Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
I was born in Wiesbaden, West Germany, on the 18th December 1915, into a very orthodox Jewish family. My parents had moved, three years earlier, in 1912, from Poland to Wiesbaden, where a number of relatives on my mother's side were already well established.
Jews have been living in Wiesbaden since the 14th century. It was a relatively small Jewish community. In 1875, the community numbered 900. "Ostjuden" (Jews from Eastern Europe) started coming to Wiesbaden at the turn of the century. The Jewish community was mainly made up of tradesmen who opened up kiosks and shops. During the early years of the century the women worked by going from village to village and selling textiles - clothes, tablecloths, sheets etc., to the farming community. Later they opened up shops and stores in town. By 1925, the Jewish population of Wiesbaden had risen to 3000. With the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Jews started leaving, and, by 1939, there were only 1200 Jews left. In 1938 all the synagogues but one were burned down, during the infamous "Kristallnacht", and 1942 saw all the remaining Jews deported from Wiesbaden.
During the years before the First World War conditions in Poland were very hard and consequently many Jewish families broke up their homes and came to Germany where living conditions were considerably easier. My parents arrived with two children (a boy and a girl); all the rest (four boys and two girls; another child died in infancy) were born in Wiesbaden.
At this point I would like to tell you a bit about my parents. My mother was a true "woman of valour" - completely dedicated to the role of wife and mother. As long as I can remember she was the first to get up in the morning and the last to go to bed. Her name was Matel Licht, born about 1883 to Yehuda Leib Licht in Dabrowa Tarnowska, a small suburb of Tarnow, Galicia in West Poland. She had a brother and three sisters. Unfortunately, I do not remember the names of all her sisters. Her brother was Yaakov Licht. One sister lived in Tarnow and was married to Chaim Weisenberg, and Chaya lived in Antwerp. Belgium married to a Holzer.
You can imagine bringing up eight children, running a household, and attending to business was not an easy task. She nevertheless carried out these duties with a devotion that was rarely seen even in those days, and hardly found today. Why was her role so much more difficult compared to others? Because my father unfortunately became blind before he was forty. Nowadays this blindness can be operated on with laser beams, but then all operations were to no avail. My parents were too proud to accept any help and therefore my mother had to take on the burden of running a business as well as fulfilling other duties.
My father's name was Efroim Tiefenbrunner born about 1880 to Issachar Tiefenbrunner, a cabinet maker in Limanowa, a village near Nowy Sacz. He had 4 brothers and 1 sister. The eldest brother Eli (Elias) was born in 1876. I never met him as he was enlisted into the Austrian Army during World War I, captured by the Russians, taken prisoner to Siberia and never heard of again. Chaim lived in Cologne. Germany, Meir lived in Wielzcka near Katowice, and Yosef, who had a publishing and printing business, lived in Krakow and later in Warsaw. He went into partnership with a family Cailingold in Warsaw.
His only sister, Chana, was married to a "Melamed" called Chaim Zins. They lived in Nowy Sacz. However in order to make a living her husband spent most of his time teaching in Cologne and would travel home 2 or 3 times a year to visit his family, on the way dropping in to Wiesbaden. I remember as a child, watching this uncle taking a wash and to my surprise his beard would unravel down to his knees. After his wash he would pin it up again. This always frightened me.
To describe the personality of my father, I have to go into more detail. Apparently, as a young man, he was a prodigy and showed an amazing talent for learning. His acquisition of knowledge and memory for details were so phenomenal, that his family decided that his brothers would learn a profession, while he would go to a Yeshiva. Thus he entered the Nowy-Sacz Yeshiva, which was famous at the time, and learnt.
However, whilst acquiring his vast knowledge and becoming known even then, as a Talmid Chacham, he decided not to become a professional Rabbi. He wanted to be an "ordinary" private citizen, but was ever ready to give guidance and counsel to all who sought it. In time he became known as not only an expert in matters of halacha but also a mentor in day to day problems. Later, in spite of his blindness, he gave Shiurim to young and old. Here his phenomenal memory served him well. He knew the Shas, as well as many other books, virtually by heart. The most memorable yearly events were his Drashot on Shabbat Teshuvah and Shabbat Hagadol. Then the whole community from all the local synagogues came to listen to him. He was also approached many times by Rabbis from nearby communities who sought his advice on halachic matters.
As a father he was always available to listen to ,our problems, giving advice and guidance. He had an amazing ability to calculate figures and would test children in the store. While my mother was very strict in our upbringing, my father was tolerant and understood the problems of living in a mainly non-Jewish society. He taught us to be firm in our religious ways, but also to be respectful of the views of others.
I don't know much about my parents' lives before they married in 1908 and came to Genniany. My mother was 18 and my father 21. Those were not days when there was time for idle reminiscing. People were busy getting on with their lives and trying to eke out a living. Most of the relatives mentioned above I never met. Travel and communications were very expensive and time consuming, so they were not undertaken.
We were originally 9 children. Avraham Yaakov (known as Yaakov) born in Poland in 1910, Sala in 1912, Yoine born in Wiesbaden in 1914, Monju (myself) in 1915, Philip in 1918, Osias in 1920, Rosel in 1922 and Lina in 1924. Philip had a twin brother who died as an infant from a children's disease.
When I was 3 years old, my oldest brother Yaakov was sent back to Poland to live with my paternal grandparents in Nowy Sacz. The reason for this decision was that he refused to go to a non-Jewish school, where he was unable to keep up his Jewish traditions, in particular, wearing head covering. He continued his education in Poland and subsequently remained there. He later entered my Uncle Yosef Tiefenbrunner's printing business, and lived with him in Krakow, where my grandparents had also moved. Here he learned bookbinding and publishing and later started his own business. He married Lola Durst in 1933 and a year later she gave birth to a girl. I was 18 when I visited Poland and met Yaakov for the first time since he left Germany.
My relationship with my other brothers and sisters was the same as in most families, I expect. We had our arguments and fights but we also stood staunchly by each other to the outside world. I fought a lot with Yoine being closest in age to him. Philip was a very frail small child so I didn't touch him. Yoine protected him from my bullying. My oldest sister Sala was really in charge of the household while my mother ran the shop during the day. I greatly respected Sala as she had to give up a lot of her own time in order to cook, mend our torn clothes and launder them. Very often she didn't attend school or go out with friends because there was work to do at home. As a result her social life was very limited. She was pretty, talented and intelligent. In 1936 she married Chaim Perlman and moved to Cologne.
Osias my youngest brother was a very serious diligent boy. As soon as he could, he left school to work in a bakery. My sister Rosel was the more serious of my younger sisters, she was already aware of her responsibilities. Lina was very cute and spoilt and treated by everyone like a doll.
Meanwhile life in Wiesbaden went on normally albeit with difficulties. The years after the First World War were not easy ones. Germany had lost the war and large parts of the country were occupied by French and British troops. Many people, as is always the case under such conditions, speculated and made fortunes, but my parents were not among them. They ran a kosher grocery and delicatessen store where we all had to help as much as possible.
In those days people hardly came to the shop - we had to go to them! We took the orders, later delivered the goods and afterwards had to run after the money. As the community was spread out all over town, it was not easy to fulfil all these tasks. Early every morning we went off to school and upon returning at lunch-time we straight away started our duties at the shop. Many times we came back too tired to do our homework which then had to be done early in the morning before school.
Wiesbaden, being a spa, was inhabited, during the summer months, by American Jews. There were 2 kosher hotels, and flats or rooms were also rented out. These rich vacationing Jews bought kosher food from our family store.
We were sent to non-Jewish schools, as there were no Jewish schools, but we benefited from certain exemptions. We did not have to participate in religious services or attend school on Shabbat. We had to catch up our studies and bring them to school on Monday. I had an arrangement with a non-Jewish friend to bring me on Sunday, homework that I had missed from Shabbat, and we would sit and do it together on Sunday mornings. The school had about 800 boys but very few Jewish ones. It was an anti-Semitic place already during the 1920s.
My friends were mainly not from school. The three families with whom we were most friendly were Family Riesel, who later left for France, Family Lerner, and Family Kannel, originally from Russia. The latter family was quite well-to-do. We loved to go and visit them and play with their large collection of toys, as our resources at home were very limited. They left for Palestine in the early 1930s.
I personally always had a special love of sports. I particularly liked table tennis, gymnastics, running and later handball and football There were three Jewish sports clubs in Wiesbaden: Hakoah, Schild and Maccabi. I joined Hakoah where most of my friends were. I am not too modest to claim that I was quite good at sport, and many times distinguished myself.
We were active in various youth movements. My siblings joined the Poalei Aguda Ezra movement, whereas I, as a bit of a rebel, was active in Bachad (Bnei Akiva) and later became a Madrich (youth leader).
All this had to be crammed into our busy schedules of school and work. As I mentioned before, the school was anti-Semitic already in the 1920s. One anti-Semitic incident, albeit of my own making, that I recall, happened to me in 1928, when I was 13. It was during a music lesson. Not being musical myself these lessons bored me, so one day while a boy in front of me was singing a solo, I pulled away his chair so that when he sat down he fell on to the floor and was hurt. The teacher asked who did this, so I owned up. He said to all the boys in the class: "OK! After the lesson, I'm sure you know how to deal with him". So after school the whole class attacked me, beat me up and cursed the Jews. I was very bruised.
