Ariela Abramovich Sef
IN THE GHETTO
Today is May 9th, Victory Day (1). For me it is the most important holiday of all – more important than New Year or Passover.
I was born at the end of October 1941. It was a premature birth at 12, Raguchyo Street during a round-up in the Kaunas Ghetto, when the Germans were approaching Moscow. It was very bad timing, but there was nothing to be done and when I was only five days old I went, or rather I was taken, wrapped up against my mother’s breast – to the “Great Action” (That was when the ill, the elderly, cripples and new-born babies were selected and sent off to die or, to use the German term, to do “lighter labour”, while the young and healthy were sent off to work “for the good of Germany”).
All the Jews were driven out into Democrats’ Square, which was cordoned off. Early that morning the Lithuanian volunteer policemen, who called themselves partisans, had started searching all the flats, every single cellar and attic, emptying the whole Ghetto. The SS commander, Rauca, had been in charge of the whole operation. He was standing on raised ground, so as to get a better view of the crowd: people were walking along in groups, in families, in households. The “Selection” began. Rauca pointed with his truncheon to indicate who should go to the right and who to the left. He was separating families. Relatives were pushing and straining towards each other. People did not yet realize that Right meant death and Left life. It was very cold. People were becoming more and more agitated.
Our relatives clustered tightly round me and my mother. We managed to go to the Good side, the whole of our family except Grandmother. She was old and wise – a woman, who understood everything that was going on: so as not to upset her family, she had hidden in the crowd of those ‘selected’ for death. Everyone was very worked up. Then suddenly, as I was told later, my father took three leaps over to the Bad side, hunted out and literally dragged Grandmother out of the crowd. Then with his mother, who was not aware of what was going on, he ran back to the Good, side. When they tried to stop him amidst the heart-rending weeping, noise, barking of dogs, the curses and lashings meted out by the Lithuanian Polizei, Father ran up to an officer and explained to him in fluent German that he had been given permission to go and fetch his mother.
“Who gave you permission?”
“Why did they give you permission?”
“What error was made?”
Before they had time to realize what was happening, Father had brought Grandmother back to the vital side.
Later my father used to be asked: “How come you weren’t afraid. You could have been shot. You’re a hero!”
“What d’you mean ‘hero’? I was simply frightened, more than everyone else. That’s why I ran”.
When life was calm and peaceful, Father was often plagued by doubts, but in serious situations I don’t really know anyone who could be more decisive. That was how he saved Grandmother.
It was more than likely that he saved our mother too on one occasion. In a garden plot next to the house where they lived Mother pulled up a carrot one evening in the dark thinking nobody would see her, but a high-ranking German officer caught her in the act. He stopped her there and then, but because he was hurrying somewhere at the time, merely instructed to report to the commandant’s office the next morning. She was bound to have been given a harsh punishment for thieving. When he first caught pinching the carrot, the officer had clearly not had time to deal with the matter. When our father came home at the end of his work shift, he found mother sobbing. It was clear that she might well be shot or, at best, be sent to the nearby camp. She kept asking:” What shall I do, what shall I do? Who will there be to look after the baby?”
Father replied in a tired, utterly calm voice, sounding even slightly indifferent: “Don’t do anything, don’t go”.
Mother did not go…
All the members of our family on Father’s side, with the exception of Uncle Beno, were granted a little longer to live.
When it became known that there was going to be another raid my Father said firmly: “Ariela’s not going to be rounded up”.
Sometimes children were placed outside the Ghetto fence or gates and would be picked up by friends or acquaintances or just complete strangers. We did not have any friends to hand.
Father gradually came round to the idea of hiding me – come what may. The other relatives regarded him as a madman. They all decided he was out of his mind, but like a paranoid he went on saying “I’m going to throw her out of here”.
The family was a warm, close-knit one and all our relatives lived close by. His sister and brothers and his parents begged him not to: “Such a lovely child! We’ve all been feeding her. You go off to work, but the child’s not even hungry. Just look how pretty she is, how beautiful”.
Grandfather kept on saying: “She’s not just a baby,. She’s a picture. What will happen to all of us? If something happens, perhaps God will help”.
Father replied that he could not take the risk and nor did he intend to start negotiating with God…