Personal Reflections - In Hiding
I was born in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, to an orthodox Jewish family, the youngest of four children.
The Germans invaded Yugoslavia in early April 1941, when I was eleven and half years old. Croatia immediately surrendered, and with Germany's blessing and assistance, created a new country: the Independent Republic of Croatia.
Zagreb was the capital. Members of the local police, known as Ustasha, are now considered to have been among the most vicious ethnic collaborators of the Nazis.
My father was a loving, gentle man, but not a man of action. My mother was a dynamo. Before the war she ran the factory division of our business and was in every way an active partner in the business, as well as taking care of my two brothers, my sister and me, and supervising a very meticulously run household.
Despite my mother's unrelenting efforts and her tremendous foresight, my oldest brother, my grandmother and all my mother's siblings, their spouses and most of their children were killed in the Holocaust. The majority of family members was killed in the Jasenovac concentration camp, which was run by the Ustasha. The others were killed in Auschwitz.
During the years 1941-1945, my mother cried a lot but never stopped worrying about every detail of our lives, and planning for the safety of our much diminished family, consisting, by that time, of my parents, my brother and I, my mother's cousin and two of her sister's daughters.
From the fall of 1941 and for the next two years, I lived in Italy under Mussolini. While the Italian government was officially fascist and allied with Germany, the Italian people my family and I encountered were exceptionally warm, generous and hospitable. We were the "poveri stranieri", poor foreigners, so we were treated with particular kindness.
After we had been about five months in Italy, my mother was able to convince the Italian authorities to relocate my father and brother, from whom we were separated earlier, to the town in Northern Italy to which we had been assigned.
Due to racial laws, we Jews were not allowed to attend public schools, but my mother was determined that we not miss out on our schooling. She approached the Mother Superior of a convent that had a very fine private school for girls, using me as interpreter. The Mother Superior not only agreed to take me on as a student, without charge, she even gave in to my mother's pleas that her sixteen year old son be left without an education. Since the convent did not allow boys, several nuns agreed to give to give my brother private lessons, also free.
My brother. who was not the most eager of students, did not really appreciate my mother's intervention, or the generosity of the Mother Superior and nuns at that time.
My mother, with her broken, self-taught Italian, was also on the best of terms with Padre Geremmia, a local parish priest. In his life, Padre Geremmia had never ventured more than an hour away from the village in which he had been born. But to help my mother, Padre Geremmia travelled to Rome and received an audience with the Pope.
Before my parents, brother and I had left Zagreb for Italy, my sister had been sent to Hungary. At my mother's request, Padre Geremmia went to Rome to ask the Pope for a visa that would allow my sister to enter Italy. Padre Geremmia got the visa for my sister. But in 1944 the Germans invaded Hungary and began mass deportations of the Jews to the death camps. By the time the documents reached Budapest, my sister had been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In the same way, she had foreseen other dangers, my mother recognized the threat that German troops might enter Northern Italy and deport the Jews there to concentration camps. This did happen in 1943. But by that time we had again been relocated - once more thanks o my mother's persistent requests to the Italian authorities - to a town near the Alps, straddling the border with Switzerland.
When the Germans invaded Italy, my family and I climbed those formidable mountains. After days of hiking, we reached a Swiss border point. The Swiss were refusing entry to refugees, but once again my mother's survival instinct saved our lives. She simply told the guards that the Germans would certainly kill us if we went back, and since we were physically drained we were not going to move from where we were. They were free to shoot us themselves, she told them. We lay down on the spot. Eventually, an officer came and escorted us into the interior of the country.
My parents, my brother and I lived out the rest of the war in Switzerland. My sister also survived the war and eventually we were all reunited in Canada.
These few anecdotes can only hint at my mother's strength and her complete devotion to her family. Later, she paid for exertions with emotional problems. My father died in Canada at the age of seventy. Shortly after my father's death, at age 63 my mother began to show signs of mental instability. This was later diagnosed as Alzheimer Disease and we watched for seventeen years as this vibrant, bright, woman lost her faculties.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.