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[Pages 352-355]

“Everybody Was Killed in the War. No Life”

By Luba Lustig (Napoleon)

Translated by Judy Grossman

Sara Weiss-Slep: On Yom Hashoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day], Luba called me up and told me: “Something odd happened to me today. Every day I see children, children of different ages, and I don't know why today, when a group of ten-year olds passed by me I suddenly thought to myself: I was ten years old, the age of these children, when my life was overturned and I remained alone; a girl of ten, then eleven or perhaps more, when I wandered around on my own on the roads and in the forests. How did I do it?”

I encouraged Luba to tell me about the memories she carries with her. Luba recalled an episode and then another one, but she didn't remember what came first. “I don't remember my home” – she said. “I can't remember faces.”

 

Luba Napoleon, April 3, 1945

 

My Mother Rachel nee Strauss

 

In the summer of 1941, when I was ten years old, I began my summer vacation in Lilun [Leliunai], a shtetl not far from Utian [Utena] at the home of my mother's cousin. For many years I couldn't recall their names and now they come to me: Sheine and Pine Shapiro. During my previous vacation I had visited them with my mother, and the place enchanted me, so I asked to go back there again. I came to Lilun in a wagon with my father, and I stayed by myself with my relatives. I don't know how many days went by, perhaps just one, when suddenly in the morning we heard the sound of airplanes. We went outside and saw the road “black” with people. My relative apparently understood what had happened, gathered my belongings, wrapped a fresh cheese she had made in paper, and gave it to me, to bring my mother “the produce of the new heifer”.

On the road there were many people, and among them I recognized the brothers Eme and Bebe Schwartz who were older than I. I joined them. On the way, a military vehicle picked us up. Suddenly there was bombing, and we all got out and lay down by the sides of the road. I lifted up my head and saw that the others were still lying down, but the two brothers were no longer there.

I began walking by myself. Where to? To where everyone else was going. One woman told me she was hungry, and I showed her the cheese I had in the package for my mother. I remember that she broke off a piece of the cheese and in my heart I was a little bit angry with her, because wasn't I supposed to bring this to mother?

The luggage I was carrying was burdensome, and I hid it in the forest. I remember marking my trail, like in books, so that I would know how to retrace my steps. There was still a small piece of the cheese left, and I continued carrying it.

A Tale of a Red Coat

I was wearing a red coat. I think we got it from our relatives from abroad. It was a new coat that my mother had sewn to my size for my vacation trip, and that coat caused me problems later on.

I was usually very independent, and also curious by nature, and had often happily joined my father, who was a wagon driver and spent a lot of time on the road. That was also perhaps the reason for adapting to my new circumstances when I found myself alone without my family.

I have already mentioned that the red coat caused me problems. People demanded that I get rid of it, throw it away, because the German bombers thought that it was a red flag. I didn't want to take off my new red coat, because I had to return it to my mother, because what would she say if I came back without it?

I remember being harassed many times because of the red coat, but I don't remember crying then. I remember crying when they cut off my braids because they were full of lice.

In the Ghetto and in the Orphanages

I don't remember how I arrived in the Kovno [Kaunas] Ghetto. I do remember the cruel policemen hitting me. I worked there in the gardens. It was then that I took vegetables from there and gave some to a woman and she gave me something to eat.

Once as if in a dream I saw my mother, and then she disappeared. I believed that she went home …

One day the Lithuanian Yonas took me to his village, and hid me there. I think they were afraid of hiding a Jewish girl, so Yonas brought me to an orphanage. I don't know when and where. I moved from one orphanage to another. I found myself with Lithuanian and Russian children. I didn't talk at all and I remained silent, like a mute. They thought I was dumb. I didn't stop crying. One day they brought to me a Russian or a Lithuanian doctor. When I tried to speak, I remember that my lips were quivering.

Napoleon is passing by …

Once I went to wash in the river. I was tired and hungry and fell down on the ground.

I was injured and a soldier rescued me. He spoke to me in Russian and I didn't know what he was saying. He took me in a wagon to a clinic, where they said I must be taken to the hospital. So he brought me to the hospital. At the hospital there was a Jewish doctor and I told her what had happened to me.

They asked me for my name and I said: “Napoleon”. They thought that I was crazy…

I moved to another orphanage. Because of my name – Napoleon – I received special treatment. I recall that after I was injured, they shaved my head and I was bald. I had a hole in my forehead. I wore high heels and my clothes were too big for me, and when I walked past, the children used to line up immediately in two columns, salute me and say: “Here, Napoleon is passing by.”

