Eugene Finton

Moravska Ostrava, Czechoslovakia – March 15, 1939: Looking out of my balcony I saw the German troops marching in formation on a boulevard nearby. That was the date that Czechoslovakia capitulated at the recommendation of the principals of Great Britain and France. A strong Czech army was urged not to resist Germany with the “promise” of “lasting peace” (i.e., no more expansion). As astute as my father was, he unfortunately did not have the prescience to leave Europe when the opportunity was there in 1937 and 1938.

Eugene Finton - Eugene Finton

Our Family Odyssey –  From Ostrava, Czechoslovakia

to Buffalo, New York

By Eugene Finton

My parents, sister and I lived in Ostrava[1].  We lived in a comfortable apartment on the 3rd floor of a large complex which also housed my father’s business on the street level.[2]  “Mars” was a fifteen-employee business that manufactured sport and work apparel.  (Max Mingal, later a Buffalo resident who is known for having been on “Schindler’s list”, was my father’s close friend and salesman).  When the Germans marched in, the Jews of the city all panicked and were fearful of the circumstances that previously had occurred in Germany and Austria.  My father owned an automobile (a “Tatra”) and I still remember that on at least two prior occasions he packed up our family and hustled us out of the city at night to eastern Slovakia where he had friends.  The first such occasion, as I remember, was upon the capitulation of Austria in March of 1938 and second was after the secession of Western Czechoslovakia (called the Sudentenland) in September 1938.  Hitler believed the latter was illegally taken from Germany after WWI.

Within days of the March 15th occupation, the Nazis started rounding up Jewish men in our city and in other cities in Czechoslovakia.  At that point my father disappeared.  I later found out he was smuggled out on the coal tender of a locomotive to Ziewicz, a nearby town in southern Poland where we had several cousins.  I believe my father had previously secreted some jewelry and cash with those relatives anticipating bad times!

Within two weeks of  my father’s departure, a Czech collaborator my father knew had been paid to take me and my sister Karla across the border to join our father.  Some time later, my mother joined us under cloudy circumstances (cloudy to us since we do not know, to this day, the means by which she made her way to Poland).

It was soon decision time and the plan was to either depart to Krakow, my father’s family birthplace, Warsaw, the capital of Poland, or to Lwow (pronounced “Levov”) [3] where two of my father’s brothers lived. After a few week’s stay in Ziewicz with our cousins (the Dattners and Schanzers) my father decided to depart for Lwow.  That city, larger than Buffalo, was soon severely overrun with refuges from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.  We found a place to live in a single room with a bathroom shared by dozens from down the hall.  Nevertheless we lived, cooked and yet fed and entertained other refugees in this one room.  Politics, the situation, the search for other relatives and their circumstances dominated many hours of conversation and helped pass the time.

Fast forward to September 1, 1939:  My father and I were on the veranda of his youngest brother Herman’s flat with Herman and his two young sons when we suddenly heard what sounded like thunder.  The Germans, contrary to their promise, had invaded Poland and were bombing the city.  Most people ran and huddled in their cellars as the war and bombing continued for three weeks.  We children fearlessly ran around the courtyards picking up bomb fragments and watching a few Polish soldiers, who were billeted in our courtyard, futilely firing their old rifles at the German airplanes.

September 21, 1939 (Yom Kippur day):  We went out in the street, the bombing ceased and we saw large Russian tanks rumbling down the street.  The Armistice started.  Unknown to anyone, Hitler and Stalin made a pact that, when Poland surrendered, they would divide Poland between them.  Luckily for us, Lwow was in the eastern half (now called the Ukraine) and we were now, for the time being, under Russian rule instead of the Nazis.  Nevertheless, conditions were getting worse with the influx of many thousands of additional refugees from Western Poland congregating in the larger cities. Lwow was inundated.  Food supplies were critically short, black markets thrived.  To make matters worse, on November 30, 1939 Russia attacked Finland.  Transportation became non-existent and commerce was at a complete standstill.  Thousands would line up at stores with the possible expectation of a ½ kilogram of sugar or a kilogram of flour.  Occasionally some farmer would part with a bit of cheese, chicken or 2-3 eggs.  The conditions became intolerable; the Russians decided all non-residents of the City would have to go and began rounding up all refugees for transport to Siberia.  When the officials came to our building and asked the caretaker to list all Polish refugees, he truthfully left out our names since we were Czech, not Polish (another miracle for us).

