Sonia Palty lives in Tel-Aviv, Israel, where she and her late husband, Nicu, worked together as journalists, editors and publishers. Sonia continues these activities, in spite of the trauma of the sudden death of her beloved husband.
Sonia has made it her life's mission to raise awareness about the largely unknown tragedy of the many camps in Transnistria, and in particular the 284 people who have been deported from Bucharest. She frequently travels in Israel as well as abroad, lecturing to student and adult groups.
Her book "Jews! Cross the Dniester!" was published in Romanian in Tel Aviv, in 1980. The book has also been translated into German and launched in Germany on May 9,1995, by Hartung-Gorre Verlag, Konstanz.
In 1998, Sonia's second book "Today, Tomorrow and Always" was published in Romanian by PAPYRUS, in Tel Aviv.
|They had banished me from my country like a sparrow is banished from its nest; all my acquaintances and friends alienated themselves from me, and regarded me as a broken vessel. They were advocates of lies and visionaries of falsehood. They conspired against me. They wanted flatteries to replace Thy teaching, which Thou hast inscribed upon my heart.|
|Anonymous, from The Dead Sea Scrolls|
Following are excerpts from Sonia Palty's book "Evrei! Treceti Nistrul!" ["Jews! Cross the Dniester!"], translated from Romanian by Felicia (Steigman) Carmelly and Avi Marcovici.
I should have forgotten it all! I should have forgotten the nightmare! But, it is not possible. It is beyond my power to forget. During long sleepless nights, during warm afternoons when I rest, the events that took place during my fourteen months of exile to Transnistria are constantly resurfacing in my mind, like a movie.
I was only fourteen-and-a-half years old. I had just opened my eyes to life. And I remember it all..., or almost all..., all of the suffering endured by us, an innocent group of Jews from Bucharest...
On June 22, 1941, Marshall Antonescu, the Romanian Fuhrer, proclaimed a public ordinance, which began with the words: "Romanian soldiers, I command you, cross the River Prut!" That was the day when Romanian armies joined the German Nazi forces as they crossed the Prut to unleash the war against the Soviet Union
One of their first tasks was to "cleanse" the conquered territories of the Jewish population. Uprooted from their homes, robbed of their valuables, the Jews were loaded into cattle cars. After days of train travel to unknown destinations, they were forced out, lined up like cattle, and driven towards the recently conquered Ukraine, which became a giant graveyard.
In that part of the Ukraine, dubbed TRANSNISTRIA, dozens of ghettos and concentration camps were set up. Tens of thousands of Jews from Bucovina, Bessarabia, Moldova, and the Ukraine were destroyed there by typhus, dysentery, starvation, cold, and by bullets.
We were 212 Jews, including entire families, deported from Bucharest. One month later, an additional 72 young men were added to this group. All the deportation files had been signed by the same person, General Capeleanu [Kapeleanu], Inspector General of the forced labour detachments in Romania...
I feel compelled to tell our story, if only to honour the memory of those who perished -- a Kaddish<1> for their memory.
* * *
I was born in Bucharest to a non-practicing Jewish family. My knowledge of and interest in Judaism came from observing the traditions while visiting my maternal grandparents in Cernovitz. However, I was only able to truly understand the full implications of being Jewish when I was preparing to enter my second year of high school. At that time my parents were advised that under the new racial laws of Romania, my attendance at school was not only undesirable, but also prohibited by Antonescu's discriminatory laws against the Jews.
In addition, due to these laws, my father (Follender), was dismissed from his job. Other family members also lost their employment and their businesses as a result of the anti- Semitic legislation. Soon everyone began to feel the economic repercussions. My family was forced to start selling their jewellery, furs and other valuables, in order to purchase the basic necessities of life.
In a very short time, this formerly middle-class family found itself in a terrible state of uncertainty, economically stranded, and in fear for its future. The news about Jews being plundered, beaten and murdered throughout Romania and in certain areas of Bucharest became a reality during the Rebellion of the Legionaries in 1941.
The Jews from Bucharest were not subject to mass deportations. This is why my testimony contains historical information that is unknown even to many Transnistria survivors.
After the pogrom in Bucharest, when the men were taken to forced-labour, the tension and panic in the Jewish community increased. Jewish men were forced to work on projects such as snow removal, road repairs and the maintenance of bridges. Jewish children were not allowed to attend schools, many of which had been closed and turned into military hospitals.
