Chapter 2: 1940-1941
The North Bucovina was incorporated by the Soviet Union into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (one of the 16 Soviet Socialist Republics), unlike Bessarabia which was incorporated into the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. (Today they are Ukraine and Moldavia). During the years preceding 1940, the Rumanians, fearing an attempt by the Russians to take over part of their territory, had concentrated a number of army units in Bessarabia and in the Bucovina, around the town of Seletin, which was fairly close to the border with the Soviet Union, who at that time had already taken over part of Poland. These army units were engaged in training for combat and building defense fortifications. When the Russians served Rumania the ultimatum and gave them 3 days to get out of the area, the Rumanians gave in and started a fairly orderly retreat in a peaceful way -- in a sense that no violence occurred. But what did happen was that the Rumanians went from house to house and confiscated every means of transportation, which in those days were horses and carriages and everything that could walk, which was livestock. In our case, they came to the house and took our horse and carriage and a couple of cows, for which they gave a receipt, which was good for nothing and they left.
Soon after the first Russian units arrived, the population went to the commander of that unit to tell him that the Rumanians robbed the people of horses and livestock, which they were not supposed to do according to the terms of the ultimatum. The Russian commander advised the people to go after them and get their properties back. My father in his naivetÈ, went after the retreating Rumanian Army in the western direction to a town called Shipot. After having walked for about 8 km. he met a Rumanian unit, who arrested him and placed him on a field, together with a number of other people, who had been arrested also because they were trying to recover their property. There was a definite danger that these people would be killed, as there was no question of a trial. The life of a person wasn't worth much, especially a Jewish life. When my father did not return we became very worried. But he realized the danger he was in and during the night he succeeded in running away into a forest and slowly made his way home arriving the next day, without the horse and carriage and without the livestock.
At that point there were no more Rumanian military or any other Rumanian authorities in the town of Seletin. The Russians installed their own administration and a whole new life began. Everything was different: language, laws, regulations, no more private stores, no more private property, etc.
During the changeover the population was very apprehensive, excited and divided. There were those who were sorry to see the Rumanians go. But others were glad to get rid of the Rumanians and welcomed the Russians with open arms. These were part of the working class and sympathizers of the Communists from way back. These people would have the shock of their lives because of the disappointing economic performance of the Soviets. But also because of the political terror the new administration instituted with arrests and detentions of all kinds for, what we considered, no reason at all. People started to be afraid to talk to each other, even in front of family members. These were part of the worst years under the Stalinist dictatorship.
It was the beginning of the summer of 1940 and I was thinking of continuing my education, but I was unable to return for my last year of high school, because Radauti, where my high school was located had remained on the Rumanian side. My father was left without his store, therefore without any means of making a living and so we were looking for something to do to earn a living.
At that time the Russians started to built fortifications and needed construction materials. My father bought another horse and carriage realizing that it could provide us with a job. And indeed the Russians hired us and a number of others to transport sand to a construction site about 6 km. away. That is what I did during the summer of 1940 and it was actually the first summer that I really worked. Under the Rumanians it was inconceivable that a high school student coming home for a summer vacation should do any work at all. It was beach, reading, playing cards, and so on. It wasn't as is usual in North America for a high school student to look for a summer job and earn some money in the process.
As the fall of 1940 approached, I was thinking of continuing my education, but, as there was no high school in my town and I could not return to my old one, I got in touch with my mother's sister, Dora, who lived in Czernowitz and the family decided to send me there to attend some kind of school. I could have registered to the University of Czernowitz to any number of faculties, but everything had changed. The language of instruction was either Russian or Ukrainian and since I didn't know any of these languages, I decided to register again to the last year of high school, which was the tenth year of instruction under the Russian educational system, to a Jewish high school. It was the Jewish high school #5 in Czernowitz, where everything was taught and studied in Yiddish.
And so in the fall of 1940, I and Jacques started attending that school. All the books, like history, geography, physics, chemistry, math, etc. were in Yiddish. These books came to us from Kiev and Moscow and the whole instruction was in Yiddish. The principal of the school and some of the teachers were sent from the Ukraine, especially from Kiev, and a number of other teachers for different subjects like math and Yiddish were recruited locally. I remember the professor for Yiddish was Professor Ginninger, the professors for math were Segal and Blum. These were highly qualified professionals and the school was one of the best schools I have ever attended. The instruction was fair, so was the grading, not as it was in the Rumanian high school, where a Jewish student had to know for a mark of 10 to obtain a 5. There was a very good relationship between the teachers and the students.
Of course, being a Jewish school, all the students and the teachers were Jewish. This helped create an atmosphere of camaraderie and familiarity. Situations of disrespect and disruptions were absent. Students who fell behind in their studies were helped by others, and teachers were available for extracurricular instruction. We used to go frequently to plays at the Ukrainian and Jewish State Theatres, to concerts -- classical and jazz -- and to restaurants with good dance music. Not having much money, we used to order a cup of tea and stay 2-3 hours. Nobody cared: the restaurant belonged to the State. Every classroom had a wall newspaper, with articles written by students about subjects relating to school activities. All articles followed the party line. The heading of the newspaper was hand-painted in a very artistic way. Jacques was especially talented and produced the most beautiful of all.
As the year progressed, more and more students became enthusiastic about the activities at school and about the methods used by the teachers. We had all kinds of activities, plays, cultural events with the participation of famous actors from the Yiddish State Theatre. We had sporting events, many done on skis like cross-country skiing, military games on skis, etc. Of course all the activities had political overtones and were very one-sided towards the Soviet Union, the Communist ideology and against the capitalist system.
We, as students, felt good in school. Conditions in school and the enthusiasm of the students translated itself into a desire to become a member or the Communist youth organization, the Comsomol. It was extremely hard to become a member of the Comsomol because it was a very discerning process. One had to have to one's credit academic achievements, excel in sports, political activity, (as per party line) and last but not least a "proper social background" (member of the working class). But once you became a member of the Comsomol, if you continued to behave in a politically correct manner, it was a sure thing that eventually you would become a member of the Communist Party and then a bright future was awaiting you. Without a Party membership, it was very difficult to have a proper career and so everybody aimed to become a member of the Comsomol and eventually a member of the Communist Party.
At one point I was told that I could apply to become a member of the Comsomol and in due course I did become a member, receiving my little red membership book and therefore was almost assured of a bright future within the Soviet Union
Nobody in those days even thought about the possibility of a war coming between the Soviet Union and Germany, because there was the non-aggression pact between these two countries in force at the time and as such nobody really worried about anything.
In the fall of 1940, German officers started to appear on the streets of Czernowitz. Their reason for being there was the voluntary registration of all ethnic Germans for the purpose of emigrating to Germany. Almost all of them registered and left for different parts of Germany assigned to them. There the men were recruited into the German Army, many of them into the SS units, and most of them died on the Eastern front. Eventually they all had a miserable life and many died after suffering all the deprivations of the war. The few survivors stated after the war how sorry they were to have emigrated.
Seeing the German officers walking the streets of Czernowitz, one had to assume that they were a civilized lot. Nobody could have imagined that these people were capable of the subsequent atrocities.
A terrible shock came in the spring of 1941, when, one night, the security units of the NKVD (state Security Police) came to town and arrested a big number of people. People that were on a list they must have had from before, like former businessmen, factory owners etc., whom they considered exploiters. Among those arrested were some boys and girls, students in our school and their parents.
When they were arrested and taken to the train station and kept there, we tried to go to the train station to see them and bring them some food and clothing, but we were prevented to do so by a cordon of soldiers who surrounded the trains and did not let anybody through. These people were then deported to Siberia, many of them never returned, having died of hunger and disease. Here and there someone survived and even returned several years after the end of the war. So this shock of having experienced first hand the deportation of some people that we knew, of students and colleagues of ours, represented the first major disappointment of life and goings on within the Soviet Union.