In the meantime, through telegrams and great difficulty, Father had been communicating with Buffalo relatives, primarily his brother, Bernard.  Funds and visas were critically needed.  There had been windows of opportunity at different times to escape; noteworthy were Italy, Spain, and earlier, the Dominican Republic.  There was always talk of the Dominican Republic, San Domingo, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and Panama, but no possibility of the U.S.  France declared war on Germany the day after the invasion of Poland but would not come to Poland’s aid.  The route west was closed.  There was one window open…..

In the meantime Lwow was so overrun that the Russians mandated that all non-residents leave the City.  We packed up our meager belongings and were designated to move to a smaller town in the Polish Ukraine, called Kolomayya a city of about 30,000, in the spring of 1940.  We found a farmer who rented us two rooms.  We had an outhouse and got water from a well.  Life was a little more low key there and the many farmers in the region gave us an opportunity to occasionally obtain sustenance and to again host other refugees.  Feeding them and discussions of politics and world events occupied our time: “Did you know so and so?  Where did they go?”

Back to Lwow:  While there, we had visitors, among them, my mother’s brother, Bernard Reifer and his son Kurt.  They visited us for three days, never to be seen again.  My father’s oldest brother, Solomon Finkelstein, his wife and two teenage daughters, youngest brother Herman and his two young sons also disappeared in the Holocaust.  We also entertained Jacob (Kobe) Dattner and his brother David who both fortunately survived and eventually made it to Buffalo.  Also visiting us were Jacob Finkelstein and Salka Finkelstein, both younger siblings of my father, who somehow eventually made it to Israel by way of Siberia.

In the meantime, at the start of May 1940, the Nazi hordes overran France, Belgium and Holland.  The Western route was now shut and padlocked.  Things in Kolomayya were quiet.  I actually managed for the first time in a year to go to school for five weeks and learned Ukranian and Russian to add to the Czech and Polish I already spoke along with German.  Five languages!  I have forgotten them all!

In early 1941, with great effort and some help from America, my father obtained a Visa to go to Shanghai where they were actually welcoming people and wanted Europeans to come.  After decades, there is still a substantial Jewish community there.  Again we packed our meager belongs – the ancient silver menorah and candlesticks, suitcases and feather bedding.  We boarded a train (our visas and a few rubles in hand) and headed east.  After a short stopover in Kiev, we arrived in Moscow.  We found accommodations in a modest hotel and the next day father headed to the U.S. embassy to retrieve some U.S. dollars Uncle Bernard had sent, through Western Union, for our use.  While at the embassy, my father introduced himself to a junior envoy whose last name, as I recall, was Steinhart.  When asked what were our intentions and our ultimate destination, the envoy was incredulous to hear that we were heading for Shanghai. “You have multiple relatives in the U.S. who support you with money and you are going to Shanghai?” he asked.  My father replied: “We tried every which way possible but could not obtain a U.S. visa.”  Although we were scheduled to board a train heading east the next day (the end of May) the envoy suggested we stay in Moscow a little longer.  We delayed our departure.  During that time, with my already “vast” experience of walking around and hanging out on tumultuous city streets, I took the opportunity to tour Moscow on my own.  Hard to believe I rode the subways, walked Red Square, went by the Kremlin, saw Lenin’s Tomb (his body was then on display), St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Russian National Museum on opposite ends of Red Square (I was only 9 years old at this time!).

Twelve days later, Father was summoned to the Embassy.  Miraculously, Steinhart had obtained a U.S. visa for us!  On June 17, 1941; with our visa and the equivalent of six to eight U.S. dollars, we boarded a train again.  The Trans-Siberian ‘Express’ would take us to Vladivostok, a journey of 8,900 miles that was supposed to take nine days.  The train had no dining facilities and primitive toilets.  On the frequent stops in the smaller towns, we would encounter local farmers and vendors that would give the travelers the opportunity to purchase some bread, cheese or a can of sardines.  The train was filled mainly with Russian soldiers and dignitaries and a few refugees.  On the train we met another Jewish couple and their teenage daughter (the Zafrins) who were to accompany us on the rest of our journey to the U.S.  Their destination was Nutley, New Jersey, and, for many years afterward, they remained very close to my parents.  I recall that I spent some of my time on the train playing chess with some Russian officers.

June 22, 1941:  The train started to make more frequent stops and spent more time idling on sidings (the Trans-Siberian Express was a single track railroad).  At each stop that day we noticed more and more of the soldiers and officials departing the train.  As we sat at the sidings we could see multiple trains loaded with tanks, artillery trucks and troops heading in the opposite direction (i.e., west).  Germany had invaded Russian (Barbarossa) on the previous day.  Everything was heading west to the warfront!  The train continued on sporadically and, after 17+ days, we arrived in Vlodivostok.   Another stop for a telegram, a short wait and another few dollars arrived from our relatives in Buffalo.  We then boarded a small Japanese tramp steamer and headed east toward Japan by water.  In the middle of the afternoon we encountered a typhoon on the Sea of Japan.  The ship could not continue and the Captain decided to weather the storm in a port on the northeast coast of Korea.  After another a day and a half, we set sail for Tsuruoka on the western coast of Japan.  A train ride across Japan landed us in Kobe.  We spent a part of July and August waiting again for some funds and making arrangements for our passage across the Pacific, destination San Francisco.

On a sunny day in early September, we boarded a Japanese Liner, SS N.Y.K. Asamamaru, and departed from Yokohama, a few miles from Kobe, for the eight day passage to the U.S.  The ship’s passengers were an assortment of business people (in first class), a few scattered refugees, and, mainly, missionaries, priests and humanitarians from all over the Far East.

About the third day aboard the ship, some passengers noticed (via compass, or tracking the sun) that we were no longer sailing east.  We spent some hours going north, then south, then north again.  After a couple of days the ship was actually heading west, opposite of our destination.  The ship had been ordered back to Japan.  One day before reaching Yokohama, however, the itinerary was again reversed and we were told that our new, previously unscheduled destination, would be Honolulu!  After nearly two weeks on the ship, we docked in Honolulu and were given absolute assurance that, after refueling and reprovisioning, we would be continuing on to San Francisco.

My father and Mr. Zafrin decided to go ashore in Hawaii and, somehow, inexplicably, managed to contact the Honolulu Jewish Agency.  They sent a representative down to the ship to meet us.  After only a few hours, he had arranged to obtain a refund for the balance of the journey and to book us on a U.S. cruise ship heading to San Francisco.  Two days later we boarded the SS Lurline and, four days after that, arrived in San Francisco.  A couple of days there and a 3 ½ day train trip through the desert, then north, and we arrived in Buffalo

(P.S.  the Japanese ship, the Asamamaru, left Honolulu two days after docking there with assurances of a San Francisco destination, but turned around and returned to Japan.  All the remaining passengers on board ostensibly spent the duration of the war in Japan.  This ship was the last Japanese commercial ship to dock in an American port before Pearl Harbor!!  One of the priests on board wrote to my father after the war and told him this story.)

For 31 months we ran, we moved, we suffered hunger, fright, anxiety and terror, but we were fortunate or lucky enough to have always been one step ahead of disaster!!  I would never want this Odyssey to be compared to the unfortunate people that were subjected to the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.  My father was astute, or maybe just very lucky, and made decisions that saved us time and time again.  Moravska Ostrava to Buffalo – a 17,000 mile odyssey.

Post script:

We have never forgotten the efforts of and monetary support and encouragement we received from our relatives here in Buffalo who, without question, saved our lives.  We are immensely grateful to them and will always remember my father’s brothers and sisters, Bernard Finton (Bessie), Leonard Finkelstein (Bella), Jenny Farber (Joseph), Helen Elster (Solomon) and all the cousins, the Schanzers and the Bachners and too many others to mention.

We also remember our family members who did not escape:  our father’s brothers, Sol Finkelstein, his wife and two daughters and Herman Finkelstein, his wife and two sons; our mother’s brother, Bernard Reifer of Vienna and his son Kurt, and her two sisters and their husbands, the Heutlers (along with one of their daughers) and the Rossbachs.  Mercifully, some of the Heutler and Rossbach children did survive the war including Bruno, Erich and Gerhart Rossbach and George Heutler.

[1] Currently Ostrava but in 1939, Moravska Ostrava or the Germanized “Märish Ostrau”

[2] #4 Nesselrode Passage

[3] Lwow today is called Lviv or, in German, Lemberg

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