Posts Tagged ‘Lithuania’

Yom HaShoah is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

Clara Rudnick around age 15.

Clara Rudnick, center, around age 15.

I recently visited the local synagogue where my friend Clara Rudnick was to speak.   I was very gratified that several of my students also decided to come, and that when we arrived, they and I were also invited to participate in the readings and the candle lighting for the commemoration.

My wife and daughter also accompanied me. It was their first time in temple and the commemoration deeply touched them.


Clara lit up when she saw the girls and I. She came right over, smothered me with a big hug, and went right over to the girls.

She and her twin brother Avreminkeh were about my daughter’s age, early teens, when the Germans arrived in Lithuania in June 1941. Her oldest brother Itze was 23 years old, and her two sisters Chiyeh and Dorkeh were 20 and 13. Her proud parents Yossel and Chiyena Charmatz were 42 and 40. They ran a highly regard restaurant and bakery that had been in business for generations, in a community of 10,000 that had had a Jewish presence since the 1300s. Forty percent of the prewar population of Sventzion was Jewish.

The townspeople turned on their neighbors. Even the Catholic and Orthodox churches collaborated in providing information needed to terrorize the community. In July, 1941, Lithuanian collaborators took a nearly a hundred teenage boys and young men including Itze outside of town, locked them in a building, and burned them alive. Hysteria rippled through the Jewish community now. In August, nearly a hundred more, including her twin brother, were taken outside of town on Shabbat, forced to dig their own graves and shot. A few weeks later, also on the Sabbath, eight thousand men women boys and girls were ordered to stand in the town square, where they were shot, including her mother and two sisters. Clara was saved only because her father had given her his coat and told her to hide in the local steam bath.

After the shooting, he came for her at night and took her to the forest for two nights without food and water. They found a farmer who was secretly a Jew and stayed until more refugees began to arrive. Deciding it was no longer safe, they

Students Chelsea R., Paige L., Meg V., Cheyenne B., Mary R. flank survivor Clara Rudnick at reception following Yom Hashoah commemoration, 2014.

Students Chelsea R., Paige L., Meg V., Cheyenne B., Mary R. flank survivor Clara Rudnick at reception following Yom Hashoah commemoration, 2014.

moved to the farm of a Christian friend who accepted their money to hide them. Later, they found themselves in the ghetto at Swir. ” I was 15 years old, I had lost my mother, brothers and sisters, and I was very upset.” And in a constant state of peril.

In the middle of February, 1942, the Germans came to liquidate the ghetto. Clara and her father managed to escape with others across a frozen lake as the Nazis shot at them. Her father broke through the ice and placed Clara in the freezing water and lay on top of her to protect her in the cold winter night, until the Germans left.

They traveled twenty kilometers to another ghetto at Mishaleikse, where they were arrested in April and sent to the Vilna Ghetto, subjected to hard labor. Here Clara witnessed starvation, disease, street executions, babies killed and placed in the back of trucks. Mistreatment was widespread and deportations to concentration camps and extermination centers occurred almost daily. Clara again was able to escape, but this time without her father. A local cinema owner told her father he would take care of her. She would see her father only one more time.

In the summer of 1942 (the same summer that Anne Frank would go into hiding, Clara notes) a handsome sum of gold was given to another Christian and Clara was hidden in a dark hidden cellar with a trap door for seven months, emerging only once a day to answer nature’s call. One day she peeped through the hatch to see what was going on upstairs, as there was a great deal of commotion and noise. Bullets raked the hiding spot and she was grazed in the stomach, the cinema owner killed. Clara was caught again.

She was taken before the Gestapo in Kalich, where as a slave laborer she was forced to make fur coats for the Germans fighting on the Russian front. Then the slaves were placed into two trucks. One went to the execution site of Panar, the other to the camp at Kaiserwald. Clara considers it another miracle that she was on the truck to Kaiserwald. Here she worked with dangerous acid to make batteries. She was afraid the acid would scar her and she would be killed.

After some time, she was sent to Stutthof on the Baltic. It was here that she saw her father, through the chain link fence, for the last time. He and 85,000 others perished here. She was terrified.

As the Red Army closed in she was marched out and placed in a barn, locked with other women to die from starvation. It was here that she was liberated by Soviet forces on march 11, 1945. She states, matter of factly, that the soldiers moved on immediately, having no time to care for them.

Heading to Lodz,  Poland shortly after, she did not find any family members anywhere. Regaining her strength, she met another survivor, Abraham Rudnick, a Lithuanian Jew like her who had been liberated by the Americans at Dachau on April 29, 1945. They married in a DP camp and emigrated to the United States in 1949, where they raised a family and built a plumbing and heating business in upstate New York.

So tonight she is here with her grandson and recounts the story, and the postscript of her summer trip back to Vilna and her hometown in Lithuania, and her realization that no one in Lithuania seems to want to acknowledge the countries complicity in the murder of her family and hundreds of thousands of others. But here, speaking in the temple for perhaps the last time, she has her North Country family, and has certainly won over the hearts of a few young ladies this evening. They wont forget, Clara, and they are the new witnesses. It’s so.

Clara told me some years ago that her sons had my dad as their history teacher in high school and that he was held in high regard. As we bid her goodbye, she whispered in my daughter’s ear-“Don’t tell your father, but I love him!” I am blessed to know you now, as was my dad and now my girl, and my students. We’ll keep you close, and remember your mother and father, your brothers and sisters, and all those murdered in those not so distant days.

Clara Rudnick by Erica Miller


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Holocaust Survivor Clara Rudnick in her home, Photo Erica Miller 8/31/10

Holocaust Survivor Clara Rudnick in her home, Photo Erica Miller 8/31/10

I gave my first talk last night after returning this summer from an intensive 3 week European study tour. Arriving early to prepare and set up, I looked up and in walked Siobhan, a former student, and her mom, followed a little while by an older woman I was surprised and delighted to see- Mrs. Rudnick, or Clara. She gave me a hug and took off her coat and told me that she had taken a cab to the site of the lecture, and, oh, could I please give her a ride home? I was delighted.

During the lecture I recognized her before the audience, and thanked her for coming out. She told the audience how proud she was to live in the “North Country” of upstate New York. Heck, she’s lived here since 1949, a dozen years before I was born! She was moved to tears, as was Siobhan, who gave her a hug.

During the talk, she nodded her head in agreement to many of my points. Afterwards, she pulled out a piece of paper, a short statement that she had written, explaining that she had been meaning to call me.  You see, she was not the only traveler to Europe this summer. While I was in Poland touring Holocaust related sites, Mrs. Rudnick had returned to Lithuania of her youth.

Not an easy thing, given that

a. Clara is 89 years old;

b. Clara is a Holocaust survivor;

c. Clara lost most of her family to the SS Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian collaborators.

She and her late husband Abe were two of only 7000 survivors of the 70,000 Jews of Vilna. I was familiar with a lot of the history, but to understand more of what she had gone through, I looked up the following at the USHMM website:

The Lithuanians carried out violent riots against the Jews both shortly before and immediately after the arrival of German forces. In June and July 1941, detachments of German Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), together with Lithuanian auxiliaries, began murdering the Jews of Lithuania. By the end of August 1941, most Jews in rural Lithuania had been shot. By November 1941, the Germans also massacred most of the Jews who had been concentrated in ghettos in the larger cities. The surviving 40,000 Jews were concentrated in the Vilna, Kovno, Siauliai, and Svencionys ghettos, and in various labor camps in Lithuania. Living conditions were miserable, with severe food shortages, outbreaks of disease, and overcrowding.

In 1943, the Germans destroyed the Vilna and Svencionys ghettos, and converted the Kovno and Siauliai ghettos into concentration camps. Some 15,000 Lithuanian Jews were deported to labor camps in Latvia and Estonia. About 5,000 Jews were deported to extermination camps in Poland, where they were murdered. Shortly before withdrawing from Lithuania in the fall of 1944, the Germans deported about 10,000 Jews from Kovno and Siauliai to concentration camps in Germany.

Soviet troops reoccupied Lithuania in the summer of 1944. In the previous three years, the Germans had murdered about 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews, one of the highest victim rates in Europe.

Clara was anxious to speak to me. She told me of her trip with her son. Together they returned to Svinsyan, where her parents, two sisters and two brothers lived. To one of my students, a few years back, she told the following story:

On June 21st, 1941, the Nazis came into my town, I lived with my mother and father, two brother and two sisters. In July 4th, they took my oldest brother and burned him alive, with 90 other Jewish teenagers in my town. In the early part of August they came in and took my twin brother, along with another 100 teenagers and dug a big hole and buried them alive. In September they took the whole town about 8,000 people and brought then to where we held our flea markets- this was both of my sisters and my mother- out into the woods where they lined them up and shot them and left them there. This is where my father and I escaped- he knew a lot of men- and we went to farm to farm and hid out until the Nazis would come, and we would leave because if they caught us they would kill us and the people we were staying with, because they were harboring  fugitives.

At the town’s museum, she stopped to ask where the memorial of the murder site, Poligon, could be found. Clara said that they  told her that they did not know where it was, though half the town’s population, many of the families having lived their since the 1300s, had been murdered there.

At the hotel in Vilna she inquired how she could get to Ponary, and was simply told “there is nothing there”. Google Ponary. 110000 relevant results. 70,000 Jews were shot to death there by the Germans and Lithuanians.

Taking the English speaking bus tour of the Old City of Vilna, the guide described the Philharmonic Hall but did not tell the tourists that this was the entrance to the Vilna Ghetto, where she had been imprisoned until being deported to a slave labor camp and later to a concentration camp. When Clara asked why the guide did not mention this, the guide said that she “did not know.”

Maybe the guide was young and was not taught this history in school. Or maybe it was not important enough to be part of the official program. 90 to 95% of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. To one lady on the bus, and her son, it was important. In Clara’s words, “In just three days, I learned that Lithuania has not faced it history of the destruction of its 250,000 Jews”.

Clara is happy that I am keeping the memory alive. She put on her coat and climbed up into my pickup truck without assistance. She chatted all the way home as I tried to navigate to her house in the dark. She thanked me over and over. Not at all. Thank you for coming into my life and making me, and my students, a part of yours.

Here is an informative article which reveals exactly what Clara wanted me to know. Responsibility is not big on the list of Lithuania’s priorities.

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