From the testimony of Nina Admoni
I was born Nina Wertans in Warsaw, Poland on November 17, 1932. On September 1, 1939 planes started dropping bombs on Warsaw and World War II began. We listened to our radio and thought that perhaps this was just practice and not the real thing. That was wishful thinking on everyone’s part. On hearing the bombs we all went to the basement, where we children slept for a couple of nights. My parents decided to take me – I was not yet 7 years old - in the family car for Wilno in Lithuania, where my grandmother lived – to be away from the war. The German army was advancing. We waved goodbye to those of the family assembled downstairs at the entrance to our house in Jawozynska Street – and then proceeded. That was the last I ever saw of Warsaw.
We were now traveling along narrow roads to Wilno, interrupted often by planes bombing and strafing the long line of cars that were lined like sitting ducks on the roads. My parents and I would get out of the car and run for cover into the ditches along the side of the road whenever we heard planes approaching.
We finally arrived in Wilno. There all was quiet. We rented part of an apartment and waited to see what would happen next. The Russians then occupied Wilno, my uncle Miron Szeskin was sent to jail and ultimately to Siberia (Menachem Begin was his cell mate); Soviet soldiers started making midnight searches in our apartment in order to catch the “capitalists.” News from Warsaw was bad and my parents were concerned about the Germans reaching Wilno at some stage.
My parents heard that a Japanese Consul in Kaunas provided transit visas through Japan if one obtained a visa to Curacao – one could then obtain the much valued exit permits from Russian occupied Wilno. The Consul of the Netherlands gave us a paper that said that a visa was not necessary for Curacao and on that basis the Japanese Consul Sempo Sugihara issued us with a transit visa for Japan. We then applied and received an exit visa from the Soviet authorities in Wilno. (The then Japanese Consul in Lithuania, Sempo Sugihara was awarded in 1989 a posthumous citation by the ADL of the Bnei Brith for helping to save Jews by providing them with Japanese transit visas. We were part of this group of 2,000, which permitted us to get away from the imminent Nazi occupation which was so close, thus saving our lives.)
After receiving our papers, we bought railway tickets from Intourist, the Soviet travel agency. We left Wilno by train in February 1941 first for Moscow, where we saw the traditional major sites during our very short stay of several days, living in a large hotel and on to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway, a long journey lasting about 12 days. The landscape from the train was mostly white, with occasional trees. There were many stops. We would get off at all the stations which were small and look around. There were signs proclaiming the sale of “Kipiatok” or boiling water, the only item to be purchased along the way. One night as we stopped, some ragged men came to our window. They were Jews working in camps in Siberia, “political” prisoners who were used as slave labor. We gave them food.
And so to the last stop, Vladivostok. All the passengers seemed very excited. They would be leaving Russia at last. The grown-ups were thoroughly searched by the Soviet customs authorities. From the Vladivostok train station we went across to the port and boarded the Amakusa Maru for our voyage to Tsuruga, Japan. Our hosts showed us to a large closed deck. The floor was lined with one tremendous mat on which were outlined rectangles, each fitting the size of a person. The sailors indicated that each was meant as a bed – I managed quite well. We sailed through a stormy sea (the boat sank on one of the subsequent voyages), but contrary to the grown-ups, I was not sea-sick.
We arrived in Japan and were taken out for inspection by the authorities to check our visas and went off to Kobe. We registered at a nice Japanese style hotel with a rock garden that I found quite beautiful. The rooms were separated by rice paper movable screens and doors.
Now that I think of it, there must have been Jewish organizations or the local Jewish community who were involved with helping our group. Otherwise how did we manage? Later I learnt that we were also under the protection of the local Jewish Community and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
I started attending school. It was a Catholic school run by nuns, called St. Marie’s. This was my first encounter with English, in first grade. We stood up for prayers every morning, but were excused from crossing ourselves. Spelling was the greatest fun, we would sing out the longest words, by syllables, and the tune of “es pee ee cee (spec) tee aye (ta) cee el ee es (cles) - spectacles,” buzzes through my head till today.
We remained in Kobe for about six months. My parents’ efforts to obtain visas for the United States were not crowned with success. We were told the Polish quota was full, perhaps we also did not have the necessary affidavits to guarantee our financial self-sufficiency in the U.S. I am not sure. Numerous excursions to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo proved to no avail and we had to move on, again.
I was sorry to leave Japan. I had made friends. Kobe was an attractive city, hills all around; the apartment hotel was convenient. The people were very friendly, and seemed to like children, though we seemed unable to communicate. The only place open to us at this stage was Shanghai. In August 1941, we took a boat to the vast international city and found lodgings, one room, in an apartment, in the French Concession. The city was divided into the International Settlement (British), the French Concession and the Chinese city. The Bund with its impressive buildings faced the waterfront. It was a city of contrasts filled with the immensely rich and the terribly poor – including beggars. Transportation was by trolley (bus), trams, pedicabs and rickshaw – as well as taxi. Here there was a large Jewish community or I should say communities from different parts of the world. The oldest and most respected (and richest) group came from Iraq in the 19th century – these were the Sassoons, the Hardoons (some of the tallest buildings in Shanghai were named after them) and the Kadoories. They built their own synagogue and school (the Shanghai Jewish School which I attended for over 6 years throughout our stay in Shanghai had “imported’ excellent teachers from England). Next came the Russian Jews. They arrived after the revolution, were considered “white” Russians, though on the whole were less prosperous than the Sephardic community. However, some had become very affluent. Most of the children of this group also attended the Shanghai Jewish School, while some did go to the English School. They spoke both English and Russian at home. Next were the German and Austrian Jews who escaped from Europe after Hitler came to power and came to Shanghai in the late 1930s and even during 1940. A very homogeneous group which kept to itself, including many professionals, but also many who came with nothing and had trouble making ends meet. Their children mostly attended the Kadoorie School. Next came the refugees from Poland who escaped after the War began. That was our group, which numbered less than 1,000 (half of which were the Mire Yeshive). We had come with virtually nothing and the group tried to get involved in business, which soon completely ended, when the War broke out in December 7, 1941. All the communities kept more or less to themselves, though the Polish refugee group was close to the Russian Jews.
After living on 925 Avenue Joffre in the French Concession for over two years, we were finally moved to Hongkew by the Japanese authorities – the designated area for stateless refugees in a small section of the Chinese city across the Whangpoo River. Hongkew was overcrowded and housed all the German, Austrian and Polish refugees. We lived in a room (of about 7 square meters) on 266 MacGregor Road, under difficult conditions including lack of basic needs and sanitation. It was located next to the Ward Road Jail (which was later to be bombed by the Americans). The house once belonged to a very rich Chinese, the story goes, with many wives and concubines, thus there were many small rooms around the central inner court. My parents had to obtain passes for leaving Hongkew. School children could leave the area – really a ghetto – without passes, which I did daily to attend school and visit with friends in other parts of town. We were taken to school by truck, studied long hours, our British teachers disappeared, one by one, as they were interned and were replaced by “White Russians” who had grown up in Shanghai and studied at English schools. Our curriculum was that of the British colonial school system to which were added bible stories and study of holidays and in the last few years some Hebrew words, as well as the alphabet in print only. My Hebrew teacher’s name was Mr. Ivri – which we thought most appropriate.
Towards the middle of the Japanese occupation, at Assembly we were told that we would now start studying Japanese. Our teacher was a Mr. Suzuki who knew very little English. He said he would teach us Japanese and we were to teach him English. Despite his valiant efforts which included drawing pictures in lieu of translation we learned hardly any Japanese, nor did he learn much English. He would draw a picture on the board of a bird and would say “Tori” , we also studied the alphabet, aa ee oo eh oh etc.
The other teachers were strict with us. When we were uncontrollable, the boys would get their hands slapped with rulers, or the worst possible punishment – had to stay after school. Some were made to stand on one leg or were thrown out for the duration of a lesson – or longer. Another form of punishment – for both girls and boys – was studying monologues from Shakespeare’s plays. We can all recite most of Hamlet and Julius Caesar till today, in our sleep. My family marvels at this talent which took many long hours of learning… Writing 500 lines was common “I must learn to behave” or the full school name and address “Shanghai Jewish School, 544 Seymour Road.” We played hockey and ran relay races around the synagogue next door to our school.
I enjoyed school around which my whole life centered. I was a very good student, was either first or second in class throughout the years, and took my studies seriously. The hours were long. I also studied hard at home. My father was free and devoted his time to long talks with me on a wide range of subjects. He was also involved in choosing my reading for me – we would discuss Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky (both outside the scope of my school curriculum) as though our lives depended on it. We examined the Atlas and played geography games. He also taught me to read and write Polish and Russian. He told me of the places he had visited and I felt part of the big world.
Life went on as usual for me, we went to school, spent long hours at the library, bought “tucks” from the vendor at the side gate, did homework, participated in a school play where I sang in the choir as “little Miss Buttercup” with the others, then back to Hongkew and homework, or to the weekly Betar meetings of which I was a proud member. Or alternatively to visit friends on the “outside” who lived quite splendidly, with large homes, cars and chauffeurs and amas, boys and cooks. We all loved movies and would see films several times a week. Before the war we all stood up at the beginning of each film while “God save the King” was played (with a picture of King George VI being flashed on the screen), then this was replaced by Chinese and Japanese music before the film and at intermission and then finally after the war – songs in English from the Hit Parade. Then there were ballet lessons from a strict ballet master who would hit our knees with a stick while insisting that we keep our knees straight; it was all a strange combination.
On the radio we heard of the progress of the war and my father had pins on a map to show how things were doing on the various fronts daily. At this stage my parents hardly left Hongkew. Towards the end of the war the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped us out, probably also UNRRA and IRO. There was a large central kitchen from which cooked food could be taken home (although I had my lunches at school). It seems that by then my family had also exhausted most of its resources.
In the final weeks of the war, the U.S. B-29s started bombing Shanghai, there were some dead and wounded in Hongkew, particularly near the Ward Road jail in the area we lived. To this day I am afraid of thunder, as I associate it with one of the bombings during a storm, when I heard planes prior to the hiss of bombs and then the ensuing explosions.
More Chinese were on the street, some homeless, many sick, with elephantiasis among other awful diseases, some dead. We were all glued to the radio. Finally the war was over, the Japanese had surrendered and the Americans entered Shanghai in September 1945.
We began hearing from relatives. They wrote us about those who were dead, about gas chambers, about Treblinka. We heard that my Szeskin grandmother was died of starvation in the Wilno ghetto. That Miron was alive after Siberia, mother's sister Zenia and family in the U.S., while Efim and family were no more. A cousin Yasha (Dr. Jacob) Szeskin had been saved by living in a barn with cows in a village during the occupation. Some of my father’s family had been killed, others were in England and in France. Cousin Lilka was saved by the man she later married, Gorecki. Her sister Inka Landa was in Warsaw. As we heard more and more we began to realize the extent of the tragedy, of what had happened and how lucky we had really been. Regardless of our complaints we had not even once gone hungry.
People began leaving Shanghai in different directions, Australia, Israel, the U.S., South America. They wanted to rejoin their families and also to escape the oncoming communist threat and start a new life. We saw Shanghai as a place of transit, though on the whole the Chinese were kind to us. My parents paid visits to the U.S. Consulate, where I acted as chief interpreter. We obtained a visa to the U.S. and one to Ecuador for good measure. Two converted ships plowed the Pacific route, the General Gordon and the Meiggs. We packed and I bid a sad farewell to the friends who still remained – others had left before us. I went to take leave of my school. On November 28, 1947 we left Shanghai on the SS General William H. Gordon of the American President Lines and arrived in San Francisco on December 17, 1947, stopping in Hong Kong, war-torn Philippines and Hawaii on the way. It was a long trip, which included a typhoon for good measure, but we were looking forward to things to come.
I had just turned 15 when I arrived in San Francisco. We lived in a hotel on Geary Street. We took in the sights of this beautiful city and went to see the Bay Area and Berkeley. It all was completely new, the people, the shops, the radio – to which I could listen for hours. And all in a language I knew so well.
Under the new Displaced Persons Act passed during the Truman administration we were considered DPs and permitted to stay in the U.S. for good. We went to New York where my aunt Zenia Jasztrzemski with family (who changed the name to Jastrey in the U.S.) and uncle Miron and other family members were living. (Pregels – Boris Pregel was my mother's cousin and worked on the Manhattan project in the United States and before that with Pierre Curie in France and his wife Alexandra was a painter – I have many of her paintings today.) We moved to the Marseille Hotel on Broadway and 103rd. My parents started looking for work and I went to school – the Julia Richman High School (for girls) across town on the East side, near 2nd Avenue and 67th Street. I was accepted to the Country School which then was reserved for students with high grades. I was awarded a certificate of scholarship when I graduated at 16 1/2 and would have managed to do it sooner, but needed additional courses for my diploma, such as American history and civics plus some minor electives. I was excused from most of maths, English and foreign language courses since it seemed we had done university levels in these subjects in Shanghai. I made new friends, some were from Shanghai. We’d go to the movies regularly (no music – just a lot of commercials) and sometimes sit through two, double features, which were a treat for us, seeing Hamlet a dozen times. We’d read books, listen to the radio and enjoy comic strips. I could confide in my childhood friend Chaja Ambaras (Haas today) when my Shanghai-accented long a’s were a source of merriment in my New York accented school class.
I also worked weekends as a salesgirl at H.M. Lamston’s, a five and ten cents store on Broadway near 102nd to earn pocket money; later I graduated to Woolworth’s on Broadway (Times Square) and on to Barton’s Bonbonniere.
From the Marseille we moved to 905 West End Avenue near 104th Street. That must have been in 1948. My mother still lived there in the same apartment on the 7th floor until she died on June 20, 1999. My father passed away much earlier, on January 11, 1960. It was a roomy, old style high ceilinged apartment with 2 bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen and a maid’s room off the kitchen. My room faced the Hudson River, over the roof tops, and I remember the Alcoa sign going on and off on the other side.
I was still a movie fan. Occasionally we ushered at the Metropolitan Opera. New York, of course, had a lot to offer.
I went on to New York University for my freshman year, but had fond memories of our stay in California, applied to the University of California at Berkeley and was accepted. I studied Political Science, lived at a co-op dormitory called Stebbins Hall on Hearst Avenue off Euclid and worked part time as a sales clerk plus occasional baby sitting.
Among others, I had 2 Israeli roommates in the dorm. The first was Ruth Bufman and the second Micky Dikovsky (who eventually married Michael Argov the painter). Later on we took an apartment near the campus.
As we were walking on campus, my roommate Micky introduced me to an Israeli student friend of hers, named Nahum Admoni, who was studying Political Science. Nahum was born in Jerusalem on November 21, 1929. He studied at the Rehavia Gymnasium and belonged to the Scouts. During high school and after graduation in 1947, he was a member of the Hagana and fought in the War of Independence. He served in the army in Jerusalem and was demobilized in December 1949 with the rank of lieutenant. After that he went to study in San Mateo and then at the University of California in Berkeley. We got to know each other, went to the library together, and started going out on dates. In due course I wrote to my family that we intended to get married; they were far from pleased. Here we were all settled at last, and I intend to start wandering again. We were naturalized Americans of which the family was proud – now I was to go again into a life of hardship and the war-torn unknown.
Nahum and I were married at Temple Beth El in Berkeley. The rabbi was emotional in his sermon. Used the example of the biblical Jacob working 7 years in order to get the right bride. I am not clear why he used that example, other than that we worked during our student days, but one does not look to rationality at one's own wedding. Then he went on about my going into the great unknown – how brave I was, etc. All in both Hebrew and English, the sermon, of course, in English. I started crying and shaking out of fear, and dissolved in self-pity at what I had gotten myself into.
Since we were married on August 3, 1952, a Sunday, we took only one day off for our honeymoon and then started our summer session on the Tuesday. All this to graduate as quickly as possible and go home… (I had thought we could get married on Saturday evening, for an extra day off but our Conservative Rabbi ruled it out.)
We continued studying and working. Nahum, while getting his B.A. and M.A. was also working – in the temple as a shamash, as a Sunday school teacher and in a warehouse packing uniforms and insignia during the Korean War (he became a member of the Teamsters Union for that). I taught Sunday school with limited success. Upon asking my pupils what they had learned from the stories about Hanukah I had told them, 2 raised their hands. I was happy with the interest shown. One boy replied that he had made a drawing for me of what he had learnt – it was a Christmas tree. Hoping for something better, I enthusiastically called on the other child, who asked me whether he could please go to the bathroom. I was not meant to be a teacher… After graduating in 1953, I started work as a statistical clerk for Oxford Business Surveys, a Division of Safeway Stores in Oakland and waited for Nahum to complete his M.A.
While in California we traveled whenever possible. In the winter we went to Yosemite, then to Reno. I visited Hollywood upon the invitation of Bronislau Kaper, a well-known movie composer and my father's friend from Warsaw and to Palo Alto to watch football games between U.C. (University of California) Berkeley and Stanford.
After graduation ceremonies, we packed up and left our apartment on 1722 Walnut Street in Berkeley. Said our goodbyes and went to stay with my parents in New York for 2 weeks. We then took the ship named Shalom and arrived in Haifa on April 14, 1954. Now I was in Israel, the land I have heard of so much.
Upon our arrival we moved to an apartment in Rosh Rechavia on 8 Keren Kayemet Street in Jerusalem. In 1954, immediately upon our return, Nahum started working for the Prime Minister's Office and from 1982 until 1989 was head of the Mossad, Israel's Secret Intelligence Service.
To learn Hebrew I went to Ulpan Akiva and studied hard, then got a job doing statistical work and economic research, with the Economic Advisory Staff.
Our first daughter Yael Lynne was born in Jerusalem on September 18, 1955 in Hadassa hospital. We were now a family and forging a life for ourselves. I took our daughter to visit my parents in New York and to proudly show her off to the rest of the family and friends. My mother came to visit us several months earlier but returned quickly due to the oncoming 1956 Suez War. She had been through enough wars and was deeply worried. We were more involved and therefore calmer about the events. It was our country and our problem. Now we came to return the visit. Our second daughter Irit Alma was born on April 18, 1959, at the Assuta Hospital, that was after we had moved to Tel Aviv to 9 Ruppin Street the previous year.
After being with the Economic Advisory Staff, in 1955, I was in charge of Economic Research and Statistics in the Government Tourist Corporation which became the Ministry of Tourism where I was Assistant Head of the Investment Division working in Tel Aviv until the end of 1960. I decided that here was my home and in late 1959 gave up my American citizenship. My father came to visit us from New York towards the end of the year, particularly to see our new daughter Irit. He was already ill when he arrived and passed away on January 11, 1960 after his return to New York. He is buried in the Beth-El Cemetery in Westwood, New Jersey.
We went to Addis Ababa in January 1961 where Nahum was Consul. The girls went to an English nursery and then an Israeli school. I worked there for the Industry Division of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). As part of my job I traveled on a UN passport to the then Tanganyika, Zanzibar (today's Tanzania), Uganda and Rhodesia (Zibabwe), preparing studies on various aspects of transport in the sub-region.
However it was not all work and study for the family. We traveled quite often, went to the Murchison Falls in Uganda and stayed at the Royal Lodge where elephants abounded. We traveled to Kenya and to Eritrea. We visited the national parks, went on Safari before it became the fashionable thing to do.
In the summer of 1963 we returned home. Lynnie and Irit went back to school and kindergarten and rejoined their friends. I began working as an Investment Officer in the Israel Government Investment Authority of the Ministry of Finance.
In April 1965 we moved to a nice apartment in Naveh Avivim, 2 Levitan Street, 9th floor. But then the street had no name, we were in House A, there were no other houses around, it was the first one in this northern suburb of Tel Aviv.
Then, in 1966 we all went off to Paris for a 4 year period. Nahum was Counselor at the Embassy in Paris. The girls went off to an Israeli school, studied piano, dancing and regularly went to classe de neige. After a short stint with the Central Investment Corp. or Assia International, part of the Teva Pharmaceutical Group as Deputy to its Paris representative, the office was closed and transferred to the U.S. in 1967. I then began work at the Embassy as the representative of the Investment Authority (the organization I worked for before moving to Paris) in France until we returned home in 1970.
Lynnie and Irit attended the Israeli school, took ballet lessons and studied piano with a very strict, elderly Russian teacher named Mlle. Vinaver. They went to school by a special bus and visited friends very often. All four of us enjoyed Paris thoroughly and also traveled throughout the country. We visited Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, traveled to Switzerland (where our daughters attended their classe de neige), Italy, Austria and Germany, went up to Denmark and Sweden. On my first trip to Germany I went to Dachau prior to visiting Munich, a sobering and heartrending experience.
The Six-Day War found us, full of anxiety, in Paris. We were glued to the radio and television. It is much better to be at home during such moments. I had family in Paris. My uncle Artek and his wife Mila Wertans and their son Stefan, survivors of the Warsaw ghetto, were now doing well in Paris. An aunt Renia (my father's sister) and cousin called Jadzia (Eugenie) Courtin and her family were also there. They also survived Warsaw; it was good seeing them. Our daughters met their new family.
We returned in 1970 to our new apartment in Naveh Avivim, which we had only enjoyed for year and a half before leaving for Paris. Now the area had developed, there was a swimming pool and a shopping center, and new houses. Lynnie and Irit went back to school and I returned to the Investment Authority. I continued my work, moving on to International Consultants, a subsidiary of Bank Leumi and then to another subsidiary – Leubit – and in October 1978 became the Executive Director of the Israel America Chamber of Commerce from where I retired in January 2005.
In September 1985 we moved to a new home with a large terrace in Ramat Aviv Gimmel. Lynnie graduated from Alliance high school in Ramat Aviv in 1973, was drafted and became a lieutenant, then went on to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she got her B.A. degree in English literature. She is married to Mushon Matsliah and they have two children, Tamara born on July 24, 1991 and Dan born on February 27, 1995. She is a journalist working to Yediot Aharonot and is editor-in-chief of all their local supplements. Irit graduated from Alliance high school in 1977, went to the army where she was discharged as a sergeant and got her B.A. degree in French literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is married to Stanley Perlman and they have two sons, Ori born on January 31, 1988 and Gal born on August 16, 1991. After heading Variety she opened her own business in the publicity field. We are all delighted to live close by in Tel Aviv and see each other very often.
In 1989, Nahum retired from the Mossad and was appointed Director General of Mekoroth, the Israel Water Company from which he retired in 1994. We both serve on a number of Boards of Directors and I am active as a business consultant.