Its light burned briefly but brightly. The Transnistria Survivors Association, which was established in the late 1990s, has officially wrapped up operations after a period of dormancy. The memorial services and educational programs it once mounted will cease, and the money in its bank account has been donated to Toronto’s Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre.
The association decided to close up shop following the recent death of Arnold Buxbaum, the group’s treasurer and one of its founders.
In its short span, the group, which at its peak numbered no more than 40 members, illuminated a lesser-known chapter in Holocaust history: the deaths of some 300,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews, in what was little more than an open-air concentration camp known as Transnistria.
“When it comes to the Holocaust, the main things we hear about are Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen – the big picture,” said Lou Hoffer, a former president of the Transnistria Survivors Association. “Germany organized an industry to destroy the Jewish people. Transnistria was different. Jews were just dumped there.”
A Nazi ally, Romania began, in August 1941, to deport Jews from its northern Bukovina and northeastern Bessarabia regions, to an area whose name derived from the Dniester River, and “trans,” meaning “beyond.”
The territory – little more than a killing field for Jews, Gypsies and other undesirables – was sandwiched between the Dniester and Bug rivers. Encompassing about 40,000 square kilometres of Soviet Ukraine, it was under German military occupation and dotted with dozens of slave labour and concentration camps. Romanian Jews joined native Jewish inhabitants there.
With forced labour, exposure to the elements, executions, starvation and rampant disease, they perished by the hundreds every day. By the time Soviet troops retook the region in April 1944, just 50,000 had survived.
A rare history of the territory appeared in 1997, with the publication of Shattered! 50 years of Silence: History and voices from the tragedy in Romania and Transnistria, by Toronto psychologist Felicia Carmelly, who died last year.
When Hoffer discovered that he and Carmelly had lived in the same ghetto in Transnistria – Shargorod – “I broke down completely,” he said. “To this day, tears come to my eyes.”
He was born in the Romanian town of Vijnitz, which was home to a Hasidicdynasty. After local fascists murdered 300 Jews there, Hoffer, his parents and younger brother were shunted by cattle car to a town called Ataki, where they sheltered in homes that had been abandoned by their Jewish residents.
Hoffer recalled the messages that had been written on the walls of the empty houses: “We are being killed. If you survive, please tell the world what happened to us, say Kaddish for us and don’t ever forget us.”
Hoffer vowed to do that. “I had a drive to survive,” he said.
From Ataki, it was on to Transnistria. “We struggled to stay alive day to day,” recalled Hoffer, who’s in his early 90s. “We battled typhus and dysentery.” Ten people were crammed into two and a half rooms in Shargorod.
Miraculously, all members of the family survived, but Hoffer enumerated the state they were in: “We were emaciated, wearing sackcloth, frightened, homeless, stateless, penniless and traumatized.”
What finally spurred Hoffer to leave Europe was the post-war pogrom in Kielce, Poland, in which 42 Jews were murdered in July 1946. He came to Canada two years later under the Canadian Jewish Congress’ Jewish orphans program, and went on to a successful business career in Saskatchewan.
Despite the folding of the Transnistria association and the many programs designed to keep the memory of the period alive, Hoffer is sanguine that it won’t be forgotten.
For one, through the Jewish National Fund, he and his wife Madga planted the Transnistria Grove in the Aminadav forest near Jerusalem, in memory of his parents and those who perished there.
“Our job as survivors was fulfilled 100 per cent,” said the father of three and grandfather of seven. “Our stories, our legacies, will be around for 1,000 years. The world isn’t going to forget. Maybe a high percentage will, but it only takes one individual to remember.”