Back To Journal

My Mother's Letter

A description of the the fate of most of the adult Jewish population of Zasliai, 1941.
By Raja Schiff Shlom-Berkman, November 2002

This letter you are about to read was written by Emanuel Shlom’s mother, Raja Schiff Shlom-Berkman, to her sister and brother-in-law, Ida and Itzhak Kalamitsky. In this eye-witness account Raja wrote in 1981 she describes the fate of most of the adult population of Zasliai – including her husband Moshe Mendel, her father, Izhak Berkman, and her father-in-law, Shalom Abba – in those terrible days of August 1941 during the German occupation which had begun a few days after June 22, 1941.

The Shlom family had been living in Kovno at the time the was broke out, and felt fortunate amidst all the bombing  and terror to be able to get onto a convoy of  Soviet transport buses that was attempting to flee eastwards some hours after the war broke out. But this convoy was strafed by the Luftwaffe near Rumshishok about 20 km east of Kovno and Raja, her husband, and son were lucky to get out alive. They then hid for a time in a nearby forest or thicket.

After two weeks Raja’s husband managed to find a peasant who would agree to take this family in a horse and cart to Zosle where they had family. However, when the Shlom family arrived in Zasliai, they found the place was already under curfew as the Germans together with their Lithuanian Nationalist collaborators had already occupied the Shtetl within a few days after the beginning of their barbarous invasion.

Every communication between the Jewish community and the Gentile community was strictly forbidden, and Jews could get nothing from anyone, not even bread. Men, women, and children from the age of 15 were driven to work from early morning till late in the evening, mainly to dig for a kind of fuel called "Torf." The remainder of the Jews at home were also given all sorts of horrible work within the boundaries of the little town and subjected to raids, robbery and torture by the S.S Commandos who were assisted by their Lithuanian counterparts.

This is just part of the historical background of the events during the Shoah that are contained within Raja’s letter.

This letter was first translated from the original Yiddish into Hebrew by a cousin, Jacob Kalamitsky, and then from Hebrew into English by Emmanuel Shlom This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . The explanatory notes within the brackets were written by Emmanuel Shlom.

Jerusalem 2/9/81

Dear Ida and Itzhak,

At this moment I have lit a Yahrzeit candle for our unforgettable father {Itzhak Berkman}, and all the rest of our family who were murdered together with him. After Emmanuel’s father there is thank G-d my son who can say Kaddish., may his days be prolonged, but after our father there is no one to say Kaddish and the only one who can say Kaddish for our father and our brother Gedalia is you Itzikal. May G-d give you both many years of good health that you can continue to do your good deeds, amen.
Today it is exactly 40 years since I left the Koshadar camp, the place where the Jews of Zosle {Zasliai} Ziezmer, {Ziezmariai}, and Koshadar {Kaisiadorys} were interned for nine days – men, women, and young boys and girls, 15 years and older.

When they were herded together in Zosle they were told to take food for three days, so that by the fourth day they already had no food. Because they were hungry from before, the murderers allowed food to be brought to them by those still left in Zosle. Sometimes Sheine {my mother’s younger sister}, would carry the food to Koshadar, sometimes Ida {my aunt from my father’s side who was his sister. Their mother, Rachel, was  of course my granny. She, together with Ida, perished in Semilishok {Semeliskes}.  Sometimes I would carry the food.

On that dreadful day it was my turn to carry the food in two pails which were attached on either side to a wooden rod by two hooks. I had to carry all this because no Lithuanian Goy {gentile} wanted to transport Jews {or help them in any way, among other things out of fear for their own safety}. August 27, 1941 was a very hot day and the nine kilometer distance between Zosle and Koshadar never seemed to end.

I carried food not only for my father {Izhak Berkman}, my husband Moshe Mendel, and my father-in-law Shalom Abba, but also for Leibe Zippes and his wife {prominent members of the Jewish community in Zosle and good friends of our families} and three yeshiva young men who fled Poland in 1939 {when the Germans invaded Poland on 1/9/39} who were looked after by our families {they slept at Rochel’s and ate with our family as both our families lived  in a one big house divided in two}, but also for the sister of Zalman Epstein and her husband {who were probably friends of these families}. 

When all were taken out in the late afternoon from Yasha Burstein’s house – a place where they had been all locked in for a whole day, either Zalman Epstein or Yasha Burstein’s wife, her name it seems to me was Faesel, cried out to our mother who stood on the stairs of the shop:  "Bluma, the sun is shining for everyone, only for us it has set.”

I stood with my small Emmanuel and looked through a window from a room on Rochel’s side of the house and when little Emmanuel saw his father, he started to shout: “Papa, Papal!” 

At that moment there came running one of the murderers with the intention of hitting him on the head with a rifle butt, and so it would have happened if I had not fled from the window with him in my arms.

This was the beginning of our end.  

A long procession  of people spread out from Zosle on the route to Koshadar. We followed them on their way from the veranda, which became black with the tread of their feet. 

I went and stood in front of the shop {Itzhak Berkman’s textile shop was appended to the house} and saw Gunk’s children {one of her female neighbors}, together with her eldest son who was about 15 and many other children. I looked at the empty Synagogue {called the Bait Hamedrash – as a place for religious studies} and thought: “The children will grow up and fill the houses and the Bait Hamedrash will not remain orphaned.” 

Such thoughts ran through my head, for I had to understand at that terrible moment how to find comfort in the midst of the unfolding destruction and the inability to believe what was happening or to forget even for one moment the night before when the doors and windows were violently knocked on and everyone was dragged from their beds and homes. The screams and cries ring in my ears to this day.   

On that Tuesday {27/8/41} I brought them the food. Apart from dry food I brought them a milk Lokshen soup that mother {my grandmother Bluma} had cooked with the little flour still left at home. The milk from our cow was still holding up. {The cow was retrieved by my mother and Sheine when we returned to Zosle after our liberation – sometime late in August 1944.} 

Until  the end of my days I will not forget how Shalom Abba lay on the floor with everyone treading on him during the saying of “Oseh Shalom” at the end of the Shmona Esrei prayer. {This was probably during the afternoon minha prayer service when  you take three steps back to say  “Oseh Shalom.”}

Our father {Itzhak Berkman} was pale as a rag and did not even want to eat anything. He only asked that I bring him a fur coat to put underneath him as the sides of his body ached him very much. Apart from that he asked that tomorrow I should bring mother {his wife Bluma}. He wanted to see her one more time! He was very depressed and broken.

Moshe Mendel {my father} had grown a beard and we decided that tomorrow I bring him a razor to shave and a long dress to disguise him as a women and get him out of the hut {where all were cramped together}.

At that time they were guarded by a young Lithuanian who was armed only with a revolver – and had they understood what awaited them, they could all have easily escaped. But who could have foreseen to himself that this was the last day of their lives and that they would soon be forced to dig their own terrible graves?

Around me were gathered Yankel Madjansky {head of the Zosle fire brigade}, Arane the pharmacist, and Doctor Trapida. {He was the village doctor and would travel by horse and cart all around to help the Lithuanian ill. His wife was a dentist and they had a son called Lovke who was my age. Both survived. I don’t know whether they had escaped from  Semilishok or hid somewhere else. The bottom line was that after the liberation when my mother returned with me to Zosle, we arrived simultaneously at the village centre and all the crowd of Lithuanians came to so call greet us.  I still vaguely remember the whole episode. Sheine and her future husband Meir had arrived a couple of weeks before. To make a long story short we lived<  together with the Trapidas in Kovno for several months in 1945/46}. They asked us to deliver their request to their wives that they should gather what was left of their money and jewels so as to bribe the head of the Lithuanian "Polizei" {so called police}that only those not older than 36 should be taken to work. In the morning they called Yankel Madjansky who was regarded  by them as the “Ober Jude" {so called Jewish leader} and told him that in the afternoon everyone would be transferred to Klapaede {a Lithuanian port on the Baltic, formerly called Memel, which was annexed by the Germans in 1939 some months before their invasion of Poland on 1/9/39}.

Filled with all sorts of requests I left the hut but in the street there was a huge commotion!  A large lorry had arrived from Kovno filled with German soldiers, probably the S.S. I was frightened to draw closer and ran straight out of the townlet of Koshadar.  On the way I met a large group of teenage boys and girls who were being led in the direction of Koshadar. It appears that everyday they were being led to dig “Torf” {a kind of fuel}. Among the group there was also Yudele, the youngest son of  Abraham the Tinker, who had some time before been my pupil {in Kovno at the Shwabbe Gymnasium}. I asked him, “Why are you being led so early from the work at 2 in the afternoon when generally you are brought back at 4 p.m?" No one knew how to answer my question.

When I returned home I found a panic and commotion also in our little town {Zosle now Zasliai}. A group of teenage girls who had been digging torf {near the town} were brought to the town {Zosle}, herded onto lorries and taken to Koshadar. My sister Sheine wanted to travel with them in order to bring our father a cushion and fur coat, but I did not let her get on a lorry and so she remained alive.

