A community destroyed
Val Ginsburg was born in Lithuania and was imprisoned in the Kaunas ghetto before being sent to Dachau concentration camp. After liberation he met Ibi, and they married and built a new life together.
“And we thought, it can’t happen here. Maybe everywhere else but not here. And that was our big mistake.”
Waldemar (Val) Ginsburg grew up in Lithuania. He described it as a small country ‘trapped on a political fault line’ between two superpowers: fascist Nazi Germany to the West and Communist Soviet Russia to the East.
Val’s was brought up in a secular, free-thinking Jewish family who didn’t believe in organised religion. As a boy Val dreamt of becoming a pilot and spent his time building model aeroplanes. He eventually enrolled to study architecture, but his education was interrupted as war approached.
In the summer of 1940 the Soviet Red Army marched into Lithuania and life was turned upside down for Val’s family. Anyone who owned land or a business was classed as a Capitalist enemy of the people, the punishment for which was deportation to a Siberian slave labour camp. The Ginsburgs had their property confiscated and were put on a list for deportation.
They were saved from deportation to the east by the invasion of Nazi Germany when it began its assault on the Russian Empire. Val’s family had to make a difficult choice: flee east into Russia, or stay where they were and try to survive under the Nazis. Fourteen members of Val’s immediate family met and discussed their options. After a morning of debate they all chose to stay, hoping their chance of survival was better under the Germans.
“So we preferred the Nazis to the communists. The outcome was that except for myself, all 14 members who gathered that day perished.”
Life Under the Nazis
The Jewish population was immediately persecuted and the racist anti-Jewish laws of Nazi Germany were implemented. Among many other restrictions the laws prohibited Jewish people from walking on the pavement, using public transport, owning a telephone or radio, and owning pets. Their access to food was also restricted so they were constantly hungry. Arrests and executions were common. Val found this terrifying, as they frequently came with no warning. Within two months of the Nazi invasion the 35,000-strong Jewish population of Kaunas had been reduced to 30,000.
The Kaunas Ghetto
On 15th August 1941 the Jewish population of Kaunas was forced into a ghetto. The small suburb that formed the ghetto was surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. There was little food in the ghetto and many people died of starvation. Val and his family survived as he was sent outside the ghetto to work as a forced labourer, which enabled him to scrounge or steal potato peelings which his mother cooked.
Val witnessed two major massacres which made a lifelong impact on him. The ‘Big Action’ in October 1941 saw almost 10,000 people taken away and shot by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. Then in the spring of 1944 the ‘Children’s Action’ took place, when the ghetto children were forcibly taken away and murdered. After this Val lost his faith in humanity, as many of those who were participating in the murder were Lithuanian civilians whom until recently had been their neighbours.
“We realised that the atrocities were not committed by misfits, or by sadists, or by psychopaths. They were committed by ordinary decent people like you and me.”
By 1944 the German army was in retreat. The 12,000 remaining Jews were forced onto overcrowded cattle wagons and taken to concentration camps in Germany. Val’s journey took three days, after which he arrived in Dachau concentration camp near Munich. In Dachau Val lost his identity. He was stripped of his identity, given a prisoner uniform, and an SS guard tore up the precious photograph of his mother which was his last remaining possession. Val was taken to a sub-camp of Dachau and forced to do back-breaking work on starvation rations.
Val was liberated on 1st May 1945 by the American army. By this time he described himself as ‘like a walking skeleton’. Val’s first emotion was euphoria at finally being free, however this soon turned into a deep depression when he realised that his whole family had been murdered and his community and culture destroyed. He was hospitalised for six months after liberation and finally began to heal when he met Ibi, his future wife.
For Val, meeting Ibi was ‘therapeutic’. They quickly decided to marry and create a new life for themselves. Val’s cousin Margaret had moved to England after surviving the war in hiding and encouraged them to move to Yorkshire. They moved to England in October 1948 and quickly became British citizens. They created a new life for themselves working in West Yorkshire’s textile industry and raising their two daughters. After their retirement Val and Ibi spent much of their time telling their stories to school children and other groups. They remained a devoted couple for over 60 years. Val sadly died in 2011 and is greatly missed.
“We lost everything. But we built everything up again from scratch.”
Find out more about Val’s story in our exhibition, ‘Through Our Eyes, at the Holocaust Exhibition & Learning Centre in Huddersfield.