My parents begged my aunt, who perished, to leave Yugoslavia with us, but her husband was serving in the Yugoslav cavalry and rumored to be returning home and she wanted to wait for him. Neither she nor her children were ever seen again. My father’s sister and her family went to the U.S.A. in the 1930’s and his two brothers went to Israel along with their mother.
I was born in a bomb shelter in Skopje, Yugoslavia on April 15, 1941, during the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia. Within a few days of my birth, my family left Yugoslavia. My parents, my brother, Morris and my maternal grandparents, Beja and Benveniste Kamhi left the country on foot, each taking turns carrying the newborn baby. The first temporary destination for the family was Albania and we stayed in Albania for approximately a year, moving and hiding with other groups of refugees, always a bit under the radar. Eventually, conditions forced us to seek refuge in Bari, Italy. We ended up living in a villa overlooking the Adriatic Sea. My father supported us by becoming a bootlegger and selling the wine he made to the Italian soldiers. Our family was able to stay in Italy until the assassination of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini in 1943. My family’s first attempt to leave Italy failed when the boat that we were on struck a mine and was sunk. We were in the water in a lifeboat and wearing lifejackets and after three or four hours we were finally rescued by a British cargo ship and returned to Naples. In the summer of 1944, under the orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a group of 982 refugees were allowed to board a ship, The Henry Gibbons, in Naples Italy. The six members of my family that had originally left Yugoslavia together survived after many close calls to be part of this group. We had to sign a statement that we would only be visiting the United States and would go back to our country after the war. We were then able to board the ship along with many wounded Allied soldiers being taken to the United States.
I always say that there were three times when I almost didn’t live to tell my story. The first occurred when we were trying to go to Albania; we were with other refugees and the infants had all been placed in a barn and covered with hay. Water rats came and began to gnaw on and mutilate the infants, but my grandfather walked in just in time and saved me. The second event was one where my mother’s knowledge of languages saved my life. We were with a group of refugees in Albania and a German patrol came in and saw us. I was a blond, chunky baby and a German soldier picked me up and called me “a good German baby.” I was wearing a vest, but underneath the vest I had a t-shirt that my mother had embroidered with a Star of David, thinking that it would protect me, but if the soldier had seen the t-shirt underneath the vest, it would have cost me my life. My mother came up to the soldier and started talking to him in German and he just put me down and I crawled away. The third event was when we were on the boat that sunk… I’m happy that I am here!
My family came to the United States of America. On arrival in the United States, the refugee group was processed on Ellis Island and then loaded onto a train as a group and taken to a designated refugee camp in Oswego, New York. Camp Ontario, at that time referred to as the “Safe Haven Project,” was the only refugee camp ever commissioned in the United States for the protection and refuge of Holocaust survivors. Many of the refugees when they arrived at the camp saw the fort-like enclosure with barbed wire and feared that they had been taken to a concentration camp much like the ones in Europe. However, their fears were quickly overcome by the kind treatment they received from the camp officials and the citizens of the nearby town. At last we refugees had secure housing, food to eat and schools for our children. We were allowed to govern ourselves, and gradually we were released under the guidance of reliable sponsors. When my aunt and uncle came to the camp to visit us, they were surprised to see me; they didn’t know that I had been born.
After FDR (President Roosevelt) died and Harry Truman became president, he signed an executive order while Congress was on Christmas recess, which gave us a chance to either stay in America or to go elsewhere. One day, while we were still at the camp, my parents were having a discussion about where we should go when we left the camp. My dad wanted to go to Caracas because he had a friend who lived there, but my mother wanted to stay in the United States. There was a knock at the door and my mother recognized the lady at the door and told me to let her in….it was Eleanor Roosevelt. She had come to check with our family and others at the camp to see if we were being treated well and to find out if we knew what we wanted to do. My mother won the argument…we stayed in America.
I worked on the Brooklyn waterfront unloading ships, I was making good money, but I realized that I didn’t want to be doing this 25 or 30 years later. My attitude changed when I was working on the pier…that experience really “rang my bell.” I realized that in order to better my life, I would need to go to college and prepare myself for a career.
I earned a B.S. and an M.A. degree from Murray State University in Kentucky. Going to Murray State University in the sixties was a real learning experience because I became aware of race issues. I was the first Jew to pledge the Sigma Chi fraternity but I never had a derogatory incident. I also remember what a shock it was when I first saw “black” and “white” water fountains. Once I remember a young black man asking me if he could use my water fountain because his was not working….it really surprised me and I said, “You’ve got to be kidding…you can take a bath in it for all I care!” I also remember an incident in 1962 when several of my friends and I were eating at a restaurant called The Hut and Stewart Johnson, the basketball player, came in. One of the owners told Stewart that he couldn’t serve him and Stewart left. Without saying a word everybody got up and walked out. The owner came out and told Stewart that he would be welcome to come back in and be served.
Later, I earned an E.D.S. degree from Eastern Michigan University. I served as a teacher, football coach, athletic director, vocational director and associate principal during my 45 years with the Garden City School System before retiring in June, 2009. I was also the owner of the Arrow Driving School and the Great Lakes Driving School.
My family settled in Brooklyn, New York where I grew up in an Italian neighborhood. When I had my Bar Mitzvah (to admit as an adult of the Jewish community, at age 13), my Italian friends all attended. I had so many learning experiences growing up in my neighborhood; friends made during those years have remained friends throughout my life, and I am very proud of that!
My father initially went to work at Nathan’s in Coney Island and later went to work at a tin can factory. My mother went to work at an artificial flower factory in Brooklyn, the people there called her “Daisy” and the name stuck with her for the rest of her life. My dad became successful later in life; he belonged to a Yugoslavian club with a lot of other Sephardic Jews (A Jew of Spanish or Portuguese or North African descent) and one of them helped him get a job running the hat check and cigar-cigarette concessions at the Commodore Hotel and later at the Astor Hotel, “the” hotel in New York at the time. Later he also had contracts with the St. Regis, the Pierre and the Delmonico among others. My brother tried to become a photographer, but their union didn’t allow Jews at the time. He was drafted for the Korean War and later got into the clothing business. My maternal grandfather became a lay cantor in Brooklyn.
I was married to my wife Martha in 1964 in Mayfield, Kentucky. We had our engagement party at the Astor in New York City. There was also a debutante ball in the hotel that same night. Julie Nixon, the daughter of Richard Nixon, was one of the debutantes and her escort was David Eisenhower whom she later married. We had the pleasure of being introduced to them after the party when we saw them, and Richard Nixon congratulated my parents on our upcoming wedding.