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Youth in Vilna (Vilnius)
My mother Chaya-Rochl (Rachel) was born in Dusiat to Keyle and Eliyahu-Elye Levitt. My grandparents remained alone after all their children left the shtetl, and I never saw them, not even in pictures. When I arrived in Israel I was happy to meet people who had known them and told me about them. My cousin Chaim Levitt told me about my grandmother, who was a sick woman confined to her house, but who never complained. He also told me about my grandfather who worried about earning a living and used to return home and lovingly care for my grandmother, with a smile and a sense of humor.
I also heard about my grandfather's virtue and honesty from Dov son of Getzl and Michl Levitt, (from Mikhmoret). He told me that my grandfather borrowed money from his father in order to buy beans to sell, and when he came to return the money he insisted on adding some of his profit to the sum. This is what my grandfather said: Your one hundred brought me two hundred, and you deserve your part of the profit.
When my mother was fourteen years old she left Dusiat and moved to Vilna, joining her older sister Devora. My mother finished elementary school, and worked as a cashier in a large shop. Even though many years went by since she had left the shtetl, she never forgot Dusiat. On Saturday mornings the sisters used to get together in our house and talk about the shtetl. I remember that they always recalled the second big fire, and they used to mention many names. For some reason the name Bunia is engraved in my memory, even though I don't know to whom it refers. At Sybil Herbst's wedding I met a woman who told me that she had been my mother's friend in Dusiat, and I was happy to make her acquaintance.
Today I understand that my mother continued to run her life as though she was living in Dusiat, even though our financial situation was good and we could have lived comfortably. My mother always mentioned the poverty in her home, but nevertheless, so she said, my grandfather was always happy and satisfied with his lot in life. When my mother wanted to emphasize how well off we were and that we were lacking for nothing, she used to say, in Yiddish: Vos ir hot in var, hob ich nit gehat in holem (What you have for real, I didn't have even in my dreams).
My mother was a diligent, energetic woman. My aunt Grunya (my mother's sister) took care of the house, and my mother assisted my father in the construction materials shop we owned on Kalvaria Street. We had another shop for candy and soft drinks, which was run by my sister Liza, and my father managed the factory for colored porcelain on Ukmerge Street.
My mother was a hardheaded businesswoman. The suppliers liked to negotiate with my father and not with my mother. My mother would bargain with them and force them to lower their prices. My father was more generous. He didn't begrudge them their honest 20% profit.
We once went with my brother to buy him a coat, which was part of his high school uniform. In the shop they asked for thirty zloty, and my mother bargained with them and lowered the price to half that. My brother was so embarrassed he ran out of the shop, but my mother was satisfied that she had bought it for half the price, explaining, in Yiddish: Karg badungen, erentlich batzolt (To bargain like a miser and to pay fairly).
At home we received everything we needed, but we weren't spoilt. If a stranger came to ask for help for a poor bride, for a sick person, for a synagogue to these my mother gave generously!
I remember that my mother had a regular day each week on which she went to a Jewish school to distribute food to orphans, and when we asked her why she was so generous to strangers and so frugal with us, she used to answer: I give to others so that you, Heaven forbid, won't need to ask. If we bragged about our achievements, my mother would admonish us, and would repeatedly say: Let others praise you.
Our mother was always busy and occupied, and I think that the housekeeper paid more attention to us, so that going to the market with my mother every Friday morning was a holiday for me. We would pass from cart to cart, and afterwards we would bring everything home in a wagon, in serious quantities! I loved this pastime with my mother, and my mother knew that forbidding me to go to the market with her was a harsh punishment for me.
Vilna was a deep-seated Jewish city, and I remember that they preached at us not to study in the Polish language, but my brothers and I nevertheless went to a Jewish public school in which the language of instruction was Polish. Why? Because it was tuition free, and I remember our neighbors saying that if Chaya-Rochl sent her children there it was a sign that the school was a good one.
People came to my mother to ask for advice, and they used to say: Chaya Krapivnik, you're a clever woman, what do you say? Consequently, when we wanted to tease her we used to mock her and say Nu, you're a clever woman...
I am sending you a photograph of my children as a souvenir.
The name of Michl Slep from Dusiat was mentioned many times in our home, and always in praise. Not long before the outbreak of the war I learned that Micha was working in Vilna. I was curious to know who this young man was, so one day I phoned his place of work (the Harmatz Trading Company) and we arranged to meet. A wonderful young man appeared before me! I was absolutely amazed by his good looks. Micha was a leftist, an extremely intelligent young man, a good listener who saw things clearly. We met several times; we had interesting conversations and I discovered that he read a lot and studied. He was a real autodidact. He appealed to me in every way. We went out together and I was happy. And then the war broke out.
For many years the Lithuanians used to declare repeatedly that we will not rest without Vilna.
However, at that time Vilna had had become a Polish city.
The Lithuanian part of the city decreased and the Polish part increased.
In its culture, language and all its connections Vilna was Polish, and as such it was returned to Lithuania by the Soviets.
In the Vilna Ghetto and in the Camps in Estonia
Vilna. The war broke out on the morning of Sunday, June 22, 1941. I was out sailing with several friends, when suddenly we were being bombed. There was panic in the streets and people ran in all directions. A curfew was decreed and we were frightened, afraid to go outside. Some time had passed since I had last seen Micha, and I encountered him in the ghetto. He was active in the F.P.O. [United Partisan Organization] underground, and I recall that he used to take advantage of every opportunity to extract information from the Gentiles.
The situation was terrible, but the fact that the two of us, Micha and I, were together helped us ignore the troubles around us. I worked as a cleaner outside the ghetto, and Micha produced saccharin, making a sweet spread from rotten potatoes.
I had the Gele Schein (the yellow card), which served as a work permit, and I was able to move freely in the city. One morning I went out to work, and on the road an open car with two Germans sitting in it stopped beside me. People began to leave the street in fear, and I also planned to hide when one of them approached me later on I learned that this was the cursed tyrant Murer and ordered me to immediately run back to the ghetto: I'll count to three! he barked. I began running and could still hear him shouting: One, two I waited for the shot, but nothing happened.
I reached a yard on Niemicka Street (The German Street), which was full of people, and they slowly disappeared, as though the earth had swallowed them. I remained alone. I was engulfed by fear and didn't know what to do and where to go. A Gentile man approached me, and I recognized him as someone I knew. He gave me directions to the second ghetto. There I found my father, my twin sister Chasya and my two brothers Feivel and Avremale. My mother didn't get to the ghetto. She was among the first to be sent to prison and from there to Ponary. Her sister Grunya and my sister Liza went with her.
Several families lived together in a single apartment under terribly crowded conditions. The Germans would occasionally show up and grab Jews, and we didn't know where they took them and to where they disappeared. My father was very sad and had a hard time. The phenomenon of the disappearing people was hard for him to handle, and he decided to leave the ghetto and flee to the forest. My two brothers joined him, and from then on I know nothing of their fate.
The Germans frequently ordered us to move from ghetto to ghetto, and in the way that water is lost when transferred from one glass to another, that is how more and more people were lost and disappeared, and Chasya also disappeared thus. I began to run from ghetto to ghetto searching for her, and I found her. I saw her standing by the gate and banging her head against the wall. She was wailing and crying that she didn't want to live! It appears that she was in agony because I had given her my Gele Schein, the work permit, thanks to which she was saved from the Aktion [roundup], and who knows what happened to Tzipa. The truth is that I gave her the work permit because I was certain that I would manage without it. Her friends also calmed her, saying that Tzipa will manage to get away even through a keyhole.
I learned that you had to be daring to survive! I was once discovered by a German and he threw me into the yard from which they took people to be transported. I was daring and began screaming at him and he was utterly astounded! I took advantage of the moment and quickly ran away
I recall that a church stood at the entrance to the ghetto, and we used to say that the church was so close, but G-d was so far away
The transports to Estonia were begun in 1943. It was a hot summer, and we were taken to a labor camp in freight cars crowded full of people, without food or water. We worked in the forest. The men chopped down trees and the women gathered the branches. We used to return to the camp in long lines, and I remember how Micha and I used to talk and draw a picture of our lives, as though we were making a film. Hunger tormented us and death was a constant companion, but we didn't want to think about all that, and embroidered dreams for ourselves. In my heart I believed that we would overcome all our troubles.
