Born of Miracles
Zipora “Tsipi” Wagner’s life is like a theorem of the miraculous – if this, then that – even if she doesn’t like to admit it herself.
Slight, youthful and opinionated, Wagner, a Hebrew instructor in the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program, steadfastly maintains, “If I don’t do things with my own 10 fingers, it will never be done. I don’t believe if I put something under my pillow, tomorrow it will be done. But I can’t explain the miracle of survival.”
For example, miracle No. 1, if her father had not listened to the reports coming out of Germany, then he might never have booked passage for his family – the Goldfingers – aboard the Pencho, a refugee ferry boat bound for Palestine.
“My father did see the future, unlike so many Jews who didn’t understand or didn’t want to believe,” Wagner says. “He made my family run away from Poland.”
By all accounts, the Pencho should never have left Bratislava, Slovakia, but it did. First, the Russian skipper was dragged off with a morphine overdose, then the Romanians kept the boat from docking and then, with no fuel, the Pencho drifted down the Danube River, with Bulgarians and Romanians taking potshots at the ship to keep it from mooring. The ship eventually reached the Black Sea and Istanbul, then crossed the Aegean Sea, where its luck seemed to finally give out. A boiler blew, and the passengers, including Wagner’s parents, found themselves shipwrecked in the Greek isles.
But here comes miracle No. 2. If the Pencho had not foundered in the Aegean Sea that October 1940, then every one of its 519 passengers would have been turned back at Haifa, Palestine, and returned to Nazi hands.
“Everyone on that dilapidated boat survived. The younger generation, like my brothers, helped others who couldn’t swim to get to shore. Nobody died. I don’t know how we can use the word miracle, but it was,” observes Wagner.
Having lost almost all their luggage, which was minimal to begin with, the shipwrecked Ashkenazi Jews were adopted by the local Jews of Rhodes, primarily Sephardic, who brought food, blankets and supplies to them in the internment camp where the families were sent by the fascist Italians who controlled the region. It was probably the first time most of the Jews of Rhodes were able to receive firsthand information about the Holocaust, and an inkling of just how terrible the situation was getting in Europe for Jews.
Fortunately, in Rhodes, none of the internees were killed or subjected to violence. Prisoners were allowed to organize a nursery, library, school, theater and synagogue. Several couples got married at the camp and 21 children were born, one of them, little Tsipi.
Sadly, the fate of the Jews of Rhodes was not as bright as their adopted refugees’; in 1942, Hitler gave the order to send all the Jews of Rhodes to Auschwitz.
“We were not included, because we were not the Jewry from Rhodes,” says Wagner gravely. Instead, the Italians sent all the ship survivors to Ferramonti Di Tarsia, an internment camp near Cosenza in southern Italy. “The Italians had a concentration camp, not a death camp, and they were very nice, and thank God they were our guardians. Whenever the British bombarded the area, they would open the gates and let all the prisoners run to the mountains.”
As for her birth in the concentration camp, Wagner says, “I was an accident. My parents were already in Rhodes, and my mother was being taken care of, but she was very sick in her last pregnancy. My brother raised me and changed my diapers.”
In September 1943, the Fifth British Infantry Division liberated Ferramonti. “My elder brother was 18 at the time, and he immediately joined the British army, and our family got certificates to Palestine under the British mandate,” she says. “Otherwise, they did not allow Jews to come to Palestine. It was one more reason why so many Jews didn’t survive the Holocaust. All the borders were closed to them. There was nowhere to go.”
Some might rightly say that their liberation was a miracle, but by now, the number of miracles is hard to tally. As a young girl growing up in Israel, Wagner never understood the importance of being a Holocaust survivor. The subject was taboo, and she never spoke about it with her parents or family, until she sat Shiva, mourning their deaths.
“The truth is, I never asked,” Wagner admits. “My mother passed away first, and very shortly later, my father, and we were sitting mourning again at my place. So, I started nagging my brothers. I was hardly 28 at the time, and I remember just sitting with an open mouth unable to absorb all of this.”
She recalls the story of how her family lost her in the busy port of Bari, Italy, just as they were finally boarding the boat away from Ferramonti: “We were waiting for the loudspeaker to announce that we could embark, and my father held the papers in one hand and me in the other. He let go of my hand for a second to hand over our papers, and I left. I was 3 years old, and I wanted to see what was around. No one could find me for more than two hours.”
Some of her stories are almost funny, like why she doesn’t like cabbage: “I never knew why exactly,” she says. “I don’t buy it. I don’t cook with it. I definitely don’t eat it. It turns out that I had actually never eaten anything else but cabbage and potatoes until our camp was liberated. We were on the train from Alexandria to Palestine, and a British soldier gave me a piece of chocolate. I spit it out, because it didn’t taste like cabbage, and I’d never eaten anything else.”
Five years ago, Wagner and her surviving brother returned to their parents’ small town in southern Poland, where her brother could still guide the taxi driver, 60 years after he ran away as a 12-year-old boy. He located his school and their parents’ house, where the residents refused to open the door, as apparently many Germans and Poles fear eviction from former Jewish landowners. It was not an easy trip, she says, but it was a very important one for her.
“Although our immediate family survived, nobody else did. Nobody,” she emphasizes. “I know it’s difficult to understand, but we lost everyone in the death camps: my uncles, aunts, godmothers, the neighbors, my grandparents. That’s why I’m really proud of the family my late husband and I created.”
A mother of two sons and four grandchildren, Wagner revels in the fact that her children have cousins and aunts and uncles. “We’re so lucky,” she says. “I never had any family besides my parents and brothers.”
Wagner creates more family wherever she goes, from students to friends. Her small office on the top floor of the Sylvia Vlosky Yaschik Jewish Studies Center is nearly always festooned with students – sprawled out on the floor or draped across her chairs. She is devoted to her academic family, taking them out to eat and teaching them to order in Hebrew and then dragging them to her gym workouts. She worries about them if they miss more than one class without calling.
Wagner has found that interest in both Jewish studies and Hebrew have increased since 9/11 and the suicide bombings in Israel. “My students are interested in the situation in the Middle East,” she says. “All of a sudden, the world realizes that the Middle East is a factor in this chess game of global politics. When you study Arabic or Hebrew, you open a gate to understanding the Middle East.”
For a woman who has lived through some of the darkest times in modern history – and who has taught, according to her, a “gazillion students” – one of the biggest miracles is that she maintains so much trust, surprise and optimism in her pupils and in mankind.
“I love teaching,” she says. “After so many years, I know I can retire, but I don’t even dream of it. I have too much energy and enthusiasm for my students.”
– Sarah Moïse Young ’98