The contact to Judith Caro arose through her grandson Jonas’s visit to the former Jewish children’s home. He had read his grandmother’s life story which she wrote for her 80th birthday and was trying to trace the family during a visit to Berlin. I have been in touch with Judith Caro since then and we have also met three times in Cologne. Judith Caro married in Israel; her husband was one of the people with whom she undertook the illegal journey to Palestine in 1940. 17 years later, she returned to Germany with him and their two children. They started up a business, in which Judith Caro is still active.
I was born in 1924, as the period of hyperinflation in Germany was coming to an end. I sometimes wonder what my nappies must have cost! Fortunately my family was still quite well off at that time.
I was the eldest child; my sister Eva was born in 1928. We lived in Breslau. My father and his brother Julius had a fabric business. My father’s job was to visit the customers, so he was often away and for this reason we had a chauffeur, along with a black limousine which seemed huge to me as a small child. Another of my earliest memories is of seeing the airship Graf Zeppelin. We climbed up onto the roof to get the best view as it flew over Breslau, gliding very slowly over our heads.
I didn’t start school until I was six. I used to play by myself in the mornings, as my sister was still very small. A nanny came to take us for walks in the afternoons. Everything changed when I started attending school, a Jewish private school. We almost all wore sailor’s uniforms, and we didn’t write on slates, as was usual in those days, but had exercise books, which we were very proud of. It must have been quite a progressive school.
I had just started the second class when my happiest schooldays came to an end. My father’s firm went bankrupt and we lost almost everything. My parents quarrelled a lot. I remember sitting in the train one day – Mummy, little Eva, our Martha and I – on our way to our grandparents in Hirschberg. Oma and Opa (Granny and Grandpa) had a large house with a lovely big garden; there was plenty of room for all of us. We had the whole top floor and once the big removals van was unloaded and everything in its place, I felt at home. Soon I preferred Hirschberg to Breslau. It was a small town and there were hardly any cars. There was just one tramline which crossed the town, the tram wheels shrieking in the tracks, and went as far as the edge of the Riesengebirge mountains. I could go everywhere by myself on foot, to school or to visit my friends in the afternoons. Two of my mother’s brothers, Kurt and Lothar, lived in Hirschberg too with their families. I had cousins there and was given rasberry juice and other things we couldn’t afford at home any more.
Of course I was sent to the elementary school in Hirschberg. My grandparents were very wealthy, but they were of the generation that had worked its way up. In their opinion, the ordinary elementary school was quite adequate, so I went to school in Schützenstrasse, in Mr Hädel’s class. It was a large, noisy class and the teacher had a stick. No sailor’s uniforms there! Two girls from the orphanage sat on the bench behind me. They always wore the same patched clothes and came to school barefoot in summer. Their sandwiches were wrapped in newspaper and I usually gave them some of mine. They always held hands in break and no one played with them. I felt terribly sorry for them, but I didn’t really know what I could have talked to them about either.
After a while I really started to enjoy this school. I had lots of friends. They usually came to play in our garden and in winter we could even toboggan there. Our house was below the road, so the drive sloped downhill, great for tobogganing. Oma often took me to the synagogue. It was small, but richly furnished. There were some very wealthy Jewish families and someone had donated an organ. I always enjoyed listening to the chants and soon I could sing some of them too, to Oma’s great delight. (Who would have thought that this language would one day be my children’s mother tongue!) Oma was the only one in the family who still kept some of the customs. The cooking was kosher – but it was quite casual. Sometimes we mixed up the kitchen knives. Then I was sent up to the roof garden and had to stick the knives in the flowerpots. There they stayed for three days, after which they were kosher again.
Sometimes the whole family came on Friday evening for kiddush, to please Oma. I always joined in the prayers. The lovely time in Hirschberg ended as abruptly as it had begun. My father took up a job as trade representative in his cousin’s firm in Liegnitz, so we moved there. I was sent to the Green School, which indeed had a leafy setting but it was very strict. The teachers used to beat the children a lot. At break, we walked round the playground in threes, class by class. I was in my third year of school and it was 1933. The troubled times made themselves felt even at school. Some children came to school and shouted, “Heil Hitler” – but there were plenty of others who wore blue workers’ shirts and shouted, “Freedom”. When the teacher, Mr Schneider, came in, both groups were beaten. But not for long – Mr Schneider soon appeared with a party badge and there were no more shouts of “freedom”.
I moved to the Augusta-Victoria Lyceum in 1934. By this time, National Socialism had completely taken over the schools. As a Jewish child, I felt completely out of place at this school. I didn’t know anyone in my class; there was no one else from my old school there. However I soon noticed that some of the girls were on my side. I sometimes cried at break, after another rabble-rousing German lesson, and they came to comfort me and criticise the teachers. The teachers really were the problem: these embittered grey-haired spinsters, who had found a Führer (a leader) at last! (Teachers were all spinsters at that time.) When we gave our teacher a vase for her birthday – we had all given money towards it and someone recited a poem – she thanked us but said that she would rather exchange the vase for a portrait of Hitler, the Führer, for the classroom. Luckily the shop sold those as well. I lived quite a long way from school and five of us girls used to walk together. They never forget to ring the doorbell and wait till I came down, as they weren’t allowed up to our flat.
I coped at school somehow. There were some subjects like maths and biology, where there wasn’t so much to say about Jews, but German and music lessons were dreadful. When I went up to the fifth form, a law was passed to limit Jewish pupils to only three percent in secondary schools. I hoped I would be one of those who had to leave, but I was unlucky – so many Jewish families had already left Liegnitz to move to larger towns or to emigrate, so I had to stay on. Nothing changed: assembly on Monday mornings, when the hymns were sung. In German lessons, we hardly ever opened our reading books, which were full of lovely poems and stories. We only read “Hilf mit” (Lend a hand), a National Socialist newspaper for schools. I hardly mentioned any of this at home. My parents had other worries.
Suddenly everything changed again! I became ill and was sent to Switzerland – free Switzerland – to a children’s home in Davos. I hoped to escape from the disastrous situation – but I was quite wrong. The house belonged to a Swiss couple, both doctors. He came from Frankfurt and had Jewish roots; he had fled to Switzerland and married a Swiss doctor, so he was able to continue to practise within the home. I made friends with two of their children, Ursel and Peter, who could speak German (as spoken in Germany) and were very nice. Peter went to the grammar school in Davos, the Friedericeum, where a huge swastika flag flew over the roof. He simply couldn’t believe my stories from Germany. However, we both supported the same ice hockey team, so we became good friends anyway. Madam, his mother, was different. One day she opened one of my letters to my parents, where I had complained about the bad food. She called me into her consulting room and shouted at me, “You little Jewess, what would you have to eat in Germany nowadays?” So much for Swiss freedom for Jewish children.
I was able to go back home in 1937. By then, the business in Hirschberg had been sold, or rather Aryanised2. Uncle Kurt had emigrated to Brazil and Uncle Lothar was trying to get a visa for South America too. So Oma was alone in the big house. It was decided that I should move in with Oma. I hadn’t been to school for a long time, and so I had a wonderful life in Hirschberg. I shared Oma’s huge double bed. We got up late; a maid had already prepared breakfast for us and we spent the time very pleasantly. Of course, there was anti-Semitism in Hirschberg too and there were Stürmer3 notices on every other street corner. Funnily enough, though, people always said to Oma, “But not y o u of course, Mrs Zamury” – the Zamury family was respected in Hirschberg!
However, terrible things were happening to our friends and acquaintances. Two families, friends of my uncle’s, both lawyers, were “shot while trying to escape” while walking in the mountains. On our next visit to the cemetery, however, Mr Katzer, the caretaker, whispered to us that they had been shot from in front! Our tax adviser, whom we’d known for years, drank poison in a fit of despair. Lothar took him to the hospital of the Grey Sisters, who still looked after Jews, where he died two days later in terrible pain. Many people left Hirschberg. In the end I only had one friend left – Lottchen. Her parents has come from Eastern Europe years previously. They lived miserable lives as stateless people – unemployed and dependent on support from the Jewish Community. Lottchen didn’t go to school either. We read together a lot: Lottchen was keen to improve her German, because they spoke Yiddish at home, so I used to practise with her. However, as a result I also picked up a few words of Yiddish. Oma was not at all pleased. It was 1938.
Lothar sold his business – for a pittance, of course. An SS man in full uniform crashed around on our parquet floor with his boots. 9 November 1938 started like any other day. Our house on Warmbrunner Platz, now called Adolf Hitler Platz, was in a quiet side street. The business had been sold and there was no man in our house. Lothar had also succeeded in emigrating to Uruguay. We had breakfast as usual and Oma went shopping. I stayed at home alone and put on a record, turning it up loudly as I always did when I was on my own in the house. In the middle of Bajazzo, sung by Caruso, Oma rushed in and shouted, “Turn the music off at once!” I had never seen her so worked up. Something terrible must have happened! I didn’t know what to do, so I went in to the kitchen and fetched her a glass of water. Then she started to tell me what had happened: all Jewish men had been arrested, all Jewish shops demolished and the synagogue destroyed. I heard later that my father had been picked up in Liegnitz and taken to Sachsenhausen. He came home after a week, his suit hopelessly crumpled. All he said was that he hadn’t touched the food - he said nothing else. Fellow prisoners, however, told an almost unbelievable tale of him knocking down the arm of a guard who was giving someone a beating. I don’t know if it was true, but it may well have been. He was a very courageous man.
Oma and I spent the rest of the day at home. The next day we went to Aulich, our grocer’s, where we were served politely, as always. No one mentioned what had happened. In the afternoon, Heinz Grossmann, Lottchen’s brother, came to fetch me. He wanted to see what had happened to the synagogue. Oma only allowed me to go after I’d promised to look for her prayerbook. It was bound in blue velvet and she always kept it by her place in the synagogue. When we arrived, the door was wide open and everything had been ripped out. The benches on the balcony had been thrown down and lay in a confused heap, mixed with organ pipes, prayer shawls and books. We climbed over the toppled benches but couldn’t find Oma’s place or her prayer book. It was probably under the rubble. The Torah scrolls had apparently been taken out and burnt. They couldn’t set fire to the synagogue as it was in a block of houses in the middle of the old part of town. It was an indescribable sight. We soon set off back home, not saying a word.
By this time, letters had arrived from Kurt and Lothar in South America.They were keeping an eye on developments here and wanted Oma to come to Montevideo. That was easier said than done in 1939. However, we started to organise the journey. I don’t know how we managed it – just Oma, an old woman, and I, a child. Oma bravely went to the authorities and I filled out the forms and typed letters to Oma’s dictation with two fingers on an old typewriter. They must have looked lovely! There were probably still a few friendly officials who remembered the smart Sunday suits they had once bought from the Zamury company and helped us. So in the end we succeeded in getting all the necessary papers.
We also visited Oma’s brothers and sisters, those who were still alive, to say goodbye. We went to Breslau to see Aunt Klara and Uncle Leopold Schwarz. Uncle Leopold was very pious; he always went to the nearby Storch synagogue for morning and evening prayers. At home, he sat in a room where the velvet curtains always drawn and read the Talmud or recited psalms. Aunt Klara was always crying. I think they lived on the money their brothers and sisters gave them. Their two daughters had emigrated, so they were alone. They died of starvation in a concentration camp.
Next we went to Hamburg to Uncle Max and Aunt Walli. Uncle Max was a banker; his wife’s maiden name was Kronheim. Her father had been a distinguished financier with the title Commercial Counsellor, and her childhood was spent on an estate in East Prussia. Uncle Max was very pious too, but Aunt Walli’s liberal upbringing meant their piety was not overdone. Their house in Hamburg was light and airy and meals were served by a maid in white apron and little cap. They always served turbot, which Oma loved. We never had it in Silesia. After the meal, we sang the four verses of “schir ha maalot”, an ancient, beautiful pilgrim song.
They lived in Hallerstrasse, which was called Ostmarkstrasse at that time. The chief rabbi in Hamburg, Dr Carlebach, lived nearby and the families were friends. We were invited to spend the Feast of Tabernacles with them, an unforgettable evening. Dr. Carlebach, his wife, eight of their children and we all sat in a tabernacle at a table covered with fruit. We sang and told stories until late at night. We were able to forget everything else for a few hours.
Dr. Carlebach went voluntarily to the concentration camp in Riga with his community and three of his children, although he had a special emigration permit from the city of Hamburg. Uncle Max and Aunt Walli were deported to Lodz and died there. Oma’s youngest sister Emma and her husband had already died in 1933. So Oma was the only one who managed to leave Germany.
There was still so much to do. The house had to be sold; it became more and more empty and bare, as almost everything was given away. Asta, our Alsation, was taken to a farmer in the country, but came back two days later, tail wagging. It was all very sad – but there was no time to grieve; we were too busy packing. A customs officer was in the house and checked everything as it was packed. He didn’t leave until everything had been sealed. All Oma’s possessions fitted into two boxes; her money was confiscated as emigrant tax. Oma did not have much left, but they built a new tax office in Hirschberg.
Oma had booked her voyage on the Cap Arcona in June. I went to Hamburg with her and Uncle Max and Aunt Walli, who lived in Hamburg, came to see her off too. We watched her go up the gangway – then Uncle Max and Aunt Walli took me back home with them. That was in June 1939; the war started on 1st September. It was the Cap Arcona’s last voyage as a passenger liner. After that, she was used for transporting troops. A new chapter in my life began.
Oma had always told me:„ You should go to Erez! She always referred to Palestine, as it was called then, as Erez Israel. But first I returned to my family home, or what was left of it. My parents had moved to Berlin after the events of 9th November 1938. My mother had a room in her cousin’s large flat in Achenbachstrasse, while my father was renting a room in Bayrischer Square and my sister Eva was in the Jewish children’s home in Schönhauser Allee, so she could go to the Jewish school in Augustastrasse. I moved in with my mother in Achenbachstrasse. Our room was very big, typical for Berlin. Mummy shared the kitchen with another Jewish family who had also moved in. The women cooked together, using the small rations available to Jews on our ration cards, and Mummy’s cousin, Uncle Georg, also ate with us. Uncle Fritz, my father’s brother, had sent us visas for America. However, these were numbered, and we could see that we had very little chance of getting to America, as only a certain quota was allowed to go each month. However, it was my parents’ last hope.
