"Mother's optimism kept me alive": Panina Katzir, a Holocaust survivor and part "Memory in the Kitchen". Photo: Ortal Svetlana Bekker
"Mother's optimism kept me alive": Panina Katzir, a Holocaust survivor and part "Memory in the Kitchen". Photo: Ortal Svetlana Bekker

60 Years of Silence: The Panina Katzir Story

Pierogi thieves and dreams of Grandma's kreplach: Panina Katzir, a Holocaust survivor from Romania, tells of her beautiful life before the war

Until the age of 80, Panina Katzir did not speak to anyone about her childhood in the Holocaust, but the dam opened when Anat, her daughter, began to ask questions. Then Panina could not stop speaking and became a participant in the “Memory in the Living Room” series (where Holocaust survivors are invited into someone’s home to share their story). Anat turned the conversations with Panina into the book “Things My Mother Told Me” which she self-published for the family.

Taking part in the “Memory in the Kitchen” project – a joint collaboration of FOODISH and Memory in the Living Room, which aims to give voice to the full and colorful lives of Jews before the Holocaust – we met Panina, who gave us a glimpse of the tastes, smells, joys and customs that the war put an end to, and which only remain today in the memories of the survivors. Panina’s story serves as a beacon of hope and through its telling, she brings the recipes and traditions that she longs to preserve back to life, bursting with love and the culinary wisdom accumulated by generations of Jewish mothers.

“My mother didn’t let us fall into despair. Even when we suffered from hunger, and lice, and cold, she repeated and promised that all of this would pass and better days would come – and she said that’s why we have to fight to live – and we fought!”

Panina Katzir

Panina Katzir was born in 1930 in the city of Siret in the northern part of the Bukovina district (which was part of Austria until the First World War, then passed to Romanian control, and is now divided between Romania and Ukraine). The days of her childhood, prior to her family’s deportation to the ghetto when she was nine-years-old, passed pleasantly.

Rivka and Moshe Meltzer with their eldest son Aryeh, Siret 1925. Photo courtesy of the family
Rivka and Moshe Meltzer with their eldest son Aryeh, Siret 1925. Photo courtesy of the family

Her parents, Rivka (née Herman) and Moshe Meltzer, had three other children: Aryeh (Erich), Pesach (Paul) and Yossi (Yosef) and they were joined shortly before the war by Irma (Firmal’eh in Yiddish), who was Panina’s mother’s niece, and who was unofficially adopted by the family.
Most of Panina’s extended family, on both sides, lived in the area and the daily routine was interspersed with small family gatherings, celebrations and lots of good food: Regina and Max Meltzer – Panina’s paternal grandparents – were bakers who specialized in the local breads of the region and were considered excellent craftsmen.

Heini – their eldest son (Panina’s uncle) – who left home at the age of 15, settled in Vienna and became a successful diamond merchant and continued to support his family. He invited some of his brothers to Vienna so they could get an education and financed the construction of a new house for his parents with an innovative indoor oven. He even sent a Viennese baking expert who helped them perfect their recipes and the family bakery. Panina still uses some of her grandfathers’ tips for handling dough to this day.

Yeti Herman, Panina’s grandmother on her mother’s side, also knew how to offer countless tasty treats – Yeti, worked as a cook in wealthy homes and was a gifted cook who prepared a different wonderful meal for her family every day. Little Panina skipped between houses and enjoyed her grandmother’s flagship dishes – each in turn.

‘Hummus’ for breakfast in Romania as well

On Saturdays, for example, “I would dress up and go visit Grandma and Grandpa Meltzer (my father’s parents). While I was waiting with my grandmother for my grandfather to return from synagogue, I sat next to her and watched her prepare his breakfast: colorful beans, boiled and mashed, with oil and onions, cut into tiny cubes (Fasole Batuta). I would eat with him, sitting on his lap,” she recalls. The children waited all year for the food served at Passover, Panina’s favorite holiday, and for the kreplach – the dough pockets filled with liver and fried onions, which were served on New Year’s Eve at Grandma and Grandpa Meltzer’s home. “Grandma only prepared the holiday dishes for that specific holiday,” Panina says.

