Holocaust survivor Leon Rajninger at his home in San Francisco. (Photo/Liz Harris)
Holocaust survivor Leon Rajninger at his home in San Francisco. (Photo/Liz Harris)

S.F. man, 88, recalls a ‘nightmare’ at every turn

Part of an ongoing series on Holocaust survivors and partisans in Northern California

Leon Rajninger lost much of his childhood in the Holocaust.

Life in Czernowitz, Romania, changed dramatically in 1940 when he was 9 and the Soviets annexed the country. But it got far worse a year later.

That’s when Romania joined Hitler and herded the Jews into the ghetto. Soon enough, Rajninger, along with his mother and father, two aunts and their families were marched with others to the train station where the “death cars” were waiting.

“Our nightmare began,” says the clear-eyed, 88-year-old San Francisco resident. It ended when they set foot in America on Feb. 28, 1951, just three weeks shy of his 21st irthday.

Rajninger documented his ordeal in “The Rajninger Tree of Life and the Jewish Faith,” a hardbound book published in 2000.

He wrote it after learning about Holocaust denier David Irving. “I was very disturbed by it. I said, ‘I have to tell my children everything.’”

He also wrote “Black Days and Nights,” published by Gefen in 2013 and available on Amazon (his 2000 book is not).

On top of that, he detailed his thoughts in a hardbound ethical will, with copies for his wife, Eva, son and daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In addition to his written accounts, Rajninger has spoken to hundreds of students — from middle school through grad school. “I want every question they have,” he says. “They need to know.” He has addressed the California State Assembly, and recently was delighted to give talks at Apple and Google.

The slender survivor vows to speak out “as long as I am upright.”

He could easily have died. He still fights back tears as he recounts the fate of his favorite uncle, Schaje, a “golden guy” who drove a two-horse carriage before the war. Schaje collapsed with his two young children in his arms during a brutal march. When his captors pointed their guns at his children, Schaje pleaded to be shot first.

As for young Leon, after four days packed into box cars, he and his extended family were headed to the camps when they got their first huge break. They fell to the end of a long line of marchers, and his mother — desperate to save them — bribed a Romanian soldier so they could escape.

A kind peasant hid them, but finding enough food was another matter. Despite Leon’s and a cousin’s forays to the farmers market, feeding 10 was nearly impossible. Knowing the situation was unsustainable, Leon’s mother and an aunt went to the local German headquarters to beg for mercy.

As luck would have it, they found a sympathizer. The captain sent them to Ukraine, where they would spend several years. The first winter, they nearly died of starvation. “We had to struggle every day for food,” Rajninger recalls, sometimes eating only melted snow. “It was a terrible way to live.”

We had to struggle every day for food. It was a terrible way to live.

When his mother came down with typhus, 11-year-old Leon ventured out to find her food. With rags on his feet, he climbed through 3 feet of snow until he found help: A farmer’s wife handed him a bowl of borscht and a chicken. “It was like winning a lottery,” he says, as though picturing the moment. “This I can tell you like it was yesterday.”

Stuffing the chicken under his shirt, Leon crawled back to his family. He has no idea how long it took — that part, he says, “is like a blank.”

His mother gained strength, but Leon contracted typhus. Thinking him nearly dead, health workers placed him in a crib in the morgue, where he lay unconscious for several days. When he opened his eyes, he saw cracked windows nearby. Too weak to crawl out — “I was nothing but bones” — he “knew I had a chance to tell somebody, ‘I’m alive!’”

A miracle: He saw his father passing by. The boy called out, and his father saved him.

The family remained in the ghetto until liberated in March 1944 by the Soviet army and Ukrainian partisans.

Today Rajninger harbors little ill will toward the Ukrainians. “They felt for us, they helped us. They tried to give us whatever they could. They didn’t have much themselves.”

Though the family returned to their former home, they found little hope for the future. They scrimped and saved, and bribed their way to Poland with dreams of getting to Israel.

Instead, they were stopped in Germany and sent to displacement camps, where they lingered for several years.

“It was very very hard, especially on the adults,” Rajninger says. “Nobody in the world wanted to take us in.”

After finally getting permission to emigrate, they set their sights on San Francisco, where they had relatives. Rajninger soon enlisted in the Army, then took advantage of the GI bill to get an education. The son of a doctor, he says, “I wanted to be a physician for as long as I can remember,” pausing to add, “but I was 11 years in camps.”

Instead, he became a lab technician, and ran a clinical lab for 25 years.

He met Eva at a soccer club dance. “We danced all night,” he says with a smile.

The couple are members of Congregation Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco. “We always believed in God, and we always will,” he says firmly.

Today Rajninger is “very concerned” about anti-Semitism. “That’s the reason I go to educate people, to fight hate,” he says. “Any genocide is too much.”

And to the many who ask, “Why didn’t you [Jews] fight back,” he answers: “We were families. We had no military training, no leadership, no weapons. We had no hope, no country willing to help us. We were all alone. We did the best we could.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.