Benito Mussolini saved my life

Even when powered by persistence, sometimes survival can hang by a thread – and a dictator can swoop in to save you

 ‘Our life was soon greatly changed’: German troops enter Prague in 1939.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Our life was soon greatly changed’: German troops enter Prague in 1939.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yes, it’s true. Benito Mussolini, the Italian politician, the leader of the Italian National Fascist Party, the dictator who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943, the man who dragged Italy into World War II alongside Nazi Germany, the tyrant who became so despised by his people that they killed him – yes, it was this Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini who rescued me from the Holocaust along with my brother and our father.
But that is the end of the story. Allow me to go back to the beginning.
The German Nazi army marched into Czechoslovakia on the March 15, 1939 and our life was soon greatly changed. By 1940, my older brother was studying in Chicago, our mother was also in Chicago in order to regain her American citizenship that she had lost when she married our father, who was  arrested and sent to the Dachau concentration camp and my little brother Steven, eight years old, and I, four years older, were living with relatives. That also did not last very long and, by early 1940, Steven was living in a small village with our former housekeeper and I, along with four other schoolmates, was working on a farm.
My life on the farm lasted for several months when I suddenly received a postcard from my uncle asking me to return to Brno, my hometown, and prepare the escape from the clutches of Nazi Germany.
How did this miracle come about?
World War II was raging in Europe, all borders were closed and Jews were under severe restrictions and brutal laws. How was it possible that we, my brother and I, would be able to leave Europe and escape from the Holocaust while many millions of Jews were trapped and were murdered? For that story, we must go back to 1933.
WHEN YOU look at the city of Chicago today, it is hard to believe that this great metropolis was incorporated less than 200 years ago. Approaching the middle of the 20th century, Chicago had much to be proud of and, therefore, in 1933 it decided to celebrate the city’s centennial with a great World’s Fair. The fair dramatized not only the advances that had taken place in Chicago, but also the progress that the whole world had achieved in the past and the grand future it could anticipate. Unfortunately, one of the things that the planners of the fair did not anticipate was that the Great Depression would be at its height just when the fair’s doors were scheduled to open. A huge number of workers were unemployed or working for very low wages. The fair was well received, but fewer people than expected were willing to spend their hard-earned money on entertainment.
The promoters of the fair tried various promotions to get people into the fairgrounds. One such public relations ploy was the overseas arrival of a small fleet of Italian military aircrafts. Remember, in 1933 flying across the Atlantic was still quite an adventure. So, a great deal of excitement was generated by the announcement that a group of planes from Italy were going to fly across the Atlantic to come to the Chicago Fair.
The commander of this group of airplanes was an officer in the Italian Air Force named Italo Balbo. When the planes arrived in Chicago, they were grandly welcomed and a parkway on the Chicago waterfront was renamed Balbo Drive. Since this was a military matter, it was appropriate that the welcome should be led by Colonel Keen, the commander of the 33rd Division of the Illinois National Guard. He, in turn, selected his aide-de-camp, Captain Julius Klein, as the personal aide to General Balbo during his visit to Chicago. This is how General Balbo befriended Julius Klein, my mother’s brother, my uncle. Captain Julius Klein was a newspaper reporter who, in addition, was very active in the local state militia. During World War II, he served on General McArthur’s staff in the Pacific and ultimately retired as a two-star general.
After Balbo returned to Italy, the two colleagues lost touch with each other. By 1940, Balbo had become Generalissimo Balbo, the governor of Libya, a colony in North Africa that the Italian Army had conquered. My uncle, Julius Klein was now a colonel in the regular United States Army. It was the chance meeting of my uncle and Balbo in 1933 that played the key role to save my life and the lives of our family.
OF COURSE, back in Brno in 1940, we all were totally unaware what role my uncle and Balbo played in our survival. All Uncle Jacob learned from the German authorities was that Steven and I were to be granted exit permits and that father would soon be released from the Dachau concentration camp. It was at this point that Uncle Jacob sent the urgent postcard to the farm asking me to return to Brno and start preparations to arrange our trip. This was by no means a simple task.
In order to get to the United States, we had to cross several other countries. These countries wanted to be sure that we would not stay within their borders. So, before you could get a visa to enter one of the countries, you had to have a visa to enter the next country. Our quest, therefore, started with the United States.
Now that our mother was a United States citizen again, we no longer had to wait for our visa because we were now the children of an American citizen. Uncle Jacob gave us some documents and some money and Steven and I went to Prague to obtain our American visas. I was 13 years old at that time and Steven was nine. Nevertheless, the trip did not frighten us. Nearly a year of more or less unsupervised living had made us fairly self-reliant and, besides, there really wasn’t a choice.
Steven and I went together by night train, arriving early in the morning. We went to the American Consulate where we handed in our documents and were told to sit and wait. The two of us sat for almost half a day. Finally, we were ushered into an office where a rather large man sat behind a big desk smoking one cigarette after the other. I was amazed at the wasteful manner in which he smoked. He would light a cigarette, take a few puffs, and then discard it. Cigarettes were rationed and good quality cigarettes were very hard to find and very expensive. My eyes wandered over to the man’s ashtray and I tried to count the number of very large cigarette butts in it. I wondered how much money I could earn selling these butts if I could just take them with me. I was certain the contents of the ashtray would have brought a neat profit.
The man asked us a few questions in German and kept writing things down. We just sat there wondering whether we would succeed in getting this all-important document. Then suddenly everything was ready. A few signatures and a lot of rubber-stamping and Steven and I were on the night train back to Brno clutching our lifelines – our American visas. It would be 55 years before I would visit Prague again.
With an American visa, additional visas to pass through Portugal, Spain, Unoccupied France, Switzerland and Austria could be arranged. Mother, in Switzerland, bought tickets for a boat ride from Lisbon, Portugal, to New York and the hard-won precious chain was now complete.
While this process was going on, father arrived from Dachau. I don’t remember much about our reunion. Father had lost a lot of weight and strangely, looked younger. He was staying with some other relatives because there was no more room at Uncle Jacob’s small apartment. We did ask him some questions about his experiences, but his answers were very vague and evasive. It was obvious that he did not want to talk about his ordeal. Father was also busy making his own arrangements for departure. Under these circumstances, we did not get to see him very often.
Our German exit permits were valid only to August 31, 1940. Our papers were ready, but our Father’s still had a way to go. It was, therefore, decided that Steven and I would leave first without our father in order to be sure we got out before the expiration date of our exit visa. And so, on August 13, I said my last good-byes to my friends and family, and Steven and I boarded a train for Vienna and a new life. I expected never to see Brno again.
IT IS hard to describe how you feel when you are closing the door on the only life you have known since birth. The tragedies and disasters that had befallen our family poisoned most of the love I had for my country and my city. When we were departing, the Nazis were at the crest of their success. Hitler’s army had conquered Poland and France and was knocking on the front door of England. It seemed to me that, when Hitler said his Third Reich was going to last for 1,000 years, he was probably right. But, mostly, my feelings were of great relief that our nightmare may just be ending. I felt a great anxiety to get out from under the Nazi boot.
Steven had always been a quiet and obedient child. He and I got along very well together. We learned to live with each other, playing games together, eating our meals together and, when we were left alone during the Nazi period, we grew even closer. We had our own secrets, developed our own language and signals and protected each other with an occasional necessary lie. Steven was nine years old when we left Brno. We’d been together on our own for such a long time that it never occurred to me that I should be concerned about traveling alone through a war-torn continent along with my little brother. My only worry was the constant unknown menace that being a Jew in a Nazi country represented. Every uniform, every armband, and every insignia were a threat and, even when someone spoke to us in a friendly manner, we were much too suspicious to trust anyone.
By early evening, our train arrived in Vienna. The border crossing from the Protectorate into former Austria was uneventful. The German authorities in Brno had sealed our baggage. When the border guards saw the official seals they did not bother to check our luggage. They did, however, study our passports carefully and passed them around to all the other agents. They all seemed very puzzled. Like all official documents issued to Jews, our passport had a big red letter “J” stamped on the front page and, I guess, the guards must have wondered what two little Jewish kids were doing alone on a train bound for Vienna. Both Steven and I stood there afraid that we might not be permitted to cross the border. But they finally handed the passports back to us. A heavy stone fell from our heart. We sat back down as the train proceeded on to Vienna. Early the next morning we ate a quick simple breakfast and the three of us were marching back to the railroad station. We said a hasty good-bye to the nice lady who had housed
us in Vienna and ran to catch the train that would take us to Switzerland.
