Recently, when reading some personal histories of life in Romania during the war, I came across several references to “agencies” of gossip or wishes, which turned out to be a sort of inside joke, a humorous expression of the frustration of living in a vacuum.
Gossip was the subject of many wartime posters, the dangers of gossip. However, for Jews during the Holocaust, cut off from reliable news sources and stripped of any sense of control, gossip provided not just information but a sense of control, entertainment, and even hope.
I have learned that there were two distinct families of “agencies” for mouth-to-ear news. One for gossip (Yiddishe Plotke Agentur, IPA, YPA, Jewish Gossip Agency, Jewish Rumor Agency), and, for wishful thinking the Iden Willen Azoi, or IWA. The word “agency” was employed as a humorous expression of the frustrations of their situation.
Anny Mater tells a very interesting personal history on her girlhood in Czernowitz during the Soviet occupation. The important news that her aunt’s house had be raided – reached her when she had just arrived in school. And later the same day, after narrowly escaping being captured, she sat back in the classroom and received the news that her mother was alive but injured, and at a neighbor’s flat. “…nothing worked better at that time than the YPA”.
Interested in this aspect of Anny’s story, I searched the Internet for these “agencies”.
According to Hardy Breier, “Czernowitz was a town where gossip reigned. For such a small town, it had the information system of a modern computerized info center.” He calls the IPA “the Jewish Gossip Agency. The most unreliable news agency in the world.”
and in a story by Shalom Eitan about the Otaki ghetto:
“A theatre group was formed in the ghetto and they performed one of Goldfaden’s musicals. There was no radio or newspaper but there was a lot of news agencies, such as the Y.P.A. “Yiddishe Plotke Agentur,” (Jewish Gossip Agency) or the Y. V. A.. “Yiden Vilen Azoi” (Jewish Wish Agency) and others.
Wondering whether this was some type of underground news source, I brought this up to a group I belong to of ex-Czernowitzers, and they laughed (gently) in my face. “With such a Hebrew name you should have some knowledge about Jewish Humor and Irony“, scolded one. Yes, I have been schooled!
Apparently, the IPA existed as a term for “mouth-to-ear” news, according to Berti Glaubach, “for either normal bad events that happened or still had to come (Idische Plotke Agentur: Jewish Gossip Agency), or wishful thinking for hope and defeat of the Germans and their allies (Iden Willen Azoi: Jewish Wish Agency). We all knew the news had to be taken with a bit of salt!“
According to Mimi Taylor, “Jews knew not to believe the official Government comments and proclamations. Sometimes they listened to foreign broadcasts which were mostly correct. Jews discussed the current and past events and drew their own conclusions, which were transmitted from person to person. Their conclusions and predictions were far more reliable than the Romanian news published in newspapers and broadcast on national radio stations.
During World War Two, Jews in Romania were not allowed to possess shortwave radios. My uncle built one from scratch and from time to time, my family listened on it to the BBC news, which was totally reliable. When the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad, my father knew about it a week or more before it was announced on radio Rumania. He told his Romanian employer, who at first did not believe him, but later said, “Cum s’a poate? Evrei tot d’ a una stiu tot. (How is it possible that Jews always know Everything?)”
And beyond Czernowitz, a paper by Chaya Ostrower published on Yad Vashem on the value of humor as a defense mechanism during the Holocaust references a similar joke about news agencies, even at labor camps.
Ostrower interviews one Auschwitz survivor who tells her,”The latrine had a name “RTA- Radio Tuches (buttocks in Yiddish) Agency“, there you could learn all the news. Agency is an international word. Yes RTA, in Polish it also had a different name JPP (Jedna pani powiedziala – one woman said), there was no shame we were sitting in a row telling jokes, everything in that latrine.”
Thank you to all my online “friends” for the stories! Images and links below.
Links of Interest
- The Russian Occupation of Czernowitz by Anny Mater
- Survive and Tell by Shalom Eitan
- Humor as a Defense Mechanism in the Holocaust (Chaya Ostrower)
- WW2 Radio Archives (listen)
- The fake British Radio Show that Helped Defeat the Nazis (Smithsonian)
Postcards from Sigmund: 30 March 1942
One treasure from the USHMM regarding my Great-Uncle Sigmund Schmatnik is two postcards he sent to the acting governor of Transnistria in order to get some receipts. Researcher Berti Glaubach helped me to decipher these. “Cerut chitanta” means “requested receipt”.
Letter from Sigmund: 2 April 1942
Courtesy of USHMM, the document below is almost certainly related to the above postcards and is stamped as received 2 April 1942.
A few facts:
- This is a “financial direction” sent by Sigmund Schmatnik – attempting to transmit monies to Transnistria.
