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 Monday 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:
We arrived in Osijek on Sunday afternoon. I didn’t know the city. There were people we didn’t know waiting for us and they took us to the Jewish Community and offered us tea and sandwiches. As far as I can remember, not one of us ate anything.
More people arrived, coming to choose either a boy or a girl. They all chose children according to age and gender, so that they would fit in more easily with their own children. I was the only one who knew where I was going, and that was to the Schmuckler family. Their younger daughter, Rut, came for me, Mrs Kraus having already made the arrangements. When we arrived at the house, Julija Schmuckler was waiting for me with her husband, Dr Vili and their elder daughter, Belica. Rut was 14 and Belica 18. They first took me to the bathroom and completely undressed me to wash me properly. This was my first shock. I shyly whispered: “I don’t want to have a bath here, the water is dirty!” And in fact the water in Osijek was yellow, as though it had mud in it. They used well water for drinking while the water from the pipes was dark yellow. Anyway, they managed to persuade me, gave me a bath and then took me to the children’s room to sleep. My new hosts went to another room, leaving me to sleep alone. Once I was alone, what had happened to me began to sink in. I had been separated from my mother and brought to this strange city, to strangers. I began to cry, silently at first, then louder and louder until I was shouting: “I’ll go crazy in this house, I’ll go crazy without my mother.” They somehow calmed me down, promising that I could go to see my mother the next day, and I fell asleep. The same thing happened the next night and for several nights after that. It was easier during the day, but the nights were so hard: as soon as they left me alone I would be in crisis again. Because I wouldn’t eat and I was suffering from dysentery, they began to wonder seriously what they should do. I had brought the dysentery from the camp but didn’t want to admit that I was sick for fear they would take me to a doctor. But in the end, everything gradually worked itself out.
Dr Schmuckler was a well-known and highly-regarded ophthalmologist who had graduated in Vienna. He was an extraordinary man, educated, intelligent and very disciplined, with both himself and other people. He demanded absolute and strict hygiene, sometimes bordering on the excessive. He demanded that we constantly wash our hands and would not allow us to touch anything he considered dirty. He followed everyone around, wiping the doorknobs with cotton and alcohol if anyone else touched them. He would follow us to the bathroom and turn the tap on for us, so that we didn’t touch the “clean” tap with our “dirty” hands. We had to take notice of this and finally became accustomed to it as though it was completely normal. Had he not been so stubborn, we would probably have fallen ill during the war from the various diseases to which we were exposed.
Julija Schmuckler, whom we called Auntie, was Russian. She was a strong personality, capable and hard-working. Because they had no housemaid and there were already a lot of us, she took on all the housework herself. She cooked, did the laundry and the cleaning and during the war learnt various manual skills with no difficulty and without complaining.
Rutika, the younger daughter, was mature for her age, very independent and communicative, while Belica, the elder, was calm, silent, serious and reserved. Within a few weeks of arriving in Osijek, after overcoming my crisis, I began to get used to my new family. I would cuddle up to my new auntie, because I really needed a lot of warmth and understanding and she knew how to give me that. I became very close to her, and started to feel secure as I helped her with the household chores.
The Jewish Community in Osijek arranged schooling for all of us. They enrolled me in the third grade of primary school.
When the second transport arrived, a little dark-haired girl named Betika came from the camp to my new family. She didn’t know how old she was and still wet her bed. The Schmuckler family accepted Betika in the same way they had accepted me. With the third convoy, a boy arrived, but unfortunately for him his aunt took him away a little later. We heard that he was taken to a camp with the rest of his family and they were all killed.
One day Mr Maestro appeared at the Schmucklers. I knew him from Sarajevo where he was a kindergarten teacher. He had brought a permit for me to travel to Split to my Aunt Anika and Uncle Nedjo (Ani and Nathan Reiss). Although I really loved Anika and Nedjo, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go to them. I had just got over the first shock of being separated from my mother and settled in with the Schmucklers and now I was supposed to leave them. Aunt Julija and Uncle Vili were confused and asked Mr Maestro to come back in the afternoon for my answer, as they expected me to decide for myself. That afternoon, my answer was no. The Schmucklers hadn’t wanted to persuade me to go, because they didn’t want to feel responsible later if anything had happened to me on the way. There was war raging throughout the entire country and it was extremely dangerous to travel.
