Misha’s Story, Odessa’s Last Survivor

I knew Misha was special the moment  I heard of of him from my friend Vicki. You see, there are nearly zero Jewish survivors of Holocaust East of Hungary. The eradication in those areas was so thorough mostly due to local collaborators that the evidence of what happened is mostly hear-say. That’s small communities, but Odessa had so many Jews that they had to build a death camp. The process for killing was so fast that they didn’t bother putting a number on people. So it was my shock and surprise to find out that one of seven survivors, was here in San Diego. I had to meet him.

Here was Misha, a dapper gentleman, 90 years old and still able to walk and talk and remember everything as if it happened yesterday. His only problem is not being able to speak English. Lucky for me, and him is that he had a will to survive, a desire to tell me and show his story. Here is his story, the story of millions who did not survive. His voice is their voice, a voice that waited to speak 75 years.

Michail Tochman, the last survivor of Odessa concentration camp (there were seven of 100,000) passed away today in SanDiego. Our condolences to his family. 

This is the story of his survival story he wrote before he passed away. Original is translated by Olga Litvin and re-published from RussianOJS.

Always Remember

I, Michael Tochman, was born on May 20 in the shtetl Krivoe Ozero, at the time part of Odesa region. My mother, Tochman Sima Lazarevna (maiden name Kleiman) was born in 1898. My father, Tochman Pinkus Moshkovich, was born in 1920.

Early Life

We moved to Odessa in 1932 due to the complete liquidation of NEP (a private enterprise program in early Soviet Union), and because my parents completely lacked work prospects in the shtetl. It was impossible to survive in such conditions. In Odessa we lived in a basement-like room in squalor. The family consisted of five people: my parents, me, my sister Ida and my father’s relative (aunt) Riva, born in 1869. My childhood recollections were not joyful because of our overwhelming poverty, poor nutrition, lack of good clothing or shoes. In short – barefoot childhood that passed in street games. Despite all, I was always drawn to books which I read through and replaced with new ones twice a week. In 1941 (at the age of 15) I finished seventh grade. On June 15 I received my high school diploma with good grades. The following week, on June 22 – the war began. I learned of the news while in line at the library, named after Krupska, where I stood in line to exchange my books. Our family lived on Torgova (Market) Street, no. 3. In our yard, exiting to Preobrazhanska Street 1, was an exit into the Odessa catacombs which plunged about 15-20 meters into the earth.

During the first days of the war, Fascist (For some reason “Fascist” is what the Soviets called Nazi invaders) aviation fleets began flying over the city with bombs and mines dropping over homes. The nearby residents found shelter in these catacombs, including our family.

Soon, after 2-3 weeks, following the quick invasion of the German military, Odessa began the evacuation of the population. First people left by rail, then after the city’s complete occupation, on August 15, by sea. Before the war, Odessa had a population of 200 thousand Jews. About 50 percent of the population managed to evacuate (100 thousand) [before the invasion]. [During evacuation] S few steam boats, packed to the brim with people, were attacked and sunk with all the passengers. Far from everyone managed to evacuate given that official permission was required that was granted to only some and not at all workplaces or organizations. My father was a handicraftsman, hadn’t worked for the previous five years in government service, and lacked ability to obtain an evacuation pass. Thus, our family remained under occupation.

Invasion and Occupation

Our family’s history of the holocaust began on October 16, 1941, particularly for myself. It was a day when the Fascist regiments entered the city. That day after dinner, Romanian soldiers appeared on the street corner of Korolenko and Torgova. The residents approached them with smiles on their faces, welcoming them with warm words. These were non-Jewish adults. We, Jewish boys, also approached them with an uneasy feeling in our guts, as our curiosity superimposed our fear. People celebrated the end of their lives in the catacombs, happy to see the sky again.

On the second day, there was an order to place crosses in chalk on the doors of all non-Jewish homes. On the streets, people were immediately approached with the question “Little Jew?” Soldiers entered homes on which a cross was not marked, understanding that these were Jewish (Kikes), and searched all the possessions and causing disarray. In their beggarly mentality, the Romanian soldiers were unsatisfied with the dearth of price possessions, and took even the sugar packs. A few days later, Romanians began chasing Jewish families from their homes and push them through the streets in columns, gathering them into large masses at schools and other buildings. Here, soldiers began full searches of everyone, doing full body searches and rummaging through all pockets and folds in search of gold or possessions.

Hanging stations were set up and people hung without questioning. That day, 10,000 were shot to death.

Later, on the second day, Jews were rushed under guard from the schools and buildings to the Odessa jail. My family of five was in one of these columns. On October 23, the partisans bombed an NKVD [precursor to KGB] building wherein the Romanian 10th division governing officers were stationed and were celebrating their occupation of the city. About 200 officers and the city Commandant were killed. Mass terror and shootings commenced that same day. Hanging stations were set up and people hung without questioning. That day, 10,000 were shot to death. From the Jews that were in the prison, 10,000 (including women and men) were rushed to the artillery buildings’ artillery stockpiles, closed, covered in gasoline and burned alive.

The organizers of this action were the highest ranking members of the Romanian army – General Machicho and Trostioriatsu. According to orders, Jews were all those who had a Jewish relative on the male or female side, as well as any converts, regardless of duration or religion. This information was relayed in the Odessa Newspaper, Number 8, on November 20, 1941. We were herded into the prison jails like cattle on October 22 and placed in groups of several tens into each cell. Some on the metal beds, some on the floor. The doors did not open. Only water from the faucets was available. Some Romanian line soldiers would take bribes, but these were few. Germans appeared daily and took away men in groups to various jobs. In the evening, not everyone would return.

On November 4, jails began releasing elderly Jews, women and children under 15 years old. Men remained, but everyone was first carefully searched for possessions. Somehow my father managed to squeeze into the crowd and escape the jail unnoticed. The group went in columns along Most street to the canning factory. From there, everyone parted into separate directions as by then, the guards were no longer present. When our family of five arrived at our home on Togovoi 3, we found all of our things thrown out by the front doorway, where it had clearly been for the two weeks of our absence. The gardener took our home and kicked us out. We were forced to turn to our mother’s brother David Kleiman, who also escaped from jail with his family (he was over 50 years old, and such people were not kept in the jail.) He gave us a temporary residence.

On the second day, I went to the New Market to exchange some things for food. While there I fell into a trap. I was one of several thousand people were sent to a convoy in Dolnik and further toward Bodilovka, on the coast of the Bug River about 150 kilometers from Odessa. The Romanians shot anyone who lagged behind. If they wore good clothing, it was taken. At night, everyone was rushed into pig pens or horse stalls, if they were along the way. On the third day, I escaped through a side door of a farmhouse for cattle. After a few days, I made it back to Odessa by traveling at night.

By mid-November, there was an order that all Jews between the ages of 16 and 50 years old were required to appear at the jail. If anyone defied orders, they would be shot. My father took a suitcase, I walked with him and not reaching the jail, we said goodbye. I was afraid of going further as I was 15 and a half years old and would not have been able to prove my age. This was the last time we saw each other.

At this time my mother found an empty apartment at Uspenko 119, where a Jewish family that had perished previously lived. She said that the apartment had belonged to her sister; she gave someone something of value and our family of – now – four moved into the apartment.

The next seven-eight weeks passed relatively calmly. No one bothered Jews. But the calm was deceptive. One could only walk outside if with a sewn yellow star of David on the breast, and only along the Mostov St. Jews couldn’t stand in line for bread at stores. Romanian soldiers would enter Jewish homes and take whatever they liked. We hardly saw German soldiers since the territory spanning from the Dnestr to Bug, called the Transdnestria, was given to Romanian jurisdiction. Germans appeared sporadically and behaved as lords. German soldiers treated Romanian officers with arrogance and negligence. A Romanian officer would stand before a German soldier at attention. German colonists with a swastika band in the city would behave with complete ownership of the city, stealing and killing without apprehension. Romanians did not have the right to even make remarks. Anyone who was not lazy could rob Jews. It was particularly difficult when neighbors behaved in this way, who had lived nearby for many years in the same courtyard. Our relative Josef Gitelman lived in the same cell with my father. Daily, the Germans took people from the prison for heavy labor. One day, when my mother was taking a parcel for my father, he told her that Joseph was shot the previous evening in a public execution and thrown into a ditch because he was sick and weak, an accountant by profession and unable to move the heavy crates with gasoline quickly enough.

The winter of 1941-1942 was particularly harsh. There was no heating. Aside from corn-flour, which occasionally one could exchange, there was no produce. There was no one to turn to for help. People completely lost hope. The fear of tomorrow and our inescapable situation turned everyone of us into shadows. Going outside meant being unsure of whether there was a chance of returning, but hunger took us out in search of whatever food could be found.

Deportation

This lasted until January 10, 1942, when posters were posted throughout the city announcing that everyone of Jewish background should take 24 kilograms of personal possessions and appear at “Slobodka” at the recently built ghetto. This section of the city was demarcated by high railway gravel which could easily distinguish and isolate Jews from others. Those found not complying with the order would be shot. At that time, after the terrors of October 23-25, shootings and hangings, sending more than 40 thousand people to Bogdanovka, Odesa still had 50-60 thousand people. On January 12, the three of us – my sister, mother and I (my aunt was ill and remained in the apartment, her fate left unknown) prepared a sack with ropes, packed it with some remaining possessions, and moved to our new Jewish ghetto. The frost stood at 28-30 degrees below freezing. Along the street, hundreds of others like ourselves pulled themselves toward nowhere.

People jumped out or were pulled out – many were injured, families lost each other, their children. It is impossible to describe those sights.

At Slobodka, we were herded into buildings that used to be a store. It was crammed like a tramway and impossible for people to turn sideways. Previously, whether in a passport or a birth certificate, everyone’s documents were marked as “Jewish” with a six-pointed star of David. By five in the morning, at this temperature, everyone was herded outdoors and sent in a column to the Sortirovichnaia station, located at the opposite end at Peresip. Cargo trains were already standing there, and loaded with about 1,500 people – women, children and elderly. They were loaded and sent into a direction unbeknown to us. In an order on January 10, it was determined that Jews would be directed to work at various locations. In this way, our family of three people was deported from Odessa on January 13, 1943. We traveled at such a pace that we lost count of time. In such extreme crowded and asphyxiating conditions, many lost consciousness. Several people near the doors froze to death. When we arrived at our destination and the doors opened – those who froze simply fell to the ground. People were pulled out at a height of 1.5 meters. There was a horrible scream, crying. It was completely dark – night. Bonfires were lit along the length of the train. People jumped out or were pulled out – many were injured, families lost each other, their children. It is impossible to describe those sights. Everything became a blur – the screaming mothers, the screaming Romanian soldiers, crying and shooting in the air and injured people, turned invalids, falling.

We were again placed into columns from which many were now missing, and rushed along roads covered in snow in temperatures of at least 30 degrees below freezing. Hungry, half-alive, frozen – we ran this way in a column at least one kilometer in length. Those who fall behind were beaten with sticks, rushed not to stop or fall behind. Whoever was not in a position to carry their bags had to throw it to the side. Many left behind their infants, as they were no longer capable of carrying them. Along the entire road we heard shots. They were for those who could not keep up being killed, who could no longer walk any further. We approached the village Starosirotsk. This was a Germany colony. German residents ran out – these were colonists – they fell on top of the wretched chased Jews and began cutting away the sack-ropes, taking away everything that we had carried – things that could support us for some time during these horrors.

Everyone was herded into the barns for the night, where there were no windows or doors. The soldiers slept among the villagers. Though no one guards us during the night, no one escapes as there is nowhere to run. Everywhere in the villages and along the doors, police from among the local residents (Ukrainians) would bring us back in the best case scenario, or shoot us. At dawn, things progress, with those who fall behind remaining in place. We are rushed to Mostov town and herded into a school for the night. In the morning, we are divided into two groups. Our column is sent further, the second half of Jews composed of several hundred people are sent in the opposite direction. Behind it followed a guide with a covered machine gun and several Romanian gendarmes and local police. They were all killed.

The next stop along our path was the village Lidovka. More barns where we remain for several days. Many freeze and turn into corpses, continuing to lay alongside the living. Dogs gnaw at those thrown outside. As a result of these conditions, foreign bugs such as lice and other creatures cover our bodies and clothing. Even eyebrows and shoe soles can’t be cleaned off. They simply eat at us and clothing moves from them.

Again, we are rushed forward – we arrive at the village Dvoriki where the same picture repeats itself. During these few days, a mass of people die there, in these barns, from disease, hunger or from freezing to death. For a piece of bread, lard or potato, people give away the last of their possessions. In the village Lidovka, our troupe expands by some number of Jews from Besarabia. It was impossible to understand or distinguish whether someone died from disease, hunger or collapsing. But regardless of why a person turns into a frozen corpse, even in Dvorianka they were taken out from the barns and placed in courtyards into stacks.

By the end of January or beginning of February, the Romanian soldiers chased us to the town Domanevka. This was an important center for the destruction of Jews from Odessa. The town lines, ditches, ravines – everything was filled with corpses. This became apparent in spring after the snow melted.

In Domenevka, our troupe (this was the first one from Odesa), was herded into one of the empty buildings without windows or doors. People lay on the wooden floor in families, next to each other, slowly dying. Everyday there were several corpses; they weren’t even taken out.

Domenevsk Concentration Camp

All of a sudden, it was announced that Jews would be sent to nearby villages to communal farms for labor. Those of us who were still standing prepared. The village elders, who we later learned had the name Dudar along with the head of Domanevski police (deserters from the Red Army) Kozakov and Abramovich (a Besarabian Jew, a zealous servant and right hand to the Romanin policai) selected 50 people from our group. They were taken in turn into a building, searched from head to toe for valuable possessions such as gold or other valuables. Then 50 were taken by foot to the village Shvartesov, which was 5 km from Demenevki, and thus turned into a unit of the Domenevsk Concentration Camp. During such a cold winter, here in Shvarts, we were sent to live in a building intended for chickens during the war. The building was 15 x 4 meters with a dirt floor, without heat and far from the village or residents. In these terrible, inhumane conditions, living on haystack without any medical assistance or provisions (we received 150 gr of corn flour and husks a day) we lay there, dying from starvation, typhus and millions of lice. With the onset of warm days, they began sending us to the village farms for work. Several people who could no longer work were sent to the death camp Akmechetka, where death was inescapable. Our clothing was completely destroyed, our legs were wrapped with rags or in pieces of raw skin. In the summer, we went barefoot. No salt, sugar, or cooked food. We became desolate, and without sources to beg from the locals, which still remained our only chance of survival. In March of 1942, my sister Idea became sick with Typhus and survived by a miracle. My mother Sima died in December 1942 from Dysentery. From among 50 people, 25 remained by the end of 1942. In 1943, a Jewish community was established in Domenevka. It was headed by Kornblit and Filkenshtein – two Romanian Jews. In 1943, a small number of Romanian Jews were sent for various reasons to Trinistria, a location given to Romanians by Germany. Knowing the language and being a future citizen of Romanian, they passed some liberalization on prisoners from Domenevka and surrounding camps. Aside from all else, the main reason was that the war was turning into a different direction and the Romanian army was practically demoralized. This caused the regime to weaken, shooting squads had stopped, but by 1943, there were few Jews remaining in Domenevka and its associated camps. In summer of 1943, I was entrusted with herding the kolkhoz cows and horses, but by the end of summer I had fallen ill with chronic typhoid fever and sent to Domanevka, where by that time was established a Jewish community, a small clinic with a doctor who survived among the living. At that time, in Domenevka, orphans were given a room where tens of children slept on the floor and lived off of mamaliga (a Romanian corn-porridge). My sister and I were taken to this room where we remained during the final years until liberation.

Orphaned children were from Ukraine, but 10-12 people were from Bessarabia. In Autumn of 1943, these children (only these and not those from Ukraine) were taken. With the efforts of Romanian Jews who lived in Romania at the time, these children were sent to Palestine. We Soviet children (also Jewish) were not marked to be saved. In the last month, the Romanian government completely lost interest in Jews, began packing their bags and after a short period, left for Romania. Demanevka and its surroundings was then replaced by the German army. Jews fled wherever they could and hid however possible. My sister and I fled Demanevka, as the German field police began seizing everyone in sight and sending them westbound in massive convoys without even checking whether Jewish or not. My sister and I ran in the direction of our previous concentration camp, spending nights hidden in wheat stacks. In Shvartsevo, where my sister and I had spent 19 months, remained 12 people from the original 50.

At the same time, one week before liberation, the Russian Liberation Army arrived and began raping women. My sister and I quickly realized that it would be impossible to remain safe even in Shvartsev. We returned to Domenevka, constantly hiding from the German field gendarmes until the Soviet Army arrived to free us.

I’ll never forget what we lived through. Before my eyes, I will always see the period which is impossible to forget.

Along the side of the road that led from Shvartsov to the village lay a dead woman who had been shot, along with her two children.

In April of 1942, the head of the Politsai that organized terror against all of us and many camps in the region, a local Ukrainian named Kozinski. He constantly searched for people along the roads, trenches, and fields on his horse and immediately shot with a smile, not sparing anyone. He constantly broke into our henhouse during the night, lit a kerosene bottle, threw it into a direction and demanded that we “Kikes” brought out our gold, or else he would take everyone out and shoot them. One April day, the starosta [elder] entered and commanded that several Jews follow him (men and women) for a volunteer job. Along the side of the road that led from Shvartsov to the village lay a dead woman who had been shot, along with her two children. We were handed shovels and we dug a grave along the side of the road. The politsai Kozinski approached on his horse, having shot them having chased them from the road along which they came (seemingly having escaped the Akmecheki camp) or having fallen back from another column. Suddenly, a young lad of 16-18 years old emerged from a nearby trench. Kozinski instantly aimed at him in front of us. The boy had barely managed to say “sir, please don’t” before half of his head with the brains were separated from his body. We placed him as the fourth person into this grave.

The Odessa ghetto existed 2 -2.5 months during a period when practically the entire Jewish population was deported, after three months of terror. My family and I were among the first on the path to death. During the first days of January in 1942 I read in an Odessa newspaper Hitler’s speech, in which he announced that the fate of Europe is guaranteed for 1000 years ahead and soon, Jews will only be seen in pictures. It seems that it was God’s will that my sister and I, despite everything, remained alive. That is among the 2 percent whose fate was spared among those who endured the Holocaust.

Freedom

On March 30, 1944, as a result of the invasion of the Red Army, our long-awaited liberation finally arrived. We Jews, previously insignificant, went unnoticed by the government, particularly as we did not receive any material support. We turned out to be outcasts. And this small mass of those remaining alive moved to their native places. On April 10, my sister Ida and I returned to Odessa. Her married name is now Robylivper and she lives in New York as of 1977. I learned that in 1942, Jews were taken from the prison where our father went and were moved to the concentration camp Slivino (under Nikolaev). All the prisoners of the camp were killed.

Returning after the Fascist genocide, my sister and I remained without relatives or family. We had absolutely nothing – no material foundation or basis – and thus began our life paths. Our health was in such a state that the commission of military personnel determined us unwell. Our previous residence, taken in 1941, would not be returned. We were forced to take up residence in the courtyard of the mezzanine, with a height of 1.5 meters (lower than my height). Only after eight months did we win the case to have our previous residence returned, though only half of the cellar. I finished my middle technical education with great difficulty as I did not have any material support from 1944-1949, finding occasional provisions through odd jobs. So even these five years after the Holocaust were difficult years for me. Perhaps it was only my youth that glazed over these years of my life. I began my work-life in 1949 as a contractor, with a specialization of a mechanic of road-work vehicles. I worked at this vocation for 40 years. I married in 1950. My wife was Clara Tochman (maiden name Balagula, b.1928) She was a teacher of history, worked for 30 years teaching higher classes in Odessan schools. From 1950 to 1965 we lived together in a one-bedroom home with her parents. In 1951, our son Semyon Tochman was born.

Post-War Anti-Semitism

In January 1953, in the former Soviet Union, there began an anti-Semitic prevocational campaign against doctors – they were accused as provocateurs with the end goal of deporting Jews to distant locations. In large cities with large Jewish population, Zionist groups were formed in order to create actions for mass deportations. A group of seven people was formed in Odessa. My wife’s father fell into this group. As part of KGB investigations, the group fell under its watch. As we lived with my wife’s father, they began investigation me as a Zionist, as a leader of terrorist group activities. Only thanks to Stalin’s death and enormous endurance, as well as my wife’s father’s willpower, I was able to escape arrest and sentence by article 58. He was sentenced to 10 years on article 58, points 10 and 11, for spy activities in the camps. He was acquitted in 3 years for “lack of sufficient evidence”, though not before turning him into an invalid of the first group. In 1957, we had a second son – Ilia Tokman. In 1965, after 15 years of living together with my wife’s parents, we finally obtained an apartment and at the age of 39, began living independently with my wife and family of four. My sons received a higher education, both finishing the Odesa institute of construction. 

I am in the United States with my wife and the families of both of my children – Simon and Ilia (Elija). We emigrated from Odessa in April of 1989 and currently all are citizens of the US. We now live in San Diego, California.

Michael Tokman

1999

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One Response to Misha’s Story, Odessa’s Last Survivor

  1. Ilya says:

    Sam, thank you so very much from all of Tokmans!
    Misha was a great man and left even a greater legacy.
    He'll always be loved.

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