The Road of Suffering

By Rachel Shlapobersky-Ratner (Kiryat Chaim, Israel)

Based on testimony from Yad VaShem, IX – 2939 / 252. 

I was born in Keidan in December 1912. My father, Yudel Shlapobersky, owned a flour mill. My mother was Chasya Rivka Shlapobersky, neè Avramsky. We were 11 children in the house. My eldest brother was Doctor of Law Shmuel Shlapobersky. He came to Kovno from St. Petersburg, where he owned a soap factory in partnership with Haim Arlozorov’s father. From there he immigrated to Eretz-Israel and settled in Petach Tikva. He belonged to the General Zionists faction. For some time he wrote for the Yiddishe Shtime in Kovno along with Reuven Rubinstein, the editor. He passed away in Petach Tikva in 1949.


“From Darkness to Light”: Rivka Shlapobersky-Strichman’s story


My next brother, Herschel (Harry) Shlapobersky, settled in Johannesburg and represented a petroleum company. My third brother, Motl (Max), resided in Riga, where he managed a soap factory. When the Germans invaded, he was summoned to the factory, ordered to turn around, and shot. I heard this from someone who arrived in the Kovno ghetto from Riga.

My fourth brother, Eliyahu, was killed in the Kovno ghetto. He was married to Feige Faivelzon, daughter of the rabbi of Kupishok (Kupiškis). When their daughter was one year old, I took her out of the Kovno ghetto to stay with a Lithuanian member of the German police, whose wife had once been our neighbor. This Lithuanian had a farm in the village, and they kept the girl along with their own children. After the Germans retreated, this family went to Germany and left the girl with her nanny, a village woman who took care of her until she turned four. My brother had given them the girl’s birth certificate, which bore her parents’ exact names, and asked that in the event that none of the family survived the war, the girl should be sent to South Africa.

After the war, a Jewish childrens’ rescue organization took her to the orphanage in Ponevezh (Panevėžys), run by the “Brides of Jesus” nuns. In 1945, when I was liberated from a German concentration camp, I learned there were two Jewish children in the Ponevezh orphanage, one of whom was named Shlapobersky. I went there and found my brother’s daughter. At first the convent director didn’t want to release her into my custody, but he eventually relented. I brought the girl to Kovno, where I placed her in an orphanage, since I worked full time. She finished kindergarten in Kovno. After that I moved to Vilna, where she finished high school. In 1959, we left for Poland, where for two years she studied at the Politechnika University in Wrocław. When we immigrated to Israel in 1960, she was accepted at the Technion in Haifa, where she earned a degree. She now works as a construction engineer and is married with a daughter of her own.

I had another brother, Isser, who died of typhus before the war. My last brother was Tzadok, an officer in the Fourth Brigade of the Lithuanian army, and also a fire brigade commander. He was young and strong.

In 1941 the Germans rounded up Keidan’s Jews and took them for execution. Tzadok, who had been on good terms with all the Lithuanians, asked Dr. Kasionis, the gynecologist, “Where are they taking us?” The latter lied to him, saying they were to be transferred to the occupied territories. They were actually taken to Count Totleben’s estate, where they were confined in warehouses next to the palace. Later they all were taken to a field near the Jewish cemetery and lined up. Then the shooting began.

When my brother saw them beginning to shoot, he said to the commander, a German officer, “I have two children, aged 4 and 9. Shoot me, but at least leave them alive!” When the officer refused, Tzadok jumped on the German and began beating him. Both men fell into the pit, where my brother started choking the German officer. A Lithuanian policeman, Raudonis, saw the incident. Raudonis’s brother ran a hotel in Keidan, in a house he had taken from its Jewish owners. Raudonis attacked my brother, but Tzadok seized him and slashed Raudonis’s throat with his teeth. The other murderers then stripped my brother and stabbed him until he was nothing but a lump of flesh, which was thrown into the pit.

Tzadok’s wife, Dora Shlapobersky, neè Shlonsky, upon seeing all this, went crazy. She covered her two children up with a scarf and jumped with them while alive into the pit. This was on August 28, 1941. The following day, a funeral was held for Raudonis at the Lithuanian cemetery. A bottle was placed in his grave, with a letter saying, “here lies a man killed by the Jewish murderer Tzadok Shlapobersky.” The engraving on his tombstone read, “Here lies the last victim of the Jewish murderers.” I first heard this from a Lithuanian officer in the Shants quarter of Kovno, where we were sent from the ghetto to work.

In 1945, when I returned from the camp, I went to Keidan and found not a single Jew there. A Lithuanian woman, a notary named Gražiene, told me details of my brother’s tragic death. Also the fire brigade guard, who had worked with my brother, told me the story.

My elder sister Anna was killed in Keidan along with Tzadok. My second sister Dina was with me in the Kovno ghetto. Her husband, Shapiro, was a teacher in the Hebrew high school and later worked as an economist at the Zefir tobacco factory in Kovno. He was killed at the Seventh Fort, together with his 16-year-old son and my husband, Shlomo Levin.

I had another sister, Rosa, who was married to Dr. Berelovitz in Koenigsberg [now Kaliningrad]. When the hitlerists came to power, they arrested him, and my sister took it hard. She left for Rhodesia, where she died of a nervous breakdown at the age of 46.

I had another sister in Chicago, Zlata, who was married to a lawyer. She died at a young age following eye surgery.

As I said, I was married to Shlomo Levin, a bookkeeper at Wolf-Engelman. In 1941, when the war broke out, my sister Dina came to me and we hid in the Zefir factory basement where my brother-in-law worked. After a short while, Lithuanians and Germans broke in and said, “The Great Synagogue is just across the street. Germans were shot at from this direction, and you were shooting too. You have to come with us to the Gestapo.” My brother-in-law and other Jews who worked at the factory told them: “But we have no weapons. Search us.” They searched and said no problem, everything’s in order. Then another Lithuanian came in and asked, “Why was I imprisoned in the Seventh Fort during the Bolshevik days? Now all of you are going to prison!”

