Josef Lurie - story of a Holocaust survivor from Linkuva
ForewordUntil late in 1997 we had never heard of Josef Lurie. And then suddenly, over a period of a few weeks his name was brought to our attention by three different and independent sources. Firstly, Liebe Meyer, daughter of Shrolinke Mer, who was our father's friend and landsman (mentioned in my brother David's narrative) told us about him. She said he is a cousin of Yankel Lurie who was also our father's friend and landsman. She was sure that he would be able to tell us lots of things about our roots and about the Holocaust. Secondly, David discovered almost by chance that the mother of a Dr. Louis Kaplan whom he knows, also came from Linkuva. During a chat with him after this discovery, he also mentioned that he knew Josef Lurie and that we should meet him. Thirdly, David was telling a Dr. Jonathan Salitan ( a nephew of Levi Shalit) about his journey to Lithuania and one of Dr. Salitan's comments was that we should meet Josef Lurie.
We visited Josef Lurie and his wife, Luba for the first time in January 1998. We became totally enthralled by his story which he told us during several visits. Unlike the other people whom we have found from Linkuva here was someone who was there when the Nazis came and who survived the Holocaust. He was thus able to tell us about our family members who also remained there but who did not survive and also about his experiences during the war years. He has a wonderful memory and amazed us with his descriptions of the people, the places, life in the shtetl before the war and in the Shavel Ghetto during the war and of his remarkable escape.
Josef and Luba Lurie are a most wonderful and gracious couple. It was obviously painful for Josef to recount the terrible past. He told us that he had not related the story for years. The reason he told us the story is because our sons have shown such an interest in our roots and in the story of the Holocaust that "they deserve to hear all about it" no matter how painful it is for him. We feel that the story should be made known to a wider audience so we asked and received their permission to publish the story on the Internet. We hope that all who read it will be as enthralled as we were.
Josef and Luba have a son and a daughter both of whom were born in Lithuania and who now live in South Africa. They have 6 grandchildren. He speaks to his wife in Yiddish, his children in Hebrew and his grandchildren in English. Although in his young days he was fluent in Lithuanian, he can no longer speak it. I feel enriched to have met Josef and Luba Lurie and feel privileged to have recorded this story.
JOSEF LURIE'S STORY
as told to David and Maurice Blumsohn
This story is told in memory of my beloved parents, brothers and sisters who perished in the Holocaust in Lithuania in 1941.
IntroductionIt is 2.00 o'clock on an afternoon in January 1998. In one hour the Blumsohn brothers will be arriving here to meet me and my wife, Luba. They have heard about me from various sources and know that I came from Linkuva, the same shtetl (village) in Lithuania that their father, Aaron, came from. It seems that they are very interested in researching their roots. They have told me on the telephone that the elder brother, David, went with their sister (who lives in Israel) to Lithuania in 1996. They visited Linkuva and actually found the grave of their grandfather, Betzalel, who died in 1937. I remember attending his funeral. They also told me on the telephone that David wrote the story of their visit to Lithuania and that Maurice's two sons put the story on the Internet. They, David and Maurice, are coming to hear "my story". They are keen to add it to their website on the Internet.
And so, at 2.00 o'clock on this January afternoon, I am sitting and agonising over the past. I have slept badly these past few nights. It is years since I have spoken about those terrible days. It is very painful for me to speak about them but in this case I feel I must. So many Jews who were lucky enough to be born in other lands and after the Holocaust, seem to ignore the past and would rather not hear about the massacre. So, I should put my pain aside and tell those who want to know. I feel they deserve this from me. I think of the last time I saw my father, my mother, my older sister, Fruma and my younger brother and sister, the twin, Yehuda Hirsch and Shaine Liebe. Their faces are indelibly imbedded on my brain. I weep for them and for the fact that their lives were cut short by the monsters who hated us. I weep for the wonderful times which we might have had together. I weep, too, for the millions who were slaughtered just because they were Jews. And I survived to tell the tale, so tell it I must, to all who wish to hear it.
