- Posted September 9, 2009 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Your World War II stories
WWII Love Story About Reiza, A Jewish Girl and Enzo, An Italian Naval Officer
My mother, Reiza, left Riga just before the war and went to South Africa with her two sisters and mother. There, she studied singing with the well-known teacher, Olga Rhyss who later decided to send her to Italy for further tutoring in music. The year was 1937. My mother boarded the ship, the "Giulio Cesare" in East London, South Africa, bidding a tearful farewell to her mother who came to see her off. The journey to Genova was, at first, uneventful but, one evening, whilst watching the moon throw its beam of light on the water and feeling the gentle breeze in her hair, a soft voice at her side whispered: "Signorina, le posso offrire un piccolo bicchiere di vino?" (May I offer you a small glass of wine?) Startled, she was about to refuse, but looking up at the limpid brown eyes of the handsome young Italian dressed in uniform at her side, she relented and the rest is history.
The passionate love affair which followed, giving rise to my birth in August 1938, was the beginning of a harrowing and shocking life in Italy, but also one of an absolutely unique and exciting adventure, resulting in a fascinating job for my mother with ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association). The artists who came to entertain the troops filled my mother’s Souvenir Book with inscriptions, drawings, cartoons, photos and complimentary messages, e.g., from The Waaf girls, Guido Cantelli, the famous conductor who was later killed in an air crash, Kay Kendall (married to Rex Harrison) etc. They all complimented her on her competence and elegance in the way she had refurbished the Villas in Genova and Udine and the incomparable treatment they were given both in luxury and comfort, with menus compiled by the best chefs whom she had found in Italy.
These writings etc., are still in my possession, (I recently emigrated from South Africa to Perth, Australia.), and are very treasured as they also involve both my brother and me as well. (I have an idea, that Nan Kenway and Douglas Young who came with ENSA, and are featured amongst the artists might have been Australians?).
My mother was a vibrant, good-looking young Jewish girl who spoke seven languages fluently. This, however, was not enough to impress her in-laws who hated her from the start, mainly because she was Jewish but this did not deter Vincenzo, who was madly in love and determined to marry her. They duly did in November 1938 in the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genova. Soon afterwards, however, my father was sent, as a young Naval Officer to man one of the cruisers in the Adriatic. The poignant love letters (still in my possession), attest to his great love and the loneliness he experienced (he would rather have been at home with his family), whilst on duty for his country and for which he finally gave his life (they were bombed at Taranto). The letter from a witness saying he was drifting in the icy water until he drowned, is an especially tragic one. The death certificate states.: “Death on the ‘Egitto’, Vincenzo Guida, Guardiamarina, March 1942”.
Meanwhile, whilst staying with her in-laws, my mother endured constant vicious taunts and rejection from them. So, lonely and utterly devastated by my father’s untimely death, she was forced to flee when the Nazi’s were given information about her being Jewish and she no longer had the luxury of being protected by my father. She and us, her two children, were destined to be transported to the death camps. Of course, we as the two children of their beloved son were favoured by our Italian grandparents and, for a while, we remained with them in the city and later went with our aunt to the “Campagna” (countryside). Here too, we had some very narrow escapes and my brother Mario and I vividly remember a Nazi Officer going from house to house looking for Jews and the two of us hiding and shivering below the boards under the big feather-bed. Later, we were distraught to see dead horses lying on the road where the German planes had bombed them.
Alone and bereft, my mother ran for her life, escaping the SS (Gestapo) by a hair-breath each time. On one occasion, whilst hiding in a cupboard in a flat owned by a mean 95-year old French woman who was determined to see my mother go to her death with her, the bombs started falling. The old woman sat in front of her mirror, putting on lipstick, determined not to save herself and refusing to let my mother save herself. Ignoring her stubbornness, my mother dragged her to the underground shelters in spite of the old woman’s protestations. Hungry and alone, Reiza was again forced to flee when the Gestapo arrived unexpectedly, leaving a letter in German (I have got it), that they had come to find her three times, unsuccessfully, and would come again, possibly to offer her a job as an Interpreter?
There were other harrowing experiences which I have recalled in a written account of our lives for my family (unpublished), and which I have in my possession.
In the meantime we, her children, were dumped in separate Catholic Convents where we experienced both good by some caring nuns and priests but also exceptional cruelty by others, who were intent on indoctrinating us. They made our lives a misery by waking us up every morning at 2 a.m. and making us go to Chapel where we had to kneel for hours-on-end, confessing our sins. Also, and I have vivid memories of this, we were given food to eat which was swimming with weevils (I gagged every time), whilst the clergy sat at the main table eating lovely food which we, and all the other hapless children stared at enviously but with a certain child-like resignation. Many harrowing experiences here remain vividly in my memory and the sad plight of one little orphaned Jewish girl especially, as I don’t know what happened to her eventually.
