Many names were offered to me and I chose Danutė. My family name Vitkin was changed to Vitkauskaitė. From that day, I had to forget that I was Fruma Vitkin and was instructed on how I should behave thereafter. Thus, my new life began under the name of Danutė Vitkauskaitė.
I, Fruma Malka Kučinskienė (Vitkinaitė), was born 3 June 1933 in Kaunas. I was the third child in the family. My first brother died early and I grew with the other brother Josif, who was 7 years older than me. I was 8 when the war broke out in June 1941.
My father Vulf Vitkin came from a big family that had taken roots in Kaunas, Lithuania, hundreds of years ago. There were 7 children in my father’s family and he was the eldest, born in 1900. He was a technical director of “Koton” factory.
My mother’s – Riva Schmuklerytė-Vitkinienė’s – family was not that big. She had only one brother, Samuel.
My childhood was very beautiful. I remember all beautiful reunions of the family during various holidays. Those would take place in Žaliakalnis neighbourhood, in the family of my mother’s father, or in the Town Hall Square, in Old Town, the heart of the Kaunas City. It was the property of my grand-grandparents Vitkin inherited from generation to generation, and my best memories are associated with this place.
On the second day of the war, my parents decided to retreat to Russia. The journey was difficult, we were retreating together with the Russian army and therefore we were constantly under fire from the forests on both sides of the road. We stopped at some barn to rest and when I woke up, father said there was no point in travelling further as the Germans had already outrun us. Thus we came back in the very same carriage.
In the ghetto, we moved into the house No. 58 on Krikščiūkaičio Street. There our family was joined by my maternal grandparents Peisakh Schmukler and his second wife Sima; the entire family of my mother’s brother Samuel Schmukler – Samuel, his wife Frida and their daughter Gutia; as well as the family of my mother’s cousin Birger.
We lived not far from the Neris River, the gate of the ghetto, the main bridge across the Neris River and Jurbarko Street. Kriščiukaičio Street ran along the river. People who were living in those houses by the river used to go to their gardens by the river to pick vegetables. Meanwhile, soldiers would shoot them from the bridge. I still carry those horrific images in my memory – dead bodies lying in the lawn and in the gardens. This was when my childhood was over...
We – children – used to stay in those huts alone. My cousin Gutia was six years older than me. My brother Joseph, and my cousins Vulf Birger and Gutia were in the same group of the real gymnasium, and Motel was two years older. When everybody was away working, only the oldest people and children would remain in the ghetto.
On the eve of the Great Action on 28 October 1941, we were all informed that we had to gather in the Great Square of the ghetto the next morning. Tension and anxiety could be felt in our hut and nobody could sleep. I remember very well that we were one of the last to be screened. My father had arranged us in such a manner to make an impression that we were all able – the strongest were the first, old people behind them and my brother was the last. My both grandparents and my brother were taken to the wrong side, but my father managed to pull my brother away from the grandparents.
My grandfather Shaya Ruvin Vitkin and my grandmother Basia Vitkin, as well as my other grandfather Leiba Peisakh Schmukler and his wife Sima Schmukler perished during the Great Action.
After the action, there was more space in our hut, but the existence became grimmer.
After the Great Action, my father started building a hideout in our hut.
Neighbours would come to that hideout-basement too until it was packed. To me, as a child, those moments in the hideout were the scariest. I was afraid to stay down there as the place used to be cramped and there was no air, but nevertheless it saved our lives multiple times.
I remember one action, when we had already left the hideout as we thought that the danger had passed. We had already moved the wardrobe from the door when we saw that the soldiers were coming back for more people. Our family and a few more dozens of people were taken to the gate. My father tried to push the four of us into a yard and hide. But they would take him back to the ranks each time. The next time he tried to escape he was beaten very badly with rifle stocks. Those were Lithuanian soldiers – I could hear them speak Lithuanian. My brother tried to protect father, but he was bruised badly too. Nonetheless, my father managed to push my brother into some yard just near the gate. I remember my brother trying to get back to us, but my father said to him that he had to stay there to help us. Meanwhile, we were taken outside the gate. There was a square near the gate of the ghetto – it is marked with a memorial stone now. We were standing in that square and I could see my brother behind the barbed wire further from the gate towards Ariogalos Street. He was clinging to the barbed wire with his hands above his head, weeping. He saw us outside the gate and he realised what that meant. But we were saved by a coincidence again. Our group was taken towards the Jurbarko Street where people from the action had already been assembled. Our father was still trying to hide us somewhere on the way although we were already outside the ghetto. We did not manage to hide, and we thought that it was over, but an order was issued all of a sudden: “Zurück”, i. e. turn back. I still remember the name of the man who saved our group – he was Doctor Levin. His face was etched into my memory forever.
After the Great Action, Rivka Schmukler-Osherovich and the Bagriansky family left the ghetto, but we did not know where to. I survived thanks to Rivka Schmuklerytė, because after leaving the ghetto she arranged a hideout for me in the city.
While I was in the ghetto, I felt secure despite all the dangers, because I could at least see my parents every evening. My mother always managed to cook something out of those few potatoes or peas that we could lay our hands on. I felt safe and did not want to leave the ghetto. When my parents told me that they would send me into hiding in the city, I could not sleep at nights.
