Paulina Zingeriene is both regal and dainty all at the same time. At the age of 88, she is as comely as a young girl. For our interview, she is dressed in a pressed white blouse and a tailored skirt. A pearl necklace peeks out from just beneath her collar. Her hair is dyed a stylish auburn and falls straight to just above her collar. Her make-up is understated, just a touch of lipstick and something around the eyes. There is a certain fragility to her, an ephemeral quality. As we speak, Paulina keeps her hands folded in her lap and her eyes fixed steadily on mine. No matter how difficult the talk gets, her voice remains soft, measured, and always polite both to me and to the memory of those who were lost as well as to her tormentors. There is a marked respect for humanity in the telling of her story and the timbre of her voice. Something, I feel our generation may have lost. At times Paulina is forced to pause until the tears pass.
“I am Paulina Zingeriene. I was born in Kaunas on March 29, 1922. I studied in a Lithuanian Gymnasium in the Lithuanian language from the first class until I finished high school. We spoke Yiddish at home and Lithuanian at school. I had Lithuanian girlfriends and Jewish girlfriends both. I did not feel any difference among them. Everyone I came in contact with, my teachers, my peers, people in my neighborhood, treated me the same as anyone else. I did not experience anti-Semitism personally before the war. I led a happy life.
“In Lithuanian Gymnasium there were three of us Jewish girls. We were treated like everyone else. We had to go to religion class. The priest would say, very respectfully, whoever chooses, may leave the class. Well, that was a free class for me and my two girlfriends. But no one said anything to us about it. Then, three days a week the Rabbi would come after lessons and he would teach us separately.
“Our family had lived in Lithuania for many generations. My mother was born in Šakiai. My grandfather was born in Kražiai, in Žemaitija, his father was too.
“My father was a clockmaker. He had his own workshop. My mother didn’t work. Our lifestyle was middle class. We weren’t rich, but we were comfortable. We had enough of everything.
“I completed my high school studies on the same day the war began. School ended for me on a Saturday and the following day, Sunday, the war began. We were standing in the yard discussing where we would hold our graduation ceremony. A boy from my class and I were talking. The German planes hadn’t arrived yet, just the Russian ones. He said, ‘You see, the German planes are flying.’ I said, ‘No, those are Russian planes.’
“Later, the German planes did show up. Our family prepared to run to the Soviet Union. We lived on Savanorių Boulevard. We headed for the train station, but when we arrived we learned that the last train to Russia had already departed. We began walking on foot to Jonava. We hadn’t quite reached Jonava when we ran into a village woman. She said to us, ‘Don’t go to Jonava. The Germans are there already. Go back.’ We listened to her advice and returned to Kaunas. That woman saved us.
“When we’d left home, we’d locked the door. We told the neighbor if we didn’t return in a week, she could take everything we have. We left her the key. We returned in a week and everything was there in our house as we’d left it. It took us a week of walking to go to Jonava and back. On the way back we ran into the Lithuanian rioters, the ones who wore the white armbands, the Baltaraisciai. Where did they come from?
They came out of nowhere. They weren’t communists; they weren’t Nazis. Nobody knew who they were and who organized them. They were low-class people. At the same time there were many good people who wanted to help the Jews. Like the woman in Jonava who saved our lives. But not these Baltaraisciai.
“The Baltaraisciai were arresting Jews. They arrested my uncle and cousins. They took them to the Ninth Fort. There, they shot all the men. My uncle died at that time. They sent the women to the Seventh Fort. From there we were allowed to go home.
“There was an order that all Jews had to report to the ghetto in Vilijampolė by Aug. 15. My aunt was a teacher in Vilijampolė. She lived on Panierių Street. She invited us to come live with her. We moved in with her. The first night we were there, on Aug. 15, they closed the ghetto gates. The Germans said to us, ‘We need 500 men. They must be intellectuals. They will be given work. My other uncle volunteered. My father wanted to volunteer, but my mother said, ‘No, Jacob, I won’t allow it.’ The 500 were taken away in trucks. They never returned. They were all executed. You see, they needed to kill the intellectuals first.