As my parents had a kosher grocery store, we children were all expected to help with deliveries and collecting money. When we were small we had a small cart that we pulled along with the goods in. We learned to walk by trailing the cart. As we got older we preferred to use a bicycle. I remember the first one that Yoine and I built. We had no money so we went to a bicycle dealer who gave us old spare parts with which to build a bike. Unfortunately our first attempt seemed to have something missing, as it never worked properly! However, as time went on, we acquired better bicycles.
During the 1930s when the Nazis came to power, they held meetings in large town halls. Yoine and I decided to attend one such meeting as something to boast about to our friends. There were about 100 Germans in the hall. They talked of destroying Jewish businesses and attacking Jews. Suddenly a school-friend recognised and introduced us. Immediately they realised we were Jewish. They threw us out and bashed us up. We were badly bruised and hurt, but very proud that we'd attended a Nazi Party meeting.
So our family life continued into 1933, when Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Movement came to power. Many families left Germany to go to Palestine, England, France and the United States. This also affected our business and gradually, we children took on employment elsewhere. Yoine my elder brother, to whom I will refer in more detail later, became a clerk in a camera and film factory. Philip left home to work in Antwerp. I stopped working in my parents' shop in 1931.
I attended a commerce school twice a week between the ages of 16 and 18. I felt I could contribute to the family more if I looked for a job in Mainz (the closest main city). I applied for a position in the big department store "Stubs Quelle" and was accepted, only I didn't know that my father didn't agree with this arrangement, as he wanted me to run his shop. Finally my father agreed and hired a young boy to help, and I became employed at "Stubs Quelle". In order to earn more money, I worked overtime during the night doing window dressing.
During my time at "Stubs Quelle" (1931-38) there were some incidents of anti-Semitism. One in particular stands out in my mind. The main customers to this store were farmers from neighbouring villages. The three last Sundays before Christmas the business was open in the afternoons. During this period my siblings came to help in the store so they could earn some money. One Sunday in 1934, the Nazi Elite Troops (S.A.) stormed into the shop and began hitting and beating all the staff. One Nazi overcame my boss Mr. Weichselbaum, so I jumped on top of him and pinned him down while my boss crawled out from under us. Suddenly the Nazi turned on me and knocked me out with his rubber truncheon. I ended up in hospital for a few days with bad bruising and concussion.
In 1937, Yoine, who was already very active in Poale Aguda, decided to leave his job and study at the Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. That left just my parents, myself, Osias and the two youngest sisters at home. I dearly wanted to study too, possibly architecture but this was financially out of the question, so I carried on travelling to and from my job, daily. Such was the situation until 28th October 1938 when my life, and that of my whole family, together with thousands of others, was abruptly and irreversibly changed.
One evening at the end of October 1938, I returned home from Mainz (where I worked) only to find my younger brother and my two young sisters in our flat crying bitterly. Apparently the police had come to our home and taken my parents to the police station. What had happened? The German government had decided that all Jews of Polish nationality residing in Germany, were to be deported back to Poland. With the usual German efficiency and brutality they swooped into the homes of all these people and arrested them. I immediately went to the local police station in order to find out what was going on. Yes, they confirmed, my parents were in their custody, would be taken to the local prison and deported to Poland the next day! I begged them to let my mother go home in order to be with the younger children, and I would stay in her stead. I pointed out to them that I could easily have hidden but chose to be with my family instead. After some time they relented, and let my mother go. My father and I were taken to the local prison, together with hundreds of others. The next morning we were all taken to the railway station, where my mother, brother and sisters joined us.
The news of this, the beginning of many more terrible and brutal events, spread like wild fire during the night throughout the entire Jewish community. As those who were holders of German or other nationalities were not yet affected, they all, to a man, tried to help as much as possible. They came to the station in order to say good bye, brought food and any other amenities that could make our journey more bearable. It was a scene which to this day is unforgettable. People, who hardly knew each other, embraced, kissed and cried on each other's shoulders.
Meanwhile the train was ready and the escorting police took us into the carriages. The train left Wiesbaden, heading eastwards. We stopped in Mainz, Frankfurt and one or two other places. In each place, we were joined by many more families. Wherever we stopped, people from the Jewish community turned out in full force in order to bring us food and good wishes to help us in our ordeal.
Eventually we arrived in Beuthen which is a border town between Germany and Poland. Here everyone got out. The train returned empty and we were kept for hours and hours in no-man's land. It was a Friday night, but the atmosphere was hardly that of,Shabbat, as you can imagine. The night passed and morning dawned and we were still kept in the same place. Suddenly we were separated from some others. the reason being that the Polish authorities, who were taken bv surprise by this whole operation, would not accept those who did not have a certain stamp in their passports. Among those was my mother. and as my sisters were entered on her passport, they stayed with her.
As I mentioned before, the escorting police force was from Wiesbaden and one of the officers was a former school colleague of mine. As we used to be friends, I dared to approach him in order to ask if he could help my father, whom he knew to be blind. He spoke to his superior and to my great surprise and relief, we were taken directly to the Polish immigration officer. After some protracted formalities we were allowed to cross the border into Poland.
Here we were put on to a train going into the interior of the country. At the first stop my father asked me where we were. I looked out and saw that we had stopped at Katowice. Here he insisted that we leave the train. It was Shabbat and he refused to travel any further. So we sat on the platform for about five or six hours, until nightfall. Only then could we board a train that took us on to Krakow.
Arriving there, we took a horse drawn "droshke" and asked him to take us to my brother Yaakov's house. There we arrived to the surprise and amazement of the whole family. Within minutes, dozens of relatives and friends assembled, all very excited to hear what had happened as, so far, they had heard only rumours. The news of the deportations had spread throughout the community, but we must have been amongst the very first to arrive in Poland. Because of the disagreement between the German and Polish governments , the majority of those deported ended up in the infamous camp of Sponscin, which is near the border of the two countries.
As I mentioned before, we were separated from my mother and sisters. After a few days we found out that they had been returned to Wiesbaden. At least they had, for the time being, a home. With the help of friends, conditions for them were not too bad. However, for us in Krakow, it was not too easy. My brother only had a small flat, so there was not enough room for us all. We split up. My father stayed with Yaakov. I went to stay with a cousin, and Osias my youngest brother went to Tarnow, to stay with my mother's relations, where eventually he got a job in a bakery.
I was in a dilemma as I could not get a job, and when I did manage to do a little window dressing for some Jewish stores, they exploited my situation as a refugee and paid me very little. I was very unhappy. I did not speak the language, I had no real work nor any friends. So my thoughts from the beginning were directed towards how to get away from this place. After some weeks I received an order to enlist in the Polish Army - that was the last straw.
I got in touch with Philip, my brother who lived in Belgium. He had contacts with a Belgian consul in Holland and promised to try and get me a visa to Belgium. I immediately sent him my passport and he actually succeeded in obtaining this precious visa. He returned my passport, which reached me a day before its expiry. This is where the trouble started. What was I to do? How could I possibly arrive in Belgium within 24 hours? I went to a travel agent, whose manager had been recommended to me. Of course this was 1938, and you could not just buy an air ticket and fly from one country to the next. Air travel in those days was almost unknown.
My first idea was to go by train and boat. But the next boat leaving Gdansk was five days hence, so I had to abandon that idea. It was pointed out to me that my only alternative was to find a flight, but this was not so easy. There was no direct flight from Poland to Belgium, except one with a stopover in Germany. That was no good. So my only possibility was to go to Prague by train, and from there to Amsterdam by plane. At that particular time there was a border dispute between Poland and Czechoslovakia and it was almost impossible to obtain a visa from one country to the next.
Here my travel agent offered to help. He was on friendly terms with the Czech consul and he was prepared to accompany me there. He thought with some persuasion and some money he might be prepared to make an exception. Well, it took a lot of persuasion and a lot of money, but I finally received that precious visa for 24 hours: Back to the travel office. The manager now told me that he would issue me a flight ticket Prague - Amsterdam, 2 weeks backdated with a seat on tomorrow's flight. The reason for backdating the ticket was, that at that moment there were absolutely no vacancies, but had I bought the ticket two weeks ago I might argue that at that time there had been room. But if there is no room, surely I cannot fly, I said in all innocence. The man looked at me pityingly and said: "You just have to shout and stand up for your rights. He who shouts loudest will win. In any case, you have no alternative - this is your only chance".
What could I do? After paying a lot more money (which I had to borrow, since all my funds had been exhausted), I finally had all my travel papers. I returned to my brother's flat to pack a few things and say good bye to my father and the rest of the family. How little did we know that this would be our final good- bye, that we would never see each other again! In the evening I boarded the train for Prague. All this happened on December 18th, my 23rd birthday. As my passport was only returned to me that morning, I had actually made all these arrangements on that day, and now I was finally on my way to leaving Poland.
Arriving at the border, the Polish police officer looked at my passport and pointed out that it was about to expire! As calmly as I could manage, I said: "I know, but it does not matter. I have to be in Belgium on very urgent family business and there I will have it extended at the Consulate. As you see, I have a return ticket." He looked at me sceptically, but let me go! The Czech officer looked at the passport, gave me an understanding nod, and waved me on!
