Escape to Freedom Part 1: Mobile Killing Squads (Summer, 1941)

My dad rarely spoke of his Holocaust experiences, but when he won a prestigious fellowship to Princeton soon after emigrating here from Israel after the Holocaust, he was interviewed for a 1961 issue of the magazine “Coronet” in an article titled “Escape to Freedom“. This entry details one story from that article.

What he described aligns with data I’ve found on “Known places of mass burial of Jews in the Chernovtsy area – 1941).

Excerpt from Escape to Freedom

In June 1941, German troops poured across the Austrian border to attack Soviet forces. After four days of fighting, the Germans occupied Cernauti…A storm trooper stopped Gil…“I ran for it”, Gil recalls, but three of them caught me and began to beat me with their rifle butts. One smashed me in the face, breaking my nose, and blood ran all over the street. Then they threw me on the floor of one of their trucks. The truck convoy heading for the banks of the Pruth (sometimes spelled Prut) River, where Gil and 2k fellow prisoners were given shovels and told to dig trenches…When the trenches were finished they were told to line up in front of them…

Einsatzgruppen-IN-action

Einsatzgruppen executing Jews in mass graves. They referred to these executions as “special action” or “special treatment”

For more than ten minutes, bursts of machine-gun fire sent bodies toppling back into the trenches. Gil was hit in the leg and tumbled back into his open grave, unconscious. Two other men, shot in the head, fell on him and lay across the bottom half of his body. it was dark when he awoke to hear the voices of peasants who had come to loot the dead. When they removed the two bodies on top of Gil, he opened his eyes and rose up on his knees. “I saw a scene so ghastly, so hideous, I will never be able to blot it out of my mind”, he says. “Dead men, women and even children were piled up like heaps of garbage. The odor was so horrible I blacked out again from nausea.” The looters threw Gil into a cart and took him to the headquarters of the Romanian police. They wanted a reward for turning in a “criminal” who had escaped execution, but the police threw them out, snarling “Why didn’t you just let him die with the others?”

The Jewish History of Czernowitz

The story of the Jews of Czernowitz, where my Nana Esther lived with her husband and had their barber shop, is as follows (very briefly).

Czernowitz was a fertile area in the Bukovina foothills of the Carpathians, on the Western bank of the Pruth river. Byzantine trade caravans crossing the Pruth river stopped at a rest station which eventually grew into the city of Czernowitz. There were Jewish merchants in the caravans. The first documented mention of Jews in the city was a contract dated 1408 dealing with a local merchant guild. In 1775 the Turks turned over the Bukovina area to the Austrians to thank them for diplomatic support during the Turkish/Russian war which ended ten or so years earlier. In 1778, the city became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and until 1918 Jewish life in this city, the capital of Bukovina, was good. After WW1, it became part of Romania. In 1937, one of the theoreticians of the anti-Semitic movement, Octavian Goga, became Prime Minister of Romania.  He said, “The Jewish problem is an old one here, and it is a Rumanian tragedy. Briefly, we have far too many Jews,” Drastic legislation against the Jews followed over the next several years. In  1940 the Soviet Union occupied Czernowitz and the northern parts of Bukovina. At this time 1/3 of the general population was Jewish. In 1941, the region came under Romanian rule. 

Assets seized and Deportation of Jews (1941)

In Czernowitz, a “brown house” was set up in which arrested Jews were treated in Gestapo fashion. Jews’ assets were seized.

My dad’s story concerns the SS-Einsatzkommando 10b (mobile killing squad), who shot hundreds of Jews. Their mission was to exterminate. 

Jew_Killings_in_Ivangorod_(1942)

Einsatzkommando troops killing Jews in 1942, Ukraine

In July of 1941, ordinance #1344 was published, restricting hours Jews may appear in public and in what numbers (3 or less), signage requirements, the wearing of the yellow star badge, marketing hours, and threat of prison camp for any deviance. 

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The star (unknown subjects)

Later in 1941, another ordinance #23 was published, evacuating Jews to move to specific towns, to pay rent as assigned to them for their new dwellings, and to be registered in a special registry, not allowed to leave this assigned community. They would receive ration cards in exchange for labor. They were relocated to Transnistria, Ukraine (this was part of an agreement with the German military). Over 28,000 Jews were deported from Czernowitz.

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Jews and Soviet POWs marching to labor camps, Czernowitz 1941/2

Very few survived these camps. My dad and his parents did.  More later.

 

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