In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Stony Brook Hillel invited local Holocaust survivor Beruria Stroke to share her story with students on Thursday, April 12.
Born into an aristocratic family in Yugoslavia (modern day Croatia), Stroke was only 13 when she first came face to face with the horrific realities of the second World War. She said that her father first realized Hitler’s intentions when he read Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s autobiography. Soon he decided his family must leave the country in order to avoid the oncoming war. “Our suitcases were ready, and immediately on July 26, 1941, we boarded the train leaving Zagreb.”
Her family was stopped in Belgrade (modern day Serbia) and told that the train wouldn’t leave for Romania until the following morning and were asked to ‘find lodging overnight.’ Her mother’s brother was situated in Belgrade and that’s where her family lodged. Stroke’s grandmother, who she described as a ‘simple woman,’ had to be moved to a different hotel because there was no more room in her uncle’s apartment in Belgrade. “At three in the morning, sirens broke out, and the entire building crowded in the basement.” The authorities dismissed the sirens as an exercise and asked them to go back to bed.
At six in the morning, sirens broke out again, and this time the Germans had started bombing Belgrade from all sides, giving Stroke “her first taste of war.” After that bombing, her father wanted to return to Yugoslavia to fight the Germans, so they decided to walk out of Belgrade. “It had been completely bombed out and there were dead bodies all around,” Stroke said. “That eerie image never left me.”
Eventually, Stroke’s father separated from the family to make money selling bicycles in Belgrade. The rest of her family ended up in Ivankovo (modern day Croatia), where they stayed with her father’s friend, Johan Schwager. At one point, Schwager hosted German generals at his house. The only thing separating the Nazis and Stroke was a single wall. After realizing they were at risk of being exposed, Stroke’s family headed back home to Zagreb.
“Zagreb was a changed city, the population and state of the city changed overnight,” Stroke said. The Jews in Zagreb now had to wear a yellow badge with a ‘Z’ on it when they stepped out. Her father finally reunited with the family, but it was only a short time before they had to flee again, this time to Italy.
They went to Susak — a Croatian city that was under Italian control at the time — because they could make money there. Stroke had fond memories of her time in Susak. “It was a very pleasant time, because I could swim there, and I love swimming.” However, that didn’t last for long, because the police in Susak started deporting people to Yugoslavia. After her father had been sent back three times, they all knew it was time to leave for good.
Her family jumped from city to city in Italy, ending up in Campobasso, which was bombed a short time after they arrived. The morning after the bombing, Stroke saw “these huge Canadian soldiers, and ran in telling my mother, they are walking!”
They were rescued and taken to Bari, an Italian port city on the Adriatic Sea that acted as a huge refugee camp. She became an interpreter for the British government, who had occupied Bari to help the refugees.
Stroke’s family managed to eventually get visas to British-controlled Palestine. When they arrived, they “kissed the ground of the Palestine.” Most of her family had escaped the Holocaust unscathed; however, she lost her grandmother, who she considered a huge influence in life. Stroke said her grandmother protected her from evil then and still does today.
“It is chilling to hear about these stories and how much tragedy the Holocaust brought on so many people. Even with her story one could see how much her family had to give up, in order to hope for their safety and also having lost members of their family, it is frightening,” sophomore applied mathematics and statistics major, Robert Matsibekker, said.
Junior biochemistry major Eilona Feder, who organized the talk, had a grandfather who survived the Holocaust, but he never spoke to her about it. “Since the Holocaust survivors’ number is slowly decreasing, I think that it’s so important to introduce those who are still alive, to the next generations,” Feder said. “I believe that knowledge is power, by exposing people to firsthand stories, we can surely at least prevent some people from denying the Holocaust.”