An Unfinished Journey From the Holocaust to Israel

Uncovering some heartfelt letters, the children of a Holocaust survivor want to add a new - and tragic - inscription to their mother's grave: "...On their way to the Land of Israel."

On Kitty Getreuer's tombstone in Haifa, the inscription reads, "Mother arrived with nothing and built grandly - all in memory of her parents who were murdered in the Shoah." After Getreuer died about two years ago, her children found a journal and numerous letters, which she had kept in a closet for many years. Now, having read them and learning of her parents' tragic story, they want to add the following words to the end of the epitaph: "on their way to the Land of Israel." In this way, they want to commemorate the journey of their grandparents, Berthold and Fanny Hahn, from Vienna to Palestine - cut short when they were captured and murdered by the Nazis.

Kitty, a Jewish girl from Vienna, came to live in Palestine at the end of 1938, alone, on the illegal immigrants' ship Draga, after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany and anti-Semitism spread.

A few months later, her parents set out by ship on the journey that was to have reunited them with their daughter. Their letters came from various stops. In a letter from Zagreb on January 2, 1939, Fanny Hahn wrote to her daughter: "You are terrible for leaving us without any news of you for such a long time. Do you have a picture of both of you yet? How can you get married and not send a picture to your parents? Papa is very proud that [you] 'took' a man who is similar to him, and forgives that you are 'disloyal' to him. We are happy that you don't need to work so hard."

She asked her daughter about her new husband: "Rudi cooks??? Where does he have this ability from? Is he my competition?"

On October 14, 1939, her mother wrote: "We are letting you know we are healthy - the aunts are, too. Where are you employed now? ... We are thinking a lot about you and hopefully everything will be good again."

Her father added in the same letter: "Dear little daughter! The most heartfelt kisses from me, too, and you really don't need to be worried about us. We only hope that we will get some news from you very soon."

Kitty Getreuer and her husband Rudi both worked in Haifa - he for the Zim shipping company and she as a dog groomer. In the 1960s, Getreuer opened Israel's first dog-grooming salon.

'A footnote of history'

Getreuer's son and daughter entrusted their mother's journal and the correspondence between her and her parents to Dvora Margalit, a volunteer at Atlit, south of Haifa, where a British Mandate detention camp has been reconstructed and turned into a museum. The letters were translated into English by volunteers from Israel and Germany. The full story of Kitty Getreuer's parents can now be presented, as part of the tragic story of the illegal immigrants of Kladovo-Sabac.

"This is a painful affair, which was pushed to a footnote of history," says Rina Offenbach, who is in charge of the database at Atlit that tells the story of illegal immigration to Palestine between 1934 and 1948.

The story begins in late 1939, when 1,200 refugees set out from Austria on their way to Palestine. They sailed down the Danube on riverboats toward the Black Sea, where they hoped to board a ship to their destination. They were stranded for 18 months, including a horrific winter, but the hoped-for ship never came. Getreuer's parents and the other refugees were shunted between two communities in Yugoslavia, first to Kladovo in the south and then to Sabac, near Belgrade. In March 1941, 200 young people managed to set out overland for Palestine after receiving certificates that would allow them to enter Palestine legally. The others, including Getreuer's parents, were caught by the Nazis in April 1941 and murdered between October 1941 and the spring of 1942.

In a letter Getreuer's parents sent on December 4, 1940, they wrote: "Our luggage and everything was already loaded and 14 hours before departure we were told that it wouldn't take place. Papa already sold his warm clothes and his wedding ring in order to buy food. This is the third time this is happening to us. I cannot explain how much we are suffering." The letter ends with the words, "We are happy that you have such a nice life in your apartment and we wish you a lot of happiness there."

Why did the ship never come? Aliyah Bet, the organization directing the illegal immigration, did buy a ship, but the Jewish community's leaders in Palestine sold it to the British to help in the war effort. "They abandoned them," says Ron Gilo, Getreuer's son. Because of the historical circumstances, Gilo says he blames no one, but wants the facts to be known.

Twenty years ago, a book by Prof. Dalia Ofer with Dr. Hannah Wiener was published in Hebrew by Am Oved, entitled "The Uncompleted Voyage: Jewish Refugees in Yugoslavia, 1939-1942." Last month, renewed commemoration work began with a gathering at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, near Haifa, of about 1,000 of the families of the victims and a few of the survivors.

"Mother didn't want to talk about it," Getreuer's daughter, Ilana Peretzman, said. "She said she got back the letters she sent them and from this she realized they had been killed. She didn't want to know what happened to them."