The Holocaust in Lithuania

    April 2011 Passover          
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David And Dora Ruskin (Ruksin) – The Journey Home (1937-2001)

By Michael Ruskin

Duvid and Dvora Ruksin- The couples name was changed from Ruksin to Ruskin due to what may have been an error by an immigration official. After arriving in the United States, the couple “Americanized” their names to David and Dora Ruskin.

Duvid (David) Ruksin was born on May 27, 1915 in Kedainiai, Lithuania His wife, Dora, was born on August 18, 1918 in Mazheik, Lithuania. Duvid attended the public school (elementary grades 1-8) and the Gymnasium (equivalent to High School) in Kedainiai. After graduation from the Gymnasium, he enrolled in a Mechanical (vocational training) School for a two-year electrical apprenticeship program. After leaving the school, he was employed by an electrical contractor in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania. Dora studied at a Jewish school and Gymnasium, and then attended a teacher’s college in Kaunus.

In 1938, David was conscripted into the Lithuanian army and trained as a member of the Signal Corps, where he was eventually given an honorable discharge During the same year, Sara Kekst (Dora’s younger Sister) introduced David, the son of a poor glove-maker and leather repairman to her 19-year-old sister Dora, who, at the time was still grieving over the untimely death of her fiancée a wealthy engineering student. Nevertheless, David and Dora became close friends and on June 21st, 1939, David and Dora married and settled in Kaunas. Dora gave birth to their first child, Rose Miriam, in March, 1940.

On June 15th, 1940, Soviet troops marched into Lithuania without interference from Berlin due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact signed in 1939. During the next year and a half, the Lithuanian Jews endured repeated pogroms, deportations, and ethnic cleansing pogroms at the hands of the Russians and their dreaded NKVD. In mid June of 1941, in the aftermath of the German Army’s invasion of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as part of Operation Barbarosa, the Russian army abandoned Lithuania in a hastened eastward retreat.

On June 23rd, an uprising by the Anti-Semitic/Anti-Polish Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF), operating out of the Lithuanian Embassy in Berlin, took control of the interim capital city of Kaunas and declared the country independent. For two days, the Lithuanian Militia wrecked havoc on the Jewish population, murdering several thousand men women and children. On the morning of June 25th, SS Brigadefuhrer Franz Walter Stahlecker and his Vanguard Unit arrived in Kaunas. The Nazis embarked on a series of agitation rallies to instigate further action against the regional Jewish population. Although Lithuanian officials at first refused to participate, the Germans found an ally in Algirdas Klimaitis, the leader of a paramilitary group of about 600 men, trained by the German Sicherheitsdienst, or SD. SS soldiers of the Vanguard Unit and Klimaitis’ Lithuanian reinforcements quickly converged on Kaunas and its largely working class suburb of Slobodka, (known to Lithuanians as Vilijampole’, hosting the world-famous Slobodka Yeshiva) and engaged in a three day killing spree, commencing with the public torture and decapitation of the Yeshiva’s senior Rabbi, Rav Zalman Osovsky. As of June 28th, 3,800 people were slaughtered in Kaunas, and an additional 1,200 were murdered in surrounding towns and villages which included David’s Father, Mother and Sister. The Kaunas hospital was raided, and any Jewish patients were poisoned. The infirmary closest to Slobodka was sealed off and burned with all of its patients inside. The Jews of Mazheik near the Latvian border were rounded up by Lithuanian Nazis and transported to the Lietukis Garage in Kaunas, where they were brutally executed either by firing squads, hangings, or beatings which were carried out by groups of anti-Jewish locals.. Dora and her sister Sara miraculously survived the Juden Aktion; while their parents and remaining siblings did not.

The remaining Jewish population of Kaunas and the surrounding towns and villages were rounded up and herded into what became the Slobodka Ghetto.

On August 15th, 1941 The Ghetto was sealed, and for the next three years, the Ruksins and their infant daughter Rose would share a single room in a run down building with eight members of three other Jewish families. Persons identified as fit for work were concentrated in “The Workers Ghetto”, and were assigned to slave labor groups. The Ruksins reported to the newly constructed Aleksotas Airbase now occupied by the Germans. Elderly, non-skilled, and infirm Jews were segregated into Ghetto #2, “the Unfit Ghetto”. All Slobodka Jews were ordered to sew yellow Stars of David on the fronts and backs of their clothing, and were prohibited from using money or the side walks. David endured these sanctions by working as an electrician, while Dora became a janitress, cleaning the officer’s quarters at the air base. The Jewish laborers were frequently commanded to work 18 hour days, suffering humiliation and beatings for the most minor infractions. Dora was once beaten so severely that she was hospitalized with a cerebral concussion. One morning in January of 1942, David was selected with 49 other men for summary execution, but was pulled from the group by a Gestapo official due to his trade as an electrician. As a payment for his reprieve, he was forced to observe the shooting of his colleagues.

