From the speech in the ceremony of awarding the Righteous Among the Nations in Užupis Gymnasium 12 March 2008
Our family, all split up and affected awfully by the Holocaust, hurried here, to our native city, from the depth of Russia, where we, the refugees, had found shelter. We had not heard anything about our relatives, who were not evacuated and stayed in Kaunas, for three years.
Kaunas looked just like before the war, because it was not damaged much by the acts of war, but what was really different were its residents. It was scary to walk down the streets, where your uncles, aunts, cousins and acquaintances used to live without meeting any of them.
All the Jews that came back to Kaunas used to meet everyday by the synagogue and leave their letters and notes for those they were looking for, expecting someone from the relatives to find them and respond. Unfortunately, no one from our family did. Neither did we get any information about my sister who had gone on holidays in Palanga camp. One day Hiršas Levinas, the survivor member of the Kaunas Ghetto Council of Elders, came to us and told as about all the tragedies that our family had to face. We found out that my mother’s younger brother Dovydas died during the Intellectuals Action, that our grandmother was killed during the Great Action, that my mother’s elder sister Maša was taken to Stutthof camp and it was not known whether she would ever come back as all the others had already come back, but not her. Dovydas’ wife Maja had found a hiding place in the ghetto before its liquidation, but the ghetto was blown up and many people died from suffocation in those hideouts. As Hiršas Levinas continued, it turned out that a little girl, the younger daughter of Dovydas and Maja Pagirskis was taken out of the ghetto, and the elder daughter was staying with Maja’s servant. That is how Julija Bernotaitė knocked on our door one day. It seemed that the whole apartment suddenly revived. <...> Julija was able of concentrating as well as acting. She brought Ilana to a village where everyone knew that Julija had a daughter, and without even doubting she took her real daughter Regina to Strumilos family who lived in Kaunas. Then she introduced Ilana as her real daughter to everyone. We were four girls, united miraculously. <...> Julija would bring some optimistic spirit to our life – that is why she was asked to take care of the children. The purpose was for us to become friends, to keep in touch. Sometimes we would ask for something extraordinary, let’s say a candy. She would say: “I will draw it immediately” and she would really draw it. From those long gone times of childhood I have a habit to imagine, visualise, and draw the things that I strongly desire. Even now many of my works are dappled with such drawings, sketches of future projects, although my field is not art, but literature. I like drawing portraits of the characters from my books or translations. And that is the way Julija educated us – to draw what we want ant to direct our energy at the object. I couldn’t remember her not working – she was always doing some needlework. Her whole tiny apartment was fully decorated by her handiwork. She was a very impetuous and talented person.
Dalija Epšteinaitė is delivering a speech at Righteous Among the Nations of the World award ceremony at Užupis gymnasium. March 12, 2008