Grandma Yeti Herman with Firmal’eh (Panina’s cousin and adopted sister), Siret, 1937. Family photograph.

Panina ate lunch almost every day with Grandma Yeti (Gershon, Yeti’s husband and Panina’s grandfather, passed away before Panina was born), where every meal started with soup: “Sometimes vegetable soup, sometimes beans, sometimes chicken soup with noodles and there was also borscht – I knew what kind of soup to expect from the smell that greeted me on the way over to her house.”

Panina loved her mother, Rivka’s, food no less than her grandmothers, especially kalacher – meatballs in a sweet and sour sauce served as a first course – or pierogi filled with fried onions, hot pepper, mashed potatoes and goose fat. “When my mother made them, she made huge batches and would make 120-150 each, cook them in water and serve with fried onions on top. We children would grab the pierogi from each other’s hands because they were so delicious.”

In Panina’s house they spoke Yiddish and Romanian, but the common language of the area was German. The family’s livelihood came mostly from Rivka’s commissions, Panina’s mother, who operated a lace embroidery business from their home and employed 20 other women. “Father was a beautiful man, with big dreams but not much action,” says Panina, who describes his business as a “luft gesheft” – literally air business, which denote lofty pursuits – “which never involved too much hard work,” she smiles.

Poppy seed buns, olives from Greece, and fruit straight from the tree

There were many Jews in Siret and “correspondingly many synagogues” says Panina, “small synagogues were everywhere and were used for daily needs and there was also one large, magnificent synagogue for Shabbat and holidays.” The city also had institutions which provided aid to the Jewish community, such as the central kitchen where Yeti, Panina’s grandmother volunteered, or the warehouse where the needy could go to get nice, clean clothes.
The city also had a community known as the “Schwaben” – a German-speaking Christian population, who had been in the city since the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – “but the Jewish influence was so great that even the Gentiles’ shops were closed on Saturday.” Panina goes on to say that “until the war, comradery prevailed between the Jews and the Gentiles”.

“Suddenly, children I used to play with threw stones at me. Within a few weeks, the Romanians threw the Jewish children out of school and we moved to study in a room or in a Jewish institution for girls.”

Panina Katzir

Life before the war was full of pleasures: “Romania is a lush and abundant country, with good vegetables and good oil. We grew the vegetables ourselves and we had chickens and ducks in the yard that were fattened for the holidays. In the kitchen there were always huge jars of schmaltz that my mother and grandmother kept. In the summer they grew corn everywhere in the city and at every meal we had mamaliga or Jondore – a sweet porridge made from corn flour and milk. In the morning they would grind coffee and set up a fresh pot, and in winter they would prepare buttered potatoes and chestnuts in the oven or drink red-red tea from linden trees. All year round there was almost an overabundance of fruit – I don’t remember that we ever bought them, we just picked what grew around us (there was a municipal law that anything outside of the yard is for public consumption).” Panina says that every morning she and her brother went to school after a big breakfast and on the way they would buy themselves their 10:00 snack: a poppy seed bun that cost 1 Leu from the bakery, and black olives, which cost one more, that arrived straight from Greece to our neighborhood grocer, and were wrapped in a piece of newspaper.

The entrance to Hell

When Panina was 9 years old, everything quickly changed. Abundance, laughter and family were replaced by scarcity, uncertainty and fear. In 1940, Russia annexed northern Bukovina and Serbia. Panina’s father was drafted into the Romanian army but ran away to fight on the Russian side. The family continued to live at home and waited for what was to come. In the first weeks the children maintained a familiar routine and continued to go to school, but their playmates became enemies and the school stopped accepting its old students. “Suddenly, the gentile children I used to play with, threw stones and cursed at me, and at school, the Romanian management threw us – the Jewish children – out of the classrooms. We moved to study in a room or a Jewish institution for girls, but that didn’t last long either.”

In the first months of the war, the authorities in Romania allowed families from the Romanian side to move to the Russian side, provided they had a family member there. Rebecca, Panina’s mother, had quite a few relatives on the Russian side, including her brother, so the family was able to move but Rebecca hesitated – she was afraid that the authorities would harass those who left. Only when the family could no longer figure out where their next meal would come from, did Rivka submit the request and receive a date for the move. And so Panina, her brothers, her adopted sister, Grandma and Grandpa Meltzer and grandmother Yeti left for Chernivtsi in a wagon. They said goodbye to their beloved family, friends and neighbors and set off. It was the last time they saw them – none of them, except for one aunt, survived the war.

Pnina Meltzer Katzir- first from the left in the middle row.-Firamela-Melzer-second-from-the-left-in-the-bottom-row-standing-with-the-daughters-of-Beit-Yakov-most-of-whom-died-in-the-war
Pnina (Meltzer) Katzir – first from the left in the middle row with her adopted sister Pirmella Meltzer – second from the left in the bottom row and their friends from Beit Ya’akov, most of whom perished in the war

The journey to the Russian side in the cold was not easy, Panina’s grandfather did not survive it and even when they finally arrived in Chernivtsi the family did not find peace. Within about a year, the war reached them there as well, the Russians retreated and the streets were filled with blood – “There were pogroms against the Jews, they slaughtered us in the streets and in the end those who remained were put into the ghetto, which we were only allowed to leave for two hours a day in order to find something to eat.” Life in the ghetto was unbearably difficult, the Jews were hungry “and besides the hunger we were cold and lived with disease and terror. One day we were informed that in two weeks we were moving on and promised that it would be to a better place. In these two weeks, mother’s hands, and all of ours, were busy packing, preparing and trying to get everything that would help us. On the day we were meant to leave, just before we left for the train station, my parents called me and my brothers in and said that they didn’t know where they were taking us and what would happen to us, but that if they separated us that, inside our bags, each of us had a small loaf of bread, a bottle of water and soap, and that inside the bread and soap there was a little gold or jewelry for a time of need.”

When Panina and her family arrived at the station, they discovered that the train they were supposed to travel on was used to transport cattle. The cars smelled and the guards filled each one to a horrifying density with the 3000 Jews who had just been evacuated from the ghetto. Panina remembers that it was impossible to even raise a hand or change position without all ones neighbors having to move. The train journey took three days without stops. The carriages did not include toilets and the stench and difficulty breathing were horrific – especially for the little ones. To this day, Panina is grateful to anyone who bothered to occasionally lifted her and the other children up to the tiny air vents so they could breathe some fresh air.

The journey that never really ended

When the train finally stopped, “we fell out of the cars, and I was so happy that there was air again,” Panina recalls. But her joy was short-lived, the exhausted passengers who survived the journey were greeted by shouts and shoves: “Next to each car was a barrel and the guards ordered us to put in it all the valuables that might still be found in the bags. They threatened that anyone who disobeyed the order would be executed. My mother had nothing left to give, so we simply joined the group of people who started moving on foot, away from the trains and to our next destination, which was the border with Ukraine.”

Panina says that her family and the rest of the Jews who survived the trip walked for days, “the air was cold, it was a Russian autumn – which is nothing like what we knew – and it was rainy”. Under these conditions, they also had to cross the Dnister River: “Our feet sank into the mud as we walked towards the river, the road was lined on both sides with villagers from the surrounding area, who looked at us as we stumbled and shouted: ‘It’s a shame, they’re going to drown you soon anyway, you’d better get rid of everything now.’ The older people started shouting and crying, fear ruled everything,” Panina says. “The shouts accompany me to this day, that journey never really ended.”

Our feet sank into the mud, we could barely walk. the road was lined on both sides with villagers from the surrounding area, who looked at us as we stumbled and shouted: ‘It’s a shame, they’re going to drown you soon anyway, you’d better get rid of everything now.’ The older people started shouting and crying, fear ruled everything.”

The journey of Transnistrian Jews, just before crossing the Dnister River: Pnina Katzir

Despite the threats, the soldiers did not try to drown them, but they also did not help those who fell from the improvised rafts given to the Jews in order to cross the river, but allowed the icy water to suck them down. One of the soldiers who brought Panina and her family onto the raft noticed that she was wearing gold earrings. “These earrings were made for me when I was born, as was the custom for most Jews in the area. They were such a part of me that both my mother and I completely forgot about them when we got off the train.” Panina will never forget them again, the soldier ripped the earrings straight from her ears tearing the frightened 12-year-old girl’s earlobes while threatening that “the next one who does not hand over their valuables will be drowned”. The blood flowed from her ears, but Panina remembers that at that moment she was mostly afraid that something would be done to her mother or her little sister or her grandmother, so in her heart she repeated a prayer: “May my family be saved, may my family be saved, may my family be saved.”

Even when Panina and her family made it to the other side of the river, it became clear that the journey was not close to ending. They were led to an abandoned building in an uncultivated area filled to the brim with about 40 makeshift camps housing bruised, exhausted Jews who had been brought there in the cold, and by no means were they just from Romania. After one night in the camp, the many thousands of Jews were gathered into a huge mass and marched by the soldiers to an unknown destination. For three weeks the men, children, women and the elderly walked with all of their earthly possessions on their backs, their tired feet trudging through mud and sometimes snow. They covered multiple kilometers every day, and every day the huge swarm also dwindled – those who stumbled were shot and there were many who could not survive another day of an hours-long march spent in hunger, cold and despair.

Panina’s small family group numbered 9 people and their concern was Grandmother and her little sister “we guarded them like a treasure” she says. Finally they arrived at a small and shabby town called Djurin which was destined to become their new home. They and the rest of the Jews were put into the ghetto where the local Jews had been living for some time. The ghetto was not fenced, its borders were marked by the guards, who were fortunately Romanians and not Germans – which meant, a little less brutally and a little more pragmatically, “the Romanians could still occasionally be bribed”. The guards threatened that anyone who crossed the unmarked borders would be shot dead. “But there was no need to shoot us,” says Panina. “They just let us die all on our own from cold, hunger, typhoid, scabies, despair and fear. People really died like flies, dozens fell every day.”

“There was no time to be afraid, nor to think about the future, but nevertheless one day I found myself in a dark place and asked my mother- after all I was barely 14 years old- will I ever be beautiful? Will anyone ever love me? Mother was not flustered, she didn’t get angry and did not wave the question away. She described to me in detail the wonderful dresses she would sew for me after the war.”

Panina Katzir

For almost 4 years Panina and her family members slept on the floor of a crowded room with no door or windows and with only one piece of clothing on their bodies. All of them also fell ill at some stage with typhus and all of them managed to recover – without medicine and food. “Somehow we got along: in the winter we knew how to use the snow to relieve the patients’ burning lips. We scavenged for food here and there – sometimes we found it in the garbage, there was a time when one of my brothers was taken to work in a textile factory to produce sunflower oil (he replaced the horses that were requisitioned by the army and used to run the millstones) and at the end of the day they gave him whatever was left of the kernels after grinding, it was like halvah, tasty and soft and nutritious. Whenever possible I went out looking for food – I would sneak outside the ghetto and look for work among the gentiles, any little thing from which I could obtain a potato or a slice of bread. In the evenings we all gathered again and, according to mother’s wisdom, we ate together sharing what we had found between us. Grandma and my little sister always got to eat first.”

Panina’s tortured body found it difficult to grow and during the years of her stay in the ghetto, between the ages of 11 and 14, Panina says that she barely grew. “I was small, thin and full of lice,” despite the lice, Panina’s mother would not let her get a haircut. “She knew that the sight of a bald skeleton would deter the Gentiles from giving me work,” and so instead of going bald, her mother, brothers and grandmother would pick the lice off each other’s heads.

“We didn’t have time to be afraid, nor to worry too much about the future, but I, who was still a girl, found myself in a dark place and I asked my mother, ‘Will I ever be beautiful, will anyone ever love me?’ Mom didn’t get flustered, didn’t get angry, didn’t wave the question away. She sat next to me, continued to remove the lice from my hair and described in detail how the dresses she would sew for me would look, how well-groomed I would be and how much boys would chase me.”

