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Through the Eyes of a Child
– My Childhood in Lyntupy

By Irene Mauber Skibinski (July-August 2005)

Dedicated to the Mauber Family of Lyntupy by daughter and sister

Photographs contributed by Irene Mauber Skibinski

I was a late and unexpected arrival, a little girl born into a family of four boys. The youngest boy was four years old, and the rest of the brothers were in their teens. I was born five years before the war came to Belarus in 1941. Who could have predicted that the little girl would be the sole survivor of a family of seven?

My mother came from a large family. To the best of my recollection, she had two sisters and three brothers and numerous uncles, aunts and cousins. The painful part is that I do not remember the names. My mother's brother Yitskhak lived in Postavy with his wife Resil and three children, Yakov, Leyb and Sonia. Sonia was my favorite cousin; she was a beautiful young lady and I looked up to her. Two of my mother's sisters left Lyntupy when my mother was young; they found themselves separated from the family by the border between Poland and the Soviet Union. After the eastern part of Poland became Belarus, a contact was established with one of my aunts who lived in Gomel. Her son, Garrik Bari (possibly a stage name), who was the artistic director of the Belarus State Philharmonic Chorus, had visited us right before the war began. One of my mother's brothers lived in Kovno; he had a wife and two sons. Our favorite uncle was Abram Strachanski, Uncle Abba as we used to call him. He was single and he treated his sister's children as his own.

On my father's side, I remember my grandmother Pesia. My father's brother Moyshe, his wife Rokhl and their children Esther, Hirsh and Zalman also lived in Lyntupy.


lyn001.jpg
The Strachanski Family, Postavy, 1936

 

lyn002.jpg
Abram Strachanski

 

lyn003.jpg
Abram Strachanski is seated in the front row, second from the right

 

lyn004.jpg Berta Strachanski
Berta Strachanski
She participated in the Drama Club, and appears in the photograph of the club found in Mordekhai Kentsianski's account, “My Shtetl.”

 

lyn005.jpg
Strachanski Family in Kovno

 

I liked to listen to the story of how my father and mother met. My parents, Yudel Mauber and Elizabeth (Leah) Strachanski, met at a dance in Lyntupy, fell in love, and got married.

My parents' marriage was a “mismatch” according to the social standards: the educated son of a doctor marrying the daughter of a blacksmith. My mother's energy and natural talent for business made up for her lack of education. It was a good match because my parents complemented each other. My mother became the driving force behind the family's success. They started from scratch and, in a couple of years, developed their own timber business.

 

lyn006.jpg
Yudel Mauber at work

 

I remember our house. One side was formal, for guests and special occasions, and the other side was for children, always full of young people. In the middle, there was a kitchen and an informal dining room. We had a housekeeper, Amelia, who had been with our family for 20 years, and a nanny who was hired when I was born and stayed with us until I was three years old. My father liked to play volleyball with his sons and their friends. Quite often, in the evenings, he would play his guitar on the veranda. I also remember more quiet moments when my father prayed.

In 1939, the Red Army occupied the western part of Belarus. My parents lost their business. Somehow, thanks to my mother's energy and resourcefulness, the house remained the property of the family. Her instinct for survival was emerging. Jobs were found and the young people found ways to go on. My three older brothers, Liepe, Monya and Meilach, participated in the Drama Club.

My youngest brother Boris was very talented. He loved the stage, drama and dance, and was sent to Minsk to take part in a talent show. I enjoyed seeing my brothers on the stage and I clapped my hands harder than anyone else.

 

Irene and Boris Mauber Liepe Mauber in his student uniform

 

The War

I vividly remember the day of June 22, 1941. It was a sunny day. I looked at the sky and noticed a “silver” bird flying over the town. I pointed out the bird to our housekeeper, but before I finished my sentence, a huge cloud of black smoke rose over the town and the sun disappeared. The war had begun.

