Polina Toker (Tokeriene)
(translated by Gregory Toker)
One could say that in the old independent Lithuania, where I was born and grew up, Jews lived relatively well. One could openly speak Yiddish and call each other by Jewish names. Books, journals and newspapers were published in Yiddish. There was a Jewish theater, libraries, a Jewish hospital, Jewish banks, various public institutions such as Jewish Health Protection Agency, and ORT schools where Jewish youngsters were taught crafts and technical professions. Shop signs could be in Yiddish along with Lithuanian. High schools taught in a wide variety of languages, to anyone’s liking. Apart from the Lithuanian state language, there were schools teaching in Russian, Polish, German and also in Yiddish and Hebrew, even with different orientation for observant and secular Jews. University was accessible to all though not for free.
Immediately after the declaration of independence, all minorities, including Jews, received extensive rights. A Ministry of Jewish Affairs was formed headed by a Jewish minister. Jewish cultural and public life flourished. Unfortunately, this “golden” period did not last long. Gradually all the freedoms were retracted. The Jewish Ministry was closed. Various restrictions were imposed and anti-Semitism resurged. Jews could not be employed in state institutions and were forbidden to buy land and thus could not engage in farming. May be because of this there arouse the belief that Jews are not able and do not want to work the land. (In Israel, Jews proved otherwise: the Israeli agriculture is one of the best in the world.) In Lithuania, the only occupations left open to Jews were trade, crafts and study – provided one had the means. Many young people did not see any future for themselves in Lithuania and tried to emigrate. Some went to South Africa, some to America, while the most idealistic ones were drawn to Palestine, dreaming of a future Jewish State.
Such was Jewish life in Lithuania at the time. Jews had to suffer various restrictions as well as manifestations of anti-Semitism, but there was no threat to life.
Everything changed drastically with Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. The dark forces arose also in Lithuania, baring their latent hatred of Jews. There began various oppressions; Jewish shop signs were smeared with tar; there was even fear of pogroms.
The Jews began to look towards the Soviet Union. That country was attractive because of its nice ideas and slogans. Many dreamed of emigrating there, thinking that only there can Jews become citizens with full rights. However, the border was sealed, and it was not possible to simply move over there.
Soon, however, something unexpected happened – the Soviet Union “came” to us. Following a fabricated appeal by the Lithuanian government, Lithuania was absorbed by the Soviet Union and the LithuanianSovietRepublic was declared. Immediately after that military bases of the Red Army spread throughout Lithuania, including our town Radvilishkis. Many Russian officers brought their families with them. People joked that by sending the Red Army to Lithuania, Stalin committed two errors: he showed the West to the Red Army, and he showed the Red Army to the West. Arriving from a poor semi-starving country, the Russians were pouncing on the stores, disbelieving their own eyes, grabbing everything at hand without even bothering to choose. Especially bad impression was produced by the officer’s wives, many of them illiterate, wearing high army boots and red berets, and carrying their babies wrapped in quilted blankets. How could they stand up to the sophisticated wives of Lithuanian officers who would not even be allowed to marry just anyone. Anecdotes about them abounded. For instance, they would appear in the streets in recently bought silk nightgowns firmly believing that these were evening dresses…
Many of the Russian military arrived also in Radvilishkis. By the order of the military Governor they were lodged among the population. We too had to “squeeze ourselves” since ours was a large two-story house with five rooms above and seven below.
Our first tenant was a single young doctor Andrei Ivanovich. We put him in a room on the ground floor, and tried to make him comfortable. He produced a very pleasant impression, a simple good-natured Russian boy. Notwithstanding his medical degree, he was completely uncivilized and had no table manners; we often had to hide our smiles. Nevertheless we treated him well and even with some warmth. After he was transferred to another regiment we discovered, much to our surprise and shock, that he had “borrowed” the best of our things from his room, and left his bill in my husband’s father’s store unpaid.
After that we had a middle-aged colonel. This one was constantly scanning our house with his eyes and muttering to himself while walking around: “Yes, I can see you are not from among the poorest.” We were not rich, but, being two well established doctors, did not lack anything and could afford to furnish our house nicely and comfortably. To the colonel it seemed like a palace. His mutterings worried us considerably since the deportations to Siberia already started. No one knew what to expect and everyone was afraid. It was thought that they are deporting the rich, the so-called “bourgeois,” enemies of the Soviet power, but among the actually deported there were also the most unexpected people. Sometimes old scores were being settled, sometimes someone coveted someone’s apartment, someone’s position. A sly word, a false accusation would suffice. People were deported quickly, without any investigation or trial.
Our last tenant was the military Governor of the town with his wife and two children. They stayed with us until the beginning of the war. We gave them two rooms upstairs, and learned the “charms” of the communal kitchen. Our house became crowded: my husband Haim, our little daughter Adutė (Ada) and myself, our three servants, the Governor with his family, Haim’s father, and Haim’s sister Ethel with her husband and their child (as their house burned down, we took them in). Despite the overcrowding, we all got along well with each other. It was only uncomfortable to notice how the Russians stared at our servants. We had a nurse for our little daughter, a cook, and a maid named Antsia for helping with the patients, who had practically grown up in our home and was devoted to us. She survived the war and we stayed in touch even after leaving for Israel. We soon let the nurse go and Antsia, who loved Adutė very much, gladly took her duties.
My husband Haim was slowly recovering from a recent illness and doctors suggested that he should recuperate in Sochi, a resort on the Black Sea. Being a member of the trade union of health workers, Haim was entitled to a voucher for a stay in a sanatorium there. There was only one voucher available; by the “democratic” Soviet rules of that time the priority was to be given to lower-rank personnel, in this case, a young healthy paramedic. Fortunately, one of the members of the committee issuing the vouchers came out on Haim’s side saying that Dr. Tokeris was not to blame that the paramedic was not able to finish his doctor’s studies, and that Haim needed the trip for health reasons. Reason prevailed, and the voucher was given to Haim. That was two weeks before the war. There were constant movements of troops, which caused people to worry, and Haim hesitated whether the time was suitable for leaving. I had the presence of mind to say that if the war would indeed break out, then it would be better if he were over there rather than here. Actually, no one could imagine that there would be war. Thus, Haim left, and this saved his life.
At the time I, a dentist, found myself working as Inspector of the Mother and Child Protection Agency (referred to by its Russian acronym “MATMLAD”). This came about in the following way. In the pre-Soviet Lithuania there were many private clinics where patients paid for medical help. One of such dental offices was owned by me. There were also mutual health funds providing free medical care for their members. However, in the Soviet medical system private clinics were unacceptable. Just as everyone else, doctors had to be employed and paid by the State. Whoever was not employed, was considered a “parasite” and an enemy and faced serious trouble. Therefore, like other doctors, I closed my office and started looking for employment. An out-patient dental clinic just opened in Radvilishkis and I, a qualified local dentist would seem to be a natural candidate to work there. But the reality was different.
The hiring of the personnel for dental clinics was entrusted to an almost illiterate dental technician from among the communist thugs, and he immediately began showing his power and bullying those who were not from “among the poorest.” To the newly opened Radvilishkis clinic he brought a dentist from another district whereas I was offered a position in a small place Shiaulėnai, some 17 km away from Radvilishkis. When I asked him how I would be able to get there (there was no public transportation at the time), the reply was: “Why don’t you use your bicycle?”
I had no other choice but to turn for help to the Ministry of Health in Vilnius where, fortunately, two of my friends from the university days held important positions: doctor Mitselmacheris and doctor Sheinbergas. They apparently did not dare to confront a sworn communist but also did not intend to abandon me at a time of trouble. Therefore, they offered me the position of inspector with MATMLAD and, having no other choice, I agreed. My duties included going around in a horse-driven carriage together with the district engineer Gergelis and opening children health institutions and maternity wards. One of such wards was opened by us in Shiaulėnai just before the war.
