Devorah Weinstein. Photography: Anatoly Michaello
Devorah Weinstein. Photography: Anatoly Michaello

Crossing The River: The Story of Devorah Weinstein

Dvorah Weinstein was born in Khotyn, Ukraine, into a vibrant and lively Jewish community. World War II brought it to an end

When my mother saw that I couldn’t take anymore, when I closed my eyes and wanted to give up, she told me: “You are going to Israel! You are going to Israel, with its hot, warming sun. You are going to the Land of Israel, you must live.’”

How Do You Feed Ten People From One Chicken?

My name is Devorah Weinstein nee Rosenberg. I am 87, a graduate of the Transnistrian ghetto. I was born in 1936 in the town of Khotyn in the Serbia-Bukovina province. Our area, in Serbia, was considered the granary of Russia. The land there is fertile and lush, we grew enormous watermelons, melons, and corn – the corn in Serbia is really something special. During my childhood we lived with my grandparents. We were not a rich family, but we were happy in our own way. My grandmother was the cook of the house. On Thursday’s the town held a farmers market, where all of the villagers would come and bring their produce. Grandma would go to the market and look for the largest, fattest chicken she could find, since she had to feed ten people from that one chicken. She started at the butcher’s, then plucked the feathers and began to break down the chicken. She would clean the legs, add the gizzard and the throat and make Haldiitz – Crushed Leg. She made Chopped Liver, but since she only had one liver for ten people, she fried it with a lot of onion, and added egg and some wet challah so that it would be enough for everyone. She chopped the liver by hand and served it with finely chopped fresh onion. With the wings and a small part of the chicken meat, she would make “penicillin” – Chicken Soup, and from the remaining chicken she would make Rosella – a roast with a lot of onion and potato. No part of the chicken was wasted- my grandmother made Schmaltz with the fat and she prepared Gribenes with the skin, which she would mince to a puree. The skin from the neck was filled, like a sausage, with a mixture of cuts – some brisket, some pork, some gribenes and schmaltz – it was a delicacy.

During the week, our diet was vegetarian and mostly comprised of potato, flour, and legumes – simple things that would fill the belly – lokshen (noodles), teiglach (wide noodles), kasha (buckwheat), lokshen with kasha, vernix, kreplach, knishes, pletzlach (flatbreads with poppy seeds and fried onions), bean soup with kneidlach, bean soup with kneidlach, potato soup, mamaliga – and we ate everything with bread, homemade, of course: bread with butter, bread with my mother’s homemade plum jam, bread with schmaltz. At every meal there was a loaf of bread and a pitcher of wine – my grandfather would consume half of each – and at the end of every meal we had tea and dessert: kichlach (cookies with a ring of crunchy sugar around the edges) or compote. At Passover, we would also make kneidlach and kugel from matzo flour, and matzo that we made ourselves. Most of the food at Passover were everyday dishes, but at Passover they wer tastier, even the compote was sweeter at Passover. On Fridays I would wake to the aroma of my grandmother’s challah baking in the oven; I remember the smell to this day. Even the aroma of the soup she made could be smelled from afar. The oven was built like a table – under the “table” was a fire that heated its upper part. The upper part had two surfaces – the lower one made of copper, where we would place the pots, and the upper one made of stone, where we would sit to warm up. 

“On Fridays I would wake to the aroma of my grandmother’s challah baking in the oven; I remember the smell to this day. Even the aroma of the soups she made could be smelled from afar.”

Life was very simple – we didn’t have toys or bicycles; mostly, I played with pots and kitchen utensils. My grandfather made me a rabbit from his handkerchief, and my mother sewed me a ragdoll from fabric scraps. On Friday, after the meal, our habit was to sit and crack seeds. In our neighborhood there were concrete benches where neighbors would sit, cracking seeds and gossiping. On Passover my grandfather led the Seder while sitting on a large pillow – the pillows then were one meter square pillows – and would give me hints where they hid the afikoman so that I would find it. 

In Khotyn there was a large Jewish community – the town had about 8,000 residents, and 80% of them were Jewish. We had a Jewish theater and a Jewish hospital, which they said the Tsar himself went to, because the Jews were the best doctors. There was also a Jewish High School, and of course synagogues and mikvahs. It was a very developed town. And we paid dearly for it. In 1941 everything ended.

The Burning Town

In 1941 Russia joined the war against the Nazis. That same night, soldiers came to all the houses and recruited the young men, including my father, to join the Red Army. Two or three days later, Serbia, annexed to Ukraine under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, was reoccupied by the Romanian army, which had made an alliance with Nazi Germany. Immediately after, the Romanians rounded up all of the educated people in town – the professors, doctors, teachers, lawyers – and killed them in the forest. Then, the town had no leaders, only women, children, the elderly, and the sick remained – people who couldn’t resist what came next. 