Micha was exceptionally good-hearted. I recall that we once stood in line to receive food, and when I returned to the queue to get an additional portion, Micha was angry at me. He was worried that there might not be enough food for the last person in line I replied to this angrily: Why are you thinking about the last person? Think about yourself! I simply wanted us to remain alive. But Micha also once dared to do something. He stole a chicken, cooked it secretly and invited me to a meal fit for a king. We laughed and cried
We were transferred from camp to camp, but we always tried not to be separated. That was not such a simple thing. We worked with sawdust, which was used to produce panels for huts, and one day we saw a plank on which was written: Mother, I'm in Klooga and a name. We knew the mother, who was in the camp with us. We showed her the writing and she looked for an opportunity to transfer to there, to her daughter. They were about to transfer people to Klooga and I was on the list. I was miserable. How could I be separated from Micha? With the intervention of the Jewish man who wrote down the lists I switched places with that woman, and we continued being together.
A few years ago I returned from a memorial service for the Jews of Vilna. I was sitting in the truck and beside me sat a woman who looked familiar to me. Someone approached her by name, Mrs. Blumenthal. The name rang a bell, and I asked her whether she had been in Klooga camp. She answered me, in Yiddish: Klooga is geven a klog. (Klooga was a disaster). Then she told me about how she had changed places with someone in order to get there
Her story about Klooga was terrible. The Germans placed women on logs, one on top of the other, and set fire to them. She fell between two logs, and just then the Russians reached the camp. They heard her groans and discovered her, and that is how she was rescued. I told her that I was the one who had changed places with her. She kissed me, looked at me as though examining my skinny body and said: You wouldn't have remained alive there.
The terrible day arrived, and Micha and I were separated. Before parting we agreed the place where we would meet after the war: at the home of Avraham Slep, Kiryat Chaim, D Street, No. 9, and I inscribed the address in my memory.
I recall the names of several labor camps I was in on my journey of hardships: in Vikoni in Estonia we were forced to move planks from place to place, again and again We didn't know the purpose of this work, and were certain that the Germans wanted to drive us insane. We were in Narva, and when the Russian front advanced we moved to Vaivara, going there and back to Narva a distance of about one hundred kilometers each way on foot. There we worked at making blocks and at digging trenches in heavy, muddy soil, and the work was so hard! The rain was a terrible problem. We worked from dawn to dusk and slept in wet clothing. Words can't describe how much we suffered. When the Russians advanced, the Germans hurriedly transferred us to Kivioli (there were two camps there, Kivioli I and Kivioli II) and from there to Goldfilz; and after that to Azari on the Gulf of Finland. We were transferred to the port of Ravel (Tallinn). We were taken to Danzig on a battleship and from there in large boats to one of the camps belonging to Stutthof. This was in July or August 1944. We marched to the camp. We were hungry, and I remember that they forbade us to pick up the fruit that had fallen off the trees on the side of the road. From Stuffhof we were transferred to Ochsenzoll camp, near the main camp of Neugamme in the region of Hamburg. I learned that the residents of the area made a strenuous effort to erase the memory of the camp, as though it didn't exist.
I recall one evening in Ochsenzoll, perhaps it was at Christmas. The German guards went to enjoy themselves and we took advantage of their absence to put on a musical play directed by Sima Skornick (now in Jerusalem), who was a lively young woman and had a good singing voice. The play depicted life in the war based on letters from a German soldier at the front to his lover and to his friend (I recall the names Hans and Franz), which described the terrible results of the war, and I particularly recall the description of the horrific suffering of the wounded, who remained handicapped their entire lives. They are also suffering we tried to take comfort from this. Our guards discovered that we had put on a play and they demanded a second performance. I remember that the Czech girls danced and sang and improvised a different play, of course. I must state that even when times were hardest there were girls among us who encouraged us and instilled hope. More than once we could hear the prisoners singing when going to work and back, in spite of the Germans. It's hard for me to explain from where we drew the strength to behave normally in such an abnormal situation.
