A Forgotten Chapter
A brief newsflash about an obscure diplomat from Chile who was posthumously honored last month in Bucharest for rescuing more than 1,200 Polish and Romanian Jews during the Holocaust, lifted the veil on a largely forgotten chapter of the Nazi genocide in this region.
The ceremony for the late Samuel del Campo took place at the Great Synagogue of Bucharest in the presence of the ambassadors of Chile, Poland and Israel. No one commented publicly on the extraordinary fact that it took 80 years for this Holocaust hero to be recognized for his rescue operations amidst Nazi-Romanian atrocities against the Jews.
Israel, in 2017, had named this humanitarian one of the Righteous of the Nations, but tellingly, it still took an additional four years for Romanian authorities to acknowledge him.
“Samuel del Campo’s personal story and actions in Romania as Chile’s charge d’affaires represent a light of human dignity at a time when everything was shrouded in darkness,” said Silviu Vexler, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities.
As a diplomat stationed in Romania from 1941-1943, del Campo ignored his own government’s non-interference policy, and issued Chilean passports to Romanian Jews who were confined by Romanian authorities in the Chernovitz ghetto (today’s Ukraine), awaiting deportation to Nazi camps. In doing so, he knowingly violating the official policy of his government in Chile that had closed its doors to Jews, a statement from the Israeli embassy said.
As the diplomat of a neutral country, the Chilean diplomat also began representing the Polish government, which had cut all ties with the Nazi-allied regime in Romania. In this capacity, Del Camp had the authority to issue passports to Polish refugees, and he intervened with Romanian authorities on their behalf.
Holding an official travel permit from a third country offered hundreds of Jews protection against planned deportations to Transnistria. This was a Nazi-occupied region in Ukraine where hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered by Einsatzgruppe D, and by Romanian killing squads acting under orders from Romania’s dictator, General Ion Antonescu, an ally of Hitler.
Thousands more died from starvation, disease and being cast into the freezing Ukrainian steppes, deprived of shelter and clothing.
Del Campo repeatedly pleaded with Romania’s Foreign minister to spare those he had provided with documents from persecution. “Minutes from the Romanian Council of Ministers show that Samuel del Campo became a nuisance at the highest level and that he that he acted at his own risk and initiative,” Romanian historian Anca Tudorancea told JTA.
A book, “Beyond Diplomacy,” by Chilean historian and ambassador Jorge Schindler del Solar, reveals that del Campo was falsely accused of taking money for the papers he issued, a charge that ended up costing him his diplomatic career in 1943. Del Campo never returned to Chile after he was dismissed from the diplomatic service. He settled in Paris where he died in 1960.
The brief ceremony in Chile unveiled more than a celebratory plaque for a long-neglected rescuer. It lifted a curtain around a window of lesser known Holocaust history that was the backdrop for del Campo’s activities, turning public attention to the forgotten victims of the Bukovina, Bessarabia and Czernovist ghettos.
Over a three-week period alone, in July and August of 1941, approximately 50,000 Jews were murdered in this area of southern Ukraine that bordered Romania, as documented by historian Avigdor Shachan in “Burning Ice: The Ghettos of Transnistria.”
In return for Antonescu’s support of the Nazis’ invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Hitler gave the Romanian dictator the strip of land between the Dniester and Bug Rivers, and it is here that in September of that year, the Romanians began deporting Jews from the Bukovina and Bessarabia districts. The region had been dubbed Transnistria, the name the Romanians gave to their new territory – ‘trans’ meaning ‘beyond,’ and ‘nistria’ for the Dniester River.
From 1941 to 1944, 300,000 Jews were killed at the hands of Nazi death squads and Antonescu’s troops before, during and after deportation to Transnistria, writes British historian Dennis Deletant in Hitler’s Forgotten Ally. The regime’s complicity in the Holocaust combined mass murders such as the Odessa and Jassy massacres, with ethnic cleansing and wholesale deportations.