A few days later, they burned the town. I was with Grandma at home, and we tried to save some of our possessions – a blanket, a coat – but I was only five years old and she was a small woman, so we didn’t save much. My mother returned from work with my older sister, Riva, and my two year old brother in her arms. She dropped them and ran into the house to save the head of her sewing machine – she was a seamstress and understood that if she had a sewing machine, she could find a way to make a living and feed her family. A short time later gendarmes arrived – Romanian police on horseback – and rounded up all of the Jews in town. That same evening, we began a march that lasted six months – from June to December.

“The Romanians had a plan: first, they rounded up all of the educated people in town – the professors, doctors, teachers, lawyers – and killed them in the forest. Only women, children, the elderly, and the sick remained – people who couldn’t resist what came next.”

We marched with no food and no water, on the paths between the towns. The weak fell and were left behind or shot – that’s how I lost my paternal grandmother, she went crazy and was shot. Our procession dwindled along the way, but even so we continued to grow – because in every new town more Jews joined us. In every town or village we came to, each of us would try to exchange some of the possessions we managed to take with us for food – a few potatoes or a little Mămăligă. One day, when we didn’t have anything left to trade for food and I couldn’t bear the hunger, I ran away to find food. I knocked on the doors of the nearest town and asked for bread. Because I resembled the local children, they took pity on me and gave me something. My mother gave me a bag and ordered me to hide it from the soldiers, and so I would manage to collect a little food in each town, and Mom would give us each a small bite. That’s how we survived. 

When the rains began, the soldiers brought horse drawn carts and ordered the small children to be put on them, to make the march easier. My sister and I got on the cart, but our little brother would not, and my mother continued to carry him. The horses ran faster than our procession, and every so often I would check to make sure they were still following us. 

“There was no value to time, or anything else. No one knew if it was Sunday or Thursday or Saturday – the only thing of value was to stay alive one more moment, one more hour.”

The carts arrived at a path blocked by two enormous gates. The gates opened and the carts started forward. I decided that I wasn’t going anywhere without my mother. I grabbed my sister, Riva, by the hand and jumped with her into a ditch. I told her to get down, so they wouldn’t see us. We hid there and waited for the rest of the group, which included my mother, her parents, and my little brother. I knew that if they came the same way we had come, we could easily spot my grandfather, who was a large man, and then we could sneak back. I don’t know how long we lay in the ditch, but eventually they arrived, we saw my grandfather and we managed to join them. 

Crossing the River

After six months of marching, hungry, dirty, and thirsty, we arrived at Ataki (today called Otaci), a city on the west bank of the Dniester River. The goal was to get us across the river to Mogilev (now called Mohyliv-Podilskyi), a city on the eastern side of the Dniester, ​​a ghetto which served as a transit point for convoys destined for ghettos further away in Transnistria (the meaning of the name Transnistria – is beyond the Dniester). To get us across, the soldiers built rickety rafts from local wood with large gaps between the slats that were large enough to fall through. And if that wasn’t bad enough – they decided to begin crossing us at night. To make us go faster, they whipped us – one crack of the whip could injure ten people, and a blow from the knot of the whip was particularly strong. The air around us was filled with cries of parents to their children, to hold on tightly, because whoever fell was taken by the river. We managed to cross together – my grandparents, mother, sister, brother, and I, and two of my cousins who were 17 and 18 years old. 

Jews from all over Serbia-Bukovina were taken to Mogilev and divided into ghettos. My destiny, and that of my family, was to continue marching. We had no food or water and it had started snowing – the temperature in Ukraine in the winter is 30-35 degrees below zero. We continued to march until we reached an abandoned train station. They ordered us to enter the station house and lie down next to each other. Although there was a roof and floor, we were not properly dressed for the cold. The first night people died – among them my two year old brother. The bodies were stripped of all their clothes, because clothes were like gold, and placed on a wheelbarrow.

“My grandfather, who would finish half a loaf of bread every meal, shouted to my mother ‘Chantza, a shtikel beruit’ (Chantza, a piece of bread) and died of hunger.”

My mother stripped her baby, who died of cold and hunger, and laid him on the wheelbarrow without shedding a tear – her heart had already turned to stone. The next night, my grandfather told me to stay close to my Booba (Grandmother). He shouted to my mother ‘Chantza, a shtikel beruit’ (Chantza, a piece of bread) and died of hunger. My mother stripped him as well, and put him on the wheelbarrow. She didn’t cry, and didn’t say Kaddish. At this point, it was a weight off her shoulders, one less of us to suffer. In time, my grandmother also died, and both my cousins were taken to Donbas and were never seen again. 

