Rescuers of Jews

Rinkevičius Vytautas

Lady Margaret Kagan

A Hiding Place in a Foundry

“... Being extremely grateful for the honour shown to my parents I say what I know my father, if he were still alive, would have said, that he had merely done what any other decent person would have done.” Vitalija Čiurinskienė said these words on 13 February 1989 in the House of Lords, in London, while accepting the awards granted to her parents, Elena Rinkevičienė and Vytautas Rinkevičius, the medals of the Righteous Among the Nations and the Certificate of Honour.
Before the war our family, the Shtromas family, i.e. father Jurgis (George) Shtromas (Jurgis Štromas), mother Eugenia (Eugenija Štromienė), brother Aliukas (Aleksandras Štromas) and me, Margaret (Margarita Štromaitė), lived in Vienybės square in Vailokaitis’ apartment block. In 1940, the Soviet authorities nationalised that house and allocated its’ flats to members of the Writers’ Union transferring us to a smaller flat in Žaliakalnis. My grandmother Sophie, my mother’s mother, who lived in Paris before the war, moved to Riga after the Germans occupied France. In mid June 1941 Sophie came to visit us. When on 22 June Germany declared war on the Soviet Union, and it became clear that the Red Army was retreating and the German Army was approaching Kaunas, we could not even begin to imagine how much our lives would change. Aliukas was in a children’s pioneer camp in Palanga. My grandmother could not possibly go back to Riga. The first and the most painful shock to hit us was when my father never came back, having gone to return the keys to Parama, the company of which he was a director,. We only found out after the war that he was murdered in the cruel Lietūkis garage massacre. At the same time my father’s sister Sonia, Irena Veisaitė’s mother, was arrested and later cruelly murdered. In a week or so a ray of sunshine reached our gloomy, dark lives. One beautiful morning Aliukas appeared on our doorstep. When in the Palanga campsite they separated Jewish children from non-Jewish children, Aliukas did not admit he was a Jew and managed to get back home. However he was badly shaken not to find his father.
Before 15 August we were already in Vilijampolė, behind the barbed wire fence. Optimists believed that it would be safer in the ghetto, amongst our own, that the war could not last long and that one would only have to face the terrors of ghetto life for a short while. Others soon realised that the Jews in the ghetto were doomed to die and would eventually be killed one way or another. Juozas Kaganas, introduced to me by my cousin Irena, belonged to the latter category. I became close friends with Juozas and we married. He had told me a lot about the plan to build a hiding place in a foundry in Vilijampolė where he was working with a ghetto brigade and that the key person of the plan was Vytautas Rinkevičius, a foreman in that foundry. One of the stories which stuck in my mind was about Vytautas’ revulsion when witnessing cruelty against a ghetto brigade worker. For me he became a symbol of honour. When I first met him in the courtyard of the foundry I felt right away that his eyes were full of kindness and compassion.
Vytautas Rinkevičius became the bright star in our dark night sky.
In Lithuania, occupied by the Nazis he saved the lives not only of Juozas (my husband Jozefas Kaganas – later Joseph Kagan), but also his mother Mira Kagan and me, despite the deadly danger for his entire family. He built and set up a hiding place for us in the foundry’s loft. It was in the gable end, separated by a fake wall. Our hiding place was above the canteen’s food storage room of which Vytautas was in charge. We communicated through a hatch in the ceiling. At first he kept this secret to himself, without disclosing it even to his wife, to prevent her from worrying, but it was not easy to feed three additional people. When Elena noticed that food was disappearing from the larder, Vytautas told her the truth and she became his loyal accomplice. For nine months they were generously sharing their family food rations with us and did everything to maintain our strength and our hope.
Vytautas constantly faced deadly threats. Some of the problems which he had to solve included the following:
5. The person checking the electricity light meter noticed that the amount of electricity used was excessive. To avoid an investigation, the electricity system of the hiding place was switched in one night so as to be connected to the electricity power meter.
6. Periodical fire and rodent inspections were a constant threat but Vytautas always managed to distract inspectors’ attention from the fake wall.
7. Another dangerous factor was the guard’s small yapping dog which would bark at night when it heard us disposing of accumulated waste into the factory’s toilet which was near the guards’ house, or when it would hear the sound of running water. The dog had to disappear. And it did. Only Vytautas knew how!
8. We were most frightened by an incident when the factory’s accountant Garkauskas, who knew about the hiding place, was arrested. At that time it seemed that all was lost. We were especially worried about Vytautas’ security and Garkauskas’ fate. Vytautas remained calm and soon he got a message from Garkauskas that our secret was safe.
Finally the German army began to retreat. Everybody was afraid that the Nazis would blow up the foundry, as they did with factories and installations when the Soviet army was approaching. Even at this late stage the discovery of our secret hideout could result in all of us getting shot. Marija Macenavičienė and Antanas Macenavičius, the other two shining stars in our life, gave us shelter after we had to leave the foundry. We stayed with them until our liberation. The Macenavičius family also provided shelter to other Jews from the Kaunas ghetto: my brother Aliukas, Aviva Fridmanaitė and others whose family names I do not recall.
After many years, sadly after the death of Vytautas and Elena, in 1989, their daughter Vitalija Čiurinskienė accepted on behalf of her parents the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations presented in London, at the House of Lords, in the presence of the Chief Rabbi of Britain Lord Jacobowitz, Dr. Kahle the chaplain of Westminster Cathedral, former Prime Minister Lord Wilson and his wife Lady Wilson, famous historian Martin Gilbert, Valdemar and Ibi Ginsburg, Lithuanian sculptor Elena Gaputytė and others.
Vitalija’s medal-acceptance speech was short but memorable. She said: “... Whilst extremely grateful for the honour shown to my parents I say what I know my father, if he were still alive, would have said, that he had merely done what any other decent person would have done.”
Yet he was the one who did it. He risked his life and everything dear to him to save the lives of three Jews. Not just for a day or two, but for long months.
The Rinkevičius couple saved not only our lives but also my belief in people’s humanity and that good can overcome evil.
“He who saves a single life… saves the world entire,” is the motto written on the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations. It would be difficult to find words that would better describe Vytautas Rinkevičius.

22 January 2006

From the 4th book Hands Bringing Life and Bread
The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum

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