Klara Ostfeld was born in 1931, in Chernovitz, Romania. She and her husband, Hillo Ostfeld, are survivors of Transnistria. Since 1952, they have lived in Caracas, Venezuela. Klara graduated from the University of Caracas with a Master's degree in Modern Languages. She also holds a Ph. D. in Contemporary Latin- American Literature from the Simon Bolivar University.
In an attempt to cope with the untimely death of her son in 1985, Klara decided to write her memoirs. This effort resulted in the publication of her book Lights and Shadows of My Life. The book was published in 1986, in Spanish, in 1988 in Hebrew, and in 1992 in Romanian.
Following are excerpts from her book.
|Do not do unto others what you do not wish others to do unto you.|
Chernovitz, the city of my birth, was the capital of the Romanian county of Bucovina. Prior to Wold War I, this territory had been part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Many of its inhabitants clung to the Austrian culture. They spoke German and were proud that Chernovitz was called "Little Vienna".
The Jewish population in the city had been subjected to severe restrictions and deprivation of civil rights, especially since 1939.
In 1940, northern Bucovina and Bessarabia were occupied by the Soviets. The new regime subjected people to the rules of Communism. During the Soviet occupation, homes, and businesses were expropriated.
In 1941, when the Soviets withdrew, German and Romanian Nazi forces took control of these territories, and many thousands of Jews from Chernovitz had been loaded into cattle cars and deported to Transnistria.
However, about 16,000 Chernovitz Jews escaped deportation due to the intervention of the city Mayor, Traian Popovichi, and Queen Mother Elena.
Unfortunately, our family was deported. We crossed the Dniester from Ataki to Moghilev.
Once in Moghilev, we were placed in bombed out synagogues, schools and other public places. These buildings had no doors, no windows, and no heating. Within these shelters the scene was truly Dantesque. Hundreds of people, who had been deported earlier, looking like scraps of humanity, were stretched out on the freezing floor. While one sipped his pitiful ration of soup, another searched his clothes for lice -- the bearers of typhoid fever and other diseases. Still others, already skeletal, lay inert with blank staring eyes, having surrendered to their inevitable fate. Beside them lay those who no longer suffered -- the dead.
Every day at the same time, a cart pulled by a tired horse passed by to gather the bodies of the dead that had been put outside. These skeletal bodies -- stiffened by death and frozen by cold,-- were tossed onto the cart like firewood, one on top of the other. These piles of nameless corpses were buried in a common grave, unmarked to this day. Unfortunately, this routine became so common, that after a while we accepted it as a normal part of our lives.
In spite of these conditions, everyone wished to remain in Moghilev, where they felt closer to home, since the city was right on the border. Besides, there were rumours of mass killings further east, where the Germans were in charge. Many deportees were hoping to get permits to remain in Moghilev by performing technical work for the Romanian authorities. Thus, overnight, lawyers, engineers, architects and businessmen became "expert" plumbers, carpenters, electricians and whatever else was needed in the region. Many other deportees were sent from Moghilev to different small towns and villages, scattered between the River Dniester and the River Bug, where labour, transit or annihilation camps had been set up.
In order to avoid being sent away on the next transport, we had to hide among the local Jewish population. They had lived in substandard conditions even before we arrived, however, renting a room from them cost about thirty rubbles per person, per month; the rent could be paid in money or clothes.
In Moghilev, like in the other camps of Transnistria, we survived by bartering. Certain articles of clothing were more valuable than others to the Ukrainian peasants, who had lived for a long time with the scarcities of the Soviet regime. Navy blue pinstriped suits, leather briefcases, and large wristwatches were some of the most sought after items.
During the first weeks of our stay in Moghilev, my father's pregnant sister, began her labour. That night the men went to bring water from a pump a great distance away. Each time my aunt had a contraction, the men would step out into the cold to provide some privacy. The midwife was a Ukrainian woman. Under the circumstances, my grandmother whispered to her: "Do not try very hard to bring a live baby into this world". However, in the early morning, a new life burst forth at this border of death -- a baby girl, my cousin Anita. She now lives in Israel.
At the end of November 1941, the transports from Romania stopped coming and the men in our family were recruited to work in a sawmill. The women stood in line to receive the only meal of the day, which was a ladle of millet or lentil soup. Hungry and poorly dressed, we felt the freezing cold of the Ukraine even more intensely. In December, the temperature dropped to below forty degrees Celsius. During this period, an epidemic of typhus broke out. My mother, who had always been fat, survived a bout of typhus, weighing only eighty-eight pounds when she recovered. She had become so weak that she had to hold on to the walls of buildings when she walked through the streets.
I was nine years old. One gloomy winter afternoon, I left the room that we shared with so many others. Without telling anybody, I went out into the street. I wandered about the narrow depressing streets of the Moghilev ghetto. I saw other children my age walking around wrapped in rags with newspapers bound around their feet. Walking about with no particular destination in mind, I suddenly found myself in the market. There were long benches piled high with enticing foods. There were sugar beets and potatoes, legumes, millet and corn flour measured out with a glass. I hadn't eaten since the morning, when my grandmother prepared the usual thin porridge from corn flour. My mouth was watering at the sight of these foods. I found myself stopping at a bench, where a rough-looking woman sold dried fruits. I stared at them as my thoughts were wandering back to my wonderful life before deportation. The harsh voice of the peasant woman behind the bench rudely shocked me out of my reverie:
"Aren't you ashamed to beg?" she asked. I turned around to see who she was talking to.
"Hey, kid, I'm talking to you, you're dressed like a princess! Aren't you embarrassed to beg?"
I was wearing the only coat I had during that first winter in the camp. It was a stylish coat of an intense royal blue with a fleecy cape on the shoulders and a matching cap and muff. This was actually a common outfit among girls my age in Chernovitz, but it was out of place in the Ukrainian market. Surprised at the woman's boorish accusations, I began to question myself. Was it possible that I had asked for something? No! I knew that I hadn't opened my mouth. In a quiet voice I defended myself:
"I didn't ask you for anything," I said in Ukrainian.
Her strident voice cut like a knife.
"And your eyes? You were begging with your eyes, kid!" she shouted accusingly.
I was flooded with shame. Deep down inside me I knew she was right. My cheeks began to burn with embarrassment. I managed to hold back the tears long enough to murmur, "I'm sorry." Then I quickly turned away. I didn't want this woman to see the silent tears that poured down my cheeks. When I left the market I no longer felt hunger, just shame and a deep emptiness.
Those of us who managed to live through the first winter began to have some hope of surviving. However, each season brought its own specific problems. In the spring, the soldiers recruited Jewish men for labour projects. We were hopeful that they would really be sent to labour and not rounded up to be shot. My parents, my uncle, my uncle's sister, and I were sent to a labour camp in Scazinetz with a large group of 4,000 deportees. We were supposed to build a highway there.
Unlike Moghilev, where the concentration camp consisted of several streets that formed a kind of a ghetto, in Scazinets, we were confined to an area with huts surrounded by barbed wire. Guards were posted every few yards to watch us. If anyone dared to touch the barbed wire, he or she was shot on the spot.
In the morning the adults, mostly men, were taken to work, and at night they were brought back. The feeble, some of the women and the children stayed in the camp. Every night when the workers returned, they received their only meal of the day -- the same old half-raw lentil soup. Sometimes, a piece of four ounces of black bread was added. Occasionally, workers managed to smuggle into the camp potato peelings, which they had been given by some Ukrainian peasants whose houses they passed on the way back to camp. The control posts were very strict, and the guards would beat up people when they found this "precious" food on them during searches. Yet, many parents continued to take the risk of beatings, in order to bring some peelings to their children.
I was lucky. My friend, Wilma, a little girl with blond braids, was the daughter of the camp dentist. He performed some dental work for the guards, and some of his patients, who were farmers, occasionally paid him with food. When my parents were at work, I stayed with that family, and they graciously shared their food with me, as if I were one of the family.
Men and women had to relieve themselves in public, sharing common latrines. That was terribly humiliating. Some people who were desperately hungry tried to salvage some undigested lentils from the faeces... No wonder so many people died from dysentery and typhus! We were often awakened in the middle of the night and brought out into the yard. Men, women, and children were separated into different groups to frighten us, then, we were sent back to our huts. Sometimes, after we had waited for a long time in the dark, an official accompanied by his retinue would finally appear at dawn, and would proceed to do a roll call. Then, they would send us back into the huts. I believe that the intention of these "inspections" was simply to panic us, and on many such occasions, we were terrified, fully expecting to be shot. We were aware that such exterminations did occur along the River Bug, in the German controlled areas.
In the fall of 1942, when the highway was finished, the men were told that they would be taken back to Moghilev. The rumour was that the women and children might be left behind in Scazinetz. My uncle, Sami, my father's younger brother, devised a plan to rescue his young sister from the camp and take her with him. He dressed her as a boy, took her with him to the work site, and then back to Moghilev with the other workers.
