Rescued Jewish Children

Ranana Kleinshtein-Malchanova


Milda Putnienė
From the 4th book Hands Bringing Life and Bread

I, Milda Putnienė-Strimaitytė, was born on 13 February 1933, in Žėčkalniai village, in Barzdai district, in Šakiai county. My parents, Stasys Strimaitis and Veronika Strimaitienė, had inherited a farm of about 40 hectares and lived on it until 1946. There were four children in the family: my sisters Dalia and Laima, brother Aidas and me, Milda. My grandmother (my father’s mother) Petronėlė lived with us until she died in 1943.
In the summer of 1941, my mother and I would often go to the Vilkaviškis market to sell berries and apples. It might be that my mother did it for the purpose of supporting the Jews she knew. She would take some food with her which she would not sell but rather leave with the other people while visiting them. The police and German soldiers were walking around the market. They were chasing away people wearing yellow stars, warning farmers not to sell any products to them because their time was over. I was allowed to give berries and apples without taking any money for them. Our carriage was surrounded by children and older people, mostly Jewish. They usually had no baskets with them and extended anything they had that fruit and berries could be put into: hats, the pouch of a dress, shirts, and waited while others poured. Children were very much afraid of police officers taking the food away from them, and as soon as they received anything, they would swiftly disappear, running in all directions. Their faces and eyes were full of grief. I saw it many times when, attacked by police officers or soldiers, they were beaten up and the food which they had obtained was scattered all over the marketplace.
On our way back we would talk about everything that was going on, about the people we knew and those whom we learned were still alive.
I clearly remember the day when near the Baltrušiai village, in the pine forest of Tilčiai, 4 km away from Pilviškiai, children and women were shot. The sun was shining, it was warm and there was no wind. Barefoot children and women were herded from Pilviškiai. The road leading towards the Tilčiai pine forest was not very far away from where we lived. We heard the cries and screaming of women and children approaching, and when the execution started, we heard the firearms, the bullets whizzing and the terrible screaming of children and women. I had never experienced anything more terrible than that.
Therefore it is no wonder that my parents would open the doors to every unfortunate person, sharing everything they could with them.
I do not remember precisely when a Jewish woman with a girl of my age came to live with us. I just remember it was a beautiful sunny day when I first saw them. The girl’s mother looked like a Jew: she was rather tall, rather stout, with her wavy hair combed up, pinned from both sides with a comb, well-mannered and elegant. The girl did not look like a Jew: she had long wavy blond hair. On her face, near the nose, there was a distinct dark mole. She was wearing a colourful dress. She was timid and frightful. When I asked her what her name was she said nothing and did not come to play with me in the garden. I asked her: “Will you stay with us?” She said nothing. Her mother hugged both of us and asked me if I wanted her to. I said: “Yes yes.” I really wanted to play with her. My mother warned me that if anyone asked me where the girl had come from I should say that she was a relative from Kaunas. The next day my mother told me to take food to them. We would see each other every day, because I was taking food to them and collecting their empty plates. Soon I became friends with the girl and I started to call her Irena. Even now I often call her Irena, instead of Ranana, her real name. In the room where Ranana lived with her mother, my parents built a double wall, ingeniously hidden by the new wallpaper put up in the entire room. In the event of danger, they could hide behind the wall. Another advantage of the room was that through one window (to the south) they could see what was happening in the courtyard and through another window (to the west) they could observe what was going on in the garden. If needed, they could swiftly jump through the window and run into the garden.
I spent a lot of time together with Irena. In the summer we would take food and something to drink for shepherds and other field workers. While they were eating, we picked flowers, made wreaths, sometimes took care of the cattle. When asked by my mother, we would go to Barzdai town to buy some things, drop by the church, the post office and, if needed, visit relatives. In our free time, we would play in the garden or swim in the pond. We also built hiding places of branches to play hide-and-seek and read books. We would swing.
Irena and her mother were talking not only with me, but also with my sister Dalia, my parents and Russian prisoners of war living with us. I clearly remember Irena’s mother: she encouraged us to study, she loved reading books, newspapers and listen to the radio. She was learning how to knit and knitted long stockings for all of us. Sometimes in the dark or early in the morning she would go out for a walk. She was always neatly dressed and well-groomed.
In the summer of 1943, Irena and her mother experienced great misfortune as they were taken captives. They were led to Barzdai but they managed to run away. After they walked through a rye field, they reached a farmstead which Irena recognised to be our home. Pale and trembling they came to us and stayed with us for a long while. The nervous shock did not disappear from their faces for a long time. During that autumn I would see Irena’s mother wipe off her tears, and painful memories would weigh down her poor life. During those moments, she was extremely happy to see me. We would talk, she would cuddle both me and her daughter, and life would go on.
I know that after this incident or because of some other reasons Mrs. Kleinshtein (Estera Kleinšteinienė) wanted to give my father her dearest family heirloom, her husband’s fountain-pen. My father thought it was an insult and did not accept it.
During those difficult years, there were more people hiding with us apart from Mrs. Kleinshtein with her daughter Irena (Ranana Kleinshtein). There was a greying man, Mr. Natnzon (Natnzonas – Mrs. Kleinshtein’s acquaintance), another young man, a sewer, who spoke only Polish and we called him Antanas, Mrs. Goldberg with two teenage daughters Tsilia and Rachil, and others whose last names I do not recall. On multiple occasions I would take them through our fields and show them the way. Usually they would leave early in the morning. I remember Irena and her mother well, they would carry all their belongings in a small round basket and a tiny bundle. Irena’s mother would put a moss green shawl on her back under which she would hide her biggest treasure: her daughter. In early spring 1944, we said good-bye to them and they left to live with other farmers.
With the front approaching from the East, a hiding place was built in our house. The entrance to it was from the storeroom where potatoes were kept. From the outside the hiding place was hidden by a bed of osiers. That was necessary because in the event of unfavourable circumstances we would have a place to hide people.
At the beginning of the summer, Irena and her mother came back to us. Irena’s mother was keen to learn about the news from the front, she would talk often to the Russian prisoners of war, my mother and my father.
We saw the real picture of the war when the German Army was retreating from Pilviškiai. The town was wiped off the face of the earth by German aircraft. The Germans were retreating, taking every possible road. The battle went on for three days in our village. Several German soldiers got positioned near the village cemetery, in a dip with birch-trees growing on it, and some others were on our old farmstead. Shells were almost literally falling on us. One of them blew up near a brick wall of the barn, destroying part of the wall and a window. Another one hit the roof of the barn but did not cause much damage, apart from the blasting in the garden territory. It calmed down in the evening. It was too dangerous to stay at home and we left for the corn fields, westwards. When the battles would stop, we would go back home to take some food, feed the cattle and milk the cows. We would keep in touch with Irena and her mother during that time, take some food to them and tell them the news. They were hiding either in the grain field or in the nearby alder forest. That is where they learned about the liberation.
In August 1944, Mrs. Kleinshtein and her daughter decided to go to Vilnius. It was difficult with transportation at the time. A military car took them to Kaišiadorys and from there they probably stopped other cars, asking to take them to Vilnius. That is how we parted and met again only in around 1954, when I moved to work and live in the Vilnius region.
If my parents were alive, they could tell more, but sadly... they are no longer with us.

The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, 2009
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