Chapter 1: Before
Chapter 1: Before 1940
I was born February 9, 1923 in a small town called Seletin in a northern Rumanian province called Bucovina. During the period between the two World Wars, Seletin was a lively town, situated about 70 km. west of the city of Radauti on the banks of the Suceava river, that originated about 15 km west of Seletin in a place called Izvor (spring). The population of Seletin, about 2000 people, was mostly Ukrainian (a sect called Hutuli), with about 200 Jewish families and some Rumanians, mostly sent there by the central administration to occupy positions like mayor, police chief, postmaster, judge and so on.
Seletin was a terminal point for a railway line, providing passenger service to the outside world, but also supplying the town and many other towns and villages in the area with goods like grain, petrol, hardware, etc. The economy of the region consisted mainly of cattle raising and, in a limited way, agriculture, because of its location high in the Carpathian mountains. A very important part of the economy was the production of lumber products, with two sawmills in Seletin and several more in the surrounding area. There was also a flour mill in Seletin and another in Shipot (9 km west) driven by a water wheel. The sawmills had their own power generating stations for electricity, but the town itself had no electricity. Heating was with wood and for light, petrol lamps were used.
The Jewish population was socially and culturally advanced. The town used to belong until 1918 to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as was all of the Bucovina and therefore German culture was predominant. Most everybody spoke German, even the Hutuli peasants. Many of the Jews read German books and the two newspapers published in Czernowitz, the ·'·Allgemeine Zeitung·'· and ·'·Das Morgenblatt·'·. Book reviews were organized, also dances on certain occasions like Purim and Chanukah. There was a Rabbi in Seletin, Rabbi Frankel, who served several Jewish communities in other villages around Seletin, and three synagogues. Matzo for Passover was baked in Seletin for the whole region. As a boy, I loved to go and see the matzo factory in operation.
All Zionist organizations were represented in Seletin. A number of working class Jews were active in the Communist and social democratic movements. Every year, before May first, they were arrested by the gendarmes, so that they would not be able to organize a May l demonstration, which was celebrated all over Europe as labour day. The Communist party was banned and illegal.
My parents were middle class Jewish people. My father was a butcher in that town and my mother was a housewife. Seldom did women work outside the house. My paternal grandfather, Uscher Lecker died before I was born. My paternal grandmother, Bertha Lecker, together with two of my father·'·s sisters, left for Montreal when I was two. The oldest sister was already there. He also had three brothers, living in different places in the Bucovina and a fourth brother, Max, left for Canada in l926 and is living presently in Montreal. My maternal grandparents and three of my mother·'·s sisters with husbands and children, lived in Shipot, a small town 9 km. west of Seletin.
Our house in Seletin was like a social club for the neighbourhood. Most of our neighbours gathered there without having to announce themselves by telephone (there was no telephone), but by just dropping in. Discussions revolved about recently read books, latest fashions (for women), and in the second half of the 1930s -- politics.
In 1929 we acquired an RCA record player that had to be hand wound. In 1933 we bought a radio. A box containing two dozen batteries connected to each other supplied the energy for the radio and had to be changed frequently. If someone from another city or town wanted to phone, they advised the local post office who advised the post office of the town where the called person lived, who in turn advised that person of the day and time when to come to the telephone cabin located at the post office and wait there until the connection was made.
I went to elementary school in Seletin. During my years at the elementary school, I became friends with another student who attended the same school and grade as myself. His name was Jacques Ernst and because my parents sent me off to school in a horse and buggy, we picked him up and brought him home daily. The school was 2 km. away, too far to walk for 7-8 year old boys and girls. There were others who also rode to school with us and our transportation became the equivalent of a school bus. Jacques and myself gradually became very close friends, even though there was then and in future years a kind of competition in academic achievement between us. He was always the better one.
Sometimes, when the horse and buggy was not available, we had to walk to school. We usually took a shortcut through the railway station, where we could admire the trains.
To get to the railway station, we had to cross a narrow suspended bridge over the Suceava River that was moving during the crossing. It was scary. During our walk home, we spent more than necessary time at the railway station and we even became friends with a locomotive engineer, who took us into his locomotive and gave us rides while maneuvering the train. We were in heaven.
At the age of ten, as there was no high school in Seletin, I was sent to the closest city, which was Radauti, for an admission exam to high school. I barely passed the exam and started high school in Radauti in 1933. So did Jacques.
High school was something entirely different from the elementary school in Seletin. I felt intimidated and very insecure.
During the first year of high school, I managed to keep afloat on most of the subjects. But once I was called to the blackboard and asked several questions. I did not know the answers and got a mark of 4, which was bad. The subject was zoology and the name of the professor was Wolczinsky.
When my parents found out, they were very upset. My friend Jacques Ernst was boarding with a family Auslander, so my mother consulted Mrs. Auslander as what to do. Mrs. Auslander suggested that since Professor Wolczinsky·'·s wife was a dressmaker, my mother should go to her, order a dress, and during fitting sessions bring up the subject of my bad mark from her husband. The strategy worked and I passed the grade (I was also better prepared).
High school in Rumania was very strict and the students who graduated were well-prepared. Students, who passed the final high school exam, were considered to be moving encyclopedias. All students had to wear a uniform and cap. Each student had an I.D. number embroidered on the left sleeve of his jacket. Mine was 314. Visits to the movie theatre were forbidden and professors took turns to attend the screening of movies, and if a student was caught at the movie theatre he was punished. Repeated punishments led to elimination from the school. The atmosphere was almost one of military discipline. Results of exams were given three times a year. Partial results were never given. But we were curious to know how we did during an unexpected test (called extemporal), or what mark we got during a call to the blackboard (especially our parents) so the Auslanders devised a system by which the school janitor, named Vasile, who had access to the professors·'· lounge and their records, would come to the house several times during the trimester and bring us the partial marks. For which he was well rewarded.
It was a period of nationalistic fervor that swept Europe in those days, especially since the advent and coming to power of Hitler in Germany.
As in other countries in Europe, Rumania became a hotbed of nationalistic activity. There were mainly two political parties that were advocating nationalism and of course everything that goes with it, which meant the persecution of Jews. One of the parties was led by Goga-Cuza and the other party was led by one named Codreanu. The two parties competed with each other for power and more and more people were recruited to become members of these parties, but in the later years of 1930, more people joined the party of Codreanu, the Iron Guard Party, even though the Goga-Cuza party had a more legitimate appearance. At a certain moment in December 1937, the Goga-Cuza party came to power, after being appointed by the King and was in power in 1938 for seven weeks, after which they were dismissed on February 12, 1938 by King Carol II, who then put the army in control. The Iron Guard tried some terrorist tactics, but on April 17, 1938 the King hit back and had some of them arrested.
During the 1930s, a number of laws of an antisemitic nature were passed, restricting the admission of Jews to universities (numerus clausus) and requiring the reexamination of the Rumanian Citizenship for all Jews. Jews had to prove that they had been residing in Rumania for several generations and faced deportation if they could not. As it turned out, the best proof of residence was a bribe to the civil servant handling the case and nobody lost the Rumanian citizenship.
In my class in high school, the students were a mixture of different nationalities. About 75 percent were Rumanian and the rest were ethnic German, Jews, Poles, some Ukrainians and some Hungarians. The Germans that attended school were, of course, big supporters of Hitler and all he stood for and therefore nationalists. Among the Rumanian students, many of them were also nationalists, a sentiment that was encouraged by some of the professors during regular school hours. We also had some Jewish professors, a Professor Gottesman, who taught French, Professor Alpern, who taught German and Rabbi Stein, who taught religion to Jewish students.
As I said before, some professors were inciting antisemitism, especially the one who taught Rumanian, whose name was Dan, but there were others who had more democratic views, who taught other subjects like astronomy, geography, history, etc. The situation in Europe started to heat up with Hitler claiming more and more territory for the German Reich, which culminated on March 12, 1938 with the annexation of Austria. As soon as the annexation of Austria was completed, the pressure increased against Czechoslovakia, which, at the time, with Austria annexed, was half surrounded by the German Reich. It is also to be mentioned that there was a big German minority living in the western part of Czechoslovakia, at the time, in the so-called Sudetenland, that was bordering the German Reich.
I remember reading a book in 1938 called Der Fall von Prag (The Fall of Prague). The book, in German, dealt with future events and portrayed the ever increasing German pressure for the annexation of the Sudetenland, the Germans marching into Czechoslovakia and the fall of Prague, despite the heroic and futile resistance of the Czechoslovakian Army. How right the author was. Soon afterwards, the Germans gave Czechoslovakia an ultimatum to annex the Sudetenland. That prompted the British and French to try to appease Hitler by conceding in Munich on September 30, 1938 the Sudetenland to the Germans in exchange for, as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain put it, "a thousand year peace".
The Germans annexed the Sudetenland on October 5, 1938 and the part of Czechoslovakia that was not immediately annexed became a German satellite after the Germans installed a puppet regime. Soon afterwards, on March 15, 1939, the Germans annexed all of Czechoslovakia. The world saw how the promises given by Hitler were kept.
