Lusia Pinczuk (Lusia Schimmel)

Year 1946. "I am a Jewish girl who survived the death camps. I was rescued here!” Lusia Schimmel cried out after the liberation of Pomieczyna, where Monika Szwertfeger had given her shelter. A man who lived in the area saved Lusia from the death march. “What prompted this man to take me out of the row?” – asks Lusia Schimmel beginning her story of rescue.

Before the War

Lusia Schimmel (Szymel) nee Pinczuk was born on 12 February 1921 in Minsk (then within the borders of the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic). Her mother, Chaja nee Buchbinder, came from Białystok, and her father, Awram, a merchant – from Dubiecko near Kraków. In 1921, Lusia’s parents ran away from Minsk to Vilnius, where Awram opened a big haberdashery warehouse. The family was wealthy. Lusia and her two younger brothers, Beniamin and Jehuda, lived very comfortably. They spoke Yiddish at home. The family cultivated Jewish traditions.

Lusia studied in a state middle school with Yiddish as the language of instruction; and then at the “Education” high school, which she graduated in 1937. In 1938, she began her studies at the Pharmacy Department at the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius. She was one of five students of Jewish origin from among the 500-member student body.

Despite the intensification of antisemitic attitudes, Lusia continued her studies in the first years of the war. Jewish refugees from the areas of Poland annexed by the Germans began to arrive in Vilnius. Among them came a group of the youth organization “Akiba,” numbering some 90 people. Seven individuals from the group lived in the Pinczuks’ apartment. That is how contacts and friendships were formed, which influenced Lusia’s future fate.         

The Ghetto and Resettlements

The Germans occupied Vilnius on 22 June 1941, and created a ghetto there on 4 July 1941. The Pinczuks lived on 3 Chopin Street, which did not fall within the ghetto borders. The family was resettled to the ghetto on 6 September 1941. After some time, Lusia, together with a group of some 40 people, was taken to a labor camp in the Biała Waka village, some 14 km away from Vilnius. A turf mine was located there. After a while, she was able to bring the rest of her family there.

Lusia fell sick and had to undergo surgery. During her stay in the hospital in the ghetto, her entire family was taken to the Ponary forest, where all of them were murdered. Lusia was the sole survivor of her family. Her friends from Akiba supported her when she remained all alone. Together they endured hunger and repeated liquidation actions.

The liquidation of the ghetto began on 23 June 1943. Inhabitants of the closed Jewish district who remained alive were sent to the Catholic cemetery (Rossa). There, the commandant of the ghetto, Keitel, led the selection: children and older women to the left; the younger ones  - to the right. Lusia and her friends ended up on the right side. Her group was herded into cattle cars. The nightmarish journey lasted four days. Half alive, they reached the Kaiserwald concentration camp located in the vicinity of Riga.

The group of girls kept together. After about two weeks of imprisonment at Kaiserwald they were taken to a female labor camp by the Dinawerke workshops, where they had spent about nine months.

When the front was approaching in summer 1944, the Germans began to liquidate the camp. Lusia, her friends, and a group of other prisoners were transported to a place on the Lithuanian territory where an airport was being built.

After one month they were taken in a rail transport to the Siauliai ghetto, which was then being liquidated (editor’s note: the ghetto in Siauliai was dissolved in July 1943). Ten girls, who had stayed together since their time in Vilnius, together with the remaining inhabitants of the Siauliai ghetto were transported by ferry to the Stutthof concentration camp. This took place on 14 July 1944. Once there, Lusia received a number, which disappeared with time. A Polish physician in the camp told them about the assassination attempt against Hitler, and consoled Lusia and her friends by saying that the war would soon be over. Three from among Lusia’s circle of friends did not survive the selection.   

After three weeks they were taken to Krzemeniów (Krzemieniec, Krumau) near Grudziądz. They were assigned to dig anti-tank ditches there. They slept in tents and received small food rations. SS officers served as guards. The girls found themselves amidst hundreds of former camp and ghetto inmates, starved and barely alive. The group of seven girls supported one other in such horrible conditions.

