A special thank you to Eli Dadouch and other friends from our congregations who urged me to share my story of survival. Only survivors can fully understand my story. The rest of you can only imagine the horrors.
My name is Abby Beker I was born in a small town in Lithuania called Josvainiai. I’m a Litvak. The town had about 150 Jewish families, approximately 350 people. Life was very primitive, with no electricity or running water.
The synagogue. Our community was like one big family and everybody was always there to help out one another. My father was a merchant in cattle and lumber, and my mother was a very learned person she spoke Hebrew, German, Russian, and Yiddish. I have two sisters. The older, Rachel, is living here in Toronto, and my younger sister, Judy, lives in Santa Barbara. I attended a Jewish school where I learned about Jewish studies and the Torah. When my father died in 1938, life was very difficult but we were able to sustain ourselves. At this time my mother decided to move to Kovna, where she and my older sister would be able to find work.
In 1940 the Russians occupied Lithuania, I remember being in the street with my mother watching the Russian army marching into Kovna. Within a month, they had closed all the Jewish schools, the Slobodka Yeshiva, and all synagogues. We were sent to regular schools, and in the beginning of June they sent our school to a summer camp near the German border called Palnga. We were there only two weeks before the war began with Germany. On June 22, 1941 at 4 am, we woke up to the sounds of a big bombardment. Nobody knew what was going on and everybody started running towards Riga, Latvia along the Baltic Sea.
By noon the Germans overtook us and marched us back to the camp. All the Jewish kids were very frightened. I was determined to try and flee the camp as I listened to the Lithuanian kids talk about what the Germans had in store for us. In the middle of the night I snuck out from the camp. It took me five days and 5 nights to walk and partially hitch-hike to reach Kovna, which was 240 kilometers away. I was living in barns and begging for food from the farmers. When I arrived, I fell into my tearful mother’s arm, who never expected to see me again.
I soon found out that the Jewish boys that stayed in the camp were betrayed by the non – Jewish children and were selected by the Germans and subsequently killed.
The Jews of Kovna were in a state of panic. Before the Germans came into Kovna, the Lithuanian fascists had already murdered 10,000 Jews. We also heard that everyone in the small town where our extended family lived was killed. Four years ago, I visited Lithuania, and was taken to the sight of the massacre. There I stood on a hillside, my aunts, uncles, and cousins buried beneath me.
In August, the Germans decided that all the remaining 28,000 Jews should be moved to the Slobodka ghetto, which was a very small area of primitive housing and no running water. Life in the ghetto was hell; three families were settled in one room. Everybody over the age of 15 had to go to the assembly square and was assigned work.
On October 29, 1941, we were woken up at 5 am by the SS and the Lithuanian guards, and were forced to assemble in the square for “selection.” Ten thousand Jewish children, mothers and fathers were taken to the Ninth Fort and killed. The officer who ran the selection was Helmut Rauca. After the war he lived in Toronto. He was exposed in 1980 and it took the authorities 3 years to send him back to Germany to be tried as a war criminal. However, he died before his trial.
While living in the Kovna ghetto, I was assigned to work in the rubber factory by the name of Inkaras. We were making rubber boots for the German army. I joined the underground resistance movement in the ghetto. I only knew one other person in the movement. It was important to keep our identity a secret in order to protect one another in case we were caught.
One day a young woman came to me and told me about a Jewish policeman in the ghetto who was working with the Germans. The Germans came in and seized all the small children they could find. 43 children were still hidden in a bunker. This policeman gave away the hiding place to the Germans and the children were killed immediately. We knew that we had to eliminate this policeman. Three of us were assigned by the underground to this task. We did not know one another; we just knew what had to be done. We knew that he worked every night until midnight; we met just before his shift ended and waited for him to come out. When he came out we jumped him and threw him down a well. At the age of 15, I carried out what I was ordered to do, but I have lived with the memory ever since. This memory has caused nightmares which wake me in the middle of my sleep.
Life in the ghetto became unbearable, we had very little food. I used to sneak out in the evenings to try and bring back some food for my mother and sisters. I was not afraid of getting caught because as long as I removed the yellow star from my clothes, I did not look Jewish. One day I was caught in the ghetto and taken to the railway station where I was put in a cattle car. It was winter and the snow was piled up on the sides of the train. We all knew that this was a journey that we would not return from. We moved over to the window which was covered in barbed wire and found a 2 x 4. When the train began to move we ripped off the barbed wire and broke through the window. Nine of us jumped out from the window and only four of us survived. The Germans had machine guns on the train and as soon as we jumped through the window they gunned down five of us. A bullet grazed my back and I still have a scar as a reminder of that day. The four of us who survived went back to the ghetto.
In June 1944 the Russian front came close to Kovna. The Germans decided to liquidate the Kovna ghetto. The remaining survivors were put in cattle cars on trains headed for Germany. The first stop was Stutfoff, where the women and children were taken off the train. That was the last time that I saw my mother. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after the war that I found out that my mother had been gassed in the Stutoff concentration camp.
The train continued with the men to the Dachau camp. The Dachau camp had 11 satellite camps; we were assigned to camp number 1. We lived 50 people in a barrack under horrible conditions. Hunger and disease ran rampant throughout the camp. Every night the people who died were put outside of the door and the corpses were collected in the morning. Every day there was a wagon full of corpses.
One incident in particular I will never forget. Starvation and disease were the main causes of death in the camps. I saw them bring in a truck full of potatoes for the kitchen and throw them down a chute. I decided that I would go and get some potatoes to eat. I snuck out in the middle of the night, thinking that the potatoes would be right on top of the crate. This was not the case as they had shoved the potatoes further down. I opened the cellar door to get the potatoes and fell down inside. I remember I began eating the raw potatoes while filling my pockets. Climbing out was another matter. It was a straight, flat surface however; somehow I managed to get out by digging my nails into the wall and using every ounce of my strength; I ended up having to empty my pockets. I could hear the Germans yelling because they could hear noises coming from the cellar. I jumped out and ran back to my barrack and covered myself fearing I had been caught. I came very close to death, as the day before they hung a person for stealing potatoes.
In January 1945, things in the camps got very bad and we hardly had any food. I began to lose my will to live. 50,000 inmates from all the satellite camps were assigned to work on a project building a huge underground ammunition factory. During this time a German surveyor saved my life. He took me into his hut and gave me bread and soup, which revived me. He kept me there for three weeks helping me regain my strength. I helped him with the surveying for the project.
One day a transport from Hungry arrived bringing in hundreds of Hungarian Jews. We were veterans from the ghettos and more adjusted to the miserable life in the camps. The Hungarian Jews died by the hundreds as they could not cope with the conditions in the camp. One day the German surveyor brought a young Hungarian man back with him. I asked this young man his name and he told me that he was a Rothschild from Hungary. He died three days later in my arms because he did not want to live.
As the allied forces began coming closer to Dachau, the Germans assembled all the inmates from the satellite camps to the principle camp in Dachau. On April 28, 1945, after enduring the routine violence, overwork and starvation of camp life we were forced to march out of Dachau on what is now known as the “Death March”. When we left Dachau, we were 10,000 inmates. Many people who were too weak or ill from life in the camp died along the way. Food was scarce, so we ate anything that we could find on the side of the road. At night they made us sleep on the mountains. Due to the snow and cold many people never made it through the night. Their snow covered bodies would lie frozen until morning.
On May 8th early in the morning, I remember waking up to a rumble. As I opened my eyes I realized that the SS guards were gone and I saw an American tank. We could not believe that we had survived the Holocaust. Of the 10,000 who left Dachau, only 1,100 of us survived. We were taken to Munich to a camp called Artileri Kazerne, which was run by UNRRA. A small group of Jewish Lithuanian boys wanted out of Germany. We found an American truck depot and decided to take a truck and drive to Italy. During our journey on the top of the Tyrol Mountains the brakes in the truck failed. How we got to the bottom of the mountain alive, I will never know.
We managed to make it to the town of Modena where UNRRA was helping out all of the refugees. The Italian people were very kind and helpful when we arrived. While in Modena, a representative from the Olivetti factory came and invited five of us to come to Ivrea where the factory was located and learn the mechanics of typewriters.
The Olivettis were an assimilated Jewish family, who were determined to help the Jewish refugees. They found out that I spoke Hebrew and invited me to teach their grandchildren Hebrew. That was a very special time in my life as I was living in luxury, as they were a very wealthy family.
In 1947 I was very happy to find out that my sisters survived the war and had escaped from Stutoff during the liquidation of the camp. By sheer coincidence, my good friend with me also had a sister who had been liberated along with my sisters in Denmark. I found this out 1 ½ years after the war.
In 1948, Canada, through the Jewish congress, gave us visas to immigrate to Canada. We left Genoa in March 1948 on a boat by the name of Nea Hellas. I chose Toronto because it was near Lake Ontario and I liked swimming. We arrived in Toronto on March 22nd, 1948, during a record snow storm. Life in Toronto for newcomers was not easy, especially when we could not speak English. I spoke many languages but I did not speak English. I did my best to study very hard and eventually life became more tolerable. I was very lucky when I met my wife Simmie and after a period of romancing, we got married in 1951. Life has been very good to us. We have two sons and a daughter, all married, six grandchildren and one great grandchild. We have had much nachas from our family.
I want to thank everyone for coming here tonight. Especially a couple of my friends who were in Italy with me together, we have remained lifelong friends. Also here tonight is my good friend Eli Gotz who was in the Kovna ghetto and Dauchau camp with me.
In conclusion, I am very grateful to be one of the fortunate 10 percent of Lithuanian Jews to escape with my life. When I had the opportunity to visit Dachau with my wife Simmie and our grandchildren, Kelly and Dennis, a few years ago, it gave me a small bit of gratification to see that in the end Hitler didn’t win out. My legacy will be my children and grandchildren who keep the continuity of Jewish values that I was raised with. I am asking the Jewish community to please make a part of your children’s education at home and at school, the studies of the Holocaust. Let’s not have those 6 million murdered Jewish souls be forgotten.