An address to the FALL IN convention
“Beginning of the End” - 65th Anniversary, 1944 Campaigns
Presented by Jasha M. Levi
Eisenhower Inn and Convention Center
November 7, 2009,
My name is Jasha Levi.
I have an accent which I’ve never lost, couldn’t lose it if I tried. That happens to people born in Sarajevo, a place with a strong tradition of language, history, and literature.
I’ve lived to remember World War II, and, like so many of you, I’m proud to have served.
I was born in Bosnia, barely a mile and seven years before from where the first shot of World War I was fired. Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, was a schoolmate of my father, and Princip got blamed for starting the war.
The Black Hand, a secret organization of Serbian patriots, was behind the assassination, but my father was not part of it. We were Jews, and in the Empire Jews had enough troubles without messing in other ethnic politics.
In 1914 my father and his older brother were conscripted into the Imperial Army. I was told that the brother was driven to suicide by anti-Semitic harassment from his Hungarian superior officer. I was also told that my father contracted tuberculosis on the Russian Front and was returned home to Sarajevo in 1916.
From my earliest youth, my father would tell me how “his” war was to be the last one ever. My generation believed that.
But we would learn, along with millions of others, that it was not to be.
Or, as an old Yugoslav proverb has it: If you don’t have an enemy, your mother will give birth to one. The fratricidal history of the Balkans is witness to the truth of this saying.
With Hitler’s rise to power, war loomed in Europe once more. After the Yugoslav government in Belgrade signed a pact of friendship and cooperation with the Nazis, I joined the vast student movement that would overthrow that government.
So, when Hitler attacked our country in 1941 for breaking the pact it had previously signed with him, even if I shared a bit of the blame for bringing Yugoslavia into the Second World War, I was proud to be a patriot.
Unlike my father’s generation, we were not conscripted into that war. Fearful that the Yugoslav military was unprepared, I and masses of other young patriots besieged army headquarters begging to join up. We were turned away, and within ten days the Axis invaders rolled over Yugoslavia.
Eager to join a resistance movement, we approached the anti-fascist underground, to be turned away again. Its leaders, taking orders from Moscow, claimed it was “too early” for armed resistance. In fact, they were simply dragging their feet as long as Stalin and Hitler were on good terms under the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of friendship and cooperation.
But with the discovery of Operation Barbarossa —Hitler’s blueprint for an all-out attack on the Soviet Union—the non-aggression pact fell apart. At that, the call for partisan uprising spread over Europe like wildfire.
By the time Stalin joined the Allies and allowed resistance in Europe, Sarajevo was firmly occupied by the S.S. and their local satraps, who were joyfully introducing Nuremberg laws and issuing yellow Stars of David to Jews, rounding us up for forced labor. Their next move was to be the death camps of Jasenovac, Stara Gradiška, and other human slaughterhouses in Croatia.
My family, descendants of Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition, had lived in Sarajevo since the 15th century. We young ones respected our elders’ religion but saw ourselves as Yugoslavs first. To escape extermination for being Jews, as many of us as could fled south, to the relative safety of Split, on the Dalmatian Coast.
In this beautiful region which Hitler had “donated” to Mussolini, the fascists targeted not just Jews, but all patriots and resisters. We young refugees joined that resistance. Mussolini’s Black Shirts’ answer was to expel anyone not native to Dalmatia.
We were rounded up and transported to exile in Italy, labeled “civilian internees of war” under the Geneva Convention. My parents, I, and some 60 other civilian Yugoslav Jews—men, women, and children—would spend the next two years about 30 miles north of Venice in the province of Treviso, confined to the picturesque town of Asolo.
We already knew that Italians, as soldiers fighting outside their own country, were fierce, fearful and thus fearsome. We soon learned, to our gratitude, that at home they were the gentlest, most peaceful, most humane people on earth.
In 1943, the Allies landed in southern Italy and began to fight their way north, only to be stopped cold at Cassino. To this day, as many of you probably know, blame is still passed back and forth over the flawless naval landing, followed by a supposedly misguided stall on the ground.
When Mussolini fell from power, the new government of General Badoglio was ready to surrender, so Hitler, to avoid losing his fiefdom, sent German reinforcements streaming down from the Austrian border.
At news of that we fled again, leaving Asolo on a bumpy trek south in hopes we could meet the Allies. We first took refuge in Venice, but it became too dangerous after I barely escaped betrayal by a collaborator, so we moved on.
Relentless bombardment by Allied aircraft would soon cut off Rome from the north, ending Germany’s ability send troops and supplies south by rail. We welcomed the powerful rumble of the massive American aircraft, sure their bombs couldn’t touch us. They were meant for the enemy!
In fact, we were in the midst of things when the railways were finally disrupted. Our train from Venice for Rome was stopped at Chiusi, and we had to blend into the Italian multitudes desperate to reach Rome by other means. By November we made it to Rome, but it would still take months of fierce fighting before the Allies finally made it too.
So there I was, 23 years old, a fugitive Jew, Italian-looking, military age, carrying the forged papers of a fifth-year medical student. This precious document was supposed to exempt me from service in the newly formed Republican Army, were I to be caught in one of the myriad street raids by the Black Shirts and the S.S.
During those months I went from bar to bar all over Rome, doing my best to earn a living by selling an eggnog concoction I’d invented. It was mainly white wine, which was plentiful and inexpensive, mixed with scarce egg yolks, and pricier, even scarcer brandy. It had a brief shelf life, but it tasted so good it never lasted long enough to spoil.
As I walked, I would stop at telephone booths to phone my fiancée Slava and lean in what piazzas and streets raiding parties were rounding up young men for military service or forced labor. A vast network of female underground workers kept tabs on the fascist militia and German MPs, and Slava called them every half hour for updates to keep me in the clear. A nerve-wracking time.
This gathering’s theme year, 1944, started for me in Rome, on the roof of an apartment in Via Corso Trieste. We watched the sky lit up from the front some 15 miles to the south, along the heavily reinforced Gustav Line between Anzio and Cassino. It was a permanent, all-night curtain of exploding German anti-aircraft fire, Allied carpet bombing, and 70-pound steel shells traveling at 3000 feet per second from five U.S. destroyers.
By day, the Liberators—as we called the Flying Fortresses—dominated Roman skies in nonstop attacks on spider nests of railroads at Tiburtina and other stations around the city. Not a single bomb was dropped on Rome itself.
By January 22nd, the sky was also exploding from guns at a new Allied beachhead at Anzio. The battle continued until March, when General Mark Clark broke through the German lines, and the defenders of Anzio joined forces with the rest of the Allied front for a triumphal march northward.
It was only later that I learned about the Ardeatina Cave massacre on the outskirts of Rome, which also took place in March of 1944, after an underground fighter threw a bomb on marching Nazis, killing 33. For retaliation and execution, the Nazis followed their rule of picking up 10 locals for every German killed.
Of the 335 prisoners they brought in—five more than the rule required—most were random hostages from raids, some war prisoners, captured fugitive Italian officers, and common criminals. Seventy-five were Roman Jews, corralled from homes in the Trastevere Ghetto.
After the German officers squabbled over the incorrect number assembled, General Kappler gave the order to go ahead and kill them all, sending the volunteer executioners cases of French cognac to ease their nerves.
The prisoners were then marched in groups of five into the abandoned caves and shot in the back of the head. The killing took all day; postwar autopsies revealed that some prisoners were still alive when Kappler called it a day and gave the order to dynamite the entrances and and seal the cave.
Stuck in Rome for the duration and desperate to find someone sympathetic to our plight, day after day we visited the Vatican, then swarming with escaped Allied POWs and dignitaries from all over Europe. At last we found a Croatian priest who provided my last false papers identifying me as Giaccomo Brunjonić, an exchange student from Croatia. The visa’s expiration date was July 24, 1944. Mark Clark’s troops marched into Rome ten days before my last false identify would have expired.
The year before, the Allies had recognized Tito’s partisan army and government, and he began sending women and children from refugee camps in the Yugoslav mountains, as well as wounded and war-damaged soldiers, to a camp near Bari, Italy, for shelter and recovery. A military training center for the newly professional Yugoslav army was set up inland in Gravina, with British instructors in charge.
My fellow internee Slava and I became the first couple to be married in liberated Rome’s dusty, spider-web-draped Trastevere synagogue. Four days later, I took my protesting bride on a fresh-air honeymoon on wooden benches in the back of an Army Lend-Lease Mack truck from Rome to Gravina.
