נוב 222014
 

To my brave mother

A Jewish Family

 She was born in a stormy snowy night in Vilna, on the first of January 1924, the last child of Sarah and Dov Shapiro. Her sister Yehudit and her brother Yitzhak were older than Chaya who enjoyed a spoiled and calm childhood as the pet child of the family, mischievous, smart, a rebel, not liking frameworks – and so she remained until the end of her life in 2003.

 Her mother Sarah nee Rodominer belonged to a family which came to Vilna from the village of Rodomino in Lithuania. Her two brothers and her mother, Grandma Liebe (Ahuva) lived close by. She was a beautiful and musical woman, and used to sing to her children and to regret that they did not inherit her talent for music. She was a housewife, but also a sewer of leather gloves by profession, a vocation which later saved her and her family for a while, in the ghetto.

The family of father Dov-Berl-Boris came from Kremanchuk in the Ukraine. His father Yitzhak was amongst the Jewish children who were kidnapped for service in the Russian army and participated in the Russian-Japanese war as a combat medic. The family legend tells that a member of the Czar’s family once came to visit the front when suddenly a Japanese artillery attack began. Grandfather Yitzhak pushed the prince into a ditch and saved his life, for which he received a gold medal with a picture of the rising sun. After the war he came to Lithuania, where he married Grandmother Badana and they had 10 children – 7 boys and 3 girls. Three of the boys and one of the girls immigrated to Argentina in the 20’s, put down roots and started families, and were thereby saved from the Holocaust. The parents and the rest of the siblings and their families perished.

חיה לזר

חיה לזר

Chaya's father Dov, born in 1897, was a handsome and very tall man. He worked as a bookkeeper in a tobacco selling business of a Polish captain who had a franchise to trade in tobacco, a right which was reserved only for former military personnel. Over the course of time the Polish captain transferred the management of the business to Dov, who proved to be a successful businessman. For a few years the family enjoyed economic prosperity, but the Gentile neighbors were jealous, complained to the authorities and reported on the Polish captain who let a Jew run his business. The captain fought with all his might to cancel the ruling, but to no avail – in 1937 the business was closed and the father Dov became unemployed. The family moved to a more modest apartment on Kolyova Street, across the street from the railway station. Despite his not being a Zionist, Dov started thinking of emigration to Palestine. Chaya remembered discussions and arguments about this at home. The father wanted to go first by himself and see if he could manage in the new country, and only then to bring his wife and children. Mother Sarah refused to remain behind alone with the children and delivered an ultimatum – either we all go together or we stay. The rest is known – the family remained in Vilna and the parents perished.

 Happy Childhood

 Childhood memories told by Chaya were connected with summer vacations in a dacha on the coast of the Baltic Sea, walks in the surrounding forests and in the town, enjoying holidays and Shabbat at Grandmother’s, whose house at Lifuvka neighborhood had a large courtyard with trees, which Chaya used to climb and ravenously enjoy their fruits. During the summer they went bathing in the VilliaRiver, and in the winter they played in the snow which accumulated on the summit of the Gedimino – a hill on which stands an ancient castle built by the Lithuanian Prince Gedimin who started the city in 1321, today a symbol of the capital in the heart of Vilna.

Even though they were not particularly religious or Zionist, Chaya studied – as did many of the children of "Yerushalaim d'Lita" – "Jerusalem of Lithuania" – at a Hebrew school and at the “Tarbut” Gymnasia, which educated its students on Jewish tradition and love of Eretz Israel[1]. A student who was heard speaking Yiddish and not Hebrew during breaks was fined 5 grush. “They never fined me,” Chaya stated. “Not that I didn’t speak Yiddish, but they never caught me”. So, Yiddish remained her mother tongue and the language of daily conversation, but she spoke a rich and precise Hebrew, along with Polish and Russian and later on English, in all of which she was remarkably fluent.

Upon the outbreak of the World War in 1939 Vilna went from side to side – first it was conquered by the Red Army, which returned it to be an independent Lithuania, along with a Communist regime[2]. There was happiness in the streets with the soldiers of the Red Army; the future seemed rosy and beautiful, Chaya said. The Hebrew school was closed down and she and her fellow students of the 12th grade were transferred to the Yiddish gymnasia, run in the spirit of Communism and autonomy for the pupils. Wide-ranging cultural activity, literature clubs and evenings of poetry reading were the norm. It was a period in which they dreamed of changing the world, despite the war already raging in Europe.

 This happy youth was cut short all at once by the German conquest of Vilna. The graduation party was scheduled for June 21, 1941 and her mother had sewed a festive outfit for Chaya for the occasion. The last examination was on June 20th and that same evening all the members of the class gathered on the bank of the VilliaRiver.

