Zeni’s account of World War II and surviving the Mogilev-Podolski concentration camp. Zeni: everyone assumes it was all the Nazis- it was not. The Ukrainians were sometimes worse than the Germans- in fact, most of the time.
By Nachshon Ben
Behold Israel met with Holocaust survivor, author and artist, Zeni Rosenstein to coincide with Amir’s recent teaching “Where Was God During the Holocaust?”. Zeni has lived in Tel Aviv since 1950 after she made aliyah (Hebrew meaning “going up”, Jewish immigration to Israel) following her time in a concentration camp in Mogilev-Podolski. Zeni’s story is harsh and heartbreaking and her recollections and ability to share her stories have not been an easy task.
Zeni is the author of her biography “The Angel on the Door” it tells of her harrowing experience. She is a painter, much of her work is on display in Jewish and Holocaust museums. Her art has been her avenue for expression and ability to process her pain and loss from the Holocaust. Zeni has been sharing her story over the past decade so that others can learn, remember and hopefully avoid what Zeni predicts will be “the next war- which will be bigger than World War II and will affect us all.”
Due to the psychological and psychiatric trauma from the Holocaust, Zeni was never really able to work. Zeni married her husband, Israel, in 1963 and together they have a son Shmulik and daughter, Galit. Her family and dog, Lichi, have been her only rays of hope in life.
CHILDHOOD IN CZERNOWITZ
Zeni Kleinman-Rosenstein was born on April 11, 1935 in the Czernowitz, Romania. Czernowitz, now Chernivtsi, is a city located on the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, now part of Ukraine, the former capital of Bukovina. It was known for its vast, Jewish population and had 74 synagogues until 1940 and was referred to as “Jerusalem on River Prut”. As with the majority of Jewish cities and towns in Europe, Czernowitz’s Jewish community was filled with musicians, doctors and academics. Outside of the city, you would have found “shtelels”- small farm-based, Jewish communities. The culture and Jewish life of Czernowitz was broad and rich in tradition- the vast majority of its Jews speaking German and Yiddish. The population of Czernowitz was 40% Jewish until World War II.
Zeni came from a large, religious family of significant means. Her childhood was “filled with music, dancing, piano, ballet and family” before the war, when “all became a disaster and tragedy”. “I lived on the synagogengosa, or “the synagogue road” which had the largest synagogue- there is nothing like this in Israel,” she explained. The Jewish community was a close-knit and happy one, she told Behold Israel, “with Sabbath day bringing everyone together. All the children would play in the corner of the big synagogue, as the adults worshipped and spoke with each other before sharing meals.”
Zeni’s grandmother, Salley, was a well-known herbalist who moved to Czernowitz from Poland for her work. Zeni’s grandmother would save her life several times during her their time in a concentration camp. Her mother, Bella, was a nurse and the head of the local Jewish hospital until 1941, when Jews were dissolved of their academic credentials and thrown out of hospital, schools and public workspaces. Her father, Avraham, was a businessman and owned a delicatessen that was closed when Jews were no longer permitted to own businesses. He would later escape a concentration camp to join the partisans.
When the war broke out and Ukrainian forces came to remove Czernowitz’s Jews, Zeni’s mother had just had a baby. “It all happened suddenly and overnight,” she explained. “In 1941, we were bombed one night and forced to take to stay in bomb shelters,” Zeni described herself at 6 years old alongside her family members and maids.
Czernowitz was occupied by the Red Army in 1940 and was renamed Chernivtsi by the Ukrainian SSR when it took over under the rule of the Romanian dictator, Ion Antonescu, who switched his loyalty from France and Britain to the Nazis. Antonescu was the mastermind behind the Iasi Pogroms which took the lives over 13,266 Romanian Jews. Specifically in Chernivtsi, Antonescu created a ghetto where 55,000 Jews were forced to work, many until their deaths, before deportation to Transnistria. His methods centered on eradicating the “Judeo-Bolshevism”, which started off with laws denying Jews the rights to work and later led to the exportation of Jews to concentration camps. In 1941, Antonescu ordered the deportation of all Jews and communists between the Siret and Pruth Rivers.
Within a few days, Ukrainians with German uniforms arrived at Czernowitz and immediately gathered up all
the Jews outside her childhood synagogue. They were presented with yellow stars to place on all of their clothes, as well as new ID cards under the Third Reich. That same day, her mother and father were taken to an office for integration by the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo, Nazi secret police force). “The next day, they brought trucks, they separated the men and women and children… they brought us to a ferry and we were sent to Mogilev-Podolski.” In 1941, around 15,000 Jews were sent to the ghettos and camps of Moghilev, thousands dying from typhus.
“When we arrived in the camp, it was disgusting and smelled… it was the worst scene I had seen,” Zeni explained. As with most camps and ghettos, referred to as “refugee camps”, those with the capability to work were spared, and those who could not, were not. Zeni did not go into detail of the harrowing process. She emphasized, however, that she was sent to a Ukrainian concentration camp- not a German one, clarifying “everyone assumes it was all the Nazis- it was not. The Ukrainians were sometimes worse than the Germans- in fact, most of the time.”
Zeni remained with her family members, reports from others in the camp that her father and uncle had escaped, but may have been shot. She would not know his fate until 1945.
