Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Guest blogger: Heather Philson, law student, University of San Francisco
Miru Alcana was born in the island of Rhodes on May 24, 1915. She described her childhood in Rhodes as beautiful. She attended school as well as Hebrew lessons three times weekly. She also described how everyone in Rhodes was like one big family, the woman in Rhodes calling their elders Auntie. Her family language was Ladino, which was spoken at home, and she learned Italian and French at school. Miru described how her culture taught her to be kind and to help others without any interest or expectation of anything in return. She described the values her family instilled in her to be generosity and kindness. Miru grew up in a religious household, keeping Shabbat and holding her religion very dear to her.
On July 23, 1944, Miru was deported. She was put on a covered wagon and sent to Chaidari, and eventually was transported in a wagon to Auschwitz. She went with her mother and father, as well as her brothers, sister, brother-in-law, and nieces and nephews. Of her entire immediate family, Miru was the only one who survived. On the journey, they were given no water and only hard bread to eat. The journey to Auschwitz was approximately 3 weeks. Miru describes seeing others die of dehydration during this time.
Once she arrived in Auschwitz, the soldiers told the young people they would work during the day and then in the evening they would see their parents. It was at this point that they separated them in line. Miru recalled smelling meat burning and hearing music, thinking the SS were having barbecues. Eventually, a French woman told Miru their parents would be “cremated” and that those who could not work were “put into the ovens.” The music was played so they could not hear the screams of those being sent to their deaths.
Miru was forced to work in an ammunitions factory during the war. It was underground, so the women working in the factory did not know whether it was day or night, or how many days had passed. At the time, other prisoners were stealing the small amount of food from Miru and other Sephardic Jews, who could do nothing as they did not speak Yiddish nor German. Miru describes how her lack of either language led to further mistreatment. The Polish and Hungarian Jews would prey on the Sephardic Jews, especially those who spoke Ladino. They would steal their food and blankets, and tell the guards of the camp that it was the Italian Jews. Even with this, however, Miru helped other girls and women do their jobs so they would not be killed. She also assisted in getting them medicine when they contracted dysentery.
She was liberated in 1945 in the Theresienstadt Ghetto in the Czech Republic. Miru also assisted as a nurse at the hospitals, helping those who were liberated from the concentration camps.
The Italian consul gave her and others what Miru described as a nice place to live, which was a live-in school that was empty for the summer. The consul also gave the survivors money, and they were able to use public transportation for free. After some time, she decided that she was ready to go back to Italy. However, Milan and Modena did not have room. Eventually she found herself in Bologna, where the conditions were far less than ideal. She lived in an old building with no doors or windows, with over 50 men and women sleeping on the floors in hallways. While the Jewish community donated mattresses and blankets, the survivors had little food.
Miru had an Italian passport, as she was an Italian citizen, but Rhodes passed to Greece in 1948. She did not wish to be Greek and came to the United Sates as a displaced person. In order to do so, she had to go back to Germany for three weeks and be among German people while waiting for American soldiers who were transporting refuges in boats back to the United States. Miru told of how she was unable to go outside, as the sound of German voices was too difficult for her to hear. Eventually, she was put on a boat and made her way to the United States.
Miru arrived in the United States in 1950. When she came to the United States, she went on a train from New York to Los Angeles. She did not eat, as she did not know how to ask for food in English. Once in Los Angeles, she had difficulty adjusting to her new life. She was even told to changer her name to Mary, as it was more American. She refused. Miru also faced difficulty in obtaining employment. As she described, when potential employers saw she was Jewish, they would not employ her. This was not new. While she did not have issues in Rhodes, Miru stated that Greece was very anti-Semitic at the time she lived in Rhodes. Places in Greece, before the war, had posted signs stating, “no Jews allowed.” Met with frustration with her life in the United States, Miru decided that she would return to Italy.
Miru also described how many Nazis there were in California, and how this also made her wish to leave the country. She recounted meeting a woman who she realized was German and recognized as the wife of an SS officer. They had moved to Brazil and eventually came to the United States. This was difficult to see -- that those who had killed her family were here in the same place that she was. Eventually, Miru went back to Italy. Once back in Italy, she faced issues with finding employment and eventually decided that she would came back to the United States, as she had a better support system in America. She had planned to one day move to Israel once it was safe to do so and the country was no longer in war.
While she was still alive, the grandson of one of the Aunties had asked what the numbers were on her arm, only to be shushed away by the other Aunties. They felt she had been through enough. Miru never made it to Israel. She passed away in Los Angeles in 2004. She never married nor had any children. One of her Aunties described Miru as a kind woman who had been through unimaginable and heartbreaking events. Miru is remembered as a hero among the Sephardic Community in Los Angeles.