This story, in Panina’s eyes, is just an example of the amazing wisdom her mother showed. “Thanks to her sensitivity and intelligence and patience, she managed to keep us all alive. My mother never let us fall into despair. Even when we suffered from hunger and lice and cold, she repeated and promised that all this would pass and good days would come- and that’s why we had to fight to live – and we fought! I, for example, sneaked out of the ghetto to get food and every time I went out mother hugged and kissed me so hard that I felt it was keeping me safe. Only in adulthood, did I realize that her hugs were of one who thinks she is seeing her child for the last time.”

The good days that mother promised arrived

After the war, the family returned to Siret and found it destroyed. At the age of 15, when she already felt she had the life experience of a 30-year-old, Panina wondered how she would continue. Very quickly a direction became apparent: Panina joined the Zionist movement, began to learn about the Land of Israel and mentored young children.

In 1946 Panina and a group of her peers moved to a commune in Romania, in a large agricultural area that the movement rented with the aim of training the girls and boys for life in Israel and teaching them what it meant to work the land. In the mornings they worked in the fields and at night in a brick factory, strengthening themselves and becoming skilled laborers and farmers. After a few months, with the help of donations, some of which were used to buy a small fishing boat and some of which were handed over as bribes to the Romanian authorities, the trainees sailed to Israel.

The voyage, which lasted a week, was not easy. The fishing boat was not designed to carry so many people and seasickness found all the occupants. A little before the small ship arrived in Haifa, one of the boys noticed Mount Carmel, the whole group realized that they were in the Land of Israel in a moment and quietly began to sing “HaTikva”. They celebrated too soon – the British spotted them and within moments seven warships surrounded the small ship.

Panina and her friends did not plan on giving up, a security guard who accompanied the trip instructed them to dress and equip themselves with cans (the only objects that could be used as some kind of weapon) which they planned to throw at the British. In the end – even before Panina and her friends had time to start organizing – the British soldiers were already on board, arrested everyone and put them on a POW ship that sailed to Cyprus where they were housed in a POW camp made up of “only 70 tents and sand”, Panina says.

There were also weddings in the camp – sometimes seven a day – if they managed to find someone to make a canopy. On the days of the weddings, the captive Jews would ask the British to have their hot meal in the evening to serve as the refreshment, and Panina would collect the dressings from the packages they received, make veils and improvise flower bouquets from what she found on the sand.

When the establishment of the State of Israel was announced, the young people of the camp began to immigrate. Panina finally arrived in Israel when she was 18 and immediately enlisted. When she was released she met her husband, they got married and she became Panina Katzir instead of Meltzer, and they stayed together for 65 years, until he passed away. “He loved to eat,” Panina says, and when he died she stopped enjoying food for many weeks – until she reminded herself that she had to continue living life, so that she could be in good health and not be a burden on the children. Panina has 2 children (Danny and Anat), 3 grandchildren (Maya, Yael and Itai) and 2 great-grandchildren (Sansa and Agam).

Panina Katzir’s oath of silence

When she arrived in Israel, she vowed not to fight in a war and not to speak any language other than Hebrew. But despite the self-imposed silence and disconnect from her past, “the body remembered the trauma. I can never be in the dark and always look for light. I suffer from a cold even when there is no real reason and feel a constant need for bread. It physically hurts me to see bread thrown on the street, and I always fill the freezer so that I won’t be left without challah or a good loaf of bread.”

In her seventies Panina visited the Holocaust Survivors Club because she was interested in taking part in sport activities. However, the club is a support group. It took her 7 years to start talking about the Holocaust. When she was 80 years old, her daughter asked to know the whole story, and together they wrote a book “Things My Mother Told Me” that was self-published for the family and since then Panina has been sharing her story to keep the memories “both the beautiful and the terrible”, of the life that disappeared.

For Panina Katzir’s Transnistrian Chicken Soup and Panina Katzir’s Liver Stuffed Kreplach

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