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Jan 16, 2009

We have survived

Dr. Paul Münch

Dr. Paul Münch was born on March 29th 1924 in Vienna, Austria. Several years later the family moved to Belgrade where he completed elementary school and seven grades of high school until the German occupation in 1941. At the end of 1941 he managed to escape from Belgrade and lived in hiding at the Croatian coast until the end of the war. In the spring of 1945 he joined the Partisans and continued his military service until 1947. After his discharge from the army he studied two years of Mechanical Engineering in Belgrade and two years of Shipbuilding in Zagreb.

In the spring of 1951 he left for Israel and worked at the Haifa power station.
From 1953 to 1955 he continued his studies in Genova (Italy) and received a Doctorate in Marine Engineering at the end of 1955. From 1956 to 1958 he worked in the Navy in Haifa, and from then on at the Shipping and Ports Administration of the Ministry of Transportation as Chief Naval Architect and Coordinator of International Relations. During his 32 years at the Ministry he coordinated the State inspection of shipbuilding for the Israeli flag, starting from the ships built in the framework of German reparations and up to the modern car ferries and container ships. He represented Israel at many conferences at the International Maritime Organization.

He retired in 1989. Since that date, he was technical adviser to the Port of Hadera and to the Ministry of the Environment. He translated several books – among them three books by historian Jennie Lebel from Hebrew and Serbian to English and specifications of a new chocolate production line from German to Hebrew.

He is married and has two sons, a granddaughter in New Zealand, a grandson in South Africa and two grandsons in Israel.

Alexander Münch
March 28th, 2006


Dear Alex,
Enclosed my contribution to the collection "We have survived" – published by the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade.
Love - Aba


Author: Paul Münch Nov. 2002
(Translated from Serbo-Croatian - March 2006)



I was seventeen in the spring of 1941. I lived in the garden suburb of Dedinje with my parents, Alexander and Alice and attended the Second Male High School in Poincaré Street. On March 24 Prime Minister Dragiša Cvetkoviċ left for Vienna to sign the accession of Yugoslavia to the Tripartite Pact (Germany, Italy, and Japan). That evening, Belgrade radio played Schubert's "unfinished" symphony in B minor which I had heard for the first time three years earlier, when Hitler annexed Austria.

On the next day Yugoslavia joined the Tripartite Pact. Demonstrations started in Belgrade. Special editions of the newspapers were burnt, Yugoslav and English flags were raised, as well as pictures of Hitler on the gallows. In the afternoon of March 26, a large group from our high school made its way through Terazije square to the Second Female High School. After several hundred students from other schools had joined us, we returned to our High School, singing the national anthem and cheering the King, Yugoslavia and the army. Many townspeople joined us and so a large procession reached the centre of town – there the gendarmes awaited us with clubs and finally dispersed the whole demonstration.

On the following day General Simoviċ came to power in a military putsch. We all started preparing for the war that would inevitably follow these events. We exchanged addresses for the case of evacuation, for some of my friends intended to take refuge in villages, while our fathers had to decide whether to join the army or not. My father decided to do so, although he had not been called up.

On the morning of April 6 the bombing of Belgrade started. We were sitting in the cellar and from time to time went out to see the town in flames and smoke at a distance. The bombing lasted two days; water and electricity supplies stopped. The exodus of big masses of people took place from the town to the suburbs, and our house filled up. After several days all our illusions about a "front" were shattered – the Germans entered town. Some German officers came, seized one room in our house and stuck a note on the door that said that the whole house was requisitioned for the "Wehrwirtschaftsstab" (Military Economic Headquarters).

On April 16, the streets of Belgrade awoke to the notorious order for all Jews to report to Tašmajdan (seat of the fire brigade), with the warning, which would become routine from then on, that those who did not come would be shot. I and my family followed the order and were at Tašmajdan as early as 7.30 a.m. After long hours of waiting, they gave us yellow armbands with the words JUDE – JEVREJIN printed on them and ordered us to return the next day. Then we got some kind of identity cards with various seals and were divided into groups of 40. Work started on April 21. Each group was led by one fireman. We cleaned ruins, carried corpses, dug toilets and did other similar work. After several days my father returned from the army which had disintegrated before the German onslaught.
One day I participated in a German "show": they had caught us, several tens of Jews returning from forced labor. Accompanied by dogs, shouting and threats, they chased us to the Old Palace in the centre of town, were they forced us to jump over the fence. In the palace garden we carried bricks from one heap to another, all at a fast pace, to the curses and blows of 4-5 soldiers, while on the opposite sidewalk a group of citizens assembled and watched the "show" in silence. They released us late in the evening. The curfew was approaching and thus I had to spend the night in town with my friend Bubiša Simiċ for I could not return home in time. Next day, when I returned home, I learnt that my uncle Adolph had committed suicide – he had seen a black future without hope from the beginning of the occupation, and already at Tašmajdan he was saying he wished the Germans would kill him.

At the beginning of May, Prince George arrived at our house unexpectedly – he was the older brother of King Alexander and had spent several years in a mental hospital near Niš. After his liberation, he was brought to our house with two servants, two cooks and two chauffeurs – the five of us squeezed into four rooms, while the rest of the house was at the Prince's disposal. I continued with the forced labor until the middle of June, when I was dismissed for medical reasons.

In July the Prince moved with his entourage to another house nearby, and we moved to a flat in town, in Birčaninova Street. So we left the house in Dedinje after ten years that were the height of success in the life of my parents – from then on all went downhill for them and they both lived in a small one-room flat to the end of their days – my mother until 1967, and my father for ten more years.

And so August came. I was mostly sitting at home. Sometimes one of my friends came to visit (they had finished seventh grade, and I of course had not) and I rarely left the flat, fearing that my "sick leave" would be taken away and I would be forced to go back to work. We planned to go to the Rtanj mines in Eastern Serbia which belonged mainly to the Münch family, but could not carry out the plan: the Germans occupied the mines after an attack by the Partisans.

On September 14 my father was caught on the street together with some 500 other Jews and brought to the Topovske Šupe concentration camp. Mother visited him on the next day and brought him a blanket and food. He was released after24 hours and returned home. On October 8 there was a general revision of all "sick leaves"; father and I were assigned to places of work and from then on we worked until six in the evening. One day we found ourselves at Topovske Šupe again. We were taken there directly from work.

On the way our guard treated us to two liters of wine, and we arrived in the camp about 2 p.m. During the day all Jewish workers were brought in, so we were about 1200 – 1400. I immediately found my father too. We were sleeping in stables and soldiers' quarters, on a thin layer of straw on the ground, pressed closely together. We went to work from the camp. After several very tiring and unpleasant places of work, I managed to join Father's group, near the railway station, where the work was easier.

Every day between 12 and 13 the women came to visit us there, while at the camp visits took place on Wednesdays and Sundays from 9 to 11 and 2 to 4 p.m. The food we got in the camp: in the morning a hot and bitter brew of barley, at noon and in the evening a hot meal (two or three spoonfuls of beans, potatoes and cabbage), and in the afternoon about 100 grams of bread. Therefore mother brought us food from home. We were living in two big buildings consisting of stables and soldiers' quarters upstairs.
In addition there were offices, an economic department, a kitchen, a watchmaker's shop, a barber shop and a carpenter – all of course quite primitive.

We got up at 6, mostly even earlier, and to bed at 8 p.m. The camp's inmates were from the first day subject to a mass psychosis of fear and despair, and there were several cases of suicide. Each day a transport of 100 – 200 persons left for a destination unknown to us. From October 30 we did not go to work any more.

After some ten days, about one thousand Gypsies were brought in, and were subsequently taken away over the next few days. Many of them came with their musical instruments; on the day after their arrival they organized an orchestra and played their farewell concert in the courtyard – among others, the ouverture to "The Barber of Sevilla" by Rossini. After the concert, the Germans broke their instruments and burned them on a big stake, and trucks took a large group of them to an unknown destination.

From a report by Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Walther to his superiors, I learnt after the war that on October 27 and 30, 1941, groups of Jews and Gypsies were executed north of Pančevo. The report contains some interesting details: the execution was carried out quite swiftly, about 100 persons in 40 minutes; the Jews went to their death composed and calm, while the Gypsies wailed and shouted. At the end the German officer comments that the execution itself does not immediately cause mental distress to the soldiers, but only later, in the evening, when they calmly reflect about it all…

A little stunned by the wine, I entered the camp rather quietly. I got quickly used to the fleas and the crowding, the hard resting place, the barley "coffee" and the cabbage. In the first days I was in a bad mood because of the hard work and exhaustion. The reading of names for the transport tore at my nerves in the beginning, as well as the shouting of the SS soldiers. With time I got used to the transports and the shouting. When work was finished, we were sitting in the carpenter shop where we heated ourselves and our food on a stove. After we were released from the camp at the beginning of November, father and I arrived home on an open horse – drawn cart about half past one; then we washed and changed our clothes.
Our discharge from the camp was for a long time shrouded in mystery. There was a version that it was the work of Ljilja Podkaminer, a friend of our family, through Egon Sabukoschek, the Commissar for Jews in Belgrade, whom she knew from the time when they both studied medicine; there was another version – that the German commissar who had been appointed to operate the Rtanj Coal Mine asked for the temporary release of my father so that he could "hand over" the affairs of the mine. And the third version, well documented and most credible, which my father confirmed in an official declaration after the war, was the intervention of his childhood friends, the brothers George and Dušan Roche.

While we were in the camp, my late aunt Lisa, Adolph's widow, intervened with some general in the command of the town of Belgrade, who answered that he could not even assure her that we had not already been executed. This message caused my mother a nervous breakdown, and she never recovered from the shock.

After the camp there were three attempted escapes: in the first instance, my father paid a large sum to a gang that smuggled people out of Serbia, but they were either caught or reported voluntarily to the police.

On November 13 the Serb police, including a Jewish agent, searched our flat, arrested the three of us and took us to a prison at the beginning of Alexander Street. They released us after several days of interrogations.

On November 18 there was an unsuccessful attempt to flee. There was a gang again; we sat in the waiting room of the railway station, with our luggage, and then they told us that on that evening they could not smuggle us out of the country for the German guards whom they had bribed were not on duty. We returned to our flat by taxi during the curfew, but the Tuvi family, who also waited to escape with us, was caught by the Germans and all perished.

The third attempt succeeded: the Roche brothers intervened with the German and Italian authorities and got us authentic traveling papers with an Italian visa. And so, on the evening of November 27, 1941, we left by sleeping car to Zagreb and Sušak.

By mid-December 1941 Belgrade had practically already become ‘Judenrein’ or ‘Judenfrei’ - cleaned or freed of Jews. This was over one month before the famous Wannsee Conference near Berlin (January 20th, 1942), which officially decided on the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. In the other countries of occupied Europe Jews continued to live, although under terrible, inhumane conditions.

A memorial park was dedicated on the site of the Topovske Šupe camp after more than 60 years, on January 27, 2006, on the day dedicated by the United Nations to the memory of the Holocaust victims.

* * * * *

KRALJEVICA 1941-1943

We arrived in Sušak in the evening; a porter met us at the railway station and took our suitcases to a hotel near the Post Office. After dinner we went quickly to bed and fell asleep. On the next day, Father tried to obtain permission to cross the bridge to the Italian territory, but the police refused. We were afraid that they would expel us back to the "Independent State of Croatia" and to certain death for we did not believe that our special documents could guarantee our safety there. After a few days, we got the address of the Medved family and went to hide in their flat, reached by stairs from the Sea Promenade. After two or three days of hiding, they put us on a bus to Kraljevica, down the coast on the territory of Croatia, but under Italian military administration. We did not know what to expect there and where afraid of Ustašas and Croat soldiers – domobrani.

