Holocaust survivor Suly Chenkin to schoolchildren: Do not be indifferent
By Susan Shinn
CHINA GROVE ó Suly Chenkin was only a year old, kept safe in her parents’ arms at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Lithuania.
She never cried during a 10-hour “selection period” in which Jews in the ghetto were removed to extermination camps.
Sixth-graders at China Grove Middle School got a rare glimpse into history on Tuesday afternoon as Chenkin spoke to some 200 students in the family life center of First Methodist Church.
“It is nothing short of a miracle that I’m here,” said Chenkin, who’s 68 and lives in Charlotte.
On June 22, 1941, the Nazis arrived in Chenkin’s hometown, Kaunas.
The Germans had been there before in World War I, and the people remembered them as civilized.
The Nazi army was a different story, Chenkin said.
“Things became very bad,” she said. “No Jewish child could go to school. No Jew could open their business. No Jew could take transportation.”
Chenkin and her mother and father went to her grandparents’ farm on foot, only to learn that her grandfather and uncles had been shot to death.
“This is how the nightmare began,” Chenkin said.
Some 40,000 Jews were herded into the ghetto behind barbed wire fences, in housing meant for only 10,000.
Ultimately, only 2,000 survived.
“It was very difficult,” Chenkin said. “There was no running water in some places, and very little food. We were decimated.”
On Oct. 27, 1941, Chenkin’s parents got word that all inmates were to assemble the next morning at 6 a.m.
“The ghetto was shrouded in darkness,” she said. “I was there but I can’t tell you much about it. I was exactly a year old and I was in my parents’ arms. They took turns holding me because we were there for 10 hours.
“It was my first lesson in survival,” she says.
Ten thousand Jews were taken away that day ó never to be seen again.
The Nazis called the selection process an “action.”
“This is how, little by little, they kept taking us away,” Chenkin said.
By the winter of 1941, only about 17,000 Jews were left in the ghetto.
“This is where I started growing up,” Chenkin said.
Her father worked for the Nazis as a food distributor, giving out bread to families. His boss, an SS commander, admired her father’s ethics.
“He respected him so much that he would come to our house in the evenings and bring us news from the front,” Chenkin said.
She remembers the point when, at age 3, “I realized there was something very wrong in my life.”
She was standing at the window at her uncle’s apartment, when she looked down and saw men in big coats and rifles with “enormous German shepherds.”
She was jerked away from the window.
“They could have shot me right there,” she said.
Chenkin’s parents soon learned that all adjacent ghettos were being liquidated, and that the Nazis were removing the sick, the old and the children.
Her father’s boss told him, “You better find yourself a place for your child. Try to find somebody who will take her.”Chenkin said it would require someone with “a good heart, and a large heart,” because harboring Jews was an offense punishable by death.
Chenkin’s parents began their quest to find someone who would take their daughter.
Because there was an engineer in their house, her parents built a bunker by removing steps to a second basement.
Chenkin remembers an “hysterical silence” in the middle of the night when the home’s occupants were scurrying about the house, going down to the hiding place ó before it had been completed.
“My mother jumped into the bunker and my father handed me to her,” Chenkin said. “I remember hitting my head on the opening and I remember my mother’s hand on my mouth like it was just now.
“But I did not cry. I knew I had to be quiet.”
The Nazis demanded that Chenkin’s father take them to the hiding place.
Fortuitously, the home had a wine cellar, and he took them there. The German shepherds sniffed out the cellar but couldn’t find anything.
Chenkin and her mother stayed in the cellar for another day until they felt it was safe to come out.
“From that moment on,” she said, “I was not allowed to go out of the house because there were no more children in the ghetto.”
She’s been told that she was the youngest survivor of the ghetto.
Her parents found a woman to teach Chenkin Lithuanian, and she was no longer allowed to speak Yiddish ó for that could give her away once she was placed.
Her parents began preparing to give her away.