The only compensation the Jewish laborers received was a weekly ration of horsemeat and bread, and an infrequent allotment of potatoes. In order to obtain items such as vegetables, fruit, butter and sugar, the Ghetto inhabitants were forced to barter their personal belongings - shoes, watches, jewelry and other valuables.

On March 27th and 28th 1944, Einsatzgruppen A, consisting of German and Ukrainian SS soldiers, undertook what was officially designated Die Kinder-Aktion. Roughly 2,500 children ranging in age from infants to twelve-year olds, and elderly and disabled Jews were rounded up and loaded onto trucks and military vehicles. Parents and older siblings were kept at bay by guards and German Sheppard dogs. They watched helplessly, straining for one last glimpse of their young ones as the convoy maneuvered out of the ghetto. Dora escaped to a bunker where she hid with her 3-year-old daughter for hours, while David was working forced labor outside the Ghetto.. She and her daughter were eventually found early that evening by SS Officers and their guard dogs. Three-year-old Rose Miriam was quickly taken away by SS Soldiers as Dora ran after her. In tears, she begged the soldiers to release her only child, at which point, one of the soldiers turned and knocked Dora unconsciousness with the butt of his rifle. Having just arrived home from his work detail only minutes later, David found Dora on the ground, in tears and in shock. There was nothing either one of them could do to save their only child.. Rose was gone. Later that night, Rose along with approximately 250 children, elders and the sick were taken to the Kaunas 9th Fort, never to be seen again.

Less than three months later, during the week of June 5th 1944, David and Dora were assembled with others deemed fit for work, and then taken with a group of over 2,000 ghetto inhabitants to a railway platform. The couple embraced for what seemed like an eternity, vowing that when the war ended, they would reunite in Kaunas, where they first met in 1937. Amidst the cacophony of barking dogs, police whistles, and the sharp commands of impatient SS guards and Lithuanian mercenaries, the men and women were separated and led away to waiting trains for their final destinations. Resistors were either attacked by the guard dogs or shot.

David arrived in Dachau on June 15th, 1944 and Dora arrived at Stutthof camp number 212 soon afterwards. Their separation was the first time in five years of marriage they would be apart. Little did they know at the time that their deportation from the Kovno Ghetto would be one of the last, for soon after they left, the Ghetto was dynamited and burned. Almost all of the remaining 2,000 inhabitants of the Slobodka Ghetto either perished in the fiery inferno, or were shot by Lithuanian guards. Roughly 500 persons escaped and hid in forests, or in a single bunker which escaped detection. An additional 2,500 Kaunas residents were rounded up and deported to concentration camps.

The winter of 1944 -1945 was one of the coldest on record. it was the intent of the SS to work their captives to death, both David and Dora barely but miraculously survived. Internees were subjected to forced labor, up to 18 hours a day, under the most inhumane conditions. They lived in unheated, rat and vermin-infested barracks, with little food or clean water, and no medical care or sanitation. Prisoner Ruksin, Duvid # 82188, labored as an electrician at Konzentrationslager Dachau, where he inspected and repaired the camp’s electric fences. He also performed the ghoulish task of removing from the barbed wire electrical fences, the dead inmates who had either committed suicide, or tried to escape. Dora was assigned to a labor gang, digging anti-tank ditches around the perimeter of the Stutthof Camp in anticipation of approaching Russian Forces.

During the last weeks of 1944, David was reassigned to the Dachau-Haunstetten sub -camp, where he assembled Messerschmitt fighter planes. He also worked for a time at the Leonhard Moll Concrete Company at KZ Dachau Lager 1, building pre-fabricated bunkers and gun emplacements. The inmates were wakened every morning between 3:00 and 4:00 AM, and assembled for roll call, after which they removed the dead from their un-heated barracks. They were then marched to their work assignments where they labored from before 6:00 AM until after 6:00 PM. They arrived back at the main camp each night at about 8:00 PM, where they waited in long lines, frequently until almost midnight, for a small daily ration of horsemeat soup. During the first week of April, 1945, the Lager 1 internees were evacuated from the camp in a forced march to the Tyrol Mountains, near the Austrian border. Many died along the way due to illness or sheer exhaustion. David somehow made it, but just barely. It was soon after, May 6th, 1945, that David was freed by American Forces who arrived from the East as German forces retreated from the German border.