My memory is visual and fragmented. These fragments were pieced together later with the help of my mother. My three older brothers, my uncle Abba Strachanski, and a group of other young people decided to leave the town immediately and follow the retreating Red Army. My father, mother, younger brother Boris, and I stayed in Lyntupy. Our housekeeper Amelia lived with us and did not want to leave until my mother told her it was becoming too dangerous for her to stay with us. She left for Svenciany to go to her sister.

Immediately the local people who hated Jews formed their own police force and started collaborating with the Germans. The Jewish adults were forced to go to a day labor camp. One day I was left at home alone with an older girl. My parents locked the house. We were trying to play when, all of sudden, we heard a loud noise, the door flew wide open, and a group of men with rifles burst into the house. They started running through the house, smashing mirrors, taking everything they could possibly take, leaving empty rooms and two little girls hiding in the corner.

Then, I believe it was at the end of November, they came again. This time they came to take my father away from us. I was in bed when my father came to say goodbye to me and hugged me close to his heart. They sent him and his brother, my Uncle Moshe, to jail in Vileyka. My mother started looking for a way to save their lives. She collected some valuables and went to Vileyka, where she managed to see the head of the German gendarmerie. She was fluent in German and begged for the release of my father and uncle. He took the valuables and made promises. The next day, on December 13, 1941, my father and uncle were executed.

Soon the ghetto was formed and Jews were forced to wear yellow stars. We remained in our house, and four or five other families were forced to move in with us. Unfortunately I do not remember their names. Meanwhile my oldest brother Liepe, who had become separated from the group and lost his way, decided to come back and join us in the Lyntupy ghetto.

I cannot remember exactly at what point it was announced that most of the ghetto population would be transported to Svenciany. Only some families, those considered to be useful for the labor camp workforce, would be allowed to remain in Lyntupy. Since Liepe had studied electrical engineering, they decided to use him at the power station, and we stayed with him. We had to move to a building right in the center of the town.

 

lyn009.jpg
Ilana Milikovski Hochbaum, Lyntupy 1993

 

Several families had to share one room. I remember we had a corner of the room right by a huge window. Nearby were two other houses occupied by Jewish families, thus forming a “mini” ghetto.

Food was scarce and there was no medication. My little brother Boris, who was so jealous of me during the happy times, forgot what sibling rivalry meant and became my protector. He used to sneak out of the ghetto to get food and also ointment for the rashes I developed due to the dirty conditions.

We had relatives in Postavy and my mother decided to send me to my Aunt Resil (Rashe) Strachanski, who was a dressmaker and was getting food for her work. My mother found a villager who agreed to take me there. There was one other family who left Lyntupy for Postavy, Ruven and Khanah Milikovski and their two daughters, Renya and Lena.

I do not remember how long I stayed with my aunt. My mother told me that while I was in Postavy, she dreamed that my grandmother came to her and urged her to bring me home, so my mother decided to bring me back to Lyntupy. At the same time, Basya Rudnitski, the aunt of the Milikovski sisters, also decided to bring the girls back to Lyntupy. Shortly after we returned to Lyntupy, the Postavy ghetto was liquidated.

 

lyn010.jpg
Memorial in Postavy

The writing on the memorial says:
In memory of those who perished at the hands of
the German-Fascist invaders on November 21, 1942




lun011.jpg Memorial in Postavy
Memorial in Postavy
(another view)

 

One day, very early in the morning, my mother woke me up. Through the window, I noticed that the sky was pink. My mother told me there was gunfire and something was burning. When I came closer to the window, I saw a “live fence” surrounding our three ghetto houses. The “fence” was formed by Lithuanians holding their rifles and pointing them at us. Three Lithuanians walked in, found my older brother, and told him to follow them.

They went outside. My mother pulled me away from the window and pushed me behind her. Shots were fired. Some people who witnessed it told us that my brother was wounded and managed to get to the other house. The Lithuanians followed him, again told him to leave the house, and shot him. They say my brother's brain was scattered in the street. The people around us were in shock. My mother grabbed me and was frantically looking for my younger brother. She could not find him. My brother Boris used to tell my mother not to worry about him. He would say, “When they take us to the execution place, they will aim at the adults. I am little, I will pretend I am dead, and then I will escape.”

