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An Early Childhood Molded by the Holocaust
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An Early Childhood Molded by the Holocaust
By: Uriel (Urick, Uri, Yehuda) Leviatan née Levitan
I was born on Sept 15, 1940, a year after the onset of World War II. Therefore, the story of my childhood during the war is only partially based on my personal memories. The gaps are filled with a misshapen amalgamation of recollections that I gathered from the few who were with me and others in the vicinity during that period. However, I only found out about my past when I was an adult. For most of my life, I had no interest in investigating the details of my past. I leave it to professional psychologists to explain my lack of interest in my own childhood.
First I would like to tell you about my family. Since I came from a relatively small family, the description will not take long. My father, Doctor Misha Levitan, was a young gynecologist when I was born. My mother, Mira Levitan née Alperovitch, graduated as a biologist, but didn’t have a chance to work in this profession. Both of my parents were born in the year 1914 in Kovno. They were both graduates of the Hebrew Gymnasium (Reali high school) in Kovno. My father, an only child, was the son of one of the heads of the Jewish community in Kovno. My grandfather was Doctor Yizhak Levitan. He was one of the leaders of Zionim Klaleem in Kovno. He was a regular representative of Zionim Klaleem at the European Zionist congresses. When the well-known Zionist Moshe Sne, the head of the Zionim Klaleem party, came to visit Kovno, he stayed at our house. He happened to visit Kovno when I was born and therefore acted as my sendak (godfather) during my circumcision.
My grandfather Yizhak Levitan was a well-known gynecologist all over Lithuania. He owned a private maternity hospital and the women under his care were the wealthiest socialites of Lithuania. Among them were the wives of officials in Lithuanian government, in the parliament, and especially in the Jewish community. The hospital building had three floors above the ground and half a floor beneath. Even today, it is the maternity hospital of the municipality of Kovno and known as the number one public hospital for maternity. It is located at Misko Street, number twenty-seven. When my wife Rachel and I visited Lithuania in the autumn of 1993, we discovered that on the second floor in the residence area for the families, there were still signs from the time that our family lived there. The administration of the current hospital is located in the same room that my grandfather used as a reception room. The woman who is the head administrator of the current hospital researched the history of the hospital. She explained to me that a large leather sofa in a particular office and a small library had been there since the time of my grandfather. On the same floor’s visiting room, we found a ceramic kamin from that period. The ceiling in that particular room had period decorations. It appeared that that room had been the living room of my family. In other rooms, we found a lot of furniture from the pre-war period, especially furniture that had been built into the wall niches. Sinks, closets and doors could all be traced back to my grandfather’s time. I was told that my grandfather also voluntarily worked at the Jewish maternity hospital in Kovno. He spent about one or two days a week in that hospital. According to the testimony of nurses who worked there and the sick women he cared for, he was a true angel in white. My grandmother Doctor Yeta Levitan was trained as a dentist. However, in that time shortly before the Second World War, she did not work as a dentist. Instead, she worked as the head administrator of the private hospital.
The parents of my mother were Wolf Zev Alperovitch and Fanya Fruma (née Feinberg). They owned a delicatessen in Kovno. They had two daughters and the youngest, Zeva Alparovitch, immigrated to Israel-Palestine in the year 1936. She became a member of the kibbutz Ein HaMifratz and married Holish (Yehoshua) Porter Z”l. When I visited Kovno, I tried to find their apartment, but could not locate it. To clarify, my maternal grandparents lived in Kovno near their oldest daughter, my mother. The relevant general background to the story of my life during the war technically starts prior to my birth. In August 1939, the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, Molotov, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact with Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop of Germany. This secret agreement is infamously known in the history of time as the splitting of countries between Stalin and Hitler.The Soviet Union received the Baltic States in its share, which included Lithuania. The agreement did not originally include Lithuania, but it was amended to include it after Germany invaded Poland. A few months after the Soviets entered Lithuania, they annexed it and instated the Soviet system. I do not feel that this is the place to provide a history lesson, but I only recall it since it played a large role in saving some of my family from near-certain death.
