From Darkness to Light
From Smuggled in Potato Sacks
Fifty Stories of the Hidden Children of the Kaunas Ghetto
and Yakov Zilberg
In 1996 representatives of the Spielberg Fund, who initiated the archiving of Holocaust survivor’s stories, asked to interview me. I wondered what I could share about my childhood, and to my amazement found I could gather only a few blurred recollections. Actually, there was nothing to tell. The publishing of testimonies by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, enabled me to read other accounts and I decided to start investigating my past. What had happened to me? What had I been through? How had I survived? What became of my parents and who had they been?
First I opened the Keidan Memorial Book. This book was given to me by my relatives and had been in my home for many years; the same relatives gave me pictures of my parents. I was so moved when I found a whole chapter describing events in my life and the people who had helped me to survive. After reading the book I went in search for more. I became acquainted with Sara Weis, who introduced me to the Society of Lithuanian Jews in Israel and to a group of people who survived the Kaunas Ghetto in their childhood. Everybody I spoke to helped me get more and more information.
In the story about my rescue, written by my aunt Rachel in the Keidan Memorial Book. I learnt that as a child I had spent some time in the Brides of Jesus Convent. From the Lithuanian Embassy I learned that there are three monasteries with the same name. I called one of them. A nun named Klara answered the phone; her Russian was good. Klara had been deported to Siberia by Russians, where she spent ten years. I told her I would like to visit Ponevez (Panevezhys), the town where I grew up and to find out about my past. She was happy to meet me and promised that the convent would help me in my search.
On my visits to Lithuania, I found a lot of material in the archives in Kaunas, such as confirmation that I had been born in a private maternity hospital, my parents’ wedding certificate, the official registration of my father’s company and the income-tax dossier and even a rental contract and the plans of the apartment in 12 Palangos Street, where my parents lived before the war.
During our first visit, my husband and I spent several days in the monastery; the authorities provided us with a car and a nun acted as our driver so that we could visit many places where I had been in my childhood. We visited the orphanage where I most probably grew up.
We met Yehuda Ronder, whose brother Chaim Ronder helped Aunt Rachel to find me after the war. Yehuda had dedicated his life to hunting and bringing to justice the Lithuanian fascists who took part in the genocide of the Jews. Together with Yehuda we travelled to Kaunas and visited the places my parents had lived in. We went to Kedainiai (Keidan in Yiddish) as well and Yehuda, familiar with the town, showed us all the places related to Keidan Jewry, including the houses where my grandparents, father and Uncle Tzodek Shlapobersky lived.
In 1941 in Kedainiai behind the Catholic cemetery at Dotnuva Road, a mass grave had been dug. The young and strong were rounded up in batches of sixty and forced to undress, while machine guns were aimed at them. The dead, the wounded and men still alive were buried in the pit.
There were attempts at fighting back. Among the second batch was my uncle, Tzodek Shlapobersky, a man of about 40. He had been an officer in the Lithuanian army and had taken part in the fight for Lithuania’s liberation. He had also been in charge of the fire brigade and was a city councillor for many years, and was friendly with the Lithuanians. A German officer was behind the massacre. According to the testimony of Mr Silvestravichius, one old Jewish man refused to take off his clothes. A Lithuanian named Raudonis tried to force him to get undressed. Tzodek Shlapobersky pulled the Lithuanian into the pit and began strangling him and sank his teeth in the Lithuanian’s throat. Then he grabbed the Lithuanian’s pistol and tried to shoot the German officer, but missed. Shlapobersky was pierced by the bayonets of other Lithuanians and his body was cut to shreds; his sister Anna, his wife and two children were killed in the same incident.
Raudonis was taken to hospital where he died, and the Lithuanians accorded him an imposing funeral. A number of addresses were held in which the Lithuanian bandit was described as ‘the last victim of Jewish power’.
During my visit to Lithuania, some vague episodes from my early childhood started to emerge: I am in a lorry at night and endless electricity wires . . . Sleeping on two chairs instead of bed . . . The noise of planes and flashes of light in the sky, while we are hiding under the bed . . .
Another picture repeatedly comes back to me from my life: I am holding on to the wooden boards of the floor, when all of my body is suspended in the hole of the toilet, which was in the yard of the monastery. I started to shout as loud as I could. Anun who passed by pulled me out and washed my legs in a puddle. The nun told me I should not tell anybody I went to the toilet alone, otherwise I would be punished. During my visit to Panevezhys I found this toilet in the orphanage, but now it is a brick building instead of the wooden one.
In addition I recalled coloured eggs, and the nightly ceremony of kneeling in front of a cross and mumbling some strange words I could not understand.
I interviewed a lot of people and travelled to Lithuania three times. The story of my past started to emerge and thus I was able to build the following picture in which, I am sure, there are still many gaps I will never be able to fill.