Interview at the Holocaust Museum Houston, June 30, 2000
An edited transcript
I was born November 15, 1922 in Svintsyan [Yiddish], Poland. [Today it is the small town of Svencionys in eastern Lithuania.] My parents were Rafael Kotler and Leah Lemenon. There were four children: Noah, Rochul, Menachem, and I was Chaya. My father was in the "casing" business, making the casing for salami, sausage. My father's sister lived in the same town with her husband and four children. They were involved in the drugstore business and in printing.
My father was born in the town of Oshmene [Yiddish], which is today the town of Ashmyany in Belarus. He was very religious, president of the synagogue, would go to the synagogue twice a day. He went to a yeshiva for years. The town had a population of about 8,000, and almost half of them were Jews. Jews and non-Jews kept to themselves and did not mix. Intermarriage was once in a million, and I had no non-Jewish friends.
I went to a Jewish school, to a Polish school, and then to an accounting school in Vilna. In Svintsyan there were different youth groups, such as the Zionist group He-Haluts. The Zionist group was pro-Israel, but the other group, the Bund, wanted to stay in Poland, although with a better life for working people.
My brother Menachem went to Hebrew school and then my father sent him to Vilna. Later he belonged to the Haluts movement, and his group wanted to go to Israel to work in a kibbutz. My father promised Menachem that he would send him to college in Jerusalem, but he didn't want to go to college, he wanted to work in a kibbutz. So he worked for a couple of years, and then before the war he went to Israel. The British were not allowing many Jews into Palestine, but Menachem went as a tourist, changed his last name to Halevy, and went to work in the Kibbutz Maoz Haim. He got malaria a couple of time while he was there. My mother had cried so much when he left for Palestine, but when the war started, she said how glad she was that he didn't have to suffer what we did.
It was not so bad before the war. My mother knew a lot of Polish people, and nothing bad happened. But when the Russians took over in 1939 after the partition of Poland, they kept us in Russia, and put the border with Lithuania ten miles to the west of us. That made us isolated from Vilna [the capital of Lithuania]. The practical result was that when I went to Oshmene, it took not two hours, as before, but two days and nights because you had to go around Lithuania. When the Russians took over, everything changed. They were concerned about the rich people. Right away they sent two rich families to Siberia. Then they got another list of rich people. We couldn't work. They didn't take away the houses, but what they did is.. my older brother had married before the war and the lived in the front half of the house, and after a couple of months the Russians told them that they had to move out and live with their parents. That left us with five rooms, and after a while they took one more room. But my brother and my father could not find work, but they put my father to work because they wanted sausage and they had no specialists. My brother had to work in a factory.
There was nothing for me to do there. I found out that one can learn to be a teacher in eight months, so I started the classes, but after a couple of months I found out that when you finish, you have to teach in the country. So I dropped the classes. With nothing to do in Svintsyan, I went to Oshmene, where my sister lived with her family. My parents didn't want to send me there, but I needed money to live. In Oshmene I spent four or five months learning the Russian language. While in Oshmene I almost died from ruptured appendix. First, they couldn't figure out what it was, and then after the surgery they left a piece of thread in the wound, and it was only a couple of weeks before the war when they finally took it out and I got well.
When I went to apply for a job in Oshmene, the first thing they asked me was, What did your daddy do for a living? What was important to them was whether or not you came from the right background. I told them that my father worked in a casing place. Oh, they responded, you come from a working family! And without asking me what I know, they gave me a job, which I kept for a year, after which I was promoted. I did not earn very much, but I could eat there for free and the job kept me from being unemployed.
The synagogues were not officially open but the people came to pray.
The war started on July 22, 1941, and they bombed Kiev. There was a Russian song about the war starting at four in the morning of July 22 when they bombed Kiev. I had just come back from vacation in Svintsyan, and after my first night in Oshmene, my sister woke me up, "Chaya, wake up, the war started." She had heard in on the radio. We could have expected something, but nothing like that, all of a sudden. People did not know what to do or where to go. Do we stay or not? I went to my friend's house to see what she was doing, and she suggested we go see what's going on in the city. Trucks and trucks, and the Russian people just disappeared. They all disappeared in the span of one day: the civilians, the military, everybody, because they were scared to stay there. It was terrible. People left on military vehicles, by horse and buggy, or just walking. After a couple of weeks, the Germans entered. One morning they come in, some on motorcycles, some just walking, and the city was full of German people, and everything was changed.
[At this point in the interview there is a disc missing in which Henia discusses her experiences in the ghetto and in the labor camps.]
In the camp I was on the bottom bunk. On the top bunk was a mother with two daughters, beautiful red-haired girls, in their late teens. One of the girls contracted typhus, and in two days she was dead. Typhus was all over the camp. People did not have much resistance, had no food, had bad air, and some people worried themselves to death. These people couldn't live. You just had to have a strong disposition and keep telling yourself, "I'm going to make it. Whatever it is, I have to make it and tell my story." Very few were like that. You had to have faith, and those who did not have faith didn't live.
Everybody had to work. Some people with small children wanted to get by without working, but you couldn't stay in the camp without doing something. You couldn't eat the soup and do nothing. You had to work for a little soup. No meat, one piece of bread in the morning, pumpernickel bread. We worked with a shovel building a highway between Vilna and Kovno, except that I didn't work too much. I saved my strength and my mind as well. What happened was that they didn't have roll call and count us. They divided us into different groups, each one with a schachtmeister in charge of the group. And we had a good man, a good German, and he might know things were not right but he said nothing. So then we started the partisan group, meeting once a week, having to hide so as not to be found out. There was no question of jail: it was life or death.
The partisan group was small. If my sister wouldn't have had the boy, I would have taken her. If someone spoke Polish or Lithuanian, I would find a place for them, because many of us just spoke Yiddish. And you could not ask too many people because you were afraid that they would find it out. So it was a small group, just ten people, and we did not know where the partisans were in the woods. We found them and began working with the partisan groups taking people across the border into Latvia. The gentile people gave us information about the partisans because some of them had friends among the partisans, and the partisans would stop by at nighttime, so we learned a lot about the partisans.
We left a week before the camp. We went to work with our group, and we had made a verbal agreement, and we disappeared. We walked at night, and on the third day, when we stopped in the woods, we heard some guns. Some Lithuanian people had found out about us, and they started killing us, and they killed about four or five people. Just a few people were left, having the luck to come out alive. One in the group had been a teacher in the Hebrew school. He had left his girlfriend in the camp: I don't know why he did not take her into the partisan group. He hid for two days, and then he decided that he couldn't see a future for the partisans and he said he was going back to the camp. So he went back, but his girlfriend was mad at him, so she went to the Germans and told them about him going with the partisans. So they called the whole camp outside and they killed him in front of the whole camp. A young guy: it was awful
So who was left? One man had two children in the camp, so he decided to go back to the camp. So two people were left, me and another fellow, out of the whole group. I decided I wanted to see my sister again and tell her good-bye, so I visited my sister a couple of hours, and I went back to meet the other person. We didn't know what to go or where to go, so we talked with different people and we found someone who knew exactly where the partisans were because the partisans would stop by once in a while at nighttime. This was not a sure thing; all we had was all this talking. But I thought, what do we have to lose? We've already lost everything. So this person says that he was going to get someone to take one of us, not both of us, to the camp of the partisans. We decided that I would go, so they took me across the border and put me in a car. They said it would take an hour and a half: it took four or five hours. I put on a big scarf and put a big ball of cotton in my mouth like I had a toothache, and the men took me in. It was unbelievable: this stranger took me to exactly the right place. He didn't know me, he had just heard about me, and yet he took me to his friends. They welcomed me with open arms. They said that would be coming back to this place, but they would come back for sure. So I was left alone for a week, hiding in the woods in the daytime. At nighttime they would let me in the house, where I would sleep on a blanket placed on top of the stone stove. They would wake me up in the middle of the night to listen to the partisans. There was one Jewish fellow there, and he came in with about ten other partisans -- maybe to do some work, or hold up something to intercept something, a train or whatever, or break in a house to get some food -- and he said that they were going to leave in the morning. I stayed awake all night thinking about what was going to happen. I didn't know these people: he says he's Jewish and he looks Jewish, but you never know. So in the morning we left and drove into the woods, and our place was the first one. We didn't have to go too far.
So here I am in the woods. The houses had bunkers built underneath them, and everything was covered up with green. If you didn't know, you couldn't see that it was a building. There were two buildings, one for men and one for women. That's where we stayed until the liberation. In our otrad there were some Lithuanian people, a couple of Polish people, several Russian people, and about ten Jews. There were people from Vilna in other places in the woods and I would have loved to be with them but I couldn't change. In some of the other groups there was antisemitism, but in our group it was very friendly and I never experienced any antisemitism.
We did different things during the day, such as cooking for the group the food that they had stolen from local farmers. The farmers were scared of the partisans because they knew that they are rough people.
The weather got very cold, of course, but who worried about the weather in the war. We were worried about life, not the weather. It was terrible in the woods; you were scared every minute. But that was life, we had no other choice.
One time this girl and I were hiding in the woods and the Germans passed by. Nothing happened. A bit later we heard that the Germans would be coming into the woods to look for partisans, so we moved our whole otrad to the other side of the woods, which covered a large area.
All the Jews in the camp were from one small Lithuanian town, and I became friends with them. Most were older adults. There was one other young woman besides me; she had been hiding and was found by the partisans and taken in. We had been in the same camp together.
Now let me tell you about this friend I told you about that I left in the ghetto. A month after I left I was supposed to send someone to pick him up. I did send a partisan to get him, but something happened and he was killed. A couple of months later my friend found his own way to us, and on his very first mission as a partisan he was killed.
We heard on the underground radio that the Germans were pulling back, but how far they were retreating we did not know. Then one day they told us that the Germans were getting close, and the younger ones would have to move. The older ones were left in the camp. They had to walk to Vilna, which is a pretty good walk. It took us a night and a day, and when we came to Vilna they put us in holes dug under the road. We had already decided that if the Germans started fighting, we would fight back, but what we saw was not Germans fighting but Germans walking into Vilna with their arms raised. The Russian soldiers took some of these Germans, and that was the best time of my life. We had thought that we were going to be killed, and here we were liberated. We didn't know where to go or where the line was, but we were free. It was in July or August 1944, months before the concentration camps, where liberation came in May 1945.
They brought us to a house where there was a closet of beautiful clothes, and they told me to pick out some things. I tried on a dress and a pair of shoes and I was so happy. In two days the only thing I wanted to do was to see what was going on in Svintsyan, with my father's house and everything else. When I came to Svintsyan, I looked around, and I saw that along the whole street the houses had been burned. There was nothing left. I saw someone and asked her if there were any Jewish people around, and she said yes, there are a few. She told me where one person lived, so I went to this place. You know, in a town the size of Svintsyan, you know most of the people, and it turned out I did know this person. He was a good friend of my older brother and had been in the woods in another place, in a partisan group. He was liberated with his wife, his sister, and his mother. There was also a neighbor of mine who was about my age [. . . break in the recording]
Ben had been in the ghetto until one day he made up his mind, like I did. He and I had met in Kovno a couple of times, so we knew each other. From Kovno we went to Grodno, and from there we went to Bialystok, where we were safe because Bialystok was in Poland, and we were out of Russia. Then we went to Warsaw, where we stayed a couple of months. It was a big group of men and women. From Warsaw we went to Vienna. We had no legal documents so we had to cross borders illegally. From there we went to Italy and we were in a camp there. Then we decided to get married, which we did on October 10, 1945. Another couple, from Bialystok, also got married, and we were business partners with them. This friend went to Germany and brought back some cameras and other things that we sold, and later he went to Bolzano in the Alps and brought back cigarettes that we sold. We were business people the whole time.
Our first daughter was born in 1946 in Myrna (?), where we lived about two and half years. There were maybe ten Jews living there. All of us were dreaming of going somewhere; most dreamt of coming to the United States. One couple left and went to South America, but they didn't like it and they came back. I ended up coming to Mobile but I was not excited about it because all my people were going to Israel -- my brother, my sister -- so I felt like I would be more comfortable in Israel. But Ben had two uncles in Mobile.
When we first came to Mobile Ben worked about eight months for his uncle. Ben, however, was used to working for himself, so it was difficult for him. After only six months in that Job he started looking for something where he could be his own boss. He couldn't find anything, and time passed by. Then one morning one of the uncles, who had a mortgage on a building, saw in the paper that the store in the building was for sale. Not knowing anything about the store business, he asked some of his Jewish friends to check out the store and they said it was fine. He called up Ben on a Friday, and he told him, "Ben, I have a store for you, and I'm coming to pick you up and take you to the store." Ben looked at the store, even though he knew nothing about running a store, and the two relatives who took him there told him that he could make a living there, and that was all Ben cared about. So Ben went home and said, "Henia, I bought a business." Just like that! Lilli was born in March, and we opened the store in December.
While at his first job, Ben would work in the daytime and go to school at night to learn English. I could not go to school in the evening because Gloria was a baby. I learned English in the store.
On our first night in Mobile, Ben was anxious to tell his relatives about the day his mother died from hunger. She had been in Russia, but then the Germans came in and she died of hunger. Ben's relatives picked us up at the train station and took us to their house for a very nice dinner. After dinner Den started telling them his story, and they did not let him finish. So from then on Ben never talked about it. Who wanted to hear about it? Nobody. I met a friend who spoke Yiddish and I was told by everybody not to speak Yiddish. So since I couldn't speak Yiddish, I couldn't speak, so I didn't. People were different then, twenty years later things changed.
We were the first refugee family in Mobile. Eight months after we came, another family came, and when they found out about us, the wife would come over every day because we were the only ones she could talk to. Then another family, and there were now three, thank God. Then two single people came.
My message to my children and grandchildren is this: Do not forget the Holocaust. Everyone for generations and generations, you should know what happened