South Carolina Council on the Holocaust

“The work that the SC Council on the Holocaust does is so important for our students in South Carolina. Having a chance to discuss and reflect on the past gives students the tools to be better citizens for our future.”

--Molly Spearman, State Superintendent of Education

The Survivors' Stories -- A Virtual Library

LEO . . . .

Leo's family spent many months in a large Italian prison and lived for about a year in a small village in northern Italy. Then in September 1943, the Germans occupied Italy and life became much more dangerous for Leo and his family. To escape almost certain arrest by the Nazis and deportment to concentration camps, Leo's family decided to take the train to Milan, Italy where they had many friends who would help them.

Leo and His Suitcase

We arrived in Milan, but we couldn't leave the train station. There was a curfew. The Italian underground had just blown up some railroad tracks, and the Nazis were looking for the culprits. We had to go into an underground tunnel which was like an air raid shelter.

The next morning the curfew ended, and we started walking out of the station. I was carrying a suitcase full of packages of cigarettes with some clothing cover them. Cigarettes were hard to come by. We decided they might come in handy. There was a German official and an Italian official checking everyone's luggage. As we came out of the station, we had to pass through a gate. When I came through the gate with my suitcase, the Italian official told me to open up the suitcase, so I did. He asked me what I had in it. He could see the clothes. I said, "I have a gun in there."

The German asked the Italian what I was saying. "He said he has a gun in there," the Italian replied, and they started laughing.

That saved us. I started laughing and closed the suitcase. He said, "Okay, go on." My heart was going a hundred miles an hour. I don't know how I thought of it.

Those cigarettes did come in handy. We went to stay in an apartment belonging to friends who had gone to their country home. Every Italian apartment house has a concierge, a person in charge of the building. When we arrived at the apartment, the first thing the concierge did was to ask us for our papers. We gave her our identity cards. After a few days she said, "You know that's not enough. You need more papers." She was probably suspicious about something.

We said, "Yes later, but meanwhile we want you to have this pack of cigarettes." We kept on doing that. We gave her six or eight packs of cigarettes every day until eventually we ran out of cigarettes. By then father had made some contact with the Italian underground.

Father Among the Germans

On the night father and my older brother Adolph arrived by train in Milan, there was a curfew. They spent many hours in the tunnel below the railroad station waiting for the curfew to end. Father got tired of waiting and decided to go upstairs and see what was going on. Upstairs he saw this cafe with bunches of German officers. He went in and said good day in German. They said, "Hey, you speak German."

He said, "Yah, I do."

They said, "We need somebody here that can speak Italian. Why don't you come and join us for some drinks?"

Father said, "Well, I don't know."

The Germans said, "Come on, let's have some drinks."

So father sat down and acted like nothing bothered him. The idea was always at that time to do the most incredible things because they were the only things that really worked. Father did that very thing. If you tried to run or if you showed you were afraid, you were done for.

Unexpected Danger on a Roadside Walk

One day my brother Maurice and I were walking along the road. A German military vehicle with a machine gun mounted on the back came by. The German soldiers in it were picking up not only Jews, but also Italian deserters camouflaged in civilian clothes trying to get home. They came right up to us. Maurice whispered to me, "Well, we've had it."

I said, "Not yet. Keep talking as if nothing has happened. It's our only chance. If we react in any way, we've had it."

He agreed. So we walked by them and the soldiers looked straight at us. The machine gun was about ten feet from me. They looked at us, and we could hear what they were saying because we understood German. One said, "What about those two guys, shouldn't we check them?"

Fortunately, we were dressed in fairly nice clothes. We didn't look like runaways.

The other said, "No, let it go. They look just like regular citizens. Let's not bother with them." Then they went by. That was a terrible moment.

Everybody that survived the Holocaust has stories like these to tell because besides doing things you had to have luck. Many people tried to do what we did. Most of them did not make it.

During the war Leo's family spent many months in a large Italian prison, but in the winter of 1941, they were sent to a small town in northern Italy as part of a less strict form of imprisonment known as free internment. In this selection, Leo describes his experiences with some Italian villagers.

We were let out of prison and sent to a small town called Arsiero (Are-See-Air-Row) where we were expected to report to the police. We had theoretically to report once a week to the head of the local police. We never did it, and he never asked us to. We found a small house at the foot of the Alps, and father started a quilt business. Whenever he made one, we exchanged it for food from the farmers around us.

One day in 1943 a train arrived with 200 Germans. This was very unexpected, especially because it was in the middle of the day. We didn't know what to do. Father told my brothers and me to go up into the mountains and hide. Someone had told us about a tiny village about five miles away on the side of a mountain called Sumano, so we started walking.

It was a steep climb up. At last we came to a level place on the mountain. There were six families living there, totally self sufficient. They had one cow. One fellow had a huge workshop. He made all their tools. They grew crops on the side of the mountain. We told these people what our predicament was, and they just couldn't understand it. They said "What do they have against you? What did you do to them?" We told we hadn't done anything. They said "Then why do they want to kill you?"

"Because we are Jews."

"What's that?" they said. We explained it to them, and they said, "But why would they want to kill you? It doesn't make sense."

I said, "I know it doesn't make sense, but that's the way it is."

They said, "Well, you can stay here."

"Before you let us stay here," I said, "you need to know that if they find us here, they will not only kill us; they will kill you. So please don't take us in unless you know what you are doing because you are endangering your lives."

For an hour they argued. At first we thought they were arguing because no one wanted us, and someone had to be forced to take us. But they were not. They all wanted us. They said, "Let them stay with us. No, let them stay with us." All of them wanted the honor. Finally we were hidden in a hayloft belonging to one of the villagers.

The next day we learned that the train of Germans had come to Arsiero by mistake. They were supposed to go to a place near Naples. The Italian railroad people knew that and they misled them. They just sent them to a dead end. Within another day they left again. So we went back home.