Memory Office: R. Bloch
A 1930 Kaunas-born Litvak Roza Gapanavičiūtė Bloch talks about her family's experience during the Second World War in Kaunas ghetto, and later - in the Stutthof concentration camp. The Holocaust took almost all her loved ones - mother Anna, father Markus, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins... Roza ran across her brother Boris in the empty Laisvės Alėja in Kaunas, where she returned to after the war.
She has started a family in Kaunas but once given an opportunity, Rosa left for Israel. It was more than 48 years ago. She‘s been living in Israel ever since.
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I had lived a very happy life had a bright childhood. It was over when the Nazis occupied Lithuania and suddenly, I found myself in a very, very difficult and fearful environment. I had to re-start my living.
Soon after Lithuania was occupied, it became dangerous for Jews to appear on the streets. If they were recognized as Jews, they were immediately arrested and, in groups, taken to VII Fort in Kaunas. And killed. Therefore, Jews couldn‘t walk on the streets. They had to stay at home waiting for change. In the meantime, the same murderers were looking for all sorts of ways to harm Jews, how to arrest and kill them. They decided to look for more places where Jewish people lived in groups. They were shooting people through the windows of their own apartments. That is what happened to the brothers of my mother. They were accused of participating in the shootings on their own apartments. They were arrested. One of their sons as well. They were taken directly to VII Fort and killed.
I was a blonde 11-year-old girl. I didn‘t look like a Jew. So, I‘ve decided to get closer to people. To listen. I was a liaison between my family and relatives. This gave me an opportunity to do grocery shopping, bring food, help everyone. Help those who couldn‘t do it themselves because they were Jews and were afraid to go out to the streets. My grandparents lived on Vytautas Avenue, near Lietūkis garage. Once, when I was getting food for my grandparents, I heard a terrible, inhuman scream. I couldn‘t understand what side was it coming from. I tried to get closer to the source of that scream. As I was approaching, I could not quite grasp what I was seeing.
The whole backyard of Lietūkis garage was bloody, filled up with blood... The assassins tried to kill people in all possible ways. One of the most dreadful ways was blowing up people alive using a strong stream of water. People screaming... I saw it with my own eyes. Even though so many years have passed, I cannot recover from it. It was the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen, people exploding alive. Simultaneously, they didn‘t only blow people up, they‘ve also tortured people in various ways...
This was happening during that period when arbitrary actions were still going on. There were no instructions from Germans: how and what to do with the Jews. This is how my next life began. When Lithuania was fully occupied, the Germans had issued orders.
First, all Jews must attach a hexagonal star on the front and back, for everyone to see – that is a Jew.
Second, Jews cannot walk on the sidewalks, only streets. Along with horses and other transportation. That way we were no longer human. From then on, we became some sort of a special tool that can be used for all kinds of cases and that has no right to object. Even dogs could walk on the sidewalk but we couldn‘t... Can you imagine how it must have felt when we became such underrated people? That‘s one of those moments that had a strong impact on people‘s psychology. My parents struggled a lot, they collapsed after this. You know, everyone deals with it differently.
Third, it was decided to move all Jews away from home to one small area. To Vilijampolė, where the ghetto was established. It was established on both sides. Panerių Street over the bridge is where the small ghetto was, and ours - was the big one. The ghetto became a place of Jewish imprisonment: with guards, dogs, and a barbed-wire fence. Each one of us had to leave our apartments and things behind. Each had a little suitcase and had been moved to one room; there were four of us, my parents and brother. They would guard us to forced labor every day. My parents collapsed; they could not work. I had to do it instead of them, to cover their norms.
Our family was starving. I was growing up; Being eleven, I was constantly hungry. One night, I‘ve decided to go under a barbed-wire fence. My whole body was clothed with sackcloths. There were guards and dogs everywhere. But I was lucky enough to crawl under the fence and reach the garden. People, who were free, they grew beets there. I would fill those bags around me with beets and would crawl back to the ghetto. When I think of it now, wasn‘t I afraid at all? After all, I knew that if I get caught, death will await me. Apparently, starvation was stronger than the awareness of death... I would come back home, and we had a feast - we cooked beets - all of us had something to eat. That was our life in the ghetto.
The Germans then began to consider reducing the number of Jews in the ghetto. The first campaign was dedicated to Intellectuals. The Germans had announced that intellectuals, who can do a variety of jobs will be able to improve their living conditions; will be able to do skilled work. Those who were interested were encouraged to voluntarily come to a certain place and introduce themselves at a certain time. People did not grasp the purpose of this campaign. Even more, people came than expected. All of them were taken away and killed. The German campaign went well.
The second campaign was in 1941 on October 28. It was announced that everyone should come to Democrats Square at 6 a.m. Nobody knew the reason. Soldiers searched the houses, looking for the one, who might have tried hiding. Those who were found were brought to the rest of us by force. Eight in a row. It was me, my parents, my brother, my grandparents, my aunt, and my cousin. I remember there was a huge table. There were four German officers behind. Pointing out. Four to the right, four to the left. No one knew what‘s the difference, what‘s the purpose. Nobody knew where the good and bad side was. Once it was our turn, the four of us were sent to the right, grandparents, cousin, and aunt to the left. We parted.
Eventually, in the evening, when the allocation was done, all those who were sent to the left were transferred to the small ghetto. In the morning, as we watched, 10,000 people were taken to IX Fort; pits had already been prepared; they were all shot in one day. This is one of the Great campaigns. No one knew where they were being taken, what was the purpose. And that‘s what happened.
Prior to the Children’s Campaign, there was a hospital in the small ghetto. The Germans decided that it should be liquidated. Hence, they burned the entire small area along with the hospital and the sick, the doctors - with all the people who lived there. Loosened it up. Not a sign left, of what was there before.
We continued our life in the ghetto. After some time, the terrible Children's Campaign that I’ve mentioned before happened. It is very hard to talk about it. Adults were taken to work, while children, the elderly, and the sick remained. As well as other people who could no longer work. The Germans ordered everyone to get out of their houses. There were lots of children who were still babies, who had to be supported... The image of tearing children away from their mothers, from their grandmothers, by force... Throwing them into a vehicle. Heart-breaking. You cannot imagine people turning into beasts. There were lots of women who wanted to climb into that vehicle together with their kids. They did not allow. That is how many children, the elderly, the sick died. Took them to camps, to Auschwitz, to death...
As the Soviet army began to approach Lithuania, it was decided to take all those who remained in the ghetto to concentration camps in Germany. I was amongst them. In 1944 July 14, Kaunas ghetto was burned down. And we were all taken to Germany. I was put into the Stutthof concentration camp. Men got separated and sent to Dachau. Life there was even "sweeter". I had to get through that period as well. I have survived when they have freed everyone in the camps. I returned from Germany, passed the famous Death march, where along the way, people pastured us from one place to another. Those, who could not keep standing – went down - got shot. [Death marches - when depleted prisoners in very difficult conditions were pastured away from the front by the SS guards, while those who could no longer walk - were shot on the spot.] We were brought to a barn, cows were banished. For a couple of weeks, we had to stay there without food, without “living”. Dead people were not "taken out" of there, we were lying together with the dead. We were all sick, unconscious. A day came when we could no longer recognize the day from the night... Neither did we want or could live any longer. One day, the barn gate opened. A Russian soldier on a white horse said, “Tavarišči, vi vobodny. Vsio, što zdies vy navyžyte - knam. ”- “You are free, you can go, take whatever you want. ” But no one had any energy to get up. The ambulance arrived, took us out. That is how I managed to stay alive.
A 13-year-old girl without a family, without anything. I returned to Kaunas, to home. I though my home is there...
My father was killed when we were separated in a concentration camp in Germany. My brother did manage to survive. He managed to get out while we were in transit. He was two years older than me.
From the Ghetto we had been taken to Camp in Palemonas, to work there for a year. We had lived there in terrible conditions. We were loading bricks, which were produced and burned there. After burning, we had to load them off the stove. I had a carrier on my back; they would fill it with bricks, and I would carry them to a wagon, there was a man who was unloading the bricks. There, many Russians, together with children, were brought from the Soviet Union to work. We knew Russian. My brother made a Russian friend there. He told him, “I can help you. Leave them all behind and I will help you escape.” When we were told that we will be going to Germany, that friend offered my brother to stay. He told us that my brother will not be returning to the ghetto with us. They were counting us at the brickyard - one person was missing. They were asking, which family is missing a person. We were silent. They would ask again. Silence. My brother was looking at us, as I was looking at him, trying to show him - just do not go, stay there. We did not want any of us to suffer. Three of us left. We were taken to die, and I thought to myself, let it be, at least my brother will stay alive... There were lots of good coincidences in my life. I was taken and had to be shot for in total three times. All those three times it did not happen. We were already raising our hands; brother sees that and wants to run to us... But suddenly some officer comes up and says, "Don't shoot."
My brother had stayed with that friend, we went to Germany; he walked through the woods, to Minsk. He got caught there, they thought he was a traitor. Called him a Jew. My brother spoke good English, he explained that he had escaped. They brought him to see a general who was Jewish. So, he remained and did serve as his adjutant. He was one of the first ones to occupy Lithuania. He was brought to the ghetto and told, “You know the place, tell me what happened here.” But my brother was so broken, he couldn‘t say a word. The general went there himself. He ran into a mine which exploded. While my brother survived.
My brother did not know I was alive, I did not know he was alive. We both returned to Kaunas. There was a religious organization that kept the records of all the survivors. They are telling me: “Gapanavičiūtė? Gapanavičius was here.” Brother! I am walking through Laisvės Alėja, looking in all directions, looking around. I was looking at him, he was looking at me. He is in military clothes. "Roza!" That is how we met.
When I returned to Kaunas, I‘ve started my life again. By all means. I cannot forget what I have been through. It is not possible. When I think of it, I was just a kid, but I was never afraid of anything. Any work. I spend a year in Kaunas cleaning outhouses. Because there was no other way, I did want to eat. I did not want to sit and wait for something. I was trying, studying because there was a four-year break. I took exams externally. I got into Kaunas politechnical institute [now - Kaunas University of Technology], I‘ve finished it. I had a job in Šančiai, Požėla conditery factory, in a machine tool factory later.
I‘ve started a family. At home, I‘ve tried to tell everything I had gone through. To let my kids know. And whenever I could, I would talk about it. A lot of people can‘t even comprehend, how this could have happened. To kill people just because they are Jews. I want the history to be truthful. A lot of people who have not been through it are trying to tell it, but those stories are not accurate. I am happy to be alive and be able to tell it. I do that voluntarily. There are only a few people like this left. It is very important for me to do that. Even in Lithuania, where it took place, people know little. Not everyone agrees to speak about it. It was painful and fresh for a very long time.
I was in Kaunas on the day of commemorating the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the ghetto [2019 July 14]. I could not believe I was in a place that was covered with blood. I could not believe I was there alive, after so many years... Everything I've been through is hard to imagine. But I always thought I had to look forward, no stopping along the way.
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In October 2019 Roza had testified in the case of a former SS officer who was accused of being involved in the massacre of thousands of Stutthof prisoners. To listen more about this, here (audio in English).