Many years later, Chaya spoke with great nostalgia about that evening, when her grandson Baz interviewed her for his “Roots” paper when he graduated school:

“On Saturday evening we felt so free, we gathered on the bank of the river and we were supposed to be very happy and boisterous. Suddenly we began singing sad songs, because we were sad and we felt that our hearts weren’t in the party. So we sat until late at night, and since I lived outside the Jewish section everyone escorted me home. On the way we saw many soldiers, which was an abnormal sight. We said goodbye, and I went to sleep. The following morning I awoke to a tremendous boom. I jumped from the bed and saw that I was alone in the house. This was the anniversary of my grandmother’s death and the family had gone to the cemetery and didn’t want to wake me. I turned on the radio and heard the famous Soviet announcer Yury Levitan saying in a dramatic voice that the "fascist German conqueror had attacked Soviet land". He called on the entire nation to mobilize against the fascists. A tremendous bombing began and first I ran to school, since we loved it so much. So, we gathered there, some of the students and the school principal who was a Communist, and she said:" we didn’t have time to prepare your matriculation certificates, but we did prepare your certificates of completion of 12th grade". In the middle of the bombing she came up to me and said: Comrade Shapiro, I am surprised at you, how could you have a certificate of excellence in every subject but in Lithuanian you have a failing grade? Suddenly boom, and we crouched down. After she finished distributing the certificates she said that we must fight and liberate the Soviet homeland. We dispersed to see our parents and were determined to go East with the Soviet army, but the city was already surrounded by the German army and only a few managed to reach Russia, among them my brother Yitzhak, who was 18 years old at the time.”

 Two months after the occupation, on August 6th  1941, the Lithuanian police came to the Shapiro’s home and ordered them to take their personal belongings and march towards the ghetto, a short distance away. Lines of Jews burdened with packages marched in the same direction, walking in the middle of the road, since Jews were forbidden from walking on the sidewalk[3].

A picture which remained clearly in Chaya's memory was the figure of her father, who was tall and towered above everyone, with his back bent under the enormous package of bed linens he carried. Life in the ghetto broke him, and the burden of survival fell mainly on the mother.

In the Ghetto

 Chaya passed the first years of the war in the ghetto together with her family. Her mother, who was a seamstress of leather items, was lucky to receive a “shein”, permission to work in one of the German factories, due to which the whole family succeeded in receiving passes to remain in the ghetto and for a while they survived. During these two years the family crammed into a small apartment which they shared with others, and later in a storeroom under the staircase. Life went on between aktzia to Aktzia, after each of which the father went out to see what had happened to his family. Rumors began about what was going on in Ponar, the large ravine of slaughter of the Jews of Vilna, but they did not yet believe that those taken out were from the ghetto were indeed led to destruction[4]. A few people who succeeded in returning from Ponar told what they had seen with their own eyes, but none believed them.

Chaya worked in a kitchen at 2 Strashona Street, and thereby received a serving of hot soup during the day and leftovers which she could bring home. The underground was born in this place and they used to meet there under cover, so she became close to their circles, but due to her young age she was not a regular member of the F.P.O[5]. In the evenings she often went to the youth club, which she described years later as a sort of “greenhouse, a small island where we could forget our troubles.” Her sister Yehudit was already living with her husband Nissan Reznik, a member of the underground headquarters[6], and the main worry was the fate of her brother Yitzhak, who had disappeared without a trace. Her mother Sarah spoke of him all the time and all efforts to find out where he was were unsuccessful. One night the mother awoke with a shout from a dream, woke them all and said excitedly: Yitztkak’ele is alive and he is in Eretz Israel. In retrospect it became clear that this was indeed so – Yitzhak wandered around Russia, reached Afghanistan, was jailed and was ransomed by the Jewish community there. He reached Israel and joined the Jewish Brigade[7]. Chaya saw him again only after the war in Italy, and all her days comforted herself by saying that at least her mother went to her death knowing that Yitzhak was alive.

About the day of the liquidation of the ghetto, September 23, 1943, Chaya spoke and wrote much, as well as on the following period, which was significant in her life – the anticipation to the outbreak of the rebellion, the disappointment, the refusal to allow her to escape through the sewers, the last day in the ghetto with her girlfriends, and afterwards the arduous journey alone to the partisans in the forest. All along her life, her conscience had tormented her why she did not say goodbye to her parents, why she did not try to save them, and in fact she never found out what happened to them in those same days.

 Escape from the Ghetto

 On her heroic escape from the ghetto to the forests Chaya wrote years later:[8]

My memory remains blank when I recall those fateful seconds that it took to cross the pavement. It seemed as if some unseen hand guided me. I dashed for the safety of the doorway of a nearby house as the terrible procession passed it by.

I remember the shaky wooden stairs in the entrance hall. I rushed upstairs to the attic. I am alone, it seemed like I am the only surviving person in the entire world. Down below, the death march continues, hemmed in between lines of armed soldiers. For the time being I am outside their grasp, alone in a dark attic, while the last inhabitants of the ghetto drag their lifeless feet on their way to extinction.

The endless procession, a mass of men, women and children burdened with their earthly belongings, plods along the wet road. “The Lord of Creation” prod them on, impatient with the miserable creatures who have no right to life. And I have cut myself off from this mass and looked down upon their last march. But what a price I had to pay – for I am all alone. Surely, no creature on earth feels as lost and isolated.

The procession finally vanished from sight and the street was deserted. Only groups of soldiers remain guarding the houses and machine- gun crews stationed at the corners of the street. The depressing constant drizzle slowly washes away the last footprints of the condemned Jews. And now nothing remains to show that in this city lived and died hundreds of thousands of them. They built their homes here, prayed in their synagogues, gave birth to children and sent them to school. They stood in the doorways of their shops from dawn till dusk; others labored in their workshops or studied the wisdom of the ancient scriptures. For centuries, the Jews contributed to the life stream of this great city, and now – they are here no more.

And what is to be my fate?

A fat woman stepped out of the house on the other side of the street. She smiled at the soldier on guard, motioning that she wishes to cross the street. She speaks a Slav language, he – German, but they understand one another perfectly, for are they not both Aryans?

I take my thick woolen scarf off my head, straighten out my hair with my fingers and try to put my wet clothes in order. With the scarf on my arm, I practice walking coquettishly up and down to see my face in a piece of glass and my eye catches the Shield of David on my lapel. Good God! I wanted to look like that “Aryan” woman, and completely forgot about the “sign of dishonor” on my coat.

This is the remnant of my people – the yellow badge denoting the inferior race to which I belong. All at once, this symbol of my suffering people becomes so dear to me, as if it were my last friend in the world. With great care, I undo the stitches binding badge to my lapel. Slowly, slowly, I pick at the cotton, taking care not to cause it pain. Then I bury the badge among the rubbish on the attic floor.

One foot at a time, slowly, quietly, I descend the stairs so that the residents of the house do not hear me. Once more I am in front of the wooden door, the street is empty except for the German soldiers.

I force a smile and gesture with my hand that I want to go to the next street, pointing in the direction of the church. I make the sign of the cross in the air to explain that I want to pray. Cold, gray eyes stare at me, eyes of a murderer. He opens his thin lips and barks: “Damn you, why don’t you have the patience to wait for a few minutes until after the curfew!”

He pushes me back into the door-way, but I understand German, and console myself with the thought that the curfew will soon end. And indeed, a few seconds later a sharp whistle fills the air, and the soldiers gather in line, form into detachments and march away, smartly, in perfect order, leaving the sound of their hobnailed boots behind them.

Doors are opened and people begin to come out into the street. I hurry out too. The street! It is no longer a scene of death but of everyday bustle. People are walking, children are playing, shops are opening, cars and carts start moving up the roadway. The stream of life renews itself as if nothing had happened here just a while ago.

I am alone in the city of my birth. The street swarms with German soldiers and Gestapo men. Inside the houses live people who are indifferent to my fate. There is no one ready to open the door to offer me a piece of bread or to console me for the loss of my family, for the loss of my people.

Where can I turn and where will I go?

In front of me I see the city cathedral with the Madonna, glittering with precious stones, gazing in each passerby. Her sad face expresses sorrow and pity for the world. Does she have pity for me as well? not likely.

Imitating the others, I, too, bend my knee before her and make the sign of the cross over my heart. I close my eyes and pray. But not to the statue opposite me but to the God of Israel who has forsaken me and my people, his people. Oh Almighty, cruel God! I am not asking you for mercy – I demand my right to live. Yes! I want to live. I have not yet tasted of life and already the bitterness of death is in my mouth.

My bare feet lead me to life

I feel a light touch on my shoulder. Next to me kneels a Christian woman wrapped in a large woolen scarf which covers her face. She murmurs a prayer. Did she really touch me? I rise slowly so as not to let her think she frightened me. She continues to mutter and whispers through clenched teeth: “You are taking too long, my child, we do not pray that way on weekdays”.

 I look at her, she is the wife of the concierge of the house we lived in, just on the other side of the church. I remember her bent back washing the stairs, as I would dash downstairs on my way to school. I also remember how often I heard her husband cursing the Jews when he was drunk. But he would take off his hat obsequiously whenever he expected a tip from one of the Jewish families living in the house.

“One thing I ask of you”, I whisper to her without moving my head, “when you return home, please write down the date. Perhaps one day this war will end… perhaps one of my family will come back. Then tell them that on this date you saw me last.”

“Wait a moment, take this, hang it around your neck, may God be with you” – she pushes a small cross on a thin chain into my hand.

I rise to my feet and walk out to seek my way to life.

The thin drizzle continues to fall. Metallic skies hang low above the roofs of the wet, gloomy cottages. People covered in winter clothing hurry on their way. Military trucks full of German soldiers rush by along the wet road surfaces. One can see their smart uniforms through the windows of their vehicles, untouched by the rain.

Slowly, I leave behind the main thoroughfares of the city and reach the outskirts. Tall buildings are replaced by low wooden huts; swift, noisy cars by horse-drawn carts. That farmer over there, sitting on the wagon, with a whip in his hand, he must have sold his products at the market in the early hours of the day and now he is on his way back to his village. Does he have a thought of what he saw in the city today? Does he pay attention to the girl walking on the pavement?

“Perhaps you can take me up until the next village"? I approach him cautiously. “Your wagon is empty….” He does not bother to look at me, and shouts: “Come on, get up on the cart.”

The moment I get close to the cart, I regret my courage. Amidst a pile of straw sits a village girl, all wrapped in a sheepskin coat, she is probably the farmer’s daughter. Had I noticed her before, I would not have dared to stop the cart. The farmer seems unconcerned with his surroundings, but the girl – that is a different matter! She will probably want to talk and ask me where I live and where I am going. I have no choice now. I get onto the cart and sit with my legs hanging over the edge.

“Come on the straw, its softer here,” the girl says.

