Scalded by Borscht
From Smuggled in Potato Sacks
Fifty Stories of the Hidden Children of the Kaunas Ghetto
and Yakov Zilberg
My father Leib was a paediatrician in Kaunas, and most of his patients were Lithuanian children. My mother, Hanna Taft, was originally from the small town of Shakliai. She was a dentist. I was born in 1940. The family, although not religious, observed some Jewish traditions. The spoken language in our family was Yiddish, and my parents strongly supported the Zionist movement. I was the only child in this happy family and we lived in a very comfortable, spacious apartment. Many years later I found out that my parents owned a supermarket and a bakery, as well as my father’s big private clinic.
My father had many brothers and sisters, who all perished during the occupation. Some were killed by the Germans but most of them were murdered by the Lithuanian collaborators. My mother’s relatives were exiled to Siberia just before the war, so the Soviets, ironically, had saved them from the fascists.
In the ghetto our family found itself in a small flat which we shared with more than thirty other people. There was one advantage to this situation: together it was easier to ensure there was a food supply. My very first memory is of a huge pot, where borscht, a soup made from beetroot, was being cooked. I liked it so much that once I fell down into this pot full of hot soup: I suffered burns over 50 per cent of my body. I remember this vividly; I was treated with bandages soaked in fish oil, but my general condition was very poor, and I very nearly died. I can remember the painful procedure of changing my dressing and how my parents pleaded with me, ‘Please do not cry, Yakov. If you cry, Germans will come and kill you.’ And I would not cry, suffering in a silence.
My grandparents were burned alive before the ‘Great Action’, while my parents watched their death helplessly. During this ‘action’ our family was sent to the ‘bad’ line: my parents knew this meant they were going to be killed. In despair my mother pleaded with the SS officer in her fluent German, ‘My son is dying, let me take care of him and let him die in my arms.’ Probably something in my mother’s voice touched the officer who shouted, ‘Raus! Get out of my sight!’ and pushed her to the other line. Mother pointed out my father, ‘This is my husband, he is a children’s doctor and he treats the child. We cannot manage without him.’ It is beyond belief, but this officer let my father pass to the ‘good’ line as well. How fate plays with people: my condition saved our family from being killed. A scar from these burns will remind me forever of what had happened to me.
Every morning my father with a team of others was led to Aleksotas. On his way to work and back he took every opportunity to barter food in exchange for clothes and other utilities. My parents realized that miracles could not be counted on forever, so they began to look for a place to hide me. One day my father slipped away from the work brigade and went to see a priest named Bronius Paukshtys whom he had met before the war.