by Meir Kostiner
Translated by Moshe Devere
A town in Ukraine's Mogilev Province, about 50 km northeast of the provincial city, and about 12 km from the central town of Shargorod. The town was on the banks of a 162 km-long stream, a tributary of the River Dniester, bearing the same name as the town. The town had a historical record because of its Jewish community. A study by the University of Petersburg uncovered tombstones with Hebrew letters from the 17th century (1638). In 1926, there were 1421 Jews living there.
At the outbreak of World War II, the young Jewish men from the town were recruited
into the Red Army. In the fall of 1941, when the Jews from South Bucovina and Dorohoi arrived in Murafa, there were about 800 local Jews there. These Jews spoke a nice Yiddish because until 1938 there was a school where the language of instruction was Yiddish.
The deportees arrive in Murafa
From the fall of 1941, some 3,500 Jews from Suceava, Kimpolung, Rădăuţi and Dorohoi arrived there. Statistics of March 1943 from the Bucharest Assistance Committee state that 4500 Jews were found in Murafa at the time, of which 3700 were deportees and 800 were local Jews. Some of these people came to Murafa on transports of German trucks that were got with a lot of money. Not everyone was so lucky (in those conditions you might call it great luck) and some of them came to Murafa after going through the terrible travails in caravans called Convoys.
It was groups of people who were forced by beatings and at gunpoint by Romanian gendarmes to walk, in rain and snow, with the few belongings they saved on their backs. These convoys were directed from Mogilev northwest toward Lucinz, Copaigorod and Bar on a road that was just one big swamp. A study described an event that reflected the tragedy of the Convoy: At the intersection on the way that the Convoys marched along to the main road, MogilevOzerinz main road, 28 people sank into the mud. Their efforts to get their feet out of the mud caused them to sink more and more, but no one came to their aid. When Adv. Dr. Avraham Shapira [incorrect spelling in source] came over and tried to help, the gendarmes shot him dead. The Convoy continued on its way and no one could have done any more than look at the miserable who awaited their deaths. All 28 perished, and it is not known if there were any people from Schotz or the surrounding area among them. Moti Wasserman says he was in the Convoy to Bar, which was controlled by the Germans and Dobrowol'chyy (Ukrainian volunteers). They slept in a pigpen. They then ran away from there and ended up in Shargorod. Dr. Teich refused to accept them. They then reached Murafa, where they took refuge.
Aryeh Ben Shlomo Kostiner also spoke about the hardships of the Convoy. He remembers while traveling in Convoy, blessing the month of Marcheshvan on Sabbath and then arriving in Lucinz. There they were housed in the dairy barn. The next day, Leibish Heller died with tefillin on his head. Aryeh's mother, Miriam Kostiner, convinced the gendarmes to allow burying Leibish Heller in the Lucinz cemetery. They continued until Segury. From there, they were taken out by their family and brought to Murafa.
The authorities and the regime
Murafa was subordinate to the Shargorod subdistrict authorities. The town's military rule was in the hands of a gendarme unit under The Master Sergeant Pastrame. Bribery was the way for the deportees to reach him. His subordinates would patrol the town accompanied by dogs they set against Jews. The town was also headed by Starosta (Ukrainian mayor) Nikita and a Ukrainian militia station.
The Jewish community was led by an elected committee that changed after about a year. The Committee endeavored to organize life in the ghetto concerning public order, social welfare, medical aid, representation before the Romanian and Ukrainian military authorities, and supplying people for forced labor at the demand of these authorities. These people were recruited by the Jewish Police.
The Jewish Community established several welfare institutions, such as a soup kitchen that provided daily meals for about 1400 needy people, a disinfectant facility, and pharmacies. It should be noted that this committee helped absorb 1,000 Ukrainian Jews who escaped the German horror across the Bug River.
The Jews were forced to work in harsh conditions to clear away the snow in cold of about -30° C, snow that sometimes reached a height of two meters! Everyone was assigned a quota, despite the flawed tools provided for this work. This work also claimed victims, and many people froze their hands and feet. When the snow-work was completed in March 1942, the men were recruited to pave the MurafaYaroshenka (Zhmerynka) road. This work was managed by Koenig, a road engineer from among the Schotz deportees.
To pave the road, the men cut stones in a quarry located a few kilometers from the town. Work at the quarry continued from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with an hour's break at noon. At noon, each worker received a bowl of pea soup and 125 grams of bread. At the same time, the workers' family members who remained at home were starving. Some of the Jews in Murafa worked from September to October, gathering tobacco.
Much worse than all the local work were the transports for forced labor to places where construction work was carried out under German management. The Jewish Committee was required to send a quota of 1,000 people. These work sites were in Trihati and Varvarovka. They built bridges over the Bug River at these two sites.
People were also sent to Nestewarka to work in coal mines, and to Tulchyn, where they dug
8-meter-deep trenches into peat (torf) with water reaching up to the knees. The Varvarovka labor camp had some of the worst conditions. In addition to working hard in the freezing cold, they suffered from hunger and extremely terrible sanitary conditions. The people who returned from there to Murafa could tell of a particularly tragic event that happened one winter's day, when a delegation from the Germans and the Dobrowol'chyy (Ukrainian volunteers) came to the camp. That same day, 10 young men were found in the camp who, for health reasons, did not go to work. As punishment, the Germans ordered the ten men to be hanged. All kinds of wires and strings were collected from around the camp, to serve as nooses for hanging all of them. The wire for one of them tore, but despite the international rule that if a condemned man's rope tears, he was to be pardoned; he was still hanged a second time. Many people also perished in Nesterwarka. The rest returned to Murafa in the fall of 1943, and from Troiţa they returned in the winter of 1944.
The other danger that hovered over the Jews in Murafa was the banishment to Peciora. The commander of the gendarmes from Mogilev Province, Major Oro, ordered sending 3,300 Jews from the province to Peciora, of which 1,000 were from Murafa. It was only the bribe of a 1½-carat diamond ring canceled the decree and the Jews were saved from certain death because no one sent to Peciora remained alive. The people sent there from the various camps were the disabled, elderly, women and children who could not work. The people were either shot or starved to death. They crawled around on the ground and ate the weeds and barks off the trees around their huts and when that ran out; they waited to die. The situation was so tragic that there were even cases of cannibalism.
Most of the deportees were housed in the homes of the town's local Jews and only a few of them in the village, in peasant houses and public buildings such as a former school building. These buildings were very overcrowded, the distress was terrible and caused a lot of casualties. In all the above places, people slept on a prichy, a raised wooden platform. Instead of mattresses, they slept on straw. In the cold winter, when the temperature sometimes reached 30° C, there were still people living in unheated houses. During the long winter evenings, people lit up their houses with a kantz, a vial or a small jar with kerosene with a rag for a wick, which barely lit up the dark.
The water supply was from the town's wells. People pumped the water into their own bucket. This led to poor sanitary conditions. The Bucovinians arranged for drawing water with only one vessel from which the water was poured into the requesting one. For this there was a fee of one potato,
which was both hygienic and provided a livelihood. Of course, sewage did not exist, and the garbage and sewage would be collected in the residences and spilled into collection pits on the banks of the stream. There were also septic pits for toilets near the stream, and many who did not have an outhouse in their yard sat down on their edge to defecate.
Overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions caused the outbreak of a typhus epidemic in the winter of 1942 with many casualties. The deceased were transported in carts or snow sleds and buried in the cemetery in separate or mass graves. The treatment of patients is carried with devotion by the deported doctors, including Dr. Weidenfeld, Dr. Kraemer and Dr. Schaechter, who were from our city, as well as at the local hospital run by a Ukrainian (phlaciri) doctor. Despite the tragedy, and to be accurate, it should be noted that in Murafa, the plague caused fewer casualties than elsewhere. Thus, in Toropilovka, only 180 people out of 2,000 survived.
At first, the deportees sold the few belongings they salvaged and received flour, potatoes, and firewood from the peasants. For all those who had nothing left, a ground pea pastry was used as a substitute for bread, and if this too was not available, they ate
potato peels. Some deportees made their livelihoods from commerce and various crafts. The people traded fruit, vegetables, sugar, salt, cigarettes, matches, etc.
The tinsmiths among the Bucovinians created cooking and baking ovens from odd pieces of sheet metal, which were also used for heating in winter. Enterprising people created soap from the fat of slaughtered animals, adding caustic soda smuggled out of Romania. Among the local Jews were professionals such as blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors, bakers, butchers who were engaged in their profession.
And a blood libel too
Days of horror and panic passed over the Jews of the place after Purim 1943. One of the Jews was accused of murdering a peasant's daughter to use her blood to bake matzo for the upcoming Passover. Fortunately for the Jews, a vigorous investigation by the Commissioner of the Shargorod prefect, who received a considerable sum from them, revealed that the same peasant hid his daughter in order to start pogroms against the Jews. Despite being terrible, this case could be viewed as unusual because the treatment by the peasants was generally reasonable and some even helped the deportees.
Judaism and culture
There was a synagogue in Murafa where they prayed every day and, of course, on Shabbat and holidays. In addition, quorums were organized in private homes. There were cases where the children of the deportees were given lessons in small groups on different subjects by teachers who taught by memory since there were no available textbooks. Several Yiddish books were found among the local Jews that passed from hand to hand among young and old alike.
Manifestations of resistance and liberation
In the summer of 1943, partisan activity became noticed, among them were Jews. One day, they ambushed 12 gendarmes, led by the station commander, the same one who set the dogs on the Jews. All the gendarmes were killed. The resulting changeover at the gendarme's station made life easier for the local Jews.
In March 1944, the Romanian gendarmes withdrew and advised the Jews to hide from the Germans who were approaching as they retreated. Happily, for the Jews, the Germans were too tired in their retreat and continued on, harming no one. A small detachment of them entered the stone quarry, which was opposite the way the Russian soldiers traveled, placing light cannon and machine guns and fired at the Russian soldiers, felling victims among them.
The Russian soldiers' marching plan was to stay in Derebchyn (a village about 10 km from Murafa) until the next day. However, the Jews of Derebchyn approached the Russian commander, who was Jewish, and explained that there were many Jews in Murafa who were in mortal danger. Therefore, the commander gave orders to continue their advance, and thus, the Jews in Murafa were saved.
It was not until March 19, 1944, that the partisans entered and chased after the Germans. The population welcomed them with great enthusiasm. The following day, the Soviet army entered the town. In April and May, the deportees began to leave, to go on their way back to their homes.
(Summarized by Meir Kostiner with personal information from Simcha Weissbuch, Yehuda Tennenhaus, Yisrael Huebner, Yitzchak Bessler, Aryeh Ben Shlomo Kostiner, Mordechai Wasserman, as well as information from the Yad Vashem Archives.)
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