A University Professor, Dr. Ihiel Benditer was born in Romania. From September 1942 to March 1944, he was detained in the camps of Vapniarca and Grosulovo in Transnistria. During the post-war years he taught at the law school in Iasi [Iashi].
He settled in Israel in 1983, where he resumed his research activities at The Haifa University (The Institute for Research of the Holocaust Period), and later at the Tel-Aviv University (The Institute for the Diaspora Research).
Professor Benditer is a prolific writer, whose books and studies have been published in New York and Tel-Aviv.
This chapter presents excerpts from his book "Vapniarca", published by ANAIS Ltd. in 1995, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Vapniarca was one of the most cruel and barbaric camps in Transnistria, partly because the inmates were political detainees and also because it was a camp involved in criminal experiments.
"Why did creation begin with a single
To teach us that to destroy a single human soul is equivalent to destroying an entire world; and that to sustain a single human soul is equivalent to sustaining an entire world."
Demography and Status of the Vapniarca Camp
The Vapniarca camp was located near a small settlement with the same name in the Vinnitza region in north-western Transnistria, about 40 kilometres east of Moghilev-Podolsk. In the new administrative partition of Transnistria, Vapniarca became a part of the Jugastru region, which bordered the district of Tulchin. This district included numerous disciplinary, forced labour and extermination camps, such as Nesterovka, Kapustiani, Kirnosovka, Peciora [Pechiora], Maniovka, and the German extermination camps of Rastadt, Brailov, Berezovca and Chiukov.
Camp Vapniarca was established in October 1941 by the occupying Romanian army. From its inception until September 1942, Vapniarca had the same status as the other Jewish camps in Transnistria. From a military standpoint, the staff of the camp was subordinate to the Inspectorate of Gendarmes of Transnistria, and from an administrative standpoint it reported to the Governor's Office of Transnistria.
In the fall of 1941, about 1,000 Jewish victims were deported from the Odessa area to Vapniarca. They were survivors of the pogroms and massacres committed by the Romanian army during October 23 to 25, 1941. These massacres were perpetrated mainly against the Jewish population, as a punishment for an explosion, which took place at the Romanian Military Headquarters.
A short time later, they were joined by several hundred Jewish deportees from Bessarabia and Bucovina.
During the winter of 1941, a ravaging typhus epidemic broke out, and a large number of deportees perished. In June 1942, those who survived the epidemic were sent to the camps of Trihati and Ocheakov, and from there to Kolosovka, where they were shot. Their bodies were dumped into anti-tank ditches.
The only detainees left in Vapniarca by the summer of 1942 were 101 Ukrainians, members of a religious sect (Bogomoli). They had been detained following Antonescu's order of May 6, 1942, to evacuate members of religious sects to Transnistria and confine them in concentration camps.
In August 1942, the military and administrative status of Vapniarca underwent a change. From a military standpoint, the camp no longer reported to the Inspectorate of the Gendarmerie in Transnistria, but merely collaborated with it. The camp now received its instructions and orders directly from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and from the General Army Headquarters in Bucharest to whom it was responsible. The Governor's Office of Transnistria became merely the administrative body in charge of supplying the camp with food for the military detachments charged with guarding the detainees. The military unit governing the camp was a detachment of troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, thus ensuring that the command of the camp was autonomous vis-a-vis both the civilian and military bodies of the Governor's Office of Transnistria. Therefore, the subsequent orders from headquarters regarding the gradual and deliberate extermination of the detainees could be kept strictly secret.
On August 1, 1942, Major Ilie Murgescu was installed as the camp's commander, in order to implement these orders. He was a member of a group of officers who graduated from a special training course for camp commanders in May 1942, at Pitesti. These officers had been prepared for the management of a new series of camps to be set up in Transnistria since a decision had been taken to start a new wave of mass deportations of Jews from Romania.
Deporation to Vapniarca
On June 21, 1941 order number 4147, signed by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Division General I. Popescu stated: "All able-bodied Jews, 18 to 60 years old, from the villages between the Rivers Siret and Prut will be evacuated to the detention camp in Tirgu-Jiu and to the villages around this town. The first trains will depart today." This order resulted in the immediate arrest of the Jews in the designated age groups. They had not been accused of communist allegiance, as was often the case, but Jews were, nevertheless, considered dangerous elements to be allowed to live in the areas near the front lines. First, they were amassed in the detention camp in Tirgu-Jiu, and later that month a large number of them was transported to Vapniarca.