“There was a wooden bridge that led across the street. They ordered us all out into the street. They sent a group into the Ninth Fort and the others remained in the ghetto. We were lucky. They left us women in the ghetto. On Oct. 28 there was another large killing. They herded us into Democrat Square and a German stood in the middle and separated us to the left and to the right. The people who had children were sent to the left and then were taken to the Ninth Fort. Those who could still work were sent to the right. They remained alive. Fewer people were left in the ghetto at that point. My grandfather had been brought from Kražiai to the ghetto. When they chased us out into the square and began dividing us to the right and left, my grandfather said, ‘I won’t go anywhere. I want to die in my bed.’ My father urged him on, ‘Let’s go, they’ll shoot you.’ He still wouldn’t go. The German said, ‘Ordnung ist ordnung’ and they ordered two young Jewish men to take him and toss him into the square. He ended up on the side of life, together with us in the ghetto. One day in the ghetto we noticed that he was lying in his bed, dead. He’d taken some medicine and he died the way he wanted to, peacefully in his bed.
“We went over the wooden bridge to the larger ghetto. We didn’t stay there for long. A few days later, they divided us again. Those sent to the right lived. The ghetto shrunk from 10,000 to 9,000, but who knows the numbers. In the ghetto we had to work. We’d go out in the morning to work at the airport. We dug ditches. We’d receive food once a day. In the ghetto it was better. There was a community. Every family got a little to eat. They’d take us to the airport to work summer and winter. We would have to stand all day long. The German guards would make themselves fires to warm themselves. If you came close to their campfires to get warm, they’d shout, ‘Los, los’, away, away. In the winter it was cold from morning until night. We had small food rations. Still, it was better to be in the ghetto. I remember living squeezed together with my entire family into a small room that was eight square meters.
“One day we saw a train bring in the Jews who were being taken to the Ninth Fort. They were well dressed with portfolio cases and suitcases. They had been brought from Austria. These Austrian Jews politely asked us, ‘Is the Kaunas ghetto far away?’ So we knew, they had been lied to. They thought they’d be brought to the ghetto, but they were brought to the Ninth Fort and they were shot.
“I remember the day they killed the children in the ghetto. All of us adults were out working forced labor. While we were working, the Germans came and collected all the children. They took the children away and they shot them all. When the families came home and found that their children were gone, they began to scream in horror. I have a terrible image in my head of a man slamming his head against the wall because he’d lost his children.
“In the ghetto when they rounded up the children to be shot a second time, there was a German woman who held her little girl to her and refused to let her go. She was the wife of a Jew. When it was time, she went and allowed herself to be shot along with her child. We saw her and how much she loved that child. She would not let her child go to his death alone.When they took the children away, my Aunt Liuba managed to hide her child. When they brought children to the gas chambers in Stutthof, she went along with her child to die.
“We lived in the ghetto until 1944. We worked everywhere: first, at the airport, then later in Šančiai. Then they put us in a concentration camp in Šančiai. When we were in the concentration camp in Šančiai the Lithuanian villagers would sometimes bring us a pot of soup and hand it to us to share. I’d like to tell you an anecdote from that time. One German took me to work in the guard house. He said, ‘You will heat the stove and boil the water.’ It was winter. My coat always hung by the door. I’d have to bring water from outside, from a well about 300 meters away. I’d leave my coat hanging on the wall. One time I went out to get water and I returned and found that my coat was missing. A Lithuanian girl named Janė worked at the concentration camp as a bookkeeper. She had to write down who came to work and who didn’t. She would come to my guard booth to chat with me. One time she came to visit with me and I told her, ‘They stole my coat.’ ‘Wait a minute,’ she said, ‘we’ll get to the bottom of this.’ Later that day, she was out driving with one of the Germans in his car. She saw a girl walking down the street wearing my coat. She recognized that it had to be my coat. No one else in Kaunas had a coat like mine. She said to the German girl, ‘Halt, halt.’ Stop. Stop. She asked the girl, ‘Where did you get that nice coat. I’d like one too.’ The girl said, ‘My uncle gave it to me as a gift.’ ‘What’s your uncle’s last name?’ she asked. The girl, not suspecting a thing, told her the man’s name. The next day she looked over the list and she found the name there. I still remember that last name: Koch. Janė waited for Koch to arrive. She told me that when the officer arrives, I must tell him that this Koch stole my coat. I said to Janė, ‘I’m scared. They’ll shoot me.’ Janė kept pestering me to tell him. Finally, when the officer arrived, I went to him and very shyly said: ‘Ein Man hat mein Mantel gestolen.’ (A man stole my coat).
‘Wer hat dein Mantel gestolen?’ the officer demanded, insisting I tell him the man’s name immediately.
“I told him the name.
‘Hund! Schwein! Dog! Pig!’ the officer shouted.
“He stormed out, went and found the man, and told him, ‘If I don’t see that coat returned to its hook tomorrow, I will shoot you.’
“The next day my coat was back on its hook. Paulina paused in her narration to enjoy a good laugh. ‘That’s order among the Germans. You can shoot a Jew, but you can’t steal from a Jew.’
“Soon after that incident they took our entire family to the concentration camp in Stutthoff. They separated the men from the women. When they separated my father and brother from me and my mother, my father said, ‘If any one of us survives, then our meeting place is in Kaunas.’ They took my father and brother to Dachau. My mother and I were in Stutthoff for three weeks only because they soon sent us out to work.
“One night in Stutthoff this Polish woman who spoke German came into our barracks. We were on our boards sleeping. She poured water all over the floor and began to shout, ‘Whoever spilled that water, go now and lie on it now.’ She made us all get up off our boards and spend the night lying on the wet cement floor. She did it to humiliate us.
“We’d be waiting on line waiting for soup and a soldier would hit us with a baton, and demand we get back in line. They would do things just to humiliate you. They wanted to make you feel as though you were not a human being, but just a number.
“After three weeks they sent us out in winter to dig anti-tank trenches. They took away all our clothing when we got to Stutthoff. When we arrived, we saw a huge pile of shoes. We knew then that all those people had been killed. They gave us prisoner’s clothing. My number was 4400289. They sent us out in the cold to work. We had to wear wooden clogs. You walk and the snow sticks to the clogs. It was hard to walk. You’d get nothing to eat. We’d sleep in tents and then we’d have to work again. The worst thing was the work outdoors, all the time, without food, walking with clogs in the snow. The snow would stick to the clogs and they’d chase you, ‘Los, los, los.’
“When the Germans saw they were losing the war, they herded us out and made us walk God only knows where. That was called the Tod Marsch, the Death March. They made us walk every day without eating. We’d fall. They’d make us stand up and keep marching. From morning they’d make us walk until night. We didn’t have proper clothing, just whatever they tossed at us in Stutthof. We had to walk in the wooden clogs without socks. We walked and had no idea where to. A girl fell down and couldn’t go on. The German soldiers shot her. A lot of people couldn’t walk. We reached the Vistula River. They made us cross the river.
“Walking the Tod Marsch, my cousin said to me, ‘Paula, I can’t go on.’ Her name was also Paulina. She was the same age as me. She was a very pretty girl. Together we went through hell, the ghetto, Stutthoff. Now we were walking the Tod Marsch together. At night we lay in tents or in jails. That night they had us stay in a jail. It was empty except for a few people. These two sisters, the Raimonaitės, both blond with curly hair, found their mother in that jail. We lay down and my cousin said, “I can’t go on. Really.” The entire time we walked, she said to me, ‘I can’t go on.’ I would say, ‘You must go on. They will shoot you. We are still alive. Soon those Germans might be underground.’ I would tell her, ‘We’ll escape, we’ll hide,’ but she’d say no.
“Lying in the jail that night, she said, ‘Look at my feet.’ She took off her clogs and I saw that she had huge blisters on the bottoms of her feet. She said, ‘I can’t walk.’
“Every morning before we began the Tod Marsch, they’d line us up in the square and they’d count us. They’d say to us, ‘Whoever can’t go on will stay here.’ I knew what the Germans did with those who could not go on. They shot them.
“That morning those Raimonaitės said they’d stay behind with their mother. Then my cousin said she’d stay with them too.
“We had one tin bowl that we shared between the two of us. Every once in a while they’d pour soup into the bowl and we’d share it. The soup was so thin, that when they gave us soup with grain, I’d joke, ‘I need a fishing rod to catch that one piece of grain.’
“I said to my cousin, ‘I won’t give you the bowl if you won’t go on.’
‘I don’t need it,’ she said.
Paulina paused. She began to cry. After a moment, she continued:
“I felt so sorry for her I gave her the bowl. We went on and they shot her. Later I searched for her through the Red Cross, but she was dead. They also killed those two sisters who stayed to take care of their mother.
I know from working in the hospital. It all has to do with the will to live. If a patient has the will to live they will overcome their illness, if they don’t have the will to live, they will die. My cousin lost her will to live. If a patient believes, his immunity will be stronger. Everything happens in the brain, not in the heart. It takes intelligence and the power of the mind. You must believe.
