The story of two sisters and a felled tree

The amazing story of two sisters who made aliyah after surviving the Shoah

Batsheva Karubelnik Leviatan and her sister Ida Marcus (right) in 1999 at the Sea of Galilee (photo credit: Courtesy)
Batsheva Karubelnik Leviatan and her sister Ida Marcus (right) in 1999 at the Sea of Galilee
(photo credit: Courtesy)

This is the story of Ida Marcus and Batsheva Leviatan, two remarkable sisters who survived the Holocaust. Their story is nothing short of miraculous. My wife, Annie, and I first met them back in September 1997 shortly after we returned from a roots trip to Lithuania and Belarus. I had been given Batsheva’s phone number by her first cousin, Harry Belnick, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

What brought us together was a book in Hebrew entitled Eitz Karut (A felled tree) written by the sisters. Harry wanted us to translate some of it so that he could better understand the family history. He and I knew each other in our youth when we were both conscripts in the South African Defense Force. Unbeknown to us at the time, we were related through my mother’s side of the family. It was Harry who encouraged me to contact his father’s nieces in Israel.

Thus began our visit to Ramat Gan where Batsheva and her sister Ida lived. Each was widowed. Batsheva had two children and Ida had no children. It was the 26th of September during the festival of Sukkot and the sharav (heat wave) seemed relentless, making the air feel humid and asphyxiating. Neither of us knew Ramat Gan. We got a sherut (service taxi) to the Alrozorov train station and then from there, hailed a regular cab. The driver had to look for Rechov Herut on a map and ten minutes later we were dropped outside an ordinary looking apartment building.  Batsheva had told me that they were three flights up.

“If we ladies can walk up at our age, then I am sure you and your wife can too!” she told me on the phone.

We were expecting to meet two frail, gray-haired doddery old women. Instead we were greeted at the door of Apartment 8 by a sprightly 78 year old. She was about five foot four and dressed in jeans and a trendy short-sleeve T-shirt. Her auburn hair was neatly bobbed. Two dark twinkling eyes peered at us from behind a very fashionable pair of red rimmed glasses.

She greeted us excitedly. “Shalom! Shalom! Let me introduce you to my sister. This is Ida!” She ushered us into the room to a square dining room table in the corner. It was covered by a bright modern table cloth. Biscuits and fruit were neatly laid out amongst the matching cups and glasses.

“What a great apartment.,” I commented. The compact living room was indeed furnished in tasteful green leather Italian furniture. Everything was color coordinated and discerningly put together. We settled ourselves round the table and began to talk.

“My mother discovered your first cousin Harry Belnick in Johannesburg. We were conscripts in the South African army together back in 1967.  I didn’t realize it then, but it turns out that your family is related to ours on my mom’s side,” I explained to her in Hebrew. “In fact Harry came round with the book that you and Ida wrote about Kelem.” “Harry is my first cousin,” Batsheva confirmed. “His late father was my uncle. They changed their name from Krubelnik to Belnick when they emigrated to South Africa before the war.”

We launched into deep conversation. With Annie’s help I was able to keep up as they began to tell us their most incredible story.

IDA AND Batsheva were the two eldest daughters of Reuven and Liba Krubelnik. They had two younger siblings, a brother Yitzhak and a sister Hinda. After telling us about their early childhood their story moved on to the ominous days of June 1941 when the German army advanced into Lithuania.

“The Lithuanian police and their murderous assistants were encouraged by the Germans to round up all the Jewish communities throughout the provinces for deportation or murder by the Einsatzgruppen. One day my father was taken away. We never saw him again,” Batsheva told us. “Then it was our turn. My mother, grandmother and we four children were rounded up and forced to join other Jews who were being marched towards an unknown destination. My mother feared the worst and urged Ida and me to escape. So we hid in the bushes but we were too afraid to remain there and managed to rejoin the group. One of the Christian boys who was escorting and guarding us suddenly recognized Ida from school. He knew full well what was going to happen to us and he told us to escape.” The killings began on the 5th of Av, corresponding to the 29th July, 1941. At that time there were around 2,500 Jews in Kelem. The first group of victims to be murdered were mostly children and the elderly.

The two teenagers were extremely fortunate. They were able to hide in the nearby forests until some local gentiles took pity on them and arranged for them to be taken to Padubisa some 15 kilometers away into the care of a woman who was prepared to risk her life and shelter them.  They remembered their first night in the home of their Christian host.

“The woman was sensitive enough not to give us pork for our first meal. She presented us each with a plate of chicken and tzimmes,” Ida explained.

After a few weeks the kind Catholic woman explained to them that in order for them to survive in hiding, they would have to convert to Christianity. The two young girls were shocked. They had been brought up in traditional Jewish homes.

“I cannot keep you in hiding if you do not change your identities. It is simply too dangerous,” she told them.

By now they knew that they had no choice and decided to submit to Christian conversion. Their nightmare was just beginning. They had to be taken back to Kelem to be interviewed by the local Catholic Priest. Much to their dismay, they were placed on the carrier seats of two bicycles and driven to Kelem. When they got there they were terrified. “We were sure that we would be recognized and betrayed by the locals who knew exactly who we were.” They described how they were taken to a church where the priest confronted them.

“He knew that we were committed Jews,” Batsheva recounted. “He explained to us that accepting the Trinity and Christian conversion was the only way we could survive. I remember him asking us whether we knew about the Trinity and whether we were prepared to accept the faith of Jesus Christ. We shrugged our shoulders and said we would need to think it over. But of course we knew what was waiting for us outside if we did not accept his proposition.  It did not take much persuading for us to agree there and then.” They were made to repeat an oath whilst the priest sprinkled water over them and declared them Christians. They were escorted back to Padubisa, but this time there were no bicycles and they had to walk the 15 kilometers through the streets of Kelem.

“It was nighttime and yet I remember covering my face with a handkerchief to prevent myself from being recognized.” Batsheva told us.

Soon afterwards the two young women received word that their entire family had been murdered. They were devastated by the news.

“There was no time for self-pity,” Ida told us. “The coming months were filled with danger and we were constantly moved to different safe houses.”

“Being converted Christians was no guarantee of survival,” Batsheva continued. “We met other Jewish girls in these safe houses. Once we were told about two girls who were out in the orchards. One was very Jewish looking with dark hair and strong Semitic features. They were sunning themselves during a rest break whilst they were picking fruit. A group of Lithuanian collaborators surrounded them. They were arrested and taken to Rassein where they were held in prison. Their benefactor, the same woman who hid us in Padubisa, journeyed to Rassein and pleaded with the authorities to release the young girls as they were now good Catholics. The Gestapo and their Lithuanian accomplices refused and the young women were later taken to the 9th Fort and murdered.” As time progressed, Batsheva and Ida began to get used to their new faith and practiced the religion with fervor. Their last refuge was in a convent where Ida was persuaded to become a novice. Whilst Batsheva worked in the surrounding seven hundred hectares of agricultural land with other nuns and workers, Ida prepared herself to take her vows.

“We were totally brainwashed,” she told us. “We began to believe all the things that these Christians were telling us about our misguided religion. To us it was clear that the Jews had befallen their fate because they had rejected Christ. Why else could such terrible things happen to them?” Both women were given new identities. In Batsheva’s case, her sponsors found documents which belonged to a deceased Catholic child. This gave her a new name, Mariyte and a new Christian persona. Both were good students. They were taught well and showed great academic promise.

THE WAR ended and the two women continued to live intense Christian lives. Batsheva applied to study law at the University of Vilna where she was accepted. Every summer during the school vacation, she returned to Kelem to visit the woman who had saved her and whom she now considered to be her adopted mother.  Whilst in the town she met up with a Jewish survivor from the Broide family who recognized her as Batsheva Krubelnik.

“Why are you masquerading as a Christian?” she asked her. “ You were born a Jew and you should be proud of it and not insult the memory of your dead family!”

Batsheva argued that she had no hope of proving her original identity. Her  new Jewish  friend encouraged her to write to the national archives and apply for her birth certificate. It did not take too long before she received the documents that proved that she was indeed Batsheva Krubelnik and fully Jewish.

By now the regime in Lithuania was under full Soviet control. The authorities there were more tolerant than in Soviet Russia. As the date of her graduation drew nearer, Batsheva made a pledge to herself that she would take back her true Jewish identity and graduate as Batsheva Krublenik and not as a pseudo Christian impostor.

“You can’t imagine my dilemma!” she explained. “How was I going to tell my friends and all who knew me that I wasn’t really the person they knew me as?”

She decided to take her documents and go directly to the dean of the University to explain her situation.

“I was terribly nervous as I waited for the appointment. Eventually I was summoned. You can imagine my sense of shock and relief when the dean leaned forward and whispered to me that he too was born Jewish! At first he tested me to ascertain my motive for wanting to reclaim my Jewish identity. Once he realized that I was totally sincere, he helped me.” Batsheva then went on to recount how the dean arranged for a legal team to process her papers. There was a short hearing and she was then pronounced Batsheva Krubelnik leaving behind her assumed Christian identity forever.

“Can you imagine!” Batsheva told us. “I had to explain to all my friends and fellow students – most of whom were not Jewish, that I was no longer Mariyete the Christian but Batsheva Krubelnik, Jewish Holocaust survivor from Kelem!”

