At the beginning of the Second
World War, on June 22, 1941, I was 15 years old. I was a high
school student in one of the four Hebrew high schools in Kovno,
the capital of Lithuania. Our community also had a Jewish
theater, a Jewish hospital, a Jewish orphanage, two daily Jewish
newspapers, numerous synagogues, a Jewish technical college, one
of the most well known yeshivas in the world (Slobodka), and
many other community organizations, such as Jewish burial
services, Jewish fellowships for assisting the poor, kosher
Jewish community in Kovno had about 40,000 members and
constituted 25 percent of the population in the city. Many of
its members were professionals, including some of the country's
leading doctors, lawyers and business people. Other members of
the community were skilled artisans, merchants, small business
owners and laborers. All major political sections within the
Jewish community had organizations and youth clubs in the city,
including, the Zionists, the socialists, and the various
The first day of the war found
me in a small town called Balbirishok, which was located about
40 kilometers south of Kovno. My brother Arie, his wife Rebecca,
and their 3-year-old daughter, Esther, lived there. Since it was
the end of June and I was on summer vacation, my father and I
decided to spend some time with my brother and his family. My
mother was visiting my older sister, Celia, who had just gotten
married and moved with her husband to Vilna, the largest city in
June 22 was a Sunday. What does
a 15-year-old boy do on a Sunday morning on his summer vacation?
In my case, I went fishing in the nearest river. After about two
hours of less than successful fishing, I suddenly heard the
sound of distant bombing that didn't exactly fit the pastoral
environment around me. I decided to pack up my fishing gear and
We walked four days to get home.
When I got home, it was clear
that the war has started. My father decided that we should go
back to our home in Kovno as soon as possible. Public
transportation was no longer available, so my father and I
started walking back. The roads were packed with German armored
trucks on their way east, and poor us, were walking slowly, with
all our belongings on our backs on the road to Kovno. It took us
four days to get home. About a week later, my brother Arie and
his wife and daughter arrived in Kovno and joined us.
By the time my brother and
his family joined us in Kovno, the city was fully occupied
by the Germans. We heard about the massacres that the
Lithuanians have undertaken against the Jewish population
in the city and the surrounding areas, so we stayed at
home and didn't go out at all for a while. We lived on
food that we prepared in the house ahead of time.
Within days, the German
occupiers had placed posters in public places around the city
announcing that the Jewish people have to wear a yellow star on
their clothes and that they are not allowed to walk on the
sidewalk. Shortly afterwards, there were new posters announcing
that the Jews are to leave their homes and move to one of the
poorest suburbs of the city, Slobodka, where the Jewish Ghetto
was to be established. We had to move before August 1, which
gave us only a few weeks to prepare.
Moving into the Ghetto
This is how we found ourselves
in the Kovno Ghetto, with a few clothes and a few pieces of
furniture that we managed to take from our large house. In the
Ghetto, we found ourselves in a tiny flat with two other
families, with barbed wire and soldiers guarding us day and
night. Our flat in the Ghetto was near the fence, not far from
the synagogue and from the major entrance gate.
The synagogue was never used for
prayer. The Germans organized classical music concerts there.
They didn't have a problem finding musicians and other artists
in the Ghetto. So I had the opportunity to listen to classical
music of the highest quality right outside my home and I took
advantage of this at every opportunity.
The food ration was 200 grams of bread per person per day,
and 100 grams of horse meat once in two weeks.
Life in the Ghetto was not easy,
to say the least. The food that was distributed to us was
meager, 200 grams of bread per person per day, 100 grams of
horse meat once in two weeks, and occasionally, a kilogram of
potatoes. We starved most of the time and so it is no wonder
that the black market flourished. This market was based on
provisions smuggled into the Ghetto by those who worked outside
the Ghetto during the day. We didn't have any money, so we
exchanged gold coins, clothes, household items and anything else
that the non-Jews outside the Ghetto were willing to take in
exchange for food. Working outside the Ghetto was advantageous
despite the harsh conditions and misery associated with it. You
had to be up in front of the entrance to the Ghetto at 5 a.m.
where the Appel (the counting and organizing into work groups)
was taking place. About an hour after the Appel, in freezing
cold, the work groups started to leave through the gate,
accompanied by soldiers.
We walked slowly through the
city on our way to various work places. We walked on the street,
with the German soldiers walking on the sidewalk. Every Jewish
person had a yellow star on his or her chest and on his or her
back. As a matter of principle, Jews were not allowed to walk
anywhere but on the street, with the horses. The yellow star had
to be worn on one's clothes at all times, and a German was to
guard the Jews at all times.
