Latin America is perhaps better known for giving sanctuary to Nazi war criminals than to helping Jews scarred by the Holocaust. But thousands of survivors did find a safe
haven on this Continent, with many arriving in the sunshine city of Rio de Janeiro.
One of them was Izak Kimelblat, 94, born in the Polish shtetl of Lozyst in 1922. Together with his parents and three siblings, Izak grew up in an observant atmosphere, attending yeshiva as a teenager. He recalls that “there was little anti-Semitism” in his early years, making him believe that the local population would not collaborate with the Nazis against the Jews. When the war started, the Russians occupied his town as part
of the Nazi-Soviet pact. Izak found that life continued as normal, except that the Soviet authorities closed down some Jewish institutions.
After the Germans invaded the Soviet zone, Izak’s village was surrounded by Ukrainians who massacred nearly all its inhabitants, including his parents and two siblings. Together with his brother Natan, Izak hid in his aunt’s house before meeting up with other survivors in a local forest. The small group of Jewish villagers formed a partisan group and obtained a variety of weapons, some from discarded Russian tanks. In combat, they began to develop a reputation for military prowess.
The men survived during the war, he recalled, “by taking cows while walking”, allowing them to consume enough milk and beef. They marched to Belarus, where they were put under the command of Russian partisans led by General Kovpak. This group carried out a heroic mission to destroy the oil fields in the Carpathian Mountains, although 70 percent of the fighters died in the operation.
“What kept me going was revenge,” Izak said, a desire to avenge all those who had been massacred. Later in the war, he was wounded by a Dum-dum bullet and spent six months recovering in a hospital in Kiev.
Of the original 28 Polish partisans from his village, only eight survived, with most moving to Israel. But after the war, Izak travelled to Rio, where he continued a successful career in dental prosthetics and later set up an engineering business.
Niunea Rozentul, 86, was born in the Romanian town of Brichon in 1929, the older of two boys. Aged 12, he was transported to the Mohyliv-Podilskyi ghetto along the Dneister River, where he would remain for much of the war. In the ghetto, the inhabitants were forced to do hard labour.
Conditions could be harsh and diseases were not uncommon in the insanitary environment. Niunea tragically lost his younger brother to an outbreak of typhus.
Niunea was among many people forced to construct a bridge for the benefit of the Axis powers. But with the Russians closing in on Romania, the bridge was blown up and the ghetto abandoned by the Germans. Together with the rest of his family, Niunea fled the ghetto and moved to Bucharest.
From there, he eventually made his way to Brazil, where there were established family connections. His post-war life saw him peddle goods in the streets of Rio, like many other immigrants, but he later set up a successful business selling furniture. He never had a formal education but as he pointed out: “I never needed it: life has taught me a lot.”
Another man with an incredible story is Robert Somlo, the younger of two boys born into a secular family in Budapest in 1936. Aged just seven when the Nazis invaded Hungary, he retains memories of wartime life marked by bombing raids and occupation. “There was a climate of fear,” he recalls, and a distinct lack of food.
He remembers Hungarian collaborators helping to deport people east, to Auschwitz, as he later found out. His own father was transported to Mauthausen where he survived the war.
Initially, Robert thought he was safe when he moved with his family to a building under Swedish diplomatic protection.
But on 8 January 1945, Robert’s family, together with dozens of others in his building, were marched to the Danube River by Hungarian collaborators. The river was already overflowing with Jewish blood from the thousands of victims executed there. When his mother warned him to keep his head low to avoid the gaze of the officials, among them Adolf Eichmann, Robert responded: “I want to see (the killers) because I want to remember them.”
Suddenly, a car pulled up with four passengers, one of whom was Raoul Wallenberg. After negotiations took place, the fascists who had marched Robert’s family to death were forced to return them home. It was an incredibly fortuitous escape.
After participating in the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Robert found political asylum in Brazil where he later became a distinguished photographer.
These are three remarkable individuals with inspiring stories of courage, resilience and defiance.