Ten years later, that little girl, now my grownup aunt, would affectionately welcome us to Caracas.
Eventually, all those who survived were taken back to Moghilev. However, of a group of almost 4,000 people, twenty five percent perished in Scazinetz during the summer of 1942.
Yet, another group of deportees was even more unfortunate. During that same spring, a group of several thousand Jews was taken to work at the quarries in Pechiora. From this group less than ten percent returned. Some of those who survived, had been forced to turn to cannibalism, eating parts of their dead fellow worker's bodies.
The Ostfeld family had also been deported from Chernovitz and they "settled" in the Shargorod concentration camp. In order to escape Nazi persecution, when the Soviets retreated from Romania, Simon Ostfeld, twenty two years old, the oldest son in the family, had joined the Red Army. When told by some neighbours that Simon, had died on the Russian front, Mrs Ostfeld, his mother, fell into a severe state of depression. She became almost catatonic. She refused to eat and speak, and died within a few days. Sadly, and also fortunately, Simon did return from Russia three years later, bringing with him his wife and child. Mr. Ostfeld also died one year after the death of his wife. Both were buried in a mass graves, one of many such unmarked graves in the Transnistria territory. Hillo Ostfeld, the younger son, remained an orphan, when he was a fifteen year old boy.
After the death of his parents, Hillo, my future husband, was left with his two sisters, Anni, seventeen, married and near the end of her pregnancy, and Sidi, a girl of twelve. His brother-in-law, Sami Bender, Anni's husband, was among those recruited to work at the peat bogs of Tulchin. Anni cried bitterly fearing that if he left, she might never see her husband again. Hillo offered to take Sami's place and go to Tulchin. Since he was a strong boy, the authorities accepted the substitution.
Work in the bogs consisted of digging out the peat from the waist-deep mud of the swamp. The work was exhausting and the fatigue was aggravated by the meagre food rations and the cruelty of the guards. In the hope to gain the approval of their superiors, some Jewish supervisors were also quite brutal. The two who stand out the most in Hillo's memory were: Smiluca and Horowitz. Horowitz liked hitting Hillo on the head until he caused profuse bleeding. Eventually, Hillo was rescued by a Wehrmacht officer, who took pity on this Aryan-looking boy with blond hair and blue eyes. He made him one of his assistants.
The late autumn chill added to the existing problems: the extreme cold resulted in frozen arms and legs. Of the 2,000 deportees taken to labour in the bogs of Tulchin only about 200 survived. They returned to Moghilev, looking like the dregs of humanity. Their legs were terribly swollen and wrapped in rags. In Moghilev, they were kept in quarantine. Those who had been taken from nearby towns and villages were sent back on foot, in spite of their terrible condition. Thus, Hillo and two others returned to Shargorod, where people did not even recognize them. With their pitifully thin, bruised bodies and swollen legs they looked like they had escaped from Hell.
During our third year in Moghilev, I was lucky again to have access to better food. A family of deportees from the southern Bucovina, the Kerns, hired me as a kindergarten teacher for their children. I taught them songs and dances, how to draw, and I told them stories. In exchange, I ate with the family. They were pleased with me, and sometimes, they even gave me food to take to my parents. Somehow, the Kerns were able to make arrangements with the Romanian administration to receive some of their money left behind in Romania. Because of this, they were able to rent a house from a peasant family and lived in a less crowded section of the Moghilev ghetto.
(Note: On rare occasions deportees had managed to transfer money or valuables to Bucharest, or Switzerland. Sometimes, small amounts of that money could be sent to Transnistria at a heavy cost to pay off the couriers, mostly soldiers.)
Next door to the Kerns, lived another Jewish family, the Lobels. Their only son, Harry, one year older than myself, was playing the violin. He was a child prodigy. This family was also in a privileged situation because their son entertained official guests for the Major in charge of the camp.
Despite all the adverse circumstances that made life so bitter and tragic, my emotional development was quite normal. Every time Harry looked at me, I would blush with the typical innocence of a twelve-year-old.
The Lobels were also able to get some money from Romania. Therefore, on the day of Harry's thirteenth birthday, the family threw a party to celebrate his Bar-Mitzvah<1>. I was thrilled to be invited. Harry's father had managed to obtain a camera, and he took a picture of Harry, his cousin and myself. This photo is the only memento I have left of those times.
