The Nizkor Project

50 Years of Silence

History and Voices
of the Tragedy in Romania and Transnistria

Personal Testimony:
Bela (Swartz) Azar

Bella was born on November 25, 1932, in the city of Iasi. Her family consisted of five people. Her father, Marcu Swartz, worked in a glass/mirror factory. Her mother, Rina (nee Aron), was a housewife. Bella had an older brother, Yacov, and a younger sister, Esther. At home Bella was called Betty.

Bella's father perished in the infamous Iasi Death Train.

During the war, Bella was cruelly assaulted by a German officer. Those assaults caused many physical and psychological problems.

In 1969, Bella and her husband, David Azar, moved to Toronto with their two sons Yigal and Ilan, were their daughter Shirel was born in 1971. Bella and David have two grandsons: Alexander Joshua Azar and Matthew Jacob Azar.

Bella kept her wartime experiences to herself, until she presented them for publication in this book.

You cannot be anything,
If you want to be everything.
Solomon Schechter


By Bella (Swartz) Azar

My father had built our house himself. It stood in the Jewish outskirts of the city, by a stream running off the river Bahlui. Nearby, there was a textile factory and right on the river shore -- a large army barracks, housing Romanian soldiers who were later joined by German officers.

In the summer of 1940, my father was drafted into an "army unit" of Jewish men for forced labour. We never saw him again! Left alone with three children and with no means of support, my mother had to place Esther, my six-year-old sister, in the city's Jewish orphanage, on Palat Street.

Yacov was eleven year old when he had to be sent to live with my uncle, Menashe Swartz, a tailor, who lived near the orphanage. Eventually, my mother found work in a downtown bakery. However, since Jews were not allowed to move freely from one neighbourhood to another, she had to leave for work at five in the morning, and returned only when it became dark. During the night, in order to supplement our income, I would help her in sewing collars onto army uniforms.

I was 9 years old when I had to stay at home by myself for many hours every day. I was afraid to go out, as the gentile kids would make fun of me wearing the Yellow Star, an identification all Jews had to wear. Yet, going out without it could have been dangerous should someone have recognized me. I was very frightened.

One of my mother's hobbies was collecting all shapes of empty bottles. I would use them as imaginary playmates, dress them with rags, and arrange them on the windowsill, like little dolls. I used to sit for hours behind the curtain, watching the water run down the stream, and making up stories. I was always anxiously waiting for my mother to come home, partly because I was afraid to be alone, and partly because she would bring food, mainly scraps of cakes from the bakery.

In 1941, a ghastly pogrom took place in Iasi. Thousands of Jews were massacred and hundreds were raped, beaten or robbed. After that ferocious pogrom, and the tragedy of the Death Train, some of the survivors informed us that my father, my mother's three brothers, and several of my cousins had died in those trains.

One evening, our next-door Gentile neighbours told us that they had seen people going around our neighbourhood marking the houses with either crosses or stars of David. Obviously, an attack on the Jewish homes had been planned for that night. Our neighbours kindly invited us to sleep over at their house, an invitation we gladly accepted. Many crimes were committed that night. Our house was also broken into; many of our belongings were stolen or broken. Luckily, we were away.

One day, after my mother left for work, I realized that there was no water in the house. I decided to walk over to a neighbour to get some, but I forgot to put on my yellow star. Somebody from the barracks pointed me out to a German officer. He grabbed me, and brutally smacked me in the face. I fell on the pavement, while he continued to kick me in the head and neck with his black, shiny boots. Only when I fainted, did the officer leave, probably thinking I was dead. Some Gentile neighbours took me into their house and tended to my wounds and bruises. My neck was particularly hurt and I had problems from that for many years. When I grew up, it was discovered that some nerves in my neck had been injured.

Somehow, the German officer who had assaulted me found out I was still alive. One day, he came to our house, broke down the door, threw me on the floor, and beat me up, until I fell unconscious. My only clear memory of that incident was his black, shiny boots. They persist in my nightmares to this very day. Those two assaults have left me with severe physical and psychological damage.

