Norma Dimitry (née Nachama Sternsus) was born in Vilna, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania), in 1923. Her Orthodox Jewish family included two older brothers, who helped her father in his business as a glazier.
At the onset of the war, Vilna was occupied first by the Soviets and then, in 1941, by the Germans, after which ghettos were created. One of Norma’s brothers had left after the Soviet occupation, and the rest of her family, under the Nazi regime, were forced to live in the small and then the large Vilna ghetto. In 1943, when the ghetto was liquidated, Norma and her family were saved from certain death due to her father’s work, which saw them sent to the Heereskraftfahrpark (HKP) 562 forced labour camp. The camp was run by Nazi officer Karl Plagge, who was recognized by Yad Vashem in 2004 as Righteous Among the Nations for his role in saving Jews by keeping families in his work camp rather than deporting them to the death camps. Plagge also covertly warned the inmates of HKP 562 before it was liquidated by the SS, and Norma was able to hide and survive. After the war, Norma met her husband, Nathan, and reunited with one of her brothers. Norma and Nathan left Vilna for Lodz, Poland, in 1946 and then lived in displaced persons camps in Austria before immigrating to Canada with their son in 1948. Norma and Nathan raised a family in Toronto, and Norma worked at Eaton’s for twenty-five years. Norma Dimitry passed away in 2017.
Then, on June 22, 1941, the Germans came in with a storm. The first thing we noticed was the intense bombing by the Germans. The city was not prepared at all; there were no shelters. We ran in the streets and heard the zoom of the bombs falling and then felt the shock when they hit. Many people were killed. Fortunately, the bombs didn’t land where we lived. Our city wasn’t as badly demolished as some other cities because the German soldiers entered the city without having to bomb it first. That was a very sad day for all of us. We knew from the papers what was going to happen. I remember one of my brothers standing in the doorway saying he wanted to go with the Soviets and my mother replying, “Where are you going to go? By yourself? Do you know what it is to be a refugee in a country you don’t know? We’re here together, don’t leave us alone.” I don’t know if she did the right thing. She thought it was the right thing.
The Germans came with a plan, and the Lithuanian people collaborated in implementing it. We expected the worst, but we had no idea what was to come. The first thing the new authorities did was put up signs telling Jews that they had to register. Then they forbade Jews from walking on the sidewalk; we could only walk in the street. They established a curfew. They forced us to wear a yellow star at all times. They slowly took away all our privileges as citizens. We were without a homeland. We were nothing; anyone could do anything they wanted to us. We were like dogs in the street who could be killed any time. We had no rights. Lithuanian collaborators caught people wearing the yellow star on the streets and forced them to “work.” But they never came back. If you left your home in the morning to go to work, you never knew if you would return.
All Jewish schools were closed. There was no work unless it was forced labour for the Germans and Lithuanians. Jews didn’t get paid and couldn’t even work for themselves. We were not allowed to stand in line for bread. If we wanted to buy something in a store, we had to hope that the people in the store didn’t object. If they wanted to kick us out of the store, they could.
One day, I was sitting on the steps in the courtyard of our apartment, waiting for my mother who had gone out for food. When a man passed by, I stood up and ran into the house, but he ran after me. He was a Lithuanian officer who was trained to catch Jewish people. When he caught me, he said that I had to go with him to work. I couldn’t even leave a note for my mother. He took me to a German group stationed in the university under the control of the Wehrmacht and told me to clean toilets. I was a very pretty girl, only seventeen, and I was wearing a dress that day. The German men made remarks about me, but I put in a day’s work and tried to ignore them. Nobody knew where I was. I was so afraid that I was trembling, but what was I supposed to do? I didn’t have a clue. I was lucky, though, because at five o’clock the officer told me I could go home. When I got there, my mother was waiting for me, crying. “Where were you? What happened to you?”
In the middle of one night, I don’t remember the date, soldiers closed the gates to our house and two or three Lithuanian officers in civilian clothes came in and went from apartment to apartment. They picked out all the males, old and young, and told them to take some clothing and bread with them, telling them that they were going to work. People believed them, not knowing any better. Fortunately, by the time they got to the first-floor apartment at the end of the courtyard, where we lived on the second floor, it was starting to get light, so they left the upper floor alone. My father and brother were spared that day.
Everyone was jealous of our good fortune. “How come you’re so lucky,” our neighbours said. “Your husband is still here and your son is still here. They took away my son.” It wasn’t our fault or their fault, but there was resentment. I was just happy to have my father and brother with me; I was lucky. They took the men and boys to the Ponary forest on the outskirts of the city, not to labour camps. I know, because they took my uncle Eli, and my auntie Toby went after them. When she came back, she told us that the men had been killed. We didn’t believe her. We told her that she was in a panic and didn’t know what she was talking about. “They took them to work,” we kept saying. “It couldn’t be. They wouldn’t do such a thing.” But we never again saw any of the men who were taken that night.
And then we started hearing rumours that the Nazis were setting up ghettos. We didn’t know where. They didn’t give us time to prepare, let alone resist. The Germans made plans for where the ghettos would be established, and their Lithuanian collaborators built the walls. After they had chosen an area to be a ghetto, the Germans sent in Lithuanian collaborators in the evening to round up Jews who were currently living there. The Lithuanians told people that they were taking them to work, to bring some clothes and a little bit of food. These people left everything in their houses, all their possessions, and then were taken to be killed in the Ponary forest. After eliminating so many people, the collaborators brought all the Jews from the surrounding areas to live in the empty houses.
We expected the worst, but we had no idea what was to come.
On October 1, 1941, on Yom Kippur, the Germans and Lithuanians carried out their first Aktion. They did it then because they knew it was our highest holiday. They came into the ghetto and took whomever they caught. No matter who you were or what you were, if they wanted to take you, they took you. My father hid me under a table in a factory while so many people were taken away to make the ghetto smaller and smaller, to clear all the Jews out of the city.
After the selection on Yom Kippur, they swarmed through the ghetto like hordes. They must have been drunk. They were eager to catch people, to rip children out of mothers’ arms, to tear husbands from wives. They were barbaric. Nobody expected that. My cousins and I hid in my uncle’s store and we listened. We could hear the screams when they caught people and took them out of hiding. It was unbelievable. We had to learn to live with so many things that we almost became indifferent to all our feelings.
When things quieted down, we all came out of hiding to see who was left. Fortunately, my family was all together; none of them had been taken away this time. People who survived Ponary came back and told us about the horrible things that happened there. We didn’t believe them at first, just as we hadn’t believed my aunt when her husband was taken. We could not believe that such horrors could be true. One woman had been shot but not killed; she fell, wounded, into the pits in Ponary, and somebody fell on top her. She crawled out at night when no guards were there and came back to the ghetto. People said she was crazy, that she didn’t know what she was talking about, that such a thing couldn’t have happened. They didn’t want to believe.
But then Polish people came and told us that the Germans and Lithuanians were shooting the people in the Ponary forest. They were digging pits, making people undress, putting them into big groups and shooting them so that their bodies would fall into the pits. Then they poured a white liquid over the bodies and burned them.
All the clothing and possessions of the dead people were brought back to the ghetto, and some of the Jews were given the job of sorting them. I know because my auntie was one of those Jews who would fix the clothes and distribute them to needy people or sell them for food. Some people recognized the clothes, crying, “This was my father’s! This was my mother’s!” To whom do you cry?
The population in the ghetto got smaller and smaller until eventually, on October 28, 1941, the whole ghetto was “liquidated.” Anybody who was left was moved into the big ghetto in Vilna.
The Heereskraftfahrpark (HKP) 562 camp was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and a wooden fence. Lithuanian or German guards walked between the two fences with rifles. There was a Judenrat in the camp, like the one in the ghetto, but it was made up of new people; it was a whole new ballgame with new rules. Major Plagge was very friendly with the director of the Judenrat and with us. He used to walk around the camp saying, “Guten Tag! Guten Tag!” (Good day!) to everybody. After the war, Yad Vashem listed him as a righteous gentile.
Even so, living conditions were horrible. When we arrived, there was some old furniture, including a dirty old sofa that had bedbugs. We put a board over it, to give one more person a place to sleep. Another person slept on a table and another on the floor. There were two army-style bunk beds where the older people slept. But it was very hard and very bad. We had one stove and hardly any wood to cook with. We had electricity, but we were forbidden to cook with electricity. There were hot plates, but we couldn’t use them.
We couldn’t go out to work anymore. Some Germans opened up a tailor shop on one of the upper floors of the building we were in and I went to work there because I knew how to sew. I had to mend German uniforms that were ripped or torn from bullets or stained from wounds. We would patch them up, sew them and clean them so the soldiers could go back to the front. There was a big assembly line with rows of machines, and we worked from morning until night while a Dutch-German Gestapo man with a brown uniform and blond hair watched over us. I can still see him now.
My father continued to work as a glazier. Every Monday, one group of young men was taken to another camp to work and on Friday night they returned to HKP for the weekend. My brother was in this group. There were no children running around anymore – many had been taken to Ponary and the rest stayed hidden.
My mother didn’t work. This was a family camp, so she was able to stay in the apartment and made a home as best she could. Both my parents did their best to keep kosher and observe Judaism’s dietary laws during these hard times. When we were starving, my brother and I would sometimes have bacon if we could find it, but my parents never ate anything that wasn’t kosher. If rations were non-kosher meat, they wouldn’t eat it. On Passover, my mother baked matzah for the people who wanted it. She made it by hand and baked it in a hidden oven. Matzah and frozen sweet potatoes, that’s all they ate for Passover.
One thing that we particularly missed was the beautiful sound of my father’s voice when he davened (prayed). My father told one of the German guards that he had left some things that he needed in the ghetto and bribed him to let him bring them to the camp. My father didn’t tell the German that he was bringing back a damaged sefer Torah that he had found. When my father got the Torah safely back to the camp, some men made an aron kodesh, a special cabinet used to store the Torah. Whoever could sneak into our apartment before and after work came for services. Religious and group gatherings were against the law, so my mother stood in the hall to watch for Germans or Lithuanians. My mother kept the house clean so that people would have a nice place for morning and evening services.
My father and brother found new ways to be resourceful. My father told the Germans that he needed better sand for his glass, that the sand in the camp was no good, and he knew where there was better sand outside the camp. So they let him go out with a guard and he somehow managed to make contact with some gentiles. He would take tin milk cans that we made in the camp and trade them for food. It was good for a while, but then people found out we were bringing in food and became jealous. And when the police found out what we were doing they put a stop to it. At the same time, my brother got to know a German soldier he worked with who was not sympathetic to the Nazis. The two of them would go to the city together to get bread and my brother would pick up packages from gentiles and bring them to the ghetto.
My father’s friend Caras knew where we were and would come to speak to my father through the fence. As a fellow Lithuanian, Caras wasn’t afraid of the Lithuanian guards and bribed them to look the other way. My father asked Caras to sell some of the possessions we had left with him so we could have money to buy food. My father always knew when Caras was coming and waited for him to push the money under the fence. They both risked their lives so we wouldn’t starve.
This was our life. We worked, we sang songs to get us through the hard times, to make them a little bit easier. At night, we could walk along one block after curfew, but not the other one. My friends and I would walk and talk about the future and the past. Life was impossible and yet we went on.
On March 27, 1944, there was a major Aktion. I’ll never forget it. The Germans came in the morning with the Lithuanians and began taking away the children and old people. The Kinderaktion, they called it. My mother said to us, “This is the end, my children, this is the end.” I asked what she was talking about and she just said, “This is the end.” I was sewing in the shop when a soldier took my mother away and put her on the trucks. My brother saw what was happening and ran after him, saying, “This is my mother! I work here!” They hit him on the head with a rifle barrel and told him to leave or they’d put him on the truck, too. They went from room to room, house to house, apartment to apartment, and took whoever fell into their hands. They threw them onto the truck like old potato sacks. They took away my mother, my aunties, my uncle’s two little girls, Frieda and Malkala, and my cousin Yitzik along with his mother and my auntie. They were all put onto the trucks and taken away. They were taken to Ponary – Ponary was only for shooting. My father was left in the factory with me standing beside him.
We went back to our apartment. My mother wasn’t there. My cousins weren’t there. My two aunties weren’t there. Just five of us were left there, looking at each other. My father was an older man who had lost his wife of so many years, just like that. What are you supposed to do? Where do you go? It was like somebody ripped the heart out of my body. After that, you’re so stiff. You have no feelings anymore. No feelings at all.
This was about three months before liberation.
So we stayed and picked up the pieces and started to live again, my father without his wife, my cousin without her mother, my uncle without his children. Nobody committed suicide. Isn’t that strange? What were we living for? Were we waiting to be shot? It’s unbelievable, what a person can go through and live. A mother loses a child, a child loses her mother, and yet they survive.