Between the Wars
  Jewish Life in Europe in the 1930s

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Before Memories Fade: My Teenage Years in Czernowitz
by Pearl Fichman (née Spiegel)

Czernowitz, Ukraine
January 1938

By the time I was ten years old, in 1930, the older sisters and brothers had gone to America and Sali and myself remained at home. Suddenly we were a family of four, both parents approaching fifty and two girls of 14 and 10 at home.

The difference between the generations of parents and children always exists, yet, ours seemed very sharp. Religious parents, Father a merchant, closely involved with the synagogue and charities, fighting to keep a middle class home going - while the children were growing up under new and different influences. Of course, I looked up to Sali, who was highly intelligent and was part and parcel of a group of high school students, all moving in the direction of socialism. It was the time of the Weimar Republic in Germany, a time of social ferment, of industrialization, of inflation, of unemployment. I moved, unaware of the facts, into a similar direction as Sali. Many young people, who deemed to be progressive, subscribed to a lending library owned by a Dr. Bernfeld, in which the newest books from Germany, Austria and other Western European countries were available in the original German or in translation.

Before Hitler’s advent to power (1933) the ferment of literary and social activity was almost physically felt in our town and I started to get pulled into that whirlpool by association. Sali’s friends came to the house or met in the Habsburgshone - our beloved park - and discussed endlessly about politics and literature.

Most young people, who pretended to be thinking or were really aware of the critical times, were either leaning towards the left and internationalism or became Zionists and started to prepare for a life as settlers in Palestine. My inclination formed very early and I took it for granted that I wanted to save the world, not just the Jews. Thus internationalism came before nationalism. I foresaw very little what strange contortions the world was going to go through in my own lifetime. How wrong my leanings proved to be. I was in a good company, when you think of the disappointments of Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell and millions of others, less famous, but not less disenchanted.

Instead of reading the equivalent of the Bobbsie Twins at the age of 12 or 13, I read "Mother" by Maxim Gorki or "The Death Boat" by Traven or the anti-Hitler books from Germany or listened to revolutionary songs of the anti-fascist movement. It felt like having stepped from childhood into deadly earnest world affairs and responsibilities. I really took a giant step from a child’s world into adulthood, into the whirlwind, from which I could not step out for a long, long time.

My childhood was too short, I had no care free years, no innocent joys, no playful time, no teenage years of discovery - but a fall into a serious, dangerous, pitiless, turbulent world, which tossed me up and down, right and left without respite and for a very long time. I was all too soon thrust into a spot with responsibilities, which I had to fulfill - given no choices. As my parents were talking about the "War", their war, World War I, I was hurled into a turbulence, that started for me at 13, 14 and dragged on through my war, World War II and ended, when?

As for life from 13 on, its facets were: my school life, my home life and my developing social life. My parents did not interfere much with my activities.

They trusted that my good sense would carry me in the right direction. Now I think that they were too trusting.

School was very restrictive, demanding and often cruel. Although the lessons were from 8-1 p.m., six days a week, the subjects very diverse, so that no subject was taught more than three times weekly, yet the demands were extreme.

We had written assignments only in math, Romanian, French, Latin, German; the other subjects were just supposed to be studied. However, you were expected to be prepared for every lesson; tests could be given unexpectedly, any time. Those were called "extemporal" meaning: given at the spur of the moment- extempore. Discipline was rigorous: you wore a uniform, a black regulation dress, a white embroidered collar, a blue bow with polka dots and black stockings. On the right sleeve of the uniform and on the blue coat, you had the embroidered initials of the school L.F.2 (Girls’ High School No. 2) and your personal number sewn on. A navy beret with the embroidered initials of the school, too. Anybody who saw you in the street after 7 p.m. or at a movie or theater, which was not permitted to students, could call the school and have you expelled. Of course, one of the cardinal sins was to be seen with a boy in the street.

However, we circumvented many of the rules, but at a considerable risk. Fearfulness became a constant side effect. At all times, it felt like you were acting in a way that deserved punishment. The fact that you were Jewish was a chronic condition, which aggravated the situation. Very often, when a teacher found fault with you, she would remark something to the effect that "your tribe" or "your people" do not agree to conform.

Thus, in school, life was burdensome. Romanian teachers looked down at you;

Jewish teachers tried so hard to be on the right side of regulations, that they often went overboard themselves. I remember as the most cruel of them all, my Latin teacher for four years Miss Camilla Kaul, a Jewish woman, whom one could easily mistake for Attila the Hun. In all four years, I had never seen her smile even once. After all, I am sure that the Romans had a sense of humor, too. My high school teachers could fill several horror shows, cruelty and lack of humor were their trade marks. Their judgment could never be questioned. In our police state, they were an extension of the police.

The summer before Sali went to America (1937), before my senior year in high school, the two of us went for a week to Câmpulung, a mountain resort in the Carpathians, in the Southern region of Bukovina. It was during summer vacation. She was already a student at the University of Czernowitz, while I was a high school student, 17 years old. During the summer months, I was not an actual student, but on vacation. The resort had a lovely swimming pool and both of us came in bathing suits, to enjoy the then modern set-up. Suddenly I noticed the principal of my school, with her family. I got scared stiff, didn’t know what to do. How do you face your principal dressed in a bathing suit? No number, no insignia. Yet, vacation is leisure time. When the moment came to face her, she turned her head away. Perhaps she didn’t know how to face me either, she was devoid of authority at the swimming pool, in the mountains.

Another incident, funny and unusual has remained in my memory. On my 14th birthday, my neighbor and admirer at the time, Arnold, surprised me with a portrait of myself, a drawing in blue chalk on white. Sali had been let in on the secret ahead of time; she had given him one or two pictures of me. On the eve of my birthday he came in and presented it to me.

It was flattering to be drawn by a young artist and next day, on the 10th of March, I took it along to school. (Arnold is today the cartoonist Ed Arno). Our lunch break of 20 minutes was the opportunity to show it to the girls. In all schoolrooms, above the blackboard, hung a framed portrait of the King. One of my classmates jumped on the desk and put my picture into the frame, covering up King Carol II. We all went to the rear of the classroom and ate together, laughed and joked and admired me for having a boyfriend, an artist. When the bell rang, nobody heard it. As the teacher walked in everybody ran back to their seats, I remained up on top, instead of the King. We were all scared, for that was real lese-majesty, one strike against the dignity of royalty. Whether the teacher wouldn’t have suffered a heart attack at the sight of my picture usurping the traditional spot of the King, who knows? I know that we were all relieved by the next bell and my demotion from that exalted position.

Arnold made portraits of me at 12, when I sat for it and at 14, as a surprise.

I lost both during the years when all our possessions were lost.

I still remember that at the beginning and at the end of each school day, we had to stand up, hands in prayer and one girl would recite the Lord’s Prayer. The Christian students and the teacher - if Christian, would make the sign of the cross, the others just stood motionless. Everybody knew the prayer in Romanian, but when the first or last period was French, German, Latin or Greek, what then? The school decreed that there must be at least two students in class who knew the prayer in those particular languages. Why two? If one happens to be absent, there should be a replacement. After all, how can you end a German lesson and recite a prayer in Romanian?

Those who memorized easily volunteered. I learned the prayer in Latin; thus I was the one to say the Pater Noster. Of course, after all the years of hearing it, I knew it in all the other languages, except Greek. We never had it, in the two years of study, as first or last period of the day.

Greek was one of my least favorite subjects. Except reading and writing, I never really learned much. I think none of us derived anything substantial out of it. She would let us read, then she would translate the long passages and we would just copy them. Learning the translation by heart did not help either, for we didn’t even recognize what text fit what translation.

Many of us loved poetry - Lamartine, Alfred de Musset, Alfred de Vigny, Victor Hugo, Verlaine. They sounded like music when read aloud by Miss Agatha Grunspan, our French teacher. She inspired us, she taught French magnificently and made us love the language and the literature. I still remember a lesson on Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary. She told us the story of Saint Julien l’Hospitalier. We were all spellbound, shivering with emotion. The textbook contained half a page about an author and two or three pages excerpted from a novel or short story. Miss Grunspan presented to us about an hour or two the author and his works. She led us through Victor Hugo, Voltaire, George Sand and Anatole France, just to mention a few. I am sure, none of us ever forgot her lectures. They were worthy of a forum at Columbia University.

In 1934-5 we studied all about Paris and, later on, the geography of France. We had no films, no audio-visual aids; we just had a fine teacher, who had been in Paris and described the sights in words, that depicted it all. When I came to Paris in 1947, so many years later, I recognized every important building. In fact, I knew, as I walked, that at one end of the Champs Elysees I’ll see the Place de la Concorde and at the other end the Arc de Triomphe. She described the Louvre, with all its treasures and the Done des Invalides, where Napoleon is entombed, in such detail, that I knew the sight when I visited there many years later. Her enthusiasm for the beauty of the French landscape was infectious. I felt the tides rising when she described Mont St. Michel.

We used to think that the West was rich in thought and the cities and towns so attractive, we longed to see and experience those places. At that time travel was less accessible than today. One needed a passport and visas for every country. All the consulates were in Bucharest and it seemed so unreachable. That made the desire to see other countries even more burning. She opened an eye to the world of France.

As brilliant as she was as a teacher of the subject, as a disciplinarian she was even more efficient. Easily aroused to anger, any interruption or bit of noise provoked an outburst, like a sudden summer thunderstorm. Thus, as much as we loved the subject, we were scared to death of her. She was the fury in the flesh.

Grunspan was heavy, with an ample bosom. One day, she wore a blouse with a V neck and a strand of pearls. Suddenly the strand broke, dropping the pearls into her bosom. The class started laughing and she got red with anger. I thought she’d just burst.

No school reminiscences may exclude Martha Marini, our math teacher. With her tiny figure, big head with a mass of black hair and a very soft voice, she looked like a school child. She used to write formulas on the board; put one or two problems on the board and solved everything fast, by herself. Then she assigned homework. She never asked whether the class understood the new concepts in algebra or trigonometry. Nobody dared ask additional explanations. More than half of the class never understood the material. The result was that most of the students needed private tutors, at least part of the year. She looked like a scarecrow but she scared people. She was among the most feared teachers.

None of the teachers mentioned had ever married. Kaul, Grunspan, Marini and my history teacher Popovici - all were single, typical old spinsters, highly educated, lacking the slightest sense of humor or any understanding of the young. They actually terrorized the youngsters. That was a state school and they were the embodiment of a dictatorial system. Schools were run just like military regiments where the motto applied: Order must be executed and not discussed. Here it was: the information, the learning, the beauty and satisfaction of knowing, the awakening of interest in other lands and other cultures, the appreciation of literature and poetry - all this was offered and eagerly absorbed. The flip side of the coin produced intimidation, submission and resulted in fear and timidity.

I was so shy, so scared of all these authority figures: school and police. I never dared ask a question. I answered when asked and so did almost everybody else. I was a good student; I aspired to good grades, yet I was never competitive. It didn’t matter to me to be mentioned for honors. I didn’t want to cram day and night, as some did. Friends meant a lot and enlarging my intellectual horizon became of equal importance as school. The shyness resulted from years of intimidation in high school. The outside world was hostile- everybody feared the police and, of course, the antisemites surrounding us. From 1933 on, waves of anti-Jewish feelings were being felt all over Europe; it was Germany’s highest priority export. It was translated into every language and propagated by zealots of the Nazi cause.

In spite of all the hardships, there were funny incidents that I can still remember to this day. At the age of 13 or 14, I was close friends with Lola. She used to play the piano and I used to sing. As they lived on the second floor, the windows were open in the summer, we would ask her older sister Erna, who was deaf-mute, to watch at the window every now and then, whether anybody stopped in the street to listen to us playing and singing the Schubert Serenade: Leise flehen meine Lieder... I don’t think anybody did, yet we tried hard to be heard.

Their parents had a small furnished apartment on the first floor, which was sometimes rented, often empty. Whenever it was available to us, we would spend time there. The two sisters started smoking, I never did. They drew the blinds, for they tried to hide it from their parents, of course. Somebody would tell the parents that something fishy was going on, otherwise, why such secrecy? Thus, their mother came down and knocked on the door. We opened the window to let the smoke out. When we finally opened, she noticed the open window and suspected that somebody had left through it. Next time, when a similar situation arose, she came down with the maid: one posted herself outside, the other knocked on the door. It became clear --- it was a matter of smoking.

The years 1928-1933 were a time of crisis and unemployment all over Europe an the struggle to survive - be housed, fed and clothed - was real. I did not actually understand, at the time, everything that went on around me, but struggling hard against financial difficulties and being Jewish, too, made for an on-going hard life.

For myself, life was hard because of sickness. At the age of 13 doctors diagnosed that I had a lesion on the upper lobes of the lungs, which caused a low grade fever. The cure, at that time, consisted in getting me fattened. They called it: "Mastkur" a fattening diet. X-rays were taken every month, in order to check whether the lesion was getting calcified. I had a tough time eating great quantities of meat, eggs, butter, cream, trying to gain a lot of weight. I was a very slim girl. By our standards of today, I looked great, but then, being thin and having a low-grade fever was a catastrophe. My parents were warned that it might be the beginning of T.B. --- the scourge of the time, before the discovery of antibiotics.

Later on, at 15, I got jaundice, probably from a diet much too high in fats. Anyway, those were hard times from the health point of view. I was often absent from school, yet I did not want to lose a year of studies. In most subjects, I did my studies at home, on my own. Mathematics was different. My parents hired a tutor for me and I always caught up with the rest of the class. Thus I never lost a term.

My parents did the best they could to cure me of my ills and they never complained, never expressed any anger or pity or resentment toward me. I, on the other hand, being sick so often, didn’t complain because I felt that I was one of the causes of my parents’ many anxieties. We had a "live and let live" attitude in our little family circle. Everybody did the best he or she could, the rest was fate.

I can now understand why I rarely saw my Mother laugh. There were few reasons for merriment. She worked very hard and worried, too, yet she never spoke about it, at least, not to me. She stoically bore a heavy burden. The older children had left home and settled in America. First Eli left, just before going to the army. A three or four year stint in the service used to be a dreaded hardship, physical as well as financial. Soldiers were beaten and harassed. A Jewish soldier’s tour of duty turned into a time worse than a prison term.

