From the Holocaust to the Freedom Rides
At least three of the Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961 had managed to survive or escape the Holocaust as children.
Alex Weiss (above) was born in Vienna, Austria, in May 1936, and emigrated with parents and sister in 1940.
In May 1940 they arrested my father. There was one line that said, “You’re going to the camps.” Another line, if you signed over your house, your possessions, your business, they would give you an exit visa. My father signed everything over, and the next day, he gathered me and my sister and my mother together but left his sisters and my grandmother there, because we only had exit visas for the immediate family. We got on a train to go to Trieste and had made arrangements to be on the Saturnia. I don’t know the exact details, but my aunts and my Grandma all stayed, and they all went to the camps and died. Well, there were two aunts that got out, but he had six sisters, and four of them didn’t make it.
The other thing that’s really traumatic that I remember is that after we got to Trieste, we were supposed to wait there for two weeks to get on the Saturnia, a passenger ship, to go to New York.
We were in a hotel room for those two weeks, and I remember we weren’t allowed to go out, because Trieste was full of Black Shirts and Gestapo and what have you. We only spoke German, but my father, who had traveled widely in Italy as a wine-press salesman, spoke fluent Italian and could pass as Italian. So he would go out. I remember I was climbing the walls, and my sister as well, she was only 2.
Finally my father said, “Okay, I’ll take you out and buy you an ice cream or whatever, but you cannot open your mouth and speak, because if you speak German, there might be somebody who notices that and figures we’re refugees and might send us back.”
I said, “I promise I won’t way a word.”
I remember going to this big piazza. My father bought me a whirligig, and he talked Italian to the guy. There was hundreds and hundreds of pigeons in this plaza, and all of the sudden they all flew up at the same time, and I shouted to my father in German, “Look, Papa, the pigeons!” and he looked at me and slapped me.
I cried, of course, but I was more scared seeing the look on my father’s face. My father was frightened, and that’s the first time I felt that, “My God, you know, I’m on my own. Even my father is even scared.” I felt guilty that, now they’re gonna take us back. Well, they didn’t but – I remember that very distinctly.
Weiss and his family made it out of Trieste to New York, and then on to San Francisco, where they resettle.
I grew up in the Fillmore District, which was like the Harlem of San Francisco, but at the time it was fairly mixed. It was primarily black, but with lots of refugees. There was a little Jewish section with Jewish delis and Jewish poultry areas and so on, and I went to school with, you know, black buddies. After high school, I joined the Navy, two years active duty, from ’55 to ’57, and I had a lot of black shipmates who were friends.
When the Freedom Riders were attacked in Alabama, I was outraged. I just couldn’t believe it. And one of my motivations for joining CORE [the Congress of Racial Equality] and volunteering to go on the Freedom Rides was that I did not want to be one of those good Germans who just looked the other way.
I remember reading in the papers about the Anniston bus burning and that CORE was looking for Freedom Riders. So one day I went down to the CORE office in San Francisco and said, “I’d like to join,” and volunteered to go on the Rides.
I told my father. He was totally against it: “You’re gonna get killed. It’s not us this time. It’s the schvartzes.”
I said, “Hey, you know, this is what happened to you. I’m not gonna stand by.”
That whole idea — if you see evil and do nothing about it you are a participant in it — I really believed that.
Alex Weiss photographed in 2007.