Personal Reflections


At that time, most pessimists did not imagine death camps, where 10 year old children stood on tiptoes to look like 15

It was March 1944. I cannot remember the exact date, but I know it was Shabbat and one man in our group was praying. It was a cold and wet day. We watched the Nazi army retreat in disarray through the cracks of the boarded windows of our room. As ugly and restricting as they were, there were times like this that we were grateful for those solemn boards - they protected us from the bitter cold and screened us from the view of the Nazis, though they certainly didn't seem too interested in us that day.

Across the street from the hut we lived in stood the dilapidated post office building which had been abandoned by the Soviets two and a half years before. It was here that the Nazi army set up a temporary command post and field kitchen. To get their food rations the soldiers had to slosh through the muddy streets of Djurin.

In the days of 1941 when they were the masters of the region, the Nazis and their allies, the Rumanians, had converged upon this tiny, impoverished town in the southern Ukraine. It was at that time populated by about 800 Jewish natives, mostly women, children and old men. Quickly the town swelled to a staggering 4,000 as it was converted into a concentration camp.

It was to this dreary destination that my family and I, along with several thousand others, were deported in October 1941. It was to this time, two and a half years before that my mind now wandered while I watched the soldiers as they sat on the door steps or upon the muddy ground. As haggard and unkempt as they were they nevertheless rendered in me a feeling of apprehension for what still might lay ahead.

The road had been long and the scars had cut deep. Driven from our homes with only what we managed to carry either in our hands or on our backs, we were herded like cattle, first into freight trains then trucks and banished to the Ukraine. My home had been in Radautz, a beautiful, peaceful town in the northern part of Romania.

There, life had been full of promise, good friends, family, education and worship. A fleeting glimpse back over my shoulder as I was pushed onto the train and it was all gone. Ahead lay Transnistria and the certainty of death by starvation and disease for most of us.

At the end of an exhausting and inhumane three week journey our truck rattled to a halt. It was day-break and we found ourselves dumped at the edge of the godforsaken town of Djurin. We would have to walk the rest of the way to the camp and find shelter. That day there were seven members of my immediate family who stood together facing the gloom of the already overcrowded ramshackle hovels of the streets of the camp. Three would never return from their internment to experience liberation.

My grandmother would die of dysentery. My proud, hard working father would fall to typhoid fever. And my dear, sweet, little sister would succumb to tuberculosis of the lungs after suffering with the disease for two years.

I would emerge from the ordeal grotesquely marred by the ravages of lupus tuberculosis vulgaris. My facial features distorted by large, oozing, gaping sores. My body would be greatly weakened and my soul numb from the years of enduring a cruel and unjust existence with little or no food or comfort in the camp in Djurin. But, somehow, I would be alive.

I can still visualize that little town built on a slope. A single, paved road which ran through the town served as its only thoroughfare. All other roads were made of heaving cobblestones or dirt. When it rained the town was a muddy mess.

There are some buildings I remember - the sugar mill called Zavod which had ceased to operate during the years of occupation. The abandoned structure accommodated deportees from the provinces of Bessarabia and Bukovina.

There was the synagogue whose majestic exterior hid the squalor and stench within as it sheltered the first crowd of deportees from Bessarabia.

In the centre of the town was the marketplace. Peasants from the surrounding villages would come there to sell food. As very few people had any currency, bartering was the way business was conducted. My family would often exchange clothes for flour, cereal or potatoes. It was a survival game and if you ran out of your meagre possessions to trade, you lost and starved to death.

Not far from the marketplace was the makeshift hospital which consisted of a small number of rooms with broken beds and straw mattresses. It housed a few frustrated doctors and two nurses who felt helpless to provide any of us with the attention we needed as there were no medical instruments and only limited medical supplies. And the illnesses, particularly typhoid fever, were running rampant through those muddy streets.

The school was situated near the end of the town. This building too was inhabited by deportees, most of them from my home town of Radautz.

Water was a precious commodity in Djurin. The only pump was over a mile away. We all took turns carrying the big wooden buckets up the road and over the hill to the pump and then with our frail arms, transported the heavy, awkward load back to the hut.

It is what you remember that makes up so much of your life. I think of the town, the people, the camp and our plight, sometimes in quick flashbacks, while other times it all unfolds like a tragic novel. But this wasn't fiction, this was so shamefully real.

I recall hearing the whimpering of our landlady's three year old son and how it shook me up, forcing me to focus on the events of the day taking place beyond the boarded windows. I peaked again at the soldiers who seemed more concerned about their own safe evacuation from the territory as they made their retreat. Yet we still continued to feel like their prisoners and we struggled with the very real possibility that they could do us harm. I hoped that as I stared through the broken boards I was not at all visible to the Nazi soldiers.

As we anxiously sat around, waiting for something to happen, the tension began to get to us. Finally my brother could not take it anymore. Suddenly he bolted out through the back door and ran down the street to the house where our only surviving uncle and cousins lived. He stayed at the house a few hours. unwittingly he decided to return home just as the last of the Nazi soldiers were ready to depart.

Seeing my brother running up the street, the soldiers promptly halted him and called him to come over. It was a moment I will never forget!! Watching my young brother dutifully walking towards the soldiers was the most frightening and agonizing memory I have of the time spent in Djurin.

I held my breath waiting to see what would become of my cherished, head-strong brother. All of us justifiably feared that this would be the end of him, and perhaps, to all of us.

We watched my brother's interrogation by one of the officers. Onui responded in fluent German and then pointed his finger to our hut, indicating that this was where he lived.

