The story of Gizela - Afik Shiraz. Abinun Shmuel
The Story of Gizela
Afik Shiraz Abinun Shmuel
The Story of Gizela
In memory of my family members who perished in the Holocaust.
All rights reserved to Abinun Shmuel and his family. Commercial use is strictly prohibited. Copying and citation are allowed while giving credit and specifying the source. This book is a memoir made decades after the events, and as such, may contain inaccuracies. The user of the book does so at his own risk.
Table of Contents
Introduction Pre-war Vishegrad The Jewish Community Community and family relation to religion My Mother's Home Food The Annual Summer Vacation Bergen-Belsen The Lost Train The Liberation in Treobitz The road back to Yugoslavia The meeting with Leon, my husband The Abinun Family Immigration to Israel (December 1948) The Cruise to Israel (December 1948) 1938 - Fateful Year Escape to Montenegro
10 12 15 16 17 23 24 29 30 31 35 35 36 37 38 39 41 45 52 53 54 55 59 59 60 62 63 64 66 68 75 77 78
Beer Jaakov Ness Ziona Jaffa Zvi David Kochav - The ceremony in Germany in 2005 Shmuel's speech at the memorial service "AMCHA" association Speaking in front of an audience The Life Today Family members tell of Baba Shmuel Ella Dror Kfir Adi Appendices The fate of family Holocaust survivors in Israel and abroad Gallery Family Tree: Abinun-Altarac
Most of my life, I didn't know much about my mother's experiences, Gizela, during the Holocaust. Like many Holocaust survivors' homes, our homes did not tend to talk about those difficult years and I didn't ask. As a kid, I was an "unknowingly innocent to ask” and in my adulthood I felt the pain that the questions raised and avoided that topic. My mother chose to leave the past behind, to focus on building her new life in the Land of Israel and give me as happy and normal childhood as possible. However, the years have passed, and in 2003 the first crack appeared in the wall of silence. This happened with the discovery of a mass grave in Germany, where my grandfather, my mother's father, was buried. That discovery led to our trip to Germany, a trip during which my mother began to tell, bit by bit, her experiences. The crack widened upon our return to Israel and my mother, who found herself haunted by the memories which had been pushed all those years, has turned to the care of the "AMCHA" association, the specialists in the care of Holocaust survivors and second-generation children. Later she was ready to speak in front of audience at the “Living Room Memory" meetings, during which she told not only about her experiences but also about the lesser known history and existence of Yugoslav Jewry in those years. During the second "Living Room Memory" session, which was held this year, I noticed that my mother forgets names and dates here and there. It was uncharacteristic of her, because she always had an exceptional memory; she was much better than that young people of our family. Following this meeting, the idea came to my mind to write my mother's story, as long as her memory is kept with her. For understandable reasons, her story is of great importance to us, her family, but I hope and believe that even readers, who don't know her personally, will be exposed through her words to the story of the Holocaust and its revival and with acquaintance to the Holocaust the lesser known Yugoslavian Jewry.
Shmuel Abinun, 2019
The original book was written in Hebrew. Subsequently I translated the book into English. Since I’m not a professional translator, I believe it expresses the information and experience my mother intended to.
Shmuel Abinun, March 2020
Vishegrad, my hometown, lies on the Bosnia-Serbia border, where the Drina River serves partly as a natural boundary between the two counties. The name of the river was given to him because its depth, since the word 'drin' in Turkish means 'deep'. The town became famous thanks to Ivo (Ivan) Andrich, the writer who wrote the book "The Bridge on the River Drina" and was awarded the Nobel Prize. Over the years, the bridge, which was built in the Ottoman period, knew flooding and demolition and rebuilding, and through the bridge's story Andrich documented 350 years Yugoslav history, the instinct of destruction and the wonderful ability of restoration of human beings.
The Bridge on the River Drina (taken in 2016)
Andrich and my father, Aaron Altarac, were both born in 1892, and already during elementary school, brave friendships were formed. Their paths did break up as Ivo continued after graduation to high school and earned a degree in literature, while my father, who was an orphan from his father, he had to support his family. But every year on January 14, my father's birthday and the New Year's Eve, Ivo used to come to our home to wish my father a happy birthday and a happy new year. This custom ceased at the outbreak of World War II. My father had a brother named Leon who lived with my grandmother Justina in Vishegrad and a sister named Hannah who lived in Sarajevo, while my mother had three sisters - Bukica, Rebecca and Flora and three brothers - Jakov, Samuel and Salomon. Flora and Jakov were married and lived in Sarajevo. Salomon lived in Sarajevo with my second grandmother Zipporah. Bukica lived in Bijelina, Rebecca lived in Zagreb and Samuel lived in Smederevo. Another brother, Izidor, died before I was born.
