The Nizkor Project

50 Years of Silence

History and Voices
of the Tragedy in Romania and Transnistria

Jewish Orphans in Transnistria

This section is drawn from an abstract of the book Jewish Children in Transnistria (Hebrew), by Dr. Shmuel Ben Zion, of The Open University, Tel Aviv and The Institute of Holocaust Studies, University of Haifa; from the book Transnistria, by Dora Litani, (Romanian); and The Silent Holocaust - Romania and its Jews, by I. C. Butnaru.

After the unusually cold winter of 1941-1942, thousands of children were left without parents and without shelter. Many had been separated from their parents during the roundups or during the death marches from one village to another. Others witnessed the death of their parents, partly due to the many deprivations and horrible living conditions, and partly due to the outbreak of typhus and dysentery. Many others witnessed the murder of their parents.

Thousands of children roamed the muddy roads from one camp to another. Sometimes, several smaller groups of wandering children, joined, and together they were looking for food and shelter. They were emaciated, freezing, confused, frightened, sick, and had lost all hope. During the first two years in Transnistria, no one was in a position to collect any statistics. Later, when the gathering of some statistics was attempted, many orphans had perished before any data on their numbers or whereabouts could be compiled. An accurate number of orphans in Transnistria will never be known.

Many children became street beggars; their shelters were under bridges, in cellars, and in abandoned ruins. Bodies of children were seen being loaded on the carts for the dead, when only one or two hours earlier, they had been seen begging door to door.

Many children had survived due to the intervention of the Jewish Committees in the camps. These committees had the very difficult task of dealing with the every-day problems, as well as setting up social services such as soup kitchens, improvised 'hospitals', and 'orphanages' for the younger children.

The first orphanage was set up by the Jewish Committee, in April 1942, in Moghilev. Others followed in the fall of 1942, and in the first few months of 1943. The larger orphanages were better organized and better equipped than the smaller ones. Information from different sources, including a report prepared by the Romanian gendarmerie of Transnistria, states that the orphanages housed about 1,842 children. They were given a very modest meal, minimal clothing, and rudimentary medical care.

In her book Transnistria, Dora Litani talks about the existence of ten orphanages; three of them, including the largest one, were in Moghilev (the largest concentration camp in Transnistria), the others were in Shargorod, Djurin, Tulchin, Copaigorod, Balta, Bershad, and Domanovca.

The very existence of these orphanages depended to a large extent on relief supplies sent to the deportees. These relief shipments were organized by remaining Jewish communities in Romania. They collected things from their own personal belongings, and additional items were purchased with funds secretly obtained from international Jewish organizations. When supplies were received in a camp, a part of them was usually set aside for the younger orphans.

The Jewish community leadership in Bucharest, headed by Dr. Filderman, petitioned the government to allow the return of the surviving orphans to Romania since January 1943. However, heavy pressure exerted by the German Nazis interfered with the success of these negotiations. Finally, a commission from Bucharest involved in collecting and shipping relief supplies to Transnistria was allowed to visit the camps. The Commission was headed by Fred Sharaga, and it was particularly concerned with the fate of the children. The data the commission collected showed that three-quarters of the children who had been deported fifteen months earlier had already perished. Among those who survived the commission registered nearly 8,000 orphans. About 5,000 of them had lost both their parents.

Prior to the arrival of that commission, groups of aimlessly wandering orphans were gathered from the camps and from country roads. The children had subsisted by begging for a crust of bread at the doors of the local Ukrainian farmers, scrounging potato peelings in the garbage, or digging with their bare fingers in the frozen soil to find an overlooked vegetable. They struggled courageously against death from illness and starvation.

Dedicated Jewish people made enormous efforts and personal sacrifices to rescue the orphans. Fred Sharaga was one of the driving forces on behalf of the orphans, working relentlessly under desperately difficult conditions for two years. During that time, he managed to instil hope and confidence in many deportees and most of all in the children, who revered him and called him 'the father of the orphans'. The children dedicated many poems and songs to Fred Sharaga.

Among those placed in orphanages the mortality declined somewhat. Then, the issue of schooling was raised. A dedicated team of volunteer teachers and educators organized classes and managed to find their way into the hearts of their apathetic little charges, who constantly suffered from hunger and cold. In some of the orphanages, teachers managed to involve the children in a series of creative educational and cultural activities such as choirs and play- acting. These activities tended to depict the bitter experiences of their lives in the camps and in the orphanages, and the grief of losing their parents and other family members. Yet, some of these songs expressed the children's faith and confidence that their suffering would soon come to an end, and a brighter future would await them in the Land of Israel.

Following many appeals by Dr. W. Filderman, his personal friend, Constantin Bursan, managed to organize a high-powered meeting to deal with the issues concerning the rescue of the orphans. The meeting took place on January 6, 1943, and included Dr. A. Tester, an influential member of the Gestapo in Bucharest, Colonel Lupashcu, representing the Romanian administration, and Uterman from the German Embassy. The discussions revolved around the amounts of money the Jewish community would have to pay for the 5,000 children who urgently needed to be repatriated. Dr. Tester complained that he had not yet received the promised funds, while the Jewish representatives reproached him for not having started the rescue operation. Several days after this gathering, there was another meeting between Dr. Tester, Radu Lecca, Constantin Bursan, and Dr. W. Filderman. Lecca stated that Dr. Filderman's report about the situation of the orphans in Transnistria was accurate, and it was forwarded to Marshal Ion Antonescu. Eventually, a decision was taken to move the orphans from the different camps to a makeshift orphanage, where they would be sheltered in more hygienic conditions.

Meanwhile, Mihai Antonescu informed the International Red Cross that the government had accepted the return of 5,000 orphans, and it was prepared to assist their immediate emigration from Romania to Palestine. The delay in the implementation of this decision was due to two factors. One consisted of complicated and lengthy negotiations regarding the establishment of criteria for those allowed to return. The issues most difficult to settle were the children's age range and whether they had lost one or both parents. Another factor was the large amount of money the Jewish community was expected to pay to the government for this rescue operation.

In the fall of 1943, as a result of the sweeping advances of the Soviet troops, there was a shift in the approach of the Romanian government towards the deportees. It was common knowledge that the German Nazis murdered all the surviving Jews during their withdrawal. Marshal.Ion Antonescu was anxious about being held responsible for the murder of the surviving deportees in Transnistria.

Furthermore, secret discussions pertaining to Romania entering into a separate peace treaty with the Allied Forces were already underway. Although it was clear that the Axis would be defeated, Romania persisted in setting conditions for the return of the orphans. One of these conditions was the government's requirement that the orphans must leave Romania immediately after their return from Transnistria. Considering the change in the course of the war, Marshal Antonescu was looking for a chance to portray himself to the Allies in a more positive light. Therefore, in spite of the pressures exerted by the German Nazis, the Romanian government decided to make some concessions in the rescue attempts.

Finally, on February 15, 1944, after more than one year of negotiations, it was decided that only children under the age of fifteen who had lost both parents would be allowed to return to Romania. Three thousand orphans remained in Transnistria, until they were liberated by the Soviet armies.

On March 6, 1944, delegates of the Assistance Commission from Bucharest departed to Transnistria to take charge of 1,400 orphans gathered from the regions of Moghilev, Tulcin and Jugastru. There were also 484 children who had been assembled in Balta from other regions of Transnistria. In preparation for crossing the Dniester, the children were divided into two groups. One was taken to the crossing at Moghilev-Ataki, the other to Tiraspol -Tighina. Before the crossing, the children were de- loused, disinfected and clothed. Both groups were taken to Iasi, where further plans had to be made. About 160 children were left in the care of the Jewish community in Iasi, the others were placed in the cities of Botosani, Husi, Vaslui, Barlad, Falticeni, Piatra-Neamt, Tirgu-Neamt, Bacau, Focsani, and Buhusi.

Through the efforts of the Joint,<35> a variety of Zionist Organizations, including WIZO,<36> as well as the International Red Cross, many of these children were eventually placed in orphanages in Romania. There, they were provided the basics of food, shelter and medical assistance, while awaiting further developments in the plans to depart to Palestine. In some cities, children who had not been in Transnistria, but whose parents were unable to provide for them, were absorbed into these orphanages along with the orphans from Transnistria.

The Zionist organizations in Romania were intensely involved in organizing the transportation of the children to Palestine. This task was made very difficult by the German threat to sink every vessel bound for Palestine. Attempts to enlist the help of the Red Cross to ensure safe conduct on the Black Sea failed.

Nevertheless, on April 21, 1944, the first steamer with 119 orphans on board left Constanta for Istanbul. It reached its destination safely, and from Istanbul the children went on by train to Palestine. Several other steamers arrived safely in Istambul.

Some of the steamers known to have had Transnistria orphans on board were: Salvador, Mefkure, Izmira, and Transylvania. While some of the steamers reached the shores of Palestine, others were stopped by the British, since Palestine was under the British Mandate. A few ships were re-routed to Cyprus, where the immigrants waited for British visas to enter Palestine. Other ships were torpedoed and sunk. In any case, most of their passengers drowned. It is not certain who was responsible for these actions.

Mefkure was lost on the night of August 4,1944. It is assumed to have been torpedoed by a German submarine. All but five passengers perished, including 61 orphans from Transnistria.

By the end of 1944, eleven hundred and five orphans of Transnistria reached Palestine. They were "adopted" by Aliyat Hanoar, a youth organization, which cared for and helped in the adaptation of youth to their new homeland. Other groups of several hundred orphans arrived from Romania at a later date.

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