Childhood in Romania
In the southeast of Europe there's a scarcely populated country --Romania. Hungary and Yugoslavia border it to the west, Poland and Czechoslovakia to the north, Russia to the east and Bulgaria to the south. Following World War II, its borders changed dramatically. There was a small province in the north of Romania named Bukovina and within that province is the small town of Storojinet where I was born.
Mountains and deep forests surrounded the town A beautiful river, the Siret, flows through the center of town. The fast flowing river supplied water power and recreation for the townspeople. Snow fell all winter making for freezing nights and beautiful white winter wonderlands for a child to enjoy.
On the outskirts of town I lived in a small wooden cottage containing three rooms for a family of five.
My room was simply furnished with a bed that I shared with my sister Margaret. A small window near the bed allowed the rays of the morning sun to shine through. This was my gift for reading early in the morning before going to school. In my room was a piano that my parents bought because they wanted us to take piano lessons. My sister had a lovely voice when she was young, and she played the piano, and the boys would stand outside the window and admire her. I was so jealous! I knew I would never be as popular as her, though I was 8 years younger.
The rest of the furniture in my house consisted of a red painted chair, flowing drapes and an old wooden bachelor chest and two chairs without upholstery. The rest of the furniture in the house was simple with the exception of our massive brick oven where my mother baked and cooked the most delicious foods, breads and cakes.
In the winter, sleigh-riding and ice skating were two of the many sports we enjoyed.
In the summer, we enjoyed jumping into the Siret River to cool off and swimming was my favorite sport. I loved cleansing my mind and body in the cold, clear water and swimming across the churning waters. Sometimes we would go to the forest about a half-mile away to hike and enjoy the fresh air.
Ever since I was a very young child, I knew that my mother did not speak to her father. He lived in the same town of Storojinet. He owned a pub, where people came to drink a shot of vodka and eat some food his wife cooked in a dark kitchen behind the pub. One dish I remember is a veal goulash that was exceptionally tasty. It had a delicious red paprika sauce that peasant customers enjoyed and scraped every last bite on the freshly baked bread. She also cooked some soup that smelled delicious but that I never tasted.
Once in a while my mother would send me and my younger brother Erwin, nicknamed Butz, to visit our grandfather. Since we were 5 or 6 years old, we walked there by ourselves and it was a special treat. He gave us the little breads and some pickled sardines, which tasted great to us since we never had that at home. He also would give each of us a nickel, a kiss and then sent us home.
Our childish minds could not comprehend how our grandfather had a wife who was younger than our mother and had one son our age and two younger girls who told us they were our aunts and uncles.
As we grew older, we heard our grandfather's story little by little. Our mother never sat us down to explain things to us. We just found out from grown ups talking to each other usually in Yiddish, a language they thought we didn't understand.
My mother's father's name was Zalik. He was an unusually smart and intelligent person with little education. He was remarkably handsome in his younger years and he had many talents. He married his stepsister Fruma who was my grandmother. His father was a widower with two daughters, one Fruma.
My grandparents had five children, four daughters and one son, Max.
As I said, Zalik was very handsome and later we found out he was quite a ladies' man. He was quite ambitious and creative.
My grandparents lived in a terribly unhappy household. Zalik was strict with his wife and children. Each one had a role in the household. The girls were allowed to attend elementary school and the boy went to a technical school. My mother resented her husband all her life because she didn't get a better education. He said books are a waste of time, especially for girls, so was singing, laughing and any kind of fun. The girls had to learn to sew so they could make their own clothes and this only after they finished their household duties.
By the time the children were a little older, the marriage broke up. My grandmother couldn't take it anymore. She took all her children except my mother and ran away to Vienna.
She was 20 years old in 1912 when she married my father who was her childhood sweetheart.
My father Adolf Lockspeiser was one of the few Jews in town who held a government job. He was short and balding with blue eyes and dark hair. He was a very gentle man, someone who loved his family more than anything and was extremely affectionate with us. He used to put us on his knees when we were little and kiss us on the head.