Some of Eli’s friends decided to emigrate to Columbia, South America, he joined them. By that time I was four years old. About a year later Betty and Gertie left for the USA. Uncle Morris, "the rich uncle from America" visited in Czernowitz and appraised the situation, at the time, as hopeless. he felt that the girls would have much better chances at a good life in America than in the small town in Romania. He was especially incensed when he heard about outrageous demands for a dowry, whenever a girl was supposed to get married. The groom’s family used to insist on money for a business, or for a house, or money for the groom’s sister’s dowry. To Morris this seemed so old fashioned and also beyond my parents’ financial resources. I was told later that he was also considering the nieces as the right girls to live with Grandmother. She was a widow, who certainly knew no English and needed somebody to share her apartment. Her son’s devotion extended so far that he influenced my parents to let their daughters emigrate. Of course, they would have a large family in America and would, perhaps, also share in "the good life" in the Golden Land, so highly praised by people in Europe.

After a while Eli found life primitive and lonely in the town Santa Marta and moved on to Cuba and then to New York. Thus, all three older children lived in New York. They worked for uncle Morris, went to college at night and lived a life that was completely different from the one they had left behind. They were young and grew and developed in an American pattern.

In the summer of 1930, when I was 10 years old, Betty came for a two months visit. The expectation and excitement before her arrival were indescribable. Counting days was nothing, I counted the hours. How happy I was to see my oldest sister after five years.

A few days after Betty’s arrival, I had my tonsils out. Father had taken me to the surgeon, who explained to me that I could either go to the hospital and have them removed under full anesthesia and come home after two or three days or have them removed in his office, under local anesthesia and go home after an hour or two. I wanted to know whether there was any difference and he explained that full anesthesia would slightly weaken my heart, while the other method might be more painful but have no lasting negative effects. Yet, I had to promise to sit very still. When I chose the latter method, he looked askance at my Father. Father assured him that if I promised, there was no doubting my word.

The operation is still vivid in my memory today. He removed one tonsil and showed it to me, while I was sitting in a chair, both hands strapped to the sides of the chair and a nurse was holding me head. I made a sign, pointing toward his watch and extending two fingers, telling him to give me two minutes rest before taking out the second tonsil. He did. The rest also went smoothly. Father took me home in a "Fiaker," a handsome carriage drawn by two horses, the equivalent of today’s cab. Of course, I was looking forward to lots of ice cream, supposed to be good medicine as well as a tasty treat after the operation. The doctor saw me again soon and told me how proud he was of my behavior in the situation. Dr. Buchsbaum mentioned that a sixteen year old boy had had this same operation, with different results. He ran out after the first tonsil had been removed and refused to have the second operated. He suggested that I talk to the young man. I refused saying that a ten year old shouldn’t have to tell an "almost man" what to do.

A few days later Mother, Betty, Sali and myself went to Gura-Humora, a lovely summer resort in the Carpathian Mountains. We picked berries in the forest, sat along the cold mountain brook called Humora, enjoyed a lovely Old World vacation. We picked flowers in the meadows, made garlands for my hair - it was grand.

At lunchtime, a woman would bring us a fully prepared kosher meal from a restaurant in the small town. Breakfast and dinner were served by our hosts: freshly baked bread, rolls, butter and cheese, from their own cows, fresh vegetables and fruits from their orchard. I still remember fondly the pastoral environment of the area, we stayed in a house, on a hill, overlooking the river Humora.

I remember Betty as an elegant, sophisticated young woman, telling interesting stories about America. However, as the end of August approached, I realized that Bubi (Bernie’s nickname) was leaving with her. Thus, like in the song about the ten little Negro boys, when there was always one fewer left. Sali and I were left at home with my parents. Mother was sad, sullen, went about her chores in a very subdued way. Only the mailman could alleviate her gloom.

We were reading the letters, enjoying snapshots from New York. Bernie was a fun loving brother, a tall, good looking guy, with lots of friends coming to the house and now, we were left just the two of us, alone. We used to play cards with his pals, we used to joke, cheat sometimes, kibbitz and suddenly, all this was gone, changed overnight. I was not really aware how heartbreaking this change must have been for my parents.

In the course of the following years, I started to go out with boys. I had boyfriends and romances and crushes. In retrospect, I think I was a flirtatious girl, bright, precocious and critical of others. Some of the young men my age were not as well read as I and, perhaps, not as bright as I was. At any rate, there were girl friends, who were my equal or superior to me. They played an important part in my growing up years. It seemed that politics played an important role up to 1940. Some of my friends were deeply involved, more than I.

During the summer vacation of 1935, while I was with my Mother in the mountains, three girls from my class were arrested for illegal activities. One was my close friend L. The news hit me on my return home. My parents were struck by the news, as told by Sali. At the time, if a police informer caught somebody with a forbidden book, this constituted reason enough to arrest, beat and torture the suspect. By normal standards, reading books about Socialism or Communism does not constitute a crime against the state, but in Romania, in the 30s, if you looked the wrong way, you could be suspected of political illegality. If one’s hair was curly and unruly, the teacher would call you a Communist. The term was used very loosely and in an accusatory manner. You could not question or doubt an opinion of a person in authority because that provoked a suspicion of Communism. Of course, there were Communists, in organized cells. When apprehended, they were beaten within an inch of their lives.

Coming back to the arrest of my three schoolmates, all three girls had older sisters, who were active anti-Fascists. It was really politics by family association. My parents were struck by the occurrence and talked to me very seriously, warning me that it should not happen to me because first, I was not very strong physically and could not endure the police beatings; besides, they could not pay hefty bribes to police commissars - every one of them had a price.

The three girls were released after two weeks and were expelled from all public school in Romania. One swam with her boyfriend across the Dniester river into the Soviet Union. Five years later, when the Soviets occupied our town, we found out that they had both been sent to the Far East, to Siberia. The Russians believed that a real Communist was to suffer rather in a Romanian prison, continue fighting rather than escape to Russia, where the ideology was already a reality. The other two graduated from private schools.

They are my friends to this day; they reside in France.

In the summer of 1937, Sali went to the USA in order to study English for one year. There was great excitement during the weeks before her departure. She was going to stay for a few days in Vienna, where we still had some relatives and for a week to Paris, to see the World’s Fair.

In September 1937, I started my last year of high school, the most difficult year of all. In order to graduate, one had to pass the matriculation examination called also matura. That was the monster at the end of the twelfth grade. How can one imagine today a comprehensive exam in almost all the subjects of the last four years? Students usually started to cram from January on. The exam was held at the end of June.

The preparations meant studying biology, zoology, botany, anatomy, geology - just for the natural sciences. Romanian literature, French, Latin, the history and geography of Romania, everything in all the details. As school was going on day by day, the reviewing of the text books from the previous years went on daily, late into the nights. There were discussions on how to keep awake. The accepted wisdom prevailed, namely, keeping one’s feet in cold water. I never tried.

The students from the literary section had three written tests: Romanian, French and Latin; the scientific section needed math instead of Latin. Most of us had private tutoring in French and Latin for a few months before the matura. About a third of the candidates failed the written exam. The ones who succeeded took the orals. They were held in a large auditorium, at a high school and were open to the public. Five candidates faced a committee of eight teachers; the head of the committee was a university professor. None of the teachers were from our town. The orals took four to five hours, one group in the morning, another in the afternoon. The results were announced daily, late in the evening. The secretary of the commission posted the list of successful candidates. A great number of people: students, their families, friends awaited the results. Later, some were laughing and cheering, while others walked home despondently, they had failed.

I still remember vividly that before the dreaded exam I was feverish with fright. My close friend Rosl, who used to sit in class next to me, was on the school roster next to me, was at the matura exam in the same group and both of us passed. Needless to say, many who failed tried again in September or next June or September.

Since Romania was known for "baksheesh" --- graft, there were often intermediaries who arranged a modicum to pass, but it cost a mint, about ten thousand lei. My Father had no money to throw around and, besides, he was certain that I would pass easily, the first time. He was right, I passed, but the anxiety was unbearable.

While we were preparing for that dreaded exam, Rosl’s father told us about a bottle of champagne, that he had received years before and was waiting for a very special occasion to open. His daughter’s success at the matura was that worthy event. The family and her friends, including myself, enjoyed the party and anxiously awaited the champagne toast.

We laughed and joked and danced and finally the long-awaited moment arrived, when all of us would be drinking champagne, for the first time and drink a toast to our future. Everybody held a glass, the father ceremoniously uncorked the bottle, poured for everybody some and we all exclaimed: Prosit and tasted. Well, the champagne had turned to vinegar. Nobody drank. That was an omen of things to come; we were lucky not to understand it, it was June 1938.

What was the importance of this exam? It enabled a young man or woman to study at a university, to go into a profession. My inclination was toward medicine but there was no faculty in town and there were no chances to be admitted in Bucharest. The faculties of medicine and engineering were practically closed to Jewish students. A strict "numerus clausus" assigned a tiny percentage to Jewish applicants, perhaps two or three percent of an incoming class. That left law and teaching as the only choices. The chances became remote that one could even teach at a state school, thus one chose to study languages, mathematics or law. In case of emigration, languages and math were useful skills. School became the outside world that hardened you for the years to come. I registered as a student of foreign languages: French, German and I started to study English. The idea of eventually leaving and settling somewhere, where English would be an asset, impelled me to begin learning a new language.

It sounds so dreary and oppressive and yet, young people found ways to enjoy life somehow. The pleasures were simple, yet genuine. Friendships were very close and deep. One sat next to one’s best friend and the seats behind and in front, one tried to be among one’s close friends. We used to study together, do homework together, if one lived in the same neighborhood. We lent books to one another, came to visit on free afternoons, knew each other’s family closely.

When one went on vacation, during summer recess, friends wrote to one another. Telephones were nonexistent, so friends talked it over to meet, what movie to see, what books to read. Of course, boy friends became important, too. On weekends, on Saturday afternoon or evening, or on Sunday, groups of friends would meet. In spring or fall, we loved to walk and enjoy the city parks; in the summer we went to the Prut, swam or just spent the time talking, joking, taking pleasure in the give and take among friends, eating ice cream, drinking sodas, just living. The ice cream parlor has been an institution, in Europe, for a long time. We would go for an ice cream and sit and chat endlessly. We sometimes went on long hikes, to the woods around Czernowitz, a day’s outing. Everyone carried a knapsack on the back, wore shoes with heavy soles and white, knee-high cotton socks. The girls wore a "dirndl" which consisted of a white blouse, a flowered skirt and a little apron, adorned with lace. It was the way the Tyrolians dressed, an old Austrian custom. Sometimes, we would sit in a meadow and one or another would read aloud. Paul Antschel, who later changed his name to Celan, loved to read to the group poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, in German, of course. Sometimes we’d read aloud H. Heine poems and sometimes we’d sing.

Life had its enjoyable aspects, too and we found pleasure and relaxation in company, friendship, romantic attachments as well as intellectual stimulation.

To be widely read, well informed on world affairs and to have a "Weltanschauung" (an outlook on the world) an opinion on world affairs counted very highly. I am not sure that we competed with one another, but we encouraged and inspired one another and moved ahead, in spite of all the difficulties or because of all the hardships. Yes, we were a worthwhile generation. The lucky part was that we did not even have an inkling of what lay ahead of us. This entire group of bright-eyed, intellectually curious teenagers went into a future that splintered the group into all different directions. We would never meet again as grown men and women. The ones who survived live in different countries, under different regimes, speaking different languages. Our children are American, Israeli, French, German, Russian, Australian, Brazilian, Argentinean, English, etc. Whenever my generation of Czernowitzers meet, we still speak German among ourselves, our common language. We have a strong link with a common past and shared suffering, especially the years after 1939.

Home life proceeded rather peacefully, with a tacit understanding of live and let live. The outside world was hard to cope with and thus the home became a haven. We lived in a small apartment: a bedroom, a living room that served also as a dining room, a big kitchen and a spacious entrance hall. I did not ask for a separate room since it was unrealistic to expect it. When I was about 14 years old, I started to tutor, in order to earn some money for special expenses or for the movies. I earned my own spending money. It was taken for granted that the parents did the best they could and so the children tried to do their part.

When I was 15, we moved into a new building, with a separate bathroom, with a tub and a boiler, to heat the water for the bath. Up till then we bathed every Thursday evening in a big tin tub, which was kept standing against the wall, in the kitchen. Water had to be heated on the stove and poured into the tub by the bucketfuls. That same procedure followed when spilling the water. That was a very difficult way of bathing but since I had never seen a different system, it was taken for granted.

In the 30’s new buildings sprang up and we felt very fortunate to move into a modern building, where life became more comfortable. Yet, one had to heat the water in the boiler, in the bathroom. Some of our relatives would come to visit and be treated to a bath. (In 1941, after the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and we were thrust into the war, one week later, the Soviets fled and the Germans invaded our town. I was a student and had a lot of Russian books, especially a full set of works by Stalin. What to do? We made a fire in the kitchen stove and also in the bathroom in order to get rid of the books. Paper burns slowly and we were tearing pages and throwing them into the ovens. Then, the water in the boiler ran out and the boiler cracked. Not only couldn’t we dispose of more Communist texts, but we remained without a means of heating water for a bath.

Family life was close also by necessity. When friends came, we would sit in the living room, parents and young people. In the evening we sat around the big dining-room table. Father read the newspaper, I did homework or reading, Mother was sewing or knitting or embroidering or darning socks. Of course, Mother’s day was never done. In the morning, she would go to the market for vegetables, fruits, eggs, butter, flowers. She cooked all the meals, from scratch. If you wanted to eat chicken, you bought a live bird in the market; took it to the slaughterer, cleaned the feathers, cut it open, koshered it and cooked it. That took hours. If you wanted cookies or cake, you baked them. The only ready made foods were bread and rolls. Everything else had to be prepared in the home.

You could buy shoes, winter boots, stockings and socks; everything else had to be bought: material for a suit or coat, lining, buttons and then made to order by a tailor or dressmaker. Life was absolutely different from what it is now. There were also so many different occupations that have disappeared by now.

If anybody would have told me of a way of life as it is today, it would have seemed strange and impossible, as a far out science fiction movie today. I still remember a cousin, who lived in a small town and came to visit, bringing along her little boy. He had seen his mother bring water from the well. In our house, he saw water from the faucet running into a tea kettle. He looked in wonderment and asked whether I could get a bucket full of water. I told him that I could fill two, three, four buckets full of water. Suddenly he burst out laughing and said: "Don’t say that. Who has five buckets?" To him, life in Czernowitz was already science fiction.

