Personal Reflections - In Hiding
I was born in the former Yugoslavia. I had two older sisters. We, our parents and three siblings, lived an upper middle class life. My father was an engineer. My parents were well established, had status and a nice big-city life.
Then one day everything changed and and our lives were never the same again.
The Germans occupied my country, my city. A puppet government was established which served the Nazis well. By the time the German Nazis invaded Yugoslavia they were real pros at their "trade". It was after they successfully invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland and they were well beyond Kristallnacht.
Suddenly we, the Jews, lost all our civil and human rights. Every day there was a new surprise that proved to be one nightmare after another. The Jewish school that I attended was closed and barricaded.
Every day in the daily newspaper, on the front page, columns were dedicated to the Jewish population. Always some new Orders or new Regulations were announced. For example: A non-Jew was not allowed to employ anyone Jewish and a Jew was not allowed to have non-Jewish employees. Jews were not allowed to enter restaurants, coffee houses, and theatres.
Students, grades 11 and 12 were arrested first, then came the university students. Young people were disappearing, sent to labour camps and never heard from again. It became some kind of a lottery of winners and losers. We wondered who will be next? Nobody was prepared for it. Survival was random. There wasn't one strategy that would guarantee survival. It was sheer lunacy and madness. As the fear of being arrested mounted my father made a fast decision. He first convinced my sisters to leave and a month later we left too but to a different destination. Our family members didn't see each other or heard from for about four years. Very early in my life I discovered that I wasn't born into quiet times.
Everything around me was disorienting, chaotic, dangerous and evil. People were loaded on to transports and gone. No one knew where they were sent. Many of us thought that these bad times were only temporary. I do remember the last days before we left the city, every time the doorbell rang we were seized by terror thinking that this time they they are coming for us.
My father, when he decided on fleeing paid a fortune for our crossing into the Italian Zone. We traveled by train, fisherman's boat, by buggy and also on foot. This was extremely dangerous but we made it and left most of the nightmare behind us. In September 1943 the Nazis occupied Italy and promptly Eichmann was sent to Italy to organize the rounding-up and deportation to Auschwitz of the approx. 2000 Jews who found refuge there from other parts of Nazi occupied Europe. However, the general Italian population refused to cooperate with the Germans and as a result luckily, "only" 15% of Italian Jewry were deported.
It is now very early spring 1944. I am 13 years old. My parents and I are in northern Italy, close to Venice in a small rural village called San Zenone. We arrived here after a long, cold, desperate and hungry winter of 1943. By now we have lived for eight months outside of any system and law. We were fugitives without documents. or money. We were hiding in the mountains in homes of different farmers who risked their lives to hide, feed, shield and keeping us warm.
These were very poor people, sharecroppers, who lived in modest, isolated farm houses and huts but they always managed to create a corner for us in their dwellings. We were strangers to them and yet their response to our desperate situation was always humane, compassionate beyond any ideology. A profound lesson in human conduct and morality.
In the last of the households we stayed, one afternoon the Nazis raided the farmhouse with dogs and bayonets. We were in the barn as usual for this was the only warm place when one of the members of the family came rushing in to tell us to "run". Yes, but where? We frantically looked around, we saw this narrow ladder and climbed up on it to the hayloft. Here, while trying to hide I fell through a whole to the concrete floor and hurt my head but we couldn't call a doctor for fear that he might denounce us.
After this episode there were rumors that the Nazis will erect an observation point near this farmhouse. One day a partisan came to the house and outlined an original rescue plan for us. We were to pass as Christian Italians who escaped from the bombings of our home town of Benkovac, which was on the border of Italy and Yugoslavia and we had to claim that all of our possessions were destroyed. I became the spokesperson for the family for my Italian was perfect. My father had to feign that due to shock of all the bombardments he cannot talk at all and my mother could only whisper.
We were to receive false ID cards with brand new names, brand new past, new identity and uncertain future. So we became Elsa, Elena and Arturo Tamino. Only the village priest and the Count of the region knew the truth. We were suppose to be the priest's relatives and he settled us in the home of an elderly couple. They were very poor, the man was blind, not very important people in the village, so they never gossiped, didn't ask questions and had total trust in their priest.
With this new identity we were in an unusual kind of hiding. We were in plain sight of all. What we had to hide was our Jewishness. We pretended to be practicing Catholics but never been baptized. We mostly kept to ourselves for fear of giving away our true selves. Silence and secrecy is unnatural to children but by then I wasn't a child any more in spite of my young age. Tension and fear were the dominant emotions in our lives. We lived with fear in our bellies as constant companion.
The priest provided us with some food and the elderly couple had a cow and they shared the milk with us. The priest also brought me books to read from time to time. But I was very lonely for I could not have friends or go to school. So I daydreamed a lot about life the way it used to be and about real good food.
Then one day the priest came to visit and instead of cheering us up as he usually did he told us that some changes have to be made because people are getting too curious about us. They ask questions about how come we don't have food ration cards, and why don't we mingle with others in the village, why don't I go to school?
Right away I sensed danger. He advised us that my father and I had to go to the Town Hall and register and get ration cards. In short we had to be legalized. He briefed us how to fake a good story and urged us to stay calm. To carry this out rested on my shoulders for my perfect Italian knowledge. I took on this job but I remember resenting it. I didn't want all that responsibility. At the same time I knew it also meant survival for my parents and me. I also understood that the priest also put his life on the line for us.
So next morning "Arturo", my father and I presented ourselves at the Town Hall. A clerk was sitting at the registry. I started to tell him my rehearsed story when he politely told me to "wait" and disappeared.
My father's face became ghostlike. The clerk surfaced and led us into into a spacious office where there was a huge desk and behind it sat an SS Gestapo officer. A huge Hitler photo hung on the wall. I remember he was immaculately dressed and even handsome and in my stomach I felt panic and terror. And these feelings remained with me forever. But somehow I also had a sensation of strength. I wanted to stay alive. I wasn't going to give up.
I was questioned for a long time by this Gestapo officer, through an interpreter. I had to make sure that I won't give myself away that I understand German. For only refugees and Jews could speak German.
My act must have been credible. Suddenly in a flash he said to the interpreter: "ask if she understands any German". I waited for the translation and calmly said "no." Throughout this ordeal I kept thinking how the priest trusted me, or had no other choice, but he sure put himself too in danger for us. Finally the "show" was over. We made our exit with our food ration cards, we legalized our existence. We were the Taminos.
I recall it was a sunny spring day. How could I forget? It was the day I joined the world of the grownups. I lost both my childhood and adolescence all at once in that Town Hall.
I keep asking myself today is it possible that he didn't recognize us as Jews? Sometimes I think he knew but he also knew that the war was lost for him and is coming to and end but we didn't know that since we didn't even have a radio. Sometimes I think he was compassionate and sometimes I think we fooled him. Ultimately all I know is that I will never know.
After the war we learned that my oldest sister joined Tito, the resistance leader's partisans. Subsequently she was caught and executed. My younger sister, who was also with the partisans, survived and after the war she was promoted to a high ranking officer and decorated for exceptional bravery.
I have a passionate gratitude to our rescuers and a moral mandate to keep the memory of these extraordinary people alive. It feels good to speak about them and being heard. Goodness was so rare in those days.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.