On that special day, Harry gathered up enough courage to kiss me on the cheek in front of his family. I lost a lot of sleep for the next few days replaying this incident in my mind. The Major was very fond of Harry, and, soon after his Bar-Mitzvah, he helped arrange for boy to join a group of orphaned children who were being returned to Romania. And so, I lost what I then considered to be my first love, or the first tentative impulse towards love, which lies latent in every human being, this first awakening of a young girl, ended before it even began.
Forty years later, I had the chance to revisit this period of my life; this time, in very privileged conditions in Caracas.
In the spring of l943, just when we were beginning to believe that we could survive, we lost another member of our family --my father's younger brother, uncle Sami, age twenty-two, the one who rescued his sister from the labour camp in Scazinetz.
Sami, had fallen ill with pneumonia during the first winter in Transnistria. He had received some medical attentions from his future brother- in-law, a medical student, and with the loving care of his fiancée and the rest of the family, he recovered. However, in the spring of 1943, he was sent to Odessa to join a special labour force on the docks. There, far from his loved ones, he died from typhoid fever.
Before the deportations, when we lived in Chernovitz, my paternal grandmother's house would ring with the contagious laughter of uncle Sami's friends, who often gathered there. Sami used to play the guitar while his friends sang and accompanied him on the balalaika and mandolin. I loved staying at my grandmother's house on Saturday nights, because I was fascinated by the preparations of these young men for the early morning departure to their usual Sunday trips to Tzetzina, a mountain only a few kilometres away from the city. They practised mountain climbing there. Although I had never been at Tzetzina, I found myself infused with their contagious joy. Sami was always the one to help me with my homework; he was my favourite uncle, always friendly and full of life; he was truly that "great" uncle that every child should be privileged to have.
It was hard for me to accept the loss of this beloved uncle. I held on to the childish hope that the news of his death was untrue. For a long time, whenever I saw a man of the same stature, I would run to look at his face, hoping that it might be my uncle Sami.
We were completely isolated in Moghilev, we knew nothing of what was happening at the front lines; however, we were able to draw some conclusions from the way we were treated by the Romanian military authorities in charge of the camp. We sensed that the course of the war had changed.
In the spring of 1943, several commissions came to evaluate the situation of the thousands of orphaned children in Transnistria. These commissions consisted of people from the International Red Cross and delegates of the Romanian Jewish Community from the regions of The Old Romanian Kingdom (Vechiul Regat), which had not been subjected to mass deportations.
We learned later, that the Romanian government realised that its German allies, weakened by the Russian winters, would not be able to withstand the Soviet offensive during the winter of 1942-1943. Therefore, the Romanians chose to make a benevolent gesture in order to appease the pressures coming from the free western world and at the same time present a more favourable image of themselves. In an attempt to avoid being held responsible by the League of Nations for their atrocities, the government agreed to bring back children under fifteen years of age, who had lost both parents in Transnistria. They were supposed to be returned to Romania, from where they would be sent to Palestine.
By now, Hillo was already sixteen years old, but he managed to get himself included with the fifteen-year-olds along with his younger sister, Sidi, who was only thirteen. The President of the small Jewish community in Shargorod, Dr. Teich, took Hillo under his wing and allowed him to travel with the group of younger children, even though he was fully aware of Hillo's real age.
At first the children were taken to Moghilev, where they had to pass certain inspection procedures. Hillo was able to pass as a fifteen-year-old, and remained with the group. The children were put up in makeshift orphanages, where they had shelter and food. They no longer had to fend for themselves. From this centre they were to be taken to Ataki, and put on board trains bound for Romania. Hillo had passed through many control points successfully. However, before embarking on the train for Ataki, there was one last inspection. That was when Hillo stood out from the rest of the boys. Sadly, just one step away from the freedom he had been longing for, he was ordered to return to Moghilev. Sidi pleaded to be allowed to return with her brother, her only support.
Although still just an adolescent, Hillo was faced with a moral dilemma which required a mature decision: should he take his little sister back to the concentration camp, or force her to go on without him. Hillo felt that the first alternative would have meant death, while the second one was life. Firmly he shook himself free of Sidi's clutching arms. In desperation she grabbed his legs. However, he managed to free himself, while she was howling in a terrible panic. He asked the soldiers to take care of Sidi, and started on his way back to the concentration camp. Under the circumstances, he considered that he had made the most responsible decision. Flanked by Romanian soldiers on his way back to the camp, Hillo's ears rang for a long time with the sounds of the desperate cries of his little sister. These cries would torment him for years, "Hillo, Hillo, my brother, don't abandon me; don't abandon me!"