The school year continued and ended in June 1941. This being the last year of high school, we started to organize a big year end graduation party and dance, for which we had prepared music for dancing and bought all kinds of food. Everything was ready for the evening of June 22, 1941 for a big celebration. What we did not figure was the fact that on the same June 22, 1941, at about 4 a.m., the city woke up to the sound of explosions all over. Germany had broken the non-aggression pact and attacked the Soviet Union on land and in the air, by bombing airports in most western Soviet cities like Kiev, Lvov, Minsk, Czernowitz, etc. Without any declaration of war, the Germans started to advance into the Soviet Union and caused havoc and panic among the population of Czernowitz and among the population of the Soviet Union in general. This, in turn, resulted in a breakdown of the administration, of civil authority, of commercial activity; it was complete chaos. People began to hoard everything they could get their hands on. The feeling of fear took hold, especially among the Jews, when they saw the Russians fleeing.
One morning, Jacques and I went out to a street nearby where a truck was parked and, on it, we saw people from Seletin. We asked about our parents and they told us that everybody in Seletin fled, including our parents, but where they went they didn't know. Atrocities committed by the Germans and the Rumanians were well-known to the Jewish population, so there was good reason to become panicky. Everything that we had prepared for the year end party was divided among students of our class and taken home because, instantly there was a shortage of food and certainly no party was going to take place.
I spoke to Jacques Ernst, my best friend, regarding our options, whether we should remain in Czernowitz under the German-Rumanian occupation or maybe also run for our lives as a lot of other people did. Some even left walking in the Eastern direction, as was the case of two brothers Anczel and Willie Lecker, cousins of mine. Eventually they reached Tashkent in Uzbekistan and survived the war there.
Some young men were taken into the Red Army, as was the case with a lad from Seletin, by the name of Berl Neumann, 20, whom we met. He was in military uniform and was driving an army truck fleeing East. People were running in any direction as long as it was away from the Germans. And so at one point we decided to leave and not remain under the Germans, especially since we found out that our parents also fled and we were hoping that we could meet them somewhere inside the Soviet Union.
We packed a rucksack each with whatever we could stuff into it and decided to go down to the train station to find out if we could get on one of the trains leaving the station. We had made up our minds that if we could board a train that would take us deep into the Soviet Union or at least into the Ukraine, then we would get on that train. If that were impossible, then we would not continue our journey walking, as in fact many others did, because we figured that it was too difficult to walk thousands of kilometers. So the decision was made, in that case, to abandon the whole project if we couldn't get transportation and take our chances.
On the way to the train station, we stopped at two friends of our families, the family Jagermann and the family Gensler, to say goodbye. They both tried to persuade us not to go considering the dangers that we were facing and since we were only 18 years old. But we decided to try anyway. So we continued to walk and as we approached the train station we saw that it was surrounded by soldiers who did not let anybody pass into the station. We then decided that we would walk to the next station, Zuczika, which was only a few kilometers away. We would try there to get on a train that was coming from Czernowitz and going east. So we walked to Zuczika and waited for a train that would take us. Trains were coming all the time but they were over filled with military personnel and civilians and nobody would let us in. After waiting at the station for more than 24 hours, a train arrived and stopped. After a little while somebody, who was on the train called our names. It turned out to be a boy with whom we went to elementary school in Seletin, by the name of Eli Neumann, brother of Berl Neumann, mentioned before. He was on one of the wagons full of people, but who succeeded to become a kind of a leader of the people in that wagon. He made place for us inside that car and we boarded the train. He was an apprentice barber and even though he was only 18 years old, coming from a very poor family, already made some money giving haircuts and shaves, money that he shared with us, as we were completely helpless. The train was not a normal passenger train, but consisted of a number of cattle wagons, each of which was full to the limit.
After standing at the station for a very long time, the train finally moved. It was June 29, 1941 when we left Czernowitz and none too soon. On July 6 1941, Czernowitz fell to the Rumanians.
The distance to the former Soviet border, which was the Dniester river, was only 45 km, but it took the train 48 hours to get there. There were frequent long stops for no apparent reason and several times the train was attacked by German planes with bombs and machine gun fire.
