"Meyer's Story" was published by the Centre for Holocaust Studies in Brooklyn, New York. It is based on the testimony of Meyer Moscovitz, at that time the Principal of a Jewish Day School in New York. The interview was taken on May 1, 1974, by Lydia Sprung.
Meyer Moscowitz was born in Chernovitz, in 1929. His father was a Hasidic<1> Rabbi, all ancestors on his father's side had been rabbis, scholars and teacher.
Much of Meyer's time was devoted to the study of Torah<2> and Jewish customs, leaving little time for play. However, he also enjoyed spending time with family and friends, swimming, hiking and playing soccer. Meyer's childhood was filled with the affection he received from his parents, sister, and the many relatives who lived nearby. His happy childhood came to an abrupt end when, in the fall of 1941, the Romanian and German forces entered Chernovitz and shattered his whole world.
|We ourselves decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly.|
We had been taken by surprise when the Russians took over Chernovitz, in 1940, and then again when the Germans and Romanians took it in 1941. Jewish leaders faced immediate danger, therefore my father went into hiding. On a Friday afternoon, the Jews were ordered to gather in the synagogues. My father came out of his hiding place, and the whole family went together to the nearby synagogue. Like everyone else, we left with just what we were wearing. It was summer time. The synagogue was very small. In less than an hour, it turned into a horrible place: hundreds of people were standing, crowded like sardines; children, old people, sick people. Many started to vomit and urinate. The smell became horrific. On Saturday morning, my father found a tallit<3> lying around, and he put in on for davening<4>. He was standing right beside my mother, my sister and me. Suddenly, a German officer came to the door and started to yell in German "der Rabiener, der Rabiener<5>!" He also called out the names of certain Jewish community leaders<6>. My father turned, gave us a sad look and followed the officer. The latter then screamed at my father and ordered him to go to the Aron Hakodesh<7> and tear down the Parochet<8>. My father did not move. The officer knocked him down and pulled down the Parochet himself. He trampled it with his boots and tore it to pieces. Since my father was on the floor, still wrapped in the tallit, the officer ordered him to go to the Aron Kodesh and open it. My father still did not move. The officer kicked him, but my father still did not comply. The officer opened the Aron Hakodesh himself and, like a maniac, threw the Sifrei Torah<9> on the floor. Then, he stomped on them, ripped them with his hands and cut them to shreds with a knife, trampling all over the pieces on the floor. Then he kicked my father and pushed him out the door. Horrified, we followed them to the door, but the soldiers standing there would not allow us out. We stood, frozen with fear, watching my father outside. He stood facing a line of German soldiers, for what seemed to me to be an eternity. Suddenly, right in front of our eyes, they shot him at point-blank range.
In the afternoon, we were chased out of the synagogue and ordered to leave town. From that day on, we were marched on the roads for approximately twenty kilometres each day. I had left home wearing only sandals and shorts. I remember the cold weather as we walked deeper into Bessarabia. Soon there was snow. I don't know how long we were chased down these muddy roads, but it seemed over two months, first through Bessarabia and then, through Transnistria.
Finally, we arrived in a small town called Shargorod. Here there were little dilapidated houses and huts. We were herded to a demolished house and the gendarmes told us that this is where we had to stay. Everyone scrambled to find a place on the floor, which was sheltered by a piece of unbroken roof. In one room, there were ten, fifteen or more people. This crowding had its advantages: first, it was warmer when we huddled together and secondly, people were trying to stay together for emotional support. My mother, my sister and I found a place in the corner of the room and claimed it as ours. We covered ourselves with all kinds of rags we had picked up along the way. At night we lay very close together to keep warm. Soon the filth and the lice became a permanent part of our lives.
In December, both my mother and sister fell ill with typhus. They were delirious from the high fever. A doctor, who was also a deportee, told me that this disease has a turning point, usually on the third day, when the fever breaks. He said that those who have a strong heart might pull through. But, he emphasized, it was important to feed them.
It was before Christmas, and an old peasant came into the camp to look for someone to help him slaughter a pig. He asked if I would do that for him in exchange for some food. Since I had no other way to feed my mother and sister, I agreed and went with him. At the end of the day, after having finished that miserable, sickening job, he gave me a few rotten potatoes and some of the insides from the slaughtered pig. On the way back to the camp, I found a few pieces of wood and an old empty tin can. At "home", I made a little campfire, washed the tin can carefully, and since I didn't have a knife, I broke the rotten potatoes and tore the meat into small pieces with my bare hands. Then, I put it all in the can with some snow and placed the can on the fire to cook. Since I was the son of a rabbi, on Fridays someone regularly brought me a piece of bread. In preparation for the meal, I said "Shalom Aleichem"<10> and made Kiddush<11>, hoping that my mother and sister would eat the food I had prepared.
I woke my mother and said: "Mutty, I have some food for you. Would you..." She didn't have the strength to say a word; she looked at me, then at the food and slowly shook her head. I was starving myself, and I also intended to eat from that soup-stew, but I couldn't eat it either<12>. We both started to cry. Thus, the meal ended before it began. To this day, this memory haunts me on Erev Shabbat<13>. Luckily, both my mother and sister did survived.
Some time later, I was separated from them by the Germans, who took me away with a group of slave labourers to build a bridge. There, although I was only thirteen years old, I was given the job of pushing a wheelbarrow full of cement. The wheelbarrow stood on a board, its wheels deeply buried in snow. I tried to push it, but needless to say, I couldn't. Suddenly, I felt a hard smack on my back. If that would happen to me today, I would probably be crippled for the rest of my life. But, miracles do happen. After I got that smack, I was suddenly able to push the wheelbarrow. I did this for a long time, day after day, hour after hour. To this day I cannot understand how I was able to do it, how I ever got the strength, the endurance.
It was a terribly cold winter, whenever I found a rag, a piece of paper, a string, or a rope, I would wrap them around me to protect myself from the cold. Since I had no shoes, I learned that by bundling my feet with straw and paper, I could protect them from the snow and the cold.
One day during that winter, a German soldier came over to me and said: "Today you have to work on top of the bridge." Since I was terrified of heights, I wondered how I would be able to hang on to the iron rods. I knew that in the winter, when you touch iron with your bare hands, the skin sticks to it. My mind conjured up visions of slipping, falling down and ending up crippled. As these thoughts were racing through my mind, the soldier repeated his order: "Today you have to climb up to the top of that tower." The tower was very high, and it was bitterly cold. The wind was blowing snow in my face. I was horrified. The soldier gritted his teeth, cursed and gave me a shove: "Up you go!" he barked. Somehow, I found myself climbing up, higher and higher. Suddenly, I was overcome by dizziness, I lost my hold and fell from a great height. When I landed, my right leg cracked the ice open and got stuck in the freezing water. My leg had struck something so sharp that to this day, it still gives me pain. The German soldier laughed hysterically, while I saw black in front of my eyes. I pulled my leg from the water and discovered it was bleeding profusely. The soldier just stood there laughing. After a while, he yelled: "Back to work you go," but this time he didn't send me up to the tower. When he was not looking at me, I took some paper and straw and tied them tightly around my leg. The blood kept seeping through. I worked with the wheelbarrow all day long, and I was in terrible pain. In the evening, when I returned to the train where we slept, the wound had already closed, but the leg was very red and swollen. The next day, I could hardly stand on it, but I had to go to work. I had no choice.
During the day, when I was walking around, the pain was bearable, but the strain caused the leg to swell more and more. By the third day, it was badly infected. One night, in the train, one of the deportees sterilized a knife in the flame of a gasoline lamp, cut my wound open and drained it. This was incredibly painful, but, thank God, the wound finally closed. (When the war was over, the wound had to be reopened and cleaned thoroughly. Then, my leg was properly, treated.). I continued to work at the bridge, and the day we finished building it, the Soviets bombed it and it fell apart.
When the Soviet front line moved closer to Transnistria, we were taken to an old dilapidated and broken down building at the train station in Odessa, where SS men guarded us. One bitterly cold and windy morning, I was standing by a window on the second floor, when suddenly, I saw a man jump out of the window. A few minutes later, I saw another one jump. A voice inside me told me that I, too, must jump. The snow was very deep from a tremendous snowdrift. All that could be heard, when the men jumped, was a soft thud from the impact of the fall. I decided to follow them, and jumped from the widow. Suddenly I heard a burst of machine-gun fire. I was shot in the arm; another man's shoulder was grazed by a bullet; and another lost a piece of his finger. The blood dripping from our wounds stained the white snow with bright red spots. We lay quietly in the snow all day, until it was completely dark. Then we dug a tunnel out to the road and hid.
There is no logical explanation about how I survived, but I am a firm believer that I owe my life to God's will as well as to the help I received from the people who I joined after we jumped out from the window. I don't remember their names, just faces, but I will never forget their kindness for letting me join them.
Perhaps because I was so young I couldn't fully understand what had happened to us and why. All the same, I fully experienced the horrors of Transnistria. In 1943, I left Transnistria with a group of orphans. Upon our arrival in Iashi, we were taken care of by Aliyat Hanoar<14>. Then, together with another 750 Jewish orphans, I arrived in Palestine. There, I was nurtured and prepared to return to a normal life by the young people from Aliyat Hanoar. If it were not for their kindness and understanding, I don't know what would have become of to me.
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