In March 1944, the Soviets began their offensive in the Ukraine. Long columns of retreating German soldiers and officers seemed dejected with the success of the Soviet assault. This same German army, which had been so arrogant when on the attack a few years earlier, was now defensive and frightened. They dragged their feet wrapped in newspapers; they squabbled for a place on the horse-drawn carts. Their previously elegant uniforms had become dirty rags. They walked heads down, wrapped in military blankets. The image of defeat was quite unbecoming for those who had claimed to be the "titans of a superior race". The first shots from the Soviet partisans, who preceded the advance of the Red Army, sowed panic into the ranks of these physically and morally defeated German troops.
The dichotomy between life and death showed itself in a new perspective. While the deportees in the Transnistria concentration camps, awaited the Red Army like a liberating Messiah, the disarrayed German soldiers saw them as their destroyers. Death was imprinted on faces which still maintained traces of their past role as executioners. But this time they were the victims! When they were about to withdraw across the bridge over the River Dniester, the Red Army took them by surprise and blew up the bridge. Hundreds of German soldiers and their horses were killed. Many of the soldiers' corpses were left hanging on the rails of the bridge in grotesque postures. They were left to hang there for a week, as a poignant reminder of their disgusting crimes.
The civilian population of Moghilev lost no time in stripping the dead soldiers of everything. This army of German dead lay naked on Ukrainian soil, looking like in a grotesque painting by Goya. Children and adults went to see just what political fanaticism and war can lead to. I also went to see them. All expression of authority had been wiped from their faces. Death, that most democratic of conditions, makes all people equal.
The Talmud teaches us not to take delight in the misfortune of our enemies, but I believe that very few concentration camp survivors, who left their loved ones in the mass graves of the Ukraine, were able to adhere to this dictum.
I find it difficult to reconcile the difference between the chronology of my three years in concentration camps and the impact of the trauma they had on the rest of my life. Our destinies have been inexorably manipulated by forces beyond our control, and led the vast majority of us to an irreversible fate, death. Those of us who survived reached the threshold of a new life.
When the Red Army liberated us from the years of human degradation in the camps of Transnistria, we were still not entirely free. The war continued. Soviets and Germans were now fighting on Romanian soil. War has no mercy. Following our liberation, many male survivors of the camps were recruited into the Red Army to fight the Germans. My father and my surviving uncles were amongst them. The women and children had to find their own way back to Chernovitz.
My mother and I went to the railway station. We saw a train loaded with ammunition and tanks, so we knew it was going westwards, towards the front. Self-assuredly, I asked the conductor whether we could ride with him to Chernovitz. The Russian official, with his sentimental Slavic soul, could not refuse a twelve-year-old girl who wanted to return home so badly. He allowed us aboard the train. My mother and I settled inside a tank standing on the flat cars, and started our journey. We were on our way home! The train stopped outside the stations during the day and continued on its journey only at night, in order to avoid the bombings, which targeted particularly trains loaded with war materiel. During air raids, we took refuge under the train and so did the soldiers on board. Thus, a journey that would normally have lasted ten to twelve hours, took eight days.
My maternal grandparents, Gusta and Eliezer Granierer, were among the 16,000 Jews who had not been deported from Chernovitz. In April 1944, we had a joyous reunion with them.
Although surrounded by care and affection in my grandparents' home, we were not yet able to enjoy our good fortune. We were worried about my father, who had remained in Moghilev to be trained as a soldier by the Soviets. My mother and I racked our brains to find a way to help him. One day, we came upon what we thought was a brilliant idea. We decided to buy little bars of bluing, a product used at that time for whitening clothes. It was cheap in Chernovitz, but expensive and much sought-after by the peasants in the Ukraine. Our plan was to return to Moghilev, visit my father, sell the bluing in the local market, and leave the money with him.
Only two weeks after leaving Moghilev, we embarked on a return trip. However, this was a very different journey from the one about three years earlier. This time, it was our choice to go there in order to help someone we loved.
The trip lasted only five days, but in Ataki, we were trapped in an air raid. The train backed up to hide in a clump of trees, while the sky rained with bombs.
In the early morning, silence reigned again in this ravaged area, and we continued our journey to Moghilev. There, we walked to the military quarters, where we found my father and my uncles. After joyful embraces, we went to the market and we were able to sell the bluing at a very good price. Some of the bluing we exchanged for dried tobacco leaves, which would sell very well back in Chernovitz, and we left the money with my father
We never lived again in our house in Chernovitz. Though we went back to see it, we were only able to look at it from the outside, since other people were living in it now. We did not even attempt to get the house back, as it would have been too painful to live among neighbours who had looted it. In addition, there was no shortage of houses in Chernovitz, because of the thousands of people left in the mass graves in Transnistria. We occupied a house by the synagogue, near my grandmother's home. We felt safer living close to our family since we were two women alone.
When my father was finally released from the Red Army, the money from the sale of the bluing helped in arranging his return to Chernovitz.
Once our thirst and hunger had been satisfied, we sought to fulfil other needs. The first decent dress I had since the war started was made by my aunt Sarica from a red flag. This was in no way intended to profane the flag of the country that had saved our lives. It was just that there was no other fabric available. My first pair of sandals in three years was made by a shoemaker from my grandmother's leather belts. She loved me enough to make this sacrifice. I had a grand makeover!
In the meantime, my future husband, Hillo, had arrived in Bucharest and his first concern was to seek out information about his sister, Sidi. She had returned earlier with the other orphaned children from Transnistria. Searching through the files of the Jewish community offices in Bucharest, he found her name on a list of children who had been sent to Palestine. That ship had been torpedoed by the Germans and sunk. Tragically, hundreds of children who had been saved from Transnistria and other camps, perished in the Black Sea. Hillo's grief was compounded by his guilt feelings for unwittingly having sent his younger sister on this fatal path.
Hillo and I met at the Faculty of Technical Sciences in Chernovits, where we were both studying. We found that we had much in common and we started dating. In this phase of life, our present was still intensely connected to our past.
Sometime later, we moved to Bucharest. One summer afternoon, Hillo and I had gone to a movie, and on our way home, we walked towards the station of tram No.8, by the River Dambovitsa. This was a very busy pedestrian area. Suddenly, Hillo stopped. All colour left his face, while his eyes stared in a mesmerized gaze at a group of three people coming towards us. Holding on to the arms of the two adults was a young girl about my age, very fair and very pretty. I was intrigued by Hillo's obvious interest in this young girl. The threesome walked past us and was soon lost in the crowds. Hillo was stunned, unable to utter a word. I was concerned, and started shaking his arm asking him to explain his strange behaviour. Finally, he was able to mutter a few incoherent words. I thought I heard him mumble: "That was my sister Sidi". I was convinced that he was hallucinating. We both thought that his sister had died. However, since he was in no condition to be reasoned with, I went along with him on the search. We tried to make our way through the crowds, but we lost sight of the young girl and her companions. It seemed that they had disappeared in a nearby building. We began to knock at doors, one by one, but no one was able to help us find the people we were looking for. It was as if it had all been a mirage, which, on drawing closer, dissolved into nothing.
Hillo did not stop there, he was firmly convinced that the girl we saw was his sister. He approached the people at the Jewish community offices again. They sympathized with his anxiety and agreed to contact all the communities throughout the country, providing details of the young girl's appearance. We were hoping that someone would recognize her and supply us with some information to find her.
For several months, Hillo and his family lived through the anxiety of waiting and doubting weather he had really seen Sidi. In January 1946, a cable from the Jewish Community brought us the wonderful news: Sidi has been living for the last four years with the Brauchfeld family in the city of Iashi.
Hillo waisted no time. Without even having an address, he boarded the first train for Iashi and arrived in the early hours of the morning, when the offices were still closed. Waiting impatiently to obtain the family's address, he was pacing on the street in that cold winter morning, when his attention was caught by a shingle identifying a lawyer's office. On an impulse, he rang the doorbell. When a man opened the door, Hillo apologized for such an early intrusion and asked if by chance they knew the Brauchfeld family. At this moment, he was faced with a most astonishing coincidence, for the man in front of Hillo was none other than a brother-in-law of the Brauchfelds! He immediately recognized that Hillo was Sidi's brother, while Hillo was completely overwhelmed by the confirmation that Sidi was alive after all.
Hillo politely refused the customary treats offered by the hosts, asking only to be taken to the Brauchfeld's home as soon as possible. Yet, like in a mystery plot, Sidi had already gone to school. Hillo ran off to the nearby high school, but the classes had already started and he was not allowed to disrupt. Full of anxiety, he rushed into the headmaster's office and breathlessly explained the urgency of his visit. The headmaster was visibly moved by this unusual story and insisted that the reunion take place in his own office. Minutes later, Sidi was summoned out of the classroom, without an explanation. When she saw and recognized her brother, she remained speechless. Sidi had been sure that he and the rest of her family had all perished in Transnistria. She thought that she was completely alone in the world. When she recovered from the shock, she broke out in tears and sobbing breathlessly they fell into each other's arms in a most joyful embrace. With tears in his eyes, the headmaster shared in their joy and happiness.
When they calmed down somewhat, Sidi explained how she was saved from the tragic fate suffered by the children who drowned when their boat was torpedoed. An influential person in the community had planned to send their protégée, also an orphan, to Palestine, but there was not a place to be found on the boat. The only solution was to arrange for a exchange of two children. Thus, it was Sidi's destiny to be taken off the boat, just minutes before it sailed away. The other child departed in her place. Sidi vehemently protested, but to no avail. This is how her life was spared due to a cruel injustice. Sadly, but in the long term, luckily, Sidi was returned to the orphanage.
The Brauchfelds were a childless couple from Iashi, eager to adopt a little girl. Fair- haired, blue eyed, sweet natured, thirteen-year- old Sidi won their hearts. With great dedication and affection, they cured her of all the illnesses she had contracted in Transnistria. Sidi suffered from scurvy, chronic conjunctivitis and she was full of lice. They provide her with decent clothing and the means to continue her studies. After a while, the Brauchfelds decided to adopt her.
When Hillo and Sidi came to Bucharest, we were able to meet her. We were overwhelmed with emotions at their reunion. After spending some time with us, Sidi decided to return to the Brauchfelds, to whom she was attached by then. In their home, she found not only the warmth of her affectionate adoptive parents, but also a feeling of permanence, which her brother could not yet provide for her. Most importantly, Sidi had a boyfriend in Iashi and her need to be near him was another contributing factor in her decision. She continued with her studies in Iashi and would come to spend vacations with us.
In the meantime, Simon, Hillo's older brother also returned to Chernovits, now a part of the Soviet Union. He had married during the years of his refuge deep within the Soviet Union, and brought with him his wife, Yetty, and their little daughter, Galia. He had hopped to find the rest of his family upon his return, but there was no one left there, since the family had departed to Romania. Simon learned of his parents' death in Transnistria from a letter we had left with a neighbour in Chernovitz, just in case any one from the family would show up. Finally, all three siblings met in a joyful reunion.
Hillo and I were married. In 1950, just before we departed from Romania to Israel, we attended Sidi's engagement party to Harry Segal, a young lawyer. The engagement was celebrated in Iashi, in the home of the Brauchfelds. Sidi and Harry were married a year later, when we were already in Israel. The newlyweds and the Brauchfelds remained in Romania and we did not see them again until 1960.
Later, in 1952, Hillo and I settled in Caracas, Venezuela. We worked hard and life was good to us. In 1960, we sent the necessary documents for Sidi, Harry and their five-year-old daughter Blanca, to join us in Venezuela. Shortly afterwards, the Brauchfelds followed them. In Caracas, Sidi had a second child, Norberto.
The Brauchfelds, Malvina and Saul, are living together with Sidi and her family. Today, they are an elderly couple, loved and respected by all of us. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren shower them with a lot of affection. Years passed, and we learned to enjoy our life in Venezuela, however, the shadows of the Holocaust were always lurking in the background.
* * *
In August 1983, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Zubin Mehta arrived in Caracas to perform four concerts. Together with a group of friends we reserved tickets for all four performances to be held at the Teresa Carreno Theatre.
On August 17, after the second concert, one of our friends invited three orchestra members to an impromptu house party. One of them was the first violinist. After the party, the hostess inquired if we could drive the three Israeli guests to the Hilton Hotel, since it was on our way home. We were happy to oblige. The guests were given the comfort of the back seat, while my husband and I sat in front. During a casual conversation that my husband carried on with our guests, he asked if they had been born in Israel. It turned out that only one of them had, the second one came from Poland as a small child, and the violinist was born in Romania. I asked him if he still spoke Romanian. He said that he remembered a little from school, but that his mother tongue was German since he came from Chernovitz, in Bucovina. We told him that we were originally from the same city. Then came the inevitable question that Jews from Chernovitz ask each other: "Were you deported?"
"Yes, I was in Transnistria," he answered.
"So were we," I said.
Without turning around I asked, "Were you perhaps in the same city as I, in Moghilev Podolsk?"
"Yes," answered the man.
All conversation in the car suddenly stopped, but I continued probing.
"If you remember Moghilev, I will tell you where I lived. The building was ironically called 'The Casino'. It was a residence for deportees."
"I lived there too," said the violinist.
"What is your name?" I asked.
"Avraham Melamed," he answered.
This name meant nothing to me. While his answers had been short and dry before, he suddenly decided to contribute more to the conversation.
"You wouldn't know me. I didn't stay in the concentration camp as long as everyone else. I played the violin for the camp commander, who enjoyed listening to me. As a special privilege, in order to save my life, he had me repatriated to Romania in 1943 with a group of orphans -- although he knew my parents were alive."
This information immediately brought to my mind the image of a boy that I had known in Moghilev, who had played the violin for the camp commander. In an instant, my mind reviewed that whole period of my life and images of my childhood friend whom I remembered from his thirteenth birthday were racing through my mind. He had been considered a child prodigy, and he too was repatriated to Romania. Suddenly, it occurred to me that this violinist might know something about the young boy who had kissed me, and made me blush, when I was only twelve. I said:
"I had a friend who was a child prodigy. He also played the violin for the commander of the concentration camp, and he was repatriated to Romania with the orphans like you. Maybe you know him. His name is ..."
While I tried to retrieve his name from my memory, we pulled up in front of the hotel. Its luminous sign shone through the mist: Hotel Hilton. Suddenly I remembered the name.
"Harry Lobel was my friend's name."
"I am Harry Lobel!" shouted the violinist.
We jumped out of the car simultaneously, and embraced each other with tears in our eyes. We grasped each other's shoulders to make sure that the other was not a mirage. My husband, who knew of the incident from my childhood, embraced the two of us. We were all very emotional.
"I have a photo of you," I said, as if to confirm what had happened so many years ago.
"I, too, have a photo taken of you and my cousin Jackie on my Bar Mitzvah. Klara, where are your blond braids?" he asked while examining my present appearance.
Forty years had passed since that thirteen-year-old boy had planted a kiss on my cheek, but it was still a vivid memory for me. Obviously my image as a little girl with blond braids was still present in his memory too.
We examined each other's faces, searching for the memories that we had stored. Were we the same people as we were forty years ago? Not only had our names changed (he had chosen a Hebrew name and I was called by my married name), but we were now in our fifties... Between the past, in the concentration camps, and the present, in front of the Hilton Hotel in Caracas, there were forty years of living that had reshaped both our physical appearance as well as our personalities.
Avraham told us later that, after our encounter, he could not sleep. He telephoned his wife in Israel and told her about our meeting. The strange thing is that his own wife did not know that her husband had once been called Harry Lobel. In the morning, when his colleagues came down to the cafeteria for breakfast, Avraham related to them the exciting encounter we had the night before.
That night, Hillo and I also lay awake for a long time, talking about this fateful meeting, which took us back to the days of our torment in Transnistria.
All the members of the orchestra, including the conductor, Zubin Mehta, wanted to meet Avraham's "girlfriend", and I introduced him to all my friends. The two following concerts greatly surpassed the first. There was an emotional energy, a magic in the air that both the musicians and the audience sensed. During intermission, I passed around the old photograph, as a silent testimony to the vanished past.
My friends tried to identify Avraham among the violinists seated in the first row. It wasn't difficult since he, too, was trying to pick us out from the audience.
We invited Avraham to our home to meet our children and grandchildren. Then, we continued to reminisce about the fragments of our past.
An article was published in Israel about our chance encounter in Caracas. It featured photos of us in the present as well as forty years ago. In October 1984, we went to Israel to meet Avraham's wife. However, we were unable to meet his children as they were in the army.
By the end of the year, we received an invitation to the wedding of one of his children. Unfortunately, due to the tragic and untimely death of our seventeen-year-old son, Louis, we were in no condition to attend or even to send congratulations.
While each of us eventually returned to our own reality, the encounter between Avraham and myself deeply affected our families. It became an inspiration and a cherished memory for us all.
* * *
[The media in Venezuela describes Klara as a remarkable lady who has successfully rebuilt her life in spite of the adversities she has encountered. She is an actively contributing member in her community.
In 1993, Klara and Hillo revisited what used to be Transnistria during World War II. They travelled to Moghilev and Shargorod, where the drama of their childhood years took place. Klara reports that very few Jewish people are left there, and that they continue to live in rather primitive conditions compared to our standards].
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