I was born in Gorizia, a small town in northern Italy on the border with Yugoslavia - or what used to be Yugoslavia. My mother was born there in 1904, when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I was told by my mother that Gorizia was the scene of many hard battles as it was front line area during the 1914&endash;18 war. While my grandfather was called up in the Austrian forces, his two sons [or more likely, brothers] escaped to Italy to fight with the Italian forces; they were caught at the border and shot as deserters. During one of the many battles, my grandmother was hit by fragments of shrapnel in the abdomen. She was seriously injured although the baby she was holding - my only surviving uncle - escaped unhurt. Between the breaks in the battle she was taken to hospital in Ljubljana [then called Laibach] where she died several weeks later lonely and unknown. Food was very short during the latter part of the war and my grandfather sent many parcels of food for her long after she died because they kept his hopes alive by requesting food parcels for which she had no further need, it was a matter of life or death for many people. It was found much later that the local newspapers had reported the death of an Italian woman who had continuously called the name of Rina up until the moment of her death; Rina was my mother's name. Her family were never able to trace her grave; she was buried as an unknown person.
My mother and her brother were brought up by her elder sister and in 1923 she met my father who was doing his military service in Gorizia; they were both nineteen and they fell very much in love. Their courtship was not smooth for several reasons, the most serious being the fact that my paternal grandfather did not agree with the marriage. He did not think that my mother's family was good enough for my father. They did eventually manage to get married three months before my birth in 1927, but my father had to give up all his inheritance in exchange for the permission to marry my mother. My father was a very clever and resourceful person, and he worked hard and in 1938 he held a good position with the Banco di Sicilia; he was the youngest vice-director [deputy manager]. We had a very nice house and life was very comfortable; the future looked very bright and we were happy. I was the eldest of three sisters and one brother - the youngest. We had done a great deal of travelling from Gorizia to Trieste, where my sister Silvana was born. From Trieste my father was transferred to Catania, in Sicily, where my sister Luciana was born, followed by my brother Sergio.
In November 1938 an event took place that was to change and to interrupt our lives out of all recognition. The racial laws were passed and I found out that my father was Jewish, whatever it meant, and as such was pensioned off by the Bank and a very serious period in our life was set in motion. I remember well the night of the 11th of November 1938. It was early evening and it was nearly dark, I was sitting on the balcony in the twilight enjoying the mild evening air. I do not know what made me keep quiet when I heard my mother and father whispering quietly, unaware of my presence; I realised that my father was crying. I could not believe what I was hearing. I listened with horror to my father telling my mother that he no longer had a position at the Bank as he had been sacked because he was Jewish. My parents had to explain to us children what this meant. A good friend of my father's sent him to Albania as the manager of a large building consortium. He helped us with the expenses and our new life. My father left immediately and we followed six months later after selling all our belongings and leaving all our friends and relations behind. It was very hard to start life all over again but we were all young and we soon adjusted to the new life, new country, new language and new customs. As I said before, my father was a clever and resourceful man and after a very short time he was offered a position as manager with the Banca di Napoli. From Tirana [Tiranë], the capital of Albania, we moved to Sarandë or Porto Edda as the Italians called it after Edda Ciano, Mussolini's daughter, married to Count Ciano who was later shot as a traitor during the Republic of Salò.
In September 1939 war was declared and a new more dangerous period of our lives began. We were in Sarandë at declaration of war; the first thing that happened was my first bomb. Sarandë is not far from Corfu across the sea; on a fine day one can see the windows glistening in the sunshine. Our house was right at the top of the town, backing on the mountains. We were outside when we heard the sound of an engine; we looked and we spotted an aeroplane fairly high above us. We thought it was an Italian one looking for somewhere to land; all at once I heard a strange whining sound, my mother grabbed me by my arm and pushed me to the floor; there was a terrific explosion and we were very shocked. Later the firemen came to see if we were unharmed because of the bomb that exploded right at the back of our house. We were saved by my mother's instinct or maybe distant memories of war in Gorizia and the sound of falling shells.
Despite the war life was not terrible during this period; I was growing up; I had my first boyfriend; I and my sisters and brother were young enough to make the best of our situation. Sarandë is not far from the Greek border and we were there when Italian troops invaded Greece; as the days passed we noticed that the sound of gun fire became louder and louder. We soon found out the reason: the Italians troops were being pushed back towards our town My father had been away for several days inspecting different branches of the Bank all over the country. After several days it became apparent that our troops were retreating and we would have to leave our homes soon or be taken by the advancing enemy. We could not wait for my father and we prepared to leave.
Something serious happened to aggravate our situation. My brother developed a very high fever and the doctor would not authorise his travelling. In the end myself and my two other sisters left Sarandë with the family of my father's cashier. There were twelve of us including six children. We started the long journey by bus, or should I say by poultry transporter, in the early hours of the Monday morning, and I and my sisters did not know when we would see my mother and my brother again. It was a very uncomfortable and dangerous journey across a wild country with very few decent roads and always under threat from aeroplanes and hostile locals. We stopped the night in Valona [Vlorë?], a port on the Albanian coast, and we were soon under attack from Allied planes which were bombing Italian ships in the port; the lady who was in charge of us was terrified and did not know where to turn. During one of the raids, very near our hoteI, she hid under the bed from the threat of the bombs.
It took us nearly a week to reach Tirana where my mother had arrived two days earlier. She and my brother were the last civilians to leave Sarandë; she left with General Zannini, commander of the Italian troops in the area. On our arrival in Tirana we were taken to a big hotel where we were allowed to sleep on mattresses lined on the entrance floor. And there is where my father found us: tired, frightened, dirty and forlorn. After this we were given a house near the airport where we stayed for several months.
It was becoming hard for us Italians in Albania. We were losing our war and the Germans in the area did not treat us as allies, more like enemies. Our house was damaged twice while we lived near the airport. We could not get any essential food and even the bread was rationed and did not last very long: it was made with maize flour and became rock hard very quickly. Any food available was for the Germans and the Albanians. During my stay in Albania I had learned to speak the language pretty well; I used this knowledge to go the Ministry of Supplies and obtain coupons to buy coffee, sugar and other scarce facilities I told the Minister who interviewed me that I was a refugee from Koritza [Korçë], a town where we had lived for a period. It is surprising how hunger and need sharpens the intellect! Eventually it became impossible to stay in the house because we were bombed (or nearly bombed) time after time. Every day, and several times per day, Allied planes passed over Tirana on the way to Germany, Hungary, Poland and other countries in the Axis. We could not find fuel to cook with and we could only use a primus stove. One day, after a raid on the airport, my mother and I decided to try and take some of the petrol which was left after the bombing. The German soldiers had abandoned the airport and we managed to roll a drum of petrol along the tarmac; we were very absorbed in our task and we could not hear any sound because of the loud noise of metal on rough tarmac. Suddenly, I do not know why, I looked up. Dozens of Flying Fortresses were above us and we had not heard them. My mother and I left the barrel and ran for cover as fast as we could. It is a pity we did not check our times, we would have beaten the mile record long before Bannister! The next time the airport was bombed, we were in a shelter that my father had improvised in our cellar; we could hear the sound of bombs, and what sounded like machine-gun fire. We stayed down for a while longer until an Albanian soldier came down in the cellar to see if there was anybody alive. What we took for machine gun fire, was the sound of wood burning. We only managed to rescue a few of our belongings and leave the house. After that we were housed in a big block of flats with all the other Italians still in Tirana. It was much nearer the centre and we felt less exposed and afraid.
By the time September 1943 arrived we were used to bombs, attacks by partisans, ill-treatment by the Albanians and shortage of food of all kinds. The war was not going well for the Axis. My father showed us how to use a gun in case of need and we kept a few hand grenades in the house for self defence. The Albanians had many partisans; some pro-German and many more communist-inspired. Although they were very wild they were quite brave in their way. No day passed without some attacks on German troops which, in return, brought dreadful reprisals on the population. It was a common sight to go to the vegetable market and be greeted by the sight of one or more hanged in the square. The first time I saw one I was shocked and very upset; after a while it became a part of every day life. One day my father's cashier at the bank was arrested by the Germans for some indiscretion; I went with my mother to the German command to plead for his release. I don't know why but my mother mentioned that our name was originally German; it was Schiff which in German means 'ship.' To this the officer in charge looked puzzled and said, 'Ja, eine Juden Name,' and we were very quick to say good-bye and disappear from view. We were very careful, after this incident, not to mention again our 'German' name.
On the 8th of September, 1943, Italy, under General Badoglio, signed the armistice with the Allies, against the Germans' will. We were treated much worse both by our ex-Allies and the Albanians. No warning was given to the commanders in different areas of the war; the troops in Albania and Greece found themselves in the middle of a foreign country surrounded by hostile ex-allies and occupied ex-friends. No orders were issued by Badoglio and several divisions of the Italian armies found themselves in a dreadful situation. Some surrendered to the Germans; some fought and were decimated by our ex-allies. Mussolini had been imprisoned and Fascism in Italy was declared finished. Badoglio appeared to be the saviour of Italy, many think that he caused much more bloodshed and destruction in our country. The carnage of our troops by the Germans continued and the Julia Division, the elite of Italian alpine troops, was decimated and treated as labour workers.
Soon after the armistice there began an even more fearsome period in our lives and each day was worse than the previous. There was no food available for us, the bombing increased, there were more attacks on Italian nationals and there were more executions in Tirana's market square. Death became a way of life and we were not shocked by the continual violence around us. We were young, my sisters and my brother, and we did not fully appreciate what was happening all around us. We used to go roller skating in a building which had been a Fascist ministry and was now abandoned; it had gorgeous marble floors and they were an ideal skating surface. Most days we went in the afternoons to play there. One afternoon I thought I could see more people going and coming around the area and I said to my sisters and brother that we would better go home earlier; I set off for what was only about five minutes' walk from the building. Luciana and Sergio said that they would follow after trying a new pattern they had learned on the skates.
I had hardly reached the building when I heard the sound of shooting; I ran to the window (we were on the fourth floor) to see if my sister and brother had followed me, I could only see a great deal of armed men swarming all over the area and there appeared to be two different bands as they were exchanging fire; I found out later that a group of Communist partisans had infiltrated the German lines and they been attacked by pro-German partisans. I was trembling and I was told off by my mother for not waiting for the others. While I watched I saw a young man dressed in a light-coloured jacket running and being pursued by a German on a sidecar; he was running toward our building and he was getting near; suddenly the German aimed his machine gun at the retreating man and I heard the rat-tat-tat of the machine gun. A red pattern appeared on his whitish jacket. He kept on running and he seemed to reach the entrance of the flats. By this time there appeared several armed men and many soldiers. There was a great commotion as they entered the building in search of the injured man; every apartment was searched and when a door was not answered it was smashed down. All the men found on the premises were collected and put in the courtyard. By the time they reached our door my mother had become hysterical when they arrested my father, after searching our flat and finding nothing. The man was not found; he had disappeared as if by magic. Unfortunately, the troops and their followers were incensed and lined all the Italian men in the courtyard and threatened to execute them all in reprisal. All the women were crying and begging the soldiers to release the men; we were very sure that this was the end. Suddenly a group of German officers burst on the scene and I recognised an officer who was stationed near our home and to whom I had spoken twice in French. He came from Alsace-Lorraine and was not very much in agreement with Nazi ideas. Anyway, he was our saviour because he gave orders to release the hostages and leave us alone. We could not believe our good fortune and thanked him and his men for saving us. It may sound like a far-fetched story but it is the truth and the truth can often be stranger than fiction. We never found out what happened to the injured partisan; somebody in our building must have given shelter somewhere where nobody could find him. I hope he survived but the person that hid him endangered the lives of nearly a hundred people. Thank God he was not found! The morning after this I went to do the usual shopping to the market square; it was covered by hundreds of bodies lined out in rows. The red [Communist] partisans had all been taken and killed and their bodies were left for everybody to see and think about not defying the Germans; there must have been at least one hundred men stretched out on the pavements and square.
After all these episodes my father and mother decided to book a passage on the next ship to Italy. We were due to leave on the 14th of November, 1944 and we sold all our possessions and obtained some gold currency, the only thing that would be worth something anywhere and was easy to carry. Naturally, they took advantage of the situation and gave us very poor prices for our goods.
We were all ready when the wife of my father's cashier was taken ill with nerves; her condition was bad and my parents decided to let them go in our place and wait for the next sailing. The ship was within reach of the Italian coast when it was sunk by British submarines; my father's cashier was one of only three survivors who swam to the shore. Once again we had cheated death and lived to fight another day. I can only remember that we could not go on another boat because all sea crossings were stopped after this disaster and we had to resign ourselves to remaining in Tirana indefinitely.
Things became worse and worse all the time and food became in even shorter supply. We were treated very badly both by the Germans and the Albanians. We had to use our wits to survive and I, being the eldest, had to do all kinds of crafty and dishonest things to help us. My father was the bank manager at the Banco di Napoli and he did not know that his eldest daughter was at the Ministry of Supplies (a few doors up the street) claiming to be a refugee from Koritza and asking for food coupons and obtaining them. I do not know to this day how I managed to convince them that I was Albanian and from Koritza! Time passed and, at last, in January 1944 we were repatriated by the Germans. We left Tirana by truck one cold morning in January and the last sight of the square in Tirana will forever be in my memory: the last thing I saw, was the body of a young Albanian partisan hanging by his neck in the main square of Tirana. I remember his face, his blackened tongue hanging out of his mouth and the white shroud in which he was enveloped.
It was a very strenuous and hazardous journey; it lasted for two full weeks. We started the journey by lorry with three German guards with us. On reaching the border between Albania and Yugoslavia we met with thousands of Italian troops who had been taken prisoner by the Germans after the signing of the armistice. The majority were members of the crack Julia division of Alpine troops. They were in a pitiful condition both mentally and physically. They were clearing the snow in sub-zero temperatures and they were begging for bread. We managed to throw some bread which often landed in snow and slush but they retrieved it and ate it all ravenously. They shouted messages, but we were not allowed to stop. One of the guards must have felt some compassion because he threw some cigarettes and some food. We continued our journey on a train which we boarded on the border. It was a very long train and we shared it with hundreds of soldiers who were going to Budapest. They travelled in the carriages, we had to manage in the animal trucks. We were very crowded and only had straw to sleep on. It was a very cold winter as we travelled through the barren areas of Montenegro, to Hungary, Austria and eventually finishing our journey in Venice on the morning of 19th January, 1944.
We had been through Budapest - we stopped the night in Buda - where we were treated very well by the Hungarians who fed us on goulash, rich milk and rum. While we were stopped for several hours in Buda we saw hundreds of Allied bombers flying over, probably on their way to Germany. We trembled with fear because several hundred German soldiers were travelling in our train and could be seen shaving and eating outside the carriages. The only good I remember about that journey is the wonderful behaviour of all the Hungarians.
As we entered the station in Venice the air-raid alarm was going and the station was deserted. We were disappointed: we had hoped to receive a pleasant welcome after all we had been through. We felt neglected and forlorn, and very, very tired.
Eventually we were taken off the train and directed to different queues, for food coupons, refreshments, and travel tickets for the train to Gorizia, where Zia Maria, my mother's eldest sister, was waiting to welcome us.
We were met at Gorizia by my aunt and her children: Livia, the eldest, who was about my age, Ada and Attilio. We had never met before, but we soon became very friendly and managed to make the best of a bad time. I cannot now remember the details of the house and where we slept, but I well remember that our bedroom window faced the garden to the rear of the house.
We struggled for several months always thinking that we had still no news of my father whom we had left behind in Tirana. We prayed every night for his safe return and worried about his position as a 'Jew.' Conditions were very harsh in Gorizia during the winter of 1944 and the lack of news was having a very depressing effect on my mother; we were too young to be of much help.
