Memories of the Holocaust: Kishinev (Chisinau)

Introduction and Acknowledgements


In April 1994, after an absence of almost 53 years I visited my native city of Chisinau (Kishinev), now the capital of the independent Republic of Moldova. When I left it in 1941, as a young teenager, I was running for my life, escaping from the Kishinev Ghetto which was being liquidated and its prisoners deported on a death march to Transnistria (the Ukraine). Now, I came back not just on a nostalgic trip to the past but representing UCLA in newly established academic contacts with the Moldovian Academy of Sciences and the State University of Moldova. Indeed, in collaboration with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and some other cosponsors, we are planning to hold in September 1995 a joint symposium on "Jewish History, Language and Literature". Such an international symposium has not occurred in Kishinev for many decades.

While in Kishinev, I was given by Professor Izia Levit of the Academy of Sciences a copy of two original reports, in the Romanian language, written by a high commission appointed by Marshal Ion Antonescu in December 1941. These are the most detailed available documents on the Kishinev Ghetto, other camps in Bessarabia and on the deportations to Transnistria. To my knowledge, they have never been translated and published in the English language. The first report, the longer of the two, is not to be found in the valuable compilations of documents related to that time and place (Carp, 1946, and Ancel, 1986). The second report, dealing with more dramatic and sensitive events, has been reproduced in these two publications (Carp, 1946, Vol.III, pp.61-65, and Ancel, 1986, Vol.V, pp.192-196).

There are very few who have survived the Kishinev Ghetto and, to my knowledge, none have written about it. The events have been described in a few publications but none in the English language (Korn, 1949, pp.228-236; Korn, 1971, pp.429-492; Doron (Spector), 1977; and Levit, 1993, pp.102-123). The latest paper by Professor Levit is based to a great extend on the above Romanian reports. The holocaust in Transnistria, while mentioned in these publications, has also been relatively neglected particularly in the English language. The first paper was probably written by my father David Cervinschi who, in August 1942, while interned in the nearby camp of Dumanovca, was able to see the death camp of Acmecetca and write about it later (---, 1944, pp.27-30). I translated his paper and am enclosing it here in Appendix 4. Julius S. Fisher called Transnistria "the forgotten cemetery" (Fisher, 1969), and the latest book on Transnistria is by Dr. Avigdor Shachan and is being translated now into English (Shachan, 1988).

Having received the two reports, which brought back many terrifying memories, I decided to translate them, and to add some of my eyewitness recollections as well as a few other relevant documents and references. I believe that the study of the Holocaust is an important lesson for all of us in understanding the terrible dehumanizing dangers that exist in the extreme in any kind of prejudice, discrimination and persecution of particular groups of people. In order to have hope for the future, we must fully face the past. As stated by Professor Dan Bar-On, "... the quest for hope has to do with confronting the truth". (Bar-On, 1989, p.13)

The province of Bessarabia, covering 17,151 sq. mi. (44,421 sq. km.), is bordered on the south by the Danube delta and the Black Sea, on the west by the Romanian province of Moldavia and the Prut river, and on the north and east by the Nistru (Dnestr) river and the southern part of the Ukraine (Transnistria). It is approximately rectangular in shape with a width of about 70 miles and a length of about 240 miles. Bessarabia was captured by the Turks during the 16th century and held until 1812. It was under the Czarist Russia for 106 years, between 1812 and 1918. After the Bolshevik revolution, it became part of Romania until 1940 when it was returned peacefully to the Soviet Union plus a significant part of Bucovina as "compensation" for the 22 years of Romanian "occupation". From June 28, 1940 until the attack of the Soviet Union by the German and Romanian armies on June 22, 1941, it was under Soviet rule. The fascist armies marched east quickly, bringing death and destruction to the Jewish communities of Bessarabia, Bucovina and the Ukraine. As the fortunes of the war changed, the Soviets returned during the second half of 1944. Finally, under its new communist government, Romania ceded Bessarabia to the USSR in 1947.

The capital city of the province of Bessarabia is Kishinev (Chisinau). It was first mentioned in 1424 and, during the 19th century grew significantly in size and regional importance. It was inhabited by Jews at least from the 16th century and during the 19th century became a large Jewish city. For example in 1897, the year that my late father was born, it had a Jewish population of 50,237 people representing 46% of the city. In June 1940, when it was returned to the Soviet Union, the Jewish population had grown to an estimated 60,000 because of the influx of Jews from Romania which began to turn fascist. With the killings and the deportations, within one and a half years "Jewish Kishinev" was left with only 86 Jews (see p.18)!

