rescued jewish children

Ilana Kamber-Ash

‘The Young Shoots of the Tree’

Ilana Kamber-Ash

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

Solomon Abramovich
and Yakov Zilbverg

Prior to the war, my mother, Judith Moses-Kamber, had worked as a nurse in the Jewish Hospital ‘Bikur Cholim’ in Kaunas. My father, Marcus Kamber, was called up to serve in the Soviet Army on the first day of the war; he was an officer in the 16th Lithuanian Division. So my mother found herself in the ghetto alone. There she discovered she was pregnant.
I was born on 27 March 1942 and my mother, attended by Dr Elkes, gave birth in a cellar so that if she cried out the Germans would not hear her. My mother had been on friendly terms with Dr Elkes when they worked at the Jewish Hospital. He was later elected to lead the Jewish Council in the ghetto. It was Dr Elkes who insisted that I be given the name Ilana, which means ‘tree’ in Hebrew. He pointed out to my mother that the young shoots of the tree would survive while an old tree would die.
Once, while my mother strolled with me in the ghetto, a German officer approached us, took me in his arms and carried me to the commandant’s office. My mother was convinced I had been taken away for good and ran around the building of the office completely frantic with worry. After half an hour he emerged with me, carrying a box of food for us. My blonde hair and blue eyes must have stirred some form of nostalgia in him.
In 1943 rumours were circulating about the possibility of a ‘Children’s Action’. A chilling message came from the Jews of the Shauliai Ghetto saying, ‘Save your children’. Mother began considering desperate measures to save me. Her brother, Eliezer Moses, had connections with underground groups in the town. He obtained the name of a Polish woman who helped save Jewish children. Having bribed the ghetto guard with her wedding ring, Mother escaped with me and located this woman. She, however, refused to take me in, showing my mother a room in her house full of Jewish children, mostly boys. She told my mother that there was simply no room for even one more child, and taking another could endanger them all. With a feeling relief that she would not be separated from me, Mother returned to the ghetto.
But the atmosphere in the ghetto was becoming more and more unsettling; Mother could no longer delay getting me out. Dr Elkes gave me a sleeping pill and helped my mother hide me in a potato sack. She decided to take me back to the home of the Polish woman but again she refused to help. This time, out of desperation, Mother put me down on the doorstep and said, ‘So be it, let her die here, she will surely not survive the ghetto, and I cannot bear to watch her die’. The woman, convinced of my mother’s resolve, took me by the hand and led me into her house.
My mother returned to the ghetto alone. During the ‘Children’s Action’, she was to witness how the mothers of the murdered children lost their minds, having helplessly watched their children’s fate. In this ‘action’ my 8-year-old cousin was murdered.
Thanks to my Aryan appearance, a Lithuanian family, living in a village not far from Kaunas, adopted me. Kazis and Bronya Liutkus were a middle-aged childless couple. Naturally they had me christened and I was renamed Laimute Lutkute. During our first few days, Bronya would take me to the ghetto fence so that my mother could see me. However, seeing me provoked too much distress in my mother, and Bronya was obliged to cease this ritual, fearing that the Germans would discover what was happening.
When the ghetto was liquidated my mother, like all the women of the ghetto, was sent to the Stutthof concentration camp.
I was one of the lucky few to have ended up with caring adoptive parents. I was loved, fed and spoilt. During a walk with my adoptive mother, a German approached us and offered me a sweet; I thanked him in Yiddish. Bronya froze in her tracks for fear that I had inadvertently disclosed my Jewish identity. However, the German was delighted at my response and wondered how I knew the German for ‘thank you’. From then on, I was kept at home until I forgot Yiddish and started speaking in Lithuanian.
I read somewhere that ghetto children grew up fast. Once, playing in the yard, I noticed the Lithuanian policemen approaching our house. Two partisans were at the Liutkus household at the time. I must have understood the danger the police posed and ran to the gate to deter these guards and told them that my father was not home. They turned and left. Bronya often used to recall this event.
At the end of 1944, after a serious injury and a lengthy stay in hospital, my father was discharged from the army. He returned to a liberated Kaunas. On his way from the railway station, he encountered my Uncle Eliezer Moses, who had fled the ghetto and joined the partisans. Eliezer told father he had a daughter born in the ghetto and this was how my father first learnt of my existence. He went straight to the Liutkus family home and announced that he was the father of the little girl. Still carrying his army kit bag, and with nowhere to go (the home they had left when they were forced to move to the ghetto had been occupied by Lithuanians), he wished to take me with him. Mr and Mrs Liutkus, to their credit, advised that he should first find accommodation and work, and they would then part with me.
At that time my father’s friends, Maxim and Erica Levin, lived in a huge four-bedroom house. They gave my father a room, which was where he brought me. Finding work also posed no problems. A Lithuania in ruins was crying out for civil engineers. My father and Maxim would go to work, and Erica would look after me and Carmela, a little girl they had fostered from the Jewish Orphanage. Soon, I began calling Erica ‘Mama’. I spoke only Lithuanian and this remained the language I would always speak with my father.
In 1945, survivors of the concentration camps were beginning to return. My father would inquire about his wife and discovered that she was in a transit camp already in Soviet territory, so he went to look for her.
I remember nothing of my time with the Liutkus family, only brief glimpses of life with the Levins. However, I can remember my mother’s return with vivid clarity. It was in the middle of the night, and Erica switched on the light in the room where I was sleeping. I remember the bright light blinding my eyes, Erica lifting me while I was still half asleep, and carrying me to the corridor.
In the doorway stood a woman I did not recognize. When she saw me she began to laugh and cry at the same time; Erica put me in the woman’s arms and I can still feel the strength with which she embraced me, so tightly I could hardly breathe. I still remember the fear that gripped me, and I was sure that I was being taken away again. I began lashing out at her with my arms and legs in a terrible fit of hysterics. Erica took me away and secured me back in my bed. I remember nothing of what happened the next day. I don’t remember how I got used to my mother again, I don’t remember when I started to call her Mama, I only know that I loved her very much.
In 1946, my father was appointed head engineer of the Lithuanian Construction Bank and we moved to Vilnius. Late one night in 1948, Bronya Liutkus, my former adoptive mother, appeared in our home with a 2-year-old child in her arms whom they had evidently adopted. Bronya told my mother that they had been warned they were on the KGB lists for deportation. Her husband was hiding in a friend’s house, and Bronya was appealing to us for help. We were then living in a communal house that we shared with the family of a Russian officer whose wife did not work. Bronya and the child had to stay in the bedroom at all times. Before leaving for work, my mother would leave food and a bucket for them in the room, but the most difficult thing was to keep a 2-year-old child occupied for hours on end without her crying. Evidently, they could not have been careful enough for one night loud knocks were heard at the door. Two KGB officers stormed in and went straight for the room where Bronya was hiding. My father stood in front of the door of the room and swore on the honour of a Soviet officer that his wife and daughter alone were asleep in this room; the officers believed him and left. When Bronya bade us goodbye the following morning she said to my mother, ‘If we get caught and you want to help, do not on any account mention that during the war my husband and I had saved a Jewish child’. In the anti-Semitic atmosphere of late 1940s USSR, she feared this would have been regarded as treachery, not heroism.
Like many others who had lived through the ghetto and camps, my mother seldom spoke of her experiences. Every time she recollected something, she would end up in tears and then chain smoke. Yet those years had left their mark on us children as well. I was tormented by nightmares till I was 14 years old. I would wake in the middle of the night petrified and in tears. I would then be allowed to stay in my parents’ bed. They were never cross with me, they always understood. Only with them did I feel safe. Until I was 17 I would not stay at home alone. My parents had to take me with them to their parties, to the cinema. The fear of losing them never left me. In those years, I was too young to understand that the trauma of the war years had not left my parents either, they had simply buried it deep.-
I graduated from the Kaunas Polytechnic Institute as a civil engineer, and I married Pavel Ash who was from Moscow and we lived there for several years. I only came to understand the effect of the war years on my father when I became a mother myself. My son Aron (Arik) was born in Moscow. I took him to visit my father in Vilnius. My mother had already passed away. I noticed how much pleasure my father took in changing his grandson’s nappies. Once he made a sad comment, ‘I’d never had the chance to tend to my daughter when she was a baby; at least I get to do this for my grandson’.
In 1971 we moved back to Vilnius permanently because it was easier to obtain visas to Israel from Lithuania. We left for Israel in 1972 together with my father; my mother’s grave is left behind in Lithuania. In our family it was she who had dreamt most of Israel. In Lithuania there are no other family graves apart from my mother’s. The branches of my parents’ families in Telshiai and Prienai had all been wiped out in those war years. I don’t know the names of my grandparents. My parents never spoke of them.
We named our daughter Judith (Dita) after my mother. She was born in Israel and she feels privileged because of this. She is the only one of the family who was born in her own land. In 1982 my husband started working in the Russian Service of the BBC in London and we relocated to England.
In 1999, after reading The Hidden History of the Kaunas Ghetto, I discovered that Dr Elkes, who had given me my name, had two children, Yoel and Sara Elkes, who were sent to study in England in the 1930s. I tracked them down and met with Sara, who now lives in Leicester and I spoke on the telephone with her brother Yoel, an American professor of psychiatry. In a sense I feel they are a strong link to my past. I told them that my mother would speak of their father with great awe. Through them at least I could express my gratitude to their father who had helped save my life.

First published in 2011 by Vallentine Mitchell
London, Portland, OR

Keywords: Ilana Kamber-Ash