As for me, I was called Gizela, )means doe(, but I was never light-footed. I came into the world on June 20, 1927 when I was suffering from rickets disease which damaged my
bones. On top of that, over my birth hovered the trauma of my brother's birth, who came out with his legs first and was choked and died three hours later, as the midwife did not pull him fast enough. This time, when the midwife saw that I was going out from my mother's stomach, too with my feet first, she quickly pulled me out with all her strength before I suffocated. As a result of this intense pulling, I broke up both legs and I had to pass my first years of life when I'm in gypsum. I learned later that it was my father who gave me the name. The town whispered when he spent his time in Hungary, years before he met my mother, he was beloved by a woman named Gizela. When my father came home for a vacation he gave the name to his sister’s daughter and to his cousin’s daughter, who carried another names, and when I grew up, I heard people say, "He can't forget his girlfriend, so he has Gizela everywhere". I was a quiet but stubborn girl. My mother told me I was throwing the same thing a thousand times to be picked up for me, but once they were lifting and giving me, I would throw it again. Until Cila, my sister, was born I was an only child, and when she joined our family I was filled jealousy. One day she cried and cried and I rocked her hard until the baby carriage in which she lay flipped over. When Mama heard that she was stopping to cry, she hurried into the room and found Cila on the floor with the cart over it. Over the years, Cila and I became good friends, but I couldn't join many of her games because of the gypsum to my feet, and it pained me that everyone can run and jump while I'm not. By the age of three I had hardly gone. My parents had a big bath in which they used to wash me without the gypsum getting wet, and every three months they would take me to Belgrade or Sarajevo, where they would reduce slightly the space between the legs, until finally took it off. During the war, when we hurriedly left the house, this cast remained in the back of the basement. I was born at almost 5 kg, while my sister Cila was very small. Both of us were born at home, but when Cila was born, my parents didn't invite the midwife who gave birth to my brother and to me, but instead ordered a doctor. This time too, it was a breech birth, but the doctor knew what to do, to deal with no harm to Cila , beyond that she was small. Shortly after Cila was born, my mother held me in her lap, and the cast on my leg caused her a severe wound and chest infection. She had to undergo seven surgeries following this incident and had no milk to breastfeed her baby. Today there are cornstarch and milk substitutes on the market that can help in such situations, but then they knew that cooking water of the corn are nutritious food for babies so my parents would buy large quantities of corn and cook them toasted as they are, along with its hair. From the cooking water they would make a kind of concentrate drink and give it to Cila . That was her only diet of her first month’s life.
My jealousy in Cila passed quite quickly, and I began to enjoy myself from having a sister. One thing prevented us from playing together - while I was cramped and restricted in traffic,
Cila had a lot of energy. She didn't play with dolls or with other girls but preferred to go wild with the boys to play football. Though Cila was smaller than me, she was the one who kept me. I was, if using the Serbian phrase, "Like a drop of water in the palm of a hand," while Cila was very playful. In Croatian language, June month is called "Lipani" the Linden tree which blooms that month. Cila loved to climb on the trunk, up to the leaves, and wiped the yellow flowers, which she brought home and we used it as tea. Near our house grew a chestnut tree that yielded wild, inedible fruits; Cila collected these chestnuts and played them five stones or marbles. She was also a big talkative. When we were going to visit our grandmother, she would not stop talking for a moment, and the adults told her, "We'll give you two dinars if you shut up for two minutes”. She could never stay silent for two minutes! That was Cila. Initially, we were not similar at all. I was tall and stayed high until I was twelve, while she was much lower than me. It took her few years, but she eventually caught up the gap and continued to grow long after I stopped. Our faces were very similar, so that many of her school friends would say, "What, you don't know me? Why do you go with your nose up?" and I would soon recall and say, "You probably think I’m Cila " - "So you are not?" they would ask in astonishment and I would reply, "No, I'm a Gizela". Later, when my son was born, Sami (Shmuel), Cila walked with him many times and so did I and then people didn't know who is who. She was very sweet, my younger sister, very talented in inventing stories for her children, and like me, she also loved to solve puzzles, but as a child, she loved just play outside. My parents never interfered. Didn't bother them she ran and ran, while for me they didn't stop care for a moment; don’t go here or don’t go there, don’t dance, nor swim - to eliminate additional leg damage. As a child, Vishegrad looked huge: There were three mosques, Catholic Church, Serbian Church and Jewish Synagogue. The population of the city counted a total of about 5,000 people: Muslims, Catholic Christians and Orthodox, some 20 Jewish families – some of them Spanish and other were Ashkenazi - and a community of Muslim Gypsies who did not migrate and lived in a separate neighborhood. In 1938, a factory was inaugurated not far from our home, an arms factory "Wistad", and another 3,000 people were added to the town. When I came back after many years to visit Vishegrad, in the year 1988, I was surprised to find out how small it was, as if it were possible to lay it all on one palm. The relationship with our non-Jewish neighbors in the town was excellent. When they marked their holidays, my mother used to bake cakes and help both Serbs and Muslims. I don't remember any anti-Semitic incident until the outbreak of war. Murka, daughter of a Gypsy resident who worked as a postman, started working in our house as an assistant when she was twelve. She stayed with us for six years during which she studied housekeeping, and when she grew up she married one of the police officers who worked at the station opposite to our home and received dowry from my parents as a gift.
