Holocaust Remembrance Day occurred this past April 16th. For reasons that I will explicate below, I want to tell the story of my wife’s cousin, Shifra, one of the child survivors of the Holocaust. This information came directly from Shifra, but the below story is also included in exhibits at Yad Vashem (the Israeli Holocaust Center in Jerusalem) and the United States Holocaust Museum.
Shifra was born in 1937 in Kovno, Lithuania, which for centuries had been a spiritual and cultural center for Eastern European Jewry. On June 24, 1941, the Germans occupied the city. By the end of July 1941, they had murdered 10,000 Jews, one quarter of the Jewish population. Remaining Jews were then given a month to move into the ghetto. In August, Shifra was sealed into the Kovno ghetto with her parents and other relatives. One of her uncles had married a gentile woman. She was able to revert to her former “non-Jewish” identity and remain outside the ghetto with “clean” Lithuanian papers.
On October 28, 1941, the Germans ordered all Jews to report to the Ninth Fort, a stronghold just outside Kovno. There the Jews were separated randomly into two groups. Shifra, her parents, her three-month-old brother (just born inside the ghetto), one uncle and two aunts were taken to one side. Shifra’s grandparents and eight uncles and aunts were in a group taken into the woods. Shifra remembers hearing shots. No one returned from the woods. More than 9,000 Jews (half of them children) were shot to death that day. No one knows why the two small children, Shifra and David, were permitted to survive and return to the ghetto with the others who had escaped death. While Shifra didn’t fully understand what had happened, she sensed why, from then on, she and her brother had to spend their days hidden behind the sofa, within a double wall built by their father, rewarded by their mother at the end of the day with a piece of candy if they had been quiet.
The Kovno ghetto became a virtual concentration camp. Shifra’s parents worked in the kitchen and were able to bring potato peels back home to feed their children. Her Uncle Faivush and Aunt Goldie sold garbage to farmers for pig feed. They also were active in the ghetto underground, from which they received information in early 1943 that the Nazis were planning to empty the ghetto of children and kill them. Through an aunt who lived outside the ghetto, the family quickly made contact with a farmer whom Shifra’s grandparents had known before the war and begged him to hide Shifra and David. The farmer agreed.
On the next garbage day, Shifra (age six) and David (age two) were smuggled out. After promising to stay quiet, each child was put into a burlap garbage bag and the bags were put on a wheelbarrow under the heaping sacks of garbage. Faivush and Goldie took the barrow to the ghetto gate where a guard plunged a pitchfork into the load to check if anyone was hidden beneath: It missed the children. Faivush and Goldie pulled the barrow outside the ghetto to the barn where garbage was stored, marked the children’s bags and left them. The children stayed in the bags, buried under the garbage, all day. When it was dark, the farmer came, dug them out and took them to his farm.
At the farm, the children spent their days frightened and alone, hidden in a small room. To make matters worse, the farmer’s daughter threatened to report her parents for hiding them if they prevented her from spending time with her Nazi boyfriend. Whenever the Nazi came to the farm, Shifra and David had to hide, lying flat in the strawberry fields until they left — two small children, laying silently on the ground for hours, in the sweltering summer sun and the freezing Lithuanian winter. This is how they survived during the next 18 months. But at least they had survived. On March 27, 1943, the Nazis had executed the special “Aktion” in the Kovno ghetto, rounding up more than 2,000 children and shooting them to death.
On July 8, 1944, with the war lost and the Red Army approaching Kovno, the German authorities decided to abandon the city. In one final spiteful gesture, they set fire to the ghetto. The remaining residents hid in underground bunkers that they had built. However, most of the bunkers weren’t airtight or structurally sound and many people choked or were smothered to death by the smoke and gas that permeated the bunkers from the fires. Others were killed when burning buildings collapsed over the bunkers, trapping those hidden below. The fiery destruction of the ghetto caused the death of some 2,000 Jews. Of the 30,000 Jews who initially had been confined in the ghetto, only 90 remained to climb out of the bunkers to see the Red Army enter the city on August 1, 1944. Among those 90 survivors were Shifra’s parents, Goldie and Faivush and Faivush’s wife. When the concentration camps were liberated, only 2,000 Kovno Jews were found alive. Together with those who had survived the war in the ghetto or in hiding, they accounted for eight percent of the original population of the ghetto.
Upon liberation, the family immediately went to retrieve Shifra and David. They returned to the place they abandoned when forced to move to the ghetto three-and-a-half years earlier. In the backyard of the house they had been forced to leave, Shifra’s father retrieved a box that he had hidden containing important documents, money and, most important, photographs of those who would never come back. They then began their journey to the promised land — Palestine. En route, David contracted diphtheria and died in February 1945 in a refugee camp in East Berlin, four months short of his fifth birthday. Shifra, too, became very ill and the family remained in Germany for five years until she was strong enough to travel. Finally, Shifra and her family arrived in the young state of Israel in May 1950.
Today, Shifra is an Israeli citizen. She has three children and ten grandchildren. She calls them her revenge against the Nazis. But her brother, David, never achieved that sweet revenge. Born in the ghetto in dire circumstances, he spent his short years of his life in hidden behind a wall, was then wrenched from his family to be hidden in a silent room in the house of strangers and only weeks after being reunited with his family, he died and was buried alone.
I set forth Shifra’s story because she was one person, multiplied millions of times. There are those who deny the Holocaust. They are the liars. What must we learn from the story of Shifra and her family? The depth of man’s capacity to commit evil is without limits; that we must never allow ourselves to remain defenseless against that evil (the very basis of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution); and the Jewish nation cannot be destroyed; it will rise from dust and ashes. It is immortal.
Thank you for reading this piece of recorded history. The survivors of the Holocaust are leaving us now. We must keep alive the lessons they leave behind with us — and we must make sure that we understand and remember what we learn.
Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.