THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY
The ERC Lecture Series
Good morning, everybody.
I have written a book about my life in that city during that time period, and it's available after the presentation...But right now, I'm going to talk a little bit about the city, and life in that city from a Jewish perspective. The city of Czernowitz is about six hundred years old, a fairly old city, and during those years it has seen a lot of drastic changes in the life of its inhabitants. It has seen many masters, many rulers, just within the twentieth century. So, within the last hundred years or so, the city had half a dozen masters.
So as you see, within about eighty years, the city had about a half a dozen times a change of rulers. And each of these changes produced some oddities. For instance, I was born in that city. My mother was born in that city. One of my nephews was born in that city, but each of us was born in a different country. My mother was born in Austria, I was born in Romania, and my nephew was born in the Soviet Union. These things didn't happen on this side of the Atlantic Ocean very often, but in Europe, borders and masters changed quite often throughout its history. Of course when these masters, these rulers, changed, that meant drastic changes for the inhabitants of the city. The official language changed, the bureaucracy changed, the money changed, the school system changed, very often the economic system changed, and it changed drastically. So this meant that for the inhabitants of the city, such a change in rulers created a very drastic change in their life. And they had to adjust quickly if they wanted to survive the new conditions of living under a new ruler, which were not always democratic, and not always kind to the local population. So there was never a boring moment for the inhabitants of our city throughout the twentieth century, especially after World War I.
The Jewish community of our
city was a fairly large community. The city in the 1930s had
approximately 100,000-120,000 people, and about a half of that
population was Jewish. The other half was a mixture of ethnic
groups. Some were Ukrainians, Romanians, Poles, Hungarians, some Germans,
and some other minorities. There was not always a pleasant
relationship between the different ethnic groups. But still, until the
threat of fascism and the influence of Hitler's Germany started to affect
most of the European rulers, people got along fairly well with each other,
in spite of the prejudice that existed from one ethnic group to
There was a Jewish community
of, as I've said, of about 50-60,000 people, and that Jewish community
city in the 1920s, and through the early and mid 1930s, had a very
active cultural life. This was a characteristic of many Jews, mostly
middle-class Jews in the city, but also many working-class Jews, their considerable
interest in culture. People used to show an avid thirst for reading
books--there was no television in those days. Many didn't even have
radios. So people read books. Now most of the people read these books
and talked to each other in German, because the German influence, going
back to the Austrian rule--even under the Romanians--was still very
strong. So in a sense, in my case at least, my parents spoke German at
because when they grew up, they went to school under the Austrians and spoke
German. Of course then they spoke German to us children. Although my sister and I were born in Romania, we spoke
German at home. So our first language was German. When I talked to
my grandparents, they spoke Yiddish, so this was the second language that
I learned. I grew up in Romania, but I didn't have the
foggiest idea about the Romanian language until I entered grammar
school, which was a public school. It was only then, at that point, that I had
to learn the language of the country.
As I've said, the Jewish community of our city had a very active, cultural life. There was a Yiddish theatre which was always filled to capacity. Middle-class and working-class Jews went to see the plays at the Yiddish theatre. We had a very good team of actors and directors in that theatre, and very often we also had visitors of Yiddish theatre troupes come. There were ensembles that came from other cities on a regular basis. For instance, we had the Vilna theatre group come to Czernowitz and perform. The Vilna Troupe, as you may know, was one of the finest theatre ensembles in Europe before World War II. We had literary evenings that were very well attended, where literature was recited in both Yiddish and in German. During these Yiddish literary evenings, there was always a full house. It occurred in a place called Toynbeehalle, a big auditorium which would fill with people--Jews, of course--where Jewish writers and poets would present their work. For instance, we had Eliezer Steinbarg, a fable writer who became famous in the Yiddish world, who was also a native of Czernowitz, present to us his latest fables in Yiddish...His works were published in Yiddish and were illustrated also by a Czernowitz painter Arthur Kolnik. And people loved these fables. I don't know if you've had a chance to read them, but they are beautiful. We also had poets like Itzik Manger, who presented his poems in Yiddish, at these evenings. And we had musical evenings and performances, organized again mostly by Jews for Jews.
There was a psychiatrist in our city, a Doctor Ramler, who was a strong supporter of the arts. He organized weekly musical performances in his apartment. People, for instance a quartet, would perform mostly classical music there. This was really a form of culture which--I don't know if it existed then in many other places, in other cities. But it existed in our city, Czernowitz.
It's where a number of
newspapers were published, in German and in Yiddish. As I've said,
German was still the prevailing language in the city because of the
Austrian influence. But there was also a
significant segment of the Jewish population that spoke Yiddish and was
interested in Yiddish culture and art. We had newspapers like the "Morgenblatt"
German, the "Allgemeine Zeitung",and the "Tog." They had
Jewish publishers, but the newspapers were published in German. They also had
Yiddish newspapers, like the "Dos Naye Leben," "Oyfboy," the
"Yiddische Folksblatt," which were read quite extensively by the Jewish population because many
Jews who spoke German could also read and speak Yiddish.
That sounds funny
today, but this was very customary in the years before World War
II. I'm not talking about Jews. I'm talking in general about other Europeans,
especially German and Austrian students. So if a student got a cut on his face from a saber,
he became a hero among the rest, and the girls admired these students. They didn't have too many duels, but still, they carried the
decorative saber, and Jewish students sang student songs in Latin, e.g. "Gaudeamus
igitur". Some of you may know it, and they also sang Yiddish and German
student songs. So there was very lively activity, both cultural and
political activity within the different major Jewish
groups of students.
There was also a significant
sports organization. Maccabi was a large Jewish sports organization,
and they had their own sports arena in Czernowitz--in German we called it Makkabiplatz,
where they practiced and participated in competition with each other.
And there was also another sports organization Hakoah, but Maccabi, from
what I know, was the larger one. Maccabi groups existed throughout the whole
country, and they participated sometimes in national competitions. Sometime in the mid-thirties a Czernowitz member of Maccabi
who ran in track and field competitions, won first place in the one
hundred meter sprint. At the ceremony at the end, King Carol II handed him the prize in person,
the first prize for winning the competition. So
Maccabi was quite active and was quite successful in different sport
competitions. As you can see, there was
quite a lot of activity in the city in diverse areas of cultural and
But things changed unexpectedly in 1940. In the summer of 1940, the Soviet government gave an ultimatum to the Romanian government, telling them quite clearly, "we want back the province of Bessarabia," which is a province in the eastern part of Romania. It used to belong to Czarist Russia before the First World War, but was taken over by the Romanians after the First World War. So the Russians, the Soviets, wanted it back. And they also wanted the northern part of Bukowina, including our city Czernowitz, because they said the majority of the population is Ukrainian, and therefore that area should belong to the Ukrainian-Soviet Republic, in other words, the Soviet Union. The Romanian government didn't have much of a choice. When a small country gets an ultimatum from the Soviet Union, they have no choice but to comply. So in three days they had to clear out from these regions, from northern Bukowina including Czernowitz, and from Bessarabia. And the military, the Romanian bureaucracy, and many of the Romanian civilians had to leave in a great hurry. And then the Soviets took over.
It is interesting how the Soviets came in at that time, with their troops and....but I'm not going to go into these details now. The Soviets took over the city and immediately put in a Soviet administration. And the Soviet administration didn't waste time. The first thing they did was to nationalize all the businesses, without compensation of course. So everything was taken over by the state, except very small businesses, like a tailor shop. Little stores with one employee, you could keep it.
