As retold by Jacob in Mir Veln Lebn
This is one of the thousands and thousands of real miracles that happened with each one of us, the survivors. Wisdom, strength, and careful plans were not able to save us from the animal's teeth and nails. Sometimes daring helped, as well as courage, nimbleness, and a little bit of luck. What we call predestination or fate seemed to help us at times. On the other hand, sometimes it could more quickly and more painfully lead to the end, to death. This is what actually happened to me.
It began the same way as with all Jews of Kovno under German rule. From the street, they caught my husband, David Liachberg. They dragged him to the Seventh Fort, and in the end, he perished in imprisonment. I, with my child, a little girl, remained alone. We wandered around until we fell into the hands of the Lithuanian shaulistai [a Lithuanian group that did most of the killing of the Jews] and were brought to the Kovno Seventh Fort. Eventually, they allowed a few women to leave, and I was able to return to my home. It had already been robbed and destroyed. The little baby, however, was spared further pain and suffering; its pure young soul left it as a flame leaves a candle, and the child expired in my arms. Worn out from undernourishment and stomach typhoid, I lost my girl. Her name was Mariasha.
Now I was lonesome and alone. I clung to my brother Yisroel and his family, a wife and two grown children. Together we were driven to the Kovno ghetto. Together we lived, we ate, and we starved. My brother was a quiet, unassuming person. He wasn't one of the grabbers, runners, or hust1ers in the ghetto, so the entire burden of exchanging various household items for food fell on me, the great heroine that I am. I had to drag heavy loads on my shoulders after a difficult, tiring workday, to smuggle food and wood into the ghetto, and to continuously risk my life. But nothing was too difficult for me. I still had my brother and his family. I wasn't so lonesome or alone. In that
time, we already knew that all the Jews in the towns were destroyed. I had almost no hope that my father, mother, and three sisters and their husbands and children, in Abel, should still be alive.
The ghetto life in general was dark and sorrowful. However, the life of a woman who was all by herself was hundreds of times more difficult and darker than the life of the others. Such a woman, without a family, was sent to the most difficult work in the worst conditions and was likely to be sent away from the ghetto to the worst concentration camps. There was no one that could defend such a woman. And so it was with me.
After I was in the ghetto for a few years, I was wrecked by the harsh work at the Kovno airport and elsewhere. They took me with a group of women, led us out of Kovno, and sent us to work camps-at first to Ponevezh and later to Siauliai. The Kovno ghetto was a Garden of Eden compared to the other ghettos. But what could I do?
So, for many months, our bitter slave life continued in Lithuania, until the 18th ofJuly, 1944. We were dragged from the Keidan camp to Germany, to the notorious death camp Stutthof, near Danzig, at the same time that the Germans were losing their positions, one after another, and the Russians kept on approaching. The Kovno ghetto was liquidated. My brother Yisroel and his family-his wife, Tsileh, and the children-remained hidden underground in a bunker in the ghetto. Like a few thousand other hidden Jews, they were destined to perish in fire and smoke, when the German, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Ukrainian murderers blew up and burned the homes in the ghetto, with the people still inside.
In Stutthof, the Germans again sorted us and divided us, selecting who went to the gas chambers and crematoriums, who to their death by starvation, who to be tortured in the work camps. I was still healthy enough. I looked as though they could still draw out from me a little bit of work power. I fell in with a group of women to dig trenches and underground bunkers. This was in the neighborhood of Danzig. We were five hundred women there. We were half naked even in the wintertime, without underwear, without coats or in thin, torn coats, in wooden shoes. The frosty, cold winds by the edge of the Baltic Sea were terrible, unbearable. We were frozen, soaked, and drenched both by day
and at night, living in the cold barns and the thin tents and, in addition to this, hungry (oh, how hungry) and beaten to death by the German guards and work supervisors.
1he entire winter, we were driven to such difficult and exhausting work. Every group of six women was forced to dig out a ditch of a certain length, width, and depth each day, to smooth out the walls, pour away the earth-and woe to those who couldn't or didn't manage to do it! Until late at night, they would be forced to remain at work with the last of their strength. Murderous blows and lashes would pour on them from all sides, until they would fall in a faint, half dead. With the last of my energies, until I almost broke down, I would strain myself to work, in order not to delay and not to catch any unnecessary beatings. I don't know myself--we can't understand it at all now-from where I had the strength to bear all this. And many women, actually, couldn't take it. They remained there forever, expired from hunger, cold, weakness, or fallen down from a bullet or from murderous blows.