“No thank you. I don’t want to put you out. I am getting off after the next turning.”

“Oh, a city girl,” she says, “I bet you’re scared for your silk stocking, they may tear on the straw.”

God help me! What a fool. Already I have betrayed myself. And I have plans to pass through many villages and reach the Partisan groups who fled the Ghetto.

“And why did you decide to leave the city in such terrible weather?”

No escape. I will have to talk to her. She won’t leave me alone until her curiosity is satisfied.

“You know, it’s so difficult to get food in town these days. My mother has terrible stomach troubles and I thought that in the country I would be able to get some fresh eggs and good cheese.”

“Uf! The market was full with all you want today. You could have gotten everything you wanted without running around in this rain in the villages.”

She falls silent and doesn’t bother me anymore with her questions. I decide that when they reach the road crossing I will ask them to let me off. But there goes that girl again. This time she addresses her father:

“Did you see how many Jews they took away today?”

“M.. m.. mm, yes, I saw.”

“You know, they say the Germans are taking them to some place near Warsaw, and there they send them up in smoke. And those fools were dragging heavy parcels as if they will ever use them. The Jew can never part with his belongings. Isn’t it funny? What do they need all the things for? They’re going to die anyway….”

The farmer does not seem to hear and I pretend to be deaf, too. I lean back on a pile of hay, open my mouth to yawn and say: “I am tired, will you please wake me up when we reach the village?”

“Its not worth your while to doze off, it won’t take us long to get there.”

“All the same, I think I’ll take a nap.”

I raise my legs and put them inside the cart, wrap myself up in the odorous straw, shut my eyes and pretend to sleep.

The farmer does not say a word. He shakes the reins and the cart goes forward a little faster, shaking from side to side over the uneven road.

All too soon, there is the first village, with its wooden houses and thatched roofs. No living soul is about, not even a dog can be seen in the dusty roads which have now become a mass of congealed mud from the continual downpour. My clothes are soaked through and I feel the damp penetrating my very bones.

Soon I will have to leave the wagon and my comfortable mattress and seek my way along unknown paths. A thought crossed my mind – is it really worth it?   But the burning blue eyes of the village girl bring me back to life. She is my age. Why should she have the right to live and not me? As long as I can, I will fight to live!

“Would you please let me off just before that house? I will ask them whether they have something to sell.”

The farmer is not deaf at all, he hears my voice quite well and brings his horse to the halt.  “Look here, if you want to look like a village girl, then you’d better take off those shoes and your silk stockings. We go barefoot or in thick woolen boots in our village.”

“Really? even in the rain?” I blurt out naively.

“Ha, ha, ha” the girl laughs at me. “You’d better go back to the city if you’re so spoilt. But back there the Germans will get you, won’t they? You are a Jewess, aren’t you?”

“Yes’ I am Jewish, and I don’t have anywhere to go back to.”

I take off my shoes and remove my stocking and give them to the young farmer’s daughter sitting there comfortably on her pile of straw. I don’t say a word and she takes them in silence. The farmer does not turn his head, but as if he had eyes in the back of his neck, the moment my sorry bundle passes into his daughter’s hands, he whips his horse and the cart move off. She takes the things from me as if it were her right. The wagon vanishes and I remain barefooted and shivering on a village road in the middle of a mass of mud.

All I now possess in the world is a wet coat and the blue woolen scarf covering my hair, my long, curly “Jewish” hair. I tighten the scarf around my neck to help my "Jewish identity" well hidden. I raise my coat collar and gingerly step into the mud.

Dearest Mother, I do not know where you are right now, whether you are breathing this cold air, too… I promised you that I will take care of myself and try not to catch cold. There is a great fire burning inside me. I want to live. The fire has taken possession of my entire frozen body. This fire will warm me up.

I feel my cheeks becoming flushed with temperature. This may help me to look like rosy-cheeks, Christian village girl. I, too, have a short, upturned nose. My face and my bare feet – these are the weapons I possess which must lead me away from here; far away – to life!

The wagon has long vanished into the dark, I am afraid they may change their mind and inform the police or the German patrol that a Jewess is walking about the village on the main highway. I walk right through the group of cottages and emerge on the other side. The path now winds amongst tall trees. I know that some 50 kilometers from the city, in the woods, there are Partisan units. I raise my eyes and see the tops of the tall trees. Pine trees are green even in autumn. How long has it been since I saw something green? It is so beautiful here, the forest, the fields and above it the gray sky. The villages seem like islands in a sea of trees. For every miserable peasant hovel there are thousands of trees.

My heart aches as I recall the one and only tree that grew in the crowded alleys of the Ghetto. A lonely tree, which survived in the courtyard of the “Judenrat”. Its thick trunk and deep roots drew life from the depths of the earth. We youngsters would gather around it in the few quiet spring evenings, when the terror of deportations was lifted temporarily from the Ghetto. We would rake the earth at its roots and water it. But there it stood, proud and indifferent to the condemned creatures at its feet. Its crown was high above the houses and it gazed up into the free skies, outside the confines of the walls of the Ghetto. Only the very highest branches were covered with leaves, those below remained dry and brittle, as befitted its surroundings.

Now I am walking in a wilderness of trees and greens. For once I am not hemmed in by masses of people, and the hateful eyes of the Gestapo.

The path amongst the trees ends abruptly and I find myself in an open space. A village boy runs by, carrying a whip, he is chasing a calf that left the herb.

“Hi there! Is it far to village P?”

“Ten viorst[9] from here,” he shouts back as he runs on.

“How do I get there?”

“This way through the fields and then the forest and when you have passed through all the trees you will see the spire of the village church.”

The open space of the fields frightens me. I decide to follow the narrow path at the edge of trees, which runs round the wide field. Already I have become a hunted animal, frightened of open spaces.

I have reached village P. It is one of the largest villages in the region. It has a white church, a school building and… a police station. I can see the policemen walking around in the station yard, revolvers strapped to their top coats, the sound of their laughter reaches me. I must pass quickly by this nest of murderers. I run cold and hot. I dare not look side ways, I gaze fixedly at the far edge of the village where the forest begins again. Just one more cowshed, one more vegetable garden and I will reach the security of the trees.

Soon I find a hiding place amongst some dry boughs. I lie flat on the ground and cover myself with branches, leaving a small opening through which to peek out.

Dusk stretches into hours. Soon I hear the sound of a horse trotting. A priest dressed in a black habit sitting in a cart drives by. He keeps whipping his horse and singing to himself.

I do not remember exactly how long I remained lying there among the boughs. Soon the forest begins its nightly chorus. The voices of beast and bird are intermingled with the branches of the rustling trees.

I rise and leave my hiding place. I am going to try and reach the next village, where a German garrison is stationed. To my left and right are walls of trees. The howl of an autumn night is quite deafening. But I am not frightened. I have a trust that the four-legged beast of prey is more human than its counterpart on two.

Suddenly I see green lights flickering among the trees. They circle around me like falling stars. I think that it is the searchlights of the police looking for me and for a moment I consider climbing on a tree. I stop breathing for a second and try to make out what this means. But the green lights rush about with great speed in the thick brush. It can not be men running so quickly and easily among the trees. Then the lights are gone and I decide to continue on my way. I walk along for some time, when suddenly, a pair of green lamps come straight at me at terrific speed. I strain a slight bark and continue on its way. I am greatly relieved. They are wolves, who have left their lairs at nightfall to seek out their prey for food.

For some reason this does not frighten me. These beasts of prey have their own codes of morality. They sense that they are confronted with a more persecuted animal and they do not touch me. At that moment I think to myself:

Do not be afraid of animals – beware of Man.

On the banks of a small river amidst the forest stands village Z. a garrison of the German army is stationed there. I push my way through the rushes up to the water’s edge. Completely exhausted, I collapse and my legs slip into the water. I lie there half in the stream. The clouds move away and I see above me black skies and flickering stars. My fever has risen again, my bones ache and my back feels as if it had been stabbed with hundreds of sharp pins. My mind becomes clouded. Strange visions attack me.

The houses are close by. I turn over on my side, raise my feet out of the water and wrap them under me. Between the rushes I can discern the outlines of the houses. The village is asleep; the only light to be seen shines from a window in one of the far houses. Voices are heard and white smoke billows from its chimney. I warn myself against that particular house – for there must be the Germans. The stabbing in my back is painful and my forehead is hot. The world is revolving around me – stars are falling from the skies, the lights of the house rush towards me, dance into my eyes.

I do not know how long I lay there or whether I had slept. I become aware of my limbs heavy as lead. I feel nothing, nor do I have any wish to move from there. I want to become a rock and sink slowly into the earth. But something warm and good brushes my face a pair of warm soft hands fondle me, and force my blood to flow once more through my frozen body.  The sun’s rays have penetrates the mass of rushes and are warming my sick body. My consciousness returns to me. I remember where I am going; I feel the chain on my neck and remember where I got the cross.  I have not been caught. I realize with a shock that it is already morning and perhaps noon, and I am still lying on the edge of the brook. The good, warm rays on my delirium woke me and urged me to move.

Battle for life along the brink of death

 The sun dries my wet coat, and steam begins to rise. I take off my coat and tie up my hair in the scarf. Then I sit down on the bank of the stream and wash the mud off my feet. I leave my hiding place and pass between the farmhouses. From far I can see peasants working in the fields, women hanging out the wash, throwing grain to the poultry or pouring pails of feed into the pigsties. It is all so quiet and peaceful.

Suddenly I hear the crash of boots. Four rows of jack-booted German “warriors” march over the narrow bridge. The wood planks shake with the impact of their firm steps, and the echoes quiver in the quiet of the forest. They are dressed in full battle array, sub-machine guns on their shoulders, the swastikas and buttons glittering in the sun. They cross the bridge in perfect formation, as if they were on parade before their Supreme Leader.

When they are out of sight I cross the bridge and continue my way to the next village. Once more I find myself between two high walls of trees.

But in the back of my mind is the nagging question: what happens when I reach the last village? How will I find our men in the forest?

As I walk in the woods again I come upon an open space covered with yellow lichen. I collect dry branches and make a kind of tent, and lie down inside. The soft lichen forms an excellent mattress. My coat which has dried in the meantime, serves as a covering. Birds sing to me from their nest in the trees above. Soon strong, sweet sleep, without dreams or nightmares, a sleep which restores the soul and revives the body, overcomes me.