- The letter regards the sum of 5k lei Sigmund was attempting to transmit to Jenny Landwehr in Judeţul Jugastru, one of the 13 counties that were part of the Government of Transniestria, a region under Romanian administration between 1941 and 1944. The county was in the northeastern part of Transnistria, and was administratively divided into a town, Iampol, which was also the county seat, and four districts.
- It seems that Sigmund’s transaction is not possible without having the Romanian National Bank (BNR) transfer the lei as RKKS (Reichsmarks, the military currency).
- Regarding RKKS: This military currency was used in occupied countries by Nazi Germany during WW2. RKKS was originally created for use within Germany. In occupied countries, all banks were forced to accept RKKs by decree and the exchange rate was set to be of advantage to the occupiers.
- A side note on a person named in the letter: Emanual Cercavschi served as Deputy General to Gheorghe Alexianu, the Romanian governor responsible for the Transnistria Gouvernante territory during its Romanian occupation. In 1936, Cercavschi was a resident of Czernowitz at #7 General Prezan Strasse.
Rough translation of the letter below:
- Received 2 April 1942
- Direction 52/1
- Service Financial Directive
- Diary 23.241/942
- Folder (indecipherable)
- Mr. S Schmatnik, Str. Avram Iancu Nr. 6, Cernauti
- Through…Chair of the Council of Ministers and Civil-Military Cabinet Administrative, BUCHAREST
- MAIN TEXT:
Following the address/letter #23241/942 dated March 25, 1942, where you made it known that you had deposited in the Romanian National Bank, into your Government Account #1230, the sum of 5,000 lei. I asked for this amount to be sent to the Jewish Committee and handed over to the lady Jenny Landwehr, and we honorably communicate the need for you to forward your receipt from the Romanian National Bank, without which it is impossible to get the equivalent in ReichsMarks transmitted to the person indicated in your earlier letter.
- SIGNED: Acting Governor Emanoil Cercavschi & Director, Paul Nichel
- (stamped) Lucrarea a fost scazuta (I cannot find any explanation online thus far)
Who is Jenny Landwehr?
Who was Jenny Landwehr’s Cernauti family, and what was her relationship to Sigmund Schmatnik? Jenny Landwehr lived in Czernowitz before WW2, and was deported to Iampol, Vinnitsa Ukraine during the war. She emigrated to British Mandate for Palestine on March 1, 1943.
A scan of Czernowitz Landwehr’s reveals a connection between the Landwehr family and the Engler family. A Reveca Landwehr married Moise/Moses Engler in 1930 in Czernowitz. Moses Engler appears in the 1927 census with occupation “office worker” at #10 O. Iosif in Czernowitz. In 1936, his address was #3 Maramuresului.
It’s possible that there is a connection between Rebecca Landwehr/Engler and Jenny Landwehr, as Sigmund’s mother maiden name was Rosa (Gittel) Engler.
However, it might not be a familial connection in this case. A noted researcher, Benjamin Grilj, has pointed out to me that according to his publication Black Milk: Withheld Letters from the Death Camps of Transnistria, the Landwehr family living at #10 Merangasse in Czernowitz served as a distribution point for couriers going to Transnistria. According to Benjamin, “They helped a lot: financial, infrastructural and with networking. They were heroes.”
Links of Interest
Schmil and Mantzi
In the mid-1800s, Schmil Elias Schmatnik and his wife Mantzi (or Mania), both born around the turn of the 18th century, lived in the Sadagora community north of Czernowitz.
To go back one more generation, I believe that Schmil’s parents were from Rohozna in House #30. Rohozna was one of the 16 Jewish settlements near Sadagora which were integrated during Austro-Hungarian times. The settlements were all served by the community’s Rabbi, and the famous “Rabban Osseh Nifla’ot” (our Rabbi the Magician) lived in a Moorish palace, and the synagogue of the court was quite grand, with 1000 seats. The era in which Jewish Sadagora flourished began before WW1 and died in 1941, when all Jews were deported to Transnistria for labor or extermination.
Josef Schmatnik was born in 1868. He is my second great uncle. Schmil & Mantzi’s other sons were
- Issac (who changed his name to Nusgarten)
- Ioil/Joel (see my post Galanterie Schmatnik for more on Ioil)
- Moritz/Morris/Moishe (who changed his name to Lustgarten when he emigrated to NYC).
Schmil lived a long life, dying on 18 July, 1897, of enteritis, in Sadagora.