The work places we went to were
quite varied. There was hard digging in the airport at Aleksot,
and maintenance work for German soldiers around the city. The
most sought after places were those where one could have some
contact with the local population. Such contact was an
opportunity to exchange valuables and clothes for food.
Returning to the Ghetto at night
was an ordeal. Again, we would walk slowly in a group,
accompanied by German soldiers. This time, however, we would be
stopped at the gate to be searched. The Jewish police at the
gate would allow a small amount of food for personal use, but
anything beyond this was confiscated.
The normal procedure was that
just before the gate, one would have to take off his hat, open
his bag and raise his hands so the guard could check him. My
father had an ingenious idea that allowed him to trick the
guard. He would open his coat and raise his arms, holding his
hat in one hand. They never found anything on him. After the
checkup, he would take half a kilo of butter out of his hat.
Half a kilo of butter was worth more than 20 kilos of potatoes
on the black market. This would be enough food for us to live on
Ephraim Romm and family
There was another
advantage to going out to work. As time went by, we
discovered that the Germans took advantage of the fact
that some of the Ghetto's inhabitants were out at work to
round up people for executions (Aksionnen). Those who were
out working were safer and less likely to be seized than
those who stayed in the Ghetto during the day.
Building a Hiding Place
Soon enough we realized that it
was essential to build a hiding place. We called the hiding
place "Maline." When the Germans announced that certain houses
were to be evacuated and the inhabitants rounded up for
selection -- which would be followed by execution -- it was
important to have a hiding place. This is what happened during
the great Aksionnen of October 1941, which resulted in
half the Ghetto's population beyond Panerio Street being
Because of the crowded living
conditions, it was important to build the hiding place in total
secrecy and to equip it with electricity, a toilet, and enough
food for a long stay. How can one do this when there is another
family living in the next room? Well, in our small room, we
moved the sofa, and underneath we opened a small square hole in
the wooden floor, about the width of one's shoulders. From this
opening, my father and I started to take dirt out.
But then, how does one get rid
of the extra dirt without anyone noticing? We managed to find a
vacant cellar nearby and started filling it with dirt. We worked
for many nights, very quietly so our neighbors and the soldiers
guarding the fence just outside the house would not notice
anything. Given that we lived right near the fence, this was
quite an achievement.
Our spider hole was equipped with electricity, a toilet, and
enough food for a long stay.
After many nights of working on
the hiding place (after which we would go to work in the morning
as usual), our hiding place was ready and fully equipped. Our
plan was to use it not just while the Ghetto was in existence
but also for the time when the Germans may decide to liquidate
the Ghetto. The idea was to hide until the Russians came.
Actually I prepared a second,
alternative hiding place. At the time, I was working with my
father on Putvinskio Street. We worked for a German military
unit that provided services to other units in the region. My
father, who was a master electrician, made me his assistant.
This allowed me to work with him and learn the profession from
The Germans established a small
workshop for him in one of the huts, and this was his kingdom.
No one ventured into it. So, we decided to open a hole in the
ceiling, and in the gap between the ceiling and the roof, we
built a small room from wooden boards. We equipped the room with
everything that might be needed for a long stay, including a
stove and wood for heating. We made sure that our hiding place
had a second, alternative entrance, with a ladder that was
always hanging outside in case there was no way of entering the
hiding place from inside the workshop. Again, the idea was that
this second hiding place could be used if we had to leave the
Ghetto, and then we would be able to hide among the non-Jews in
This was not the last hiding
place that we built. Later on, when the Russians advanced closer
to the city, the Kovno Ghetto became a concentration camp under
the management of the German commander, Goeke. This meant that
those who worked outside the Ghetto were housed in small camps
closer to their work places.
As a result of this, our family
was separated. My parents were housed in camps outside the
Ghetto, while my brother's family and I were moved to one of the
huts inside the Ghetto. All the work that we invested in
building our first hiding place came to nothing...
The Germans were already
withdrawing from Russia and we had no idea what was to happen.
There was an urgent need to build a new hiding place. Since
there was a pantry at the entrance to our hut, I decided to make
a hole at the top of that pantry that would allow us to get into
the gap between the ceiling and the roof. It was impossible to
stand in that area, but one could sit or lie down there. I
organized a sleeping place there and installed some equipment.
It was impossible to get electricity there.
There were rumors that the
Germans were withdrawing and that the front with the Russians
was getting close. We didn't know what was really happening.
Right at the very beginning of the Nazi occupation, the Germans
announced that no one was allowed to listen to short wave radio.
The whole population had to give up their short wave radios,
and, instead, the authorities provided small radios that could
only access local, censored channels. Jews were not allowed to
have any radios at all. So all the news we heard came from the
Lithuanians we met at our work places.
In the Ghetto, the Germans would
occasionally search for young people who were not working. The
searches were usually carried out at night. When they found such
young people, they would take them away and they were never
heard from again. So I had no choice but to sleep at night in my
hiding place. It wasn't much fun, but there was no other way.
Other than the searches at
night, the Germans would also have sudden Aksionnen during the
day. One of these was the children's Aksionnen in which
they collected all the small children who were still alive in
the Ghetto and executed them in the Ninth Fort (an area near the
Ghetto where most of the Ghetto's inhabitants were killed during
the three years the Ghetto was in existence). So we decided to
get Esther, my brother's daughter, who was five years old at the
time, into the hiding place during the children's Akstionnen.
This saved her life, for then. At the end, when the Ghetto was
liquidated, my brother, his wife and their daughter were all
Building My Own Radio
I don't know who invented the
transistor, but I invented a radio that worked without batteries
or electricity. I had no choice. Lying for hours in the dark
without electricity is not much fun. So if you take a regular
three-point electrical plug that you put in an electrical
socket, install a crystal on top of it and place an electric
wire in front of it, and if you also add ear phones and start
searching for some radio stations, you can actually hear a local
station without using any batteries or electricity.
It was illegal for Jews to
listen to the radio, but, then, it was also illegal for Jews to
hide. I decided to ignore both. Hearing the news was very
important because the rumors were that the front was getting
closer. Even though the radio was censored, one could read
between the words what was really happening. For example, if the
Germans said that "our army has successfully pushed the enemy
between Vilna and Minsk," one could gather exactly where the
So here I was, lying in my
hiding place for whole nights, enjoying classical music from the
Kovno radio and following the progress of the war. When they no
longer mentioned Minsk and only talked about "successful battles
around Vilna," I knew that the last hour of the Kovno Ghetto was
My Miraculous Escape
Life in the Ghetto was actually
quiet in the summer of 1944. From time to time we would hear
explosions from a distance, but generally, things were very
quiet. One day, the Judenrat (Jewish leadership of the
Ghetto) announced that all the Ghetto inhabitants were to be
transported by riverboats to Germany. We were to take only what
we could carry by hand and be ready to leave immediately.
The first group was to leave on
Saturday July 8, 1944. I didn't believe the Germans. My logic
was that if the front were so close, they wouldn't bother to
evacuate us to Germany. I thought their intention was to get the
Ghetto population quietly into one of the ancient forts and then
kill everyone just as they did in the preceding three years. I
was determined to leave the Ghetto with the very first group,
and once out of the Ghetto, to try to run away.
I decided not to take anything
with me. Who needs to take anything when one is going to his
death? I also decided to wear regular work clothes that would
not arouse any suspicion, including attaching the yellow star to
my clothes with a safety pin rather than with thread, so it
would be quick and easy to remove.
I would have one moment to bend down and disappear under the
So on July 8, 1944, I was at the
collection area near the Judenrat building, waiting with
the others to leave the Ghetto. I selected my place in the group
carefully. I wanted to be five lines before the end of the group
at the very right. My plan was as follows: When the soldiers
surround the group, the soldiers at the very back would not be
able to see me because there are five lines of people behind me.
The soldier on the left of the group would not be able to see me
because I would be on the right. Only the soldier on the right
side would be able to see me because he would be walking next to
me. However, if there were a car or a wagon by the side of the
road, the soldier on the right would be walking on the sidewalk
and would not be able to see the length of the parked vehicle.
This would give me a moment or so to bend down and disappear
under the parked vehicle.
And, so, when the group left the
Ghetto and I saw a wagon on the side of the road, with pieces of
furniture on it and a ladder next to it, I decided this was it:
I either do it and succeed, or this would be my end.
Exactly as planned, I took off
the yellow star, put on a hat that I had in my pocket, pulled
out a sandwich that was in my pocket with the hat, climbed the
ladder that was leaning against the wagon and started eating the
The group walked around the
wagon and the soldier, who did, indeed, walk on the sidewalk,
saw a pastoral picture, a wagon full of furniture, a man, who
was holding the reins of the horse, and his young assistant
(me), sitting on the ladder and eating a sandwich. To reinforce
the picture, I started talking to the man in Lithuanian. He
didn't respond. He saw everything but remained quiet and
continued to look ahead as if he didn't notice what was
happening right under his nose.
Once the group was away, I went
on the sidewalk, put my sandwich inside my hat and put
everything back in my pocket. I knew I would need the food, as I
had no idea where my next meal would come from.
And yet, despite this
uncertainty, I was overwhelmed with the relative freedom that I
suddenly had. At the same time, I was also curious to know where
they were taking the group. So I decided to follow them from a
safe distance, and on the sidewalk, like a free man. I saw them
crossing the Slobodka bridge and advancing toward the Aleksot
bridge. Just before that bridge, they turned left toward the
river Niemen. I was relieved because up the river Niemen there
was a small port that had riverboats leaving from it to the
Baltic Sea and from there to Germany. This time, it seems, the
Germans did not lie.
I turned around and went back to
where I came from. When I reached Panerio Street, where the
wagon was, I couldn't find it. It disappeared and so did the man
on it. I decided to return to the Ghetto gate. I deliberately
walked close to the Ghetto fence. I wanted the Jewish policemen,
who knew me, to see me and let my family know that they saw me
outside the Ghetto as a free man. So I continued to walk near
the fence for a while, until the fence ended.
Helping on the Farm
Now, what does an 18-year-old
boy do who suddenly won a new life and wants to celebrate? In my
case, I decided to go down to the river Vilia. I took off my
clothes and jumped into the river for a long and very enjoyable
swim. I have never enjoyed a swim as much as I did then, and
even though I still didn't know what was ahead of me, at that
moment, I was intoxicated with my new-found freedom.
After the swim, I put my clothes
back on, went back on the road, up a hill and under the shade of
a tree. There I finished my sandwich and started to plan my
In Kovno, during the month of
July, the sun sets at around 10:00 or 11:00 at night, and rises
at about 3:00 in the morning. So I had just a bit of time to
sleep and plan my next steps. It was clear that I should not
stay in the city. It was much better for me to start walking
toward the front instead of waiting for it to get to me. This
meant that I had to go east toward the city of Vilna.
I knew that I had to be careful.
I had to use side roads and avoid any major roads where either
the German or the Russian army might be moving. The countryside
was best. And so, on my very first day out of the Ghetto, I
managed to walk on side roads for at least 30 kilometers. By
night, I reached Jonava. I stayed in this small town for just
one night, and on the next day, continued my roundabout journey
By night, having reached what
seemed like a desert that I didn't even know existed in
Lithuania, I decided to try my luck with a farmer. I offered my
services as a farm hand, telling him that I knew my way around
the farm chores. I assumed that in summer there is always need
for extra help. I was successful. He took me in and offered me
some food in exchange for helping on his farm.
I wasn't worried that he would
turn me in to the German authorities, because I didn't look
Jewish and my language skills were impeccable. After three days
of work, the farmer came home sad, saying that just across the
hill, he saw a convoy of Russian armored trucks. I told him that
I wanted to see it with my own eyes. It was true. The trucks
were, indeed, Russian, and I was truly a free man for the first
time in three years.
I went back to the farmer and
told him my story. He was overwhelmed and told me that I did,
indeed, look too thin and should not continue to work. He asked
that I stay with him just a bit longer until I got better. I was
happy to oblige. As it happened, he was right. It was another
month before the Russians took over Kovno, and by that time I
was indeed much better and ready to take on the rest of my
What is success? Well, at the
beginning, there is an idea and this idea comes from God. To
make it successful, one needs to start working on it. One needs
to do it immediately, with determination and courage. In my
case, the idea was to escape at the very last moment. I planned
my escape carefully and executed it exactly as planned.
Later I learnt that another man
from my group tried to escape and was killed right then and
there on the bank of the Niemen River.
My parents survived the concentration camps and lived a long
life in Israel.
In the Ghetto we used to cheer
ourselves up by saying "we will survive them," but most of us
did not survive. I was lucky. In 1948 I was able to go to
Israel, the land of my dreams, and I fought in all the wars that
followed Israel's 1948 War of Independence. In 1955, I was able
to find my parents and bring them from the Soviet Union to
Israel. They survived the concentration camps in Stutthof and
Dachau and lived a long life in Israel. I am fortunate to have
four wonderful children and seven grandchildren, too. I am now
waiting for my very first great-grandchild to be born one of
But my brother, Arie, was not so
lucky. He and his family, as well as, my sister, Celia, and her
family, and several other close relatives died in the Ghetto and
were not buried according to the Jewish law. Let this story of
mine be their gravestone and may God avenge their blood.
In the Morning Prayer we say,
"How happy we are, and how good our fortune, and how beautiful
our destiny. We are happy that we are able to pray to You, God,
every morning and every night." We conclude our prayer by
saying, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
These words are not only in our daily prayer, but also the words
that each Jew utters when he gives his soul back to his Creator.
I am happy that I was born a Jew
and lived as a Jew. And when my time comes, I will die as a Jew,
with the land of my forefathers under me. Despite everything
that we have been through, we, the Jewish people, will live