Letters from the front, the Liberation of Italy through the eyes of a South African Jew

By Murilo H. Cambruzzi, David Jacobson*

I still remember the first time I came across one of Hirsh’s letters. I was having my first meeting (on Zoom, pandemic times) with Professor David Jacobson, who was my thesis supervisor. Right at the end of the meeting he told me that his uncle fought in the South African army corps for the liberation of Italy. He then read me an excerpt of a letter which Hirsh wrote right after Yom Kippur in 1945 that touched me deeply.
Hirsh was the son of Hyman and Liebe, the brother of Dan, Jock and Aviva, and part of the Jacobson family, a family of Latvian-Lithuanian Jews who emigrated to South African at the beginning of the 20th century. Hirsh grew up in Kimberley, South Africa, a city described by John Sutherland as “a dull town – diamonds went down with everything else in the slump – but one of the places on the globe where Jews were safe to enjoy a dull life.”
During World War II, after much pondering, South Africa entered the war on the Allies’ side. Jews enlisted en masse to fight against the Axis. According to Geraldine Auerbach (2021), around 10,000 of them enlisted from all over the country, 50 from the small Jewish community in Kimberley. Hirsh was one of those 50.
Hirsh landed in Italy in 1944, and he was only 17 during the first six months of his deployment at the 6th Armored Division. According to Auerbach, many of those who fought were deeply changed by it, but never told their story. Professor David tells me that he and Hirsh were very close, but that he only learnt about the details of Hirsh’s experience after discovering his letters after his passing in 2008.
From his letters, Hirsh gives the impression of being a funny, lovable chap, filled with curiosity. In the letters, which were always addressed to his parents and siblings, he described his surroundings and experiences in a detailed manner, as if he was undertaking anthropological research. At the same time, he was keeping close interest about what was going on with his family (and dogs, “The new dog, Hyphen, is news to me. Have we still got Ischaicky or are they the same dog under different names. Anyway give him (or them) my regards”).
He was never alarmist or tragic; he only wished for his letter to depict to his family what he was experiencing during the last year of war. On December 19th, 1944, Hirsh tells his family about a massacre carried out by the Nazis in Central Italy:
[…] The spot of leave in Florence that I planned will have to be put off for a couple of days but while on duty and on pass I have been to various villages scattered around the area and it is very interesting. The one Italian family that I know tell me that 50 villagers were shot because partisans overturned a German truck and they showed me the graves of the hostages.
After I saw that it made me think how minute our troubles are compared with all these poor people all over Europe and mommy however small the part I play to crush this monster my time will not be wasted. Strangely enough that night I happened to pick up a book at the Y.M. by H. N. Brailsford saying that these gangsters, including Hitler, should not be tried. To pay off their debt says, this 41-year old cretin (quoting Jock), they could help to irrigate Palestine. […] (my emphasis).
In February, 1945, as the war goes on, Hirsh writes to his family, telling them about the small luxuries that somehow made him feel out of war: “Received in the interim since my last letter are 3 letters and a parcel. All were very welcome, especially the parcel of warm clothing which arrived just in time as after a spell of warmish weather, there was a cold snap. I must mention the lovely pair of underpants which make me feel like a capitalist instead of a soldier.” And answers to his brother Jock, who is curious to know more about what the food is like in the army:
[…] Well, nearly everything comes out of tins from potatoes and carrots to milk. Sometimes we get a little pill about the size of a M&B tablet which is said to contain all the Vitamin C in an orange. Breakfast is about the meal I enjoy the most – a big ladle of porridge with milk and sugar, bread scrambled egg out of a tin (in Italy the hens don’t seem to lay eggs) and coffee. Lunch-time there is usually soup, (sometimes figs or an orange) bread jam cheese and tea and supper there is always fresh meat with vegetables. Once a week there is an issue of a 3rd slab of chocolate and sometimes we get a cake with II o’clock tea. At the village you can get figs and nuts for a hell of a price, but at the Y M [maybe YMCA] they sometimes have canned fruit, sandwiches, spreads, etc. also there is N.A.A.J.I. [apparently rations] issue once a week or sweets, cigarettes and beer (I give mine away) for which we pay.
June 25th, 1945, Italy had already been Liberated for two months at this point, Hirsh describes the experience of visiting the Ghetto and fraternizing with Jews from all over.
At the beach on the lido, (the bathing is superb) I made some very good friends among the Jewish Brigade and Palestinian engineers stationed [here]. Now I am sorry I cannot speak Hebrew but the little I know and the fact that some speak English overcome the language trouble. I won’t enthuse even the Jews from Eretz, as seems to be the fashion. They are decent, friendly chaps, but somewhat more robust than the average Tommy, for example. […]
The day after for the first time I went to a ghetto for the “Erev Shabbat” service. The ghetto consisted of the “Ghetto Vecchio” and on the other side of the canal “Ghetto Nuovo”. All the soldiers were soon surrounded by happy Jews, talking in Yiddish, English and Italian and a discordant note was sounded when they started asking for cigarettes (but you can’t blame them).
At the communal hall were many refugees who had many pitiful stories. The community feeds and shelters them. Some were from Yugoslavia and others from Vienna and many spoke excellent English. The Shool [Shul] is about the size of the one at Kimberley but much older and more ornate. The ghetto is closed in on one side so that people couldn’t go out of it. Well I can tell you much more of my [unintelligible] of midnight bathes, of sing-songs on the beaches with the Hebrew words sung by powerful voices being the only sound for miles around but space does not permit.
Hirsh spent Rosh Hashanah 5706 (1945) in Turin, and he describes the state of the town’s synagogues:
The military services were held in a school-room not far from the centre of the town and the Padre invited some Polish refugees who don’t understand the Sephardic services which the Italian Jews have.
[…] There are two civilian “shools” [shuls] in Turin and I went to the one on the second night, but neither are the original “shull” of which all remains is the shell after having been bombed by Allied planes, but I believe it was one of the finest in Europe. […]
In one of the most moving letters from September 21st, 1945, Hirsh writes about a meaningful encounter with Holocaust survivors in a Yom Kippur service in Rapallo, and how paradoxical it was to learn about so much suffering while being surround by a breathtaking environment:
I am writing this in Rapallo where I am having another break for 7 days. I went the day after Yom Kippur, which didn’t go off so badly as far as the fasting was concerned. At 1 o’clock I walked down to the Po River and fell asleep on the grassy banks until about 3.30 when I went back to the Shool. After the service we were invited to a meal in a restaurant (a very smart place) and I broke my fast on spaghetti.
At the service there were some young fellows my age from Czech-Slovachia in cast-off army clothes and between German, Czech, Italian and a few English words they had some pretty terrible stories to tell. You might have read in the newspapers about the Theresienstadt massacre – these chaps escaped from there. They are living in a camp a few miles out of town run by AMGOT, but I don’t know what is going to happen to them. There was a girl and her mother at the service, both with concentration-camp numbers burnt on their arms and they cried right through the service. I won’t forget that sight in a hurry.
Opposite me at the table was a civilian and I think his pronounced Vansittart [surname] views will differ from yours, Jack. Originally in Holland, he was arrested in Germany when he went to watch the Olympic Games, spent four years in Dachau, escaped, and spent the rest of the time after that between France and Italy organising Resistance movements. He speaks excellent English and after he told me all this said, “For me the war is not yet over.” It seems paradoxical to write of all these things, while as I look at the window, everything is so peaceful and lovely, the pink and white houses along the bay and the calm Mediterranean stretching out for miles, dotted here and there by boats and watches on the blue surface shimmering in the bright sunshine. […]” (my emphasis).
Hirsh’s letters, written between 1944 and 1945, touch many subjects which are still very relevant today: the fight for democracy, discrimination, identity issues, refugees, and so. These letters are a demonstration of how much is there still to discover about the World War II and the importance of microhistory as a method to give a more nuanced and personal account of big events, such as WWII.

Hirsh Jacobson’s letters are part of the archive of the Jacobson family.

*Researcher, Antisemitism Observatory of the CDEC – Contemporary Jewish Documentation Foundation; Professor of Sociology, University of South Florida.