The Dachau Concentration Camp was liberated by The U.S. Army on April 29, 1945.

During the first two months following his liberation, David was hospitalized for eating tainted meat and vegetables that he found at a farm nearby his encampment in the Tyrol. In September of 1945, not yet recovered and against doctor’s orders, he obtained a special U.N. pass which allowed him to traverse multiple borders to search for his beloved wife, Dora.. He traveled night and day on foot, by train, hitch-hiking by truck, horse cart and automobile through Italy, France, Germany and Poland. Searching, always searching from one displacement camp to another, asking anyone, everyone did they know of anyone from the Kovno Ghetto. Weeks turned into months as the search continued throughout central and eastern Europe.

Finally he reaches a Displaced Persons Camp in Lodz, Poland, less than 200 miles from Kaunus, his final destination. Kaunas, the place where the nightmare began. Where he and Dora said their last good-bye and vowed to return someday to reunite. It was now over a year since they were forced onto awaiting boxcars for concentration camps, not knowing their fate. All they knew at the time was their love for each other and their faith in God.

David wandered about the Lodz DP camp, looking for a meal and a place to rest, and searching the individual faces with painful scrutiny, hoping to recognize someone he may have known in the Kovno Ghetto, or before the war. At some point, he heard a vaguely familiar voice and followed it, finally singling out a pale, emaciated man. The two men’s eyes eventually locked….the sensation was indescribable. The two skeletal figures peered at one another, and then exchanged a feeble greeting. Without hesitation, they grabbed one anther in a tearful embrace. David was beside himself. It was Sam, who for three years had shared those miserable, cramped quarters with David and his family in the Kovno Ghetto. He had accompanied David countless times to the perimeters of the Slobodka Ghetto, to barter their precious belongings through barbed wire for food and medicine.

Sam asked David if he was returning from the nearby * infirmary. A puzzled David replied that he had hitch-hiked to Lodz, riding on the back of a farm truck, and that he had just arrived, and was looking for a meal and a bed. He mentioned that he was on his way to Kaunas hoping to find Dora alive. Wide-eyed, and almost speechless, Sam grabbed Ruksin by both arms, shaking him vigorously. He proclaimed that his weary visitor need not travel any further. As luck would have it, Sam had seen Dora that morning with her sister Sara walking towards the infirmary at the end of town. He hoisted Ruksin from his seat and pulled him toward the camp entrance, pointing down the road to a bombed-out warehouse. A red cross, chipped and pocked by shelling and bullet holes, hovered over its entrance.* Sam retreated into the camp, warning his friend to be careful, as there could still be German mines about the area.

(*After Poland was liberated, Allied forces along with the International Red Cross erected temporary emergency infirmaries and mobile hospital units to care for the sick and wounded soldiers and civilians These facilities were built hastily and often lacked necessary equipment and supplies.)

David embraced his friend again, and then dashed hurriedly toward the infirmary, weaving around debris and bomb craters. His heart felt as if it would burst at any moment, his legs ached, yet he kept his pace. He prayed that Dora had indeed gone to the infirmary.

Upon reaching the looming and partially destroyed structure, David negotiated his way around still live utility wires, twisted iron beams and jagged hunks of concrete to reach the large front entrance. He went in cautiously, ascending the damaged and debris-littered stairs to the first floor. Confronted by a maze of fallen plaster, metal and broken glass, he made his way across the hallway, and leaned into a half open doorway, instantly recognizing the faint smell of antiseptic. There were few inhabitants, mostly wounded Polish and Russian soldiers who were being attended to by a weary, plain-clothed nurse. Startled at first, the exhausted and care-worn woman wiped her hands on a soiled towel, as she heard David ask in Polish. “Are there two women here who just arrived for medical attention?” Puzzled, the woman responded in Polish that she was the only Medic on site, and that most of patients had already been evacuated to larger hospitals, or had died and been taken away.