They arrive, David, Maurice and his wife, Joy. We welcome them and I see immediately that David closely resembles his uncle Meier Blumzon. I tell him this and he seems proud and pleased. Of course, when I knew Meier he was in his 30's and David is now in his 60's but the resemblance is very clear. I did not know their father, Aaron, as I was born in 1926 and he left for South Africa in 1924. I did know their grandfather, Betzalel and his wife Seine and also their father's sisters who were still there. I tell them that I remember their grandfather well, that he was the shochet (ritual kosher slaughterer) and mohel (person who performs circumcisions) of Linkuva and that he was a man of integrity and was tremendously well respected in the community.
He was the "advisor" and I remember him as having the most penetrating eyes and a great sense of humour. I have a picture in my mind of him and his wife, Seine sitting on the porch in front of their home. I tell them about this picture and David immediately takes out a picture of them sitting there. I tell them, Yes, that is exactly as I remember them.
I tell them about their Uncle Meier, their father's brother. He was a very clever man, both a scholar in religious matters and wise in secular matters. He was a born leader and highly respected in the community. He was entrusted with the community's finances. He was a rich businessman and part of a consortium which dealt in flax, wheat, rye and linseed. Some of the Barr family were part of this consortium. Their grandmother was a Barr before she married Betzalel.
The Blumsohn brothers take out some more photographs to show me. I confirm their thoughts that one of the pictures was taken at the wedding of Meier to Freda Capuler. There are lots of people in the photograph. They are able to identify about 10 of these people. I am able to identify another two and they express their delight.
I then proceed to tell them "my story". Maurice takes lots of notes, while David makes a tape recording of the conversation. They ask me lots of questions. I speak and speak and the words just flow. It's as if I have bottled it all up inside me all the years and I have to get it all out. As I speak my memory of the happenings seems good, perhaps better than I expected.
LIFE IN THE SHTETL OF LINKUVA BEFORE THE WAR
I was born in the small shtetl (village) of Linkuva, Lithuania on the 15th June 1926, son of Zalman and Perl Lurie. We lived on a small plot. My father made a living for his family by trading in apples. He hired apple orchards from Lithuanians and spent the summers there, picking the apples. He would travel to the big cities to sell the apples. Some of the apples were stored in storerooms and these provided us with an income for the winter. On the plot we had our own cow and a horse and some chickens and these also served to provide us with some extra income.
I was one of four children from my father's second marriage. My older sister was Fruma and after me came a twin brother and sister born in 1929, Yehuda Hirsh and Shaine Liebe. My mother looked after the children and milked the cow. We lived comfortably. We were not rich but we were not short of the necessities of life.
My father and his first wife had four sons. During the First World War Lithuania was under Russian rule. My father and his family lived in Lithuania near the German border. The Russians were afraid that the Jews in this area would become spies for the Germans as many of them hated the Czar. They therefore, forced them to move out of Lithuania, eastwards into Russia. My father and his family were among the Jews who were moved. Conditions during and after the move were very unsanitary and many Jews died of typhus, my father's wife amongst them. Three of the sons came to South Africa. One of them got sick and died. Neither of the other two ever married. I met them here in South Africa when I arrived. They have both since passed away.
At age 6 I started school. The school was a Hebrew school. Although only Jewish children attended, it was not a religious school and only taught secular subjects. We were taught arithmetic, anatomy and Hebrew literature in Hebrew, and in Lithuanian we were taught history, geography and Lithuanian literature. Although we spoke Yiddish at home no Yiddish was used in the school. All the Jewish children of Linkuva went to this school. There were only 3 classes at the school. After 5 years at the Hebrew school there was a two year period at a preparatory school. Our religious studies, Chumash and Tanach (Five books of Moses and the rest of the Bible) took place in the afternoons at cheder ( Jewish religious school) where we were taught by a private teacher who was paid by the Jewish Community.
Yiddishkeit (study and practice of the Jewish religion) played a big part in our lives. It was the way of life there at that time. There were services in the shul every day. We prayed and laid tefillin daily.
A cousin of mine came from America to study at Telz Yeshiva (an academy for higher Jewish and Rabbinical studies). He was a brilliant man. I was a very good pupil at school and my father was influenced by my cousin to make me become a Rabbi. In 1938 after Sukkos (Festival of Tabernacles) he took me on a wagon to Shadove. My father rented a place for me to live with food provided. I studied there but I did not like it. There was a very nice Rabbi at the Yeshiva. I really liked him but I was not happy studying there.
