(iWIDK by Danny Fisher) – In 1944, my father got together with a dozen of his companions in a Nazi forced labor camp.
Alan and Esther, Vienna, 1946
He knew what happened to his family, and he realized the only way out was to plan and implement an escape, however risky and dangerous. They all agreed on a plan.
In the middle of the night, more than half dropped out, too afraid of the odds of near certain capture and execution. There were now five including my father and they leaped over the fence under cover of night, somehow escaping the notice of the patrolling SS guards.
They wandered through the woods for days. For food and drink, they stopped at isolated houses belonging to local farmers. My father’s group had no weapons, but local villagers supplied them with water and an occasional crust of bread – more out of fear than sympathy.
They arrived in a German town on Christmas eve, where townspeople were celebrating along with SS officers. My father’s group disguised themselves as Germans in an attempt to blend in.
My father knew German, although his accent was suspect and he was careful to avoid speaking. The group of five found themselves in a tavern, where the locals and SS officers were singing Christmas carols in German.
I am reminded of the tavern scene in “Inglorious Basterds,” which was very well done and tense. This, however, was not a movie, but part of a life story and an indelible memory for my father.
Everyone began to sing “Silent Night” in German, and the SS noticed that my father’s group was not singing. The SS did not suspect my father’s group and encouraged them to sing along. My father did not know the words, but he was able to mouth the words along with the group convincingly enough to stay alive.
The group arrived at a barn at the edge of the town – it appeared to be a good spot to spend the night. They gathered hay to make beds on the floor of the barn. One of the group went outside of the barn to pee against the wall of the barn.
He did not notice the pair of SS guards that were patrolling nearby. He unbuttoned his pants and the SS guards, who were quite drunk, began to laugh at the sight. Suddenly, their mirth turned to shock – they noticed the man was circumcised.
They walked up to the man, who suddenly realizing his predicament, quickly buttoned his pants – but it was too late. They put a gun to his head and demanded he expose himself. The man unbuttoned his pants. Inside the barn my father and the rest of his group heard loud gunfire piercing the night. They were terrified and scrambled to hide.
The SS guards called for reinforcements, and there were now a dozen SS officers inside the barn. One by one, the SS found each of the hiding men and forced them to strip. One by one, each of my father’s group was executed, the sound of the gunfire followed by the thud of a falling body and the laughter of the SS troops.
My father lay motionless and undetected beneath a thick pile of hay, holding his breath for what seemed an eternity. He was close to a horse that was in the barn, and felt that the horse knew of his presence. The SS troops took one last look around, leaving the bodies in place, the blood soaking in the hay.
An SS officer went up to the horse near my father and began to stroke its mane. “What a beautiful horse,” the officer said in German.
My father stayed motionless under the hay until dawn without sleeping. He carefully exited the barn and then raced through the countryside as fast as he could, getting as far away from the town as he could.
He wandered several more days in the woods, hungry and thirsty. Suddenly he heard the voices of soldiers and dropped to the ground. The soldiers were not speaking German, but another language, one that he did not know well but recognized. It was Russian.
My father emerged from the woods and walked up to the group of Russian soldiers, who were standing outside their truck. They pointed their guns at him and he raised his arms. “Who are you?” they shouted in Russian and then in German. My father understood the German. “I am a Jew,” he cried in his broken Russian.
The Russians laughed and lowered their weapons. “Who are you with?” they asked. My father explained that he was the only survivor of his group. “Have some water and something to eat,” they said. “You are a free man.” He drank water and ate chocolate and bread.
My father made his way back to his small home town in Czechoslovakia, in the Carpathian mountains. My father today has a bungalow in the Catskills, and the rolling hills outside his bungalow resembles the Carpathian mountains of his youth.
My father was 21 when he became a free man in a forest in Germany – my youngest son is 23 and is attending film school in Manhattan. My father surveyed his home town. He was the only Jew in the town, half of whose population before the war was Jewish.
My father met a girl he knew from his youth, a gentile, whose family was kind. He became engaged and the girl’s family looked forward to the wedding. But my father wondered if there were other Jews who survived the war.
He spoke with his fiance’s father and said before he could marry the man’s daughter he needed to travel through Europe to learn whether any of his family or friends survived. My father said he would return, but he never did.
He traveled through Europe and ended up in Vienna. On a street corner, a bespectacled man with a briefcase approached him and handed him a leaflet. The man was locating Holocaust survivors and organizing groups for eventual emigration to Palestine.
My father joined a commune in Vienna that was set up for displaced Holocaust survivors. Everyone was young and the atmosphere was filled with joy and hope. My father met my mother there, and before long they were married.
Alan and Esther’s wedding, commune in Vienna, 1946
In 1947, my parents boarded a sister ship of the “Exodus” called the “Theodore Herzl” – named after the 19th century founder of Zionism, which was a movement that advocated the return of Jews to their ancestral homeland – and both ships were bound for Palestine.
As with the “Exodus,” my parents ship was stopped by a British blockade outside the Mediterranean port of Haifa. The Jewish passengers through bottles and anything else they could find at the British, but the ship was turned back. My mother was pregnant.
Alan with son Joe, Cyprus detention camp, 1947
The “Theodore Herzl” arrived in Cyprus, where my parents lived in tents at a detention camp, with their future hopeful but uncertain. My mother gave birth there to my oldest brother, Joe, and that was cause for great hope, joy and the affirmation of life.
Alan and Esther, with first son Joe, Cyprus detention camp, 1947
* * *
Excerpt from an autobiographical novel I have been writing called “White Sand Falling.”
Danny Fisher is the CEO of film distribution company Fisher Klingenstein Films and CEO/Editor /Founder of website iWIDK (I Wish I Didn’t Know). He was also the founder and CEO of former film studio City Lights Media.