I Have Retained a Great Love of LIFE!
From Smuggled in Potato Sacks
Fifty Stories of the Hidden Children of the Kaunas Ghetto
and Yakov Zilberg
My mother, Chaviva Libaite, was born in 1915 in Lithuania in the small town of Varniai. In her youth, being pretty and lively, she had always been a centre of attention for many Jewish young men. Aharon Dambe, a young man from Varniai and one of Mama’s admirers, made her a proposal of marriage. He was older than she was by six to eight years and she turned him down.
In 1938 my mother moved to Kaunas to start a job there, after she had had her application for a permit (‘certificate’), to emigrate to Palestine turned down. She had been a member of the organization ‘Hashomer Hatsair’ in Varniai.
Aharon in the meantime had set off to Palestine to seek his fortune there. In 1939 he had still not found his feet in Palestine and came back to Kaunas, where he met my mother again and once more started courting her. When he proposed for a second time, my mother accepted his offer of marriage. This time Aharon Dambe and Chaviva Libaite became man and wife; I was born on 6 February 1940. My father worked as the chief accountant in one of the town’s large factories and my mother had an office job somewhere. My parents lived very well up until the war. They had a beautiful flat, opposite the Opera Theatre.
When the war began my parents tried to escape to Russia, but the train was bombed by the Germans. Half of the train moved off to the east, but they had been in the ‘wrong’ half. Lithuanians surrounded the remaining passengers, led the men off and shot them in the woods straightaway. To this day I do not know where my biological father’s grave is. My mother and I were taken to the Kaunas Ghetto, but I do not know where we lived there or where she worked.
In 1943 a German soldier from the Wehrmacht, who had taken a shine to my mother, warned her about the Children’s Action and advised her to take me through the fence when he was on guard duty at the gate at night, so as to take me to safety.
I was taken in by a Polish family by the name of Wilkancas Raimundas, living near the ghetto in the Slobodka district who also had a son and daughter of their own. My mother had previously given Wilkancas the key to our flat, saying that he could take all its contents including the bag of jewels that was hidden there. Since I had curly blond hair and blue eyes as a small child, nobody suspected that I was Jewish. I was taught to pray, while living with the Polish family, and became a proper little Polish
After the ghetto in Kaunas was disbanded, my mother was taken to the Stutthof camp, which was eventually liberated by the Soviet Army. When my mother went back to Kaunas, she collected me from the family of my rescuers. After the war Wilkancas became a People’s Judge. His family was still living in the same house in Slobodka. In the spring of 1947 the Neman and Vilija rivers both broke their banks and there was a serious flood, which affected a large part of the city. My parents offered the Wilkancas family the opportunity to come and stay with us, but they declined. One night, when Wilkancas had not been at home, the whole of his family was drowned. Wilkancas subsequently married a second time. My parents helped him and his family a good deal, and Wilkancas even attended my wedding. Unfortunately he was in the habit of drinking heavily and in 1968 he died.