They tried to create spread an atmosphere of happiness within the population, to convince them how great, how cheerful, life was in the Soviet Union. So they brought in a lot of ensembles of dance and of music that performed for free in open air, in open squares, for the population. I saw more art performances in the first week of Soviet occupation that I have seen in half my life. Everything was free. Hey, life was just great! How terrific, they had movies on screens mounted in the open squares. Well, I didn't understand much of the Russian movies, of course, because I didn't know Russian. But it was still nice to see them for free. And this is the way it was then. They brought dance ensembles from Kiev, from Moscow, to perform for free. However, through that fog of propaganda suddenly cut through a grim reality. The reality was that, in a very brief time, after they occupied the area, everything that was available in the stores disappeared. Despite the propaganda that said that everything was available in abundance in the Soviet Union, the Russians and Ukrainians who came from the Soviet Union bought everything they could find in the stores. Anything they could find to buy, they bought, this showed us that everything is not that easily available in the Soviet Union. And indeed, the shelves soon became empty because the storeowners--the small storeowners--couldn't replace the merchandise. They had no source of replacement. And then they started to bring in Soviet-made merchandise which was of a horrible quality compared to the quality of what we had previously in our stores. So life was not easy, because everything, regardless of how poor the quality of these things were, were never in sufficient supply. And to buy them, you had to stay in line. So this became a part of daily life. "Stoyte v ocheredi !" "Stay in line!" These were the first Russian words I learned. "Stoyte v ocheredi!" "Stay in line!" From bread to pencils, you had to stay in line if you wanted to buy it. So life was not very cheerful after nationalization, because of the disappearance of whatever we needed of the daily necessities.
THE SOVIET SCHOOL SYSTEM
Since they got local teachers to teach us, we got along very well with them. And this was very positive, and I would say even a pleasant, experience, from the Soviets for us children. As I've said, for the adults who had to stay in line to buy food or a pair of socks, it was not a very pleasant experience. For us the children, especially Jewish children, we were no longer harassed as we were harassed in the Romanian schools.
In the Romanian school, when I went to learn in the elementary school, I was often beaten up by my other "colleagues," by other children, not Jewish children, because that was 'normal.' You know, if you saw a Jewish boy, you beat him up. And the teacher didn't care. Sometimes when I went to the first year of liceum--which was like middle school here--there was a teacher who used derogatory remarks. More than once he called me "pui de jidan," which means in English, "you little kike"--in a classroom, in the presence of all the other children. You can imagine the effect it had on non-Jewish children. Of course, they would always burst into laughter, and during the breaks, it was a good occasion for them to beat up Jewish children. This disappeared under the Soviets. There was no more harassment of Jewish children. And so, from that point of view, it was a serious improvement for us.
THE GERMAN INVASION
The following days and nights were times of total chaos. We had daily and nightly air raids. The German planes bombed our city, primarily the railroad stations and the airport area. But very often, even if they didn't bomb the city, the German planes flew over our city, deep into the Soviet Union to bomb different targets in that area. And so we had constant air raid alarms which disrupted our sleep. Sleeping in a normal manner was out of the question. And the nerves of the people of Czernowitz were very tense. And during the day, there was total chaos in the city because everybody tried to buy whatever was available. They knew there was a serious shortage under the Soviets in peaceful times; they knew war meant a lot more shortages. So they bought whatever they could find--food, petrol, clothing, shoes, matches, candles, pots, pans, whatever was available, because everything that was still available would disappear very soon, and everything did disappear.
In the meantime, trucks with Soviet soldiers raced through the city in the direction of the border, south. This was the Romanian border, because fascist Romania at that time had joined forces with Nazi Germany in its war against the Soviet Union. This went on for about ten days, and then I noticed that the trucks with troops had started to reverse directions. They started to go in the opposite direction, away from the front. And then we realized the Soviet's retreat had started. And indeed, the Soviet civilians who were in the city, packed quickly and were shipped out as soon as they could by the Soviet government, in trucks or in trains that were put at their disposal.
The Germans and Romanians then entered our city. The first day of the German and Romanian takeover saw terrible atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish population by both the Romanians and the Germans--primarily by the SS units. As we learned later, these units were part of an Einsatzgruppe. Einsatzgruppen were special SS units set up by Himmler, the head of the SS, whose task was very simple: to round up and murder the Jews in the occupied Soviet Russian area.