One night I was awakened by a noise at the window and I was very scared, thinking about burglars and Tito's partisans. My mother was quite calm and said, 'Don't worry, it's daddy.' I will never know how she knew, she just ran to the window, opened it, and cried for joy as she held my father in a long embrace.
Within a few weeks my father arranged for our move to Milan where he had found a position through contacts, and also an apartment in the centre of Milan. We were sorry to say goodbye to Zia Maria and all our other relations in Gorizia and we arrived in Milan on a cold, wet, winter evening during an air raid. We sat at the corner of Via Meravigli on our suitcases, while my father went to find the owner of the flat to collect the keys. We really looked what we were: refugees; dirty, tired and bewildered. People stared at us and turned to look again. We felt very, very sorry for ourselves and rather worried about what was to come.
I do not remember much about this period of my life because in the continuous turmoil only odd incidents come to mind.
On the night of our arrival Milan was bombed with incendiary bombs which caused many deaths and much destruction. Later we moved to Cusano-Milanino, which is where we lived when the Germans surrendered.
Life was very hard in many ways. We were very short of money because my father had no official llpposition, but managed to find a post as 'capo ufficio' at the 'Associazione Spiriti,' an organisation which dealt with distilling molasses and marketing the derivatives. I do not really understand what it was, I only know that it was something to do with distilling alcohol.
While we were in Milanino I could not go to school and my father managed to find a position for me in the same office. I was, of all things, German interpreter and typist, of a kind. I used a massive Underwood typewriter which I found hard to operate. I do not know how I managed to translate some of the business letters; once I even asked a strange German soldier to help me out.
It was hard work too going from Milanino to the centre of Milan, a long journey which took a minimum of one and a half hours every day. many times there were big delays due to air raids and subsequent power cuts. I remember one evening, on returning home from work we were stranded for over one hour in a tram. We could not leave because there was a power cut due to an air raid and we could not open the automatic doors. It was rather frightening being trapped in the dark with planes bombing Milan, and the smell of passengers' bodies and other odours became overpowering during the time we were trapped. Another evening while travelling on the tram to Milanino there was an air raid, and we had to leave the tram and jump into the ditches at the side of the road while the bombs fell all around us.
In Milanino we shared the villa with a very coarse couple. They lived on the first floor and we had the ground floor. The house had been allocated to us by the council because we were refugees. Food was very short and you had to use your brain and keep your wits to manage to survive. We had soup made with carrots and rice, with very little seasoning, we had it so often that we became sick of it. My mother tried to keep the best for my father, and he was completely unaware of our privations, I think. I know that my sister Luciana went on my father's bicycle to steal some potatoes from a field about two kilometres from our house. The farmer caught her and she ran away, leaving the bike behind. We had to make up a very credible story for my father, who was very upset at the loss of his lovely, aluminium bike.
As the end of the war approached conditions became worse every day, and the Germans were aware that the end was very near. On the evening of April 21st, 1944 we were returning home from the office. We had heard the sound of gunfire all through the day but we did not know what had been happening. As we approached the station where the tram started we found chaos and great confusion. We were told that the partisans had taken over Milan, and the Germans had surrendered, or in some cases waited for the arrival of the Allies because they feared reprisals and executions. We had to walk the two or three miles from Porta Volta to Cusano-Milanino. It was a terrifying journey as the armed partisans prodded and pushed the crowds along the way. We were kept away from the side of the road, where there were ditches. I soon realised the reason for this. I looked once and saw that there were dozens of bodies in the ditches. I did not try to look again and concentrated on walking and keeping out of trouble. I was very fortunate; I was carrying in my pocket membership of the Fascist Republic of Salò. If they had found it I doubt that I would have survived. They did not ask too many questions.
Several days passed before the Allies arrived and many atrocities were committed by the partisans in that period. In the grounds of a primary school I saw a crowd watching the execution of a captured Fascist. They stood him against a wall and gave a machine gun to a child of about ten whose father had been killed by the Fascists and told him to shoot. It took several rounds to kill the man. The boy did not have much idea of how to use the gun. Several Germans who would not surrender were killed in this period.
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