During those attacks the people on the train ran into the fields, hiding in wheat fields, but the Germans succeeded in killing some and wounding others. We hid most of the time behind those big steel wheels under the wagons. As we approached the bridge over the Dniester, leading into the city of Zalescziky on the other side, there was unusual activity all along the train. Russian security units were searching the train for spies, or so we were told, who had committed sabotage. One person was arrested and summarily executed.
We finally made it across the bridge and into the Zalescziky railway station, which was close to the bridge. As soon as we were on the other side, the bridge was blown up by the retreating Russians and whole sections fell into the river, causing a terrible problem in the fall of 1941, of which I will relate later.
On the platform of the Zalescziky railway station, there was a huge tank and a clear liquid poured out of a small hole in the tank, running onto the pavement. It turned out to be pure alcohol. The hole was made by a shot fired from a gun, so as to waste the alcohol and not let it fall into German hands. We filled two bottles because that was all the bottles we could find. The alcohol turned out to be very valuable. We used most of it to barter for food. We kept some and used it as a disinfectant. Also, because the train was stopped a long time, we went into town, found a working bakery, begged and received two loaves of bread, that kept us alive for the next 48 hours.
When the train finally moved, it was again a stop and go situation for the next 48 hours, during which time we advanced another 45 km. passing through towns like Tluste and the city of Czortkow, and arriving to the train station of the city of Kopuczinze. As soon as the train pulled into the station, German planes attacked with heavy bombardment and destroyed most everything: buildings, warehouses and a good part of the railway tracks leading from the city in the northern direction. While we were there, we saw for the first time an armored train on one of the other tracks, consisting of several cars and a locomotive, all armored and heavily armed with canons and machine guns. After the bombing, the armored train pulled ahead of our train, trying to make way for the other trains, but got stuck in a forest nearby, because the tracks had been destroyed, and after having stopped, was attacked by German paratroopers that the Germans had launched into that forest. All this happened during the night, and when morning came we were told that there is no way that the trains will ever move again.
The train we were on, as well as the other trains, were ready transport facilities meant to transport units of the Red Army to the East. When all of them stopped, we saw soldiers from those trains abandoning their weapons, deserting their army units and trying to blend in among the civilians so as not to be captured and become German war prisoners.
We were faced again with having to make an important decision. As there were around a thousand people milling around the station, most of us decided to walk along the railway tracks in the hope that we would arrive somewhere at a highway, where we would beg the retreating Russians to take us along in one of their trucks.
At the railway station, before starting to walk, we supplied ourselves with as many cans of canned fish in tomato sauce as we could carry from the bombed out warehouses and then we were on our way.
After walking for several hours, we came to a clearing, from which we saw at a distance of about 2 km a convoy of trucks heading in the direction we wanted to go and the hoods of these trucks were covered with red flags, clearly visible from where we were standing. We were relieved to see them and so we started to walk towards the highway, but when we got close, we saw that the red flags had in the center a white circle in the middle of which there was a black swastika. The Germans had broken through the front at Lvov on July 5, 1941 and advanced without encountering any resistance. It was July 7, 1941, when we fell under the Germans. We were trapped.
The area where we ended up is part of Galizia. Just like the Bucovina, Galizia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart after being on the losing side during World War I, Galizia was given to Poland, having partly a Polish population. Most of the population, though, was Ukrainian, but the events of 1917 in Russia (the Bolshevik revolution), placed the Ukraine as one of the Soviet Republics and that is why Galizia was given to Poland by the Allies at the Versailles treaty.
Galizia remained part of Poland until Poland was partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union in the fall of 1939, when it became part of the Soviet Union, being incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The Ukrainian population was always nationalistic, dreaming of an independent Ukrainian State, free from Russia.
Hitler exploited this feeling and fooled the Ukrainians into believing that the Germans will support such a dream. That is why most Ukrainians felt as allies of the Germans and prepared themselves even when still under the Soviet regime for the day when they will be "liberated" by the Germans. That explains that when I arrived there the day after the German conquest, they displayed Ukrainian flags, had instantly a Ukrainian police, etc.
Almost all the cities, towns and villages also had a Jewish population, organized in communities with synagogues, rabbis, etc. They were part of the local scene and even though antisemitism was rampant, they played an important role in the economic life of the region.