On March 20, 1942, my father was also taken to a forced labour unit. One day, an officer ordered the members of this unit to go to the City Hall in order to have their I. D. cards stamped. While they were away, General Capeleanu arrived on inspection and found the "labourers" were missing from the work site. Without investigating the reason for their absence, he quickly shoved the list with their names into his briefcase and left angrily.
...Meantime, my family heard news of Hitler's "Final Solution," regarding Jews from Germany, Austria and Poland being burned en masse, but my father was convinced that in Romania things would not get that bad: "We'll only have to put up with some restrictions", he had stated with optimism. But he was wrong. During the night of Erev Rosh Hashana<2>, in September 1942, while our family was fast asleep, the police barged into the house and ordered everyone out. Wearing just nightgowns and housecoats, we were taken to a school, which had been turned into a gathering centre for those who would be deported to Transnistria for "disciplinary reasons". This action was apparently a consequence of the incident on March 20, when the forced labour unit had been found missing from the work site. During that night, more and more people were herded into the school: men, women, children and the elderly. Some were whimpering, others whispering, still others crying, while the policemen were pushing, swearing and ordering them around Then we were herded to the train station.
When we reached the Triaj Train Station in Bucharest, the cattle cars were already waiting for us on a siding. Forty to fifty people were crowded into a dark, windowless car. During the first few moments, feverish activity of organizing our meagre belongings took place. There was moaning, groaning, and swearing. Each person thought that the place occupied by the other was better. People struggled to obtain a spot near the vent, where there was a bit more air. Others crowded by the sliding door to be closer to the two pails, which had been placed there by a gendarme. "Don't you mix them up! One is for water, the other for elimination! Don't you mix them up, Ha, Ha!" he had sneered sarcastically.
How right he was! From the very first night, there was confusion about which pail is for what, especially when someone had to get there in a hurry. In order to get to the door, one had to step over the bodies of those lying on the floor. It was dark. How could we tell apart the pails? In time, we learned to put one pail in the opposite corners of the boxcar. At some point though, it became necessary to have someone stand watch over the water pail...
During the three days in the boxcars, on the siding of this suburban Bucharest train station, a group of ladies from the Red Cross, some of them Jewish, came to bring us milk, tea, and fresh bread for the children and the elderly. The Jewish community from Bucharest sent us boxes with medical supplies, metal cans, plates, pails and several axes.
I remembered having taken a first aid course at school, and told that to the representative from the Jewish community. In the confusion and tumult, he interpreted that to mean that I was a qualified nurse. He didn't even notice that I was just a teenager. He handed me the boxes with medical supplies, and I signed for them...
...When they could, our families continued to bring clothes and food to the train. In exchange for bribes, the policemen would look the other way, pretending not to notice. We were only allowed out of the cattle cars at dawn and in the evenings. On those occasions, some food was brought from the railway station canteen. The September heat was oppressive, and not enough air was coming in through the vent. It was stifling! People were whispering to each other, one telling a story about his family, another about his work... Gradually, we got to know one another and learned to somehow live together in this crowded box.
...My father (whom I called Tata), and several other men kept on repeating: "You'll see, they will not take us away! An inquiry commission will come! We are innocent. We were at work. The stamps on our identity cards prove that we are supposed to be called to do snow removal during the winter. This is just a big mistake!"
However, on the third day, a railway worker stuck a large sign on our train, stating: "Special Transport: Transnistria-Bogdanov". That evening, the boxcars were sealed from the outside and coupled to a new freight train. With a long, shrill whistle from the locomotive, and an abrupt jolt, the train left the station. Nobody was able to sleep that night. Soon, we noticed that the further away we got from Bucharest, the colder it became.
Many people became hysterical with fear and anger, pounding with their fists on the walls of the cars, and screaming: "This is a mistake! For God's sake... It's a mistake! How can this be possible?" My father whispered to my mother: "You'll see... At the very first station there will be an inquiry commission... This is not possible... It's a big mistake." None of us wanted to believe that we were really being deported.
At dawn, the train stopped and the heavy doors were flung open. "Out! Empty the pails! Fill the pails with water! Anybody who needs to go, should crawl under the car! We're leaving in ten minutes!"