My mother ran into the kitchen and opened a hatch in the floor that led to the cellar. First she dropped me into the cellar and then she followed me. Other people in the room did not want to hide in the cellar because they thought the Lithuanians would find us anyway. Even so, those who were so skeptical placed cut wood on top of the hatch to hide the entrance to the cellar. We heard what seemed to be millions of footsteps and shouts, and then we heard people leaving the building. Later we heard the sounds of hammers, when they sealed all the doors tight. Then all was quiet.

I do not know how long we sat there, but it was very late at night when my mother told me that we had to get out. I did not want to leave the cellar, because I thought I was safe there. It was not easy to lift the hatch with the heavy load of wood on top of it. There was a woman hiding under a mattress in the room. She heard us and came to help but refused to follow us.

We could not get out through the door; it was nailed shut. We ran to the window. It was a huge window, sealed for the winter, but part of it was designed to open to let in fresh air. My mother crawled through the window and fell on the ice. She lost her shoes on the way. She pulled me out and we ran. People were peeking through windows and quickly hiding behind the curtains. My mother ran to the local priest, whose name was Father Pakalnis. We knocked at the door. His housekeeper opened the door and told us to leave immediately, but Father Pakalnis overheard our voices and asked us to come in. He was happy to see us alive. He told my mother he owed his life to her because my mother had protected him from being sent to Siberia by the Russians. He told his housekeeper to take us to the cellar and keep us there until things quieted down.

 

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Ilana Milikovski Hochbaum in front of
the Catholic Church (Kosciol) in Lyntupy

Father Pakalnis lived in one of the houses on the right

 

We stayed in the cellar for about ten days. A young woman used to come and visit with the housekeeper and bring her up to date on everything that was happening. It was not a deep cellar, so we could hear everything. One day the woman told the story about my little brother Boris. He did exactly what he used to tell my mother. When the firing squad started shooting, he pretended he was dead. When the squad of Lithuanians left, the locals started throwing the bodies into the grave. My little brother Boris asked them to let him go. Some of them were ready to let him go, but one did not. Because of the one who did not, the rest were afraid to object. They called for the Lithuanians to come back. They did and they killed my brother.

It was time for us to leave. Father Pakalnis gave my mother his old boots. We had to find other clothes for me to wear, since it was a small town and people could easily recognize me just from my clothing. My mother always dressed me in the finest clothes she could get. At that time my coat and hat were of a blue color, and my mother wanted me to be less conspicuous.

And so we left. We walked in the snow, and once in a while villagers gave us rides. Most of the villagers knew my family because they had worked for my father, transporting wood from the forest to the processing place at the railroad station. When we asked for shelter, they refused, saying they could not keep us, but they said they would not report us to the police because my parents had treated them well.

With no place to hide, my mother decided to go to the Svenciany ghetto. I do not remember much about life there. We had a corner of the floor in a very crowded room. There was no food. Our former housekeeper Amelia, who lived in Svenciany with her sister, found out we were in the ghetto. She started bringing bread whenever she could and passing it to us through barbed wire.

I believe we stayed in the Svenciany ghetto for a couple of months or so. Then the news came that the Jews in the ghetto would be transported to Vilna and Kovno. My mother got word from the partisans that the whole thing was a big lie and that she should try to escape. I believe this was in April of 1943. There was still snow on the ground. We were loaded into horse-drawn wagons and the procession started the journey to the railroad station in New Svenciany, or as it turned out, the journey to death. We were escorted by Lithuanians with rifles.

It was cold. My mother's thoughts were racing in search of an escape. We were quite close to New Svenciany when she decided to collect money, from people in our wagon and I think from one other wagon, to give to the guards. She suggested that the guards find a place to buy vodka in a village and stop for a rest. When they did exactly that, she asked if she and her little girl could get off the wagon and walk because it was so cold just sitting and waiting. They let us get off.