Day after day, we heard shots from the front lines. 1he Russians were approaching. 1hey kept on chasing us further and further, deeper into Germany. There are no words to describe the heartlessness, the cruelty, of the German chasers. They chased us about twenty-five to thirty kilometers a day. Our energy was wearing out. On the way, scores of the women stopped, and they were immediately shot or gathered together as garbage and carried to the so-called death sanatoriums, the death camps. Here they were injected with poisons. In our group of five hundred, there remained not more than a hundred to a hundred and twenty women. Our pieces of bread stopped coming. We didn't get any food. We gathered whatever we could on the way. From the frozen gardens, we took rotted beets, cabbage, and potatoes to eat.
Many of us fell from weakness and sickness. I felt that I also wouldn't be able to stay much longer. I already saw the end: how I would lie without strength on the road, and then I would be shot by the murderers or carried away to a death camp. And then such a sharp feeling, such a strong striving to life, would start in my heart. I still wanted to live! I still wanted to see freedom, even for a while!To look at the final defeat that's coming to our heartless enemies and which is already so near, so near! An understandable boldness and daring suddenly awakened within me.
I spoke to my friend Hene Alzfein, and we both decided to escape. To escape, to tear ourselves from the murderous hands. To attempt to save ourselves, not to wait until there wasn't any more energy.
We heard that we were being driven to a place by the name of Auschwitz. There, they said, is a large concentration camp, and there they were driving all the remaining Jews of the area. We, my friend and I, decided not to wait anymore. At night, we were driven into a barn to spend the night. And then, when it was already quiet, and the guards turned away a little bit, we snuck out as two shadows from the barn and disappeared in the darkness. We ran the entire night. At every step, we imagined that we were being chased, that we were caught, and they were shooting us, until we found an open barn and hid there.
In fright and with beating hearts, we remained lying in the barn for two days, until starvation, the frightening, gruesome starvation, drove us out to look for a piece of bread. We took courage, rubbed off as much as possible the Jewish signs of our clothing, covering the signs with our kerchiefs, and let ourselves go to the German farmers' homes. In short, we dragged around for a few weeks. We did the most difficult work for the farmers, and for this, we would get something to eat. But they never let us spend the night anywhere. We couldn't show any documents, and our clothing and our appearance were too suspicious. In snow, cold, and wind, we spent the night outside as dogs, worse than dogs.
Finally, we came across a group of German soldiers. They began questioning us, who and what we were, and they were almost ready to hand us over to the Gestapo. Luckily, they got drunk, and then, with miracles, we managed to get out of their hands.
Our despair now reached the highest point. We didn't have anywhere to go. All around were enemies and heartlessness. There was no crumb of hope. Where could we go? Where could we hide? In such a moment of despair, we decided to take a daring step-a step with which we could pay with our lives in an instant, or perhaps be saved. We put everything in jeopardy.
We came to the nearest city. We found the mayor and his living quarters, and in broken German, I told him that I and my friend were Lithuanian women. We were brought out of Lithuania to Germany to do work, and until not long ago, we worked on a farm where the great
battles were now taking place. During one of the bombings, our master was killed. The home, with everyone and all our documents in it, was burned. Barely alive, we escaped from those places arid from the Russians, and now we didn't have anywhere to go. We didn't have strength to run any further. Also, we wished to get from the mayor temporary documents, bread cards, a place to sleep and also to work. Yes, our names. My name is Jadviga, and my friend, her name is Helena, we told him. Yes, we are Lithuanians from Kovno. It's over a year that we are in Germany.
I don't know whether the merits of our fathers supported us here, whether God sent an angel on this way, or whether he believed us, because of the thousands and thousands of Germans and their workers who really were running away from the Russians and turning up with such requests. The miracle was that without any long questions and answers, they wrote out for us precious papers with kosher non-Jewish names and gave us work and food in a kosher German hospital. At first, I didn't believe my eyes and ears. Here I'm getting not just enough bread to eat, but something else in addition to it. Here I'm working in a hospital, blue-collar work, with scores of other, Russian women. Here I have a corner in the camp of a thousand foreign work slaves (not Jews) who aren't being shot. These are Russians, Poles, and Lithuanians.
But here, accidentally, my Russian friend told me, not long ago, they recognized a Jewish woman in the camp, and the Germans immediately took her out and shot her. My heart within me was crying and mourning, but outwardly, I remained cold and calm and continued playing the role of a Lithuanian woman who just barely knows a few German words. So it went on for a few months, and every day appeared as an eternity as I played my difficult and doubtful role.
Let's just bear it; let's just bear it, I would say once in a while in
few secret words to my friend, Helena. Let's remain calm, with strong nerves and a healthy head. Just don't slip; don't make a mistake accidentally with a word, with a joke.
