‘I can’t even imagine it,” says Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, as a Romanian Holocaust survivor leads him around the former police station in Iasi, Romania, where Jews were rounded up and beaten, some to death, in a pogrom on June 29, 1941.
“You can’t imagine it,” responds survivor Abraham Ghiltman, his lips trembling as his eyes well up with tears, cracking the quiet composure he had maintained as he described the atrocities perpetrated against his family, friends and fellow Jews. “We cannot forget.”
Schneider, trying to hold his own tears back, responds, “Now that I’ve been here, I won’t be able to forget either. And that’s just from hearing your story. I can’t imagine what a hero you are to be able to face this every day.”
Ghiltman presides over the small Jewish community that remains.
As he shows us around the historic landmarks of the modern and vibrant city, the pain of reliving that brutal chapter of its Holocaust-era history, which he describes as “inhuman times,” is palpable.
The police station now stands unused, aside from a couple of officers who guard the empty building. The building is dilapidated, with some barbed wire poking out from overgrown weeds in the courtyard.
“They shot from that building at the Jews who were standing here,” Ghiltman says, pointing up at a window above us. There are no signs of the bloodshed at the site and presumably most passersby don’t give it a second glance.
Ghiltman notes that annual commemoration ceremonies draw attention to the history of the place. There has been some discussion about establishing a city council building there, and dedicating three of the rooms to a Holocaust museum.
His uncle and cousin were among those who were held at the police station before being crammed into the death trains with thousands of others. The sealed freight trains traveled for days to the death camps. Many died of suffocation, thirst and starvation on the journey.
Ghiltman was seven at the time and recalls waiting for the train to return. His uncle and cousin were sent to a forced labor camp, which they survived.
“The sad thing is that I had to remember all the facts from my childhood,” Ghiltman told The Jerusalem Post Magazine
after dinner at the Jewish community center. “I don’t usually talk about it. It’s too powerful. I was just a child.”
Dozens of Holocaust survivors from the Iasi area fill the hall at the community center, brought together by the Claims Conference following its July announcement that negotiations with the German government have for the first time made Holocaust survivors of the death trains, pogroms and ghettos in Iasi eligible to receive pensions in compensation.
Last month, Schneider and other Claims Conference representatives convened survivors from the areas in order to kick start the process, helping them fill out the relevant forms and answering any questions they had.
“It’s coming too late,” Ghiltman regrets, though he expresses hope that the survivors will be able to get some joy out of the pensions, despite their old age. “But it’s more important for the recognition of the suffering,” he adds. “The fact that they finally received some degree of recognition of their suffering.”
“It’s too late to really enjoy it [the money],” Lydia Dascalu, 87, says. Dascalu was 10 when her father was killed in the Iasi pogrom.
“Money for a life is not compensation,” says Eugen Deutsch, 85. He lost his grandfather and uncle in the pogrom.
He and his father survived by hiding in a cave. “The idea is that people accepted they were wrong. The Romanians didn’t accept the idea that they were guilty. The old generation is gone, and the new generation doesn’t care.”
Like others, he is skeptical that the pensions will even go through. “In Romania we have a saying: If you have something in your hand, it is not a lie. So I am waiting. When I get it, I’ll make a trip in Europe,” he says.
Pincu Rotinberg, 73, has an even bigger plan – to move to Israel. His father survived the death train, but his grandfather did not. Rotinberg was born three years after the pogrom, and a month after the war ended in Romania in August 1944.
His father, he says, spoke to him when he was young about the horrors he experienced as the only survivor of some 200 people in his freight car. “He had to step over dead bodies,” Rotinberg relates.
Rotinberg is pleased about the agreement with Germany and lauds the importance of Schneider’s visit to the community.
“It’s the first time an official person has come to the community – it’s the first time I have this opportunity,” he says. Asked how he feels about living in Iasi in light of its history, he responds simply: “I survived.”
“The people who are in this room, who went through the Shoah, are brave heroes and clearly 100% deserve the recognition, the acknowledgment that comes with the pensions,” Schneider told the survivors.
“There are still people who don’t receive pensions and we haven’t given up on any pension or any persecution. We will continue to negotiate for additional people who don’t receive and I hope to go to other communities and have good news for them when we succeed on other issues,” he said.
“When I meet survivors, the theme often comes out that Jews were abandoned during the Shoah and I want to assure you here that no Jew is being abandoned by the Claims Conference. You have been in our hearts and our prayers, but more importantly the topic of every meeting with the German government.”
Schneider expressed hope that the pensions would be activated in November, or at the latest by February.
A personal note from the author: My visit to Iasi was a spontaneous one. I was in Romania to cover a march in Sighet in honor of the late Elie Wiesel, when I met the Claims Conference’s Greg Schneider, who told me about his upcoming visit to Iasi. My interest was immediately piqued – Iasi is where my grandfather, at the age of 16, saved his skin by hiding in an attic as Jews from his building were rounded up by Romanian and German officers during the pogrom.
I accepted an offer of an eight-hour car ride that began at the crack of dawn and took me through Romania’s winding country roads to Iasi.
With less than clear instructions, I set off to find the two-story residential building where my grandfather, as he was being led down the stairs in a single file of Jews, slipped out of line and fled upstairs to hide in the attic. “That’s how I was saved,” he says.
Nevertheless, my grandfather still wound up being caught and taken to the police station later that day, along with his brother, who was beaten there.
“At the entrance, the soldiers stood, Romanian and German, with guns, which they hit us with to hurry us up. “They started shooting at the Jews after they beat them. After that, they took many of the Jews to the trains.”
Luckily, my grandfather and his brother were released from the police station.
“What’s the city like now?” my grandfather wanted to know, when I called him at his home in Israel to tell him of my whereabouts. It’s a modern, bustling and quite beautiful university city, a far cry from the images my mind conjured up when I previously thought of the only thing I knew about it, the pogrom.
Even visiting the landmarks where the most horrific atrocities were perpetrated, it’s easy to overlook their history. But as Schneider remarked as we stood at the police station, where my grandfather was held and his brother was beaten, “too many Jews were massacred here for it not to be marked and remembered.”
Iasi’s railway station, where thousands of Jews were crammed into sealed freight trains and transported to their deaths, is marked by a small plaque which was affixed to its wall in 2011, but I got the feeling that its many visitors are unaware of its past.
The writer was a guest of the Claims Conference in Iasi.