Peter Levitt at the 2006 reunion

The Levitt Family Story

With extracts from my book, "A Memoir on the Sinking of the Zamzam", published in 2011.

By Peter Levitt

On the Zamzam our family consisted of myself, Peter, age 6, my sister Wendy, who had just turned 3, and Kathleen, our 28-year-old mother. We were on our way from Canada to South Africa, where my father had been posted from England to train pilots for the Royal Air Force operations in North Africa.

In the early morning of April 17, 1941 we were awakened by the sound of explosions. Mother jumped out of her bunk to investigate what was happening and gathered that we were being shelled. We put on our cumbersome life jackets, but, while this was happening, there was a big explosion nearby and a piece of shrapnel went through both of Mother’s feet while they were dangling over her bunk. I also got a small cut.

Mother, despite the condition of her feet and the chaos and shattered glass and debris in the cabin caused by the explosion, managed to get us on deck where our friends persuaded us to wait while the lifeboats were lowered. David Scherman, photographer for Life Magazine took a photo of us at that point, and someone put a bandage on Mother’s feet.

Peter being carried down the rope ladder of the Zamzam

The passengers managed to get our lifeboat into water, and I was carried down. David took another photograph suggesting that I was screaming with fright. In fact, as I remember the occasion, I was screaming to alert Tommy Miller, who was carrying me, that the swinging rope ladder we were on might crash against the boat side and he would lose his grip.

Once in the boat I was put on David Scherman’s lap, shielding him while he took photos. The crew pulled the lifeboat away from the ship with only 25 passengers, leaving some stranded on the rope ladder. At one point Mother fainted and there was commotion while a Greek nurse revived her with seawater.

We were eventually hailed over to the raider called Tamesis and taken aboard. Children were raised in a wicker basket. Once on board Mother was immediately taken to the operating theater and was attended to by a surgeon and three doctors. They did excellent operations on both feet. Meanwhile Wendy and I were wandering about the deck in the chaos of milling passengers. Luckily the two women missionary teachers, who had been teaching at the temporary school on board the Zamzam, collected us and looked after us.

Early next morning the raider met up with its supply ship, the Dresden, and everyone except three badly injured people were transferred to this ship by efficient motorboats. Mother wrote in her memoirs "being transferred from a German raider to a motor launch and from there to a so-called prison ship, trussed up like a chicken on a stretcher, knowing that one false move on the part of the sailors would make me a dainty meal for the sharks, was a novel and extremely unpleasant experience."

Mother was lucky in that, as a result of the intervention of the surgeon from the raider, she had a cabin which she shared with two Greek nurses and another lady. She slowly recovered during our five weeks aboard the Dresden. Our trip to France through the British blockade is described elsewhere. When we arrived at Saint Jean de Luz, France, the American passengers from the Zamzam were disembarked. The two missionary teachers, when they heard that we would be interned, volunteered to adopt me and Wendy and take us back to America, but Mother declined their kind offer.

That afternoon we left for Bordeaux, France, accompanied by two corvettes. I remember clearly being very lonely as all my friends had left. I was on the rear deck by myself when, all of a sudden, machine guns were firing from above me and the two corvettes. Then some German sailors arrived on deck and very angrily told me to get off the deck. They then rolled large barrels and dropped them into the sea. A few seconds later there would be an under water explosion that even lifted the rear of the ship. After a few minutes of this activity, all was quiet again. The Germans had thought they had seen a British submarine.

Eventually, we docked about seven miles from Bordeaux. The next day we were bused into a poor looking part of town and housed in what must have been some sort of school. We stayed there for about ten days, looked after by the German Red Cross.

Next we spent five-and-a-half days in a prison train that took our Zamzam group, then consisting of 28 women and children, to Wiesemunde, a suburb of Bremen. The train carried about 400 prisoners. We were in third class carriages, but the men assembled from many war actions were in open cattle carriages. On disembarking a man from the Gestapo told us that we would be going to a nice hotel. We were crammed into trucks and driven to a large stone building. From there out came a most cruel and vicious looking policeman with a huge bunch of keys dangling from his wrist.

"He shook hands with the gentleman from the Gestapo and then started yelling at us and ordered us to get down from the vehicle and to lug our baggage into the stone hall. This was not such an easy matter, but we helped each other along, and, after much shouting from his lordship and a good bit of pulling and tugging, we managed to bring it all in. When we had seen this man coming out to meet us, we all thought he was an unusual kind of hotel manager, but we were prisoners and expected to have at least one police official around. What we had not bargained for, though, was that we were actually about to be subjected to 16 days in German criminal prisons. This came as a great shock even to those amongst us who already believed nothing of what the Gestapo told us."

"We were then taken to the cells in which we were to live for the next ten days. After five days in a train and the ordeal which we had to go through at the station, none of us was feeling overly strong, and this seemed just the last straw. However we knew that they were doing their best to get us down, so we tried not to let them see how well they were succeeding. I may say that it really was one of the few times when they did succeed in making us feel miserable. It all seemed so degrading and unnecessary. To have to sleep on the floor, or, worse still, on prison beds which, although they did not look too dirty, were so, and which we knew had been slept on the night before by criminals, and prostitutes. It gave me the shivers to look at the primitive sanitary arrangements, and the next day, worse than the shivers, when I had to take the bucket downstairs and empty it. It was bad enough having to live under these conditions oneself, but the thought of my two youngsters being exposed to this sort of thing nauseated me."

The ten days in Wiesemunde had its adventures. The authorities softened a bit, and we managed to get outside a little, mostly in the prison yard. The Germans informed us that Weisemunde was one of the best prisons in Germany.

"We were informed one evening that we were to be moved. Where we were bound for was to be a strict secret. But, we were given out rations of bread and cheese, told to be ready to leave at 7 o’clock. All morning we spent in helping Mr. X label the luggage, all of which was to be left at Wiesemunde and sent on to our final destination, still a secret to us. At last we set off all tightly packed in a motor van with two benches in it. We were accompanied by three policemen and driven slowly through the town, to the utter amazement of the people in the streets!"

"We were taken to the station where we sat waiting for a train for about half an hour. Here we were met by about twenty more policemen, and a roll call was taken. The train drew up and, as it was a long one, we hoped that this time, unlike the terrible journey up to the north, we should all have a little breathing space. However, still another surprise was in store for us. We were ordered to line up and, accompanied by at least half the police force of the town, were marched right up to the front of the train. It really must have been quite a comic sight to see 28 miserable looking females, all carrying baggage and dragging along tired looking children, being escorted as if they were the most dangerous spies in the country."

"At the door of our own special private train compartment stood a very officious and frightening police sergeant. He started off by screaming at us in the recognized German fashion and ended up by pushing and, in two cases, even kicking us. This was the only time I actually was roughly handled by a German, although I have since heard many such and far worse accounts."

"The carriage was a real prison wagon such as I had never seen before, even in an American film. It was divided into about twenty small wooden compartments. Each one had space to allow one person to sit in comfort and a small grill at the top of the outer wall. The doors were very strongly built and very securely locked. We were shoved into these compartments, two at a time. The doors were slammed behind us, and there we remained. It was quite unnecessary to let us know how long we were to remain in these wooden boxes; as far as we knew we were on a long trip."

"Needless to say, after being shut up for about an hour, the children became nervous and restless. It is unpleasant enough being jolted about in a train, but, when one is unable to decide in what direction one is traveling and where one is going, how long it will take, and what is happening outside one’s cage, it is doubly so."

Luckily, after about three hours we arrived in Bremen and were taken to the city prison. After a day there we were sent by train to the Hanover city prison.

"Here I think was quite the worst accommodation we had yet met. The room was about ten feet wide, and long enough to allow thirteen small mattresses to be placed in a line on the floor, with just enough room at one end for a wooden structure placed around a badly flushed W.C. Up the other end was one wash basin. Blacked-out windows lined one side of the room, and a wooden bench ran along the other. There were two very massive doors, always kept securely locked. In this cage, twenty eight of us were to live until further notice." In fact two days.

The next city prison to be visited was Stuttgart. This is part of southern Germany, and the people there were friendly and helpful. However, "at six o’clock that evening we were once more to be reminded that we were still in a very precarious position. We had been locked into the cells once more and were sitting down trying to amuse ourselves in one way or another, when there was a terrific noise at the door. A moment later three men marched in. One of them took one look at us and simply bellowed ‘A stehen sie ab’! (Stand up.) We all thought he was going to burst a blood vessel--he was in such a terrific rage. The guard tried to explain to him that we were English and did not understand, but, English or not English, it made little difference to him. It was perhaps the first time in history that everyone in the room had not jumped to attention when he walked in. ‘A ab’ he yelled once again, and this time, one by one and taking our time, we rose to our feet."

"A few moments after he left, the guard had the grace to come in to us and to explain that he was the inspector in chief of all the prisons in that district and that was why he had been so fierce. It was a kind of apology for such ill manners, and the guard went up in our estimation."

On June 16 we moved again, this time to the prisoners of war camp. It was a mental institute in Leibenau, run by Catholic nuns in a small village near Frederickshaven just north of Lake Constance. The Nazis had turned the institution into a prisoners of war camp, even though some inmates were still there. It had to accept 350 women and children prisoners initially. This rose to 500 by the time we left. Leibenau is in a beautiful part of the country. We could not see the lake but could see the mountains of Switzerland on the other side of the lake.

We relied on Red Cross parcels to enable us to obtain adequate food.

"One would be really amused if you could see us opening our Red Cross parcels. First comes the string which is never cut but carefully untied, split, knitted, plaited or interwoven for bags, soles of shoes, straps for luggage, serviette rings, egg cups (in case we ever again see an egg or serviette!), sun hats, and various other oddities! Then comes the packing used for filling cushions or lining of hay boxes for keeping things warm. Most tins come in as cooking utensils or flower pots, and the boxes themselves are used for waste paper baskets, brackets, shoe boxes, and of course to store all manner of treasures in! Even the labels on the tins are carefully taken off and used to decorate trays, etc. So you see, we make use of most things!! It is really strange to be in a position where one only has the bare necessities and none of the usual comforts and trappings which always seems essential."

Occasionally Mother used to trade the cigarettes from the parcels with the guards in exchange for fresh eggs from the local farmers. Wendy and I then drank the raw eggs, which had been mixed with Clim (powdered milk from the Red Cross parcels).

In October, 1942 the three of us managed to get on a Red Cross exchange to Palestine, in exchange for members of the Templer sect, a German religious sect which had a settlement in Jaffe, Palestine. We were given train tickets and told to report to a certain address in an industrial part of Vienna. We got there and were again sort of imprisoned in a large building with dormitories where people, mostly old people from all over Europe, were being assembled for the exchange. After being there a week, we boarded a train to Turkey with the rest of the prisoners to be exchanged. We traveled through Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, northern Greece to Istanbul, another long train journey. At Istanbul we were exchanged and boarded a train that took us through Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon to Palestine, where we were interned again by the British at the Atila camp near Haifa, so that they could make sure that we were all genuine prisoners and not German spies. It now being November, the camp was cold, wet and muddy. Unfortunately, at that point I caught dysentery and was very ill, but thanks to massive doses of sulfur pills and water, I recovered.

As soon as I was better and we were allowed out, we took the train to Cairo, Egypt, and stayed at a nice hotel for about ten days. Very early one morning we were picked up by a military person. We were taken out of town to a small jetty on the banks of the muddy Nile, amongst reeds and lots of mosquitoes. We boarded a motorboat and, to my great amazement and surprise, it took us through the morning mist to a Sunderland Flying Boat. At that time it was one of the largest planes of its kind. We boarded that plane which had about thirty passengers, and immediately it started to take off. I remember the thrilling deep sound of the engines as they revved up and we went faster and faster over the water. Eventually we were airborne, and I was able to look down and see the river and the pyramids and the fertile flood plain below. As we rose higher I was allowed into the captain’s cabin and was able to see more. The flood plain got smaller and smaller. We were even able to see sand storms below. For a small boy (nearly 8) this was an incredible experience. We followed the Nile and landed somewhere to refuel. Eventually after flying all day we landed at Khartoum.

After a couple of days in Khartoum we boarded a smaller plane with no seats but carrying about fifteen people. We flew over the Sudd all day at about 3,000 feet. It was very bumpy. We landed in Kisumu on Lake Victoria. Early the next morning we were on the Sunderland Flying Boat again, flying to Durban in South Africa via Beira, Mozambique for refueling.

Once in Durban, we stayed at a hotel close to the beach. One day I was playing on the beach by myself when someone ran out of the hotel and urgently shouted that I was wanted by Mother in the hotel immediately. I could not imagine why. Another crisis, I assumed! I ran back to the hotel to find my mother hugging and kissing a rather dark-colored man at the bar. I was puzzled and, since I did not recognize the man and thinking I had been called to defend my mother, I attacked the man. It took quite a while for Mother to calm me down and convince me that the man was my very sunburned father. That was a happy moment. I had not seen him for over two-and-a-half years.

Note: The Zamzam was sunk by the raider commonly known as the Atlantis but at the time pretending to be the Tamesis.