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Child survivor of the Holocaust shares her family’s story with Granby students

  • Holocaust survivor Henny Lewin, 78, of North Amherst, speaks Jan. 30, 2018 to seventh and eighth-graders at Granby Junior Senior High School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Holocaust survivor Henny (Wisgardisky) Lewin, 78, of North Amherst, holds a photograph Jan. 30, 2018 of herself as a child, at right, with her cousin Shoshana (Berk) Sarid, both in the Kovno Ghetto in 1943. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Students including eighth-grader Jack Kennedy, center, listen to Holocaust survivor Henny Lewin, 78, of North Amherst, speak Jan. 30, 2018 to seventh and eighth-graders at Granby Junior Senior High School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Holocaust survivor Henny (Wisgardisky) Lewin, 78, of North Amherst, holds an old photograph Jan. 30, 2018 of herself as a child, front left, with her parents Gita and Jonas Wisgardisky and cousin Shoshana (Berk) Sarid, featuring a fake passport stamp they used to escape, at right. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Holocaust survivor Henny (Wisgardisky) Lewin, 78, of North Amherst, holds an old photograph Jan. 30, 2018 of herself as a child, front left, with her Lithuanian "sister." —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Eighth-grader Katrina Pelchat, right, gives flowers to Holocaust survivor Henny Lewin, 78, of North Amherst, after Lewin spoke Jan. 30, 2018 to seventh and eighth-graders at Granby Junior Senior High School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Holocaust survivor Henia Lewin, 78, of Amherst, holds an old photograph Tuesday of her Lithuanian “parents,” Joana and Jonas Stankevicz. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Holocaust survivor Henny (Wisgardisky) Lewin, 78, of North Amherst, displays a document honoring her Lithuanian "parents" Jonas and Joana Stankevicz for raising her as their own for several years and thus, saving her life. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Granby Junior Senior High School Assistant Principal Alison Jordan-Gagner, left, looks at a selfie she took with Holocaust survivor Henia Lewin and the seventh- and eighth-grade class Tuesday at the school. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Holocaust survivor Henny (Wisgardisky) Lewin, 78, of north Amherst, displays a page from a book titled "Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto," in which she appears as a child, bottom left. At top right is Bronius Paukstys, a Roman Catholic priest credited with saving the lives of several hundred Jews. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



@ecutts_HG
Wednesday, January 31, 2018

GRANBY — As a young Jewish girl in Lithuania in the early 1940s, Henia Lewin was small enough to fit in a suitcase. That fact helped save her life when the Nazis arrived.

Lewin, now 78 and a resident of north Amherst, is a child survivor of the Holocaust. She shared her family’s story to 120 seventh- and eighth-graders Tuesday afternoon at Granby Junior/Senior High School.

“I feel an obligation while I’m still around to tell their story because in a few years from now you’re only going to get it from books and videos,” she said.

Having someone who could share firsthand knowledge and personal experiences about historical events was a tremendous opportunity, eighth-grade history teacher Michael Stapert said in an email.

“For many young people today, events of the past are simply backlit LCD images on a screen, or impersonal details to commit to memory until the next history exam,” Stapert wrote. “We believe having Ms. Lewin speak about her experiences will bring the issues associated with this historical period to life in a way that will challenge our students to confront the prejudices that can set one people against another. As a nation, a culture, and likely a species, our most powerful and necessary skill is empathy, and we are sure Ms. Lewin’s story will strengthen this skill in our students.”

Never spoke about it

Lewin was only 1½ years old when Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania.

“My memories are from a little bit later, from the age of 3, 4, 5,” Lewin told the students. “But when I was a teenager, I started asking my parents questions. They were reluctant to discuss their experiences, having lost parents and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. They were really not anxious to discuss it, which is true for a lot of Holocaust survivors. They never spoke in public about their experiences, which is also true for a lot of Holocaust survivors.”

Lewin’s parents, Gita and Jonas Wisgardisky, lived in Kaunas, in south-central Lithuania. When Nazi soldiers arrived in 1941, approximately 40,000 Jews lived in the city. Her parents had married in December 1937 and Lewin was born in 1940. Considered a middle class family, the couple had a nanny to take care of Lewin while they worked. But in June 1941, “the good times ended” and Jews were given until Aug. 15, 1941, to move into the Kovno Ghetto.

