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In the Kovno Ghetto
and Stutthof Extermination Camp (cont.)

“They are Already Digging Pits for Us”

My sister Sonya and I became ill with typhus and we were hospitalized. Itale would run to and fro in the hallway of the hospital, in the cold and snow, and without food. When she managed to obtain food, she brought it to us, as they barely gave us water there! Itale was so thin, and I was certain that she would not be able to hang on. Among the visitors to the hospital were Dr. Elkes and Dr. Braunes, and when I recovered, he referred me to work in the hospital for infectious patients. I recall that during the First Aktion (roundup) in the small ghetto, when they removed the children, I was on my way to the hospital and noticed a friend who was a nurse. I called her name and urged her to flee, but in a trembling voice she answered that she would not desert the children.

One day the “Commission” paid a visit to the hospital. The mayor, a Nazi, appeared. He was accompanied by a Lithuanian doctor whom I knew from my work at the hospital in Kovno, and I remembered him as a weak and submissive person. Now, when he accompanied the mayor he walked “with his nose in the air” and didn't even reply to my greeting.

Three weeks went by then, and our only food was cooked potato peels… My aunt came and gave me a work permit from the labor brigade: “There you will be able to get food.” “How can I leave the hospital?” I pondered. I needed to worry about a replacement for my shift. I came to my friend Frieda Rubintchik-Aires. I told her that we were really hungry, that there was an opportunity to obtain food, and I asked her to take my shift. I promised that if everything went well, I would bring her food too.

I was assigned to work in the barracks, in the latrines and the kitchen, and with me was Rivka Epstein – a surgical nurse. The day ended, and we were glad that we had finished working in that filth. While we were crossing the field, a pleasant looking German officer stopped us and said: “I heard that you are nurses. You should know that you are lucky to have been here today and not there, in the hospital.” He told us that he had heard that the hospital for the infectious had been set on fire, and the flames could still be seen from afar. I thought of Frieda's fate. (Later on, I learned that she jumped from the upper story, and a Jewish sanitation worker helped her survive. She went to work in the surgical hospital. I also learned that among those who perished then were Dr. Davidowitz and another nurse I knew, a refugee from Poland.)

At that moment, the “show” I had seen the previous Saturday came to mind: old people digging pits around the hospital. At that time, I hadn't understood what the pits were for: for drainage pipes, or for storing vegetables for the winter? I also remembered the words of Braver, a bookkeeper in Kovno, who lay ill and abandoned in the hospital. He told me “Don't come tomorrow. They are already digging pits for us” – and I didn't really understand what he meant. The thought followed another, and I also recalled the Commission's visit. I tried to connect all these things, in order now to understand the meaning of the officer's terrible news that the hospital had been set on fire! The officer led us into a room and offered us food, but we no longer wanted anything. On his instructions, a group of soldiers took us back to the ghetto. When we left Shantz (Sanciai), we could see the fire from the top of the bridge…

In August 1943, the Germans began to liquidate the ghettos and the SS obtained exclusive control of the Jews. Jews fit for work were put into concentration camps that were erected for this purpose in Lithuania, or were sent to such camps in Estonia and Latvia. Children, the elderly, and women not fit for work were murdered.[7]

About Tzirale Kagan and Batya Shub

“Life” in the ghetto went on between one Aktion and another. People were occasionally seized, and the ghetto population became sparser and sparser. Of the thousands of people in the ghetto, I think that about two thousand found a place to hide in the malines[6]. I remember that our relative Epstein, who was in charge of the bathhouse, erected a double wall in the attic, and eight people hid there.

A Typical Building with Attics in the Ghetto
[Courtesy of Sara Weiss (Slep), 1992]

Alik Yoffe: The eight people were Epstein and his wife, the stoker Berger and his wife and two sons, who were in their twenties, my mother Mania and myself.

The Germans knew that people were lying low in hiding places, and they threatened: “We will blow up house after house, and not a stone will be left standing. You will be killed several times: you will be strangled, burned and shot!” However, people continued to dig tunnels, and removed the earth they dug up to the banks of the river.

In September or October 1943, the ghetto was made even smaller. The Germans had a system of keeping us on edge. Every once in a while they would transfer people from one part of the ghetto to another.

