Kishinev was the capital of the county of Bessarabia, a territory situated between the River Prut, in the east, and the River Dniester, in the west. The province has been for centuries a battlefield between the Latin and Slavic political control and cultures. Kishinev had a heterogeneous Jewish community: there were religious and secular Jewish organizations, Zionist and cultural centres; there were upper class, middle class, as well as poor Jewish people. The city became internationally “famous” following the 1903 pogrom, which took place during the Easter Holiday, and lasted for 3 days. While only 49 Jews were murdered in that pogrom, the savagery of the killing made waves around the world. Media reports in the national and international press created an upheaval among the American Jewish community, to the point that a petition was sent to the Czar. In the years preceding World War II, the total population of Kishinev was about 100,000. Of this number, 45% to 50% were Jews.
My father, David Cervinschi, was a traditional Jew, who held strong Zionist ideals. Intending to emigrate to Palestine, he had travelled to Prague, where he studied agricultural sciences. However, his plans did not materialize, since my grandfather encountered difficulties with his business, and David returned to Kishinev, to help in his father’s business.
My mother, Clara, was the daughter of Leib Apotecher [Apoteker], one of the richest merchants/manufacturers in Kishinev. He dealt in leather, skin and woollen goods, locally, as well as abroad. My parents married in 1925, and my father became a partner in his father-in-law’s business.
I had a happy childhood, in the midst of an upper middle-class family. Until the age of seven, I even had a governess. Being the first grandchild, I was thoroughly spoiled and pampered. My knowledge about Judaism came mainly from my paternal grandfather, Aron-Josef Cervinschi, who was a Hasid of the reknowned Skverer Rebe. My younger brother, Shraga, was born in 1935. In the summertime, we used to take vacations at the Black Sea, in Budaki; and in the Carpathian Mountains, in Vatra-Dornei or Gura Humorului.
At the time of my birth, Bessarabia was under Romanian control. However, my mother tongue was Russian. I also took private Hebrew lessons. As for Romanian, I learned it only in grade one. When my parents didn’t want me eavesdropping, they would speak Yiddish. In time, however, I began to understand and speak Yiddish too.
My grandfather, Leib Apotecher, owned a Ford automobile, one of the few cars in the city. The rest of our family travelled by horse-drawn carriages, and during the winter we used sleighs. When I was a young boy, we owned a wet-battery radio. During the 1930s, we would listen to Hitler’s raging speeches; thus, a certain sense of insecurity began to permeate our peaceful lives. We started to ponder whether sooner or later the Soviets would take back Bessarabia, and how that might impact on our family. Since the Soviets considered wealthy people as enemies of the Communist regime, we feared that our family would be targeted. As the political climate became increasingly more threatening, we prepared a number of contingency plans. Grandpa Leib sent his son to western Europe with the task of purchasing two more cars, just in case we would have to flee the Soviets. When the new cars arrived in Kishinev, they were locked in a garage, ready to be used when needed.
In the meantime, I entered high school, but, due to an infection in my left eye, I lost one year of schooling. The dark clouds of political conflict seemed to be looming more and more threateningly. Eventually, on September 3, 1939, we heard about the outbreak of World War II.
I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah in June 1940. I actually had three different parties. The first one took place in our house; it was meant only for close family and friends. The second one was at the court of the Skverer Rebe. This ceremony left me with very vivid memories. My grandfather had told me about a custom that forbade people from turning their backs to the Rebe; thus, upon departing, I had to walk backwards. The Rebe was a rather thin, soft- spoken, and friendly man. His wife was a large woman, who seemed to be the leading figure at the court. A large number of disciples actually lived on the premises, while studying with the Rebe. My third celebration took place at the Jewish orphanage. Since my father was one of its main benefactors, he wanted to use the opportunity to throw a big party for the children. I still have many fun memories from this last event.
During that time, many anti-Semitic laws were enacted by the new Fascist government in Romania. In addition, there was the signing of an economic and military treaty with Germany. In June 1940, the Soviets issued an ultimatum, demanding the return of Bessarabia within three days. The Soviets also claimed northern Bucovina as interest for the twenty years of Romania’s occupation of Bessarabia, although this territory had never been under the Soviet or Russian regime. These events resulted in large migrations of people in search of safety. About 10,000 Jews fled from Fascist Romania, seeking refuge in Bessarabia. Most of them would die within one year. Other Jewish people fled from Bessarabia to Romania, from where they were hoping to find a way to emigrate to Palestine.
Our family was in constant turmoil about a most fateful decision: should we leave, or should we stay? My grandfather Apotecher — who was very wealthy and had assets in western European and in overseas banks — was, at the same time, a rather provincial man and, thus, very anxious about becoming a refugee. Had they asked my opinion, I would definitely have suggested leaving, if only due to a child’s longing for adventure. However, my grandfather’s opinion prevailed. If need be, he was willing to become a simple clerk under the Soviets, rather than become a refugee. He felt his home would provide him with the security he needed, despite the rapidly changing circumstances.
At the time, his son, Monia, happened to be in Bucharest for some business. He was advised not to return to Kishinev. Eventually, Monia settled in Bucharest, where he obtained residency status.
On June 28, 1940, the Soviets marched into Kishinev. Shortly after this “change of masters,” grandfather Apotecher was arrested and sent to Siberia as a “capitalist”. He was interned in one of the Gulag camps in the Uhta region, near the Arctic Circle. In 1948, we heard that he had died there.
The threat of an impending arrest, resulted in my father suffering a heart attack at the age of forty-two. Meanwhile, grandmother Apotecher and some of my uncles had to move out of Kishinev, as they had been declared “undesirable elements”.
I found my schooling under the Soviet regime rather exciting. All our activities were permeated by and geared to the Communist brainwashing campaign. Students, with their young, impressionable mind-set, were the prime targets of this campaign. I was too young to realize the programming that was taking place. My only concern was that my family was constantly being persecuted.
On June 22, 1941, Germany had attacked the Soviet Union. There was a lot of turmoil in the city, particularly since we were not too far from the front line. During air raids, we would take shelter in the wine cellar. My father had to be carried down on a stretcher due to his heart condition.
As they prepared to withdraw, the Soviets set most of the city on fire. For about three nights, the sky was a brilliant red. During those three days, about 10,000 Jews fled the city. Unfortunately, they were overrun by the rapidly advancing German and Romanian armies, who murdered most of them. Another group of about 5,000 fleeing Bessarabian Jews were trapped by the Romanian and German troops in southern Ukraine. Most of them were also killed. Thousands of others managed to flee with the withdrawing Soviet armies. Many of them died on their way to the interior of the Soviet Union; others survived the war years in the Far Eastern Soviet Republics.
On July 17, 1941, Kishinev fell to the German and Romanian armies.
First Encounters With NAZI Soldiers
The first Germans we saw had come right into the wine cellar where we were hiding. They swore at us, called us “dirty Jews” and left in disgust.
Following a series of rapes, murders, and robberies committed by Romanian soldiers, on July 24, the new military authorities ordered all remaining Jews in Kishinev to move to the ghetto, which had been set up in the old part of the city. My grandfather Cervinschi and his wife (grandfather had re-married after the death of my grandmother), lived near that area, and we decided to move to their house. This was the first time since his heart attack that my father ventured out of the house. As we walked down the streets, we saw Gentile neighbours robbing the houses left by Jewish refugees. We saw many bodies of murdered Jews laying on the streets. We walked with fear in our hearts, fully aware that out lives were in danger at every step of the way. We were stopped several times. Luckily, we faced only verbal abuse.
It was Friday. A few hours after we reached grandfather’s house, several Romanian soldiers came in. After stuffing their pockets with whatever they could lay their hands on, they left, warning us not to leave the house as they will be back. We heard shooting all around us. Under the circumstances, we thought that it might be safer for us to actually move into the ghetto. We picked up some of our belongings and started to walk. We had barely turned the corner, when we saw seven of my mother’s cousins, the Kellermans, lying shot in their courtyard. Later, we found out from neighbours that the Kellermans’ young daughter had been raped in front of her family before they were all shot.
That Friday evening, the soldiers did come back looking for us. My grandfather refused to tell them of our whereabouts, fearing that this might put us in danger. Consequently, the soldiers took my grandfather out of the house and literally dragged him along the streets for about a mile, while pulling his beard and beating him. He was a sixty-nine-year-old man. After he recuperated from that ordeal, grandpa and his wife also moved into the ghetto.
The Kishinev Ghetto
Although there were also Gentiles living in the older part of the city, that neighbourhood was designated as the Jewish ghetto. The area was separated from the rest of the city by tall walls with gates at the entrances of each main street. The crowding was extreme. About four to five persons were assigned to one room. The day when we arrived, the large courtyard of the house was swarming with people. Soon Romanian soldiers arrived and lined us all up against a wall; we thought that our lives had come to an end. We were ordered to put our hands up. One soldier raised my little brother on a table, while the others chambered their rifles. In this position, we had to stand by and watch the soldiers raping and beating whomever they felt like. Then, they proceeded to rob people of their jewellery and money. Eventually, they left with the loot. I guess they really enjoyed terrorizing defenceless people. <1>
Terrified by the investigation, the ghetto commander, Dumitrescu, shot himself in order to avoid prosecution. We learned from that report that the Kishinev Ghetto hosted 11,525 Jews. About 64% of them were women and children, 28% were elderly.
For about a week we had barely anything to eat. Later, we received some dry black bread, which we had to soak in water in order to make it edible. In this dilapidated part of the city, there was no running water and only one well. Due to the overcrowding, the ghetto experienced a constant shortage of water. I remember carrying heavy buckets from that well. According to the ghetto regulations, we were supposed to wear two yellow patches in the shape of the Star of David; one on the left side of our chest, and another on the right side of our back. We had to be very meticulous in sewing these “insignias”, since they had to be made according to very specific requirements. In order to humiliate us, the authorities would change the requirements of the size and the shape of the stars every other week. Thus, we had to constantly redesign and sew new ones. The ghetto was like an overcrowded cage of mice, where gossip and rumours were teeming.
On August 1, 1941, the authorities requested a number of young people for work. “Those who will volunteer will get food”, said the soldiers. Two German officers, aided by some Romanian soldiers, seated at a table in the main square, were registering the volunteers. I lined up for registration, since I was eager to get some food, although my uncle Misha advised against it. As I was watching the procedure, I noticed some German officers searching with binoculars for beautiful women. I don’t know why, but this observation prompted me to sneak unobtrusively to the back of the line, and back to our room.
Eventually, 450 people, about half of them men and half of them women, had been selected and marched away under guard. (I identified these women on photographs, taken by Italian journalists, stored at the United States Holocaust Museum, in Washington.) The men were handed boxes, which, they were told, contained work tools. The group was taken to the edge of some antitank ditches, about three miles outside of Kishinev, where 411 people were executed with the very ammunition the men had unknowingly carried. Only thirty nine elderly men were spared. They were ordered to cover the bodies with dirt, return to the ghetto, and tell everybody what they saw! “This is a warning for those who might disobey orders; they will meet with a similar fate!”
Later that evening, there was an air raid. Just as we sought shelter in the cellar of the ghetto, the thirty-nine men returned from that gruesome burial. They were in a terrible state of mind. Several elders surrounded them and, after a short discussion, they decided not to spread the macabre news. However, thirty-nine people can hardly keep a secret! Many of the ghetto residents refused to believe the truth, as their minds would not accept such abominations. My father, however, broke down, crying like a little boy. He was overcome by guilt for not having left the city when there was still a chance.
