Sometimes I wonder why it was me who survived the Holocaust, when so few of us did, and I often try to recall how it all happened.
I was born on January 2, 1934, in Kovno (Kaunas) – Lithuania, on the banks of the rivers Nemunas and Vilija (Neris), as a second child to my parents, Moses – Misha Segalson (born 19.1.1903) and his wife Chaya (Haja) – Raya Arulianski from the Alytus district (born 31.3.1904).
My given name was “Kelly”, but somehow everybody called me “Katia”, a name I carry to this day.
My father was a businessman in men’s wear, mainly hats, in which he specialized. He owned a hat factory on Panevėžio str. 4 and a shop on the main avenue of our town – the Laisvės alėja (Freedom Blvd.) 47, (nowadays – 83). We lived in a rented flat in a house made of red brick, just behind the shop, not far from the “Miesto Sodas” public park and the Opera House. Most of the shops on the avenue belonged to Jews. Among them were my uncle Jacob’s fur shop, Rosmarin’s famous sausages, Kapulsky’s cakes, and Gladstein’s Optica – next to our’s. I remember my father having been occupied with his business, but while at home, I felt he belonged to me alone. I adored him!
My mother sometimes helped him out in the shop, but otherwise I remember being a lot at her side. She took me to the Shirley Temple movies, to the museum on Donelaičio str., and even to the Opera and to the “Swan Lake” ballet. She was a person full of life, tall, elegant, and always surrounded by friends, meeting usually in one of the Cafes, “Metropolis”, “Monika” or “Versalis”, where Misha Hofmekler played the violin. She liked driving our car, skating, skiing at Ąžuolynas – “Petrovke” in winter, and swimming in the Baltic Sea, where we spent some summers in the resort place – Palanga, and, in 1939, in Schwarzort – Juodkrantė.
I remember that summer in particular as a fairy tale with a “prince”, a few years older than me, named Andrei. He was my playmate for collecting amber on the beach, and my escort on the dancing floor for children, with a band conducted by Misha Hofmekler. I was five and a half years old.
There were other summers we spent in Panemunė or Kulautuva, but I have only vague memories of them.
I don’t remember my parents being as religious as my grandmothers were, or if they kept a kosher kitchen, but I do know that we ate no pork. My parents spoke among themselves Yiddish and Russian. I spoke only Lithuanian.
Just before the Soviets entered Kovno in 1940, we moved into a new rented apartment, in a house that belonged to the Dushnickis on “Vasario 16” str., who also lived there. Their daughter Tolia was my brother’s class mate. With the younger one – Himma, I played with dolls. After the establishment of the communist regime, my father’s hat factory and the shop, as well as the one we had in Vilnius, were nationalized and our flat was confiscated. We were transferred to an apartment in a building on Mickevičiaus str., which we had to share with another Lithuanian married couple and two Lithuanian young women. One of them was Genutė-Genė, Genovaitė Pūkaitė, whom I liked very much. She was also very fond of me.
My mother was naturally very unhappy in our new surroundings. She didn’t know it then yet, but for me this was going to turn out for the best…
Summer 1941 approached. My brother Liusik (born 19.1.1927), seven years my senior, was going to a Pionier’s youth camp, by the seashore in Palanga. I, who had just finished my first grade in “Aušros” elementary school at Ugniagesių str., could join him. I preferred to spend the summer with my grandmother, Taibe Arulianski (born Shachnovitz), in Punia (Alytus district) – a village situated in a beautiful landscape, near the river Nemunas, where we children liked to bathe. On the evening of June 21, 1941, I was sent to her on an army truck, accompanied by a Russian officer friend of my parents. Before leaving town we stopped at Laisvės alėja, under the big chestnut trees, to eat a hot dog with mustard and rolls, which tasted delicious.
Next morning, on June 22, the Germans entered Punia. Our life started to change. We were ordered to wear a yellow Star of David, which I considered to be a privilege, and wore it proudly. Grandmother's living room was turned into a military office. We were not allowed to pass through it or use the front door into the house anymore. We had to climb through the window in order to reach our own bedroom, which was in the back. This seemed to me like a game. As a seven years old child, I had at that time no special fears and continued my summer vacation at my grandmother’s, who still raised her geese, made “Cholent for Shabath” and lit candles on Friday evenings. We could still use the kitchen entrance from the backyard. The only thing that bothered me then, was the carrot juice my grandmother made me drink every day, which I hated. But this was only the beginning.
