Mara Ginic (now Kraus) was born in Zagreb, Yugoslavia in 1925. At the age of 3 or 4 she moved with her grandparents to Osijek, Slavonia(Nowadays in Croatia). When she was five years old her parents divorced and her mother moved to Belgrade, but she stayed with her father and grand parents in Osijek. When she was 8 they moved to Belgrade. After her father re-married, Mara lived with him and her step-mother.
—In April 1941, a few weeks after Hitler’s troops occupied Belgrade my father and I escaped with the help of my Catholic and ethnic German mother to the Dalmatian island Hvar. But Hvar occupied by the Croat Ustashi turned out to be a quite unsafe place. So we escaped once more under the nose of the authorities, this time to Split, occupied by the Italians. In December of the same year, the Italians deported us to a small town in Piedmont, Castellamonte, in northern Italy, where we were interned as civil prisoners of war.
In September 1943 the Germans occupied northern Italy. My father, some friends and I fled to the mountains with the intention to cross over to Switzerland. After an adventurous, dangerously unsuccessful try we were able to find a guide in Breuil (Cervinia). He descended from a line of famous mountaineers: his grandfather Jean Antoine Carrel was the first Italian to climb the Matterhorn.
Breuil lies at the foot of Matterhorn and our aim was Zermatt which lies on the other side of the Matterhorn in Switzerland. Accompanied by Carrel and wearing our backpacks and low shoes, we left at dusk. On the way another mountain guide joined us. We plodded single file into the night up a path which became steeper and steeper. We were a party of five refugees, two men and three women. Carrel headed the line and carried a thick rope rolled over his shoulder, while his colleague closed the line.
After a time Carrel stopped and gave us all a small pill. A drug for endurance that pilots take before difficult assignments, he explained. My backpack suddenly became light as feather, and it seemed as though my feet barely touched the ground. For about three or four hours we went uphill on paths that weren’t too difficult. The bright night was turning cooler and I put on my mittens. Father wasn’t so well equipped, and he constantly held his city hat with one hand because the wind threatened to blow it off his head. I gave him one of my mittens since his hands were freezing, as the cold became more biting.
We wandered uphill without much effort until daybreak, but the worst still lay ahead. The path became more stony and narrow, and we now had to step carefully sideways, leaning against a steep rock face. Then our taciturn guide fastened one after the other to the rope and let us slide down several yards over the step-like cliffs. After this difficult passage was behind us, Carrel stopped and pointed straight ahead. A glacier spread out before us, and far below, meadows and houses were veiled in the morning mist. “That’s the direction”, pointed Carrel. ” Now you have to go alone. It’s the border and I can’t go any farther”.
There he was given the gold coins as it has been agreed before by my father’s friend, Hinko Salz, who was a dentist and had gold coins. Luckily for us, because my father didn’t have any.
The two men turned around and disappeared from our sight in an instant. For a few moments we stood there, helpless, then got hold of ourselves and stepped onto the glacier. Its icy breath beat against us. It was smooth and crossing it wouldn’t have been difficult if we had worn mountain shoes, and if there hadn’t been crevasses every couples of yards which we sometimes easily stepped over, but more often were forced to jump. We had been on our way for twelve hours and the pills had lost their effect. The high had passed now into a great weariness. Every step became an effort of will, not to mention jumping, when our backpacks yanked us to the ground every time.
My throat was parched, the wind blew my hair in my face and obstructed my vision. My knees buckled and the glacier never seemed to end. Every time now when I jumped I fell on the ice, until I no longer had the strength to get up. Father was bushed too, but spurred me on and helped me again and again to get up. My limbs were stiff from the cold, my fingers and tows were numb. Enough was enough! Not another inch! I am staying here!
As father tried to help me I started to scream. At 11.500 feet this was exactly the right time to have a nervous breakdown. At Dr. Salc’s sign, my father gave me a slap in the face, and I began to cry, but gradually quieted down, pulled myself together and dragged myself along like a good girl. Soon we made it over the glacier. Now before us lay a lake, and not far from there we saw a house: the border guard.
The guards had been observing us with binoculars for some time and came to meet us. We dropped exhausted on the benches in front of the small guard house. They gave us water and let us have a breather before we were politely, but resolutely informed that we couldn’t remain there in Switzerland but had to turn back. We hadn’t expected that. At that time we still didn’t know anything about the many refugees who were not only refused entry to the country, but were even immediately handed over to the Germans.