He had a beautiful handwriting and was a secretary in the court. He didn't earn a lot of money, but it was a steady job with the promise of a pension after 30 years.
For her wedding, my grandfather gave my mother a small house located in a lovely quiet area outside the city surrounded by empty lots and some very nice residential houses. The house was a cottage with two apartments separated by a small hall. There was no running water, indoor plumbing or electricity. My mother was the second oldest of her sisters but the first one to get married. She missed her mother and sisters a great deal. She always blamed her father for this separation.
Before I was born:
In 1914, World War I broke out and my parents had a baby by then, my sister Margaret. Life for Jews became very dangerous. Storojinet at this time belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The local peasants hated the Jews. Also at that time Russian Cossacks came across the border from the Ukraine continuing to persecute the Jews with the pogroms they conducted in Russia.
One Friday, after my mother finished her baking for Sabbath, the Cossacks burst into the house. My mother was young and very pretty. She treated them as guests offering them all the good food she had made. They were happy and my mother was convinced that that was what saved her and her family from being killed.
After a while, they decided to flee to Vienna to join my mother's extended family. They stayed in Vienna throughout World War I. There were three sisters, her brother and her mother who was divorced from her father lived in Vienna, where they led successful lives.
When the armistice was declared, Bukovina was annexed to Romania. My parents returned to their house in Romania and my father to his job.
It was a new country and Romanian was a new language to them. They had spoken German and Yiddish before.
I still don't understand why they decided to stay. My father's family was there, but it was mainly the security of his job that contributed to their fateful decision.
I was born in 1920 after the War. Eighteen months later my brother Erwin was born.
One of my first recollections was my mother holding my younger brother in her arms and kissing his little feet. He looked like an angel with his blue eyes and beautiful blonde curls. I was 18 months older than my brother and I adored him.
My older sister Margaret was eight years older than me and my mother's pride and joy. Margaret had black hair and huge blue eyes. She grew up to be beautiful, and very petite.
My brother and I were close in age and inseparable. I was a frail child since I was a baby, and not very healthy. When I was about 18 months old, I grabbed a pan with boiling milk from the table and burned part of my face and neck. My mother was terrified at the sight of my scalded skin.
I was in bed for a few days with gauze on my skin but I didn't cry from the pain. Our doctor nursed my burns so well that I was left with only a small scar on my neck, but from that day on I became sickly. I developed an intestinal infection and the only treatment in those days was daily enemas and a strict diet of cream of wheat cooked in milk. With that kind of nourishment until the age of 5, I was very skinny and lacking the essential vitamins and minerals. My teeth were weak and my bones were soft. There was not a lot of choice in doctors in our small town of Storojinet.
My father was a court clerk for the Civil Court, the only Jew working as a public servant left over from the Austro-Hungarian regime that owned that part of Romania before WWI. My father and mother went to Austrian (German) schools and even though we were Jewish, we spoke German at home. The Jews in Storojinet were the majority in this little town, with Gentiles living mostly in the surrounding counties on farms except for the civil servants and professionals who lived in the fancier homes in town. There was a main street with stores owned by the town's Jews. Some of the stores were attached; others separate buildings. In some cases, the store owners lived above the stores in apartments.
One side of the street had the beautiful churches on a chestnut tree lined street. The churches were Greek Orthodox, and one Catholic and one Protestant. The native Romanians were all Greek Orthodox. The Polish people were Catholic and the Germans, Protestant. Sunday morning you would wake up to the ringing of the three church bells.
We lived in a little house a few blocks from the center of town.
The Jews in Storojinet were divided into two classes. The artisans who made a living by working with their hands like tailors, shoemakers, plumbers, etc. and the middle class which consisted of merchants and intellectuals including doctors, teachers, dentists, rabbis. We were considered middle class since my father was a civil servant, of which there were only two Jews. Because of his beautiful handwriting, he became a court clerk.
