I was born at the West End of Boston, Massachusetts on 3rd April 1924. Both my parents came from the vicinity of Kovno, Lithuania. My father was a truck driver, and my mother kept home and later became a seamstress. I had no formal Jewish education but spoke only Yiddish until I was six-years-old. My neighborhood was made up of almost all Yiddish-speaking Jews. When I was 10 I was taught to sail by an old Yankee Brahmin who set up a sailing club on the nearby Charles River for the kids of the neighborhood. Later, I learned to sail larger boats and spent some time sailing off the Atlantic coast until I left to join the military.
I volunteered for the Army Air Force during World War II and served from 1942 until 1946. For a short period during my service I was stationed at Chanute Field, Illinois. There, not too far away at the University of Illinois, I met some young Jews who were studying agriculture with the intention of immigrating to Palestine when the war was over. In our many conversations they learned that I had sailing experience. We kept in touch. After my discharge from the Army I received a call from New York asking if I would help the Jews. A short time later I was on my way to Baltimore and the "SS President Warfield" – the "Exodus."
I worked on the ship until we shoved off for Europe. We were involved in a storm at sea and returned for repairs that kept us from our mission for a while. We arrived in France and moved to various ports, preparing the ship for our passengers. We loaded the ship in France and then sailed. We were at sea in international waters when we were attacked by the British. After the battle, in which I received a head wound, some of the crew, myself included, were put on prison ships. I stayed with the passengers on the "Ocean Vigour" all the time that these prison ships were off the coast of France. This was in July and the weather was very hot and uncomfortable. After some weeks we were given an ultimatum and sailed for Germany.
We were beaten off the ships at Hamburg, Germany, where I was wounded again. I was a prisoner at Poppendorf camp in Germany until our escape. Few people born in the United States have gone through the experience of displaced persons. Twelve members of the "Exodus" crew did, and I'll try to tell about this little-known part of the story. This is the Odyssey seen mostly through my eyes about twelve crew members who traveled through post-war Germany carrying false papers and disguised as refugees. In his book entitled "Exodus 1947" David Holly mentions this incident, but doesn't go into great detail.
David Millman, Dov Miller, Lennie Sklar, Reuven Margolis, Shmuel Schiller, Avie Siegal, Davi Staryck, Vevie Siegal, Myron Goldstein, Ben Foreman, Shmuel Baer and I made up this group. At least one-quarter of the crew hadn't been smuggled off the ship in Haifa. Some of us chose to stay with the refugees. Needless to say, this was a definite morale builder for us, as it was, too, for the refugees. They had found it difficult to believe that any soft "Americaner" would stay and share whatever would befall them.
This portion of the story took us across Germany from the British zone through a series of displaced persons camps, and then into the American zone, and from there to France. It wasn't until we got out of Germany that we could resume our real identities. The false excuse that the bricha used to smuggle us out of the American zone of Germany was for us to take jobs in France. After being driven off the prison ship "Ocean Vigour" by club-swinging English troops in Hamburg, we were put on heavily-guarded trains and taken to the Poppendorf and Amstau internment camps. Most of us ended up in Poppendorf. This was in the British zone because that was the only zone they could take us to. The place had been hastily prepared and upon arrival I saw Ukrainians putting the final touches to the barbed wire surrounding the camp.
We were constantly watched by the English soldiers who were in guard towers around the perimeter. I'm sure this arrangement was very similar to prison camps in Atlit and later, in Cyprus. We quickly adjusted to the primitive living conditions. Hoping to break our morale, our captors immediately put us on the German civilian ration of 1,100 calories a day. We had to begin marking time. Immediately the groups began to reorganize, setting up schools and adult study groups to learn Hebrew. The refugees were very resilient and took everything in their stride; they had been through so much already that nothing seemed to faze them. We took our clues from fellow refugees and adjusted as best we could, making friends and scrounging like the others. This also gave us an opportunity to improve our Yiddish because most of the people in the camp spoke it. Lennie Sklar disappeared for a few days and when we next saw him we discovered that he had been smuggled out of the camp into the Russian zone, where he had searched for relatives from Lithuania.
