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Chapter 3

Germans and Romanians return
to Bukovina – June 1941

In May when vacation started in order to supplement our income, I went to the Board of Education and asked them to give me an extra job during the summer vacation months. They gave me a job in the office as a secretary. I worked there only about two weeks when we heard the Germans were advancing east and the Russians prepared to leave. They picked up their families and belongings into trucks taking them back to Russia. A lot of Jews who could afford a horse and carriage joined them. In June 1941, my boss, the head of the Board of Education told me that he would take me and my family on his truck, I should get ready in a hurry.

I came home and told my parents. “Mother, I think we really should try and leave now. We have to try and get out of the country. We don't know what is going to happen if we don't.”

They did not want to hear about it. They could not think about leaving their home.

My mother said, “Take your brother and your boyfriend and go.”

My boyfriend Peretz stayed with us also after the school year ended. Since we could not think about leaving our parents, we stayed.

Before leaving, the Russians didn't want to leave anything important for the Germans so they put fire to most of the town. There was only one gasoline station in town, which was across the street from our building.

The town was on fire.

Our building caught fire and we ran to the park across the street that had a restroom underground. We stayed there watching our apartment burning. Our piano, the little canary that we had no time to take with us, everything was going up in flames.

Then the bombs started raining down on us. I still remember the deafening noise of the bombs and the smell of fire and sulfur in the air.

We ran to a house that was still standing and where we knew the people who lived there.

We didn't know what to expect. Toward daybreak it became more silent and the noise of the bombs dissipated. We held our breath and all of a sudden we heard voices. As we peeked through the windows, we saw Romanian soldiers, Romanian men and lots of peasants. They were going from house to house rounding up the Jews, shooting whoever gave them the most resistance, looting everyone's belongings.

They entered the room where I was hiding with my family. One of the civilian young men with a rifle was a boy I knew from our school. One of the peasants came over to my father and grabbed his coat and I asked him, “What do you think you're doing?”

“Where you're going you're not going to need your coat.”

I still remember how all of a sudden I became so enraged. My face burned with anger.

I yelled at him, “How dare you take the coat off my father's shoulders?” My hands were clenched.

I thought why should I be afraid of people I knew all my life? I took the coat out of his hands and gave it back to my father. I still don't know where I found the courage.

He gave me back the coat but chased us out onto the street.

The soldier I recognized as a fellow student shouted at us to hurry up and get out of the house. “Get out! Fast!” he barked.

My father understood that you couldn't fight men who carried rifles. He grabbed both of us by our hands and led us out of the building.

The town looked completely destroyed. You could still hear explosions coming from the burning buildings. These were mines laid there by the Russians to try to fool the Germans that they were still shooting. Dust was flying everywhere and the air smelled of fumes.

We walked slowly and carefully. “Where are they taking us?” I asked.

“These are your stinking Jews shooting at our army,” the soldiers told us while they were hitting us with their rifles. My father was getting the worst of the beatings.

Through my tears I could make out the faces of some of the soldiers, all classmates of my brother. We kept walking with the guns continually jabbing at my ribs.

They assembled all of us in the little park in front of my grandfather's house where I used to go early in the morning to study for my exams. This was the same park where I had my first date.

They had found all the Jews wherever they were hiding, rounded them up and brought them all into the park.

We stayed in that park overnight. I looked around. No one was able to sleep.

Everyone was crying and families were hugging each other. My brother and I held each other's hands tightly. There were a few thousand people surrounded by Romanian soldiers.

“You filthy Communists,” the commander was yelling at the top of his lungs. “Filthy Jews who loved the Russians. Even they didn't want you. They left you behind. Didn't they? We will show you, you traitors. You were shooting at us together with the Russians. You were waving the red flags when they came. Say your prayers. Your hours are counted. The bullets are too good for you, the scum of the earth.”

He went on and on his face turning red and his voice cracked. Another soldier took over with the same type of tirade.

I looked at them bewildered. My hands began to shake and I felt a shiver run through my spine. My mouth got more and more parched as the fear mounted.

What was going on? We knew each other all our lives. These were people we had always lived with in peace.

I wanted my mother to calm and reassure us but she had this look of panic in her eyes. She looked like a trapped animal in a life and death battle with its captor.

Her face was bloodless and her eyes were red from crying.

We spent the whole day and night huddled together in that park. We all thought it would be our last day on earth.

I remember thinking, at least we're all together.

I learned about Jesus from the Bible and remembered it constantly being said that the Jews were God's chosen people to carry out His laws. So I couldn't understand why they hated us so for being Jewish? I kept thinking about that until I fell into a fitful sleep.

The next morning the commander issued an order for the men to line up on one side of the park; and the women on the other side.

Heartbreaking scenes were going on all around us. We had to say good-bye to our brothers, fathers and sons. Everyone was crying and clutching each other and praying.

My mother and I were crying as we saw my brother and father go to the other side. We didn't know if we would ever see each other alive again. I wanted to be with my brother to comfort him and tell him not to be afraid.

But the soldiers wouldn't let us go to the other side.

They led all of the women and children to the tiny public school. They forced us to walk into the school telling us the school was full of landmines and might blow up at any minute. Women with small children in their arms hesitated. “If you don't choose now, we'll shoot you right here. Take your pick,” they said laughing. They pushed us into the classrooms where I had once learned to read. Hundreds of people were jammed into the classrooms. Every once in a while we heard shots coming from the vicinity of the school. We sat on the floor, letting the women with small children sit on the benches. The children were tired and hungry. Some were sick.

We went to look for water, then a voice amplified by a bullhorn said, “Don't bother drinking that water. It has been poisoned.”

We didn't know if we should believe them, but no one dared to try the water.

We were like cattle together. It was unbelievable, surrealistic. What could we do? We fell asleep. I had never been able to sleep before without a pillow.

That night I slept deeply sitting on the floor with my knees pushed towards my chest, leaning against my mother.

The next day things got worse.

Everybody was hungry. The bathrooms were overflowing. We couldn't use them anymore. To relieve ourselves, people relieved themselves wherever they could. The stench was stomach turning.

We stayed in that school without food living on rainwater for a week.

After about 4 days, the younger girls convinced the guards to let us walk out into the yard. We approached the gate, which led to the sidewalk. Crowds of Romanian peasants stopped to look at us. On the other side of a gate, I saw a tall, distinguished man talking to a soldier. It was Dr. Screepa, a lawyer who at one time had rented an office in my grandfather's building.

He knew my father from the court and was very nice to us kids. I was told that Dr. Screepa had been appointed temporary mayor of the town. “Dr. Screepa,” I screamed. “You remember me? Could you please help me? I'm here with my mother. I have no idea where they have taken my father and brother. Please help me.”

His face had pity written on it and for the first time in a week, I became concerned like any normal young woman with my appearance. I ran my fingers through my knotted greasy hair and looked down and tried to smooth out my crumpled skirt. He came closer to the fence. “I'm sorry, Hilda, I cannot help you,” he said. “The only thing I can do is give you a pass to go home to get some food.”

Our house had burned down, I started to say….but I caught myself and said, “Please give me the pass.”

I thought of just running away. I remember my anger coming out, thinking if my mother had listened to me and we had escaped with the Russians we could escape this nightmare, but I quickly pushed those thoughts out of my mind.

I wanted to return to my mother with some food. We hadn't eaten in more than a week. I wanted to find out about my father and Butz. But mostly, I wanted to get away, to find a quiet place to be alone, to think and clear my mind of the fear and the smell and…the humiliation. I just wanted a moment of peace and quiet. Dr. Screepa wrote a few lines on a piece of paper and handed it to me through the gate. “I hope this will help,” he said.

“Thank you, sir, “ I said and started to cry. Dr. Screepa ordered the guard to let me pass. My friends huddled behind me as he opened the gate, but the guard pushed them back. I felt freedom and fear at the same time – like a prisoner escaping from jail. I looked around. Houses where my friends had lived were completed burned to the ground. The movie theatre where my boyfriend first kissed me was gutted. I walked quickly. I noticed a few soldiers with rifles on their backs.

What was to keep them from dragging me into an abandoned building, raping me and shooting me? In truth, I was more afraid of being raped than getting killed. I was praying that they wouldn't notice me.

Had I seen my reflection, I would have been less frightened, but I walked quickly and stayed out of sight.

I passed my brother in law Carl's parents' house which had not burned down. I walked in gingerly. The house was completely empty. Everything had been looted. I ran to the pantry and found two half empty jars of jam and some dried bread. Then I found a bottle with a little honey at the bottom. I wrapped everything up in a rag. Then I went out to the front and put my head under the water pump. I pumped until my arms got tired, and then dripping wet, I ran back to the house and returned to the pump with a dirty bucket. I rinsed it out, filled it with water and returned to the house. I found soap and a wash cloth in the bathroom and washed my hair and body.

I felt much better as the smell of the school filled the bucket. I sat on the floor with my eyes closed, trying not to think. I cried silently for a few minutes, and then I remembered my mother was probably worried about me, and surely hungry, so I ran back to the school. I shared the few items of food I had gathered with my friends and relatives. I didn't have much, but how could I say “no” to those starving faces?

We stayed in the school for a week. We had no food and drank whatever little rainwater we could accumulate.

The small children were crying. I don't know how they survived.

During that time, we discovered that the men were kept in the boy's dormitory of the school, not far from where our home used to be. We were glad to hear that they were alive and the thought of seeing them again gave us strength.

At the end of the week, the Romanians decided to give the Jews permission to live in a poor heavily bombed area of the town. This area was now called the 'ghetto.” Ordinances were posted instructing Jews to find yellow rags and sew yellow stars on their sleeves.

We didn't know where to go, but after looking for a while we found a little room and moved in. The room was completely empty.

My parents were in a state of shock. My mother looked at the children she had always taken such good care of and she was desperate. She didn't know how to go about getting us some food. Butz found a Christian friend who took him to his home and gave him some food for us.

For the first couple of weeks, we were able to find some food but as the summer waned, we grew hungrier and hungrier. We had hardly any clothes, just what we had on our backs when we fled our burning house.

One day, I ran into a former teacher of mine on the street. He had taught me French, German, Latin, and Greek during my last two years of high school. We had been very friendly. My best friend and I had even taken private lessons from his house and had gotten acquainted with his wife and children. When he saw me on the street, he was friendly. I remember thinking that is was unfair to think of all non-Jews or gentiles as our enemy.

He told me he could get me some help. He had been appointed temporary principal of the high school, and since it was summer vacation there was a lot of work to do to get the school ready for the fall term. He offered to pay me and several of my friends for our help.

Naturally, I was very happy and grateful for the offer. The next morning, about five of us left the ghetto and marched to the school. When we arrived, he said, “Well girls. We need to have the school cleaned.” He handed out some newspapers and said, “Okay girls. Get started. Clean the windows.”

I couldn't believe that he would use us for such menial work. He had prepared me for my baccalaureate and knew without a doubt that I was an excellent student. In spite of my present situation in the ghetto, I still dreamed of becoming a doctor in the future.

He had often encouraged me in my ambitions. Now, because of circumstances beyond anyone's control, I was suddenly expected to be grateful to work like a peasant. It was humiliating and degrading.

We cleaned the windows for a few days. Then one day, he called me into his office. He said, “I have some more suitable work for you here, my dear,” and he gave me something to type.

I thought, this is more like it!

As I was sitting at the desk, he suddenly came over and grabbed me. He put his hand on my breast and I brushed him away. I couldn't believe he tried to make a pass at me.

I was so furious. I was convinced that he only dared try this because I was Jewish and at his mercy. This was my teacher, a man I had respected!

I ran out of the room and returned to my friends and the dirty windows. That was my last day of work at the school.

One day, he told us his wife was coming back to the house and he needed to have it cleaned. He took one of the girls, the daughter of a prominent doctor there, and I think he must have raped her. He had lipstick on his forehead when he got back. The girl never said a word.

Life was very hard in the ghetto. We found out that our friends and relatives in Czernovitz were not doing very well either. My father's friend and his wife, who I had stayed with while taking my baccalaureate exam, had been shot in front of their house. His sister, who was also a friend of my mother's took their bodies and buried them with her own hands since no one would bother to bury Jewish bodies.

My parents were devastated by this news.

We also found out that during the time we were kept inside the school building, the Romanians took over the town of Czudyn all the Jews of the village (450) were said to have gathered in the courthouse and killed by machine guns. They were assembled in the basement of the courthouse and shot through the windows. Others were shot in the street.

I had made a lot of friends in that town when I taught there under the Russians. I remembered my friend Pepi and her boyfriend Miliu and how we took so many long walks together when I taught there. I was the “talker” and she was very shy. Miliu was one of the young men killed during that massacre.

Not one Jew survived. I felt a deep sadness and grief, but I also was relieved that we were still alive.

One day I heard the heavy sound of footsteps approaching our door. A rapid pounding on the door followed this. “Open up,” someone shouted. I knew by this time that the sound of heavy boots meant either soldiers or police. I cautiously opened the door a crack and was roughly pushed aside by the force of Officer Ionesco. I as a young child used to feel a special warmth when he would tap me on the head or help me cross the street. He had been a typically kind, small town policeman.

He asked me in a stern and formal voice, “Hilda Speiser. Were you a teacher in Czudyn during the Russian occupation?” I nodded.

You must come with me at once. I have a warrant for your arrest.”

I was frightened and confused. These people….the policeman, the young soldiers, the teachers all looked like the people I knew growing up. How could they now be so different? How could they act so strangely?

I had no choice but to kiss my parents and Butz and follow Officer Ionesco to the jail.

In the jail, I saw a lot of people I taught with in Czudyn and other people who taught at different towns. I felt less frightened after I saw them.

We were told that we would be tried as traitors to the Romanian people, since we served as agents of the Russians.

They kept us in jail for two weeks. So now teaching was a crime against the State.

It was awful for my mother. She managed to scrape up some food and bring it to me almost every day, since they didn't feed us at all in the prison.

But she came every day, even without food, just to make sure I was still alive.

She would scream and beg the police to take her instead of me, but the police would just laugh and make fun of her.

After fourteen days, without any reason, they let us go.

We thought we were being released as a sign of respect for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holidays. Later, we realized the real reason for their generosity.

 

The Round-Up

A few days after Yom Kippur, the Romanians posted an ordinance ordering all Jews to assemble at the railway station the following Monday morning. We were to take only what we could carry on our backs. The ordinance threatened severe punishment for anyone caught taking valuables of any kind. We didn't know where we were being sent, but we thought it could be no worse than what we would have in Storojinet with the winter coming.

We were told that we were going to a distant town where work would be waiting for us and so got busy sewing knapsacks out of dishtowels. We baked some bread to take along and generally prepared for the journey. My mother traded two pairs of gold earrings to a neighbor, a gentile lawyer's wife for two pairs of used shoes for both my brother and I.

We thought that the massacre that happened in Czudyn was because of the military government but as soon as a civilian government would take power, these things would no longer happen.

So it was in that state of mind that we headed to the train that cold Monday morning. Some of our non-Jewish “friends” went to the railroad station to see us off.

We were very scared and depressed when they pushed us into the train. The doors slammed shut with an ominous bang. The trains were overcrowded and tight quarters made breathing difficult. One could not stand or sit. An unbearable situation.

I had never seen my parents so frightened and lost. They were both in a fog, a kind of shocked expression on their faces. Butz, my brother, was also very depressed. He didn't see any hope for us. “We're doomed,” he said.

Maybe he could foresee more than I.

I told myself that someone had to be strong. I nominated myself. I started to direct my parents on what we should do. This was our state of mind as we left that Monday morning.

I kept hoping that we would be put to work so that we would get fed. It is said that when there is a mob mentality, people do horrible things to each other spurred on by the fact that there was no punishment for any crime they committed. The thugs amongst us, the Romanian soldiers and SS acted with impunity and tormented and tortured us with glee.

Civilians and peasants joined in to loot and terrorize the Jews. What were we doing here? Where were we going? The doors of the train were locked and the air was getting worse and soon was foul. We could hardly breathe.

The time on the train was interminable, an endless bad dream. I don't know how long we were on the train, but it was probably a full day and night. More likely two days….without food or water and suffocating in a boxcar filled with hundreds of people crammed together. The smell became horrible, making the air more rancid as people had to relieve themselves wherever they were standing.

Children were wailing and people were moaning and crying. The sounds of human distress were frightening. The clatter of the train rumbling on the tracks was monotonous and deafening. The TOOT! TOOT! TOOT! of the train-whistle was, at best, a lonely sound but here it was a prelude to Hell.

 

Transnistria

Finally the train braked to a halt with a squeal. It was heartening. We stopped and eagerly spilled out into a small town in Bessarabia on the border of the River Dniester, which separated the Ukraine from Romania.

We had no idea that at that time that the Germans had penetrated deep into Russia already and that the Ukraine was under German occupation. They took us to the sandy beach on that River Dniester. It was covered with all kinds of things left over from the people who passed through there before us. Watches, clothes, food, anything you could imagine littered the sand. The soldiers warned us that if we would pick up any valuables we would be shot.

Still, my mother and I had no coats, so we found some and took some food we found with us. My father was so scared that he threw his pen away because it had a golden tip.

I still remember the stricken faces of the people around me. My parents were still in a complete state of despair. So was my brother. Maybe they were smarter than I was and could guess what lay ahead. My youthful innocence would not allow me to believe this was the end.

So I took over completely. I had entered another phase of childhood. It was the first time I saw my parents in such a state. I had to become the adult overcoming the grief of watching one's parents lose their humanity in front of your eyes. They began to melt from what they were, becoming quieter and quieter and more introspective.

So here I was the quiet, weak child who out of necessity became the strong one. I was convinced that we just couldn't give up!

I looked around and saw all these people, still greedy, taking what they could.

After we spent the night on the beach, the next morning the soldiers told us we had to cross the river. The soldiers were Romanians and Italians, part of Mussolini's army.

By that time it was already October and the temperature was dropping. It was cold and damp. They put everyone into little rowboats that were very overcrowded. Some people fell into the water. If they couldn't swim they drowned. It was pathetic to see a flailing old person simply left to die. People turned their faces away. For those like us who weren't in the rowboats, there was a long, narrow bridge across the river that we were marched over.

On the other side of the river we continued the march. We walked in a strange line of lost souls. Old people lagged behind. From that position no one knew their fate. Only the occasional rifle shot gave us a clue. The young people tried to help them along as much as they could. I remember we were with the Kruhs, my brother-in-law Carl's family. We were with Carl's parents and his 80 year old, very religious grandmother. We tried to help the old lady along. Was her religious faith helping her? I wondered.

The whole thing seemed at that point like some kind of surreal nightmare.

Some girls were actually flirting with the soldiers guarding us. They truly shocked me. And lent to the unreal atmosphere.

My parents cried every once in a while and I realized then how excruciating it is to see your parents cry. I understood later how they felt – totally impotent to do anything for their children to protect them as we marched along.

At that moment, I realized that I could never return to my old life of innocence. My life would never be the same again. For the first time, I saw bodies of dead people lying on the ground.

It was a terrible shock! Everywhere we looked we saw people who had already been shot or perished through hunger and sickness and left along the road. The blood and the horror of the bodies lying along the road terrified me and made me realize that this war was destroying people and families and no one was doing anything to stop the madness. The bodies were all over the roads, stiff, many with their eyes still open and glassy.

I was not at that point really aware of the plight facing my own family. I was focusing on these poor, old and sick people trying to keep going with their last ounce of strength just not to be left behind.

The lines of people behind me stretched for as far as the eye could see. The skies wee leaden gray. The air was cold.

There was this lady Mrs. Kroch whose husband was crippled with arthritis in a wheelchair. She pushed him as long a she could and they started chasing her and she had to abandon the poor old man right there. Scenes like that were heartbreaking.

There was another old couple in their 70s who couldn't keep up so they sat down on the side of the road and probably watched each other die.

A young lady who was shot and injured by the Romanians had to be left behind.

We all kept on going. When it got dark, I remember, they made us stop in front of a forest. By nightfall it was snowing and bitter cold. Some people tied sheets on trees to protect themselves as much as possible from the wind. We lay down on the ground and tried to sleep. It was an endless night. The next morning we had to march on. We were so tired, but we had to keep going.

We walked for miles and miles and I still don't know for how long.

That night we stopped in a deserted village and we were allowed to go into the empty buildings and try to light the stoves to warm up a little. I remember the heating unit was built into the wall. It looked like the wall was built out of two rows of bricks with an opening between where the logs were placed to burn. On the top was a hole that led to the chimney where the smoke escaped.

We made a good fire and got real warm and ate some of the food we had in our sacks. Amazing how such a thing can pick up the spirits. Carl's grandmother was still with us. I remember heating up a bottle with honey and tried to help her drink some out of the bottle.

The next day we were separated from them. I never saw them again.

After marching another day in hurricane force winds with biting cold freezing our feet and bodies, towards evening we stopped at a gigantic barn.

It had been a huge, cooperative Russian farm. When we entered I thought we had found Dante's Inferno. If I ever imagined what Hell looked like, this was it.

Little fires burned inside where people tried to cook and keep warm. The place was full of smoke. When we got used to the darkness and the stench, we saw that there were people lying there in the straw. Some of them were crying. Others were sick. Some were dead. People screamed out. We were exhausted.

All we wanted was a place to lie down. We found a place with some straw, covered ourselves with our coats and lay down. I still remember how my mother rubbed her hands on my feet trying in vain to warm them. They were ice cold.

There was ice on the walls and the floor was frozen.

That was the night the typhus-carrying lice invaded our bodies.

The next day we had to march again. Through muddy frozen fields we kept marching, always losing people on the way. At rest stops we collapsed to the ground with our feet in the frozen mud. The next morning we had to keep walking.

We trudged on until we came to another empty, deserted village.

I think we were walking for about two weeks in freezing cold weather wearing rags and inadequate and uncomfortable shoes. Our feet become numb and soon I became numb, too. My feet had blisters and the cold made them feel like they were burning while cold from the pain.

My heart started to freeze as well. For the first time in my life, I felt out of control and knew that there was nothing I could do to fight what was happening. My heart was pounding in my chest as we trudged and trudged through the snow.

Many collapsed along the way and the solitary rifle shot in the cold gray afternoon reminded us that they had gone to a better place. I would say that by the time we got to our destination, we had no idea how many people were dead. Most were elderly or young children. It was a sight I would never forget. Many were not even given the blessing of a bullet but froze to death.

 

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