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Lupovici Cousins: Tragedy, Mystery

2.1 Moshe Lupovici with his mother and sisters Gisele (left) and Sarah

On October 9, 1941 – an important date in Holocaust history – Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu issued his order to forcibly remove the Jews from their homes in Bukovina and Romania. The Nazis and their Romanian allies carried out this order and Jews were sent by train and on death marches to the area in the Ukraine known as Transnistria. They were there for two-and-a-half years until the spring of 1944 when the Russian army liberated them. Since 2004, this date has been known in Romania as National Holocaust Commemoration Day. Carol Elias tells the devastating story of cousins caught up in the horror. It covers three generations and three continents  

When I agreed to accompany my dear friend Ilana on her journey to search for her family's roots and to find answers to questions about what had happened to her family during the Holocaust and in the days and years that followed, I could not have foretold how much sadness and tragedy could have befallen one family, and what an enormous amount of information existed within the tomes of historical volumes.

On a three-hour drive from Iasi, Romania we gradually moved away from the big city and headed back in time toward Bukovina, more specifically, the city of Suceava, passing along the way the beautiful locked-up synagogue of Falticeni, unused for 70 years or more. We passed too, the train station of Podu Iloaiei, where one Romanian woman, Viorica Agarici, attempted to reduce the suffering of Jews on trains from the Iasi pogrom, (June 1941), as they were sent to who-knew-where? (1) The bumpy roads lined with thousands of sunflowers low in the early summer season, echoed the film Everything is Illuminated, which describes a grandson of a Holocaust survivor's search for his family's roots, similar to part of what was being done on this very journey. (2)

We would meet special, professional people who would help us in various quests; one, a lawyer, a university colleague of our friend the photographer, who himself had gone six hours out of his way to pick us up at the airport, then drive us to Suceava. Another was a land engineer who traipsed around with us for three hours, twice, until he was sure he had located the exact streets formerly known as Strada Mare and Strada Doue, now called December 22 and Plevnei Streets, where the two houses of Ilana's grandparents and great-grandparents had been located. They were not in Suceava as originally thought, but in Burdujeni, formerly a Jewish neighborhood nearby before WWII. Very few knew these original names. And how had he found them? With the assistance of a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor who had lived there as a child. These are incidents that cannot be predicted or planned, and may only be called luck or fate. And especially, the Roman Orthodox social worker at the Suceava Jewish Community Center. This is what selflessness looks like; she attempted to bridge a very difficult relationship between Ilana and her long-lost cousin Avram, given to a Roman-Catholic orphanage by his Roma (Gypsy) mother at 8-days-old, and finally left permanently by his Jewish father, Moshe, who died when the boy was 7.

The exterior of the synagogue in Falticeni, Romania

Moshe (Ilana's uncle, her mother's older brother), a Holocaust and Transnistria survivor, had emigrated to Israel after serving some time in a Romanian prison for white collar crime, only to be drawn back to his original home, Romania, never becoming acclimated to Israeli life despite having his only living relatives there. He then got stuck behind the Communist Iron Curtain, ultimately fathering a child in 1978 at the age of 52, spending his last few years sleeping on a mattress at that very Community Center.

It was this "child" (today 41; one of the youngest of the Holocaust second generation), who had brought us to Eastern Europe, once Ilana realized that she had a cousin, or half-cousin, left at the age of 8 days by his mother, unable to care for him, and by his father, a 52 year old sickly Holocaust survivor, whom the Roman Orthodox authorities would not let take care of the infant on his own. After Avram's father died, the boy would visit Moshe's grave and cry and was once approached by a Jewish couple who contacted an aunt in Israel, but nothing ever became of this connection. When his grandmother (Moshe's mother) died in Israel when he was 14, he received a letter informing him of the death. After inquiring about any inheritance and discovering there was none, he sued, but lost, as the will indeed had not mentioned his name.

Decades later, when these facts became known to her, Ilana began sending Avram money. However, major problems ensued in attempting to help him access any funds or claim property which may have belonged to his father, since Avram's mother had written her surname on his birth certificate instead of his father's. But Ilana was now willing to make this complicated trip to see for herself what possibly could be done. In addition, since Avram's last name was different from that of Ilana's family, one option was to find cousins to whom he might match genetically to prove he was family.

While searching for potential DNA matches, Ilana learned about several distant relatives - great-uncles and second cousins that she knew little or nothing about. Among them was Ira Lupovici, (Ilana's mother's uncle), who was one of the victims of a little-known pogrom in the tiny village of Zaharesti, Romania, about 20 kilometers from Suceava, which took place on July 1, 1940. It was connected time-wise to the more well-known Dorohoi pogrom which had occurred the previous day, June 30, 1940. In Zaharesti, approximately 36 Jews were brutally killed, some from the town and others who were brought there to be murdered. In January 1941, family from Burdujeni, the Jewish neighborhood near Suceava, travelled there, exhumed the mass grave, returned home and gave Ira a Jewish funeral. Eventually, a gravestone for victims of the Zaharesti pogrom was placed in the Suceava cemetery next to the Memorial for the Jewish Heroes of WWI from Suceava, explaining how the 14 victims from Burdujeni had met their deaths in the brutal attack by Hitler's Romanian Fascist allies during WWII.

The memorial for Jewish Heroes from WWI in the Suceava Cemetery, alongside the gravestone for the Jewish victims of the Zaharesti pogrom of July 1, 1940

Another discovery was the story of Ira's son, Yoshua (Shico; Ilana's mother's cousin), also a Holocaust survivor, who had made his way to Italy before arriving in Israel. There, he trained to become a pilot, then came in Israel, joined the Israeli Army and served in the War of Independence in 1948. However, he was forced to relinquish his position due to an undiscovered medical condition. Disappointed perhaps, at his inability to continue as an army pilot, Shico left Israel and traveled to South America during a period when many were sent or went on their own accord to search for Nazi war criminals who had managed to escape detection and punishment, especially in Brazil and Argentina. Whether he was in the service of his country or not, hero or not, one cannot know for sure. Indeed, Shico came to a very uncertain end, dying at a young age and is buried in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

On October 9, 1941 after the summer of horrific pogroms *, all of the remaining Jews from Bukovina were forcibly deported to Transnistria. (3) Ilana's grandparents survived the horrible conditions there and returned home after being liberated by the Russians in 1944. The family stayed in Romania, except for her mother who emigrated alone to Israel in 1947, via Cyprus, becoming an Israeli soldier soon after her arrival. The rest of the family remained in Burdujeni until 1959 when they finally made aliyah. Ilana's great-grandparents never returned to their home as they had both since died; her great-grandfather of illness before the deportation and her great-grandmother of typhus in Transnistria.

The second and third generations of the family in Israel and abroad have brought nothing but honor to a family name which had existed in peace and harmony in the quiet lands of Bukovina in Romania. One lone half-Jewish member remains there, who unfortunately, due to the unusual circumstances of history and fate perhaps, does not even carry on the surname or religion of his own father.

References and Notes:

1. Gilbert, Martin, "Final Journey: The Fate of the Jews of Nazi Europe", (Chapter 3 "Journey from Jassy"), Rosetta Books, 2015

2. "Everything is Illuminated", film (2005) by Liev Schreiber, based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002), Houghton Mifflin,

3. "The Killings in Transnistria",

*Author's note: Most of the horrific pogroms which occurred in Bukovina (Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, Bessarabia) occurred end of June - early July 1941, one year after Dorohoi and Zaharesti. (Public domain, author's research.)

Published by the Jewish Press online and regular newspaper based in Brooklyn in October 2019. 

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