Erika Lefton

how do we tell them our story

Like the children of many Holocaust survivors, Erika’s daughters wanted to know their mother’s story. “Tell us what you went through,” they asked. “It’s not that I want[ed] to protect them….” But how do you tell this kind of story to your children. At the age of 93 tears still come to Erika’s eyes as she remembers the events of 1941.” It’s like a band-aide and when you rip it off and all of a sudden it bleeds.”

The Jews of Radauti had a long history in the Austrian empire. They were granted a synagogue in the center of town by the Emperor Franz Joseph and they played an important part in the business and cultural life of the region. However, when the Nazis came to power the fascist Romanian Iron Guard was eager to gain favor with the invaders. They instituted several pogroms in cities of Lasi and Bucharest, but it was in the provinces where the Jewish population suffered the most. The goal of the German and Romanian governments was to kill all of the Jews in the region of Bukovina. As a part of that plan, in October of 1941 the Jews of Radauti were transported enmasse to Transnistria in the Ukraine. “We took whatever we could and crossed the river into the Ukraine.” There, the entire population of Radauti was housed in stables and camps. Although Erika’s family had been separated from her father she was able to remain with her mother and grandmother. “There was no way to keep clean…there was lice, typhus… I had long, beautiful hair and my mother cut it off just to keep clean… After my brother died, my mother gave up. She did not have the strength to go on and she also died….How I survived I do not know, I was waiting to die.”

What interrupted the Nazi extermination plan of the Romanian Jews was the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943. Of the 8,000 Jews residing in Radauti before World War II only 2,000 returned. Erika Lefton was one of those who returned. She had lost her mother and her brother but she and her sister had survived and were reunited with her father. Erika stayed in Romania until the Communists took over when she left for Israel, finally finding her home in Minnesota.