In 1942, one year after the pogrom, my mother succeeded in placing me in the same orphanage where Ester was living. We were to remain there until 1945. The director of that institution was a Mrs. Horowitz. I also remember Adelle, the woman who did the washing. She was deaf and very kind. The orphanage consisted of two very large rooms--one for boys and one for girls-- with about 20 bunks each. Downstairs, there was the kitchen, the infirmary, and a long metal sink for us to wash in and also to wash the laundry. We kept busy scrubbing the floors, straightening out the sheets on the bunks, and helping in the kitchen. At times, we would play in the backyard. We ate mostly "mamaliga"-- cornmeal porridge. Occasionally, relatives of the children or volunteers from the Jewish community would come to visit. They would bring candies and old rags from which we made dolls. Sometimes, we would chatter, sing and laugh together. I liked it much better than staying home alone; I also felt much safer.

On February 25, 1944, a large group of orphans arrived from Transnistria. Those who were relatively healthy had been placed in a school across the street from us. The sick ones, aged one to fifteen, were brought to our orphanage. They were emaciated, exhausted, and were covered with open wounds from scratching the terrible itching caused by scabies. We settled them in a large dormitory. The "veterans", like myself, were assigned to take care of the younger newcomers. We used to treat the scabies with a black, tar-like, creamy ointment, which caused severe burning of the skin. The babies were howling in pain; we would cuddle them, and would share with them our meagre food. Feeling comforted and loved, our little "siblings" recovered within a few weeks.

Then, the Jewish committee rented trucks to transport the children to Bucharest, where orphans from Transnistria had been gathered from many Romanian cities. From Bucharest, the orphans were to be sent to the port of Constanta, and put aboard Palestine-bound ships (rented by the American Joint committee). Two vessels were already waiting for them there: the Mefkure and the Salvador. But this happy ending was not to happen. The children aboard these ships met with a cruel death.

Mefkure, with 400 people on board, was torpedoed, and sunk near Istanbul. Those who jumped off the ship and attempted to swim ashore, were machine-gunned. Some of the children on board were so young, they didn't even know their own names. The plan was to name those babies and issue birth certificates upon their arrival in Palestine. Since they drowned, their identity will forever remain unknown. A list of Mefkure passengers is kept at Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem. Of the 400 passengers on board, it lists the name and age for only 299.

"... the Bulgarian ship, Salvador, was torpedoed by a German warship, in the middle of the sea. There were three hundred and fifty people on board, including one hundred and fifty children, who had been saved from the clutches of death in Transnistria. They were hoping to begin a new life in Israel. The irony is that the name Salvador actually means "salvation"... (from: Yad Edinetz, The Edinetz Association, 1973, Tel Aviv).

I only recently found out about the tragic fate of the above-mentioned two ships. Since then, I have been in constant mourning, however belated. I feel terribly sad that, after having experienced so much anguish, those Transnistria orphans were never able to reach the shores of safety. I used to feel so close to those babies, I cared for them, I cuddled them, I loved them like a sister, and I often wondered what their future would hold.

My brother, Yacov, although not a Transnistria orphan, was smuggled onto the trucks when they picked up the orphans. Unbeknownst to me, upon his arrival in Bucharest, he and several others children, fell very ill and could not continue the journey. That might have saved his life, as he might have been on board a vessel that sunk. In 1946, he emigrated to Israel with my aunt. Later, he got married and presently he lives with his family in Kiriat Shmuel. In the meantime, we had lost contact with our mother.

Once the war was over, The Gordonia Zionist organization worked feverishly to speed up the emigration of Jewish orphans to Palestine. They gathered children from all over the country and took us to a summer camp, where we had group meetings, learned Hebrew songs, bathed in the river, played games, and came to know the Gordonia Zionist youth guides. After about two weeks, all of us were sent back to wherever we had come from, our own families, or orphanages.

Back in the orphanage in Iasi, I went back to school. The Gordonia guides kept in touch with us through weekly visits and meetings. In July 1947, different Zionist youth organizations gathered children from all over the country and organised the first general meeting of about 500 children, in Bucharest. There, we lived in a school for about 2 weeks; we had very little food, but our guides kept us busy, and we got quite attached to them. Then, we embarked a train to Czechoslovakia, and we stayed in a camp in Prague, for about 10 days. The Czeck volunteers provided us with enough food and even chocolates.

