Holocaust survivor Benzion “Nick” Attias, who was a favorite of schools for his presentations about hiding from the Nazis, died on May 1 while talking to a group of high school students in Hanover, Pa. He was 79.
Attias was born in Zagreb, Yugoslavia to Lina (Bahar) Attias and Salamon Attias. They were an affluent family who owned a successful women’s clothing store.
In her eulogy, longtime companion Pamela Brown, a former manager of the Pikesville Library, said, “Nick always asked me, ‘What are you going to say at Sol Levinson’s when you stand up for me?’ And I would always say, ‘Nick was born in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, and when he was 5 years old his mother arrived at his kindergarten with a small suitcase.’”
They were going on a vacation, his mother told him.
As Attias would go on to tell the hundreds of students with whom he shared his story over the years, on that day, April 11, 1941, the same day the Germans invaded Zagreb, the comfortable life he had known would be over.
By then, Attias’ father had already been taken to a labor camp from which many were deported to concentration camps. The family wasn’t sure where he was or if he would return. He and his mother went to Split, Yugoslavia, then occupied by Italy. On a train to Split, said Brown, “two Nazis entered the compartment and asked to see their papers. They had none. But his mother was blonde and blue-eyed, and she had gone to school in Vienna, so she spoke German. Nick had learned a few German words from his nanny and was able to respond to his mother in German when she spoke to him. Those few words saved them both. The soldiers moved on.”
From Split, Attias and his mother were able to obtain false papers that they used to travel to Italy, where an Italian detachment had been secretly transporting Jewish refugees on Italian troop ships.
“Nick remembered being terrified when a German submarine followed and shot torpedoes at the ship. The torpedoes missed the ship, and the ship was able to blow up the submarine with its own missiles,” said Brown.
When they arrived in Italy, Attias and his mother were baptized, and his name was changed to Nicola. Although they were fortunate to get out of Yugoslavia and to survive the voyage, their journey ended in Mache, Italy, which was already occupied by the Germans. Fearful about being rounded up, Attias and his mother moved frequently.
“One night someone ran to the barn where they were sleeping and told them to jump out the window,” said Brown. “There was a farm cart below the window filled with straw that hid them and moved them to the next safe spot.”
Though he wasn’t sure why or when, Nick spent time in an Italian orphanage along with a few other Jewish children, passing as an Italian child, said Brown.
Attias told her that he and his parents survived the war due to the “kindness of strangers … priests, nuns, farmers and other ordinary people.
“Nick talked about living in constant fear,” she continued, “fear of being ‘outed,’ fear of the Germans, fear of the planes striking the villagers, even the schools. He recalled running across a playground to a bomb shelter, located inexplicably across the lot, to escape the shells and seeing his friends die who were not fast enough. He recalled seeing innocent people from the village lined up and shot … Nick had nightmares his entire life.”
At the end of the war, Attias’ sister, Alma, was delivered by nuns in a small shed beside a convent. “But her mother’s milk was too poor to sustain the baby,” said Brown. The local farm women advised his mother to boil cornmeal with olive oil and to drip it into the baby’s mouth.”
In 1944, things began to be more promising, as, miraculously, Attias’ father, who had bribed a guard at the labor camp, escaped from the detention center where he was being held and rejoined the family.
Nick became a bar mitzvah while he was in hiding.
“He remembered his father writing the Shema, the most central Jewish prayer, on a slip of paper,” said Brown. “His father told him to memorize the prayer and then to swallow the paper.”
In 1945, when the war ended, the family realized that returning to Yugoslavia would not be possible. Instead, they remained in Italy for the next five years, finally immigrating to America under the Yugoslav quota in 1950. Before he left Italy, the American Consulate in Naples changed Attias’ name to Nicholas.
Jacque Fein of Elkridge, a dear friend of Attias, who was also a “hidden child,” recalled that for many years Nick chose not to correct those who assumed, because of his name, that he was Greek and not Jewish. The fear of being “discovered” and persecuted due to his religion remained with him long after the Holocaust was over.
“In the 1950s and 1960s when he first came here, being a Holocaust survivor wasn’t really discussed. It was not until the 1970s that it really became known about,” Fein said. Even then, he added, many didn’t consider hidden-children Holocaust survivors. “They think that those of us who were younger and were not in concentration camps or ghettos were not affected, but that is not true.”
Attias’ daughter, Lynne Allegra, 49, and her siblings didn’t learn that their father was Jewish until after her parents divorced in the mid-1970s. Once she found out, Allegra recalled that, like her father, she was hesitant to reveal that she was half Jewish.
“It was what I learned from him,” she said.
Allegra, who lives in Bedminster, N.J., has since embraced her Jewish heritage.
“He was probably about 35, when he finally began taking ownership of his Jewishness. It took a while for him to grow into it,” said Brown.
Once he did, added Fein, Attias became very proud of being Jewish. He joined a local child Holocaust survivor group and began speaking to students about his war experiences.
Despite the profound effect the Holocaust had on him, Attias led an active and meaningful post-war life. Once settled in New York, Attias worked and completed high school and then attended City College of New York for three years before leaving school to enlist in the Army. While in the Army, he met his wife, Patricia. The couple lived in Perry Hall, where they raised Allegra and her siblings.
After his Army service, Attias continued undergraduate studies at CCNY and Johns Hopkins University and attended a graduate program in banking at the University of Virginia, which led to a successful career in the financial industry. Attias had many friends, loved travel and languages and was extremely involved with the Pikesville community, even founding and managing the Pikesville Farmers’ Market. Attias was active at his synagogue, Beth Am, and was a board member of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce.
“He was also extremely patriotic, volunteering at Baltimore’s Veterans Affairs hospital for eight years,” noted Brown, who said that his admiration for the soldiers who liberated the Jews from the Nazis inspired Attias’ choice to be buried in the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Owings Mills, instead of a Jewish cemetery.
“What I loved about him was that he was so adventurous and loved to play,” said his daughter. “He always had a Frisbee in his car, and he had a bicycle built for two. We always hoped he would go quickly, and he died doing what he loved. He found his purpose in life. I’m so proud of him.”
In her eulogy, Brown spoke hopefully about her friend’s future in “the world to come.”
“I can see Nick running across the garden, rejoicing to see his beloved parents and grandparents, reuniting with his dear high school friends and his Army buddies,” she said. “Old stories and jokes are being re-told for the millionth time. His wonderful laughter can be heard across the heavens.”