At each stop, as the train moved toward the Swiss border, people would get off the train. When our train finally arrived at the border at about noontime, only about 20 passengers got off the train along with their baggage. We were in a forest clearing and there wasn’t a real station where we stopped. On our side of the tracks was a small shack with some benches in front of it. In back of the shack were, what looked like, two outhouse – small shacks used as toilets. Off on the other side, about 500 feet away, stood another train consisting only of a locomotive and one car. We were told that this little train would take us across the border to Switzerland.
A German officer came out of the shack and asked everyone to hand over their passports and exit permits. He took all the papers and disappeared back into the shack. People made themselves comfortable on the benches or, like us, on their luggage. About 10 minutes later another officer came out and called out a name. The person responded. The officer handed back the passport, and told the man to board the little train. This procedure was repeated over and over again. Steven and I waited and waited.
More and more people had received their passports and the number of passengers waiting to board the little train kept getting smaller and smaller. And then, we were the only ones left – just little Steven and I sitting on our luggage. Before departing Brno, my father asked me to take a large overcoat to my brother in America. I objected because we were allowed to take only our own clothes and this large coat could not possibly be mine.
When people are desperate and unsure of the future, they may do strange things in the hope that they can assure their survival. Now, as the two of us sat all by ourselves at the German border, with the little train making noises like it was ready to depart without us and with panic in my heart my eyes fell on “the” coat. “That’s it!” I said to myself. “It’s the coat! Because of this stupid coat we are not getting our passports back and will miss the train!” I made a quick decision – stood up, grabbed the coat, and walked over to one the outhouses in back of the shack and stuffed the coat into the toilet. In retrospect, of course, the coat had nothing to do with our delay of getting our passport, but as far as I was concerned, it worked! A few minutes later, an officer finally came out of the shack and returned our passports. We got to the train and, as soon as we were on board, the engine blew its whistle and started to move. We plopped down on our seats to catch our breath. The train chugged into the mountanpass to St. Margreten, Switzerland – and our freedom.
WHERE DO Generalissimo Balbo and “Il Duce” (“The Leader”) Benito Mussolini fit into this story? We learned the answer to this question only after we arrived in Chicago and met our uncle Julius Klein.
From the day, the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia, our uncle Julius Klein and his brother Ernest Klein endeavored to bring all of us to the United States. In 1940, the USA was not as yet involved in the war and our uncles were able to communicate with any country they wished. They reached out to the US ambassador in Switzerland to get reports regarding the state of our mother’s health and well-being. They did the same with the ambassador in Prague to learn about our well-being; information they sent to our mother to quiet her nerves. Both of my uncles were in the business of public relations and during the years, they had accumulated many contacts in high places. Now they reached out to many people of influence to seek their aid in obtaining our father’s release from prison and our escape from Europe. Nothing brought forth any hope of success.
In desperation, they devised a plan to re-ignite the friendship Uncle Julius had with Italo Balbo. They induced a prominent congressman of Italian extraction to write a letter to Balbo asking him whether he would, in honor of their friendship, assist our uncles in the reunion of the Ticho family in the USA. The appeal was successful! Balbo responded with a very friendly letter stating that he would very much like to arrange the exit of the Ticho family to the USA. However, as his relations with the German government were not very friendly, he would have his representative in Berlin carry on.
Unfortunately, a couple of months later, Balbo was killed when his plane crashed. Now, our uncles received a letter from Balbo’s representative in Berlin stating that, with the death of Balbo he was no longer able to attend to the matter of the Ticho family.
Other people might have given up at this point, but not our uncles. They contacted a friend, a journalist, who accompanied Benito Mussolini when he was struggling to become the head of the Italian government in the 1920s. During this era, this man wrote some very complimentary worldwide articles about Mussolini. Now, he wrote a lengthy letter to Mussolini asking him whether he might consider granting the last wishes of Generalissimo Balbo – to free the Ticho family. The Italian government reached out to Berlin and Mussolini saw to it that Balbo’s wish was granted.
Yes, it was Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini who rescued me from the Holocaust along with my brother and our father and, at age 93, I am still around to tell the story.