My mother's father, Zalik Hochstadt was a rich merchant in Storojinet. He was smart and capable with lots of talents. When my mother was a little girl, he owned a few stores and a few houses, which were built according to his instructions, where he served as a contractor. He built a small house for his ex-wife and one for my mother when she got married. He owned a three story building that was impressive in the center of town where he lived, rented some apartments and ran a small restaurant on the main floor.
After my grandmother divorced him, my grandfather remarried, but his wife died soon after the wedding. During the war, my grandfather, in his 40s, stayed in Storojinet and had a woman housekeeper. While the housekeeper's husband was away with the army, my grandfather had an affair with her. When he found out her husband was returning from the army, he was afraid of what he might do to him.
So he married the housekeeper's daughter who was only 16 and younger than his youngest child. Now he had a new family to dominate! He had three children with this wife who were the same age as his grandchildren.
My mother suffered all her life because of her father's behavior, which she disapproved of, especially in such a small town where everyone knew each other.
She never spoke to her father or saw him. But she always missed her mother and her siblings who had moved to Vienna after the divorce.
My mother, Lotte was a devoted mother and wife and lived only for her family trying to make a decent and clean home for all of us. She decided her children would have everything she was denied as a child. We were to be educated, learn to play the piano, and play with other children. We were never forced to cook, sew or wash dishes. We had a house with two apartments and a porch in the front. There was a large hall with two rooms and a kitchen on either side creating two separate apartments. The basement was unfinished with dirt floors but cooler than the rest of the house, so it was perfect for storing vegetables like potatoes and onions and other foods. We had a spacious back yard and garden where we grew vegetables and fruit trees. We grew corn, tomatoes and cucumbers, and fresh vegetables was part of our daily diet. There was an outhouse and we led a rustic life.
Preparation for the Sabbath dinner involved numerous tasks. My mother would get up at 5 in the morning, light the wood-burning stove, put wooden logs into the oven. It was a gigantic stove and behind the stove below was a deep opening where you baked breads and cakes.
She made challah and loaves of bread for the week. I remember her entwining the dough to make the beautiful curvy shape of the challah and her brushing the bread with egg at the end to make the shiny crust. When the bread was taken out after an hour or so, the oven would have the right temperature for the more delicate pastries and cakes. At the same time on top of the stove there was a chicken soup cooking, stews, vegetables, gefilte fish, and assorted other typical Eastern European Jewish dishes.
The house was always filled with the aromas of baked goods a delicious smell I remember to this day.
My father was the more affectionate of our parents with his children. He had four brothers, one the oldest, Moses was a math teacher in Austria; another, Lippa was a carpenter; Lazer was a barber who cut the hair of women and men and Norbert was a watchmaker. He also had a sister Gusta who married a Russian in what turned out to be a terrifically unhappy marriage.
Our parents decided their children would get the best education and a liberal upbringing. While my mother had a kosher home and observed all of the Jewish holidays although she was not particularly religious.
My parents had lofty ambitions for us and wanted us to get an education and become successful in whatever career we chose.
At the age of 5, I weighed about 30 pounds. I never learned how to chew since I never ate solid food. My aunts in Vienna were concerned about my weight and insisted my mother bring me to them to consult a pediatrician.
They took me to the most famous doctor in Vienna at that time. He said I was malnourished and wouldn't have lasted much longer if they hadn't brought me to him.
He put me on a diet of meat, fruits and vegetables. I had no appetite and refused to eat when my mother fed me.
The doctor said I should be taken away from my mother and given to a stranger.
My mother's older sister Regina Hochstadt was quite wealthy and lived in Vienna. She had a designer shop that occupied two floors on the Karntner Strasse, most elegant street in Vienna.
She used to design and manufacture clothing for the most wealthy and stylish women and was quite famous. They lived in the same building as the business on the first floor, and her husband owned a silk and wool fabric store across the street. She was married to a younger, very handsome man named Carl Krumbein. She was what passed for a socialite and when she went to horse races, the newspapers published photos of her in her latest outfits.
