Rainy Days — My War Story as a Jew
— by Sharika Kabiljo
Introduction by Andre Leibovici
My grandmother, Sharika (Papo) Kabiljo, had her childhood abruptly interrupted by the Nazis and the 2nd World War. These are her true accounts to share as she has remembered and handwritten herself.
Besides writing this memoir years ago, my grandmother never wanted to speak to her family about her traumatic past. Recently I sat down with her for an interview where she was able to tell me a little more about her childhood and life pre and post-war. The 30-min audio conversation in Portuguese was recorded, and I will also transcribe the story to compliment this memoir.
My grandmother was born Sharika Papo to a middle class jewish family in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Her father worked as a government official in Sarajevo and life was very peaceful and comfortable for Sharika, her older brother and parents. This was until the Germans entered Sarajevo.
[handwritten text is indicated in italics]
I am actually not certain whether I can express how I felt at many times of my life. Until I was 13 years old I lived with my family, my dear parents and my brother who I loved dearly and who loved me. He was five years older than me, and we got along very well. We never fought. When my parents left to go somewhere, we stayed alone, and I remember that he told me several stories he came up with and I loved listening to them. He also made little trains out of empty matchboxes, which he tied one to another with string and filled the boxes with rice, beans, flour, sugar and then pulled it slowly. I thought it was all wonderful. He also could draw and paint Disney characters. He made them out of plywood cut out with a small saw. His room walls were filled with these figures. I found them beautiful. He liked to take pictures, and he developed the photos alone. He darkened his room. I was always around because I was fascinated with all that my brother ‘Buki’ did. I played with his hair, which he had a lot of! I loved him very much. He would always bring me candy that he bought with his allowance.
This beautiful life that I had ended when the Germans entered Sarajevo.
My father was very serious; his name was David. Meanwhile, my mother René was playful [and] was a very kind person. On Sundays, we often walked together with my brother and friends. After our walks, we always would go to my grandmother’s next to my mother and on Saturday we would go to the other grandmother. Both were widows. I remember I remember my paternal grandmother and other and I don’t remember the other one. I have beautiful memories of family, cousins, aunts, uncles. It was a very big family, and when we got together, we were so happy. In 1941, when I was 13, everything broke into pieces like a crystal vase. Suddenly we all parted ways. Most have not returned from the concentration camps.
All dead. I still wonder how it can happen that something so awful and involving so many dear people can all of a sudden just disappear. In January 1941 the Germans occupied Sarajevo. I was 13 years old. Soon they kicked me out of school for being Jewish. I did not understand because I was a good student. Soon my parents began to pack backpacks with their personal items. My grandmother was brought to our house so she would not be alone in her apartment. Everyone was terrified. My father was also fired from his job for being Jewish. He was very sad. The office where he worked was the world in which he lived so many years. Everyone respected him as a boss. It was a very ethical person, and it all suddenly disappeared because he was Jewish. — All of us, including us children, were required to wear a band on our arm with the Star of David, so we were marked, it was revolting. It all started at the beginning of the year 1941, and the months were going by, we all had our backpacks ready, waiting for the Germans to knock on the door looking for the families by name. We heard from my parents and my uncles, that the Germans would take us to camps to do forced hard labor until the war was over, and then we would go home. No one thought that people died in the camps. Some individuals managed to get passports with a fake name and fled to places where there were no Germans, those were the smart people, and they were convinced that the camps would result in death. But most were naïve, like my parents.
We could not escape anyway, because my brother was arrested with some friends because they were singing a communist song, so they were arrested and awaiting trial. I took food to him every day in prison because the police did not give him food. My parents could not think to escape Sarajevo, leaving him alone in prison. They could not think of it so the days went by.
We lived in fear. It all started in January 1941. We were always scared and anxious as to what would happen to my brother until November. One day in November, I do not remember the date (but I have remembered it for a long time), the Germans came looking for my father by name ordering him to go with them. It was so sad. We were all crying, my grandmother, my mother, my father and I held onto each other, we did not want to let go, but the German soldiers pushed us and took my dad, they led him away, and we never saw him again. He died in the Jasenovac concentration camp.