All of a sudden, in the middle of the night, our camp was awakened, and we were commanded to go on the road. Ivan-the Russians-they tell us, is very near, and we must retreat from here as quickly as possible. We were chased more than forty kilometers, and on the way, we again
escaped. This time, it was me and Helena and three Russian women we had befriended. I, Jadviga, or the one that knows German, became the factual leader of the group. I myself didn't know from where I had the unusual energy, courage, and leadership abilities. We wanted to escape from the Germans, and so I led my group in the opposite direction, into the Russians.
At the end, we came to a village and a wealthy nobleman's estate, about fifteen kilometers from Danzig. The entire area was encircled and ringed in by the Russian army, and nonstop, bloody battles were continuing between the Russians and the Germans. Nonstop bullets were going over our heads. Grenades and bombs were blowing up at every step. We almost perished in the frightening fire attack. Luckily, we found an open cellar in the deserted, half-destroyed nobleman's estate, and we crawled in there. The village was full of bitter, battling German soldiers. All of a sudden, after a terrible firestorm, the Russians tore in. The Russians were pushed back again, and so three times the place went from one hand to the other.
We lay hidden in the cellar with many local inhabitants. All of a sudden, we felt that the house and cellar were in flames. Pieces of burning wood fell from above. The door was burning, and it was full of smoke. We ran to the only exit, to the little cellar windows. I succeeded in crawling out. In tumult and panic, I lost my friend, Helena. I looked for her. I called. She wasn't there. All the while, the hail of bullets and cannon firing didn't stop for a second. There's no more Helena, I thought. She was killed in the cellar, like the others who didn't manage to crawl out. I remained with two of my Russian friends. We hid in a hole in the ground, in a type of bunker, and all around us was burning and cannon fire, bullets hailing and bombs splintering, and I, a lonely Jewish woman, was still in the clutches of the German soldiers and SS people.
What is there to say? I can't describe it in words to an outsider, who didn't experience this and feel this. And I can't grasp what I then experienced in the few last and most frightening days, as long as the Germans still ruled this place. We, the country people, were again being driven to work, to clean and cook for the German soldiers. But not for much longer would they manage around there.
One day, it actually happened. In the evening, while we prepared
supper and baked food for the officers, the Russians renewed their offensive. They carried out a daring, stormy attack, and a little while later, the Germans were running without direction, confused and frightened. They were already spared from eating their food, but they also forced us to run. But I and my Russian friends sneaked away from them at the last moment and disappeared. From far away, we heard them calling us, threatening to capture us, but we were already lying hidden in a stable under hay and garbage, shivering with the fear that they might find us at the last moment and shoot us.
So we lay the entire night in fright and despair, under the direct fire of both the Russian and German cannons, not knowing who was winning. In the morning, after such a long and noisy bombardment, it became deathly quiet. And the quiet scared us again. We didn't know what the meaning of it was. We were afraid to stick out our noses and take a look. Maybe we'd again fall into the hands of the Germans. But all of a sudden, we heard a distant shouting in Russian. Go out, go out; don't be afraid!
We and scores in addition to us jumped out of the hiding places. We were encircled by Russian soldiers, and we were liberated after four years of slavery, torture, and slaughter. We were no more in the murderers' hands. I was one of the lucky ones, in other words. Lived until the liberation. Lived to see the defeat of the German murdering nation, the defeat of our destroyers. This was the 18th of March, 1945.
What more is there to relate? I tore myself away with all my energy to go home as quickly as possible to Lithuania. I still hoped that maybe a miracle had happened. Maybe someone remained alive of my family, of my own. And then, there I was again in my city of birth, in Abel. In the nearby city ofRakishok, I inquired and searched, but my hopes were in vain. There were no Jews there. Everyone was dead, perished.
And there, somewhere in the mass graves, scattered about without a human burial, were resting my father and mother, Yehoshua and Ita Leah; my sisters, Chaya, Chana, and Henne; their husbands and children and more and more of my own relatives and friends. What should I, the only one who remained alive of the family, do there, on the graves in the Jewish cemetery? Could I live there? Remain longer? I
cried very much on the great paternal grave and ran further. And here I am, running; I'm still running.
So related Golda Chaitovitz, a woman who came from Abel Lithuania. She, like her deceased family members, was my former good acquaintance. She alone remained of her large, many-branched family, just as I did. We met at a meeting of the Kovno survivors. This was predestined. We were married. She is now my wife. She is the mother of our newborn child.
Joshua is the name of the child-Joshua, which was the name of his grandfather. Joshua was the scholar, the one who sacrificed himself for the Almighty, there on the road between Abel and Rakishok, in Lithuania. And this is the name of his grandson, who was born after the destruction of the generations; he is the bearer of the new, upcoming Jewish generations. Yehoshua, Joshua-the meaning of this is the help of the Almighty. The child should grow up. He should be a healthy, honest person; a fine person and a good Jew. Not worse than his grandfather, the holy person after whom he is named, one of the many Jewish holy ones and pure ones.
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