Arriving in Prague at 5 o'clock in the morning, I immediately phoned, from the station, to the number I had been given in Krakow. The telephone rang and rang for quite some time. Eventually a sleepy voice asked what I wanted. I told him that I had just arrived from Krakow and just wanted to confirm that my seat on the flight to Amsterdam was in order. The voice at the other end of the phone screamed at me furiously: Had I gone mad to wake him in the middle of the night? He did not know me. There was no seat available and his office opens at 8 0' clock. With that he slammed down the receiver. After this I walked around Prague from 5 till 8. At any other time I would have been fascinated by this interesting and historic city, but at that time I hardly saw where I was going. My mind was occupied with one thing only. How was I to get out of here?
Punctually at 8 o'clock, I stood outside the office of the travel agency. A few minutes later, the manager arrived. I quickly ran up to him, showed him my ticket and asked what time the plane was leaving. He looked at me and said: "Oh yes, you are that madman who rang me in the middle of the night. Yes, the plane is leaving at 11 a.m., but you are not going, because there is no room for you." I started to scream at him and he screamed back. I told him I'd even accept a "standing seat"! We both threatened each other with the police. Meanwhile people were arriving in order to book in, and I still was no further. The bus, which was to take everyone to the airport, already stood outside. It was 9.30 a.m.
As I stood there in desperation, an elderly gentleman entered, walked up to the manager and told him that he was very sorry but something had happened in his family, and he would have to postpone his flight. No sooner had I heard these words, when I jumped in front of the manager and shouted: "There is my seat". He shook his head and said: "Oh no, there is a long waiting list before you". Then he looked at me and must have seen murder in my eyes, so he then said: "Just be quiet, you have your seat". If this was not a miracle from heaven, I don't know what is. The booking formalities still took a little while. I was the last to board the airport bus but finally we were on our way, and for me, on the way to freedom.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
When I actually saw the plane, a KLM Dutch airliner, and boarded it, I think I was crying. The tension of the last 36 hours was just too much. But looking around at my fellow passengers and listening to their conversations, I realised that I was only one amongst many who were making their way to freedom, and everyone had a story to tell. On this plane were perhaps only half a dozen “genuine” travellers, all others were escaping from Eastern Europe. Nobody knew then the destiny that awaited the Jewish people, but all felt that they wanted to get as far away and as quickly as possible.
We landed in Amsterdam in the evening. When my turn came to be checked out, the immigration officer told me that I could not leave the airport since I had no visa. I argued that I did not want to stay in Holland, I wanted to go to Belgium, and showed him the visa to that country. Whereupon he pointed out that in order to go to the railway station, I would be on Dutch territory, and for that I needed a visa! I explained to him, as calmly as I could, that I needed to attend to an urgent family matter in Antwerp. Everything had been arranged in a hurry, and that is why I had overlooked the matter of a Dutch visa. He asked me to wait whilst he consulted his superior. After about a quarter of an hour, he returned, and with a big smile informed me, that he had managed to obtain a visa for 8 days for me. That would give me enough time, to enjoy a stay in his beautiful country. I thanked him profoundly, but explained that I could not possibly spare the time now, but hoped to return some time in the future!
By that time all other passengers had left, there was no bus or taxi available, and my train to Antwerp was leaving in less than an hour. I once again turned to the officer and asked him how I could get to the station. He told me to wait another few minutes until he finished his duty, and he would then take me personally to the station in his car. I
I was completely overwhelmed by his kindness - not only did he take me to the station, but he made sure that I had a seat and told the conductor of the train to assist me until we had crossed the Belgian border.
I must say, that throughout all these complicated formalities and all these hours of waiting in uncertainty, I was not really afraid. On the contrary, I was quite confident that I would reach my target, and, shortly after midnight, I arrived in Antwerp! Of course there was no-one awaiting me, as there had not been time or opportunity to let my brothers know of my “travel plans”. I said "my brothers" because, a few weeks earlier, Yoine had succeeded in crossing the German border in to Belgium, and was at that time staying with Philip. So I made my way on foot from the station to Philip's address, where I arrived in the early morning hours.
The concierge, who recognised me from a previous visit, (I visited Philip in 1936), let me in, and I went straight upstairs. As I came to the door, I heard them discussing whether I would succeed, and, as Philip knew that my passport expired that day, he didn't think that the chances were very great. I could not hold out any longer, so I just opened the door and said: “Here I am!”. This was all I managed to say, before we were all in each other's arms, full of excitement. It was 2 a.m., but we talked away the rest of that night.
Next day, relatives and friends came to welcome me - my arrival came as a surprise to all. Being in Belgium was wonderful, but what was I going to do there? A cousin, Yoine Licht, the son of Chaim Weisenberg , suggested that I learn diamond cutting, and he arranged for me to go to someone who was willing to teach me. I started the next day. I was put in a room with a diamond-cutting machine, and after watching my instructor for a few days, I started cutting the precious stones myself, naturally under his guidance. I made slow progress, but gained experience daily.
All went well, until, one day in April 1939, an inspector appeared, and caught me working without a work permit. Obviously I could not continue working in this place. But worse was to come. I received an order to leave the country as a punishment for working without a permit. I had no intention of waiting for deportation, so I looked around for a way out.
 In Poland, it was common practice for Jews to marry in a religious ceremony only, without any civil ceremony or formality. Consequently, the children of these marriages adopted the mother's maiden name.
Just at that time it became known to me that the local Revisionist party was organising an illegal transport to Palestine. Here was my chance. I went to the person responsible for all arrangements, and registered with him, to put my name on the waiting list. Within two days I received notice to be ready on the next day to come to the organiser in order to settle payment and receive detailed instructions.
We were a group of eight young people, all refugees who were now in Antwerp and in a similar position to myself. We were to go in a big car, be smuggled across the French border, and from there a boat would take us to Palestine. After once again saying good-bye to my brothers, relatives and friends, I joined my group. We boarded the car, which was driven by a Belgian citizen, who was obviously not unfamiliar with this kind of "work". All my co-passengers were about the same age as me, and some of them I knew by sight. We were a very congenial group and became good friends.
Towards evening we neared a small border town, half of which was Belgian and the other half French. The driver stopped at a cafe on the Belgian side and told us to sit there and have a cup of coffee. We were to remain there until he had done some reconnoitring, after which he would return. He stayed away for about 2 hours, and we began to think that he had abandoned us in this godforsaken place. But, he returned, and told us that he had been across the border twice, without being asked for any papers, like so many of the villagers, who on Sundays walked across this border in order to visit family and friends. So he told us, to do the same: split up into twos, and just walk slowly, strolling across to the other side. He would take his car across officially and wait for us a few hundred metres on the other side.
We all left our small rucksacks and hold-alls in his car and did as we were told. To our amazement there was no hitch whatsoever: we just calmly walked across the border and saw him waiting for us a few hundred meters ahead. We once again piled into the car and drove southwards, arriving in Paris at 5 a.m. Here he dropped us at a cafe and told us to wait until someone from the organisation came to lead us further. Apparently this man had done the run several times before. and this was the usual meeting place. After a while, a person appeared and asked us to follow him. We walked to a small nearby hotel, where we were told to stay in our rooms until further arrangements could be made. The hotel was a very low-grade one, but we were not too bothered, as we thought it would only be a day or two until we could leave. How wrong we were! We had to stay in this place for 10 days. We could not leave the house during the day, as the police were checking for illegal refugees, so we only went out after dark for very short trips to buy some food and supplies for the next day.
Finally, after 10 days we travelled to Marseilles, where we were to board a ship. The plan was a simple one. We were to buy tickets on a pleasure boat, which was making trips around the Marseilles harbour. Some of the crews on these boats were bribed to take us to our ship, which was docked outside French waters. In the evening we bought our tickets; and after some cruising around in the dark, we were taken to our ship. When everyone had arrived, we were only 80 people. On board, we were told why we had been kept waiting so long. A group of 180 people, coming from Switzerland, were to join us. Unfortunately, this group did not make it; they were turned back. This ship was meant to take about 250 people and naturally 80 of us could not possibly bear the cost of the passage. So our organisers communicated with a group who were waiting in Romania, and they would join us in Constanza.
We finally left the shores of France on June 10th 1939. Our ship. the "Parita", was a medium-sized cargo boat which had been converted to take passengers. It seemed fairly seaworthy, and was adequate for our needs for the 10 days we expected to be on it. We were steaming at a steady speed towards Constanza. The mood on the ship was a happy one. We were all young people, in high spirits, full of hopes and expectations.
Immediately after arriving in Constanza, workmen and carpenters came on board, busying themselves with erecting bunkers in the lower decks and the bottom of the ship. When we inquired what was going on, we were told, that instead of the 180 people who were originally going to join us, we were now taking an additional 750 people on board! Amongst them were a number of elderly people, invalids and even babies! When we saw all this, our spirits dropped. We were crowded like sardines in a box. It was also difficult to organise such a large number of people in such a limited space. However, we cheered ourselves with the thought that in about a week we would arrive at our destination, and that would make all the discomfort worthwhile.
Our first disappointment occurred the day after leaving Constanza. The sacks of bread we had been given by the Romanians were full of mouldy bread, so that we had virtually no food! Furthermore, we were informed that this boat would not take us all the way to Palestine. (The reason for this was that the organisers hoped to use it for several illegal runs). We were to meet 4 small sailing boats in the vicinity of Cyprus. Here we would transfer to them and be taken to our destination. We arrived at the appointed "meeting place" and waited in vain. No boats arrived. Meanwhile our supply of anything edible ran out, and we were compelled to call at some small ports to buy or beg for food. We shuttled between Smyrna, Rhodes and other ports in the area, always returning to our expected meeting place, but all in vain - the sailing boats never came.
Conditions were getting very difficult; elderly people and young children were falling ill, and with only two doctors to 850 people, and no medicine and virtually no food, time was running out, and so was our patience. We organised a group of about 100, who were prepared to take command of the ship and attempt to reach our destination. With this in mind, we negotiated with the officers and crew to help us, and instruct us how to run the ship. For payment, most of them agreed. All but the captain and three officers were prepared to help us. Most of the crew were Greek, and their main concern was to get back home in good health!
Having received the acceptance of most of them, we then locked up the few senior officers together with the organisers of the transport who, for financial reasons, were not willing to sacrifice the ship. However, we were concerned with the lives and health of 850 people who all wanted to go to Palestine in the shortest time. So some of us went to work to learn the basics of running the ship. After a few more days of training we released the officers and organisers, and together with the crew put them into lifeboats, which they rowed towards a quiet spot on the Palestinian coast. Here they could land undetected. Thereafter we directed the ship towards the coast, and with full steam ahead ran it deep into the sand of the Tel-Aviv beach!
It was the 22nd August 1939, a Friday night. We had been over 10 weeks at sea! Although we had given all our money and valuables to the crew, we all thought at that moment, that we were the richest and luckiest people alive. We had made it - we had come home. All the discomfort and tribulations of this journey seemed worthwhile. At that point, some of our younger people jumped into the water, trying to get ashore, but they were caught by the British. We hoisted a blue and white flag and, sure enough, the British arrived and tried to pull us back into the sea. But all their attempts failed. All tows and chains broke. We stuck fast in the sand. Before actually landing, we had smashed all the engines with sledgehammers, so that there was no way the British could refloat the ship, which we knew they would try. Finally they gave up the attempt and ordered everyone to take their belongings, of which there were precious few, and took us ashore into the courtyard of the "Dan" Hotel, (a very much smaller and simpler version than today's!).
As it was Shabbat, hundreds of Tel-Avivians came to greet us, and although they were not allowed to mix with, or even come near us, the joy on both sides was overwhelming. Soon we were given more food than was good for us. After nearly starving for so many weeks, the food was too rich for many, and quite a number of us fell ill. Meanwhile the British authorities had organised transport and we were taken to Sarafand, (Z'rifin), a military camp, where we were interned. After registration we were given some emergency clothing, had medical checks and some proper food!
On September 3rd 1939, Britain declared war against Germany. We had been at this camp for just 10 days, but owing to the war, an amnesty was declared and everyone was freed. Jewish Agency officials arrived and issued each one of us with a “Te'udat Oleh”. By this act, we had at last become “legal” citizens.
Monday, May 11, 2009
We were free, we were in Palestine, but most of us had no possessions and were virtually penniless. Those who had relatives to go to were lucky. They could get some help - the rest had to fend for themselves. We were given vouchers to receive meals in certain places for the first three days, then we were on our own. I remember that at that time I had two invitations for Shabbat lunch, plus a voucher from the Jewish Agency. With the memory of hunger still fresh in my mind, I went to all three!
The economic conditions then were extremely difficult. Those who were fortunate enough to have a job, worked extremely hard and only just eked out a living. I had no near relations in Palestine, but knew of some people in Tel Aviv. I found out their address and went to visit them. I desperately needed to find work. After running from place to place for a few days, I happened to meet a friend from my hometown. He was a head waiter in a cafe Although they were not in need of more help, through his intervention I landed a job as assistant waiter! My salary was a light meal and a little pocket money.
I worked there for a few weeks until someone told me that there was a possibility of working for a transport firm. They were bringing cases of oranges from orchards near Petach Tikva to the Tel Aviv port. My job, which was only 3 days a week, consisted of carrying these cases from the orchard through soft sand and load them onto the lorries. Carrying a few hundred cases like that and still working at the cafe on the odd days certainly exhausted me. Still, I earned enough to get by.
However, I was not happy. I received letters from my brothers in Belgium. The news from my parents was not good. My mother and the two youngest sisters had gone from Wiesbaden to join my father and brother in Tarnow. My eldest sister Sala, too, was in Poland together with her husband and baby daughter, who was 2 years old in 1939. One knew that the condition of all Jews in Poland was getting desperate, but there was no way that I personally could do anything to help them. Here I was, working tremendously hard to earn my living, but my thoughts were constantly with my family in Europe, who no doubt lived under much harder conditions. Somehow, I was not satisfied with this way of life. I felt that I must do something, personally, to help. But what could I do from thousands of miles away?
I heard from friends that the British Army was accepting volunteers to enlist. Here was my answer - I would join a fighting force and, in this way, help to destroy the Nazi evil. So, in December 1939 I enlisted into the British Army and became a private in the Pioneer Corps. Their original purpose was as non-combat soldiers, helping with organising supplies, building and preparing camps for the arrival of the combat soldiers. However, they eventually underwent basic training and later were sent to fight.
Here I met with some others who had come with me on the “Parita” and some who had come on other illegal transports. Our group consisted of two companies of 300 men each. The majority were Jews, but we also had some Palestinian Arabs. We were trained by British officers, together with some Jewish and Arab NCOs who had had some previous military training. We went through basic training and, after about two months, were shipped off to France.
Arriving there in February 1940 we were taken by train to the north, where our job was to build a railway line to reach the English Channel, so that British supply could be ensured. This was a far cry from what I had envisaged to help my parents! But I realised that I had become a tiny cog in a vast military machine whose purpose was to destroy the Nazi regime, and I comforted myself with the thought, that even my seemingly unimportant activity helped towards this goal.
Life in the camp was at that time not unpleasant. I made many friends, many of who were in a similar position to me. I also managed to stay in contact with my brothers in Belgium, who in turn received news from Poland. At least I was not completely cut off. At that time Belgium was still neutral, until they were invaded on May 10th 1940. From then on my contact was broken. The Germans advanced into France, and our position became very dangerous.
At that time, although we had gone through basic training, we had no experience in fighting. There were not even enough arms so that every soldier could have his own rifle. However, our commanding officer, Col. Caytor, was a most experienced soldier, from the First World War. He was also very daring and inspired us all. The Germans advanced more and more. Finally our camp in Rennes, Northern France, was on the front line! On the 14th June, Marshal Petain, the then President of France, surrendered. Meanwhile we were training madly in order to defend ourselves and to find a way out of this danger zone. Our resourceful commanding officer, who knew the terrain well, actually found a way out towards the coast, and exactly two weeks after the surrender of France, we reached the port of St. Malo, slipping through the German lines without losing a man! We boarded two of the last three British ships still waiting for us.
On our trip to England we were bombed but, by some miracle, the ships that held our company were not touched, whereas the third ship was hit and lost many of its men! Furthermore, we had picked up an assortment of rifles and machine guns, which had been abandoned by those fleeing before us. Thus we arrived in England after two days, fully armed, with a full complement of men. We were hailed as the heroes of the day!
Sunday, May 10, 2009
We settled in an army camp near Aldershot, and after a few days complete rest, were visited by some high ranking British officers. After inspection, we were addressed in glowing terms - we had passed our test in fighting with flying colours, and our conduct had been exemplary. We therefore were given the opportunity to volunteer for a commando unit with special tasks, first in the Middle East, and later in Europe. Together with many others, I volunteered.
We underwent a very tough and strenuous training of combat tactics, specialised for commando units. After several months we had to pass a fitness test and about 350 of our men, more than half, were passed as fit, including myself. Colonel Caytor, our previous commanding officer, was to stay with us. After a few more days of rest, we boarded a ship bound for Egypt. We went in a convoy of about 50 ships sailing for about six weeks. Our route was along the coast of Africa, southward around the Cape.
We stopped in Cape Town for 4 days. The Jewish community, who heard about our arrival, came to the port in full force in order to greet us. They fought amongst themselves to host us! I, together with another friend, was hosted by one of the richest families in the town. Their hospitality was overwhelming, even to the extent of offering to adopt us, and give us a permanent home. This we politely refused, and after 4 days we reluctantly bade good bye to these wonderful people and returned to our ship in order to continue our journey to Egypt.
After our arrival there, we were again checked for fitness, and only those fit enough to undergo more commando training were accepted for this mission. Before being sent into action for the first time, we were addressed by the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony Eden. He again praised our achievements in managing to slip through German lines and gathering arms, despite being bombed, and despite our inexperience in fighting. He impressed us with the greatness of the British Army and wished us G-d speed. Two days later we went into action for the first time.
After some raids on enemy points in North Africa, we were transported to Sudan. From here we were to launch an attack into Eritrea, where the Italians were entrenched. We were joined by Indian soldiers, some of whom were from the famous Ghurka regiments. This particular action turned out to be a rather drawn out affair, as the Eritrean terrain is a very difficult one, and we constantly ran the risk of falling into an Italian ambush.
