Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor
Written by Ichac Weizman (Wajcman) in 1995
Annex A 1997
Annex B August 2003
Translated from Hebrew by Dikla Weizman née Yeffet
MY LIFE STORY
We were lying fainting and dying. We did not have enough strength to get out of the car without help. We did not have the will power to rejoice about our success of reaching the moment of liberation and freedom.
We were taken out of the cars and started breathing lungful of clean free air. A special American team immediately started taking care of us. First they absolutely forbade us to eat without their supervision.
The Americans were shocked by what they saw. We were human skeletons, full with lice and filth, wounded and sick. It was a naked atrocity. It was recorded and photographed by the American Army. Later it was publicized and the visual evidence told much more than any written word.
When the American soldiers broke into the last wagon the “treasure” was discovered – a car full with dry moldy bread. A crazy wild assault on the bread was started. Those that still had some strength succeeded in the struggle. There were victims of the fight about the first loaf of bread after the liberation. Some died because they were exhausted from the physical struggle and others as a result of the unsupervised gluttony after years of chronic hunger. We were so dried up that we were forbidden to eat without supervision.
There were doctors and paramedics in the unit that liberated us. They understood our medical condition. The outstanding doctor among the others was a not very young female doctor. She advanced in the first front line together with the troops. She tried to explain to us the danger of unsupervised eating. She especially warned us about animal fat like pig or chicken fat. We should never eat more then our stomach capacity.
Most of the freed prisoners did not obey the doctors. They ran to the villages that were abandoned, collected food from the cellars, especially fats. They ate without any restraint and paid a high price – very painful intestines diseases or death.
We still did not feel confident that we were free. The change was quick sudden and sharp. We could not believe that it really happened. We won a prize - freedom. We still looked at every step to see the German guard following us. We stayed near the place of our liberation because we were afraid that we would again meet with Germans. Our strange emaciated looks and the special garments immediately gave us up. We felt better and stronger when we were together.
The American Army stayed for several hours in order to take care of us. We asked the Americans for other clothes. We wanted American Army uniforms but they refused. They said: ‘don’t change for the time being your striped uniforms. They are now your badges of honor. You heroically overcame hell. Don’t be ashamed and don’t be afraid. The Germans should now be afraid of you’.
During those first hours after the liberation we had a strong desire to take revenge on the Germans. The fire of revenge was burning in our hearts. We begged the Americans to give us rifles, at least those that they had taken from the German guards. They did not agree. We asked for other weapons but they still refused. We did not give up. We appealed to a high-rank officer that was there and explained our wish by hand signs. He also did not agree.
Still, we did not give up. We found an American soldier who spoke German and he translated our request to the officer. Luckily the officer was convinced and this was what he said:
‘You have now several free hours – a one time opportunity to take revenge on the Germans. Your striped clothes will be the identification of the avenge army. Be proud of them. We can’t give you rifles but you “found” a crate of hand grenades in the territory. Go to the nearest village; throw the grenades into the houses without any distinction or consideration and without pangs of conscience. Do that without any feelings of regret. We shall supervise you from some distance’
We were taught how to operate the grenades. We were weak and it was difficult for us to overpower the strength of the spring after we pulled out the safety-catch. Those that were the weakest were not allowed to participate in the operation.
The officer had a condition – we had to return together to the place in the forest from which we started our departure. Everything was done by improvisation and in a hurry. We had to make use of the chaos that was in the area in those first hours of liberation before the regular occupation army enforced order.
It should be remembered that the American policy was against revenge – especially without distinction. We ran like lunatics in spite of our meager strength. We reached the outskirts of the nearest village and saw a big cowshed with cows inside and other structures with roofs covered with green grass, as was very common in Germany and also in Poland.
Without many hesitations we threw the grenades into the cowshed. In a few minutes a huge fire started and spread onto the other structures. The flames reminded us of the crematoriums in Birkenau where month after month the fire was crying to Heaven. There was big damage to property and animals. I do not know if there were dead or wounded. The name of the burned village was Stalham.
We escaped quickly to our place in the forest. We came back with a feeling of relief and enormous satisfaction. We avenged, even if it was a small revenge, the cursed criminal oppressor that tortured and abused us for many years. We wanted very much to join the American Army and be fighters. We did not get our wish and that was understandable.
It was not less hard to overcome in the first hours and even in the first days the inclination to enjoy the abundance that the American soldiers had. They wanted to give us all of the best. We started hoarding food, a wartime habit – the fear that on the next day there would be no food. As much as it was explained to us that there was no longer a need for hoarding it was to no avail.
Most of the American soldiers advanced. A small team, mostly medical personnel, stayed and went on taking care of us. There were many sick and I was among them.
I suffered from intestines disease, probably dysentery. I did not need infusion like many others. The pain passed and I was well after two days, relatively quickly compared to others.
The first night after the liberation was spent in the forest near the cars that brought us there. We received equipment: blankets and mattresses and enjoyed a warm bed in the free clean air. The next day we woke up confused. We still did not yet get used to the idea and we did not yet believe that we were truly free – liberated.
After we sobered from the victory drunkenness each and every one of us had to face one of the most fateful problems for which none of us had a clear answer.
We survived. We stayed alive. What was our destination? Where should we go? To whom did we belong? Who wanted us?
On that day, for the first time in my life I had to decide about my destiny. There were several choices and I had to choose one of them. I decided, for the time being, to stay with the group of the liberated prisoners that were transferred to the city of Landsberg.
We were housed in huge buildings that used to be a German army camp. Many liberated prisoners were in Landsberg waiting for what was coming next. Going back to Poland (although then the border was open) was a choice that on no account I would consider. I swore never to go back to Poland. For me it was a cursed land. I did not want to go back to that huge cemetery. If someone of my family were still alive I would find out sooner or later.
To stay in Germany and wait for a visa to the United States was a possibility. I remembered that as a child I was told that I had an aunt and uncle in Paris. Perhaps they survived the war. Perhaps I should go to France.
The most enticing and the most unrealistic was the possibility of going to the Land of Israel. Since I was a boy I dreamed about it and was directed towards it in the youth movement “Hashomer Hatsayir” in Gombin. The possibility of going to the Land of Israel was an impossible dream to come true because the British who were the rulers at that time did not want the survivors to come in.
I had to decide for better or worse. It could not be avoided. In those hours I felt for the first time the results of the war. I was all-alone without family; there was nobody with whom to consult or to get help. I was completely without any means. I had no money, no clothes and was physically weak.
The camp of Landsberg was big and grey, partly destroyed, there were lots of people, noise and tumult and many languages were spoken. We could not get orientated. In the camp there were liberated prisoners from Russia, Ukraine, France, Poland and other former German occupied countries. There were also women in the camp who were brought to Germany for forced labor and were trying to go back home. Of course – the biggest group were those of the people were those who were liberated from the camps.
It sometimes happened that people met relatives that each of them was certain that the other was dead, but those were only single few cases. The camp was open, we were free to come and go. There was no comparison between the conditions in the German camps and the conditions in the Landsberg camp. The conditions were, of course, very much better, but still it was a camp.
After sometime we became used to freedom and got over fear. We started going out to the town and to the villages near the town. We saw Germans living quiet tranquil lives. In the villages we saw blooming farms and men watering their fields. We told each other that it was not possible that those men had not been in the army and served the Nazis faithfully. And even if not, we could not accept the fact that the Germans had the right to tranquil lives and others had only ruins and orphanhood. The whole population of the camp was angry and enraged. Our desire for revenge was once again awakened.
A group of former prisoners got organized spontaneously, me included, we put our yellow Star of David patches on our chests, we also put on the striped hats from the camps and decided to become a free lance commando unit looking for S.S. men. We went into the town and into the villages to look for them and hand them over to the American Authorities to stand trial.
Without any formal permission we entered houses claiming that we had information about S.S. men hiding there. We said that the information was about German soldiers who deserted their units and disguised as peaceful citizens. We took all the men under the age of 60 that we found in the houses and brought them to the American claiming that we knew them as former German soldiers although we did not really know them.
Those were dark times, like in war or twilight. The air still stank of fires and dead bodies. Fear and uncertainly were dominant. In times like that people behaved as if law and order did not exist and life was cheap.
The Germans were scared of the liberated captives and prisoners. They knew that we wanted revenge. Most of them did not resist arrest. With satisfaction and enjoyment we led the Germans through the streets of Landsberg. We waved our sticks yelling and kicking. Those were our happiest hours. It was worth suffering just for the privilege of leading humiliated and frightened Germans in Germany
We were very sorry that we did not have weapons. Who knows what we would have done if we had. The Americans forbade us to continue our searches. We had no choice – we had to stop.
Days passed in idleness and without any worries. In a short time I succeeded to recover physically. I gained weight, changed my clothes and looked better, but I still was very thin. I was always thin, even under normal conditions before the war, all the more after the suffering in the camps.
Most of the Jewish refugees that were then in the Landsberg camp wanted, asked and demanded to go to the Land of Israel (we called it Palestine or Eretz Israel) The Americans completely ignored that demand. When we started demonstrating in the camp and outside of it, the Americans passed on our demand to the authorities dealing with that matter.
The answer was that we had no chance of going immediately. The most that could be done was to allow every month a small number of persons to immigrate there. Meanwhile we saw that multitudes were leaving the camp every day. The Russians, the French, the Poles, and the Dutch – all were returning to their homelands. We felt most substantially the homelessness of the Jews. Those were the moments and the hours that shaped my complete belief that I should not stay in Europe and not in any other place – the only place for me is the Land of Israel.
On the other hand it was hard to accept the fact that I was free but still in a camp. I could have immigrated to the United States without any problems like some of my friends from Gombin that were liberated with me did.
My three friends from Gombin that survived with me and immigrated later to the United States. The photograph was taken in 1947.
From right to left: Lajzer Bocian, Mendl Wrubel and Zalman (Shaul) Tatarka
Those were stormy days and astonishing events were happening. One day, out of the blue, like angels from Heaven, a group of Jewish soldiers wearing the Star of David insignia came to visit the camp. The excitement and joy that overtook us had no limits. For the first time in our lives we saw a uniformed Jewish soldier carrying weapons who came from the Land of Israel. We could not believe our eyes. We were so proud of them. Just their appearance strengthened our (mine) wish to go to the Land of Israel (They called the Land of Israel by its Hebrew name – Eretz Israel, the same name that we called it in Gombin, so from now on I shall use it). By the way, the British and the Arabs called it Palestine, which was then the formal name of the country. On formal government papers written in Hebrew the initials of Eretz Israel were added in brackets.
The Hebrew soldiers awakened in me again all my latent dreams that suddenly became true. About that exactly I dreamt in my worst days of suffering – to have the big chance of seeing upright Jews, proud and carrying weapons. We absolutely identified with them and were ready to follow them through fire and water.
The unit of the Jewish Brigade that stayed in Landsberg started to organize the route of taking us out of the camp and preparing us to go to Eretz Israel legally or illegally. First priority was the youth. After just several days we received an instruction that was passed from mouth to ear that we should be ready to leave on short notice to an unknown destination. The Jewish Brigade soldiers asked us to keep that instruction secret, not to leave the camp and wait for further instructions.
Our wait was not in vain. On that same night we went out organized in groups from the town center to the suburbs. A convoy of lorries belonging to the Jewish Brigade was waiting for us. The drivers spoke Hebrew, a language that then I understood only a few of its words. The lorries were numbered so that each group knew on which lorry they had to climb.
Everything was done at maximum speed. The operation took a very short time. The convoy moved into the night towards the Italian border. We were on the lorries covered with tarpaulin, driving at crazy speed. It was very quiet. Most of us slept. We were in the hands of the Jewish Brigade. They had the responsibility to bring us to our destination.
After an incessantly long drive we stopped for a while. We were still on the lorries and we were not allowed to say one word and, of course, not to get off the lorries. After a short delay we continued to drive for a while and then we stopped again. Only then were we told that we had succeeded in passing the Italian border. We could come out and even sing.
We were in Italy; the year was 1945, several weeks after the end of the war in Europe. We were in the hands of the Jewish Brigade. The operation was a success. We arrived at the right check post as it had been planned, found the right guards so that everything passed successfully.
In Italy the Brigade could operate more freely and with more means than in any other country. Italy was its main base and that country was also where they fought during the war.
After a short rest we went on driving through the whole length of Italy until we arrived at a small village in the south. The village was on the beach. It was a fishermen village named Santa Maria (St. Mary). A poor unpopulated village. Some of the houses were in ruins. There was no greenery or trees in the village.
The group to which I belonged settled in one of the big buildings that were in the village. The building was used as living quarters and a school. There we started new life. We were given the chance to study and to complete at least part of the education we had missed during the war. In a very short time the Jewish Brigade soldiers managed to set up a school with a school plan and curriculum like the one in Eretz Israel. All the lessons, of course, were conducted in Hebrew. The wish to learn and know was very strong as for we were isolated from the world for several years and missed our best school years.
I was very studious. Most of us stopped speaking Yiddish or Polish on principle and tried very hard to speak only Hebrew. A big library was brought from Eretz Israel and it was our source for information and knowledge and we used it very often.
We were very curious about what was going on in Eretz Israel. The teachers succeeded in making us zealous Zionists. They had no problem convincing us that our going to Eretz Israel was important and needed. We suffered enough in Diaspora, so it was obvious for us that our place was in the future Jewish state.
We also had sports, physical fitness training and self-defense lessons. It was like a pre-military program. The physical fitness training was very effective and much needed because we were thin, our muscles were degenerated and the training speeded up our physical rehabilitation.
I remember our time in Santa Maria not only as a physical rehabilitation period but also as a spiritual, intellectual and mental rehabilitation one. My whole way of thinking changed. For the first time I was free from the basic survival worry. My instincts became less sharp and I stopped being afraid and worried. Fright and worry were the core of our existence all through the war years. I was freed from the prisoner’s mentality and way of thinking. I made enormous efforts to shut off and forget the past as much as it was possible. Of course, my longing for the family, especially for my immediate family – my mother, father and sister were big and strong. As a free person I felt their absence all the more and I dreamt that I might meet them some day, although deep in my heart I knew it was a hopeless dream.
I remember the time in Santa Maria as a decisive rehabilitation period that created for me a change that prepared me for continuing a normal life. My self-confidence grew stronger. The belief in the future became clear and defined with a goal that I was ambitious to fulfill. I managed to achieve progress in the curriculum that I missed during the war. We knew that sooner or later our turn to go to Eretz Israel (in Hebrew - Aliya) would come.
According to the classification for Aliya we should have been among the first. We were teen-agers (girls and boys) already nearly old enough for taking part in military actions of the "Hagana" (defense in Hebrew, what preceded I.D.F.), without families, just the best kind of people needed for the on coming struggle for an independent Jewish state.
Already in Santa Maria the people in charge divided us into study-groups according to political affiliation. I chose, of course, to join the group of “Hashomer Hatzayir” – the youth movement to which I belonged in Gombin.
It was the end of 1945. The winter was cold. The Jewish Brigade was at the peak of its illegal activities in Italy in order to bring to the survivors that were still in camps to Eretz Israel. The economic situation in Italy was terrible. Poverty and hunger were everywhere. People roamed the streets and asked the soldiers or us, the refugees, for a piece of bread. Italians came to Santa Maria, pleaded and begged for bread. Our situation was much better than that of most of the citizens of Italy. We enjoyed support from all over the world. In spite of their difficult economic situation Italy extended much help to the Brigade by ignoring the illegal activities that the Brigade soldiers performed in their country. Without that help it would have been impossible to organize and perform the whole project of activities that were needed in order to transfer the hundreds of thousands refugees that came from all over Europe to Italy and then send them stealthy to Eretz Israel.
The Italian population at that time was not hostile or angry – just the opposite, they were sympathetic and cooperative. It should be remembered that the Italian government never decided openly to allow passage of refugees through Italy, so all that was done was illegal and “underground”.
Italy was chosen as a departure zone for illegal Aliya because of its geographical location, its long shores, its many harbors and the Jewish units that were part of the British army that were there. In addition – the sympathetic attitude of the population and the government’s disregard of the activities were a big help.
After more than a year of studies and impatient nerve wrecking waiting, we received a message that we should be prepared for illegal Aliya. We should be organized so as to be ready in a very short time, after a very short warning to move towards the port of sail.
Two days after the first message a messenger from the Brigade came. He had two messages, good news and bad news. On the same night we would leave and go to a gathering place from which the people would go to the exit port, but only 30 members of our group would go. That was the quota allocated to our group for that sailing. The meaning of that was that our group would be divided. Some would be left and others would sail to Eretz Israel.
It was not an easy problem. We gathered with the teachers and held a strained, stormy and fateful discussion. Should we split the group or wait some more time so that all of us would be able to go together? Who could know how long we would have to wait and what chance there was of another ship to be available? For most of us it was clear that if we split the group and not go together it would be the beginning of the disintegration of the group that planned to build together a corporative life in Eretz Israel. As I wrote already, the discussion was strained and stormy. The majority thought that we should not give up the chance to sail – even if it was only for part of us.
The majority thought that we should cast lots and those that the lot fell of them would go with the first group. The lot did not fall on me so I did not sail with the first group. The first group succeeded to evade the British blockade without being caught and so they were not deported like the rest of the refugees that came later.
When they came to Eretz Israel they were brought to Kibbutz Mizra where they studied and worked. We corresponded with them as long as we stayed in Santa Maria. That was the time when we had first hand information on what was going on in Eretz Israel and the way of life in the Kibbutz. The letters and the stories about the warm nice welcome they had when they came to the Kibbutz encouraged us.
The urge and wish to go to Eretz Israel grew stronger. We started demonstration and sit-down strikes in the towns near Santa Maria in order to awaken the world’s opinion against the British blockade on the gates to Eretz Israel. The Italian citizens received our protest with open sympathy. The stream of refugees from Germany to Italy grew stronger, and the public pressure on the British government to raise the quotas of entrance permits also grew stronger, but to no avail.
We went back to routine and continued with our studies. We used the rare opportunity to learn Hebrew and get general education. We also grew up physically. Many of us stopped growing through the war because of the lack of nourishment and the hard physical work. At that time that we were in Santa Maria many of us, including me, added height and weight and reached normal dimensions.
In addition to the studies that I loved I put in effort in the football team in which I played. The team represented all the young people that were in the village. We had very good sport accomplishments. I especially remember one match against a team from a neighboring town, which we won. We left the football field happy but wounded. The fans of the Italian team did not want to accept the loss so they threw stones at us. The crowd in the field behaved wildly, yelled anti-Semitic offending shouts and was ready to tear us apart. We hardly managed to extricate ourselves from the raging crowd and reach the lorry that was waiting for us outside of the field. There were rumors in the village that the fans would come during the night in order to hurt us. That night all the members of our group assembled on the upper floor. We collected sticks and stones and were ready for the battle. Fortunately nobody came and the incident ended peacefully.
In that incident a latent anti-Semitism was revealed also in the Italians, a phenomenon which was well known to us. We did not back off. We continued to play against other Italian teams. We showed them our ability. There were many surprises. Sometimes we ourselves were surprised by our achievements.
In Hebrew I learned to have a fluent conversation. We tried zealously to keep to our decision not to speak Yiddish or Polish. It was not easy. We reprimanded each other if someone failed. That decision was a lot of help in the hard beginning of learning the language.
The teachers succeeded in infiltrating in us the spirit and the way of life of Eretz Israel. We were very much influenced by the dedicated work of the Jewish Brigade soldiers and that was why we were ready and even happy to perform any task that they asked us to undertake.
Our whole way of life became a constant demonstration. Everyday when we went to the common dining-hall we purposely arranged ourselves in rows holding signs and slogans against the British. Very often newspaper reporters came to take photographs of the demonstration and published the material for the world to see. That period was very interesting and full of meaning, at least for me. I developed and learned to understand and see things in a more mature clear-eyed way.
Every good thing eventually comes to an end at some stage and that was also true for the wonderful time spent in Italy. In the end of July we received an order to be ready to move in a few hours. We packed in a hurry our few belongings. Happy, exited and impatient we waited for what was coming next. It might again be a false alarm like the last time.
This time we were not disappointed. On the same night we moved to an unknown destination in covered British lorries escorted by the Brigade soldiers. It was a covert journey at night. After a long drive we came to an assembling place near the port of Mitaponto.
We knew by the condition of the place that we would stay there for a very short time. Our group was taken to a far separate house, and it was explained to us that we would have a preparation and guidance course. We would have a special very responsible role on the ship.
We really had a two-day course in order to be fit to replace the Italian team if the British discovered the ship. We would also be a help-team to the Italian and Eretz Israeli teams from the moment of sailing. We were told that many logistical, organizational and social problems were to be expected on the ship.
The success of the operation depended very much upon us. We promised to undertake the assignment and were very proud of being chosen for that role. The ship in which we were about to sail was anchored far at sea. We had to help to bring the equipment to the ship, food and medicines, before the passengers boarded. The equipment would be taken to the ship by small motorboats. We worked all through the night transferring the goods and loading them onto the ship. We were divided into small units and joined the boats in order to help the old and the sick. The sea was stormy. More than once we were about to be over turned with the boat because of the storm and the overloading. The boats were overloaded because we wanted to transfer the passengers as quickly as possible while it was still dark.
We were glad and excited to do that job. We were proud that we would take command of the ship if there were trouble. In that case the Italian team would mix in with the passengers.
When we first reached the ship at night she looked huge, but with the first light we saw her real size. It was a nutshell of a ship, dirty, old and rusty. It was intended for carrying goods and animals, not for people. The original loading fixtures were taken out and in their place wooden planks were installed in the same structure as in the camps.
The density was terrible; moving between the planks was almost impossible. After we transferred the passengers, which was hard physical and dangerous work, we started to deal with organization and order within the ship. Everyone had to stay in the lower part of the ship. It was forbidden to be on the deck during the day and as much as possible also at night. People were lying like sardines in a can. There were 790 passengers aboard the ship and that was much more than the weight the ship was able to carry safely. That was a safety and organization problem that we recognized from the first moment.
The name of the ship was Caf-Gimel Boat Sailors (Caf- Gimel is 23 according to the old system of numbers in Hebrew) in memory of the 23 Hagana soldiers that went on a secret mission to Syria during the war in order to help the Allies. They disappeared and nobody knew what happened to them. (Syria was under French mandate so the Germans were its true rulers).
Continue - Part IV
Last updated December 7th, 2005