Kaunas (Lithuania), Galich, Shumash, Kuybyshev (Samara), Vilna (Soviet Union)
Reuven Blium was born in Kaunas (Kovno in Yiddish), Lithuania, on December 11, 1930, the eighth light of Hanukkah. His older sister Chana was born around Shavuot in 1924. Their father Zundel died when he was three-years-old, and because they were very poor, their mother Libe placed them in foster homes, belonging to the Jewish Community of Kaunas. Reuven went to the Yiddisher Kinder Haus for younger children, located at Giedrai?i? gatv? 8 in the Grinebergl/Green Hill area (Žaliakalnis in Lithuanian). When he was ready for school, he was transferred to the Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor Orphanage, at J. Gruodžio g. 25, which prepared them for an independent life. “When I grew older, I very much appreciated how the Jewish community at that time created such nice facilities.”
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany occupied the Lithuanian Socialist Republic, a part of the Soviet Union. Unlike in previous summers when the orphanage boys older than six were sent to a summer camp in Lampedziai, 8-10 km away from the Kaunas city center, for some reason the children from newborns up to age six were sent to the summer camp and the older boys remained in the city. Due to the foresight of one of their teachers, Zundel [Warkola?}, who had been preparing the children for possible evacuation for months, and his quick action, he was able to get the 100 or so older boys out of the city just before the Nazis entered.
On Saturday night, June 21st, there were heavy explosions as the German planes bombed the airfield across the river from the orphanage. On Sunday morning, Zundel came and told the boys that the war had started and they must follow his orders and remain inside. “I remember very well that some relatives of the children started to show up to visit, and a couple of them even took away the children with permission from the teachers. Close to noon, my mother showed up. She was very quiet. She told me that she was on her way to visit her cousin who was sick in the Jewish hospital in Kaunas. She said that on the way back, I will maybe drop in again. Somehow this did not happen, and that was the last meeting with my mother.”
On Monday morning, although many of the teachers left the facility, Mr. Zundel came and explained that they were going to leave the facility and go to the train station. Following an argument with the director, a young Jewish woman with two children of her own, and her refusal to give him the keys to the food and clothing stores, “He ordered the older boys to break down the doors, to change the clothes and shoes of everybody who had bad shoes and clothes. He ordered some boys go to the kitchen, to take whatever what was left, bread, salami, butter, and even the 15 liter cans with milk. Then he told us to go outside, to stay in lines of 3 or 4 across, like soldiers, and marched us to the railway station.”
All the boys shoved into a train car and, after a half day, the train was forced to stop in a field because the train before them was bombarded by German planes and was burning. Mr. Zundel learned from Russian Red Army Soviet soldiers that another train was come to pick up the wounded Red Army soldiers from the bombarded train and that, if there was space, they might be able to get on this train. When the train showed up, there was chaos as “All of the people from our train and some of the remaining people from the bombarded train rushed to this train, as the military was bringing the injured soldiers to the train cars…. I was lucky and was somehow pushed into a first class car with cabins. The corridor was unusually small and I was squished right up to the window and behind me people pushing here and there. I do not know how I survived…. In the morning, some military people arrived and found out that the orphanage director, the woman with the children, was lucky to occupy a first class cabin. They helped move other people out of the cabin, and the 21 children from the orphanage stayed in this cabin with the director, sleeping on the floor, under the seats, everywhere.”
They arrived at the train station in Daugavpils (Dvinsk), Latvia, and the cars behind them, with the other 70 or 80 boys, was disconnected and they continued on, not knowing where they were headed. “In the evening, we started to get the terrible feeling of what is the meaning of a war.” The soldiers in their car told them that when they got the signal that the German planes were attacking, “You must leave the premises and run away and protect yourself by hiding under a tree or something. When we left the car, we saw several planes, that I later recognized as Stuka bombers, attacking planes. They used to put on a very high siren, and flew so low that you can see their laughing faces, concentrating on shooting civilians. In 20 or 30 minutes, they made several circles around us. When they left, we ran back to the train car…. In the morning, we got a second bombardment from the German planes. When we left the train, you do not think what is going on around you, you just start to run as the planes are coming down, you fall down to protect yourself; and when the planes leave for another raid, you already see people who cannot stand up…. This is when I got the first taste of what is a war…. And the first time in my life that, I later recognized, they were dead people, killed, and from that date every day there used to be lower and lower population in the train…. We got used to being afraid … and used to seeing the dead people on the field. We were children used to this and we would run to the dead people to see if they had something to eat… Somehow all of the 21 children who got onto this train survived all of this this tragedy…. When we arrived to the Russian area after a week of daily bombings, the bombardments decreased… and as we got deeper into Russia where it was quiet, the Russian women would run with food to our train, and people would take out their hands to get a piece of bread or baked potatoes. I very much appreciated the kindness from the Russian women.”
Finally, they arrived in Galich, Russia, where there were already many immigrants from Lithuania and Latvia…. Many years later, when Reuven met his wife Libe, he learned that she was five-years-old and with her parents on the same train…. The boys were taken to a foster home in an old monastery in Galich that had been a facility for juvenile criminals. Reuven describes his life in the home, where he was one of the two kids that was called a ‘professor’ because he had learned some Russian from his mother; how some of the Jewish children experienced anti-Semitism from the Russian children and teachers; how others were robbed or threatened with home-made knives to give up food or money; and how little food there became and how bad it tasted.
In the early summer of 1942, the Lithuanian government in exile in Russia arranged to collect all of the Lithuanian refugees and to assemble them in Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod) between the River Volga and the River Oka. Since the foster home there was full, they were taken by steamboat down the River Oka to Shumash (in the Ryazan Region). “And then, it happened … a miracle. When we walked into the foster home, we recognized the rest of the children from the Kaunas foster home who had been separated from us that night when the other train was bombarded.” This group of 70 boys had been brought there by Mr. Zundel with the help of Judah, another schoolteacher who knew Russian quite well and contacted military soldiers who said there was a train station about eight kilometers away. Together they organized the boys, walked through the night, and brought the boys to the train station where they caught a train and arrived finally in Shumash. Judah became manager of the new foster home. They were allowed to have a Jewish school and there was a very big garden, from which they used to get extra food.
After standing up to some older boys who were stealing from the younger boys, Reuven was punished and his age on paper was changed from 12 to 14-years-old so he could be sent to a technician school in Kuybyshev (Samara). There he was taught to be a lathe operator, and then was sent to the 35 Moscow Aviation Factory to make propellers for Russian attack planes.
At the end of 1944, all of the boys from Lithuania were selected to go back to Lithuania. “We were given nice new clothes, hats, very warm overcoats for the winter, even new shoes. They dressed us like for a parade and put us on the train… They gave us preserved, not so bad food, that was meant to last about ten days…. After ten days, we found ourselves still on the train. We needed to eat, so we started to sell our clothes, that were easy to sell because they were new and because clothes were very difficult to get. With the money, we bought some very old clothes, and we were dressed like street boys, very bad, when we arrived in Vilna, Lithuania exactly on New Year’s Eve 1944-1945…. The next day, the group of about 60 or 70 Jewish, Lithuanian and Russian children from the Technical School, including 9-11children from our orphanage home, were put in an old building on the second floor and given food, but there were not even enough beds…. For a couple of days, we did not go out because the population looked at us as hooligans and we were afraid to walk around…. Then some Jewish organizations brought us bags of nice clothes from Germany, with the help of Lieutenant Colonel Josef Benyaminovitz Rabelski, the head psychiatrist of the Third Belarusian Front. “We were nicely dressed, everyone looked now like they were from rich families. Because the food was still limited, again we went to the market and sold the extra clothes that we were not using.”
After a month, the boys were put back in a technical school. Reuven was with a group of 4 or 5 Lithuanian and Polish boys and every day for most of a year they were taunted for being Jewish. Finally, he and a few other survivors of the Rabbi Spektor orphanage decided to go back to Kaunas, selling their bed covers to buy train tickets. Arriving in Kaunas late in the night, they found their way back to their old foster home and found that there were already some younger kids from Shumash there. “Somehow we arranged that the management of this facility would not know anything and we automatically became members of this foster home. Our foster home soon became a center for Jewish boys who had survived from the evacuations of foster homes in Russia.”
Meanwhile, Liuba Solomyn, a member of the Communist party and the Acting Director of the orphanage in 1940 when the Communists came to power, started another orphanage and Jewish school in 1944, the “Children’s House” at Kestu?io Street 54 in Kaunas. Somehow she had collected kids who had survived the occupation period, some of them had come from the bunkers in the ghetto, and some of them came from Lithuanian families who had taken them in. When she found out that immigrant children had been brought from Russia, she showed up at the Spektor orphanage in the Spring of 1945 and selected about 10 or12 kids she knew before the war, including Reuven, to come to the new Jewish home – “A new facility and there were only Jewish boys. Everyone spoke Yiddish. It had a Jewish school on the second floor and a kindergarten for families who returned from Russia with children. The food was good, we had nice clothes and a nice room to sleep in. This orphanage also was supported by Dr. Rabelski, who tragically was executed after the war by the KGB, who claimed that he was a collaborator with the Zionist organizations and was stealing government goods and clothes, and sending them to Jewish facilities.
Once again, after a year and one half, Reuven was blamed for the wrongdoing of some older boys and was put in a professional school that belonged to the military from the Third Front. He was taught to be a patternmaker for shoe letter … very nice, complicated, handmade women’s shoes for military officers’ wives. When he found out that they would very soon be evacuated to Belorussia, he ran away from this facility.
He learned from Yenta, a girlfriend of his sister’s, what happened to many of the women and children in his family: “She was put in the same collection place with all of the Jews from the Kovno Ghetto and the Commandant Noreika selected who to die, who to live. There was very little living space in the ghetto, so my mother and my sister lived together with my paternal grandmother Sara (Sora), her unmarried daughter Chaja, and her daughter Friedel with her three children, Taibele, Zundel, and Josele. When they showed up in front of this murderer, Noreika, he saw that there were women with little children and put them in the place to be liquidated.” A couple years later, he accidentally met his two girl cousins who recognized him and confirmed what had happened. “When the war started, the younger cousin Sarah and her brother Reuven were in this pioneer camp in Palanga and were brought to the ghetto. When the commandant put them away in the place that was guarded by Lithuanian collaborators with dogs, they knew that they would be sent to a concentration camp or something very bad. So Reuven made a quick decision and ran away from my grandmother. He took his sister and they ran away to my auntie Judith who was in another group. She was a very strong nice looking woman and she had three girls. The youngest girl was in the same pioneer camp and she survived.”
Reuven also learned what happened to the 100 younger boys from the Yiddisher Kinder Haus, but was sworn to secrecy and is only now sharing this privileged information.
After the war, Reuven met Libe; they married and raised two children in Kaunas. When he was 35 or 36, he met Moshe Sherman, a former teacher from the “Children’s House” who told him that he had recently visited with Liuba Solomyn and she showed him a picture album from 1935 from this foster home. She agreed to meet Reuven and he recognized himself and many friends in the photos. He asked her permission to copy the photos and she very openly told him this story: “Several years after the war, a Lithuanian lady that used to work as a nurse or something brought me this album as soon as she found out I was alive … and she told me specifically what happened to the children. Soon after the war started, Lithuanian collaborators came to the summer camp and told all of the teachers and the nurses to leave the premises and maybe they will later survive in the ghetto; otherwise they would also be killed because they came to liquidate the children. All of them left, except one teacher, Tsipora, who at that time was acting director and refused to leave…. She cannot understand how men can come with this intention to kill such little kids… And she told them straight out, with no argument, ‘I am sorry, I am responsible for the children …. whatever happens to the children, I will not leave the facilities.’ They call her. ‘You crazy Jew. You want that, you gonna have it.’ And they killed her along with about 100 little children. A couple of weeks after the war, Lithuanian workers came and pulled all of the building apart to liquidate the evidence that the children had been murdered there, although not buried there; their place of burial remains unknown. After the war, I visited this forest area and very clearly recognized the foundation from the building … but nothing more.”
Although she let Reuven copy the pictures, Liuba Solomyn did not let him copy the descriptions written under the pictures. “And I was supposed to give a personal honest word that I would never release these pictures to any friends, to any public. Later, when I left with Moshe, I recognized why she behaved like that. First, it was very dangerous for the Lithuanian lady who brought the pictures because there were still many Lithuanians who were against the Soviet Union and some of them were still alive, who used to collaborate with the Germans. So there was a very good possibility that if this went public, they would kill this woman. Second is that Liuba and her husband were members of the Communist Party and would be at risk for telling the story.”
But now, Reuven wants to tell the story “because I believe this is a very tragic moment for our Jewish nation, and I believe that the story very much deserves to be public. In addition, I specifically want to recognize Tsipora because must understand this tragedy happened in quite a short time, in several hours, in one day, and for a person to know she is going to get killed together with the children, to sacrifice herself, is very special. Moreover, I do have the best memories about Tsipora. She was the oldest teacher and she was the gentlest teacher. She never screamed at the children, and she never punished heavily. And she was a very nice storyteller. Even when I was in the older group of children, when I found out that she is reading some book and telling stories to the younger kids, I quietly would run away and take a seat and listen to her… And I do believe that such a kind person deserves somehow to get recognition for her behavior and deserves a memorial because she is the pride of the Jewish nation and is an example that in the bad times, to still recognize that you are a human being and you must first of all behave like a human being.”
Finally, Reuven wants people to know that “If we do not seriously address the world situation now, there is no doubt that these things can be repeated. For that I will ask the population that they put pressure on their political leaders to take quite seriously the events happening now in the world … and there is now still the possibility that they can prevent the incidents that can happen, that did happen, during the Holocaust and in the Second World War…. And I believe today’s young people need to know something about the terrible things that happened in the Holocaust and, if they are lucky, in their lifetimes, that it will never again. So they need to learn and to tell the true stories about their grandparents during the Holocaust period.”
Dates of Interview: August 1-2, 2016
Length of Interview: 5 hour 32 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Daniel Cooper