Charles (Kurt) German was born as Kurt Chaim Shmatmik in Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi), the capital of the Romanian province of Bucovina in 1936. He lived with his parents, and had a tight-knit family, with three aunts and a grandmother whom he loved dearly.
In 1940 the Red Army occupied the area but in July 1941 the Romanian Army retook the city as part of the Axis attack on the Soviet Union. Charles was just five years old.
The Germans and the Romanians incarcerated the Jewish population into the Czernowitz Ghetto.
“I was five and a half and didn’t quite understand what was happening, and it was just very crowded, with the most difficult conditions.”
From Czernowitz the Jews in the ghetto were rounded up over a period of two years and transported to camps on the other side of the Dniester river, in an area that the Romanians termed “Transnistria”. They were transported across the Dniester River on barges. The barges were overcrowded and many people fell overboard and drowned during the journey. Charles recalls the harrowing experience:
“I remember, it’s still light, the rain is coming down in sheets, and we are being loaded into cattle cars and transported to the banks of the Dniester River in the town of Ataki. A wooden barge came close to the shoreline and we were ordered to get on quickly. It is still echoing in the black void of night when sleep eludes me before the nightmares begin again.”
Charles and his parents were sent to a camp called Mogilev-Podolski in 1942. “The conditions were absolutely terrible. We were marched from the river edge into the town. We were housed in old buildings. The were no washing facilities or anything like that… people slept on the floor or wherever else.”
Charles’ mother would go down to the Dniester River to fetch water to wash Charles to keep him clean. Charles attributes his survival to his mother’s care and protection.
Charles and the other children did not have work or activities, and their main imperative was to remain out of sight of the guards. However, Charles does recall one trauma-inducing task that he was ordered to complete:
“They had us children take the jewellery from the dead bodies before they were taken to the cemetery.”
The adult prisoners in the camp were forced to work on building roads. Once a road was complete, the German and Ukrainian guards would destroy it, and the workers would have to start again. Charles remembers the German and Ukrainian guards doing things like this frequently and being “very clever in a very cruel way.”
Mogilev-Podolski became overcrowded and some prisoners, including Charles, were marched to an adjoining town. On the way, Charles and some of the other prisoners hid in a cemetery during the night. The guards found them the next morning and marched them back to Mogilev-Podolski, where they faced their punishment:
“We were all lined up to be shot. This Romanian officer, who came riding up on a horse, saw the German solider pointing the gun at the Jewish people told the German to stop and go away. The German obeyed the orders… the Romanian soldier allowed us to go back to Mogilev-Podolski.”
Due to the lack of hygiene within the camp, many people fell ill. Charles’ mother became ill with typhus. His mother told him later, that while she was sick, he would come to her with fresh apples. Charles had no recollection of where he acquired the apples , until years later at an event in Melbourne, where he met a man called Yakov – an orphan who used to sneak out of Mogilev-Podolski, go into the adjoining orchards to steal apples and share them with the other children. Those apples saved Charles’ mother’s life.
Charles’ parents continued to work on the roads. While they were working there, they received a daily ration from the authorities. One day there was a German soldier that was supervising the distribution of the food to the workers, and upon seeing Charles in the line, questioned why he was there:
“When he saw me he said ‘What are you doing here? You’re not allowed here.’ And he said ‘You come with me’. He took me up to his guard house and he fed me. And he said to me I was to come every day at meal time and he would feed me. He did that for some time. There was one good German.”
Charles and his parents were liberated by the Russian army in the spring of 1945.
His father was immediately drafted into the Russian army and Charles and his mother began to make their way back to Czernowitz.
Charles remained in Romania for approximately one year, until members of the Jewish Brigade organised for his family to leave Romania illegally and go to Italy. Charles’ parents divorced and Charles’ mother remarried Mr German, whom Charles adored.
Charles, his mother and his stepfather arrived in Australia in September 1949, on the sponsorship of relatives of his stepfather. Charles began his education at Kensington State School.
“I was very lucky. One of the teachers was an ex-officer of the Australian army, who had served in Europe. He knew about the Jewish people and what they had suffered and he spent his time after school and weekends teaching me English.”
Charles began talking about his Holocaust experiences after he participated in a group trip to Poland in 1993 for the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After being subjected to an episode of antisemitism from Polish school students while on the trip, Charles realised it was vital to share his experiences as a child survivor with young students, so they could understand what it would have been like growing up during the Holocaust.
“It is my obligation to speak about my experience and make young people aware of the benefit we have of living in a free society.”