Then my mother, my grandmother and my brother were in prison. Finally was the day of the trial. They were all acquitted and freed except for my brother because he was Jewish (I do not know if it was another Jew). That happened in December 1941. That same month, German soldiers came knocking on our door and calling for my mother and me. They did not look for my grandmother because she was registered at another address where she lived before coming to our house. Mom and I took our backpacks that were already ready with the most important things like a toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, a towel and some other things. It was freezing because it was winter and it was snowing. We hugged grandma who was crying in tears not to leave her alone. She was 80 years old. At the end the soldiers separated us and were not moved at all by so much sadness, three of us crying not wanting to be separated.
Afterwards, I learned that my grandmother stayed for a few days alone. And then a family drove my grandmother out of the apartment and settled there as if it were their own, with all our stuff. A neighbor who was a Jew and was not yet taken to the camps took my grandmother to her home. I do not know what happened to them after the war. I did not find anyone who could tell me something.
Mom and I were taken with many other people to a large plot of land where there were some tents, and we were pushed into them. There were so many people. There we found my aunts and cousins, all terrified. There was a rabbi who was about 80 years old. He sat on a stool and could not walk. I cried a lot. I will never forget this picture, and he was so sad that I started crying too. He was old. I had just started my life. But we were in the same situation.
We spent the night there and the next day trucks came to transport us to the bus station.They put down some boards to climb into the truck. Many people fell, but the younger ones helped, the older ones and the German soldiers were watching us all the time so that no one escaped. When everyone was in the trucks, we were transported to the bus station. There were cattle cars waiting.
My God, when I remember I think about those scenes. The cars were too high to get up onto, only the younger people succeeded. They took the older people by both hands, and they pulled them up so the person could set foot inside the car and with great effort through themselves into the car. Many people struggled two or three times until they were successful. My mother was helped. Since I was a child, I was light, and I reached both hands out, and they got me. The German soldiers were not in a hurry.
I think they had fun watching our suffering.
Still back at the tents, before taking us to the trucks, they separated women and men, many of whom had children with them, so the car where I was with my mother had no men. We learned that the men were taken to another camp where it was only men.
The trip began. The train started moving, and we all got two rolls. The car only had a small window overhead. And my mother lifted me up and held me so I could look out the window, and all I saw were trees. When we had gone for a whole day, they opened the doors of the train cars and they we told us that we could relieve ourselves. We had a bucket inside the car where everyone went, and they held it until they couldn’t hold it any longer.
It was horrible. An unbearable smell. I got out of the car, and my mother did not because she was worried that she would not be able to get back up and she feared the German soldiers that would make her go up in any case and would hurt her. The place where the train stopped was deserted and all flat without any trees so no one could flee without being seen, and all of the soldiers were armed with rifles. We went back to the train, few people got out of the train, and the train started to move. We traveled another two days to reach the Gradiška concentration camp. During those three days of travel, we got two little rolls and some jam and a glass of water. It was impossible to even eat with that awful smell that came from the bucket. Some women had the cologne in their backpack and splashed it on their bodies, thinking that it would improve the smell or overcome the other smell. My mother was quiet, she was still not moving, nor could she, because her legs were so swollen that she could not stand. She was sitting on the car floor. Other women were shouted, some cried, some were hysterical, screaming that they wanted to get out.
When we arrived at the Gradiška concentration camp, we got off the cars, and they told us that there was no more room for more people and that we would return to our city of Sarajevo. Many people were left with some hope that we could still be let free to go home, which did not happen. They put us in a school in an empty corner. All of us were depressed. My mother could not get up from the floor. Her legs were so swollen, and they looked like wood
trunks. The food was soup and nothing else. At the school gate, there was a civilian police, and he looked like he felt sorry for us. My mother had the idea of asking him to let me out of the school to look for my two grandparents. We did not know where they were. And I would promise that I would come back because my mother was there. So was he pretended he did not notice anything. And I left.
I went to my house, but I did not go in because there were people living there but I found my grandmother at a neighbor’s [house]. We cried, and my grandmother did not want to let me go, but I explained to her that I had left my mother at the school and I needed to go back. At the end she understood, and we hugged each other crying for the last time.
From there I went to the home of another grandmother. She was alone at her house, her daughter in law and son had already been taken to the concentration camp. I stayed a bit. I talked about my Mom, the whole story about the journey on the train. We hugged, and it was very sad to leave her there alone. She must have been older than 80. We never knew what happened to her, but she was for sure she would have also been taken to a concentration camp.
We spent two days at the school, and on the third day, we were again transported to the train, the same one that we had traveled in. My mother was better. Her legs were not swollen, so she could walk. It was an ordeal to get up into the cattle cars like it was the first time, but in the end, we all went up. The doors closed and the train started moving. There were the same scenes as the first time. Many tears of despair. My mother and I were quiet, and I was leaning against my mom, sitting on the floor of the car and my mom hugging me with her arms, trying to protect me from all of the sufferings.
Being hugged by my mother, I did not cry. I did not complain that I was hungry. I think it was as if I was numbed. Three days were spent traveling like this. Once a day the Nazi soldiers opened the doors to give us a piece of bread and water and also to remove the bucket that was filled with urine and feces. One person was traveling in the car accompanied by a soldier so that we could not escape. On the fourth day, we got out of the cars. We had to jump, and many people fell. Younger people helped the elderly. I could easily jump, but my mother had to be helped. Sitting on the door sliding and the two individuals below caught her. There was a large house that was one floor, and you climbed a short ladder leaning against a slope.
It was only possible for one person to go up or down. There was straw spread for each to make their bed. My mother covered the straw with a small blanket that we brought in our backpacks. I had one, and my mother had one. We covered ourselves with one, and the other covered the straw. There wasn’t much space for both of us, and the blankets were not sufficient. They were too small. I would hug my mother, and we would cover ourselves as best we could. The worst was that the straw poked us through the blanket. The blanket was thin. We had red spots on our arms and legs. We slept in our clothes. The whole floor was full. It was only women and children. There was also an aunt and three cousins who had small children. Downstairs was the kitchen where some prisoner boys cooked. For lunch, they gave us soup that tasted more like water. There were a couple of beans floating on top and at dinner we got two baked potatoes with the skin. I talked to one of the boys. When he handed out the potatoes, there was a line of people, and when my mother and I were in line waiting for potatoes, he always chose the biggest potato.
That made me happy. When he was finished, we both talked in a corner. We got along well. When I left the camp, he gave me a silver pen to remember him. Since he was older, they did not let him out, as they did for the children younger than 13. He indeed died there with many others.
I did not stay long at the camp. I think it was a couple of months. As soon as we got to the Israelite organization in the city of Osijek that was near the town of Dzakovo, where the camp was, it organized to take all of the children from the camp and place them with Jewish families that were still living in peace without any Nazi trouble. The camp officials let all children younger than 13 leave the concentration camp. I did not want to leave my mother, and my mother did not want to get separated from me, and so all of the children were taken, and I stayed. But the people from the organization explained to my mother that it was wrong. She held me, and I don’t know what else they told her that convinced her. She told me I needed to leave. We both cried and held each other. They took me to the same city as a Jewish family. They were very good people. They had a child, a boy who was 3–4 years old and I spent all day with him. I had long hair. I had braids, but my hair was full of lice. I remember well that every day when I was at the camp, my mother would use a lice comb, but it didn’t help because there were lice everywhere. Everyone was infected with the damn lice.
When I arrived at this new family, they cut my hair short and cleaned it every day with turpentine. They cleaned it for several days until there were no more lice or eggs but my scalp was peeling, and it hurt me, but I was free of lice and never had them again even though I spent another three years there while the war did not end.
Days passed with this family, and I played with a boy called Peter, but when I went to bed, I started crying. I missed my mother. This happened every night. The family did not know what to do with me. One day I went to the camp because I wanted to see my mother. I got lost and got covered in mud. I went back home without seeing my mother.
After this event, the family had given me all of this affection but I lacked affection from my mother, and they decided to take me to the camp and leave me with my mother. The meeting was so sad. We stuck to one another, crying and the people who were around us looked at us and were also crying. Mom calmed down and began to explain to me that I could not stay with her, that I had to go back quickly to this family. She became very serious, she stopped crying and hugged me and took me to the people who brought me and they watched all of this drama from the side. They put me in a buggy, and we went back home. I was desperate, I cried so much, and no one could console me. The people who were in the buggy hugged me. They wanted to help me but could not.
After this episode, my new family decided it was better to move me to another city farther from the camp. There was a girl who wanted me to take her home, but at that moment I did not want to leave my mother. So she did not take another child, and now she is my new aunt. I called her aunt and did not call her mom. They contacted her, and I traveled to another town. I went to another family. They were two sisters-in-law.
One had a daughter named Evilain and her mother was Ilona and sister-in-law Breder. Evilain was about 20 years old. I liked her a lot. She took me to many places. We went to the town library, and she chose books for me to read. I called her mother, aunt Ilava, and aunt Breder.
I was more resigned. A little cousin of mine who was two years old was also brought from the camp and was taken to a family who lived near the family. The family did not know what to do with the little Luncika who cried all the time calling for her mother. I got to be with her all day. So little by little, she stopped crying. The family loved it. My little cousin was very beautiful. She was blonde with curly hair. So the two of us helped each other. Wanting to help her, I helped myself to be resigned to fate.
I started going to school and made friends with students. We would take walks and have picnics. My aunts sent my mom packages with biscuits, bread, a few other things that made me thankful for these nice people. My mother wrote always asking for bread. I do not know how these letters arrived. It must have been some good soul that felt bad for my mother and took the hidden letters and put them in the mail. After a few months, I suddenly realized that my aunts did not send more packages to my mother. I was sorry, but I did not ask my aunts anything. I thought I they were tired of sending them. I was sad, but I didn’t ask them anything. I was quiet and minded my own business. Generally, I was well-behaved. I knew that I wasn’t at my parents’ home. I knew I had to be very grateful to them. Much later I learned that my mother died as she was very ill, and my aunts knew, but they did not want to make me sad. So they stopped sending packages and not because they were tired of sending them.
One day the aunts and Evilain told me that they were going to travel and that I would go with another family, where there was also a friend of mine, who had also left the camp. I was very sad. I cried so much. I had gotten used to them. I really liked Evelain, but it was meant to be. Afterwards, I learned that they wanted to escape from Yugoslavia because they were already saying that they would take all of the Jews from this city where I was. But the poor things were not lucky and were sent to a concentration camp.
The third family that I stayed with was a doctor, his wife, and daughter. They were very good people, and they had everything. I was lucky that the families liked me. I learned to live with all of them. In this family, I had my friend, so I was feeling less alone, and we got along well because we had the same fate. We continued attending school. A few months passed peacefully until one day my aunt, her name was Luna, called me and called my friend Zlatisa and told us that we were both going to travel with a woman to a city, Split, that was far from Osijek because there was talk of taking all of the Jews from Osijek, where we were, and taking us to the concentration camps and that they were going to leave town and that we would both travel to Split where it was safer. For now, that is where the free Jews were. Aunt Luna prepared us with clothes and other things. It was yet another sad separation. We traveled by train and then by ship. We memorized new names, and no one could know that we were Jews. We were afraid. The woman who took us was a Catholic woman and got good money to take us. When we arrived in the city of Split after two days of traveling, the woman took us to the Israelite congregation and delivered us to them. After asking our names and about families it found that my friend had an aunt who lived there and she was taken to her aunt’s house. I explained, giving the names of my family and it was found that there were two of my uncles who lived where my cousin who was their niece lived. They had all hidden, and all managed to escape Sarajevo, and now we’re there. The city was occupied by the Italians who were not as bad as the Nazi Germans, but they also transported Jews to concentration camps, only they did not kill them.
The place where my cousin lived was tiny. One room was separated into two by a blanket hanging on a string. We had very little food. The house was out of town. I felt bad because I saw so many struggles and they survived in this small room, almost starving and yet I had to complicate their lives even more. But that did not last more than two months, and I think I felt relieved even though we were taken by Italians soldiers to a small town, Novi-Vinodol, where we could walk around until 7:00 pm. After this, we had to stay home. My cousin with her little girl was not taken. It was just my two uncles. I did not have to go with them, but I did. I didn’t think it was right that I stayed with my cousin. She had a little daughter, and another child would be too much. There was not enough food, and that was all that she had for them both. She received food from a soldier, which was worth gold to her.
I made friends in Novi-Vinodol. There were many families that were brought there. Many were placed in some abandoned schools, and my uncles and I were placed with a country woman in a room. Of course, she did not like this, but for us it was good, and for me, it was even better because the woman taught me how to wash clothes that I needed to wash for my uncles and taught me to make polenta. We got cornmeal from the soldiers and a little salt and every day our food was polenta. One day we met an Italian soldier who took pity on us and every day brought us a 200-gram roll. It was soldier bread, kind of hard soldiers and we divided it into three small pieces. We were so happy we ate that little piece of bread. No one had bread. Once in a while, the soldier filled the bread with candy. He showed us photos of the family he left to go to war. When he looked at us, we reminded him of his family. That is why he did what he could so that we would feel a little better with the attention he gave us.
Every day after having polenta for lunch, I met up with my friends and bathed in the sea. The Italian authorities allowed this so us young people had fun, even on an empty stomach. I was 14 years old. My uncles were very serious people and hardly talked to me, and they also suffered from this whole situation. One was a widower, and the other had a family, a wife, two daughters, and grandchildren. All were taken to concentration camps where they did not come out alive. I do not know how my uncle was able to flee.
We stayed six months in this city of Novi-Vinodol. One day they warned us to get ready, that they were taking us to a camp in the town of Kralhevica. It was a small town on the coast. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire, and inside there were large tents made of wood. The men were separated from the women. There were many couples with children. I stayed in tent number three. The tent was full of bunk beds. My bunk was up near my friend. There were many young people, and there were middle-aged people and slightly older people.
The food that we got was not so bad. The Italians were good people with a heart. They made a little something different for the small children, with good food. There were sweets and desserts. The soldiers loved children. Since I was alone and my uncles were in the tents for men, they let me eat with these kids, so I always had good food.
There were many intellectuals at the camp. The teachers organized a school, and all of the children like me went to the school. It was very serious. We had exams and studied all subjects. The Italians gave us books, notebooks, pens. They were helpful. If it weren’t for that barbed wire around us, it would have been quite good. I met a boy who was four years older than me and started to meet up every day. We would sit anywhere and talk. There was a bit of the ocean that came into the camp, and we were allowed to bathe. So everyday young people bathed in the sea and soaked in the sun. Only there was no sand, and it was all small pebbles that hurt when we lay on top of them. The boy was called Branco, and we were together during our free time. I started to like him. I also think he liked me. Since I was alone, it felt good that someone was with me and liked me. I had a good friend, Beba, and we became close friends. She was with her mother. Everyone liked me, and I was the only child who was alone in that tent that had about 50 people. I was already a 14-year-old young lady. I worked in the kitchen with other women and went to school at the camp. I was washing my clothes and my uncles’ clothes who were in the men’s tents. There were several faucets in the sink where we washed. There was a sink for the women and a separate one
for the men. The hygiene was perfect. Those who had money could buy several things from the Italian soldiers, which was not my case. What was missing there was freedom. We were there for six to seven months when one day they told us to get ready to travel. We were all frightened and scared thinking they were going to deliver us to the German Nazi camps where there was only death. The soldiers calmed us down when they told us that we would go to another Italian camp on an island called Rab, and it was in Italian-occupied Yugoslavia.
This camp field was different. The tents were small and fit eight people, and there were no bunk beds. I stayed with my friend and her family. My uncles were with a few men. We did not go starve. For lunch, it was always pasta soup with some vegetables.
I continued dating, we were both well behaved, just kissing in front of the tent. But time also passed at this camp. We had school with our Jewish teachers. There I finished 8th grade. I was quite young. We gathered and talked a lot. Italian soldiers left us alone and so time went by. But one day there was a shuffle. The soldiers were leaving with trucks, and we were all watching and not understanding what was happening. But soon there was news that Italy [illegible] and those who were Yugoslavian soldiers who fought occupation by German Nazis would come to the camp and open the door and we were free. We were so happy. We could go wherever we wanted. I needed to get off the island, and there were no ships, only rafts. I joined with my uncles, and we crossed the sea.
We arrived on the mainland. As soon as we arrived on the mainland with those backpacks, we ran to hide from the German planes that were bombing the place. We climbed a huge mountain that was not very easy. We were so tired. After that, we lay on the ground to rest. In the end, we arrived in the city that was occupied by Partizans, our friends. They gave us food, and we spent the night in a school. The next day we moved to another city with trucks. As there were more trucks, my eldest uncle was in one truck and my other uncle in another with me, it so happened that my uncle was in another truck and they went to a different city. My other uncle and I were taken to another city, and so we were separated and only met when the war ended.
My uncle Jako and I went through various states. Often we were on foot. We often slept at the houses of country folk who were forced by Partisan soldiers to take us in. We received food. There was no bread. We had polenta and some potatoes. It wasn’t much, but we were starving. Walking and fleeing from the German army we were told when the Germans would get to some village. We would quickly flee to the mountains to hide. We knew to stay there until our Partizani soldiers warned us that the danger had passed. We would go back, or sometimes we would go to another place or another village. On these occasions, we had almost no food. We traded our clothes, blouses, shirts, pajamas and other things like that with the country folk for some food. So from 1943 to 1945 that is how we lived, with little food and very afraid of the Germans. Always running away from them. We feared them. They meant death to us.
After the war, Sharika went back to Sarajevo with her Uncle and re-united with surviving family members. This is where she met and married my grandfather Moritz Kabiljo, and my mother Vesna Kabiljo was born. Moritz, also Jewish, had the fortune of escaping the fascists during the war and lived on the run during this time period. After a few years living as a family in Sarajevo, they then made the decision to move to Israel for a fresh start.
After the move, Sharika loved that in Israel that she felt at home and she no longer had to hide the fact that she was Jewish. Life was simple but enjoyable, and it was here that they welcomed their son Avram into the world.
After a couple of years living in a situation where it was tough to make ends meet, they made the difficult decision to move to Brazil.
Brazil at this stage in history was a burgeoning economy and a land of opportunity for immigrants that wanted to get ahead with hard work. Moritz had a friend who had moved to Brazil who was doing very well in garment manufacturing and invited the Kabiljo family to move to Sao Paulo to take care of one of his factories. Hence, the family of four moved to Sao Paulo to ‘make a go of it.’ Moritz did very well and became a partner in the business. He eventually broke out into a successful garment manufacturing business on his own. The family settled in well and enjoyed life in their new country.
Their children Vesna and Avram have since had families of their own. Sadly Moritz passed away in 2011 and is very missed. Sharika is still going strong at 89 and lives in Sao Paulo. She enjoys the company of her two children, her five grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren who cherish, respect and adore their brave and resilient mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Thank you Sharika for sharing your heartfelt story with us.
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