My late father was a special man – scholarly, pious, wise. A man whose eyes spoke of understandings unfathomable to me when I was young and whose strength and full impressiveness only come into clearest focus as I myself have gotten older.
Parents are always something of a mystery to their children. Those parents who lived during the horrors of the Shoah often remained a particularly unknowable mystery to their children, as if the pain of that time rendered parts of them unreachable. It wasn’t until a few short months before my father passed away that I began to truly unlock that awful part of his life.
As I was going through his briefcase where he kept his most important and closely held papers, I found a document written in Romanian, a language I knew to be part of my family history but which I could neither read nor understand.
I turned to my sister, Miriam, for help. Miriam, ten years my senior, had been born in Iasi. Romanian had been her first language.
When I handed the document to her, she studied it closely. Her expression began to change. Her hand began to tremble. She dropped the document to the floor as her face became a mask of grief and tears sprang to her eyes.
“Miriam, what is it?” I asked, troubled by her reaction.
It was several minutes before she could speak. “Now I understand,” she whispered, bending down and picking up the document I had given her. “Now I understand everything “
My sister had suffered throughout her life, tormented by unimaginable nightmares that robbed her of sleep and sanctuary. The document I had given her described her nightmares perfectly – skeletons tossed haphazardly to the side of the road, bodies hanging from lampposts, Jews driven to their knees, shamed in the public square.
The document recorded the testimony of a survivor of the Iasi pogrom.
It was not the fantasy of a nightmare she read in that document. It was cold, harsh truth.
Miriam had been just three years old when the pogrom occurred but the images the witness documented had been seared into her young imagination, returning in nightmares to torment her anew throughout her life.
The “nightmare” had been real.
* * *
Iasi was not the first, nor the last, of the pogroms visited upon Jewish communities throughout Europe during those horrible years. But Iasi was the community where my father was chief rabbi. Iasi was his community and the community that, after three days of terror during which he was shot in the leg, called on him for leadership as never before.
The Jews had been in Iasi for over four hundred years in June of 1941. Established in the sixteenth century, the community was highly developed religiously and culturally, as comfortable with its chassidism and its Zionism as it was with its Yiddish theater.
Between 1930 and 1940, the Jewish population grew from approximately 30,000 to over 50,000. On the one hand, it was a perfect, inviting Jewish community. On the other, Iasi was anything but inviting. It was known for its virulent anti-Semitism. Romanian fascists and anti-Semitic students had visited pogroms on the Jewish community in 1899 and 1923.
The Romanian government never honored its obligation of the 1919 Versailles Conference to grant Jews citizenship. Jews were never safe there. But for all the pain and hardship the community had endured, nothing prepared it for what was to come on June 28, 1941. It was then, as the Axis prepared for war against the Soviets, that the horror began.
There had been rumors circulating for days, weeks, and months. False rumors promulgated by the authorities, lies that sought to deflect blame from the authorities and place it on the Jews for the difficulties of the war. Outlandish lies so preposterous as to be unimaginable. Lies that accused Jews of helping the Soviets in their bombardment of the city. Lies accepted and embraced in the non-Jewish community.
Like the electricity in a perfectly blue sky when a thunderstorm approaches, there was no doubt what was coming. Non-Jews protected themselves from the inevitable violence by displaying signs on their homes reading, “Here live Christians, NOT Jydani!”
It was coming. It seemed that all Iasi held its breath, awaiting its arrival. And arrive it did. With a vengeance.