Interview with Mrs. Gila Shoham nee Teitelbaum
Ramat Gan, Israel
4th December 2007
The Vilkaviskis that I remember
We lived on the street that was on the way to Virbalis - our house contained four rooms.
I think that there must have been between 6000 to 7000 Jews that lived in Vilkaviskis before the war - besides those that were killed, some had escaped and some were deported by the Russians before the German invasion.
There where two Gymnasiums in Vilkaviskis, the Gymnasium Ivri which was founded in 1919. The founders where: Rabbi Grin, Chnelvsky, Ratner, Zilber, Rabinovitz, Glickson and my grandfather Mr. Teitelbaum. It was a two storied building - on the upper story was the Gymnasium Ivri and on the ground floor was the ORT trade school. This was a fee paying school and those who had difficulty would pay a reduced fee and those who could not afford to pay received free tuition.
The discipline was very strict, we had a school uniform with skirt, apron and of course a hat. Our hats were violet whilst the Lithuanian Gymnasium wore brown hats. We had to each keep a garden and every week our teachers would come and inspect both our garden and the state of our room.
On the school noticeboard were published the list of films that we were allowed to see [there where two or three cinemas in Vilkaviskis] We of course wanted to see the movies that were forbidden. To see these I would dress up in my grandmother's clothes and would carry a compact so that I could see if any teachers were coming to check the audience. The teachers where allowed in free so that they could check of these illegal attendees.
Shops were in many cases very small structures - just one smallish room where the goods were displayed on wooden shelves - and in the back was a smaller room where other merchandise was stored. In most cases prices were not marked on the goods and it was quiet normal for people to bargain about each item purchased.
However much of the fresh produce we would buy at the market which took place every Tuesday and Friday.
Butter, Fruit, Vegetables, Cheese and Meat.
Besides that there were products that where delivered to our door, for instance milk - here we would leave a metal container outside the door and the milkman would fill it up; by the way nobody locked their doors.
If you bought a large amount of vegetables - the Lithuanian peasant would also deliver them to your door.
Every house had a well, and most people kept ducks and geese and some people kept cows as well. I could never take our ducks and geese to be slaughtered.
Workshops were also very small affairs - for instance the Matz families produced hats - they had a small house with five rooms and one of these rooms was used as a workshop where the two people worked. The felt was moistened in the kitchen. They produced hats for both summer and winter - most of the hats were sold to the Christians.
Some figures from the 1997 booklet marking 300 Years of Vilkaviskis
1] In 1797 there was a total population of 2077 - 1050 of these were Jewish
2] In 1897 the total population of Vilkaviskis was 5788 - the population breakdown was as follows: 3445 were Jewish
800 were Lithuanian
530 were Russian
535 were German
And 330 were Polish
3] In 1914 61% of the population was Jewish
1940 The Russian Occupation
When Eastern Europe was divided between Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union, the Baltic States fell under Russian domination. We felt this when a Russian Officer and his wife and child where billeted in our house. My father ensured that they were well treated and this was later to save my life.
Its important to remember that when the Russians occupied Lithuania in 1940 and Lithuania lost its independence and became part of the Soviet Union, many of the cadres of the new administration were Jewish. When the collectivization program began it was in many cases these Jewish cadres that went into the villages and demanded that the peasants hand over their produce. As you can imagine this caused an even deeper hatred towards everything Jewish.
When the war began -at around 6.00 am on June ??we heard much noise and on going outside I saw that all the telephone lines had been cut.
The Lithuanians who had come to church on the previous Sunday told of how there were German "tourists" living with them - apparently German troops had crossed the border in plain clothes prior to the invasion and we involved both in reconnaissance and sabotage before the attack on the Soviet Union began.
The Russian Officer told us that there had been "a border incident" but that in an hour a truck would come and evacuate his family and that we were all welcome to join his family [as we had treated them so well]. Unfortunately my grandmother was almost wheel chair bound and my mother said that it would be impossible to take her. My mother insisted that I go - we had relations in Moscow, Leningrad and in ?????. Although I did not speak Russian my mother wrote down their addresses, I packed a small suitcase and my mother gave me her gold watch which she wore on a chain.
The truck arrived and we left Vilkaviskis about one hour before the German army arrived - We traveled in the direction of Mariampol and had to change direction several times as we were constantly being shot at. Finally we arrived in Kovno at around 8.00 am. I remember that there were crowds moving around and we deposited in a small wood where we were given food and drink. Later we were taken to the train station and here we boarded at goods train - at every stop we were asked if needed food or water. The plan was to travel to Vilna but by now the city was being bombed. The next stop was at Dvinsk - here I got off the train and ran to the telegraph office - I wanted to send a telegram to my parents - but I was told that the town had already been occupied by the Germans and that it was ablaze.
The train continued on its journey and we crossed the old border and entered the Soviet Union. The train stopped at the town of Pskov, here lived my grandmother and apparently the wife of the Russian officer decided that she had had enough of looking after me and insisted that I leave the train and find my grandmother. It was 5.30 a.m. the train station was deserted and I remember standing in the courtyard looking at the tram lines. I spoke no Russian and all I had was the note that my mother had written with my grandmother's address. I was dressed in clothes that were obviously not Russian. At last a woman appeared and I managed to explain that I needed to to find my grandmother's house. As in so many cases I found that the Russian people were so kind hearted - this woman took me by the hand and led me to my grandmothers house.