Our house had one floor. Beneath it was a basement where my father ran a kind of a small gas station; He stored fuel in barrels and sold it to the few car drivers who were passing through the town at the time on their way to Belgrade or Sarajevo. Above the living room was a small attic that was used for ventilation only. The way up was by a scale. Once in a while, my father would go up there and remove the birds that came in through the window. My father loved the soil work and our garden was well kept accordingly, with rose beds adorning it throughout the year and varicose veins, which had to be re-planted every year. We had many fruit trees, including three peach trees, three apple trees, which one of them grew sour fruits while the other two were tasty, and one special tree, which my father assembled and carried three fruits: plum, apple and pear, all on one tree. Among the fruit trees were vegetable beds, and so we had a radish, green onions, kale, "head" lettuce, horseradish and cabbage. It was his hobby and I well remember the picture when he removed the snow from the beds in the winter and chop vegetables for us. My mother used to pick the yellow beans growing up, before they grew pods, and then she cut, wash and dry the pods and keep them in hanged fabric bags for ventilation and drying. They were kept that way for months and in the winter days, my mother would cook them. There was a grapevine in the yard with a table and chairs, where we used to sit on Sukkot and summer nights, when it was pleasant outside. A hencoop too was in the garden, but it stood empty most of the year and only on Yom Kippur my parents would bring in chickens and place them inside until the Kapparot – forgiveness and expiatory sacrifice ceremony. The bedroom in our house was huge and very spacious, I and my sister slept there with our parents. I was sleeping on the couch while Cila was sleeping on a children's bed made of copper, much like a baby’s crib. She slept there a long time, because she was small in size. The year 1937 brought with it deterioration in our economic situation. My dad's brother went out of the shared shop, and my father paid him his share and stayed alone in the store. As the result of this move, many common buyers started shopping at the brother's new business, where not yet had accumulated debts, leaving my father to deal with their debts. To increase family income, my parents started to rent the third room in the house to a sub- tenant. It was a beautiful and well-equipped guest room. There was a buffet, sofa and table made of upscale black wood, and two red velvet chairs decorated in black flowers. However, in order to get to this room one had to pass through the family bedroom. In the middle of the bedroom was a clay heater decorated with tiles round ceramics, which I called myself "plates". The oven was fitted with a chimney and door, and during the winter I liked to put apple inside the oven door until it became a baked apple, so I had a real winter delicacy. My parents had many friends and acquaintances from the Jewish community, but most did not come to visit us but would meet at various social and cultural events outside the home, in the school library or in cafes. My mother was very friendly with our Czech
neighbor; she used to talk to her in German. Occasionally they would come to visit my maternal relatives who lived in Sarajevo - my grandmother and my father’s side aunt.
In winter, the temperature sometimes dropped to 20 degrees below zero and the water would freeze in the metal pipes. In such cases we would pour hot water on the pipe and hope for the best – if we were lucky, it would thaw the water, and with a little less lucky - the pipe would explode as a result of the temperature differences and had to be replaced. On such days we would had to go to the pump at the end of the street to bring water home. Then we would fix the plumbing and leaving the water flowing all day and all night, in order it will not freeze in pipes. The town is adjacent to two water sources - Drina and Rzb, and in the summer there was great humidity because of the proximity of both. Flow path of the Drina was twisty and when someone acted stubbornly they would say, "It is impossible to straighten Drina," that is, he exhibits stubbornness you can’t straighten it. Rzb, the other stream, would fill with water in winter and very shallow on summer days. I have a childhood photo from the age of ten when we went to a picnic. My aunt came from one side of the stream and my mother from the other side. Mama was worried that my bathing suit would get wet and wanted to take me on her back, and I firmly refused - I was ten, bigger then Mama, why suddenly would she take me on her back? That's why I ran away from and crossed the stream, whose waters reached my knees. My Mama got angry and went home with Cila, and in the picture I have from that day you see me alone, a 10-year-old girl in the company of my mother’s friends, when the only other girl is my cousin who was then five years old. This story illustrates how stubborn I was in those days. Today, after all the years that have gone by, I am quite a compliant person.
This photo was taken at a picnic on the day I grew up with my mother and she returned home with my sister. Here I am 10 years old (third from the left) with my mother's older friends. You can see in the picture how much I was skinny in those days.
The Jewish Community
The Jewish community of Vishegrad has counted families of Spanish and Ashkenazi origin. The Spanish families were older, while the Ashkenazi arrived after World War I or in their search for work. All in all we had in town three Altarac families, one of whose heads owned the Zadok attorney's office Altarac, who later perished in Bergen-Belsen; Four families named Papo, one of which ran a hardware store and agricultural equipment; Three Levi families; The Kimchi family, who also owned a shop; The Romano family, who ran the butchery; Two Kayon families, one of which traded skins; The Reichman family; The Singer Family, who owned a hotel on the main street of the town; The Siler family, who ran another hotel down the main street, the Klinger family; Two Gaon families; The doctor's family, Dr. Daniel Ovadia, and the Rosenberg and Rosenrauch families, both of whom owned a sawmill and factory for woodworking. The social life of the Jewish community in the town mainly revolved around meetings at the Jewish Club, which also served as a small theater. There were no Zionist or youth movements in the town, but there were three Jewish organizations – ‘Matat-Yah’, which staged theatrical and organized plays excursions and social gatherings; 'Lira', a musical composition by singers and musicians, ‘La La Benbalencia’, a charity that raised funds for the needy, including collecting dowry for brides whose hand was not accomplished, assistance to patients and more. My mother, Erna nee Papo, sang in Serbian and Ladino in the Lira Choir in Sarajevo. She had a pleasant voice, very different from mine, and she used to sing along housework, folk songs and Schubert works in German. There was a large