Your family fled from Belgium, went through French concentration camps and eventually found refuge hiding in convents in Rome. How were you all liberated?
Two weeks before Pesach we went to see my parents in the convent where they were hiding. It was right next to Gestapo headquarters. We would have liked to stay with them for Pesach but my father insisted that it was too dangerous and forced us to return to our own convent. It was a lucky thing, because that particular week there was a big round-up and many Jewish boys who were hiding were caught.
When we returned to our convent, it was the first night of Pesach. The head priest had baked matzos for us. They were good to us there. While we were there, we saw and heard the planes fighting overhead and heard the shooting. We remained at the convent until liberation.
Would you tell us about the liberation?
In May 1944, on a Thursday evening while it was still daylight, we saw German trucks transporting soldiers and civilians. Although the war was still raging outside the city, that Friday morning Rome was liberated by the Americans. Friday afternoon, my father came to the convent where we had been hiding and told us that we had been liberated. He told us to go to shul on Shabbos.
On Shabbos morning we went to the priest, told him what our father had said and asked him to give us money for the trolley. He obliged and we took the trolley directly to the shul. As we got off, our father was standing there. He was horrified to see that we had desecrated the Shabbos. He slapped me across the face and said, “Now you’ll remember that on Shabbos we don’t drive!”
After this we stayed in the convent for another two weeks until things settled down a bit more. The Jewish Brigade was taking people to Palestine. We had priority because we were so many people — our parents, five boys and four girls. We also registered to go to America. My father said we’d go to the first place that gave us permission to travel.
My parents actually had visas to come to the United States in 1939 but they didn’t want to go. My grandparents in America had written to my father saying, “Don’t come. Even the stones here are treife.” I only understood what they meant much later. In 1942, when my parents tried again so we could escape, we couldn’t get onto a boat.
Now, however, we were granted permission to go from Italy to America. The ship was carrying wounded soldiers who were being taken back to the United States. We had to sign a document stating that after the war we would return to the place from where we had left. We signed it, as did everyone else. Our ship was torpedoed, but we did make it to the United States. Ninety percent of the people were so sea-sick they couldn’t eat.
The boat docked at Ellis Island in September 1944. From there, we were taken to Grand Central Station where Jewish organizations had prepared all types of goodies for us. Then they took us to a camp they had set up. There was barbed wire surrounding the camp but on the whole it was very good for us there. My father organized a kosher kitchen and a mikveh. We were allowed to attend public school. In the evening Yeshiva Torah Vodaas sent a man named Rabbi Heller to learn with us.
What message would you impart to today’s generation?
We have to remember always that we are Jewish.
Although we lived in a convent under the auspices of the priest and the nuns, we all remained frum and are shomrei Torah umitzvos. After the war, my father went to the Satmar Rebbe and told him that his sons didn’t want to be Chassidish. The Rebbe asked my father, “Are they shomrei Shabbos, frum, and ehrlich?” My father responded in the affirmative.
The Rebbe said, “Imagine — these are children who were worked as altar boys, who lived amongst priests and nuns and remained shomrei Torah and yet you complain that they are not Chassidish?”
All eleven members of my family survived, which is a testimony of its own to Hashem’s miracles, and which should increase our trust in Him even more.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.