Our stay in the ghetto, ended with the order to evacuate immediately the ghetto and leave to the railway station. We were ordered to take minimum luggage since we are going to be resettled for the purpose of becoming farmers in Transnistria. It was stressed again and again that this is no deportation but a mere resettlement.
At the railway station they packed 40 people into a closed wagon and then closed and sealed it. We were told to take only those things we could carry.
The train took us to Otaki, a small village on
the Dniester on the Bessarabian side. Mogilev Podolsk in the Ukraine on the
other side of the river was a comparatively large town. The weather had turned
cold because apparently it was autumn, the week of 20 October 1941.
While still in the Chernowitz ghetto, we were told that we would be taken to a place to build an agricultural village and thus, do productive work. No one protested this transporting; not from the town to the ghetto and not when long lines of people walked from one place to another, guarded only by perhaps a few Rumanian soldiers. It wasn't necessary to use force against us. We did everything we were told with a discipline which I never saw again, not even when years later I did my army service or in the many units with which I became acquainted.
The lack of protest was unacceptable to me and even though I was only a child of eleven , I could not accept the blind obedience to just accept one's fate. The elders, of course, understood that there was no sense in protesting or perhaps that there was sense but no chance. This left me with scars which I carry with me until today because as I have never been able to free myself from them despite the knowing there was nothing I could do to alter the situation. Perhaps that is why early in life I deliberately and deeply became involved in prolonged army service, as I will explain later.
After traveling in the closed wagons for several days, crowded, without windows and facilities for human hygiene, with no food or water supply, we arrived to Otaki. We were ordered to dismount, which we gladly did to finally breathe some fresh air.
It was raining for several days before and
during our arrival. We were driven to reach the river shore and camp there
until further orders. The local population, all gentiles, had experienced
previous transports, they came to trade bread and water for money, gold or
other goods which some brought with.
We who had been robed of all our belongings, who had no money or gold could trade but with the little we brought from our family's household. The rain the chill of autumn and hunger were our main preoccupation, at least of my close family members.
The bridges connecting Bessarabia with the Ukraine were also bombed by the Soviet army. Here, the destruction was complete, only few signs and traces that a bridge once stood there could be observed.
The only way across was by boat. They loaded us into the boat in small groups and using a cable, pulled us to the other side the vast and empty unknown.
Father was familiar with the area from the time of World War I. In fact, our family was originally from the Ukraine and had moved to Bessarabia. My mother remembered that we had relatives in the town of Bari. My father developed a theory that it was in our best interests to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the Dniester and to get to the valley past the Bug river. I have no idea on what he based his theory. In retrospect I'm happy his plan didn't materialize.
Despite his plan to travel as far as possible, deep into the Ukraine, people we knew who had arrived in previous convoys were waiting for us.
The Jews of Bessarabia had been transported much earlier than those from Bukovina. The people we knew took us out of our convoy, in spite of a severe supervision of the Rumanian soldiers and convinced us to remain in Moghilev Podolsk. They were connected well enough in Moghilev to obtain special permission from the authorities.
Aunt Batya's friend Riva'le Goverman was a very beautiful and vivid young lady, who had studied with her in Bricheni. She knew very well he Governor of Moghilev's district and was thus able to obtain for us permission to stay in Moghilev. The legal excuse for the permission was that my brother, and uncle Zunea would work in a metal factory which in Rumanian was called, Turnatorie. All our family will never forget the great and unique assistance of Riva'le, which we believe saved us from a more miserable life or even death. We shall never forget her and always respect her for it.
We found a room in the house Mrs. Zbrijer, an old widow, who was one of the few native Jews remaining in the city. Her house was situated on Pojarnaya St. very close to the city centre and not far from the Dniester. I don't know if we paid rent or lived there for free. Mrs. Zbrijer had a niece who was also deported from Bessarabia, living with her.
She was very kind to us and tried to assist in every possible way. She allowed us to use the wood stored in the basement to heat the room and free use of her kitchen stove. Once, when my father went down to the basement to bring wood, he tried to lift to large a piece or maybe because the way he lifted it, as an outcome suffered from hernia in both sides. He suffered a lot from it, no one knew what to do or even who to ask for help.
The city of Moghilev sits on the edge of the
Dniester, a long wide and very swift river which empties into the Black Sea not
far from Odessa. The Soviets ruined not only the bridges when they retreated,
but also demolished all the dams which resulted in much flooding. All of
Moghilev's low lying areas were inundated. Some of the houses collapsed and
some were extremely damaged and unstable. Houses were made from wood and
coated with mud and straw, which had been washed away by the flooding.