The wife of Chaim Eliyahu jumped onto one of the lorries together with her eldest son  and a basket full of food leaving behind the rest of her children. They perished together with all the rest in Koshadar.

If I had left the hut 10 minutes later, or stayed there another 10 to 15 minutes, I would not now be sitting here in Jerusalem and writing this letter to you.

So it is as if today is my fortieth birthday. {Exactly 40 years had elapsed since the tragic events portrayed and the writing of my mother’s letter. This is the reason for the allusion to the metaphor of being 40 years old.}

On the following day {Wednesday} a lorry arrived in Zosle in the afternoon full of the perpetrators of  the slaughter along with an orchestra. They played and sang to celebrate what they had perpetrated. All were totally drunk.

A militia man {one of the Polizei} who quartered with the Kat family in the apartment of the Rabbi of Zosle told their daughter Dvorke {Deborah} that no one remained alive, all had been shot dead, and that he advised us not to sleep at home as “they” were coming to gather the remaining woman and children.

That night I slept together with my small son Emmanuel at the house of a Lithuanian woman who used to buy at our shop. I took with me a sack full of things,  mainly for Emmanuel. The next day she made us leave the house in the morning on the pretext that just now the Germans would be coming here, and she only allowed to take one pair of panties for my son.

With my last strength I got to our house. My mother and Sheine had spent the night in an open field in a ditch {or a big hole}.

On the following day I fled with my child to the townlet of Vievis {south east from Zosle, about 15 km away, and next to Semilishok about another 15 km further on}. My mother and Sheine were supposed to catch up with us later. With superhuman effort I managed somehow to evade the blockades and guards around Zosle, but my mother and Sheine were caught and brought back to Zosle.

The truth was that on that Wednesday night the Lithuanians came to collect the remaining women and children, but their cries and screams halted the murderers. Apart from that they were unable to carry out their plans of murder as the ditches prepared for graves had filled up with water. From Vievis I continued to Semilishok and there, after three weeks, I was reunited with my mother and Sheine. How this happened is too long a story to tell right now. Keep well and healthy and answer me as soon as possible.


Emmanuel Shlom’s comments on the ending of the letter:

"From what I remember of what my mother told me in the past, we were caught after some time in Vievis and brought back to Zosle before 21/9/41 when my mother’s other manuscript begins. Although the Jews of Vievis were brought to Semilishok on 22/9/41 it was a different operation from the one described in my mother’s manuscript – even far more brutal – so I think that for the sake of brevity my mother did not elaborate and cut the story short in her letter.

The manuscript pertaining to Semilishok was written some two years after this letter. My mother had told me the whole story while we drove down to visit a friend of hers from South Africa at a kibbutz down in the south. Just as aside, when my mother got to Vievis and she saw Jews praying, she said to them, “Throw away your talesim {prayer shawls} and flee!” ~ but they did not believe her when she told them what had happened at Koshadar and the fate that awaited them all.

about the author
Raja Schiff Shlom-Berkman

Raja Schiff nee Berkman was born about 1908 (exact year uncertain) in Vishnevo, Belarus, in Vitebsk Guberniya though in the Litvak ALD it is listed under Vilnius Gubernia. Her parents were Itzhak Berkman and Bluma Berkman nee Shapiro, and Raja was the second of five children.   

The Berkman family were forced to leave their shtetl in 1915 after a fire destroyed their home and the shtetl in general. They settled in Minsk where my mother received her early education (mainly a Russian orientation). Life was hard in Minsk because of World War One and then the Russian Revolution.

Around 1921-22 the family settled in Zasliai where the family had its roots on her mother’s side.  Raja’s mother was Bluma Berkman nee Shapiro.

Raja completed her education at a seminary for Hebrew teachers and at the age of 18 got a job as Hebrew teacher in Kelm. In 1927 she got a position teaching the lower grades at the prestigious Schwabe Hebrew Gymnasium in Kovno, which was founded by the great educator, Dr. Schwabe, in 1923.  She taught there for 14 years until the war broke out.

In 1935 she married my late father Maurice Schlom who was a South African citizen and whose family also came from Zasliai. For some 20 months, from 1946 till April 1948, she was head of the Bialik Hebrew School in the Mariendorf Jewish refugee camp in West Berlin.

In June 1948 she arrived in South Africa together with me, her son Emmanuel, and settled first in Durban and finally in Johannesburg. During all these years Raja continued teaching Hebrew. After she retired in 1972, she and her late husband David Schiff (whom she had married in 1952) came on Aliyah to Israel and settled in Jerusalem.
Raja passed away on March 4, 1986.