They announced over the microphone that all members of mixed families, meaning everyone with a Christian husband or wife, should present themselves at headquarters. There were a few like that, among them Ignac Weiss, who went there and was released. As he was going towards the door, he asked, "The children too?" and they said: "Of course, the children too". And so he got us out of there, as if we were his own children.
Thus recalls Gabriel Shenar-Sternberg about his rescuer, Ignac-Eliyahu (Ilia) Weiss, Director of the Jewish retirement home in Zagreb. In the summer of 1942, Weiss took Gabriel, then nine years old, his sister Leah and their cousin Leo Herman, who were both five years old, from the place in which the Ustasha (Ustaša) had gathered the residents of the retirement home, where the three children had also been living. He found them a hiding place in Zagreb. A day or two later, the residents of the retirement home were deported to their death.
In April 1941, as part of their plan to dismantle Yugoslavia, the Germans established a puppet state, Independent Croatia, under the leadership of Ante Pavelić, the head of the Ustasha movement. The state included areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the years 1941-45, the Pavelić regime brutally murdered some 30,000 Jews, hundreds of thousands of Serbs and objectors to the regime, and thousands of Roma and Sinti. A slew of anti-Jewish decrees were issued: their property was looted, they were marked and seized for forced labor. The Ustasha also established a string of concentration camps in Croatia.
Ignac Weiss, an active member of the Jewish community in Zagreb and an installation engineer by profession, lived in Zagreb with his Croatian wife Bariza and their daughter Mira. Due to his field of expertise, Weiss was sometimes called on to repair the plumbing in the Levorgrad concentration camp near Zagreb. The fact that his wife was Croatian also gave him comparative freedom of movement and action. He would bring Levorgrad inmates clothes, food and medicines, and helped them as much as he could. His nephew, Shimon Tsachor-Weiss recalls:
One day, my uncle Eliyahu brought a pregnant Jewish woman from the Levorgrad camp to our house, so that she could give birth in Zagreb. After the birth, we arranged a ritual circumcision for the baby. When Eliyahu took her out of the camp, the Ustasha warned him that if she was not brought back to the camp after giving birth, they would take him instead. My uncle begged the woman not to return to the camp. 'I'll tell them you escaped, that you disappeared. Don’t worry about me, just don't go back.' The woman didn't want to put Eliyahu at risk, and she returned to the camp."
Gabriel Shenar was born Gavro Sternberg in 1932 in Sarajevo, Bosnia. His parents were Dr. Arnold Sternberg and Josephine née Zeichner. Arnold owned a small hospital in Sarajevo, where the Sternbergs also had an apartment. Arnold and Josephine were both musicians who would perform at concerts. They were involved in Jewish social and community life in the city, and the family lived comfortably. Their daughter, Leona-Leah was born in 1936.
In April 1941, the Germans occupied Sarajevo. The same month, the hospital and apartment were appropriated, and their contents looted. The Sternbergs moved to Josephine's sister in Sarajevo. In November, many of Sarajevo's Jews, including Gabriel and his family, were confined in a military camp next to the city railway station. Arnold was the first to be deported, to the Stara Gradiška camp. Gabriel, his mother and sister were deported by train to the Levorgrad camp, but due to overcrowding there, they were not incarcerated but returned to Sarajevo after being sealed in the train for two weeks. The journey became a death trap, and many perished en route.
In late December, Gabriel, his mother and sister were deported to the Djakovo (Đakovo) camp, which at the time was run by the Osijek Jewish community. Gabriel recalls:
There was a large hall, and everyone had to claim a piece of the floor [...] we were there for perhaps two weeks [...] One day they came with a truck and gathered many of the children. There were parents who didn't allow their children to leave [the camp], but our mother said to us: Go, it will be good for you.
The children were transferred to Vinkovci, and placed with different Jewish families. After some time, Gabriel and his sister were sent to Osijek, they were reunited cousin Leo Herman. The children stayed in the home of a mixed family - one partner Jewish, the other non-Jewish.
Two of Josephine's sisters managed to escape to Split, which was in the area of Croatia under Italian rule. Throughout that period, the two sisters tried to bring the three children over to them. In spring 1942, a courier arrived to take the three children to Split. They reached Zagreb, where the courier abandoned them and disappeared. In Zagreb, the children found their way to the retirement home run by Ignac Weiss. Gabriel spoke of his time in the retirement home:
There were old people there, and the three of us, three children, me being the eldest, nine-and-a-half, while they were five-and-a-half. We slept together in the same bed because there wasn't any room [...] Mr. Weiss made sure we had food, clothes and a place to sleep, until one day [...] they [the Ustasha] decided that the elderly also had to be taken.
Ignac Weiss took the children out of the school where the retirement home residents had been gathered, and hid with them in an attic in Zagreb. His nephew Shimon met them there and helped take care of the children. Several weeks later, a Muslim woman sent by the aunts arrived in Zagreb, and brought the three children to Split, where they were reunited with their family.
In February 1943, Ignac's nephew, fourteen-year-old Shimon Tsachor-Weiss, managed to reach Kibbutz Shaar Ha'amakim, Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) through the Youth Aliyah. His parents, Herman and Elisheva, and his older brother Julius Avraham, were murdered in the Holocaust. Shimon eventually joined the Palmach, and was one of the IDF's first parachutists.
After the war, Gabriel discovered his parents' bitter fate. His mother Josephine was murdered during the liquidation of the Dajkovo camp in June 1942. His father, Arnold, who was a doctor, was transferred from Stara Gradiška to the Jasenovac camp. In early 1945 he was moved to the Lepoglava camp and was then sent back to Jasenovac and murdered. Leo's father, Josef Herman, survived in a POW camp. His mother Berta was murdered during the liquidation of the Djakovo camp, and his older brother Ilya was murdered, presumably at Jasenovac.
In 1948, Ignac-Eliyahu Weiss immigrated to Israel with his wife and daughter, and settled in Moshav Kidron. The same year, Gabriel, his sister Leah and their cousin Leo Herman (later Aryeh Hermoni) also immigrated to Israel.
In 2020, Gabriel Shenar, his sister Leah Igner and Shimon Tsachor-Weiss donated photographs and documents to Yad Vashem as part of the "Gathering the Fragments" project, some of which are displayed here.