Amongst those arriving in the later convoys was a relatively older couple, Aaron and Malka Weissman. In Lipcani they were neighbours of ours and uncle Eliezer and aunt Leika; Erik's (Zvi) parents, had lived in one half of their house. The Weissmans were childless and despite the fact that they were wealthy, they had no happiness and joy with their lives. He made money from leasing land to tenant farmers but most of their wealth came from trading in furs. Although he was a man without any formal education, he often travelled to Europe and America in order to sell his furs. Aaron knew a lot about the world and my father loved to talk with him and hear stories about his journeys at various parts of the world.
My father invited them to come and live in our room of Mrs. Zbrijer's house. Our family used the beds, cupboards and dressers for sleeping and the Weissmans were honoured to sleep on the table.
Malka was usually a sick woman and he was the strong and brave one, but fate has its own way of dealing with matters. Within a very short time, Aaron died in the room. My father "inherited" Aaron's hernia support belt.
I had seen many funerals at home in Lipcani
because we lived opposite the synagogue, which was on the route to the
cemetery, but this was the first time I had ever actually seen a dead person
face to face. It was a horrifying experience. A person who lived among us,
told interesting stories about America Berlin and other European capitals where
he used to do his business.
This living and vivid human being died, not of old age, but of a disease lacking Medicare which could easily have cured him. My father was very sad and moved by the death of his good friend. That was only the beginning!
The Moghilev Ghetto
After several months at the Zbrijer's house, located in the centre of the city, we were ordered to move to a new area which was declared as the ghetto. A wall built by forced labour surrounded only a small section of Moghilev and everyone allowed to stay was permitted to live only in the ghetto. We were again forced into greater density in a ghetto of which we had been coerced into building the enclosing walls. We moved into one room; not a one room apartment containing its own bathroom and kitchen, but one room where sixteen of us lived. During the day it was possible to move about but at night almost all of the space became one large bed. My father, mother and I slept in one bed made from wooden boards. This was a real bed which remained even during day time. My brother and uncle slept on the table; my sister and aunt Batya slept on the backside of an empty closet which every night was tipped onto its front side and every morning put back in its place, standing upright. We slept in this manner, as did everyone else; the closeness was very intense. The room also had a stove which was used for heating as well as for cooking.
Mother was compelled to improvise everyday making meals out of almost nothing. My father was depressed and lacked initiative. As far as he was concerned, the world had collapsed on him, several times. He had no hope.
My brother David and uncle Zunea worked without payment, but had been fed. In fact they used to save part of their meals for the rest of us. To heat the house we gathered wood from the remains of buildings which had collapsed from the floods. When we burned these, we "helped" other damaged houses to collapse.
Once we even dismantled an outhouse in some courtyard while somebody was busy inside it. Some of the Jews worked on constructing a wooden bridge over the Dniester. The bridge had been designed by an engineering group called, "Todt Organization" Germans wearing uniforms were also present but I think most of them were civilians mobilized for field engineering and construction purposes.. It was a group similar to the army corps of engineers, but they were apparently busy with building and assisting the army rather than being fighting soldiers. Amongst them were people not eligible for conscription, but there were also young persons in the group. The bridge was built during the winter. Holes were drilled in the ice and wooden posts with metal pointed heads were lowered to the bottom of the river. A crane would lift a "hammer" to a height of about ten meters above the post and the released hammer would pound the post into the river bottom, a few centimeters at a time.
When the ruined houses no longer served as a source of wood, I stole my way to the bridge area, outside the ghetto and began to gather pieces of wood. I also found a wooden post containing a beautiful metal pointed head from what might have been from a failed attempt to drive it into the river bottom. I lifted the post, which weighed more than me and began making my way home. One of the Germans from the Todt Organization, who observed me taking without permission the wood, thought of an original way to punish and frighten me.
He tied me to the rope to which the hammer was usually secured. He elevated me to the maximum height, and suddenly released the rope causing me to free-fall until I was only a few centimeters above the ice.
Then, I was carefully lowered through the hole into the freezing water, pulled out and allowed to take the wood home. I ran for my life, hanging onto the wood and from sheer joy and delight didn't even feel the freezing cold penetrating my bones.
As I previously said, my father, who all of his life was the family bread earner and who took my grandfather's place as head of the family, not only because he was the eldest but also because of his personality and character, which were moulded through hard work from an early age, fought in the First World War, managed big business contracts with great success, slowly absorbed blow after blow until he stopped believing in his own strength. His attempts to convince us to commit suicide illustrates his state of mind and his lack of confidence and his belief in the future. His loss of confidence and his mood of depression influenced us all. We still remembered his leadership in our family, his charisma used to influence our entire town before the war, and now he transmits only despair and any hope for improvement.
We no longer had any possessions or money. In our family no one had ever saved gold, foreign currency, diamonds or other precious things, as was the habit of Jews for generations in the Diaspora. In our family, by my fathers philosophy, everything had been invested in expanding the businesses. Not even once had he followed the advise of his friend Weissman, to keep some of his fortune in Switzerland and in America, or listen to his brother Matityahu to buy some land in Palestine.
All our money was reinvested in acquisitions of
new land, more mills and even considered entering into some diverse business.
All these decisions which turned out to be wrong made him regret it. His
remorse was a burden he couldn't cope with.
We had brought with us some "spare" clothes because we believed that on the way we would cross paths with grandmother and grandfather. Part of the little that we did bring with us from Chernowitz, was not even for us. The forecast was grim. No one knew what to do or what would be.
Within the group of banished were people who brought money and jewelry with them. For a certain amount of time these people continued eating almost according to their usual standards at home. We didn't have anything to eat. Also, we didn't have any money with which to buy and we didn't have anything to sell for money in order to buy food.
Without any pre planning or even thinking about it, I "took" a spool of thread from one of the bags at home. In the market I sold the spool and bought thin paper for making hand rolled cigarettes and resold the paper. At the end of the deal I brought home enough money for several days food for the family. I was afraid to tell how I started my "business" because I took the spool of thread without permission, but I had to admit it at last and been forgiven.
The value of the money was not significant; the real importance was that my father woke up to life. The example I showed him awakened his strong commercial senses, giving him an incentive and showed that maybe there was still hope and not everything was lost. After this single initiative, I only helped him. He started to buy and sell and mediate, and most important of all, some of his self confidence, which was so crucial to him returned.
My father returned to life and his energy came gradually back. The "business" was complex and dangerous. The Rumanian soldiers guarding the ghetto, were coerced to participate in smuggling goods from Bessarabia to the totally empty Ukraine.
The deported Jews, in Moghilev, and my father amongst them, have gradually built a relationship with the soldiers on a strict commercial basis. Each has received his part in the deal. The soldiers getting the lot. They smuggled in and supplied the goods which were so desperately needed.
Even before the war the USSR did not excel in plenitude. Lack of food and rationing were the usual facts of life for many years. The war only worsened the situation; in our area there was no industry. We lacked food and the Ukrainian peasants lacked everything except food. Therefore, we imported yeast, salt, coloured paper, oil and in fact everything that the soldiers were able and willing to smuggle from Rumania. Some of this smuggling was only of raw material such as caustic soda to make soap. This dealing was of course, illegal and smuggling, even in the purest of dictatorships, is not accepted by the government. Everything involved great danger: physical and financial.
As strange and improbable as it all may seem, we even had a German soldier who smuggled goods for us and not just ordinary goods. Later, I will describe in detail how and what happened.
In one of those days in which you don't have a clue what is to happen, where we were going and what are we looking for, except that we need food, I went with my father to look for a way to make some money. We didn't know what we were looking for and where we were going.
On the way, a Rumanian soldier armed with a
rifle stopped us and told my father to go with him to do some sort of work. I
was sent away but followed them. My father went, but tried to draw attention
to himself while we were still in the ghetto but no one took notice of him.
We reached the edge of the ghetto on the way to the cemetery and my father made signs that I should stop following them but I only increased the distance between us, continuing to follow them until I saw no point in so doing, stopped and waited.
After an hour I saw my father returning alone. He reached me and intensely hugged me to his breast, crying bitterly. He began to tell me what happened in the cemetery. The soldier wanted to kill him. That was his intention. However, as soon as they reached the cemetery my father managed to persuade him that he would compromise himself because I had seen what had happened and had probably gone to fetch the commander.
