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[Pages 392-396]

I Begged Her To Escape …

By Avraham Levitt

Translated by Judy Grossman

I was born in Ponivezh [Panevesys] to Moshe and Berta, the daughter of Avraham and Riva-Leah Toder - sister of Chana-Geile, Shmuel-Itzik and Emmanuel Slep.

I knew my mother's family from Dusiat. Kehat Slep served in the Lithuanian army and we used to get together in Ponivezh. His brother, the teacher Yehuda Slep, who was teaching at that time in Ponivezh, lived in our house for a while. He once took me with him to spend the Succoth holiday in Dusiat, and we rode together in a small truck that had brought fish to Ponivezh and was returning to Dusiat. I remember that long and exhausting trip as though in a dream. The truck drove slowly and was forced to occasionally stop and rest…

In Dusiat they took me and introduced me to several families, and I remember that I wondered why I was being so honored. After the holiday I returned home with Yehuda. We left the shtetl in a wagon, and then we continued on by train. Yehuda was a genial man and was considered a serious teacher in Ponivezh. I liked him, and it was an honor for me to go with him. We used to go together to swim in the river, right up to the cold October days.

On the Saturday before the outbreak of war, Yehuda came to our house to say goodbye before leaving for a teachers' course in Yiddish in Vilna [Vilnius]. I never saw him again.

Nessia Reznik (Orlowitz): Yehuda and I taught in the same school in Ponivezh. Both of us were supposed to leave for a teachers' course in Yiddish in Vilna on Sunday (June 22, 1941). I parted from Yehuda, who set out for Vilna, early in the morning, whereas I delayed in order to hand the students out their report cards. Suddenly bombing began! I didn't manage to travel to Vilna, and I don't know what happened to Yehuda.

I last saw Henia Slep, Yehuda's sister, in Rakishok [Rokiskis] on June 25, 1941, when I was fleeing eastward from Ponivezh.

Flight to the East

The war broke out on Sunday June 22, 1941. In the morning we noticed the Red Army trucks leaving Ponivezh post haste. Despite their retreat the Russians tried to keep things calm and asked people to go to work. I recall that my father worried about a certain lone woman, and brought her to our house, while he himself went to work. When I was on the point of leaving the house the woman offered me money…

My father was the manager of a leather factory, and apparently received a good salary, because I remember that our financial situation was not bad during that period, and this financial situation apparently gave my father a sense of security. It's hard for me to answer the question of whether I would have left if my father had remained at home.

My cousin Shimon, the son of Yaacov Levitt, who lived with his family in the same building as us, told me that he would try to get on to one of the trucks, and advised me to do the same. Things happened quickly. My mother packed me whatever she packed into a large kerchief – why should I take a lot with me, as I would soon be returning? I got into a truck and left my city. I was eighteen years old at the time. I had just finished the Hebrew Gymnasium [high school] in Ponivezh.

Shimon left home about half an hour before me, and I wasn't able to catch up with him. I went in the direction of Dvinsk [Daugavpils].

I made the journey by car and on foot. I reached Rakishok on June 25, and came to the Harmatz' huge wholesale warehouse where my relative Henia Slep worked, and it seems to me that her brother Kehat also worked there, but I don't recall whether I encountered him then. I went up to Henia and pleaded with her to leave the city. She told me that she couldn't leave her job, and asked me to wait for her in her room. I was tired and worn out from the ordeals of the road and I was happy to have found a quiet spot to lay my head and rest. Henia came to the room shortly thereafter and told me that there was great commotion in the city and we went out together to see what was happening. I again pleaded with her to escape to behind the front lines with me.

I was a child compared to her, but I remember that my mother was especially fond of Henia, and apparently those feelings brought me to her, and I kept on pleading with her to flee. A fire truck was parked there; I got into it, took hold of Henia's hand and again pleaded with her: “Come, let's flee.” But Henia replied that she couldn't leave her job, and if she left – she would go to her parents. I recall that before I parted from Henia she told me that her brother Yehuda had gone to his parents in Dusiat.

That moment is engraved in my memory: the last handshake…

The truck began moving and Henia remained behind…

I managed to cross the border to the east.

 

Kehat Slep in the uniform of the Lithuanian Army
Ponivezh. “The Fourth Folk, 29.12.1929”

 

Avraham Levitt: Kehat Slep served in the Lithuanian army and we used to get together in Ponivezh.

Yosef Levitt (in his letter from Radvilishkis, 1958, to Avraham Slep): It was on June 25, 1941 when me and my family – my wife Freidl (Chatzkel) and our daughters Teibele and Henia - managed to flee from Rokiskis in the direction to the east behind the front. Your brother and sister, Kehat and Henia, had joined us, but on the border of Latvia they were forced to return to Rokiskis. There they perished with all the rest.