Those who did not like the new Soviet power regarded everyone holding a position of authority (and my MATMLAD position was regarded as such) as a communist and enemy. A later episode comes to my mind: I, together with other ghetto inmates, am driven by the guards to work through the streets of Shiauliai; my former colleague dentist Brashishkyte notices me in the column and shouts: “Look, this communist is still alive!” Fortunately, the passersby made no sign of supporting her. Later I learned that this woman became “the mother” of the Lithuanian executioners. She would throw parties for them after each mass shooting of the Jews.
After Haim’s departure the times became even more troubled. Everyone talked about the possibility of a war, and the deportations became truly widespread. At night lorries would arrive in town, armed officials would noisily burst into houses, give the inhabitants half an hour to pack, and take them to the railway station where cattle cars with barred windows were already waiting. Large letters on the cars said “Enemies of the people.” Every morning we would miss someone from among our neighbors or acquaintances. The colonel’s words “you are not from among the poorest” kept ringing in my ears.
No one was allowed near the railway cars; giving food or clothes to the deported was forbidden, though some people had to leave their houses as they were, even half dressed. One woman shouted to us through the barred window: “there will be a time when you will envy us!” She was right, as it turned out later. They also had their share of suffering in the overcrowded cattle cars, non-hygienic conditions, starvation and hard work. Many did even not reach their destinations, yet most survived and did not have to go through the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and the crematoria.
We spent these days in constant fear of the night; everyone was getting ready for the worst. I have prepared a backpack with both our diplomas, some clothes, medicine, and a diphtheria vaccine. I had a premonition that Adutė would contract this illness. This vaccine later saved her life, although not for long.
Each period creates its characteristic jokes. Here is one, typical of that time. A loud knock on the door sounds in the middle of the night. Everyone jumps up in fear – the KGB have come. The wife starts weeping, the children scream. Everyone tries to dress quickly, grab something for the road. The pounding on the door intensifies. The husband, half-dressed and white-faced, goes to open the door and returns with a huge smile on his face. “Calm down everyone, there is nothing to fear. It is just that our house is on fire!”
Early morning of June 22, 1941 the radio announced that the Germans have invaded the Soviet Union. War! My first thought was to leave. I ran to Haim’s father to ask his opinion, but he made fun of me. “You want to go to Russia? You will get lost there! Don’t you see what kind of order they instituted here? People say too many wrong things about the Germans. I remember them from World War I. They are civilized people, not like the Russians; they will do us no harm.”
Still, I decided to run. But how to start? First put my affairs in order. I had in my possession a large sum of 1000 rubles entrusted to me by the manager of a newly opened Shiaulėnai maternity ward to buy some medical instruments as I was about to travel to Vilnius to attend a conference of MATMLAD’s inspectors. I ran to the post office and wired the money to the address of the Shiaulėnai maternity ward. Today I am amazed that at such a moment I could think about that money. Later, this instinctive act saved my life. Having disposed of the money, I came back home, took Adutė and the previously prepared backpack and went to the railway station, hoping to catch a train for Russia. Vain dreams! Although Lithuania had become a SovietRepublic, one still needed a special permit to cross the border into Russia. I knew this but hoped for a miracle which did not happen. At the station I ran into our tenant, the military Governor. “Polina Solomonovna, what is this panic? I did not expect this of you!” I told him that I wanted to leave so as to be together with my husband and my brother, both of whom were in the Soviet Union at this time. The Governor accepted my explanation and promised to help. We were to go home and he would let us know as soon as there was a possibility to leave. A few hours later he came running and said that he had intelligence reports that the railway station would be bombed. Our house was near and in danger. He suggested that we should go away for a few days and asked me to take his family with us. He promised to come for us as soon as the danger was over.
Five kilometers out of town was the farm of our patient Povylius, and we went there, together with the Governor’s family and all our relatives, 30 people all in all. Povylius accepted us all, put everyone into the barn and took myself and Adutė into their house. During the night the station was indeed bombed, but our house remained intact. The Governor did not come, and the next day I decided not to wait for him but go back to town. Unfortunately, this was not possible. The town was surrounded by roadblocks and no one was allowed through. Nothing helped – reasoning, supplication, tears. I had to return to the farm. This was Monday, and Tuesday morning we heard German voices. This was only an advance party. The German army did not arrive in Radvilishkis until Friday and even Thursday it was still possible to leave by specially provided trains. We were trapped in the farm. The Governor, wishing to help, has really let us down.
Radvilishkis was a major railway junction, and the battle for it lasted several days. We could hear gunfire and explosions. We watched in fear the Russian troops retreating in disarray and saw how happy the faces of the Lithuanians who gave us shelter have become. Povylius’s family were good people. They took us, a large group of people, in out of compassion, helping people in trouble. They gave us bread and milk, but their feelings and their reactions to the arrival of the Germans were different from ours. Povylius took out a hidden Lithuanian flag, ordered bread to be baked, and said to us, “We are glad that the Germans are coming just as you would be if you got Jerusalem back.” We could not blame them. The Bolsheviks were their enemy, and they hoped that happy times had arrived. On our part, we did not anticipate anything good. Povylius and his family could not help us in any way, and we were grateful to them for whatever they had done for us. After the war, we cordially thanked them and tried to help them however we could. When Povylius fell seriously ill and came to Vilnius, we took him in and nursed him as one of our family. The last days of his life were spent in our home; for many years afterwards that we used to help his wife and son.
Friday, when the Germans have already occupied Radvilishkis, there appeared the so called “white bands” — the Lithuanian “polizei” who collaborated with the Germans. They went on bicycles through the neighboring villages and rounded up the Jews who found shelter there during the bombing of the station. The Jews were chased back to town on foot, prompted by whips. The door of our house, as of all other Jewish houses, was marked by a large letter “J” (standing for Jude — Jew in German). This was the work of the Lithuanian polizei. They guided the Germans around the town and pointed out the houses of the Jews. At home I only found our servant Onutė. Our other servant, faithful Antsia went to hide from the Russians in a village. She belonged to a well off family and was afraid of deportations.
The polizei immediately began to boss around our house. They removed the telephone, took away the motorcycle that Haim used for visiting his patients, took the radio, and forbade me to step out of the house. Fortunately, Onutė was still with us. She was able to go out to buy food for us all, but soon they began to chase her out of the stores calling her “žydmergė” (a Jew servant).
One day a passenger car pulled up near our house. Out came a German colonel with a monocle in his eye. “Are you the lady of this house? We are occupying it.” He and two other officers took over the whole upper floor. They settled there as if in their own home. Slept in our beds, ate at our table, behaved as owners. They treated me without animosity, but somehow without bothering to notice my presence. One of them, however, showed some sympathy. Once when the other two were not present, he said to me, “Unfortunately, you, as a Jew, are going to face very difficult times, but you Jews are used to suffering.” Among themselves we called him “Pastor.” He helped us indirectly by putting a note on the door that the house was occupied by the German army and entrance of unauthorized personnel was forbidden. The Lithuanian polizei, who used to go into the Jewish houses and harass the inhabitants, could no longer enter, and I was temporarily relieved of their “visits.” The other two officers did not do anything bad to us, but unceremoniously used to take whatever they fancied and send it to Germany, as if emphasizing that we no longer needed anything.
Dark days had arrived. Every morning the polizei drove the Jews out of their houses to the so-called “works.” For instance, Jews were forced to wash the sidewalks. One had to bring water in buckets from afar, pour it on the ground, and then wipe it clean by crawling on one’s stomach. Laughing, the polizei used sticks to make them crawl faster. Jews were forced to clean toilets using their hats and then put these hats on their heads. It is difficult to comprehend how could one invent such humiliations. Every day they would come up with new “entertainments,” which were difficult to bear both physically and morally. There were suicide attempts, even among the religiously observant for whom a suicide is a terrible sin. “Pastor’s” note on the door saved me from all this.
