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During the period — 45, Stalin and Hitler ordered the deaths of fourteen million people in this region. In some of the extermination camps, human ashes were used as plant fertilizer. In fact, however, human blood rarely makes for fertile soil. Or, as Milan Kundera has pointed out: Central Europe no longer exists. When I traveled through the southern Ukraine in December , most of the young people I talked to there wanted to get away.
Even if it meant marrying a man forty years their senior, the future was elsewhere. In the northwestern Ukraine, for example, the villages around Lviv, formerly known as Lemberg, seem to have died out completely, as though they only still exist by dint of a misunderstanding. Brody, birthplace of the writer Joseph Roth, is a case in point. At the periphery of these bloodlands lies a small, independent country which remains unrecognized by any other: It lies pinned between Moldova and the Ukraine, and its reputation is so obscure that when I told friends I was going to Transnistria, most of them thought I was talking about Transylvania, which is a region in Romania.
Strictly speaking, Transnistria itself covers a larger area, namely the region between the Dniester and the Boeg, both of which empty into the Black Sea. Romania was an ally of Nazi Germany. The Romanian dictator Antonescu set up ghettos and camps in Transnistria, largely for Jews.
Approximately , Jews were murdered in this part of Romania. The parents of poet Paul Celan were incarcerated in a labor camp here — his father died of typhoid fever, his mother was shot in the back of the neck. A nearly forgotten chapter of the Holocaust. In , Transnistria — not to be confused here with the Transnistrian Region — declared independence from Moldova, which had become an independent republic after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The language spoken in Moldova is mostly Moldovan, which many call a sort of Romanian dialect. The Dniester, roughly speaking, forms the border between Moldova and Transnistria. The Ukraine is only about thirty kilometers away, the Russians are in the majority here. Since , this strip of land has been the de facto independent republic of Transnistria. And it is here that anyone wishing to find out about the situation in the bloodlands, 65 years after the mass murders, should start out.