Reunion, Czernowitz 2006, Journey back to the Past.
Our trip this year to Czernowitz (Ukraine) and Rumania has been planned for a long time. The prime reason for the trip was that we decided to return to Arthur’s birthplace and visit a number of sites he had spent during his formative years also to visit the city of Czernowitz where he was born, which has been imprinted in his mind as long as I have known him. Secondly, visit the resting place of his mother Eva, who did not survive the deportation to the region known as Transnistria in 1941-1944.
The serious planning began approximately a year ago when Arthur found the Czernowitzer web on the internet and signed on. He became more and more involved in this group, talking with people who had lived in Czernowitz prior to WWII and were survivors, who had the same kind of early life as he had, experiencing the same atrocities that he had experienced.
I have to explain CZERNOWITZ. During my entire married life, I knew I was married to a Romanian, but was always corrected that he was from Czernowitz. I really did not understand why it was so important to emphasis the ‘Czernowitz’, and now I do.
In order to understand the connection of Jewish people to Czernowitz, it is necessary to give you a very brief history of the city, so here it is.
Cernnowitz is a city on the Prut River in western Ukraine. It is the capital of the historic area of Bukovina and of the administrative region of Chernivtsi. Since 1991 Czernowitz is the capital of Czernowitz Province of the Republic of Ukraine.
Bukovina, once the eastern most province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was proud of its capital, Czernowitz. Full of architectural gems, this city was known as a "Little Vienna".
Since the local inhabitants of Bukovina – Ukrainian and Romanian peasants – had not developed a national identity and had no high culture of their own, the Jews embraced the German language and culture. This was encouraged by the Vienna government, and Czernowitz became one of the most important German cultural centres in Eastern Europe, especially after the establishment of a German university in 1875.
After WWI, in 1918 the city together with all of Bukovina was incorporated into “Great” Romania. The tolerant multinational Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was replaced by the nationalistic and anti-Semitic Romanian regime. In the 1920s and 1930s Czernowitz Jews numbered about 45,000 and constituted about 40% of the city's population. As before, they dominated in the economic sphere, but in the cultural and social fields the Romanian authorities tried to enforce the Romanian culture on them. Despite those efforts, German culture continued to flourish in the city between the World Wars and later.
After the War this culture was gone for ever.
Now that you have a concise history of the city of Czernowitz, I will continue with the story of our trip.
We left Israel for Bucharest on 11th May, both of us excited that this day had finally arrived. The Reunion 2006 was planned for the 18th May in Czernowitz and all participants from all over the world would make their own way to Czernowitz.
We had planned to stay two nights in Bucharest, where we would meet up with David Glynn, an Englishman who was also joining the Czernowitzers and whose mother was born in Czernowitz but unable to make the trip. We arrived via EL-AL airlines ready to visit and enjoy the majesty of Bucharest we had visited back in 1968 during the days of communism. The ride from the airport was a bumpy one. Romania is getting ready to join the European Common Market and is busy upgrading the entire country. The road from the airport was in the process of being resurfaced and the taxi was old and dilapidated, but we held on and finally reached the hotel. During the ride, it was impossible to ignore the beautiful architecture of the city which had seen its day and was slowly being renovated to its former glory. The first evening we took a taxi to the center of town and just walked in the rain. We happened to notice a line was forming at the side of the Athenaeum Concert hall, so we ventured to find out to where it led. Concert tickets! We stood in line and bought tickets for the following night for the two of us and David who was to arrive the following night. We saw a first class concert with the State Philharmonic Orchestra, in the Athenaeum concert hall, a marvel of architecture of long gone days. The tickets were only $5.00 each, what a bargain!
We could not help but admired the great change from 1968 until now. In 1968, Arthur had met up with an old school friend from the fifth grade; they had continually corresponded all these years. In 1968 the friend was unable to stay in the same hotel with us, we were foreigners, Communism! We visited the Ceausescu Palace, the Peoples Palace, 11 floors high and 3 floors down, built while the population was starving in 1986.
David arrived on Friday night and on Saturday May 13th we were off for the serious purpose of this trip to Czernowitz. We had planned to do some exploring in Rumania prior to Czernowitz. We took the 6 am train from Bucharest-Nord railway station to Suceva, a 6 hour ride, in a remarkably modern train, comfortable, clean and on time, we had 6 hours to acquaint ourselves with David and talk about the places we wanted to visit. So over the breakfast boxes the hotel had prepared for us we planned our itinerary to explore some small towns in Rumania which related to David’s mother’s childhood and search for Arthur’s school in Siret. In 1946 Arthur attended 3rd grade in Siret. The city of Siret sits on the beautiful river Siret not far from the Ukrainian border.
We were met at the Suceva railway station by a delightful young Romanian lady, Jane Rostos and her husband, the Dean of the University of Suceava, who had arranged a rental car for us. Jane is a teacher at Suceava University. Her command of the English and German languages is excellent. Suceva railway station had seen better days, the paint was peeling now, but the days of the old glory could be seen in the architecture and design of long ago by the Habsburgs. We were told that a new modern railway station was being built in a different location. We would also hope that the authorities would retain and renovate this beautiful old railway station the design of which is not seen today.
With our car in hand we were off to Voronetz, a small town 30 km from Suceva and reached our destination where we would be staying for 4 nights at the Pension Casa Elena. A beautiful complex of several buildings, clean comfortable rooms and a magnificent view of the thick forests which adorn most of Rumania, and such a welcome after the arid sandy land of Israel.
Our trip into the past had begun.
We decided that we would head to Eisenau (Prisaca), a little village, a place, where David’s mother had told him about her summer vacations spent there as a child and where her grandparents had owned the village store. He had purchased a postcard on Ebay which showed the little village showing the main street and the grandfather’s store. The village lies in a small valley in the Carpathian Mountains surrounded by lush green forested hills with the Moldava River flowing through the middle. After driving through beautiful green clad lined roads we reached Eisenau and there was the store, untouched by wars and changes of governments all these years, exactly as seen on the postcard, the excitement was overwhelming. The cameras began clicking! We spent a day exploring Eisenau. David having the descriptions from his mother as to where she used to swim in the river, the railway station at which she arrived, the road she walked from the railway station to the store. Everything was just as explained. We spent a day enthralled with this little village, talking to residents who were so hospitable and helpful, helping us with our searches. The store is now occupied by Romanians who rent it from the State, and were overwhelmed when we told them the story; nothing has changed in the last 100 years.
The following day we drove to town of Siret. We were trying to find Arthur’s school. As a young child, the concept of the town seems larger than he saw it on this day. We stopped on the road and asked a few passersby if there was a school on the road, no there was no school on this road. We figured that if we could find an elderly man, surely, he would remember the town as it was in 1946 just after the WWII. Finally an elderly man, in his 80s passed by and directed us to a building which is owned by the Education Authority. There it was, a beautiful architectural building, massive front door which had seen its day, yes! this was the school. Arthur entered the door, he was ecstatic as were David and I. We looked into the classroom, a class was in session, and memories took him back to childhood days in 1946. He asked the teacher if he could come in, certainly, she said, invited us all in and then he told her he had attended this school in the 3rd and 4th grade. The excitement expounded, and the teacher became very excited, showing us the entire school, she was very proud of her pupils and had them sing several songs for us, it was difficult to leave, she didn’t want us to go and gave us so much of her precious time. She was a professor at the University and was training the best pupils in the school for a scholastic competition to be held later in the year. The students too, were very proud and so well behaved and polite. We promised we will send her the photographs that we had taken and be in touch by internet. The hospitality was outstanding.
We also visited the town of Solca, where the Great Great Grandfather of Joe Poras (one of our reunion participants) owned a sanatorium for pulmonary disease. This is also the place where Arthur’s stepmother Dora and her brother Leon were born. The family Schachter supplemented their income by renting out rooms for patients using the sanatorium.
We returned to Suceava on 17th May to pick up a minibus which would take us to Czernowitz, we would have to cross the Romanian-Ukrainian border. The minibus had seen its day, a cracked windscreen, smell of petrol, but a polite driver who spoke no English or German, and Arthur managed with his Romanian, which I have discovered is very good. The ride took us once again through Siret and at the border we went through the Romanian customs which needed about 45 minutes. On the Ukrainian side it took less time even though we were required to fill out forms for the visa, but there was no problem, just the usual customs check, not required to open baggage and there we were in the Ukraine. The roads were not that bad and it is 36 km from the border. In ½ an hour we were driving up to the stately Soviet style Cheremosh hotel which was to be our home for the next week in Czernowitz.
The Reunion 2006 Conference was held in the Cheremosh Hotel. It is a large hotel, but still had the traces of the Soviet times, lighting was dim, lobby furniture was lacking and the bedrooms were dated, but we did have hot water and daily clean towels and it was adequate. Breakfast was exactly equaled out for the attendees, one minute square of butter, a portion of jam, one roll, and scrabbled eggs, nothing more or less; no further servings and fortunately we had brought our own coffee!
A Schedule of Events had been planned and from May 18 – 24 we had talks and discussions on Czernowitz history from the Austrian period through to WWII. In addition individual attendees related their memoirs or stories which had been written by relatives of life in Czernowitz 1936-1941 and in addition personal testimonials about the time period 1940-44. Each day ended with discussions and analysis of the times.
On the first day we walked in the beautiful center of Czernowitz, I imagining the life experienced there prior to 1940. One could imagine the grandeur, the clip-clop of horses and their carts on the cobbled streets, and the elegance and grandeur of the habitants of this city. The magnificent architectural buildings, jumped out at us on every street and corner, slowly being renovated to celebrate the 600th anniversary of this original Austro-Hungarian city. Evidence of the Viennese era in the city was everywhere. We walked in the Volksgarten (people’s park) in the center of town, massive chestnut trees keeping out the hot sun, the beautiful well kept grassy areas and the water fountain which had seen its day. The Herrengasse with the famous Café Wien, the German House, the Ringplatz, the main Synagogue, (now a cinema and play saloon and inside a plate dedicated to the famous tenor Josef Schmidt), the Theater, Jewish House (community center) the city concert hall the Musikverein, Hotel Bristol and the Russischegasse 11 where Arthur was born, the house still stands and many more land marks in this beautiful city. We visited Arthur’s school where he attended first grade, here again, the principal of the school invited us into the classroom while the class was in session, the children were so well behaved and Arthur managed to sit in the desk he used to occupy. We found Arthur’s grandmother’s house in the Schiesstaettgasse where he used to walk to her after he had finished school. We also went to the Roschergasse 9 where his grandmother’s previous house was. Later we went to Arthur’s cousin Arthur der Grosse’s house in the Steingasse 12. Arthur was born in Czernowitz and he remembered the streets there, but even though David was not born there, he had done an in depth study of Czernowtiz and had a better knowledge of the places where we wanted to go.
For all of Arthur’s life, due to the seizure of all personal documents by authorities on leaving Communist Rumania after WWII, he has not held a birth certificate. While having lunch in the Herrengasse Café Wien we met two participants of the reunion, Marianne Hirsch and her husband Leo Spitzer. Over a cup of coffee we discussed Arthur’s birth certificate; Marianne told us that the Czernowitzer archives were just two or three houses down the street. We hastily went to this office, hidden away in a courtyard and after several bureaucratic procedures, which took the rest of the day, Arthur received his birth certificate. In the archive it is recorded that Arthur was born in the Russischegasse 11 and the doctor’s name was Conrad Merdler.
This confirms the statement by Gabriele Weissmann’s, mother, that there was indeed a clinic on the Russischegasse. Gabriele was a participant from Berlin.
On Sunday May 21, a memorial service was held at the Jewish cemetery after which participants scattered throughout the huge facility to try and find tombstones of their relatives. The cemetery is overgrown and unkempt. Some people were lucky to find relatives, but alas, we could not find Arthur’s grandfathers resting place. Unfortunately, Czernowitz has not looked after the facility, however, when we were in Mogilev and Berschad the Jewish cemeteries there were well cared for. We did notice that there are sections in the Czernowitzer Christian cemetery which are in the same state of decay. Money is just not there and will have to be fund raised from without Czernowitz.
Another town we had on the list to visit was Storojinetz. This is a small town 32 kilometers from Czernowitz, where the Blond family, Arthur’s mother’s family lived. After Arthur birth, his mother and father moved there to be with Arthur’s grandmother. Jane Rostos had arranged for a local guide to meet us on our arrival and to assist us in searching for the house where Arthur had lived with the family. As an infant, he had faint memories. The lady who met us spoke Romanian which was helpful as Arthur did exceptionally well with his Romanian and we walked all over the town trying to trace the streets where Arthur used to live. We had difficulty finding the exact location, but the lady was very helpful and patient and took us all over. Arthur had the address and it was from the Romanian time, Strada Slaşanschi 8. We went to the town hall to ask if they had an old Romanian map but they were of no help. We did find the synagogue, which is no longer a synagogue, but a sports stadium, and we bumped into a Jewish veteran in the town hall who spoke Yiddish and was one of the Jews left in this previously dominant Jewish town. We stopped some elderly people in the street asking about the house that Arthur had lived in only to be told “when the Jews left, they burned all their homes.” In fact it was the Germans who had destroyed this town and burnt down the houses.
It seemed to us, that some old buildings were still standing with no trace of fires, another myth circulating with the local inhabitants.
Czernowitz is a city untouched for the past 60 years, full of memories and emotions that only a native Czernowitzer can feel. The city was home to so many who in one night were driven out of their houses and transported to fields of horror for one reason and one reason only, being Jewish. So much culture and intelligence had been wiped out during this period.
The toughest trip we made was the 2-day trip to Transnistria. Transnistria, is an area which lies across (‘trans’) the river Dniester.
In 1940 northern Bukovina along with Czernowitz was annexed by the Soviet Union, but returned to Romania in July 1941 with the start of the German invasion into the USSR. In the first days of the occupation, German and Romanian troops started the looting and murder of Jews, and burned down the Reform Temple. In the fall of 1941, 28,000 Czernowitz Jews were deported to Transnistria, a part of Ukraine annexed by Romania. In the summer of 1942 an additional 5,000 Jews were expelled and sent there. Only about half of the deportees survived.
The first day trip was 10 hours long in a non air-conditioned bus and engine belts which kept breaking. The bus seemed to have been bought from Germany which was banned from being driven in Germany. The writing on the bus said “Reisen”. A bus was ordered with a toilet, knowing that there were no facilities on the way but it was impossible to use, finally we all decided that the natural woods was the place to go, women to the left wood, men to the right, and so we managed. The ride was rough, twists and turns and bumpy roads and temperature in the bus reached sometimes 38 centigrade (100F).
The first place we visited was Shargorod, there was a ghetto in Shargorod for local Jews, and Jews from Romania, Bessarabia, and Bukovina were herded into that quarter of the town. Many of them, especially the poorest, died of starvation, exposure, or disease. No one knows exactly how many people died here, since most of the victims were buried in unmarked mass graves. We saw the synagogue which was built in 1589 which is now a wine factory.
Later we arrive in Mogilev, for the night. Mogilev is a town in Transnistria to where Jews were deported in 1941. There is a small Jewish museum in Mogilev, put together by a Jewish resident; it is a memorial honoring the thousands of Jews who were murdered there. The walls are covered with photographs of survivors and those who had died had the border of the photos surrounded by a black border. A board on the wall indicates a map of all the work camps set up by the Germans and a distribution center where it was decided to which camp each prisoner must go after their deportation. We headed to the cemetery where members of our group had deceased relatives, mother, father, brother, sisters who had perished in this gruesome town and were buried in a mass grave. A memorial has been erected with a bronze plaque in memory of the thousands who perished in Mogilev.
The following day we made our way to Budy and Bershad.
Bershad was one of the largest camps where Jews from Bucovina were deported and left there to die from starvation, typhoid and exposure.
Arthur’s parents and family were deported from Storojinetz and together with thousands walked for many months to reach Bershad, but Arthur’s mother did not survive the journey and died during the march in the village of Budy. There is no memorial on a mass grave and Arthur has no knowledge of his mothers resting place, but on the road, standing near the town sign of Budy, he recited Kadish (Jewish prayer for the dead) for his mother memory that had died there.
In Bershad a mass grave memorial has recently been erected by survivors whose entire families perished in this place if horror.
The return trip back to Czernowitz was spent in silent thoughts of terror, frightening and what a desolate decrepit place this must have been. We made the trip in a bumpy bus, but those deportees walked the route for months through mud and snow, sleeping wherever they could in barns and cow stalls on straw not knowing to where they were going, that anyone survived was a miracle.
David, Arthur and I left Czernowitz on 26th May, by car to Suceva in a privately hired old car, and wondered if we would make it to Suceva with all our baggage, Again, the windscreen was cracked, and the car smelling of petrol held together somehow, the road was bad, but it cost just $18.00 each and we made it. The border crossing was much easier than before, noticing that our driver had the 5 Romanian Lei (Aprox $1.75) underneath her passport at the customs and passport control stops. What really worried us was the bag with cigarettes hidden near the rear window. This country seems to run on bribery. We caught the train at Suceva for the 6 hour train ride to Bucharest, not such a comfortable train as before, but just happy to be on a train. After a nights rest in Bucharest, we bade farewell to David and we set off by car to Sinaia, a town in the mountains of Romania to wind down from our experience in Czernowitz.
Sinaia is a small mountain town set in the Carpathian Mountains; snow was still on the peaks of the mountains, but the sun shone brightly and the air fresh and clean.
We visited the Peles Palace, a beautiful structure, so lavishly designed and constructed and entirely paid for by King Carol I himself.
Arthur again met up with his school friend, Udriste, who lives in Brashov (Kronstadt), who we had met back in Bucharest in 1968. Brashov is located in the center of Rumania in a small valley surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. The city has a history dating back to the Stone Age. It is a city of culture and learning and very German in its architecture. We had some delightful two days touring this city and then our vacation was at its end.
We drove back to the airport, only to find that EL-AL was 4 hours delayed, but with the feeling that we had a full inspiring three weeks of vacation, and appreciating the life and everything it has to offer.