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THE AUTOBOIGRAPHY OF DR. EMANUEL MERDINGER
Former Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry at the
University of Florida
I first met Dr. Emanuel Merdinger when a mutual friend asked me to give him a ride so
he could visit his wife in a nursing home in Gainesville, Florida. It was a day of very heavy rain
in the spring of 1997. When I got to his house I found a frail, blind, stooped over man who still
displayed an inquisitive, rich and active mind. He asked me many questions about my life and
children, and remembered details of them. Later, when we were in his wife's room at the nursing
home, he recounted their ages and names for her. I thought this was quite a mental feat for a
holocaust survivor who was in his nineties.
Since that first day I have spent many hours with him, talking about his experiences. I
told him that he was living history, much more interesting than written history. I know that Dr.
Merdinger has had a burden to see his story be published both for historical record and to warn
and elighten those who will follow. When I first heard him tell about his manuscript I enquired
about it and was shown a lone copy, partially edited, on paper only, with no computer disk
backup. This worried me because if this one copy were somehow lost, it could never be
rewritten, since Dr. Merdinger was so frail. I volunteered my time to help get the manuscript
edited and stored on disc.
As I write this, he is in North Florida Regional Hospital suffering from congestive heart
failure. I believe he will not endure much longer. He has said on several occasions how
meaningful it is to him to know that his story will at last be told. Now his story is ready to be
shared with any who will listen.
For the Merdingers,
Dr. Craig Hend rson
510 B. S.W. 5th Terr.
Williston, Fl. 32696
SPROUTING IN THE BUKOWINA GARDEN
My earliest recollection goes back to the time when I was
about three years old. I vividly remember the basement apartment
we lived in and the small courtyard paved with flagstones where I
used to play. The courtyard was surrounded by a stone wall, on
the top of which was cemented a tall iron-bar fence.
In the same building in a one-room apartment near ours lived
a nice elderly lady. Her name was Rosie, and she used to invite
me in occasionally and give me a small lump of sugar, which I
clearly remember liking very much. Occasionally I would enter
her apartment uninvited if the door was open.
One day in her apartment I saw her drinking something from a
small glass, and I asked her to give me some too. She tried to
discourage me by saying that it was not good, that it was
schnapps and not for small children. However I insisted, and she
finally gave in and let me drain the remaining few droplets from
the small glass. It was sweet liqueur, and I liked it. The
following day, while I was playing in the yard, I remembered the
sweet schnapps, but Rosie's solid wooden door was closed. When
Rosie's door remained closed for what seemed to me too long a
time, I went to the door and banged on it with my small fists,
and when there was no answer, I kicked with my heels. Either
Rosie did not hear or she did not want to answer. I called,
"Rosie, open the door," so loud I knew she heard me. Finally I
had a brilliant idea. I shouted, "Rosie, open or I will pee on
your door." This threat did wonders. I immediately heard
Rosie's voice, "Nein, nein, Mendele," (my nickname) "do not pee
on my door, I am opening right away." Not only did Rosie open
the door, but I persuaded her to give me a little of her sweet
When Rosie told the story of my strategy to my parents, they
had a good laugh and were proud of their son's resourcefulness
and inventiveness. My mother told the story over and over again
to family and friends. This is why I remember it so well. This
was my first experience with alcohol, a product of fermentation.
Little did I or my family dream how fermentation processes would
bubble throughout my life.
It was not alcohol nor was it schnapps that provided my
first experience, an unforgettable, beautiful experience in a
"Come, Mendele, come, let's go for a walk," said Galina, the
wet nurse for my baby sister, as she left for a shopping errand
in the center of town.
An obedient boy of four and a half years, I trotted along.
We passed a town tavern from which spilled out the sweetest
sounds imaginable. Against her will I pulled Galina inside so
that I might see the source of the heavenly music. I was
enthralled to see and hear a pink-faced man playing a violin, the
first I ever heard. Enraptured, I listened with body, mind and
soul. Though I wanted to linger on among the drinking men in the
tavern, just to absorb the music, Galina pulled at me, with
obvious circumspection, until we stepped out on the sidewalk and
walked out of hearing.
That crying, singing instrument made such an impression on
me that I kept on talking about it to my parents and asking them
to buy me a violin. In my imagination I could immediately play
the violin without difficulties. My father would certainly have
bought me one if only he had had the money. He comforted me by
saying that if he would win in the lottery he would buy me one.
Austria had a state lottery, which my father would play when he
dreamed of some numbers and thought they would bring him luck.
He never won and never bought me a violin.
I liked music and singing. In spite of the poverty in which
we lived, my mother used to sing occasionally for her youngest
child when she nursed, and I was delighted. She seemed never
inclined to sing when I requested it, but she sang spontaneously
when in the right mood.
I soon discovered that I myself could sing, and I sought
opportunities to sing with others. The first great one came when
I entered the first grade of grammar school. A teacher, Herr
Lehrer Traber, used to come into our classroom with a violin and
play Austrian songs. The children sang to his accompaniment, and
nobody was so happy and thrilled as I during these singing
periods. We moved into a less expensive apartment when I was
about eight. One of our new neighbors was Abraham Lehrer, older
than I by two years. He and his older brother were choir boys in
the biggest temple in my hometown. Abraham's brother died very
young, because of malnutrition, I think, and Abraham and I became
very much attached to each other.
The happiest hours in my childhood were spent with Abraham,
and we sang a lot. Because of his experience as a choir boy he
could sing an alto voice to any song he heard. The resulting
harmony was delightful to my soul. I studied Abraham's technique
with the alto voice, began to try it myself, and little by little
I became adept at arranging an alto voice for all our songs. We
both were happy when several other boys joined our choir.
Abraham assigned me the alto part. To make the choir richer he
himself began to sing bass. I think his shift to bass accounts
for his later becoming a baritone cantor.
We sang on the streets, we sang inside the house, we sang
during our daily walks, we sang everywhere. We sang the same
songs again and again and grabbed new melodies as fast as they
were created. Upon Abraham's recommendation the cantor of the
temple, Deutsch, gave me a practical examination, on the basis of
which he made me also a choir boy. I must have participated in
the choir for about a year before World War I broke out and our
cantor went away to Vienna.
The war interrupted also our private singing at home for a
while because of the tension and fear of the grownups. Little by
little we got used to the idea that Austria was at war; we began
to sing patriotic songs, which deeply pleased my father. He went
to the store, bought candies, and distributed them among us young
patriots as a reward.
The Bukowina (Buchenland), where I spent my first 23 years
is one of the most beautiful and blessed provinces in all Europe.
A little smaller than the state of Connecticut, it extends over
and beyond the east side of the Carpathian Mountains, which
contribute to its moderate climate. It has thermal and mineral
springs and is known throughout Europe for its many health
The Bukowina was ceded to Austria by Turkey in 1775 and
remained under Austrian rule for about 170 years. At the end of
World War I in 1918 it was given to Romania. Austria peopled the
Bukowina over the decades with all sort of citizens -- Jews,
Germans, Czechs, and other nationalities. Austria spent heart,
love and money to the hilt in the Bukowina although taxes and
products obtained from there amounted to much less. Until 1910
the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy had only a small number of
universities, one of which was in Czernowitz, the capital of the
Czernowitz used to be called "Klein Wien" or Little Vienna,
because it was a miniature of Vienna in many respects, including
art, music, organization and education. The Emperor Franz Josef
I (Francis Josef I) was fond and proud of the Bukowina, and the
Bukowinaer loved and revered their Kaiser. To this day the
Bukowinaer are deeply moved just by hearing his name. In these
feelings of affection and adoration for Austria and its Kaiser,
the Jews ranked first because of the freedom they enjoyed under
The Bukowina was inhabited by several ethnic groups,
including Germans, Romanians, Jews, Ukrainians, Poles and a
sprinkling of Hungarians. The rural areas were mostly inhabited
by Romanians and the cities by Germans, Jews and other
All minorities lived in harmony in the Austrian monarchy,
and the Bukowina was a true melting pot of nationalities. The
inhabitants were diligent and contributed to progress in all
phases of life. They pursued education assiduously. The
Bukowina enjoyed a fine reputation and wide respect and
recognition. It was the garden spot, the gem of the nation.
Every Bukowinaer, from the poorest to the richest, was proud to
be a Bukowinaer.
I was born in 1906, the second of six children in Suczawa,
later Suceava, Bukowina. My ancestors had lived through many
generations in this splendid and glorious town. All my relatives
who served in the Austrian army felt proud to have served under
Kaiser Franz Josef.
From 1918 to 1940 and again from 1941 to 1944 the Bukowina
was a province of Romania. In 1940 to 1941 and 1944 the Russians
occupied and unlawfully retained the northern part of this
province, the heart of which was Czernowitz, later Cernauti, and
While the Bukowina was under Austria, the Romanians cried
over the loss of this territory. Nobody has described better the
beauty of the Bukowina than the greatest Romanian lyricist Mihai
Eminescu, who lived and studied for a while in Czernowitz at the
turn of the nineteenth century. Today the Romanians mourn the
occupation of this choice spot by Russian and sigh with regret
that little Romania is helpless alongside mighty Russia.
Suczawa was the southeastern-most city of the Austrian
empire. It was about four kilometers west of the small town
Itzkany, which was the border town on the Austrian side, as was
Burdujeni in Romania, the two towns separated by a strip of
no-man's-land only 100 meters long. The Austrians and Romanians
had their customs buildings in the respective towns. Burdujeni
proper was three and a half kilometers from the Romanian customs
building. Many commercial transactions between the two countries
took place at the point of contact between Itzkany and Burdujeni.
When World Was I broke out, I was eight years old. Austria
needed grain and bought a lot of it from Romania, which sold the
grain freely because Romania was neutral until 1916. Then it
declared was against Austria and Germany. Romania's entering the
war against these two countries was a surprise because King
Ferdinand of Romania was of the German royal family Hohenzollern.
Be that as it may, until Romania joined the war, business was
booming between these two countries. My father was involved in
the transfer of grain from Romania to Austria and was well known
by the Romanian customs officers.
In 1914 during my summer vacation my father took me along to
the border town, and I enjoyed observing people working,
unloading and loading sacks of grain, and I had fun jumping over
them. Scarcity of food after the outbreak of the war began to be
felt by the Austrians, including our family. My parents thought
of a way of supplying us with food by involving me. They knew
that cigarette lighters were scarce in Romania but abundant in
Austria. My father made some contacts while working in
Itzkany-Burdujeni, and soon I became his active agent.
My mother bought some cigarette lighters and put them into
my pants pockets and away I went with my father. On the way to
Itzkany he instructed me how to cross into Romania and from there
to walk to Burdujeni to the home of an acquaintance of my
parents. When we got to Itzkany, I followed his instructions to
the letter. While my father and his helpers were busy unloading
and loading the merchandise in the strip of no-man's-land and
everybody was busy counting and weighing the sacks of grain, I
crossed the lowered separating barrier by ducking under.
Uneventfully I arrived in Burdujeni and went to the house of the
family my parents knew. The lady took the lighters out of my
pockets and told me to wait until she returned. After a while
she came back with a killed chicken, which she then cut up,
spread on a long piece of cloth, and after turning and folding
the cloth a couple of times she wrapped and tied it around my
waist, and I was on my way to join my father.
When I came to the beam, which was high up because of
passing vehicles, I crossed the line walking as inconspicuously
as possible and joined my father, who hardly took notice of me.
When we got home in the evening, I gave a detailed report to my
mother while she unwrapped the chicken. My mother was satisfied
with the international adventure, and the nicest thing was that
my mother got busy washing the chicken and preparing it to be
This exchange of packages between my mother and the lady in
Burdujeni was not on a regular basis, but only when there was
need. Sometimes the exchange commodity was beef. This was cut
in thin layers, wrapped, and concealed near the bottom of the
lining of my heavy overcoat. I fulfilled my task unaware of the
danger involved. The childlike trust I had was to know that my
father was close by to rescue me should I be stopped by a
Romanian officer. The Austrian officers could not have cared
less what I did. Everything went smoothly, and I did this job
all year round as needed.
Then came the year 1916. The Austrians were not doing so
well. They needed men. My father was drafted, but he worked up
to the last minute. A couple of days before he left, we went to
Itzkany, and I, loaded with cigarette lighters, went on alone to
Burdujeni, on what should have been my last expedition. But when
I came to the lady in Burdujeni, she told me that I must come
once more because there was a very sick woman who wanted a
talisman blessed by the rabbi in Suczawa. She gave me money for
the rabbi to use for this service.
In the old country there were two types of rabbis. One
studied at universities and afterwards had very respectable and
well paying jobs. The other, the so-called Wunderrabbiner,
wonder-rabbi, learned only in Hebrew, did not go to public
schools and therefore had no formal education. The title rabbi
was inherited by the oldest son after the death of the father.
The unschooled son would immediately begin to perform religious
services, pray for and bless his congregation, who would accept
the new rabbi without hesitation. The superstitious population
would turn to the wonder-rabbi in any distress, as when business
would go bad, sickness would strike, or marriages would break up,
and ask him to bless them, since in the mind of the
blessing-seekers he was close to God and could talk to him. The
wonder-rabbi was usually paid for these blessings according to
the ability of the person, although often he would do it without
If the wonder-rabbi was a smart man, and often he was, in
interviewing the persons in distress he could find out the causes
of their troubles, and would give them sound advice and
blessings, and many would be helped. Depending on the wisdom of
the rabbi's advice, his reputation would spread, and he would
become famous. Many rabbis became also wealthy, and with wealth,
like everywhere else in the world, they gained influence and
respect. Occasionally gentiles would also seek his advice.
Although not wealthy, but a man of God, the wonder-rabbi in
Suczawa was widely respected. The same day I was given that task
to go to the rabbi for the blessings for the sick woman, my
father left for the army. I was somewhat fearful of going to
Burdujeni knowing that my father was not nearby, for I was only
nine and a half years old. My mother insisted that I go to the
rabbi because a sick woman was involved. To give me courage she
told me to ask the rabbi to bless me so that I could not be
caught by the Romanian customs officers. As usual she persuaded
The next morning I went to the rabbi and was received
immediately. Although I knew him by sight, I was scared when I
saw him so close. I told him the whole story and gave him the
money. First he asked me whether I had had breakfast. Although
I had not, I said, "Yes." My pride would not allow me to accept
a free breakfast. Then he got up, took a cane in his hand, which
people said was his late mother's cane, walked toward the corner
of the room, and began to pray, holding a coin in his other hand.
After he finished his prayer, he gave me the coin to take to that
sick woman, and before I left he put his hand on my head and
After I reported everything to my mother, she put the
cigarette lighters into my pockets and I started out. When I
crossed the barrier in Burdujeni, a Romanian customs officer
became suspicious of me because my father was not there or
perhaps he knew that my father had been drafted. The officer
ordered a man to follow me. I pretended to go to an outside
latrine, hoping that he would give up. When I came out, he was
there and came straight toward me asking me to come to the
customs office with him. The officer searched me and found the
cigarette lighters. I was scared stiff and pretended not to
understand anything they asked me. Then I began to cry. Maybe
the officer thought that he might be accused of badly scaring a
child. Anyway, he put the cigarette lighters back into my
pockets, told me never to show up again, and let me go.
Had I come home without the lighters, it would have been the
end of our world because my mother could not afford such a
financial loss. Scared to death, I told my mother the story
after returning home, but there was no need to tell her that I
would never again go to Burdujeni. I was even scared to look in
that direction. All this happened in spite of the blessings I
had received from the rabbi. Of course the sick person in
Burdujeni never received the talisman the rabbi gave me for her.
I myself carried that blessed coin in my pocket for a long time.
One day I climbed a small mountain near Suczawa, took that coin
from my pocket, and threw it as far as I could, trying to forget
my encounter with the Romanian customs.
In 1916 my father was drafted into the army. We were all
surprised that my father passed the physical examination because
a couple of weeks earlier a wooden box had fallen on his right
leg, which became badly swollen. He limped and used a cane to
reduce his pain on his walk to take his physical examination. My
mother and I accompanied him. When he came out and told my
mother that he was declared fit for military service, my mother
began to cry aloud on the streets. My mother's loud crying made
me feel ashamed.
We were by then five children, and my mother was pregnant
with the sixth. She did not want to have any more children and
as far as I can remember and could understand she tried
everything a midwife told her to do to bring about an abortion,
but it did no good and she resigned herself to reality.
As long as my mother received a government subsidy, we got
by. Soon, however, the Russians occupied the Bukowina, we were
shut off from the outside world, and no subsidy from the Austrian
government could get to us. It was a hard and trying time and
lasted for nearly two years.
At the age of ten I felt I had to do something to contribute
to the support of the family. There was a large number of
Russian soldiers and Russian administrative personnel in our
town. One enterprising Russian soldier ordered Russian
newspapers from Kiev, and youths participated in selling them to
make a small profit. I was one of them. Although I did not make
much by selling papers, my effort encouraged my mother and
stimulated my family to appreciate whatever we had.
I knew that selling newspapers was a demeaning occupation,
but young as I was I did not care what people might think.
However, ten years later I found out that the knowledge of my
selling newspapers had traveled one hundred kilometers from
Suczawa to Czernowitz. One day I had a dispute with a classmate
in front of the gymnasium in Czernowitz. Both of us tried to
offend the other, the more the better. I appeared to have the
upper hand until my classmate retorted, "I cannot be offended by
one who sold newspapers."
I could not answer that. I was beaten! His parents made a
living by selling alcoholic drinks to hoodlums, hobos and
peasants. This was honorable work; selling papers was not.
While in the U.S. newspaper boys are honored, in Europe they are
deemed to be discredited by the menial task.
My older sister Clara was very enterprising at her young
age. She induced my mother to rent a small stand in the park and
use it to resell all kinds of fruits brought in and sold by
farmers from the nearby villages. For a time my mother and Clara
started a Konditorei [pastry shop], which involved almost
eighteen hours of work daily. By such enterprising efforts my
mother managed to pull us through until the revolution broke out
In early spring of 1918 the Russians retreated, opening the
way for the Austrians to reoccupy their land. What a celebration
the whole town enjoyed! How the people celebrated the return of
the Austrians. These included our father, who was dismissed from
the service because of age; he was fifty.
During his two years in the military he was wounded in the
head. While hospitalized, his head pains were so unbearable that
he hit his head with his fists to dull the pain the wound caused.
To prevent this he had to be put into a straitjacket.
The war ended with the defeat of Austria. This nation, my
native land, was mutilated by the Entente, and the Bukowina was
given to Romania. Life became much harder.1
The new rulers did not give my father the pension he would
have received from Austria had the war not been lost. My
father's earnings were very small. Then my mother decided to
1 It should be emphasized that this account does not deal
with Romania of the 1970's and that whatever I shall say does not
reflect at all on today's government.
pitch in again, to help feed six mouths, by opening a sort of
restaurant. She prepared food in quantity, and customers took
away family-sized batches to serve and eat at their own homes.
As mentioned before, my father's earning were lean, and
leaner yet were those of my mother. Though we were assured of
one relatively good meal daily, the other meals were mainly corn
mush with milk, butter, or chicken fat. We children did not mind
that. The bad part was that we could not take corn mush to
school for lunch. I once took a piece of corn mush, which I had
roasted on the stove, to school, and kept it in my pocket in
order not to be seen by others. At lunch time I broke up pieces
in my pocket and put them into my mouth. The fear of being
caught with corn mush, plus the horrible taste, induced me not to
repeat this experiment.
We were too proud to acknowledge our poverty. It was a
shame to be poor. Our father taught us pride, ambition, honor
and love for our country from the day of our birth. After the
war our clothes were in pitiful condition. When the school
teacher offered clothes which were sent by the American Joint
Committee to needy pupils, my sister Clara, who was two years
older than I, answered, "No, thanks. We have plenty and don't
need such clothes. Give them to the poor." My father was very
proud of her. We did not want anybody's pity.
GROWING AMONG WEEDS OF POVERTY
Before the ceding of the Bukowina, I was put into an
accelerated class because I had lost two years of school due to
the occupation by the Russians. The Russians had not allowed the
opening of schools; besides all teachers fled when it became
obvious that the Russians had broken through the Austrian front
line. The time of occupation of the Bukowina was called the
"Russenzeit," the time of the Russians.
Although I passed my fourth grade of grammar school with
only mediocre grades, I passed the entrance examination to
gymnasium, which was very hard, with flying colors. I did so
well in the written part that I was excused from the oral. This
spurred my parents not to discourage me from going to the
gymnasium, even though they needed my earnings. Until then my
parents had envisioned my future in a metal-working shop.
Suddenly my father was genuinely proud that one child of his
might get through gymnasium. In Austria and elsewhere in Europe,
four years of grammar school were mildly compulsory, eight more
years was a privilege, attained by only the rich and highly
My sweet and unforgettable friend Abraham Lehrer, whose
father had died when he was very small, could not think of
attending the gymnasium because his mother could not afford it.
He entered the traditional Austrian apprenticeship in a tailor
We were separated partly by our different interests and
partly by a gap in social standing that began to widen in spite
of our friendship. During the first year of gymnasium I saw him
scarcely at all. However, during my first vacation after the
first year we saw each other more and more during the evenings
after he left his workshop. One of our finest enjoyments still
remained singing. Some other boys joined us.
Following Austrian tradition, we began to serenade girls at
11 to 12 p.m. We were pleased when the serenaded girl came to
the window and lit a match, which was her thank-you. As in the
past, Abraham was the choir leader.
As we continued with our routine, I in gymnasium, Lehrer at
his workshop, we saw each other occasionally in the evening.
Together with new members of our group, our not-for-profit,
just-for-fun choir sang our troubles, sorrows and shortcomings
away. We became known as serenaders, and the girls of the town
were jealous of those known to have been serenaded.
Occasionally it happened that Lehrer set the key of the
songs a little too high and we could not make it to the end.
When that happened we had to break it up and run away, and the
poor girl was shamed to the toes because we did not finish the
serenade. None of the boys had any schooling in music.
Sometimes the harder Lehrer tried to set the right key of the
song, the more it turned out to be wrong. But we took it in
stride because none of us knew any better.
One day, by chance, something happened that turned the whole
choir upside down. On the street I found a tuning fork. In the
past I had seen one, but did not know how to use it. My
inquisitive mind worked hard, and after a few days of
experimenting with the tuning fork not only did I know how to
operate it, but I learned at what key to set most of the songs we
sang to avoid a premature ending.
When the boys, including Lehrer, saw me with the tuning fork
and heard me set every song at a range suitable to our voices,
they rejoiced. Tacitly I became the leader of the choir and
therefore of Lehrer. That was a victory that I did not seek nor
dream of, but it made me feel good. I was proud of having
figured out by myself the secret of the tuning fork, and of using
it to improve my standing among my singing peers. Lehrer did not
resent my displacing him, and he stayed on in the choir.
I was seventeen years old when I met an older youth on the
street who told me that he was leaving town and would like to
sell his violin cheaply. I understood that it was very
inexpensive and went straight home and told my mother. She knew
how much I would enjoy trying to play. When I told her the
price, she went to the dresser where she kept her money and gave
me the necessary amount without saying a word. To this day I
believe that she was left almost penniless. I repaid that sum
thousands of times later on, but her gesture to give me almost
all she had will always be unforgettable.
My parents had no savings but lived from day to day. Social
differences in those days weighed heavily upon me. The rich
would not mingle with the poor; even the educated poor were not
fully accepted by the rich. In order to become fully accepted by
the rich I would have had to break with my dearest friends and
become snobbish. I could not and would not do such a thing
because it would mean snubbing my own family. There was one such
case in my home town that filled me with disgust at the
perpetrator. Still I wanted to belong, to mingle, and to have
fun as the others did.
There was a recently formed student fraternity which
received a great deal of attention from the so-called
honoratiores of the town. For a long time I thought of trying to
join them, but would they accept me? I told one of them that I
wished to join them. He advised me to make an application, and I
did. I was bitterly hurt when they decided to give me a
hospitium, i.e., a trial period of four weeks in which they might
observe me. In fact this meant that they would not say "yes" but
could not say "no" either. At that time I did not realize the
humiliation associated with the hospitium. The four weeks passed
and I became a member. Little by little it dawned on me that I
was not one of them, but I thought I should try a little longer.
In Europe, especially in small towns, it was customary to go
for a walk [Spaziergang] on Saturday afternoons, on beautiful and
warm days, about the center of town. The sidewalks were packed
with Spaziergaengern. These walks in the center of town
[Hauptstrasse] lasted three to four hours. One Saturday
afternoon I went there looking for some fraternity brother with
whom to take the usual walk when I ran into Abraham Lehrer. I
had not seen him for quite some time, and we began strolling up
and down the Hauptstrasse.
We encountered mostly friends, with and without girls, and
the custom was to lift one's hat in respect to the girl even if
she was not known. On this particular Saturday afternoon I met a
fraternity brother whom I shall call K., accompanied by a girl,
and I lifted my hat as did Lehrer, according to the etiquette
After a few hours of walking I went home to study for the
following week. Half an hour later one of my fraternity brothers
came to tell me that I must come immediately to the headquarters
[Bude] of the fraternity. I was puzzled. What could be the
cause of such an emergency?
When I arrived there, the first person I saw was the
fraternity brother, K., whom I had met on the sidewalk with a
girl, and whom Lehrer and I had greeted with deference. K. was
red in the face and boiling mad. According to the fraternity
constitution, he required that I appear before a fraternity court
consisting of about five to six fraternity brothers. The ages of
the students forming the court ranged from 15 to 19. K. was the
accuser. He asked, "How did you dare to greet me in the presence
of a girl when you were in the company of a lousy tailor's
apprentice?" I was shocked but had no answer, for he himself
should have realized that his own father was not so long ago a
waiter. Later on his father was able to buy a restaurant, which
was a failure. Anyway, waiters did not rank high in the
hierarchy of that society.
The verdict of the juvenile court was that "should I be seen
once more in the presence of that tailor's apprentice I would be
dismissed from that fraternity in disgrace [chassiert]." The
humiliation and shame to which K. and the juvenile court
subjected me that Saturday afternoon made me realize that
actually I had never been a part of them. My heart ached, my
soul cried, and in my misery I tried to figure out a way to give
them an answer becoming to a person of honor, pride, and dignity.
When I left the fraternity house, I went straight to Lehrer and
asked him to come with me for a walk again. He gladly complied,
and the first person who saw us was the accuser K., in the
company of one of the judges of the fraternity court. My answer
to the fraternity was unmistakably clear. Because K. and the
rest had disgraced themselves, I ignored and defied them.
To date, in thinking of that incident, I am happy to have
shown that loyalty, pride, honor and dignity were not the
exclusive qualities of the rich. I never told Lehrer about that
infamous Saturday afternoon at the fraternity; neither did he
ever hear about it from anybody else. Even my own family never
knew. My proud and blitz-like response to the fraternity may
have caused them to realize how foolish and unjustly they acted,
though never a syllable has been mentioned to me to this day.
About the time of the incident of that Saturday afternoon,
K. courted a girl I shall call S., a classmate of mine. We boys
thought that S. was very beautiful, and everybody was in love
with her. It seemed to us young men that a marriage would result
from this romance. Fate wanted it otherwise. Upon insistence of
S.'s parents the romance as broken. The reason, as it circulated
in town and among us, was that K.'s parents were not up to par in
their social standing. The beauty's father was a wealthy and
very successful lawyer.
Just a few paragraphs will bring their stories up to date.
When I was a student at the University of Czernowitz, studying
sciences, K. studied law and we became good friends. K. never
finished his law studies but continued to make a living as a
fiddler-on-the-roof musician. He played the violin in
restaurants, at weddings, for bar mitzvahs, and the like, for a
time in Czernowitz and later after World War II, in Israel, where
he died several years ago.
In 1970 circumstances warranted my description of the K.
incident in an article in a German newspaper in Basel,
Switzerland. I made a copy of the published article and sent it
to S., who is married to an engineer in Bucharest. S.
acknowledged receipt of my article and reacted to it in a few
words, "I did not know that K. had blue blood in his veins."
While I was an Exchange Scientist of the National Academy of
Sciences to the Romanian Academy of Sciences in Bucharest in
1971-'72, S. and her husband and my wife and I saw each other
often. S. is still the democratic person she was as a girl. She
would have married the person she loved regardless of his social
standing. Nevertheless, one must not underestimate the power and
influence of parents on their children, especially parents of
half a century ago.
S. lived up to her democratic nature when her single child,
a daughter with a professional engineering degree, fell in love
with and married an Italian craftsman and left for Italy. S.
continues to be the charmer she always was. My wife, an
American-born Georgia peach, and S. got along beautifully.
Now let us return to the scene of my boyhood. Lehrer was a
very courageous boy, and my endeavor to follow his footsteps
nearly cost me my life. One of the great free pleasures shared
by rich and poor in my home town during the summer was swimming
in the nearby river Suczawa. Swimming places were separated for
men and women. Men swam nude and enjoyed refreshing exercises in
cool, clean water.
