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A soldier's story

This is a story that still resonates in my consciousness seven decades later. Even though I was but a little boy in 1941, the details remain fresh and memories still sting. My maternal uncle, Herman M, Z"l, was a big guy, a towering presence at our family gatherings. As children, we looked at him with amazement and a bit of fear; his huge hands resembled the paws of a powerful bear, but we also knew that he was a gentle and sweet giant.

Long before I was born, Uncle Herman studied abroad where he attended a military academy in France. After his return, to everybody's surprise, rather than entering the family business, he joined the Romanian Army as a Second Lieutenant and became one of a small number of Jews in Romania’s officers’ corps.

It was also a time when Romania’s Jews, 500,000 citizens amongst a population of 15 million, were not only tolerated but thrived, despite ever-present antisemitism. Romanian Jews played a major role in the country’s economy, intellectual life and even in the military. Indeed, during World War I thousands of Romania’s Jews enlisted and had the highest per capita rate of bravery medals awarded by the country.

Uncle Herman was stationed at the volatile border with Hungary. He quickly gained the admiration of his superiors and peers alike, for which he was awarded medals of valour. In the early 1930s he left the army with the rank of captain to manage a family enterprise. He helped grow the business until the brutal Iron Guard came to power in the late 1930s and started persecuting Romania’s Jews, including our family.

And then came the murderous winter of 1941. The Nazi-allied Legionnaires, in defiance of Romania’s military ruler Marshall Ion Antonescu (himself a rabid antisemite), rioted in the streets of Bucharest. In two days, while nobody moved a finger, hundreds of Jews were slaughtered and thousands more were savagely beaten. Jewish-owned businesses were looted and ransacked while synagogues, Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions were burned to the ground.

On the morning of Jan. 21, 1941, before the full extent of the massacres was known, my uncle Hermann received a phone call to report for duty. Our whole family rushed to Herman’s home begging him not to go as word of the atrocities slowly spread, but my uncle wouldn't listen. “I’m an officer in the Romanian army, and it’s my duty to report when I’m called!”

He donned his captain’s uniform – adorned with medals on his chest – and left on foot for the police station not far away, while his wife and children cried. Still, our family thought and hoped that nobody would dare touch such an imposing and highly decorated officer.

As I was told by my parents many years later, Uncle Herman was about 300 feet from the station when a familiar figure approached him. It was his former staff sergeant, Vasile, now a patrol officer.

“Where are you rushing, captain?” the policeman inquired.

“I’ve been summoned to the station and I don't want to be late,” uncle Herman replied.

Suddenly, Vasile started singing what the Romanians call a cantec de pahar, (a wineglass song), but with the lyrics changed. The original song was about a tavern where “who goes in will have a good time,” but the Sergeant sang, “who goes in will not come out!!”

My uncle, annoyed by Vasile’s brazen behaviour, tried to move him aside when the man yelled in his face: “Don’t you get it? You go in, you won’t come out!”

And he moved his finger across his throat. Suddenly my uncle realized that he was moments away from being killed and looked at his former sergeant in desperation.

“Run away!” the policeman whispered, and my uncle started running back, this time not along the main street but through small unpaved alleys, with his medals banging on his chest, and his uniform and shining boots now soiled by dirt. He arrived home like a ghost, and that night we hid in the cellar of a kind hearted Christian neighbour.

A few days later, friends who had witnessed the situation behind closed curtains came to my uncle’s home. They told him that while he was running home, Vasile started shooting in the air, shouting to the Legionnaires that “a small kike with a beard” had crossed the street on the opposite side and that he tried to shoot him but missed. The legionnaires rushed to find the small Jew, but came back furious and empty-handed.

The rest, as we say, is history. Antonescu crushed the rebellion to save himself, and on June 22, 1941, Romania entered the war on the side of the Nazis. The next day, my uncle received notification from the War Ministry that he had been demoted to the rank of a private and was expelled from the Romanian Army.

Afterward, my father and my uncle, along with tens of thousands of Romanian Jews, were deported to the killing fields of Transnistria, alleged “work camps” for Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 65. Some 250,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews perished there. Miraculously, both survived and returned home in late summer 1944, emaciated but alive after three years of incredible suffering.

In the days that followed, my Uncle Herman began searching for Vasile, but soon learned that he had been deployed to Russia when the war started with the same artillery company once led by my uncle, and that he died there in 1942, along with most of the men.

From that day on, in Romania and later in Israel, my Uncle Herman always said Kaddish for Vasile, blessing him along with his other family members who had perished. My beloved uncle was an officer, a gentleman and a Mensch! He survived the massacre in Bucharest because on a chilly January morning, 71 years ago, a brave Romanian man stood between him and the forces of evil!


Jack Chivo    4/23/2012


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