My Family’s Story: Kovno, Lithuania 1941-1945
Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun — Yom Kippur, October 6, 2003
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I would like to thank the rabbis for the opportunity to speak to you today. I would also like to thank Myriam Abramowicz, a member of our BJ community, and one of the founders of the Hidden Child movement. Her pioneering film As If It Were Yesterday and her vision of a coming together of hidden children resulted in the first International Gathering of the Hidden Child in New York in May, 1991, an extraordinary event, that allowed hidden children to meet, share their stories, and have a voice. Interest in hidden children continues to grow; currently there is an exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington entitled “Life in Shadows: Hidden Children and the Holocaust.”
I was one of these children who were “hidden” in order to stay alive. Some of us were given to non-Jewish friends, some to strangers; some found welcoming homes; some were abused; some were stowed away on farms, in orphanages, in cellars and attics, even in sewers. After the war, many were never reunited with their parents; but some—like me—were incredibly fortunate to be returned to our surviving parents. At the start of World War II, 1.6 million Jewish children lived in Europe. By the end of the war, more than 1 million—and perhaps as many as 1.5 million—were dead.
This is a story about me, my parents, and the family that rescued me, and the circumstances in Lithuania when I was a baby. It is also the story of extraordinary acts of human decency in the face of horrific times. I have had to learn the story through my mother’s words, feelings, and experiences, because I have no memories of my own of my earliest years. While I have shared my story with a small circle of loved ones and friends over the years, until today I have never spoken about it in such a public setting. Being hidden has informed and affected every aspect of my life. Being public about being hidden has always seemed like something I was not supposed to do.
However, when Myriam asked me to talk today, I realized that I had a responsibility to continue a promise. My father, Solomon, never spoke publicly about his experience during this time, but he knew the importance of having people understand what happened. Before he passed away, he asked my mother Lea to continue to tell our story. She has kept her promise to him and for many years has shared her story widely with many groups throughout Rhode Island. She has been honored by Christians and Jews for her efforts. How deeply thankful I am that she is here with me today.
My story begins in Kovno, Lithuania (Kovno, in Yiddish; Kaunas, in Lithuanian). More than 35,000 Jews lived in Kovno at the beginning of World War II. Ruled by Russia in the 19th century, Lithuania established its independence in 1918, after the collapse of the Czarist regime. Kovno became the temporary capital and saw a flowering of Jewish cultural, educational, and economic life. The Kovno Jewish community prided itself on its religious and secular heritage. Jewish cultural activity made the city a center of Hebrew writing and literary criticism. By 1935 there were four daily Yiddish newspapers. Hebrew schools and Jewish schools existed side by side. There were 16 synagogues. Across the river from Kovno, in the suburb of Slobodka, was the Slobodka Yeshiva, famous throughout Russian and Eastern European Jewry and beyond.
The Kovno Jewish community was lively, colorful, and well organized and enjoyed a special status in the Jewish world. In the wider society, Jews were prominent as doctors, dentists, and educators; they held important positions in commerce and industry. There was some anti-Semitism, and there were limits to what Jews could aspire to—very few held government positions or judgeships—but on the whole, Jews enjoyed relative security and a good life.
Married in 1939, my parents were part of this community and embarked on their new life. My mother was from Marijampole, a town near Kovno. She graduated from the Hebrew Gymnasium there—the first all-Hebrew high school in Lithuania. She studied at the University of Kovno to be a dentist, but realized that her passion was for the Hebrew language and switched to the Hebrew Seminary for Teachers. My father was a businessman, who owned a very successful wholesale notions business. He was also a member of the Maccabi Sports Association and played on their soccer team. My parents enjoyed the theater, opera, and meeting friends at cafés and restaurants. They had a wonderful life.
With the Soviet annexation of Lithuania in June 1940, all this came to an end. Jewish institutions were closed down; Jewish businesses were nationalized, and Jewish religious and communal life was destroyed. Life became miserable. But the greatest catastrophe was to come a year later, in 1941.
I was born in April 1941 in Kovno; my mother was 25 years old, my father was 32. In June of that year, when I was 2 months old, the Nazis invaded Kovno. Announcements over the radio and through loudspeakers ordered all Jews to wear the yellow star with the word “Jude” on it on the left front and back of their clothing. Any Jew not wearing such a badge would be arrested.
