So They Remem­ber: A Jew­ish Fam­i­ly’s Sto­ry of Sur­viv­ing the Holo­caust in Sovi­et Ukraine

Mak­sim Goldenshteyn

  • Review
By – July 18, 2022

Mak­sim Gold­en­shteyn is a good boy, always find­ing the time to vis­it his grand­par­ents, an elder­ly cou­ple of Sovi­et émi­grés liv­ing in a Seat­tle apart­ment build­ing, eat­ing their old coun­try food and watch­ing Russ­ian lan­guage TV. But one day, a sim­ple ques­tion about their wartime expe­ri­ences unleash­es a flood of mem­o­ries. For all these years I’ve thought about it,” says his grand­fa­ther, Motl Braver­man. How could it have hap­pened? How could they have tak­en chil­dren and killed them? I can’t under­stand it.” Mak­sim sets him­self the task of find­ing out. So They Remem­ber is the result.

The Nazi inva­sion of the Sovi­et Union in June 1941 includ­ed almost 600,000 troops from Roma­nia, a Ger­man ally whose south­ern oil fields were vital to the Nazi war effort. Roma­nia regained Bukovy­na and Bessara­bia, ter­ri­to­ry it had lost to the Sovi­ets in 1940. A grate­ful Adolf Hitler, mean­while, grant­ed Roma­nia a swathe of occu­pied Ukraine east of the Dni­ester Riv­er, known as Transnistria.

The Jews of Transnis­tria found them­selves liv­ing under both Roman­ian and Ger­man occu­pa­tion. Ion Antones­cu, Romania’s fas­cist Con­ducā­tor and a life­long anti­semite, made no secret of his inten­tions for the Jews in his new­ly acquired ter­ri­to­ries: I give the mob com­plete license to slaugh­ter them.” For a com­par­a­tive­ly lit­tle-known his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter, Antones­cu would rank sec­ond only to Hitler in orches­trat­ing the most Jew­ish deaths dur­ing the Holo­caust — more than 400,000.

In Bukovy­na and Bessara­bia, Jews were hunt­ed down and killed by Roman­ian mil­i­tary police, often with the assis­tance of local cit­i­zens and infor­mal mili­tias. The slaugh­ter and overt pil­lag­ing of Jew­ish homes and neigh­bor­hoods was so anar­chic and so bru­tal that even the Wehrma­cht and the Ger­man secu­ri­ty police were horrified.

Mean­while, in Transnis­tria, Jews (most of whom were Sovi­et cit­i­zens) were dri­ven by the tens of thou­sands across the bor­der into Nazi-occu­pied Ukraine and the hands of the Ein­satz­grup­pen. And when the Nazis’ mobile killing squads were over­whelmed, the Roma­ni­ans took mat­ters into their own hands.

This is how thir­teen-year-old Motl Braver­man, a Ukrain­ian Jew, found him­self, along with his fam­i­ly, being herd­ed onto the grounds of a for­mer coun­try estate and san­i­tar­i­um near the Ukrainian/​Transnistrian vil­lage of Pechera. It was one of two hun­dred con­cen­tra­tion sites” in Transnis­tria where Jew­ish pop­u­la­tions were expect­ed to thin out on their own.” No forced labor, no gas cham­bers, just a place where Jews were left to die slow­ly, with­out food, water, ade­quate shel­ter, or the rudi­ments of san­i­ta­tion. Between 1941 and 1944, 11,000 souls would pass through Pechera, which was known to its inmates sim­ply as the Death Noose.”

Motl sur­vived. A resource­ful and coura­geous young man, he found ways to steal in and out of Pechera, to bring back food and, almost unbe­liev­ably, to spir­it women and chil­dren to safe­ty in near­by towns and vil­lages where pock­ets of Jew­ish life unac­count­ably con­tin­ued. After the war, he served proud­ly in the Sovi­et Army, then set­tled down to a qui­et life as a shoe­mak­er in Chernivitsi.

Eighty years lat­er, our Holo­caust nar­ra­tive is built around the death fac­to­ries: Auschwitz, Bełżec, Tre­blin­ka. But Motl’s sto­ry reminds us that the fate of the Jews of the USSR, like the fate of the Jews of Poland, all but played itself out long before the Wannsee Con­fer­ence, where the Final Solu­tion was cod­i­fied in ear­ly 1942.

For Jews who found them­selves behind Nazi lines, death of the most ter­ri­ble kind quick­ly became every­day real­i­ty as the SS Ein­satz­grup­pen, their Ukrain­ian and Roman­ian col­lab­o­ra­tors, and ordi­nary Ger­man sol­diers went about their busi­ness. By the time the first exter­mi­na­tion camps opened in 1942, the Holo­caust was half over, its vic­tims shov­eled into mass graves at Pechara, at Babi Yar, and a thou­sand places in between.

You lis­tened,” Motl’s child­hood friend, Boris, tells the author. This is a mitzvah.”

We must lis­ten too.

Angus Smith is a retired Cana­di­an intel­li­gence offi­cial, writer and Jew­ish edu­ca­tor who lives in rur­al Nova Scotia.

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