6. Life in Transnistria

As characterized by Raul Hilberg, „Transnistria was a prolonged disaster.” Romanian officials had not initially selected Transnistria as the end of the line for the Jews. As you may recall, Antonescu actually once had talked about settling them beyond the Urals. But the basic idea was simply to drive the Jews as far away as possible. That was in the summer of 1941, when the deportations over the Dniester did not sit well with the Germans, who sent deportees back. Such events recurred throughout February 1942, though less frequently, now with the Romanians sending Jews across and the Germans sending them back from the Bug instead of from the Dniester.

On October 4, 1941, the Second Section relayed to the Fourth Army Marshal Antonescu’s order to deport all the Jews in Transnistria to camps close to the Bug River.

According to the November 19, 1943, report of General Vasiliu, general inspector of the gendarmerie and secretary of state at the Ministry of the Interior, 110,033 Jews had been deported to Transnistria from Bessarabia, Bukovina, and Dorohoi. The report mentioned that 50,741 Jews were still alive, most of them located in the districts of Moghilev, Golta, and Tulcin.

In the district of Moghilev, close to the Dniester, more Jews survived than in the others. German involvement was less frequent here, so the Jewish community was better able to organize itself. Romanian officials did not manifest the same cruelty here as in Golta and Odessa. Although especially numerous in Moghilev and Balta, deported Jews found themselves in 120 localities throughout all the region’s districts; some of these received one to six deportees while others ended up with thousands. Overall figures for deportation and survival appear in Alexander Dallin’s study.

On October 10, 1941, convoys from Bessarabia and Bukovina crossed the Dniester at Moghilev, Râbnita, and Iampol. The first convoys from Vertujeni to Rezina crossed the Dniester at Râbnita, a witness testified, and were taken further to Birzula, where they stopped, rested in stables, and then were forced on toward Grozdovca. The ghetto that was organized there was commanded by a corporal. He greeted the first convoy by counting the people with iron bar blows on the back.

On November 16, 1941, a massive convoy of Jews from Dorohoi passed Sargorod and headed for a small town on the bank of the Bug. The people were in such pitiful shape that the Ukrainian peasant women who had arrived at the bazaar gave them food that they had brought to sell; the women knelt before the military prosecutor ‘ s office, crying and begging the military prosecutor, Dindelegan, to allow this convoy to remain. With much difficulty the heads of the local ghetto gained consent for them to remain until spring.

Roundups in Moghilev on November 30 separated many children from their parents. On December 1, typhus was discovered in Bers?ad and S?argorod, and typhoid fever appeared in Moghilev itself. Fortunately, for some reason in this case Ion Antonescu allowed the Central Office of Romanian Jews to send medical supplies to Transnistria, albeit only on December 10.

On the same day the government of Transnistria mandated the exchange of rubles for marks, but as peasants did not trust that currency, they agreed only to barter food for objects henceforth. Officials were willing to accept new arrivals in Moghilev, Ra¬bnit?a, and Iampol only if the deportees were in transit. On December 20, more than five hundred Jews recently sent to Moghilev were once again deported, this time deeper into Transnistria (five days later an epidemic of typhus broke out in Moghilev).

The lot of the Jews in Moghilev was awful. Thousands and thousands of Romanian Jews were deported to the other side of the Bug and handed over to the Germans, who then murdered them. The indigenous Jewish population underwent mass executions by the Romanians in Odessa and the district of Golta. But the Jews deported from Bessarabia and Bukovina died typically as a result of typhus, hunger, and cold. Food distribution was erratic. Many lived by begging or by selling their clothes for food, ending up virtually naked. They ate leaves, grasses, potato peels and often slept in stables or pigsties, sometimes not allowed even straw. Except for those in the Pecioara and Vapniarka camps and in the Râbnita prison, the deported Jews lived in ghettos or in towns, where they were assigned a residence, forced to carry out hard labor, and subjected to the “ natural” process of extermination through famine and disease. This „natural selection” ceased toward the end of 1943, when Romanian officials began changing their approach toward the deported Jews.

In January 1942, the typhus epidemic reached major proportions. On January 5, the Obodovka ghetto was declared contaminated, surrounded by barbed wire, and put under guard. The inmates were not allowed to leave even to get supplies, so that hunger killed even many of those with some means. Statistics from the Central Jewish Office of Romanian Jews indicated that as of March 1943, the only Jews remaining in southern Transnistria were 60 in Odessa and 425 in the district of Berezovka, a few local, the rest from Romania.

On February 11, 1942, the Transnistria Gendarme Inspectorate asked the government of the region to approve the deportation of Jews from the district of Moghilev to that of Balta, east of the Smerinka-Odessa railroad, in order „Nto settle the Jewish question in [Moghilev] and cut off all communication between Jews from the Moghilev region and those who remained on Romanian territory.” On February 16, the prefect of Moghilev ordered the evacuation of four thousand Jews to the town of Scazinet, requiring the Jewish Committee of Moghilev to draw up the plan. On April 25, the Jewish Committee was again informed by the same local authorities that, except for three thousand, the Jews of Moghilev would be deported to Smerinka. However, for unknown reasons the Moghilev prefecture again canceled the execution of that measure on April 29. Finally, on May 19, the government of Transnistria ordered the deportation of four thousand Jews from Moghilev to Scazinet. The order was repeated by the Transnistria Gendarme Inspectorate on May 22.

