By Bella Adler (Basel, Switz.)
I was born and raised in Keidan. Our Jewish life was very well developed. We had Tarbut and progymnasium Hebrew schools. Most young people were Zionists. We had Hashomer Hatzair, Beitar and other organizations. We had several houses of religious study, a large synagogue, the kloyz. The town rabbi, Reb Shlomo Feinsilber, was the president of the Rabbinic Association of Lithuania.
Among the important Jews in the town were Zundel Ginzburg, Yisraelov, Shalom Khayat, Abrasha Cohen (or Kagan) and others. These communal activists were the first to die.
We had a Jewish primary school and, as I have already mentioned, most of the youth were Zionists, and many pioneers made aliya before the war. Many of these live in kibbutz Beit Zera today.
My father was a professional gardener. I studied in the Lithuanian gymnasium in Keidan, and after graduation I continued my studies in Kovno, in the Faculty of Humanities. After receiving a university degree I immediately began teaching at the Jewish high school in Kovno, where the language of instruction was Lithuanian. I taught literature, history and Lithuanian. When the Soviets entered Lithuania in 1940 they closed down all the Hebrew schools. Only the “Sholem Aleichem” Yiddish high school remained and I obtained a job teaching there.
In the summer of 1940 I married Leo Adler, who was studying in the Mir yeshiva and who was my brother’s teacher. My husband left Kovno on December 4. He had been born in Nuremberg, and as a German citizen holding a German passport, he received a Japanese visa to Curaçao. I could have joined him but as I was a teacher, I didn’t want to leave my class in the middle of a school year. So he waited for me in Japan. In the interim, I learned that I was pregnant. My husband wrote that I should come as soon as possible; meanwhile the situation grew more strained, and it was no longer easy to get out of Lithuania. I received a visa to go to America, and an assurance from the Japanese consul that there was a visa awaiting me in Moscow. I had only to get out. I used all my contacts, legitimate and otherwise, and eventually I received an exit permit. I left Lithuania on May 5 or 6, 1941.
I reached Moscow and immediately tried to obtain a Japanese visa. But I was summoned by the N.K.V.D., on the pretext that they still had to write something else in my passport. It was a serious mistake on my part to hand over the passport. When I came to retrieve it, the N.K.V.D. officer told me it had expired on May 1 and that it needed to be extended. He advised me to approach the German consul. I did so, and the consul was actually amenable to extending the passport. However, there was with him a short little German with blazing black eyes, who said it was not possible. I ran around for several days, in vain.
One day I felt unwell, and had to remain in bed in my hotel, called the Moscow. At midnight I phoned a relative who lived in the capital. She immediately took me to the hospital. My eldest son, Mordechai-Kalman, was born on May 21. I must say that the maternity hospital treated me very well. I returned to the hotel with the baby and a note from the doctor saying I should not be moved, because they wanted to repatriate me to Lithuania.
On Sunday June 22, war broke out between Germany and Russia. I saw that my fate had been decided. I ran to the German consulate carrying my baby, but they were already packing their possessions there. That same night the bombing began, and I was transferred to a second hotel, the Metropole.
One afternoon a man in a black overcoat entered my room, and said very politely, “ You hold a German passport, and the situation is such that it is dangerous for you to stay here. We will transfer you somewhere you will feel safe.” I said to him, “You want to imprison me?” He answered, “Why should you think this? Take everything, leave nothing behind”.
I packed everything I possessed and was transported, carrying my child, to a camp of wooden barracks on the back side of Butyrka, the famous Moscow jail. There we were surrounded by a barbed wire fence. We spent a few weeks in this camp. The attitude of the Russians in the camp towards us was good, but the attitude of the camp detainees was dreadful. These were people of German extraction, who never knew even a word of German but were receiving funds from their consulate. These were people of a very low level, the underworld in fact. They were actually Russians, but were considered German citizens because they held German passports. There was in the camp a kind of old-age home of former French nurses who had grown old in Russia but still retained French passports. These were the most tragic characters. Altogether we numbered about 400.
We all were transferred to the train station. Germans from South American countries, who were in transit in Russia hoping to return to Germany, were transferred there via Turkey. I pleaded to be allowed to exit to Turkey, too. I hoped to reach Eretz Israel this way, but my request was denied. I was returned to the camp. From there we were taken again to the train cars and transported from Moscow to Gorky. We were transferred to a defunct monastery near Gorky. There to my great joy I met many Jews from the camp for the first time. During the journey we were fed herring, water and 300 grams of bread. We travelled in cattle cars under armed guard.