The soldier agreed not to kill him but he wanted my father's clothes. When my father told him that questions would be asked if he was found naked, the soldier was satisfied with just the shirt. My father told me that he planned to fight the soldier and try to take away his rifle or even kill him if he had to. I admired his courage and praised him for it. I wanted my father a hero not a fallen defeatist. The idea of resistance and fighting came to me several times before, but I had no idea how to do it, I expected the grown ups to initiate some kind of resistance. Here for the first time I enjoyed at least my fathers plan to resist and not give in easily.
One winter day, with a state of destitution at home, my aunt Leah and I went out to find something. We didn't actually know what we were looking for.
We knew we must find something to eat or at
least something to heat the stove with. We saw a German soldier carrying a
"jerrycan" a 20 liter canister, but not with the usual confident air
with which they carried themselves. I went to him and in my
"Germanized" Yiddish asked if he needed something. He said that he
had a can of oil for sale.
We took him home and with the assistance of our family, friends and neighbours collected the amount of money he asked for the treasure and paid him for the oil. With unease and fear we had a chat about what was happening in Germany and on the front. He told us about the German army's great successes which we "enthusiastically appreciated". He apparently knew we were Jews but to our surprise didn't pay any attention to the fact. He showed us pictures of his family and it was obvious that he sorely missed his home and talking to people, even with displaced Jews. There were two attractive young women in our room, my sister and my aunt. Both of them spoke German and he apparently enjoyed the conversation.
The German soldier returned several times and brought us goods, for a price, of course. One day he told us that he was going on vacation for about a month. He said he could bring things which can be found only in Germany, but he wants the payment in advance. We were in a very impossible situation.
To give him money, meant to remain penniless for at least a month or in worst case forever. Not to give him meant distrust and cause him not to visit us anymore or even take our money by force, which we could not resist. We decided we had no choice and gave him almost everything we had from the business with him. That was a risky thing to do, but we did it anyway. We ordered things from him which were impossible to obtain in our area and could give us the highest return rate.
Among them was "Cordisol" (or "Codiasol") a medicine which was very important, almost live saving, to sufferers of Endemic Typhus. This might be surprising but we also requested cocoa. As I already mentioned earlier, there were few people in the ghetto having money and other convertible valuables.
They wanted to maintain their standard of living as high as possible and they wanted to pamper themselves including with cocoa. Unfortunately not all of them survived after their resources have been exhausted. They could not adjust to the hardships of the environment and the conditions dictated by the worsening situation without their resources.
Although so much time passed since the German soldier left, more than the anticipated month, that we began thinking he would not return, he did come back and brought most of what we requested. Our surprise was immense, our joy was great and our business was a great success. It gave us several more months to live on.
After this great deal, the German ceased visiting us. He cut off contact with us and by chance I saw him a couple of months later in the Ghetto flea market, speeding in a truck and knocking down or destroying anything in his way.
In the pursue for earning some money we tried everything. Together with my young cousin, Zvi Fichman, we went to sell water in the market. We were equipped with small water containers filled with water and a cup, shouting in Russian "line up" accompanied by "Who Wants Cold Water?" with a proper market style tune. We didn't have any "commercial success " with this. We also tried to sell candies, but mostly we ate them ourselves. Our parents did not reprimand us for eating part of the merchandise we were supposed to sell.
A sergeant from the Rumanian army, born in the village of Corjeutz who knew my mother's and Dina's families; it was as though he had been looking for us. The sergeant, Mihailiuc, was a Subotnik, that is a Christian who believed in the sanctity of the Sabbath.
His attitude to Jews and especially to those from his village was very positive, and friendly.
May was just a good person or was influenced by his religious beliefs. He helped us as much as he could. He too was a messenger to smuggle in to the ghetto some food and goods which we sold in order to support ourselves.
He also arranged some temporary work for me, bringing food to hospitalized Rumanian soldiers. The hospital
The ghetto cultural life expressed itself with reading books people had brought with them. I did not yet know how to read at book level but listened to the conversations of those who did read. The conversations were not limited to just the reading of the books but also expanded into literary dissection and criticism of various perceptions.
The entire ghetto was without electricity. For lighting we sometimes used kerosene lamps. The darkness sent us to sleep early and the evening hunger was forgotten with the coming of sleep. My sister and aunt sometimes read by moonlight, using a pot to focus and reflect light onto the book. My sister and aunt Batya tried to teach me arithmetic, geography and the French language. At that time my concern was different than theirs. They wanted me to get some education and I struggled for food which seemed to me more important and of much higher priority.
My brother David and uncle Zunea worked in a iron casting factory, a foundry. Every day at lunch time I went to take home the leftovers of the food they were given. Both of them ate sparingly remembering the hungry brothers and sisters at home.
