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Memoir: The Holocaust Recalled

Memoir: The Holocaust Recalled
Miriam Reich
published by the Concordia University Chair in Canadian Jewish Studies

My experiences are not unique, not even original. They are similar to
those of hundreds of thousands of other men, women, and children who
came face to face with unprecedented evil, the systematic annihilation
of a people, the Holocaust. No, my story is not original, but because
it is mine, the task in front of me is daunting.

I have waited a long time to tell my tale, battling an invisible wall
of resistance, saying to myself that it's all been said before,
feeling inadequate to the task, and wondering where I'll find words
for the ineffable. Moreover, revealing myself never came easily to me.
I always found more "interesting" things to talk about.

I have been very protective of my past. I feared that the scars were
too tender to the touch of others as well as to my own memories of how
they came to be. I kept these memories like a genie in a bottle since
I did not know what to expect of them once I let them loose. Lately,
they appear less threatening, more friend than foe, coaxing me to
action, and are becoming increasingly more impatient with my
procrastination. Perhaps it is the approaching Fiftieth Anniversary of
my liberation from Bergen-Belsen, a symbolic milestone, or the gentle
urging of family and friends to tell my story, or both, that finally
compel me to undertake this very difficult task. To bear witness to
human suffering is tough; how much tougher it is when it's your own.

Some time ago, as I was walking along the beach on Siesta Key, I
reminded myself how lucky I was to have the freedom to do the things I
was doing and to be at peace with my surroundings. It has not always
been that way. A scene flashed through my mind. My mother and I were
on a train travelling through Germany, being transported from a
concentration camp in Estonia, a place that was becoming threatened by
the Red Army, to a camp in Germany. Through the few slats of the box
car in which we were riding, I saw many villages and small towns
dotting the landscape. There were cottages surrounded by neat picket
fences, animals grazing, people going about their business, children
playing, and dogs running and barking. It is impossible for me even
today to describe the feeling of despair and sadness I experienced
watching these scenes of daily normal life. How I wished to be one of
those children, or even a dog.

It all started in June, 1940, as I was celebrating my tenth birthday.
The party table was set outdoors in the gazebo of our garden. My
mother, father, and my brother Boria (Boris) who was two-and-a-half
years older than I, were having strawberries with whipped cream, my
traditional birthday fare (June was strawberry time in Lithuania too).
Suddenly we heard a commotion in the street, which was not visible to
us from where we were. Our property was surrounded by a tall concrete
fence with a heavy wooden gate for an entrance. We ran to the street.
It turned out to be the arrival of a convoy of the Red Army. The
Soviet Union had invaded Lithuania

On March 23, 1939, Germany annexed Memel (Klaipeda), a city on the
Baltic Sea which was inhabited mainly by Germans, but whose control
was given to Lithuania at the end of World War I and had a special
status as an autonomous territory. The Nazi--Soviet Pact placed
Lithuania in the Soviet sphere of influence, and on October 10 of that
year, Lithuania was compelled to permit the establishment of Soviet
bases on its territory. Vilnius (Vilna), a Lithuanian city, but given
to Poland in l9l8, was restored to Lithuania, and on June l5th, 1940,
the Soviet Army assumed control of Lithuania.

I vividly remember the great welcome the arrival of the Red Army
received from the local citizens as they were passing through our
street. There was a lot of waving and cheering. The Lithuanian army
offered no resistance. The contest was between an elephant and a flea.
While I found out later that there were pockets of resistance by the
Lithuanian national army, on the surface it appeared like a friendly
invasion. There was no fighting and no visible destruction. My family,
however, had nothing to cheer about. We were the bourgeoisie, the
wrong class, and therefore the enemy of the proletariat. That day
changed our lives forever.

My father Ruvim (Reuven) Abramovitch, was a businessman. It was a
family textile business, owned by my father and his brothers. They
imported cloth first from Germany, then Great Britain. They were
wholesalers and had a large warehouse on Daukshos Street, not too
farfrom our home. During World War I, my father was taken prisoner of
war by the Germans who invaded Lithuania on their way to Russia. In
the 1920's he visited Palestine, and in the 1930's he made several
business trips to England. My mother, Bassia, was a housewife. She had
a Ph.D. in economics but did not practice her profession. Whether it
was by choice or lack of opportunity, I don't know.

We lived in the old part of town on Janovos Street, on a very large
properly that belonged to my maternal grandparents. It was a white
washed bungalow overgrown with ivy, next to my grandparents' house.
Our home consisted of a kitchen with a wood stove, two bedrooms and a
living-dining room. When we were younger, my brother and I shared a
nursery. As I got older, I slept in my parents' bedroom. The maid had
a small room off the kitchen. For as long as I can remember we always
had live-in help. Housework was not easy in those days. The laundry
had to be washed by hand with the aid of a ribbed washboard and then
boiled. It was followed by blueing, starching, and ironing. Wash and
wear clothes did not exist. The Persian carpets had to be taken
outside, hung on a line, and beaten to remove the dust. The daily
chores were hard and time consuming.

Shopping for food was a daily expedition. Bread was bought fresh
daily, before breakfast, of course. So was milk, for it could not be
stored for long without modern refrigeration, particularly in the
summer. The milk had to be boiled since it was not pasteurized. The
fine skin that would form on the surface of the milk after it was
scalded, was the bane of my life. No matter how carefully it was
removed, some of it would remain floating, making me gag as I drank
it. Neither was the milk homogenized. The cream would rise to the top,
thick and yellow (no 2% milk then), and would be partially removed to
be used in coffee or made into whipped cream. We used to make our own
cottage cheese, and as a special treat the cream would be whipped into
butter. It was the most delicious butter I ever tasted.

We had no central heating. Every two rooms shared a thick wall that
was partially tiled. This tiled section of the wall contained a wood
burning heater. The tiles on the outside of the heater formed part of
the walls. The tiles would become warm, retain the heat, and in turn
heat the rooms. We had a modern bathroom, telephone, but no
refrigerator. There was a cellar underneath the kitchen floor and an
attic with well worn, shaky stairs on the outside of the house leading
to it. The attic was a mysterious and fascinating place for my brother
and me to browse in. The stairs, which I considered v e r y d a n g e
r o u s (I was scared of heights), presented a real challenge, and in
turn contributed to the excitement of this exploit. We also had an
outdoor cold storage area for storing perishable food in the summer.
It looked like an earth covered igloo with a wooden door at the
entrance. It was a large, shallow walk-in area that was lined with
blocks of ice and protected from the summer heat by saw dust and
earth. The ice was cut in the winter from the river Neris (Viliya),
which bordered our property. That river also caused us a lot of worry
in the springtime. There was always danger of flooding, and every
couple of years it did. On several occasions we had a foot or two of
water inside our house, and we had to navigate to and from the house
by row boat. On those occasions my brother and I were sent to stay
with Aunt Rosa, Ida Rogovin's mother, and her family, in an apartment
downtown on Laisves Aleya. This was the main street of Kaunas, both
residential and commercial. My aunt was very hospitable, and what I
remember best were the wonderful chocolates and candies that we ate

Our property was subdivided into several sections. The two homes faced
a large garden. Whatever knowledge and love of gardening I have today
goes back to those days. We grew some vegetables and had beautiful
flower beds. The irises were particularly plentiful, and to this day
when I smell the lemon-like scent of iris, I associate it with our
garden of long ago. We also had fruit trees, and in the fall the
grounds were covered with chestnuts from a couple of very large
chestnut trees. A bit further on there was a saw mill that was no
longer used. Further still was a commercial area that bordered the
street, and on the opposite side, our property ran along the river,
separated from it by a tall, mesh fence. My brother and I used to roam
the grounds by foot or bicycle exploring all the nooks and crannies of
which there were many. There were no other children to play with,
though. The only girl my age on the grounds was the watchman's
daughter, Birute. She and her parents lived in a cottage that was
located inside the entrance to our property, next to the gate. At
night our grounds were protected not only by a tall fence and locked
gate, but also by a vicious hound that was let loose past a certain
hour. My grandparents' house was larger than ours since my widowed
uncle, Boris, a doctor, and his two young adult children, university
students, lived there too. My uncle also had his office there.

My grandmother, Chana Strassbourg (Camber) was a tall, rather austere,
dignified, no nonsense lady who had an excellent head for business. My
grandfather, IsraeL was a very warm and charming man. He had more time
for us children than my grandmother since she was preoccupied with the
day to day business activities related to the property. He was an
ardent Zionist and scholar. Both grandparents left for Palestine in
1938. My grandmother could not adjust to the harshness of the new
environment. She returned home to Kaunas before World War II broke out
and died a natural death soon after. My grandfather died in Palestine
the day the war broke out. Whether they meant to remain apart, I have
no idea.

My paternal grandparents, Shira (Propp) and Solomon Abramovitch, lived
downtown on Gednias Street. It was a twenty-five minute walk from our
place. We used to visit with them frequently, often taking a caleche
in the summer or horse drawn sleigh in the winter to get there. This
was a common means of transportation, equivalent to the taxi of today.
My grandmother, a real beauty in her youth, was very affectionate and
extremely hospitable. My grandfather used to discuss business and
politics with my father, but had time for his grandchildren too. They
both lost their lives subsequent to our departure from the ghetto in
one of the Selections.

Summers we used to go to a datcha (summer cottage) in Kolotovo, a
village not too far from the city, a place that we often shared with
my paternal grandparents. We used to get there by horse and buggy,
loaded with all kinds of provisions such as bedding and kitchen items
that we needed to see us through the summer. The cottage was located
in a wooded pine tree area not too far from a river where we used to
go bathing. It was rather spartan inside, but cool and comfortable.
Built of knotted pine, it looked very clean and smelled of new wood.
There was no electticity, no running water, but a well and an outhouse
close by. This was standard for the countryside since only a few of
the larger cities in Lithuania had electricity and indoor plumbing.
Some summers we would go to Klaipeda (Memel) on the Baltic seashore to
the beach. From a child's perspective, life was on an even keel.

