Everybody has a story: WWII survivor, family ‘the lucky ones’

Yugoslavians endured fear, hardship

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It was 1942 and life was not good for my family in Yugoslavia. They were poor farmers eking a living off the land. Communist partisans controlled the countryside, and people were randomly being killed or made to disappear. My aunt did not listen to warnings, and as she opened the door of her house, with a baby in her arms, she was shot and killed. The baby was my cousin, and my grandmother raised her.

In late 1942, my family decided to flee to what they thought was a safer place, taking only what they could carry, including an infant, me, to Germany. We didn’t know what was to come.

During the worst part of the war, my parents were forced to work on a German farm next to a holding camp where people were housed before being shipped to concentration camps and certain death. It was only by the grace of God that we were saved from a similar fate. I remember going to bed with my clothes on and running at night when the sirens started warning us of air raids. We ran for the bunkers with me on my father’s shoulders. I was always afraid the bombs would get my grandmother, who could not run as fast.

(In 1998, my husband and I took a trip to Germany and discovered that the camp where we were placed just before the war ended was only one kilometer from what became East Germany. If we had been located in a neighboring village, we would not have had an opportunity to immigrate. The East German guard towers were still standing. This chilled me to the bone.)

After the war, we were in the British occupied zone. We lived in barracks, four families to a room, on rations. Each refugee camp contained several nationalities, and I was educated in one-room schoolhouses, exposed to German, Polish, Yugoslav languages. My early memories are walking to school and passing tanks and bombed-out buildings.

One of the camps where we lived had woods that we played in, but as soon as it got dark we all ran for shelter. It was said that ghosts wandered at night, as this was a place where hundreds of people were buried in mass graves. We found helmets, guns, boots and bomb shells. All the children were warned not to touch or play with the shells. We heard that children were killed when some of the bombs went off.

My grandmother and I would take walks and pick cigarette butts and take them back to the barracks, where they would be re-rolled into smokes for my father and grandfather. It was normal to forage in garbage cans for food, to scrounge in wheat fields and potato fields that had already been picked over.

Five-year wait

After the war, many countries accepted refugees but each had a quota. Canada and Australia were open, but we wanted to go to the United States, as did so many other people. The U.S. quota was full, so we waited in refugee camps for five years until our turn came.

We boarded the USS General M.L. Hersey, a transport ship, in Hamburg in 1951 with a thousand other immigrants and were finally on our way to America. Our worldly possessions consisted of only what we could carry. My mother was pregnant with her sixth baby. It took 12 days to reach Ellis Island. I still have the tag that I wore around my neck, stamped “Hersey #272.” I was 10 years old.

As we came off the ship, we were lined up in this warehouse-like structure and sprayed with a white powder for lice. After all the immigration legalities were done, we stayed for a week in New York City. We had never seen such tall buildings. A hotel room was something new to us. Everything was new and big, and none of us spoke a word of English.

Out of the thousand, only two families, we one of them, traveled to the West Coast. While waiting for the train in Grand Central Station in New York, someone picked my father’s pocket of the $3 that he had for food. We were hungry, but kind people helped us. It took us almost a week to cross the country to Portland. Our sponsor and the Yugoslav community in Portland helped my parents find jobs and a house.

After 60 years, one of the things that I had on my “bucket list” was a visit back to Ellis Island. My husband and I made the trip this past September. It was surreal seeing Lady Liberty close up and walking through the Ellis Island buildings. When I saw the island in 1951, it was run down, and it closed in 1954. Today it has been beautifully restored. I found our family name on the Wall of Remembrance and touched it with a sad and tearful heart.

The tour of Ellis Island given by a ranger was very informative, and it was sad to hear about all the immigrants who never made it through the island, or who were dumped into cities with no jobs and no place to stay. What a hard life they must have had.

I asked the guide why there was no mention of the immigrants, like us, who came through after World War II. He replied, “because you were displaced people with no papers and no country.” That brought tears to my eyes, but we were the lucky ones. America gave us a job, a safe home and most of all freedom, and a life without fear. No more running from bombs.

My parents are gone now but all 11 children have worked hard, prospered and been very happy in this land of freedom.

Everybody has a story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. E-mail is the best way to send materials so we don’t have to retype your words or borrow original photos. Send to neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA 98666. Call Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.