Jews from Dorohoi, Bucovina, being transported over the Dniester River to Transnistria, 10 June 1942. (Yad Vashem)

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The name given by Ion Antonescu, Romania’s pro-German dictator, to the Ukrainian region between the rivers Dniester and Bug occupied following the German–Romanian attack on the Soviet Union of 22 June 1941. Between 250,000 and 300,000 Jews died there during the occupation. Many of the victims were deportees from Bucovina and Bessarabia; of the 147,000 Jews sent to Transnistria from these areas between 1941 and 1943, at least 90,000 died, the majority of typhus and starvation. The number of Ukrainian Jews who were murdered or died from disease in Transnistria from September 1941 to November 1943 ranges from 130,000 to at least 170,000. A large number of these were shot by Romanians, who executed 15,000–20,000 Jews in Odessa in October 1941 in reprisals for the blowing up of the Romanian army headquarters, massacred 43,000–48,000 Jews in the district of Bogdanovka, and handed several thousand others over to local German settlers, who murdered them.

What provoked Antonescu’s venom toward the Jews of Bessarabia and northern Bucovina was the alleged behavior of a minority of them during Romania’s withdrawal from the provinces following a Soviet ultimatum in June 1940. Antonescu justified his decisions both as punishment for their rumored hostility toward the withdrawing Romanian army and population and on security grounds: he did not want to leave Jews behind the Romanian lines after the June 1941 attack on the USSR.

In practice, deportation meant driving the Jews not only across the Dniester into Transnistria but beyond the Bug into area controlled by Germany. Antonescu’s longer-term aim was to colonize Transnistria with Romanians living not only beyond the Bug but also to the west of the Dniester. From early August 1941, Romanian gendarmes drove columns of Jews on foot—including young, old, and sick—from Bucovina and Bessarabia over the Dniester into what was at the time German-controlled territory. The Germans were unwilling to accept the large mass of people and dispatched them back. With nowhere to send the deportees, Romanian gendarmes set up transit camps at Secureni, Edineli, and Vertujeni, into which they herded more than 50,000 Jews. Poor sanitation and a lack of food and water quickly led to disease. The mortality rate soared.

In early October 1941, Romanian forces began deporting the occupants of the transit camps and Jews in Bucovina to Transnistria, the former on foot, the latter by rail in freight cars. Transnistria had been ravaged by war: many of the towns and villages in which ghettos were established bore the marks of bombardment, and often Jews were placed in half-destroyed houses, open to the elements and without sanitation. Ragged, dirty, and hungry, having spent what money they had to buy food in order to survive the deportation ordeal, they easily fell to endemic typhus. Survivors relate the appalling conditions against which they struggled for survival. In November 1943 only 51,000 deportees remained alive.

Only on 14 March 1944, with Soviet forces already advancing, did Antonescu agree to allow all Jews deported to Transnistria to return. Most survivors were brought back to their places of origin with the help of Jewish aid agencies.

Wartime Transnistria should be distinguished from the present-day Transnistria, the name adopted by the authorities in a breakaway region of the Republic of Moldova. Moldova gained its independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but the largely Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking area east of the Dniester River refused to recognize the authority of the new republic and declared its own independence. The country remains divided, with mostly Slavic separatists controlling the Transnistrian region along the Ukrainian border. This separatist regime has entered into negotiations with the national government on the possibility of a special status for the region. Progress in resolving the ongoing conflict has been blocked by the separatists’ demands for “statehood” and recognition of the country as a confederation of two equal states. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Russian Federation, and Ukraine are acting as mediators.

Suggested Reading

Jean Ancel, Transnistria, 3 vols. (Bucharest, 1998); Jean Ancel, Transnistria, 1941–1942: The Romanian Mass Murder Campaigns, 3 vols. (Tel Aviv, 2003); Randolph L. Braham, ed., The Destruction of Romanian and Ukrainian Jews during the Antonescu Era (New York and Boulder, Colo., 1997); Radu Ioanid, The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies under the Antonescu Regime, 1940–1944 (Chicago, 2000).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 101, Art and Artifacts, Collection, 18th c.-1980s; RG 116, Territorial Collection: Rumania, , 1836-1945.