BUCHAREST, Romania — Maksim Goldenshteyn recounts a story his late grandmother told him of how, as a 4-year-old child, she snuck out of a Jewish ghetto during World War II to recover her favorite dolls that had been left behind the day her family was forcibly evicted from their home in occupied Soviet Ukraine.
“She knew even at that age that because she had lighter hair and blue eyes, she could pass as a local Ukrainian girl,” Goldenshteyn said. “She put on a headscarf and escaped from the ghetto.”
It’s one of the stories Goldenshteyn, a Seattle native, tells in his book “So They Remember,” which chronicles – with a mix of intimate family memoirs and vigorous historical research – the Holocaust in Transnistria, a land from occupied southern Ukraine which was controlled by Romania, a close ally of Nazi Germany for most of the war.
In this territory, where around 150 camps and ghettos operated, a lesser-known but equally grim chapter of the Holocaust unfolded, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were brutalized, exploited and murdered.
Many died of starvation; some succumbed to disease or exposure; some were executed.
Goldenshteyn, 33, whose family moved to the United States as refugees from the former Soviet Union in 1992, says he heard bits and pieces of his family’s past growing up, but he never linked it to one of the darkest chapters of humanity.
“They didn’t really fit the image of the Holocaust that I thought was representative,” he said. Then, 10 years ago, his mother told him the story. “I was shocked at first,” he said.
Moved by what he had learned, Goldenshteyn embarked on a decade-long journey in search of a part of the Holocaust that he believes is largely ignored.
His starting point was interviewing his grandfather, Motl Braverman, at his Seattle home over a series of weekends. Braverman, who died in 2015, languished as a teenager with his family in the remote Pechera death camp, known to many prisoners as the “noose of death”.
It cuts a central figure in the book. “My grandfather spoke with a certain detachment, as if recounting someone else’s experiences,” writes Goldenshteyn. “Later he assured me that the death camp he had survived was never far from his mind.”
Awareness of Romania’s role in the Holocaust, at home and abroad, is far less than that of the Nazis’ role. But in the territories controlled by Romania under the military dictatorship of Ion Antonescu, between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews, plus some 12,000 Roma, were killed during the war. The decades of communism that followed, much like in the Soviet Union, virtually erased memories of the Holocaust.
“I don’t think many people realize that Romania was Germany’s main ally in the East,” Goldenshteyn said, adding that the country’s communist period under Nicolae Ceausescu has become “the most traumatic history immediately” for the Romanians.
A study carried out at the end of 2021 by the National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania “Elie Wiesel” showed that 40% of respondents were not interested in the Holocaust. Nearly two-thirds of the 32% who agreed that the Holocaust took place in Romania incorrectly identified the deportation of Jews to “camps controlled by Nazi Germany.”
Stefan Cristian Ionescu, a historian and Holocaust expert at Northwestern University, said most Romanians “think it’s Nazi Germany’s responsibility.”
“I think a lot of Romanians still have a hard time accepting that the Antonescu regime and the Romanian authorities…were involved in the Holocaust,” he said. “In the mass murder, deportation and dispossession of Jews in Romania and occupied territories like Transnistria.”
In an effort to raise public awareness, Romanian lawmakers last fall passed a bill to add Holocaust education to the national school curriculum, a move that has been applauded by many. But it sparked controversy in January when the far-right Alliance for Romanian Unity, which holds seats in parliament, called it a “minor issue” and an “ideological experiment”.
David Saranga, Israel’s ambassador to Romania, strongly condemned the party’s comments online and said such statements are “irrefutable proof of either a lack of responsibility or ignorance.”
Goldenshteyn said Romanian authorities have made progress in recent years in recognizing the country’s role in the Holocaust, and said he was troubled by the party’s comments but also encouraged by the reaction from the diplomatic community.
“It’s important for any country with a dark past to confront it,” said Goldenshteyn, a father of two young children. “Because it’s impossible to chart a course forward without knowing where you’ve been. There is not enough knowledge about what happened during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
At a Holocaust memorial event at the Choral Temple Synagogue in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, in late January, President Klaus Iohannis said the pandemic had “amplified the virulence of anti-Semitic attacks” and warned against “the conspiracy theories and disinformation”.
“Let’s not close our eyes to these real dangers, which are often cleverly hidden behind a claimed freedom of expression,” said Iohannis.
At the Pechera camp, whose gates bore a wooden sign reading “Death Camp,” hunger was such that cases of cannibalism were reported. As a teenager, Motl Braverman would evade guards and travel long perilous roads in sub-zero temperatures to return with small amounts of food to keep his family alive. He would later help others escape the camp and head to relatively safer ghettos.
Goldenshteyn said what affected his grandfather the most was that “his story was never validated” due to the taboo on discussing the Holocaust. “So They Remember” tells that story, and it’s as much about human bravery and kindness as it is about depraved indifference to human suffering.
“I think the strength of this book is that it combines this personal, family history…with historical research. This makes it interesting for the general public, not just for a small circle of scholars,” Ionescu said. “Much remains to be discovered about Romania’s involvement in the Holocaust – especially this territory of Transnistria.”
Goldenshteyn writes in the prologue to his book that after his grandfather’s death he avoided listening to the audio recordings of their interviews made five years earlier. Then, in 2017, when he finally pressed play, he heard the words of his late grandfather.
“You should write this down so no one forgets,” his grandfather said. “So they remember.”