The Nazi officer was looking at my brother noting his tattered appearance, particularly the rags wrapped around his feet. He could not be one of the partisans looking like this. He certainly didn't dress like the one who had been caught and shot to death for roaming the streets just one half hour before. The officer let Onui go. My brother was saved. A sigh of relief echoed through our dank little hut.

I looked around at the faces and our cramped surroundings. There were now fourteen of us - 5 adults, 5 teenagers, and 4 children all sharing the space of the three small rooms. These fourteen people were made up of four families - the Singers from Wijnitz; Anna Harth, a distant relative of my mothers; the Brunsteins, and my family, the Adelsteins.

I thought about the three that were gone. I especially thought of my little sister Reizale and how she had suffered and shivered and how we tried to make her as comfortable as possible.

My brother, Onui, and I had moved with Reizale into the makeshift kitchen. This was a tiny room with an earthen floor, a small table and a broken chair, and an oven for all to access. It was on top of this oven that we created a small bed for my little sister so that she would have some extra warmth.

My brother slept on a board suspended between the table and the broken chair, while I slept on boards on the floor. After Reizale died, my sister Mali moved into the kitchen and took a place next to me on another board on the floor.

Our landlady, Fruma Brunstein, had four boys ranging in age from three to thirteen years old. Fruma’s husband was fighting with the Soviet army and, unfortunately, never returned. Fruma was a nice person who struggled to raise her children by selling remnants from her husband's shop. The children did not go to school because there was none. However, Fruma arranged with the Rabbi and Shoichet to teach Izzie, her eldest son, hebrew so he could be Bar Mitzvah. Izzie had his Bar Mitzvah shortly before liberation.

Fruma Brunstein had kept one room for herself and her family while the three other families shared the remaining room. Occasionally she would allow us to come into room to warm up as she had more resources than we did to procure firewood, but on this particular damp day in March, no one had firewood on hand. As usual, fear and the reality of the soldiers and their guns kept us from venturing out for wood.

Often it had been the teenagers who, in groups of two or three, gathered the twigs and small pieces of wood from a place beyond the compound under the dark of night so we could gain some warmth. More often though, we sat inside the hovel huddling together trying to fight the cold and the hunger.

And this was how we were on that day of our liberation. This is how I remember our pitiful little group, drawn together for warmth and comfort all gripped by the uncertainty that lingered among us. There could not be a celebration.

Soon all the Nazi soldiers were gone. Within a few hours a unit of partisans entered the town and spread out. They knocked on doors and, speaking in Russian, announced with glee that the Nazis had cleared out of Djurin and that the Soviet Army would soon be coming.

The next day the Soviet Army entered the town. This was a part of the Ukraine that they were not at all familiar with. In fact, the term "Transnistria" meant nothing to them. They paid little attention to us, the half starved, sick, pitiful remains of the deportation of Transnistria. By this March day in 1944 only less than one third of those of us who had arrived from Bessarabia and Bukovina had survived at the camp in Djurin.

The war was still far from over and the Soviets had their own problems to contend with, chasing the Nazi army from their "motherland".

This was the day of our so-called freedom. Here we were on this cold, wet, miserable day being "liberated" by an army of advancing Soviet soldiers.

Some of the survivors bundled up their meager belongings and prepared to move on, though most did not know where that muddy road would lead. Others lagged behind, so uncertain of their situation and their destination. My hope was that I would be able to get to a hospital where I could get much needed medical attention. Freedom was a word and a feeling we still could not grasp.

A number of the more able-bodied young people hitched rides with the Russian military transports, sometimes just walking along with the advancing army hoping for a hand-out of food scraps from the Russian soldiers. Mainly these poor souls survived by begging.

The Spring of 1944 did not bring an end to the suffering of Transnistria survivors. our ordeal was still far from over and we were a thousand miles away from what was once home.

In my own case, it would take years of treatment and surgery to reconstruct my face, horribly disfigured by lupus tuberculosis vulqaris. My body too had been weakened by over two years of poor nourishment, unsanitary conditions within the general camp, and little protection or comfort from the elements.

Like many of the others, I came out of this long, dark period of my life with many physical and emotional scars. I was grateful to have been blessed with a strong spirit and determination which helped me overcome the extreme loneliness I experienced separated from my family and rebuild my life in a positive way.

Thanks to the unconditional help and support from my surviving family and the encouragement I received from the medical staff and friends I met during my long and trying journey, as I moved from one hospital to another, I was able to see my face transformed and achieve my goals.

I married a good and decent man and together we raised a beautiful family, two sons and a daughter. We were also fortunate to come to live in a country where we were able to bear witness to and talk about the heinous crimes committed against our people by the Nazis and their minions during World War II.

My children and grandchildren learned from us first hand about the tragedy of the Holocaust. It is up to them to pass on this knowledge to future generations. Only by remembering and continuously reminding ourselves and others about the devastating results of the policies of hate and unbridled discrimination can we ensure that similar events will never again be repeated.

After fifty-five years of struggle, hardship and sacrifices I felt my true liberation and sense of accomplishment as I watched my grandson Dov becoming Bar Mitzvah. As he was delivering his speech, pledging to fulfill the commandments of the Jewish faith, with all its obligations entrusted upon him,

I knew then that heritage was passed on.

The most moving moment for my husband and I was when Dov, in his deliberation, evoked the plight of his grandparents, great-grandparents and others who had experienced the horrors of the Holocaust.

As I looked at my loving family gathered happily together for this wonderful occasion, I could not help thinking of my Dad and how proud he would have been of this young man. With great relief and gratification I felt assured that the torch of remembrance would be passed on down to the next generation and that the memory of those who had been lost, in that bleak time in our history, would not be forgotten.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.