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Chapter 5

The Liberation of the camps in
Transnistria by the Russians – April 1944

One morning, we woke up and it was very quiet. We didn't dare walk outside, but after a few hours we looked out the window and saw Russian soldiers marching. It was the most beautiful sight! We couldn't believe it! The Germans were finally gone!

We ran out on the street and the Russians kept reassuring us that we didn't have to worry about the Germans anymore. People from all over came out of their hiding places surrounding the young tired Russian soldiers, kissing them and singing Russian songs.

It was spring, the sun was shining and it all seemed like a dream! Could it be we were liberated?

As soon as we calmed down, Sonia grabbed me by the hand and said, “Come with me to the hospital.” I am sure there must be a lot of work there.”

We went there as quickly as possible. Lots of wounded soldiers crowded the ward, people burned half to death.

“What happened to these people?” I asked. “How did they get so badly burned?” It was horrifying to see them covered in blisters and their skin raw to the bone.

The Germans made some poor men help them load ammunition on a train. As soon as they were finished they made them enter the train station, surrounded them with machine guns and put fire to the building. The Germans had to leave in a hurry so apparently some of these men escaped who were in the hospital with these horrific burns. Many of them died with burns over 60% of their bodies.

I left Sonia and ran toward the ghetto where I saw a lot of the younger children from the orphanage.

The children were in miserable condition. The people who were supposed to be in charge of them left and most of the children were dying of starvation. I ran out and tried to find people to help the children. It didn't take too long until people came, fed them and took care of them.

I went back to the farm house where my “aunt” Serafine and Sonia's mother were surrounded by young Russian soldiers who shared food and drinks with us. They were very nice and happy to help us.

In the middle of the jubilation of being liberated by the Russians in April (1944), I ran into my friend Pepi calling me with tears in her eyes. She was crying, hot tears running down her cheeks. “What is it? Pepi, tell me!” She pulled me to the house where she spent the last week and I saw a horrible sight. Along the wall of the house were five men of different ages dead on the ground. One of the men was my friend Pepi's brother who was only 18 years old. Pepi said, “You see you said I was lucky that I still had my brother. Now we are both the same.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“My brother was recruited by the Germans to do some work for them along with these other men. They were happy because the Germans gave them food to bring home to their families. The last day they finished their job and were told they could go home. After a while, while the men sat down to eat something, the Germans came to the door and told them to go outside. The men asked them if they should put on their shoes. They thought they had some more chores for them to do”. …she continued.

“Never mind your shoes,” they shouted. “Just come out here.” When they walked outside, they lined them up against a wall and shot them.”

Pepi held onto me and we cried together for a long time. I couldn't believe the horror of this happening on the last day before the liberation! I hugged Pepi and held her in my arms. “You must remain strong. Please. Take care of yourself.”

I went back to my aunt. More bad news was awaiting me. Max and all able-bodied men were drafted by the Russians. That was the reason the Germans killed so many the last day before their retreat.

My aunt was so loving and worried that she followed Max and carried his knapsack as he went to the recruitment station. People were laughing at this older woman carrying this young man's belongings. She just didn't want to let him go!

She came back hysterical, crying thinking about where her nephew was going to end up after four years of concentration camp?

The next days because the trucks couldn't move because of the mud, men and women were asked to make a human chain to transport some ammunition toward the front. We were given bombs to carry to the next team; from there other people took them and carried them further. It was a daisy chain of munitions carriers. That's what we became. We did it gladly, young people happy to be alive. We were only happy to help out. Underfoot, the mud went up to our ankles, soothing our feet while making them filthy and cold.

After, I returned I went to the market where I saw all kinds of food being sold. It was a beautiful sight, seeing all kinds of foods for the first time! The thought of never having to starve again made me feel more determined than ever to live. To survive. To never look back. To have a family -- so the Germans would not win. To tell people what happened so they would never forget.

I looked around, young men were looking at me, and for the first time I realized I was a young 24 year old woman who a man could find attractive. My God, what I looked like in those raggedy clothes and my terrible hair. I must have gained a few pounds eating the rice and sugar diet of the past few weeks. I went home and found the little mirror Sonia gave me. I looked at my face and said to myself, “I must be crazy. Who could find that face attractive? I washed my hair, braided it and took a bath and thought, Maybe I'm not that bad-looking.

That afternoon a few Soviet soldiers came in with some food and vodka. We actually had a little party together. One of the soldiers was flirting with me. We went so far as going to a bedroom alone and when he said he needed to go to the bathroom, I escaped back to my room. My Aunt Serafine took me aside and said, “Be careful! These soldiers are here today, gone tomorrow. They could make you pregnant and you wouldn't even know who they are!”

I was annoyed! How dare she? Just when I started to feel like a woman again, she had to say that! But deep down I knew she was right.

Well the next day, all the soldiers left to go to the front.

After a few more days we had to start thinking about what to do next. Where to go? Some people went back to Bershad where they had left some friends or relatives. Others started to think about going home to Romania. How do you go from the Ukraine to Bukovina, which belonged to the Russians before the war? It was occupied by the Germans for four years; and now was probably recaptured by the Russians. We had no transportation. All this area was still a war zone. We formed groups and followed the Russians going west.

We were hitchhiking in different Russian trucks and some of them picked us up because they felt sorry for us. They were not supposed to pick up civilians but they did it out of sympathy for our condition.

Once a truck stopped and the driver was going to let us join him. They pulled me up by my hands and started driving away leaving my Aunt Serafina behind. I started knocking on the roof where the driver was. I said, “I'm not going without her,” and I jumped off the truck. Then I remembered I had left my knapsack with my meager belongings on the truck. I saw a nice car with decorated officers inside and went in front of it forcing the car to stop. I told them that the truck had left with my possessions. They sped up and they stopped the truck and they made the driver return my belongings to me.

Then we got another ride and we stopped at a railroad station where the trains were going west. The train was full of soldiers who were not allowed to let civilians on board.When they saw us, they grabbed us by our hands and pulled us into the car and then they covered us with blankets so the officers wouldn't know that they let us into the train.

In the evening, one tall officer came and took me by the hand and pushed me onto the platform between two cars. I never even saw his face because it was so dark. There, he stood against the wall and he held me in his arms. All night he held me in his arms and kissed me. Then he let me go back to the wagon where my aunt was sleeping. I sensed that he was frightened because these soldiers were going back to the front and he just wanted to feel someone's arms around him.

I'll never forget that night!

Then we got into Czernovitz. It was in April, 1944.You could only get into the city when you had relatives there. Luckily, my Aunt Serafina had her sister who lived there throughout the war, and who was never deported. So, we moved in with her and her husband. At that time, everybody had to have ration cards for food. I didn't have one and felt bad living there without any means of supporting myself.

After a few days, I decided to go back home to Storojinet in the hope of finding some kind of a job.

There I found my mother's aunt, Regina, who had survived the camps. She had a set up a little business with another woman and took me in. She got me some clothes and shoes, because I had practically nothing to wear. I stayed with her until the fall when schools opened and I was sent to teach in a small town called Ropcea.

Everything was shambles and wreckage.The town that seemed so enormous before seemed very small and I walked from one end of it to the other in 15 minutes. The place was like a ghost town, with destruction everywhere. All of the buildings were ransacked and destroyed. I couldn't wait to get away from the town and the Russians who valued work above all, decided to put me back to work as a teacher.

There was a small school there and a young Russian girl called Lydia was sent to be the principal. She started organizing the school. They sent two or three more teachers there. The Russians placed us to live with local peasant families. Finally we had good food and I enjoyed teaching the children. I taught fifth graders, more mature than the ones I taught before. It was a good time for me.

I remember walking to the school, so I would pull some fruit -usually plums – off the trees on my way to work and eat that for breakfast. They were usually sweet and delicious.

At that time, Lydia had a torrid affair with a Russian leader of this town who happened to be married with two children at home. He was sent to supervise the administration of the town from the headquarters in Storojinet. In order to keep seeing her on the sly, he placed Lydia in a very nice home with some local family where she had her own room and he used to visit her often.

She got pregnant, of course, and she was afraid to tell him. So I went to his office and told him, “Lydia is pregnant.”

He said, “Go to your Jewish doctors and let them give her an abortion. I don't want to have anything to do with that.”

I told him, “I don't know any Jewish doctors who give abortions.”

I convinced Lydia to have the baby. We walked from our little town to Storojinet while she was in labor until we got to the hospital about 10 miles away. She gave birth to a little girl who she called “Emma.”

After that, her former lover, who was quite powerful in the Communist Party, transferred her to another little school quite a distance away from where we were.

I went to visit her once, and she was in a little school house of two rooms, where she lived in one room with her baby. I saw her baby crawling on the floor while she taught. That was the last time I saw her.

All this time, my sister was living in Paris with her husband Carl. She left her older son Pierre with an older couple who helped her take care of him in Paris. They had an apartment next to hers.

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Margaret and Carl went to the South of France after Carl changed their name to a Christian/French name. He joined the French Resistance. She stayed in the South of France on a farm. He risked his life while not revealing any of his escapades to his wife. She fretted about the safety of Pierre.

Her husband conducted dangerous missions for the Resistance including distributing anti-Nazi propaganda flyers in the metro and avoided getting caught by the Nazis of the Vichy government.

During the time I was teaching, I promised myself I never would want to fall in love or get close to people so I shouldn't suffer what I had suffered before. I thought if I just lived alone by myself, I would be better off.

I dated some men but my heart wasn't into it. I never wanted to get too close or fall in love.

We had a social life between the teachers, and we had little parties where a lot of vodka was consumed. For the first time, I started enjoying life a little at a time.

I had my own small salary, but I didn't need much money since I was fed by the peasants where

I lived. I was in that town for a year and a half.

In the spring of 1946, the Romanians made a pact with Russia to let the former Romanian citizens return to Romania.

I registered to leave and when I told the Mayor of our town that I was leaving, he spit in my face.

He thought I was such a loyal Communist, that I would never leave. Also, the Russian Communist leader who was the lover of Lydia, told me, “It's a pity the Germans didn't kill all of you,” meaning the “Jews.”

I replied, “If somebody like you can say a thing like that, then I'm really happy to leave this country.”

I was taken with a horse drawn cart to a town called Suceava which was the border between Romania and Russia.

There I stayed in a small room with a few other women. A relative of ours who was the aunt of Jenny, the girl who was tortured and killed by the Germans. She found out I was in Suceava, and sent a truck to pick me up and take me to their home.

They lived in that small town called Turgu Ocna. It was a salt mining town in Bacau County near the Trotus River, a tributary of the Siret River in the Carpathian mountains.

The husband of that family had a prominent position in the town.

They had a nice home and two children.

After a few weeks, my aunt from Bucharest who was the wife of my father's brother wrote to me

that I have to come to Bucharest because she has news from my sister in Paris and my relatives in America.

I decided to leave and go to Bucharest. It was in the spring of 1946. My uncle Moses, my father's brother, was a former high school math teacher, but had lost his job during the war. They had no income and they lived in a small cottage that looked like servant's quarters. His wife supported the family by making alterations and clothing.

I came there and they were very poor. They had one 16 year old son Arthur, and their daughter Flora lived in her own apartment. She was divorced and lived on her own.

One day, two young men came to the house and said they were former students of my uncle and they wanted to see their former teacher. One of them was Salo. When I first met him, I liked him because he was raised in the same town of Storojinet until the age of 13 and we actually knew each other. He met me and another woman, Riva, who was also doing alterations for my aunt.

Salo lived with his mother, his sister Mitzi, and his nephew David and his brother in law, Poldi. First he went out with Riva for a week, and then he asked me out. When I asked him what happened with Riva he said, “She's not my kind of girl.” He couldn't stand her dialect of Yiddish, which was foreign to him since she was from Bessarabia.

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So Salo and I began to see each other regularly, recognizing how much we had in common.We both became more comfortable with each other.I fell in love pretty quickly, charmed by his demeanor and his honesty. He was not the most educated or intelligent man I ever met or dreamed of, but he was good, kind and gentle. He had incredibly blue eyes and a sweet smile. His hair had turned completely white from the stress of the war, but he looked very handsome to me. He was about 6' tall, and had long elegant hands and legs. When I looked into his cornflower blue eyes, I imagined what my children would look like with those same eyes and his light colored hair. As I had these thoughts, I realized that I knew I was in love.

I knew he would always love me, be loyal to me, and put me ahead of all else.He was a hard-working man who was not afraid to work and who very much wanted to prove himself. He was the most honest person I knew and had a strong sense of pride. If he had any faults, it was his stubbornness.

“Do you want to go to this café,” he asked.

“No. Why don't we go to this restaurant,” I suggested.

“OK,” he said and we went to this small, local place to eat.

“Isn't this delicious,” I said as I ate a small pastry of flaky dough with apples and drank some wine.

“Yes,” he said.

“It's so incredible isn't it how we can now eat and that we are no longer worried about starving? Sometimes I can't believe that I'm no longer hungry. I think everything tastes more delicious now than I ever remember it. Every fruit, every piece of cake, coffee, the simplest foods taste wonderful.”

“I don't know if we can totally stop worrying. There could always be another pogrom. I don't think the Jews are out of hot water yet. People still hate us.”

“I don't believe anything will happen again. Not like this. Never like this. Not again,” I said.

“I hope you're right,” he said as he dug into the flaky crust.

“I hope so, too.”

This was the first glimpse at what was going to be a lifetime of worry and moodiness.

One day, my aunt had two extra tickets to a play. So she gave them to me to go with Salo on a date. We sat in the back row of an American play about treason “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern” in Romanian. All of a sudden, in the middle of the play, he reached over and started to kiss me. I really don't remember much of the play after that.

So I fell in love like most young people do, falling, floating, dreaming of him and his hands, his eyes, his beautiful white teeth, and the strong need for love blinded me to any criticism of his faults. To me he was perfect! I overlooked all the criticisms of the people around me.

My sister tried to get me to break up with him. She wanted me to become the nanny to her children in Paris.

“Stop,” I said. “I don't want to hear about it. I'm a grown-up now. I went through much more than most for my age. You don't know the half of it. I certainly know whether or not someone is good for me. And he's good for me. We're kindred spirits. We came from the same background and we love each other. And that's that.”

I begin to get choked up. I felt the anger rising in my throat. How dare she tell me who to love after all I'd been through? She never saw our parents dying and my brother's head rocking in my arms as he died. She never saw the death camps. She never marched in the freezing winter with feet turning to stone, then green with gangrene. She never felt the pain of starvation and then being unable to eat. I felt angry at her words about Salo and yet relieved that she didn't go through any of it. At least she was healthy and her family was fine.

Her husband Carl went to study in Paris and she was left behind. She drove my poor mother crazy. He enlisted in the Spanish Civil War fighting Franco. His parents were not told about it. He wrote cards in advance that he gave to a friend to mail occasionally so they would think that he was still in Paris.

My mother decided to send her to Vienna to be with her sisters in 1938, before the war. She stayed with our relatives in Vienna for a while until Carl was wounded in the war and he returned to Paris. So she left to be with him in Paris, they got married in May, 1939 and then she spent the war hiding her identity with false papers so no one would know they were Jewish.

She had children who were very young and yet always felt that her husband and her marriage came first. She and her husband became inseparable, joined at the hip.

It was after she had her youngest son Alain, that she wrote to me that she wanted me to go to Paris to be a nanny. Meanwhile, Salo's mother said to him, “Salo, you know you can't just go out with Hilda like this. She's an orphan and if you don't have serious intentions to stay with her, you shouldn't see her anymore.”

So he came over and told me what his mother had said. “I agree with my mother. Maybe we're rushing into things too fast,” he said.

I said with tears in my eyes, “OK, if that's how you feel, then let's break up.”

We didn't see each other for a week. I was miserable and at the end of the week he came knocking on the door looking for me. When I saw him, we rushed into each other's arms. From then on, we became inseparable.

During that summer my Aunt Cila – Blima's mother-- asked me to go on vacation with her to the mountains. I didn't want to leave Salo because I was so in love with him and she decided to go alone.

During her absence Salo and I remodeled her small apartment; we painted it and wanted to surprise her with a nicer cleaner apartment upon her return. Then we got a phone call that she was very sick and the next thing we heard from the people where she had stayed that she had passed away.

She had died of an aneurysm very suddenly and unexpectedly.

Flora had to go and retrieve her body for burial from this small village that was pretty far away at the other end of Romania. She brought her corpse on the top of a taxi into the house. We had to prepare her body for burial. Someone took her away and buried her.

After that, I was left in the house alone with Arthur and my uncle, Moses. My uncle and a few of his friends, a lawyer and another friend, a poet, were also against my getting married to Salo. They said he was not educated enough for me. They wanted me to hold off on getting married.

One day there was a knock at the door, and there stood Salo. It was a cloudless and bright sunny day. I was so happy to see him. He looked into my gray eyes and freckled face while my hair was braided thick and shiny after just being washed, and he grabbed my hands. “Hilda, I hope you don't think I'm too bold since we don't really know each other for very long. But I think you're a wonderful woman. You have a heart of gold. I will treat you like gold if you agree to marry me. I think we would have beautiful children together and make a new life for both of us.”

“Oh my God,” I said. “I can't believe it! Get married? Don't you think we should get settled first? Make sure we could manage together as a couple?”

“I'm very hard-working and I'll do whatever is necessary to support you and our future family. I'm very committed to making a marriage work, and would never look at another woman.”

I gazed at the sky the same color of Salo's eyes and thought about it for about two minutes. He held his breath and then I looked into his eyes and smiled. “Yes, yes, yes. I'll marry you!”

We kissed and held each other for a long time. Then we looked at each other and started to cry. We cried, but this time the tears were tears of happiness.

After that he asked me come to his mother's house to eat because I lived in such a poor household with my uncle. His mother and sister got to know me very well during that summer of 1946.

When I was alone with Salo, he told me of the horrible experiences he endured in the camps of Moghilev. He also watched his sister and father die. He had suffered greatly with malaria in the camp and was a walking skeleton when he was finally liberated by the Russians. As I said before, he was taken away by the Russians to work in the mines in the Urals, because he was unemployed and everyone who wasn't employed was sent to work. He worked in that freezing climate for a year. Somehow Salo managed to survive.

My uncle had a group of friends, and one was a lawyer, another who was a poet. A lawyer came to the house and took a sample of my handwriting and Salo's handwriting to a graphologist who was very famous and had a column in the local newspaper.

They were all also against my marrying Salo, complaining he wasn't educated enough to marry me. The graphologist came back with a report that said that Salo is a very nice, decent man with a good business instincts but no understanding of a delicate person like I was. In my report he wrote that I'm a wonderful, intelligent person who would make anybody happy, that I was very gifted and assorted other accolades. I didn't listen to him either.My sister Margaret was most upset to hear I was going to get married. Her husband Carl wrote me a 6 page letter itemizing all the reasons why I shouldn't marry Salo. How could I decide in just a few months to get married? He asked how I could possibly say I'm in love in such a short time. He understood love – being truly in love with my sister since they were 15 years old. And on and on….it went. He insisted I travel to Paris where my sister and my nephew Pierre are expecting me.

I answered Carl's letter as follows:

Dear Carl,

Thank you for writing to me about why you don't think I should marry Salo.

I'm not 17 years old, I'm 24. I've been through more than you could imagine during the war and

had to grow up fast.

I don't find anything strange about Salo who I knew and whose

family I know since I was a child. I feel very comfortable with him and I'm sure we will have a

happy life together.

Thank you for your concern. Kisses to Margaret.

Love, Hilda

By December 21, 1946 we went to the City Hall in Bucharest and signed the marriage license. I was wearing a gray suit my aunt bought me and Salo wore a dark blue suit. His eyes looked even more brilliantly blue next to the ink blue fabric.

Salo's mother Eva arranged a small wedding in their house where she catered everything with her daughter Mitzi. Mitzi married her sister's husband Poldi when he returned from the war, even though she was older than him to keep their child David in the family. She raised the child, David, as her own. David was born during the war and it was a miracle that he survived when his mother died. He never knew Mitzi wasn't his real mother but suspected it. He never told anyone of his suspicions. Mitzi had been in love with another man and sadly, she always reminded Poldi that he wasn't the one she really loved. David never knew anything for sure until someone at his own wedding remarked, “I wish your mother would have lived to see you get married.”

 

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