Jews, cross the Dniester!
I was a student at the Focsaneanu High School on St. Vineri Street. Mrs. Kanner, the headmistress, had spoken to us about Rosh Hashanah. Doctor Beck, the religion teacher, had read to us fragments from the Mahzor.
It was just two years ago that I discovered I was Jewish. I had been raised in an almost entirely assimilated home. Just my mother went to the synagogue on New Year’s Day; she alone fasted for Yom Kippurand observed the Pass Over. That’s how she had been brought up in her parents’ home, in Cernauti.
Up to the age of eleven, I studied at St. Joseph’s school, on Berthelot Street. In the summer of 1940, when I was due to enroll in the second grade in high school, the headmistress of the school – Mater Gratia – informed my mother that the new racial laws precluded me from attending a Christian school, notwithstanding the fact that my maternal language was German.
- What does Jewish mean? As a Jewess, am I different from my other colleagues? Monica Farado, who is Catholic, or Mariuca Radulescu, who is Orthodox, do they have a different God?
My mother was searching for words. For years she had told me nothing about this. My discovery unnerved her.
- You are eleven years old. You should have realized long ago that you’re Jewish; that you are, in a way, different from the rest of the world. Maybe I should have opened your eyes. It is perhaps my fault… You saw that your grandparents, in Cernauti, observed the kosher ways. Grandmother, as you could notice, did not mix meat with dairy. You saw grandfather going to the synagogue each day. Do you recall he told you he was proud of being a “Levi”? He was a God-abiding man. Do you remember?
- Yes, but he was no different than other people. That’s why I don’t understand… Why am I not allowed to study further? … Why? …
Many times thereafter, I asked myself that question: Why?
My parents enrolled me in the Anglo-Speranta school, on Negustori road. During that year, I learned the Jewish ways.
At home, I saw my family frightened – my parents, my grandmother, my aunts… My father was now unemployed. He had been the manager of the film society “Warner Bros”. Since this was an American company, the offices had been closed. My aunts, who owned the movie theater “Boulevard Palace” on Elisabeta Avenue, had to “romanize” it, becoming the employees of the lawyer Niculescu and of the usher Radulescu. The latter came to work wearing the green shirt with diagonal strap – hallmark of the Legionnaire attire – and a pistol in his belt.
We were starting to feel some financial shortage. The rent was becoming increasingly hard to pay. The same was true of my tuition fee. My mother started selling off her jewelry, her furs. My aunt started doing tailor work at home.
When I went out in town, I was forbidden to stop on the streets. I was forbidden to talk to my colleagues. In fact, I was forbidden to talk to anyone. If somebody spoke to me on the tram, I wasn’t allowed to reply. That was in order to avoid provocations. Every day when I left for school, my grandmother repeated the same words of advice:
- Keep your eyes wide open! Protect yourself! We live in a world that hates us! Learn to defend yourself! …
January 1941. The days of the Legionary Rebellion. We lived life with fear in our hearts. The curtains were hanging heavy in the windows. We didn’t open the door for anyone. Rumors of all kinds were circulating, filling us with dread.
“On Vacaresti road, the Jews are being beaten… Shop windows are being smashed on Dudesti… The Jewish homes are being put on fire… At the slaughterhouse, the Legionnaires have hung Jews from the hooks… Out in the Jilava woods, Jews have been shot…”
Who knows when they would knock on our door?
The days of the rebellion went by. Next came forced labor for the Jews. The great majority of the Jews in Bucharest, the young ones in particular, were sent out to labor detachments: Chitila, Ploiesti, Piatra-Neamt, Poligon etc. The ones remaining in the capital city were assigned to hard labor detachments, road constructions, highways, bridges… A small contingent of Bucharest’s Jewish population obtained – some of them by buying it - a “work waiver card”. My father didn’t have enough money for this purpose. Our financial situation was rather difficult. Still, he had “worked out” something. He was assigned to a detachment of “roads and highways” in the Tudor Vladimirescu district.
In 1941 the “Anglo-Speranta” school was shut down. A year before that, Miss Boyd – the headmistress – had left Romania for Jerusalem, where she passed away years later. A military hospital was established on the premises of the former school. The war had begun. Wounded soldiers brought from the front lines were now filling the classrooms.
My parents enrolled me in the “Focsaneanu” high school, on St. Vineri Street. Mrs. Kanner, the headmistress of the high school, had a fond feeling for me from the very start. I was a tall girl with auburn pigtails and large blue eyes. I wasn’t part of the “elite squadron” of the class, but I was among those students who wanted to know “why”?
In the winter of 1941-1942 my father was obligated, as all other Jews in Bucharest, to put in his share of “snow” days. The days he was present for snow shoveling, he was absolved from forced labor in the Tudor Vladimirescu detachment.
In the month of March, the detachment where my father worked received an order from the Territorial Circle II of Bucharest: All Jews who had put in “snow” days should have their military papers stamped…
On March 20, 1942, one hundred and four Jews from the “roads and highways” detachment went over to the Territorial Circle to have their papers stamped.
The same day, at 7.30 AM, a black military vehicle pulled up in front of the City Hall in the Tudor Vladimirescu district. From this vehicle descended General Cepleanu – general inspector for the forced labor detachments in the country – and his adjutant.
- Where are your Kikes, mayor? I haven’t seen them working on the highway!
- They’re all in Bucharest, at Territorial Circle II. They were ordered to stamp their military cards.
- Do you have a list with their names? Bring it here!
The general took the list and handed it over to his adjutant. This one folded it and put it in his briefcase.
Some of the Jews in Bucharest – the ones who could afford it – had rented farmland lots, where they were supposedly growing vegetables. Twice a year they had to surrender to the “Ownership Council” – an organization presided by Mrs. Maria Marshall Antonescu – certain amounts of onions, potatoes, peas etc.
It was no secret to anybody that the Jewish small merchants, far from being gardeners, were purchasing the imposed product quotas biannually and delivering them to the government authorities. They were however dropping by their gardens every once in a while, to water the land, verify the condition of the fences and remove the trash and the weeds. Since the vegetables – purchased at the market – were delivered in a timely manner and according to the governing law, nobody raised any objections.
When general Cepleanu came to inspect the gardens, just eleven of the twenty-three “gardeners” were present on the premises. Ten of them were standing lined up in front.
- I am very pleased with you! You are doing a patriotic deed! Sir – he addressed one of them – make me a list with the names of the present.
It was the accountant Blumenthal he had spoken to. Short and bent over like a true accountant, Blumenthal started to write down the names of the present on a list. Suddenly, a voice came from the bushes on the side of the road:
- Write me down too, Mr. Blumenthal!
Semo Marcovici, a big man wearing eyeglasses, emerged from the bushes a moment later. Red in the face, he tried to explain:
- I’m sorry, you understand, the bodily needs… But I’ve been here all along.
At which point the general, a slightly distracted look in his eyes, said to Blumenthal:
- Write him down too!
The list was handed to the adjutant, who carefully put it in a folder.
In summer, in the month of June, a young squadron leader by name of Marinescu paid us a visit at our home. He was serving at the Territorial Center II of Bucharest, on Negustori Road.
- There’s trouble ahead, sir! he told my dad. I heard at the Center that the Marshall ordered Cepleanu to put together a list of those absent from work, and to deploy them to Transnistria as a disciplinary measure. It isn’t good, sir! And if there’s talk about it, then it’s bound to happen!
My father didn’t panic. He had been “present” at a work detachment. The mayor was on track with his wage. The squadron leaders were also getting their share of the pie; the highway was being built and everything seemed to be in order.
At the end of August however, the same squadron leader Marinescu appeared at our home again. This time around, after listening to his news, my father did get alarmed.
My uncle, reserve captain Paul Constantiu Virtolas, had been informed that my father’s name showed up on some of General Cepleanu’s “lists”.
General Piki Vasiliu, a minister of the Antonescu government, supposedly replied in response to my uncle’s intervention that disciplinary measures were not yet being considered, but maybe in the future, they would be…
And so they were…
On the night of September 15, 1942 – the eve of Rosh Hashanah – around two o’clock, the doorbell rang persistently. Fists were hammering on the door.
- Open up! Police!
Still half asleep, in our pajamas, with bathrobes thrown over our shoulders, we all stepped out in the hallway.
- I’ve got an order to arrest you and take you all to the Commissariat.
The commissar of the 15th Circumscription had known my father for many years; he spoke without looking at him:
- It may just be one of those security checks, you know… But I have to do my duty. The order says: the husband, the wife, their parents and their children.
My grandmother was sick in bed. It turned out to be her good fortune. Otherwise, as I knew her, she would have jumped up to leave with us in the middle of the night for the Commissariat. A police sergeant stayed at our home to watch her. My aunts promptly called Professor Dr. Basil Teodorescu, my grandmother’s physician. He arrived right away.
For the next 24 hours, Prof. Dr. Basil Teodorescu didn’t leave our house. Each time the police came to pick up my grandmother, he intervened stating that from a medical point of view, she needed absolute bed rest. Considering the professor’s academic stature, as well as the energetic nature of his interventions, the police commissariat finally gave up… In 1942, my grandmother was 79 years old.
We remained at the commissariat in Izvor Street for the balance of the night. There were two benches in our cell. I lay down on one of them. My mother sat on the other one. My father didn’t sit down for one moment. At the break of dawn, I looked at him speechlessly: His hair had turned utterly white.
I had turned fourteen in June. I was a third grade student in high school. I liked reading a lot. I was interested in politics, in the international situation. I wouldn’t intervene in the conversations of the grown ups, but I was listening. I was beginning to develop an interest in anything linked to the Jewish nation and their fate in the world.
A few months before, a man who struck me as an unusual character passed through our house. It was Dr. Benjamin Schor from Vienna, who had escaped from Austria and was now on the run. A Zionist organization in Bucharest was trying to smuggle him to Palestine.
Being a physician, he had been concentrated in a camp for political detainees. His wife and two daughters were left behind in Vienna. His eldest daughter was my age.
While in the concentration camp, he heard that the Jews from Vienna were being deported to Poland, that part of them had been killed, burned alive. He couldn’t quite believe it, but a great inquietude overcame him.
One night good fortune smiled on him. He took advantage of the opportunity and escaped from the camp. In a few days, he reached Vienna. A neighbor told him that his wife and daughters had been deported two weeks ago, and advised him to flee, lest he be in great danger. The Jew hunt was rampant.
He set out to look for his family. Someone told him that his mother was in the hospital, paralyzed. He no longer found her alive. A doctor, ex-colleague, told him she had passed away without regaining consciousness. The fascists had hit her over the head, and the poor woman drifted away into unconsciousness.
Doctor Schor reached Bucharest. When I met him, he was waiting to be smuggled across the border. He may still be alive, in Israel.
He spoke to us about Hitler’s “final solution”, he told my father about the fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria and Poland. My father argued that Romanians are different than Germans, that in Romania life would remain possible in spite of some restrictions, and in the end one could survive the fascist madness.
My poor dad, how many illusions he had woven!
In my uncle’s house – photographer Aurel Bauch – a few friends used to come together once every week: Geo Bogza, Traian Selmaru (then Selmar Terner) etc.
Nestled on the windowsill, I was listening to their conversation. They would forget I was there, for I never dared to open my mouth.
My uncle Aurel Bauch, his wife Henriette and my cousin Djania were refugees from Paris. Once the Germans took over the capital of France, my relatives took advantage of their Romanian citizenship and returned to Romania. My uncle Aurel Bauch opened a photography studio on Victoriei Road, “Studio 43”.
There, in that house, I heard them talking about what the Nazis did to the German Jews, about what was being done in Poland to annihilate the Jewish community, about what was being done in France and about the preparations to expand these actions to the whole of mankind.
The “final solution” was not mentioned, maybe they hadn’t heard about it yet; still, we heard plenty about dastardly deeds, mass murders and deportations. Geo Bogza was one of the most outraged by these news, yet at the same time one of the most naïve – for he still believed in the purity of the Romanian soul, in its innate inability to kill an innocent man. Miron Radu Paraschivescu tried to contradict him, quoting mass psychology, poisonous rhetoric, bestial instincts and the way these manifest during times of war…
Listening to them, I found the topic interesting, and why not, educational…
In the large classrooms and hallways, new people were constantly brought in: men, women and children. Crying, moaning, shouting. Some had a suitcase in their hand, others just a bundle. A man carrying a large wicker basket cruised through the room, giving out food to the detainees. He also offered kind words of encouragement, which at the time meant more than the bread and the prune jam.
This man’s name was Schwartz, and he was not arrested. He had bribed the policemen in order to be allowed to help us.
I sat down in a corner, in one of the classrooms. A chair, a desk, a bench. We were looking around us. A prefect, Vasilescu, from the Capital Prefecture, was reading out the orders.
- Mr. Prefect – my father finally dared to ask – what will happen to us? Why are we here? How can we communicate with our families? Please…
- Stop asking me! What’s with all these questions? What do you think I am, the Information Bureau?! This is the “Collection Center” for those who will be deported to Transnistria. You were absent from work and the Marshall is sending you, as a means of correction, to work over there…
Silence fell over the room. It became thicker with each passing moment. We all realized what was happening.
- About your families, what can I say? Let them stay at home, said the prefect. A triage committee will be held for you, and whoever isn’t guilty, can go home in peace. That’s when you can talk to your families.
There was a glimmer of hope. A triage committee? Then maybe…
(All through my deportation, almost fourteen months, we kept being told about this “triage committee”…)
The prefect wasn’t aware what a Jewish family meant. We were being held for just a few hours - assembled from various neighborhoods of Bucharest - in the school building on Sfintilor Street. During this time, hundreds of people had gathered around the fence outside: parents, brothers, sisters and children of the detainees.
We looked at them through the windows. Now and then we could hear:
- Look, there’s mom! Mom! Oh God, she can’t see me! She can’t hear me, either! Look at that cop pushing her around! Mom!!!
- Sarica – a hoarse male voice sent a shiver down our spines – Sarica… daddy’s girl…
- There, in that corner… you see? said a young man to us, his large hazel eyes full of anguish and sorrow. There, you see, that’s my big sister, Betty. I was picked up from their home last night. My little nephews were so scared when they saw the cops…
Marcel Winter looked sadly at his sister and brother in law, waiting silently in front of the fence, a parcel in their hands.
- My parents and younger sisters are in Braila, he continued. They don’t know anything yet. Can you imagine what this will do to my mom?
In a far corner of the classroom, away from the window, an elderly couple was listening to their son, a tall young man, with broad shoulders and eyes filled with optimism.
Irene and Aladar Brauch were listening to Fritz explain to them, in no uncertain terms, how in the next few hours they would regain their freedom. The “Triage Committee” had no doubt already started their investigation.
Sitting in a chair and puffing away at his pipe, a white-haired well-built man was watching – rather distracted – the tragedy unfolding around him. Robert Placek was a Czech citizen. He knew this was nothing more than a mistake. He was sure it would all be clarified within the next few hours. True, he was Jewish, but a foreign citizen. He had an Austrian passport in his pocket, and his wife – a Christian Austrian – was probably out at the gate with the official release order in her hand.
Iulius Grienberg and his wife Liza were tending to Zitale, their two-year old daughter. Zitale was a little doll, bubbling with laughter, stimulated by the agitation around her.
On top of a huge parcel – in reality a folded comforter – Mrs. Maidenberg throned like a queen. Definitely past her prime, she was heartily biting from a giant sandwich. Next to her stood her son, a thin delicate youth, gazing at her sadly. His father, Mr. Maidenberg, was reading his prayer book. Nothing and nobody could distract him from the lecture of the holy book. The son resembled the father. The old Maidenberg was a frail man with a pale complexion.
The accountant Alfred Blumenthal was delicately stroking the hand of his wife, a beautiful woman with a calm, serene expression.
- In the end, it will all work out. There’s definitely been a mistake. One gross mistake! The General, he congratulated us… He was pleased with us… Definitely a mistake…
By afternoon time, the school had filled up. There was no elbowroom left. In exchange for serious bribes, the cops started “commuting” between those at the fence and those in the building. In this manner we acquired warmer clothes, a food basket and beverages.
Later that afternoon, in accordance to an order from the City Prefecture, the policemen removed the crowd surrounding the school in Sfintilor Street.
It was beginning to get dark. On top of a desk full of ink spots, a few candles were lit. The women covered their heads. A few of the men wrapped themselves in “talits”, most however put their handkerchiefs on their heads.
The doors between classrooms were open. Shadows of those around us were gliding across the walls. Through the sudden silence, a voice – I don’t know whose – rose strong and clear.
- Shma Israel… Adonai eloheinu, Adonai ehad!
People started praying. A rumble, like the flow of water, filtered through the rooms. Tears finally ran freely over our faces. I watched the candles flickering and I talked to God, directly, without interpreters. The women wiped their eyes with their handkerchiefs or the edge of their scarves. The men wiped the tears from their unshaven faces with their palms of their hands. Even the few small children became quiet, impressed by the forceful ceremony.
- God, why have you forsaken us? Why do you punish us so harshly? God, don’t leave us now! …
I fell asleep there, on the school bench, with tears in my eyes and anguish in my heart.
It was seven days before the end of this ordeal in the School on Sfintilor Street.
Twice we managed to run home over night. A few hundred lei given to a cop facilitated our escape. We were due back by the break of dawn. Others in our situation did the same, all those who had the financial means and reasons to break out: a home, a family…
One day, the prefect called out four family names. Among them was the Sticlaru family, composed of three people, and the Faibis family.
I knew Nelu Faibis; I had met him in the house of the Haichin family. He was a tall, sturdy young man, barely twenty years of age, always with a warm smile on his face. He was a good friend of Sura Haichin, the brother of my best friend Tamara, whom I grew up and went to school with. I knew Nelu had trouble with his forced labor assignment. They wanted to send him to Sarata, to the forced labor detachment there. The Faibis family however found an attorney who also happened to be a colonel and who managed to help them out, then as well as now, arranging their release from the School on Sfintilor Street.
The Faibis family hurriedly grabbed their few belongings. Nelu approached me, tears in his eyes.
- Hang in there, Sonia! You’ll see! Everything will be fine!
The Sticlaru family was released thanks to the intervention of Mrs. Goga, wife to the well-known poet and anti-Semite politician.
The next morning, Mr. Schwartz was walking through the school again. He bribed the policemen to get in. He always came loaded with food baskets. In his pockets, he had candy for the little ones.
Zitale, Victoras (the Hechter’s boy), Dinu (the blond and delicate son of the Lupescu family) and Natalitza Schnelicht were running after him to get candies. The crowded halls - filled with sad, anxious people - rang with their laughter.
The barber Avram Solomon and his wife had their son, Marcel, brought to them by the cops. He was a cute kid with playful eyes, lively and bright. Avram Solomon – a skinny dark man, nicknamed the “Gipsy” – had to choose: Either his mother or his son, a seven year old boy, was to be deported with them. And the family decided. It would be little Marcel… Still, he had a better chance than the frail old mother. Throughout our stay in the school from Sfintilor Street, the barber Solomon had delighted us with his stories, true events that occurred during his long career as a barber.
- I had Professor Iorga as my client, too. Every morning, seven o’clock sharp I would go to his home – when he was in Bucharest – and “touch up his beard”, his pride. Years later he gave me these gifts – and he showed us a gold watch, “Longines” brand, and an overcoat made out of camel hair.
That Sunday we celebrated the Eve of Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre… We all fasted. The prayers were held in silence in one of the classrooms, temporarily converted into a prayer house.
Every once in a while, the voices would meld together, murmuring the holy prayers in unison.
Came Monday morning, five o’clock. Dawn had not yet broken. Big military trucks pulled up in front of the school.
- All kikes to the trucks! We’re leaving!
The big iron gates of the school building opened. Silently, keeping close together – as if to protect ourselves from the world outside – we climbed in the large green trucks. The sun was not yet up in the sky. I don’t know how people found out about our departure. A small crowd gathered in front of the school. They were staring at us in silence, petrified. Now and then, a holler would rip through the silence when somebody recognized a loved one.
- Carol… Carol, take care of yourself…
- That’s my mother: She came in from Braila. Why in the world would Betty let her come here? …
The policemen put a chair next to each truck. We had a hard time getting in. Topsy-turvy, one on top of the other, we sat down on the floor of the truck. The boarding process didn’t last long. After less than half an hour, during which time none of us spoke a word, we arrived at the railroad station Bucharest-Triage.
- Get off! Get off! Move! … Goddamn kikes…
Throughout the fourteen months of deportation I kept hearing these words, spoken in a command tone, almost always accompanied by whiplashes or blows.
To the policemen, gendarmes and soldiers, we were not human. To them we represented a heard of cattle, to be driven to the stables or to the slaughterhouse. The great majority of the people in uniform did not see in us beings like themselves, women that could have been their mothers, sisters or lovers, children much like the ones they had left at home, men that could have been their work partners or drinking buddies…
A set of freight cars was waiting for us on a sidetrack of the railway station. This was the type of train cars generally used for cattle transport. We were embarked, 44-45 people per car. A feverish agitation reigned during the first few moments, an attempt to organize the few things we had brought along. Curses and screams could be heard as well. Everyone felt that the other’s spot was better. The big battle was over the spots next to the windows - tiny outlets of light blocked by iron bars, close to the ceiling of the train car, where a small amount of air could seep in.
The ones embarking last were forced to sit by the door. Next to them were placed two big barrels, each covered by a lid. One of the gendarmes grinned:
- Don’t get confused now! One barrel for water, one for body wastes! Don’t mix them up!
How right he was! From the very first night the barrels were mixed up by the hastier among us. In order to get by the door, one had to walk over the bodies stretched out on the floor. It was dark in the train. How could one tell the barrels apart? In time we gained experience, and each barrel was placed separately, at a different end of the train car. At one point we took turns, consecutively, watching the water barrel. But up to that point…
For three days we sat on the sidetracks of the peripheral railroad station of Bucharest. Meanwhile, a group of ladies from the Red Cross – some of them Jewish – brought us milk, tea, fresh bread for the children and the elders. The Jewish Community brought us chests filled with medication, mugs, tin plates, buckets, axes, nails…
I recalled that I had taken a first-aid course in school at St. Joseph. I had been deployed to the Coltea Hospital, where I acquired the first notions of nursing. In the fever of this adventure’s beginnings, I told the representative of the Jewish Community that I was a “medical assistant”. He didn’t even notice that in front of him was a little girl. He turned over the supplies, I signed for them…
Our families managed to bring us clothes and food. The cops close their eyes and opened their hands. We were allowed to get off the train only at daybreak and nightfall. Our food was brought from the Romanian Railroad Cantina, which had been paid by the Jewish Community for this service. Once a day we got a bowl of watery soup, in which - on good days - we would find scraps of potatoes, carrots, tendons and cartilages…
The September heat was weighing us down. The tiny outlets at the top of the train car did not allow enough air to come in. Next to us, lying on a blanket, were Iulius and Liza Grienberg. Their daughter, Zitale, was happily tumbling around. Her laughter pierced the silence. Otherwise, people spoke in a whisper. During the three days, I listened to dozens of stories. Everyone shared stories of themselves, their families, the jobs they left behind… We were getting acquainted, learning to live in a collective. The most difficult part was with washing. Every morning, we were given a bottle of water. Additionally, our barrel was being filled.
My father, along with the others, kept saying:
- You’ll see, we won’t be leaving after all! A Triage Committee must be underway! Most of us are innocent, we were present for work. The Territorial Center stamped our papers for the “snow” days…
Mr. Blumenthal nervously wiped his glasses:
- In our case, sir, there has been an equally grave mistake… A mistake that has to be revealed. We are the ones with the vegetable gardens. You heard about us, didn’t you? General Cepleanu found us on the vegetable lots. Can you imagine... he found us there! I made the list for him. I wrote down everybody’s name. And now… everyone on the list is out here. I don’t understand!!
It was hard to understand indeed, but nobody cared about us. On the third day, an employee of the railroad station approached our train, accompanied by a gendarme. He opened the box mounted on the side of the train car and stuck a transport label inside: Special Transport: TRANSNISTRIA – BOGDANOV.
That same night, our train cars were attached to a freight train. Direction: Transnistria. Nobody closed an eye. We could hear the long drawn whistle of the locomotive. We could feel the rhythmic movement of the wheels over the tracks. The doors of the train cars were bolted from the outside. The farther away we traveled, the colder it got in the train.
Many of us suffered hysteric outbreaks. Some charged at the walls of the train car, pounding with their fists against them. Robert Placek had lost his calm. Staring into the void, he was murmuring: “Es ist ein Fehler! Um Gotteswillen… ein Fehler! Wie ist das moglich?” (“It’s a mistake! In the name of God… a mistake! How is this possible?”)
My father kept whispering to my mother the same misguided words: “You’ll see… at the first railroad station, a committee will be waiting for us… This can’t happen… It’s a mistake…”
Lisa Grienberg rocked Zitale on her lap and cried. Iulius watched her, his eyes filled with fear. Irene was whispering: “It’ll be fine… you’ll see…”
None of us could really believe we were being deported. What would tomorrow bring? We were not asking that question.
At the break of dawn the train stopped. The big wooden doors swung open.
- Get off! Empty the wastes! Get water in the barrels! Whoever needs to go, get under the train. Everybody back here in 10 minutes!
The train was now surrounded by a guard of field gendarmes in shabby blue uniforms. They were all elderly people, tired and bored of the “holy war” imposed by the Marshall.
The chief of this guard was squadron leader Fanache. He was the only one wearing a khaki uniform. He treated his men – poor peasants – as if they were his servants. Not once did I hear him say a kind word. As for us, we were all “kikes” – that was it. “Hey you, hey kike!” – was almost always accompanied by “Goddamn freak! … Holy crap! Shit…”
And yet, these gendarmes with dirty mouths, always ready to hit us, have oftentimes left the door of our car unbolted, so we could crack it open while the train was moving. So we could get a breath of air…
In our train car, the youngsters formed a separate group. I was the only girl. I became their confident. Everybody told me about their life, about the girl they had left behind, about their parents. They shared their dreams and their hopes.
Fritz talked to me about Marcella. Gusti about Yvonne. Bumi described Felia with a poet’s gentleness. I listened. I knew talking did them well. I understood them.
The only one who didn’t talk to me about a sweetheart was Marcel. He talked about his native town, Braila, about his mother whom he worshipped, about his little sisters and about his nephews – the children of Betty, his older sister with whom he lived in Bucharest, on Mosilor Road, up to the point he was deported. I could have listened to him for hours on end. Marcel looked at me warmly. I felt I was like a sister to him.
Many a time, Marcel would recite poetry for us… Eminescu, Cosbuc, Verlaine… Or he would sing. He had a clear, beautiful voice. We accompanied him. From vaudeville, we would go to Romanian folk and romance songs, and would eventually wrap it up in Yiddish: “Ios, mein steitele Ios… dort der shil… dort der mil… dort der mark… dort der park, oioi, oioi, ioi, mein steitele Ios”.
Tears were running down our cheeks.
Water started running short. During those days, my mother stopped washing. We were thirsty. We were hungry. The reserves we had taken from home were rapidly dwindling. We bribed the soldiers to buy bread and ham for us in the railroad stations where we stopped. The hard bread and the bite of ham were not enough to appease our hunger. The Mailenders, the Maidenbergs and many others were not eating the ham or the bacon we sometimes managed to buy. Zitale, Natalitza, Victor and Dinu were then receiving larger portions. The children were the joy of our train car. They were playful, smart, sweet. Zitale had given me the nickname “Tzuia”. Many called me by that name for years to come. We played a lot with the children, especially the two little girls. We all loved them. Zitale was a brunette, Natalitza a little blond angel.
In a few days of torrid heat we crossed Moldova. “A little bit more and we’ll reach the Dniester.”
Seven days in our train cars… Seven days, for a trip that usually took 10 hours on a passenger train. Seven days of thirst, hunger, anxiety and fear. Seven days in which we got to know each other, but not to love each other. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t get along. Why kindness seemed to have vanished. Why everyone fought so fiercely, sometimes for ten centimeters of floor space, for 50 grams of extra water, for a few breadcrumbs. I was fourteen years and two months old. My two friends, Fritz Brauch – age 21 – and Marcel Winter – age 22 – were slightly more experienced than I was. Fritz told us – trying to crack a joke in our misery – about the famous labor detachment in Gaiesti, which was unloading tons of Jell-O boxes for the Romanian army. Infighting, backstabbing, and very rarely an encounter with a HUMAN BEING… Winter attempted to explain the laws of Darwinism to me. “The law of natural selection”: Everyone fends for himself, fights to survive, to endure… In time, I understood.
In our diverse group of people, originating from various social layers with different customs, I found a friend: Ana Blumenthal, the accountant’s wife. Ana tried, patiently, to make me understand that I should be less exalted. That I should not give up my can of water for another, that I should keep my slice of bread for the coming evening, when I’d be hungry again. And if a soldier cussed me out or hit me, that I shouldn’t jump and I shouldn’t protest. Pretend not to hear, not to see…
Ana was a handsome woman. She was forty – a few years older than my mother. She was wise and quiet; a warm spirit.
My mother was frail and sickly. From the time we left Bucharest, she had been suffering from bouts of sinusitis, which gave her fever and headaches. My father was sick as well. A refractory ulcer; an old infarct and his nerves… From the first day of deportation, I felt responsible for their fate. I pitied them. I felt strong. My father incessantly tried to comfort my mother. I realized he lived in a world of illusions.
On the fourth day of our train trip, I started digging through the chests we had received in the Triage railroad station. I found a carpenter kit. A saw… I called Fritz and Winter, and they in turn called Dolphi Hechter and Iulius Grienberg. A brief “counsel” was held.
The boys decided to cut a square in the floor of each train car, which naturally would be covered up with a suitcase if a patrol came by.
I took other four saws with me, in a hand pack. The next morning at dawn break, when our cars were opened, I reported to Fanache.
- I am a medical assistant. I have to go through each train car to distribute medication. I heard there are a few cases of dysentery.
- Go, but quickly, no long talk! And tell them not to eat so much… Hahaha. That’s why their guts are hurting!
I left a saw in each train car, along with explanations for its intended use.
On the seventh day we reached Tighina. Far in the distance we could see the Dniester. A muddy, dirty water, carrying washed out planks and tree branches… Our train cars were stationed on a sidetrack. The doors were bolted from the outside, so the gendarmes had no fear that we could escape. The humid heat and the lack of air were wearing us down. We were plagued by thirst. A single cup of water in the morning and one at night were not enough for us.
We were all mowing over the same question: What would our future hold?
After two days, when we had come to believe we had been forgotten by God and by people, we heard the whistle of the railroad superintendent. Then a locomotive pulled up and came to a screeching halt. After a moment we felt a jolt, and our train started moving. A few among us looked out through the narrow window slits.
- We’re crossing the Dniester!
One hour of travel. It seemed like we were crawling in the heat of the night. We had crossed a bridge over the Dniester. Then, we were again abandoned on a sidetrack. That evening the gendarmes no longer opened our train cars. And they no longer gave us water.
In the evenings we would usually gather around the wholes we had cut in the floor of the train car. We would tell each other stories about our lives in Bucharest, about foods we used to prepare for certain occasions, about parties and about the special people in our lives.
That first night on the Transnistrian soil, none of us moved from our spot. Dark thoughts were rambling through our minds. Nobody talked. Zitale was sleeping. Victor, Dolphi Hechter’s son, was sleeping as well. Just Dinu, the son of the Lupescu family, was playing with a sheet of paper, smiling quietly. A heavy, oppressing silence had enveloped the train car. I tried to sleep. I was hot. I was thirsty. My lips were chapped and burning. I desperately tried to recall pleasant memories from the course of my short life: playing with snowballs, the club “Children’s Friendship”, the doves and the buzzard, my collection of stamps… Marius Benaroio, my first friend, my first love… Grandma… Whenever I remembered Grandma, I felt calm and quiet. I remembered our talks; I felt her gaze enveloping me – warm, gentle and open. For the past few months, Grandma and I were having long talks: I tried to prove to her that God is great and merciful, that we were his chosen people, his beloved children. That’s what they had taught us in school, in rabbi Beck’s class – our religion teacher. Grandma would not contradict me, but recounted, each time, the same story. Her mother, my great-grandmother, had been a God abiding woman. What set her apart from others was her kindness, her selflessness. Anyone knocking at her door would be always sure to find help, be it either advice or material aid. She would often come to see my grandmother (her youngest daughter), and would ask to “borrow” a few hundred, even a few thousand lei.
- What for, mother?
- A girl is getting married…
My grandmother would ask no more. She knew her mother would never tell who it was…
She was 87 when one day she called her daughter – my grandmother.
- Amalie dear, I’m leaving. I’m going… Don’t cry! It’s time. I’m very tired. Look, I wrote down here what you have to do. The people written down on this list have to get help each month. The money is here, in the box. For your children, here, take this envelope… Don’t argue. I also wrote to your older brother Bernhard in Vienna, to keep sending you the money I was getting up to now… My annuity… You know, that bank in Switzerland… All I have is yours… Amalie dear… I am going to Him. I believed in Him for a lifetime. I raised my children to love and to respect Him. After your poor father died, I was alone, a widow. Your brothers had long since left; they had their own households. I had nobody closer than Him, my Lord. In this hour when I part with all that is worldly, with all that I cherish, listen to me, my daughter, listen to me well: I am going to Him! My place is there. But if you, your husband and your children won’t do well, if you won’t be happy on this earth, listen well, Amalie, it is your mother telling you this: Then you should know He has forgotten us! He has no time for us!
When talking about this confession, my Grandmother would be biting her lip. Her face – usually soft, gentle and light – would become suddenly harsh.
- After Mother died, my husband passed away – your grandfather. The estate unraveled. Your father, very young and green as far as business goes, was cheated out by his own best friends. We had to sell the house and move into a small rental apartment. Chelly and Gina, your aunts, had to work long, hard hours. Your father, one week after his marriage, was arrested as a “defector”. They claimed he had neglected to report on time for military duty. He used the dowry money to buy his way out of jail, and moved with your mother to Petrosani to do his military training. Then he fell sick…
How can one live like this, without air, without water? Did He really forget us? We are still his chosen people. He loved us, we were His children. And now, where are You, Lord? Why do you let us suffer so miserably? Why do You try us so hard? Why don’t You see us, Lord? …
The next morning, the doors of the train car slid open. Bright daylight flooded the area, blinding us for a moment. Gradually, our eyes adapted. On the ground, in front of the train, a gendarme corps was stationed in firing position. Also present were officers in elegant uniforms, shiny boots and horsewhips in their hands. One of them shouted:
- In one hour’s time, I want all monies, watches and jewelry deposited in these buckets. I hope you understood me. In one hour, you’ll be searched. Whoever keeps anything will be shot on the spot. Without a trial! Do you understand? It’s for the war effort… If you wish, you can keep a log, and after the war the objects or their counter value will be restituted to you.
Mr. Blumenthal instantly produced an ink pen and a notepad. Nobody said a word. We found it normal to take off our earrings from our ears, our rings from our fingers, our watches from our wrists. My father whispered – and his whisper spread: “Don’t give away all the money. We’re going to need it later.” The officer watched us absentmindedly; sometimes he’d spur us on with his threats.
- Attention here! We will proceed to the inspection of the luggage. You will open the luggage and leave it in the train cars. We’ll do bodily searches, too. I wouldn’t like to spoil my day with you. I’m not fond of shooting, but if you disrespect my orders…
We all surrendered our valuables. Some of us, the daring and the unconscious, hid a few things here and there. All throughout, Blumenthal carefully kept log. Much later, I realized how ridiculous the situation was. The officer watched in amusement, as the poor Jew endeavored to put his log together as accurately as he possibly could:
Family Solomon, Avraham: lady’s earring set with two pearls, lady’s watch - Omega brand, two wedding bands…
Family Brauch, Aladar: gentleman’s watch - Tellus brand, two wedding bands, lady’s ring with a diamond, two monogrammed gentleman’s rings…
After one hour we descended from the train cars. The gendarmes surrounded us. A few officers climbed up on the train. Momentarily, things started flying: shirts, underwear, towels… They didn’t care about anything. Cynically, poking fun, they turned over suitcase after suitcase, one on top of the other. Whatever they considered quality clothes were put aside. That way I was left without skirts, without a dress, without shoes. They left me just two overalls (one of which I was wearing), two blouses and the boots I had on my feet. Through the almost 14 months of deportation, I had nothing else to wear but these two blue overalls and the heavy pair of boots. The other things in my suitcase “appealed to them”. Each officer left with a full suitcase. At noontime, the officer who had conducted the “robbery action” ordered us back on the train.
- You will each get a full loaf of bread and water to discretion. Send a delegate from each train car to the railroad canteen, to buy you cigarettes and salami.
- But we don’t have money… Sir!
- Well, you can trade for things. The boys at the canteen will serve you… Pay with trousers, shirts… You still have some left…
The confusion in the train cars was indescribable. For hours we kept searching for our things. There were fights; there was yelling. There were even those among us who raised their fists.
Our “delegates” returned with salami, cigarettes, and for the children they bought milk and butter. In the evening, the heavy doors were closed.
We stayed in Tiraspol, on a sidetrack, for two days. Then around midnight, we heard the locomotive once again. A jolt, one more, and there, we were on our way…
The trip from Tiraspol to Odessa takes three to four hours by train. That end of September however, it took the five train cars carrying Jewish deportees from Bucharest fourteen hours to traverse that distance.
We had no knowledge as to our destination. We didn’t know - and there was no one to ask. As a matter of fact, even the group of gendarmes accompanying us had no idea as to the whereabouts of Bogdanov. It was this very fact, perhaps, that played out to our advantage.
The sun-bleached sheet of paper affixed to each train car from the railroad station Bucharest-Triage supposedly indicated the destination of the deportee contingent. However no one in Odessa, not even the railroad personnel, not even Headquarters, had any idea where Bogdanov was.
The train cars were again stationed on a sidetrack. The station of Odessa was an important railroad center. Dozens of rail tracks, old train cars, worn out, hit by bombs… Freight trains filled with musty straw… Crowds of Romanian soldiers, Germans, Ukrainian peasants bundled up as if an ice age was upon them, women carrying heavy bundles on their heads.
Our train cars were stationed at the outer limits of the railroad station, on a little mound. Curious about our surroundings, we took turns peaking through the window slits in the walls. The railroad station, situated on a hill, dominated the city. Large avenues, lined by trees, descended to the sea, towards the harbor. We could see the ships, the straight avenues, the automobiles and the trucks, and people, lots of people. After an hour or two, we stopped looking. We were no longer curious. Anxiety overcame us once again. The next morning, the same old ritual: the opening of the train cars, the slice of dark bread, the morsel of ham or bacon, the emptying of the waste buckets. We were no longer allowed to go under the train.
- This is a big station! You can’t go under the train for bodily needs. Just hold out, what the heck! You don’t get that much food, anyway… So why would you need to go under the train? You won’t turn the Odessa railroad station into an outhouse, will you? …
The gendarme laughed, as if he had told a good joke. We on the other hand were thinking that we would fill up our buckets, and then have no place to empty them out. The wholes we had cut in the floors of the train cars started serving for that purpose, too. They stunk.
- We’ll keep you here one more day – Fanache told us the following morning. Nobody knows where to send you.
Another day and night in Odessa. Not even we, the young, had the patience or the strength to talk. The children were nervous. They were thirsty, they didn’t have room to move; the people around them were uneasy, anxious and nervous. I tried playing with them – every child’s play that I could remember. I went a few times through the inventory of my medicine chest. The accountant Blumenthal put together a list of the deportees. We were 212 people from Bucharest. (Later, in the month of October, another 72 boys arrived from Bucharest. They were alone, without families. They had been deported disciplinarily, same as we had been, by the same general Cepleanu.)
Among us was a woman, Esther, with two small children: a little girl whom she was breastfeeding, and a two-year-old boy. Her husband was in a forced labor detachment in Ploiesti. He didn’t even know what happened to his family. Zalman Abramovici, the glass worker, was here along with his wife and three daughters. The eldest, Sara, was eight years old. She was a frail child, sickly, with eyes uncommonly large. Unlike her little sisters, she cried all the time. I tried to find out why. A policeman had struck her the night of their arrest.
The hours were maddeningly long. A day seemed like an eternity. At nightfall, when we heard the sound of train doors cracking open, we perked up. We waited for our door to swing open too, so we could finally breath. We clustered around the door. We were not allowed to get off. We didn’t even try to protest it. It seemed normal to us that an old gendarme, in a shabby uniform, an old rifle in his hand, should tell us where to stand…
One of those evenings, after being thoroughly cussed out, I felt my blood boiling in my veins. Outraged, I said to Winter:
- What if we disarmed them and ran?
Marcel gave me a long, sad look. His hand stroked my hair for the first time. He looked at me deeply, as if he saw me for the very first time.
- What a child you are! I, too, may have rebelled. In fact, there are a few of us here who could disarm these people. A few… Look at me, Sonia, and listen to me well: After we disarm them, then what? Let’s say 10-20 among us would run away, would hide. The others – take a good look at them – the others, the elderly, the women, the children, what would happen to them? What would their fate be? Can you imagine?! Do you realize? What’s more, I’m not sure the few who escaped would manage to make it back into the country… So… Forget it. Let’s better ask Fanache to let us get off, so we can see what’s going on in the other cars. Maybe someone needs help. Take your first aid kit. Maybe someone has diarrhea, or a headache, or perhaps a cold.
The squadron leader Fanache knew I was the medical assistant of the group. He let me enter each train car, accompanied by Marcel.
In the other four train cars the situation was similar. People were uneasy and nervous. Where will they take us? What will happen to us? How long can one live with little – very little – food, and a few sips of water? The Zwirn family – father, mother and three boys – appeared the most balanced. Sorin was ten years old; he was the youngest of the three. He followed me around the entire time I was in their car. When I got off, he told me in a self-assured voice:
- I’m strong, you know…! If you need help, I’ll be here!
This time it was my turn to stroke his messy hair. I felt old, full of understanding for this gutsy kid.
I was also impressed by the Alter brothers. The eldest, Mircea, was tending to Mishu, the younger brother, with paternal care. They were very attached to each other. Mircea Alter, a warm smile on his lips, would always rush to help wherever help was needed. Mishu was just as kind and friendly as his older brother. Their assurance and optimism encouraged everybody around.
In another car, Mrs. Maidenberg wooed:
- We have nothing to eat. Neither I, nor my husband, touch the ham or salami they give us. We’re giving it all to the boy. You know… it isn’t kosher. We still have some leftovers from home, but they’re running out… I don’t know what we’ll do. See how skinny my husband is?
Mr. Maidenberg was indeed quite thin. He seemed like he didn’t belong in this world. He murmured prayers incessantly.
- Ever since we left home, Dad has been praying. He tells me that only the Lord, with his almighty power, can help us.
The young Maidenberg was a delicate boy; his eyes were enveloped by a great sadness. He watched his parents with indescribable concern. He knew they were here because of him, and he reproached himself. Many times from then on, I tried to appease his feelings. I don’t believe I succeeded. I never saw this boy smile. He never took part in our discussions; he never sang with us. He was solely preoccupied by his parents.
The third day in the Odessa railroad station. The autumn that year was uncommonly warm. The clothes were sticking to our skin. We desperately wanted a bath, a clean bed, a plate of warm food. And water, lots of water to drink. All our conversations gravitated around this.
My mother used what little water she had to wash herself. When I held the blanket for her in a corner of the train car, I heard the whispers around:
- Yeah, she’s a great lady… She’s got to bathe…
Winter was the one who taught me not to “hear”, and hence not to reply. It was in this way that I learned not to “hear” and not to “see” more than it was necessary, and more importantly, not to talk back. Ana Blumenthal, the accountant’s wife, had advised me:
- Whenever you feel you want to snap back at someone, count in your mind… up to 10, then try to think about something else… it’s better that way… it’s healthier.
It was, indeed, healthier. There was on thing, however, that no one managed to teach me: to forget!
That evening, our train cars were closed again. We had not yet managed to complete our “routine”. The water buckets were still empty. Fanache came running.
- O.k., everybody up! We’re leaving!
- Where to, Sir?
- And if I tell you, will that make you wiser? I myself have no idea where this place is. We’ll see it when we get there. O.k.! Lock the doors, Vasile! The locomotive will soon come to tow us!
After about two hours, the long drawn whistle of the locomotive, the screeching of the poorly greased wheels and the jolting of the train cars aroused us from our drowsiness.
Each one reacted differently to the beginning of this new stage. Zalman and his wife were crying: “Oh Lord, what will happen to us?”
Placek, who hadn’t said a word for all these days, was looking around bewildered, as if silently asking: “What am I doing here…? All this does not concern me!”
Aladar Brauch gently caressed his wife’s hand. They were from Timisoara. Only during the last few years had they lived in Bucharest. They spoke German amongst themselves. From the first moment, they became friends with my parents. Fritz, their son - tall, broad-shouldered, with lively hazel eyes – was always given to mischief. We became friends on the spot. During the almost fourteen months of deportation, Fritz many a time yanked at my pigtails, sometimes wrestled with me as if I was a boy, but all the while was like a brother to me.
Now Fritz tried to explain to me and to Winter, that we’ll be taken to a village and receive boarding in the local homes. “We’ll bathe, make warm “tschorba”, drink a bucket of water and then sleep to our heart’s desire…”
- It’s not sleep that we need – I attempted to curtail his optimistic dream – but beds, walls, a roof…
- Ah, you and your annoying realism…
- You are dreaming, Fritz, and the disappointment to follow will only be greater – said Winter, taking my side as usual.
He always did that. He regarded me as a sister, too. From the very first days, when we were still in the school on Sfintilor Street, my mother “adopted” him. He was different from everybody else. Not to tall, slender, delicate. He had an open way of talking to people, a gentle smile. I was fourteen years of age, and found myself deeply in love with him. I think he realized this right away. He was nine years older than me. Thinking about his sister in Braila, who was about my age, Winter behaved to me like a brother.
Four hours of travel… We reached a small railroad station, Berskaia. This time, the locomotive was no longer detached from the train cars.
Darkness… A dull streetlight illuminated a rudimentary embankment. In front of the rail station, a passenger train was stationed. With indescribable noise and huff, we transferred on this train. It felt as if we had never before traveled under human conditions, sitting on benches, in compartments with windows and doors.
The men loaded the collective baggage, the medicine and tool chests, and the heavy luggage in general on two platforms annexed to this passenger train.
After a trip of one or two hours we reached a small railroad stop. The locomotive was detached from the train and we were left there, confined to our train cars. Dawn had broken quite a while ago, yet nobody felt tired.
A few horse carts were waiting for us, intended to haul our luggage. We attempted to reorganize. The men unloaded the luggage from the platforms, the suitcases from the train cars, the bundles, parcels, sacks… The terrible noise pierced the calm of the morning. The two rail workers watched the scene in amusement: men, women and children descending one on top of another. We were calling each other. Children searched for their parents, parents searched for their children.
Curses were flowing in abundance. The blows from the gendarmes’ rifles were amortized by the bundles and backpacks. Every now and then, a moan would cut through the noise:
- Don’t hit me, Officer…please, Sir… (To some of us, every military was an officer, even though he may have been just a common soldier).
The loaded carts started moving. We followed. The morning breeze woke us up. The elders and the children were up in the carts, on top of the luggage. Fritz said to me, speaking in all earnest:
- We’re now setting out on the gold hunt, in the Wild West prairies.
I don’t believe I really appreciated the comparison, but I took a long hard look at the surroundings. Six to eight gendarmes were guarding a group of 212 men, women and children. The trip seemed unending. After two to three hours we came upon a small village. We were exhausted. Tired, starved and thirsty. For days we had been wasting away in our train cars; we were no longer accustomed to walking. The best we could do now was crawl. The weak and the powerless were walking in front. The young people – meaning us – had tried to set a more vigorous pace for the march. My father realized that the weak and elderly would be left behind, and that was all the gendarmes were waiting for to fire their weapons. Aladar Brauch, Ionel Teichman, Blumenthal, Marcel Winter, eng. Schwartzenberg, Mircea Alter, Sandu Grin and Bercu Bercu started organizing the caravan. This way, after a few hours’ worth of walking, everybody entered the village. There was nobody left behind. The carts carrying our luggage were waiting in front of a building, the former storage depot of the sovhoz.
The ones among us riding on the carts had had the chance to take a nap while the others were walking. Now they were fresh and eager to tell us the news:
- It’s o.k. in here! There’s wood flooring on the ground! … They want to give us straw… The director of the place is a nice guy… He’s going to let us cook “tschorba” in their cauldron… He said there’s nothing for us to do here… He doesn’t know what to do with us… He said he would call the Government, in Odessa… He has enough bread for everybody…
Gathered around our luggage, which in the meantime had been thrown off the carts, we waited for the director of the agricultural farm. He finally showed up. An agronomical engineer. He looked sick, quite thin and barely able to talk. Without looking at us, he murmured a few words. The ones farther away started asking:
- What’s he saying? We can’t hear! What does he want?
We, the ones in front, closer to him, were able to hear:
- I don’t know why they sent you to me. I have nothing for you to do! In the meantime, go into the barn. Get straw from the back of the building. Make straw beds for yourselves. I’ll give you vegetables and oil to make “tschorba” in the cauldron. Dig a whole for the garbage. Anyone suffering from typhus? No? That’s good. Don’t even think about littering. And don’t wander around… Just stay here… I’ll get rid of you… Man, what a curse! Kikes, that’s what I needed! They must have all gone mad… There’s no work to do here…
He turned around and left. This was Cornel Dumitrescu, agronomical engineer suffering from tuberculosis. He had been sent disciplinarily to Transnistria by Antonescu, as a farm director. That was the Marshall’s way of dealing with notorious legionnaires, of whom he wanted to rid himself.
During the afternoon hours, we started to get organized. There was enough room for everyone. Straw, thanks God, in abundance! From the well in the yard, not far away from the barn, we pumped turbid water, but who cared about the color? We were drinking to our hearts’ desire, we were bathing… Although the water was cold, the autumn weather was still warm. In the barn, we made a corner for the women and one for the men. We took turns holding out blankets for one another –as a shield – and this way we bathed and changed clothes.
Sandu Grin, undergraduate engineer of roads and highways, a bachelor around thirty years of age (mature when compared to the other boys deported), started at once organizing a work team. He took possession of the tool chest given to us by the Community when we were still in the railroad station Bucharest-Triage. In a few hours, an outhouse was taking shape in the back yard, surrounded by a wooden fence. “Women” to the right, “men” to the left. All throughout the deportation, wherever we went, Sandu organized the labor teams, building all the while – be it an outhouse, an outdoor kitchen or a shower stall - or simply replacing the missing planks on the roof or around the windows. This prematurely bald man, more than six feet in height, with big teeth and a gentle look, became dear to us all from the very first days. One could always ask Sandu for help. He was good at everything. He washed his own clothes (he was quite neat and clean), and encouraged others to do likewise, he told fairytales to the children (“You know, my nephews in Bucharest, the kids of my older brother, who is a lawyer… what nephews, devils, nothing less! When I’m with them, I can’t get away without telling a story…”). He even sang, in a deep bass voice, vaudeville arias.
That evening we were given cold food, but as promised, the director of the farm sent us a cart of vegetables and a canister of oil. The women, lead by Luiza Teichman, started cleaning the vegetables. In the morning, we had “tschorba” sizzling in the cauldron. We were passing by the cauldron, holding out our cans:
- The first warm food in Transnistria, murmured my mother.
- Not bad at all – said my father. If we only had a plate of warm food every day…
How many times we thought of those words…!
That “tschorba” will never be forgotten. It tasted like every wonderful food we had been dreaming of during the two weeks that we traveled in the freight cars. We sipped the warm broth, life seemed easier, the future appeared less dark and less menacing.
At dusk, gathered around a campfire, we sang opera and vaudeville arias, chansonettes and Hasidic songs. When we went to sleep, the sun was setting on the far horizon. A reddish-violet sun, casting rainbow nuances in the sky. The air was now colder. We snuggled deeply into the freshly scented straw. The smell of wild flowers, scattered through the straw, enveloped us. Dreamless sleep descended upon us, heavy and wholesome.
The next morning, a few Ukrainians – former sovhoz members, now employees of the state farm – approached us. They carried milk canisters. The money we had not surrendered in Tirasopol started showing up. An egg, a can of milk… The children were frolicking through the yard. The sun was generous, warming us up. At noontime, again “tschorba”…
The newly found heaven lasted for three days. In the meantime, we roamed through the farm. We saw the ruins of the former sovhoz school, the homes hit by bombs. It was obvious that the war passed through this place. The fields were burned; there were no signs of plowing, no cattle to be seen. A few kilometers away there were a few huts, homes to the Ukrainians who brought us the milk.
On the third day, the director of the farm showed up in the yard:
- Pack up everything! The train will be here for you tonight. You were not meant for me. The guys in Odessa tried to get rid of you. In fact, you were supposed to travel from Bucharest to Bogdanovka, in the district of Oceakov… Up there, on the Bug, where the river empties into the Black Sea.
Once more, the carts showed up for our luggage, but this time for us, too. Once more curses and blows… The railcars of the passenger train were waiting for us. Confusion, yelling and fussing… Up on the train... Then down from the train… In the Berskaia railroad station, the freight cars were awaiting us with their doors wide-open, like ominous gaps in the night. Confused and exhausted, we laid down without protest. In our train car, we found the same people we had been with from the railroad station Bucharest-Triage. Was it pure chance, or did everybody try to be in the same car as before…? After a few hours, the train started moving. Nobody was sleeping.
Our railcars halted in Odessa for a few hours. This time, we had a destination. Finally, we would be able to “organize” ourselves. We set out on our way. Another hour or two of travel. The locomotive was flying.
- Just like an express train – remarked one of us.
- God, let it be for better, not for…
- Oh, what a pessimist you are, Bercu!
Bercu Bercu was no older than 27-28 years of age. He was here with his wife, Matilda. All the boys envied him. Matilda was beautiful. The long, dark hair flowed freely down her shoulders. She had round, svelte contours. As opposed to Bercu, Matilda was always laughing. She was joyous, filled with optimism and open to life. To her, nothing seemed hard, grave or unusual. One night, she let me in on her “secret”:
- I want to live, Sonia! I want to make it to Palestine. I want to overcome the hardships. I don’t know if you understand me… All my life I’ve been a happy girl, loved and spoiled rotten. Bercu married me because he loved me. And he still loves me today. Like a madman. I know why he’s so gloomy, angry, pessimistic. When we got married he told me: “Matilda, I’ll always take care of you. If need be, I’ll give my life for you… We’ll live free and happy in Eretz Israel…” Don’t think I’m unconscious… Some may think I don’t care. When others cry, I crack jokes. I don’t want Bercu to see me sad. I don’t want him to blame himself more than he already does. It’s not his fault we have been deported. Who would have imagined? He did forced labor as ordered! He didn’t miss one day! If he was ordered to the Territorial Circle, under guard, to have his military papers stamped, was that his fault? People from Bucharest deported? When did that ever happen before? I think we are the first! It isn’t right, it isn’t fair, it isn’t logical!! And still, we are here. I want to live, Sonia! And I will live! Without whining! Without having other people pity me! Do you understand?
We remained friends. And more than once I found myself in the situation of defending her. More than once, I had to explain to those who didn’t know her that she was a woman conscious of her youth and beauty, that she wanted to live and help others live through the difficult moments of life…
The Vigoda railroad station: a hanger hit by bombshells, a stall, an outhouse and a garden in shambles. A little farther, a well with a rusted pail…
We disembarked from our train cars. By now we had a “system” in place. The boys unloaded the luggage. The men tended to the women and children. All silently and quickly. This way, there were fewer rifle blows on our backs. Still, curses were flowing freely…
We didn’t give a damn. We almost didn’t hear our “brave” guardians any more. We were preoccupied not to lose our belongings, not to stray from the caravan. The carts were waiting on the road. This time we, too, were able to fit in the carts, up on top of the luggage. From the previous changeovers, Lica Ehrich had mastered the skill of arranging the luggage in such a way that enough room would be left to seat us.
Lica was a mountain man. Over in Romania, in “civility” – as he used to say – he had been a “lord”: he had “boats”, which he took to the Mosi fair in Bucharest – and to every other fair in the country. He himself pushed the boats up in the air, and they “rose up to the sky”.
- I am the black sheep of the family – he told us in the beginning. I have brothers, sisters. All intellectuals. I hated studying… I love the freedom of life. The fairs, the gypsies…
He had Herculean powers. He lifted five-six suitcases by himself. He grabbed two children in his arms and a sack in his teeth. When we were still in the school on Sfintilor Street, he overheard my mother speaking in German. He approached and, in Heine’s language, addressed her:
- Pardon my intrusion. My father was a German Jew. I used to speak only German with him. I would like to know if you mind me taking care of you.
My father was surprised. My mother however wasn’t. She understood at once what was being offered.
- Agreed, Mr. Ehrlich. You will take care of the three of us, and I will take care of you. Cooking, laundry… A family.
Lica’s eyes lit up.
- Yes, Ma’am. That’s it, you got it right. I am a family man too, as they say. I live with a gypsy woman, I have three kids with her. I didn’t let her come with me. Oh, she wanted to. But what could we do with the children? I myself am quite awkward with house chores. I have no idea how to cook, to wash, to sew…
From then on he became, just like Winter, one of the members of our household. I don’t know what we would have done without him. My father, always sick, was not even able to pick up the blankets.
The night was cold. The sky full of stars. Moonlight flooded the Ukrainian plain. It was a bumpy ride. The carts were jolting us up and down. Our bones were hurting. We were moaning and groaning. We were cold.
The long drawn howl of the gendarme woke us up from our apathy. Before us, we could see a few buildings taking shape in the darkness.
- This is the state farm! There’s a young director here… Gogleatza.
The cart driver accompanying us spoke Romanian. Years ago, he had worked in Basarabia.
- You’ll be working. He’s got sunflower fields… livestock… roads… Be careful… What can I say? … Be careful!
We didn’t attach much importance to his words. Only later did we understand what he meant.
The moon served us as light source. We unloaded the luggage from the carts. Yelling, fighting. The Ukrainian cart drivers had hidden some of the luggage under the straw in the carts. They were trying to steal it, to take off with it. They thought they could take advantage of our exhaustion, of the darkness and confusion. Still, our people caught them. The gendarmes intervened. Once more, rifle blows started flying. After about one hour, the carts finally left. They still managed to steal some of our luggage. The gendarmes continued to curse - at us, not the thieves.
The big stall in front of us was occupied at once. We sat down in a corner. Placek approached us. He was holding his leather suitcase in his hand. Speaking in German, he asked if he could join our group. Bercu Bercu and Matilda joined us, too. The Brauch family had been with us ever since we were in the school on Sfintilor Street. Winter slept next to my dad, he was part of the family. The accountant Blumenthal teamed up with us as well. I think Lica was the one attracting them all, like a magnet. His vitality, his love of people. The way he helped everyone out.
Across the road from the roofless stall, a few small buildings could be seen. A few hundred yards away, another few buildings.
We slept in our clothes. At dawn break, the sun woke us up. We had no roof above our heads. The morning dew had settled on our clothes. We discovered a well nearby. A few dozen yards away there were haystacks. A few hundred yards away, a field with deep, smoking ridges. Fritz and I eagerly set out to “investigate”. Large panels, each bearing a skull, announced mortal danger: “Minefield”.
- What kind of a minefield? It’s smoking.
The peasant working on the farm, the same one who had lead the cart caravan, yelled from a distance:
- Stop! There are mines! You’ll blow up!
He drew near and motioned us to sit on the ground, so we wouldn’t be seen together by the administration.
- We brought kikes from Odessa. That was after a few partisan fighters attacked a military commando and killed a few officers. The kikes paid for it. They were brought out here. Many of them. Thousands. The file was unending. They made them dig out trenches and then shot them from the back. One row after the other. The trenches filled up. Later, cisterns came in and dumped lye on them. They burned. They’re still burning today. The folks of the farm say once the rains come in, the kikes in the trenches will be quenched at last. Now they’re still burning.
We were speechless. It was our first contact with death. Collective death. Not one man, not a few. An organized, well planned death of thousands of people, thousands of Jews. Death was there with us. We could see it. Its smell filled our nostrils. The smell of death…
- After they finished them off, they put mines in the field. If anyone tries to see what’s out there, he’ll blow up to pieces. The other day an ox went to graze, down that way, and blew up in the air. There were a few pieces left. Gogleatza laughed his heart out…
- Is he the farm director?
- You’ll see him. He walks around in black boots, pistol in his belt. Watch out for him. We too, the few that are left over, are watching out for him. The other ones all took off. There were many workers on the farm… He slept with all our girls. He didn’t hold back from the older women, either. “Old chicks make good broth”, he used to say when he took one of our women to his bed. We had no way out. We stayed here. We didn’t leave with the soviets. We were working in the sovhoz. The young ones are in the army. Who knows when we’ll see them again? We stayed behind, the elders and the children. We work hard. It’s not easy for us… but we are not kikes… we won’t end up in the trenches out there – the old man waved his hand towards the smoking field.
The peasant got up and left. Fritz and I remained on the ground, staring out in the distance. We were afraid to look at each other. The late autumn sun warmed us up. Still, we were cold. My teeth were chattering.
- Listen, Sonia… let’s not talk about it! Let’s not tell the others… Nobody… What’s the use to scare them? Perhaps this “tschelovek” exaggerated, perhaps he wanted to scare us… perhaps the devil is not as black…
When we reached the stall, we found everyone lined up in front. Before them were two gendarmes. Also a civilian wearing a leather coat over his green tunic, boots, and a pistol in his belt. Short, skinny and bony; sharp nose and narrow lips. Small eyes, shrewd like a weasel’s. His arms were dangling loosely by his sides. Long arms, monkey-like, with large callous palms and bony fingers. A caricature.
How ugly he is – I thought.
My mother whispered at the same moment:
- Good that you’re here. Fortunately he hasn’t started calling the roll.
- Kikes… - that’s how director Gogleatza started out his “welcome” speech – the Marshall sent you out here to work, and to croak… Myself, I would rather let you croak first, and then work. On the day of January 21, last year, I took part in our holy Legionary Rebellion. At that time, I closed my counts with many of your kind. Those however, I sent up into heaven… Sorry… Into hell. Because you, kikes, have no God. You have the devil within you. Traitors of nation and country. The Marshall deemed I would be more useful here. I’m an agronomist. Agronomical Engineer Mr. Gogleatza… That’s who I am! I’m the one who planted these fields… I worked the shit out of those “tscheloveks”. The stinkers took off, couldn’t take hard work… Lazy bums. This farm is now state property. You will work. Full blast! If not… I’ll water the soil with your blood. Let’s call the roll now! I’d like to hear your names. See your faces. That’s how I like to do it. See whom I’m dealing with. Your girls and ladies, too… I always liked little female kikes. They smell good. It’s been quite a while since I had one in my bed…
We were 212 people lined up on five rows. 212 pale, terrorized people. In front of us was a neurotic madman. Our lives were in his hands. The two gendarmes were smiling, tickled by the spectacle before them. They could feel our fear. A smell of ashes permeated the air. It probably emanated from the trenches in the nearby field.
- Abramovici Zalman, Abramovici Braha, Abramovici Sara, Abramovici Mona, Abramovici Ghita…
Blumenthal, the accountant, was trying to shout the names out as loud as possible.
The family of the glass worker Zalman was lined up in our row. A short skinny man; a pale woman, hunched over and tired. Three little girls. The eldest, eight years old, had a tiny pale face and large dark eyes, filled with tears and terror. The other two little girls were laughing. One of them was clutching a red ball.
- Shut up! Don’t laugh! Kike pup! …
Gogleatza ripped the ball from little Ghitale’s hand. He flung it in the air, and with a swift move pulled out his pistol and shot. The ball exploded in mid air, hit by the bullets. Stifled moans could be heard. People were crying in silence. Ghitale broke out in sobs. Sara started sobbing, too. The girls’ mother fell down to her knees in front of Gogleatza, imploring:
- Don’t kill them! Don’t kill my girls! Don’t shoot, Sir, don’t shoot them!
Zalman was standing stone still, dumbfounded with terror.
Blumenthal proceeded reading, in a strong but suddenly sharper voice:
- Alter Mircea, Alter Mishu. The two boys, older and younger brother, took a step forward. Their faces were calm, their eyes clear. Mircea was holding Mishu’s hand, as if to say: We are “one and only”, an inseparable entity. We’re not afraid of anything. They were seeking out Gogleatza’s eyes.
- Brauch Aladar, Brauch Irene, Brauch Friederich.
The moment of tension had passed. Gogleatza had forgotten about the ball and the little girl. Out in front, next to the Abramovici family and the Alter brothers were now the three Brauchs. Fritz’s parents were elderly people. They were short in stature. Irene proudly kept up her head, framed by graying hair. Even Aladar seemed to have grown… Fritz, next to them, appeared like a giant. He looked Gogleatza straight in the eye.
Blumenthal kept on reading:
- Blumenthal Alfred, Blumenthal Ana – and they stepped forward. Anutza smiled to her husband, as if telling him: you are short in stature, bald and hunched over in the shoulders, but to me you’re the most handsome man around here, the best man, the most bright and daring. And I am your woman. Blumenthal furtively smiled back at her, as if he had understood her silent message and continued:
- Bercu Bercu, Bercu Matilda. The handsome young pair, hand in hand, took a step forward. Gogleatza cut Blumenthal short:
- Hold it, kike! Shut up! Let me look at this woman. What a beauty you are… and he loudly smacked his tongue. What hair… sheer ebony. Yes, one can tell you’re a kike girl… You have big black eyes, as all kike girls do. I think the two of us will be talking again. And he’s your husband, right? … I’ll be talking to you too… ha-ha-ha! Go ahead, kike! Keep on reading; I like what you’ve got here. We’ll have loads of fun… Work, work, and more work! Leave it to me; I’ll squeeze you dry, down to the last drop…
- Cernat Mihai, Cernat Elena, Cernat Mioara.
Cernat Mihai was a “romanized” name. Mishu had tried to obtain a new identity ever since 1938. He failed. His daughter, blonde and beautiful, was eighteen years old. I could never really talk to her. She was so full of her “Arian” beauty, that she disheartened me from the very first moment. I think that apart from makeup, mirrors, parties and boys, she never had any other preoccupation back in Bucharest. She knew all the gossip from the actors’ world. She had the privilege of being the friend of some rich boys, sons of a well-known chef. Naturally… since she was Mioara Cernat. Now she was standing before Gogleatza, watching him in fear. Her lashes, shading large blue eyes, were trembling. Tears were glittering in her eyes. Gogleatza undressed her with his gaze. His rough face, full of acne, started turning red.
- How did you end up here, Mioara Cernat? Mioara comes from Saint Mary, right? You’re a kike girl too? What the hell? One can’t even trust the Holy Virgin nowadays. Girl… I can’t call you kike girl… Girl, where did you get this hair, pure gold? And those eyes? …
The beauty of Mioara Cernat had confused him. He hung around her for another moment, then ordered Blumenthal to proceed.
The small children cried. They were hungry. Gogleatza’s commentaries, delivered at gunpoint, frightened us.
At noontime, when the sun rose high on the horizon, he himself tired out.
- I’m going to eat. Tomorrow we’ll see each other again… Don’t leave the stall, and don’t litter. If you disobey, it’s over…
Gogleatza, accompanied by the gendarmes, turned on his heels and left. We stayed there stunned and speechless. We were in shock. The sun was shining brightly. Somewhere in the distance, a train was rattling, and the locomotive whistled. A flock of birds flew under the clear sky.
My hands were cold. I thought: What would tomorrow bring, how could we live under the orders of this savage? The others, I’m sure, were thinking the same. I was afraid to look in my parents’ eyes, I was afraid to look at my friends. What if I saw the same terror on their faces? Were my eyes reflecting this fear, too? After a while… perhaps ten minutes… perhaps an hour, the children woke us up from our shock. They were hungry and thirsty. They wanted to play. They couldn’t make sense of the collective “apathy”. The Grienbergs were the first to head for the stall, in order to feed Zitale. Then the Hechters, the Lupescus, the Zwirns…
Fritz, so lively before, was now silent and thoughtful. That evening Winter tried, as before, to hum a couple of tunes. In the past we would join in, we’d start singing ourselves. This time, he was humming alone. We listened, but kept thinking of the days ahead.
I don’t know if I even ate that day. Lica kept offering us salami and bread. In front of my eyes however, was the repugnant face of agronomical eng. Mr. Gogleatza, with his abundant purulent pimples. His laughter reverberated in my ears, sharp and demonic.
We didn’t sleep that night. Dawn found us awake, wet from the dew of the night and shaking with cold. And scared. We heated pots of water on a fire made with small loose planks. Lica brought a pot of milk from the former sovhoz members, Ukrainians who continued to work on the farm. The families who had children each got a cup. As payment for the food, the peasants were willing to accept shoes, shirts, clothes and towels…
Around ten o’clock in the morning, two gendarmes showed up.
- All here! The director has a communiqué to make. Quick, line up! Everybody out! Move!
Again we were standing lined up on five rows. Pressed into one another. Like a wall. Like stones.
Gogleatza showed up, this time on horseback. Frowning, he started to snap:
- After this gathering, collect your junk at once and move to the little homes over there. There are bigger and smaller rooms. You divide among yourselves; I don’t give a damn. Tomorrow the captain will be here, the chief of the military station in Ovidopol. The guys from the station will be guarding you. I need you to cut the sunflower. We are behind. If the rains come in before you finish, I will finish you. Then, there are the chickens. Starting tomorrow, I want a chicken crew. At 6.00 AM there should be six girls over there, at the Administration Headquarters… Also at 6.00 AM, I need a hundred workers out there, each with a knife in their hands. You’ll go out to the fields to cut the sunflower. Five people will be needed at the pond. These ones should be strong. They’ll have to pull the nets… I want two women in my kitchen… Also, two women will be needed at the Guard Corps, for housekeeping… Do you hear? Hey you, the one with the log – the tip of the whip stopped on Blumenthal’s chest. What are you doing? Aren’t you writing down what I say? You’ll forget and woe to you… That’s right… Write it down… Tomorrow, I also want three men at the storage depot, to get the food portions for the workers. You’ll be cooking the food yourselves. Understood?
There was no answer. Blumenthal was writing, frantically.
Gogleatza eyed us in silence. All of a sudden, he smiled. His narrow lips opened to reveal two rows of chipped, rotten teeth. He jumped off his horse, approached the gendarmes and exchanged a few words with them. The gendarmes burst out laughing. Gogleatza started walking towards us. On his way, he opened up his gun holster.
- Today is Sunday. A holy day. A day of celebration and joy. A day when each Romanian should be raising the glass. So here’s a toast to you! Ha-ha-ha-ha! Come on closer, Mr. Squadron Leader, Mr. Corporal… I say we start this game!
Nobody moved, not even the children. Gogleatza started walking through the lines.
- You over there, get out! Out there, in front… You too… And you… You, the tall one, you get out there too, and you, the one with the big nose. You, the fat guy… and you, the skinny one. There… Let’s see… Do we have ten?
The ten were lined up in front. Gogleatza arranged them according to height, one after another. Sandu, the tallest, was last. Fritz was before him. Then Dolphi, the fat guy. At last, Mr. Mailender – the shortest one – was the first in the line up.
Gogleatza circled around them, eying them from each angle. He seemed satisfied. He addressed the two gendarmes, who were watching the scene in amusement:
- You see them. They’re lined up in a straight row. True, one’s higher, one’s lower, that’s the way they are! I bet on a bottle of tzuika, 60 percent alcohol, that I’ll put them all down with a single bullet. So, what do you say? Do you hold the bet?
In conclusion, he wanted to kill them all with one shot. Screams and hollers sheared through the silence. Dolphi’s wife jumped out in front and threw herself at Gogleatza’s feet. She was short, chunky, and had short black hair.
- Don’t kill him, Sir, don’t kill him! We have a son to raise. Victor, come out here! Beg Mr. Director to spare your father’s life.
Victor, a skinny child, thin as a rail, took a step forward. He was pale and shaking. He stood beside his mother, who was crawling on the ground at Gogleatza’s feet. Gogleatza laughed, contented.
Other women darted from among the rows. Irene, Fritz’s mother, planted herself right before Gogleatza. Her voice was shaking.
- You can’t do this. Nobody up to this point wanted to kill us. You don’t have the right to kill us. And if you do it… then kill us too, his parents. Don’t murder our children!
Gogleatza frowned. A huge scandal ensued. Yelling and crying all over. Nobody stood still. Everyone was fretting.
The two gendarmes loaded their guns and pointed them at us.
Still, Gogleatza was in the mood for games. Grinning, he approached the ten lined up in front:
- Hey you, what do you say? Duck down, you over there, in the back. I can’t shoot one bullet through ten heads, when yours is popping out above everyone else’s. You don’t want me to loose the bet, do you? Hey you, the fat one! Why do you keep rocking back and forth? You’re not going to faint on me, are you?
Sandu, the tall guy in question, didn’t even budge. His head up high, he gazed out towards the fair skies, lined by faint white clouds. It was as if he wasn’t even there.
We all started shouting: “Don’t shoot, don’t kill them! Don’t shoot, don’t kill them…”
The sun was shining brightly. It was a beautiful late autumn day. In a nearby tree, the birds were joyously chirping. For us however, everything was dark and gloomy… Gogleatza continued his game for a few more minutes. The cries of the wives and mothers could be heard all over. Shaken, the children started crying themselves. My mother drew me close to her, whispering: “Mein Gott! Mein Gott! Warum? Warum?” My father was clutching his fists and shouting along with the others: “Don’t kill them! Don’t kill them!”
Suddenly, Gogleatza turned towards us. Moving softly, he put his revolver back in the holster.
- Take your boy, Ma’am. But know this: he would have been better off, had I shot him today. He would have suffered less. And you, woman – he addressed Dolphi Hechter’s wife – take your fat man back. You all would have been better off , had I shot you today. Believe me, I would have done you a favor. And you, gentlemen – he addressed the two gendarmes – come on to my quarters for a good strong tzuika, one to tickle in the back of our throats…
He mounted his horse and galloped away.
The two gendarmes put their rifles across their backs and departed as well.
Sandu, Fritz, Dolphi, Mailender and the others sat down. We all gathered around them. Some were hugging them, others were shaking their hands. Lica watched in silence. All of a sudden, he addressed me:
- Are you crying, Sonia? That’s good… It’s good that you’re crying!
Large and heavy, his hand descended on my shoulder. His eyes, otherwise open and lively, were now sad and tired.
- Alas, we’ll cry many times over… This, my girl, is just the beginning… And yet we must – do you hear me, Sonia? – we must be stronger than them. We have to endure. Gogleatza was not allowed to kill any of us. That’s what I concluded. Had he been allowed to, then rest assured this criminal would have done it. He wouldn’t give in to crying, begging, or the eyes of a child. Know this, he is not allowed to kill us – and that’s good. You can tell this to everybody!
Winter approached us. He heard Lica’s words.
- You’re right, Lica. It’s true. Today I realized it as well. They’re not allowed to kill us. We’ve been brought here to work. A disciplinary labor detachment. Bercu, get everyone over here! Uncle Bubi, come on over. What Lica says is true. They’re not allowed to kill us. We’ve got to work; don’t give them a pretext to punish us. We’ll make it. One month, two, three… Our people at home are doing all they can to bring us back. In the meantime, let’s work. It will provide us food, and the main goal is to survive.
Teichman, Brauch, my father and a few others were trying to encourage one another. After the latest events, it seemed like a new wave of optimism was sweeping over us.
Sandu formed a team and set out towards the little shacks – devoid of doors and windows – which were going to become our homes.
A Ukrainian brought a cart of old planks and wall-paint.
Before evening time, we had moved in. In our room lived several families: Blumenthal, Brauch, Robert Placek, Marcel Winter, Lica Ehrlich, Bercu Bercu and Matilda, the Mailenders. In a different room, larger than ours, were Iulius Grienberg with his wife and daughter Zitale, Dolphi Hechter with his wife and son, the Lupescu family, the Alter brothers and the Zwirn family. In yet another room were Esther with her two children, Nelu Goldenberg, the Goldenberg family, Abramovici and his family… Just Avram Crestinu had taken a room by himself, next to the infirmary station. Up to the present day I can’t tell for certain if this man was deported in order to spy on us, or if he was deported disciplinarily, same as we had been. The fact was that Avram Crestinu had ties with the Security State Department. The gendarmes knew about his existence and treated him in an entirely different way.
The following day captain Atanasiu, arriving from Ovidopol, requested to first speak to Avram Crestinu, which he called to the Guard Corps.
The commander of the Gendarmes Legion from Ovidopol, captain Atanasiu, was a tall man, handsome and friendly.
A gathering was convened. Blumenthal started calling the roll. When he called my father’s name, Alfred Follender, captain Atanasiu raised his hand:
- Which Follender? Jacob Follender, the owner of the “Photo Palas” Studio on Elisabeta Avenue, was that your father?
Jacob Follender was my father’s uncle, the brother of his father. My father quickly replied:
- Yes Captain, Sir!
- O.K., Sir. Why didn’t you say so? We were good friends! He took my picture when I graduated as a sub-lieutenant. All my class took pictures at his studio on that day. He took the pictures at my wedding, too. And then the children, their first photographs were also taken by him. How did you get here, Sir? Is it possible? Your father was an honest man…
- Captain Sir – with your permission – we are honest people as well. We were just hit by misfortune. Some of us were not even missing from the forced labor detachments. We believed up to the last moment it would be investigated, hoped that a committee would review our cases. Some of us are truly here by mistake. The others you see are neither killers nor enemies, Sir, just poor people stricken by bad fortune.
Rubbing his chin with his hand, the captain seemed to be meditating on my father’s words. He looked closely at the crowd before him. He probably realized they were nothing more than unfortunate people. And Lord, how many children! And elderly people, too…
Captain Atanasiu blinked his eyes rapidly, shook his head as if he tried to resist being influenced by the sight.
- Yes, yes, Mr. Follender. I believe you… I know your father, and therefore I believe you, too. I know why you’re here. Disciplinary detachment. The Marshall wanted to set an example for the whole country. And he will again! Others will follow! All I can do is help you get organized; help you manage, somehow. Fight against the typhus epidemic… you know that lice can kill worse than… let’s say bullets… You have to promise me, as the good people you are, that you won’t try to escape, that you’ll obey the orders of the Guard Corps, go out to work according to the requests of the State Farm Management, adhere - so to speak - to the directives of governor Alexianu, who is in charge of all these farms. Within the next hour, you will present me with a list of your representative committee, and I would like you, Mr. Follender, to be the president of this committee. Let’s make Mr. Avram Crestinu the vice-president. He will provide the link to the local officials. Give me a list of the items you need; I’ll have them sent to you from Ovidopol. One or two cauldrons for food, two barrels to be mounted for the showers… I want it to be clean. Don’t let the lice catch on! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again! Next time I come in, I want to see all men and women shaven to the skin. Is that clear? Transnistria is being swept by the typhus epidemic. I don’t want typhus in my district! Understood? Plan to have an infirmary station. You, Mr. Carol Perlzweig, being a professional dentist, will be the infirmary chief. You’ll have Mr. Jagerman and Sonia Follender as assistants. This team should make every effort to prevent the spread of the typhus epidemic - your greatest enemy at this time, as well as ours.
We had the medicine chests from the railroad station Bucharest-Triage and a suitcase filled with medication, which my father had brought along. Carol Perlzweig gave me free hand to organize the infirmary station as I saw fit. Sandu painted everything in white. In the big chest we found two hair-shaving devices, as well as a pair of scissors. We had a barber in our group, an artist in his field, Avraham Solomon (the Gypsy), who took his role quite seriously from the very start. He taught Jagerman how to use a shaving device, and together, in a room adjoining the infirmary, they started shaving everybody’s head. The men had their heads shaven to the bare skin. The women got a very short haircut, also by Avraham Solomon.
- For the ladies, he told us, I will use the scissors. It would be inappropriate to use a shaving device.
I’m not sure the women in our group appreciated this token of delicacy from the part of our barber. Anutza Blumenthal and I shaved the women of their body-hair.
In the beginning, everyone protested. For this reason, the first to shave their heads were Carol Perlzweig and Jagerman, then Fritz and Aladar Brauch, my father, Mr. Mailender, Winter and so on.
The next day, carts arrived carrying the promised barrels, cauldrons and gas cisterns. The captain had kept his word. In the infirmary building, Sandu installed the showers: “Female shower”; “Male shower”.
Once a week, usually on Saturday afternoons, we made a fire outside, under the barrels. The water was sometimes too cold, sometimes too hot. Still, it was a shower…
On the first day, Solomon and Jagerman were standing in the male shower, shavers and scissors in their hands. Anutza and I were standing in the female shower. No one escaped unshaven…
Perhaps due to these drastic measures, we didn’t have lice in Vigoda and we didn’t have typhus. Years after the deportation, I found out that our group was the only one in the whole of Transnistria that escaped the typhus epidemic.
Everywhere we got, Sandu promptly dug two big holes and erected a tall fence around them, creating two rudimentary outhouses. It was also Sandu who made our sleep bunks, rows of planks mounted on little posts, where we all slept one next to the other. It wasn’t however until Golta, in the final stages of our deportation, that we had this luxury. In the beginning we slept on the floor, or directly on the ground when there was no floor. It was also Sandu who was in charge of camp cleanliness, maintenance of the fences, windows and doors, all of which were his own improvisations.
In time, the group of shacks we lived in was surrounded by barbwire, three rows mounted on wooden pillars. At the entryway, there was a gatehouse for the gendarme on duty. A watchtower was also erected, endowed with a powerful spotlight. At nighttime, a gendarme was operating the spotlight, illuminating the camp yard, our windows, the fence…
Each morning, 120-140 people set out to work. Two gendarmes escorted us. It was late autumn. It was getting colder by the day. We would leave for work before the break of dawn. We would put all of our clothes on our bodies, trying to wrap ourselves in them as smugly as we could. The wind was blowing. We were plagued by hunger. Most of us left for work without even drinking a cup of warm water. Without swallowing a morsel of bread. We were picking sunflower – from hundreds of acres of land. Whole rows of sunflower, ripe, heads bowing under the load of their black seeds, waiting to be cut. Sunflower stems are rough to the touch. A fine fuzz made out of tiny needles. On the first day we all returned to camp with wounds on our hands. In the afternoon, the infirmary door wouldn’t stay shut. We were dressing the wounds, rubbing ointment onto broken tissue, removing the minuscule thorns nestled cunningly underneath the skin.
The second day, fewer people left for work. Many of us had been incapacitated by the twelve hours of hard work. At noontime, Gogleatza gathered us in the yard of the camp. Everybody, healthy or sick, children, youngsters and adults.
“Mister Director” was threatening us. He wanted people out for work. He didn’t care about sickness, elders or children. He had his sunflower to pick.
The following day, the first children’s team was formed. Its chores were to feed the chicken at the poultry farm, clean the chicken coops and the farmyard. A group of young women, among which Matilda Bercu and Mioara Cernat, were in charge of cleaning the Administration Offices, and tended to the kitchen of the farm. The greatest part of us were cutting, harvesting, filling sacks with sunflower. The topped-off carts left for the beaters, where the boys shook off the seeds. The sacks filled with seeds then went to the oil plant. We used to work for twelve hours straight. The farm provided food portions according to the numbers of the workers. The Ukrainian team leaders, employees of the farm, provided the administration every morning with the head count of those going out to work. Ana Blumenthal, Luiza Teichman and a few other women worked in the kitchen. There was “tschorba” for everyone, including the ones who didn’t go out to work – women, elders, and especially children. From afternoon time until late at night, I worked in the infirmary station. One evening I was dressing the wounded hand of one of the Zwirn brothers. Cernat entered the room. He was livid.
- Sonia, I would like to talk to Crestinu. What should I do? Knock on his door? I’m afraid a disaster has happened. Mioara hasn’t come back from work.
- Have you been to our room? Have you talked to Matilda? Have you asked her where she left Mioara?
Cernat hesitated. Eyes in the ground, he whispered:
- Gogleatza had her stay behind to tidy up his room.
None of us said a word. In our minds, we all relived the scene of Gogleatza expressing his admiration for the blond girl with large blue eyes and porcelain complexion.
- It’s already night. She always used to be back in the camp by this time. My wife is crying. What should I tell her? Mioara didn’t stay behind with Gogleatza of her own free will. She couldn’t stand him. Don’t imagine she was accepting his favors. A few days back, she told us she’d rather die than have him touch her. Why are you staring at me? I know, I know what you’re thinking…
- Mr. Cernat, I’m not thinking anything. Let’s go find Crestinu!
Avram Crestinu accepted, after long and unpleasant discussions, to go to the Guard Corps, which was located about 100-150 meters off camp. After an hour, he returned. We were eagerly waiting for him at the infirmary station. He was flushed and agitated.
- They’ll bring her to you… Now go to bed, everyone! How will you get up for work tomorrow, early morning, if you don’t get some sleep? Go, Cernat, go! They won’t kill her… They’ll bring her…
Cernat left the room, slamming the door behind him. We didn’t know what to do. We could imagine what had happened - and was still happening - to Mioara Cernat. Even though she wasn’t part of our daily camp routine, she was still “one of ours”.
Cernat was crying, holding his head in his hands. I tried in vain to appease him. How could I have? He was the father of the girl being mistreated by those beasts. What could I have told him?
- She’ll be back, you’ll see… I’m sure it’s nothing serious…
- I can’t go back to the room. My wife is waiting for me. What can I tell her? Calm down, lady… Our beautiful daughter, formerly part of Bucharest’s cream of the crop, is now in the hands of a syphilitic legionnaire, maybe even the Guard Corps? … What can I tell her? I cannot go back…
Jagerman stayed with Cernat. Nobody went to sleep in our room. They were all waiting for me. Matilda had told everyone that Mioara failed to return from work. I shared what I knew with the others. Crestinu had told us they will “bring” Mioara Cernat.
- In what state? That’s the question, whispered Irene. In what state will the poor girl be when she comes back? …
Bercu was clutching Matilda tightly. He was pale. His teeth were clenched, his eyes sparkling with anger. We all knew what he was thinking. Matilda cuddled in his arms, as if seeking a shelter…
- Come to the infirmary. They’ve brought her!
I ran out there right away. While running, I was thinking what to do. I was less than fourteen years old; I knew very little about sexual relationships, about rape. My knowledge on this subject came exclusively from the books I had read…
Mioara was lying on the infirmary bed, covered with a towel. Jagerman was awkwardly stroking her forehead.
I touched her hand. She opened her eyes. She looked at me for a few seconds. She seemed to have awoken from a heavy slumber. Her mouth was puffy, her lips cracked, bitten and bloody. Her hair, always neatly combed, was tangled and sticky with sweat. Stray hair strands covered her eyes. She could barely talk. I drew near, so I could hear her words.
- Warm water… no… hot! Lots of water... Soap... Clean clothes... Let dad bring them. I don’t want mom to know. Wash me!
There was still hot water left over in the shower cauldrons. Jagerman set out to fetch the clothes. I brought a large washbasin filled with water, soap and a towel.
- Don’t be scared… they bit me… they burned my skin with their cigarettes… They beat me… They passed me from one to the other… the beasts… I screamed… I struggled, I bit, I kicked with my hands and feet. At first… Gogleatza called them all. They held me, four of them. He… he was the first… Then the others. I struggled no more. I screamed no more… Oh, the beasts… I’ll feel them as long as I live…
I washed her wounded body, branded by burns and bite marks. Mioara could barely move. Eyes closed, she just moaned. I watched her till the break of dawn.
At work, out in the field, my head was humming. I kept seeing the scenes described by Mioara. At core, I was nothing but an adolescent girl raised in a fairly puritan world. Later, as fear and disgust took over, my mind emptied out. All thoughts slipped away. I worked like a robot the whole morning. Towards noontime, Gogleatza came out to our lot. When he approached me, I started shaking. I tried in vain to control it. Winter saw me. He started running towards us.
- Leaving your worksite? Get back there, God dam kike!
- She’s sick, mister Director.
- What the heck, she’s a medical assistant. Let her treat herself. You don’t expect me to treat her, do you? He gave a short laugh.
The same evening, Mioara left the infirmary and moved to the common room. No one asked any questions. Everybody tried to avoid meeting her eyes, avoid looking at he parents.
The next day, 72 boys were brought in from Bucharest. They arrived in trucks. They were part of a forced labor unit sent to Transnistria disciplinarily, the same way we had been. But unlike us, these 72 boys had been shipped out alone, without their families. With this new addition, our disciplinary labor detachment now counted 284 heads – Jewish men, women and children deported from Bucharest.
The newcomers’ integration into our work teams, the chore of lodging them, the conversations we had with them (they had left Bucharest two months later than we had), the news they brought from home, all these made us forget about Mioara.
For a few days in a row, she didn’t go out to work. One day, Mioara showed up in the infirmary. Her face still showed the bruise marks. Her lips were still swollen. Her hair, however, was neatly combed.
- You know why I’m here? Give me a haircut! A short one, like a boy!
- I can’t give good haircuts. Let Mr. Solomon do it tonight.
- No, I don’t want anyone else to touch me. Moreover, what does it matter if it’s a good haircut or just… a short one.
- As you wish.
While I cut her golden hair, Mioara was quietly crying.
- You are still a little girl… don’t deny it… it’s true… But never forget this evening! Do you hear me? Never forget! They killed, in that moment, my soul, my joy to live. I was a “good girl”. It’s over! From now on, Mioara Cernat will be bad. She will give, but she’ll also know how to take. And I will take…
I never spoke to Mioara Cernat thereafter. After two months, she was repatriated along with her parents. One of the rich friends, with very high connections, had obtained their repatriation. Our paths never crossed again.
End of November. Still in Vigoda. Still struggling with the cold, the wind, the rain… Through the boards and planks in the windows, the cold crept in the rooms and into our bones. Out in the fields, we were soaked by the rain and whipped by the wind. Inside, in our rooms, we were shaking with cold. The crowded space didn’t help much. At night, stretched out on the floor, we snuggled into one another, trying to keep warm. In our room - in a corner - there was a built-in fireplace. It was cold. We didn’t have wood to make a fire. We also fought starvation. But worse than that was the cold, especially for the ones exempted from work due to age or illness. Take for example Mrs. Brauch, Irenka: The warmer she dressed, the more she shivered.
Fritz, her son, tried to cheer her up. He made us do calisthenics. “To keep in shape” – as he said. Fritz was tall, broad in the shoulders. Irene told us she had a lot of problems raising him. In his childhood, he had been a sickly boy. Once he even got septicemia, and for a few days, his life was in great danger. Fritz was not handsome. His hazel eyes, however, had a mischievous spark. He was always ready to joke, to laugh, to cheer up the others. A born optimist. From the very beginning, he had decided: “You will be my sister. I always wanted a sister… with pigtails, so I have something to pull at. You will be my sister.” He didn’t ask me if I wanted him for a brother. I’m sure he knew the answer. In the almost fourteen months of deportation, we were together day and night. Fritz was more than a brother – he was a good friend. At first he had his reservations: I was, still, a girl. However, as time went by, he started telling me about himself, about his friends, his dreams and his plans. Sometimes, on the long nights when we sat, cross-legged, in a corner of the room, or when we marched out to the fields together on our way to work, Fritz talked to me of his desires, his thoughts about women and his relationships with them. To him, I was the “ear” that listened, the friend he could confide in, the person he could count on. I think after two months of deportation, Fritz had forgotten that I was just fourteen and a half years old, in essence nothing more than a kid.
My parents were sick. They never went out to work. My father had suffered a heart attack in Bucharest, shortly before our deportation. Now he checked his pulse all day long, and kept swallowing pills. My mother suffered from horrible headaches, caused by a chronic sinus infection. I went out to work each day. Moreover, I was in charge of the camp’s infirmary station. I didn’t have time to think about myself.
Fritz tried to cheer us up.
- When I was doing forced labor in Gaesti, far away from home, we had mounds of Jell-O to unload – right… now you’re laughing! Yep, tons of Jell-O! And you should know that’s nothing to laugh at. Those big boxes, labeled “Jell-O first grade”, were as heavy as millstones. Still, there was an advantage. Now and then, a box would fall off the train. Sometimes we “helped” it along… And even though one can’t eat millstones, we were eating Jell-O all day long… From that point of view, we were the most favored work detachment in Romania. Everyone envied us. From then on, this sweet nutrient horrifies me. I can’t even stand seeing it…
Fritz laughed with all his heart.
He used to say:
- After I was born, my parents realized they would not be able to beget another Fritz! That’s why I remained an only child to my loving parents. It’s true I missed pulling at pigtails, something I now finally found…
He was, of course, talking about my pigtails. Sometimes, after an argument, we would even get into fights, and Fritz would pull at my pigtails till I cried. But I was never too much in his debt!
- Can you hear dad’s dentures? Can you hear them chatter?
Aladar Brauch – Dodo to his friends – smiled at his son’s jokes. He did, however, have an answer for everything.
Dodo tried to argue that his teeth were “fine pearls”, and that Fritz was merely jealous. I kept asking myself: How could two people as short as the Brauchs have such a big, tall son?
Coming home from work one evening, we found Irene Brauch shivering under the blankets.
- She’s sick – my mother whispered. She can barely breath. She caught a cold. She kept having chills all day long.
For the first time I saw Fritz angry. He was pacing the room like a lion trapped in his cage.
- It can’t go on like this! I’ve got to do something! I’ll try to sneak out of the camp tonight!
- Three rows of barbwire, Fritz! – I tried to break his enthusiasm. – The spotlight… They’ll catch you…
- No! I’ll get out! I know how. I know a place. A ditch… Once outside, I’ll get wood for a fire. I’ve got to make a fire for mom. They’re here because of me. I’ve got to get the wood.
His eyes were sparkling. He managed to impart his enthusiasm and self-assurance to me.
- Where are you going? – asked Aladar, seeing his son leave the room. He was unaware of Fritz’s intentions.
- To the guys’ room… for a chat. Perhaps I’ll manage to warm up a bit.
- Dodoca – sounded Irene’s voice, thin as a thread – let him go. It’s warmer over there. There are more people in the room!
- Why don’t you go to bed? – asked my father. It’s much warmer under the blankets.
Marcel and Bercu approached me:
- Where’s Fritz?
- In the guys’ room!
- At this hour – you know it quite well – it’s forbidden to circulate through the camp. What the hell! This boy is always looking for trouble…
- Leave him alone! He’s old enough to do what he wants.
The seconds ticked by slowly. After an hour, maybe two – I don’t know – the door swung wide open. Fritz showed up on the threshold, his face glowing with joy, firewood in his arms. The ones who were still awake gathered around him. Questions started flying. Moving softly, the smile of victory on his face, Fritz stooped down to light the fire. It seemed like a young god was performing a ritual. Log upon log stacked up, one across the other, in the roomy vault of the oven. A few papers followed, not many, and a match – which he tenderly lit. The paper caught fire, then the logs. The flames flickered joyously, illuminating the strangely relaxed face of my friend. How handsome Fritz appeared that night, eyes bright and face flushed from the heat of the large wall oven. In a few moments, the room had warmed up. The smoke pouring out of the old oven didn’t bother us. Nobody was sleeping any longer. It was late at night; the tongues, as well as the bodies, started loosening up. A little smile was hovering on everyone’s face. Was it joy? Was it pleasure? Was it faith in the future? Irene opened her eyes widely. She was no longer shaking. Her face lit up with a large, tender smile. She knew Fritz had brought the firewood for her. This in itself was the most wonderful medicine. Aladar slapped Fritz on the shoulder. He was proud of his son.
Each night from then on, Fritz would sneak under the barbwire. He brought leftover planks from damaged military boxes, chunks of telephone posts ruined by the air raids, morsels of wood from the walls of abandoned barns. Each night from then on, we had a fire burning in our old wall oven. Come morning, one of us was in charge of putting it out. We would hide the leftover firewood between the blankets, which during daytime we stacked up against the wall. Our morale had improved. But not for long…
One night Fritz went out as usual, crawling under the three rows of barbwire. Ducking, he ran under the revolving beam of the reflector light. Since morning, he had spotted a telephone post – a suitable reserve of firewood for the next few days. He picked up the post, grabbing it in his arms.
- Stop, or I shoot! – The voice of the soldier pierced the silence of the night.
Fritz, the post in his arms, had been caught by the beam of the spotlight. A man clutching a piece of wood in his arms. Motionless. He knew that a gun was aiming at him.
The gendarme descended from his watchtower. He was happy to have found a preoccupation at last. He was bored to sit in the tower house - tight as a jail cell - watching the flicker of the gas lamp to no end. He was too hot in there. Hurriedly, he walked up to Fritz. The siren sounded the alarm signal, a long and piercing howl. In the gendarme station just outside the camp, all lights were coming on. The gendarmes hurried out, buttoning their tunics.
There was dead silence in our room. We were barely breathing. I looked at Irene. Dodo put his hand on her shoulder. My mother stepped to her side. Matilda left her spot under the blanket. She started putting her clothes on. Bercu walked up to the window. Choking, he was giving us updates on the events outside.
- They’ve grabbed him! They’re taking him to the station. Nobody’s hitting him. They’re just yelling at him. They’re inside. I can’t see them any more. The soldier on duty went back to the watchtower. The spotlight came back on.
A heavy silence fell over the camp. Nobody was sleeping. All our thoughts went out to Fritz, and to the gendarme station where the lights stayed on.
We all prayed for him. Silently. Each one in his way.
We spent the whole night in this state. When the first rays of light crept through the planks in our windows, our faces were ashen, our lips tight, our shoulders drooping. We all had dark circles around our eyes. Marcel was the first to break the silence.
- Let’s go to work! It’s five o’clock!
- And Fritz? – Matilda dared to ask.
- Fritz… will show up!
But Fritz didn’t show up. Fritz was dragged from the Guard Corps to the camp. After they passed through the gate, they ditched his body on the ground, just inside the camp.
That day, I didn’t go to work. I stayed with my parents and the Brauchs.
Walking out of the room, I saw the body. Fritz was lying on the ground. He looked dead. His upper body was naked. They had left just his trousers on. On the ground, beside the body, they had thrown his shirt, his coat and his boots.
- Fritzica! – Irene threw herself upon him.
- Pick him up. Move! – rang the harsh order of the soldier guarding the gate. – He’s not dead. He’s alive.
With difficulty, the five of us picked him up.
Then we saw his face. It was full of blood, swollen from blows, burned by cigarette stubs and by candles. His back was one big wound, lined by blood streaks and boot marks. They had stomped around on his back. He was barefoot. His soles had been burned with candles.
We carried Fritz on our arms, the hero who tried to bring us some heat.
He opened his swollen eyelids. His eyes smiled at us. The bruised face contorted, trying to sketch a grin. His white teeth were sparkling.
- You wanted heat… - they told me… - and they gave me heat!
Notwithstanding the cold, the hunger and the terror, it seemed we had adapted to the ways of life at Gogleatza’s farm. He was frequently absent. He used to be summoned to the Ministry back in the country, or to the Government in Odessa…
We had finished cutting the sunflower. The farm was well kept by the forced labor detachment from Bucharest. The Ukrainian farm workers had grown accustomed to us.
They occasionally brought us food from the railroad eatery or from the neighboring villages. They would trade a hunk of salami for a pair of shoes, three eggs for a shirt, a gallon of milk for a dress… “Prices” were set. Little by little, we were being undressed. In exchange, we had something to fill our stomachs.
Oftentimes, these farm workers fell ill. When that happened, a gendarme would show up at the infirmary and order me:
- Take your medicine bag and come! A tschelovek is dying…
I would leave the camp, always accompanied by Fritz, Lica or Marcel. It was a joy for me to get out of the camp… My medical treatments were simple: for upset stomachs, castor oil or mint tea; for headaches, aspirin; for infections, wet compresses. Sometimes I would even give a massage or dress up a wound. Once, with Lica’s help, I assisted a woman through delivery. Everything ran perfectly smooth. Lica was quite experienced. “Among us gypsies, it’s common for a man to help the midwife deliver his child. I “midwived” my kids, so I know…”
The mother and child did fine. The father was not present. He was in hiding, somewhere in the Ukrainian woods. The grandparents, however, were very happy with us. They gave us, as “compensation”, a sack of cornflower, a bottle of oil and ten eggs. That evening, we had a double celebration going on in our room: the first child I had delivered, and the first omelet since the beginning of our deportation.
On November 30, squadron leader Fanache notified Avram Crestinu that the camp was being dismantled. He had received an order from Odessa, straight from the governor of Transnistria, Alexianu, to have us deported urgently – meaning next day – to Alexandrovka, an agricultural farm.
We gathered our belongings. Sandu stacked up in the yard, one over another, the shower tanks and cooking cauldrons, as well as the planks from our windows and outhouses. We had to take them along. We didn’t know what waited ahead, at the new site designated for us.
- I don’t know what they’ll be good for… - said Sandu, working at full speed. – We’ll take them, anyway…
When the carts arrived in the morning, Sandu first tended to the “administrative” part, then grabbed his own backpack. Carol, Jagerman and I did the same for the infirmary station. Lica loaded up the luggage on the carts. The gendarmes were trying to keep us warm, cussing and hitting us now and again. We minded our own business. They minded theirs, magnanimously distributing rifle blows left and right… Now and then they would kick us, occasionally they would throw a punch… Fortunately, Gogleatza wasn’t there. A joker among us demurely commented:
- How can we leave here without saying goodbye to Gogleatza? We’ll miss him to death…
There are 60 kilometers from Vigoda to Alexandrovka. We walked all day and all night, hundreds of kilometers - as it seemed - through the muddy fields, through the cold and rain.
Nobody had anything to eat. We made a single break: We stopped at a well, for the horses. We didn’t care to drink the cold water. The guys kept their eyes peeled. The “mujiks” were given to theft. There was a trunk under the driver’s bench of each cart. When we set out from Vigoda, theses trunks were empty. When the carts left after dropping us at Alexandrovka, their trunks were all full.
- They’ve stolen my hand pack! - Rebeca Solomon’s shout sounded loudly. – Don’t let them leave. I had everything in there. A bit of money, our papers, food for the kid… Don’t let them…
Lica looked at Rebeca Solomon, wife to our barber whom we had nicknamed the “Gipsy”. Rebeca was a beautiful woman, pleasant to be around and pleasant to look at, about 38-40 years old, serious, tidy, a wonderful mother to Marcelica – the seven year old son of the Solomons.
The young woman’s face showed her despair. Avram, her husband, was digging left and right through everybody else’s luggage. Perhaps the big leather bag had somehow dropped in there. But no! The bag was missing - period.
Lica went to Fanache, the squadron leader in charge of our detachment.
- Let me look for the bag in the carts. You know the “Gipsy”, right…? Don’t leave his family without any means of subsistence…
Fanache looked at Lica. He admired this giant, a strong, good man, dark as a gipsy himself. He also knew Avram Solomon, our barber…
- O.K.! So be it! But quickly!
Lica, Rebeca at his side, started looking through the empty carts, opening the trunks under the drivers’ benches. Nothing!
- Rebeca – he said to her – perhaps you dropped it under way?
Rebeca, agitated, hands shaking with frustration, stopped her search for a moment. She turned her eyes to Avram, then to Marcel. All the way from Vigoda she had held her son on her lap. So he’d sit more comfortably! The bag… yes, the bag was hanging off her shoulder… But when Marcel asked her for water… yes, at that time she put the bag aside… From then on, she never saw it again.
Eyes in the ground, she mumbled:
- It’s possible I dropped it under way…
For a few moments, Lica was unnerved. What could he possibly do?
- Squadron Leader, Sir! The woman lost the bag! Don’t get mad! Wait a moment… Let the Ukrainian cart drivers go, keep only Vasili here. (Vasili was a sovhoz worker we always got along with. He was a native of Basarabia. He was the first to tell us about the crimes of the fascists in Vigoda, about Gogleatza…)
- She doesn’t have the bag? She lost it? Good luck! I’ll have no further delay!
- You wouldn’t be delayed at all, Sir! Even though it’s midnight, Vasili, the woman and I can go back the same way we came on, and… find her bag… The “Gipsy” will be grateful to you… afterwards…
Fanache weighed the situation for a moment. There was nothing for him to loose.
- Hey you, Vasili! Come here, tschelovek! Take a stroll with these two kikes back towards Vigoda… They’re looking for something. They’ll compensate you… Report to me when you get back here. After that, you’re free!
Vasili turned his eyes to Lica, then to Rebeca, and nodded his approval. They all headed to the cart.
Lica climbed on the driver’s bench, Rebeca at his side. He took along an oil lamp and a flashlight.
For the next three hours, the three people searched for the Solomons’ bag. Avram, Rebeca’s husband, was circling around like a lion in the cage. After organizing the small corner of space assigned to him, he put to bed his son, who was dead tired. Uneasy, he was wandering through the long hall of our new home. He walked in everywhere, tried to get advise from everyone. We, on the other hand, had crashed over the unopened luggage, exhausted, our clothes still on, half asleep already.
- What’s going on with Rebeca? What could have happened? Could it be… no, Lica is a good guy!
- Mr. Solomon – my father said to him. I don’t know any man more serious and more kind than our Lica Ehrlich. Rest assured! Your Rebeca will return, with the bag!
And that is what happened. After three hours of search Lica found her bag, fallen on the side of the road.
During the new room repartition, each one was assigned a tiny corner. This time around, the trailer home we had been lodged in had small partitions, three meters in length and two meters in width. There were haystacks nearby. Due to the rains, the hay was wet.
- No big deal – we thought – it will dry out underneath us.
It was obvious that we lacked experience. After two-three days, tiny white worms emerged from the humid hay, warmed up by our bodies.
- Too bad they can’t be eaten - said one of us.
We ditched the moist hay. We changed it. But it only felt moister. On top of it all, our bones started hurting. Close to the camp, there was a mound of “kirpitch”. We used to light the fire with these small bricks – made out of straw and manure. They gave good heat. They smoked the area, however, and they stunk. But who cared about stench at this point? As time went by, the same stench of manure permeated our clothes, deep down into our skin.
The director at Alexandrovka was an agronomic engineer, Vasiliu. He lived away from the camp, with his wife and two children.
The first day he gathered us outside, in the yard of the camp
We were stunned. What would follow this polite figure of speech, which we had almost forgotten?
- Gentlemen… I am the director of this farm, which belongs to the governor of the region. We have vineyards here. Fortunately the frost hasn’t hit us yet. It’s urgent that the vines be buried in the ground. If you go out to work in the vineyards and at the corn shed, at the stalls and poultry farm, I will have nothing against you. If you do not, I will find myself forced to resort to lieutenant Capeleanu, who will definitely know how to “convince” you. Personally, I want nothing more than for you to stick to your work. Food will be distributed to all workers. The higher their numbers, the better. That way you’ll all have food, including the ones incapable of work, who stay behind in the camp.
The next morning our teams were formed, forty people strong.
It was warm in the rooms. We were tired. Outside it was raining and windy. Too few went out to work…
The director of the farm received the report of his brigadiers, then the report of the gendarmes. There weren’t enough people to bury the vines. That same day, lieutenant Capeleanu announced he would call the roll. He was the new chief of the Gendarmerie for the sector, and his headquarters were at Alexandrovka. Our gendarmes were “integrated” in this lieutenant’s small gendarme corps.
We stood in the rain for hours. The officer kept us waiting. We couldn’t sit down, couldn’t move around. Major Fanache was yelling every now and again. He was cussing us out.
- You wouldn’t go out to work! The Lieutenant will teach you manners. God dam, mother of Christ… You can’t play games with this man. He’ll break your bones. Don’t move! God darn! Don’t budge! Yes, turn to stone, God dam lazy bums. You found a gentle director. You abused his kindness. Just wait, Mr. Lieutenant will teach you!
After a wait of two hours, lieutenant Capeleanu showed up. Tall, elegant, his clothes tailored to order, high boots on his feet, freshly shined, he seemed an officer from an illustrated journal.
In his hand, there was a whip. On his face, a malevolent smile.
- Good day, gentlemen! What weather! My, what weather! I hear you’re being unruly, undermining our holy war effort. I hear you have deserted from work today. Maybe among you – lazy kikes – (his smile abruptly turned to a grimace) – there are Bolsheviks too… I can handle you. Not tomorrow, not next week. Right now, on the spot, I will kill this beast. That’s war. The deserters are killed! On the spot, with little trial! Killed! Soldiers, arm weapons! Aim!
The rain was pouring. The sky above looked like lead. We were paralyzed, our feet planted deeply in the muddy soil. We stared at the gendarmes before us. Their faces were stern, devoid of any expression. The rain had soaked their tunics as well.
- Let’s finish this quickly, Lieutenant Sir, said one of the sergeants. Once, twice and they’re finished…
- Who gave you permission to speak in front, sergeant? Major! – he addressed Fanache.
- Yes, Sir! – answered this one.
- Twenty-five whips on the back for the sergeant, after I’m done with these guys. That’ll teach him to speak less…
- Yes, Sir! Understood! Twenty-five whips on the back for sergeant Danila.
- Now you realize what you’ll get, God dam kikes, if a soldier of the Marshall gets twenty five whips on the back for talking unsolicited… You, there… (the tip of the whip stopped on Bercu’s chest). You’re bigger and stockier than the others. Did you go to work today?
- Yes Sir, I did, Bercu answered shortly.
- This beauty next to you, who is she?
- My wife, Mr. Lieutenant!
- How do you answer, you animal? As if I’m your friend…! What’s that “Mr. Lieutenant”? I am general Capeleanu’s son. I have noble blood in my veins, and you, a vagrant kike, speak to me of “your wife”, as if… we were at Capsa? Woman, get out here! Did you go to work today?
Matilda raised her large black eyes. Her restless gaze met Capeleanu’s eyes.
- No, I didn’t!
- I will punish you! Get your pants off and lie down here! Major! Take the belt and give her 25 whips…
Bercu turned white. His fists tightened. His jaw clenched. Matilda stood straight in front of the lieutenant. Strands of black hair were flowing out from under her wet shawl. It was raining steadily, a cold autumn rain. All 281 people watched the confrontation of the three.
The moments passed. They seemed long as eternity. Bercu took a step forward. A big step. Between him and Capeleanu there was but half a meter. Bercu was one head shorter than the lieutenant.
