Rescued Jewish Children

Mina Stein-Wolf and Mina Stein-Kotkes

Two Mina Steins
Mina Stein-Wulf

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

Solomon Abramovich
and Yakov Zilberg

Noa, my eldest granddaughter asked me in 2006, when she reached the age of 9, to give a talk in her school about what had happened to me during the Second World War. For years I had not spoken about it, I had not wanted to remember. My late mother, Raya Stein, who died in 1983, hardly ever talked about that past so full of horrors. Almost everything I have put down on paper I know from my sister Izana Levit. When I read through what is written down I cannot stop my eyes filling with tears.
My mother had nine brothers and sisters. Her father, Hirsh Stein, had been a businessman. He and five of my mother’s brothers and sisters perished during the war. Mother had obtained a place to study at the chemistry faculty of Vienna University, but when my father proposed to her, she abandoned those plans. Many years later, I followed in my mother’s footsteps and graduated in chemistry from the Technion in Haifa. In 1925 my mother married Max Stein.
Father was a very erudite man: he knew many languages, including Hebrew and Esperanto. He worked as an economist for various trading companies. In 1929 Izana was born and I, Mina, in 1937. I was called Mina in remembrance of my grandmother. My official name was Manuela, which my father had chosen, because he was a supporter of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.
The atmosphere in our home prior to the war was happy and life was very comfortable. We lived at 3 Zamenhof Street on the bank of the River Neman. Izana was sent to study in the Schwabe Gymnasium.
Before we had to move into the ghetto, my sister Izana used to stand in a queue at a food shop ‘for Jews only’. Despite being little more than a child, Izana was made responsible for the family’s ‘queuing’. One day the Lithuanians suddenly started seizing people standing in those queues. Everyone started running off in all directions and Izana ran off too till she found where to hide in a wooden toilet in someone’s back yard. She waited there until things went quiet and she was able to make her way home.
Even before the family was moved into the ghetto, our father, with Vulia (Wolf) Peper, the husband of my aunt Vera, was arrested by Lithuanian collaborators (‘Baltaraisciai’) wearing white armbands: Father came home again, but Vulia did not. My aunt said to our mother, ‘Of the two who were destined to die, it’s good that Max has survived, because he has children who need looking after.’
In the ghetto our family was allocated a room in a four-storey brick house referred to as the ‘Red House’. There were five of us living in that room: my parents, Izana, my favourite aunt Adela and me. One day, Izana and I set off with our mother to visit Grandfather Hirsh in the ‘Small Ghetto’. We were stopped on the way by guards and they would not let us pass. It turned out that people were being rounded up that day: our grandfather and Aunt Vera were taken off to the Ninth Fort and shot there. It is terrible to think that, if we had been allowed to continue our journey, we would no longer be among the living.
In 1943 rumours were spreading in the ghetto about an imminent round-up of children. My uncle David asked his close friend from pre-war days, Zaborsky, to help rescue my cousin Mina, born in 1938. Zaborsky was given some valuables and a large sum of money to look after till end of the war. He was offered a part of the money in return for rescuing me. Zaborsky, who had been only too happy to be a friend of a rich Jewish family during the good times, refused, adding cynically, ‘In any case she would die.’
Mina’s father, Liolya Stein, another of my mother’s brothers, was asked to save a small girl called Anya Levinson. Liolya arranged for Anya to live with Antosia, the maid who had worked for Max (mother’s favourite brother) and Lea Stein before the war. Max and Lea had been arrested as ‘bourgeois elements’ by the Soviets and deported to Siberia a few days before the German invasion. Max had left his son Arie in the care of his brothers. Antosia was asked to hide Arie, but she had refused, saying she was afraid to take in a ‘circumcised boy’. Efforts to save Arie failed and he was killed during the ‘Children’s Action’.
Antosia was prepared to take in a little girl though. Later someone informed on Antosia. She had not known Anya’s surname and had used Liolya’s surname while being interrogated. Little Anya had started begging people to leave her alone. She cried out to Antosia, ‘Mochute gelbek!’, which means ‘Mama, save me!’, but the Gestapo men took her off and she perished.
When we heard what had happened, my father tried to persuade Liolya to go into hiding, but he did not take the advice and went off to work as usual. Jewish Polizei Arnstam arrested Liolya at work; Izana saw Arnstam lead him off. Bunya, Mina’s mother, was arrested at home. She was seen for the last time in the prison, when she sent greetings to her loved ones. After the war Arnstam was convicted and shot for his evil deeds.
Mr Jonas Januliavichius cooperated with the Gestapo, but still was our father’s loyal friend. He offered to rescue me and Izana. Januliavichius refused to accept any payment or presents. He suggested to our father that he should save him as well, but Father refused to leave the rest of the family alone.
It was decided that just I should go; I was six and a half at the time. Saying goodbye to my family was very hard. I remember, as if it was yesterday, how my father stood me on a chair and fastened my winter coat. It was made of sheepskin and had beautiful embroidery on the outside. Father taught me how to behave; I had to remember that I was a Russian girl called Manya.
On 7 January 1944 I was taken out of the ghetto. It was a very cold day and the main gate on Varniu Street was being guarded by Germans and Lithuanians, so there was no chance of taking me out while they were still around. Three times Jonas had come to the gate to collect me, but it had proved impossible. He was standing there bursting with impatience and my father went up to the German guard and said loudly, ‘You see what a pleasant and beautiful language German is. In German you would say, “Bitte, warten Sie”, while in Lithuanian it sounds so brash, “Wait, Jonas!”’, Jonas realized then that he had to go on waiting. When the next shift of guards came on duty and there were the ‘right’ people at the gate, my father led me through and put me into the cart in which Januliavichius took me to his house at 3 Daukanto Street in the centre of the city. There I spent the first two weeks. I behaved nicely and always helped with the housework. On only one occasion did my father manage to come and see me; I was dressed in a little blue suit specially made for me and given strict instructions not to call my father ‘Papa’, so that no-one would realize I was Jewish. As I dusted the furniture, I whispered into his ear, ‘When’s Mama coming?’ When my father went back into the ghetto, he wept like a baby. It was the first time that he had ever been seen crying, and that was the last time I ever saw him.
In the Januliavichius family they spoke German. There was a boy in the household, probably a Russian, whom they had taught to speak German and I used to answer him in Yiddish. This frightened Jonas and his wife, as they knew it would be disastrous if anyone should hear me. So Januliavichius decided to send me to the village of Mishkuchiai, where his mother and sisters lived.

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