Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun—Yom Kippur, 5765
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First, I want to thank the rabbis for inviting me to speak today.
The story of the Jews is the story of a people wandering in the desert for forty years and designing the rules of civilization, the rules that would govern them when they were to live in the Promised Land.
I want to talk today about a different time. Some of the four years of Jewish life—and my family’s life—during the war, during the Shoah—and in the Kovno Ghetto Labor Camp.
My family was religiously conservative and ardently Zionist. All four children were sent to Hebrew high schools, and all were taught to dream about Palestine. Kovno was a Jewish city, one of the two largest cities in Lithuania. Lithuanian Jews believe that the height of Ashkenazi civilization was in Lithuania. The best yeshivas in Eastern Europe were said to be in Vilna and Kovno.
My father had come to study in Kovno at the Slabodka Yeshiva before World War One. In Kovno, he married my mother and started a wholesale leather business. At the time, Lithuania was part of Czarist Russia and part of the Pale of Settlement where the Jews were allowed to live. When the War broke out, the Russian government—knowing how much the Jewish population admired the enlightenment of the Germans—proclaimed an edict which forced all the Jews to leave Lithuania, so my parents and my eldest brother moved to Rostov in the Ukraine.
My father managed to continue his business in the Ukraine until the Russian revolution, when everything was taken away from him. He and my mother got to move back to Lithuania by giving the Commissar most of their money. They resumed their life in Kovno, now with two children, Pinchas and Aaron, my two older brothers. I was born shortly after, and my younger brother, Israel, arrived in 1926.
Although I heard stories of the difficulties of their life under the Bolsheviks, for me that was history and life was comfortable. Today, one would say I grew up in a very sheltered home. In addition to my parents, I had three brothers. And, when the oldest moved to Palestine, the other two, even the younger one, took over the job of protecting their only sister.
There was true Jewish autonomy in Kovno. There were five Jewish newspapers printed in Yiddish, five Jewish high schools, and Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian libraries. There were Hebrew/Yiddish organizations and a community that was very close to Palestine.
In June 1940, I had just finished gymnasium and was planning to go to Kovno University. Having been a good student, I was certain I would be accepted.
That month, Stalin’s Army walked into Lithuania and annexed it. The university would only admit the children of the working class. So, instead of going to Kovno University, my parents allowed me to go to University in Vilno, 100 kilometers away.
The first year of university went very quickly, and soon I was down to my last exam, in economics. I arranged to study with two friends on Sunday, June 22, 1941. But mostly, I was looking forward to summer vacation and to seeing the Moscow Art Theatre’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Even back then, I loved Chekhov. I sensed the sadness of his characters accepting the reality of their lives without much of a fight.
Zalman, Chanan, and I studied quite seriously, despite the beautiful spring day. At around noon, I heard some noises that I had not heard before. When Zalman said they were bombs, I didn’t believe him, but the word bombs still scared me. We soon found a larger group of our friends and exchanged news and rumors.
It was the day Hitler attacked his ally, Stalin.
Most of the students were planning to run east toward the Soviet Union and suggested I go with them. But I felt the only route I could take would be to return to my family in Kovno. My friends told me I should not go back to Kovno. They said it would be terrible under the Germans.
When I speak about the time of the Shoah, my vocabulary, I confess, does not have the name Nazi. The only name we used and I still use is German.
I went to the train station, but no trains were running. I returned to my room. The city was empty, except for some police. The Russian army had already fled, and the German army was not there yet. The shelling of the city was so severe that everyone in the building spent the night in the cellar.
It was the first time in my life that I heard the whistle of a plane and the sound of a falling bomb. The bombing lasted all night. I knew my family was still in Kovno, since they could not run and my younger brother would not leave them.
When I walked out in the street in the morning, I saw German soldiers for the first time. They were clean. Their uniforms were bluish grey and fit very well. They were self-assured and walked as if the war was already won. I thought they would recognize that I was Jewish and arrest me, so I ran back to my apartment.
A few days later I met a friend, Jacob Epstein. Jacob was a talented music student. Like most of the other Jewish students, he had tried to run east, but had not succeeded. I was glad he and another friend were in town, so that some people I knew were still there.
College students do stupid things, even in wartime. Jacob had left his accordion in the university dormitory. We thought all the Lithuanian students had gone home and we would be able to get it. We hiked to the dormitory. They were to be the lookouts and I was to go get the accordion. I went upstairs, got the precious accordion, and ran back.
When I got back down, I saw five or six students sitting around my two friends. One had a gun and was pointing it at my friends. When they saw me, they grabbed the accordion and yelled at me to sit down beside my friends. They screamed that we should pay with our lives for the all the Lithuanian girls who were exiled to Siberia in the weeks before the German invasion.
You never know where your rescue might come from. I don’t remember how long we were there with the fear of death pointing at us. But I remember that vodka was brought out, which was not a very good sign for us.
Suddenly, we heard an authoritative voice, asking what the commotion was about. We turned our heads and saw my music professor. He had known me very well from the student chorus. With an indignant voice, he told the students that the arrival of the Germans did not mean that students would be killed on university grounds without a trial. The students retreated a little, but the two with guns did not move. One of them said that professors should not stand up for Jews.
The professor took some of the students off to the side. I think he spent more than an hour talking to them far away from us. Only the two with guns remained, their guns pointing at the three of us. After night fell, the music professor came over to us and said we were all free to leave but not to take the accordion and never to come back.
It was past the curfew when I returned with my friends to their house. When we closed the door behind us, I just started crying.
From that point on, all I thought about was how to get back to my family in Kovno. But for six weeks, no trains were allowed to leave, and all telephone lines were cut. During that time, the Germans put more and more restrictions on the Jews in Vilno. There were rumors that a ghetto was going to be formed.
When the trains started to move again, we knew that we would need to get special permission. Our papers all said that we were Jewish. But then we realized that our student IDs just had our names on them, and the three of us used them to get permission to board the train. I got off the train at Kovno and my two friends continued to their homes further out.
As soon as I got off the train in my hometown, I realized it was no longer my town. I was afraid of being recognized as a Jew. I was afraid of what I was going to find in my home. But, I still vividly remember coming to my house and seeing my mother through the window. This was my safe haven and no matter what happened, we would be together. It was the middle of the war, and I could feel what was in front of us, but somehow this day still felt like the happiest day in my life.
I learned what had happened in the six weeks since the war. My family had not left with the Soviet Army. It was difficult for my parents to leave. My younger brother stayed with them, and my older brother, his wife, and their child, Rina, also decided to stay in Kovno.
One day, the Lithuanian police came to the apartment and took my father and younger brother to the Seventh Fort. They were held for a week and were tortured. After that, they were allowed to leave.
The Jews were supposed to move to a ghetto on the other side of the river by the middle of August, when it would be closed down. My mother was in the middle of packing the house. The Germans were allowing the Jews to bring many of their belongings to the ghetto. Somehow, she was packing cheerfully. She said that now that the family was intact, she would like to go to the ghetto and not have to be afraid of Lithuanians. Little did she think—or say—what was waiting for us in the ghetto: My family lived together in the ghetto in one room of the house of my mother’s cousin. The ghetto lasted close to four years. It remains difficult to talk about and painful to remember.
The Kovno Ghetto was primarily a labor camp, and each of us was sent each day on work details for the Germans. But throughout the four years, there were various actions conducted by the Germans. There was also looting, shooting every day, jailing, and killing in the Ninth Fort.
The most painful was the Children’s Action, when 1,000 children were taken out and sent to the Ninth Fort to be killed that same day. Fortunately for us, my brother’s daughter, my 6-year-old niece Rina, was hidden and saved during the children’s action.
A week later, Rina was asleep in her bed. The rest of us were in the kitchen. Suddenly, we heard the sound of heavy boots going up the stairs and we knew who it was. There was no time to do anything, nowhere to hide her this time. Four Germans with guns came in looking for children. My brother told them there were no children in the house. Two Germans stayed with us and two walked into the other room. We expected some sort of voice or scream or a gunshot, but didn’t hear anything. After a while, the two Germans came out and said that they did not find anyone. After we did not hear
boots anymore, we walked into the room. Rina stuck her head out of the heavy blanket and in a joyful little voice said, “See, I tricked the Germans again.”
But she did not trick the Germans many more times.
In one way, or maybe more, Chekhov was right, and the desire to live or not lose one’s dignity showed itself.
One day, while working at the airport, the head of the project brought me to his house in order to clean it, shine the boots, and make it look like a home. He said I could eat the food in his refrigerator. In the afternoon, he came back, complimented my work and told me that someone would bring me to his house every day. I thanked him very much for the opportunity, but, I said, somehow, I would prefer not to work for him. I told him I preferred to stay with my fellow Jews at the same work they were doing. It made me feel like a prisoner of war, where I could still dream about freedom. To be chosen by him for another job was completely different.
The minute the words came out of my mouth, I was worried for my life. He pointed to his gun and said, “Did you notice that I have a gun and can do what I want?” But something happened. His voice changed. He turned to me and said that I cleaned his boots very well. He said, “Someone else would hurt you for challenging me like that.” He took me back to the center where the Jewish work brigades gathered. That was the last time I went to work at the airport.
We were lucky in a way. My mother and father, my two brothers, Esia, my sister-in-law, and Rina, my niece, made it through the four years, even with the actions and the killings. I still feel lucky. Until the end, my family was together.
Toward the end, as the Russian army was closing in, it was clear that the Germans were going to round up the Jews and take them elsewhere. Then, before the Russians came, they burned the ghetto.
I ran away before the ghetto was burned and hid in a mill. The rest of the family hid in the house we lived in. After the burning of the ghetto, my family was found by the Germans and shot at the same time. Three generations at the same time, among the 94 percent of the Lithuanian Jews who perished.
After liberation, I made my way with a group of survivors from Lithuania to Italy. There I got on a boat and was smuggled into Palestine in October 1945, where I reunited with my oldest brother, Pinchas, and his wife, Miriam. I lived with them and their two babies in two rooms. We had just about the same amount of space in Jerusalem as I had had in the ghetto. We lived through another war. But this was the War of Israeli Independence. I am not a religious person. But when people wonder if in fact the Red Sea parted, I can say: Yes. I saw it.
There is one postscript I would like to add: Last month, I went urgently to Israel to attend the funeral of my sister-in-law, Miriam. Sixty years ago, when I came to Palestine after the Shoah, she opened her home and her heart. She was the first one who listened to what I had to tell and always remembered. The family postponed the funeral so I could make it. She was far away, but always with me.
Esther Mishkin, nee Rubin, was born in Kovno Lithuania in 1923. After surviving the Kovno ghetto, she joined her brother, who was living in Jerusalem. She was on the second boat to leave Italy in 1944 as part of the illegal’ Aliyah Bet. Her husband, Eli Mishkin, fought in the 1948 War of Liberation and earned the first doctorate from the Teknion. They moved to the United States in 1953. Esther was a social worker at Self-help, Inc., a social agency launched to support Nazi victims. Eli was a theoretical physicist at MIT and then NYU/Polytechnic. Eli died in 2001, Esther died in 2008.