I moved to another orphanage, and it was there that I started to speak Russian. I remember that I had absorbed the language a long time ago but I was afraid to speak it. At the orphanage, school subjects were taught in Russian. There were Lithuanians and Jewish children, and they spoke Lithuanian and Russian. But under no circumstances did anyone speak in Yiddish, because they would immediately say “Zhidu parech,” a term of abuse, the meaning of which I didn't even know.

The situation was terrible. We were truly hungry. There was not enough food for us. I remember collecting a little food in my hat and hiding and eating under my bed, so they wouldn't steal it from me. They might take it out of my mouth.

I was afraid of the children. Many of them were so cruel. I hid under my bed to avoid being touched by youths who more than once raped girls.

Mice and rats were everywhere in the orphanage. The children used to beat the mattresses and then dozens of mice and rats would jump out from everywhere. There were children who suffered from rat bites...

“No life…”

Once I wrote to my parents. I didn't receive a reply to my first letter, and the second letter was returned, and on the envelope it said in Lithuanian: “Everybody was killed in the war. No life.”

I could not believe that my family was killed.

In the Orphanage in Kovno

After Lithuanian's liberation, a home was opened in Kovno exclusively for Jewish children. We started searching for relatives via the press. They used to get us to talk and asked us the names of family members. I remembered that we used to get letters from America and in fact, I found relatives in New York and Buenos Aires, and there was no end to my joy when their reply arrived with a photo of my mother.

Yes, I do have memories, good memories of the director Helena Chatzkeles, the caregiver Rachel Fisher and Chana Bravo, thanks to whom I later on found a place to lay my head. I remember the girl Clara Gruzd and other children, some of whom I continued meeting in Israel.

I recall the fire that burst out in the gas station across from the orphanage. I noticed a pillar of smoke, and ran and got children out of the orphanage. I also recall that the river overran its banks and the water reached as far as the children's home…

I remained in this orphanage until I was fifteen.

While in the previous orphanages I taught myself to embroider. I would unravel blankets and remove threads and fibers from everything that came to hand, and these I used as embroidery thread. I removed fibers from sacks and cut up a sheet I had received into different size pieces. And so I embroidered napkins and went out to the streets of Kovno and sold them. The money supported me.

Then I moved to Vilna [Vilnius].

I met survivors in Vilna. I remember Baruch Krut taking money out of his pocket and giving it to me. He probably felt sorry for a little orphan girl.

On Memorial Day [August 26], I would join the convoys of survivors, and together we would go to the mass graves. Later, we contributed towards a concrete monument.

Before immigrating to Israel I took leave of my loved ones there. I immigrated to Israel in January 1967.

 

My Sister Bunia-Bunka

 

My sister Bunia lived in Kovno with the Garber family. Rachel, Dov-Berl Garber's wife, was a relative of my mother. I learned that Bunia had moved to live with an old woman, for whom she cared devotedly. They moved into the Kovno Ghetto and Bunia refused to part from this woman. Both of them perished in the “small action [roundup].” I don't know what happened to the Garber family. They apparently perished in the Kovno Ghetto.

Not long ago I learned that Dov Garber was the conductor of the children's choir in the Hebrew Gymnasia in Kovno.

Uncle Reuven Napoleon

You ask me about the name of Reuven Napoleon. I think he was my uncle, my father's brother. Just now I recall an episode connected to his wife, whose name I have forgotten. They lived in a narrow room beside the house of a widow. Once the boy Avreml told me that when he was young, the following happened: my uncle's wife went to give birth in the outhouse in the yard, and when he heard her screams he came to her with a pail, into which the baby girl slipped. I think that they also had another child, a boy. They worked at spinning. I don't know what happened to them.

No, I've never been to the cemetery in Dusiat and never seen the two gravestones bearing the names of Musha and Kopel Napoleon. I don't know if they are related to my family.

My mother's name was Rachel. My father's name was Benjamin. His mother was Gissa and his father Ezra Napoleon. There were seven children in my family: Bunia, Ethel, Hinde-Gite, Luba (me), Yosef-Ezra, Gissa, and Chaim the muzinik [the last born].

Of all of them I am the only survivor.

 

Beside the Monument in the Deguciai Forest
I took leave of my loved ones …

 

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