MYRA'S GHETTO EXPERIENCE

In September 1939 Myra met a fascinating man. His name was Boleck and he was a refugee from Poland. He was a college graduate and seemed a man of the world to a young girl from a backwater place like Kovno. He had fled the Germans who had already invaded Poland. He must have had incredible and tragic stories to tell. Over the next year, the two of them grew closer. He had no family in Lithuania and perhaps Myra became his closest relationship. At some point, he asked her to marry him and her parents offered her a fur coat not to agree. It seems that the rather well-to-do Melnik family did not wish to see her marrying a poor refugee.

She took the coat from her parents...and then decided to marry him anyways! They moved in together but held off on getting married.

During the year 1940, the Soviet government put more and more pressure on the Lithuanian leaders to allow Soviet troops to enter the country and build military bases. By June 1940, the Lithuanians capitulated to essentially a full Soviet takeover of the small Baltic state. This had dire consequences for the Melnik family.

As owners of a tin factory, Myra's father and brothers were seen as clear capitalist bourgeoisie. The Soviets sent them, along with her mother, away in the summer of 1940 and took away their factory. Myra stood on the balcony as the Soviet soldiers ripped her parents from her life. She sobbed as she watched her mother crying in the Red Army truck. 

She never saw them again. She never really had a chance to say goodbye. The soldiers came so quickly and she had been upstairs, not feeling well. 

Myra and Hadassah begged the Soviets to take them too, but apparently they were refused because they were married, and thus had other duties in the Soviet mindset. Her brother, Eliahu, was in camp and thus not present to be taken.

Little did they know that the Soviets had saved her parents and Eliahu's trip to camp had doomed him.

Myra's uncle and his family died in the prison camps in Siberia. Her parents survived, but spent 15 years in the frozen camps on the tundra.

Guiding Questions:

  • Who was Boleck? What was his relationship to Myra?

  • What happened to Myra's parents after the USSR took over Lithuania? Why?

  • What happened to Myra and her family on October 29, 1941?

  • How did Myra and Joseph meet?

In September 1939 Myra met a fascinating man. His name was Boleck and he was a refugee from Poland. He was a college graduate and seemed a man of the world to a young girl from a backwater place like Kovno. He had fled the Germans who had already invaded Poland. He must have had incredible and tragic stories to tell. Over the next year, the two of them grew closer. He had no family in Lithuania and perhaps Myra became his closest relationship. At some point, he asked her to marry him and her parents offered her a fur coat not to agree. It seems that the rather well-to-do Melnik family did not wish to see her marrying a poor refugee.

She took the coat from her parents...and then decided to marry him anyways! They moved in together but held off on getting married.

 

During the year 1940, the Soviet government put more and more pressure on the Lithuanian leaders to allow Soviet troops to enter the country and build military bases. By June 1940, the Lithuanians capitulated to essentially a full Soviet takeover of the small Baltic state. This had dire consequences for the Melnik family.

As owners of a tin factory, Myra's father and brothers were seen as clear capitalist bourgeoisie. The Soviets sent them, along with her mother, away in the summer of 1940 and took away their factory. Myra stood on the balcony as the Soviet soldiers ripped her parents from her life. She sobbed as she watched her mother crying in the Red Army truck. 

She never saw them again. She never really had a chance to say goodbye. The soldiers came so quickly and she had been upstairs, not feeling well. 

Myra and Hadassah begged the Soviets to take them too, but apparently they were refused because they were married, and thus had other duties in the Soviet mindset. Her brother, Eliahu, was in camp and thus not present to be taken.

 

Little did they know that the Soviets had saved her parents and Eliahu's trip to camp had doomed him.

 

Myra's uncle and his family died in the prison camps in Siberia. Her parents survived, but spent 15 years in the frozen camps on the tundra.

Jacob Lifschitz, untitled scene of the Kovno ghetto, 1943.

From the Last Letter of Jacob Lifschitz, July 6, 1944 "... The experience of the ghetto has forever broken us. I paint a ittle, I draw what you find here, [but] I have yet to overcome, as I write these words. .... I have not written anything until today, because I wanted to convey my thoughts in creativity and painting in the pictorial arts...." 

Myra was the joyful, open-minded, and modern child. She declared she had a boyfriend at age 8 and a more serious one at age 14. She was a terrific dancer but had a tutor as she didn't do great in school. She never graduated high school, and remembers that she flunked out on the last night.

Myra loved the American and German movies and the great actors like Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. At the theater, they got a whole box for the family. "Melnik was a name to be proud of," she remembers.

Moving into the Kovno ghetto. Credit: George Kadish, photographer, George Kadish, Florida 

Report by SS-Colonel Karl Jäger of December 1, 1941, documenting the execution of Jews at Fort IX, Kovno, in September and October 1941 Credit: Center for the Preservation of Historical Documentary Collections, Moscow 

See USHMM for translation

On October 16, 1940 Myra and Boleck were wed. It was a small, private ceremony performed by a city official. Perhaps because his family was somewhere in Poland and her parents and uncles were in Siberian prison camps they had no means or no desire for a grand ceremony. However, in the midst of desperate times they still had the hope of a future together. She was 21 years-old and he was 26. 

***

Like in Latvia, the Soviet occupation of Lithuania didn't last long. The Germans swept into the country on June 22, 1941 with many Lithuanians (but likely not the Jews) welcoming them as liberators from the Communist Soviets.

The German troops captured Myra and her sister, for some reason, believing them to be communists. They convinced the Germans that their parents had been sent to Siberia for being capitalists and thus they had no sympathy for the Bolsheviks.

The Germans let them go, but on July 10, 1941 they ordered the establishment of the Kovno Ghetto. Soon after, they rounded up the 30,000 Jewish residents, including Myra,  and placed them in a ghetto, on the outskirts of Kovno, which was surrounded by barbed wire. The ghetto was sealed on August 15, 1941. All Jews over the age of 16 had to work 12-hour days in difficult manual labor.

In five minutes time, Myra lost almost every male who was important to her, especially since her father and uncles were in Siberia. She lost her newlywed husband Boleck, her sister's husband, her maternal uncle, and her favorite aunt's two sons Israel and Dvoshe. The Nazis shot them all. 

The date was probably October 29, 1941. It would later be known as the Kaunas Massacre or the Great Action. For Myra, there was no title; it was the death of her family and people. About 9,200 Jews were shot and killed, nearly 1/3 of the ghetto. Myra was one of the 17,412 stunned and traumatized Jews left after the attack. 

This was the second tragedy of her life. Her newlywed husband, Boleck, was on the streets and he was shot and killed by a Nazi guard.  She had lost her parents to the Soviets and now she had lost her beloved to the Nazis.

The Jews of the ghetto looked for any way they could resist. When the Germans sought to confiscate all books and religious items, the very observant community hid large numbers of books to use in secret study houses. 

In the Kovno ghetto, Myra lived by herself. It seems that she lived some time with her Aunt Rochel and her cousin but they were both killed during that time. 

She didn't stay much longer in Kovno, however. One day some strong hands grabbed her on the street. It appears one of them was her friend Eda's father, a Lithuanian Jew. She was shoved onto a train. It was likely a cattle car. As she left Lithuania she vowed that she would never return. She was also convinced she had met her end and would be shot. She never did return to Lithuania but she was not shot that day.

On February 10th, 1942, Myra arrived in a new city: Riga, Latvia. She did not, however, have the chance to see the beautiful town. She was dumped into the Jewish ghetto, which now needed women for work. All the Jewish women in Latvia had been killed in December in the massacre in the woods. 

There were eight people living in the apartment where she found herself. It was only one room. It was a brutal change. There were bugs and insects all over. 

It was best to work, to appear indispensable, and there was a need for cooks in the lumberyard. Myra declared she was a good cook, and indeed one day she would be a great one, but at the time she knew very little. She took on the job, which also meant she could get a little extra food while cooking. 

In June, 1942 she was working in a lumberyard. She had to hitchhike on a truck to get there. One day, a man named Joseph saw her on the truck and pushed everyone aside to sit next to her. He seemed nice and he came to visit her that night, bringing her some herring cutlets. Later, he brought her a mattress to use so she would have a place to sleep. The Latvian Jews had more than the Lithuanian Jews in the Riga Ghetto and he wanted to help her. 

Over the next weeks they would sit on her bed and talk, possibly about losing their spouses. They talked for about two months before one night she took him outside the door, into the hallway, and he closed the door and gave her a kiss. 

Report by SS-Colonel Karl Jäger of December 1, 1941, documenting the execution of Jews at Fort IX, Kovno, in September and October 1941 Credit: Center for the Preservation of Historical Documentary Collections, Moscow 

See USHMM for translation

Report by SS-Colonel Karl Jäger of December 1, 1941, documenting the execution of Jews at Fort IX, Kovno, in September and October 1941 Credit: Center for the Preservation of Historical Documentary Collections, Moscow 

See USHMM for translation

In the Kovno ghetto, Myra lived by herself. It seems that she lived some time with her Aunt Rochel and her cousin but they were both killed during that time. 

She didn't stay much longer in Kovno, however. One day some strong hands grabbed her on the street. It appears one of them was her friend Eda's father, a Lithuanian Jew. She was shoved onto a train. It was likely a cattle car. As she left Lithuania she vowed that she would never return. She was also convinced she had met her end and would be shot. She never did return to Lithuania but she was not shot that day.

On February 10th, 1942, Myra arrived in a new city: Riga, Latvia. She did not, however, have the chance to see the beautiful town. She was dumped into the Jewish ghetto, which now needed women for work. All the Jewish women in Latvia had been killed in December in the massacre in the woods. 

There were eight people living in the apartment where she found herself. It was only one room. It was a brutal change. There were bugs and insects all over. 

It was best to work, to appear indispensable, and there was a need for cooks in the lumberyard. Myra declared she was a good cook, and indeed one day she would be a great one, but at the time she knew very little. She took on the job, which also meant she could get a little extra food while cooking. 

In June, 1942 she was working in a lumberyard. She had to hitchhike on a truck to get there. One day, a man named Joseph saw her on the truck and pushed everyone aside to sit next to her. He seemed nice and he came to visit her that night, bringing her some herring cutlets. Later, he brought her a mattress to use so she would have a place to sleep. The Latvian Jews had more than the Lithuanian Jews in the Riga Ghetto and he wanted to help her. 

Over the next weeks they would sit on her bed and talk, possibly about losing their spouses. They talked for about two months before one night she took him outside the door, into the hallway, and he closed the door and gave her a kiss.