- With your permission, Sir: My wife is sick. Please let me have the whips, not twenty- five… fifty…
Capeleanu winced. The whip cut through the air and hit Bercu’s cheek. Blood spurted out, splashing the officer’s coat. Bercu didn’t move. It was as if he hadn’t been hit at all. The stream of blood had already reached his chin.
- God dam kike! You’re playing the gentleman here? Here…? In Transnistria, you fool…? In this muddy pig stall? “I want fifty whips!” … You’ll have, not fifty… much more! You’ll never hold your wife again! Nor she you! You’ll croak… I’ll slam you till you croak, kike…! Do you hear me…?
The lieutenant was foaming at the mouth.
- Pants down!
Calmly, Bercu undid his trousers and let them fall to the ground. Dusk was setting in. Lica whispered to me:
- If it only got dark sooner… If it only rained a little harder…
God, where are you? I thought. Make the clouds break open! Make a flood pour down! Don’t forsake Bercu, God…
- Lie down… face in the mud! Don’t pull your head back! Yeah, bury it in the mud! Dig in deeply! Feel the taste! Bite it, kike!
Capeleanu didn’t whip Bercu with the lash. He stomped with his spiked boots on Bercu’s back. Red dots formed on the white underwear. Then the dots enlarged. Capeleanu kept trampling over Bercu’s back. At first, Bercu was groaning. Then he turned silent. He had passed out.
“If only he didn’t kill him”, we all thought. We no longer felt the rain or the cold. All our thoughts went to Bercu, lying there on the slimy soil of the yard. We all prayed for him in our thoughts. We felt each stomp of the lieutenant on his back, as if it pierced our very skin. We had identified with Bercu, though knowing he was doomed. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, he’ll pull through… He’s young, he’s resilient…
If only he didn’t die…
Matilda had stuck her fists in her mouth. Horrified, she was watching the scene. Heavy tears rolled down her livid face, mingling with the raindrops. The rest of us were barely breathing. If it only ended… if it just ended once and for all…
It was dark by now. Capeleanu, as if possessed, kept stomping with his spiked boots over Bercu’s body. How long had it been? Ten minutes? One hour? Three? Bercu’s blood was trickling over the black mud. We couldn’t see, but we felt it…
Gasping, Capeleanu stopped his deadly dance. He turned his back on us and took off. The gendarmes were still aiming their guns at us. Abruptly, Fanache shouted:
- Attention, squadron! At ease! Break the ranks! You’re free to go! – and turning towards us, he muttered in a low voice: - Take him away! Get inside! Everybody should go out to work tomorrow morning!
Matilda was the first one to approach Bercu. Fearfully. She dropped on her knees beside him. Incessantly, she murmured words in his ear. He was motionless.
- Hey you, Fritz, Marcel, Solomon, come here, help me get him up and carry him inside! Lica picked Bercu up from the mud, handling him as if he was a newborn baby.
That night, none of us closed an eye.
Bercu laid on his gut, washed, bandaged, moaning softly. Kneeling beside him, Matilda continued to whisper love words in his ear. For the rest of our deportation, Bercu no longer slept on his back.
The next morning we all gathered outside, to go out to work. Behind stayed just the elderly, the ones suffering from physical ailments, and women with small children.
The guys quickly learned how to bury the vine. Instead of laying the delicate stem down and throwing a shovel of dirt on top, they were cutting it with the spade. Each time they did so, they swore: “For the Governor’s wine…”
We worked in the barn, shucking ears of corn. Mounds of corn were waiting for us. This was where all the girls and women went to work. Outside it was cold. It was often raining. The wind was howling. We were alone by ourselves in the barn. Along with… our share of work for the day, a big heap of corn. If we failed to finish our work, there would be no food come evening time.
Lica worked at the stables. For ten days, I worked with him every the morning. He used to put me on the bench of the cart, next to the two water barrels (one for the farm’s water and one for our own). If it was too windy, he left me behind at the stables to feed the horses. He brought in water for the farm from fifteen kilometers away. He used to make a few trips per day.
During our stay in the camp, we continued to wash ourselves once a week at the common showers. My mother tended to the laundry and dishes of Marcel and Lica. In return they helped us stuff the mattresses with straw, brought the water and kirpitch and rendered help with moving. In essence, we were one big family. Still, fights were breaking out every now and again, sometimes with little cause. In this one big family, everybody was tired, on edge, frozen, starved, dirty and frightened.
Lieutenant Capeleanu cruised trough the vineyards every morning, on horseback. He drove the guys on like cattle. The lash hit relentlessly, striking the faces and backs of those not alert enough to pull back. The infirmary station was outside the camp. Captain Atanasiu, from Ovidopol, sent us a doctor, a Jew from Transylvania, deported himself to Transnistria. Dr. Arnold Klein, “doctor Aspirin”, as we nicknamed him. A man beyond the age of forty, shriveled, shoulders drooping. His smile – a grimace on a prematurely aged face. Terror in his eyes. He seemed to be asking: “What am I doing here?” A raincoat, much larger than his actual size, enveloped him. Heavy boots, worthy of a rock climber, weighed down his legs. On the day of his arrival, he was told he had a medical assistant available on camp. In the afternoon, I went out to the infirmary. I introduced myself. He looked right through me, as if I wasn’t even there. The fact that the medical assistant was a child didn’t strike him in the least.
- Do you know everyone?
- What do you mean “everyone”? – I asked.
- Everyone… these… deported ladies and gentlemen…
- We’ve been together since September.
- In that case, come with me! I’d like to run a routine check-up.
We entered the camp. We went inside each room. There were sick people all over. Bronchitis, flu, disenteria, rheumatic attacks, eye infections (due to the smoke of the kirpitch ovens).
Doctor Klein did not appear impressed by the sight in the least. For him, we were just human riffraff. Our children were thin, pale, incessantly whining. The elders were frail and helpless. Butnaru, a mountain of a man, had bilateral pneumonia. The doctor stopped by his side.
- Why is he lying down?
- He’s got a fever!
- Why didn’t he go out to work?
- Well, he’s got a fever!
From the inside pocket of the doctor’s raincoat emerged a big clock - an alarm clock of the kind railroad workers used to carry. We failed to understand what he was planning to do. Calmly, as if everything was in perfect order, he took Butnaru’s pulse without even having a second hand on his clock…
- Aspirin! Three aspirins a day and … back to work!
- But he’s got high fever… I tried to protest. Butnaru’s breath was labored, his forehead dripping with sweat.
- - No, no! Back to work! I’ve already said so! There’s no excuse for him! He’ll get over it! He’s young! Understood?
Mrs. Mailender had a foot infection.
Same chain of events: The clock emerged from the raincoat, the pulse was counted and the diagnosis made.
- Aspirin! Back to work tomorrow!
My mother suffered from terrible headaches and had developed a cough. She was coughing up blood. When I saw the doctor repeating the clock “maneuver”, I asked:
- Aren’t you going to listen to her lungs? She’s got a bronchitis. She’s coughing up blood. She’s running high fevers, particularly at nighttime.
Impassable, like he hadn’t heard me, doctor Klein pulled out again – as if performing a ritual – the clock without a second hand. He simulated a pulse count and concluded:
- Three aspirins and back to work tomorrow!
I had the good sense to shut up. I was sorry for my mother, for Mrs. Mailender, for Butnaru, for Zitale (who had diarrhea), for Victor (whose body was covered with purulent pimples). I was sorry for all of us and sorry for this poor frightened man.
Of course everyone realized that doctor “Aspirin” couldn’t help us. He wasn’t ever inconvenienced again. We let him sleep at the infirmary station. Carol Perlzweig, Jagerman and I continued to tend to our ill, the numbers of which were constantly growing.
- Tomorrow is Christmas day! Why don’t we go out caroling?
- Where? At Capeleanu’s house?
- No! At the house of the farm director, maybe even the Guard Corps. There are some among these peasants who didn’t sell out their souls to the devil.
Gusti’s idea had its appeal. That evening twelve or thirteen youngsters gathered in our room. Among them Neuman, the Zwirns, Fritz, Winter, Lica, Gusti, Iulius Grienberg, Bercu and Matilda, Butnaru, Sandu, the Alter brothers…
On the night of December 25, we left the camp. The gendarme on duty accompanied us.
- I’ll come along – he told us. This reminds me of home. As far as escaping, where could you possibly run? In this blizzard, you wouldn’t even make it half a mile away. Sing a hearty carol for me, will you?
Caroling was on the agenda, but our songs were heard that night as well. A few days before Christmas we had celebrated Hanukah. Mr. Mailender and Blumenthal kept us posted on the exact dates of our Jewish holidays.
For Hanukah, candles were lit and songs of our childhood were played. Now, with the advent of our caroling party, we meant to sing our traditional songs out “in public.”
We started caroling under the illuminated windows of the house where the farm director lived. We were almost frozen. Our bowels throbbed with hunger pangs, our feet were frostbitten, our bones permeated by humidity. Snow settled over us as we were standing there.
…”Good tidings, Christmas Eve…” “The leaves are turning on the vines, and swallows flee as autumn sounds… deserted stand the barren fields, deserted are the village grounds…”; Ios, mein steitele Ios…”.
We were ardently singing. We started warming up. My cheeks were burning. Was it the frost? Was it the joy of still being able to sing? At the end, Marcel started singing “Hatikva” in his clear voice. We all sang along. Once over. Twice over. It was snowing heavily. The blizzard was raging. Wolf howls sounded from the nearby forest. A handful of people – ragged, hungry, dreading the day of tomorrow – were singing “Hatikva”… Hot tears welled from our eyes. The “hope” emanating from this song warmed our hearts. We were no longer caroling for the ones inside on Christmas eve. We were singing for ourselves. For our tired hearts… Could anyone understand us?
The door opened. The director brought out a basket with apples, bread, and dried fruit.
- You gave us great joy! May God bless you… give you strength… Tomorrow… and the day after, everyone will get meat. A cow was slaughtered… yes, a cow… not pork… that one’s for us… for you, there will be a week’s worth of beef “tschorba”! We’re all human, what the heck!
Vasiliu couldn’t keep his word. Two days later, on December 27, an order came to transfer us to Bogdanovka. Somewhere high up on the river Bug. At the other end of Transnistria. Alexianu no longer wished to feed us on his farm. We had finished burying his vines.
On the evening of December 26, my uncle, captain Paul Constantiu Virtolas, arrived from Bucharest. He had been searching for us through every camp and ghetto in Transnistria. He arrived loaded, for us and for the others. He had traveled hundreds of kilometers, by sled, across the Ukrainian plains. He was worn out, exhausted, but happy to have found us at last. Alas, we couldn’t spend more than one night with him. The next day, the sleds were waiting for us. Under Capeleanu’s whip, we loaded our luggage to go to the railroad station. My uncle had tears in his eyes.
- Be brave! Don’t despair! We, the ones at home, are continuing to fight for your repatriation. We have promises from all over. We’ll pay as much as we have to…. Hang in there!
At the railroad station, the freight cars - mainly used for cattle transports - were waiting for us.
We boarded the train at nighttime. We lay down on the icy floor, cuddling snugly into one another to keep warm. The buckets for drinking water were covered with a lid. The buckets for excrements were left uncovered, right next to the door. We possessed experience, but our strength was dwindling…
Capeleanu was ecstatic:
- Thank God the Almighty, I’m getting rid of you!
- Thank God the Almighty, Lieutenant, we’re getting rid of you, too! – said Bercu, looking him straight in the eye.
Capeleanu raised his whip. Vasiliu, who had accompanied us to the railroad station, stopped him.
- Don’t hit him, Lieutenant! He’s been hit enough as it is.
I learned later these words cost the agronomic engineer Vasiliu his life. Capeleanu, a general’s son, filed an “incident report”. Vasiliu was deployed to the battlefront, from where he never returned. Another victim was my uncle, Paul Constantiu Virtolas, husband to my aunt Rachel, my father’s youngest sister. Upon his return to Bucharest he developed bilateral pneumonia, which became complicated due to his background of preexistent chronic lung disease. He underwent surgery in Bucharest at the Elisabeta Sanatorium, developed a hemorrhage, an embolism, and passed away just after our repatriation.
On that night – December 27th to 28th – we all slept soundly. We were too frozen and too exhausted to be able to talk, lament or wail.
The following morning, a layer of ice covered the walls of our train car. We were sitting in a glass cage. I grabbed my pocketknife. I dug the blade in the wall. Each day, I was measuring the thickness of the ice layer that way.
The water in our barrels was frozen as well. We had no drinking water during the first hours of the morning. After an hour or two, the ice started melting. Drops of water started dribbling off the ceiling. The walls were perspiring. With the ice melting, water was running all over. My mother put aside a few cans.
- I’ll have water to wash.
From the time we got on the train until the time we got off – on January 21st, 1943 – the water supply was rationed: one can for each person.
From December 27 to January 21, none of us washed. Once a day, when we descended under the train, we grabbed a handful of snow and rubbed it over our eyes. The only exception was my mother: She washed herself with the water she collected in her cans. She was the only one among us who did not get scabies. She couldn’t avoid lice, however, since she slept under the same blanket with my dad and me. Scabies occurred after the first week on the train. We used to scratch ourselves to the point of bleeding.
- Hey, nurse… - my friends used to joke – what is your treatment for scabies?
All things considered, scabies wasn’t our greatest enemy. It was starvation. They locked us up in the train cars. We were allowed under the train only once a day, to empty the waste barrels, fill the water buckets and relieve our needs. Food, however, was not being provided. My uncle had brought us a few suitcases with provisions: bacon, crackers, sweets in hermetically sealed tin boxes, sugar, chocolate. At first, the “beneficiaries” were limited to our group: Brauch, Placek, Winter, Lica, Bercu and Matilda. But there were also children on the train. Therefore, my dad took part of the aliments and gave them to Lisa Grienberg, for Zitale. Hechter also got a share for his son. So did Natalitza Lupescu, for her son. Lica kept an eye on the suitcases at all times. At nighttime, he would sleep on top of the bags. Everything was apportioned.
During the times we got off the train, the gendarmes would approach us carrying salami, rye bread, sugar… Whatever we had left of our clothing was traded in for food and cigarettes. The guys installed small “coal ovens”, which burned the coal we found on the rail tracks.
Oftentimes my dad would wonder aloud: what might be going on in the other train cars? We had no idea. We were isolated from the others.
Our set of railcars was advancing slowly. We stopped in railroad stations, on sidetracks, for extended periods of time. Sometimes, when the sun warmed up the train car, we would crawl from under our blankets and move around a bit.
One day, squadron leader Fanache told us we were just a few hours from our destination. We had arrived at the Black Sea, in the district of Oceacov – where the river Bug emptied into the sea.
We descended from the train cars. We were all stiff. We had aches and pains in our legs, our back, our entire body. Our feet felt like lead.
The sleds were waiting for us. We embarked. It was snowing heavily. The blizzard was raging. Again, we were pushed around and cussed out. We were moving slowly. Too slowly.
- Listen to me, people! – Frowning, Fanache approached our sled. We were cowering on top of our luggage. – We’re going to pass through some villages. Germans, sir! Germans brought here by their emperor, Tsar Peter the Great, and given land a few hundred years ago.
- You mean German colonists…
- Yes, yes… That’s it, German colonists. Their villages have German names: Johannesdorf, Marienthal, Petersdorf…
- But we’re just passing through…
- Right… we’re passing through… but how are we passing through?
Fanache took his hat off. His forehead was dripping with sweat. The outside temperature must have been 20 below zero. In spite of this, he was hot.
- I’ve got to tell you, warn you…. Be on your guard. Five-six months ago, there was another caravan of Jews going through here. They had attempted to get to Bolshevik Russia, had registered their names on some lists. The Marshall detected them and had them deported. Like us, they were headed for Bogdanovka….
- I heard all this from the superintendent of the railroad station. He knows. They never got there! They were all killed: women, children, elders, men in their prime… everyone. They were from the regions of Galati, Braila, even Bucharest… The Germans, sir, the Germans…
- Well then… let’s not go through those villages, Mr. Squadron Leader. Let’s go around them.
- No, we can’t avoid them. There is no other way. But, let me see… Perhaps if you were to go through your pockets and find some left over money… perhaps… perhaps if I gave something to the boys… You can see them yourselves: They’re just poor boys. They’re trembling just like you are… What can I say? Perhaps we could defend the caravan with our rifles. We would stick close to your sleds and protect you…
My father pondered his words. Nobody in our group had much money left. To do a collection was pointless: There wouldn’t be anyone to collect from. He gathered Aladar Brauch, Teichman, Placek and Blumenthal. They took off their watches, and together with their money – the marks they had received from my uncle two weeks earlier – handed them over to Fanache. He weighed the “donation” and nodded in agreement.
Just a few of us were privy to the fate of the Jews from the preceding caravan. There was no point in telling everyone about the pogrom.
We started moving, at a rapid pace. As soon as we reached a village, Fanache stopped the sleds we were all riding in. He pulled them close together, one after the other. In front there was always a sled occupied by a single gendarme. Two sleds covered the flanks, and he took the rear. Each time he yelled like crazy at he sled drivers.
The Ukrainians of German origin, most of them part of Vlasov’s army, were awaiting us. They were armed.
The sled drivers had been ordered by Fanache to pass through the village at a trot. The speed and the armed Romanian soldiers guarding us probably struck an impression on the German peasants. They did not expect to have gendarmes guarding the Jewish caravan. A single gunshot was fired, and that one in the air.
At Bogdanovka, in the Oceacov district, we were met by lieutenant Dumitru Ghiata – brother to the former deputy Petru Ghiata.
- No, gentlemen! I cannot receive you! I realize the situation you are in, but I have no use for you here! Do not insist! I know you’d like to stay, but that’s impossible! We are surrounded by villages of colonists – and they can hardly wait to “bathe” in Jewish blood. Forgive me – I can’t have so many innocent people on my conscience! I prepared a shed for you here, where we used to keep our tractors. I’ll feed you for two days and then, accompanied by my gendarmes, I’ll send you to the railroad station. From there you’ll be heading out to Bogdanovka, the one located in the Golta district. That was the actual destination you were bound for!
For two days we ate “tschorba” and cornmeal to our heart’s desire. We prepared bottles and pots of food to take along on our journey. Each one of us took a few days’ supply of cornmeal.
The return trip was quicker.
Back on the train once more… Again, cold and humidity…
Back on the road, traveling across the Ukraine… In the Smerinka railroad station we were pulled on a sidetrack. There was a Jewish ghetto in town. The inhabitants got wind we were there, locked up in our train cars. The ghetto’s surgeon, Dr. A. Haber from Iasi - who was doing his military duty in these parts of Transnistria – sent his Ukrainian patients out to bring us milk, bread and baked potatoes, all free of charge. The gendarmes were “taxing” each item we received, but something still got through.
The following morning, peasant women wearing heavy coats came out with bread, milk and cheese. This time it wasn’t free. Whoever could afford it, bought some.
Later on, the gendarmes kept them away. They bought the aliments from the peasants themselves, and sold them to us at a higher price.
Still, doctor Haber managed to send us a few sacks of bread.
In the Birzula station, an important railroad center, we received the dispatch order for the Golta district. We were still plagued by scabies and by lice. Wherever we passed through, we heard stories of the typhus epidemic claiming hundreds of lives. In Birzula, one more carriage was attached to our freight train. It was filled with “dubious” Ukrainians. A nun, a tall tschelovek with a full beard – a young writer bearing resemblance to Tolstoy, who was gathering “live” documentary material, a few sickly women, a mute crippled man...
Heavily, the rail cars started rolling. It was as if the blizzard tried to push them back.
January 21, 1943. Wearily, the locomotive is puffing. The train wheels screech annoyingly. The brakes are stopping the movement of the freight carts. It’s nighttime. From under the blankets, we comment:
- Again on a sidetrack.
- They’re uncoupling the locomotive.
- Perhaps we reached our destination?
- What destination? Where are they throwing us this time?
It is bitterly cold. No one is sleeping. On the floor of the train car, wearing a few layers of clothing, covered in blankets, we try to keep warm. The vapors emanating from our breath during daytime slowly turn to ice, covering the walls of the train car. It’s dark. Most of us are coughing. Now and again you can hear a sob, a deep sigh. We are hungry, frozen, scared. What would the next moments hold?
The blizzard is shaking the rail car. We are exhausted, sick, covered with scabies. Who knows what happened to the people in the other cars? We still had leftovers, something to trade in for a piece of bread. Rye bread - rock hard, but bread nonetheless. What happened to the others? How many were alive? And how about tomorrow…? Tomorrow… whereto?
That morning, the sergeant Danila - the one who wanted to liquidate us all in Alexandrovka - had told us:
- They say it’s 28 degrees below zero. I never saw such cold in my life!
Gusti and Carol were waiting behind the door of the train car. They were on duty that evening. The latch was pulled from outside. The two pushed the heavy door, cracking it open just a tiny bit. Not too much, so the ice-cold air wouldn’t hit the inside of the train car. They climbed down with the full waste buckets. They emptied them out, far away from the tracks. Next, they took the empty water buckets and filled them with snow, in place of water. The water well in the railroad station was frozen.
- Tomorrow morning, at dawn, we disembark! Have your luggage packed!
- Whereto, sergeant?
We had heard about this Bogdanovka – from the Golta district. We knew that thousands of Jews from Basarabia, Bucovina and Odessa had been driven there to meet death. Would our fate be the same?
Dad tried to reassure us – my mother and me:
- You’ll see, it’s going to be better! They’ll give us a place to sleep and we’ll get organized. They probably need people for work. You’ll see… We’ll have a cauldron once more; we’ll make “tschorba”… No matter what, we’ll be better off than in these icy rail cars.
- Here at least they left us alone. They didn’t kill us…
From the opposite corner, Marcel shouted:
- Sonia, are you sleeping? Fritz, how about you? Gusti? Bumi, let’s try to warm up. We’re not sleeping anyway. Let’s pack our bags. Leave just the blankets out.
We started packing the worn suitcases, the bundles of clothes. The elders withdrew in one corner. We, the young ones, gathered in the middle of the train car, talking about Bogdanovka. Things we had heard through the grapevine… The hours ticked by slowly. The night seemed without end. We were cold. We blew in our fists to warm up. The heavy clothes irritated our skin. We were itching from scabies. Scratching ourselves, we warmed up.
- Silence! We want to get some sleep!
The one yelling at us was right. We needed strength for the day to come…
At dawn, I took out my pocketknife as usual. I dug the blade in the ice covering the wooden wall. Three inches of ice… If we had stayed in the train car that day, there would have been water to drink, maybe even enough water to wash. During daytime it was “raining” in the train car. But tomorrow, God only knows what kind of water we will have tomorrow…
- Drink all the water you have. The two boys on duty have already climbed down, with the full water buckets.
We could hear the doors of the rail cars being opened everywhere. We were gathering the remainder of our belongings. We were closing suitcases, tying up packages.
- Get off the train! Quick! Get in line! Move!
The empty buckets served us as stairs. Loaded with luggage, we descended painstakingly, after so many days of inactivity. The warm drops of water - which had dribbled down my collar as I drank before leaving the train car - froze from the very first moments. The sky was covered with clouds. A snide, cold wind was blowing. Shivering, we shielded our cheeks from the frostbite. We couldn’t breath. We were shaking.
The gendarmes were cursing. With their rifles, they were hitting those who were slower to get off the train. They were in a hurry. They, too, felt the cold. Some had leather coats, others just light coats made of cloth.
Shouting, yelling. Bundled up in blankets, shawls thrown over our hats – whoever possessed them – we were walking slowly, between moans and groans. The snowstorm blinded us. At the Vradievka railroad station, a few sleds were waiting for us.
- Luggage, elders and children up on the sleds! – ordered squadron leader Fanache.
The other gendarmes echoed the order, enforcing it with blows.
I looked around. My God, what a sight! Some of us had just a blanket on, they had sold their coats during our “trip” for a loaf of bread or a pack of cigarettes. Nelu Goldenberg had no socks on, just his shoes. The snow was high. For a moment I thought that his feet would freeze. I couldn’t finish my thought – a gendarme crashed his rifle on my back.
- Don’t stand there! Move! Get in line!
The sleds were in front. The little horses seemed to take their time. The Ukrainian sled drivers were dozing off on their seats, bundled up in heavy fur coats. They were wearing rubbers on their feet. They were accustomed to the frost. They had been retained by the Romanian gendarmes for three days. Then they would go back to their shacks and warm up. That’s war… They looked upon us indifferently. A few months back, they had transported on the same route thousands of Jewish deportees. Just like us, frightened, starving… A few hundred more, what did it matter to them?
The gendarmes took a few sleds, one at the head of the convoy, the rest of them in the rear. The ones who dropped under way were thrown in a sled. I walked dragging my feet. I no longer felt hunger or thirst. Just the cold. Lica and Fritz were walking next to me, one on each side, so I wouldn’t fall behind. Mother, father, and the Brauchs were walking close together. The ones who had difficulty walking made the rear of the caravan.
- In the first village, we halt…
Now and again we would raise our eyes, fighting the blizzard, which was cutting our breath.
- Look! Smoke… Smoke coming out the chimneys, a village…
We struggled to speed up the pace.
We were surrounded by a sea of snow. There were no trees. No village…
- It’s “fata morgana” – grumbled Fritz.
- What’s “fata morgana”? asked Lica.
- A man lost in the desert, tortured by thirst, sees between the sand dunes an oasis, trees, a fountain... That’s “fata morgana”. A hallucination…
- I see. Like our village… Not there… Not there…
We were crawling along. The gendarmes, in their sleds, were no longer in a hurry. They kept gulping vodka from their bottles till they finally dozed off. The straw in the sleds kept them warm.
It was afternoon time. No break yet. A village showed up ahead. We were too drained to rejoice. Abandoned homes, standing in ruins, marked the outer boundaries of the village. We entered into the first empty house, without doors or windows. Still, it had a roof. Exhausted, we sat down on the floor. Nobody talked. Suddenly, we heard a noise outside.
- Rauss, verfluchte Juden! Rauss! Schnell rauss!
A Ukrainian, wearing the black SS attire, stormed into the small room. He started lashing out left and right with his “nagaika” (ox whip). Aroused from our apathy, we tried to understand what he wanted. Among blows, he drove almost everyone out of the house. My mother tried to explain to him - in German - that we only wanted to rest for a little while. That our strength was failing…
He stared at her for a few seconds with his bloodshot eyes. Then he started hitting her madly. He kept yelling that we brought him lice and typhus. He was going to kill us. I tried to push my mother along. She was standing motionless before him. She just tried to shield her face from the blows. Finally, I managed to push her aside. The blows intended for her started falling on me. I had my head uncovered. The ox whip was tough, the man strong. He hit me over the head. I pushed my mother one last time… Then I fell… A thick mist settled over my brain. I felt the taste of snow on my burning lips. Then I no longer knew what was happening to me.
In the sled where my family put me, I continued to be unconscious. As if I was asleep… In a dreamlike state, I saw my mother – who had started spitting blood and could no longer walk on foot in the caravan – throw a shawl over me and wrap me in a blanket.
… A big fire is burning in an oven. It seems to be the oven in our kitchen back in Bucharest. A chicken is cooking on the grill. Yes, it is the grill of our oven back in Bucharest. It’s warm… It’s cozy… I stretch out my hands, to warm them in the heat of the fire. The chicken crackles, nicely browned.
- Get her off the sled! Now! Fritz, Marcel! Yes, set her down on the side of the road. There, in the snow. She’s frozen. A little bit longer and… she’d be gone… Can’t you see she’s white as a sheet? We’ve got to get her blood moving!
Lica Ehrlich knew what he was saying. He woke me up from my beautiful death dream. Instead of the grilled chicken and the wonderful fire, I saw my friends’ faces leaning over me. They were rubbing snow on my hands, my face, my ears. One of them was trying to get my boots off.
- Stand up! You opened your eyes, that’s good! Stand up now!
I stood up, only to collapse the next moment. My head… A sharp, terrible pain threw me right back down.
- Up! You have to walk! If not, you’ll loose your legs. Do you hear? You must try, Sonia, make an effort!
Conscious of the significance of their words, I struggled again to stand up. The headache persisted. With Fritz on one side and Lica on the other - lifting me almost off the ground - I started walking. I felt needles and pins all through my soles, my heels. Tears ran down my cheeks. My head hurt, my legs hurt. I walked and I cried. The tears didn’t get to run down my cheeks. They froze on the spot, sticking to my lashes.
- Step forcefully. I know it hurts, but for God’s sake, step with the full sole.
I walked. I was groggy. I felt a sharp pain in my head – like a wound. I would have liked to ask how my mother was doing. I couldn’t speak. I tried to raise my eyes to see the caravan, my parents and the others. But I couldn’t do it. I continued to walk. I was no longer crying. The pain in the soles of my feet was slowly easing off. The two men next to me realized I had started walking on my own.
- We saved her, boys – Lica said to Fritz and to Marcel. Now I’ll go check on her mother.
Marcel replaced Lica. His arm was supporting me. Once again, tears rolled down my face. My heart went out to these friends. I felt sorry for them, for me, for us all. Although my headache persisted, I realized I was returning from the brink of death.
The shadows of dusk started settling. The sleds carrying the gendarmes were passing us by.
- Move quicker! What the hell, do you want to freeze out here? Move!
I saw the sled carrying the ones who had crashed underway. There were many of them. One on top of the other. Out in the distance, we could see a village. We started walking quicker. The roads of the former sovhoz were deserted. Not a soul to be seen… The larger buildings had been burned down. The small shacks looked deserted. And still, there were people living here. There was smoke coming out the chimneys. Here and there, a fence was still in place.
In the middle of the village was the former school building. The sleds pulled up in the large, paved yard. Families started regrouping. The numbness seemed to be gone. We took shelter near walls still bearing fragments of roofing. Lica took me aside:
- I went to a home in the village. I gave them the watch. They’ll take us in tonight.
I went to get my parents. My mother was running a high fever. Her cheeks were burning and she was coughing incessantly. She was weak and groggy.
The Brauch family joined us. So did Postelnicu with his two sons, and Iulius Greenberg with his wife and daughter Zitale. We sneaked through the village like thieves. It was stock dark. Lica was leading us.
- Others found shelter in the peasants’ houses, too. I saw the Lupescu family, the Hechters, Placek, the Solomons…
The door of a hut opened widely. The blizzard was driving us from behind. In a moment, a flurry of snow filled the room. We all walked in. Two elderly people – a man and a woman – motioned to us to lie down on the floor. We took off our damp clothes and boots, and lay down on the earthen floor. It was warm. After a while, the woman brought from the other room a pot of hot “tschorba”. In a heartbeat, we each pulled out a cup. (We always kept them with us.) Without a word, without wondering or rejoicing, we started sipping slowly – so as not to miss one drop of the wonderful tschorba. The woman was watching us from her chair. She had tears in her eyes. The old man rolled a cigar. He grumbled something. Then he held out the tobacco jar to Lica. It was filled with black, pungent tobacco. Lica pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, and calmly rolled a cigar. The old man told him to pass the tobacco jar around the room. That night I heard:
- Spasiba, gospodin…
- Nitschevo… Nitschevo…
The stove was pouring out heat. The lice on our skin - dormant for many days in the cold - now started crawling underneath our clothes. All night long, we kept scratching ourselves.
In the morning we saw Zitale high up on the oven, playing with a little boy. He had large eyes and a red face, covered with pimples.
Lica, who knew Russian, was able to communicate with our hosts. They told him their son had been drafted for the war, and their daughter in law had been raped by German soldiers when the troops invaded the village. The little boy was watching as his mother was raped and then killed by the soldiers. The child went into a state of shock. He would sit up there, on top of the oven, all day long. Now Zitale was playing with him.
- We have to go. Don’t let them notice we’ve been away from the school building.
- Spasiba gospodin, jenshina… Spasiba…
We were feeling fine now. We had warmed up and we weren’t hungry. Outside, the blizzard had picked up even more. Snow was falling abundantly over the Russian plain. In the schoolyard, next to the fence – lying in the snow as in a giant bed – the nun and the full-bearded partisan were sleeping hand in hand. That’s how they were found in the morning… dead.
I stopped at their side for a moment. I would have liked to close their eyes. I wasn’t able to. Their lids were frozen stiff.
- Let them be, Sonia… Let them watch the sky together… The snow is covering them already. A white death shroud… In spring, the people in the village will bury them.
Once again yelling. Once again curses and blows. Again in the caravan. Again on the road…
The gendarmes were drunk.
- Hey, Fanache, let me kill them, man! Let me… Out there, they’ll all be wiped out anyway. I could use a good piece of clothing, a good pair of boots to take home to the children. Oh, do I hate this war… Fanache, don’t be mean, man, let me kill them…
Foreman Vasile Oatu was standing in his sled – rifle charged – and shouting. Squadron leader Fanache, perhaps the only one among them who was somewhat sober, yelled back furiously:
- Sit down, Oatu! That’s an order! Down! Don’t you touch any one of them…! And don’t come to me later with stories of how they tried to escape. I’d forget we’re from the same village, I’d ship you out to the frontline, for those tscheloveks to eat you alive. Down, do you hear me?
Oatu slumped down in the sled. We kept crawling ahead. My head was hurting again. I felt it throbbing, as if it was trying to come apart.
- Why are you making faces? – Lica asked me.
- My head is hurting badly.
- Well, what can you do? It’s a miracle he didn’t break it.
At noontime, the caravan stopped. From a bag, sergeant Danila pulled out several loaves of rye bread – each one the size of a brick. They were frozen, rock hard.
- One loaf of bread for each ten people. You are 281 people from Bucharest (The Cernat family had been repatriated while we were still at Alexandrovka). Add the 46 Ukrainians - that makes 327. But then, there are some who died under way… Take 20 loafs. That should be enough…
Lica took the bread loaves, spread a blanket on the ground, and – with his big knife – started carving. We all got a slice.
Glued to one another, keeping close to the sleds to avoid the snow flurries, we slowly chewed the frozen bread. Only then did we realize we were hungry.
We would take a handful of snow from the ground and mix it with the bread. The “meal” lasted long. We ate the slice of bread slowly – very, very slowly.
Mothers with small children had some reserves left over in their travel sacks. Zitale even got a lump of sugar. Esther’s two children were crying. They couldn’t chew the bread. Lica gave them a morsel of bacon. They instantly gulped it down. He taught Esther to melt a little snow in a cup, and dip the bread in the water. That’s how the children ate the bread.
Once more on the road… We were scanning the horizon, hoping for a village to show up. Finally we saw a few cabins covered with shingles, among snow covered trees. As we entered the village, we came upon a stable. What a delight! One area still had straw and manure. We made a fire. We heated up snow in our cups. How good the hot water felt! We searched through our pockets and luggage for leftovers: A bit of sugar, a biscuit, a crust of bread. Nestled closely into one another, we finally fell asleep. The fire was burning, the smoke was pouring into our eyes. Still, it was better than out on the road. We were together. Tomorrow… we’ll see about tomorrow… We were afraid to think about Bogdanovka. The gendarmes and even the Ukrainians housing us overnight had told us how a few months ago, caravans of thousands and thousands of Jews had traveled that same journey. It was late autumn then. A cold, rainy autumn. Some of those people had been brought by train to Vradievka, and from there on marched on foot to Bogdanovka. Others had traveled on foot from the beginning – in caravans measuring hundreds of meters. There were many women, some of them with children, men, old people… from Basarabia, Bucovina and Odessa – Jewish, all Jewish.
Nobody ever returned. They were all killed by Romanian and German soldiers. The Germans didn’t trust the Romanians to execute all prisoners, and came in to “help” them. The German army was in control of this action… Were we meant to be the “second round” at Bogdanovka?
Next morning, the sun timidly appeared in a glassy sky. But the frost was still strong.
January 23rd. The caravan is painstakingly crawling through the fields.
- Bistro! Bistro! (Faster! Faster!)
They were hitting at random, without looking. They rode small horses, well fed and fast.
Bogdanovka. The Ukrainian villagers came out in the streets. They pointed at us and laughed. “Kaput! Kaput!”
We were too exhausted, starved and frozen to feel any outrage, or to rebel against being put to death.
Up on the hill had been one of the largest pig farms in the Soviet Union: the State Farm of Bogdanovka. The villagers in the valley had worked there. The pig stalls – once the pride of the region – had burned down. One building still housed a few dozen Jews. Other 60,000 bodies lay covered by snow, in the huge trench next to the little forest – Jews killed by Ukrainian policemen, by German and Romanian soldiers.
We were now climbing towards those pig stalls.
The Ukrainian cart drivers stopped in front of a burned-down building. They unloaded the luggage and the ones unable to walk due to exhaustion. The pig stalls had built-in boxes, made of red brick, each of them communicating with a large interior hall. The outer separating segments in between the boxes - built-in as well - were painted white.
“What fancy looking pig stalls…”
We were assigned to our box. We spread the blankets out on the ground. In the huge hall without doors or windows, 281 people from Bucharest were setting up camp.
Brauch, Teichman, Crestinu and my father went to the director of the farm, Vasile Stanescu – an agronomist – to ask him for straw. Stanescu refused to receive them:
- The straw is for the pigs, not for the kikes!
