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The story of Gershon Young


Gershon Young lives in the United States.  He was one of the residents of Kvedarna who survived the Holocaust, and was one of the five whose Testimony was recorded after the war.  The additional material related  hereunder  was  recorded by him for Yad v'Shem, and has been amplified in discussions with Elliot Eisenberg.

My name in Lithuania was Gershonius Jungas.  I was born on October 15, 1922.

The name of the town in which I lived was Chweidan in Yiddish:  Chesh, vov, daled, aleph, lange nun.  In Lithuanian, it was called Kverdarna.  It was a little, quiet town.  There were roughly about 100 families.

Family details

 My father was Shai  Young, and my mother's maiden name was Mira Katz.  My father's mother's name was also Mira Katz, but my grandmother's family and my mother's family were not related.  My mother's family was from Tavrig.

We lived on Lukova Gas, Lukova Street, about a block down from the synagogue.  Zelig Young and Dovid Young were my father's cousins.   Zelig and his family lived between us and the synagogue.  When he left for South Africa to join his sons, he gave the house to his daughter and her family.  I believe that In South Africa he was known as Sam Young.  Dovid Young, (Zelig's brother), lived across the street from us. 

The Epsteins also lived across the street from us.  Also the Gaylises, who were a very prosperous family in Chweidan..  He was with us in the camps, and died in Warsaw.

Another of my father's cousins, Yosef Zacharia Young, moved to England.  He was responsible for getting Zelig out of Chweidan and to South Africa.  The Posels lived on Lukava Street.  He was a schneider, a tailor.

My grandfather, Shlomo Young, carried freight from Chweidan to Libau and all over.  He picked up and delivered for the merchants in town.  Five of his sons moved to Chicago:  Julius, Sol, Henry, Leb and Eli.  They were working people, but Sol did better by moving to a town in Michigan.

Three of his sons did not emigrate;  Moishe Barak, who had papers to come to America, but decided at the last minute against it; Itzig, who lived in Heidekru, and my father, who  remained in Chweidan.  He was very active in trading horses.  We used to travel to Shilel, Lukava, Shvenksna, Heidekru and other towns, trading horses.

We knew that people who moved to Africa could start making a lot of money pretty soon, but that in America it was harder.  My five uncles all started as working people, you might say they started in sweat shops.  But we knew that America was a melting pot compared with Africa.  Although there was more immediate opportunity in Africa, there was a greater possibility of a better life in America.

Life in Kvedarna

We got along  pretty well with the other inhabitants. There was not anti-semitism showing at that time, when I was growing up.  We worked on our small holding; we did everything on our own.  There was nothing there.  In our case, there was no electricity, no refrigeration.  Actually it was a poor life.  But there was plenty of food.  Plenty to eat, plenty of vegetables.  We grew our own vegetables.  And there were all kinds of fruits.  After my barmitzvah we all went to our housde for a party.  We had teiglach, wet and dry - you know, cookies cooked in honey

And what else can I tell you?   We were just my father, and my mother, she should rest in peace, my sisters, and my grandmother was still alive.  I used to work in the garden with her.  My mother was very busy in the house cooking and washing clothes by hand.  Everybody was helping out, my sisters and everybody.   I remember ploughing and taking care of the cows.  Doing the cutting.  The potatoes.  We did what a farmer has to do.

I went to grammar school with the Lithuanian boys.    Then I went to the gymnasium with the Lithuanian boys.  It was a new gymnasium When they said their prayers I was just standing up and nobody bothered me.. There was also a Hebrew teacher who taught Hebrew classes for the Jewish students.

After my bar mitzvah, I continued with schooling.  I was still going to the gymnasium for two years.  I would say it was more than a high school.  You learned a lot.  One time, they took the gymnasium students to Memel  to see the factories.  It took all night on a wagon.  At night the driver must have dropped off to sleep.  The horse kept on going slowly by himself.

Some of the students from Chweidan went to study in the yeshiva in Telz.  Others went to study in Slobodke.   They studied to become teachers.

After the gymnasium, I went to my mother's hometown, Tavrig, to a cheder over there.  It was a yeshiva type of school.  But I felt kind of lonesome.  There was a man who was carrying freight and I said I want to go home with you.  And I got onto his truck and I came back home.  I would say I must have been about 15 years old at the time.  My parents weren't too happy that they didn't know when I just took off.

My mother's sister was married and stayed with us all the time.  As a matter of fact, she helped raise me.  She didn't have any children.  It was a close family, a big family.

For fun, we'd go to the Jura River.  Go swimming.  Pick things from the gardens.  Bring in the eggs from the chickens and so on.  We used to play soccer.  There as also a different game in Lithuania with the soccer ball.  If they hit you with the ball, you were out.  That kind of game was played in Lithuania;  I haven't see it over here.

We had a big house.  A lot of kids used to meet and play at our house.  We didn't have much in the way of culture.

There were about 12 children on my mother's side and from my father's side.  It was a big family in Lithuania.  They were all wiped out.  I am practically the only one left, except for a cousin in Rehoboth, who survived the concentration camps.  We met.  I couldn't believe it when I saw him. 

Religous life

In Chweidan, we observed everything.  The kashrut..  There was only one synagogue in the little town.   It was on one floor, with a mechitza to separate the men from the women.  The bima was off the wall in the back, facing south.  We were there for prayers three times every day.  In some of the bigger towns, like Tavrig, people were not as religious as in the small towns, but in Chweidan if people did not see you in shul, they would start asking if you were all right.  Compared to the shul in Chweidan, the synagogues in Tavrig were huge.  There were three of them that I can remember there. 

The services could be led by anyone.  I led services some times.  The Rabbi was there to give his speeches on Shabbas and on the holidays.  On Yom Kippur he told us how important it was to be kind to one another, and how we should think of living good lives.

There were no movies or anything else.  Everything was the synagogue and the family.  We celebrated every holiday, like Simchas Torah, all those holidays. You name it, everything was celebrated.  There was a person, a producer, who made little shows for the children.  We did the 12 tribes;  I played the part of Reuvain.  It was fun.

On Passover, it was nice sitting on the sofa, bein misuvin.   The seder was just wonderful. It was pretty hard to find the afikomen.  It was hiding behind the cushions, under the sofa.   My mother used to make big matzoh balls.  I remember that once when I was away from Chweidan, learning in my mother's town, I said, "My mother makes bigger matzoh balls than you do..." 

They used to give me a lot of wine.  I fell asleep.  I was a little boy;  they put me to bed.  I used to say to my mother, you know, I didn't see the second seder.  She, she should rest in peace, she said, "We'll make you a third seder."

My father belonged to the burial society, and when I was born he enlisted me in the chevra kadisha.  When I got bigger, they used to give me a little schnapps and one of the kichel, one of those cookies.  I felt like I was drunk.  I used to dig the earth when it was frozen and help the older people who weren't as strong as I was.

The arrival of the Germans

We found about about the war when we heard Hitler start talking on the radio.  We didn't even have a radio.  We used to go to some neighbors.  I think it was frightening, you know: "The Juden, the Juden, the Juden.  The Juden must be taken".  We never figured it would come to such a terrible thing.

I remember when the Germans arrived in Chweidan.  I was 18 years old.  I was in the attic, looking out over what was going on in the town.  I saw they were carrying all the elderly  people in cars and trucks and taking them out of the city.   They were Nazis, dressed in black clothes. 

Then they rounded us up on a Sunday, maybe a day later. That day was a horrible day.  There was a Lithuanian by the name of Kolicius.  He came into our house.  My father was already in the ally.  He told my sister that if your brother doesn't come down, we're going to shoot your father.  My sister said to me, "Come down, Gershon, otherwise they're going to kill Daddy."  I came down. He had a big gun, a shotgun, but he didn't say anything.  He just motioned with the gun for me to go this way.  I walked out and saw in the marketplace women and girls were standing and weeping.  They told us, "Schnell, schnell."  Then they closed the truck.  They took us to a town called Heidekru.  The date we left town was June 29, 1941.

In the truck we were talking to each other, that they were going to take us to do work, nothing else.  We didn't figure they were going to kill people just like that.  I was with all the people from my hometown.  My friends were there.  Their fathers were there.  There were also some people collected from the town of Heidekru and people from the town of Schveksnia.

When we got off the truck, there were men standing there with whips.  We saw people getting hit with the whips.  I told my father, please run in as fast as you can.  He ran in and didn't get hurt.  Maybe a little touched, but he was not bleeding.  I ran in like a storm, because I was young and fast.  A lot of people were bleeding and crying.

My father wasn't with me very long, maybe four or five weeks.  They took him away with other people, including the rabbi from our town.  They said they were going to take them home.  Then the young SS beasts returned and they brought the clothing from the people they had taken.  You can imagine the heartache we went through.  We started sitting shiva.  We didn't know what to do.

The guard must have known someone in my family.  There was this young guard who said, austrecher, which meant come over here.  He gave me a cigarette. 

Later something appeared on my foot, about the size of a baseball.  I couldn't go out and work, so was sitting peeling potatoes.  When the Nazis came in to take people away, the young one in charge wanted to take me, too.  He said, "You.  Come along."   But our foreman said, "You're not taking him.  He is my best worker".  So they left without me.

In Heidekru I worked building dams.  Sometimes on a Sunday they used to ask if you wanted to work.  I used to volunteer for Sunday work.   The people you worked for used to give you a piece of bread, something to eat.  Whatever it was, it was good.  When you were working in Heidekru, they didn't do any harm.  Actually, sometimes we didn't have any guards.  Where were you going to run?  If you ran away you would probably be caught and shot.  One fellow went out to ask for a piece of bread.  They reported him, and looked to see what it was, but they didn't make a big deal of it.

In the camps

In 1943, when they weren't doing too well in Russia, they put us onto a cattle train and transferred us to Birkenau-Auschwitz.  The train ride was a horrible thing.  They rarely stopped to let you to get out into the forest, and then they rushed you back onto the train.  It smelled terrible.  People were doing everything in the boxes there.  They brought a pail of water onto the train.  Everybody started grabbing at it to get some water.  They spilled the pail and nobody got any of the water.

