I Thought Liberation Would Be a Happy Story

The following is an excerpt from Between Two Worlds: Jewish War Brides after the Holocaust by Robin Judd, which is available wherever books are sold.

“A fresh perspective on the aftermath of trauma . . . . Drawing on rich archival sources, historian Judd makes her book debut with a sensitive, well-researched history of marriages between survivors of the Holocaust and American, British, and Canadian military personnel . . . . Judd’s stories of “loss, recovery, power, and unbelonging” stand as testimony to the triumph of survival.”

Kirkus Reviews


When the Nazis and their allies invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, fifteen-year-old Flory Kabilio, her mother Rosa, and her stepfather Michael lived in Zagreb. Flory’s nona (grandmother), uncles, aunts, and cousins lived in Sarajevo, about 230 miles away, and after Germany rapidly partitioned the country, Flory and her family lost touch with them. Refugees fleeing the “Jerusalem of Europe” reported that the Nazis and their allies had destroyed Sarajevo’s Great Sephardic Synagogue and made the city’s streets unsafe for its Jews. Flory and her parents worried about their relatives and agonized over their own safety as they experienced increasing harassment and anti-Jewish violence. Daily life for Jews in Zagreb had become extremely difficult. Jews had to register with special government authorities, wear badges identifying themselves as Jews, live in specific areas, hand over their property and businesses, and refrain from working in a wide range of professions.

As the anti-Jewish harassment intensified in Zagreb during the spring of 1941, Flory’s parents devised a plan for them to flee the city. Flory—and then Rosa and Michael—would travel seven hours by train to the Croatian port city of Split, where they would be met by a close family friend. The Italians had formally annexed Split, and the Kabilios had heard that, unlike the German military, the Italian army refrained from implementing anti-Jewish laws. Hoping that they would be safe in Split, they and thousands of other Jews made the trek from cities and villages across Yugoslavia to the port city. But Split did not remain a sanctuary for long. Locals destroyed the synagogue and Jewish-owned businesses and homes, and, beginning in the summer of 1941, Italian forces interned Jewish refugees. Within a few months of the Kabilios’ arrival in the Croatian city, they were sent to an Italian-controlled refugee camp on the island of Korčula. Flory and her parents lived there for over a year. She spent her days offering music lessons to other refugee children and wandering among the island’s olive groves, sandy beaches, vineyards, and pine forests, likely scavenging for food.

Split did not remain a sanctuary for long.

Flory, Michael, and Rosa had hoped to stay in Korčula for the remainder of the war. However, in October 1943, as Italian forces withdrew from Yugoslavia and the Germans approached, British and partisan forces suddenly evacuated a group of Jews from Korčula to southern Italy. Recognizing that Jews on the island would be at risk when the Germans arrived, these soldiers insisted that all women and children leave immediately. Flory and her mother were swept up in the first round of evacuations. Her stepfather Michael, who had been granted permission to temporarily leave the island, was not. When Flory and Rosa were pushed onto a tugboat and forced to leave their few remaining possessions behind, they had no idea whether they would be reunited with Michael or even survive the harrowing journey at sea. Upon reaching Bari, then under British control, they experienced “liberation” with some ambivalence. They were alone, with no financial resources, in a city where they knew no one and, because they did not comfortably speak Italian, could not easily communicate with the residents.

Sala Solarcz lived hundreds of miles—and worlds—away from Flory. Her liberation took place two and a half years later. In fact, in October 1943, as Flory and her mother landed “safely” in Bari, Sala began her tenth month as a prisoner in Auschwitz and her thirty-sixth month in confinement. Sala’s wartime experiences had begun earlier than Flory’s. In September 1939, she was outside with her siblings when she spotted German airplanes flying overhead. Close to several military bases, Sala’s lakeside town of Seroc, Poland, experienced heavy bombing during the early days of the war. Fearing for their own safety, Sala’s large Hasidic family gathered a few of their most treasured items and traveled the twenty-five miles to Warsaw. The Warsaw Jewish community was the largest in both Poland and Europe, and the Solarcz family hoped to find refuge there.

Flory and her mother were swept up in the first round of evacuations. Her stepfather Michael, who had been granted permission to temporarily leave the island, was not.

The family’s flight to Warsaw failed to protect them. Once they reached the capital, they had to separate. Demands for housing outpaced availability, and it was impossible for them to all dwell under a single roof. Shelter, food, and fuel were difficult to acquire in a city that had been crowded even before the war had begun. Warsaw was besieged by both a continuous stream of refugees and heavy air attacks and artillery bombardment. After German troops occupied the city on September 29, 1939, conditions swiftly deteriorated for Sala and the other Jews there. Violence on the streets became commonplace, and the German civilian occupation authorities increasingly implemented anti-Jewish measures. In November, they required Warsaw’s Jews to identify themselves by wearing white armbands with a blue Star of David. They soon confiscated Jewish-owned property, dissolved prewar Jewish organizations, closed Jewish schools, and compelled Jewish men to participate in forced labor. One year later, in October 1940, the Nazis required all Jewish residents of Warsaw to move into a designated area, which the authorities later sealed off from the rest of the city with a ten-foot-high wall.

Robin Judd is associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, where she directs the Hoffman Leaders and Leadership in History Fellowship program.