Unlike the industrialized killing machinery of Auschwitz, Romanian death camps used the more primitive methods—genocide by shooting, clubbing and starvation, and by exposing tens of thousands of people to a slow death by freezing and disease.
Of the 360,000 Jews deported to Transnistia, historians estimate that less than one fifth survived. For decades, the survivors’ stories were rarely told and the annihilation of Romanian Jews to some extent has faded from awareness. Although Antonescu was tried as a war criminal in 1946 and executed by firing squad along with three loyal henchmen, parts of the Romanian people continued to extol him as a great patriot who won back chunks of Romanian land from the Soviets.
It is thus not surprising that it took 80 years for the above-mentioned Samuel del Campo, the Chilean diplomat in Bucharest, to receive Romania’s long-delayed appreciation for his rescue operations on behalf of Romanian Jews during the Holocaust.
The following excerpts from survivor testimonies shine a light on this tragic epoch and are illuminating testaments of faith, courage and hope. Yankel Wiesenfeld’s saga is told by his grandson in The Man Across the River. The oral testimony of survivor Rabbi Ahron Twersky was given to the Shoah Foundation Institute, and is also archived in Yad Vashem.
The Man Across the River
In his book, The Man Across the River, Zvi Wiesenfeld recounts the experiences of his grandfather, R’ Yankel Wiesenfeld, who lived with his family in Czernowitz, Romania, during a time of mounting antisemitism and the opening scenes of WW II.
Yankel had just turned 19 when the Tripartite Pact of November 1940, which allied Romania to Nazi Germany, was signed, immediately extending Hitler’s genocidal reach to the Jews of Romania.
Rumors ran wild about the impending deportation of the Jews. Then, on October 20, 1941, the dreaded edict arrived. Romania’s dictator, General Ion Antonescu, a barbaric mass murderer, ordered the Jews of Czernowitz to be deported across the Dnieper River to Transnistria. The Wiesenfelds trudged for miles with thousands of other Jews to the shores of the Dnieper River, where they were to be transported across the water on barges.
A soldier accosted them, asking them for their papers. “Wiesenfeld-Reiner?” he asked them, glancing at the name on the documents. Yankel’s father nodded. The soldier tore the papers to shreds and tossed them to the ground. “Now you’re nobody. Get in the boat.”
The exhausting journey in filthy conditions took its toll on the weak and sick. Yankel’s mother, Tziporah Weisenfeld, was one of the early casualties. The family was forced to abandon her body on the muddy ground as they were driven forward. Eventually, they reached Lucinetz where they were forced into an overcrowded ghetto in appalling conditions.
People died in droves from starvation, disease, brutality and overwork. Yankel’s father fell sick and died. A typhus epidemic broke out that claimed the life of his older brother Zushe. Yankel buried him alone, knowing it was only a matter of time until he, too, would succumb but willing himself to struggle on.
He was driven on a death march to a camp called Pechora, a journey that took the lives of hundreds. One day, when liberation was imminent, he was forced to dig a large grave with a group of other prisoners. They were then lined up around the grave’s perimeter and the Nazis raised their rifles and took aim. A burst of light exploded with the crash of gunfire as a burning hot object slammed into Yankel’s body. He felt himself falling as the world dissolved.
When the Soviets arrived to liberate the region, someone noticed among the dead in the mass grave one body that appeared to be moving. He called for a medic who took Yankel to a Soviet-run hospital. Not yet wholly recovered, he was conscripted into the Red Army in Belarus, where he was forced to serve for the next two years, even after the war’s end. He considered deserting but couldn’t find a safe opportunity. Deserters were ferociously tracked down and treated without pity.
Then one day in 1946, he was handed discharge papers, declaring him free to go. Overjoyed, Yankel first made his way to Czernowitz but to his despair, found no Jews there. He moved on with other Jewish survivors to Italy, dreaming of reaching Palestine-Israel, taking odd jobs to support himself while waiting for an entry permit.
Two years later, the longed-for papers had still not arrived. He decided to shift course after receiving a sponsorship from distant cousins of his mother in the United States, and arrived at Ellis Island on June 27, 1948. He was 27 years old and penniless.
New Life in a New World
Beginning as a “ragman” with a pushcart on the Lower East Side, Yankel slowly built up his own textile business from scratch. Business grew until he was able to buy a four-story building on Broadway in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. He was known for being scrupulously honest. “The IRS once audited his business and ended up writing him a check for $20,000,” his grandson Zvi Wiesenfeld testified.
Yankel eventually married and built a beautiful family with his wife Annie in the religious Jewish traditions of his youth. They moved into the top floor of a two-family home in Boro Park, inviting Annie’s parents to move in downstairs. The couple was blessed with three children; Shlomo, Emile and Zipporah, 26 grandchildren, and dozens of great-grandchildren.
Yankel seldom spoke about the horrors he endured during the Holocaust. “I was 18 when he passed away in 2007,” reflected his grandson, Zvi, in an article published on Aish.com. “I remember him as gentle and kindly, but private and withdrawn. Clearly haunted by his experiences in the Holocaust, he generally kept his memories to himself.”
“In early 2016, while discussing the Holocaust with my sister, it occurred to me that we are the last generation to know survivors personally,” shared Zvi Weisenfeld in the article. “In a sense, the Holocaust dies with us. I resolved to commit my grandfather’s story to paper for posterity.”
In reconstructing his grandfather’s life, Zvi tracked down old friends and relatives of Yankel, some who knew him from the period of Transinistria or from the post-war era in Italy, and those he had come to trust over time with some of his life experiences. During the years he worked on the book, Zvi studied documents and histories of the period, as well as records left by other Transinistria survivors.
The result is a book that tells a harrowing and emotional narrative but one which also celebrates the “unquenchable inner spirit and faith” of his grandfather, the author said. “I hope the book honors his memory and the memories of all those who perished in the Ukrainian killing fields.”
Dangerous Gambles for A Mitzvah
Rabbi Ahron Twersky was 16 when he was deported to Transnistria. In a lengthy oral testimony, he describes the terrible suffering he endured but also precious moments of victory. One such moment took place in 1942, shortly before Pesach. He and some friends scraped together a bribe to persuade a non-Jew to procure some wheat for them.
“He brought us the wheat, we gave him his “reward” and hid the wheat in the cellar. Before Pesach, we went down to the cellar, secretly ground up the wheat and baked a bunch of small matzos…enough to give to several Jewish families in addition to ourselves. It gave me so much happiness that I helped accomplished this… Who could imagine such a thing would be possible in such a place!”
Rabbi Twersky reflected on another incident when he took a dangerous risk in order to observe a yom tov, but one which ended badly.
“That Shavuos, I decided to hide and not go to work to honor the yom tov, but unfortunately I was caught,” he related. “The Romanians dragged me out and beat me severely until blood gushed from my ears and nose. I knew my life was over. But they threw buckets of water on me and ordered me to go to work. Somehow, despite my injuries and the terrible pain, I managed to do the road work.”
The Gravediggers’ Miracle
Rabbi Twersky went on to relate a terrifying experience in 1944 when a gang of Nazis entered the Mogilev ghetto and rounded up 1200 Jews, including himself, and ordered them onto a bunch of trucks, with the pretext of bringing them to a nearby town to work. Instead, the Jews were driven to a clearing in the forest about an hour from Mogilev, where machine guns ringed the area. They were ordered off the truck at gunpoint. The stronger-looking men were given shovels and instructed to dig a mass grave.
“We were frightened to death,” Rabbi Twersky recalled. “We started to dig with the guns pointed at us, knowing these were our last moments on earth, that our bodies would soon fill this gigantic pit. The Germans were partying around, celebrating. Nothing made them as happy as knowing they were about to murder Jews.
