Transnistrian Jews

Book Excerpt:


 More than a dozen tributaries nourish the Dniester River, which flows south through a valley along Romania’s eastern border. Between the Dniester and the Bug River to the east, the land was called Transnistria or, sometimes, Trans-Dniester. Transnistria was an area of fifteen thousand square miles carved out of the Nazi-occupied Ukraine, a geographic enclave that could not be found on any map. Along with other Soviet territory, Transnistria was a gift of Nazi Ger­many to its ally, the Romanian government of Marshal Ion Antonescu. “When it’s a question of action against the Slavs, you can always count on Romania,” Antonescu told the Nazis in 1941 when informed of the soon-to-be-launchedGerman invasion of the Soviet Union.

Few native Jews remained in Transnistria after the invasion; most had either fled or been killed by the Einsatzgruppen. The units put their education and skills to efficient, lethal use (in one, half of the leaders had a doctor of laws degree). One unit developed a technique called Sardinenpackung, in which the “victims to be” were placed “face down on top of those who had just been executed.”

Antonescu ordered the deportation of Romanian Jews from the border prov­inces of Bukovina and Bessarabia into what would become, geographically at least, the largest concentration camp in the world. He would thereby demonstrate

that Romanians could be as bestial toward Jews as Germans, even though Roma­nia lacked the modern infrastructure necessary for industrial genocide.

“As regards the Jews,” Antonescu told officials of his government, “I have taken measures to remove them entirely once and for all from these regions. If I do not purify the Romanian nation, then I have achieved nothing, for it is not frontiers that consolidate a nation, but the homogeneity and purity of its race.”1

To the water tributaries of the Dniester Antonescu added dozens of human ones, marching columns of stunned Jewish men, women, and children who had been forced out of their homes by the Romanian army and police. The columns were far thinner as they neared the Dniester than when they had left their various villages, towns, and cities inside Romania.2

This was a death march. In one town on the Dniester, devastated by battle, the exhausted Jews were ordered to enter the bombed-out buildings and sleep there before resuming the march in the morning. One group entered a synagogue with a red-tiled roof that somehow had managed to survive largely intact. By candle­light, the new arrivals read Hebrew messages written in blood on the synagogue’s walls by those who had come before. “Here they slaughtered my wife and children, before my eyes . . . very soon I will lie beside them.” “Here we were killed! No one has remained alive of our family.” The arrivals stood silently for a long time, staring at the messages.3

This column of Jews was ordered to wait on the riverbank of the Dniester, where they remained for the next day and watched as bodies floated by. They were then ordered to camp for the night. After dark, a terrible rumor swept through the camp: “They are demanding ten women.” It was no rumor. Soon shouts were heard throughout the camp as Romanian soldiers dashed here and there pulling off blankets. Screaming or pleading, regardless, women were dragged away. A young man clung to his fiancée while an officer beat him with a pistol butt. Bleed­ing badly, the young man refused to let go, and as the young woman was dragged away, he was dragged along with her, leaving a trail of blood on the frozen ground. Finally, he could hold on no longer and let go. The camp fell silent.

Later that night the woman returned, her clothes torn. She lay down next to her betrothed, still lying where he had lost his grip, and wrapped her arms around him, softly moaning as the two of them huddled under a coat. At dawn, the Romanian soldiers woke the encampment. These Jews would be allowed to cross the river into Transnistria.The couple did not get up. A soldier beat them with his rifle butt, but they still refused to move. Finally, he lifted the coat and found them in a fierce embrace. Blood soaked their clothes. Their slit wrists eloquently testified to a love that now would last for eternity.4

As one marching column reached the Dniester, the Romanians issued orders to open fire on the marchers. But during the march, Moishe Katz, a natural leader, had made friends with the Romanian commanders. At the last minute, one of them offered Katz a deal: for enough money, the Jews could cross the Dniester and live. Katz collected money from the other Jews and handed it over. As the column began crossing the bridge, the commander ordered machine-gun squads to open fire. Katz was the first to be cut down, and like the rest soon to follow him, he fell into the river and floated south toward the Black Sea. The human and water tributaries of the Dniester had become one.

A human stream flowed through the city of Czernowitz, the predominantly German-speaking capital of Bukovina province that lay at the folds of the Car­pathian Mountains. In the stream, which was not of sufficient size to be a tribu­tary, was Katz’s eleven-year-old niece, Ruth Glasberg. Had she known what would befall her uncle, it would scarcely have added to her state of shock. That had been her condition since Romanian soldiers, pounding on the door of her fam­ily’s apartment, ordered the family into the street, where they joined a marching column.

For a lucky few who could pay the driver, horse-drawn carts carried their luggage. Otherwise, men pushed wheelbarrows with family heirlooms concealed in bedding. Women carried crying babies. The elderly bent under the weight of heavy sacks and bundles. Children supported the sick.

Ruth was fortunate. She rode on top of a luggage cart in a stream of two thou­sand bewildered Jews, some wailing, others chanting, “Shemah Israel ” (Hear, O Israel), still others morose, and most in a state of near panic. The Jews were marched to a railroad, where thirty cattle cars awaited them.

Ruth, a golden-haired girl with two braids and bright blue eyes, loved train trips as much as any child. Trains were, for most children, a magic carpet—an effortless journey spent staring out a window at the wondrous landscape. For many years, Ruth thought the train was stationary and it was the scenery that moved alongside. How fast the trees rush by!

Now, as the train jerked forward with the shrill scream of iron on iron and then picked up speed, Ruth found herself taking a train trip into a world of pain,

madness, and death where no child should ever go. Her train car had only one small vent for air. In the daytime, some light penetrated. At night, the Jews of Czernowitz stood or, in the case of the lucky ones, sat on the floor, in the pitch black, their senses overwhelmed by the smell of feces and urine and the moans and cries of the weak, exhausted, or near mad.

Ruth, like many children on the train and in the marching columns—indeed, throughout all the lands occupied by the Nazis and their allies—began a personal dialogue with God. Why the children? Why us? Why me?

God did not respond because He did not know the answer.

What will happen to us? Where are they taking us? How will we live?

God did not respond because the answers to these questions He knew all too well.5



For more information about Ruth Glasberg Gold:

Read Ruth’s Journey: A Survivor’s Memoir