The house was rather dilapidated and my grandmother lived on the second floor - I knocked on the door and when they asked who was there I could only say "Gillingcia" as I said I spoke no Russian. When they opened the door they were of course so very surprised to see me - they knew of my existence but we had never met, we were able to converse in Yiddish. They asked me where my parents were? And I told them that they would arrive shortly.
As I had no documents they told me that I would have to go to the police station to get the necessary documentation. Whilst I was at the police station I saw or was told that the government was arranging the evacuation of certain categories of the population. Among the categories were refugees and that we were entitled to be evacuated. I tried to persuade my family that we should leave but they refused saying that the war would never get this far.
After a week with my grandparents - by this time the town had come under constant air attack - one of the neighbors who had a horse and wagon decided he could no longer stand the situation and was leaving and I said that I would join him. There was only one road east and this road was crammed with refugees fleeing east and wounded military personnel and tanks and other military vehicles moving west. The road was constantly under air attack and for so many times I remember how we would scatter and throw ourselves on the ground. I also remember being able to see these small attack airplanes and would watch as they shot at the rows of helpless refugees.
During one of these air raids we are scattered as usual but after the attack I was unable to find the "neighbor with the wagon" I found my self alone with another Russian girl and for the next week we survived alone in the forest until we came across a truck carrying Russian injured soldiers to the east. They saw the state of my dress and gave me a white military"coat" to cover myself. We had barely eaten anything.
They took us to a collection point for refugees - there to my surprise I met a man from Vilkaviskis, Mr. Belabotski [he had been dental technician and worked with Mr. Ziskind]. Although I was incredibly hungry - they gave us a water, cereal and sausage - I had been brought up in a very religious home and despite my hunger I was unable to eat the sausage - when those around me saw that I was not eating the sausage - they thought that I was crazy. I gave Mr. Belabotski the address of my family in Moscow and he took me there.
After completing my studies in 1943 we [a group of girls who had escaped from Vilkaviskis] were taken to Molotov [today Perim] in the Urals - here we studied to be military nurses - and in July 1944 I found myself with the advancing Russian military forces in Mariampol I asked permission from my officer to visit Vilkaviskis - I had no idea of the fate of my family.
When I arrived in Vilkaviskis I discovered the fate of my family and of the entire Jewish community. I was taken to the site of the Aktion - it was a terrible sight - there were so many human remains - hair and bones still scattered around - I was told that the Lithuanians had been searching for gold teeth.
I visited the site of my parent's house - it had been destroyed during the war but there were Lithuanians living in a temporary structure - they said that if I wanted the land back they would leave - but I said that they could take the land as I had no intention of coming back.
After the War
[I am not sure where this takes place Vilna?]
My aunt and uncle who had looked after me in Moscow - gave me one piece of advice: "Always keep your mouth closed - you don't know the rules here in the U.S.S. R.Ó
I was not sure what I wanted to do, and a friend suggested that I go with him to Poland and from there to the U.S.A. but I had decided that I wanted to stay and continue my studies. It was the 25th of December 1945 - he gave me his student I.D. and his other papers and told me that if he managed to escape I should tear them up.
A couple of weeks later - it would have been the 6th January 1946 and again suggested that I should leave. He gave me a contact address - this was opposite the headquarters of the K.G.B but I decided to go. It turned that here was operating secretly representatives of the Jewish Agency. I was told that they had trucks leaving tomorrow and they had a spare place. They told me that it would cost money - but if I could not afford it they would still take me.
The following night at 12 midnight we met - there were 80 of us. We had not traveled far when we were shot at. The first truck stopped and we were told "tear up your false documents and run for it"
We jumped out of the trucks dispersed and ran for cover and was could hear them searching for us. The following day we decided to return to Vilna, which turned out to be a very big mistake. We hitched a ride in a truck going to Vilna - it was a Sunday and the driver was a Lithuanian going to church. On the outskirts of Vilna we stopped at a K.G.B. roadblock. They wanted to know where we were going and to see our papers - we off course had none. What gave us away was the blood on my dress. When I had been in the truck the girl next to me had been wounded and I had not noticed that from her wound the blood had seeped on to my clothes, the game was up.
We were taken to the K.G.B. interrogation center and there I met Abraham Kaganski and Mr. Balberiskis. I should have told them that I was an orphan looking for my family - but these are things that you learn afterwards. I received a two year sentence, six months in the K.G.B. cells and a further 18 months in Siberia
After serving my sentenced in Siberia I returned to Vilna in January 1948 and lived with a friend who was also a nurse.
In June 1948 my friend told me that they [the K.G.B.] were again rounding up anyone who had served time in Siberia and that it was unsafe for me to go to work. She checked at my place of work and had heard that they had been looking for me.
I had relations with whom I could stay so late at night I dressed as an old woman and went to see them - they hid me for a while until things had quieted down. Then I took at a train, always using slower less comfortable trains as they were less likely to be searched, to Byelorussia and then onto my uncle in Moscow.
He was of course very shocked to see me, and again he insisted that I take care. He helped me receive a new identity card and then I moved again to my family in Leningrad. I had no money and wanted to go to work to support myself but my uncle insisted that I continued with my studies. With the help of other friends I obtained the necessary documents to study medicine and was accepted to a medical university some 80 km from Moscow. During all of my studies I was constantly afraid that my "past" would be discovered. Fortunately it never was, I completed my studies and on receiving the news that I had passed my final examinations I bought myself some new clothes and sent a telegram to my uncle - the uncle who had insisted that I go and study.