At first we walked slowly to avoid raising any suspicions. Once we left the whole procession behind us, we started going faster and faster and then we ran until we reached the woods. We hid behind the bushes until the procession of wagons passed by. After about two hours of sitting in the woods, we started walking and tried to stay away from the main road. We knocked at the door of the very first house. It was a beautiful big house that looked like part of an estate. It was a risky decision because who could possibly own a house like that during the war? But something guided us and we did not have many choices available.

A woman opened the door, looked at us, and understood immediately that we were Jewish. She quickly led us to an empty part of the house where honeycombs were stored. She told my mother she would help only because of me, a child who was innocent. She was Polish, her husband was Lithuanian, and therefore she asked us to be very quiet. She did not want him to know what she was doing until she found us another hiding place.

She did find a place for us. She decided to send us to her sister, a single woman, who lived in the village of Gieryntsy, not far from Pabradzie. She gave my mother a couple of gold coins to give to her sister, and she hired a man to take us to Gieryntsy. The sister took us into her house. The problem was that her house was located right in the center of the village, and since the Germans were frequent visitors, she thought it would be a dangerous place for us to stay. Her boyfriend's family lived in a more isolated area. She asked him to take us to his family, and he agreed. His family name was Andrushanets.

While the weather was warm, they kept us in a shed where they stored grain. When it became cold, they brought us into the house and kept us in a loft whose floor was the top of an open kitchen hearth, a combination of stove and open baking oven. We were hidden behind a board. At times, it was very, very hot. It was while we were with the Andrushanets family that my mother decided to go back to the Lyntupy and Svenciany area. She wanted to recover some belongings so that she could give something to the Andrushanets family, to encourage them to keep us longer. It was not the best decision that my mother made.

It was close to the Christmas holidays when she left and started walking towards Svenciany. On her way there, she was approached by Lithuanians riding in a sleigh. They offered her a ride, but she refused. They insisted and took her straight to the police station. They thought she was spying for the partisans. Had they realized she was Jewish, they would have killed her immediately. They interrogated her and decided to keep her in jail until after Christmas Day.

Fortunately for my mother and me, it was a makeshift jail. Most likely, the house had belonged to a Jewish family who owned a store, because the house had two parts—one residential, the other used for the store. The two parts were divided by a wall in which there was a tile stove that provided heat to both sides of the house.

When night fell, my mother started searching for a way out. She noticed that the tiles on the stove were cracked. She started moving the tiles and they came off one by one. She tried very hard to reach the other side of the stove. Her hands were bleeding. When she reached the back of the stove, she pushed hard and part of the stove wall fell, creating an opening.

My mother crawled through the hole in the wall and found herself in the side that had been a store and was not being used as a jail. She ran to the door, which was a French style door with two hooks holding the door closed from the inside. She lifted the hooks and found herself outside. She knew she had to cross the river to reach a safer place. The river was frozen, but as she was getting closer to the other side, she fell into the water. She made it to the shore, ran, and knocked at the window of the first house she saw. It happened to be the house of someone who used to work for my family. They took her in, gave her dry clothes, and hid her.

My mother came back to me, but the Andrushanets family could not keep us any longer. Their daughter had been taken away and sent to a labor camp in Germany. We found ourselves in the forest. Occasionally they would bring us some food, but most of the time, we had to look for potatoes stored for spring in holes dug in the ground. We kept close to the village. We were hungry, and hunger forces you to do things you would normally not do. I had dark blond hair and blue eyes, and could easily pretend to be a gentile.

One day, I went by myself to beg for food. I knocked at the door of the house that was quite close to the woods where my mother was hiding. A woman gave me some bread and asked where my mother was. I told her my mother was not far away. She asked me to come back with my mother when it was dark. We did. They realized we were Jewish, and held a family meeting to discuss whether they would be able to help us. The family decided it was too dangerous. When we were leaving, however, the woman, whose name was Antoniowa, whispered to us to go and hide in a loft in the shed in the backyard.

