Survivor STORY

Ben Walker (Walzer) grew up in Nepolocauti, a small town near Czernowitz, Romania. His grandfather had a big farm in that village and his father owned a store in another small town. In 1941, the family was deported to Transnistria in western Ukraine, to an area near the city of Mogilev. During the war, his father, sister, uncles and grandparents perished.

After the war, Ben and his mother moved back to Czernowitz. There was nothing left; even his grandfather’s farm had been converted to a kolhoz (a collective farm under the Soviets). Ben and his mother moved out of the area, which had become part of the Ukraine, to Romania proper. He and his mother emigrated to Israel, where Ben lived on a kibbutz, or collective, for two years and then served in the Israeli Defense Force. Ben’s mother had in the meantime moved to be close to relatives in Orlando, Florida, and in 1956, Ben joined her.

Ben attended college in Florida, where he met his future wife, Ruth. After graduation, Ben and Ruth moved to Tampa, where he was directed a Hebrew school. Ben continued his studies in Jewish education in graduate school in Syracuse, New York, then took a position in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The Walker family moved to Atlanta in the late sixties, where Ben was the director of religious education at Temple Sinai. Since retiring, Ben has continued to work part time as an insurance broker and in real estate. Ben and his wife have two daughters, one of whom is a judge Atlanta, and the other, an attorney with the Georgia Advocacy Project. The Walkers also have two grandchildren. Ben is a Survor Speaker for The Breman's Holocaust education program.

Life and Survival in Europe

We were on the train carrying munitions to the front, and it just so happened that that train passed through the place where my grandfather used to live. We just got off. And we thought we’re going home, but the home was taken over. And some of the villagers were surprised we came back. They thought, you know, in Transnistria at least 50,000 people died in those lagers [camps]. And we were the lucky ones, my mother and I, that came back. And we knew one neighbor that was very friendly to us, and that neighbor let us in. And because, and then my mother found a postcard. She, my father had a sister and a brother living in New York. I mentioned earlier they came in 1910. And my mother wrote to them, and sure enough a letter came back, and food packages started coming, because at that time, right after the war you thought you were liberated. Finished, it’s over. It was worse, because we came back to a village where the Russians pillaged all the food to send to where it’s important, to their soldiers fighting the Nazi war machine. And there was nothing. There was nothing in the village, there was nothing anywhere. They, the villagers instead of milking the cows slaughtered the cows for food. So, they were worse off, as bad off, as we are. So I cannot tell you, that those packages that came, I don’t know how they came from the United States, saved our life because right after the war we were worse off than even during the war.

For my birthday, I asked my aunt in New York to send me a football. Soccer is very big in Europe, and there were no soccer balls anywhere to be found. Ok, if you had a little something you make shoes out of it, leather, not soccer balls. So she sends me a package. And when I opened the package, I found a huge glove in that package, and I had my image that Americans must be 10, 12 feet tall, because I couldn’t believe that someone would wear a, what do you call it, a glove that huge. It was a baseball glove. Little did she know that we don’t play baseball in Romania. So I took that glove to a neighbor of mine who was a shoemaker. He made me a fantastic pair of sandals out of that glove. But I still had that image of giants, that Americans must be giant people.

Leaving Europe

We were finally given the permission to go to Israel. Well, in fact, we were given permission to go to both places in the same time. Now you have a dilemma. Salvation sometimes comes in a big bundle. The risk we took not going to America was because many people at that time, in ‘51, and ‘50, when you decided, when you wanted to go to America, you must be an imperialist spy, ok? And you could disappear easily when you’re an imperialist spy. So we decided we’ll be safe rather than sorry and join with the majority and go to Israel. In ‘51 we were allowed, and we went on a train to Constanza, which is the main port of Romania, and there, a ship that’s supposed to, a small boat that was supposed to contain maybe several hundred people had over two thousand people on it. I found a place to sleep right under the steps, the steps going this way, under the steps. It was overcrowded. I never thought this ship is going to make it. But we did make it to Haifa. And people were cheering there and welcoming us. And I said, “Wow, this is a great country. Here I’m welcome, finally!” And relatives and so on came and threw oranges to the ship and everybody was catching oranges. And I didn’t catch any, so I was very frustrated. I went all the way to the top of the ship where some oranges landed. And I came back with a whole bunch of oranges. Everybody looking at me, “Where did you get these oranges?” “Nobody else was over there, so I got them.”

Israel

And I still remember in ‘51 Israel’s Independence Day. Israel was only three years old. And they, I was in Haifa, and to see Jewish soldiers marching with rifles. That’s the revenge, you see? It gave me such tremendous pride. That here, no one’s going to kick us around like they did to us in Romania and Bukovina. Here we are free, we are strong, we can take care of ourselves. And that is when I experienced true liberation. I didn’t experience the liberation after the war in Romania. My liberation came in Israel.

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Ben Walker