The List of the Mothers
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Gali Mir-Tibon
Translated from Hebrew by Ruth Rowinski
The detainee was unsure whether to let hope sneak into his heart, and although he wholeheartedly wanted to avoid disappointment, he could not resist asking himself time and time again: Will she come? Will she be at his side at his most desperate hour? Or perhaps she is better off without him, and alone he would face the scornful, hate-filled crowd, primed to tear him apart.
Through the bars of the cage he could see the fickle season - winter had passed, yet still, gray frost hung from the gutters and sparkled like pearls between the worn sidewalk tiles. Bucharest was readying itself for another cold, late-March evening, and even the last rays of twilight sun did nothing to warm the passersby. Gypsies wrapped in colorful wool shawls wandered around selling tiny blue hyacinths, a promise of spring that refused to arrive, on the street corners and along the banks of the Dâmboviţa, which was raging in the cold wind, alternately raising green and brown currents that were stopped on the right and on the left by stone walls.
A rickety cart pulled by two horses, one a yellowish color with a sickly appearance and the other dark brown and wounded by the lashes of the whip, traversed the main road, its wheels clattering over the smooth, round cobblestones. Automobiles hardly impeded its progress, and its jolting cargo drew the attention of passersby. Wearing checkered woolen skirts and carrying books and notebooks covered in brown paper against their chests, the Lipscani Quarter high school girls and the slender youths dressed in school uniforms - brown, woolen shorts and knee high white socks, carrying leather satchels tied with matching leather laces on their backs - stopped in front of the roasted chestnut stands, warmed their hands and looked at the road in fascination. The once-red cart carried an immense, rusty iron cage with crisscross bars that creaked with every jolt and housed a young man who seemed indifferent to the street sights. He was sitting, huddled up against the side closest the rear of the horses, his tall stature hunched over his folded knees, and every few minutes he would raise his head, which was lowered towards his knees, as if seeking an acquaintance in the gathering crowd.
The cart had almost reached its destination. Dozens of people could be seen congregated in the twilight, waiting for the nearing cargo. The crowd was excited, even agitated. Men, women and even children mobbed the cart and shouted angry exclamations at the man in the cage: “Traitor!” “Murderer!” “You piece of filth!” “Turncoat!” A shower of spit was hurled at the bars, followed by rotten eggs. It appeared that the crowd had come prepared. The man in the cage raised his eyes warily and surveyed the seething crowd. Once again, he searched for a familiar face, until he lowered his head back down, and his straight, light hair fell over his hands that were protecting his face.
The shouting and exclamations grew louder: “You sent my sister!” “My mother’s blood is on your hands!” “Hang him!” “Kill the dog!” “Bury the ‘moser’, the traitor!”
The man raised his shackled hands, pulled the brim of his worn, blue hat down over his eyebrows, and shrunk further into himself. The gate opened and the cart carrying the cage slid into the courthouse yard. Much to its discontent, the crowd remained outside the closed gates, but continued to kick and punch the iron gates that had rescued its prey from its hands.
The detainee dropped his hands and looked around carefully. The courtyard was empty and he was facing a sign: The People’s Court, Criminal Division, Department five, Custody Wing. Two policemen in crumpled dark green uniforms, wearing sergeant stripes on their arms, approached, one with a giant bunch of keys. One skillfully found the right key and unlocked the cage. Without saying a word to its occupant, or to each other, they pulled the shackled man to his feet, and being experienced in such matters, detached the iron chain he was fettered with from the cage bars and supported him as he staggered unsteadily to the building’s back entrance, among the remnants of garbage and crumpled forms scattered on the overgrown weeds. Nobody was waiting for him by the thick wooden door when he was brought in, and an emaciated cat ran for its life at the sight of the approaching prison guards. In the hallway, the detainee asked for a glass a water, and the prison guard on the right answered that in a little while he would bring him a jug of water and even a cup of tea to his cell, if he asked.
He had a long wait ahead of him in the detainee room, since the interrogation was only expected to start the next morning. However, he did his best to improve his appearance and tried to brush down his clothes, his detainee clothes, with his shackled hands. He was clearly a handsome man, and his thirty-five years, which had added a light touch of powdered sugar to his temples and faint laugh lines to the corners of his eyes, did nothing to detract from his good looks.
They did not remove the heavy ball and chain from his legs in the holding cell, and he sat down heavily on the only sleeping ledge there, which was shorter than him, and wrapped himself up in the threadbare, woolen blanket, which appeared to have had wrapped generations of wretched before him, and readied himself for a sleepless night.
The prisoner’s name was Mikhail Danilov but everybody knew him as Mihai, and this was his third incarceration since the war broke out.
Criminal Interrogation Compound,
Investigation of Crimes against Humanity during the Second World War
Criminal Interrogation Compound,
Investigation of Crimes against Humanity during the Second World War
Interrogation No. 1.
The subject: The engineer Siegfried Shimon Jaegendorf
Interrogator on behalf of the State: Investigating Judge and Special Prosecutor Constantin Mocanu
Good afternoon, Engineer Jaegendorf, you can hang your coat and hat here, on the hook by the door. Would you like a cup of tea? You can also take off your scarf if you want, and hang it up next to the coat... Now please sit down here opposite me. We have a long and busy day ahead.
First of all, I would like to verify your particulars: Your name is Siegfried Shimon Jaegendorf, also known as Sammy, born in Radautz, your parents are Abraham and Hannah. You are married to Hilda and the father of two daughters. You are a mechanical engineer.
Yes, that is correct. Even accurate.
Give me your current address.
I live at Possole De Piatra 4, in Bucharest. But why did you summon me here? What am I doing here?
Sit, sit down already, I can see that you are very tense.
How could I not be? For a few days now, since you called me in for questioning, who knows what for, I can’t sleep at night. I don’t understand why I have been called here like some criminal; what is a person like me is doing here in the first place, it seems to me that you have a mistake, it has to be a mistake!
