Surviving the Vilna Ghetto
Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun—Yom Kippur, 5776
I want to thank the rabbis for inviting me to share our story with you. And thank you to Myriam Abramowicz, Susan Green, and David Zuckerman for your valuable assistance.
“We were in hiding during the War.” That is what my late wife, then Musia Dimentstein, told me when I first met her in Boston in the fall of 1959. We were both in graduate school—she at Boston University, I at Brown. Now almost twelve years after my wife’s death, I must rely largely on what I remember.
By the summer of 1960, Musia and I were engaged. And so I was invited to spend weekends with her family that year and for the next twenty years in their summer cottage in Monroe, New York, forty miles north of Manhattan. Musia’s parents, Joseph and Lea Dimentstein, had purchased two cottages on a parcel of land overlooking a lake, together with survivors Grisha Dlugi and his wife, Nusia, a partisan fighter during World War II. All their friends were survivors. I was somewhat of an anomaly — “an Americaner.”
As we would relax on their screened-in porch, enjoying a “glassele” tea and my mother-in-law’s mandelbrot, overlooking a rustic paradise, their stories of another era, far from Paradise, flowed. Mostly they spoke in Russian, occasionally in Yiddish, and sometimes they would translate for “the Americaner.”
My father-in-law had been a well-to-do fur merchant before the war. Leaving Moscow, where his father was also a fur merchant, Joseph Dimentstein went to Vilna, then the capital of Lithuania, to extend the family business. There he met and married a local beauty, Lea Turitz, daughter of a small manufacturer of plumbing supplies.
In June 1941, the Nazis occupied Vilna. It was in Lithuania that the first large-scale Nazi slaughters had occurred. By September, Vilna’s Jews were herded into a ghetto—a few streets cordoned off and separated from the rest of the city. Joseph, Lea, and their three-year-old daughter, Musia; Joseph’s sickly older sister, Fania; Lea’s mother, Devora, and her youngest sister, Chanka, all shared a small apartment with other families.
Shortly after the move to the ghetto the Nazis decreed that the elderly and sickly be segregated. Since Lea’s mother required intensive care, at first the family hid Devora. But Dr. Borak, a family friend, who was in the Jewish police, counseled that it would put the entire family in jeopardy. So with a heavy heart Lea escorted her mother to the gathering place. She was never to see her mother again. In fact the Nazis removed the sick and elderly to Ponar Forest several miles south of Vilna: the killing grounds, where they were all shot.
Because of his knowledge of furs, Joseph was employed in Kailis, a former fur factory, now a forced-labor camp in Vilna, outside the ghetto. There Joseph sewed fur linings into coats for the Nazi soldiers, and Joseph’s sister Fania was employed as a seamstress.
The Nazis cleared out and fenced in two blocks of nearby houses for the Kailis workers and their families. The Dimentsteins moved there in October. Conditions were slightly better: They had one room all to themselves—all five of them. The Nazis had to keep their workers alive, so they received somewhat better food rations. But that winter, Musia contracted diphtheria. Fortunately, Dr. Borak was able to admit her to the Jewish hospital within the ghetto and, miraculously, to obtain the serum that saved her life.
In September of 1943 the Nazis destroyed the Vilna ghetto and transported most of its inhabitants, including able-bodied workers, to death camps. The few remaining Jews lived in Kailis and three smaller work camps.
In March 1944 the Nazis demanded that all Jewish children be given typhus shots, after which they would be treated to a special day in the country. Most of the parents complied, but Lea hid Musia. Those other unfortunate children were never seen again. The few remaining children would have to be hidden till the end of the war. Several bereaved parents threatened to expose Lea.
Word had been received that a Lithuanian farmer, near Vilna, was hiding Jews—for a price. Fortunately Joseph had money, mostly converted to jewelry. The family decided to seek shelter on the farm. One of their neighbors learned of their plan and threatened to denounce them unless they took his whole family along and paid their way, which Joseph agreed to.
