Rescued Jewish Children

Yulia Meltz-Beilinson

Living Proof of Defiance

Yulia Meltz-Beilinson

From: Solomon Abramovich and Yakov Zilberg “Smuggled in Potato Sacks”, 2011

The Germans in the ghetto used to say, 'You'll soon only see a Jew in a museum.' My mother remembered that phrase and it imprinted itself clearly on my mind as well. I was born in April 1942 in the Kaunas Ghetto, to Meir Meltz and Henya Meltz, née Krubelnik, when pregnancy was a crime punishable by death. During my mother's pregnancy and labour, she was in the care of Dr Perchikovich and Dr Nabriski who risked their lives simply by carrying out that routine medical duty. Living defiance of the Germans, we children of the war and the ghetto miraculously survived and did not merely become 'museum exhibits'.
Every morning my parents were taken to work outside the town: my mother to the airfield and my father to work for the German firm 'Grün und Bilfinger', which was building a bridge. Despite the fact that Jews were thoroughly searched by the Jewish Polizei, when they went back through the gate leading into the ghetto in the evening, they nevertheless succeeded every now and then in exchanging some valuables for food. If such an 'offender' was discovered, however, if he was lucky he would be given a cruel beating, but more often than not such 'offenders' were simply shot.
At the time when the Germans burnt down the hospital with all the patients and medical staff still inside my mother was ill. Fortunately my father had not sent her to the hospital, but treated her at home with medicines, which he managed to get hold of from a pharmacist. Before this happened, my mother had allowed the pharmacist to share our accommodation.
I spent eighteen difficult, dangerous months in the ghetto, because the whole of that time my very existence had to be kept secret. At dangerous moments we used to hide in a dug-out, known as 'malina', for which the entrance and exit were by way of the toilet. Naturally I had to be given sedatives every now and then to make sure that the people hiding me would not be discovered because of a child's cries.
When rumours started spreading about the 'Children's Action', my father managed to find a place for me at the farm- stead of Maryte and Pranas Kurpauskas in the Jurbarkas district. The first attempt to take me out of the ghetto covered by crockery in a large bag had failed. On that occasion there had been a Jewish policeman named Arenstam at the gate. His reputation was far from flattering, so my parents decided not to risk it. The second time my father and my grandmother managed to smug- gle me out when they left the ghetto on their way to work. I was asleep after having been given a sedative and once again I had been tucked into a bag under a pile of crockery. Yankel Lipavski was at the gate that day; he was one of those who always tried to help the people inside as much as he possibly could.
I had been taken out in the morning, because at the other end of the day the checks were more thorough and carried out by Germans with dogs, which would have been able to detect me. Father handed the 'precious' bag to a peasant woman by the name of Butkene, who was waiting in the agreed place with a cart. She, in her turn, handed me over to Orchik Keltz, who knew the area well. Sara Libmanaite, a 17-year-old blonde, who did not bear the slightest resemblance to a Jew, was helping Orchik. She explained to the peasants who had come to meet her and to the people she had spent the night with on her way to the Jurbarkas district, that I was her daughter, the result of a 'night on the town', who would be a shameful disgrace for her family and her own undoing. We had had many adventures on the way there and had been obliged to hide from both Germans and Lithuanians. It was especially dangerous when I had woken up and started to cry. Orchik told us that at the time he had felt sorely tempted to suffocate me there and then. At the end of the journey Orchik had taken me out of the cart and walked a long way away from the road. It was not until several days later that he had eventually reached our destination with me, the farm- stead of Maryte and Pranas Kurpauskas. Their family was poor and they just had one daughter, who was mentally retarded.
Maryte explained to the Germans and her neighbours that I was the illegitimate daughter of her unmarried sister. Maryte used to wash my hair with 'daisy juice' to make sure that my hair • Heaven forbid! - did not turn dark. After some time I began to call Maryte 'Mama' and Lithuanian became my 'native' language.
In 1944, with help from remarkable peasants by the name of Cheslavas Rakevichius and Mrs Butkiene, my parents managed to escape from the ghetto themselves. They were brought to the Erzvilkas district, where many Jews were hiding. Among them was a couple by the name of Brik, whose son, Aaron Barak, became president of Israel's Supreme Court many years later.
It was impossible to stay in one location on a permanent basis and my parents had to keep moving from place to place. Most of the time they went deep into the forest to hide during the day and at night they would knock at doors, each time managing to find a roof over their heads and at least something to eat in the house of kind, trustworthy peasants. My father knew the area well and that made all the difference.
