For the JC September 4 2020
When Los Angeles lawyer Michael Leventhal saw a picture of an 11-year-old girl on the front page of the New York Times in 2017, he couldn’t believe it. That was his mother, Beba Epstein, who had died in 2012, a Holocaust survivor about whose early life he knew very little.
Beba’s picture was there because her lively account of her family life in pre-war Vilna, Lithuania, written in Yiddish, had emerged among 170,000 documents re-discovered in Lithuania by YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research. YIVO was founded in Vilna and moved to New York during the Second World War.
Mr Leventhal called Jonathan Brent, chief executive of YIVO in New York. Even more astonishingly, it emerged that YIVO held more than 50 letters written by his father — Polish-born Lee Leventhal, who had escaped to Mexico City in 1932— to Beba in the early days of their courtship and marriage.
Today, Beba’s story is the focus of a unique Holocaust-education project launched by YIVO, an online interactive museum aimed at helping people — and young people in particular — connect with the pre-war lives of European Jews. And one of the first places to take advantage of the Beba Epstein story — told in a series of cheerful, cartoon images mixed with real-life pictures of Vilna as it was — was Solihull School in the British Midlands.
Mark Penney, head of the junior school at Solihull, was enthusiastic about the YIVO exhibition, entitled “The Extraordinary Life of An Ordinary Girl”.
He said: “What is exciting about this is that it is a gift to educators. It removes all barriers, it’s age appropriate, and a boon to directed learning. The youngest children can participate, whereas those working for their GCSEs can dig a bit deeper. I don’t know another resource like it.”
The digital museum, curated by Karolina Ziulkoski and created with input from the Leventhal family, allows viewers a virtual “walk” around pre-war Vilnius, taking in Beba’s school and the city synagogue that she, her parents, her two brothers and sister attended. Break-out boxes threaded through the exhibit give deeper background to Beba’s story.
Her memoir may have been written as part of a competition held for schoolchildren by YIVO in 1933, though Mr Brent says they are not sure. Funny and charming, she tells her readers honestly what she is like: a “naughty child” who breaks plates in her parents’ china cabinet, fights with her cousin and her siblings, and is “very loved at home, but they don’t spoil me — only when I’m sick — then I get special privileges”.
When the Germans entered Vilna, Beba, the eldest of the four children, was about 17. “The day after her high school graduation,” says Ms Ziulkoski, “everything happened very fast. The Germans established a ghetto. Her father thought that because she was blonde and blue-eyed, she could pass for non-Jewish. He had a non-Jewish friend who had been in the Russian army in the First World War, and sent Beba to hide with him.”
The rest of the family went to the ghetto and letters went back and forth between them and Beba. But the letters stopped after about two months, and the teenager left her hiding-place in the officer’s attic to go back to the ghetto and find her family. “But once she was there she found her whole family had been killed”. Almost certainly, YIVO researchers believe, the Epsteins were among the thousands of Vilna Jews murdered in the Ponar forest, just outside the city.
Among those in the Vilna ghetto were the so-called “Paper Brigade”, a group of dedicated Jews who did everything possible to save the priceless documentation of the Lithuanian Jewish community. It is thought that Beba’s “autobiography” — which she had undoubtedly forgotten having written — was included in that material.
A great deal of the Paper Brigade collection was hidden after the war by a Lithuanian librarian, Antanas Ulpis, who squirrelled the books and documents into a church basement in the face of a Soviet crackdown on the possession of religious material. This cache was what was re-discovered in 2017, and included Beba’s memoir, found “in almost pristine condition”.
When the Vilna ghetto was liquidated in 1943, the next part of Beba’s war began. She briefly worked outside the ghetto, including as a maid in the city’s Gestapo headquarters. Those Jews remaining after the dissolution of the ghetto, including Beba, were sent to a variety of concentration camps. She survived three, including the last one, Stutthof, “the most brutal”, was put out to sea by the Nazis in a mined boat, and then rescued, suffering from typhus, by British soldiers.
After recuperating in Sweden, Beba made her way to New York, where she had an uncle, Lasar Epstein, a prominent member of the Bund, or Jewish Labour Movement, whose papers are preserved in the YIVO archives.
When her memoir was first found, YIVO originally thought that Beba Epstein had not survived. It was Mr Leventhal’s phone call which helped them put the pieces together.