Oral History

Ivo Herzer describes assistance from Italian soldiers during his family's escape from Croatia

Ivo grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Zagreb. He experienced little overt antisemitism until the Germans and their allies invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941 and installed a fascist Ustasa government in Croatia. The Ustasa regime began killing Jews, Serbs, and Roma (Gypsies). Ivo's family escaped to Italian-occupied territory, where the Italians tried to protect Jewish refugees. Ivo lived in Italian internment camps, including the Rab island camp, before moving to mainland Italy in 1944. He worked for the Joint Distribution Committee for a time, then moved to the United States.


We saw three Italian soldiers, or maybe four. I spoke a little Italian, almost nothing, and my father a little because he took Italian in his high-school days. We just approached these soldiers, just on the wild chance that they might help us. And we told them two words: "Ebrei," which means Jews. "Paura," fear. They immediately understood, because they knew what was going on, as we now know, and they told us to quickly go back to the house, "calma"--calm--and they would bring their sergeant. Their sergeant came, he spoke some French, and we, we knew French, it was easier to communicate. He said, "Stay here, I'll see if I can get maybe a pass for you to get you into Italy." And he left. We didn't believe him, we thought he just said nice things. How would he, who is he, he didn't want any money, he never knew us, but he came back. He said he couldn't get a pass for us, but at midnight he will come with a few soldiers and he will put us on an Italian military train and there, and doing that will be enough to smuggle us into Italy proper. Again, we were quite skeptical: Why would he do that? But he did. And this was unforgettable. At night, Italian soldiers, carrying our bags and rucksacks, marching us protectively to the railroad station, with this sergeant, waiting for an Italian military train. When the train came, he told us to get in, and he himself boarded the train. Now the train was full of Italian soldiers, who immediately gave room to the, to my mother and to the elderly ladies in the small group, offered us some food. And I think he just said, "These are refugees." And as soon as you hear the word, said the word "refugee" to Italians, they immediately, their hearts melted, whether it was an Italian refugee or a Jewish refugee, it didn't matter. They didn't protest--after all, we were civilians, we had no right to be on that train at all.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection
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