I awake from the coldness of my bare feet. Dusk has coldness upon the forest. Even the birds are silent and the sun has gone. I have lost the hours of daylight in sleep. The second night is upon me, and I am alone and far from my destination. But I feel much better. My pains have gone and my head is clear. It is cold and dry all around me. But with the sense of renewed health has come a wave of hunger. When did I eat last? I can’t remember. It was a long time ago, far, far away, in a land that no longer exists – the Ghetto. We – four of my girl friends and I – had been wandering around in the yards of the Ghetto near the Aryan side, seeking an opening in the wall. We looked for a gap in the fence but all the passages were blocked. We climbed up into attics, and down into cellars but failed to find a chink in the enclosure.

We were five animals trapped in a cage. From one roof top we jumped onto a house which faced the Aryan side. We pulled out tiles from the roof and squeezed into the attic of the strange house. The door to the landing was locked. Fumbling in the dark we found an open window. Two of the girls were sisters. The youngest, a thin, dark girl, jumped up and with our help managed to clamber through the narrow opening. We could hear her running down the stairs, and through the silence of the night the terrifying “Halt!” and then a long, drawn-out cry:”Mother! Save me!”

We made our way again onto the roof and from there climbed down into the Ghetto again. When we finally reached the outside we fell right into the arms of the Ukrainian soldiers. They hit us with butts of their rifles all the way to the Judenrat. There we found a large number of people – the Jewish policemen of the Ghetto and their families. The thin drizzle which was to accompany me later on my lonely journey had already begun. During that long, long night, they kept bringing in Jews from their hiding places. The four of us sat together in utter silence. Next to us sat a woman with many children and parcels. About midnight she took out a loaf of bread from her belongings, distributed some of it to her children and the rest she gave us. We split it up into four equal parts and chewed in silence.

That slice of dry bread was the last morsel of food I had had all that time. I try hard to remember how long ago that was. Thinking of the bread makes my intestines twist with pain. I can think of nothing but food. Like the night before, the darkness drops slowly. Among the greens and yellow, I see reddish kernels. These kernels ripen at autumn and I remember that mothers made tasty dishes with them for children. I grasped this fruit of the earth and did not stop until I finish them all off. The juicy acidity of the fruit revives me. My hunger hasn’t been satisfied but my empty insides are silenced. I jump about a bit to keep myself warm, and so my sense of well-being returns.

With nighttime the forest chorus resumes once again. The voices do not frighten me as on the previous night. The green eyes of the wolves dash about amongst the trees and I hear their barking mingling with that of the village dogs nearby.

At dawn I notice a lonely house at the edge of the forest. I go there to ask for water and with luck get some information as to the whereabouts of the Partisan units. A strange silence greets me in the courtyard. The windows of the house are hanging off their hinges and inside – nothing! I approach the verandah and see a girl stretched out on the stone floor. I recognize her,   she is Teiba'le one of the girls who had left the Ghetto a few days before me. She had escaped to the forest bearing Aryan identity cards, accompanied by an armed member of the underground. I was supposed to have gone with her, but was too late. The Ukrainians had managed to surround the Ghetto before I got away. She – the “lucky one” – managed to escape. And here she is now, I come closer and try to speak to her but then I notice a bullet hole at her forehead, it reached her just when she was within reach of her destination. I feel limp and with my head in my hands I burst into tears.

Barefooted steps approach rapidly. A woman wearing a thick scarf shakes me violently: “Can’t you find a better place to cry? Get away from here quickly. Your lot have brought enough trouble already to our village. The village was swarming with Germans until late last night, they will return when it gets properly light. They’re sure to arrest us all. Run away, quickly!”

“Who shot her?” I ask in a voice choked with tears.

“Can’t you hear what I’m telling you? The Germans are here. Those two had to decide to hide in this village of all places. They waited until nightfall and they wanted to go into the forest to join the Partisans. They hardly left the doorway when the Germans saw them. They shot her down, the boy had a revolver and he returned fire. He managed to get away. Go from here as quickly as you can. They might catch you here, too… “

“Where can I go?”

“Go straight into the forest, along that path and you will meet those you are looking for,” she becomes more insistent.

Beyond this village is a deep forest. Layers of wild growth cover the earth, and the trees are of a great height. Only a little way in and it becomes intensely dark even at noon. Wild animals of all kinds live in this forest. Weeds grow from bogs which never dry up. A man can not walk in the undergrowth. Here is nature at its most primeval.

I find an ancient path and run along it. The sand is soft and easy on my feet.

The lapping of water reaches my ears. I turn my head to see a clear, pure stream flowing from the black forest and disappearing into the ground.  Little Alice in Wonderland, did you stand like me, enchanted by the wonders of your make-believe world? But I belong to reality, I see a man with a rifle in his hands running towards me. In his hands lies my fate.

A lightning thought tells me – if I hear the hated German cry “Halt!” it means everything is over, but if he should speak in a Slavic tongue then I am saved!

“Ruki vierch!” (Hands up!) – The cry echoes for the entire world to hear. I can not lift my hands, they have stopped obeying me. I shut my eyes and cry out ya ebreika!  “I am a Jewess!”