Preachers (magiddim and meshulochim ) used to come from the shtetlach to the Yeshiva to preach. Once a very dynamic preacher came on a Saturday afternoon and he preached that God punishes the bad and helps the good. I was a naive boy of eleven. The next day at the Yeshiva I asked the Rabbi why God needed to create bad people and why did He not create them all good. He became enraged at my question and to my utter surprise he gave me a smack across my face. I was very upset about this and it was the end of it for me. I decided to go home. A traveller came from Linkuva and I asked him to take me back home. My late father was not very happy about my actions but he seemed to understand and he accepted my decision. I then went for a short time to the preparatory school.
Then the Russians came. This was in 1940 and I was 14 years old. My father was not so young and I had to start working. Lithuania had a good supply of flax. The small railway could not cope with taking the flax to the city of Shavel. We had a horse and cart. So twice a week I took a load on the cart to Shavel. I did this work for a company that employed four or five people. Thus, I became a bread winner. And so I continued until the war came to Linkuva in 1941.
During this time my sister, Fruma, who was 5 years older than me, had a little shop from which she earned a living. My father had opened the shop for her for nadan (dowry). It was a shop together with a house. The shop was a general store selling a variety of things such as flour, herring, salt, paraffin, sweets and sugar, mostly food.
Lithuanian Anti-SemitismI do not remember any anti-Semitism before 1936. We started to feel it in 1936 but it was not so bad until 1938 when the Germans chased the Lithuanians away from the main port of Memel. Then the Lithuanians formed a youth movement called Verslas and they started propaganda amongst the Lithuanians to persuade them to stop buying from Jewish shops and not to sell to Jews. This had nothing to do with the Germans. The Government then stopped the Jews from doing foreign trade, so the produce that the Jews bought from the farmers had to be resold only to Latoukis, the Lithuanian Corporation. So Jews started to farm and became very successful. The Government, thereupon passed a law that if the grandfather of a Jew did not possess land, then the Jew was not allowed to own land. This was in 1939. However, unlike the Polish Government, the Lithuanian Government did not forbid shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter of animals for food). The Lithuanian President at the time, Antanas Smetona, was actually quite a liberal person. He did not let the Government act too strongly against the Jews. There were some pogroms (organised brutal attacks on Jews) in the big cities and sometimes Jews were chased out of the Universities. However, there were no pogroms in our shtetl of Linkuva but it was very tense between 1938 and 1940.
In 1939, as is well known, Russia and Germany divided Poland between them. Poland had taken away part of Lithuania, the Vilna District. The Russians now gave this to Lithuania. In July 1940 Russia occupied the Baltic states. The older Jews were very unhappy because they knew the dangers of communism. But some of the Jewish youth joined the Communist Youth Movement. The Communists started to make trouble. They confiscated most of the shops. And life was no longer normal.
THE WAR YEARSAnd then, on the 22nd June 1941, the Second World War began in Lithuania. I was 15 years old.
At first we did not have a clear picture of what was happening. There were mixed announcements on the radio. The war started on a Sunday. Four days later, on Thursday, we tried to travel eastwards to Russia. My father got our horse and cart and a few necessities together and we started the journey. We travelled only about 40 kilometres to the town of Posvel, where we encountered German soldiers and we were unable to proceed on our journey.
We went back to Linkuva and our hearts sank when we found that our home had been sealed off. As is well known, much worse was to follow. We were all arrested and separated. Although the whole of Lithuania was already under German rule, at this stage the Germans were not yet in Linkuva. Our home had been sealed up by Lithuanians. We were then arrested by the Lithuanians. The Lithuanians, who had been our neighbours all the years arrested all the Jews of Linkuva, and proceeded to beat them up and to kill many of them well before the Germans arrived in Linkuva. It is important for all interested parties to know that the Lithuanians behaved as badly as the Nazis did in their treatment of the Jews.
On the day we were arrested, they divided the Jews up. I was put with some Jews, including Shayl Girsh, in his storeroom. My father was put in a basement. Later four lorries with Jews arrived near the place. I saw my mother, sisters and brother on one of the lorries. On another lorry I saw my father. The lorries stopped in front of the storeroom. Some of the Jews in the storeroom were then selected to fill up the lorries. They did not select me. I was very attached to my father so I ran out and jumped on the lorry with him. The authorities did not stop me. We were taken to Shavel. There, the guard assigned to watch us was a German soldier. He did not beat or harm us.
