By Erika Eckstut
My family came to Romania in 1931 from Znojmo in the Czech Republic when I was about three years old. My parents moved us to Stanesti, a town in the Romanian province of Bukovina where my paternal grandparents lived. My father told my grandfather that he wanted to take the whole family to Palestine and my grandfather said that it was a good idea but he would have to find someone who would take the cow, the horse, and the chickens. Father, unfortunately, could not find anyone. My family consisted of my mother, my father, and my older sister. A lawyer by profession, my father became the chief civil official of the town and we lived in the house assigned to him in that position.
In Stanesti, I attended public school as well as the Hebrew school, which my father helped to found. I enjoyed playing with the children in the town and in the school and I very much liked to be with my grandfather. In school I had very good grades. In the first grade I got all A’s with a star and then one day when I came home I saw the principal of the school coming to my father’s office. When I saw him, I told the girl who took care of us that I was going to go to my aunt’s and she said to be sure I was back for dinner and I said I would be. At dinnertime all seemed well and when dinner was over my father asked if I would bring the book we were reading. I brought the book and my father opened it and said that I should read it. I did a beautiful job. He closed the book and opened to a different page and I read it perfectly. These books had pictures at the tops of the pages. He turned to my mother and said that he could not understand what the principal was talking about. My father opened the book again and put his hand on a picture and then I could not read at all. What he had not realized before was that I had a photographic memory and had memorized the pages according to the pictures. My father wanted to know why I got all A’s on my report card and I told him I loved the teacher and the teacher loved me too. Then my father hired a teacher who taught me how to read and now I can read very well.
In the Hebrew school I also had a little problem. At the end of each year we put on a show. One year I had a long poem to memorize. My father was the one who quizzed me until I knew it by heart. At that time I went to see my grandfather and he wanted to know what took me so long to come and I said I had to learn the poem first.
My grandfather was very self-sufficient and did everything himself, from taking care of horses to making cherry wine. He would give me the cherries from the wine. He wanted to know when I had to recite the poem and he told me to come to him first and he would give me some cherries since I loved them so much. I did come and he gave me a little bowl and I ate them all.
When I recited the poem at the show I said the first few lines and then the last few lines. Then I started again from the beginning and everything went well. I could tell because the applause was outstanding. When I came down from the podium my father was standing there and he told me to breathe on him. Before I could breathe, my grandfather said that if my father had any questions he should come to him. They did not speak to each other for a whole week. Then all was well. I used to get a lot of lectures from my father as he did not agree with my grandfather a lot of the time.
My childhood was filled with hopes and dreams. In 1937 members of the Iron Guard tried to remove my father from his official position. Eventually a court cleared him of the charges and he was restored to his post.
In 1940 the Russians occupied Stanesti. At that time, Russian became the official language and we had to learn everything in Russian. I had difficulty learning but we were afraid of the Russians and we tried very hard to learn the language. The Russians were there for one year.
After they left, our life changed in a terrible way as that was when the pogroms began. Three men came to our house and asked us to go with them. When my father asked where we were going, they replied that he would see. We were taken to a large park outside the town and we saw that all the Jewish residents were there and in the middle was the rabbi and his two sons. They shot the rabbi and his sons and then killed almost all the other men. The last man to be killed was my uncle and as they had run out of ammunition they killed him by hand. I asked my father if I would also be killed and he said, “Please don’t cry.” All the children were crying, so how could I not?
Then the man told us that we would go to the courthouse. When we got there my father did not go in but stood outside and smoked. A man my father knew from our neighborhood came and said he would take my father home but my father would not leave without the family so the man said he would also take the family and my father’s parents and that is when we went home. When we arrived, the house was not the same as when we left it. The books in my father’s library were all torn and my grandmother and I started to cry and I must have cried a lot because I fell asleep and when I woke up it was morning.In the house were two men who wanted to take my father and my sister wanted to go with him. They did not want to take her but finally agreed to let her come along.
As they went, they realized that they were going the same way as the night before. My sister did not feel very well so my father said he wanted to take her back but the men replied that it was too late. When they were almost where they were the night before, a man in a grey suit came and said that my father did not belong there and sent him home.
When he returned home a little while later, the chief of police who held that post before the Russians told my father that he would take him and our family away from Stanesti. My father was told to bring whatever he could carry. My mother made two bundles with about three changes of clothing for each of us and when darkness came we were taken away. It was 15 kilometers from Stanesti to Czernowitz. It was a difficult walk for my father as he was not feeling well and had to walk with a cane, and for my grandmother who was elderly. Suddenly my father stopped walking and sat down on the ground. My mother and sister went to fetch some water. My grandparents started to cry and I tried to get my father to speak to me by hitting him on the chest. Then he motioned that he was alright. We finally arrived at Czernowitz and about a week later they set up a ghetto and we went there.
The ghetto was one of the worst places on earth. We had no food and we had to sleep on the floor. My grandparents were with us in the ghetto but in a different room. There were many people in the room that my parents, my sister, and I occupied. My father decided that all the children should be schooled, even though teaching was against the law. I was not a good student and paid no attention to my father who was trying to teach us. When he questioned me, I could not answer the first time or the second time. He said that I hurt his feelings because I did not have an answer to his question and I explained that I really did not pay any attention because the only thing on my mind was a piece of bread. I felt badly that I hurt my father because, although I was a tomboy, I adored him and wouldn’t purposely hurt him.
I decided to go out and look for food and so I took my ID card and the yellow star and left. I had blonde hair and blue eyes and spoke German so I was not afraid of being stopped. My father had a friend who was a Greek priest. I knew his name so I decided to go to the store where the priest and nuns went to purchase their food. When I came there I picked out what I thought we could use and when I went to pay I gave the priest’s name and they wrote down what I took. Then I left. When I returned to the ghetto, my mother fainted and my father wanted to know how I paid. I told him that I gave them the name of the priest and they gave me the food. My father wanted me to go to the priest and tell him what I had done and I went. The priest told me that I could come for food as often as I wanted but not to talk about it to anybody else. I did as he said. After about eight months I went out as usual and I saw a soldier on crutches beating a man. I went over to the soldier and started to give him one of the lectures that my father used to give me, asking him why he was beating a man who was doing nothing to him.
The soldier said the man was nothing but a dirty Jew. I asked him what difference did it make as the man was doing nothing to him. At that time, a policeman took my hand and said that we would go home. I could not take him to the ghetto because I knew my whole family would be killed. I took him to a house where a Christian lady was living. I rang the bell and when she started using the key to open the door, I said, “Mama.” When she opened the door, the policeman asked, “Is this your daughter, madam?” She ignored him and said to me, “I told you once, I told you twice: Home and homework.”
Then she started to hit me right and left in the face and I thought she would knock my head off, it hurt so bad. Like in a dream, I heard the policeman tell her to stop hitting me so that I could go in and do the homework and he left. She very slowly took me in the house. She wanted to know where I came from and I told her the ghetto. She said that I would have to go back there. I thanked her and left. When I came home I told my family what had happened and my father said I would not go out again.
©2008, Erika Eckstut. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this Web site are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.