Only my Mother, Riva, and I remained. On Christmas Eve the soldiers celebrated, they ate and drank vodka. At midnight their Commander came in and said they needed some entertainment. He took us outside and ordered us onto the train tracks, in the snow. Riva, who grew up clinging to my mother’s legs and was a quiet and obedient girl, held onto my mother. I, however, was a naughty girl, and ran around while outside, despite my mother’s warnings that I might get shot. In retrospect, this is what saved me – in the morning Riva’s legs, frozen from the snow, were paralyzed.

My Mother’s Mămăligă

After Christmas, the soldiers resumed the march. My mother never parted from her sewing machine, and now she carried it on her back and Riva in her arms. I carried the few belongings we still had. We continued to march another few days or weeks, until we got to the ghetto. Once there, they gathered us into a large hall, after the war I found out that it was a school. Once more, we lay down next to each other, with a roof above us and a floor below. Now we could finally rest. 

“One morning Mother came in happy and woke us up. She took two stones, put a pot on them, put snow in and cooked us hot Mămăligă. Riva and I were like withered flowers that had been watered and came back to life.”

My mother went for a walk in the ghetto, to see if it was possible to obtain things from those who came before us, but very quickly she understood that everyone was in the same terrible situation. Her new plan was to find holes under the fence, escape during the hours when the guard was more lax, between 4-5 o’clock in the morning, and find a way to work in the neighboring villages. She did indeed find a hole in the fence and said that while she was away, I would be responsible for Riva. At first I didn’t understand how I could be responsible for Riva, and then my mother explained that she had made some cloth diapers. Every morning I would need to change Riva’s diaper, clean it with snow, and warm it for her with my hands. My mother explained that if she was caught, she might not return; if they didn’t catch her, and she found work in the village, she would work a few days and return with the food she earned. When she found work, they would hide her in a cowshed or a barn or a hayloft, there she would sit and sew. In this way a few days passed, during which Riva and I lay like we were dead, exhausted. One morning Mother came in happy and woke us up. She took two stones, stood a pot upon them, put snow in and cooked us hot Mămăligă. Riva and I were like withered flowers that received water and came back to life. Mom stayed with us for two or three days, she fed us and cooked us more Mămăligă, so there would be something to eat when she left the ghetto again. The food needed to be hung on the wall, so that the mice wouldn’t eat it – but there were also “mice” who stole our food with their hands, and so two or three days before she returned we were already hungry again.

One night, when Mom left to go work, Riva kept pestering me – she pinched me and was restless. I didn’t know how to soothe her, but after a few hours we managed to fall asleep. I woke in the morning to find her lying next to me, dead. I didn’t know what to do – my mother said that I was responsible for Riva, so I couldn’t take her out to the wheelbarrow with the dead. I covered her, lay down next to her and hugged her. Everyone knew that Riva was lying down and not moving, so nobody asked questions. After a few days, my mother returned with food and woke me to eat. I told her that Riva no longer needed food. Mother stripped Riva and took her out to the wheelbarrow. She didn’t cry. I think that my mother had become stone; after the war to protect herself she never mentioned the children she lost. 

The Seamstress’s Apprentice

That day, Mom and I became a team. I accompanied her on her forays out of the ghetto, each time to a different village, so rumors wouldn’t spread in the village about the Jewish woman sewing clothes. I would run first, knock on one of the doors and ask if a seamstress was needed. If they answered yes, I would bring my mother. They hid us in attics or barns. I would help my mother sew, and from the leftover fabrics she would make me clothes to keep me warm.

One day Mom and I went to a new village. I approached a house that was surrounded by a low fence, I jumped over it to reach the door and a black dog attacked me, like he was devouring me without salt. A Nazi lived there and he watched at the window, and saw the dog attack me, and did nothing. Luckily, the neighbor saw what was happening. She ran out and managed to rescue me, though I was badly injured. She took me to her house, poured vodka on my wounds and also gave me half a glass of vodka to calm me down. Before I drank I mumbled “Mama Tam, Mama Tam” (in Ukrainian – mother’s there). The woman also let my mother in and let us stay with her until my wounds healed, while my mother sewed.

I don’t remember bathing at any point in the ghetto. We were full of lice, we didn’t have any skin left. They got everywhere – in the ears, in the eyebrows. When my mother saw that I couldn’t take anymore, when I closed my eyes and wanted to give up, she told me: “You are going to Israel! You are going to Israel with its hot, warming sun. You are going to the Land of Israel, you must live.” That’s how she put the love of Israel and its sunshine into my head.

Return to Khotyn

In May 1944 partisans came to the ghetto, cut the fence and told us that the war was over. My mother and I debated whether to stay in the area or return to Khotyn. We decided to return to Khotyn because, even though we didn’t have a home there any longer, my mother knew the area and believed she could find work. We knew that if Father had survived the war, he would look for us there. We began the 300 kilometer journey in the opposite direction, but this time at our own pace, without threats, without the whip of the guards. This time our journey took two months, and on the way we made a living just as in the ghetto: we went from town to town, Mom would find work for a few days and then we would continue on our way. When we arrived in Hutin I was nine years old. Mom decided that I needed to go to school, but we didn’t even have a house yet. In Hutin there were several families of distant relatives of ours, relations of the fifth degree or further removed. My mother’s plan was that one of the families would take me in – she would work and give the family money to cover my living expenses, and I would have a roof over my head and the opportunity to study in school. One of the families agreed to take me in, but they had other plans for me – they had a baby girl and they made me her nanny. I didn’t get food. I didn’t complain to my mother, but after a few weeks, when she saw my state she said “I didn’t lose you there, I’m not losing you here” and took me with her. 

“The soldier asked us who knew Chanza Rosenberg. I raised my head and asked ‘Why do you need Chanza Rosenberg?’ and he answered ‘She’s my wife’. I answered ‘If she is your wife, then I am your daughter’. That’s how we became a family again.”

She rented us a room with a family and opened a sewing shop. I started going to school, the only Jew in the class; at first the children bullied me a little, but we soon became friends. After a little while we received a letter that my father was alive and looking for us – he had taken part in the Battle of Stalingrad, where he was injured. He was transferred to a hospital in Tashkent which also had representatives of the Red Cross, and it was they who delivered the letter to us. We sent him a reply back. Some time later, I went with one of the villagers to the market to buy my mother buttons and thread. While he was shopping, I played with some kids from school. A soldier arrived and looked at us, and I thought to myself “Why is a soldier here, if the war is already over?”. The soldier approached us and asked us who knew Chanza Rosenberg. I raised my head and asked “Why do you need Chanza Rosenberg?” and he answered “She’s my wife”. I answered “If she is your wife, then I am your daughter”. I took him home to my mother, and we became a family again.

Emigrating to Israel

In 1946 I went with my father to the market, and everyone there was talking about the opening of the border between Russia and Romania. We knew that it would be easier for us to emigrate to Israel from Romania, and immediately returned home, gathered our possessions in a blanket and tied it up, Father loaded it on his shoulder and we set off. We got to Siret, a city on the border of Romania and Russia, where there were organizations that worked to bring children to Israel – youth movements, rabbis, the Joint. I got on one of the trucks of some organization, and we drove to a children’s home in Iasi. It was a beautiful place, with white sheets and food on the table. I enrolled again in first grade, but this time in Romanian. I didn’t speak a word of Romanian, but I learned quickly and so spoke Romanian and also Hebrew.

Picture of IDF pins Devorah Weinstein has shared her story with
It is important to me to share my story with as many people as possible Devorah Weinstein’s scarf, with the symbols of the IDF units she shared her story with. Photo: Anatoli Michaeli

The problem was that the young people who took us to the children’s home didn’t think to give an address to the parents, so my parents didn’t know where I was. My mother knew the ultimate goal was to get to Israel, and they told her that I was on my way. But when a few months passed and I still hadn’t arrived in Israel, my mother began to go crazy with worry. My parents were very poor and lived in deplorable conditions – they were housed in a room that leaked when it rained. They managed to save a little money and she went to Bucharest and began to move between organizational offices, and asked maybe if anyone knew what had happened to me. She arrived at the last office and was sure I was already dead, she sat outside and cried. A young man came out of the office and asked why she was crying and she told him that two of her children died in the war and the third was taken and she didn’t know what had happened to her. When he heard her description of me, he took a picture from his pocket of me sitting on his lap; he was the head of the children’s home where I was the star – dancing, singing, making everyone laugh, speaking two languages, and very happy. My mother decided to leave me there, knowing that I would have a better life there than at home. A few months later my parents had a son. He got sick with pneumonia, but my parents didn’t have money for a doctor or penicillin, so he died. My mother wanted me close to her and she asked me to come home. The staff at the children’s home gave me tickets for the trains, food for the journey, and a sign that said where I needed to go. When I arrived, I discovered my parents’ poverty. My mother immediately took me around the community and introduced me to all the neighbors, she told them that I sing and I began teaching all the children to dance Hora. Once again, for the third time, my mother enrolled me in first grade.