During this period we had some losses with soldiers being killed and wounded. However these losses became really heavy the day we went into action at the famous battle of “Keren”. This was a hill that was of strategic importance, as its possession opened the gates to Abyssinia. It was heavily defended by the Italians, who were equally aware of its importance. We fought side by side with the Ghurka and South African units. I had just recently been promoted to Corporal, and led a section of machine gunners in this heavy battle. We were shelled constantly but finally managed to take this important hill, albeit with very heavy losses.
My second-in-command was killed, and most likely the shrapnel of the shell that killed him injured me. I was not immediately aware that he had died. I tried to pull him out of the firing line, but obviously must have lost consciousness. The next thing I knew, my officer was leaning over me, telling me what had happened, and that I was found with my comrade over my shoulder.
Owing to my wounds, I was transferred to a hospital, where I spent two weeks recovering. My unit, considerably weakened, meanwhile moved to some hills overlooking Gondar, the capital of north Abyssinia. Here I rejoined my unit. We remained there for many weeks. Our task was to patrol the area and be on the lookout for any small Italian pockets of resistance that might still be left, whilst negotiations were proceeding for the surrender of Gondar.
During one of our patrols we came upon a village, and to our surprise found a large clan of Ethiopian Jews living there. The villagers must have heard us speaking Hebrew and Arabic. Some of our people spoke Arabic, so they managed to converse with these people. They lived under the most primitive conditions, working for Ethiopian landowners, as they had been doing for generations. Hearing that we came from Palestine, they assumed we were the soldiers of the Mashiach, come to liberate them! There was not much we could do for them then. We sent a memorandum to the Jewish Agency in Palestine, describing the terrible conditions under which they lived, but unfortunately not much was done for them (because of the war) until many years later, when it was almost too late!
In October 1941 the last remaining Italian garrison surrendered, and shortly afterwards we received orders to return to our base in Egypt. During our stay in this area, many of our people fell ill, including myself. I contracted dysentery and had to be transported to a hospital base, tied to a camel for eight hours, since I was too weak to sit on it.
We also had a number of prominent visitors, including Rabbi Louis Rabinowicz, who was Chaplain in the Army and later Chief Rabbi of South Africa; Chief Chaplain Brodie, later Chief Rabbi of Britain; General Orde Wingate; and, last but not least, Emperor Haile Selassie, Emperor of Abyssinia, who had returned from Jerusalem, where he had been during the years his country was occupied.
Once back in Egypt, although reduced in numbers, we soon received orders to make an attack on Tobruk, in Libya, which was also occupied by Italian and German soldiers. We boarded a destroyer and sailed on a very choppy sea, in December 1941, to the coast of Tobruk, where we landed during the night.
Despite suffering heavy bombardment, we managed to inflict heavy damage to army installations, before returning to our ship and heading back to Egypt. Our unit had been drastically reduced by casualties, in fact to about a third of its original strength. While the authorities considered what to do with us, (in fact the unit was eventually disbanded, owing to insufficient numbers), I was
approached by a Captain Buck, a British Intelligence officer who spoke about eight or nine languages fluently. He had the idea of gathering information about German army activities. With this information he thought it possible to go as German soldiers into their camps and installations and carry out sabotage. He had the blessing of British headquarters and was told to approach as many of us who spoke German as fluently as he. There were about 20 of us with whom he discussed this idea, and who were willing to join him.
Here at last was the opportunity I had been waiting for, namely, to play a direct role in fighting the Germans. This was, after all, the reason for my volunteering for the British Army. Our group was named SIG (Special Interrogation Group), and we were given a camp in the Suez area, where we could carry out our training. Later we were joined by another officer and some people from the Free Czech and Free French units. Our first duty was to visit a POW (Prisoner of War) camp where German soldiers were held, and observe their movements and behaviour.
Here we were introduced to two German soldiers, who were POW's but who offered to serve in the British Army, as they were anti-Nazis. They offered to act as instructors to our group, as they knew best how to be “German soldiers”. Within a few days, they joined us at our camp and the real German training began, including German songs. We learnt German commands, how to handle their weapons and how, and to whom, to salute. When it came to going into action, we were told that the two Germans were to accompany us. We were not happy, and objected to this order; however British headquarters in Cairo assured us that they had been fully cleared, and were now as loyal to our cause as any British soldier. We were not convinced, but soldiers are soldiers, and have to obey orders.
Our target in this action was to destroy all aeroplanes on two German airfields positioned near Benghazi in Libya. In order to get to these airfields, we had to cross German lines via the Libyan desert, past various German command posts. We had of course, been given the latest passwords, which changed about every month.
Our plan was as follows. Our group, this time consisting of 12 people, posed as German guards properly dressed in German uniforms. We were joined by about 30 Free French soldiers posing as British prisoners of war. These we "escorted", taking them to a POW camp within the German lines. We were provided with the necessary documents, with plenty of official stamps and seals. We travelled in two lorries, with half of the "British prisoners" in each, guarded by four "German guards". The remainder of our group occupied a German command car. Everything went well. We passed two German posts, exchanged our passwords to the satisfaction of the real German officers, until we came to a point near the airfields we were to reach.
Here we divided into three groups. One lorry with one German and three of our group and about half the Free French were to go to one airfield, Benghazi. The other lorry with one German, three of our group and the other half of the Free French went to the second airfield, Mantuba. I was in charge of the third group, staying with the command car, acting as liaison between the two groups, and keeping everything ready for the escape, after the actions had been completed. I was in contact with both groups.
After some time I heard from the second group, that all went well. Shortly after that I heard loud explosions, which meant that they had succeeded in exploding some planes. Nothing was heard from the first group, and, as time wore on, I became very tense. Suddenly, I heard some shouts, and, thinking at first that some real Germans had detected us, I took up my machine gun to be ready. But it wasn't a German. It was one of the Free French officers together with three or four of his comrades.
They were completely exhausted and quite incoherent. After helping them into my car and reviving them with some water, I gradually got them to tell me what happened. They had gone with their party, with one German as their driver. Suddenly their lorry came to a stop, and the driver told them that something was wrong with the motor. He started to fiddle with the engine but after a few minutes he maintained that he could not fix it. There was a German post nearby and he said he would get some help. What he in effect did, was to tell the Germans that a lorry was here with some British soldiers and that he was just posing all the time, so as to get these people into German hands.
The Germans came out, fully armed and started shooting into the lorry. Whilst our people put up a heroic fight, they were outnumbered. Some were killed and wounded, and they finally surrendered. During this battle, the French officer and some of his comrades managed to hide and later ran back to our meeting place. This was their story, and whilst they were still telling it, the other group returned, having successfully completed their mission. They had destroyed more than twenty planes. We discussed the situation and came to the conclusion that we should get out as quickly as possible, before it was too late.
We left the command car behind, and all got into the one lorry and started on our way back. We had to go through very difficult terrain, in order to avoid German patrols. At one stage, we were bombed by German planes, until we laid out a Swastika flag on the ground. The plane then flew away, and we left the spot in a hurry. We hid for some time, until we felt it safe to proceed towards our own lines. Fortunately, we had enough food and water with us, as we had to travel far south in order to avoid the Germans.
All this time I took it upon myself to have my gun directed towards the one German with us, just in case he should try any "funny business". I felt ill with shame and anger that we had been tricked by the German, whom none of us had trusted in the first place, and through whom we had lost some of our best comrades. I made myself stay alert all the time, in order to be ready to kill the remaining German, should he make a wrong move. Luckily we succeeded in reaching the British lines, and after a couple of days rest, we returned to our camp. There we handed over the German to the military police, to be taken back to the prisoners' camp. Within a few minutes of leaving the camp, we heard some shots; the prisoner had tried to escape and was shot in his attempt. We later received information that two of my friends, who had surrendered during the raid, had been killed, the Free French were prisoners of war, and the German was awarded a Hero's medal by the German Army.
We were now only a small group of fifteen, and therefore carried out smaller missions, mainly gathering information on German Army movements in the Libyan desert. One other important action was a surprise attack on General Rommel's (the German commander's) headquarters. There we joined another commando unit. We had a lot of arms and machine guns, and so succeeded in destroying large parts of this camp killing approximately 50 German officers. We missed our main target, General Rommel himself, who happened to be attending the birthday party of another general elsewhere, but we returned to base without any losses.
However, shortly after this, our unit was disbanded. Five of us joined the SAS (Special Air Service). This was a special unit operating under Colonel David Sterling who was famous for his intimate knowledge of the North African desert, and its inhabitants, the Bedouins. He was also known for his courage and willingness to take risks in battle. He commanded about 100 men - officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers) - specially selected for their fitness and courage. The missions were similar to what we had been doing previously - sabotage and destruction in well thought-out actions, deep into enemy territory.
I personally was attached to the deputy commander Major Oldfield, for my knowledge of fluent German. This was especially important when we captured some Germans and needed to obtain certain information from them. After some smaller strikes, we were preparing for a large-scale action which was to include all our men. Our aim was to cross the whole length of the Libyan Desert, starting from Egypt, and eventually join up with the American Army, who had by then landed in Tunisia. On the way, we intended to destroy as many German and Italian positions as possible. We went out with a convoy of about 50 vehicles, some lorries for our supplies of food and petrol, but mainly jeeps.