The food was usually a soup made from I don't know what. I made these trips day after day, in every season and at all weather. During the afternoon hours of one severe winter day, I opened the factory door made of thick iron, at the very same moment someone opened the door opposite. From the strength of the current, the door slammed back on my fingers.
Although I received a severe blow, I didn't even complain, because I really felt no special pain; my hand had simply been frozen. However, when I returned home and my hands warmed, it became apparent that all of my fingernails were torn out and the pain was unbearable. No one could help me and painkillers were unavailable. To this day I can feel the pain whenever I recall the event. My mother tried hard to comfort me, but pain went on increasing the blood pumping, I almost heard the noise of the striking pain.
My brother, David, became ill with typhoid and his condition was very serious. We were forced to hospitalize him because of his need of intense medical attention, but also not to infect us because of the poor sanitary conditions and Typhoid being contagious. Still, we had to bring him food from home and I was the main food carrier.
All of us were hungry most of the time. We were very thin, like skeletons, and I was thinner than everyone. I couldn't stand the food which lacked salt most of the time. I couldn't bear a food called "Lemeshke" , not only because of the name or its appearance, but also because of the taste, or rather, the lack of it. Lemeshke was a porridge made from flour and water. The flour was oats ground between stones. This spread would not smoothly leave one's mouth; quite the opposite. It would stick in my mouth and I simply refused to eat it.
From left sitting
Yaffa, Matityahu, Grandpa, Yacov Yehuda (Leib) Grandma Fruma, Father Nachman,
Mother Chaya. Standing,: Zunea, Olea, Moshe, Eliezer, Roza, Shimon, Zvi, Israel.
David, Batya, Shalom, Ruha'le, Avraham, Dvora.
As the Cantor at the
My parents feared that I would starve to death and encouraged by my mother's crying, my father would beat me with his belt. Still, I refused to eat. It is no wonder that because of the lack of nourishment I did not grow even one millimetre in three years. However, I must say that during this time I was never ill, of any kind, not even once.
Time was plentiful. The days were long and the hunger was annoying. Every day brought news of expanding illness and death. We watched the wagons transport the dead' many of them gathered from the streets and courtyards, to the cemetery. There was but little crying when accompanying the dead; also, there weren't as many mourners as we used to see in our town, Lipcani. The wagons carrying those gathered from the streets were unaccompanied. Nobody even performed the traditional religious ceremony; they were thrown in a common grave and covered. No tombstone and no names designating their burial place.
A theatre group was formed in the ghetto and they performed one of Goldfaden's musicals. There was no radio or newspaper but there was a lot of news agencies, such as the Y.P.A. "Yiddishe Plotke Agentur," (Jewish Gossip Agency) or the Y. V. A.. "Yiden Vilen Azoi" (Jewish Wish Agency) and others. The news were usually the type of forecasting disasters as well as that which gave hope for better times. After the Stalingrad defeat of the Germans, information which reached us with some delay, has added to the forecasts of the Agencies some optimistic news. Before Stalingrad most of the news were with a pessimistic news.
In 1943 the Rumanian government decided returning its Jewish citizens from Regat, a region of traditional Rumania to their homes.
This gesture was due to lobbying of the Jewish leader and millionaire Filderman, who succeeded to convince the Romanians that in view of a possible defeat it will pay off to release the Jews from the traditional Romania to their homes.
We from Bessarabia and Jews from Bukovina were regarded and accused of supporting the Soviet Union and insulting the Romanian Army during their retreat in 1940, and hence are punished and it does not serve the interest of the Romanian government to release us as well.
Those remaining in Transnistria, were mainly Bessarabia and Bukovina Jews. To be more accurate, not every Jew from Moldova received the right to return. I don't know exactly what was the criteria for their selection, who would be let free and who should remain and live in misery and starve of hunger.
As for us, there was a marked improvement with the return of the Regat Jews to Romania. We were able to move to an apartment in an area far from the river to an area which was not affected by the flooding, hence in a much better physical condition. This was not just one room it was almost an apartment. I call it an apartment because it had a large room and another one which we turned into a store and kitchen. In the kitchen, we built a stove and oven almost like the one we had at home. In addition, there was a secret room with a hidden entrance behind the closet. We used to hide our products and ourselves in this secret room. When we moved to the new area our financial situation also slightly improved.