However, at the bus stop some old women awaited the passengers and carried our suitcases on their heads to the Hotel "Praha" on the Oštro peninsula. At that time, only refugees lived in the hotel: two ladies from Vienna, the Popper family, also from Vienna, the Karfunkel family, and an innkeeper from the province of Lika with his wife and two sons. They had all fled to Kraljevica via Zagreb.

From our room we had a marvelous view of the sea and the coast – first the lighthouse, further Bakar, Rijeka, the Učka mountain and all of Istria, while the circle was closed by the islands of Cres, Krk and St. Marko. Here we spent the winter and spring; in the winter I often visited Branko Poliċ, a refugee from Zagreb, who lived in town with his parents and had a piano . Branko later became my marriage witness and now lives in Zagreb. In the spring, the swimming started and filled my days more and more.

In June 1942 we managed to move to Villa Capponi, a house with a garden on the beach. In the summer time passed quickly with swimming, our beach was visited by many local people, particularly young ones. With the arrival of autumn and winter the days became shorter. I filled them by doing domestic chores, going to town, going to play the piano near Branko and in Walter Scott's house in Grabrova, and mostly by studying, reading and meditating on the problems of life. In November the Italians took all Jews to a newly arranged camp. Since we had arrived in Kraljevica later and were nowhere registered as Jews, we remained outside the camp.
Thus another winter went by and the year 1943 began, which was similar to the previous one until the fall. On September 8 Italy capitulated and from then on everything changed from the ground up. The Italian army left and the Partisans arrived.

I answered the call for a general mobilization and after a few days found myself "in the woods", that is to say in the hills above Kraljevica, in an Italian uniform and a red star on my cap, and with a gun from which I had never fired a bullet. While we new-baked Partisans assembled on the mountains, the Germans dropped leaflets saying that "the SS divisions were coming over the mountains with the torch of freedom to drive out the Communist gangs". And for the first time in my life I felt that I also had a gun and around me an army that would throw them back or at least inflict heavy casualties on them. This feeling was quite different from the mute and passive terror with which we awaited the Germans in the spring of 1941.

My unit entered Sušak and settled in a school when the Germans were already near Rijeka; throughout the night a procession of refugees passed on their way down the coast, to the southeast. In the morning the Germans crossed the bridge over the Rečina, which divides Sušak from Rijeka. While my unit moved down to the center of town, a column with dead and wounded Partisans moved in the opposite direction.

We took up position at the Pyramid, at an intersection leading to the bridge – five or six of us with machine guns and heavy metal boxes containing the ammunition. When the German motorcycles approached at a slow pace, and the armored units behind them, we retreated up the stairs to the shelter below the High School. This shelter, a long tunnel drilled in the rock, was already full of Partisans from various units.

We remained in it for a long time, blocked by German fire aimed at the entrance to the tunnel. Finally the order was given for a rapid breakout from the trap. So we all continued from the shelter, through the fire of German mortars, up the "High School Stairs". Several of us who carried heavy loads fell behind and took shelter in a house to catch our breath, while the rest of the unit continued up the stairs and at their top fell into the hands of the Germans who were already moving along the Boulevard and killed them all.

When we realized that we were completely surrounded, the six of us decided to await the evening and try to cross the front line in civilian clothes and join the Partisans somewhere on the way to Bakar. One girl, a veteran and experienced Partisan, started first and disappeared between the houses, after her Prinz, our comrade from Kraljevica started to move. A hidden German sniper discovered him and killed him after he had taken a few steps on the grass. So four of us remained – three men from Kraljevica and I. In the evening we ventured out into the empty streets and moved along the coast to Martinščica and further, but were stopped by shots from the sea and from shore. It was already dark, so we spent the night in some shallow caves near the shore, opposite Martinščica. During the night a Partisan boat tried to reach Sušak from the South. The Germans opened fire, searchlights circled along the rocks, but they did not discover us.

