Rescued Jewish Children

Estera Elinaite

Will You Be My Mama?

Estera Elinaite

From: Solomon Abramovich and Yakov Zilberg “Smuggled in Potato Sacks”, 2011

My grandfather, Benjaminas Kormanas, was a well-known lawyer in Lithuania. My paternal grandfather, Leiseris Elinas, was an outstanding figure in the Kaunas cultural scene. He established the Jewish Public Library, and ‘Elin’s library’ became an integral part of the cultural life of Lithuania’s Jews.
My father, Mejeris Elinas (1910–2000), after completing his education at the Kaunas Hebrew Gymnasium, went on to Germany, where he trained in the Civil Engineering Faculty of the Polytechnic Institute in Darmstadt. After he returned to Kaunas in 1935, he continued to work actively as both an engineer and writer. His stories and articles were published in literary collections and in the Jewish periodical press, and his anti-fascist publications and speeches were greeted with an enthusiastic response in Palestine. In 1939 he was sent a certificate
entitling him to enter Palestine, but he was not prepared to leave his family in Lithuania behind.
An attractive and musically talented former classmate of Mejeris Elinas, Busia Kormanaite (1910–2006), was to become his wife in 1935. She had graduated from the Prague Academy of Music and after returning to Lithuania had devoted herself to performing and teaching music. I, Esther Yellin (Estera Elinaite), was born on 9 September 1940 in Kaunas.
The attempt by the Elinas-Korminas family to escape from Lithuania after the German invasion to the USSR failed: the refugees were surrounded by German troops, and locked up in a district prison, where they expected that they would soon face the firing squad. But because of his work as a lawyer, Benjaminas Korminas knew the men in charge of that particular prison. He managed to get his family released on condition that they went back to Kaunas.
On 15 August 1941 my family and I found ourselves behind the barbed wire of the ghetto. For any person with common sense it was obvious by this time what fate awaited all the inmates of the ghetto, without exception. It was not, however, in keeping with the spirit of the Elinas-Kormanas family to reconcile itself to the situation in which it found itself and passively wait for the end.
On 31 December 1941, the AKO (Antifaschistische Kampforganisation, ‘Anti-fascist underground organization’) was founded, led by my uncle, Chaim Elinas, who was to become a legendary hero. One of the important tasks of this organization was to establish contacts with people on the other side of the barbed wire. A duty taken on by my mother was to seek out people who were not indifferent to the fate of the Jews and possessed sufficient courage to hide children, who were secretly taken out of the ghetto.
Mother herself crawled through the barbed-wire fence of the ghetto on more than one occasion. Her Aryan appearance helped her to conceal her Jewish origin. Once on the other side of the fence, my mother would remove her yellow stars and boldly walk through the streets of occupied Kaunas and its suburbs. This was a considerable feat in itself, because in the town where she had spent her youth and started out on her teaching career, there was a real danger that my mother might become the victim of some Lithuanian collaborator and end up in the hands of the Gestapo.
One frosty morning in December 1941, Chaim came hurrying into the house, as always in order to further some new conspiratorial plan. He was dressed on that occasion as the peasant
Vladas, one of the roles he used to assume in those grim days. He reported that the atmosphere in the ghetto was full of anxiety and that people were expecting the Germans to embark on some new, as yet unspecified activity that very day. ‘Busia, are you ready?’ he asked. ‘Of course I am’, she replied.
Mother quickly dressed, threw a warm coat round me, her 12- month-old daughter, and carried me as she accompanied Chaim, while he cautiously made his way towards the ghetto fence. They could hear warning shots in the distance, but what frightened them most of all was the deep snow on both sides of the fence: the footprints they would leave behind them could give away their escape attempt. There was no time, however, for any long deliberation. Choosing his moment carefully, Chaim lifted up the barbed wire so that mother and child could make their way through to the other side of the fence.
After waiting till dawn in a small church not far from the ghetto, Mother set off with me to the address she had been given by Chaim. The house in the attic of which Mother was to go into hiding was opposite the German commandant’s office. Chaim was convinced that this hideout would be safe, since nobody would imagine anyone would seek shelter right opposite the HQ of the occupying forces. It was in that flat that I took my first steps.