Jewish homes were to be left open day and night, and the Nazis removed all valuables from the Jewish homes. Jews were not allowed to walk on the sidewalk, only on the street in single file, with a 6:00 p.m. curfew. Jews were not allowed to see doctors or to shop for food. Many men were taken away, tortured, and then shot; the women and children were allowed to remain in their apartments.
The following month the Germans decreed that a ghetto was to be established across the river from Kovno in the suburb of Slobodka. Everyone had to move there by August 15, when the ghetto would be officially closed off. The first act of the Nazis there was to kill the rabbis and students of the Slobodka Yeshiva.
The Lithuanians living in Slobodka were ordered to move into the Jewish homes in Kovno, and the Jews were to move into the vacated homes in Slobodka. Allowed to bring with them only what they could carry in a suitcase or two, the Jews moved into Slobodka, into what became the “Kovno Ghetto.” It was surrounded by an electrified barbed wire fence patrolled by Nazis with guns and dogs.
Barely adequate for its 12,000 residents before the war, it would now strain to accommodate more than 30,000 Jews. The Jews lived in overcrowded conditions—about eight to 10 people in a room. Food was rationed, a loaf of bread per person for a week and a watery soup. There were no radios or newspapers, and at night no lights were allowed because of the bombings. My family lived in Slobodka with acquaintances who had taken us in.
In early fall of 1941 my mother received word that her father, her mother, her sister, an uncle and his wife, who lived in Marijampole, were rounded up along with the town’s other Jews—about 3,500 in all. They were ordered to dig ditches, then were shot, and covered with earth, many still alive.
At about the same time, “Die Grosse Aktion,” a large action or deportation, took place in the Kovno Ghetto. The S.S. troops ordered all the Jews in the ghetto to gather in a big lot at 6:00 in the morning. My mother and my father wheeled me there in my carriage; we stayed there all day not knowing what was going to happen.
Finally at sunset, columns of Jews filed toward the S.S. sergeant, and with a wave of his hand he separated those who would die, from those he would spare, shouting “Links,” left, or “Rechts,” right. On this day, those who shuttled to the right would live. My mother, father, and I were among them.
My father never really talked much about what happened there. I know that two of his brothers and others of his family were killed. About 10,000 Jews from our community were killed or sent to concentration camps that day.
However, my father was later deported to Dachau. Dachau was about 10 miles northwest of Munich in southern Germany. It was established as the model for all Nazi concentration camps and served as a training center for S.S. concentration camp guards. Prisoners were used as forced laborers on various construction projects; they built roads, worked gravel pits, and drained marshes. My father was assigned to the cement works section.
How he survived the mistreatment by the guards, exhaustion, hunger, and cold is unknowable. He once talked about how you could look in someone’s eyes and, if they were lucky to still be alive, you could see whether they would have the strength to do what was necessary to survive, even if you had to urinate on your hands—as my father did—to keep warm.
The deportation to the concentration camps that day in Kovno depleted the labor force in the ghetto. Women were now ordered to work, my mother among them. She joined a work brigade in a fur factory that was owned by friends of my parents, Meilach Winick and his two brothers. The factory was taken over by the Germans and became important to the war effort because it manufactured sheepskin gloves and vests for the German soldiers fighting in the bitter cold of Russia. The Germans needed the expertise of the Winicks and gave them special privileges and passes that allowed them to move more freely in and out of the ghetto. The Winicks persuaded the Germans to take Jews as slave laborers in the factory in order to save them from starvation and death. The factory became crucial to my mother’s and my survival.
My mother’s brigade consisted of 36 Jews. The brigade assembled every morning at 4:00 and marched out of the ghetto to the factory in Kovno. To make sure that no one would escape, a head count was taken every morning and again in the evening. If the numbers did not match on the return, the entire brigade would be shot. My mother’s job was dipping heavy sheepskins in chemical barrels and laying them out to dry. The gentile workers, especially a woman chemist, were kind to the Jewish workers and often gave them bread and milk when the guards were not watching.
In 1942 rumors spread in the ghetto about “Kinder Aktionen,” deportations of children. Some had already occurred in other ghettos in Lithuania. Hearing of these deportations, my mother’s thoughts turned to saving me, and she became more and more determined that I would survive.
The opportunity came when a woman my mother had befriended, Berta Schmulowitz, offered to help. They had met when my mother was walking to the Ghetto on the last day before it was officially closed off. My mother saw a couple standing in the road crying bitterly. She asked if she could help. They told her that they had left their small town in Lithuania to come to Kovno for a conference. They had left their two sons, aged 8 and 10, with their grandparents. They received news from a gentile neighbor that all the Jews in their town, including their sons and parents, had been killed. They were distraught and didn’t know where to turn.
My mother consoled them and took them with her to the ghetto. She found them a bed, shared her food, and took them under her wing. Berta and her husband were so grateful to my mother, that to avenge the loss of their own children, they wanted to help save me. Berta remembered that she had a non-Jewish childhood friend who lived near Kovno. Her name was Vale Marciulionis. She was a nurse and the head of an orphanage and lived with her husband Jurgis in Slobodka, outside the ghetto; they had no children.
A meeting was secretly arranged through the Winicks, and after an emotional reunion Berta asked Vale for her help in hiding me. After a few more meetings, Vale agreed, but with a few conditions: My name would be changed from Asya to the Lithuanian Aldute. I would be brought up a Catholic. Only my parents could claim me after the war; and if my parents did not survive, I would become their daughter. My mother agreed to all the conditions. It was easier to hide me because I was a baby girl, blonde, blue-eyed, and did not look Jewish. Still Vale and Jurgis were taking a tremendous risk in hiding me—an inquisitive neighbor, a careless remark, idle gossip, could lead to discovery and death.
I was now 20 months old. The plan was that I would be carried out of the ghetto with the work brigade in the morning. My mother did not want to sedate me, and so explained to me that I had to be very, very quiet and that I could not cry. I was hidden in a cloth sack, and my mother’s friend Meilach Winick carried me out, my mother walking beside him. They passed through the gates without being stopped.
When the work brigade was beyond the sight of the guards at the gate, my mother slipped away, took me out of the sack, and brought me to my new home. It was a beautiful, comfortable house surrounded by a flower garden, and music was playing on the radio—I started running around and dancing, neither of which I had been able to do in the ghetto. My mother choking with tears, hugged and kissed me, and ran out of the house. In a few days Vale came to the factory and told my mother that she should take me back, because all I did was stand at the door and cry for my mother. But then she reconsidered and said that she had started to do something good, that she could not go back on her word. She said, “I want to show the world that not all human beings have turned into beasts—that there is still some humanity left.”
After a few weeks, Vale left a note for my mother at the factory that I had stopped crying, had adjusted, and that she should not worry. My mother and I were now about two miles away from each other, but separated by a barbed wire fence and the Nazis. Vale allowed my mother to come see me a few times while I took my afternoon nap. At great risk to herself, my mother eagerly made these visits, but then would be so overcome that she had to leave. While comforted by the knowledge that I was in hiding and relatively safe, my mother also felt conflicted. Each day, she faced mothers whose children were being murdered by the Nazis. She was guilt-ridden and felt that she had somehow betrayed them.
In April 1944, when I was 3 years old and still in hiding, the situation for everyone in the ghetto worsened, especially after a nightmarish, horrific “Kinder Aktion” took place, in which about 1,200 children and 300 elderly people were rounded up on buses and driven to extermination sites. The Nazis went from house to house with huge, menacing dogs searching for children. My mother saw babies being snatched from their mother’s breasts and being thrown against walls like stones. Word began to spread that Hitler was losing the war and that the Germans would soon liquidate the ghetto and set it aflame. My mother began thinking about escaping, about staying alive for me. These thoughts occupied her every moment. She felt she had nothing to lose by risking escape—if she stayed, she faced certain death.
When the Germans started to burn down the ghetto, my mother grasped her opportunity. Because of the fire, the fence was no longer electrified. My mother ran towards it. She approached one of the guards, who was about 18 years old, and told him that she would give him a gold watch, if he would let her go through. As it happened, he had a date with his girl friend that night and wanted the watch as a present for her. He lifted the wire, and my mother crawled out. She immediately set out to reclaim me. When she came to the house, we were not there. She found a hidden note from Vale saying that because of the chaos, they had taken me to a safer village to stay with Vale’s relatives. Not knowing where to turn next, my mother went to the factory; a sympathetic worker there told her she could hide out in her pigsty for a few days. Another worker allowed my mother to stay in an underground bunker near his house; she stayed there for a month.
