Gasps echoed throughout the Marblehead Community Charter Public School cafeteria as Henia Lewin projected a faded photograph taken following her parents’ wedding in the late 1930s. In the image, her parents smile as they sit at the head of a long, wooden table surrounded by a joyful group of roughly 40 friends and family members. As an aside, Lewin said, “My mother had the most gorgeous wedding dress.”
“My parents are sitting at the table with my dad’s mother and father sitting next to them,” Lewin told an audience of seventh- and eighth-graders. “Out of this entire group, only nine people survived; everyone else was killed by the Nazis.”
Lewin offered the photograph as a powerful reminder of the Holocaust and the macabre atrocities carried out by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, resulting in the systematic murder of six million Jews, as well as millions of others considered “undesirable,” including the Romani people, people with disabilities and homosexuals.
Nick Santoro, an eighth-grade humanities teacher, said nothing could substitute for hearing from a Holocaust survivor. The charter school jumped at the opportunity to host Lewin.
“The most powerful part of having a living Holocaust survivor come in is it shows kids that this isn’t ancient history,” he said. “There’s been an increase in the prevalence of Holocaust deniers, white supremacy and antisemitism, which is pretty alarming.”
He added, “I want us to arm them against that type of misinformation.”
The Kovno Ghetto
Lewin was born in 1940 in Lithuania. She projected a map of the country and pinpointed the city of Kaunas, where her father and mother, Gita and Jonas Wisgardisky, resided at the time. In 1941, she said the Nazis invaded the country and forced Jewish families into the Kovno Ghetto, including her parents, aunt and uncle, and younger cousin, Shoshanna.
“The apartment that we lived in had three floors, and we lived on the bottom floor with several other families,” she said. “The building was obviously overcrowded.”
The Nazis crammed between 30,000 and 40,000 people into an area that could fit 6,000.
“Even though it was called a ghetto, it really was a death camp,” she said. “It wasn’t like Auschwitz, where they burned and gassed people, but it was a death camp.”
She said that her uncle tried to smuggle a handgun into the ghetto baked in a loaf of bread. Upon breaking the loaf in half, a guard found the revolver.
“He was shot on the spot,” she said.
Gita found out that Nazis began taking children from their parents under the guise that they needed immunization shots. Distraught parents waited for their children’s return, but they never came back.
“At first, people thought that was insane. Would they really kill children? But then they saw that they actually were,” Lewin said. “And so my parents decided that they better sneak me, my cousin and other children out of the ghetto.”
For a period, they hid the cousins in a staircase behind a fake wall in their apartment.
“I loved playing with her when the parents were at work, and we would play in that hiding spot,” Lewin said of Shoshanna, who was a year and a half younger. “She had black curls, and I would just play with her curls and make her look like a little Shirley Temple.”
Escaping the ghetto
Enter the Rev. Bronius Paukstys, a Roman Catholic priest who was the dean of a nearby seminary. Lewin’s mother had regular contact with the priest when she left the ghetto to work at an adjacent warehouse.
“He took a liking to her because she spoke Lithuanian like a farmer,” Lewin said. “Plus, she was a very intelligent, very bright woman.”
The priest told her that if she could smuggle children out of the ghetto, he, fellow priests and nuns would find homes for them in the Lithuanian countryside. Moreover, the seminary was home to a young priest who could draw up fake birth certificates.
When Lewin was 3 years old, her parents sedated her and placed her in a suitcase. They placed the suitcase in the back of a wagon, and she was successfully smuggled out. Paukstys paired the toddler with Jonas and Joana Stankevicz. She lived with the family for two years.
“I lived, but you know what? During the Holocaust, 1.5 million children were killed,” Lewin said. “Out of the 40,000 who entered the Kovno Ghetto, only 5%, or 2,000 people, survived because they fought off the Nazis when the Russians were coming.”
The Nazis set the ghetto’s buildings on fire with Jewish families inside them.
“And if somebody was hiding in the building and crawled out, they shot them,” said Lewin. “And if somebody didn’t crawl out, they burned to death inside.”
She added, “My parents survived because they were smart enough to run away and hide on a farm.”
Lewin’s parents took Shoshanna in when they presumed her mother had perished in a concentration camp. But two years after the war, she walked through the door as though she had been resurrected from the dead.
Lewin, a Western Massachusetts resident, has lived all over the world. She became a professor of Yiddish language and literature, teaching for nearly 20 years at the University of Vermont.
When she ended her talk, she said she was more disappointed in those complicit during the Holocaust. There is a lesson to learn, she told students.
“Don’t be a bystander,” she said. “Stop the evil because there’s always evil in the world. But there’s always goodness as well, right? And I know that you are good people.”
She continued, “If you see somebody who is acting in an evil way, stop them. Become an active person for good.”