Your family was released from the French concentration camp in Rivesaltes and you escaped to Italy. What happened when your family reached the Jewish community in Florence?
It was decided that the boys would be sent to a boys’ home in a convent and the girls would be sent to another convent. I felt responsible for my youngest sister, who was just two years old, and insisted that she come with me. One day, someone discovered that my “little brother” was really a girl. They wanted to send her to the other convent, but I wouldn’t allow it.
I was 14 years old at the time. We were a group of children all by ourselves. I and one other boy each had a pair of tefillin with us that we kept hidden. We had a few machzorim with us but the davening that year was not a simple one. There was more water on the floor from our tears than if there’d been a flood.
Every night, the other boys who lived in the convent stood in line as each one received a chance to kiss the cross. We — the “French refugees,” as they called us — did the same so as not to arouse any suspicion. One night one of the nuns came over to us and said, “It’s alright to say your own prayer once you go back to your rooms. Tell the other boys as well.”
In the convent, I worked as a waiter three times a day, although we had little food and we were always very hungry. Each morning we received half a roll, a teaspoon of jam and a teaspoon of split peas. I would put eight little plates on a tray to carry to the tables. But before I brought it in, I would sneak a lick of jam from each of the plates — that’s how hungry I was.
My parents, in the meantime, were being hidden by the underground and once in a while they were able to communicate with us. On Kol Nidre night, Jews were rounded up all over Italy. My parents and a few others were sent on a train to Rome. When they arrived there, they couldn’t disembark because the Germans were shooting right and left at everyone. So my parents returned to Florence. About two months later they made it to Rome. We got word from the underground that my older sister and another girl should go to Rome also. They made it there safely. The Americans had already taken Sicily and it seemed that liberation was just two, three weeks away, but that’s not the way it turned out.
On the night of Yom Kippur, two Italian boys walked in. We were waxing the floor of the convent. One of the boys began whistling Hatikvah. We were very nervous that they were pretending to be Jewish so that they could catch us. We couldn’t really communicate because they spoke Italian and we spoke French. It took sometime before we figured out that their father was the Chief Rabbi of Chenove. Eventually, we became very good friends.
One day, my older sister arrived and spoke to the head nun. They decided that we would leave the convent in the middle of the night and start walking to Rome. We left without telling these two Italian boys.
How did you make it to Rome?
The trip took us two weeks. We walked and hitchhiked. Unbelievably, we even got a ride with some German soldiers headed for Rome with more ammunition for their troops. The nuns had given us papers stating that we were going to Rome to study and join a religious order. One day on this journey the British began bombing the convoy. We jumped off the trucks into the open field for fear they would all blow up.
A short time before we reached Rome the soldiers asked us to get off the army truck so they wouldn’t get caught giving us a ride. We began walking and a short while later two Red Cross ambulances passed by and stopped for us. They let us come aboard and drove us until about two kilometers outside the city. My sister led us to the hotel where my parents were staying with a group of Jewish people who were hiding together. At the beginning it wasn’t too bad.
In February, 1944, Rome declared itself an ‘open city.’ Many Jews had fled to Rome to find refuge. However, we were not safe much longer. One Shabbos, the Nazis arrived at the hotel and seized as many Jews as they could. Rabbi Rothchild had a sefer Torah with him. Before he left he placed it in front of our door. We were not taken away only because we had documents saying we were Hungarian.
We did have to go into hiding, though. We contacted someone who arranged it all. My parents were taken to hide in the attic of a convent. My brothers and I went to a boys’ home in a convent on the outskirts of Rome and my sisters to another convent. The priest in the convent began learning Chumash with me. We started with parashas Mishpatim. Of course, he slowly tried to convince us that the Jewish way was corrupt; he was trying to convert me.
To Be Continued.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.