By the end of July, 1947, we reached Holland, and we stayed for about one year in the city of Appeldorn. We were housed in the building, which used to be a mental hospital before the war. The patients had been murdered by the German Nazis. The Dutch, Jewish and Gentile alike, were very helpful and compassionate. The cabins where we slept were set up according to the respective Zionist organizations; for schooling, we were divided into age groups. We learned Hebrew, Jewish history, and some mathematics. After school, we had group meetings, walked around in the woods collecting wild berries, and played. On Tuesdays, we helped the Dutch volunteers clean our rooms and they would always leave us chocolates and some pocket money, from which we would buy in town broiled fish, a Dutch delicacy.

We were well taken care of; we had enough food, clean clothes and medical assistance. In October 1948, we boarded the ship Nekbah and sailed off to Haifa. It was a difficult, two- week-long journey. The war of independence was raging in Palestine, and the British prohibited immigration of Jews, but our ship was listed as carrying cattle. Upon arrival, we were separated into different age groups, and assigned to live in various kibbutzim. This is when I was separated from my sister Esther.

As I was boarding the truck bound for kibbutz Kiriat Anavim, an old, broken-down woman approached me and asked whether I was from Iasi, and whether I knew two girls named Betty and Esther Swartz. When I inquired why all these questions, she said she was the girls' mother. I was shocked that my own mother did not recognize me. I did not recognize her either. She had aged so much and looked so decrepit. Her face was also changed because her eyes were swollen and reddened from a serious eye disease. My mother informed me that my brother was already in Israel; I, in turn, told her of the whereabouts of my younger sister, Esther. It is quite impossible to put into words what an emotional moment that was for us both. Then, my mother told me that after the war she had joined a group of people who made their way from Romania to Italy by foot. They walked in the mountains for many months, in the heat of the summer and in the frosts of winter. I do not remember how they finally got to Israel.

At the kibbutz Kiriat Anavim, we would work for half a day and go to school the other half. The older ones, were taught how to use arms -- "Gadna training", and at night, we stood on guard at the boundaries of the kibbutz. I lived in the kibbutz for one-and-a-half years.

My mother, whose health was rapidly deteriorating, had rented a room in an abandoned Arab house, in Ghivat Alyiah. At about the same time, my sister, who lived in another kibbutz, was struck by lightning. I brought her to Ghivat Alyiah, and I also moved in, so I could take care of both of them. I found work in a factory; after work I would build furniture, sew curtains, plant a vegetable and flower garden, and raise chickens. Gradually, I managed to create a comfortable home in that cold, stonewalled room. In 1951, when my mother and my sister recovered, I joined the air force, and I became a fitness and weapons instructor.

I finished my military service in two years, and I moved back to my mother's place. Shortly after that, I met David Azar, a native of Beirut, Lebanon, who had come to Israel as a teenager with a youth group. We started dating, got married and moved to Bat Yam. Our two sons Yigal and Ilan were born there.

In 1969, we moved to Toronto, and our daughter, Shirel, was born in 1971. Now, we have two grandsons: Alexander Joshua and Matthew Jacob Azar.

My sister Esther still lives with her family in Bat Yam, in Israel.

We were told that my father perished in the infamous Iasi Death Train. My mother passed away in 1988.

The assaults I suffered during my childhood had affected my physical, psychological health. Since I was in the Israeli military, I have been looking for medical help, but neither the doctors nor the workers at administrative offices believed what had happened in my childhood. Very little had been written about the Holocaust in Romania, and people thought that the Jewish community there remained unharmed. The fact that authority figures did not believe me was an additional source of suffering, and I resolved never to talk about it again.

In 1995, I met Felicia, who was doing research for her book on the Holocaust in Romania and Transnistria. This project became very important to me, as I felt an urgency to contribute to a memorial for the Transnistria orphans. As I began to trust Felicia, she was able to gradually help me share my life story with her. Shortly after that, I was able to finally talk about my traumatic experiences with my husband and my children. Now, I have reached a point that I am comfortable having my memoirs published.

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