In the life of any person there are certain chapters that are very difficult to remember, let alone even talk to others about it. When I was five years old, the Great Patriotic War began. My family and I lived in the Jewish shtetl Ozarentsy, Mogilev-Podolskiy region, Ukraine. The first Nazi soldiers arrived on motorcycles in our town on July 19, 1941. All the Jewish people were forced to leave their homes. We had to gather in the old synagogue. Hundreds of people stood locked in this synagogue without water, awaiting their death. My family and I were there for two days. On the third day, much to our surprise, the doors were finally opened. The Nazi soldiers took twenty-eight men and told us that they were taking them for work. Later, we found out that all those men were shot to death. This was the first bloody Saturday that I remember.
On July 26, 1941, we experienced the second bloody Saturday, when Romanian soldiers came to our town. They forced the young men to leave their homes and led them to the marketplace. There, rather than shooting the young men, the Romanian soldiers used knives to cut the men’s stomachs and chests. The soldiers carved a Star of David on the backs of many young men. People died in pain and agony. The cruelty of the Nazi soldiers had no limits. My family lost nine members on that day, including Yakov Entin, the brother of my mother, Khaya. Nazi soldiers ordered people to dig their own graves before cutting off their fingers and then burying them alive. In the last days of July 1941 thousands of Jews were locked away in train cars with closed doors and windows. For a few days this “death train” carried Jews back and forth until their prayers, screaming, and crying ended in silence.
Those people who were still alive were forced to go to the Mogilev- Podolskiy ghetto, one of the most infamous in the Transnistria ghettos administered by Romanian authorities. The ghetto was a death center. Jews were only allowed to live in the ghetto. With my own eyes I saw poor young children—ghetto prisoners—who were forced to sell cigarettes in the cold rain. Elderly people would stand around and stretch out their hands in hopes of getting some sort of food. Horse-drawn wagons filled with corpses were carted around, and then the bodies were thrown into random gravesites. Many epidemics of various illnesses spread around the ghetto. The weаk and sick were not cured; instead, they frequently were killed in front of the others.
On one occasion, a Sunday morning, an elderly Christian man came up to the metal railing carrying a bucket of ripe cherries. He raised this bucket over the fence, and dozens of children ran to him immediately, their hands wide open. Suddenly gunfire broke out, and the basket fell to the ground. No one understood what had happened. The cherries spilled everywhere and mingled with blood.
Cherries and blood. Right next to the basket lay this man, who only had wanted to bring a little bit of joy to the children.
One day I noticed several elderly men crawling on all fours and ripping grass from the ground with their teeth. Right next to them stood a soldier pointing a rifle at them. He found pleasure in this cruel joke, laughing to himself under his breath. I am not sure how long this brutality lasted, possibly one minute or maybe five, but to me it seemed never-ending. Suddenly one of the elderly men rose from his knees and turned his face to look directly at the soldier. The elderly man’s face bore such a striking expression of condemnation that for a moment the soldier turned away; however, it did not stop the soldier from firing his rifle. The elderly man reached his hand over his bleeding chest, put his hand on his heart, and fell slowly to the ground.
In the marketplace stood a burned tank. Next to it lay the body of its driver, a soldier whose eyes had been ripped out of his skull. In this puddle of blood lay an elderly Jew with deep cuts all over his body and his final agony preserved in a wide-open stare. A young Jewish woman stood with her head bowed, cradling her toddler in her arms, a witness to this awful injustice.
Any non-Jewish person could hit, shoot, and harm Jewish people, and none of them would be held accountable for what they did. The ghetto was not created for living; it was established to kill Jews. Each time the Nazis forced Jews to gather in the same marketplace, hundreds of Jewish people were coming there to await death. Many people held young children in their arms, including my father, who carried me. Then a miracle happened. A Nazi commander came over to my father and said, “You have a beautiful girl,” and gave me a little piece of sugar. He said that he had a young daughter at home who looked like me. The officer quietly whispered in my father’s ear that we should run away. Thank God for this miracle—my family and I stayed alive.
After running away, we stayed for a few days with a local Ukrainian family. Sisters Feodosia and Maria Krukov hid us until their brother said we had to leave because they might be killed for helping Jews. We went to the forest, and later met and stayed with Ivan Kulivar, my dad’s old friend. Everything seemed fine until Ukrainian policemen betrayed us, and Nazi soldiers took us back to the ghetto.
I will never forget how my family members, including kids, were forced to work in the fields, build roads, and shovel snow. Worst of all was our endless hunger. Starvation exhausts the human body and brain when you know that there is nothing to eat now and never will be. Even eighty years later, bringing up these memories is extremely difficult and disturbing for me. In the ghetto, one moment you are here, and in another you can vanish in the blink of an eye. Life no longer means anything; when one person is killed, then another is killed, and then you know that you, too, eventually will be killed. Because we all wore the yellow Star of David on our backs and on our chests, anybody could just come up and shoot and kill us.
We lived in such horrific madness for two years, trying to survive every minute. During this time, mostly at night, my father, who was a rabbi, taught the Jewish children of the ghetto how to read and write in Hebrew and Yiddish. On Yom Kippur and other Jewish holidays, we all prayed together. My father said that we survived only through the blessings of God. No matter what happened to us, we continued to believe in God and in our Jewish faith. We kept practicing our faith and celebrated Jewish holidays. I knew from a young age that for all of us to pray together we had to have a minyan of ten men.
In 1926 there were approximately 12,343 Jews in the Mogilev-Podolskiy district. After the war was over, only about 3,000 Jews were still alive. My father continued to teach children Hebrew and Yiddish at our home. With the death of my father an entire era also died. I owe my life to my father, Abram Stolyar, who was responsible for saving me and my family. Thanks to him, we stayed alive and now have many generations of our family today. Let my gratitude, love, and devotion lie as flowers above my father Abram’s grave in our little old town where he is buried.
Khana Stolyar, Never Heard, Never Forget: Vol. II, 2022