It was extremely difficult to remain in the same place for a long time; we kept on having to change our refuge. We were taken in by the Pranavichius family, and later by that of the shoemaker Apuokas. At the same time, Mother, on instructions from Chaim, was continuing to establish contacts with prominent representatives of the Lithuanian intelligentsia. After a relatively short time, it was clear that it would not be possible to find a safe hiding place for me in the long term. Mother returned with me to the ghetto. On 9 September 1943 our family celebrated my third birthday. It was a charming occasion, lovingly organized by Mother for children in the ghetto, possibly the last such party in their short lives.
After the deportation of about 2,700 Jews to the labour camps in Estonia on 26 October 1943, Mother made a last attempt to take me out of the ghetto. After hesitating for a long time, she decided to turn to the family of the outstanding Lithuanian painter and composer, Mikalojus Konstantinas Chiurlionis. It was becoming increasingly dangerous by then to leave the ghetto and move about the town. After reaching her destination, on this occasion without mishap, Mother knocked at the door of the house of the Chiurlionis-Zubovas family, in one of the beautiful central districts of Kaunas.
The widow of Mikalojus Chiurlionis , Sofija Chiurlioniene-Kimantaite, the Lithuanian writer and a major public figure, lived in that house along with the family of her daughter, the writer Danute Chiurlionyte-Zuboviene, her husband, the architect and architectural historian Vladimiras Zubovas, and their young children Dalyte (1939) and Kastytis (1940). The family proved very understanding and sympathetic. Danute even apologized for giving us such a modest room! Many representatives of Lithuania’s Jewry are grateful to the Chiurlionis-Zubovas family for their gift of life. Their fearless behaviour was to set an example for the service of all that is good and of justice, which they have also extolled in their creative work.
Vladimiras Zubovas constantly rode through rural settlements and villages in the Kaunas region, searching for safe places where fugitives from the ghetto might be able to go into hiding. He was on friendly terms with the paediatrician and director of the ‘Lopselis’ orphanage, Petras Baublys, who, after arranging with great difficulty for the baptism of Jewish children in Catholic churches and using forged papers, succeeded in registering them as foundlings. Mother was able to get news back to Chaim to the effect that Dr Baublys was ready to accept several children from the ghetto.
In the course of his work as an architectural historian, Vladimiras Zubovas had made a wide range of contacts among members of the clergy. In 1943 Teofilius Matulionis was appointed bishop of the Kaisiadorys diocese, and in April was put in charge of the affairs of the episcopate in general. These circumstances were to have a direct bearing on the events concerning my rescue. On instructions from Bishop Matulionis, it was decided that I should be hidden in the Benedictine Convent in Kaunas. The care of me was to be entrusted to Sister Angélé (Agota Misiunaite). Danute and Vladimiras Zubovas pushed the pram containing me through the streets of occupied Kaunas and, at some distance behind them, my mother followed.
In a letter sent to V. Zubovas by Bishop Jonas Jonys, who often used to visit the convent, he wrote, ‘We were enraptured by the beauty, alertness, suppleness and vitality of this child. Sister Angélé took great delight in the little girl, used to carry her about, tell her fairy tales and put her to bed in her own room … Sister Angélé remembered that at the moment of parting with her daughter, Estera’s mother wept bitterly and kissed the girl, and all the nuns, witnessing the scene, cried as well. When she left, Estera wiped away her tears before long and started playing the piano, despite hardly being able to reach the keyboard.’
The same evening, when I was put in Sister Angélé’s bed, the German police knocked at the door of the convent. I was hidden in the attic, but the Germans did not enter the convent on that occasion and, after making a fuss, went away. The nuns realized that it was unsafe to keep me there. Wrapped in a sheepskin coat like a baby doll, I was taken in a horse-drawn farm cart to Chiobiskis’ (Ciobiskis) children’s home, close to Kaisiadorys (Kaisiadoris), which was under the aegis of the Benedictine Sisters.
By this time there were five little girls and boys of Jewish origin among the children in that orphanage I was told that I very soon became a favourite with the convent staff; my vitality, pretty appearance and musical talent won everyone’s heart. The framework of my day was now the orphanage timetable and the rites of the Catholic Church. The world that now surrounded me and especially the music to be heard during the church services, snatches of which I would always be singing, made the most lasting impression of all.
Evidently an informer eventually gave away the fact that there were some Jewish children being sheltered in the Chiobiskis orphanage; armed policemen broke into the home and demanded that the children be handed over to them. One of the nuns managed to hide me without it being noticed, but the rest of the children were taken off by the police.
Soon after that the nuns took me to the Kaisiadorys church, where they hid me in a room in the bell tower. One of the children who had been led off by the police blurted out that there had been another dark-eyed little Jewish girl as well. To clarify this situation, the Mother Superior of the convent and the parish priest were summoned to the police station in Ukmerge. During her interrogation, Mother Superior Liucina (Rozalija Rimsaite) turned to her fellow-countrymen in the name of God, appealing to their conscience, and asked them to return the children. She also promised that she would give the children back, including me, if the Germans demanded it. Then a miracle took place: the children were given back.
Thanks to this amazing combination of circumstances and the courage of Mother Superior it proved possible to save all five children. When the Germans withdrew from Lithuania my mother began looking for me in Kaisiadorys Cathedral. Bishop Matulionis told my mother that I was safe and sound in the Chiobiskis orphanage.
Mother was greatly moved by the bishop’s attention to me, when he told her about my musical skills and that they should be developed. It was already dark and my mother wanted to go to Chiobiskis, but the bishop would not let her. The following morning she set off barefoot, since her shoes had worn out by then. The director of the Chiobiskis orphanage was glad to welcome my mother, but she did not want to cause distress to the other children, and at first did not approach me.
One evening, mother went carefully to the room, in which the children had already been put to bed, so as to have a peep at her miraculously saved daughter from a distance. I remember well that when I caught sight of her on the threshold, I leapt to my feet and asked her in Lithuanian, ‘Ar tu busi mano mamyte?’ (‘Will you be my Mama?’). Mother gave a slight nod of her head and tears welled into her eyes. She quickly left the room.
We left Chiobiskis on foot. We had a journey of fifty kilometres in front of us before we would reach Kaunas. Peasants passing on carts piled high with hay helped us to reach the main road leading to Kaunas. Units of the advancing Red Army were moving along it in enormous numbers. After the quiet of the monastery, I found the clatter and din of the vehicles deafening and scary. One army vehicle pulled up: soldiers with hot dirty faces, which were happy and welcoming, hoisted us into the back of one of the lorries. Eventually we entered liberated Kaunas.
For a long time I was reluctant to admit that I was Jewish. I used to pray several times a day and protested when my parents explained to me why Jews should not make the sign of the Cross and that I, Esther, was a Jew. It was clear that the children in the orphanage had been taught deliberately that being Jewish was something bad and dangerous. Time moved on and the depleted Jewish families, which had survived, slowly started to regain their faith in life and in the future. Mother kept the promise that she had made to Bishop Matulionis. At the age of 5 I started studying the piano in my mother’s class in the Kaunas music high school.
Later our family moved to Vilnius, where I continued to study music. My debut at the age of 9 was with the Vilnius Radio Symphony Orchestra. That marked the beginning of my successful career as a pianist. In 1956 I went to Moscow to continue my education at the Central School of Music. From the age of 11, I had dreamt of becoming a pupil of the great pianist and teacher, Heinrich Neuhaus. This dream was to become reality in 1958, in Moscow’s Tchaikovsky State Conservatoire. My concerts, given in many towns of the USSR and beyond, were warmly accepted by the public and praised by the critics.
After emigrating to Israel in 1973, I continued to give concerts there and in Europe. I included in my repertoire works by Mikalojus Chiurlionis, whose family had played a crucial part in saving my life. His great-grandson and pianist, Rokas Zubovas, and his pianist wife, Sonata Zuboviene, have on several occasions taken part in my master classes, which I gave at the
Heinrich Neuhaus Foundation in Zurich, of which I am the artistic director.
My daughter, Ilana Yellin-Panov, was a classical dancer. She organized and was general director of Panov’s Ballet Theatre in Ashdod, Israel. Ilana’s husband is the world-famous dancer and choreographer, Valery Panov. In October 2008 their son, Tslil Meir, was born; his name in Hebrew means ‘shining sound’. Ilana told me that the name had been chosen in honour of my playing. ‘When you play them, sounds begin to shine,’ she explained.

Switzerland, 2009
Ilana tragically died in December 2009, when she was only 42.
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