Exile In Susak 26

The period of my exile lasted four years, from July 1941 until May 1945. During the first part, until the capitulation of Italy in the Autumn of 1943, I lived in Susak. Afterwards I joined Yugoslavia's underground movement - the Partisans. Looking back at this span of my life I wonder how I could have survived - to me it will for ever remain a mystery; not that I lacked comfort - I have always been unpretentious and would have voluntarily complied with lower standards than those back home. Besides, I had all the facilities needed for decent living, in particular in Susak, and most of the time with the Partisans, except for short intervals when the Gemians or Ustase penetrated our territories, menacing our positions. The mystery of my survival was in my physical and mental condition. After the deportation of my beloved family I was haunted by the idea that they had nothing to eat. I thought, if they are deprived of food, why should I eat? And so gradually ceased eating, reaching a stage of self-destruction, torturing myself with fasting for seventy two hours or more, with one or two sweets in my mouth and at the same time taking endless walks or swimming long distances, with sleepless nights - reading until the small hours - so that I soon reached the weight of an underfed child. During all these years I weighed 34-36 kilograms. I lived, however, in constant expectation of the moment when I might be united with my beloved, at least two of them, or one... Following the last instructions in the postcard sent from Pag, Seka and I prepared parcels, sending them with a woman to the island, but she returned with the parcels and so did eljko, Mira's boyfriend, who arrived especially from Zagreb to find her. Nobody knew exactly what happened with the group; there was some talk about killing' but others said that the Italians, English or Americans saved them, transporting them in their ships across the ocean. Where? Nobody could tell exactly. This I believed because I wanted to believe it! To all other people I gave no ear, convinced that they were telling rumours, stories, invented tales. The first month in Susak, returning in the late afternoons from my walks on the beach, my eyes were always turned towards the balcony of Velimir's flat where I usually spent my time, in the hope that somebody of my kin would wave me welcome. Considering the circumstances and my general condition, I accepted the tidings of my fathers' death calmly. I do not remember the date exactly, but it was at the beginning of November 1941 that a friend came to ask me whether I would like to meet a man who was recently rescued from Jasenovac. Of course I agreed. We walked many miles through the stony land of Primorje to see the man. The place was Urinj, in the district of Kostrena, St Barbara. He was more a shadow than a human being and he spoke in a whispering voice. He did not say much and I did not ask much. He remembered that my father had worked with him in the camp, as had many others; my father had typhoid which caused his death. It occurred a short time before he left the camp. His name was Spiegler and he was rescued by his Catholic wife. I said nothing but did not believe him. Among so many people could he be certain that it was my father? My father was strong enough to hold on till the end, till the liberation which could not be far away! As much as I earlier believed that Yugoslavia might remain untouched by the plague of Hitlerism, so I now believed that the monster's last hour had struck. The truth was that the ordeals had only started! The truth was that I avoided the truth! When I was told about the fate of my mother and sister I lost my calmness; it seemed as if I was going to lose my mind. In the early summer of 1943, in a sanatorium in fiume, I met a distant relative, Nada Muller-Feuereisen,who was deported to Pag some time after my mother and sister went there. She told me that the place was empty when the group arrived and those who had been there before, including my mother and sister, had been killed. She refrained from using the terrible word but said: 'Zdenkica, mame i Mire vise nema ('Mama and Mira are no more'). For ever I shall remember my reaction on the big terrace of the sanatorium. I started shouting and gesticulating with all my might that it could not be, it was not true; they were hidden in some foreign country. I had, of course, dreadful periods of severe breakdowns. It was in 1942, my mother's birthday, 9 May, a day we celebrated since my early childhood with so much love. Usually we recited suitable poems, presenting her with a bunch of lovely flowers of the season, the exquisitely smelling, very fragrant lilies of the valley and the dainty, starlike, light-bluish forget-me-not: 'Die Maiengl”ckchen leuten fein, sie leuten Mama's Geburtstag ein...' In my dream my mother was near me, talking to me, so alive that for a long time afterwards I was not aware that it was only a dream. I believed that the dream was predicting something that would