Through the Eye of the Needle
Through the Eye of the Needle
published by the
Concordia University Chair in Canadian Jewish Studies
Written in 1980, the author describes his life and family environment in pre-World War I Shavli, Lithuania. Author describes hardships experienced by family in the years of World War I and the period immediately after the Russian Revolution. He received education and training as an engineer in Belgium and Germany specializing in leather tanning, leading to a career with a major enterprise in Shavli. The difficulties resulting from the new Communist regime are softened for him by his senior and indispensable position in the tannery enterprise. Marries in 1934 and has two daughters. Describes the German occupation of Shavli in World War II, the restrictions on Jews and the confinement to the ghetto from where most Shavli Jews were sent to their death. Again, his position in what the Germans also considered an essential industry made his life a little more bearable. It was not enough to protect his daughters. November 3, 1943, the Germans removed children from the ghetto. The author and his wife were at work at the tannery and could not help. His daughter, Ruth, age seven, was spared thanks to the ghetto doctor who claimed her as his illegitimate child. The Germans decided she could be spared because she was old enough to work. The other daughter, Tamara, was four-years old and too young for work. She was sent to a concentration camp and did not survive. Author and wife find a Christian couple willing to help and Ruth stays with them until liberation. Describes liberation by Russian army and the readjustment to Soviet rule. Describes in some detail how shortages and bureaucratic restrictions created a pervasive system of bribery and corruption. While his specialized expertise continued to provide a position with many privileges, he is also suspected of having collaborated with the Germans. Being warned of impending imprisonment, he plots and carries out an escape to Poland and then Germany. He founds another tanning enterprise there, but eventually moves to Canada. Concludes with a description of adjusting to life in Canada. After some false starts in Montreal and Regina, he and his family settle in Vancouver.
It is now January of 1980 and Gita and I live in Vancouver. We have lived here, at 340 west 13th Avenue in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, since 1954. Our grandchildren have never seen us in another place. Even our children, Ruth and Leo, cannot visualize any other place for us to live. But Gita and I still consider this a temporary residence because, actually, our roots are far away from here and our birthplace is a long distance from here in time and space.
Seventy-five years ago I was born in Lithuania in the town of Shavli. (Shavli is the Russian name. In German it is Schaulen, in Lithuanian, Siauliai.) Lithuania is one of the three Baltic states, the southern one. To the north is Latvia and further north still is Estonia. All lie on the Baltic Sea.
At the time when I was born (in the year 1905) Lithuania was under Tzarist rule. In earlier times, Lithuania was quite an important independent country and played a prominent role in the history of Eastern Europe between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries. It covered an area which reached south to the Black Sea and north close to Moscow. Later, it went through three unions with Poland and was very much influenced by Polish culture and Polish attitudes. In 1815, Eastern Europe was partitioned between Russia, Austria and Prussia. As a result, Poland and Lithuania, which were shrunk by that time, became part of Russia. Lithuania had been under Russian rule one hundred years by the time of the First World War. During this period an attempt was made to spread the Russian culture in Lithuania. In fact, Lithuania was the last frontier of Russian influence at that time. Across the border was Germany. In the northern Baltic states, such as Latvia, the German influence was more prominent and the people who lived there, like my father, were more exposed to the German language and culture than to the Russian.
Throughout the centuries both the rulers and the clergy in Eastern Europe were viciously anti-Semitic. The Jewish people in Russia survived all kinds of political restrictions. They were allowed to live only in certain areas and were thrown out of many places. In Russia proper Jews were not allowed to own real estate so their activities were limited to trades and to small businesses. They were subjected numerous times and in many place to atrocities and pogroms and killings. These were probably inspired by the Christian clergy who claimed that the Jews were the killers of Christ. Religious libels against Jews by the clergy and by the government were used to divert the attention of the people from other problems in the country and the church. By the time that I was born, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Jews were segregated in the Pale of Settlement, being allowed to live only in that area which was in southern and western Russia. They were allowed to attend the universities only in very small numbers. This restriction was termed numerus clausus and means limited number. Jews were not allowed in banking, in big business, large industry, etc. Very few could get around the law and attain high positions.
The most widespread of the libels against the Jews was the one in which the people insisted that Jews used Christian blood to make matzos (unleavened bread, the only kind of bread that can be used, according to Jewish law, during the eight days of Passover). This belief was spread through the masses and from time to time incidents were fabricated and Jews were accused of using the blood of Russian children. Some of these cases were brought to court. Such libels were still being spread at the time I was born. The case I remember was the one called the Beiliss Process. It took two or three years before it was settled and was followed throughout the whole world. Every day we used to follow this process.
I was at that time seven or eight years old and I remember clearly that, during the lunch hour, when the whole family was around the table, my father would read the Jewish newspaper, Heint, where the details of the process were related daily. Even at that young age I was very interested in these proceedings. Later on my brother, Yaakov, acquired a transcription of the whole process and he kept it, as one of his greatest treasures, for as long as he lived.
My birthday was on the first of the Jewish month of Nissan, called Rosh Chodesh Nissan in Hebrew, which is exactly two weeks before Passover (the Jewish holiday commemorating the deliverance of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage about 1300 years before the birth of Christ). The language in our family was Yiddish and the calendar we used was the Jewish one. I never knew the date of my birth in the general calendar and when I checked with my sister Chaytze some time ago about her birth date and those of our other brothers and sisters the dates she remembered were the Jewish ones. Later on I had to invent, due to circumstances, my official birth date, March 17th, 1905, which now appears in all my documents.
I was the youngest in a family of seven children. The oldest was Mary Leah and following her were, in order of birth, Jacob (Yaakov), Chaya (Chaytze), Asya, Anne (Chantze), Tzilia and myself, Meyer (Meytzke). Today, of the seven of us, the only survivors are Chaytze, who is now eighty-five years old and lives in an old-folks home in Moscow, and myself.
My earliest memories are probably from the time when I was five or six years old and are of the place where we lived, as a large and happy family, in a house that belonged to my grandfather, Samuel Weiss, and my grandmother, Rivka Weiss. They lived in a separate house on the same property on Varpo Gatve in Shavli. Ours was a long wooden structure divided in two halves by a room, called the middle room, where the kitchen was located. On one side of this room was a large dining room and two small bedrooms for the younger children. On the other side was a large salon (living room), our parents' bedroom and a bedroom for the older sisters.
The central room was at that time the most interesting to me because the kitchen was there with its large oven for baking bread - and for baking matzos before Passover - and because that was where the wine for Passover and the mead (of honey and hops) were made, where preserves such as sauerkraut (made in large wooden barrels) and pickles (also made in barrels) were put down. For a boy of six, all these activities were very interesting.
One of the most exciting events was the Passover Seder (festive meal held on the first and second nights of Passover) and the preparations for Passover. On the evening before the Seder, the housewives, with the help of their families, would clean the houses. Then they would go over the house with a candle, going all through the corners and under the beds and other furniture, to make sure there was no chametz (leavened bread) left. If some pieces of bread were found they were swept up with a feather into a wooden spoon to be burned next morning. Next morning we had also to clean all pots and pans. Some of them were just washed with lye and some were heated to high temperatures to make sure that all leftover chametz was destroyed. From 10:00 a.m. on the day of the Festival it was not allowed to eat bread, nor to eat matzos until the Seder. This was the best time to go to the public steam baths with my father. We went equipped with twig brooms designed for a more effective massage. On the day before the Seder the younger children used to be put to bed during the day so they would be able to participate as long as possible in the celebrations.
It was also a lot of fun to go to the synagogue on Simchat Torah (the festival of being given the Torah. This is the most joyous day in Jewish tradition). We children used to be given little Torah scrolls and we all went around in the procession. Like Simchat Torah, Purim, with its noise makers and chants, was a gay and happy time.
Not so gay were the Yomim Norayim (Awesome Days). These were the ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I could not, at that time, understand why my parents took these days so seriously. According to our belief, during these days every one of us has to make an inventory of his good and bad deeds during the year which is just ending and has to confess his sins, ask forgiveness and pray for a good year to come. There were multitudes of prayers read silently, as well as recited aloud, by the Hazzan (Cantor) with the complete participation of the congregation. I can still visualize everyone, tallitsim (prayer shawls) over their heads, reading the prayers aloud while tears ran down their faces. The climax would come on the eve of Yom Kippur when our grandfather used to shloggen kapores. He would take a chicken and, while turning it around our heads, would recite a prayer that this bird would be accepted in atonement for our sins. In later days, father used to perform this ceremony, replacing the bird with money given to the poor. In mid-afternoon everybody used to come to the Farfasten, the last meal before the fast. The Birkat hamazon, the prayer after the meal, was chanted by grandpapa in a very solemn and emotional manner. Then, before going to the synagogue, grandpapa would gather the grandchildren under his tallit and bless them.
The house in which we lived was very nicely furnished, especially the salon with its soft furniture. When I was very young a piano was brought in and placed in the salon. I remember it well and that I had to lift my arms to be able to get at the keys. I was quite afraid of this piano because of the two heads of mythical animals which were carved on its front panel.
There was, at that time, no electricity or running water. Radios and television hadn't even been invented. We lived quite comfortably nonetheless, using the outhouses and the ornate kerosene lamps and using the well for water. We had two sets of dishes--dairy dishes and meat dishes--and parallel sets for Passover use.
As a rule we had a maid who helped my mother with cooking, shopping, laundry, etc. Usually the maid, although she was a gentile, spoke fluent Yiddish and knew the laws of kashruth (Jewish dietary laws). Twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, the peasants would come to the market place, their wagons loaded with their produce. On these days, the housewives and their maids would go shopping for chicken and eggs, fish and butter, etc. This was usually an exciting affair involving a lot of hard bargaining, much comparing of prices between the wagons of competing countrymen and attempts by the women to satisfy themselves that they had got the best possible bargain.
Weeks before Passover my mother would buy a turkey and it was usually my grandmother's task to fatten the bird up by force feeding it with grains. The maid would take any poultry to the shochet (the approved religious slaughterer) to have it properly killed and she would then pluck it herself, wash and salt and rinse it, and then examine it closely to make sure it was completely healthy. If it didn't look completely right she would go to the rabbi with a shyla (question) to establish whether or not the bird was suitable to eat.
The whole family used to breakfast together in the dining room and, for two o'clock lunch, father would come home from work. Lunch was the main meal of the day. On Saturdays we ate meals at our grandparents' house. This was a lot of fun because my grandfather, a man with lots of humor, used to sing zemirot (Sabbath songs) and, when he was in a good mood, after he had had a couple of glasses of wine, he used to use a lot of French expressions which probably remained from the time of Napoleon. At our grandparents' place on Shabbat (the Sabbath) we used to get white chala (during the week we had only black bread) and other delicacies like tcholnt, cuggel, tzimmess and so forth. They were just excellent.
My grandfather was a tall, heavy, good-looking man with a long square white beard. He was a learned man in Bible and Talmud and was a very good tailor. He was respected in the Jewish community and was one of the leaders of his synagogue, the Merchants' Shul. Almost every Friday night he (and later my father) would bring orchim (guests) from the synagogue for the Shabbos meals. I still remember how amazed I was at the happy expressions on the faces of these guests when they partook of the delicious meals. It seemed to me that they liked everything much more than I did and this puzzled me, but now I understand the reason why. Probably, they had no other meals during the week--or very few of them. There were some who used to come during the week as well. Mostly these were poor students at the Yeshiva (Jewish religious high school) who used to be invited to different families to eat on different days of the week. One of our steady dinner guests I remember clearly. We used to call him Yosse Kez. He was a slim man with a little black beard and was always very clean and formally dressed. He impressed me very much because he spoke to me like I was a grown-up man, even though I was only five years old. I know I was this age exactly because it was on one such evening, while I talked to him during the Friday night dinner, that the maid came running in shouting that the end of the world had come. We all ran outside. The sky was full of falling stars, coming down like rain. I found out later that what we had seen was the tail of Halley's Comet. This was in 1910.
Between the two houses, ours and our grandparents', there was an orchard that seemed to me to be very large. During the warm days I used to play with my friends in this orchard in primitive, but extremely interesting, games. One of the games, called catchkus, involved placing a short stick, sharpened at both ends, on the ground and hitting it at one end with another stick. When it bounced up we hit it again, trying to make it go as far as possible. The one who hit the stick furthest was the winner. Another game was palantes. In this, we would support a stick on two bricks and throw it with another stick and again the winner was the one who threw it the furthest.
On Passover we had lots of fun playing with nuts. There were several different games we could play with these. For instance, we would put a board on an incline and let our nuts roll down and see if we could hit other nuts that were already on the floor. The one that hit the most nuts was the winner. This was a very exciting game for me right up to the advanced age of nine. I do not remember having any toys and I don't think that I missed them.
Being the youngest member of the family, and since I was a boy born after four girls, I was the favorite. My birth caused a great sensation in the town and, as a result, a splendid party was thrown for my bris (circumcision). I was told later that the gefillte fish at this party was so good that the millionaire of the town, Chaim Frankel, asked for a second piece. This caused quite a stir. The story was told to me later many times over.
For the most part my older sisters looked after me. I still remember them putting me to bed to sleep while they sat around doing their homework, using such expressions as x-squared, y-squared, sine, cosine and so on. I was a weak boy and used to catch many sicknesses - measles, scarlet fever and all kinds of children's diseases. Always, my older sisters took good care of me.
Looking back, it was a very happy time for me. It was not so happy for my parents, however. I was told later that at the time I was born there was such a great danger of pogroms that my father had detached several boards of the fence in case we had to escape.
My father, Leib Kron, was born in a part of Latvia called Kurland (pronounced Koorland) in the town of Tuckum (pronounced Toquecoumb). He became an orphan, losing both his father and his mother while he was still a young boy and grew up with the help of others whom I never heard much about. He didn't talk much about his early days. I know that he had two brothers in South Africa but they never corresponded. By the time he was eighteen years old he was already well acquainted with the Bible and Talmud and studied them regularly. At that time he came to Shavli to continue his studies in the Yeshiva. He came with his friend, Saul Feldman, and these two young and elegant men, coming to the small Lithuanian town, made a big impression. Soon my father got married, with the help of a matchmaker, to my mother, Shana Liebe Weiss.
Besides being very learned in Hebrew studies, my father knew German literature very well. As far back as I can remember, he had a library of German books, mostly classics and philosophic works, and also a library of books by Jewish writers. Some of these were in the original Hebrew and others were translations. He also subscribed to Hebrew and Yiddish daily newspapers and periodicals. The last present he made to me, shortly before his final illness, was the German encyclopedia, the large Brockhaus, which I cherished very much. I still regret that I was forced to leave it when I fled the communists later on in 1946.
While still young, my father learned bookkeeping and got a job at a tannery owned by the millionaire, Frankel. The tannery was, at that time, a small enterprise but in a short time it developed into a multi-million-dollar concern. My father continued as the bookkeeper there and became a trusted employee and a respected man in the Jewish community. By the beginning of the First World War he was quite well situated. He owned a four-plex from which he received rental income. He had money invested in banks in Russia and in Germany. He also secured dowries for the girls. Each time a daughter was born he took out insurance policies, his intention being, in this way, to be certain he could provide a dowry for them when they reached the age to marry.
Father had two or three close friends. Our family and theirs used to get together during the festivals - at Passover and on Succoth (Jewish harvest festival). When we visited each other there would be treats of cookies and teiglach, jams, honey cake and, especially at Passover, mead and wine.
On regular weekdays the children would go to school. My father would go to work until eight o'clock in the evening, eat his dinner, then put on his robe and study a blatt of Gemorrah (a page of Talmud). On Fridays he would come home early, especially in the winter when the sun set early, and walk to Shul (synagogue).
Papa used to have an enjoyable Saturday, the only problem being with smoking. He was a very heavy smoker but on Saturdays he abstained. Toward evening on Saturday I would often notice him looking through the window for the first star so he could have a papiros (cigarette). Not smoking on Saturdays wasn't an overwhelming problem, though, because his whole life was imbedded in Jewish tradition. All the rules of the Jewish religion were implemented fully and naturally by every one of us. All our friends were Jewish, our language was Yiddish and ours was a natural Jewish life without too much contact with Lithuanians.
Every Saturday evening after the Havdalah (prayer marking the transition from a festive day to a regular day) our family had a meal which we called a "potato ball". The main dish was potatoes cooked with the skin on and served with dried salt herring. Most of the time during this meal my father would test me on my progress in school. On the occasions when I knew the answers to all of the questions he asked he used to drop a copic (penny) behind me so I couldn't see him do it. The copic was supposed to have been dropped there by an angel as a prize for being a good student.
My mother, Shana Liebe, was born in Shavli. She was the older child of Samuel Weiss. I remember her as a round, sweet woman who seemed to me the most beautiful woman in the world. She was always around when we were in need, always busy at home, and I cannot remember once, right up to the last day of her life, hearing of any misunderstandings between her and my father or ever hearing any complaints from her though she suffered badly from gallstone attacks. These used to cause her terrible pain quite often, especially before Passover when she was very busy with preparations for the festival. Yaakov and Asya used to have similar attacks. At that time, a gallbladder operation was not yet perfected and they had to simply endure the discomfort.
Mother had only one brother who was ten years younger than she was. His name was Bere-Meyshe. He was a handsome man with a small mustache and very elegant. I don't know anything about his education but I remember that he worked as a bookkeeper all his life.
I still recall Bere-Meyshe's wedding. This was, for me, a great event. It involved a whole week of celebrations and ceremonies, some of which took place in our garden. He married Tzipora (Tzipe) Kubovitzky, a daughter of the beadle of the Great Synagogue of Shavli. I think her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Later, in Russia, they had another child, a boy by the name of Mulia (Samuel) but he also died tragically during the October Revolution. Still surviving now are my cousins, Monia Weiss, who is now living in Israel in Natanya, and Esther, who is married to her cousin Kubovitzky and living in Tel Aviv.
The Weisses had cousins by the family names of Zaron and Weiss. They were much younger than my mother and became orphans in their early days. Mama took care of them. After they grew up, they all moved to the United States and by the time of the First World War they had married and had become well established there. Mother was always in touch with them. Some of them are now dead but many of their children still live in America. Gita and I keep in touch with these cousins from time to time. For instance, there was Milton Shufro, who died a couple of years ago. He was the son of mama's cousin, Liebe Tcherne. Jeanette Goldwater, from Montreal, was another cousin. There are also Mary Jacobson and her brothers in Chicago who were so helpful to us after the Holocaust. They are all children of mama's cousins.
During the years between 1910 and 1914 my two oldest sisters were in the high grades of the Russian progymnasium, an eight year high school for girls. Both of them were very good students and before the start of the year 1914 they graduated from this school. Asya, Anne and Tzilia were in the middle grades of the elementary school. I started my education in Cheder in 1910 at the age of five.
Cheder was a primitive sort of school. Translated literally, Cheder means "room" and many have probably had occasion to see a famous painting of such a room with little boys sitting around a long table while the rebbe instructed them in the holy Bible. The boys usually started at the age of five or six years. My rebbe was called the Keidaner rebbe because he had come to our town from Keidan. As I remember him, he was a very tall man with a black beard and he was very strict with us. Whenever he found any faults with one of us he would twist our ear or put us in the corner. He had a canchik (cat-o'-nine-tails) for more severe cases. This still didn't stop us from playing many tricks to irritate him, like putting thumb tacks on his chair, soiling his coat or annoying his wife and his many children.
I remember that we boys would all sit around the table, wearing all manner of head covers. We spent the whole day at the rebbe's house. Even on cold winter days we had to go to school and at night we would make our way home using lanterns to light the way and wearing high felt boots to keep us warm. On school days mother would pack me a lunch as there was no break during which we could go home. The best lunch, especially in wintertime, was black bread (spread with goose fat) and sausage. Sometimes mother would add an orange or grapes. These were considered to be great delicacies and were usually used for sick people only. Bananas, grapefruit and tomatoes were unknown in our country at that time. They were too expensive. I was always a slim fellow and, to keep me a little plumper, I had to have quite a bit of milk, which I didn't like. As an incentive to drink the milk, mother would give me some chocolate. On days when I had milk in my lunch I could not have sausage because, according to the laws of kashruth, one must wait a couple of hours after drinking milk before consuming meat. If meat is eaten first, one must wait six hours before drinking milk.
It was probably in 1912 (I was seven at the time) that a new school was organized in our town, called Yeshibot. It was a combined school similar to our Talmud Torah here in Vancouver. At this school we were taught Jewish subjects in the mornings and Russian subjects in the afternoons. As far as I can remember it was a very good school because, later, when we were forced to go to central Russia and I wrote entering exams to join another school I had no difficulty in passing them all. As for the Jewish studies, I know that by 1914, when I was nine years of age, we had already studied the Bible and the Hebrew language and had also covered two volumes of the Talmud, Babe Metzeah and Baba Kamah.
