A Pit beneath the Bed
Josef and Aviva Gilis
From Smuggled in Potato Sacks
Fifty Stories of the Hidden Children of the Kaunas Ghetto
and Yakov Zilberg
Girsh Gilis, a jeweller and watchmaker, and Chana, née Levner, a housewife, had three sons: Peisah (1926), Izya (1928) and myself, in August 1938. When my mother was pregnant with me, she was prepared to have an abortion, but her brothers intervened, ‘Don’t do that, he’ll bring you good luck!’
My paternal grandfather, Peisah, had been a jeweller and watchmaker in Kretinga. After his death my grandmother (I do not even know her name) had taken over the business and with the help of her sons made a success of it. One of her local customers had often taken items from my grandmother to sell for her. Not long before the war she stopped trading with him, because he had begun to keep the money for the goods entrusted to him. He blackmailed her, but my grandmother was adamant: she stuck to her guns and would not give him anything else. According to eye-witness accounts, after the German invasion, this man came to my grandmother’s shop, beat her and took her to the place where Jews were being killed. There he buried her alive.
Our family owned a plot of land near Kaunas. A Russian Old Believer, Konstantin Samokhin, asked my grandfather, Moshe Levner, to sell him the plot adjacent to his own land. Grandfather refused, which made Samokhin very angry. As he left he said, ‘You’ll live to regret this.’ On the second day of the war my grandfather, my uncle and father were all at home. When he saw Samokhin with Germans out in the yard, my father ran off and hid on the landing of a neighbour’s house. The mistress of that house realized that my father was hiding from the Germans and drove him out, shouting as she did so. The Germans caught my father, took him back into his own house, found my grandfather and uncle as well, and led them all off to Fort Seven, where they were shot. As soon as the Germans left, some Lithuanian neighbours broke into the house and stole everything they could take.
Another uncle, Henekh Levner, was a strong imposing man and could turn his hand to anything. He was also a very fine 3584 VM Smuggled in Potato 25/8/10 9:59 AM Page 289 cook; the commandant of the ghetto took him on to work as his family’s cook. During the ‘Great Action’ my mother was sent to the Ninth Fort. Henekh came out looking for us, running round shouting and calling for my mother, but could not find her. He realized that things were looking very bad. Trembling with fear, he rushed to the Gestapo officer Rauca. Henekh beseeched him, lying that his own wife and children had been sent to Fort Nine and begging Rauca not to send them there. Rauca said, ‘Fetch them back. Take a Lithuanian policeman with you and look for her.’ Henekh turned to one of the Lithuanian policemen, promising that he would pay him fifty marks for his trouble.
They began looking for my mother in the long column of people, running about like lunatics, calling out, and asking people if they had seen her. Mother was half-stunned by everything going on around her. In her hand she held a little bag in which she had been keeping her money and valuables ‘for a rainy day’: she did not realize that day had already dawned. When Henekh eventually found her, he grabbed this bag from her hands and gave it to the Lithuanian policeman. This made my mother very angry, she had no idea that the money had been used to buy her own and her children’s lives back.
As early as the age of 3 I began to understand what was going on around me and to remember it all. The first thing I remember is how I spent all my time in the bed of my grandmother Simha; she had ten children and they were all in the ghetto. The children often used to visit her, bringing her an apple or a piece of bread. She did not eat what they brought but fed it to me. Only when I was no longer hungry did she eat what was left over. Grandmother Simha eventually died in the ghetto.
My mother, uncles and aunts would go out to work every day into the town. My eldest brother, Peisah, was employed by the Germans as a driver. He offered our mother the opportunity to drive us all out of the ghetto, but she refused.
During the ‘Children’s Action’ I was hidden first in the attic under the broken tiled roof. A few hours later I was taken into a pit that had been dug out in the room, where my uncle Meir Levner lived. To get into the pit, we had to pull out the drawer containing bed linen from under the divan, remove its plywood base and then, under that, open up the small door in the floor and climb down into the pit. The pit was cramped, with a very low roof and it was cold. I sat there with my mother and cousin, Edik Levner. Mother made sure that we did not make any noise.
The pit was only a metre square and there was not enough air; a pipe was fixed up leading out of the pit, through which we took it in turns to breathe air. Each person felt they had to wait too long until it was his or her turn. After a few hours we heard Germans come in looking for children. They asked Uncle Meir whether he was hiding any children, saying that if they found them, he and everybody else would be shot. Down in the pit we heard someone open up the base of the divan and start throwing out the bed linen. According to Uncle Meir, who had been standing in the room, numb with fear, the policeman accompanying the Germans did not bother to lift up the plywood base of the divan and informed the Germans that there was no one hiding in it. We remained in the pit for two days. All we had to eat or drink was water and a little bread. Things calmed down in the ghetto by the third day and people started being led out to their work places once again. What could still be heard however was the heart-rending cries of those whose children had been taken off. Uncle Meir took my mother and me back to our flat. The neighbour from the adjacent room, a shoemaker, caught sight of me, safe and sound, and began shouting and screaming, ‘How can that be? They killed my daughter and he’s still alive!’ He went straight to the Gestapo to complain.
As soon as the neighbour had left, my mother took me back to Uncle Meir, who in his turn, ran over to his sister Riva. Her husband, Zalman Baikovich, was in charge of the ghetto’s food store. Zalman used to send a cart out of the ghetto into the town with empty barrels and sacks on it, which would then be brought back containing food. Uncle Meir got in touch with a ‘kind’ SS officer, whom he knew well and paid him 20,000 marks, just to make sure that the next day when the cart would be driven up to the gate by its Jewish driver Lourie, he would sit on the open floor of the cart, where I would be hidden, to ensure that no problems arose at the gate. A Lithuanian woman would be waiting in the town on a deserted street to take charge of me.
Early in the morning of the following day, I had to curl up and be placed in a large bag, which was then locked, but a crack was left open, so that I should not suffocate. The bag was taken over to Baikovich’s house. It would have been dangerous to actually take me into the house, because Baikovich’s daughter Shulamith was hiding there. I was taken out of the bag and placed in an empty sack, which was left two metres from the house where there were some empty barrels. I lay there for four hours without moving, gripped by horrible fear. I could hear the steps and voices of the nearby Germans. When the cart drew up, empty barrels were loaded on to it and the sack with me in it was stowed in one of them.
Lourie, the cart driver, was sitting on a high seat. He placed his feet in the barrel that contained the sack with me in it. The German sat down on the floor of the cart and we all drove out of the ghetto without any problems. Miss Balchinaite, as arranged, met us. She lifted me out of the sack where I had been lying curled up. It was several hours before I could stand upright again. I was all of five and a half.
Meir himself managed to escape, but my uncle Chaim Levner, who served in the Jewish ghetto police, was shot later on for refusing to help the Nazis carry out another of their round-ups.