Aunt Regina used to send beautiful clothing to us from Vienna that my sister wore.
Since it was summertime when I was in Vienna, she took me to a hotel in the mountains of Weslau and my mother remained in Vienna. My aunt spent hours with me trying to teach me to eat. I cried myself to sleep every night because I missed my mother so much.
After a month, I returned to my mother and she couldn't recognize me. I had gained weight and looked much healthier.
To me, visiting Vienna was the most exciting experience of my life. Coming from a small town, seeing the ornate big buildings and the city's Baroque and Romanesque architecture with its amazing buildings, the bustling crowds and street cars filled my mind with the wish to return and possibly live there.
I still remember when I saw a beautiful big toy store! It was filled with all the miracles a little girl could dream of. My uncle gave me a beautiful doll, which was my first and only doll.
My mother bought me a puzzle, which showed the picture of a fairy tale when assembled.
I still remember my fascination with that puzzle!
Once I got lost in the department store and my mother was searching for me in a panic. We came home - finally - and my father couldn't believe I was the frail little girl he had seen a month before.
Since that summer, I was a normal child, only thinner than most girls my age.
Next to our house was a big empty field where all the children came to play ball. My brother and his friends played soccer and the girls would sit and watch them. About a mile away from our home was a big forest.
Across the street from our house was a mansion called Villa Wert, the name of the owner. When the couple died, the estate was taken over by the big landowner in our town, Flondor. He owned lots of land and farms, and his estate was a little out of town.
The main street consisted of small shops run mostly by Jews. The stores included a grocery store where you would be able to buy basic food supplies like oil, sugar and vinegar, a button shop, a stationery shop, two pharmacies, a few pubs, a police station where the police and National Guard had their offices, the City Hall- the seat of the government, the courthouse where my father worked, churches, synagogues and a flower shop owned by my sister's father-in-law.
We were supposed to associate only with the children of the better class of Jews like lawyers, doctors, and businessmen.
What I remember most from my childhood was my mother. She was a very attractive woman with blue-gray eyes and dark brown hair that she wore tied up in the back. Because of her busy life she had a serious side. She never stopped working from morning 'til night. She had to shop, cook, bake and clean and everything took so long in those days. After her marriage at the young age of 20, she stopped worrying about her looks and focused on running the household and her multitude of chores while raising the family of three children.
For dinner, if we were going to eat chicken, you had to get a live chicken and have it killed by a shochet. Sometimes she asked me to go and handle that gruesome chore. I also had to buy flour in a separate shop with which she would bake the best breads and challah. She used to bake delicious hamentashen pastries with poppy seeds and strudels, baklava, a great stew with plums called knadel, a fluden cake with layers filled with apples and raisins and nuts if we had them, and other delicious delicacies.
My mother always chided me to eat, yet I remained thin. She would insist I eat all the food she put in front of me in the dark, early hours of the morning at the kitchen table before I would have to walk to school. I used to keep some food in my cheek to spit out as I left the house.
Yet her words haunt me to this day, Hilda, eat your breakfast. Eat your sandwich. Eat your strawberries and cream. Finish your soup! Stand up straight!
Because of her criticism, I felt skinny and ugly with my freckles and long arms. I was very shy, hardly dared to open my mouth. My older sister who was 7 years older was a beauty with her black hair and big blue eyes. The boys flocked around her and I felt I was the ugly duckling. I will never grow up to be as beautiful or popular as she is, I thought.
My mother doted on my sister, dressed her nicely and spoiled her.
She was always polishing her nails, going to the beauty parlor having her hair done or playing the piano and singing.
Mama, why can't I have a nice dress, too? I asked.
You're too little, you don't need it, she would say.
So I always wore hand-me down dresses while Greta wore the pretty dresses that were sent to us by our rich aunt who lived in Vienna.
Going to school, I had to wear a uniform, so I did not feel inferior to the other girls. The uniform was a skirt with a black chintz kind of apron and a shirt with a white collar.
