Holocaust Survivor Speaks at Hopkins

Catherine Kowal-Saffron, Writer

On the afternoon of April 28th, the entire school gathered in the cafeteria to hear Holocaust survivor, Henia Lewin, speak about her life and the tragic experiences that she endured during Adolf Hitler’s reign.

Henia was born in Lithuania in 1940 into a Jewish family, where she spent the first few years of her life. Then, when Henia was about two years old, the Germans conquered Lithuania on June 22nd, 1941. After that, all of the Jews were given around one and a half months to gather all of their belongings and go to the ghetto. In the following two months, selections at the ghetto began. Selections  meant that German officers chose people from the ghetto to be executed (generally the elderly, sick, disabled, etc)– the fate of many of Henia’s relatives.

By December, half of the population of the ghetto had been executed. Due to fears of an impending  children selection coming to the ghetto, Henia’s mother, Gita Wisgardisky, realized that she needed to devise a plan to get Henia, and her little cousin, Susannah, out of the ghetto to safety. In the ghetto, Henia’s mother worked in a brigade, sorting boys and girls clothing. This was very good for Henia’s mother, as the suitcases of clothing served as perfect transportation methods for the children. Gita’s plan for getting Henia out of the ghetto was to get her into the hands of one of her husband’s closest friends, Jonas Stankevicius. When the day finally came for Henia to leave the ghetto, she was sedated and placed into a very large suitcase. The suitcase was taken by Mr. Stankevicius outside of the ghetto gates, and he made his way back home to his family. However, both Henia and Mr. Stankevicius’s lives were soon in danger as a Lithuanian policeman stopped him to check his papers. If the policeman asked him to open the suitcase, both Mr. Stankevicius and Henia would have been killed on the spot. However, thanks to a jeep of German soldiers driving by in need of directions to the ghetto, Mr. Stankevicius was free to go on his way and nobody was harmed. For the next two years, Henia lived with the Stankevicius family becoming a daughter and sister to a second family. During the course of the two years, Henia was able to see her mother three times, including one time on Christmas Eve when her mother dressed up as Santa Clause.

After the success of Henia’s escape, Gita began smuggling many babies out of the ghetto to a priest named Father Paukstys, who then created fake birth certificates for Jewish children. Thankfully, both of Henia’s parents survived both living in the ghetto and  the Holocaust itself. In order to survive, Henia’s mother converted to Catholicism for the time being. Her father, Jona Wisgardisky, escaped through the window of a hospital at the ghetto to survive. When the family finally reunited, they went to Germany  and stayed in a refugee camp. They lived in the Displaced Person’s camp for three years. In 1949 the family moved to Israel before finally immigrating to Canada in 1963.

Henia has been in North America ever since, travelling around the country to talk about her horrendous experiences as a Lithuanian Jew during the time of Adolf Hitler. Overall, the assembly was very good, but also emotional as many of the events Henia faced were devastating. But, it was a very good thing for the Hopkins community to be exposed to.