Maybe you noticed already, but I should point it out anyway—the title above is not The Odyssey, just Odyssey. I was misled when I found this book on a shelf at the San Diego Public Library Saturday book sale that I like to haunt. I am a sucker for anything that hints that has anything to do with one of my two all-time favorite books, Homer’s The Odyssey.1 It was the only book I ever got to read in its original language.
The Odyssey of our present concern, is aptly titled. It is the story of a few hundred central European Jews in the early years of World War II, desperately trying to escape the impending, although at the time unknown to them, Holocaust that would exterminate millions of their coreligionists. Like the original Odyssey, it involves the ship that would sail through perilous seas (exacerbated by the very unseaworthy status of the vessel) toward a destination that was not the Ithaca of Odysseus, but a promised land of their dreams, a homeland in Palestine.
Like the original Odyssey, too, there would be many dangers along the way: uncooperative bureaucrats, lurking anti-Semites, and the call of Sirens that spelled doom, all under the gaze and endless pursuit of that great Cyclopean destroyer of all, Nazism, and its endlosung, its final solution for European Jewry. Like the original Odyssey, too, this is a story of escape, an escape that is equal in the frustrations and the obstacles set before it, as it was for Odysseus and his is shipmates in their escape and escapades after leaving that wooden horse as a gift to the Trojans.2
With overland options for escape locked by Nazi allied or occupied states more than 500 Jews act themselves aboard a decrepit side paddle steamer called Pentcho in Bratislava in May of 1940 just eight months after the outbreak of the war. Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia was a Nazi puppet state and signs were that the future was not bright for its Jewish population. Like a good movie, Bierman who is also the author of the story of Raoul Wallenberg, builds this story around a few main characters, such as a young Zionist called Citron, who leads the largest cohort on the ship, called Betar, who were determined to reach and settle in British administered Palestine. Another, by the name of Schalk, is also an organizer of the escape, whose primary responsibilities are to deal with the logistics, supplies, and relations with port authorities in the various countries through which they will be sailing on their trip down the Danube and into the Black Sea. The voyage would be captained by a one-legged Russian dope addict and his addicted wife. Aboard would be professionals and tradesmen, women and children, young lovers and lovers to be, enough variety for a long-running miniseries.
The Pentcho, overloaded, top-heavy, infested with thousands of bed bugs per person in the cramped bunks, was barely river worthy, and was supposed to be met at the mouth of the Danube by a larger seagoing vessel to complete their voyage to Palestine. The voyage was expected to take about one month––it took over four years, a good part of it in the same waters in which Homer’s Odyssey took place.
The escape ship made it down the Danube, not without some tense encounters with port officials and Nazi clients along the way. But the second vessel never showed up and, consequently, the Pentcho would have to go all the way. It didn’t make it, wrecking on the shore of an uninhabited and desolate Greek island near Rhodes (Kalimanisi)–perhaps not all that far from where Homer told the story of the original Odyssey–and between the Scylla of roaming British warships and the Charybdis of Nazi occupied Greek islands. Three of them, including Shalk, managed to escape by small boat, to eventually surviving to be rescued by a British warship; the rest, mostly under the leadership now of Citron, were rescued from imminent starvation and exposure by the Italians, who were in charge of Rhodes, to which they were removed and placed in detention.
Not that this is a feel-good story, but this is the part of the story where I did begin to get a good feeling. As an Italian-American I always found it a little bit embarrassing that my ethnic mother country, in the days it was under the boot of Benito Mussolini, was one of the axis powers.3 We Italian-Americans were not packed up and sent off to some godforsaken state like those unfortunate Japanese-Americans (what would they have done without our pizzerias), and we know that the Italian military was inept and uninspired. Nevertheless it was heartening to learn that the Italian authorities on Rhodes acted more as overseers that as jailers to the Jews, with an Italian commandant of great civility. Conditions inroads therefore were far better off than on the island of their shipwreck.
The bulk of the prisoners were finally taken to a detention camp in Columbia in southern Italy. Some remain behind in roads which soon came under the administration of the Germans and resulted in them being shipped off to Auschwitz. Although those in the detention camp at Ferrmonte and Italy were still in danager being in the path of the Allied invasion of German-occupied southern Italy they were well treated by the Italians.
Again good feeling for this writer when I read in the author’s epilogue the following: “Necessarily, the Pentcho story gives only a fleeting glimpse of this little-known aspect of Holocaust history. Suffice it to say here that despite the anti-Semitic laws foisted upon them by Mussolini, the Italian people, with few exceptions, never allowed themselves to be infected by the virus of racialism that ran rampant through Europe before and during World War II. Not only did they refuse to go along with their ally Hitler’s plans for solving the ‘Jewish Question’ by extermination: they actively opposed those plans at all levels and in all areas of Europe where they held sway as an occupying power. That is another story which deserves to be told and deserves to be told in full elsewhere.”4
Also, suffice it to say, without that humane treatment over three-hundred of the passengers of the odyssey of the Pentcho would likely not have finally made it to their Promised Land.
© 2012, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.14.2012)
1. As long as we’re on the subject let me get some of my favorite books that are about The Odyssey. There is W. B. Stanford, and J. V. Luce’s The Quest for Ulysses (Praeger 1974); Tim Severin’s The Ulysses Voyage (Dutton, 1987), and Ernlie Bradford’s wonderful, Ulysses Found(HBJ, 1963). Notice they all prefer my hero’s Roman name.
2. I have in these pages dealt with the subject of escape of Central (34.3) and East (60.8) European Jews from the Holocaust.
3. Of the three Axis powers, Italy was the only one in which its own people exacted justice on its autocrat. See, Richard Collier, Duce! (1971)
4. To be fair, it probably should begin with the Roman conquest of Judea and subsequent Diaspora, and certainly include the story of the first ghetto.