Antoniowa came to see us the next day and told us that her husband was putting together a kind of shelter in their big barn. The shelter, resembling a dog house, would be hidden under a huge stack of hay. There would be an opening that they could use to pass food to us. Also a rock was removed from the foundation, so we could get out at night. They kept us until springtime. The stack of hay was getting smaller and we had to leave. Antoniowa was trying the best she could to provide us with food. Sometimes it was very difficult because, in addition to the Germans, there were Polish partisans who were as dangerous to Jews as the Germans and Lithuanians.

One day Antoniowa told us that there were two Russians hiding in the forest. The village was helping them and providing them with food and other supplies. The two Russians had built dugouts, the so-called ziemlianki, all over the forest. They were well masked hideouts. You could walk over them and never realize that beneath the piece of earth, on which grass and bushes were growing, there was a shelter. Antoniowa approached them and asked them to help us with a hiding place, but they were very reluctant. She told them she would discourage the villagers from continuing to provide food, and also she reminded them that the front was coming closer and closer, and that we deserved to live.

The Russians provided us with a shelter and shared with us the food they were getting from the village. Gradually we started hearing the sounds of the approaching front, and finally we found ourselves right under the fire of the two sides. The two Russians came to say goodbye and left in a hurry. Antoniowa came running to us and pleaded with us not to leave but to wait. The village was right in the middle of the exchange of fire still going on between the Germans and the Red Army, and she was concerned that we could easily be killed easily after all the effort she made to save our lives.

We were overcome with the burning desire to feel the freedom. We left. We walked towards Pabradzie. The forest was burning on both sides of the road, and we saw boot prints left by the German soldiers. It was a dangerous road to freedom. We made it.

When we saw the first Red Army unit, we felt free. In Pabradzie, we met some Jewish families. We did not stay long, because we were anxious to get to Lyntupy. I remember standing on the outskirts of the town, wearing shabby clothes, and hoping for something good to happen. Part of Lyntupy was destroyed and our house had been burnt down when the front passed through the town. In Lyntupy, we met the few Jews who survived. We met Abram Rein, Basya and Sonia Rudnitski, and their two nieces, the Milikovski sisters. There were a few more.  

 

lyn013.jpg
Ilana Milikovski Hochbaum in front of the Rein-Tsinman House, where all survivors gathered together

 

lyn014.jpg
The Rein-Tsinman house on Marat Kazey (formerly Podbrodskaya) Street in Lyntupy, 1999

 

We went to see Father Pakalinis, the priest who helped us at the moment of extreme danger. My mother did not coach me, she did not have to. I understood quite well I owed my life to him and many other kind people. I buried my face in his kind hands and cried. We visited the mass grave where my two brothers were buried. We did not have even a single photograph of my family members. People who found out about our survival sent us a few pictures of my family.

We lived in Lyntupy for about two years, waiting and hoping that my two wonderful brothers, Monya and Meilach, had survived the war and would come back to us. They never did. We never were able to find out what happened to them. Lyuba Matskin, one of the two Matskin sisters, who went with my brothers in the same group and survived the war, thought that my brothers perished during the heavy bombardment near Smolensk.

 

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The Memorial in Lyntupy

 

We moved to Postavy. My mother wanted me to attend a better school. At school, I had a girlfriend, Manya Yakubovsky. One day, she took me to the far end of her family's backyard and showed me a place covered with cement. It was one of the mass graves where Jews from Postavy ghetto were buried. I thought about my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Sometimes, I think about what my life would have been like… I feel the pain of a terrible, terrible loss.

 

Irene after the war
No smile
Elizabeth and Irene Mauber, 1968
After leaving Poland, we are in Vienna
waiting for visas to the United States

 

In 1969, my mother and I came to the United States. In 1970, I lost my mother to cancer. A family friend said that my mother had one goal in her life, to bring her child to a free country. She fought for it and when she finally did bring her daughter to a free country, it was time for her to go. My mother was a person of extraordinary strength. She was a survivor. With the help of many other kind people, she saved my life.

 

Irene's daughter Liz and grandson
Benjamin at Elizabeth Mauber's grave

(The birth year on the stone, 1889,
is incorrect; it should be 1899)
Benjamin at the grave of his
great-grandmother Elizabeth Strachanski Mauber

 

Unidentified

 

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