In 1936 my parents bought a radio, a German manufactured, big apparatus, which needed a roof antenna. It looked similar in appearance to today’s television. We heard broadcasts on long, medium and short waves and could enjoy programs from all over the world. A weekly radio program listed most European stations. On short waves one could hear programs from overseas. It was magic. We heard a Passover service from Jerusalem; we heard wonderful concerts from most big cities in Europe; news in Romanian, German, French and lovely light music from Sofia, Bulgaria. From 1934,5 we heard the raving and ranting of Hitler, the venomous speeches and the vicious Nazi propaganda, which made us cringe with fear and apprehension. From the Soviet Union, we were wooed with propaganda, in all the European languages. We were the first among our circle of relatives and friends to possess this magic box and did we have guests, no end.

Some came with special requests: to listen to German broadcasts from the USSR. On those programs, their lips were dripping honey and life there was described as the workers’ Shangri-La. Of course, when we were listening to radio Moscow, every window had to be closed and one had to make sure to be among friends only. It was totally prohibited by law to listen to Soviet programs. If caught in the act, it was reason enough to be incarcerated in a Romanian prison. To be arrested on ideological grounds - Communism - implied torture and long prison sentences. Moscow propaganda fell on very willing ears in those years when the antisemitism of Hitler had poisoned masses of people in Europe. We felt so lost and hopeless, that we wanted to believe that there was hope for rescue.

Hitler’s rise to power was not perceived as threatening as it turned out to be. He was thought of as an aberration. After all, how could a people, as "civilized" as the Germans, follow such a madman? Perhaps, even today, some young Germans may ask themselves the same question. European Jews, or perhaps all Jews have a long, historic memory. We knew of Haman, the Inquisition but those were far off in history. We knew of Bogdan Chmielnicki and his hordes, who slaughtered Jews in the 17th century, in the Ukraine. We knew of more recent pogroms, like the one in Kishinev (Bessarabia) in 1905, after which masses of Russian Jews fled to America. This was within my parents’ lifetime.

There existed vicious Jew-haters in every land. In Romania, the Greek-Orthodox clergy and many intellectuals were fierce nationalists. Their logical conclusion was hatred of the Jews. The fact that they did not run the government and were not actually in power made life tolerable, for a while. They came to power in 1938.

I am aware, from my earliest recollections, that we lived with the feeling that the life of the individual or of the entire Jewish community was always in danger. Being born Jewish implied a way of life, a set of beliefs and traditions and a feeling of belonging to a community, a group, that faced the same uncertainties, was potentially the victim of persecution from any possible group or from the government, depending on political or social circumstances. When financial difficulties arose in the country, international crises, war, unemployment, a failed harvest - in short - any natural or social or political disasters that occurred, were often turned into antisemitic outbursts. That was the safety valve, they let off steam and we took the heat, bore the brunt of their anger.

The second half of 1937 was a great change for me. I had remained alone with my parents. At the age of 17, I felt like an only child, since all my brothers and sisters were in the United States by then. In December 1937, during the Christmas vacation, as a senior in high school, I travelled alone, for the first time, to Bucharest, for one week. My excitement knew no bounds.

My girlfriend M. was visiting her sisters and I was to occupy the room of a student, who had gone home on vacation. I took the school number off the sleeve of my coat, put on a small blue hat, instead of the beret with the embroidered numbers, and left by train on a Friday morning to arrive at six in the evening in Bucharest. My friend awaited me at the railroad station. As I got off the train, on that snowy late afternoon, I heard newspaper boys hawking an extra newspaper edition: Extra, extra, the new government of Goga, Cuza. Death to the Jews.

That was my bone chilling, frightening reception on my first pleasure trip. King Carol II had called on Octavian Goga, a well-know poet and politician and rabid antisemite and on Alexandru Cuza, a historian, professor at the University of Iassi, infamous for his incitement to pogroms on Jews in that town, to form a new government. Actually, it was a maneuver on the part of the king of Romania, who felt threatened by Ionel Codreanu, the leader of the "Iron Guard," known Fascists and antisemites, who were taking their orders from Hitler. The king felt less endangered by Goga and Cuza than by the young generation, who were looking at the German model. The Romanians had full fledged swastika carrying nationalists well before it became the rage of the 30s. Cuza made the Jews of Iassi tremble before Hitler came to power.

King Carol outmaneuvered the Iron Guard with one fast action: he copied the German actions faithfully. He had Codreanu and his clique arrested, led into a forest and shot them in the back. Next day’s newspaper headlines read: They were shot while trying to escape. (Auf der Flucht erschossen), the typical Hitlerian method of disposing of political enemies. The king dared to destroy the Iron Guard, showing Hitler that he wouldn’t bow to his dictates, yet he put a nationalist, antisemitic regime into power, one based on ethnic nationalism, without foreign models.

For the Jews of Romania, December 1937 was the beginning of a deadly pressure of their lives and livelihoods. One of the first measures, taken by the new government was the review of their citizenship, with the intention of stripping many of their rights. As a consequence of that measure, we lost our citizenship on a technicality. The second blow came in the form of a decree that all Jews must keep their places of business open at official hours and on Saturdays. Failure to obey the law was punishable by stiff fines and by revocation of the permit. As a result of this law, my Father gave up the store, for he would never work on Saturdays or on religious holidays. All this happened to us in the year 1938. We did not know what my Father would do in order to make a living and we realized that more drastic measures might follow.

In these circumstances, our lives had taken a sharp turn towards grave uncertainties. Sali, too, lost her citizenship and possessed no valid passport to return. In those times, only a fool would have considered returning to Romania. In the West, Hitler had started to engulf his neighbors: Austria, Czechoslovakia. Whoever could find a country of refuge left for faraway lands like Chile, Venezuela, Cuba and others.

We just lived from day to day, in the knowledge that a noose might tighten around our necks. The family in the USA wrote that we should try to emigrate, yet it would take many years to obtain an American visa. In order to go to Palestine, one needed a special certificate. The British, under Arab pressure, had issued a White Paper limiting drastically the settling of Jews in the Mandate territory. We felt powerless. Go to South America? Father was nearing sixty, had no real trade, could not envision what he would do there, no knowledge of the language, nobody he knew there. I was 18 years old and could not make any far reaching decisions. Thus we, like millions of European Jews waited for the storm to break over our heads. All the signs of a terrible tragedy became visible. Daily, newspapers carried tragic headlines:

Central Europe’s only democracy, Czechoslovakia annexed; Austria accepted its incorporation into the Reich with enthusiasm. The majority felt proud of their native son, Adolf Schickelgruber, now Hitler, who had made good in politics, in Germany. They also deserve the dishonor of having sent Viennese Jews to Dachau, the newly created concentration camp in a suburb of Munich, Bavaria. The brother of a close friend of my parents living in Vienna, was arrested and sent to Dachau and shortly after sent back to his family, in a sealed coffin. Later on they did not take that much trouble any more, people were buried in mass graves and afterwards they were disposed of in the crematorium.

Nightly, on the radio, we heard Hitler ranting and raving and screaming. He blamed everything that ailed the world on the Jews and he predicted that only their complete annihilation would save Europe and the world. On the radio were heard the German masses shout, as clear as if they were right around us: "Fuhrer, lead. We will follow." There we sat, listened and shivered and felt like cats trapped in a sack. That was exactly our situation: trapped.

One hoped for an assassin to kill Hitler; for a "Putsch," a political conspiracy to overthrow his regime, for intervention from the rest of the world. We know now that none of this happened. The French and the English bought time by letting Hitler consolidate his power, as they were trying to arm, way too late. They had all been caught unprepared for the awesome, destructive power threatening them. Even the United States had no army and discussions were engaging the public whether to intervene in European affairs or to remain isolationists.- In spite of all this war of nerves, we went through the motions of going to school, going to the movies, bathing in the Prut and waiting for something to happen, waiting for a miracle that never came.

Coming back to my beginning student life, as I registered in September 1938, in the department of literature and foreign languages. I took the usual courses in French and German, but in English, I was just a beginner. The faculty made provisions for two categories of students: beginners and advanced. People like myself had to endeavor to make giant strides and eventually reach the level of the advanced group. We had a Professor, an Englishman, sent by the British Institute. This was the first flesh and blood Englishman that our town had ever seen. He was tall, a trifle stooped, with ash blond hair, a drooping mustache and wore glasses. He dressed in plusfours and tweed jackets. today, I would think this a disguise, but this was a real, live Britisher. Years later, I found out that he, as well as a Frenchman, sent by the French Institute, were both spies, sent by their governments to occupy positions at the university in Northern Romania, at a stone’s throw from the Soviet border. That was in the fall of 1938. No wonder that Professor T. gave easy A’s. After all, he endeared himself and his country to the eager local students. He became a local oddity, while the French lecturer found his way into the hearts and bedrooms of many a Romanian beauty, ready to practice French on different levels. I only hope that their political goals were as easy to achieve as their professional ones.

By the end of my first year at the university (1938-39), the history of art professor organized a trip for his students to be sightseeing in Turkey, Greece and Egypt. We were supposed to study especially the Hadjia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, the pyramids in Egypt and the many architectural sights in Greece. The trip was supposed to take place in September, 1939. I had registered for the student trip abroad, in the company of friendly colleagues.

As a preparation for the boat crossings, I had a tailor make for me a rain jacket, with a woolen buttoned-in lining. We were supposed to travel by boat from Constanţa, a Black Sea port in Romania. That trip never materialized since World War II broke out on September 1, 1939. The only good that came of these preparations was the jacket, which did me great duty during the war years.


--From Pearl Fichman's memoirs, "Before Memories Fade," 1989.





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