One day they ordered us to gather in the field, and from there, we began to follow a German guard, who marched quickly in front of us. We had passed three blocks when I suddenly spied Batya and Tzirale. They suddenly appeared from some cranny and called to me: “Rachel, Rachel, we're coming out to you!” I feared that the German would kill them, and hinted at them not to reveal themselves. They apparently saw him and shouted to me: “Come be with us!” The German was already far from me and I shouted at them that I didn't want to be killed three times, which is what the Germans had threatened to do to us. I so hoped they would find a chance to get away. I continued walking, and never saw them again.

 

   
Tzirale Kagan   Three friends, Dusiat 1925
From right to left: Freidke Kagan, Ella-Elka Slep, Batya Shub

 

They all perished in the Holocaust.
Alik Yoffe: I remember Batya Shub very well. She and Tzira Kagan lived a while with us in the Ghetto. I can identify them on the photos.
After the war, I learned that the Germans had set the ghetto on fire, and thousands of people were killed and burned. I was told that Batya and Tzirale survived that conflagration, but death awaited them somewhere else. According to the rumors, Tzirale and her sister-in-law managed to escape from the “Death March” and tried to find refuge in one of the houses beside the road. German soldiers were quartered there, and the two were shot to death. This happened right on the verge of liberation!

I was told that after liberation Batya Shub was sent to herd cattle by the Russians. The Russians gathered large herds of cattle in order to transfer them to Belarus. Batya walked great distances with the cattle, and was unable to recover from the pneumonia she had caught. Her body weakened and she fell by the wayside and died. Somewhere in the fields of Prussia, her friends dug her a grave and put up a wooden board as a marker.

Avraham Pomus: In 1939, I came to visit my parents in Shadove (Seduve, Lithuania). I met Batya Shub and proposed a fictitious marriage to her so that she could immigrate to Eretz Yisrael, but Batya replied: “There is no need. I have already received permission for illegal immigration.”

Esther Pomus (Orlin): Batya had already been at the hachshara [training farm] for six years!

Shmuel Levitt: When the war broke out, I was in Kovno. I met Batya Shub at the train station, and proposed that she flee to Russia with me, but she said that she would try to get to Dusiat

Dr. Elkes

One day we were brought together on the lawn and awaited the arrival of trains from Germany. The night passed and the trains didn't come. The following day we saw Dr. Elkes wandering back and forth. We all sat on the lawn, anxious and awaiting the arrival of the trains. We didn't know what the next day would bring. While he was walking, Dr. Elkes cast a sad look at the masses, and you could see that his heart was heavy. What a noble, special person he was! Dr. Elkes noticed me and hinted to me to come nearer. He whispered to me that we were being removed for work and not for death, and this news immediately spread through the crowd. Then the Nazi Geke approached him. It was generally known that when Dr. Elkes needed to speak to Geke he spoke to his back and not to his face. This time they had a face-to-face conversation. Dr. Garfunkel, who was standing near them, told us that he heard Geke suggesting to Dr. Elkes that he escape with his wife, and he would look the other way. Dr. Elkes refused and said: “Wherever all the others go, I will go too!” Dr. Elkes died in Dachau camp. May his memory be blessed!

Stutthof Extermination Camp

Stutthoff became a concentration camp starting January 13, 1942, and the number of its offshoots gradually increased. Women and men worked there for the German military production, and also at constructing various fortifications. Although Stutthof was officially a labor camp, it had crematoria in which a large number of inmates were exterminated. The evacuation of prisoners from Stutthof began on January 25, 1945, when the Russian invasion of Prussia was at its height.[8]

The trains arrived the following morning and we were taken to Stutthof. There I encountered Goldka Melamed, from Dusiat, who survived the Shavli (Siauliai) Ghetto. She was in a hopeless condition. I saw her that one time and never again.

