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Vilna Stories

Childhood Memories

I was born in 1929 in Wilno, Poland, the only child of Ida nee
Gerstein and Samuel Esterowicz. My Mother found the unusual name
Perella in a popular novel - "The Old Bridge". Since the name could
be used as the remembrance of my Grandmother, Pera, here I was, stuck
with a "funny" name and teased for it. We were well-to-do, my Father
was the successful representative of Tungsram, the
light-and-radio-bulbs and Tudor and Piastow, the battery and tires
factories. Father's success stemmed from the fact that, as the
Tungsram representative, he acquired as customers a small electrical
workshop "Elektryt". They stayed his loyal customers even when they
developed into the second-largest radio-receiver producer in Poland
and Father's even drastically reduced commission ballooned into a
hefty income - larger even than that of the factory directors. We
lived on the first floor of Zawalna 2, in a very spacious apartment of
which one side, facing the yard, housed our big kitchen which had a
back-landing with a trap-door into the cellar, as well as Father's
business office with it's two storage rooms. On the other side,
facing the street, from the entrance hall we entered a very large
parquet living-dining room which was furnished with antique-style
gracefully curved golden ash furniture. Beyond was my Parent's
handsomely carved mahogany bedroom and across from it, my modern-style
bedroom; my desk, cupboard and shelves were painted a very pale blue.
My Mother was one of the seven children (Lyova, Rachil, Nochem,
Vera, my Mother Ida, David and Mulya) of Mera and Gershon Gerstein.
Grandfather was very well-respected as a lumber merchant of modest,
but, thanks to Grandmother Mera's excellent housekeeping, sufficient
means; he was easy -going and very sweet-tempered. Grandmother was
the stricter Parent, but she led by example with loving firmness and
was venerated by both her children and daughters and sons-in-law.
Their eldest son Lyova was the most serious and well educated of the
Gerszteins; after finishing the Russian High School - not a small
achievement for a Jew in Czarist Russia, he graduated from a Medical
School in Germany. He and his Wife Marusia lived in Kovno, Lithuania,
cut off from the family in Wilno for twenty years (even though they
were just about 80 miles away) because of the closed, hostile
Lithuania - Poland frontier. Lyova had to go all the way to Austria
in order to enter Poland and visit the family; he was always the
source of moral support and love and of financial support for the
business after Grandfather died in 1931.
Lyova and Marusia had a daughter my age, they also named her Perella
- Marusia must have read the same novel... The other three sons,
Nochem, David and Samuel (Mula) worked with their Father in the
lumber business. Just a few days ago, by incredible coincidence, I
was given a letterhead with a 1932 bill-receipted in Polish and
Yiddish from my Grandfather Gerszon Gersztein's lumber-business
signed by my uncle Mula. All three brothers were hard-working,
especially the reliable and tireless Nochem; the tall and
exceptionally handsome David was the most talented of the three, he
was able to develop the business with his charm and salesmanship, but
he was also unable to bridle his passion for women and drink. David's
wife Mera, who loved David very much, was amazingly tolerant about
David's infidelities (she told me many years later that he may have
slept with many, but he loved only her) but she resented his drinking.
Father remembers that once, while visiting David and Mera's house
in Niemenczyn with the family, he witnessed the following: before
going back to Wilno, David gave Mera 10.00 Zloty for that week's
expenses, and when she protested that this was not enough, he lectured
her sternly about the financial difficulties they were in - that same
day one of the relatives, looking around for something, found a 100.00
Zloty bill tucked under Mera's pillow. It appears that David,
through devious manipulations, took big sums of money out of the
business for gifts for his mistresses and to appease his wife. All
this, as well as the difficult economic conditions, pushed the
Gersztein lumber business into bankruptcy. None of the family
could understand how this financial disaster could happen- all of them
took just modest salaries- the money just evaporated into thin air! A
little later my Father, who had lent the Gersteins some of the money
they defaulted on, checked their account-books and found that David
was siphoning out the money for "business expenses, to be accounted
for". Neither David nor his wife Mera ever forgave Father for this
David and Mera were married while still very young, in 1920. They
met in Niemenczyn, soon after Mera's Father, Moshe Cynman and younger
brother Yoyne were murdered in 1919 by the Polish troops whom the
Cynman women had just housed and fed for days - it was a random
pogrom of Jewish men in Niemenczyn. David and Mera had a lovely and
vivacious daughter, Zhenya, six years older than myself. Samuel
(Mula), the youngest, of the Gersteins, was handsome, sweet-tempered,
intelligent but not energetic. He married Nina Rabinowicz, a very
vivacious, flirtatious, talented teacher of song and dance in the
Jewish schools. In 1936 they had a son, Gary (Gerus). I remember
going to admire my new cousin. Nochem never married, he did fall in
love once, but his family - mostly his sisters Vera and Rachil - felt
that the girl's family was lower class, not good enough for the
Gerszteins. Nochem did not stand up to their pressure, he remained
single and stayed with his Mother to whom he was very devoted. When
he was fatally wounded by the German bombing of Antokol in June of
1941, his last words were: "take care of Mama".
The three Gersztein sisters, Rachil, Vera and my Mother Ida were
well-known in Wilno for their beauty and elegance, Rachil was thought
the most beautiful woman in town. Rachil first married a physician
and went to live in Germany with him, but then divorced him and came
back to her Parents. After a prolonged relationship, Rachil married
Yeremey (Yermasha) Cholem, a very wealthy businessman, owner of
Wilno's largest commercial enterprise. Yermasha was an avid antique
collector. I remember that their house felt like a museum, full of
valuable filigreed things that I had to remember never to touch. They
had no children. Vera was married to Naum Zlatin, owner of a retail
fabric business, much older than she was. Vera was the arbiter of
Wilno fashion - many of the fashion-conscious Jewish ladies would copy
her attire. The Zlatin's had no children.
My Father was the precocious and indulged youngest of five children
(Yefim, Emma, Anya, David and Munya) of Margalit and Leiba (Arye)
Esterowicz. Grandfather was a well-to-do lumber agent well-known for
his impeccable probity. My Father venerated him and modeled his
business-relationships on those of his adored Father. Grandmother was
not educated, but a loving, very religious woman of great strength of
character. Their first son, my uncle Yefim (Chaim) was not very
intelligent or diligent. He was discharged from school after being
held back three times. At his insistence he was let go to America
in1909 to Grandfather's brother, but couldn't make it and came back
home to be supported by his family - mostly by my Father. Yefim got
married and had three children: Dora, Lasik and Lila.
The eldest daughter of Margalit and Leiba, my aunt Emma, even
though overweight, was everything that a parent could desire - very
intelligent, lively, with an excellent singing voice and a great sense
of humor. Her sweetness of character and self-sacrificing love of her
family and of the orphans she served in the orphanages were like a
beacon before our eyes - Father venerated her. She was married to
Aaron Eisurowicz and had two children, Gary and Eva.
Father's other sister, Anya was beautiful but unlucky in love -
while a refugee in Russia during W.W. I, she fell in love with a
married physician and was never able to love again. She was married
through a matchmaker to a supposedly wealthy man, Alexander (Sasha )
Mintz who, though loving, unfortunately lost his money and was unable
to give her the position in the Wilno society she wanted. They had a
sweet daughter Shela, overweight like her aunt Emma, whom Anya could
not cherish as the center of her life. Anya was dissatisfied - she
felt that her former girl-friends looked down on her. The other son,
Father's brother David, wanted to study Medicine, but W.W. I
interrupted his studies and then Grandfather needed his help in his
business while my Father studied at the Berlin Business School in
1922-24. David finally emigrated to Paris but never married and had no
profession. David survived the war and came to visit us in Grotta
Ferrata in 1951.

My Mother was the center of my world, her constant love and
attention illuminated and warmed me and gave me security, assurance
that I was loved, wanted and needed. My Mother was beautiful, had
exquisite taste and elegance. She was unfailingly tactful, very
insightful and she empathized with the feelings of those around her,
especially those whose situations were difficult. Surprisingly, all
these attributes notwithstanding, Mother was not very self assured -
I inherited my shyness from her. My shyness was not helped by the
fact that Mother wanted her beloved daughter to be elegant and
graceful, which I was not - or at least I did not want these
attributes badly enough to invest all my life's forces in them. I
could live up better to my Father's expectations of my intellect: I
was interested in lots of things - the world of ideas fascinated me
and I was willing to pursue it at all costs; the goal of continuous
self-improvement has been my beacon all my life. Books have also
been my great self-indulgence - the escape from reality into make
Father was very brilliant, with great knowledge of art, literature
and history and a photographic memory. He was a very good, honest and
sraightforward man, but stubborn, self-centered and with not even a
modicum of hypocrisy for getting along with people; he was truthful
to the point of impracticality, for example - Mother: "You shouldn't
have called him a thief to his face." Father: "Why not, he knows it
himself". During the WWII Mother and I lived in fear of whom of the
people of importance my Father would antagonize. I have inherited
his inclination to blurt out the truth, but I hope with a smidgin of
Mother's tact. Both my Parents were in agreement as far as being
invariably on the side of the underdog. Father looked down on
Mother's lack of formal education - she wanted to study Medicine, but
had to interrupt her High School education during the First World War
- he did not appreciate her tact and insight - always sparing
people's feelings, nor her great talent to impart beauty to our
surroundings at modest cost and arrange graceful if modest
entertaining and reciprocate people's gifts - what she called
"treating people kindly and respectfully while being able to keep her
head high". He called this "pride and hypocrisy".
I started my schooling at the private, Polish language elementary
school for Jewish children of well-to-do parents. The school was
owned and run by Anna Pawlowna Wygocka, apparently a pupil of Maria
Montessori. The only difference from regular school that I can
remember was that we had no real desks, no bells or recesses. My
Mother took me to the school when I was five rather than six, thinking
that her smart little daughter was ready ahead of her age.
Apparently they gave me some tests, the only things that I remember
was that there were buttons that I was supposed to push - which I
did... They told Mother to bring me next year. I had a hard time
learning to read - it took maybe a month until I understood that EM
AH EM AH (Polish pronounciation) reads mama - after that it was all
downhill and my lifelong love affair with reading had begun.
Immediately, inebriated with my ability to read anything, anytime, I
was reading whatever was written, including scribbles on fences. One
such scribble said: don't buy from "ZYD" I asked our maid, Wiera:
"Who is this "ZYD" ? She answered: "there is a missing mark on the
Z, it is really ZHYD - Jew, like you". I think I knew that I was
Jewish without being really aware that I was looked down upon by
Others. This must have been my first experience with anti-Semitism.
I was a very poor eater - I didn't even like chocolate - what a
thought! Breakfast was tea with rolls and farmer cheese, and supper
was boiled eggs with bread and butter. I liked these well enough, but
the midday dinner was a disaster! I was not permitted to determine
the size of the portions on my plate, nor could I leave the table
before I cleaned my plate, so I was sitting and endlessly chewing my
ground chicken croquettes - the only meat I would even consider.
After a while the chicken would form a hard ball in my cheek that I
could not swallow - then I had an idea: (this must have been when I
was very young) I would excuse myself to go out for farting, then go
and spit the abomination under a cupboard. In the fullness of time
however, my crime was discovered when the cupboard was pulled away
from the wall for cleaning - I was told endlessly about the
ingratitude of wasting food while children were starving in India.
All these stories of starving children did not help my appetite. Not
surprisingly, my appetite would become excellent as soon as there were
food shortages at the very beginning of the War. I learned two lessons
from that disaster: an immediate one - to discard something
surreptitiously, throw and flush it down the toilet ( I don't think I
made use of that one) and a long range one - I have let my children
determine the size of their portions, even though, after my W.W.II
hunger experience, I insisted that they finish what they took. My
Mother was very worried about my being too thin: I used to have
hacking coughs that persisted endlessly after colds and passers-by
would stop Mother on the street to advise her to check my lungs for
tuberculosis. I would also have been glad to gain weight, especially
in my long, thin legs - the kids would tease me, calling me "crane".
I would have liked to cover those legs with floor-length skirts, but,
to my disgust Mother, following fashion, clad me in cute pleated
Scotch-plaid miniskirts.
Since I was not musical, my Mother did not make me study the piano -
this was quite a brave innovation, since every well-brought-up Jewish
girl did so in Wilno. Perhaps she did that to spare me the heartache
she went through; when she could not continue her High School
education during WW I - she was cut off from school because there were
no more horse-trolleys to Antokol, where she lived on the outskirts
of town. She started to take piano lessons instead - I'm told by aunt
Mera that it was an expense her parents could ill afford at the time.
Mother studied and practiced for many hours a day for years, only to
discover finally that she was not musical enough...
My best friend was Mira Jedwabnik, who was very pretty but ungainly
like me and even more over-protected than I was. Our mutual support
was extremely important to me because I was painfully shy. I
remember agonizing before knocking on a door - I was SURE that the
people there did not want me; having a real friend was heaven! Even
though we lived just one block away from each other, for some years
Mira and I were not allowed to cross the street by ourselves to visit.
The only movies I was permitted to watch were those of Shirley Temple
I was much taller than all the boys in my class - I lived in fear
that I would become a "giant" like my cousin Dora ( she actually was
a medium tall girl by American standards). I was a voracious reader.
Every week I would check out a stack of books from the public library
- I heard much later that my Mother would iron each book page by page
for fear of contagion. Every year, Father would stay home for the
summer, but Mother and I would go in the early years to Niemenczyn, a
village a few miles from town, and later to Wolokumpia, a "resort"
even closer to town. My aunt Mera Gerstein (wife of my Mother's
brother David) had a house in Niemenczyn. I remember a phonograph
playing and Father dancing with me. Another, maybe earlier
recollection- or did Mother tell me about it - aunt Mera cooked
strawberry preserves and cooled them in a huge, flat copper bowl;
daydreaming, I stumbled and fell plunk into the middle of it - when
Mother came in, she saw me standing there, dripping crimson liquid...
Aunt Mera did not take kindly to the waste of all those delicious
That was probably the time when I discovered the impermanence of
wealth. The chestnut trees in the Cielentnik park near the Cathedral
would let fall beautiful, shiny, glistening, chestnuts in the fall. I
adored them, gathered sack fulls and hoarded them in cupboards,
feeling very rich, And then, horror! My chestnuts were not shiny any
longer, they got dull and wrinkled - worthless.
I remember going for a walk with my parents in the country after
dusk when I was about five and being castigated by my Father for
whining and then my great feeling of vindication when I fell sick with
scarlet fever the day after. For some reason - perhaps our apartment
wasn't taken care of while we were away in the country, I spent my
sick-days lying in my Grandmothers darkened living room on Arsenalska
street, amid dark-green velvet sofas.
Mother fell ill with typhoid and then with glaucoma in 1936, I felt
bereft; always before, when I would be coming home from school, the
day felt dark and dull if I knew Mother was not home. This time,
after Mother recovered, she was sent to a mountain resort Zakopane for
recuperation. Her two childless sisters, aunt Rachil and Vera would
look in on me every day. Vera would cluck over me in a saccharine way
and to show her devotion, forbade anything I wanted to do. I said: "A
thousand aunts couldn't take place of one Mother". I was sent to
Niemenczyny, where occasionally a young peasant girl would take care
of me. Once we were crossing a plank over a wild brook, I was
carrying the girl's book, but slipped and fell into the brook - I
still remember how let-down I felt when her worry was for the book,
not me. All was OK with the world when Mother came back, looking
tanned, beautiful and happy.
All was not quite OK with my parents' marriage, however. During my
Mother's illness my Father got infatuated with my Mother's sister,
Vera. Vera was very elegant and flirtatious but apparently faithful to
her elderly husband, Naum Zlatin. Father told all about his crush to
Mother who, strangely, still continued to spend her days with Vera,
daily visiting their Mother and going to the dressmakers and
coffeehouses with her, thus flaunting the sexy Vera under Father's
nose. I had no idea about this - Father told me about it much, much
later; Mama, ever loyal to her sister, never mentioned it.
Most of the summers we spent in Wolokumpia, at the Eliazhberg
pension, situated among pine trees, near the shore of the Wilja river.
Even though all the kids there were Jewish, children of well-to-do
parents, we played much rougher games than we did in town, with feuds
and taking sides, winning games and fights was of vital importance to
us. I reveled in the active life-style of running, chasing each other,
having pine- cone fights - quite a difference from the sedentary life
in town. I even got a "pet" - a snail, I brought it to town and kept
it on the window-sill, in between the double windows. I brought it
leaves and grass from the park. It finally ran away, I saw its
glistening track down the wall.
In 1938 my Mother and Mrs. Lida Jedwabnik took Mira and myself to the
seashore in Bulduri, near Riga, Latvia - it was the first train-trip
for me. I remember the sleeping car and how beautiful Mrs. Jedwabnik
looked in her flowery robe - like the embodiment of spring. My big
achievement during that trip was learning to float in the salty
sea-water and then to paddle around like a puppy - only afterwards
did an instructor suggest I could swim like a frog, not a puppy - what
a delight! My Father did not want me to learn how to swim, as a
teenager he once almost drowned in a whirlpool on the Wilja river -
he almost pulled in a teacher who tried to save him. He thought that
if I did not know how to swim, I wouldn't fall into a whirlpool.
That was a mistake, I feel, swimming is much more often life-saving
rather than life endangering; moreover, swimming is one of my most
enjoyable outdoor pursuits, I have always loved to look at the view
and the sun's shimmer on the water around me, while getting
delightful, healthful exercise at the same time. Another seashore
adventure was much less successful, however: there was a short ladder
placed horizontally between two protuberances, about two meters off
the ground ; the kids were lightly running across it, but when I tried
to follow them, I fell so heavily and painfully that my breath was
knocked out of me. Apparently I did not fall all the way to the
ground, but this mishap gave me a painful lesson: ever since, I would
be reluctant to follow my dare-devil friends in adventures requiring
sure-footedness and balance.
I remember something that puzzles me about that seashore experience:
at the pension there were children from many countries, I think we
spoke Russian. One of the guests was the German (Nazi) ambassador to
Moscow, and his son was a very handsome, blond kid my age. An
important Jewish, conductor had a scrawny, ugly son my age. I think
that the German was picking on the Jew in our play - we were throwing
straw and sticks at each other. I was handing "ammunition" to the
German. A lady whispered to me: "he is doing it because that little
boy is Jewish" and I answered: "I know". End recollection. Why did I
side with the German? By that time I knew about anti-Semitism and
probably about the Nazis. What was I trying to deny? Or maybe I'm
just trying to read into my behavior more than the siding with the
handsomer stronger kid - bad enough - anyway, I'm not proud of this
"un-Esterowicz-like" behavior.
In the summer of 1939 my parents took me to Ciechocinek, a resort in
the Western part of Poland. On our way back to Wilno, we stopped in
Warsaw, the capital of Poland. What gave me the greatest pleasure was
going up and down in the hotel elevator - my first elevator
experience. On August 15th, my 10th birthday, we went to an amusement
park where I had my picture taken riding a camel. The other strong
impression from Warsaw was my first encounter with strictly religious
Jews, probably Chassidim, who wore what looked to me as outlandish
attire - I'd never seen anything like that in Wilno. That was very
embarrassing - it was fine when people from Africa to look exotic, but
these were Jews, like me!
When we came back to Wilno, I learned that her Parents took Mira
Jedwabnik to the World Fair in New York - luckily for them they got
"stuck" in the United States and missed the horrors in store for the
rest of us. When I met Mira many years later, she told me that Dr.
Jedwabnik thought about getting out of Poland to the Exposition, but
what happened to him in the Polish countryside really pushed him. Dr.
Jedwabnik owned one of the few cars in Wilno; while his chauffeur
was driving him from Warsaw to Wilno, on the highway they struck a
cow. Dr Jedwabnik immediately offered to pay for the damages, but the
peasants just about lynched the "Jew". After that experience he KNEW
that they had to get out. So that cow actually saved their lives.
They were on the sea, en-route to the United States when World War
II broke out as Hitler attacked Poland.
When in August, after the signing of the German-Soviet non-aggression
pact it became clear to my Father that the last barrier to Hitler's
attacking Poland was down, he immediately went to our neighborhood
Jewish shopkeeper and bought large supplies of soap, sugar, flour
etc. A few weeks later, when the war-panic burst out, there were
long lines at the shops and the owners could charge much higher prices
for all these necessities. The impressed shopkeeper's wife told my
Mother: "You should kiss your husband's hands and feet" and her
husband hushed her: "Never mind, the lady knows what she has to do".
September, 1939 WORLD WAR II BEGINS

I don't remember much about the bombings of Wilno by the Germans,
except for the scary alarm-sirens. Apparently a boy I knew, Alosha
Lipski, was one of the few victims. The first time the war really came
home to me was when, after a few weeks, one night, shattering the
windows, machine-gun bullets started to whistle through the
apartment. When my Father crawled to the telephone to ask the
operator what was going on, she knew nothing. It appears that the
first tank of the invading Soviet army lost its way, rammed the house
kitty-corner from ours, got stuck and started shooting. Polish
soldiers climbed onto the roof of our house and returned fire and then
threw an incendiary grenade into the tank, killing them all. It was a
miracle that later the Soviets believed my Father's assurances that
he had nothing to do with all this.
After the Soviets occupied Wilno, they gave it to the Lithuanians.
Father lost contact with the foreign factories which he represented
and started a private business of his own. I remember the huge
Lithuanian policemen in red - ornamented helmets- we called them
turkeys; my first Lithuanian word was "Kalakutas" - turkey in
Lithuanian. The fact that we were under Lithuanian rule came home to
me when in our school Polish stopped being the teaching language -
the Lithuanians hated the Poles, they never forgave them for grabbing
Wilno from them in 1919. They declared that Yiddish should be the
teaching language for Jewish children. That was a problem for me - I
did not know Yiddish, but fortunately neither did my classmates,
children of the assimilated "intellectuals". We spent the whole year
learning the alphabet and some basic Yiddish. Aron Kagan, who as a
teenager used to be a messenger boy in my father's office, still
laughs remembering how I was memorizing Yiddish phrases - he spoke
Yiddish at home. I was deprived of my best friend, Mira Jedwabnik who
was in the United States, but got very close to Nacik Bak, a quiet,
delicate boy, talented in music and math. The other kids taunted us
that we were "man and wife", but we were comfortable with each other,
I guess Nacik was also overprotected and shy - he became my "best
In the summer of 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania. My
Father's business was soon nationalized by the communist authorities,
and besides his business all my Father's personal property - bank
accounts and his inherited property on Wielkomierska 28 were taken
away from him. My Mother had to stay with Father in Wilno, but, not
wanting to deprive me of fresh country air, my parents arranged for
me to stay in Wolokumpia with Dr. Alosha Perevozki's sister Niuta (?)
Zilberkweit, a widow in strained circumstances who lost her husband in
France, and her fifteen year old daughter Zoya. Zoya was beautiful,
had waist- long blond hair and spoke perfect French; she was nice to
me, but I didn't quite like her because my parents put her up as the
model of all virtues to me. That summer I remember being sweet on
Marek Perewozki, the brilliant son of my Father's friend Alosha.
In the fall of 1940 I enrolled for the 1940-41 school-year into the
Russian-speaking school for the children of the Soviet functionaries -
most of the pupils of the Wygdska school did the same, as did Nacik
Bak. Even though we had finished 5th grade and should have been in 6th
grade, since we would have had six years till graduation from High
School, we were put into the 4th grade of the Soviet ten-year long
combined elementary and High School. Immediately, we started to get
indoctrinated into "correct socialist thinking". It became clear to
me that it was wrong to be well-off, to be a parasitic "Burzhuy". I
was mortified, when I brought classmates home, to find our maid home,
who referred to my Mother as "mistress". I was happy when we found
Mother ironing clothes wearing an apron - how virtuously proletarian!
I still remember the first "non Shirley Temple" movie I watched - it
was a Soviet film named Circus" about a beautiful blond girl who was
about to be lynched in America for having a black baby and how they
were saved by a visiting Soviet Circus.
Since my parents, as "Burzhuys" were to be kicked out of their
elegant apartment, they decided to move voluntarily to my maternal
grandparents, the Gerstein very modest house in Antokol -on the
outskirts of town, on the way to Niemenczyn. However, just a day
before we were to move, my Mother woke up crying, she did not want to
subject her "darling Perella" to the hardships and limitations she
was subjected to while living so far out of town. She asked my Father
to go once again to the department in charge of living space
apportionment and check if we could, perhaps stay in our apartment in
some way. He did so and was able to arrange for most of our
apartment to be taken over by David Kaplansky, the husband of Tatyana,
the sister of my rich uncle Yeremey Cholem; Kaplanski was
nevertheless left-leaning and well-regarded by the authorities.
Kaplanski was looking for an apartment for his chief, the Lithuanian
Sushinskis whose family remained in Kowno, as well as for his own
family: his wife and twenty-year old son Shelik. This arrangement
saved us from being kicked out, we could stay on in a couple of rooms
of our Zawalna apartment. This saved us later from the peril of being
killed by the bomb that destroyed the Antokol house and killed my
uncle, Nochem Gerstein.
In the meantime I was much more interested in the following doings at
school: in accordance with the theory of "Socialist Competition"
our teacher was choosing for each kid another one of about equal
scholastic achievement and designated them as "Competitors". For my
competitor she chose Lubka Kantarowicz who lived on Antokol, near
where I was supposed to move to, but didn't. Life was difficult for
my parents, my Father could not get a job being a "Burzhuy" and we
were in imminent danger of being deported to Siberia as "parasites".
But this didn't matter to me - I was obsessed with my competition with
Lubka. I was never much interested in my grades, but now they were
becoming crucial! In June, during our final exams, Lubka and I
whispered the math results to each other, they were different, Lubka
realized that she was wrong and corrected her results, thus she got
all A's. I, on the other hand, missed an "-" in the Russian
composition and got only a "B"!!! Horror!!! When my Mother came to
pick me up from school, I came out smiling, showing her four fingers
(a "B"). But when we came home, I had hysterics and my poor Mother
had to go back to school to check with the teacher if I would still
get an "A" in Russian - and indeed I was going to get an "A"! All
this during the beginning of deportations! I don't remember ever
being as obsessed by competition again - and just imagine my Mother's
sweet longsuffering! A Mothers love...
The Soviets did not deport us before they were attacked by Hitler on
June 22nd, 1941. My aunt Rachil and uncle Yermasha Cholem ran out of
the back door when the NKVD (Russian secret police) came to the front
door of their apartment, thus saving themselves from deportation. The
escape from deportaion turned very unfortunate for them, since
Yermasha was killed by the Nazis in a few weeks as one of Wilno's
richest Jews and Rachil perished during the liquidation of the Ghetto
in September of 1943.

When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union they bombed Wilno. One of
the bombs destroyed my Grandmother's house on Antokol, she was
wounded slightly, but my uncle Nochem who lived with her was killed.
His last words were: "Take care of Mama!" My Father brought
Grandmother and her sister Sarah to our house. Sushinski , the
Communist who lived in our apartment ran away with the retreating
Russians; Father had his room locked and sealed by the
apartment-house manager. The Germans occupied Wilno soon after. A few
days later, on the night of Sunday, June 29th, we were awakened by
thundering knocks of rifle butts on our front door and a bayonet-armed
Lithuanian patrol led by a German officer stormed in when my father,
terrified and pale opened the door. The German yelled: did you
signal the Russians? When Father assured him with trembling lips that
we couldn't have, we even took the fuses out so as not to turn a light
on by mistake. A civilian Lithuanian broke into Sushinski's room and
triumphantly produced a Soviet emblem he found there. The civilian,
named Labanauskas, occupied the apartment across the landing from
ours. Apparently he was drunk and put on a light and when challenged
by the patrol assured them it was not him but the Jews across the
landing who were signaling the Russians. Father, Kaplanski and his
son Shelik were taken to the police station. Mother and I, terrified,
heard sporadic shots and feared the worst... I spent the night
trembling in her bed. At the police station a miracle happened: one
of the Lithuanian soldiers declared that the light was not in the Jews
but in Labanauskas window - Father and the Kaplanskis were free to go
but had to stay in the station because of the curfew. They saw Jews
being cruelly beaten and jailed by the Lithuanian police who arrested
them for possessing some food or leather. Suddenly, HORROR! a group
of ultra-Nazi SS came into the station and, after hearing that they
were Jews, lunged rabidly at Father and the Kaplanskis, placing them
face-to-the-wall, searching them and threatening to kill them right
there after they found some newspaper pieces in Shelik's pocket. Then
another miracle happened: Father was trying to translate the
innocuous newspaper pieces into German ( Shelik kept them in his
pocket as toilet-paper) when one of the SS-men asked: "How do you
speak such good German?" Father answered that he was a graduate of
the Berlin Business School. The SS-man asked whether he remembered
the Kranzler coffeehouse in Berlin, and Father with his photographic
memory said that, of course he remembered, he quoted its location,
and described all its delights. The SS-man said: "I was the Krantzler
violinist" and then, he repeated "You are not a Jew, you are not a
Jew!". He let them go at dawn. Father came home to us.
Father was visited by Boleslaw Poddany, a car dealer, a customer of
his who respected his honesty and with whom he had excellent, friendly
relations. Poddany's dealership had also been nationalized by the
Soviets. He told Father that we should not worry, he felt it was
his obligation as a honorable man to save people such as us.
Amazingly, he subsequently would have an opportunity to do so - the
Germans restored his car repair shop to him and his workshop was
co-opted for the repair of German military vehicles under H.K.P.
(Heeres Kraftfahr Park)-Army Vehicle Repair.
When the German authorities ordered all Jews to wear yellow,
star-shaped patches as a mark of shame and inferiority, I would not
accept it as such. When talking to Kirka, the son of our Russian
janitor Nicholai, I tried to make light of it, (I did not want to be
pitied, what "they" thought of me still counted) I said that perhaps
we will embroider flowers on the patches to make them more
fashionable. Wearing these patches and walking in the gutter (Jews
could not use the sidewalk) I went to visit Nacik Bak during the
hours in which Jews were allowed on the streets - this was the last
time I got to see him... Much later I heard that his rich grandfather,
Kashuk, bribed a peasant to hide Nacik and his mother; he also gave
them much gold so that they would be able to pay the peasant, but the
peasant just killed them and took the gold. Looking back, I really
appreciate and venerate the Niemenczyn peasants who saved my husband,
Wowa Gdud, (now William Good) and his Father at great risk to
themselves and their families.
Poddany did not risk his life to save us, but his help was priceless
nevertheless! During the summer of 1941 the Lithuanian police, the
so-called "Chapuny" were grabbing men, supposedly for work - we soon
learned that they were killed. The only protection from the Chapuny
was to have a certificate stating that the man worked in a place
crucial for the German war effort. Poddany employed Father as
storeroom keeper in his H.K.P. workshop. When the Chapuny came to
our house, they accepted as valid Father's photograph-bearing
certificate (shein), that he was working for the German military, but
refused to accept that of Kaplanski, which had no photograph. It was
a miracle that his wife Tatyana was able to bribe them with a golden
watch (her begging on a bended knee had not helped).
On August 31st, in the "provokazye" aktzye - (slander massacre), the
Germans accused the Jews of having fired at German soldiers in the old
Jewish quarter. They took all of about 8000 poor Jews living in
there, including women and children, to Ponary and executed them.
This massacre was so horrifying that Poddany, fearing more massacres,
suggested that Father with Mother and myself should come to sleep in
his HKP workshop on Wilenska 23 for protection. Mother insisted that
Father and I should do so, but she would not go - she stayed with her
Mother and aunt Sara, she would not abandon them. Fortunately there
were no more massacres for the time being, so Father and I returned to
the apartment on Zawalna. My Parents took advantage of the short
respite and took their best clothing, linen, furs and jewelry to
Poddany who lived just a block away on Portowa. When I said that
Poddany did not risk his life for us, that was not quite true: keeping
Jewish valuables was also a capital offense. The sale of these
valuables kept us from being hungry during the years of the Ghetto and
HKP - Poddany was trustworthy and would bring them over to the
workshop for Father to sell as needed. Almost immediately we had to
give up all the valuables we had not protected at Poddany's- Father
had to stand in a long line to hand in the table silver. I too
decided to hide something I valued: in 1938, when we went to the
seashore near Riga where I taught myself to swim, Mother bought me a
pretty little vase that I liked; now I hid it behind the steps under
the trapdoor to the cellar. Amazingly, after we were liberated I found
the little vase, broken but still there, in the janitor's room and
"repossessed it" - I still treasure it.
On September 6th, 1941 the Lithuanian Police chased us out of our
apartment with only the few things we could carry, Father carried a
huge pack in a bedspread, I wrapped a pillow, an electric cord and
many other odds and ends in my bedspread, but I guess I didn't tie it
securely enough. As they chased us down Zawalna street toward the
ghetto whose previous inhabitants had been killed we were hot and
sweaty from running in our winter clothes. My bundle was becoming
untied, I cried to Father that my bundle was getting untied, I would
soon be losing our stuff. Father, who was staggering under a huge
pack, couldn't understand why I couldn't manage my little bundle and
accused me of being heartless, having a heart of tin. I did manage
to hold my bundle together, we were chased by the Gestapo with yells
and threats into the Strashuna Street which had been emptied by the
"libel massacre" of its original inhabitants.
Since we were one of the early arrivals into the designated Ghetto,
we and the Zlatins were able to occupy a room on the second floor of
the first house on the right side - Strashuna #1. Standing in the
street Father finally saw Gradmother, aunt Anya with her daughter
Shela and aunt Emma with her daughter Eva and son-in-law Lolek. They
all squeezed into our room with their packs. During the day huge
crowds of Jews continued to be chased into Strashuna street; they
swiftly overcrowded the houses of the seven small streets ( Strashuna,
Yatkova, Shavelska, Shpitalna, parts of Rudnicka and Oshmianska)
which the Germans earmarked as the area of the "Large Ghetto".
Originally Lidski alley, parallel to Strashuna, was also included in
the "Large Ghetto". However, that evening the Germans decided to
exclude the Lidski alley from the ghetto and, according to that
decision, all the Jews who had crowded into apartments on Lidski after
they were chased into the ghetto, were driven on that same night to
the Lukishki prison from which only very few were able to return.
In addition to the "Large ghetto" situated on the three little
streets adjoining the "Great Synagogue" (the synagogue was defiled by
the Germans who made a warehouse out of it), a "Little ghetto" was
also established. The two ghettos were separated by the Niemiecka
street. The houses on both sides of this important thoroughfare
were not included in the "ghetto".
By squeezing into the few streets ( where previously about 8000
of the Jewish poor had lived in crowded conditions ) the Jewish
population of many tens of thousands the Germans created an
unimaginable congestion (even though from some quarters of the city
the Germans did not take the Jews to the "ghetto", but rather to
Ponary for execution). The number of people who lived in our modest
size, narrow, elongated room of about 6 by 24 feet grew to 26 by
evening. The following nights we had to sleep huddled on the dirty
floor, some lying down, some sitting since there was not enough
space for everybody to stretch out. on the floor at the same time; the
grownups had to take turns, but I was able to lie down on the pillow
that I had brought in with such effort. Next to me was sleeping a
teenage girl crippled by Heine-Medina (polio?), she must also have
had epilepsy. One night she had a seizure, made scary noises and
kicked me. The apartment we were in had another room which was full
of the Jewish criminal element, "the strong ones" whom everybody was
scared of. There was only one coal-burning stove in the apartment
which the "strong" women appropriated, letting the "intellectuals"
cook only during the Sabbath, a time when it was forbidden to cook by
the Jewish religion. The "intellectuals" meekly stayed away from the
kitchen during the week, but not my Grandma Esterowicz - she was not
about to transgress against her religion! When she entered the
kitchen she was menaced by one of those "strong" women, but far from
being intimidated, she pushed a frying pan into the other's face,
leaving a black soot-mark on her nose. From then on they let Grandma
cook during the week. This is the same Grandma who, when she found a
thief in her apartment on Wielkomierska street a few years before,
had grabbed the thief and held on to him until her screams brought
the police. She was killed by the Nazis with my Grandma Gersztein a
few weeks later during the "yellow life certificate massacre". I do
not remember what the toilet arrangements were, but do remember the
difficulties with menstruation pads - we had to use pieces of sheets
which we had to wash and dry the best we could. I had started
menstruating at the age of ten-and-a-half. In the ghetto I stopped
menstruating - most women did- what a relief!
All the outlets of the streets connecting the ghetto with the rest
of the world (with the exception of the Rudnicki street outlet
where a gate was placed) were blocked off by tall brick walls. The
Germans placed a placard on the gate bearing a large warning to the
rest of the population about "DANGER of CONTAGION". Perhaps the
horror of the inhuman conditions in the ghetto were made more
bearable by our hope that here at last the Germans would let us be,
that finally here at least our lives would be safe - we were cruelly
mistaken in this, of course.
The Germans immediately organized in the ghetto a Jewish police
force installing as its chief Yakov Gens, a tool of the Gestapo.
Gens, a former officer of the Lithuanian army, came from the Kowno
area of Lithuania; he was married to a Lithuanian who, together with
their daughter, lived outside of the ghetto on the "Aryan side". .
Uncle Yefim's wife Fania and her younger daughter Lila came to the
ghetto from the Esterowicz family house on the Wielkomirski street
together with my Grandmother, aunt Anya and Shela ; they found space
in the room in which Fania's parents were located. Yefim's older
daughter Dora who lived for the last two years in Kowno, as well as
his son Lazar (Lasya), succeded in making their way deep into Russia.
The inhuman conditions notwithstanding, the life in both of
the ghettoes in which about 40,000 Jews had been herded ( 30,000 in
the first one and 10,000 in the second ) was beginning to get
organized. At the very beginning of the German occupation in July of
1941 doctor Luba Cholem (the sister-in-law of my uncle Yermasha)
succeded in obtaining from the chief of the German Medical Service
protective certificates for all of the Jewish physicians of Wilno -
the doctors suffered almost no losses during all the bloody
"aktzyas". This, together with the fact that the Municipal Jewish
Hospital was situated inside the first ghetto, made it possible to
organize wide medical services and take preventive measures against
the epidemics threatened by the extreme congestion.
The Jews who worked in the German military establishments ( Father
among them) began at once to leave the ghetto each morning and go to
their place of work in groups walking in the gutter. The workshop
repairing the German military vehicles (H.K.P.), situated on 23
Wilenska street, was managed by Father's friend Boleslaw Poddany;
initially eighteen Jews worked there besides the sixty gentiles. In
addition to himself Father managed to get employment there for uncle
Mula Gerstein. The work in the H.K.P. workshops secured the vital
"Facharbeiterschein" - the qualified worker's certificate. They
worked six days a week, from six in the morning till six in the
evening. This contact with the Gentile population gave them a chance,
(by selling some pieces of clothing and linen) of acquiring food
which they then endeavored to bring into the ghetto - a perilous
I guess what "they" thought of me still counted for me then -
through Father, I sent a message to our former maid, Wiera, asking
her how Mardashka, our cat was doing. Wiera answered back: "Why are
you asking about Mardashka when people are falling like herrings!"
Wiera was right, of course, how Mardashka was doing was not important
to me, I just wanted to show her that we must be OK if I'm worried
about the cat, I did not want her to pity me.
We learned that being in the Ghetto did not give us safety as
early as on the 9th day of our stay there. On September 15th of 1941,
with the subterfuge that people not possessing the
"Facharbeiterschein" were to be moved to the second ghetto with
their families, about 2000 Jews were sent to Ponary. The predatory
character of the Jewish police and their chief Yakov Gens became
obvious during this first bloody aktzya of the ghetto.
Since Father worked in H.K.P. this aktzya didn't touch our
family, but a misfortune befell us too - I fell ill and since my
illness had some symptoms of scarlet fever, Father's friend, doctor
Alosha Perevozki notified the medical authorities; I had to be
transported to the Municipal Infectious Barracks situated outside the
confines of the ghetto, at the edge of town in Zwierzyniec. The fear
of being taken away from my Mother was indescribable - morover, I
knew nothing good came to those taken away. In the Infectious
Barracks I was put into an ice-cold shower the moment I arrived. I
missed my Mother terribly and was hungry - I seemed not to have been
very sick after all. They wanted to shave my head, warning that my
hair would fall out if I didn't, but I wouldn't let them and the only
bad result was that since I didn't comb it, my hair got terribly
tangled and matted, I also got lice-infested. The barrack was
infested by huge rats (they lived in the unused heating ducts) they
jumped on our beds and bit the parts of our bodies not covered by the
blankets - when one girl fell asleep with her hand hanging down from
the bed, a rat bit off the tip of her finger. I got used to sleeping
with my head under the blanket. I got friendly with a slightly older
Jewish girl, I think her last name was Markus. After a few weeks I
finally saw my Parents through the window, they came to save me!
These are the terrible events that happened in the ghetto while I was
at the Infectious Barracks, as told by my Father:
The swiftly approaching death-dealing events gave us no
respite. On the evening of October 1st, at the end of the Jewish
holiday of Yom Kippur, (after I had come back from work) some
Lithuanian policemen accompanied by the young Desler burst into our
room, fired at the ceiling and ordered us all to leave the room and go
to the main gate to have our "scheins" (certificates) stamped. At
Desler's request the Lithuanians permitted my brother-in-law Naum
Zlatin to stay behind - Naum always used to play cards with Desler.
Down in the street we were pushed to the main gate by a solid chain of
Jewish policemen headed by Oberhardt, supposedly to have our "scheins"
validated. When I had reached the police station on the corner of
Strashuna and Shavelska streets I saw through the window Zlatunia,
the widow of the slain head of the first Judenrat, Saul Trotsky;
Zlatunia was sitting inside with her daughter Nina and seeing her I
also attempted to enter. I was blocked by the Jewish policeman
Berenstein who forced me to move on towards the gate - after the
liberation Berenstein was executed by the Jewish partisans for his
many treacherous acts. I did not cease my attempts to break away,
and when I came to the first open house-entrance I jumped in there
and hid in the depth of the courtyard. The prevailing darkness
helped me to remain unnoticed until the Germans, having caught the
designated number of victims (about 2000) had called the akztya off.
When I returned to our room I found to my great joy that in that
aktzya none of my dear ones had been taken.
On that Yom Kippur of 1941 the Germans began the "liquidation" of
the second ghetto. During the month of October all its inhabitants
were taken by regular stages through Lukishki to Ponary and were
With the liquidation of the second ghetto is connected the memory
of an event which opened my eyes to the full horror of our
In front of the windows of our workshop the Lithuanian police was
driving down the street to the Lukishki prison a multitude of Jews
from the second ghetto - men, women and children. In the passing
crowd I recognized some of my acquaintances. The scene of these
innocent people, my fellow Jews, being driven to their death shocked
me to the depth of my soul - this became even more poignant when I
realized that the Polish workers in the workshop looked at this
horrible injustice not with sorrow but with yells of joy and
satisfaction. "Look", they were jumping for joy, "the Jews are taken
to be killed".
The exhibition of antiSemitism was no great surprise for me.
But what horrified me while I watched the delighted Polish workers was
the depth of their hatred for us - it united all the surrounding
nationalities and members of social classes.. The Polish
Partisans, members of the (A.K.) acted in accordance with this
mood of the surrounding population. Though organized for the
underground struggle against the Germans - mostly the A.K. was
hunting the Jews who were hiding in the forest. Since they consisted
mostly of local people, the Polish partisans were excellently oriented
in the localities in which they operated and thus represented a
greater peril for the Jews who tried to find rescue in the dense
forest than did the Germans who did not dare to penetrate deep into
the forest. The Lithuanians were exceptionally active in the matter
of our annihilation.
I should introduce some heartening amendments into the sad
picture of Jewish - Christian relations There was a deep hatred
toward Jewry as a whole which was regarded as an omnipotent
monstrosity - this hatred was expressed in the bestiality of the A.K.
and in the frequent denunciations to the Gestapo.
However, if the matter did not concern Jews as a whole but a Jewish
friend or neighbor, the Poles in many cases (as in the case of
Poddany) manifested a humanitarian and disinterested desire to help,
even though this assistance involved great risk, in many cases even
risk to their lives. The older generation of Byelorussian peasants
did not hate the Jews and frequently expressed sympathy for us. The
fact that the Byelorussian peasants refused to charge the Jewish HKP
workers for their food was characteristic of their attitude toward
the Jews.
I encountered some of such exceptions even among the
Germans. They were openly indignant about the horrors committed
against the Jews. One of the above was a German soldier named
Berger who had been assigned to our automobile repair workshop and
with whom I became friendly. Berger exclaimed while watching the Jews
being driven to their deaths: "What this scum perpetrate here in the
name of the German nation - centuries will not suffice for us to
cleanse ourselves!" Upon returning from home-leave Berger related
an occurrence which demonstrated that the Nazi government hid the
truth from the broad masses of their population. Hearing about the
horrors committed by her fellow Germans in Lithuania, Berger's wife
at first decided that he must have lost his mind - his tales seemed
so monstrous and improbable.
After thinning out the amount of men in the Wilno Jewish
community and depriving us of our leaders, the Nazis succeded in
transforming us into a demoralized mass incapable of any form of
resistance as they in drove us into the ghetto.
The Germans would always leave us a ray of hope for survival. After
every succeeding bloody "Aktzya" (massacre) the Germans would
assure us through their mouthpiece, Yakov Gens, that we were needed
by the German military machine as workers. .
Through the endeavors of Gens none of the many "aktzyes" had
ever touched the ghetto policemen or their families - including, in
some instances known to me, even their grandmothers.
The destiny of the Jewish community was sealed, - the forces were
way too unequal. In Gens we may find the reason why the Wilno
Jewish community wrote the most brilliant pages of its chronicle
during its life, rather than at its death.
Even though forty years divide me from the ensuing happenings,
I approach their description with the feeling of shivering horror -
the earth opened under our feet and swallowed a huge part of the
surviving members of the Jewish community, almost all of the members
of my family among them.
Zhenia, the only daughter of my wife's brother David Gerstein
and of his wife Mera perished at the age of eighteen at the beginning
of October. The Gestapo arrested her when Zhenichka bravely tried
to deliver some bread handed her by a Polish woman to a Jewish manual
worker at the Gestapo headquarters and to do so removed the yellow
patch from her back. She was grabbed by the Gestapo, thrown into a
cell with some beautiful Jewish girls who were accused of
"Rassenschande" - dishonoring the race - sex with Germans; they were
soon executed.
The culmination of the horror came with the aktzye most bloody in
its consequences - the aktzye of the "gele sheinen" (massacre of the
yellow life certificates).
Having decided to diminish the number of the Jewish families of Ghetto
No 1 to about three and a half thousands, the German authorities
distributed to the military establishments employing Jews, and to the
Judenrat, the corresponding amount of new worker's certificates which
in contrast to the old ones were printed on yellow paper.
According to a plan announced by the Germans, in the Ghetto
could stay (and remain alive) only those workers who had received a
yellow certificate, together with their spouses and two children
under the age of sixteen. By this monstrous decree the Germans
condemned to death both the families of those who did not receive the
yellow certificates as well as the parents, sisters, brothers, grown
up children and third children of those fortunate ones who did
receive the yellow life certificates.
For the 18 Jews working in our workshop Boleslaw Poddany
received only six yellow certificates. In this case Poddany did not
ask for my advice, placing before me an accomplished fact: he gave
the yellow certificates to me and to the pharmacist Nadelman, as
well as to four young men who were able to carry out the very heavy
physical labor earmarked for the Jews. Those not accustomed to toil
did not receive the certificates, my brother-in-law Mula Gerstein and
my cousin's husband Kuba Rotstein among them. Luckily, both Mula
as well as Kuba Rotstein were able to acquire the yellow certificates
In connection with the "Yellow certificates" aktzye there
began in the Ghetto a series of fictitious deals in which a widow with
the certificate would register a stranger as her husband and vice
versa. Parents with a certificate would adopt strange children. These
deals were done without any compensation but there were also cases
when it was done for money. In addition to all this, there were some
possibilities of buying the life certificates - some heads of the
military establishments, instead of distributing the certificates
among the Jews working for them, contrived to sell them in the Ghetto.
My brother-in-law Mula acquired one of such certificates.
Additionally, the following members of my family received the yellow
certificates: my wife's sister Rachel Cholem, her brother David
Gerstein and my sister Emma Eisurowicz. Rachel and David received
their certificates from the military authorities for whom they
worked. My sister Emma received her yellow certificate from the
Judenrat in recognition of her services to the community.
Thus in addition to those who were killed previously - my brother
Yefim, my two sister's husbands Aaron Eisurowicz and Alexander Mintz
and my sister-in-law's husband Yermasha Cholem, the yellow
certificates aktzye condemned to death my Mother, my sister Anya with
her daughter Shela, my brother's wife Fanya and daughter Lila as well
as Emma's daughter Eva and her husband Lolek Shelubski. My wife was
to suffer the loss of her Mother with her sister, aunt Sarah as well
as her sister Vera with her husband Naum Zlatin.
Describing a time in which our destiny gave us no quarter, one
should recognize that it was a time which bared people's souls.
Frequently we saw people ready for self sacrifice, especially when it
was to protect those they held dear. However, there were also quite
a few people who, though under normal circumstances would have ended
their days as model citizens, in these tragic days followed the
elemental instinct of self preservation; to save themselves they
would thrust others to their deaths - in some unique cases would even
forfeit their own children. As shown by the coming events, my
sister Emma belonged to the category of those people capable of the
highest self-sacrifice. In these horrible days Emma remained
steadfast to her own self. Even though realizing that by this act she
was condemning herself to death, Emma had insisted that the Judenrat
should transfer her yellow life certificate to her son-in-law Leon,
thus giving him the chance to save his wife - her daughter Eva. The
horror of the situation consisted of the fact that the yellow life
certificate did not legalize the survival of the parents, brothers,
sisters or even of the adult children of its possessors.
The terror of the coming disaster was deepened for my wife and
myself by our fear for the life of our daughter Perella, who still
remained in the Infectious Barracks on the outskirts of town in
Zwierzyniec. The blue life certificates were distributed to those
family members qualified by the German authorities. Immediately upon
the conclusion of the distribution, the Germans, having first
surrounded the ghetto with Lithuanian police, ordered all the
possessors of the yellow life certificates and their families to leave
the ghetto on the morning of October 24th and go to their work
The nightmarish events of the night of October 23rd, 1941 on
the eve of the "aktzye of the gele sheinen (yellow life
certificates)" will never leave my heart. My pen is unable to render
a picture of the happenings of that night when for the majority of the
ghetto population the morning was to bring death, and the luckier
part was going to lose those they held most dear.
Throughout the whole night, the surrounding darkness notwithstanding,
the streets of the ghetto were overfilled with people - everybody
moving and hurrying somewhere.
Among those who could find no rest on that night were my wife and I.
On one hand we couldn't wait for the morning when we could hurry
to the Infectious Barracks and hand our daughter the blue life
certificate, thus saving her from the mortal danger which we knew
threatened her as an inmate. Our experience taught us that in an
"akzye", the Germans would first of all mercilessly kill the weak -
the old and the sick.
On the other hand we were unwilling to accept the looming disaster and
the whole night was spent in vain groping for ways of saving the
doomed. Before dawn, I remember we ran to my wife's sister Rachil who
lived on the opposite side of the ghetto to consider with her whether
there could be any chance that, because of her long established
friendship with Anatole Fried, the head of the Judenrat, she could
use her yellow life certificate to save her mother. Not wanting to
emphasize the tragic destiny of those left behind, we parted from
them without tears...
Hurrying to our daughter we were the first at the gate at dawn where
the German officials, headed by Franz Murer and Martin Weiss, after
checking our documents permitted us to leave the ghetto. In great
trepidation we rushed to the infectious barrack where we were
granted a minute of great relief when through the window we saw
Perella alive, even though very skinny and, as we found later,
healthy - the scarlet fever diagnosis established in the ghetto might
have been wrong. The hospital administration permitted us to take
Perella with us to the H.K.P. workshop where we were supposed to
remain all day. The other Jewish children left in the infectious
barrack were killed.
Prella's interjection:
I was overjoyed to be reunited with my Parents, being able to embrace
my Mother made me indescribably happy. Nevertheless when a kind and
courageous Gentile named Pawlin offered to give me shelter on the
Aryan side, my Parents gratefully accepted the offer. Instead of going
back to the ghetto, I went with Pawlin to his apartment on Mala
Pohulanka street where he lived with his wife and baby.
Father continues: After my wife and I returned with sinking hearts
to the ghetto, we learned that from our room the Germans took to their
deaths my Mother, my wife's Mother and Aunt Sara; nevertheless, when
we found that, beyond my expectations, my sisters Emma and Anya with
her daughter Shela, as also Vera and Naum Zlatin managed to hide and
survived - I must admit that I did not cry for my Mother. The fact
that on that evening the news of the murder of my own Mother was not
the worst possible disaster for me gives some slight inkling about
the mental torments we were subjected to. As I subsequently learned,
Fanya, the wife of my brother Yefim and her daughter Lila, who lived
in the ghetto with Fanya's family, the Shabsels, perished during the
"aktzye" of October 24th.
Nevertheless, the Germans succeeded in extracting from the
ghetto only a minority of the "illegals" on October the 24th. The
majority managed to come through - but for how long?
By that time the following occurrence forced our Gentile friends to
think twice before giving shelter to the Jews: Shortly before the
"yellow life certificate aktzye" Franz Murer came to the ghetto gate
and summoned my childhood friend Victor Chelem who was thought to be
very rich. Murer demanded that Victor give up to him the gold that
he had hidden outside of the ghetto. Nothing would happen to Victor
if he complied, Murer said, but if he refused he would be shot
immediately. Victor could do nothing else but take Murer to his
former apartment house and ask the caretaker, Nikolay Ordu to give
the gold to Murer. Murer kept his word and let Victor Chelem go -
but he ordered Nikolay Ordu hanged. The body of Nikolay Ordu was
hanging in Cathedral square with a board fastened to him announcing
that this was what awaited all those who hid Jewish property or who
gave shelter to the Jews.
End of Father's tale.
Pearl Good, continues:
I heard the Pawlins talking about somebody hanging in Cieletnik. I
insisted on being told about it, even though the Pawlins tried to keep
it from me; I then decided to go back to the ghetto, my virtuous
decision was reinforced by my being terribly homesick for my Mother.
I spent the night a few blocks from the Pawlins on Zawalna street,
hidden in the bed of the kind former servant of Dr Luba Cholem; the
servant had remained to serve the Lithuanian who took the apartment
over after the Cholems were chased into the ghetto. The bed was in a
cubicle partitioned out of the kitchen; fortunately, the Lithuanian
never looked into the cubicle, even though I heard him talk in the
kitchen. Next day I walked almost without incident to the H.K.P.
workshop on Wilenska street - as I was nearing it, I suddenly heard a
voice calling: "Pera!" - one of my Russian classmates recognized me -
fearing that she might denounce me since I was walking on the sidewalk
without the "yellow star patch", I didn't answer her and ran in into
the workshop; when in the evening it was time for the Jews to go
back to the ghetto, I came with them to the ghetto. The kind German
Schirmeister Berger went with us and told the guard at the gate to let
me in. I remember that I was especially eager to join my Parents
in the ghetto because I felt, incredibly, that my being with them
would protect them. Strangely enough, two years later I found in the
H.K.P. camp a "malina" (hiding place), which was indeed instrumental
to our survival.
When I came back to the ghetto, I remember that Mother found that my
hair was lice-infested after the Infectious Barrack. My cousin
Shelinka was very kind to me, patiently helping me comb out my
terribly tangled, matted hair. My mother then addressed the lice
Since it was dangerous for Emma, Anya and Shela to stay in the ghetto,
they slipped out of the ghetto hoping to stay on the Aryan side
with Emma's long-time servant Stefania. When it turned out that they
could not stay there, Father had them transferred to Zawalna 2, to
the house from which our family was driven to the ghetto and where,
upon his request, the caretaker Nikolai agreed to keep them in the
basement and feed them.
Seeing the terrible circumstances prevailing in Wilno and
communicating through Nikolay, we decided that my aunts and Shela
should move to Byelorussia, to a little town named Woronowo situated
about 70 kilometers from Wilno. My Grandfather had died in Woronowo
of a heart attack on July 8th, 1926.
In the workshop Father met a German soldier who, for some
remuneration, delivered my aunts and Shelinka to Woronowo in an
armored car.
As Nikolay told us later, my aunt Emma must have had a foreboding of a
sad fate awaiting them, she was sobbing bitterly as she was stepping
into the car. To our great sorrow, Emma's forebodings turned out
to be terrifyingly correct.
The Lithuanian police came to Woronowo and arrested all the Jewish
refugees from Wilno, Emma, Anya and Shelinka among them, two weeks
after their arrival. After keeping them locked in the building of the
local cinema for 24 hours, the Lithuanian police shot all of them,
numbering about 300 people, on November 15th, 1941.
Thus perished on the 49th year of her aunt Emma, an
incredibly wonderful person. Having sacrificed herself to save the
life of her daughter Eva, Emma's death was the culminating point of
her life in which she knew no limits for sacrifice and for love.
Remembering the death of his sister Anya, Father recalled that in
1963, at the time of their last meeting in Paris, uncle David
sobbed when they talked about Anya, (from our entire family only David
and Father had survived) Thus he expressed his sorrow not only
about Anya's untimely and violent death but also for her troubled
life. Well read, companionable and witty, Anya was favored with
intellectual abilities, a lively disposition and a lovely appearance.
But she could not marry the man she loved and did not find herself
fully in her role as mother. Anya did not find happiness in her
marriage to Alexander Mintz, though Sasha surrounded her with love
and devotion. Sasha was not up to Anya's intellectual level and, in
addition, he did not earn enough to make a proper living - thus
lowering Anya's social standing. One has to appreciate the importance
of social position in our provincial city to have insight into proud
Anya's sufferings when she was looked down upon by former bosom
friends. Thus, having tasted the inconstancy of fate and of human
friendship, Anya was not satisfied with her lot during the last
years of her life. My aunt Anya was 47 years old when she perished
and her daughter Shelinka (whom Father had nursed while he lived with
my Grandmother) was only seventeen.
Dissatisfied with the insufficient amount of victims of the October
24th killings, the German authorities decided on a second "aktzye".
This time those who possessed the "yellow life certificates" and
their families were supposed to leave the ghetto Number One on
November 3rd, and for a couple of days go to stay in the ghetto Number
Two which by that time had already been emptied of its inhabitants.
This time Yakow Gens was checking the "life certificates" at the gate.
Looking back I would like to emphasize that, hunting with a cudgel in
his hand for the "illegals" and condemning them to death, Gens in no
way resembled the leader who, with pain in his heart, sacrificed a few
in order to save many of the people entrusted to him - as he is
described by some of our historians (Arad and others).
My Parents were able to save, by taking her out to the second ghetto
as their second daughter, a 19-teen year old girl from Kowno named
Yocheved Shadowska who lived in our room. To look younger Yocheved
braided her hair and put on a shorter dress.
The lifeless streets of the second ghetto were horrifying -
the room we entered was deathly quiet, there was an unfinished meal on
the plates on a table, opened prayer books and prayer shawls spoke
about a suddenly interrupted life, about people who were caught
unawares when taken to their deaths. With us in the second ghetto
was the daughter of aunt Emma, my cousin Evochka and her husband,
also my aunt Vera Zlatin and her husband Naum. My other aunt,
Rachil gave her yellow life certificate to the Zlatins and during the
next few days did not return to the ghetto and stayed at her place of
work with the permission of her chief, Feldfebel Anthon Schmidt. The
more lengthy and detailed search for the Jews remaining in the
ghetto, mostly hidden in secret hiding places, "Malines" lasted
until November 5th at which time we were allowed to return to the
ghetto Number One.
The victims of the two "yellow certificates aktzyes" numbered more
than 6,000, and just from October 1st, 1941 the Jewish community had
lost more than 20,000 people.
Destiny knew no pity for us in that period - we lost seven members of
our closest family - both Grandmothers, three aunts, and two
cousins. The news of the tragic events of Woronowo threw Father into a
deep depression, I remember - strangely enough it was his fear for
the lives of myself, my Mother and his own life that made him hold on
to his strength in those days.
We were kept alive for the time being because of the German need for
a Jewish work-force. For instance, to supply their army with warm
clothing for the winter campaign, and faced with the fact that in
eastern Europe the furriers were all Jewish, the German army
organized furrier workshops for the manufacture of fur garments in the
Wilno ghetto. The Jews were ordered to give up to the Germans all our
fur garments, (I remember we had to cut out the fur from the collar of
my winter coat, it looked terrible, I regretted grabbing my winter
coat in exchange for the fall one which I was wearing when we were
chased into the ghetto). The workers of these workshops and their
families - about one thousand people - moved out of the ghetto, to a
separate, more privileged work camp named "Kailis". The "Kailis"
workers were untouched by the "Yellow Life Certificates" aktzyes
and were allowed to retain all the members of their families.
There were two more bloody "aktzyes" before the end of 1941. The
first, during which about 500 people perished, was directed
against the family members of the Jewish manual workers of the
Gestapo, who during the previous "aktzyes" had been permitted to
retain their brothers, sisters and parents.
The second, the so-called "aktzye" of the pink certificates (of
which about 400 people fell victim) was directed against the
"illegal" inhabitants of the ghetto and took place before Christmas of
1941. The family members of those possessing the yellow life permits
did not have to leave the ghetto this time, they were given pink
certificates instead. I remember that at that time while we were all
sleeping on the floor, a big bed was put into our room for a
nursing woman with mastitis and her baby - apparently she had
"protekzya" (pull with those in power in the ghetto). She seems not
to have had enough "pull" to get a pink certificate for the baby.
When the Lithuanians came to check the pink certificates, I was
holding the baby, dandling it - I showed them my certificate and they
did not ask me for the baby's. I don't remember what happened to the
woman, but the bed disappeared soon afterward...
I remember that at about that time Dr. Perevozki brought to our room
his lovely sixteen-year-old niece Zoya. Apparently Zoya, who spoke
perfect French had been placed as a French governess into a Polish
nobleman's estate but was discovered and taken to the Gestapo. By
some fluke Zoya was released "temporarily" to the ghetto, but then the
Gestapo wanted her back - she was saying to my Mother: "I am so
scared!" Alosha Perevozki hoped that if the Jewish police woudn't
find her in his room they woud not look for her, but the Gestapo
threatened him and he had to deliver her to them.
At the beginning of 1942, when there came some temporary
stabilization, the population of the ghetto (including the "illegals"
- people who, by hiding in "malinas" and leaving the ghetto for a
time were able to avoid what was intended for them) numbered about
20,000. A broad medical service was organized. Measures were taken
to forestall the epidemics which threatened the inhabitants of the
ghetto because of the unsanitary conditions engendered by the
unspeakeable crowding. All the departments of the Jewish Hospital
headed by Doctor Ilya Grigorevich Sedlis were functioning normally
from the moment we were put into the ghetto. At the Hospital,
clinics offering the services of all the specialists were opened.
Two bath houses were hurriedly built in which all the ghetto inmates
had to wash regularly - or be deprived of their food rations. In the
bath houses the clothing and underwear of the bathers were
simultaneously subjected to scrupulous disinfection. The Nazis did
not achieve our deaths through starvation exhaustion and infections
- as they did in the concentration camps and with the Soviet
prisoners of war.
The Jews working in the German institutions outside of the ghetto
were able to purchase some food-stuff by bartering their clothes and
underwear, or by paying cash for it. Gentile traders were waiting for
them at the places of work foreseeing that they could charge high
prices. Returning from work to the ghetto the workers would
contrive (at the risk of their lives) to smuggle the food in -
some for their families, others to sell.
This trickle of food into the ghetto was fiercely prohibited by the
Germans since it counteracted their plans of starving to death the
non-working population of the ghetto. On order and under observation
of the Germans - frequently checked by Franz Murer himself, the
Jewish police would scrupulously search the returning workers and
cruelly beat those trying to smuggle in food. In some cases Murer,
who was particularly brutal in the fight against the bringing in
of food to the ghetto, would send the offenders to their death. The
news that Murer was at the gate as they were returning, was very bad
news indeed. Father's group was twice searched by Murer personally
as they were marching down Zawalna street on the way to the ghetto.
Father managed to let fall into the snow the food carried by him
before Murer, pushing his finger into his chest asked: "and you?"
We continued to live in the apartment house on Straszuna street
No.1. Though that house had been selected as the living space for the
manual workers of the Gestapo, we were able to continue living
there, since uncle Naum Zlatin, who shared our room, had been
appointed house superintendent by the Judenrat. Since the bloody
aktzyes had reduced the number of inhabitants of our room to seven,
my Parents put a door on top of two trestles and covered it with a
comforter, thus graduating from sleeping on the floor up to a
"nara". For me we managed to get an iron folding bed without a
mattress on which I slept covering the iron rail with my pillow - it
was actually less comfortable than the floor.
Since the acute terror had abated temporarily, we had time to
become fully aware of our miseries. Our nerves were still stretched
to the breaking point. The utter lack of privacy was really
unbearable; I dreamed of having a closet-size space with a door to
exclude everybody else for just myself and my Parents I'm
embarrassed to admit that at that time being twelve and then a
thirteen-year-old I hated my mean aunt Vera more than I did the
Nazis. With the spring of 1942 my Mother started to go out with the
group for work in the H.K.P. at 23 Wilenska street. She worked till
noon as the cleaner of the office of Boleslaw Poddany and returned
alone to the ghetto with a special permit. Once both my Parents did
not come back at the appointed time - I was frantic, aunt Vera was
making fun of me: "Now you will be all alone!" The difference of aunt
Vera's saccharine sweetness before the war and her hostility now was
very glaring. I guess when she was flirting with my Father while
maintaining close relations with my Mother - her "best friend" she
needed to "to show off her love for me". Now things were very
different - besides our horrible "end of the world" conditions, uncle
Naum had suffered a heart attack and Vera was not willing to be kind
to a pesty kid.
A relatively quiet time for the Wilno ghetto began with the
beginning of 1942. It was taken advantage of by the Judenrat to
organize the life in the ghetto. There were the measures of hygiene,
medical help and the feeding of the needy and the care for the
ghetto children, the vast majority of them orphans. Schools were
opened for the first grades, with Yiddish as the teaching language.
My Mother arranged private lessons for me - some geometry from a
young, sickly physician (I always loved geometry ever since) and a
smattering of English from Mrs Poznanski - that is how I could attempt
to read "Gone with the wind" a year later in the HKP camp. There was
also a school of music and piano, my friend Lubka Kantarowicz was
enrolled in it. This was the same Lubka who a year before won the
"Socialist Competition" with me - I unwittingly helped her win, even
though it broke my heart not to be the best. What a difference a year
makes! By now I realized that just being able to go to school was a
great privilege! The books of the Straszun library - across the
street from us on Straszuna were greatly treasured. Books were the
only way of soaring above the horror of our lives - I craved them
incessantly. Although our house was across the street from the
library, at first I was unable to take advantage of it - the library
was incredibly packed, after going there and waiting to be permitted
to take out a book, on my first attempt I was not able to do so. After
waiting for what seemed like hours, I left, discouraged; later I was
told that I should have taken a number - I soon did so and
triumphantly got many books thereafter
That was the time in which there were performances of the ghetto
symphonic orchestra conducted by the composer Durmashkin; the choir
performed Jewish folk-songs. A Yiddish theatre was created, largely
due to the drive and endeavors of the chief of police, Yakov Gens,
and of his assistant, Josef Glasman. A series of concerts was
organized. Some of the songs performed had been composed in the
ghetto. The performers Abram Bergolski, a newcomer from Russia, and
Chayele Rosenthal, a native of Wilno, were especially popular. We
personally, grieving about the loss of those dear to us, did not
attend any performances in the ghetto. Father said: "You don't go
dancing in the cemetary".
A thirteen-year-old at that time, I would pace the congested,
truncated alleys of the ghetto with my friends Lubka Kantarowicz and
Ninka Kaplinska. We would look up at the sky, try to find some of
the rare sunny crevices and dream about walking outside, looking up at
the leafy trees, (there was not a blade of grass in the ghetto),
swimming in the river, inhaling the breeze, going to school. School
seemed glorious, learning a privilege I aspired to rather than the
drudge it used to be. I could not imagine how people free to enjoy
all these wonders could possibly be unhappy - life would be so
beautiful! We were becoming interested in boys, but none of them even
noticed us! Lubka was tantalizing us with descriptions of a music
school teacher (Durmaszkin?) groping the girls who later were vying
with each other about whom he touched more intimately - "he touched
you under your blouse, but he put his hand under my panties". Lubka
boasted to us that she bravely slapped down the teacher's hand when
he pulled up the front of her sweater. We were appraising each
other's looks - Ninka, olive-skinned with regular features and
dark-eyes was the prettiest, Lubka had beautiful large blue-green eyes
and I had the best hair, teeth and smile. Neither Lubka nor Ninka
lived to enjoy being the lovely young ladies I' m sure they would have
I thought that after we got liberated I would get tanned and gain
some weight, maybe the boys would notice me then!
The tension in the ghetto was growing. Feeling that we were
nearing the final event, the active people (I'm afraid Father was not
one of them), began to prepare some havens for themselves. Some on
the outside, having provided themselves with counterfeit documents,
others inside the ghetto, utilizing basements, attics and the city
sewers as hiding places.
The awaited events were not long in coming. The liquidation of our
ghetto began in August of 1943, when the Germans arrested some crews
returning from work to the ghetto and loaded them into a railroad
transport which they were told would take them to Vaivary, a work
camp in Estonia. We were slightly calmed by the fact that, in
contrast to the former practice in which people supposedly taken to
work were actually ending in Ponary, this time letters arrived in
the ghetto from which we learned that Vaivary was not a myth, it
actually existed. After a couple weeks this was repeated. A few
hundred people returning from work were again caught by the Germans
and sent to Vaivary. Even though the percentage of people working for
the Germans was continually growing (by now even I, a
thirteen-year-old, was working, sorting and cleaning German army
coats), we knew that the catastrophe was near. The cataclysm was
upon us in full force on September 1st, 1943. When we woke up at dawn
to go to work we heard from our neighbors about the panic reigning in
the ghetto, everybody looking for a hiding place. During the night
soldiers, this time Estonian, surrounded the ghetto and wouldn't let
anybody out. We next heard that the Estonian patrols had entered
the ghetto and were seizing men. When we and the Zlatins rushed
outside, looking for a place to hide, we passed the gate of the house
across from ours on Straszuna 4. The inhabitants of that house (
Mother's cousin Jasha Shapiro among them), motioned for us to go in
before they would clang the gate shut. We hurried in - the Estonian
patrols were closing in. One of the basements of the house in the
back of the yard was transformed into a "malina", a hiding place to
which Jasha Shapiro took us and in which we hid for two days. During
the scary two days in the malina, Nina Kaplinska, (the daughter of
Jasha Shapiro' sister) and I were holding hands, squeezing them to
give each other courage in the darkness and the incessant listening
for the knocks which would signify that our hiding-place was
From women whom the "aktzye" initially did not touch we heard about
the happenings in the ghetto: the houses on Straszuna No 12 and 15 had
been blown up when the inhabitants refused to leave their hiding
places; the Jewish police, headed by Gens, were taking a most active
part in the hunting down of men for transport to Estonia; the aktzye
did not touch the "privileged" who, wearing an armband were able to
move freely in the ghetto. In the Jewish hospital Gens personally
marked the majority of the medical personnel for deportation to
Estonia and physically insulted Dr. Sedlis when he protested against
When we heard that our house on Straszuna 1 was untouched by
this aktzye, since it housed the manual workers of the Gestapo, we
returned to our room on the evening of September 2nd. This was an
incautious step - on the morning of September 3rd, Neugebauer, the
chief of the Wilno Gestapo, accompanied by Salek Desler, came into
the yard of our house with a crowd of Gestapo officials and announced
that all the men living in that house are to pack immediately and go
down into the yard in order to be sent to Estonia. At that moment
there was nothing for Father to do but submit to his fate. However
after we had already sat down for good luck (in a gute mazldike shoh)
before leaving, with the bag already on his shoulder, Mother delayed
him, saying that after all he was not a worker of the Gestapo but of
the H.K.P., she wanted to go and talk to Desler about it. When
Mother approached Desler and started to beg him to let Father stay
pointing out that he was not a Gestapo worker, Desler brusquely
refused her plea. When Mother continued to plead a German suddenly
demanded "what does this woman want?" When Desler told him that she
was asking for permission for her husband, a H.K.P. worker, to stay,
the German (who we later learned was the Gestapo chief for all of
Lithuania) shrugged and remarked: "this one can stay for the time
being". Mother needed nothing more. In this terrifying situation we
had a truly joyful minute when my Mother ran in with the wonderful
news that Father could stay. After hearing these news our neighbors, a
carpenter and a shoemaker who worked for the Gestapo, took off their
bags and hid under the beds.
But no sooner did the Gestapo officials and their captives leave the
yard then Gens and Smilgowski rushed in to verify whether the orders
of the Gestapo had been carried out. When they found out in some way
that the engineer Malkiel, a native of Kowno, had stayed behind,
Gens started shouting: Malkiel ... Under these circumstances my
Mother leaned out of the window and said that the Gestapo had
permitted her husband to stay, upon which Smilgowski (a friend of
Nina Gerstein) made a sign that Father shouldn't move.
In the evening of that frightening day we and the Zlatins who also
left the "maline" went to my uncle David Gerstein to learn from him
what the situation of the ghetto was. David and my aunt Rachil lived
on Rudnicka 7. Uncle David knew how to make himself well liked,
especially by those who could be useful to him. He was able to make
Gens, the ruler of our destinies, enjoy his company. Their
relations became even more friendly after David supplied the ghetto
with fuel. Thus during the "Estonian aktzye", while we were hiding in
the malina, uncle David was able to move freely in the ghetto,
provided with an armband which made him secure against both the
Germans and the Jewish police.
From Rachil we learned that her friends, Anatol Fried, the head of
the Judenrat, and its member, the engineer Guchman, had assured her
that the ghetto would continue to exist.
David came back after seeing Gens late at night and informed us
that the Gestapo chief Neugebaur demanded 2000 women from Gens - thus
the next day there would be an aktzye against women. Rachil and
David's wife Mera got ready to go to Anatol Fried where they would
be safe. When my Parents asked them to take me with them they
thought they would rather not. We and the Zlatins decided to try
and go tomorrow morning to the parents of the ghetto chief of
police Desler, hoping that they would give us shelter. The old
Deslers lived with their son on Rudnicka 4 in the house of the
Judenrat. When we came into the yard of Rudnicka 4 on the morning of
September 4th, we heard Gens addressing a crowd from the balcony
with the following speech:
"Fellow Jews, I managed to obtain the permission of the Gestapo for
the wives and children of those deported to Vaivary to join their
husbands and fathers!"
With this treacherous trick Gens managed to lure 1300 women and
children who believed him into volunteering to go to Vaivary. After
hunting all day in the ghetto, Kittel and the Jewish police managed to
seize the lacking 700 victims and force them onto the transport.
The treachery of Gens is made even more horrible by the fact we
learned after our liberation - the transport of the women and
children was not sent to their husbands but to the gas-chambers of
one of the camps in Poland.. As a defense of Gens's shameful deeds
one often hears the argument that if not he but the Germans had
carried out the "aktzyes", "it would have been worse". I ask: worse
for whom? Certainly not for the many thousands whom Gens and the
police acting on his orders sent to their deaths. In this case worse
off could be only those who, by pushing others to their deaths, had
hoped to save their own lives, a hope in which they turned out to be
cruelly wrong.
The older Deslers kindly took us into their apartment. We and the
Zlatins did not err in our hope that we would find a safe shelter for
the women there (women were hunted on September 4th). After the
"four day aktzye" that started on September 1st, the Germans granted
us a respite. However, the fact that we were forbidden to leave the
ghetto and the Jews stopped going out to work in the city, augured
ominously that the days of the ghetto were numbered. For us, the fact
that Father was cut off from the H.K.P. workshop on Wilenska 23 was in
addition connected with a painful financial loss. In the automobile
part stockroom, which he had managed for more than two years, he hid
three antique enameled gold bracelets and two gold pocket watches
among the merchandise. Boleslaw Poddany with whom we managed to
communicate by letter informed us that he did not find the valuables
in the indicated spot.
Into the ensuing dismal days filled with the fear for our lives
there came a sudden ray of hope: tidings came to the ghetto that
Major Plagge, the chief of H.K.P. 562, had succeded, after lots of
requests ( he went all the way to Berlin to achieve this ) to
contrive a work camp for the Jews working in his establishment. The
authorities designated for this camp the buildings of the so-called
"cheap housing" on Subocz street. They had been built by the
Jewish philanthropist, baron Hirsh.
Since a large number of the H.K.P. workers had been deported to
Estonia during the September "four day aktzye", initially there was a
possibility for some outsiders to be included into the number of
workers about to go to the newly opened work camp H.K.P. Father
took advantage of this opportunity and inscribed my cousin Eva and her
husband, the engineer Leon Szelubski into the list of the H.K.P.
workers. They were the only surviving members of his family and
moreover he did not want to be separated from them since they needed
his financial support. We still had some valuables which we sold as
needed to buy food. Uncle Naum Zlatin did not succeed in his attempt
to get into the H.K.P. camp. In addition, my other aunt, Rachil
Cholem, asked the Zlatins to stay with her in the ghetto, which she
assured them would continue to exist. She got this assurance from the
engineer Guchman, a member of the Judenrat with whom she was more than
friendly. Our departure for the camp H.K.P. was set for September
16th. Two days before, on September 14th, the ghetto was shocked by
the news that Gens had been killed. He had been summoned to the
Gestapo on that morning and the Gestapo chief Neugebaur personally
shot him at Rossa, the place on the outskirts of town where the
Gestapo arranged an asylum for about seventy of their Jewish manual
workers and their families, headed by their foreman Kamenmacher.
On September 16th, 1943 we left the ghetto together with my cousin
Eva and her husband Leon Shelubski and went to live in the camp
provided for his Jewish workers through the endeavors of the German
Major Plagge, the chief of the H.K.P. 562.