There I was assigned to translate British engineering manuals on setting up and defusing bombs. I was also assigned to learn all about and work on assembling Bailey bridges. My bride was sent to women’s barracks teaming with battle-hardened veterans of partisan warfare from the mountains.
Separated from Slava, my training in Gravina lasted hardly a month.
We were young, recklessly ignorant of fear, without a worry for the future.
The Bailey bridges were ingenious contraptions, and putting them together was like handling huge Erector sets. The idea was to assemble all the components of the pivoting bridge on one side of a ravine, then push it, face up, until its own weight dropped it down to the other side. It was then ready to have wooden planks placed atop it so our tanks could ford the breach.
The fascinating origin of the Bailey bridge is described in Wikipedia. Donald Bailey was a civil servant in the British War Office who tinkered with model bridges as a hobby. He presented one such model to his chiefs, who saw merit in the design. The consequent Bailey bridge was used to span Mother Siller’s Channel, which cuts through Stanpit Marsh, and still remains there as a functioning bridge.
After successful development and testing, the bridge was put into service by the Corps of Royal Engineers and first used in Italy in 1943. By 1944 a number of bridges were ready for D-Day, when production was accelerated. The U.S. also licensed the design and started rapid construction for their own use. Bailey was later knighted for his invention, which continues to be widely produced and used today.
A large part of what made Bailey bridges unique and successful is their modular design, plus the fact that they can be assembled with little or no heavy equipment. Most military bridge designs had previously required cranes to lift and then lower the preassembled bridge.
The Bailey parts, made of standard steel alloys, were simple enough that parts made at different factories were completely interchangeable. A small number of men could carry each individual part, enabling army engineers to work more easily and quickly to prepare the way for troops and matériel advancing behind them.
Finally, the modular design allowed engineers to make each bridge as long and as strong as needed, doubling or tripling up on the supportive side panels or the roadbed sections.
Each unit constructed in this fashion creates a single section of bridge 10 ft or 3 m long, with a roadbed 12 ft or 4 m wide. After one section is complete, typically it is pushed forward over rollers on the bridgehead, and another section is built behind it. The two are then connected by means of pins pounded into holes in the corners of the panels.
A useful feature of the Bailey bridge is its ability to be “launched” from one side of a gap. In this system, the frontmost portion of the bridge is angled up with wedges into a launching nose, and most of the bridge is left without the roadbed and ribands. The bridge is placed on rollers and simply placed across the gap, using manpower or a truck or tracked vehicle, at which point the roller is removed and the roadbed installed, along with any additional panels and transoms that might be needed.
A testimony to its usefulness came from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who wrote in 1947, “Bailey bridging made an immense contribution towards ending World War II. As far as my own operations were concerned, with the Eighth Army in Italy and with the Twenty-First Army Group in North West Europe, I could never have maintained the speed and tempo of forward movement without large supplies of Bailey bridging.”
In training to put up the bridge, we had no idea about all this history. What concerned us was how fast we could assemble it. The best stopwatch reading we achieved in Gravina was 15 minutes, 34 seconds. Later, in the battle for Drniš, we would knock off 9 minutes—a real feat with the Germans emptying their guns at us, and our hands tied up with building the bridge.
As Ulysses S. Grant wrote to his wife Julia from the Battle of Palo Alto, quoted by William Styron in “The Suicide Run,” Five Tales from the Marine Corps,
“There is no great sport in having bullets flying about one, but I find they have less horror when among them than in anticipation.”
My buddies and I always seemed to receive the anticipated flak while crawling to line the completed bridge with planks, so that our tanks could go on the attack.
And so began our Dalmatian Campaign 1944. Our goal was to enter Trieste, long a bone of contention with Italy. We were being sent to face one of the 40 German divisions bogged down in Yugoslavia by Tito’s Partisans: the new Jäger Division, formerly Infanterie-Division, known for its many fierce offensives against the Partisans in Bosnia in 1943, and now redeployed to the Dalmatian coast to guard against possible Allied landings. (In the end game, after we chased them out of Dalmatia, the Jägers fought the last days of the war on the Eastern Front and surrendered to British forces in Austria in 1945).