My parents sent Mania-Maria Rudzianskienė, a polish woman who used to work for us, to bring me back to them, as Jews were not allowed to move from place to place anymore.
My grandmother believed that nothing bad could happen to us in the country, as – “there will be food “! There were her Lithuanian friends, especially the priest who was her “dear neighbor”… She didn’t let me go and sent Mania back, urging my parents to come and stay with us instead. My parents preferred to remain in Kovno.
Mania came for me again. It took us many hours to make the nearly 60 km. to Kovno. She brought me into the Kovno Ghetto in Vilijampolė–Slobodka, a poor district across the Vilija River, to which my parents had to move during my absence. This was on the day, on which the ghetto gates were closed – August 15, 1941.
My grandmother’s optimism wasn’t justified.
On September 8–9, 1941, all the Jews from Punia and its surroundings, counting about 1400, were brutally murdered by the Lithuanians, and buried in two big mass graves near the village Klidžiunai, next to Butrimonys.
Two of my grandmother’s daughters – Frida and Luba, did survive, thanks to their immigration to South Africa before the war.
My other grandmother – Chaya Segalson (born Svojatitzki), who lived in Kovno, was taken from the ghetto on March 27, 1944, to Aushwitz, during the Children’s Action. Fortunately, my grandfathers – Leib Segalson, and Kopel Arulianski, were spared the same destiny – they both died before I was born.
My cousins Liova, Genia, Vova, and their mother – Luba, widow of my uncle Jacob Segalson, ended up in the Vilna and Warsaw Ghettos and didn’t survive.
I will not write much about my years in the ghetto, as a lot has already been written about those times.
We, the three of us, lived on 56 Linkuvos str., in a room to ourselves (my brother Liusik had fled from Palanga into Russia, where he joined the army that liberated Lithuania from the Germans in 1944). In contrast to the small wooden houses around us, the house we lived in was a white painted two storey former private villa. Of all the other families who occupied the other rooms, I remember only:
1. The Hofmeklers: Misha – the Violinist, his parents, his wife Perale, who was my mother’s cousin, and their daughter, Dalya.
2. Dr. Aharon Percikovitz, the Gynecologist, his wife – Raya, and their son – Alik.
3. Their sister in law – Enta, with two children – Davik and Zina Berger.
4. Aya Sauberblat, her mother, grandfather and son – Miron.
5. Anna Rosenbaum, son Bubi, and daughter Lilly.
Lilly was elder than most of us children, was very beautiful, lively, and gifted with a creative imagination, which she used, to organize our activities. One of them was a performance she staged in the garage, with us acting before an audience. This garage was usually used for storage or for prayers on some Holidays. Our games were mainly with buttons. Each button had a price according to size and kind. We spoke Yiddish or Russian, which I had learned by then. In winter, we sometimes played in the snow. In summer, we were once allowed to go for a swim in the river, closely watched by the guards, yet it was fun.
Misha Hofmekler taught Alik and me to play the violin. I took up sewing as well. We had a big yard, where we grew some vegetables and raised a couple of rabbits. We gave them a full funeral when they died. Food was rationed. We mostly had some sort of soup. By effort and risk, additional food was smuggled into the ghetto from the outside. I remember my mother’s disappointment and mine, when, because of my sore throat, I couldn’t eat the egg she specially prepared for me. Once, we were given as a special treat some horse meat, which my mother cooked with a lot of garlic. The smell and taste of it were horrible. I avoided garlic for many years.
We all lived in hope for our liberation, while the ghetto population became smaller from action to action, especially after the Great Action, which took place on Oct. 28, 1941, at the Demokratų square. We were all gathered there from very early morning for many hours to go through the selections, performed by German officers, deciding and sending to the left – who was to live, or to the right – the “bad” side. My father had a “Jordan Schein”, a certificate showing that he was a “useful” worker. He took under his protection also Aya Sauberblat as his sister, with her son, her mother – as his mother, but he could do nothing for the grandfather.
I remember even now the abandoned old man, bewildered and lost in the big crowd. He didn’t return with us to the house. He was among the third of the 30,000 ghetto inhabitants who were taken away and killed next day in the nearby Fort 9th.
Luckily, most of the children from our house, survived the war: Lilly Rosenbaum-Millner, now in Helsinki, Miron Sauberblat, now in USA, Dalya Hofmekler-Ginzburg, Alik Percikovitz-Peretz, and myself, now living in Israel.
I think that at the beginning I felt more secure than the others, as my father was the manager of the “Large Workshops”, located within the ghetto, on Kriščiukaičio str. He and those who worked there were, so to say, useful to the Germans, and would therefore perhaps be spared together with their families. At the “Seder” which we held in 1943 at my uncle Samuel Segalson and his wife Raya (Dvaro str. 34), most members of our family were still alive.
But when rumors spread of an approaching Children’s Action, my mother somehow contacted Mania and Genutė. They were both willing to take me in. I preferred to live with Genutė. So, Mania took my cousin Dalya instead of me.
One evening, some time before the Children’s Action (March 27–28, 1944), I was smuggled out of the ghetto through the main gate, while the guards were bribed. Genutė awaited me there and took me over the Vilija Bridge, back to town.
At the beginning I stayed with Genutė in Kovno, in 6 Presidento str., sharing the bed with her, the room with a friend of hers, and the flat, with Pranutė Špokaitė (Prane Juodvalkiene), who was active in rescuing Jews. From time to time some of them stayed with us for a while. She arranged for me faked papers, as an abandoned child of a Russian officer. I was aware that they were not considered to be reliable, especially because of my Jewish looks – my dark brown eyes and curly black hair. Most of the neighbors were hostile, which forced me to go into hiding for a few days at some other place. As part of her cover, Pranutė used to entertain Germans and Lithuanian Policemen. On those occasions I was kept out of sight, yet it was scary. At that time I became “Katrytė”. I was made to believe, I should be happy to have left the ghetto, but very soon, I felt insecure, and became miserable and lonely. In spite of Genutė’s understanding and support, I demanded to go back to my parents.
A meeting with my mother was arranged for us somehow in Gladstein’s former apartment. I cried bitterly. It saddens me whenever I think how she must have felt, not being able to take me back with her. This was the last time we saw each other.
I remained with Genutė. She found me a friend – a neighbor’s daughter named Grasilda Kniūkštaitė, who used to come to me after her school to play and do her homework. She was very sensitive and discrete, never giving a hint that she suspected I was Jewish, yet she came to my rescue whenever she could. Thanks to her and to my increasing interest in the New Testament, and belief in Christianity, and of course thanks to Genutė, things became easier for me.
During most of the days I stayed alone in the apartment, usually reading, as everybody was out at work. Some mornings I couldn’t help myself from looking through the window for a familiar face, when ghetto labor brigades emerged out of Vilniaus str., and marched by. Occasionally I took the risk and went out with Grasilda or with Genutė into the streets, mainly to church. One day I came face to face with my friend from the ghetto – Fruma Vitkin. Both of us got very scared, yet we succeeded in completely ignoring one another.
When the Soviet front drew near, Genutė decided it was time for us to move to her parents, who lived in Radžiunai – a village in the Taujėnai – Ukmergė district.
Though I could not pass as a Lithuanian by my looks, I spoke the language fluently, without any accent. When rumors spread among our neighbors in the village, that I was Genutė’s illegitimate daughter (she wasn’t married), we didn’t deny them – “the father could even have been Jewish”…
When the Red Army arrived again in the end of July 1944, I was overjoyed, but not for long. I got the news that my mother was dead, and my father had been deported, his fate unknown. Genutė returned after some time to Kovno, leaving me behind for another year with her parents and three of her sisters – Birutė, Albina, whose bed I shared and Regina, who became my friend. Her married sister Aldona lived 4 km away from us, near the church in Taujėnai, to which we went on Sundays for mass. The parents cared for me. I felt that they treated me even better than their grandchildren. I regarded them as my own grandparents. They were poor, decent, hardworking farmers, who lived a simple life, mostly on bread, potatoes and porridge, which I liked. We had apples from our trees, and mushrooms, blueberries and wild strawberries from the nearby woods. For me, there was also always a glass of fresh milk and occasionally an egg. We had a dog – Princas, I became very attached to. I felt I was part of the family!
The winter of 1944–45 was very cold with heavy snow. I went to school in the village and graduated from the fourth grade as best in my class. Most of the time there were lice to cope with. My legs were full of sores. In summer I got sick with Typhoid. My head was shaven as I was hospitalized for a month in Ukmergė (20 km from our village), where I nearly died. I haven’t realized that at the time, till a priest came to give me the last rites. During this period Albina visited me a few times, bringing with her cooked apples her mother sent me.
I recovered after all, and came back to the village, only to find out that the place wasn’t as safe as I believed. Though the war had already ended in May 1945, things haven’t much changed for me – I still had to hide my identity, as most of the Lithuanians preferred the Nazi German rule to the Soviet regime. In the forests around us were so called “partisans” who were the former collaborators with the Nazis. Indeed, members of the family I loved and who sheltered me, helped them as well. One day, as I entered the barn, I surprised Albina and Jonas Perkūnas, who was one of them. His head was wounded. I recognized him immediately. He used to come and flirt with Albina from behind the fence, as her mother never let him pass the gate. The reason she gave: “he murdered Jews”. The minute I saw him I panicked and ran away. No one mentioned this incident, but since I knew the man was around and knew I saw him, I was scared.
Towards the end of August 1945, one early morning while I was still asleep, my brother Liusik suddenly appeared in a Russian army uniform. He was aware of the “partisans” in the forests and came accompanied by some Russian soldiers, to take me away. He ordered the grandparents to deliver me with all my belongings to the nearby police station in Taujėnai, within two hours. This caused a big confusion, as now my real identity was uncovered. Though I was glad to join my brother, I felt very bad about the way it was done. The grandparents felt insulted from his behavior, which they clearly didn’t deserve. I was very sad to part from them, but felt relieved to leave the village.
Liusik brought me back to Kovno. He left me at father’s friend – Chone Lipshitz and his wife Katia. They lived on Putvinskio str. in a very small room, yet made me more than welcome. They were very nice people. I stayed with them willingly.
One day I went to the Synagogue at Ožeškienės, which was just around the corner, but left disappointed as there was no one I knew. I visited from time to time Genutė, who worked at the “Metropolis” restaurant, not far away.
I stayed with the Lipshitzes for about four months, till Perale Hofmekler, who was believed to be dead, suddenly arrived, as if from another world. She heard somehow that my father and her husband Misha were alive in Germany, and came to take her seven years old daughter Dalya and me, to cross illegally the border to Poland, with the intention to reach them. I was happy, looking forward to it.
That event was going to take place between January 5 and 6, 1946. We left Vilna (Vilnius) with many others, on a cold snowy night. One of the four truck drivers, who took us, was an informer. We were stopped by gun fire on our way and brought back by Russian armed soldiers to the headquarters of the KGB on Gedimino Avenue. After a long and tiresome interrogation, the grownups were left behind and later sent to prison. Among them were Perale and my brother.
We, children, were sent to an orphanage at the end of the day, from which we escaped on the next morning. I took Dalya with me to my father’s cousin, Dr. Ovadia Jochelson, who lived on Trakų str., some blocks away. From there, Dalya was transferred to her relatives. I stayed on with the Jochelsons for a while, after which they put me into a Jewish Orphanage in Vilna on Žygimantų str. 6 (pakrantė – near the river). Yet I continued to attend a Lithuanian school in the old part of town. I also went often to the nearby Cathedral. Maybe this was the main reason I felt excluded. Though the staff did their best, the orphanage remained a miserable cold place to me. The food was poor. I had lice and feared my hair would be shaven again. My only joy, were the piano lessons I received at the conservatory, where my teacher was the well known Nadja Dukstulski, who was acquainted with our family from Kovno.
Katia Lipshitz came to see me from time to time, always with a piece of cake. After six months, she took me back with her to Genutė in Kovno at Žemuogių 4, on Žaliakalnis (the Green Mountain), where I felt at home again, and yet didn’t feel I fully belonged. I was given to understand, that I couldn’t visit the grandparents in the village anymore, as that would still endanger me. I overheard a friend of Genutė, reproaching her why she still kept me, instead of turning me over to my “own kind”, now that the war was finished.
Genutė’s sister Aldona, with husband and four children – Henrikas, Lida, Judita and Faustas, came also to stay with us. We all got on well. While Genutė was at work, I used to go for lunch at Katia’s. Walking down the Kauko stairs, crossing Laisvės alėja, I also visited our former neighbors, the Gladsteins, who had returned to their original flat again. Grasilda, my friend, was in town as well.
One day, as I went up the Ukmergės–Savanorių Ave., I ran into Fruma Vitkin. This time we were both overjoyed. She was the only survivor of her family, and lived with Helene Holzman not far from our flat. We visited each other and planned to go to school together. Life seemed to have become normal again.
Just then came a telegram from Lodz, signed by my father, that he was looking for me. It arrived at the Jewish Orphanage in Kovno, where Hanna Brava was employed. She took the trouble to find me.
As I learned later, my father was liberated from Dachau on May 1st 1945. He got married again on April 2nd 1946 in Landsberg, to Jenia Segal born Ginsburg, whom I knew as our neighbor from the ghetto. She was a widow, with no children of her own, and a close friend of the Percikovitzes. She was liberated from Stutthof. It was she, who went to Lodz and contacted the “Bricha”, who arranged to bring me across the border. For that purpose she used a diamond ring that was provided to her by Rabbi Abraham Klausner, a chaplain in the U.S Army. Soon afterwards someone came for me.
I must say that at that time I didn’t want to go anymore. I was anxious to start school next day, I loved Genutė and felt loved by her, but she convinced me. I was taken by train to Vilna, brought back and later taken again to an apartment, where we had to wait till we were able to continue. It took us almost three weeks till we could cross the border with false papers of Poles returning to Poland, via Baranovitz, reach Warsaw and Lodz. It seemed an eternity to me. My disappointment was therefore very great, when it wasn’t my father who awaited me there, but Jenia, who turned out to be his wife. She was nice. She treated me to hot chocolate, and cleaned me of the lice. It took us another month and another illegal border crossing from Poland to Germany, till we reached father in Munich on Oct. 28, 1946. My dream came true. I was reunited with him after almost three years of separation. Only then did I learn the missing details of what had occurred after my leaving the ghetto:
During the liquidation of the Kovno Ghetto in July 1944, while the Soviets were drawing near, the Jews thought they were going to be sent to their death.
My father decided to go along with all the others. He survived Dachau with his brother Samuel, his nephews Liusik – Arie and Chone, and his cousin Iliusha Segalson.
His sister Altochke Maliacki and her daughter Lialia, my age, did not survive.
My mother decided to hide with her younger brother Dodik, Dr. David Arulianski and his wife Ira (born Gurwitz), in a “Maline” – a hiding place prepared within the ghetto. As the ghetto was burned down and destroyed, no one of them survived. My mother was 40 years old.
On joining my father, I was given new clothing, a full medical checkup and was taken to Berchtesgaden, ironically – the resort place preferred by Hitler.
We stayed in Munich for another two years in Bogenhausen, at the Kopernikusstr. 1. My father became a member of the Central Committee for liberated Jews in the occupied American Zone of Germany. I went there to an established Hebrew school, where the language was mainly Yiddish. In 1947, a summer camp was arranged for us children in the Bavarian Alps at Urfeld am Walchensee and in 1948 – at Hartmannsberg. I made new friends, but had difficulties in adjusting to our new form of life. I missed my mother.
Jenia was an intelligent vivid woman with a lot of good humor. I believe she had the best of intentions, but at that time they did not meet my feelings.
By that time I also gradually stopped praying and believing in Jesus Christ and Maria, but I always remember the great comfort this belief gave me during my most difficult times.