We were in the main camp, and until they transferred us from there, we had enough time to gain strength. We were transferred to one of the four camps in which the people from Kovno were housed. We were equipped with plates for food, and I received a large one, which was of great help to us: we would fill it with water, and with a scrap of cloth and a piece of soap, which was really a “piece of sand”, we washed our bodies and heads, and avoided the lice that were found everywhere. We slept on wooden boards, and the lice abounded there. We were put to work digging trenches and other types of hard labor. I didn't have any shoes, and wrapped my feet in rags. A Jewish Kapo and a German Kapo were in charge of every hundred women. From among those that guarded us, I remember the Kapo Hindele and the Kapo Lili. One of the German guards – Schnabel – once found me deserving of punishment of twenty blows, because I was found beside the room of the seamstress, who only worked for the Gestapo “aristocracy”… I stood bent over and waited for the blows. How terribly humiliating that was! I only received two blows – the Germans couldn't waste their laborers. I cried more from shame than from pain, and then something strange happened: Schnabel tried to calm me down and added that when the war was over, “You will reach your Palestine.”

The “Death March”

One night I awoke from a deep sleep. There was absolute darkness, and only from the kitchen was there a ray of light. The smell of burning soup came from there, and I could hear voices, heavy steps and the banging of nails. Suddenly I was awoken by the voice of Hanna, one of the prisoners. “Get up get up! May I sicken with typhus if we aren't about to be liberated. Get up, get dressed!” – she shouted in Yiddish. At first, we thought that she had lost her mind, but similar shouts could also be heard on the top level.

We went outside; daylight was dawning. We were told that we were setting out on a journey. Many of us were barefoot, and the Kapo Hindele noticed that I was barefoot too, and recommended that I go in and ask the German commander for shoes. I gathered up courage and entered his room. I remember that he didn't even reply to the knock on the door. I found him standing and looking out the window. He listened to my request, and bent over to take a pair of shoes from under the bed. I remember him saying to me that he was sorry that one shoe was not in good condition. When I went out, I encountered the Kapo Lili. She grabbed the shoes from me, but I pulled them back with all my strength, and while I was running, I managed to shout at her: “Lili, if I remain alive, I will yet remind you of your behavior.”

We lined up in rows and set out. The sick were loaded onto sleighs, and I remember that at first the German guards pulled the sleighs, but we feared that they would grow tired and abandon the sick people on the way. That is why we offered to help them. In this way, we marched from morning until night, and we reached Torun, a city on the border between Poland and Germany. Every once in a while we were bombed, and ran to hide in yards and under the roofs.

We began crossing a bridge over a wide river. We were pulling the sleighs on which the sick people were lying – with more and more people being added all the time – when suddenly we saw a flight of Russian airplanes, and bombs began falling around us. They apparently thought that we were fleeing Germans.

The “procession” crowded together, people were shouting, and the sky was black! I thought to myself that the end was coming, and that we would surely fall into the water. We crossed the bridge, the bombing began anew, and again we ran and hid. We passed a huge sawmill, and we lay down there, on the boards.

I should point out that almost all the population of our camp survived, about eight hundred women, but there on the boards, one woman died, and I don't know if anyone knew her name.

Suddenly we heard shooting. Later on, we learned that an argument over what to do with us had broken out among the German guards. One of them, the highest-ranking officer, proposed pouring kerosene over us and setting us on fire. The others refused to obey his order, and shot him to death.

It snowed. We reached a dense forest. We found abandoned tents and entered them. The guards' attitude to us had begun to be good. Here and there, they worried about covering us, they helped and supported us. When we were marching, the women reached the point of exhaustion, and occasionally collapsed and fell into the ditches, and got up again. One woman collapsed and looked as though she was dead. One of the guards approached her and aimed his rifle at her. We dashed towards him. I told him that I was a nurse and asked permission to determine whether she was alive. I bent over and shouted: “Get up! They're going to kill you!” The German mumbled: “What an audacious woman you are!” The woman was from Kovno, Rodenski, and once when we met in Israel she learned that I was the one who had saved her life. There were similar cases of rescue at that time.

“You are Liberated”

One day, while we were still in the forest, suddenly a woman came running up and said: “Look and see, the guards are leaving us!” Truly, we saw that the guards were already in civilian clothing, carrying suitcases, among them the German Schnabel, the Nazi who would punish and flog. We approached them, and suddenly they behaved like human beings. They offered the children food and gave us their black uniforms with which to warm ourselves. That was on January 22, 1945. We suddenly understood that we were free!

We ran to the adjacent villages to obtain food. Convoys of liberated Polish captives passed us on the way, and warned us to hide among the trees, as the Germans were still wandering around in the area, and that it was a good idea to hide from the Russians too.

