as far as Paris, with two tickets for the old lady. We left on Wednesday afternoon. I spent my remaining funds on gifts: a gold watch for Chana, two lengths of silk for dresses, one for Granny and one for Chana, nylon stockings, folding umbrellas. These were luxury items in England...
The old woman had a number of enormous parcels requiring a porter. She was dressed in such a collection of rags that it was disgusting to touch her. She oozed filth and hadnt washed for almost a week, so everyone could smell her age. She was very clever, a real witch. She had survived by passing herself off as a Christian mute in Yugoslavia, which gives you an idea of her shrewdness. I wanted her to tie one of the pieces of silk on her head like a scarf but she refused, saying that she would appear wealthy and then her luggage would be searched. I guessed that she was carrying a great deal of silver and valuables on her person. This is why she dressed so badly and didnt wash - so nobody would touch her. I managed to load her parcels onto train and we settled ourselves in the carriage. I realized that I had extra tickets because two were sufficient for the two of us. Our cabin was empty and anyway she refused to lie down - she probably feared that Id rob her...
We crossed the border into Switzerland. Our visas guaranteed passage to France. Two customs officers asked to see our passports and then requested that we open her luggage for inspection. I refused, pointing out that we were in transit and they had no right to ask for anything, even our passports. A coachman with a horsedrawn carriage was found to take us to the Joint. They asked when we wanted to continue our journey and I replied that we wanted to leave immediately. We were informed that there were no places on the train before the following Sunday, and they gave me a ticket for the old lady on the Sunday train. And what would happen to me? They told me to buy my own ticket, but I had no money apart from some small change. I was also very upset to have to wait until Sunday for the old lady before resuming my journey. I could stand in the train, if necessary, until we reached Calais. I thanked them and told them they could keep their present, I was going on the next train. Naturally they were alarmed and gave me a ticket as well. Then they sent us to a hotel...
I asked them to provide us with a car early the following morning because we planned to leave - I would see to it that we found places on the train... It was anyway impossible to sleep in the hotel which was full of American officers and ladies of the night. We were given separate rooms, but when I went into the old womans room to help her get settled one of the ladies opened the door and asked whether were sleeping together! I said I was, and she left the idiot alone... The next morning we arrived at the station as the train prepared to leave. The conductor sent me with the bags to the luggage department. I handed over 100 francs - I didnt need to speak French because money talks in evey language... and the conductor personally loaded our luggage and found us two places on the train.
No sooner had we boarded the ship at Le Mans than half the people came down with seasicknesses, puking their guts out... Ive never experienced such a storm in my life. It was totally dark outside and the trip, which should have lasted no more than an hour or slightly longer, took four hours. I was sure I wouldnt make it, but the old woman was strong as a rock. Nobody else remained in their seats but she couldnt be budged. Finally we reached Dover where the porters rushed to unload everyone elses luggage, coming to us at the very end. I took her hand and said Sing something. She began to bleat Oy, Oy like a camel. Nurses and other people hurried over, took her into a room to recover and began tending to her. I was sent to deal with the customs officials - just the right person for the job! I cried out that I couldnt possibly leave her. Meanwhile she recovered somewhat and I clung tightly to her. Once again she began with her Oy, Oys. Finally we arrived at the customs office. By now we were the last. They asked me something but I replied in German. He switched to German: Is this her luggage? I said yes, and he marked the baggage with chalk and told us we could go. The porter carried everything to the car. Her daughter waited for her ouside, together with Miss Nemitz. I gave the porter half a pound and he was delighted. Later when I told the story to Granny she said: Of course he was pleased. People usually tip one shilling, or two at the most...
When we arrived at Downside Crescent (Grannys London address - H.R.) Granny was waiting by the big window on the first floor, and I thought a queen was standing there, thats how beautiful she was. I couldnt believe she was Chanas mother. She was so young and truly beautiful. Arnie and the family were not at home, they were on holiday somewhere. I must say it was a lovely place and I was warmly welcomed. I immediately felt at home. Before coming to England Chana warned me that in England one must speak the truth at all times, there is no black market in England and one must never, ever offer bribes.... I brought out the gifts and everyone was astonished. They couldnt understand how I managed to buy so many lovely presents. They didnt know that the items cost me next to nothing. The next day I went looking for a synagogue to say Slichot because it was shortly before Rosh Hashana. Two days later I had a visit from the man who spoke French and English so well and who fled and left me in the lurch. He asked me all sorts of questions: How did we cross the border? When I told him that we had no problems or setbacks he almost burst into tears. He told me that when he reached England they asked him if he had anything to declare and he said he had nothing. They searched his luggage and found some items which were not exempt from custom duties, and then they took him into another room and ordered him to strip naked. They ripped the lining from his coat and prised the soles from his shoes. The more they searched the more they found and eventually they told him that he owed a huge sum in custom duties plus a fine. He left everything with them, happy just to be permitted to enter England. I told him that it all happened because he spoke English too well. Thats the truth - if you dont know anything then you have no brains and then youll only tell the truth at all times. We travelled a lot, visiting all sorts of people and bringing regards from various refugees who had managed to survive. This was a real mitzva, and Chana heard many tales of bribery in saintly England.
I went to Whitechapel and the East End, returning with 1 kilo of sausage, a wooden chest of sardines weighing about 2 kilos and various other things. Granny said: Shmuel, youve only been in England for three days. Where did you find all this? I replied: Granny, just give me some money and Ill fill your entire house with the best of everything, whatever your heart desires! She told me that they had lived all those years on their ration cards. Whenever they went visiting they brought their food portions with them, otherwise their hosts had nothing to serve them. Bread and potatoes were freely available but everything else was rationed. They received one egg per week, and sometimes these were only available for children. Everything else was utility, as in the time of Dov Yosef (the Minister in charge of supplies during the austerity in Israel). There was food to eat, but no luxuries, yet everything was available on the black market. Interestingly enough the prices were reasonable, only slightly higher than normal.
During all the six years of war I never tasted salt herring. In Whitechapel I saw a barrelful of herring and bought some. I washed one and killed it while Miss Nemitz watched. I thought shed go out of her mind. She began yelling: This is how you cut fish? Once she got started, you didnt hear anything but her voice all day. She took the second fish, cut off its head, filleted it and proudly laid it on a plate, to show me how herring is prepared. Go explain to a gentile...
We went to Oxford to meet Opa (Maurice Ettinghausen, Chanas father) so he could also look me over. He was a distinguished Jew, broad shouldered, bespectacled, with a neat beard and an intelligent face. He received me coolly and correctly, and spoke briefly to Chana in English, which I didnt understand. I passed the time by gazing at the dog which lay on the armchair in a most lordly fashion. From time to time I also glanced over at Beatrice. After sitting in the house for half an hour Opa took me for a walk, not forgetting the dog... The only way we could communicate was in German, but he passionately hated the language and only consented to speak German because we had no alternative! His first question to me (also his last) was: So youre planning to get married and live in a new country - what are your plans? What will you be doing there? I replied Look, I have made many plans in my life, and they all fell through. Ive also experienced things which I never imagined in my worst nightmares. Right now Ive stopped planning. With G-ds help Ill look for something suitable when I get there. After strolling for about 200 metres he turned around, and we returned to the house without exchanging another word. I already knew what he thought of me: a fool, an idiot, a parasite and good for nothing!
Secretly he amused me - Id never before met anyone quite like him! We remained in that house for about 2 hours. As far as I was concerned every minute was a total waste of time but I remained for Chanahs sake. I didnt take my eyes off him, trying somehow to discern the connection between knowledge and learning, between intellect and wisdom. You meet someone for the first time in your life and dont ask him: How are you? Where are you from? What experiences did you have? And so on and so forth until you get to the issues that you really care about. If you took me for a walk, why didnt you show me around Oxford? Why didnt you try to befriend me? Why didnt you try to see into my heart and into my pocket. You would have discovered the deep wounds in my heart and the emptiness of my pocket, where nothing but poverty resided! Instead, you immediately interrogated me. I should have said: Im marrying your daughter, what can you do to help us? Beatrice served us corn on the cob, assuring us that it was properto eat it with our fingers. As if we intended to use our feet or a fork or anything else! We took our leave and returned to London. The following day Opa came to Downside Crescent and had a long talk with Granny and Chanah while I sat apart from them and wrote letters. In any case I didnt understand a word of the conversation although its meaning was pretty clear. After he left I asked Chanah whether I should pack my bags - I have a ticket and I also have someplace to go! She asked what gave me such an idea. Your father is opposed to our marriage, I replied. Chanah was astonished: How do you know? Then she admitted: Yes, he is opposed. But I told him that until now he never concerned himself about me and now was not the time to start. She had made up her mind and she was sticking to her decision.
I remained in London for another 3 weeks. I called someone to give him regards from a relative who had survived and was now in a refugee camp. He was very friendly and invited us to have lunch with him. We travelled to the address he gave, which proved to be a very fine house. We talked a lot. He asked many questions, and so did I. He told me about his various shady dealings with ministers, yet he wore a black skullcap to demonstrate his piety. While we were there he contacted the chairman of Agudas Yisrael, whose name I forget - Chanah hates to hear it - and discussed meetings and so forth. Meanwhile his wife served the meal: potatoes and sausage. Although the house had all the signs of a Jewish home I enquired whether the food was kosher. He appeared to be quite insulted by my question so I apologized and we ate. The sausage had a flavour that bothered me, somehow it didnt have a Jewish taste. I told myself that I had not eaten kosher sausage for so many years that perhaps I was mistaken, but I didnt like the taste. When the meal was over the woman served us coffee with milk and I was horrified. He reddened and remarked that perhaps his wife was less observant than she ought to be. I was furious. See here, I said, We didnt come here to beg for food, you invited us and we came out of respect for you. Why was it necessary to deceive us? With that, we left.
We visited many families, friends, and acquaintances and relatives of Chanahs before returning to Italy. When we reached Rome we went to the Mediterrania Hotel, one of the finest in the city and owned by UNRRA. The second best hotel was the Quirinali in Via Nacional, next to the station. Two days later we were back in southern Italy. They wanted to send me north to Milan. In truth, the work there was far more interesting. Milan was surrounded by refugee camps, and the head office was situated in the city, at 5 Via Uniona. It was like a huge train station. Everyday tens and hundreds of refugees arrived there from all over Europe. They had to be processed and sent to different locations, and their immediate needs had to be provided for.
I didnt want to go because they couldnt replace Chana and I didnt want to leave her. I sent my friend Rappaport instead, and he managed to earn a great deal of money. Instead of going on to Eretz Israel he went to Paris, married a local girl and opened a shirt factory. Not satisfied with that he began smuggling diamonds to America. When he saw how well it was going he became greedy and invested all his wealth in one consignment. The courier, resenting the fact that Rappaport was getting so rich at his expense, turned himself in as soon as he landed in America, making sure to incriminate the master-smuggler. By American law the informant was entitled to half the value of the smuggled goods, and the Americans relayed their information to Interpol in Paris. The police came to arrest him in the middle of the night but he jumped out of the window and fled to Canada, where he also had many adventures. He visited Israel several times, always coming to see me, and every Rosh Hashana he sent me a card with good wishes for the new year, but I havent heard from him for several years now. He never had children.
We moved from Santa Maria di Bagnia to Santa Cezaria, where I shared a hotel room with Baruch Duvdevani z"l. Chanah lived alone in a very nice room in an UNRRA residence. Sometimes I had my meals in the UNRRA dining hall, and at other times I ate at theMizrachi quarters. I didnt particularly like Aguda. They had a representative from Eretz Israel, Israel Oppenheimer æ"ė. He should forgive me for saying so, but he was a very mediocre man: Neither a great sage nor a small fool!
The Zionist organizations were all becoming established at around that time. Unfortunately the Holocaust had taught them nothing! The Betarim were playing at underground movements! One day they summoned me - I assumed they needed some favour, but when I showed up they took me to an attic and began to interrogate me because they suspected me of spying on them... They wanted to know why I was involved with UNRRA officials. I gazed at them as if they were pathetic fools and asked them exactly what they thought there was to inform about them, apart from the fact that they were all maniacs! How dare you suspect me of such despicable conduct? My meetings with the UNRRA officials are of benefit to immigration (Aliya) whereas this meeting of yours in the attic is useless! And with that, I left them.
One day, seeing that Aliya was not going as well as we hoped, I organized a huge protest rally aimed against the British, without the commandant suspecting that I was behind it. I stood on the balcony with him and variousother officials, and we heard the refugees complaints and their protests against the British Foreign Minister Bevin. Later I addressed them from the balcony and went down to join the march. I still have pictures from that day. The camps gradually emptied. Some people ended up in Cyprus, others organized themselves to go to America. The decision was made to close down the camps in southern Italy.
They brought us to a military camp - Plessy - near Bari. It was a huge camp but there were no soldiers. We were securely fenced in and it was very difficult to do anything without being seen. There was only one gate, which led to the main Bari-Rome highway. The camp commander was British. He was a dangerous man and belonged to the Intelligence Service. People gradually vanished along with their blankets, beds and mattresses. Once, pipes were needed to construct a bridge for access to a boat which waited at a specific point. Where could we find pipes? Inside the camp was an enormous water tank, which stood high above the ground on a structure of pipes. We started dismantling the pipes in secret - here a pipe, there a pipe... Although pipes were disappearing it didnt seem to affect the water tank so we kept taking more and more... until the day when the entire tank collapsed, making a colossal racket. Fortunately it happened at night and no one was hurt. You can imagine the commanders feelings - he nearly lost his mind! He called in the Italian police and placed guards around the camp. They had the gall to inspect everyone who carried a parcel out of the camp. We complained and demanded to know whether we were in a concentration camp. Once again we organized a protest march with all kinds of slogans written in Italian, objecting to the British. The Italians hated the British even more than we did... We marched up to the British consulate where hundred of police stood and waited for us, and there we yelled and screamed against the British, while thousands of Italian people gathered around us. It all made a teriffic impression!
I was awakened from a deep sleep one night because help was needed. A truck, laden with pipes and mattresses, was about to leave the camp when a group of police was spotted at the gate. Nobody could budge them... At the other end of my hut was a small grocery. I knocked on the door, and from the shopkeeper I obtained a large sausage, a loaf of bread and a bottle of vodka. Then I came reeling towards the gate, singing and pretending to be drunk, while my companions were instructed to clap their hands and sing, as if it were my birthday. We reached the gate and made directly for the policemens hut. When they saw the goods they fell upon them and began eating and drinking, while I signalled for the truck to move. One of the policemen heard the sound of the motor and rushed to the door but I grabbed him by the sleeve: Fool, you heard a truck going by on the highway. That calmed him down...
The same thing happened again a few days later. A truck laden with merchandise had to be smuggled out of the camp, so once again I collected the necessary items. This time we agreed that it wasnt my birthday, just a generally jolly day. But there were lots of policemen and not all of them agreed to come into the hut to celebrate - some preferred to stand at the door, so I stood outside as well. Behind me were two policemen who refused to go inside. I had previously arranged for the truck to burst through the gate, even if it meant endangering human life - he shouldnt worry, I assured the driver - nothing would happen! When the police began eating and drinking the driver prepared to move, so I grabbed the two men, jovially shoved them into the hut and entered right behind them. Someone shut the door from outside and the truck moved off. We realised, however, that things could not go on like this. Somehow we had to get rid of the commander. But how? I called a meeting of the regional committee and suggested that we hold a hunger strike. The cooks should prepared the food as usual, but nobody would collect it. We would notify the commander not to visit the camp in case something happened to him. People were quietly instructed to prepared food and eat at home. Under no circumstances should anybody eat where he could be seen. That morning at 10:00 the commander requested permission to enter the camp for a few minutes to retrieve something from the office. We told him we would look after him and posted a double line of men, wielding clubs, from the gate to the office. People stood around yelling, and he dashed like a scared rabbit to grab what he needed before running off.
He notified Rome of the situation and a delegation arrived in Bari the next day to investigate the matter. People reported that the commander behaved like a Nazi and treated us like prisoners. One of the delegation said: We know that one of you is very honest and straightforward. His name is Rubinstein. Wed be interested to hear what he has to say. I told the guys not to announce my presence so they would continue to believe good things about me, and I didnt step forward. The commander didnt return to the camp and we never found out what happened to him.
The police were removed from the camp, and Aliyah activities proceeded unhindered. I now decided that the time had come for me to make my own arrangements to go to Eretz Israel. All my possessions at the time amounted to 10 dollars and I went to Bari to buy myself a radio. There was a special bus from Plessy to Bari once every half hour, only used by Jews. I bought my radio and was left with exactly enough change to pay for my bus ticket. I found a seat behind the driver, took my seat on the bus and thats when I discovered a wallet, obviously dropped by one of the passengers. I moved to the opposite seat and opened the wallet. It was stuffed full of dollars. Now began a battle between my good and evil inclinations. The evil one said: Youre rich! Get off the bus and celebrate! The good one countered with: This is Jewish money. You know exactly how the person who lost it feels! I decided to stay put - if nobody came looking for the money Id post a sign in the camp that a wallet had been found. Meanwhile the bus filled up, but nobody mentioned a missing wallet.
The motor was already running and the bus conductor was on the bus when I saw a short man running towards us, completely out of breath. I said to myself: This is the Jew who lost the money. He climbed the steps and bent down to peer under the seat, and then he clasped his hands together and cried tearfully: That fat woman stole my money. I said: Sir, the fat woman didnt steal your money, but he carried on in German, insisting that she, and only she, had stolen his money. Once again I tried to contradict him, and then I took out the wallet and asked if it belonged to him. He continued to sob: Yes, thats everything I have in the world, and then described the contents of the wallet, including keys (which I had assumed were gold coins). I told him that I really had no need for his description, because as soon as I saw how he ran towards the bus I knew the wallet was his. I handed it over, while every single passenger stood up and craned their necks to catch sight of the fool. He asked how much he should give me as a reward, but I replied Sir, if I was the kind of person who would take money from you I would not have returned the wallet in the first place. Thanks, but you dont owe me anything! I was very happy that I had withstood temptation, been the instrument for gladdening a Jewish heart and perhaps even saving his life...
We moved to Rome soon after. Chanah had contracted jaundice some time earlier but she was getting better. I travelled on ahead with all my belongings, which consisted of 400 cigarettes. At the train station in Rome police were posted on each platform to carry out inspections. I was spotted by a policeman who invited me into the police station. He opened my bag, discovered the cigarettes and decided to confiscate them. I began yelling in English, throwing in the word Quirinali. When he heard the Engllish words and recognized the Quirinali, which was the UNRRA hotel, he returned the cigarettes with an apology. I walked out, laughing to myself, and promptly sold them for food. Trying to decide where to sleep I went over to the Quirinali where I had many acquaintances, including Eretz Israel emissaries and English people from UNRA. I spent the entire day sitting in the bar, observing and learning the correct way of doing things. A friend came in and bought me a beer, and after that the hotel staff treated me as one of the guests.
That evening I ran into one of the Eretz Israel emissaries, Zvi Aldobi, who was a really good friend, and when I told him that I dont have a place for the night he invited me to share his room. I spent the next three nights there. In the meantime Chanahs friend Eileen Heller fell ill and was taken to hospital. I kept the key to her hotel room instead of handing it in at the reception desk, and every evening I slipped up to her room, mingling with the hotel guests in the elevator. Most of the hotel staff were used to my face by now, because they saw me in the bar every day, and there was always someone around to buy me a beer. One evening I returned very late and was making my way up the stairs, because I did not want the elevator operator to notice which room I entered, when a member of the staff asked where I was going. I replied that I was on my way to Aldobi. I dont think he believed me but he let me go anyway...
I spent another night in the hotel, but after that I didnt want to risk it. Meanwhile Chanah arrived in Rome, but she also fell ill and was taken to hospital. Thats when we decided to get married. Granny came to Rome and stayed in my hotel, the Quirinali, while I rented an apartment in Via Nacionali, next to the hotel. This apartment had quite a history. The first tenant was Dr. Shapiro, an emissary from Eretz Israel who worked for the Joint Distribution Society. After him came my friend Aboush with his Israeli wife Rivkele. I asked them about the apartment and they said its fine, just watch out for the landlord. She was an old widow whose husband had been an Italian admiral and she had an unmarried daughter. She didnt permit me to use electricity at all - otherwise she made me pay the electricity bill for the entire house. I couldnt go into the kitchen or use the gas or else the same applied - she would charge me for the water and gas bills. I didnt care much about the water, but I was very careful with the electricity and gas. When I sat down to eat they came to watch me and inspect my food! Eventually we bought a small spirit lamp to boil water for tea, and ate breakfast and supper in the room. Lunch was bought and eaten in a kosher restaurant which catered especially to refugees.
When Chanah recovered, we registered to marry at the rabbinate of Rome. A few days later we set up a huppah in the Great Sephardic Synagogue. It was two days before Shavuoth and the entire synagogue was filled with flowers. Its hard to describe how beautiful it all looked - the building itself is very impressive, and especially now that it was festooned with blooms. We had a minyan consisting of Eretz Israel emissaries, and Granny attended as well. Afterwards we went to live in the apartment owned by the two bitches - they were forever opening our door to see if we were eating, and asking why we didnt put on the lights. First of all it was summer, so the days were very long. Also, we usually came home pretty late and anyway, opposite our room was an opera house which reflected light into the room. We also heard a lot of free opera! The same with the gas - we were very careful not to use it at all, although they nagged us every day to use it. One day Chanah forgot and boiled one or two cups of tea. At the end of the month they presented us with the entire gas bill and demanded that we pay. It did absolutely no good to complain and I ended up paying the whole thing, but I didnt forget the incident.