In elementary school, I was not a great student. But as I got older, I excelled in school and had aspirations of becoming a physician.
We had separate schools for girls and boys. Our classes were integrated with Gentile children who got most of the attention from the teachers.
We made friends with the Romanian Gentile children, but we were seldom invited to their homes.
We always felt somehow inferior and didn't even get offended when we were called Dirty Jews.
We were more accepted by other minorities like German or Polish children. The synagogue was in the poorer Jewish neighborhood. I always walked by the churches with veneration. They were beautiful with their ornate crosses and stood three next to each other on the same block.
Deep down I think I envied these preferred people who would go to church every Sunday dressed in beautiful clothes.
Our temple was not as beautiful and only the men went every Saturday.
The women went only on the high holidays. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They would sit separate from the men in the synagogue.
As I mentioned before, my mother kept a kosher home but was not very religious. We learned to read Hebrew and my brother had a Bar Mitzvah but it was not an elaborate production, just a simple ceremony that we celebrated at home with a delicious meal.
We celebrated Passover and the holidays, too.
My best friend was a girl named Trude. Her father was the administrator of the very wealthy land owner, Flondor.
They lived on that beautiful estate the Villa Wert, across the street from our house. The house had little turrets and was surrounded by a beautiful flower garden in front.
The Eisenkrafts, Trude's parents, were given this house to live in while he was in the landowner's employ. I spent a lot of my childhood in that house which was huge, with big French windows and the surrounding spectacular gardens.
In the summer we ate the fruits right off the trees. The Eisenkrafts had servants to take care of the house and its surroundings. They drove around in a horse-drawn carriage. Many times I was with Trude in the carriage and her father who adored her let her drive. She was very beautiful with blonde curls and blue eyes.
Once I went with them to the Flonder estate where the barns were filled with many cows in the fields. When I was six years old, we witnessed a calf being born and as it fell out of its mother the image of it struggling to stand covered with a slimy blood filled me with the wonder of nature and life.
I had another friend, Pepi. Her father owned a very nice candy store in town. We learned to knit and began to knit our own sweaters. Pepi finished elementary school then went to work with her father in his store.
Since we were basically living in the country, our house had no running water or electricity, so we had to bring water from a well in the VillaWert. We always had a maid in the house that would carry the water from the well. The maids were usually poor peasant girls whose parents had too many children they couldn't feed. They sent the daughters to work with more affluent families who would feed them and give them a small salary. Their father would take the money and the girl was happy to have a warm house to live in with plenty of food. These girls never learned how to read or write and they worked usually until they found a young man to marry them. I was always very friendly with the maids, some of whom were younger than me. I tried to teach them to read. Their parents considered that a waste of time. Many times the girls would become the mistresses of the sons of the families where they worked or sometimes, even in some cases, they became the mistress of the masters of the house.
In our family, the girls were treated very well, but my mother demanded that they do their jobs.
My brother Erwin, nicknamed Butz, was the youngest in the family. He was immensely popular with lots of friends who all came to play soccer everyday. When he was in his teens, he was an exceptional student in school. He attended a public boys' high school and got good grades, a challenge considering the anti-Semitism by teachers who would downgrade Jewish students. He passed all of his grades and turned into a very handsome young man. His girlfriend Zina was the daughter of the veterinarian in our town, and they lived not far from us in a beautiful house. Her mother told my mother once that Butz looked like a Greek god. As I remember him, he looked a lot like Robert Redford, the actor.
He continued his studies and always stayed out with his friends until the Russians occupied Romania the day he graduated high school.
At that time, there was just high school. There was a public high school only for boys where my brother went and a private junior high school for girls. I entered the girls Junior High School, which had the same classrooms as the boy's high school after the boys left.
We had a Jewish principal named Mr. Meyer and the rest of the teachers were Christian.
I remember one day I went to school in a terrible snowstorm.
We were only two girls in the class. A lot of teachers stayed home. The other girl was the daughter of a very strict math teacher in the boy's high school.
