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Holocaust survivor visiting Israel safely escapes as war breaks out

By Nick Watt, CNN. Photographs by Elizabeth Weinberg for CNN

Los Angeles (CNN) — “It went from wonderful to horrible in an instant,” Charlotte Hauptman said of that fateful Saturday morning. “Not only did we hear the bombs, but we also found out there was an invasion of Hamas coming into the country. And we didn’t know where or what or who they were.”

Her instinct was to run. She’s an elfin 84-year-old with bright, engaging eyes. She wears her hair tied back and speaks with a similar no-nonsense style. “In those hours, it was just constant panic,” she told CNN after leaving Jerusalem and landing safely back home in Southern California. “I’m not afraid of death, but of what can come before.”

Hauptman is a Holocaust survivor. So, this was the second time she’d fled a group targeting Jews. She fled Hamas in Israel in 2023 by plane as an old lady. She fled the Nazis in Italy in 1944 on foot as a small child.

“It definitely shapes one’s essence,” she says of the Holocaust. “You’re familiar with the possibility of horror.” Hauptman still remembers the final fearful moments of her escape.

“Two Nazi officers were walking towards us,” she recalls. The family was just a few miles from safety, from the chunk of Italy occupied by the Allies. “They said, ‘Heil Hitler!’ and we raised our hands. They kept walking, and we kept walking. Just a few feet past, there was a Madonna. We dropped to the ground and prayed in case they would turn around and take a look.”

The Holocaust was the largest loss of Jewish life in their long history of persecution and pogroms. October 7, 2023, is now the deadliest day for Jews since then.

“Let’s get any airline that goes anywhere!” was the conversation Hauptman had with her own daughter that morning. “And when we got on that plane it already felt like, ‘All right let’s go!’ And then they started selling seats, upgrades! And we thought, ‘Just go, just go!’”

A trip to reunite with a family who saved them

Charlotte Hauptman was in Israel this fall on a side-trip. The main event of her travels was a wedding in Italy. The bride, Myriam Lanternari, is the great-granddaughter of an Italian couple, Virgilio and Daria Virgili, who Hauptman credits with saving her life and the lives of her parents more than 80 years ago, sheltering them from the Nazis in a little village called Secchiano.

“He took us into his home. They gave us food. They gave us shelter,” Hauptman said. “I knew not to talk to any German. And they came in the village.” The Nazis had a garrison nearby.

“I remember leaflets being dropped from airplanes, German airplanes, warning the people if you help Jews or Partisans that’s the end of you,” Hauptman said. “No one ever outed us. They stayed protecting us.”

The villagers concocted a story just in case any Germans started asking questions, Hauptman recalls. Her parents, Wolf and Esther, would be deaf mutes working in the field. And Charlotte would just lose herself in the clique of kids playing in the street.

“I knew that our lives were in danger,” she says. “But then when things lightened up, I was able to be a child. And the Italian people were helpful in letting me have that. I always felt loved. My parents. The villagers. It was always a very warm feeling.”

There was another Jewish family living in nearby Cagli, close to a German garrison. The two families would meet up from time to time.

“I know that at some point we couldn’t visit them anymore,” says Hauptman. “Because they were taken and killed.”

After allied British troops landed in Italy, the Germans became even more skittish and suspicious.

“The village became more dangerous, if that’s even possible,” says Hauptman. “Virgilio Virgili decided to take us to the occupied zone where the Allies already were.”

Virgilio and his young daughter Mercedes walked Charlotte and her family to safety. The Italian father and daughter were with the fleeing Jewish family when they all fell to their knees in front of that Madonna, just miles from safety, pretending to be nothing more than a gaggle of good Italian Catholics. It worked.

But when Virgilio and Mercedes returned to the village, he was arrested. “Virgilio was nabbed by the Nazis, held for days, and tortured,” Hauptman said. And Mercedes was with her father when the Nazis arrived. “They came and grabbed him and threw him in a Jeep and she was crying and holding on as the Jeep was leaving and they kept hitting her on her hands to let go.” He never confessed and was eventually released.