We got off the lorries in the yard of the prison, a hard-labour prison. They called it The Red Prison. There was a heavy rain at the time, They left us to soak in the rain before taking us to the cells. My father and I were separated from each other. I was put in Cell No. 40. I believe that there were about 3000 people in this prison. The authorities came at night and made selections of Jews who were to be killed. They were taken to the woods near a place called Kurshan. There they had to dig their own graves and they were shot. Some people in the cells where selections took place, and who were not selected, were released. My mother, sisters and brother were among those and they went back to Linkuva.
The conditions in the prison were terrible. There were 65 people in a cell that was meant for a maximum of 18. Food rations were totally inadequate. We all became dehydrated. Toilet facilities consisted of a bucket in the cell! Needless to say the stench was awful and many people became ill due to the poor rations and the unhygienic conditions. We were all covered with lice. The heat in July added a great deal to our misery. However, somehow, some of us managed to remain strong and survive.
On the Thursday before Shabbos Nachamu, (which in 1941 corresponded to Thursday the 6th of August) 76 people were released from the prison, for a reason which was never made known to me. I was one of these. (Shabbos Nachamu is a Sabbath occurring in July/ August just after the 9th day of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar which was the saddest day in Jewish history. The Nachamu that is chanted is a passage of consolation which, through the centuries has given the Jews hope in the face of despair). We were brought before the Commandant who told us that if we behaved ourselves we would be able to go home. Included in these 76 were Meier Blumzon, Shayl Girsh, Shimke Girsh, A Sochen, and Shmuel Fine. We had been in prison for nearly 6 weeks. It was only after we were released that we heard about the selections and the people being shot and it was only then, too that I heard about my mother and sisters and brother going back to Linkuva. We, too wanted to go back to Linkuva but Meier Blumzon, who was a good leader, had some sort of feeling that we should not go there. He said we should try to find out what was happening there first. Some non-Jewish people told us later that the Jews of Linkuva were all killed on the 29th of July. Once a year there was a market in Linkuva together with circuses and celebrations. On the last day of these celebrations in 1941 all the Jews had been rounded up and massacred.
In the meantime, after our release we did not know where to go. There was a family called Elyas who had left Linkuva in about 1934 and moved to Shavel. Someone in our group knew their address. We went there and they gave us bread and butter, and tea with sugar. I became ill because I had been dehydrated after living on the most terrible rations in the prison. Later I looked for a place to stay. I found a place at the home of a teacher who later became a cobbler. He took me to Levi Shalit's father to have my shoes fixed. It seems to me that this meeting was beshert (fated). I continued to stay with Pinchas Datz, the cobbler for a while.
Then, one day the Lithuanian farmers got permission to take Jews for labour on their farms. So, I went to work on a farm together with a man named Chaim Itzik Yoselewitz. On the farm I was occupied in ploughing, sowing, looking after the cows, horses, sheep and pigs. I was a strong young man and coped with this work easily. I was given sufficient food and the living conditions were good and clean.
The Shavel Ghetto
This relatively good life did not continue for very long. The Shavel Ghetto had been formed in about August or September 1942. Sometime towards New Year of 1941 all the farmers were instructed to bring all their Jewish labourers to the ghetto. I had been on the farm for about three and a half months. The farmer wanted to keep us there illegally and I wanted to remain there but Chaim Itzik refused to allow me to do this. Somehow, he was always in contact with Meier Blumzon who had advised him that we should not stay there. If I would have been alone without such advice I would have stayed there. When I argued with Chaim Itzik that I wanted to remain on the farm, he said that if I didn't go with him he would hit me. Later we heard that a girl, Chaike Gutman from Kelm, who remained on the farm was shot and killed there.
When we arrived at the ghetto we went to the Judenraat and there I saw Levi Shalit. I don't know what he was doing there. I told him that I had nowhere to go, so he said Come to us! I went with him and was made incredibly welcome. They were a family of six. They said, "There are six so it's no problem to have a seventh!" I slept under the table. They gave me food and a place to stay but much more than that they gave me a home, warmth, comfort and love. I was part of a family again! Levi's mother was a very clever woman and had a great sense of humour. They were wonderful people!
Levi's father was not a very healthy man. He was an artisan but a profound philosopher, a highly intelligent man. He was also full of hope and told me wonderful stories. Levi Shalit used to go out of the ghetto at night to find out the news and to find food for us. He was taking a great risk doing so as his looks were those of a typical Jew. But he was not afraid. He was extremely strong, both mentally and physically. He was like a father to me. All the years in the Ghetto this family did their best not to eat treif food. They preferred not to eat meat if it was not kosher. Somehow they managed to get Matzo (unleavened bread) for Pesach (Passover).
Levi formed an organisation called Masada. They called it a self-defence organisation but it was in reality a suicide organisation. They hid some knives away which would one day perhaps be used for the purpose of committing suicide. I was a messenger for Masada. I did not know a lot about the activities of this group. In the end nothing came of it.
The Ghetto was situated in the poor suburb of Shavel. There were wooden houses. There was electricity but some of the houses had no running water and had to use public taps which were provided outside. We had very little living space. The Ghetto was simply packed with Jews. There was a fence around the Ghetto and the perimeters were guarded. So, in fact, it was a prison, although we lived in houses and families stayed together. On a regular basis, the Germans with the help of Lithuanians made selections and people were taken out and shot. These selections sent most of the 3000 Jews who were in the Shavel Ghetto to their deaths. During the period that I was in the Ghetto I was sent to camps sometimes for a few months at a time but most of the time I was in the Ghetto. At one of the camps I had to dig peat for the dairy of the town. At another, which had previously been an Ammunition Camp at a place called Linkaiciai, I helped to build a water reservoir in case of fire. Each time I came back from one of these camps I knew that I had a warm "family" to come back to. I believe that my stay with this wonderfully close family helped to form my character. There was one labour camp not far from Shavel to which I was sent. Mostly the single people were sent to such camps. Once I fell over a railway line and hit my leg and I was sent to the Ghetto hospital and after that they did not send me to that camp again.
There were Jewish doctors and nurses in the Ghetto. You cannot imagine what wonderful, professional work they did in spite of the dreadful conditions. They cured pneumonia using sulpha drugs and spirits. One of the doctors, who was a very highly qualified man used to go to the German hospital to treat patients there and he used to steal medicines to bring to the Ghetto hospital.
Food was rationed. From a food point of view the first year, 1942, was a very hard year for the Jews before they adapted and got organised. Many people starved. But afterwards we started bribing guards and managed to buy food from the Lithuanians. One Jew managed to buy flour on the black market and he baked enough bread for the Ghetto although the quantities per person were small. This was in 1943 and 1944. However, the population had been depleted because in November 1943 there was a selection of the elderly and children who were then murdered. The Germans took Ukrainian soldiers who were prisoners of war and they made them serve in the German army. They were sent to catch the elderly people and the children. There were also Jews there who were the equivalent of the Kapos in the German Concentration Camps. They were called Lager Police. Some of them were nice people and did not harm the Jews.
I believe that Levi Shalit had some sort of protection by one member of the Judenraat. Until the big action in 1943 he was always given easy work and was always in the Ghetto. In 1943 when the Germans came and took the children, two Jews, Katz and Kartun asked them where they were taking the children. They were told that the children were being taken to a Kindergarten. The Germans told these two men that they could go with the children. These two heroes went and were also killed together with the children. Levi Shalit was sent with his two brothers to work at a camp called ABA in a suburb of Shavel. It was a factory which produced clothing and shoes for the German Army.
Escape!!On Tuesday the 11th July 1944 I escaped from the Ghetto. The escape came about as follows. We were occupied in ploughing potatoes near the cemetery with 2 horses. On the Saturday before the Tuesday of my escape, we came back for lunch and we were told that we must not go back to the fields. It was then announced that we were to be transported to Germany. I decided that I would rather take a bullet in the back than go to Germany. I told Levi Shalit's mother and father and sister of my intention to escape. They lived right in front of the place where I planned to escape. I also told two other boys. One of these had escaped being shot in Telz. These two also decided to escape but we agreed that we should each go separately. The one who escaped from Telz became afraid and decided not to go. I heard later that he had perished in Germany. The other one went a day later than me. He went to the woods, joined the Russian army and survived the war. I met him again some time later in Shavel after we were liberated.
