Zakharia Tschesno was born in 1928 in Berlin. He lived and worked in Vilnius as a journalist. He immigrated to Israel in 1972 and lives in Jerusalem. He has a son, several grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
WE WERE LEFT ALL ALONE
The Young Pioneers summer camp I was sent to as a reward for my academic achievements was located in the popular resort town of Druskininkai. The same river Neman that ran through our home town of Vilnius also ran near there so it did not really seem as though I was leaving home, and my parting from my parents was easy and relaxed. Could I imagine that we were parting forever – that I would never see my dearest loved ones again?
Zakharia Tschesno, 4 years old, Berlin, 1932.
A week later, war broke out. The roar of bomber airplanes with black crosses on their wings that shattered the peace of quiet Druskininkai, with its ozone-rich air redolent of pine trees in the park, with its fragrant abundance of herbs, also brought with it the urgent question: how to save the children? It was resolved by a man to whom I, along with so many others, owe my life. The director of the summer camp, Stasis Sviderskis, did not lose his head and did not panic upon learning about the declaration of war. He had one thought in his head: he must get the children out and deliver them safely to their parents.
Yes, this is what he was thinking when he went to the railway authorities to request train tickets to Vilnius. They said: “Where will you go? Do you want to add three hundred children to the fifty thousand that the Soviets have sent into Siberian exile?” “No!” Sviderskis answered. “I just want to take them to their parents; it’s my responsibility.”
I write this now based on his own words. He told me about the vicissitudes of that terrible day, sitting in my Jerusalem apartment, when he arrived in Israel as a guest of honor, one of the Righteous Gentiles, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Jewish state…
The stationmaster of the Druskininkai train station, after hearing him out, said: “I am ready to help, but … the train engineer refuses to go. You can try to persuade him.” And Stasis tried. He handed the engineer the keys to the summer camp’s stores of food and other supplies: “You can take anything you want if you get the children out.” The man could not resist the temptation and agreed.
We did not board the train at the station but at a certain stopping place along the tracks which, as I recall, we reached by walking through the forest. Sviderskis, who was physically very strong, carried a little girl in his arms. Summer camp teachers and staff boarded the cars with us. We stopped several times along the way as the air raid sirens wailed. Each time, the children jumped off the train and scattered, lying low in the grass. The German aces saw whom they were shooting at, but it did not seem to concern them.
With great difficulty we made it to Vilnius – the capital of Soviet Lithuania. And then pandemonium broke out. People trying to evacuate swarmed the train. These were mainly families of military officers and Communist Party officials, and of course, Jews. The cars were already overcrowded, and still the stream of people continued unabated. Right then, the Vilnius railway station came under a brutal bombing attack, and our train engineer, trying to get out from under the attack, gave “full speed ahead.”
Imagine our dismay – mine and the other kids’! There we were, riding away, no one knew where, and we had not even seen our parents. Where were they? Were they alive? Stasis Sviderskis tried to reassure us as best he could: our parents, he said, had been notified and would be waiting for us in Moscow (a white lie)….
As regards our long journey to safety that began in Druskininkai, few of us gave much thought to its destination: most were preoccupied with how to survive the hardships of the journey. I myself certainly did not care about anything: I was running a high fever and lay strapped into the top bunk, so as not to fall off.
The rest of the passengers were not much better off. Everyone sat on the floor of the stuffy, terribly overcrowded train car, suffering from thirst and hunger. Only in Tula, after several days of travel, did we see people in white coats. I think they were with the Red Cross. At that time, the children were given a bottle of milk and a bread roll each: our first food rations. Among the new arrivals was a doctor, and he determined that I had a severe case of the measles. Some people put me on a stretcher and carried me out to the platform. I was told: “The ambulance will come soon and take you to the hospital.”
But the Jewish G-d protected me. Mrs. Yudelevich, our former neighbor, just happened to be passing by; she was traveling on the same train with her husband and two sons, David and Joseph. She recognized me, and after inquiring into what was going on, ordered: “Pull yourself together and immediately get back on the train. The train is not going to wait until you are discharged from the hospital. And when you do get out – where will you go? You have neither money nor documents; you do not know the language. There is a war on, and no one will have the time to worry about you.” I obeyed her and went back to the train car. That was nothing less than a miracle.
The building of the Lithuanian secondary school in the village of Debesy, Udmurtia.The building of the Lithuanian secondary school in the village of Debesy, Udmurtia.
The ten agonizingly long days – days of hunger, overcrowding, unsanitary conditions — came to an end, and a wide expanse of water lay gleaming before our eyes. It was a river that was even wider than the Neman. I had already begun to mend and was aware of where I was and what was happening to me. Layers of new, hitherto unfamiliar place names began to be added to the matrix of my memory, such as, for example, the city of Sarapul on the Kama River in Udmurtia, which became the starting point of my life in the evacuation that lasted for three and a half years.
Zakharia Tschesno, Kaunas, mid-1930s.
Upon arrival, our summer camp on wheels was first placed in a vacant summer resort building, but soon we moved to our permanent (or so we were told) place of residence – in the village of Sharkan. And there we experienced true hardship. As a result of a desperate shortage of food leading to severe malnutrition, many campers became so weakened that they developed scurvy and broke out in boils. In addition, we experienced a veritable plague of lice, and besides, the kids were left without warm clothes right before the onset of the harsh Ural winter, which was also concerning.