Having said all this, I still wonder why my parents chose to remain in
Lithuania. I remember my father listening to the radio very
frequently, particularly to speeches broadcast from England. Politics
were discussed often at home, and I remember the names of Hitler and
Chamberlain being mentioned. Surely, they knew the vulnerability of
our geographic location, caught between Germany and Russia, each vying
for supremacy, and Russia wanting an outlet to the Baltic Sea. Also,
the Lithuanian past checkerboard history, as well as the family's,
should have provided them with a clue to the future. Both of my
parents had been abroad. My mother had graduated from the University
of Giessen in Germany. Many of my aunts and uncles lived abroad. Was
it complacency or a conscious choice to remain where they were? It's
hard to leave behind aged parents (father's), a business, and
property. Visas to other countries were difficult to obtain. The fate
of an immigrant is unpredictable - so many reasons not to leave home .
Who could have imagined the insanity that was to follow. And yet, the
question lingers on. It's a subject on which I still dwell.

With the Soviet invasion our life changed immediately for the worse.
My father's business was confiscated, our house was deemed too large
for a family of four and we were made to share it with another family.
Whatever silver and gold we had, and all items of any value were taken
from us. Shvabes Gymnasium, the Hebrew school that I had attended for
three years was closed, and I had to switch to a Russian school. All
the Jewish institutions were forced to disband, and in June 1941, mass
deportation of the "enemies of the people" took place. We lived in
constant fear.

Whatever Hebrew I know today dates back mainly to those three years at
Shvabes Gymnasium. I never attended kindergarten since that year my
brother came down with whooping cough and missed a school year. My
parents had engaged a governess to teach us both at home. We spoke
Yiddish and Russian at home, and Lithuanian with the local population.
Lithuanian was only a subject at school since the rest of the subjects
were taught in Hebrew. Among the Jews in Lithuania, Russian and
Yiddish were spoken more commonly at home than Lithuanian. Russian was
a vestige of years of Russian occupation. Lithuania only became
independent in 1918 . There was, however, a strong nationalistic
movement among the Lithuanians and a long history of Lithuanian
duchies and kingdoms. During the middle-ages, Lithuania was a great
power, extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. It subsequently
became united with Poland, but in the third partition of Poland, in
1795, Lithuania was annexed to Russia. Between the two world wars it
was an independent country, but not enough time had passed since its
independence for the Jewish minority to appropriate the language.

Jews lived in Lithuania from the fourteenth century on, but it was
from the seventeenth century that the country's yeshivas attained
world wide fame. About 150,000 Jews lived in Lithuania at the time of
its establishment after World War I. When Vilnius and its vicinity
were returned to Lithuania in 1939, the Jewish population of the
country grew to about 250,000, of whom 40,000 lived in Kaunas, nearly
one quarter of the city's population. Less than ten percent of the
Lithuanian Jewish population survived the Holocaust.

In my new Russian school every subject was conducted in Russian. This
school, as most others that year, was hastily established by the
Soviet authorities to meet the needs of the children whose schools
were shut down. The Hebrew school I had attended was relatively small,
intimate, with great emphasis on Zionism and Jewish content in
general. Now, I had to learn to write and spell Russian, the language
that I spoke but never had any formal instruction in, and all the
subjects were taught by Russian teachers brought in from the Soviet
Union, and focusing on Social Realism and Communism. I even became a
Young Pioneer wearing a red tie and attended indoctrination meetings.
This was one way to mitigate the effects of one's bourgeois
background. Besides, there was tremendous social pressure on the
children to join. As already mentioned, there was constant fear of
being sent to Siberia as punishment for having been capitalists or
nationalists, or both. Thousands of people were exiled to the depths
of Russia, a large proportion of them were Jews. We were left alone.
To this day I don't know what would have been preferable.

The year under the Soviet occupation was a difficult one but paradise
compared to what came next. We were awakened at dawn on June 24, 1941,
by the sounds of heavy bombardment. The non-aggression pact signed on
August 23, 1939 between Ribbentrop and Molotov did not last. This time
Lithuania was attacked brutally by the Germans on their way to Russia.
Bridges were bombed. The Russians retreated.

During the Sovietization of Lithuania, underground extremist
nationalist- fascist groups which strongly supported Nazi Germany were
formed. While there always was much antisemitism in Lithuania, it now
increased dramatically. During the short time of transition, even
before the Germans set up their administration in Lithuania, the
Lithuanians carried out pogroms against the Jews. The Lithuanians
blamed the Jews for cooperating with the Russian Communists. While
there were some Jews in the Communist Party, the majority of them were
not, since many of them were owners of commercial establishments.
Proportionally, more Jews than Lithuanians were exiled to Russia
during the Soviet occupation of the country.

It is interesting to note that in the beginning of World War I before
Germany seized Lithuania on its advance into Russia, the Russians
blamed the Lithuanian Jews for being secretly supportive of Germany.
The Cossacks staged devastating Pogroms killing thousands of Jews, and
widespread looting of Jewish shops and homes occurred. The Russian
government forced most of the remaining Jews to move into the interior
of Russia. Antisemitism defies all logic.

