In the summer of 1941, in his quest for lebensraum and his desire to annihilate the forces of Judeo-Bolshevism, an emboldened Hitler violated Germany’s 1939 pact with the Soviet Union and launched “Operation Barbarossa,” the invasion of Soviet territory. To secure the rear area, the SS intelligence service and the Security Police followed on the heels of the Wehrmacht and Axis troops. Part of the SS and police apparatus included the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units targeting Soviet officials, Roma, and above all, Jews.
Murderous actions against Jews did not start in the Soviet Union. But now mass killings would number in the tens of thousands. The most notorious of these massacres would be that which took place on Sept. 29-30, 1941, at Babi Yar, following the German invasion of Kiev 10 days earlier: The SS and Ukrainian auxiliaries shot 33,721 men, women and children in a ravine two miles northwest of the city.
Less well known is the first large-scale slaughter of innocents, which occurred a month earlier at Kamenets-Podolsk. Among the 23,600 Jews murdered in this Ukrainian city were my great-aunt Malcsi and my great-uncle Nachman, and their spouses—all in their 30s, and their children, all under the age of 8.
Less than a year earlier, Malcsi, her husband Mano, and their daughter and son moved from Brasov, in central Romania, to Sighet, in the northwest, the region that had recently been overtaken by Hungary. Born and bred in Sighet, Malcsi believed she and her family would be safe in the town where her mother and siblings still lived. Before it was too late, before the border between Hungary and Romania closed, Malcsi and Mano sold what they could, packed their belongings and left their cosmopolitan life.
Malcsi’s mother, my great-grandmother Chaya, heard from a bird pecking on her bedroom window that her loved ones were coming—proof that no border could separate her family. But it was the untenable situation in Romania that compelled Malcsi’s move. The fascist Marshal Ion Antonescu and the Iron Guard had come to power. Long-brewing anti-Semitism escalated—the Romanian government ordered boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses and that business-owners fire their Jewish employees. Mobs plundered Jewish stores, police arrested and tortured Jews, Iron Guard Greenshirts assaulted and killed Jews in the streets. Jews were forbidden to attend school or to participate in the country’s cultural life. Malsci and Mano fled, leaving behind their chocolate factory and elegant apartment.
October 1940 saw a happy family reunion in Sighet. Malcsi and Mano rented a sizable apartment near Chaya and Malcsi’s sister, Blima, their brother Nachman and their growing families. They brought with them never-before-seen gadgets that made life easier. Blima had only a wooden bowl and chopper, whereas Malsci had a meat grinder. Blima made stew; sophisticated Malcsi made hamburgers.
In June 1941, less than a year after Malcsi and her family’s arrival, as Antonescu contributed 585,000 soldiers for Hitler’s “Operation Barbarossa,” Hungary’s National Central Alien Control Office decided to “resettle” those Jews who could not prove continual Hungarian citizenship—for themselves and their ancestors—going back 90 years. On July 8, 1941, the lieutenant governor of the District of Máramaros, of which Sighet was the capital, promised Jews with unsettled status a “new life” in Galicia.
Having lived in Brasov, Malcsi could not prove that she had continually resided in Hungary. Nor could Nachman; like Malcsi, he was born in and grew up in Sighet. But when he was in his 20s, he had tried to make his way in Palestine. Unable to bear the climate, he returned, married and opened a butcher shop. He and his wife built a synagogue for their local community and had three little girls.
One July day, gendarmes ousted Malcsi and Nachman, and their families, from their homes. Among the several hundred “foreign” Jews thus rounded up and expelled from Sighet was Moshe the Beadle (the synagogue caretaker). Several months later, he returned and recounted what happened. No one believed him, not even Elie Wiesel, his devoted pupil. “They take me for a madman,” Moshe told the young Wiesel.
Freight trains brought 16,000 expelled Jews from Hungary and 7,000 from Poland to a camp in Kőrösmező on the Hungarian-Soviet border. From there, trucks transported 1,000 people a day to Kamenets-Podolsk. A few weeks later, the deportees were forced to march with the city’s indigenous Jews to a forested area with large craters created by munitions’ explosions. On Aug. 27 and Aug. 28, the Stabskompanie (staff company) of Friedrich August Jaeckeln, SS-Obergruppenführer (higher SS and police leader), assisted by Order Police Battalion 320, Einsatzgruppe C and Ukrainian auxiliaries, forced the Jews to undress and lie head-to-toe, “sardine-style,” in the massive pits. They shot each man, woman and child.
Investigators who later opened the pits found that 35 percent had been shot dead on the spot; the rest, wounded or not, had been buried alive. The perpetrators did not conceal their crime; local inhabitants saw the earth move up and down for days.
Moshe the Beadle took a bullet in his leg and lay still as the murderers finished their work.
As for Malsci and Nachman and their families, they likely reached Kamenets-Podolsk in late July; lived under inhuman conditions abated only slightly by the beneficence of local Jews who shared what meager food and shelter they had; then met their fate in late August, following the joint German-Hungarian meeting on Aug. 25, when the Nazis agreed to kill Hungary’s “alien” Jews by the month’s end. The other possibility: They were murdered on the way to Kamenets-Podolsk.
In Night, Elie Wiesel wrote, “The deportees were soon forgotten.” Days, weeks and months passed. “Life had returned to normal.”
Not for Chaya. Every night she cried herself to sleep. To console the bereft mother and grandmother, someone sent her letters, ostensibly from Nachman and Malcsi. These said that they had been resettled in Ukraine; they were well but could not write much. Chaya was not convinced. Nor could she believe Moshe the Beadle. How could the cultured Germans kill innocent human beings for no reason? How, in the 20th century, was this possible?
Bernice Lerner, author of “All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen,” is the former dean of adult learning at Hebrew College and a senior scholar at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility.