By Miriam Kagan (Kahn) Lieber (New York)
My family was delighted to learn that Defending History 2022 Persons of the Year are the inspirationally courageous Lithuanians who risked all to save my parents and a small group of their friends from certain death in Kovno by hiding them in the forests near their rural homes. This is our amazing tale of discovery, in brief.
In the summer of 2019, my cousin traveled to Lithuania to visit the country where much of our family originated, home to my parents, Berl and Raya Kagan, and aunt, Nechama Ilman Himmel. It was our good fortune that he met Stanislovas Stasiulis of the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History, who introduced us to his colleague Danutė Selčinskaja, long time head of the museum‘s department for discovering, recording and acknowledging Rescuers of Holocaust-era Lithuania.
Danutė knew the story of six heroic Lithuanian peasants from the hamlet of Karalgiris who rescued eight Jews from the Kovno Ghetto. She was very familiar with the story that had been published in post-war newspapers in Lithuania and in the book, Unarmed Fighters (Ir be ginklo kariai), but despite several attempts, lacked the documentation to confirm the accuracy of the story.
She was not yet familiar with my father’s diary, published in 1955 in Yiddish in New York by the Congress for Jewish Culture, entitled A yid in vald (A Jew in the Woods). The entries in the diary would confirm what was written in several post-war publications about this rescue, including the first names of each of the rescuers. She, along with Stanislovas, quickly grasped the historical value of the published Yiddish diary as it provided an in-depth picture of the rescuers of the Holocaust period in Lithuania. And due to Danutė‘s hard work and dedication she brought to fruition the long overdue recognition of these righteous Lithuanians this past September.
In 2021 Tadas Pocius and Barbora Urbonaviciute-Baceviciene, Antanas Volskis and Stanislava Volskiene, Leonas Vaidotas and Stanislava Vaidotiene were posthumously awarded the Award of the State of Lithuania known as The Life Saving Cross.
My father’s memoir is a rare, first-hand chronicle of the rescue of eight Jews from the Kovno Ghetto in October of 1943, their unlikely survival for ten months, until Lithuania was liberated by the Soviet Army in August of 1944. Whether living in a barn or the nearby bushes or in the forest close to the village of Karalgiris, this ten-month period was the most critical of their entire lives and the only reason I am here today, able to write about this.
Prior to getting in touch with Danutė and Stanislovas, I had no idea who the people were that rescued my parents, Raya and Berl Kagan (Kahn) and my aunt Nechama Ilman Himmel. My father, while keeping the diary in those dark days, did not enter any last names for fear that should the diary be found, his rescuers would be killed. So, all these years later, I finally learned the last names of the rescuers.
It was Tadas Pocius and Barbora Urbonavičiūtė-Bacevičienė who hid my parents in their barn and guided them when they had to hide in the bushes or the forest. Never expecting a positive result, I asked Danutė whether there might be any relatives. Danutė posted articles in local papers, spoke to local people and, after much work, this is how relatives of the rescuers were found! There were four granddaughters of Tadas and Barbora living in Lithuania!
Danutė’s work in finding the descendants of Tadas and Barbora has proved to be an inspiration. Her work has enriched my life and that of my family in so many ways. Over the last six months, I’ve had the privilege of becoming friends with the granddaughters of Tadas Pocius and Barbora Urbonavičiūtė-Bacevičienė, and even a great granddaughter. And perhaps, it addresses my father’s final words at the end of his diary: “May this story remain, always, as a reminder and as an inspiration.”
Some seventy years following its first publication in 1955, I remain hopeful it can be published in both Lithuanian and English with the hope it provides anew inspiration to others, just as it has for me and my family. Thank you Danute and Stanislovas!