From Darkness to Light

By Rivka Shlapobersky-Strichman (Haifa, Israel)[1]

In 1996, representatives of the Spielberg fund, who initiated the archiving of Holocaust survivor’s stories, asked to interview me. I wondered what I could share about my childhood and to my amazement I could gather only a few blurred recollections. Actually, there seemed to be nothing to tell.

Yet when the Yad Vashem museum published testimonies of the Holocaust, it enabled me to read other accounts and I decided to start investigating my past. What had happened to me? What had I been through? How had I survived? What became of my parents and who had they been?

First I opened the “Keidan Memorial Book.”[2]  This book was given to me by my relatives and had been in my home for many years. The same relatives gave me pictures of my parents. I was so moved when I found a whole chapter describing events in my life and the people who had helped me to survive. After reading the book I went in search for more.

I became acquainted with Mrs. Sara Weis, who introduced me to the Society of Lithuanian Jews in Israel and to a group of people who survived the Kaunas (Kovno) ghetto in their childhood. Everyone I spoke with helped me obtain more and more information.

In the story written by my aunt Rachel[3] in the “Keidan Memorial Book” I learned that as a child I had spent some time in the “Brides of Jesus” convent. From the Lithuanian Embassy I learned that three convents used that name. I called one of them. A nun named Klara answered the phone. Her Russian was good. Klara told me she had spent ten years in Siberia, where she had been deported by the Soviets. I told her I would like to visit Ponevezh (Panevėžys), the town where I grew up, to find out about my past. Klara was happy to meet me and promised that the convent would help me in my search.

On my visits to Lithuania, I found a lot of material in the in Kaunas archives, such as confirmation that I had been born in a private maternity hospital, my parents’ wedding certificate, the official registration of my father’s company, his income tax dossier and even a rental contract and plans for the apartment at 12 Palangos Street, Kaunas, wheremy parents lived before the war.

During our first visit, my husband and I spent several days in the convent. The nuns  provided us with a car and one served as our driver, so that we could visit many places from my childhood. We visited the orphanage where I most probably grew up.

We met Yehuda Ronder, whose cousin, Chaim Ronder, helped my aunt Rachel find me after the war. Yehuda had dedicated his life to hunting and bringing to justice the Lithuanian fascists who took part in the genocide of the Jews. Together with Yehuda, we travelled to Kaunas, and visited places where my parents had lived. We also went to Kėdainiai (Keidan in Yiddish), and Yehuda, familiar with the town, showed us all the places related to Keidan Jewry, including the houses where my grandparents, my father and my uncle Tzadok Shlapobersky lived.

In 1941 in Kėdainiai, my father’s town, behind the Catholic cemetery on Dotnuva Road, a mass grave had been dug. The young and strong were rounded up in batches of 60, and forced to undress before being shot with machine guns. The dead and wounded were buried together in the pit.

There were attempts to fight back. Among the second batch was my uncle, Tzadok Shlapobersky, a man of about forty. He had been an officer in the Lithuanian army and had taken part in the fight for Lithuania’s liberation. He had also been in charge of the fire brigade, was a town councillor for many years, and was friendly with the Lithuanians. A German officer was behind the massacre. According to the testimony later given by a Mr. Silvestravichius[4], one old Jewish man, who was standing close to Shlapobersky, refused to take off his clothes. A Lithuanian named Raudonistried to force him to get undressed.  Tzadok pulled the Lithuanian into the pit, began strangling him, and sank his teeth in the Lithuanian’s throat. Then he grabbed the Lithuanian’s pistol and tried to shoot the German officer, but missed. Shlapobersky was pierced by the bayonets of other Lithuanians and his body was cut to shreds. His sister Anna, his wife and two children were also killed in the same incident.

Raudonis was taken to hospital where he died. The Lithuanians accorded him an imposing funeral. The Lithuanian bandit was eulogized as “the last victim of Jewish power.”[5]

During my visit to Lithuania, some vague episodes from my early childhood started to emerge:

– I am in a lorry at night, and endless electricity wires…

– I am sleeping on two chairs instead of bed …

– There is the noise of airplanes and flashes of light in the sky, while we hide under the bed…

Another picture repeatedly comes back to me: I am holding on to wooden floor boards, with my body suspended over the hole of a toilet in the convent yard. I start to shout as loud as I can. A nun passing by pulls me out and washes my legs in a puddle.  The nun tells me not to tell anyone I went to the toilet alone, otherwise I will be punished. During my visit to Panevėžys, I found this toilet in the orphanage. Now it is a brick building instead of the wooden one.

I also recalled colored eggs and the nightly ceremony of kneeling in front of a cross and mumbling some strange words I could not understand.

I travelled to Lithuania three times, and spoke with many people. The story of my past started to emerge, enabling me to build the following picture, although there are surely many gaps I will never be able to fill:

I was born in 1940, to Feige Feivelson and Eliyahu Shlapobersky. My mother was the daughter of Eliyahu Meir Feivelson, a rabbi from Kupishkes (Kupiškis). He published many of articles and a number of books. From records, I discovered that he was among the founders of “Agudat Israel,” a clericalist political party of ultra-Orthodox Jews, begun in 1912. He also helped to found the the “Yavne” religious Zionist schools in Lithuania. My mother graduated from the Yavne Teachers Seminar and became a headmistress in a school in Panimun (Panemunė)[6].

Feige and Eliyahu Shlapobersky, in a photo from the late 1930s

My father, Eliyahu Shlapobersky, was born in Kėdainiai, one of eleven children. His parents owned a windmill. The family was not religiously observant. After completing his studies and obtaining professional certification as a chemist, my father opened a private business. I still cannot understand how my grandfather, a famously conservative rabbi, could allow his daughter to marry a secular man who played the mandolin. (My mother’s sister married a rabbi.)

I was smuggled out of the Kaunas ghetto, either at the end of 1942 or at the beginning of 1943, before the “Children’s Aktion.”[7] My parents handed me over to a Lithuanian policeman (possibly for payment) whose wife was my parents’ neighbour before the war. They gave him my birth certificate and the address of my father’s brother, Harry Shlapobersky, who lived in South Africa. My father told the Lithuanian he would receive a generous reward if he sent me there, in case my parents did not survive the war.

The Lithuanian policeman took me to his family in the village. I was kept in the kitchen, where there was a stout lady and a large stove. There was a nice sitting room in the house with many lights, but I was not allowed to leave the kitchen. I remember feeling deeply insulted by this treatment, as if I were inferior to the other inhabitants of the house. Much later I understood I was a hidden child. My resuers were afraid their neighbours would see and report me.

After the Germans retreated, a young Jewish Soviet officer named Shmuel Peipert, who had been wounded and released from battle, returned to Lithuania and sought out Jewish children who had been hidden in the villages. He ransomed them with money and transferred them to orphanages.

One day, the stout woman led me out of the kitchen to the sitting room, where a man in an soldier’s uniform was standing. She told me my father had come to take me back. I agreed immediately to go with him, simply to escape the kitchen were I had been imprisoned for so long.

Peipert placed me in an orphanage in Panevėžys that belonged to the “Brides of Jesus” convent. Naturally we were given a Christian education, we learned all the Christian rituals and my name was changed to Eva. From time to time Peipert used to visit me and bring me candy. I referred to him as “tevialis” (“daddy” in Lithuanian). Once he came with a photographer, took me on his lap and told me: “Look there, a bird will come out of the camera”. A photographer covered his head with a black sheet, and I sat, tense with expectation. But no bird appeared. I saw only a blitz of light. Unfortunately this photo of Peipert with me on his lap was lost in one of our movements from one place to another. During one of Peipert’s attempts to reclaim a child, Lithuanian nationalists murdered him.

My parents perished in the liquidation of the Kaunas ghetto. I could not track down people who could tell me about their last days. I became acquainted with my parents at the later stages of my life only through photographs. I was not fortunate enough to know the love of a mother or a father’s embrace.

In 1945, my father’s sister, Rachel Shlapobersky-Levin, was liberated from Stutthof and returned to Kaunas. By chance she met Chaim Ronder, and learned that her niece was alive and living at the Panevėžys convent. When she came for me, I resisted with all my might, not wanting to leave my home and my friends. But I was obliged to go with her and soon we moved to Vilnius.

My aunt married Jermiyahu Ratner, who had survived the Klooga

concentration camp. We were a complicated family: a small girl and two adult people who had just returned from the horror and suffering of the ghetto and the camps. I grew up in a home full of tears, and the terrible stories of my foster parents about what they had gone through. I avoided home when my parents were there, seeking refuge at school, or with my friends, or in activities of the Komsomol (Young Communist League).

One rainy day in 1959, my aunt told me there was a good opportunity for us to leave Lithuania. Since Jermiyahu Ratner had been a Polish citizen before the war, we were entitled to move to Poland, his homeland. My aunt was happy and told me with excitement that from Poland we could move easily to Israel. The news hit me like a thunderbolt. I strongly opposed us leaving the USSR. I had attended the Russian school, all my friends were Russian and I was educated in the ideals of communism. Stalin, the “sunshine of the nations” was our father, and Russia was our Motherland! What did I have to do with Israel!? But I was given no choice, and we immigrated to Poland. There I studied civil engineering at the Polytechnic in Wrocław. It was difficult since I could not speak the language. We stayed in Poland about a year, until our relatives could arrange our visas for Israel. In 1960, I immigrated to Israel with my aunt Rachel and her husband.

Despite the warmth and attention of my relatives – early settlers in Israel, who cared for all my needs and even helped me enroll in the Technion, in Haifa – I felt like a stranger. The language was different from any I had known , and I did not like Israeli ways and manners. It was difficult to bear the heat and the behaviour of the local people.  I will never forget my first bus trip to the Technion. All the seats were occupied by male students. They stared at me but no one gave up his seat. I stood alone in the middle of the bus, embarrassed. Never in Lithuania and Poland had I encountered such rude behaviour. “What am I doing here?” I thought. “I do not belong to this place and to these people.” I wanted to leave, but had no means and no place to go.

Living with my relatives during my first days in Israel, I was advised not to speak of my past. The advice suited me well: I did not want people’s pity. I blocked out my past and took no interest in my roots. Through my student years I was extremely busy with my studies and overloaded, both physically and mentally. It was not at all easy to study without knowing the language, and without friends. But my life happily changed when I met Yakov Strichman, who became my husband in the last year at the university. I graduated from the faculty of Civil Engineering and Yakov graduated as an industrial and management engineer.

We started a new life together, relying on ourselves alone, with no substantial help from anybody. We worked very hard to bring up our two children, Liora and Eliran, and to build our life. We did well in our professional careers.

Eventually  my children left home and I retired . The atmosphere in Israel had changed.  There was more openness about the Holocaust, and those who had survived it began to speak out. I found myself exposed to the period of my life that I had repressed. Unfortunately, my aunt Rachel and her husband Jermiyahu passed away and a lot of information was lost with them.

Our daughter gained a PhD in molecular biology and our son is a lawyer. Our legacy is our two grandsons and two granddaughters.

[1] This memoir was written in 2009, and published initially in “Smuggled in Potato Sacks: Fifty Stories of the Hidden Children of the Kaunas Ghetto,” edited by Solomon Abramovich and Yakov Zilberg, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 2011. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

[2] “Sefer Zikaron / Keidan Memorial book” [in Hebrew], J. Chrust (ed.). Published by the Keidan Association in Israel with the participation of the Committees in South Africa and in the United States of America, Tel Aviv, 1977.

[3]“The Road of Suffering” by Rachel Shlapobersky-Ratner, in ibid., p. 237.

[4] “Yahadut Lita” (Lithuanian Jewry), Vol.4: The Holocaust (1941-1945) [in Hebrew]. Published by Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, Tel Aviv, 1984, in the article “Keidan (Kėdainiai)”, p. 345.

[5] “Keidan” by D. Wolpe, first published (in Yiddish) in “Fun letsten khurbn” (From the recent destruction), Munich, 1948. p. 48. Also published (in English) as “The Destruction of Keidan”,  in the 50th anniversary booklet of the Keidaner Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society, Johannesburg, 1950, p.47, and as “Khurban Keidan” (in Hebrew) in “Sefer Zikaron” Keidan Memorial Book”, op. cit., p. 229.

[6]Ghetto schools and their teachers” by Israel Kaplan, in “Yahadut Lita” op. cit.,  Vol. 4, p. 132.

[7] In March, 1943, German military and Lithuanian police in the Kovno ghetto dragged some 1,800 babies, small children and old people out of their homes to be killed in what became known as “the Children’s Aktion.”

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