We noticed a change in the guards. Our train was now surrounded by tired looking, older guards, dressed in shabby blue uniforms. It looked like they had been recruited from the poor peasant population of the surrounding district. They looked bored and disinterested in the "Holy War" which had been started by Marshall Antonescu. The chief of this unit was Sergeant Fanake. He was the only one in a green uniform. He treated the men as if they were his own personal servants. He never uttered a decent word, only curses and obscene language...
...After seven days and nights of stop and go travel in those sealed cars, we had crossed the entire width of Moldova and were now approaching the River Dniester. Normally, it would take ten hours to travel this distance. But for us it had taken seven days of hunger, thirst, and insecurity. During these fearful seven days, we developed strong bonds amongst us. We began to care for one another like in an extended family.
On the seventh day, we reached Tighina, a town located on the western bank of the River Dniester. Since leaving Bucharest, we did not have enough food or water and nothing to keep us warm. As soon as the train had crossed the bridge over the river, it stopped and soldiers flung the doors open. Then, they climbed into the cars to conduct a "customs inspection". Every bundle was opened, and everything, even of the smallest value, was confiscated: shirts, pants, underwear, shoes, anything the soldiers thought they could use. "For the war effort... If you wish, we can make lists of these items, and after the war, they will be returned to you," they mumbled. We were left with little more than the clothes on our backs! The slightest complaint was met with a blow from a rifle butt. With the little money we had managed to hide on our bodies, we were able to purchase some food at the various stops. Everyone was getting more nervous, neurotic, tense and fearful. The next stop was Tiraspol, where we spent two more days on a siding. Suddenly, at midnight, we heard the sound of the locomotive building up steam, a harsh jolt followed, and the train departed again, pulling its confused and frightened cargo into the dark, cold night.
...We had no idea where to we were heading. There was no one to ask. The gendarmes did not know where Bogdanov was. In retrospect, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, possibly even having saved some of our lives. At some point, we found out that we were heading towards Odessa, usually a train ride of about three or four hours from Tiraspol. However, our train ride took fourteen hours. The shabby and yellowed sign, which had been posted on our train in Bucharest, indicating Bogdanov as our destination, was still firmly attached. Even in Odessa, a main train junction, neither the railway personnel nor the military people had ever heard of Bogdanov. Thus, our boxcars were put on a siding again. The station was cluttered with bombed-out freight cars, and a multitude of Romanian and German soldiers were milling around. There were also many Ukrainian peasants, wrapped in heavy winter clothing, the women with thick scarves on their heads, as if it were in the middle of winter.
...The train was standing on a raised siding at the exit of the station. We crowded around the little vent, through which we were able to see that the train station was located on a hill. From there we could see the wide, straight city boulevards flanked by tall trees, leading all the way down to the Odessa harbour on the Black Sea. The streets were crowded with cars, trucks, and a lot of people. We noticed that the people were hurried, tense, and anxious. We could even see some of the ships in the harbour. It was a beautiful sight.
...The following morning, we were not allowed to leave the cars. "This is a big train station! You must not crawl under the cars to eliminate. You'll just have to abstain! You have no food anyway, so why should you need to go?" grinned the gendarme. We had hoped that we would at least be allowed to fill the empty pails with water and dump the full ones,... but this was not to be. Earlier, we had managed to hack some holes in the floorboards with our axes. We emptied the pails there, and the stench was horrific!...
...Later that morning, Sergeant Fanake yelled: "We are going to keep you here one more day! Nobody knows where the Hell to send you!" We ended up staying three days on this siding in Odessa. On the third day, Fanake came running up and ordered the gendarmes: "Seal the doors, we are moving! Where to? I'm not sure myself." The train moved on, speeding through the night.
...About four hours later, we stopped at a small train station. It was pitch dark. "Out! Move! You stinking Kikes. Quick! Move! Out!" the guards screamed. A terrible tumult broke the silence of the night; some of us tumbled out of the cars disoriented and tightly clasping our bundles. Frenzied parents searched for their children, children desperately looked for their parents. In this bedlam, we tripped over each other and the rifle butts continued to land on our bodies. When our eyes became accustomed to the dark, we could see several horse-drawn carts. They were supposedly waiting there to help with our "luggage". Our limbs, stiffened from the many days cramped in the cattle cars, dragged our tired, beaten, hungry, and cold bodies along the uneven country road. Where to?... That was the big question. What was going to happen to us? How long would this "trip" last? During these difficult times, only Matilda, Bercu's wife, was able to keep our spirits up. She was still convinced that no matter what happened, she would survive, and one day, she would make it to the Land of Israel. Armed guards were constantly prodding us to march faster, using their rifle butts to hit us on the back: "Move on, you stinking, bloody Kikes!"... That, and numerous other insults were continually spat at us.
