LONDONDERRY — It's not an easy story to tell but hers is a tale that needs to be shared, Holocaust survivor Henia Lewin told a group of local preteens.
Lewin, 72, a native of Lithuania who now lives in Amherst, Mass., visited Londonderry Middle School on Friday afternoon to recount her experiences to Geography teacher Marna Ducharme's seventh-graders.
Ducharme has known Lewin for many years. Lewin was Ducharme's childhood Hebrew teacher, and many years later became her college professor and her father's companion.
Lewin's story is woven into this semester's lessons, with students learning how the Holocaust fit into the context of geography and how different economic and governing systems affected everyday people.
Last week, the children watched a movie about life in the Warsaw ghetto. On Friday, they heard Lewin's firsthand account of the Holocaust.
Born in the city of Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1940, Lewin was still an infant when the Germans invaded.
In August 1941, the city's Jews were ordered to relocate to ghettos, and 40,000 Jewish residents of Kaunas made their way to the barbed wire enclosed slum, where often three or four families were forced to share a small apartment.
“We traveled across the river to an area more fit for 6,000 people,” said Lewin, who made the trip with her paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and her parents, Jonas and Gita.
Several months after the move, Lewin's family was told that the Germans were seeking bilingual volunteers, supposedly to help them in a special mission.
“But what they really did was take 526 men out of the ghetto and shot them,” said Lewin. “They saw them as potential leaders, and they didn't want any interruptions.”
Lewin's uncle was one of the men killed. Her father had volunteered but was turned away.
By the time autumn rolled around, a roundup was announced, with the Jews forced to gather in the town square. The elderly and sick were separated from their younger, healthier relatives. They, too, met an untimely end.
Lewin never saw her grandparents again. Her aunt and uncle met a similar fate when they refused to leave their parents behind.
“By then the younger people in the ghetto were thinking of revolting,” said Lewin. One of her relatives attempted to hide a gun inside a loaf of bread but was caught by German soldiers. “They shot him on the spot,” she said.
As the family dwindled and neighbor after neighbor was sent to labor camps, Lewin's parents feared for the safety of her and her younger cousin, Shoshanna.
With the help of a kindly Catholic priest, the two youngsters were smuggled away to safety, with Shoshanna taken in by a farming family in the country and Lewin becoming the temporary “adopted” daughter of the Stankevie family, a sympathetic pair of gentiles living in the countryside who treated Lewin as one of their own daughters.
Lewin's mother sedated her and hid her inside a suitcase in order to help her escape. She wouldn't see her mother again for several years.
By the time the war ended, only 2,000 Jews remained in the Kaunas ghetto. Lewin's parents, too, eventually managed to escape, and the family was reunited.
After spending some time in a refugee camp in Germany, the family moved to Israel and then Montreal.
Lewin would eventually move to the United States to attend college, followed by a successful teaching career.
Ever the teacher, she still makes it a point to visit area classrooms whenever she can. It's important to put a human face on one of history's greatest atrocities, she said.
“This has to be done, and as a child survivor of the Holocaust, there aren't many of us left to tell this story,” said Lewin. “Everyone else is gone now.”