Survival in hiding
Margaret Kagan was born in Lithuania and was imprisoned in the Kaunas Ghetto after the Nazi occupation. She survived the Holocaust in hiding before starting a new life in Britain.
“I was a citizen of the world and I lived in a state which was Lithuania.”
Margaret was born in Kaunas, which at the time was the temporary capital of Lithuania. She and her younger brother, Alik, were brought up by their parents to consider themselves ‘citizens of the world’ first and foremost. The Jewish family was assimilated into Lithuanian society and Margaret doesn’t remember experiencing antisemitism at school.
Lithuania was located between Nazi fascists to the West and Soviet Communists to the East. The country was invaded by Germany in June 1941 causing many Jewish families to flee. Margaret’s family chose to stay in Kaunas, as Alik was away at a summer camp and they didn’t want to leave without him. As soon as German troops arrived in the town Jewish citizens were arrested and shot, often with the collaboration of the Lithuanian police and civilians. Margaret’s father was arrested and never returned. She learned after the war that he had been murdered in the Lieutūkis Garage Massacre.
The Kaunas Ghetto
By August the Jewish population was being forced to relocate into the Kaunas ghetto. For many this was welcomed as they believed they would be safer. However, the conditions in the overcrowded ghetto were terrible, with whole families living in single rooms leading to unsanitary conditions. Those in the ghetto were given little food and were subjected to hard labour. Margaret described the years she spent in the ghetto as ‘dreadful’.
Margaret’s life changed when she met Joseph Kagan. Joseph refused to accept the conditions of the ghetto and smuggled luxuries such as food and gramophone records in despite risking his life to do so. Joseph was convinced that the Jewish people were going to be killed so set about trying to find a place to hide. He convinced Margaret to marry him and to go into hiding with him and his mother. Before going into hiding Margaret found a friend outside the ghetto to look after Alik.
“Joseph, unlike so many others who hoped against hope, was absolutely sure that we were going to be exterminated and if we wanted to stay alive we had to somehow get out of this hellish ghetto.”
Margaret, Joseph and his mother escaped the ghetto by sneaking away from a slave labour brigade to their hiding place in the attic of a local factory. They remained in their hiding place for nine months with the help from their friends who risked their lives to do so. They had to remain silent during the day and at night Margaret taught Joseph Russian and he taught her English. They were liberated in July 1944 when the Soviet army reached Kaunas.
Rebuilding Their Lives
Margaret was euphoric at regaining her freedom and being reunited with Alik, however the enormity of what had happened quickly became apparent. She discovered the truth about her father’s disappearance and that her mother had committed suicide in a concentration camp.
Margaret and Joseph chose to create new lives in Britain as Joseph’s father already lived in England. They set up a textile business and Joseph patented a new cloth called Gannex. The company manufactured coats famously worn by Prince Philip and Harold Wilson. When Joseph was knighted in 1970 for services to industry Margaret became Lady Kagan. Margaret devoted her life to community work and raising their three children.
Margaret remained in contact with her rescuer, Vytautas Rinkevicius, and the Macenavicius family who had rescued Alik. In 1964 they were reunited after twenty years when Margaret travelled to Riga to meet them. Throughout her life Margaret spoke about the dangers of prejudice and the immense bravery of those who had risked their lives to save people during the Holocaust.
Sadly Margaret died in 2011 and is greatly missed.
“Why anyone of sound mind should have agreed not to endanger only himself, but his whole family – to risk his life as he did for us is an insoluble question.”
To learn more about Margarets story you can visit The Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre. For more information click here