The H.K.P. camp was placed by the authorities on the outskirts of
town on Subocz street, in the "Cheap hygienic apartments" built by the
Jewish Colonizing society. Apparently filled with bad forebodings,
aunt Vera cried bitterly when we said good-bye. Vera and her husband
Naum remained to live with my other aunt, Rachil, who had believed the
assurances of her close friends, the Judenrat members Fried and
Guchman, that the ghetto would survive. Uncle David had left the
ghetto a few days before and went to a village where a peasant
agreed, for some remuneration, to hide and feed him and his wife
Mera. Uncle Mula remained in the ghetto with his wife and son.
Before leaving the ghetto David handed over to Mula the secret of
his "maline" which was built in the city sewers and in which Mula
and his family hid during the liquidation of the ghetto.
The work camp H.K.P. to which we had moved, consisted of two long,
stone, three-story buildings, in which were located both the
workshops and the dwellings of the workers; it was standing in the
midst of a large empty parcel of land. We were separated from the
rest of the world by walls of barbed wire which were patrolled by the
Lithuanian police. The entrance gate of the camp was located on
Subocz street and the back bordered the Rossa outskirts of town. We
settled in a room on the first (upper) floor of a separate, lower
wing of the right-hand building. We shared the room with Aleksanra
Zaks, and her cousin, Rosa Milecka. My cousin Eva and her husband
settled in the next room to the right of ours, which they shared with
two families. In the room to the left of us lived Father's cousin
Nina and her husband, Kuba Rotstein (their son Tolek was killed by
the "khapuny"). They shared the room with the engineer Arik Malkiel,
and his wife Genya, and also with Alberg, and his wife Yocheved
Shadowska, (whom we saved in 1941 during the second "yellow life
certificates aktzye"). In the last room of our corridor lived, with
engineer Swirski, attorney Zmigrod who subsequently played an
important role in our survival.
Our camp, as well as "Kailis" was under the administration and
subjected to the Nazi "S.S.", embodied in a long-necked German whom
we had nick-named "Golosheyka" (little bare neck). The latter
commanded our camp through a native of Wilno, Nyona Kolysz, appointed
by the Jewish self-government. Kolysh enjoyed the same power and
performed the same functions for us as did Gens in the ghetto, but in
a much more decent way, perhaps thanks to the decency of Major
Plagge. The technical control of the workshops rested in the hands
of the German army through two so-called "Schirmeisters" subordinate
to the chief of the H.K.P., Major Plagge. It was thanks to the
endeavors of Major Plagge, who was guided by his desire to protect his
Jewish workers, that the dwellers of H.K.P., numbering over 1000,
were able to avoid, at least temporarily, the fate of those Jews who
remained in the ghetto.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Major Plagge, our protector
(who, in addition, according to those who had personal contact with
him, was a wonderful man ) was much beloved and respected by us.
The central workshop of the H.K.P. which was still located on Antokol
maintained its connection with us by means of a truck alotted to us
with its driver, the German soldier Beck. Every day Beck would drive
to the central workshops, delivering the fulfilled orders and
bringing back the needed materiel and parts.
A few days after our transfer to H.K.P. Salek Desler (appointed by
the Germans to head the ghetto instead of Gens) came suddenly to the
camp. He brought his parents, whom he placed in our room.
Apparently foreseeing that he would share the fate of Gens, Desler did
not return to the ghetto and hid with his wife Rega in a previously
prepared malina. Deslers's disappearance was immediately noticed by
the Gestapo - they shot his parents in Ponary on the same day and
began an intensive search for him. In place of Desler, for the
few days remaining to the ghetto (the ghetto of Wilno ceased to
exist on September 23rd, 1943) the Germans had put Borys
Beniakonski, a native of Kowno.
We learned about the liquidation of the ghetto of Wilno on the
morning of that day from B. Beniakonski whom the Germans brought to
H.K.P. with his wife and daughter. As we later learned, among the
women sent to their deaths by the Germans were my aunts Rachil Cholem
and Vera Zlatin and also Rashel Perevozki.
We had kept in constant touch with the Perevozkis who lived in the
ghetto in the "doctor's block". At the liquidation of the ghetto
Alosha and his brilliant son Marek were sent to Estonia from where
they were both transported to Germany. They both perished from
starvation, Alosha in Dachau and Marek who worked in the stone
quarries of southwest Germany succumbed just before the American army
arrived there. I used to be sweet on Marek in the summer of 1940 but
we didn't keep in touch in the ghetto.
As we only learned after our arrival to the United States, the fate
of the Zlatins was especially cruel. According to an eye-witness
(Adele Baj), when they were being chased from their apartment, Naum
Ionovich had a heart attack; Vera had been forced by a cruel
Ukrainian to leave her dying husband lying on the stairs and go alone
on her thorny way, which brought her to the gas chambers in the end.
But not all the ghetto dwellers left the ghetto as commanded by the
Germans on September 23rd. On that day, or even a little earlier, the
members of the combat organizations numbering a few hundred succeeded
in getting through, predominantly to the Rudnicki Forest where the
partisans were operating under the command of Zinmanas, a Jew sent
From Moscow.
A much larger number of Jews hid on that day in the "malines"
readied by them before. My wife's brother Samuel (Mula) hid in the
"malina" located in the city sewer with his wife, son and
mother-in-law. However, only a very few of those who hid managed to
survive. Most of them ended in the hands of the Gestapo:
either when they attempted to reach the Jewish camp "Kailis" which was
guarded by Jewish police only; or when, after the Germans had cut
off water in the area of the ghetto, they were forced to look for
water in the Gentile area. The behavior toward them of the Gentile
population contributed greatly toward the destruction of the majority
of those Jews who attempted to run away from fate by hiding in
"malinas". That behavior was indifferent at best and was basically
hostile. After holding the arrested Jews in the vaults of the
Gestapo on Mickiewicza street for some time, the Germans would send
them in large groups to Ponary for execution. At that time some
individual Jews began to arrive to our camp - they were given their
lives by Kittel at the place of execution in exchange for large sums
of gold hidden by them.. Among those who came to our camp from Ponary
was a mother and son Zhukovski. Kittel was so impressed with the
exceptional beauty of the boy, especially by his huge black eyes
with their long lashes, that he sent the boy and his mother to our
After the liquidation of the ghetto, our insecurity about the fate
of the numerous members of the Gersztein family whom we had left
in the ghetto kept my Parents under terrible stress. The information
we received that uncle Mula with his wife and son were in
"Kailis" was joyful but also deeply shocking. Mula with his son
Gershon, his wife Nina and her mother were caught and thrown into
the cellars of the Gestapo when, after having left the "maline" they
attempted to get through to "Kailis". As they were being sent to
Ponary, Kittel granted the pleas of Kamenmacher, the crew-leader of
the manual workers of the Gestapo, and agreed to send to "Kailis"
Mula, Nina and Gera but not Nina's mother. Finding themselves thus
in "Kailis" without clothes or money, they turned to us for help.
Since we were able to communicate with "Kailis" (I can't remember how)
we sent them 12,000 rubles and a large package of clothing. To our
distress the package did not reach our family, it was intercepted and
grabbed by one Motl Baran who was in their "malina" and managed to
get to "Kailis". However Mula's problems were not only monetary - we
knew that their situation as non-resident newcomers in "Kailis" was
very precarious. Since the fact that many hundreds of refugees from
the Wilno ghetto had found a haven in Kailis was known to the
Gestapo, the latter began demanding from the administration of Kailis
to supply people for work - those people would never come back. The
administration of Kailis, who had no other recourse but to comply
with the demands of the Gestapo, would send out the newcomers in such
cases. Thus about 70 newcomers had been taken for a crew which,
chained, were kept in a pit in Ponary where they had to dig up and
burn the corpses of the many tens of thousands of victims, in a German
attempt to cover up their monstrous crimes.
Thus Kailis was a very insecure place for Mula to remain in, even
though it was a point of transit which gave some refugees from the
ghetto (Dr. Ilya Sedlis, for instance) a chance to prepare a haven on
the Aryan side and survive. Access to the camp H.K.P. was more
difficult than to Kailis since it was fenced in by barbed wire whose
perimeter was patrolled by the Lithuanian police, but the situation
of those who managed to get in was more stable.
Since the camps H.K.P. and Kailis were controlled by the same "SS
official nicknamed by us "Golosheyka" (bare neck), Mother began to
endlessly implore Kolysz, the chief of our camp, for him to ask
"Golosheyka" to transfer Mula and his family from Kailis to our camp.
At first she was unsuccessful, tears and entreaties did not help,
what did help was the intervention of Yasha Shapiro, Mother's cousin,
who was Kolysz's brother-in-law (their wives were sisters). Yasha
had saved us previously - he had taken us into his malina in
September. To our great joy, soon afterward, upon Kolysz's request
"Golosheyka" brought Mula and his family to our camp. Since Mula had
no means of sustenance Father began to give him daily 200 rubles.
In H.K.P., just as it used to be in the ghetto, it was possible to
bribe the Lithuanian police. Taking advantage (by paying him), of
Beck's military truck, sufficient quantities of different foodstuffs,
including even alcoholic beverages, were brought into the camp. The
so-called "cooperative" food store managed by Wilkomir, was situated
on the ground floor below our room. The rations which we received
from the authorities were distributed and the foodstuffs which
Wilkomir bought on the "black market" were sold there.
The sympathy toward us of Major Plagge, the chief of H.K.P., had put
its stamp not only on our working conditions but on the whole way we
lived. Father worked not too laboriously as the stockroom keeper of
the workshop for vehicle seat-repair. They worked from 6 Am to 6 PM
with one hour interruption for dinner, which he ate in our room with
the family. In the room which we shared with people with whom we
arranged to live and in which there was running water and a kitchen
stove, we slept in beds and were able to wash ourselves and to cook.
Using hired help we were frequently able to change our personal and
bed linen and even had a carry-out privy which we placed in a
cubby-hole under the staircase - thus we did not have to use the
filthy, stinking enclosed pit in the courtyard. The cubby-hole played
a crucial role in our survival, as we will see later.
Similarly to how it was in the ghetto, the living conditions (as long
as one was permitted to stay alive) largely depended upon the
financial means one possessed.
His financial losses notwithstanding, Father still had in the camp, in
addition to a gold ten ruble coin (the remainder from the sale of
Mama's Persian lamb coat), a massive golden cigarette case and a
platinum mounted 1 1/2 carat diamond ring. All this Mama carried on
her abdomen under her girdle. However, since we did not know how long
we would be incarcerated, and we had to help our relatives, we ate
very modestly.
My cousin Eva was happily married, she loved Lolek very much. She
was then 22 or 23 years old and wanted to live! She told me: "If they
would just let us survive until I'm thirty years old, if they would be
good years, that would be enough for me!" She did not get her
At the gate of the camp there stood a small building which had an
entrance from the street and served as a receiving station where the
camp administration would receive the orders for the needs of the
German military. Since Jews served in this receiving station, it was
a place where we could meet the Gentiles who had access to it .
Borys Beniakonski, who managed in the ghetto the
workshops which serviced the needs of the German army, had organized
the same kind of workshops in the camp H.K.P. Mother worked in the
workshop which repaired German army coats, and I worked in the one
where the heels were knitted on to the torn and dirty socks of the
German soldiers. For medical help for the camp population (which
numbered more than one thousand) two physicians, the doctors Feignberg
and Shumiliski, some nurses and the dentist Swerdlina came to the camp
at the same time we did.
Simultaneously with us, some members of the ghetto Jewish police:
Tovbin, Migantz, Witkowski and Sakin settled in the camp, supposedly
to maintain order, but mainly to carry out the orders of the German
authorities. In our camp also lived those Jews who were known
agents of the Gestapo: Averbuch and Nikka Dreizin. The first with
his wife, the other with his mother. To these two was added a third
one - Jona Bak, a dental technician who was co-opted as an agent by
the Gestapo-man Tindens for whom Bak used to do dental work. Al three
enjoyed a privilege of which we were deprived - they could leave
the camp and move around the city. Some others had the right to leave
the camp, since they worked for Germans in the city: one Geller,
and the young daughter of Galerkin, who now worked as a smith in the
camp. They both, while living in the Wilno ghetto, had worked at
the administration of the Labor Organization TODT. At the time of
the liquidation of the Wilno ghetto the chief of the TODT
organization, by that time a high official of the Gestapo, placed them
in our camp. He arranged for Geller, who spoke German and Polish, to
be the translator to the official in charge of Jewish affairs in
the Gestapo of Wilno (Shroder?) and Galerkin to be the cleaner of
his private apartment. We knew from Geller, (an acquaintance of our
roommate, Aleksandra Zaks), who would drop in to our room, about
what was going on at the Gestapo. From him we later learned about the
circumstances under which perished the brother of my uncle Yermasha,
the engineer Moses (Mosya) Cholem.
In the beginning, when there was no regular accounting of those
living in the camp, it was rather easy to get out of the camp by
mixing in with the Gentiles who had access to the receiving station.
The terrible difficulties would begin for the fugitives on the "Aryan
side", since, because of the hostility of the gentile population, they
ran a great risk of being caught and ending their lives on Ponary.
There were also those few, however (among them those who would
become our very dear friends, Alexander and Emilia Sedlis) who, took
advantage of the chance to sneak out and survived by preparing a
trustworthy haven on the "Aryan side". It was Emilia (Mila) Sedlis
who, while living in our camp, had received through a Polish
railroad-man a letter from her mother, Genia Zeldowicz. She had been
sent to work in the camp Kaiserwald near Riga during the liquidation
of the Wilno ghetto .
This possibility of sneaking out of the camp disappeared, however,
in connection with an event which reminded us again that we were
living under a Damocles's Sword and that our lives were in the hands
of monsters. I do not remember the exact date, but it happened
before the advent of frosts which usually come in November. After
all the workers had been mustered out on the yard where the Jewish
police had built a gallows (on the command of the Germans) , the
gate suddenly opened and three Gestapo-men, led by Bruno Kittel, the
liquidator of the ghetto, drove in an open car. They brought with
them two fugitives from our camp they had caught - a woman who
belonged to a family of society's dregs nicknamed "Pozhar" (Fire) and
her unofficial husband. The deathly silence which began to reign as
the Gestapo-men moved towards the gallows with the condemned was
broken by the piercing cry of "mama!" which suddenly sounded from a
window on the upper floor of one of the buildings in which we saw a
child's head. Before the passing of even one minute a little girl,
maybe eight or ten years old, ran out from the building and rushed
with a joyous cry "mama" to embrace her mother (Pozhar). We
witnessed here a horrible, heartrending scene - the joy of the child
who thought that she had found the mother she was longing for, and
the distorted by suffering face of the mother who was passionately
embracing her child, knowing that she was walking to her death.
When the whole group arrived at the place of execution, Kittel
motioned to Grisha Shneider, the camp's blacksmith, (the brother of
Alexander Shneider, a violinist famous in the United States), to
step forward from our lines and ordered him to be the executioner.
However, when the man (whom they were hanging first) fell twice when
the noose tore, Kittel ordered him to kneel down and killed him by a
shot in the back of his head. Afterwards, while he was killing the
woman one of the other Gestapo-men killed the child. The Gestapo was
not satisfied with this, however. Having decided to shoot 36 women as
a punishment, to forestall any more flights from the camp, the next
morning, after the men had gone to work, the Gestapo ordered the
Jewish police to chase all the women and children out of the rooms
onto the huge yard adjacent to the buildings.
When the policeman Miganz, a man my parents knew, chased us
down onto the yard, we were immediately surrounded by rifle-wielding
Lithuanian police. Kittel mustered us out into rows and stood before
us with his arms crossed. My mother and I were in the first row,
Kittel was standing just in front of us. He was very handsome, like
a film actor. I will never forget his standing before us, regarding
us for a very long time - I had nightmares long afterward imagining
huge, flashing, fluorescent green eyes staring at me. Then Kittel
smiled and, I guess on a sign from him, the Lithuanian police
started to club us, herding us around the side of the building,
toward where they were grabbing and dragging women into the black van
standing in between the two buildings. My mother said: "Lets go,
why be beaten up before we die?" But I wanted to live so
passionately, I was looking at the tiny barred basement windows and
wishing I could squeeze through them. I pulled my mother away from
the side from which they were dragging women to the black van, at the
risk of being clubbed. My Mother was anxiously repeating: "I have
the golden cigarette case on me, dad will have nothing to live on
after they take us!" Then, suddenly, my father broke through to us
through the clubbing Lithuanians. The only man that came to stand
with his family... When it was over (they had filled their quota of
victims), and we could leave the yard, we ran like arrows to the
upper floor of the building - the ecstasy of being able to do this
simple thing was indescribable! Through the high window we looked
down on the yard - the black van was still there, we saw a frenzied
man in a paroxysm next to it, vainly begging the Germans to let his
wife out.
When Father happened to walk out of the workshop he saw in the
yard a huge black van with our German driver Beck at the wheel. On
the lot behind the building Mother and I were hemmed in with a few
hundred women and children whom the Lithuanian police was dragging to
the black van and pushing them in. When without hesitation Father
rushed toward us, a Lithuanian policeman grabbed him and started to
drag him towards the black van. Father broke away from him and ran
towards us. By the time he had run onto the yard the Lithuanians
stopped the "aktzye", having taken the appointed number of victims.
Immediately afterward the black van left the camp without any guards,
with just Beck as driver. We learned afterwards that on the way to
Ponary the condemned victims succeeded in opening the door which was
located in the back of the van and, disregarding the consequences,
started to jump out of the van. The consequences were quite serious
for some, since Beck was driving very fast and they broke their legs
jumping out of the speeding vehicle. Some of the women (from whom we
learned all this) did manage to come back to the camp. My Mother and
I survived because, even though the Lithuanians were herding us
forward, threatening us with rifle-butt blows, I continued to move
back, pulling Mother back with me - after she had begun to give up
and accept her fate.
These events emphasized the desperation of our situation, they
confirmed once again the validity of the hateful yell of a Pole who
taunted us as we were marching to work from the ghetto: "you are just
living corpses!" I began ever more often to ask Father when he
would come from work: "What percent chances do we have to survive? I
want so much to live!" . In his evaluation of our chances for
survival , (which were getting worse since the Germans were
intensifying the extermination of the Jews, their defeats on the
fronts notwithstanding), Father never gave us less than a 70%
The chief of H.K.P. 562, Major Plagge, would come to encourage us
after these events. Obviously embarrassed about the latest
"achievements of his fellow Germans", he told us, among other things:
"Regrettably, the war has destroyed moral values as well as the
material ones". The following fact was characteristic of our
state of mind: The Germans brought to our camp a man named Fikher,
after they had been informed that he was a converted Jew. When
Fikher, by then an inmate of our camp, was able to see his Gentile
wife in the reception-building, they both could not stop sobbing. I
remember that both the Jewish girl who worked in "reception", and I
who witnessed this scene accidentally, were deeply astonished. People
did not cry in the camp, not so much because we knew that tears did
not help - we just had no more tears - we took what was happening to
us for granted We had been hurled into a bottomless pit, the
"normal" people - the Gentiles on the surface and their concerns were
beyond our horizon. For me, personally, what mattered was how we were
doing in comparison to other inmates. All through the terrible years,
if our condition was even slightly more favorable than that of those
around me, the realization that I am better off gave me great
Inspections were instituted in the camp, we had the "Apell" early
every Monday morning. Bruno Kittel soon visited our camp again. This
time it was because of the intense efforts of the Gestapo to locate
their former agent, Salek Desler, who went into hiding with his wife
Rega, a native of Lodz, a couple of days before the liquidation of the
Wilno ghetto. Pursuing a wrong tip, Kittel tried to learn the
location of Desler's "maline" from Petya Sakin, an inmate of our
camp, by putting a noose around his neck. The Gestapo had more luck
when they put the question of where Desler's hiding place was to
Altaszewski, another inmate of our camp. Altaszewski, who before
the war was the editor of a Polish language Lodz newspaper called
"Republic", was a friend of Rega Desler. Running away from the
Germans in 1939 he came to Wilno with Rega and was taken to the
ghetto with his wife in 1941. Giving in to the Gestapo's threats,
Altaszewski pointed out Alpern, a policeman in our camp. Working in
the ghetto police, Alpern had helped his chief, Desler, arrange a
"maline" at the bottom of Subocz street where the Alperns had owned a
bakery since the times of the czar. Thus the Gestapo arrested
Desler, his wife and a whole group of people, (workers of the
Judenrat) with whom Desler shared his "maline". According to
information which we were given by some Jewish manual workers of the
Gestapo who were often sent to our camp, the Deslers were kept locked
up by the Gestapo on Rossa till the late spring, when they were shot.
Rega Desler had supposedly shared her husband's fate voluntarily since
previously the Gestapo chief Neugebaur had acknowledged her a
The winter of 1943-1944 was relatively quiet, we had no more
visits from the Gestapo officials. Our humane treatment by major
Plagge influenced his subordinates. They worked long hours but not
very hard. Eva's husband, Lolek, who worked at a lathe bench, even
managed to turn out metallic cigarette lighters which, (being able to
communicate with the outside world through the "Reception" building)
he sold to Gentile traders. Beginning to earn well Lolek declined
any more of Father's help. At this time Lolek took another step
fraught with great consequences - he bought a gun and joined a
fighting organization created in our camp
Our camp was visited by the manager of labor distribution of the
Kowno ghetto who was searching for qualified Jewish workers. In
contrast to what happened in Wilno, the life was more peaceful in the
Kowno ghetto, headed by Doctor Elkhonon Elkes. The Germans had
undertaken no bloody "aktzyes" in the Kowno ghetto during the two
and a half years following the November of 1941. To the honor of the
Kowno Jewish police, which was headed by a man named Kopelman, they
did not cover themselves with shame as did the Jewish police of Wilno
who, executing the orders of Gens and Desler had sent their brethren
to their deaths. We learned subsequently that during the so-called
"children's aktzye", carried out simultaneously in all of Lithuania,
36 of Jewish policemen were shot in Kowno when one by one they had
refused to reveal the "maline" where Jewish children were hidden.
Tempted by more peaceful conditions, a few families living in our camp
went to the Kowno ghetto. The manger brought for us a letter from my
uncle, Dr. Lova Gerstein who lived in the Kowno ghetto with his wife
and his daughter Perella. In this letter Lova who after my
father-in-law's death was nobly carrying out the duties of the head
of the family, asked Father to be helpful to Mula - something he was
doing long before his receipt of the letter. As it did in the ghetto,
all kinds of foodstuffs continued to penetrate into the camp. To the
end of our stay the question of nutrition depended on the financial
means. We got the money by selling our clothes, linen and
underwear - valuable at that time because of the previously mentioned
scarcity - everything would always find a buyer. This was
contributed to by the fact that, during the complete economic
stagnation, trading with the Jews and with their stuff was, for a
large part of the Gentile city population, their main, if not the only
means of sustenance.
Isolated though we were, we still were up to date on the
events going on in the world. Some things we learned by reading
"between the lines" of the official German newspaper "Das Reich",
which Geller bought systematically for Alexandra Zaks. But our main
source of information was the English radio station, the B.B.C the
broadcast of which we heard daily on the receiver which the radio
technician Korolchuk made up from parts and which he kept in a
hiding place in the workshop.
A more difficult problem was the question of getting books,
this to me was crucial since from early childhood I had been a
passionate reader. Books were the only window onto the world
available to me and I craved them avidly. Since there was no library
in the camp, the only books available were those that the inmates
brought from the ghetto and exchanged with each other. One of the
books I had obtained was an English copy of "Gone with the wind". I
knew very little English but read it nevertheless with the help of
a dictionary which missed the pages beginning with the letter "A". I
even started to copy the dictionary. The amazing thing was that I
was so transported into the world of the "Gone with the wind", that I,
the inmate of a concentration camp, cried bitterly about the sorrows
of Rhett Butler. I resented it bitterly when our room-mate, Mrs Zaks
grabbed another book I had gotten in exchange for mine. By the time
she finished it, its owner wanted it back, giving me back mine - I
don't remember the name of the book since I never got to read it, but
I do remember my resentment of having lost the chance to read it! At
this time Mrs Zaks sustained a myocardial infarction which brought
her tragic consequences later. The news we gleaned about the
events in the surrounding world foreshadowed the inevitable defeat of
Germany and with it the certainty of the Germans having to pay for
their monstrous crimes. The news also told us, however, that the Nazi
policy of general extermination of the European Jewry continued to be
carried out as mercilessly as before, enveloping ever more countries,
(Southern France and Hungary). Thus, the relatively bearable
conditions of life in our camp notwithstanding, for us the winter of
1943/1944 was full of tension and deep anxiety about what tomorrow
would bring. The coming events proved our fears as being very
Our camp after a relatively quiet winter was thrown into a streak
of bloody events which ended tragically for the vast majority of us.
On Sunday, March 26th the Jewish administration of the camp, with no
premonition that we were on the eve of horrible events, arranged a
performance in celebration of the Jewish feast of "Purim" in which
the performers were all children. In the skits and songs performed by
the children , the "laughter through bitter tears" mirrored our
reality. Two orphaned, merry, and street-wise twins, Zawke and Leibke
(general favorites in the camp) did a funny song and dance with many
allusions to our situation. I remember a line from one of their
songs: "They call me Zawke, I'm known to every one of you - and if
you insist, Leibke is coming too. We can do everything, we sing and
dance on the stage - we can also curse the "other" but we can't
make the malediction come true." In a skit, a modified "Hensel and
Gretl", two children were seized by an evil but stupid monster (very
German-looking), who was going to devour them. They were assuring
him that they both tasted horrible. The monster told one of the
children to taste the other by licking him. The child exclaimed:
"Oh, he tastes terrible, he is more bitter than bile!" When the
monster made the other child taste the first, the answer was: "Oh,
he tastes more bitter than that which is more bitter than bile!" I
think there was a happy ending... I remember that in the first
row of the audience sat both of our Schirmeisters who applauded
the children enthusiastically - Yiddish was understandable to them
to a great extent. One of the acting children was especially
talented, vivacious and charming - it was the young daughter of Borys
Beniakonski. We all went to sleep not suspecting the bloody surprise
the Gestapo was going to hand us on the next day.
On March 27th, 1944, in the early morning, after the men had left
for their work places the gates of the camp were opened suddenly and
into the yard of our camp drove in trucks carrying a large contingent
of officials of the Gestapo and of the Lithuanian police, led by
Martin Weiss, an executioner the hands of whom were already crimson
with the blood of many tens of thousands of the inmates of the Wilno
The new arrivals scattered swiftly over the dwellings from which they
began dragging out children and teenagers up to the age of fifteen, as
well as even those few elderly who managed to get to our camp. The
captured they took to the trucks into which they pushed their prey.
Heartrending scenes took place in our camp when the sobbing children
vainly looked to their parents for protection. Mrs Zhukowski, the
mother of the boy whom Kittel, amazed by his beauty, sent with his
mother to our camp from Ponary, was killed by Martin Weiss with a shot
from his revolver, after Mrs Zhukowski had called him "murderer". I
saw with my own eyes the Lithuanians wrenching by brute force from the
arms of Beniakonski his talented daughter. She had enchanted us just
the day before. In some cases the mothers, not wanting to abandon
their children in this terrible moment, shared their children's fate
voluntarily. The fate of the seized children was more than terrible.
As we learned after the cessation of hostilities during our stay in
Italy from some Jews who had serviced the crematoriums in the
"Vernichtung Lager" (extermination camp), since the "Gas chambers"
could not keep up with their task, the transports with the children
were sent straight to the ovens. I avoided this horrible fate by
hiding in a "maline" which our neighbor, attorney Zmigrod began
building in the cellar and which I found a few days before. I was
sitting on the seat of our carry-out toilet in the cubbyhole under
the stairs when I noticed an opening in the floor. A few hours later
there was no trace of the opening - that was suggestive, I remembered
it. When we heard that the camp was surrounded I went to check my
"hole" and found Zmigrod going down through it into the cellar. I
ran to get my Mother and we went into the cellar with Zmigrod - one
could never deny entrance into a hiding place, the one left out could
tell the executioners about it. Gerus (Gershon), the eight year old
son of my uncle Mula ran away from the Lithuanians who grabbed him and
were taking him down the staircase from their third-floor room; he
saved himself by sliding down the banisters and racing to his
father's workplace where Mula managed to hide him.
Simultaneously with ours, "children's aktzyes" (Massacres) were
perpetrated by the Germans in all the Jewish camps in Lithuania,
including the "Kailis" and the Kowno ghetto. (The latter existed
almost a year longer than the Wilno ghetto, it was liquidated in
August of 1944 as the Russians were coming near).
The "children's aktzye" shook the camp to its very foundations.
The air was filled with moans of the disconsolate mothers, people
moved around the camp like shadows. Running into Borys Beniakonski who
had lost his daughter as Father couldn't hold back a whisper: "how
could one let go of such a daughter?" "Are we human", answered
Beniakonski, "we are worms, you hear, we are nothing but crushed
worms!" These words of Beniakonski characterized aptly our emotional
state at that time. The three-year-long torture by fear, continuous
chain of disasters and our enemies' merciless and boundless cruelty on
one hand, the complete futility of resistance on the other, exhausted
our spiritual forces. The majority of us were left with the common to
the most primitive beings instinct of self preservation only.
The realization that we were doomed and that the end was getting near
did not weaken this desire to live - if anything it rather
strengthened it. If at the beginning of the Hitlerian occupation
there had been some individual cases of suicide (Michael and Esfira
Taub), these ceased completely when we entered the period of
systematic mass extermination. These times bared the peoples souls.
In many cases mothers would sacrifice their lives to save their
children or ease the children's last moments. But there were also
some cases when the thirst for life made the mothers sacrifice their
children to save themselves. Even as far as the response to the
loss of their children in the "children Aktzye" was concerned, there
was a multiplicity of reactions. Some mothers confined themselves to
inconsolable grief, but there were quite a few others in whom their
grief drove them to hatred of the surviving children. We took my
cousin Gary to stay in our room to preserve him from fits of hatred
of Mrs. Gurvich, a woman who shared their room and who had lost her
Fearing a repetition of the aktzye against children, for some time we
lived on guard, ready at any minute to hide the children in the newly
discovered maline. As an "illegal", I did not go to the weekly
Monday morning inspections (Apels) any more.
At the end of April, 1944 we heard from Geller who, as mentioned
previously, lived in our camp while working as a translator for the
Gestapo of Wilno, that my uncle Yermasha's brother, Moses (Mosya)
Cholem, was incarcerated in the cellars of the Gestapo. The
circumstances of Mosya's death were rather unusual Mosya married
Dolly, a very beautiful daughter of a wealthy Gentile Berlin family.
Mosya returned to Wilno in 1923 with his wife Dolly, son Wolf and
daughter Lilly. He never paid his business nor his personal debts.
One of his victims was my Grandfather Gershon Gerstein from whom Mosya
took lumber products worth about 12,000 zloty for his construction
business and never paid a penny. But the constant monetary
difficulties were not the reason of the breakup of Mosya's family
at the beginning of the war. It was caused by the rather unusual
love affair between the elderly, even though well preserved Mosya and
a few tens of years younger than him, beautiful blond wife of the
physician Perelman. The breakup and later the divorce of Mosya and
Dolly in the early spring of 1941 occurred in front of our bemused
eyes. Mosya was a constant visitor of his sister Tatyana Kaplan
Kaplanski with whom we then shared our apartment. Mosya insisted on
divorce and Dolly could do nothing else but return to her parents in
Berlin. As a German she took advantage of the Stalin-Hitler pact
according to which all the German nationals living in the Baltic
countries were entitled to go to Germany. Declaring that the Jew
Mosya was not her children's father, Dolly took her son Wolf and
daughter Lilly back to Germany with her.
Mosya lived in the ghetto and, working in his profession, was able to
survive the multiple aktzyes. Having arranged shelter with the Karaim
Zajonczkowski in the suburb Zwierzyniec he managed to leave the
ghetto before its liquidation. Previously, after only a short stay in
the ghetto, doctor Perelman succeded in settling with his wife and
child on the "Aryan side", as a forester in the vicinity of Wilno.
Mrs Perelman was apparently seized by the Gestapo when she came to
the city to meet Mosya. Under interrogation she gave away both her
husband and child and Mosya. According to what Geller told us,
Shroeder, the Gestapo-man in charge of the Jewish affairs, was
impressed by Mosya's charm and the excellent German he spoke. Shroeder
was about to send Mosya to us in H.K.P. But Mosya, not knowing about
Shroeder's intentions and hoping to save himself through this
information, declared that his son Wolf was a pilot, an officer in the
German army. After hearing this, Shroeder had sent him to Ponary with
the Perelmans. "A man ready to cause the death of his own son to save
himself should not live!" Shroeder told Geller.
The owners of the maline (by now that included all the neighbours
living on our landing) did not want to share the secret of the
maline with Gary's parents, saying that they lived away from our
landing, his mother would blab out its secret to her many friends
and thus we would all die. My father was adamant, however, "We don't
know whether she will disclose the secret - this might cost us our
lives in a few months. The child's life is in peril now, we have no
right to deny Gary life now, on the chance that it could imperil our
lives later". The Gersteins were accepted in the maline, they kept
the secret. Gary survived the war, became an architect and the
father of three children lived in Mexico City until he died in 1991.
Feeling that the noose around our necks was getting tighter, the men
living on our landing, led by the attorney Zmigrod started to work
feverishly at night, preparing a hiding place, the so called maline.
The trapdoor into the basement from the cubbyhole in which the
carry-out toilet was situated still required a lot of work. We knew
from experience that if the entrance to a maline stops being a strict
secret, its usefulness is zero. At the critical moment a crowd
craving rescue, much larger than the capacity of the maline, would dam
the entrance to it. Apparently that is what happened to the Shapiro
maline, thus taking away the chance for life of Ninka Kaplinska.
Working diligently, the men blocked off the farthest room in the
basement by a brick wall and excavated an underground passage to gain
access to this isolated space. For this we had to chisel a large
hole through the stone foundation of the house. The shaft leading to
the crawl-space we camouflaged by covering it with an earth-filled
flat wooden box. We fastened wires to two sides of the box. By
pulling on the wires we could raise the earth-filled box. The
needed materials - cement, boards and so on, we stole from the
Germans. The car battery we needed for illumination we acquired by
the same means.
In May our camp administration was forced to supply the Germans with
a couple-of-hundred men, supposedly for work in the locality called
Kozlowa Ruda - none of them had survived.
We were speedily nearing the outcome, which would prove tragic for
the vast majority of the camp's inmates. On Saturday, July 1st, 1944
Major Plagge the kind head of the H.K.P. 562, came to talk to us. We
clustered around him, eager to hear what he would tell us about what
lay before us. Major Plagge warned us that the German army was
leaving Wilno and our camp would be evacuated westward in connection
with the nearing of the Russians. To emphasize his warning major
Plagge informed us in his speech that we would stop being a H.K.P.
work camp and would be entirely in the hands of the S.S. - he then
carefully commented: "And you all know full well how well the S.S.
takes care of their Jewish prisoners". This speech of Major Plagge
aroused terrible fear in us. According to the British Radio station
BBC, before retreating the Germans had shot without mercy all the
Jewish inmates of the camps. The vast majority of us understood,
especially after Major Plagge's veiled warning, that for our camp the
moment has come which we all feared and for which the dwellers of our
landing had made feverish preparations. At dusk a few tens of men,
mostly young ones, ran away from the camp jumping out of the window
of the blacksmith shop which was facing the outside world - one of
them was Wilek Beigel - our friend William Begell who now lives in
New York City. Another friend, Mr. Israelit, very adroitly managed to
bribe the guards at the gate and was able to go out with his wife and
daughter, my friend Esia.
Even though the day of Monday, July 3rd was marked for our
"evacuation", we decided to begin descending into the maline without
delay, especially since we had to do so very carefully so as not to
give away the secret of the maline to "outsiders". The vast majority
of the inmates of the camp had no prepared hiding places and hearing
about the looming "Evacuation" they were rushing around the camp
looking for any imaginable way of rescue. This posed a mortal danger
to our hiding place. This question became even more acute when a
group of young men who heard some rumors about the attorney Zmigrod
having a maline started to watch and follow him. When Zmigrod, trying
to put them off course continued to walk aimlessly around, they gave
him a bestial beating, demanding that he point out the entrance to our
maline. So as not to be torn to pieces, Zmigrod had to give in and
the number of people in our maline more than trebled as a result.
Even though this did not cause the "downfall of the maline", as it
happened to the maline of the Shapiros, with fatal consequences,
this circumstance had serious consequences for us as well, as we will
see. The dwellers of our landing, Eva and Lolek among them, as well
as the family of my uncle Mula, descended to the cellar through the
camouflaged hole in the asphalt floor of the cubbyhole under the
stairs. We were soon joined by a few tens of those who had broken in
after wrenching the information from Zmigrod.
A little later, when we lifted the box filled with earth, we saw
that the crawl space connecting the cellar with the bricked off
real maline was filled almost completely with water. Disconsolate,
we thought that we were deprived of access to the main maline -
but, not willing to accept this, first another woman, then I dove in
and crawled through, with everybody else following us. My mother
and I did not realize that my Father did not crawl all the way
through, unable or unwilling to negotiate the hole in the crawl-space
any further. Eva and her husband did not follow us - upon Lolek's
insistence they both left the basement. Lolek had joined a combat
organization of young people in the camp who intended to offer the
Germans armed resistance - he had acquired a gun for this purpose.
Even though Eva begged him to stay, Lolek insisted. We never saw them
again, they both perished, but we were unable to learn the
circumstances of their deaths. Moving forward in the crawl space we
came to the stone foundation of the house. Before squeezing through
the chiselled hole Father and some others stopped in a large niche
for a few hours. Lying flat in the niche they suffered for the first
time difficulties with breathing because of the lack of fresh air.
Pretty soon the woman who was sharing our room, Alexandra Zaks, (not
quite well after her infarct) groaned that she was suffocating and
would have to give up the thought of hiding in the maline. After
Mother, I and Rosa Milecka, the other woman who shared our room, had
crawled through the hole in the foundation, Father helped Alexandra
Zaks to get out of the crawl space and return to our room. His cousin
Nina (Sheniuk) with her husband, Kuba Rotstein followed Alexandra's
example to their undoing. Another of our neighbours who had left the
maline to their doom was Yocheved (Shadovska), whom my parents had
saved by inscribing her as their daughter during the second inspection
of the "yellow life certificates aktzye - massacre" in 1941. She
left upon the insistence of her husband.
Coming back to our room they found strangers there. On Rosa
Milecka's bed sat the wife of the Gestapo agent Averbuch who had
been shot by the Germans some time before. In her "deathbed"
confession she was trying to exculpate him, explaining that her
husband became an agent of the Gestapo because "we were young and we
wanted to live". It was past midnight from Sunday to Monday - the
evil day marked for our "evacuation" by the Germans, when Father
joined us in our maline; until that time Mother and I had no idea
that he was not with us... the darkness and crowding was so
indescribable. But he did not get into the maline through the crawl
space. I don't know from whom he had learned that the workers of
the "cooperative" (food distribution point) situated on the floor
below our rooms were also preparing a maline. They had blocked off
with a brick wall a basement room adjacent to our maline and could go
down into it through an opening in the floor. They camouflaged it by
putting over it a big, moveable tile oven, built on concealed
wheels. This group had delayed until the night of July 3rd their
decision to go down to their maline. Learning from them that they
intended to unite the adjacent malines by taking apart the dividing
brick wall, Father joined them - thus he did not have to crawl
through that small hole in the waterfilled crawlspace. He carried a
"rucksack" with some changes of underwear and a brush to clean
ourselves off with after lying in the mud; strangely, he had also put
into the bag a "tales", a ceremonial shawl worn when praying and in
which, according to the Jewish tradition one buries the dead. The
manager of the cooperative, Lusik Wilkomir and his stepson Taub
succeeded in breaking out of the camp by jumping out of the window of
the smithy, but his wife and daughter-in-law (Lizke, born Persikowicz)
descended into the maline with Father. When, working with pickaxes
they took apart the brick wall dividing the two malines, they created
a larger space which possessed two exits - that was very important,
if the Germans were to discover the entrance to one maline we might
be able to save ourselves by fleeing through the other. A small
electrical bulb connected to a stolen car-battery barely illuminated
the space where about one hundred of us lied down on the bare ground.
With the coming of morning, i.e. of the moment when the Germans would
discover that a few hundred people did not appear at the inspection,
our tension was getting speedily worse. Fearing that the Germans
would blow up the building, we began to thrust ourselves against the
outside walls assuming that this would give us a better chance to
Added to the fears of discovery by the Germans or that we would
perish under the ruins of the building came a sudden excruciating
physical suffering. We had not appreciated the importance of and
thus did not arrange for sufficient ventilation; to this was added
the unforeseen crowding, thus our hiding place was rapidly becoming
ever more stifling. Being faced with unavoidable death by
suffocation, our leaders, Zmigrod and Mintz (one of the newcomers)
broke through with pickaxes some tiny openings in the outside walls
(risking that this would bring us to the attention of our enemies).
The scanty trickle of air thus generated saved us from suffocation but
was insufficient to protect us from the effects of severe oxygen
deficiency of the air we breathed (a candle could not burn). To our
misfortune, this severe oxygen deprivation together with the
terrifying psychological burden we were subjected to evoked (as we
had later learned) the many cases of insanity. As a result truly
infernal scenes had been enacted among those of us suffering in the
As Father now remembers, feeling that he might find more
oxygen in the layer of air near to the ground he was stretched out
breathing heavily with his face to the ground when the strained
silence in our shelter was interrupted by a piercing scream of a male
voice repeating: "But why, why do you want to slaughter me?"
seconded by a woman crying: "Such a brilliant future would await our
children, after all" The screams were emitted by a couple named
Gutman who had forcibly pushed themselves into our maline with their
two girls. Father knew Gutman from the times before the war. As the
owner of a bicycle repair workshop he would buy tires and other
rubber bicycle products from him; he was known as a hard working and
honest craftsman. Hearing these screams Father rushed to the Gutmans.
Imploring them not to cause the deaths of all of us with their
screams and assuring them that none of us intended to kill them, he
succeeded in quieting down the Gutmans. "Yes, Mr. Esterowicz, you are
a decent man, you will not slaughter me." Gutman tried to shake off
the nightmare persecuting him and tried to let himself be talked out
of it, only to resume his piercing screams a little while later.
This scene was repeated several times, but each time Father was
able to quiet Gutman down. But then one event brought on a series of
tragic happenings. Our leader Zmigrod declared that since we needed
to conserve the energy in our battery (after all we did not know how
long we would have to hide), he decided to turn off the light. Nobody
objected to this decision and wanting to be near Gutman to be able to
quiet him if needed, Father sat down next to him on his left. On the
right side of Gutman sat a man named Malkes dressed in his heavy
winter coat. Unexpectedly, soon after our shelter was plunged into
darkness there came sudden desperate calls for help. When the light
was put on the following picture stood before our eyes: Gutman was
standing up, wild-eyed with a bloody pocketknife in his hand, on
the ground before him lay Malkes, saved from death by his winter
coat but bleeding from the numerous wounds inflicted on him by
Gutman. Gutman's reaction to darkness soon brought on angry
exclamations from Zmigrod: "This is our blood" pointing his finger at
the battery he addressed the Gutmans, "and we want to live, do you
hear, we want to live!" he repeated furiously. This was followed by
events which shook us to our depths. After a short consultation the
bunch of youths killed the Gutmans, braining them with some bricks
which lay on the ground nearby. This did not end the horror: with
every passing moment I realized that my Mother was also
hallucinating. Her speech was becoming ever more irrational and
pointless. I remember that my despair related to Mother's delusions
was deepened by the realization that if she should start to scream
she would be killed. As the events had demonstrated, my fears were
well founded - in such an eventuality the bunch of youths would not
hesitate to kill her.
The events in our maline had demonstrated that when
people are caught in the situation of hunted animals, their lust
for life (sharpened in such cases) frequently converts them into
merciless killers. Two young girls, the sisters Arluk were hiding in
our meline. One of the girls our leaders strangled before our eyes
when she began to show signs of violent insanity. This terrible for us
moment was made even more terrifying by Mother's mental state. Not
understanding the cause of her condition Father took her onto his
lap and with his whole heart tried to inspire her to the "last
effort". "Idochka, darling, this is our last battle, the last
obstacle we have to overcome - we have to, do you hear me, we have
to overcome to survive!" He kept whispering to her thinking that she
had temporarily broken down emotionally because of the horrifying
scenes she witnessed. To our despair, Mother didn't regain her
senses. I kept asking Father: "Tatus (Daddy) is this for always?"
Mother continued her demented babble, providentially in a gentle and
quiet voice which did not invite attention to her.
Mama was stroking the face of the raven - haired Lizka
Persikowicz repeating "what a beautiful baby, what a beautiful blond
baby, so blond and darling". This must have been July 4th, or maybe
July 5th, 1944; we were told much later that my cousin Dora's son
Gary was born on that day in Russia; moreover, Anne and Michael, our
twins, would be born on July 5th, 1957, exactly 13 years later... I
remember that my mother fell asleep with her head in my lap. Since I
seemed to have had a rock lodged under my spine the position was very
uncomfortable but I couldn't move because if woken up my mother
could have called attention to herself with her delirium.
In the meantime in the camp (as we were told later) there
appeared on Monday a special German military detachment wearing black
uniforms and with skull head insignia on their caps. They sent all
the inmates who came to the inspection to be shot in Ponary - nobody
had survived. Discovering that a large percentage of inmates did not
appear at the inspection, the Germans started a search of both
buildings and those discovered there, (numbering about 200) were
shot immediately in the yard. The Germans mobilized the
surrounding gentile population for burial of the corpses, after which
they lifted the guard and abandoned the camp on Tuesday, July 4th.
Simultaneously, the Germans liquidated in the same way the Jews of
the camp "Kailis" and the group of Jews, headed by doctor
Margolis, who were working in the military hospital on Antokol. They
were all shot in Ponary. The Jewish manual workers servicing the
Gestapo, headed by Kamenmacher, were sent to Kowno where they were all
shot in the 9th Fort.
Through the mercy of destiny we were not discovered by the
Germans and, cut off from the world we continued our torment in our
maline. I remember that we suffered from thirst most terribly and to
assuage it we were forced to drink the sewer water which we filtered
by covering the neck of a bottle with a handkerchief. On Tuesday
evening the scouts sent out through the crawl-space came back with
the news that the Germans had lifted the guard and left our camp.
After the news we decided to break out from the maline with its
inhuman conditions and nightmarish experiences and brave the dangers
on the Aryan side. When those sent out with clippers to cut the
barbed wire of the fence facing Rossa came back after accomplishing
their task and confirmed that the Germans had left the camp, we
started to climb out one by one after pushing aside the oven in the
"cooperative". Having on our hands Mother in a semi-conscious
condition, the climbing out of the maline was no easy task for us and
Mula and his family. But even before more than half of us could climb
out the last ones out came back hurriedly saying that the Germans
had come back. We had to hastily put the oven back and sink back
into the torturing uncertainty to which now was added the feeling of
hopelessness. I remember that in that sad condition Father had to
undergo another unnecessary experience. In the maline with us was
our leader Zmigrod's brother-in-law Swirski with his wife and child.
The Swirskis did not have time to follow Zmigrod who was one of the
first to leave the maline. Having been left alone and seeing in Father
a man who knew all the ins and outs of the maline, Swirski and his
wife, feeling perplexed and perhaps not quite sane grabbed him from
both sides screaming "where you go, we go!" Father's implorations to
let him go, that we were all in the same situation, made no
impression on the Swirskis. He managed to free himself from their
convulsive embrace only after he started wildly beating Swirski over
the head with his fists.
Even though the departure of a part of the concealed, led by our
leader, worsened our emotional state, this circumstance had also a
positive side to it. The reduction of the number of people hiding in
the maline permitted the air we breathed to improve a little - this
immediately bettered Mother's condition, her reasoning was slowly
coming back.
In the meantime the following was happening: learning that
the Germans have left, crowds of Gentiles inundated the camp to grab
the belongings of the killed Jews. We had brought clothing, linen,
dishes, pots and pans, pillows and so on from the ghetto, it all was
left in the habitations - immediately all was appropriated by the mob.
But the looters were not satisfied with this - after all Jews were
famed for their "riches", their gold and jewelry. Thus searching for
the Jew's hidden riches the looters started to rip up the floors and
everything else they suspected could hold anything. It was Wednesday
evening when by moving the oven in the "cooperative" they discovered
the entrance to our maline. Apparently those who had left the maline
the day before did not replace the oven quite well. The stream of
light coming suddenly from the ceiling, blinding to darkness-
accustomed eyes made us fear that the worst had happened - the
Germans had discovered the entrance to our hiding place. The fact
that the order to get out was made in Polish rather than German was
rather unexpected. Exhausted physically as well as mentally, we
decided to submit to fate - even more so when we soon realized that
we were discovered not by Germans but by a band of Poles. But
when, intending to climb out we moved toward the improvised wooden
ladder our way was barred by the sister of the killed girl Arluk.
Threatening us with bricks and drenched with tears she met us with
hysterical cries: "I won't let you out, you, killers of my sister!"
After all our attempts to sooth the poor girl were unsuccessful, Nina
(Mula's wife) climbed bravely up to the unfortunate girl, threw a
blanket over her and held her until we could all climb out.
We had to pay off the Poles who awaited us. Father gave them a
gold pocket watch, the wedding present of his father-in-law.
Learning from the Poles that the Germans and their flunkies had left
the camp, we decided to leave it too. Fearing that on the Subocz
street we might be faced by our persecutors we turned toward Rossa
where our camp adjoined a wood. On our way we passed the incompletely
buried corpses of those whose hiding places had been discovered by
the Germans and who were shot on the spot. Mother's reason cleared
completely as soon as she was out in the fresh air. However, the
terrible strain we were subjected to during these last days swayed
the health of both Mother and myself- as the future would show.
The camp was full of Poles but both we and Mula's family
got out without bringing attention to ourselves and climbed a little
hill adjoining the camp. Our problems were far from solved, however.
We could not stay on the hillside since, according to the Poles
living in the surrounding houses and who were standing around, the
Germans, who still controlled the city, illuminated the meadow we
were on with flood-lights at night. We had to find shelter with
Gentiles in the city but to do that we needed to wash and clean our
clothing from the dirt that clung to it after we spent days wallowing
in the mud of the basement. The Poles gave us some water for washing
up and we cleaned our clothing with the brush which Father had
clutched during all these days and which was the only object carried
out by him from the maline. We decided to separate from the
Gersteins fearing that our group might bring upon us the attention of
our enemies. Uncle Mula with his wife and son went to Antokol, a
suburb where the Gersteins were born and where they knew many
Gentiles. We intended to try to go to No 2 Zawalna street where we
had lived before the ghetto, to the janitor Nikolai who hid Emma and
Anya with Shelinka before their departure for Woronowo.
Before we had time to move, I was accosted by a young Lithuanian who
appeared from nowhere and suggested that I should come with him. When
I answered that I was with my parents he offered shelter in his
apartment to the three of us. Having almost no other way out, we
accepted his offer immediately. I have to admit that entrusting our
lives to a complete stranger, a man belonging to a nation who showed
so much eagerness and diligence in the enterprise of our
extermination was foolhardy to say the least. However, destiny was
merciful to us for once and we did not pay for our credulity with our
lives. Nonetheless we were on the outskirts of town and had to
manage to get to the Lithuanian's apartment which was situated in the
center of the city. Thus we had to traverse for a considerable time
the streets of the city which was still completely under German
control. One circumstance was favorable for us: because of the nearing
of the Russian army, the streets of the city were full of the
dwellers of the nearby villages. The apartment of the Lithuanian
was situated on Zawalna street, across the street from the Jewish
hospital which was included in what used to be the ghetto. It was
on the second floor of a corner house which bordered on one side the
intact Choral Synagogue, on the other fronted a large square from
which one entered the apartment. This was important, it gave us a
chance to leave and enter without being seen by the janitor of whom,
the Lithuanian told us, we should beware. As we came closer to our
goal the Lithuanian left us among the ruins of the former ghetto and
went to reconnoiter. We waited, fearing that he might have gone for
the Germans, planning an escape route if he came back with Germans.
Fortunately, he intended us no harm, and returned when he saw that he
could take us to his apartment without being noticed. Leaving us
there he went to a bomb-shelter, since the Russians were subjecting
the nearby railroad junction to a nightly bombing.
Thus we found ourselves alone in a strange apartment on the top
floor of a house situated (as the crow flies) just a few hundred
meters from the railroad station. But neither the horrible feeling
of being defenseless among enemies, nor the ceaseless roar of the
Russian bombs falling with the coming of darkness could keep us
(after all that we were subjected to) from falling asleep right then
and there. When we finally woke late on the next morning, Mother
told us that Father had hallucinated in his sleep. Through the
windows facing the square we could see on Zawalna street (one of
the main arteries of the city) a ceaseless stream of the German
military and their camps interspersed with the dwellers of those
villages who assisted the Germans in their fight with the partisans.
Retreating with the German army they were taking their cattle with
them. They all would turn onto the Big Pohulanka street which took
them to the highway going west. This was already July 6th, 1944.
The Lithuanian came to us early next morning. He warned us again that
the janitor of the house should not know of our existence. Once we
had a roof over our heads our next task (an urgent one since we had
not eaten for a few days) was to get something to eat. Reluctantly,
my Parents consented to my going to ask for food to Nikolai, the
janitor of the house on No 2 Zawalna street and to Boleslaw Poddany,
who lived nearby. There was nothing else we could do and it was
easier for me to pass for a Gentile.
The streets were full of people, there were sellers of
produce - I looked at this normal life in surprise. Both Nikolai and
the Poddanys were glad to hear that we were alive and gave me some
food to bring to my parents. But then suddenly, as I was sitting at
the Poddanys, somebody ran in warning that the Germans were grabbing
people to dig trenches. I sensed that my hosts were afraid that I
might be found in their house. I thanked them, bid them good-by and
left, going up Zawalna (retracing our road to the Ghetto,) toward the
house of the Lithuanian. There was not a soul on the street -
everybody was hiding. As I was trudging doggedly along, carrying my
bags of food, I suddenly heard the loud, measured steps of the German
guard. Two of them (in their characteristic helmets) were walking down
Zawalna toward me on the opposite sidewalk. I realized that giving in
to the instinct to run away would be fatal. I had to continue to
walk slowly toward the Germans, down the empty, deathly silent
street. This slow walk was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my
life. The German watch did not stop me and I finally knocked on the
door of the house we stayed in - it seemed an eternity as my
parents did not open the door for some time.
During the whole day of Thursday, July 6th, 1944, the retreating
German army was continuously passing in front of our windows. With
the coming of darkness came the bombs with which the Russians were
endeavoring to paralyze the important railroad junction nearby. We
were sitting upstairs next to the roof and were shuddering with every
close-by explosion, but were nevertheless afraid to leave our haven
and take shelter in the cellar since there we would be exposed to the
hostile Gentile population. For the time being we got away with it
even though not for long. We had a bad fright during the night from
Thursday to Friday - the janitor, who according to the Lithuanian
constituted a bad danger to us, attempted to get into the apartment.
Fortunately Father was able to prevent his getting in. Hearing that
someone was trying to open the front door with a key, Father
succeeded at the last moment to lock the door with the chain. The
Lithuanian who came to us Friday morning told us that as a rule the
janitors robbed the unguarded dwellings of the tenants who stayed in
the bomb-shelters.
On Friday, since the German and Lithuanian authorities
abandoned the city in a great hurry, the civilian population started
to plunder the merchandise from the warehouses as well as the food
from the Lithuanian Cooperative stores. From our windows we saw
people dragging huge loads of merchandise, bending under the weight.
Observing what was going on, the Lithuanian suggested that he and I
should go and see what we could get. We did and I returned with a
huge round carton of jam which I had taken off the shelf of the food
cooperative next door on Zawalna street, after entering with a crowd
through a window. The jam was a very welcome addition to our scanty
meals. The plunders continued through the day of Friday, July 7th,
even though the German army was still in the city. The Russian army
came close to the city during the night from Friday to Saturday and
the artillery shelling began. Father was standing next to a window
Saturday morning when an artillery shell hit our house. The
air-pressure created by it impelled the window-frame into the room and
threw him into the next room. Deafened by the explosion and
disregarding our other fears we ran out into the yard where we ran
into the janitor. Father survived without major wounds, with just
some deep bleeding scratches from the flying glass. The janitor
protested loudly when Father put his bloody hands into a pail of water
which he had put by. However, the sequential deafening roar of a
near-by explosion forced us all to look for a bomb-shelter. Directed
by the janitor, we ran to the bomb-shelter situated in the basement
of a many-storied building at No 5 Kwiatowa lane connecting Zawalna
to Sadowa street which led to the railroad station. The large
bomb-shelter was overfilled by people seeking refuge from the bombing
which was getting worse with every minute. The people were lying on
the floor on comforters, many had also brought pillows for sleeping.
What was particularly useful to them, since we were stuck in the
cellar for five days, was the food they had brought with them. We, on
the other hand had no food and had to sleep on the bare ground, using
an arm as pillow under our heads.
Having ended up among a crowd of Gentiles, in addition to the
physical privations we were also afraid that our neighbours might
learn that we were Jewish. Since the center of the town was still in
German hands, this put our lives in great danger. To begin with