The nurse returned to her patients. Dejected, David exited and descended the stairs. As he neared the front entrance, he heard the nurse’s voice echoing down the staircase, “I suggest you check the 2nd floor.” The 2nd floor hallway was a mess, much like the floor below. David headed to an open doorway and entered a large, musty bay, making his way cautiously in the fading daylight. A thin layer of dust coated the floor and the windows, most of which were blown out, or fragmented. Beds were strewn everywhere, many of them soiled with blood and body fluids. As he moved about, David’s eyes strained in the gathering darkness hoping to see someone, anyone in the room. His attention wandered to a distant corner, where he made out the silhouette of a seated figure, a woman tending to someone in a nearby bed. Startled at the intruder, the woman spun around defensively, and then froze for a tense moment before realizing who this man was, as he slowly approached. “Duvid, is that you?” “Oh my God, Duvid you are still alive!” The woman is Sara and she begins to cry. Shaken, David was unable to speak. Sara, the girl who had introduced him to her sister Dora, nine years earlier. was still alive. She and Dora were both deported to the Stutthoff Concentration Camp from the Kovno Ghetto at the same time David was being deported to Dachau. Now she is tending over a gaunt, skeletal woman in an old hospital bed. It is Dora. Her hair gone, running a burning high fever and weighing less than eighty pounds.

Sara stepped away as David moved closer to the tiny, withered skeleton of a human being whose breath was becoming more shallow by the moment. Sara murmured, “David…take her hand and we’ll pray”. “Dora?” “Dora?” he softly whispered, The figure in the bed stirred faintly, her sunken, lifeless eyes peering into the distance. Sara remarked that her sister had succumbed to Typhoid Fever and was near death and was waiting for a doctor to arrive. .The Kekst Sisters had been attempting to reach Kaunas from the Stutthof Concentration Camp, traveling for weeks, to see if David was still alive. Without much food, water and rest, disease finally overwhelmed Dora and she could no longer continue.

David sobbed, thinking to himself, “My wife survived 3 years in the Kovno Ghetto, and a year in a concentration camp. I finally find her only to watch her leave me again,….why would God let this happen? I cannot let this happen!” He knelt down alongside the bed and softly whispered his wife’s name again and again. After a while, Dora slowly turned her head to encounter what she believed to be an angel. She whispered, “Duvid?” Again she murmured, “Duvid is that you? …Are we in Heaven?” She shook and began to cry. Overwhelmed, David burst into tears again, “No; I am still alive and so are you. We have survived, and we’re together again!” He gently touched her face, and then squeezed her tiny hands still burning with fever. David raced to the first floor, burst into the ward exclaiming that he had found what was left of his family and his wife needed medical assistance immediately..

With the help of the attending nurse and a Red Cross worker who soon arrived, Dora was hurriedly transported to a nearby hospital where she received treatment for Typhoid and malnutrition. Her recovery was miraculous but slow, requiring a lengthy stay in Lodz.

David soon found work with a local electrical contractor, and cared for Dora at home after her release from the hospital. Upon accumulating the sum of 2,000 zlota (equivalent to about $200 in American money) David quit his job and used the money to bribe Russian border guards for the couple’s safe passage from Poland into Czechoslovakia. The Ruksins entered a United Nations Relief Organization camp for Jewish refugees, where they lived from 1945 until 1949. David worked for the organization as a facilities electrician, and Dora, a teacher by profession and fluent in seven languages, taught the elementary grades in a school established for refugee children.

In 1946, Dora gave birth to a son, Allen (Chaim). Shortly thereafter, with the help of UNRO, she located relatives in New York City who agreed later to sponsor the family in America. In 1947, the Ruksins migrated to the Displaced Persons Center at Fohrenwald, Germany, where Dora organized and opened the first school for orphan children. She was a tireless, determined, and loving mentor to hundreds of youngsters from every corner of Europe, and an inspiration to both her students and staff. For her selfless service, Dora was honored at a ceremony presided by General Dwight D. Eisenhower and other prominent military officials.

On May 14th, 1949, the Ruksins and their three-year-old son Allen, set sail for New York City, along with 1500 other refugees, on the US Army transport, General Han. It is believed that, upon arriving in New York, either immigration officials, or the Ruksins themselves Americanized their names to David and Dora Ruskin. They first lived in Brooklyn, New York where a second son, Michael was born in 1949. They eventually settled in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where David found work as a millwright with the National Lead Corporation.

On June 21, 1989, David and Dora Ruskin celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at Temple Emmanuel in Miami Beach, Florida. In their words, It was a commemoration of their enduring love and the miracle of their survival during one of the darkest periods in history. On September 17th 1993, David passed away. On August 4, 2001, Dora joined him, now together for eternity.

In memory of David, Dora, Rose, and Allen Ruskin, and all the courageous souls of the Slobodka (Kovno-Kaunas) Ghetto.


from the April 2011 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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