Survivor STORY

Nora and Joel Lewin grew up in the country of Lithuania in Eastern Europe. They met in Nora’s hometown of Shiali, and after a brief courtship, were married in July 1940, in Joel’s hometown of Konos. Both had close, loving families, good friends, and comfortable, middle-class lives which included joyful summer vacations on the beach and in the mountains.

In June 1941, when Nora was two months pregnant, she went to visit her family in Shiali While there, the German army invaded Lithuania and very quickly life went from happy to unbearable. A week after the invasion, Nora’s father, an accountant, was taken away during a roundup of Jewish professional men. Three days later, her family learned that her father, along with hundreds of other highly-educated Jewish men, had been shot to death in a nearby forest.

Travel between cities was banned for Jews and, heartbroken and pregnant, Nora was unable to return to Joel in Konos. In November, Nora gave birth to a beautiful baby boy she named Gideon. Gideon was a sweet and bright child, but one who had yet to feel a father’s embrace.

Conditions in Konos, Joel’s hometown, also worsened. At the point of Nazi rifles, Jews were rounded up and imprisoned in a ghetto, a very small section of the city patrolled by armed German soldiers. Joel was skilled in car mechanics and had been one of the first people in Konos to own a car. This skill made him very valuable to the German Nazis who used him to maintain and repair their cars.

The first of many miracles occurred in May of 1943. Because Joel’s skills were valuable to the Nazis, he was able to get permission for Nora and Gideon to be transferred from the Shiali ghetto to his ghetto in Konos. Thus, after a year and a half of separation, Joel and Nora were reunited, and Joel was finally able to hold his little son.

For a few months, life seemed tolerable. But in October 1943, Joel, Nora, Gideon, and three of their parents were deported. They were forced onto buses and taken to the nearest railroad station. There, families were separated into three different cattle trains: one for the old and the young, one for able-bodied men, and one for able-bodied woman.

No mercy was shown. Children were ripped from their mothers’ arms and families were separated forever. Nora’s mother took two-year old Gideon, assuring Nora she would take good care of him, and went into the first car. That was the last time Nora saw them. She later learned that they were immediately taken to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. The cruel death of their first-born child would remain etched into Nora and Joel’s hearts, minds, and souls for the rest of their lives.

Nora’s cattle car took her to a concentration camp in Estonia called Ereda where, along with the other women, Nora became a slave laborer. Every day, the women were forced to walk twenty miles to lay heavy wooden ties onto railroad tracks. Their only food was a piece of bread in the morning and sometimes some watery soup at night. Sanitary conditions were beyond description and the stench was suffocating.

After about six months, Nora was moved again. This time, she was sent with a group of younger, healthier women to the concentration camp of Goldfields in Estonia. Nora was chosen to oversee conditions in the women’s barracks. This new work assignment saved her from walking twenty miles each day, thus slightly improving her situation.

In the meantime, Joel’s cattle train had arrived at the Estonian concentration camp of Kivoli. Again, his mechanical skills saved his life. Joel convinced the Nazis that he was an asset to them because of his ability to fix cars. Always ingenious, Joel eventually learned from one of the Nazi officers that Nora was at Goldfields. She had contracted typhus, a very serious illness that usually ended in death. Miraculously, Joel was able to obtain the necessary papers to transfer Nora out of Goldfields and into his concentration camp in Kivoli!

Delirious with typhus, Nora recalls being summoned before the camp commander. She remembers him sneering at her and asking: “Do you want ten lashes now or do you wish to be reunited with your husband?” Shocked, she learned that she would see Joel again.

Nora was extremely ill upon arriving at Kivoli and the doctors, fearing that she would spread typhus, refused to allow her into the hospital. Instead, she was placed on a top bunk in the corner of an empty barracks. In mid-1944 the Russians bombed several buildings at Kivoli, including the one Nora was recovering in. By the time Joel arrived, the building was a pile of rubble. Fearing the worst, he began a desperate search for Nora.

Nora survived the bombing. A Nazi officer observed this and remarked, “You are the luckiest person I have ever seen! One day you’ll be in America!”

Nora stayed in the Kivoli hospital until she recovered. Later that year, Joel and Nora were once again herded into trains. Separately, they were transported to Stutthoff concentration camp in Poland, a particularly cruel and degrading place where killings occurred daily. Three days later, Nora was sent to Binghost concentration camp in Poland.

In January 1945, rumors were growing that the Russians were advancing toward Binghost. In order to destroy physical evidence of the inhuman conditions at the camp, the Nazis closed the camp and forced the prisoners on a death march to Germany. It was bitterly cold and the Nazis, knowing the end was near, were particularly brutal -- beating and starving the women, and shooting anyone who stopped to rest. After a few days, Nora and five other women managed to escape. They ran to an abandoned barn, where they found food in the cupboard, a cow that could be milked, and hay on which to sleep.

After three days, the Russians reached the barn. Fluent in Russian, Nora explained the women’s ordeals, their emaciated bodies and shaved heads, asking for sympathy from the soldiers. Nevertheless, some of the women were sexually molested. When one woman resisted, she was killed.

Nora and the remaining women left the farm to find a train station. They boarded a train to Lodz, a large city in Poland. There, Nora found a kind Jewish family who took her in until she was able to return to her hometown of Shovl. Four months later, Nora was reunited with her brother, sister, and brother-in-law. But no one knew what had happened to Joel.

Through the help of Bricha – an underground Jewish network established to route survivors through Eastern Europe and into the U.S.-occupied zone of Germany – In the summer of 1946, Nora and her remaining family arroved in Munich, Germany. There, finally, Joel and Nora were reunited.

In June 1947, Nora and Joel arrived in New York to begin a new life together and had two sons. The Nazi officer who predicted that Nora would one day live in America had been right!

Fifteen years later, in 1962, Joel testified at Nazi criminal trials in Germany. Because of his close contact with Nazi officers during the war, he was able to identify many of them. He was able to testify about the atrocities he saw them commit, and the evil they had perpetrated on their victims. His testimony helped bring many Nazi officers to justice.

Explore themes found in this biography:

  • No themes
Joel Lewin