Transnistria had belonged to Soviet Ukraine before Romania was given control of the region by Germany in 1941. The territory was governed by Gheorghe Alexianu, who directly answered to Marshal Ion Antonescu. On August 19, 1941, a decree proclaimed his administration. Soon, however, Transnistria would become what Alexander Dallin called “ the ethnic dumping ground of Romania.” Raul Hilberg estimated that over 150,000 died in Transnistria (not all directly murdered). Romania was the only country besides Germany to be involved in massacres on such a grand scale.
As we will see in what follows, only on the microscale does the true picture emerge, however; in the postwar words of the survivor Mehr Berura, who lived in Transnistria for two and one-half years, “ of the 1,500 deportees with whom I arrived, only 10 percent survived.”
In October 1941, one of the largest slaughters of civilians during World War II took place in Odessa. Romanian and German troops occupied the city on October 16. According to Dora Litani's estimates, between eighty and ninety thousand Jews lived in Odessa at the moment of its occupation, and thousands of them, especially intellectuals, were killed during the initial twenty-four hours. Dallin thought that as many as 100,000 Jews or more remained in Odessa, a figure possibly too high. Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg's Black Book estimates that three thousand to four thousand Jews were killed during the first days of the occupation.
On October 22, a mine left in a booby-trapped safe destroyed the building housing the Romanian Military Command in Odessa. The explosion killed General Glogojanu, sixteen other officers, nine noncoms, and thirty-five soldiers.
The figures mentioned by Romanian officers present in Odessa vary between 19,000 and 23,000 dead. At his trial Eugen Cristescu, former head of the SSI, stated that 25,000 to 26,000 people had been executed in Odessa. Finally, the handwritten postwar testimony of one survivor also estimated the number of victims burned alive or hanged in Odessa at 35,000. In the final analysis it is quite likely that at least 25,000 Jews were killed in Odessa and Dalnic.
Another large-scale massacre in which the Romanian military authorities of Transnistria were implicated took place in Golta District one month after the events at Odessa. At the first Romanian war crimes trial the fact emerged that the order to exterminate the Jews interned in the Golta ghettos of Bogdanovka, Dumanovka, and Acmecetka came from the prefect of the district, Modest Isopescu; Ukrainian policemen and Romanian gendarmes under his command carried out the mass executions. Most of the victims were Ukrainian Jews, but thousands of Bessarabian Jews also perished there.
The massacre began on the morning of December 21, 1941. The inmates were split into two groups: in several stables [were] the sick and disabled who could not go to the forest where the execution was to take place outside the camp; those who could walk were piled into the other stables. The first lot to be massacred consisted of the sick and the disabled; after having scattered hay on the roof of the stables and in front of the entrances, they poured gasoline. The order rang out, “ Light the fire!” and in several minutes the two stables and the four to five thousand inmates went up in smoke, under the watchful eye of the police sent by Modest Isopescu, to help them complete his criminal task.
It is not difficult to imagine the torment, the anxiety of 43,000 Jews locked up in the other stables, awaiting their turn. For them, the accused had chosen another site for the massacre: a ravine close to a bog in the vicinity of the camp, each area playing a specific role “ the bog, for the looting from the inmates of what they held to be most precious; the ravine, for the execution itself and incineration. While the two stables burned, the ambulatory inmates were led to the execution site. Horrible scenes unfolded: mothers took their children in their arms and asked to be spared; fathers encouraged their children and their wives when the deepest feeling of despair overtook the inmates. They could still hear the desperate screams coming from the stables, which collapsed on the corpses.
In the forest, after having been robbed and stripped, they were made to kneel, naked, on the edge of the ravine: they were shot in groups of three to four hundred people, with explosive bullets. The massacre proceeded at that pace on December 22 and 23, 1941. It was interrupted from December 24 to December 28.
In view of the large number (43,000-48,000) of people who were massacred, the accused, Modest Isopescu, gave the order to cremate the corpses, hoping to erase all traces of what had happened. For that, he chose the strongest two hundred men from among the inmates. The cremation took two months: January and February 1942.
Witnesses stated that four to five thousand inmates died at Acmecetka, deprived of any food. A survivor confirms in general terms the figures attributable to the first batch of Romanian war criminals: namely, 48,000 dead in Bogdanovka, 14,000 dead in Dumanovka, and 14,000 dead in Acmecetka. But according to the same survivor's notes, one has to add another five or six thousand to the number given at the trial.
Mostovoi was the major center of extermination of the Berezovka District Jews. According to the estimates of survivors and Romanian gendarmes, at least thirty thousand were murdered there. Other mass executions took place in Balaiciuc (two thousand victims), Cihrin (two thousand), Zaharovca (fifteen hundred), and Rastadt (six hundred). In May 1942, Romanian gendarmes and German policemen killed forty Jews in Vasilinovo (Berezovka). About 31,000 Jews in Berezovka District were transferred to the Germans by a gendarme commander, Adam Popescu. As far as is known, none survived.
Berezovka was the arrival point of almost twenty thousand Odessa Jews who had survived the Romanian army massacres of October 1941. The railroad station of the town of Berezovka, some sixty miles northeast of Odessa, was situated in the middle of a cluster of Ukrainian and ethnic German settlements. The Jews, brought there by train, were marched to the countryside and shot by ethnic German Selbstschutz [members of the self-defense corps]. . . . The death toll . . . was swelled by victims from smaller towns and villages. A cumulative figure was indicated by a member of the German Foreign Office in May. About 28,000 Jews had been brought to German villages in Transnistria, he [Popescu] wrote. “ Inzwischen wurden sie liquidiert” (Meanwhile they have been liquidated).
A report from the Romanian Berezovka gendarmerie stated in April 1942 that 85 percent of the Jews of Berezovka District had been liquidated by SS formations. A similar report of May 1942 indicated that all Odessa Jews who had been held in the Mostovoi castle had been executed in a field by the SS, which then burned the corpses. In early June the SS troops of Lichtenfeld executed 1,200 Jews in Suha Verba; the Transnistria Gendarme Inspectorate reported that mass murder to the government of Transnistria. On July 3, 1942, Romanian officials handed over 247 Jews at Brailov (Bratslav), ten kilometers northeast of Smerinka, after they had sought refuge on Romanian territory; the Germans killed them. Romanian gendarmes executed three hundred Jews moved from Vapniarka to Berezovka during the spring of 1942.
On August 19, 1942, at the request of the Todt Organization and with the consent of the Tulcin District prefect, Colonel Loghin, three thousand Jews who had been deported in June from Cernauti and taken beyond the Bug now were handed over to the Germans. Of those three thousand Jews almost no one returned. The elderly, [as well as] some of the women, some of the children, and the weakest, were executed in the first days. The others were gradually killed once they could no longer work. Then, on June 6, 1943, again at the request of the Todt Organization, another transport of 829 Jews was sent from Moghilev to Trihati for the construction of a bridge over the Bug. The fate of these Jews is unknown.
During the massive SS executions of the Jews who had been deported to the Berezovka District in the spring of 1942, Romanian gendarmes also wrought their own carnage.
How many Jews perished in the massacres at Transnistria? At least 123,000 Romanian Jews had crossed the Dniester River in 1941 and 1942; only 50,741 remained alive as of 1943. About 25,000 Jews were killed in Odessa, at least 28,000 Jews were killed by the Germans in Berezovka, and 75,000 were killed in Golta, not to mention up to 19,000 Romanian Gypsies killed in Transnistria. Julius Fisher estimates that 87,000 Romanian Jews died in Transnistria along with 130,000 indigenous Jews. The Germans bear direct responsibility for the deaths of about fifty thousand, mostly in the districts of Berezovka and Bar. The majority of them were handed over to the Nazis by the Romanians. The final result of all the efforts of the Romanians, the Germans, and their collaborators was the victimization of more than a quarter million innocent people.
Although, as we have seen, the murders continued after 1942, the zeal of Romanian officialdom began to abate in that year as the changing course of the war suggested to them to replace fanaticism with opportunism in Jewish matters. If outright mass murder occurred less frequently, however, soul-numbing persecution and grinding day-to-day oppression would continue, with widespread fatal results.