When she came out of the bunker, my mother made her way back to the ghetto. It was August 1944 and Lithuania was under Russian control now. The ghetto was in ashes and there was death everywhere—burned bodies—a horrific scene. She met the Winick brothers and some other friends there and they decided to walk to Kovno. There were many empty buildings there now, and they settled in one of them. My mother persisted in her goal of getting me back. She decided not to be aggressive, to be patient, to take me back with understanding and sensitivity to my rescuers. After several visits by my mother to Vale’s house, it was agreed that I would go for a visit to my mother and spend the night there with her. At bedtime, when my mother tucked me in, I asked to be left alone for a moment. My mother left, but was curious, and looked through the keyhole. I knelt and said my prayers and made the sign of the cross. My mother’s only thought was that I was alive. When I finished my prayers, I asked her to come back in the room, she kissed me, and we said goodnight. Vale told my mother that the back and forth visits had to stop; she said, “We cannot go on this way any longer. You are suffering, and my husband and I are suffering. Let us make an end to this or we will become enemies. It is very painful for us because we love Aldute/Asya like our own child, but I have to keep my promise. You survived, you are her mother, and she belongs with you.”
My mother wanted to leave Lithuania, and we started our new life together as wanderers, as displaced persons. We obtained false papers that gave us Polish citizenship and allowed us to travel more freely. We traveled to various cities throughout Poland and Czechoslovakia and were given shelter and food by the Joint Distribution Committee.
Gradually word spread about the American forces liberating the concentration camps. On April 29, 1945, U.S. troops liberated Dachau: There were over 65,000 registered prisoners in Dachau, of whom over 22,000 were Jews.
The Joint Distribution Committee began posting lists of people who had survived the camps, and on one of those lists my mother miraculously found my father’s name. He had survived Dachau—and weighed just 70 pounds when he was liberated. Because Munich began to be the gathering place for liberated prisoners, my mother and I made our way to Munich, where the three of us were reunited.
My father’s experience in business resurfaced as he became a key liaison between the U.S. Army and the Jewish community in Munich. My parents knew that we needed time to regain some sense of normalcy to our lives, but they also knew we could never stay in Germany. They explored various options for starting a new life, and after living in Munich for six years, we came to the United States in 1951.
In the years after the war, we kept in touch with Vale and Jurgis until they died. They were living under the Communists in Lithuania. We helped them in every way we could—by sending money, medicine, clothing—whatever they needed. Despite our profound gratitude and love, how could we ever repay them for saving my life?
It is impossible to ever fully understand why people risk their own lives to save another. We will always struggle to answer the question—what would any of us do under similar circumstances?
I am awed by the courage, compassion, risk-taking, strength, and resilience of my mother and father and all those who were a part of our life and our survival during those terrible years. I am humbled by the staggering humanity of my rescuing parents, who risked so much to save me.
My story is about ordinary people taking extraordinary action. They did not stand by passively—in small ways, and in astounding ways, they took a step, they reached out beyond themselves. What impelled them to act? The need to survive? The need to do good? The need to take responsibility for what happens to others in the world?
All of us live in hiding—often afraid to act and take a stand. We hide aspects of ourselves and our lives because hiding helps us to survive, to go on from day to day.
I recall Rabbi Marshall Meyer, alav hashalom, regularly asking of himself and of us “Ayekah?” “Where are you?” “Where are we?” This is the first question found in the Torah. When Adam and Eve hid from God among the trees in the garden, God called out to Adam, “Ayekah?”
In a speech Marshall delivered at Dartmouth, he writes, “God most certainly knew where Adam was! Adam didn’t know where he was. This question is asked throughout the ages, of each and every one of us—man and woman—where are you?, where am I?, where are we? At every given moment of our lives, that’s the question that perforates our being! If you dare listen.”
Today, on Yom Kippur, when each of us is required to come out of our hiding—as we struggle to look at ourselves and our world—may we all find a way of answering this piercing question, “Ayekah?”