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Diary of Elvira Kohn

Kohn, Elvira Diary 1943
Courtesy of the Croatian History Museum, Zagreb
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tags: health & hygiene hope liberation

type: Diary

After taking power in 1922, Mussolini's fascist regime had created a totalitarian state in Italy. Italy had been Nazi Germany's ideologically closest ally. Despite antisemitic legislation, however, the position of Jews in fascist Italy—as well as in the Italian occupation zones in southern France, Yugoslavia, and Greece—was in many ways better than that of Jews elsewhere in Europe under German domination.1 Jews were affected by racist Italian legislation, and many Jews in the Italian zones of occupation were interned in concentration camps, but living conditions in the camps were relatively tolerable, and the lives of Jews were not under immediate threat.

In spring 1943, the Italian authorities transferred all of the Jews interned in the Italian zone of occupation in Yugoslav Dalmatia—some 3,000 Yugoslav Jews—to a camp already housing some 6,500 Slovenian prisoners on the island of Rab in the Adriatic.2 The purpose of concentrating all Jews from the Yugoslav occupation zones on an island under  Italian control is unclear. It is possible that this was seen as a way of resisting the increasing German pressure to deport all Jews from Yugoslavia. Although this Italian reluctance to give in to the demands of their more powerful ally was not a consequence of philosemitism, and had more to do with navigating the realities of the Italian relationship with Nazi Germany, this measure in effect protected the group of Jews in question, at least for the time being.

The diary of Elvira Kohn, a photo journalist from Dubrovnik, is a fascinating testimony from this period. Kohn documented the arrival to the Rab camp, the daily life of the Jews, as well as their eventual liberation by the Yugoslav communist resistance movement. In early September 1943, as the new Italian government surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, Yugoslav partisans evacuated the Jews from the island over the course of several weeks. Apart from some 300 elderly and sick people who wanted to stay on the island (and who were later hunted down by the SS and deported to their deaths in Auschwitz), more than 2,500 Jews were evacuated to the Croatian mainland, and protected by the Yugoslav partisans until the end of the war. The overwhelming majority survived the war.3

Elvira Kohn's diary documents this rescue effort, and provides a glimpse into Jewish life in the Italian zone of occupation in the period in which fascist Italy collapsed. Elvira wrote her notes in the camp itself, and continued keeping the diary after the liberation of inmates from the camp in September 1943. It is a raw, unedited text that speaks to the fluidity of the situation; the handwriting is barely legible, perhaps the reflection of the latter.

See Joshua D. Zimmerman, ed., Jews in Italy under Fascist and Nazi Rule, 1922-1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). For the status of the territories occupied by Italy, as well as the fate of the Jews in those areas, see Davide Rodogno, Fascism's European Empire: Italian Occupation During the Second World War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Today, Rab is part of Croatia, but historically it had belonged to Venice and later to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, during which time it continued to have a large Italian-speaking population. After World War I it became part of Yugoslavia until its breakup and the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia, when it was annexed to Italy.

See Emil Kerenji, “‘Your Salvation is the Struggle Against Fascism’: Yugoslav Communists and the Rescue of Jews, 1941–1945,” in Contemporary European History, Volume 25, Issue 1 (February 2016): 57-74.

Yugoslav communist partisans from the mainland regional council.

The Yugoslav flag of the partisan army.

Inmates of the adjacent camp.

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[undated entry]

After a wonderful two-day voyage on the luxury steamship Città di Tunisi [City of Tunis], we arrived in Rab at 4 o’clock in the afternoon; debarking lasted until 5 o’clock.  Then we were taken by trucks to the camp that was to us as yet unknown. [We were] still in a good mood, until we saw the barracks. When we arrived, commotion started, [since people] wanted to get a room, because there were few of those, and people did not immediately want to go into joint barracks. Evening was drawing near, and a part of some people were still standing outside, not knowing where to go, since even the joint barracks were full. There were 180 of us waiting [to see] where we would be accommodated. Then the colonel came and informed us that we would be accommodated temporarily in sector III, until space is found here. At 10:30 we crossed into sector III, which is separated by barbed wire. At 11, in pitch darkness, we were given straw mattresses, and were told to fill them with straw, which was completely wet, as it had rained the previous day. Finally, around midnight, we went to sleep, hungry and filthy, because there was no water [to wash oneself].

[...]

The morning of September 8 appeared to be a day like any other in our camp. We did not know that that day would bring the long-awaited freedom and liberation from the camp. In the evening, around 7 o’clock, the news spread around the camp of the capitulation of Italy, which nobody believed at first, until the [Italian] soldiers themselves started approaching us through the [barbed] wire (which was forbidden until then), confirming the true nature of the news. Of course, everyone was exhilarated, as we thought this was the end and now everyone was going home. That night at ten, we were, as usual, driven into the barracks, but this was unsuccessful, since people were too excited to be able to separate from one another, since they were already making plans to go home. On September 9, life went as usual, with no changes for us at the camp. On September 10 in the afternoon, a celebratory rally took place. Comrades from Mount Velebit1 came to inform us that we are free, and that our days as camp inmates are over, and that they are inviting all able bodied fighters into the ranks of the partisans. At that moment, the flag with our five-pointed star unfurled,2 which brought liberation to all of us. Our youth went around the entire camp singing and celebrating. The following day, a big rally took place with our Slovenian brothers3 and the Italian army in the Italian camp, which [the rally] was characterized with great enthusiasm, song, and dance. Many could now openly, in front of officers, reveal their ideas, and fasten the five-pointed star, which they had ready, to their hats. The ceremony lasted until 1 o’clock, and the same day in the afternoon, we were going to go to the cemetery of Slovenian brothers to commemorate the dead [...]

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Croatian History Museum, Zagreb
RG Number 61.019M
Date Created
1943
Page(s) 7
Author / Creator
Kohn, Elvira
Language(s)
Bosnian
Croatian
Serbian
Location
Rab, Croatia
Rab, Yugoslavia (historical)
Document Type Diary
How to Cite Museum Materials