Erika Eckstut discusses the difficulties and dangers of life in the Czernowitz ghetto in what was then Romania (and today is western Ukraine). Erika was an adventurous teenager and her father went to great lengths to protect her and maintain her education.
ERIKA ECKSTUT: I said, “I didn’t pay attention.” He says, “Why didn’t you pay attention?” I said, “I'm dreaming of a piece of bread. If I would have a piece of bread, I would be very happy.”
NARRATOR: Over 60 years after the Holocaust, hatred, antisemitism, and genocide still threaten our world. The life stories of Holocaust survivors transcend the decades and remind us of the constant need to be vigilant citizens and to stop injustice, prejudice, and hatred wherever and whenever they occur.
This podcast series presents excerpts of interviews with Holocaust survivors from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s public program First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors.
In today’s episode Erika Eckstut talks with host Bill Benson about the difficulties and dangers of life in the Czernowitz ghetto.
BILL BENSON: Tell us what life was like for you in the ghetto.
ERIKA ECKSTUT: You know, whenever I speak, and it came to tell how was it in the ghetto, to tell you it was bad doesn’t mean nothing. It was worse than bad; I don’t have a word to use, what it was like. There was no food. There was nothing you can do. There was nothing you can eat.
It was just terrible. My father, who was so much for just the right way, you can’t take the law in your own hands, he decided that we have to learn something in the ghetto, because we didn’t have any food and we didn’t have what to do. There were professors, teachers, students—anybody could have taught us. We really didn’t know anything yet, and they started, and my father also taught us.
He told us about the French Revolution, which really didn’t interest me at all, and I didn’t pay attention. Whenever my father asked me, I never had an answer because I never paid attention. When my father was telling me that I hurt him very much by never knowing anything, I said, “I didn’t pay attention.” He says, “Why didn’t you pay attention?”
I said, “I’m dreaming of a piece of bread. If I would have a piece of bread, I would be very happy.” And my father said, “Aren’t the other children hungry too?” I said, “Maybe not as much as I am.”
BILL BENSON: Erika, so here, under those terrible conditions in the ghetto with no food, your father, who had founded the Hebrew school in your hometown, and others, were still concerned about making sure you got an education.
ERIKA ECKSTUT: Yes. That was the most important thing.
BILL BENSON: Being the “wild duck” that you were, though, you could not be constrained for long, so you began to make forays, or sneak out of the ghetto.
ERIKA ECKSTUT: I did.
BILL BENSON: Tell us about that.
ERIKA ECKSTUT: After my father told me that I hurt him very much, I really realized I did, and as you saw the thing I had, you know, the ID, and we wore the star on the coat. I took the star and I took the ID and I left it where I slept and I walked out. I wasn’t worried that anybody was going to stop me.
I was blonde (now I’m really very blonde), but I was really blonde, and I have blue eyes, and my mother’s tongue was German, so I said nothing can happen to me. I also heard my mother talk that my father had a friend when he was about seven or eight years old and the friend became a priest and I knew his name.
I forgot his name (I forgot a lot of names) but I knew it then and I went where they sold for nuns, for priests, and I took whatever I thought would be all right for us.
BILL BENSON: It was a store where they sold to priests and nuns?
ERIKA ECKSTUT: Yes, to priests and nuns. And when it came to pay, I said, “Father So-and-so is going to pay,” and they wrote it down and asked me, “Is that the right way?” I said, “Yes,” and they gave me the food and I went back. When I came in the ghetto, my mother fainted. I couldn’t see why she fainted, but she never thought she’d ever see me again.
My father wanted to know how did I pay for the food, and when I told him that I said his friend is going to pay, my father said, “Who told you I had a friend?” I said, “I heard mother talk about it; nobody told me.” My father said, “You know, you will have to go and tell him what you did.”
I said, “All right.” So the next day I had to go to the priest, and you know, the priest was not a priest. He was like an angel. He was so nice and when I told him what I did, he says, “You have to promise me now that you will never tell anybody how you do what you do, to nobody.”
I said, “My father knows.” He said, “Don’t worry about your father. Just promise you won’t talk to anybody,” and I did [promise], because I didn’t tell anybody what and how I did.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors, a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Every Wednesday at 1 p.m. from March through August, Holocaust survivors share their stories during First Person programs held at the Museum in Washington, DC. We would appreciate your feedback on this series.