This International Holocaust Remembrance Day, One Survivor Looks Back – and Forward

Roman S. endured hunger, terror, and devastation during the Holocaust —  but today, with JDC's help, he has built a Jewish life of dignity and resilience.

By Roman S. - JDC Client | January 26, 2024

Roman S. (right) has made it his life's mission to tell the world about the Holocaust, remember those who were lost, and celebrate those who survived.

Roman S. was just 4 years old when his world collapsed. When the Nazis invaded Ukraine, his family was forced into a ghetto, and he was subjected to ceaseless terror. Now 88, Roman has made it his life’s work to tell others what he’d experienced. This International Holocaust Remembrance Day, he opens up about his experience during the Holocaust, his life during the Ukraine crisis, and how support from JDC and the Claims Conference has been crucial during this brutal winter.

Roman lights a menorah on Chanukah.

Barbed wire surrounded the ghetto where we lived. Each day, my mother and grandmother struggled to feed us children — to not let us die — and there were times we ate nothing but grass. All of us were forced to work, including the young children. 

My brother Isaak was on the construction team repairing the bridge over the river in winter. One day, he fell into the water and an officer killed him immediately. We buried him in one of many mass graves in Bershad’, Ukraine, our home in the Vinnytsia region. I will never forget how my mother cried. 

It’s still difficult for me to reflect on those terrible days of fear, torture, and hopelessness. We were cold and hungry. We did not know what would happen to us at any given moment. That lasted for years.

I was a 4-year-old boy when the Second World War first touched my life. My father and older brother went to serve on the frontline. For some two months, my mother, grandmother, and seven siblings joined an evacuation line with thousands of other people. We tried to get to safety, but when we saw the Nazi tanks, we were forced back to Bershad’ — and into the ghetto.  

As we retraced our steps, Nazi planes bombed us continuously. When we tried fleeing the bombardments, I remember seeing bodies everywhere. 

I don’t know how you move on from this. The strangest part of my story is that, after the war ended, I somehow did — though I’ve carried these memories my entire life. 

Eventually, I went to high school, and then vocational school. I became a master mechanic, then head of the department at a local plant. I have numerous awards and medals for my work and was eventually awarded the title of “Honorable Machinist of Ukraine.” While developing my career I also earned a university degree from the Odesa Marine Engineers University.

Decades later, I now have a large family: two daughters, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. My first wife died in 1991. This was hard, even though most of my dearest ones were with me. I turned to the JDC-supported Hesed Shaarey Tzion social welfare center for the Jewish community in Odesa, where I live. At the time, the Hesed director was also a Holocaust survivor — all of us knew each other, so this transition felt natural. 

Today, I can’t imagine how I’d live without Hesed, JDC, and the Claims Conference; they help me survive physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I am so thankful to them for food, medicine, homecare, and all the Jewish programs I so enjoy. I look forward to all the Hesed activities — they are all life-saving in their own ways. In particular, I’m happy that Hesed offers me the chance to socialize, both in person and online. 

It’s important that us Jews feel we are together, especially now. 

For all of us in Ukraine, February 24th, 2022, was our  “before” and “after” — a dividing line between peace and chaos. That day, I was in possibly the worst place one could be: in the hospital, with COVID. I couldn’t believe what was happening, as I’d never imagined this could happen again in my life. 

Roman (left) with Inna Vdovichenko, the JDC coordinator in Odesa.

In some ways, it’s worse. I’m no longer a young boy. At my old age, how can I run down the stairs to the dirty basement and hide from shelling and bombings? When I was little, during the shellings, we played a “war game” with other kids, and this helped us survive. But the fear I have now, during this conflict … I cannot describe it. All of us endured an unimaginable atrocity for our children and grandchildren to enjoy lives and live in peace. I cry every time I think about it.

I still try to live every day, to hope, even to celebrate Jewish holidays (when it’s possible). But every time I hear a siren, I realize these could be the last minutes of my life.

This winter, I feel colder than ever. Maybe it’s the stress. It gets dark very early and darkness is always more frightening than light. But now people are afraid of going to bed (shellings often happen during the night) and waking up (we do not know what morning will bring).

Winter is always rather difficult, but now, since the crisis began — and especially since the terrible power outages last winter — it also means “what if?” What if there’s another blackout? What if there is no heating? What if there’s no electricity? 

Late last month, Odesa faced heavy shelling. My wife and I had to rush down to the dirty basement in our building, filled with lots of rubbish and leaking pipes. But when we went outside — in the bitter December cold — we saw that the whole yard was covered with glass and dirt. Two big explosions had rocked our neighborhood. All of our windows were shattered, and our apartment was full of glass and debris. 

Thank God, Hesed helped us install new windows. And thank God JDC has been right by our side throughout this brutal winter, like in every season. In sub-zero temperatures, they gave us everything we needed to survive the brutal cold: warm clothing, lanterns, comforters, candles, help with utilities, and more. 

That’s what JDC does. It’s Jews helping other Jews — a core Jewish value, a bedrock part of our tradition. But it’s also Jewish tradition to remember those we have lost, as we do on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

I believe this day has two purposes. The first purpose is to commemorate all our Jewish friends and relatives, and Jews around the world, who perished in the most inhumane ways during the Holocaust. The second purpose is more hopeful. It’s to sing a song of praise to our heroes — those Jews who survived the Holocaust and became brilliant doctors, teachers, mothers, fathers, or anyone who brought good into the world. All survivors matter. 

The Jewish value of zikaron (memory) is a guiding force in my own life. In 1995, I joined the  Odesa Regional Association of Ghetto and Camps Survivors — an organization dedicated to supporting survivors and raising awareness about the Holocaust — and immediately decided to serve on the board. In 2002, I was elected as head of the association, and since then I have been doing the hard but important work of telling the world what happened to us. We even organize events like Jewish holiday celebrations in partnership with Odesa’s JDC-supported JCCs.

That brings me back to JDC. I would like to thank everyone who supports this organization and wish them peace wherever they are. During the worst of times — like the darkest days of my childhood — all us Jews had was one another. We saved each other. Today, it’s no different. 

My family, my peers, my community … they all save me these days.

Roman S., 88, is a JDC client in Odesa, Ukraine. 

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