One day they came to fetch me to the polizei headquarters. We all froze with fear. At home we had books by Lenin and Stalin. All this was new to us and interesting to read. Sometimes the secretary of the communist party, a semi-literate worker who was my patient, would drop in to ask me to read and explain some complicated document. In addition, I became friendly with the wife of a Russian officer, who also was a dentist. One could get an impression that I was a communist supporter.
In the first room at the headquarters I saw several half-naked Jews covered in blood, being whipped by my former patient Janushauskas. They were beaten just for fun, without any reason. Polizei would often grab Jews from the streets, haul them to the headquarters, and beat them up just to release their rage. Having noticed me, Janushauskas pushed me into the room of their commander, who turned out to be another of my former patients, the engineer Reshka. Both he and his wife had often visited us in our home. I could hardly believe that under the mask of this civilized man a fascist had been hiding. Reshka has sent me home and promised to come and take us to a safe place. Going out of the headquarters, I ran into Reshka’s wife. Our eyes met and she turned her head away. No one came to take us to a safe place… This was my first disappointment in the people I knew. Who had ordered to fetch me to the headquarters, I never found out. Seeing me back at home, alive and unhurt, Haim’s father burst into tears; hugging me, he kept repeating “my newly found child.”
On June 27, a large gang of polizei under the German command stormed into our house and ordered us out. Fifteen minutes to clear the last trace of us. I froze for a few seconds, but then recovered, grabbed a winter coat, the backpack, put Adinka into her baby’s carriage and stepped out of my house. A large crowd had gathered outside. Apparently, everyone wanted to see our humiliation. Some were cursing loudly. Our dog, Redi, was barking her heart out. Seeing our helper Antanas in the crowd, I asked him to take the dog, which he did. Later, the poor dog was shot by the Germans when, seeing me from afar in a column, she broke her chain and ran to me.
I went into the street. A terrible picture opened before my eyes. The whole Jewish population of Radvilishkis was on the streets. Pale, mortally frightened faces. Everyone was carrying something, often the most unexpected objects, whatever one happened to grab at the last moment. I found myself with a carafe of water in my hands, without knowing how and why I had taken it. They made us march. My head was foggy. Where are they leading us? What will happen to us? The thoughts, one heavier than another came and squeezed the heart. They shoved us into old abandoned wooden barracks. A small building, barred windows, plank beds. Many people. There was not enough place on the planks for everyone, and Adutė and I settled on the floor. The men were immediately ordered outside to put up a barbed wire fence around the barracks. Armed guards were stationed around the perimeter. Outside the fence I noticed our “Pastor.” He stood in silence observing our new residence. At night the polizei paid us a visit. They walked around us, mocked at us. One of them approached me, kicked me with his foot and said “your husband went to Stalin, and now I shall play on your piano.”
Every morning we were driven out of this camp to various dirty and humiliating works and brought back in the evening. From lying on the wooden floor, my whole body became covered with bruises. Many fell ill, some women were pregnant and I, being the only medical person there, had to deliver the babies. Later, paramedic Simanovich was allowed to come a few times and bring some medicine for the sick. We greeted him like family. Simanovich was known to be a decent person, so people took off their rings and watches and pushed them into his pockets trying to save at least something for better days. Simanovich proved true to this trust and after the war returned everything to those who had survived. However, these were a minority and he did not know what to do with the rest of the things. While he was looking for a solution, a shrewd girl Estherka Bekin came to him accompanied by a KGB agent and took away everything. Most probably, they split their plunder. Even among us one could encounter all sorts of people.
First days in the barracks. Heavy thoughts all the time. The day is dark, it is raining. We are crowded together, hungry. Suddenly polizei Majauskas walks in: Governor Drebniauskas has ordered to bring me with my child to the headquarters. We used to call him the “black devil” not only because he always dressed in black, even in summer, but also because of his cruel behavior and his fierce hatred of Jews. My heart sank, and I began to plead with Majauskas to let me leave the child in the camp. For a long time he would not agree, apparently also being afraid of the black devil. Fortunately, he was one of my grateful patients and heeded my request.
At the headquarters Drebniauskas lashed out at me like a beast. Foaming at the mouth he screamed that I “exposed my Jewish greed” and took other people’s money. In the room there was also present a woman whom I recognized as the midwife from the Shiaulėnai maternity ward that we had opened just before the war. At the beginning of the war she left Shiaulėnai and stayed with her relatives in a village. When the Germans came and she decided to return to her post in Shiaulėnai, she first went to Radvilishkis to complain to the Germans that I had appropriated those 1000 rubles that she had given me to buy the instruments for the ward. She could not imagine that I would manage to return the money and decided to accuse me of theft. In vain did I plead that I had sent the money back. “Shoot her” shouted Drebniauskas, “she steals and lies that she has sent the money. Where is the receipt?!” Who could think about receipts when I was chased out of my house through the jeering Lithuanian rabble who had gathered for such a spectacle! Majauskas led me outside. He was pale and disconcerted. I understood where he was leading me and could barely move my feet. Majauskas was a polizei, a German helper, but I saw in his face that he was reluctant to put a bullet into the face of his doctor who had done him a lot of good. But what could he do? Could he dare to disobey the order? We started going. Suddenly I had an idea. The post should have a copy of my receipt! I began to plead with Majauskas to drop into the post office, which was actually near by. He was happy to comply. The clerks at the post office, also former patients of mine, went through their books and found the copy of the receipt. I was saved! When I was brought back to the camp, I was greeted with tears like someone returning from the other world. Everyone knew the implications of a call to Drebniauskas. I also knew what to expect and this is why had I pleaded so hard to leave Adutė in the camp. Drebniauskas would not have spared even a small child.
On July 12, at 6 o’clock in the evening, when we were all back in the camp after work, the German commander appeared with several officers and Lithuanian polizei and ordered all the men between the ages of 12 to 100 to line up in the yard; the women and children were forced back inside. We heard him ask about the professions of all these people. Hearing the answers — tailor, shoemaker, teacher, rabbi, shop owner, etc. — he shouted “these are all communists!” Our men were lined up four in a row and ordered to march. Haim’s old paralyzed uncle Tasman had to be carried on the shoulders of others. The guards, whom we questioned about the matter, said that they were transferred for work in another camp. Doubts immediately crept in — why should they take a paralyzed old man? Tormented by the thoughts of their fate, we could not sleep that night. In the morning the polizei came back and ordered us to collect all the men’s clothes. We feared the worst but did not to admit such thoughts. In the camp there remained about 500 people, women, small children and a single man, Leib Segal, the husband of Haim’s sister Ethel. On that day he had been detained at work (apparently his German employer knew about the planned action and has intentionally delayed his return) and was brought back to the camp only after the men had already been taken away. This fortunate accident saved him, alas, not for long.
Among us there was a Lithuanian woman who did not want to part from her Jewish husband and had come with him of her own free will. Now, that the men were taken away, she decided that there was no point in her staying with us any longer. We all supported her decision and even urged her to leave the camp and try to find out about the fate of the men. She went away and we never saw her again. Apparently, she had nothing good to tell us. However, there were other Lithuanian women who would come to the fence, pretend to give us greetings from our men who were asking to send them whatever we could spare. People believed them and gave them their last valuables. Only after liberation did we learn what had happened to our men. They were brought to a grove near the Jewish cemetery and were all shot dead. The keeper of the cemetery saw everything from afar. What villainy and what greed showed these Lithuanian women who came to give us greetings from our men! One had to be totally immoral to try to profit from the disaster of others. One German officer whom I had encountered was also like that.
