Romania, World War II, and my Grandmother

I started writing about this story because of my ignorance, because it’s too important to be ignorant about. In passing, I read a mention of the Holocaust in Romania and realized that I knew nothing about it, let alone my own family’s experiences and history involving it. It’s hard to “never forget” when your family is from a small town, for which records are hard to find, in a country that they don’t bother to teach you about in school. It’s harder still when two generations later I can live a comfortable, happy life in a country barely touched by the war, completely unaware of what happened to my own family. So I read more, asked my grandmother about her experience, and wrote it down.

Our story begins in Fălticeni.

With some 12,000 people in 1940, Fălticeni was more village than metropolis. It was, however, a vibrant Jewish community. 4,000 Jews and my Savta Betty called this town, nestled in the northeastern Romanian province of Moldova, home.

A bit of a fledgling troublemaker as a child, Betty had a history of disappearing. After a family walk one balmy Saturday morning, her mother noticed that she was missing. Disheveled and frantic, her mother ran through the streets only to find Betty flaunting her mother’s “Saturday best” shoes, coat, and bag. And during the first week of first grade, after deciding that she had already had enough of school, she performed another disappearing act. As her father dropped her off and turned to talk to a teacher, she bolted for home, running halfway back before her father could catch up.

Eventually, the conflagration engulfing Europe reached her door.

In the beginning of summer 1940 as France, Romania’s main guarantor, buckled under Nazi invasion, the Soviet Union issued an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Romania. Cede the regions of Bessarabia and Bukovina or face war. Summer wore on, and Romania ceded even more land to Hungary. These concessions sparked a wave of popular revanchist outrage which Romanian fascists and General Ion Antonescu rode to power, forcing the King to abdicate by summer’s end.

In the course of one season, high diplomacy and national politics unknowable to six year old Betty rocked her community: suddenly the Jews of Fălticeni were under an anti-Semitic totalitarian regime and bordering an enemy. In one year Romania would join the Axis and the war.

Romania’s entrance into the war was explosive. In a devastating surprise attack, Axis troops streamed into the Soviet Union, and in one month Romania recovered Bessarabia and Bukovina. Persecution and genocide followed. As the army took control of the area, death squads rounded up and massacred Jewish communities. Antonescu, following the typical anti-Semitic and anti-Communist line of Jewish Bolshevism, declared all Jews in the region to be Communist agents and ordered them deported. These “deportations” were in fact death marches. Those Jews who survived ethnic cleansing and the death marches were put into concentration camps, and all told, between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were killed. 60 years later, after years of suppression, these facts came to light when an international commission led by Ellie Wiesel released a report detailing Romania’s complicity in the Holocaust.

Situated near the front lines, but in Romania proper, Fălticeni was spared the worst of the Holocaust, while playing unwilling host to the regime. The military stationed troops in the area and evicted Jews to quarter officers in their homes. What was once Betty’s home became home to a Romanian army officer and his family. Only her grandfather’s death fighting for Romania in World War I allowed her family to remain in a single room in the back of their home.

The regime forced Betty’s father into a labor camp, and without any source of income, the family fell into poverty; Betty’s mother had to sell what little they had left for food. Jews were only allowed to leave their homes between 10am and 6pm and when Betty could leave her home, shoeless but with a yellow Magen David affixed to her sleeve, children would pull her blonde curly hair and beat her while her mother and grandmother could do nothing but watch.

Through all of the suffering and inequity, the family cow remained. Allowed more freedom than it’s owners, the cow roamed the fields during the day and returned at night. One night, well after the 6pm curfew, the cow was nowhere to be found. Betty broke curfew and went after the cow, leaving her Magen David at home and hoping that nobody would notice the little Jewish girl flouting the regime. She found the cow without being caught and returned to her home a tiny hero.

For years Betty’s father labored in the camp. The camp was close to home, and a sympathetic guard had a daughter her age, so she was able to visit her father from time to time. Barred access to the public school, the Jewish children of Fălticeni were educated in the synagogue, and one day in 1944 when she was 10 years old Betty heard a rumor at school. The men from the camp were allowed home, if only for a temporary furlough. Recovering her love of running away from school, she sped from the synagogue to the train station and saw her father among the other men from the camp. He did not see her, however, and the men were sent to spend the night in holding. The next day her father was finally allowed home.

Just as her father was about to be sent back to the camp, the Soviet Red Army appeared in Fălticeni.

The Jassay-Kishinev Offensive of August 1944 saw 1.3 million Soviet soldiers assault and crush the Axis defensive line. As the Soviets reached deeper and deeper into Romania, Antonescu’s regime began to weaken. King Michael, the figurehead monarch who reigned after the fascists forced his father to abdicate, led a military coup with the aid of the Romanian Communist party and overthrew Antonescu. Romania promptly switched allegiance to the Allies and sped the Soviet advance through the country.

Although the Fascist regime had been evicted, the war continued to disrupt the Jewish community of Fălticeni. The Red army, which rode into town as saviors, quickly displaced the Jewish population and forced them to go 25 km to the city of Suceava. Betty’s family loaded up their few remaining belongings into a horse-drawn wagon. She only wanted to bring her collection: a set of shiny chocolate wrappers she had been amassing. Her mother and grandmother rode in the wagon while she chose to walk alongside with her father. She felt she was on an adventure, and besides, her father was finally with her for good.

When Betty and her family arrived in Suceava they found deserted streets. In spite of Suceava’s proximity to Fălticeni, it was in Bukovina and so the Jewish community was subject to Antonescu’s death marches and concentration camps. Finding ample space, the Soviet authorities placed Betty’s family and the other Jews of Fălticeni into the empty homes of those “deported” Jews. Once the camps were liberated, the Suceavan Jews returned home only to find others had taken their place. Malnourished and mangled, they seemed to Betty like savages. Broken by the concentration camps and the sight of their occupied homes, the children from the camps attacked and beat Betty and the other children. As the war ended, Betty’s family and the others were allowed back to Fălticeni, and the survivors of the concentration camps in Suceava could return to their own homes.

Back in Fălticeni their street had been ransacked. As the Romanian officers which requisitioned the Jewish homes fled, looters and pillagers had come through to steal whatever they could. Like all the other Jews on the street, Betty’s family came home to an empty house; however, hidden in the cellar they found all of their belongings. In a small act of kindness, the Romanian officer who occupied their home hid everything before fleeing the Soviet army.

Eventually Betty’s family recovered. Outgrowing her disdain for schooling, Betty excelled in her studies and became an engineer. Her first job was in Suceava.