Serbian Holocaust

Rašela Knežević,January 13, 2012, Belgrade

Interviewer: Jelisaveta Časar | Camera: Milan Džekulić | Editing: Jelisaveta Časar, Nemanja Krdžić | Transcript: Jelisaveta Časar | Webmastering: Dusan Gavrilović

Voices of Survivors

English rendition of the interview, paraphrased and abridged:

I was born in Višegrad on July 19,1926 where I was till I finished primary school. As I wanted to continue my education, I had to go to Sarajevo. My paternal grandfather Gavrijel Papo was a remarkable person and very modern at that time. He and my grandmother Lea had nine children - three sons and six daughters. My mother was the oldest child. My grandfather allowed each of his children, if they wished, to continue  with school.  Since Višegrad only later got a public school, he rent an apartment in Sarajevo. I still remember that building in Aleksandrova street 31, second floor left. There was always some of his children there who could take care of the younger ones. So I, his granddaughter, arrived in Sarajevo and enrolled gymnasium. When I was third or the fourth grade some of the Jewish youth took me to Hashomer Hacair so I joined the organization. Later I became aware of its leftist orientation. I remember summer vacation in Slavonija with Hashomer Hacair youth. We were sleeping in tents, everything was well organized and I had a great time.

But the war came. Most of my family was in Višegrad when war started - my parents and the parents of my mother and my father. I was still in Sarajevo with several Gavrijel's family members. We all came back to Višegrad with my aunt Sara who was very capable and enterprising person.
The Ustashas,  the Independent State of Croatia, Pavelić's statement about Muslims as the flower of Croatia...Muslims are turning en masse to that new state of Croatia. The Ustashas already started to take away the Jews from Sarajevo. My oldest uncle had a wife and a daughter who was born in 1938. He was captured as a reserve officer and taken to Germany. His wife, my aunt, was a teacher and stayed in Sarajevo with child. One day one of the Muslims from Višegrad came to my grandfather and said: "I know that your daughter-in-law and your granddaughter are in Sarajevo. If you wish I can get them out of the town but you must pay for it". It had to be payed only in jewelry, not in money. Grandfather agreed. He didn't care how much it will cost, just to bring them to Višegrad. "One of your daughters covered with veil should go", said that Muslim. "We will provide the documents for her as well as for your daughter-in-law and the child so they can leave Sarajevo". My aunt Sara decided she would go. The night she came to Sarajevo there was raid and all three of them were taken to Loborgrad. They never came back.
As I mentioned, the oldest son of my grandfather was a reserve officer and spent the war in POW camp. The other of his sons stayed at home in Višegrad and the third, the youngest one, joined partisans in 1941. At that time Italians were already in Višegrad. My grandmother thought that we were safe with Italians and didn't understand why he wanted to go to partisans. "If I survive how can I look in the eyes of my friend!  When they ask me how I survived to tell them that I slept through the war?". Shortly after he left he died of extreme cold during the march through  Mount Igman (January 1942) and remained in the snow. We learned it only after the war.

 So Italians entered Višegrad in 1941. Višegrad is a small town surrounded by hills. We could see Italian soldiers and waited them to come down from the hills. We were waiting and waiting. Domani, dopodomani... Finally they came down to the city. With their arrival the situation has changed. They respected us and protected us. As soon as the Ustashas came the first thing they did was to set the Ustasha in every shop. As my father was a trader, and there were more Jewish shopkeepers, he came to work in the morning , worked all they long and in the evening the Ustasha would collect all the money. When Italians came, the first thing they did was to throw those Ustashas out of the shops. Before they came there was curfew, but  even if there wasn't we wouldn't go out on the street anyway.

On the day Italians came to the town, I took a walk with my two friends. It was before the sunset. We wore on our coats six pointed star. As we were walking three Italian guards approached us. "Che cos'e questo?", they asked pointing at the six pointed stars. "Juden, Juden", we answered.  "Butta via questa cosa!".  As Sephardic Jews we spoke Spanish so we could easily understand Italian. 

There was about a hundred and twenty Jews in Višegrad. The oldest men from our community formed a committee that was in charge to go to the Italian commander whenever it was needed. There was a rumor that the Italians would withdraw from Višegrad. We learned it from an Italian officer.  When Italians left the city, they took all of us Jews with them in a military transport.

After the war I asked my mother how people dared to go into uncertainty - nobody knew how long the war will last, how it will end up, what will happen. My mother told me what the Jews in Višegrad did: before they left the Jewish Community gathered all heads of families. They agreed that if they must go all the Jews will go together. Those who were poor must not stay.  In a small town nobody can hide anything - everyone knew everyone's financial condition, so the wealthier ones will give for those who have no money or other values. My father was told that he will not give any money but in turn he has to take care of both of my grandfathers and the members of their families which lived in Višegrad. My paternal grandmother had already died. So it was until we were arrested.

All the Jews from Višegrad left the city with the Italians. Some of the Jews stayed in Priboj. On the advice of a friend of my grandfather Gavro  we came to Pljevlje and stayed there until Italian withdrawal from Pljevlje. 
My father was killed in the bombing of Pljevlje. A radio station reported that the partisans entered Pljevlje and the Germans bombed the city. It turned out that the news was false. Only two bombs felt on the city. One of the bombs fell in the garden of the house where we lived and killed my father. 
When the Italians retreated from Pljevlje to Podgorica we went there with them. In 1943. Italy capitulated. The Italians thought that the Germans would let them go home. Old people from our community turned again to the Italian commander for help. He told that our men can go with them dressed in their uniforms. There was a brothel for the Italian soldiers and our Jewish women were supposed to get out from the town with those women. But it didn't happen. The Germans captured Italians and sent them to prisoner of war camps. We were taken to prison in Podgorica.
From the prison in Podgorica we were deported to Sajmište and from Sajmište to Bergen- Belsen.

- Were there with you the Jews from other places?

There were Jews from Montenegro, some from Cetinje. I can not remember when the Jews from Priština joined us. I know that from Podgorica through Albania the Germans transported us by trucks. We were driving in those open trucks through the crags and below the road was abyss, you couldn't see the bottom of it. We crossed that part of Albania and arrived to Kosovo. There we were loaded into cattle wagons and continued upward. We traveled by side railways.

- In what year was it?

It was late May 1944. The rest of May and June 1944, we spent at Sajmište.
We were traveling by side railways. I remember when our transport stopped at a sidetrack in the vicinity of Kraljevo. The Germans opened the door of the wagon but we couldn't go out. An armed German was in front of the wagon. One young peasant woman was passing by with a basket full of eggs. When she sow us she started to run beside the train giving us those eggs. I will never forget her. The German was shouting: "Los! Los!", but she ignored him. She didn't leave until he begun to shoot. I will never forget her.
We continued further and further. We were crammed in the wagons like sardines. We were standing and couldn't even crouch down. It is suffering that can not be described. 

We came at Belgrade railway station and  crossed the railway bridge by foot. We came at Sajmište. First we had to sit outside in front of some building. There we sow inmates carrying buckets with water. As we were without water in the train we were so dry so we asked them to give us some water. "No, you can't have it! This is not drinking water!". Despite their warning we drunk it and it appeared that those buckets were used as night pots.  Women had emptied them and then, filled with water, were carrying them somewhere. And we drunk that! 
In jail in Podgorica women were in a longish room and all along the wall was one bad. Fifty eight women slept on that long bad. We were lined up like sardines. If one of us turned around, the last had to fall of the bed. At Sajmište there were blocks of three-storied beds. And rats!  During nights, while my mother and I were lying on the top bed, we could hear sound similar to that as if someone turns a bag of nuts. When that pack of rats starts to go! My mother would cover my face with some rag that we used instead of blanket, turned my face to hers saying:"It's nothing Šela, it's just me passed my hand over your face". But I felt them...

- They would climb up?