We were five hundred women. We received the little food they gave us at regular times. To wash? We sometimes sneaked into the showers in the arms factory and were able to wash in hot water. It was already winter, frost and hunger I recall that when we marched from camp to camp it was so fiercely cold that our easing nature froze in the air. I came down with typhus and diarrhea, but didn't dare leave the line for fear of the guards, who savagely beat the stragglers.
From Ochsenzoll, we were taken by train to Bergen-Belsen, to the Schmutzlager [the dirt camp]. That was the nickname of the camp, which was an extermination camp. The sight I saw was unbelievably horrible: innumerable bodies lay on the ground. Dying people lay and begged for death. Up to now a description of this place has not passed my lips, and even now it is hard for me to continue my story. The filth was terrible! Lice reigned everywhere. When we reached Bergen-Belsen we looked like nothing human and only living together kept us going. And then the English arrived And from here my story intersects with that of Shimshon, with whom I rehabilitated my life.
We Waited for Salvation
Shimshon Zelinger: I come from Bendin (Bedzin) in Poland. As a member of the Dror movement I was at an urban hachshara [training center for life on the kibbutz] from 1933-1935. I even received a certificate [to immigrate to Eretz-Yisrael], but I didn't have the money, not even for travel expenses to the center office in Warsaw, so someone richer than myself took advantage of it. I left the hachshara and returned to Bendin. I worked as a carpenter there until the war broke out.
All the Jews of my city were put into the ghetto. I spent all the years of the war in labor camps, where I was employed as a tradesman. In the labor camps the Germans usually provided food in order to maintain the work force, but as the war went on, and especially in the final weeks, people went hungry and were unable to hold out and work under the difficult conditions, and dropped like flies.
When the Russian front drew near, they led us to Nordhausen camp. This was in the winter of 1944. On our way from work to the camp, when the planes passed over us people used to lie down on the ground to protect themselves from the bombing, and we used to look up to the sky and wait for our redemption.
Shortly thereafter they took us to Elrich extermination camp.
We were only there for three days. If we had remained there for another day, our chances to live would have been nil. We had Russian prisoners-of war with us, who behaved like savages. If I were lucky enough to get a meager slice of bread, a Russian would fall on me and grab it before I could even get it into my mouth. After three days they loaded us onto a freight train. The tracks were bombed, transportation was stopped and the train moved back and forth. I recall that a train passed us from the opposite direction, and women shouted from it that we would shortly be liberated.
We didn't know where the traffic was flowing to and to where we were being taken. At the end of the journey we arrived in Bergen-Belsen.
Eight days went by. One day a rumor went around that there were fewer Germans in the camp, and those remaining wore a white armband with a swastika. Suddenly several people burst into my Block [barrack] shouting: The English have arrived! The English have arrived! And one of them, Aharon Batcha (now in Netzer Sireni) said: Come, let's go see the Englishmen. I tried to get up, but couldn't move. I told him to go by himself, and I would remain in the Block. He was younger than I, and able to walk, whereas I just didn't have the strength to move!
That was April 15, 1945. The British Army entered the camp on tanks, which simply crushed the fences. People gathered together, and suddenly an announcement was heard over the loudspeaker, in German: Alle Leute sind frei. Artzte und Medikamente unter Weg. (Everyone is free. Doctors and medicines on the way.) The German guards looked frightened to death! However, I didn't see anyone trying to take revenge against them. Who had the strength?
Was there joy in the camp? I remember that I started turning this way and that, but in no way did joy burst out from inside of me. I didn't have the strength for anything. The British were about to hand out bread that they had found in a storehouse, but a German doctor stopped them, disclosing that the bread was poisoned. I wandered around looking for food, and in a pile of trash I found a real find, potato peels. I became nauseated and couldn't stop vomiting. I was starving.
Within two days the British brought canned food, mainly pork. People fell on the food and came down with dysentery, and many of them died.
Tzipora: Right after liberation I was transferred from the Schmutzlager to the Kasserne from the extermination camp to the military camp. We were fourteen girls in the Block: die Mame [the mother], who really had a mother's heart; Rivka die Gele (the blonde); Batya Jupraner; Tonkale Reznick die kleine (the little one); Tanya Sapir; Rivka Markman; Hannale; Sonya Metz - the last of the Mohicans; Esther Shkolnicki; die Bobe [the grandmother], who was the oldest, about thirty-two years old; Tzila Weisblat; Dvorale Moidovnik; Rita and I. We are still all in close contact.
I recall that one day we suddenly heard the booming of cannons and rifle shots, and everyone was overcome with fright, and cries of fear could be heard on all sides. Beside me stood a woman shouting, Are they shooting again? Is there no end to the war? I can't take any more suffering! Others shouted similar things. It quickly became clear that these were blasts to celebrate the end of the war.
It didn't take long for the Jewish Committee to begin working. I worked there in Block 5-L, at typing and mimeographing, and I received cigarettes in payment. David Ben-Gurion came to the congress of the Holocaust survivors, where he spoke in Yiddish and promised that the following Passover he would sit with us on the night of the Seder in Eretz-Yisrael.
The soldiers of the Jewish Brigade organized Beth Hechalutz [Pioneer House], to which people from all the political parties came. Most of them were young people who in the past had belonged to the pioneering youth movements. Among them was Shimshon. They set up a Noham (United Pioneering Youth)kibbutz, and I also joined it. There we learned dances and songs from Eretz-Yisrael. Yosef Baratz came and told us about the history of Kvutzat Degania, the riots in Eretz-Yisrael, and in general they provided us with initial knowledge about Eretz-Yisrael there. They told us about cowsheds in the kibbutz, and that it could happen for an Arab to break into the cowshed with the intention of murdering someone They told us of the great distance between kibbutzim, and didn't hide the dangers from us. When they prepared us for aliya, they warned us and told us that there would be no food or water on the ship, and that we were liable to be captured by the British. Nevertheless, many people were ready to immigrate to Eretz-Yisrael.
A New Life
Tzipora: When the war came to an end, I sent a letter from the Bergen-Belsen camp to Avraham Slep in Kiryat Chaim. I introduced myself and told him what had happened to me. In my youth I had not been a member of a pioneering youth movement and had had no desire to immigrate to Eretz-Yisrael. I had the opportunity to go to America from Bergen-Belsen, to my father's sister Nehama Sheinkman and her family, who sponsored my coming there and to this day I am in close touch with them and we visit each other, and thanks to them we were able to expand when we moved from a one-room apartment. But instead of going to America I decided to immigrate to Eretz-Yisrael.
I will never forget the first night in Kiryat Chaim. When I exchanged kisses with Estherel (Slep), I felt as though I was exchanging kisses with a mother. Avraham and his sister Miryam received me warmly and with love. Neighbors and relatives gathered in their house. They came to see the survivor of the camps. They asked questions and I didn't stop telling them. The bed was covered in a starched white sheet, clean and ironed pajamas like once upon a time at home
Is it possible to understand how I felt when I saw all this for the first time, after so many years and so much suffering?
For the first Passover Seder I went to the Yavnai family in Kfar Vitkin. I felt as though I had already met Yoske (Yosef), Riva and all the others.
We took the bus from Haifa to Kfar Vitkin, Riva and myself, a journey of several hours. We talked and talked, and suddenly Riva took fright and said that we had passed the stop for the village, and we had apparently also passed Kibbutz Ma'abarot. You must realize that in those days transportation was problematic, and it wasn't easy to get to the village. We always recall that trip, and laugh again and again.
Shimshon and I were absorbed into Micha's family, who encouraged us with warm words and love. Even after a long time had passed I would still pinch myself to see whether it was real or a dream
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