...At dawn, we finally arrived in a village. The carts stopped in front of the warehouse of a former collective farm. While our bundles were being thrown down from the carts, the farm manager appeared. He was a former legionnaire. He looked thin, pale, and his voice was barely audible. He appeared to be ill. Without looking at us, he grumbled, "Why the Devil did they send you here? I have no use for you! I'll have to find a way to get rid of you! In the meantime, get into the building, take some hay from the yard and put it on the floor to sleep on. I'll give you some vegetables and some oil to make a soup in a caldron. Make a hole in the ground and put all your garbage there. I'd better not catch you littering! Don't you dare roam around!... I'll find a way to get rid of you. What a problem, Kikes I needed? They were completely crazy the ones who sent you here!" Then, he abruptly turned around and left.
...This sickly looking man did keep his word, though. Towards noon, he sent a cart with vegetables and a canister of oil. "This is our first warm food in Transnistria..." murmured my mother. At dusk, we made a bonfire, gathered around it and sang opera, operetta, and hassidic songs. The sun was setting, spreading a red-violet hue in the sky. Since it was getting colder, we finally crawled into the hay. We quickly fell asleep, smelling the pleasant fragrance of field flowers in the hay. That night, we had quite a restful sleep. In the morning, one of my friends joked: "I feel like I am at a luxury resort, the vegetable soup was even better than my grandmother's"
This "paradise" lasted for three days. On the third day, the farm manager, whose name we never found out, walked through the yard and ordered: "Gather up everything! At night the train is coming for you. I don't need you here! Those idiots from Odessa wanted to get rid of you, so they sent you here. But in fact, you are supposed to go to Bogdanov, up there near the River Bug. You have lucked out though, Mr. Alexianu, the Governor of Transnistria, needs you for labour in Vigoda, where you will be put to harvest the sunflowers. I don't need you, I can hardly wait to get rid of you!"
No sooner had he finished speaking, when the horse-drawn carts appeared again. We loaded them with our bundles, then, we were herded back to the train station, driven on by rifle- butts and obscene language. We boarded the awaiting train, filling each boxcar with the same groups of people as before. Several hours later, the train moved on.
...On the way to Vigoda, we stopped again in Odessa, but this time, we had at last a destination, where we hoped we would finally be able to get "settled". After a few more hours of train travel, we arrived in Vigoda. Upon arrival, we saw a bombed-out depot, and a small hut, with a postage-stamp-sized garden in front. We were again transferred to horse- drawn carts, the beatings from the rifle-butts continued, but they didn't bother us any more.
...Amongst us was Lica, a mountain of a man. Shy and lonely, he had decided that he would take care of us in exchange for some family warmth. He had been longing for someone to talk to, someone to belong to, some family warmth. He found all of that within our group. Plachek, Winter, Bercu, Matilda, Braukh, and Blumenthal were also "adopted" into our little clan. We all felt the need to be closely connected, to call ourselves a family.
...Finally, loud shouting from the gendarmes informed us that we had arrived at a state farm run by Mr. Gogleata. No sooner had we jumped down from the carts, when the drivers started to run off with our few belongings that were still on the carts. We started screaming and some of the gendarmes intervened, stopping them from disappearing with our meagre belongings. However, other gendarmes actually encouraged the drivers to leave before some of us managed to grab our bundles.
...On our way to an empty stable, the gendarmes continued to curse and to smack us with their rifle butts. We were ordered to "make ourselves comfortable" on the dirt floor. Totally exhausted, we fell asleep in no time, fully dressed, which had become common practice for us.
...In the morning when we awakened, we discovered that the farm was surrounded by minefields. In the midst of the minefields, we saw what we thought were several trenches. However, from a safe distance, a peasant cautioned us to stay away. "That's where the stinking Jews from Odessa were buried!" he shouted. We soon realised that we are actually facing mass graves, where thousands of Jews from Odessa had been buried. They had been executed by being shot in the back of the head. This heinous crime was committed in one single day. Then, to ensure that no one would nose around and discover these murders, the area had been planted with landmines. A huge sign was posted, stating: " Danger, No Entry".
