The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.
Mara Ginic (now Kraus) was born in Zagreb, Yugoslavia in 1925. When she was three or four years old she moved with her grandparents to Osijek, Slavonia. When she was five years old her parents divorced and her mother moved to Belgrade, but she stayed with her father and grand parents in Osijek until she was eight years old, when they also moved to Belgrade. After her father re-married, Mara lived with him and her step-mother.
In April 1941, a few weeks after Hitler's troops occupied Belgrade my father and I escaped with the help of my Catholic and ethnic German mother to the Dalmatian island Hvar. But Hvar occupied by the Croat Ustashi turned out to be a quite unsafe place. So we escaped once more under the nose of the authorities, this time to Split, occupied by the Italians. In December of the same year, the Italians deported us to a small town in Piedmont, Castellamonte, in northern Italy, where we were interned as civil prisoners of war.
In September 1943 the Germans occupied northern Italy. My father, some friends and I fled to the mountains with the intention to cross over to Switzerland. After an adventurous, dangerously unsuccessful try we were able to find a guide in Breuil (Cervinia). He descended from a line of famous mountaineers: his grandfather Jean Antoine Carrel was the first Italian to climb the Matterhorn.
Breuil lies at the foot of Matterhorn and our aim was Zermatt which lies on the other side of the Matterhorn in Switzerland. Accompanied by Carrel and wearing our backpacks and low shoes, we left at dusk. On the way another mountain guide joined us. We plodded single file into the night up a path which became steeper and steeper. We were a party of five refugees, two men and three women. Carrel headed the line and carried a thick rope rolled over his shoulder, while his colleague closed the line.
After a time Carrel stopped and gave us all a small pill. A drug for endurance that pilots take before difficult assignments, he explained. My backpack suddenly became light as feather, and it seemed as though my feet barely touched the ground. For about three or four hours we went uphill on paths that weren't too difficult. The bright night was turning cooler and I put on my mittens. Father wasn't so well equipped, and he constantly held his city hat with one hand because the wind threatened to blow it off his head. I gave him one of my mittens since his hands were freezing, as the cold became more biting.
We wandered uphill without much effort until daybreak, but the worst still lay ahead. The path became more stony and narrow, and we now had to step carefully sideways, leaning against a steep rock face. Then our taciturn guide fastened one after the other to the rope and let us slide down several yards over the step-like cliffs. After this difficult passage was behind us, Carrel stopped and pointed straight ahead. A glacier spread out before us, and far below, meadows and houses were veiled in the morning mist. "That's the direction", pointed Carrel. " Now you have to go alone. It's the border and I can't go any farther".
There he was given the gold coins as it has been agreed before by my father's friend, Hinko Salz, who was a dentist and had gold coins. Luckily for us, because my father didn't have any.
The two men turned around and disappeared from our sight in an instant. For a few moments we stood there, helpless, then got hold of ourselves and stepped onto the glacier. Its icy breath beat against us. It was smooth and crossing it wouldn't have been difficult if we had worn mountain shoes, and if there hadn't been crevasses every couples of yards which we sometimes easily stepped over, but more often were forced to jump. We had been on our way for twelve hours and the pills had lost their effect. The high had passed now into a great weariness. Every step became an effort of will, not to mention jumping, when our backpacks yanked us to the ground every time.
My throat was parched, the wind blew my hair in my face and obstructed my vision. My knees buckled and the glacier never seemed to end. Every time now when I jumped I fell on the ice, until I no longer had the strength to get up. Father was bushed too, but spurred me on and helped me again and again to get up. My limbs were stiff from the cold, my fingers and tows were numb. Enough was enough! Not another inch! I am staying here!
As father tried to help me I started to scream. At 11.500 feet this was exactly the right time to have a nervous breakdown. At Dr. Salc's sign, my father gave me a slap in the face, and I began to cry, but gradually quieted down, pulled myself together and dragged myself along like a good girl. Soon we made it over the glacier. Now before us lay a lake, and not far from there we saw a house: the border guard.
The guards had been observing us with binoculars for some time and came to meet us. We dropped exhausted on the benches in front of the small guard house. They gave us water and let us have a breather before we were politely, but resolutely informed that we couldn't remain there in Switzerland but had to turn back. We hadn't expected that. At that time we still didn't know anything about the many refugees who were not only refused entry to the country, but were even immediately handed over to the Germans.
At first my father and Dr. Salc tried to persuade the border guards. My father said his sister lived in Switzerland, and since he had her address -- she was interned in a camp near Lugano -- he asked to be allowed to call her there. Over the telephone he inquired if she had any contacts who could help us be admitted to Switzerland. "My poor brother, I'm a refugee, how can I help you?" Since nothing could be expected from that side, the negotiations turned to imploring and begging for entry -- and when even tears were of no avail the two adult women threw themselves at the feet of the officials, pulled their hair and made such a scene that I had to look away in shame.
After this terrible exhibition the top official went to the phone, spoke for a long time with distant superiors and finally informed us he couldn't decide anything on his own and had to bring us to Zermatt. We hoped then we were saved. We believed once in the country we wouldn't be expelled any more. We were lucky, because as I heard later, many refugees who already were inside the country have been handed over by Swiss police to the Germans.
So we started on our way, traipsing along with our remaining strength behind the border guard through this wonderful, free country where there was no war and no SS.
Even the air seemed to me particularly fragrant, like honey, or was it my imagination? Was I hallucinating smells? In my exhaustion and ecstasy I hadn't noticed that our escort was smoking a pipe, out of which small honey-scented clouds floated over us. How we came to Zermatt, to whom our guard handed us, where we spent the night: all this went unperceived by my sleepwalking senses. The twenty-four hours of marching, climbing, jumping over crevasses, agitation, despair and ensuing deliverance had completely emptied my mind. I believe we stayed in a hotel. All I see is the staircase we went down the following morning which caused us immense strain because of our sore muscles.
In Zermatt we became famous overnight. We were treated like heroes. People felt admiration for our accomplishment and compassion for our lot. On our way to the train station from where we were to leave for a camp, men and women on the streets congratulated us and offered us fruits and chocolate. Even as we sat in our compartment, they passed us apples and cigarettes through the windows.
We remained in Switzerland until the end of the war. Meanwhile I had married Ivo Kraus and we decided not to return to Yugoslavia, but go to Italy. From Italy we emigrated to Argentina. My father did return to Yugoslavia, only to escape from the Tito regime 2 years later. Some month before he had married in Belgrade an Auschwitz survivor, Silvia Drucker. They emigrated to Venezuela where their daughter Nicole was born.
My husband and me had two children and we lived later again in Italy, and in France, in Venezuela and finally in São Paulo, Brazil, where we divorced. In São Paulo I met Joe J. Heydecker with whom I lived until his death in Vienna, Austria.
Related Map Link