rescuers of jews

Pagojutė Domicėlė

Domicėlė Pagojutė (1889–1972) Domicėlė Pagojutė is the main rescuer of Rachel Taic-Zinger (Rachelė Taicaitė-Zinger), Reizl Shochot (Reizl Šochotienė) and her sons Chaim and Jehoshua Shochot (Chaimas and Jehošua Šochotas). All four of us were born and brought up in Telšiai. The first three have already passed away (in Israel), and I, Jehoshua Shochot, the author of these lines, have been living in Israel with my family since 1972. We were all imprisoned in the Rainiai and Geruliai concentration camps and the Telšiai Ghetto. From the end of 1941, after the liquidation of the Telšiai Ghetto until the very liberation in October 1944, we were hiding in the Telšiai region and the city of Telšiai. We survived thanks to extraordinary help, courageous dedication and the cleverness of Domicėlė and many other similar Lithuanian families. I am sincerely grateful and I will never forget the people who risked their own lives, the welfare of their families and relatives to help us, the condemned Jews, to survive and provided us with shelter, hid, fed and comforted us. Domicėlė was born near the town of Telšiai in the village of Vilkaičiai, into the family of a poor peasant with very little land. When she was still young Domicėlė started working as a hired worker in the family of rich farmers. She worked for the family of Budzinskas in Degučiai (now Vilkai) village, and later in the town of Telšiai for Jewish families. Domicėlė started working for our family in 1932 and before this, for 20 years, she had been working for the family of a famous photographer of Telšiai, Chaim Kaplansky (Chaimas Kaplanskis). She had worked in this family as a maid and nanny and brought up almost two generations of children. The children, who were raised by Domicėlė, got attached to her and loved her very much. The granddaughter of Kaplansky, Rachel Taic, was one of them. The girl would come to visit us quite often, to be more precise, she would visit Domicėlė. Rachel loved her very much too. And I loved her along with my brother like our mother, sometimes even more. Domicėlė never had her own family but she would get attached to the kids she was looking after like they were her own. When during the German occupation these children were in imminent danger, she did everything she could to rescue them. I would like to emphasize another one of Domicėlė’s character traits. She was very fast and easy at communicating and socialising with people, had many friends and acquaintances in Telšiai and its surroundings. She never argued with people, had good relations with everybody and would always help people when they were in trouble. She was on very good terms with her brothers and relatives. Her brother Julius lived in Vilkaičiai village with his family, and brother Baltramiejus lived in Vilkai village. Both brothers were poor peasants with little land but were always ready to help the persecuted and the suffering, and would share their small shelters and the last piece of bread. Good relations between Domicėlė and other people would help us very much while we were hiding. When Domicėlė turned to any of her relatives or friends, no-one would say no to her and all tried to help as much as they could. Domicėlė became a member of our family from the very first day she started working in our family. We spent a major part of our life living with her in Telšiai, house No. 15 on Kalno street. In 1939 my mother rented our flat to Professor Pik, a refugee from Klaipėda: he opened an eye clinic there. So, we moved to a smaller flat and Domicėlė started working as a nurse in the clinic. She lived in the same flat in a small room, suka. The ceiling panels of that room were dismountable, and the tin roof could be opened. During the Jewish festival Sukot one was able to see the sky above. There we used to have a meal during Sukot. Domicėlė had the keys from the landing which would go to the attic (also a so-called floor) and she would let only those she wanted to go there. During the day the house was full of people. But in the evenings when the work finished, the clinic was empty and Domicėlė would become the head of this side of the house. When in need Domicėlė would turn this entire part of the house into a reliable place to hide the Jews. The eye clinic operated until the end of the German occupation, and we used to hide there when the need arose. The Germans located some important institutions, probably the Gestapo, in the former beautiful building of the Patients’ Fund on the other side of the street in front of our house. This house left me with indelible and desolate memories I will never forget. Next to the walls there were flags with swastikas, with the entrance protected by armed Germans. During the German occupation, I only spent a few days at Domicėlė’s place in the spring of 1942 when I left Kalnėnai and moved to Baltramiejus’s place, a brother of Domicėlė. Nobody would have thought that Jews could have been hiding next to the Gestapo building. From the very beginning of the German occupation, Domicėlė took care of our family: asked by my mother she hid our precious belongings, visited and cared for my brother who was in the hospital. When we were in the Telšiai Ghetto, she was the main provider of food for us. Rachel and my mother wrote in their memoirs that when they had a chance to get out of the ghetto, they used to visit Domicėlė and would never come back empty-handed. Domicėlė used to take food from the village inhabitants, her relatives and friends, even from the peasants who would come to the clinic for treatment. The Lithuanian villagers were allowed to take workers out from the Telšiai Ghetto, keep them for work for some time, and then return them to the ghetto. My mother and her sister Leja were looking for “legal work” so