The forced labor continued. We suffered humiliation, semi-starvation, crowded, difficult conditions, and were constantly tormented by the thoughts about our men. In Radvilishkis there was another camp located in the so-called “new” barracks outside the town. The Russian prisoners of war were kept there. Every day they were driven in columns through the streets of the town, pushing wheelbarrows with their dead or badly sick. Dressed in torn rags, dirty and hungry, they lost almost all trace of humanity. They would fling themselves onto the ground to pick a cigarette butt or an unfinished apple and were punished for this by beatings or even bullets. Those in front had to carry a banner saying “The invincible Red Army.”
When a typhoid epidemic erupted in the Russian camp, the German monsters decided to make us switch places with them. The Russian prisoners were transferred into our camp and we had to move into theirs, to their dirty bed planks without any disinfection. For us it was a double misfortune since the other camp was outside the town and away from people’s eyes, and the polizei guards were now free to do with us as they pleased, mock and torment us at will. Beatings, various “works,” intimidations. Once they woke us up at night and ordered everyone out forbidding to take the children with us. Screams, tears, and cries of children and mothers fearing that they would be separated forever. Nothing helped. We were driven into the street and ordered to pull the weeds off the road. Then, because of our bad performance we were lined up facing a wall; shots rang out… They were shooting into the air and laughing their pants off because of their ingenious invention. One of the women, Margolis by name, complained about the polizei behavior to a German officer. As a reprisal, they threw her into a cellar half filled with water for a whole night. She could not lie down or even sit. In the morning we heard her wild laughter. Then she was shot.
One of such nights, a drunken polizei Martishius came to me to boast that he himself had shot Haim’s brother. I heard that after the war he was tried, got 10 years in prison, served them only partially, and returned to Radvilishkis where he is still alive and well.
Not far from our camp there was another building, used as a hostel for German officers. Some of the women from our camp, including myself, worked in this hostel; the others were escorted to town for various menial work. We washed the floors and windows and did the laundry for the officers. One evening when we were resting on the grass near the camp after the day’s work, a German officer approached me and asked what had been my profession. I was shocked by the words “had been.” A doctor, dentist, I answered. “What, a dentist?!” he exclaimed, as if stricken and kept repeating “a dentist, so it is you!” Then he told me that he saw Haim in a neighboring camp. I burst into tears but he tried to console me saying that Haim was working there as a doctor and was doing quite well. He even told me that Haim showed him a photo of me with a child. At my request, he described Haim and his clothes. Everything fitted. I figured that when the war broke out, Haim rushed home but failed to reach us and was captured by the Germans. What was there to be glad about? But other women of our camp reacted to this news that spread like wildfire in a very different way. They became encouraged, hoping that Dr. Tokeris, who was always helping everyone, would find some way to help us even now. Apparently, they forgot where we were. The following evenings this officer would bring me a cup of black coffee, say something kind, trying, as I realized later, to earn my trust. One day Adutė fell ill. She had severe diarrhea, and I had no rice to give her as medicine. This officer, under the pretext that he needed to get wine glasses for others, took me to my house to fetch them and let me take some rice for the child. He was putting himself at risk, and I began to trust him.
We entered the house. Loud music, laughter. Our servant Onutė in my evening dress was having a good time with the Germans. She was very surprised to see me, became ashamed, and ran away to the other room. We took the wine glasses and the rice and left. My heart ached and tears were running from my eyes. Whom had we harbored in our home? Antsia was entirely different. When the Germans came, she was hiding from the Soviets in a village. She immediately returned to Radvilishkis and, not having found us at home, obtained a permission to remove her things from there. She took a big bag, shoved everything she thought of value into it, took it back to her village, and kept it safe for us until we met again.
A few days after this incident, the German officer told me that he was going to the other camp where Haim was kept and that he was willing to pass him a sign of life from me. Best of all would be a small object — a wedding ring since it had Haim’s name engraved inside. He promised to bring back Haim’s ring with my name. The Germans took away all our jewelry but out of some strange sentimentality let us keep our wedding rings (later, these were taken away by Vlasov’s soldiers). An inner voice told me to refuse. What was the point of this exchange? We would not be able to wear each other’s rings, there was nowhere to keep them, and they would certainly be lost. Instead, I offered to exchange signatures.
I never saw this officer again. He was probably transferred to another regiment. As it turned out, Haim was in no German camp, but in the Red Army. The officer coveted my golden ring and wanted to get hold of it. Apparently he had been in our house and had seen our photographs. The same servant Onutė, who had such a good time with the Germans, had probably described Haim to him and he invented the whole story.
We spent three months in this camp. The work that I was not used to broke my strength; my clothes became worn out. I had stepped out of my house in a light summer dress and it was the only one I had now. We lived in constant fear, especially of “surprises” at night.
Autumn came, and with the beginning of rain and cold the Germans decided to liquidate the camp. We thought it was only our camp since its building had no windows and no roof, destroyed during bombing. However, the decision was about all the camps in small towns and villages. It was decided to move us all into one place, Zhagarė on the border with Latvia. (As it turned out, everyone who was brought there was shot.) They rounded up the peasants with their carts from the market and loaded us all onto the carts. Most of the women were glad of the change, to be finally rid of the polizei guards. There was a rumor that in Zhagarė we shall not live in a camp but with the locals. It would be safer and there will be more food. I, on the contrary, had a bad feeling. I fell into a queasy state, lump the in throat, nausea, heart beats, and a strong desire to avoid Zhagarė by all means.
Our family of nine was put into a single cart: Haim’s sister Ethel with her husband Leibl Segal and their son Michale, Haim’s brother’s Motl’s sister Rachil with her children Mulia and Ezrale, Rachil’s mother Tsilia Losos and I with Adutė.
While on the road, a bicycle rider came up from behind and continued with us for some time holding to the cart with one hand, apparently to get some rest. Suddenly, the cart’s driver turned to him and said: “Look how the wife of Dr. Tokeris is traveling now!” There was compassion in his voice. When the cyclist departed, I asked the driver how he knew me. It turned out that he was Tarbūnas whose life was once saved by Haim. He had had a burst appendix, and Haim cured him of subsequent peritonitis. I have often come to him with Haim to help with bandages. This Tarbūnas recognized me. In those times Radvilishkis had no hospitals, and it was not possible to transfer him to Shiauliai since he could not be moved. Haim took the risk and nursed him himself. People talked much about this case.
I began to plead with Tarbūnas to let us go in the vicinity of Shiauliai. We had heard that in Shiauliai there was a Jewish ghetto into which the Jews from the town were being transferred. They had a Jewish administration (Judenrat) and a Jewish police. People were moved there by whole families and were allowed to take some things with them, even furniture. Ghetto sounded much more attractive to me than Zhagarė, and I was eager to get there. I concocted a plan. Once in Shiauliai, we would go to someone we knew and move to the ghetto with them. What we did not know was that only permanent Shiaulai residents were moved to the ghetto. A Lithuanian committee went from house to house collecting the passports with a Shiauliai registration and giving blue cards instead. Whoever did not get the blue card was sent to the synagogue and later was shot. Had we proceeded as planned, we would have faced the same destiny as many others who had run to their relatives at the beginning of the war.
Tarbūnas did not require too much persuasion. He gradually fell behind the train of carts, which was not difficult since the train was not guarded well — people were going to Zhagarė willingly and, on the other hand, did not have where to run to. A few kilometers before Shiauliai he let us go.
