Interview with Kaunas ghetto survivor Fruma Vitkinaitė
31 Jan 2019.
Fruma Vitkinaitė in conversation with Petr Favorov
Fruma Vitkinaite. Kaunas, 2016. Photograph copyright Arturas Morozovas
How did the war start for you?
Since we were living in Kaunas, very near to the country’s border, it started very suddenly. I remember the first bombings very well, at the end of the day, I was already eight years old. Father said: “Military exercises!” We tried to leave with the Red Army when it turned out that those weren’t the “military exercises”, and that the Germans were almost here. I remember it all very well. We were unable to get into a train or a truck; we could only find a horse-drawn cart. So we took the cart.
Even now, when I travel down that road to Ukmerge, I can see it all. It’s not that I still have nightmares, but I realise that when we passed that church, the bomb had dropped or right there we came under gunfire from two sides of some unexpectedly appeared Lithuanian resistance. Someplace, after we passed Jonava, we stopped to rest in a shed, and there my parents understood that there’s no point to run any further, because the Germans were ahead of us now. So we had to return.
Does this mean that Jewish people grasped what German occupation meant? Were there any illusions as to what the Germans would do?
Yes, everybody understood, and there was a complete panic. You see, before the war and even before the Soviet regime, I went to nursery. All of a sudden, one day our nursery teacher spoke of Hitler as if he was some kind of a hero. When I came home, I resentfully told this to my parents, and they decided that I should stop going to nursery straight away. This means that I understood a Hitler threat even then.
Did your parents know about Kaunas pogrom when you were returning back to the town?
Most probably my parents knew about that, because we didn’t return to our home. We stayed just outside town with some Jewish friends, where many of those who returned stayed for a few weeks. Finally, when we returned home, my father and my brother were arrested by some activists with white arm bands and taken to the military police office. After three days, they miraculously returned home, which was extremely rare, possibly, because our Lithuanian neighbour, who was in the military, intervened. Following that, of course, frightening times arrived. For the Jewish people the orders were already in place requiring them to wear stars, forbidding walking on pavements or purchasing food. I had light hair and my mother took the star off so that I could go to the smallest possible shops to buy something. Generally, I prefer to speak about what had saved me rather than of things that were frightening to me. You see, at the age of eight I already spoke several languages. By 1941, I finished first year of a Lithuanian school, since some of the Jewish schools became Lithuanian at the time. My father was an engineer at a hosiery factory, where local Germans lived, and where I started to learn German. Next door lived a German boy, who was my friend, and I often visited his home. In our home everyone spoke Yiddish, but sometimes my parents spoke Russian so the children could not understand their conversation. All this knowledge helped me in the future.
Fruma Vitkinaite. Born 1933. Photograph copyright Antanas Sutkus. In Memoriam series 1988-1997
How do you remember the move into a ghetto?
You know, by that time the life was so tough that I don’t remember the actual move into a ghetto as something terrible. Compared to the previous nine months, when I had to hide, I even remember the ghetto as a place of relative safety, because my parents returned home every evening after working shifts. My grandfather had swapped houses with a Lithuanian woman – his house in Green Hill for a smaller house in Slobodka, which was located by the main gates of the ghetto, on a street, where the shift workers walked in teams to work. All my relatives lived there; in the beginning there were fifteen of us.
What was the life like for a child in the ghetto? Was there anything normal – school, games?
At the start, before 1942, there was an official school. Of course, the standard of teaching was poor, since everyone strived to get a proper job. Everybody tried to get into teams of shift workers, because if you were hard-working you were less likely to get killed. That’s why teachers and even doctors worked in these shift teams. Nevertheless, this school protected us, children, from anxiety. Later, the school and the Synagogue, the prayer house to be exact, were closed, but we started to be educated in secret by the rabbi. Of course, not very parent was brave enough to let their children go there. Coming back to what had saved me – my parents tried to always keep me occupied. Soon, it was forbidden to go outside even during the day, and I remember taking the back paths covertly, along the hedges, to get to that rabbi. Something else that had saved me was friendship with the next door kids – two boys and a girl called Goldele. She died, and one of the boys also died in Dachau. I had a responsibility to look after my little cousin, a baby boy called Yankele. These children, especially the boys, had really helped me. I even remember doing some stealing for the baby. I think it was a couple of carrots from some neighbours’ vegetable plot. I cooked these carrots just for him, I didn’t eat any. We also played games in those boys’ courtyard. Their house is still there as it was then, even today. What were those games? The games were about what we saw around us. We pretended that the girls came back from the team shift work, and the boys would search the girls’ bags for something eatable. Naturally, we didn’t play the same games as before the war.
How you were taken out of the ghetto?