Chanah finally left for Israel. She had a British passport and received a visa which was good for three months recuperation. We left the apartment and spent the final day packing her suitcases. There wasnt much to pack apart from my radio and some of her clothes. She went to the kitchen to fill up a bottle of water for the journey, but the bottle slipped out of her hand and slightly chipped a fine porcelain bowl. The mark was almost invisible, but the evil daughter burst into our room and raised a fuss, insisting that we pay 500 lirettas for the damage. We began to argue that we simply had no money and anyway what were we paying for? I offered her 100, and then 200 lirettas, but she demanded the full sum. Finally I gave her the full amount, and then I lifted the bowl and smashed it against the wall so soundly that it disintegrated. The woman screamed and wailed before fleeing to the kitchen. Chanah burst out laughing so hard she almost fell over. I had expected her to start crying - I was delighted that she was laughing. The woman returned holding the lid of the bowl, to show us how valuable it was, raising the price to 2000 lirettas. I would dearly have like to smash the lid as well but she clung to it, screeching. We grabbed our suitcases and tried to leave but she stood in the doorway and wouldnt let us pass. Eventually I kicked her in the backside, and as we walked out, I informed her that it was also because of the gas... They were real blackmailers!
Aliyah to Eretz Israel
I parted from Chanah at the station and travelled to the centre for Aliyah candidates. It was an isolated villa on a hill not far from Genoa. There were 20 or 25 of us, all with special proteksia. The whole place was clandestine. Immigration from there was known as Aliyah Dalet. In the roofspace they forged passports, exchanged photographs, falsified visas and carried out all manner of irregular activities... The tenants on the lower floors had no idea what was going on above their heads. We were forbidden to go for walks, and if anyone went outside he was strictly warned not to speak to a soul. Once or twice a week we went into town, and the rest of the time we learned to speak Hebrew and we had lessons in the geography of Palestine, because we were masquerading as citizens. Our story was that before the war we were visiting our parents and the war trapped us in Europe, where we fell into the clutches of the Nazis. Now we were returning... So naturally we had to know how to speak Hebrew, we had to be familiar with the country, which buses travelled to which town, what color were they? What about the buses in the towns? Who did they belong to? What factories were there? Pitiful - the only factories were Elite and Dubek... The same thing applied to police stations - where were they located? Where did we live before the war? I lived in Afula! Next door to a shoemaker! They didnt give me a street name from which I understood that there were no streets. They also didnt tell me the shoemakers name, so I decided that henceforth his name would be Chaim Yankel. Thats how I spent the next month.
Finally the day came for us to embark. We were instructed to buy one or two new suitcases and fill them with any rags we could find. The important thing was that the suitcases looked new... They wrote every possible question on a sheet of paper and handed them out to the travellers. There were ten of us, including a family of four, one crazy woman with a daughter and a sister who really was from Eretz Israel and had come to collect her sister - she was the only one with a genuine passport - and another three men. I was responsible for the whole transport and my passport was the best - a paper from UNRRA bearing my real name, with 10 or more visas, including Italian, Swiss, French, British and who knew what else. I had used it for a long time, and now a new visa was stuck in the middle: a Palestinian visa to Eretz Israel. My instructions were to collect all the questionnaires before we reached Beirut, tear them into little pieces and scatter them in the ocean. I was also told, in secret, that when we approached Haifa I was to hold between my fingers a tiny list of all the names. When the ship anchored in the open sea it would be boarded by British officers and policemen, as well as a balding Jewish Solel Boneh laborer, puffing on a pipe. When I saw him I was to fall upon him with hugs and kisses, as if we were two old friends meeting after a very long time, and somehow I was to slip him the list...
Before describing the final act to you I must go back a bit and tell you about the ship and the other passengers. We were travelling with a group of monks and nuns. The vessel was a cargo boat with 3 or 4 cabins for passengers. By the time we embarked everyone was very hungry, but the food they brought was treif - ham and a few thin slices of bread. Everyone fell on the food but I only took a small piece of bread. My portion was swiftly gobbled up, but nobody was prepared to part with his slice of bread. I tried to speak to the steward but he only spoke Greek. He didnt understand English and he had no idea what kashrut meant. After fasting for nearly two days I gave him half an Israeli pound and suddenly he was familiar with the entire Shulchan Arukh and all the laws of kashrut! He brought me cooked eggs, sardines, bread, butter, a tin of preserves and who knew what else. This went on three times a day as long as I promised to pay him. My companions tired of eating pork and decided to revert to the dietary laws, but it didnt work - they didnt know the secret of unlocking his knowledge of kashrut... Once again I realized that money has its own international language, a sort of Esperanto understood by all...
Before arriving in Beirut I collected all the questionnaires, except that of the crazy lady who refused to give hers up. She also refused point blank to continue to Eretz Israel. Her sister took her in hand, and through a great deal of proteksia she was permitted to proceed with her journey, but we were terrified that she would reveal our secret and bring catastrophe upon us all. G-d in heaven, what was to be done? Not only would we be imprisoned, we would also be beaten to reveal who among us had forged documents. I decided on a different approach. I waited until nightfall, and took her for a stroll on deck. I began to chat with her, telling her all sorts of stories - that Im a bachelor, that I dont want to go to Eretz Israel either but Im sick of moving from one camp to another, so Im taking this opportunity to go further... (Hint number one). Then I asked her age, and whatever she told me I responded that Im two years older (Hint number two). Very slowly I took her hand, we settled down on a corner of the deck and began to talk about the future... She was so easily convinced that soon she was ready to marry me right there on deck! She handed over the questionnaire and we destroyed it together, so that was one less thing to worry about. We agreed to postpone the wedding until we disembarked! We would manage somehow, because I had a large and possibly rich family who could help us... and so on and so forth until finally she promised not to give us away. I coached her a bit longer until I was sure she would stick to our story. One more thing - they had warned us no no account to agree to disembark in Tel Aviv, only in Haifa.
We arrived shortly before dawn. The lights of Haifa were plainly visible. Our eyes filled with tears, our hearts began beating fast... The ship anchored at sea and we were surrounded by warships bristling with guns. I was very scared but I pulled myself together... Suddenly I spotted the baldy with the pipe! I signalled the others and we all burst into Hebrew songs and started dancing the Hora. Meanwhile the officers and police climbed the ladder and descended to the cabin but my man had disappeared. Just then I noticed another little boat approaching, with two men on board. One was bald but had no pipe. When they climbed up to our ship I took a chance and whispered the name of my contact. He answered: Rubinstein? I promptly fell upon him, showering him with kisses, while the others danced and sang. He whispered that we should carry on singing, remembering to speak only Hebrew. I asked what about those who dont really know the language, but he replied that the officials dont understand it either. My group passed safely and I was the last one. The officer asked what language I speak. I answered Only Hebrew and my buddy translated for me. Where do you live? I explained that before the war I lived in Afula. He examined my passport and then called over an Arab policeman and showed it to him, saying something in English. The policeman went away and I was instructed to wait. An Arab detective began to interrogate me in the meantime: Where were you during the war? I showed him my number. Why did you go there? I explained that my parents were very old and sick. I went to see them, but the war broke out and the Germans took us to a concentration camp. They took everything I had, including my documents... The story was a good one, but I could feel my Hebrew was running out... I asked for permission to go up on deck because the air below was stifling. Permission granted. I sought out my buddy and asked what was happening. He explained that they didnt like the look of my passport so it was being checked at the police station, but I shouldnt worry, they cant find anything because their archives have been burned. I should just hold on a little longer, Im doing fine. The policeman returned with my passport, handed it over to me, and I was free to go. As I came out of the duty hall an Agency worker stole a pound from me and I was left with one pound note! The others congratulated me on my luck at finding an old friend. I apparently played the part so well that they really believed I had come across a friend from long ago...
They put us into the Harbor hotel on Rehov Haatzmaut. It was the morning of Shabbat Shuva. We were given potatoes and onions, two slices of bread with white cheese and a cup of tea with artificial sweetener. I asked for another cup of tea but was told it would cost 5 grush, so I decided one was enough...
That evening I contacted Chanah and told her I was in Eretz Israel...
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This document was posted here with the permission of the Rubinstein family.