This true story was written by my Grandfather, Rafael Levin, and my Aunt, Eta Hecht. It’s reposted here from a book with a collection of short stories from Holocaust survivors:
Flares of Memory: Stories of Childhood During the Holocaust
Edited by Anita Brostoff with Sheila Chamovitz
As soon as the Nazis occupied Kovno, Lithuania — it was in June 1941 — they and the Lithuanians started to oppress Jews. From the beginning, Jews were ordered to wear two yellow Stars of David, one on the front and one on the back of their garments. Lithuanian partisans and Nazis entered Jewish homes and took clothes and jewelry, killed men and later women.
In early July, the Jews were ordered to put barbed wire around a suburb of Kovno called Slabotka. All Jews, about forty thousand of us, had to move into the Ghetto Slabotka, or “Kovno Ghetto.” We got one little room in a house. We were four people: my mother, my wife Rachel, my four-year-old daughter Eta and myself.
Survival was a matter of miracles.
We were not allowed to go out of the ghetto except for hard labor. We went to work in commandos under Nazi guards. The killing of Jews in the ghetto was a regular event. Survival was a matter of miracles.
October 28, 1941, at 6:00 A.M., the Nazis ordered all the Jews to line up, eight persons in a row in a big field, for the purpose of counting how many Jews were in the ghetto. Row by row we passed a Nazi officer who was sitting on a chair in the field. He ordered some rows to go to the left and some to the right.
In our row were my mother on my right, Eta on my left, and Rachel. When our row approached the Nazi officer, he ordered us to go to the left. At this moment my heart told me to go to the right. I grabbed Eta’s hand and pushed her and the others to the right. It took a full day till the Nazis ordered us to return to our homes.
The following day we found out that those who went to the left were killed. About ten thousand Jews were killed at this action, mostly the elderly, children, and the sick.
The Nazis came more and more often to search the houses for children and the elderly. One day we hardly managed to hide Eta in the bed, covering her with pillows and blankets. Nazis came in, searched around and walked out. They had not looked in the bed. This too was a miracle!
Eta: When a search occurred, my parents would hide me inside the bedding, roll me up with the bedding and place me and the bed against the wall, parallel to the wall, so that it appeared to be a sofa. I had difficulty breathing, and yet I knew that I was not to move or the Nazis would find me.
March 1943. I worked inside the ghetto while Rachel was sent to forced labor outside the ghetto in the city of Kovno. Suddenly, the ghetto was surrounded by an unusually large number of Nazi guards and Lithuanian partisans. Big trucks entered the ghetto. The Nazis, through loudspeakers, ordered the Jews to remain in their houses.
I noticed that the Nazis were grabbing children and old people and throw-ing them into the trucks. I took Eta, now aged five, into a tiny bin under the steps which led to the second floor. I asked my cousin Yacov Chaikin to cover the door to the bin with an old mattress. Nazis entered the house searching for children and old people and did not notice our hiding place!
We hid here all day long. The following day the Nazis continued the search, and we stayed in hiding. About five thousand children and old people were killed in this action.
My father and I hid under a staircase which led to the second floor. We remained hidden for two days. It was cold and we did not have any food. I had a cough, which I would desperately try to suppress so as not to be heard.
We could hear the Nazis climbing the stairs over our heads, and we could hear the shouting and the screams all around us.
After this, the Nazis declared our ghetto a concentration camp. The regime became even stricter.
Now Rachel and I decided we had to find a place for Eta at a gentile’s home. It was a tragic feeling to give her away without knowing about her future safety. The only hope was that maybe one of us, Rachel or I, would survive and have Eta back, and Eta would have a parent.
One day Rachel, at forced labor in the city of Kovno, managed to sneak out of her work place, took off her yellow star of David, and went to a priest. Maybe he could find a gentile who would like to take Eta and save her life. The priest promised to look for a family, but not before Christmas.
Time was critical; we felt something bad was going to happen in the ghetto.
Meanwhile, we started to train Eta. We taught her to say, if people asked her whether she had parents and who they were, that she does not know her parents, that she is an orphan, that her name is “Elenite” and that is all she knows. We trained her to sit still inside a potato sack, which was to be used for smuggling her out of the ghetto.
Sensing the danger to her her life, Eta trained herself to hide in times of crisis under the bed or in bed, covering herself with pillows and blankets. She never had a smile on her face in the ghetto.
I decided to try to contact a gentile school principal I knew. One day in March 1944, I managed, while working outside the ghetto, to ask a gentile lady to deliver a letter to his friend, Lazauskas. In my letter I asked him to come to my place of work the following day and meet me in the men’s room. When he came, I asked him to keep Eta til after the war and then to contact my brother, Beinush, in Switzerland. Beinush would pay him for his expenses and take Eta to Switzerland.
His answer was, “You Jews deserve all the trouble you have now. But you, Rafael, you are an exception. I will take Eta to my house.”
I was shaken but said, “I’m not going to discuss this with it you now, but thank you for saving my daughter.”
The following day we put Eta into the potato sack so it looked like Rachel was carrying tools. I had to stand behind a house in the ghetto, and as Rachel passed the house with her brigade, I ran up saying loudly, “You forgot the tools!” I gave her the bag in which Eta was lying.
The Nazi guards did not react (this, too, was a miracle!). Rachel carried Eta in the bag to her place of work. She managed to take the yellow stars off of Eta and went across the street to the lady who the day before had taken my letter to Lazauskas. This woman took Eta to Lazauskas. Lazauskas kept Eta from the middle of March to the middle of August 1944.
I had spent almost three years in the ghetto. During these years, I did not have toys; I could not play outdoors; I did not have companions my age to play with. The only companions I knew were hunger and fear. And when my mother carried me out of the ghetto, I did not know whether I would ever see her or my father again.
In July 1944, the Germans decided to liquidate our Kovno concentration camp and send the Jews to Germany: the men to Dachau and the women to Stutthof in East Germany. We were pushed into cattle wagons. In each wagon there was a German guard. We were all standing because it was crowded. Suddenly, I noticed an opening in the wall of the wagon near the roof. I asked Rachel if she would like to jump out of the train.
“I will,” I said. “Maybe Eta will be lucky and have a parent.”
Rachel said that I should do it. So I asked a few Jews in the wagon to engage the Nazi guard in conversation so that he would not notice my jumping out.
I climbed up to the opening, jumped from the moving train, fell on the ground and fainted.
A Lithuanian railway employee found me lying on the ground. He asked who I was. He said that he had looked in all my pockets and did not find any documents. It was then that I realized I had fainted.
I pretended that I was a gentile, a working man, and had gotten drunk. He didn’t believe me and said he would take me to the German police office. I could not persuade him not to do it.
I had nothing to lose, so I started running through the fields toward the woods. In the fields I saw stacks of hay. I crept into one stack and covered myself with hay. After a while I heard a man talking in German. Germans were collecting the hay. They collected all except my stack of hay. Perhaps they had no more room for them.
During my wandering I entered a house in a village and asked for a drink of water. It was given to me. Then I asked if I could go to the stable and rest on the hay. This I was refused because they did not know me. I walked out of the house and saw a German walking around. I quickly went into the stable, climbed up under the roof and covered myself with hay.
Suddenly I heard somebody climbing up and poking around in the hay saying, “Cursed Jew … he got lost.” I remained in the hay all day and all night. The following morning I walked away.
After this, the Russians occupied Lithuania and I became free. I went imme-diately to Kovno, about a 24-kilometer walk, to look for Eta. I came to Lazauskas. He told me he had to send Eta to his sister in a village because it was a danger to Eta to stay in Kovno. He walked with me, about 20 kilometers, to his sister’s house and I found Eta. This was my happiest day!
Rachel was freed by the Russian army in January 1945. However, the Rus-sians mobilized the rescued Jewish women and put them to work for the Russian army. Rachel worked as a cook. She sent a letter to Lazauskas asking if Eta and I were alive. Lazauskas brought the letter to me. I in turn sent Rachel a letter saying that “Beinush’s brother” and Eta would be in Lodz, Poland. “Don’t go to Kovno but wait until you can meet them in Lodz.” June 16, 1945, Eta and I went to Lodz and met Rachel.
This was the greatest miracle of all — that the three of us survived and were reunited!
Grandma Rachel (Bubbe) passed away when I was 5, and Grandpa Rafael (Zeyde) passed when I was 10, so I was never at an age to ask them about much of this directly. I do still remember Zeyde’s sharply bent left pinky, which he broke when jumping out of the train in Germany. Apparently he could have had it fixed, but choose to keep it bent as a permanent physical memory of these tragic events.
Growing up, I had heard the gist of the miracles from my family, but hadn’t really reflected much from it. I just took it in as an early life fact that the Holocaust was a terrible event and that I’m very lucky to be here.
Now, over twenty years later, as I travel Europe for a month to do a bit of soul-searching, I found myself curious about my past and decided to ask some questions to learn more. My mom sent me the book where the story was published, and I read it while eating dinner by myself at a burger place in Amsterdam (not far from the Anne Frank house, actually).
I found myself gasping audibly on more than one occasion while reading the stories, feeling surprised by how little I actually remembered. These moments that were before quite fuzzy, now felt so real and so present. Six incredible miracles. From instinctively getting into the right line, to jumping out of a moving train, to hiding under a staircase for 2 days, my family narrowly avoided death at every turn. Any one of these moments could have gone the other way, and if they had I wouldn’t be alive today.
Eager to learn more, I reached out to My Aunt Eta, mentioning I wanted to help share this story in any way I could. She pointed me to an oral history interview she did for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1997, and more recently a talk she gave just 4 years ago for a Yom Hashoah service in New Jersey. To conclude her talk in New Jersey, she said:
I’m particularly aware that those of us who survived the holocaust must keep telling our stories. That time is running out. That it is important that the younger generation pass those stories on. And that it is passed on from generation to generation. So that what happened is never forgotten. That the world learns the lesson of the Holocaust.
Every generation shares stories a little differently. We once engraved hieroglyphics onto walls, we later placed ink onto scrolls, we eventually mass printed books, and now we publish bits right here on the internet. So by sharing this here, in a medium less fragile for a story so important, I hope to help keep my family’s history and the tragic moments of the holocaust alive in our memories.