My mother had a relative and a close friend called Rivka, she was a wife of a famous poet, Girsha Osherovich. Once, after New Year’s Day at the start of 1942, Rivka vanished. We understood she fled the ghetto. Before the war she worked for a well-known attorney in Kaunas, and was a familiar person in town. She was hidden by two local Russian women in their house; both called Natasha – Natasha Fugalevich and Natasha Egorova – my darling Natashas. Approximately at the same time, my mother thought of another idea to keep me busy and taught me how to knit gloves. People knew that Fruma could knit gloves, they brought me knitting wool, and I made the gloves free of charge. One day, it was already 1943, by that time everyone knew that the children were also in danger; I was lying in my bed and heard a stranger coming in and saying my name. I thought: “Ah, the gloves.” It turned out that Rivka asked the Natashas to help me escape from the ghetto as well, and sent a message via a woman from a shift work team. A Jewish ghetto policeman helped me to run away. The policeman put me on his back and was pretending to keep the order in the workers’ convoy by shouting: “Order! Order!” in German, and trying to move outside little by little at the same time. People in the convoy realised what was happening, and had surrounded us tightly, like a flow of water, – that’s how we got outside the gates. Outside I was told to look for a woman wearing a fashionable at that time phosphorus brooch, and to ask her what time it was. As it happened, it was one of the Natashas herself. The long, round way to her house laid via a hill and the River Neris, I got really scared on the way. I was not frightened by Natasha, I was frightened by the jolly people and their normal life, which was very different to the life I got used to in the last two and a half years in the ghetto. I kept silent all the way, and only when I got inside their house and saw Rivka, I finally started crying.
How did you hide for the next nine months?
At first, I lived with the Natashas and, afterwards, at many other peoples’ houses. Moreover, I stayed at the Catholic orphanage on the fake Lithuanian girl’s birth certificate in the name of Danute. However, my main hiding spot was at a German lady’s house, Helene Holzman. She was married to a Jewish man called Max Holzman. They were artists who moved, as they thought at the time temporarily, to Lithuania. Max was a WWI soldier, Lithuania revealed to him a Jewish cultural realm, which was already extinct and assimilated in Germany. So they stuck here. Max was killed during the first days of German occupation, and Helene stayed with her daughter Gretta, who I call sister today. I probably spent two months with them. After the war, when I found out that nobody from my family survived, I lived with them for many years until I got married.
Commemoration meeting to mark 50th anniversary of the liquidation of the Kaunas ghetto. 1994. Photograph copyright Antanas Sutkus. In Memoriam series 1988-1997
How did you survive the Soviet offensive?
In July 1944, when the Russians advanced, Natasha Fougalevich took me from the orphanage into their small country house in Kulautuva. All that time, her sister Lida lived there too and supplied us with food. Rivka already moved in there alone with the Rosen family – fifteen Jewish people all together. We lived almost near the front line, but were still in danger because nearby the Germans were retreating, and all of us had to hide in the shed, under a stack of hay at times. The very last time we hid, we hid in the woods. On our side of Neman River the Germans were retreating, on the opposite bank the Russians were attacking. The artillery was firing non-stop. We slept in the woods for three nights. Somehow, a Russian soldier or a resistance fighter was also with us. He built a shield to hide us from view. We even had a cow with us! Suddenly, one morning, we woke up and were told – that’s it, there’s no more danger. We greeted the Soviet Army in a group of Jewish and Russian people standing at the road junction and giving the soldiers milk and honey. When we ran out of milk, we gave them water to show some hospitality. By the way, that was the 16thDivision. There were many high ranking officers, young Jewish men, who managed to evacuate from Kaunas in 1941. They immediately wanted to adopt some of the Jewish orphans including me. At the time, we didn’t know what happened to our parents and, of course, Rivka wouldn’t allow that.
INTERVIEW BY PETR FAVOROV. KAUNAS, AUGUST 2016
Featured image (c) Antanas Sutkus
This interview was first published in “In Memoriam. To Kaunas and Vilnius Ghetto Prisoners” book by Antanas Sutkus. White Space Gallery, London 2016
In 2016 White Space Gallery and Cultural Dialogue UK in collaboration with Vilna Gaon Museum (Vilnius) organised a documentary film screening ETUDE OF HOPE. Director Lilija Kopač. Scenario by Lilija Kopač and Danutė Selčinskaja. 2007. Duration 60 min.
In three notebooks, on more than 700 pages, Helene Holzman (1891-1968), artist, bookseller, German language teacher, wrote down immediately after the War, what she experienced and suffered at one of the darkest places of the Holocaust, in the Lithuanian Kaunas. Her diary is the basis for this documentary film.
In June 1941, during the pogroms immediately after the invasion of the Wehrmacht, her Jewish husband, the bookseller Max Holzman, disappeared forever. Some time later, her elder daughter, the 19 years old Marie, was arrested and later shot dead. Helene Holzman overbear her desperation and decides not only to rescue her younger daughter Margaret; with the help of kindred spirits, she managed to provide many people at risk, mostly children of the ghetto of Kaunas, with hiding places and new identities. Among the children who were saved from the ghetto was Fruma Vitkinaitė, whom Helen adopted when it was discovered that the girl’s entire family had been killed.
The valuable recollections of Helen’s birth daughter Margaret and her adopted daughter Fruma Vitkinaitė-Kučinskienė were recorded during the making of the film. Their memories of Helen Holtzman are supplemented with accounts by Ina Meiksinaitė, Lev Feigelovich and Vladas Varčikas. In 2005 Helene Holzman-Czapski was awarded by the title of Righteous Among the Nations.