At first my father and Dr. Salc tried to persuade the border guards. My father said his sister lived in Switzerland, and since he had her address — she was interned in a camp near Lugano — he asked to be allowed to call her there. Over the telephone he inquired if she had any contacts who could help us be admitted to Switzerland. “My poor brother, I’m a refugee, how can I help you?” Since nothing could be expected from that side, the negotiations turned to imploring and begging for entry — and when even tears were of no avail the two adult women threw themselves at the feet of the officials, pulled their hair and made such a scene that I had to look away in shame.
After this terrible exhibition the top official went to the phone, spoke for a long time with distant superiors and finally informed us he couldn’t decide anything on his own and had to bring us to Zermatt. We hoped then we were saved. We believed once in the country we wouldn’t be expelled any more. We were lucky, because as I heard later, many refugees who already were inside the country have been handed over by Swiss police to the Germans.
So we started on our way, traipsing along with our remaining strength behind the border guard through this wonderful, free country where there was no war and no SS.
Even the air seemed to me particularly fragrant, like honey, or was it my imagination? Was I hallucinating smells? In my exhaustion and ecstasy I hadn’t noticed that our escort was smoking a pipe, out of which small honey-scented clouds floated over us. How we came to Zermatt, to whom our guard handed us, where we spent the night: all this went unperceived by my sleepwalking senses. The twenty-four hours of marching, climbing, jumping over crevasses, agitation, despair and ensuing deliverance had completely emptied my mind. I believe we stayed in a hotel. All I see is the staircase we went down the following morning which caused us immense strain because of our sore muscles.
In Zermatt we became famous overnight. We were treated like heroes. People felt admiration for our accomplishment and compassion for our lot. On our way to the train station from where we were to leave for a camp, men and women on the streets congratulated us and offered us fruits and chocolate. Even as we sat in our compartment, they passed us apples and cigarettes through the windows.
We remained in Switzerland until the end of the war. Meanwhile I had married Ivo Kraus and we decided not to return to Yugoslavia, but go to Italy. From Italy we emigrated to Argentina. My father did return to Yugoslavia, only to escape from the Tito regime 2 years later. Some month before he had married in Belgrade an Auschwitz survivor, Silvia Drucker. They emigrated to Venezuela where their daughter Nicole was born.
My husband and me had two children and we lived later again in Italy, and in France, in Venezuela and finally in São Paulo, Brazil, where we divorced. In São Paulo I met Joe J. Heydecker with whom I lived until his death in Vienna, Austria.—–
Daniel Falkner was born in Poland in 1912 and grew up in the city of Rzeszow. Daniel hoped to become a doctor but was unable to attend medical school because of restrictions placed on the number of Jewish students. As he neared the age of compulsory military service in Poland, he was sent to a military academy. After completing military service he moved to Warsaw and shortly before September 1939, he was called up.
Daniel’s division eventually surrendered and he became a prisoner of war. After escaping, he returned to Warsaw. In the autumn of 1940, Warsaw’s Jewish population was forced into the ghetto. Daniel and his wife escaped the ghetto and lived in hiding until discovered in 1943. Later, hiding amongst a group of non-Jewish Polish political prisoners, Daniel was taken to Sachsenhausen camp in Germany.
As Allied troops advanced in April 1945, the Germans evacuated those prisoners deemed fit for forced labour and left the rest behind to die. Daniel avoided deportation by hiding under floorboards and was liberated. After the war, Daniel joined the British Army as an interpreter and was reunited with his wife in 1946.
And of course then came the ghetto, and this was a terrible upheaval. Thousands and thousands of
people had to move in and out, those Poles who lived among the Jews had to move out from this
designated area and the designated area was only a small corner of Warsaw, the most dilapidated part of Warsaw and the Jews who lived throughout Warsaw had to move in. And this was a period which is
imprinted on my mind, people with, with all sorts of chattel moving in and out.
And of course the living conditions were impossible, every, every cellar, every corridor was full, filled
with people. And many couldn’t find even this and they slept in the street. The result was that every
morning the undertakers had to collect bodies from the streets.
In July 1942 the German authorities announced that to ease up your loss, you can volunteer to go to
the East and there you will be provided with work and food and clothing and so forth. They were not specific to say where to the East, what is the name of the place where you are going, and what sort of work you are going to, to have to perform. And many thousands of volunteers came forward to be sent to the East.
Every day about six thousand volunteers were sent off, not to be seen or heard of again.
And then when these volunteers started to become thin on the ground, the Germans made traps in the, arranged traps in the street, and whoever was caught in the trap was sent off. And among those were old people, disabled people, blind people or children, and they were packed to capacity in those cattle trains and sent off. And one or two of those who were sent off came back and said ‘this is all a lie, this, we are, they are being sent only a few tens of kilometres away from, from Warsaw to a place called Treblinka and there they are being exterminated completely’.
