Henia Lewin shares her experience as a hidden child at Holyoke Holocaust Commemoration
By Stacey Dresner
WESTERN Mass. — Henia Lewin is alive today because of the bravery of her parents and an old leather suitcase.
Lewin was a hidden child during World War II, smuggled to safety out of the Kaunas Ghetto by her parents, Lithuanian Jews who miraculously survived the Holocaust.
On Thursday, May 4, Lewin, a resident of North Amherst, will tell her story as the keynote speaker at the Holyoke Yom HaShoah Commemoration, held at the Holyoke Senior Center.
Born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1940, Henia Wisgardisky was only a year and a half when the Germans invaded her country in June of 1941.
Later that year, she and her parents ended up in the Kaunas Ghetto, while her grandparents, aunt and uncle and two young cousins were sent to their deaths in the infamous Ninth Fort, a nearby prison used by the Nazis to execute Jews and other prisoners. By December of 1941, half of Kaunas’ 40,000 Jews were dead.
When Henia was 3 ½, her mother, Gita, heard that the Nazis had rounded up children in a nearby ghetto. Gita had been given the job of sorting through clothing that came into the ghetto in the suitcases of Jews sent to the camps. One day she sedated Henia, put her in a large leather suitcase and smuggled her out to a friend of her father, Jonas Stankevic.
“Fifty years later when I visited Lithuania, Mrs. Stankevic told me I slept for a couple of days. They were afraid I might not wake up,” Henia said.
Henia’s mother smuggled at least 20 other children out of the ghetto that way, most of them turned over to Father Paukstis, a local priest who found non-Jewish families to take them in. One was Henia’s younger cousin Shoshana, whose father had been taken away by the Nazis during the Roundup of the Intellectuals and whose mother was sent to the Stutthof concentration camp.
Henia lived in the Stankevic home for two years. They gave her a new name – Genute.
“They had two little girls, one a year older than me and one a year younger. They absolutely treated me the same as the others,” she says.
At one point, the Stankevic family fled to a farm owned by a family member near the Latvian border. The farm had a good food supply and Henia and the Stankevic family were well fed.
Lewin’s cousin Shoshana did not fare as well. Hidden in the home of another family, she was mistreated and neglected.
Both of Henia’s parents survived the war. They ecaped the ghetto Spring 1944, hiding until they eventually found Henia at the Stankevic family farm.
The Stankevics were eventually honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
Henia’s parents also found Shoshana and were shocked at her condition when they found her. They took her away from her hiding place and planned to raise her as their own. They first went to Poland, then to a displaced persons camp near Frankfurt, where they miraculously were reunited with Shoshana’s mother.
Henia’s family first immigrated to Israel after the war, then moved to Montreal, Canada. She attended college, studying psychology, Hebrew and Yiddish – spending a stint in Atlanta for a year in her 20s.
She later taught on Long Island before marrying and moving to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. with her husband, who worked for IBM.
After moving to Burlington, Vt., she worked as a Hebrew instructor at the University of Vermont for 19 years and obtained her masters degree in education. She later served as the director of Hillel at UVM.
While living in Vermont, she became involved in a group called “Judaism in Rural New England” and attended one of its conferences where the speaker was a concentration camp survivor. “Afterwards I went to her and said, ‘How do you do that? It would feel like opening a wound each time, a wound that already had a scab over it.’ She said, ‘If you do it long enough, you can try to sort of detach yourself.’”
Henia later was asked by a social studies teacher to speak at one of his World War II/Holocaust courses.
“That was the first time I spoke in public,” she said. “One of the women in the audience was a blind woman and she raised her hand and said, ‘From your talk I noticed guilt about having survived.’”
“That had never occurred to me,” Henia says recalling the woman’s comment and becoming emotional at the memory. “I decided to compensate for that, for the fact that I am alive and a million and a half children perished. I needed to tell the story as long as I am still alive.”
When asked how she feels about genocide still occurring today around the world, as well as discrimination and hate, she grows angry.
“What really upsets me is when it touches me, like swastikas appearing on Mt. Tom right her under my nose. And the tremendous rise in anti-Semitic incidents since Trump was elected,” she said. “Some of the things he has said, like ‘America First’ — that gave me nightmares, because some of those sayings are so similar from the 1930s. And this whole thing about immigration; the immigrants are going to take our jobs? It is exactly what was said in the American press when a lot of refugees and survivors wanted to go to America after the war. The doors were closed because we were going to take away their jobs.”
Lewin said that she feels it is important that she keep speaking out about her experiences during the war.
“When I talk to kids, I tell them there were perpetrators and there were victims. But the majority were bystanders who saw what was happening but didn’t do anything about it,” she said. “I tell kids, if you see somebody being bullied or called names, don’t run away, get involved. That is on the kids’ level…but the activism to stop this kind of horror nowadays is still very important.”
Henia Lewin will be the guest speaker at the Yom Hashoah Commemoration on Thursday, May 4 at 6:45 p.m. at the Holyoke Senior Center, 271 Pine St. The event will also feature a candle lighting ceremony and performance by the Holyoke High School Madrigal Singers.
CAP: Henia Lewin, below left, with her parents, and her cousin, Shoshana, after the war in their family passport.
Yom Hashoah Events
SUNDAY, APRIL 23
Northhampton/Amherst – “Making a Difference: Rescue, Assistance and Resistance in Holland During the Holocaust,” remembering Righteous Gentile Marion Prichard, 7 p.m., the Shoah commemoration of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton and the Jewish Community of Amherst, at CBI, 253 Prospect St. in Northampton.
Longmeadow – Yom Hashoah Community Commemoration, 7 p.m., at Congregation B’nai Torah, 2 Eunice Drive, (413) 739-4175 firstname.lastname@example.org
Pittsfield – Temple Anshe Amunim Commemorates the Legacy of the Holocaust, an intergenerational program with music, poetry and reflections, and display of loved ones whose lives were lost (email email@example.com to include names), 5-6 p.m., 26 Broad St., (413) 442-5910.
Worcester –Holocaust Memorial Service, 6 p.m., (with awards for 2017 Pinkus and Rhoda Gurevich Yom Hashoah Essay and Art Challenge at 5:30 p.m.), at Temple Emanuel Sinai.
MONDAY, APRIL 24
Pittsfield – Jewish Federation of Berkshires Connecting with Community, “The Butcher’s Daughter: Echoes of the Shoah,” with author and poet Florence Grende; with hot kosher lunch, 10:45 a.m.-noon, Congregation Knesset Israel, 16 Colt Road, RSVP for lunch by 9 a.m. morning of program, (413) 442-4200. $2/ suggested donation for adults over 60 years of age; $7/all others.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 26
Worcester – “Witness to the Shoah: A Holocaust Remembrance Day Commemoration,” with Auschwitz survivor Thea Aschkenase, 3:30-5 p.m., Worcester Public Library, Saxe Room.