The Witnesses' Uprising Reports

The Wartime Memoirs of Leon Koplemanbr>

The further life

Leon Kopelman
born April 26, 1924 in Warsaw
survived from the Warsaw Ghetto
volunteer soldier of "Zoska" battalion
Home Army union "Radoslaw"

         More less at the beginning of June 1945 together with my friend Meir Bielecki we set off to Palestine. First we took a train to Czechoslovakia but at the border we needed to switch it. We were asked about our final destination on a number of occasions. With the help of a Russian officer, who told we were with him, we managed to get on the proper train going to Prague.
         In Prague there was a refugee camp where exiles from all over Europe gathered, looking to go back to their homelands. We said we would like to go to Germany. However, it turned out that all these who wanted to travel there needed to undergo denazification. They were examined in order to establish whether they were truly German, and any found SS officers were taken away. We decided we didn't want to go to that camp after all.
         Instead we chose to go to Pilsen. The 4 spheres of Russian, American, British and French influence were already established then, and Pilsen was under American control, while Prague remained under Russian. We traveled by train and were advised that when the American control came and asked whether or not we were Czechoslovakian we should answer "Ano" which meant "yes". We did so and finally arrived to the refugee camp in Pilsen.
         There, we met some American soldiers, who agreed to help us get nearby the Austrian border. In Austria we arrived to Salzburg, where for some time we lived in the refugee camp, and then we rented a flat in which we stayed for about one month. We were still looking for a way to get to Italy and, from there, to Palestine.
         In Salzburg we also met a man who was supposed to be our guide and lead us from Austria through the French occupation sphere. In the beginning everything went well but when we walked through he mountains the guide run away and left us by ourselves. Yet we somehow managed to get to Insbruck, which was already in the sphere occupied by the French. We came in contact with the army and got American uniforms, thanks to which we could pretend to be UNRRA representatives. Wearing the uniforms we crossed Brenner Pass and traveled to Milan.
         In Milan there was a shelter for Jewish people who survived the war. It was situated at 5 via Unione, where there used to be a police central station. We spent there only few days and then we rented a room nearby Piazza di Duomo. The room was actually in the attic and got ruined during the wartime bombings, but then it was renovated and looked quite decent. The landlady was, as it turned out later, of German origin.
         When we were visiting the attic for the first time a funny situation took place. The room was still quite messy after the refitting and some wooden planks were scattered on the floor. We talked with my friend about removing them and suddenly the landlady, who was listening to our conversation, seemed a bit nervous. As we found out later, from our chat in Polish she managed to catch the word "Tedeschi" which means "Germany" in Italian, and she was worried that we were going to do something to her because of her nationality. We quickly identified the root of this linguistic misunderstanding; when we talked about the wooden planks we said in Polish "te deski" which means "these planks" but phonetically sounds exactly like "Tedschi". When we clarified that we soon sealed the deal about the room.
         In this attic we spent a couple of weeks while we were still looking for some way of getting to Palestine. We heard about an organization which was helping the Jews to arrange such a journey. This organization was supported by the Jewish soldiers from the Palestinian group which was a part of the British Army. UNRRA, an American institution, also had its reps in Milan, and they were helping the refugees, including the Jews, to adjust anew to the postwar reality.
         One day we found out about a kibutz being established. The aim behind it was to gather all the Jews who wanted to travel to Palestine. This particular kibutz recruited mainly ex members of underground armies and insurgents from the ghettos. We joined it together with my friend, since we participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After that our whole group went to Aqua Santa (Saint Water), a sulfur resort surrounded by the characteristic smell.
         We started our preparations before the leave which included martial training, conducted by the soldiers from the Palestinian brigade. We were informed that the journey was going to be via ship, where in the cargo hold there would be hammocks. It would make it possible to take a lot of people on board during one cruise.
         One day we were transported with trucks to the gathering point in Ascoli di Piceno. Our group consisted of several dozens of people, but the Jews from other kibbutzim were brought there as well, so in the end about 1000 people were there.
         The people in charge of the transport took all our documents like IDs or student cards away from us. Since our journey was actually illegal it was better to hide all the evidence connected with it, in case there was a foul up.
         Finally, about 40 trucks covered with tarpaulin came and each took 25 people. Apart from men there were the elderly, women, some of them pregnant, and children among us. We were to keep absolute silence.
         The trucks were stopped at the check point and started again after some time. As I found out later, some high officer, probably a major of the Military Police, came to the check point at that time. I have no idea how this situation was resolved, maybe he was bribed, but ultimately we were released and the motorcade went on. We didn't know where we were going at all.
         In the evening we arrived to our destination which turned out to be a small fisherman port La Spezia. When we were unpacking the trucks we noticed a lot of Italian police officers all around. In the harbour there was a little ship anchored called "Fede". We were supposed to travel with it to Palestine. An armoured car stood on the shore with its canon pointing at the ship. We were all told we were arrested and had no right to leave the little village we were in. Since we had no place to stay ashore, they allowed us to spend the night on the ship.