They were running like crazy. A pack! I felt how they crossed over my face.
Sajmište was just next to the Sava river. The summer time had started and from there we could see people swimming and passing by in bathing suits.
From Sajmište we were transported to Bergen Belsen. On our way there our train stopped in Plzen. The door of the wagons opened but we were not allowed to go out. Czechs brought us a cauldron of soup. Although not so tasty, for us who were dead hungry and what was worse - without water, this soup  was the best meal in the world. In 1945, during our return home after the war, we had to spend one day in Prague waiting  for an evening train. There we stopped in front of a bakery looking inside through the window. We were receiving a ration of bread, but a sight at a bakery! Seeing how we looked and how we were dressed the Czechs women gave us their own stamps for supply so we could bye something in the bakery. Such thing never happened to me in Serbia. I have the most beautiful memories of the Czechs.They asked us which concentration camp we were coming from and did we meet someone they were waiting for. Everyone was waiting for someone to come back home.

We came to Bergen Belsen. It was huge logor, divided into blocks with wire. Open space, north, flat... We could see only towers on all four sides, machine gun, dog. While the Germans were pushing us and shouting: "Los! Los!" I sow with my own eyes how a German shepherd  tore a part of leg of one man so the blood soaked his trousers.

There I worked in Schuhkommando. At each table in the barrack were working the women of the same nation: a table with French woman, the other with Dutch women and so on. Among us there was only one man - Ruben from Priština. His had to bring in  the barrack bales with goods and later to take them out when we packed them after we finished our job. Sometimes a German guarded us there. He was about sixty and was a real gentleman. He was not SS officer. He wore Wehrmacht uniform. One day he approached to our table, leaned toward one of our Jewish woman who spoke German and whispered to her: "Congratulations, Belgrade is free". (Belgrade was liberated on October 20, 1944). When he walked away from the table, without raising head from her work, she quietly warned us not to react to what she was going to tell us because it could be provocation and told us what she just heard.  

But most often instead of that German  was a guard called Fric. In the barrack was an empty space and Fric used to order us to line up and then to run in a circle. He was standing in the middle of the circle hitting us with horsewhip. We had to run and run in our wooden clogs. If some of us fell down we tried to skip her but often she was trampled because we were trying to avoid Fric's horsewhip. He didn't care if he was hitting us at the eyes or back. It was fun for him. 

In the morning they woke us with whistles, stormed in the barrack as wild beasts hitting left and right with horsewhips. We run out of the barrack to Appellplatz where we lined up by five in a row. We always squeezed next to each other to worm ourselves and also to help each other to stand because if any felt down  the other two next to her had to carry her to one corner where was a pile of bodies. Dead or half dead, nobody cared about it. Later  the bodies were thrown into a truck.  I sow that truck for the first time soon after we came to Bergen Belsen. It was passing by near our barrack and one arm was hanging out of the truck. My mother turned my face from the scene and cried:"Don't watch!". Close to our barrack was crematorium.

Frauenlager came from Auschwitz ( in August 1944). As there were no more empty barracks in Bergen Belsen, down in the valley was raised huge Zeltlager ( tent camp). We had some poor clothing, but those women wore rags and were really wretched. They came by night and we knew that the new transport had come because we heard their screams and wailing.

When we entered Bergen Belsen we were sent in long brick barracks to take a bath. In front of it we had to undress. As our clothes were full of lice it was thrown into cauldrons to get rid of them.
We were selected - men on one side, women on the other, able and unable to work...Then we were placed into barracks. Whenever a new transport arrived, the door of the barrack would open and fifty, sixty new inmates would come in. First there were two of us in one bed and later three.
At the beginning we got one piece of bread three times a week. It was about four centimeters thick slice of bread. Soon it was reduced to twice a week, then to once a week and later we got it rarely. During the day we were carrying that bread with us and during the night we would put it under our heads so if someone slips a hand to steal it we would wake up immediately. Each of us was carrying a bowl for food attached to a rope. 

- Do you remember Jews from Kosovo who were with you in Bergen Belsen?

I remember that Ruben who was working with us. Every day at noon when we got food from cauldron he would come to sit at our table and  day after day he had a piece of bread. It could be just two bites but it was bread. We would look at each other in disbelief. The piece we got was barely sufficient for two days. You couldn't make four slices from one. One day one of us asked him how is it possible that he always has bread. "I'll tell you the truth. I take it from my kid. He doesn't know how big piece of his bread remained so I take it". His son was no more than three years old. I was horrified when I heard what he said. I didn't know his wife but I am sure that she was giving her child a piece from her own bite.

My grandfather was deeply religious. One evening I was returning from work. I was tired, hungry and cold but, as always , I came to his bed to see him. "Nono, how are you?".  "You know, there is no God", he told me. "You and me maybe have to pay for our own or other people sins, but those innocent little ones, whose sins do they have to pay? Why does not God save them?". My grandfather to say something like that! I thought that lightening will strike us at the moment and kill us both.

Among the barracks was one where were placed the Dutch Jews who were working with diamonds in South Africa. When the Germans came to the south of Africa they found there those Jews and sent them to Bergen Belsen. Compared to us they were privileged. We were not allowed to come in their barrack.They had a separate kitchen and were not so hungry as we were. The Germans allowed them to get packages from Red Cross.They had Altersheime for old people who were immobile. Younger women who knew German or Hungarian worked in Altersheime.Among them was Iluška from Višegrad who had to take care of an old woman there. One evening I was coming back from work when I sow Iluška coming toward the barrack door. She opened her hand and there were four sugar cubes. The Dutch received that day packages from Red Cross and the old woman gave Iluška that sugar. "Take it", said Iluška. I took one cube and she said:"Take one more for Bukica". Bukica was my mother. I couldn't believe that in such circumstances someone gives you something instead of grabbing something from you.  I remember that my paternal grandfather gave last piece of bread not for one cigarette but for one smoke.

People were massively dying of typhus. We were full of lice and in such conditions it was inevitable to get ill. During the transport from Bergen Belsen to Theresienstadt I also got typhus fever and my deafness is the result of the disease.
For a while I worked in the prison kitchen, but not inside but outside the barrack. Almost only food we ate was fodder beet. It has particular stench while cooking. On special occasions we got very rare brot soup cooked just from the remnants of bread and nothing more. We who worked there had an opportunity to secretly eat a piece of raw fodder beet. That was an advantage of the job.

-As the war was coming to its end we were transported to Teresienstadt, but we never got there. We were traveling for days. People were dying. From time to time the train would stop. The Germans would open the door and said:"Take out the dead". Few men who still had some little strength  carried out those who died and left them beside the railroad after which the transport kept on going.  In such circumstances you start to envy those who died than those who remained alive. 
Once the door opened and we sow a stream down bellow the railroad. We were allowed to go down to drink and to fill our bowls with water. It was not so steep slope but for us everything was strenuous. Not all of us was able to come down. As I was climbing, with every step I made the less water remained in the bowl. Finally I came in front of the wagons. Isak Menaše was standing there. He was veterinarian and fed and took care about German dogs. He told me that while he prepared food for dogs he would eat a bit of it and it helped him to survive.  "You made it! Give me just a little water", he asked me. "Take it, but let some remain for my mother". He drank a little and said: "Thank you, I will never forget you this and in freedom I will repay you". "I don't believe that freedom will ever come", I replied.  I never sow him again.
After I gave water to my mother, as soon as I came inside our wagon, I don't remember anything. I was in a deep sleep because I got a fever. Transport continued to go on for two days more until the train stopped. During the night I was awaken by gunfire. In the morning one woman climbed to the window bars and exclaimed: "Russians!". "Come down from that window, we need air!". "But Russians are here! You don't believe me!". Suddenly the door opened  and a head appeared. Russian!

We were liberated in Trobitz (April 1945). Those who could walk went on foot to the village. I couldn't walk so the Russians drove me there. We were accommodated in houses and there we met the real liberation. We were in Trobitz until it was time to repatriate.
When we crossed Yugoslav border we were placed for a while in a big mill in Subotica. We slept on the floor but we didn't care. We were free. Finally we came to Belgrade in September 1945.

From my family my mother and I survived as well as one mother's sister who was married to a Serb and Sida, the youngest mother's sister. My oldest uncle was a reserve officer and survived in a prisoner-of-war camp.
My father was killed in Pljevlje. My youngest uncle joined the partisans and stayed in the snow during the march over Mount Igman.  

Both of my grandfathers, Grandpa Majer, the one who gave his last piece of bred for one smoke and grandpa Gavrijel, died in Bergen Belsen. My third uncle and my nona, my maternal grandmother, died in my arms in Bergen Belsen.