Up to now I haven't mentioned much about my brother Yaakov. The reason is that at this period of time he was not living with us. Yaakov was about ten years older than I was and he did not do too well in school so, while he was still quite young, my father sent him to Libau for business training. A friend of my father's had a large import-export company in Libau and he took Yaakov in, first for training and then as an employee of his company. Yaakov used to come home only a couple of times a year - for Passover and for Succoth. There was invariably a great deal of excitement at home when he came. He always brought me presents from the big city. I was very excited when, one time, he brought me a full costume of a hussar--complete with big, beautiful hat, shiny buttons, sword and so forth. The outfit caused quite a sensation in the town. I loved my brother very much and always regretted that he was far away so that I was the only boy amongst all those sisters. I remember the first letter that I wrote to him in Libau. It was just after I got a sheepskin coat. My mother told me to, "Go ahead and write a letter to Yaakov," so I did. I recall the text of the letter clearly. It ran as follows:
Dear brother Yaakov,
I have a fur coat.
I remember this letter so well because, much later, when we were deep in Russia, Yaakov was going through his papers and he found my letter amongst them. He had kept it and showed it to me then.
There is one more aspect of our life during this period of time before World War One that I want to relate. It is about the summers. In summertime our family used to go to the Baltic Sea near Riga. The place was known as Dubbeln (now called Dubulti). It was a summer resort with a beautiful beach and a pine forest near it. My father used to rent a villa with a garden and we spent the whole summer there. Father used to come down to join us every weekend by train. These summers were very enjoyable times for us. We children would play in the woods and fields and go to swim in the Baltic Sea.
At that time, men and women used to have separate beaches and didn't use any swimming suits. In the later years the beaches were used by both men and women, but they were there at different times of the day. It was not until after the First World War that people started to use bathing suits and had mixed beaches.
The last time I was at this summer resort was in the year 1914. Had it not been for the tragic event that occurred in August, the year 1914 would have been, for me, a time of sheer delight. In July I was enjoying my vacation at the Baltic Sea with my aunt, Tzipe Weiss, and her sister Sara. My chaperones, though both considerably older than I was, were in their twenties and they tried to enjoy to the full the wonderful weather and the sandy beaches, allowing me complete freedom.
Rita, the girl next door, was my steady companion. She lived with her grandparents in their own datcha, where she had spent the summer months since her early childhood. She knew every corner of the village and surrounding areas and was eager to share her knowledge with me. I can still see her when I close my eyes: black curly hair, a tiny agile body, a birth mark over her eyebrow. Most of her dresses were with polka dots, which was her grandmother's preference.
For three weeks we spent our days together on the beach, in the wonderful pine woods and further down in the fields where we used to enjoy watching the crowded trains sluggishly approaching the station and waving to the passengers looking through the windows. We used to return home loaded with short shishki (pine cones) for the samovar, wild strawberries and bouquets of Vasilki, the bright blue flowers which covered the fields in millions.
All this stopped on August first. When news spread that the country was involved in war panic engulfed the village. Immediately everyone began packing and rushing to the station. Leaving many things behind, but making sure that the two large, round hat boxes were with us, (they contained the girls' hats and, at that time, a lady's hat was the most important item in her wardrobe) we moved to the station, helped by Sara's boyfriend, a wrestler.
The station was a beehive. We had to skip two trains before we managed to advance to the landing platform. We then poised for the final assault. When our train came a real pandemonium started. It was a short, savage fight. We were pressed from behind by an irresistible force. Tzippe and Sara were pushed through the door holding the wreckage of their hatboxes and I was lifted through a window by the powerful hands of the wrestler. All this lasted merely a few minutes.
Soon it was quiet again. We could hear the sound of the whistle, but the train did not move. I looked through the window. The crowd stood unusually quiet, almost like they were paralyzed. Then it parted to allow passage for two men carrying a stretcher. From far away I recognized the familiar polka dots. It was Rita - dead. The poor girl had been crushed by the crowd.
World War One
Being situated close to the German border, our town of Shavli became a center for wartime activities. Shortly after the declaration of war, Russian soldiers started to move through the city in endless columns. Their infantry, which always moved on foot, used to travel hundreds of miles direct from the center of Russia to the border. We would watch them pass by with their shinel (great coats) rolled up over their shoulders and secured at the waist with their belts. They wore heavy boots and had containers for meals attached to their belts. Their ammunition also hung around their waists.
After the infantry came the artillery, their heavy guns towed by three or more pairs of horses. Their kitchens and provisions moved across the city day and night. Everything was moving to the western front. Shavli was full of soldiers all the time. They were billeted in every house-- every family had to give up a part of their space for them. Half of our house was given up to a group of infantrymen.
I had a lot of fun around the soldiers because they used to tell all kinds of stories about their exploits. One of them, a tall man by the name of Kuchta, was very friendly. He was always in high spirits, probably because he used to be drunk most of the time. He taught me how to take care of a rifle--how to take it apart and put it back together again. I even tried shooting with it. In the evenings the soldiers used to sit around and play the harmonica and sing Russian folk songs. Then they would get the order to move, only to be replaced by other companies.
It wasn't long before another traffic started crossing through in the opposite direction. These were the wounded, bloody, bandaged and suffering. They traveled in dilapidated horse-drawn vehicles back toward Russia. In one of these vehicles I came across, just by accident, Kuchta. He was badly wounded and could hardly talk to me.
For me, the whole war was a chain of very interesting events. I didn't realize what the general situation of the war was. The fact was that the early Russian victories didn't last long and, in a few months, the Germans counterattacked. The Russians suffered a tremendous defeat in the famous Battle of Tannenberg. After that the slow advance of the Germans to the east began. Soon, they were approaching our area. Prince Micholai Nicholaiyevitsch, a cousin of the Tzar, was appointed as the chief of the army at this time and, as he did not trust the Jewish population of our area, he decreed that all the Jews had to move from the Pale of Settlement eastward. The time allotted for this move was limited and, as a result, quite a panic ensued. People used all means of transportation to move. Our family was lucky enough to get onto a railway car.
We first moved to Vitebsk, where we stayed for about a year, then to the small town of Bogorodsk, approximately forty miles from Moscow. The office of Frankel's tannery also moved to this town for a short time before it found plush offices in the center of Moscow. There, in Bogorodsk, we found a large suite in a building on the main street of the city. Part of this building was occupied by the offices of the tannery. On the first day of the decree to move, my grandfather died suddenly. Grandmother had to move with other people to Russia, where she finally joined us in Bogorodsk. Soon after the decree, the German army occupied the western area where we lived, but they were stopped somewhere in White Russia.
Bogorodsk was a typical Russian town altogether different from Shavli. I still remember that the railway station had a "red corner" which was illuminated by candles and icons. Everyone used to kneel in this place and cross themselves right there at the station. The main street of the town was occupied by businesses which carried on in the traditional Russian manner, each business being handed down from father to son to grandson. These Russian people were a very solid and sturdy type.
For me this was a critical time because I had to get into school. There was a "Real" high school in Bogorodsk. (In a "Real" high school such things as math, science and engineering were taught. Gymnasium, on the other hand, concentrated on the humanities.) I intended to go into second year but to be accepted I had to pass exams in all subjects. One of the exams was drawing by hand, which was something I had never learned to do, so I went to another town which was not far away, Pokrov, where there was a Gymnasium. There I passed the necessary exams and was accepted. Later, I transferred back to the "Real" school in Bogorodsk.
Before the war there were no Jews in Bogorodsk except for one "Nicholai soldier". Many years previously, Tzar Nicholai the First, grandfather of then-ruling Nicholai the Second, used to mobilize young boys between the ages of nine and twelve and keep them in the army for twenty-five years. Usually, Jewish parents used to hide their boys and there was a special group of people--Happars (Catchers)--who would search out the boys whenever possible and transfer them into the army. After twenty-five years of service they were released. People used to call them "Nicholai soldiers". Jews who had served their full term in the army had all restrictions on Jews removed from them. This conscription of boys had been discontinued by my time. One such man was living in Bogorodsk at the time. He was a very fine old gentleman and very good to us.
The schools in Russia used to run six days a week, Monday to Saturday. This created a problem for me. What was I to do about Saturdays? It was unimaginable that I should write on Saturday or that I should carry books to school on that day. My father went to the principal and explained my situation to him. The principal, unacquainted with Jews, had never heard of such crazy requirements but said that he had nothing against them and that it would depend on the individual teachers. All of the teachers except one were cooperative. They never called me to the board on Saturdays and never gave any written tests on that day. The exception was a teacher of the German language, a German man by nationality. He did just the opposite. As a result, every summer I had to write a special exam in German to be able to be transferred to the next level. I passed them all with ease.
Looking back, I must admire the other boys in that school--my friends. Boys are usually inclined to be rude at that age, especially with a newcomer in school and even more so with a "different" newcomer such as I was. They, however, were very good to me. I can't remember any unpleasant incident or any discrimination shown toward me in games or otherwise. For a couple of years it was an established tradition that on Saturdays I would walk through the town to the outskirts where the school was located with a maid carrying my books. At the end of the day we would proceed in a similar fashion back home. I became a preferred pupil in that school where never before in their lives had they seen a Jew.
We had a lot of homework in school and quite often I used to study together with a friend of mine, a Russian boy by the name of Grisha. We used to study alternately at his house and my house and I was very well-accepted by his family. Then on a certain day in the spring of 1916, when it was his turn to come to my house to study arithmetic, he refused. When I insisted that he tell me why he refused to come to my place he reluctantly revealed his reason. He told me he was afraid to go to a Jewish home in the days before Passover because he thought he might be killed and his blood used for making matzos--so deep were anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in the Russian population. Our previous good relationship was resumed immediately the eight days of Passover were over.
In the meantime the war was progressing. The number of Jewish families in Bogorodsk increased and people of various professions established themselves in this town. My father looked for a teacher for me--a rebbe--for Jewish religious education and found, first, a man who was the owner of a "restaurant". His wife used to serve his customers in her living room with good-tasting Jewish dishes. We, the pupils, used to have to help them with the dishes, cleaning house and other chores. I don't remember exactly what the program was in my Jewish studies at that time. I do remember that we had lots of fun and learned nothing.
The second rebbe I had in Bogorodsk was an awful person. He was an older man with a greying beard. He used to be very strict with us and enforced discipline by keeping a cane handy at all times. He was a very dirty fellow. Lice crawled on his jacket. The tract we took up with him was Gitten. That, directly translated, means "rules about divorces". In general, it is supposed to be rules about family relationships. The fact that I don't remember anything from this part of the Talmud shows that I was not interested. This kind of Jewish education didn't appeal to anybody and didn't last long.
I had another religious influence in my life at that time. Just across the street from us there settled a Yeshiva which was evacuated from the town of Tavrik in Lithuania. The rabbi there allowed me, in my free time from school, to listen to his lectures and to study Gemorrah. I very much enjoyed the company of the pupils (who were called Yeshiva-Bochurim and who ranged in age from the teens to the middle twenties). After regular hours these young men used to have a good time telling stories. They would also use any available pretext for going out of town for walks in the woods and any religious holiday to arrange plays and dances (no girls). Their company helped to keep me on the right track where religiosity was concerned. They were, to me, a counterbalance to the general trend in Russia at that time which was away from religion and toward the revolution.
Although there was at that time no radio or television and the press was censored by the government, the news from the front and from high political circles spread from mouth to mouth. It was a time of heavy defeats for the Russian army and of big intrigues around the Tzar. We were influenced by the news about Rasputin as well. This ex-monk from deep Russia got into favor with Nicholai the Second's wife, Alexandra. She believed he had healing powers which could help her ailing son Alexis who was a hemophiliac. In a short time Rasputin gained tremendous influence in the Tzar's family and, through that, in the government, especially during the time the Tzar was at the front as commander in chief of the army. Rasputin forced himself into high society where he hired and fired the highest officials. All the ladies of society were at his mercy and anybody who dared say a word against him risked being punished by Alexandra. There was no secret about his debaucheries and the whole population of Russia knew what was going on there in Petrograd. These stories, in addition to the bad news from the front and the bad economic situation of the country, greatly enhanced the revolutionary movement in Russia. All these news items were debated by everyone.
I was at that time a boy of eleven or twelve and not too interested in politics. My older sisters, however, used to participate in various meetings in our house and much of the truth of what was happening filtered into my mind. I used to get a lot of indoctrination in politics through a man who was employed in the office of the tannery as a bookkeeper. His name was Teitelbaum.
I was also, for a certain time, employed by the office and was paid five rubles a month. My job was to type up addresses and make copies of letters and financial statements. This job wasn't easy. At that time carbon paper had not been invented, never mind Xerox. Letters used to be copied by using a certain type of ink for the original. This original was then put in a book which had very thin paper. The paper was brushed with a damp paintbrush and then the book was closed and put under a press. After a couple of hours the ink would be transferred to the paper and you had your copy in the book. That, and the filing of documents, was my job.
After a certain time in the job I felt that I should be paid better and I asked Teitelbaum what to do about it. (The boss was my father.) Teitelbaum said: "Well, that's simple enough. Just write to the company." He gave me the text and told me to sign, "Proletarian Meyer Kron". I asked him what "proletarian" meant. His reply was: "You are not supposed to know yet what it means." The fact was that that word was used a lot around Russia during that revolutionary time. In ruling circles proletarian was a despised expression. The general trend in the middle classes was to protect the children from getting involved in the turbulence of the revolutionary movement.
During the February Revolution in 1917, the Tzar was removed from power in Russia. This was a great event and caused terrific excitement all over the country. The endless demonstrations by the people, with their revolutionary slogans and signs, were very exciting. The boys from the Yeshiva across the street participated in these demonstrations and everybody felt happy and full of hope for the future. The Jewish people were the happiest because they believed that NOW there would be no more oppression.
Following the removal of the Tzar a provisional government was set up. In no time various political parties appeared on the scene. Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, social revolutionaries--everybody started propaganda programs for their parties for the upcoming elections of the Constituent Assembly. Everyone was ready for the elections. But they did not come to pass because of the Coup of November--the so-called October Revolution.
The October Revolution came at the time when the Constituent Assembly of the new order was to be set up. Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, suddenly appeared on the scene after travelling in a clandestine railway car from Switzerland through Germany to Russia. Lenin had been banned from Russia by the Tzar and had been organizing the revolution from Switzerland. His party was well organized by the time he arrived.
While the Mensheviks wanted to continue the war with Germany, the Bolsheviks were against it. Their ambition was to make peace on any terms. "Bread and Peace" was their slogan. As a result, the Germans, who were fighting on two fronts--in the east with Russia and in the west with France and Britain--wanted the Bolsheviks in power in Russia as this would eliminate their Eastern Front and allow them to concentrate on France and Britain. They therefore allowed Lenin to pass through Germany and, in fact, helped him to reach Russia.
The November Coup succeeded. When Lenin arrived he had not only the navy behind him but a good part of the workers as well. He also had the soldiers. The soldiers, who were fighting on the front, wanted peace, naturally. At the time of the first meetings of the new parliament, the marines aimed the guns of their armored ships at the parliament buildings and the Bolsheviks stormed the buildings and took over power.
A new era began then in Russia and, actually, in the whole world. These events happened in the Tzarist capital of Petrograd (now Leningrad). Petrograd is quite a distance from Moscow, which is situated in the central part of Russia, but the news spread very fast. The Bolsheviks, having seized power, eliminated in a short time all other parties. They abolished the old capitalist system to organize something new - the soviet system. (A soviet is a committee.) New slogans appeared. "All power to the Soviets"; "Proletarians from all countries unite!"
News of these events was not late in coming to Moscow and to Bogorodsk. Life in the little town of Bogorodsk was affected in many ways. There was no more Yeshiva. The public school became less disciplined. Some teachers disappeared and the students were put in charge of the school. Committees were established for the Chemistry lab, for the Physics department and for every other department. At the same time, more cultural activities appeared on the scene. A People's University was established as well as a music school and many free lectures were given in different places on political and materialistic subjects. There was much excitement.
By that time I had become Bar Mitzvah (a Jewish boy who reaches his thirteenth birthday). This was not such an elaborate affair as it is today in Vancouver. We had no synagogue and religious services used to be held once a week in a private house with perhaps two scores of people attending. In this setting I read my Maftir (portion of the Prophets a Bar Mitzvah boy reads in public). After prayers we had a couple of our friends over to our house for the kiddush (festive religious meal). I got some presents--the works of Tolstoy from my older sisters and the works of An-Ski from the younger set of sisters. I got a violin from my uncle, Bere-Meyshe. This last gift and the fact that a music school was established in Bogorodsk helped me to become interested in music.
The consequences of the October Revolution were very far-reaching and complicated. Normal life in the whole vast Russian Empire collapsed. The Germans continued their aggression and millions of Russian soldiers were killed or starved to death due to lack of food or lack of transportation. In a short time the whole country began to feel the squeeze. There was no food, there were no industrial products and, as time went on, shortages increased. In our family the situation was bad and getting worse. My father lost his job, naturally, as the whole business of the tannery collapsed. He got another job temporarily as bookkeeper. His salary was sixteen kilograms of grain per month. I used to bring the grain to the mill and mother used to bake bread from it. Tzilia got a job as a private teacher and she was paid two kilograms of sugar per month.
Soon thereafter my father became very ill with colitis and could hardly do anything at all. By this time the older sisters were in Moscow finishing university. They could barely supply themselves with the necessities of life. Yaakov was on the move all the time and couldn't help too much so, as it turned out, I became the main breadwinner in the family.
The only way of winning bread was the Black Market. There were very large textile factories around Bogorodsk, called Morozoff Manufacturing, which produced mostly silk. The people at the factory used to steal this to be sold on the Black Market. I used to get bolts of silk from neighbors. These I would twist around my body, cover them with my clothes and smuggle them into Moscow by train. This was very dangerous and was made more so by the fact that the silk was noisy and could easily be detected. I would go to the train very early--at 5:00 a.m--board it and lie down on the top shelf which, actually, was designed for luggage. There I would lie until we arrived in Moscow. The trip sometimes took up to three or four hours and did not always go smoothly. Sometimes there were complaints from the people who were "downstairs" from me. They wondered where the "rain" was coming from. I was a young boy and could not always contain myself. They couldn't do much about it, however, because the train was so jammed that they could not move to call the police.
With the police I didn't have any problem. Although they checked almost everybody when we entered Kurski station in Moscow nobody paid any attention to me. As a small, slight school boy I passed through the gates unnoticed. The material which I smuggled was sold to "speculators" and was finally transformed into money or food.
My sisters, at that time, were living in a very beautiful apartment at number nine on Kreevokoleny Lane in central Moscow. This apartment was situated in the building where the offices of the tannery had been located. In October, when the offices closed down, the ten rooms of this apartment were occupied by ten different tenants. One of these rooms was occupied by my sisters, who stayed there until last year. They lived there exactly sixty years. Later on, Chaytze married and her husband lived there as well.
Comfort was not too high in the apartment. The toilet and bathroom were usually out of order and the gas not functioning. In the kitchen every tenant had a primus (a kerosene burner). By the door there was an electric bell and you signaled by the number of times you pressed the bell which room you wished to enter.
There were many difficulties during this period of time but they didn't affect me as a boy. Every time I went to Moscow I stayed a couple of days. I liked to go to the Bolshoi Theatre and to other theatres and to ballets and concerts. Naturally, I had no way to buy tickets at the door, but as far as I remember, I never failed to get in. I would wait until the big crowd had gone in so there would be no witnesses and would then negotiate with the doorman. Sometimes, though, especially in winter, these experiences were not very pleasant. One evening I was desperate. All my attempts to get into the Bolshoi had failed. I went to the end of the horse-shoe-like corridor which surrounded the great performance hall where I noticed a camouflaged door. I tried to open it, it gave way, and I entered a dark place with a winding staircase leading upward. It took me to the top floor and directly into a box with a beautiful view of the stage. After that I had no problems getting into the theatre.
As time progressed a shortage of fuel developed for driving the train, which was fueled by wood. The regular travelling time now became twice as long and we used to be lucky to arrive at our destination in five or six hours. Often the train would stop in a forest wherever the fireman spotted cut wood and the passengers would help load the locomotive with wood.
During one of these journeys, on a severe winter night, we arrived in Moscow very late. It was the middle of the night. On this occasion I had no textiles with me but I had a sack, tied at the end and tied, as well, in the middle so that I could carry it balanced over my shoulder. This was filled with very valuable things like potatoes and carrots, bread and other foods for my sisters. It was a very cold night and I had to walk for about an hour from the station to the city. When I came to number nine Kreevokoleny Lane the door was locked and, as I might have expected, the bell was not functioning. I tried and tried again but there was no response to my ringing.