happen; when it didn't I lay down the same afternoon and cried for hours. Later, people who interpreted dreams told me that such dreams mean the opposite, the person who comes to life is no more alive. This was the last thing I could believe. Life is full of paradoxes. On the one hand I fainted away, on the other I felt the need to take revenge against brutality and injustice which gave me an inner strength to be active. What had I to lose? My life? For whom to live! In my most intimate thoughts I doubted in the reality of my expectations. For the time being I was alone and had to give account to no one. Immediately after my arrival in Susak I resumed my connections with the Communists and became a member of their youth organization - SKOJ. The right moment had come for the Communist Party to strike and it struck accurately. For a long time waiting for an opportunity to interfere more effectively in the affairs of the nation, the Communists sensed that the hour had come to act. 'An eye for an eye' was the catch-phrase. At the beginning - the party defended only its members. When party members were caught, tortured or killed, retaliation followed immediately. Methods differed: soldiers and officers were killed in ambush, bombs were thrown at trains and railways, bridges blown up. In towns and villages one was never certain what the next morning might bring: streets were stuffed with leaflets, slogans written in big, red letters on walls of buildings, 'Down with Hitler; down with Mussolini; kill the killers; long live the Communist Party; long live the USSR', and leaflets calling on citizens to fight the enemy. The occupying authorities were raging but the fiercer the punishments, the more violent was the vengeance. Side by side with the increasing terror, the organization grew daily. Reading and working groups were established to propagate revolutionary ideas. The party discipline had always been strict; every member knew his duty exactly, the SKOJ members being no exception. I had to participate in slogan writing. I went to meetings and for some time I was the leader of a group of teenagers; We were reading material of Communist propaganda and distributing leaflets; I collected money, food, sanitary material for the Partisans. This was in the early stages when the Communist Party started organizing the Partisan movement in the forests throughout Yugoslavia. Large quantities of arms, food and other material, abandoned by the Yugoslav Army were confiscated and used for the long bloody fight. All that was, of course, very dangerous. The Italians, though less cruel than the Germans or the Ustase, did not tolerate Communist activity. Besides, they had to cope with new problems. In Croatia mass transportation of Jews to concentration camps increased and whoever had the opportunity tried to cross the border considering himself safer in territories occupied by the Italians. This was not exactly what one expected. The Italian authorities were reluctant to receive the refugees and started their own persecutions. Those who did not posses appropriate papers of identification, carta d'identita had no right to stay in the country. Policemen and detectives were busy day and night searching for those who had no right to stay. Susak became a town of terror and fright, of panic and consternation. People were arrested in streets or on beaches; privatc homes were searched, and people were taken from their beds at night, straight to prison. Usually they were dispatched over the border, back to Croatia. One could hardly say who suffered more, the 'strangers' or the residents, because the latter would also be punished if they sheltered a refugee. People started to become scared of their own shadows. Sooner or later I had also to endure some hardship. Arriving at Seka's home in Susak I was welcomed as a member of their family. Although, prior to my arrival, I had met neither Seka's father nor her aunt, I immediately felt very close to them, though at the beginning I felt closer to Seka's father than to her aunt, Ida, who later became my good friend. During the first days of my arrival I had a severe quarrel with aunt Ida who claimed that all the Croats were criminals and deserved to be annihilated. I could not agree with her and after a bitter exchange of words we did not speak to each other for a month. I thought, and think the same today, one cannot differentiate between people according to nations, colours or religion. Seka's father, Velimir, was one of the rare people I could trust. I had much confidence in him and I looked upon him as my adopted father at a time when I so badly needed my parents. Velimir was a good-looking man, tall and slightly stooping in his walk. Even people who knew him just briefly could not deny that he was a thinking man. His eyes reflected his wisdom. Clever, intelligent, calm in manner, he was always ready to give advice when asked, to offer help when needed and to offer support when called upon. Many Jewish refugees consulted him and he never refused to help