Relatives and acquaintances, who were deported to the villages in the depth of the Ukraine, came with their goods, mostly food, by wagon from distant villages to Moghilev and bought a variety of products trading them for goods contrabanded from Romania.
In the new house, I think it was called "The Red House," next to our apartment, lived the Kremerman family. The family was born in the town and were learned and intelligent, wonderful people. Mr. Kremerman loved the writings of Shalom Aleichem and he was of a habit to read the books to us. The Yiddish of the Ukrainian Jews seemed to me to be more cultured, more delicate and softer compared to ours. Our Yiddish was coarser while that of Mr. Kremerman. His was lighter, musical, and sounded to me to be more authentic.
I loved the man and appreciated his talents. When he read the stories to us, it seemed to me that Shalom Aleichem himself was telling us the stories of Yehupitz and Boiberik.
I remember another book written by Leon Feuchtwanger which was called "The Jewish Wars" . Dora and Batya read it aloud and discussed at length their impressions. This novel brought us back to our ancient history, as described in the book by the contemporary historian Josephus Flavius. I was fascinated by the tales, and spent every minute to listen to the readings.
My aunt Dina (who's husband Zvi had been conscripted into the Soviet army in 1941, went missing and was apparently killed, or taken as prisoner and than killed) was with us all of the time. I have already mentioned that she was born in the same village as my mother, Corjeutz. Mentioning Dina reminded me of something which had happened and I remember it vividly. Uncle Zvi was younger than my father (Zvi was the fifth child born after father), he was the leader of the second group of brethren who have not yet left grandpa's house. He was my favourite uncle and I believe everyone liked him. He was attractive, intelligent and always pleasant of manner.
He brought presents whenever he came. I remember him as the only person who brought me presents. Dina was attractive, tall and straight standing, dignified and they married.
Their wedding is strongly imprinted in my memory. Because of it, I made my first visit to the village of Corjeutz. Father's entire family came from grandpa's village, Viishoara. From there, we drove in a convoy of carriages with all of the villagers standing on the sides greeted us as we made our way, throwing wheat as was the custom in the area.
We in return tossed silver coins and perhaps candies amongst them to the cheering peasants and their children.
In Corjeutz, I met my maternal grandfather for the first time and was very impressed with his white beard; even more so, I was captivated by his stories and his knowledge of physics and mathematics which he demonstrated to the educated family members. The wedding was according to tradition with musicians (Kleizmers) and entertainers (Badhens). The celebrations went on for several days and everyone was happy and joyful.
Aunt Dina, who all the while hoped to be reunited with uncle Zvi, was very stand offish. She was new to the family and only my mother was close to her. One of Dina's sisters, Tusea, from the village was a friend of my mother and she encouraged the closeness between them. Dina became very ill and was hospitalised for a long time. We visited her two or three times every day in order to bring her food. Because of her special problems, we bought her special food as well as preparing cheeses and baked potatoes.
During all of this time my mother worried about Dina's needs and despite this being a time of serious shortage, we did not conserve any of our financial efforts, even to the state of hunger for everyone else, to ensure that she received the best possibility for survival.. Even so, she was just skin and bones, lacking the strength to stand on her legs or move her arms or any part of herself. For a long time we carried her in our arms until she recovered enough to take care of her own basic hygienic needs.
My mother's dedication and forgiving of everything without other members of the family complaining about her special and singular attention to Dina, as well as the other good deeds she performed for the larger group over the years were not rewarded by or even recognised. Only after she passed away 25 years later she got for the first time public recognition. The eulogy read by a good friend of the family, Nathan Loewenthal, made justice to her unique, loving human being and her great personality.
The telegram from Eretz Israel
Earlier, I mentioned the networks of gossip and rumours as well as news run by the Y.P.A. and the Y.V.A. but I did not say anything about the interestingly unique experience we had. One day we received a telegram from "Eretz Israel" through the services of the Red Cross. Yes, Eretz Israel, at the time she was called Palestine and in the middle of the war. The news of the telegram spread throughout the ghetto with the speed of light and there were no limits to the peoples' curiosity. The telegram was in German and had only one short sentence which read, " Wir sind zufrieden ."
This sentence could mean a number of things. One explanation could be "we are happy" or "we are peaceful." The wise people of Moghilev gave tens of interpretations. The mere fact that there still exists a world out there, gave us hope. The telegram gave us a spark of hope that we really were close to peace, something we did not feel in our day to day living. For us the telegram was not just a peace of news it was a miracle. This was for us the only sign that not everything is lost. The Germans are not "über alles."
They had not yet begun the destruction of the Jews in Transnistria in the same way they did in Hungary and Poland. Where we were, people died from disease and hunger, and many more died from being worked to death in mines, quarries, etc. We were unaware of the method of mass destruction which they used against the Jews in other parts of the Reich. We learned about it in 1944.
We heard rumours about the partisans resistance,
and these rumours augmented by the fantasies reinforced hopes of the deported
Ghetto Jews. These various sources of support gave hope that we would survive
the terrible situation in which we lived.
Romance in the Ghetto
A nice young man, polite and intelligent, named Jusiu Auslander from Radautz, Bukovina, worked together with my brother David at the Turnatoria. He was a lathe operator and had learned his trade on the job training. My brother and Martzi Binner, have introduced him to my sister. With the passing of time, he became her boyfriend and five years later they married. My sister taught the children of friends; of course, without any text books. I was very attracted to one of her students, Vilma Folkman.
My attraction to her began with her very name, Vilma. I was acquainted with names like Chaya, Rachel, Leah, Esther, Deborah; traditional Jewish women's names, and here was such a pretty, modern and different name. The girl, herself, was also very pretty and mature.
I fell in love the first time I saw her, but was very shy and almost immobile in front of her. I didn't know about what to talk to her; neither did I know how to impress her.
I kept my feelings to myself and never told her
about how I felt. For many years I continued to think about her and dream
idiotic dreams. After the war, when I was finally in Bucharest, I ordered a
card engraved with her name and kept that card with me instead of her picture
which I never had. Not until my arrival in Eretz Israel have I ridded myself
from this paper dream or of the virtual love affair. I said that she was my
first real love, something I never said about the girls I met before her. I had
girl friends in my classes from the time I was in kindergarten. With them, I
never felt the shortness of breath or excitement as I did about Vilma. If
there is such a thing as pure love, I experienced it during that period of my
The Germans begin their retreat
Two and a half years passed, the Germans absorbed their blows, and even though we were unaware of the details, we knew that their retreat and the front lines were coming closer to us. We were more afraid of this situation than when they were advancing. In particular, we were fearful of the Ukrainians who, in 1941, had already joined the German side with promises of an independent Ukraine.
Two high level officers, Ukrainian nationalists, deserted the Soviet army and crossed the lines with their troops joining the Germans. The reference is to Vlasov and Bender. Nationalist Ukrainians have been anti Semitic for countless generations. They hated strangers in general and the Jews in particular. The national poet, Taras Grigorievitch Shevchenko was an anti Semite and did not hide his feelings in his poems. Bogdan Chmelnitzki, a well known evil, was adored by the Ukrainians surprisingly by the Soviets as well who regarded him as a national hero.
The battle field front moved closer to us, the Germans began their retreat and every day the number of those retreating, grew in leaps and bounds. This was not the same German army we have met in 1941. The Germans were now filthy, neglected tired and hungry at times. If we had not known what they did to our people in Europe and to the Soviet Republics, it might have been possible to feel sorry for them.
We felt, and I don't know with what sense, that the days of German rule were limited in our area and that soon we would see the return of the Soviet army. Now, in contrast to the days they had occupied Bessarabia, when we considered them to be conquerors, now we regarded the same army, the Soviet army as our liberators.
Father was very fearful of the days of transition of power, without a government. He feared especially of the Ukrainians. In an attempt to protect the family, it was unanimously decided by the family council, to invite retreating German officers to stay with us. The soldiers knew their days were numbered and exhausted from withdrawal, were thankful to accept the invitation as they made their way from the fast advancing of their enemy lines. They knew we were Jews. The question was never raised in conversation.
We gave them food and drinks. Father suggested that they play cards in order to keep them awake. Our estimation of the situation was correct. A number of Ukrainian soldiers tried to enter the apartment to rob us, or perhaps even worse, were repulsed by our "German visitors". What strange and upside down world it became for a while.
Our Germans "guests" left at dawn in
order to catch up to the rest of the retreating troops, but I am not so certain
that they succeeded in avoiding becoming prisoners of war.
The Soviet Army, our liberators
Again, there was quiet in our area. The Germans and their fellow cohorts, the Romanians and the Ukrainians left or went into hiding. The Soviet Army had not yet arrived. In situations like this, things always happen and there is no law or law enforcement. Everyone does what he wants and dares to do. Thus, began the plunder of storehouses. I was very active in this free for all situation. All my fears disappeared, I felt entitled to take a share in the war trophies left over by the Germans and Rumanians in their depot. I rolled a barrel of alcohol, 96% proof to our courtyard, and brought home an abandoned motorcycle. Horses ran free everywhere.
I did not mention earlier that when we moved to The Red House, there was a huge field with lovely trees on the front yard. It was possible to run wildly and have a good time. I put everything I could find in the front yard without worrying whether or not someone would find out about it. I even had a supply of colourful field telephone cables.
After a day or two, an army corp. from the liberating army arrived. We received them with warmth and enthusiasm in the manner of receives victors and liberators.
We were happy and excited after the worst and most difficult years that father, mother, my sister, brother and myself had suffered. The war was still being fought and hundreds of thousands more would die before final victory would be won. Meanwhile, we had survived the most difficult part.
Under Soviet rule, again
About that time, my brother, David, reached the age of twenty one and wanted to contribute his part in winning the war within the framework of the Red Army. He volunteered for the army and was given the job of being a translator at one of the Ukrainian fronts HQ, under the command of Marshal Tolbuhin.
My brother left of his own free will, that is to say, as a volunteer. Uncle Zunea was conscripted not long afterwards. Being drafted from an area previously conquered by the Nazis, he was not considered trustworthy enough to be allowed to participate in the fighting units of the war efforts against the Nazis. He and others like him were conscripted into the "Workers' Army" in the Moscow region, where they worked and were treated as slaves, not just in the kind of work they were given but also in the conditions they lived, clothing, food, etc.
A tank company took up position in our front yard. The unit commander was a captain from the Soviet Republic Georgia. I was a kid of fourteen, but the size of an eleven year old. I became friendly with him and other junior officers. I invited the commander to our home.
It was a good period. for my family. Every day we set a large table, laden with army rations, co-operatively prepared by my mother and the soldiers. The food consisted of vegetables and a lot of American canned goods. Me, finicky when it came to food, ate and for the first time, enjoyed eating.
The company commander took me with him on reconnaissance in neighbouring villages and during these inspection tours I saw that an army of liberation also acts in some ways similar to that of a conquering army. The polite and gentle officer together with his lower ranked driver, simply went looking for young girls or women to have fun with.
When women explicitly and loud showed their unwilling to have "relations", the officers openly took what they wanted by force. Their excuse and explanation was that the Ukrainian girls voluntarily did this with the Germans and were traitors to the Soviet homeland and it was unnecessary to behave towards them as though they were pure and untouchable.
The Georgian officer "fell in love" with aunt Batya and courted her the way it is written in books. This romance did not hold for too long, the army duties were first priority and the young Captain lead his troops to the battle fields of Romania and Hungary.
Aunt Batya, who worked in the accounts department of the Chernowitz railway, before the German invasion, applied for work at the Moghilev railways when it renewed its functioning. She got the job and it assisted us in the future.
My father took advantage of my connections with the soldiers bivouacked in our yard and hitched a ride with the intention of reaching Lipcani and perhaps even to the village of Boian.
I stayed behind as "the man in the family" and worried about making a living. I convinced our officer to send a truck with refugees wanting to return home, of course, paying for their transportation. That's how I became the "owner" of a travel agency at the early age of almost fourteen.
Our home soon turned into a guest house for family, friends and acquaintances returning from the deep Ukrainian interior and on their way to Bessarabia and Bukovina, which had already been freed from the oppression of the Nazis. Some of them remained several days while others spent an extended time with us. The Coifman family, that is to say, uncle Ya'acov and aunt Dina, who was my grandmother's sister, stayed several weeks with us.
Aunt Dina had learned to make soap and did so while they were with us, but she kept the process a secret. She did not allow us to learn of the proportions between the fat, caustic soda and water, but I spied on all of her movements as she worked with the ingredients and after watching two or three times, I knew her professional secrets.
When they left, I began to make soap by myself. Apparently, my soap wasn't successful right from the beginning, because I did not understand all of what she did, but with time I improved the process and made soap that not only cleaned the body and clothes but also left them whole. There was a large request for laundry soap and the profit was good. But the demand for toilette soap became increasingly strong but I had no knowledge how to make it. I got an idea how to make believe it is toilette soap. Instead of adding fragrance to the mixture in the boiling process, we dispensed the soap with a scented glove when we sold it to our customers. Not very nice, but
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