This was at the beginning of August, 1941. I remember I still wore a pink blouse and blue skirt that I had brought from Kovno. I had lost all my hairpins and my two plaits hung down my back, and in my arms I carried the baby and all my possessions. A fair-haired man, who I thought was a German, offered to carry my case. I grabbed it out of his hand and said I didn’t need help from a German. He swore that he was a Jew from Czechoslovakia . His wife had remained behind at the train station in Tshernovits (Chernivtsi, now in Ukraine). I met other Jews like him there, who were arrested in Tshernovits and were to be transferred to Russia. There had not been enough train cars, so they took the men and left the women behind.
We remained in this camp until November 1941. There were about 1,000 of us. We slept on narrow beds. There were also bunks. We were fed soup twice a day. In the morning a cup of tea, without sugar, 400 grams of bread and a piece of fish; at noon, a few spoons of porridge but without any oil. This menu was repeated day after day.
The baby was with me all the time. In November we were put into cattle cars again and taken from that place. To protect my child from the cold I wrapped him in a silver-fox stole and an angora shawl. The others thought I was insane for wrapping the child in such expensive items. We arrived with this caravan to Aktyubinsk (Aktobe), in central Asia. It was midwinter, during the siege of Moscow. We lived in little huts that resembled cowsheds. My situation was very difficult because of the child. I didn’t have diapers for him. I exchanged my most precious possessions for sugar. I still had a little bit of money, which I used to buy milk that the village women brought to the headquarters. Apart from my child, there were also a few sick and elderly people who received milk.
In Aktyubinsk we were kept isolated behind barbed wire all the time. We were not free for one minute. We stayed there until May 1942. Most of the Jews there were refugees from Romania, Hungary, Bessarabia and Czechoslovakia. They were all suspicious of each other and I was considered a total alien. They used me to write all sorts of requests and letters, because I knew both Russian and German. We even met people from Estonia in this camp. Among them were also Viennese citizens and Germans who escaped from Estonia.
In May 1942, after long preparations, we were sent to Karaganda (in Kazakhstan). This journey lasted six weeks. We were put in prefabricated barracks that had previously housed prisoners of war. Conditions there were frightful. The heat was awful. People were weakened from the journey, and terrible filth and bedbugs predominated. Nothing was disinfected: They merely threw our clothes into special ovens, where the clothes were destroyed but the lice survived.
The food was awful, and the only solace was that outside the camp it was even worse. They took people out to work, but it was too difficult for them because they were so weak. Work was obligatory, but they never beat or abused anyone. The only punishment for disobedience was an isolation cell. There were more than 1,000 Jews in this camp. Apart from them were Polish people from around Gdynia, who declared themselves Volksdeutsche, German nationals. There were also Russians who lacked Soviet passports, Romanians, Hungarians, Yugoslavs and Germans who came from Teheran.
We would receive 400 grams of bread every day. In the morning there was soup made of green cabbage leaves without any oil and a spoon of porridge; noon and evening the same soup. I was breastfeeding the baby all this time, and because they assigned him a normal ration I actually received a double portion. From time to time they also gave a little sugar. I never had any clothes or diapers for my child, and tried to acquire them in exchange for slices of bread.
Infections and sickness spread as a result of the filth and other conditions in the camp. It was difficult to get to a doctor. By the time I reached one I was already in an advanced state of typhus. At the end of July or the beginning of August, I was taken to what they called a hospital. This was a building made of planks without a floor. The doctor in the hospital, Markovsky, was the son of a rabbi from Odessa. There was also another doctor there, a prisoner of war from Vienna. I spent about half a year in the hospital together with my baby. I left there after the battle of Stalingrad.
The food in the hospital was no better than in the camp. Actually they allocated the hospital better food, but the staff took it for themselves. My baby became infected and was sick all the time. I don’t know how he survived. When I left the hospital I was so weak that I didn’t have the strength to walk to fetch food. There was an old Russian princess in the bed next to mine, and she would bring me my soup.
One night my child burst out crying and I couldn’t calm him. There were about 300 women in that barrack and they all started shouting at him to be quiet as they couldn’t sleep and had to work the next day. But I couldn’t quiet him. At the same time a doctor and a group of Russian officers entered the barrack for their usual inspection. They asked why I didn’t take the child to the doctor. I said it was difficult to get to him. They ordered me to take him to the doctor the next day.
The following morning a nurse, who was also a prisoner, came and told me they were waiting for me in the hospital. She wrapped the child and took him to Dr. Vinter, from Vienna. He established my son had diphtheria and needed a serum immediately. He even dispatched a nurse to Karaganda to fetch it, because our camp was not actually in Karaganda, but in Spassk, 40 kilometres away. A dreadful storm was raging outside. Nevertheless the nurse (who was Russian) left in a sleigh and returned with the serum that same evening. Thanks to this my child was saved.
As time passed, the situation in our camp improved a little. I was approached to organize a school, because I was the only qualified teacher there, despite the fact that there were other educated people with experience who could serve as teachers. With the help of two other women, a Mrs. Meyer, a convert of Jewish origin, and a Mrs. Hofschmidt, I established a school. Understandably, the school was under the supervision of the local politruk, or political officer. By the end there were 99 children of varying ages in the school. We had no teaching necessities, no books, no notebooks, no paper. We had to cut every pencil into three or four pieces. The children wrote on wooden boards, and after we corrected them we erased the writing with a glass shard.
We also had a kindergarten, because in the later period children were born in the camp. When the authorities asked what I wanted in exchange for running the school, I requested permission to lodge away from the barrack, where the conditions and the people were dreadful. I was given permission to lodge in the staff room. I brought a bed there and stayed there together with my son. My living conditions improved but the food never changed.
The school pupils were of course the offspring of prisoners – German Jews and non-Jews, Russians holding German passports and people without any citizenship, and also Gypsies.
I recall an argument with the politruk. I said it was impossible to promote one of the pupils to a higher class. His name was Anatoly Batsko and he was backward. The officer shouted, “In his family not one person is literate, and he can already sign his name, so you have to make him an outstanding student.”
In camp, concern grew about the health conditions. Suddenly a large quantity of foodstuff arrived from America. We received rice bread, jam, and butter. When people had revived a bit they were sent out to do hard labor. They sent me out to work with children in the summer months.
We tried to celebrate the Jewish festivals, even under camp conditions. I exchanged bread for a menorah from some German Jews and we lit Chanukah candles. There was a Dr. Volgemut with us in the camp. He was the son of the principal of the rabbinic seminar in Breslau and the editor of “Yeshurun.” He taught us the Bible. During the last Passover we refused to eat bread, but asked for flour and baked our own matzo. We also organized a Passover seder, which was dangerous and could have landed us in the isolation cell. The seder took place in my room at the school after we had covered the windows with blankets. I was most in danger as I was responsible for the school. All Jews who wanted to celebrate assembled with me. We recited the Haggadah and even had horseradish for bitter herbs. We stole some beetroot from the field and prepared some red coloured water to serve as wine. We also managed to get a few potatoes. We recited the entire Haggadah. But we had to leave the kneidlakh for another time.
We also prayed in the school on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We had one or two prayer books in our possession. We prayed despite the great danger that the politruk would discover us. I will never forget how Dr. Volgemut stood, praying the whole day of Yom Kippur. We stood and trembled lest the politruk should surprise us. At the end of Yom Kippur, Dr Volgemut said to me, “Because you helped us observe Yom Kippur as Jews, God will help you deliver the boy to his father.” At that time this prophecy seemed a pure fantasy to me, because I didn’t know where my husband was, or even if he was still alive.
The politruk would bring us news about the war, and our mood gradually improved. I organized performances with the school children. The day the war ended I rose from my bed, where I had been sick with malaria. This was May 9, 1945. We thought a new world had been born. All the prisoners gathered together and a table was set up outside. We all wept with joy, the Russians and the prisoners together. That was the first time I spoke in public in the camp. Holding my child in my arms, I said that mothers who had sacrificed their sons for the sake of liberation must not be forgotten.
In the camp we began to hope that the end of our suffering was near, and each day we looked forward to our release. But our liberation was not so swift in coming. We remained in the camp a year and a half after the war ended, until we had lost all patience and hope. Parcels arrived from abroad, but life in the camp continued as before, with hard labor, requests for extra soup and extra bread for those who worked longer hours.
One day toward the end of 1946, all the men were assembled in the headquarters. They were told that train cars were being prepared for our release. It soon became clear that the men were to be sent to the coal mines, while women were going to be sent to collective farms. The women raised an enormous protest, but the commandant said he had no power to help, as the order had come from Moscow. Yet later, on his own, he sent only the men who were without wives to the coal mines. The others he transferred to a prisoner of war camp. The camp seethed with rage. There were threats of a hunger strike. I didn’t have anyone else in the camp except my son, who by then was five years old. The women approached me and asked me to write a petition to the authorities, saying there were no men healthy enough to survive more than half a year in the coal mines, where, weak and exhausted, they would surely contract consumption.
I knew that writing a request like this in someone else’s name was like putting my head into the lion’s jaws. We knew that in Russia it was forbidden for anyone to make a request on another’s behalf. But I told myself at that moment I could not sit by with folded arms, so I wrote. From the heart I described our whole situation, even adding some legal reasons why we should not be responsible for Russia’s reconstruction, as our people had been annihilated and were not responsible for what the fascists had done, we were merely victims. We sent the request and awaited a reply.
One rainy autumn day, the commandant arrived. The women fell on him from all sides. I stood next to him dressed in a shawl and a coat, and he didn’t recognize me. He said: “I have received a request from your school teacher. An excellent request. I will dispatch it immediately to Alma-Ata, and I am sure we will receive a reply. You must only be patient and not do anything stupid.
Two days later the politruk announced that a committee was coming from Moscow the next day to examine all the detention and prisoner-of-war camps, and that he would try to bring them to our camp as well. He then added: “We have already given them the request from Mrs. Adler.” I had signed the letter “an anti-fascist activist.” A delegation was chosen to speak with the committee from Moscow, including Raudinger, who conducted the cultural activity in the camp (he now lives in Vienna), the engineer Polak and me. I was to be the main speaker.
We were given a signal when they arrived and went to meet them. There were three or four generals, large as bears. One was lean, handsome and nicely attired: He looked like an English diplomat but with a Jewish face. They turned to me: “And so, what do you have to tell us? Did you write that request?” They complimented me and asked where I had learned such fine Russian. I showed my papers and they understood that I was a university graduate. They said that if I wished they would give me a university lectureship, and if not I could go home.
I saw their strategy, to divert the conversation into a personal matter. I said, “I haven’t come here to talk about myself. My personal affairs are not important at this moment I want you to liberate all these people here in the camps.” To which they replied, “You have already written this to us.”
The conversation lasted three hours, and they actually “drank my blood.” I trembled the entire time, afraid I would lose everything. This was not only for my own sake, but also for the 400 Jews in the coal mines who were under a virtual death sentence every day. They said to me: “For us there is no difference, Jew or non-Jew. If they hold German passports they are Germans.” I replied, “I will prove to you that there is a difference between Jew and non-Jew.” I don’t know where I found the courage to raise my voice. One of the generals looked me in the eye and said, “If you can prove the difference to me, I will liberate you tomorrow.” I answered, “Mister General, here we have Mahler (a German named Mahler passed by the window at that moment). This same Mahler would be sitting where you are today if the Germans had won the war, but you as a Jew would be in the next world. We have lost enough, so let us enjoy a little bit of the victory. Let the Jews who have managed to remain alive continue living. More than enough have walked into the gas ovens.”
After he heard what I had to say, he said to me: “Mrs. Adler, you are quite a personality. Where is your husband?” Again I didn’t allow him to get personal. He suggested everyone write down where they wanted to go and promised to help them get there. I asked him not to forget the people in the coal mines, since they had no one to speak up for them, and he said “good.” After that they all shook my hand and left.
When I went out, I found women who had been listening at the headquarters windows to my discussions with the generals. They didn’t believe me. They thought I would only make an effort on my own behalf and sell them out.
Dr. Vinter stood next to the headquarters in his white gown and awaited me. When I came out, I fell on the grass. Dr. Vinter grasped my hands, kissed them and said, “Mrs. Adler, I heard everything.” Dr. Vinter still lives near me today. All the women calmed down. Now they treated me with great respect. I lay on the grass for about an hour without being able to move.
After a short while the camp was filled with clerks. They made a list of all the Jews and their desired destinations. The husbands who were in the prisoner-of-war camps were also returned. The next day some of the committee members reappeared in camp and came to the school. When they saw me, one began to laugh, saying, “So, have we kept our promise?” I replied, “I thank you very much, but the men haven’t yet come back from the coal mines.” He comforted me, saying “They too will arrive.”
At night in the camp, we slept with open doors so the commandant could enter at any time. I lay in my room, in the school staff room, on a field bed. Suddenly the door opened and a man named Klinger, from Bukovina, entered. He roused me from my bed and led me outside. I asked what had happened and he said “Not I, but 300 men who have just returned kiss you and thank you.” They arrived in the middle of the night. During their short stay there they became sick. This was in January, 1947. The repatriation of the camp inmates began in February. Each was sent to his requested destination.
Still, I remained in the camp among the last detainees, because I was a suspect. When I got out I was not actually liberated, even though I was the principal of a school. I left with a group sent to Kharkov and went from there to Odessa, where I spent six or seven months. I was among a few Jewish women whom the authorities couldn’t decide whether to retain in Russia or allow to go abroad. They obviously wanted to convince me to remain. They promised me the world if I would agree to go to Kovno. I argued that I couldn’t go to Kovno because I would find only graves there. I wanted to travel to Germany to my husband’s birthplace, in hopes of finding him there. I knew my husband was in Japan but I didn’t tell them this.
At the same time, some army officers came to my aid – Major Friedman, the superintendent of the hospital, Dr. Waksman and a Jewish doctor, Shmushkina. This occurred in Odessa. I wanted to get food for my son so I applied to become a maid at the headquarters, because it was outside the camp, and village women used to come and bring fruit.
This was a prisoner-of-war camp. There were Germans, Romanians, Hungarians and SS officers as well. We were all together. The attitude of the Russian commanders to me was excellent. It was frightfully hot in Odessa and my child almost suffocated. There were three other small children in the camp who all died. The commander, Waksman, allowed me to sleep outside the clinic, on the terrace. He said, “I am not afraid of you, but if your look could kill not even one prisoner would still be alive.”
One day when I was washing the floors, Major Friedman called me inside and began speaking to me in Yiddish. He told me that the order had come that all Austrian prisoners of war had to return to Austria by September 1. I told him I was a German citizen and not an Austrian. But apparently they had decided to help me get out.
Two days later, a dark, ugly woman arrived in the camp. She sat in Dr. Waksman’s room. I was summoned there and she put different questions to me and completed a questionnaire. I saw that she filled in, “Citizenship: Austrian.” I said, “I will not sign that document because I am a German citizen.” The woman looked at me and said, “Silly woman, can’t you see they are trying to save you?” Eventually I signed the questionnaire. I was put among the Austrians and left with them. I didn’t believe I was free until I reached Vienna. This happened at the beginning of October, 1947. We left Russia at the end of September, but we were delayed in a transit camp in Hungary. The prisoners of war cooked their own food there, but added so much paprika that it was impossible to swallow. This was a horrible feeling: You are hungry, there is food in front of you and you just can’t eat it. They gave my son special food. They actually didn’t know what to do with him. The prisoners of war had not seen a child for so many years.
In New York I met people who had been in the Russian camps, and when I told them that I had brought my son with me from the camp, they said I was a shameless liar. They said they knew no child came out of the camps alive. What did I do to keep my child alive? In Karaganda there was a Polish paramedic called Halek. He told me once he had heard that when blood is taken from an artery and injected into the muscles, it creates the vitamins that are lacking in the body. From that time I didn’t let him rest. Every month he took blood from me and transfused it into my son. This he did all the time until I fell ill with malaria in 1945, when he was forced to stop. As soon as the injections stopped my son succumbed to tonsillar tuberculosis.
I met up with my husband in America in 1948. I received my first letter from him while I was still in the camp, and that is another special story. There was a Finnish girl named Elishka among my students, who had been liberated before us. At her mother’s suggestion I gave her a letter to my cousin in America, whose address I remembered. This letter reached her from Finland. My cousin no longer lived at that address, but a neighbor passed the letter on to her. My relative, who believed I was no longer alive, travelled to New York with the letter. My husband’s uncle lived there. This took place in 1945 or the beginning of 1946. Immediately the uncle telegraphed my husband, who was then in Shanghai.
One day I was called to headquarters, where they handed me a parcel that had been sent to me by Rabbi Mishkinsky of Tel Aviv. I obviously didn’t know who Rabbi Mishkinsky was. After that I received additional parcels and also a letter from my husband.
When I arrived in Vienna, a few of my past pupils were already awaiting me. They immediately told my husband by telegram of my imminent arrival. After two months I left Vienna for America. Today I live in Basel, where my husband serves as a rabbi.
I would like to add an episode from life in the camp in Karaganda, when they tried to force a group of religious Jews to work on Yom Kippur. These were Hungarian youths who had been in the “death squads,” those forced to clear landmines from the fields. They were taken prisoner by the Russians and sent to the detention camp. They asked not to have to work on Yom Kippur, saying they would work double shifts another day. Their request was refused, but one group of youths said they wouldn’t go out to work. They were sent to the isolation cells, in a pit covered with planks. They were told, “The authorities will forget to feed you.” They weren’t even given the regular 300 grams of bread and the portion of water. After they had spent three or four days in the pit everyone began to worry about their fate. Suddenly Dr. Markovsky, leading the committee, arrived at the camp. I approached him and said, “Doctor, Jews are sitting in a pit because they observed Yom Kippur, you need to get them out of there.” And he said “Leave me alone, let me be.” But I wouldn’t allow him any rest until he went to the pit. When he saw their condition, he ordered that they be set free immediately. They were returned to the camp half alive and half dead. They had been without even a slice of bread for five days. The group numbered five or six youths.