After work Joseph made his way to the farm along with his fragile sister Fania. That afternoon Lea and her sister Chanka, each holding onto one end of a huge potato sack, had marched through the housing area. Inside the sack was five-year-old Musia and whatever meager belongings they could carry. They headed for a building that had a twelve-foot-high platform protruding over the outside fence. Guards took turns patrolling the exterior. The two sisters waited until a guard known to take bribes was on duty. For the price of a gold wristwatch he agreed to let them go. But they would have to be out of sight before he returned—a matter of minutes.
Chanka jumped first. It was too high for Lea to jump safely while still holding Musia. Nor did Chanka feel secure in catching the little child. And so, Lea jumped next. She and Chanka spread out the empty sack with which to catch the child. They kept urging her, “Jump, Musinka, jump. We’ll catch you.” But Musia was too frightened to jump. The wall was too high to rescale. The guard would return any minute. They called to her, “Jump, darling .You will be fine. We have some bread for you.” But Musia turned away, crying. In desperation Lea cried out, “Jump, Musinka. The Nazis will get you. They will take you away—like those other children.” And Musia jumped onto the sack, which served as her safety net. Bruised, but not badly hurt, mother, sister, and daughter made their way to the city’s outskirts. But not without further mishap!
They walked carefully, trying to avoid passers-by, who also seemed to be avoiding them. A man approached them, ominously. They were afraid of him but also afraid to stop or turn around. As he silently passed them, he pointed to his breast. They quickly removed their telltale yellow stars.
At the outskirts of the farm there was an abandoned building, which had recently been used as a makeshift movie theater. Between its two stories was a storage space about three-and-a-half feet high. The building’s main stairway bypassed the storage space; the only access was through a side door on the upper floor.
The Dimentstein family, along with Dr. Borak and his family, and several others, lived in this waist-high space for almost four months. How that many people managed to live in those close quarters for so long is beyond comprehension. Except for the young children, they could not stand up. Were they able to use the upper floor at night to stretch their limbs? There were children among them—children who laugh and cry—both of which were strictly forbidden. Did they have a change of clothing? Could they have washed?
When he could, the farmer would leave food for his Jews. But farmers were expected to supply the German army with food. How did this farmer manage to supply enough food for that many people to survive for that long without being revealed?
Well, word did get out! Rumors spread that the farmer was harboring Jews. And the Nazis came to investigate.
One day the concealed Jews heard the farmer talking to German soldiers just outside the building. He must have been delaying their entrance long enough to warn his Jews to keep perfectly still. The farmer invited the Germans to inspect the premises. He talked to the soldiers as they ascended the stairway. They looked around at the empty upper floor and fortunately never noticed the side door. Satisfied, the soldiers left the building.
Years later, the farmer, Wincenty Antonowicz, was honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Veshem and at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
That is what I know of that little safe haven. In July 1944 the Nazis were forced out of Vilna by the victorious Russian troops. When it was safe to go outside, a soldier offered Musia candy. But seeing a soldier, she ran away.
My in-laws returned to Vilna, and Joseph worked for the Russians. Within a short time antiSemitism reared its ugly head again. Threats were made against the Jews. Word spread that Jewish artisans were to be sent to Siberia, and Joseph had skills the Russians needed. Once again the family would have to flee.
Musia, now seven, was instructed to say nothing about their planned escape. But a Jewish neighbor, suspected of spying for the Russians, tricked Musia. He asked about her little cat. Would she give him Whiskers when the family left? Little Musia agreed. When her parents heard of this, they decided to leave that very night.
And so once again Joseph, Lea, Musia, Fania, and Chanka made their way out of Vilna—headed for Austria, then through the Alps to Italy. Traveling with frail Fania was a major problem. By now Chanka had a boyfriend, Pinya Caitak, who had served with the Jewish partisans. He was able to carry Fania on his shoulders through the more difficult passages in the Alps.
The Dimentstein family resided in Florence for eight months while awaiting their U.S. visa. Chanka and Pinya were married in Venice in one of the city’s five glorious synagogues. Musia attended a convent school, where she was excused from prayers.
When they finally arrived in New York, Joseph once more became a fur merchant, and the family eventually moved to the Upper West Side. Thus began a new and happier chapter of their lives.
G’mar khatima tovah.