gramophone in our house that occupied almost a quarter of a table and played usually ballads, Yugoslav folk songs. Every time one of my parents traveled to Sarajevo for various arrangements he used to come back with a new record, and to this day I derive great pleasure from listening to this music. In 1934, when the Lira Choir visited Palestine, accompanied it one of my mother's brothers, Salomon Papo who was a violinist, and his cousin Salomon Ashkenazi and they purchased land in what is now the northern part of Dizengoff Street, near Tel Aviv Port. In 1936 they visited the country again with the choir and when they saw the situation, the decline of the area, they sold it, which turned out to be a luckless fate for them. My mother's brother did not survive the war while the cousin survived and died in the 1980s. My mother's second brother, Samuel Papo, was also a singer and a player in the Lira Choir, and his wife had a very hard time coping with the lifestyle he was running, with the shows in the wee hours of the night and wander from city to city, as the band used to perform everywhere: today in Sarajevo, tomorrow in Zagreb, the next day in Belgrade and back again. She eventually divorced from him and even made sure their daughter would not know who her father was, but laughing destiny – the daughter, Flory Yagoda, has grown to become a famous singer, appearing worldwide. Unlike its Wikipedia value, Flory was born
in 1923 and not in 1926, by the name of Papo and not Cabillio, as her mother's second husband adopted her when she was four. During the years they said, "You have a cousin in Israel – children of a brother and a sister" however she refused to be contacted and said, "I don't want to know. My dad didn't want to know me and I didn't want to know the family". Though I consider every relative as a valuable treasure, I had at one point to give up. Only after her mother passed away did Flory learn who her father was and why her mother did leave him, and she said, "And here, today, too I'm a singer. I'm leaving the kids too, leaving everything and going to perform". She later sent me a letter from America asking if I had a picture of her father, and I sent her a picture of the uncle with his second wife Paula and their daughter Katica. To this day, I do not know what happened to them, but I have feeling they stayed alive. I already mentioned that my father owned a store he initially ran with his brother and later alone. It was a kind of general store used to sell various items, from needles to red salt. The red salt is for animals, and being much cheaper than the white salt, the color was used to differentiate between the two. I loved visiting my father in the store. Every day upon completion I would go to school and spend hours with his companion, preparing lessons and watching the various customers who came into the store. I spent there more time than at home. That was the case until the fourth grade. Then I started attending a girls' school, and the visits to my father's store stopped. I didn’t like the new school. I learned to knit socks, gloves, all kinds of embroidery, but my favorite lesson was and still remained was history, and to this day I remember dates well. In math and geometry, on the other hand, I was pretty weak. I managed somehow to perform add-subtract exercises, but I do not know to use percentages to this day. In 1939 a new secondary school was built. My first studying year at this school began in late November, and during that time we learned French, while the second year ended in March, and during that time we learned German, so it turned out that I could not learn much. Another language, which I gained a certain understanding of, was Ladino thanks to my grandmother, Justina Altarac, who did not know Serbian and used to speak Spanish. My mother used to say that "The number of languages you know is the number of times you are a human being”, meaning that every language is used as a hatch to a new and different world, and indeed, my sister learned new languages as sponge, and my father mastered impressive language control in many languages, and learned the language of the place in every area he stayed. The Spanish and the German were fluent in the mouths of both my parents. The German used them whenever they wanted us not to understand what they were saying, but when they approached us at Spanish, my sister and I respond to them in Serbian. Like Cila , I also inherited my father's language skills to some extent at least, and now I know multiple languages while some "run away" from my head while the German language is the only one I make efforts to forget. Although I was an introvert, I had several friends in town; A Muslim neighbor, Susanna, a Russian friend whose father was a Tsarist and escaped in World-War-I after the Bolshevik revolution, accompanied the army who moved to Yugoslavia and fled, Perla Ovadia, the daughter of the Jewish doctor and Desa, who was Serbian. With these three friends the
connection was maintained even after the war. Susanna, who was a pravoslav (Russian Orthodox), spent the war days at Bjeli Manastir, the White Monastery, at the border with Hungary. Desa married a journalist in Belgrade. He wanted to accompany him everywhere and this lifestyle did not suit her, so that they eventually divorced. After that the connection between us also broke up. Five years have passed since I got rid of the cumbersome cast until I was full eight. One day we went to visit my father's brother at his brewery prepared Shlivovic, an alcoholic plum drink that was common in our area. We had a family picnic and I played at a melon, which I found there, as if it was a ball, and as the melon began to deteriorate, I ran following it. At the bottom of the slope, a train passed, while I was progressing a little longer, I would run under its wheels. Fortunately, someone caught me at the last minute and saved my life, but following the event the leg was out of place again. The attempts to straighten the leg with handbags did not go well, and there was no choice but to cast the leg again. And so, instead of attending second grade at school, I had the school year lying on the porch of the house. Friends from school would come to visit me after school, but how long they were possible playing with a girl lying down? So unfortunately these were quite short visits. My best friends at that time were the books. I read everything and lots, and I especially loved the Grimm brothers’ legends, which were very prevalent at the time, including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Snow White. In our town lived a wealthy Jewish family, whose children were already growing up and no longer needed their childhood books. They used to lend me gladfully the books because they knew I would keep them well. To this day I don't like to do "severe ears" in the book and even when I was reading and taking a break, I would put a piece of paper to use as a bookmark. My mother used to go to their home and return with four-five books for me, and after I finished, she would return them back and took others. From this family, who was so generous, only the son and one of the girls survived the war. The last rabbi of the community in our town was Leon Maestro. His term ended in 1934, when Alexander the King of Yugoslavia was murdered by an assassin, while visiting Marseille, who was apparently on a mission of the Yugoslav separatists, the Ustasha. I remember well how the rabbi stood in the synagogue and told us in a storm of emotions, "The king was killed; the king was killed!” At the end of these words he fell, and he was no longer a rabbi with us. From what we learned, he went through a nervous breakdown. Another rabbi named Levi, later spent time with us in the Bergen-Belsen camp. That Levi was more a communist than a cleric. He studied the rabbinate under the pressure of his father, but preferred to read communist literature over religious books. One evening, my father heard news on the radio how communists are treated by the German occupiers and he went to the synagogue, burned all the rabbi's books and the ashes he brought home and Community and family relation to religion
scattered it in the garden, fearing that if the Germans did entering the town, they will blame all Jews for communism. Rabbi Levi survived the war and was later appointed Consul Yugoslavia in Greece under the Tito regime. The Jews of our town were divided into Sephardim and Ashkenazi and my family, counted on the Spaniards, used to celebrate the holidays of Israel accordingly, according to the tradition of the deportees of Spain. For example, the New Year customary was not to have breakfast but to stay in the synagogue, and only after the morning praying we would visit families and eat cookies. On the second holiday day, which was also my grandmother Justina's birthday (Justa), we used to come into her house after the prayer and there we ate together. I have already mentioned the sukkah in our garden which stayed all over the year and which in the summer; we would sit in to enjoy coffee and cake. In honor of Sukkot we used to decorate it and eat in it but not stay asleep, as Sukkot holiday was in the fall and there was a chance of rain. We noted Tu B'Shvat with eating Jaffa oranges, bananas and other fruits (should be Israeli fruit. Tu B'Shvat is called also the Holiday of the Trees) , while on Purim, we used to eat Rusquitas (dough stuffed with nuts) and wear masks on the face. In addition, we made Platikos, deliveries dishes (plates of sweets) and we distributed to the nearest neighbors. We celebrated Passover with my grandmother. We read in the Haggadah in Hebrew and Ladino and we ate Masas, some kind of hollow puffs, made of reserved wheat and eggs. The matzos were obtained from Zagreb and were round and large, unlike the square matzah used in Israel. On Shavuot (Pentecost), my mother would make Montezicos, a kind of sweet buns, cone- like mountain, with "stairs" on one side while on the opposite side were the "Tablets - the Ten Commandments" decorated with various pictorial forms - Shofar, Star of David, Oats (or spikes) and other holiday symbols. Another popular dish was "Roz-de-le-chi" - minced rice stew in milk or water with sugar and decorated with cinnamon in the form of a Star of David and inside it the word "Zion", while on Tisha B'Av, we were telling about the "Weeping Wall” (The Western Wall) and the destruction of the Temple. In addition to this, what is called the "period" - a particular day in July during which Spanish Jews were prohibited from drinking water for a period of two hours in the afternoon. On Chanukah, we would open the door and light candles on the menorah behind it, so they would not be seen from outside, in memory of the Inquisition period in Spain.
Among my parents, my mother was more devout in her religion than my father, but she also knew to demonstrate flexibility at times, as the following case illustrates. My father suffered from the water accumulated in the lungs, as a result of his extended stay in the Russian cold. Every few months he had to go to the hospital in Belgrade and spend a couple of days in it for pumping the liquids from his lungs, but quite quickly they would come back hard on him breathing. My father was a light smoker, no more than five cigarettes a day: up to lunch he did not smoke at all. In the afternoon he used to smoke a cigarette with coffee. Then, if an acquaintance came to visit the store, they would sit for coffee and he would smoke another cigarette, and after dinner was coming in the last cigarette queue of the day, so I find it hard to believe that was the cause of the problem. Fortunately, for my father, there was a doctor who told him, “Do you want to get rid of this water one and forever? After all, you get them and every time they come back. I know that you Jews don't eat pork, but if you want to get well, you have to start eating”. My father did, and he healed. Since then I don’t remember him traveling to Belgrade even once. He had his own plank and a small knife that he kept in his pocket. He used to wrap the pork meat in a lot of papers, so that nothing will touch. My mother would spread bread for him and served him the salt in a piece of paper so that he would not touch by hands the salt cellar, and he sat on a low stool next to our dining table, holding the board and food on his laps. We, the girls, were told that our father ate frog meat, so, God forbid! we wouldn’t ask to taste. Once, I went to a birthday party with one of the non-Jewish friends and she served us sandwiches and said, "But you know that the mold is greased with pork fat”. I said to myself, what do I care? and decided not to tell Mama and see if anything happened to me, because always we were so scared with the various bans. As a child, I believed in the God and even dreaded it, but for the first time that I fasted on Yom Kippur occurred later when I was already staying in Bergen-Belsen. That day, the Germans took us, the fasting, early morning to the baths and kept us there until evening without food. Those who did not fast remained in the camp and received their meager dose of food. If we had not declared that we were fasting, we could have kept the food up to the fasting day end. Luckily, my father stayed in the camp and managed to keep a little food for me that day. Despite the pious house where I was raised and educated, I left the war without a drop of faith. Until then, I believed in complete faith and was afraid of what will happen if I go through one of the many prohibitions. I remember well one Friday evening at our house. I opened the oven lid and tossed a piece of paper to it, and my mother shouted at me. For five Saturdays then I had to stand by the “candillo” (candle), an oil vessel containing oil and thread, light them up and say prayer together with Mama to atone on the act, my mother was so devout. Today I do not keep and can't believe it, because where God was during the war and what did all those little murdered children to him? I know many Jews who lost their faith following the horrors they saw in the war, among them even my husband, who came
from a long line of rabbis, left the camp and from the partisans, when he no longer believes it.
My Mother's Home Food
Except for the various delicacies she prepared in honor of the Jewish holidays, my mother had a saying regularly: "Sawdust, too, if you add sugar to it, will make it delicious" and her jams were indeed famous. She knew how to make jam from any fruit, most of them she bought from a guy who came once a month or two months to clean the chimneys in our house. My mother had a deep metal vessel, which she would put on the fire. Every year before Sukkot we would get 200 kg plums, that went into this huge paella to make jam. It was a family operation - my father, my mother, Cila and I would roll up sleeves and recruits for the stoning. Then my mother was lighting a fire under the paella and not long afterwards the whole house was filled with the aroma of brewing plums. My mother used to add cloves and orange peel and tangerines to the jam that add a scent of Citrus. Another jam that starred in my mother's home kitchen was her cherries jam. Our Czech neighbor had a cherry tree in the garden which yielded enormous fruits, almost plum size, and she used to pack us generous deliveries of several pounds at a time, because she had nothing to do with these quantities. My mother made of it jam, either mashed or not, and a compote. Today when I make the homemade jam, I just turn the jar over so that no air will enter and the jam will be kept for a long time. At that time they wrapped the jar with straw and put it in boiled water to sterilize. In addition they used salicylic acid that could be purchased at a pharmacy, in order to preserve the jam. My mother also used to make a special jam that contained tomatoes, apples and raspberry together. We had two types of raspberries - red raspberry (Malina), and black raspberry (Copina). The Copina was full of seeds, and my mother used a sieve, made of a horse's hair, to pass the fruit through, so the fruit flesh passed whiles the nuclei remained in it. In the very same way she used to make strawberry jam that would have a jelly texture after going through my mother's sieve. From our pear tree fruits, that used to mature at that time with the plums, my mother used to make jam of pears and plums. That jam was a major part of the dinner in those days when we had a delayed meat meal and we couldn't eat milky. Or we would drink tea and eat jam on homemade bread that my mother baked in a large clay oven. In fact, that bread was the first dish my mother taught me to make, when I was full twelve. I long for the different types of pasta my mother used to prepare, including the Klassons - puff pastry without filling, and a German or an Austrian stew, who she used to make and whose name I forgot, from a small squared pasta with steamed cabbage, and Tarana - a kind of delicious flakes.
Other foods were partly Hungarian (almond marzipan cookies) under the influence of Austro-Hungarian rule, and partly Spanish - cookies made of nuts or peanuts, chopped leek or pie made of matzah pie with salty cheese and spinach and more. It was customary to make jams from various fruits - strawberry, cherries, apricots, zucchini, watermelon peels, tomatoes and also mixed jams.
The Annual Summer Vacation
Every year on June 28, the last day of the school year and the receipt of certificates, we would get on a horse-drawn wagon and go for a summer family vacation in the woods. We rented a house in the Lijeska village for two months, called after the hazel trees - Lijeshnik in Serbian - which grew around it. Mum used to stay at home while the wife of Rabbi Maestro hosted her company, and while we the children have spent time with my father in the woods, teaching us to identify and distinguish the various plants. With Dad's guidance and thanks to his love of agronomy I learned to recognize the Cantria, a pink flower that helped treat my belly pain, Schleiz, used to treat cough and three spearmint species that differ in shape and taste. We picked carefully nettle leaves, which became similar to spinach after my mother's cooking. Bukvica was a low bush with male and female leaves used to treat wounds - the male leaves of the plant were narrow and with a long closed flower, while the females were wider and flower-shaped that opens. We harvested different grass for brewing and collected strawberry, red raspberry, blackberries, blueberries, and of course lots of hazelnuts that surrounded the whole area. The forest was like a huge theme park for us. My father prepared for us a wooden doll, that turned when the rods that held it were pressed. He perforated the hollow Zova tree and made from it a kind of a flute and played it. He even tried to teach me to ride a horse, but I didn't like the feeling and asked to go down. Cila actually enjoyed the experience and wanted to repeat it. Not just everyone used to say about her "She should have to be born a son".
1938 - Fateful Year
Until 1938 we lived peacefully with our Muslim and Christian neighbors, however, this year there was a turnaround. For the first time in my life, we began to feel antisemitism. First, a decree was issued that banned Jews, who were paying IRS beyond a certain threshold, to go to elementary school, and began to check into details every report on Jewish taxes, to make sure they are not state tax evaders. This did not touch us directly because our revenue was well below the set threshold, but we could sense the evil spirits are blowing around us. This year, as mentioned, the gun factory was inaugurated and the town was added about 3,000 people. In light of this and in light of the economic situation we rented a room to two of the employees. Every morning my mother used to bake Boikus for them - a kind of little buns. At that time we were forbidden to hold an assistant. Because one our assistant's job was to take care not only of family laundry but also that of our sub-tenants, and my mother was low and weak she had difficulty doing it, so the job fell on me. Once a week I would wash the tenants' clothes and change linen for them. These were American cotton sheets, which needed to be starched and ironed. In winter the temperature sometimes dropped to 20 degrees below zero. Once I hung the bedding to dry, they would cover ice and stick, and when I tried to take them down in the evening, I would find that impossible. If I stretched the fabric it was over-ripped sometimes, and I couldn't leave the laundry hanged on the night, that the fog or snow would cause it get wet again. The washing operation itself was not very difficult; Mum used to heat the water and I rubbed the laundry on top of a special board. But once I got them out of the water they were freezing, and with them my hands. It was hard, but I had no choice. The news we heard on the radio were not encouraging. I went twice to listen to them with my family, and in both cases, I got high temperature as a result of the fear that caught me. I had always hard response to scary news; even when they were tolling about a dog with rabid illness, walking around the area, I panicked and immediately brought a fever. As early as 1938, we heard on the radio what happened in Austria, the boots of the Nazi soldiers march in the streets. To this day when I hear that sound it frightens me and may even wake me up terrified in the middle of the night. My mother's condition was worse. Under the workload and mental and financial stress, my mother became depressed. She often cried and slept and at night she wandered off in the town, and my father, who cared for her, sent a detective and paid him to make sure she doesn't hurt herself. She always came home from her nightly wanderings. One night she came back and told us, that she had seen polar light in the sky and predicted the coming of the war. And the war indeed arrived.
Although in the past, Yugoslavia signed an agreement with the Germans, but eventually in March 1941, eighteen-year-old King Peter took to the streets accompanied by crowds and
together they cheer as one man: "Bolje Rat Nego Pakt!" - "War is better than a surrender agreement with the Germans!" On April 6, the war actually broke out. The Germans bombed Belgrade and continue to advance, when within a few days they conquer the whole country without difficulty, because Serbia was weak and the Croats, who wanted the German rule, quickly surrendered. The Germans were in Yugoslavia from April to July 1941, until the war began in the USSR, then the Germans went to Russia, and took with them, from among the Muslims, those who volunteered to fight alongside them. So we remained in July-August under the Ustasha, who became known for their murder and who sought every possible excuse to seize hostages, both from the Serbs and from among the Jews. In April 1941 a German officer (a doctor) and his assistant were staying at our house, without asking for permission. They lived in the two spare rooms in the house. Unlike their friends, who stayed in the town's hotel, they had a comfortable, clean bed and homely atmosphere, and when the officer was dining outside he used to bring us different food and desserts. Even my devout mother turned a blind eye and didn't check is the food Kosher. When I came across my friends on the street, they would cross the road to the other side and from there waved carefully, so no one will notice. My Russian friend completely cut off her relationship with me and refused to talk to me, probably out of fear. Unlike her, my Muslims friends said, "You were our friends in good times and you are friends in bad times too”, but I was afraid to socialize with them after I saw their five-year-old brother turn to a German convoy pointing at me, "Yoda, Yoda!" Fortunately, the German - he approached to - was our tenant, the same German officer who loved my parents very much and of course, who was aware of their Judaism, but this case made it clear to me that the same child absorbed a lot of hatred for the Jews at home and left me feeling hard. During this time, we were obliged to carry a yellow badge with a Star of David and on it the letter J, meaning Jevrej, a Jew. One day my father left the house wearing a coat and did not notice that the patch was covered. The Ustasha were also just waiting for the opportunity to punish the Jews, "Looking for a hair in the egg" as the saying goes, and they caught and detained him for this offense for about two months. The Jail was across the bridge on the Drina and I had to bring him food every a day. It was a scary march, as often I crossed the bridge under the exchange of shots between the Croatian Ustasha and the Chetnitk Serbs, who cooperated with the Germans (to distinct from the Serbs the partisans who fought them) and I struggled with fear by telling myself, my dad is waiting for me and I have to bring him food. In June, the Ustasha and Germans confiscated my father's shop and set on a Croatian loyalist. The goods were confiscated and not paid for. My sister, Cila, was playing with rifle pods she found, and when the Ustasha saw it, they went into the house, turned it over and scanned it to make sure we don't own weapons.
Vishegrad Jews gave aliases to the various ethnic groups, thus that we could talk about without understanding us. Thus, the English were called "needles," I don't know why, while Muslims were called "green". A commonplace statement for us about Muslims was that they were "like a wheat field in the wind”- moving once in one direction and once in the opposite direction. It is precisely during this period of bloodshed and mutual suspicions, notable especially a case where a Muslim friend, a classmate, rescued my life. And an act that was so: One day I was officially notified in writing to attend the school basement to clean it. I was a thirteen or fourteen and I had no idea what it was about, so when I got the message, I headed out to school as I needed. I managed to get to a meeting between the two streams, very close to the bridge, when that friend probably saw me from the school window and ran to me and asked me while he was still panting, "Where?" "I received a letter get here”, I told him, and he took the letter from my hands, tore it up into pieces, tossed them to the stream and told me, "You didn't get anything. Now go home and three days don't go out". I met Dad's cousin, Manto (Menachem) Papo near the pharmacy. "Where are you going?" I asked, and he told me he had received a letter to attend school. I told him, "You haven't received an invitation. Now come home, and in three to four days don't go away”. He accepted my advice and survived, but later he died in Bergen-Belsen. It was only later that we learned what really happened that day and how much I was close to being murdered: I found out that the Croats, the Ustasha, had massacred in Serbs in the basement of the school and killed about fifty men. Of those, only the priest left alive while the unlucky ones, who were called to clean up after the massacre, they were also murdered. Two brothers had won this bloody feast, that cooperated heartily with the Catholic Ustasha, who were brothers of the same guy who saved me. That's how they grew out of one family two murderous brothers and a third brother, thanks to whom I survived. By this time, the Ustasha had already begun to assemble Jews in various camps throughout Yugoslavia, and many of them were sent to the Jakovo camp, which was notoriously cruel. Dr. Regina Attias, from Sarajevo, also stayed in the camp, and served there as a physician. With resourcefulness and courage Dr. Attias was able to save a few children by enrolling them as a mortal from typhus and smuggled them to Jewish families in Osjek, among them are two cousins of mine who remained orphans from their mother and grandmother, who died of typhus in the camp. The cousin's father, though, remained in life in Sarajevo, however, he had no way of collecting them. My father sent to Osjek a Muslim woman with a passport with two of her children, and when she got there she left her children in Osjek and return with our cousins to Vishegrad. That's how Bato Kalderon (later Menachem Doron) and his sister Dinah joined our family. They were as a brother and sister to us and went through the entire war with us for its difficulties and her destinies. Initially Dinah lived with us while Bato (Jamming of the word Brat means brother) was sent to my uncle Leon, Salomon's father.
At the end of September, the Italians arrived in our area and stayed there for the rest of 1942. Their presence has brought with an improvement in conditions for us, since they were not anti-Semitic or cruel, and under their existence, we had hardly felt the terror of the war, and yet my parents understood that they should take initiative. My father had a visa to the United States as a salesman of fuel from an American company, and he began to take steps to sell our home to have money for travel and initial capital for life in the new country. But the plans did not go well as the weapons factory, which was across the river, only 100 meters from our house, and anyone, who interested in the purchase, returned to us with a similar answer, "I'm not ready to buy this house. After all, the first place to shell during the war is the weapons factory”. That's how he got off the trip to America, and we continued to live under the Italian rule. Along time, when the Italian’s time to leave Vishegrad came, I happened to be on the scene where they raised the flag daily for the anthem sounds, and one of the Italians soldiers noticed me and were interested in whether I was Jewish. When I replied positive, he said, "Then go to the city officer and arrange everything so that you too will leave”. I told my father about this and he contacted the city officer who did arrange our departure from Vishegrad: We were given a two-locomotive train so we don't have to go into Croatia. The rear locomotive got us where the rails meet and there cut off the two parts of the train, with one part continuing on way to the Ustasha infested area, and we continued to Priboj with the other locomotive.
Next page map was taken from next link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Narrow-Gauge-Railway_Ostbahn_Map_Milena- Preindlsberger-Mrazovic.jpg
The red arrow points to the railway split point.
Priboj in 1943. In this picture I am 15 and my sister is 13 years old On my right is Salomon Altarac and next to Cila his brother Moshe.
Escape to Montenegro
We stayed in Priboj, that was under the Italian rule, from December 1942 to May 1943. We lived in a building that we rented from the residents of the Muslim village, one room for each of the twenty families we were. When the Italians informed us that they were leaving, we left with them using the trucks they provided us towards south. When we arrived in Bar, the city officer refused to let us stay on the grounds there is no room for all of us, and so only the doctor, Dr. Ovadia, his wife and daughter stayed, while the rest of us crossed Lake Scudder the next day and arrived at Podgorica, where we stayed from May 1943 to February 1944. Officially, the Pope Pius XII gave a written permission, which allowed us to move to Italy together with the Italian army. This is a surprising fact, as the Christian church has been largely avoided denounce the persecution of the Jews or try to protect them in the course of the war. However, we could not take advantage of it because Italy had surrendered on September 8, 1943. At the same time, the German army withdrew from Greece through Albania to the north, and the Germans captured us together with the Italians soldiers. All the men, including the Italian prisoners, were forced to work in paving roads and other drudgery. During this time we continued to live in houses we rented. My father was obliged to attend twice a week and register with the German city officer, and the food was sparsely. Indeed, on February 12, 1944, we were imprisoned in a prison in Podgorica which was used to dangerous criminals such as murderers and robbers, and not for political offenders or opponents of a regime. The place was very crowded and was divided into a men's room and a women's room, both of which have latticework windows. Across the room was a plank, like a low table, that served us a bed without a mattress or sheet, and on this plank there laid - Cilla and me together, and my mother along with Dinah. We laid one blanket on top of the plank and with the other we covered. Occasionally we were taken out to the little yard so we could breathe a bit of air, but most of our time in the place had passed in inaction, so, I spent most of my day with my father in the men's room, where they played mostly cards to pass the time. In Podgorica we were all hungry. Our menu was based mostly about rice that the Italians left behind until we couldn't taste it anymore, and worse, to the rice added spice of fried onion that the Italians also left and which was full of worms, so over the diluted rice dish float worms. This was disgusting, but none of us thought of throwing it away. We would get rid of the worms and eat the repulsive rice that we received. That's how our days went by, and I vowed that if ever going away, I will never touch the rice again.
Podgorica was a favorite target of English bombing, because there were Chetnik Serbs and Germans who fled Albania and then entered to Montenegro. Luckily, the prison walls were
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