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.