Josef Schmatnik, Tischler
A 1898 Czernowitz business directory shows a Josef Schmatnik working from #23 Schulgasse (view in Google maps). His profession was “Tischler” or a carpenter – a maker of wooden furniture, a joiner, a table-maker. The street changed names to Bozhenka in the Soviet era, and then Sh’kilna, in Ukranian/present day.
Josef married Khana Lebel (or Lobel), born in 1873 to parents Iacob and Beile, who lived in Czernowitz at #3 Dimitri Cantimir.
Radauti to Mogilev
Josef and Khana had one son. Leon Arie, was born on May 6th, 1904 in Radauti (sometimes spelled Radautz), where Josef and his wife had moved. Radautz was located in Suceava county, near Czernowitz, and was surrounded by dense forests to the east, north, and west. Nearby rivers and streams made for fertile, beautiful land. During Austro-Hungarian times, Jews established and were employed at industrial plants, owned ninety percent of the commerce in town, and made up the majority of the professionals such as doctors and lawyers. Before WW2 there were 23 synagogues in the town.
Thirty-some years later, Radauti, Romania, was a hostile place for Jews to live. The Romanian National Archives tell of the harsh measures put in place against the Jews. For example, if you were Jewish, your property was liked to be ‘transitioned’ to the state – this law was called “The Decree-Law for the Jewish Properties Transition to the State Ownership.”
On October 11, 1941, all Jews of Radautz were ordered to leave the town within 48 hours and start marching towards Transnistria. Anyone who did not leave would be shot. Only hand baggage was allowed, and their monies were to go into government banks with no receipts given.
Josef and Berta ended up in Moghilev, Podolskiy City, Vinnitsa, Ukraine (Transnistria). In Moghilev, skilled workers were housed in a labor camp inside the Dimitrov factory on the western side of the city. A gassing and cremation facility was planned but the project failed.
Moghilev was liberated by the Red Army in June 1944, but Josef died several months earlier, in April.
Leon Arie Schmatnik
Josef and Khana’s son Leon married a Zizi (Chichi or Trili) Itzkovitz , who was born in Ploesti, Romania in 1910. Ploesti (now called Ploiesti) is north of Bucharest, in Wallachia. They resided in Bucharest, where he was a dentist.
Leon and Chichi set sail on the Struma, a Bulgarian ship which set out for Mandatory Palestine, in December 1941 with 791 Jewish refugees aboard. They planned to apply for visas in Turkey. The first day out to sea, her engine failed and she was towed by a tug to the port of Constanta. The crew was unable to start the engine and a Romanian tug returned, and their accepted the passengers’ wedding rings as payment to repair it so they could continue to Istanbul.
Struma remained anchored in Istanbul harbor while British diplomats and Turkish officials were at an impasse for months over the fate of the refugees. They were not allowed to enter Turkey and the British authorities informed them they would not receive visas to Mandatory Palestine. The engine could not be made to work and Turkish authorities towed Struma out and abandoned the ship in the Black Sea, where she she was mistakenly torpedoed by a Soviet submarine on February 24, 1942. No rescue came for the refugees.
The one survivor was 19-year-old David Stoliar (view his testimony). In 2015, the Turkish BIA News Desk reported that a commemoration ceremony was held for the first time for the victims of the disaster.
Links of Interest
UHMM Link to document: “List of Jewish Specialists available in Moghilev County”, generated by the Mogilev Jewish Labor Committee, dated 16 June 1943. The list indicates current location of Jew and their profession. Josef is listed #43 on this list, and his specialty is listed as “dulgheri” or Carpenter, and location “Moghilev”
Samuel Blei was born on May 9, 1901 to parents Salomon Selig Blei and Gusta Sandberg. His sister Ettel was my grandmother.
Marriage to Freida Schneider
Samuel married Freida Schneider in 1926. During the war, they lived at Fiakerhalter #2. In the 1936 Czernowitz business directory on ehpes.com, Frieda Blei was working out of the same address on Romana Strasse as her husband. She worked as a Funcionara (Clerk).
Romana Strasse #92
In a 1936 Czernowitz business directory (Source: ehpes.com), Samuel Blei is listed as a Frizer (Barber), located at Romana Strasse #92. In the Austro-Hungarian period, the street was named “Russische Gasse” and in the Soviet and Ukrainian eras (and present day), it was “Russka”. In a 1933 issue of “Der Tag” newspaper, it was announced that this important street would be paved.
You would find nearly anything you needed, walking Romana Strasse in 1936. Salo Brull’s photography studio at #6 and M. Fuhrmann‘s at #10. Hungry? Odobestilor Dealul‘s Wine is at #7. Meschulim Friedmann’s Dairy is at Romana #4. Wolf Burg‘s bakery was at 132e. At #1, you would find several Jewelers – Stefan Bandynda and also Jacob Goldschlager. More jewelers are scattered around the area. Bronislaus Chytrenschi sold women’s handbags at #22. A Turkish bathhouse run by Sofia Baia was at #40. A bathhouse was where you could shower and bathe. Stamp collectors would find David Gronich at #1. Pharmacies, lawyers (Max Diamant at #14) bakery equipment, buttons, furniture, headstones, mirrors, anything you needed.
An ex-Czernowitzer recalled of the time, “There was a Trolleybus running on electricity in the Russische Gasse up to, I think Zezina. It was very quiet compared to the noise of the “tramvai.” (note: the Czernowitz tram was opened in 1897. The first autobuses were put into operation in August 1933)
It’s possible that Samuel and Freida lived in Hungary sometime in the 1930s, as he appears on a Hungarian list of the Jewish World Congress.
Samuel Blei appears on a list of murdered persons (Source: Yad Vashem) “those who perished from the labor battalions and deportees from Hungary. During the war he was in Buchenwald, Germany. ”
Buchenwald camp maintains a memorial website with a page for each victim. Samuel’s page notes that he was in ‘Dora’. This list was only just published in 2010.
Dora means Mittelbau-Dora, a subcamp of Buchenwald. This camp was created in 1943 out of a need for an underground, secret location in which to develop the A4 rocket. Initially, these rockets were being manufactured in Peenemunde. Allied attacks by air raid made it necessary for the Nazis to bring manufacturing underground, in secrecy. They were to be built in tunnels at Dora, constructed in 1943. Jews were deported to Mittelbau-Dora beginning in May of 1944.
1944 also brought official barracks for the laborers, a slight improvement in living conditions. Dora initially had no barracks, and laborers lived in tunnels of the planned underground factory, created for the construction of A4 rockets in secrecy. The inmates lived in chambers of the tunnel, with four-tiered wooden bunks and sawed-off oil barrels as latrines. Nearly 2900 inmates died between October 1943 and March 1944.
Samuel died on September 24, 1944, laboring at Dora. RIP, Samuel.
VIDEO: Liberation of Dora-Mittelbau (USHMM)
Sigmund (Asher Zelig) Schmatnik was born in 1908 in Czernowitz to Ioil/Joel ben Schmuel (Proprietor of Galanterie Schmatnik) and Rosa Gittel.
1908 in Czernowitz
1908 was the year of the first Yiddish Language conference in Czernowitz, from 30 August to 3 September, known as the Czernowitz Conference. The agenda addressed Yiddish spelling and grammar, a Yiddish dictionary, Jewish youth and language, the Yiddish press, theater, writers and actors. The conference brought great momentum to Jewish nationalist movements in the area.
Back to Sigmund/Asher Selig – research reveals that he married Regina Kinsbrunner, probably in the 1920s – also from Czernowitz. Regina was born in 1913, to Abraham Lieb and Taube Her siblings were Fanny (b1909), Carl (b1906-d1907) and Rachelle (b1907).
#6 Avram Iancu
Their wartime address in Czernowitz was Avram Iancu #6. In the Soviet era, the street was renamed Zankovetskoy, and now is named Zankovetskoi. VIEW MAP
Sigmund and Regina lived for a time in the Balta Ghetto, Transnistria, as both appear on lists showing their deportation to Transnistria and then the receipt of financial aid there from relatives, in 1942.
Forced Labor in Cernauti
By 1943 it seems that they were back in Czernowitz, as they were recorded in the August 1942 Cernauti census as residents. In January of 1943 Sigmund appeared on a list showing that he held a work permit, and then in October of the same year, he appeared on a list of Jews recruited for forced labor in Cernauti.
Documents from the Romanian Claims Conference after the war reveal more details of their journey. They were both evacuated from Bucharest and Sigmund was interred in the Văpnearca camp. Money was sent to him at the camp, as he appears on a list of 25 prisoners of that camp in a handwritten list with receipts of sums paid to them. In the camp, he was assigned to the Camera De Munca (Workroom).
The concentration camp of Vapniarca was composed of three cabins with two floors each. In 1941 a group of around 1,000 Jews from Odessa were the first prisoners. Between 1942 and 1943 it was a camp for Jewish and political prisoners. The prisoners were fed an animal feed, which had a sad side effect of a physical and neurological syndrome including bone pain and palsy. The camp was closed in October 1943.
According to Sigmund’s sister Mina’s Yad Vashem testimony, Sigmund died in Auschwitz Camp, Poland.
