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  • Small Acts of RepairThe Unclaimed Legacy of the Romanian Holocaust
  • Marianne Hirsch (bio) and Leo Spitzer (bio)

Unclaimed Legacies

Several years ago we were scheduled to speak at the Wiener Library in London about Czernowitz—a sizeable Eastern European city that had been the capital of a province of the Austrian Habsburg Empire and that had once contained a large, German-speaking, highly assimilated Jewish population. We had recently coauthored a book, Ghosts of Home, about the afterlife of this city in Jewish memory.1 Some weeks before the talk we had received a package from a Dr. Harry Jarvis from Bournemouth, England, who was planning to attend. It contained a small sampling of articles he had written about Czernowitz for a Jewish genealogical magazine. Then in his late eighties, Dr. Jarvis was quite eager to speak with us: he was reading our book, he wrote us, and wanted to show us a few things that were important to him.

When we subsequently met Dr. Jarvis and heard his account of the frustrations he had experienced when he tried to convey his family’s wartime story to various individuals and institutions, we began to understand his eagerness to find willing listeners. Dr. Jarvis (whose original name had been Jaslowitz) was born and grew up in Cernăuți (as Czernowitz was renamed when it came under Romanian rule) but left in the 1930s during a high point of Romanian anti-Semitic activity and went to study medicine in England. His parents and ten-year-old sister Sonja stayed behind. In the course of massive campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” of Jews carried out by fascist Romanian authorities, his father, mother, and sister Sonja were deported [End Page 13] eastward in 1942 to a region that came to be known as Transnistria. Fortuitously, however, the three did manage to survive Transnistria’s brutal ghettos and concentration camps and, after being liberated by the Soviet army in 1944, they were repatriated to the Romanian capital, Bucharest. There, not long afterward, Harry’s father died from tuberculosis he had contracted in a Transnistrian concentration camp and Sonja was killed—ironically, a “collateral damage” victim of shrapnel from Allied bombs intended for a German-controlled oil installation near the Romanian capital. She had just turned seventeen.

After the war ended, Jarvis’s distressed mother joined her son in London. She brought along a number of family documents she had managed to safeguard, including a folder of poems written by her young daughter while in Transnistria. Some were illustrated with drawings that Sonja had made shortly before her death.

Perceiving the testimonial and historical importance of these writings, as well as their potential literary and artistic interest, Harry Jarvis travelled to Israel in the early 1950s to donate them to the newly established Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. He hoped that this museum might make these materials public so that Sonja Jaslowitz would be acknowledged and memorialized, her legacy insured. More generally, he had also wanted his donation to help broaden and factually enhance the then scant knowledge about Transnistria and the Romanian genocide of Jews.

Neither of these things happened. Although his bequest was accepted, Sonja’s Jaslowitz’s Transnistria writings received no noticeable attention from Yad Vashem officials, and even today they cannot be found among holdings that museum lists on its website index. Frustrated by this inattention, Harry Jarvis nonetheless did not give up and, until his recent death, continued to donate documents, articles, and books related to Czernowitz and Transnistria and the experience of Jews there that he had collected over the years to other institutional archives, many equally uninformed about this distinctive history of genocide and survival.

It was in this spirit that Jarvis approached us, anxious about what would happen to the weighty legacy that had been passed down to him—a legacy, he worried, he would be able to sustain for only a brief time longer. His children, he admitted, had little interest in this past. He especially wanted someone with a background in literature to have Sonja’s poems—to [End Page 14] “do with them as you wish.” Even if they were never published, he hoped they...


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pp. 13-42
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