In this section Bob gives details of his brother’s work as a French spy and of his own efforts to get out of Italy and reach Britain.
INT1: You were in Milan
BK: Yea, this is the, the high and low point of our family life really. Um my brother got himself sort of conscripted. No. talked, tempted into the French secret service. It started out by he didn’t like our way of living anymore- my father was dead, it was hard to live. He didn’t like responsibility.
BK: He liked women. That was his hobby. He was very handsome. Um so he went off to France.
To get to France those days if you were Jew and you were under those laws that Mussolini had introduced, you weren’t allowed to move freely. You were ordered to leave Italy but there was no -where you could go because the countries all around Italy wouldn’t take Jews
BK: So there was nowhere to go but you had to go. It was a terrible time of panic, quite of few suicides. By the way my brother decided he join the French, first of all the Foreign Legion which was nuts. That’s not the job for a Jewish boy (laughter)
BK: Then he was lucky enough because of his languages he was singled out and put into French Secret Service.
They trained him. And um he came home and never told any of us what he was doing, he couldn’t. But when he eventually got into trouble 1938, I think or early ’39, we were all destitute
INT: So Bob you talked about the fact that you had accompanied your brother on the back of the bike.
INT: And then you said at that point, that actually, did you say…How did your brother…How was your brother found out?
BK: Because he was an idiot.
He played a juvenile game of spying and didn’t realize just what he’d got into. I think he must have been approached by some French guys, undercover people, who sold him the idea of becoming a spy for France. That was a time when already we were under Mussolini and Ciano persecution, which of course was inflicted on Jewish refugees in Italy. So he probably chose, I don’t know if it was patriotism or a young man’s adventure.
INT: Excitement. um
BK: Yes. So he did join the French Secret Service which was ludicrous. I think it was like an Enid Blyton story – unfortunately it didn’t end like that.
They, after a few months they arrested him but before they did my brother got me involved. I was fifteen. But he needed an errand boy. The idea of his spying by the way was to count enemy aircraft, Italian aircraft, on Italian airports. Actually go round counting them literally “one, two, three, four, five…” – it was laughable. And he kept records. Now, no spy in history has ever kept records but because he had me as his errand boy… Don Quijote and Sancho Panza – guess who was Sancho Panza! He had me as his errand boy. He actually got me to write down records of what he had done. He used to send his reports to France written on plain paper with lemon juice, which, you may not know, lemon juice comes to light when you heat it from underneath.
BK: So that was the secret writing, it was heated. He sent these messages to France and I kept copies which he hid in the back of a wardrobe. This is a spy keeping records – unheard of. Anyway we used to cycle around Milan, Sancho Panza again behind Don Quijote, until he was caught. I think. Remember this I can’t guarantee. I think he was caught because some girlfriend or other (he had a legion of girlfriends), some girlfriend or other actually told on him.
BK: So one day the secret police came to our house.
I remember just coming in when they took him away. They came to our house, thumped on the doors and my mother let them in. She was terrified. She had no idea what these men wanted. But they went, excuse me, they went straight to the cabinet where my brother kept these records. Now, somebody must have told them.
INT: Uh huh, yes. They wouldn’t have known that they were in the cabinet. No.
BK: I think it was a girlfriend. Again, this is conjecture. Anyway they arrested him and I didn’t see him again for many, many years. He was taken away for questioning and that was the last we heard of him for quite a while. Meantime my mother and I were arrested as well on suspicion of complicity.
My poor mother had no idea what we were doing, no idea. She’d have killed us if she’d known anyway. But I knew.
So when we were taken away for questioning we were kept in a place like this, like a cellar, and it was very tough at fifteen to be cross-examined by the Italian Secret police – the OVRA, O-V-R-A I think it was called. So anyway they kept me there for two days and two nights – terrifying, absolutely terrifying. What they made me do was, everything, I had written in my handwriting, these copies of the reports, they made me write them three times to make sure that it was the same person who had written them – me.
BK: After about.. writing them out they were smirking – they knew anyway. But after three times of doing that which spread over two days and two nights they let me go. And my mother was getting the same treatment. They let her go eventually but they sequestrated our passports and that’s the beginning of the problems.
BK: We had Polish passports. It’s important, one you should know that Polish passports, unlike German passports did not have that stamp, J for Jew, in them. So I wasn’t quite as suspect with the Germans. I’m telling you that for a reason. So now we tried, we eventually struggled to get our passports back.
By a miracle, we got them and in the same time I had taken a job as an errand boy in an organization, a committee for Jewish Refugees. You know, we Jews form committees.
INT: Oh we love committees!
BK: Yeah, but we’re very good at them! So, the reason I did that was I’d been thrown out of school – in common with all Jewish refugee children. There was no exception. Maybe you don’t know about that in Britain but no child stayed in school under Mussolini/Ciano, the foreign minister who was also Mussolini’s son-in-law.
BK: So he got his position because he was the son-in-law because Mussolini did what he wanted it. Anyway Ciano prescribed us no school, no job, no occupation of any kind. Six months in the country, get out or lose all your chattels- the lot. You were given six months to get out. The only thing was most of us had no chattels worth talking about because we were already refugees from Germany, via France, to Italy. So we were really quite skint, lived in very difficult conditions and we had nowhere to go and that was the next problem which many Jews experienced -we couldn’t get out of Italy. We were supposed to get out but France wouldn’t have us, even with a transit visa you were a Jew and a foreigner.
No chance, no chance. I mean none. Going through Switzerland itself was risky because the Swiss were sending their Jews back to Germany in some cases, some cases. All the countries that bordered the north of Italy, Austria, obviously which was Germany by then, they were all closed to us. So we couldn’t get out of Italy but if we didn’t get out we were in trouble. Under those conditions I got this unofficial, illegal job in this organization for the refugees. I was an errand boy.
And while I worked there – no other job to be had. This Jewish couple with a little girl, probably about nine years old, kept coming up every day because they had been promised by an English gentleman that he was going to get this child and take her back to England under his sponsorship.
And they came and they came and they came and it was tragic because the people from England didn’t arrive, it was just me. I mean the parents came with their daughter every day.
And eventually that couple and the child decided that they couldn’t wait any longer. And what was the practice in those days, not practice but the frequent practice, was to try and get over the border illegally. The easiest way was over the Alps from Italy into France at night, dangerously, with a guide. And as far as I know, and I will really never know what happened to those parents and that child but I assume…
They may have made it to France, they may have died in the mountains – I don’t know. In a way that is very tragic apart from what happened to them because the English couple arrived the day after they’d gone.
INT: Which is truly tragic.
BK: Dreadful. And they said.They saw me there. I was fifteen, just fifteen I think and they said they’d take me.
INT: And this was Mr. and Mrs. Ryegate?
BK: She was a Jewish lady but her husband wasn’t. But he was a saint as far as I’m concerned. Always will be and always was.
Anyway, Mr. and Mrs. Ryegate said they would take me back to Britain but then we had a problem.
INT: You had no passport.
BK: My mother was a very good conniver, and she somehow got our passports back. So then all I had to do was get somewhere to go because I hadn’t. I had nowhere to go legally.
INT: And had Mr. and Mrs. Ryegate left?
BK: No. Mr. Ryegate stayed behind and he said he would get me some kind of sponsorship through his connections which would get me into Britain.
But in the meantime I got my passport. He said we need your passport to get there but I’ll also get you an Affidavit, a document that will let you in. Fine. So we, with my passport back in my hand and his escort we went to France expecting to get through, out and in this time. When we got to Bardonecchia, they took me off the train and said my documents weren’t in order. So they kept me for forty-eight hours in a jail.
INT: And what did Mr. Ryegate do?
BK: He went on. He stayed a while.
BK: But he realized he couldn’t stay in Bardonecchia. He went on but I knew where he was and I knew I could contact him.
BK: But I was sent back to Milan and my mother … Imagine being on her own back then, the family had dispersed totally and I turned up on the doorstep. She thought I was safely living in England by then. England, that was the word, England. In those days they didn’t say Britain.
BK: Anyway. So I’m back in Milan and we still want to get me out of the country.
In those days Jewish people lived with the fact that their families were split up, by this refugee-ism, by this system. So my mother kept struggling and I kept struggling and nobody would let me through, because by now I didn’t have that Affidavit anymore.
BK: I just had my lousy Polish passport which wasn’t so lousy in the event. I went everywhere I could and nobody would give me a Transit Visa until I went to the Germans in despair. I went, remember I speak German, native German, I went to the Consulate and said I would like a visa to go through Germany and the young man said:
‘Certainly young man, would you like to spend a little holiday in my country?’ Because I did not have that ‘J’ in my passport.
BK: In that sense my Polish passport was my salvation. I’ve never had a great desire to be seen as a Pole but I was very lucky to have that passport and that Polish situation. So they gave me a visa. I waved my mother farewell again, because she couldn’t get anywhere at that time, and also she was concerned about the other son, my brother.
Whilst all this was happening my mother was struggling to find out what had happened to my brother first of all. Because he had disappeared from the face of the earth and she was in Italy, not even trying to get out really because she wanted to find her son. And my mother was a great contriver. She was good at getting things done and somehow or other, and I do not know how, she found out that he had been tried and sentenced to thirty – 3-0 years of imprisonment for what he had done. The Judge, I understand, handed down his judgment and mentioned the fact in passing that he was a Jewish spy traitor, which was true to a degree, and he got thirty years. And he was put, as far as we know, on the Isle of Elba which in those days wasn’t a holiday camp.
BK: It was a fortress. My mother in the mean time managed to get to England after war broke out. I don’t know how she did it, never really found out from her but she got into England, was kept in jail for one night and then allowed in and settled legally with the family we had here already.
BK: And my brother stayed in jail. And after the war, I was in the army by then, and I had a certain amount of latitude because I had a military intelligence job, I went to look for him in Italy. I found him. I actually found him. And he had by then escaped from jail of course and the war was coming to an end in Italy.
I don’t know if the history of that has reached you. In the middle of the war the Italians surrendered.
BK: So the Italian troops withdrew to the north of Italy where the Germans were still fighting. So that was the two armies in a mess, conjoined, and my brother had somehow got out of jail. Well, probably the Partisans got him out and he fought with the Partisans. Actually, he became quite a hero up in the Italian mountains. And then detached himself from them and that’s where I found him, in a place called Saluzzo near Cuneo, another fortress. He’d been transferred there first of all and then escaped from there. But after this second place I found him. We had a great reunion and that, more or less, is the end of that side of our story.