My Chance of Survival
Yakov Zoreff (Goldsmidt)
From Solomon Abramovich and Yakov Zilberg “Smuggled in Potato Sacks”, 2011
My father, Meir-Lev (Leib) Goldsmidt was born in Niznij Novgorod in 1920 to Sara, née Poger and Haim-Shimon Goldshmidt. My grandfather served in the Tsar's army and, after the revolution, in the Red Army. After having been demobilized, he and his family settled in Jonava, where he owned a ceramics factory.
My mother Sonia was born in Vilnius to Gershon and Roza Burko. The Burko family moved to Jonava and Sonia attended the Yavne School, where my father studied. After his studies in the school my father went to yeshiva, but later turned to secular education. He had dreamt of becoming an actor and had enrolled to study acting in Kaunas. At the same time my mother studied music in the Kaunas Conservatorium. They were a young couple, working by day and studying by night; their whole future lay ahead of them. Father, a promising actor, was an active member of the Communist Youth organization. He was even accepted by the famous Moscow State Jewish Theatre, but declined the offer since Sonia was expecting a child.
Immediately after the German invasion, my parents together with the Luboshitzes and their two children, tried to escape to Russia. Near the Lithuanian-Belarusian border they encountered a German paratroops' unit. The young German officer treated them with respect, handed out some chocolates and warned them to avoid the SS soldiers; he said they could be very cruel to Jews. He added, 'Have mercy on the children'. They had no other choice but to turn back.
My parents parted ways from the Luboshitz family and went to Jonava where their parents were supposed to be; they never saw the Luboshitzes again. In Jonava, they met Justinas, a Lithuanian man they had known before the war. He invited them to his house and fed them. 'Do not enter Jonava', he said, 'My son and many others are killing Jews there'. My parents turned around and headed towards Kaunas.
About 4,000 Jews from Jonava were killed by the Lithuanians in the first days of the war. My paternal grandparents managed to escape from Jonava to Kaunas; there were nine children in their family. Besides my father, only 18-year-old Asia (Osnat) and 16-year-old Abraam survived the ghetto and concentration camps.
My grandfather Haim and my uncle Hirsh were captured in a synagogue and killed by Lithuanians in the first days of war. My grandmother Sara, and Icale, Bella and Gita Goldshmidt were executed among about 1,000 Jews in the Ninth Fort in retaliation for the alleged shooting of Kozlovsky, the commander of the German ghetto guards. At the time of this so-called 'Krishchiukaichio Street' round-up, Asia and Abraam visited my parents in the 'Small Ghetto'. They had heard about the 'action' and ran to find their mother and younger brothers, but the street was surrounded by policemen and nobody was let in. It is only by chance they both remained alive.
My aunt Malka Zinger-Goldshmidt, her husband Berl and their 3-year-old daughter Cilia were killed in the 'Small Ghetto Action'. My grandmother Rosa Burko, with her six children, were caught by Lithuanians in Jonava. A kind Lithuanian policeman, nicknamed Halabas, (a greeting in Lithuanian) led them by carriage to the Ninth Fort. He always sympathized with the Jews. Knowing what was in store for his prisoners there, he deliberately slowed down the horse carriage and so arrived much later than 4 p.m., the hour when shootings ceased until the next day. Halabas was ordered to take the Burkos to Slobodka.
Just before the war my grandfather Gershon was mobilized to the Soviet Army and his battalion fell into German hands. He was held in a POW camp in the Kaunas suburb of Zezmariai. Uncle Abraam was sent to do some work outside the ghetto. On his way he met Jewish prisoners of war and asked them if they had heard of Gershon; they told him he was amongst them. In search of help my father ran to Juda (Judke) Zupovich.
Juda, a young man from Yonava, had attended a military school when Lithuania was an independent country. Now he was appointed to the position of the Jewish police commander's deputy. Juda and my father had been opponents: Juda was a member of Beitar and my father was in charge of the Communist Youth cell. Yet Juda made great efforts for my family; he asked Izia Rabinowich to help. Izia was the head of Arbetzand, responsible for the allocation of manpower in the ghetto. Fortunately Gershon was a baker by profession, and Izia convinced the Germans that there was an urgent need for a baker, so succeeded in transferring Gershon to the ghetto.
Both the Goldsmidt and the Burko families were quite poor and suffered terrible hunger in the ghetto. With the arrival of Gershon they built an oven and Gershon started to bake bread in secret. From Burko's family, only Yulia and Yocheved survived.
Meanwhile everything was arranged so that my mother would give birth to me outside the ghetto. Her singing-class teacher, Mrs Karnavichiene, agreed to hide my mother until my birth, and she would then transfer me to a childless couple who would keep me safe. But on their way to Mrs Karnavichiene, my parents saw a Gestapo checkpoint and were forced to return to the ghetto. I was born prematurely on 27 January 1942, attended by a nurse named Markovich. I was named Yakov after my great- grandfather Yakov, a scholar and a Tzadik (a righteous man). My parents decided to keep me with them for a couple of weeks.
When I was 8 days old, while my father was at work, Grandmother Rosa and her cousin Gita, after putting enormous pressure on my mother, invited a rabbi to have me circumcised. My father was very angry with the grandmother and aunt who stood by the decision they had made and claimed, 'He will survive, and if, God forbid, he will not, let him die as a Jew'. Even now after so many years, I feel they nearly destroyed my chance of survival. With no other choice, my parents kept me in the ghetto.
But how does one raise a child without food? A solution to the problem came unexpectedly. Mother's younger sister, 13-year-old Judith-Yulia, was a skinny, innocent girl. She asked, 'Why are we surrounded by a wire fence?' and 'Why are we so hungry, while we smell eggs and bacon cooking on the other side?' One day Judith approached the fence and discovered a narrow gap. When the guard was far enough away, she slipped her small frame through the narrow opening. She approached a house and, after explaining her situation, returned with food for herself and the family. The Polish family who lived there was deeply touched by her appearance and by her perfect command of the Polish language.
From then on Yulia became the family's provider. Thus they raised me until the horrendous day, 28 March 1944.