If so, it’s best I get right to the point, and you - sit down already, sit, sit. Well, let’s not beat around the bush. Is it clear and do you understand that at the end of the investigation, and after I take the testimonies of those who were interned in the Mogilev ghetto in Transnistria during the war, and from other citizens who served in the region, I shall decide whether to charge and try you for crimes against humanity?
So that’s what this is about.... That’s why you took an unwell man out of his home in the chilly April air. I thought it might be about the wartime period.... So you want to prosecute me? Me?
An elderly Jew who just recently came back from hell? What answer am I supposed to give you?
I will make do with you confirming that you understand the purpose of the investigation.
Well, yes, I understand very well. Understand and can’t believe what I am hearing. I’m a law abiding citizen, a respectable engineer!
You also need to understand the structure of the inquiry. In my function as an investigating judge, I shall conduct the entire inquiry. Over the next several days, I will hear your version and will also read the testimonies taken by our investigators around the country. Your lawyer will have no role at all until after the inquiry, if I decide that the findings I have justify prosecution.
Of course, of course. I understand the procedure, if that is what you are asking. The only thing I don’t understand is how I ended up in this position. After all, I am a Transnistria survivor, it’s been hardly a year since I got back.
Then let’s make one thing clear right now: the fact that you are a survivor does not grant you immunity from inquiry and neither does it grant you immunity from prosecution.
I hope that you understand this, so we can stop wasting valuable time and start clarifying the facts. Tell me please: what was your function at the Mogilev Ghetto in the Mogilev district, which is located in the Transnistria region, between the years 1941 to 1944?
I was involved in several things there.
I don’t know what you are interested in.
I am interested in the facts. Only the facts. So go ahead.
All right. Do I have a choice? If I told you that what you refer to as facts was something completely different there, would that do me any good? Then by all means: I was the Chairman of the Jewish Committee in the Ghetto from November 1941 to May 1942 and then again from January 1943 until April of that same year. Throughout that entire period, I also managed the foundry, and for most of the time, the adjacent workshops too. Hang on, are you accusing me of something?
Let’s start from the beginning, from the moment you found out we were at war. Why don’t you tell me why you did not flee from Romania to begin with? I mean prior to us joining the war in June 1941. After all, so many Jews did, and especially Jews of means like yourself.
Believe me, Your Honor, Investigating Judge, I was already trying to escape in any way possible when the Nazis invaded Poland. I wasn’t just sitting around waiting for trouble to find me. My two daughters had been living in the United States for years, they both got married there and had American citizenship. And I submitted repeated requests, and once a week traveled from Czernowitz to Bucharest, to the American Embassy, where I begged, pleaded, explained.... and nothing! They wouldn’t listen to me.
Even though you were prepared to buy the visa?
Even though I was prepared to pay a fortune. There were two problems. First of all, I had passed the eligible age. In 1939 I was already fifty-four years old. And second, in the eyes of the American immigration authorities, my service as an officer in the Austrian Army during the First World War had not been stricken, and following the annexation of Austria to Germany, I was considered an officer in an enemy army. Do you realize how ridiculous that is? I couldn’t get a visa because during that war I had invented an electric fence.
How did you reach that conclusion? What fence?
Bucovina was still Austrian, and that fence protected the northern border. I even got a special decoration for it from Emperor Franz Joseph! They knew how to appreciate professional work then. But later, as you can see, it cost me dearly. And Hilda, my wife, who actually could have gotten a certificate thanks to the girls, didn’t want to leave me here alone. She was afraid I would not manage on my own, that there would be no one to iron my shirts for me, fasten my cufflinks, and starch my collars, and all the silly little things I was obsessively meticulous about, insanely so. They seemed so important to me at the time –
Honorable Engineer Jaegendorf, forgive me for stopping you precisely in the middle of all sorts of personal memories, which you seem to think have some sort of relevance, but I must remind you that this is an investigation. And if I am forced to be even more to the point, I will ask the question in the most direct manner: Were you, as a representative of a successful German company – Siemens in Bucovina – perhaps not all that afraid of the alliance being forged between Romania and Nazi Germany? Perhaps you were even a little happy to join forces with the supreme German culture instead of the Romanian one you all held in such contempt?
No, no, what, are you crazy? What do you think, that I didn’t understand what it meant to be a Jew among those savages? No, that is really not it! I was really not looking forward to the Germans, I was even very concerned. Please listen to me, Honorable Investigator Mocanu, perhaps what I am about to say to you now will sound strange, but even though my family has spoken German at home for five generations at least, I never saw myself as German, never!
I was born and raised in south Bucovina, and when the Great War ended, I continued living there, and thus, without emigrating, I lost my homeland, and became a Romanian citizen, and ever since-
Sounds to me as if Romanian citizenship is a kind of disaster that happened to you?
No, God forbid, not at all, I wouldn’t want what I said to imply that I didn’t want to be Romanian. Listen, you say that you want to get to the bottom of things, you are very polite, Sir, and I can see that you are not a brutal character, but I have a feeling that you are trying to trip me up. Isn’t what they did to me in the war enough? Haven’t I been through enough? I am a loyal citizen and an honest servant of the State!
And what is the connection to south Bucovina? After all, you lived in Czernowitz, North Bucovina.
Yes, correct, that is a fact. We really did live in the “big city”, and I had a house there with all the modern amenities, running water and electricity, and a maid, a cook, a gardener and driver, but once every few months I would sneak back to the town I was born in and spend several days or weeks on a kind of vacation I defined as a family visit. Nowadays, you can take a train to Bucharest, an eight hour trip, and come back the next day, but at the time, if anyone went at all, they would happily stay for a week or even a month. And that’s how my wife and I used to travel to Radautz for all the high holidays –
You didn’t let the war interfere with your plans...