After having finished with Czechoslovakia, the Germans directed their attention to Poland and on August 16, 1939 they demanded a return to Germany of the free port of Danzig on the Baltic Sea. They also demanded a so called "corridor", through which they should be able to reach Danzig by land, thereby cutting off a good part of northern Poland. The demands were, of course, a prelude to an aggression against Poland. Germany had negotiated a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union on August 23, 1939 and the two parties also decided at the same time to partition Poland, the western part going to Germany and the eastern part going to the Soviet Union. These negotiations were conducted between the German foreign minister Ribbentrop and the Soviet foreign minister Molotov.
While Poland was considering the Germans demands, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and just a little while after on September 16, 1939, the Russians invaded Poland from the east.
All through that convulsive time, during the second half of the thirties, the Jews of the Bucovina were aware of what was going on in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and more recently Poland as far as the treatment of Jews was concerned. They knew about the persecutions, Kristalnacht, and even concentration camps. But, in general, those events were disregarded, something that couldn't happen to us, that was going on far away. There was no attempt for some form of organized protest or even resistance. There was nothing in place for the eventuality that we may come under Nazi occupation, no training, no survival kit, nothing at all.
Some people tried to immigrate to Palestine, but it was almost impossible because of the restrictive immigration policies of the British mandatory authorities. The son of the family where I boarded in Radauti, by the name of Camillo Scharf, succeeded in obtaining a student visa and left in 1939. So the Jewish people in the Bucovina, and elsewhere, were completely passive, waiting for events to develop, without taking any preparatory measures to counteract the danger that was fast approaching. The meager activity of the Zionist organizations was much too little and too late.
Others found that the solution for the problem is the Communist ideology. The Soviet Union, the only Communist country in the world at the time was for everybody a mystery. The Communist ideology provided for absolute equality for any and all nationalities and races. The difference was only a class difference between workers and peasants on one hand and capitalists, exploiters and speculators (read business people) on the other. Therefore this ideology was very appealing to many young Jewish intellectuals.
Being still in high school in Radauti at the time, I saw how the Polish Army fled in front of the advancing German and Russian armies, because they had no other choice but to come through Rumania, which they did, after having secured permission of the Rumanian government to a transitory situation. The remnants of the Polish Army crossed into Rumania, with some officers and soldiers being housed where I lived at the time in Radauti. A short while later the Polish Army left Radauti and Rumania through the port city of Constanza, where a number of Polish and Allied ships were waiting to take them to Britain, where they continued to fight the Germans all through the war. After the Germans invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany and thus the war became a full-fledged World War.
The school year that started in the fall of 1939 and ended in June of 1940, was my last year of high school in Radauti. During that year, when a lot of military personnel was concentrated in the border area with the Soviet Union, one room of my parents house in Seletin was requisitioned by the military and turned over to a corporal, who came to Seletin to purchase hay for the horses of the army. That corporal was from Bucharest and his name was Solo Gropper. My parents and I became good friends with him, and when the war started and my parents were deported to Moghilev Podolsk in Transnistria, he occasionally sent them money. He also helped me when I started my studies in 1945 at the Textile faculty in Bucharest by providing me with a temporary place to stay and with some food. He died in Montreal in 1989. His widow Jenny Gropper lives here.
In the meantime the pace of events accelerated and in the spring of 1940, after the school year ended, I went home to Seletin for my summer vacation. Only a few days after I arrived home, the Soviet Union presented Rumania with an ultimatum, demanding a return of the province of Bessarabia, which Rumania took over in 1918 as a result of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, during which the Russians could not defend their territory. Now they wanted Bessarabia returned and for having kept that province all those years, they also demanded the annexation of the northern part of the Bucovina. The presentation of the ultimatum by the Soviets to Rumania was not accidental. They would not have dared to do it had they not had the tacit approval of the Germans. All these territorial modifications were part and parcel of the Soviet German non-aggression pact negotiated in the fall of 1939. The Germans were very liberal in approving Soviet takeovers. They knew that in the not distant future, they will take it all back.
After the ultimatum was presented , people asked me what does it mean "northern Bucovina"; the Bucovina was an entity, nobody knew what it means, "northern Bucovina". The town of Seletin was situated more or less in the middle, so it could have fallen either way, north or south. As it turned out, the Rumanians gave in to the demands of the Russians and soon afterwards, on June 29, 1940, the Red Army crossed into Bessarabia and the northern Bucovina, occupying the town of Seletin and a number of cities like Czernowitz, Storojinetz, Vijnitza, etc. all belonging to the northern Bucovina, where, it must be said, the population was, for the most part, Ukrainian, but with a good mixture of Rumanians, Jews, Poles, Germans, Hungarians and a number of other nationalities. It was a very mixed type of province.
After the events of June 1940, a whole new situation developed and a whole new chapter of my life began.