Memorial at Bershad in Transnistria
A Fitting Memorial
The email, received in May 2002 was short and to the point: “Why don’t you join us?” asked my cousin Nati. This question marked the beginning of a fascinating, emotional and cathartic journey. Within minutes of receiving that email, the decision was made. I would join this odyssey, to discover the vestiges of my mother’s childhood town, and join the Israeli members of my family in retracing her steps to Bershad where my grandparents and aunt were buried in a “Kever Achim” – a mass unmarked grave, with no concrete acknowledgement of their precious but stolen lives.
My mother was born in the Rumanian city of Czernowitz, on the 4th July 1918. Until 1941 she her parents, three sisters and the extended family lived a full, cultured and family-centred life in an outlying bastion of Austro-Hungarian civilization, the Bukovina region. At the end of 1941, with the advance of the Nazi regime and the arrival of the German Army in Rumania, the order was given for the deportation of the Jewish population of Czernowitz to the Ukraine, beyond the Dniester River. The area has since then entered the history books, as Transnistria, one of the cruelest destinations for the persecuted Jews of Europe.
My mother, her middle-aged parents and her three sisters and their two toddlers, having lost their husbands to the Nazis, set out on that nightmare journey by foot, train, and wagon-cart. It took weeks, in the mud and filth of a Ukrainian winter. When they reached their destination, cold, starvation and disease killed their frail parents, and one beloved sister.
The five others, three sisters and those two precious children, Zvi and Sabina (Nati’s mother) emerged after three years of horror in the village of Bershad and eventually reached the newly founded State of Israel in 1949. The two toddlers, my first cousins, have since lived in Israel and are now grandparents. They had both visited their birthplace before, but this trip was different. Sabina’s three daughters wanted to understand their mother’s difficult journey. So Sabina and her husband Yoel decided to undertake a roots trip together with their three adult daughters. The opportunity for me to join them allowed me to participate in this important roots journey.
I left Melbourne on the 16th June 2002 and met my 7 Israeli cousins in Bucharest, where our journey was to start. We spent a surreal week getting to know Czernowitz. The familiar names of streets (now changed from the Rumanian to Russian), neighbourhoods, and landmarks became real rather than figments of my mother’s nostalgic reminiscences. The beauty and once-grand architecture of that city, the “little Vienna” so often described by writers, peeped out from the neglect and decay of its current Ukrainian masters. We found our grandparents’ last home, still standing. We also discovered my mother’s house, old, but solid with the same metal street number secured on its peeling pink façade.
I called my mother back in Melbourne constantly to ask directions, or to check details – her only way of participating in my trip into her past. Her recall of details and directions after an absence of 60 years amazed and delighted me.
The toughest journey was the “day-trip” to Bershad. Leaving by minibus at daybreak, and driving for 10 solid hours, we covered the route they trod through mud and snow. The end of the earth, it seemed to us. What must our mothers have thought of this unknown, frightening, desolate and decrepit place? I learnt there that in 1941 the Ukrainians, resenting the arrival of these bedraggled and shell-shocked Jews, banished them to old huts in the Jewish ghetto of Bershad. There, without work and food, they gradually sold off their belongings for scraps of sustenance, and died of typhus and dysentery.
We arrived to be shown to the cemetery by the representative of the local Jewish community who sees to the needs of the few remaining Jewish families and tends the cemetery.
On the exhausting, silent trip back to Czernowitz from that visit, I wrote in my diary: “I’ve seen the mass grave of my grandparents and aunt who died within 11 days of each other during that devastating winter in December 1941. A grassy knoll – a mound, no memorial, no stone. We lit Yahrzeit candles, we cried and we took photos. We asked why this tragedy went unacknowledged in that tear-stained place”. Before we reached Czernowitz at 2am the next morning, we had decided to build the memorial they deserved.
Today I received a photo of the memorial stone that now stands on that Kever Achim. Sixty-two years later, Marcus and Miriam Zacharias and their daughter Salli Menasses and the other Bukovina Jews buried there are finally memorialized. Although the precious legacy of the grandparents I never knew is with me forever, the stone they always deserved now stands above their grave. Zichronam L’Bracha.
Miriam Suss and her mother Cecilia (Cilli) Zydower (nee Zacharias)