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE GREAT TEMPLE
This was the first day that they came in. Other SS troops didn't sit idle. They went with local informers--and unfortunately there were plenty of informers that were eager to point out to the German and Romanian troops where Jewish families lived. The Germans went to a section of the city, took out all the Jewish men from that section, formed them into a column, and marched them to a field outside the city, in a suburb called Bila. They gave them shovels, ordered them to dig a big ditch, and when the ditch was completed, lined them up along the ditch and machine-gunned them to death. They brought in another group of Jewish men to bury the dead and ordered them on penalty of death, not to talk to anybody about what happened. But, of course, later on we found out what happened in that field. The next day, the Germans continued this kind of operation in a different form. I cannot go into details--it's described in the book--and again, several hundred Jewish men, taken from another section of the city, were murdered. This went on for several days in a row.
The Romanian troops, in the meantime, didn't sit idle either. But they did the killings in a less organized way. The Germans did their mass murdering in a very thorough, organized manner. They would go to a section of the city, bring out all the men, put them in a column, take them to a field, give them shovels to dig a ditch, and machine-gun them. None of them escaped this way. The Romanians did it chaotically. They went from house to house, in different places of the city, led my informers, and wherever there was a Jewish family, the men were murdered right away on the spot. If there were young Jewish women, they were raped. The soldiers robbed whatever they could find of a certain value in these apartments, and then moved on to the next building and apartment. This went on for several days in a row.
But the worse was to
come. In October of that year, the military commander called the leaders
of the Jewish community to his office early in the morning. He was
brief. He said, "Tell your people to take whatever they can carry in
their hands and move to the Jewish quarter of the city." This was a
certain, small section of the city which was called the "Jewish Quarter."
"That area," he said, "will from now on be a Jewish ghetto. Any Jew found
after six p.m. tonight outside that area, will be shot." This was early
in the morning. So he gave them about ten hours to move the whole
Jewish population from different parts of the city, into this one area.
The general gave the Jewish representative a map
of the city in which with a pencil he has pointed out, "See, this is the
area of the ghetto. So within that area, all of you have to live from
now on." So within ten hours, about forty thousand people moved from all
over to the city into that small area which became the Jewish ghetto.
And in the evening of that day, the gendarmes had already put up a
wooden fence around the ghetto, and topped it with barbed wire. There
were two entrances, both
guarded by gendarmes, so you couldn't get outside...We basically felt
like animals in a cage. And that's what they wanted. Life soon became
terribly difficult. My family and I were relatively lucky, because one of my mother's
sisters lived in a very small apartment that happened to be in the
area that was designated as a ghetto area. So we were able to move in
mother's sister, into a place that had one bedroom, with one kitchen. So did my grandparents, so did another aunt of mine, move with her
family into that little room. There were about a dozen people who slept
in one room
at night. But at least we had a roof over our heads. Other people who had no
relatives or friends, moved into stairwells or into dark cellars. They
had to be within the area of the ghetto; they couldn't stay outside. So
wherever they could find a place, they moved in.
The situation in the ghetto
was aggravated by the lack of water. The Soviets, when they retreated, blew up two of the
three water pumps the city had. So there was just one water pump for
the whole city which allowed the city to have water for one or two hours
a day. That was not sufficient. The people barely had enough water to drink,
but not sufficient water to wash. Soap soon disappeared because there was nothing
available to buy. So the hygienic conditions became terrible, and as a
result, a typhoid epidemic broke out in the ghetto. Those who were
most affected, as you can imagine, were the old and the very young. And
the Chevra Kadisha was kept quite busy in those days in the
Soon after that, after
several days in the ghetto, came another piece of news--the news was
always going from bad to worse. Several days after the people moved into the
ghetto, the new Romanian governor, a General Calotescu, decided to start
deporting the Jews of Czernowitz to an area that was east of Romania
before the war, that was part of the Soviet Union, but now during the
war, was occupied by the Romanians. It came under Romanian
administration. It was called Transnistria, and was located between the river Dniester and Bug, east of pre-war Romania.