Our group presented a sorry sight. A grandmother, three young women, a man, and four small children. All in rags, exhausted, with small bundles over the shoulders. We started towards the town according to our plan. Suddenly, as if from under the earth, there appeared an old Jew with a long white beard, without yellow stars on his clothes, leaning on a thick cane. “And who are you, children, where are you from, and where are you going?” We told him everything. Having heard us out, he knocked his cane on the ground and said: “You are not going to your acquaintances in Shiauliai! Instead, you will do as I tell you.” He told us that Shiauliai had two ghettos. The one near the Jewish cemetery, called Kavkaz, was already full and sealed. The other ghetto was near the red prison. It was called Trakai and was still taking Jews in. “Hide near the prison and when you see a column going towards the ghetto, join in, each one with a different family. This is how you will be able to sneak into the ghetto.” This is what we did and that’s how we escaped the synagogue and remained alive. We were never able found out who that old man was and what he was doing without yellow stars so far away from the town. In vain did we search for him in the ghetto, in vain did we ask around. Our adopted grandmother Tsilia Losos was convinced he was an angel sent to us from heaven.
We did penetrate into the ghetto and only then realized what a terrible situation we were in. We were illegal inhabitants since we did not have blue cards. Without the latter one could not get bread. We, and other “illegals,” were helped by the Jewish ghetto council Judenrat. The city council of Shiauliai was dominated by someone named Stankus who was put in charge of Jewish affairs; he was a drunkard and a villain. Having learned somehow that the ghetto contained extra people, he immediately ordered them all to be moved to the synagogue. The Judenrat invested tremendous efforts and money to bribe him to produce additional blue cards. One has to give credit to the Shiauliai Jews. They did not spare anything to help us. Themselves, they were in an entirely different situation. They had been informed well in advance that they would have to vacate their apartments and move to the ghetto. As a result, they had had time to prepare – hide some things, give some things to trusted Lithuanians for safe keeping, pack clothes and valuables that could later be exchanged for food. To bribe off Stankus, they collected money, jewelry, and electrical appliances.
The locals also helped us with clothes and some furniture. Both ghettos, Kavkaz and Trakai, were located in poor districts with mostly small wooden houses, all without any amenities. We were settled in one of such houses, with a low ceiling and small windows, on 11 Zhilvitis street. The house was divided into two parts, each with a small room and even smaller kitchen. No heating stove, only a small stove for cooking in the kitchen. Here lived our family of nine. Later, when my cousin Esther Iserlis managed to run away from Telshiai, make her way into the ghetto, and give birth, we became eleven; then, when the Kavkaz ghetto was liquidated, we took in another woman with her child and became thirteen. The other part of the house was similarly crowded. It was occupied by local Jews who naturally looked much better than we. As we learned later, at the beginning they thought we were some kind of tramps or even thieves. Later, when we came to know each other, we became good friends.
The house was full of bed-bugs, mice, and cockroaches from which there was no escape. They gnawed not only everything edible, but even clothes and linen. At night we used to put the bread into pouches and hang them from the ceiling, which luckily was very low, and plug our ears to prevent the cockroaches from crawling in.
The winter of 1941 was unusually cold. We had no fuel for heating. People took apart the fences and burned whatever they could find. Food was scarce. Rumors said that anyone found during daytime in the ghetto rather than at work would be shot. Everyone was eager to work, but jobs were not easy to obtain since the request for workers had to come from the employers in town. Work in town was luring also since there was a hope to find something to eat. Some Lithuanians would clandestinely approach working Jews for barter — exchange food for valuables. Braver people would take off their yellow stars and, behind the guard’s backs, go into neighboring houses to beg for food when they had nothing to give in exchange. This was called to shnor.
The first among us to get a job was Leibl, at a grain elevator some six km from the ghetto. The elevator machine broke down and they needed Jews to haul sacks with grain to the upper floors. After work Leibl would pour some grain or sometimes even peas into his boots and walk like this all the way back to the ghetto. We would add frozen potatoes out of our rations and thus cooked dinner for the whole family. Fortunately, during searches at the gates of the ghetto he was never asked to take his boots off.
On the way back to the ghetto everyone tried to pick any piece of wood to make a fire in the evening. The Lithuanian guards at the gate made thorough searches. What would people not invent to evade the search, outwit the guards, and bring home the little they could get in town! Woe to those who were caught. Much was at risk, even one’s life. But what could one do? Hungry children were waiting in the ghetto. Once, when our column was returning to the ghetto after work, the Gebitskomissar (district commissioner) stopped it in the middle of town and conducted the search himself. Someone called Mazovecki had a pack of cigarettes and some food on him. The commander had him shoved into the trunk of his car and drove him to the prison. Mazovecki was a tall man, and when they were queezing him into the trunk, they broke something in him. Mazovecki had to spend a few months in bed in prison until he finally could stand on his feet and then… A gallows was built in the ghetto and everyone was forced to watch the execution, as a lesson. This terrible picture will never be erased from my memory. Somehow one could not believe that they would actually go through with the hanging — after all, they used to stage mock executions. This time all hopes were in vain. When they put a noose around his neck, Mazovecki asked for permission to say his last words. Refused. He asked to say farewell to his mother. Refused — they did not want an unaesthetic scene. In vain did his old mother, prostrate on the ground, plead with them to hang her instead of her son. Nothing helped and the execution was carried out.
Next time they caught Dobkin with some peas. This time the decision of the monsters was even more terrible. They demanded 50 “heads” to be chosen by the Judenrat. The whole night the light was on in the Judenrat office. What should be done, how to decide who will die and who will live? The whole night the ghetto did not sleep, who will be the sacrifice?
The next morning the whole Judenrat — Katz, Kartun, and Leibovitch — went to the Gebitskomissar. They did not bring the list and offered themselves instead. The Gebitskomissar Geveke was so surprised that he let them go. The whole ghetto was waiting for them at the gate — whose destiny was sealed? But when they came inside and fell on each other’s necks, everyone understood that even the stone heart of Geveke was moved. However, this happened only once.
I was still without work, without the possibility to go to town. One day, suddenly, the door of our house opened and I saw engineer Gergelis, the same one who used to drive with me around the district opening children’s clinics. I do not know how he managed to get into the ghetto — this was strictly forbidden to the Lithuanians. For a long time he stood silently at the doorstep, his eyes filled with tears. “You are here?”
Gergelis went to the district physician Jasaitis, gave him a kilogram of tobacco, which was a huge bribe, and obtained his agreement to provide me with work in town. He also got me a one-time pass to pay Dr. Jasaitis a visit. Jasaitis was an old acquaintance. He would often come to Radvilishkis on official business and would dine with us. He did not shake my hand, but tried to give me 100 German marks. Tears burst from my eyes — the first charity in my life. I declined. He gave me a letter to the director of the town clinic Dr. Zhilinskas, who was also a frequent visitor in our house. The latter greeted me with the following words: “we don’t really need Jews, but bearing in mind our long acquaintance, I shall give you a reprieve from your ghetto life for a few hours a day.” He appointed me nurse in a dental clinic. This was fortunate. The doctors in that clinic were all people I knew — Degonienė, Juraitė, Popickaitė, and Zekinienė — and they treated me very well. They did not let me wash floors or do other menial work, to which the second nurse, Stasė, did not object. My duties included keeping the medical records, filling various forms. They would often call me to look at patients, consulted me as a doctor, probably to encourage me, gave me food. My yellow stars were covered by my white gown. This was against the rules, but no one turned me in.
All went very well but suddenly a problem arose. Near ours was another clinic where German doctors treated German officers. One of them took a liking to me and began courting. He tried to invite me to movies, theater, and became offended when I kept refusing. One day he took a hard look at me and asked: “perhaps you are Jewish?” I shuddered. I was expecting the worst. In the least I would lose this job and get a punishment for hiding my yellow star. Unexpectedly, it turned out differently. He did not inform on me. On the contrary. He introduced himself as Martin Krehan, a writer, and said that he opposed the persecution of Jews. From then on, he would drop in sometimes during lunch breaks, when no one was around, and bring me food. When he learned that I had a daughter in the ghetto, he brought me a two candies — the ultimate dream of the children in the ghetto. “A candy in a paper” — that’s how the children called them. Adutė’s birthday, the 24-th of August, happened to be at that time. I placed all our children around the table, divided the two candies into four parts, and that’s how we celebrated her birthday in 1943.
