Veterans: From Czechoslovakia to Petah Tikva, 1949

Shimon Wertheimer has always had a measure of luck that helped him survive.

shimon wertheimer 88 298 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
shimon wertheimer 88 298
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Shimon Wertheimer, 81, has always had a measure of luck that helped him survive. In the first concentration camp he was sent to, a guard took a liking to the skinny 15-year-old and appointed him his shoe cleaner. Whenever there was a selection, he would call for him to clean his shoes and thus saved his life again and again. In the eight-week death march from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt many fell by the way, but he got there alive and found a cousin who had some kind of position of authority and sent the 30-kg. teenager food, saving his life. After the war he and his wife Trudy, also a survivor, came to Israel in 1949. Shimon would have been prepared to go anywhere, but Trudy said, "Only Eretz Yisrael." So slightly reluctantly, he threw in his lot with the newly won state. Today a successful businessman, Shimon's story is a spine-chilling one of uncaring petty officials and cheating acquaintances. But just as he survived the Nazis, he survived his fellow Israelis in those early days and made a good life for himself and Trudy here. Today he agrees with Trudy that there is nowhere else for Jews to live. PREPARATION After the camps, Shimon returned to his village in Czechoslovakia to find that his entire family had perished. He had been one of seven siblings, including a beautiful blonde sister Ella, who was Aryan-looking and smuggled food into the ghetto before the deportation. Completely alone in the world, he met and married Trudy when he was 21 and the couple registered with the Jewish Agency to be sent to Galilee. THE JOURNEY They left by train to Italy and from there boarded a boat - the Be'eri - which took two weeks. The conditions were bearable, especially after the camps. They landed in Haifa and were taken to a tent city where the welcome was less than warm. "They forced us to take showers and generally treated us with contempt," recalls Shimon. "In that time every clerk was a king, while we, the survivors, were nebbochs, poor things who had allowed the Germans to push us around like animals. And some of them were also survivors who'd arrived a few years before and thought they could boss us around. If you tried to ask a question, they just told you to shut up, to sit down and be quiet and they would tell us what to do in their own time." SETTLING IN Eventually they were sent to Ra'anana where tents were set up along Rehov Ahuza, and finally a cousin in Petah Tikva arranged for them to rent a small flat there. Another cousin in Ra'anana, who worked as a tiler, offered to teach Shimon the trade. "I went out and bought everything I needed to become a tiler for a few grushim, and every day I would take the bus from Petah Tikva to Ra'anana. I spent the day mixing the cement and bringing buckets of it to the cousin. Every time he started to lay the tiles, he sent me outside to make more cement so he made sure I never learned how to do it," recalls Shimon. "I worked for six weeks without receiving an agora and when I complained, he said I had to learn to mix the cement and the actual tile-laying would take an hour to learn. "He used to drink on a Saturday night and when I turned up one Sunday, there was no work. I begged him to let me know on the Friday - of course no one had a phone in those days - if there was not going to be any work on the Sunday as the bus fare cost me four agorot." The situation was dire - no money coming in, no profession. One Sunday, Shimon arrived in Ra'anana and the cousin, nursing a hangover, informed him there was no work. "I walked around the town, desperate," recalls Shimon. "Suddenly I saw a pile of tiles next to a small storehouse. I knocked on the door and said, 'Do you need a tiler?'" The owner of the storehouse was the ritual slaughterer of Ra'anana. He gave the young man a chance and agreed to let him lay the tiles. "I began to work and was there from morning till night, but he could see I didn't really know. He was very kind and he knew I'd done my best. He gave me two and a half pounds, a small fortune and the first money I earned in Israel. The next day the cousin fired me. He'd found out about the job I'd done and accused me of taking his living away from him." Eventually Shimon did learn how to tile. By now it was 1951, he was called up to the army and his only child, Etty, was born. Later he went into his own business, manufacturing nails for upholstery, and from there into furniture and textiles. DAILY LIFE "I don't recall a happy day in those early days. Trudy worked washing the pots in the kitchen of one of the immigrant hostels; I scraped a living together - and I desperately missed my extended family who had all perished. Even at a happy time like the festivals or the birth of my daughter, I don't remember any joy of life, there was always something missing. I never talked about the war to Etty or to anyone. It wasn't a big honor to have been in the camps." They made friends in Petah Tikva, but not among Israeli-born people from whom they felt excluded and different. They had social activities connected with the synagogue and would get together with friends for Shabbat kiddush. He doesn't recall any shortage of food and they were never hungry. LANGUAGE "We spoke Yiddish and that was basically enough in those early days. Of course I knew literary Hebrew, but you couldn't use it for everyday speech. We picked up Hebrew over the years." OBSTACLES "It's hard to do business here because people aren't honest. They promise to pay and they don't; they are selfish and you can't rely on them. I do a lot of business abroad and because we have a bad reputation, we have to pay in advance - except in Germany where they always give me credit. I travel abroad a lot and I feel anti-Semitism in France, Italy, Spain - but never in Germany. I've never felt hatred for the Germans, and I'll never forgive [Menachem] Begin for not wanting to take reparations from them. Trudy didn't want to either, but I insisted and she's resigned to it." BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "I now agree with Trudy and I couldn't live anywhere else. I feel good here. It's mine, that's all." ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "Don't take anything to heart, don't get hurt. People hurt each other a lot here. When I got off the boat, I told Trudy we would have a hard life here, and in some ways we've become like the people who made our life so hard, in the way we behave to the Russians for instance. We have to be kinder to each other." LIFE SINCE ALIYA The shop he opened on Rehov Herzl in Tel Aviv in 1964 prospered, and Shimon still goes to work every day. Etty married Motty, an accountant, and they had four sons. Sadly Motty died recently at the age of 60 after a long illness. The four sons all followed their officer father into the Golani Brigade and are proud soldiers. To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: