Child of Survivors
By June 1941, due to an influx of refugees, the Jewish population of Vilna, the city once known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” had swollen to 80,000. Of those, 70,000 perished at Paneriai, the site of the Ponary Massacre during World War II, another 10,000 died in camps, and between 2,000 and 3,000 of the original 57,000 Jewish inhabitants of Vilnius survived, either in hiding, with the partisans, or in camps in Germany and Estonia.
Cilla Klatchko Riemer was born in 1952 in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania. Her parents, Luba Burakinski and Katriel Klatchko, and her grandfather, Itzak Klatchko, had survived the Holocaust and returned to Vilna. Cilla tells their story and the story of her family who perished “to commemorate—to remember—the people that went through the Holocaust. I think that people who survived are heroes; people that survived that could continue to live on and have families deserve to be remembered always because it’s almost coming from hell and going back to life. I don’t know how they did it. And even the ones who died in the Holocaust and cannot tell for themselves, if we can remember their names, they need to be in our memories; they should never be forgotten.”
Luba and Katriel’s families had lived in Vilna for generations. In 1941, the local Lithuanian population pushed both families into the ghetto, except for Luba’s father Shlomo Burakinski who joined the partisans and was in charge of weapons. He tried to get 17-year-old Luba out of the ghetto to join his ranks, but she refused to leave her mother Batya Hayet Burakinski and her sister Mira and her baby. Luba provided for them by escaping the ghetto and stealing food from the villagers and the fields. One day, as Luba was sneaking out of the ghetto, she ran into the nanny who had raised her. She told her that she was hungry and getting food for the family. The nanny told her to meet her the next day, but instead she came with the local Lithuanian police.
Katriel was also in the ghetto with his mother Cilla Kriwitzki Klatchko, father Itzak Klatchko, and two sisters—Yulia (Luba’s girlfriend) and Rivka. Katriel had a job in a plant outside the ghetto. Having a job was a lifesaver; you were the last one to go to Ponary before the ghetto was liquidated. Because he could claim a wife and dependents, Katriel put his mother’s sister who was only a few years older than him on his working papers.
Despite the aktions that took people out of the ghetto to their death at Ponary, love blossomed between Luba and Katriel. Before the ghetto was liquidated and they were separated, Luba gave Katriel her picture. As Luba’s mother and sister were sent to their death, Luba wanted to die with them and clung to them, but was pried away and pushed onto a train. Luba and Yulia were sent to the same labor camp, where they made life support boats for a ship. The chemicals killed some of the workers and Luba suffered from lung problems from then on. Some local villagers who worked in the camp brought clothing and helped some people escape. Yulia was supposed to be one of them, but the day before her planned escape, she twisted her ankle and was shot on the spot because she could not walk. Luba was able to escape from the camp by jumping from a three-story building into the bushes, where some villagers were waiting and took her to hide in a special room built inside the walls of a home. The woman who hid Luba had a mentally challenged boy who happened to see her; after he pointed to her window, they decided to smuggle her out, putting a big cross on her, giving her a false name, and sending her by train to a farm to live and work as a non-Jew. The farmer realized she was Jewish and, when the Germans came close to the farm, felt it was not safe to help a Jewish woman and sent her to the woods.
Luba lived in the forest for 6-8 months, sneaking into villages at night to steal food, covering herself with a pile of bushes, and washing in rainwater. At one point, a villager caught her and kept her in the cellar, where she was physically and mentally tortured until she managed to escape back to the woods, where she lived until the fighting between the Russians and Germans broke out. When the Russians won and found her, they couldn’t believe that she was Jewish and survived, so they interrogated her for a week. Luckily, a Jewish officer arrived, determined she was Jewish, saved her, and helped her get away.
Luba only wanted to go back to Vilna to see who survived. It took her a couple of weeks—jumping from train to train, no money, an old coat that the Jewish officer gave her. She arrived in Vilna and learned that her father was killed during the last battle on Vilna. She found a distant cousin who was hidden by a Lithuanian family, survived, and opened their doors to anybody that came back and needed a place to sleep. Luba’s brother showed up. He had been in the Russian army, was wounded, and lost a wife and a child in the ghetto. He married a Russian nurse who cared for him when he was wounded and took Luba with them to a remote village not far from Vilna that didn’t like Jews and hated him, but let her stay on the kitchen floor.
After the ghetto was liquidated, Katriel and his father Itzak were sent by the Germans to Klooga, a Nazi labor sub-camp of the Vaivara concentration camp complex established during World War II in German-occupied Estonia. “My father was larger than life. He had the most wonderful imagination—the soul of a child.” He was a great hero and told his children many stories. When he first came to the camp, he had to strip naked. He had a few pieces of jewelry from the family, so he dug a little hole in the sand with his toes, dropped the jewelry, and covered it. A couple of days later, he came to get the jewelry and it was gone. One of the Jewish guys with him saw him and stole the jewelry. A trial was held by the shtarkes [the strong tough guys in the camp that controlled the laws] and they decided to split it.
One story he didn’t tell his family is the story of how he saved the life of Mendel Balberyszski, a doctor and the author of the book, Shtarker fun Eizen [Stronger than Iron, published in English in 2010 by Gefen Publishing]. The doctor and another man were given an order to move a very heavy stone to clear the area. When the German guard saw they couldn’t do it, he started to beat them with a metal cane, broke his friend’s arms, and was going to kill him. Out of the blue, Katriel, who was a slight man, jumped in front of the guard and the two people he was going to kill. To the shock of everybody, he yelled at the doctor and his friend: “I cannot believe that you cannot do a simple job that you are told to do. You just bring us shame.” And he turned to the guard who stood in awe and surprise and said “Oh, let us, the people who know how to do these things, just let them go, we’ll take care of it.” And then Katriel organized the men and moved the heavy stone away.
Balberyszski described Katriel Katchko as this gentle soul that adored his father to the point that he’d never seen such loyalty of a son to a father. One day, as the war was coming to an end he noticed his father carrying a big piece of wood and he said “Tata what are you doing?” He answered, “We have orders that each one of us has to pick up a piece of wood and go to the forest.” Katriel said to him, “You must be crazy. I can hear shooting, something is happening.” So he took him to hide in one of the few buildings that had an attic with twenty other people. Finally, when they all were very hungry and thirsty, they came out, stepping over bodies on the steps. The Estonians were robbing the camp and saw them and thought they were ghosts because they had strange haircuts and clothes. Katriel then learned that before the Germans hurriedly left the camp, they had ordered each prisoner to carry a piece of wood. Then they would put them on a piece of wood, make a row, shoot them, and put another row on top and shoot them.
Katriel and his father survived and were liberated and returned to Vilna. They had a very strange attachment until the father died. “I guess my grandfather represented to him his family—his mother and sisters. We, his children, always felt that my grandfather was number one.” Katriel died in 1974 at age 54, a year after his father died. “I truly believe it was a broken heart. He just couldn’t survive without his father.”
One day after the war, Luba received a letter from Katriel and, as she opened the letter, a picture fell out—the picture she had given him in the ghetto. “I don’t know how my father kept it in the camps; but I think it really kept him going. It gave him the power and he was determined to find her after the war.” She went back to Vilna right away. They married in a very simple ceremony without a chuppah. Although other people just celebrated life starting again, they felt that “how dare we have happiness when we just lost our family?” Katriel managed a food store in Vilna and then he went to a larger place. By that standard, they lived a very good life. They had a dacha, a summer home, and a car. But the living conditions were not good. They and their two children lived in a one-bedroom apartment, with a shared kitchen and no bathroom--either you went outside in the cold Russian winter or used the potty. Their grandfather lived on the same floor. He married a younger woman who lost a husband and child.
Before leaving Vilna, “My mother felt that my brother and I should never forget. So she took us to Ponary—the killing grounds. I was not even five but I still remember there were piles of clothes, piles of shoes, piles of children’s shoes. Occasionally you could still see a bone sticking from the ground. And you saw some villagers digging to see if they could find anything because, before they were shot, a lot of people put on their jewelry. My mother found one of the bullet casings used to kill the people and she took it. She thought it was part of her family. She also brought a box with her and filled it with dirt from that place with fragments of bone. That was her memorial for her family and my father’s family. She brought it to Israel and the pact was that when a family member dies, some of this dirt would be buried with him so he would be with the families.”
. The only way to leave Lithuania, which was part of Poland before the war and then was part of Russia, was to claim that you wanted to go to your country of birth. In 1957, the family received a permit to leave Russia for Poland, first staying in a displaced persons camp until they could settle in Volch’ya in Poland.
In 1959, her parents received papers to go to Israel—“that was their dream to go there and have a better life for their children.” On the way to Israel, they travelled throughout Poland, stayed a couple of months with other Russian immigrants in Schoenau Castle in Austria, went by train to Napoli in Italy, and came to Israel on a boat, the SS Jerusalem. “I was seven and it was very interesting. Israel was a young country. You almost didn’t want your parents to be survivors; you wanted real Zionist immigrants—strong parents. So you didn’t talk about it. You didn’t stand up and say my parents were survivors. Today, had I known the meaning of that, I would be standing on top and yelling.”
Although this is basically the story of her parents, Cilla reflects on what it was like to grow up as a child of Holocaust survivors. “It’s not easy growing up with parents who went through the Holocaust. You don’t understand exactly what’s happening. You don’t want to know that much. But later on when you look back and raise your own kids, you see the things that you missed. . . . I knew I was always loved by my parents with all their heart. But, especially my mother, missing such a big part of her life, just didn’t know how to give us certain things we needed.” Two days before she died in 2006, Luba looked at Cilla and said “I love you so much. I know I had to give more to my children—certain things—I just didn’t know how.”
They grew up knowing their mother was always a little different than other parents who grew up in Israel. She still looked like a Russian immigrant with a shtetl mentality. “It’s like she stayed in time somewhere. It’s not a typical childhood. My parents looked upon typical things that kids/teenagers would do as nonsense. They couldn’t understand.” Cilla knew how much they lost, so she tried not to upset her parents. “I was like the observer who always wanted to make them happy, not to be sad.” Her brother became the tough one. He would show that nobody would do anything to him.
Holidays were not fun in their family. “It was always some songs in Yiddish on records and they would start to cry, missing their family.” She and her brother were always so jealous of other kids that had a big family—aunts and uncles. “It’s hard to grow up without all that, especially the sadness of your parents. My father always had nightmares and screamed in his sleep because he was always fighting and protecting us; he was always under attack.” At that time, in Israel, there was no counseling for people from the camps. “I think it was wonderful my parents managed to do what they did without the help they really needed.” Cilla has passed on her parents’ motto to her children: “The will [to survive] is so much stronger than our bodies.”
Although Cilla did learn from her mother to have a sense of humor and to laugh, “It affected my life, how I feel about certain things in life, and my outlook about life.” As a teenager, she was obsessive-compulsive, reading every book about the Holocaust. “For me, it’s not just the history that’s so interesting; it’s like part of my life.” She was very angry for a long time. “There’s a lot of anger in me, a lot. There’s no forgiveness.”
Date of Interview: August 15, 2011
Length of Interview: 1 hour 5 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran