Connections: Not So Long Ago

“I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians,”

I love the movies and saw every film I could get tickets for during the Hamptons International Film Festival last weekend, but one movie in particular left me with something of an emotional hangover. 

“I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” which was made in Romania, is a contender for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film. In it, a young woman who is a theater director attempts to stage re-creations of the Odessa massacre of 1941, in which tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews were rounded up, then shot or forced into a building that was burned to the ground. The populace looked the other way or, more to the point, took part. Above all else, the film attempts to show that ordinary citizens were complicit in horrendous wrongdoing, and perhaps to warn about the future. The film was shown here on Oct. 5. 

Two days later, The New York Times ran a story titled “God Was on Vacation” about 95-year-old Iancu Zuckerman, who grew up in a Romanian town called Iasi. There, in June 1941, “soldiers, gendarmes, and enthusiastic volunteers,” as The Times put it, rounded up several thousand Jews and then murdered many (“with guns, iron bars, or sledge hammers”) and piled the rest into freight cars to nowhere that became death trains. Mr. Zuckerman was one of 137 crammed into one car; he and only seven others escaped. 

As a child, I knew my maternal grandparents had come from a country called Romania, and I romanticized it. My mother said it was a shame that my grandmother had forgotten the language. The story goes that my grandparents lived some 49 miles from Kishinev (Chisinau), in Bessarabia (or Moldava), far enough away to survive a notorious 1903 pogrom. My grandfather arrived in this county not long afterward, in April 1906; my grandmother, with her daughter Yetta, who was to be my mother, and two small boys, arrived here that November, having hidden in hay wagons and walked from as far as the Black Sea.

Only 3,876 Jews were tallied in Moldava in 1897, but their population had grown by World War II. It was reported that from October 1941 to mid-March 1942, Romanian military and local authorities murdered 25,000 Moldavan Jews and deported 35,000 to certain death.

Regular readers will remember my previous columns about the farm my mother’s father bought, a 180-acre farm in dairy country in the Catskills, where we spent bucolic summers. On fertile ground in Bessarabia, the family had been what could be called middle class. They cultivated grapes and danced on them to make wine. Their life was good. The war notwithstanding — or perhaps because of it — my grandfather was trying to re-create in the Catskills what had been good about the homeland, and to share it.