I stayed in touch with my mother through postcards from the camp. These were double cards, my mother would write on one half, then I would tear off the other half and write my reply on it. I received lots of postcards from her, but had to destroy them all before I left Osijek. We wanted to hide the fact that Betika and I were children from the camp so keeping the postcards could have been dangerous. We were always introduced as the Schmucklers’ children. Aunt Julija didn’t ever want us to call her “mother”, but we learned to address her using familiar forms and we didn’t ever address her at all in front of other people.
They took a photograph of me and sent copies to my mother in the camp and to Aunt Anika and Uncle Nedjo in Split. It was a good photograph and it certainly meant a lot to both my mother and my other relatives because they could see from it that I was being taken good care of. Much later, this same photograph was to play an interesting role in eastern Bosnia.
When people in Osijek heard that they had begun deporting Jews from the city we packed only our essentials, sat on our bundles, sacks and suitcases and waited for the trucks to pull up in front of the house and the Ustashas to climb out of them. I knew the whole scenario well. But then a colleague of my father found out about this and, knowing that I was with the Schmucklers, came to pick up Uncle Vili and they went into the town together. They returned before the Ustashas arrived and Dr Schmuckler had in his hand an order for his transfer to eastern Bosnia. He was being sent with his family to a village to begin treating syphilis. So instead of going to a camp we caught the train to Gracanica, taking all the furniture and other belongings, even the piano. We set up house in an empty school in the village of Doborovci, not far from Gracanica. There was plenty of space although, of course, there was no running water or sewerage and there were a lot of mice. Dr Schmuckler set up an office in the village with the help of his daughter, Belica, acquired a stock of drugs and syringes and began a serious campaign to treat the syphilis endemic in the area. All the inhabitants of this Muslim village were infected congenitally.
The villagers immediately presented themselves for treatment, so there was a lot of work, not only for Uncle Vili, but also for the rest of us. Whenever patients would come for an injection or to have blood taken, they would bring gifts for the doctor. The women would bring a couple of apples, or a few peppers, perhaps a bunch of grapes or a little bundle of beans. It took a great deal of skill and effort to forge closer relationships with the villagers; They accepted us, appreciated us and, I think, liked us; they would invite us to their houses and cook meals for us.
The Muslim houses were very clean and tidy. Their custom was to take their shoes off at the door and enter the house only in clean socks or stockings, and they would wash several times a day. When the muezzin called from the minaret, everyone would wash their feet and their faces. The women and girls would put veils on before going out, but at home they remained uncovered. There wasn’t a single family which wasn’t infected with syphilis, so it was important to know how to avoid infection when being in contact with them.
I remember once we went to have lunch at the house of one important man in the village where we were greeted very warmly. We washed our hands and entered a large room where there were only men and we guests, the women came in only to serve us. We sat on the floor around a low table. Everyone had a spoon and the meal was served in a dish from which we all ate. It was put in the middle of the table and all of us had to use our own spoon. The first course was soup. We had agreed that we would serve ourselves: with our spoons before anyone else put their spoon into the dish. Aunt Julija and Uncle Vili watched us children to see that we behaved the way we had been taught. With the pies which were served, alternatively sweet and savoury, it was easier. We would take a piece at a time and didn’t have to touch pieces which other people’s spoons had touched. At the end, they served halva. I couldn’t eat any more and so I put my spoon down beside me. I was sitting next to our host and he, in a very kind gesture, took a little halva on his spoon and put it into mine, beckoning me to eat it. All eyes were on me. What should I do? How should I react? How could I refuse our host’s gesture without offending him? I succeeded, but it was a rather tense moment.
No matter how much we tried to keep our distance and be careful, there were still some invitations we could not avoid. It was important to win the trust and respect of the villagers: our lives depended on them. Both Aunt Julija and Uncle Vili showed great skill and courage in this.
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)