The 12th International Association of Yiddish Clubs
October 24-27, 2008
Marriott La Jolla Hotel
La Jolla, California
You can read the transcript of a number of talks given by presenters during this conference. Below are links to some of the talks that were given.
The talks were recorded and transcribed by Dr. Steven Lasky (https://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com).
Here you can read the transcript of the speech given by Dr. Julius Scherzer, who spoke about his life in Czernowitz.
Dr. Julius Scherzer was born and lived in Czernowitz, located in the province of Bukovina. He grew up under fascism and communism before, during and after World War II. Dr. Scherzer is the author of the book While the Gods Were Silent: Growing up Under Fascists and Communists.
Dr. Scherzer has a Ph.D. degree in chemistry and a Master degree in environmental engineering. Julius has worked in the academia and in industry, has published several scientific books, over fifty patents and over forty scientific articles.
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
There was a Jewish community of, as
I've said, of about 50-60,000 people, and that Jewish community in
our 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 home, 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
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" in 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
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 sportive endeavor.
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 with my 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 ghetto area.
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 died there, 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 lost 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 during
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 University.
* * *
Dr. Julius Scherzer's is the author of the book, "While the Gods Were Silent: Growing up Under Fascists and Communists." The book can be purchased from amazon.com or from the publisher.i-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 University. ◙
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