A few hours later a sturdy man, bundled up heavily, made his appearance in our pig stall. In Yiddish, he started inquiring about everyone. This was the brigadier Kopel, one of the survivors of the massacre in Bogdanovka. As we found out later, his entire family lay in the big furrow by the river, next to the birch forest. They had been shot by the soldiers. As if by miracle, he escaped. Now he was one of the leaders of the Jewish group, survivors of the massacre.
In the large pockets of his leather coat, Kopel was carrying bread, corn, sugarcane, baked potatoes. Wherever he saw children, he approached them with a wide smile and offered them food.
In the evening, primus stoves appeared in the camp and cups with boiling water started going around. The children were running among us. Somehow, a few planks were procured. Sandu - as a good housekeeper – used them to cover the windows in the boxes. We had less light that way, but the penetration of the blizzard into the hall was diminished.
Marcel rushed toward us.
- Sonia, come quickly! In the last box, the one at the door… It’s Nelu. He’s frozen. He’s… finished. Come!
I grabbed my first aid kit. I had a few vials of caffeine in it, some alcohol, a few lumps of sugar. Nelu Goldenberg was lying on a blanket and covered with another. Matilda was trying to pour warm porridge down his throat. Boiled water with sweetened grits. His large hazel eyes watched us – wide open – as if he didn’t understand the agitation around him. He whispered something. Marcel, who was leaning over him, produced a cigarette, lit it and put it between his pale lips. Nelu took a deep inhale. I bend down to give him an injection.
- It’s a pity, Sonia, he whispered. A pity…
The needle of the syringe broke in his thigh. He was frozen stiff. When I tried to pull the needle out, Marcel caught my arm.
- There’s no need…
That’s how Nelu Goldenberg died: on a dirty blanket, his cigarette still in his mouth. He was, I believe, 23 years old. He had always been lively, full of optimism. He used to boast: “I’m a Bucharest punk. Bad stuff. Too bad even for the devil to take.”
Nelu Goldenberg had made one big mistake during our deportation: he had sold his coat and boots for food and cigarettes.
They buried him behind the pig farm of Bogdanovka, not far from the common grave of the 60,000 Jews from Basarabia, Bucovina and Ukraine.
My mother continued to have high fever and chills. I had perpetual dizziness, headaches and vomiting. About my father, what can I say? He always had his hand on his pulse, his medicine in his mouth.
- In the ghetto, in that big house, there are two doctors: Akerman and Weiss. Akerman wants to see you, Lica told us. About 120 Jews are living over there. It’s warm, they have food. There are a few large rooms out there, with doors and windows. I spoke with Kopel, their brigadier – a real nice man. They’ll take in our sick, the small children and their mothers. We’ll distribute them throughout the rooms. The bottom line is, they’re Jewish too. Some are nicer, some tougher. No matter. We won’t marry them… They’ll just help us overcome this hurtle!
That very same evening, we moved to the room of doctor Akerman and his wife Lia – a pharmacist. A small room at the entryway in the ghetto, with a fairly large bed, an oven burning on “kirpitsh” and windows closing snugly. To us – a great luxury. Doctor Akerman was a short, skinny man, wearing spectacles. His wife looked much younger than him. She was a beautiful woman. The large, gentle eyes illuminated her pale face.
My mother received first aid, along with a cup of tea. For me, a blanket was spread on the floor. I lay down after taking a few anti-neuralgic tablets.
In the morning, Lia gave me a basin with hot water, a piece of soap and a washcloth. I looked at them in disbelief. “Wash myself?” I did so gladly. My mother watched on, smiling.
- We are no longer used to live like humans…
Then we ate with them – bread, salami, a sweet porridge and plenty of tea. We told them our story, where we came from and what we had been through.
I told doctor Akerman that I was the nurse of the camp.
- Come with me, right away! Do you have any medication? We have a few bad cases. We have to tend to them quickly. Is your head still hurting? Are you able to help me? If so, take this small basin and the kit.
In one of the other rooms of the Jews in the Bogdanovka ghetto, Esther had found shelter with her two children. The little girl, which – although one year old – she still breastfed, was quietly sleeping on a floor mat. The little boy was crying. He was two years and a few months old. He had blond, curly hair and a tiny face – pale and wrinkled like an old man’s.
- The boy’s toes are frozen. Undo his rags.
Esther quietly unwrapped the little boy’s feet. She had tears in her eyes. The little boy was crying. His toes had separated from the feet. Doctor Akerman motioned to me to keep the basin under the child’s feet. Quickly and skillfully, continuously disinfecting with iodine, the doctor severed the frozen ligaments. The toes came loose and fell into the basin.
- His right foot worries me. It’s gangrenous. Keep putting disinfectant compresses on the wounds. Here, take this powder. Use it in one liter of boiling water. And take these pills. They might help him.
- Doctor, Esther muttered, he’s got a high fever. And he’s shaking. What shall I do? He won’t even eat. Look, I tried to give him this corn porridge. He won’t have it! They even brought me warm milk for him. He wouldn’t have it. I gave it to the little girl… He won’t have anything and just keeps crying.
Doctor Akerman examined the little boy again.
- Hum… He has a pulmonary congestion, too. A generalized infection. Ma’am… what can I tell you? The little one is very weak. Malnourished. His body is giving up. He’s very sick.
I don’t know if Esther understood what the doctor was telling her. She took the little girl in her arms and fed her, gazing sadly at the little boy, who was squirming beside her. I felt that Esther had given up fighting for her boy. She knew, she felt that he was beyond help. The little boy was crying. Esther started humming a lullaby in Yiddish. The little girl had fallen asleep in her arms, satisfied after feeding.
I walked out of the room feeling dizzy, overcome by great pain and pity. Doctor Akerman asked me to accompany him into another room, full of people. Here, Klein was lying on a blanket, moaning incessantly. He was a sturdy man with an open, honest face. He was from Transylvania. He had remained in Bucharest after the start of the war. The people back home had written to him not to return, since “ he would of course have a better life in Bucharest.” Now he was writhing in pain. His ears had frozen. They were hanging by a bare ligament. Again, doctor Akerman asked me to hold the basin for him. One after the other, the ears fell into the small white bowl. Poor Klein was gritting his teeth.
Winter came running into the room.
- Come quickly! Zalman’s little girl is very sick.
Doctor Akerman gathered his medical kit.
- Doctor – Marcel addressed him – I don’t think there’s much you can do for her… But who knows? Perhaps for the parents…
We set out for the pig stalls. The Zalmans had declined moving into the warm rooms of the Jews in the ghetto. They didn’t want to leave their luggage behind.
Walking against the blizzard, I tried to remember Sarale – Zalman’s eldest daughter. She was not yet nine. She had always been a sad, quiet girl.
Wrapped in a blanket, Sarale was cowering among the suitcases, in the red brick box. The sun timidly shone its rays through the planks nailed over the windows by Sandu. All of a sudden, the blizzard had eased up and the sky had cleared.
In the large hall – usually loud and noisy – it was suddenly quiet. Shivering, everyone became silent. As if they felt the presence of death.
The little girl was breathing with difficulty. Her face was hot with fever. Her large black eyes looked at me, full of sadness. Then she smiled. How beautiful she was! How come I had never seen her smile before? She put out her hand through the blankets – a thin, white, almost translucent hand. I took it into mine. A shiver went through my spine. Her hand was ice-cold. Sarale wasn’t talking. She gazed at me intently. I could hardly refrain from crying. I was reproaching myself. Why didn’t I ever play with her? Why had I never taken her with me? Why hadn’t I been a big sister to her? Why? Nobody ever understood why she was crying. They just let her cry. Her smile was now talking to me. Outside, the blizzard picked up again. A candle was lit in the box. Sara’s parents were crying quietly. The two younger sisters were playing on an improvised bed. Sara’s tiny hand was getting colder and colder. Her breath had turned into a rasp. Her large eyes were continuing to dwell on me. But Sara didn’t see me. God, why? Why don’t you have pity on her? What was her sin? What did she do to you, God? Why did you put her through this torture, why are you taking her now?
A howl broke the silence. Sara’s mother collapsed over the child’s lifeless body.
- God, where are you? God, where are you?
I whispered to Winter:
- He… He is here! In Sarale’s eyes!
We walked out of the large, frigid hall. My heart felt empty, deserted. I felt the need to be close to someone – a friend, or perhaps my mother.
I walked into one of the rooms of the Bogdanovka ghetto. There - in a corner - Roza was lying on an improvised bed, made out of planks nailed to wooden logs. Her eyes were fixed on the ceiling.
When we arrived at Bogdanovka, shabby as we were, a young woman wearing a dress much too large for her, had approached us. From the large, roomy pockets had emerged all kinds of marvelous things: corn, breadcrumbs, baked potatoes, carrots…
Roza was of medium height, slender, and although the baggy garment hid her body, one could guess it had beautiful contours. The perfectly oval face had something deeply touching. A sadness permeating every feature - the sagging corners of her mouth, the large hazel eyes full of bitterness, everything…
I don’t know why, but on that day when Sara left our world, I felt the need to talk to her.
- Can I stay here with you, Roza?
Surprised, she moved over on the bed to make room for me.
- Lie down, if you wish!
- No, I’d rather lean against your knees. I need to talk to you for a little bit. Sarale - you know her, the little skinny one – she’s dead!
- I imagined she was going to leave us… she was very sick…
- Roza, do you mind if I ask you a question? … Tell me, how did you get here and how come you are the only survivors, out of 60,000 Jews?
Roza groaned. I heard her teeth gritting. I was not yet fifteen – that’s the only way I can justify that question. It was simply insane. But I did ask. Scared of what I had started, I awaited the answer.
Around us there was silence. Red flames flickered in the little heater in the middle of the room. Roza gave a deep sigh. I felt she was tense. I thought she would feel better if she cried. I wished I had something soothing to tell her. I was sorry for the anguish I caused her.
After a while, Roza started speaking in a quiet voice, with a soft basarabian accent:
- I believe you remember how on June 22, Antonescu gave the order: “Romanian soldiers, I order you, Cross the Prut!” My husband Fedia was a pharmacist. We lived in Chisinau. He was tall, had red hair, and was a lively, kind man. A very kind man… We fell in love the moment we met. We went to high school together. After two years of marriage we had our daughter Lena. She had red hair and black eyes like her father, and the same contagious laughter. Then Masha was born. In June 1941 she was one year old. One night, Fedia’s parents showed up at our house. “We have to flee!” Fedia was in the military, under local deployment: He ran the central pharmacy of the city. “We will not leave Chisinau!”
But they came at nighttime, with a special order, and took him to the army. “Wait for me, Roza! Wait for me with the girls. I’ll come back!” After two days, a friend who was a military doctor notified me that Fedia had fallen. He had been hit by shrapnel.
I was beside myself. The Red Army had withdrawn. I stayed in Chisinau with my little girls. When the Romanian army invaded the city, I hid in a cellar belonging to some Christian friends of mine.
After a few days, my friend came down to the cellar:
- They put up notices in the streets for the citizens. All the Jews have to report to the command post with their luggage, to leave for labor camps in the Ukraine. On the river Bug. Whoever hosts Jews will be shot together with them. Roza… we thought about this… You and the girls have to leave as well…
I understood. I packed a few things in a backpack, more so for the little ones, and we headed over to the command post. There were many German and Romanian soldiers all over. I was wearing a gray scarf and a thick skirt – the same one I’m wearing now – which was distorting my shape. The little girls were beautiful, lively – they drew everyone’s eye.
In the yard of the command post, a German officer took Masha from my arms. Laughing, he threw her up in the air. I didn’t notice he had a revolver in one hand. Masha was laughing. The German shot at her. I yelled. My little girl was lying at my feet. Her head was shattered, her hair full of blood. They grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me. I was clutching Lena in my arms. She couldn’t understand what had happened to her sister. After such a beautiful game… just a moment ago Masha had been flying through the air…
After a few hours I pulled myself together. I kept thinking: Would Lena have the same fate? No, it can’t be! I won’t let that happen.
One of the clerks at the command post brought me a cup of milk for the little girl. “I saw what just happened. If you wish, you can give me the girl. After the war you may come to get her.”
I felt God had sent me that woman. I took down her name and address, and gave her my little girl. I can still see Lena’s face – so tiny and tearful. “Mommy, why do you give me away, mommy, why don’t you take me with you?”
Then a caravan was formed and we started marching. The caravan kept growing: thousands of people, women with children in their arms, others dragging children by their hand... Feeble old people who were falling like flies. Unshaven men, terrified by their own weakness. I didn’t know what was going on around me. They all left me alone. They thought I was crazy. In time I recovered, and started helping out wherever I could. And then we reached Bogdanovka…
Roza was silent… Her face had relaxed. Her humid eyes were shining. While telling her story, her face – usually pale – had flushed. I didn’t budge from her side. I think she had forgotten I was there. Her speech was choppy, as if the words were being torn out of her.
- It was autumn. They put us in that big stall. The men were taken out to work. A big wide trench, up there on the hill, next to the birch forest. An anti-tank trench. I went to work in the kitchen. The workers were entitled to a food portion. The number of people in the pig stalls was growing. I think we were a few thousand, all from Basarabia. Among them were many, very many Orthodox Jews. They didn’t eat from the cauldron. It wasn’t “kosher”. I brought them – whenever I could steal from the storage depot – fruit, baked potatoes, bread, cornmeal… By the time the trench was completed, tens of thousands of Jews had gathered in Bogdanovka from parts of the Ukraine, Basarabia and Bucovina. When the work was done, several German and Romanian officers arrived. The crowd of Jews was guarded by Romanian gendarmes and Ukrainian policemen belonging to the army of Vlasov - a German ethnic of the Ukraine, supporter of Hitlerism, a bandit as cruel as Petliura, of which my mother was telling me stories when still home in Chisinau.
And one day in early winter, it started. A hundred Jews per day were taken out of the stalls. They were marched on the road by the forest, towards the ditch. The rifles chattered briefly, rhythmically. A hundred, maybe two hundred bullets per lot. Like factory work. Another lot would follow. A few Jews from each lot had the task of undressing the dead and sorting the clothes. The dead bodies were tossed in the ditch. Many a time, the wails of the wounded would carry all the way over here, up in the kitchen. A merciful soldier would then put a bullet through their head, curtailing their agony. I was not in the least afraid of the moment when I would be chosen for the daily lot. I awaited it, almost voluptuously. What did death mean to me? Where was Fedia? Where was Mashenka? And how about Lena? Sometimes I asked myself if life was still worth living. Just for Lena’s sake, I hoped to stay alive. To see her again, to give her a mother’s love… Was Lena not reason enough for me to want to live? … And more Jews kept arriving… - Roza continued. Another thousand… another ten thousand. Days in a row there were shootings. The trench filled up to the brim. In the meantime it had started to snow. The corpses were covered each night by a thick layer of snow. They are finally warm – I was thinking. After days… I don’t know how many… the big trench was full. They took people, feeble Jews who still wanted to live, and ordered them to dig another trench. Hundreds of people were digging their own grave. Silently, without protest, without complaint. I was outraged. I was boiling with anger. How was this possible? Where was the whole world? Why were they silent? Didn’t they know what was going on out here, at Bogdanovka? One evening, a few days after the first trench was covered with a thin layer of dirt, I turned my eyes towards the little forest. The ground was moving. I rubbed my eyes. I thought I was dreaming. I walked down to the forest. The ground was moving – waves after waves. White spots had surfaced here and there: a hand, a leg, a back… I didn’t tell anyone about it. In those days I wished to stay alive. To survive, so I could tell the story. But would the world believe me? … Will people understand what had happened here?
That way, day by day, until the end of January, perhaps even February… 60,000 Jews perished, murdered in cold blood. I continued to work in the kitchen. The killers, Romanian and German soldiers and officers, needed food. One canteen, three food outlets. I no longer went back to the pig stall, not even to sleep. I had improvised a bed for myself in the kitchen. And… as you see… I’m alive. To this day Kopel, our brigadier, calls me “Roza, the cook”…
The young woman was silent. Her eyes drifted past me, somewhere far in the distance…
I got up from the planks and leaned over her, putting a kiss on her forehead. Roza didn’t move. I left the big room, to go to bed.
Lia met me with a curious look.
- Where have you been? Your parents were worried.
- Sarale died!
Lia nodded. She understood.
We had been in Bogdanovka for almost two weeks. On the night of February 8th, a few sleds pulled up in the yard of the former pig farm. A new Guard Corps. Finally – we thought to ourselves – we’ll get rid of the Ukrainian policemen, which were beating and robbing us.
- Tomorrow at dawn you’ll be transferred to Golta (formerly Pervomaisk under the Soviets), the capital of the district. An order came for you from high up, in Bucharest. The saints must be protecting you… You are a work detachment… In Golta they need laborers, craftsmen… Here, there’s nothing for you to do…
The transfer order applied solely to us, the lot from Bucharest. Ruefully, we said goodbye to doctor Akerman, to Lia, to Kopel and Roza. We were going our own separate ways. We thought we would never see each other again.
We had all embarked in the sleds when we heard the voice of Lucacescu Herman. He was the leader of a small group of boys who had joined us in Vigoda. Other members of the group were Paul Leibovici, Jean Segal, Shapsa Sami, Stamber Nathan. Everybody knew them. Their motto was: “One for all and all for one.” They were truly strong and helped each other out. They took turns at selling a piece of clothing or a pack of cigarettes in exchange for food.
- Where’s Jean? Jean Segal? I can’t see him in any of the sleds.
Somebody answered him:
- He stayed back at the pig stalls… He was too weak to get up.
Lucacescu jumped out of the sled.
The gendarmes started shouting:
- Hey, you… Come back here! We’re leaving! It’s late. We were ordered to get out of here before dawn…
But Lucacescu - swimming through mounds of snow – was running towards the stalls we had just left.
One of the gendarmes ordered the sleds to start moving.
The guys in Herman’s group protested. The loudest was Shapsa Sami. He was trying to persuade the cart driver to wait a little longer. This one, however, set the sled in motion.
Herman Lucacescu carried Jean Segal on his back for a few kilometers. Finally, he reached the sled where his friends were riding. He set Segal on top of the luggage.
- Now we can leave for Golta. Everybody’s here!
We left behind – without regrets – the “elegant” pig stalls.
Behind the pig stalls, a row of graves - each bearing a plank for a headstone. Weak and powerless, but hopeful, we were setting out towards Golta.
For the first time during our deportation, we were all being transported in sleds. On top of the luggage. Each one with his own thoughts. Each one wondering in his mind: “What will the future hold…?”
In the afternoon, the sleds pulled into the outskirts of a small town. You could see houses, factory chimneys. We crossed the railroad tracks.
- Big city, this Golta!
- Maybe in the city we’ll be better off!
- Perhaps the ones back home, in Romania, will be able to find us. To give us assistance.
- Let’s see what they’re planning to do with us.
The sleds stopped in the yard of a factory. A few big halls had their doors wide open. The windows were shattered.
The blizzard was as strong in here as outside on the plain. A tall concrete fence surrounded the former tractor factory.
- Get off! Off! Quickly! Take your luggage. Get into the halls. Quickly, off…!
Dazed by the journey - the frost and starvation - we were moving like dismembered puppets.
We walked randomly into one of the halls. It was all concrete. It felt like a giant cooler. It was utterly dark. Soon we got used to the darkness. Still, a huge chaos reigned in the beginning. We were groping for our bundles, our suitcases, our backpacks. By the same token, we were searching for one another. Some family members had landed in the other hall. There was plenty of yelling, cursing, protests and jostling.
- This place is mine! Stop stretching like that, will you…? You took my blanket! Why are you stepping like a “golem”? Watch your head, or I’ll turn it…! Watch where you’re going, are you blind or what…?
Our nerves were giving out.
Late at night we calmed down. Lying on the concrete floor, we were trying to sleep. Sleep was my dearest ally. Everything was forgotten. I regained my strength. I didn’t have to eat, and – most importantly – I was dreaming… What wonderful dreams I had sometimes! I could hardly wait to fall asleep, to escape into the wonderful world of dreams. Still, at times it turned out sleep was my enemy. I would get nightmares. I would relive the days at Bogdanovka or the journey over there, I would feel the blow, that blow in the head, I would hear Sarale cry.
At dawn, the ones next to the windows woke up covered by snow. The blizzard was howling forcefully. Sandu formed a work team. The windows had to be covered, and the doors straightened so they would close properly. Wooden bunks had to be crafted from the planks piled up in the yard – but first it all had to be cleared by Headquarters.
Captain Ambrus, the head of the Gendarme Legion in the district of Golta, showed up after a few days. During that time we didn’t move from the icy hall. Three times a day we were taken, under guard, to the back of the yard…
Upon his arrival, the captain summoned us all. The roll was called. Blumenthal’s voice was fading. The wind, as it blew the snow through the factory yard, carried the names called out. We were straining to hear. Many were missing: people who would never answer again.
Avram Crestinu was talking to Ambrus.
- Yes, yes – said the captain – you may craft wooden bunks. But first let the planks dry out for a few days, in one of the empty halls. Straw will not be allowed in the camp. It breeds worms. Put up two outhouses. At once! … Starting tomorrow, you’ll be taken to bathe. There is public bathroom in the city. You’ll be going out in groups of 30 people, accompanied by a gendarme. I don’t want to hear of typhus. That’s why I brought you here! Because you don’t have typhus! I’ll give directives, write it down, sergeant – he said, addressing an R.T. sergeant – a basin, cauldrons with food and bread… Tomorrow these should be brought up here, to the camp. (That’s how we learned that the former tractor factory was situated on a hill, in the outskirts of Golta.) In a few days – captain Ambrus continued – I want work teams for the railroad station, the rail tracks, the hospitals, the roads, the Red Cross, the army depots, the home of Mr. Prefect Isopescu Modest – for construction work. I need a good tailor at my home. Two or three clerks at the Prefecture, a barber… Nobody is allowed out of camp. You must all stitch on your clothes – front and back – a yellow star. The ones apprehended without a star will be sentenced to 10 days of jail-time. Repeat offenders will be turned over to the Martial Court. You are not allowed any kind of contact with civilian employees or with the military troops in the city. The punishment for that is imprisonment or Court Martial.
Stocky, red-faced and chubby, captain Ambrus looked like a man who enjoyed good food and good wine. Born in Transylvania, he was the son of a landowner, proprietor of acreage and vineyards.
He didn’t make eye contact while talking. He was visibly indisposed by our presence in his district. Shortly after our arrival, he was advanced to the rank of major. He was a career officer.
Before leaving the camp he told Crestinu - who remained his liaison-person with us - that a few boxes were waiting for us in the depots of the railroad station.
- The Jewish Community from Bucharest sent them for you. They wandered through the whole of Transnistria – just like you did, in fact. Have a team report to the railroad station. I’ll give you a truck. I think there’s food and clothing in those boxes. The way you look, you’ll need them! My God, you look so decrepit! Don’t touch anything before you get rid of parasites; don’t distribute anything! I don’t want lice in my town. Understood?
In the evening - sitting on the cold concrete, at the light of a candle - we were picking the lice off our clothes. Now and then, one of us would shout out triumphantly the headcount of the lice he had killed.
The first bath we took in Transnistria – at the public bath facility in Golta – was a significant event. A “historic” event, I would say. We were taken out to the public bath in groups of 30 women and 30 men. Each with a bundle in their hand, containing clean changes. Two women at a time would go into the hot water tub. The men were taken to a different room. We were allowed to stay at the public bath for two hours. One hour in the water, one hour to dry off. The public bath was next to the railroad station, not far from the center of town. The trip out there was a true adventure. We were out among people… We saw trucks, shops... We kept our eyes wide open, avidly absorbing every sight. We had been living like brutes. It seemed as if we had just stepped out of hell. The yellow stars stitched on our garments bothered neither us, nor the by passers. They had seen Jews before.
Some of our people at the camp were not able to make it to the public bath. Their strength was failing. We laundered their clothes in the steamer. Water was heated up in the camp, and they were helped to wash themselves on site, with assistance from the stronger ones among us. We were fighting a battle against lice, the spreaders of typhus and death.
Solomon, the barber, was taken by a gendarme to the command post. There they put him to the test. Satisfied with his work, they gave him a barbershop in town. “Work!” – they told him. And Solomon started working, even making an income! Marcel, his son started looking better. Rebecca was now boiling potatoes, corn, even meat. They ate their meals by themselves, but they would also give to the others. Zambila Schnelicht – mother to Natalitza, nicknamed by us the “little blond angel” – was taken by a gendarme to the home of captain Ambrus. She was a tailor, and the captain’s wife had plenty of work to give her. Natalitza started looking better, too. She was being fed over there, at the captain’s house…
Among the first to get out of camp was Mosiu Maidenberg – a clerk whose father had died of malnutrition at Alexandrovka. He started working at the Prefecture in Golta. Evenings in a row, we would gather around him and listen to his news. He was our live “news broadcast.” From him we would find out what was going on, not only in the capital of our district, but also in the world, on the front.
Eng. Schwarzenberg had formed a team of “construction workers”, and was now working for the Prefecture. One of the members of this team was Marval Levi, who was suffering due to the demands of the job. Night after night he would return to camp exhausted, complaining of pains all through his body.
- I can’t do this anymore. I’ve never done such strenuous physical activity in my life. I can’t do this anymore!
One day a lieutenant – supervisor of the construction work in the city – saw him struggling with a pushcart. Marval was a delicate man, young and handsome, with an inborn distinction.
- Hey, Sir – the officer called out to Marval – wouldn’t you like to switch jobs? I need a worker for the tennis grounds of the Prefect…
Puzzled, Marval agreed nonetheless. He hoped this new job would be lighter.
The next morning, a gendarme accompanied him to the home of the Prefect Isopescu Modest. The lieutenant – chief of construction projects – showed up around nine o’clock.
- Look Mr. Levi, this is what you have to do. Here and there, where you see little holes, pour gravel and then go over it with the roller… Each morning you should set up the net, make sure it’s nice and taut. When the colonel plays tennis with his daughter, you will be tending to the garden and the alleys, so they are well maintained. It’s clear, isn’t it?
- Yes, Sir!
- I think it will be easier than pushing the dolly.
Marval understood the lieutenant wanted to help him. He was very happy at first. However, after the first day on the new job, he realized the situation was nothing but worse. The roller was extremely difficult to maneuver. His shoulders were thoroughly bruised. He was putting all his strength into the task, yet barely making progress. The next day, desperate, he asked the lieutenant to let him return to the “construction team” of eng. Schwarzenberg.
- It’s much harder here, Lieutenant Sir. I appreciate your help, but… I’m lacking the strength.
Surprised, the lieutenant replied:
- No, I won’t return you to the team… But give me a few days and I’ll find you something else…
Then he talked to Marval as one man to another.
A few days later, an order came for Marval Levi to report to the Prefecture, to one of the offices, as a “clerk”. About a week later, the lieutenant – his benefactor – showed up in the office.
- Are you happy here? I’m glad!
Over at the camp, the fight against lice continued. In spite of the steam cleaner, in spite of the baths we were taking, we were continuing to be plagued by lice. Almost all of us had gotten rid of scabies. We could hardly believe it. Those little red pustules in between our toes and on our abdomen had vanished. But the lice resisted. Back from the public bath, clean, our clothes and laundry freshly steamed, we felt the lice continuing to act up - particularly under our arms, on our feet and abdomen. It took two weeks to say goodbye to the lice! Only then did captain Ambrus allow us to open the boxes we received from Bucharest.
The six boxes had been stored in an empty hall. Since none of us trusted the others in this matter, a committee was formed: my father, Brauch, Placek, Blumenthal, Teichman and Avram Crestinu – all members of our former deportee committee – plus two delegates from each hall. Sandu was getting ready to open the boxes.
I was present, thinking the boxes might contain drugs and medical equipment, which I would need to take over. We were all moved. We were caressing the boxes. They came from far away, from our homeland. Our brothers had sent them to us. They had not forgotten us. Sandu put a kipa on his head and said a prayer, before proceeding with the opening of the boxes. Our emotion was growing. These six boxes represented our bond with our families. With the first hammer blow, the first latch sprung open. Then the second… The boxes sent by the Jewish Community had been carefully secured. A plank was lifted off, then another, and another… My heart was pounding forcefully. My palms were wet. What wonderful things would we find in the boxes? How many of us would have warm clothes from now on? How many of us would no longer be hungry? How many will bestow their blessings on the ones who had not forgotten them?
A rough blanket covered the contents of the first box.
- How nice! Blankets!
- No, wait! There’s only one blanket; there are clothing items underneath.
The blanket was spread on the ground. Gravely, Sandu started emptying out the contents of the first box: a few ladies’ corsets, some 30 brassieres, another pack of corsets… a large pack of silver hosiery… a big parcel with hats, among which a white straw hat with a black ribbon… cotton socks, wool socks… ladies’ shoes with high pointed heels… men’s shoes… a few pairs of lacquer shoes… and a top hat!
With each pack we opened the silence became deeper. You could hear only Sandu’s voice announcing the items he pulled out, and Blumenthal’s voice repeating the items as he logged them in his huge register.
Nobody else said a word. We were petrified. I could feel my temples pounding. A bitter knot had settled in my throat.
- Open the second box!
The same ceremonial took place. This time, nobody was excited. Nobody caressed the rough planks of the boxes.
- Salt. Blocks of salt…
In that moment, we felt our anger surging. Some of us started cursing. However, a few months later we realized how lucky we were to have this salt. There were months and months when nobody in Transnistria had any salt whatsoever. We were the only ones in the region who did. Only then did we realize its value.
The third box contained used men’s suits, sophisticated ladies’ gowns, a few sweaters, scarves, gloves, and a few blankets.
One box did indeed contain medication: plenty of iodine, cotton and gauze. In a shoebox, we found aspirins and a few hundred Rubeazol tablets (a veritable treasure in Transnistria.)
- That’s welcome, too!
One of the boxes contained canned food: especially fish and compote. 100 cans of fish for 300 people. Anyway better than corsets, camisoles and brassieres.
For a week, the prune gem and halva brightened the meals of the children and of the ones suffering from severe debilitation.
Each hall received – proportionally to the number of its inhabitants – a share of food, clothing and blankets.
The fancy accessories – which we didn’t need – were sold at the market, mostly to Ukrainian women. The money we received for these items was used to buy potatoes, corn, oil for the cauldron…
This was the only time we received any assistance from the Jewish Community in Bucharest.
The winter frost wasn’t letting up. Just the blizzard had stopped. Our nerves were taxed to the limit.
Sandu had finished building the outhouses and the wooden bunks. The steamer cauldron was removed from the camp yard. The windows were covered with planks. After three weeks of sleeping on the cold concrete, it was nice to stretch out on the hard wood. But other problems occurred. Down on the ground, topsy-turvy, there had been plenty of room. Up on the wooden bunks the space was limited. It was therefore decided that each one of us was entitled to 50 centimeters of width on the wooden bunks. Measurements were taken - with the measuring tape - and the sleep spaces were thus defined. Protests didn’t help. 50 centimeters - that was it!
The guys started going out to work. Then we sent letters back home to Romania. Connections were forged via soldiers returning home from the front. They were well aware that for a few lines delivered to our families, they would be paid hundreds of lei back in Bucharest.
We received cash: German marks. The people at home would pay a commission equal to double the amount of money delivered to us by various couriers.
- If your families pay a fixed amount of money in Bucharest, at a certain address – Crestinu told us one night – you will have a quieter life…
The names of Follender, Brauch, Teichman, Placek, Hechter, Lupescu, Mailender, Maidenberg, Grienberg, Winter, Blumenthal and others appeared on a list which Crestinu pulled out of his pocket.
- One thousand lei each. That’s all. A member of your families should deliver the money in Bucharest, and in return Ambrus will take care of you!
- But maybe there are others whose families would be willing to pay.
- No, Ambrus wants just these. He doesn’t want any others. Your money will suffice. I need your OK by tomorrow, along with a note for your families.
The sky started clearing. A spring breeze was blowing. We no longer suffered from hunger, but fear – a horrible fear – stayed with us. Still, something had changed. The gendarmes were no longer terrorizing us. New gendarmes were constantly rotating through the Guard Corps. They came in the morning and took us out to work. Most of us were taken to the railroad station, for the strenuous task of excavating the grounds and replacing the rail tracks.
- The ones incapable of work will be transferred to the ghetto. The ones going out to work every day will remain in the camp.
The separation was tough. Marcel Winter, who was like a brother to me, was staying behind at the camp. Likewise - Bercu and Matilda, the families of Marcovici, Solomon, Schnelicht, Lupescu, Grienberg, Marcu and Silvia Teichman, Neuman, the Zwirns, Perlzweig, Jagerman, Sandu, Lica, the boys of Lucacescu Herman, among which the spunky Shapsa Sami and Jean Segal, who by now had regained his strength. In conclusion, most of our group was staying at the work camp.
We left for the ghetto in a single truck.
Thirty meters away from the banks of the river Bug, the ghetto of Golta was located on the grounds of a former school. Three buildings had been devoured by fire; one had stayed intact. Two big halls, a small room – the former teachers’ lounge – and a spacious kitchen.
The ghetto was surrounded by barbwire. We could, however, wash our clothes in the river.
Until late in the summer, cadavers of the Jews killed at Bogdanovka continued to float on the clear river waters. We watched them horrified, muttering each time a prayer for their souls.
The city of Pervomaisk, under German administration, was situated on the far bank of the river. The river Bug defined the border of Transnistria. When we reached the ghetto, we had a view of the large plaza on the other bank. Three bodies were hanging in the plaza, dangling in the wind.
- Those are partisans, explained the gendarme accompanying us. The Germans hang them as soon as they catch them. They hang the Jews there, too…
In the ghetto we found a group of young people from Cernauti, who were working for the last few months in the depots of the German army at the railroad station. They had survived a transport of a few hundred Jews, decimated on the roads of Transnistria.
A few names from this group are Iulek Frenkel, Heinz Widner, Gheza Rosenzweig, Doliu Rintzker (who was working for the Red Cross), Salo Hoffenberg with his parents and a younger brother (Salo was a dentist working at the hospital). Then there were the Kramer spouses and their daughter, from Chisinau, who had escaped miraculously from the massacre at Bogdanovka.
Sandu accompanied us all the way into the ghetto. He promptly built two outhouses, set up shower stalls and improvised a common kitchen, with two cauldrons. What would we have done without this man – so hearty and so skillful?
Crestinu moved over to the school grounds, into a small “pavilion” formed by a living room and a storage area. In this storage area we deposited our box of salt, the huge stock of iodine, the cotton and gauze, and the few medications we possessed.
I obtained the approval of the Command Post to visit the camp once a week, in view of medical checkups. There was one hospital operating in the city. Dr. Partos, a Jew from Brasov, was among the deported doctors serving at this hospital. Doctor Partos stood with us, the deportees, not only as a physician, but also as a human being.
Winter managed to leave his work detachment daily and come to the nearby ghetto, to see us. I didn’t need anything else. My universe was now limited to Winter. To him, I was his “little sister”. To me – the fifteen-year-old girl – he was my first “great” love.
Fritz was poking fun at me. Sometimes, he managed to upset me.
In June, for my birthday, Lica brought a basket of small sour apples. Mrs. Blumenthal baked a large, sweet corn pie. Instead of sugar, she used white sugar cane. In the evening we all gathered in the big bedroom. Mrs. Mailender gave me as a gift a pair of white socks, which she had found in her luggage. The guys – Heinz, Doliu and Iulius – gave me a bar of soap. Gheza gave me a comb.
- I stole it from the Germans. It was worth it. It’s for you.
Mrs. Brauch gave me a ribbon for my hair. Anetta Kramer gave me a face cream, which I didn’t use and finally took back with me to Bucharest. For years the box sat unopened on my nightstand. When I finally opened it, there was nothing left inside. The cream had dried out.
The Hechters brought me a glass of sour cherries, freshly picked by their son from an orchard adjacent to the ghetto.
That evening, eating sour apples and savoring the first “cake” in Transnistria, we stayed up and sang almost up to midnight.
Marcel stayed overnight in the ghetto. He gave me his “Mont Blanc” pen as a gift.
- Write only interesting things in your “diary”. I wish you a good life, happy and full! May you get out of this hell real soon!
After only a short while, I was forced to give the pen to my father. He had to bribe Aristide Padure, the Vice-Prefect of the district of Golta.
Padure - a less than mediocre lawyer – had been named the adjunct of colonel Modest Isopescu at the Prefecture of Golta. He was tall and stocky. He had red hair and green, perpetually bloodshot eyes.
Padure “loved us” so much, he would have liked to squeeze us hard, very hard, to choke us… At Bogdanovka people had been mentioning his name, as well as the name of Modest Isopescu. The two had been there during the days of the massacre, organizing the collection of valuables from the Jews still alive, as well as the collection of gold from the corpses. The Jews at Bogdanovka shuddered when they talked about him.
The young guys that we met in the ghetto at Golta, as well as the paramedic Voinova – who lived outside the ghetto with her son – also warned us about Padure.