All the students were afraid of him. That day we were alone in the class so Irinia, this girl, found some notebooks left by a boy in his desk. She scribbled some nonsense in the book. I was 12 years old at the time.
The boy found his notebook and gave it to the principal.
The principal called me into the office and asked me if I had scribbled in the boy's book. I cried and answered him that I did not do it and he knew me, so he said to me, You better take the blame because you are Jewish and nobody will believe you.
I came home and was crying in my room. My mother asked me what happened, and I told her what the principal wanted me to do.
My mother got dressed and went to the school and had a big altercation with the principal.
That was the first time I really felt different being a Jew. After my mother spoke to the principal, everything was straightened out. Thankfully, I wasn't blamed for something I didn't do.
Our house was always happy. My parents had a lot of friends and my mother was a good housekeeper and cook, and people loved to come and visit us. My parents would invite friends over to play cards, and she always had delicious treats for them that she prepared for the occasion.
I was somewhat of a tomboy and played with my brother and his friends.
I adored my younger brother, I called Butz since I was little when I couldn't pronounce his name. Since I was always skinny and frail, I looked like the younger sister since he grew into a tall, beautiful, athletic boy with blonde curly hair and big blue eyes. He has full lips, not thin ones like mine, and a perfect small and straight nose.
One of our neighbors whose daughter became his girlfriend once said that he looked like a young Greek god. We always walked to school together. Butz carried his books on his back and mine in his arms.
The school was about 20 minutes from our house. The town was what was later called a shtetl. The population with surroundings must have been about 10,000 people.
In the center of the town was a large square which was the marketplace where the peasants came once a week to sell their produce, vegetables and dairy products.
They also sold cattle, chickens and pigs.
Around the marketplace, were all the rural stores selling everything the peasants could not produce. There were grain merchants, fabric stores, groceries, and pubs like the one owned by my grandfather.
That marketplace was transformed into a park, and they moved the marketplace to another part of town. The park was directly across the street from my grandfather's house and in front of the churches on the other side of the street.
Jewish families mostly owned these stores. Since the Jews had no civil rights, they could not get any jobs, and since only the wealthy ones could go to college, they were forced to become merchants or independent professionals, like doctors, lawyers or artisans.
It was the first of September 1939. I was in Czernovitz staying with my parents' friends. The day before, I found out that I passed my baccalaureate exam. I was extremely excited since only one other girl Herta, the daughter of a prominent attorney, had advanced so far in school.
All of the other girls who started high school with me had dropped out either by getting married or studying a trade, like tailoring.
My parents were very proud of me. I still remember calling my parents on the phone to give them the news. At that time, only businesses and very wealthy people owned telephones.
Naturally, my parents were not among those. All the parents sat in a candy store waiting to hear the news, and I reached them late at night, because the few phones that were available were constantly busy.
I took the test in Czernovitz twenty miles north of Storojinet. The test was given at the nearest University. It consisted of a written test of all the main subjects and then an oral examination, which took place in a big auditorium. We came in front of a big table covered with green felt. On one side were the five students with their back to the audience and facing us were all the university professors giving us the test. You could take the test a maximum of three times, and it was given only in September and June after the school year ended.
I took the test in September, because one of my teachers in the 8th year of high school decided that no Jewish student would pass in June unless they paid him a large bribe.
My parents could not afford the bribe, and I would not allow them to pay it.
Mother, I promise I will study harder and pass all of the exams, I told her. I passed in two subjects; the third one I had to repeat in the fall. That had never happened to me in all my high school years. However, happily I passed in the Fall and could graduate high school and compete for the baccalaureate.
I remember that it was September 1939, and I was filled with joy and pride for my academic accomplishments.
I was staying with two of my parents' friends, Jacob and Bertha, who grew up with my parents and every time I had to stay in Czernovitz I either stayed with them or their sister Claire and Carl Waltman. They were very dear people and had no children, so they considered us like their nieces and nephews.
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