On the second day in the camp, all the children were put in lines and instructed to begin working. They were placed in front of dead bodies and “they told us our job was to go to corpses and remove the golden teeth, clean them and throw away the white ones. I refused and started crying and vomited and then they broke my finger with a club.” She remembers the smells, blood and children crying and explained, “if you didn’t work, you got a punishment. It was my new reality.”
“Shortly after, the children began to succumb to their hunger. There was no food in the camp so the children resorted to searching for food in the trash.” she explained, “My life as I knew it changed- I have no conceptualization of the time period of everything, how long everything took… I was terrified and scared. Lots of the memories are blurred and as if they happened consecutively. Soldiers caught the children and forced them to line up and stand in the snow with no shoes for hours on end. Those who passed out were taken to the side. They were then drenched in gasoline and set on fire. I saw the whole thing with my own eyes.”
Zeni then shared one of her most physically painful memories of injuries she would suffer from until the end of the war. “You have to understand that I did not look like a Jew,” Zeni explained. “I had blonde hair with curls and blue eyes.” One day, a soldier thought Zeni was the daughter of local Ukrainian personnel and asked for her name for which she replied “Kleinman”. When he asked her if she was a Jew, she responded that she didn’t know. “I was 6 years old. I didn’t understand what was a Jew and wasn’t a Jew.” The soldier then “punished her”, beating her and using his dog to attack her. “He beat my face in, broke two of my teeth and my nose. I begged him to stop… He then started to burn my face with his cigarettes and shot her in the leg.” All Zeni remembers after is waking up in a church where nuns were treating her wounds.
The nuns learned she was Jewish and sent her back to her mother and grandmother. Given her grandmother’s skills in herbology, she applied something to the gunshot wound. “If it wasn’t for that, they would have amputated my leg,” Zeni explained. The bullet remained in her leg until her hospitalization in 1945.
As if her situation could not grow worse, Zeni, like thousands of others, got typhus. She was fortunate however to have a nurse-mother and her grandmother. “They used gasoline and plants to create a form of antibiotic,” she explained as “Jews were not given medicine or treatment.”
Zeni explained that the memories involving the most shock, trauma and pain are the ones she shares with us, but that the day to day of the camp was “hell”. She cannot recall the majority of her time there, just increments of time, all surrounding abuse and torture. She then jumped to 1943, the worst period she can recollect. Nazi soldiers accused her mother of stealing her, a “clearly Arian” child. Her mother denied the charges, telling the Nazi soldier “We do not steal children.” The soldier then grabbed her baby sister from her grandmother’s arms and placed her on a rock before cutting her into two. He then shot and killed Zeni’s grandmother and aunt while Zeni watched and her mother passed out. Zeni has suffered from extreme depression, explaining from that moment she totally shut down. “I became an object, a thing,” she described. “My family was massacred in front of me. From then on, I couldn’t feel and can barely remember the years that followed in the camps.”
THE END OF THE WAR
What was left of Mogilev’s Jews were liberated by the Russians in 1945 through 1946. This period of time is a massive blur for Zen’s memory. “The Russians took all the children and sent them to hospitals for treatment. I was sent back to Czernowitz,” she reported. “I looked anorexic,” she remembers; Zeni estimated she was hospitalized for close to a year.
Sometime later, Zeni, along with her remaining family, moved to Romania. This period of time was calm as the war had stopped, however, the loss and despair are still pressed in her mind. Somehow her father was able to find Zeni and her mother after fighting as a partisan under the Red Army. Zeni, still a young girl, described the anger and betrayal she had felt from her father escaping the camp. “I was young and couldn’t understand why things happened the way they did,” Zeni explained. “Much of my anger I took out on him.”
By 1948, the State of Israel was created and there were rumors that there were secret transports from Romania to Israel. Until 1950, Zeni remained in Romania where she was treated extensively and underwent physical therapy. In August 1950, Zeni made aliyah to Israel. Her family moved to Haifa before moving to Tel Aviv where she has lived to date.
HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS IN ISRAEL & ANTI-SEMITISM TODAY
When asked about the significance of the State of Israel for Holocaust survivors, the answer was not what most would expect, but exactly what we have found in interviews and conversations with several Holocaust survivors: that the reality of life in a country like Israel has its challenges, given it is a region of wars and conflicts. “Israel is necessary,” Zeni explains. “Yes, it gives us the hope of protection, but to live around constant war and fear of war is terrible for survivors of trauma, specifically from the Germans.” Her concerns and issues have varied from medical assistance, to psychological care. “The reality of this life is treatment, depression and other terrible things,” Zeni expressed.
While the government of Israel, as well as several NGO’s, have provided medical, financial and psychological assistance, not being able to work took its toll on Zeni. She describes her life, despite her family, as one of deep sorrow and constant fear.
When asked about reparations from Germany, Zeni responded bluntly, “Yes, they offered us all money. Most of us didn’t take it. How can I take that money?! It’s blood money- the blood of my family, of my baby sister!… I would never take or use anything German,” she clarified.
Zeni touched briefly on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. She referred to history and remembering what has happened not too long ago. “When I see news of anti-Semitism, I know the situation will never be good for Jews… In Poland, in Ukraine- the history of suffering for Jews… how can we forget that? My mind is from the Holocaust… How can they not learn from bad things? I am 84 years old, my life has been a constant financial and emotional struggle… Where is all the Jew’s money from before the war? Where did things go? This is not just my story. This is all of our stories. We all have a story, a sad story- one we were made to not forget.”