As I said before, I was born in September of 1940. During that time, Lithuania was already under the control of the Soviets. However, my family continued living in a similar fashion as before. I was born in the hospital that belonged to my grandfather. One of his students, who later became known as the medical professor Aharon Peretz, delivered me. At that point, the hospital’s address was Mis’ko 19. The four members of the Levitan family lived on the second floor. On September 15, 1940, we became five. Some months after my birth, the situation changed. The Soviets expressed their true feelings about Zionism; they saw it as a movement in conflict with true communism. During the month of May in 1941, in the course of one day, they collected all the heads of the Zionist households in Kovno, as well as other towns across Lithuania. They put them on trains and exiled them to labor camps in Siberia. My grandfather Yizhak and his wife Yeta Levitan were among those exiled. In retrospect, this punishment was a blessing in disguise because despite the trials and tribulations in the Siberian camps, those exiled had a chance to survive. This chance to survive was denied to ninety-five percent of the Jews in Kovno. Many were murdered by the local Lithuanians only a short month later. Those that survived this preliminary pogrom were killed by the Nazis.
But let’s talk about my memories. I have a very vague recollection of this period since I was still crawling on all fours. I remember my father shaving in the shower and I had pulled myself up next to him. From this image, I realize that this memory was from when life was still peaceful. All of this changed when Germany invaded in June of 1941. The pogroms started even before the Germans had a chance to set up death squads. The local Lithuanians immediately organized into underground units and called themselves partisans against the Russians. The main campaigns were against the Jews. As soon as the area was taken by Germany, the killing of Jews became more wide-spread. By the time the Germans set up the death units, much of the work had already been done by the local people. A ghetto was established and a regular program of liquidation of the Jewish population commenced. According to one testimony, my maternal grandmother Fanya Alparovitch was murdered by the Germans during the first aktzia to kill the children. She was a very involved and strong woman and when she saw the Germans and their collaborators collecting children, she began shouting at them. One of them took a gun and shot her down where she stood. Some Jews built bunkers and hiding places to try to disappear inside the ghetto. This is the way that my parents and my grandparents survived this invasion. They hid together with another group of Jews in a malina (bunker) that they had dug into the ground, under one of the homes. I remember nothing from this period. The dear friend of my parents, Dr. Aharon Peretz, the same man that had delivered me, told me later that during this period, he had been responsible for the children hidden in the malina. He had to make sure that they didn’t cry or make any noise that would alert the German and Lithuanian units always on the search for hidden Jews. He accomplished this duty by giving them tranquilizers, shots to help the crying children sleep. Some of the Jews were able to escape from the ghetto to the forest on the outskirts of Kovno and there they established an underground partisan unit to fight the Nazis.
In the book Besufa Umaavak (In the Storm and In the Stuggle), Alex Fetalyson wrote that my father received a request to leave the ghetto and become the doctor for the partisans. My father was willing to do so, but he had one condition: that my mother and me would be able to join him. The partisans refused to grant him this and my father did not join them. My parents concluded that my chances of survival in the ghetto would be very limited and they decided to try to sneak me out of the ghetto to find an adopted gentile family. I don’t know when and how this occurred, but according to indirect testimony, this happened when I was at least two years of age, but no older than three. I received two different versions about the family that I was given to and the way that I was taken out of the ghetto. According to the version that I heard from my grandmother Yeta Levitan, the family that I was given to was a family of one of the female Lithuanians who had worked for my grandparents before the war. They took me for two reasons. One was the special relation between the two families and the second was that they received a large sum of money. (We must remember that my grandmother was not in the ghetto and all that she knew came via other people who had very inexact information.) According to the other version by one of the other survivors in the ghetto (a young girl at the time), I was brought by a few young Jews to a family in one of the nearby villages in the vicinity of Kovno. These young Jews were very close friends with my parents and they worked in the underground resistance of the ghetto. She has no recollection of more details about this family. In both versions, they snuck me out of the ghetto inside a large backpack while I was in deep sleep after being given a tranquilizer shot. I was somehow passed across the fence to a young person, who then carried me on their back to a gentile family. Here is the first occasion where I was passed from hand to hand. I remember nothing of this transfer. The memories that I do have are from the time that I was already with my adoptive family. Being dark complexioned, I remember other children who were lighter skinned than I was. I don’t know why they bothered to care for me since I was just a risk to the whole family. From this, I concluded that they had some sentimental connection or duty toward my family to do so. I cannot accept that this was done for money alone.
A clear memory that is imprinted in me from this period is the way I behaved every time there was danger (when strangers or Germans visited the house.) This house was isolated and there was some type of warning that one of the people in that home would give me. My training was very simple. I would run to the basement that had been dug into the ground under the home. This basement was used to keep food cool and they also had slaughtered pigs hanging on hooks or dangling on rope. I would crawl inside the pig carcasses and wait for the adults to give me the all-clear signal. I hid inside the pigs so that the dogs could not detect my presence in the basement. I don’t remember any other significant memory from this period’ only many images of games and fights among little children.
As time passed, the Kovno ghetto was liquidated. From later testimonies, I found out that my parents and my grandfather Wolf Alparovitch were murdered by the Germans. According to one version, they were killed in August of 1943. One of the Jews had betrayed them and given up their hiding place to the Germans. According to another version by Fatelson, they had committed suicide by poison while the ghetto was being liquidated. He offered no real evidence to prove this second version. In my memory, when the Germans retreated and the Soviets once again took over Kovno in August of 1944, I was once again transferred from hand to hand.
As soon as Kovno was liberated by the Soviets, the few Jews who had survived started to stir from their hiding places. Among them were Dov-Ber and Tzipora-Faiga Cohen. I would like to share here the story as it was told by Dov Cohen during the summer of 1944:
“We returned from the forest to Kovno and we walked around Leisbus, Ilja, which was the freedom road, the main thoroughfare where the Jews had lived before the war. I didn’t have a single untattered shirt, so we looked around the abandoned homes of the perished Jews in the area. In one of them, we found a drape on a window. My wife, who used to be a tailor of suits and jackets, decided to sew me a shirt from this material. We sat on a bench on this grand avenue and my wife sewed me the shirt. All of a sudden, we were approached by a Lithuanian woman. She asked my wife if she was a professional tailor and my wife responded that her specialty was jackets. The Lithuanian woman said that she had jackets that needed repair and that my wife could mend them in return for money. Later, she said that we clearly were Jewish and that she had a child in her home, a son of Levitan. My wife had been a patient of Dr. Yizhak Levitan and when we met you, the dark child wearing a cross on his neck, you screamed and tried to kick us out. You said that you didn’t want to see any kikes. We told other Jews about this dark child who lived with a gentile family and was the grandson of Doctor Yizhak Levitan. Soon, we found that one of your relatives Fanya Feinburg, the sister-in-law of the grandmother (Alperovitch), had survived. Fanya had survived the war by hiding with her husband in the home on the large ranch that they had once owned.”
I remember a very long meeting between the two women in that Lithuanian home. They talked about returning me to my natural family. According to my Levitan grandmother, the Lithuanian family did not want to return me and only did it for a large sum of money. I don’t believe that the convincing factor was the money. Rather, I had a very strong relationship with them. I did not keep in contact with this Lithuanian family. To this day, I don’t know who they were and where they live. Fate was cruel to my aunt Fanya Feinburg. She was an American citizen who had married by matchmaking the brother of my maternal grandmother. They had planned to immigrate to America, but the war ended any such plans. Her husband was a wealthy property owner and they were able to hide with one of his employees. He had become very sick near the end of the war and he died soon after the war ended. She had no children and she took it upon herself to adopt me. We lived at the home of another branch of my mother’s family. In this period of time immediately after the war, I remember a typical childhood with all its particular memories, just children playing with children in the neighborhood. Many of the games were not so typical; the games were directed towards the German POWs who marched every day in the town streets while Soviet soldiers mocked them and treated them roughly. The children would throw rocks and sticks at the Germans while hiding behind a fence that faced the road. Sometimes the children would run behind them, cursing and spitting. The Soviets gave their silent approval of this behavior.
There were many games and activities typical to many childhoods. I remember one winter as a four-year-old when I stepped on thin ice in our front yard. I fell into the freezing water and my aunt found me wet and frozen to the bone. To this day, I remember my aunt taking me inside the house and spanking me with a belt. This was my punishment for almost drowning. Fanya knew clearly that I was only with her for safekeeping, but by this time, the parents of my father had found out that I was alive and contacted her from Siberia. My grandfather had been a prisoner in one of the labor camps and my grandmother had worked as a dentist or any other job that she could find in a village near the labor camp. The dream of my grandparents was to send me to the land of Israel. Fanya agreed to try to fulfill this dream. This was either near the end of 1945 or the beginning of 1946. The Soviets agreed for some unknown reason that the orphaned children related to well-known Zionist leaders would be allowed to leave for Poland. I don’t know how, but I became one of these privileged few. Once again I was transferred, this time into the hands of a contact woman who took me across the border. This reliable woman took me into Poland into the town of Lodz. I was arbitrarily placed with a group of orphan children who had originated from Poland. This group was organized in order to immigrate to Israel. The organizers were members of Agudat Israel, an ultra-Orthodox party. I was a bit unique among this particular group of children. Although I was an orphan, I had at least the semblance of family with Fanya Feinburg. Most of the other children were orphans without any ties to family. I was also one of the youngest of the children. In my group, there were children who were twelve, thirteen or even older. The fact that I had family members is shown by the period before I left Lithuania. My aunt Fanya got me many new clothes and I especially remember a few Russian-style shirts. I will discuss the importance of these later. I arrived in this group in Lodz in 1945 and shortly after, we left Lodz. Our travel took us through large parts of Europe, including Poland, Germany and France. It took many many months. For me, this trip contained events and experiences that were typical for a child of my age from that time. However, other events were traumatic and I would like to share some stories.
During the war, many children learned truly that Might made right, that violent force procured power. Since my group contained children of various ages, it was very clear that the oldest among us (ages twelve or thirteen) would be in control. The first example of this rule occurred while still in the town of Lodz, shortly before we left Lithuania. While I took a shower, one of the older children came to me and claimed for himself the new shirts that my aunt had gotten for me. I don’t remember objecting at all. Knowing my place in the group power structure, I passed him the shirt with no hesitation. I did not dare complain to the counselor since I immediately understood that snitching to the counselors was considered the most serious offense among the children. Another incident that happened a little later clearly illustrated this. When we were in Bergen Belzen, Germany, all of the children of our particular group slept in the same barrack and in other halls, there were other groups. The children around the ages of twelve and thirteen stole supplies from one of the storerooms. If I recall correctly, they stole sugar and one of the six-year-olds witnessed this theft. He told the counselors about the theft and they gave out some minor punishments to the kids who had taken part in this. In the middle of that same night, there was a trial for this child who had snitched. The leaders of this group were judges and the little children were the audience. All of the children were roused out of bed and forced to take part in this trial. This ended with the verdict of death for this child. This order was enforced immediately and the child was taken to nearby train tracks. He was tied to the tracks and silenced with a gag. All of the children were forced to witness this horrific execution in order to scare anyone from snitching in the future.
Another traumatic event that I remember was when a group of children took the tram in one of the German towns that we passed through. (This could also have been in Bergen-Belsen.) We stopped at one station and we saw another tram coming. All of a sudden, another child who had come with me from Kovno grabbed me and yelled to me that a man from another tram had betrayed the hideout of my parents. Immediately, we ran across the platform to the other tram, but it closed before we could get on. We ran after it in the street, but we could not catch it. The image of this man is still with me today. I can still see his back as it recedes into the distance. I still don’t know if this man was really the man who had betrayed my parents or merely the figment of a child’s imagination..
At one point of our voyage, people were sent from Palestine to Europe to bring children back to Palestine. One of these men, Eliezer Rabinovitz, asked us if anyone spoke Yiddish. Only one child spoke Yiddish and that was me. He looked surprised and asked me where I was from and what my name was. I said I was from Kovno and that my name with Urik. He was also from Kovno and he immediately recognized me since he knew my parents and had studied with them in high school. My face also resembled that of my parents. He was from the kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. He was a very close friend of the sister (Beva Porter) of my mother, who lived in Israel. After this meeting, Beva knew that I was traveling with this particular group and she wrote to my counselor to try to follow my travels, in hopes that I would join them on their kibbutz. However, it did not work out this way. Eliezer already wanted to transfer me from the orphanage of this religious party to the children’s home of the Socialist movement, Hashomer Hatzair. However, when he came for the second time to where I was, he couldn’t find me. The members of Agudat Israel had hidden me to prevent any chance that I would be handed over to non-believers. I was already at that point, at least outwardly, a religious child. I had very long peyas and I wore clothing with fringes. My eyes were cross-eyed. They had already started teaching me through reading the Torah. I remember that when I arrived in Israel, I already knew how to read Hebrew.