We were hauled into the Gestapo and lined up against a wall. They wanted to shoot us, but then ordered us to turn around, and we were led to the Yellow Prison, the worst lockup in Kovno, intended for criminals. We were incarcerated there for 14 days. We had to hand over all our valuables and jewelry. We were given only water and a slice of black bread. Horrific things happened there. The Germans would come in and stomp on us. My sister saw how our husbands were taken out to work. Through the windows we saw rabbis forced to collect horse manure.

From there we were taken to the Seventh Fort, where the situation was extreme. The room in which the women were confined was full of feces and urine. We were forced to lie on the floor. Every night the women were taken out of the room and raped.

I asked one of the Lithuanians permission to go where the men were being confined, as my husband and brother-in-law were among them. He let me, and it was then that I saw an awful sight: All the men were lined up in rows in a field, their hair uncut and their eyes terrified. I saw my 16-year-old nephew, who asked me, “Why doesn’t my mother send me food? I’m hungry. They don’t give us anything to eat. My father and your husband are already gone.” And so they shot them all, one after the other.

One night at two in the morning, some young Lithuanians came. They wanted to shoot us, the last 200 surviving women, as all the women who had been taken out and raped had been immediately shot afterwards. It was July, a clear night. Suddenly a German came in and said to them, “What are you doing? Orders are to shoot the elderly women only! The young ones should be put to work.” We were ordered back into the prison. The following morning the remaining men were killed. The women were taken to the Ninth Fort, where the situation was also horrifying: Jews were dying of starvation and of infections caused by filth. People were ordered to lie on wooden planks across which big white lice paraded. The food was served out of trash barrels that stank of feces. We were given a bit of burnt millet and bread.

I and a few other women tied scarves on our heads, sneaked from the hill and went into town. My sister cried, “Why didn’t you bring my child with you?” I told her that I’d begged the Lithuanian to release her son, but he’d told me “No, he’s a member of the Komsomol,” and he was killed with the rest of the men.

We went to my apartment, where we found only four bare walls. I was told that the gentile girls from Cafè Aldona, which was downstairs, had taken all our valuables. We went back to the ghetto, which was still open at that time; it was locked down on September 1, 1941.

We went to work. Every day at 6 am we’d have to stand for inspection. We dug at the airport from 6 in the morning to 6 in the evening. I met a Lithuanian named Nariskas, who told me that he himself had murdered all the Jews at the Seventh Fort.

In 1943, my sister was taken to Klooga [concentration camp] in Estonia. She had gone out from the basement where we were hiding, and a German called to her, “Sarah, come here!” And she was taken away. In Estonia she worked at the laundry, her friends told me afterwards. Later she became ill with a kidney disease, then they poured fuel on her and set her on fire.

In December 1943, I was transferred to a camp in Keidan, where we worked in a field until summer 1944. In July 1944 we were taken to Stutthof, an awful camp fenced by electric barbed wire that killed anyone who touched it. From the very beginning the women were separated from the men. We were stripped naked and taken into a bath. A doctor examined each of us gynecologically to be sure we weren’t hiding jewelry or other valuables. Following the “bath,” we were given dirty rags to wear, stained by the blood of the murdered. We looked like madwomen: Large women were given clothes that were too small, and short women were given items that were too large. Then we were put into barracks, where our supervisors were Polish women who beat us ruthlessly during inspections.

After a month, we underwent selection — “to the left” or “to the right” — and were sent to work. We had to walk a very long time, then we boarded a coal ship. There were about 300 women. We were taken to some village in Poland, where tents had been pitched for us with straw inside. There were 6 such tents, 50 women in each one. SS men wearing black uniforms with skulls guarded us. In the summer we worked at digging, and in the winter we cleared the snow.

When the Russians advanced and the Germans began to retreat, they took the healthy women with them. My hands and feet were frozen. The Germans chose 100 women whose condition was like mine, i.e., who couldn’t continue walking, and left us behind. They took us into a grove, lined us up in rows and began shooting at us. I was in the back row. I saw the women from the front rows already lying on the ground, dead. I noticed then that a few women had started to run away, so I did too. We ran into the forest, and the two Germans that had been shooting began chasing us, but they didn’t manage to hit us.

We escaped into the house of a Polish farmer and asked for help, as the Germans were already retreating, and the Russians were expected to arrive any minute. We were 12 women left from the entire camp. The gentile woman told us to go to the local priest, who had a cowshed where we could hide. We made it there and lay on the ground alongside the cows, horses, and pigs. The next morning the farmers came and brought us food. So it went for five days. On March 10, 1945, the Russians entered and liberated us.

A car was going from there to Grodno, and the driver asked if any of us wanted to come with him. I said I’d go. My legs were frozen and wrapped in rags. A few other women came with us, and we arrived at a checkpoint in Grodno. The Russians treated us not as tortured women from the camps, but with suspicion, as if we were criminals. We were ordered to lie on the ground, and were given bread and American canned food.

From Grodno we went to Vilna, and from there to Keidan. As I’ve already said, on reaching Kovno I met an acquaintance, whose sister was my friend. He worked in the Food Production Ministry, where I got a job as a cashier. Later I retrieved my niece from a convent in Ponevezh, and we lived together. In 1948, I married my current husband, an engineer, Yirmiyahu Ratner, from Vilna. We moved to Vilna, where I worked as a bookkeeper in a large department store. In March 1959, we moved from Vilna to Walbrzych, Poland. In 1960, we immigrated to Israel.

Translated by Miriam Erez.