Now, if I may, I’d like to read to you my account of those days from my memoir, The Last Exile: Tapestry of a Life. The book, which I’ll gladly sign, is available here at the conference, and also at www.booksurge.com, Amazon, and soon, I hope, in bookstores. More copies can be ordered directly from me, and I’ll gladly sign those as well. This is what I wrote:
The exquisite island of Vis sits by itself, surrounded by Adriatic waters, the farthest island west from the Dalmatian coast. The ancient seat of Croat kings, known for its hearty vines and fishing flotilla of native design, it was a potential target for the German fleet patrolling the seas between Italy and the coast of occupied Yugoslavia.
Nevertheless, in 1944, Tito had chosen the place as a secret, if vulnerable, hideout for his government. Although the island’s antiaircraft sirens wailed nonstop, the Axis must have laid low to evade the heavy presence of Allied aircraft patrolling the sensitive Adriatic war zone, for neither the Luftwaffe nor the enemy fleet ever attacked the place while on patrol from their base in Venice.
It was the middle of an August night in Gravina when we were awakened in our quarters and given our orders. We were to embark for Vis in a trabakula, a shallow-draft Adriatic diesel fishing boat that would soon ride even lower with all the people and cargo on board. In the dark of a moonless night on the Italian side, we loaded it with a heavy steel Bailey bridge assembly, explosives, detonators, minesweepers, wooden planks, and finally ourselves. We sailed with a flotilla of landing craft, and a good number of coastal flat-bottoms came to greet and guide us from open sea to shore in Vis.
We spent the day in a hidden bay, then sailed the next night to Donja Brela on the coast of Dalmatia, northwest of the better-known resort of Makarska.
I was back in my country, continuing where I was interrupted three years before. We disembarked with all our freight around three in the morning, loaded it on trucks, and began the chase ahead of our tanks. The Germans, under attack by partisan units come down from the hinterlands, were already retreating and heading north. The next day our regular army units also made contact and set off in hot pursuit of the enemy.
The coast of Dalmatia had once been a strip of beautiful beaches backed by dense forests until Venice, which ruled the whole area except for the free and autonomous Republic of Dubrovnik, cut its timber to build a mighty naval fleet. Denuded of its forests, the coastal hinterland deteriorated to karst, a harsh stony landscape over which the battle would be joined.
The Germans were limping ahead of us in full retreat, miserable-looking, relying on mules and donkeys for transport and to carry their supplies. A far cry from the highly polished, shower-equipped Mercedes trucks they’d rolled into Sarajevo in 1941. Deprived of their toys, some of them were still fanatic enough about their ‘master race’ to jump from bridges to their deaths screaming ‘Heil Hitlerl!’ rather than be taken prisoner by the inferior Slavs. From the moment we landed in their wake in Donja Brela and started chasing them, they had been disintegrating.
Our Engineering Brigade preceded the tanks, throwing Bailey bridges over small rivers and ravines, while the Germans practiced target shooting at us. We struggled to improve our record time from training camp as we assembled the steel skeleton of the bridge across the breach and topped it with wooden planks. Under fire, we did it in six minutes, but it still felt like an eternity waiting for a bullet to hit you as you crawled ahead. One bullet did come my way but missed my body, putting two holes in and out of the right sleeve of my green, Royal-issue Burberry, stiff with dirt. Luck under fear.
We were on the offensive, with the Germans in retreat, until a combined force of Nazis, Ustaše, and Četniks stopped us in Drniš and gave us a fight for almost a week. This was in the area known as Krajina (“the land at the end”), which Maria Theresia had populated with Serbs to defend Vienna from the Turkish onslaught. Many years later, in 1992, the local Serbs here would declare independence from Croatia after it seceded from Yugoslavia, and in the campaign that ensued, their men, women, and children were ethnically cleansed without mercy.
Now we were receiving heavy fire from all over. Ustaše antitank cannons greeted us from the bell tower of the Roman Catholic church. Local Serbian-Orthodox Četnici joined with their Nazi patrons and their Croat enemies to battle Tito, newly teamed up with the Allies. With their collaborators, the Germans made their last stand before they retreated all the way to Trieste and Austria.
Our division must have lost a dozen tanks, their crews meeting a horrible fiery death. As engineers, we were better off, for although snipers shot at us as we built bridges for the tanks in the open, their fire could kill but wouldn’t incinerate us. At night we slept under artillery shelling in the Drniš school that we’d taken over, but I was so tired that the noise never woke me.