We knew that the Russian front was advancing. We could hear the rumbling of the guns “through the ground”. Suddenly a woman came and told us that the Russians were near and she suggested that we run towards them. We were in no rush to do so, because we feared that they might be German soldiers dressed as Russians. However, not much time went by when three Russian soldiers arrived, riding small horses. They approached us and told us that they were the vanguard, and that the others were on their way.

The large Russian camp arrived towards evening. One of them came out of the first row and called out: “I am Isak Weisbord”, and gave his rank. “You have been liberated by the Red Army!” Then he lowered his voice and said in Yiddish, that we had to be wary of our “relatives” too. To this day, I wonder, how in the midst of war and battle, this officer found the time to take care of us. He listened to our story all night long, and wanted to know all the details of what had happened to us. That was my first human encounter, the most human moments I could feel, and is it no wonder that I feel grateful to him? I think we all, the entire camp of eight hundred women, had that feeling, a feeling of self worth. Up until then, our dignity had been trampled into the dust. This event is engraved in my memory, and my appreciation for it increases with the years.

Izana Levitt (Stein): My mother Raya and I were also in that group, and I also remember that encounter with Isak Weisbord.

I would like to add that in 1970, when we were still in Vilna, we, the survivors, decided to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of our liberation, and we tried to find Isak Weisbord, to include him in the party. He appeared two weeks after the event, and another party was arranged, this time with him, and he was presented with a communal gift, as a sign of appreciation from all of us.

On the 25th anniversary of their liberation, the Russian officer Isak Weisbord met some of the survivors:
Izana Levitt (Stein) (right) and Rachel Schlosberg (Miller).

[Courtesy of Izana Levitt]

Only two to three thousand of the 225,000 to 235,000 Jews who were in the area of the General-Commissariat in Lithuania when it was occupied by the Germans were left when the area was liberated by the Soviet army, some of them partisans in the forests. In the concentration camps in Germany, there were several thousand more of the evacuees from Kovno and Siauliai, and there were Vilna Jews evacuated from the camps in Estonia, although most of these also died in the terrible conditions that prevailed in the concentration camps, or were murdered by their German guards while being evacuated, or in the camps. The “final solution” policy was realized completely in Lithuania.[9]

I Watched over Them Like Birds

The next morning Isak Weisbord selected a number of his men to escort us, and he continued on to the front. We were divided into groups, and our paths separated. A hospital was set up in a certain place, and as a nurse I immediately volunteered for work. At the beginning of April, the Russians suddenly began sending strong people to work near the front, and they almost succeeded in separating my sisters and me. We had always remained together throughout the entire war, and now we would be separated? “I watched over them like birds” – I tried to convince them, and I was allowed to join my sisters.

We reached Ronau, near Berlin, and there the Russians gave us a variety of jobs. I was sent to stroll through the estates and make lists of live ammunition, which was to be sent to Belarus. At first, the inhabitants didn't object, but slowly they began to hide their possessions in pits and in the forest, and this created serious problems.

We once went into a house, in which a family was sitting around the table, among them a woman holding a baby. There was a Russian officer with us, a huge fellow, and I suddenly saw him drawing a pistol and aiming to shoot them. I begged him to hold his fire, and he said to me: “You stupid Jewess! Did they murder only a few of your people's babies, that you still have mercy in your heart?” He chased me away from there. Despite everything, and all the trials and tribulations, I did not lose my humanity and my heart remained merciful.

On the way, we met Jewish soldiers, and once I met one who spoke Hebrew. We said to him that we would perhaps meet again in Eretz Yisrael. He told me that they were advancing towards Berlin, and who knew if he would survive. At that time, we did not lack food. We received food from the military camp, and we also obtained food from the farmers. I recall that I even cooked meat and potatoes. I wasn't hungry, but was always tired and frightened. I was constantly afraid of a bullet in my back.

At the beginning of April 1945, the Russians dismantled entire factories and moved them to Russia. I remember that it was after Passover, when we were transferred to Poland by truck. On a Polish estate in Lesin near Graudenz (Grudziadz), I was employed at listing the quantity of agricultural produce…

Footnotes

  1. Hideouts in the ghetto. Return
  2. [39] Arad, p. 41. Return
  3. [40] Yahadut Lita p. 396. Return
  4. [41] Arad, p. 47. Return

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