One day a group of striplings, including Lehrer and me, was
gathered in a choice spot at the river. Suddenly we saw a head
sticking out of the water trying to call for help but quickly
disappearing. The daring Nathan Strominger had gone too far into
deep water and could not swim. We were all paralyzed by fear.
No grown person was near to rescue the drowning Nathan. It
was noble, sweet Abraham Lehrer, half the size of Nathan, who
jumped into the water and rescued him, endangering his own life.
The irony of fate was that one of the judges of the fraternity
court that had condemned me for my friendship with Lehrer was
Nathan Strominger, whom Lehrer rescued from certain death. But
Lehrer remained the hero among our group. In the years that
followed, Lehrer did not mention even once, as far as I know,
that episode which could have had a tragic end without his brave
In his twenties Lehrer moved to Czernowitz, and thanks to
his beautiful voice he became a cantor in one of the many temples
Lehrer's courage had a deep and lasting influence on me, and
in trying to follow his example I was almost drowned. Two months
after the drowning accident with Strominger our crowd again
enjoyed a day at the river, jumping from a high point of the bank
into the water and swimming. A springboard belonged in the land
of fairy tales.
Suddenly a tall older boy by the name of Zettel maliciously
pushed a classmate of mine, Mikusch, into the river. Like me,
Mikusch was ten years old, but he could not swim. He surfaced
once and sank again. The scoundrel Zettel, who was a good
swimmer, did not move to help him.
Seeing that, I jumped into the water, found Mikusch, and
grabbed him to swim with him to the shore. But as soon as
Mikusch felt me near him, he grabbed me around my neck and made
swimming impossible. I tried to loosen his grip by choking him,
but everything was in vain. I simply could not get my hands free
Because of Mikusch's weight on me I was on the bottom of the
river and instinctively walked toward the shore. I began to
drink water and thought my end had come. During my walk with
Mikusch's arms and body around me and my neck in the vise of his
hands, I reached shallow water. When Mikusch's head was just
above water, Zettel came and took him away from me. Free now, I
swam ashore with my last breath and strength.
When I saw Mikusch sitting in the shallow water recovering I
walked toward him, hit him in the face as hard as I could with my
hand. He did not even feel it. Then I asked him, "Why did you
choke me and not let me rescue you?" He answered, "I had only
one thought; if I go, you must come with me to death."
Of course I was proud to have saved a human life. But
thinking how easily I could have died with the victim, I often
asked myself in later life whether I would do it again, but have
never been able to come up with a definite answer.
Mikusch failed the entrance examination into gymnasium and
began to work in his father's Selcherei [a store selling pork
products]. At the age of seventeen or eighteen, about eight or
nine years after the accident, I saw him once, passing me by
without looking at me. By then he was already a member of the
Nazi party, so I was told. Several years later I heard that he
committed suicide because of contracting an incurable venereal
With regard to Abraham Lehrer, I wish to add that when the
Russians occupied Czernowitz in 1940 in accordance with the
Stalin-Hitler pact, they transformed many temples into
warehouses, and Lehrer lost his job as a cantor. To make a
living he sold beer in an improvised beerhall. After the war I
was told that when Hitler attacked the Russians and the Germans
occupied Czernowitz in 1941, Lehrer and his wife were shot by the
Now I am returning again to the story of my violin. I had
no money for lessons. Some classmates who studied violin would
come to me from time to time and give me some instruction. First
I learned how to count time. Other hints, such as how to read
music and change fingers on the four strings did not seem
important to me then; years later the little instruction the
classmates gave me came in very handy. I practiced the violin a
lot by ear. Soon I could play any song or melody I could
After a while I got tired of playing the same songs over and
over and began to play things which came simply floating or
dancing through my mind. I could do a tune only once. If I
tried to do it again, something else came out. I did not realize
that I was improvising new and original melodies. But since I
could make them anytime I was in the mood, it did not matter to
me whether I remembered them or not.
One day I improvised a tune which was quite pleasing to my
ear. I was able to repeat it a number of times until I knew it.
When the choir got together, I rehearsed the tune a few times,
and it sounded beautiful. The boys accepted it with enthusiasm
and I was delighted. The next time serenading came up, with
tra-la-la-la we sang this song with great success. I may have
composed a few other tunes which I have forgotten by now,
although the first one is still intact in my memory. This little
insignificant gift of composing melodies came to have an
important bearing on my future, which perhaps saved my life.
While I was a student at the University of Czernowitz, I
used to come home during holidays for only a few days to see my
parents. Nearly all of my old buddies by then had left their
home town for other cities and countries. There remained an old
classmate and friend, Karl Grossmann, keeping his mechanic shop,
which he and his brother had inherited at the death of his
He was usually the first to come to greet me, and he
unfailingly asked me to visit his old, feeble, arthritic and
retired friend Knop, who used to work in his shop before and
after the death of Karl's father. Old Simon Knop had come from
Vienna to Suczawa at the turn of the century and worked in the
mechanic shop until his strength gave out and he had to quit.
At that time (1925) there was no socialized medicine, no
pension, and no insurance. Retirees exhausted their savings, if
they had any at all, and then were at the mercy of pitying and
compassionate souls and the charity of society. Workers lived
from hand to mouth. Karl had a golden heart. There was no one
else like him in the whole community. Like the majority of
Austrians, Knop was Roman-Catholic and Karl's main self-imposed
task was the welfare and comfort of the aging and ailing Knop.
Karl provided for Knop's daily needs, drugs, and medical care and
was especially thoughtful during religious holidays.
For religious holidays Karl provided goodies and special
foods not only for him but also for his callers. With joyful
satisfaction I remember contributing quite often to Knop's
entertainment with my violin and our choir and some good little
chats. I was pleased that Knop knew my father and spoke well of
him. Today, being myself of early advanced age, I can understand
how these visits and entertainment brought hours of happiness to
good old Knop.
The rest of Karl's life can be summarized in a few lines.
Along with many other Bukowinaer survivors of the holocaust, Karl
went to Israel and established himself relatively well. There
was one thing which made him most unhappy: namely, he had to
wear the Jewish ceremonial cap while he was an instructor in a
religious school. He was an old-time social democrat and not
religious. He was required to wear a cap or else. He took the
easier way, to submit. Still he was unhappy to be forced to
practice a religious ritual in order to have a job.
While on a research leave in 1967 I visited Israel and found
many Suczawaer in Tel-Aviv. In notifying one of my old chums,
journalist Martin Haas, of my coming, I told him that although I
should have little time to see buddies, I must see Karl. Karl's
desire and compulsion to help others was proverbial all through
his life; he would give away his last penny just for the joy of
helping. I consider myself lucky to have seen him again in 1967
after 26 years, especially because only one year later Karl died.
I was in the second year of gymnasium when the Bukowina was
ceded to Romania at the close of World War I. Under the new and
extremely chauvinistic rulers, life for the working class and all
Jews was very hard. These chauvinists were anti-Semitic and
through propaganda they turned the Romanian population of the
Bukowina against their former Jewish friends and neighbors. The
slogans used were that the Jews were living off the Romanians,
the Jews exploited the Romanian population, and the Jews should
go to Palestine. Of course there were some well-to-do Jews, but
the majority of them were very poor.
My family belonged to the poor. My father used to work
eighteen hours a day, six and seven days a week and could not
earn enough to feed his family, and the same thing was true for
many, many families in my native town. To be therefore accused
of exploiting others did not make sense, and bitterness in the
Jews against the new rulers grew more and more. Persecutions
made the Jews increasingly unhappy and they longed for the time
when they had lived in Austria as free people, even if they had
lived in poverty. I still remember the hunger pangs I used to
have in school because my mother could not give me anything to
take along for lunch.
The greatest difficulty for us young students was the
unreasonable demand by the new rulers that we learn to use, in an
unreasonably short time, the Romanian language as well as the
Romanians. Language deficiency was a means to flunk us out of
the gymnasium as quickly as possible. For instance, a Bukowinaer
teacher for Romanian was assigned to teach my class in the third
year of gymnasium. He did not teach us at all. His job was, as
we learned later, to decimate us. That teacher, whose name was
Carlan, several years later became a congressman of the "Cuza"
party, the object of which was the elimination of the Jews.
One of Carlan's followers told me later that Carlan's job
was to flunk as many of us as possible, to eliminate future
Jewish intellectuals. There is no doubt in my mind that the
newly appointed director of the gymnasium, Burduhos, selected
Carlan for this devastating job. Our dislike and hatred, though
hidden, knew no bounds. In the late thirties, speaking our
family language, German, on the streets or in other public places
was forbidden and cause for arrest. Many, many families and
teenagers left Romania for other countries, taking with them the
Until the sixth of gymnasium I was in a German section and
our instructors lectured and examined us in German. If one of
the many who was deliberately flunked out wanted to repeat the
class he could do it only by going into the Romanian section,
where everything was taught in Romanian. If he could not do so
because of the lack of knowledge of Romanian, he was forced to
give up his education, which was the intent of the Romanians.
There was no German section anymore; we were the last of the
Mohicans. Five years after the Bukowina was given to Romania,
Romanian educators and politicians demanded of us who studied
Latin, Greek, French, and German to master Romanian as well as
the native Romanians did, and with one stroke tried to erase the
knowledge of the language which we had first learned. That was
the new generation and spirit of educators surrounding us.
Without exaggeration I can state that by the time we reached
the sixth of gymnasium, 85 percent of the initial 79 students
kept in one classroom at the beginning had flunked out. Many of
these "failures" went to other countries, especially France,
where they continued their studies successfully and became
capable physicians, engineers, professors, etc., and devoted
useful citizens of their adopted countries.
PURSUIT OF LEARNING
In the sixth year of gymnasium there remained only one
section, the Romanian one. I tried it for two months, but it was
impossible for me to continue. I dropped out in good standing
and registered as a private student in a gymnasium in Czernowitz.
This was allowed according to the Austrian law, which still
existed in the Bukowina. In fact, Austrian civil and criminal
law could not be changed overnight but remained in use until the
eruption of World War II.
It was known that in Czernowitz the teachers in the
gymnasium had more power than they had in Suczawa because the
large majority belonged to the old-guard Austrians. For months I
studied on my own, although it was very difficult, but I could
not afford to live in Czernowitz. Toward the end of the year I
went there and took the comprehensive examinations and passed
It would have been impossible for me to study on my own for
the following two years of gymnasium; so I made a great decision
for my young life -- to go to Czernowitz for the last two years
of school, attending as a regular student. There were four
classical gymnasiums, one each for Romanians, Germans, Jews and
Ukrainians. The toughest was the Jewish Gymnasium. I was in
this one, where there was a stronger force of the old Austrian
guard and where the instructors dared to use the German language
for their lectures. In Europe the instructors in gymnasiums have
the title "professor," which is, however, different from that of
"university professor." These gymnasium professors were tough as
could be, but they were humane. Their attitude was that only the
capable should study, but they did not try to decimate the
My gymnasium days in Czernowitz were hard. In the room I
shared with an old couple there was not even a table on which I
could do my homework. Hunger was my constant companion.
Ridiculous iron-clad mores forbad students from doing any kind of
work to support themselves. One exception was acceptable. A
student might tutor other students.
In Suczawa I was known as a good tutor, but in Czernowitz
nobody knew me. I had to wait for my opportunity, which came
only toward the end of my first year. My eldest sister Clara,
who had gone to America, helped me occasionally with a little
money. In my last year of gymnasium I stood almost on my own
How many difficulties a poor youngster had to battle in my
time is illustrated by one episode. In the last year of
gymnasium, thanks to my sister's support and my tutoring, I had a
much better place to live. It was not in a basement as in the
previous year, but on the second floor. I shared a room with
three other men, but I was the only student and could study when
I was in our room. My tutoring took me away from daytime study,
and I had to study late into the night. My landlord did not like
this because I used electricity.
One evening as I was preparing for the following day, the
clock struck ten. The landlord came in with a burning candle,
put it on the table, turned off the electric light, and stalked
out. He had no right to do this because I was paying for a room
with electricity. He just took advantage of my shyness and
helplessness. The candle did not give sufficient light, but I
managed. In a short while the candle burned out, and I had to
quit before completing my preparations. From then on I had to
buy my own candles to light my books after ten p.m.
So, by dogged persistence, and my sister's occasional
contribution, I got through gymnasium. The last examination, the
"maturity examination" for the baccalaureate, was most
terrifying. In Czernowitz there were 207 candidates for this
milestone examination. By chance I overheard the president of
the maturity examination committee say that he had received only
100 diplomas from the Ministry of Education in Bucharest and that
at least 107 had to be flunked. Even so, only 78 passed, and
among these I ranked twelfth from the top.
I was determined to pull myself out of poverty and to be
able to help myself and my family. This could be accomplished, I
knew, only by getting a university degree. I had wished to study
medicine since I was knee-high, but family circumstances forced
me to abandon this ambition. It was only by a miracle, as I
realize now in looking back at my struggle through deprivations,
that I even finished gymnasium.
Among Jews in Europe there was a tradition and an unwritten
law that when a girl became engaged, someone in the family had to
promise a dowry to her fiance. This was usually the father of
the girl. In the case of my sisters, what could my poor father
promise if he did not own anything? It sometimes happened that a
bride's father would promise a dowry and later refuse to keep his
promise, but this was the exception. Any father who broke his
promise was despised by everybody who learned about it. In our
family I was the one who had to take the obligation of a dowry
for three sisters. I often thought myself lucky that one sister
lived in the United States and that I did not have to worry about
a fourth dowry.
It was in September of 1926 that I passed the maturity
examination, and I had to plan quickly for my future studies. My
hope to study medicine was blocked by lack of money for myself
and the burden of a dowry for my sister Anna; otherwise I most
likely would have gone abroad to study medicine.
Under the existing circumstances I registered at the
University of Czernowitz, department of science, and enrolled in
some chemistry and biology courses. The "liberta academica" the
freedom of a student to attend the lectures or not, came in very
handy. It gave me the freedom to tutor nearly all the time
except for the laboratory periods, which I had to attend. I
tutored gymnasium students in mathematics, Latin, French,
Romanian, history and geography, and a few in Greek.
My reputation as a first-class tutor grew and grew, and I
was so busy with this work that many times I even skipped
laboratory work. At the end of the year I took examinations in
only half the subjects for which I had registered, but passed
these with average grades except in chemistry where my grades
During this year I had amassed most of the amount of money I
had promised to give to Anna. The second year at the University
of Czernowitz continued in the same vein. In this period I not
only had completed Anna's promised dowry but had saved enough
money to leave the country in order to finish my studies at the
German University of Prague.
