Letter written by Stella Susman on October 7, 1945
Milano, Via Ceradini 3
"My dear Lisa and dear Peter, I want to comply with your repeated requests and give you today a detailed account of our experiences from 1940 to 1945." [Lisa had left home for London, England, at age 15, in December 1938 and Peter, then 17, left for New York/Providence, R.I. in Jan/Febr. 1939 while Stella and Fred remained in Milano with George, then 11 years old.]
On June 10, 1940 fascist Italy entered World War II on the side of Nazi Germany against the wish of the people. French aircraft started flying over Milano several times daily and air raid warnings sounded constantly. Schools were closed and whoever could, left for the countryside. I had no intention of leaving but Mr. Coletti, a neighbor, convinced Fritz to take us to an inn in a small place above Erba where his family was staying.
With the beginning of the war, the first foreign Jews, who should have left the country according to the laws of September 1938, were arrested. We still had our old passports (German) without "J" (for Jew or Jude) and Fritz said, "You give the hotel manager our passports and don't fill out any forms yourself." The following day Fritz brought Max Hainebach and Nora (widower, friend of his, and his daughter) to the same hotel. Max filled out his own registration form.
The following Sunday morning, we had been there 5 days, the hotel manager told us that a police car from Como had been there and our friend had been arrested. The Commissioner in Como had already banned Jews from his province. What a shock! Fritz left that same evening for Milano and decided not to come back to Erba so soon. (Erba is in the province of Como.) Max, however, had in his possession a document from Rome stating that his residence in Italy was legal since he had lived there prior to 1919. He was released after five days but had to leave the province of Como immediately. We never received that document although Fritz had applied for it also back in 1938.
The chief of police in charge of aliens in Milano, who had been friendly towards Jews, had been transferred because of this and was replaced by a bastard who followed through with the arrests of Jews. Fritz had instructed Margarita (the concierge who had been there since before we moved into that building in 1932) to tell anyone who came around to ask for him that we were in the country. Meanwhile here the arrests continued. In spite of this after ten days Fritz came to visit us again twice a week.
One Tuesday evening we went to meet him at the railroad station and he greeted me with, "Thank the Lord that I am still here." At 6.30 that morning he had heard the big police wagon drive up and from behind the shutters he had seen 2 policeman get out. (Our apartment was on the third floor with living room, dining room and master bedroom windows facing out front.) After five minutes the police car drove off again. When he came downstairs, Margarita, white as a sheet, informed him that the police had come to arrest him but she told them Father wasn't there. Such a decent woman! Now Fritz set his lawyer and acquaintances into action. He did not return home but came to the country to sleep. Erba is probably one hour by train from Milano). The following day I went back with him to Milano. The lawyer told me, "Go to the police headquarters and inform them that your husband is away (they had not bothered women, fortunately) and that he won't be back for another week. This way we gain time." That officer in charge at headquarters screamed at me asking me who my husband thinks he is to travel, that this is not permitted, and that on Tuesday, the [date] he must report in this room at 11 am. It was a rather exciting week!
Mrs. Kauders knew somebody who had been instrumental in having her husband released immediately upon his arrest. She approached him on our account. We too placed every gear into action all the way to Rome. We didn't know if anything could be achieved. On the designated Tuesday, Fritz went with me and an Italian friend to the police station, his overnight satchel under his arm so as to have the minimum necessities with him in case they locked him up. He sent his Italian friend into the chief's office with his business card, to inform the chief that he is here to report, and then came the great surprise: the answer was, "He can go home reassured, the chief has nothing to say to him!" You can imagine our relief. We don't know to this day who is responsible for this miracle.
Fritz continued his business trips without travel permit and stayed always at the same hotels where the clerks knew him and registered him. This was no longer feasible in Genoa, however, so he stayed in Nervi at a hotel owned by a Swiss who was sympathetic to his problems and did not bother to register him. The anxieties were constant, nevertheless, each time he went away for fear of a checkup on the trains. All our acquaintances used to apply for a travel permit at the police each time they wanted to go away. It took weeks to get a reply, which was usually negative. Fritz, on the other hand, courageously continued to travel and pursue his business. To compound our concerns, the air raids continued so that one feared, i.e. I always feared that something could happen.
One time Fritz arrived in Bologna at 11 pm. The old clerk was no longer at that hotel. The new clerk told him that since he didn't know him, as a foreigner he had to report to the police first. What did our Fritz do? He sat through the night in the waiting room and in the morning he visited his customers. After that, while in Bologna, he stayed with his agent, Mr. Levi.
On October 24, 1942, a beautiful Saturday afternoon, Fritz and I took the streetcar in Milano to go downtown around 5:30. Up to that time nothing much had ever happened during air raids. At the stop of Piazza Tricolore the air raid warning sounded. The streetcar stopped. Everybody had to get off. Since there had hardly ever been any danger during an air raid warning, we thought we would walk home. From where we were we could hear bombs being dropped. In the middle of the square there was a new air raid shelter. Ever since they started digging those shelters, we agreed that we didn't want to die in one of them. We therefore went past the shelter and entered instead the first house on the left on Corso Concordia, a hefty, sturdy building. The basement was full of people and often pieces of plaster fell down, so strong were the detonations. In his usual calm way, Fred reassured me that it was only anti-aircraft fire. Then a man came in, white as a sheet, and told us that the house across the street was ablaze, and that there were dead in the square. Fritz reassured me, "Tutte storie" (all stories). After 20 minutes the all clear sounded at last. We emerged from the building at last by stepping over broken glass and climbing over collapsed walls. All the people who had taken refuge in the public shelter had been killed. All around us buildings were in flames, and the building in which we had taken refuge was declared structurally unsound. In our own neighborhood every second house was burning.
George had gone to the movies with Luciano in a different part of town and came back at 8 pm, unscathed.
From then on air raid attacks occurred nightly. We were not afraid, but in order not to stand out we also took refuge in the basement. Fritz would have much preferred to remain in his own warm bed.
After a while we decided to move to the countryside. People shipped their furniture out of town, and most of the schools closed. It was extremely difficult to find suitable quarters since many places had been booked long before. We found a terrible hole-in-the-wall in Arcisate which we later passed on to Max Hainebach. By that time we had found a charming apartment in a new building in a small village above Arcisate. Our neighbors from Via Ceradini, the Moreos, already lived there. The landlord had the apartment built exactly to our specifications, and we moved in the following June (1943) with our own furniture. We had a big garden with a vegetable patch which we cultivated, i.e. Fritz and George cared for. The place was ideal, and yet we wondered how long this could go on in a country that the Germans wanted to rule and that had already lost the war. We lived from day to day, grateful for what we had. The people in the village were very friendly. Then, on September 8, 1943, came the big upset and the Germans took over!
The papers were full of German rules and regulations and we Jews were aware that we could no longer stay there. The Italian army fled to Switzerland. Everybody came through our village, which was off the main highway, one and a half hours from the Swiss frontier. The young Italians who were not yet in the army or who had deserted and donned civilian clothes started from here and crossed the border in small groups. Our landlady had a son of 18 who wanted to flee. My maid had a boy of the same age. The two mothers asked me for advice. I urged that everybody who could should leave and then admitted that my husband and George wanted to leave also. The mothers felt reassured when they heard this. "If your husband goes, we will let our sons go too."
Meanwhile it was a known fact that the Germans were in Varese and all the highways were being checked. On Friday, September 17, 1943, my maid had not yet decided to allow her son to leave. George was very agitated, his rucksack was packed; I packed Fritz's rucksack. He continued to write at the typewriter incessantly to hide his nervousness and I begged both of them to leave as quickly as possible. I only feared for the men. I was not afraid for myself. That was extremely lucky because if I had not been able to convince Fred of that he would not have left but would have felt restrained on my account. (Stella's right leg was paralyzed, you might remember, a consequence of the infantile paralysis that she was afflicted with in 1935 when she was about 38 years old.) The route to the border comprised a 1-1/2 hr. track on foot. Suddenly, at 11 o'clock, my cleaning lady's son shouted from the front hall, "Mother, look what you did! The Germans have reached the border and now we can't get away any more." You can imagine our shock. George began to cry, Fritz continued to write, and I started shivering and trembling out of fear. Fifteen minutes later the young man came back and told his mother he had only frightened her like that to convince her to allow him to leave. "Will you let me go now?" he asked. What a relief that was for us! Within 5 minutes word had gotten around the village that a group of twenty people, amongst them George and Fritz, would leave at 1 pm for Switzerland. An old farmer, whose son was amongst them, led the group via back roads to the border, and waited there to make sure all of the men had crossed the border into Switzerland. By 5 pm the farmer was back with regards from Fritz and George, and he informed me that all had gone according to plan.
All of the villagers were involved since everyone had at least one relative in the group and luckily there was not one fascist amongst them. A great feeling of relief came over me once I knew my men were safely over the border. Dante Vigevani (a second cousin) had left two days earlier. Fritz had sent word to Willy (Stella's cousin) urging him to grasp the opportunity and join the group, but Willy declined, saying he saw no danger as yet. Many friends came to see me that Friday afternoon. Mr. Moreo, Luciano's father, asked to be brought up to date on all Fritz's important business matters. Another good friend of ours, Mrs. Gusti Benedeck, a young widow with a thirteen year old girl who also lived near us in Milano and who had come to see us often in the country, offered to have everything transferred to her name. She also promised to come to our apartment in the country every weekend so as not to give it the appearance of being deserted. She had been secretary to a lawyer who had also fled to Switzerland.