Only on the next morning, at dawn, the Germans in a bunker at the end of the "Peċine"quarter discovered us from afar, pointed their machine guns at us and gave us signs to approach them. There was nowhere to escape and so we started moving toward them. They signaled us to go down to the small shipyard and to wait there. There we spent most of the day, always in sight of their machine gun, and in late afternoon they collected us together with other "prisoners", formed a transport of sorts and marched us back towards Sušak. We were many, mostly soldiers from disintegrated Partisan units, and our escort was a small number of German soldiers and noncommissioned officers.
My comrades from Kraljevica, who knew the town well, decided that we could escape from the long convoy by jumping over the wall dividing the street from the grounds of the "Park Hotel". So the five of us found ourselves in front of the hotel, on the other side of the wall; we immediately went down to the changing cabins of the hotel beach and hid in them overnight, while the shooting went on from sea and shore. The column of "prisoners" had long disappeared, the streets were empty. On the next morning some girls from the neighboring houses came and brought us something to eat.

The five of us were looking for work and found it: the municipal gardener organized the first cleaning of the streets and ruins and fed the volunteers from a big kettle of beans which stood on a fireplace in the municipal plant nursery. We slept for several nights in a house that belonged to the uncle of one of my comrades at arms; after some days we split up. The younger ones remained in that house while I and an elder man from Kraljevica slept a few nights in the railway tunnel, which at the time served as a shelter to many.

My parents remained in Kraljevica, cut off from Sušak by the frontline that advanced slowly down the coast. The learnt the "authentic" news from somebody that I had died in the fighting at Klana, north of Sušak and were in mourning for their dead son. When after some ten days the frontline had swept over Kraljevica, I contacted them through friends. Only when they had grasped that I had survived, I returned to Kraljevica at the beginning of October.

It was clear to me that I could not go on with the life of a refugee with my parents in Kraljevica, partly for economic reasons, but mainly because after the tempestuous events I could not return to the vicious circle of nostalgia, idleness and daydreaming. I returned to Sušak where I did some temporary work and met my friend from the Partisans, Lujo Margetiċ, law student who had escaped from the Ustašas in Zagreb. We moved together into an attic below the Promenade.

Since I did not have a "correct" identity card, I contacted, probably following somebody's recommendation, a girl employed as a clerk at the police; she wrote me an identity card without asking too many questions, according to the data I gave her: the name and date of birth remained identical, but I became a Serb, born in Belgrade. Thus I acquired a new identity and a new girlfriend with whom I spent the war years and later my whole life. ( My high light - A.M.)

After several jobs, I got one with the Town Physician, Dr. Vojnoviċ, who had come to Sušak on a cart, hidden in a barrel, fleeing the Ustašas because he was an Orthodox Serb. The municipality and all local institutions were set up by local politicians. The municipality was headed by Mayor – Senator Kolacio, while the German Military Administration limited itself to appointing "advisers", headed by a Chief Adviser who was installed in the former Questura (Police Headquarters) in Rijeka.

At the end of 1943, the town physician's main concern was the former internees who had been released from the camps in South Italy after Mussolini's capitulation. They were returning on foot to their homes in Dalmatia and Montenegro – first going north to Trieste, and from there further through Istria, Rijeka and Sušak. We had two main problems: the official one was the temporary accommodation and feeding of hundreds and thousands of former internees, and the unofficial one: to transfer as many young men as possible "to the woods", i.e. to the Partisans instead of letting them return to their homes in occupied Dalmatia and Montenegro.

This second aim was known to the whole municipal administration, the police, the food administration, the town physician and others. We only concealed it from the German and Italian administrations and thus they actually fed the Partisans without knowing it, for food could only be obtained with the approval of those authorities.
In this I and my future wife Tina collaborated for weeks; we both deeply felt with the masses of former internees and did everything possible and impossible, with the full knowledge of the local authorities, to accommodate them, feed them and send part of them them "to the woods". My duties with the town physician also included the care for institutions like the home for the aged in Orehovica, the children's home in town, soup kitchens and social assistance in general. There was an unending struggle for food "rations" and against the orders of the German occupying power who tried to deny assistance to the families of living and dead Partisans.

