Rescued Jewish Children

Tobijas Jafetas

The end of March of 1944 was beautiful and sunny. One morning we got the feeling that bad things were happening around us. The ghetto was surrounded, and security strengthened. Soldiers came to the house nearby. There was noise and screams coming from there. I realised that I needed to hide. I went to the attic where I kept the rabbits, set them free from the cages and hid beneath the grass while closing the door to the stairwell. I sat like that listening very carefully... The noise quieted down in the nearby house, and the soldiers moved to our house. I heard steps in the stairwell and the screaming of a woman in our apartment. After an hour or so you could hear the voices of men near the attic door. They did not open them, but forced it open with a blow. The doors fell on the grass that I was lying under. The rabbits got scared and started running. Somebody came to the attic, walked around looking for people, and poking the grass. I heard them say: “the only things alive are the rabbits, maybe you’d like some?” They left. I was lying motionless. After a good hour or so the voices were no longer heard in the house but I still didn’t move. I realised, I was lucky - the rabbits had saved me. Our Getala was gone. Her mother was walking around like a madwoman. There were practically no children left in the house...
My mother came back home in the evening. She told me that it was too dangerous to stay in the ghetto. At first I had to leave and later she promised to come back. She had already agreed with the people, they would wait for me.
A few days later before going to work, my mother left me the clothes without the Star of David. She told me to come to the Silva factory around noon, and told me in detail how to get there.
It was a sunny day. It seemed to me like a holiday. At the agreed hour, I approached the barbed wire fence. There was no guard close by. He was sitting in the booth at the Varniai gates and did not see me. There were practically no passers-by on the street. I stepped down on the lower wire, pushed the upper one up with one hand and bending over I got through. I crossed to the other side of Panerių street. Slowly, without paying attention to the passers-by, I went on the sidewalk till I reached the short tall fence of the Silva factory. It seemed to me that what I was doing was a joke, a game. I was not afraid but once I approached the factory I did not know what to do next. I was walking next to the fence. Suddenly I heard a male voice over the fence. He was speaking Yiddish: “Hey, boy, would you like to come in?” “Yes”, I answered. The man opened the gates and without asking anything walked me through the courtyard into the boiler room, and told me to sit behind the stove so no one could see me. I did. Time passed very slowly. My mum came. We hugged each other. She was visibly worried, pressed me close to her, saying that she could not go with me now. She needed to get ready, and then she would come but I had to go right now. Everything would be alright.
Soon the man came and said that a woman was waiting for me on the street. These were the last moments my Mum and I were together.
Juozas’ sister Kasya met me on the street. In 1939 she moved to live with the Katinskas family from Druskininkai. Aunt Kasya took my hand and took me to the city. We walked up Jurbarko street, the bridge across the River Neris, and passed by the guards. I saw cousin Onytė come in front of us. We were walking along Daukšos street, near father’s office and house. Aunt Kasya was saying something but I did not hear her. I was interested in looking at the streets, houses which seemed I had seen long ago. We approached Prezidento street. My cousin Lyova with Uncle Lazar Frenkel lived there. We entered their apartment on the third floor. Pranutė Špokaitė, Lyova’s nanny, lived there at the time. She told such nice fairy tales. She used to come to the fence of the ghetto to bring us some food. There were four of us in this apartment: me, Aunt Kasya, Onytė and Pranutė. I was fed and told to be quiet so the neighbours did not hear me. They explained to me that from now on I was Jonas Vaitkevičius, a mute. Those fake documents were brought to me by Father Alminas from Teneniai. Feliksas Vaitkevičius was the husband of my Uncle Juozas Katinskas’ sister Manė. I became one of his children.
The next morning Pranutė combed my hair, and put some makeup on me so my dark skin was not as noticeable. Together with Aunt Kasya and Onytė, we went to the Kaunas railway station. The tickets had been bought in advance. I did not say a word on the train. I sat at the window watching as the images along the roadside changed.
We reached Vilnius. I walked with Aunt Kasya. The city was unfamiliar, not like Kaunas at all, it was foreign to me. We were taken to the flat of the Katinskas family on Kaštonų street to the square four-storey house No. 2. The flat was on the third floor. I was here for the first time. Aunt Masha opened the door. Her black eyes were full of joy. She took me to the bedroom and showed me my bed – on a big hope chest near the stove, next to the bathroom door. There were two beds in the same room, which were my uncle and aunt’s. In the depths of it there was a mirror. There was a dining room, the room of Aunt Kasya and a room for two strangers: a policemen and a student. There was also a dark room. The strangers did not know I was living there, and did not have to know. I had to be quiet and when they were at home I could not walk or talk.
Aunt Masha and Uncle Juozas took me in with open arms. During the day, while the strangers were at work, I used to stay in Aunt Kasya’s room. My uncle gave me a chess board, a chess book, and a pile of interesting books. I would sit at the table, solving chess problems, endgames, and other tasks using the chess book. I read a lot. But after lunch when the strangers came back, I had to go to the bedroom. I used to sit quietly on the hope chest and read.
When the Nazis closed Vilnius University, the Katinskas daughter Onytė went to Šilalė to teach. She taught Lithuanian. My Aunt Masha would not leave the apartment – she was hiding. She was pale and looked ill. Everything was settled by Uncle Juozas and his sister Kasya in the city.
One day Professor Konstantinas Jablonskis visited us. He passed best wishes to me from my Mum and brought me clothes. He said that Mum would soon be with us. Later I discovered that while working in the archive, the professor found the documents of a Polish woman that looked like my Mum and gave her passport to my Mum...
This is how the days passed by, quietly, without anything really happening. Once my aunt told me that the policeman was celebrating his wedding on Sunday. There would be lots of different guests: policemen, SS employees with their ladies. I had to think of where to hide. I tried different hiding places. I tried the closet but there was little air there and it was impossible to lock. Then I got under my aunt’s bed. There was lots of space there, and enough air, but if somebody would bend over and look underneath, they could see me. Finally we found a solution: my aunt rolled up a carpet and stuck it under the bed, so it would block anyone from seeing me.
I had to stay under the bed for a long time, as preparations for the wedding were going on. I hid when the “lady of the house” came to prepare food for the wedding. My aunt cleaned the rooms. In the evening the guests started coming: governors, staff officers and policemen with ladies. Laughter, noise, fun and conversation. They spoke mostly in German. I stayed in my hiding place, sometimes on my back and sometimes on my side. I wanted to bend my legs, but I couldn’t. I had to stay and breathe quietly, as if I was not there at all. The ladies were going into the bedroom, as there was a mirror there. They wanted to put some more makeup on, lipstick or maybe get some fresh air. My aunt was scared that they might suspect something. But the guests were having fun and celebrating. They did not care about me at all. At last the drunk guests and ladies started going home. Everything ended well for the Katinskas family, my saviours and me.
The front was approaching. Uncle Juozas went to his daughter Onytė’s place in Šilalė The policeman made off to the West. The student also disappeared. The Gestapo agents who lived opposite our house on Kaštonų street also vanished. Vilnius was heavily bombarded. My aunt did not manage to get to a safer place with me. The city emptied out. Many houses burned. There were two sisters living opposite the Katinskas flat, in the same stairwell: one was a nun and the other a nurse. They convinced my aunt to hide in nearby St. Jacob’s Church where many residents from nearby where hiding. We went there as well.
There were many people lying on the brick floor in the long corridor of the church which was defended by thick medieval walls. Some prayed, while other slept and waited the war to pass by. My aunt met a woman from Šermukšnių street who had a lot of food. My aunt exchanged the clothes for food so we were not hungry. Sometimes she would go to her flat to see what was happening there. Fires raged and thieves rampaged in the city at that time. My aunt told that there was an explosion in the courtyard, and all the windows facing it were broken, the rooms full of ash that was carried from the stoves by a wave of air. The German soldiers, who walked near the church and churchyard, disappeared on that day.
The morning of 13 July dawned. It was raining. The church courtyard was full of Red Army soldiers with an outdoor kitchen. They gave us warm soldier porridge. Little by little the people started going back to their houses.
Near the church at the Šermukšnių street intersection there was a bullet-ridden German tank. There were piles of ash and charred wood in Lukiškių square where wooden barracks had been built.
The corner house on Kaštonų street opposite our house was burning. We came back home. We had a lot of work by the time we picked up the glass, and swept up the ash. I found some cardboard and nailed it on the windows. We started living without being afraid of the Nazis.
The front shifted to the East, and gradually life went back to normal. My aunt would go to the market to exchange goods for food. Uncle Juozas came back from Šilalė. In the fall I started going to the second grade at the gymnasium. Henrikas Jonaitis, the director of the gymnasium, was a very kind person. In the spring the deportees started coming back from Germany. I used to go to the railway station to meet them quite often. Maybe my Mum would come back? One day Mr. Meris from Dachau came to see us. He had been in the Kaunas ghetto till its liquidation in July 1944. Mr. Meris was a good acquaintance of my parents. According to him, my Mum was shot at the fifth gates of Varniai. She bribed the soldier by giving him all her remaining valuables, he let her out and then shot her in the back. My Mum was buried in the ghetto cemetery by the River Neris in a mutual grave with those killed on that day. Many people who wanted to escape were shot during those days.Meris could tell us nothing about Uncle Frenkel and Lyova. Maybe they were incinerated in Malina, or maybe died in the concentration camp.
Aunt Masha and Uncle Juozas raised and taught me. Aunt Masha was like a real mother to me and Uncle Juozas wanted to adopt me. But I wanted to stay who I was born as.
I met my father for the first time after the war in 1958 in Leningrad. In 1970 my father Raphael Yafet died in London, where he is buried.
My brother Azriel completed his studies in the UK and became an architect. The first time we saw each other after the war was in 1960 in Moscow.
The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, 2009
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