On Saturday Gusti came back and informed me that I too must leave. I did not want to believe her but agreed to go with her to the town hall in Arcisate, of which Brenno is part, and ask the clerk to remove our names from the register. The lady told me how terrible she had felt when she heard that Fritz and George had also left and assured me that the following day, Sunday, she would go to the office alone and remove our file. This indeed she did. As I have always stated, the people here are truly wonderful.
Saturday night, 11 pm, my doorbell rang. I was scared silly. Luckily I immediately heard a familiar voice call, "Stella!" It was Silvia (Willy's wife) who had come with Mr. and Mrs. Padoa, Stellina's in-laws. They asked for shelter for the night because they could stay no longer at their own house in Bee over Intra, on the Lago Maggiore, the same village were Caroli and Gustavo (Willy and Stellina's parents, Stella's aunt and uncle) lived. In Stresa and Meina, 2 other communities on the Lago Maggiore, Jews had been shot to death. I did not want to believe these atrocities but unfortunately they were facts. Mr. and Mrs. Padoa insisted also that I must leave and we agreed to try and cross the border into Switzerland together the next day, Sunday. At midnight that night I had called the Moreos to ask for their advice and they, too, assured me that there was only one thing for me to do, and that is, to leave.
I began to pack. I put all the valuables inside one large suitcase to give to our landlord for safekeeping. Early the next morning I sent for the old farmer who had led Fritz and George to the frontier. He explained to us that it was too late. He said the borders are closed and nobody can get across. Mr. Padoa insisted that we try. Meanwhile I had heard that Caroli and Gustavo had also fled from Bee to Arcisate. The old farmer agreed to take us to the border in his farm cart. We arrived there at midnight. The border was besieged by young people who had not been able to cross into Switzerland. I snuck to the front and begged a Swiss soldier to let me cross the border. I begged and pleaded but to no avail. The border was closed and it was not known if and when it would be reopened to refugees. The farmer and I walked for an hour along the wire fence that was the border to see if there might not be an opening somewhere. In vain. Mr. Padoa pushed his way past the guard rail inside Switzerland, but after ten minutes an officer ordered him to leave Switzerland. It was hopeless. We returned to our apartment in Brenno. Mr. Padoa felt completely defeated. I had made up my mind to register under an assumed name as maid in the home of non-Jewish, Italian friends. This would not have been without risk, however, both for them and for myself. Meanwhile Mrs. Morea told me that a friend of ours had been there to inform me that at 9 o'clock that night she was going by rowboat from Porto Ceresio (another nearby village) to Morcote in Switzerland. A fisherman was taking her, and I was to join her if I had been unable to cross into Switzerland before then. Forto Cerebio is about one hour from Brenno and Luciano would take me there on his bicycle. I was too exhausted, however, and decided I could take that route on Monday also. I went to sleep instead.
5 pm Monday afternoon Luciana and I went on his bicycle to Porto Ceresio to make the necessary arrangements with the fisherman since Luciana had been over there in the morning to ascertain that the friend had indeed crossed into Switzerland. Mr. Padoa had lost his courage. He did not go with me to inquire about the crossing. I met the fisherman and we agreed on a 9 pm departure that same evening. At 6:30 there was an outburst of horn blowing: the Germans were moving into Porto Ceresio with trucks and motorcycles. What a shock! The streets were jammed with refugees who wanted to flee to Switzerland. I quickly decided, "No, no, I am not going after all." Luciano took me on the bar of his bike and we rode away from Porto Ceresio as quickly as his legs would carry us. So, again nothing.
The conditions were not exactly soothing for the nerves. By now it is Tuesday. In the afternoon, about 6 pm Willy came over. He told me of a German Jewish family who was planning to cross the border at a different location at 6 o'clock the next morning. The husband had a wooden leg, having lost a leg in World War I. He had been at the Swiss border earlier that day and made a deal with a Swiss soldier on duty. The crossing was to take place above Viggiu, which is in the mountains between Arcisate and Porto Ceresio. I figured surely I could walk as much as an amputee.
There was a curfew from 7 pm till 6 am, and nobody was allowed in the street. The local carpenter offered to go (drive?) (ride?) immediately to Arcisate to see the family Hirsch and make the necessary arrangements for me. They were very nice even though we knew each other only by sight. I was to be at the streetcar stop at 6 o'clock the next morning in Viggiu, a half hour walk from our house.
