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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMOIRIST:                    TILDA FINZI COHEN (1933-  )     

INTERVIEWER:                 JOHN KENT

                                         RUTH EINSTEIN

DATE:                                NOVEMBER 11, 2011

LOCATION:                        ATLANTA, GEORGIA

ID#:                                   OHC10806

NUMBER OF PAGES:          43

Transcript (PDF)

HIGHLIGHTS/EXCERPTS

“Jewishness meant a great deal . . . it meant Friday taking the chicken to be killed at the synagogue. This is actually taking the live chicken, and bringing home a dead chicken because that was the only way the chicken would be kosher . . . My mother had come from a kosher home in Sarajevo, so we used to take the chicken to be killed in a special basement of the synagogue . . . once a week, maybe even not that often.  It depends if the rabbi was there to kill the chicken, which he was. That was how it began . . . it began by taking a bath Friday evening, then getting dressed, then having the Shabbat [Hebrew: Sabbath] dinner, and lighting the candles.  My father always sang the Kiddush . . . a very lengthy Kiddush.  It was very much in the lighting of the candles, everything.  My father used to go to synagogue on Friday evening for services. Women did not.  I did not.  Saturday morning, I don’t remember him going very often but he had a store.  The store had to be closed on Sunday very often so I don’t think he went.  It meant Pesach.  It meant all the pots were boiled, the house was torn up. It was very traditional.  We always had big seders.”  5

On seeing German soldiers march into Split:

“One night, my mother said that we were invited to lunch or dinner  . . . to one of the other families.  It was on the other side, maybe 20 minutes or one-half hour walk but that for us was nothing . . . nice streets. We left in the evening, we were not afraid of walking at night. It was just the two of us. We came toward the center of town and there was this sea of soldiers . . . German. The war was declared . . . I don’t know why I remembered it so clearly . . . the sea of marching Germans, they marched through the town. My mother and I kind of went to the side, and made it home.  In the morning, there was absolutely no trace of the Germans. They just walked through . . . they marched through the town and went someplace.”  7, 8

During the German occupation:

“That is when [we went] from a family of three . . . my mother, my father and I, and the housekeeper . . . things changed. There was an influx of family members. They were all escaping the Germans from these cities.  They would stay with us for a few weeks, and then they would go, and find a room someplace or something like that.  This was a drastic change. There was a house full of people.  Cooking was . . . there could be 10, 15 people in the house, and it’s little . . . They were all fearful.  They all had come . . . basically had left these cities with false papers—false identification cards and things like that.”   9

“ . . . all the businesses were closed.  The maid had to leave.  All these things started happening. The businesses were not . . . the beach was closed to Jews. As a matter of fact, in their book, it said, “Evitato l’ingresso agli Ebrei” [Italian], which meant “Entrance is prohibited to Jews.” There was one that said, “Gli Hebre e i cani” [Italian] “Jews and dogs.” But anyway, I just read before you all arrived, where it said, be careful, because if the Jews left any of their towels, they are full of vermin, throw them [away].  It was just so, so wild. This was the beach that was the built beach where there were bathrooms . . . we were not allowed.  Actually within a month, this whole thing changed: no Jews in schools, no help in the house, no stores owned by Jews, no beach, no congregating in coffee shops.  You couldn’t congregate in coffee shops.”  11

In July 1943, Tilda and her parents fled to the mountains of Italy to avoid the German occupation of northern Italy.  From there they made arrangements to get to southern Italy:

“They decided that some people were going to go walk around, and go to the coast, and some people were going to go by trucks around.  My father was selected to walk . . . my mother and I, because I was 10 . . . but little, that we would go in the trucks. All the stuff we had, we took with us in the truck. They were taking us back to the beach so we could take small boats to the islands on the Adriatic Sea. Unfortunately, as we got close to Split, they had a message, and they had to dump us on the road, and then we could continue on foot . . . Here we have all the stuff . . . Whatever Mother and I could carry, they told us which way to go, on the coast towards another town . . . My father arrived there expecting us to be there, and we were not there. We were not there for hours . . . He knew the direction where the road would be so he started walking towards, going the opposite way. My God, the reunion between the three of us, it was one of those things, it was unbelievable. “Where are the things,” [he asked].  I said, “We left everything, just abandoned everything.”  But that night, we all got in small boats, and we went to one of the small islands.”  17, 18

“By Yom Kippur, we were in Bari, Italy . . . I remember we started to fast . . . a can of corned beef, which was probably not kosher for sure, it might have had pork . . . but what I am trying to say . . . we were still observing. It’s amazing! . . . the Allies were there, the Americans. For the first time, I saw an African-American person, driving a jeep.  It was just like . . . the chocolate we were given and chewing gum . . . I had never heard of chewing gum but gum, I saw.” 19

Bari, Italy was the object of large air raids because it was an Allied supply base:

“ . . . it was the worst bombing that afternoon . . . the worst.  We had to go in a shelter.  I was 10. I was so fearful that I would never find my parents again.  It was such a scary, scary feeling. Because the bomb . . . when we got out of the bomb shelter, they told us to walk in the middle of the street, because the windows were still . . . all the windows were [broken], and be careful of our feet . . . In comparison to the people that went to concentration camps, I don’t feel that I had any [problem].  But anyway, we made it to the little room.  My parents were fine. But after that was when we decided, that’s it, it’s too much . . .” 22

In Atlanta, Tilda took her two daughters on a bus to meet her husband for lunch:

“The bus is full of African-American women . . . now black, whatever . . . there I get on the bus with these two little girls . . . one was five, one was two or maybe . . . I don’t know . . . I sit them, each one . . . I sit next to an African-American lady, and I sit.  I didn’t know . . . that the bus was segregated.  One white woman, who was filthy, who was just a mess, takes my children, and puts them in her lap and next to her because I sat the children next to [the African-American women].  To me, this was . . . I got into a fight with this woman.  I said, “Will you leave my children where I sat them?”  It was just unbelievable . . . It was very difficult, but things were changing.”  35

“I had a lady who I adored because I developed mono[neucleosis] when I came to Atlanta.  Miss Eunice was wonderful.  She came, and took care of me and my children.  Miss Eunice was a part of the family. Eunice would come, and I wanted her to sit down, and eat with us. It was just one of those things. After Eunice got sick and couldn’t work . . . she just worked once every two weeks for me. But when I was sick . . . the mono . . . I had two little girls, she was coming every day. She became a member of our family. It was very hard, that part.  Maybe that’s why I didn’t fit, integrate.”  36

On her trip back to Split:

“I was home, I felt safe . . . [at her old home] . . . The building is just the same.  The building is the same. It almost felt like home.  I walked up the steps. The most interesting thing . . . we had what they call the upper part of the houses, where we kept the wood for the . . . not the basement, it was the upper part.  If you ever had a reminder of an odor . . . the dry wood odor, of that, soffitta [Italian: attic], what is that? . . . It was the attic . . . it was open.  Everybody has the little sheds.  That’s where I felt I was home because I went up there every day with the woman that helped to bring wood down. The odor of that dry wood in that attic was so [strong], because it was in the summer.  I can’t explain . . . it brought back everything.  I rang the bell of the house.  I have a bell like that here . . . dring, dring, dring, just sings, turns. Nobody answered. I can’t explain.  I went back.”  39

BIOGRAPHY

Mazel Tov (“Tilda”) Finzi Cohen was born in Split, Yugoslavia, on July 11, 1933.  Her parents were Moritz (Mauricio) and Hannah Finzi.  She was an only child.  Tilda grew up speaking Serbo-Croatian, and understanding Ladino, which was spoken by her parents.  Tilda’s parents were active in the synagogue, and observed Shabbat and Jewish holidays.  Her father’s cousin, Izzy Finzi, was the rabbi of the Split synagogue. Moritz Finzi was a leader in the Jewish community in Split, and continued to be a leader in the Jewish community in all of the places he lived.  Before World War II, there were about 270 Jewish people in Split.

Tilda’s family was middle class, and lived in a small house. They had a live-in housekeeper, who helped Tilda’s mother, as many families did at the time.  Tilda’s father owned a dry goods store until 1936, when he was forced to close the store, and became a traveling salesman.  Tilda was an active and independent child, who learned to swim before she learned to read. She started school in 1940, when she was seven years old. The teacher had trouble pronouncing her name, but otherwise, she got along well in school.

In the late winter of 1940 or early 1941, Tilda’s father was drafted into the Yugoslavian army, and he left for two or three weeks. During the time he was gone, a group of German soldiers marched through Split. These were the only German soldiers Tilda saw during the war. After Split was occupied by Italy, many family members from German-occupied parts of Europe came to live with Tilda’s family, believing the Italians would be more lenient to Jews than the Germans. The house became very crowded.  Tilda estimates that there were about 1,000 Jews in Split at this time, including all the refugees.  The schools in Split were taken over by the Italians, and fascist teachers were brought in from Italy.  Tilda became the teacher’s pet because she could understand the Italian the teacher spoke, and was able to translate for the students.  Nevertheless, in 1941, Tilda’s parents were told that she could no longer attend school because she was Jewish. Anti-Jewish laws had been in place since 1939, and the family was no longer able, among other things, to have a housekeeper, go to the public beach, or go to coffee shops. In addition, her father found it difficult to obtain work.  The Jewish community set up its own schools to continue to educate the children.

Several members of Tilda’s family were involved in the resistance, and joined Tito’s partisans. Her uncle, Chaim, went to jail, and Tilda brought meals to him every day.  Her cousin, also named ‘Tilda,’ was a resistance fighter who threw vitriol (acid) in the face of one of the fascist commanders, and then escaped to the partisans in the mountains.

On September 8, 1943, Italy capitulated to Germany, and the Jews of Split felt they were in greater danger because the Germans were coming. Tilda’s family decided to leave, and go to the mountains. Tilda’s father briefly joined the resistance.  She and her mother stayed in the mountains until he was released due to his age (43), and then the family traveled to various islands in the Adriatic, and then to Bari, Italy, to escape from the Germans. In Bari, the family stayed in a school, and met Allied troops.  The city was bombed, so they fled to a series of smaller towns in the area. In one of the towns, they celebrated Pesach with a seder organized by Jewish members of the Royal Air Force’s map division.  The family was safe in Bari, and the surrounding towns, but worried about family members and friends who had been sent to concentration camps. 

In 1945, when the war ended, many displaced people came to Bari, and the family decided to go to the United States. They had lost many family members and friends, including Tilda’s classmate, Muscov Finzi, who died in a concentration camp. They lived in Milan, Italy until they could arrange to leave.  Tilda went to high school in New York, and two-and-one-half years of college, before meeting and marrying Leonard Cohen.  Tilda and Leonard lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Denver, Colorado; and then Atlanta, Georgia.  They had three children, and six grandchildren. Tilda used her language skills to become a language teacher, and taught Serbo-Croatian, Italian, and English after the family moved to Atlanta. Tilda’s father and mother passed away in 1979 and 1980, respectively.  Her husband, Leonard has also passed away.  She has visited Split twice since the war, and was planning another trip, with her family, at the time of the interview.

SCOPE OF THE INTERVIEW

Tilda discusses her family and life in Split, Yugoslavia.  She talks about how life changed for her and her family after the Italians invaded Yugoslavia and the anti-Jewish laws were enforced in Split.  She discusses her father and other family members who were involved in armed resistance with Tito’s partisans. She recalls leaving Split after the Germans occupied northern Italy, fleeing across several islands in the Adriatic Sea, and eventually ending up in Bari in southern Italy, where she met Allied troops.  She also remembers leaving Bari to escape the bombings being carried out there by the Germans. She discusses how, after the war, her family decided to immigrate to the United States, where she was married. She reflects on her impressions of the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and how it impacted her family, and on the civil rights movement in Atlanta. She shares her feelings of isolation in the United States, and how she found fulfillment with friends who were not part of the mainstream of Jewish life in America.  Finally, she provides advice to future generations about the importance of having an open mind and broadening your horizons.

KEYWORDS

Adriatic Sea

Air raids

Alkalay, Isaac Abraham (Rabbi)

Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL)

Atlanta, Georgia

Bari, Italy

Belgrade, Yugoslavia/Serbia

Ben Massell Dental Clinic—Atlanta, Georgia

Enator, Naomi Sue Cohen

Berlitz

Bisevo (Island, Adriatic Sea)

Black market

Blackshirts

B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO)

Brac (island)

Bridge and Groom (TV show)

Café Europa

Cohen, Leonard Lincoln

Cohen, Tilda Finzi

Cres (island)

Croatia

Cyprus (island)

Dalmatia

Denver, Colorado

Diocletian Palace—Split, Yugoslavia

Displaced People

English as a Second Language

Finzi, Hannah

Finzi, Izzy

Finzi, Mazel Tov

Finzi, Mauricio

Finzi, Moritz

Finzi, Muscov

Flight and hiding

Gottfried, Bianca Finzi

Hanukkah

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)

Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)

Holocaust survivors

Hunter College—New York City, New York

Hvar (island)

Immigration

Inlingua

Irgun

Israel

Italian Language

Jacobs, Esther

Jewish-Black Relations

Jewish Family & Career Services

Jewish Federation of Great Atlanta

Kahn, Edward M.

Kashrut

Kiddush

Kosher

Ladino

Language instruction

Ma Nishtana (Four Questions)

Manifesto of Race

Milan, Italy

Mussolini, Benito

Mustard gas

Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORC)

New York City, New York

Nuremberg Laws

Occupation

Or VeShalom—Atlanta, Georgia

Partisans

Persecution

Pesach

Peter II (King)

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Racism

Resistance, Jewish

Rosenberg, Julius and Ethel

Rosh Ha-Shanah

Sabbath

Sarajevo, Bosnia

Seder

Segregation

Sephardic Jews

Sephardim

Serbo-Croatian language

Shadyside, Pittsburgh

Shearith Isreal—Atlanta, Georgia

Shiva

Shochet

Split, Yugoslavia

Sobol, Deborah Cohen

Sobol, Kenneth

Social work

Tito, Josip Broz

Yom Kippur

Yugoslavia

Women’s International Zionist Organization

World War, 1939-1945

Zagreb, Yugoslavia/Croatia

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