Live! Remember! Tell The World!
The Story of Leah Kaufman, Hidden Child Survivor of Transnistria
Told by Leah Kaufman
Written by Sheina Medwed
Artscroll/Mesorah Publications (forthcoming, Jan- Feb, 2005)
Excerpted from Chapter Three, “The Death March”
Right at the beginning of this march, a Nazi car sped by and screeched to a halt next to me. There were two Germans sitting inside. One had a machine gun pointed out of the window. I was the image of every Nazi’s dream child. My long blond hair had never been cut. It hung like thick golden ropes down my back. From beneath the frame of my bangs shone my large sky-blue eyes. Despite the effects of my hunger and fatigue, the Nazis saw a pretty little girl and they wanted her for their blue-eyed, blond nation.
One of the Nazis got out of the car, pointed at me, and beckoning with his finger said, “Cummin zi! Cummin zi! (Come here! Come here!)”
He demanded to take me away, shouting, “She’s not your child! You kidnapped her! She’s coming with us!” Over and over again, these brutes insisted that I was not my parents’ child. My mother, father, and all my siblings fell to their knees, begging and pleading with them to leave me. It was a miracle that they didn’t kill us all and that they relented and drove away. But at that moment, the possibility of my survival was planted within my mind without my even being cognizant of it. If the Nazis believed that I wasn’t Jewish, then certainly the Romanian guards and the Ukrainian peasants who had settled in our country during the Russian occupation would believe me as well. Maybe these peasants would even help me.
The winter weather added to the cruelty. It was the harshest winter in memory. The temperature dropped to forty degrees below zero.3 The snow was up to the rooftops. As far as the local people were concerned, we Jews brought the cold and we also brought the snow. The Romanian gendarmes were brutal to us. The police confiscated our shoes, because they could be sold, and forced us to walk barefoot on the frozen ground from one place to another.
Now and then they stopped us, not out of pity, but so that the guards could rest. Most of us fell to the ground exhausted. We were not given any food or water. Bread was more precious than gold. Whatever valuables we had were traded for sustenance. It is documented that “the German military attachי in Bucharest reported that one of his agents, who had mingled with countless uniformed Romanians on furlough from the front, had discovered that every one of these officers was loaded down with rings, furs, silk, and other valuables taken from Jewish deportees.” 4
The military dictator of Romania, Ion Antonescu, decreed that death was too good for the Jews. We must first be humiliated, tortured, starved, dehumanized, and brutalized. After that, we would be shot, that is, if death didn’t claim us first. We had to sleep or on the ice-covered ground or in pigsties and stables without any windows. The pigs were luckier than we were because they were fed. I learned to steal food from the pigs. When caught, I was beaten, but it didn’t stop me from trying again.
The final mortality rate was eighty percent. Very few of us reached our destination — Transnistria. Jews who weren’t hanged or beaten to death fell ill and died from the cold, starvation, and disease. Life became so unbearable that many victims simply gave up hope and died. It is impossible to describe the horror, pain, and grief, the utter hopelessness that I felt when I lost all the members of my family one by one.
I rapidly developed survival skills. Intuitively, I watched faces and listened unconsciously to the rhythm of language around me. I always felt an invisible Hand guiding me towards life. With a hint of prophecy, as we trudged along, my mother, an ashen-faced skeleton of her former self, constantly repeated the words which became my life’s mission: “Du muzt lebn, du muzt gedenken, du muzt dertzeiln der velt vos di Rumanier hobn tzu undz geton — You must live, you must remember, you must tell the world what our Romanian friends and neighbors did to us.”
My mother’s words, spoken with the kind of pain that the imagination cannot fathom, became the inner driving force of my life. I used to flee from danger like a bird stretching its wings in flight, telling myself over and over: “Du muzt lebn, du muzt gedenken, du muzt dertzeiln der velt vos di Rumanier hobn tzu undz geton — You must live, you must remember, you must tell the world what the Romanians did to us.” Numbed with fear and loss, she was able to summon from within herself the ability to empower me, her youngest child, with this universal task. Now I was no longer an individual trying to survive. I was carrying the banner of remembrance, a banner that I would not display for another fifty years.
Early in the march my mother very much wanted us to have a chicken for Shabbos and she had an idea how we could get one. All four of us girls had pierced ears from the time we were young, and with my mother’s, we had five pairs of gold earrings among us. As we were marching, the Romanians stood on the sidelines watching us and trading things. My mother traded all our earrings for a chicken. She sent me with it to a shochet who was on the march. Even on the Death March, my mother wanted to try to create a feeling of Shabbos. This would be a reminder of our identity and purpose in the world. Perhaps this would infuse our hearts with hope and the strength to continue.
When I brought back the coveted chicken, she plucked the feathers and opened it. The liver didn’t look quite right to her, so she sent me back to the shochet who looked at the liver and told me, “This chicken is treif.” Although we were tortured and starving, my mother said, “Kinderlach, mir torren dos nisht essen — My children, we are forbidden to eat this.” My mother was desperately concerned for the spiritual purity of her children. In these life-and-death circumstances, Jewish law would have allowed us to eat it. But my mother wouldn’t feed it to us. We were raised to understand that real life was the life of the soul. Physical vital signs of life did not necessarily mean that a person was spiritually alive. True life existed beyond this world. It was given by G-d and nourished by His Torah. Sadly, my mother and my brother and sisters never ate chicken again. But they perished in utter sanctity and purity.
We were driven on and on, and beaten mercilessly. With each bare footstep, we sank further and further into hopelessness and despair. Death seemed like a welcome end to our misery. Nevertheless, somehow I was always looking for a way to survive. The gendarmes walked on one side of the unpaved road, while we trudged on the other side. The dirt roads were mired in mud, with ridges of frozen earth that had been formed from the wheels of the army wagons. My red, swollen feet were frostbitten, numb, and bruised.
I couldn’t walk anymore. I studied the faces of the gendarmes. Although most of their faces were twisted with meanness, one of them didn’t look as cruel. He was leading the horse pulling the wagon that bore their food and water. We Jews were not allowed near their food supplies. We weren’t even allowed to cross the road to the other side where the gendarmes were marching.
I decided to risk running to the other side. This humane-looking gendarme was very tall. As little as I was, I took a chance and ran as fast as I could across the road to him. I stretched out my arm but all I could reach was the edge of his jacket. Taking many steps to keep up with his long stride, I grabbed hold of his jacket hem and pulled.
I waited, my life suspended in that moment. It was decreed by Divine Providence that I would not be shot for walking out of line. The gendarme looked down at me with a puzzled expression on his face. In that instant I saw a spark of compassion in his eyes.
“What do you want, little girl?” My faith was kindled by his response. Perhaps beneath that uniform there was some semblance of a heart. He saw me as a child, not as some inhumane creature to be taken out and murdered.
I said, “What is it to you if I die? I can’t walk another step. If you make me walk you may as well kill me. But I want to live.”
“So what do you want from me?” he asked.
“Please, just let me sit in your wagon. I won’t touch your food or drink. I just can’t walk anymore.” I pleaded, “Don’t let me die.”
To my surprise, he stretched out his long arms, picked me up, put me in the wagon, and covered me with a blanket! My parents and siblings saw me sitting there but they didn’t envy me, contrary to what most children would feel. Perhaps my brothers and sisters knew, somehow, that I would be the one to ultimately survive this ordeal. In any case, that is how I made it through the march. Every now and then my fifteen-year-old brother, Bentzion, would come to check on me, bringing me news from the family and scraps of things to eat.
We traveled to a place called Ataki, where the gendarmes wanted to make sure that we were carrying no gold or extra clothing or possessions. They took everything away from us. My father and my brothers, Bentzion and Chaim, were carrying whatever valuables we had left. When the Romanians tried to rob my father, he resisted and was shot. That night my brothers also disappeared, never to be heard from again.
I was still traveling in the food wagon when my mother approached me, her face white as snow. She said to me in Yiddish, “Du bist a yasom, mein kind —You are an orphan, my child.” With this news I wept, but there was no time to mourn. One mourns when one has hope to live. Besides, at the age of nine and a half, I did not know how to mourn. It would have drained all my strength and I would have perished in my grief. We all knew that we, too, would be killed sooner or later. It was only a question of time.
We hadn’t eaten for days. We were not given provisions of any sort, and we had no jewelry left to trade. When I was thirsty, I used to bend down like a dog and drink the murky water that settled in the mud holes. As historian Ioanid describes, “Food was not provided…Many Jews sought edible plants growing near the roads, and often they were reduced to drinking rainwater from ditches and puddles.” 5
Very few of us who set out on the march survived. The SS Einzatzgruppen were the most vicious, cold-blooded, trained killers. They used to bring their wives and girlfriends to show them with pride how they murdered Jews. It was the German SS Einzatzgruppen execution teams, the Ukranian police, and the Romanian Gendarmerie who were such experts at killing off the Ukrainian Jews that they had no time for us. Orders were given for us to stop at a place called Yedenitz, where we were detained outside in the raw elements for several weeks. The gendarmes barely gave us enough space to sit or lie down. Our tormentors had to have complete control over us, at all times. At any given moment, spontaneous killing could occur.
Although, “Besides Germany itself, Romania was thus the only country which implemented all the steps of the destruction process…,” 6 there were no standardized killing procedures in Romania and Transnistria, what Hilberg calls “the Romanian East.” The methodology of murder was left up to the bestial impulses of each individual general, prefect, or governor.
At times the Jews were victimized due to the political tensions between Germany and Romania. The impulsive, earlier deportations of Jews across the Dneister River resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jews because the Romanians didn’t like to take orders from the Germans. During the month of August 1941, in response to orders given from local authorities, thousands of Bessarabian Jews were expelled from their homes and marched towards the German-occupied area across the Dneister. When the Germans, who were unprepared to “handle” such large numbers of Jews, saw them coming, orders were given to send them back. The Romanians ignored the orders and threatened to open fire if the Jews were sent back. “Again and again the German Einsatzkommando turned back Jews, and again and again more Jews came across. In the process of shoving back and forth, thousands of Jews died on the roadsides from exhaustion and bullet wounds.” 7
Romanians were unsurpassed in creative savagery. The Bogdanovka killing center had a bakery where one loaf of bread was sold for five gold rubles. When the gold ran out, the Colonel Isopescu had the Jews put in stables and killed. The stables were set on fire and the corpses were burned. The remaining Jews were marched to a cliff overhanging the Bug River. “There, they were stripped of all their belongings and their ring fingers were chopped off, if the rings could not easily be removed…after that…standing stark naked in a temperature of 40 degrees below zero, they were shot. The corpses fell over the precipice into the river.” 8 While my family perished, the fields, countryside, and rivers of Romania became a mass graveyard for my nation.
As fate would have it, our stopping place in Yedenitz was right near a bakery. The delicious smell of the freshly baked bread made our hunger pangs worse than ever. Small as I was, I was always a fighter. There must be some way we can help ourselves, I thought.
While everyone else was lying down, I would sit up and watch the door of the bakery. My mother would say, “Leahle, lie down.”
I would answer, “No. I’m not tired.” I refused to simply lie down and die. I was looking for a way to get some bread to keep us going.
I was never as close to G-d as I was on that Death March. I always felt Him guiding me, surrounding me with circumstances for my survival. “Dear G-d,” I whispered, “maybe there is someone my age who can help us.” Suddenly, my prayer was answered! I saw a little girl coming out of the bakery with her school bag under her arm. She appeared to be about my age. I called out to her in Romanian, “Where are you going?” I had to speak very quickly because she was running.
When this child heard me speak to her in Romanian, she stopped dead in her tracks. She had probably never spoken to a Jewish child before. We were supposed to be bugs to be exterminated – not real people. But she was somehow caught off-guard when I spoke to her in her own language. At that moment the wall between us fell.
With a shocked expression she turned around, came over to me, and said,
“What do you want?”
“How old are you?” I asked eagerly.
“Nine and a half,” she answered. Exactly my age. I blurted out the next question.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to school,” she answered with downcast eyes.
“What grade are you in?”
“I’m in grade 4.”
That was my grade, the grade I would have started. I looked at her books and longed for the luxury of being a little girl on her way to school. “Do you like school?” I asked her.
“No. I hate it because I’m stupid.” You’re stupid, I wanted to say, only because you don’t know how fortunate you are. Here I was, my future and my hopes totally destroyed. I was deprived of everything, including the chance to learn, and this lucky child hates school.
Beckoning with my right hand, I said, “Come. Come close to the fence. Show me your books. Show me what’s hard for you. Maybe I can help.” I stretched my arms through the wooden fence and she placed her books in my hands. I took one look at what she was learning and thought to myself, I’m going to be her tutor! “Don’t go to school today. Sit with me and I’ll help you. Tomorrow you’ll know your lessons very well,” I assured her.
And so began my teaching career, at the age of nine and a half. Although we sat on opposite sides of the fence, we were temporarily united in purpose, as I helped her. During the time I tutored this lucky peasant child, I felt human again. I was giving, I was using my mind. I felt so good to be in a position to help this little girl learn her lessons – for her to see that she wasn’t so stupid after all.
When her mother came out of the bakery and saw that her daughter had not left for school, she was furious. “You stupid child, you’ll never learn anything. Why do you speak to a Jidan (a dirty Jew)?”
My newfound pupil answered, “Mother, she is not a Jidan. She’s a child like me, only she’s much smarter. Don’t worry. Tomorrow I will go and I will understand my teacher much better.”
The mother, a simple peasant woman, asked her daughter sarcastically, “And how will you have learned so much so quickly?”
“The blond girl on the other side taught me and I know my lessons for tomorrow,” she said. Her mother was so pleased that she went into the bakery and brought out a loaf of bread and a cake. And as long as we stayed in Yedenitz, we had food to eat every day. My mother would take the bread and the cake and share it with as many children as she could. She used to say, “Kinder darfn lebn. Children must live. Kinder darfn gedenken. Children must remember.”
For a few weeks we were in Yedenitz, outside the bakery. Then the orders arrived to march again. Through the freezing rain, the ankle-deep mud, and the cold, we were driven on. The march would kill us slowly and horribly. We would be tormented as much as possible. Bullets were too expensive; we weren’t worth it.
3 Hilberg, p. 495.
4 Hilberg, p. 494.
5 Ioanid, pp. 122-23
6 Hilberg p. 485
7 Hilberg. p. 492
8 Ibid., p. 496