I called the old farmer again and he promised to pick me up at 5 am the following morning so that I would not have to walk alone. He offered to accompany us to the border since he was more familiar with the way than we were. That evening Gusti Benedeck came to assure herself that I was finally leaving. During the night I wondered frequently if I was doing the right thing, abandoning the business, the home, but then I dreamed that Fritz had called me, which reassured me. Mr. Padoa had not yet regained the courage to join us. I had agreed with Caroli that if all went well for us, she and Gustavo were to follow the same route with the old farmer. The next morning, in pitch darkness and in pouring rain, we took off on foot. We met the family Hirsch at the stop of the streetcar that was to take us to Viggiu, and from there, via back roads, we proceeded for the border, still in teeming rain. At 7:30 we were at the frontier crossing. The Swiss border guard, a native of the area, told us that we could not cross here but instructed us to walk along the wire fence and look for an opening through which we could crawl and then come back along the road. We were delighted. We crept along the fence. After 15 minutes we found a little trapdoor. We crawled through it, what little luggage we had came through behind us, while above little bells were ringing. Contrary to common believe, the dividing fence, which is 3 meters high, is not electrified but has small bells woven into it which start ringing as soon as anything touches it!
We were in Switzerland! A soldier arrived immediately, alerted by the bells. He was very polite and escorted us to his superior. We showed him our passports with the letter "J" now printed on them. He phoned his superiors at police headquarters in Bellinzona to ask if he may admit us. To our great relief the answer was 'YES'. He suggested we wait at the inn across the street till we were picked up.
I took leave of the old farmer at the border crossing and he promised to escort Caroli and Gustavo there also.
Within a half hour a chauffeured limousine and a policeman arrived. They drove us to the prison of Mendrisio, which was the first collection area for refugees. We agreed that it is better to be in prison in Switzerland than in Italy! The driver informed us that the fare was 15 Swiss franks. Hirschs did not have one red penny. I had 8 Frs. I told the driver I would give him my ring and my name. I was expecting to receive money and as soon as I had it I would send it to him and expected him to return my ring. (The gold one, nothing special, not my diamond ring). He agreed to the deal. As I started writing 'Stella Susman' he suddenly said, "Mrs. Susman, is it really you? I have been looking for you!" 1 asked for an explanation. He told me that the previous Friday he had brought my husband and the young boy there from Stabio (where they had crossed the frontier) and he and Fritz had agreed that his friend, who lives in Italy, was to come and pick me up that same Wednesday afternoon and take me to yet another place along the border where he, the Swiss chauffeur, was to meet me. You can imagine my joy! "I don't need your ring," he said. "I am going to advise your friends that you are here." Within the hour Mr. Marti, whom he had notified, arrived from Chiasso and waited for me in the office of the prison supervisor. Meanwhile other refugees had been brought there. Mr. Marti received permission to take the Hirschs and me to dinner before the transport continued to Bellinzona, which was the next bigger refugee collection center.
After dinner we took off (by train). In Lugano Liesel Benedick (a long time friend) boarded the train and joined the transport. She too had been notified by the chauffeur, and as a member of the Red Cross, she accompanied me to Bellinzona and was permitted to go into the camp with us. She introduced me to another Red Cross volunteer, a friend of hers who worked at that camp, and I benefited generously from these personal contacts. Even in Switzerland it matters whom you know!. I slept in a bed, for one, whereas most of the others slept on straw bags on the floor.
A while later I was transferred along with some 100 other refugees to the northern section of Switzerland, the German part (Zurich, Basel, etc.), since new refugees arrived daily at this camp.
(Stella was later rejoined with Fritz and George. After several months in camp, Fritz, Stella and George were granted permission to move to an apartment in Adliswil, a small town on the Lake of Zurich. where they spent the remainder of the war years. As foreigners they were not allowed to work. They lived off their savings. George eventually moved in with friends (Gret and Alfred Rosenstiel) who lived in Zurich. After completing high school there he became an apprentice in the textile office of a business friend of Fritz's. In 1945, at the end of the war in Europe, all three returned to their home in Milano.)
Stella's letter continues: "I later heard from Willie that his parents (Caroli and Gustavo) and Mr. Padoa arrived at the frontier crossing point with the old farmer a couple of days after us. They were advised they would have to wait a while. They became scared and went back to my apartment instead, in Brenno. The following morning poor Gustavo committed suicide by jumping in the way of an oncoming train, while Mr. Padoa crossed the border into Switzerland at that same place a day later."
Stella ended her letter with the comment, "Please save this letter. I might want to reread it in 50 years!"