...Later that morning, we were lined up to meet the manager, Mr. Gogleata. He wore the green shirt of the legionnaires, high boots, and, in his belt, he carried a revolver. He was short, skinny, with a pointy nose and thin, tight lips. In contrast, he had huge hands with thick fingers full of calluses, dangling at the end of his disproportionately long arms. His eyes looked mean and shifty. He had the image of a caricature. "You stinking Kikes" was how he began his welcoming speech, "Marshall Antonescu sent you here to work and to die... Ha! Ha! Ha! I would rather you die first and then work. Ha! Ha! Ha!... Last year in January, when I participated in the Legionary Rebellion, I sent lots of you to Heaven,.. pardon me,... to Hell. You rotten Kikes, you have no God. You have the Devil in you. If you won't break your back working, this farm will be soaked with your blood! Roll-call! I want to hear all of your names, and to see each of your faces. I want to see who I am dealing with. As far as your girls are concerned, I have always had an eye for Jewish girls. They smell nice. It's been a long time since I had a Jewish girl in my bed..." This was clearly intended to frighten us. Mr. Gogleata would rather see us dead, but before winter set in, he wanted us to work very hard at harvesting the sunflower fields.
...This was a man true to his word, and he made no effort to hide his indiscriminating lust for Jewish women, particularly the younger ones... "Together we will have a lot of fun," he kept repeating amid vicious curses. His attention was particularly drawn to the young and beautiful Mioara Cernat [Chernat]. Even in her worst nightmares, she would not have imagined the tragic fate that awaited her.
...Early next morning, after spending a night in freezing temperatures in the roofless barn, terrified and hungry, we faced Gogleata at roll call. With a beastly smirk on his face, he proceeded to torture us. He picked out ten men from among our group and made a bet with the soldiers for a bottle of plum brandy, that he was such a good shot that he could kill all ten men with one single bullet. On hearing this, we began to cry and wail and beg. "Please, Mr. Gogleata, Sir, please do not proceed with your bet!" Gogleata, still smirking, holstered the gun. Unexpectedly, he turned to the rest of us and sneered: "You have no idea how much better off you would be if I would actually kill you right now."
...A few days later, Captain Atanasiu, a rather friendly type, arrived from the Ovidiopol garrison to take charge of the security arrangements on the farm. The captain promised to help us organize a self-management committee. He clearly emphasized what our duties were: to work very hard, very fast, never try to escape, and to watch our personal hygiene to prevent the raging typhus epidemic from spreading. There and then, he named the dentist Carol Perlzweig, Mr. Jagerman, and myself to be the "medical staff". There were a few small buildings and several little huts nearby, where we were eventually allowed to sleep.
...We set up an "infirmary" with the few first aid supplies that we had brought from Bucharest. With the new authority vested in us by Captain Atanasiu, we had one of our men install showers, dig latrines, scrub the floors and whitewash the walls.
...Every day, 100 to 120 of us would work in the fields, escorted by two or three armed gendarmes. We would leave before dawn without even a hot drink. The shifts were twelve hours long; we were constantly plagued by hunger, thirst. Since we had no warm clothes to protect us, we were freezing in the cold damp autumn wind. Our hands were constantly bleeding from the jagged surface of the sunflower stalks. Even the children were put to work in the chicken coop. But, at least, we stayed alive.
...Unfortunately, even that harsh routine soon came to an end. Indeed, Gogleata did not lie to us about his lust for Jewish women. One night, Mioara Cernat did not return from working in the fields. After a frantic search, we found her badly beaten, swollen, covered with blood, with both her legs broken. I gently touched her hand. She slowly opened her eyes, and stared at me for a few seconds with a blank expression. She looked like she had just been awakened from a deep sleep. Her lips were swollen, cracked and bleeding. Her beautiful long, golden hair, which she always kept nicely groomed, was matted with sweat, some strands sticking to her bleeding face. She could hardly speak. I had to lean over and put my ear close to her mouth to be able to hear her whisper. "They bit me, the beasts. They gang-raped me. They burnt my skin with cigarettes, they beat me. At first I screamed, I struggled, I bit, and I swung my arms and kicked with my feet. Then four of them held me down, and the first one to have his fling with me was Gogleata. I could no longer struggle or scream. Then, he invited the entire army squad to have their fun, the beasts. I will feel them on me for the rest of my life. Then, they just threw me away."
We took care of Mioara as best we could. After a few days, when she felt slightly better, she asked me to always remember what had happened to her. How could I forget? How could anyone forget? This was our cruel reality -- we were dealing with wild animals, monsters, and there was no end in sight.
...Mioara did not go to work for several days. As soon as she was able, she came to the infirmary. Her face was still distorted with bruises, her lips badly swollen, but her hair was once again nicely groomed. She said, "Do you know why I came, Sonia. I want you to cut my hair off! Short, like the boys. You are still a young girl, but I want you to always remember what they did to me that night. They killed my joy for living. They killed my hope. I used to be a 'good girl. That's finished! From now on, Mioara Cernat will be a bitch."
In the meantime, another 72 Jewish young men arrived in Vigoda; now we were a very big family -- 284 people.
...We remained in Vigoda until the end of November 1942. It was getting much colder and very windy; the torrential rains and the hunger became harder to bear. More and more people were getting sick. At night, we huddled together to try and keep warm. In the corner of our room there was a brick stove, but we had no wood to light a fire.
Fritz, an energetic young man, decided to take the risk and sneak out of the camp to get firewood. He would slip out night after night. In order to crawl under the barbed wire, he had to make absolutely sure that his timing was right so that he would not be caught by the rotating search-light. He managed to bring back scraps of wood from broken crates of military supplies, small sections of shattered telephone posts, and pieces of old boards. It is a true miracle what a few degrees of warmth can do; our hope was restored, and we learned to smile again. But not for long -- one night Fritz was caught.
...When he did not return as usual, we spent the whole night looking for him. Finally, at dawn, we found him. Naked, laying on the frozen ground, he appeared to be dead. He was badly beaten, covered with blood, and had many cigarette and candle burns on his body. His back, on which the gendarmes had trampled with their boots, looked like one big wound. The soles of his feet were burnt from the candle flames. This was our hero; our big, handsome Fritz, the strong one, the one who had succeeded to put a smile on our faces, to warm our souls and hearts, the one who gave us hope. When we gently picked him up, he slowly opened his swollen eyelids. His eyes smiled, but his face grimaced in pain. "You wanted warmth. We'll warm you!" the gendarmes had mocked Fritz as they brutally burned holes in his flesh. It took a long time for Fritz to recover, and he was never the same again.
Despite the cold, the hunger, and the sickness, we succeeded to stay alive, we somehow got used to life on the farm. The monster, Gogleata, was often away on business, and during those times survival became somewhat easier. The curses, being beaten for no reason, and the humiliations had become a way of life for us.
...The other farm workers, native Ukrainians, who had worked on the same farm when it was a "sovhoz" (Soviet state farm), became accustomed to our presence. From time to time, they would bring some food from the railway canteen and we would barter -- a salami for a pair of shoes, three eggs for a shirt... Eventually, a "set" price list was established.
...On November 30, Sergeant Major Fanake informed our liaison (a person who we suspected all along of being a plant by the authorities) that this camp was being closed down. "Orders, directly from Mr. Alexianu, the Governor of Transnistria, in Odessa", he stated. We had to move to a new location, a vineyard in a place called Alexandrovca, sixty kilometres away from Vigoda. Horse-drawn carts were provided to carry the dismantled portable latrines, the lumber for fencing, and our bunk beds. We, the labourers, with our bundles on our backs, had to walk alongside the carts, in the freezing rain and ankle-deep mud, for a whole day and a whole night. None of us had anything to eat during that entire trek. Yes, we had one stop, when the horses needed to be watered. Once again, when they left us in Alexandrovca, the greedy cart drivers did not hesitate to steal from our scant belongings...
...In Alexandrovca, we found some abandoned rail cars, subdivided into three-by-three meter cubicles. They served as our lodgings, each family to a cubicle. We brought in wet hay for bedding and settled in. Who cares, that the hay is wet? Nothing to it, we said to ourselves. However, two or three days later, small white worms began to emerge from our bedding. We threw out the rotten wet hay and replaced it with fresh wet hay.
...The manager of this vineyard was an agronomist called Vasiliu. He lived some distance away with his wife and children. On our first day, Mr. Vasiliu assembled us and made a speech: "Ladies and Gentlemen," he started. We couldn't believe our ears! What had we done to merit such courtesy? "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am the manager of this farm which belongs to the government. We are lucky that the frost has not set in, and the vines have not yet frozen. These vines have to be buried immediately. There is also a lot of work to be done in the corn shed, the cattle stalls, and the poultry yard. If you start your work promptly, I will have no quarrel with you. But, if you fail to do so, I will have to call on Lieutenant Capeleanu. He will know how to make sure that you do your jobs. Those who go to work will be fed. If you work diligently, even those remaining in the camp will be given some food."
