The Times of Israel this week published a moving account by Robert R Singer, chief executive of the World Jewish Congress, about his own family history. He recounts:
“I am the son of a Holocaust survivor. My mother escaped the Nazi genocide of European Jewry by fleeing Bessarabia in 1941 and taking refuge in the village of Sretenka, in relatively tolerant Soviet Kyrgyzstan. But her parents, siblings, and countless relatives who remained behind were among the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine wiped out by the Nazis pushing east with the murderous Holocaust in their wake.
“My mother was born, raised, and started her own family in Alexandreni, a small village with a Jewish population of more than 60 percent, near the Moldovan city of Bălți (Beltzy in Russian). In the summer of 1941, the Nazi-allied Fascist Romanian regime seized control of Bessarabia and began forcing Jews into ghettos. As the fascist troops took over, my grandparents packed their seven daughters and two grandchildren onto a drawn cart, and started making their way east toward Soviet-occupied territory. When the cart reached the Dniester River, my grandmother saw that their horse was not strong enough to continue to pull all of them. She knew there was no choice but to divide the family. She handed the reins to my mother and three of her sisters, along with my half-sister and cousin, and told them to continue without them. My grandmother, grandfather, and three other aunts promised to follow somehow.
“This was the last time my mother saw her parents and sisters. On the onerous journey through southeastern Russia toward Kyrgyzstan, my half-sister and one of my aunts perished. My mother and her surviving relatives spent the remainder of the war in Sretenka, living in relative peace and harmony with their Kyrgyz neighbors.”
Every Russian Jewish family that survived the Holocaust has its own story. My grandmother, and her immediate family, had already left the Soviet Union for Canada in the 1920s. But our family, like every other, was divided. My grandmother’s cousin Baya, who she had lived with under the same roof throughout her childhood, never joined the family in Canada. She remained in Kiev when war broke out and she and her husband were among a group of Jews herded to the banks of the river Dniepr, which divides the city, and forced aboard a ship. It was set alight. There were no survivors.
My grandmother’s home town of Pavolitch, some 60 miles southwest of Kiev, became a killing field. In 1941 more than 1,300 Jews were shot beside a mass grave dug in the Jewish cemetery. The bodies were jumbled one on top of another. The victims came from many outlying villages as well as Pavolitch, herded to a single spot for ease of slaughter. The gentile population fared badly too. In November 1943 dozens were rounded up and locked in the basement of one of the old synagogues, where they were burnt alive. Today a memorial marks the spot.
My grandmother’s beloved aunt and uncle, who had played with her when she was a girl and let her ride around on their backs, escaped to Central Asia during the war years before returning to Kiev once the Nazi occupation was over. It was only that prescience enabled them to survive.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.