Rescued Jewish Children

Sarra Levin-Burmenko

Trustworthy Neighbours
Sarra Levin-Burmenko

From: Smuggled in Potato Sacks
Fifty Stories of the Hidden Children of the Kaunas Ghetto

Solomon Abramovich
and Yakov Zilberg

My mother Sonia, born in 1916, was one of five daughters in the poor family of Shmuel and Sarah Kriger in Zhaisliai, a small village near Kaunas. Grandmother Sarah died at an early age and my grandfather Schmuel went to South Africa before the war, looking for a better life. Only Aunt Lena stayed in Kaunas.
My grandparents, Isaac and Fruma Levin, lived in Odessa before the war; they had ten children. Grandfather Isaac was a captain in the Russian Navy and later a captain in the commercial
shipping industry. In 1917, when the Revolution started, my grandfather took the family and fled to Turkey on his ship.Nobody knows why, but not all the children were aboard: two of his sons did not go with the family. One of them was my father, Leibl Levin, who somehow made his way to Lithuania, where he met my mother.
When my parents were placed in the Kaunas Ghetto my mother was pregnant. She had to tighten herself to keep her pregnancy secret from the Germans. I was born in November 1941. At some point, my parents decided to give me away to my aunt Lena; her husband, Kolia Stonis, was a Lithuanian. Lena had blonde hair and blue eyes and passed for a Lithuanian during the war. They had three children of their own, Ruta, Saulius and Meta.
Someone gave me a shot of Luminal so I would not cry, and arrangements were made for my aunt to pick me up. My parents put me in a basket and took me to the wire fence where I was passed to my aunt. Later, my aunt told me that when she picked me up, she saw German soldiers not too far away. She got very scared and ran into a house nearby to hide and waited for a while till it was safe to go home.
I was kept inside the apartment all the time, because my aunt and uncle were afraid of the Germans and neighbours. Once, when I was outside with my aunt and my cousins, a German soldier passed by and, pointing to me, he asked my aunt, ‘Why does this child have black hair when all the others are blonde?’ Fortunately, the neighbours were very good people, because they knew I was a Jewish child and did not pass this on.
My father died in the ghetto. He was an accountant and it was difficult for him to work at a construction site. Later one of his friends told me that because there were no washing facilities in
the ghetto, the cement became embedded in the pores of his face.
My mother was transferred to Dachau, which she survived. After Mother returned from the concentration camp, she stayed at my aunt’s place, so that I could get used to her. In the beginning I used to say that she was not my mother. I would say that my mother was the ‘mazha’ mama, which means small, short in Lithuanian; it took me a while to get used to my mother.
In 1946 my mother remarried and all three of us moved to our own apartment. My stepfather, Saul Burstein, was a good father to me. He had been in the ghetto as well. Saul came back to Lithuania from a concentration camp hoping to find his wife and son. Unfortunately they had died in the gas chambers.
My first language at my aunt’s place was Lithuanian. At home with my parents I learned to speak Yiddish, and I went to a Yiddish school for two years. I liked going to this school very much; my grades were very good and I felt very comfortable being among only Jewish children. In 1950, when the Yiddish school was closed, my parents put me in a Russian school. I did not like it, because I did not know a word of Russian and I had no friends. My grades went down. Because of the anti-Semitism of the Lithuanians, my parents felt very strongly that they did not want to send me to a Lithuanian school. I do not know how I would have felt in the Lithuanian school, but in the Russian school I did not experience any anti-Semitism. In the town I felt it much more. Once, I was returning home from an ice-skating ring. It was very cold and I was wearing a hat, which was attached to my hair with a pin. Four Lithuanian boys came towards me and without knowing my name they started to shout, ‘Sara, Sara’, because they knew I was Jewish; they would call a Jewish boy ‘Abraham’. One of the boys pulled the hat of my head. It was painful, because a pin attached it. Of course, they did not return the hat to me; I got very scared.
Later on, when I was already married and lived in a dormitory among Lithuanians, it was one of the hardest times in our lives. My daughter was only 9 months old then. Many times I heard the word ‘zhydialka’, which means Jewish in Lithuanian, but in a derogatory way. My daughter also experienced that; many times she would come home crying, because the children called her ‘zhydialka’.
I graduated from Kaunas Polytechnic Institute having studied civil engineering. I met my husband, Mark Burmenko, who came to Kaunas from Kiev to study electrical engineering. The anti-Semitism in Ukraine was even worse than in Lithuania and although Mark had very high grades in school, he was afraid he would not be accepted into a university in Kiev. Mark had lost his father, who volunteered to go to the war and was killed.
After graduating from college, Mark applied for work in Kiev. A very famous scientist who interviewed Mark wanted to hire him, but the Human Resources Department would not allow it. It sounds anecdotal, but Mark got an answer that his ‘profile’ did not fit. And the scientist told my husband, ‘Mark, I am really ashamed and disappointed in our system. I thought this discrimination did not exist at our facility. I am very sorry.’
My parents had been thinking about leaving Lithuania since I was a child. They had to wait for the opportunity for a very long time. My parents and my brother, Moshe Burstein, born in 1947, left for Israel in May 1972, and in late November 1976 we came to the USA: we were free to do what we wanted in this country.

New York, USA, 2008

First published in 2011 by Vallentine Mitchell
London, Portland, OR

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