...The next day, we were divided into groups of forty, but after the trek in the terrible rain and wind, we were so tired that we could not go to work. The gendarmes reported us to the farm manager, who promptly summoned Lieutenant Capeleanu. We had to wait for two hours in roll call formation before he arrived, accompanied by a detachment of gendarmes. He wore elegant, well-tailored clothes, had high freshly polished boots. He looked like a picture from a magazine. In his hand he held a whip, his face grimaced in an arrogant smirk.
"So, I hear, you scum, decided to sabotage our sacred war effort and abandon your responsibilities. Maybe you are some Bolshevik spies, but, I have your number... I will settle the score with you right now, not tomorrow or the next day," he spouted. Then he addressed the gendarmes, "Load you weapons and get into position!"
In the pouring rain with our feet sunk in the ankle-deep mud, we froze at the sight of the stern, cruel faces of the gendarmes. They looked very threatening even though their own uniforms were soaked from the rain. The Lieutenant kept us in a state of terror for what seemed like an eternity. The slightest move was subject to a penalty of twenty-five lashes on the back. He paced back and forth terrorizing the women he was attracted to by pausing to stare at them.
...Finally, he stopped in front of Matilda, Bercu's beautiful wife. Bercu, who was standing behind her, lost all colour in his face. With clenched teeth and fists, he watched his wife facing the lieutenant. Strands of her beautiful black hair had escaped from the wet kerchief on her head and were glued to her rain-soaked face. Bercu took a big step forward, pulled his wife behind him, and positioned himself between her and Capeleanu. The lieutenant raised his whip and landed a few hard blows on Bercu's face. Blood gushed out and spattered on his clothing, but Bercu did not move. "You scum, are you being chivalrous here? In Transnistria? You scum! In this muddy pigsty? Fifty lashes you get! You'll never hold your wife in your arms again! I will beat you till you bust! Pants down! Lie down, face in the mud and don't you dare protect your head!" he barked with his mouth foaming. Capeleanu did not beat him, instead he stomped with his spiked boots on Bercu's back until the blood spewed out.
At first, Bercu screamed, but soon he passed out. Matilda was terrified. She stuck her fists in her mouth to muffle her screams. Bitter tears mingled with raindrops trickled down her pale face. The rest of us held our breath. How long this monster continued to stomp on Bercu's back I do not know, maybe ten minutes, maybe an hour, maybe three. But at the end of his ordeal, the black mud ran red with Bercu's blood.
Abruptly, Capeleanu stopped his attack. Angrily he strode off, yelling that he was actually the son of the very illustrious General Capeleanu, (the one who ordered the deportation of the Jews) and this is what happens to anyone who did not show him the necessary respect. We carefully lifted Bercu and carried him to the infirmary. We washed and bandaged his wounded body. Kneeling beside him, Matilda continually stroked his hair, whispering loving words in his ear. After this terrible day, Bercu was not able to sleep on his back until the end of our stay in Transnistria. None of us were able to sleep that night.
...At dawn, in the freezing cold, everyone reported for work.
...During these days of hard labour, Lieutenant Capeleanu would ride his horse through the vineyard, prodding the boys to work faster and faster. He regularly used his whip on the boys, like on cattle. Anyone who looked up even for a second, was whipped in the face...
...Meantime, Captain Atanasiu had arranged for a physician to come from Ovidiopol to examine the sick in the infirmary. The physician, Dr. Arnold Klein, was a Jew from Transylvania, who had been conscripted to work in Transnistria. He was in his mid-forties, stocky, with drooping shoulders; a bizarre grin stuck on his prematurely-aged face; a panicky look in his eyes, as if asking: "What am I doing here?" His coat was much too big for his body, and his feet dragged his heavy shoes along. The infirmary was put at his disposal.