During that campaign I had to remove our brigade’s young mascot from guard duty after he took to shooting prisoners he was supposed to escort to HQ. In tatters, they still kept their ‘Aryan’ airs of superiority, and the boy couldn’t help but show them who had the upper hand now. He had witnessed two years before the murder of his parents in his village home, and he couldn’t forget. We couldn’t forget or forgive the murderous bastards either, but we needed to extract intelligence from prisoners and keep them alive for information of where to hit them and for exchanges of prisoners.
Just after the battle for Drniš, Slava came to visit. She worked in the makeshift federal offices in Trogir, and wore a beautiful new uniform, made of silky-looking American Air Force material. Skirt instead of trousers. Freshly pressed. What a treat at the front! Herself, first of all—my own bride!
It wasn’t a conjugal visit, however. In Marshal Tito’s army, with one exception for its Supreme Commander, sex, even consensual, was frowned upon, forbidden. Rape, on or off the front, was punished by death. Fraternizing was subject to harsh discipline. Slava and I simply ignored the subject.
I was thrilled to show her off to my comrades. She brought us fresh boiled eggs, cheese, figs—welcome fare after a year of morning teas smelling of the previous night’s pea soup and split peas tasting of tea. She’d landed a job in Trogir with the new republican government collecting economic statistics on Yugoslavia.
A C o m b a t C a s u a l t y
I didn’t know who or where I was. My head was afire, and I had to escape. A bucket of water stood next to my bed, and I dunked my head in it.
A scolding voice asked, ‘What are you doing?’ A nurse came into focus. She pulled my head out of the water.
‘Where are they?’
‘Must be in Trst by now.’
Trieste—our objective, but I hadn’t made it.
I sank into the fire again. When the room came floating back, the nurse was joined by a doctor, our Italian prisoner of war. He spoke to me.
‘Only a few recover from typhoid fever,’ he said. ‘But you wouldn’t give up on rejoining them. I suppose that’s what kept you alive.’
He told me I was one of the casualties of the Dalmatian campaign, now in the civilian hospital in Šibenik commandeered by Tito’s army. Very slowly, I began to remember our advance up from Drniš. I knew I’d been resisting someone pulling me by the arm, unwilling to leave the truck’s passenger seat. Delirious and weak, I had to give up.
And now this.
‘How long ago?’
‘About a month.’
As my memory returned, I recalled that I’d slept through the artillery barrage at the Drniš school we took over, but I had no idea what happened to me after that. After a while I remembered Slava’s visit. She might have been the carrier of the fever, but I didn’t care. It was a cherished memory. I was alive, that was what counted.
Quite soon I was eating my way out of the typhoid. A gallon jar of peanut butter sat on the hospital’s mess table, but no one else would touch this newfangled food. I was digging it out with a soup spoon and had almost emptied the jar when the town erupted in gunfire.
GERMANY HAD SURRENDERED!
The war in Europe had ended, but British Field Marshal Montgomery threatened Tito with full-scale battle if he attempted to enter Trieste, which Yugoslavia, an ally and victor, and the defeated Italy both claimed.
Still recovering, I was furious.
I was furious at the Allies for favoring an enemy over an ally, and in particular I was mad at Field Marshal Montgomery: Monty had threatened Tito with a major battle if he attempted to take Trieste by force. (The imperial tyrant had threatened Ike as well on one occasion).
I later wrote a book entitled About Trieste: A History of the Territorial Dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia, and in numerous newspaper columns I castigated the “perfidious Lion” for discounting the blood of its ally and abandoning those who contributed so much to the victory over the Axis. This did not endear me to the British government.
In 1948, the Trieste question gave way to the fight with Stalin, and my columns concentrated on that danger. If anything, my pen was now even sharper.
But the British Lion never forgets.
So, in 1949, when the Belgrade Press Club was invited to London as guests of His Majesty the King, I was pointedly disinvited, even though I was the club’s president. The letter informing me of the ban said that I was free to come for a visit at any time, but not as a guest of His Majesty’s Government.
Still, my affection for both the brave British and Russian peoples, if not for all their governments, remained intact. The savior of Europe, the United States of America, couldn’t have had better allies, then or ever.