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Jakob Ehrlich was born in Sarajevo, launched a career as a jazz singer in Buenos Aires, met his wife on a boat from Sao Paulo, and emigrated to the United States more than 50 years ago.
But if there were ever the perfect ambassador for Italy, it's Ehrlich, a full-time Boynton Beach resident since 2000.
"Italy, to me, they're my saviors. Not just of me, but many, many other Jewish people," says Ehrlich, who is 78 and also credits Muslims and Yugoslav partisans with his survival during and after World War II.
"Let me show you this," says Ehrlich, holding a black-and-white photo of his family, taken in 1938 in Sarajevo. Standing hand in hand are father Isidor and mother Erna, who ran a small toy store, and baby sister Rifka and Jakob, dressed in a sailor suit.
Although Erna lit candles every Friday night and prayed, Isidor "enjoyed soccer more than going to temple," Ehrlich recalls.
That turned out to be a blessing.
In 1941, when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia - a melting pot of Christians, Muslims and Jews; and of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes - it was Isidor's Muslim soccer friends who encouraged him to flee Sarajevo. When the young father tried to persuade the extended members of his family to do the same, they laughed at him. And most did not survive the war.
With help from several of their Muslim friends, the Ehrlichs were able to escape detection by the Nazi's Croatian collaborators and flee Sarajevo disguised as Muslims. They traveled by train to Mostar, a Yugoslavian territory occupied by Italians, Germans and Croats, and stayed with a Muslim family. "They could have been shot for helping us," he says.
Several days later, the family boarded a bus for Split, a Croatian city on the Adriatic Sea that was occupied by Italians. Word spread that the safest place for Jews would be Porto Re, an Italian concentration camp.
There, roughly 700 Jews slept in barracks surrounded by barbed wire, and received very little food. But the worst part was the uncertainty of what was to come. "We didn't know what was going to happen, where we were going to be," says Ehrlich.
After eight months, the Italians moved the Jews to an internment camp on the island of Rab on the Mediterranean Sea, where the Ehrlichs remained for a little less than a year. Conditions were harsh, but the family was able to remain together, out of reach of the Nazis.
However, when Italy surrendered to Germany in 1943, the Italians fled the camp, leaving the Jews exposed.
Eventually, Yugoslav partisans commanded by Marshal Josip Broz Tito rescued the Jews and took them to the mainland on fishing boats in the middle of the night, hiding them in Topusko in the Yugoslav mountains. "As a kid, I was so proud of the resistance," Ehrlich says. "How heroically and courageously Tito fought those barbarians."
As the Russian army pushed into Yugoslavia, the Germans moved closer to Topusko. This time, Allied pilots came to the rescue, landing on makeshift airstrips illuminated by bonfires and airlifting hundreds of refugees, including the Ehrlichs, to safety.
An ironic haven
From 1944 to 1947, the Ehrlichs lived in a displaced persons camp in Santa Maria al Bagno, a picturesque seaside village on the heel of Italy's boot. Isidor and Erna set up a lunch counter in a park to make ends meet, and Ehrlich began making up for his years of lost schooling.
He learned English from a dictionary that his father copied by hand in small, neat handwriting, and he befriended Royal Air Force pilots and American servicemen, discovering a mutual love for the music of Glenn Miller.
With nothing to return to in Yugoslavia, no family ties in Italy, and a lengthy wait to enter the United States, the Ehrlichs found an ironic haven in Nazi-friendly Argentina, once they changed their surname to "Erich" and began identifying themselves as Christians.
In a suburb of Buenos Aires, the family enjoyed a life free of persecution under the Perons. Now known as Jaksa Erich, a teenaged Ehrlich got a job as a messenger and later apprenticed with an optician.
He also put his Bing Crosby-like voice to use, winning a singing contest and moving to Brazil, where the people had a thirst for American music.
Using the stage name "Jack Eric," he sung in nightclubs and on the radio. In Brazil, he met the woman who in 1959 would become his wife, a Catholic girl of Italian descent named Norma Gianotti, a Latin professor fluent in Italian and French as well as her native Portuguese. ("We're married 53 years - a Jew and a Catholic," says Ehrlich. "How about that?")
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