with good advice or even with money. He was easy going, generous, unconventional, good-natured and kind. His pockets were always full of sweets for neighbourhood children and friends, or others he might meet occasionally. Velimir did not know exactly that I was a SKOJ member and what I was doing. We were strictly forbidden to talk, but it was clear enough that I was actively involved in one way or another. After I had lived in his home for some weeks Velimir told me politely that I could not stay there any longer and that I must find other lodgings; his house was open to me, I was invited to stay as long as I wished during the day, including for meals, but I could not stay there at night. I understood very well his fears. Nightmares were reality; Italian authorities searched flat after flat for illegal inmates and after finding them they arrested the owner with whom they were lodging. According to Velimir's wishes I had to move immediately. But where to? Nobody was willing to accept refugees. At that time I had no certificate of identification. I remembered one of my father's business friends who would perhaps be merciful. He was, indeed, but only for one night; in the morning he said I must leave; he could not risk another night. The next day passed in dreadful uncertainty. Could I find a lodging? With great difficulty I found an unfriendly looking garret. Then aunt lda remembered a family, an older couple whose son was studying in Zagreb. They were very lonely and very pleased to have me as a tenant; they treated me as a member of their family and used to call me 'Mala' (the Little One). They lived not far away from Seka's home and I felt as if from now on I had two homes. The place was nice, in a quiet little street with few houses, a garden and friendly neighbours. I had a nice room of my own, but I preferred to sit with the Kubizas - that was their name - in the kitchen, talking politics endlessly, discussing the military situation, studying the maps and carefully marking all the moves made by the Allied Forces, the Germans or Italians, secretly listening to foreign news, mostly BBC. The Italians had also confiscated radios and it was strictly forbidden to listen to foreign news. Troubles and wars at home, troubles and wars in the outside world, were part of our lives; one had nothing else in mind, one talked of nothing but the political, military or economic situation. The latter was bad enough; most food was rationed and bread, milk, sugar were cut to a minimum. Though the Kubizas were devoted Catholics they were sworn enemies of the Fascists; their only son was a Communist. My relationship with Seka's family had not weakened when I moved to the Kubizas. There I felt I really belonged; there was my main shelter, a substitute for my lost home. As much as I felt enthusiastic about the Communists and worked for them eagerly, with all my heart, I never was one of them. The cold, imperative, almost impersonal manner, characterizing every party seemingly did not appeal to me. The closer I came to the Communists the less I liked them, but for the time being I was an obedient member. All the more I appreciated Velimir's loving care. He was worried about my health; he tried patiently to get some soup into my mouth, he wanted to convince me that food was essential to survive, he initiated my medical treatment; he financed my living without knowing at that time whether I would ever be able to return the money. He also provided me with a permanent permit to stay in Susak, as a resident. Unlike many Jews who converted to Christianity to save their lives, I kept my religion. However, according to my papers I was Catholic. For the authorities I was the Kubizas' goddaughter who came from Zagreb to visit them. I was lucky that so far the authorities did not molest me. Nobody asked for my identity, not in the streets, nor at the beach or at night. At least for one thing my underfed shape was of some use: I looked so miserable that no one bothered to take notice of me. Even when they eventually found out about my activities and those for whom I worked were arrested or fled to the forest, the Italians were moved by compassion and let me free after a radical search at the Kubizas flat. It occurred on 9 February 1942, on one of those unpleasant wintry days, unusual in the Mediterranean areas, when cold winds blow straight into one's face and violent blasts shake the whole body. At that time Susak had at least apparently regained its peace. Only retrospectively can we judge how mild had been the measures applied by the Italians compared with the beastly methods exercised by the Nazis and in particular by the Ustase in Croatia. Mass executions took place almost daily with public hangings, public shootings, mass deportations to concentration camps with such living conditions that only a few survived. Those including Jews, Communists, Serbs, whoever was suspected, whereas the Italians had more 'sympathetic' solutions. After the first panic in the summer and autumn of 1941, when I came to Susak, the tension lessened. The Italians had in the meantime established their own concentration camps where living conditions were not ideal but endurable and families were not separated; nobody was starving, certainly not killed. Thus all those refugees who had sleepless nights and restless days after fearing expulsion or arrest, found shelter in those camps in Italy as well as on the coast of former Yugoslavia. Many Jews who succeeded in escaping from Croatia came to these camps and those who after the capitulation of Italy were not captured by the Germans survived. For the native Jewish citizens in occupied territories, and those who had money the Italian government had a more liberal solution: they were sent to Italy, dispersed in smaller places and lived in a kind of free confinement or as the Italians called it confino libero. After the capitulation of Italy a great number of people were rescued, partly by the Allied Forces who invaded Italy, partly by escaping to Switzerland from the Germans who marched from the north; others joined the Partisans whose propaganda attracted many who later were very disenchanted. I had no particular reason to leave Susak. The SKOJ disposed of their members. The Communist Party was interested that people stayed at home as long as possible to continue with their underground activity. For several months I had a new duty, to reproduce leaflets for the AF - The Anti Fascist Organization of Women - which was also a party section. I kept a small printing machine - sapirograf - in my drawer and whenever I received new material from a party member I copied the propaganda leaflets and delivered them to a certain address at a certain time. This system was relatively safe because the limited contact with others minimized the risk of exposure even if some members were caught and the matter became known to the Fascist authorities. T'his was of course top secret. Neither Seka's family nor the Kubizas knew about it. I worked at night in my bed, holding a small square instrument on my knee, quietly, so that nobody could hear me. I would be lying if I said that I was not scared. I imagined all sorts of things: the police could suddenly knock at my door, knowing or not knowing about the crime, or one of the Kubizas could enter my room. I saw myself in prison, tortured, hanged, expelled; what did I not imagine? The night passed, nothing of the kind happened, I calmly took the stuff to the appointed place. This was not an innocent offence, not an illegal crossing of the border, lack of documents, falsification of name or religion, all minor offences compared to the conscious undermining of the regime. Those leaflets accused the authorities, throwing at them the most shameful words, calling for revolt and uproar. For the Communists, Italy had severe punishments. Had I a twinkling little star high up in the sky watching over my destiny or was it just blind Goddess Fortune who had in mind to save me? I do not know. The fact is that I was ordered to remove the printing machine from my house a few days before I had anything to do with the police. Let us return to that fateful day of 9 February, when I was just on my way to deliver the leaflets I had copied the previous night. Arriving at the house, I was told that Mira ali , a SKOJ-member, a very active and courageous girl, had gone to the forest to join the Partisans actually it was her mother who told me that, and she indicated where I should deliver the material. Everything went off smoothly. I met the man at the designated place and a few minutes later, with an empty bag and an easier heart, I started heading as usual towards Seka's house. Suddenly I was overtaken by a man who asked me to follow him. 'Signora, venite con me' ('Miss, come with me'). First I thought he was joking, a flirt, but when he repeated the sentence in a louder voice I suspected that my last hour has come. I followed and after a short while I found myself in the Questura (the police station) sitting in front of a man who started to inquire about my origins, and the reasons for my staying in Susak. He was surprised to read in my identification card that I was over twenty and married; he also believed me that I was the Kubizas' god daughter. When I later heard that the entire group of teenagers had been arrested and interrogated that day, most of them members of the group I had led, I understood the investigator's surprise. They thought that I was a teenager from Susak. My next step was to go to the toilet. The party had given us explicit orders: 'If you are arrested, first try to escape.' Easier said than done! The toilet had a narrow window with bars; one man waited outside, another held my bag. No way to escape! After the interrogation the investigator and two others asked me to join them. They knew where I lived and took the lead. The poor Kubizas, what a sight: me and three men! They recognized the detectives immediately - who else could they be? The worst was still ahead. Although the main danger was removed I had, however, some compromising material in my bedroom drawers, a booklet describing the aims and regulations of SKOJ and also a journal named Primorski Dnevnik edited by the Partisans in the forest with the 'reddest' Anti Nazi and Anti Fascist propaganda that could be, which I received from time to time for distribution. 'Red' was anything connected to the Left, to Communism. In 1943 the Partisans had not only a regular, well-organized army but also an excellent political leadership with all the means at hand to form a government. The Serbs, Croats and Slovenes had each their own organs suited to their conditions. They had offices with printing installations, books, cars and all kinds of goods found in conquered territories. People, and among them Kubizas, were eager to receive information from the Partisans, then the only reliable source; the Fascists' news were full of lies. How I succeeded together with the Kubizas in getting these compromising papers out of the detectives' grasp I cannot tell. The fact was that we did succeed, throwing the stuff into the fire of the kitchen oven where Mrs Kubiza prepared lunch. Kitchens then usually had iron ovens heated with wood or coal. Then the three men started their job, each searching one room; the Kubizas had three rooms. My conscience was clear. In my room especially a detective looked over every item, each piece of paper, cards, letters, photos; indeed he examined the photos so carefully that at the end he started to enjoy them, smiling at some, asking benevolently whom and what they represented. This was so very much a characteristic of the Italians, in particular with women. I had eventually had the majority of my things, wardrobe, jewellery, photos from Susak, sent from Zagreb with a man who had a travel permit and was paid for the job. We were not permitted to travel. They left after an hour or so with empty hands departing with a polite 'arrivederci' ('see you later). It is unnecessary to speak of the strain I felt and the Kubizas no less. What next? Could I only have consulted Velimiar, but he was already confined in Italy. I decided to join the Partisans in the forests. I knew that my physician, Dr Ku i , was helping the Partisans and I went straight to him after having taken my leave from Seka and Aunt Ida, telling them of my plans. Ku i opposed me energetically. The way to the forests was long and difficult, nine hours walk over slopes and ridges covered with deep snow. The season was one obstacle, but my condition was another, the essential one. He advised me to return home and go to bed pretending illness and wait. If, after a while, they did not arrest me, he promised to find a solution. Of the two evils, this was the lesser. I obeyed him and remained in bed. The next day two detectives indeed came to take me to the police station for ashort inquiry, as they told me. I asked for a favour: Could they arrange the investigation to take place in my house as I was too ill to come with them. Amazingly, they did not insist and left, never to return. I heard later from a friend who was released from prison that the police knew of my activities as the group of teenagers arrested that day revealed everything, but moved by pity they left me free; my miserable appearance made them believe that my hours were now numbered. Indeed, my weight was 34 kilos and I was twenty-three years old! For one week, lying in bed, I shivered whenever I heard the slightest noise. I could distinguish a needle falling on the floor, not to mention the lightest footsteps. I could not sleep. I saw myself surrounded by policemen, investigated and tortured. To speak of courage, to read of courage, to think of courage is one thing. To be courageous is another. This was only one opportunity to experience 'courage', others were to follow. D r.Ku i kept his promise. He arranged treatment for me in a hospital, later a sanatorium in Fiume where I was sheltered for several weeks. The Fascists might forget the whole affair, probably they did, but the feeling that I was followed by spies remained with me for a long time after the war came to an end. This last account which sounds perhaps more like a 'detective story', is so deeply impressed in my memory that even now, remembering every detail, I am overpowered by dreadful feelings. The hospital was not only a temporary refuge; it had to restore my mind and body. It did neither. I was as nervous as before and did not gain weight. My relatives tried to convince me to leave Susak and join them to confino libero in Italy. I refused to listen to such proposals. I was still obstinate in these matters: my place was in the country where I was born. There I had to fight for a better future! But the main argument was based on my belief that my beloved ones were still alive and would need my help. Knowing I left for Susak, where else could they find me? Absurd as it sounds, this was what I believed. Thus I remained in Susak until the capitulation of Italy in autumn 1943. Table of Contents With the Partisans