I dug under the fence which was made only of barbed wire and was not tied to the ground. I didn't have to dig a lot as I was quite thin. There was a sweet factory just outside the Ghetto fence. In the evening at about 9.00pm (it was still light at that time in summer ) I watched for the workers of the factory to complete their shift. I then crawled under the fence and mixed with these workers. The whole thing took a few minutes. A few things were in my favour. Firstly, I was blonde and looked like a Lithuanian rather than a Jew. Secondly, I could speak Lithuanian fluently and thirdly, I was familiar with the surroundings as I used to travel from Linkuva to Shavel through that area. It was my plan to get out of the city and make for the woods.
I saw from a distance that the exit from the city was blockaded and I was uncertain as to what to do. A Lithuanian farmer with two horses and a cart filled with bags of flour passed by. He was half drunk. I asked him for a lift to which he readily agreed. I hid myself in the flour and he took me through out of the city. When we had gone a safe distance from the city, I jumped off the cart and went in to the woods. I then hid in the woods and lived on berries at first. Fortunately I had some money and so I bought bread, meat and eggs from the people in houses around the forest. One day after two weeks I saw soldiers crossing the highway that went to Riga. I recognised them as being Russian soldiers. I made myself known to them and they took me to a town about 20kms. from Shavel where they gave me food. I wanted to fight against the Nazis together with them.
They told me that when they liberate Shavel, I would have to go to the city and report to the Commander and be trained to be a soldier otherwise I would not last long. I was
happy with that and, a few days later, when they liberated Shavel, I did exactly that. I met Hillel Blecher there. He was from Linkuva and knew sheet-metal work. So, I told them I was a sheet-metal worker although in reality I knew nothing about it. Because of this I was given exemption from going to the front although I was trained to be a soldier and I worked as a sheet-metal worker under the tuition of Hillel Blecher. I lived with Hillel Blecher in a flat in Shavel. By the time my training as a soldier was completed the war had ended.
POST-WAR YEARSMy policy was to keep a low profile and to be unnoticed. The Russians wanted me to learn at the KGB school but, I pretended to be stupid. Some who were liberated pushed themselves forward and looked to become managers. One of these went back to the shtetl from where he came and was made a manager of a wheat storage and supply depot. Some of the workers stole from there and when the authorities found supplies to be short, he was blamed and went to jail for three years. Another one of the liberated Jews joined the KGB and served with them from 1944 to 1946.
I stayed in Shavel and worked as a sheet-metal worker until the autumn of 1946. Then I went to Vilna with Hillel Blecher and continued to live with him. I met my wife, Luba, in May 1947. Although it was generally the custom for people to marry within a few weeks of deciding to do so, we had no place to live and we only married in June 1948. We were full of hope for the future. All we required in order to be happy were each other, food, clothing and a roof over our heads As a tradesman I could not be rich but we managed to have the necessities. We stood in a queue for everything but there were no serious shortages of basic requirements. Our two children were born in Vilna, Zalman in 1949 and Shulamit in 1954.
Although Lithuania was then under Russian rule, Lithuanian nationality was recognised. Some of the Lithuanians were arrested for war crimes but after half a year there was an amnesty and all these prisoners were released. They literally got away with murder and laughed in our faces. We knew that if they would have the opportunity they would repeat their crimes. How much justice is there in the world? I tried to find surviving relatives but was unsuccessful.
My wife, Luba was born in a shtetl called Lyntup which was about 100kms. from Vilna. At the time she was born this part of Lithuania (including Vilna) was part of Poland. Luba thus had Polish citizenship and this enabled us to go to Poland. Luba's brother lived in Warsaw and we moved there and stayed with him for 4 months. We could not get permission to stay in Warsaw for a longer time so we moved to Lodz. We knew an official and thus managed to get a flat in which to live. It was not pleasant to live in Poland. We felt afraid there. In December 1957 we made aliyah (immigrated to Israel).
We lived in Beersheva and then moved to Tel Aviv. I could not take the hot and humid climate there so we moved to South Africa in December 1966 where we have been ever since.