It was already 1947 and my aunt and uncle from the Porter family were about to be sent abroad to the United States as shlachim (representatives). The time of their departure was soon and despite the fact that I was supposed to arrive, they couldn’t find me. Every day, they would go to the port in Haifa and watch the boats that brought new immigrants. They would search the lists of orphaned child to find me, but to no avail. My uncle Holish was at that point the representative of his kibbutz and part of his job was to travel around Israel. During his travels, he would go to every orphanage that belonged to Agudat Israel and leave the address of his sister, Lutka Kotz in Haifa. He kept receiving promises and assurances that everything would be okay, but no information about me could be found. When the time came for them to leave, they had no choice but to leave without me. However, I had already been in Jerusalem for a while in an orphanage named Fo Namin. Instead of Urik, I was known as Yehuda, a boy wearing a kippa with long peyas who studied humesh in the heder with the melamed, who hit the boys’ fingers with his ruler. It was clear that Agudat Israel was busy kidnapping children. Since I was an orphan and I came with Agudat Israel, they decided that being religious would be my fate and the direction my life would take. They changed my name to Yehuda and I have no idea what they registered as my last name since I only found testimony about my last name. I had found a picture of my group in Bergen-Belson and on the back, it only mentioned my name as Yehuda. Like this, I was snuck across the border to Israel and nobody could identify Urik Levitan when he arrived at the port of Haifa. From this port, I was immediately transferred to Jerusalem. I am not going to say much about the time that I spent in the orphanage in Jersualem. It was a period filled with humorous childhood events such as one involving a certain melamed and all of the pranks that the kids played.
I would like to conclude this chapter by telling the story of how I left this orphanage in Jerusalem and entered into the arms of my family. If this had not happened, I would have today become the most religious of the religious, the blackest among the blacks. One day, while walking in the street, I took a peek into the zoo through a fence. A young man met me and at this point, he was a medical student in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His name was Ruven Levitan. He was not related to me, but he was the son of dear friends of my family in Kovno. It seems that amongst the Kovno immigrants who lived in Tel Aviv, there was a rumor that in the orphanage named for Diskin, there were Jewish children from Kovno. The small community of survivors of the Holocaust in Kovno knew that the grandson of Professor Levitan had disappeared among the Agudat Israel and Ruven had been asked to check up on this information. He had known my parents, so Ruven didn’t even need to enter the orphanage to check the information about me. Near the entrance, he met me and my face reminded him very much of my parents. He stopped and asked me what my name was. I answered him simply that my name was Urik. My name had only been changed on the list and everyone called me by my original name. After talking to me for a bit, it was clear that I was Urik Levitan and that he had found the missing child. This information was immediately delivered to a relative of mine who lived in Tel Aviv, as well as to the members of the kibbutz Ein Hamifratz. Although the Porter family no longer lived there, everyone consulted with the kibbutz members to try to get me out of the orphanage. They agreed that the best chance to loosen the grip of the religious party would be through my relatives in Tel Aviv, who were not members of the Socialist movement, the root of all evil in the eyes of the religious party. This mission fell on Yosef Borstein, a cousin of my mother. He had to overcome two opposing powers. First, the members of Agudat Israel refused to relinquish another soul to the hands of secular Jews since the Borstein family was completely secular. Secondly, he faced my personal objections. At this point, I was already one of the most religious and did not want to have anything to do with non-believers who had lost their spiritual way. My relative Yosef was a smart man and he immediately realized my weak points. He knew how to get me to come with him; he promised to get me some glass marbles if I came to visit his home. After a few visits to his house, I finally consented to leaving the orphanage and living in Tel Aviv.
I moved to the house of Yulia Borstein, the sister of Yosef, who was a single woman with no family of her own. Thus, once again I was transferred. She took me under her wing and I suppose that I was not truly religious by nature. For a while, I maintained some of the external signs of religiousness, especially my peyas. I eventually cut off my peyas in exchange for five liras, a large sum of money for me in those days. In the year 1949, my aunt Yulia became ill and it was difficult for her to continue taking care of me. I moved to kibbutz Ein Hamifratz to be under the care of Tzipora Kharuvy. This arrangement lasted until the return of my aunt and uncle from the United States in 1950. This was my last transfer and the end of this particular story. I had been transferred seven times from hand to hand and I was not even ten years of age.
(Below) Uriel Levitan is in the center (the tiny child between two much bigger children).
(Below) Picture of Uri with family in 2005:
Originally, this story was written in Hebrew. It was translated by me (Eilat Gordin Levitan). Uri wrote me an email: