Your family fled from Belgium to France when the Nazis invaded. In France, you were rounded up by the French police and held in several French concentration camps. What happened to your family in these camps?
We remained in the Rivesaltes camp until Pesach time. My father was chosen as the Rabbi of the camp. The French pretended to be nice and asked him to provide a list of how many people needed matzos for Pesach. Of course it was just a trick, but none of us knew that yet. The religious people gave their names. On Erev Pesach, some non-religious people decided they, too, wanted to have matzos. They figured in this way they would have double — they would take the standard half roll and in addition, they would get half a matzah. A riot broke out in the camp and the French police wanted to shoot my father.
Fortunately, my father had befriended the Chief Rabbi of Paris, Rabbi Shili. At that time the Chief Rabbi still had some power and he was able to get my whole family released. We were taken to a small town called Espalion. It was a resort area. We were given one little box of dates to eat. We got an apartment at the edge of the town. Many other families on the run ended up in Espalion as well.
We were there for the Yamim Nora’im in September 1941. People gathered in our apartment to daven on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We even had a shofar. But one morning when we awoke, my father heard that all the Jews in Espalion, every single one besides our family, had been rounded up.
My father had befriended a doctor in the town, but he turned out to be a tremendous anti-Semite. We lived on the first floor. On Hoshana Rabbah he and several others came banging on the windows and throwing stones. Although it was quite warm outside, my father had the shutters drawn. We did not answer and they eventually left. That night my father had a dream. The Satmar Rebbe came to him and said, “Yaakov Leib, the tzaros are just beginning, but I promise you, you and your whole family will survive.”
My father woke up in a better mood in the morning. He went to the home of the doctor and asked him, “We are friendly with each other. Why did you come last night and throw stones?”
The doctor replied, “When I am your doctor, I am your friend. On the outside, I’m your enemy.” My father asked that he send him for medical treatments to another town.
On Shemini Atzeres we were rounded up and taken to a train. My father stayed calm. There was a chazzan among us who knew the entire davening by heart. He davened the whole davening on the way. Then the train was sabotaged and we were taken back to our homes in Espalion.
In the meantime, my father had received a postcard from Rabbi Sungolowsky, who was on the Italian border. The card was written in Yiddish, spelled in Latin letters, without a return address. It read, “The Angel of Death has a sword over your head.”
My father understood he should immediately flee to the Italian border. He left quickly, leaving my mother with all of us children. It wasn’t long before the French police arrived at our house looking for him. My mother told them he had run away and abandoned us. Miraculously they believed her.
The next time we were rounded up, we were all sent to the French territory occupied by the Italians. We traveled through many towns occupied by the Italian army. Each day it was mandatory for all the Jews to check in with the Italian police, but the Italians weren’t as anti-Semitic as the French. We lived in decent conditions and even received money from underground Jewish organizations.
In 1943, the Italians retreated from French territory. The Italian police disappeared and the trains were going back and forth from Italy to France. We traveled by train for two days; we went to France and it was total chaos; we traveled back to Italy and it was chaos there, too. No one knew where to go.
The soldiers deserted the army and practically all of them ran away. The train conductor announced that at a certain spot he would slow down the train and whoever wanted to jump off the train to escape could do so. It was in the middle of the night. He slowed down near the city of Torino. My mother pushed my father off the train and then one by one she pushed each one of us off. We had no food and no belongings. We began walking through the city and there we met a man who offered to take us to a nearby shul. He led us to the back of the building and told us that if we dug there, we would find food. We began digging and, indeed, found matzos.
We continued walking deeper into Italy until we got to Florence, a few days before Rosh Hashanah 1943. We went straight to the shul, which was a beautiful building. Rabbi Nathan Cassuto was the Rav. He took us down to the basement and we dragged up mattresses and made space for everyone to sleep. There were a few hundred people there.
To Be Continued.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.