- Watch out for him! He’s a red devil!
One morning the gate of the schoolyard swung open. Padure, wearing a leather jacket, made his entrance on horseback.
- Let’s see how you organized yourselves, kikes!
He was holding a whip in his hand.
Running, we took cover inside the rooms. Padure followed us, still riding his horse. That’s how he entered the first hall. The horse stood up on its hind legs on top of the wooden bunks. Padure, using his whip, was throwing our things through the room. The food primus rolled over the floor, spilling in the middle of the room.
Walking his horse over the wooden bunks, trashing everything in sight – clothes, blankets, plates, utensils – he was having fun as he cursed.
Our people were running out of his way, seeking shelter from the frightened horse.
The brave Vice-Prefect entered – still on horseback – yet another room. It was empty. The people had hidden in the outhouses, in the kitchen.
He couldn’t make it into our room. It was too small. He just slammed the door against the wall. We had retreated up on our wooden bunks. Placek, white as a sheet, kept muttering in German that he is a Czech citizen with an Austrian passport, stranded here simply by mistake. Mrs. Brauch was eying him proudly. Her chin was trembling. As for me – they had covered me up with rags and blankets, plastered against the wall. It was known that Padure sought out young girls. He didn’t see me. I did see him however, through a crack in the blankets. My father, Fritz and Mr. Brauch were out at the hospital, working.
Our plates and cups – made out of tin – were laid out on the table. He flung them down. A pot of boiled potatoes was sitting on the windowsill. From the doorway, using the tip of the horsewhip, he knocked it over into the yard.
Grinning with satisfaction, Padure left the ghetto, threatening that he would return.
Late in the evening, we finished cleaning up.
- But how about tomorrow? What will tomorrow bring?
Padure never returned.
- There’s a girl in Crestinu’s barrack!
- No way! A girl? How the heck?
- I heard Major Ambrus sent her to him.
- They brought her straight from the hospital. Maybe she’s sick… She’s very weak.
- Did you see how she looked?
- She’s beautiful! Blonde, slender…
I saw Liuba when she arrived with Avram Crestinu. He was red in the face, much more congested than usual. She was tall, delicate, beautiful.
- Sonia, come here! – Avram Crestinu called out. She’s sick… he pointed at the girl who was entering his quarters.
I followed them inside.
I found Liuba sitting on the bed, on top of a rough blanket. Her hands, lying quietly on her lap, were white, very white, almost translucent. Her large blue eyes were staring in the distance.
- This is Liuba, said Crestinu. Liuba, this is Sonia, our nurse assistant. If there’s anything you need, ask her. She’s younger than you, but she knows her stuff. She works at the hospital, too.
Liuba looked like a child. The blond, wavy hair was falling over her shoulders, over the tall forehead. Her nicely shaped mouth was contorted. She seemed entirely absent.
I felt much older than Liuba. Stronger, more mature… I wanted to caress her silky hair, make her raise her eyes and look into mine. I was sure that her hands were cold. I would have warmed them up... Liuba evoked pity - a tremendous pity.
Where did she come from? What misfortunes had hit her?
- Liuba is Jewish, like us. She comes from Stalingrad . She’ll stay with us in the ghetto until she recovers. I am her protector. She’s otherwise alone. She knows Romanian. She’s from Basarabia , from Tighina …
Crestinu’s voice was harsh. He didn’t know what to do with this porcelain girl. I felt he would have rather walked out of the room. I didn’t let him do it. Instead, I left myself.
The others were waiting for me outside. Questions started pouring. I answered just one:
- Yes, she’s Jewish - from Basarabia. She’s by herself. That’s all I know.
A few days went by. Crestinu was walking through the yard, self-conscious. Liuba wasn’t coming to the kitchen for food, wasn’t showing herself at the window, wasn’t going out to bathe in the Bug.
After about a week, at nighttime, when the lights in the ghetto went out, Crestinu entered our room.
- Sonia, please come with me!
His voice was different than usual. Moreover, he said “please”. Like never before!
- Liuba is sick.
We crossed the yard in silence. I felt cold. I was afraid of the sight I would find. A strange premonition was grabbing at my heart. I would see Liuba again. My feelings were mixed – joy and fear combined.
In the tiny room, lying on the bed covered with the same rough blanket, Liuba looked even paler than she had been at the time of her arrival in the ghetto. Her eyes were hazy, her lips dried by fever.
- What’s wrong with her? … I heard you brought her from the hospital. Why don’t you take her back?
- She doesn’t want to go back. She had an abortion over there. They did it live, without anesthesia. Now she’s afraid of the hospital. She has a strong hemorrhage. I don’t know what to do. I’ll get doctor Partos tomorrow. But I’m afraid of tonight… Maybe you can tell me what to do. I was going to call a woman – she would have had more experience, anyway. But Liuba asked for you.
I sat on the edge of the bed. I took her pulse. It was racing. She had a high fever. I realized she had developed an infection.
- Do you have rags? … A sheet, a basin? I’m going over to the storage depot. I’ll be back in an instant.
Crestinu just nodded.
A few moments later I returned with Rubeazol – our only antiseptic agent – aspirin and alcohol. I washed her and changed her bed. I made her put on a clean shirt, belonging to Crestinu. Absently, she swallowed her medication.
I spent the rest of the night there, at her side. I kept putting cold compresses on her forehead. I gave her water to drink. At times, Liuba dozed off. Crestinu was sleeping on the floor, in a corner of the room. I woke him up at dawn.
- Call the doctor!
- But I see she’s better. She’s not burning as bad… She must be doing better…
- You leave right now and get a physician! When they did her curettage, they infected her or left something inside her. You must take her back to the hospital. If you don’t, she dies!
… About five hours later, Liuba returned from the hospital. I didn’t wait to be called. I helped her get to bed; I brought her a plate of soup and fed her. Knowing whom it was meant for, Ana Blumenthal put two carrots and a full potato on the plate.
Crestinu produced a box from his suitcase.
- It’s sugar. Give her sugar…
Liuba followed my moves with her eyes. She had returned to life.
- Crestinu, please step out, I have to wash her.
I no longer wanted to feel his presence in the room. He made me uneasy. Liuba also lightened up when she saw him leave.
- Do you want to talk, do you have something to tell me?
Liuba nodded. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it gently.
- Thank you, she whispered. Then she turned her head to the wall, crying…
I stayed with her for another hour. All that time, she didn’t look at me once.
- I’m going, Liuba. I’ll come back in the morning.
- Please do…
Every day thereafter – for days in a row – I would spend a few hours with her in Crestinu’s room. Liuba was visibly improving. The color came back to her cheeks. Her hands were no longer transparent. Her eyes were tracking my moves.
Each time I was determined to talk to her - tell her about us, make her open her heart and talk about herself. But face to face with her, seeing her clenched lips, my resolution wavered. I didn’t wish to force her.
The people in the ghetto got tired of asking: “What’s with this girl?”, “Where does she come from?”, “Is she Crestinu’s girl?” I simply shrugged without replying.
One day I saw her out in the yard. She was still weak. She was looking around, curiously. Then she headed over to the riverbank. She sat there staring in the distance, towards the other bank occupied by the Germans. At noontime she returned. I walked down to meet her.
- Would you like to come to my room? I’m alone. He isn’t coming today. He’s gone with major Ambrus in the district. He’s coming back tonight.
I was amazed by this avalanche of words. I had never heard her talk so much before. She extended her hand.
The room was clean. A linen sheet covered the bed. I stopped in the doorway, surprised at the change. Liuba smiled as she watched me.
- I’m feeling fine. I’m strong now. I couldn’t keep living like that, in the dirt…
I sat on the edge of the bed. Liuba sat down beside me.
- Tell me… do you have time? I want to thank you… I remember how you were stroking my forehead… I want to thank you… You don’t know me… and you don’t know… no, what I want to tell you isn’t nice at all… it’s ugly… and hard… maybe I shouldn’t… but you know, you’re the only one I feel close to… the only one I would like to tell… I thought I would die – Liuba started. Many times I wanted to die…I just didn’t know how… Not long ago, when I was sick, I rejoiced and said to myself: there, that’s death… But you and him came along and wouldn’t let me die… Now I no longer want to die… But somebody has to know who I am… He knows. He read the report at the Gendarme Station. But he doesn’t know everything. I don’t want anyone to know. But you are still so young… and yet you comforted me like my mother did, once, long ago… like my mother…
I let her cry. We were holding hands. I could feel her cold fingers. I was silent. I knew she was going to tell me a horrible story. I felt her tortured heart, her quivering body. I knew that she had been through hard times… that she had wished to die.
She wiped her tears with the back of her hand. She took a deep breath. Her eyes locked onto an arbitrary point on the wall. She started talking in a whisper, as if there was no one beside her. As if she was talking to herself. I was watching her. Her sweet, lovely features had become suddenly harsh.
- Above all, I liked to go with my mom and dad to the schil. They were so handsome in their festive wear. My mom would put on a hat. My dad would put on his kipa – embroidered by mom – and a white handkerchief in the outer pocket of his coat. My dad was a tailor. It was seldom that he got an order for a suit. He specialized in repairing clothes, particularly trousers. But we didn’t lack any of the basics of life. My older sister was working in a “luxury” tailor shop; my little brother Jasha was in school. Tania was still playing through the house. At the age of five, she could read in Yiddish. I was going to school, same as Jasha. We lived in the Jewish quarter of Tighina. Then the Russians came in and occupied Basarabia. My dad was saying - in an attempt to appease us - that we could live quite nicely with the Bolsheviks. We weren’t “bourgeoisie”, although we liked goose lard on our homemade bread. That’s what my father said. When the war broke out and the Romanian troops crossed the Prut, all the neighbors gathered at our house.
- Reb Strul – they said to my father – take your children and flee with the Soviet power. Otherwise, you’ll be killed here. None of us will survive. Moreover, Roza – that was my older sister – is a mighty pretty girl, and there’s nothing wrong with the little one, either. You realize what would happen… Come with us, Reb Strul!
My dad took my mom aside in a corner, so as not to frighten us, and spoke to her hurriedly, in a whisper. My mom kept on crying. How could she leave her house, her furniture inherited from her elders, her glassware, her dishes, her silver? How could she leave it all behind and flee?
And yet, my father and the neighbors managed to convince her and we set out – on the fourth day of the war – in pursuit of the Soviet Army. Along with another family, we traveled in a truck day and night. Now and then the driver would stop, just to fuel the truck…
To us, the children, this retreat seemed like an adventure. Sometimes we would stop and spend days or even weeks in some village. We found deserted homes, entire properties abandoned by their owners.
- These people ran away from home, just like us – my dad would say.
The weather turned cold, the rains came in and shortly thereafter the first snowfall. The roads were full of trucks, livestock and fugitives. From far away, you could hear cannon fire. We had depleted our food supply. The reserves we had taken from home were long gone. Close to Stalingrad, in Novostaretz, the truck driver unloaded our luggage in the middle of the town square, and told us in a harsh voice:
- From now on you’re on your own. The Soviet Power brought you here, to safety…
My father set out to prospect the village. After a few hours he returned and told us:
- I found a house. I told the owner I would sew his clothes in exchange for a room.
We were happy to have found a roof. Water was being brought from the hill nearby. The fountain was on top of the hill. My mother sold a silver candleholder and with the money she received, she bought flour and baked bread. Jasha went out to work. He was a strong boy almost eighteen years of age, two years older than me. Roza also started working in the village factory. Just the little one kept moping all day long, since there was no place for her to play. Convoys of Soviet troops continued to pass through the roads. The cannon fire was relentless.
- It’s not good – my father was saying. The Soviets are retreating.
- You think the Germans will get all the way here? – my mother asked, a frightened look in her eyes.
My father stroked his auburn goatee, without replying. My brother chimed in:
- I saw lots of Russian tanks, dad… Many wounded soldiers… Do you hear the cannons? … They seem to be closer.
The Russians in the village started leaving themselves. They were heading toward the Caucasus, towards Siberia. Long refugee convoys were passing on the highway, not far from our village. My father decided to stay. There seemed to be no use fleeing. “We fled once before, that’s enough!”
Fear had nestled itself deeply in our hearts. We all knew what the collapse of the front meant: the Germans, the Romanian troops… We had been told the soldiers were killing, raping and burning. We were trembling with fear.
One morning, it was Roza’s turn to fetch the water.
- Liubtschika, my mother addressed me – please go in her place. Roza has a high fever, she’s got a cold. You go instead, baby…
I got dressed, grabbed the two water buckets and started climbing the hill. I was breathing hard going upwards, bundled up as I was. All of a sudden I heard noises, machine gun fire. From up ahead I heard army vehicles, jeeps, trucks. I heard shouting… howls of terror… Women were yelling… and men… I saw big flames… fire… Now and then a brief chatter of machine guns… and shouting… yelling… I ran towards the fountain. I jumped into the big wooden pail and lowered myself into the well for shelter. So that I wouldn’t hear. So that I wouldn’t see…
Liuba was silent. Her cheeks were burning. Her eyes were sparkling. Her whole body was shaking. I wanted to tell her to stop. To quit telling her story. It was too much for her. And too much for me…
- Liuba – I dared to whisper.
- Let me… You have to know…
She took a deep breath. Her hands were trembling slightly, folded on her knees.
- I don’t know how many hours I stayed there, frozen, terrified… deep down in the well. When I heard the trucks leaving, I climbed out. I got out of the well. It was nighttime. I had spent a whole day hiding in the pail. With fear in my heart, I started going downhill. During those moments, I regretted I had been away from my folks. I thought that perhaps they had managed to hide, perhaps they had escaped. Maybe they were just wounded. Maybe they needed me. Never, not even for one moment during that journey back, did I imagine something bad, very bad could have happened to them…
The village streets were deserted. Some homes were still burning, others were just smoking. I started running. I got to our yard. The door of the house was wide open.. The house had not been hit. The wind was blowing fiercely. It was cold. Still, beneath my coat, I felt my shirt drenched in sweat. I stopped on the threshold. Did I howl? Did I yell? I don’t remember. I know I woke up a few hours later. To this day I have no idea how long I lay there, on that godforsaken threshold. My teeth were chattering. It was a sign I’m alive. But why? Why? Everything I ever loved in my life was lying there dead, before my very eyes. My dad, tied to a chair next to the fireplace. Roza, on the bed in a pool of blood, her shirt slit open from top to bottom by a bayonet or a knife. My mom on the bed, her skirt pulled up over her head. And the little one, that blond angel Taniushka, flung under the bed, her head crushed by a boot or the butt of a rifle. My dad had been shot – they had emptied their guns in his body. His eyes were wide open, his lips smeared with blood. Did he witness what happened to my sisters, to mom? … Jasha was missing. Did they take him along? Did he manage to escape? To this day I don’t know.
I covered up Roza and mom. I laid dad on the ground next to mom. After I closed their eyes, I wrapped the little one in a sheet. I don’t know where I got the power to do all this. All through it, I was crying. At the break of dawn, I left the house and that miserable village. I was dizzy, sick. I wasn’t thinking, I had no idea what was happening to me. I was walking through the blizzard in a state of trance. As I walked, I could hear moans of pain from the houses I passed. I didn’t care about anything. I walked on, oblivious of the world. I didn’t realize I was walking towards the highway, heading towards the front line. I just walked, without thinking.
All of a sudden, I heard cars, horns, yelling. Bedazzled, I was heading for those strangers.
- Hey, you over there! Tschelovek, stop or I shoot!
It was a soldier. He was speaking Romanian. He grabbed me by the hand and turned me around, so I came to face him. Then he saw there was no tschelovek, but a girl, a child.
- What did you catch, corporal?
- Lieutenant Sir, it’s not a Russian, it’s a girl!
The lieutenant approached us.
- You’re so right! Well done. Let’s go to the colonel. He’ll be pleased to see something different for a change, something else than soldiers and Russians.
The General Quarters of the Second Army, under the command of General Petala, were stationed in the first village down our path. We stopped in front of a house. I still didn’t realize what was going on with me… I heard the Lieutenant speaking. A superior officer walked out of a room. I heard him laugh. Another soldier grabbed me by the hand and pulled me in a room.
- Take your coat off. You speak Romanian, right?
I looked at him. He was dirty, full of mud. He repeated the order in Russian. Mechanically, I started taking off my coat, undoing my headdress, which my mom had tied that morning.
- Damn, what hair! Gold, nothing less… Hold it right there. Mr. Major – he shouted – come look at this chick.
I didn’t get to see the Major, because I passed out. Probably due to exhaustion, fear, hunger… When I opened my eyes, I was lying on a cot, covered with a rough military blanket. I was naked. It was warm in the room. A fire was burning in the fireplace, fueled with dry branches and military box lids. A short man, in a green pullover and long underpants tied with laces, was lighting up his cigarette, facing away from me. He was nearly bald.
- Bravo, I’m glad you woke up… You speak Romanian, right? … I’m colonel Petala. You’ve heard about me, I suppose…? What is your name? … Come on, talk… don’t be scared… I could be your father… How old are you?
- Liuba. I’m sixteen.
- Liuba. That would be Basarabian… Where are you coming from? But never mind, don’t bother with the questions. You’re hungry, right? Here’s some bread and bacon… Drink a bit of wine, too. Come on, drink - you need it. You’re all skin and bone.
Bacon… I had never touched bacon before. But now I was gulping.
- You were hungry… Come on… Now let me get in beside you… Come on, don’t be ashamed. What’s the big deal? I don’t eat up people. I have fed you, too. Why are you wrapping yourself in the blanket? Take it off… It’s warm in the room.
That night, on the campaign bed, colonel Petala proved to himself that he was still a man, that he could still ravage a girl. Amazed, pleasantly surprised, he was beside himself with joy. What a sweet treat this little kike girl was! Too bad he couldn’t take her with him! He had to leave her here or – why not? – send her back in the country. Find her there upon his return from the front… what a sweet treat! What silky skin, what breasts… God, what breasts! He put out his hand to caress my breasts. I howled.
- Shut up, shut up… What the hell’s gotten into you? You were silent so far.
How could he know that I had just woken up from the stupor which had overcome me? It was just then that I realized what had happened to me.
- Shut up and listen.
The colonel’s voice had a metallic tinge.
- If you’re disobedient, we’ll give you to the Germans. You’ve seen everywhere what the Germans do. If you want to live, shut up and… be nice to the boys fighting for the Marshall, for our country. Understood? Hey, Dogaru! Major Dogaru!
The major walked into the little room. He was tall, sturdy, had dark hair and a husky voice.
- OK lad, take her with you and keep her until tomorrow. No longer, do you hear? Then, send her back in the country… Perhaps not all the way in the country. To a camp or ghetto in Transnistria. Let her wait for us there…
I spent the next day and night under the blanket in major Dogaru’s room. Now and then he dropped by from his office at Headquarters. He would unbutton his pants from the doorway.
- You know, so there’s no time wasted…
I couldn’t move. I was naked, under the blanket – as I told you. At noontime a soldier brought me a plate of soup and a piece of dark bread. He set them down at the foot of the bed.
- Girl, you’re so beautiful! Do you know how long it’s been since I laid eyes on a woman? Four months. Don’t give me that scared look. I won’t do anything scary. Just a little bit, let me touch you just a little bit… Don’t tell anyone… Look, just like that, just a bit, oh God, do I feel hot! Shut up, girl… Don’t tense up like that. Just a little bit…
One day later the major reluctantly gave me a pair of military pants, a hat and a sweater, along with my old coat and mom’s headdress.
- Get dressed! You’re leaving. I issued you a “Send Back Order”. I have a friend, major Ambrus, in Golta, on the Bug. I’m sending you over to him. Don’t worry… He’ll take care of you over there until the war is over.
All this was happening around the city of Stalingrad . Four months went by since then… it feels more like years. I went from outpost to outpost. From one bed to another. Officers, soldiers, everyone had their fill of me. I no longer cared. I knew that way I would stay alive. Three months ago I realized I was pregnant. Whom could I tell? Who cared? I lifted heavy weights, I took hot baths… Nothing helped me get rid of the unwanted child. Three weeks ago, when I finally got to Major Ambrus, I told him:
- Major Dogaru is asking you for a favor: Please have me admitted to the hospital to get a curettage. He wouldn’t like to have an illegitimate child.
Major Ambrus stared at me, grunted something that resembled a curse, but did send me to the hospital.
Then he turned me over to Crestinu. Now I’m here with you, in the ghetto…
Do you believe me?… I’m glad! It’s like reaching the end of a journey. What a journey… What a journey! How dirty I feel… and yet I’m alive… there are no more gendarme outposts… no more campaign beds… just this one I’m sitting on… Avram Crestinu’s bed… just a single bed…
One day, Marcel took my hand and looked deep into my eyes.
- You know I care about you a lot… In this harsh, savage world you’re the most beautiful thing I have. I would like to ask you to join us for dinner on Sunday. Liza Marcu is cooking a special dish, something else than the cauldron food. I told her that I’d like you to join us in the camp and stay until evening time. The others also said they wanted to see you: Lica, Marval, the Miroslavski brothers (you know them, the two good looking guys from Braila), Bebe Abramovici, Sandu, Alter, the Zwirns. I’ll take you back to the ghetto in the evening. I need to talk to you…
Until that Sunday I lived with my head in the clouds. Marcel had held my hand. He said he cared about me… True, he didn’t say he loved me, but what did it matter? … He cared about me… he wanted to talk to me. What else did he say? That I was the most beautiful thing in his life. That the others wanted to see me, too…
Up to that point, I had never looked at myself in the mirror. During the few days that followed, I think I wore out the mirror chip borrowed from Anetta Kramer. I was not at all pleased with what I saw: two large blue eyes (that much was beautiful), a rather mediocre nose, a lower lip thicker than the upper. “You have your father’s mouth” – my mother used to tell me. My cheeks were too rosy. They would blush right away, like a little girl’s. Why did I blush so easily?
I was tall and skinny. I wore blue overalls, with a blouse or sweater underneath. I had boots on my feet – my former skating boots. The soles had been replaced while in Golta with solid wooden soles. “That way they’ll last longer” – Lica said when he brought them back from the shoemaker. They lasted long indeed. In fact, they lasted until the time of our repatriation. My light brown hair was woven in two long tails. I managed to save it from the scissors, since I always wore my tails knotted under a cap. There was nothing feminine about me. That’s why I escaped each time when the gendarmes came looking for “kike girls to entertain them”.
Until I talked to Marcel, I was content with my looks. I certainly didn’t look like a young lady. Yet now I wished to be beautiful. I wished for Marcel to love me not only for my strength, my spirit of comradeship, and my sense of responsibility. I wanted to live a true love story. I had read so many books, so many romance novels – my head was full of them. Nothing else mattered: Not the daily fear we were living in, not the thin “tschorba” and the morsel of black, gooey bread which represented our daily food… What did it matter that I could hardly drag my feet in the heavy boots? Who cared that my overalls had been patched over at the knees? What did it matter that my head was hurting, to the point I was vomiting because of migraine headaches? I was so ravished by the few words Marcel had said to me, and so immature due to my young age, that I even didn’t care my mother was coughing up blood, or that my father had a serious heart condition.
For the first time in my life, I was in love. To me he was the most handsome man, the brightest and the best. One smile from him would brighten up my day. A secret sign of mutual understanding would give me strength to face any challenge.
That Sunday morning I went to the camp, my heart pounding in my chest. Ah! How long I had dreamed of this moment… And there it was, the dream was coming true… I was wearing my long plastic raincoat. I had the feeling that I looked quite elegant.
I made a routine tour of the camp; I talked to a few of our people, among which eng. Schwarzenberg’s wife – a teacher, a true intellectual. She was a petite delicate blonde. He was a tall, amicable man, wearing spectacles. They were among the most reliable people in our group. As a rule, Mrs. Schwarzenberg would always impress me. She gave me the feeling that I was in school, in front of a teacher. She always inquired how I was doing, what I was up to, whether I continued to recall and revisit my schoolwork. At this point however, nothing and no one could impress me any more. I was with Marcel…
We had lunch at the long table in the big hall, where at nighttime dozens of people would sleep on the wooden bunks mounted against the walls… I helped Liza clear the table.
- We will stay here for a while. We’ll sit on this bench and talk. You guys go to bed, as usual. I’ll play a round of rummy with Sonia.
Around us, everybody was taking their afternoon nap. We were playing rummy. Suddenly, Marcel whispered to me:
- I’m planning to escape… Continue to play. Continue and listen to me! After Miciu Rabinovici’s wife was repatriated, he escaped from the camp. We were told that he was arrested and shot. It’s not true! He escaped wearing a Romanian officer’s uniform, sent to him by his wife. The boys got news from him – he’s in Bucharest. Shortly thereafter, Herman Lucacescu escaped – you know him, the one who rescued Jean Segal. He escaped wearing the uniform of a railroad worker. A complicated plot… A few days ago, an employee of the railroad station in Golta brought us a letter from him. He’s doing fine, hiding in Bucharest. Do you know what he wrote to the boys? “Maria” is in good health. She just misses her brothers. She can hardly wait for them to arrive. Please tell them to come home soon… So now we’ve made up our minds. There are a few of us planning to escape. Don’t give me that scared look. Everything is under control. I will let you know once we’re home. I’ll send you a note – through Doctor Partos. He’s allowed to receive correspondence from the country. Trust me! I can’t take it anymore, Sonia! I just can’t! You have to understand. Our work here is horrible, hard and exhausting. Any gendarme can hit me, anytime. My every move is being watched. It’s not a human life. We live like animals, worse than inmates. Each day, I’m afraid of tomorrow. What will they invent next? I’m constantly hungry. I can’t do it anymore, Sonia! And I don’t want to! I’m only twenty-four. Come what may… No, don’t be frightened. I can see your hand shaking. Be strong! You are my only joy, my only moral support. We’ll see each other again. Over there… back home. Sit next to me, on the bench.
In the large hall, people were sleeping. You could hear them snore or moan in their sleep. On my tiptoes, I circled around the long table and sat next to Marcel on the bench. My hands were cold. He was looking deep into my eyes. I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks. Oh! How I wished to hold him, to caress him, to reassure him…
- Undo your tails. Now! Right now, right here! Don’t look at me like that. I want to see your hair falling loose on your shoulders. I want to leave with that image. Come closer. There…! Put your head on my chest. My little girl, so dear and so strong… Why are you silent? Don’t you want me to caress your hair? Have I frightened you?
I lifted my face and he lightly kissed my lips. Once, twice, many times over.
- Marcel, I’m scared. Please stay. Don’t run! I want you to stay here! You know Marcel, I … I…
He didn’t let me finish, didn’t let me tell him that I loved him. He sealed my lips with a wild, passionate kiss.
Then – as if frightened – he drew back.
- Don’t! Don’t talk! I know. I feel it! You’re just a child. My little sister. My little sister…
He was rocking me in his arms. He was whispering warm words in my ear. His hands were gliding over my shoulders, underneath the thick blouse, through my long loose hair, over my hot cheeks.
I felt his lips on my hair. I wished time could stand still. I was afraid he would hear the pounding of my heart. In fact, I think he did.
After a while, when people started moving on their bunks, Marcel gently pushed me away.
- Let’s go! I’ll accompany you to the ghetto! Don’t tell anything to anybody. You don’t know anything!
On the way, we were holding hands. In front of the ghetto Marcel proposed to meet me in Bucharest the next year, on the date of May 15, in front of the school on Sfintilor Street where we first met.
- I’m sure you’ll be there! I will be waiting for you!
The next morning, everything seemed different. The sun was shining brighter. Even the cursing of the gendarme seemed milder. My mom seemed to be coughing less. My head wasn’t hurting as much. The workday seemed to pass by quickly, easily. Everyone was smiling at me.
The only one who noticed anything was Anutza Blumenthal. She smiled at me warmly and whispered:
- Are you happy?
I closed my eyes for a moment. I could still feel Marcel’s kiss on my lips. I just nodded.
During the course of that week, Marcel came over to the ghetto a few times. He behaved as if nothing had happened. Sometimes we would exchange a handshake or a secret smile. I asked no further questions regarding his escape plans. He didn’t mention it either.
Saturday… Sunday… Monday… It was just Monday evening when the roll was called that the bomb went off: Jagerman, Mihai Feuer, Mendi, Shapsa Sami, Neuman and Marcel had escaped.
Crestinu called a general assembly in the ghetto. On Tuesday morning major Ambrus showed up.
- Did you hear? Six bastards have escaped. They probably broke out Saturday night, after the roll was called. The stinkers knew the roll wouldn’t be called on Sunday, so they took off. Like that other guy, what’s his name…?
- Miciu Rabinovici, Major – Avram Crestinu intervened.
- Yes, yes, like that one, Miciu Rabinovici. His wife had been repatriated, the woman was a Christian, and her husband took off two weeks after she left. But they caught him. He was shot. The same is true of these six! They didn’t make it too far... They were apprehended. They were wearing military uniforms. Do you know what happened to them? I got the news by phone. They were tried by a Military Court. Swiftly. They were found guilty and executed. In the blink of an eye… Well, what do you think now? Is it worth breaking out? Is there anybody else who would like to try?
Ambrus left. Crestinu, blue in the face, gave us the “details” regarding the execution.
I hadn’t believed Ambrus. But hearing Crestinu give so many details, I was overcome by fear. I felt I was going to faint. I had an atrocious headache. My temples were pounding. I felt like throwing up.
- Sonia is sick – my mother dared say.
- Oh, yes, I forgot! Mister Winter was her friend. It’s over now, young lady! Mister Winter doesn’t exist anymore. Do you get it…? No more Winter. Kaputt!! They made him one head shorter!
The next day I developed an infectious type of jaundice with high fevers. As a remedy, doctor Partos gave me castor oil – a large spoonful every day. I couldn’t eat at all. The nausea was overwhelming. After a few days, my mother made apple compote for me. I swallowed it reluctantly. When the fever surged above 39 degrees Celsius, I became delirious. Later, Anutza told me that I was calling out for Marcel.
- If she makes it… - doctor Partos said – and I hope she will, because she’s young and strong, she will be left with some liver inflammation. Never mind. Anything in this world can be healed. Even this kind of jaundice.
As for myself, I felt sick.. I wanted to die.
Ten days later, doctor Partos brought me a postcard.
- I think this card is for you. I myself was not expecting mail from anyone.
The good doctor smiled knowingly. I quickly grabbed the postcard.
I would like to inform you that your patient is doing well and finally left the hospital. He is now with his family. Please deliver this message.
Marcel waited for me the next year, on the 15th of May… In front of the school on Sfintilor Street we embraced each other, laughing and crying with joy.
Years later, he told me the saga of this adventure… which I transcribe below:
- Shapsa Sami, Neuman, Jagerman, Mendi, Mihai Feuer and I had been planning to escape for quite a while. However, we didn’t find the right people to help us, and we didn’t have the courage to make this drastic decision. We all knew the risks. If caught, we would be court marshalled, sentenced summarily and executed. But the escape of Miciu Rabinovici and Lucacescu Herman gave us the final thrust. We knew they had made it. A few days after the escape of Rabinovici and Lucacescu, Mendi whispered to us: “I found the right man, a sergeant accompanying a set of empty tank cars back into the country… It’s now or never!”
We were determined to go through with it, ignoring the risks. On Saturday, August 13th 1943, we left the camp in the evening, one man at a time. Shapsa and Jagerman left straight from work. We met next to the railroad station, in a deserted barrack. Our sergeant walked by, whistling. It was a sign that we should follow him. Covered by the shadows of dusk, we sneaked after him in a single file. He headed towards a row of tank cars - the kind generally used for fuel transport. He stopped next to the seventh tank car, and lit a cigarette. We understood this was the car designated for our escape. The sergeant kept on walking. We climbed the narrow metal steps one after another, opened the hatch in the roof of the tank car and let ourselves in. A strong smell of gas dazed us from the very first moment. We were all silent. I was afraid someone would hear the pounding of my heart. We each sneaked in a different corner. Mihai Feuer was the only one who had taken a backpack along: water, bread and sugar. At dawn, we heard the whistle of the locomotive, the sound of cars being coupled to the train. And then we were on our way. We each prayed – in our own way – to get home safe, to end this adventure soon. We were fully aware that it was pure madness. But a necessary madness. One that we couldn’t live without. Shapsa got up and cracked the hatch of the cistern. We needed a bit of air. It was hard to breath inside the tank car. He grabbed a handkerchief, rolled it up and stuffed it in the crack of the lid. We were deeply distressed by the fact that we couldn’t smoke. The locomotive was painstakingly pulling the heavy set of tank cars. Each kilometer we traveled brought us closer to home. After a few hours, the train stopped. We heard noises through the walls of the tank car. One of us cracked the hatch a little bit more.
- It’s nighttime. We’re in a railroad station. On a sidetrack. There’s something going on a bit further down. There are soldiers over there. A passenger train is on the second line.
Our sergeant – paid by us to facilitate our escape – showed up above, at the opening of the hatch.
- Are you all right, boys? You probably absorbed a bit of “perfume” from this gas, but never mind, it comes right off with the first bath…! Do you need anything?
- Bread, water and if possible some sweets…
We gave him the money. He promised he would return within half an hour. We never saw him again. We just heard that the train guard was changing. We were in Smerinka, an important railroad center.
Mihai Feuer distributed the water and sugar he had taken along. How we all blessed him in those moments…! We were dazed by the gas smell, we felt like sleeping all the time. Neuman was shaking us every now and again.
- Don’t fall asleep, boys! It’s dangerous. You may not wake up again. Don’t let this gas stench get you! Take turns beneath the hatch. Take a breath of fresh air!
At nighttime, the train started moving again. Sprawled out on the floor, dazed, we were reminiscing past events of our lives… We were talking of tomorrow, of Bucharest, of the friends we had left behind one year ago, of the families who didn’t know we were coming, but whom we could hardly wait to see. We knew we had to keep them out of harm’s way. We knew we would have to live like hunted beasts, always in hiding. But we would be home. We would bathe, sleep in real beds, with mattresses. We would eat to our heart’s desire… we wouldn’t be beaten or cursed out. As time went by, we started getting quiet. We weren’t speaking much among ourselves. Just now and then we called out for each other, to check if we were still awake.
At dawn we reached Tiraspol. We could see the Dniester. Tighina was on the opposite bank. Three of us, myself included, decided to get off the train. The gas smell had not only benumbed us, but also induced a state of desperation. I felt I would choke if I didn’t get out. I was sure that I couldn’t tolerate another day and night. We jumped off the tank car. We hid – all three of us – in a bush next to the railroad station. We stayed there all day. We were afraid to move. Come evening time, we separated. We each had to find our own way in the country.
Later I found out that the other two, after wandering around for one or two hours, decided to get back on the train and wait for the tank cars to pass into the country. I stayed behind in Tiraspol. It was the most reckless decision that I could have taken.
I stole an ox bladder from a laundry rope in a peasant’s yard. On the shore of the Dniester I pumped it up with air, put my clothes and boots inside, and tied it to my leg. I was born in Braila. Although I’m not a professional swimmer, I swam more than once across the Danube. Crossing the Dniester, I swam like back home in Braila, trying to make as little noise as I could. Still, a gendarme heard me from the shore. I heard summons. Then bullets whizzing by my ears. I was swimming for my life. At one point I thought the bullets had hit me, had pierced my body. A wave of weakness overcame me. But I kept breathing deeply. I made one more effort. I struggled to reset my arms and legs in motion. No, I wasn’t hit. The soldiers had stopped shooting. The moon was illuminating the waters of the Dniester. I swam like a devil. Hundreds of meters. From one bank to the other. I was not in good shape. I was weak, as you well know, after one year of starving during our deportation. All of a sudden, I felt the ground under my feet. I took a few steps. I was almost out of the water. Then I collapsed. My legs were still in the water. My head and torso were lying on the ground, in the grass. I don’t know how many hours I lay there. When I woke up, I realized it was morning. I untied the ox bladder from my leg, opened it and retrieved my clothes. My knees were trembling as I was getting dressed. I had no idea what to do next. I was dazed, this time not from the gas odor, but from exhaustion and perhaps fear, uncertainty…
I took a few steps. Out in the distance I could see a railroad station. It was the station of Tighina. I walked hurriedly towards the railroad tracks. I had just one thought, just a single wish: to be with the other boys, to play this card with them, not by myself. I sneaked next to the storage depots, hopping from one bush to another. So I wouldn’t be caught! So I wouldn’t be seen! If anyone saw me, they would realize without a doubt that I came from hell.
I spotted the set of tank cars from afar. I counted to the seventh car, crawled under the train and then climbed up the metal ladder. The hatch in the roof of the tank car was cracked open. I lifted it and eased myself in. I was with my own, my brothers who had crossed the Dniester that same night. But what a difference! I had tasted death, whereas they were just dazed from the gases in the tank car.
The set of tank cars had been taken over by a German. Upon my return, the boys probably talked a bit louder and shuffled around through the tank car. The German walked up to our car and started shouting. Clearly, distinctly, I heard him saying: “Es ist jemand hier!!!” (There is someone here!!!)
The mechanic of the train, called by the German, climbed up the ladder of the tank car. He opened the hatch, which was supported by the handkerchief Sami had rolled up and placed next to the hinge. I’m sure God took the mechanic’s sight. He didn’t see anything. He didn’t even realize the hatch had been partially open up to then. He lowered himself down, to get a better look at the inside of the tank car. But there was nothing to see. The tank cars had perpendicular inner walls, so as to better control the pressure of the fluids. The six of us hid in the space between the inner and the outer tank walls.
- Forget it, Sir… There’s nobody down there!
Up to the present day, those words of the mechanic keep ringing in my ears.
We spent a day and a night in Tighina. The set of tank cars was painstakingly crawling through the Basarabian plain. After a while, Mendi put his head out through the hatch. When he descended, he could barely speak:
- We are in Romania, not far away from Iasi…
We had talked so often about what to do upon our arrival in the first Romanian railroad station, that discussions were no longer necessary at this point. One by one we crawled through the regulator pipe in the side of the tank car and jumped off the train onto the rail bed while the cars were still moving, before pulling into the railroad station. I was the fifth in turn to jump. I had already reached the outer opening of the pipe when Jagerman, the last one left inside, grabbed me by the foot.
- Marcel, I can’t get through.
He was ten years older than the rest of us. He was chubby, and the gases in the cistern probably caused him to swell up even more. He couldn’t fit through the narrow whole of the regulator pipe.
I lowered myself back into the cistern and tried to push him up. He couldn’t get through. He was too big. My forehead was covered in sweat. I could feel my clothes drenched, sticking to my body. It was a fight against time. Every minute counted. We were lost if we didn’t manage to get out of the cistern, and I couldn’t leave Jagerman behind.
- Get your clothes off! Naked! Give me the clothes. Naked, Jagerman! Quickly!
I took the little water left over in Feuer’s container and poured it over Jagerman. The wet skin allowed him to glide somewhat better through the pipe. With me pushing him from below with my shoulder, he managed, in a superhuman effort, to prop his elbows on the edge of the lid. He slid through the hole and jumped off… For a brief moment, I debated what to do with his clothes. What if I lost them, what if they dropped back in the cistern while I jumped?! There was no time left. Clutching his clothes to my chest, I jumped off as well. Once down on the rail bed, I started running back along the tracks. Jagerman was waiting for me, lying down in the grass.
- Get dressed. We have to look for the others.
Half an hour later, the six of us were back together.
Neuman pulled out a cigarette. We sat down next to the rail bed. We wanted to take a puff. But Shapsa yanked the cigarette out of Neuman’s hand.
- You must be mad! Are you trying to set yourself on fire? Our clothes are drenched in gas. We’ll all light up like torches.
The blood drained from our cheeks. Shapsa was right. We all started walking along the railroad tracks.
We had been walking for one hour.
- I think we’re clear now. The gas has evaporated. We can take a puff!
The cigarette went from mouth to mouth. We were inhaling avidly. I could feel my heart pounding. We were in Iasi, on our way home. We couldn’t afford to make any more mistakes. At this point, it would have been stupid to get caught. We were so close to home…
We headed towards the railroad station. But first we wanted to find a place to clean up, have a bite to eat and maybe even sleep for a few hours… A railroad worker happened to cross our path.
- Excuse us; we are six boys from a work detachment. We’re looking for room and board. We’re leaving for Bucharest tomorrow morning.
- Guys… - the railroad worker eyed us curiously – I don’t know what to tell you, but a bit further down you’ll find uncle Vulpe, the switchman. He’s the one who knows all the dealings around here…
We headed towards the switchman’s hut. While walking, we devised our story.
- Greetings, uncle Vulpe! (I thought if I called him by name he’ll imagine I know him, or he knows me, and perhaps that way he’ll be less curious.) We’re coming from the work detachment in Floresti. The van dropped us rather far from the city. Do you happen to know a place where we could eat and sleep tonight?
- Of course, sonny! See… that way, around the bend, there’s a pub. They’ve got everything. Tell them Vulpe sent you.
The pub was open. We sat down at a table. We ordered meat rolls and house wine. When I went to wash my face in the restroom, I could barely recognize myself in the mirror. My face was dark. Not from smog, but from exhaustion and starvation. When I returned to the dining room my heart skipped a beat: In the opposite corner of the room, a police commissioner was sitting at a table. I sat down at our table and told the other boys. They froze in their seats. Suddenly, an idea hit me. I got up and headed to the commissioner’s table.
- Excuse me, Mr. Commissioner, would you be so kind to honor us with your company? To raise a glass of wine with us…? The landlord’s wine is quite excellent!
- My pleasure, son! But wait just a moment.
He got up and walked out of the pub.
I felt my knees giving out. The boys were waiting for me, anxiously. “What did he say? What did you tell him? Where did he go?”
I didn’t know what to answer. I was waiting for the door to open any moment, and for the commissioner to show up on the threshold with a police team, to arrest us. Instead, after a few minutes the commissioner showed up accompanied by a woman. Heading towards our table, he told us with a smile:
- I ran home to get my wife, too. She won’t mind raising the glass with some city boys…
We ate and drank a lot. The commissioner was flushed and in good spirits.
- Boys, I haven’t seen your papers. And I don’t want to see them. You’re not from my sector. It’s your business if you’re coming from Floresti. It’s your business where you go next. As long as you’re out of here by tomorrow morning… I wish you a good trip! This commissioner didn’t see you and doesn’t know you. Cheers! Here’s to good living!
The innkeeper didn’t have rooms for us. We each made our “bed” wherever we could. I myself slept on top of a grand piano.
In the morning, after paying the innkeeper, we walked into a barber’s shop. It was close to the railroad station Iasi-Triage. We got a haircut, a shave, and then we each went our own separate way. Each one on his own. Shapsa was supposed to meet Jagerman later, Mendi was supposed to meet me. The meeting was set for nine o’clock in the morning, in the Lapusneanu Plaza… My sister’s brother-in-law, Lupu Reidler, owned a business there – a store selling men’s clothes. I was planning to walk in the store with Mendi, hoping he would be able to assist us.
I started wandering around the Lapusneanu Plaza. Big mistake! Everyone was staring at me. The wrinkled clothes, the dirty boots, all in all I looked like a ghost… Mendi didn’t show up for our meeting. I waited for him for an hour. Then I walked into Lupu Reidler’s store. I recognized him right away. He resembled his brother.
- Do you know who I am?
The man gave me a startled look, perhaps even a bit frightened. He didn’t recognize me at first.
- I am Marcel, Betty’s brother.
- Marcel Winter… but how come…? What are you doing here…? I thought you were gone… we received a letter just a few days ago… We were informed that… but God, why do you look this way?
- Mister Lupu, I don’t want to inconvenience you. I know I come as a shock to you. I escaped from Transnistria, and as you see, I’m not dead. I’m alive and I want to get to Bucharest. I plan to leave here tonight. Until then, could you please book me a room in a hotel and provide me with some food? From there on, I’ll manage by myself.
Lupu Reidler left his store for a few moments. He booked me a room at the “Palace” Hotel, the best hotel in Iasi. A room with a bath. I found a copious breakfast waiting for me on the table. I called the housekeeper and had her take my clothes to the cleaners, to be ready by evening. I took a bath, wrapped myself in the bed sheet and stretched out on the bed, groaning with pleasure. A mattress, a bed sheet, a bed…! Oh, what a feeling! Like those times when Mrs. Brauch made “tschorba” for all the thirteen people in our room, and I – the ninth or tenth in line – would get a full plate, too. Never before in my life had I eaten “tschorba” as good as that – at least that’s how it seemed at that time.
Come evening time, my clothes were freshly ironed, my boots clean. I paid and headed out for the railroad station. There were two express trains leaving from Iasi for Bucharest: one coming from Basarabia, which was out of the question for me, since I might have encountered someone from Golta, and another one at 10.40 PM, which was being formed in Iasi.
I bribed the attendant of the “wagon-lit” section with 1,000 lei. Until departure time, I stayed hidden in the train’s storage depot. Towards midnight, I lay down on a foldaway bed. The attendant of the “wagon-lit” section slept on the floor beside me. At dawn I cleaned up and had a cup of black coffee. I was feeling better. We were supposed to reach Bucharest in a few hours. I had an idea: I wouldn’t get off in the North Railroad Station. Dressed as I was and without documents, I could become a target for the gendarmes or policemen. Instead, I would get off in Chitila. My luck was better than my logic. I was the only traveler to get off the train in the Chitila railroad station. On the railway platform, saluting the train, a squadron of gendarmes was lined up with their rifles by their sides, in front of the Squadron Leader and the Station Superintendent. I passed through the two rows of gendarmes. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I forced myself to walk slowly, quietly, not to speed up the pace so as not to raise any suspicions. I think I even managed to smile… and then I was out of the railroad station. I found a bus outside: Nr. 40, bound for the North Railroad Station.
Still, I chose to take a cab. I thought I would first go to a friend of mine, Izu Blum. The cab dropped me at the corner of Stefan cel Mare Street. I was down to my last bill of 2,000 lei. The cabdriver didn’t have the right change to break the bill. I walked into a tobacco shop to get change.
- A pack of Marasesti, please!
- What Marasesti, Sir? They haven’t been around for six months.
- Then give me Nationals!
I paid off the cabdriver and walked into a pub, “Ghea”, right next to my friend’s house. I knew that one of his sisters, Elsa or Gina, had to be home. I sent the bartender to call either one of them. Gina showed up in the doorway. The bartender pointed in my direction. She started walking towards my table. As she drew near, I realized she had recognized me. But she was looking at me as if I was a ghost. Her eyes widened, her face turned pale. She quickly sat down on a chair. She was on the point of passing out. When she recovered, I asked her to get my sister Betty. But Gina wouldn’t leave me behind in the pub. She took me into their home. After half an hour, my sister Betty arrived with her son, my nephew Puiu. The boy had grown during my absence. I felt a knot forming in my throat. I almost burst out crying.
- Well done, it’s good that you ran away!
With these words, my sister Betty was welcoming me home. We fell in each other’s arms. We both broke out in tears.
I was home…
Natalitza was four years old when she was arrested along with her mother and father. She didn’t know, she didn’t understand what was going on. The “game” in the school on Sfintilor Street had appealed to her. During those warm autumn days, her mother had hardly let her go from her arms. When mom tired out, her dad would take over. Tzicu Schnelicht was a tall sturdy man, wearing spectacles. Natalitza preferred to be carried by her dad: that way, she was “higher up”. Zambila, Nataliza’s mother, was rather short in stature. The little girl didn’t show much interest in the other children around. She felt good in the arms of her parents. Especially her dad…
While on the train – certainly not one of those trains she had taken when she traveled with her parents to the seaside - they all slept topsy-turvy, one on top of the other. Natalitza liked it.
Back home, her mother had always complained that the kid wouldn’t eat.
- Look how thin you are! Your legs are like toothpicks. Eat! You won’t grow up!
Natalitza knew that her mom didn’t really mean that. She was just saying it to make her eat. She knew her legs didn’t look like toothpicks. Toothpicks were made out of wood and much thinner… As for growing up, she could see herself how she outgrew her dresses…
Once on the train, they stopped nagging her. It didn’t matter if she ate or not. During those days in the beginning of the deportation, Natalitza discovered a new dish: onions and bread. When she was hungry, she would ask her mother:
- Mom, I want onions and “blead”!
- You call that food? Have a bit of salami. Look, dad even brought you a cup of milk. Natty, you’ll put me in my grave! Drink the milk! Eat the salami!
Natalitza’s large hazel eyes would narrow just a bit, and her red lips would start pouting.
- I want onions! I don’t want anything else!
- Give the girl onions - Tzicu would intervene. She’ll drink the milk later. Can’t you see she’s hardheaded…?
Natalitza liked to watch. Since early childhood, the parents had taken her to the cinema. Now she felt she was watching a movie. All these grown-ups around her getting dressed and undressed, eating and wailing, whispering and shouting… A movie, but somehow different. Natalitza kept watching; she didn’t need any other kind of entertainment. Tzicu and Zambila Schnelicht were amazed at how quiet, how good their little girl could be. The people on the train had nicknamed her “the little blond angel”. Few were aware that her name was Natalitza and that her parents called her Natty.
She was hot. She was thirsty. She was hungry. She would have liked for her mom to give her a bath in a big tub. To frolic in the water, to splash like back home, hitting the water with her palms.
Little by little she realized that this journey, on this train, was somehow out of the ordinary. People slept on the floor, ate whenever they could, and feared Mister Gendarme.
At first Zambila had a hard time tolerating the cussing of the gendarmes. She feared the rifle butts, the blows falling out of the blue. She knew Tzicu was there to protect them. But she was afraid for him, too. Still, Zambila was a strong woman. She had character. She realized right away she had to defend herself. But first and foremost she had to defend her little girl, who was frail, beautiful and unusually bright. From the very first moment, Zambila protected her child from anything that could have harmed her. She and Tzicu likewise gave the little one their unconditional love.
For Zambila and Tzicu the months of deportation passed slowly, amidst immense efforts to survive. Natalitza continued to eat onions and “blead” and to watch the activity around her with curiosity. For her, the days passed easily.
She was happy when uncle Lica took her on the bench of the horse-cart at Alexandrovka, and let her drive the horses.
At night, she dreamed and cried out in her sleep:
- Giddyup, the horses, giddyup…!
When mom took her along to work, among the mounds of corn, Natalitza sat quietly and listened to the women’s slow, sad songs. Sometimes she wondered: why did they always sing sad songs…? She would have liked to hear happy tunes as well…
At the end of the day, when she was bathed in the basin and dressed up in clean clothes, she was happy.
Oh no, she didn’t like that handsome officer with shiny boots, who stomped over uncle Bercu’s back. No, she didn’t like him at all. It was raining so hard. And it was cold… Her dad was holding her in his arms, but she saw everything. Poor uncle Bercu! They dragged him into the house. He couldn’t walk on his own.
She was quite fond of aunt Matilda, uncle Bercu’s wife, because she was so beautiful.
In a way, Natalitza even liked that trip in wintertime, in the frozen train cars. Mom kept telling her stories. If not mom, then that fat lady, grandma Maidenberg, who would pick her up on her lap. Oftentimes the little girl would wipe granny’s eyes, always wet with tears, especially after her husband, that thin quiet man, left and never returned. Their son Mosiu was nice, but always very sad. Natalitza, up on Mrs. Maidenberg’s lap, would start chirping:
- I want a story, granny…
The old lady’s face would light up. She would stop crying as she told the little girl her story, in a low warm voice with a Russian accent.
Each morning, we would wake up in a frozen cubicle. Towards noontime, water started running from the ceiling of the train car. Natalitza would then playfully rub her cheeks with water.
We were all scratching. She alone was unaffected by those white “fleas”. Her mom was constantly removing them from her clothes.
- It’s a miracle that the kid didn’t get scabies, and the lice are not biting her either.
Natalitza felt good. She felt everyone loved her. When they looked at her, their faces lit up. Oftentimes, somebody would stick a lump of sugar in her mouth. She would bite off just a little chip. The rest she would clutch in her palm and take to her parents.
During the long journey to Bogdanovka, amidst the blizzard and the mounds of snow, Natalitza rode in a sled with her mother. Uncle Lica covered them up. Dad was checking on them all the time. They kept waking her up from her sleep. “So she wouldn’t freeze” – they would say. But how could she freeze, when mom was holding her so tight against her body? How could she freeze, when mom’s body was so hot?
Up there on the hill, in those red pig stalls with white bricks, she felt better than ever. People were quieter; dad no longer had to leave for work, he was there with them all the time. Nobody had to go to work at Bogdanovka. Then there was that big house, where the sick people lived. It was warm in there, but everyone was moaning. She didn’t like it there.
When they arrived in Golta, a miracle occurred.
One day captain Ambrus showed up in the big hall, asking:
- Who is Zambila Schnelicht, the tailor?
Alarmed, mom approached the captain.
- It’s me, Sir.
- Don’t be scared, Mrs. Schnelicht. I heard you’re a good at tailor. My wife has some things to sew and to repair. Starting tomorrow, I’ll send my orderly to escort you to our home. Take your little girl along, too.
Mom was dumbfounded. Ambrus realized she was worried and, with a slight smile, whispered to her:
- Your cousin Jean Farhi sends you his regards.
That way the mystery was solved.
Zambila’s cousin was captain Ambrus’ friend. At Farhi’s request, Ambrus located Zambila Schnelicht and took her to his home.
Each morning Mrs. Schnelicht would leave for work with Natalitza in her arms, accompanied by a gendarme, usually the captain’s orderly. The captain, shortly thereafter advanced to the rank of major, lived in a big mansion. Mrs. Ambrus, a sturdy lively lady from Transylvania, told her from the very first moment:
- Make yourself at home in my house. I don’t know how long you’ll be here, I hope to God it will be only a short time, but you’ll always find work and shelter in my house. The little one is quite skinny. I want her to start eating, put on some weight. And I think it may be time to let her hair grow.
Natalitza looked at the woman before her, and replied in her mother’s place:
- I only eat onions and ”blead”. I like it like this, without hair. Doctor said this way I won’t get lice. Hair has lice.
Mrs. Ambrus took the little girl in her arms.
- I see you know quite well what you want. But we’ll talk more about onions and “blead” later… And about short hair, too…
Summer went by. They were living in the camp on top of the hill - the former tractor factory of Golta. Tzicu Schnelicht was now going out to work at the rail tracks. Zambila continued to work for Mrs. Ambrus.
One day, the major’s wife retained Zambila.
- Before you leave, there’s something I have to tell you. But please, don’t let anyone know that I told you. Not even your husband… not my husband either…
The hours ticked by slowly. Zambila was waiting for the end of the day. She realized the major’s wife had something important to tell her.
Towards evening time, she entered Mrs. Ambrus room.
- Is there anything you wanted to tell me? I’m getting ready to leave. The gendarme is waiting to take me back to the camp.
- Zambila dear, allow me to call you by name, since we’ve known each other for a few months now… I’ve heard from my husband that the Germans want to take you over, on the opposite bank of the river, the side under German government. Do you know what that means…? I can’t give you any advice. But I can tell you this: If I were in your place, I would run. No, don’t argue. I know there are grave risks involved. You have a child… If you were caught, you would be executed. But listen… I’m not allowed to tell you this, but I have to… There were others who escaped. Don’t look at me like that… They haven’t been caught, what you were told is not true. Ambrus had to say that to prevent others from trying. They made it, Zambila… I’m sorry to loose you, but… for this child, do what you have to…
Zambila walked out of the house shaking. Natalitza was clutching her hand. Her mom would usually talk to her. But now mom was silent. She had a frown on her face. Up in the camp, her parents whispered among them until late at night. Natalitza heard them in her sleep. She was sleeping in between the two.
In the morning, her mom and dad looked pale. Natalitza nestled in her father’s arms. Tzicu absently stroke the child’s short blond hair, somewhat reminiscent of a shoe brush.
That day, Tzicu wandered through the railroad station quite a bit. He spoke to quite a few railroad employees and train conductors. When he returned from work, his eyes were sparkling. He whispered something in Zambila’s ear. She nodded, satisfied.
That evening they dressed their little girl with a few layers of clothing.
- Don’t talk, don’t ask any questions, Natty. Just be good, and drink this cup of milk right now. Don’t shout, even if you get scared. Just be good, you’re with mom and dad…
They left the camp after Tzicu bribed the gendarme from the Guard Corps.
- We’re going down to the city. We have a friend in the ghetto who is very sick.
- Did I ask you where you were going, Mister? Go ahead, proceed! It’s not like you’re trying to run away… How could you, with that child in your arms?
Dad was carrying Natalitza in his arms. Mom followed behind, almost running. One step of Tzicu’s equaled two of Zambila’s. After an hour of walking, mostly sneaking alongside walls and fences, they reached their destination. It was utterly dark.
- Are we there, Tzicu?
- Yes. This is the best place to hide. Tomorrow morning I will take your coat and sell it, and then I’ll go to that guy – you know who, I told you about him – the guard on the train carrying war captures back into the country. I just hope he hasn’t changed his mind!
- And here, in the graveyard, where shall we stay, Tzicu?
- Come along… We’ll see…
Tzicu Schnelicht started walking in the darkness. Natalitza nestled closer to her father’s chest. She kept her eyes closed. She thought she was hearing noises, but it was just her parents’ steps. Then her father stopped and sat down on the humid soil. Natalitza passed into her mother’s arms.
It was the beginning of August. But out here, it was not too warm. Zambila was wearing a thick jacket. Tzicu spread out his coat over a tombstone. Holding the little girl in her arms, Zambila sat down, leaning against the headstone.
An owl screeched somewhere in the darkness. Tzicu’s arm was protecting his wife’s shoulders. From a distance, the bark of a dog echoed through the night. Then the moon appeared from behind a cloud. Somehow, it felt worse than total darkness. The tombstones were now visible, and each headstone was casting its shadow. Zambila was shaking. Natalitza wished she had been in her father’s arms. She whispered:
- I’m scared, mom, I want to go home, I’m scared!
- Try to sleep, baby… Sssst! Go to sleep, close your eyes… Zambila started humming a lullaby.
At the break of dawn Tzicu found a different place for them to hide, a secluded ditch between two old headstones, partially overshadowed by a bush.
- I’m leaving! Wait for me here! Natty, daddy’s girl, be good, ok?
The child was looking around her, dissatisfied. Over here, even the chirping of the birds seemed more subdued. Moreover, there was that frown on mom’s face…
Tzicu sold the coat to a clerk at the town hall. He got 600 marks for it, a “huge” sum of money. The railroad worker had asked 400 marks to put them on a freight train bound to leave for Romania. Now he had the money. Sneaking through the Sunday crowd, he was looking for “his man” in the railway station. They quickly struck a deal: That night they would meet at the railroad depot. The railroad worker would unlock a train cart for them to get in. They would have to remove the yellow star from their clothing, so no one would know they were Jewish. The rest didn’t matter to the railroad worker. If they were lucky, the train would leave the next day. The prefect Isopescu Modest had two railcars full of goods, which he was shipping back into the country. Maybe that was their good fortune…
On his way to the graveyard, Tzicu stopped at the grocery store, to buy bread and ham. They needed food for the trip.
- Give me that salami and this loaf of bread, please. A couple of onions, too…
- Take them!
Tzicu paid and turned to leave the shop.
- Whereto, kike? You didn’t even say hello to us!
Tzicu stopped in the doorway. For one moment, he considered running. But what if they had guns? He turned around. In the back of the shop three soldiers were sitting at a table, their glasses full of wine.
- Get over here, kike! Why don’t you tell us what you’re doing with those onions…? Goddamn kike!
Before he knew what was happening to him, the three had pushed him out of the shop and started punching him with their fists. “The package, I have to take care of the package”, Tzicu was thinking. “If only they didn’t break my glasses…”
The three were hitting him avidly and cussing him out. One managed to throw him to the ground. And then, like wild beasts, they started kicking him with their feet.
- You pushed us to this war, filthy kikes! You plundered our country… because of you we’re here on the front…
One of them hit Tzicu over the head with a club. He wanted to shatter Tzicu’s glasses, but being drunk, he kept missing. Tzicu jumped up to his feet. “I have to get out of here. Zambila and the kid are waiting for me.” He put a hand in his pocket. He had some leftover cash.
- Here, it’s money! Take it! There’s good wine in the pub.
The three stopped hitting him.
- Let’s have the money, kike… let’s have it…
Their fury dissipated, they held out their hands and took the 30 marks. Tzicu, dazed by the blows, walked away from the shop in a hurry.
Zambila could barely refrain from screaming when she saw her husband. There was no need for questions. She started wiping the blood off his face.
- My head is hurting pretty badly, said Tzicu. I gave them most of the cash we had. There’s very little left over…
- Don’t worry. Together with my cash, it will be enough… should we need it.
It was warm. Sitting on the ground in the shade of a tree, they were waiting for nightfall. When dusk settled in, they started walking furtively towards the railway station. Mom was carrying Natalitza in her arms. Tzicu had a bad headache. Every now and again, he was leaning on his wife’s shoulder.
The railroad worker was waiting for them in front of the depot. A few dozen freight cars were stationed on one of the sidetracks of the Golta railway station. The railroad worker unlocked one of the cars and pushed the door aside.
- There’s a hay cart inside. There’s a billy goat, too. Don’t let it scare you. Sit under the cart. You’re lucky: We’re leaving tomorrow morning! I will drop by at times, to fetch water for the goat. You’ll have a little water, too.
They quickly jumped on the train and sneaked under the cart. There was a bad stench in there, and the air was scarce. Zambila whispered:
- May God help us!
That night, all three of them slept soundly.
Towards morning, Tzicu woke Zambila.
- Listen… listen… they’re coupling the railcars. We’re leaving. We’re on our way home!
Natalitza halfway opened her eyes. She didn’t say a word. She was afraid to talk, afraid to move away from her parents. She didn’t even look around through the train car.
The locomotive gave a long-drawn whistle. Screeching from all joints, the long row of railcars started moving. They traveled many hours… Then they reached a railroad station. There were noises, voices, railroad workers tapping on the train wheels, soldiers asking to get aboard the freight train, so they would get home sooner. Natalitza was still scared. She couldn’t tell why exactly. But she was scared.
The little girl finally dozed off. Through her sleep, she felt something wet touching her face. She opened her eyes. The billy goat was next to her, licking her head. She screamed with terror. Tzicu put his hand on her mouth. Natalitza was choking.
Zambila realized the little girl couldn’t breath. With difficulty, she pushed Tzicu’s hand off Natalitza’s mouth.
- Be quiet, baby, be quiet… If they find us, they’ll kill us. The billy goat won’t hurt you. Be quiet, baby…
On the verge of passing out, Natalitza nestled in her mother’s arms.
It was dark in the train car. They didn’t know what time it was. Tzicu had sold his watch while still in Golta. Natalitza wouldn’t budge from her mother’s side. They had lost every notion of time and place.
In a railroad station, the door of the train car was opened. The railroad worker climbed up inside. He carefully closed the door behind him.
- Hey, Jew, come over here! Look, here are two tickets from Chitila to Bucharest. You’re getting off at the first stop. OK, I’m through with you!
- Are we there…? In the country…? Close to Chitila…?
- Well, what do you think, Mister? We traveled two days and two nights, with the speed of an express train. We’re carrying valuable cargo for a lot of officers, important people… You got lucky. God helped you!
It was hot and sticky. With feverish movements, Zambila took off Natalitza’s jacket and one of her dresses, and straightened her hair with the palm of her hand. She combed her own hair and put a light scarf on her head. Tzicu was trying to straighten his wrinkled trousers. Abruptly, he remembered:
- Zambila, we need travel passes! We only have the train tickets.
- There’s nothing we can do about it, Tzicu! God will help us further.
The locomotive slowed down. The long row of train cars pulled up on a sidetrack in the Chitila railroad station.
Tzicu opened the door and put his head out. He carefully scanned the area. He looked to the right, looked to the left… Everything seemed to be quiet. He jumped off the train… He picked Natalitza up in his arms…
The little girl turned her head back towards the train car, and shouted in her crystalline voice:
- Goodbye, mister billy goat!
Tzicu helped Zambila get off the train as well…
It was a lovely day of August, early afternoon. The three started walking along the railway platform, heading towards the waiting hall. Nobody was paying any attention to them. The railroad workers were exhausted by the heat. The gendarmes, bored and hot themselves, were lingering on the benches scattered along the platform, puffing on their cigarettes.
The Schnelichts retreated in a corner, away from the public eye.
After one hour’s worth of waiting, a passenger train pulled into the station. The three got on the train, in the very last car. It was noisy and crowded. A few peasants sitting on a bench pulled closer together, making room for Zambila to sit down with Natalitza in her arms….
After they left Chitila, the train conductor started going through the cars, accompanied by a policeman, asking to see people’s tickets and travel passes. When he was on the point of entering the Schnelichts’ compartment, a loud noise broke out somewhere down the corridor. A passenger shouted to the policeman:
- Come quickly, Sir! They’ve shattered a window in car number five…
All the way to Bucharest, the conductor and the policeman were busy drafting an incident report…
The Schnelichts got off the train. They started walking randomly down the streets. They didn’t yet know whereto… They were still in a daze…
Zambila whispered, as if afraid to speak out loud:
- Let’s go to my mother’s house…
They were on Grivita Road. Astonished, they watched the hustle and bustle around them. They couldn’t believe their eyes. They still couldn’t grasp the idea that they were in Bucharest. They couldn’t even rejoice, couldn’t believe this miracle had come true.
- Shall we take a trolley? Tzicu asked.
- No, replied Zambila authoritatively. Did you forget that we still have cash? We’re taking a cab.
They arrived in Vitan at dusk. The windows to the living room were wide open. Old Elias Demajo, Zambila’s father, was engaged in his evening prayers.
- …and as always, Lord, I pray to you from the depth of my heart, safeguard my children. Grant me the favor of holding my granddaughter in my arms once again… For this I pray to you, Lord Almighty…
Grandma Matilda, her head covered for the evening prayer, was sitting on the sofa, crying quietly…
Zambila hesitated before walking in the house. She was afraid the elders would be startled. She left Natalitza with Tzicu in the hallway, and slowly opened the living room door.
- Mom, Dad, I’m here. We came back… God helped us!
That night, nobody closed an eye in the Demajo household.
The next morning, the three Schnelichts moved over to uncle Jacob Marcus’ house, a more isolated villa behind the Bucur Church.
Weeks in a row Natalitza – Natty – was not allowed to walk out of the yard. Tzicu left the house perhaps once or twice over the next few months. They lived with the constant fear of being caught. Their documents were not stamped; they didn’t have a permit to reside in the Capital.
Harassed and worried, they were still happy to have made it out of the Transnistrian hell. They felt like newborn people…
It was a torrid summer. Everything was burning: the dry grass, the air, the water we were drinking, the walls of the ghetto, as well as we ourselves. I was still quite weak after the episode of infectious jaundice I had suffered. I found myself unable to go out to work. I spent the greatest part of the day lying in bed. Gari, the son of the paramedic Voinova (ex-wife to the poet Bertini) sometimes dropped by the ghetto and sat on the bunk beside me, chatting. He was a tall slender boy, with delicate features. We had become friends a few months before. He was working at the hospital, as was I.
I loved to listen to him. He was sixteen or seventeen years old. He was a dreamer… He was making plans. All had to do with music. And with revenge. He couldn’t forget what he had gone through. He grew up without a father, since his parents were divorced. Yet he had inherited from his father – a well-known poet – sensitivity and imagination.
The stories he told were not new to me. But he was speaking ardently, passionately. He wanted to break out and join the partisans. He wanted to avenge the victims, the hundreds of thousands killed before his eyes. He felt the need for revenge. Gari’s hands were very expressive, his gestures were broad and eloquent. He always tried to explain to me how he would kill the German soldiers, the fascists. At times, his ecstasy frightened me. When he spoke of revenge his face became pale, his jaw clenched.
I simply tried to tell him how I lived before the deportation, tell him about my colleagues and my friends. I tried to calm him down. And maybe I succeeded, for a short few minutes. By nature, Gari was restless and agitated. He planted the seed of restlessness in my heart, as well. For days on end, I felt revolt throbbing in my chest. I tried to convince Fritz, Iulek, Heinz and Gheza that we should flee and join the partisans. I suspected that in the end the Romanians would turn us over to the Germans, on the opposite bank of the Bug. Why die like a bunch of cowards? If we made it to the partisans, we still had a chance. At least we could die with dignity, holding a gun in our hands.
My friends were watching me, astonished. What I proposed to them was not entirely absurd. Still, it was extremely dangerous – for us, as well as for the people we would leave behind in the ghetto. Our escape could have caused the execution of our loved ones.
It was rumored that the German Command had requested the Romanian government in Transnistria to “clean up” their bank. In other words, to get rid of the Jews and the Gypsies.
The Gypsies had been deported from Romania as well. They had been put in concentration camps, under the same inhuman conditions we were forced to endure. They refused however to go out to work. Every now and again they would break out of the camps and run to the villages nearby. Their “Boolibasha” – so the story went – had enough gold to buy food for his people. But the Gypsy camps were decimated by typhus and dysentery.
Sometime in August, Gari brought us the news – as his mother heard it at the hospital – that we would be shuttled across the river to Pervomaisk, the bank under German jurisdiction. Each day, we were watching the central plaza of the town beyond the river. We always saw bodies hanging there – Russians, Jews, Gypsies. Bodies swinging back and forth in the wind… At the break of dawn, we sometimes heard machinegun chatter…
- They’re shooting again…
- They’ve hung another group!
Two trucks full of soldiers pulled up next to the barbwire fence of our ghetto. We didn’t know what they were planning to do.
- We’re setting up a ferry, for the cattle to be shuttled to the other side, said one of the military technicians.
- I’m really afraid those cattle will be us, Fritz said to me.
For the next few days we watched the soldiers working. We looked at the cogwheels, the planks they were crafting, the ropes…
I told Gari about the construction next to our ghetto. He frowned. His lips narrowed even more. His black eyes were sparkling.
- Why don’t you get it, Sonia? It’s for you. Maybe even for us, although they need my mother at the hospital and we are living outside the ghetto, outside the camp… But the Germans are asking for the Jews! Why won’t you understand? Come with me! I won’t go alone. But with you I would… We’ll flee and join the partisans. I know a way. I have a connection… Are you coming with me…?
- No, Gari! I can’t leave my parents. They’re both sick. I can’t!
All of a sudden, Gari became quiet. He was staring out in the distance, as if he had disconnected himself from me and from the place we were in. After a moment, he spoke:
- The day will come, Sonia, when I‘ll forget about all this… when I’ll no longer want to know. A day when victory will be mine… And then, I will no longer care about anything and anyone… Sonia, I want to forget… All that we’re living now… I want “tomorrow” to come sooner…
“Tomorrow” was dreadful.
At dawn, the sky was still overcast. The sun had not yet risen. Aristide Padure walked into the ghetto, his horsewhip in his hand.
- Everybody out, quickly! Out of the ghetto! No one stays behind! Out! On the shores of the Bug! Out, quickly! Goddamn kikes…
Ukrainian policemen, in black SS uniforms, were whipping us with nagaikas.
A huge uproar ensued. Panic and pandemonium reigned supreme: People were pushing each other; things were flying through the air; children were screaming; women were calling out for their husbands. Nobody knew what to do, where to begin. Should they take their luggage? Should they put on more clothes…?
My father and Dodo Brauch forbade us to take along anything more than a bottle of water, some bread and a few lumps of sugar.
My father gave each one of us a capsule wrapped in paper.
- Take this! Keep it handy! After we board the ferry, we’ll take it!
- What’s in the capsule, dad?
- Doctor Partos prepared them for us. Dodo and I asked him to do it. Irene and you mother know… All is clear now… There is no point in letting the Germans torture us. It’s enough what we suffered so far! From there – my father pointed towards the opposite bank of the Bug – no one comes out alive.
- But maybe they’ll take us to work. Maybe we’ll run to the partisans.
Fritz Brauch was furiously glaring at my dad.
- I don’t think that’s the solution. We suffered so much… The Germans are not doing well on the front. Why should we give up hope…?
- Fritzica edes – Irene’s voice sounded soothingly – the three of us will leave this life together. Going through this torture makes no sense. Can’t you see those scaffolds, the bodies hanging out there?
I felt a shiver going through my body.
- I don’t want to die, either. I won’t give up on life…
- You speak like a child, Sonia. You are the most vulnerable among us. You know quite well what Germans do to Jewish girls. You want us to witness your ordeal? We decided to end our lives now. A more merciful ending than the Germans have in stock for us… Believe us, children, we didn’t take this decision lightly…
We walked out of the room. Most of our people were already gathered in the yard. It was only then that I saw the crowd on the shores of the Bug, next to the ferry built a few days before: There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people. Gypsies with their tents, with children, dogs, horse carts which they were pulling themselves… Their horses had been taken from them long ago. They had been brought on the banks of the river at nighttime, and had been waiting there ever since. We hadn’t heard anything about this in our ghetto.
Our group started moving. The vice-prefect Aristide Padure was cussing and lashing out with his whip. The Ukrainian policemen were stuffing their pockets with the things we dropped.
After walking for half an hour, we reached the shores of the river. The transport was already underway. Sixty to seventy gypsies were loaded on each ferry. The ferry was pulled across the river to the other side. By now the sun had fully risen in the sky. It was quite hot. We drank, during the first hours of the morning, the water we had taken from the ghetto. We ate the bread, as well. The sugar we saved for later.
We were sitting on the ground, leaning on each other.
- Sonia, I don’t intend to kill myself!
- Nor do I, Fritz!
- Then, be careful. Stay close to me. Tie up your hair and stuff it under your cap. There… That’s better… Don’t look up. Try not to draw attention to yourself. This way you look like a shabby punk.
We were sitting on the ground, drowsy and groggy. We were waiting for our turn to be shuttled across. In the beginning, during the first hours, each one of us was asking himself: “Why? Where? What next?” Now we had quieted down. This was our fate… Now we understood more clearly what motivated Miciu, the six boys, the Schnelichts, Marval Levi, Herman Lucacescu, the Alter brothers and others who had escaped from this hell. Now we understood where they found the courage to break free.
I had long ago ceased to expect help from the Lord. I was no longer holding Him accountable for this ordeal. In a childish way, I was asking myself: Is it because we are the “chosen” people, that we suffer so much? That’s how the Lord shows his love? I had so often stared death in the face… In the beginning I was scared. I was terrified. At those times, I would look up to Him. I would ask Him to give me strength. In Sarale’s eyes, before she passed away in the pig stall at Bogdanovka, I had seen Him. He was sad. Not even He could help us anymore! I had found Him, in the beginning, in the murmur of old Maidenberg’s prayers. Before he died, in the State Farm at Alexandrovka, the old man asked his son Mosiu never to forget to say “Kadish”.
I felt Him in the smoke rising from the trench at Vigoda, where thousands of Jews from Odessa lay murdered, carbonized. I believe He heard the wailing at Bogdanovka, where sixty thousand of my brothers called out His name before they died. I am sure He heard them! A few months later, I met Him again in my father’s stories, about the orphan asylum in the village of Domanovka… He, the Lord, was everywhere. He accompanied us - as was the suffering, the frost and the heat, the misery and starvation, the beatings and the exhausting forced labor. He accompanied us – as was death. I felt Him throughout all of our suffering. I felt Him pained and saddened.
Oftentimes at night, when everyone was asleep, I was talking to Him. Hot tears were running over my cheeks. Almost always, I was asking an explanation from Him: “Even He couldn’t help us?” Seemingly not. If He could, the world wouldn’t have looked this way. The Ukrainian policemen, the German and Romanian soldiers wouldn’t have been mocking us and our lives, we wouldn’t have been here, away from our homes, our schools, our work. If He could have helped us… But He couldn’t, even He couldn’t help us… That hot summer day, on the shores of a river named Bug, in a land temporarily named Transnistria, I stopped looking up towards Him, The Eternal One.
The gypsies were being shuttled to the other shore, where death awaited. They were crying, yelling, screaming. The Lord had forgotten them, too… They could no longer be helped.
A ferry was on its way over to the other bank. Many women with children… One of them, covered in rags, stood up holding a small child in her arms. He was naked. The woman uttered a howl, like a wild beast. She lifted the child towards the sky, and then threw him in the muddy waters of the Bug.
A huge roar resounded from the ferry. All women stood up and threw their children in the waters of the Bug. Then they threw themselves into the river. Some tried to swim back ashore, to the Romanian side. The soldiers on the shore started firing at them. The gypsies on both banks started howling. Padure pulled out his revolver. He started shooting full blast, killing one… two… three… But who was counting them anymore…?
We threw ourselves to the ground. Once more, we started praying and crying. I was sobbing. “Lord, where are you? How can you let all this happen? Look at the Bug, Lord! The infants are drowning. The mothers, too… Where are you, Lord…?”
Come evening time, our bank was devoid of gypsies.
- Now it’s our turn…
Hechter was holding his son tightly in his arms. Kramer was clutching Anetta’s hand. She was holding on to him.
- We’ll all be together!
- Fritz, Sonia, don’t forget: Once you’re on the ferry, swallow the capsule. It will be much easier that way. Have faith in us, children! Be brave!
Fritz held out his hand to me. My good friend was crying.
I was gritting my teeth. I knew the two of us would be the only ones left alive. We didn’t want to die. We were young. We looked at our parents: They were up on their feet, holding each other. I kissed mom. I caressed dad’s cheek, covered by a coarse beard. My heart was hurting for them. Through the tears, I watched the empty ferry returning from the German bank. On the other side, the Germans had “cleaned up” everything. The Gypsies were no longer in sight…
Aristide Padure approached us. I felt an icy shiver running down my spine. “Here comes death…” I thought.
- Rough day, gentlemen, rough day. Does anyone have a pen? I have to sign for the delivery of the Gypsies to the German Command. Everything has to be neat and clean. I don’t have my pen with me.
My father motioned to me:
- Give me your pen!
He knew I had a “Mont Blanc” pen – the one Marcel had given to me for my birthday.
I pulled out the pen. My father handed it to Padure, who took it and walked over to the ferry. He did indeed sign some paperwork for a German officer. Then he turned back towards us. He stuffed the pen in his pocket.
- Rough day, gentlemen… Very rough. I told the officer of the Wehrmacht that I don’t have the strength to ship you over today as well. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps some other time… Get back to the ghetto!
None of us moved. We could hardly believe it. Had we just been saved?! We didn’t think of tomorrow. What mattered was the moment. What mattered was today. Tomorrow? We’ll see about tomorrow… As for today, we would be watching the sunset from the Romanian riverbank. We would be lying down on our wooden bunks at nighttime. We would be chatting among ourselves, reminiscing our lives up to this point. We would be talking of “tomorrow”, perhaps a better, brighter tomorrow. As for today, we were saved. A cricket was chirping in the sun-parched grass. The gendarmes and the policemen had left. We were alone on the shores of the Bug.
At last we headed slowly, leisurely towards the ghetto we had left a few hours ago in a state of panic. Exhausted, we could barely move. We found everything topsy-turvy in our rooms. After our departure that morning, the Ukrainians had plundered the premises, taking everything they deemed to be somewhat valuable. We picked up whatever was left on the floor. We were trying to recover from the day’s events. We were still in shock. My father asked me to return the capsule he had given to me. He carefully put it in his wallet, together with his own capsule and mom’s.
“No, dad – I thought. You don’t have to hide it! I will never take it! I want to live!”
I was returning from the hospital. Fritz was with me. We had been working hard all day. We were tired.
- Miss…! Miss…!
Nobody had ever called me “Miss” before. To be honest, I really didn’t look it… In my washed-out overall and rough heavy boots, I looked more like a boy… It was just the two long pigtails that gave away my gender.
- Sonia, don’t look back, Fritz whispered. A sergeant is stalking us. I think he’s trying to hit on you. Take my arm. Come on, let’s hurry up!
My heart started pounding. I knew that anyone, anytime, had the right to take me, to do with me as they pleased… Those were the unwritten rules of deportation.
The sergeant also picked up the pace. We were almost running. We were about one hundred meters away from the ghetto.
- Sir…! Sir…! Miss…! Don’t run away! I won’t hurt you…Stop! I have to talk to you!
We stopped. He approached us… A young sergeant on reduced term commission, an RT sergeant – as they called them – neatly dressed, with a well-groomed little moustache and a friendly look on his face. He was all smiles.
- I think I know you from the descriptions of your relatives in Bucharest. You must be Sonia… It’s just that you’re a little taller than your grandmother described you. Your “Ma”, as you used to call her… And you must be Fritz Brauch.
We were speechless. We were looking around, fearfully. Was this a trap? The man seemed sincere.
- I will leave you now. I’ll meet you tomorrow morning at seven o’clock. Next to that fence, in the corner… I have lots of stuff to give you. Just tell your parents that the people in Bucharest are working hard to obtain your repatriation, and that everything is going to be OK.
That evening we didn’t even get a chance to leave our room. Our parents made us repeat four or five times each detail of our encounter with the RT sergeant.
Next morning Fritz and I were waiting at the street corner, as discussed with the sergeant. He showed up at seven o’clock sharp. He was carrying a suitcase, a sack and a few parcels.
- Take them! These are for you and another few families. I work in the Statistics Department. My manager, Sabin Manuila, is a friend of your uncle’s, the photographer Aurel Bauch. I came here at their request, to bring you these things, some money and the good news. I won’t tell you my name. It’s pointless. I would like you to remember just one thing: There are still human beings in this world.
The sergeant shook our hands. He took a few steps, then stopped and turned around:
- To you, little lady, I have to deliver a hug… It’s the hug your grandma asked me to give you…
We returned to the ghetto loaded with parcels for many of our people: Lupescu, Teichman, Marcovici, Hechter, Mailender, Blumenthal, Placek, Brauch…
We tried to refrain from talking. Crestinu might have heard us or seen us. Nevertheless, the rumor swept over the ghetto. “We will be repatriated…” “The ordeal is coming to an end…” “We’ll go back home…”
A few days later, on a Thursday morning, the door to our room swung wide open, slamming against the wall.
- Friedrich Brauch and Sonia Follender. To the Command Center! Right away! Move!
Two armed gendarmes were waiting for us. Barely awake and still groggy, we put on our clothes in a hurry and stepped out. My mom was crying in silence. My dad was stroking my hair. His face was livid.
Underway, Fritz told me that we had to keep denying everything. “We hadn’t seen anything, we didn’t know anything!”
Once at the Command Station, we were both ushered into a small cell without windows. There were no chairs or benches. It was dark. There was mud all over the floor. We leaned against the wall in silence.
- Friedrich Brauch! Out for questioning!
Pushed from behind, Fritz stumbled out of the room. He looked back at me over his shoulder, as if to say: “Hang in there, Sonia, this will pass as well…”
Hours went by. I was thirsty and hungry. My legs were hurting and my back was burning. I was leaning against the hot cell wall. The air was getting scarce.
“If they just called me sooner! If it all just ended! Where’s Fritz? I wonder what happened to him…?”
After hours of waiting, I heard a protracted howl… Then yelling, and silence once again.
I couldn’t focus my thoughts. My mind was empty and my head was hurting. I had an ongoing urge to vomit, more acute with each passing moment. I was sick. Should I knock at the door? What would I tell them? Why speed up the end? What will they do to me? Who will question me, and what for?
How long has it been…? All of a sudden, the door slammed against the wall and Fritz was thrown inside, on the floor of the cell.
Then the door closed once again.
- Fritz, Fritz, are you all right…? What happened…? What did they do to you…?
He opened his eyes. He was exhausted.
- About the cash we received… They want to know who’s the sergeant. I didn’t tell them anything. Because I really don’t know. Otherwise… perhaps I would have told them, who knows? Take a look…
His toes had been burned with a candle.
- I don’t know what will happen to you… Tell them all you know… Just don’t mention the name of the manager from the Statistics Institute. It would be a sin to hurt a good man. Talk whatever you want, even if it doesn’t make sense, but don’t say anything about the things we received. I just told them that an unknown soldier gave us some cash. Just for you and for us… That’s it… And now, let me sleep… let me lie here… I’m at the end of my tether. The mud doesn’t matter… I’ve gotten used to it… My feet are hurting…
I watched over Fritz as he slept. He was moaning. He had been hit over his entire body.
The door opened once more. The “investigator” pulled me out by my hair.
I felt my scalp was on fire. I hurriedly followed along, fearful my hair would be ripped off my head by the investigator himself - squadron leader Popescu from the Command of the Golta district.
Years later I found out that the partisans shot him to death one night in Golta, while he was on his way home.
- Who was the soldier who gave you the money? Out with it! We already know… We just want to see if you tell the truth!
I realized right away he knew nothing. The man who had given us money wasn’t a simple soldier, but an RT sergeant. In conclusion, they had no idea who he was.
- He didn’t tell us his name. He just gave us the money, to me and to Brauch. That’s all!
- That’s all?! Goddamn kike-bitch! That’s all?
He slapped me twice with great zest. I felt my cheeks on fire. I looked at him: He was short and bald. He had a big head, uncommonly pointed at the top, and thick fleshy lips. He looked like a caricature, somewhat reminiscent of Gogleatza. He had the shrewd look of a weasel. Strangely enough – given the condition I was in - I started analyzing all those details. He was missing a button on his coat… Another question followed. And right away the answer: “I don’t know!” Another punch landed on my cheek. There were a few spots of grease on his tunic… Was it wine or “tschorba”? No, it could have been blood… One more question… One more answer: “I don’t know!” Another blow… This time across my mouth. I felt the taste of blood on my lips… His sleeves were dirty and worn. A pair of eyeglasses was lying on his desk. Once more, I answered a question: “I don’t know!” This time the punch hit me in the chest. For a moment, it made me double over. A few blows landed on the back of my neck. I caught a glimpse of his boots. They were shabby and torn. I stood up straight again. The blows were now hitting my face. If he just didn’t hit my eyes… I tried to shield my head.
- You’re guarding, Goddamn bitch… guarding…? You’re playing games with me? Who sent the soldier? Answer me! Who?
- I don’t know!
- I know how to fix you, skinny-bones! There’s no one like Stamate, do you hear me? No one!
I felt I wanted to laugh. “Kike-bitch, Skinny-bones, Bolshevik, Spy…” “What a bunch of qualities”, I thought to myself.
- You’re smiling, huh? I’ll teach you how to smile… You saw the other one, right? He won’t be wearing shoes in his lifetime. Stamate’s got his system… I’ll lick you into shape…
So his first name was Stamate… Stamate… A name I wouldn’t forget… Stamate…
- Hey, Zamfir!
A sturdy caporal entered the room.
- Fix her fingers, lad…
- Shall I use the hammer, Sir?
- No, you fool! Use the door! I want to hear it screech. I want to hear them cracking…
Then he yelled at me:
- Who sent the soldier? What unit was he from? Where did he come from…? Who else did he bring money for? How about letters? How about packages?
Zamfir pulled me brutally towards the door. Slowly, smiling and rejoicing in his task, he got a hold of my right hand. My palm looked like a toy in his big, bony hand. He carefully picked out a finger – it was the index finger.
- Come on, answer! I won’t fool around with you any longer!
- I don’t know.
Zamfir carefully positioned my finger in the doorjamb, then started closing the door. Even I could hear the cracking of the bone. The pain shot through my body, like an electric current. I started shaking, but I didn’t scream. I didn’t even groan. Strangely, I didn’t feel the pain in the shattered finger. I felt it in my brain. That’s where it burned, like a red-hot iron.
- Will you talk now? You have nine fingers left… Will you start talking? Who is the guy who brought you the money? Who sent him? Who else did he bring money for?
- My family in Bucharest sent him… The whole family… I don’t know anything else!
I could barely talk. Even I had difficulty hearing my voice.
- A pity, Mister Investigator! She’s got bones like a little bird! Can’t you see she doesn’t feel a thing? Let me burn her a bit! Perhaps that way she’ll remember…
- Put her second finger in the doorjamb, Zamfir! And stop giving me your advice, or I’ll fix you, too…
Just as methodically as before, Zamfir took a hold of my left hand. He picked the same finger – the index. I felt the taste of blood in my mouth. My right hand was hanging limp alongside my body. It wasn’t bleeding, but every fiber of the hand was hurting.
- Are you talking?
- I don’t know, Sir! I don’t anything you’re asking me! The man wouldn’t give us his name.
With a sneer, Zamfir started squeezing the doorjamb. For some reason, I remembered Sarale at that moment. I recalled the sad look in her eyes. Now she must be all right, quite likely an angel in heaven. I wished I were an angel myself…
I no longer heard the cracking of the second finger as it snapped.
I woke up on the floor, lying in the mud. Fritz was lying beside me, moaning faintly.
- Did they shatter your hand?
- No… No big deal… Just two fingers…
A few hours later, the door opened once more.
- Get up! Out of here! Beat it!
We were free to go. Avram Crestinu was waiting for us outside the Command Station, read in the face and furious. I was sure he would start to yell, to reproach us God knows what. But he just stood there with his mouth wide open. He didn’t say a word. From his demeanor, we realized how we must have looked. Fritz was leaning heavily against my shoulder, dragging his feet on the ground. He was barefoot. He was carrying his shoes in his hand. I kept my hands out before me, trying to support the shattered fingers with my palms as well I could. We were both full of blood. Our faces were puffy from the blows we received. Our clothes were covered with mud.
Before we walked into the ghetto, Crestinu said to us:
- Let’s drop by the hospital. I can’t let you enter the ghetto in this state. Your parents would go nuts. Not to mention what Liuba would do to me for not getting you out of there sooner… But it took a while until major Ambrus decided to issue the release order…
Doctor Partos was not in the least shocked by the way we looked. He took us to the operating room right away. He splinted my shattered fingers. He wiped my face with peroxide and put iodine on my wounds. He bandaged Fritz’s feet and put a dressing over his eye, where the eyebrow was ripped open. It was only afterwards that Voinova helped us clean up.
Once back in the ghetto, we heard our parents had reminded Crestinu that Ambrus was being “paid” by us, and that he “had to help us”.
We lay on our wooden bunks for the next few days. My fingers were healing. Fritz was wearing soft slippers, manufactured by Lica. Our wounds started closing…
- Placek Robert!
An RT sergeant came running into the ghetto.
- You’re summoned by major Ambrus.
We were all scared. Placek wouldn’t even resist the first blow. The sergeant realized how we felt. He saw that Placek had turned white with fear.
- Don’t be scared, Sir! There’s good news in stock for you. You’re going home! Just don’t tell the guys at the Command Station I said that. They’d ship me straight to the front!
Two days later Placek left Transnistria. After the war, he moved with his wife to Austria. He wouldn’t even hear of Romania…
As for ourselves, we resumed our daily chores. My fingers healed quite nicely. They remained just a little bit crooked. Still, I could use them in a normal fashion, thanks to the care I received from doctor Partos.
Painstakingly, the hot days of August passed by. The month of September brought an early fall, spreading cold and rain.
The news from the front was encouraging. The great German Army had been defeated. Trains full of soldiers were passing through the railway station in Golta. Many of these soldiers were young, but there were quite a few older people, too… Hitler had thrown every last resource into the eastern front.
Barracks went up not far away from our ghetto in Golta. They were surrounded by barbwire.
Who were they for?
Hundreds of Italian soldiers, remnants of the famous Vesuvio division, were stationed over there preceding their repatriation to Italy.
“La Divisione Vesuvio”, encompassing multiple army corps and counting thousands of Italian soldiers, was a gift made by Duke Mussolini to Hitler. Thrown in the first line of combat, at the bend of the Don, “la Divisione Vesuvio” was largely decimated. The few hundred soldiers and officers were the remainders of this proud division.
They used to sneak into our ghetto at nighttime through a whole in the fence. We had no problem understanding their language. They told us stories about Italy, about their families, about the gruesome war they had fought and the atrocities they had witnessed. They brought us bread, cigarettes for the boys, and even chocolate for the children.
Carlo Bottini from Milan was a chubby young fellow, who spoke a little bit of Romanian. He told us about his wonderful experience while he was stationed on Romanian land, near Sighet… “very nice city, had plenty of Judaic friends there”.
Vittorio even had a best buddy… a Jewish guy… “Arnoldo”…
Antonio Renni, a lively freckled lad, would sing for us every evening.
They would give us courage. One night, we heard the sound of cannons. We couldn’t believe our ears. Was the front closing in? The Italians explained to us that in maximum three months, the front would collapse. The Russians now had new American equipment. They were on the move. The Germans and Romanians were harassed by the partisans, who were popping up at every turn, from every forest.
A wave of optimism swept over the men in our group. The women were more skeptical. We knew quite well what the German and Romanian soldiers were capable of doing at the very last moment.
At the end of September, the vice-prefect Aristide Padure showed up in the ghetto.
- Follender, pack your bags. You’re leaving! Not with your family! Just you!
- Mister Vice-Prefect, please don’t separate us. We want to be together. How can I leave them here, alone?
- They’re not alone! There are dozens of your kikes around them… You’re leaving by yourself! Be ready in one hour! A gendarme will pick you up in a cart. These are the Prefect’s orders! You’re leaving for Domanovka. You have to draft papers for the children at the orphanage. Prepare their files, have them centralized… You’re not being much use here, anyway. You’re sick most of the time. At least over there you can do some work. The lists are requested by your Community, by the kikes in Bucharest…
Enough said! Long talk leads to naught…
My dad left for Domanovka within the hour, a village about 80 kilometers away from Golta.
Salo Hoffenberg and his parents had passed through Domanovka before their arrival in the ghetto. They explained to us how the gendarme legions had collected all the orphaned Jewish children from the Golta district, survivors of the massacres from 1942 and 1943. They were stationed in a halfway house, a former school converted into an orphanage. They were living on thin porridge, theft and prostitution.
When my father returned one month later, he spent hours describing the sights he had seen.
January 1942. The caravan was toiling through the snow, winding like a long black snake. It was composed of thousands of Jews from Basarabia and Bucovina, on their deportation journey to Transnistria, the land meant to become their grave.
They were moving slowly, their frozen feet dragging through the snow. They had rags and blankets wrapped around them.
They reached Pervomaisk, also called by the Romanians the “Golta” district. As they made their way through a little forest, an officer – frozen himself – gave the order:
- Up on that hill we break. Shoot anyone lagging behind! There’s no point in taking them all the way to Bogdanovka. Wipe out as many as you can - the snow will cover them up. Anyway, that’s what awaits them out there…
The gendarmes nodded quietly.
Slowly, the caravan continued to advance. Now and then, a wind gust was hitting briskly. People collapsed in the snow. Nobody stopped to help them. Here and there, a woman was screaming. Children were whimpering.
The blizzard picked up and every so often, a wolf howl pierced the air. It sounded like it came from close by. The wolves must have smelled the blood. Hundreds of Jews – frozen, starved and exhausted. Some were dragging a child by the hand; others still struggled to carry their frozen babies in their arms.
Maia and Burschi were crawling along with the others. They tried to stay in the midst of the caravan. That way, they were more protected from the growing blizzard. She was twelve years old; he wasn’t even ten. The parents had been shot, the children left alone. They held each other tight. God forbid, they might lose each other…
Painstakingly, they climbed up the hill. Maia was dragging her little brother by the hand.
- Come on, Burschi! A little bit more, just a little bit more…!
- I don’t want to! I want to sleep. I want to lie down in the snow. What’s going to happen to us up there? Let’s lie down here, Maia…
The little girl obstinately bit her lips. No, she wouldn’t lie down in the snow. Her mother had told her before she died: “Maia, take care of Burschi!”
She couldn’t tell what the future would hold. Perhaps worse, or perhaps better. Perhaps someone will throw them a piece of bread. The other day, a soldier gave them a loaf of rye bread. Black, hard as a rock. But bread, nonetheless. She still carries a piece in her pocket. She will give it to Burschi. Up there, on the hill. Maybe they will let them rest… She doesn’t even remember how long they’ve been walking. They were picked up from home. From their village Cozmeni – “Cotzman”, as her father used to say. Her father had worked for the Russians, at the city hall. When the Romanian troops invaded the village and ordered them to leave for Transnistria, her father was among the first to comply. After talking with old Reb Schulman and his daughter Ernestina - good neighbors whom he trusted – he decided to enroll among the first: “Let’s try to get the better spots out there, in the Ukrainian villages. We’d better leave now – he told her mother. Afterwards, who knows, it may be too late! They may arrest me for being a communist…” 
And so they left. In the beginning they were put on a cart, together with their scanty belongings. The very next day however, they were taken off and forced to walk on foot. She didn’t even know why they were in a different caravan than the others in their village. Reb Schulman, aunt Ernestina, aunt Mina and uncle Haim marched out in a different direction. Her father wanted to be as far as possible from the people in his village. He was afraid one of them might talk. They ended up with the Jews from Basarabia. These spoke some Romanian, but among themselves mostly Russian. All throughout, her mother was silent. Tears quelled up and dried in her eyes. Poor mom... She was so small and frail. Her father was strong. He carried them on his shoulders – now Maia, now her brother… Until a soldier started picking on him. She didn’t know why that was – perhaps just because he was there, in the caravan. Or perhaps it was the leather coat he was wearing. The soldier wanted it. Her father would have given him the coat, but didn’t have a chance to. The soldier took it off him, after firing a single shot. There was no time to mourn him. The soldiers drove them further… Further. They left almost all their luggage behind. Her mother was still carrying a backpack – it got smaller each day. It contained morsels of food, some socks, a shirt… And that was it! The villages they were passing were largely burned down, devoured by fire. No chance for shelter out there. Still further… Mother was cold. Her lips were purple. She was shaking. She was scared and hungry, as were they. And she was grieving for dad.
When did it happen? Yesterday, the day before, last week… They fired at mom, too. Just one shot. She was always lagging behind. Maia and her brother kept dragging her by the hands. She was too weak to walk. Maybe she didn’t even want to. It was snowing. God, how cold it was! As they leaned over mom, she took off her shawl and with one last effort handed it to them. “Here, Maia… Take it, and take care of Burschi!” The soldiers pushed them further, digging the rifles into their shoulders. “Move, do you hear?!… Further… Further…
- Stop! All gather here! … The rifles started spewing fire. People were falling all over, hit by the bullets. There was howling, cursing and yelling. Everyone was trying to run.
Maia threw herself to the ground. Burschi right next to her.
- Don’t move. Just stay there!
Burschi dug his face into Maia’s coat, his eyes wide with terror. For a few moments, the noise carried on. Then silence. Later, half of the caravan headed out to Bogdanovka. The other half stayed behind – down there in the snow.
Maia and Burschi stayed behind as well. But they were alive.
“I’ll let them pass – the little girl thought. I’ll be alone with Burschi. Maybe a peasant will take us in. Maybe he’ll feed us… maybe he’ll let us sleep. In a shed. In a barn. It doesn’t have to be a house… Just a roof, some place where the snow doesn’t blow, where the wind doesn’t howl...”
Maia didn’t realize how much time had passed. It was dusk when she got up from the snow. She started walking, dragging Burschi behind her, almost frozen to death.
Maia was looking for a road, a path. The snow had covered everything.
From afar, she saw a faint light. A village? Maia started walking faster.
- Let’s go, Burschi! Hurry up. We’re not far away from a village. I can see the smoke coming through the chimneys. It means those people have heat. Come on, Burschi. We made it…
Maia paused before entering the village. She wouldn’t knock on a door. She would slip into a barn, together with Burschi. She still had a morsel of bread. If thirsty, they would drink snow.
As they approached the dogs started barking. Stealthily, they sneaked up to a fence. They made their way into the yard, then into the barn. It was empty - no cattle. But there was hay in the barn. Maia pulled Burschi close to her. She covered him up with hay. She covered herself up as well. How good it felt! How warm! … She wasn’t even hungry…
- Look who’s here! A soldier was staring at the two children. - I came to look for hens and eggs… Instead, I find two kids!
Outside, a light snow was falling. Morning had broken and the light filtered in through a crack in the barn door.
- On your feet, let’s go! Straight to Headquarters! You must be run-away kikes from the caravan that passed by here…
Maia brushed the straw off her coat. Burschi was sleeping peacefully.
- Oh, look at this! … The soldier grinned with contentment. Just look at this! … Come closer, baby. What do we have here…? A little woman!
The soldier’s eyes lit up with a familiar flicker, which Maia had seen before under different circumstances. In one brief instant, she relived the scenes she had witnessed during the days and weeks before: Soldiers throwing girls and women to the ground - in the wet grass - to rape them.
In the beginning, Maia didn’t know what was going on. But she quickly realized, as did the other children, that the soldiers were hurting those women. Why were they crying and screaming? Why were they asking for mercy? Mom had been pulling her away each time. So she wouldn’t see. So she wouldn’t hear. But Maia saw. And she heard. Little by little she understood that many of those soldiers were beasts. When they were finished, their victims remained on the ground. Some had passed out; others were dead…
The soldier drew the girl toward him.
With one hand, he pulled off the shawl from her head. Mother’s shawl. The long, golden hair fell over the narrow shoulders. The soldier lifted her face toward him. Two large blue eyes – a little nook of heaven – looked back at him in terror. He started undoing her coat. Maia was sobbing and shaking. Burschi was still sleeping. For an instant, the little girl thought: “God, don’t let Burschi wake up! Don’t let him see me. Don’t let him hear!”
She tried to run. The soldier grabbed her hair, pulling her toward him. Maia heard him panting. She saw his lips half-open. A faint trickle of saliva was running from his mouth. He smelled of garlic and gin. His face was red. He was no longer undoing her dress, he was ripping it off. Savagely, he drew her toward him.
- Stop squirming so badly! You wouldn’t want to run out like this, stark naked in the cold? And God forbid you scream… I’ll strangle you! Do you hear?! … I don’t want the whole regiment on my back.
Maia bit her lips to keep from screaming. She knew that Burschi was sleeping a few feet away. She didn’t want to wake him. “God, let it be over fast – whatever I’m meant to endure! Faster... How bad the soldier smells! What a wet mouth he has, what rough hands! Oh God, make it go by faster! Why am I not passing out, like those women in the field? Pass out and wake up later. Without the soldier… without anything. Just with Burschi here…”
The soldier threw the little girl in the hay and raped her savagely. Finally, Maia passed out.
Burschi had been awake for quite some time now. At first, he wanted to tackle the soldier. He realized, however, that if Maia didn’t shout, he better not move either. Burschi dug his head in the straw. He was crying in sobs. Maia in the hands of a monster, a beast…
The soldier got up, buttoning his trousers. He was satisfied. He felt good. He picked up his hat and rifle from the floor, and walked out of the barn whistling.
Burschi waited a few seconds, then jumped up and darted towards Maia. He picked up her things: the coat, the ravaged dress, the shawl. Maia lied unconscious on the bloodstained straw.
- She’s dead! – the boy panicked. Maia! Maia! … He covered her naked body, brushed the strands of hair from her face and forehead. My Maia! Maia…
Burschi cried over Maia’s body.
After a while, the girl opened her large blue eyes. But she no longer saw the world around her. She no longer understood; no longer wanted to know. She had lost her mind.
Burschi dressed her – clumsily, awkwardly. He went out of the barn to fetch snow. He washed the blood off her thighs, off her abdomen. He put her trousers back on. Suddenly, the ten-year old boy had become a grown man. From then on, Burschi cared for Maia like a grown-up for a helpless child. His large black eyes no longer looked upon the world with wonder or fear. They were the eyes of a grown man, aged by the worries of life. And across Burschi’s forehead, ever since, two deep folds were carved. Where did this child gather the strength to defend himself and the sister who no longer talked? Maia seemed to be transported to a different world. She heard and did mechanically what was asked of her. She no longer smiled; she had no personal reaction whatsoever.
From then on, Burschi wandered with his sister through the woods. He hid with Maia in fountain wells, in hollow tree trunks, in hay barns or abandoned homes… He stole to eat. He dug out potatoes from the field, he boiled corncobs he had found or stolen.
One day, they were caught by soldiers who had been dispatched to collect the children scattered all across the Golta district. Children who – like Maia and Burschi – had been orphaned and now roamed the land.
According to orders from the Golta Headquarters, these children received lodging on the premises of a deserted school, bordering the Domanovka village. At the end of six months, Maia delivered a stillborn child. Burschi nursed her through childbirth. Maia remained just as absent to the world around. Burschi protected her - from everything and everyone. Nobody would ever again touch this little girl with blond hair and blue eyes.
Maia lived in the shadow of Burschi, who in time became the “leader” of the boys in the so-called orphanage.
These were the children whom my father prepared for repatriation. He drafted their documents and files. At the end of 1943 and beginning of 1944, the orphans were brought to Bucharest, together with another few hundreds orphans from other ghettos and concentration camps in Transnistria. In Bucharest they found a hospitable home, organized and managed by Mrs. Mela Iancu and her husband, Dr. Cornel Iancu.
Burschi and Maia were temporarily adopted by a Jewish family living on Mamulari Street. They were then brought to our home for a short two weeks. In May 1944, Maia and Burschi left Romania for Eretz Israel, through the efforts of “Aliat Hanoar” (the organization for repatriation of Jewish youths).
Maia did not recover from her total apathy until Ben Shemen - Israel, during the war of 1948. Today she is married to an Israeli man and mother of two children. Burschi is married as well. He works as an engineer, in one of the large factories at the Dead Sea.
The RT sergeant who brought us the good news was right. With lots of money and high connections our repatriation was obtained. My uncle, captain Paul Constantiu Virtolas, the one who had brought us money and supplies at Alexandrovka on the very last day of our stay there, (husband to my aunt Rachel Chelly Follender, my dad’s younger sister) had graduated in the same promotion as General Piki Vasiliu, who became a minister in Marshall’s Antonescu’s government. At my uncle’s request, the General mediated our repatriation. The bribes required in order to accomplish that rose to about two million lei. The money was paid by several of the deportees’ families. My aunts paid hundreds of thousands of lei…
One morning in October 1943, major Ambrus ordered an assembly in the yard of the ghetto.
For some time now, it had been rumored we would be repatriated. But we never knew where rumor ended and hard fact began. My father was still in Domanovka at the time. Major Ambrus addressed us:
- In accordance with Marshall Antonescu’s orders, all those deported from Bucharest for disciplinary labor will be repatriated. Mr. Crestinu will draft your travel forms, as well as the travel forms for the guys in the work camp. The ones who can afford to pay for their tickets may travel by express train. The rest will be traveling by regular passenger train.
Legally, no one was allowed to own money. However, during the last few months of our deportation, countless couriers – be it soldiers or employees of the Romanian government in Transnistria - had been bringing us letters and money sent by our families from inside the country. Most of us possessed Romanian lei or German occupation marks - the official currency in Transnistria.
As for our family, we received a letter from within Transnistria. It was sent by my mother’s sister Maruschka, from Moghilev - a village at the southern tip of the Ukraine, not far away from the Dniester.
She had obtained our address from my mother’s youngest sister, Roza Luwisch, who was in Bucharest with the rest of the family.
My mother opened the envelope with excitement. She hadn’t heard any news from her family in Cernauti since the time we were deported. As long as we had lived in Bucharest, my mother used to send packages for them to Moghilev, containing medication and money. Her family in Cernauti had been deported to Transnistria, including my grandfather Herman Schulman and my grandmother Elsa, the second-eldest sister Maruschka and her husband Ladislau Herzl (a grandson of Teodor Herzl), and my grandfather’s brother Max with his entire family (three children and wife). My great-grandfather and Ernestina Lehr, my grandfather’s sister, were deported from Cozmeni, a village not far away from Cernauti.
When the Romanian troops entered Cernauti, they ordered all the Jewish inhabitants to gather in the central city-plaza, in order to be evacuated from the city. My grandfather, a wealthy man, could have “bought” his family’s freedom, but was afraid that the Romanian Government would track down and execute his son-in-law Ladislau Herzl, who during the Russian occupation had worked as a counselor in the local soviet. Thus, my grandfather decided the entire family would be leaving on the deportation trail. And that’s how they got to Moghilev.
Heavy tears started rolling down my mother’s cheeks. I watched her in silence. I realized the letter from Moghilev was bringing nothing good.
The open envelope and the letter were lying on the table. My mother was crying in sobs. I stroked her hair, her face… I was crying with her. I couldn’t say how, but I felt her pain; my heart was aching for her.
- Omama and Opapa are gone… my mother finally said, her voice choking with pain. Dad died of typhus… One month after his death, mom passed as well… She couldn’t survive the pain of having lost her spouse… Maruschka and Lotzi recovered. They had typhus, too. But they survived. Maruschka is writing to let me know that our parents are gone. Uncle Max died, too… and cousin Coca, and Geagiu (your great-grandfather), and aunt Ernestina… They’re all dead, from hunger, cold and disease…
It was just in the evening that I read my aunt’s letter. It was soaked in tears: her tears, my mother’s tears…
During the next ten days, the 254 Jewish deportees from Bucharest (that’s what remained from the 284 who had left Bucharest 13 months ago) were repatriated.
We stayed behind in the ghetto with Iulek, Heinz, Gheza, Doliu, the Hoffenbergs and the Krammers. My father had been delayed in Domanovka. For days in a row we kept pleading with the Command Station. I passed countless times by the interrogation room of Squadron Leader Popescu. I was trying to speed up my father’s return to Golta, so we could be repatriated as well. When my father returned almost one month later, around the end of November, all three of us boarded the train. We were leaving! We were going home!
The train was racing along. We were looking outside through the window. None of us said a word. Each railroad station reminded us of our journey in the freight cars. Memories… Wounds barely healed, unforgettable wounds… I wanted to cry. I wanted to put my head on my mother’s shoulder and cry. A tremendous pain overwhelmed me. My eyes were foggy with tears. Nelu Goldenberg, Sarale, Esther’s little boy, Mr. Maidenberg, Alpern - the mother and son… they would never come back.
Omama and Opapa, my beloved grandparents, my beautiful cousin Coca, her father, the lively uncle Max Schulman, Geagiu, aunt Ernestina… I’ll never see them again…
What was left behind were the smoking ditches, the trenches filled with corpses, washed out by the rains, the puffy bodies drifting down the waters of the Bug, the mounds of earth that moved…
Home…! Fourteen months ago I left as a little girl - fourteen years and two months old. A little girl… I returned as a tired, mature adult… fifteen and a half years old.
A year… A long year that passed, but would stay alive in our memories, perhaps for the rest of our lives. I looked outside through the window. I listened to the sound of the wheels racing over the rail tracks. In their rhythmic motion, they seemed to be saying to me: do not forget… do not forget… do not forget…
I received a call from Tamara Haichin. The first phone call since I returned home…. I found it strange that I still knew how to talk on the phone.