The tattooed number on the forearm of a Jew who was detained in Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, in Poland, was to replace the NAME of a JEW with a meaningless number. That number will never wipe out the name of any Jew, but the German Nazi perpetrators tried to erase them during the Holocaust.
I am a Jew, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, each survived in his/her own way.
My parents met after the war, in 1945 in Europe, each lost his/her both parents and almost all of their immediate family in the Holocaust.
I grew up with only a few family members and never knew what was like to have a grandmother or a grandfather. I was often jealous of kids who had these lovely people they called grandma or grandpa, who showered them with unlimited love and attention. I had none of this type of cuddling and coddling.
When life allowed me, I took off to seek family roots in my parents’ birth countries, in East Europe.
In 2016 I visited Warsaw, Poland, where my father lived before his family was forced to move to the Warsaw Ghetto. My purpose was to seek my father’s family roots. I came from that trip saddened and anxious for Warsaw, Lublin and Łódź, the cities I visited. They are all cities soaked with much Jewish blood, with Warsaw taking the lead.
In 2019, I took off to seek my mother’s roots in Vilnius, Lithuania. I returned from seeking those roots as saddened and anxious as my return from Poland was. However, invigorated by the ‘Never-Again‘ dogma, the firm promise the Jewish people have made to themselves and to others after they ended counting their losses – life, dignity and respect, assets – in the Holocaust.
The short version of my mother’s Steven Spielberg “Witness Program” recording at the Yad Vashem goes as follows:
“I am the daughter of Jewish parents, father Josef Katz, and mother Rivka Katz born Gurwicz. I am a Jew. Before WWII I lived with my parents at Stefanska Street 1, Vilna. My father was a wood merchant and my mother was a midwife. I graduated from the Tarbut Gymnasium (High School) but could not continue my studies, as the Germans occupied Vilna.
In September 1941 we were forced to move into Ghetto Vilna. This Ghetto was closed in by a fence and was under the supervision of the German SS, Lithuanian SS and the Jewish Police. I wore Civilian clothing with the yellow star on my chest and back and partially lived at Rdunicka Street 13.
I worked at “Porubanek” air field, doing various ground work and under the watch of the police I was brought to work, daily.
The Jewish Council Elder was Jacob Gens and the head of the Jewish police was Salk Dessler. The Jewish Council gave me my food rations.
Writer’s note: Gens was appointed as head of the ghetto and chief of the Jewish police force, and took the title of “chief of the ghetto and police in Vilnius. Dessler was named Gens’ deputy for police functions and Anatol Friend was Gens’ deputy for administration.
“In September 1943 the Ghetto was liquidated and I was taken to Riga-Kaiserwald Concentration Camp where I was given the number 65037. After a while they sent me on to Riga Strassenhof, which was enclosed with barbed wire and under the watch of the SS. There I was wearing prison garb with a number and my hair was shaved off. I lived in a factory building and I worked in a weaving material factory. Under the watch of the SS I was taken to and from work.
In September 1944 I was taken to KZ Stutthof, lived in a small barrack, under the watch of the SS, and each day I was taken to and from work doing field work outside the camp.
At the beginning 1945 we started to march and walked for about 2 months, often long times without water and bread, and we were beaten and shot at. I contracted Typhoid Fever during that time.
In May 1945 I was liberated in Kolkau, a sub-camp of the German Concentration camp Stutthof, near Danzig during the Third Reich. I stayed there for few weeks and after that I returned to Poland to try find my family. I stayed there until March 1946 and then immigrated to Israel. In Israel I married my husband Israel Gringer and we have 2 children.
I lost my parents when Ghetto Vilna was liquidated and never saw them again after that.”
I am one of the two children my mother gave birth to.
Reading my late mother’s witness story and visiting Vilnius, or Vilna as my mother called her hometown, connected all the dots for me, has put it all into reality of magnitude, proportion, and perspective.
Ponary – in All Likelihood My Grandparents’ Grave
The Germans liked pits. Into the thousands of pits they found or dug all over Europe they shot to death and threw in untold number of Jews. In Ponary there were seven pits which the Russians dug for oil storage but never got to use them as planned.
Paneriai, or Ponary, or whatever name one chooses to give this mass grave of Jews. A 20 minutes’ drive, some 10 kilometers distance from Vilnius city center, on the Vilnius-Warsaw road, brings a person to the Ponary Massacre pastoral forested low hills site. There, the cruel and systematic mass killing of as many as 100,000 people from Vilnius and nearby towns and villages took place during WWII. Layers of bodies filled up the pits to full capacity.
My guide told me that while standing at the edge of the pit waiting to be shot in their head, parents put and held their children tight in front of them. When the Nazis shot the parents they pushed their alive children to fall in front of them under their body so they can remain alive and perhaps emerge from under the weight of the murdered bodies and make their way out of the pit and survive.
Visiting the rustic Ponary site was an eerie experience. Each pit I passed I could envision my grandparents being shot and being thrown into it, whether already dead or wounded but alive.
Visiting the City, Vilna-Vilniu
My visit to this Jewish blood-drenched Lithuanian city was accompanied by tears of sadness and resentment. I tried pass by or visit each and every place my mother mentioned in her witness page.
I went through the streets of Ghetto One and Ghetto Two and could envision the Jews living there not knowing what to expect next. Some buildings still carry faint Hebrew signs. The Vilnius city policy is to preserve the old and still standing Ghetto buildings as a symbol of commemorations of the evil-doing from the past.
I posed in front of Stefanska Street 1, where my mother lived before the Katz family was forced to move into the Ghetto boundaries.
I posed in front of the park where, in all likelihood stood the Rdunicka street 13 building, the Katz family Ghetto address that was demolished by the Russian Communists who governed the city for some 70 years.
I visited the large market building, opened in 1906 and the only synagogue in the city, opened in 1903, both located a short distance from Stefanska Street 1. I literally could picture my grandmother shopping in that market and my grandfather praying in that synagogue.
My visit to the Museum of Tolerance and the Green House Museum of the Holocaust was a somber reminder of what took place in Vilna and its surroundings during WWII era. I looked and looked again to perhaps see photos of the Katz family on one of the walls but to no avail.
I passed the Real and Tarbut Gymnasium buildings and imagined my mother and her sister going into or coming out of them.
I passed by the building from where Jacob Gens, Salk Dessler and Anatol Friend operated and I could see them doing a job only the devil could do.
In my visit to the city archive, I found my grandparents’ marriage certificate which both signed. To see their hand-written signatures was getting as close as I possibly could to them, without ever meeting and knowing them.
I must admit, I cannot list all I saw and what I saw, but the accommodating weather during my stay in Vilnius allowed me to visit much of what I set myself to see. The present of Vilnius’ past, the city from where my grandparents were taken to their death and where my mother spent some intermediary time before the dreadful time she spent in Nazi forced labor camps and concentration camps impacted my being.
The somber day of hopping from one city point of interest to another ended up with having a cup of coffee and a homemade cake in the only busy kosher café in Vilnius, located in the current Jewish Community Center, past the Tarbut Gymnasium building.
I took some time and flew from Vilna to Belarus to visit the village Ivainitz.
On December 11, 2019, after my visit to Ivainitz, Belarus, I posted the following on my Facebook page:
“Ivainitz was a shtetl, some 80 miles from Vilnius, today appears to be rather poor small town in Belarus, where, before the Holocaust, about 2,000 Jews lived. Among the Jews living in Ivainitz were my grandparents Riva and Yosef Katz who later moved to Vilna and were murdered by Hitler’s murderous SS troops and their local Nazi cohorts.”
I visited Ivainitz in order to be as close as I could be to the grandparents I never met nor had a chance to know. What I learned from the some two hours’ drive to Ivainitz, departing from Minsk, Belarus, is that almost every shtetl, in a huge radius, had a thriving, closely tight Jewish community that kindly, positively and with much dignity affected all local life – culture and commerce. All of which Hitler, for no reason whatsoever hated. He thus brought it to an END with the Holocaust he perpetrated, which according to history’s time factor, took a nanosecond.
The Holocaust accounted for six million Jews murdered. Eastern Europe, where most Jews then lived, was basically emptied of its Jewry and it is where very few, mostly assimilated Jews, live nowadays. One of three Jews in the world was murdered by the German Nazis during the Holocaust and that results in the “NEVER AGAIN” promise Jews made to themselves. Many non-Jews joined in saying “Never Again.”A person who says the Holocaust never happened should be punished by performing the most emotionally-difficult community service.
Culture, science, arts and commerce Jews conducted and were involved in, all they peacefully shared with their neighbors wherever they lived. In human history’s nanosecond timeframe, all this disappeared into ashes and beyond recognition skeletons as if it all never existed. That is what you call The Holocaust.
To all the anti-Semites I say, NEVER EVER AGAIN!”
Before World War II, the Lithuanian Jewish population was some 160,000, about 7 percent of the total population. Today there are some 5,000 Jews living in Lithuania. Belarus accounts for the same number of Jews living in that country today.
So yes, do not cry for me Vilna, rather, cry for yourself. You lost the best of the best in humanity to the worst of the worst evil-doers. Those who murdered and tortured innocent people – Jews just for being Jews – also wiped out culture, science, arts, and commerce. But if they also hoped to wipe out the dignity and pride of being Jews, that did not happen.
I am a proud Jewess and I represent the continuation of what the German Nazis and their European partners wanted so much to wipe out, the Jewish nation. The Nazis are gone, the Jewish nation is growing in numbers, contributing, again, to the betterment of the world and they say again and again and they mean it, NEVER AGAIN!