“After we finished, one of them called out, ‘Juden schwein, your execution will take place in ten minutes!’
“The leader glanced at the watch on his wrist and called out ‘Ten minutes….’ As the seconds flew by, he’d call out ‘Nine minutes…Eight minutes… Seven minutes…Six minutes…Five…’ , smirking at us as the final minutes ran out. He was enjoying himself. Suddenly two German limousines pulled up and some officers got out. There was a lot of arguing in German—I couldn’t make out what it was about. It went on for ten minutes as we stood around the giant pit, praying silently for a miracle.”
“The Nazis suddenly turned to us, screaming, ‘Raus! Raus! Out! Everyone back on the trucks!’”
No explanation was given for the last-minute reprieve from death. But the prisoners needed none. Their prayers had been answered, igniting fresh hope in anguished hearts. The war would end; with Hashem’s mercy, they would survive.
‘Only One-third of Czernowitz’ 80,000 Jews Remain Alive’
– JTA, June 21, 1944
With this shocking headline, a JTA report by Soviet news correspondent Constantine Simonov, broke the news.
“Only 25,000 Jews out of a population that once numbered more than 80,000, remain in the city of Czernowitz, capital of the province of Bukovina,” the article went on to state. Simonov had visited the city and spoken to survivors, including the rabbi of the city who asked not to be identified.
The rabbi said he had spent the entire 33 months of the German occupation hiding in cellars, suffering starvation and illness. During that period, his wife and children died.
The correspondent describes him as “a very old man with a white beard, long white hair and deeply wrinkled face.” He learned later that the rabbi was only 52.
“Czernowitz was occupied by the Germans on June 25, 1941, only three days after they had launched their attack on the Soviet Union. Immediately after their entrance, the Nazis ordered a registration of all Jews. On the basis of these lists, they summoned 3,000 to 5,000 young Jews to appear at a designated place every Monday. Of these, ten percent were regularly shot,” the JTA article reports.
On these “Black Mondays,” the rabbi told Simonov, the Nazis would hold those they did not shoot until after 9 P.M. when they were told to return home. However, since it was unlawful for Jews to appear on the streets after 9 P.M., many of the Jews were killed by Rumanian units patrolling the streets.
After about ten weeks of this “cat-and-mouse” game, the article attests, Rumanian authorities ordered all the 30,000 Jews remaining in the city to relocate to a ghetto area consisting of four blocks, in which there were just 30 houses. Failure to move to the ghetto was punishable by death.
“The rabbi disclosed the almost unbelievable details of how 112 persons lived in a small bed-room; how people dwelled in court-yards, on roofs, in hallways, on stairs, and in every available corner of space,” the article went on to detail.
“After they had been confined in the ghetto for some time, the Jews were notified one day that they had one-half hour to prepare for deportation to Transnistria. About 50,000 of the ghetto’s inhabitants were shipped off in freight cars. The ghetto then became the staging area for deportations from all nearby towns. Of the 50,000, only a few have straggled back to Czernowitz, correspondent Simonov learned. The others perished in Transnistria.”
“We knew what was going on in Transnistria. Relatives from Bessarabia were there and letters were smuggled out. The Romanians left people to die with no food or shelter, no heat in the freezing winter. There were outbreaks of diphtheria, typhus…excruciating slave labor. People died by the hundreds every day,” said survivor Josef Busurg.
“Typhus, starvation, and shootings on the bleak and freezing steppe of eastern Romania and its shadow zones in Bessarabia and Transnistria — these facts do not begin to capture the horrors of what the Jews actually experienced at the hands of Antonescu’s troops,” writes historian Robert Kaplan in Foreign Policy.
After the German Wehrmacht suffered its defeat at Stalingrad in 1942-43, the stranglehold on the Jews began to loosen. The deportations stopped; persecution lessened. In early March 1944, the Soviet Army captured Transnistria. By the end of the month, they had liberated Bukovina. The tortured survivors were free at last.