The frigid wind stroked my cheek as I glanced up at the behemoth of a building. My frozen finger scrolled through the lyrics of the Mourner’s Kaddish, my lips not remembering the words. We had come to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on an eighth-grade class trip.
As the granddaughter of a survivor, I grew up with stories of the Holocaust and thought I knew most everything about my family’s experiences. I didn’t know, hidden inside the museum, was a picture of a man whose act of bravery resulted in me being able to stand there, rubbing my chilled hands together, staring at the walls of white brick. His name was Traian Popovici.
In 1941, my grandmother and her family escaped their hometown, leaving behind family and friends who would later be killed. They sheltered in her uncle’s home in Czernowitz, Romania because he was a doctor. She wondered if she would finally be safe. On October 10, 1941, the Romanian governor decreed that all of the Jews within the city be put in a ghetto and then deported. Many of the Jews deported faced atrocities and hardships leaving half of them dead. This is the fate that would have likely befallen my baba (Yiddish for grandmother), had it not been for Traian Popovici.
Traian Popovici was the mayor of Czernowitz, newly appointed in July 1941, when this mass deportation began. He originally supported Prime Minister Ion Antonescu’s plan, but soon became disturbed by the treatment of the Jews.
He decided to take a stand and argued for the right of the Jewish inhabitants of Czernowitz to remain there. He ultimately convinced Antonescu that the removal of Jews from Czernowitz would upset the economic balance of the city. Through his persistent efforts, Popovici saved 20,000 Jewish people from deportation and probable death, including my grandmother.
I had never heard of Traian Popovici, yet I owe my life to him. There are no movies or best-sellers about the impact he made, the 20,000 people he saved. Even though he had no personal stake in saving the Jewish residents, and his political career suffered because of it, he chose to do what was right and just. In his memoir he said, "As far as I am concerned, what gave me strength to oppose the current, be master of my own will, and oppose the powers that be, finally to be a true human being, was the message of the families of priests that constitute my ancestry, a message about what it means to love mankind."
My grandmother’s future depended on Traian Popovici’s righteous actions and so did my past. His commitment to a vulnerable people—including my family—has shaped my view of the world. It is my responsibility to speak out against injustice, to protect those less fortunate, and to do the right thing, no matter the political or social pressure. Even if no one will remember my name.