You see the human nature is such that this is a thing that is incomprehensible, no one, no one can take it in that someone is planning a complete annihilation or murder of a whole people, this is inconceivable.
Pieter Kohnstam was born in Amsterdam in 1936. His parents, Hans and Ruth Kohnstam, were forced to flee from the Nuremberg/Fuerth area in Germany to Amsterdam, The Netherlands during the early days of the Nazi regime. Coming from a well-known upper middle class family, they left behind a lucrative toy merchandising company with sales offices and warehouses in cities throughout Germany and Europe.
It was by chance that the Kohnstam’s apartment in Amsterdam was downstairs from the family of Anne Frank. Ruth became a close friend of Edith Frank, and Anne, the youngest daughter, became Pieter’s babysitter. Both children attended the local schools in the neighborhood.
“In the morning of July 6, 1942, Anne Frank came to say good-bye to us. The Franks were about to go into hiding in their secret annex. It was a sad and difficult parting for everyone. As things had deteriorated, Anne had come down every day to play with Pieter (age 6). Ruth (Pieter’s mother, age 31) and Clara (Ruth’s mother/Pieter’s grandmother) had become very fond of her. We hugged and kissed each other good-bye. Remembering that moment still brings tears to my eyes.
We watched from our living room window as the Franks left for their hiding place. It was raining outside. Margot had gone ahead earlier. Otto was dressed rather formally, as if he were going to work. He wore a dark suit and tie, an overcoat, and a hat. He was carrying a satchel under one arm and holding onto Edith with the other. Edith was also wearing a hat and carried a shopping bag. Anne had put on a scarf against the rain. She looked back one more time as we waved good-bye to them. We were crying and praying for their safety.
Two days later, the Nazis conducted a Razzia in our neighborhood. We heard their sirens and car horns blaring from far away. As the black lead motorcycle turned into our street followed by the passenger car and the large truck packed with Nazi soldiers, I was filled with foreboding. Pieter was standing on the sofa with his nose pressed against the lower part of the window, looking towards the street while holding on to Clara’s waist. Ruth and I looked at each other with apprehension.
The convoy stopped in front of our building, and soldiers poured from the back of the truck. They rushed up to our apartment and hammered their rifle butts against our front door, shouting, “Open up, or we will break down the door.”
While Clara let them in, I saw Ruth slipping a small piece of paper into Pieter’s pocket.
The soldiers burst into the room, led by a Nazi officer who waved his pistol at us and shouted, “Be still, or you will be shot.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Pieter dig for the paper in his pocket, sneak it into his mouth, and carefully chew and swallow it. I held my breath, praying that no one else had noticed. Fortunately, the soldiers were too busy putting tags with the SS insignia on our furniture and belongings, and paid no attention to us. The officer explained that, because we were being deported, they were claiming possession and ownership of everything we had. We would be committing a crime if we removed so much as a toothpick from our apartment.
When they finally left, we all heaved a sigh of relief. Ruth praised Pieter for his quick thinking in disposing of the paper slip. She smiled at him and said, “Don’t worry; it won’t harm you. It all comes out eventually.” The slip had been filled with telephone numbers, including one for Gerda Leske. (Gerda and Ad Leske were close friends of the Kohnstams, frequently coming to Sunday brunch before the German occupation. They continued to come over on Sundays following the occupation, making sure to supply food for the family and toys for Pieter, an only child. Both Christian; Gerda was originally from Berlin and Ad was Dutch. They owned stores in Amsterdam and Maastricht). Ruth had taken a big risk, figuring that the Gestapo would not think to search a small child. We had been very lucky indeed.
When we received notice for our departure date, Ruth called Gerda, who devised a brilliant, but dangerous plan.
Nothing further happened until the day when we were to report to the freight depot in the eastern section of Amsterdam for transport to Westerbork. Ruth and Clara spent the morning sewing cash — large bank notes — and jewelry into the shoulder pads of our coats. Ruth also hid some money in the shoulder pads of her blouse. We buried the rest of her jewelry in the garden behind our apartment. We never saw any of it again. The day before, I had bought two knapsacks — the kind hikers use — and we packed them with enough food for two days. We stored them in the back bedroom, so they would not be visible if somebody looked through our living room window from the street. I had also obtained strong, waterproof hiking boots with nailed rubber soles for Ruth, Pieter, and me. In addition, I had forged travel permits and identity cards for the three of us.
The hours crawled along at an interminable snail’s pace. We were too nervous to eat anything for lunch. Pieter kept asking questions of Grandma Clara: Why do we have to leave? Why can’t you come with us? Will I ever see you again? She answered every one of them patiently, reassuring him that everything would be all right. I realized, with surprise, that he was voicing the same concerns that were going round and round in my mind. I, too, was wondering if we were ever going to see Clara again, if we would ever return to Amsterdam. As my thoughts turned to the previous time when I fled from the Nazis, I wondered if I would ever set foot on German soil again, and if I would ever regain any of what my family had lost.
(Ruth and I had fled Nuremberg for the Netherlands in September 1932. My work as an artist was considered “degenerate” by the powerful, fanatic followers of Hitler in Nuremberg; and, not only our possessions, but quite possibly our lives were in danger. Though the Nazis were not yet “officially” in power, on the advice of my father, a judge, we quickly fled the country. This was one year after our marriage and I was thirty years old.)
Finally it was time to go, and it was hard to tear ourselves away. The apartment at Merwedeplein 17 had been our home for nearly eight years; and, once again, we were leaving everything behind, except for our lives, our memories, our hopes and our faith. We had agreed that I would start off alone, and Ruth would follow with Pieter. If she was stopped by a Nazi patrol, she would claim that he was sick, and that she was taking him to the hospital. I drank half a bottle of French Armagnac, put on my black beret, and, with a final goodbye to Clara, left our apartment through the back door. The gate at the rear of our garden opened onto a small passage that ran along the back of our apartment buildings. Emerging from the alley into the main street, I saw an SS patrol taking a cigarette break in the park. I prayed that Ruth and Pieter would get away without any trouble.
Fortunately, we all made it safely to Gerda’s salon. Since we did not look like shoppers, we entered through the back door, so as not to arouse suspicions. The first thing we did was to remove the Stars of David from our garments. It was a cumbersome process, but critical for our survival. We rubbed dye into the areas where the yellow patches had covered the fabric, so they would match the rest of the coat where the material looked more worn.
Gerda had come up with a clever cover story: She was taking her staff to a fashion show in Maastricht. Since Ruth was a young and beautiful woman, she would go as her fashion model. I was the artist and would act as the company’s fashion designer. And Pieter would come along as Gerda’s son. We impressed on Pieter that he would have to be absolutely quiet for the duration of the train ride, and that he would have to act as if Ruth were a stranger. Knowing what a challenge it would be for a gregarious child who liked to talk to anybody, and who was, no doubt, as scared as we were, worried me. How would he behave under these tense circumstances? Would he be able to keep silent and deny his own mother?
By the time we finished with our coats, there was not much time left. We quickly agreed on a meeting place in case we got separated. Then we headed to the Hauptbahnhof, the main railroad station, to take the train to Maastricht. We took separate trolleys. My ride went without a hitch, although there were a number of Nazi troops patrolling the streets, stopping, kicking, clubbing, and frisking people at random. When I arrived at the great hall of the railroad station, Ad Leske was waiting for me under a large round clock that was suspended from the ceiling. He greeted me formally like a business acquaintance, shook my hand and said, “Good afternoon, how are you?” In the process, he pressed a railroad ticket into my palm.
Then he accompanied me to the platform where a commuter train was waiting. We passed an Amsterdam City Council member I knew well coming from the train. He winked at me and gave me a quick nod, letting me know that Ruth, Gerda and Pieter were safe in the railroad car. Ad took me to my seat, quietly wished me luck, shook my hand again, and left. After all the years of a close friendship, it was difficult to part so abruptly, but we had no choice.
The train was filled with Dutch workers heading home for the day. Ruth was sitting two seats ahead of me on the other side of the aisle. Gerda and Pieter were several rows farther down, facing us. Pieter looked serious but content, nestled inside Gerda’s arms. We had agreed that if any one of us was stopped or apprehended, the others were not to look or give any sign of recognition. Pieter tried once to make eye contact with Ruth, who forced herself to look away. For a moment he looked stricken, and I was afraid that he would start to cry; but, Gerda had noticed the exchange and drew him closer to her, hugging him to her breast as if he were her own son. As he slowly relaxed into her body, I also felt myself calming down.
But we still had to wait. It seemed to take forever until the conductor finally walked along the train cars, slamming all the doors shut. His shrill whistle signaling departure was music to my ears. With a sudden jolt, the train lurched into motion and slowly pulled out of the station. We were finally on our way.
Throughout the ride, Nazi soldiers patrolled and spot checked the identity cards of various passengers. We tried to act unconcerned, but it made me nervous every time they walked down the aisle. Sure enough, one of them asked to see my papers. I handed him my ticket and the identity card I had forged, and held my breath. They looked them over and handed them back to me without comment. A wave of immense relief swept over me, followed by a warm feeling of pride that my handiwork had passed the test.
By the time we reached Maastricht, the sun had set and it was getting dark. We met at the end of the railroad platform, and Pieter gave Ruth a tight hug, burrowing into her as if to seek extra reassurance.
Outside the station, the managing director of Gerda’s salon in Maastricht was waiting for us, a thin man with a pinched face. His eyes kept darting all over the place. As we started to walk to his car, he asked to speak to Gerda in private. They stepped to the other side of his Peugeot, and I heard him murmur in a low, insistent voice while glancing nervously in our direction. Gerda stared at him, and her face became tight with anger. She did not raise her voice, but she must have said something to him that permitted no argument, because he looked down at the cobblestone street and then nodded in acquiescence.
He stood back as we said good-bye to Gerda. It was a long, emotional, tearful parting. How could we ever thank this extraordinary woman enough? How could we repay her for her generosity and courage? Gerda had risked her life for us. She had made arrangements with the underground in Amsterdam to take us across the Belgian border. She had accompanied us to Maastricht herself. If the Nazis had apprehended her, they would have killed her and her family. We did not want to let her go, but after yet another embrace, Gerda finally tore herself away and headed back into the railroad station, wiping her teary eyes, to wait for the next train back to Amsterdam.
As I watched her leave, I realized that our lives were never going to be the same. We had crossed a line and could no longer turn back. We were committed. Our journey to freedom had begun. It was July 14, 1942. By coincidence it was also Bastille Day in France; a good omen, I hoped.”
In 1963, Pieter immigrated to the United States where he pursued a career in the specialty chemical industry, focusing on pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. He became a U.S. citizen in 1968. He and his wife, Susan, married in 1965 and have two children and three grandchildren. Now retired in Venice, Florida, Kohnstam is active in community affairs. He is the past President of the Jewish Congregation of Venice. He is frequently invited to schools and various organizations to speak about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, his book, and matters relating to Jewish and interfaith topics.
Maria Ossowski was a Polish civilian living in Zakopane, Poland when the Second World War began. During the war, non-Jewish Poles were conscripted into forced labour in Germany and Maria’s parents sent her to live with family in Warsaw in an attempt to save her from being called up. In Warsaw, Maria and her aunt helped Jewish children by providing them with whatever food and clothing they could. She was suspected of being part of the Polish Resistance and arrested in 1943. She was deported to Auschwitz in May later that year.
“Eventually we were herded into what was to be our washing room. It was a huge barrack, with the water running, cold water I must add, from the, from the, from the, the top, there were men in already prison garb, which we never seen before. We were made to strip, we were made to go in front – each one of us – in front of that man, that man or the other one, they were all standing in the line, and we were shaven – we were shaven – our heads were shaven, our private parts were shaven and we were pushed then under that water. And after a while we were pushed out of it into another part of that big block, where the huge amount of terrible-looking – and already smelling terrible – clothes were prepared for us.
What we actually got was one dress which you had to put over your head. The dress had sleeves, but not long, like three-quarter sleeves, and when we have had this on, we were marched again to another part, where the girls this time – prisoners obviously – were sitting by the little tables,
and that, and then where we were getting our numbers tattooed on our arms. It was done with simply –
Biros were not invented then – so it was just implement with which you write letters in those days, and it was put into the ink and the point was made on your arm ‘til it had the shape of the number.
You actually are asking me what, what made me survive, or what helped me survive. And this answer is the one which actually brings you pain all your next life, this normal life, because you never know why.
So the easiest thing is to say, yes, God wanted it, that was supposed to be that way, but there were more human factors in it.
The fact that I was not, that I was young, that I was not ravaged by the long term imprisonment in prison…I told myself very quickly that I don’t want to die there, and the, this psychical attitude help you enormously. You were never to feel sorry for yourself. If you started to feel sorry for yourself you were a goner, you, you, you, you were Muselmann, as we were calling those who were physically and mentally broken.
When we came, of course, we knew nothing. I, I knew nothing. I didn’t know about the extermination policy or – we knew that the ghettos were, were burning and the people were killed in the ghettos…
To see it with my own eyes was really a terrible shock and I can tell you one thing, that there is point in your life where your heart is no heart anymore, it’s a piece of ice. I had the feeling that my heart was hard, and not because I didn’t have feeling for my fellow prisoners – no, that I always had – but there was this hand, this iced hand which kept hold my heart like this. And my heart were not alive any more, it was – the sheer terror of it made my, part of my body almost turn into the ice.”