Who has heard of Transnistria? Perhaps one out of 50, and maybe not even that many. When Jews say Kaddish and shed tears at Holocaust memorial services, many extermination camps are called out by name. But the name of Transnistria rarely if ever is called.
Transnistria is located in Ukraine between the rivers Dniester and Bug. It was to Transnistria that the Germans, together with the Romanians, sent the Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina. Even during the period when the Germans were sending all other Jews to Auschwitz, the Jews from Bukovina and Bessarabia were sent to Transnistria. Hundreds of Hungarian Jews who had been assigned to forced labor brigades were also sent to Transnistria.
Jews were not gassed or cremated in Transnistria. No; in Transnistria Jews perished from hunger, cold, and typhus. The Bible says in Lamentations: “It was better for those who perished by sword than those who perished from hunger.”
In Transnistria one wished for an easier death by sword. But the rulers of the camp desired the Jews to expire in pain, swollen from hunger; to die from spotted typhus and stomach typhus and release their souls from frozen corpses.
The deportation of the Jews to Transnistria was actually a culmination of a series of misfortunes that descended upon Romanian Jewry. In 1937 the notorious government of Kuza-Goga came to power. More than half the Jewish population in Romania lost their citizenship at that time. The government confiscated Jewish businesses and dismissed Jews from their positions and cultural institutions.
The Kuza-Goga government did not last long, but it set the tone for anti-Semitic outbreaks in the following five years that almost destroyed the third-largest Jewish population center in Europe.
In 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement separated Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia from Romania and gave those areas to Russia. Under the Russians the Jews did not have an easy time. As soon as the Russians took control they nationalized all factories and businesses, a move that affected mainly Jews because most of the industry and business was centered in Jewish hands.
Whoever was at all wealthy or exhibited some love for Jerusalem and Zion became a candidate for deportation in the middle of the night to Siberia. Thousands of people were forcibly deported to Siberia, among them about 4,000 Jews. It was a given that a school or yeshiva was immediately shut down by the Russians. A rabbi had to learn secretly with his students in his home.
In our town of Kotzman, as in all the cities and towns of Bukovina, there were rumblings of panic. People did not know when their turn would come. We did not sleep. We stood near the window and looked out with beating hearts to see if the carriage driven by a commanding officer would stop by our house.
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When the Germans together with their Romanian followers invaded Russia in June 1941, a rumor was spread that Jews from the city of Yas were hiding Russian spies and shooting at Romanian soldiers. This libel caused a wild and raging mob to swarm over the streets of Yas, beating and killing Jews. More than 10,000 Jews lost their lives in this pogrom.
Yas was not the only city in which Jewish blood ran like water. On July 17, 1941, German and Romanian soldiers in Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia, slaughtered more than 10,000 Jews – men, women, and children. Similar actions were carried out on the Province, where thousands perished. This was only a prologue to the mass deportation to Transnistria that began during Sukkos 1941 and lasted until January 1942.
In Czernowitz, the capital of Bukovina, the Romanians treated the Jews with great cruelty. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Jews lost their lives in the first 24 hours following the German and Romanian invasion. Among those killed was the chief rabbi of Bukovina, Rabbi Abraham Mark. On July 6 and 7, 1941, Romanian soldiers killed 2,000 Jews on the banks of the River Prut. The Jews were forced to dig their own graves before being shot.
The first action the SS undertook when they came into our town was to drag out ten Jews from their homes and shoot them. Our rabbi, Rav Asher Rubin (may God avenge his blood) was among that group. He was a brother of the Kimpelunger Rav, who settled in New York after the war.
All Jews had to wear the yellow star, even children. Many rumors sprouted about what would happen to us.
Some of the rumors seemed to gain credibility when the soldiers began to seize Jewish men and women from the surrounding villages and force them to sweep the streets of our town. How foolish and naive we were. We could see with our own eyes Jewish people degraded, insulted, and treated shamefully. It broke one’s heart to witness it. But we said: They don’t mean us, they mean “the other Jews.”
The same thing happened when residents of a neighboring village sawed a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in half while he was still alive. “They don’t mean us,” we told ourselves.
One day in 1939, after the Germans invaded Poland, three Jews – two adults and a young boy – arrived in our town. They told us they had resided in Vasilov, Poland, which was near the Romanian border. When the Germans came into Poland, they drove the Jews from their town into the river that divided Poland and Romania until all were drowned. These three Jews were able to save themselves when they swam across to the Romanian side.
You think this horrendous story made an impression on us? God have mercy on us, but those three Jews were accused of fabricating stories.
Imagine: Jews arrive bereft of everything and swearing that they are like cinder saved from an inferno, and we did not want to believe them.
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We endured the exile in Transnistria for two and a half years. I will never forget that Saturday when the Romanian soldiers entered our town and commanded us to quickly pack only those things we could carry and to leave our homes.
When my father (of blessed memory) declared to the officer in charge that we were citizens of Czechoslovakia and the soldiers had no right to evacuate us, the officer replied, “But you are a Jew.”
The soldiers immediately surrounded all the Jewish homes, and one could not exit or enter. We managed to bribe a soldier with a few shirts to allow us to go out to the woodshed where we had hidden jewelry belonging to my mother (of blessed memory). It later turned out that my mother’s jewelry would be the difference between life and death in the camp.
