Many of you have been moved by my Mom’s five-part guest-blogging on Holocaust Children (part I, part II, part III, part IV and part V), so I asked her to let me reproduce here her wartime story, as it appeared in the first volume in the series We Survived published by the Jewish Historical Museum in Belgrade.
It will appear here in five installments starting yesterday and going throughout the week at the same time of day so please come back and you can ask her questions in the comments. Proceed under the fold:
When I grew up a little and began going to school, I also started learning ballet in my Aunt Anika’s private school. She was also a Czech and she and my mother were great friends. They both had the same problems adjusting to their new environment, learning new ways and fitting into a new society. I learned to play the piano and the accordion. I adored Anika and loved dancing. I remember the ballet classes clearly and our preparations for public appearances, together with the first and only performance of Collegium Artisticum in Sokol House. I remember the costumes and even some steps from the two parts in which I had a role. These were noticed and noted in a book on the history of ballet in Sarajevo! I was barely eight years old at the time.
Everyone was very well aware of what was going on in Europe and we had a lot of information about what had happened to our family in Czechoslovakia. One of our cousins who had escaped from Czechoslovakia before the Nazis entered the country was living with us. We knew everything, but still we waited. Fortunately, part of the family managed to flee from Sarajevo to Split in time and thus they saved themselves. Only my grandmother, grandfather, father, mother and I stayed in Sarajevo. My father had a written certificate guaranteeing his safety, and once he woke me during the night and showed me the paper to convince me we were safe now and nothing could happen to us. His friends and colleagues also assured him they would protect him.
In the autumn of 1941, I was in the third grade of primary school. One day, in the middle of a class, a tall, heavy man with a fez on his head appeared in the classroom. He approached the teacher and said something to her. She looked at me and said “Rahel, you have to go home at once.” I was surprised and frightened because I had no idea why the man was taking me home. I knew him, he was the doorman or lift attendant in the building we lived in.
There was a large truck covered with a tarpaulin in front of the house. In front of the truck were men, women and children standing in silence. Then they began getting into the truck, each carrying a bundle, a sack or a suitcase. Inside the apartment I found my mother and a friend of hers who was living with us packing food and other items. There were some people I didn’t know standing in the hall hurrying us along. They took us to a camp. My father was at work and they didn’t find him: he stayed in hiding at a friend’s house. The truck took us to the barracks near our house. There we found my grandmother and grandfather and many relatives and friends. I don’t remember many details of our ten-day stay in the barracks. I only remember that it was nice weather and that we children played in the yard. Ten days later they sent us all home, so we returned to Sarajevo. Our apartment had been sealed up, so we went to stay with my grandmother and grandfather. A few days later, my father emerged from hiding, convinced that the danger had passed and that nobody would bother us any more.
One Sunday after lunch, while we were still sitting at the table chatting, an Ustasha wearing a fez appeared. My father produced his letters and certificate, but the Ustasha wouldn’t even look at them or discuss it and only insisted that we move immediately. Again there was a truck waiting in the street, full with the same people with whom we’d been confined in the barracks for ten days. Everyone had believed that the danger had passed when they let us go home. Again we were taken to the same barracks. We children were already asleep on our bags when my father and grandfather came that evening to say goodbye. They took all the men out and put them on a train for an unknown destination. Later we discovered that they had been taken to Jasenovac. I was still sleepy, having been awakened from my first dream, so I didn’t even say goodbye to my father when he kissed and hugged me. I just half-opened my eyes and went back to sleep. I only remember hearing the adults through my dream, agitated and weeping.
I know that my grandfather was among a group of elderly people who were forced to stand in the Sava River until they were exhausted and fell into the water. My father, as an architect, had a different destiny. He worked in the drawing room of the architecture office, which meant that he didn’t freeze like the others, or have to work in the marshes or on the dikes, and that he was probably spared the physical mistreatment and hunger. I have several postcards which he wrote to me during 1944 in which he asked for tobacco, saccharin and fruit. I heard a lot about the way my father lived in Jasenovac from the stories of the camp survivors. Right up to the last moment, until the end of the war and the liberation of Jasenovac, he believed that a fellow-architect who was his boss and a commander would save him. However he was killed on April 21, 1945, the day before the mass breakout from the camp.
There were dirty railway wagons waiting for us. We set off in them to our unknown destination, travelling for a very long time. We spent a lot of time stationary on the railway line in open country. Time passed and we had no idea how many days and nights we had spent jostling up against one another in the suffocating wagons. There was no space to lie down and barely enough to sit, as the wagons were packed with children and women, young and old. There was no food of course and the air was heavy. We weren’t even allowed to get out to relieve ourselves when the train stopped. On only a handful of occasions, the doors were suddenly opened and strangers brought us some food and refreshments. I think this was organised by the Jewish community, or perhaps the Red Cross. They let us out only once. “You can’t get through me! Go around!” the women would yell, shoving one another to get back into the wagons as if it was some kind of good luck to get back inside. These were the older women who spoke Ladino and didn’t know our language very well, which made us laugh. It’s difficult for me to work out how many days we spent on this train. We finally found out that the Ustashas were taking us to Loborgrad, but there was no room there so they returned us to Sarajevo.
We travelled in third-class wagons, sitting on wooden benches, hoping they would let us go again. Nobody could grasp what was happening to us and nor did they want to believe that there was no hope. It was my birthday, November 23, just before we reached Sarajevo. Because of this I can work out when all this happened, although my dates don’t correspond to those of other inmates, and it’s not important in any case. Everyone from our convoy was accommodated in the primary school in Marijin Dvor, just a few metres away from the building in which we had originally lived and from which we were taken to the camp. The accommodation was decent, friends brought quilts for us and the Germans would bring us food in large pots. We children would play in the schoolyard and were free to visit the families living within the school yard.
A few days later we were on the move again. We packed up and again set off by train for an unknown destination, again not knowing how long the journey would take. We finally reached Djakovo and were taken into a large, one-storey building. It was empty, with straw spread on the floor. We set about making ourselves comfortable. Someone collected some stale bread to make bread mash for dinner. Next morning there were long trestles with washbowls full of water waiting for us in the mill yard in front of the building. There were even enough toilets. This is how we were welcomed by the Jewish Community in Osijek whose members had converted this flour mill for our new accommodation.
The Osijek Municipality, like that in Vinkovci, had managed strike a deal with the Ustashas allowing a certain number of children to be released from the camp. My mother decided to send me to Osijek. I later discovered that Juliska Kraus had been the leader in organising assistance for the camp and also took the initiative in getting as many children as possible out of the camp. She and my mother knew each other from a vacation on Mt Trebevic before the war and she persuaded my mother to let me go, promising that she would place me with a family who would take good care of me and save me.
It was an early winter morning, December 7, 1941, as far as I remember. There were about thirty children lined up in the yard saying goodbye to their mothers, grandmothers and aunts. Everyone was hugging one another and assuring one other that we would be back together soon and that we would be allowed to visit. My mother and I kissed each other quickly, optimistic that we would see each other soon. As we left the yard I looked back and saw my mother crying. They hurried us along to the railway station.
Today I understand how brave those mothers were. It needed a strong character to take the decision to send their children into the unknown, with little or no hope of ever seeing them again. On top of their own suffering, the sorrow of these women at the departure of their children must have been impossible to express.
Continued tomorrow, same place and same time….
The entire series can be found here:
Memories of War, Part I (guest post by Mom)
Memories of War, Part II (guest post by Mom)
Memories of War, Part III (guest post by Mom)
Memories of War, Part IV (guest post by Mom)
Memories of War, Part V (guest post by Mom)