At this German University, most people from the Bukowina
flourished, because this city had also been a part of Austria and
we felt so much at home. I passed nearly all my examinations
"with distinction," and in 1931 I took my M.S. degree with a
major in pharmacology. Unfortunately, foreigners were not
allowed to work in Czechoslovakia. I had to live very thriftily,
not being allowed to tutor. I had enough time to study and
wanted very much to continue my graduate studies in Prague, but
my finances did not allow this. Occasionally I made an extra
penny by taking pictures of groups of students and professors
with my camera and charging a few cents per picture for my time.
This enabled me to get an occasional decent meal.
On the basis of information I gathered about studies in
other foreign countries, I decided to go to Italy, because I was
told that the tutoring system was alive and that the authorities
did not object to such work by foreigners. After my graduation
in June 1931, I made plans to go to Italy in the fall. During
the summer I was in Czernowitz tutoring to raise enough money to
last me a couple of months in Italy.
I studied a little Italian after deciding to go to Italy,
especially with my unforgettable friend who had studied Italian,
Leo Mader. Italian was easy for me because I knew Romanian,
French and Latin very well -- all of them Romance languages.
Since nothing is better and more helpful for studying a language
than living where the language is spoken, in almost no time I was
ready to begin studies at an Italian university.
The first university I visited was in Pisa. Foreign
students, especially Bukowinaer, were everywhere. The presence
of many foreign students made the living expenses so high there
that I decided to seek better conditions in Modena. There I
found the situation the same as in Pisa.
I inquired about universities having only a few foreign
students. The university in the nearby city of Ferrara was just
what I needed. The reason for this university's having a very
small number of foreign students was that most foreign students
came to Italy to study medicine and the curriculum here had only
two years of medicine. To finish, students had to go to another
university after two years in Ferrara. Today Ferrara has a
complete faculty (school) of medicine, and foreign students are
as abundant as in any other Italian university.
My desire was to study for a Ph.D. degree in chemistry, and
Ferrara had such a faculty of science, including chemistry,
pharmacy, natural science, mathematics, engineering and physics.
I came to Ferrara, and upon consultation with a professor, I was
told that with my master's degree in pharmacology it would be
easier for me to take first a doctorate in pharmacy. One year
after that I could get my Ph.D. in chemistry, because these two
degrees could be coordinated according to the curriculum of the
university. I agreed to follow this scheme and undertook the two
doctorates as recommended.
I registered and began to attend the required courses. The
money I brought with me went very fast, mostly for my room, and I
could not find any source of earnings. I was getting hungry and
poorly nourished. All I could permit myself to buy was bread.
For three months my three meals a day consisted mainly of slices
of bread spread with some chicken fat that my mother gave me when
I visited home on my way to Italy.
This diet apparently brought on a severe diarrhea that
lasted three days. Something had to be done. I went to the
president of the Ferrara Jewish Community Center, Professor
Magrini, and asked him to find me some work. He refused and
harshly so. But I did not give in to him.
I went to the president of all Italian Jewish Communities,
who happened to be located in Ferrara, and explained my
situation. He was very nice and offered me a free meal daily at
the Ferrara Jewish Community Center. I refused it, for I could
not stoop to being a beggar, and I appealed for honest work to be
able to live.
He was impressed by my refusal to accept the free meal and
asked me to come back after a couple of days. I did so and the
president told me to go back to Professor Magrini, with whom he
had talked, and that he would give me some work.
When I came to Professor Magrini, he was a little nicer, and
gave me a German book to translate into Italian. He assured me
that he was interested in the book and gave me an advance of
fifty lire. This corresponded to about five dollars and tided me
over for approximately ten days. My expenses, including my room
and tuition, amounted to not more than three hundred lire a month
if I lived frugally.
In the meantime I had written to my sister Clara in the
United States and asked her to send me a loan of $30 each month
for a little while until I was able to support myself.
Unexpectedly an instructor of German in a gymnasium sent me
a student for tutoring three times a week. The going rate for
tutoring a high school student was ten lire an hour. That was a
break. Then I began to tutor in German some colleagues of mine
at the university; they paid two lire an hour. Suddenly in a
short time, my private students increased until there was no need
to go hungry anymore.
This was about the time $30 from Clara arrived, which I no
longer needed. I wrote her of the improvement in my financial
situation and told her to let me know what to do with the $30.
She never answered, and several years later I gave the money to
Things went well for a time. I attended lectures, studied
and spent all the rest of my time tutoring, for little by little
my reputation as a good teacher spread all over town.
In 1934 I passed nearly all my examinations with the highest
grades and got my doctorate in pharmacy with the highest possible
number of points. On the basis of my high grades, all my tuition
and laboratory fees were refunded to me according to Italian
university laws. This money was used for my Ph.D. degree in
In the fall of 1934 I registered for my doctorate in
chemistry. I felt grateful to Italy, to Ferrara in particular,
and to everyone for the opportunity I had there. I wanted to
show my appreciation and gratitude to the university and to
Ferrara and tried to think of something to do that was important
Before long an idea came to me, and I hoped it would be well
received. The University of Ferrara had no language department.
Relations between Italy and Hitler-Germany began to warm up, and
the demand for studying the German language increased daily. I
proposed to the University that I teach a couple of evening
classes in German and that the resulting tuition money be given
to the poor.
Fascism, however, did not recognize that there were poor
people in Italy; so this latter part of the proposal was not
acceptable. Then I proposed that the money be used for the
pre-fascist traditional Christmas packages to make Christmas
merrier for some. This was accepted with grace and gratitude,
and the packages provide food to the poor of Ferrara.
In the fall of 1934 I began to teach two courses of German
at the university, each twice a week, and the result was
excellent. Because of the great demand, I increased the German
courses to four a week in the following years. The gift of money
for Christmas was appreciated by the Roman Catholic Archbishop
Bovelli, whose personal secretary, Don Bassi, was one of my dear
students in German. My contribution was brought to the attention
of the Archbishop by Don Bassi and by the newspaper Corriere
Padano. In recognition of my service Archbishop Bovelli invited
me twice for an audience, although he knew that I was Jewish.
Both times I was accompanied by an outstanding Roman
Catholic, my unforgettable friend, the late Alighiero Paparella,
whom I had befriended during my studies of pharmacy. Alighiero,
eighteen years my senior, was a gymnasium instructor. He studied
pharmacy part-time because he thought he would someday inherit a
pharmacy from an uncle. As we studied together, I tutored him so
that he could pass his examinations, and a great friendship
developed between us and between his family and me. I considered
him closer than a brother. He knew all about me and sympathized
with me for the difficulties I had gone through. I appreciated
his friendship and his advice as a native Italian.
In 1935 I attained my doctorate in chemistry and began to
teach in the University School of Engineering. My desire to go
on and study medicine was still alive, but again many
circumstances restrained me from doing so. At this time I had
saved enough money and paid for my second sister's dowry, even
though she had already been married for some months.
Now my youngest sister began to press for her share through
letters from my father.
I was tired of dowries by now and resented being asked. The
resentment came from my need to give of my own free will, not to
be pushed and forced. I finally gave in to the insistence of my
married sisters and paid out a third dowry. I did it for the
sake of my parents. Again I scraped the bottom of my little
Another factor bore down hard on me. My parents, who had
gone to my sister Clara's in the United States, came back because
my mother could not adapt herself to a new world at her advanced
age. The main barriers were the lack of knowledge of English and
the consequent lack of neighbors to talk to.
Many times I wrote to my parents to stay there, because one
did not need to be a prophet to foresee an oncoming war. Mama
argued that she had brought all her children through "the World
War" and that if another war occurred she could bring her family
through again. She failed to consider that she and Papa were
already old and that her children were adults accountable to
governmental authority. My poor father really wanted to stay in
the United States. My strong-willed mother was determined to go
back to Suczawa. I was not happy that in spite of all my
attempts to make them stay there Mama prevailed over both Papa
and me, and they came back.
Both my parents were at that time in their late sixties, and
I felt that they should not be working anymore. Therefore, in
agreement with my sister Anna, who was the eldest at home and who
had become the leader of our family there, I sent my parents
monthly a sum adequate for their needs.
These were the circumstances that made my going in for
medicine impossible. For all the cumulative courses I had passed
I would have obtained four years of credit in medical school, and
in two years could have finished. I would have been obliged to
leave Ferrara because the University then had only three years of
medicine, and I would have been reluctant to give up the
prestigious position as a faculty member in the School of
Engineering. Besides, as mentioned before, I was without funds
and had taken upon myself the obligation to help my parents.
Blocked off from a career in medicine, I registered for a
doctorate in natural sciences, but as a part-time student because
of my heavy work schedule. I did not think that my studies in
natural science would drag out until 1939, as they did because of
WAR CLOUDS OVER FERRARA
Three years after my registration for the studies of natural
science the Hitler-Mussolini pact came into being and the whole
European situation began to look pretty sad. German emissaries
were sent to Italy. They began to foment and instill
anti-Semitism in all kinds of ways. Also there were enough
Italian opportunists to try to climb the ladder by opening a
campaign of hatred and abuse against their Jewish compatriots
loyal for centuries to their country.
Another aggravating factor intervened. I made the greatest
mistake of my life by persuading my sister Anna to lend to a
person in Czernowitz the money I had given her for her dowry, for
a moderate amount of interest. The money was insured by a first
mortgage. I assured Anna that she would not lose her money,
because I would return it if something should go wrong. In fact
the borrower soon stopped paying interest. The piece of real
estate on which Anna had had the first mortgage is still in
Czernowitz, but the despots there are now the Russians.
Anna was not worried about her money, she was only
disappointed that I had put myself into such a situation. Had
she kept the money, she would have lost it the same way my sister
Lotty lost hers when they all went to a concentration camp. Only
my third sister's money was used up with lightning speed by her
husband's mismanagement and ignorance long before they went to
concentration camp. What about my own savings? The story about
that will follow very shortly.
In spite of the increasingly hostile situation against Jews
in Italy I continued my work at the university at the school of
engineering and my evening courses in German four evenings a
week. I faithfully continued to turn over the tuition money paid
by the students to the catholic committee, which took care of the
Christmas gifts for the poor.
One day the vice rector of the university, whose very
capable son I tutored privately, asked me to help a friend of his
family, the widowed Duchess Massari of Ferrara. She was sick,
and since she could afford it, she called a physician from
Germany for advice. The physician did not know Italian and the
Duchess only a little German. I would help by interpreting. I
did it gladly since I appreciated the fact that the vice
president chose me for that task, which remained confidential as
far as I personally was concerned. The vice rector was not a
member of the Fascist Party.
The duchess, a highly cultured person, decided to take
private German lessons from me to make it easier for her and the
German physician in case she needed him again. Although the
duchess was in her fifties, she learned surprisingly well, and I
was happy to have a prominent socialite as a student. It gave me
prestige because the duchess spoke well of me with her prominent
friends. Only a few years later she would help dissipate the
fascist-Nazi clouds for a while.
My name became a household word in Ferrara. The city had
about 150,000 inhabitants and a letter addressed to me with only
my name and city was sufficient to reach me without delay, while
the lack of an exact address on a letter to some well-known
Italian in Ferrara would cause the letter not to reach its
As a foreigner I had to go from time to time to the police
to fill out certain documents. On such occasions the police
officer, Panebianchi, would run out from behind his desk, offer
me a chair and talk in the most polite and nicest possible
manner. How long would such deference last?
From time to time the leading newspapers, Corriere del Sera,
La Stampa, etc., would drop an indication that there was nothing
good in store for Jews in Italy, especially foreign Jews. My
private students would inform me confidentially about Mussolini's
ties to Hitler and the deluge that would not be long in coming.
It was hard for me to believe that Mussolini, who had many
important Jews in his administration whose loyalty he never
questioned, would cooperate with Hitler to such an extent.
Many important posts and political jobs were held by Italian
Jews. The mayor of Ferrara, Ravenna, who had occupied this post
for many years, was a Jew and a childhood friend of the Minister
of Aviation, Italo Balbo. Balbo accomplished the transoceanic
flight with 24 airplanes in 1933, which was considered an
extraordinary feat. An active general of the armed forces, who
participated in the Ethiopian war and whose daughter was a
private student of mine, was a Jew stationed in Ferrara. He told
me confidentially of his apprehension about things to come. The
comforting thing, however, was that the people with whom I was
always in contact did not approve of Mussolini's ties with
In January 1938 I had the first taste of trouble to come in
the not-too-distant future. While I was lecturing one day, a
group of students outside in the courtyard began to scream and
holler, calling my name in chorus, so loud that I could not hear
my own words. I felt embarrassment and humiliation, which
emotions were quite obvious to my students. I could not tell
what was going on in their minds. During the screaming outside,
from time to time I could see a smile on some of their faces.
Today, after more than 35 years I can say that these students
were put up to this demonstration by an opportunistic fascist,
who in turn had got orders from others higher in the fascist
hierarchy. I will admit that some of the demonstrating students
did it with pleasure.
When the demonstration was repeated twice more, I notified
the administration (they, of course, were very well informed
about it) that I was ready to stop my teaching if the
demonstrators were not stopped. This helped. To save face the
administration asked for help, because had I stopped teaching --
and I was dead serious about it -- it would have been a slap in
the face of the fascists. To prevent me from quitting, fascist
militiamen were put as guards to disperse would-be demonstrators.
I have to say that my own students did not participate in,
nor did they approve of, the demonstrations. Among my students
in my last year of pre-war teaching at the university, there were
several from foreign countries. One was from Yugoslavia. The
Italian students did not like him because it was known that
Yugoslavia aspired to some Italian territory. Most of the time I
saw him in the court of the university standing all by himself.
He was very nice, polite and quiet, and being myself a foreigner,
I felt sorry for him. Unknowingly he was to play an important
role in an episode of my life several years later.
Toward the end of May 1938 all the Nazi laws against Jews
were adopted in Italy. Overnight, Italians were declared to be
Aryans, as announced in all morning newspapers. This
announcement was an irony and scientifically unfounded. If there
is a typical non-Aryan nation on earth, it is the Italian nation.
In walking on the streets in Italy, one is inevitably reminded
that Italians are the descendants of many nationalities. They
are a blend of Turks, Arabs, Moroccans, Austrians and other
nationalities from Europe, Africa and Asia with whom they had
commercial relations for centuries, making Italy a relatively
About the same time, I was notified orally that I would be
teaching no longer at the university. Panic and sadness could be
seen on the faces of the loyal Jewish citizenry. The Jewish
business people had to turn over their inventories to the fascist
state and were never compensated for their financial losses.
No Jewish children could attend public schools or
universities beginning September 1938. The Jewish community in
Ferrara was in despair. Mayor Ravenna of Ferrara was deposed,
and the same fate was shared by all state employees. All Jewish
military career officers were dismissed from the armed forces.
To date I still can see the tears of that Jewish general friend
who told me, "Can you imagine the hurt, shame and humiliation I
am suffering not to be entitled to send my child to school, while
the Abyssinians, our enemies, whom I fought against in 1936, and
the criminals and murderers can!"
Under the leadership of the deposed Mayor Ravenna, the
Jewish Community Center improvised a gymnasium where all Jewish
children in Ferrara could continue education. I was in charge of
teaching chemistry and science. My private teaching was booming.
My replacement at the university was very strict and demanding,
and his students came to me for tutoring and paid good money.
During the year 1938-'39 the police did not disturb me too much,
because of my assignment at the gymnasium. A militiaman would
come frequently to my place and ask me the same question over and
over again, "Sempre a Ferrara?" [Still in Ferrara?].
According to the new law, all Jewish foreigners, including
practicing physicians, dentists, engineers, pharmacists, etc.,
received warnings from the police in the various cities of their
sojourn, that within a certain time limit, usually thirty days,
they had to leave Italy. If they stayed on, they would be
arrested and their belongings confiscated. Many of them left
precipitously, others stayed just within their time limit, trying
to sell whatever they could. Many of them succeeded in going
back to their country of origin.
An unspeakable tragedy happened to all those Italian Jews
who were naturalized after 1918. All of them lost their Italian
citizenship and became now stateless in a state governed by
immoral and unscrupulous opportunists. They could not return to
the countries of their origin because they had had to give up
their citizenship before becoming Italian citizens. I did not
receive such an ultimatum and thought I would remain undisturbed
as a persona grata.
Because of the financial burden of the Jewish gymnasium on
the Jewish community in Ferrara, it was decided several months
before the end of the scholastic year that it would be dissolved.
The students would have to go to Milano, where there was a much
larger Jewish community and therefore greater financial support
for a Jewish private gymnasium. At the end of June the Jewish
private gymnasium ceased to exist.
The war clouds became bigger and bigger on the horizon until
finally, on September 1st, Hitler, living up to his reputation
for deception and falsehood, claimed that the Poles attacked
Germany, and undeclared war broke out. September 23rd I wrote a
letter to the French Consul in Florence expressing my desire to
join the French army as a volunteer. He replied that he had no
instructions to enlist foreigners and he would let me know if it
became possible for me to do so later.
I did not know then that this application to volunteer for
the French army was the cause and the beginning of my odyssey
that is related in this book. I learned in June, 1945, that this
letter to the French Consul was intercepted by the fascist
police. At that moment (June, 1945) I decided to write and
publish the events of the war as I had experienced them. But
when the Iron Curtain came down, shutting off Eastern Europe from
the rest of the world, two of my sisters and their families were
caught there. Because of the uncertainties and dangers of
communist oppression, I dared not write these true stories for
fear of what punishment might befall any or all of my relatives
there. Finally on December, 1972, the last of them were able to
emigrate to the U.S., although details are best omitted for the
sake of the safety of other individuals still there.
Near the end of September 1939 I was called to the police.
This time I waited quite a while in the antechamber before
Officer Panebianchi received me. When I finally entered his
office, his attitude was drastically changed, from politeness to
hostility and nastiness. He remained seated, offered no
handshake, and did not invite me to sit down. I remained
standing like a little boy before a teacher. He informed me that
I would have to leave Italy if I did not want to wind up in jail
or in a concentration camp. In addition, that I was forbidden to
teach Aryans at home. I asked myself then which was the real
Panebianchi, the one before or the one after the declaration of
war by Hitler on France and England. It did not take too long to
find the answer.
Returning to my apartment I immediately wrote a letter to
Clara in the U.S. explaining all that happened. I talked to some
of my Italian friends about my situation, and they advised me to
speak to the Duchess Massari. I called her and made an
appointment. When I was there, I told her just how things were.
I explained that during the scholastic year 1938-'39 I had gone
to many foreign consulates and embassies, including the American,
requesting immigration visas, and that all had denied my
requests. Also I told her that I would be hard-hit financially
as well as humiliated if I were not allowed to teach privately in
my own apartment.
The duchess was visibly moved and told me that although it
was against the rules of etiquette for her to visit a man, she
would ask for an audience with the prefetto, who was the highest
governmental representative in the city.
There was another angle. According to the new fascist law,
any Aryan who tried to help Jews could be punished by ten to
twenty years in jail. This part did not matter to the duchess.
She was mostly concerned about etiquette.
Since the duchess had to wait for an appointment with the
prefetto, I was in an awkward predicament. If I had stopped
teaching and had told my private students to wait until the
outcome of the meeting between the duchess and the prefetto, many
or all would have been scared and would not have come back again
for private lessons. While battling with this dilemma I
encountered a good friend of mine, Don Grata, one rank below
monsignor in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. I used to favor him
by recommending him to my students as an instructor of Latin,
Greek and philosophy when they needed help in these subjects.
When I told him about my plight, he offered me the use of his
apartment in the church until things could be straightened out.
I accepted his offer, and by word of mouth I notified my
students to come to their lessons to Don Grata's apartment. I
also informed the duchess that I had accepted Don Grata's offer
and was teaching at his place. How naive of me to believe that I
had succeeded in tricking Panebianchi! I did not know until June
of 1945 that I had been followed step by step by a fascist police
dog. I realized then that had I committed the slightest wrong,
Panebianchi would have known about it immediately and he would
have gotten rid of me instantly.
Why did he not proceed when I tricked him with Don Grata?
First, a priest would have been involved -- I was in Archbishop
Bovelli's favor, and it would have caused irritation against the
police. Secondly, it was Panebianchi's own scheme to forbid me
to teach in my apartment and would have cause criticism against
him. And thirdly, I was still remembered by many whose children
or relatives I had taught, and some courageous man may have found
enough guts to protest. In my mind, these must have been the
reasons why he did not proceed against me.
After her meeting with the prefetto, the duchess called me
to her palace and told me that she had succeeded in persuading
the prefetto to help me. The prefetto promised the duchess
tacitly to inform the chief of police to close an eye and not to
disturb me. On that basis I changed my center of activity again
to my own apartment Even though the prefetto could not or would
not prevent my future disaster, my gratitude to Duchess Massari
can be easily understood.
Two paragraphs, interpolated here, tell of my last
expressions of thanks.
I was already an American citizen when a friend sent me the
death notice of Duchess Massari in 1956. It was a sad day for
me, because the duchess had tried to help me at the cost of
disobeying the rules of etiquette so important to the
aristocracy, and by endangering her own life, to help Jews in
defiance of the fascist law.
I wrote an article in Italian for the newspaper Corriere del
Po, published in Ferrara. I gave an account of what the duchess
had tried to do to prevent my imminent disaster, when I was
abandoned by nearly everyone else. The editor did something very
special with my article. After each paragraph he made a comment
to clarify for young readers with the obituary was all about. He
took pride in emphasizing that there were many Italians who had
tried to help Jews in trouble. At the end I was proclaimed "The
Adopted Son of Italy." It was a royal acceptance.
A few days after I resumed teaching in my apartment, the
unforgettable Don Grata dropped in to find out how things were.
He seemed greatly pleased with the result of the duchess'
intervention with the prefetto.
After beating around the bush Don Grata finally said,
"Professor, I am sorry to tell you, but I was informed that there
will be very difficult days for you. I would very much like to
help you if you let me. I am offering to you an official
document from my church that you were converted to Catholicism,
but you do not have to perform the act of accepting the Catholic
religion. Just please accept my offer; the document may be
useful some day." I was deeply moved by this voluntary offer. I
had heard many times that Jews paid large amounts of money to get
such certificates, with which they were able to emigrate into
many countries from Italy. Later on, persons having such
certificates escaped concentration camps and likely even death.
With regard to the generous offer by Don Grata, I replied,
"Don Grata, if it were not for the esteem and deference I have
for you, I would accept your offer, but in view of these
feelings, I cannot do it." He understood and did not insist.
How often did I regret later on having refused his offer. But
then it was too late.
One day in October of 1939, I did not feel well and thought
I needed a medical consultation. The question then was to whom
to go. I had some physician acquaintances, but they were
gentiles. To go to them could result in embarrassment for both
them and me because they were Aryans, who by law were not allowed
to help Jews. I did not want to impose danger on them and
probably expose myself to a humiliating refusal.
There was in Ferrara a famous former professor of medicine,
about ninety years old, by the name of Minerbi. He was called
upon when a physician would be uncertain of a diagnosis or
treatment for a patient. Ordinarily his fee for a consultation
or examination was high. I decided to go to him, not because I
considered my illness so serious, but because I knew no other
Jewish physician in town.
Without appointment I went to his office and was examined by
the renowned professor very thoroughly; he found nothing
abnormal. He knew who I was through his grandson Giorgio
Bassani, who today is a well-known Italian writer, for he had
been a private student of mine and they had talked occasionally
of me. Before leaving the office, I stopped at the
receptionist's desk and paid the usual high fee for the
consultation. I was wondering why I did not get a courtesy or
Several days later I received a letter from Professor
Minerbi containing a check for the same amount I had paid for the
examination. In that letter Professor Minerbi wrote that because
for years I had helped so much to elevate the cultural level of
Ferrara that he considered it a privilege to examine me and could
not accept any payment from me.
This kind of consideration boosted my drooping morale,
especially because it came from such an authority as Professor
Minerbi. The boost would have been higher, however, if such a
letter of encouragement had come from Aryans, who were the real
beneficiaries of my work and not from a Jew who himself faced the
At the beginning of October I received a letter from Clara
in America telling me that DePaul University of Chicago had
agreed to send me a contract to teach full time in the chemistry
and German departments and that I should receive it in a short
time. A few days later I received the contract, a copy of which
I sent with a letter to the American Consulate in Naples. A few
days later I left for Naples to show the Consul the original
contract. I never got to talk to the Consul, only to the Vice
Consul, Mr. Jandry.
The Vice Consul raised the most impossible questions and
objections. One of his objections was that I tried to obtain a
student visa in 1938, that now I was trying to get a visa as a
professor, and that if I did not succeed as a professor I would
try as a rabbi. These were the three preferred quotas then for
immigration visas. The Vice Consul tried very hard to find
reasons to refuse the visa rather than to help giving it. In
vain did I try to explain that I had both the qualifications of a
professor and of a student, since I was a part-time regular
student in natural science. I went back to Naples many times
afterward in the hope of moving or persuading that unyielding and
unfair Vice Consul Jandry. His answer was always negative
because he did not want to contribute to the admission of Jews to
the U.S. He had good reasons to issue the visa, but looked for
reasons to refuse it. This was and still is my conviction. I
hope Mr. Jandry is alive and well and will read this account.
With all my hopes shattered through the ill will of Mr.
Jandry, to leave Italy for somewhere, anywhere, I lived from day
to day under frustration and fear of expulsion to nowhere, or to
a concentration camp. In spite of the promise of the prefetto to
Duchess Massari to leave me in peace for a while, the police came
to my apartment constantly to check on me. The usual questions
were, "Sempre a Ferrara? Non ha fatto ancora il fagotto?"
["Still in Ferrara? You have not packed yet?"]
At the beginning of my life in Ferrara I was happy to study
there while being one of very few foreigners. Now I was the
single foreign Jew and was therefore a welcome prey for the
notorious Panebianchi in his desire to show his cooperation with
the Hitler-Mussolini pact, that he was a good fascist.
In Milano, where there were many foreign Jews, the pursuit
of Jews was more difficult because of the reaction against the
persecution of Jews by a greater number of decent Italians. I
bore more than one man's share of persecution in Ferrara. What
was at first an advantage for me as a student under Mussolini
turned out to be hell under the Hitler-Mussolini regime. I did
not dare to go outside my living quarters, for it was dangerous
to be seen, especially by police. Today I am convinced that I
was under a 24-hour surveillance by Panebianchi's henchmen.
Panebianchi could afford such a surveillance in Ferrara for one
Jew, while in Milano such a thing would have been impossible for
the many Jews there.
My private students by now knew exactly what was going on.
Some became scared and some were threatened for going to a Jew
for lessons, and they stopped coming. Others were really
sympathetic and courageous, continued to come for their lessons,
and reported always that the overwhelming majority of Italians
did not like the Nazis and did not want a war against France.
In March of 1940 I was summoned to Panebianchi. How scared,
frustrated and humiliated I felt when I received a summons to go
to that henchman Panebianchi. At the police headquarters he told
me that I had to leave Italy. I explained to him that since
On the 20th of May, 1940, I was giving a lesson to a student
when the doorbell rang. I opened the door and before me stood a
policeman in plainclothes, a man I had known since my arrival in
Ferrara. His name was Rubini and he had always been kind an
gentle. When I was still a student, Rubini used to come
regularly every other month to where I lived to check on me, as
the law required. He was a plainclothes man working for the
police in the department dealing with the sojourn of foreigners
in Ferrara. I was very surprised to see Mr. Rubini because I
knew that he had retired a couple of years previously. My first
thought was that he wanted me to tutor some of his relatives or
acquaintances. He volunteered that he was called back for duty
because of the political situation.
Rubini said, "I am sorry to interrupt your lecture, but
you have to come with me to the police headquarters." Since he
did not seem in a hurry I asked him to wait about twenty minutes,
until I finished my lesson. He agreed to wait. It did seem to
me a little strange that a policeman should come to take me to
the police station because in the past I had been notified to
come on my own at a given hour on a certain day. I realized only
later that I was under arrest.
After I finished the lesson I went with Rubini to my nemesis
Panebianchi. At the headquarters he was at his worst. With a
loud voice he said I was under arrest and expelled from Italy. I
would have to take the first train going to Trieste, in about an
hour and a half. He allowed me only half an hour to pack. I
begged and pleaded with him to give me 24 hours to arrange my
affairs. But, true to his evil nature, Panebianchi was
unyielding and hard as stone. He could have given me one day to
get ready, as I was told by the policeman who accompanied me to
my apartment and on to Trieste. When I ask myself today why
Panebianchi refused to postpone my expulsion for 24 hours, the
only answer I can conceive is that he was afraid that some of my
friends might have intervened and prevented my deportation. He
was determined in his diabolic way to be done with me once and
for all and maybe get a promotion for handling my case so
humanely. Panebianchi played this role perfectly well. I cannot
resist speculating about his life after his exit from my own life
At the end of the war Panebianchi's superior, Gueresi, who
was as bad as or even worse than Panebianchi, was killed by
Italian partisans, but Panebianchi saved his skin by escaping
into another city, in northern Italy. Irony may have it that
Panebianchi is now in the U.S. claiming to have been a victim of
the fascists and to have helped many Jews escape from certain
death. Or perhaps this noble soul is in the service of the
Italian communists teaching them what he so perfectly learned
under the fascists. It is most unfortunate and sad that many war
criminals have succeeded in outwitting American immigration
authorities and have received visas to come to the U.S. where
they are leading a happy life after causing so much sorrow and
despair to so many people.
When I arrived with the policeman at my apartment to pack, I
called my friend Alighiero Paparella, who was teaching school,
and told him what was happening. He said he would be there
immediately, and he was. He had somehow managed to notify his
wife Gianna, who was teaching at another school, and she too was
there in fifteen minutes. Oh, that scene should have been
Alighiero and Gianna walked into my apartment. Seeing the
disarray and chaos, Gianna broke down with uncontrollable crying
and sobbing. She had been an interested witness as to how hard
and how long I had worked to build a decent life for myself, and
now by one stroke she saw everything destroyed. I believe, in
fact, I am sure I saw tears in the eyes of the policeman.
When I turned around to ask Alighiero something about my
packing, he was not there. After a short while he came in with
two new suitcases. He had looked over the situation with a
glance and realized that I had nothing in which to put the most
necessary and indispensable things for my uncertain journey and
future. So he went out and bought two suitcases, which went with
me through the war years, and which after 35 years are still in
my possession. They are material testimony to my troubles and
tribulations then just beginning.
There was not time to arrange my affairs. My students were
not notified to look elsewhere for help. They did not pay me for
my work, as they ordinarily paid on the 1st of each month. I had
no time to withdraw my money from the bank and to pay a small
debt. I left my money, 20,000 lire, my furniture and all
personal assets with Alighiero. These were a few big things, but
many little things had to be forgotten.
My first home in a foreign country was broken up and I was
deprived of all I had saved. To this, my chosen country, I had
shown my gratitude for my education by serving as an educator and
especially by contributing for years sums of money for the poor,
although I myself was not much above that level. Now nobody
intervened, nobody could help. Those who wanted to were afraid
to expose themselves for a Jew. With a few strokes I was reduced
to a level lower than that at which I had arrived in Italy.
Where was the fruit of my endless hours of work, of my frugality
and thrift? It just disappeared, and only a few others drew
The arrest at home by Rubini, the hollering and screaming of
Panebianchi, the signing of papers at the police station, the
walk to my apartment from police headquarters, packing, disposing
of all my possessions, saying goodbye to Alighiero and Gianna,
and arriving at the railroad station took just one and one half
hours. We made the train as Panebianchi planned it. The
accompanying policeman in plainclothes appeared to be
sympathetic, though today I cannot feel sure whether he was
sincere or as false as his boss.
On the train I remembered that I owed money for the daily
milk delivery to the milkman, whom I paid by the month. I gave
money to the accompanying policeman and asked him to give it to a
neighbor, who in turn would certainly pay the milkman. After the
war I learned that the milkman indeed received the money.
When the train arrived in Trieste, the policeman told me
that I should try to pass the Yugoslav border or I would be taken
by the Italian police into a concentration camp near Trieste. If
the Yugoslav customs would not let me pass, they would send me
back to Trieste and this would go on for a while winding up in
the concentration camp near that city.
I did not want to go to Romania, which already had as head
of the government the notorious Antonescu, a devoted puppet of
Hitler's. Antonescu had been imposed on Romania by Hitler. But
all in all I had no other choice. I took the train which was
supposed to go through Yugoslavia to Romania. When I arrived at
the border and the Yugoslav customs official saw no Yugoslav
transit visa, he ordered me to get off the train. It was night,
the darkness pitch black. I went to the waiting room, which had
no light, and had plenty of time to bemoan my fate and to
consider ways to avoid Mussolini's concentration camp.
I thought I would try what appeared then to be the lesser of
the evils, to go to the Romanian border. And if the Yugoslav
customs officer would reject me again, to try to bribe him. It
was a dangerous thought, but I had to try it. The worst that
could happen would be removal from the train, I thought.
When the next train arrived, I boarded it, and although I
showed the customs officer my passport, he ordered me to leave
the train. But a 100-lire bill canceled his order, and I stayed
on the train. The trip to Jimbolia, the border town between
Romania and Yugoslavia, was uneventful, lasting about nine hours,
a normal length of time.
When the train arrived in Jimbolia, Romanian customs
officers mounted the train to control passports and luggage.
When I presented my passport, they told me that I needed a
Romanian visa, "Bon pour se rendre en Roumanie," ["Valid for
entering Romania."] I knew that, but I had been refused one by
the Romanian embassy in Rome several times. As a result, I was
taken down from the train and the passport was confiscated. I
was allowed to go to the nearby village to look for a place to
stay until my situation could be cleared by the Romanians or
until I could be sent back to the Yugoslav-Italian border.
In the village I sent a telegram to my parents indicating
where I was, and after 24 hours my sister Lotty arrived in
Jimbolia. After she heard the whole story, we agreed that she
would go back to Bucharest and try to obtain an entry permit
through a lawyer. Within three days an order came from the
ministry of the interior to let me enter Romania.
I took the first train to Suczawa and stopped in Bucharest
for a few hours between trains. I used the time to look for
Lotty, a task similar to looking for a needle in a haystack. By
pure chance I found her standing still on a sidewalk in the
center of the city, and she was overjoyed to learn that I had
been legally admitted to Romania.
In Suczawa I had to register with the police, as did
everyone. In no time I was ordered to appear before the draft
board, since Romania was in a state of military preparedness
because of the current political situation. I did not dare to
say that I was not a Romanian citizen anymore lest I face
In 24 hours I was notified that I had to report to an Army
sanitary unit in Transylvania, with the rank of first lieutenant.
My Ph.D. in pharmacy merited this officer rank. Life in the army
was absolutely unbearable, mainly because of the anti-Semitic
policies, which were a faithful continuation of what I had known
in my early years. Somehow I learned that because I was Jewish I
would be dismissed. After about a month I asked for and received
a short furlough to visit my parents, and went to Czernowitz
where my real last domicile had been before I left Romania for
good. I looked around for work, but in a few days I found that
there was no chance of getting a job commensurate with my
qualifications. With resignation I returned to my assigned
function in the army. One morning shortly afterwards, the
newspapers announced that the northern part of the Bukowina
including Czernowitz had been occupied by the Russians. This
action was in full agreement with the Nazi-Russian friendship
pact. The furor and anger of the Romanians was not directed so
much against the Russians as against the millennium-old
scapegoat, the Jews living in Romania.
Romanians threw Jews from moving trains. The legionnaires
and other anti-Semitic partners stormed apartments of Jews during
the following night and killed many of them mercilessly. The
"Death Train" in Romania will remain in the memory of Jews and
non-Jews as much as the gas chambers and incinerators of Hitler's
Germany, and even more so. The Death Train was organized in the
city of lassy and 1,500 prominent Jews, among whom was a former
professor of mine, Dr. Eisig Feuer, were packed in cattle wagons
with only standing room. This train moved in circles for eight
days in June until these unfortunate human beings died of heat,
dehydration, starvation and suffocation. The screaming, the
crying, the praying of these innocent victims of sadism and
unfounded hate were heard everywhere the train passed, but no
mercy was shown. All these cruelties were carried out with the
consent of the Romanian government. Many of these murderers and
sadists have evaded justice by escaping from Romania into other
countries by the end of World War II, and perhaps some of them
live in the U.S. claiming to have been victims of Antonescu, or
Hitler, or the communists. What a pity that these criminals and
gangsters have not yet been unmasked and punished.
Every Jew was afraid that he might be next on the list to be
killed. There were confidential orders, which in fact were open
secrets, to eliminate all Jewish officers from the army. Upon
the demand of the Russians, the Romanians had agreed to allow all
former residents of the Northern Bukowina now living in other
parts of Romania to return there if they wished.
Under these circumstances I decided to disregard all the bad
things I had read about Russian communism and to ask for
dismissal from the army to go back to my last domicile in
Czernowitz. My application for dismissal was granted. Again I
prepared my suitcases and went toward Czernowitz. At the newly
created border between Romania and Russia there was a collecting
point for those waiting to go to the Northern Bukowina. There
were thousand and thousands of people waiting for the moment to
be allowed to go into the land of "liberty and dictatorship of
the proletariat." I was among them. After many formalities I
finally passed the border and was in the Russian "paradise."
When I arrived in Czernowitz, I found out that all my
sisters had fled from Suczawa and were in Czernowitz, leaving our
old and ailing parents alone. Had I known that, I would have
waited until my official dismissal from the army and would have
stayed with them, never going to Czernowitz. To date I have
heart cramps from thinking how sad that one year must have been
for them. My father was very ill with prostate cancer and my
ailing mother now had to take care of him alone. She was used to
being surrounded by her children, but now everyone was gone. It
was a hardship and heartbreak for both of them.
When the Russians occupied the Northern Bukowina, I was told
later, people danced on the streets with joy. People thought
that the Messiah had arrived and that they had nothing to worry
about. But soon they awakened and saw the falsehood of Russian
communism and tyranny; they soon learned about the big lie.
First the Russians instituted centers for exchanging foreign
currency, including Romanian money into rubles. The population
soon became aware that with the exchanged rubles they could buy
much less than with Romanian money, to say nothing about foreign
currencies. For this reason many refrained from exchanging their
currency into rubles. For a while I considered giving to the
Russian government power-of-attorney to collect my money in Italy
and pay me rubles in Czernowitz. But I dropped the idea when it
became clear that the deal would have been to the advantage of
only the Russians.
The disadvantage in exchanging currency for rubles, plus the
need for buying daily necessities, stimulated the population of
the occupied territory to look for jobs. Everyone wanted a
position corresponding at least to, and possibly beyond, his or
her qualifications. If normal procedures did not produce
results, people resorted to gifts and other attentions to the job
All of a sudden, a pandemonium of bribery and corruption
erupted in the competition for preferential and better paying
jobs. This system of bribery and dishonesty was a way of life in
Russia and was so deeply rooted from top to bottom that no
attempts were even made to change it.
One of the greatest blows administered to the population of
newly occupied territory was the requirement of knowledge of
Russian. The official language became Russian overnight, and
very, very seldom did a Jew know a Russian language except for
Russian Jews who spoke a yiddish that contained a lot of Russian
words. The best jobs everywhere were given to Russians, who
flooded the occupied territory.
Job hunting was a continuous and altogether necessary
obligation. Because I had no money to change into rubles I could
buy nothing to fill my empty stomach. I was overqualified as to
education, it seems to me today, and underqualified as to the
knowledge of Russian. The University of Czernowitz, to which I
applied for a teaching position, refused me because the more
honorable and better paying jobs were given to the incoming
Russians. For a lesser service, such as assisting in the
chemistry department, which I would have done gladly, I was
I tried to get a minor job in the sugar factory in Juczka a
few kilometers from Czernowitz. Here I was also refused although
I offered good experience in this field, having worked as a
chemist in sugar factories every summer for six years in Italy.
Since I knew that the better paying jobs were given only the
imported Russians, regardless of their qualifications, I asked
only for lesser paid jobs, but with not much success.
My application to teach chemistry in high school had no
more success than the others. However, I was finally offered a
teaching job in the first four years of a grammar school in a
village, a job of insultingly low prestige for a university
professor. That I was completely and utterly unqualified for
teaching young children did not occur to the Russian job
The inspector of schools who made me that offer thought that
because of my considerable education in science I would be very
good in teaching youngsters of ages six to ten. I refused this
job and continued my search for something more suitable.
It is not my intention to belittle or to exaggerate in
relating these facts. Later I shall relate the confusion which
was caused by an imported Russian chemist involving tens of
thousands of rubles. It took a Bukowinaer chemist to unravel the
confusion. Many well-educated natives of the Bukowina, experts
in various fields, had the same experience as I. In spite of
their exceptional qualifications they could not get jobs. And
yet employment was essential for buying indispensable things,
especially food. The only way to live was to get rubles.
Then it was found out that for suitable gifts, such as
jewelry, watches, cameras, etc. to the various heads of
departments, jobs became available. The hiring staffs in keen
competition for gifts began to offer well-paying jobs. Many
positions were beyond the abilities of the applicants. But if
the imported untrained Russians could get jobs beyond their
qualifications, why should not the gift-bearing natives give it a
whirl? As a natural result, quite a few natives began to eat
better. I had nothing to offer in briberies, and my chances of
getting a job became slimmer and slimmer as time passed by.
TO DISTILL OR BE DISTILLED
One day a friend advised me to look for work at a small
distillery in the village Lujan, about fifteen kilometers from
Czernowitz, where a chemist was needed. Since that distance
would not jeopardize my possession of my one-room apartment if I
took a job there, I decided to try my luck.
When I arrived at the distillery, so small and neglected,
and took a look only from the outside, I could not understand how
a chemist could be used there. But as I found out later, the
requirements for personnel in every factory were the same --
fixed and unalterable regardless of needs.
I went to the office and asked for the director. I do not
recall how long I waited, but when he received me I had a
definite feeling that I would be hired.
The interview was in Russian, of course, since it was
expected that every job seeker must know that language. The
director, named Homenko, asked questions, and I answered them in
my very limited Russian, which I had learned during the short
period I lived in Czernowitz. My past efforts in the self-study
of Russian now paid off. The director seemed satisfied to see
that I was learning his own native speech.
After the first part of the interview concerning my
curriculum vitae, which apparently impressed him, he asked
particulars about my industrial experience in sugar factories,
for I had worked six summers in research laboratories of sugar
factories in the region around Ferrara. It was a struggle to
answer these technical questions in Russian, but I was either
clear enough or confusing enough to affect this interviewer
As a climax Homenko asked me how much alcohol is obtained
from beet molasses. I was hit hard by this question, as I had no
idea whatsoever. Despair almost invariably worked for me. My
brains squeezed out some answer that was acceptable, although it
was not at all an answer to his question. I asked for a pencil
and a piece of paper and wrote down the following chemical
C6H1206 = 2C2H50H + 2C02
This was completely beside the point of Homenko's question, but
without saying a word he folded the paper with my formula and
told me that I was hired as distillery chemist.
On the way back to the city I wondered what impressed him so
much in my answer to his single technical question. Did the
chemical equation have such an effect on him that he was
satisfied? Did he have no understanding of what I wrote on the
piece of paper nor the slightest idea of chemistry and was afraid
to reveal his ignorance? I think the latter interpretation was
A couple of days later I returned to the factory to get
acquainted with the people there, to learn what my duties would
be and to inquire about living and working conditions. My
position had to be confirmed by a central office, and the
confirmation required a week. Meanwhile I was not on the
Director Homenko introduced me to the chief engineer,
Dimitrov, from White Russia. He told me that his wife was a
chemist still in Russia and that she was expected to arrive here
after two months. Dimitrov informed me that he would be my
direct superior, that I would share a room with three other
employees, and that my first assignment would be to organize and
equip the laboratory.
The space destined to be the laboratory was a room nine by
16 feet, with a board table two feet wide along the side wall.
When I asked how and where I could get pieces of equipment for
the laboratory, I was told to buy them privately and that the
distillery would provide the money.
After the Russians occupied Czernowitz in June 1940, those
people who had stores and did not flee from the city carried as
much merchandise as they could to their homes, because they knew
that their stores and everything in them would be confiscated.
After the occupation one could hardly buy necessities because no
stores were open. Nobody had jobs, and everything was in chaos.
The black market flourished. The trading currency was of
course the ruble, but where did rubles come from? They came from
private Russian citizens who were sent in with the occupying
forces. They had lots of rubles and bought nearly everything
offered for sale. They paid very little for anything because the
sellers so badly needed rubles to buy food that they had to part
with merchandise for practically nothing. The Russians looked
eagerly for watches, and I often saw them wearing two watches,
one on each wrist.
Slowly and naturally resentment set in among the population.
But since arrests were made constantly and the jails began to
overflow with prisoners, people were so afraid that they did not
dare say anything. Those courageous ones who did rebel were
jailed, and many of them were never seen or heard from again.
The NKVD men, secret police, the devoted servants of Stalin in
whose name so many crimes and injustices were committed, were the
heroes in those days.
To equip the laboratory I began to extend feelers, in all
secrecy, among the people. I was assured of getting what I
needed if I would pay the price and promise not to divulge the
seller. I reported this to the director, and after some hemming
and hawing he agreed to pay. Even before beginning to work
officially, I had lined up a number of people willing to sell me
enough pieces of equipment to enable me to perform the most
important control work.
After my job was confirmed, I was given a horse and carriage
and a coachman to go to town and pick up all I could get for the
money Homenko had given me for that purpose. Within a month I
had a laboratory equipped so that I could perform a limited
number of analytical control tests.
Along with nearly all the other white-collar employees I
continued to live in Czernowitz. The blue-collar workers were
from the village, having been trained and employed in the
production of alcohol for many decades.
The small room I shared with three other male employees six
nights a week measured only about nine by twelve feet. To enter
our bedroom we had to pass through a room in which four other men
had their beds. In the center of our room were a table and four
chairs. We each used a chair to put our clothes on before going
to bed. On top of a small wooden stand were placed a pitcher of
water and a white enamel pan for washing and shaving. Built in a
corner was a wood-burning brick stove for warming the room in
winter. The latrine was located in a distant corner of this
apartment building, and to use it we had to go down from the high
first floor and across the courtyard through fair weather or
rain, sleet or snow.
The occupants of our room worked on different shifts.
Always somebody was sleeping, and any social gathering there was
next to impossible.
Director Homenko occupied the nice apartment of the former
owner of the distillery, while Chief Engineer Dimitrov had the
apartment of the former administrator of the factory. Both their
apartments had private inside toilets. In another comfortable
apartment lived Homenko's in-laws, whom he had brought from
Russia. The father-in-law was well paid as a minor clerk, though
his job could have been easily filled by a village native.
Homenko's wife worked in Czernowitz for the Ministry of
Education, commuting daily by train. The Homenkos had two sons,
17 and 15 years of age. The older bow, Yuri, was brilliant but
had a congenital heart defect and could not go to school. He had
studied nearly all his life at home with the help of his mother.
At the end of each year he always took the school examinations
and passed them brilliantly. The younger brother, Lionia, was a
healthy boy but a weak student.
One day the director invited me to his apartment and
introduced me to his wife and sons. During our conversation, in
which Yuri and Lionia were the main topic, Mrs. Homenko asked me
whether I would mind helping them with some tutoring in
mathematics. Because of my limited Russian I could not have
helped in any other subject anyhow. Under the prevailing
conditions I would not have dared to refuse. I jumped at the
idea anyway because I wanted to be in the director's favor and to
have him on my side if a need should arise. Besides, I genuinely
wanted to help the sick boy. There was no mention of payment,
and I was glad because I would have refused it anyway.
While tutoring Lionia was hard and therefore not
pleasurable, I thoroughly enjoyed working with Yuri because he
grasped everything easily.
One day Yuri saw my fountain pen, and he left me in no doubt
that he would like to have it. Somehow I ignored all his hints
about it, the single pen I had left from all my possessions and a
sentimental memento from Italy.
Yuri must have talked to his father about the pen. Under
ordinary circumstances Homenko would not have given in to Yuri's
pressures. But now because he was so proud of his son, who was
at the same time mentally capable and physically weak, he gave an
unmistakable hint about the pen. I had to sacrifice it, for I
was afraid that otherwise Homenko might do me harm.
One day Yuri told me, "You know you are like us. You always
wear the same suit."
The other employees had not gone through a tragedy like mine
in Italy, and had many suits of clothes. My other suits,
abandoned in Italy, were probably being worn that minute by other
men. I could not tell Yuri why I had only one suit.
In Russia the salaries for all university graduates had been
and continued to be the same, with increases granted at intervals
of five years. My salary was not sufficient for me to live as
when I was a professor in Italy. I could squeeze through a month
only by watching every penny and by not spending for extras like
soap, toothpaste, and sometimes black-market drugs.
In the factory we were relieved from having to buy food at
high black-market prices. We had a cafeteria-like eating place
where all employees could eat simple nutritional foods at
reasonable prices established by the government. With winter
setting in, it was also a relief to live six days a week in the
factory because wood was furnished for keeping our rooms warm.
But when I remember the weekends, from Saturday 3 p.m. until
Sunday 6 p.m., or, according to the shift I had, until Monday 6
a.m. during the long winter months, I still shiver and get goose
pimples. On weekends I went to Czernowitz to take a bath and
change my underwear and shirt. Yet it was too cold to take a
bath because I did not have wood to heat my apartment. I had no
money for wood, and there was no wood to buy. On the black
market a seller of wood was easily caught by the ever-present
NKVD. The result was an impossibly high price for an almost
My apartment consisted of a medium-sized kitchen with a
brick stove for cooking, a bedroom with a ceramic wood-burning
stove in a corner to warm up the whole place, and a bathroom
provided with a cylindrical copper heating tank to warm enough
water for one bath. But preparing and taking a bath without
warming up the apartment would have been calling for pneumonia.
This situation forced me to think of a way out. Every day
during the week I hid one or two pieces of wood taken from our
room in the factory, and before I left for Czernowitz I put the
wood into my large briefcase that I always carried with me. In
two weeks I accumulated wood sufficient to warm the room and heat
the water one weekend.
The guard at the gate of the distillery yard could have
stopped and searched me, but he never did. If I had been caught
with several pieces of wood in the briefcase, I would have gone
to jail. The guard did not search me as he did others because he
knew that I was tutoring the director's sons and assumed I was in
excellent standing with Director Homenko.
For the tutoring lessons I gave to Lionia and Yuri I paid my
self with enough wood from the factory to take a luxurious warm
bath every other week. I felt lucky to get a biweekly bath and
was much better off than the employees living in the village
without any bath facilities.
My work in the laboratory was not too demanding since I did
not have equipment to carry out all the required control tests.
I waited weeks for a much-needed polarimeter to measure the sugar
content in the molasses used in the preparation of alcohol. The
amount of sugar in molasses determines the amount of alcohol
obtainable therefrom. Molasses rich in sugar yields more alcohol
per pound than that poor in sugar. Finally the polarimeter
arrived, and I was delighted to get it. I put it in the
laboratory at a specially reserved place and unpacked it.
In just a few days the wife of Chief Engineer Dimitrov
arrived to join her husband. Seventy-two hours later I was told
that she would head the laboratory and that I would work in the
factory as a shift leader. I was shocked. I had built up this
laboratory from nothing, and I resented having the same job in it
as other shift leaders with an education hardly beyond the sixth
The chief engineer demoted me in order to give my job to his
wife. However, I was afraid to voice one word of objection to
anyone, because Dimitrov would have found ways to send me to
jail. Jail was a constant threat used by our liberators, who set
up the same regime of tyranny and terror in the newly-occupied
territories as existed in all Russia.
Although as a shift leader I learned all the minute details
of alcohol production, I dislike the job because it involved
changing shifts every week. The shifts ran from 6 a.m. to 2
p.m., 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., and 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. As a further
insult, I had to stoop to punch a time card at the beginning and
the end of my shift like all common laborers.
The responsibilities of a shift leader were many, and my
failure in any detail could have sent me to jail. If, for
example, any worker on my shift would spill a little molasses, I
was responsible and had to pay for it with my own money. The
group realized that, and when an accident happened, everything
possible was done to make the evidence of any damage disappear as
quickly as possible. I hated the pesky responsibilities of this
It was my hope to find a job with less responsibility and
more dignity in Czernowitz. I went to Homenko and asked him to
release me from the distillery. He knew why I wanted to leave,
and he explained that unless I had a better reason he could not
let me quit.
Boldly I threatened, "I simply will not return to work."
He answered, "In that case I shall have to act according to
law and file suit against you for deserting your work."
Such desertion called for a penalty of one year in jail. Of
course he could have let me go if he had wanted to, but his sons
would have lost a gratis tutor. Whatever angle I tried to apply
to leave this factory proved to be useless.
Suddenly I was elated to be sent back to the laboratory when
Mrs. Dimitrov, the new chemist and specialist in alcohol
production, took sick. I hoped to stay there indefinitely. But
after one week she came back, and I had to return to the despised
shift work. At that point I began to search earnestly for some
One day in February 1941 Homenko called me to his office and
asked me to go to the nearby sugar factory which furnished the
distillery with molasses. He wanted me there to find out how the
chemists determined the sugar content of the molasses and whether
there was something wrong in their procedure. This factory
determined the sugar content of all molasses sent to the
distillery. The chemists reported to the distillery a sugar
content of 45%, while the regular reports made to Homenko by Mrs.
Dimitrov, the chemist and alcohol specialist, showed a sugar
content of about 30%.
This great discrepancy had important bearings on the amount
of money the distillery had to pay to the sugar factory for the
molasses. The higher the sugar percentage the higher the cost
because the alcohol yield was higher. I wanted to ask Homenko
why he did not send his alcohol specialist instead of me, but on
second thought I discarded the idea because I wanted his support
in leaving the distillery.
The following day I went to the sugar factory, and the
well-trained chemists performed before my eyes flawless tests.
They confirmed that the samples of molasses I had brought with me
from the distillery contained indeed 45% sugar.
When I reported my findings to Homenko, he was very upset.
He asked me to go to the laboratory and find the cause of the
Mrs. "Specialist," I observed, was not her usual arrogant,
fresh and challenging self, but was subdued and meek. I asked
her to perform a sugar determination before me, hoping to detect
her error. After certain preliminary steps she obtained a
correct solution of molasses. When she poured the solution into
the polarimeter, I asked her to make a reading of the sugar
concentration, which she did. She said that the reading was
about 30%. I checked and found that her reading was correct.
Now it was my turn to be puzzled. I knew that somewhere
there was a mistake, and I had to find it. Suddenly I had the
idea of asking this woman whether she had calibrated the
polarimeter after unpacking it, and whether she had set the
instrument on zero before making any reading. She did not know
what I was talking about. Then I asked her for the key to the
polarimeter so that I might calibrate it. Again she had no idea
what it was all about.
She had unpacked the polarimeter after her arrival and had
worked with it daily for two months without calibration and
without putting the instrument on zero. I began to look for the
key and found it in the place where it ought to be. My
examination of the instrument showed an indication of 15 degrees
less than zero and demonstrated clearly why a polarimeter has to
be set at zero every day at the start of work. Although Chemist
Dimitrov had never seen a polarimeter before, I am sure she never
again failed to put the polarimeter on zero before starting to
The ignorance of this specialized-in-Moscow chemist caused
irritation and confusion between two factories, trouble which a
mere shift leader from Italy had to straighten out. Tens of
thousands of rubles were involved when the sugar factory sent
bills on the basis of 45% sugar content and the distillery paid
on the basis of 30% sugar. If "Mrs. Specialist" had not been a
Russian and the wife of the chief engineer, she would have been
kicked out of her job and would have been held responsible for
all the bureaucratic damages she caused.
After I reported to the director the cause of the
discrepancies, he was rather relieved, because he could then
justify the higher amount of money to be paid to the sugar
Fervently I hoped to be called back to the laboratory as
chief chemist, and to be done with shift changing and card
punching, but nothing like that happened. Director Homenko would
have liked to reward me in this way, but apparently he was afraid
of his chief engineer, Dimitrov.
By now I especially wanted to leave the distillery because
my Russian had improved enough that I could aspire to a
better-paying and more dignified job. Also, commuting back and
forth was very unpleasant and became constantly more so from lack
of humane cooperation by the Russians.
For example, the train to the city left the village at 2:10
p.m., while my shift finished at 2:00. If the train was on time,
we missed it and had to wait for the train next day -- that
weekend was ruined. We used to sneak out often at 1:45, but had
we been caught, we surely would have spent the weekend and more
in jail among rats and lice. Homenko and Dimitrov applied the
rules stringently to us employees, but disregarded regulations
applicable to themselves. Even if I turned over all my
responsibilities to the next shift leader at 1:45, I dared not
leave before 2:00 if the director or the chief engineer was
around. Is it any wonder we hated them?
While I was thinking of ways to get away from the distillery
with all its annoyances and dangers of jail, I was busily hunting
a job in Czernowitz on weekends and on occasional service trips
there. Most of the jobs I knew of or heard about were taken
before I got to them. Eventually I found one which was in the
process of being created according to Russian plans. While those
plans were still taking shape, it was imperative for me to create
some situation that would result in my release from the
One day I took an opportunity to talk to Mrs. Homenko and
appealed to her for help in getting separated from this place. I
promised her that I would tutor her son Lionia, who was attending
school in Czernowitz, every day in the city gratis if she would
persuade her husband to let me go. By allowing me to quit work
without justification he would make himself guilty of a crime and
be taken to task for it. He was especially afraid of Chief
Engineer Dimitrov, with whom he did not get along well. Still,
if some opportunity should come, he might be willing to help. I
had to be satisfied with this tentative promise.