There was an organised group of people in Kaunas, who helped to hide children from the ghetto. The group included Mrs. Sofija Binkienė – the wife of the poet and writer Kazys Binkis, their daughters Lilijana and Irena, their son-in-law Vladas Varčikas, Sofija Binkienė’s niece Natalija Likevičienė, as well as Ms. Natalija Fugalevičiūtė, Mrs. Natalija Jegorova, Mrs. Lidija Golubovienė (Fugalevičiūtė), Mrs. Pranutė Špokaitė-Juodvalkienė, Mrs. Helene Holzman, Ms. Margarete Holzman, Mrs. Sofija Čiurlionienė, Mr. Vladimiras Zubovas and Mrs. Danutė Zubovienė, Mr. Kutorga, Mrs. Elena Kutorgas, and Mr. Petras Baublys (All persons mentioned in the text – Sofija Binkienė, her daughters Lilijana and Irena, her son-in-law Vladas Varčikas, Natalija Likevičienė, Helene Holzman, Natalija Jegorova, Natalija Fugalevičiūtė, Lidija Golubovienė, Sofija Čiurlionienė, Vladimiras Zubovas and Danutė Zubovienė, Viktoras and Elena Kutorga, Petras Baublys, and Pranė Špokaitė-Juodvalkienė were titled the Righteous Among the Nations and awarded the Life Saving Crosses (posthumously). Their actions related to the saving of the Jews during the war were described in Sofija Binkienė’s book Ir be ginklo kariai (Unarmed Soldiers) and the publications of the museum Gyvybę ir duoną nešančios rankos (Life and Bread Bearing Hands)).
I was taken from the ghetto together with one more girl – Deborah Byron – by a Jewish policeman. That night Deborah had to approach Natalija Jegorova, and I had to come to Natalija Fugalevičiūtė.
I left the ghetto with a tiny bundle of personal things as my parents had nothing to give me. The policeman took me and Deborah to the ghetto gate through which long brigades of workers were coming back from work. He grabbed us by the collars with one hand, stretched out the other hand and pushed me and Debora into the middle of the ranks shouting “Ordnung! Ordnung!” People understood that he was trying to get children out of the ghetto so they surrounded us and let us pass through the middle of the ranks unnoticed. I felt like I was walking through the water until we reached the other end of the brigades. I knew that I had to reach the fifth house on the left side of the street and find a woman wearing a phosphorous brooch. I had to ask her what time it was and she had to give me a completely wrong answer.
The last time I saw my father was at the gate of the ghetto where he brought me.
As instructed, I approached that woman. She was Natalija Fugalevičiūtė, one of the most beloved women in my entire life. Those two women – Natalija Fugalevičiūtė and Natalija Jegorova – hid Rivka Schmukler-Osherovich for three years and I spend only two nights there.
That was when I was given a new name. Many names were offered to me and I chose Danutė. My family name Vitkin was changed to Vitkauskaitė. From that day, I had to forget that I was Fruma Vitkin and was instructed on how I should behave thereafter. Thus, my new life began under the name of Danutė Vitkauskaitė. This period from the winter of 1943–1944 to August 1944 and later to May 1945 was not easier and often even more difficult than the ghetto period.
The first stranger I saw at Fugalevičiūtė’s and Jegorova’s was Mrs. Helene Holzman (Helene Czapski Holzman (1891–1968). In 2000, memoirs of Helene Holzman were published in Germany (Margarete Holzman, Reinhard Kaiser. Dies Kind soll leben. Die Aufzeichnungen der Helene Hozmann 1941–1944. Schöffling und Co. Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2000). In Lithuania, the book of Helene Holzman’s memoirs was published under the title Šitas vaikas turi gyventi (Margarete Holzman, Reinhard Kaiser. Baltos lankos, 2003 m.) In 2007, a museum film was created under the title Vilties etiudas – neužmirštamas vardas Teisuolių alėjoje Helene Holzman (Study of Hope. Helene Holzman – An Unforgettable Name in the Avenue of the Righteous; directed and written by Lilija Kopač; project manager and co-writen by Danutė Selčinskaja)). The next day, her daughter Margarete came. Helene Czapski (later Holzman) was from Germany, married to a German Jew – artist Max Holzman. She moved to Lithuanian in 1923.
During the first days of the war, when the arrests of the Jews started in the streets, Helene Holzman’s husband and her older daughter Maria were seized too.
Max Holzman did not return home. He is believed to have been shot in the 7th fort. The older daughter of the Holzmans, the 19 years old Maria, who used to visit wounded German soldiers in the Kaunas hospital and talk about peace with them, was jailed for some time and shot in the 9th fort together with thousands of other Jews from Kaunas city during the Great Action on 28 October 1941.
Helene Holzman and her younger daughter Margarete survived the horror and despair of the loss, and quickly joined the purpose of saving people. Dozens of Jews moved through their house before going into hiding.
When me and Deborah were taken out of the ghetto, Helene Holzman picked me, because I looked abject, as she later told me.