Death March

From 18 January to March 1945, guarded by SS-men, they marched on foot about 400 km. This was a death march. Barely 100 people reached the destination – Lauenburg. Only six remained from her group of friends.

Lusia said she was able to continue walking because she still had shoes. The wire, which held together her shoes that were falling apart, wounded her leg, which bled with every step; but she survived the march thanks to those shoes. Her friend Stefi, who was also completely exhausted, protected her friend. Lusia emphasized several times that she had avoided death thanks to accident and thanks to the help of friends who were supporting one another.

During a stop in a village located near Gdańsk, a man approached the convoy and, in front of everyone, grabbed Lusia’s hands and took her out of the row. He brought her to a hut and placed her in the attic. She heard the screams of the guards, who were searching for the missing girls. She heard that they had found four girls in a nearby barn and shot them to death. She wanted to come down in order not to endanger her host, but she was out of strength. Meanwhile, the group walked off, the screams calmed down, and the host gave her something to drink, and took her downstairs. She fell asleep, and when she woke up, her host told her that it was too dangerous for her to remain there. He showed her the direction, in which she should go; and gave her bread, and blessed her. It is unknown what prompted this man to take her out of the row. Neither was she able to later find this person. 

When Lusia stood in the door of another hut, her external appearance evoked horror in a woman who was there with children, but the woman directed Lusia to her relative’s house, who, in turn, invited her in without a word. Lusia remembered that she sat on a bench, above which hung pictures of saints. This was in the Pomieczyno village near Kartuzy. Monika Szwertfeger was the person who took Lusia in, gave her warm milk, and cared for her. Lusia knew that Poles, too, lived in constant fear of the Germans, from whom they had suffered much, so Monika’s behavior had surprised Lusia. In the following days, and despite Lusia’s husband Leon’s objection, Monika continued to care for Lusia with maternal warmth. “Already on the first day she did not allow me to exit the house to relieve myself, but brought me a bucket,” Lusia relates. “When I said I could not use the bucket under holy pictures, Monika responded: ‘Now you are holy here.’” “On Sunday, she offered that I go to the church with her and her husband. I told her then that I was Jewish.” Monika responded: “I did not ask you from what belly you came out.” She took care of Lusia and treated her wounds for the next weeks. Due to the lack of medicine, she sucked out the puss from the boils covering Lusia’s body. When the Ukrainians prowled in the village, looking for escapees, Lusia feared she was endangering her hosts and wanted to leave, but Monika had stopped her and continued to pray zealously. Miraculously, the Ukrainians skipped their home.

It was spring; explosions were audible and glares of fires were visible above Gdańsk. The Russians were bombarding the city. The next day, she saw Soviet tanks that had liberated the area. Although she was still very weak, she ran out to them yelling: “I am a Jewish girl, who survived the death camps. I was rescued here!” A female Russian soldier who was steering a tank jumped off o fit, took Lusia in her arms and ran with her yelling with happiness that she had found a Jewish girl who was alive. “These were moving and joyful moments, which are hard to describe,” the survivor said. Lusia stayed with Monika Szwertfeger until the end of August 1945. Lusia owes Monika her survival and recuperation.  

She bid her farewell upon leaving to central Poland searching for her friends. She found a group of young people preparing for departure to Palestine, which she reached on 18 January 1946 – on the exact anniversary of the inception of the death march. One of the organizers of the group leaving for Palestine was a member of the Akiba organization, who had lived with the Pinczuks in Vilnius at the beginning of the war.

Lusia was unable to contact Monika Szwertfeger neither before she had left to Palestine nor after she had arrived there.

In 1991, she received a message that Monika had died in 1985.

Edited by Janina Goldhar, Ganei Tikva, Israel, May 2011.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Translation: Joanna Sliwa