Eventually I lay down and, using my sack as a pillow, fell asleep in front of the door. Luckily, one of the tenants of the ten-story building came home in time and found me before I froze. I was half-dead and at that temperature could not have survived for more than ten or fifteen minutes longer. My doctor sister knew exactly what to do to revive me properly so that there would be no ill effects later on. I was lucky that time.
By chance I found another source of revenue for my family a little later on. As I said, I was the only man in the family by this time and I had to procure fuel for the ovens along with everything else. I used to bring wood from the forest surrounding Bogorodsk by sleigh and would chop the wood up in a shed near our home. It was while chopping wood that I heard a kind of hollow sound from the floor. I looked and found a space under the floor where, to my surprise, I found a huge box full of table salt packed into neat packages of one pound each. Because at that time money had little value and salt was scarce we used the salt I found to procure other kinds of food. This find kept us alive--the whole family--for a long time.
The general situation in Russia at that time continued to deteriorate. While the Bolsheviks tried to expand their power under the leadership of Lenin, Trotsky, and their colleagues, that part of the population which remained loyal to the Tzar started to organize. Some generals put together their own so-called "White Armies" which inflicted heavy casualties on the newly organized Red Army. Kolchack, Denykin and other "White" generals occupied sizable territories in the south and east of Russia and were moving toward Moscow. At that time the western powers, which had been left to fight the Germans alone after the Russians made their separate "Peace of Brest" agreement with Germany, landed troops in the far east and in the south of Russia in an attempt to quell the revolution.
A civil war of tremendous activity developed in the whole country. The civil population was the main victim. Besides shortages of food and clothing, there were epidemics of typhoid fever and, later, hispanka (now called the Russian Flu) killed millions. We had no medicines at the time and there was no such thing as vaccinations.
I imagine that the grown-ups suffered very much from all this but it didn't really affect me. I was a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old boy and, as far as I remember, I was quite happy and busy with trying to feed the family, playing music and going to various lectures, especially those concerned with Russian history and biology.
The salt I found in the barn was a great help to us, but we still had the problem of the scarcity of food. It was impossible for us to find bread, butter and other articles, even in exchange for salt. Then I heard that more food was available in the south of Russia around the Volga and many people went down there in search of it. Naturally, this was a job for grown-up men but, not having anyone else in our family who would be able to do something about the situation, I joined some neighbors who were going south and we went together. I took some packages of salt and, somehow, I had managed to obtain a pair of shoes to trade for food. I also took my brother Yaakov's coat and, with this and my salt as capital, I joined the group.
It wasn't just a question of buying a ticket and then sitting in a railway car. To get into a car was a very difficult problem. The trains were very crowded. People traveled on the steps of the wagons and on the roofs. However, my group somehow managed to get on the train. We disembarked in a field at a station called Mylnaya which is near the Volga. The nearest village was eleven kilometers away. Naturally, we walked this distance and, to me, it was an extremely trying journey. I scarcely had the power to drive myself along with the group of sturdy men with whom I traveled. It was a very hot summer day and I thought I would not survive the trip to the village. However, I got there with the rest of them and we spread out to different peasant people in our search for food. I knocked at the door of a house and, as it turned out, it was the doctor's house. He and his family put me in the kitchen together with a maid and gave me food and promised to help me barter for food supplies to take home. At the end of a day or two I was a rich man. I had accumulated about twenty puds (approximately 800 pounds) of grain, butter, meal, meat, water melons and many other kinds of foodstuffs.
The doctor also helped to arrange transportation back to the railway station for me and my bounty and I gathered again with my group in the same field where we had landed. Then the difficulties began. Tens of thousands of people were sitting on the fields in this area with their sacks of goods. There were people as far as you could see in all directions, but no trains came. As it turned out, this was a critical location in the civil war. We were close to the only bridge over the Volga. From the other side of the Volga, Kolchack was approaching with his armies and, while we waited there, the bridge was blown up. Consequently, there was no way for north-bound trains to cross the river to where we were. A committee was organized to do something about the situation, but the only thing they could do was send telegrams to Lenin and to Trotsky asking for trains.
At first we hoped to get a train in a day or two. Later on, week passed after week. Only after five weeks of waiting did the first set of wagons arrive. One can imagine what kind of a fight broke out as to who should be the first to get on the train. I was lucky again.
When I left for the trip mother had given me a little basket with various items for first aid: iodine, bandages, etc. Being in the field where all kinds of injuries occurred every day I became the first aid man. Because of this and because I was the youngest of all of them I was the first to be put on the train with my goods. This wasn't a passenger wagon but a cattle wagon. Despite this, we (myself and the others) were happy that we got in at all with our sacks of food.
It took another two weeks before we arrived home. We were stopped at several stations and our goods were searched by the NKVD. Somehow, it had been decided not to let anyone bring more than forty pounds of food home. However, through all kinds of tricks, we managed to secure about three-quarters of our bounty. We had to give the rest away to the authorities.
The inside of the train we traveled in was terribly hot and dirty. All kinds of insects, including lice, covered everyone. The trains used to stand for hours at a station waiting for a locomotive. At these times, we used to try to swim in the nearest river, wash our clothes in a pool or get hot water for a cup of tea. The rest of the waiting was boring. The men used to sit under the wagons to keep in the shade and play cards. Money had no value so they gambled for grain.
One such day I was somewhere around the train when I heard a shot. A fellow in our group had lost all his goods playing cards. Most likely he had had a good shot of Vodka as well. In any case, he couldn't stand the loss and shot himself.
It was a miracle that I finally got home. Once there, I did not enter the house until I had thrown away my clothes and burned them so as not to bring any lice in. Lice are the main carriers of typhoid.
This journey, which was supposed to last three or four days, took instead several weeks. I wasn't scared but I can imagine how my mother suffered, not knowing my whereabouts and hearing that the Syzran bridge had been destroyed. I was told later that mama never went to bed all this time. As a result of this trip and the goods I brought home, the situation in our family improved greatly.
As time passed the Soviet regime established itself completely. The White Armies were destroyed. The Allied capitalist states suffered a fiasco. They had landed in Russia to overthrow the government but they were driven off. The new government took its first steps toward organizing a new life and a new society for the country.
The Bolsheviks had very high ideals about a just society where there would be no exploitation of one group of people by another group. Theoretically, the aim of communism was to establish a society where everyone would receive according to his needs and give according to his ability. In the ideal communist society, everyone would do the best he could and the goods would be distributed to everyone according to need. That was a very high ideal but, in actuality, it was impossible to carry out unless the country has unlimited prosperity and very high productivity. However, until this is achieved, they must be contented with "socialism" where everyone gives according to his abilities and receives according to his achievement. This is why Soviet Russia calls itself, not Union of Soviet Communist Republics, but Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Thus a situation developed in Russia in which citizens who worked longer hours or produced more received better pay than their friends who did less. Physically or intellectually more able people received more advantages in materials goods than less well-equipped individuals. Thus there arose different classes with different earnings, different status and different standards of living.
Private property, even in agriculture, was abolished. All factories, buildings, real estate and farms were taken over by the local soviets and only selected people were entrusted with heading the country. Most of them were ill-equipped and looked out for their own interests. Consequently the whole economy went to ruin. Factories had no materials, money was worthless, services were not provided and, to more-or-less keep order, a drastic totalitarian regime had to be established, the dictatorship of the proletariat. This was a regime of terrorism originating with the government and it swept all around this huge country with unimaginable ferocity. In the beginning the government agency responsible for this was called Tchresvytchika (Cheka) or "extraordinary commission". Later it was called GPU and today it is called the NKGB. Under this organization agents penetrated the whole country - all towns and villages, offices and factories, collective farms and schools. Nobody was immune or unnoticed by the agents of the organization and fear engulfed the whole country. People did not trust their own brothers. Arrests occurred every day and this continued with unrelenting furor for years, far beyond the death of Lenin and until the death of his successor, Stalin. Especially in Stalin's time, millions of people, including leading communists, military commanders, scientists and artists were put to death.
In later years, after Stalin's death, the brutality of the regime relented a little, but there is still no freedom in the country. People are controlled by fear of authority wherever they go and whatever they do. They cannot travel where they want, cannot correspond freely with people abroad, cannot read any literature except that which is allowed by the authorities. Even musical compositions and art are regulated by law.
Up to this day people in the Soviet Union never had a taste of freedom. The standard of living there is still very low. As one of my friends, Slavkin, a professor of Marxism and Leninism in Moscow, put it, "There is no way to have a normal economy when nobody is personally interested."
After the peace treaty with Germany in 1918 Lithuania became an independent state and it was proclaimed that residents of Lithuania before the war had the option of becoming Lithuanian citizens. The Soviet government gave their consent to this.
In our critical position this seemed to be a ray of light and my father put in an application to go. The younger members of our family, Tzilia and myself, were not given a choice but the older sisters decided not to return to Lithuania with us. Just at that time, Mary, the oldest, and Chaytze had graduated from university as doctors. The other sisters, Asya and Anne, also decided to stay in Russia.
The date of departure for the rest of us was established as some time in August of 1920. After finishing university, Mary immediately received a job in Moscow, specializing in ear, nose and throat ailments. Chaytze, however, did not register as a doctor as was required by law. At that time, while wars were still going on, the doctors were the first to be mobilized. Chaytze stayed in Bogorodsk with us but, when the time came for us to leave, she finally decided to go to the appropriate security station and report. I accompanied her to the NKVD (the security station). They didn't let her out again. They arrested her immediately for not registering sooner. I managed to find out the name of the official who made the arrest and left her there.
Two weeks later we had to leave. The last time I saw Chaytze was through a tunnel in the security building. This tunnel ran from the street to the yard and was designed for vehicles to pass through. I saw Chaytze in the yard at the other end of the tunnel. I was on the street. Knowing the name of the arresting officer and through using a series of bribes Yaakov managed to get her released from prison. She was then sent directly to the front where she met her husband, Yuly.
The last episode I had in Russia was on the steps of a streetcar after I left Chaytze at the NKVD. On the steps of the car was a person who was holding onto the rails. I was on the lowest step and he was in front of me. In front of him was a woman wearing a grey Persian Lamb coat. Between two stations the man in front of me took out a razor and cut out the whole back of the woman's coat. At the next stop he jumped off the car without the poor woman even knowing anything had happened.
Sometime later that night our train moved, its direction west. Our belongings were loaded in the same car with us. At that time nobody believed in the new Soviet rubles. People still clung to the Tzarist paper money and believed it had value. It was illegal to take it out of the country. One accepted procedure, which everyone kept secret, was to roll up the paper bills into thin tubes and put them into the thick down comforters. When we arrived at the border everyone (and everything, including furniture, comforters and everything else) was searched. Luckily, our family passed with flying colors. However, a couple of minutes before starting time another officer jumped in the car to make a second check. He put his hand in a comforter and immediately grabbed a handful of Tzarist bills. As a result they opened all the comforters. The whole train was full of down. This held up the train for another twelve hours and it took months before we got rid of the down and feathers. The tragi-comedy was that the money was worth nothing at all.
That was our goodbye to Russia. We arrived back in Shavli on September first 1920. The next time I saw my older sisters was when I went to visit them during the last days of World War Two. This was on the fifteenth of March, 1945. I did not see Chaytze again as, at that time, she was still on the Japanese front.
Yaakov and his wife, Eva, also lived in Moscow at that time. They left Russia later and returned to Shavli for a short while, then they settled in Riga, Latvia. In Riga their first son was born in 1924. Most of the war years from 1914 to 1920 Yaakov had been away from home trying to avoid the draft. He and some of his friends used to travel from one corner of Russia to the other trying to land in a province where their age group was not being drafted. Finally, when this means was exhausted, they found out that near the front there was no draft for people of certain ages. They went there and found some means of changing their birth dates on their official papers. All in all, they moved from one place to another for years until the Revolution released them from this worry. Yaakov had a bad time all those years but luckily he survived and joined us in Bogorodsk at the time of the Revolution. He married at that time and went to live in Moscow. He and his wife left Moscow a little after us.
At the beginning Asya also stayed in Moscow after we left, but she joined us a year or two later and stayed with us in Shavli. Thus our family was divided. Mary, Chaytze, Chaytze's husband, Yuly, and Anne stayed in Moscow. My parents, my grandmother Rivka Weiss, Tzilia, Asya and I settled in Shavli. Yaakov and his family moved to Riga. There remained a close connection, however, between Yaakov and us. Riga is situated about one hundred and twenty miles from Shavli but, though it was in a different country and we needed visas to, we visited back and forth very often. Their family used to come to us on holidays and we used to spend summer vacations at the famous Baltic beaches near Riga.
With Russia communications were always strained and difficult. Naturally the girls couldn't write freely or tell us the truth of what was happening there but we corresponded more or less regularly all the same.
In 1928, when I finished university, there was a kind of a détente between Lithuania and Russia. I was looking for a job at that time and I even considered taking a job in Russia. Russia had advertised for engineers and I considered applying. My sisters, however, gave me a hint in one of their letters to drop all such thoughts.
In 1938 there was a possibility, for a certain time, of visiting Russia from Lithuania. My mother took advantage of this and traveled to Moscow. She stayed for several weeks. Naturally, she took with her all kinds of goods--clothing, linens, underwear, etc.--and gave everything away while she was there, including her own coat and dress. When I went to the border to meet her on her way back I couldn't even recognize her.
After eighteen years of separation it was a great thing for all of them to meet again. The girls all lived in the room on Kreevokoleny Lane in Moscow. For my mother's coming they changed all the dishes and pots and pans to make sure that mother could eat kosher food while she was there. Seventeen years after that visit, when my sisters in Russia found out that I had stayed alive again after the German occupation, the first thing they did was send me a package of goods which contained exactly the same items my mother had brought them--linens, clothing, fancy pantaloons with white lace, etc.
Return to Shavli
When we arrived in Shavli in September, 1920, Lithuania was a sovereign state. The people there were recovering from the disasters of the First World War. Our relatives, the Schochet family (they were distant cousins of ours but we had always been close to them), helped us out. They had somehow managed to stay in Lithuania during the war. The head of the family, Hirsch, was a tinsmith and a good businessman. He was quite well off at that time. He ran a kind of restaurant in his house in addition to his tinsmith business. We stayed with him for a time until we found a place of our own. The house we had lived in before the war had burned down, as had the four-plex. The first thing to do was for father, who now felt better, to find some work and, to begin with, he got a job as bookkeeper for the Jewish community. This was just a part-time job and the pay was very low. We could hardly survive on it. At that time we got in touch with mama's relatives in the United States. They were very good to us and helped my parents to get through the first difficult years.
There was at that time a Hebrew school in Shavli. I wanted very much to enlist in that school but, for a year or more, we could not afford this. As it was a private school the fees were very high. I envied the boys and girls who used to go to the school but I took it philosophically and waited patiently.
The bookkeeping job did not work out for papa so he, together with his old friend Feldman, tried to open a grocery store in the marketplace. We had to deal mainly with the Lithuanian peasants who came to the market every Monday and Thursday. The main items of merchandise were supplies for them such as grease for wheels, salt herring from the barrel (these we used to wrap up in newspaper), salt, horseshoes and similar things. I was the "sales representative" from our family and there was a girl who was sales representative for Feldman's side. I don't think the business was too profitable because we didn't survive until the winter.
But better times were coming and we didn't have to wait long. Old Frankel, the owner of the tannery, had run away from Russia during the Revolution. He had landed in Germany but died in Bad Homburg in 1920 at the age of sixty. He left his property to his only son, Yaakov, and to his wife. They lived at that time in Berlin. By the time we came to Shavli, two years after the war ended, Yaakov Frankel was trying to reorganize his father's tannery. He was not as capable a person as his father had been but he was smart enough to start the business again with the help of previous employees and relatives. Soon the business began to take shape again. He had four cousins who had worked with his father before the war. They were Chaim-Leib Sheskin, Ilya and Isaac Mordel and Fiva Potruch. The only person involved in the reconstruction of the factory who was not a relative was my father. Each of the cousins had his own specialty. Sheskin was the sales director, Ilya the technical manager, Isaac was in charge of the shoe factory and Potruch in charge of the sole leather department. My father was the financial director and a trusted man with Yaakov Frankel just as he had been with Yaakov's father. Yaakov Frankel and his mother stayed in Berlin after the father died but they used to come to Shavli occasionally. Their mansion was repaired at that time. Half of it, with a separate entrance, he used for himself when he was in Shavli. With him and his family lived his mother and his mother-in-law. The other half of the house he gave to the Jewish community to use for the Hebrew high school. In the garden was a two-wing house, one wing of which was occupied by us and the other by Sheskin.
The business arrangement with Frankel was not a complicated one. He provided the capital and the facilities and took sixty-five percent of the profits and the five directors divided, more-or-less equally, the other thirty-five percent. It was quite a difficult task to rebuild the tannery but in the end the directors were successful. In no time they had re-established the business as a multi-million dollar concern and the financial worries which had plagued my father so much in the foregoing several years were over.
Tzilia became papa's secretary and I was happy that I could join the school, which was in the same yard where we lived. To be able to get in I had to find a tutor. The tutor I found was a pupil in the same class, the fifth class, which I intended to join. (The fifth class there would be the same as our ninth grade.) His name was Naftalevitz and this boy later became one of my best friends. It didn't take me long to adjust and I passed from class to class with no difficulties.
In the wing of the house where we lived we had one bedroom, a dining room, a kitchen and a small, dark room for grandma. Nesia, a cousin from mama's, joined us there and, for awhile, so did Bere-Meyshe and his family when they came back to Shavli. It may seem that it was a crowded arrangement but we were pretty happy at that time. Just in case any complaints should arise my father put a sign in the corner which said, simply, "REMEMBER BOGORODSK". It was a happy time. All our friends, especially father's, were poor, but nobody complained for a better life was here and there was no jealousy. Everybody enjoyed the sense of freedom. We used to celebrate the holidays by going to visit each other, especially on Succoth and Simchat Torah. There was then a feeling which I felt only on one other occasion - when liberated from the Soviets after World War Two. My friends used to come at Hannukah and play cards and music. This was a happy time and lasted a couple of years. Then everyone began to re-establish themselves, each in his own way, and jealousies and conflicts once again began to develop. The happiness of freedom dissipated.
The house where we lived was not too comfortable and we were anxious to rebuild our old four-plex at 186 Vilniaus Gatve. We got financial help for this from Nathan Weiss in the United States. He was a wonderful man. He owned a factory which made electric light bulbs and was rich. He was very devoted to my mother and continued to send us money until we were able to rebuild the house.
We moved back there in 1925. (At that time I was not at home any longer.) The ties we had with Nathan were always close. He died shortly before Tzilia's son was born and they named him Nathan after Nathan Weiss. Nathan, Tzilia's son, would now be about fifty years old had he lived but he perished during the Second World War.
My studies in high school went pretty smoothly. I was one of the top students, though not the best one. All subjects were taught in Hebrew, including mathematics, physics, history and so forth. A good deal of time was devoted to the Lithuanian language as the language of the country. Besides these subjects, we had to take foreign languages--Russian, German and English. In the top two classes we had to take Latin as well. We had a wonderful set of teachers and the best of all of them was the principal, a man by the name of Brozer. He was a small man with a red goatee. I have never seen a man with as much knowledge as Brozer. He was able to substitute for any teacher at any time. It could be in physics or mathematics or Bible or Prophets. His lessons, especially in Prophets, left an imprint on me which lasted for the rest of my life. His interpretations of the Bible were excellent and we used to sit in his lessons and swallow every word he spoke. He managed to lead our school until the first issue of students, who had begun in grade four, graduated.
To get through the final exams, the Ministry of Education from our capital, Kaunas (Kovno), sent representatives to supervise the exams. Most of the exams were oral but the language exams were both oral and written. The main thing was to get through the Lithuanian language course. Our principal, as well as the teachers, was as nervous about the exams as we pupils and tried to help us in every way. The teacher for the Lithuanian language, Kovalevsky, gave us a number of essays to be prepared. We wrote them down and he checked them and then we tried to remember them as we were sure one of these essays would be received as the written examination. The poor man who taught us didn't know that the commissioner would come with a sealed envelope and that he had something entirely different for us than anything we had prepared. This was a great shock for all of us but we could do nothing about it and had to write the exam that was brought. When the results were announced I found that I had received the highest mark. I got three A's--A from the teacher, A from the principal and A from the commissioner .