The opportunity which Homenko soon found was for me
completely unexpected. It was in the middle of February 1941,
with snow knee-deep and temperatures down to -400C (-400F). The
director called a meeting in the distillery of all employees free
from shift work at that time. He told the group that because of
danger of sabotage by the enemy and its agents, every night the
shift leader would have to check at least twice outside the
territory of the factory. He would have to go up to the railroad
station at midnight and again at 2 a.m. Someone asked the
director whether the shift leader would be provided with a gun to
use in case of attack by an enemy or by a wolf, the latter being
frequent during the winter in that part of the Bukowina.
He answered, "No."
I objected to this illogic, also to the extra responsibility
of the shift leader.
I stood as tall as I could stand and protested, "If one
cannot defend oneself in case of an attack by an enemy or a wild
animal, it would mean sheer suicide. We could save our lives by
carrying a gun."
My sincere innocent objections brought about a preplanned
attack against me by Homenko. He called me a coward and said
that he did not want people like me in the factory. I was fired
then and there!
He was quick to accept a free tutor for his son. I kept my
end of the bargain and tutored Lionia until the outbreak of the
war, when all Russians escaped as fast as they could, including
the Homenko family. Occasionally Mrs. Homenko brought me some
cow cheese in appreciation for my work with Lionia.
I was elated to leave my demeaning work. What a relief to
get out from under that young Chief Engineer Dimitrov, who could
have been my student, and away from his wife, who as a chemistry
student I certainly would have flunked. My work was taken over
by two men on the other shifts, whose education was on the
sixth-grade level. My eighteen-year-old replacement had only
eight years of school. I did not care. I was out of it.
PIED PIPER OF CZERNOWITZ
At the beginning of March I found a job that paid a little
more and did not require commuting. The nature of the work
brought me a nickname, including the German title of aristocracy
"von." "Von" in English means "from," but it also precedes the
name of an aristocrat in German and Austrian countries. "The
Pied Piper of Hamelin" is translated in German as "Der
Rattenfaenger von Hameln." People poked fun at me, calling me
"Herr von Hameln," implying that rats followed me as the fabled
Pied Piper of Hamelin. This nickname stayed with me for quite
I was put in charge of eliminating rats and mice throughout
the whole city of Czernowitz. This service would be performed
for those firms and enterprises such as bakeries, factories
involved in the production of foods, storage centers for grains,
etc. It would be done on the basis of yearly contracts with the
newly created Health Office for the control of rats and mice.
The money from these clients would be used for the maintenance of
the laboratory, where the poisonous baits were prepared, for
traps, for legal service of preparing contracts and advising in
case of need, for a salary for the head of the laboratory, and
most importantly, for salaries of the crew of workers.
Before accepting the job I realized that again it was not
something I could be proud of nor commensurate with my education
and past accomplishments, but there was nothing else available.
I must put my eyes and hands to work despite my snobbish European
All the instructions for the creation of this health service
branch I received from the Health Office Director, a Russian, of
course, who would be my future boss. I plunged into this new job
by first looking for customers in order to get money to start the
laboratory, and by hiring workers. It was evident that this
proposed enterprise was to be self-supporting, and if excess
earnings should occur they would have to be transferred to the
Central Health Office.
I soon found out that the heads of various enterprises,
especially the natives of the Bukowina, who were unfamiliar with
such a service, were reluctant to spend money. The Russians,
however, heading such enterprises, quickly took advantage of our
services. Within a few weeks I had enough contracts to justify
this branch of the Central Health Office. The Central Health
Office advanced the necessary money for initiating services.
My function was to head the laboratory, prepare the various
baits, handle complaints, bring in enough money to keep the work
rolling, hire and instruct the working crew, and make regular
reports to the boss.
It was no easy task to find people for jobs I had to fill
because working with rats and mice was considered shameful. Yet
I offered a certain amount of protection against the NKVD.
Usually every man in every enterprise was investigated by this
feared and most-hated organization. As a rule, persons who
worked at menial jobs, as in my case, were left alone. A lawyer
was willing to accept the job I offered, because he was guilty of
being very capable, successful and wealthy and had worked very
hard all his life. A wealthy lawyer, for the NKVD, was a guilty
man and an exploiter. After some struggle I was able to hire
enough laborers to begin.
The work involving the battle against rats was and still is
very interesting, and the Russians continue it even now. First,
I learned from my boss that rats have an extremely fine sense of
smell and that if the bait has the slightest hint of human smell
they will not eat it. For this reason we had to work with rubber
gloves, which were very hard to get. I finally succeeded in
getting some from a friend working in a hospital. The basic
poison was barium sulfate. It is fatal to rats but harmless to
humans. In fact, X-ray examinations of the upper and lower
digestive tract in man are preceded by an intake of a proper
suspension of barium sulfate. Because of its high insolubility
it can be used for this purpose.
The barium sulfate was added to various bait preparations
such as cheese, meat, sausage and always flour as the basic
ingredient. The baits had to be changed every other or third
day, for the rats recognized a poison after a short time and
would no longer touch it. In addition to poisonous baits, the
old fashioned and still reliable mechanical means was used, the
trap with the many variations produced in Russia.
At the beginning everything seemed to go well, according to
the reports by the working crew. Every man had to give a report
at the end of the day and in turn I had to report at the end of
the week to the head of the Health Service Office. But the
smoothness of our operation did not last long.
Soon a complaint came in that the rats were still the
masters in the enterprise. People there wanted immediate and
total results. They did not take into account how many rodents
were destroyed; they saw only that damage to their products
continued, even though to a much smaller extent.
I went to various complainants and discussed the reasons of
their dissatisfaction, but some were still not pleased with the
results and complained to my superior. He then ruled that I
should check twice a day all those places in which the crews
worked. This responsibility I had not anticipated when I
accepted my job. My budget did not allow for a foreman who could
take on this responsibility. I felt it most humiliating to have
to check personally on my crew.
I was considering giving up my job and talked about it with
the legal consultant, a friend of mine. Now he became afraid
that if I were to leave, troubles with the NKVD could begin for
him. To prevent my leaving he told me that he would come with me
to check these various points, if it would make me feel less
miserable. I gave in and stayed on the job.
This arrangement no doubt benefitted my lawyer friend, Leo
Mader, more than it helped me. Because the NKVD seemed to have
an allergic antipathy for successful well-to-do lawyers, Leo
walked day after day in danger of being snatched away and sent to
a slave-labor camp in Siberia. Among the many lawyers who were
routed this way to their ultimate deaths by exposure and
starvation, I knew personally Josef Thau, Benedict Kaswan, Max
Diamant and dozens of others.
But Leo's work with me avoided this trap. After the war he
went to Israel and served many years as lawyer for the government
before he was killed in a traffic accident.
One day a crewman reported that in a bakery which had a
contract with our laboratory five pigs were taken sick and one of
them had died. The head of the bakery stated I was responsible
for it because the pigs had eaten the poisonous bait strewn for
the rats. He asked for payment of damage to the bakery. I could
not sleep that night because the NKVD could intervene here too,
especially if they were bribed by the head of the bakery.
Fortunately I was saved by my superior who found a legal
answer to my predicament. He argued that the pigs should not
have been allowed to run around in the courtyard of the bakery
but should have been kept in a fenced enclosure. My friend and
legal adviser Leo kept me company on my daily visits to the
places where my men worked, and tried to persuade me to lay aside
my pride and prejudice.
TRAVELING LIGHT -- DESTINATION UNKNOWN
The political horizon darkened and heavy rumors got around
that the Germans would attack Russia soon. Although some people
did not want to believe it, on June 22, 1941, war broke out.
Rumors circulated that Stalin had been warned that his friend
Hitler would attack Russia, but he had dismissed these warnings
as unfounded. A well-planned attack by Hitler's Germany against
Russia began the cataclysmic events of World War II for Russia.
The following four years were for me one continuous struggle
for survival. In this strife tens of thousands of Bukowinaer
lost their lives under the most cruel conditions. If not for the
kindness of Providence I would have died many times.
The Germans beat the Russians out of every position in the
first part of the war very easily because the latter did not want
to fight for their own government which they disliked. They
surrendered by the hundreds of thousands without firing a shot.
A large number of these prisoners was led through Czernowitz, and
we could witness the maltreatment they received from the Germans,
who promised them before their surrender that they would be freed
from the yoke of communism. But Hitler did not keep his promise
and let these subhumanss" starve to death in the prison camps.
The mass surrender of Russian soldiers enabled Hitler to
make incredible progress in the shortest possible time and to
occupy vast Russian territories. Hitler's hordes entered
Czernowitz toward the end of June. By order of the Nazi
commander no Jew was allowed to leave his living quarters lest he
be shot on the spot. In the .meantime the SS drew up plans to
annihilate the Jewish population in Czernowitz. The city of
Czernowitz, which was once a flourishing center of German culture
and commerce because of the efforts of the Jews for decades, was
now a deserted place.
At the outbreak of the war it was clear to everyone that the
SS would soon be in Czernowitz. Thousand of Jews and non-Jews
decided then to retreat with the Russian army, because it was
known that the Nazis were merciless savage killers.
My sister Lotty, six years younger than I, and her husband
decided to retreat with the Russians. I begged her to stay with
us, arguing that what would happen to all the rest of us would
happen to her also. But her husband had worked as an
administrator of housing for the Russians in Czernowitz and, not
being able to do everything people had asked of him, was afraid
they might denounce him to the Germans. He thought he had better
go with the retreating Russians. His sister insisted that Lotty
retreat with him. She did not understand that he would be
drafted into the Russian army and that Lotty would remain alone
even if they could keep ahead of the Germans. Many inhabitants
of Czernowitz decided to do the same and were overtaken by the
Germans and massacred by machine guns. When we found out that
the Germans were entering Czernowitz, Lotty was already gone.
Jews once filled Czernowitz with joy, laughter, culture,
poetry, commerce and trades of all sorts. They contributed with
their taxes to the worldwide fine reputation of this beautiful
city, of which all minorities were very proud. Now the Jews were
"Frei Wild," free game, and could be shot without the gunman's
having to answer to anybody.
In the middle of July the SS surrounded preselected
neighborhoods and loaded all male Jews, young and old, on trucks
and hauled them to the river Prut. There they were ordered to
dig their own ditches and were mercilessly gunned down. Many of
the slaughtered victims were veterans of World War I. They had
been high ranking officers in the Austrian army and had fought
for Austria and Germany.
Several days later Hitler's cohorts surrounded many sections
of my neighborhood. I was in my apartment stiff with fear when I
heard boots tramping toward the door. When I opened the door,
there stood before me a husky six-foot SS man with his revolver
pointed at me. He ordered me to come with him. Outside were
trucks and a number of old and young Jews on the streets.
Several SS men with machine guns watched them so that no escape
was possible. After some more Jews were taken from their homes,
we were herded into the trucks and driven away. Since the trucks
were covered, we could not see where we were driven and could not
be seen. But through small openings I could see that the trucks
went in zigzag fashion to make it impossible for any of us to see
where we were being taken.
We were unloaded in front of a building erected by the
Romanians and called "National Palace". It so happened that the
people in our truck did not move fast enough for the SS man who
ordered us to descend. Because there were a few elderly men in
my truck who could not move faster, the SS man got more and more
angry at us. Since I had the misfortune, or the good fortune, to
be the last man down, he delivered a blow to my face with his
fist. The blow was hard, and instinctively I covered my face
with my handkerchief and did not realize that I was bleeding
We were taken into the big hall of the palace, ordered to
sit and were prohibited from looking back. Everyone knew that a
number of us or all of us would be killed by these wholesale
murderers. After about two hours of deadly uncertainty we were
ordered to get in line and were taken one by one to what I would
call a death committee, who examined documents and asked
When I appeared before these "supermen" I had to stand at
attention exposing my face to them. One of them asked me what
happened to my eye. At this point I realized that I was still
bleeding. I told him that I was hit by one of his men. After a
short glance at my identity document he told me to go to a
physician, and I was free.
I went as fast as I could to several ophthalmologists, but
found nobody in his office until I came to Dr. Rosenblatt, a well
known specialist whose office was on Kochanowski Street. He only
washed off the blood and looked at my eye. This was the only
treatment I had, and the days that followed were so full of fear
and anxiety that nobody thought of a physician.
Grave days were ahead of us, days that have entered the
history of the Bukowina as the period of death sentences of tens
of thousands of Jews. It was a judgement decreed by a psychopath
a couple of thousand kilometers away and executed by his servants
who saw in him the salvation of the German nation by the
slaughter of countless non-Germans.
What happened to the others arrested I do not know exactly.
Over the years during and after the war I saw some of those who
were taken to the National Palace with me. All I can say with
certainty is that a number of them were killed, others put in
jail, and still others finished in concentration camps where they
In the meantime the Romanians began to flood into the
territories occupied by the Germans, glad to receive back the
northern part of the Bukowina and the province of Bessarabia
which had been grabbed and occupied by the Russians in 1940. The
Romanian fascist government of Antonescu, the vassal ally of
Hitler, gave a strong hand to the Germans in helping them to
carry out the extermination of the Bukowinaer Jewry.
One morning an order was given out by the fascist government
that Jews had to wear a yellow six-pointed star on their coats.
Those caught without it would be shot. It was not that Jews were
ashamed of being identified as such. It was the intent of
offense and humiliation which hurt all. But it would not take
long until the wearing of the yellow star of David would be a
In the middle of October an order was issued by the Romanian
government under Hitler's dictate, that within twelve hours all
Jews had to vacate their apartments and move into certain
designated quarters, a ghetto. People were advised to take only
what they could carry with them. Those found in apartments not
within the sections allowed would be summarily shot.
In writing this episode, the famous verses written by Virgil
in Song Two of his Aeneid come to my mind. I think of the
quotation by Aeneas when Queen Dido ordered him to tell her all
about the destruction of Troy, "Infandum regina iubes renovare
dolorem" ["You order me, oh Queen, to renew the unspeakable
No phrases, no quotations can be used to describe the
despair, the crying, the running to and fro on the streets, some
carrying their belongings, others trying to find for themselves a
place to stay within the ghetto. Most of the apartments were so
crowded that there was room to sleep only on the floor. After
the twelve hours were over the ghetto streets were cordoned off
with barricades of boxes and furniture and were guarded by
police. Nobody was allowed to leave the ghetto. I found refuge
with my sister Anna, who happened to live in the ghetto section.
After a certain number of days, toward the end of October,
an order came that those in the ghetto had to prepare their
luggage to consist of only what they could carry, for they were
to be transferred by train to Transnistria, the region beyond the
River Dniester, and "relocated" for work. Those found in
apartments after the evacuation would be shot. The account of
Virgil's description of the destruction of Troy is nothing in
comparison with what followed in Czernowitz. People cried, they
screamed, many wished they had not been born, or died earlier,