By Jack Neworth
Whenever Oscar, the golden retriever, and I go for a walk, it’s obvious who’s walking whom. I’m just the schnook holding the leash.
Once, Oscar befriended a wise-looking, elderly woman sitting on a Venice boardwalk bench enjoying the sunset. She astutely observed that Oscar seemed more human than canine. As she petted him she shared with me a little about her life.
Salome was born in 1923 into a Jewish family living in Antwerp, Belgium. On May 10th, 1940, she was startled awake by the terrifying sound of the Germans bombing the harbor. Within 48 hours she, her sister Doris and their mother (father had passed away) were on a train to France, never to return to Belgium again.
They spent eight days packed into that train which had no bathrooms and often no food. Out the window Salome saw desperate souls walking dazed or passed out, suitcases and bundles scattered over the landscape.
Salome’s family wound up at a French government “Welcoming Center” for refugees. There were artists, professors, musicians, actors, and politicians. It was like a college education for seventeen-year-old Salome.
But, as Germany spread it’s occupation throughout France, the “Welcoming Center” morphed into a barbed wire concentration camp with food rations cut to subsistence levels. Doris, who was flirtatious with the guards to obtain information, learned that the camp was going to be “liquidated.” That night they escaped.
They managed to board a train for Marseilles, and upon arriving felt enormous relief. Then they spotted French collaborators with the Nazis, inspecting documents. Nearby were trucks to take the undocumented persons to what likely would be death camps. Salome suddenly noticed the “toilette” sign and suspected that there might be a door that exited onto the street. She was right, and, once again, her family was saved.
In 1942, Jews were being arrested everywhere. During nightfall, Salome’s family sneaked from place to place to stay one step ahead of the Nazis. Doris had befriended members of the resistance who planned a dangerous escape to Switzerland.
While waiting, Salome’s family lived in caves by the ocean reachable through a railroad tunnel. One night the tide came in so high that they feared they might drown.
In the tunnel, Salome remembers hugging the walls when a train suddenly roared through, and restraining her distraught mother who wanted to throw herself under the train.
As per the plan, with their last money, they took a train to Chamonix, near the Swiss border. But collaborators boarded and began checking documents. Among those dragged away, and likely put to death was a family with three children, all of whom Salome knew well.
The collaborators were approaching Salome when suddenly a whistle blew and they hurriedly exited the train. Fate had spared their lives once again.
From Chamonix, Salome’s family began their journey. If caught, the Swiss military would send them back. But if they sneaked over the border they would be refugees and allowed to stay.
They met their “contact,” who was dressed as a priest. He gave them a map to avoid the border guards. Using their flashlight sparingly, they hiked in the darkness. Every time they rested Salome’s mother begged to leave her behind so they might live.
After twenty hours crossing the Alps, Salome heard the sound of cowbells. They were in Switzerland! The family hugged.
In 1943 Salome met her future husband, Bert. (To avoid the Nazis he had swum across the Rhine, arriving in Zurich barefoot.) They married in 1944, came to America in 1946 and became U.S. citizens in 1951.
After raising two children, Salome went to UCLA, received a Masters Degree in two foreign languages, and taught college for seven years. She and Bert were married for 51 years until his death in 1995.
Today, Salome is 86, with eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Her mother lived to be 94. Her sister, Doris, whom Salome phones weekly, still lives in Zurich.
Most of Salome’s extended family did not survive the Holocaust. And yet the idea of mechanized mass murder is still inconceivable to her. Remarkably, she always looks for the best in humanity. “After all, “she says optimistically, “think about how many people risked their lives to save mine.”
A voracious reader, Salome’s active in politics. She’s passionately anti-war and anti-racism. Locally, she supports nurses who are battling St. John’s Hospital for the right to unionize. She also favors the rights of undocumented workers. When some of her grandchildren disagree, she points out that had she not been given undocumented haven in Switzerland, none of them would have been born.
Reflecting on her survivor experiences, Salome says, “They are the foundation for who I am today.” Perhaps they’re the source of her abundant wisdom. One thing’s for sure: Oscar introduces me to the most amazing people.