The next exam was Latin. It was a day or two after the first one. As I lived in the same yard as the school was in it happened that I had to go see the principal for some reason or other. I knocked at his door but didn't wait for a reply. I entered his office where, to my amazement, I found the principal involved in a deep discussion with the commissioner for Latin. The discussion was about the form that the Latin exam would take. The principal wanted to divide the whole course into sections and to give tickets which the pupils would draw. All the questions would thus be known in advance. The other man wanted to conduct the exam as "open book" where the pupil came, opened the book at random, and read. This way he couldn't be as prepared as in the type of exam the principal wanted. I came in at this point of the discussion and the principal said, "This is one of the students who will be writing the exam. Let's try it out on him. They gave me the book and I translated the section indicated without any problem and also answered some questions on grammar. When the exams came a couple of days later and I, in my turn, was called before the commissioner, he recognized me. He said I did not have to be examined and gave me the highest mark immediately. Naturally the principal and the teacher followed the lead. These two cases, the exams in Lithuanian and Latin, established for me a trend for all the rest of the exams. Whether or not I was the best student, the final result was that I got, in all seventeen subjects, only A's. Later on the principal told me he had sent my application to the Ministry asking that they give me a gold medal but they refused because no other school in the country got a gold metal. Consequently, they didn't want to give one to a Jewish school. I, however, was happy nevertheless. The principal was happy and the teachers were happy. This may not have been worth too much practically in my life, but it was very satisfying.
Looking back on my school years in Shavli there is nothing exciting to report. The concept, at the time, of teenagers as a group did not exist. This age group was completely neglected by society. The boys' and girls' time was absorbed by school activities - long hours spent in school and long hours spent in homework after school hours. There were no Parent-Teacher Conferences or PTA meetings. Nobody asked us if we liked or disliked a teacher. As far as our parents were concerned, the teacher was always right. Very few types of entertainment were available to us. Mostly, there were only movies and attendance at these was controlled by the representatives of the school to make sure that students did not attend any immoral movies. There were no special dress styles for the teenagers as we have now in the department stores. We wore uniforms. However, we had special groups in school, mostly of an educational character, and some of them political ones. Sometimes a teacher tried to indoctrinate us with certain political views, like one of our teachers, Ratner, who taught the Marxist Communist Manifesto, but this was an exception. The majority of extracurricular activities in our school were devoted to the Zionist cause. Most students eagerly attended these activities. We had a very good group of students, mostly from the Jewish middle class. We were good friends during our school years and remained so after graduation even though we dispersed in all directions.
Two years ago, when I was in Israel, I happened to meet eight of the students from that school and we organized a reunion. It was held in the home of my friend, Chaim Hirschovitz, who had recently arrived from Russia. There was Nathan Lass, Hanan Sacks, Abraham Brudno, Itzik Levitats, Isia Shapiro and Moishe Shapiro, as well as Chaim and myself. We had a party in Chaim's house. We also met together with our wives and, at that time, we reviewed what had happened to the rest of our former classmates. It turned out that we were the sole survivors from our grade of thirty. Most of the others had perished in the Holocaust. Only two had died of natural causes.
While in school, all of us used to spend the summer holidays with our families. There was no urging from our parents for us to work or to make money or to sell papers during the holidays as there is now in this country. The same held true later on for those of us who attended university. Only students who needed money for survival or to pay their fees went to work. The rest of us used our holidays for fun. Nevertheless, when it came time for us to go to work later on and make a living, every one of us was able to take on the responsibility. In the group that met in Israel there were two physicians, one professor and three engineers. All had good careers.
When we finished high school everyone tried to plan his further activities. Some had relatives abroad, mostly in the United States. Some stayed with their parents and helped them in business. The majority decided to continue their education in universities. My family wanted me to take up medicine but I joined the group who went in for engineering. At that time the universities in Belgium were known to educate top quality engineers so I applied to Gent University Engineering School. This was called Šcole du Génie Civil et des Arts et Manufactures. I planned to go there together with my friend Hirshovitz. The language was French. We had to write an entrance exam in descriptive geometry to get accepted.
I had, at first, some problems getting a passport. My birth certificate was lost during the First World War so I had no proof of my age. To get some proof, I went to the draft commission. At that time the draft of those born in 1903 was going on in Lithuania. Wanting all the recruits they could get, they gave me a birth year of 1903. That made me two years older but gave me the necessary "proof" of my age.
Shortly after receiving my passport with the new birth date I received notice to appear before the draft board. At that time I was packed to go to Belgium. Since it seemed to me that the whole police force was after me I did not wait till the next train going west, which would arrive at two o'clock in the morning. I took the first available train going in the opposite direction and stayed with a friend of mine in another town fifty kilometers away. I joined the right train in the middle of the night from there and my baggage was delivered to me at the train. I was quite relieved when I passed over the border to Germany, thinking I had escaped the draft. It turned out that the danger was not so great after all, however. A little later I received a paper indicating that I could have gone to Belgium officially by simply presenting my university papers to the commission. But who knew what the rules were beforehand at that time?
In any case, I arrived safely in Gent. There I rented a room in the same building as my friend, Chain Hirshovitz. This was in 1924.
We had to work pretty hard to keep up with the level of studies at university. There were students from various European countries, all with different levels of education. It turned out that students from other countries had much more knowledge than we did, especially those students from Germany and Belgium. We also had the handicap of not knowing the language perfectly.
There was strict discipline in the school. We had to sign in every day and out at noon time. From eight to twelve we had lectures. After three there were labs, drawing sessions, etc. At intervals during the year we had "interrogations" (called midterms here). There was not much in the way of entertainment but still, and despite the heavy workload, I managed to go to concerts, operas and movies.
There was quite a bit of political activity in the student society, especially the Jewish part of it. A high percentage of the students were Jewish. Because some other countries would not allow Jews to go to university, they came to Belgium. These Jews held various political views and some of them had pretty good political leaders. We had a special home for Jewish students at number four Orange Street. Quite often the meetings of different political parties were held there - the Zionists, communists, etc. There was energetic debating which sometimes came close to violence. There were also cultural activities there and various artistic groups met, but there wasn't very much of this.
The first two years of the school were called Šcole Preparatoire and the second two years Šcole Speciale. Not knowing exactly what kind of engineering I wanted to go in for, I tried to take a majority of subjects so that later I would have a free choice. In the beginning I was still thinking of medicine as I had to consider my weakness in drawing. I decided that if, in the first exams, I got less than thirteen out of twenty I would switch to medicine. Probably it was my fate to continue in this school. We had a very good professor in Chemistry, Van Howe, who attracted not only me but crowds from the city with his interesting lectures and I decided to take Chemical Engineering
With Chaim Hirshovitz the togetherness didn't work out very well. We lived in two adjacent rooms in the same suite and we used to share most of our time. Our arrangement soon became unhappy, however. Probably our interests differed somehow, not in major outlooks but in minor things. We became very angry with each other until we decided to have a good talk and analyze our relationship. We decided that the major obstacle to good friendship was to live together. We split by the end of the first term. After that, we became very good friends again and this friendship still exists to this day.
The yearly exams were very tough. Before the exams we were given a free month for preparing which was called Mois de Block. After that, on a certain date, the exams were announced. The examinations were oral. The students were divided into groups of less than ten and the dates for each group were designated. If a student failed a subject he didn't have to take the rest of the exams because he was automatically failed. The rate of failure was high from the first day so from the next day there were empty seats and free time for the professors. Because of this free time, other students were called to the examinations at any time, even though they were scheduled to appear much later. Thus every one of us had to be prepared to be called at any time. They used to send messengers to the students' homes telling them to come immediately. This made things very difficult. My friend Chaim failed physics the first day of exams so he was out. He changed universities after that. I was luckier. I passed all the exams and was promoted to the second year.
Every year there was a big assembly for the ones who passed the exams. The body of professors sat at the head table in this assembly and they would call the students to the podium. There they gave them a certificate and congratulated them with a handshake. I was one of the first students to be called. Later on they stopped shaking the hands of the students and they just called names. It turned out that the first students to be called were the ones who got high distinction. I didn't realize at that time that I was one of the top students of the course. As a result of this status, the attitude of everybody changed toward me. At first I was an unknown entity amongst thousands of students from all countries. Then suddenly I was one of the top men and was held in much higher esteem.
Every summer I used to go back home for summer vacation. The first year I went home I found that my family had moved from the old house at Frankel's to our new house which had become very modern in comparison to what it had been before. We had running water now and an inside toilet. Our water was, naturally, not city water. It was pumped by hand every morning by our janitor, Jonas. The sewer was also not city-wide but privately taken care of. However, I found it a pretty comfortable life at home.
When I went home that first summer I found that my uncle Bere-Meyshe Weiss had died. This created quite a problem for my father for he had to take care of the widow, Tzipe, and her three little children. He set Tzipe up in a shoe store which was connected with the factory and she kept this store until the war. But it was not a happy enterprise. My aunt always had financial difficulties because she couldn't make a good enough living to educate her children and this was a source of steady worry to my father and mother. The eldest of her children was Mania, who now lives in Natania, Israel. Not long ago, he had his sixtieth birthday. Esther, his sister, now lives in Tel Aviv. Rubin was one of the ones arrested and liquidated by the Lithuanians in the first days of the Second World War.
At that time my sister, Tzilia, was still working at the office with papa and Asya was at home. Asya got married to a very fine man, Solomon Levy, a bookkeeper, and they made a good living in Riga.
During the vacation other friends of mine came back home too and we had a generally good time and a glorious rest with no worries. Every year until the end of our studies we followed more or less the same pattern.
The end of the university years came in 1928. As usual, I finished with high marks and received a diploma in Chemical Engineering with high distinction. I have never had to present this diploma to anybody up to date.
These were the years close to the depression and the general economic situation was very bad. I had no intention of staying in Shavli. It was a very unattractive city and I figured that after a while at home I would go back to Western Europe to look for a job. The Belgian government was offering, at that time, jobs in the Belgian Congo with very high salaries. I thought I might go there but I didn't because I would have had to sign a long-term contract, something I didn't want to do. I see now that this was a good thing. Everybody knows what happened in the Congo. The people were forced away later on by the revolution which caused the Belgian king to give his colony back to the natives. A good friend of mine, Potruch, who had stayed in Belgium ran away to the Congo when the Germans invaded but he later had to flee the country because of the War of Independence of Zaire. There was also a chance for me to go to Russia but, as I mentioned before, I did not take this course.
My brother Yaakov informed me that there was a good chance for me to get a job as a chemist in a famous rubber factory in Riga called Quadrat. By the time I arrived there, however, his friend, the director, had died and I was stuck without a position. I worked several months in textile dying but I didn't see any future in this work. Finally, papa, who believed very much in bookkeeping, advised me to take a course in bookkeeping for the time being. I did this and shortly after that received a job in a bank - Riga's Tirznezibas Banka - where I spent about two years. I lived with my sister Asya during this time and I had some friends from my university days to associate with, but it was a trying time for me as I had to decide what to do with my future. This period of life, the early twenties, is very trying for everybody. It is a time when school is finished and a decision has to be made as to what direction to go in: try to get a job? continue with education? Or just take it easy?
After two years in the bank I felt that this was not for me. I decided to quit and go back home, go through the military services and then go back to Europe for something better. I still was an accepted student in university so, actually, there was no rush for me to go through the military service. I was seeing various specialists at the time because of my eyesight and the problems I always had with my nose and when I went to the commission they freed me. It turned out that they didn't need soldiers at that time and people with high education didn't enlist in the army.
The real break, which determined my future, came when Yaakov Frankel, the big boss of the tannery, came to Shavli. He asked about me and, when he saw me, told me that there could be a great future for me in the tannery if I was interested. At that time my attitude changed dramatically and I didn't see any reason why I shouldn't take this offer. I accepted it and enlisted in the German tanning school in Freiberg. After going there, I worked for a time in the office of the tannery in close association with a man called Ilya Mordel and learned a bit about the general office routine, buying and selling procedures, etc.
The tanning school was very interesting. The teachers and students were quite respectful toward me there. While I was at this school I had a chance to work out the problems which I had brought with me from home. These problems were chiefly of a technical nature and were especially concerned with how to improve the quality of leather. There was a variety of students from different countries of the world. We had a very interesting time at that school. I was there about a year, then I joined the Research Institute for the Leather Trade in Freiberg. Professor Stahter was the leader and with him there was a group of prominent scientists in this line. I was in this place for approximately a year. From there I moved to the labs of I.G. Farben in Ludwigshafen. This was a very famous German industrial complex which supplied chemicals, dye stuffs and tanning materials to the whole world. I stayed there several months.
One day, while I was at I.G. Farben, I was called by telephone at work and was given a message of importance. I had to go back to the Research Institute. This was by Frankel's request. The tannery used to sell leathers to the Soviet Union and the leathers had to have specific chemical and physical standards. Before shipping the huge quantities of goods, commissioners would come, pick up samples, and send them to be tested in the universities of Kaunas and Riga. When the results were satisfactory in both places, the deal would be completed. However, in the event that the results were different in the two peaces, a sample used to be sent to the Research Institute in Freiberg for a final examination, Their result would then be accepted.
knew in advance the problems which could be encountered in such an investigation but I had no exact plans of how to handle this particular case. Anyway, it was a good chance for me to break the routine and go back to Freiberg to see my old friends, all expenses paid, and see what I could do.
What can be done in a case like this? Obviously one of the institutions had rejected the leather after the tests. To prevent a negative result in Freiberg, I had to do something to ensure that the reports from that institution were satisfactory. One way would be to convince, with presents, the chemists or the secretaries to put their stamp of approval on the leather. However, I couldn't do much along these lines because these weren't simply lab technicians I was dealing with. These were well known scientists. Two of them would work on each such test. The only thing I could think of doing was to test the leather myself. Coming in, I talked to Professor Stahter. I told him I had some problems to clear up regarding sole leather and it would be wonderful if I could spend a couple of weeks on this. All I needed was some material to work on.
He said, "Oh, wunderbar! We just received some samples. Go ahead and do parallel tests to the ones the other two chemists are doing."
As I knew ahead of time where the problems were, I quickly did the necessary tests and during lunch time, when the other two professors went for their break, I fixed up their samples. The results turned out very well. Naturally, everything was kept secret and nobody had any suspicions of wrongdoing. Besides the chemical analysis, there was also a physical test to establish the breaking strength of the finished leather. A piece of leather of a certain shape was supposed to be put in a machine and pulled from both sides until the breaking point. At that moment one could read on a screen how many kilograms per square meter were applied at the breaking point. The problem was that the shape of the sample had to be exactly the same each time to be able to compare with other results. The sample they used in Freiberg was not exactly the one prescribed by the Soviet Union. Therefore, it could be expected that the results would not coincide with the ones in Kaunas or Riga. However, this test was not of any great importance and I could do nothing about the results anyway. I wrote home about this and then I left Freiberg. I went to Ludwigshafen without waiting for a reply.
I took my leave in the friendliest of ways from the Research Institute in the belief that the conspiracy had paid off. A couple of weeks later, I received a letter from Dr. Stahter. It turned out that the conspiracy had been discovered. After receiving my letter about the physical tests, the tannery in Shavli sent a telegram addressed to me care of the Institute saying, "Make physical tests the way Freiberg does." It was signed, "Frankel". As I was no longer there they must have opened the communication. Then they understood the whole trick. Stahter wrote me a very nasty letter and I don't blame him. I had a very uneasy feeling about this incident and I hoped I would never meet Stahter again. Later on, however, I was to meet this man again under very dangerous circumstances.
The short time I spent back in Freiberg was pleasant. I had the chance to visit Dresden, a very famous cultural center in Germany, with its churches, museums and shows. There I heard Yehudi Menuhin for the first time. He was just thirteen years old then but he was already famous all over the world. I also visited the Dresden opera, conducted by Karl Boehm, before I returned to Ludwigshafen.
Finally, when I felt that I had done everything needed to commence my new profession, I returned home. In fact, nobody in Frankel's tannery was waiting for me and no position was available. The superintendent at that time was a German by the name of Schlee. He was a good tanner and he used his knowledge in a very clever way. He drew an astronomical salary, paid no taxes, had his rent paid for him, etc. Everything was arranged to his advantage. He was considered the best man in the field and nobody ever thought of firing him. Thus, coming back to the tannery, I was confronted with a wall of indifference. I went back to the office and occasionally made the rounds of the factory. The administration had absolutely no intentions of giving me Schlee's job. After a certain time, however, he gave his notice. Having international connections through the chemical companies and machine factories, he soon received a position somewhere in South America.
I was then confronted with his job and I had a tough time for a year or two before I got a firm hold on it. I had to learn many things in technical and administrative areas. It takes quite a bit of training to be able to administer a big apparatus involving about five hundred employees and to keep discipline. However, I progressed very well and after two or three years I was well entrenched in the position. I made progress in all respects. I improved the quality of the products, made great savings in the methods of production, and became respected in the field.
Every year, during my holidays, I went to Europe to learn more about the trade. Wherever there was a chance to learn more, there I would go. We bought new equipment at this time and began using new technical systems. One of the new endeavors in the tannery was to start producing patent leather. I visited patent leather factories abroad and also called foreign specialists home to instruct me. We built a kitchen to boil the lacquers and reserved an area for the production of patent leather.
To take care of this department I assigned a foreman by the name of Chanan Luft and hired a man called Jonas Jocas to be in charge of the lacquer kitchen. I recently heard that Luft was still in charge of his department and Jocas, though retired, is still alive and well. In my life later on. Jocas was to play an important role in my life later on.
I hired Jocas under unusual circumstances. That was in 1933 or 1934. At that time many people - close to a hundred a day - would gather outside the factory hoping to be hired, but very few could be given jobs. There was a special man to take care of hiring workers but, one day, a man came to me at my home. This man was Jocas. He told me that he had been a political prisoner for four years and had just gotten out of jail. He had been accused of being a communist sympathizer. He told me that his mother was sick and that he needed a job desperately. He had applied everywhere but couldn't find employment. Since, at that time, we were building the separate department to make patent leather I hired him and trained him to operate the "kitchen" where we boiled the lacquers for the patent leather. The lacquer was linseed oil to which certain chemicals had to be added while, at the same time, the temperature was raised until it was ready - a process which took between eighteen and twenty-five hours. The temperature of the mixture would keep rising and when it reached it reached a certain critical point the mixture had to be removed from the source of heat or else it would cause a fire. Jonas Jocas was hired to do this job and it was his duty to watch over the process and see that it progressed properly. Jocas learned quickly and soon did not need much supervision. He did this job for six years. During this time there were a few fires but he was always able to stop them.
Then, one day in 1940, there was a fire and the kitchen burned down. It was learned that Jocas had not been present at the job although he knew that the mixture would be reaching the critical temperature at that time. He was attending a clandestine communist meeting at the far end of the property. As a result of this episode he was fired. I did not like to do this - or to fire any man - but since he was no longer reliable I had no choice. He was given compensation consisting of two weeks' pay and was also compensated for a sheepskin jacket and other articles which he lost in the fire, but he was let go. Another man was hired and trained in his place.
The patent leather department was only a small part of my work at the factory. There were several other departments. All of these kept me busy and very interested.
Besides work, life in Shavli was not exciting. I had a few friends, a few acquaintances, married and unmarried. Quite often I used to visit my brother and sister in Riga. They, with their families, came regularly to Shavli for holidays.
It was at this time that I met Gita Shifman. I had known her family for years. She was a sister of Judith who was about my age. Judith graduated from the Lithuanian High School but still we were close friends. I knew Bliumit, the other sister, less well and I never noticed the existence of the little sister, Gita, who was attending kindergarten at the time I graduated from school. Then I met her at a ball in Shavli. She was very attractive and after that we used to run into each other occasionally. That was before I went to Freiberg. Coming back to Shavli, I happened to meet Judith. By then she was married and lived in Italy. She had come home for a time to visit her folks. We met each other as old friends and I invited her to come to a concert with me. When I went to pick her up, however, I was told she had been sick and it was suggested that I take her little sister. That was the beginning of our romance. Gita was a beautiful girl and very intelligent. We fell in love.
Our wedding was on May third, 1934. That was a great event. We stood under the canopy in the yard of Shifman's house at number three Basanaviciaus Street. A whole crowd, neighbors and other guests, gathered for the ceremony. The guests drove through the city in a droshka (horse-drawn carriage) with top hats, blue top coats and white gloves on.
The suite promised to us in my father's four-plex was not finished yet so we stayed the first couple of weeks with my in-laws. A year later, we went on our honeymoon to Ostende, a Belgian resort on the English Channel. Until then we stayed in our new suite. We enjoyed a wonderful year.
Going to Belgium, we had to pass through Germany. Hitler was already in power and thus Gita and I saw the big changes in Germany, especially in regards to relations between Jews and non-Jews. We, as foreigners, were not subjected to too many problems. However, as we spent a couple of weeks in Frankfurt, we heard stories about Jews losing their jobs, about high-positioned people forced to clean the streets and sewers, stories of Jews not being allowed in many restaurants and so on. We didn't realize at that time how far this discrimination would go.
Ruth was born in 1936 and naturally this was the greatest event of that time for us. Gita didn't trust the local gynecologists so we made arrangements to go to Kaunas to the best specialist. When we came back we hired a nanny, an old Russian woman, who was famous in her field. She spoke Russian with Ruth. Actually, Russian was the accepted language of the so-called "intelligentsia" in Lithuania at that time.
Papa was not very happy about the fact that we lived in a downstairs suite as he thought it was too far to go to visit us. (He lived upstairs.) He gave us another suite upstairs to be closer to them. In the end, the arrangement was that we occupied the two top suites--one for us and one for my parents--while the two downstairs suites were rented out. My mother had a maid for the house and we had a maid and a nanny. In the yard there was another small building where the caretaker, Jonas, lived with his wife and daughter. Jonas took care of the facilities for heating, water, etc., and his wife used to do the laundry and perform other household services. It was a pretty comfortable life. At the back of the property was a large orchard with apples, pears and berries. We could have lived there a long time had not the world situation interfered.
My father, though he never became very strong, was still active as the financial director of Frankel's business and he was a very busy man. He used to leave in the morning for the office, come home for lunch about two o'clock, stay home about two hours, then go back to the office in the afternoon. We used to have dinner at around eight o'clock in the evening.
For a certain period of time, father was very worried about the business. He would come home in the evenings and pace back and forth in the living room with a very worried air. In earlier years he was probably worried, as well, about having two unmarried girls and a son with an unknown future. However, in later years he became more philosophical about life and decided he might as well look on the brighter side of things. Actually, he had good reason to look on the brighter side because he was happy with my position and he was also happy that both my sisters, Asya and Tzilia, had gotten married. Both of these marriages were arranged by matchmakers. The girls didn't have much contact with appropriate bachelors but in the end Asya married Solomon Levy of Riga and Tzilia married Abraham Schatz from Ponovesz, in Lithuania. Both were very fine men. Abraham was a prominent lawyer and Solomon a bookkeeper. My sisters became happy mothers and wives.
After these problems were over, my father became much more relaxed. In the evening he used to come home and, after dinner, he would put on his smoking jacket and study a blatt of Gemorrah. Fridays, when he came home early, I could see how he enjoyed the Sabbath and the time he spent in the synagogue, especially during the holidays when the whole family - children and grandchildren--used to be at home.
In the later years, my parents would usually go to a resort for the summer. Because my dad suffered from chronic bronchitis, he tried to go to places where there were forests and clean air. Sometimes he would go to the Baltic Sea near Riga, where the whole family would come together.
When at home, papa went daily to the office. Mama was busy making preserves with the help of her maid and the caretaker's wife, Ona. The last two or three days of the week she was busy preparing for the Shabbos.
Thursday was the regular day for the poor of the town (beggars) to go around asking for alms. Each of them had his established rate and considered this amount his right. They were very strange types of people such as are not seen nowadays. Mother had rather special people to support - people who, being relatives, played a great role in our family life. One of them was Mere. She was a distant relative. Mere had two brothers who lived in the United States who used to support her. They sent the money to mother and she kept track of how Mere used it. Once these brothers sent Mere the papers she needed to go to the States and she actually went there. But while she was there she became confused (for she was not always in her right mind) so they sent her back to Lithuania. She used to come to our house to help bring our chickens to the shocheth and then would come back and help pluck them. She helped quite a bit in the preparations for the Passover as well. Mere's most outstanding trait was that, whenever she did anything, she never stopped. Somebody had to stop her (which invariably was my mother}. As she became old, she continued to receive money from her brothers to her last day. Toward the end, when she was very weak and old, we put her in the old folks home and took care of her until she died.
Another of these relatives was Nesia Weiss. Her name indicates that she was somehow related to us via grandfather Weiss. This woman is now eighty-five and resides in Israel. Nesia was probably born for trouble. Her mother died from cancer when I was a little boy. Nesia lived with her brother and was supported by the family. During the First World War she somehow landed somewhere in Russia and lived there with her brother, Boris. In the early twenties she returned to Shavli and landed in our house. Actually, I don't remember her working--she was usually supported by my parents. Being a girl in her twenties, she had to be married. Mother and father tried their best to get a matchmaker and get her married. Naturally, the dowry was supplied by us. In the end she got a pretty good man - the secretary of the Jewish High School. With partial support from my mother, they had a normal living. They had two children but they were always sick. The boy had tuberculosis and the girl was also sick most of the time. It was not a very happy situation. When the Second World War came they were moved to the ghettos. The husband and the girl both died there. The other child was taken away by the Germans. Nesia, herself, like most of the other Jews from the ghetto, was transported to a concentration camp. She survived and came back to Shavli to us. We helped her again to meet another husband. They lived in Shavli for a time and had a pretty good life. The husband had made some money in the Black Market but he didn't live long after the war and, after he died, Nesia lived alone. Later on she started to write letters to Monia and Esther who were both, by then, in Israel (Bere-Meyshe's children) saying that she was afraid to stay there alone as many terrible things could happen to a woman alone. About ten years ago, when there was the first relaxation on Jewish immigration from Russia, she got a permit to leave and went to Tel Aviv. I paid for her transportation. She settled in a small city, Ramatayim. I am still supporting her. It now looks as if, these last couple of years in Israel, with all her cousins doing their utmost to keep her happy, she is spending the best years of her life - the first trouble-free time. We visited Nesia in her small flat on our last visit to Israel and she seems to be enjoying life very much.
Father's health deteriorated in the later years. He suffered from emphysema and had to stop smoking. His colds were continuous. In 1937, after Rosh Hashanah, he caught a cold and we noticed immediately that it was serious. The local doctors, Dr. Rozovsky and Dr. Kantorovitz, were there every day but finally they decided to call help. They called Dr. Hach and another prominent physician from Riga but they also were unable to stabilize my father's condition. His state continued to worsen. Yaakov and Eva, and their children as well, and Tzilia and her family and Asya were there all the time. After they started to give father oxygen, his condition seemed improved. I got a phone call then from Peisachovitz an old friend of my father's and the father of Peisachovitz from New York who I will tell you about in another section. Peisachovitz suggested that we try to bring a professor from Koenigsberg, Germany. In no time, arrangements were made. The professor came early next morning, but his findings were very pessimistic. In fact, my father died a short time after that in his own bed with his children and grandchildren and friends from the city present.
He had a great funeral. Rabbi Caganovitz from Ponovesz, a very prominent rabbi, and Rabbi Bloch of Telshi, the chief of the Yeshiva, said eulogies in the synagogue. The funeral procession proceeded through the town, stopping at the children's home, the old-folks' home and Frankel's tannery. Papa had been very active in town, especially in the welfare organizations. He was sixty-nine years old when he died.
Papa left no will. Besides the building, there was money in the bank. Later on we tried to sell the building and we kept the money in the bank as long as possible. We tried to use it to help out the members of our family who needed it the most. We used it first for Asya, then for Yaakov and whenever possible we sent parcels to Moscow. Tzilia and I were in better positions and we did not have to use any funds from this account. In the end, the remaining money was confiscated when the Russians invaded our country in 1940.
The death of my father was a great shock to all of us. We had all been around for weeks and had put up a tremendous fight to keep him alive. It took a long time before the grief and pain subsided. After papa died, mama rented one room of her four room suite for a nominal rent to a girl so that she would have company. I lived with my family just down the hall.
One summer evening in 1938 there was a knocking at the door. A young man with reddish hair stood there. He explained to us that he was Milton Shufro from Chicago. He was a son of mama's cousin, one of the children she had cared for earlier. Milton was returning from a trip to the U.S.S.R. and decided to visit us on his way back because his mother had told him not to return home without seeing Shana Liebe. He stayed with us several weeks and also stayed with Yaakov for a while. From there he returned to the United States via Prague, Czechoslovakia. He arrived in Prague just at the time Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. He wrote to us from there urging us to try to escape from our country because the war was imminent. Once back in the United States he mobilized all his family - his brothers and sisters - and they got together the necessary papers for us to immigrate to the United States. But when these papers arrived and we enquired at the American Consulate about immigration we were told that the quota was filled and we would have to wait several years to get out of the country.
Had we only known what dangers awaited us we might have applied more pressure to get out earlier as many other people did. But we were too naive and inexperienced. We got trapped and had to face the dangers of the war.
We got in touch with the Shufros and others of our cousins again in 1946 when we landed in the American zone in Germany after the war. They were just wonderful to us--especially Mary Jacobson, Milton's sister, who was the main coordinator of all the help we received from my cousins in America after the war.
In 1938, the world situation became extremely tense as the result of the rising power of Nazi Germany. The tension rose from day to day and all the world was affected by the growing storm. In l938, Hitler invaded Austria and then Czechoslovakia. In 1939, the war had come close to us. In March of that year, Hitler invaded the city of Memel (now called Klaipeda), a part of Lithuania with a large German population.
On March third, 1939, our second daughter, Tamara, was born. A gynecologist who lived just across the street from us and who was also a good friend of ours, Dr. Goldberg, delivered the child. Some people advised against going to his clinic as they thought he was not a very good doctor. Whether that was so or not, it happened that thirteen days after Tamara was born Gita became very ill. It seems she had a blood infection. She had a very high temperature and pains in her legs. Goldberg and Gita's cousin, Wulf Peisachovitz, who was also in our town at that time, tried to help but, when the situation didn't improve, they called in a famous gynecologist from Saunas, Dr. Lurye. He came fast but, apparently, he did not prescribe the right thing. While he was examining her a blood clot from Gita's legs travelled to her lungs. She had terrible pains and there was the danger that another movement of the clot would cause instant death. This famous doctor's advice was to stop giving her solid food. He prescribed only cognac. He explained to us that the alcohol was absorbed into the blood directly and did not affect the other organs. He told us to use one bottle of alcohol a day. We tried it but the results were very bad. Gita became drunk and the pains were terrible. It seemed the situation was hopeless. Our next step was to try the famous doctor, Dr. Sach, from Riga. He also came immediately and it seems he prescribed the right thing. He ordered complete rest and said not to move at all for, he figured, eight to ten weeks. He said this would keep the clot in the same place and cause it to grow to the vein, eventually becoming part of it. His advice worked but it was not easy to follow this regime. We moved Ruth to mother's suite and placed little Tamara with a wet nurse. We kept our suite for only Gita and myself and borrowed a nurse from Frankel. The nurse stayed in our flat all the time. A needle was prepared for emergency purposes to be used if we sensed any trouble and even I had instructions on how to use it if I saw Gita was in trouble. Slowly, the situation improved but there were always problems to get rid of the swelling of both legs. The doctor tried all kinds of remedies, including leeches. All these treatments were painful and dangerous.
The only advantage of the whole situation was that I got stuck with two cases of cognac and we (the nurse and I) felt it was our duty to make use of it.
There were other problems and complications as well at that time. Gita's mother was very sick and went with her sister (Gita's aunt Hanna) to Saunas where they found she had cancer of the bladder. We also had bad news from Riga - we found out that Yaakov's boys were seriously ill. Naturally, all the news came to me and neither Gita nor my mother were to know about it.
A great tragedy arrived when, one day, Dora Schochet came over and told me that Matya, Yaakov's older son, has died suddenly. I happened to have a travelling passport and was able to go to Riga the next day for the funeral. I used the pretext that I had business there, something which used to happen very seldom. It appeared that Zali, the youngest son, had had measles. Several days later, his older brother didn't feel well. They called a doctor, a good friend of theirs, who was considered to be the best children's doctor in Riga. He came and noticed some spots behind Matya's ears which indicated he had measles too. But the next day he was still very sick and had pain in his stomach. As the pain was not too severe, the doctor considered this quite normal for measles. That was a Saturday and he promised to come again Sunday. The pain was from appendicitis, however, and by Sunday the appendix had burst. He died that evening.
I didn't stay long in Riga. My problem now was how to keep this news from Gita and mama. Gita had her own problems and it took a long time before mother finally started to worry about why Yaakov didn't write or come to visit us. She finally found out the reason from Ruth. Ruth was three years old at that time and when her grandmother started to talk about Yaakov's silence and why he didn't come to visit us Ruth told her straight out about Matya's death.
The shock to mama was terrible and I had another patient on my hands. All these weeks I was the only one there to cope with all these problems. Several times a day I had to leave work and go home because Gita wouldn't take any medicine or treatment unless I was present. Papa had been the same way when he was sick. To complicate all these things there was the political situation.
Gita got out of bed despite the warning from Dr. Mach not to do so. Luckily, nothing happened and, as you know, she is still alive today. Since then, however, she has had problems with her legs.
This year, 1939, was a terrible year for me. But by the second part of it I was happy again. Gita was saved and we could continue the normal life we all knew in a large family. Tamara was a wonderful little girl. She was not too much of a burden for us as she was quiet and had a nurse to care for her. It was a joy having her around.
On September 1st, 1939, Germany started her war against Poland. With Austria and Czechoslovakia.Germany's invasion had been peaceful but with Poland there was a war. We were very close by but as long as it didn't touch us we felt we were secure. As a matter of fact, while many refugees from Poland landed in our place, we felt at peace and happy. We used to have a good time. We had dances and parties and did not realize that it was like a party on a sinking ship. Only very few - the smart ones - liquidated their assets and tried to escape from the country. Sometimes they didn't even wait to liquidate their assets but fled immediately, going mostly to Israel or to America. But there were very few of them. The majority of the Jewish population stayed and enjoyed their lives and the security of living in a neutral state.
Life continued normally until the fifteenth of June, 1940. That was a Saturday and that afternoon we went on a trip to a nearby forest with Tante Hanna and her husband, Uncle Solomon. While we were out we heard on the radio in a cafe that the Red Army had peacefully crossed Lithuania's border and was advancing and occupying the whole country. We heard that our president, Smetona, had fled the country. Later on we found out that this occupation came about as the result of an agreement between Stalin and Hitler which gave the Baltic States to Russia in exchange for Germany getting part of Poland.
When we arrived back home that day we found that everybody was excited and nervous about what the future would bring. While walking on the main street, I met a man called Heller who was the director of the Bank of Commerce. While we discussed the situation, I got to the fact that I had two safety deposit boxes in his bank. It was late in the evening but we decided to go to the bank immediately and empty the boxes. That was a very lucky stroke for me because we had some valuables there--money and other important things that helped us very much in the future. In fact, they helped us to survive. When I got up the next morning the banks were already occupied and nobody could get anything out of them. Not only the safety deposit boxes but the deposits were seized immediately. We had an account in the Lietuvos Banka, which was the state bank. In it we had seventy thousand lits (which is equivalent to about seventy thousand dollars in today's standards). All this was seized. In the end, only five thousand lits were released to us.
The bulk of the Russian army moved in on midday Sunday. They came in with tanks and other armored vehicles. Some people greeted them with flowers, especially the leftist element which hoped to get a better deal under Soviet rule. The song of the Marxists, The Internationale, proclaiming that, "He who is nothing will be everything", was soon heard everywhere. This was the start of the Second World War for us.
Lithuania was "peacefully" occupied within a couple of days. Shortly, elections were called and everyone had to vote. As expected, ninety-nine percent of the people voted to ask the Soviet Union to make Lithuania a Soviet Republic. They had no choice as they were afraid to say no. They were afraid that unseen eyes watched everyone, even in the voting booth. Even now, after sixty years, Russian elections are much the same as they were then. There was only one candidate in every district then and this candidate belonged to the communist party. There is still only one candidate in Russian elections now. Lithuania became the Sixteenth Soviet Republic.
World War Two
A complete change occurred everywhere. There were communist cells in every place and in every country and there were such cells in our city. Communist people immediately occupied all dominant positions in the government, in the city and in the corporations. All large businesses were confiscated. Larger houses and apartment buildings were taken over as well. The managers and directors of the companies were replaced mostly by workers of the same outfit.
Without waiting I moved mother into my own apartment. Soon after her suite was occupied by Soviet officers. A family was also placed in our place with us. Our four-plex was nationalized. Luckily, I was allowed to remain in my suite but I had to pay rent. Many had been forced to move from their homes. All valuable currency was supposed to be delivered to the bank, especially gold articles and coins. The whole thing was a terrible upheaval.
Now we were faced with the problem of hiding our valuables. But no matter where we put them, the place seemed to be insecure the next day. There were searches of the houses daily.
In the tannery, a new director was appointed, a man called Shumkauskas. He had worked a short time in our factory as an apprentice. Shumkauskas was a local boy. His father had a printing shop a block away from us and one day the father had come to me and told me that his son had just graduated from university somewhere abroad and that he was looking for a job. We had several foreigners working as foremen who we were supposed to dismiss as soon as possible. We were to train local citizens to replace them. I therefore engaged Jacob Shumkauskas to work with a German foreman, Weithase, in the finishing department. My instructions to him were to concentrate just on this finishing department. The system in the tannery was set up in such a way that the overall operation and the formulas were kept secret. Every department had its own code and only I had access to all of them. Once, when Jacob approached Jocas and asked about details of boiling lacquers, Jocas told him that according to instructions from me it was none of his business to even be there. It seems that this offended Shumkauskas very much and he retained an animosity in his heart towards me. When he became the director I could feel his unfriendly attitude. It is by luck that everyone felt that without me the factory could not run. Besides the fact that I had the code, the workers and the public generally respected me. Consequently, Jacob did not even try to fire me. Thus, while at the start I felt quite subdued, later on I felt once again more confident.
Many changes occurred in the tannery. One of the first orders of business was to bring back all the workers with complaints against the old management, especially those who had been fired. Jocas was one of them. He was appointed to the workers' committee of the factory. I was scared to death that now he would seek his revenge. Nothing happened, however, though I continued to live in fear of him.
We were forced to introduce the "plan system". Every unit and department had to work according to a certain government approved plan. Converting everything was quite an exacting but interesting job. A new workers' club and cafeteria was built. Great parties and celebrations were everyday occurrences. Cultural pursuits were promoted, a factory newspaper was established and meetings of the workers were held often to discuss local and general problems.
I got involved in the newspaper. Not much knowledge was needed. The main thing was to praise the communist ideas and, especially, Father Stalin. I was quite interested in this job of bringing out a paper every week. In the course of my involvement with the paper I found out that in the rank and file of workers there were some interesting people working in various parts of the plant who had good ideas and talent. It brought me into contact with people who I would not even have noticed before the change--like Alexandrovitch, a man who operated the shaving machine, Masiulis, the watchman, and others. They became very good friends of mine.
There were parties and parades--New Year's and October Revolution parties, First of May celebrations--and I had to participate in all of them. Thus I was now very much in contact with the laborers. Before, the laborers and I had lived as though we were in two different worlds. Now, when they lost their fear of me (which I had been unaware of before), I found out about many things that used to happen in the factory. I found out that the real rulers in the departments were the foremen. Some of them used to take bribes, some of the young girls had to share their beds with the foremen. Naturally, the worst of them were dismissed immediately.
Through all this I found that, generally speaking, the laborers were my friends. Even in regards to firing Jocas (who was by now re-hired under the communists), the general opinion was that I had done the right thing - the thing I had to do.
At home a new style of life developed. Gita took a job in court and for a certain time she worked there as interpreter--interpreting from Russian to Lithuanian and vice versa. She used to go to work about the same time as I did. I sold my motorcycle and used to go to the factory by bicycle but the bicycle itself was finally stolen by my own maid. I was afraid to say even a word about that. My mother stayed at home but she still had help all around from the nanny and from Ona, the wife of the caretaker.
The new neighbours from across the hall turned out to be very nice men. One of them, Michael Senkoff, who was at that time a captain of the air force, later became the Commandant of the airport. The other officer was Shavdya. He was from the Republic of Georgia where Stalin came from. Shavdya had an important job in the supply department for the Red Army. These two turned out to be very fine men and liked to have a good time. They liked us very much, especially my mother. Quite often, when they came home and decided to have a drinking party, they wouldn't start to drink before bringing my mother to the party, even waking her from sleep at times. Mother was probably in her late sixties then. Our relationship with these men was good and we felt good when we were at home. Even after they left and moved to bigger houses the friendship between us continued and they would have us join them for their get-togethers and at meetings in the Officers' Club. At one of these meetings Senkoff drank so much that he collapsed on the table and we had to carry him, half-dead and half-alive, to his apartment, undress him and put him to bed.
It was quite a mixed up life for us. During the day we were at our jobs. Sometimes, in the evenings, we attended meetings with officials or visited with our new Russian friends. Quite often we went to parties with our old friends like the Goldbergs or Tante Hanna and Uncle Solomon and their group. We had quite a close relationship with Chaim Hirshovitz, with Dr. Savich and with the Schwartzes and the Nurocks. Ours was a small town and we all lived within a couple of blocks of each other and were in daily contact.
As soon as the Russians came to Shavli we noticed a big change in the stores. All the merchandise disappeared almost instantly. As a matter of fact, when the Russians came and saw the stores full of all kinds of goods they could only conclude that these goods were there because the working classes were not able to buy anything. Within a week's time all the shelves were empty. The Russians changed the lit to the ruble and bought everything. Prices skyrocketed. Soon it was impossible to get anything of value except on the Black Market. Sometimes it was necessary to go to the larger cities, like Kaunas, to get something appealing.
I remember one trip that Gita took together with Savich's wife, Etale. They went to Vilnius and spent all their money buying a couple of beautiful things. Gita brought back a red and white imported handbag and a pair of felt boots which she considered the most beautiful in the world. Everybody was busy in this illegal buying and selling.
The leather industry was reorganized in such a way that all the tanneries were lead by the so-called "Leather Trust" which was located in Vilnius. This Leather Trust was supposed to supervise and modernize the industry. I was called to Vilnius as advisor on this task. A couple of times I met with the top brass and they offered me a contract which seemed at that time to be a very lucrative one. On weekdays I was supposed to stay at home and on weekends or free days I was to supervise the modernization of the plants in Vilnius. I liked the idea not only because of the money but because it was a very prestigious endeavor. The final meeting to sign the contract was to be held on Monday, June twenty-third, 1941. In the meetings I had in Vilnius, I used to stay in a hotel. I would phone ahead to make reservations.
On Saturday, June fourteenth, a week before this meeting was to take place, I got up early to go to work and Gita was getting ready to go to court. We were ready to leave when the telephone rang. It was Gita's cousin's next door neighbour. She was very excited and told us that Gita's uncle, Ore Shifman, and her aunt, were moved out of their home in the middle of the night. It was not very clear what had happened and, in any case, we couldn't stay home. We had to go to our jobs.
By the time I reached the factory--I had to cross the whole city to get there--I had noticed many people who were excited, some of them in tears. A terrible thing had happened during the night. A great number of families--Jews and non-Jews alike--were just moved out of their homes and put into cattle wagons that were assembled at the station. From among my acquaintances this happened to Uncle Ore Shifman and his wife and Chaim Hirshovitz and his family. Thousands of people were just removed. They were of all kinds--rich men, bourgeoisie, working people, doctors, engineers like Chaim, merchants like my friend Shilianski. There were laborers, prostitutes--a whole mix-up without any rhyme or reason. Somebody just knocked on the door in the middle of the night, woke the people up, told them to take the minimum of necessities with them - only what they could carry - and transported them to the station. This procedure continued for several days. Nobody knew in advance whose turn it was next. Only a few people--those with very good connections--were released before sundown. The trains moved out at night--nobody knew where they were headed. The only one I knew who was released was Chaim. The Building Trust decided that they couldn't function without him. The majority of the deportees were Lithuanians but a good number were Jewish, mostly from the richer families. We had our suitcases ready because we expected to be picked up at any time.
This same action was begun simultaneously in all three Baltic Republics. The reason for it may have been to eliminate subversive elements from the population in case war broke out. If so, their judgement as to who represented a "subversive element" was not too accurate. The action was organized in such a way that nobody had any idea that this would happen. It must have been planned well ahead of time nevertheless because thousands of trains were involved in all cities and towns.
The tension was terrible. The Lithuanians blamed all these things on "Jewish provocations", disregarding the fact that many Jews were amongst the deportees. I am sure that to this day some of them still believe this.
I had to stick to my agreement with the government to go the next Monday to the meeting in Vilnius and on Friday afternoon, June twentieth, I phoned to the head man of the factory to ask him to make reservations for me. I found out that he had been deported along with many others. All this contributed to the sense of insecurity and the anxiety. I had to consider the meeting was cancelled and could only wait and watch for new developments. I didn't have to wait long.
There was a feeling in the air that war was imminent, but nobody had any idea when it would start. The Russian radio and newspapers were very quiet about it but the whole world around us was heating up under the pressure of the aggressive policies of the Nazis. Just before Hitler invaded Poland, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the infamous Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact, allowing Hitler to fight anywhere he wanted with the Soviet Union supplying him with needed goods. Probably, the Russians felt that this pact would not last forever, thus tension was always in the air. In the year since the pact had been signed, the number of Russian troops in our area had been growing steadily. Tanks and artillery (under camouflage) were all around and all of us felt that a catastrophe was bearing down upon us. Yet there was no word against Germany from the Russians. As far as they were concerned, they were at peace with Germany, that was secured by this non-aggression pact. On our powerful radio at home, though, I could hear the war news from London that the Germans were concentrating tremendous numbers of troops at the Russian border. Tanks and artillery and armored vehicles could be seen everywhere and were gradually increasing. Still, we were not too badly worried as we did not feel anything would happen for awhile.
I liked to sleep in on Sunday mornings. On Sunday, June 22, Gita got up to get ready for a picnic which she was going on that afternoon with her colleagues from court. Around ten o'clock Gita woke me up and told me that, according to the radio, the Germans had started the war against Russia. I couldn't believe it and continued to sleep until a bomb exploded a couple of blocks away. I didn't need any more proof.
None of this build-up towards the war was ever in the Russian newspapers or on the radio. Up to this day no one knows why. In any case, our whole world was engulfed in war from early morning, June 22. Only at noon did the official Russian radio acknowledge the fact that the Great Fatherland War had started. It was Molotof, Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, who transmitted this message to the world.
Thus began a new chapter in our lives and, actually, in the life of the whole world. What to do? Outside in the streets there was a panic. There were already some refugees from the border town of Taurage who had witnessed the first approach of the Germans and were able to escape. People were lining up at the bakeries. Some people tried to buy medications. It was not a big bombardment--only two or three bombs--but it was enough to make everybody understand what was happening.
I did not get in the bread lineup but at the drugstore I bought two things that I thought were important. I bought an old fashioned razor because I felt there would be a shortage of blades. It was quite superfluous since, somehow, there was never any lack of razor blades during the war. I also bought diphtheria serum for my girls. It turned out that these saved Ruth's life later on.
As we were afraid to stay in the city that night in case of night bombardment, we went to Gita's parents' farm in the country--a place called Violka. This place was actually only a couple of kilometers from Shavli. We stayed overnight in the open field. It was a very warm and beautiful night with no signs of war.
In the morning we returned home and, naturally, each of us, Gita and I, ran to our jobs. Nobody expected that the danger was near or that our city could fall very soon. However, around ten in the morning we noticed that the party officials in the factory were starting to disappear and the rumour spread that the communist party was moving out of its headquarters. I went there personally to check the news and it was clear to me then that the brass was moving out very quickly. They seemed very nervous.
When I went home I found Gita there already. It was already obvious that the Russians were abandoning the city. We didn't know at that time how bad the Germans would be later. Not many people, and especially the Jewish people, were ready to leave. Many even preferred Germans to the communists after the events of the previous week and year.
I, personally, had good reason to try to run away because for the last eight years or so, ever since Hitler had come to power, I had boycotted all German goods and chemicals when I was buying for the tannery. During these years many representatives of the German chemical and machine industries had come to us as we were old customers but I had refused to deal with them. That would be, for them, a good reason to put me on the black list. Consequently, I decided we had to move out as soon as possible. My father-in-law, Moses Shifman, gave us a wagon and a horse. As I was not too well acquainted with operating this vehicle a Polish refugee who lived with my father-in-law joined us with his wife. It must have been a grotesque sight. There we were, the wagon filled with all kinds of household goods and, seated on the wagon amidst all this were my mother, the nanny and the two children. The rest of us, Gita, the refugees and I, were walking behind. With that kind of a load the horse could hardly move.
The only direction away from the Germans was the highway north towards Latvia. It was crowded with both Soviet military vehicles and private citizens. Travel was quite slow, especially for our family, as we were walking. It is amazing how inexperienced we were and how little we felt the danger. Instead of all of us sitting in the wagon and getting rid of the goods, we found that we could not part with these things we thought precious.
After we had continued walking a certain time we noticed that all the soldiers had disappeared from the main route and moved into the ditches that bordered the highway on both sides. Then we heard the bombing a couple of kilometers ahead of us. It became impossible to move ahead so we turned off the highway and stopped near a barn a little off the road. From there we saw the German stukas coming in. Suddenly, I noticed one airplane heading straight for the highway in our direction. All of us lay down on the ground but I watched to see what would happen. I saw a plane coming directly toward us and when I lifted my eyes vertically I saw its bombs dropping directly at us. I was sure that these were the last moments of my life. It turned out that the bombs flew, not vertically, but in a curve and they missed us and dropped directly on the highway where so many people were crowded. Some soldiers and civilians were killed and a terrible panic broke out in the area. People abandoned the highway and moved across the fields to a parallel country road.
This country road led to a small town, Ligum, towards which we moved with our wagon along with everyone else. It was getting dark by the time we arrived and the little town was already full of refugees. However, there was a Jewish farmer there who opened his house and treated everyone who came with tea and milk. We decided to stay at his farm until dawn and then continue on our way, but by the time we were ready to start out the next day we heard from people who had gone ahead of us that it was not safe. They had turned back because the road was full of Lithuanian partisans wearing white bands around their arms arresting and killing every Jewish person they found. We couldn't do much about this and, after discussing it, we decided to head back home.
I can still remember how forlorn we felt in the several hours away from home. We had no protection--nothing. It was a terrible feeling which I can't forget up to this day. It was now Tuesday, June 24, and by the time we had travelled the thirty kilometers back to town that area looked altogether different. The town was dead--there was no movement at all. Patrols were stationed at the intersections and wouldn't let anybody through. We were stopped at a corner and the only reason we were finally allowed to pass was because I had my documents with me. When the patrols found that I was a head of the tannery they let us pass.
We were about a block or two away from the factory. When we disembarked it was very quiet all around. We could hear only the noise of the approaching front. The cannonade could be heard a long way off.
The factory was abandoned. Just a small group of the laborers' committee was there to keep an eye on things and we went home. By the next day it was clear that the front was approaching quite fast. Only a few people remained in town. I still managed to go to the headquarters of the Building Trust in hopes of seeing Chaim. When I arrived I found him loading his family, as well as other workers who wanted to move, onto a truck. They wanted to take me with them too but the majority were not willing to wait while I gathered my family. Chaim told me later on that, when passing through Riga, he got in touch with Yaakov and offered to take him and his family with them to Russia, but Yaakov refused. It is too bad that Yaakov was so optimistic. He stayed in Riga, but not very long. The Jewish ghetto in Riga had a very short life. Yaakov and Eva and their son, Zali, as well as Eva's brothers, perished together with all other Jews in Kaiserwald near Riga. They were all killed in 1941.
By Wednesday afternoon it was evident that it was dangerous not only to be outside, but also to stay in our houses. We went, therefore, to Gita's cousin's house, the home of the Peisachovitzes. They had a cellar-like structure which we considered more or less safe and we stayed there the whole night. We could hear the cannonade as well as the cries of the wounded soldiers, especially the burned soldiers in tanks who had been trapped inside. Their moans still appear from time to time in my dreams.
Along with us in the Peisachovitz's home were other members of my family, Wulf Peisachovitz' brother, Chaim, and Chaim's girlfriend, Rachel, who is now living in Montreal. Chaim died several years ago in New York and Rachel has remarried. She married a man called Lapidus. We are in continuous close contact with her. There were a couple of neighbours with us that night as well, but Peisachovitz's mother, Gita's aunt, did not want to stay with us in the cellar-like house. She stayed in her own home and took care of the cows and baking just as if nothing were happening. Late in the evening Wulf Peisachovitz appeared. He was working at the hospital at the time the Germans approached, but he managed to pass through the whole city to join us despite the danger. He had seen the first German cyclists moving through the city and had observed the arrival of the bulk of the Wehrmacht.
The next morning there were a lot of dead Russian soldiers on the streets. On the corners there were large public notices requiring everybody to be quiet and to proceed with their daily work. I was prepared to follow the instructions. However, somebody came running with a message from Shifman's farm. Gita's mother had been hit by a bullet. It turned out that the farm had been in the path of the advancing German patrols and there had been some shooting. The father had been arrested and might have been charged had it not been for the intervention of a German officer who recognized him as an old neighbour.
The officer had previously had a farm in the neighbourhood of Violka but he was a Volksdeutsche (a German national who lives in a foreign country). He had moved to Germany a year earlier to become a Nazi soldier. He recognized Shifman, however, and let him go.
Gita's mother was somehow delivered to the city hospital where she died a couple of days later. At first her injuries did not seem to be too bad. However, being a very sick person she could not withstand the pain and the shock.
Some actions against the Jews started immediately in an unofficial way. Any Jew who was met on the street was taken outside of the city to bury the dead. I wondered what to do about my job. Gita looked like a gentile so she took courage and went to the German commandant who sent her, with a guard, to the factory. There she received a document stating that I was entitled to go to the factory. When I went back the next day the workers' committee was still in charge. From then on they would not let me travel alone in the streets because, not only were there Germans to worry about but, before the Germans initiated any aggressive actions against the Jews, the Lithuanian partisans grabbed any Jews they saw in the street. They also went to Jewish houses and arrested the adult Jews. First the lawyers, the doctors and the rich people were arrested and put in jail, then the others. During these couple of days the partisans grabbed several hundreds of Jewish people before the Germans did anything at all.
Two days later an official representative of the Germans occupied the factory and started to make preparations for resuming work. It turned out that most of the Jewish workers from the tannery had been arrested and only a few were left. As a result, when I was called in to see the German commissioner I told him that we couldn't do anything without getting back the arrested workers. I presented him with a list and around one hundred people were released from prison at his request.
At home, German officers moved into mother's suite. They were pretty good fellows. They took some of our furniture, including the radio and the piano, but offered us a nominal payment for them. In the end, they served as a kind of protection to us. The Lithuanians were afraid to do anything with them around. One night, I remember, I heard some people going in the other suites and picking up our neighbours--Grozdienski and his two sons and Brint and his older son. When they started up the stairs to my suite I heard somebody say, "Don't go here! Here is a good Jew." I never saw any of those who were arrested again.
In the meantime Gita got the message that her mother had died. I couldn't take a chance to go and make arrangements for the funeral. Besides, it was impossible to get a horse and any other type of transportation, but a neighbour of my father-in-law who used to be a driver of a droshka offered his services. It is still not known where in the cemetery Gita's mother is buried. Anyway, it wouldn't make much difference now because, later, the Soviet leaders of the city uprooted the Jewish cemetery and no graves were left, including those of my mother and father.
Everyone was terrified. The Jewish people tried to hide or otherwise remove their families from the path of the storming Lithuanian partisans. Then the Jewish population started to organize and to get in touch with the city officials, Lithuanian as well as German. A Lithuanian who, before the war, was a socialist and a good friend of the Jews, became the new mayor and the first assistant of the German occupiers. Under him, a special department was set up in the city for Jewish affairs. The head of it was a man called Stankus. The rules and regulations from the Germans went via his office. The first thing that we had to do was to wear the yellow stars front and back. Next, we were not allowed to walk on the sidewalks, weren't allowed to buy in the stores, and so on and so on. That, however, was insignificant compared with the ingenious ideas the Nazis were developing behind closed doors--namely, how to arrange for the complete destruction of the local Jewish population.
A committee was finally organized by a number of Jewish leaders who were in contact with the city officials and the German leaders. Heading this committee (or Judenrat) were Mendel Leibovitch, Gita's cousin, and Sartun, a neighbour of ours and a partner of Shifman's. This committee of men undertook the very responsible and dangerous job as go-between for the Jewish population and the German occupiers. Their position was like being between the hammer and the anvil. They carried their assignment out with great courage during the days of the ghetto - right up until their last days. None of them survived. Each perished in his own way.
These things began to happen in July, 1941. Both the Lithuanians and the Germans appeared to be operating quite briskly. Naturally, the Jews were confused during these first days and had no idea what was going to happen to them. Officially, the Jews were first turned over to Stankus. From him all the decrees of the Germans regarding the Jews were passed on to us. There were some plans to evacuate the Jewish population to Zagare not far away from us. The official reason given for this was that the Jews would be more comfortable there. The real reason was that they planned to bring all the Jews together and kill them. The German military was probably interested in keeping some Jewish people in the city because they wanted the economy to continue functioning normally and because they were very interested in keeping the tannery in good condition. The final verdict regarding moving the Jews was that a certain number would be kept in the city and they would be moved to one or two districts which could be segregated and kept under control. Thus ghettos were organized in the districts where the poorest part of the population used to live. They were moved out and the Jews were moved in. One ghetto was called Kavkaz and the other Traku. Both of them were adjacent to the tannery--only a block or two away. Groups organized by Stankus visited Jewish homes with an order for them to move into the ghetto. Atrocities continued every day and some had the impression that it would be safer to move to the ghetto as soon as possible. They were right because finally there was not enough room for everybody in the little houses. People were piled like herring in the ghetto and still there were more people for whom more place had to be found. The left-over people were finally transported to Zagare where, on a certain day at the end of July, they were surrounded and destroyed by machine guns.
All this going back and forth took about two months. By August 31 the ghettos were closed. We were put in a little house in Traku which had two rooms and a kitchen. In one room were Gita, the two children, myself, Wulf Peisachovitz, and a young girl. My father-in-law, Moses Shifman also lived with us. In the other room were a family of four--a tailor, his wife and their two grown children. My mother stayed in their room. Mother was sick at that time and had to stay in bed. Her sickness started in July when we were still in our house. Mother came down with a high temperature and we called Wulf. He examined her thoroughly and said she had a cold and that it was nothing serious. However, when he was through he called me out of the room and told me he had found she had cancer of the liver. This cancer was the size of a pea but Wulf found it without the help of X-rays or anything. Mother never properly recovered and stayed in bed in the ghetto until the cancer enveloped her intestines. She was in terrible pain. Again, I was the one who treated her to the last. She died on the Saturday before Passover, Shabbat Haggadol, in 1942. We managed to arrange a proper funeral and mama was buried next to my father. Later, as I said, the graveyard was destroyed. Chaim Hirshovitz, whom I met in France this summer, said he was in Russia at the time the graveyard was destroyed and he decided he would try to move his father's grave. He was given no assistance and had to remove the remains bone by bone himself. It was a terrible experience for him.
The luckiest Jews were the ones who worked in the tannery, as they had some protection against both the Nazis and the Lithuanians. There were also other places in and around town where Jews continued to work. We all used to go to the ghetto gates each morning and from there, groups accompanied by guards would fan out to these different places. We were led in columns to and from work, walking not on the sidewalks but down the middle of the street. This was to demonstrate our inferiority as well as to make it easier for the Germans to guard us.
I was still afraid of Jocas. I thought, "Now that the Germans have come he will take his revenge." Still nothing happened. We were led back and forth to work as usual and I did not see him.
That winter was very cold. One day in January of 1942, while we were being led to the factory, the column stopped and there, on the sidewalk next to me, was Jocas. He asked how I was doing. I said I was not doing very well, that there was nothing to eat and I was very cold. He told me not to worry and said that he would help me but I thought, "the best way you can help me is to forget about me."
The ghetto where we lived was surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by German sentries. Food was very scarce. We were cold and hungry. Then one day in January Jocas sent a message to me telling me to wait for him near the barbed wire that night at eight o'clock. I went. It was a bitterly cold night but I waited and, when the sentries were some distance away, Jocas came with a sleigh and began throwing things over the barbed wire. There was meat, butter and all kinds of food we hadn't seen for months.
This food kept me, Gita and our children alive and lasted for a long time. After that, at certain intervals, Jocas would bring more food, despite the fact that this was dangerous for him. Much later, in 1942 or 1943, I met Jocas himself and had the opportunity to talk to him. I told him then of how I had been afraid of him because I had been the one to fire him from the factory. He replied that I had had a good reason to do so. "But I never forgot what you did for me by hiring me when I was in need," he told me. We established a way at that meeting to contact each other as Jocas, since shortly after the German takeover, was no longer at the factory.
He used to go to the country to get meat and other foods to sell--at good prices--in the city. This is how he survived, though his activities were illegal under the Germans. He was, as it turned out, a man I could trust. In fact, this man turned out to be a very wonderful person who was devoted to our family and was ready to sacrifice even his own life for us.
Everyone felt that to be secure he had to be attached to a job. Due to my position in the tannery I had no problems, which was my good luck. The German directors respected me. I had permission to go to the director's office at any time. The first director appointed to head the tannery was a man by the name of Mueller - a very handsome man who couldn't have cared less about politics. His only ambition was to make money. Many of our Jewish co-workers ingratiated themselves with him and made him whatever he wanted - leather suitcases, handbags, etc. Due to this supply of leather, Mueller became a powerful person in the city since the Germans had a very great admiration for all things leather, especially in war time. High ranking Nazis and German officials had to go to him for leather goods.
As a person, Mueller was very likeable and a straightforward businessman. One day I just happened to be in his office when somebody came running with a message that the ghetto was surrounded. Trucks were entering through the gates and men had begun pulling people out of their homes indiscriminately and loading them on the trucks. Mueller picked up the phone immediately and called Gewecke who was the Gebiets Commissar (area commander) and told him he wanted to talk to him immediately and to wait there for him. Then he took his car and went to the leather warehouse and picked up a quantity of high boots. He left there immediately. When he came back to the tannery he told me he had gone first to the gates of the ghetto and had given a pair of boots to each of the guards and drivers and told them not to move until after he returned. Then he went to the Commissar and gave him all the rest of the boots on condition that he stop the removal of the people from the ghetto immediately. He explained to Gewecke that many people in the ghetto were members of his workers' families who needed protection. He promised to supply him with a list of their names. Mueller told his secretary to get the names of family members of all his workers and ordered special certificates to be given to them so that these people would be under the protection of the tannery. Naturally, everybody's families grew suddenly larger. Friends and relatives were thus put under the protection of the tannery for a time, which stopped the extermination of the ghetto. Without Mueller's actions everyone would have died right then.
Later on, after the war, Gewecke was arrested and charged for his atrocities in the ghetto. He was charged for an incident when a Jew of Shavli, one of our neighbours, was hanged in public because he was found carrying a couple of packages of cigarettes. I was called as a witness to Lubeck about ten years ago. My testimony turned out to be the decisive factor in his sentence. All witnesses were actually Jews--prisoners of the Germans. They had no access to the high offices and had no way of knowing who was the person who gave the order to hang Mazavetzky. However, my story about the fact that Gewecke stopped the evacuation of the ghetto was proof that he had the power to stop the hanging as well. I later received a copy of the court's ruling and there it was stated that my testimony was the reason for the sentence. The sentence was a mere four years in prison but he could have escaped retribution altogether.
Mueller didn't remain as director of the tannery for very long. Two others were appointed in his place, Reinert and Kaiser. These men were in charge until the Germans had evacuated. A man called Siegel was appointed as technical director. I did the work, but he was officially the superintendent.
As a superintendent, Siegel's main duty was to get enough help and supervise the workers. At the beginning, most of the workers were the old-timers--Lithuanian people. Being excited about the German occupation, about the handling of the Jews by the Germans and by the fact that the money paid was decreasing in value, they were not too interested in their jobs and their production fell from day to day. This was good for the Jewish population in the ghetto because they were needed in large numbers. They didn't have to be paid and they needed the protection that being useful to the tannery gave them. As a result, there were Jews all over the place. They were, naturally, not interested in producing too much and had to be supervised very strictly in order to get them to do their work. Siegel was the one who was after them. He used to go from one department to the other and beat up the guilty ones but he didn't kill anybody. We had telephones in all departments and I was always watching Siegel so I could phone ahead to warn the workers what direction he was going in.
Siegel was a slim, agile man in his forties. He had a small mustache that made him appear similar to Hitler. My relationship with him was very good because I did everything he wanted. He had the idea that he was a great scientist and tried to introduce new methods of tanning which he thought would save millions of marks for the Reich. He used to discuss these new methods with me first and Isya Shapiro and I used to have to analyze the results of the experiments. We had enough worries without that so we didn't bother with them. Knowing in advance what Siegel expected, we used to present him with the results he wanted. The alcohol we saved was used to prepare Vodka and other drinks for us or to swap for food.
Siegel had good relations with the German high echelon and one time I had the opportunity to prove it when Burgin, the second in command of the Judenrat, was suddenly arrested. The Judenrat had no way to get to the top so they called me and wanted me to try the influence of Siegel. They gave me two diamond rings, one for Siegel to try to free this man and the other for the man who handled Burgin's case. The next day Burgin was free.
Siegal could have looked back on the period he spent in Shavli with a clear conscience but he showed his real character on the eighth of July, 1944, when, during the unrest at the factory, he shot two Jewish boys and two Jewish women. It was not his duty, as technician, and was not necessary. Had he been engaged by the Germans as a guard it might have been excusable: it would have been his duty because the four Jews were trying to escape. However, as a technician he didn't have to kill the innocent. Later on, when I was a free man in Germany, I set myself a goal--to find Siegal and to have him put in jail.
One of my protegés at that time was Isya Shapiro, a school friend of mine who now resides in Israel. I met him in the ghetto. He was very worried about what to do. I took him in as a laboratory technician.
The Jews in the factory did not get any pay. Officially, the ghetto committee was to be given some food but it was very little so everyone had to fend for himself. Everybody had to look for a source of income. Many managed to steal some leather and swap it for food. This food had to be smuggled out of the factory and into the ghetto. Everybody was searched at the gates when leaving the tannery and again when entering the ghetto.
There were some guards who were not so bad and who would take bribes. These were the good guards. There were some who were Jew haters by conviction. These were the most dangerous ones. Some people used to throw their packages over the barbed wire when these guards were on duty. This was all very risky and no day went by without its victims. If anyone was caught with food he was sent to jail right away without any chance of returning.
My "source of income" was alcohol. I convinced the directors that I needed five liters of pure alcohol a month for analytic purposes. This was approved by the higher echelons of the Wehrmacht. Not one drop of it was used for analysis. It was very well used to make Vodka and liqueurs which were held in high esteem by my Lithuanian colleagues. They used to trade meat, bread and butter for my product. Isya, being a pharmacist, had very good recipes for liqueurs and we used to actually drink quite a bit ourselves at that time. We felt, at that time, very much subdued and nobody knew what the next day would bring. I had no appetite and couldn't eat anything. Gita was the one who suggested first that I have a good drink in the morning as that would give me an appetite.
I had another source of income. It was Methylene Blue, a dye stuff used to make ink. One Lithuanian manufacturer in town needed this dye badly so I used to order this through the management of the factory and a good friend of mine would exchange it for a good price. Thus I had my own private income.
The next question was: "How to bring the butter and other articles into the ghetto?" From a certain point in the factory we could see our attic window in the ghetto. When it was time to go home and a "good" guard was on duty at the gate, Gita would appear in the window in a white kerchief to let me know it was safe. When a bad guard was on duty, she wore a red kerchief. Thus I had more or less of a warning. Even so, as time went on, I didn't feel very happy about carrying these things into the ghetto, so I made a deal with a friend of mine, Fabelinsky. We divided the proceeds fifty-fifty - half for me for procuring it and half for him for carrying it in to the ghetto. Fabelinsky is now living in New York.
Now these "earnings" were not a steady source of income and every day we had to devise new ways of getting food. One of the devices was to trade our clothes, furs, jewelry, etc., with the Lithuanians living in town and get food in return. When the time had come to move to the ghetto, most Jews left their more valuable belongings with their Lithuanian acquaintances in town and hoped to get the things back from them in case of need. To do this we had to get into town to pick the stuff up. That was Gita's job. She had to get out of the ghetto unnoticed by the guards, take off her yellow star and walk on the sidewalk as a Lithuanian. That was very dangerous and Gita was very courageous. She did this quite often. Sometimes she came back with what she had wanted to get or else she exchanged it immediately for food. She had a coat with a fur band down the front and from time to time she would fill this band with eggs. Some of the Lithuanians were very kind people and when Gita went to collect something they were friendly to her. Some, however, threatened to call the Gestapo and she had to run away. The pharmacist, Aksenavicius, who had my mother's and father's fur coats and silver, never let Gita in. Probably, he and his family are living somewhere in America now.
The columns of workers were searched not only at the gates of the ghetto but were often stopped in the middle of the street before ever getting there. These searches were carried out mostly by high-ranking German officials. It was in one of these cases that Mazavetzky was arrested and hanged for having two packages of cigarettes. It was a public hanging and all of us were forced to watch.
It was a terrible time and there was not a day without bad news. The Germans constantly put new requirements on the ghetto inhabitants. Sometimes we were told to give them all copper and other metal dishes, sometimes they demanded all gold savings. Each order was accompanied by searches and arrests. Several times our identity cards had to be exchanged and during this process some sick and elderly people were removed. Some small factories were liquidated and the Jewish workers who were employed in them were left without protection. Sometimes new groups were created and removed from the ghetto to work in other places like the airport, a new glass factory or a brick factory. In this respect, I was in a good position compared to the others. My job saved me. Because of it, no one was allowed to touch me. Later on Gita was also attached to the factory and we used to go to work together and return together to the ghetto at night. My father-in-law and the two girls stayed at home.
For a certain time it looked as if the situation had stabilized and some kind of normal situation had been established. Still, every day, there was something to worry about. On one occasion there was real danger to me when a number of people in the factory and the city were poisoned with methyl alcohol.
To get chemicals for the tanning process we used to write orders to the central warehouse for the materials we needed. One day I needed a drum of sulphuric acid and I wrote out a requisition to the chemical warehouse. By mistake they sent methyl alcohol and when the workers opened the drum they were surprised that it had a pleasant smell similar to Vodka. They forgot about the sulphuric acid and immediately concentrated on ways and means of getting hold of the precious liquor. To get it out of the premises they had to put it in pails, one of which they gave to the guard at the gates. The rest they smuggled into town where they sold it on the Black Market for a good price. The result was tragic. Twenty-two people died of poisoning and several became blind. I was frightened because of this incident because I was the one who had written the order. It would have been easy to accuse me of the whole thins. Fortunately, I didn't have any personal enemies who would have thought to point to finger at me. I was lucky this time too.
In 1943 the occupying Germans were at their most vicious. During the interval between the time the Germans occupied Lithuania and the year 1943, the whole war situation changed very much. The Germans were at that time in retreat after the tremendous debacle at Stalingrad. Previous to that time they had occupied a great part of Russia up to the Caucasus. Now they were in complete retreat on all fronts. At that time it was already known that they had hundreds of concentration camps where prisoners--especially Jews--were put to death. It became more and more clear that Hitler was determined to realize his dream to exterminate all the Jews the way he visualized in his book Mein Kampf.
At that time the SS took over the management of the Jews and we started to hear rumours that in other ghettos terrible actions had taken place--a lot of shooting and, worst of all, so-called "children's aktions". We heard that in some places they surrounded the ghetto and took away all old people and children. We were very worried and began to look around for places to hide Moses Shifman and the girls. Gita arranged a place for her father. A neighbour of his, a middle age woman named Barbara who lived in a farmhouse together with her brother, Pranas, promised, in case of need, to accommodate him in exchange for his farm. He did not go there immediately, however.
It was very hard to find a place for the girls because the Jewish police had strict control of the population. They were threatened with punishment themselves if anyone left and, naturally, it was a big risk for the Lithuanians to hide Jewish children. They could pay with their own lives.
Ruth was a quiet girl but Tamara was nervous and excitable. She often used to wake up in the middle of the night crying out loud. Jocas was the only one who said he would accommodate one of them. However, we were scared to take the chance.
In the meantime I thought about arranging a hiding place for the girls in the ghetto. I figured that the only place for this purpose would be our woodshed. In the evenings, when nobody was around, I moved the chopped wood in the shed away from the wall, leaving a space behind it that could just accommodate the girls. I planned, if necessary, to give them sleeping pills to keep them quiet there. Of course, I would have to be around to be able to hide them
On November 3, 1943, the worst day of all arrived. The morning of that day began normally. Everyone was ready to go to work but, for some reason, the gates opened one half hour later than usual. This was a sign that something was happening. We couldn't even imagine the great tragedy that was arriving. After the gates opened, Gita and I left with the column to the tannery while the two children stayed with their grandfather.
During the following hours the news was spread that the ghetto was surrounded and something was happening there. Only later in the day was it established that the children were being removed from every house. A terrible stupor descended on everybody. We moved as though under hypnosis, knowing that we couldn't do a thing about it. We tried to get Reinert to intervene with the high authorities but he refused.
The Jewish workers pretended to work but everybody was absorbed in his own thoughts. No attempts were made to break out of the factory. Everyone was thinking about his own family and hoping that his children would somehow be spared. The hours dragged endlessly until, finally, the whistle sounded that the working day was over.
On coming back to the ghetto in the evening, we found the Nazis at the gates. They grabbed some Jewish children who were mixed in the column. It was a dark night for all of us. Eight hundred and twenty-three children were removed. Gita and I rushed breathlessly to our house. There we found Gita's father and with him, miraculously, was Ruth. There was no Tamara.
The story was as follows: in the morning the ghetto was surrounded and the Ukrainian collaborators of the Nazis started to check every house and to remove the children and the old people. My father-in-law took the two girls and hid them in Wulf's house under a bed and told them not to move until he came to get them. He himself hid in another place. Maybe because of the fact that the house was Wulf's and he was a bachelor nobody went there to search. So the whole day passed and nobody found the girls. When they heard later on, around four or five o'clock, that the ghetto had become quiet they decided to leave the house. The streets of the ghetto were empty at that time and they just walked on the street. The sentry on the tower of the jail not far away noticed them and notified the Germans about the two girls walking around. They were picked up immediately and taken to the gates where the last truck was ready to pull out. The officers grabbed both of them and put them in the truck. However, both girls were removed again from the truck and an argument ensued between Wulf Peisachovitz who, as ghetto doctor, was present there, and the Nazi Commandant, Foerster. Finally, Ruth remained outside and Tamara was put back in the truck and removed with the other children.
Wulf was known as the best doctor of the city. He used to treat the ghetto patients but, in serious cases, he was called to Lithuanian or German patients as well. The authorities frowned on this, but in certain cases allowed him to leave the ghetto. A couple of months earlier this same Foerster became very ill and nobody could help him so they called Wulf and, by some miracle, in a couple of days Foerster felt better and soon recovered. He was grateful to Wulf and told him that, if in need, Wulf should call on him. Now, at the truck, when the doctor saw the two girls being brought to the gates, he approached Foerster and reminded him of his promise. He told him that the two children were his illegitimate daughters and asked him to keep them alive. Foerster finally agreed to leave Ruth out of the truck because, "She is old enough to work," as he said. But Wulf didn't manage to save Tamara.
Very few children managed to escape the Nazis. One of the lucky ones was Ruth. She was then seven years old. Tamara was was four.
All night long we could hear wailing from every house. Each was powerless to express his grief and was completely forlorn. We were just sitting there, our working boots, dirty with the mud through which we had walked from work, still on our feet.
Now the question arose about what to do about Ruth. We had a feeling that all was not over yet and decided that the first thing to do was to remove her from the ghetto the next morning and hide her until we found a place for her. We managed to take her next morning to the factory. Several adults surrounded her so the sentries did not notice her. We arranged a hiding place for her between piles of sacks of various materials in the building next door to the laboratory. It was a stinky place because some of the materials stored in the sacks were plates of glue. We built a hiding place with sacks and Ruth and Gita stayed there for several days until we found another place for Ruth. There was no shortage of rats, but that didn't bother them.
We tried to contact Jocas but he was somewhere in the country. Miraculously, we found another place for Ruth quite fast. It's too bad that this was a result of somebody else's tragedy, that of the daughter of an acquaintance of ours, Zilberman. This girl's parents had secured a place for her to hide, but they didn't arrange to remove her from the ghetto soon enough and she was grabbed by the Germans. Felia told us who the woman was who had agreed to hide her. Her name was Ona Regauskiene and she agreed to take care of Ruth.
Ona was a schoolteacher in a country school situated not far away--about ten kilometers from the city. She was of outstanding beauty. She had lovely large eyes and long brown hair that was braided and curled about her head. Her whole personality exuded a wonderful charm. She treated what she did for Ruth as though it were an everyday occurrence. We asked her what we had to pay her but she didn't want anything. She lived in a house with her husband, Antanas, and their daughter who was approximately the same age as Ruth, Grazinute. Ona's husband was also a schoolteacher. They were very religious Catholics and it seems they did what they felt every Christian should do.
Before parting, we gave Ona the address of my sisters in Moscow and those of some of our relatives in the United States, as well as the address of Gita's sister, Blimrit, in Israel. We did not expect to survive the war and asked Ona to get in touch with these people if Ruth survived. We gave her some valuables, gold and diamonds, that we had available. She didn't want to take them, but said she would keep them for Ruth. Later, when we had survived the war, she wanted to return these to us, but we wouldn't take them.
Ona's home was very close to the highway. The process of transferring Ruth from the factory to her place was quite complicated. It wouldn't have been possible without the help of Jocas, who, in the meantime, had come home. He smuggled Ruth out of the tannery and kept her overnight in his house, then brought her to the home of Dr. Jasaitis. From there Ona picked her up as her daughter who was at the doctor's house as though she had been a patient. Gita arranged all these things by going several times to Jasaitis' and also contacting Ona.
Ruth spoke Lithuanian pretty well but she still had a Jewish accent because we talked Yiddish at home. As a result, Ona, on bringing the girl home, couldn't keep her in the open and kept her hidden in a clothes closet for a good couple of months until they improved her accent. Finally, when they decided that the time was right to appear in the open, Ona devised a way to introduce Ruth in the house and to the neighbours. The story she told was that she had a sister somewhere in Saunas who was very sick and Ona had decided to take her girl to her house. Then they--Ruth and Ona--left the house under cover and came back later on in a droshka with Ruth officially as her niece. Ruth understood all this and kept still and was treated as an equal by everyone. Ona and Antanas, who is very ill now, still live in Shavli. Through all the years since then we have had intermittent contact with them and still have at the present time.
It took a long time before the ghetto settled down a little after that tragedy. We didn't want to believe that the children had been taken to an extermination carp. The question was only, "Where did they take them?" Apparently somebody noticed the children in train cars with the name Auschwitz written on them, a name we hadn't heard before. Then the speculation started. What kind of place was Auschwitz? The official version was that it was something like a camp or colony.
A wave of mysticism came over the ghetto after that. Many people tried to invoke spirits of ancestors by various means. The more popular way of talking to the unknown was talking through "the table". For this purpose, which I participated in myself, a small wooden table with no nails was needed. Four people would sit around the table and put their hands on it. First the table was asked simple questions like, "Do I have three marks in my pocket or four?" or, "Do I have one brother, two brothers or three brothers?" The table answered by tipping. If the answer was two, for instance, it would tip twice. Having established the table's reliability by these simple questions which could be answered immediately, we would ask the major question. It is amazing how the table always gave correct answers to the simple questions. All answers to our questions about Auschwitz were optimistic and that gave us a little relief. The truth was much different. We found out the real truth only later on when Auschwitz was captured from the Germans by the advancing Red Army.
The Russian army occupied the place during the offensive and they found out, and informed the whole world of the fact, that this was an extermination camp where millions of Jewish peopleÑmen, women, and children--were put to death in gas chambers and their bodies burned in the furnaces. It was hard to believe these stories and we still clung to the hope that Tamara was alive.
I contacted, first by letter, the Russian writer and broadcaster, Ielya Evenburg, who, at that time, had great influence in high communist circles. I asked him to arrange permission for me to go to the front to investigate.
Later on, when I was in Moscow in 1945, I visited him personally. As well, I visited the leader of the anti-fascist committee, the poet, Mechoels. By that time, both of them knew the whole truth. Neither was in any position to arrange a permit for me and both, moreover, discouraged me to go. They knew the tragic truth and that there were no survivors.
All evening during this period most of the houses were half dark as people tried to invoke the spirits and the next morning the conversation was about what the table had told us.
Even in her improved situation Ruth's life didn't go too smoothly. Sometime in the winter she got sick and, as they were afraid to call an official doctor, they called a Jewish doctor who was hiding in a neighbouring place with a Catholic priest where he worked as a farm hand. The doctor established that Ruth had diphtheria and needed the serum--only that would help her.
When Antanas brought us the message about the diphtheria I had the medicine handy, hidden in my place. That was another miracle. A couple of times Gita took off her yellow star and went to see Ruth and I also was there to bring them supplies like medicine that I was able to get through my connections.
Our next problem was to move Gita's father to his hiding place. This problem was getting more and more urgent because the general situation of the war had changed dramatically. In 1943, after the Battle of Stalingrad, the German army started to retreat. The front was still thousands of miles away from us, but we were hopeful that they would finally be defeated. Officially it was forbidden to us to have any radios or to listen to a radio. But there were still some hidden in the ghetto and many Jews heard the latest news from their Lithuanian colleagues at work. Also, people who cleaned and repaired the houses of the Nazis used to bring the news directly from BBC. Every day we got the BBC news somehow and every day we knew the situation. Now, as Ruth was more or less secure, Gita and I had to look for a way to, first, get her father out of the ghetto and, second, escape ourselves. We couldn't go away and leave her father. He was not too anxious to move because he had already gotten used to the situation there but he finally consented to go to Barbara's, a former neighbour of his, as soon as we found a way to get him there.
After that we started to look around for a place for ourselves to hide. We did not actually make any decision where to go. The only thing we decided was to take the first opportunity to run away from the ghetto. It was not a simple matter because the authorities threatened that, if anyone ran away, they would shoot the members of the family remaining and all the people who lived together with those who ran.
After the children's action we left the previous house and went to a neighbouring one where we had new roommates. There we lived in one room with several others. Doctor Camber slept in the bunk above us and Doctor Ganbin was in another bed with his wife - all five of us in one tiny room. In the next room was Meishele Shapiro and his wife and sister-in-law as well as Doctor Rosenthal and Doctor Feinberg and his wife. In the kitchen were my father-in-law and a refugee from Poland, Levazer. Most were old friends and we had a great time in relaxation. We played gin rummy and poker, with a look-out being constantly on watch to see if the police were coming to check. (It was against the law to gamble.) Gita and I were anxious to run away. However we could not do so as this would cause suffering to these friends of ours. But we decided to be ready at all times to make an escape if there should be a general riot or upheaval. That way we would involve no one else. We could just disappear in the middle of a riot. With this plan in mind, we divided our "assets"--some gold, some jewelry, some money--between us and kept it on our bodies day and night - at home or at work. It turned out to be a good idea as will be apparent later.
A great impression was made on all involved by the V-Day news of June 6, 1944, that the Allied Forces had started a second front with the Germans. They had crossed the channel from Britain to occupied France under the command of General Eisenhower. It was an invasion involving thousands of ships, tens of thousands of planes, tanks and landing equipment and millions of men. Meanwhile the Russians continued their offensive in the east.
As you know, Germany was not alone in the war. She had allies. It was a world war which actually involved the whole planet. Hitler had two allies, Italy and Japan. Italy, operating in North Africa and Southern Europe, was not successful at all and was defeated by the British first in Africa and then in Europe. Actually, Italy was a burden to the Germans. Japan, on the other hand, was very successful. It started the war with the United States in December, 1941, by the attack on Pearl Harbour and, after that, Germany declared war on America. Thus the war spread everywhere.
For the first two years Germany was unbelievably successful. It occupied with its Blitzkrieg (literally translated, "lightening war") all of Europe and all of Russia up to where the German army was stopped close to Moscow. It surrounded Leningrad and moved south to the Caucasus with its oil fields. There, at the Volga, a great confrontation with the Russian army, under Commander Zukov, took place near Stalingrad. In the Battle of Stalingrad, several hundred thousand Germans perished and about three hundred thousand German prisoners were taken. With that, and with German defeats in Africa, the tide turned. That was the situation on the Eastern Front. On the Western Front there was very little activity to compare with that of the east. At the beginning of 1943 the whole burden, in terms of loss of human life, was on the Russians while the United States turned its whole economy into producing war machinery. They supplied the majority of war materials, including food, to the Russians.
England was only involved in bombings. Daily and nightly hundreds of planes used to leave British territories and bomb cities in Germany and in occupied countries. Stalin was very upset with the inactivity of his allies and insisted that the Americans and British open another front directly on German-occupied soil. Not before June 1944, however, did the big V-Day invasion of France, involving America, Britain and their allies, finally start. From that moment on Germany had to fight both east and west and that accelerated the advance of the Russian troops and the liberation of their homeland.
We followed the happenings of the war very closely and in the spring of 1944 we felt it was time for papa to move. With the help of Fabelinsky, a close friend of mine, we arranged to get papa out. Fabelinsky knew all the ins and outs of the tannery and arranged for papa to leave the ghetto territory and go to a hidden corner of the factory grounds where Barbara waited. It was not too dangerous for papa to travel because he looked like a farmer and spoke Lithuanian perfectly. By July the front appeared to be very close to our area and the tension was great. The situation in our ghetto became very tense and everyone was afraid that some drastic measures by the Germans were on the horizon.
Saturday, July 8th, 1944--Day of Miracles
Saturday, July 8, was a critical day. I noticed in mid-morning, through a window of my lab which overlooked the gates of the ghetto, some hurrying messengers going back and forth. I went down to inquire what it was about and found out there were rumours that this was the last day of the ghetto. In minutes the news spread throughout the factory where about one thousand Jews were working and in no time the excitement was great. It was feared that the Jews would be taken into the forest ten kilometers away and that all of them would be shot. It was a very hot summer day so I took off my jacket, which contained some money and some valuable documents, including a false passport under a Lithuanian name, and left it hanging in the lab. I put on my working coat with the two big yellow stars - one on the back and one on the front. I passed through different departments and headed in the direction of the main gate. Everybody was confused and didn't know what to do. By the time I came to the front gate, which was quite a distance, I had made my decision. This was the time to go. Gita was working in the front area on the third floor and I headed there. When I arrived I did not have to say a thing. Gita understood immediately what the situation was. She put on her girdle with the valuables and left with me without saying a word.
When I had passed close to the main gates on my way in I had seen that Siegel was already there with a gun in his hand so we crossed a passage through the building to another area which bordered the orchard surrounding what had previously been Frankel's private villa. At that time it was used as a German military hospital. Generally there was no connection between the factory and the garden. There was, however, a small door that nobody used and I had prepared a key for this door; so had a couple of our friends in case we had to escape. There was already shooting in the compound as people tried to get away.
Gita and I made our way to the door. There was a minute's hesitation as we considered whether we should first go to the lab at the other end of the complex and pick up my jacket with the valuables. But we decided there was no time to lose. When we opened the door there were, close by, two friends of ours, Bertha Pochmil and Naum Gold, and we told them they could go with us. They refused because they, "Had to pick up something in the ghetto." Both of them ended up in a concentration camp.
I had many loose keys in my pocket but when I put my hand in I drew out, by some miracle, just the key which opened this door. We passed through and entered the garden where we discarded our top (working) clothes that had the Star of David on them. To get out we had to pass by a sentry at the hospital gates. As we neared the gates a little boy came from the yard and threw a ball to the soldier standing guard. He turned to throw it back to the boy and in this moment we passed through the narrow gates. We crossed the street and there we saw one of the German directors, Kaiser. (He was one of two that were in charge of our factory but he was a good man, not like the other one, Reinert.) He was riding to the factory but when he noticed us he turned his head so that his driver would not know he had seen us.
After that we crossed the street and came to a part of the city which was on a hill. Down that hill was the house where Jocas lived. When Jocas had heard the shooting he had gone outside. It was a miracle that he was home as he was seldom there. He saw us coming in his direction and by the time we came up to him he was ready--he had the horse out and harnessed. Gita and I had no jackets so Jocas gave us each peasant's coats. He also gave me a gun. He himself had another one. He said, "Let's go," then said, "Everyone will be running out of the city. Let's turn into the city." He drove straight in that direction and proceeded to the other side of town. We were stopped twice but these were routine checks because nobody suspected that anyone travelling into the city was running away.
We had decided, in case we were able to get away, to go where Gita's father was already hiding. Jocas drove us into the country. The 8th of July, 1944, was a beautiful summer day. The wheat was high in the fields. Jocas let us out by one of these wheat fields and went to notify Barbara that we were coming while Gita and I crept beneath the wheat until we reached the house where Barbara lived. Barbara was to be given the property that Gita's father owned if we were all saved. For this reason she wanted to keep us alive. After Jocas got there she told her brother Pranas to go out and find us and bring us in. We heard him coming but thought it was someone working in the fields. As Gita did not look Jewish she stood up to see who it was. "What are you doing here?" he asked, "Waiting for my boyfriend, a German officer," Gita replied. Gita had never met Pranas and did not know he was Barbara's brother. Pranas returned home and told his sister, "That isn't Gita. That's a prostitute."
Gita and I sat there and no one came. Finally we stood up, put our arms around each other and started singing and walking. We walked through the little village, passing the woman's home, and she motioned to us to come in. She had recognized us.
After that, Jocas was in steady contact with us, checking to make sure we were okay.
When we came in at Barbara's it turned out that, besides papa, there was another family hiding there--a father, a mother and their son--people by the name of Reis. There was also Barbara's brother, Pranas. It was a little house. On each side of the entrance there was a small peasant's room of rough lumber. In the center was a large oven for baking and a stove. There was no ceiling in the central part but, with a ladder, we were able to climb up above the two peasant's rooms where there was a floor covered with straw.
There were no strangers in the house but if anybody appeared we had to keep very quiet so that absolutely no sound could be heard that would give us away. Had we been discovered it would have been the end of us and of Barbara. It was extremely difficult to keep still like this because the Reises were constantly quarrelling and there were many fights with their unruly boy. It was also hard to conceal my father-in-law's coughing which at that time seemed worse than ever. He was a heavy smoker and had always had a dry rasping cough. That became much more pronounced because of the poor tobacco. He smoked, as we all did, Mahorka, which was the broken-up stems of the tobacco plant tamped into a piece of newspaper in the form of a little pipe. With all the tension each cough made us jump. We had to remain nearly motionless most of the day and night. The tension mounted steadily and if it had erupted--as it easily could have--the results would have been tragic.
In the yard there was a well which was used by a German military unit stationed not far away and we always had to be on the lookout to make sure that no strangers were coming. A German soldier used to come several times a day with a horse and a barrel and fill up the barrel by dropping a pail down and slowly winding it up full of water. The days were hot and the soldier used to take his time so that it seemed to take eons before he had the barrel full. The well was at a distance of twenty-five or thirty feet from where we lay, frozen, in the attic, watching each of his movements breathlessly through the cracks in the wall. Every time he came it drained us completely. Only in the evenings were we able to go out for a couple of minutes to get a little fresh air. This lasted an endless nineteen days.
There was no radio, nor any newspapers. Pranas, from time to time, used to come and bring us news about the situation at the front. But this news was always controversial and unreliable. The food we got was poor. A couple of times a day Barbara used to give us a piece of bread and some milk. That was good enough for us. The problem was the toilet facilities. There was an outhouse in the yard but we couldn't use it the whole day. However, in our space were some flower pots made of clay which were helpful. They didn't seem too helpful, though, in the case when Gita sat down on one of them in the darkness and cut herself badly, thus adding injury to insult. Downstairs Barbara made a hiding place under the oven. It was just a hole in the ground to be used if we felt it was getting too dangerous to stay upstairs.
The house was not far from the highway and several days after our arrival Barbara showed us, through a window, a crowd moving on the road. It was all the remaining Ghetto people. The ghetto had been emptied rather than its occupants being shot as we thought they would be. They were driven to a railways station not far away where they were put into cars and taken to a concentration camp further inside the German front. We couldn't recognize anyone from that distance but Ruth's place was closer to the road and she told us later that she had recognized many friends and relatives, like Wulf, walking along the road.
That happened a couple of days after Shavli was bombed by the Russians. It seems that the bombing was concentrated on the ghetto. The better parts of the city weren't touched but the ghetto was almost completely destroyed. The ghetto leader, Mendel Leibovitch, Gita's cousin, was killed at that time. After this bombardment the people in the city felt they could expect more bombings in the coming days and nights and therefore a big part of the population used to leave the city at dusk and stay the night in the fields. Consequently, many Lithuanians were roaming around in our area and we felt very uncomfortable in our hiding place.
On July 26, Pranas came home with what he considered the "good news" that the Russians were again beaten and they had been driven from the area. However, in the evening we heard bombing again. We went out of the house to hide in a trench which was dug in the form of a zigzag. Actually, the bombs were being dropped a couple of kilometers away but it looked to us as if they were falling right on our heads and we all crowded into the little trench. In the center were we six refugees and some other people from town who had probably noticed the trench and climbed into it. Amongst them were people we did not want to see.
The bombing continued the whole night. There was one young lad sitting on the edge of the trench. He must have felt uncomfortable and he jumped out of the trench. It was early morning, just at dawn. Suddenly we heard a burst of firing from an automatic rifle and the cry, "Stoy!" and somebody shouting in Russian, "Everybody out of the trench!" We had had no idea that the Russian soldiers were already close by.
Actually, the bulk of the Russian army had not advanced this far. There was only a small group of ten or fifteen young fellows. They wore green shirts and blue trousers with no hats and all carried automatic rifles in their hands. It was a forward scouting unit. The commander, a Jewish boy by the name of Borovick, couldn't believe his eyes when he saw a Jewish family hiding underground. They were very friendly and, it seemed to us, took the whole war in an easygoing manner. Everybody got out of the trench. We still felt very much afraid of our co-occupants of the trench because, who knew? Maybe tomorrow the Germans would be back again. We roamed around this area the whole day while the shooting continued. The few Soviet soldiers made themselves comfortable by digging trenches for themselves to protect against the bombing and the occasional bullets. Things calmed down a little after noon and our new protectors advised us to move one half mile away because they thought there would be lots of activity in the area where we were. Close to sundown the pattern of artillery shooting became more clear. It looked as if the Germans were still in the city and the Russian units were further away behind us. We were between the city and the surrounding Soviet troops. For hours artillery shells were fired over our heads from behind towards the city. Probably the time passed slowly for us because we got bored and toward evening we men in the group decided to play a final game of cards, Blackjack, with German marks. We were confident that the next time we played we would be using Russian rubles. We played cards until it became dark. After that we just lay down for awhile on the floor of a barn in the company of some cows and fell asleep with the shells still flying over our heads.
When I woke up in the morning it was already full daylight and it was dead quiet. This was July twenty-seventh. No sound could be heard around. The artillery units were silent and nothing was moving. Who had won? We crawled out to the edge of a hill from the top of which we could see the city of Shavli. It was smoking. We waited quite a time, then, suddenly, everything started moving. It turned out that the fields were filled with Russian soldiers. Thousands of men with small peasant vehicles, horse-driven, started moving like ants. Not far away they set up a kind of kitchen with a loud radio transmitter reporting Stalin's "order" that the city of Shavli was liberated. We felt so exhausted that we didn't even realize the significance of what had happened and what it meant for us. We still feared that the tide would turn and we didn't know where we would find friends or where there were enemies. We went back to Barbara's home not far away to see if anyone was around and then decided later on in the day to go see what had happened to the city. We were not far from the city - about a mile and a half. When we got there we couldn't recognize the streets. At first it looked like a series of columns had been erected on both sides of the streets. When we got closer, we realized these columns were chimneys. Before leaving, the Germans had ignited every house so that only the stoves and the chimneys remained standing. The road was littered with broken and burned vehicles, dead horses and corpses. It was a terrible sight. The stench of burning flesh filled the air. The whole city had been burned to ashes. Only several buildings remained and they were the best ones in town. Probably the Germans had left them in case they should return. Some single people were walking around aimlessly. There were some Russian partisans who had been operating in the woods and who now felt free to enter the city. They had red bands on their arms and automatic rifles. Some of them were from Shavli and recognized me. They invited me to enroll in their ranks immediately. Others looked at us with great suspicion. We felt very uncomfortable in the situation because we could have been easily hit by stray bullets or arrested as disguised German soldiers or as spies. I went back with Gita along another street of burned houses. There we saw bodies of German soldiers without boots or watches--these were the two most important items for a fighting soldier. From there we went back to Barbara's.
It seems that our whereabouts were known in the city already because the next day an emissary came to invite me back to the factory. The occupying Soviets were very well-organized in the sense that, before liberating a city or a country, they had the whole administration of it ready. There was a group all ready for Shavli on the same day as the announcement was made that Shavli was liberated. There was a mayor, an industrial chief, a police chief, etc. Even the factories already had directors. In the administrative group in Shavli were some of my old friends who had managed to run away to Russia at the beginning of the war. Chaim Eirshovitz was put in charge of rebuilding the city. Doctor Levine was in charge of medical considerations. Shumkauskas was director of the tannery. Naturally, when they found out where I was, they called me back to the tannery and appointed me chief engineer with the task of rebuilding the part of it destroyed by the bombing and also the shoe factory which the Germans had destroyed. I was happy to go back to work because otherwise I would have to enroll immediately in the Red Army and go to the front. This important job gave me a shield.
The first days were very hectic. The Russians, as invading soldiers, grabbed everything they could. They especially looked for Vodka and for women. They came to the factory where there was a huge warehouse with solvents similar in smell to alcohol. In fact, it was Amyl alcohol and Amylacetate. They took away every single drum. Some of them were poisoned and many suffered from it.
Only very few Jews appeared on the scene at that time. There were maybe a dozen of them. Some of them had been hiding directly in the tannery, like Kaplan, the handbag man. He hid in the ovens of the patent leather department. After I arrived Kaplan came running to me and told me a high Russian officer was looking for me in the city. It turned out to be Shavdya, one of the Russian officers who had lived in my mother's suite in our four-plex. During the years since he left he had become a high officer--a general--in the supply department of the army. When he heard on the radio about the liberation of our city he was a hundred kilometers away. He came immediately to see what had happened to us. When we met he embraced and kissed us and cried tears when he heard what had happened to Tamara, my mother, and other members of the family. He stayed several days in the city. He brought us hundreds of cans of all kinds of food, helped us get temporarily settled at Kaplan's house and, the main thing, helped us to go and bring Ruth back home.
Ona's house was still very close to the front. The front had stopped at about this area after pushing the Germans back and no civilians were allowed to enter the region so Shavdya gave us an army vehicle and a couple of soldiers to accompany us and we went to get Ruth.
Ona was expecting us. Ruth, in the time she had been there--over a year--had changed quite a bit. She had grown and looked at us as at strangers. She spoke Lithuanian very well and had become a very pious Catholic. She did not fail to make the sign of the cross very often.
The feeling of war was still in the air in this area. We could hear artillery shells not far away so we couldn't stay too long. Ruth was not too anxious to go with us. She felt very much at home with Ona and Antanas. What could we tell Ona? How could we express our gratitude for what she had done for us? She gave us back the addresses we had left with her and wanted to return the valuables too. We refused to take them. On the contrary, we left her some more. We also left her a lot of food and other things that we had received from Shavdya. Then we had to hurry back to Shavli. However, later on we had many chances to see Ona and Antanas again.
Returning, we went to our temporary refuge at Kaplan's house. Across the street from his house was a church tower which had been partly destroyed by the bombing. We could see the church through a window and Ruth, the Catholic, spent hours at that window praying and crying because the church had been damaged. We did not rush to change her newly acquired religion. On the contrary, to make her comfortable, we even invited some of our Lithuanian acquaintances to attend church with her whenever she wanted to go.
We were in close contact with Shumkauskas at that time and he kept us informed about the happenings at the front. His attitude toward me had changed a good deal. Probably, the four years of suffering and bloodshed had cleared his mind and he turned out to be a very good friend. On August 16, 1944, while he was sitting in our house, a messenger came to call him back to headquarters. It turned out that the Germans had started a counter offensive on our front and he advised us that we could expect more warfare.
After all these years of being held captive by the Nazis I had no interest in letting our family take another chance so we decided to run before it was too late. My father-in-law was still at Barbara's place at that time and the only means of transportation I could find was a horse and wagon from the tannery. With the help of Schnider--one of the survivors--we drove back to the country. We could already hear the artillery and see, far away, the smoke from the burning houses. This time Shifman didn't put up any resistance. We took him back to Shavli, picked up Gita and Ruth and a couple of other refugees and started moving back in the direction of Radvilishkis and Panevezys which were several miles inside the Russian front. We had just left when our airport was bombed. It was a hectic night, being worried whether we would be overtaken again by the Germans. The speed of our travel was very slow and I couldn't imagine why the horse walked like a turtle. Finally I realized that it was my fault. I did not have enough communication with the animal. All changed drastically when I gave the reins over to one of the refugees who was with us. Then we started to move briskly ahead.
It took about two days before we reached Panevezys, sixty miles from Shavli. Panevezys was quite different from our native Shavli. There had been no fighting in this area and the city was left completely intact. It hurt us a lot, seeing this quiet and peaceful place which looked as if nothing in the world had ever happened. The only thing was, there were no Jews there. They had all been exterminated right at the beginning of the occupation. I went to see the house where my sister, Tzilia, had lived on Mero Street. The people who lived there at that time couldn't tell me very much. However, we managed to find Tzilia's housekeeper and she told us that all the Jews of Panevezys were rounded up at the beginning of the occupation and were shot in a little valley not far from the city. Only one Jewish person survived. We met him. He was saved by his Lithuanian girlfriend who had kept him hidden for four yearsÉ..
For the rest go to; http://migs.concordia.ca/memoirs/kron/chpt_8.html