“We continued on three or four more days. We reached a town called Hinauf. There was a large barn there. The Germans locked us up in the barn. Every day people died lying on the ground in that barn. A woman lying next to me died. She lay there dead beside me for three days and nobody took her away. This decomposing corpse lay beside me for three days. I was too weak to stand or move. I could not walk anymore. The barn was a horror. Women died all around me. There were no toilets. Everyone defecated underneath themselves, where they lay. Excuse me please, for telling you this, but we all had dysentery. Of all the concentration camps and everything I went through, this barn was the worst hell.
“There was a woman who was strong enough to walk. One day she ran inside the barn and in a wild voice shouted, ‘Women, I saw a Russian tank.’ I said to my sister-in-law, ‘She’s gone mad.’ Another stronger person got up and went to the village to look. Later, we saw a few Russian tank drivers. They came into our barn and said in Russian, ‘Get up. The sanitary units are here.’ My sister-in-law crawled over to me and said, ‘Paula, Paula are you alive?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Hold on, we’re taking you to the hospital.’
“My sister-in-law brought me marinated chicken. I could not eat it. I said, ‘Bring me some snow instead.’”
“There were 500 of us in that barn, but very few of us survived. We were in the barn for three weeks starving under those conditions. The Germans no longer had anywhere to hide themselves. They just left us to die.
“The Russians took me to the hospital. I had frostbite on my toe. I had gangrene. The woman next to me had frost bite up and down her legs. She would scream in pain. It’s very painful you know. They amputated her legs. They wanted to amputate my toe. But a young Polish doctor came. I understood Polish. He said, ‘You are young, we’ll try to save that toe.’ He did, but even now it still hurts. We wanted to leave there, but we couldn’t. The war was still going on. We were in Poland. The Russians took half of us to work. It was horrible. They made us herd the cows from Germany to Russia. On foot. A Russian guard kept watch over us. We were frozen. They did feed us along with the soldiers though. I was afraid of the cows. A Russian soldier said, ‘Go closer to the cows.’ I told him I was afraid of the cows. He said, ‘How will you live if you fear cows? You made it this far as it is, you must keep on living.’
“When the Russians freed us, we took the route through Gardinas back to Lithuania. Along the way, a Russian asked me, ‘How did you stay alive?’ He thought I was a spy. I said, ‘I don’t know. I just did.’ Later in Łódź, a Russian asked, ‘Where are you traveling to?’ People at the time were going to Palestine. I said, ‘We are going to Kaunas.’ He said, ‘Where are you going? You’re going behind the Iron Curtain? Don’t go. You’re crazy.’ I said, ‘No, we made an agreement with our father that if we survived we’d meet in Kaunas.’ He said, ‘No, don’t go. Send a note to Kaunas, but go to the West. You can still get through the wall.’ ‘No, we promised we’d all meet in Kaunas and that’s where we must go.’ We sometimes later regretted that we hadn’t listened to that Russian soldier and that we’d returned to Kaunas. We could have been in the West. We could have seen the world. But we went to Kaunas. I found my brother in Kaunas. The only two to survive from my family were me and my brother.
“My father managed to survive Dachau. He returned to Kaunas and died two weeks later. His heart was weak. He had dysentery. My mother had remained in Stutthoff. I found out by asking around that when the Germans saw they’d lost the War they took her group and put them in a barge and pulled them out into the Baltic Sea with a German boat. American planes from above saw those German boats tugging barges. They bombed the barges. She was killed. There were also Russian prisoners on board the barges. Only two women survived. They swam to shore to tell the story.
“After the war in Kaunas 30 Jews were left. We had 300,000 Jews in Kaunas before the war. All gone. The people who were left after the war soon left for Israel.
“We came back to Kaunas but other people were living in our house. We had no where to go. We were considering whether we ought to the bus station to sleep. We went to the synagogue instead. We found a note there listing the names of Jews who had survived. I found the name of a girlfriend who’d survived by fleeing to Russia. I went to her home and I found her. She was there with her brother. Later, I married her brother. He was three years older than me. That seemed like a lot then. He’d been in the 16th division and had worked in the military commissary. When he asked me to marry him, I told him I’d think about it. I went to my aunt and said, ‘Auntie, Zingeris has proposed to me. What should I do?’ My aunt said, ‘Listen to what your heart tells you. Follow your heart.’ I said, ‘But Auntie, my heart tells me nothing.’ I was completely numb. I couldn’t feel. All I could do was worry about the day to day, about survival. I was like a person after a contusion. But, I thought about how he was from a good family and I decided to take the risk.