But then, another group of evacuees came to our rescue: members of the Soviet government of Lithuania that had moved there from Moscow. They arranged for the children — most of whom, let us not forget, were young citizens of the independent Lithuanian state – to be transferred to the village of Debesy that stood on the bank of the river Cheptsa, a tributary of the Vyatka. There, also due to an intervention from above, our living conditions were quite different. We were put on more generous convalescent rations. This meant that everyone now received 600 grams of bread a day (instead of our previous, regular rations of 200 grams a day, which we, hoarding every crumb, would divide into three parts), plus a little vegetable oil and sugar. No less important was the fact that the summer camp, now reclassified as an orphanage, planted a vegetable garden to supplement our meager diet.
We were also fortunate in terms of academics. A Lithuanian secondary school was opened in the orphanage. It was called “comprehensive,” that is, covering all the grades of secondary school.
I remember my teachers from those days with gratitude. Each of them had reached that Udmurt village in their own way, but together they formed an excellent teaching team …
Zakharia Tschesno with his older brother, Alexander. Berlin, 1930.
In the summer of 1944, the official news bulletins delivered through the standard wall-mounted radio speakers began to mention Lithuanian place names. The front was approaching the Western border. We were all given sheets of white paper and stamped envelopes and asked to send a letter to our former home address. After a while, my Lithuanian classmates began receiving replies and then care packages with smoked meats and other tasty things. They, to give them their due, were not greedy and willingly shared these things with us. We, the Jewish children, all without exception, had our letters returned, marked “Return to sender.” This message was equivalent to a death notice. That was when I first felt the full horror of the tragedy that had befallen my people.
But I did not give up. I asked for another sheet of paper and wrote a letter to the prominent Kaunas pediatrician, Professor Matuliavičius. Since I, naturally, did not know his address, I came up with an original way of addressing my message. I wrote on the envelope in large letters: “To the best pediatrician in Kaunas, Dr. Matulevičius,” and below added a postscript: “Dear postal workers! I have a great favor to ask of you: please find the address of this person and deliver my letter to him.” And can you imagine – it worked! The letter arrived at its destination, and I received an answer – a very warm letter in which the doctor encouraged me not to lose hope. Some of his former Jewish patients who had been hiding somewhere in the period of occupation, he wrote, were now returning to the city; as long as there was no confirmation of the death of my loved ones, I must hope and wait.
Meanwhile, our final re-evacuation (return home) approached. We left Debesy late in the autumn of 1944. The nearest railway station, Kez, was thirty kilometers away; we had to travel on sleighs. Our journey home took almost a month, because the war was still going on, and our train was constantly being delayed to let troop and hospital trains pass…
Zakharia’s older brother, Alexander, killed by Lithuanian nationalists on the first day of the war.
On the platform of the Vilnius station our Lithuanian students ran to their parents with shouts of joy. In contrast, there was only one person meeting all of us, Jewish children. It was Jonas Šalkauskas, former director of our Debesy school, who later became Deputy Commissar of Education of Lithuania. He immediately arranged for us to be issued identity papers, which none of us had, right there on the spot. We were given ration cards for a month in advance, a change of underwear, and some cash. Šalkauskas’ farewell speech was short but very heartfelt. “My dear ones,” he said, “you are now alone in life. Place your hope only in yourselves and in good people who may offer you support. Help each other; do not be discouraged. The worst is behind you; think now about the future; build it yourself.”
Putting his words into action, I took a train to Kaunas. From the station I went straight to the apartment we had lived in before the war. Now our former neighbors from the basement room were living there. They seated me at the table, fed me, and only then told me about my parents — all they could remember. Immediately after the declaration of war, Mother and Father called Druskininkai on the telephone. When they learned that the summer camp had been evacuated, they decided to flee – first to Vilnius, to try to meet up with me or with my older brother there. But when they got to Vilnius, the city was already in German hands.
As to what happened to them after that, I learned it a few years later from people who had miraculously survived the Vilnius ghetto. Yes, there was no doubt: my mother, Esther Leya, and my father, Moshe, may their memory be blessed, along with thousands of other Jews were shot in Paneriai (Ponar), the suburb of Vilnius, chosen by the Nazis for their mass execution of innocent victims. They died hoping that I had been taken deep into the Russian heartland with my summer camp, but they did not know anything about the fate of their eldest son, Alexander.
His fate was truly tragic. I learned about it in 1946 through a chance encounter, as I was trying to enroll at the physics and mathematics faculty at Vilnius University. I went there to hand in my documents, and suddenly a man rushed toward me, introduced himself and asked me my name. Taken aback by this onslaught, I answered: “I am Tschesno.”
“You are Tschesno? That’s impossible; you were killed, I saw it with my own eyes!”
I immediately thought of my brother; we looked very much alike. Within a few minutes all became clear. Yes, he really meant my brother, and the man who had confused me with him was a Pole, Zaremba, who had worked for many years in the university’s facilities department.
On the first day of the war, my brother, Alexander, had gone to the dean’s office to pick up his documents: he may have thought that they would give him a chance of survival. But he was immediately noticed by the “White Armbands,” the thugs who wore white armbands with the three letters LAF (“Lithuanian Activist Front”). On that day, these miscreants hacked several Jews to death with shovels; among them was my brother…
(An abridged excerpt from the book Vse reki vpadaiut v Iordan (“All Rivers Flow Into The Jordan”, Jerusalem, 2007)
 The Lithuanian Activist Front (Lietuvos Aktyvistų Frontas) was formed in 1940-41 to fight against the “Soviet occupation regime” and its supporters and for the restoration of the independent Lithuanian State. Members of the Lithuanian Activist Front carried out numerous killings of Jews and those whom they considered “supporters of Soviet power.” After the Lithuanian Activist Front began to actively intervene in the affairs of governance and appointment of officials in the local Lithuanian administration and police, it was banned at the end of 1941 by German occupation authorities.