Suddenly, everything is quiet. The tops of the trees stop swaying, the water in the spring ceases to bubble, the hare stops in his tracks- only the forest answers in a strange chorus: “She is a Jewess, let her live!”

Among the Partisans

A new period began upon her joining the partisans and her mobilization to active participation in the fight against the Germans. Chaya drilled in using weapons, in laying mines and explosives and participated in operations outside the forest. Amongst these she remembered the return to Vilna, a short time after she left it, in order to blow up the transformers and interrupt the electricity and water supply. The operation was never completed because German soldiers were patrolling around, but she and her friend were able to get out of the city and bring to the forest some 60 Jews who were still in hiding in malinas – hiding places in the ghetto. Of this she was very proud.

 In the forest she met a young man, who later became her husband for over fifty years – Chaim Lazar. Chaim was ten years older than her and held a senior position in the partisans. He wooed her and managed to transfer her to his unit; after that they were never separated, until his death in August 1997. Daily conditions in the forest were harsh, but at least they were free.[10]

 Liberation

 In August 1944 they left the forest and returned to Vilna upon its liberation by the Red Army. The return to the city of her birth which was empty of Jews, with not a single member of her family left, was traumatic and difficult. That summer Chaim traveled to Moscow for treatment of his hand which had been amputated during one of the partisan actions. Chaya remained with her sister and brother-in-law in Vilna, worked in a dairy products factory and thereby managed to obtain food. That was when the discussions on immigrating to Eretz Israel began.

Their period of wandering around Europe began in January 1945. Chaya and Chaim advanced together with their friends, from one liberated city to another in Poland. At the beginning of May 1945 they crossed the border to Czechoslovakia and on the 9th of that month reached a small Czech village and saw the villagers coming out cheering, singing and dancing in the streets – which is how they learned of the end of the war.

From Czechoslovakia they went on to Bucharest, where they met emissaries from Israel and were able to obtain certificates for immigration, but Chaim said that in Italy there was wide-ranging activity of the organization for immigration to Israel and he wanted to take part in it. Chaya discovered that she was pregnant and understood that in those circumstances it was impossible to have a baby. Only 50 years later she was able to tell about the terrible abortion she went through by a Romanian lady, and how for a while she was afraid that she would never be able to have children.

They crossed the border to Austria and from there to Terviso on the Italian border, where they participated in the famous meeting of the survivors with the soldiers of the Brigade and the emissaries from Eretz Israel, during which Chaim delivered a long and emotional speech telling them for the first time about the horrors of the war[11].

The next two years were among the best of her young life – free and liberated in Italy, partner in rescue activity and sending Jews to Israel on the "illegal" immigration, first in Milan and later in Rome, where Chaim served as the Beitar representative. They were married in Rome, in 1946 in the Great Synagogue, by the Chief Rabbi of Italy, Rabbi Pratto.

When Chaya realized she was pregnant again, she decided this time that at any cost her baby would be born on the land of Eretz Israel, and not on the land of Europe soaked in the blood of her family and her people. In search of a boat they wandered from Italy to Marseilles, where she and Chaim boarded one of the “illegal” boats which brought them to Haifa. She was already in her 9th month of pregnancy, the boat was crowded and the 3 weeks travel in the sea was hard on her. When Mount Carmel could be seen on the shore she went into labor and was taken directly to the hospital. After a long day of pain and suffering her eldest daughter (the author of this article), whom she named Sarah after her mother, saw the light of day.

 New Life in Israel

 Family life in Israel was always overshadowed by the major events of World War II, but they were carried out in normalcy, with much love and constant joy of life. In 1954 her son Eddie was born, named for his grandfathers from both sides – Eli and Dov.

In Israel Chaya has worked as an editor and writer in daily Ma'ariv and then for many years at Herut newspaper. When the Eichmann trial opened it was only natural that  the paper would send her to cover it. In one of her first impressions of the Court she wrote: "The table is piled with documents and legal books, the prosecution needs them, but us who had been there do not need any proofs – each one of us is a document!"[12] A collection of her moving articles from the trial had been published by the family after her death[13].

The closing of the paper in 1966 was a hard blow. Chaya loved her work, the people, the daily tension accompanying the production of a newspaper, the smell of the printing press and the tempo of the news. She worked for a few years as an editor of publications at the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv, and later in the Commemoration Unit of the Ministry of Defense editing “Gvillei Esh,” – Scrolls of Fire, a collection of works by fallen soldiers.

Chaya worked all her life at Chaim’s side in collecting materials and testimonies about the Holocaust period, and especially the role of Beitar members in the rebellions, the briha (escape), the immigration and the War of Independence. A subject which occupied both of them for some forty years was the role of the Jewish Military Organization, (ZZW), established by the Beitar Movement, in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Already in 1960 Chaya traveled to Communist Poland in order to meet with members of the Polish Underground who assisted this organization in the uprising. Together with them she uncovered documents and testimonies, as well as the opening to the tunnel which served the Jews of the ghetto and the members of the underground before and during the uprising. In the last years of her life she again devoted herself to this subject and went back to Warsaw twice after the fall of the Communist regime in order to search the newly opened archives and find new documentation. On the day of her death documents in Polish and in Yiddish which she had translated for the purposes of continued research on the subject were spread on her desk.

For many years she struggled with Chaim’s heart disease and from the middle of the 1980’s also with her own illness. Neither of them allowed the weakness of the heart to influence the power of the spirit. Despite physical limitations they continued with unending diligence and devotion to work, to write, to travel the world and of course Israel. She loved to travel all around Israel, and especially loved the desert and the Dead Sea. She always went back there admiring the silence and the sun as if compensating herself for the lost years of adolescence.

Chaya and Chaim were privileged by four grandchildren and brought them to mitzvot one after another. Chaya also accompanied each one of them upon mobilization into the army, even though she did not live long enough to see them all be released from their service and begin an independent life.

Even after Chaim’s death, the love of her youth and her companion for so many years, she continued with the energy so typical of her. In the first year she devoted herself completely to editing a memorial booklet to him, producing a memorial evening and continuing the research project on the Warsaw Ghetto. Afterwards she was available to renew the activity of the museum and to wide-ranging correspondence with people all over the world connected with the subject of the Warsaw Ghetto.

In the last years of her life Chaya has lost many of her friends, members of a dwindling generation of those who lost their youth and their families in Europe, immigrated to Israel and established new families with tremendous powers of body and mind. About two months before her death two of her closest friends passed away one after the other and then she said: now it’s my turn. When we skipped her 79th birthday and said – next year we’ll celebrate in a big way, she answered: next year you’ll hold a memorial service for me. Apparently her heart told her. In February of 2003, her sudden death shocked her family and friends. She was so vivid and full of energy, had great plans to travel and to write but passed away in a dramatic instance, as she had lived all her life.

 Epilogue

 I will always remember two sentences she used to repeat every now and then: "If a bird would have flied above the Ghetto and had dropped a little note saying that somewhere in the world someone knows about our bitter destiny – it would have bring a glimpse of hope and ease our hardships for a little bit".

And when us, her children would complain or criticize what's going on in the country she would get mad and say: "If you had spent one day of your life in the Ghetto – you would have appreciated your free life in your own independent homeland and would not criticize it!"

Who is to be remembered in the collective memory? And who is to be privileged to enter the "national pantheon"?

The history of WW2 and the Holocaust is full of heroic stories, with unbelievable courage of ordinary people who lived through unordinary times and survived. Chaya Shapiro-Lazar is just one of them, one young woman who stood against Evil and bit it.

Chaya's heritage is not dead. Her daughter Sarah and her granddaughter Daniela Ozacky-Stern continue her work. We continue to research, write, publish, tell and talk about her and her friends, about those unknown anonymous women who had survived the worst experiences one can imagine, turned their back to the dark and became happy normal mothers, full of love to their children who represented more than anything their victory.

Their stories are yet to be told for generations to come.

  ___________

[1] On cultural and Educational life in Vilnius and on tarbut Gymnasia see:

New Jewish Time. Jewish Culture in a Secular Age: An Encyclopedic View, (Lamda & Keter: 2007) p. 336 (Hebrew)

[2] Lithuanian Jewry's  More on the Soviet take-over of Vilnius see: Dov Levin, Fighting Back,

 Armed Resistance to the Nazis, 1945-1941, translated by Moshe Kohn and Dina Cohen, Holmes &

 (Meier NY London: 1985) p. 17-26.

[3] About the transfer to the Ghetto see: Aron Einat, Everyday Life in the Vilna Ghetto, (Moreshet: 2013) chap. 2.

[4] Chaim Lazar, Destruction and Resistance, translated by Galia Eden Barshop. (Shengold Publishers NY: 1985) p. 29-31.

[5] FPO – the Jewish underground in Vilna ghetto consisted of all youth movements from the political spectrum

[6] Reznik's memoire tell in detail the story of life in the ghetto and of the underground:

Nisan Reznik, Budding from the Ashes, (Yad Vashem: 2003) (Hebrew – nitznim me'efer)

[7] See Yitzhak Shapiro personal testimony given to Dov Levin on 18.5.1965 at: The Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, film no. 658.

[8] I chose to bring her testimony as it is because it describes in details not only the chronology of the events but her thoughts and emotions at the time. She told this story for the first time after Adolf Eichmann had been caught and  brought to Israel, and it was published in the daily Yediot Ahronot 16.6.1961

[9] A Russian length measurement, about 1 kilometer

[10] More on the life as partisans in Lazar's book Destruction and Resistance (ibid 4)

[11]  Chaim Lazar, Chapters of "Bricha". (Museum of Combatants and Partisans, Tel Aviv: 1986)  p. 219-256.

[12]  Herut 13.4.1961

[13] Publication of the Museum of the Combatants and Partisans, vol. XII, no. 1 (86) Tel Aviv: 2004. A special issue dedicated to Chaya Lazar and her writings.

For further reading:

Altschuler, Mordechai, Soviet Jewry on the Eve of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem, Jerusalem: 1998.

Greenbaum, Masha, The Jews of Lithuania, A History of a remarkable Community 1316-1945. Gefen, Jerusalem NY: 1995.

Shneidman, N. N., Jerusalem of Lithuania: The Rise and Fall of Jewish Vilnius. Mosaic Press, NY: 1998.

Sutton, Karen, The Massacre of the Jews of Lithuania. Gefen, JerusalemNY:  2008.

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