The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.
Erna Rubin was born Erna Bendit in Cernauti, Romania (today Chernivtsi, Ukraine; German: Czernowitz), on February 26, 1927.
War Memories from Czernowitz and Transnistria
I met Rosa for the first time when she came to work for us as a trainee at my mother’s sewing workshop. She was short and plump but cute. She was a serious girl, about 14 years old, who worked hard and learned the trade of sewing fast and well.
I do not remember who came up with the idea that we learn a secret language of our own, but Rosa and I were dedicated to the project and we reached the ability to speak German backwards. For example, “Rosa” became “Asor,” and I, “Erna,” became “Anre,” and so on for many other words in German. We were speaking fluently to such a degree that the listener was sure we were talking some kind of foreign language.
One evening we left the public garden on our way home. It was a wonderful summer night in Czernowitz before the war, despite the threatening black clouds that already hovered over our heads and threatened to destroy the blue sky.
We talked freely in our secret language about this and that. Suddenly a young man walking next to us asked, “What language are you speaking? Hungarian it is not... It’s also not Hebrew... Then what is it?” We continued to talk in our secret language, even about the guy who was walking by. After a while, when the young man realized that we were not communicative, he left.
The war erupted, as everyone knows, and our childhood and youth suffered greatly from it. In 1940 the Russians arrived in Czernowitz. But the disaster began when the Romanians were back in 1941 and large posters on the walls cried out, “Ghetto in October.” Indeed, we were evacuated from our home in October.
After three weeks in the ghetto of Czernowitz, we were sent to the camps in Transnistria for three terrible years of poverty, hunger, typhus, and fear for the future. We had hope in our hearts and only that kept us alive.
From six in the morning until six in the evening—this time was allocated to us to evacuate our apartments from the center of Czernowitz to the ghetto of Czernowitz. A part of the city where my mother’s sister, Aunt Frieda, lived was declared a ghetto.
That entire day we carried everything we could take. The streets leading up to the ghetto were flooded with people laden with whatever they could carry, bundled into pillowcases and sheets.
The Jews of Czernowitz abandoned their beds, tables, and homes. Aunt Frieda’s apartment became a temporary crowded shelter. The yard of Aunt Frieda’s neighbors was also crowded with relatives, and the ghetto was humming with people coming and going.
As we were ordered, at six we crossed the temporary border separating the city from the ghetto. All latecomers were punished.
The ghetto was a temporary arrangement until the final deportation from the city to the concentration camp in Transnistria, which was under Romanian control.
Throughout the month of October 1941, we were given new instructions each time that a particular street should be evacuated to the camps in Transnistria on a certain date. In order to avoid deportation, we moved to other streets that had not been yet scheduled for evacuation.
Aunt Frieda, her husband David, and their son, Ziggy, were evacuated. We still stayed but we knew that our turn would also come soon. Aunt Frieda’s flat became deserted.
Mom bought two liters of milk and boiled them in a large pot on the stove. Being in the camps later, suffering from starvation, the memory of the hot milk accompanied us with longing.
Our time to be evacuated also came, and Uncle Herman, Mother’s brother, his wife, Aunt Anna, and their son, Didi, planned to go a day before because Uncle Herman wanted to go along with his friends. But in the end, the friends left alone while Uncle Herman and his family traveled the day after with us. This was because Mom was not yet ready to go, and Uncle Herman eventually chose to stay with the family. At the time he was angry with my mother and blamed her that because of her he did not go with his friends.
But Uncle Herman’s friends were not as lucky as we were because they had been sent beyond the Bug River. During the Holocaust, the area between the Dniester and the Bug rivers was called Transnistria, and those who were sent beyond the Bug River were killed.
In Transnistria we had hard times and lived from hand to mouth according to what we sold to the villagers—a dress for a loaf of bread, a shirt for flour or potatoes. Mom was calculating and she said, “If we eat more now we will not survive.” There were in fact those who sold all their assets and lived in relative comfort for a short period and when they had nothing left, they died of starvation.
And so we survived two and a half horrible years until the Russians arrived and saved our lives. In April 1944 we went home, or rather walked 100 kilometers on foot. It was a few months after I had recovered from typhus and I was still very weak and lacking energy. Because of me, we were not able to walk more than 14 or 15 kilometers per day. We slept in abandoned houses during the night and the next day set off again.
The second 100 kilometers we traveled by train, but alas—Russian soldiers took us often off the train without any explanation.
Finally, on May 10, 1944, we crossed a bridge over the Pruth River and entered Czernowitz. We met a mother waiting anxiously for her daughter to come back from the camps and she tried to find out from the people returning if they had seen or heard of her daughter. We could inform her delightedly that her daughter was alive and well and was on her way home. Then I also met Rosa and her family. Even though it had been three years, she said something in our secret language and Rosa’s mother laughed and said, “Girls, after all that you went through you have not forgotten your secret language!”
I don’t have good memories of the Russians because when we returned to Czernowitz after the war, I had to hide for 11 months, close to home, since they would capture young Jews on the streets and send them to Donbass, a remote place in Russia, for slave labor in coal mines. And yet I must acknowledge the fact that the Russians saved our lives.
After the war, on many occasions later in his life, Uncle Herman would say to my mother, “You see, Yetti, thanks to you we are alive today!”