...When I arrived from my work in the fields in the afternoon, he greeted me with an empty gaze. He did not seem at all amazed that a young girl like myself was the official "nurse". I was not quite fifteen years old. Together we started our medical rounds. Dr. Klein did not seem surprised by our physical condition: bronchitis, severe cases of flu, lice infestations, arthritis, eye infections, diarrhea and pneumonia. Yet, for every condition, Dr. Klein applied the same treatment method: "Take three aspirins and get back to work." This remedy was even applied to people who coughed up blood and shivered from high fever. He was useless. He seemed to have no authority at all, except to make sure that we went out to work every day, regardless of how sick we were. We dubbed him "Dr. Aspirin". Thus, our hopes to get some medical care quickly vanished.
...Christmas quickly approached. We decided to try to please our captain and his soldiers by going to their houses and singing traditional Christmas carols. As we stood in the deep snow and sang, the wind was howling, the snow was drifting and, in no time, there was a full- blown blizzard. The howling of the blizzard mingled with the wails of the hungry wolves in the fields nearby. Suddenly, spontaneously, from the depth of our souls, we found ourselves passionately bursting into Hatikva<3>. We sang it once, we sang it twice, we sang it three times. After all, that was all we had -- Tikva, HOPE. We hoped that there would be a tomorrow, and a day after tomorrow, and that we would all survive. The ten of us, bundled up in rags, hungry, worried about tomorrow, were singing Hatikva with huge, hot tears running down our cheeks. Moved by our spontaneous gesture, our tormentors treated us to some apples. What a feast!
...On December 27, 1942, we were ordered to pack our belongings once again. This time, we were told that we were being transferred to a place called Bogdanovca. It was located west of the River Bug, in the east side of Transnistria. Sleighs were prepared for us, and urged on by Capeleanu's whip, we loaded our bundles. He continued to lash us until we arrived at the train station. We climbed into the cars and huddled together on the freezing floor to keep ourselves warm. We were always very afraid of freezing. Again, we had two pails, one with a lid for drinking water, and one for elimination. This time, we had enough experience to know how to use the pails properly, but we no longer cared, for we had no energy left. Capeleanu was ecstatic over our departure. "Thank God, I am finally rid of you!" he shouted.
When we awoke the next morning, we found ourselves encased in a cage of glass. The walls and ceiling were completely sheathed in ice. Freezing cold water constantly dripped on our heads. This is how we travelled for the next twenty-five days. Once a day, the train would stop in a remote area, where we would fill up the buckets with snow for drinking water and eliminate under the railway cars. Dying from hunger or frost became a real probability. Once again, we didn't know where we were going...
...We arrived in the Oceanov [Ocheanov] district, an area inhabited by Ukrainians of German origin. Many of them were enrolled in Vlasov's army<4>. They were descendants of the German colonists, whom Catherine the Great had invited to settle in Russia two centuries earlier. The soldiers warned us: "Not many people get through these villages alive." However, they told us that for a reasonable amount of money, the Romanian gendarmes would protect us, and we might have a chance to survive. Thus, we gave away our watches and a little money. The sergeant seemed pleased, and as promised, he quickly escorted us safely through the German villages to Bogdanovca.
...There, we were met by the reserve Lieutenant Dumitru Ghiata [Ghiatsa]. He said, "I cannot keep you here because we are surrounded by villages with German colonists who are always eager to spill Jewish blood. I'm sorry, but I can't burden my conscience by risking the lives of innocent people! I have prepared a barn, where I will let you stay for two days and I will give you some food. Then, I will send you to Bogdanovca in the Golta district."
...Once again, we were back on the train, criss- crossing the Ukraine to get to the Golta region. At every stop, we heard of typhus, starvation, and of the thousands upon thousands of our people who had already perished... Through blizzards, through snow... The train was moving on...
[Note: This testimony consists of excerpts from Sonia Palti's book Jews! Cross the Dniester! The destination marked on the train in Bucharest was Bogdanov, but there was no place with that name in Transnistria. It was supposed to be Bogdanovca, but no one knew that. For this reason, this group of people from Bucharest was driven from place to place, until they were finally repatriated to Romania, in 1943].
This is how Sonia describes the impact of her ordeal at the end of her book:
"The smouldering mass graves, the anti-tank ditches filled with bodies washed by the rains, the ground that moved. At home. only fourteen months ago, I was a fourteen-and-a-half year old girl. I am returning as a mature adult at only fifteen-and-a-half.
One year has passed. One very long year, which will probably live in my soul for the rest of my life. I was looking out the train window, listening to the rhythmic clicking of the wheels, speedily gulping one kilometre after another, pleading with me: 'do not forget.do not forget. do not forget'".
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