The winter 1943/44 came and went – we knew about Stalingrad; in June 1944 there was the invasion of Normandy and we believed that the war would end soon. However, it went on for almost another year, and in that last year the Allied regularly bombed Rijeka, Sušak and the surroundings. There were days full of air raid alarms when we all had to go to the shelters, although there was no great damage. I sometimes managed to visit my parents who had stayed in Kraljevica and lived with great difficulty, with little food. They had to spend whole days near the "shelters" – caves between Kraljevica and Bakarac, for the British bombed the shipyard incessantly. It was then that had the disastrous idea to try and bring my parents to Sušak. I was looking for a flat for them, but I had to submit an application to the municipal police.

In the meantime a big change had taken place with the Germans: instead of the previous Austrians who only cared about surviving the war, a new Gestapo chief appeared: Obersturmbannführer Vindakijeviċ, of Bosnian origin, a criminal unlike anybody Sušak had seen until then. He started to carry out various activities against the Partisans and their sympathizers who were everywhere. One morning, he personally shot 13 captured Partisans on the stairs near the Pyramid, and drove the corpses through the streets on an open cart.

After the war I learnt that Vindakijeviċ managed to escape to Trieste and was discovered there by Tito's "long arm"; his body was found one night floating in a canal covered with stab wounds.

A certain Bilouz, a White Russian refugee from Belgrade, appeared in the local police. By pure chance my application for the transfer of my parents from Kraljevica to Sušak came to his attention, and he immediately noticed the family name. So he saw a splendid occasion to prove his vigilance and to seize at least me, if not my parents in distant Kraljevica. He ordered two agents to arrest me – but my girlfriend Tina happened to overhear this order in an adjacent room. She immediately called the janitor Stevo and sent him to my office, which was located in the nearby Villa Maria, with a slip of paper with one single word: "Flee!"
I did not need more; I neither asked nor hesitated, only phoned a friend in Rijeka and asked her if I could hide with her for some time. She gave me a positive answer without hesitating. This was a very courageous decision for she lived in a flat with her mother and four sisters. I immediately left everything and did not go home but straight to Rijeka and remained with them several days.

While I was sitting there and waiting, my faithful friend and fellow tenant prepared all that was needed for my escape: accommodation and work – to take refuge with a friend of ours in the village of Krasica, above the bay of Bakarac, whose husband we had sheltered previously while he was escaping from the Germans to the liberated islands, and work – some manual work with the "Organization Todt", some sort of labor service where they usually sent those unfit for military service.
I tore up all my documents and during an air-raid alarm left Rijeka over the bridge and then uphill to Trsat and further to Krasica which I reached in the afternoon without any obstacle. There I was received as illegal refugees were received at the time: cordially and without any questions. That was on April 11, 1945.
After this I actually went to Bakarac for several days and did some digging in the framework of the "Todt Organization". From the 18th on, various defeated armies retreated through Krasica – the Croat Domobrani, Ustašas, Chetniks and also Germans. Some threatened us, while others only asked for food and water. After a restless night full of shooting, the Partisans arrived on April 19.

I went to visit my parents in Kraljevica, returned to Sušak to Tina, and on May 1 I joined the (Partisan) army. After several close encounters with the war, I lived to see May 8 and the German capitulation somewhere in Slovenia, tired and full of calluses from the long marches but at least convinced that I had survived the mortal danger that was hanging over my head in some form or other throughout four long years.


Members of my close family who perished in the Holocaust: my aunt Grete Steger and her husband Gustav – lived in Vienna and perished at Auschwitz; (their son Georg survived the war hiding on the Rtanj mines); my father's nephew Alfred Hermann (lived at the Rtanj mines, where he was executed by the Germans in 1944); my uncle Adolph Münch committed suicide on the first days of the German occupation in 1941.

* * * * *

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