The persecution, pogroms and murder of Jews in that part of the world was unfortunately endemic. Consider three generations of my own family. My paternal grandfather, Aaron-Iosef Cervinschi, was born in 1872 in the Ukraine in the village of Borshagovca near Kiev. At the age of nine he was probably hiding during the epidemic of pogroms that struck the Ukraine in 1881. My father, born in 1897, told me of his recollections of the infamous 1903 pogrom of Kishinev. He was six years of age, the same age as my younger brother was in 1941. Once, while in the Ghetto of Kishinev in July 1941, my brother found himself with our whole family against a wall with his hands raised ready to be shot by Romanian soldiers. Fortunately for us, the soldiers changed their mind! There may be some moral in comparing the reaction of the world to the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 and to the events that took place 38 years later. During the Kishinev pogrom there were 49 Jews killed, 38 men and boys and 11 women and girls. It was an event carried out by mobs and not by organized armies and it was exceedingly vicious[1] . As described and exemplified by numerous books and publications of the time, the reaction in America was loud, angry, widespread and not confined only to the Jewish community (Davitt, 1903; Adler, 1904; Korolenko, 1904; Singer, 1904). It was later a subject of memoirs (Slutskii, 1930) and of historic books in recent times (Judge, 1992). The pogrom resulted in a change of the Russian Governor within a couple of month. The incoming Governor wrote a fascinating memoirs which is extremely informative of the society of Kishinev and Bessarabia of that time (Urusov, 1908).

While this paper focusses on the events during the Holocaust, it must not be forgotten that before the Second World War Kishinev and Bessarabia were vital, energetic and important Jewish communities containing a spectrum of economic, religious and intellectual groups. Its people contributed much to the development of Zionism, Jewish education and culture, and a Jewish agricultural cooperative movement (Korn, 1949; Korn, 1971).

The reports translated and presented in this paper cover the period of July to December 1941. The German and Romanian armies occupied Kishinev on July 18, 1941, and the Ghetto was established on July 22-23. It lasted about two months. According to the report, it had a population of 11,525 Jews, 64% of which were women and children and 28% old people. The deportations from the Ghetto to Transnistria started on October 12, 1941, on what proved to be a death march. Transnistria was the southernmost part of the Ukraine, between the rivers Nistru and Bug. It was renamed as such to indicate the conquered area "given" by the Germans to their Romanian allies. Exactly how many Jews perished during 1941 to 1944 in the areas of Bucovina, Bessarabia and Transnistria will never be known. Estimates run between 200,000 to almost double this number. Everyone of them, men, women and children, was an innocent victim of the Holocaust and the murder of most of them was the responsibility of the Romanian regime of Marshal Ion Antonescu.

Consider the destruction of the Bessarabian Jewry. When the war started with the attack on the Soviet Union, the German and Romanian armies encountered Jews escaping from burning cities. A great number of these were executed immediately. According to Matatias Carp: "On July 17, 1941, along the two roads into the city [Kishinev] the arriving Romanian and German troops killed 10,000 Jews. The roads were Sculeni in the north and Hancesti in the south." (Carp, 1946, Vol.I, p.27). Carp also mentions 4,000 Bessarabian Jews who evacuated from Kishinev and were caught and killed by the advancing armies in the Ukraine. Julius Fisher describes the death of some 11,500 Bessarabian Jews in July and August, 1941, as they were driven back and forth between the Germans and the Romanians before some were interned in the camp at Vertujeni (Fisher, 1969, pp.46-47).

After these initial events, there were in Bessarabia some 75-80,000 Jews interned in the Ghetto of Kishinev and at nine other camps listed in the report (see p.43). Of these, again as reported here, 55,867 were counted at the various points of crossing the Nistru river into Transnistria. They joined 45,538 Jews deported to Transnistria from Bucovina, for a total of 101,405 people. The report states that: "As far as the Jews from Bessarabia, it follows that, between those interned of 75-80,000 and those deported of 55,867, there is a difference of 25,000 Jews, who died a natural death, escaped, or were shot by the methods that we will describe below." (p.43, emphasis added). These perished within about three to four months.

Let us consider in turn the suggested fate of these "missing" 25,000:

(i) By "natural means" the report mentions 441 Jews who died in the Ghetto, including 20 suicides before the deportations, and 1,800 Jews at the camp of Vertujeni. Many died at the other Bessarabian camps. This "natural death" is better described as hunger and starvation!

(ii) How many managed to escape? A very minute number. While the report describes many "infractions associated with the Ghetto", none involved crimes associated with hiding escaped Jews. Unlike Western Europe, the environment was hostile and aggressive towards the Jews. The conclusion reached by the report was that, during the deportations, there were "... robberies committed by the population of the communities located along the routes of the convoys. The cart drivers exploited the circumstances, trying to extort, by all available means, money and objects from the Jews." (p.20)

There were only two cases mentioned in which "Cart drivers, in addition to carrying out robberies, also served as accomplices of the Jews, to harm the state, by hiding valuable objects owned by the Jews." (p.33) Their names were Ioan Handarenco and Gh. Neamtu, both of Kishinev. Unfortunately there were not many Righteous Gentiles to be found! The only case that I know of escaped Jews being hidden by Romanians for long periods of time was that of my uncle and aunt, Mischa and Ida Apotecher, who survived the war in Bucharest hiding in the home of a Romanian Colonel.

The report mentions in various places people who have escaped the Kishinev Ghetto. This adds up to 37 persons, including my family, most of whom were captured. They were helped by others to escape, almost always for large sums of money. The report even blames the Germans for helping the escapes! (p.24) Personally, I probably owe my life to the three "police agents Ion RohanNeamtu and Stoenescu" who helped us escape. Most of the other criminal cases described in the report included extortions, entrapments, simulated escapes and other abuses.

(iii) We are left with the great majority who "were shot". The report describes three specific cases:

1. On August 1, 1941, 411 Jews from the Ghetto were shot "near Visterniceni". The report highlights the fact that it included "the Christian Ion Carmen from Ploesti" who was there because of his Jewish wife.

2. Early August 1941, 325 Jews from the Ghetto perished at Ghidighici.

3. On August 9, 1941, the camp at tataresti was liquidated and all 451 Jews executed. Cpt.Rez. Gh.Ion Vetu, who together with the German Sub.Lt. Heinrich Frohlich brought the order of Marshal Antonescu to the commander of the camp, carried out the executions and proceeded to rob the dead Jews of some of their valuables.

Undoubtedly, there were many more such cases the details of which we will never know. Thousands others died during the death march to Transnistria. This was clearly planned before the deportations. Under the instruction of "The manner of dealing with those who do not comply? (Alexeanu)", General Topor undoubtedly meant the elimination of those who could not walk the distance under the inhuman conditions. The report makes this explicitly clear by describing the preparations along the deportation routes: "... each 10 kilometers a grave for about 100 persons where those lagging the convoys will be gathered, shot and buried." (p.47)

The Jews deported from Bessarabia and Bucovina joined, in the camps of Transnistria thousands of Russian Jews. Earlier, tens of thousands were burned to death in Odessa and executed at Bogdanovca and Dumanovca. From 1942 to their liberation by the Russians in second half of 1944, tens of thousands continued to perish in death camps like Acmecetca and others throughout Transnistria.

The situation did not remain unknown for long in the West. David Wyman reports that in January 1943 a telegram arrived in the United States "... from Gerhart Riegner in Switzerland, written in collaboration with Richard Lichtheim, an official of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. It disclosed an intensification of the systematic killing ... Of the 130,000 Rumanian Jews deported to the Transnistria region in 1941, 60,000 were dead. The other 70,000 were destitute, sleeping in crowded, unheated rooms, prey to diseases, and dying of starvation." (Wyman, 1984, p.80)

He describes how "On February 13, one day before the Riegner-Lichtheim information came out in the press, a report of great interest to those concerned about the European Jews appeared in the New York Times. By coincidence, it exactly meshed with the Riegner-Lichtheim description of the dreadful condition of the 70,000 Rumanian Jews still alive in Transnistria, and it threw a ray of hope into the darkness. A dispatch from C. L. Sulzberger in London disclosed that the Rumanian government had offered to cooperate in moving 70,000 Jews from Transnistria to any place of refuge chosen by the Allies. The Rumanians suggested Palestine and offered to provide Rumanian ships for the voyage. In return, Rumania asked to be paid transportation and related expenses, amounting to 20,000 Rumanian lei (about $130) per refugee, along with additional funds should Rumanian ships be utilized." (Wyman, 1984, p.82)

It seemed that the Romanian government was unsure of an Axis victory and wanted to shift "...into the good graces of the Allies..." (Wyman, 1984, p.82) Wyman continues and suggests that the American and British governments may have "looked upon the release of large number of Jews as a threat, not an opportunity"! The proposal was apparently brought to various high levels of government and rejected. Wyman concludes that "The main issue is not whether the plan might have worked. The crucial point is that, against a backdrop of full knowledge of the ongoing extermination programs, the American and British governments almost cursorily dismissed this first major potential rescue opportunity" (Wyman, 1984, p.84)

The two reports presented in this paper were written, probably in January 1942, by a special commission appointed by the order of Marshal Ion Antonescu. Its members were high military officers, and high legal and banking officials. Although the reports are one sided and present only the official Romanian point of view, they have become most valuable historic documents and evidence. The motivation of appointing the commission was not to investigate the crimes against the Jews but to look into the "damaging acts to the State (which) were made possible and were performed...", in other words to make sure that no one will steal the property of the Jews which only the State was allowed to steal! The trigger was apparently the arrest of Kisel Kremer as he was trying to escape from the Ghetto, the large amount of gold found in his possession and particularly the fact that some of the local officials proceeded to steal this gold. In addition to the valuable evidence that the commission reports now provide, I believe that they have also resulted in saving some lives! A number of Jews were kept from being deported, some were apparently returned from the roads or from Transnistria; all this in order to be available as witnesses for the commission.

Many crimes and criminals were discovered and described by the commission, leading even to the suicide of a former Commander of the Ghetto. They found that "...the Jewish question and the possibility of exploiting them, as people who apparently ceased to benefit from the protection of the law, helped the development of a spirit vicious, corrupted, and inclined to abuse and self indulgence." (p.35) It is not surprising that persecution and "legal lawlessness" leads to societal lawlessness and a special societal mental state!

In their legal wisdom, the commission proceeded to be concerned about "the abandoned property" and the fact that "...the forced deportation of the Jews over the Nistru can not represent the situation envisaged by the law - i.e. finding abandoned goods - because the owners did not abandon, on their free will, the goods which belonged to them, but were forcibly deported." (pp.44 & 45) Also they worried that, since all identifications were removed from the Jews as they were transferred into the hell of Transnistria, following the Romanian law of expropriating real estate and establishing compensation criteria and needed legal procedures would be difficult "...because of lack of identification in which the deported Jews presently find themselves." (p.44) They worried not about the State crimes being committed but about "...some future situations, in which, for the supreme interest of the Country, renewed discussions could arise with respect to settlement of the Jews who lived in Bessarabia and Bucovina at the time of reunification, it would be possible by those interested to exaggerate purposefully the number of these people over the real number and to make substitutions of persons, because of lack of any statistics and identifications." (p.45) There was no apparent concern about the farce of "buying" the Jewish money and valuables on transfer to Transnistria.

The description of the scale and nature of the shocking crimes was left to the shorter second report. There are some glaring differences between the two reports. In the first report they write that during the deportation " general, humanity and good treatment were the criteria of behavior towards the Jews by the officers and guarding troops and also by the escorting gendarmes. Soldiers were observed who, during the deportations, helped Jews with the loading of the carts or gave them their bread." (p.40), while the second report details the preparation for the killing of Jews along the way every 10 kilometers and the execution of these plans.

Finally, the reports conclude that during the deportations "...the preparations and particularly the execution of the given orders created such dramatic moments that those who took part will carry with them for a very long time the memories of these events." (p.47)

We will also never forget them!

Samuel Aroni Professor Emeritus, UCLA Director, Special Academic Cooperative Projects International Studies and Overseas Programs (ISOP)

January 1995


I gratefully acknowledge the moral and financial assistance received from Dr. Sol Leshin for the academic cooperation with the Moldovian Academy of Sciences and the State University of Moldova and the joint symposium on "Jewish History, Language and Literature" planned to be held in Kishinev in September 1995. The continuing support of Professor John Hawkins, the Dean of the International Studies and Overseas Programs (ISOP) at UCLA for this and other international projects of cooperation is much appreciated.

1. "When the soldiers came into the city on Tuesday, April 12th, the bloodshed stopped. It was raging until noon of that day. The soldiers made 1,002 arrests, but twenty times that number participated in the murders and tortures and nameless indignities on the people of my faith.

 When my mother and father, sisters and brothers and their four little children dared come out of our place of concealment in the cellar of the friendly cooper who sheltered us, the streets of the city were a shocking sight. Dead bodies were everywhere, many of them horribly mutilated, and in most cased with the clothes torn off. There were ears, fingers, noses lying on the pavements. Many of the bodies had been covered with leaves or with the feathers which had strewn the streets like snow.

 Before I secured shelter I saw scenes of torture for an hour or more which I can never forget. Babies were tossed in the air to be caught on the points of spears and swords. Young girls were horribly mistreated before death came to end their torture. I saw these things with my own eyes, No pen or tongue can add anything to the fiendishness of the mobs who swarmed through the streets, crying:"Kill the Jews! Burn their houses! Spare not at all!"

 Reported by Abraham Polnovick, a survivor of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903(Stiles, 1903)

Source: Memories of The Holocaust: Kishinev (Chisinau) 1941-1944