The deportation plan was initiated on May 25 by the general administrative inspector, Dimitre Stefanescu, and the prefect, Nasturas. The Jewish Committee of Moghilev tried to get the commander of the gendarme legion to cancel the order, but on June 14, 1942, the Jewish Committee was disbanded. On May 29, May 30, and June 2, three thousand Jews from Moghilev and others from Kindiceni, Jaruga, Ozarinet, and Crasna were sent on foot in four groups to Scazinet. Here a closed camp had been set up in two damaged buildings that once had belonged to a military school.

In the fall of 1942, when Alexianu decided to close the Scazinet camp, the Jews who were still alive were brought on foot to the Bug (except for specialists returned to Moghilev) to the villages of Vorosilovka, Tivriv, and Crasna. More than half died in Vorosilovka as a result of hunger and disease. Those who still remained in Scazinet at the time the camp was closed on September 12, 1942, were so bloated from hunger that they died soon thereafter.

On May 20, 1942, Radu Lecca agreed, with the approval of Antonescu ‘ s office, to allow the Central Jewish Office to send money and food to the Jews in Transnistria.101 Actually, the first transport of medicine sent by the Jews of Romania proper for the deportees arrived in Moghilev on March 22, so there must have been an earlier approval.

Meanwhile, Jews continued to be transported farther into the interior of Transnistria. On June 14 and 20, 1942, hundreds of deportees from Cernauti and Dorohoi reached Serebria near Moghilev, only to be sent still farther up the Bug. On June 28, another five hundred were evacuated to Scazinet. Three thousand more from Moghilev were deported from the city shortly after July 3, 1942.

In the meantime, the number of orphans mounted. In Moghilev, where it was possible to keep statistics, 450 orphaned Jewish children inhabited a town orphanage in the summer of 1942. On August 20, a second orphanage was established to house two hundred other children; as of November 28, three orphanages sheltered eight hundred. From April 1942 to May 1943, 356 children died there, mortality increasing especially during the last three months of 1942.

In March, April, and May 1943, the Jewish population continued to be moved toward the interior of Transnistria. On March 15, 220 Jews from the Pecioara camp were sent to a farm in Rahni, and in April 100 more from the Tulcin ghetto were sent to other district farms. In May another thousand Jews were sent to Trihati, on the other side of the Bug, to build a bridge. Here they were constantly tormented by German supervisors who shot Jews for the slightest infraction. In the spring of 1943, Captain Buradescu, now commander of Vapniarka, provoked a fight between the Christian inmates (Romanian and Ukrainian criminals) and the Jews, after which many Jewish deportees were punished. In June 1943, 1,560 Jewish deportees were transported by Germans from Obodovka to Nicolaev, beyond the Bug, for forced labor. They walked the eighty kilometers to Balta and then continued by train. Along the way they had nothing to eat.

During this time the condition of the orphaned children in Moghilev improved. Conversely, as of July 27, 1943, Tulcin District reported its 2,696 Jews from Moghilev at forced labor; 280 more were unable to work, and 259 were under punishment by the regime for attempted escape. According to Prefect Nasturas, “ 90 percent of the Jews were almost naked, dressed only in pants from rags.”

On September 9, 220 Jews were brought to Trihati from Golta District and 70 from Vapniarka. Their state was even more wretched. Their clothes were in tatters, and „many used newspapers to cover themselves.” Help that they were supposed to receive never materialized; one shipment of clothes from the Central Office was diverted by Germans, who sold them at the market.

In the fall of 1943, many Jews deported from the Transnistria ghettos sought to survive by begging, but they ran the risk of being caught and executed. On November 16, 1943, a committee headed by Colonel Radulescu, secretary of the Office of the President of the Council of Ministers, traveled through the Transnistria ghettos in preparation for a visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Indeed, in December a delegation of the International Committee, under the leadership of Charles Kolb and accompanied by a representative of the Romanian Red Cross, a certain Mrs. Ioan, and one from the Romanian government as well, visited Jewish “ colonies” in Transnistria. The visitors were shown only buildings where the deportees had clean laundry; statistical records were removed from the offices; and photography was barred. But individual Jews tried to inform the delegation of their actual situation.

Transnistria finally ceased to exist on March 20, 1944, when the Red Army reached the Dniester. The last weeks saw less of the suffering to which the surviving deportees had grown accustomed. A witness recalled about that time, “ No one was abusive, not the officers, not the soldiers, not the military prosecutors, not the pharmacists, not the agricultural engineers. The „Jidani” had now become „the Jewish gentlemen.” But liberation by the Red Army brought new tribulations for the Jews, who were forced into work battalions and who now would experience enormous difficulties trying to return to Romania. But that is another story.

According to Carp’s data, aside from the 30,000 or so Jews deported from Odessa, more than 25,000 had been deported farther into the interior of Transnistria. A report from Governor Alexianu dated March 9, 1942, indicated that 65,252 Jews had been deported from one place to another in Transnistria, including 32,819 from Odessa, 25,436 from Râbnita, and 5,479 from Tulcin, with the remainder from other districts of Transnistria.