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Seliger Family History: "Last Train from Belgrade"

Ralph Seliger currently writes for Partners for Progressive Israel

My parents left Belgrade, Yugoslavia with United States immigration visas in April 1941, miraculously escaping the April 6, 1941 Nazi invasion by a matter of days. They were actually from the same small town in Galicia, Zwawno, which they left in 1938 to assist my mother's aunt, Tante Elsa, and uncle Adolphe in Vienna. Uncle Adolphe owned two large retail stores–one in Vienna; the other in Belgrade. After the Anschluss on March 12, 1938 with Austria, the Germans arrested Uncle Adolphe, brutalized him, and released him to die a few days later in Yugoslavia.

My parents married in Yugoslavia and worked diligently for two years to find some safe haven beyond Hitler's reach. Their applications were rejected far and wide, including one telling interview at the British consulate, where the tone changed completely upon the consular official's discovery that the middle initial "I" in my father's name stood for "Israel." They finally obtained American visas only because the Polish immigration quota was depleted due to Poland being closed off by the Nazi and Soviet occupations of September 1939. Even so, with their quota numbers already at hand, and expecting an imminent Nazi onslaught on Yugoslavia, my parents were unable to obtain their actual visas until the last possible instant.

The cold and unfriendly U.S. consular official presented my parents with a "Catch 22" situation: They were told to obtain the necessary transit visas before he would release the immigration documents, even though they needed the U.S. documents to obtain the transit visas! My father hurdled this obstacle by obtaining Greek, Turkish, and British consular letters stating that transit visas would be granted upon presentation of the U.S. visas.

My parents set off, with a reluctant Tante Elsa in tow, by train through southern Serbia and into a Greece at war, which had been attacked by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in April 1941. Greece had beaten back an Italian invasion back in October 1940, but panicky rumors of a German breakthrough forced British, Polish, and other Allied refugees - my parents among them - to detrain and form a caravan of hired cars down the Aegean coast in anticipation of a quick escape by boat to Turkey if, in fact, the Nazis were about to overtake them. They reconnected with the railroad at a certain point and entered Istanbul, Turkey. In Istanbul, my father resisted the blandishments of a Polish Army-in-exile recruiting officer and the party of three ferried across to Asia.

They travelled via the Orient Express (known as the Taurus Express in those parts for the Turkish mountains along the way) to the Syrian border. There, as citizens of Poland, they dared not stay with the train which cut, however briefly, info Syrian territory; Syria - a protectorate of Vichy France (the collaborationist French government that emerged in July 1940 shortly after the Nazis defeated France) - was de facto at war with Poland. So they sopped in the border city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, where they were advised by a friendly group of German-educated Turkish engineers on how to best get to Iraq and the Persian Gulf port of Basra, my parents' intended transit point for a ship to the United States.

Into Iraq

From Diyarbakir, they traveled by hired car to the border town of Mardin, where again, ironically enough, their speaking of German among themselves (Tante Elsa only spoke German) won them critical assistance. They attracted the attention of the mayor of Mardin, a physician who had attended a German-language medical school in Switzerland and was delighted to entertain German-speaking guests. He gave them a letter of commendation, which provided a measure of protection. After providing them with food and rest in his tent, an Army commander arranged for their crossing the Tigris River by mule into Iraq. There they met an Iraqi mounted border patrol, greeting them with a one-word Arabic question, reflective of the times: "Yahud?" (Jew).

My father responded affirmatively, showing their transit visa to them. But, as he already knew, this visa—issued as it was by the British government, which maintained a protectorate over Iraq at the time through the League of Nations' Mandate System—was declared invalid by Iraqi authorities asserting their independence. The police shook their heads at the visa, but took the refugees to their commander, who spoke English. My father had no problem securing temporary transit visas to allow them to journey to Basra, and was grateful for the assistance of this Iraqi officer in hiring a car and driver to take them to Mosul. To pay the driver, my father had to find a currency exchange in the bazaar in Mosul, and in so doing met a Jewish money-changer with whom he communicated in Hebrew. The Jew dispatched his son to guide them to the train station for the trip to Baghdad.

In Baghdad the air was rife with news of an attempted pro-German coup d'etat against the British, and rumors of a pending pogrom. There was, in fact, a pogrom against Iraqi Jews (known as Farhud, this pogrom took place on June 1-2, 1941 during Shavuot) shortly after my parents left the city. They proceeded by train to Basra where they happened to meet a British troop ship ferrying reinforcements into Iraq, and German and Italian prisoners of war (plus now a small party of refugees) to Karachi (now Pakistan), then part of British India.

From Karachi they took a British liner to Bombay. At Bombay they boarded an American liner, the President Harrison. They survived one more adventure on route, in Cape Town, where a drunken British sailor on guard at the harbor confronted them. He was alarmed by the sound of my parents' party speaking German.

Somehow they extricated themselves, sailed on to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and then to disembark at Hoboken. After a journey of nearly three months, they arrived in June 1941, a few days before the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and their Galician hometown, Zurawno.

They were not to learn until many years later accounts of the tragic fates of their loved ones. Except for his father, who had passed away at the age of 80 just before the start of World War II, my father lost his entire family: his mother, two sisters, a brother, and their children. My mother lost her parents. All seven siblings on my mother's side survived because they had left Galicia: three in the U.S., one in Argentina, two in Palestine, and one in unoccupied Soviet territory.

An unabridged version of "Last Train from Belgrade" appeared in Israel Horizons as "A Family Exodus, Spring, 1941." Used here by permission.