During the second week of August, another “request” for 250 people, mostly men, came from the authorities. The few women selected were supposedly needed to do the cooking at a work- site. This time, however, there were no volunteers. Consequently, the ghetto leaders were ordered to prepare a list of names for “mobilization.” About two weeks later, only 100 men from that group returned; the whereabouts of the other 150 are unknown to this day. Every few days, rumours would flare up: “The people are coming back at gate number 5!” etc. Everybody would run to meet them; but, they never came…
Just before the autumn Jewish holidays, we heard news that we will be deported to a territory called Transnistria, in the Ukraine. The threat of this impending deportation made many of us search frantically for ways of escaping. There was a ditch under one of the gates where very few soldiers stood on guard, but where could we have escaped to? We had no knowledge of any humanitarian non-Jews who might have been willing to help us.
The Hazards and Miracles of Bribes
Monia Apotecher, my uncle living in Bucharest, heard of a man who did escape from the Kishinev Ghetto. Upon further enquiries, Monia found out about a group of Romanian detectives whom that man had paid to help him flee. Monia managed to contact the detectives and they accepted the sum of 100,000 lei (an enormous amount of money) for each member of our family whom they would help escape. Monia also knew a colonel in Bucharest, who agreed to drive to the Kishinev Ghetto and smuggle out my grandmother, Sara Apotecher. The colonel took his girlfriend on this journey, to make it appear like a pleasure trip.
On October 14, 1941, the detectives arrived in Kishinev. They had been paid to smuggle seven people out of the ghetto: my parents, my brother and I, Monia’s brother, Misha, his wife, Ida, and grandmother Sara. Since grandmother had already escaped, Ida’s sister, Mania, took the seventh place. The plan was for us to crawl through the ditch under the gate, and walk in pairs to the train station. There, the detectives would wait with forged arrest warrants, so that our travelling by train would appear to be legitimate.
Afraid that his beard would betray him, grandfather Cervinschi and his wife refused to leave the ghetto. Another reason for his staying behind was his reluctance to part with his teacher and role model, the Skverer Rebe. Before we left, grandfather gave us his blessings.
We managed to crawl under the gate and met the detectives at the train station. The train from Odessa arrived at about 9 a. m., overcrowded with wounded soldiers coming from the front line, just about 100 miles east of Kishinev. We travelled the 250 mile journey to Bucharest in constant fear. My brother, Shraga had scarlet fever, a very dangerous disease, at a time when there were no antibiotics. We also had to be very careful because he spoke only Russian. The rest of us conversed in Romanian. Every so often, the detectives made us move between cars, in order to avoid becoming conspicuous. The most dangerous point of the trip was the crossing of the River Prut, into Romania proper. At one time, we heard some soldiers wondering whether there were any “dirty Jews on the train”. We froze with fear. Nevertheless, luck was on our side and we arrived in Bucharest on October 16, 1941 at 5 a. m. Newspaper vendors were shouting on the barely awakened streets: “Odessa has fallen! Odessa has fallen!”
Deportations to Transnistria
During October 1941, Romanian troops started evacuating the Kishinev Ghetto and forced the people to march to Transnistria. It was an extremely cold fall. The soldiers had provided several horse-drawn carts for the sick, carts which quickly became overcrowded. The rest of the people were squeezed into a convoy and herded on the muddy roads toward Transnistria. The Romanian investigation reports of December 1941 state that the soldiers were ordered to dig ditches every 10 km. along the way, to bury those who were shot because they could not keep up with the pace of the march. My grandfather, Aron-Josef Cervinschi, and his wife, probably died during that trek. For the rest of my life, I will feel guilty for having left them behind. To my knowledge, there were only five survivors from that convoy. One of them was my cousin. However, during that deadly march, he lost his two children, his wife, and his in-laws.
Thirty-seven of the ghetto detainees succeeded in escaping, but most of them were later caught. Some people managed to stay behind in the ghetto. Others were set up by Romanians, who pretended to be willing to help, only to rob them of their valuables.
The ghetto, set up at the end of July 1941, lasted to the end of October. By December 1941, there were only 86 Jews left in Kishinev.
In Bucharest, we did not have legal status. Therefore, in the beginning, we lodged with different Jewish friends of uncle Monia, who risked their lives by hiding us. Due to the abnormal circumstances of our lives, I got a touch of tuberculosis. In order to provide us with a semblance of stability, my uncle, who was a legal resident of Bucharest, rented an apartment so grandmother Sara, my parents, my brother, my aunt, my uncle and I could live together.
The detectives who had helped us escape, went back to Kishinev to snatch another group from the ghetto, as this “occupation” became a rather lucrative business. However, this time, they were caught and arrested.
During the ensuing investigation, our names came up. On November 24, 1941, the detectives came to uncle Monia’s apartment, under police escort, allegedly looking for us. They knew we were in Bucharest, but promised to stop searching for us in exchange for another large amount of money. Unfortunately, Monia believed their story and took them to our apartment. Once the money was on the table, he was arrested for bribery. The rest of my family was also arrested for having escaped from the Kishinev Ghetto. While that commotion was going on, my father whispered to me to take my brother and slip out the back door. We sneaked out and walked, hand in hand, terrified, to the some Jewish friends, the Sapersteins. Later, in order to avoid the risk of betrayal, it was decided that we would move around to different families, masquerading as visiting relatives.
Following the bribery charge, uncle Monia was imprisoned in Bucharest’s Vacaresti jail, from where he was released after six months. Unfortunately, my parents and grandmother were kept in prison until April 1942, when they were sent back to Kishinev. From there, they were deported to Domanovca, a camp in western Transnistria.
Before his arrest, my father had been tipped off by his Zionist connections that a large ship was being prepared to sail to Palestine. He considered for our family to be put on the passenger list. That ship was the Struma, which sailed at the beginning of December 1941, from the Romanian port of Constantza to Istanbul, Turkey. Upon its arrival, the ship was held for months in the Istanbul harbour because of the British White Paper, which prohibited Jewish immigration to Palestine. Eventually, the Struma was taken out to sea, torpedoed and sunk. Of the 769 people on board, only one managed to survive. Thus, in a bizarre twist of fate, our lives were spared due to our arrest.
My brother, Shraga, was only six, and I was in danger of getting seriously ill with tuberculosis. Therefore, our friends looked for more stable living arrangements for us. My mother’s sister, auntie Polia, and her husband, Josef Landau, lived in Galatz, in eastern Romania. At the beginning of 1942, Josef came by train to Bucharest, disguised as a Romanian officer, and he succeeded in bringing Shraga and me to Galatz. I stayed with the Landaus until 1943. During that year, uncle Josef managed to bribe some high-ranking officials who arranged for grandmother Sara to be brought back from the Domanovca camp to Galatz.
During that time, the Red Cross in Bucharest was organizing youth groups to travel by train through Bulgaria and Turkey to Palestine. Uncle Josef succeeded in putting my name on one of the passenger lists and procured forged documents enabling me to travel to Bucharest, but our departure was cancelled, and I remained in Bucharest. Shraga, too young to undertake such a voyage, stayed behind in Galatz.
In March 1944, Transnistria was liberated by the Soviets, and my parents were able to get onto a train in Tiraspol and return to Bucharest. My brother was brought from Galatz and our family was reunited.
Between March and July 1944, the Jewish Agency in Romania organized groups of refugees to sail to Turkey, from where they would continue their way to Palestine. Most of the rented ships were in very poor condition. On its return trip from Istanbul, one such vessel sank, luckily, without any passengers on board. By then, the tide of the war had reversed and the Romanians, eager to cover up their war crimes, started co-operating with those semi-legal emigrations. We decided to chance such a voyage and managed to get on a 250 ton vessel named Kasbek, onto which about 900 people were crammed.
Once out on the Black Sea, the Turkish captain — although having been paid by the Jewish Agency before departure — demanded an additional $2,000. He threatened to sail to Bulgaria and deliver us to the Germans, lest we gave him the money. This threat created terrible anxiety among us. Eventually, people collected the money he requested, but the captain got himself drunk, began ranting and raving, and attempted to throw some of us overboard. However, the ship sailed on, and, upon our arrival in Istanbul, every passenger on board managed to disembark. From Istanbul, we travelled by freight train through Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, before we finally reached Atlit, in Palestine.
After the war, my father and my brother changed their family name to Aharoni; I changed mine to Aroni. This was the most poignant way for us to honour the memory of my grandfather, Aron-Josef Cervinschi. My mother, Clara, is 96 years old now, and she lives in Israel. So does my younger brother, Shraga Aharoni, and his family.
In 1944, when we arrived in Palestine, it was out of the question to further my studies. I took a job, started saving money, and studied at night. Eventually, I managed to pass the London University Matriculation Exams, and decided to move to Australia, to continue with my education.
At the age of 23, I was accepted in an engineering program at Melbourne University. Upon graduation, I was offered a position on the faculty.
In 1956, I met and married Malca Kornfeld, a ninth generation Sabra. Our two daughters, Miriam and Ruth, were born in Australia. We are also the proud grandparents of Sarah and Hannah Krinsky.
At the end of 1962, we moved to California, where I was accepted for my Ph.D. in Structural Engineering at the University of California. In 1970, I became a professor at U.C.L.A., which, upon my retirement, granted me the title of Professor Emeritus. Subsequently, I became the Director of Academic Cooperative Projects, International Studies and Overseas Programs at U.C.L.A., where I am still active.
In April 1994, after an absence of almost 53 years, I visited my native city of Kishinev (Chisinau), now the capital of the independent Republic of Moldova. As described above, when I left it in 1941, as a young teenager running for my life, I was escaping from the Kishinev Ghetto, that was being liquidated, with its prisoners being deported on a death march to Transnistria. Now, I came back, not just on a nostalgic trip to the past, but representing UCLA in newly established academic contacts with the Moldavian Academy of Sciences and the State University of Moldova. Indeed, in collaboration with the Academy and the University, as well as the crucial help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a number of other cosponsors, we held one year later, in September 1995, a joint symposium on “Jewish History, Language and Literature”. Such an international symposium, which brought together academics from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Zhitomir, Rostov- on-the Don, New York, and Los Angeles, has not occurred in Kishinev for many decades, if at all.
While in Kishinev, in 1994, I was given by Professor Izia Levit of the Moldavian Academy of Science a copy of two original reports, in the Romanian language, written by a high commission appointed by Marshal Antonescu, in December 1941. These are the most detailed available official documents on the Kishinev Ghetto, on other ghettoes and camps in Bessarabia and on the deportations from Kishinev to Transnistria. Since they had never been translated and published in the English language, I undertook this job. After adding some historical data, my eyewitness memoirs and a number of relevant documents I published it, in 1995, at UCLA, as “Memories of the Holocaust: Kishinev (Chisinau), 1941 – 1944”. There are very few people who have survived the Kishinev Ghetto and, to my knowledge, none have written about it. The book has been deposited in many libraries and Holocaust Museums. It is also available on the web at http://www.aud.ucla.edu/~aroni/kishinev
It is chilling to read the conclusions of the second Romanian report, which dealt with the dramatic events of the killings and deportations. In the words of six hardened Romanian senior officers, the deportations were described as follows:”…the preparations and particularly the execution of the given orders resulted in such dramatic moments that those who participated will carry forever the memories of those events.” (For more information on the subject see Samuel Aroni, Memories of the Holocaust: Kishinev (Chishinau), 1941-1944. UCLA, 1995.)