Wisconsin Survivors of the Holocaust
Name: Mayer Relles (1908 – 1995)
Birth Place: Skalat, Poland
Arrived in Wisconsin: 1951, Superior
The burning and
gassing and all these things... no one had the faintest idea.
Rabbi Mayer Relles
Mayer Relles was born in Skalat, Poland, on June 2, 1908, to a family that was beginning to shed some of the constraints of Orthodox Judaism. As a promising young Talmudic scholar, Mayer traveled to other countries when quotas were imposed upon Jews in Polish schools and was ordained in 1932.
Mayer enrolled for advanced studies at the rabbinical seminary in Rome in 1933 and moved to Venice to accept a rabbinical appointment in 1936. After the Fascist Italian government entered the war, he was arrested in June 1940, briefly interned in a concentration camp, and released a few months later. For the next three years, he worked in the Jewish community of Venice and pursued his studies in the neighboring city of Padua. In addition to his rabbinical studies, he received a Ph.D. in Italian Literature and Philosophy in 1941.
After the Germans occupied Italy in September 1943, Mayer went into hiding. He tried escaping into neutral Switzerland, but was arrested near the border. He remained incarcerated in the city of Como, Italy, until the Italian Underground helped him escape to Milan. Mayer spent several months there before successfully escaping into Switzerland in April 1944.
Rabbi Relles lived in Switzerland until September 1945, when he returned to Venice. From 1946 to 1951, he served Jewish communities in the Italian cities of Ancona and Trieste and completed his advanced rabbinical studies in Padua.
The rabbi and his wife moved to the U.S. in 1951. Rabbi Relles held teaching positions and rabbinical posts in the Chicago area and in Superior, Wisconsin. From 1971 to 1976, he returned to Italy to serve as chief rabbi of Trieste. He later served as the spiritual leader at Anshe Poale Zedek synagogue in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
Rabbi Relles wrote a long manuscript account of his experiences in Italy during World War II and his escape to Switzerland in April 1944. It is available in the library of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Rabbi Mayer Relles died in 1995.
Audio and Transcript Information
Below are the highlights of each tape. They do not list all topics discussed. Recordings of only one tape side are marked: (no Side 2). Documents may be printed or downloaded at no cost. See Rights and Permissions
Listen to Mayer's testimony and view transcript
- Anti-Semitism in the Polish army
- Accepted to rabbinical college in Rome, 1933
- Moving to Italy
- Jewish community in Venice in the 1930s
- Italy's lack of anti-Semitic laws before the late 1930s
- Life in Venice, 1937-1943
- Outbreak of war and persecution of Jews
- Awareness of concentration camps
- Escaping arrest, 1943
- Transferred to concentration camp at Ferramonte, 1940
- Comparing German and Italian camps
- Conditions at Ferramonte are comparatively benign
- Continuing studies and teaching while imprisoned
- Community work in Venice, 1940-1943
- Kindness of Italians toward persecuted Jews
- Invasion of the Germans, September 1943
- Going underground, autumn 1943
- Arrested while trying to leave Italy
- Imprisoned at Swiss border
- Escape from Camerlate prison
- Meeting Italian Underground in Milan
- Hiding in Milan psychiatric hospital
View more information by clicking the link below each picture.