It took about a day and a half to get to Birkenau-Auschwitz.  When we jumped off the train there was a guy standing there; I'm sure he was Mengele.  He looked you up and down and said, "You go here, and you go there".  There were some Jews who were helping the authorities, and they told us that the people who were going onto the truck were going into the ovens.

Then we went into the camp to undress.  They had us take off all the clothes we had on.  They shaved us all over, from head to toe.  The hair was removed from everywhere.  The gave us clothes for the concentration camp.   Everything was striped, including the little round hat. 

We stayed in Auschwitz-Birkenau about six weeks.  Then they sent us to work on cleaning up the Warsaw Ghetto.  They only took Lithuanian Jews, Holland Jews, Hungarian Jews, any Jew who couldn't speak Polish, to work at the Warsaw ghetto.  They did not want these workers to get in contact with Polish people.  All together, there were about 5,000 Jews working on cleaning up the Warsaw Ghetto.  We cleaned it up by hand, passing bricks from one person to another. 

The ghetto was destroyed in 1943.  I was there for 13 months.  It was very, very dirty.  We were sleeping on floors that were crawling with lice.  Typhus broke out.  They didn't have a crematorium.  There were burning the bodies right next to our barracks.  They were building a crematorium but it wasn't ready until the Russians came in.  We used to joke that today it is these dead, tomorrow it will be us.   I don't know how I am sitting here telling you the story of all these horrible things.

For food, we had some kind of soup, or a piece of bread, maybe marmalade or margarine.  We ate about once a day.  In the mornings we had a little coffee or something like coffee.  I only weighed about 70 pounds at that time.   I was what they call a muzzelman, a skeleton.  I also got typhus fever.  G-d knows I had it there.

When spring came, I said I need only the sun.  I don't need any food.  I only need the sun because we were freezing to death.

In 1944, the Russians were getting closer to Warsaw.  The Germans decided to march us out of there.  We marched about 135 kilometers to a little town called Kutenow.  It was pouring with rain.  Our clothes were soaking, just hanging there.  We used to just wrap them around our legs and our feet.  We were walking on the highway.  Once you had exposed skin, once it got bloody, you were a dead duck.

On one occasion, we had stopped in another forest and started digging with a spoon in the ground.  All of a sudden, clear water appeared.  We were all drinking the clear water.  Even the guards came over to drink the clear water.  It was like a miracle that we discovered that water.  The next day  we were marching along by a river.  Everyone got into the river.  Some of them fell in and were drowned. 

Finally, we got onto a train.  Another of the cattle cars.  Then we traveled up to Dachau.  First we settled in Dachau in Camp Four.  Then Camp Seven,  then Camp Eleven.  The soups in Dachau were thicker than in any of the other camps.  They took our names, where we born.  That was a surprise to us.  We thought, it must be near the end.  Some packages came in from the Red Cross.  I swallowed that little package like a lion swallows a deer. 

We all worked in construction at Dachau.  The name of the company was Morer.  We were in Dachau nine months after we left Warsaw.  The guards were all in their sixties.  Some people slipped away.  They didn't count us any more.  We saw planes coming over us and we knew they were American.  We were told to get down, but we waved to the planes.

When the War came to an end, we were marching around in different forests.   We were saved by one thing.  The Nazis were marching us around.  The guards wanted to kill us, but the officer said, "You're not going to kill the Juden."  Then the Americans came and took him away in a Jeep.  We spoke up for the officer who saved us.

There were 180 Russians working there on a big farm.  The Germans took them out in a field and killed them all.


We were liberated May 1, 1945. 

It was the American Seventh Army that liberated us.  One of their officers stood up on a table and started talking.  There were some Jewish GI's that spoke Jewish, and one of them said we were liberated.  I was lying on the floor then.  People had to help me up to hear.  The Americans gave us food.  It was too much for the stomach for some people.  Some didn't survive all the grease.

From Dachau we went to Ferenwald.  It was a camp with Jews, Lithuanians, Poles and other Gentiles.  You were back to being a human being again.  My family would have been happy to know I survived to go on with life.  Later, they separated us to a totally Jewish camp.

General Eisenhower came to visit us once in the Jewish camp.  He said, "Don't go back.  You'll be coming to the United States with us."  I think he had seen all the skeletons, all the death, and wanted to do something about it.

I knew I had uncles in the United States.  My father had five brothers there.  One of my uncles, he should rest in peace, he traced me in a magazine.  They were listing our names in magazines.  He started writing, and found me. 

I would have gone to Israel.  Many of my friends went to Israel.   Roza Rachmel and her sister, Luba,  had been studying in Kovno when the war broke out.  They somehow survived the Kovno ghetto and emigrated to Israel.  Berel Levit's family operated a mill not very far from Chweidan.  He moved to Chicago after the War.    He died a few years ago.

I came to Chicago in 1949.  My family told me, you're not going to work for three months.  I went to day school, and night school, learning as much English as I could.  I met my wife at a Jewish center in Chicago, and worked at Capital Hardware Mfg. Co. for 41 years.  I never looked for another job and was still with that company when I retired.

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