The only bright spots at this time were the evenings when we all sat in Georg’s sitting room and he played the grand piano. He was an excellent pianist and earned a little money by playing the organ in a church – of course, only the pastor knew about this. At first I enjoyed being in Berlin, although almost everything was forbidden for Jews – no cinema, no swimming pool, no ice cream parlour. There were special benches for Jews in the parks, painted bright yellow – but no one ever sat on them. Still, I liked the big city. You could still go to the big department store KaDeWe and stroll through the streets. However, I soon got tired of this. One morning I said I was going to look for a job. Everyone stared at me and Mummy just smiled sadly.
So I went to the Jewish Community in Joachimstaler Strasse. I was fifteen, but tried to look older. I can still remember what I was wearing: a fairly long linen skirt and a red artificial silk blouse with white stripes – the latest fashion – and I even had a handbag, something I usually hated. After waiting for a while, I entered the social worker’s office and simply said, “I’d like a job. Have you got anything for me?” The woman looked rather surprised, but then asked, “Well, child, what do you want to do?” I said that I would have liked to become a kindergarden teacher. There was a course for Jewish kindergarten teachers in Berlin at that time, but she told me there were no free places at the moment. After a moment’s thought, she asked, “Perhaps you’d like to get some work experience first? Then I have a place for you”. That’s how I came to work in the children’s home in Fehrbelliner Strasse.
Next morning I set off at once. It was quite a long way on the underground; I had to change at Alexanderplatz and finally arrived at Senefelder Platz – a completely different part of Berlin. I walked up Fehrbelliner Strasse and saw the big, grey house. It looked dark from a distance, but when I went in, the rooms were light and the children were laughing and playing, as all children do. There were three departments in the house. There was a children’s home on the top floors; it was an orphanage in fact, but it was never called that. There was a children’s after-school group on the second floor and the kindergarten on the upper ground floor, where I was to work. Aunt Rosa, the head, greeted me and after a short conversation, she gave me some work to do. The children had just had breakfast and I was to clear the table and clean up. Aunt Rosa watched me like a hawk and as I started to wipe the table, she shouted, “Have you never wiped a table before, girl?” Actually she was right, but I think that was what she always said to new staff. There were two other girls on work experience, Eva Wolf and Lea Becker, who had never wiped a table before either. But we did our best, because as time went on, we admired Aunt Rosa more and more. She cared alone for a group of over thirty children, most of whom came from the poorer Jewish areas. But Aunt Rosa had the parents under control. The children had to be tidily dressed and punctual. We arrived before the children and helped them to take off their coats, making sure they all sat in the right places. The day then started with songs and games for these children from sad backgrounds, and everyone did their best to make sure the day was as pleasant as possible.
First we all had breakfast, then Aunt Rosa occupied the children and we girls were mostly busy with cleaning and looking after children who needed a bit of extra attention, because they had fallen over or were sad or perhaps they just needed to go to the toilet. We laid the table for lunch for everyone. Aunt Rosa appeared with a huge aluminium saucepan, from which she dished up a portion on every plate. On my first day, I whispered, “Not so much for me, please!” So she gave me an extra portion. I never said another word. It certainly wasn’t the cooks’ fault. Not much food was available on ration cards, especially not for Jews. We always had either cabbage or carrots. The cooks did their best to make chocolate pudding, but because only skimmed milk was available, it was nearly always burnt. Skimmed milk, boiled in an aluminium saucepan, always burns, however much you stir it. But whatever there was, Aunt Rosa made sure we always ate it up. After lunch, folding beds were put up in the gym and the children had a rest, while we tidied up the plates and the kitchen. After the rest, we put the beds away and polished the gym floor again till it shone. We always laughed a lot when doing this: one of us stood on the broom and the other two pulled it along.
Knowing what I know now about was happening at this time and later, I can’t understand how much we enjoyed this time. The children’s home was almost a little world of its own. Sometimes the three of us went out after work to drink apple juice at the nearby pub. There were no notices forbidding Jews in pubs like that, because no Jews went in there anyway. I had a useful job for the first time in my life and really enjoyed it. Only the weekends were very gloomy. We were all silent and at a loss. I always longed for Monday. Gradually, however, the present invaded the world of the children’s home. The first deportations – at that time it was still called resettlement - took place in the area where many of the children lived. Some children just stopped turning up. First we were told that there was a diptheria epidemic in the area, but when three children were missing, Martha, Lothar and everybody’s favourite, Dieter with his blond curls, we started to realise the truth and sadness entered the children’s home. I started to think about my future. Oma’s words came back to me:You should go to Erez!
So I went to the Palestine office in Meineckestrasse. Hundreds of people were waiting there. The people working there listened to everyone and tried to find ways and means – but there were no longer many possibilities of getting away. The Palestine office existed until 1941. They worked tirelessly, some of them working until they themselves were deported. Alfred Selbiger, the head of the office, was shot in Berlin in 1942. Thousands of certificates had passed through his hands.
Das Haus wurde 1925 von der „Jüdischen Rundschau“, dem Zentralorgan der Zionistichen Vereinigung für Deutschland und bis zu ihrem Verbot 1938 wichtigstem Kommunikationsorgan der in Deutschland lebenden Juden, erworben. Bis Ende 1942 befanden sich hier ca. 30 zionistische Organisationen, u.a. neben den bereits genannten die folgenden: Jüdischer Kulturbund Jugend-Alijah, Teil der Jugendhilfe des Palästina-Amtes (Pal-Amt) vgl. Gisela Dachs: Die Behörde, die den Staat schuf. Schon vor der Gründung Israels hat die Jewish Agency Einwanderer nach Palästina gebracht, in: Die Zeit 8.5.2008 Nr.20, S.11
I owe everything that happened from now on to institutions like this and the people behind them. For example, there was Recha Freier, who took the decision to send ten thousand children to Palestine as early as 1933. This was when the Youth Aliyah was founded. Recha Freier saved children by every means possible and had a lot of difficulties with the authorities and even some opponents on her own side. She herself had to flee in 1941, reaching Palestine via Persia (now Iran). An American, Henrietta Szold, received the children in Jerusalem and found suitable places for them to stay. There were institutions which financed our illegal ships and paid huge bribes – even, I believe, paying the Gestapo a bounty for us when we left Germany.
Now back to my story. I had more than my share of good luck in everything that happened. When I went to the Palestine office, I met the right person straight away. Sonja – I don’t know if she survived – immediately obtained a place in the Hachschara centre4 for me. I could pack my case at once. Mummy was sad, but realised that it was the best thing at that moment. Besides, we didn’t have to say goodbye, as the Hachschara was near Hamburg. So in late 1939 I moved to Rissen, part of Blankenese, a district of Hamburg. We were in a lovely big house, House Hasenhorst, in Tinsdaler Kirchweg. There were about thirty young people there when I arrived. First I was greeted with the usual jokes for new arrivals, such as “Go and fetch the grass magnet!” I had one of the top bunks in a room with four bunks; Fränze Voss from Nuremberg slept on the bottom bunk. We became friends and used to hold hands at night sometimes, when we were frightened. Fränze, I hope you managed to escape somehow!
We spent most nights in the air raid shelter, however. The alarm always sounded at two o’clock in the morning and the block warden came to check that the black-out was in place and everyone was in the cellar. We had to grab our blankets and hurry down to the cellar. Some people managed to sleep in spite of the noise of the flak; others played chess or dozed. We were a very mixed bunch from all parts of Germany in Rissen. We almost all spoke different dialects; sometimes it was hard to understand the local dialects, for instance Bavarian. We had Ivrit (modern Hebrew) lessons in the afternoons, but even Ivrit as spoken by the Bavarians sounded quite different from the East Prussian version. The Youth Aliyah was in charge of us, which meant that we were only allowed to work half-days because of our age. In the afternoons we had lessons related to our future lives in Palestine. The teachers were good; there was no lack of good Jewish teachers at this time. We learnt Jewish history and were introduced to the founding fathers of the Zionist movement.
Each morning we went on a long run through the woods to the River Elbe, weather permitting. Then we had a small breakfast. Bread was rationed and our ration cards were marked with a big “J”. We didn’t exactly starve, but we never really had enough. After breakfast, we started work. Most of the boys went to Hamburg, where they were being trained as carpenters or fitters at the ORT schools. They were away until late afternoon. The rest of the boys worked in the Warburg garden center. When I arrived in Rissen, all the key posts were occupied. Margot was in charge of the kitchen with the help of Lotte Grunow, our housekeeper. Hilde looked after the chickens and Sylvia, later called Chaja, was responsible for the laundry. Chaja was a strong girl; she came from a village in the Eifel region and was used to hard work, She was in charge of the laundry and took it very seriously. The white washing was boiled twice in a huge copper, rubbed twice thoroughly on the wash board and finally rinsed in whitener. Sometimes I worked with her. We would often sing a traditional hunting song while working in the steamy laundry. All the other girls were given cleaning jobs by Mali, who was in charge; I helped with the cleaning too when I wasn’t needed in the laundry. Aunt Rosa had taught me a lot but I didn’t really like cleaning. I couldn’t really see why a future pioneer in Palestime should have to polish the mirrors every day, a job Mali considered very important. When it was announced that girls could also go to the garden centre, I volunteered at once. From then on, four boys and two girls marched to the Warburg garden centre in Blankenese every day.
The Warburgs were a Jewish banking family who originally came from the Hanseatic city of Warburg, moving to Hamburg in the middle of the sixteenth century to found the Warburg Bank, which still exists today. They bought a huge plot of land in Blankenese, near Hamburg, and turned it into a beautiful park, a setting for the mansions of various family members. The family was scattered around the world, of course, given the circumstances at that time, but their property was still well looked after. Probably some high-ranking Nazi had an eye on it for his retirement. The old gardeners still worked there, caring for the gardens as if nothing had changed, while the mansions were occupied by the military. We had no contact to the soldiers at all, but sometimes they secretly left bread by the dustbins for us, which we gratefully took. The boys especially were always hungry. Our gardener was called Mr Fechner. He was a fine character. He spoke Platt, a North German dialect, which we didn’t always understand. Our Leo, who spoke Yiddish at home, sometimes answered him in this language – we all ended up laughing. We also taught him to dance the Hora and after that, the leaves in the compost were always trampled down with Hora dance steps. But apart from these jokes, he made us work hard. I clearly remember planting kohlrabi: Mr Fechner went first, setting the plants in the ground: I followed with a full solid zinc watering can in each hand – and woe betide me if I didn’t place my feet exactly in his footsteps in the freshly raked earth. At noon we went home and then had lessons in the afternoon. We had little contact with the outside world and our lives were very quiet, in view of what was happening at the time. The peace was only interrupted when the Palestine office succeeded in arranging for some of us to go abroad. They took every opportunity to do this. There were WIZO certificates for Palestine, permits for England; one of my friends went to a farm in Denmark. Every offer was accepted. Unfortunately, only a few were lucky enough to get away, mostly girls. In England and Denmark, home helps were always wanted. So we were constantly waiting, there were many goodbyes and each of us hoped to be the next to leave.
By now it was June 1940. There were rumours that an illegal transport would soon leave for Palestine. When the names were announced, mine was on the list with those of three other girls, Chaja, Hilde and Margot and two boys, Alfred and Nappel, whose real name no one knew. Our teacher Mali was to accompany us and look after us. We were the youngest on the transport. I often wonder why I was chosen to go. Many good friends stayed behind – I don’t know what happened to them, except that Lotte Grunow, our housekeeper, played the lute in the orchestra in Auschwitz and so survived: her husband Harry never came back.
We six were instructed to go home, taking our suitcases and other luggage with us, and to exchange it for a rucksack with precisely eight kilos of our most practical clothes. So I set off for Berlin. It was a strange journey. On the one hand it was a farewell, but on the other, I was glad to get away. At this time, no one knew what was really happening in the concentration camps. My parents were still hoping to get to America. I had to persuade my father to sign my passport; he wanted the family to stay together. However, he signed it in the end. It didn’t take long to pack the eight kilos of luggage; there was nothing to buy anyway. My boots were soled with iron nails, so they would last longer. However, they soon ended up at the bottom of Haifa harbour…
I went back to Rissen, where somebody else had taken my place in the garden centre, so I was given the job of digging over the ground. This was the job given to anyone for whom there was no other work. It was more to keep you occupied than a real job. I’m sure there wasn’t a single piece of land in the whole of Germany that was so often dug up as the garden in Rissen. The six of us also had to complete all sorts of formalities. We went to the passport office in Hamburg together (where there was a paternoster lift) and to the customs office, where we handed in lists of what we were taking with us. My camera was crossed off the list – and I was so proud of it! It was a simple AGFA box camera, which you could only buy if you could show four Reichsmark coins with the letters A-G-F-A on them. One of these letters was rare, but Lothar had found them for me in the shop till. Oh well – the main thing was to get away!
The period of waiting was nerve-wracking. Every day, another piece of news reached us. Once we heard there was no ship, then no transit visas for one of the countries we had to pass through, then there were problems about which flag the ship was to sail under, and many other things we never heard about. Some Jewish organisations arranged everything and paid for it all too. Suddenly the phone rang in Rissen: departure for Berlin on 14th August. A special train would be there to take us to Vienna. So it was really going to happen! We arrived in Berlin. The station was full of people who had come to say goodbye. My parents were on the platform too. I remember my father sobbing; my mother, whom I had always loved much more, didn’t say a word as we parted. Otherwise I can only remember Piefke Meier standing next to me saying goodbye to his mother. He was her only child; his father had died years earlier. He suddenly took my hand and we got onto the train for Vienna. Piefke’s mother survived in Berlin; I never saw my parents again.
My sister Eva was twelve at that time. At some point she went into hiding in Berlin before the children from the children’s home in Schönhauser Allee were all deported together. She never liked talking about this time and I didn’t ask many questions. All I know is that she dyed her hair blond and lived in hiding with several families, spending the longest period with a concierge whom she called “little Mum” and who also looked after other Jewish girls. One day, little Mum heard that it was possible to get to Switzerland for two thousand marks. The money was obtained and little Mum went with the girls to the agreed location near the Swiss border. They were met there and told which direction to take. It is not clear what happened next. Did they go in the wrong direction? Was it the Swiss? Was it the Germans? Anyway, they were caught. As far as I know, little Mum was shot at once, while Eva was taken to the prison in Singen. The prison director didn’t know quite what to do with a fifteen-year-old girl, so he let her help his wife and she was even allowed out in the garden. However, this idyll did not last long. Eva had to go on a transport, in other words, to Auschwitz. That must have been in 1944. The German armies were retreating and the transports were not as easy to organise as in the past. She was sent from one prison to another until in the end, she arrived in Auschwitz after all. My brother-in-law Sisi told me that she was already in the queue for the gas chambers when she was taken aside by a guard. The war was in its last stages and anyone who could work was being sent to factories producing items required for the war effort. So Eva was sent to an ammunition factory in Salzwedel and survived there until the end of the war. I was told fragments of these stories years later and I don’t know if they are accurate.
Now back to 14 August 1940. Our train to Vienna soon departed. We all sat sadly in our seats, no one spoke and many were weeping quietly. But not for long: we were soon roused when the leader of the Youth Aliyah group came into our compartment. He was called HW, short for Hans Wendel. We were divided into groups and given precise information about how we should behave in Vienna. This transport had been arranged with the help of the Gestapo: Eichmann himself was involved and we would certainly be under close observation in Vienna. Then we were told to introduce ourselves to the other Youth Aliyah members. There were one hundred people in our group, so there was a great deal of coming and going between the compartments. There were no other passengers among us, and soon the first songs were being sung.
An order group was already waiting for us in Vienna, made up of the best young people in the Hachschara. We had to do exactly what they said; they were everywhere. As soon as anyone started to talk too loudly on the street, one of them turned up and just said, “Keep going!” We obeyed willingly; they were all great lads. I saw a tall blond boy who I really liked, but I don’t think he noticed me. To our amazement, we were taken to various hotels. The whole Youth Aliyah group was taken to the Stalener Hof. There were about five hundred of us from all over the German Reich, so we filled up almost all of Vienna’s cheap hotels. We were allowed to go into the city in small groups. We were taken to Griechenbaiszel by the order group for lunch. It was so well organised that it was never crowded. We were given ration cards, which can only have happened with the Gestapo’s agreement. I heard later that some people apparently even went to the Prater amusement park or to the cinema! You had to be tall and blond to do that! At least our Mali was with us, so there were daily Ivrit lessons, while we longed for the journey to start.
There were many difficulties which delayed the onward journey. Our ships for the Mediterranean were not yet ready and no one knew under which flag they would sail. No one wanted us. In the end we sailed under the flag of Panama. Slovakia made us agree to take five hundred imprisoned refugees with us as a condition of issuing our transit visas. After two weeks, all we seventeen-year-olds had to leave the hotels and were accommodated in gymnasiums in various Jewish schools. Whether this was an order from the Gestapo or whether the Reich Association of Jews had run out of money I don’t know. Up to then, our stay in Vienna cost four thousand marks a day.
The next stage of the journey started at last on 3 September. Buses were waiting at the hotels early in the morning, we got in and were taken to the station where the Gestapo were already waiting for us. We lined up in groups and counted out loud. HW stood in front of our group and told us to count in Ivrit! We had only learnt to count to ten, so we counted to nine and HW called out the tens, twenties etc. The counting was rather chaotic and all the groups had to be counted several times before our figures finally tallied with those of the SS. Then we were allowed to get onto the train to Bratislava. The SS accompanied us to the border station at Marchegg. There a thorough customs check was made which lasted hours. We from the Haschara only had our eight kilos and were soon finished. However, there were a number of older passengers with full suitcases, hoping to be able to take this and that with them. Almost everything was confiscated. At last we could all board the train once more. It was already late in the evening. The Slovakian border guards came and stamped our passports, which were all marked with a “J” for Jew. At midnight we were on the quay in the port. There the Uranus, a steamer from the Danube steamer company, was waiting for us. We went on board in groups. The five hundred Czech refugees were already there. Our German group was another five hundred people, and there were also one hundred from Vienna. That made one thousand, one hundred passengers altogether on the pretty little white Danube steamer. Our order group had a lot to do. The corridors had to be kept free and access to the toilets organised. The crew cooked for us, but we had to eat in groups. Order had to be kept. A couple of smart alecs queued twice for meals: at once, tickets were issued for meals. We all used the Austrian word for taking our food: essenfassen. It fitted the situation perfectly!
We all had to find places to lay our weary heads. We, the Youth Aliyah, were privileged again (it was the first time that the Youth Aliyah had been taken on one of these journeys) and we were allotted the big dining area, where the furniture was taken out so we could sleep on the floor, wrapped in blankets. The ship weighed anchor before dawn; whoever couldn’t sleep went up on deck. When I came up, it was a misty morning and we were already steaming full speed ahead in the middle of the River Danube. Later we could see the lovely landscape on both banks: vineyards, little houses and people waving to us. The ship steamed at full speed; we were passing under the bridges of Budapest by four o’clock in the afternoon. It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day. We passed magnificent churches and palaces. The people on the bridges gave us friendly waves; they surely didn’t realise that we were refugees, any more than they realised that their country too would soon be occupied by the Germans.
The Uranus steamed on towards the Yugoslav border. There were formalities at each border post but our captain was well known, so the stops were usually short. By now it was 5th September and we were approaching Belgrade. Another Danube steamer appeared behind us, the Helios, full of Czech refugees who were to join us. We passed Belgrade in the dark, but the city was brightly lit. These lights would also soon go out; the Germans were advancing steadily through the Balkans. Again people waved to us from the bridges as we passed. We sang to them, because we had already composed a song with the chorus: „We must land once more, for there's no going back“. The next day we passed the Iron Gates, huge cliffs compressing the river into a narrow bed. You could almost touch them. Red buoys lined the river to mark the shipping channel. Some said that a part of Russia bordered the river, but I don't know if that was true.
Suddenly everyone went quiet – we were passing Kladowo (http://www.aufrichtigs.com/01-Holocaust/Egon_Aufrichtig/egon_aufrichtig_-_kladovo-sabac.htm). The last illegal transport had got stuck there; the ship was frozen in on the river and the passengers were taken to an internment camp. They were never heard of again. Erich Frank, who was in charge of our journey, gave a short speech and we sat in silence for a while. This was not the only tragedy we encountered on the Danube. Just before Russe we passed a small, fully-laden ship, the Pencho. They too had got stuck in the Danube; they had no coal, no money and no food. The crew had abandoned them and they were starving. We could shout to each other and they called, “Take us with you”. That was impossible because the yellow flag flying from the mast showed that they had an infection on board. They were under strict guard and anyone who tried to escape was shot. We had to stay in Russe for a few days because of visa problems, so our leaders could at least make applications for help for these poor people and they also informed our JOINT representatives in Athens. I don't know what happened in the end to the passengers on the Pencho.
While we were in Russe - which is Elias Canetti's birthplace, by the way – one of our passengers died of a heart attack. The Jewish Community sent some members to take his body for burial in their cemetery. I remember how he was carried up the hill.
By now the rest of our Jewish fleet had arrived in Russe, the Schönbrunn and the Melk, both full of Viennese and Czechs, making a total of four thousand passengers altogether. On 9th September, the Roumanians gave permission for us to continue our journey. We entered the Danube delta and approached our final goal, the port of Tulcea. We saw huge ocean-going ships there and were very disappointed when the Uranus steamed past them and headed stright for a quay where three unimpressive little ships were moored. Two of them were even smaller than the Uranus; they were really only large fishing trawlers. The Milos was 700 tons, the Pacific 800 tons and the Atlantik 1400 tons. Our leaders, Erich Frank, HW and the Viennese leader Hans Rabl went over to inspect the ships and were horrified. Erich gave a short speech. “Chaverim (friends), the conditions on board are dreadful. All 1,125 passengers from the Uranus must board the Pacific. There is no kitchen and only 2 toilets. Our Paderborn building group (the lads who had learnt carpentry at the Hachschara in Paderborn) will construct three-tier bunks in all the corridors, and three people will sleep in each bunk.” In this way, nine people were accommodated in an area where previously there had only been one bed – squashed like sardines, but brilliant all the same! “Latrines will also be constructed on the rear deck. We were cheated in Vienna regarding the ships – but there’s no going back!” We were sad to leave the Uranus, in spite of the swastika flag at the stern – the crew had behaved decently and in the end we had sung Hebrew songs together.
We changed ships on 14th September. We were summoned in groups and crossed a gangway from one ship to the other. The order group, now called Hagana, showed us our places. I was allotted a middle bunk, along with Margot and Hilde. We lay down at once, because there was no room to stand in the passageway. We started unpacking our rucksacks and storing our clothes under the mattress. It was not easy, because the upper bunk was only 45cm above our heads, but we managed it and even laughed about it. In spite of the ingenious solution to the lack of space, three hundred people had no beds. They had to sleep on the open deck and when it rained, as it occasionally did, they had to try and find a dry niche somewhere.
There was a long drawn-out wait for the onward journey. Coal and food had to be bought. We were cheated in every way: the bread was already mouldy and the drinking water arrived in an open boat in which the rowers were standing barefoot. We were guarded by the Roumanian military. The soldiers had no shoes and looked completely neglected, though this didn’t prevent them from eagerly bargaining with us. Wedding rings and watches were exchanged for a bit of butter. The crew was not on board, but the captain appeared occasionally to see that everything was in order. At first we only got a piece of dry bread to eat and half a cup of tea. The next day, two big washing boilers were brought on board, set up on the middle deck and heated over a wood fire. One was for kosher cooking, the other non-kosher. As if that weren’t enough, there was an on-going argument with the Viennese about whether the thin, watery soup, which was all that could be made with the food available, could be flavoured with paprika – or not.
First there was potato soup and soon Paul Jentes’ voice was heard, just like on the Uranus: „Group two, essenfassen, group three, get ready.“ Paul Jentes was order group leader and it was a relief to hear his voice again. Each group lined up with its leader and there was no pushing, although everyone was hungry. Of course, jokes were soon being made about us “Germans” and our discipline. The Viennese were more relaxed: “Well, off you go then!” But the Czechs were totally chaotic.
So the days passed. Opposite our bunk was a small, narrow staircase to the upper deck. It was so narrow that it was like a one-way street, so we heard the shouts of „up“ or „down“ all day long. However, at least it meant that we always had fresh air, which wasn’t the case for most of the bunks. At the foot of our bunk was a free space, where there was a loading hatch. Günther and Felicitas Nothmann settled there on a rubber mattress. Felicitas was a nurse and Günther a doctor. He was my Aunt Lore's cousin. One day, while we were tidying up, our heavy iron saucepan fell on Felicitas' head. She made a terrible scene and after that we were always referred to as „those sluts up there“.
One day we were given permission to swim in the River Danube. Some good swimmers set off to visit our sister ships, the Milos and the Atlantik. When they got back, they said that conditions on the other ships were like ours, if not worse. I couldn’t swim and didn’t dare go into the water, although it would have been a good thing as there were no washrooms on the ship and no running water. We washed like this: there was a washing master on board, Papa Schuster. He had erected a platform on the middle deck. We queued up there while Papa Schuster and some helpers filled tin buckets on ropes with river water. Then we was given a bucket of water to wash with. There were set times where women could wash all over. Papa Schuster kept an eye out! He might meet someone and say to them, “Time for another wash!” This was fine as long as we were still on the Danube, but once we were on the open sea, there was only salt water which made our skin sticky and we got impetigo. The number of buckets was always decreasing, because every now and then one was caught by a wave. So time passed – queuing for food three times a day, queuing for the latrines, queuing for a wash. Hilde and Margot spent most of their time on the bunk. I preferred to be in the fresh air. Several of us climbed up onto the roof of the captain’s cabin. First you had to put your foot on the brass door knob and then you could pull yourself up. It was the best place on the whole ship, as long as you weren’t caught climbing up. Once you were up and if you were quiet, the captain didn’t mind.
While we were up there lying in the sun, our leaders were battling to solve all sorts of problems. Coal, food and especially ship’s biscuits had to be obtained. After our Kapitano had seen the ship for the first time, he demanded a new compass. The Jewish Agency had trusted representatives everywhere, whom we could contact and who helped us. But bargaining was always necessary, there was not much money available and we were cheated at every turn. It was an almost superhuman task for Erich Frank – may he rest in peace! – to get our transport under way at all.
The crew arrived by boat on 1st October. They were Greeks and looked as if they had been recruited from a jail. Well, not everyone is willing to set off on such a risky journey. They went on strike on the second day, demanding to be paid in advance – in dollars. There was a lot of shouting and they picked up their bags to leave the ship. After much discussion, it was agreed that they would receive a part payment in advance. Kapitano, who was also Greek, now stayed on board all the time. His main task at that time was to teach us how to keep the overloaded ship balanced. As soon as there was more weight on one side of the ship than on the other, it started to list to that side. If that happened, Kapitano shouted “Aporti” and one went carefully to the other side. Shouts of “Aporti” were heard throughout the whole journey. Once, after we had passed Crete, we decided to hold a party on the foredeck. We knew we didn’t have much further to go. Then the ship started to list so much that the people sitting on the railing could touch the water. Kapitano leapt down from the bridge over a boom and made us all sit down, then we had to go below deck slowly, in small groups. The party was over – it nearly had a watery end. The ship was close to capsizing.
However, we were still in Tulcea, hoping to be able to set off at last. We knew that severe storms could be expected on the Black Sea in the autumn. It was October 6th and it looked as though the ship might sail at last. The crew checked the six lifeboats on board and greased the anchor winches, after moving sixty sacks of ships' biscuits which were stored on top of the anchor chain. But where could they be stored now? Well, as Theodor Herzl put it, “If you will it, it is no dream!” The ship got under way at midday and we passed Sulina. The coffee already tasted slightly salty, so we weren’t far from the Black Sea. The ship started rolling and shouts of “aporti!” echoed around the deck. Now we were in the Danube Delta, about to enter the Black Sea. Kapitano ordered the anchors to be lowered, because it was stormy. The voyage continued on 8th October: we left the grey waters of the Danube behind and entered the green water of the Black Sea.
The land disappeared from view. We were in the middle of the Black Sea and dolphins appeared, which swam with us all the way across the sea - even though they got no left-over food from us, they followed us faithfully.
The Bulgarian coastguards spotted our ship and we had to enter the port of Warna. Warna was the pearl of the Black Sea, a beautiful seaside resort, but we had no chance to enjoy it. The police, customs officers and a doctor came on board and negotiations began. We were supposed to take twenty refugees with us and in exchange, we were to be given food, coal and drinking water. After a lot of discussion, forty extra people came on board and we only received half of what had been promised. Then the ships sailed on. There was a storm, so the decks had to be cleared as waves were washing over them. Children cried and mothers screamed in fear. Kapitano decided to head for a bay, because there were repairs to be made where the side of the ship was stove in. The bay was full of fishing boats and small cargo ships which were all sheltering from the storm. That night a child was born, our dear little Pacific!
Next day the weather improved. The Black Sea is unpredictable and several refugee ships had sunk here. Our Paderborn team were let down with ropes and had soon repaired the ship’s side. Early in the morning, the anchor chains rattled and soon the ship reached Turkish waters and was approaching the Bosporus. A pilot came on board, because the Bosporus was mined. It was a beautiful voyage. The sun was shining and we could see the many magnificent white houses lining the shore all the way until we entered the Sea of Marmara, where the pilot left us. We passed the Dardanelles and finally reached the Mediterranean on 20th October. We stopped at a small island. The heating pipes had to be cleaned. The crew went on land to pay their wages into the Greek bank, as otherwise the English would confiscate the money. Everyone we met here was friendly.
On 22nd October we entered Nikolaos Bay. We took barrels of drinking water, fresh bread and vegetables on board; at last we could do without the mouldy ship's biscuits. Schoolchildren circled our ship in boats and sang us Greek folksongs. We were allowed to swim in the bay, and even I as a non-swimmer went down and enjoyed the water, holding on to a rope ladder. Mr Levy, the Athens representative of the Jewish Agency, came and collected our passports; after all, they were German passports, even though they were stamped with the “J”, and could be used for stateless people. When the voyage was supposed to continue, the crew went on strike. They demanded more money and threatened to abandon ship. Luckily Mr Levy was still on board and could negotiate with them in their own language. But Erich had to dig deep into the funds for the journey before they agreed to continue.
Now the situation became serious. We were now stateless and illegal. When a plane flew overhead, we all had to go below deck. On 31st October, there was no more coal. Erich ordered that all the wood on board be used. Nothing was spared: first the bunks were demolished; we made a human chain to the boiler room and the boilers devoured one piece of wood after another. Everything was burnt: cabin doors, handrails, even part of the railings. Even one of the two staircases leading onto the deck was burnt. We hung up an emergency light. We didn’t know where we were. Kapitano knew, of course, but he wasn’t saying anything; he hadn’t forgotten the adventure on the foredeck.
On November 1st, we were sitting on the small gangway connecting the foredeck with the midships. It was one of the last remaining pieces of wood on board. There was nowhere left to sleep. The sky was full of stars and the bright morning star had just risen. Suddenly we thought we could see other lights. There were dark clouds on the horizon – but no, they were hills in the distance. Gradually it grew lighter, people came up on deck and someone shouted, „That's Mount Carmel!“ We sang the Hatikva. We had made it! Soon Haifa was in front of us in the morning sun.
The ship made it to within 300 meters of the harbour entrance with the last of the wood and Kapitano lowered anchor. The yellow quarantine flag was flying at our mast and the emergency light was still on. To our surprise, no one took any notice of us. The emergency food stores – the iron rations - were distributed - sardines, salami, food we had long since forgotten existed. It gave me and many others stomach pains. At last, at 11 o’clock, an English police boat arrived and three officers inspected the ship. They were in snow-white uniforms and we were so dirty. When they passed me, I took a step back. They left a guard on the ship. The harbour doctor came at one o’clock. He checked that there was no infection on board, but the yellow flag remained. We had had a few cases of typhoid. Later a pilot came on board and brought our ship closer to the harbour entrance. Kapitano and the crew were arrested and spent six months in jail in Acre. Kapitano knew in advance that this would happen; apparently he had already made the journey a couple of times. He had saved up his dollars in a nice fat bank account in the United States. He was a good captain and waved to us from the police boat.
We had to stay on board the wreck of a ship. We had to sleep sitting up, as there was no more space. The toilets had been demolished and the conditions were extremely unhygienic. The English didn’t seem to know what to do with this huge number of refugees – especially when the Milos also appeared on the horizon. However, they did send us drinking water, oranges and fresh bread. Otherwise we were left to guess what was going to happen to us. Several days passed in this way: we received water, oranges and bread, ate our iron rations and gazed longingly at Haifa.
At last, on 6th November, we were informed that we were to be transferred to a large troop transporter in the harbour for a fortnight’s quarantine. The new ship was the Patria, a former French luxury liner captured by the British. We were ferried over in small groups, women, children and the Youth Aliyah group first. We climbed a side ladder to board the ship. Our rucksacks were checked – we had no passports – and then we were allotted cabins. Four girls to a cabin and we had a bed each; there were washrooms and proper toilets. It was paradise! We walked around and looked at the ship. There were long gangways you could walk around. The boys all had bunks in cabins, but had plenty of space and light. Apart from that, everything was really chaotic. Our organisers stepped back and said: “Let the English organise it all!” We got plenty of food but everyone queued as they saw fit: some stood in the line several times. Then there wasn’t enough food for everyone and the last ones complained loudly hat they were starving. When the passengers off the Milos joined us, there was complete chaos. “Don’t they make a fuss”, said our Viennese.
Although our living conditions had improved, it was clear that we were prisoners. Armed police were everywhere. They were part of a special unit who had previously served in India, so they were quite used to dealing with “natives”.
On 9th November, the health commission came on board and we were vaccinated against typhoid. The next day, we were interviewed individually by German-speaking CID officers. The English were very concerned that there might be German spies among us. There were questionnaires to be filled out and our fingerprints were taken. The next day the ship’s cooks went on strike and refused to distribute the food. Our organisers took pity on them and took over the organisation. The call to “essenfassen” was heard again and mealtimes could once more take place without policemen on guard, so everyone was happy.
And so the days passed. We were given a second typhoid injection , but nothing else happened. We had our Ivrit lessons and there was an event in the Large Bunker every afternoon. There were lots of talented people on board and we had a good time, still believing that we were in quarantine. After a time, however, rumours started to arise and the word deportation was mentioned. Although we were only just outside Haifa, we were sealed off and had no contact with the land. Everything the ship needed was brought on Arab boats. Morse signals from people on land confirmed that we were to be deported! We organised chants, hoping they could hear us on land. Our leaders applied to the High Commissioner, the highest authority in the country, to grant us asylum. Newspapers were smuggled on board, from which we learnt that all our efforts were not getting anywhere. Every night, good swimmers left the ship secretly, but they were all caught. As soon as our guards heard a noise in the water, searchlights went on and small, fast motor boats roared off and fished the swimmers out of the water.
Bob from our group tried to swim to the shore, but although he was an excellent swimmer, he was no more successful than the others. They were all brought back to the Patria and put into a prison cell, which was guarded by an armed policeman day and night, so you couldn’t even speak to them. We could see all sorts of activity going on to prepare the ship for a voyage. Huge rafts loaded with coal were brought alongside where the coal bunkers were. We weren’t allowed down there, but we could watch as the Arabs loaded the coal. But were they really all Arabs? They looked as if they were and they spoke Arabic; we learnt our first Arabic swear-words. Then they began to sing and we also sang some song or other. One of the dockworkers sang different words, which HW replied to from our side.
It turned out that the ship’s oven had to be repaired before we could set sail and at the same time some arrangements were made. We weren’t told what was planned but we noticed that something was up. On 20th November a service of intercession was held and we started a twenty-four hour hunger strike. The whole country went on strike as well and no coal was brought that day. The Palestine Post published an official report from “His Majesty’s Government”, stating that we had broken the law of the land and were to be deported to a British colony. More and more people tried to swim to shore at night, but they were all caught apart from two. The English made a rule that no one was allowed to leave his cabin or bunk-room after five pm. People who disobeyed this rule were beaten. But the English were fair: if the beating left marks, you could complain next day to the ship’s doctor. We girls of the Youth Aliyah were not so heroic. Our cabins were all next door to each other and there was a Kummsitz every day, a kind of party where there was something to eat. We saved margarine and made cream of it, mayonnaise was made from oil and the strangest things were made. We lived in communal groups. All the food that was distributed went into one pot. Then we decided what we would eat. We always had stores, but had to hide them very carefully because the cabins were thoroughly checked each day by an English officer. He went through all the cabins every day at eleven o’clock, with a baton under his arm and followed by two assistants. As soon as he saw something lying around which he didn’t approve of, he pointed at it with his baton and his assistants picked it up. No one was allowed to be in their cabins at this time, and so it was on 25th November. A protest action had been planned for 11 o’clock and everyone was to be on deck. At a sign, twenty swimmers were to climb up on to the railing and with the cry of “Hey, ho, hop in” they were to jump into the water, followed by another group. Of course, only those directly involved knew what was planned. The rest of us knew nothing. I was sitting in Eva, Margit and Susi’s cabin. The girls belonged to Shomer ha Tsa’ir5 (I had moved to the left politically). We had just founded a commune and were eating our oranges and joking around. I can remember it exactly. We were thinking about how we would marry locals in Mauritius (we had found out by now that we were to be deported to Mauritius) and what our children would look like. Just as one of us was saying, “Striped”, we heard a man’s voice in the passage, announcing the inspection: we had to go on deck. Eva decided that she needed to change first and started wondering what would be most suitable from her eight kilo wardrobe. I said, “Come on, hurry up!“ Susi and Margit decided to pretend to be ill and to stay in the cabin. Eva and I went up onto the tween deck. We arrived just as the first group jumped into the water. Then we heard a bang. We thought they were shooting at the swimmers: we watched with interest. Then the English arrived, waving their guns and started to drive us all below deck. We had to go downstairs too, but on the next level, we went our onto the lower deck. We wanted to see what was happening!
By now the ship was listing. There was total chaos and no one paid us any attention. Some people were screaming, others were praying. No one knew what had really happened. The bang we had heard was an explosion. The “Arabs” who brought the coal had also brought explosives on board to damage the ship. We now know that they miscalculated the amount needed and that the ship was not as robust as they had assumed. The hole in the ship’s side was so big that the Patria sank much more quickly than planned. People were trapped in their cabins and couldn't open the doors; stairs collapsed, the water poured in. People jumped from the side which was tilting towards the water and planks and boards slipped off the ship on top of them, killing many, including our Alfred, who came from Rissen with us. He was an excellent swimmer, but was knocked out in the water by a thick board. His body was never found. People were drowning in the water. At last the sirens went off in the harbour and all kinds of boats came to save people. Eva and I had stayed by the railing. When the ship was listing so severely that we could not stand, we slipped gradually down the ship’s side, which was gradually becoming upright. We were on the upper side and so could slide down comfortably. Margot climbed out of a porthole and Chaja, who was trying to do the same, got stuck because of her broad hips. It took two sailors to pull her out. We were getting closer to the water. “Take off your shoes!” I took off my beautiful shoes with the iron nails, made to last forever, and threw them into the water. “Are you mad?“ Eva tossed hers into a porthole as we passed. (They were found and we took it in turns to wear them in the internment camp that winter.)
Gradually we reached the lower part of the ship which is always under water. It was crusted with crystals of all kinds, some of which were really sharp, which we had to climb over. We got deep cuts on our arms, legs and elsewhere. Then we jumped. An Englishman in a rowing boat pulled me out of the water. The non-swimmers were picked up first. I showed him where Eva was and he pulled her into the boat too. We were all just taken to the breakwater, so that the boats could return to the ship as soon as possible. Once there, we started to realise what had really happened. Up to then we were too busy thinking about what to do next - now we could see the whole picture. Everyone went around looking for his friends and relations among the dripping wet figures. I saw Achim, with his three-day-old baby tied to his body, pulling himself along on the rope between the ship and the breakwater. We heard that little Peter, one of the few children on board, had been caught in a ship’s propeller as he swam. We heard terrible things from some of those who had escaped the inferno in the interior of the ship. Hilde told us that a man she had never seen before told her to follow him through a flooded corridor and suddenly she was outside. She had heard Susi and Margit laughing as the oranges rolled through the cabin. Neither of them succeeded in reaching the deck. HW – the only one who had known what was to happen - ran round like a man possessed, trying to help. He knocked down the English policeman who was still obediently guarding the prisoners, took his keys and got the boys out. That was the last that anyone saw of him. His body was never found. Over 250 people died as the Patria sank. Most of the bodies were found and identified. Ten were lost from our Youth Aliayh group, which had consisted of 100 to start with. There were also 13 dead among the English police. Once they finally grasped what was happening, they helped in any way they could. One of them climbed right down into the boiler room to open the valves. The ship was under full steam and ready to sail; it would probably have exploded when the water came in through the funnels. He did not succeed in getting out either.
Those of us who were lucky enough to be on the breakwater were taken by boat to the harbour. Big warehouses were prepared for us. There was hot tea and biscuits. Everyone in Haifa was standing on their roofs; trucks drove round collecting clothes and blankets for us. Everyone took something, but many were just wandering around aimlessly, looking for missing people. Every time the door opened and a group of people came in, everyone ran over hopefully and there was great joy when the person they were looking for was there. By now, the first cabins had been cut open with welding torches to save the people inside, because not all the cabins were under water.
That evening there was an announcement: “His Majesty’s Government” was granting an amnesty to the survivors of the shipwreck. We were allowed to stay in the country. Buses drove up and we were taken to the Atlith internment camp. We were so happy. After 107 days, our journey was over.
On their arrival in Haifa, the survivors sang this song:
Oh Patria, we cannot forget you Because you are our fate. Those who don’t know you can’t judge How wonderful freedom is. Oh Patria, we aren't moaning and complaining. We’re still all for voyages at sea, For after the quarantine we are free!
(Then everyone gave a great shout: “Osser!” This is a Yiddish word, meaning that one means the opposite of what one says. Jews have always had to be careful). Those interested in finding out more about the refugee ships can follow the link to Jürgen Rohwer at www.wlb-stuttgard.de/seekrieg/ksp/schwarzmeer/juden-flucht-schiffe.htm
translation: Bridget Schäfer