The kindest person in our family was Ethel. She had the most difficult job — to load coal at the railway station. She returned in the evenings all covered with coal dust; on rainy days she came back all wet. In our cold apartment her clothes would not dry overnight and, having nothing else, she had to put them back on while still half wet.
In the mornings I had to get up at five, and immediately Adutė would raise her little head, follow my every movement with her eyes, and begin to ask “Mamitenka (that’s how she called me since in the first years of her life she spoke Lithuanian), after you have put on our dress, will you come to me?” — of course. A few minutes later, in a trembling voice “and after the coat?” — but of course, “and after the shawl?” and … She did not cry, only her lips trembled treacherously, and my heart was breaking. Shall we see each other in the evening? It was like this every morning.
How simply and easily nowadays children part with their parents! No one has dark thoughts. And how difficult it was for the two of us.
The work column left the ghetto at six in the morning. The clinic where I worked did not open until nine. Beside me there was another Jew employed at ancillary work, the former director of this same clinic Dr. Pik. The keeper of the clinic, who was also the keeper under Dr. Pik, would not let us in before nine, and we had to wait freezing outside on the staircase.
At six in the evening we were brought back to the ghetto. Adutė would run out to greet me, show her dress, boasting that she kept it clean. In general, she was very clean and tidy. She could not read yet but was already composing rhymes.
An hour or two later I would again go to work, this time inside the ghetto, seeing patients in our makeshift volunteer clinic. I returned home about nine-ten at night. The streets were not paved; there was no lighting; in autumn the mud was deep. Walking around, however, was safe, crime was non-existent. At home everyone would already be asleep and I would not switch on the light in order not to wake them up. Quietly I would crawl to my bed trampling over the cockroaches. By six in the morning I had to be at the meeting place at the gate. That’s how we lived all these years until the end of 1943. There was constant fear of the next day, constant need to find something to eat and to find a way to smuggle it into the ghetto. And the rumors. All these terrible rumors were poisoning our already difficult life.
From time to time there were the so-called “actions” in the ghetto. People were selected and taken somewhere. No one knew where and why, but we suspected evil and were tormented by doubts. Once the rumor said they would pick the young. At night the records were altered to add years to people’s age. Then there was a rumor that they would deport the old. Again one tried to change the records and improve people’s appearance. One day it was announced that in order to alleviate the overcrowded conditions in the ghetto the commander decided to move the elderly to a former rest house not far from town. We had our doubts, but when new buses with soft seats arrived in the ghetto, people believed. Taking leave of their old, they gave them the best things they had. The rest house turned out to be a large pit in which everyone was shot. The new buses were just a diversion.
The ghetto was gradually becoming smaller. There were fewer and fewer people, and the two ghettos were combined. The Kavkaz ghetto was closed and whoever remained there was transferred into ours. It was then that one more woman with a child was moved into our house. Complete liquidation of the ghetto was approaching.
By the end of 1942, the ghetto commander demanded that Dr. Verbalinskis, myself, and three dental technicians – the dental personnel of the ghetto – should teach prosthodontics to some Lithuanian evening school students. The purpose was clear, as well as what awaited us when the job was done.
One of these joungsters told me that during a lesson in religion at school, priest Byla denounced the Germans for killing people indiscriminately, including women and children, just because they were Jews. “This is not right! Among Jews there are many honest noble people” he said, and as an example mentioned Dr. Tokeris who selflessly looked after his patients, did not take money from the poor and even gave them money to buy medicine. I was surprised by the courage of this unknown person who risked much by speaking his mind openly. The name stuck in my memory.
I have already mentioned the rumors that from time to time went around the ghetto. Sometimes justified, sometimes, not. Now people began to say that in Kaunas, who’s large ghetto had a Jewish hospital, the Germans burned that hospital down together with the patients and personnel when it was discovered that some patients contracted infectious diseases. Our ghetto did not have a hospital. At first, the town hospital would take patients from the ghetto. Esther Iserlis, Haim’s sister in law, even gave birth there. Later they would admit Jewish patients but not treat them. Suddenly, a diphtheria epidemic erupted in the ghetto. The first of our children to fall ill was Ezrale, Rachil’s son. He was admitted into the town hospital’s ward for infectious diseases, but the department manager Dr. Domarkas forbade the personnel to give him the serum, and the child died. After that the hospital would not even admit patients from the ghetto, and it was announced that Jews were forbidden to be sick with infectious diseases. A day after this order was issued, Adutė came down with diphtheria. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed late and her condition was very serious. Other people also fell ill with diphtheria and typhoid, caught by the women who did the laundry of typhoid patients in German hospitals. What could we do? It was forbidden to be sick with infectious deceases, but it was impossible to keep the sick at home. First everyone had to cut their hair. At night we took our bed linen outside to freeze them out. Fortunately, the weather was very cold. The district physician could not understand how come there were no epidemics and deaths in such a crowded ghetto. Having no choice, we organized a clandestine hospital in a small house in the cemetery, where one used to wash up the deceased. The image of the burning Kaunas hospital was in front of our eyes, but still there were doctors and nurses who, at the risk of their lives, began treating these patients. Of course, the relatives helped with nursing.
My heart was torn with pain when at night I had sneaked in to the cemetery with Adutė on my hands, seeking rescue in this so-called hospital. Immediately, they injected her with the serum that I had put in my backpack preparing for deportation to Siberia. But what I had was not sufficient. The only way to get more serum from town’s pharmacy was through Dr. Goldberg who kept in touch with his former colleagues, but this required time, at least 24 hours, and it was impossible to wait. It so happened that my friend Iserlis also had some serum (may be he also had a premonition?); he brought it to me even though his own daughter was also in danger. “And what if she falls ill before Dr. Goldberg gets the serum and I return it to you? “But Adutė is sick now” was the answer. I did manage to get the serum the next day and return it to Iserlis, but had to pay a heavy price. I had to part with the baby carriage which I still had and for which I had been offered a whole sack of potatoes. (Lithuanians from the town were sometimes able to enlist the guards to help them with such exchanges.) Adutė was saved.
The end of 1943 was approaching. After the huge German defeat at Stalingrad, three day mourning was announced. The Germans were furious, and we became more and more worried. Hitler was screaming on the radio that he will make the Jews forget how to laugh, and so it was. We lost all joy of life. We knew we were doomed but could not imagine what was awaiting us. And the worst happened. On the 5-th of November, 1943, after the adults went to work and the only people left in the ghetto were the elderly, the children and some adults who stayed behind for various reasons, among them Rachil, Ethel, Esther and myself, huge covered trucks drove in and fully armed Vlasov soldiers under Gestapo command spread throughout the ghetto. The sound of broken glass, curses, screams and cries of the children. They were grabbing the old people and half-dressed children and were throwing them into the trucks. Driven mad by fear we scattered out looking for ways to hide the children. Ethel and Esther with their children climbed into the attic of our house. Rachil and I climbed into the attic of a shed outside. We lay on the floor holding our breath, alert to any sound.
They did find us. Suddenly a face twisted with fury appeared threatening us with a gun and we heard the Russian words: “Den’gi! (money!).
We always carried our few possessions with us since one could never rely on coming back “home” after work. I immediately gave him some money I had tied to my stockings, begging “Please, leave us here.” He took the money and drove us down from the attic kicking us with the rifle butt. On the way to the truck someone distracted him and I used this moment to run into the infirmary and hide Adochka under the sofa. Many women thought the infirmary a safe place, and it was full of people. The Vlasovites did not fail to appear. They ordered us to give them our last jewelry — the wedding rings that the Germans had not taken. Then they chased us out of the infirmary. Adutė remained under the sofa and did not give herself away.
They gathered us all in one place surrounded by drunken thugs. We saw them breaking the windows of the houses and dragging out frightened crying children, beating the old people, and throwing them all into the trucks. I was frightened to death that they would find Adutė. To this day I cannot forgive myself that I did not have sleeping pills to give her… We remained standing in the open until two in the afternoon. After the last truck left, they let us go. Beside myself, I ran to the infirmary. On the way one of the women told me that she saw a Vlasovite leading my Adutė. She kept saying to him “German, let me go, my mother did pay you!”
Adutė stayed under the sofa until late afternoon. Apparently, she had to use the bathroom and when it became quiet, she climbed out and went home. The ghetto became empty. She quietly crossed the two streets to our house, took off her coat and got out the chamber pot. One of the thugs making the last check walked in. She did not cry, only kept repeating “German, my mother did pay you, let me go!”
At home I found her discarded coat and the empty chamber pot. She never had the time… So many years passed but these memories keep haunting me. I remember during the day and I see the pictures at night. This is a pain that time does not dull. I am tormented by the thought that I am alive and was not able to save her.
Who can imagine what happened in the evening when the mothers returned from work and did not find their children. The Rabbi’s wife who lived nearby cried out in a terrible voice: “There is no God!”
I did not want to live. I went to a guard and asked him to shoot me. He turned away. I went to the infirmary and swallowed whatever pills I could find. But the people around did not let me die — they saved me.
And, again, rumors. Someone said that one blond girl was saved from a truck. Adutė was blond, may be it was her? She did not at all resemble a Jewish child. The Germans who saw her in the ghetto used to say “ein Goldkopf!” (a golden head). She would then run to me “Mammy, please hide me!” She did not understand their words but knew they were speaking about her.
The bug of hope caught me and I decided to run away from the ghetto. One winter night in December I found myself outside the ghetto, without papers and without money. I tore off the yellow stars and went through empty snow covered streets. But where shall I go? I knew many people but had completely lost my trust in them. Yesterday’s friend could turn out to be an enemy. On reflection, I decided that I could only trust the priest, parson Byla, I heard about in the evening school. May be he will not help me, but for sure he will not give me away. To him! I was afraid to go to the parsonage since the German headquarters were nearby. The guards could become suspicious of a woman wandering in the streets at 6 in the morning. But I had no choice and I was lucky.
The priest’s housekeeper opened the door, and to my request to see the priest asked me to come later, about nine, after he got up, had his breakfast and had said his prayers. I told her that I came from afar and asked for permission to wait inside. I sat down in a corner, trying to warm myself up. A few hours later, the doors began to open and I was mortified to see people in German uniforms. It turned out that a large part of the house was occupied by the Germans. They were darting here and there and did not pay attention to a poorly dressed woman sitting quietly in a corner.
Finally, I was called to see the priest. I stopped at the entrance to a large elongated room. Near the door was a small table with a telephone. The priest was standing by his table at the other end of the room, tall, dressed in a black cassock. He raised his eyes to me, waiting for me to speak.
I had no strength and no words. I could only force myself to say: “I am the wife of Dr. Tokeris.” He looked at me in silence and then began to speak. “I know what happened in the ghetto. We, the priests, offered the Germans to take the children, baptize them and take care of them, but they would not let us. I heard that in a village near Kuzhiai they are hiding a little girl saved from a truck.” My heart began to beat fast. Could it be mine?
Suddenly he left the table and quickly walked to the door. To the little table, to the telephone? For a moment I was burned by the thought that he was about to call the police. He opened the door and called out “Maria!” As I later learned, Maria was his sister and his housekeeper. The priest told her: “This is the wife of Dr. Tokeris. Take her to your room, close the shutters, and give her something to eat.”
In a village near Kuzhiai indeed there was a saved little girl, but, alas, not mine. She was the daughter of Engineer Kron. Dr. Peisahovich had managed to pull her out of the truck at the last moment.
I spent the whole week locked up in the parsonage. Maria would come, bring some food. To give me something to do she brought me a whole sack of socks to darn. The priest did not come even once. As I learned later, he left the same day to look for a safe place for me because with the Germans all over his house I could not stay there. A priest from Kuzhiai, Kleiba, who did not even know me or Haim, agreed to take me out of pure humanity.
And so, after a week the door to the room in which I was hiding suddenly opened, and a cheerful little man dressed like a peasant came in. His white round collar indicated that he was a priest. Without any explanations, he invited me to follow him. He put me into his cart and drove away, disregarding the risk that we could be stopped for inspection of documents. First he took me to his former housemaid and got a peasant coat for me. Mine was quite worn out, but still looked like town clothes. Then we went to his place in Kuzhiai, which was about 13 km outside Shiauliai. He told everybody that I am the wife of a Lithuanian officer deported to Siberia by the Bolsheviks, and that I will be the new housemaid. They understood that an officer’s wife, raised in a town, would not be familiar with village work, would be afraid of cows, etc.
Parson Kleiba has saved four Jews, who were all total strangers to him. His colleague, a poor priest Zhadeikis whom Kleiba took to live with him out of charity and to whom he gave the best room in his house, used to mock him “You are not Kleiba, you are Leiba!”
Besides myself, Kleiba was hiding Dr. Pasvaletski, Judka Levitan, and a girl named Jadzė who survived the shootings in Zhagarė. She never told us her real name. Dr. Pasvaletski lived there openly, passing for a field hand, and had a hard time. He was not familiar with the life in the village and its customs, did not know the work, and was regarded by all others and especially by the housekeeper as a complete idiot. The housekeeper used to complain that the parson hired a useless worker from some remote village and tolerated him only because the parson announced that he was a relative. His first “faux pas” happened the very first morning when he got up and went to wash himself. The housekeeper saw this and started shouting at him “why are you washing yourself like a Jew!” It turned out that the villagers wash only once a week in a bathhouse, before going to church. The other workers laughed at him because of the way he worked and because he never went to the bathhouse with them, suspected that he was not a man and several times tried to undress him by force. His only rescue was the fact that he did not at all look like a Jew and that he, like I and Jadzė, spoke very good Lithuanian. This could not be said of Judka Levitan who had a terrible accent and could not be shown in public, although he was quite presentable — a blond man with blue eyes. Judka was the first Jew to be sheltered by the Kleiba. The priest hid him in a cell in the attic and during the four months he spent there he almost went mad from fear and loneliness. With my arrival his life became easier since I was entrusted with looking after him, bringing him food, etc. Now he had someone to exchange a few words with. Still, the participation of the housekeeper could not be avoided, and the priest had no other choice than to confide in her about Judka and all the others. He warned her that if she let the word out, she would destroy us all including himself. So, better take an ax right now and chop my head off, he told her.
Kleiba had a heart of gold. Out of pure compassion he risked his life to save total strangers. Not only did he hide and keep us, he always tried to raise our spirits. At night he used to gather us in his room and switch on the radio, which was strictly forbidden, so that we could hear about the victories of the Red Army. He himself was not at all happy about these successes. He hated the Bolsheviks, his enemy, but he knew what these victories meant to us.
Kleiba kept an open house and many people came to visit. The danger of discovery was ever present. Anyone of us could be suspected. I was in particular danger since many from Kuzhiai used to come to Radvilishkis and could recognize me, especially my former patients. Another problem was Sundays, when everyone including ourselves had to go to church. One had to know how to behave there and how to pray. They taught us what to do but could not be sure we would not make a mistake. To prevent this, the priest ordered all the servants to pray on the balcony rather than with everyone in the hall. On holidays many guests would arrive, and then, under various pretexts, he would take me to his friends in the neighboring villages. In the attic he prepared a hiding place and in times of danger Judka and I used to hide there. Dr. Pasvaletski and Jadzė were from far away places and were not in danger of being recognized.