All the Jews in the town were brought by soldiers to a central point from which we were transported to the main train station. We were packed like sardines in freight cars. Where we were going, no one knew. Not knowing what would happen to us was even worse than knowing.
The first victim from among us was our neighbor Gitshe Geller, a widow. She died on the train and they left her in a station outside without burying her, without anything. For us this was the first sign of what was to come.
After a journey of three days, we came to Ataki (Otik) near the Romanian-Russian border. One could hear screams of people who had become separated from their families in the great commotion, and from people whose fathers and mothers were in the throes of death or had already perished before their eyes.
The town of Ataki looked like a battlefield – houses destroyed, walls full of blood. One could read inscriptions in Yiddish in the cellars of the houses. Inscriptions such as “Dear Jews, say Kaddish after our souls which perished al Kiddush Hashem” (for the sanctification of God`s name); and “In this place my wife and my children were killed in front of my eyes.”
On the feast day of Simchas Torah we were transported by boat to Mogilev (Mohilev), Transnistria.
We arrived in Mogilev at night. People were packed tightly one against the other, carrying small children in their arms, burdened with packages. The Ukrainians and the German soldiers indicated that they wanted to help us with the packages. However, they disappeared with them. The true importance of these packages in Transnistria – where it was possible to trade a pair of pants for a bag of potatoes, thereby sustaining a family – was not known to us until much later.
Mogilev had just suffered a flood. We sank knee-deep in mud; houses were utterly destroyed. All the Jews from our transport were led to abandoned Russian barracks without windows or doors. At night, a cold wind blew from all sides and it rained into the barracks.
We put down on our packages and waited for daylight to come. There were no sanitary facilities. We had to, with all due respect, take care of our physical needs in the corridors, men together with women, somehow overcoming our shame. Human understanding cannot appreciate the horror, the shock, of that night.
From Mogilev, the Jews were driven on foot over the Shargoroder mountains toward the surrounding villages where they were abandoned completely, without supervision, without food or drink. They were put in pigpens under indescribable conditions. Unfortunately, it was there that many of them breathed their last, as they were not able to keep up with the transport.
Those of us who were able to bribe the Romanian gendarmes remained in Mogilev, where conditions were somewhat better. Our family remained in Mogilev in the merit of a chesed shel emet (selfless deed of kindness) my two brothers, Ben Tzion and Urie (of blessed memory), were able to perform.
This is what happened: While we were waiting for our fate to be decided, an officer appeared and selected a few young Jews to be taken away. My brothers were among those selected. No one knew where they were being taken. One could only imagine what this might mean. We assumed the worst. We were sure we would never see them again. The families of those who were taken were allowed to remain, for the time being, in Mogilev.
When my brothers came back at night, we learned they’d been taken to bury the Jews who had not withstood the marches in the transport. The first few who had perished had been buried in separate graves. But as the transport continued, more and more Jews perished and were buried in a mass grave.
To bury a Jew in accordance with Jewish law is a great mitzvah, and my brothers believed that in the merit of this mitzvah we were spared deportation from Mogilev.
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As previously stated, in Transnistria Jews were not gassed or cremated. In Babi Yar the Jews were shot. In Auschwitz they were gassed. But in Transnistria they were tortured to death. The beasts in human form took a few hundred thousand Jews, drove them out of their homes, packed them into dirty freight cars, and exiled them to Ukraine, locking them in ghettos and abandoning them.
Abandonment meant no food, no drink, no roof over one’s head, not even the most elementary medical help. The cold Russian winter, the hunger, the typhus – these brought about a more cruel death than the bullets in Babi Yar and the gas at Auschwitz.
In Transnistria we lived on the few things we were able to bring from home. When the supply of household goods and clothing was exhausted, we traded jewelry for food. We gave away my mother’s baubles, her Persian fur coat, and other valuables for a little food.
When there was nothing left to trade, our true suffering began. People walked the streets half naked, rummaging in garbage cans for potato peels or any other throwaways in order to live on for another day. People dropped like flies in the street. I remember that the Mogilev Chevra Kadisha (burial society) rode around in a wagon and gathered dead Jews from the houses or wherever else they found them. It was impossible to bury the dead because the earth was frozen, so they were left in the yard of the cemetery.
The fate of the local Russian Jews was even worse than ours. The German Einsatzgruppen and the Sonderkommandos had, in 1941, immediately annihilated them without mercy. According to the statistics, only 20,000 Jews survived out of a previous population of 330,000, and those who remained had to undergo a second exile together with those of us who had been deported from Bessarabia and Bukovina. And now, from those 20,000, there remained but 6,000.
According to Avigdor Shochan, author of the book Burning Ice: The Ghettos of Transnistria, more than half a million Jews perished in Transnistria.
Shochan describes the near totality of the destruction of Bessarabian and native-born Russian Jews. Of 300,000 Bessarabian Jews, just 10,000 remained alive. In other words, 97 percent of the Bessarabian Jewish population was annihilated. Of the 330,000 native-born Russian Jews, only 6,000 remained alive. This means nearly 99 percent of the native-born Jews perished in Transnistria.
The numbers scream the anguish of these poor souls to the heavens. May God avenge their deaths.