Yad Vashem has a must-see digital resource titled “the Auschwitz Album”, the only surviving visual evidence of the process leading to the mass murders at this camp. The photos were taken in May/June 1944 by two SS men who were taking ID photos of the inmates. The 193 photos show the arrival of Hungarian Jews from Carpatho-Ruthenia. It can be viewed HERE.
Arrival shows inmates at Auschwitz disembarking from the cattle car trains and to their right, in the distance, the crematoria towers can be seen. Selection shows the men and women lining up for the selection process – slave labor or worse, with males and females separated. Some look directly at the camera. Their property is put to the side, and prisoners in striped uniforms mingle with the new prisoners. The new prisoners have gold stars on the left breast of their coats. Some of the people are identified in the photos, by relatives. After selection for labor, their heads will be shaved and a registration number tattooed on their left arm. This is shown in the section titled Selected for Slave Labor. Other men and women cross through the camp on their way to the showers, with prisoners behind barbed wire, watching them. In the section titled Assignment to Slave Labor, the men undress and register, before being taken to the barracks. They are then shown, lined up, in their striped uniforms. The section Kanada shows the Kommando Kanada at work, a group of prisoners assigned to the sorting out of the new prisoner’s possessions. The Kanada warehouse was full of clothing and jewelry, to be sent back to Germany. The prisoners working this job had the benefit of taking extra food or clothing from the loot, for themselves. The final album shows Last Moments before the Gas Chambers. Old men and women and children are forced to walk to the gas chambers. They wait en masse to undress. The gather in groups to talk, and sit in the grass grove nearby. It is nearly all mothers and children.
Odesa Oblast Archives
The State Archives of Odesa Oblast are located at Zhukovs’koho str. 18, Odessa, Odessa Oblast, Ukraine. In 1920, the archives were founded as the Odesa Historical Archives. The earliest documents are dated as early as 1572.
A collection specifically covering the period of Romanian/German occupation of Odesa and Odesa Oblast between 1941-44, includes archives of government organs formed in the Governorship of Transnistria (the territory between the Dniester and the Bug River that was the main recipient of Jews deported from the Bukowina region (which includes Czernowitz). Romanian wartime leader Antonescu’s government had been officially entrusted with governing and exploiting the region, which was established as a series of penal colonies – 13 districts.
According to JewishGen, “A prefect ruled over each district and enforced the Ordinance. A pretor administered each sub-district. Balta was one of the thirteen, with the capital city of Balta. Each district was governed by a prefect, who in the case of Balta was Vasile Nica. Local gendarmerie and police were subordinate to the prefects. Balta police and gendarmerie were from Fifth Balta Battalion.”
The Transnistria authorities ordered men and women between the ages of 18 and 60 to work.
The Ghetto Economy
The deportees’ belongings were bartered for food, fuel, living quarters. According to JewishGen, they were promised a daily wage in the form of food and money, but it’s unclear whether they received pay at all until late of 1943.There are multiple lists in the Archives concerning Jews in Transnistria. Lists of inmates sent to various forced labors, inmates receiving postal packages, Jews transferred to forced labor in various factories. Jews helped construct an airfield in Balta.
According to Yad Vashem Studies on the European Jewish Catastrophe and Resistance, Jews were expected to perform “exterior slave labor, local factory labor, both local and exterior agricultural labor, the cutting and clearing of trees, and the removal of large, heavy stones. Women worked mostly in the ghettos.” Factories known to “employ” Jews included a cloth factory in Balta where women labored, and a factory where slippers were made.
As a resident in the Bershad Ghetto herself, Etel Blei Schmatnik also reported for labor, and I was able to locate a receipt of monies to be remitted to her in the Balta Ghetto to compensate her for her work, the source labeled, Monetary amounts that were to be remitted to the Jews in Balta Ghetto, from the Odessa Oblast Archives.
Other family members deported to Transnistria included
- Samuel Schmatnik (my grandfather)
- Sigmund Schmatnik (Etel’s brother-in-law), deported to Transnistria in 1942 (and his wife, Regina)
- Rose Stanger Blei (Chaim’s wife, Etel’s grandmother)
- Regina Blei (Etel’s sister) and her husband Fillip, and children Henya, Carl and Fritzi
- Chaja Schmatnik
After WW2, though many left, some Jews remained in the area known as Transnistria. About 1,795 Jews (including 175 from Bukovina) remained after the liberation on March 29, 1944.
Jews Recall Life in Transnistria (Video)
Edgar Hauster (whose czernowitz.ehpes.com is a distinguished resource for researchers) posted some fascinating video interviews with Ghetto survivors (a project of Field Studies of Shtetls) – enjoy!
The Bath House VIEW
Matzoh and Kaizelakh VIEW
Blood and Matzoh VIEW