“It was probably big enough for about 6,000 people but now they crammed in those 40,000 Jews from Kaunas,” Lewin told the students. When the war ended, only about 2,000 people had survived.

Three days after the ghetto was sealed on Aug. 15, soldiers came asking for 500 volunteers — men who spoke various languages — to help translate and write letters for German authorities, Lewin said. Lewin’s uncle on her father’s side was among the 526 who volunteered.

“Luckily, my father came too late to the group of 526 volunteers,” Lewin said. “These 526 men were taken out of the ghetto and were all shot.”

News of the men’s deaths didn’t make it back to the ghetto for a few days. Those who remained learned of the deaths when Lithuanian collaborators who had gone out with the Nazis came back wearing some of the clothing of the men they shot, Lewin said.

As the months went on, more and more people were killed, including Lewin’s father’s parents as well as his younger brother.

“At first it was comfortable for children to be playing in the streets of the ghetto, but after a while, rumor was they had a roundup of children — that the Germans decided to collect all the children,” Lewin said. “In our ghetto, people were saying, ‘We have to do something to smuggle our children out.’

“My mother was one of the people who decided we are going to have to smuggle children out of the ghetto, but it’s easier said than done.”

Escape from the ghetto

Lewin was eventually sedated and smuggled out of the ghetto in a suitcase. She lived with a Lithuanian family, Jonas and Joana Stankevicz, for about two years.

“I didn’t find out until 50 years later, when I went back to Lithuania to look for them, that Mr. Stankevicz wasn’t alive anymore ... Mrs. Stankevicz was, and she told me when Mr. Stankevicz was walking with the suitcase, he was stopped by a Lithuanian policeman. He wanted to see his papers ... if he had opened the suitcase, he would have shot me and Mr. Stankevicz and dumped our bodies right into the river,” Lewin said.

But just that minute, a jeep full of Nazi soldiers arrived wanting directions to the ghetto. Not sharing a language, the Lithuanian soldier climbed into the jeep to show them the way and let Stankevicz — and the suitcase with Lewin inside —go.

“I was saved by a jeep full of Nazis. Crazy,” Lewin said.

Once Lewin was out of the ghetto, one by one her parents were able to escape, as well as a younger cousin, Shoshana Berk. Lewin’s father, Jonas Wisgardisky, climbed out a hospital window after being taken there after injuring his finger while working on a half-track. Her mother, Gita Wisgardisky, ran away from an outside work detail and briefly was hidden in a church by a priest, Bronius Paukstys. The couple had arranged a meeting spot in case of their escapes and found each other outside the ghetto, Lewin said.

After the Russian army came into Lithuania in the spring of 1944, the pair went to find Lewin and the Stankevicz family. Lewin said she and the Stankeviczes fled to northern Lithuania, near the Latvian border, in an attempt to escape arrest by the Russians for being capitalists and doing business with the Germans.

“It took my mother and father a long time to find them,” Lewin said. “Eventually the Soviets did arrest Mr. Stankevicz, and my mother and father went before the judge to plead for this wonderful, kind man. The judge had given him 20 years of hard labor in Siberia.”

Stankevicz’s sentence was reduced to 10 years hard labor but Lewin said he was allowed to go back home after four years.

After the war, Lewin and her parents, along with her younger cousin, Shoshana, spent time in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1946. Shoshana was being raised as Lewin’s younger sister because they believed both her parents were dead, but Shoshana’s mother survived the war and found her at the camp. Lewin and her family were in the camp until 1949 when they emigrated to Israel.

After sharing her history, Lewin showed the students pictures she was able to find: from family and the Stankeviczes; photos of her or her family that appeared in newspapers, or in the Holocaust Museum in Washington; and pictures from when Lewin returned to Lithuania with her family in 1995.

“The people I am most angry with are the bystander. The people who didn’t get involved to stop the evil,” Lewin said. “Don’t be a bystander. Be a person that does good.”

That message struck a chord with eighth-grader Isaiah Mejias, who said he felt empowered by Lewin’s words to take action when someone is being bullied.

For eighth-grader Meghan Eisnor, who said she was adopted, Lewin’s speech was a glimpse into her own history.

“I thought it was very interesting,” Eisnor said.

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.