But the tide was fast turning in our favour when my mother applied for a job with ENSA. Initially, she was treated with a certain degree of skepticism by the British Commander-in-Charge (the previous lady had let them down badly by running off with her lover and had severely neglected the place) but, after being given the chance (her charm and language prowess impressed him), she invited him for lunch when she was ready to do so. Impressed by the renewed appearance of the Villa and the elegance with which Luigi the chef appeared with delicious platters of food and iced sculptures as decorations, the British gentleman could not believe his eyes and hired Reiza permanently on the spot. It was then that my mother took a calculated risk. He asked her if there was anything her heart desired and, hesitatingly, she told him she did not know where her two children were and could not live in such a place of luxury without them. There followed a deafening silence but, suddenly he relented by agreeing that her children were welcome to come and stay. However, as they found themselves in a war situation, we would have to stay in a separate wing of the Villa and be very quiet and unobtrusive at all times. My mother’s gratitude knew no bounds and with tears streaming down her cheeks, she promised to comply.
With help from British Intelligence, Reiza set about finding her lost children. Eventually, a message came through that we were waiting, frightened, dirty and malnourished in a certain place where we could be picked up. A truck was duly dispatched by the army and it was a rather strange reunion with my mother who was quite overcome with joy to find us again but with Mario who looked as if he carried the world on his shoulders and was rather bewildered. And me, Rosellina, who was both happy and sad all at once and shuffling uncomfortably from one foot to the other not knowing what to say or do.
From then onwards, our lives changed drastically. We were allowed to have Rina, our very own governess and teacher (we were too ill with distended stomachs and impetigo to go to school) who took care of us and were allowed visits by our mother whenever possible as well as luxury outings to the Lido (the beach) and also to the wonderful concerts by the visiting troupes of artists. I remember especially, the shows with balancing antics performed on a variety of bicycles and unicycles, and the clowns who made us laugh. The singing, music and performing jazz bands were also enthralling. They helped the young Allied soldiers forget, at least for a while, their terrible hardships and their sadness with being so far away from home and their families for so long.
On one occasion (my mother felt we should not become desensitized by the suffering of others which was ongoing), she loaded up a truck with supplies and dressed in British uniform, accompanied by a British Army Officer took us into the snowy mountains where we went from place to place, jumping out from the back of the truck to hand out supplies to the children, and elderly in dire need. I remember clearly how an old woman, standing on the side of the road, dressed in black with a shawl draped around her, threw her arms up in the air in gratitude and exclaiming “O Dio! O Dio, Giuseppino! Vieni, vieni! Sono arrivati gl’angeli a salvarci!” ( Oh Lord! Come Giuseppino, the angels have come to save us!). Out came Giuseppino and stood incredulously beside her as Mario and I handed out much-needed supplies to them. There were many other such interesting and poignant situations.
By now it was early 1947 and my grandmother in South Africa was urging us to come home. We had had no contact with my father’s relatives and our interesting time in Genova and Udine was also nearing its end. So, with the help of many wonderful people and especially Naomi Jacob the famous authoress who had been a close friend and looked after us at times in her Villa on Lake Garda, and also Margaret Dale, the Welfare Officer attached to ENSA, we left on the refugee ship, the Indrapoera in August 1947 on our way back to South-Africa.
And it was on this ship that a charming elderly gentleman, Aleksander, from Yugoslavia who captivated the children by telling them stories from Greek Mythology, that my mother came to meet his son, an Engineer. They were also on their way to start a new life in South-Africa, after their beloved wife and mother, a Jewish medical doctor, was murdered by the Nazis at Sjamista, a concentration camp in Belgrade, Serbia. Father and son were forced to flee into the forest and later made their way through Italy and eventually came to be on the same ship. I kept on saying, “Ed allora?” (And so?, wanting to know more of the story he was telling but told to come back the next day to keep us all in suspense). I introduced my mother to them and by some quirk of fate, again a chance meeting on board ship, the story of her life had come a full circle when she married him in 1948 and we were legally adopted as his children.
I am now a grandmother. My husband too, has his own story to tell with his grandmother and aunt having been placed in a ghetto for 10 months and then murdered by the Nazi’s in Pinsk in around 1942. His own mother and her young sister, were fortunate enough, in 1921, to have been chosen by Isaac Ochberg, the great Philanthropist who went to Eastern Europe, and at great risk to himself, managed to bring a large group of “pogrom children” to South Africa. The two girls grew up in Arcadia Jewish Orphanage in Johannesburg. It is, indeed, unfortunate that their mother and sister could not have left Pinsk too!