As Luck would have it

Ninety-two-year-old Jack Luck of Ra'anana, who in WWII was shot and left for dead, has just celebrated his 70th wedding anniversary.

July 8, 2009 14:35
As Luck would have it

Jack Luck 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Slowly but assuredly, 92-year-old Jack Luck ascends the steps up the bima at Shivtei Israel synagogue in Ra'anana. He declines all offers of assistance. Under his shirt, a WWII bullet wound bears testimony to the tenacity of this irrepressible former POW. His posture sturdy, his voice steady, Jack stands before the Torah and recites the blessing. Tearfully looking on from the pews upstairs are his wife of 70 years, Rachel, and their five daughters. Their 12 grandchildren and 40 great-grandchildren are scattered among this predominantly English-speaking congregation who joined in celebrating the couple's 70th wedding anniversary. The Lucks even received a letter from Queen Elizabeth II. Grit and defiance some seven decades earlier secured this event. As the Nazi tyranny descended over Europe in the late 1930s, the prospects for young Jack Luck in London and Rachel Warman in Antwerp were bleak indeed. While Jack would soon be conscripted into the Middlesex Regiment that would first taste action in the Battle for Anzio in Italy, on the other side of the Channel, the Warman family, who had left Poland over a decade earlier, were facing an uncertain future in Belgium. Nineteen-year-old Rachel, in her spare time, studied English. It would save her life. To improve her vocabulary she began to correspond with a young Jewish fellow in London. Soon, they "wanted to meet in the flesh." Jack invited Rachel to London but "What Yiddisher mother would allow this, so we invited him instead to Antwerp and not too long after, in May 1939, we were married." Leaving Antwerp to settle in London was traumatic for Rachel. "I had this awful feeling I would never see my family again." Apart from two young nieces, her fears were well founded. Following the outbreak of war, Rachel did manage to keep in contact with her family in Antwerp through the Red Cross office in St. James Palace. "We could send messages of not more than 25 words and then months would pass until we received a reply." This went on until 1942, when Rachel received a returned letter stamped, "Left for an unknown destination." She knew what that meant. Word about the deportations was reaching England. Rachel's parents were herded onto the train for Auschwitz not from Antwerp, but from Brussels. They had moved to the Belgian capital "because it had a smaller Jewish population and they thought they could blend in and escape attention." This proved to be true only temporarily. The roundups soon began in Brussels, and only days before the Germans came, Rachel's brother and sister-in-law, Zalman and Malka, took their two baby daughters to their non-Jewish neighbors. One was Rosa, Roni Wolf today of Ra'anana. Roni would later learn that her mother was murdered on the day she arrived at Auschwitz; her father would later die from illness. "We only spent a few days with this family, who realized the danger we placed them in. They then took us to Wezembeek, an orphanage for abandoned children outside Brussels." For a while, the children were safe. "The orphanage was protected property," explains Roni, "as part of an understanding reached when Belgium capitulated in 1940 that the nation's children would not be harmed. This was insisted upon by the queen. The Nazis adhered to this policy until, one day in 1944, the trains bound for Auschwitz fell short of their quota. Precise by nature, the Germans would not countenance empty coaches. And if they could not meet their quota with adults, they knew where to find last-minute substitutes - the children at Wezembeek." Roni, who was four at the time, and her older sister Regina were among those herded onto the trucks and driven to the station. The orphanage head, Madame Marie Blum, wasted no time. Using her connections, she got a message through to the Queen of Belgium, who acted immediately. A message came through to the highest-ranking German soldier in charge while the children were disembarking from the trucks and being marched to the train. A short while later the train left for Auschwitz with a few empty carriages, while the trucks returned to the orphanage full with the children. In 1992, Blum was honored by the US Senate for being "a true heroine." When the war ended, Roni and Regina were the only survivors of the Warman family. While Rachel was worrying about her family in Belgium, Jack was in the thick of battle in Italy. In January 1944 following the Battle of Anzio, the Germans staged a successful counter attack in which 2,000 allied soldiers were captured. Jack was one. From the moment the POWs arrived at a camp called Farosebina, Jack recalls, "I could think of nothing else but to escape. How could we build a tunnel? Which direction were the guards facing? When did they change positions and in the two minutes that a guard was not looking, could I do anything? These were the thoughts constantly going through my mind." Jack finally decided the best way of escape was to have a legitimate reason to be outside the camp. That occasion arose when "they asked for volunteers to do some digging outside the camp. There were 30 of us in the detail. As we reached the perimeter I noticed a trench and said to my buddy Charlie, jump and follow me." They both dropped into the trench and crawled away from the group until they were on top of a hill looking down upon a forest. "I was so tempted to get up and run, but restrained myself. I casually walked down and hid among the trees." Sitting in a crouched position, Jack heard leaves rustle and was about to call, "Charlie, is that you?" when he restrained himself. It was the German guards looking for him. By the time evening arrived, he says, "I was starving and needed a place to rest." He found a barn where he slept for a few hours. The next day he wandered on toward what he hoped were friendly lines. He recalled at the time a South African in the camp who had tried to dissuade him from escaping until they had maps. Jack had replied "maps, shmaps, I'm not waiting, I'm out of here at the first opportunity." After five days, he was nearing his own lines when he walked into a German patrol. His explanation in poor Italian that he was looking for his horse did not pass muster and his wrists were bound with wire. When questioned, he would reveal nothing more than "Private J. Luck 6209238." He soon found himself back at his old POW camp. But not for long! Jack was to be transferred to Stalag 11A in Germany. "At least now we were able to have a shower and we were given soap. This was luxury. Only when you are denied basic items do you appreciate what you daily take for granted," he observes. The camp was divided into two compounds, the British separated from the Americans. "On the whole the conditions were okay. We received a bowl of soup a day, 350 grams of bread, a small amount of margarine, a trifling of jam and some coffee. Occasionally, we even had some meat." One day, chest pains forced Jack to stay behind while his comrades were marched off to work. A sentry came up to him and asked why he was still there and when he tried to explain, the guard struck his head with his rifle butt. "He was all set to repeat this beating and I knew if I was to survive, I had to get away. So I ran. The next thing I felt was a pain in the back as I fell to the ground. The bugger had shot me and left me for dead. I lay there for what seemed like hours, repeating all the time, 'I will not die; I will not die.'" Eventually he found himself on a stretcher and was taken to a local hospital and operated on. Jack's middle name is Issa and suddenly "the nurses were asking whether I was Jewish." The night following the operation, Jack tried to escape again but did not get far. "That was a stupid thing you tried last night trying to escape," reprimanded the male nurse the next day. "You left a trail of blood all over the floor." Jack realized he was being reckless and was in no physical condition to escape. After recuperating, he was transferred back to the POW camp and because of his wounds, managed to evade work until April 1945. With the war drawing to a close, he says, "there were rumors that the Germans were going to transfer us again and who knew where. Together with an ailing Scotsman - McDonald - we devised an escape. The opportunity arose when they were on a work detail outside the camp. When darkness fell, we dodged into the pine forest." The next day, McDonald was wheezing badly and could not continue, so Jack went on ahead. The end of the war was only four days away when "out of the blue a Russian soldier appeared, followed by other POWs of different nationalities." This was the prelude of an unfolding scene "of crowds cheering and shouting for joy; Russian soldiers driving their armored cars, blaring their horns, while tossing bread to the people and consuming vodka." But all Jack wanted to do was get back to his own lines. He found a bicycle and rode until the tires punctured. He then found another and pedaled toward the American lines. "I found the air blowing in my face exhilarating... I was free." The last leg of his reunification with Rachel, who had taken a flat in Islington, North London, was completed on "roller-skates." Jack was in a hurry. "It had been five years and I had a five-year-old daughter who didn't know me - there was a lot of catching up to do." Epilogue When Rachel was given the names in 1945 of all the deportees in Belgium she noticed that her brother's children Regina (b. 1938) and Rosa (b. 1940) were not listed. "It meant they had survived," Rachel tells Metro. She had lost her parents, two brothers, a sister, a sister-in-law, aunts, uncles and cousins, "but I had two nieces and we were going to find them. "After months of investigation, we learned that one was living with a devout Catholic family and the other in a Jewish children's home." Rachel traveled to Brussels and brought the girls back to England, where she and Jack adopted them. At 18, Rosa (Roni) left for Israel on a year-long educational program. Instead of returning to the UK, she joined the army, where she met her future husband, South African Ivor Wolf. Twenty-seven years ago, her parents, Jack and Rachel, made aliya. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yediot Aharonot ran an article on the Holocaust with an appeal from a woman working at Yad Vashem to identify any of the children in six photographs she had randomly selected out of some 130,000. The caption read 'Lost Youth.' Shortly before midnight, one reader was about to retire when she glanced at one of the photos. The next thing she did was call her parents in Ra'anana and said, "Don't go to bed, I'm coming over right now." A short while later, Yaella arrived, finding her parents, Ivor and Roni Wolf, anxiously drinking coffee. She dropped the newspaper on the kitchen table and pointed to a photo of a little girl clutching her teddy bear. The photo was taken when Roni had been staying at Wezembeek, the orphanage outside Brussels. "Mommy, it's you, it's you," Yaella repeated tearfully.

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