We met up in Lisbon with a survivor of the Kaunas ghetto in Lithuania and a Nazi camp in Poland. Zina Liebermann, born on 22 February 1922, is Portuguese to the core of her being but she does not forget who liberated her: the Red Army.
When the Second World War closed its horrific gates Zina Kleinman Liebermann was 23 years old and her entire family had been assassinated. She survived the slaughter. Her eyes, which have seen how the story ends, say that she does not ache because of her survival but rather for those who did not survive. “I had to live for the future. If I lived in the past, people would run from me".
The tragic story starts in the 1941 holidays. Zina had left Riga, Latvia, the city of her birth, to spend a few days with cousins who lived in Kaunas, Lithuania. She traveled with her mother, who meanwhile went home with her elder daughter Ella, who was about to give birth. What was supposed to have been a brief farewell became a final goodbye.
This terrible war made any communication impossible. Jewish life, which had been interrupted the previous June when the Soviet Union seized Lithuania, carried out detentions and confiscations and destroyed free institutions, was now forever silenced.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact terminated in July 1941, when the Baltic States fell into German hands, following the hunting down of the Jews. Measures are taken to liquidate and execute thousands of people on the streets or in places designed for mass shootings. The SS then decided to set up the Kaunas Ghetto. "That was where I was sent. Alone”. The destination of the relatives with whom she had spent those fateful holidays is unknown.
The ghetto had a total of 29.200 Jews. In subhuman conditions, closely guarded and surrounded by barbed wire, Zina was confined to that hellish hole on earth. She was one of the three hundred slaves selected to go to Aleksotas, a province of Kaunas, to build military barracks. The tons of stone and iron she carted averted the triggers of the assassins’ weapons. "One girl turned back to look for her mother. She was killed. Together with many others”. On 29 October 1941, the Nazis machine-gunned 9.200 Jews. In one single day.
The years passed. The war was going against the Nazis. It was now 1944. The Soviets were drawing near. The ghetto was cleared. Zina was taken to Stutthof in northern Poland. The unbearable conditions included starvation, disease, forced labor such as carting stone, standing for hours, cleaning tracks, digging ditches.
On 25 January, almost 50.000 prisoners were evacuated from Stutthof. It was the start of what were known as death marches. The prisoners had no choice but to march, without stopping, to march until they fell over. To reach the coast of the Baltic Sea. They were forced to enter the icy waters and ended with a bullet in their backs. Others marched towards Lauenburg, in eastern Germany, but along the way, not wanting to be caught by the Soviets, the Nazi officers forced them to return to Stutthof camp.
Like the others, Zina Liebermann marched in extreme weather conditions in a winter that was as bitter as the atrocities. At one point, she instinctively veered away and started running, walking, running, walking for miles and miles, only stopping when she reached a warehouse. She found a sackful of potatoes that helped keep out the cold.
There she remained, famished and terrified that she would be found, missing everyone in her missing family, and heartbroken.
Then Zina heard something really incredible: music, signing and whistling by Red Army soldiers. There was no doubt. She would have the privilege of being able to stay alive. Instead of running after the soldiers, she huddled in a corner, crying her eyes out.
A Soviet soldier approached the frail girl with her broken heart and tattered clothing. He asked her why she was crying if she was finally free. Zina replied that she felt that all her loved ones were dead. Unfortunately, her feelings were proved right. Never again would she hug her father, Eduard, her mother, Ernestina, her sister, Elle and her baby, who died at the start of the atrocities, or her brother Leon, who fell with the Red Army. That was the tragedy of this family.
By force of circumstance, Zina traveled to Palestine to study at an agricultural college. She learned Hebrew. She started working at an outpost of Hadassah Hospital. Through friends, she met an economist called Samuel, who had come from Russia, and had lived in Lisbon since the 1920s. They fell in love and sealed that love by getting married. Zina reached Lisbon in March 1948. Love flourished and the family grew: two daughters and one son. Today, she has grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Six decades after the Holocaust she went back to Riga. She stopped outside her front door. She went to the synagogue. To the forest where the Rumbula massacre had taken place. Her heart broken, she bid farewell to her loved ones. Death had taken them in sinister ways. That same death that always hovered around Zina but never caught her. She carried on with her life, her head held high, her feet firm on the ground.