The order was to travel fast, and, whenever there was a breakdown in any one vehicle, the one behind it had to stop, take on the passengers of the broken down one, which was abandoned, and carry on to catch up with the convoy, distributing the extra load at the next stop. Unfortunately, my driver, a fellow from Lancashire, and I were the last in the convoy, so when we had a breakdown, there was nobody to pick us up. We tried to get the vehicle going, but alas - no luck! After taking as many of the most necessary items as we could carry, we abandoned the vehicle, and started walking, in the hope that, when the others realised we were missing, they would send back a vehicle to pick us up.
Unfortunately, when we broke down, we were spotted from an Italian outpost in the Benghazi area, and they sent an armoured car to find out who we were. Evidently, they had seen the whole convoy passing, but of course had no idea what its purpose was. At the time, we were dressed in British overalls, and had time to destroy all evidence of any connections with the special mission. When the Italians found us, they took us to their post and questioned us, and, discovering that we were British servicemen, they took us prisoner.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
Exactly four years after escaping from Poland, and three years after joining the British Army, on the 18th December 1942, I became a Prisoner of War. At that time, the British Eighth Army and the Americans were joining forces on the North African front, and Rommel’s German Army, together with some Italian forces, was fighting a rearguard action and was already retreating towards the continent of Europe. Thus I thought I would not be a prisoner for long. But how wrong I was!
Here I must mention one incident, which happened during my captivity at this Italian outpost. My driver and I were kept separate from other prisoners during the interrogation by the Italian commanding officer. We were only given a small ration of bread in the morning, and some kind of soup during the rest of the day. Of course this was insufficient and we were very hungry. I always ate some of the bread, and kept the remainder for later, but my driver finished his ration in one go. On the third day, he came towards me and threatened that unless I gave him the rest of my bread, he will tell the Italians that I am German and not British. I was outraged by his demand. Although he was much taller and better built than me, I took him by his lapel, shook him and hit him so hard, that he collapsed and hit his head on the wall. From the screams, the guards came in and asked what had happened. He looked at me, and, to my surprise, he said: “I collapsed from weakness”. We got double rations from then on, and he never bothered me any more.
The Italians shipped me, together with another seven British officers (two of whom were also from the S.A.S.), by submarine to Italy. On the way, when we thought we were near Malta, we tried to overcome the crew of the submarine, but failed in our attempt. We were, of course, severely punished, and after that, were kept like sardines lying on the floor, for the rest of the journey. On the third day after leaving Africa, we arrived in Italy and were taken to a Prisoner of War camp near Bari, in southern Italy.
Here again, I underwent long sessions of interrogation, but to no avail - I revealed only my name and rank. Here I must mention that, before we went into action, we had to consider the possibility of being captured. Therefore, I had already made up the story of my name being Maurice Tiffin, born in Montreal, and taken as a child to Palestine, where I joined the British Army. This was a precaution, in order to make my identity plausible and allow for my faulty English. What I had to hide was not that I was Jewish, but having been born in Germany. Anyhow, I went through these interrogations without being detected, and finally was registered as a POW born in Montreal. Later in the camp, I had a long conversation with one of the senior officers among the prisoners, and revealed to him my true story. As he was also a Canadian and a real one, who had direct contact with the International Red Cross, he arranged for me to have an aunt in Montreal who sent me food parcels.
Life in the camp in Italy was not too harsh. As a non-commissioned officer, I had the right to refuse to work for the enemy. Nevertheless, I had to keep busy somehow so I started to help in the kitchen where the food for the prisoners was prepared. Although the work was very hard, I had enough to eat, I still had time to do some physical training and also to meet other people. After a few weeks, an accident happened - a pot full of boiling water fell and the scalding water splashed all over my body and legs. The pain incurred is impossible to describe. The skin on the affected parts peeled off the flesh. I was taken to a civilian hospital in Bari, and kept there for nearly four weeks. Gradually, the healing process started; a thin layer of skin reappeared on my body. Even today, I cannot expose my legs to the sun for any length of time, as this area is still very sensitive.
This brought an end to my career as a cook, and I occupied my time in physical exercise and meeting with other prisoners to discuss the possibility of escape. Shortly after my stay in hospital, the Americans began making an impact on the Italian front. We were told that our camp was to be abandoned and we were to be moved to Northern Italy. A few days after this, we got our belongings together and started our journey, partly by train, partly walking, and within a few days we arrived in our new camp, just outside Udino. From the camp, on clear days, we could see the Yugoslav border, and occasionally even soldiers patrolling the border. We thought of escaping and joining Tito's liberation forces. The Italians were also aware of this possibility and the guard was strengthened to make escape impossible. Nevertheless, a few tried but, during my stay in this camp, as far as I can remember, only one or two succeeded, while the others were caught and brought back to the camp.
Here life was much harder than in the previous camp. The guards were North Italian soldiers, of different stock than those from the South. However we gradually organised ourselves into a certain routine, and life became bearable. In addition to the food provided by the Italians, mainly macaroni, we received Red Cross parcels from time to time, which supplemented our meagre diet. I still tried to keep fit by exercising, walking and running every morning within the boundaries of the camp. We also organised meetings and discussion groups on all topics.
There was no Jewish life as such in POW camp. There were some other Jewish soldiers with me but there was no possibility of keeping kashrut, Shabbat or Jewish holidays. Perhaps the only thing I was able to do was to avoid eating pork or bacon. On Shabbat we tried not to do much. I was well known because I liked to exchange meat tins for sardines. This was not considered suspicious, as the guards did not know of our activities.
In Italy, the barracks were very run down, and inhabited by rats and mice. Any food that was left out was eaten by mice, so we hung up washing lines and clipped our food to it. Rats were unable to balance on the thin lines, but the mice had no trouble. We often found them climbing up, gnawing their way through the line until the food fell to the floor and then eating it. One day I put my shoes on and found a mouse in one of them.
We tried, by all means possible, to keep informed of the news on the front, supplied by the guards or sometimes through a newspaper for which we bribed them. Life went on until September 1943, by which time I had already spent nine months in captivity. By then, the American Army had established a bridgehead in southern Italy, in spite of fierce fighting in the centre of the country. The Italians were ready to surrender by this time, but they were still in the grip of the Germans. The Italian commander of our camp discussed the situation with the senior officer of the prisoners, and came to an agreement that within a few days the whole camp - guards and prisoners - would abandon camp, march together to the south and surrender to the American Army. But on the very day that we were ready to leave and commence our march, the Germans arrived at 5 a.m. and took over the camp. They must have got wind of our plan, probably through some junior Italian officers. This ended our march to freedom! The Germans deported the Italian guards together with us. We felt completely helpless - we didn't have the strength or the equipment to overcome the Germans. It was a hopeless situation.
With the usual German efficiency, our evacuation was organised within hours. By midday, a goods train was ready at Udino railway station to take us to Austria, across the border from Italy. We were packed into the train, 50 men per wagon, and taken to Austria which was, of course, fully occupied by German troops. A few of us, myself included, tried to climb out from the little windows in the wagon, in an attempt to escape, but alas we were all recaptured the moment we jumped to the ground. I made two more attempts at escape in 1944, but the third time I tried, my commanding officer told me I was of more importance in the camp.
After two days of unbearable conditions in the train, we arrived at a camp in Southern Austria. Here, although the guards were very strict, life was not too bad. At some stage, we were allowed under heavy guard, in small groups, to go outside the camp to the next village and even enter a public bar to buy a beer. When some of us tried to escape, these outings were cancelled. However, after about three to four weeks, we were informed that we would be moved again. This journey was a long one and, after several days of severe discomfort, we arrived at a camp in western Prussia, near the city of Thorn. This was not very far from the Polish border. Here again, the first thing that came to mind was how to escape to Poland and join the Russian Army.
Conditions in this camp were very tough, even though the standard of housing was much better than at any previous camp. By the time we arrived at this part of northern Europe, it was already winter and very cold. With the meagre food, insufficient clothes and only one blanket per person that we received, we were hardly in a fit condition to resist the cold weather. It was definitely the hardest winter I ever went through. I never stopped taking exercise, consisting of early morning runs of five to seven kilometres each day. It helped me overcome the conditions better than others.
Meanwhile the Russians were advancing on the Eastern front and, with the Germans in retreat, we noticed the guards were very tense and nervous while making our life even more difficult. Food was getting scarce and privileges were cut to a minimum. We were in a jubilant mood because we thought that, with the Russians nearing our camp, our POW life would come to an end. But once again, German efficiency organised the withdrawal of several hundred prisoners to the west. We were told to take only the minimum of personal belongings. Under strong guard, we walked for three weeks during the autumn of 1944. Conditions were very, very hard. Many of the prisoners collapsed by the wayside. What happened to them I don't know. Food was insufficient. At night we slept in open fields, without enough protection against the cold.
Finally we arrived in a place called Fallingbostle, not far from Hanover in western Germany. Completely exhausted, we tried to settle down, as best we could, to camp life. Within a few days we were joined by more POWs - NCOs and officers - evacuated from Stallag 7, later famous, through the film “The Wooden Horse”, for a mass escape.