“I married and my husband and I went to live in a room in a Lithuanian home. I got pregnant. The people were good to us. The man, Kazys, never let me lift anything or carry the scrap bucket outside.
“After the war in 1947 my son Emmanuel was born. We went to Kaunas then. My husband went to work as a teacher, later he became director of the school. I stayed in Kaunas and raised my son for two years. Then, my second son, Markas, was born.
“We spoke Lithuanian at home. Growing up I spoke Yiddish at home, but my husband didn’t know Yiddish. He had gone to a German school and spoke German. So, our common language was Lithuanian and that was what we spoke at home.
“My father went to the synagogue on Saturdays. My mother kept the traditions. We would keep the door open on holidays, so that if someone came to us hungry, we could feed them. Whoever could would take in Yashiva students. They were poor and from the small towns. We would give them a nice lunch on Saturdays.
I’m not religious. I don’t pray. I never prayed during those war years. I am a realist. I do believe in fate through. I knew that fate could save me. But fate is only fate unless you support it with positive thoughts. I would think that as long as I’m still walking, Hitler might end up underground. I was an optimist. My cousin let down her hands. She could not go on and that was the end of her.
“After my boys were a little older, I started thinking about my studies. I wanted to study medicine in the university. But medical studies took five or six years. What would we live from?
“During the war I’d seen so many children die. I wanted to do something that would help children live. I decided that I would study to become a midwife. Those studies took only three years. I applied and was accepted. After I graduated, I began working in Labor and Delivery Hospital Number 1. I worked there for 47 years, until 1996. I was happy with my occupation. I found it fulfilling, life-sustaining. Bringing babies into the world and caring for infants brought back the balance that had been destroyed by the war.
“We lost so many people during the war. There were so few of us left after the war was over. You could really feel the lack of people. After the war, people had nothing, not even a cup to drink from. Those who were left had to rebuild everything from scratch, from nothing. And their health was ruined, but they had no choice.
“My sons say to me, ‘Mother, no matter what you talk about, you begin talking about the Holocaust.’ I am still very scared. Fear has stayed with me. I’m a very big coward. The moment I hear a sound, I jump. I can’t stand it. I’m always worrying about everything. I live in fear all the time. I go to bed at night and I close my eyes and I see it all before my eyes.
“Now young Germans come to us and they speak openly. They apologize. They feel very sad over the Holocaust. We say to them, ‘You’re not guilty.’ They say, ‘We’re still guilty.’ There were Lithuanians who killed Jews, but I never knew those types personally. Many Jews I know were rescued by Lithuanians and raised by them. In every nation there are all sorts, both good and bad. There is no such nation where everyone is an angel. That does not happen on this earth. The only difference is that sometimes there are more good than bad.
“Our sons are very patriotic Lithuanians. Both did a lot of work towards Lithuanian independence. My husband was sick with cancer in 1988 when the independence movement began. I was in the hospital with him. My husband said, ‘I worry so much for Emmanual. I don’t want him to have trouble. The Russians are here and they’ll always be here.’ Those were the times.
Paulina tugged at her white sleeve collars, revealing her twisted gnarled wrists.
“My wrists are ruined from heavy work,” she said. “No one imagined the horrors that would happen to us, although we’d read about what was happening in Germany in the newspapers, we could never imagine it would happen here.
“You can analyze the war for a million years, but you will never be able to make sense out of what happened to the Jews, the Lithuanians, the Russians. People went against each other. People had to survive and they did what they had to. Jews would escape the ghetto and they would have no choice but to join up with the Red Partisans. Once they were with the Red Partisans they had no choice but to shoot at the Lithuanians and the Lithuanian partisans would have no choice but to shoot back at them. If a Jew ended up among the Lithuanian partisans, he’d shoot at the Red partisans. It is impossible now to look back at those times now and to make judgments. It was a time of brutality and chaos. People were pitted against each other. Brother went against brother. And that is how it was.”
Laima Vincė, a New York native, is a Lithuanian-American non-fiction and children’s book author, Fulbright scholar in creative writing at Vilnius University, journalist, memoirist and translator. For more information about her work, visit her website at www.laimavince.com and to order her acclaimed memoir “Lenin’s Head on a Platter” go here. Two translations she did of Lithuanian authors can be found here and here.
Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.