The Darkest Hours In My Life

From today's perspective it is clear to me that our fatal mistake was that of not taking Hitler seriously. During all those years he announced his plans to the world, shouting so loudly that heaven and hell could shake, yet we did not hear, or did not want to hear. When it did happen it seemed so unexpected, like a whirlwind destroying everything in its way with violent blows. I cannot remember exactly when Fritz was mobilized, but I remember that he was in the army for a short time, stationed in his garrison in Zagreb, in army barracks where I visited him daily. Among the Communists there was feverish activity, in particular among the students who organized meetings and distributed leaflets protesting against the government policy. I remember one incident when I was asked to participate as a supporter at one such dissenting meeting at the University, and I refused to come because visiting Fritz in the army barracks seemed to me more important than the meeting. The Communists had a different approach: the party's discipline ruled over private life which I could not accept, even when I later became an active member of the Communist youth organization.21 They reproached me for my absence,but l remained firm in my decision as if I knew that soon we would be separated for ever. As much as we were enthusiastic after the putsch, a kind of uneasiness was felt everywhere. What next? The future was obscure - too soon it became clear. After the catastrophe in Belgrade we slept in shelters, scared to death that a similar 'punishment' might befall Zagreb. Hitler was spared the effort. Zagreb was ready to receive the German Army as the most welcomed guest, with a hospitality rarely shown to an invader. We remained of course in our homes but were told by eyewitnesses that the German soldiers were covered with flowers, showered with fruit and sweets; Nazi flags fluttered at the windows, jubilant crowds gathered in the streets to express their 'gratitude'. The Germans began entering Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, on April 10, 1941. Through the Zagreb streets echoed the grinding sound of tanks. Long lines of men from the disarmed Yugoslav forces passed through the city. In the Zagreb radio station studios a record played over and over again saying, "Croats, the hour of liberation from the Serbian yoke has struck. Disarm the Serbian army and do everything to help the liberation army of the Great German Reich which is bringing us a new order and guaranteeing a better future.22 seemed to me the darkest day in my life, not because the German troops marched into our town but because I was forced to destroy Fritzel's valuable books collected with so much care. Krleza 23 , the Brichtas' neighbour and friend, was the first to tell us about the approach of German troops and knowing our library, he urged us to burn the books immediately. Fritz was still in the army, fighting the enemy as we thought, and I was against such an 'absurd' idea. My mother in law was wiser and convinced me that we must do what Krle a told us. Our big stove in the dining-room was put into action; one book after the other disappeared in the flames, burning to ashes. We burned only the compromising' books dealing with Communist ideas, more than 200 books! I was lying on the sofa, crying the whole afternoon. I still hear the kind voice of my mother in law trying to console me: 'Mein Kind, es soll Dir nie was „rgeres im Leben passieren' ('My child, may you never have a worse experience in your life'). The worst came soon. Yugoslavia paid dearly for its 'disobedience'. Operation 'Punishment' had other consequences: the country was divided and its parts were annexed by neighbouring countries who had recognized Hitler's power and had elected puppet' governments as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, while Italy occupied the coast. Serbia was placed under the rule of the German military command. Croatia and Bosnia were placed under the rule of the newly-created puppet state, known as the 'lndependent State of Croatia' (NDH), with Ante Paveli as leader (Poglavnik). The coast - Dalmatia and Primorje - as well as Montenegro were occupied by the Italians. Slovenia was divided between the Germans and Italians. Bulgarians occupied Macedonia, the southeastern part of Yugoslavia and some districts of the northern part were taken by Hungary. The Yugoslav Army capitulated after eleven days of 'fighting'. The word fighting is perhaps not the correct expression - the army, deserted by its leaders, surrendered en masse without fighting. The army was dispersed; the majority was taken prisoner, but many soldiers escaped, throwing away their uniforms and taking ordinary clothes from the peasants. Fritz was among the latter. Another option was to hide in the forests which was indeed practiced by the volunteers (tes engag‚s), at the beginning mainly by the Communists. The partisan movement actually started here, first as an underground group, gradually joined by others, intellectuals as well as simple folk, growing into a strong, regular army, supported by the Allies. The royalists - Chetniks - also fought the Nazis in the forests, but they were less organized and were overpowered by the Partisans. When Fritz returned home soon after the German invasion we considered ourselves fortunate and deplored the fate of those who were dragged to Germany as prisoners. The presumption was wrong as were many others. In writing these lines I am constantly faced with the aspect of time. Perhaps now more than ever before I realize the importance of this essential issue, 'then' and 'now', the ignorance of the 'now' experienced 'then' and the experience of the 'now' looking back at the 'then'. In Croatia a puppet government was formed with Paveli as the head, supported by Hitler. They called themselves 'Usta e' and were a band of murderers and ruffians. As soon as they came to power they introduced measures against the Jews. We had to wear yellow patches to mark us out from the other citizens. We had to hand in our radios because we were not permitted to hear news. All Jewish property was confiscated or nationalized, which meant that every Jewish factory, store or business was controlled by a commissar. The commissars were ignorant fools, they had to be loyal Usta e, nothing else mattered, professionally they ruined the trade while real owners, the Jews, were gradually eliminated. Jews had to leave their flats, with or without furniture, immediately, within an interval of one hour or twenty-four hours, depending upon the mood of the man who came with the order. Each day new orders came, such as the imprisonment of prominent Jews or compulsory collections of money and jewellery. In all cases death was the punishment for disobedience. My father's commissar was a prominent Usta a, Jedvaj, the editor of Hrvatska Gruda, a leading newspaper of Croatia, excelling with lies and false accusations against Jews. He claimed to be my father's protector' but when my father was in prison he did not help us. My father was among the hostages when 100 million kunas 24 had to be collected in a short time. I was running in a frenzy between people I thought could help me to get my beloved father out of prison. I cannot describe with words the feelings of horror and fear that increased from hour to hour and lasted through all the years of war, at times more, at times less intensive, but always frightful. When my father returned from prison he gave me and Fritz all the information about our possessions abroad; we had to write down the addresses of banks and people who held the money, including our grove in Palestine. All this made no impression upon me: I was not aware of how important it was for the future! He also agreed to give away some pictures, carpets, books and other objects to friends - gentiles - who returned everything to me after the war. Then I did not know that my father had hidden ten boxes in his large store house in the factory on the outskirts of Zagreb which were returned to me by the clerk, a faithful woman to whom my father entrusted the boxes. They contained our most precious objects, silver, porcelain, many beautiful dishes, various ormaments, innumerable sets of bedclothes and tablecloths, Mirica's and my dowry; new, never opened boxes, in one of them hidden a lot of gold, i.e. sovereigns. All these objects were of little value to me who was bereaved of my beloved! However, they were sweet recollections. When my father returned from prison Christian friends wanted to provide him with false papers, as if we belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church - many Jews practiced it - but my father refused it; he never would have denied his Jewishness. He prepared his medals from World War I; he was convinced that those would help him in trouble! Meanwhile the drama continued; the climax was not yet reached! One evening in May my parents had a phone call from Mr Barakovi the chief of staff for Jewish Affairs in Zagreb. He asked my mother 'very politely' as she told us, to leave our flat in twelve hours, which was a favour as, he said, others had to leave immediately after the order had been given; he required the flat for a 'personality'- a high officer or 'ambassador' which was of course a lie. Was my mother indeed so innocent and naive as to believe him? I do believe she was! Anyhow, she said that she understood his reasons and left beautiful sets of glass and some porcelain for the family who 'inherited' our flat, although we were permitted to take everything with us except furniture. Until a new flat was found, it was decided to move to the Brichtas' apartment. A frantic rush began hither and thither. Innumerable parcels, boxes, trunks, suitcases were transported; in a short while the Brichtas' rooms looked like a huge storehouse. The next morning when I came to my parents' flat to help in moving the last remnants of our beautiful objects, I saw our refrigerator being dragged out, the water running down the stairs. Later people told us that they saw our furniture in various offices. Mr. Barakovi was indeed a gentleman! Now the frenzy continued to find a flat for my parents. Fritz, Mirica and I were running around and finally procured one, much smaller than the former, not spacious enough to store all the possessions. My mother had provided our household with an immense store of food, carefully prepared for a long war. We planned to leave Zagreb and stay in the mountains of Bosnia during the war because it was safer than in the big cities where we were exposed to bombardment. However, the precise date of this move was not yet fixed! We failed to recognize that we were no longer masters of our time; dates were directed by others. We did our best to keep up with our duties. Fritz worked with my father, Mirica studied for her matric exams and I learned for mine. How could I concentrate under such circumstances? Moreover, I managed to pass two important tests! individual deportations of Jews from Zagreb had already started. Some eminent Zionists were taken to Austria and returned after a few weeks. The lawyers were imprisoned in Kerestinac, a village near Zagreb; they also returned after three weeks. The next to be transported were young boys, between seventeen and twenty-two, among them many friends and also my second cousin, Mladen Weil, a first year medical student. In fact they were transported to camp Danica, near a small town, Koprivnica. It was an abandoned sulphuric acid factory - it was the first camp in the puppet state of 'Independent Croatia'. They were told that they were going to a labor camp and were allowed to take with them food and clothes. Instead they were taken to an annihilation camp. Since the day we had to give away our radios, I used to go every day to Olgica to hear the eleven o'clock morning news from the BBC. They had an excellent news commentator, Mr Frazer. Since Jews were not supposed to hear the news and since no one was allowed to listen to foreign news, Olgica's family left me alone in the room while they were watching outside in case anybody came unexpectedly. Our nerves were already frayed and each ring at the door made us shudder. Prison, deportation or death was the punishment for the radio owner as well as the Jew who was contravening the rule. Thus one morning - I remember the date exactly, 21 June, Saturday - when on the BBC Frazer started his news comments, I had a call from my mother in law calling me home. She said that two men had come to take us to the labor camp. She had also called Fritz from the factory; his brother Hans and his wife Seka were already there. They too had to get ready for the camp. The broadcast was so exciting that I stayed to hear it till the end: from all trustworthy sources it looked like a vast German onslaught on Russia was imminent. German troops were deployed from Finland to Romania, at Russia's borders, ready for invasion; the final arrival of air and armoured forces was completed.25 While I was running home, our neighbor, a young fellow, shouted from the window, 'Zdenka, quick, hurry, they are snatching girls and young women in the streets.' I thought he was joking, but he was not! The hunt for Jews in the streets had started. Arriving home I found the assembled Brichta family and the two men who came with the orders. Some light meal was on the table for us. We ate, took our knapsacks, and left with mixed feelings; in one way more cheerful than sad because we thought that camp work could not be harmful, in another, fearful of facing the unknown. Our first station was the Zagreba ki Zbor. A young Usta a was sitting at the door rushing us with threatening gestures into a big hall where a few young people were already assembled. This certainly did not resemble the place I knew from earlier times when it had been a beautifully paved area with pavilions used for international fairs where my father also had a bazaar with paper products which he exhibited every year. A soldier in Usta e uniform started giving orders to sweep the floor, grumbling something against Jews. Gradually the big hall became crowded; more young people arrived, among them many young couples we knew. Everybody had brought a small knapsack, having been told to get ready for camp work, but nobody knew where and when. Ironically, the French pavilion with the inscription in big capital letters, Libert‚, Egalit‚, Fraternit‚, faced the building in which we were concentrated. More Ustage arrived, then a table was set with a few chairs for a sort of commission which met to decide our fate; some could return home. There was more shouting and ordering and the atmosphere grew tense; it was not clear who were the selected. Names of those who could leave were called out - the mixed marriages, the professional craftsmen and those who had a medical certificate. Agitation and confusion increased with the arrival of Barakovi who set the final trial for every single person. We all felt tense and uneasy. Suddenly I perceived a familiar face among the Usta e; my father's commissar, Jedvaj, was there to take me home. I was not one of the cases entitled to leave but was very frail and slim, and Jedvaj had no difficulty in persuading Barakovi that I was sick; besides he told him that my mother was crying bitterly when she heard that I was here. Above all, the two were good friends. Barakovi raised his hand with a benevolent 'Go, go quickly' and in no time I was out with Jedvaj holding my arm, scarcely having time to take my knapsack and say goodbye to Fritz. Jedvaj gave me his solemn promise to bring Fritz home the next day. 'Promises are only for fools', my father used to say. This was the last time I saw Fritz. On the way out Jedvaj muttered something about 'innocent people like you have to suffer for those who are guilty for this war' and he alluded to Russia. (He was probably aware of the imminent German invasion of Russia. The date was near indeed. On the morning of Sunday, 22 June, the invasion took place.) At the gate mother and mother in law embraced me in tears. I hurried home with my mother to tell my parents about my latest experience. Mirica was with us and my father's companion in business, Mr pani . I told them that I felt as if I had come right out of hell. Actually nothing terrifying had happened. Nobody was beaten, tortured or killed, but I was not used to such rude behaviour; I had never been ordered to do physical work and in such unclean, crowded places, not to mention the almost unbearable feelings of fear and uncertainty. I beseeched my father to let us leave immediately, to wherever possible, only to leave Zagreb; Mirica started to cry bitterly, saying that if father had not yet decided for himself where to go, let her choose to depart for Split or Dubrovnik as many others had already done. Her boyfriend, who was prepared to marry her, urged her to leave with him. My father promised to prepare our flight but first he wanted to be sure that we had sufficient means to live for a long period away from home. This promise appeased us, because our father's promises were always kept and he was someone to be trusted. This time it was different! That evening and next morning I tried frantically to find contacts to get Fritz, his brother and wife out of Zbor. A young assistant at the University who had influential connections with Usta e and was one of Seka's admirers succeeded in bringing Seka home the next day. All efforts to save my husband and his brother were in vain. They were deported with the whole group and we never saw them again. The postcards they sent us a few days later from Pag, an island in the northern Adriatic - sounded very optimistic. What happened indeed became known many years after the war, but I never had the courage to face the truth and read the documents. In fact we could have escaped much earlier had we followed the advice of Seka's father. He was an extremely wise man, kind, gentle and farsighted. Since the Nazis had entered Zagreb he urged the Brichta family to leave Zagreb, inviting them to Su ak where life was safer under Italian occupation. Moreover, he also called my parents and of course me and Fritz; he provided for us the lascia passare, a permit for crossing the border, and sent a confidant to help us during the journey. We did not pay attention to Velimir's advice. Fritz and I thought that our duty was to stay in Croatia and 'fight' the enemy, while my father was still optimistic after all that had happened. However, Seka and Hans wanted to leave, but father Brichta objected, saying something like: 'If my son stayed with me in times of prosperity why should he not share with me the troubles?' Hans worked in his father's business, the wood industry, and nobody could convince him that he was wrong. To Seka he said: 'My son stays with me - if he isn't here when they come to fetch him, they will take me. You may go, I can't hold you.' At that time Seka remained, but now, after the Zbor experience, she left Zagreb with a railway official. His name was Mr. Passi and he was sent by her father. He took her to Su ak using his wife's identity card. The worst was still ahead - we had learned nothing from experience On 27 June, on a black Friday morning, two men came to tell my parents to get ready for a labor camp; they allowed them a few hours' time. My father was undecided as to what to do. He went to the Jewish Community for advice, whether to hide or to obey, and after painful hesitation it was decided to pack and get ready. The fear of disobedience and consequently the death penalty prevailed and that afternoon my parents and Mira were taken to Zbor. It was the first group of adults, all members of the B'nai B'rith organization. My father had left the organization some years earlier, but the Usta e had a former list with his name on it. Shelah sent me this list of Freemasons I quote from his letter, 18May 1989:'...l am sending you... 1) a list of Freemasons (B'nai B'rith) from Zagreb; the names were selected in the thirties by the consul in Zagreb, Freund, and were sent to the Foreign Office in Berlin. According to Nazi concept Jews and Freemasons planned an international conspiracy and this list served them later as basis for imprisonment of the people.' I was sent to the Brichtas; we supposed that the Usta e would not fetch me twice. The next morning a young Usta a came to take me to Zbor to see my parents. It was a short but heart-breaking meeting. Every time I remember it after so many years my hands tremble, my eyes become dim and the thoughts freeze my blood. We embraced, we kissed, we cried and in no time I was pushed back by an Usta a who commanded:' uri, uri, ina e e I Ti ostat ovde' ('Hurry, hurry, or else you too may stay here'). (When I asked for Mirica, my parents told me that she was upstairs with the other girls. I never saw her again, nor my parents. Later, feelings of remorse tortured me often; had I only stayed with them and shared their fate! Whom had I in this world but my dearest, most beloved, kind, good family? Why had they become the victims of the cruellest epoch in human history? With their honesty, their sense of righteousness and moral obligations towards other human beings so deeply impressed in the core of their being that they refused to believe that people could be treated so inhumanly! Let their martyrdom be sacred for ever! At that time I still had great expectations and lived with the illusion of finding someone who could release my parents. Nobody helped and two days later they were deported. From Zbor my father managed to send me a note with some final instructions and an urgent appeal to leave immediately for Su ak. I obeyed. The same railway official who accompanied my sister-in, law came now to take me there. This man, now an Usta a had earlier worked for my father-in-law who had done him some favours. To show his gratitude he offered help, for a price of course. I travelled with him, pretending to be his teenage daughter, Olgica, using her identity,card. We were all very nervous and excited. My poor mother in law prepared the luggage, wrapped my wedding ring in wool and I was off. Although I looked very young, not more than fifteen, Passi was cautious. Several miles before the train was due at the border he advised me to lie down and covered me with a blanket. At the border station Plase, where Croatia ended and the territory of former Yugoslavia, occupied by Italy, started, the controller entered: he happened to be Olgica's former gym teacher. He wanted to see me but my father' said that I was not feeling well and was sleeping. As much as I wanted to have a stout heart it was in my mouth, but not for long. We passed the border without trouble and headed towards Su ak where I began my exile. Table of Contents Exile in Susak