There I met up with soldiers from Palestine, whom I knew from the early days of my army life. They were captured in Greece and were taken captive 18 months before me. Many of the prisoners were Air Force officers. We immediately got to work on counter-intelligence, gathering information necessary for escape, as well as getting in contact with the British Army. We had some experts who could put together some kind of radio to hear the BBC news, and were also able to put up a transmitter to send information to the First British Army. My contribution was, of course, my knowledge of German. I was able to obtain essential material in exchange for coffee, chocolate and such things, using the parcels we received from time to time through the Red Cross. Thus, we built a transmitter, which we kept hidden, initially, by moving it from barrack to barrack, and finally by setting it up under the hut of the German commanding officer. It was never discovered, despite the Germans time and again breaking into our barracks, ripping open floors, searching with dogs and threatening us with all kinds of punishments.
In the late summer of 1944, we were joined by officers of paratrooper units, who were dropped near Dieppe in France, the majority being captured. It nevertheless lifted our spirits, as we felt that in spite of such failures, the second front was due to come, bringing our captivity to an end. What we felt, was also felt by the Germans. As they saw the German eastern front collapsing and the Russians advancing, they became a little more friendly, fearing what was to come. We took advantage of this attitude and succeeded in getting a few more prisoners ready for escape. Some succeeded, others not. I thought I should try my luck and escape. However my colleagues and co-prisoners thought that I could contribute more to our efforts with my work in the camp, and we agreed that, for the time being, I stay put. I continued with my contribution towards counter-intelligence, and with my personal keep-fit.
With the news of successes on both the Russian and Allied sides, life in the camp was never dull, and our activity increased. We tried to escape from the monotony of our day-to-day existence. I did a lot of sport and instructed about 50 soldiers in physical training every morning. There were soldiers who were artistic and painted. We also held concerts and organised plays. The food, however, was getting worse from day to day. The transport system had completely broken down, because of British and American bombings. Our supply of Red Cross parcels came to a complete halt.
I must point out, at this point, that the best way of economising with food was to get together in groups and pool our food rations. As we received one loaf of bread per day to be shared by seven people, it was logical to organise groups of seven. I joined a group of three Canadians, two Australians, one British and myself. All these people were very friendly with each other and had a lot of the same ideas. Our group sharing was most successful. We agreed from the beginning that, while the German rations, together with the food from the Red Cross parcels, was fairly adequate, we must save some of the durable food in tins and packets for a rainy day. This policy turned out to be very wise, for the time came when food rations were no longer sufficient. So, when many others suffered from lack of food, we, under the circumstances, were fairly well supplied.
The most important thing was, of course, the certainty that, with the second front being opened, the war could not last much longer. As I mentioned previously, we were in daily contact with the First British Army. In this way we were fully acquainted with the developments on the front. Meanwhile, the Germans guarding our camp became friendlier with us. Their position was getting more and more hopeless.
One day during the month of February 1945, the Germans informed us of their worsening situation. The British Army was advancing towards our camp, and there were Nazi elite Storm Troopers roaming in the woods. They believed the safest thing to do would be to surrender to us, and therewith handed over their arms and ammunition. We accepted their surrender, and took all the Germans, in the camp compound, under our protection.
We immediately organised guard duty around the clock, and Groups went with an armed escort to the nearby villages in order to bring in some food. The villagers were only too happy to supply us with our needs. For their own safety, they wanted to establish their good will for when the British arrived. It would have been a great mistake to break out from camp on our own, because of the roaming SS officers, although it was very tempting.
Well, we didn't have to wait very much longer, as the British arrived one day in March 1945, and our release from POW camp began. I had spent nearly two and a half years in captivity. On the whole we were treated like human beings, because of the Geneva Convention, and in these circumstances we survived in fairly fit condition. On the day of liberation I felt “like a fresh breeze”. Life had been routine and monotonous, and now it was changing dramatically. But there was no time for leisure.
Friday, May 8, 2009
After the arrival of some officers and men from the service corps, we went through the formalities of registering our names, army numbers, etc., and, of course, the details of our captivity. We were then divided into groups, according to the regiments to which we belonged. After this, I asked in an interview with the commanding officer if it would be possible for me to stay a few days in Belgium to look for family which I had left there before the War. He was very understanding, and leave was granted for up to 10 days to give me ample time to find my relations. As we were all going to England via Belgium, I was given travel papers and a leave permit, as well as the address of the camp, in order to report back to my unit.
I arrived in Brussels, but where to go to find the whereabouts of my brothers Yoine and Philip? I went to the Jewish Community Centre, where the activity was like a beehive. I was not the only one looking for family - there were soldiers of all nationalities, people from concentration camps, and others who had been hiding throughout the war. There were hundreds of them looking for parents, brothers, sisters, children and other relatives. Several ladies and gentlemen were trying to help all these people locate their relatives.
Discussions were conducted in all languages. When it was my turn, I was first given a form to fill in the names and addresses of persons I wanted to find. One lady was looking over my shoulder when I put down the name Yoine Tiefenbrunner. Since I was in British uniform, she asked me why I was looking for Yoine. I told her that he was my brother. She looked at me in a strange way and told me to wait, as she had to make a phone call. I could not understand why, while all the others were busily filling in forms, I had to wait. The lady did not return, but within five minutes, there came Yoine. I was so overwhelmed that I shouted out "Yoine" and we fell into each other's arms. People in the building stopped what they were doing and looked at this strange spectacle of two men - one a British soldier and one a well-known personality - just holding hands and openly crying.
As it turned out, Yoine was one of the leading people in the committee, and at that moment when I came to find my family, he happened to be working in the same building. I was extremely lucky to find the person I was looking for on the first day. I had nine days to celebrate the reunion and enjoy my stay in Belgium. I certainly was going to take full advantage of the 10 days leave I was given. It was nearly six years since I had left Belgium, and I had not seen any of my family. Considering what had happened in the last six years, it was a miracle seeing each other again.
Of course we both wanted to know what had happened in those six years. Yoine took leave of his colleagues and took me to his home to introduce me to his wife Ruth (nee Feldheim) of Fulda, Germany, and his daughter Janette who was two and a half years old. Yoine's home was not just an apartment - it was a whole building. At that time, he was the director of an orphanage, which held 60-100 children. What I learnt of Yoine's activities during the war and the Nazi occupation was amazing.
I was happy to hear that Philip had been successful in fleeing, first to unoccupied Southern France, and later on to Switzerland, where he was interred during the War. By this time he was already freed, but owing to some formalities he had to undergo in France, he would only arrive in Belgium within the next few weeks.
Now back to my stay with Yoine at his home. I enjoyed the company of the children and had to promise them that on Friday night, after supper, I would tell them the story of my activities in the Army and my stay as a POW. Well, this Friday night was a memorable one, as I was still in an emotional state from the experiences I had undergone. I started by telling them about the escape from Belgium in 1939, the voyage on the boat for 10 weeks and arriving penniless, physically weak, but in high spirits on the shores of Eretz Yisrael, my internment by the British, and, finally, joining the British forces to fight the Nazis, and my experience in POW camp.
Seeing one of their own in British Army uniform, and listening to one who had the opportunity of hurting the enemy while they suffered so much during the long years of war, the children were spellbound. Looking into their hungry eyes, I couldn't stop and we all forgot time and sleep, and I only finished in the morning hours. For days, I had to answer questions of all sorts, and most of my stay in Belgium was spent with these children - an experience which was as exciting as anything I had done before.
The day came when I had to say goodbye to Yoine and the family and all the children, to depart for England. I reported to the camp in the north of England where I met a few hundred Palestinian POWs (i.e. soldiers who had enlisted in Palestine) some of whom I knew from before, when I served in the Pioneer Corps. Most of them were captured by the Germans in Greece and Crete, and had been in captivity for about four years. There were also some from the commandos and other units who were captured at a later stage.
In particular I was glad to find Jimmy Friedland, Yosef Shussheim and some others who were friends of long standing. Needless to say, the pleasure was mutual and of course we renewed our friendship and spent our leisure time together again. Jimmy, being a sergeant major, was very influential and it took no time at all to begin work with him in the administration office. There were staff personnel who were especially sent from Palestine to administer the camp during our stay in England, but it took more experienced people than office boys to handle ex-POWs. Working in the office meant less free time, but it also gave me an activity with an interest and the satisfaction that I could help to make the stay a bit easier for the boys who suffered for years under the hands of the Germans.
We also had some free time from these duties, which we spent together, either locally or in London. One of my duties was to write out leave passes, for those who were granted leave for weekends. One day, a soldier, reporting back to me from leave, told me that while in London, he had spent some time with a family named Goldman, who knew me from Germany. They were also friendly with another family named Sturm, who claimed to know me too. Sigmund and Lilo Goldman were old friends from Wiesbaden, and the Sturms also knew me, as my sister Sala was married to their cousin, and they had attended the wedding in Wiesbaden. The Sturms were Abraham Isaac and Giza (nee Blasbalg) Sturm, who had come to England on the eve of the war (1938) from Munich, with their three children, Friedel, Ossi and Shula.
When my turn came to get leave, I went to London and looked up the Goldmans and also the Sturms. It was a joyful meeting with the Goldmans whom I had not seen since 1938. The Sturms were away from London on this weekend but I met their elder daughter whom I knew about, but had not met before. This was Friedel, who was too young to come to my sister's wedding. Meeting her now, we fell in love. After that chance meeting, I took every opportunity to go to London and spend my free time with these two wonderful families. Edith, the daughter of the Goldmans, and Friedel Sturm were already close friends, and it was natural that I would ask one of my friends to make up a foursome. We had some wonderful times together.
At about this time, another old friend, Captain David Buck (who was now a Major), approached me. Through the War Office, he found out where I was stationed. He asked me if I would be willing to join him on another intelligence action. He had been asked by the War Office to join General Wingate, who was at this time operating in Burma. Of course he was particularly qualified for the Far Eastern theatre, as, unlike me, he spoke several Indian languages. He argued that in this operation, languages did not matter, as he needed an assistant with experience and one he could rely on. I nevertheless declined as, for me, the motive of fighting the Nazis had come to an end. The Far East was not high on my list of priorities. Besides that, I now had to consider Friedel, to whom I had become engaged.
He understood, and on my next leave to London, we met and I introduced him to Friedel, and then he understood even better! We nevertheless spent some good times together. The four of us, David Buck, Friedel, Edith and myself went out to the theatre and concerts. Buck, in his Grenadier uniform, struck quite a figure, turning many eyes his way wherever he went. Shortly afterwards, he left for duty to the Far East. I did not hear from him until some weeks later, when I received a phone call from his sister to say that he had been killed in action. The plane, in which he and his unit were travelling, was shot down, killing all passengers and crew. It would have been the plane I would have been travelling in, had I joined him.
I also had another chance to go on leave to Belgium, where I again spent a wonderful time with Yoine and family. By this time, Philip had also arrived from France, and we made the most of our time together. We had a lot to tell each other. He told me that after escaping to Southern France, one day in Nice, he had gone out to arrange something. When he returned his wife was not where he left her. Later he found out that the Gestapo had taken her away, and he could not find any trace of where they had taken her. He left Nice for the Swiss border, which he crossed illegally. He was interned in a refugee camp. There, he met Hencha Wasserman from Antwerp, whom he eventually married after returning to Antwerp.
When I came this time, I brought with me food and other sundries which I could purchase from the army canteen. When showing it to Yoine's family, I thought they would be more than pleased, but they laughed at me, as all these items could be bought in every shop. It seemed ironical. to me that, in Belgium you could buy anything you wanted, whereas in England, there was strict rationing (even though they were the victors of the War). When my leave came to an end, I had to say goodbye to my family once again,
When I returned to camp a surprise awaited me. I was selected for a reception by their Majesties, the King and Queen, in Buckingham Palace. It was to be a reception for POW's of the Allied Forces i.e. Canadian, British, Free Polish, Free Czech etc. I was to represent the commando units of the Palestinians. With me, were about a dozen Palestinians from various units, including Jimmy Friedland. How I had dreamed of being received by the King of the British Empire. We assembled in the barracks near the Palace, were met by the representative of the Jewish Agency and marched into Buckingham Palace. We formed into a half circle, and their two daughters, Princess Elizabeth (today's Queen) and Princess Margaret, came out of the Palace into the garden. We were introduced to some high officials and officers. The entourage started at one end of the half circle and sometimes made a short stop to talk to a soldier. We were in the middle of the circle, among other units of the Eighth Army. The King and Queen approached us. The Admiral at his side announced the name of the respective unit and the area we were fighting in. At this stage, the King addressed a number of remarks to us, regarding our activities in N. Africa. After that, the royal entourage made several more stops, until they came to the end of the half circle. With that, the official ceremony ended and everybody went towards the buffet where coffee and tea were served, catered by Lyons Corner House. So ended my visit to the Royal Palace. We received no medals at this reception - medals awarded for war service were sent to us in the post after the War.
One more incident I should mention, during my stay in England. To pass the time, we arranged sports events, from time to time, and often invited clubs from the neighbourhood to play football against the team from our camp, near Stoke-on-Trent. On one occasion we played against the reserve team of the well-known club Stoke City. I happened to be the goalkeeper, and although we lost, we played a good game. Some time after that, we had a visit from the manager of Stoke City, who asked the camp commander if they could borrow the goalkeeper, as they were going to play a charity game against Wolverhampton Wanderers, another famous club. They were in need of a goalkeeper. I must have made quite an impression at the earlier game. Our camp commander was pleased to let me play, and I played a good game. The result confirms it, as we won the match 2:1.
During the remaining weeks in that camp, I took every opportunity to go to London to be together with Friedel - sometimes with other friends, sometimes just sightseeing. The time came when we - the Palestinian contingent - were to be repatriated to Palestine. In October 1945, we boarded a ship that took us through the Mediterranean to Egypt and from there, by train, to Palestine. It was an emotional moment, coming back to our homeland after such a long time. The whole world had changed since the time when I had arrived here the first time, in August 1939. At that time, World War Two was about to start, and the Nazis were successfully expanding in all directions in Europe. Now, in October 1945, the German Army had lost the war, and Hitler was dead. However, the Jewish people had lost six million people - one third of its total population.
The first thing I did after getting back, was to contact friends and relatives who, of course, were both surprised and pleased to see me again. However some of my so-called friends were disappointing. All my civilian clothes that I left with them had disappeared and money, which I had loaned to others, was lost or they refused to repay me. So, I had to start again from scratch. Although technically, I was still a soldier, (I was discharged only in March 1946), I was not required to stay in camp or carry out any duties. So I looked around for ways to start making a living. As I had some knowledge of diamond cutting, which I had learnt for a short time during my stay in Belgium before the War, I contacted some people in the diamond industry. A distant relative, Yosef Nadel - his sister was the wife of my cousin -was a director in a diamond factory. I was accepted, by his firm to cut diamonds, under the supervision of another acquaintance, who was the manager of this firm. So, within a few days after arrival in Palestine, I started to cut diamonds.
My earnings were very meagre, as I was still learning, and I was paid according to my output. However, I made ends meet, as I rented a room in a village outside Tel Aviv (Arlozorov in Givatayim), which I shared with another ex-soldier. The back pay, which I received from the Army, for the time I was a prisoner-of-war, helped considerably.
I spent a lot of time trying to find out what had happened to my parents and to the rest of the family, through correspondence with Yoine and Philip, and through contact with other relatives, who gradually arrived in Palestine from Europe. We established the details of their whereabouts in Poland. At the beginning of the war they lived in Krakow but, during 1940, they moved from Krakow to the Tarnow ghetto because the facilities were better and Krakow was very crowded. They shared a flat with another family, until the ghetto was dissolved in 1942, and all the Jews were sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. They arrived in Auschwitz on Erev Yom Kippur and suffered the same fate as hundreds of thousands of other Jews. We keep their Yahrzeit on the 12th of Tishrei, two days after Yom Kippur, (the day we believe they were murdered).
Meanwhile, the situation in Palestine went from bad to worse, as more and more displaced persons from Europe found their way legally or illegally to these shores. The British authorities enforced more and more restrictions on the Jewish population, while resistance groups like Hagana, Etzel and some smaller groups replied with sabotage, in order to ensure that more refugees reached the shores of the homeland. This led to some violence and reprisals, and brought suffering to the Jewish population. Very often during curfews, when people had to remain indoors, I was able to help people, especially the elderly, shop for food items. I could do this as a British soldier, as I had permission to move about.
It was 1947, life went on, and I started to think about ways and means to get married and bring Friedel to this country. Travelling, in those days, was not an easy task. In particular, to go from Palestine to England was almost impossible. I made applications from here and Friedel did the same from London. I sent a letter to the High Commissioner and she sent a letter to Her Majesty the Queen. My recommendation was the fact that I had served in the British Army. However, being a fully trained commando made me the perfect man to come to England in order to assassinate the Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, or any other personality responsible for enforcing the present restrictions on immigration! Needless to say, a visa was not granted. However, with some evidence of my clear war record, the Home Office finally granted me the permit to come to England to get married. That was all I wanted! So the date was set - 29th May, 1947.
In those days, there was no El Al service to book through. With the help of some friends in a travel office, we tried every airline. I finally got a passage on a chartered flight, which came from South Africa, with a stop over in Lod, going via Athens, Rome and Paris to London. It was the best I could get and, with various delays and breakdowns, I finally arrived in Croydon, an airport outside London.
When I went through the customs hall, the Immigration Officer told me that I had to pass through a medical check up. He directed me to a smaller room where I was asked to strip completely. Then I was taken to yet another room where the medical check was carried out. While I was in that room, the security officers made a thorough search of my clothing and my luggage. Of course nothing was found, as, apart from personal belongings and an engagement ring that I had cut for Friedel, I had nothing. I had sent a cable from Paris announcing my expected time of arrival but I was so delayed by this check-up that Friedel, who had waited patiently after all the passengers from the plane had come out, had finally gone home. By the time I came out of the Customs Hall, no one was waiting, and there were no more buses left to take me to London. The Airport Authority apologised profusely and, together with an Arab passenger, who was also delayed for some reason, we were provided with an airport staff car which took us to London - first the Arab to the Savoy Hotel, and then me to Friedel's address. The driver even helped me with the luggage to the door. Imagine the surprise of the whole family as I stood there at the door, a uniformed driver holding my luggage!