My aunt, my father's eldest sister, always helped in the orphanage. One day, she came home with a little boy […] dressed in a green velvet suit with a white collar. Fair-haired with large grey eyes. [He] didn't speak […] he had come to Romania from Poland, I don't know how. He was at the orphanage […] My aunt said: "He was so beautiful, I couldn't leave him there" […] She took him home and looked after him.
Excerpt from the testimony of Rachel Ginzburg-Koch, when talking about her aunt, Devora Koch, who took 12-year-old Shmuel Grau from the Jewish orphanage in Czernowitz and brought him home. The following day, the children of the orphanage were deported to Transnistria. Their fate is unknown, but most are presumed to have been murdered.
Shmuel-Sammy Grau was born in 1930 in Stanislawow, Poland (today Ukraine), and grew up in neighboring Kuty surrounded by the families of his parents, Shoshana-Rosa née Altman and David Grau. David made a living trading in wood, and the family maintained a traditional Jewish lifestyle. In 1937, Shmuel's brother Ezra was born.
On 1 July 1941, Kuty was occupied by the Romanians and Hungarians, and Jewish persecution swiftly followed. In September, control of Kuty passed into German hands, resulting in an increase in anti-Jewish measures. Jews were denied freedom of movement, were forced to wear identifying marks and pay fines. Their property was confiscated and they were sent away for forced labor.
Following rumors of an Aktion in Kuty planned for early April 1942, Shmuel's family searched for a hiding place. Some family members fled to the mountains. Shmuel, his parents, his brother and two of his uncles hid in the cellar of a Jewish home in Kuty. On 9 April, some 900 Jews were murdered in an Aktion in Kuty, during which time, the Grau and Altman families hid in the cellar and heard the shots and the terrifying sounds of Jews being hunted down. After two days in the cellar, the family emerged to find that most of the Jews' homes in the town had been burned to the ground.
Shmuel's family decided to flee to Romania. Avraham Altman, Rosa's brother, reached Czernowitz and it was decided that the others should follow him there. First to leave were Shmuel and his grandmother, Rachel Altman and two of her sons, who reached Czernowitz with the help of paid smugglers. The plan was to bring the rest of the family after them. When they arrived in Czernowitz, Shmuel, his grandmother and his uncles were arrested by the local Romanian police and sent to prison. Due to his young age, the police took Shmuel out of jail and sent him to a Jewish family in Czernowitz. Several days later, the family transferred him to the Jewish orphanage in Czernowitz. Shmuel's grandmother and uncles were sent back to Poland.
In June 1942, approximately 5,000 Jews were deported from Czernowitz to Transnistria, including the children at the orphanage. Devora Koch was a divorcee with no children of her own, who volunteered to look after the children at the orphanage. On the eve of the children's deportation, Rivka took Shmuel home with her, thus saving him from the deportation to Transnistria.
In his testimony, Shmuel recalls Devora's dedicated care and her concern to make sure he lacked nothing. She paid for him to have private English lessons, and when he turned 13, she made sure that he celebrated his Bar Mizvah, complete with Torah reading and a ceremony and reception in the synagogue. Her niece Rachel, who was Shmuel's age, lived in the adjacent apartment. She recalls:
"My aunt used to go – I don't know where – and look for lemons so that he would have vitamin C. My mother got a little cross, saying 'I don't go looking for lemons for my own daughter, and she goes to the ends of the earth to bring lemons to Sammy.' She was a mother to him."
Two more of Shmuel's uncles reached Czernowitz from Kuty. After Shmuel had been living with Devora for eighteen months, his uncles took him to Bucharest. From there, they went to Slatina, Romania, armed with forged documents, and registered for immigration to Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) through the Bucharest Jewish community. A few months later, Shmuel and his uncles made their way to Constanta port and boarded a Turkish boat that took them to Istanbul. From there, they took a train that brought them to Atlit, Eretz Israel in July 1944, where they were reunited with another of Rosa's sisters, Yaffa Shraga née Altman, who had immigrated to Eretz Israel in 1932.
The family members who remained in Poland were murdered. In September 1942, Shmuel's parents, David and Rosa, and their son Ezra were interned in the Kolomyia ghetto after the last Aktion in Kuty, and were murdered together with the Jews of Kolomyia.
Devora Koch eventually immigrated to Israel, and married Mr. Porat. Forever grateful to Devora, Shmuel always remembered Devora's love and kindness. They were reunited in Israel, and stayed in contact from then on.
In 2020, Shmuel Grau donated photographs and documents to Yad Vashem as part of the "Gathering the Fragments" project, some of which are displayed here.