Helene Holzman was living on Višinskio Street, Žaliakalnis neighbourhood. Helene Holzman was a strict woman of affairs. She spoke only German and it was quite a task for me to get used to this trait alone. Naturally, as a 10 years old girl, I was not in position to appreciate and perceive the extraordinariness of that woman and the superiority of her personality. Helene Holzman used to make exploits in the most dangerous situations.
I was at Helene Holzman’s when one night Rivka Schmuklerytė came and said that she was taking me for a walk. We were walking towards Savanorių Avenue where both Natashas lived and Rivka told me that my mother was there. She also told me not to cry and to tell my mother that everything was all right. I was instructed not to show any weakness, because my mother was very worried. I entered the house and saw my mother at the oven – she was gaunt and grizzly. She was completely changed since I had left the ghetto a short time ago. Obviously, she was trying to control herself as much as she could. Our rendezvous was short. After an hour or so I was taken back to Helene Holzman, while my mother stayed overnight and joined the brigades of workers the next day.
I was upset and frightened by my mother’s face – such was the extent of the transformation during the short period. Most likely, our separation had such an impact on her, that later, when hideouts were found for my mother and my brother, the three of them decided to stick together until a place was found for my father too. But it never happened, so they stayed in the ghetto until the end.
One night, I was suddenly woken up, told to dress up quickly, and then Natasha Jegorova took me from Helene Holzman’s apartment. This was a routine procedure when one of the fugitives got caught by Gestapo. Tortured men could tell the police anything. If the arrestee had known certain hideouts, people would be taken from those places. Thus I was taken from the home that I had already got used to and around midnight I was brought to the house of the actress Olga Kuzmina-Dauguvietienė in Žaliakalnis neighbourhood.
During the time at Mrs. Dauguvietienė’s, I missed everyone. Natasha felt my loneliness and she was the only person to have visited me during my entire period of hiding wherever I was. I remember myself sitting in the attic on the second floor and watching the birds. I had this belief that if a tit or a sparrow lands on the windowsill, Natasha would come. I used to wait for her impatiently and loved her very much. And Natasha would come.
I stayed at Olga Kuzmina-Dauguvietienė’s for about a month, until I got my new birth certificate in the name of Danutė Vitkauskaitė. From Mrs. Dauguvietienė’s place I was taken to the children’s home, that was in a red brick house in Ugniagesių Street.
Eventually, the streets of Kaunas became desolate. There were no people or vehicles to be seen. Natasha Fugalevičiūtė took me from the children’s home in fear that we might be transported to Germany. She decided to take me to Kulautuva – a resort some 20 kilometres away from Kaunas. Her sister Lidija Golubovienė (Lidija Golubovienė (1896-1980) lived in her homestead in Kulautuva before and after the war. After the war, she was exiled to Igarka. 15 people hid in Lidija Golubovienė’s house in Kulautuva until the liberation. See S. Binkienė Ir be ginklo kariai. Moteris gyvenusi dėl kitų, p. 125.) lived there and was hiding many Jews. When me and Natasha arrived in Kulautuva, Rivka Schmuklerytė, Irutė-Rosian Bagriansky and a group of other Jewish and Russian children were already there.
When the frontline closed in on Lidija Golubovienė’s farmstead, and we all left for the forest. We took two cows and were carrying loaves of bread. All of a sudden, fire was opened at us from across the Nemunas River. There was a lawn stretching towards the forest full of ripe late wild strawberries. We ran and I would hear someone shouting “Down!” And I would fall down and hide my head under Rivka’s body to feel safer. Once that stress was over, I could not say a full sentence in any of the languages I knew. I would utter one word in Lithuanian, another in Russian and the third would be in German. For a while, Rivka even was worried about this.
In the forest, we built bowers and would sleep on the loaves of bread until one morning I woke up and was told that we did not have to hide any more. After the entire endless period of hiding, it sounded improbable and I could not realise that the danger was over. I can still see Lidija Golubovienė’s barn in which we hid many times.
During the first days after the war, I had no news of my parents or my brother. I would go to the Kaunas synagogue, and read the lists of people returning from concentration camps. I was looking for my relatives until I found the name of Vitkinienė. I was sure she was my mother. It was announced that Fruma Vitkinaitė was looking for her relatives, and thus I met my beloved uncle Nisen’s wife Leah Vitkin who had survived Stutthof. From her, and later from other relatives as well, I found out that all my cousins had died during the Children’s Action in the Kaunas Ghetto.
My parents and my brother Joseph tried to survive in the ghetto to the last minute. They knew that I was somewhere close in Kaunas.
They all perished during the liquidation of the Kaunas Ghetto, when the great hideout of the ghetto was blasted.
Helene Holzman and her daughter Margarete accepted me into their family. I finished gymnasium and got my higher education while living in that family.
I parted with Helene Holzman at the very same ghetto gate where I last saw my father. Helene and Margarete repatriated to Germany in 1965. Unfortunately, Helene Holzman died tragically in a car accident in Germany in 1968.
Her daughter and my sister Margarete still lives in Giesen, Germany, among Helene Holzman’s paintings and collages.