It was not until several months later that my parents were able to visit me and the Kurpauskas family. When my mother saw me for the first time she started to sob, because I did not recognize her and called her 'Pone' ('Missis'). I was dirty and wearing torn clothes. When my mother saw me dip my hand into a bucket of leftovers for the pigs, pull out a mushy piece of potato peel and stuff it cheerfully into my mouth, she realized that I too was hungry. Despite all that, my parents were very grateful to that simple Lithuanian family, who risked their lives to take me in and protect me. We shall remember what they did for the rest of our lives.
The neighbours, who were starting to realize that the Kurpauskas family had taken in a Jewish child and that their house was being visited at night, began letting their guard dogs off their chains. This meant that my parents had to make the return journey at night, falling into snowdrifts and shivering with cold and fear, without managing to see me, as planned.
On one occasion one of the neighbours came into the house and noticed that, after falling over, I had run off to wash my hands. That put her on her guard, and she began to suspect that I was not a village child; Mother was sure that Maryte and Pranas would have been reported to the Gestapo. It was very dangerous for me to stay in that house, where I had spent nearly a year.
The Kurpauskas were very frightened of their neighbours, they felt they had to find another refuge for me as quickly as possible. Later on, after the war, I saw that neighbour again. She was standing with her husband by the fence and even warned me that it was dangerous to walk in the woods, because there were so many snakes. My mother then commented that there was no worse a snake than she was.
My parents fetched me from the Kurpauskas household and began to look for another refuge. Mother used to tell me how frightened she had been in one farmstead, where we had been taken in temporarily by another peasant family, when suddenly some Germans appeared. The adults of the family had been out somewhere in the woods at the time and my mother had stayed behind with me and their two small children, and the Germans. Mother pretended to be dumb so that her accent should not give her away and, without saying anything, she saw to the needs of the uninvited guests. I was perched there in the arms of one of the Germans, while my mother went down into their cellar to fetch milk, pork fat and cabbage. Her hands were trembling with fright as she laid the table. The Germans sat me down on the table and played with me. When they had eaten their fill they left. When the owners of the house came rushing back from the woods, they were very surprised to find us safe and sound. That was probably when my mother's hair turned white, since for as long as I can remember she has always had white hair.
So I had to move on and our father's friend Rakevichius once more found another place for me, this time in the family of a bookkeeper by the name of Jakubauskas, who had three daughters of his own. At the very beginning when I was brought to his house, he became anxious and was afraid to let me stay; after all there were cases when whole Lithuanian families had been shot for hiding Jews. My mother burst into tears and started pleading with him; she had nowhere else to go. In the end Jakubauskas took pity on my desperate parents, who were at the end of their tether, and agreed.
When the German occupation came to an end, my parents came to fetch me, but I was not very keen to leave that Lithuanian family. I shouted for a long time that I was not Jewish but Lithuanian.
In Kaunas we lived first of all with the family of Dr Gurvichiene. She helped me regain my strength after I arrived there, run down, lice-ridden and covered in septic cuts. Later a Jewish kindergarten was set up and even a Jewish school, which I attended for two years. I shall never forget our Jewish teachers, Mr London and Mr and Mrs Gertner. My Jewish education did not last for very long though because the Soviet authorities closed down Jewish institutions. I was given a place at Russian school No. 11. At that time the only words I knew in Russian were 'Do svidaniya', and so I used to play truant often.
During the first years after the war my father, with other men from the Jewish community, used to go round the nearby villages looking for children who had been rescued in local families. I remember very clearly how every now and then dark-haired little boys and girls would appear in our house and then disappear again somewhere. At that time I did not show very much interest in such things and now, sadly, there is nobody left to whom I can put those questions.
I married a Jew from Estonia and then began my medical studies in Kaunas, completing them in Tartu. In 1966 my parents together with my two post-war sisters left for Israel. In 1974 after one refusal, we were given an exit permit and set off to join the rest of the family.
All these years we have kept in touch with the Lithuanians who came to our rescue. Cheslavas Rakevichius lived in Kaunas, regularly attended the synagogue and was an active member of the Jewish community. He came to Israel for a solemn ceremony at Yad Vashem, where he was given the medal of one of the 'Righteous' in the presence of several Jews who had been rescued, including Aaron Barak, who had been aged 6 or 7 in the ghetto. The Karpauskas family was entered in the list of the 'Righteous' as well. In 2000 in the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum I unexpectedly came across a letter from Pranas Kurpauskas, in which he described how his family had taken in and rescued a little Jewish girl called Yulyte Melckaite. That letter really touched me and I sobbed over it for a long time.
I hope that my children and grandchildren will never have to experience anything like what happened to us.

Tel Aviv, Israel, February 2009

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