This is a true story of a Croatian war child, given away at four to an aunt and uncle and imprisoned with her relatives at thirteen. Her father managed to secure her freedom, only to be imprisoned himself and shot. She spent the rest of WWII hungry in an convent orphanage, eventually coming to England at 16 after the war. Although she could not speak a word of the language, she ended up teaching it.
Verica's web site
EXTRACT FROM MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY, THE FIND, with a very brief introduction:
I was born in Croatia (ex Yugoslavia). When I was nearly five years old, my parents' marriage broke up and I was given away to my mother’s brother, uncle Rudi and his wife, auntie Marga, who were childless.
“Uncle was an eminent barrister and, in a household with a maid and a cook, I was very happy, enjoying a wonderful lifestyle until my country was conquered by Germans in 1941.
Although we were christened Catholic, we were born Jewish and uncle had to close his office, as he was not allowed to practise any more. The servants had to go. We had to leave our beautiful house in town and move to the villa in our vineyard, which we normally used only for weekends away.
We were still living untouched in our villa as New Year 1943 dawned. We thought if we lived quietly, never appeared in town, but did our shopping at the village store a the foot of the hills, we would be almost forgotten. We planned to join the partisans, who had contacted us for this purpose. However, well laid plans don't always come to fruition.
Two days before we were due to leave to join and help fight for the freedom of our country, there was a loud knock at the door. It was nearly midnight and we were fast asleep. I presume uncle opened the door and, after some conversation with the two Ustashe (Croatian quislings who ran the puppet government), and two German soldiers who stood on the doorstep armed, he invited them in and informed aunt Marga why they were there. The first I knew of their business, was when uncle Rudi came to my bedside and said gently: "Wake up, Verica, they've come for us. The Ustashe want us to take our personal belongings and go with them to Zagreb."
I dressed as quickly as I could, put a few bits of clothing in a small case and remembered to leave a few hairslides in the drawer of my lovely pink bedside cabinet, for when I returned. We must all have been very naive, even though it was as late as March 1943, to think that we were going on a short journey, a journey which we had often made before on business or for pleasure, for some questioning and that we would then return to resume our simple every day lives. It is very rarely in man's interest to know what lays in store for him. I'm sure very few people would be courageous enough if they knew in advance what awaited them.
I was just thirteen years old when we left our home.
When we came off the train in Zagreb, we were shepherded into a Black Maria, which delivered us to the gates of the large, infamous prison on Savska Cesta. It used to be a prison for criminals, but now it was a collection point for consignments to concentration camps, mainly Auschwitz.
On arrival, we were placed in a very large room on the first floor, with about sixty other people, where we were to spend two weeks in close proximity, sleeping on our coats on the wooden floor, until we were separated into male and female prisoners, placed in small, damp cells and our prison life really started in earnest.
There were 30 females in two cells. Ours, about 12 ft by 9 ft, accommodated fifteen of us on its cement floor. The only light was natural light which came through the bars of a small, high window on the outside wall. No more visits to the toilet. All we needed was the bucket, which stood in the corner, reminding us of our frail humanity. This was emptied by two of us twice a day, early morning and early evening. As I was young and healthy, unlike most of them, I was usually one of the two.
We had two privileges: a daily walk around the prison yard, in twos, for twenty minutes, no talking allowed and a weekly cold shower. I awaited with trepidation the weekly showers - a shy adolescent, naked, with so many older women.
I wish I had paid more attention to my co-prisoners, but the only one who stands out is a regal, middle-aged Japanese lady, who taught me a nursery rhyme:
Oto mano mano saki
Sazo yeno tsubayaki,
Nante mango inde so!
To this day I remember it, but still don't know what it means. She could read palms and tell people's pasts. "Will you, please, read my palm?", I asked.
"Sorry, dear, not enough has happened in your young life for me to say much."
The first week in the cell passed reasonably quickly. However, after that our backs and bodies began hurting from sleeping on damp concrete. Whichever way we moved, we ached and, by the end of the second week, most of us suffered severe headaches and felt dizzy. One day was like another. We soon forgot what date it was. I prayed daily to God, Adonai, Virgin Mary, most of all to St Anthony, for God to grant us (or was it me?) freedom.
We had no books, no paper; in fact, nothing, except the clothes on our backs and the
bucket in the comer.
After a few weeks, we were moved to the original large room, where we were all together again. Some time towards the end of May, I think, the room was unlocked. A warder entered: "Which one of you is Verica.S.....?"
"You are to come with me."
I kissed aunt and uncle quickly, grabbing my coat and bag and went with the warder.
Uncle remarked: "Perhaps you're going to be released", but, although the thought had struck me, too, I discounted it. What was so special about me? Nothing, except my fervent prayers. With a brief "Do vidjenja" (Au revoir), to my beloved relatives, I left, never to see them again. Together with the rest of the 'consignment' they were sent to Auschwitz, where they perished.
Downstairs, a strange man was introduced. "Miss S...., do you know this gentleman?" Although I had never seen him before, providentially, I replied: "Yes."
I was fingerprinted and photographed like a criminal, asked to sign a form and handed to the strange gentleman, who took me by the hand. We walked out of the prison into the twilight of a warm day.
Uncertain of the mixture of my emotions: disbelief, shock, relief, terror, I wondered who the man was. When we were clear of the building, he said: "Don't be afraid, Verica, I'm a friend of your father. You've been released and will be placed in the orphanage Antunovac (St Anthony's) run by nuns, in order to be re-educated. Your daddy's waiting around the corner." And he was.” Verica Peacock
"All that Winter (1945/6),I was happy at last. I was back at school and had a home with another aunt. However, I had a big decision to make: my mother lived in England, I didn't know a word of English - and she was almost a stranger to me ... should I join her ...?"