Leon Kopleman next to the "Fede" ship

         As I mentioned before, there was a sleeping area arranged in the cargo hold. Hundreds of tarpaulin hammocks were hung from the special scaffold, 25-30 cm far from each other. We spent the night sleeping on top of one another. When we went outside in the morning we were shocked to see that there were no sanitary arrangements or drinking water taps in the harbour.
         The press campaign started. Italian press claimed that the group of fascists who wanted to escape to South America was stopped that night. Some other papers stated that we were Jews released form the concentration camps who wanted to go to Palestine. Because of the whole buzz the British found out about it and their representatives came to La Spezia. They announced that under no circumstances were we allowed to travel to Palestine, since special certificates were required for such an enterprise- one should remember Palestine was under British Mandate at that time.
         The time went by. After a couple of days a civilian arrived, presumably an English police officer. He wanted to convince the captain of the ship that we should all voluntarily go back to Germany. This solution was totally unacceptable for us, we just managed to escape that hell and didn't want to go back at any cost. Our aim was our homeland, Palestine.
         The leader of our group chose 10 former soldiers from among us. He instructed us that when the Englishman would be leaving the ship and he showed us a telling sign - hand over the throat - we should cut the Englishman's throat and throw his body overboard. We waited in tension for what was going to happen. The Englishman came out but there was no established sign and he left the camp safely.
         Finally, we went on a hunger strike. On the camp's gate we hung a huge banner made of white linen saying in 3 languages, English, Italian and Hebrew, that it was a hunger strike involving 1014 people and we would strike until we died. We attached a clock to the banner and moved its hands every hour. After several dozens hours on strike some of us started fainting and we became very weak. It should be born in mind that there were pregnant women among us. The strike lasted 72 hours.
         The press publicized our action to the whole world and it stirred a huge scandal. In Jeusalem our struggle was joined by the Jewish Agency, the seed of the future government of State of Israel, whose members sat outside the building and went on strike together with us, starving in the gesture of solidarity. It exerted an additional impression and surely helped to successfully resolve our problem.
         Harold Lasky, the secretary of the Labour Party which ruled Great Britain then, came to La Spezia. He also tried to convince us to go back to Germany, where we would be granted good conditions, and in the meantime he would obtain required certificates for us. We declined his offer point blank. Mr Lasky went back to Britain and informed the government about the existing situation. Furthermore, the massive press campaign continued.
         Eventually, we received the message that we were granted 1014 travel certificates to Palestine. The representatives of Great Britain who came to the harbour claimed that the ship was definitely too small to accommodate all of us, so our organization provided us with yet another one. "Fede" was renamed "Dov Hoz" and the second ship, formerly known as "Fenice" was later called "Eliau Golomb". These two ships finally took us on our journey to Palestine, and we left La Spezia harbour after several weeks of forced stay.
         The journey lasted for 10 days. The ship was equipped with the food belonging to the Palestinian brigade, whose members shared their rations with us. We encountered huge waves on our way. I remember that nearby Crete almost everybody suffered from seasickness. Only some of us, including me, remained in shape and we were helping the sick ones by giving them fresh water to drink. It was the only thing we could do for them.
         At last, on the 20th of May 1946 we arrived to Palestine and left the ship in Haifa. My father and sister waited for me there. Unfortunately, my mother was not with us since she was killed in Treblinka. My father remained a widower, he owned a very small flat and a workshop in Jerusalem. After some consideration, I decided to stay with my sister in Tel Aviv for some time.

Leon Kopelman mobilised to the Israeli army in 1948

         Someday, on one of the main streets in Tel Aviv, called Alenbi, I saw an exclusive, American limousine with an open top. Behind the wheel there was my old friend, the Greek-French guy from Milanowek. There was a Polish flag attached to the car and letters CD (corps diplomatic) on the side. I inquired in the Polish embassy whether this man worked for them and it turned out he was a driver there. After that, when I was in the army, we met for a couple of times, and established friendly relations.
         I discovered he was planning to emigrate to Canada with his fianc?e, who later became his wife. Before he left, he offered to give me his old job as he worked for the big automobile company, which belonged to his aunt. The company was called Karaso. As a result I worked for them for 12 years and then I set up my own business importing car parts.
         Later I traveled to America looking for some suitable car parts needed by my company. I wanted to establish branch offices of American firms, which went very well. I traveled to various European countries for the same reason, and my company developed and prospered successfully.
         Now, I have been retired for some time. I have three children - two sons and a daughter, and I lived to see my nine grandchildren - five girls and four boys.
         I don't feel hatred towards the German nation for what they did to me and my countrymen. Rather, I feel pity and compassion for what the crazy lunatic did to them. They paid high price for the years of fascism as well, and then rebuilt their destroyed country with hard work. I only wish that these terrible years of disdain for people and their lives were never erased from the human memory.

Leon Kopelman

translated by: Małgorzata Kwiatkowska

      Leon Kopelman
born April 26, 1924 in Warsaw
survived from the Warsaw Ghetto
volunteer soldier of "Zoska" battalion
Home Army union "Radoslaw"

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