By this time Ida was fully engaged in a life of Christian piety in a convent somewhere north of Vilna. She had not yet taken her vows to become a nun. The two sisters were still close and kept in touch. As more and more information began to emerge about the Holocaust and the part played by the Lithuanians in the demise of the Jewish people, Ida too began to think about her future, gradually losing faith in her adopted religion.

“I had a terribly guilty conscience. After all, the Church had saved us, fed us and educated us. We owed everything to our Christian benefactors. Slowly I plucked up the courage to seek an audience with the Mother Superior of the convent. I told her that I could no longer continue with my vocation as a nun. At first she tried to persuade me to change my mind but when she saw how determined I was, she was sympathetic and arranged for me to leave the convent. I found a job as a teacher and for the next few years, lived on my own. Every month I would send seventy five per cent of my salary back to the convent even though I was almost starving!” Batsheva soon met David Levitan, a young Jewish man who was living in Vilna. They fell in love and got married. Because he was from the part of Lithuania that had once belonged to Poland, he found a way of reclaiming his Polish citizenship. He had heard that by going to live in Poland, he and his spouse could apply to emigrate to Israel. They were successful in obtaining the necessary papers and moved to Poland where, after a short period they submitted their applications to emigrate to Israel. Batsheva felt uncomfortable. She and her sister had been through so much together. She did not want to leave Ida behind in Soviet Lithuania. Ida had no claim to Polish citizenship. Batsheva and David came up with a hastily crafted plan. They managed to obtain a three months visitor’s visa for Ida to visit them in Poland.

“Our first priority was to get her into Poland,” Batsheva said. “Then we started worrying about how we would keep her there. The Polish authorities took a dim view of people who tried to flout the immigration laws. Eventually we found a solution. We found a Polish Jewish man who had an emigration visa to Israel and who was willing to marry Ida as part of a scheme to guarantee her Polish citizenship. The man was paid and had to agree to divorce her once they got to Israel.” “But,” Ida added, “it didn’t go all that smoothly. The man turned out to be a bit of a trouble maker. Once we got to Israel, he reneged on his part of the agreement and wanted more money from me to grant me a Jewish divorce. I refused and told him that after all, I had been living as a nun and didn’t need any man in my life! Soon afterwards he met a Jewish woman in Israel and came running back begging me to accept a [2]get so he could marry her!” In 1960, Batsheva and David and their newly born daughter Haviva, together with Ida her beloved sister (and the token husband), arrived in Israel where they embarked on new successful fully Jewish lives. In 1964, Batsheva gave birth to her second daughter Hadas. She got involved in education and went on to become the head of a school for children with special needs.

“My daughter Hadas has an important position at Ben-Gurion Airport with the Israel Airports Authority,” she told us proudly.

Ida eventually overcame her own personal struggle and reclaimed her lost Jewish faith. She studied Hebrew and after a number of years became the head of the Absorption Center Ulpan in Nazareth Illit, where she married one of her students, Raphael Marcus, a new immigrant from Romania.

The story does not end there! In 1990 on Israel’s 42nd Independence Day Celebration, Ida was invited to be one of the 12 torch lighters at the ceremony on Mt. Herzl. The theme that year was dedicated to the Hebrew Language.

When Ida lost her husband, she moved down to be near her sister in Ramat Gan. At the time of our meeting them, the two sisters had just returned from their first visit to Lithuania since their arrival in Israel in the 1960s.

“It finished us both!” Batsheva explained. “Nothing was left of our old world. We went back to Kelem and found nothing. It was indeed a Felled Tree with all the leaves and branches gone. We did find the Christian woman who saved us. She was still alive and in her nineties. We took all kinds of Christian souvenirs from Israel. Naturally we knew exactly what to buy them!!” Batsheva laughed.

She went on to explain that there were many Jews who converted to Christianity under pressure. “We went to visit an old friend who converted. He was eighty years old, and still married with a grown up family. We sat with him and whilst his wife was out of the room making tea, we whispered to him, ‘Nu, Zvi (which was his real Jewish name). What’s with the religion? Are you still a firm believer in Catholicism?’ He leaned forward and whispered loudly in my ear: ‘Elokai Elokei Avotai – My G-d is the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’” Epilogue

In 2014, my wife and I made aliyah. Sadly we did not keep in touch with the two sisters. Their stories continued to haunt me. Recently I found their book on one of the bookshelves. Now that my Hebrew is significantly improved I began to read it.  The memories of our meeting and their life stories came flooding back. An Israeli friend helped me to Google their names. I discovered that Batsheva passed away in 2013 whilst Ida died in April 2017. There was a bereavement notice about Ida with a phone number. I decided to call the number and found myself talking to Batsheva’s younger daughter, Hadas. She helped to fill in some of the gaps and this spurred me on to record their amazing story.