When I was in Ponivezh after the war, Avraham Slep's letter from Kiryat Chaim, which he had sent to Helena Chatzkeles, the principal of the Jewish school and Children's Home in Kovno [Kaunas], came into my hands. The teacher Berl London gave it to me. In his letter Avraham Slep asked about the fate of his relatives, many of who were of the family Chatzkel. In my letter of December 1946 I wrote him about my last encounter with his brother and sister, Yehuda and Henia, and that I was the only survivor of our family.

 

Sara Weiss (Slep): In 1946 a letter of thanks “To the children of Eretz Yisrael” for the Tu Bishvat[1] fruits that they had sent to the Jewish Children's Home in Kovno appeared in the “Davar” newspaper. The writer of the letter was “Principal Chatzkeles”. “Chatzkel” is my grandmother Chaya-Tzipa's maiden name, and my father decided to ascertain through her whether anyone of his family had survived. He wrote her, with a list of names. Some of them were teachers.

This letter made its way until it reached Avraham Levitt.

When Avraham's letter reached us we were very excited. A remnant had survived. But the terrible news that no one else survived was a severe shock, and I will never forget my father's outburst of crying.

Our contact with Avraham Levitt stopped until he made aliya in 1971, and then he explained the reason for his silence.

 

 
Berta Levitt (nee Toder) visiting relatives in Dusiat
From right to left, standing: The sisters nee Chatzkel, Chaya-Tzipa Slep and Freidl Levitt (holding her daughter Teibele)
Seated: Itale Orlin (on the right), Berta Levitt, Henia Slep and her brother Yehuda

Miryam Slep: I remember Berta visiting us. Berta was a very jovial woman, and she expressed regret that the reciprocal visits were so rare.

I always dreamed of making aliya to Eretz Yisrael, and in the time of the Stalinist terror I was afraid that any kind of contact with Eretz Yisrael would place obstacles in my path, and so I stopped writing.

I was instilled with my love for Eretz Yisrael in my childhood. I was a member of Betar [youth movement] and I remember the beating I received when I was ten years old. This occurred following Chaim Arlozorov's assassination. I was walking on the street when members of the Socialist Zionists saw me and beat me. Why? The accepted theory was that the Betarists had killed Arlozorov. I was ten or eleven years old, and I knew all the details of the trial. I remember the Zionist-Revisionist Journalist Abba Ahimeir's lectures in Ponivezh very well. He stayed in a hotel, and I kept guard outside.

 

 
The Zionist-Revisionist Center in Lithuania

 

From those days I remember the clashes with the members of Hashomer Hatzair in Ponivezh, among them was Yitzchak Poritz from Dusiat.

I was aware of what was happening in Eretz Yisrael, and despite the distance of thousands of kilometers, I felt involved. When I made aliya to Eretz Yisrael (1971), I didn't come to an unfamiliar country. I knew exactly where Beer Sheva and Hevron were, and I recognized Kever Rachel [Rachel's Tomb]. And when I went to see HaKotel HaMa'aravi [Western Wall] for the first time, the route was familiar to me…

I remember Shmuel Shilansky, who was my teacher in the Hebrew Gymnasium in Ponivezh. He was a Zionist in heart and soul, and even though he was a mathematics and physics teacher he didn't omit Zionism in these lessons. When he returned from a visit to New York he brought back a technological wonder: a paper record. He played the record, which was played with a wooden needle, for us over and over again, and explained the “wonder” to us. To this day I remember his words, which were recorded while he was standing at the top of the Empire State Building: “I am standing on top of the tallest building in the world and looking down, where the people look like ants and the cars like flies, and in that same moment I recall that 'Am Yisrael Chai! Am Yisrael Chai!' (The Jewish people will live forever).” “I am standing on top of the tallest building in the world…” – he would continue in the classroom and accompany the record with his special voice: “Am Yisrael Chai! Am Yisrael Chai!”…

When Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union it was forbidden to teach in Hebrew and they went over to teaching in Yiddish. I recall the first day, when the teacher Shilansky entered the classroom; he stood in front of us for a moment and turned aside. I knew that his tongue was sticking to his palate and that he was choked up with tears. How could he speak Yiddish? How could he teach in Yiddish? He had fought against it so strongly! Later on he found the opportunity to talk to us about that moment. When the edict to destroy the Hebrew library came out, I “stole” books from school and hid them in our house. One of the teachers was frightened and he threatened me. I came and told Shilansky. I remember him saying to me: “What can we do?” I went and returned some of the books.

Far Away in Russia I Dreamed of Eretz Yisrael

In September 1941 I was with a large group of refugees in a boat on the Volga, when suddenly I saw a bearded man wrapped in a prayer shawl, standing and praying “Shemoneh Esrai[2]. I waited for him to finish and then asked: “What day is today?” He replied “Shemini Atzeret” [the 8th day of Succoth]. I remember that this impressed me greatly! It was the first time in my life that I was not with my family on a holiday. I was in some remote place in Russia, in a boat on the Volga, and all around me were darkness and gloom! War!!! And here stood a Jew, one of the Jews like those with whom I had grown up, and he was continuing to pray…

It was such a weird picture. The world was continuing…

I also remember Yom Kippur in Central Asia. The atmosphere and prayers in the Bukharian synagogue were so different from what I had known at home.

After many wanderings I reached Kirov, north of Gorky. Later on I went to Central Asia, where many refugees were living, and I wandered among them searching for relatives. I hoped for a miracle, that I might perhaps find my parents.

At the height of the war my aunts Chana Hadkov [Toder] and Hodl Kaganowitz [Toder], my mother's sisters, located me in Russia. After World War I, during the time of famine in Russia, my family used to send my aunts packages to Gorky, 20 Communistitzkasya St. I loved to write this address in Cyrillic letters, and I knew my aunts' names from then. And now we began corresponding again. When I learned that my aunt Chana was ill I suggested to her sons that they ask for help from my sister Lucy in Brazil, asking her to send medicine. Chana's sons refused adamantly, saying: “No way will we ask for medicine from outside, and certainly not from Brazil!” Chana passed away in 1951. I was studying to be a dental technician at the time, and used the money she bequeathed me.

I was drafted into the Red Army. I was a lathe operator by profession, a necessary trade in the army, but because I was a Jew and a Lithuanian they didn't trust me and didn't send me to the front, but to a labor brigade. I was a manager in the coalmines in Krasnojarsk.

I was away from Jews for a long time, and I think that I didn't know when Passover fell. But I was always accompanied by the dream of Eretz Yisrael. When I went to sleep hungry, I used to dream about Eretz Yisrael, about my friends and the kibbutzim. I used to think about Arlozorov and Jabotinsky. When I encountered Jews, we also talked about our national home and the Hebrew language… We dreamed about a Jewish police force... At every opportunity, even among Russian soldiers or officers, I used to talk about “the Jewish state” and tell them about the existence of Eretz Yisrael and the living Hebrew language. More than once it happened that one of the Russian officers would secretly reveal himself to be a Jew, and together we would talk about the dream of Eretz Yisrael.

My Former “Beth Abba” (Parental Home)

I absorbed Zionism at school and in the Betar movement more than at home. My father was not opposed to Zionism and I remember that he helped many pioneers, but I assume that since he was already a father he didn't think about aliya to Eretz Yisrael, which was intended only for the young…

My father was a respected person in Ponivezh and did a lot for others. He established a synagogue in the city, founded a Hevrat Tehillim [Psalms Society] there, and was one of the people involved in the establishment of the Yavneh Gymnasium. My father was wholeheartedly involved in the life of the community. He never ate regular meals; even if he came home for a meal, people would come and bother him about public matters.

Our home was a traditional one: prayers at the synagogue and putting on phylacteries. My mother strictly followed all the rules and regulations. My mother was a very intelligent woman. She read books, went to the theater, spoke German and Russian and a very little Hebrew. She dressed in the height of fashion and used to go to vacation sites. My mother liked to be in the company of famous people and to keep in touch with them. She had special ties with Rabbi Kahanman, the head of the Ponivezh Yeshiva, whom she used to ask for advice and to whose wisdom she listened. I still keep in touch with his son Avraham.

 

 
Avraham Levitt with his parents
Moshe and Berta (nee Toder)

 

My paternal grandparents, Meir-Yosef and Sara-Gittel Levitt, lived with us. My grandfather was a ritual slaughterer. People respected and praised him. My mother derived great satisfaction from this pedigree, and so did I. I made certain to introduce myself as the grandson of Meir-Yossl the ritual slaughterer…

Lucy Zilberman (Levitt): I bear the name that my mother wanted to give me: “Lessl”, but later on I learned that my father had decided otherwise, and in the synagogue he gave me a different name – perhaps a name with a pedigree – and hid this fact from my mother?

I graduated from the Hebrew Gymnasium in Ponivezh. In 1935 I traveled to my uncle Zvi Levitt in Brazil, there I married Israel Zilberman, a native of Odessa, and there we set up our home.

Lola Levov (Gurwitz): Lucy was the first relative I encountered after the war. I am the only one of my family who survived. My parents, Yosef and Vera (Vichka nee Toder) Gurwitz, and my sister Fania (Zelde-Feige) perished in the Dvinsk [Daugavpils] ghetto. My friend helped me search for relatives, and I located Lucy in Brazil. It was so important to us, the survivors, to be with relatives, that I traveled all the way to Brazil to meet with her.

 

Footnotes
  1. Fifteenth day of Shvat, New Year of the Trees. Return
  2. The prayer par excellence, consisting of 18 blessings, hence the name Shemoneh-Esra . Return

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