Well, yes, I knew there was war, Romania was in the war by then. But you need to understand, we were Czernowitz’s protected Jews. We had special certificates from the mayor. And not even for a moment did I believe that they would deport an electrical engineer like myself, a representative of a well-known German company and a loyal Romanian, because that would mean that the government really had lost its mind. We went to celebrate our holidays in a calmer atmosphere, in a place where it would be inconceivable to deport the Jews.
And even so, with all due respect to your certificates, only a few months earlier, in the summer, thousands of Jews from North Bucovina and from Serbia were deported in a population transfer to the Ukrainian territory, which at the time was called Transnistria. It’s hard for me to understand how you failed to notice the danger closing in on you. Did you not read the papers? Did you not listen to the news?
Well, “How come we didn’t notice”, “How come we didn’t know”, “How could we have misread the map”, people ask me those questions all the time. It is as if I failed a test I was supposed to prepare for, and now you with the “How come you didn’t do anything”. Why, did the Soviets see? Did the Americans comprehend? Not to mention the Hungarians and Romanians! But you only find fault in Jaegendorf and the Jews. If that is what this inquiry is about, I will plead guilty right now and save you a lot of work. I did not notice and I did not understand, and I, as I said before, and in fact, not only me, we were all sure that the population transfer had nothing to do with us. After all, in that transfer the “Red Jews” were deported –
“Red”! You must have forgotten who you are talking about “Red” to. This inquiry is starting to get interesting....
What? No, no, I didn’t mean, no, it is not what you think, I have nothing against communists, no, not in the least. I just said what we used to say at the time; I only wanted to talk about the difference between what was happening in North Bucovina and what was happening where we were. I have nothing, and have never had anything, against them. I was just trying to explain to you that we knew nothing. This might surprise you, but in January ’41, after the government did away with the Iron Guard, there were also Jews in our community who said that this was the best government, and that Antonescu will put the country in order and set it in the right direction. The communists and the left in general were considered traitors. We didn’t think, not for a minute, that this wave of fascism, antisemitism, would reach us. I swear to you that the transfer hit us like a bolt from the blue.
It’s a little hard for me to believe that a group of educated, involved, well-connected people failed to read the writing on the wall. Perhaps you all just chose to close your eyes to it because of your money and property that were so important to you. Anyway, right now that’s not the subject of the investigation. So let’s get on with it. In October ’41, when the order for the population transfer came, you were in Radauz with you wife –
Precisely. By then it was the end of the holiday, the Succot holiday, which had turned into a week of apprehension. Frightening news came in from the neighboring towns. I heard that within a few hours they had loaded the Jews there onto freight trains with the small amount of baggage and belongings they managed to take with them, and I had no idea where they took them or why. I assumed that they were probably sending them to Transnistria. I mean, I did realize that we were in for deep trouble, but who knew the extent of it? As I told you, I really did hear about all the atrocities in the summer, but not for one minute did I think that in the autumn we would be next. One could say that I was waiting for a miracle. Don’t forget that the town’s Jewish community was hosting dozens of Jews who only months previously had been deported from Siret, and I thought that it would not be at all logical for them to be deported again, after they had been moved away from the border. And thus, along with all of the arguments I was making inwardly, we also sewed knapsacks for ourselves, packed for the journey, and at the same time, kept hoping that nothing would happen, and that the order would be canceled. And then –
You got letters of warning, something in writing?
Nothing! We got nothing! On that black Sabbath, during the Intermediate Days of Our “Succot”, we began hearing the sound of drums coming from the city square, and the town crier proclaiming in the streets that within four hours we were all required to present ourselves at the train station and bring no more than one suitcase each. My wife and I were staying with friends at the time and we went out to the balcony to better hear what they were shouting there. When we finally understood, we grabbed hold of each other, held hands. I felt as if I had to calm the trembling inside me. My legs refused to move, but a second later, the four of us were already running around in a frenzy, to gather, pack and have enough time to take the most essential things. It was a small room, and we kept knocking into each other with bundles of clothing and kitchenware on the way to the suitcases. We put then on the bed, and first asked each other what we should take, a pot or a pan? Would summer dresses even be necessary there? What documents should we take? I was afraid to take Hilda’s sable fur, but she refused to part with it, and that alone took up half a suitcase –
You are painting a very passive picture. No resistance. Didn’t you even consider fleeing? Did you even try to hide or evade the transfer? To do anything?
What are you talking about? There was no chance of getting away with that! I didn’t even consider it. Radautz was a small place, everybody knew everybody else, gentiles and Jews. The prefect sent police and soldiers to every building and announced that they would kill any Jew remaining in the apartment on the spot. I promise you that if someone had tried to hide or evade the order, the Romanians would have found out very quickly. So I did not run, nor did I hide. My wife and I organized our belongings and started walking, stunned, to the train station. When we got there, we saw that a long table had been set up and lists of the names of Jewish community members were spread out over it. The gendarmes stood all around and took extra care to make sure that everyone on the list boarded the train.
Certainly they did not manage all of the registration and boarding?
No. Of course not. The local committee ran the whole thing. They knew everyone, and they were only interested in one thing: not sending their own families on the first train, rather only on the third, and if not on the third, then at least on the second. I also tried to postpone the journey as much as possible, and don’t blame me. If you could only have seen how crowded it was there – the gendarmes pushed and shoved everyone into the three freight trains, hit anyone standing in the doorways with the butts of their guns, and those people crushed anyone standing behind them. And they still did not manage, by any means, to get everyone in. My wife and I and a few other privileged people, who were left on the platform, got onto the fourth train. It was more spacious, if a cattle car can be described in those terms. At least we had room for our suitcases and packages.
Where did you go? It was quite a long trip, wasn’t it? How many hours did it take?
Not hours, days! Entire days! I think that at least three. Three days confined to a train.
I can imagine that it was not a great pleasure. Where?
Forgive me for saying this, but you cannot imagine what went on there. When they opened the railroad cars once a day, they had to remove corpses. The elderly and the small children didn’t last. There was not enough air. Whoever was short... Never mind... We traveled until where the border used to be, close to Ataki, perhaps you are familiar with it –
Very familiar. Go on. Is that where you crossed the river?
Yes, on the rafts. We reached Mogilev at dusk. And that was the first time I realized how bad our situation was. The buildings were in a terrible state, devastated by the bombardments. The rooms were flooded with mud, which was eating away at the plaster, and the floor tiles had lifted in a way that anyone walking in would trip over them. I looked for a place to sleep. It wasn’t easy, most of the buildings were left with no more than two walls and without a roof. Hilda and I looked at each other, and we swore not to stop looking even if it took us all night, as long as we didn’t end up in the Lager –
It was a kind of three story building, which I could see right away had been abandoned for years. One look at the dilapidated foundations was all it took for me to understand that it would not last and could not hold under the load of all the thousands of people flocking towards it. It was bitterly, bone-piercing cold. My teeth were chattering and I couldn’t stop shivering. Finally, before dawn, I gave up, found us a corner, and we crowded in with everyone else.
I would like you to move forward a bit, so we don’t waste time on these descriptions. That’s not why you were called in for questioning. I am more interested, for example, in how you ended up heading the Jewish Committee there. Were you a political man before the war?
Absolutely not, no public matters. I avoided that like the plague.
So then how did it happen?
It all started on that first morning in Mogilev. I didn’t sleep at all that night, I waited for a little bit of light, and then immediately opened my knapsack and put on clean clothes. Even there everything had to be tiptop: pressed trousers, a white shirt with a starched collar, a vest and jacket. I found a comb in my pocket, a few of the teeth had broken but I could still part my hair in a respectable manner, and even managed to polish my shoes a bit with a handkerchief.
Is that what was important to you? How to dress?
My wife also thought I had lost my mind. She looked at me and asked me why I was wearing a jacket and tie in this mud, and where exactly did I think I was going dressed like that? But I didn’t answer her. I wasn’t sure what I was about to do, but the idea had started gnawing at me the previous day. Try and imagine, Mister Investigator, a devastated town, the only power station in the area had collapsed, and I am looking for a place to sleep, you can’t see a thing, its pitch dark –
So you had a plan?
A plan is an overstatement. I would say that an idea had started to stew, and I really didn’t know what would come of it –
Well, let’s hear it.
All right, so I went out into the cold air. I remember walking the streets carefully, the street was cobbled with slippery stones, and I was very careful not to get my only pair of shoes wet. I kept a distance from all the rickety carts, which didn’t miss a single puddle. I asked Jews in the street for the shortest way to the German headquarters, and I don’t know what shocked them more – the fact that I wanted to go there, or my clothes, which were so different from the rags they and the Ukrainians were wearing. I ignored all the looks and the sarcastic comments and walked into the headquarters.
You just walked in? Where were the soldiers who were guarding the place? Where were the policemen and the gendarme?
Zilch. I was also surprised, but there were no guards at the entrance. Six Jews in dirty clothes were whitewashing outside, and they shouted out to me: “Idiot! What do you think you’re doing?”, and as I went inside I heard them say: “He has a screw loose,” but I ignored them. Well, yes, I can understand that now, I sealed myself off from their fear and from my own fear, that was the only way I could just walk straight to the room which looked the commander’s room - it was the only room with a big oak door. It was slightly ajar, and I went in. I walked in and saluted right away, even though I was wearing civilian clothes. I noticed right away that the German commander was shocked that I had just walked in like that, and only afterwards I realized that up until that day, no Jew had ever set foot in the building. Before he regained his composure or I changed my mind, I introduced myself.
Just like that? In German?
Of course in German. It turned out that both he and Colonel Baleanu, the Romanian prefect of the district had, like myself, served under the Austrian Emperor during the First World War. But if I may say so, Baleanu did not have the same command of the language as I did. Even that German thawed a little when he heard my German. For a moment we all got carried away, and they forgot that my role was that of the loathsome Jew.
I can imagine they were not expecting that.
Definitely not... One could say that they were in shock, and I took advantage of the moment and immediately articulated my proposal: within three weeks I would rehabilitate the city’s ruined power station.
Rehabilitate a power station for the Germans? And did it not occur to you, Jaegendorf, that you were, in fact, helping the enemy? Did you not think, did you not realize, that you, with your very own hands, were allowing the German-Romanian war machine to continue operating?
What can I say? We wanted to live.
You wanted to live! And what do you think the millions of soldiers in the Red Army wanted, and all those who sacrificed their lives to free Europe? You wanted to live, well isn’t that nice…
But that’s not fair! It’s all very well to ask that question in retrospect. You have to realize, I could not always understand the wider context of the events. After all, I was right in the middle of it. I was fighting my own war of survival within the big war.
If only you knew what we went through. If only you could see, like I did, how hungry, frozen Jews, gave their last shirt and shoes to peasants in exchange for a slice of bread –one slice! You might have understood. If you had seen how elderly Jews struggled to walk, and sank in the mud, how they had sunk in the quagmire, unable to pull out their legs; half of their body protruded out of the mud, and that is how they remained, stuck and hunched over, just waiting for death. And the closest people – a daughter, a son-in-law, a grandson just walked on by and kept going, without giving them a hand – ignored them, because they were afraid of falling and drowning themselves. If you had seen this, you might not have asked.
And what do you think, that here in Bucharest we had it easy? There were shortages here too. There was hunger, there was fear. Hunger and fear, that’s what there was. And here too Jews were harassed, as well as anybody who dared object to Antonescu’s regime of terror.
True, true, I’m not arguing with you. I am not in a position to be arguing, even if I do see things in a slightly different light. But I do have to say that you weren’t there. Now my fate is in your hands, and needless to say I am worried about my future and my good name, and still, it is nothing compared to what was going on there. Can you understand what it is for a Jew to walk into the German headquarters? I was actually shaking as I walked up the stairs to the office, I felt as if my legs were barely supporting me. After all, the chances of me ending the conversation with a bullet in my head were several times higher than the chance of me getting out of it alive. I was sweating, and I could feel how the sweat was spreading and staining my shirt, the hair on my arms stood on end and I suddenly lost control and my hand started trembling. And when I finally started talking, I did not recognize my own voice, it suddenly sounded high and grating, and only after they started asking me if I was the same Jaegendorf who built the electric border fence during the Great War, I knew that at the very least, they wouldn’t shoot me –
And did they take you up on the offer? Are you sure that you didn’t bring a few bundles of cash with you?
I can see that you are familiar with their weaknesses... But not in this case. I saw that they were undecided, conflicted with themselves. On one hand, they wanted to put this Jidan, this insolent kike, in his place and kick me out, and on the other hand, this was a Siemens engineer, an electrical and mechanical engineer, a graduate of the Polytechnic Institute in Dresden, Germany, and if anyone was capable of rehabilitating the ruined power station, this would be the man. And in the end, luckily for me, common sense won over, because they had almost despaired by the time I arrived. And that was how I obtained permission to gather all the engineers and electricians and return the power to the district. And nonetheless, if you would allow me, I would like to say something about what happened in Romania during the war. May I?
What’s so important for you to say?
Look, I know that there were severe shortages in food and I know that you communists suffered more than everyone –
You know nothing. Nothing! Do you know about Targu Mures? Baia Mare? Do you think that those returning from Transnistria have a monopoly on suffering?
Wait a moment, I don’t want a monopoly. Of course we weren’t the only ones suffering, I just want you to understand one basic thing: Where we were, Jews starved for days and weeks until they died; people would plead for a cup of tea, beg for a cup of peas, a slice of mamaliga. Women offered their bodies for a spoon of sugar and hot water for their babies, it was hell on earth. And among the dead and the dying, among thousands of Jews who overnight became destitute, became beggars, I came up with an idea that the occupation authorities found logical. I reestablished the power station, and we supplied the town and the entire district with electricity, and in exchange, I got some food, but not only for myself, rather for all the Jewish engineers and laborers and their families too. And no less important, I also obtained signed certificates for everyone to live in town, so that they wouldn’t push us any further into Eastern Ukraine. And then I suggested to Baleanu that we rehabilitate the Turnantoria.
What is that? What are you talking about?
I told you already. The foundry. It was an agricultural machinery repair plant. I am starting to realize that you will probably see this as “collaborating” with the enemy, too.
How else can it be seen? As resistance?
No. It’s survival! You just don’t understand what it was like there. You can see anything as collaboration. The difference between us is that I could see at the time, and I can see now, the thousands of Jews who worked under me there, them and their families – tens of thousands of Jews who I saved from death. Forget the minutes for a moment, you tell me how many Jews you know in all of Romania who did what I did? How many Romanians saved Jews at all? Do you believe I was thinking about myself then? All I was thinking about were the thousands of Jews who had been abandoned to die in the coldest winter in Ukrainian history!
Lower your voice. We are in a pre-trial investigation, you are not supposed to be making speeches here.
I am not supposed to make speeches, I am not supposed to argue, I am not supposed to raise my voice, I am supposed to put up with questions and investigations, whose only purpose is to slander me, isn’t it? And to allow petty people to disparage my name. For two and a half years of my life I put myself and my wife in danger. Day after day I stood in front of the most contemptible murderers, I was cursed, beaten, threatened with murder and humiliation, and every morning I went out to the factory and the offices of the Jewish Committee without knowing whether I would get back home alive. And now, barely a year after the end of the war on the Ukrainian front, I am forced to sit in front of you and apologize. What exactly do I have to apologize for? For saving thousands of Jews? Or just for staying alive? For making it back from Transnistria and not being buried there? For rehabilitating a factory without which not even a single Jew would have survived in Mogilev? Mister Investigator, surely you can’t completely ignore the end results!
I – end results?
Yes. The end results! I suggest you judge me based on the number of people I managed to save.
And what about those you handed over? What about them? Do you see this file?
What? What is that?
Testimonies. Lots of testimonies. Dozens. Jews like you. Except that what they have to say does not exactly correspond with your speech. There are testimonies here about a transfer from the ghetto to the Scazineti starvation camp.
Wait a moment, I have no idea what you are talking about. Can I see?
The testimonies are confidential at the moment. A matter of State security.
Well, honestly. How am I supposed to defend myself against lies when I don’t even know who told you them, and why? I am starting to understand that someone is trying to set me up. You know what, go and check with the Soviet units that arrived in Mogilev in March ’44. I would like to remind you what these forces found on their way west. Anywhere the Germans concentrated Jews, the picture was the same: there was no one left, there were no Jews left anywhere. In Poland, the Soviet Union and the Ukraine, in big cities like Warsaw and in small cities like Mezhirichi. Entire cities and towns without a single Jew, camps where less than ten percent survived, and even they were barely alive on liberation day. Thus, camp after camp, the terrible secret was revealed to the Red Army: the Annihilation of the Jews had achieved its goal.
I know all of that.
But here sir, is the bottom line: in March of ’44, the Russian forces entered the Mogilev district, and that is where they found Jews who were still alive! And even lots of them, real communities, even whole families and children. Perhaps in terrible poverty, but still, they had survived.
Yes, we will also check the Red Army’s testimonies on the matter.
Listen, many of them could not believe their eyes. The soldiers were just as excited to see us as we were to see them, especially those who identified themselves to us as Jewish. I went to see what was going on in the public kitchen, and an officer, who you would never be able to tell by looking at him, suddenly whispered to me: “Sholem Aleichem” and also: “Shema Yisrael,” like a secret password. And time and again we were asked how this miracle had happened and how we had stayed alive. And that was the first time we heard about all the Jews who were murdered in Eastern Europe. And time and time again they requested, these officers, to visit the orphanage, to witness the wonder: live Jewish children! They also went into the families’ homes and shared tea and honey and caramel candy with them, and played with the children, and only their astonishment made me realize the extent of their surprise from what they saw – that I had managed to save thousands of Jews. How rare that was, how inconceivable, how rare my success was, and...
Slow down, Mister Engineer, it does indeed sound impressive, and I admit it’s worth looking into, but I will have to ask a great deal more questions before I am convinced that this was a rescue operation as you adamantly claim, and not collaboration with the enemy. So we’d better continue with the investigation and stick to the facts.
But I am giving you facts, listen –
Let me remind you that I am running this enquiry, not you. Here you don’t run anything. There are two people here in this room: the one that asks the questions, that’s me, and the one whose job it is to answer – that’s you. Start answering the exact questions you are asked. Now, I understand that you headed the Judenrat at the Mogilev ghetto in Transnistria. Answer me in a word: True or false?
True. True. And if you ask me one more time, true. But if you want to be precise, then please, let’s be precise: it wasn’t called the Judenrat there. These are words you got from Poland now, with all of the Nazis’ atrocities. We had Jewish Committees, just like at home. The Romanian civil administration called them Koordonera, because as far as the administration was concerned, we were a coordinating body, with the sole objective of organizing and providing Jews for forced labor.
And what other purpose could the committee serve?
The purpose of the committee, look, the people there, I... We... Can I have a glass of water?
Yes, but answer the question first.
Let’s say that I saw things differently. There were a lot of purposes... not necessarily one single purpose... Let’s say that for me it was an opportunity to create order in the chaos, manage this world which had been turned upside down a little. And try to save whoever I could. Do you want an example? There were more than a few orphans who had no one to provide for them, it was heartbreaking. They would wander the streets half-naked in thirty degrees below zero, barefoot with nothing but a sack tied around their waist, and that’s how they would beg and plead for a slice of feed beet or turnip cabbage. And then I started rounding them up and founded an orphanage for them. Truth be told, I did not have much to give them, but a roof over their heads? And a blanket and corn porridge once a day? Better than nothing. And I made relatives take the orphans in.
You had to make them?
Well, what do you think? That they volunteered? If you would have seen what I saw, heard what I heard, say, a ten-year-old girl, her head shaved, wearing a large sweater instead of a coat, and sacks that had been sewn together instead of a dress, she was standing in the doorway, it was her uncle’s shack, and she was asking for half a cup of peas to cook for her mother who had typhus, the father had long since disappeared in the peat mines. And what do you think their response was? “Child, here at the camp it’s every man for himself, don’t come back here again!” And they slammed the door in her face. So I forced the families to take in their orphaned relatives, even when they didn’t want to. And they were angry with me: Why am I burdening them, forcing them? What right do I have to stick my nose in? But I couldn’t just stand idly by, could I?
All right, so it wasn’t a Judenrat, but –
No buts. Not a Judenrat and nothing like a Judenrat.
Whatever it was, let’s just get back to the Jewish Committee you headed –
Yes, all right, I’m getting back to the committee. Three weeks after we arrived, in November ’41, we established a Jewish Committee for the South Bucovina community in Mogilev. I was the chairman and thought that this territory, Transnistria, which they had conquered in the Ukraine and had no idea what they would do with it, needed to be the buffer zone between Romania and the Russians, and provide food to the warring forces. We did not know much beyond that. We were neck deep in our own troubles –
The Committee –
Yes, I’m getting to the Committee. So my deputy was Presner from Radautz, and we also had Moritz Klipper with us from Vatra Dornei –
Hang on a moment, stop here. Are you talking about the brother of Nathan Klipper from Vatra Dornei? The one who knew about the upcoming transfer and escaped to Bucharest, without warning the citizens?
Yes, that Klipper’s brother, Moritz, was in the Committee with us.
What kind of person was he?
What kind of person? An interesting person. He was not a tall man, but an upright one, like me. He was always meticulous about dressing in a respectable manner and came to all committee meetings in a tie. He had a bit of money, and he seemed unaffected by all the filth and terror, as if he was above it all. He would talk in a calm manner, a quiet, restrained man, he never panicked like some of the committee members who elbowed their way into the position using politics and connections, but without having any skills.
Where is he now?
How would I know? But I have something else to say about the eldest Klipper brother. What you said is true, he really did escape, but don’t forget that he is also the one who organized the relief parcels to the ghettos. We used to send him encrypted telegrams to Bucharest. You can check in the file’s documents, look for him under the name of his underground organization, Jonathan; without him, believe me, we would never have survived.
A good way to clear the conscience?
Perhaps, perhaps, but I think there was a lot more than that there... The parcels and the funds he sent us every week impoverished him and saved us. Throughout the entire war he sold everything he could and sent us money, clothes, medicines and food, he bribed anyone he could so that he would be able to reach “his Jews”. Once he even sent a female friend, an SS officer, with a bag full of gold coins to the tenants who rented an apartment from him before the war. Yes, I realize that it must sound like the Grimm Brothers' fairytales, but that is exactly how it happened.
Interesting, very interesting. We’ll settle that account with him soon.
Please don’t use what I told you now about the SS officer, I implore you –
Everything said in this room has to do with the investigation. It’s all in the minutes. What did you think?
But it is not at all related to what you wanted to ask earlier, about the committee!
All right, we’ll see, let’s leave it for now. Now get back to the matter at hand.
Of course, getting back to the committee. So I mentioned Moritz Klipper before, and Feibel Laufer from Gura Humora, which is a story with a tragic ending –
I thought committee members had a better chance of survival.
I won’t argue with your conclusions, and there is something to that, I admit. In regard to Laufer, my heart aches to speak of it. I put him in charge of culture, but there was not much culture generally, and particularly during the winter of 1941-1942. It was an unnecessary function, and he sensed that, and wanted to have more influence, and objected to all kinds of processes I initiated, such as the matter of the Jewish police. He adamantly claimed that by establishing this institution, with armbands, policemen, and batons, I was crossing a red line and would completely ruin the relationship with the Jewish public in the ghetto. He warned me that by making this decision we would be writing a new page in the history of Jewish communities, a page we would be ashamed of.
And didn’t you think he was right?
What was I thinking? The chances of you understanding...
All right. I have to say that it was a difficult argument. I argued that Mogilev only exists in the present – there is no past – which also eliminates history, and there is no future, and therefore there is no accountability.
No accountability? What were you thinking, that you could do whatever you wanted without being held accountable for it one day?
I thought that what needed to be done now was to survive. Full stop. To exist and focus on what was happening in the ghetto every day and every hour, to try and save whoever we can. And who even had the strength to think about history?
So you established the Jewish Police. So that the fascists would have someone to do their work for them. Wonderful.
What? No! Never! You’re putting words in my mouth again. I knew you wouldn't understand it. I am not accusing you but –
I am really overjoyed that you are not accusing me. I’m beginning to understand that you are the type of person who needs to be reminded where they are.
I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant. You’re confusing me. I will concentrate now. I will only answer your questions.
When you get confused, that’s precisely when the truth begins to emerge from among all the stories and lies.
But I’m not lying! I swear to you!
Fine. We’ll get to the police soon, you’ll have all the time in the world to explain it to me. Now, what happened to Laufer in the end?
Yes, so I had bitter arguments with Laufer and neither of us spared the other insults; ultimately, he resigned from the committee, lost his immunity, and was put on the list of the people sent to forced labor. Before they left, he still felt the need to protest to the gendarmes about the brutal treatment they gave the laborers, and so they beat him viciously. And a few days later he died from that, from the beating. He paid a terrible, heavy price. He persevered, as they say, to the bitter end.
I asked you to focus.
Forgive me, I am sorry, it’s hard for me to control the memories; for me this investigation is like a movie that is projected from the end to the beginning. And some people are especially difficult for me to talk about. What can you do? Despite the arguments I told you about, Laufer was very dear to me – a close friend from Bucovina, a person who I and a lot of other people held in great esteem. All right, you might not be interested in all that, so I’ll get back to the committee –
I understand that all this was with the prefect’s consent?
Yes, Baleanu approved the panel, but also insisted that we add his four business partners –
Business partners? Jews? In the middle of the war? That’s nonsense!
Strange, isn’t it? Are you interested in how all this worked?
Keep it to the point. I am asking the questions here.
Of course. Of course. So let me clarify: these Jews got the franchise for transports from the Mogilev ghetto to the neighboring ghettos in the district: Shargorod and Dzhurin. Each Jew paid them fifty thousandleifor the ride, and those who couldn’t pay were forced to walk on foot, in the snow, exposed to the gendarmes’ harassments, and to being robbed and raped by the Ukrainians. So Jews paid, or those who could did. The prefect and the German representative in the district split the profits with the “Four Musketeers”, and Baleanu also saw to it that they joined the committee.
So you had no choice but to agree.
Obviously. But later, in March ’42, somebody sent an anonymous complaint. Probably some Jew informed the General Staff in Transnistria that Baleanu was pitying Jews in exchange for bribes, which was true, and when he was thrown into prison, we also got rid of his partners. They went to prison, too. That wasn’t the only intervention into the Committee’s internal personnel matters. The deputy prefect also wanted to get his friends from Dorohoi in, and I argued with him for weeks. At first he respected my position as chairman, and then he changed his mind again and demanded they be appointed to the Committee.
Was that the first time you met Mikhail Danilov?
Yes, that was the first time I met Mihai Danilov.
Can you expand a bit?
There is nothing to expand.
He was considered the leader of the Jews who arrived in the transfer from the district of Dorohoi, and I couldn’t stand him from day one.
Four Days Later
If I understand everything I have heard over the past few days correctly, then you had more than a few hierarchical perceptions of your own, didn’t you?
Yes, you and the members of the Jewish Committee in the ghetto.
I don’t know how to answer that... You’re exaggerating a little on this matter, that’s not how it was. Were there some prejudices here and there, yes there were, but don’t accuse us, me, with something like that... I, who made an immense effort to save every Jew.
I’m exaggerating? This is an exaggeration? We are talking about sending three thousand Jews to their death, and you repeatedly play innocent with your “save every Jew” line.
I am not playing innocent! I have already admitted that it was impossible to save them all. And what can you do? This was the situation: there was a bitter struggle between the Dorohoi Jews and us, the South Bucovina Jews. Both sides wanted to keep their people in the ghetto. The only thing we managed to agree on was that, in the eyes of the occupation forces, we were more Romanian than the rest, and therefore it would be best to send the Ukrainian Jews to Pechora.
Get back to the facts. I am not interested in your commentary. Only the facts. What became of the Ukrainian Jews who were sent to Pechora?
I will tell you what I know. First of all, don’t forget that the people who were easy prey for the Jewish police were also the ones who managed to escape Pechora later and hide relatively better than the others. They had acquaintances among the peasants, they jumped off the train or over the walls and walked on foot to the nearest ghetto, or even back to Mogilev, in what Nasturas angrily called a “revolving door”. Every time he thought that he had finally gotten rid of the Ukrainian Jews, he discovered that there were still some in the ghetto.
But the majority died at the camp?
Yes, I’ve already told you. Those who did not escape starved to death. Died of hunger.
I understand, but in the lists of the dead in Pechora I can only see two thousand Ukrainian Jews, I’m still missing an additional thousand.
That is exactly it.
That is what I have been trying to tell you.
I am waiting for you to stop trying and start telling.
Of course, of course, but can we take a short break perhaps, get a little air?
Certainly not. I want to hear it right here and right now!
But it’s not easy to talk about. You won’t be able to put yourself in our shoes.
You are forgetting why we’ve been sitting here for five days. Start talking, we don’t have all day.
What happened... What happened in Mogilev... I mean after they caught the Ukrainian Jews, like in every transport, they took the beggars, the impoverished families, but they still had not filled the quota. And then they didn’t know what to do... I remember that that day there was a lot of talking going on, not organized meetings, but consultations, arguments, and fights, people were running around from one place to the other. Schauer was begging me to come with him to talk to Nasturas, but I knew it had no chance of working. It was also not my job. None of the committee members dared to go to the Romanians at this point. They began shouting at each other: “Why don’t we collect jewelry?” “You should have collected ransom in the ghetto!” But this was nothing but talk, and it was too late to do anything. And in the end... In the end, just like at the beginning, they did not know what to do. And then they decided to send single mothers with their children.
Mothers with their children? To Pechora?
I’ve heard about that before, but didn’t quite get it. Mothers, yes?
Yes. Each mother with her own children.
Please don’t ask me who decided, because I really don’t know. I doubt it was Schauer’s idea; from my acquaintance with the man, he was not capable of thinking in such a diabolical way. You can imagine who I think came up with this genius idea, which benefited the committee in two ways: it reduced the general ghetto population, and also got rid of a specific population which could not go out to work because there was no one to watch their little children.
How many of these were there in the ghetto?
More than a few. Quite a bit more than a few. To be precise, there were hundreds of mothers like that in the ghetto. Women whose husbands were in the Red Army or who had escaped with the Soviets. And there were women widowed by typhus, tuberculosis, and starvation, and widows whose husbands had been sent to forced labor, which is the same as widows. And so they lived on the outskirts of the ghetto, they were permanent customers of the public kitchen, and lived off of spinning and weaving work they found here and there from the Ukrainian peasant women, many of whom were also single mothers, for the exact same reasons. So in October, in the same transport with the Ukrainian Jews and all sorts of beggars from the ghetto, a manhunt was conducted for the single mothers and their children. Yes, you heard right. And that is how they managed to meet the quota. That’s that. I told you. Now you know.
“Single mothers and their children” – you say that with such ease.
God forbid! I shudder every time I think of it.
You don’t look very horrified, and I can’t see you shuddering.
Because you can’t see what’s going on inside me deep in my heart. I got so used to hiding what I was feeling there. Not to expose weakness.
Well, if you were so shocked by it, why didn’t you intervene to stop the transport of the single mothers and their children?
I’m asking again: Why didn’t you intervene and stop the transport of the mothers and the children? –
Did you hear me?
One moment, wait a minute. I... I... I need time... Give me a few minutes. Please.
Again you need time?
Do you think that I am just buying time with the answer? All right, I knew that there might be a problem, but I didn’t want to intervene in the Committee’s internal matters.
Suddenly you didn’t want to intervene in Committee matters? Up until then they consulted you on every decision, you knew everything and intervened in everything, and all of sudden you didn’t want to intervene? Do you expect me to believe that?
I have a terrible headache, I already told you yesterday.
I asked why you didn’t intervene, and I am waiting for an answer. Now.
All right. I don’t know. I am not sure what the answer is. I know that there is nothing that I regret more than the fact that I knew and said nothing. That on that day of all days, I refrained from intervening. I closed my eyes to it, as they say. If you want, I can explain why I behaved like that.
Go ahead, explain. Because I can’t understand how on one hand you saved thousands of Jews and on the other –
Because there were two sides, and not just one! You need to understand, the entire Jewish existence in Mogilev was established and based on the value of a working man. The prefecture kept us alive for only one reason: we put at their disposal a cheap, available, and professional work force which was prepared for any effort. It started with the rehabilitation of the power station and the foundry, and continued with the workshops and non-skilledforced labor, which required more laborers every day. Paving roads with gravel, mining peat, working in the stone quarries, building bridges, and reinforcing buildings. And we provided the manpower and met all the requirements and the tasks, and thanks to that, we were allowed to live. Live – nothing more.
And what does that have to do with it? Or are you trying, for the umpteenth time, to pull the wool over my eyes?
No. That is exactly it. You will understand, you will understand everything, just have a little more patience. When I arrived in Mogilev, I understood that I would have a dual function: to convince the Romanians of the necessity of a Jewish work force, and convince the Jews that the work would keep them alive. In Mogilev human life did not have an abstract value, the ‘sanctity of life’ was not taken into consideration – a person’s value was equal to his production capacity for the Prefecture, or whatever he was prepared to pay for someone else to go to work instead of him. And anyone who was ill, and certainly anyone who was disabled, or just physically weak, lost his value in the eyes of the Prefecture and very quickly in our eyes too – in the eyes of the Jewish Committee and the public in the Ghetto. That’s what it was like at the time. Nonetheless, there was a certain sensitivity toward women and children, which is why the transport to Pechora was such an immense crisis, after which we could not even look each other in the eye, and all tried to roll the blame on somebody else. And that is what happened later, after everything was over. But when they were rounding up the people for the transport, not even one Jew got up to protest the fact that they were sending single mothers to their death, or to face that their children were being sent along with them. It was obvious that they couldn’t work, and that if we sent them to forced labor, then their children would be a burden on the orphanage. And everybody was afraid for himself and his own family, and first of all took care of his own wife and children. Everybody understood that in order to save their family, they had to find a job in the ghetto and keep their heads down, hold their tongues and wait for the storm to abate. And I held my tongue too. Yes, I also chose to hold my tongue.