Much to Say
By Susan Levine
Try as one might, there just isn’t an easy way to categorize Joseph Gottfried. He is a complex man who has lived through and been influenced by complex times.
Joe Gottfried was born in 1920 in the city of Sarajevo, then part of Yugoslavia. His mother died from complications of childbirth when he was 12 days old. His father remarried and his stepmother raised Joe along with his older sister and three half-sisters.
By the time he was old enough to leave home to study forestry engineering at the University of Zagreb, many of the factors that would shape his life already were in place.
For one, Joe was fluent in Serbo-Croatian, German, Hungarian, Italian and French. Later, he added English and the ability to understand Spanish to his repertoire.
Second, Joe had strong Zionist feelings. All the members of his family were ardent Zionists; one even had been a delegate to the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Joe, like many Europeans, also had a passion for learning about a myriad of subjects, including global politics, philosophy, religion, engineering and technology. And, finally, the seeds had been sown for World War II, which turned Joe’s world upside down.
After graduating from the university in 1941, Joe became a second lieutenant in the Royal Yugoslav Army. He only had served for a year when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia.
Realizing that Jews would not be safe, Joe tried to convince his family to leave Sarajevo. They declined, but he and a close friend, Silvio Finzi, obtained papers of protection and fled Croatia to relative safety in Italian-controlled Slovenia.
Their feeling of safety was short-lived. Soon Italy allied its forces with Germany and the friends knew they had to flee Slovenia, which was slipping under German control. Using Italian names, they obtained false identity papers and made their way to Trieste, and then to Rome. In Rome, Joe found a job with an engineering firm that built and maintained a local railroad system. His grasp of languages made him invaluable as he acted as the firm’s liaison with German businesses and, ultimately, with the German railroad company. Joe also became involved with the Italian underground resistance movement. But it wasn’t long before the German occupation of Rome forced the friends to make yet another change. The Nazis routinely were rounding up young men and sending them to Germany as laborers.
So Joe and Silvio went into hiding in the middle of Rome. They awoke early every morning and took a 5 a.m. bus to the Vatican, where they spent their days. At night, they caught the last bus back to their rooming house.
Joe, who is an avid learner, devoted those long days to studying in the Vatican libraries and museums. He met a Croatian priest who worked very hard — albeit unsuccessfully — to convert him to Catholicism. Joe also remembers standing in the vast courtyard of the Vatican when Pope Pius XII made his famous speech that did not denounce Nazism.
Once the Germans had been defeated who was still an officer in the Yugoslav army, helped the Allied Forces rebuild Italy and the rest of Europe. He worked as an engineer, restoring and returning buildings to the Italians that had been seized
by the British army during the war. Joe also spent a year working as a liaison for an Italian firm struggling to create facilities for displaced persons in Bagnoli.
It was now 1949. Joe’s father had been killed in Jasenovac, a camp in Croatia. His stepmother and sisters also had been taken to Croatian camps, but they survived and immigrated to Israel right after it was established in 1948.
Joe chose to go to the United States and settled in the New York area. In 1952, he married Bianca , who also was from Sarajevo, and they had two children.
Joe easily found work in the engineering and building trades and formed his own company in 1960. But Joe is a complex man and his story doesn’t end so simply.
As soon as he arrived in New York, Joe became a political activist. His focus is Israel and the nature of Islam. With great feeling, he explains: "I consider the birth of Israel to be an affirmation of Jewish history, and I have an obligation to take part in it."
And so he does. Since retiring to West Palm Beach in 1980, Joe has become even more involved in politics.
"The establishment of Israel happened in my generation," he says. "I have to contribute; maybe not large sums of money — there are others who can do that — but I can contribute ideas."
So Joe has 30 periodicals delivered to his home and he reads them cover-to-cover. Most cover topics of Jewish interest — especially the Middle East — but he also receives three Arab magazines. Joe also has written about Israel for the local Jewish press and has given lectures throughout the community.
Joe has lived through incredible times, seeing both the worst and the best of what man can do. He is a philosopher, a scientist, a teacher and a student. Joe Gottfried is a soft-spoken man who has much to say.
November 3, 2000 Profile The Palm Beach Jewish News page 23