My mother’s first memory was a dark one. She was three, living in the gray, perilous misery of the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania. The ghetto had become her home as a baby. She, who had just celebrated her first birthday with her cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, had been ushered hastily by her parents into a Jewish throng, a caravan of terrified families carrying their lives on their backs, forced to leave their homes and find makeshift shelter, shared rooms, shacks, dilapidated housing in the decrepit, impoverished section of the town of Kovno. That was the decree. The Lithuanian residents of that part of Kovno, perhaps as a token for their complicity, were allowed to help themselves to the homes evacuated by the hapless Jews forced into bitter exile. My grandmother, my bubbe, was just twenty years old when this new life in the Kovno ghetto began, behind barbed wires, with no sanitation, indoor plumbing, hot water, with Nazi guards patrolling everywhere and German shepherds trained to attack on command. A rationed starvation diet replaced her own delicious home cooking. All Jews were required to sew a Star of David onto their clothing, and at night Bubbe would hide her star and slip out of the gates in search of food for her hungry family. My mother, by then malnourished, often subsisted on the potatoes that Bubbe dug from the ground outside the ghetto gates. She was lucky to have something, anything to eat—the streets of the ghetto were littered with lifeless, skeletal bodies, allowed to rot untended, infusing the air with an indescribable, sickening stench. The Nazi scheme for the Jews of Kovno was brilliant in its cunningness. Because a workforce was needed to help build the German war machine, it was not practical to simply transport all the Jews of Kovno to a death camp. The Jews who were expendable were weeded out, as the Nazis whittled their numbers by trickery and savagery.
Edicts, referred to as “Aktions,” were periodically passed to rid the ghetto of a new batch of unnecessary Jews. There was the Grand Aktion, which separated the sturdy from the weak, with Jews forced to stand all day in Kovno’s main square, without food or water, standing for hours in the frigid cold, until it was their turn to stand before the Nazi mayor of Kovno, Rauka. That angel of death with a terse flip of his hand would usher the pathetic souls to the left or to the right—life or no life (my zayde, my grandfather, would later testify against Rauka at a war criminal trial, but that would take another thirty years). There was another Aktion that called for five hundred Jewish intellectuals to work outside the ghetto, enticing them with the promise of regular meals. My bubbe forbade my innocent, trusting Zayde from enlisting, and the group left the ghetto one day and never returned. Their whereabouts were a mystery until a Lithuanian peasant showed up to the ghetto one day with ID cards from those five hundred unlucky souls, which he had found next to a ditch laden with bodies strewn on top of each other, filling the ditch to capacity. And then came the most fearsome, the most gruesome Aktion of all, the Kinderaktion, which words cannot describe, unleashing a fierce cauldron of Nazis, black ooze, to rampage and cleanse the entire ghetto of children. Babies were ripped from their panic-stricken parents’ arms; mothers who ran after their stolen children were struck down and shot, unceremoniously, before their children’s eyes. A wrenching, crushing wailing was to be heard for the entire two days it took to strip the ghetto of its young life. And then a deadly, dark silence cloaked the ghetto, where there was still breath but no life…
My grandparents, hearing word that the death brigade was on its way, somehow managed to slip my mother out and into a warehouse that my zayde had worked in. The three, Bubbe, Zayde, and their little toddler, this small family, huddled together, hiding between sacks of grain for two days and two nights, no light, no food, no water, a constant barrage of ravaging rats scampering over them throughout the night, a wakeful nightmare. After the Kinderaktion, hiding my mother took on a new urgency. Children didn’t live in the ghetto anymore…
Women who were mothers, once…and allowed to stay home with their young children, were now forced, along with the men, to work outside the ghetto. Now Bubbe, too, had to work outside the ghetto every day.
Before leaving with the work brigade, she tucked my mother away, under a plank in the room, where she would remain very still in the darkness for twelve hours until her parents returned to free her. What anguish my bubbe and Zayde must have felt! I asked Zayde once how it was that a toddler didn’t cry and reveal herself, and he looked at me sadly and in his soft voice explained that children sense fear and know when to be silent.
And so when a Nazi banged on the door one day when Bubbe was home, my mother darted quickly behind a couch. The door was kicked open, those black boots, and a Nazi was upon my bubbe, I can only guess why. Bubbe winced in pain and my mother jumped up to see the force of an arm raised to strike. She screamed out in her toddler Yiddish, “Don’t hit my mommy!”
I can see that frozen look of evil with hands latched onto my bubbe. The hands were redirected as the Nazi, upon seeing a child, immediately lunged toward his prey. By some miracle, at that precise moment, my zayde walked through the door. He had returned, tired and ragged, from digging boulders outside the ghetto, where he and other helpless, emaciated Jews toiled under the hateful glare of Lithuanian and Nazi guards who would amuse themselves by taking turns shooting the “tallest” laborer so that each man worked hunched over, not wanting to be the tallest, heaving his heavy pick as low as possible.
My zayde, that gentle intellect, journalist, so learned and thoughtful, could only watch as the Nazi yanked his little girl, his precious daughter, who had escaped the clutches of death too many times, and forcibly lifted her into his brutal arms. The Nazi glowered at Zayde and headed toward the door, and my zayde looked back into those hollow, soulless eyes, knowing he was at a precipice and what was at stake. He said, in a steady voice, in his perfect German: “If you are a father, you will know that if you take this girl, you will have to also take me…”
I am not prepared to say that a conscience stirred or that a spark of humanity ignited. But something must have triggered the next moment.
The Nazi stopped in his heels. And then, without uttering a single word, dropped my mother abruptly and walked stoically past my zayde and out the door. He simply left.
This is my mother’s first memory.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, grief and heartbreak nearly overwhelmed any hope of recovery for its survivors. For the first few years of her life, my mother lived in darkness, in hunger, in confinement, in fear. There is no denying the scars left by her trauma. But she remembers how her father held on to her, how he stood his ground in the face of cold, immutable evil, what he was willing to risk for her.
She remembers her father’s love.