Holocaust survivor reunites with family who sheltered her

Lea Ingel was among the few thousand Lithuanian Jews to survive the Holocaust.

holocaust reunion 298 ap (photo credit: AP)
holocaust reunion 298 ap
(photo credit: AP)
After more than 60 years, a woman who was among the few thousand Lithuanian Jews to survive the Holocaust has been reunited with a member of the Roman Catholic family who helped keep her alive. Lea Ingel and Giedrute Ramanauskiene held each other during their reunion at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Friday. They cried and acknowledged it might be the last time they would see each other, given their faltering health. Ingel, now 84, said earlier that she had no idea what she would say to the 77-yearold Ramanauskiene, whom she has not seen since she was sheltered for a year at the farm owned by Ramanauskiene's family. "I'm not so good with the talking, with the language, because I haven't been there for so long," she said, referring to Lithuania, which she left in 1945. She has not returned since. Ingel traveled from Tamarac, Florida, to New York for the reunion, and Ramanauskiene came from the small town of Simnas, Lithuania. She still lives on the farm where her family once sheltered Ingel. Ramanauskiene's brother, Gintautas Ivanauskai, 73, was also supposed to make the trip, but was unable to travel with his sister due to visa trouble, although he may come later. The reunion was made possible by the New York-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which gives financial support to mostly Christians from Eastern Europe who helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Since 1995, the group has reunited 12 survivors with their rescuers. "We have a lot to learn from Christian rescuers," said Stanlee Stahl, the foundation's executive vice president. "Here you have a family that took two strangers, they were two Jews from a different part of the country, and they risked their lives and the lives of their children to feed and clothe them for a long time." Ingel and the siblings remained in contact over the years, often sending each other packages. But she said communicating had become increasingly difficult because Ramanauskiene has difficulty reading their correspondences. "Her vision is very bad," Ingel said, her accent still tinged with the lilt of her Eastern European roots. "I would like somebody here to see her, an eye doctor." During World War II, Ingel, then Lea Port, and her future husband, Samuel Ingel, were living in the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania, and both had joined a Jewish resistance group. They fled Kovno separately in 1943, leaving their families behind. After 10 days of wandering in the forest kilometers from their home, they realized they were the only members of their resistance group who remained alive. "One day it was only the two of us left," she said. "We went into a place to ask for food and because it was biting cold in the woods. It was impossible to stay there." They were near the village of Simnas, and a communist man in hiding brought Lea Ingel to his sister, Elena, who agreed to care for her because she could pass as a gentile. Samuel Ingel could not, so at first he remained living in the forest. Lea Ingel stayed with Elena, who could not hear or speak, and her husband, Petras Ivanauskai, on their farm. After she pleaded with the family, Samuel Ingel was brought out from the dangerously cold forest, and stayed in the barn. The two later became close with the Ivanauskais' children, Giedrute and Gintautas. Lea and Samuel Ingel were among the few Lithuanian Jews who survived the genocide. More than 90 percent died in the Holocaust after the Germans occupied the country in 1941. When the Soviet Army ousted the Germans from Lithuania in August 1944, only about 9,000 Jews remained from a prewar population of some 235,000, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The couple remained at the Ivanauskai farm until the Soviets arrived in August 1944. Ingel and her husband married in December 1944. The couple moved to Boston, then New York. Samuel Ingel worked as a cab driver in the city for more than a decade. On Tuesday, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous will hold a dinner for Ingel and her rescuers at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Ingel said she could never bear return to Lithuania. "It's hard for me to even talk about it," she said. Her husband did go back in 1995. Upon his return, he fell ill with lymphoma and later died, said their only son, Marshall Ingel, 54, who had accompanied his mother from Florida to New York. "They had wanted her to do this for the last five years," he said of the longdelayed reunion between his mother and her rescuers. "She kept saying no, it was too emotional." But in August, Lea was taken to the hospital with a heart condition. "I think she's just realizing that if she doesn't do it now, she may never do it," her son said.