“They said about us, the survivors of the Holocaust, that we went like sheep to the slaughter – and I didn’t want them to look at me as a sheep that was about to be slaughtered – I wanted to be patient, strong.”

After a while, representatives arrived from another organization that tried to bring children to Israel. My mother decided that she would let me go, but asked to see exactly who she was handing me over to. We boarded a train to Bucharest, where she personally met one of the guides, who took me under her wing. The British did not let us emigrate to Israel, so I ended up in the Netherlands, where they agreed to give the Jews shelter. Holland was a paradise – I started studying at school, for the fourth time, and every instructor taught us what he knew. We celebrated the Jewish holidays there in November, and when they announced the establishment of the Israeli state – they marched us with Israeli flags around Amsterdam, took us to the botanical garden and we danced around the orange tree. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1948 we received news: the organization bought a ship called “Negba” that would set sail on Yom Kippur Eve. We sailed for about 10 days, with a group of dolphins accompanying us. On the eve of Sukkot we docked in Haifa, and I started looking for my aunt while still aboard the ship. They took us to Binyamina, and there they divided us into settlements – the older ones were sent to the kibbutz and we, the younger ones, were sent to the working women’s farm in Tel Aviv – we were Ben Gurion’s neighbors. They didn’t send us to school, but we worked on the farm – in a nursery, a chicken coop, a beehive. I was a dairy farmer and I had 6 cows – I would milk them every morning and then take the milk to “Tnuva” on Gordon Street, and on the way give a jug to Ben Gurion. I met my aunt from Haifa – on my first evening in Israel her husband, who was a soldier, took me to hear Yaffe Yarkoni at the officers’ club – but contrary to what my mother thought, that aunt did not take me under her wing.

When I was 14 years old we moved to Kibbutz D’vorah where I also didn’t study formally – basically, the only certificate I have is from the completion of Third Grade, but despite this, I did a Bachelor’s Degree in Education and a Master’s in Business Management, which I did when I was in my 50s. My parents arrived in Israel in 1951, and placed in a tent camp in Tirat Carmel.

“I am the only Oud [tree root] that survived, but from this Oud arose a great tribe”

For 60 years I have not spoken about the Holocaust and what I experienced there. Nobody wanted to hear it; even my aunt didn’t ask me about it, didn’t ask what happened to the rest of her family. I also don’t want to tell. They said about us, the survivors of the Holocaust, that we went like sheep to the slaughter – and I didn’t want them to look at me as a sheep that was about to be slaughtered – I wanted to be patient, strong, like the tanned children I saw in Israel. The children knew that I was in the Holocaust – they knew that we didn’t throw away food, and it was always in the background – but they didn’t know the whole story. When I retired, I learned that there was an association that supported those who survived the Holocaust as children, and suddenly I realized that I myself was a “Holocaust girl”. I gathered my family and I spoke for 3 hours, and told them, for the first time, about what happened to me. When I finished the story, Roni, my son, stood up and said “we are going to Ukraine, to record your story on film”. We went to Ukraine, in the winter, and when we retraced our journey, I looked for the place where Riva died.

At my age, you don’t buy green bananas – I know that I don’t have much time to tell my story, and so I made the movie, to bring my story to as many people as possible. To tell about the Jews in Serbia and Bukovina, who were exterminated in a less dramatic way, but no less cruel. 

I am the only Oud from my family who survived the war, but this Oud founded a tribe – I got married at the age of 17, I have a son and a daughter, 7 grandchildren and one more on the way.

Devorah Weinstein’s story was documented as part of the Memory in the Kitchen project, a joint effort of Memory in the Living Room and FOODISH.

Devorah Weinstein’s mother used to chop the liver with a cleaver, that Devorah still has to this day. This is her mother’s recipe aside from one brilliant tweak – she fries the hard boiled eggs with the liver, so that they absorb the flavor of the liver and the fried onions. For Devorah’s Chopped Liver recipe.

I know that I don’t have much time to tell my story, so I made the movie, to bring my story to as many people as possible The movie “M’shoa L’tkuma” (From Holocaust to Rebirth) about the life of Deborah Weinstein
*שמנו לב שחסרים כמה פרטים קטנים להשלמת הפרופיל שלך ב־FOODISH, אפשר להוסיף אותם בקלות בעמוד המשתמש שלך.