ODYSSEY by John Bierman


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Drawing for the most part on the memories of those involved, Bierman (Righteous Gentile) rather flatly reconstructs the story of 400 Slovak Jews' refugee-journey to Palestine, 1940-1944--by boat from Czechoslovakia, with a long stopover in Italy. Two men arranged the exodus, both working for Zionist organizations but temperamentally in conflict: upright young local Zionist leader Citron; and older, shadier troubleshooter Schalk. The boat they came up with was a decrepit sidewheeler; the captain was a White Russian drug addict; there was British opposition from the start. But the S.S. Pentcho, overladen and unstable, did make it down the Danube to Bezdan in Yugoslavia--where the already-crammed decks received another 100 refugees--veterans of Dachau. As the ship progressed, then, the problems multiplied: hunger; illness; bedbugs; the collapse of morale; tensions between Citron and Schalk. And soon there was even worse, or so it seemed at first: the boat ran aground and slowly sank, with the passengers scrambling to safety on a rocky deserted isle in the Aegean. Disaster? Well, yes and no. Because the survivors were fairly quickly rescued--by the Italian Navy--and were moved to a tent-camp on the isle of Rhodes, where the local Jewish population offered some help (if not enough to keep several refugees from dying). And, by spring of 1942, the Pentcho people were living fairly comfortably in an Italian-mainland concentration camp--suffering casualties only from. . . unintentional British bombings; so 350 of the original group survived to sail for Palestine in June 1944. Bierman offers occasional quotes from some survivors and closeups of a few of the refugees, including a couple of young women who fell in love with Italians. But this remains a minor-league, if curious, saga in the annals of Holocaust refugeedom--more notable for the Italians' consistent decency than for the sporadic bits of journey-drama.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster