Rescuers of Jews

Byla Vincentas


Gregory Toker


I have translated my late mother's memoir with a heavy heart. While doing so I heard her voice again, telling the story, and I also noticed various details I somehow missed in the past. But I can no longer ask all the questions that come to mind.
Both my parents were extraordinary people. It is impossible to imagine the hardships they had to overcome and all the horrible things they saw and went through. Their relatively happy world in pre-war Lithuania was brutally destroyed, and with it practically the entire Jewish population of Lithuania, including all of their extended family. A few had managed to leave Lithuania before the war and had made it to South Africa, England, the Americas, or Russia; very few survived the war and had to endure the Soviet regime with its persecutions and state anti-Semitism. Finally, in 1973, we – my parents, I, my wife, and her parents – were able to repatriate to Israel, and finally become free, both as Jews and as individuals.
Despite the state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the pre-war Lithuania, my parents had a busy and comfortable life there. I see happy faces in the old pictures, and I remember the stories. A large and warm family, many friends, Jews and Lithuanians; professional successes, a large house, trips abroad, and their dear little daughter Adutė – my sister whom I had never known.
Both my parents were well educated people, doctors. My mother had studied dentistry, and my father general medicine. Both came from large traditional families, neither was rich.
My mother graduated from the Kaunas University in 1933 and worked as a dentist in health fund clinics first in Kupishkis, where she was born, and, after her marriage, in Radvilishkis, where she also had private practice. She continued to work part time as a dentist even when she was forced to take the position of the MATMLAD inspector in the pre-war Soviet Lithuania. She was devoted to the patients and during the war their recognition helped her on several occasions.
My father was a self-made man. From the early years of his life he had to support the family. He stopped attending school and studied by himself, giving private lessons for income. He not only passed all the school exams successfully as externus but graduated several years ahead of his class. He entered the medical faculty of the University of Kaunas and graduated cum laude in 1928. After graduation he went to work in a hospital in Koenigsberg. The medical experience was invaluable, but the hospital did not pay its apprentices, and he often had to live on a pitcher of beer a day (in the beer cellars, the bread that came with the beer was free…). Even in later years, he never missed an opportunity to learn and to gain experience; he spent periods of time in various clinics in Berlin, Prague, and Vienna and, after the war, in Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad. The contacts he developed proved to be invaluable: when a few months before our departure to Israel my mother was diagnosed with melanoma, he was able to arranged for her to be treated in a specialized hospital in Leningrad, which saved her life. We still remember her surgeon, Doctor Loris Meliksetovich Khachaturian, with warm gratitude.
On return to Radvilishkis, a year and a half later, father opened a private practice and became widely known and respected, both for his medical knowledge and for his kindness to the patients. He was always there for everyone, whether patients, friends, or family. Not only would he not take money from poor patients, he often gave them money to buy medecines. To this day, his name is remembered in Radvilishkis. My mother’s memoir mentions several cases when she was saved by the gratitude of his former patients.
My parents married in 1936, settled in Radvilishkis, and two years later Adutė was born. She was only five when the Vlasovite underlings of the Germans snatched her away from the ghetto in Shiauliai.
The beginning of the war found my father recuperating in Sochi on the Black Sea. He immediately came back to the center of Russia, enlisted in the army and managed to get an appointment in a hospital in Kazan, close to the railway station where he would go as often as he could to meet the trains coming from the West, hoping to find his family. This almost got him killed since the Russians suspected him of being a German spy. Fortunately, one of the commanders in town knew him personally from Lithuania and vouched for him. A very similar story happened to my wife's father, Aba Strazhas. At the end of the war my father was already a major of the Red Army, decorated and highly respected.
On return to Lithuania my parents were able to help the two priests who saved my mother, and also the family of our faithful Antsia. Father managed to stop the deportation of Reverend Kleiba and to get Reverend Byla and the family of Antsia back from Siberia where they already had been deported. With the efforts of my parents, both priests were recognized by Israel as Righteous Gentiles. Adolfas Kleiba died shortly after the war. Vincas Byla lived longer and died after we had already left Lithuania. We visited him and his sister many times in his parsonage in Jurbarkas. He was always cheerful, making everyone around him comfortable and happy.
The war ended, and normal life began. My parents settled in Vilnius and started working. I was born in 1948. Mother worked in a dental clinic and was its manager until 1963 when, as part of the Soviet drive to promote the "national cadres," she "voluntarily" ceded her managerial position to a Lithuanian colleague. Father became a lecturer at the Vilnius University and medical deputy director of the hospital for infectious diseases in Žverinas in Vilnius. He worked in that hospital until our last day in Lithuania. He was very active in medical circles, was often called for medical consultation in difficult cases, lectured in various frameworks, including the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute, and was member and Secretary of the Lithuanian Scientific Medical Society for epidemiology, microbiology and infectious diseases.
In 1952, with Stalin's anti-Semitism well under way, my father was ordered to choose between his University lectureship and his hospital position. Unable to imagine himself without patients, he chose the hospital. A few months later all the Jews remaining at the medical faculty were simply dismissed. A similar episode, occurred in 1965, in the shape of the promotion of “national cadres.” At that time my father's hospital was the only one remaining in Vilnius where the top managers – the director and his deputy – were not Lithuanians. The authorities tried to fabricate a case against them. They did not succeed, but the director, a gentle Ukrainian Dr. Ivan Ivanovich Khomenko, was forced to retire; my father lost his managerial position. Yet, the same year he received a commendation for outstanding work.
In Israel, father started working almost from day one (his Hebrew from his early days as a yeshiva student in Lithuania came in very handy); mother found work as a dentist in a small private clinic. Being 67 at the time, father could not be given a hospital position, and worked as a general practitioner in a health fund clinic in Petah Tikva and also part-time in a local hospital. Always eager to learn, he earned the status of "expert" in internal and children medicine, and mastered cardiography. Again, he was always surrounded by grateful patients. Even after he finally had to retire (he was 85 at the time; his eyesight began to deteriorate) and they moved to Jerusalem to be closer to us, he continued to work as a volunteer physician in a clinic in our neighborhood.
My father was born in Radvilishkis on February 16, 1906 and died on November 9, 2001; mother was born in Kupishkis on November 22, 1908 (as Pesa Kaplanaite) and died on December 19, 2004. My parents lived very long lives – both reached 96 – and were completely lucid until their last day. Their life in Israel was quietly happy; they lived to see and enjoy their grandchildren. Yet the shadow of that fateful day in the Shiauliai ghetto was always with them, like an non-healing wound, its pain flaring up from time to time. Adutė's picture is among hundreds of thousands of portraits in the chidren’s memorial in the Israel Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem.

Jerusalem, 2011

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