The wave of murders and assaults grew with the entry of the German
forces. On June 24, 100 Jews were killed and 10,000 arrested. On June
25, Lithuanian Fascists slaughtered 800 Jews. On June 26 and 27,
several thousand Jews were shot. On July 5, Lithuanian Police shot
3,000 Jews during a systematic five day Action. The list goes on and
on. In July and August of 1941 the majority of Jews in Lithuania were
slaughtered in the most brutal way imaginable. Jews would be rounded
up on the street or taken from their homes. Some were tortured, made
to dig their own graves in the woods, and finally killed. Others were
taken to the Seventh and Ninth Forts, a chain of fortifications
constructed around Kaunas in the nineteenth century by one of the
Czars to protect his western borders against Germany. There, they were
first brutally mistreated by the Lithuanian guards and then shot to
death. It was literally a reign of terror. It is estimated that over
10,000 Jews were killed in June, July, and August of 1941. No one knew
who would be next.

Within a very short time of the German occupation we were made to wear
a Yellow Star. Various restrictions were imposed on us. Curfews,
limited shopping, and no employment. Since it was not safe for a Jew
to be seen on the streets of Kaunas, and we needed food to survive, I
used to remove the Yellow Star and go out with my Lithuanian friend,
Birute, to shop for essentials. I looked upon it as both a challenge
and a necessity. My family depended on me. I did not look Jewish and
was able to pose as a gentile and get away with it. I was eleven.

On July 9, 1941, the Nazis ordered the erection of a ghetto, and the
move had to be completed within four weeks. Thus, on August 15, the
remaining Jews of Kaunas found themselves inside the ghetto located in
Slobodka, a suburb of the city. A barbed wire fence, with posts manned
by Lithuanian guards, was put up around it. When the ghetto was
established in 1941, it contained 29,760 Jews.

This was the beginning of even a worse nightmare. Work brigades were
organized. The lucky ones were picked to work. My father would work
sporadically. Food was scarce. The workers were paid in food rations,
which were at a starvation level. . We sold whatever belongings we
still had in order to buy more food. At night there were curfews.
Again we had to share a small house with another family, but worst of
all were the periodic Aktionen and Selections. Suddenly at dawn, a
very loud alarm would sound that could be heard in every house in the
ghetto. This meant that every man, woman, and child had to leave their
home and assemble on a large field. The SS with their dogs, clubs, and
bayonets would be there waiting for us. As soon as we were assembled
the selection process would begin, ordering the people to go to the
right or the left. We tried to look healthy by pinching our cheeks to
get some colour, to walk straight, and appear confident in order to
make a good impression on the SS, but at five in the morning, cold and
hungry, and scared to death of the fate that awaited us, it was a task
at which few of us succeeded. I dreaded those Actionen, not only for
myself, but for my family as well. My paternal grandparents were
elderly, not well, and therefore at very high risk. Many families were
split up by the Germans at these Selections The SS very arbitrarily
decided who was to live and who was to die. One often discerned some
form of pattern, but with many exceptions. Usually the old, the weak,
and the sick would be motioned to go to one side, but occasionally
also some young ones who according to some twisted logic of the acting
Germans, did not deserve to remain in the ghetto. There was also much
brutality exercised by them. Persons who did not move quickly enough
were beaten; others shot. We did not know for sure what the fate of
those taken away was going to be, but we feared the worst. During the
course of the Action of October 28, 1941, by order of Helmut Raucka,
commander of the Kaunas Ghetto, 9,000 person were taken to the Ninth
Fort and murdered there. Half of them were children. So far our luck
was holding out. My parents, brother, and I were once again motioned
to join the group that would remain in the ghetto, for the time being.

I dreaded those early morning wake up calls. How did I deal with such
terror? I don't have all the answers, but I do know that since I felt
totally powerless to change the situation, I assumed a fatalistic
approach to life. A numbness set in. During the most critical times, I
put my feelings on hold and became an observer, distancing myself from
time and place, a Chagallesque image hovering in space, yet at the
same time remaining very vigilant and aware of the precariousness of
the situation we were facing. Each moment presented a new danger, a
new challenge. One does not really know the extent of one's inner
resources until they are called upon. It is also easier to face the
possibility of death when you see people dying around you. It becomes
the norm rather than the exception. It may not have been a rational
approach, but it helped me deal with the hopelessness of the situation
at hand.

Back to the ghetto. Life was harsh. You felt as if you lived at the
edge of a precipice, with chunks of rocks constantly breaking away
from underfoot. The solid ground shrinking with each passing day.
There were public executions, shootings, torture, little food and a
constant stream of frightening rumours. It was there that I saw my
first public hanging. I vividly remember a small puddle forming
underneath the gallows. I asked why. My father explained. The future,
if there was to be a future, was totally unpredictable and very bleak.