During the second part of September 1942, a total of 1,201 Jews were deported to Vapniarca from the various regions of The Old Romanian Kingdom and Transylvania. Of these deportees, 407 were from the detention camp in the former jail of Tirgu-Jiu, 72 were transferred from the Caransebes prison, and 722 had been randomly taken from their homes in various Romanian cities.
There was also a group of Christian Romanians, charged and convicted for criminal offences. However, the non-Jewish detainees in the camp never exceeded ten percent of the total number of detainees.
A number of leaders and office workers from the central and district Jewish community institutions in Romania were also deported to Vapniarca. They had been accused of intervening on behalf of or illegally helping Jews.
The deportees were kept under severe isolation unable to establish any connections with the outside world. Like in all other camps, they were starving, were deprived of elementary hygiene and medical care. They were left to perish from disease, epidemics, hunger and frost.
Camp Vapniarca was officially declared by the Romanian authorities as a camp for "politicals" (people accused of harbouring ideologies conflicting with Nazism). Therefore, alleged socialists, communists, Zionists and members of Jewish organizations were deported after the police had created files on them, indicating that they were suspicious. Having labelled them dangerous, the authorities complied with the intent of the deportation order of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The Setting in Vapniarca
Upon arrival the cattle trains carrying detainees were unloaded at the Vapniarca train station. People were lined up and marched by armed guards to the camp, about three kilometres away. The camp was surrounded by three barbed wire fences, and there were watchtowers every fifty meters. Three barracks stood in front of a plateau, which served as a spot for rollcall. The Jewish deportees were allotted two barracks: one for women and children, the other for men. The barracks in the middle was allotted to Christian detainees, mostly Ukraininans. On the opposite side of the plateau, there were two smaller buildings, which had served as a kitchen/dining room and a laundry/shower-house. The barracks were a former military school, which had been built by the Soviets near a forest alongside the railway tracks.
Outside of the barbed wire fences, there was a two-storey building where the camp's officers had settled. The camp commander also occupied an apartment in this building. The guards were housed in an auxiliary structure.
As soon as the deportees passed through the gates of the camp, they were informed of the regime of annihilation to which they were to be subjected. After registering at the gate, the new detainees were lined up for roll-call. They were met by Colonel Murgescu, the camp commander, who uttered the following greeting: "You entered the camp on two legs, but should you ever get out, you will crawl on all fours".
This is how Adalbert Rosinger, a former barracks detainee, describes the disastrous state of the buildings: "The windows had no glass, some of them were boarded over; the floorboards were ripped up; there were no sleeping facilities, not even bunks; the kitchen was out of order, and there was no water. There were only the massive walls and the broken roofs. At the end of the yard, two holes were dug to serve as latrines, one for men, the other for women. They were concealed only by a screen of reed."
Major Murgescu executed the orders of his superiors with special zeal. The victims who arrived on September 16, 1942, slept directly on the dirt floor because the floorboards had been ripped up and burned to provide meagre heat for those who passed through the camp before. Although it was warm outside, inside the barracks prisoners were shaking from exhaustion, hunger and thirst. The large halls of the third barracks on the ground and second floors were crowded with a total of 400 victims. It was horrible! Squeezed closely together, many tried to cover their emaciated bodies with a blanket or a coat to protect themselves from the cold nights; they trembled with anxiety, and tried to resist themselves from becoming lethargic.
During the first few days, some deportees thought that by begging, petitioning or personal appeals, they might obtain small personal concessions. But commander Murgescu and his assistant, Captain Stoleru, summarily denied all appeals. Murgescu subjected the detainees to a barbaric system of starvation, daily incarcerations, beatings, and diabolical methods of torture. The detainees were terrified of him. One day an attorney named Nahtigal, a former classmate of Murgescu, stepped forward from a delegation of detainees and asked that they be allowed to go to work outside the camp and find food for the sick. Murgescu replied arrogantly that they were sent to the camp to end their lives there, and that he had no intention of transforming the camp into a health resort.
One deportee, Zlota Steif Goichman, had miraculously escaped from the Camionka-Sidova women's camp near Treblinka. She found refuge in the city of Chernovitz, only to be recaptured by Romanian gendarmes. She describes how she arrived at Vapniarca and her first impressions of this camp: "I was sent to Moghilev. From there I was escorted from one police station to another until I got to the train station in Jzmerinka. I stayed for a short while at the train station, where a few Ukrainians approached me and asked where I was going. I told them I was on my way to Vapniarca. One old man crossed himself and said: 'Vapniarca? There people die like flies.' Yet, his words did not bother me. In Treblinka people died like flies too. So for me there was nothing new.... When I got to Vapniarca, I found only 30 Jewish detainees from Bessarabia. Only God is my witness as to the terrible state they were in. Their clothes were torn; they were dirty, hungry, and in a terrible state of demoralization. They told me that they were the remnants of a group of 1,200 Jews from Bessarabia and Bucovina. About half of them died of typhoid fever, and the others were taken out of the camp mostly crawling on all fours. Where they were taken and what happened to them, no one knows."
Another former deportee describes the following: "From all over the country, from Arad, Timishoara, and other cities, men, women, children and entire families were arrested and taken to the police station without being told the reason for their arrest. Rumours spread that they would be deported to Transnistria. On the evening of September 7, 1942, police pushed relatives away from the door of the detention centre, and took the roll call. We knew then, that we would be taken far away and that many of us would not return. The next morning, gendarmes herded us like cattle onto a freight train, crowding 50 or 60 people into each boxcar. We were not even allowed to say goodbye to our families, who were held at some distance away from the train by a line of gendarmes.
In the train station of every large city, more boxcars of deportees were added to our train. Robbery started even before we crossed the border into Transnistria. For a commission of 30% Captain Ursutsiu of the gendarmerie offered to hide our Romanian money until we crossed the border; however, once in Tiraspol, he would not hear of returning our money. In the Tiraspol train station we were further robbed by a Lieutenant Colonel Grosu, the right-hand man of General Iliescu, the all-powerful executioner of Transnistria. All valuables were confiscated, and any reluctance to give them up was punishable by death. Our group arrived in Vapniarca after a miserable eight-day trip in crowded sealed boxcars, without food or water...."
When appeals failed, the prisoners realized that other methods had to be found to survive. However, many people were so demoralized and disoriented by the conditions in the camp that they had fallen prey to hopelessness, not knowing what to do to escape from this terrible situation. The first ones to realize the danger of such a state of mind were those who came from prisons and from the detention camp in Tirgu-Jiu.
The Toxic Pea Cattle Fodder
In his memorandum number 2087, dated November 13, 1942, G. Alexianu, the Governor of Transnistria, complained to the Assembly of Ministers that he had experienced enough problems in supplying the army with food, without having to also satisfy "the needs of the Jewish Communist deportees interned in the camp".
The German Gestapo representative who liased with the Einsatzkommando suggested that in order to solve this problem the Romanians should use pea cattle fodder to feed the deportees. Alexianu had at his disposal a large quantity of this fodder, which had been left behind by the withdrawing Soviet troops. The Soviets used it, mixed with other fodder, to feed their horses. The German Gestapo representative was fully aware that the pea fodder had toxic effects on humans, nevertheless, he recommended that the Romanian officers use it to feed the Vapniarca inmates. This suggestion was presented as a fine solution to Alexianu's problem. (While this solution was initially used as a cheap way of feeding the detainees, it shortly became a deliberate criminal act, implemented to a lesser or greater degree depending on the personality of the respective camp commander).
Thus, the daily ration of the deportees consisted of a handful of pea fodder and 100 to 200 grams of bread made from hops, milled hay, and flour from the ground up pea fodder. The Ministry of Internal Affairs intended to cause a gradual extermination of the detainees through the accumulation of toxins in the body. The deportees were also subjected to starvation, total isolation, beatings and other forms of punishment. There was no possibility of making contact with the world outside the camp. The wall of silence with which the commanding officers surrounded the deportees was meant to protect the secret of what was going on inside the barbed wire fences.
BREAKING THE SILENCE
The Governor of Transnistria responsible for supplying the camps, aimed on the one hand to facilitate the extermination of the detainees and on the other, to increase his profits. He presented a petition to the Ministry in November of 1942, proposing that the "Jews" in Vapniarca be used for a variety of labour projects: "By so doing, he claimed, the camp would be less congested, food for labour would be ensured and the risk of outbreak of epidemics would be diminished."
The work projects were not too far from the camp. The prisoners were taken into the forest to chop wood, to the train station to stack or to load wood, and to unload coal and other materials from trains. Sometimes, the prisoners in these work-teams managed to obtain a piece of bread, a potato, or some other food, which they clandestinely brought into the camp in order to help the old, the sick, and those incapable of work. Since there was a complete lack of sugar in the camp, the heaps of beets from the fields near the train station were regarded as "manna from Heaven". Sometimes a soldiers would pretend not to notice when the teams returned from work with a few beets. They were cut into slices, fried and distributed first to the sick and if some were left, only then to others.
An even more important benefit of working outside the camp was that others could be informed of what was going on in the camp. In spite of strict supervision by the guards, the prisoners on the work teams managed to establish some contacts. At first these contacts were sporadic, with the civilian and military people who mingled in the train station in passing or on various missions. Later they occurred with more frequency. Some of these benevolent contacts were able to transmit to those at home, in Romania, little notes or even letters wherein the detainees described the dreadful situation they were in, and asked for help. Some military personnel who travelled to Romania on various missions, as well as railway personnel who travelled regularly between Romania and Transnistria provided many services to the deportees. Others did it in exchange for money, which they received from the families in Romania. Yet others helped out of genuine human decency. Some of the commanding officers with acquaintances among the deportees provided similar important services at great risk to their own positions. They carried messages sent by the deportees to their families, to the Central Jewish Committee, and to various other organizations in Romania. Upon their return to the camp, they brought with them money and other necessities.
The Battle with Lathyrism-Spastic-Paralysis
The disease Latirism (or Lathirismus) appeared at the outset of December 1942. It spread rapidly, assuming the proportions of a true epidemic. At first it manifested itself through digestive and urinary turbulence with painful spasms, especially in the lower part of the body, and worrisome secondary symptoms. Combined with starvation, cold, lack of hygiene, lack of medication, and low levels of immune resistance, these symptoms became extremely dangerous. There were about twenty doctors amongst the deportees, including interns and medical students. They devotedly took care of the sick, attempting to diagnose the disease and discover its cause. While they laboured to establish a diagnosis, several more severe cases appeared with additional symptoms, such as paralysis of the legs. An increasing number of young people, especially among those who had already been held for years in detention prisons and camps, could no longer move their legs, and became immobile. At the end of December 1942 there were only a few cases of paralysis, however, by January 1943, there were 110 severe cases and according to a report dated February 29, 1943, the disease had already affected 611 detainees.
Several doctors from Bucovina lead by Dr. Arthur Kessler, originally from Chernovitz, reached the conclusion that the disease presented all the symptoms of Latirism-spastic- paralysis caused by pea fodder, also known by the botanical name " lathyrus sativus".
Latirism-spastic-paralysis had been known for a long time, especially in veterinary medicine. During World War I, it ravaged tens of thousands of victims in different areas of the world where populations were starving and ate a similar kind of pea fodder. The species of lathyrus sativus contains some elements toxic to the human body, which attack the nervous cells of the spine marrow, causing paralysis of the legs.
Resistance in Vapniarca
Customarily, the commanding officers selected from among the deportees chiefs of groups, sections and barracks. Following the example of Nazi camps, chiefs were supposed to relay the orders of the commandant and the security guards to the detainees, and ensure that they were carried out.
Among those who arrived from the detention camp in Tirgu-Jiu, there was a core of action- oriented and decisive people. As a first objective, they decided to take action to change the selection system of group chiefs. This was done in order to select the people who are most capable to deal with the officers. There were many intellectuals and well-known leaders among the deportees, including former colleagues of the officers. Some of these deportees were selected for a delegation which was to present several petitions to the camp's commanding officers, proposing that the inmates make renovations inside the camp. These improvements were meant to encourage and give hope to the detainees.
The commandant and his officers were interested in maintaining order in the camp, especially since they feared that an outbreak of epidemics would endanger the troops lodged in the vicinity of the camp. This delegation was ultimately accepted and recognized as the committee of the detainees, which, like in all other camps, was called the Jewish Committee. Being aware that the victims in the camp had various political orientations, and that the vast majority had no political allegiances at all, the members of the committee were selected to represent all of these groups. They included representatives of the apolitical majority, as well as representatives from the various religious groups in the camp. The committee consisted of: Paul Dascal (attorney), Nicolae Goldschmidt (banker), Benjamin Vilner (rabbi), Emanoil Vinea, S. Bughici and Aurel Rotenberg. The last three people were former political detainees from various prisons and camps in Romania.
The first plan of action of the new committee was to obtain permission to repair the barracks and the other camp facilities, including the bath, the laundry room and the kitchen. This important objective was intended to lift the victims from a state of inactivity and lethargy, which was contributing to their physical and psychological deterioration.
After many attempts, eventually, the committee managed to obtain permission from the commandant to bring into the camp construction material for the repair of the barracks and the auxiliary buildings. Outside the camp, groups of detainees, selected for this purpose from among tradesmen, were busy with chores for the commanding officers and guard troops. They identified several abandoned buildings around the camp and removed windows and floorboards. Inside the camp, other groups of tradesmen were organized to repair the windows, floors and roofs and to build wooden bunks, so that people would no longer have to sleep on the dirt floor. The buckets for carrying water, the barrels where it was stored, and the water pump were also repaired. The containers, used for elimination during the night when the barracks were locked, were fixed as well. A water pipe and the only faucet mounted at the plateau in front of the barracks were restored.
In order to obtain permission for the various projects, constant contact with the camp's commanding officers was necessary. The latter tacitly accepted the new leadership.
An additional benefit of these actions, was that the authority of the committee was elevated. Firstly, because everybody was glad about the improvements in their conditions, and secondly, because the selection process for those working outside of the camp was improved. More specifically, the sick were spared from going on work projects and tradesmen with special skills were selected for each of the repair groups.
The involvement in these activities resulted in the strongest bonding and lasting friendships, which could only develop amidst the hardest of circumstances. Being from varied socio- economic strata, and coming from diverse perspectives, varied educational levels and different cultural backgrounds, the victims gradually forged a common attitude rooted in the awareness of the reality that they shared a common tragic destiny. The vast majority realized that the only chance to resist and survive lay in their unity and solidarity, in common action and mutual assistance.
Community Structure and Organization
The most important step in the development of solidarity was the grouping of detainees by their former place of domicile in Romania. The biggest and wealthiest communities came from Arad, Timishoara and Bucharest. Following in size and wealth were the communities from the counties of Moldova: Iashi, Bacau, Botoshani and Buhushi. The most destitute were those from Dorohoi, Bessarabia and Bucovina. Accepted by the commanding officers as traditional forms of community organization among Jews, the communities were able to help each other as much as possible under the circumstances. The wealthier ones assisted those from Moldova, Bucovina and Bessarabia. Groups for the care of the sick were organized within each community. Notwithstanding differences of opinion, in all instances where there was a threat to the detainees, the communities acted with firm unity in order to alleviate the danger.
In order to reduce typhoid fever as well as other epidemics, the camp's sanitary conditions and hygiene had to be strictly observed. For this purpose, all camp inmates were divided into groups of ten people. Each group was headed by a sanitation worker, who was responsible to check each individual's personal hygiene as well as the cleanliness of his/her allotted floor space. In the halls of the third barracks, where each of the two floors housed 200 inmates, four divisions were formed, each consisting of ten groups. Thus, exemplary discipline was adhered to. As a result, many epidemics were avoided and the number of sick did not increase considerably.
Since the commanding officers refused to eliminate the toxic pea fodder from the inmates' food, an intense educational campaign was started to alert people to the dangerous effects of this food. People were advised to refuse the daily rations that were made available to them. At the same time, an appeal was made to the wealthier communities to share the little food they had saved. Many opened their little boxes, where they had stored the food they had received from home, or had bought at the canteen. (A more lenient camp commander would occasionally allow a small canteen to function). They gave some of this food to the sick in the infirmary. Similarly, those who worked outside the camp, at times when this was allowed, brought back and shared some of the food, which they had obtained at their work places. Thus, the deportees were able to refuse the pea brew. For about three weeks, they were able to withstand their hunger pains. The strike culminated when people refused to allow the food to be brought in through the camp gate. Punishment and threats followed, but, eventually, the commanding officers gave in.
However, the elimination of the toxic food from the daily rations, only partially resolved the problem. Those already affected by the symptoms were in urgent need of medication and special care. Several deportees, doctors and lawyers from Chernovitz, managed to contact the Governor's office and transmit a memorandum directly to Alexianu. They described the grave situation in the camp, the large number of sick, and the lack of vitamins and medication. They implored the Governor to assist them. On January 4, 1943, Governor Alexianu met with several deportees from Vapniarca, former law school colleagues from Chernovitz, and promised that he would allow parcels with medication sent from Romania to be received in the camp
ATTEMPTS TO BREAK THE RESISTANCE
The concessions made by Alexianu were not appreciated by the commanding officers. Colonel Murgescu and some of his officers realized that all of this came about as a result of a well-organized campaign by the detainees. They were determined to uncover the organizers and thus break the victims' resistance. Captain Cristodu Popescu was brought in specifically for this purpose. Soon after his arrival, Captain Popescu reduced the daily ration of bread from 200 to 100 grams and prohibited parcels from the families back home. He also ordered the guards to intensify searches at the gate, so that those returning from work could not smuggle in food or letters. In addition, he ordered the disposal of the handmade tin ovens used by the deportees to warm themselves during the terrible winter frosts of 1942-1943. Corporal punishment was intensified. The smallest infraction resulted in twenty-five lashes on the bare back, or "incarceration" at the entrance gate in deep round holes dug in the ground, just wide enough to hold one person standing up.
Despite all these brutal measures, Captain Popescu did not succeed in discovering the resistance organizers, neither aomng those who worked inside nor outside the camp. Those who worked outside the camp continued to maintain their connections with the Romanian train personnel and civilian functionaries. Through them the doctors continued to inform their colleagues in Romania and the Jewish community who had not been deported about the evolution of the Latirism in the camp. At the same time, they continued to send memoranda and reports to the commanding officers about the existing life-threatening situation.
Meanwhile, the commanding officers heard rumours that the Minister of Internal Affairs in Bucharest was preparing to send a commission to personally examine the situation in the camp. In order to avoid responsibility, the camp commander received permission from the central office to eliminate the toxic pea cattle fodder from the inmates' diet. Thus, one of the most important achievements with respect to the survival of the inmates of Vapniarca occurred on January 23, 1943. The commanding officers' plan to exterminate the victims by gradual poisoning was ended, but by then many of the inmates have already been crippled.
OTHER FORMS OF RESISTANCE
In the evenings, after the barracks were locked, the windows were covered with blankets. Not a trace of light could be seen from the faint glow of the pieces of wood the deportees had placed on the burning coals. By this pale light, they gathered together group by group, sitting on the low wooden bunks and on the floor, listening to lectures, poetry or prose.
For the Purim holiday in 1943 a group of youngsters prepared a Purim-spiel<1>. Special preparations were initiated by Rabbi Benjamin Vilner for the celebration of Passover. He conducted the Passover Seder<2>, while the poet, Victor Litman (who translated into Yiddish the poetry of Tudor Arghezi and into Romanian the Yiddish poems of Itsik Manger and Eliezer Steinbarg), recited rhyming chronicles that he had written, relating to this holiday.
This is how Beno Baruh-Causanski remembers the celebration of Passover in Vapniarca: "Even the non-believers, who thought of themselves as free thinkers, did not eat bread, but limited themselves to a few potatoes, smuggled into the camp by all kinds of 'machinations'.
Why was this experience important? Undoubtedly, because it represented the traditional ties of the Jewish people, especially since in Vapniarca we found ourselves in slavery, corralled within barbed wire. Our fate was similar to that of our ancestors....
....Passover in Vapniarca had the meaning of common solidarity and evoked some of the stories from the Hagadda (A booklet containing a set form of benedictions, prayers, and psalms pertaining to the Israelites' exodus from the slavery in Egypt, recited at the Seder ritual on the eves of Passover).
We too lived under a cruel slavery; we too were destined to leave (this new slavery) either on crutches or in death. Even though it was our only food, we refused to eat the toxic pea cattle fodder. There were not just a few inmates who went on strike; we all did. It was a general strike, without exception, just like any solidarity front would do.
The reading of the Hagadda in the camp reminded us that after slavery there had to be freedom. It taught us that each one of us had to be a Moses and stand up against the Pharaoh. We each had to demand liberation, and hope and wait for victory.
Once more the Hagadda proved reliable. Eventually, the gates of the camp were opened. We left with our heads held high and with our pride intact. We were not a defeated crowd, but a group which had resisted and ate from the matza (unleavened bread) of solidarity and drank from the waters of hope."
A group of partisans active in the region provided the inmates' leaders with radio parts, from which they constructed a radio receiver, which was then hidden in the camp's storeroom. Only two or three people from the inmates' leadership were aware of this radio and were responsible for guarding it. They secretly listened to transmissions from London and Moscow and then communicated the news to other deportees as if they had heard it inadvertently from the civilians and military men at the train station, while they were working. Thus, the people inside the camp were kept up-to-date with the changes on the front lines. The news of the German's withdrawal helped to boost their morale.
On February 6, 1943, Colonel Hristache [Hristake] Popovici [Popovitch] became assistant to the commander of the camp. He had a different attitude towards the inmates than did his predecessor. He exhibited understanding for the suffering of the inmates and soon ordered the reopening of the canteen inside the camp. He also increased daily rations to 200 grams of bread and lifted the restrictions on receiving food, clothing, and medication sent by the families from Romania. In fact, when he travelled to Bucharest, he personally contacted the Central Jewish Office and families of the deportees, relaying messages to them from the camp, and often, he would return to the camp with money and medication.
The benevolent attitude of Colonel Popovici was not appreciated by his superiors. They put him under surveillance, and he was arrested upon his return from one of the trips. He was later released, but not before a file was prepared for his court martial.
Only the firm intervention of another officer, Colonel Savin Motora, saved him from sentencing. Neither of them had lost their sense of decency during these sad times. At a later date, Colonel Motora became one of the camp's commanders in Vapniarca.
THE CLOSING OF THE CAMP
The defeat suffered by the German army in late 1943, and their subsequent withdrawal from the Ukraine prompted the authorities to prepare a plan to dismantle the camp in Vapniarca. The Ministry of Internal Affairs in Bucharest decided to transfer its inmates to another camp.
On October 14, 1943, the deportees were ordered to take down the barbed wire fences. Then, they were lined up and, accompanied by armed soldiers, they were taken in march-formation to the train station. A train with about ten to twelve freight cars awaited them. All camp equipment and supplies of the guard units were loaded onto the train. Then the inmates were pushed on board and the train departed.
In the morning, the freight cars were opened, and the deportees were disembarked in an empty train station and marched on foot to Grosulovo, where the new camp was supposed to be set up.
The population of Grosulovo was about 2,000 before the war. It was located near the city of Tiraspol, approximately 50 kilometres north-west of the Odessa harbour. The small Jewish community in Grosulovo maintained its Jewish identity throughout the Soviet regime. After the German and Romanian occupation on August 7, 1941, all the Jews were killed. Only the abandoned cemetery, with its many recent graves, reminded the locals of the Jews and their community institutions that existed here. The surrounding farmers were vine or tobacco growers. A tobacco depot was located in the centre of this little town, beside the market. It was a big two-storey building used for depositing and drying the tobacco leaves.
The convoy of 564 deportees from Vapniarca arrived in the yard of this building, which had not been used for its original purpose for a long time. It had been a camp for Ukrainians suspected of having connections with partisans and being involved in sabotage actions. At times, it housed several thousand detainees. Romanian gendarmes gradually turned most of them over to the Germans, who either took them to labour camps near the Bug River or executed them. In October 1943, there were only 200 men and women left in this building. They Ukrainians occupied a large hall on the ground floor. Here they had organized a primitive workshop for the manufacture of lighters, pocket knives and other objects used as "gifts" for the camp guards. They also exchanged these items for food and cigarettes. The Jewish deportees from Vapniarca were settled on the second floor.
The physical state of the building was almost identical to that found by the deportees at Vapniarca. The difference was that the present camp commander, Colonel Motora, was more considerate of the detainees than some previous commanders. Soon after their arrival in Grosulovo, work groups were organized that cleaned the central building, repaired doors and windows, arranged sleeping facilities and dug a latrine in the yard. Later, they improvised an infirmary.
Based on their experience in Vapniarca, the deportees quickly organized themselves. The committee who represented their interests to the commanding team was the same: Pavel Donath, Emanoil Vinea-Vainstein and others.
Social services and cultural activities increased. The commanding officers no longer interfered with the details of daily life in the camp. The radio reception equipment that was secretly brought to Grosulovo was reassembled. The methods of listening and transmitting the news from person to person was identical to that in Vapniarca.
At the beginning of March 1944, the camp commander informed the detainees that soon they would leave Grosulovo and return to Romania. On March 10, 450 Jewish deportees designated as "political detainees" left Grosulovo flanked by armed guards. They were marched in the direction of Tiraspol. Before giving the order to move on, Colonel Motora addressed the troops with the following words: "It is not your responsibility to watch them, but to protect them." The gendarmes were instructed to avoid the heavily travelled roads so that there was less of a chance of encountering withdrawing troops, especially the German units.
During the second day, after sleeping in the field on the frozen ground, the tired convoy of deportees walked along a country side road. Suddenly, behind a curve in the road on a hill, stood a group of Vlasovs<3>. Fully armed, pointing automatic weapons, they were waiting for the convoy. They motioned to the accompanying soldiers to step aside yelling, "Jid caput" (Death to the Kikes). To reinforce the intimidation, they fired several shots in the air.
At that moment, Colonel Motora's car arrived on the scene. Standing erect in his spotless uniform, with decorations gleaming on his chest, including the German Iron Cross, he cut an impressive figure. He motioned to the Vlasovs to stop shooting. Then, he ordered the soldiers to close ranks around the convoy and march faster to leave the danger zone as soon as possible. Once again, the lives of 450 deportees were saved by the energetic intervention of Colonel Motora.
Towards the evening, the convoy arrived in Tiraspol. The deportees were told to prepare to spend the night in the yard of the ghetto and be ready at dawn to cross the River Dniester.
Meantime, it came to Colonel Motora's attention that at midnight the military and civilian administration of Transnistria will be transferred to the Germans, and the Romanians will withdraw to the west of the Dniester. Alarmed and concerned about what the Germans might do to the deportees, He ordered the people who had just barely managed to lie down, to get up, form a line, and quickly walk towards the Dniester. At the bridge, they found a multitude of people: Romanian and German military men, civilian functionaries and their families, and many Jews who had obtained permission to return to Romania. After several hours of negotiations with the bridge commander, permission was given to allow the group from Grosulovo to cross the bridge. Thus, at midnight of March 13, 1944, the deportees reached the western shore of the Dniester at Tighina.
(After the war, Colonel Motora was awarded the title of "Righteous Amongst the Gentile" by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Centre in Jerusalem, Israel).
The Sad Return
In Tighina, the convoy was quarantined for three weeks. On March 31, they boarded passenger cars attached to a freight train and arrived in Bucharest on April 1,1944. The cars were shunted on to a side track at the Triaj train station, in Bucharest, but the deportees were not allowed to disembark. However, their families found out where they had arrived and they came to greet them on their safe return. During the night of the 3rd and 4th of April, just hours before an air raid completely destroyed the Triaj train station, the cars were attached to a train and departed from Bucharest. On April 4, they were once again detained in the camp at Tirgu-Jiu.
THE MASSACRE AT RIBNITSA
In the beginning of October 1943, the commanding officers of Vapniarca received an order to transfer to the Ribnitsa Prison in the region of Balta all those inmates who had been sentenced and had not yet finished their terms. Following this order, fifty-four detainees who had been brought from the prison in Caransebesh, Romania, were loaded onto a train travelling south on the Odessa line. In the Kolbasnaia station, they were moved to another train, which brought them to Ribnitsa, a town with a gruesome prison.
In the face of the advancing Red Army, the
Romanian prison guards withdrew during the
night of March 20, 1944, and turned the 54
inmates over to an SS unit under the command of
the German officer, named Schwatzkalb. After
shooting the prisoners in their cell at point
blank range, the SS men set the building on
fire to conceal this gruesome crime. Only three
heavily wounded men survived the massacre and
managed to escape from the prison before it was
consumed by flames. They were: Pinchas
Fischbach, Gall Matei and Iosif Valter.
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