The deportations began on October 14, 1941. The gendarmes cordoned off a section of the city, took out all the
Jewish families, lined them up in a convoy in the street, marched them
down to the railroad station where cattle-car trains were waiting,
and loaded them into these cattle cars. When the trains were full,
the cars were sealed, and they took off to Transnistria. This was a
devastated area...Many of the people who were Jewish and deported to Transnistria
especially during the winter months, from the freezing weather. They had to
stay in homes that had been dilapidated. There were homes that belonged
to Jews who were murdered, Soviet Jews who were murdered during the first days of the
war. The houses that they left behind were vandalized by the peasants.
They ripped down the doors, ripped out the windows, ripped out the
plumbing, and into these vandalized homes moved the Jews
that were deported from our city. In order to live they had to eat, and
what could they do? They couldn't, of course, work at the time. It was a devastated
area. The only way they could survive was by bartering some of the
clothes that they were able to bring with them in their suitcase, in their
rucksacks, with the peasants for food. So they got for a pair of pants,
a bag of potatoes. For a blouse, you got a bag of apples, and
so on. But when winter came, shortly afterwards--as I've said,
deportations took place in October--they had already bartered
away these few pieces of clothing, winter clothes, that they had brought with them.
So they had no more clothing. They lived in buildings, in homes, that
had broken windows, broken doors, and many didn't even have a stove. The winter of '41-'42 was one of the harshest winters of the
twentieth century. And people just started to die. They could not
survive under these conditions. There was very little food, very little
heat, and with no proper clothing they could not survive.
Additionally, to make things worse, typhus broke out because they didn't
have soap and couldn't wash. So about half of those deported from our city in 1941
died in the winter that followed, the 1941-2 winter.
The governor of
Bukowina, General Calotescu, had decided to clean out
all the Jews from the city in the next Spring and Summer of 1943. But
something happened at the end of '42 and early '43 that made the
governor--and the Romanian government--have second thoughts. What
happened was the Battle of Stalingrad. And at Stalingrad, deep inside
Russia on the River Volga, the Germans suffered a crushing military defeat. There were
several hundred thousand men killed. The Russians captured twenty-four
German generals. They captured a German field marshal, the first time
in German history. It was Marshal Paulus, who was the commander of the German sixth army that was totally annihilated at
Stalingrad. This kind of disaster happened to the German army. The world
was watching, and so was the Romanian government. They started to see
what was happening and they had second
thoughts. They said to themselves, "It's not so sure the Germans are going to win this war. So
we better be careful." Of course, they thought to protect their own
neck in the first place. Since they were allied with Germany, if Germany
the war, the Romanian
government would obviously also be held responsible for the crimes they committed
in the Soviet Union, as well as the crimes committed against their own
Jews. So the first thing they decided was that there should be no more
deportations. So the Jews who were still in the city--including my
immediate family (my parents, sister and myself)--were spared from deportation in '43. But still, the ghetto
conditions persisted. Jews had to wear a yellow star. Jewish children
couldn't go to school, Jewish teachers couldn't teach, and Jewish
businesses were non-existent. Jews had to do their purchases only
between certain hours of the day in the market, after all the non-Jews
were finished. Of course, Jewish professionals, such as engineers or lawyers, could not practice
their profession. My father was an attorney, and of course he could not
practice. So these conditions persisted. But still, on a relative scale,
it was better than what happened
to those deported to
Transnistria. So we managed to survive until March of 1944 when we were
liberated by the Red Army. The deported people started to come back
from Transnistria. The city then had a burst of life. Unfortunately, not a
single member of my family--there were about twelve or fifteen people
that were deported--survived. None of them survived because they were in that
transport that was shipped over to the Germans, and they were all murdered.
THE SOVIETS RETURN
As you see, the Czernowitz of my childhood doesn't exist anymore. That city is completely gone. Maybe the streets still exist, and the gardens still exist, but the people are completely different, even the small Jewish community that exists over there today in Czernowitz is mostly Jews who arrived from different parts of the former Soviet Union: from Ukraina, from Russia. The former Jewish population that grew up under the Austrians, or under the Romanians, is gone. As I said, those who survived--and about half of the people deported to Transnistria survived--when they had the opportunity, left Czernowitz for Romania, and from Romania they went later on to Israel and to other parts of the globe.
So this is basically how
life was in Czernowitz. I have now given you a general idea of what
life like shortly before the war in the 1930s in Czernowitz, for
the Jewish population during the war, and then briefly
after World War II.
More from Dr. Scherzer
I know the head of the
youth organization Hashomer Hatzair of Czernowitz, a left-wing
organization, named Abrasha Gimpelmann, who guided my sister and her friends. He was extremely smart and intelligent, and because he
was a leader of a Zionist movement, he was among those deported by the
Soviets. He was an "enemy of the people." He,
unfortunately, did not survive.
Other leaders of the group were deported. Some of them survived; some
came back to Czernowitz after the war.
MY ONLY SURVIVING FAMILY MEMBER
It was interesting that, in
Poland, there was a similar situation. I had a large family in Poland in
the city of Zaleshchiki, which was very close to what used to be the
Romanian border, between Poland and Romania. I had visited them once. We
had a large family; now none of them survived. They were all murdered by
the Germans, with one exception. A distant cousin of my grandfather
survived. Why? Because he used to have--before that area was taken over by
the Soviets as a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact--a small
store with several employees. That city, Zaleshchiki, came under Soviet
rule when Poland was divided between the Germans and the Soviet Union, and
of course, he, having several employees, was an "enemy of the people." So
the Soviets deported him to Siberia. And he was able to survive. So this
way, it's ironic, that he was the only survivor of my family, because those
who were not deported were murdered later on by the Germans.
PERSONAL HISTORY AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Fortunately, there were people from HIAS and from the American Joint Committee who were present at the border. They knew that Jews were totally robbed by the Soviets, so they gave us some money in Romanian currency, leus, so that we could pay a peasant to take us from the border to the city where we wanted to go, Suceava. There the living conditions were horrible. There was simply no place to live, because there were many who did as we did--we moved out from Czernowitz into other areas of Bukowina--and we ended up in that little town of Suceava. We couldn't find a room to live in. We ended up in a storage room with a cement floor, with broken windows, and that's how my father suffered and became ill. We had to sleep on the floor. We had no mattresses. Nothing. We slept on newspapers on the cement floors. We had a thin blanket on the floor that we used as a mattress. You can imagine the conditions that we had to live under, and the constant draft that would come through the broken windows. We simply could not find any better place to live in. We finally later on were able to find a room in a ladies' house that had been vandalized, and the room was in terrible condition. Well, my father died afterwards under these conditions.
I was able to
continue my studies. I took equivalency exams so I could continue
my studies in the Romanian schools. I then went to the
University of Bucharest, and I was able to graduate. I worked at the
university for a number of years because the university had good qualified
graduates train the new students who
came in who had a sound, social background. These students were the sons and
daughters of peasants and of workers--Romanians, of course--and they
needed qualified professors, instructors, and assistants at the university.
So they kept me, in spite of my bad autobiography because my father was an attorney, which in a communist system means you
belong to the exploiting class. And because of this, children of a
member of the exploiting class, had no future in a communist society. But out
of necessity, they kept me. And I was aware of it. Later on, when I
applied to leave the country, I lost my job. I then had to work as a laborer. I was
eventually bought out by relatives from the West who paid x
amount of dollars for me, because the government sold its Jews like cattle,
at that point in the 1960s. l arrived later in Vienna. I worked at
the University of Vienna for a while. I could have stayed there, but I
decided not to, because I realized in the few months I was in
Vienna that there was still very strong anti-Semitism. The Austrians were
very enthusiastic supporters of Hitler. And I had a choice at the time, so I
chose the United States, and I then came to the U.S. and started work at Brown