In the ghetto there were also politics. For the first two years there
was an elected Jewish Council that represented the ghetto community.
Forced labour and the maintenance of public order were the
responsibility of the Jewish police. The Council also administered a
department of health, welfare, and culture. Temporary schools were
established for a while, but in 1942 they were ordered to close. In
spite of the day to day very difficult conditions that existed, there
were concerts, literary evenings, and other cultural events taking
place. Life for the living continued. Attempts were also made to
maintain contact with the anti-Nazi partisans in the forests. A small
group of Jews had escaped from the ghetto and had joined the
partisans. Connections were important. Favours could be obtained if
you knew the right people. The Germans relied on the members of the
Council to implement all kinds of orders, some of these orders
presented terrible moral dilemmas such as providing the Germans with
lists of people for punishments and executions.. While they had some
power, their position was not an enviable one. The ghetto was a
microcosm of society. It had its heroes as well as its villains.

Conditions changed drastically in the autumn of 1943. The ghetto
became a concentration camp. On March 27, 1944, 1,800 persons
consisting primarily of children, and elderly men and women, were
dragged out of their home and murdered. Also killed were 40 officers
of the Jewish police for having given aid to the Jewish underground in
the ghetto. By the beginning of April only 17,412 Jews were left in
the ghetto, most of them adults. Things went from bad to worse. The
situation was truly hopeless, but by that time we were no longer

On October 26, 1943, the day finally arrived when a large part of the
ghetto population was evacuated. Once more it started with an early
morning assembly. Once more the difference between life and death was
determined by either an almost imperceptible motion of a leather
gloved hand or an impatient shout to hurry up accompanied by a shove,
a blow on the head, or kick by a highly polished, black boot.
Occasionally a shot would be heard that felled a laggard who could not
keep up with the rest. Thousands of people were lined up, slowly
advancing to their judgement. Facing the stream of humanity were a
number of SS men who made sure that nothing would interfere with the
efficiency in which they carried out their part towards the "Final
Solution." Many German and Lithuanian guards were also on hand to help

This time, the selection was conducted more methodically. It was the
most gut wrenching event that I have ever witnessed. The men were
separated from the women, the old and the frail were grouped together,
but worst of all, the children were separated from their parents.. The
parents who clung to their children were forced to give them up, and
the children who hung on to their parents were one by one plucked away
like vermin and carried screaming to the waiting trucks. The parents
who volunteered to accompany their children were beaten and shoved
towards their assigned sections. There are some events for which there
are no words. How do you describe the cries of a child being snatched
away from his parents' embrace? The weeping and the wailing, and the
screaming of the parents? These are the sounds and sights that will
remain with me to the day I die.

As for me, I did not know until the last minute what my fate was going
to be. Fortunately, at age thirteen, I looked older than my years, and
when my turn came to face the SS, the one whom I approached, must have
considered me to be a productive adult who could be put to work. My
mother and I became part of a large group of women who were sent to a
concentration camp in Estonia. My father and brother also stayed
together. They too were sent to Estonia, but to a different camp. We
never saw each other again. After the war we found out from people who
were sent to the same camp as my father and brother, Port Kunda, that
my father lost a lot of weight, looked very frail and on August 4,
1944, at a selection at his camp was motioned to go to the side which
was obviously the undesirable one. My brother, who did not want to be
separated from my father, pretended to suffer from a bad knee and
begged to join him. His wish was granted. This group was taken to a
nearby forest, Eredu, shot and then the bodies were burned on a heap
of firewood.

The train ride to Estonia was a nightmare. We were herded into box
cars and kept uninformed of our destination until we got there. The
journey lasted a week. The sanitary conditions were indescribable;
hardly any food, very little water, and no air. The grieving mothers
who lost their children were inconsolable. It was hell.

Our destination was Camp Kurame in Estonia, a remote area in the
middle of nowhere. The weather was deteriorating. There were heavy
rains, and the mud was knee deep. Winter was approaching. We were
given shoes with wooden soles. Our clothes was skimpy. After being two
years in the ghetto, we had little clothes left, and we could only
take with us what we could carry. No one wanted to be considered sick
and not go to work since that meant you were no longer being
productive, and therefore could be easily eliminated. Dysentery was
common and a host of other diseases that even under much better
conditions would occur during the course of time, let alone among a
group of undernourished people living in unsanitary, substandard
conditions. No matter how sick we were, we would go to work. Staying
in the barracks during the day was a death sentence. From time to time
we would return to camp after a day's work and people would be
missing. They were never heard of again.

Our bunks were very primitive. No running water. No toilet facilities.
An outhouse and a well were all we had. We did what we could to keep
ourselves clean, but most of the time it was too cold to even want to
undress and bathe. Looking for lice in the seams of our clothes was
the most common evening recreational activity. Needless to say, the
smell in the bunks, particularly at night, was odious. We slept on
tiers of boards, one above the other, bundled up in our day clothes
for warmth. Blankets were scarce. There was a wood stove in the center
of the bunk that would burn dimly at night.

Mornings, or rather at dawn, we were made to line up in the square of
the camp to be counted. A large kettle of very thin gruel would be
ladled out into a bowl to each prisoner. After "breakfast" we would
assemble into work crews and march off to our assignments. We built
roads in the middle of nowhere. Ostensibly, these roads were going to
provide the Germans with greater access to the Russian front. Trees
had to be cleared, road beds dug, and gravel spread, all manually. The
supervisors were mainly local Estonians recruited by the Germans. Some
were quite decent; others were worse than the Germans. Lunch consisted
of some nondescript cabbage soup with a few potatoes thrown in, and
upon our return to our bunks, more of the same with a slice or two of
bread. Work was a privilege, a hope to stay alive.

We stayed at that camp half way through the winter. Then, for some
unknown reason, we were made to move to another camp, also in Estonia.
It could not have been very far away since we were made to march
there. Distance is relative, though. Forty- five or fifty kilometers
by car is a short distance; the same distance walking in the depth of
winter through non-- existing roads, poorly dressed, wearing wooden
shoes, and half starved, seemed endless. We walked for three days.
Those who stumbled and fell were shot. Those who could not take
another step due to exhaustion and sat down, met the same fate. You
could not afford to stop to help the fallen unless you were prepared
to give up your own life. What did you do? You donned imaginary
blinders, faced the front, put one foot in front of the other and
became totally self-absorbed with your own survival. You became
dehumanized. I was fourteen, in better shape than my mother. At one
point my mother was prepared to give up. She lost her will and
strength to continue. Upon my unrelenting urging, she mustered up
enough strength to continue. Luckily, we were not far from our
destination, Camp Goldfiels.

At this camp we stayed until September 1944, when we were evacuated to
Germany. My memory of this camp would have been somewhat better if not
for a very tragic incident. We arrived there at the end of winter. It
was a smaller camp. The weather started to improve. Life became a
little easier, the guards a little friendlier. We still worked on
building roads, but the days were longer, brighter, and warmer. We
were also beginning to hear rumours of the advancing Russian Army.

To this day I can't quite comprehend how this tragedy occurred. If it
hadn't had such tragic consequences, I would refer to it as the
theatre of the absurd. I met at that camp a girl my age. This was a
rarity in itself since I was one of the youngest inmates in all the
camps where I was. On a beautiful spring day, this girl whom I hardly
knew, and I struck up a conversation with a young guard at the gate.
We decided to ask him for permission to walk down the road, never
thinking that he would say, yes. It was a country road inhabited by
farmers. It looked very inviting. The guard was a young Estonian
recruit who obviously took it upon himself to grant our request. No
sooner did we walk five hundred feet along the road than a shot was
fired either from a rifle or a revolver. My friend was hit in the
stomach. I was walking beside her when it happened. I had the task of
dragging her back to camp, bleeding profusely with her intestines
visibly protruding. It seems that the shot was fired by a young boy. I
never discovered why. The girl died within a couple of hours. The
astonishing part was that no one asked me any questions about the
incident. It was as if it had never occurred. Under the circumstances,
the total disregard for the event, suited me fine since I feared
punishment, but to this day it remains one of those very powerful
memories that I have kept to myself all these years. This was one
adventure I wish I had not undertaken.

In August of 1944, we were again on the move. The Russians were
advancing. All that toil that we put into those forsaken roads did not
do the Germans any good. Once again we were put into box cars, and
once again we had no idea what our destination was going to be. This
time we were taken to Germany. It was from this train that I observed
the peaceful idyllic scenes of the German countryside whose contrast
with my own condition at the time made such a lasting impression on
me. To this day, I still taste the longing I felt for a life free of
terror, squalor, and hunger. I got a glimpse of what life could be

My mother and I ended up in Stutthof in a camp. We stayed there for
two months. My recollection of that camp is vague except that our
heads were shaved there. From there we were taken to Oksenzolt a
concentration camp near Hamburg. Again we were put to work. I don't
remember what work my mother did, but I worked in a munitions factory.
I was filing metal parts for guns. My supervisor was a young Belgian
prisoner who was nice to me. The best part of the deal was that I was
entitled to a glass of milk a day because of the work I was doing. It
was felt that the filing dust was bad for me. It could affect my
health, and therefore to make up for it, I was given milk. I suspect
that it was the Belgian supervisor who was responsible for it. How
else can it be explained? Surely, the Germans were not going to worry
about one Jew dying when millions were being killed. It was also a
warm place. I was working indoors. This place is one of the better
memories of my camp experiences. We stayed there until February 1945.

World War II was coming to a close. The Germans were losing ground.
The Allied armies continued to advance. Consequently, the SS
transferred most of the prisoners from the concentration camps near
the front to those further inside the Reich. Once again we were moved.
This time it was going to be Bergen-Belsen. By now I had seventeen
months of ghetto survival and twenty-eight months of concentration
camp life behind me. I experienced the nadir of human degradation and
German depravity. Surely things could not get any worse. I also
thought nothing would ever shock me again. I was wrong on both counts.

We arrived in Bergen-Belsen in the dead of winter. After being
deloused and hair shorn once again, we were given striped uniforms to
wear. It was a huge camp, more and more transports were arriving. It
was terribly overcrowded. We joined several other women's groups in
the section to which we were assigned. I believe it was called the
Large Women's Camp. The camp was divided into units, each surrounded
by barbed wire. Officially, there was no communication by prisoners
from one section with those of another one, but people found a way. We
discovered that there were other Lithuanian Jews in that camp, and
through the grapevine we found out the fate of some of our relatives
and friends. Of my father and brother, we had no word. In our section
there were many nationalities speaking a multitude of languages. The
enormous scope of Hitler's Final Solution was made very clear to us.

What shocked me most upon our arrival there, was the appearance of the
inmates. The majority of them were emaciated to the bone, literally,
walking skeletons. They were the lucky ones because they could still
walk. A large number of the prisoners were sick and dying. Typhus
reached epidemic proportions. Starvation also took its toll. It was
impossible to tell the difference between the living and the dead
among those lying on the ground. Death was in the air. The bodies
would remain scattered on the ground for days before they were
removed. There were stacks of corpses waiting to be disposed. Many
were not buried until after liberation.

Again every morning there were roll calls. Again people would
disappear without a trace. Again there were public executions and
floggings. Whatever food we were given was not fit for human
consumption, but those who could eat, ate. I now know that there were
prisoners there who spent several years under those dreadful
conditions. How they survived, I don't know. What saved my mother and
me was the relative short time that we were there before being freed
by the British army. We arrived in Bergen-Belsen in February and were
liberated on April 15th. In the first months of 1945, 35,000 men,
women, and children perished there. Even weeks after the camp was
liberated 13,000 more people died from disease, malnutrition, and

My mother and I also contracted Typhus in the beginning of April. We
were very sick, but gradually recovered. We were too sick and too weak
to celebrate our long awaited freedom. There was no energy left to
take in the true significance of the event. We felt spent. Our
stomachs, too, found it difficult to adjust to their good fortune. It
took weeks to get used to food again and to recover our strength. The
British soldiers were very kind. They shared their rations with us and
tried to clean up the camp. They made the German guards and officers
who failed to escape, as well as some neighbouring civilians, bury the
dead. But in order to stop disease from spreading the British army
units burnt the camp barracks to the ground.

We were finally free, but what now? Did my father and brother survive?
What about the rest of the members of our family? My paternal
grandparents? Aunts and uncles? Cousins? It took a while to get the
news we were dreading to receive. Most of it was bad. My grandparents
were taken away in one of the subsequent Selections and killed, and so
were most of the members of our family. I already mentioned the fate
of my father and brother.

The one place we knew we did not want to return to was home to Kaunas.
It was no longer our home. It was under Russian occupation, and we had
nothing to return to. So we remained in Germany in a Displaced Persons
camp living in a converted school, waiting for news from our relatives
from abroad. While there I attended a temporary school set up by
members of the Jewish Brigade sent to Germany from Palestine. It was a
makeshift school, but better than no school at all. The Hebrew
language was taught, and we learned some Hebrew songs. It was more of
a preparation for immigration to Palestine than formal education. We
chose not to mix with the local German population, for good reasons.
My mother and I got jobs distributing clothes that were sent by
various Jewish agencies for the newly liberated Displaced Persons. We
were biding time, waiting for a visa either to go to Palestine or to
Canada. Again I was one of the youngest there. It was a rather lonely
existence. Freedom from oppression did not result in instant
happiness. So many feelings and thoughts had to be sorted out, dealt
with. For me, it was the loss of a father and brother, numerous
relatives, and my wasted years. My mother had her own grieving to deal
with. The loss of a husband and son, on top of her own five years of
suffering, did not leave her much energy to offer me significant
emotional support. I, in turn, was anxious to get on with my life and
was not willing to look back. We each coped as best as we could.

The one foray my mother and I made to Hamburg is difficult to forget.
We had to go to some office there regarding our immigration papers to
Sweden. Having had no money for a hoteL and post-war Germany still in
disarray, we had to stay in an underground shelter over-night. It was
a very scary ten hours. People kept drifting in, men and women, with
whom you would not have wanted to come face to face in broad daylight,
let alone at night. There were drunks, prostitutes, and other
unwholesome characters that gave me the creeps. I was sixteen and felt
very vulnerable. It all ended welL though. No one bothered us, and at
the first sign of daylight we made our escape. It was a very long

The British soldiers tried to provide us with some semblance of a
social life. They used to arrange dances for the soldiers and invited
us, that is the young women, to join them. It would be an evening out,
but communication was difficult because of language, I knew what they
had on their mind, and it was not what I needed at that point to boost
my morale. I tried the dances a couple of times but soon gave up on

In the meantime, my aunt and uncle in IsraeL Manassia and Joseph
Muller, who were doing business with Sweden, were trying to arrange
for us to go to Sweden and wait for our immigration papers there. It
took a while to accomplish that, but on September 22, 1946, my mother
and I arrived in Stockholm after spending over a year in post-war

Sweden had escaped the war. Life was normal there. I found it very
difficult to adjust to yet another change in my life. While life in
the Displaced Persons Camp was far from comfortable, it was familiar
and predictable. We were surrounded by people who went through similar
experiences to ours, and we were looking forward to emigrating and
making a fresh start.

When we finally arrived in Sweden, the reality was very different. We
were facing a new language, new customs, and people who did not know
what to make of us. Sweden was not affected by the war. There was very
little organized support from the tiny Jewish community there. The
Jews who immigrated there before the war, took little interest in us.
We were pretty much on our own.

Having arrived there in September, I started to attend school. It was
a regular Swedish school, and I entered a year behind to compensate
for the six years of formal education that I missed. It was not a
happy experience. I did not understand a word the teachers were
saying, I had nothing in common with the students there, and the six
years of no math, science or history did not help either. Culturally,
I could have landed on a different planet.

By the end of the school year I could communicate haltingly in
Swedish. I also started taking private English lessons . Those I
really liked. I started reading voraciously English books, looking up
almost every word in a dictionary. I read most of the James Hilton
books, a good number of the Daphne du Maurier books (these two authors
must have been very popular then), and any other books I could lay my
hands on. My English improved.

We lived in a Pension, a rather common European form of
accommodations. My mother and I shared a room and we ate in a common
dining-room. The people who lived there were mainly Swedish, mainly
single, and mainly elderly. We knew that it was a temporary
arrangement and were happy with the set up. I did make a few friends
my age, eventually. We used to go to movies and to dances outdoors. It
was a Swedish custom for girls and boys to go stag to these dances and
for the girls to wait to be asked to dance. It was all very
respectable and sometimes fun. The movies were another good source for
improving my English since they were either British or American.

In the summer of 1947 I went to visit my uncle, Arno, in England. It
was a wonderful visit. I spent some time in London with him, and the
rest of the time in Manchester. When September rolled around, I
returned to Sweden and to school. This time I felt like a veteran. I
could understand some Swedish, I had absorbed some algebra and science
the year before, and I could actually keep up with my school work. I
also kept plugging away at my English with my dictionary always beside
me. In the beginning of December our Visa to Canada materialized, and
once again we were on the move. We crossed the Atlantic on the Batory,
a Polish ocean liner. Both my mother and I were awfully seasick most
of the time. The Statue of Liberty was a very welcome sight. We docked
in New York in the beginning of December, and after spending there a
few days, we arrived by train in Montreal on December 11, 1947.

There was one more major adjustment to be made on our arrival here. We
stayed with my Aunt Sonia and her family. We received a very warm
reception there. Again I started attending school. This time it was
Grade 10 at the High School of Montreal for Girls. I started school in
January, and by June I passed all my courses. The English I worked on
in Sweden served me well in Montreal. The irony was that of all the
languages that I spoke, there was not one language that I could write
correctly or whose grammar I knew. The knowledge of Russian, Yiddish,
Lithuanian, Hebrew, and some German that I picked up while in Germany,
were all at a child's level of literacy. I had no knowledge of
literature other than the fairy tales that I knew from childhood, and
the novels that I read while in Sweden.

Upon my arrival in Canada, I made up my mind that there had to be one
language that I would appropriate as my own, and it was going to be
English. Language is more than a system of sound and meaning. It helps
one to forge an identity. By age ten, I had not absorbed enough of the
culture into which I was born, nor a language I could call my own.
There was a void that needed to be filled. Looking back now, I wonder
whether at a very deep level, even while in Sweden, I knew that a new
language would serve as an entry to a new life. Hebrew would have been
easier to improve, and we were not at all sure at that time that the
Visa to Canada would materialize before that to Palestine. It was as
if the languages of my childhood represented to me traces of my past
that I preferred to ignore. After all that I had gone through, my
happy early childhood years vanished with my home and my old world. I
wanted a new beginning. I did not want to remain a refugee nor a
displaced person forever. In fact, for the first few years in Canada,
I chose not to associate with refugees. They brought me face to face
with my own past, a period in my life I preferred not to be reminded

As for the fifty years it took to deal with the seven very painful
years of my life, I suppose it took as long as it had to take. I have
never denied my past, but neither did I dwell on it. I could not live
both in the past, the present, and look forward to a future. I chose
the latter two.

Until I sat down to write my story, I did not realize how powerful
these memories still are. I am glad I finally was able to relate, as
best as I could, my Holocaust experiences. The few pages that I have
recorded obviously don't tell my whole story. My recollection of those
years appears like a hazy seascape of icebergs of varying shapes and
sizes as far as the eye can see, floating in an enormous body of
water. There are clearings through which a late afternoon sun is
breaking through. Some of these monuments to my past are dim, remote,
and fuzzy; others are near, razor sharp, and menacing. The one
property they all share is that much more of their mass is submerged
than is visible. Many incidents I had to forget to survive. Others
fell victim to the passage of time. The human psyche finds a way to
protect itself. I owe a lasting debt to events forgotten.

Some made it; too many did not. Some lived to tell their story; too
many did not. I wish there had been no story to tell.

The rest you know. As it turned out, the best was yet to be.