everything was going smoothly. We thought that we were able to
deflect the suspicions evoked by our unusual appearance, our lack of
belongings and my Parents' less than perfect Polish. We explained
that we were Russian and we had to run out of our house because of a
bomb explosion. My Polish was good and I became friendly with a
Polish teenage girl. The surrounding people were rather friendly, they
talked to us and even offered us food. The problem of our nutrition
was somewhat alleviated when we discovered in the upper story of
the house a storehouse with supplies of liquor and biscuits abandoned
by the Germans. The latter served as our main source of food. We
tried to eat the biscuits with some liquor. The time passed with
unmerciful slowness. I remember that I tried to get drunk in order to
while away the time. I did not like the taste and was bitterly
disappointed when after drinking down a large amount of liquor I did
not even get tipsy. My dislike of alcohol and resistance to its
effects dates from that time.
The ceaseless roar of the shelling shook the walls of our
shelter. To make matters worse, Monday morning, on our third day in
the shelter, it dawned on the Poles that we were Jewish; one of the
Poles suddenly said that he remembered having encountered Father
before the war and knew he was a Jew. We were made aware of their
conclusion when an old lady suddenly asked me: "How was it in the
ghetto?" The news about our being Jewish spread like wildfire
through the shelter and evoked different reactions, from reserved
coolness to expressions of outright hostility. My young "friend" would
have nothing to do with me. Most horrified was a religious woman
who was ceaselessly praying, crossing herself and demanding that we
should be handed to the Germans. She was sure that we would be the
death of them all - we would be throwing bombs and the Germans would
kill everybody in retaliation. We were saved by the lady janitor of
that house who promised to keep us under strict observation and
suppress any attempts by us to attack the Germans. I also remember a
gesture of sympathy from a Russian peasant from Smolensk who, learning
that we were Jewish, sent us a bowl of hot soup which he had managed
to cook right there in the cellar.
The stubborn fighting continued in the city without letup. We had to
spend two more unbearably slow days in this atmosphere poisoned by the
hostility of those around us. The first patrol of the Red Army
appeared in the yard of our bomb shelter in the morning of July 12,
1944; it consisted mostly of Kalmyks. Their coming proclaimed the
end of the three years of our torment.
Around noon, when the shooting quieted down after the German
resistance was broken, we left the shelter and walked down Zawalna
toward the house in which we had lived before we were driven to the
ghetto and which I had visited not quite a week before.
On the street, next to the abandoned anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns
lay lots of corpses of German soldiers, some of them burned beyond
recognition. In carrying out their "scorched earth" policy the Germans
set fire to many houses of the city. Our house on the corner of the
Zawalna and Gdanska streets escaped destruction but at the gate lay
the body of Nikolai, the janitor who had been kind to us. His wife
told us that he had been hit by a stray bullet. We could hear lots
of shooting from the direction of Mickiewicza, the main street where
there were still some points of German resistance, many buildings on
the nearby Portowa and Wilenska streets were in flames. We turned
and went uphill on the hilly, not much destroyed and relatively quiet
Big Pohulanka.
As I recall the day was sunny and moderately hot. We walked silently,
thirstily breathing the fresh air which we had been deprived of for so
long. The joy of our survival was poisoned by the realization of our
losses - that the earth had suddenly yawned, sparing us and
swallowing almost all of those close and dear to us. It was twilight
when we came back to the yard of our bomb-shelter. There we almost
fell victim to a Polish partisan who, learning that we were Jewish,
pointed his rifle at us assuming that even under the new authorities
he could kill Jews with impunity. We were saved by the Soviet soldiers
who came in response to Mother's screams for help. We spent the
night in the bomb-shelter where I was suddenly met with open arms by
my Polish "friend" (the Poles were under the illusion that the Jews
were well liked by the Soviets).
In the morning, looking for shelter, we went to 57 Subocz street, to
the former H.K.P. camp. The outskirts in which the camp was situated
had been taken by the Russians a few days prior to the taking of the
center of town. There we found some of the former Jewish inmates who,
homeless like we were, continued to seek shelter in the buildings of
the camp which had been emptied of all its contents by the plundering
Gentiles. In the room in which we used to live we found nothing of the
things we had brought from the ghetto except for very few of our
photographs, trampled, damaged and dirtied. Regrettably, most of our
pictures were securely pasted in the beautiful album with a painted
linen cover (brought to us by uncle Lyova from Vienna before the war)
we had to leave it in our house when we were chased into the ghetto
of course, but, miraculously, a friend who cleaned German apartments
found it in the back of a cupboard and brought it to us in the ghetto.
Only those photographs which were loose fell out onto the floor as the
looters grabbed the album, so, even trampled and dirtied, these were
precious to us as the only images of our past left to us... I went
down to the basement through the "cubbyhole", bravely crawled into our
"maline" (the corpses may have still been there) and brought out
Father's "rucksack" bag. We found his "tales" in it - all the
underwear which he had placed in it had been stolen.


After our arrival to Subocz Father was interrogated by a member of the
military counter-intelligence. To his shocked astonishment the
questioning was not a friendly one. The sad fact was that during our
first contact with the Soviet authorities we did not find the warmth
and sympathy that we needed so badly but rather were faced with
hostility. We tried to explain this as the Russians' desire to check
if our survival was due to our collaboration with the Germans.
At the time we never suspected that the tidal wave of
anti-Semitism had also inundated the Soviet Union. However, since
for the continuation of the war the Soviet Union was dependent upon
the help of the United States, antiSemitism was frowned upon by the
Soviet Government for the time being.
The fact that the American Jews, (predominantly immigrants from
Russia) preserved nostalgic feelings for the "Old Country" in spite
of the persecutions they were subjected to in Czarist Russia, made
them willing to try to help Russia obtain the crucial support of the
United States.
At the time of our liberation in July of 1944, Jews
still held important positions in the Government and Army of the
Soviet Union. General Cherniakowski, the commander of the army which
liberated Wilno, was Jewish.
Stalin's Jewish policy changed radically for the worse
with the end of the war, when he did not need the help of the
American Jewry any more.
The antiSemitic policy of Stalin reached its peak with the
so-called Doctors Plot in which the doctors, (almost all of them
Jews), were accused of causing the deaths of important political
leaders and writers. The realization of Salin's monstruous plans,
which threatened the Jews with annihilation were fortunately aborted
in the nick of time by Stalin's timely death.
When we returned to the HKP Camp on Suboch street we heard
that our friend Rosa Milecka, who left the "malina" a couple of
days before us, had survived and found refuge with some Russian
schoolteachers in the Rossa neighborhood. We looked her up and
spent a disturbed night there, since the Germans were intensively
bombing the nearby railroad station. Next morning, looking for
shelter we went to Father's former customer Michal Girda who lived
in a relatively new apartment house on Mostowa (Tiltu) street No 3.
In 1937 Father had saved Girda from insolvency and he had not
forgotten it. He kept for us the part of my Parents clothing, furs
and documents that they entrusted to him before we were taken to the
ghetto, and now he willingly gave us shelter in his apartment.
Shockingly, the modern apartment was terribly infested with bedbugs.
The retreating Nazis had destroyed the power station and
Wilno was deprived of light and water. There was a well on the
street near our house from which we could hand-pump water. Our
evenings were spent in complete darkness - with the blackout enforced
because of the constant Nazi bombardment we didn't even dare to light
a candle. During these bombardments we saw that Mother did not
respond to them with the strength and courage she always exhibited
before: even though she had regained the clarity of her mind after
emerging into the fresh air from the malina, her nervous system was
badly shaken
The food was rationed and extremely scarce - even these hunger
rations were often not available. Fortunately we had been able to
preserve the 110 golden rubles that Mother had sewn into her girdle
which she wore constantly. These we used to buy bread on the black
market. A lot of our clothes (suits, coats and linen) we had gotten
back from Poddany and Girda. The critical point were shoes. I cut
up a piece of rubber tire and fastened some cloth strips onto it to
fashion an improvised "sandal". Mother, exhausted from sickness and
hunger, had to stumble in Father's heavy boots. I went to Wiera, our
former maid and got back a jacket with a fur collar. Her husband was
an Exterminator and was able to rid our room in the Girda apartment of
most of the bedbugs. I also went to Zawalna 2, to the basement
apartment of the late janitor Nikolai and got there a dress of mine
that his widow was wearing and the broken vase from Riga. I was
entirely fearless - uncharacteristic for me. In the apartment-house
in which we lived, a Lithuanian, probably a Nazi, ran away with the
Germans leaving all his furniture. My Father was given the key to the
apartment, but, upright as he was, he wouldn't think of entering it.
I climbed in through a window, opened the door and took out some beds
and other stuff I felt we needed. Now we slept in comfort on clean,
bedbug-free beds!
My fifteenth birthday was approaching. When my Parents
asked what kind of present would make me happy, I told them that the
best gift would be the finding of a tutor for me. During the three
years in the Ghetto and camp HKP I had no formal instruction, just
some lessons in beginning English from Mrs Emilia Poznanska and a few
in geometry by the young doctor Epstein. I was thirsty for knowledge.
After searching diligently, Mother found a mathematics tutor
for me. Professor Mowszowicz, a lecturer at the Wilno University,
lived on the outskirts of town and had the time to teach me only
between the hours of seven and eight in the morning. But nothing
was too difficult for me. My eagerness was so great that I would
leave our house at dawn in order to come to Mowszowicz before seven
o'clock, just in case he could start the lesson earlier.
Father remembers: When he happened to meet me, Prof. Mowszowicz told
me that in my daughter he had found a unique student, both gifted
and eager to learn. Perella's ability and thirst for knowledge was
so great that independently, without textbooks, she would find proofs
for geometric theorems and solve twenty problems overnight. She
would delve ever deeper into any problem, never letting go until
everything was clarified to her satisfaction.

Pearl resumes: During the six weeks remaining before the beginning
of the school year, I caught up in mathematics for the lost three
years. In this way, I was able to enter the Russian Gymnasium at a
level corresponding to my age.
At this time the Jewish Partisans (among them Father's former
employee Aaron Kagan, his second wife Dina, his brother Jasha,
Gabriel Sedlis and Samek Wulc) started to trickle back to Wilno from
the Rudnicki forests and the woods around the Lake Narocz. At the
same time the several hundred Jews hidden by Gentiles on the
outskirts of the town returned to the city, among them uncle David
Gerstein with his wife Mera, my future husband Vova Gdud with his
Father Dov, Doctor Eliasz Sedlis with his son Alik and Alik's wife
Mila. The majority of our family had perished: my Grandmothers, the
families of my aunts Emma and Anya and of my uncle Yefim, with the
exception of Yefims daughter Dora and son Lasia who ran away to
Russia with the retreating Red Army. Lasia, by then a private in
the Lithuanian division of the Red Army, fell subsequently in
Ponievez in the last year of the war. Dora and her husband were in
Tashkent at the time of our liberation.
Two years after the war, we learned that Father's brother
David had survived; he escaped from a French camp and hid in the
mountains near Grenoble which were under Italian occupation. My
uncle Mula Gerstein, from whom we had separated after abandoning the
malina, had also survived with his wife Nina and son Gera.
All of my Mother's family perished except for David, Mera, Mula,
Nina and Gera: her Mother and aunt Sarah, her sisters Rachel and
Vera with their husbands. Her brother Lyova and family were at that
time still alive in the Kovno Ghetto, but were soon to be deported by
the Nazis to concentration camps, Lyova to Dachau, his wife Marusia
and daughter Perella (same age as myself), to camps in West Poland,
where they all perished.
My uncle Nachum was killed by the Nazi bombing in June of 1941.
David's and Mera's only daughter Zhenia was killed in the Ghetto as I
described before.
After talking to the Jewish partisans, we understood that the
attempt of the Polish partisans to shoot us after they learned that
we were Jewish (immediately after the liberation in the yard of the
bomb shelter) was in line with the AK policy of extermination of
all the Jews who tried to save themselves in the forests.
The killings by the A.K. were carried out with great cruelty.
As told by aunt Mera Gerstein, Eli Baran, a close friend of Mera and
David Gerstein, a tall, blond, blue eyed young man was installed in
an A.K. group by his friend, a major of the A.K. After the Poles of
the group "smelled out" that Eli was Jewish, they set him up - during
a planned attack on a German installation, the Poles "evaporated",
leaving Eli to be taken by the Germans who tortured him, blinding
him before he was killed. Some other victims were castrated before
they were killed. The Jewish partisans told us that in the forest,
the A.K. was a greater peril to them then were the Germans.
My aunt Mera Gerstein recounted that, after the liquidation of the
ghetto in September 1943, she and David were hidden by a Polish
peasant in the village of Skorbuciany. The Polish A.K. were
quartered in the village, with their headquarters in the nearby house
of the peasant's father-in-law. When the A.K had discovered two Jews,
a young girl and her father, under the floor of a cow-barn, they
accused them of spying - they killed the father immediately and
brought the girl to their commander at the headquarters - after one
week the girl was shot too. A military priest of the A.K. declared
during a service held in the headquarters: "Our first enemy are the
Jews, then the Germans". Actually, the A.K. was fighting against the
Jews, not the Nazis. This fact was incomprehensible, since the A.K.
was carrying out orders from the Polish Government in exile in London,
in which Polish Jews were represented.
Felek Wolski is a Pole from Wilno who, with his wife Maryla
Abramowicz, helped save many Jews at the risk of their lives and
was instrumental in the survival of the Sedlis family; his
opinion, therefore, is very authoritative, (even though no Pole had
ever admitted the A.K.'s guilt); Felek says that the outrages
against the Jews were perpetrated not by the mainstream A.K. but by a
splinter group of the A.K., the N.S.Z. (National Military Forces)¯ the
armed arm of the O.N.R. the ultra-radical part of the ENdeks, the
student "beaters" - palkarze These radical splinter forces frequently
did not follow the commands sent from London.
On the other hand, ZEGOTA, the Committee to Provide Aid to the
Jews was established by the A.K. in Warsaw and Cracow. In the
Rudnicki forest the Jewish partisans operated together with the
Lithuanian Communists, under the leadership of Zimanas (a Jew), former
editor of the Lithuanian Pravda, who had been parachuted in from
From the partisans returning from the forests around
Narocz who had operated together with the Russians, we were shocked
to learn about the antiSemitism prevailing there too. The Jews were
often deprived of their arms, in some cases even secretly killed by
their "comrades in arms".
The activities of all the partisans were directed predominantly
toward the destruction of the German railroads and lines of
communication. The Jewish partisans gave short shrift to those
Jews who, as ghetto policemen, had collaborated with the Nazis.
Some were shot (Levas, Bernstein) some transferred to the NKVD for
trial, ( Lonia Ferdman) others were killed still in the forest (Rink,
Of those deported after the liquidation of the ghetto very few
The destiny of the man's camps in Estonia was diverse. Some of
the men were transferred to Germany; Dr. Alosha Perevoski and his son
Marek, my childhood friend were taken to Dachau, where they
Immediately after the liberation, Mother had a relapse of her
glaucoma condition. Fortunately, professor Ignacy Abramowicz (a Jew
converted to Christianity) who had operated successfully on her
glaucoma in 1935, had survived and agreed to take care of her
again; even though this time less successfully. The surgery had to be
repeated 2 1/2 times, first an iridectomy, then cyclodialysis, but
even that didn't relieve the pressure on the eyeball completely, this
threatened the optic nerve. The surgeries were performed in the
eye clinic of St. Josef situated near the railroad station which
was constantly bombed by the Nazis. The situation was complicated by
the unavailability of the drug pilocarpine. Professor Abramowicz,
an amazingly kindhearted and generous physician even paid personally
for my weakened Mother's handsome cab fare.
After our liberation in Wilno the relations between the Poles
and the Russians were hostile. Since the members of the A.K., were
shooting from the ruins at the Soviet soldiers under the cover of
darkness, the Soviets started to deport thousands of Poles, mostly
the well-to-do, to Siberia. In finding employment after our
liberation Father didn't have the difficulties he had to face in
the past, in 1940, as a nationalized businessman. Our great losses,
and suffering and our gratitude toward our liberators purified him of
any anti communist bias. In him the Soviets had a devoted worker,
eager to serve their best interests.
Unfortunately, Father soon came to the conclusion, that in the
communist system there is no place for honest effort. With the
communist Lithuanian government there returned to Wilno our close
relative, Fima Alperavicius. Fima spent several years in Paris,
where he was a close friend of my uncle David.
Fima, an unprincipled opportunist, was able to adapt to the Soviet
Fima became the head of the Lithuanian Republic's Ministry of
Building materials. Fima employed Father as the Head of the Planning
Bureau of the Ministry.
Because of Mothers illness it fell upon me to stand in the endless
lines to redeem the extremely scanty rations for me and Mother and the
much better and larger rations given to my Father which I would sell
to buy necessities. Government officials had a monthly ration of
10kg. of sweet butter. As an important official Father got 3 kg. of
American lard a month. The monthly ration of fat of the worker and
the civilian population was 600 g. of lowest quality sunflower oil.
Other products were distributed in the same proportion and what was
worst, after a long wait in line, these civilian daily ration coupons
were frequently not redeemable; they were irretrievably lost because
of shortages of produce in the regular ration stores on the designated
day. I was standing in line for Father's "A" rations one day,
hoping to get lard, when I was told that the store was out of lard
and was given another white sticky substance in the jar I
brought. (Without bringing jars or newspapers for wrapping, you
couldn't get anything. That is probably why I am unable to discard the
beautiful jars that are thrown away today) Suspiciously I stuck my
finger into the jar and licked - ecstasy!! it was my first taste of
sweetened condensed milk. It possessed the incomparable beauty of the
mythical Princess Nestan Darzhan I had just learned about in school.
I knew that I had to sell this delight and buy bread, as I did with
most of my Father's "A" rations, but thought I would just lick it a
couple times...soon the jar was empty. In school I was doing well, I
was friendly with the Jewish survivors - Lubka Libo and Fridka
Zeidshnur, but I had no boy friends, even though I would have liked
to. Then came the great moment of a class party. I was very excited,
but I had no "dress up" clothes, besides not being friendly with any
boys. I tried to overcome the clothes part of this difficulty by
improvising. A colorful hanging served as a skirt, long, narrow strips
of scraps served as ribbons, I sewed onto another strip and fastened
them (not securely enough, it appeared) onto the back of my head,
they were supposed to veil my thin, mousy, braids. I had no way to
improvise my way out of not being asked to dance, even once! I felt a
wallflower even though quite a few boys did not dance, either. I was
so downhearted that, when my "headdress" fell off and somebody found
it and asked to whom it belonged, I did not claim it. This
humiliation had such a strong effect on me, that I never again went to
a dance without a date.
Father remembers:
Combined with all this was the realization that in this land of
mass repression, my past of having once been a successful businessman
could bring tragic consequences any day (businessmen were persecuted
as a class). This fear was intensified by the following occurrence.
In the period of the Civil War, my host Michal Girda fought as an
lieutenant of a Cossack regiment in the white (counterrevolutionary)
army of Baron Wrangel. In 1920 this army had to evacuate from the
Crimea to Bulgaria. During the Nazi occupation when I was working at
Poddany's HKP car repair shop which was next door to Girda's workshop,
I was frequently sent to the latter to charge the vehicle batteries.
During our encounters Girda always gave me moral support. Being a
Russian patriot he never missed the opportunity to inform me about any
success of the Red Army.
After the liberation Girda would go to his repair shop each morning
and would return home in the evening. One day he failed to return.
Worried, we started to look for him in the hospitals and even in the
morgues, but without any results. After one month without any news
about his fate, my wife suddenly appeared at my place of work with the
news that our apartment was being searched by the Soviet Military
Intelligence Service and their chief demanded my presence. When I
came home the chief, a captain, told me that Michal Girda has been
arrested by the Military Intelligence "Smersh" and has given myself,
a victim of the Nazis, as reference that he was a devoted Russian
He gave me a note from Girda, asking me to tell the whole truth. The
captain told me that he intended to interrogate me soon for this
purpose. After one week he appeared at my place of work, required an
isolated room and started to question me. In my testimony, which he
recorded, I emphasized Girda's great help and support for the victims
of the Nazis, his hate of the Nazis and devotion to Russia. However,
inadvertently I confirmed the captains statement that Girda had spent
some time in Bulgaria, not suspecting the consequences of this
confirmation. Before asking me to sign the official record of my
testimony, the captain read its contents aloud to me. Everything that
I had said favorable for Girda was mentioned, but at the end there
was an addition saying that during the Civil War Girda fought as a
member of the white (counterrevolutionary) army and had been
evacuated to Bulgaria. When I protested that I never said anything
about Girda's participation in the "white army", the captain answered
"That is obvious, how else would he end up in Bulgaria ?" "That may
be a possibility," I objected, "but Girda never told me about it and
I cannot testify to what I do not know" and I refused to sign the
protocol. For two hours the captain persuaded me to sign, without
threats, but so insistently that after he gave his word of honor
of a Russian officer that they were not going to punish Girda now
for what happened 25 years ago, and that the record that he asked me
to sign was entirely in Girda's favor, I finally gave in and
signed. I was heartbroken - I went home and confessed my weakness to
Girda's wife. I found some consolation in the fact that next day the
same happened to Girda's wife - she too finally confirmed Girda's
participation in the "white army". Girda's tragedy reminded me
poignantly that I too was sitting under a Damocles's sword, since,
as a nationalized businessman I had been considered a harmful
element in the past. Moreover, after working with the socialist
system I realized that in the best of cases my family and I were
condemned to a life full of privation.
A general meeting of all the workers of our ministry took place at
the beginning of 1945, in the presence of the highest party and
government officials (all fat with big bellies, which was especially
striking in view of the general starvation). The report on our unit's
achievements was given by Alperavicius. In the prescribed manner, he
started his report with self-criticism. "Yes, comrades, we have to
admit that we have worked badly. And why are our achievements so
unsatisfactory? It is because Comrade Esteravicius didn't analyze
adequately, and Comrade Shillingas was not sufficiently active." This
turning of myself and of Shillingas into scapegoats for the sins and
inadequacies of the system filled me with disgust. When the
opportunity to leave the Soviet Union presented itself, neither I nor
my wife and daughter hesitated in seizing it, even though we were not
sure whether it was safe to do so. We were not unique in our decision
to leave the Soviet Union - 95% of the Jews liberated in 1944 did the

Pearl continues:
I am reminded of a "funny" occurrence before we left. When we
registered for repatriation to Poland as Polish citizens, we tried to
keep it quiet, not knowing whether we might be deported for it. When
I was visiting Luba Libo one day, the daughter of a Secret Police
woman was also there. We all were afraid that anything the girl heard
would be repeated to the mother. Suddenly, Luba's Mother runs in and
exclaims: "Perella, I hear that your family applied for repatriation
- what terrible ingratitude to our dear Fatherland, our liberators!"
this in the hearing of the girl, presumably so that she should tell
her mother (and the Secret Police) how faithful to the Fatherland the
Libos were - in contrast to the Esterowiczes, of course. Scared, I
made myself scarce faster than lightning. Now for the funny part: a
few months later, I was walking down the street of Lodz, Poland and
whom did I see? Mrs Libo across the street from me. I must have
given her a powerful look - she fell down right then and there!
We left Wilno in cattle cars, (still apprehensive that we might
end up being taken east rather than west) in the middle of April 1945,
bringing all our clothing, linen, bedding, rugs and even my Mother's
sewing machine. There were no toilets on the cattle train, to
urinate and have a bowel movement we had to jump off the train during
its very frequent stops and do our business on the other side of the
rails. The problem was that we never knew when the train would start
moving and we would have to run after it to be pulled up. Since
Warsaw was completely destroyed, at the end of April we disembarked
in Lodz, a big textile manufacturing center created by Jews and
Germans, the second largest city of Poland and very little destroyed
by the war. In Lodz we found refuge in the luxurious apartment (in
the best quarter of town on the Aleje Kosciuszki) of David Dynin, the
nephew of my uncle Naum Zlatin. David was in Palestine, but his wife,
his eighteen-year-old son Jurek and about ten-year-old daughter
Dzidzka were in Poland, they survived hiding as Aryans. Jurek
continued to behave like a Pole, he was wearing a red-and-white ribbon
as sign of his patriotism. Jurek tried to talk me into some sensual
touching, always trying to put his hands on my breasts and pubic
region. I was not especially attracted to him, but he was the first
boy who found me attractive enough to be worth an attempt at sex.
Nevertheless, I was aware of what could end up badly for me and when
Jurek became too insistent, I made sure not be left alone in the house
with him.

We felt very unwelcome in Poland. The Poles thought that
they had gotten rid of us - we should have been dead. It was clear to
us that Poland should not be our final destination. The following
occurrence, at the beginning of May, showed how apprehensive about our
safety we Jews were. That night we were awakened by the sound of
explosions. All the inhabitants of the apartment were terrified,
considering this to be the start of the Polish pogrom, aimed at
exterminating the incoming Jews from the east. In reality, those were
the firecrackers and shots of jubilation about the conquest of Berlin.
Many people were now living in this huge apartment. Among them
was the attorney Rachel Lauenberg, born Schik, niece of Naum Zlatin.
Rachel lost her husband but survived hidden by gentiles in very hard
conditions. Rachel helped Father to get employed as an economist in
the main office of the Tobacco State Monopoly; he was the only overt
Jew. As his first task he was immediately sent to Lublin to buy
tobacco on the black market. In Lublin he met Doctor Sedlis (who was
recovering from a heart attack) and his family, Alik and Mila. Mila's
mother, Mrs Zeldowicz was one of the few survivors of those women who,
after the liquidation of the ghetto of Wilno, were originally taken to
Latvia to the concentration camp Kaiserwald near Riga, and later
transferred to camps in western Prussia.
Father's next assignment was the purchase of office equipment
in the former German territories given to Poland - the city of
Wroclaw. Since this was the period when the vanquished, starving
Germans in order to get food were selling their belongings for next to
nothing, many enterprising people were exploiting this situation to
get rich.
Like Wilno, Wroclaw was very much destroyed. It was dusk when Father
descended from the train and was approached by a young German who
begged for help saying that he was hungry. In spite of his declaration
to me that he would strangle the first German he met, he
automatically gave him money. Feeling a little guilty about his
inability to hate, he confessed what happened to me I got very mad,
saying that I lost my respect for him.
At this time, (to the Poles great disappointment), the Jews who
had run away from the Germans, or had been deported by the Russians,
started to come back from Russia in the hundreds of thousands. Among
them was the attorney Ilya Zaks, the husband of our neighbor
Alexandra who had shared our room in H.K.P. and was killed during the
liquidation of that camp. Attorney Zaks, a man of great common sense,
was one of the most financially successful attorneys of Wilno. I
mention Zaks in view of the positive role he subsequently played in
our lives. The majority of the Jews, taking advantage of the easy
frontier crossing during the aftermath of the war, left Poland,
stopping temporarily in Germany or Italy. Among them were Mula and
David Gerstein and their families, Ilya Zaks, the family Sedlis, and
our friend Rosa Milecka (another H.K.P. neighbor). We stayed behind
temporarily, to give me the chance to complete my Gymnasium (High
school) studies in a language familiar to me.
I enrolled in an accelerated Lyceum Duczyminskiego and
accomplished two years in one, graduating in July of 1946 with a
Matura, a secondary school diploma. My grades were all "good" and
"excellent", except for Chemistry, a subject I was interested in - it
would become my life's work, but the anti-Semitic teacher gave me a
"sufficient" in it.
The only fellow-students that I got friendly with was Janina
Wolynska, a Jewish girl older than myself who was still going under
the Polish name she and her Father used while living as aryans.
Janina and her Father had an apartment and I frequently stayed at her
place, doing our homework together. The other girl I was friendly
with was the daughter of a Polish peasant named Krystyna, she invited
me to come with her to her parents' farm, a considerable distance from
Lodz - I guess my Parents didn't know how we would get there. We
traveled on the rooftops of trains, climbing up with the help of
Polish soldiers on whom we leaned while sitting on the roof. The
soldiers were very nice to us - I remember thinking that Poles are
actually nice to each other. She did not tell her family that I was
Jewish, we went to church next day and I managed to get away with
aping everything Krystyna did. I took it for granted that she could
not tell her family about my being Jewish - that was the reality of
things, I accepted it and had a nice time! I may have "accepted", or
rather expected it but nevertheless I must have resented this - after
I left Poland and ended up in the Jewish Student home in Italy, I
wrote to Krystyna about how wonderful it was to be in an environment
where I could let myself be interested in boys - they were Jewish!
Since Krystyna had been friendly to me (for that time and place), this
dig was perhaps unnecessary. Krystyna's answer must have pointed out
some such truths to me - it made me uncomfortable and I never answered
her. It was only in Italy that I could accept Gentiles as human like
As the bloody anti Jewish excesses became more frequent in
Poland, Jewish lives outside of the big cities were ever more
endangered. In the summer of 1946 Mother went to the summer resort
Krynica with Zlatunia Trocka, (widow of the Chairman of the Judenrat
of Wilno, killed by the Germans). They had to interrupt their
vacation because of the mortal danger they were exposed to there as
Father remembers:
In 1946 the anti Jewish excesses had spread to the big cities too -
Krakow and, most terribly, Kielce where the whole surviving Jewish
population of more than forty was exterminated. In the morning of
the so called "Kielce excesses", knowing nothing about these events, I
came to work as usual. I shared an office with a Polish Count named
Osowski, a typical opportunist (playing the part of a communist,
devoted to the new regime). I found Osowski pacing the room, wringing
his hands and exclaiming: "What a disgrace, these, after all are
innocent people !" "What happened?" I asked Osowski. "Don't you
know, my wife heard on the early news this morning that in Kielce more

than forty Jews were killed- everybody except for the very few who
could run away... What will the world think about Poland? What a
disgrace, what a disgrace!"
The Bierut Government punished the murderers severely, condemning
eighteen of them to death. This action was met with a storm of
strikes and demonstrations by the "proletarian Lodz". Embarrassed by
such a reaction, the government arranged some "consciousness raising"
meetings in the factories of the city. One such meeting of 1200
factory and 250 office workers took place in the cafeteria of our
factory. The first speaker declared that the Kielce events were
against the Christian moral law. The second speaker, a member of the
Polish Socialist party, (PPS), accused the capitalists of instigating
hatred in one part of the population against the other, to achieve
their ugly aims. The Communist party representative (PPR) said more
or less the same. They proposed a resolution condemning the Kielce
excesses. A wild shout NO! NO! was the answer. My office messenger
jumped onto the podium yelling: "I was in Lwow when the Jews were
killing Polish children!" This was met by the crowd with a bestial
explosion of hatred for the Jews. As the only Jew there, I ran out of
the room, completely shattered by the realization that even after the
extermination of three million Polish Jews, so much hatred remained.
At this time, a former member of the P.A.L partisans, ( Polish
Peoples' Army - in contrast to the A.K., the P.A.L. did not kill the
Jews) walked into my office and told me about what took place in the
room next door. When one engineer Tomaszewicz said: "I pity
Esterowicz, he is a decent fellow and now he is so shattered." Osowski
jumped up and yelled: "What, you feel sorry for a Jew!" This was the
same Osowski who a few days before was wringing his hands about the
"disgrace of Kielce".

Pearl Continues:
We were finished with Poland then. We knew we had to get out as
soon as possible, especially since I had already received my Matura,
the secondary school Diploma. At that time attorney Zaks sent to us
an experienced guide who could bring us to Italy (by crossing many
borders illegally). To be more mobile we sold some of our belongings
- the sewing machine, our pre war carpet, Mother's fur coat, my
squirrel collar and cap, (and so on), and bought 120 English paper
pounds from Father's good acquaintance Wilkomir. The reason he bought
the pounds was a much lower exchange rate (unfortunately, he was
aware of the proper course ). From before the war Father preserved 35
paper pounds and, upon inspection could see no difference between the
old and the new ( the new were 5, 10, and 20 pound notes ). He did not
know that because the Germans had counterfeited the higher
denomination pound notes during the war, the British Government had
retracted from circulation all the paper money, starting with the 5
pound denominations.
The Bierut Government, seeing that a stand against Poland's
wild antiSemitism would make them even more unpopular, was glad to get
rid of us and did not interfere with the mass exodus of the Jews from
Poland. Unofficially they were even helpful, as we saw when the
Polish officials helped us to cross illegally the border into
We were led by the Jewish organization "Bricha", which directed us by
train to Vienna, the Austrian capital.
We soon left Vienna over Saalfelden and reached the Brenner
pass, where our luggage was taken up by the "Bricha", to be
transported over the Italian frontier by truck.
Led by the Bricha, our group, membering about 200, had to climb the
steep and slippery mountain paths on foot. Mother, wearing medium
heel shoes could not make it - she kept sliding down. She had to
take off her shoes and walk barefoot in the snow for about 10 miles -
as a result she got a sciatic nerve inflammation.
After we finally climbed over into Italy, we were taken in the
trucks of the Palestinian Brigade to Merano, where we took a train
to Milano. Since we had no railroad tickets, we were instructed, in
case of inspection to answer with one word only - "capo". Nobody
bothered us on our journey, we tried to speak Yiddish to the Italian
passengers - they looked so Jewish.
In Milano we found uncle David and his wife Mera who had already
been living in Milano for a year. They placed us in an expensive hotel
for one night. Since it was impossible to find any private room
accommodations, we had to go and live in the UNRRA refugee camp
Scuola Cadorna where we registered as refugees on November 3rd, 1946.
Because of excruciating sciatica pain, Mother was placed in a
For the Jewish refugees the basic IRO ( former UNRRA) support
was supplemented by the American Joint Distribution Committee ( Joint

It felt like a fairytale when I was invited from the crowding and
the wild noise of the refugee camp in Milano to aunt Nina and uncle
Mula Gerstein's apartment in Rome. I don't remember who arranged the
IRO ticket, second class, with reserved seats. I was sitting next to
a lovely, kind, lady; I brought with me an apple for food. After I
ate it, I did not know what to do with the leftover apple-core, so I
stealthily pushed it under what I thought was the seat divider, only
to be admonished by the lady that I had pushed it under her side...
My Rome visit went much too fast. I must have been worried about how
we would manage, because when Vera Kaplan, a kind friend of my
Parents, took me around the Roman antiquities, I disappointed her by
not being interested enough. By the time I came back to Milano my
Father managed, with Aron Kagan's help, to rent a room in a private
apartment on via Lanzone, from a very unpleasant landlady, Signora Di
Chiara. I usually don't pick fights, but Di Chiara made me very mad by
saying that it was indecent for me and Father to sleep in the same
room; I countered that she was unhygienic - she never swept under the
beds - I saw an old sock there for weeks. Since I did not know Italian
yet I had to carry on all this unpleasantness through the translation
of a reluctant German- speaking fellow-renter.
Without Mother being there as the loving buffer between our two rather
self-centered personalities, combined with Father's frustration with
his inability to find a job, I found Father both demanding and
domineering. Among those renting a room from DiChiara were two young
Turks. I don't remember being interested in them, but Father suspected
me of flirting with them and slapped my face - the only time any of my
Parents had hit me.
Since there was still no improvement in Mother's suffering from the
schiatic nerve inflammation, she was sent by I.R.O. to Aqui, a resort
near Genova, for mud bath treatments. The treatments were successful
and she could return to Milano and share the room on via Lanzone with
us - a relief in more ways than one! Our family had entered Italy
illegally, but the Italian Jewish community helped us to get the
residence permit (Soggiorno). The charm and friendliness of the
Italian people opened a new world to us. I felt that the warmth of
the Italians made it possible, (in spite of past persecution), to
believe that the Gentiles were human.
Besides the housing difficulties, the tenfold higher food
prices were a hardship for us. The other shock awaiting us was the
discovery that Father's 120 English pounds (which he bought at such
favorable exchange before leaving Lodz and for which he sold my
squirrel collar and cap), were Nazi counterfeit. The only
exchangeable ones were the 35 pounds he bought before the war.
Father's attempts to find employment with the Joint were
unsuccessful in spite of his education and experience since he didn't
know English; they would have considered me, since I had some
knowledge of English, but I hoped to enroll at the University.
Our financial situation was not very bright. The winter of
1946-1947 was an unusually severe one. The situation was exacerbated
by the fact that Italian houses were not built for such
temperatures and there was no coal available for central heating.
We had to install a pot-bellied little stove in our room, but the only
wood available was so raw that it gave more smoke than heat. As a
result, nowhere have we suffered so much from cold as in sunny Italy.
When visiting aunt Mera once, Father said: "Perellochka has a nice
figure, doesn't she?" I interjected : "No, Tatus, you know I stoop".
Mera replied: "She has a horrible figure, besides stooping she also
has no waist". That was a new worry - I did not know about my lack of
waist. Looking back I can understand that it was hard for Mera to see
me alive while her beautiful Zhenichka was killed, but at that time
this really hurt me. I never forgot it. Many years later aunt Mera
explained that Father must have really irritated her for her to have
said that, but never-the-less it rankled
After my return from Rome I applied to the Industrial
Chemistry Department of the University of Milano (after I had learned
in high school that linoleum was produced from linseed oil, I was so
impressed with this miracle of science that I decided chemistry would
be my life's work).
The Italian application process is lengthy and complicated - I had to
send all my documents to be confirmed by a Doctor Leonardi at the
foreign ministry in Rome. After everything had been confirmed and all
the documents were sent back to Milano, (including my acceptance and
my precious Matura - my high school diploma), they all vanished into
thin air. I was desperate - I couldn't continue my education without
my Matura. Finally Eric Linder, a kind, German speaking Italian
Jewish student took me to the Dean and translated when I described my
sad plight to him. The Dean was touched and ordered a search for the
documents. Miraculously, they were found (misfiled) in the Archives
of the Graduates.
Diligently, I was auditing all the lectures required in the
first year of Industrial Chemistry at the University of Milano, but
understood almost nothing, except for those of General Chemistry in
which the professor, bless his soul, was so proud of his new textbook
that he repeated each chapter, word for word. Every evening I would
read a few pages ahead with a dictionary; I did not have a Polish -
Italian dictionary, but used an Italian - English and then an English
- Polish one. After having translated everything to my satisfaction,
next day I would sit there, beaming - I understood every word the
professor said!

Father became an employee of the Joint, with a small salary.
This solved our financial problems, giving him a chance of making a
modest living in Italy.

Father remembers:
The I.R.O. camps were scattered all over Italy, from Torino in the
north to Bari in the south and were administered by the Refugee
Committees. Generally the refugees were survivors of concentration
camps or the hardships of Siberia, where honesty was not a survival
characteristic. As a result of this the majority of the camp
committees looked on their position not as a responsibility but
rather as an opportunity for grabbing better food and accommodations
for themselves. Thus there were abuses at the expense of the rank
and file of the refugees. I considered the protection of the weakest
as my prime responsibility.
My efforts were mainly directed toward the prevention of these
abuses in the future, or at least toward making them more difficult to
commit. There should be no single person in charge who could both
authorize the withdrawal and remove the food from the storeroom, thus
being able to sell it on the black market. Nevertheless, even these
precautions couldn't prevent the food from disappearing on the way to
the kitchen from the storeroom. I arranged that every day another
refugee would in turn "accompany" the food from shelf to kettle.
However, many regarded their turn at "guard duty" as just a chance to
be paid off with an extra slice. I also had to secure the mail from
depredation; in the Cremona camp 1000 stolen letters, containing cash
from relatives in the U.S. and South Africa, were discovered upon
search of the lodgings of the representative who picked the mail up
from the post office for all the inhabitants.
Then came the big scandal of the postal parcels, the so called
The Joint representative told me, aghast, that in the U.S. the
charitable "town of origin associations" - the "landsmandshaftn"
were flooded by thousands of begging letters. They were sent by
refugees who described their sad plight, complained about the bad
camp conditions and that the Joint gave them nothing, therefore
harming the collection of funds for the Joint. For the big swindle
the refugees taking part pooled their funds to buy stamps, there was a
division of labor: some found the different charitable "town of
origin" associations, others researched the authentic names of the
town's inhabitants, the third wrote the heart-wringing letters sure
to bring a positive response. It appeared that each of these "gangs"
sent these begging letters (called "pigeons") to the respective
"landsmanschaftn" in the names of hundreds of non-existent people.
The Cremona postmaster came to me complaining that he was put in a
very difficult situation - he was threatened and had to cooperate with
the swindlers, with one person picking up tens or hundreds of parcels
addressed to non-existent recipients.
I told the camp office that I was putting a hold on these
parcels and they should not be released. I was threatened by the
swindlers who demanded the release of the parcels. They screamed
"Don't you dare to mix in! Don't you get your salary from the American
Joint?" Their demands were supported by some members of the camp
committee who were also sending out "pigeons".
With time my work would be appreciated. In 1947 the American
Joint was embarrassed by the discovery of large-scale pilfering in
their Rome warehouse and by the arrest by the Italian police of twenty
of their employees. Apparently the police was investigating the
origin of some American clothing sold on the black market. The
investigation led them to the discovery of large depredations. The
Joint had to buy their employees out from the police. Gitlin, the
head director of the Joint in Italy entrusted the organization of
accountability to me (to the American employees great displeasure).
I found a chaotic situation I instituted some reasonable accounting
techniques and brought things under control. It gave me great
satisfaction to know that the Joint turned to me even though they
did not want me in 1946 since I didn't know English.

Pearl Continues:
In the fall of 1946 the American Joint established, with I.R.O. basic
support, a Jewish refugee student hostel (Casa dello Studente) upon
the initiative of three medical students, Vova Gdud (my future
husband) and his friends Jasha Brauns and Isaac Geleris.
Vova and Jasha were survivors of the Holocaust, Isaac fought with the
Lithuanian Division of the Red Army. They managed to persuade the
Joint Director Gelbert, (a kind man) about the merit of giving the
survivng Jewish students a chance to work out their aspirations in an
environment conducive to their success. Vova was the secretary of the
Jewish Refugee Student Union organized by him in Italy (with the
initial membership of one) with the help of an Italian Jew, Luciano
Coen, a student of engineering. Vova managed, through the help of the
former Lithuanian Cultural Attaché Maciavicius, to establish a
relationship with professor Leonardi of the Foreign Ministry. This
enabled him to help arrange the acceptance to the University of Rome
of many Jewish refugee students who lacked complete documentation.
Isaac, who conceived the idea of a refugee student hostel after having
worked in the Italian student hostel, was able to do the same in
Torino with the help of the administrator Ivo Matucci.
With the help of his friend, Cesare Reyneri, Jasha found the
beautiful, large, dilapidated villa on a hill across the river Po from
the park Valentino in which most of the University buildings were
situated. The villa's owner, Count Balbo Bertone di San Buy, whose son
was a friend of Cesare, was willing to lease it to the Joint if they
would perform the necessary restoration . Upon the students'
request, the Count insisted on a four year lease - this assured the
"Casa" a longer existence.

When I learned about the existence of the Students' home, I
immediately visited the Casa dello Studente (the Casa). I first went
to talk to Izak Geleris who accepted me after an interview. When
Jasha Brauns heard that I was from Wilno, he immediately took me to
his next-room neighbour, Vovka Gdud, also from Wilno; to begin with,
Vovka screamed that he had no time "stop bothering me!" but then was
very friendly. All this was during the "Matricula" mischief and
nobody had any time to find me a place to sleep for the night. Joseph
Heller took pity on me and found a bed for me, dragged it downstairs
and then with some difficulty (and arguments) placed it into the room
of the Borychowska sisters and Eva Kolska, with whom I continued to
stay after I transferred to the University of Turin and came to the
Casa, arriving there in late December of 1946. I was the youngest
student of the Casa. I found the student body of the Casa very
colorful and fascinating, even though intimidating at times, but there
were always some kind souls willing to be helpful. I formed a few
close friendships which stayed with me until now one of them was Dora
Kaplan, now Wulc, a chemistry major who was kind to me. Dora would
sing Russian songs as we were walking on the shore of the river Po.
To get to the Chemistry Department I would cross the bridge and walk
through the Valentino park. The laboratories were less delightful -
there were no exhaust hoods. Our first assignment was the Qualitative
Lab I had a hard time - later I learned that to make life easier, most
student would tip the janitor, who would give them the contents of
their "unknown". I managed nevertheless - I was diligent and
interested, I learned the Italian language quickly and was an A
student. One day in June of 1947 I sent my Parents in Milano an
exultant telegram - I had gotten 30, the top grade, from De Paolini,
the most exacting and feared professor of Organic Chemistry.
Unfortunately even this professor did not teach us up-to-date Organic
Chemistry - I learned about the concepts "elecrophilic" and
"nucleophilic" only after coming to the United States.
Stereochemistry was unheard of, too, this may have been just-as-well,
since it is extremely difficult for me.
The students were very friendly and helpful to each other, there
was no competition. I frequently invited girls to come to the Casa
to study together, but when I invited a boy, after he saw that we
studied in the library with many other students, he gave me some
"brotherly advice": you shouldn't invite boys to come study with you,
they will assume that you want to have sex with them. Live and learn!
Three boys were interested in me: Bernard Roizman, a Russian
speaking student from Romania, Nuti Feuerstein and Vovka Gdud, the
kid from Wilno. I liked another kid, but since I am incapable of
being interested in somebody who doesn't reciprocate my interest, that
was nipped in the bud. Looking back, 53 years later, I thank
Providence for that. Vovka Gdud played a cruel joke on me in
connection with my unrequited interest; I do not know whether it was
before he was interested in me or because he was... It must not have
been a big deal after all, because Vovka and I fell in love and now
(after a few ups and downs) he is my beloved and loving husband,
William Good. What a delight to be in love in the bewitching
surroundings of the Casa on Corso Moncalieri 167, on the hill
overlooking the river Po, full of trees and bushes with many romantic
nooks which afforded privacy.
Amazingly, we did not dwell on our recent tragic experiences of the
Holocaust. We simply were too happy to be able to carry on with our
lives. The kind Italian people, the gardens, the secluded beautiful
surroundings of the Casa all contributed to our healing. We were
playful and even mischievous, playing endless tricks on each other.
When mother visited me some time later, she looked out of my
second-story window and saw Gabik Sedlis dangling in the air in front
of it. We were growing tomatoes, which I adore; I would pick some and
place them on the window-sill next to my bed on which I sat and
reclined during the day. One evening, when I picked up the covering
blanket - HORROR ! Some good "friend" placed my tomatoes under the
blanket on top of the sheet - my bed was full of tomato puree! I
never learned who was the perpetrator, but I have my suspicions!
I was messy and one time was terribly embarrassed. I did not know how
to dispose of my personal refuse, it was very public, so at one time I
carefully wrapped a menstruation pad and put it, temporarily, on the
shelf with my underwear - did I imagine that it would be easier to
dispose of it later? I was discovered by Eva Kolska who dug under my
underwear! That was for me one of innumerable lessons: don't
procrastinate, indecision makes problems harder, not easier, but in my
amazingly silly shyness the lesson was not quite learned.. I was
friendly with Ada, the younger of the Borychowska sisters but the
elder one, Lucia, was much less pleasant. Only now, after many years,
do I understand that she had preoccupations of her own that had
nothing to do with me, but that spilled over on her treatment of
myself. After a couple of years I got to move in with a much more
congenial roommate - Dziunia (June, now Zelonka) Leinzweig is still
a dear friend of mine. Dziunia, a very pretty and outgoing girl was
romantically involved with Jasha Brauns.

During my first summer in the Casa, the students embarked on a great
adventure. After saving money all year by selling our butter and
whatever we could do without and arranging IRO tickets as well as
getting permission to stay in the cellars of Jewish Communities, we
went to Firenze (Florence), Pisa, Venezia, Sorrento and Capri. It was
glorious! Some of the Joint officials were much less enchanted, one
of themsaid: "Don't forget that you are here on charity, if you can
get along without the butter rations, you should give them back!"
Hadassah also called us: " the dregs of humanity". (I heard that
second or third-hand and this might not have been exactly what she
said) Since I am told that she was an Israeli of Dutch extraction it
is unlikely that she would be quoting from the Emma Lazarus poem on
the Statue of Liberty:
"Give me... The wretched refuse of your teeming shores..."
When told about this, I resented it bitterly! It rankles even now,
the Joint has done wonders for us, gave us the opportunity achieve our
dreams of education, but meanness of small-minded people sticks in
one's throat nevertheless.
The next summer just the four of us - Dziunia and I, and Vovka and
Jasha went to the gorgeous Lago di Garda, staying in a rented house on
the lake-shore, swimming and taking row-boats. One day Vovka and I
took a row-boat out to the middle of the lake. Vovka jumped out of
the boat to swim. Suddenly there came an incredible storm with waves
that made it impossible for Vovka to reach the boat and I couldn't
row! I stayed in the boat watching Vovka swimming toward the shore
and long afterwards, after the squall had passed, I started to wave my
kerchief and was picked up by a passing boat. After Vovka reached the
shore he grabbed a bicycle yelling that there was a disaster and he
had to save me. When he finally reached the wharf demanding a boat to
rescue me, I was just being towed in the boat - I sure felt terribly
inadequate! It must have been true love if Vovka still wanted me!
When I came to my Parents and they heard about our escapade, they
certainly didn't approve of it. Mr Leinzweig, Dziunia's Father gave
Jasha an ultimatum: marry now or I'm taking my daughter away. After
some hesitation, Jasha did not feel ready for such final commitment -
he was also in love with Silvia, a lovely half-Jewish Italian girl,
but here also he was not quite ready.
Everything was not smooth sailing, of course. To make money
Vovka went to Poland for speculation, I felt lonely and worried about
him; when he came back he brought me an amber bracelet. He also made
an anonymous gift to the Borychowski sisters who had no outside
support - I only discovered who was the donor when I saw him
misspelling their name the same way as on the gift envelope - he
privately owned up to his good deed when I faced him with it.
During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 Vovka wanted to enlist
in the Haganah - I was very scared but they did not take him. I fell
ill with thyrotoxicosis and went to recuperate with my Parents in
Rome. After I was all recuperated - or maybe it was during another
visit to my Parents, Dr. Sedlis, who lived in Rome with Mrs Zeldowicz,
(Mila's Mother) his son Alik and his wife Mila, called to ask me to
come over to their apartment. I went and, amazingly, Mira Jedwabnik
was there on a trip from America! She was a beautiful, elegant young
lady, made up and wearing heels. It was incredible, but we felt as
close as before, it was so wonderful that this lovely apparition
wanted to be my friend. She gave me an elegant grey polka-dotted
dress that made me feel much more confident of my appearance (Dr.
Sedlis advised me to start using lipstick, like Mira). In most of my
pictures taken after that important get-together I looked pretty in
Mirochka's dress. Amazingly, many years later, Mira told me that she
would have wanted to give me many more dresses, but was afraid that I
might feel insulted - anyway, that dress was just the perfect gift.
Our Casa dello Studente proved to be of immense value, giving the
young people, "derailed" by the war, the chance of becoming useful
and even outstanding members of society. For instance, Bernard
Roisman, now a world renowned virologist started his first college
year in the Casa. Gabriel Sedlis became an outstanding architect and
Samek Wulc a highly regarded inventor in the field of electronics.
From the Casa came many excellent physicians, chemists and engineers.

After the Joint closed the Casa in 1950, I stayed in a rented
room for a couple of months. I then transferred for my last year to
the Chemistry Department of the University of Rome and joined my
Parents who lived then in Grotta Ferrata - I would take a bus to the
city to attend lectures and laboratories. Everything was going
smoothly except for Mineralogy, the professor, whose lectures I would
attend faithfully, was pissed off at students who took his subject in
the last year and would not let us attend the laboratory - we had to
try to learn to recognize the minerals just from the textbook, without
the benefit of handling them. It was a miracle I passed the course!
While in Grotta Ferrata I was being courted by a young Rumanian
dentist, Milo Dubs. Milo would take me out to performances and drive
me around on his big motorcycle.
Before being permitted to present my thesis I had to pass a
grueling few days long laboratory review of the five years. I asked
a perfectly normal question of one of the assistants who were
supervising us. She told me next week that a Polish student protested
that she should not have answered me. She was amazed, this was
unheard-of, the students were always loyal and helpful to each other.
She asked him: "Why are you hostile to her, isn't she Polish like
you?" his answer: "She is not Polish and shouldn't dare call herself
Polish!" That gave me a whiff of Poland - the guy did not know me, we
had never met, but nevertheless he tried to hurt me because he smelled
out that I was Jewish - the Italians were unlikely to tell him that;
when asked who I was, I would answer: "Jewish" to be told: "Yes, but
where are you from?" Since I was not sure which student was the Pole,
I went up to the one I thought it was and asked him whether he was
Polish, very politely he answered "Yes, why do you want to know?" I
said that I was just wondering, not having the courage to tell him
that I knew about his attempt to knife me in the back...
Strangely enough, there was another "Polish touch" on my getting my
degree - this time, entirely benign.
I was graduating with a Doctor's degree in Chemistry in June of 1951.
After I had already defended my thesis, I was suddenly notified that I
could not graduate because my high school in Poland did not reply to
the letter of inquiry of the Rome University's office. It appeared
that the Milano office neglected to request from Poland the
confirmation of my Matura when I enrolled there in 1946, and by 1951
the private high school was gone. They wanted me to get a certificate
from the Polish consulate, verifying that I was indeed a graduate of
a Polish high school. This was impossible - we had left Poland
illegally. It was a tragedy, after five years of hard work no
Fortunately, Vova Gdud gave me excellent advice: I should go to the
former Polish Government's consulate at the Vatican instead of the
present Government's consulate to Italy. I did so and for a fee this
consulate, which in reality had no ties with communist Poland,
verified that indeed my Matura (High School diploma) was valid,
stamping it with a handsome seal. This seal was verified by the
Vatican with another seal, the Vatican seal was certified by the
Italian Foreign Ministry with another seal. After the verification
of that by the Ministry of Education, I had a whole page of
impressive seals verifying my Matura. The University office was
satisfied and I received my diploma - I had a Doctor's Degree in

We were going to the United States on the D.P. (Displaced Persons )
Our UNRRA transport was leaving soon, and we would lose our free
transportation if we missed our turn, but it was crucial for Rosa
that Father should go to Berlin for her. She offered to buy private
ship tickets for us if Father would do so. He agreed, even though to
do so he had to interrupt his stay with his brother David who came to
visit us from Paris.
David had become a communist sympathizer and even intended to apply
for Russian citizenship and go back to Russia. He had a very bad
experience with capitalism in pre-war years in Paris when he lost
his bookkeeping job after 12 years of work and could not make a living
(he had to be supported by Father). They had many heated discussions
about the merits of communism in which Father could not convince him
about the realities of life under communism. The only concession he
made was to promise not to go back to the Soviet Union. Father went
to Berlin for Rosa.
We went to Bagnoli for verification of our worthiness to be
admitted to the United States (no communist affiliations) We were
interviewed and medically checked.
The doctor found high blood pressure in Mother - we didn't quite know
what that meant, thinking it may have had something to do with her
Glaucoma - high intraocular pressure.