Charlotte Hauptman and Mercedes Virgili remained lifelong friends. Their children are friends. Their grandchildren are friends.

Born in the middle of war

“I was born November 25, 1938, right in the middle of it,” says Hauptman, matter-of-factly.

The future looked so bleak that her mother, Esther Fullenbaum, thought she should abort her baby. She didn’t. And would soon credit Charlotte with saving her life. By making her faint at just the right time.

The story became part of family lore. The Gestapo, Nazi Germany’s secret police, were rounding up Jews in Hanover where the family lived. Esther, heavily pregnant, was at her sister’s apartment when officers knocked at the door. Esther fainted, so the Gestapo left her behind. But she would never see her sister or brother-in-law again. They were murdered in the camps.

Esther fled to Milan, where her husband Wolf was working at the time. “I was born 10 days after she arrived,” adds Hauptman.

The family lived there until Italy’s Jews were rounded up and taken to concentration camps. The Fullenbaums were taken to one in Calabria, in southern Italy. When that camp became too crowded, they were sent to live with a family near Venice.

They had to check in with the police once a week. They were under curfew. And fear rose in Charlotte. “I remember being under the table one night crying,” she says. “My mother asked why I was crying, and I said, ‘Because you will both die and I will be alone.’”

Italian police officers soon came with a warning. “They said tomorrow you’re due to be picked up and sent to Auschwitz. So, you better leave now, before curfew and disappear.”

Years later, the family found the telegram, sent the next day by the Italian police to their German overlords, which ends: “THEY WERE NOT THERE. DESTINATION UNKNOWN.”

From that point on, Charlotte – little more than a toddler – was on the run with her parents, protected by the Partisans, who eventually took her family to Secchiano and the Virgilis.

“This story is not just my story, it’s their story,” says Hauptman. Her parents spent what little money they had buying food, usually from the village miller’s wife. Until they ran out of money. But the miller’s wife had a solution. In exchange for the wedding band on Esther’s finger, the family could have all the food they would ever need. “She was saving my mother’s honor,” says Hauptman. “So, she could feel comfortable getting the food.”

Years later, while living in Los Angeles, Hauptman got a call from an Italian American couple from San Francisco. They had just spent their honeymoon in Secchiano and had met the miller’s son. He’d given them the ring and asked them to find its rightful owner in America. Hauptman wore the ring as she spoke to CNN.

“I don’t know how they found us in LA, but they did… that’s the Italians!”

A mother-daughter trip to Israel turns into fleeing for safety

After the Virgili family wedding in Italy, Hauptman and her daughter, Michele Goldman, flew straight to Israel.

“She and I had talked about it years ago. We should do this mother and daughter trip,” Hauptman said. “We thought it would be a good bonding experience.” And it was, until the terror began, and she once again had to flee for her life.

Hamas terrorists crossed the border from Gaza into Israel, where they slaughtered 1,400 Israelis and took between 100 and 200 people back to Gaza as hostages. The IDF is now hitting Hamas hard in Gaza, and more than 4,000 Palestinians have now also been killed.

“We were sitting having breakfast in the hotel. We had made reservations for a tour to Bethlehem and Jerusalem,” said Hauptman. “Suddenly the alarms went off and I just looked at the faces of the locals and I read their faces. Panic.”

Her daughter, Hauptman would later find out, was panicking on the inside. “She lost her husband five years ago when her boys were still young and she told me later that all she kept thinking was, ‘Please don’t let my boys lose another parent.’”

Even now, and even here, in tranquil Southern California, Hauptman says she never feels totally safe. “Antisemitism is always there. It goes undercover for a while and then the opportunity arises. It’s a cyclical thing,” she says. “Don’t fool yourself. We’re sitting here now. In an hour, it can be different.”

“Never Again,” is a slogan about the Holocaust that Hauptman says gets a lot of lip service. “It’s just a dream,” says Hauptman. And she is not hopeful of an imminent peace in the Middle East. “As long as there are people who want Israel annihilated and the Jews to disappear,” she says. “I can’t imagine it.”

Hauptman also can’t imagine returning to Israel. Not yet. “But I do want to get over this enough,” she says. “Enough to go back.”

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