“They told me that they loved me but that they were giving me away to keep me safe,” she said. “They said I should never, never ask for them. Ever.”
Finally, Chenkin’s father heard of a woman, Miriam Shulman, who was placing Jewish children in Christian homes.
“At a prearranged time,” she said, “I was given a sleeping pill and put into a potato sack, and put into a cart with other potato sacks with real potatoes in them.
“At a certain point, I was tossed over the barbed wire. There was my benefactress. She put me into a carriage and we went away.
“I did not see my parents again until three years later.”
When Chenkin woke up, she had a new name, Sabina, a new language, Lithuanian, and a new mother, Shulman.
“So it was very tough,” she said. “I never asked about my parents. For a long time, I hardly ever spoke.”
Chenkin was spirited away from the ghetto on May 27, 1944.
On July 13 of that same year, the camp was liquidated, burned to the ground.
Her father was sent to Dachau concentration camp near Munich, while her mother was sent to a camp in Stuthoss, on the border between Poland and Germany.
Chenkin was in Lithuania, hiding in her hometown. The town was liberated Aug. 1, 1944.
Both parents survived.
Her mother was held prisoner by the Russians, who liberated the camp from the Nazis.
Her father was saved by the American GIs who liberated Dachau.
“The GIs couldn’t do enough for the inmates,” Chenkin said. “The Americans had everything.”
Meanwhile, Shulman took her own three children and Chenkin and went to Israel, which was then Palestine.
“There we were, in three different parts of the world,” Chenkin said.
She called Europe ground zero, because there was no communications.
Ultimately, the three were reunited.
Once Chenkin arrived in Palestine, she began to ask for her mother. She was always told, “She’s in the next town.”
She soon realized her mother wasn’t there.
Soon after, someone offered her a banana, which was considered an exotic food.
“It took me 30 years to be able to eat a banana again,” Chenkin said.
Chenkin’s father eventually landed in Munich, where he worked for the Americans in a camp for displaced persons.
While her mother was being held, a young man came there from Lithuania, looking for his girlfriend. The Nazis were methodical, Chenkin said, and the man knew that Lithuanian women from his particular town were all at the same camp.
He told Chenkin’s aunt that she was safe in Palestine.
“That’s how my mother found out that I was alive,” Chenkin said.
To confirm the news, the man later sent a telegram to his aunt, who was working in the camp hospital with just two words: “Daughter lives.”
“My mother immediately made plans to escape from camp,” Chenkin said.
She went out one night to fetch water, Chenkin said, and when the guard looked the other way, she broke into a dead run. She hid in a garden until dawn, and set off the next day in search of her daughter.
When she got to a town in Poland, thinking Chenkin was there, she found out her daughter was on a boat to Palestine.
“She was standing in the street crying,” Chenkin said. “Two men came up and said, your husband is in Munich. Go with us.”
They left on foot with no papers and no money. They stole food from gardens and finally made it to the East German border.
But since they had no papers, they were put on a train heading east.
“They went onto the roof of the train and when the train came heading west, the three of them jumped,” Chenkin said. “That’s how my mother was reunited with my father.”
Her father’s uncle brought the couple to Cuba, and her mother eventually made her way to Palestine to retrieve her.One day, her foster siblings bought Chenkin a pair of white sandals ó very impractical, she thought.
She was 6 years old.
Her foster siblings told her, “Mother wants to see you.”Chenkin thought that meant Shulman.
She came to the house and started calling for her foster mother.
“My mother walked out,” Chenkin said.
She recognized her and ran into her arms.
“Then I totally froze,” Chenkin said.
Chenkin and her mother stayed in Palestine for six months until their papers were ready.
Chenkin and her mother finally got to Cuba and were reunited with her father.
“Of the 40,000 Jews who went into the ghetto, only 2,000 were left ó among them, my mother, my father and I,” Chenkin said. “It’s a miracle I’m here. It takes a village to save somebody. It took a lot of people for me to get here.”As long as people aren’t indifferent, this will not happen again.”