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Chapter 2

War Breaks Out in Europe

One morning on September 19th, 1939, I walked out and heard the paper boys screaming “Hitler has Invaded Danzig! The War has Started!”

The border of Poland was less than 50 miles away from where we lived.

I had studied a lot about wars but had never witnessed one.

So I remember being a little excited about the news. I thought, “I will be witness to a war! I will be part of history! Yes!”

However, I had no idea what a war really meant and how it would affect us. Little did I know that war would impact my life and have such profound and cruel consequences? My excitement was short-lived and a product of the exuberance and naivete of youth.

The next day I went home. It was only a one-hour bus ride. When I came home, I was horrified to see hundreds of Polish people on foot or in horse-drawn carriages desperately fleeing from Poland through our town. The Germans had bombed their towns and they were a gigantic mass of terrified civilians. The images were of young people, old people and children all carrying their meager belongings. A suitcase, a knapsack, each carried what they could hold in their arms.

The people from Storojinet helped them with food and drinks. At the time, we felt sorry for them, and still felt still secure in our own homes. They entered Romania from the north and were going south to the Black Sea, which would lead to what is now Israel through Turkey. Some of these people were among the first settlers of Palestine who fought for the creation of the state of Israel, the ones who managed to be smuggled in.

They kept coming and traveling south – a veritable caravan. After a few days, we didn't see any more refugees.

Still Romania didn't feel threatened by Hitler in the fall of 1939. Our King made a treaty with Hitler and our political situation felt secure at least for a brief time.

That's not to say that Hitler's ideas hadn't slipped across the borders, because we began to see a rise in anti-Semitic acts against the Jews. A. C. Cuza was the leader of the anti-Jewish movement in Romania called the Iron Guard. He had a lot of members and they held conventions all over the country. These resulted in strikes against Jewish people and businesses. There were times when Jews were afraid to leave their houses.

Hitler occupied Austria during that year.

Actually, thinking back, I remember that beginning in 1935 things got so bad that we were afraid to live in our rustic house outside of town because anti-Semitic gangs could have attacked us. One day my grandmother and my Aunt Fanny from Vienna came for their annual “country” vacation to our house. They saw the situation we were in and worried about us living alone in that little house. My Aunt Fanny went to her father and asked him to permit us live in his big house, in the center of town. She, not my mother, still spoke to her father.

So my grandfather gave us an apartment on the 3rd floor in his building; a small apartment but we were lucky to go there. We grumbled about it because we didn't want to move away from our house with the large field for play and our vegetable garden, but our parents decided to rent out the house and encouraged us to move. To us the big attraction of living in town, though we left our friends and the country life, was that at least we had running water in that apartment! There was also a toilet that was the size of a closet, beginning what would become a lifetime of claustrophobia.

During that time, there were political rallies that took place in the center of town in front of my grandfather's building and the Jews were afraid to go out of their homes.

We continued our daily routine in Romania. My father kept working in the Civil Court. He chose a career that was secure and carried a pension.

One day there was a big rally with the Iron Guard. My father had to go to work and was afraid to leave the house. He was a short man who was very easily recognized as a Jew because of his features and his height. I was worried about him leaving the house by himself. Being blonde with long braids made me less recognizable as a Jewess and I was not afraid of these young hoodlums. So I took my father by the hand and told him, “Let's go. You can't miss work. They will only be too glad to fire you if give them cause.” I went all the way to the courthouse with him and nobody bothered us.

When I was studying in the park one day when I was fifteen, a boy named Peretz came by. He had lost his parents and was living with an uncle who was a rich merchant in Storojinet. He went to high school in the same grade as my brother, because he had lost a year when his parents died. He walked by me and he wrote a little poem for me and put it under a rock, so I could find it. His words said something about my eyes being blue and some other flowery words.

And that's how I met my first boyfriend.

After a while, we got to know each other and his uncle could no longer support him, because his wife was sickly and they had two smaller children. His uncle asked my mother if Peretz could stay as a boarder with us. So naturally, since we always needed some extra money, and since my brother had a little room of his own in my grandfather's house, they put in another cot for Peretz and he lived with us.

He became my brother's best friend and we dated for five years until we were forced by the Russians to teach elementary school children in different towns.

In those days, there was no sex before marriage, but we did engage in some “heavy petting” and kissing, and he sang beautiful, romantic songs to me. He had a wonderful voice!

That year my brother Butz started his last year in high school. I was thinking of college, but my parents could not afford to send me. I still dreamed of becoming a doctor and attending medical school. I don't know how I could ever have thought about it! I was hoping for a miracle. I decided to stay home and tutor to save money.

Life was getting harder every day.

During that year I was tutoring the little daughter of a teacher who was German. Then Hitler made all the Germans sell their homes in Romania and emigrate to Germany. The teacher and his family said good-bye to me and my teacher said, “What will happen to you?”

Little did I know….

We worried about our relatives in Vienna and my sister Greta and her husband Karl in Paris.

I was 19 years old and the world looked very bleak. There was no place for us to go or to run away. Palestine (now Israel) was occupied by Great Britain which fought any kind of immigration. They had an arrangement with the Arabs to keep the Jews out of Palestine. To our east was Soviet Russia, north was Poland and Czechoslovakia, and west was Hitler.

In this atmosphere, how could I ever dream of going to college? We had no money and the chances for a Jewish woman to be accepted were slim.

 

Russian Occupation – June 1940

My brother graduated in June 1940. He went to celebrate his prom and as he came home early, he heard the rumbling of the tanks coming closer. The Russian tanks came in like a black moving river. We saw tanks by the hundreds crawling down the streets. The previous day the Russians demanded the restoration of Bessarabia and the northern sections of Bukovina. The Romanians yielded.

Our cobblestone streets cracked under the heavy tanks. Russian soldiers sitting on top of the tanks winked and waved at us, calling out to the startled people not to be afraid.

Many were overjoyed to have the Russians. The noise was deafening.

We thought that the anti-Semitism would finally come to an end.

Within a couple of days, the Romanian army was pushed down into southern Romania. A lot of Jewish young people were happy to see the Russians, as a solution to the threat of Hitler's National Socialism. Many advanced to greet them with red flags and were shot by Romanian soldiers who were still around.

The Russians were nice and friendly, especially to us young girls. They tried to teach us some Russian words, descended on all the shops and bought all the merchandise they could get their hands on. They ate all the food they could find. After a few weeks of disorganization and military rule, the civil government started to organize the town. They posted placards telling people that they were going to open schools with Russian language classes and that registration was open. All of my friends and other young people who graduated high school and college students enrolled.

It was summertime and there was nothing else to do. We thought that our chances of getting a job would be better knowing a little of the language. I always enjoyed languages and learning a new one so different from the others I knew was a challenge.

I spoke a little of the Ukrainian language because we always had Ukrainian maids in our house. Russian was a little different, especially with the Cyrillic alphabet. It was fun to be in school again besides it was a social gathering of all the young people.

My parents' situation got worse. Because of the new regime, my father lost his job and they had no income. So my mother and her cousin Regina – both excellent cooks – decided to open a restaurant. My aunt had an empty store with a kitchen in the back and the restaurant was an instant success. The Russian soldiers loved our food and beer. My mother worked very hard that summer. My Aunt Regina was a good looking woman, liked to serve the food and flirt with the Russian soldiers while my mother did all the cooking. I offered to help, but my mother didn't want to hear about it. I was a student, a young girl and didn't belong in the kitchen or serving young soldiers.

The summer passed quickly and as soon as our summer course was finished, the Russian government informed us that at the same time when we signed up for the course, we were enrolled in becoming elementary school teachers. They needed teachers who could communicate with the children in their own language. I was assigned to a school about 20 miles out of Storojinet--a town called Czudin.

My parents were devastated and it was a shock for me to leave home at the age of 19 and to live alone.

The town of Czudin had a lot of Jewish people living in the center of town; mostly merchants and professionals. Since they didn't have a high school, all of these Jewish children came to Storojinet to attend high school. I had quite a few friends there. One girl, the daughter of a very rich business family, had roomed in our house for a while, so I stayed some time with them. Later, I rented an apartment with my friend Bertha who was also teaching in another school.