After a few weeks, the JDC began supplementing our rations. Once a week we got a can of sweetened condensed milk, a can of sardines, a small carton of Gruyère cheese and a pack of cigarettes. I have no idea who decided to get us out of detention, but after a while we were told to prepare to leave. We packed our few belongings into sacks and stood by. The bricha had arranged for a soccer team from another displaced persons camp to come to Poppendorf camp to play one of our teams. Very simply, after the game the players from the visiting team remained and we replaced them on the truck that had brought them in. The British had the same count as they had before and we were out of the gate and on our way. Lübeck, a short drive from our prison camp, was our first stop, and there we were given our first decent meal in what seemed to me to have been a private mansion. We were then outfitted with new clothes. These clothes must have come from a warehouse nearby, and were something to see. The problem was that every bit of clothing given to us matched almost exactly every other garment. We were all dressed alike! After our meal and clothing change, we were again put on a truck and began our two-day trip to Munich. Our driver was from the bricha. These people worked all over Europe and their job was to smuggle refugees across borders and to drive the vehicles that transported them from displaced persons camps to ports where they would board the Aliyah Bet ships. These guys were real characters; they were Jews, mostly deserters from the Russian and Polish armies. They were tough and thought that because we were Americans we were soft and they called us "chocoladniks" and offered us rotgut vodka that could eat your insides out, but we drank it toast-for-toast with them to show them that we could take it.
The bricha had a variety of trucks at their disposal. No questions were asked about where they had originated, but all those I saw had United Nations Relief Agency markings. Once again all of us got into our truck and began our trip to the American zone. We had one more stop in the British zone and that was at the JDC center which was at the site of the infamous Bergen-Belsen camp. There we were welcomed by Jean Jaffe, who was in charge of operations there for the JDC. I remember asking her to write my mother to let her know that I was safe. I still have that letter.
I remember driving through Nuremberg very early in the morning and thinking of the trials of the German war criminals taking place there. We weren't far from Munich when an unforgettable incident occurred. The truck stopped suddenly and in a moment the canvas cover that hid us from view was pulled back and an American soldier peered into the back of the vehicle and yelled, "Hey Serge, look what we've got here." In a moment the sergeant came over and looked at us and said, "Okay, everybody out!" I saw as soon as we were out that this was an American constabulary military police roadblock which consisted of a squad of soldiers, one on a jeep with a 50-caliber machine gun. The sergeant, who spoke some broken German, lined us up and began to ask questions. First he asked for our papers, which were as phony as hell. Of course we were very nervous, and when he started to question me I began to shake. Quickly, the bricha guy lit me a cigarette (butts were politically correct then). I calmed down and answered in my best Yiddish that I didn't know why my meal card had so many stamps. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "When they stamp, they stamp." We were finally allowed to leave, but not before the soldier on the jeep handling the machine gun shouted to the sergeant, "Let them through, Serge, and I'll cut them through like winter wheat." Needless to say, we were in shock but couldn't say a word that might blow our cover; we were not supposed to know English. We kept quiet and got back on the truck. I, who had been out of the American Army and had worn the same uniform about a year before this, had to bite my tongue.
We continued to the outskirts of Munich and were quickly taken to another safe house run by the bricha. This was a cloister, Indersdorf, an UNRRA children's shelter in a Catholic monastery. We spent quite a while there, living in a dormitory room heated by a large wood-fed porcelain stove. It was here that we had our first hot bath and laundered clothes. After a while we were told to prepare for our final leg of the escape from Germany. Again we were photographed and issued new false papers; this time we were being taken into France as immigrant workers with special skills. My new name was Albert Zeidner and I came from a place called Planneg, just outside of Munich, and I was now an electric technician. Again we were transferred by truck to Funk Kaserne, a former Nazi army barracks in Munich, to await transport to take us to France and to freedom.