When the front line began approaching, the Lithuanians serving the Germans went wild. Their notices were hanging everywhere — calls to exterminate the remaining communists and Jews. Large rewards were promised to informers. Many times we told the priest that we must not endanger his life, we tried to leave the parsonage, but he would not hear of it. “If our fate is to perish, then we perish together, but at least I shall die knowing that I did something good in my life,” he would say.
The front came even closer. Shiauliai was heavily shelled and the Germans evacuated many of their institutions. The headquarters also left Shiauliai and did not find a better place to move in than Kleiba’s parsonage. The danger became very tangible. The Germans prowled around the house, sneaked into the attic where the villagers commonly keep their food supplies, sausages, etc., and there was Judka hiding in his cell. What if they tried to open that door?
Suddenly, the German unit whose headquarters were occupying the parsonage got an order to retreat from Kuzhiai, and the priest, our benefactor, fearing the Russians, went with them. We remained alone. Another unit, retreating from Shiauliai moved in, and in the absence of the priest they became full masters of the house. What should we do?
A few kilometers from the parsonage, in an isolated farmstead lived teacher Trechiokienė, who often came to see the priest. We decided to go there, thinking that a priest’s friend would not betray us to the Germans. Jadzė, however, decided to stay. Dr. Pasvaletski and I had a really hard time convincing Judka, half-dead with fright, to come down from his attic. We put a village coat on him, loaded a cart with junk, harnessed Judka into the cart and pretended that we were cleaning the junk out of the cellar. The Germans tried to speak to us but we only shrugged our shoulders as if we did not understand German.
Having gone some distance we dumped the cart and made for the farmstead of Trechiokienė. In the vicinity we hid Judka in the bushes and went on. I think that Trechiokienė suspected or even knew all along who we were. She immediately agreed to take us in and gave Judka a place in the hayloft. He had barely managed to climb in there when heavy shooting began. A shell hit the house and it immediately caught fire. Everyone panicked. We barely managed to get Judka out of the hayloft and ran with everyone else to the nearby forest, but stayed away from the others, in order not to draw attention to Judka. We found an old trench and hid there. The shooting went on for two days, with shells flying over our heads. When it finally became quiet, we understood that the Russians had taken Kuzhiai and decided to go back there. Judka, who had lost all ability to think clearly, flatly refused to leave the trench. Nothing could persuade him, he seemed to have been driven insane by fear and suffering. We had no choice but to leave him behind. Perhaps, Jadzė did better by staying in the parsonage in Kuzhiai and waiting safely for the arrival of the Russians. We could not do likewise because of Judka.
Dr. Pasvaletski and I started towards Kuzhiai. We were both dressed as peasants, I had a white kerchief on my head, and we looked like an ordinary pair of peasants, especially from a distance. Despite this, German pilots noticed us and started diving and dropping bombs on us. Then, flying low, they even sprayed us with machine-gun fire. We threw ourselves to the ground in the middle of a potato field. We were covered by earth, stunned by explosions but somehow stayed alive. When we climbed out, we saw seven bomb craters around us. It was a miracle that we had not been hit. Deafened, frightened, and dirty we got up and pushed on. Suddenly we noticed a detachment of soldiers in khaki uniforms. Russians! we rejoiced. But the soldiers raised their rifles, aiming at us.
To die now, after all we went through, and not at the hands of the Germans but Russians whom we regarded as our saviors? Dr. Pasvaletski raised his hands as one does when surrendering, but everything in me revolted against this. To give ourselves up? Are we an enemy? I opened my arms and ran towards the soldiers shouting “Comrades, save us!”
Slowly they lowered their rifles and let us come closer. Having heard our story, they ordered two of them to take us to their headquarters. It turned out that they were scouts and we were at the front line. The soldiers led us to a road, showed the directions to the headquarters and went back. Suddenly a head emerged from under the ground (it was a trench) and shouted “Tetka (auntie), and where are you going?” I turned around trying to see who he was speaking to, but there was no one behind me. I understood that it was me he was calling tetka. For the first time in my life, tetka!
We came to the headquarters, again located in the parsonage. Told our story. “Call Brodsky!” Out came a man with dark curly hair dressed in the widest bloomers (apparently a “uniform” of the scout commandos), with a huge scar all over his arm. He hugged us and broke into tears: “You are the first Jews I met in the Baltics!”
They wanted to send us immediately to the rear, but we told them that we had left behind a friend in the forest. We were given an escort and went to fetch Judka. I cannot describe how he reacted to our sudden appearance with the Russians. He cried, kissed us, kissed the soldiers, and was not able to utter a single word. Next day we were already in Shiauliai. The Lithuanian division where many of the soldiers were Jews had just arrived there. We met many acquaintances serving in it, among them Sasha Amsterdamski, Mitia Ginkas, and Dr. Beni Levin who told me that Haim was in the Red Army and had recently been decorated with the Red Star and promoted to major. I could not believe my ears. Wat, Haim in the army? And what about the stories of that German officer? It was all lies — he just wanted to defraud me of my wedding ring.
We were lodged temporarily in the hospital. We started thinking about getting work, but after a few days the Germans repulsed the Russian attacks and started moving back towards Shiauliai. In panic we ran away from the town, on foot, by hitchhiking, by train, and somehow made our way to Vilnius which was already under Russian control. They had already organized the Health Ministry, headed by Prof. Girdzijauskas, whose deputy was my university friend Dr. Mitselmakheris, the same who at the time found the MATMLAD inspector post for me. We, and many other physicians who did not have a place to go to, stayed for a while in his apartment, all its windowpanes broken during bombardments. Among us were Dr. Stark, a professor from Minsk, Dr. Potashinski, Adv. Gavronski, and my friend Hinda Shapirienė.
This time there was no need to talk about being again a MATMLAD inspector. I was appointed manager of a dental unit in an elite clinic, and a dentist in the “Red Cross” hospital.
But I did not start working. First, I had to find my husband. I already knew he was alive, and in the Ministry of Health I found several of his letters inquiring about me; these letters had a number of his military mail post. Moreover, I could not think of peaceful work — I decided to join the army. Both my wishes soon came true. I was able to find Haim’s regiment, which was far from simple, joined his regiment as a volunteer, and served with him first on the First Baltic Front in the rear hospital 2503 until Germany’s surrender, and then in the rear hospital 890 on the Second Far-Eastern Front until the end of the war with Japan. After the war we were forced to stay in the Far East without any hope of returning to Lithuania. There existed an unwritten law: whoever crossed the Urals, would never come back, so badly were people needed there. But we strove to return. It was already known that in Europe some people, among them children, were liberated from the camps. Already in Daugavpils in Latvia, where our hospital was located before the transfer to the Far East, we saw camp survivors in striped clothes; even orphanages were being prepared for children. We yearned to go back to Eurpope, hoping to find our daughter among the survivors. But Haim was assigned to a new post on the Kuril islands. What to do? And just as our hopes dried out, Haim ran into general Burnazian who knew him from his work in the hospitals. The general was moved by the story of our sorrow and helped to transfer us to the Baltic military district in Riga. There we were able to start looking for our daughter. Alas, several years of constant search led to nothing. To this day we do not know her fate. It was rumored that the children from our ghetto were sent to Aushwitz. We did not want to believe this, we still do not want to believe it. I am tormented by the thoughts, what happened to her. On sleepless nights the memories of that fateful day of November 5, 1943 return and tear my heart apart