Bertha was dating Alfonse, and they were going to get married. They were very much in love. Bertha was a ravishing beauty, full of life and flirtatious. She loved to flirt with other men and drove poor Alfonse crazy. We used to lie in bed and talk. She used to tell me how much she loved him, but she couldn't help herself. She enjoyed seeing him jealous. It made her feel like a movie star with men fighting over her. Alfonse wasn't very handsome. He was blonde, very thin, and too good natured for a girl like Bertha. I worried about their future together. I worried that one day in a fit of jealousy Alfonse might really hurt Bertha or even kill her.

My boyfriend Peretz was sent to teach in another town called Krasna and I hoped to see him only occasionally. At 19, I was totally unprepared to teach. I was placed in a class of unruly 4th graders whose parents hated the Jewish teachers and the Soviet regime that had invaded their country. We were supposed to teach these children in Romanian all the subjects like math and science, and a Russian teacher taught the Russian language. It was difficult for me to maintain discipline in a class with 35 children. I came home crying every night. The principal of the school was a former teacher of mine, whose daughter my brother dated. He felt sorry for me and moved me to a 2nd grade class, which was smaller. The children were younger and I really enjoyed teaching them.

Every weekend we went home to our parents and I came home to a lot of problems. My brother had to repeat the last year of high school to learn the Russian language.

Butz became a gorgeous young man. He was quite a lady's man at a young age, and started dating one of the Russian teachers, something that made my mother very unhappy.

After the summer, the restaurant closed.

My father was jobless, my mother and aunt weren't getting along in the business, and they couldn't make much money once the soldiers left. So they closed the restaurant.

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At this critical time, my parents had no money to live on. I had a very small salary as a teacher and I gave them some of it. My mother rented a small store where she sold cakes and cookies. She worked very hard and baked all night, then stayed in the store all day.

My mother who I called “Mama” was very loving and kind. She never seemed to get angry or lecture us. She was truly the matriarch of our family and the one who managed to give us a nurturing home full of good food and happiness. She always worried about our health; especially mine.

My parents had a harmonious and loving relationship. They hardly ever argued and seemed to understand each other not through words, but through a look.

Mama was also the disciplinarian and the “tough” parent. My father “Papa” was the gentle, loving and affectionate one.

My father however, was of no help to her. He never did anything in the house. My mother always waited on him when he came home from the office. He would sit at the table and if his fork was missing he would sit there and not eat. After a while, my mother would ask him why he wasn't eating and he would tell her his fork was missing.

A fragile, limited man, still he adored his home and children. With the invasion of the Russians, he saw the beginning of the collapse of his life. When I came home weekends, I could tell they weren't getting along. I guess the hardship affected them and they lost hope for the future.

During that year, my mother lost a lot of weight and wrote to my aunt in America that she could fit into my clothes. I still was stigmatized by my growing years when I was always reminded how skinny I was and that no boy would ever love me. “Your arms look like whips,” my mother would tell me and I got into the habit of keeping my arms behind my back. Also she would push me in the back because of my bad posture. I always felt ugly – a thin girl with freckles.

That year away from home gave me more confidence. I saw men looking at me. I could teach a class of children and felt more adult than ever before.

One Friday night when I was teaching in Czudin I caught a bad cold and had a fever. My friend Bertha went home and my boyfriend Peretz arrived at my apartment, not knowing I was sick. He thought he would visit my brother and me and surprise us at my parents' house. I was glad to see him and seeing that I was sick, he decided to stay and take care of me since I was all alone in the apartment. There was no phone, so I couldn't let my parents know why I didn't go home for the weekend.

At one o'clock in the morning, I was awakened by a loud knock at the door. There was my mother! She had walked in the winter night for many hours to be with me when she found out from Bertha that I was sick.

Shocked to find Peretz in the apartment with me alone, she asked, “How could you let a young man stay with you?”

“Mama, I'm too sick to think of romance,” I said, laughing. I kept reassuring her that I was too ill with a fever to think of love. I also had a throbbing toothache that was making my sickness even worse.

She believed me and stayed for a week until she nursed me back to health.

After the end of the school year, I went back to Storojinet to live with my family.

 

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