(From left) Fredi, Frida, Zdenka and Filip Levy. (Courtesy Zdenka Ruchwarger Levy)
(From left) Fredi, Frida, Zdenka and Filip Levy. (Courtesy Zdenka Ruchwarger Levy)

Zdenka’s story of WWII survival in Croatia and Italy: ‘Others had it worse’

Part of an ongoing series on Holocaust survivors and partisans in Northern California

Zdenka Ruchwarger Levy, a Holocaust survivor born in Zagreb, Croatia, swore she would never eat minestrone soup again — not after it was served three times a day when she was in an Italian prison during World War II.

Now 95, Levy is as tough as nails and as strong-willed as they come. She says she eventually got over her aversion to minestrone soup.

“I eat it,” she said. “I’m hungry. So I try not to think about it.”

Levy has a neat bob of light brown hair and is very precise with her words. A resident of the Moldaw Residences in Palo Alto, she says her family experienced a traumatic life as Jews in Europe during the 1940s. But her story is also one of extraordinary luck.

Born in 1925, Levy said her life in Zagreb was pleasant growing up. She remembers skiing in the nearby mountains in the winters and going to the beach in the summers. Her father, Filip Baum, was an industrialist who sold metal furniture to hospitals. Her mother, Frida, sold her father’s items in a store. Levy’s brother, Fredi, worked in her father’s factory.

In a manuscript Levy wrote detailing her life during the Holocaust, there’s a marked transition from this peaceful existence.

“Suddenly,” Levy wrote, “on the morning of April 6, 1941, this secure, pleasant, comfortable life comes to a crushing end.”

That was the day the Axis powers, led by Nazi Germany, invaded what was then Yugoslavia. Levy remembers bombs falling on her city and German soldiers goose-stepping down a road. “Before the invasion, we thought our country would be spared,” she said.

“Everything just came to an end.”

Zdenka Ruchwarger Levy
Zdenka Ruchwarger Levy

Levy remembers being issued a yellow star that she had to wear at all times in public. Friends of hers would avoid her on the street.

“Just wearing the Star of David was humiliation,” Levy recalled. “Total humiliation. You realized you were a marked individual.” Soon, all Jews had to give up their property and jobs.

One day, Levy and her family were ordered by Croatian soldiers to gather at a fairgrounds, along with many other Jews. She remembers being ordered to clean toilets and was fed boiled potatoes and a piece of bread for meals. At night, she says, the Croatian soldiers took away many of the women to assault them. In the morning, they returned “disheveled” but didn’t say anything.

Then a stroke of luck came to Levy’s family. The employees at her father’s factory signed a petition to release them. They were free to go. (Levy said she never again saw any of the other Jews from the fairgrounds.)

Levy’s family, and her aunt Charlotta, were able to return home for a few weeks. But then her father was suddenly taken to Jasenovac, a concentration camp known to be among the most brutal in Europe.

After the German invasion of Yugoslavia, a fascist and virulently anti-Semitic government called the Ustase took the country’s reins, and also operated Jasenovac. In total, between 12,000 and 20,000 Jews were murdered there.

For three months, Levy did not know where her father was. “Those are difficult memories,” Levy said. “Very painful. This was … disturbing is not the right word. It was devastating, really.”

One day, Levy’s 50-year-old father returned emaciated and looking 30 years older than his age. “He must have lost 80 pounds,” Levy wrote in her manuscript.

But there also was a moment of hope: “To think how incredible, how improbable it is to have the whole family together once again,” Levy wrote. “What are the odds of this happening?”

In 1942, the family decided it was time to get out of Croatia. However, because of differing travel documents, Levy and her brother were split off from their parents. The two hid for several weeks in a peasant village before being smuggled into Italy, where Jews weren’t as harshly persecuted. However, Italian authorities were searching for refugees, and Levy and her brother were caught and imprisoned.

For 12 days, Levy was in a women’s prison, along with wives of Yugoslav partisan fighters. They slept on straw mattresses infested with bed bugs —and she ate the soon-to-be-despised minestrone soup.

After her release, her family eventually was reunited, but then came another hurdle. They were immediately shipped to an Italian concentration camp.

Just wearing the Star of David was humiliation…. You realized you were a marked individual.

While Mussolini enforced anti-Semitic laws during wartime, and even confiscated Jewish property, the government did not have the same genocidal aspirations as the Germans. Levy’s family found themselves at the Ferramonti internment camp, where other prisoners assured them that they’d be treated humanely. Levy described the place, which held more than 3,000 people, as a “shelter.”

It wasn’t all easy, though. In the 18 months Levy was there, she contracted malaria and had health issues with her appendix. And in August 1943, Allied planes began bombing the camp, killing four prisoners at one point.

“We were waiting for the war to end,” Levy said.

In September, the camp was liberated by British forces. “It was absolutely wonderful,” Levy said. “I can picture them today. All these young soldiers in uniforms. Coming out with knapsacks full of food and distributing Spam and chocolates and other things. We were just elated.”

There was something else to celebrate, too.

At Ferramonti, Levy had met Abraham Ruchwarger, a fellow prisoner. The two got married in April 1944. At the time, both were working at an Allied hospital, where Levy was trained as a nursing assistant.

Meanwhile in the United States, the War Refugee Board successfully convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to take in 1,000 refugees from the Italian region, and the Levys were chosen among thousands of applicants. (While this action may seem hospitable, U.S. officials also chose to ignore many opportunities to save Holocaust victims.)

The family wound up in upstate New York at Fort Ontario, an emergency refugee shelter in Oswego also known as “Safe Haven” (and was the first and only U.S. refugee center during World War II). The Levys were there for 18 months, until the U.S. government formally allowed the entire lot of refugees to become citizens.

While her parents and brother went to New York, Levy and her husband went to Newark, New Jersey, and then to Washington, D.C., living there until Abraham died of a heart attack in 1968.

Levy, who had two children by then, sold her house in D.C. and remarried. In 1982, she and her new husband, David, who also had been a refugee at Fort Ontario, moved to San Mateo, where they lived for 32 years until David died of a heart attack.

Shortly before his death, David convinced his wife that she should move to the Moldaw Residences, where she currently resides. “My new family is Moldaw,” she said.

“I know many people who went through much worse than I did,” she said. “But I don’t know whether it was fate or destiny. I can never decide what caused this, for my family to be able to survive.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.