they could go and then never come back, that the owners might help hide the “workers”. They found such a place with Juozapas Butvydas (sisters Kazimiera and Veronika Rupeikaitė lived together with him on this farm and together with Juozapas managed the farm). Apart from our six members of the family (the four I’ve already mentioned and my grandmother Riva Shif (Riva Šif) and her sister Sheine Jofe (Šeinė Jofė), there were four other Jews on this farm: two elderly sisters and one woman with a six-year-old daughter. I don’t remember their names or surnames. We worked as much as we could. We lived in little one-room house that was also used as a kitchen. We used to sleep there on the floor, all of us. At the end of December the farmers who had Jewish workers received a letter from the village elders to bring all the Jews back to the ghetto for a “health check-up”. Butvydas also received such a letter. Even though I was only a little kid, I remember that terrible atmosphere, that tragic situation that people felt around me. Riva and Sheine went back to the ghetto. They were shot dead during the ghetto liquidation campaign. Leja also left the farm of Butvydas. We were seven people remaining at Butvydas’ farm. According to the government instructions, we had to go back to the ghetto, and that meant death. The adults refused to go back to the ghetto. The farm owners recommended to us to get baptised: maybe the murderers would not touch baptised Jews. Kazė Rupeikaitė talked to the priest of the small church in Telšiai who agreed to baptise us. Early in the morning while it was still dark, on the same day when the Telšiai Ghetto was liquidated, seven people accompanied by our godfathers Kazė and Juozapas, went on foot to Telšiai. We entered the church through the back door to remain unnoticed. The priest came. I do not remember the baptism in detail, I just recall that we were baptised all together. All seven of us were lined up, the godfathers were behind us, in front of us there was a priest, who prayed and said some incomprehensible words. Later on he poured holy water on our heads and there we became Catholics. I recall well the place where it all happened in the corner of the church, on the left to the altar. At the end of the baptism procedure, the priest departed. Our godfathers also left. It was dawning outside and we were afraid to leave the church. Somebody could have recognised us outside, so we spent almost the entire day in the empty church. Apart from us who were baptised that day, nobody visited the church. Some would come for a short while, quickly say a prayer, and leave. Among those who would come to the church was one woman from Telšiai that my mother recognised, a good acquaintance before the war. This Catholic woman also recognised my mother. They embraced each other, and wiped their tears. My mother told her that we were baptised this morning and asked her what they should do next. The answer was very unexpected. “Madam,” the lady said, “you were just baptised; you haven’t committed any sin, so go and die. After dying you will go straight to heaven.” She knew that the ghetto was being liquidated and saw women being taken towards Rainiai... We did not, of course, follow the advice of this Catholic woman. In the dark we came back to Kalnėnai, and from that day on we started hiding. I do not deny that our baptism played some positive role during our hiding. For murderers it was all the same: they used to kill the baptised and non-baptised at the same time. From the seven people baptised on that morning, only three of us survived: my mother, Chaim and myself. Domicėlė’s attitude towards life and death was very different from the above-mentioned Catholic woman. Even though Domicėlė’s entire cultural and spiritual life was related to the Church, she was of the opinion that even if we were sinners, we would be much better off alive here and not in heaven. Our rescuer’s worldview was very liberal. She used to help the baptised and non-baptised alike (for example, Rachel Taic was not baptised). She made life easier for those who suffered, regardless of their nationality or religion. She believed in God, used to go to church every day and pray. She belonged to that category of women who were called prudes. She did not imagine life without the church. I remember how hard it was to take her to the cinema. We watched a music comedy called Linksmieji vyrukai (Happy men) with famous Russian actors Liubov Orlova and Leonid Utiosov. This was the first and the only time when Domicėlė went to the movies. We would often change our places of hiding. I had to hide in a number of peasant families. I changed my hiding places as many as 15 times. My brother changed a bit less but my mother counted 22 hiding places for herself. Domicėlė helped all of us very much. We used to live at the places of her brothers and good friends. I rarely knew where my mother or brother was but Domicėlė always knew where each of us was and used to visit us as much as possible. During the hardest times we would come to her in Telšiai when we had nowhere to go. She would always welcome us in her room in the attic and would find us new places to hide. Domicėlė rescued Rachel Taic. She was the only survivor in the Telšiai Ghetto from her family. Her Father Icchak Taic (Icchakas Taicas) was shot dead in Rainiai in the middle of July 1941. Her mother, younger brother and sister were shot in Geruliai at the end of August. Rachel was in the Telšiai Ghetto until the end of the ghetto. On the last night before the liquidation of the ghetto, she and two of her friends managed to escape. They noticed the planks in the fence of the ghetto that had been poorly nailed, took the planks off and all the three managed to escape through the hole. They were free and did not know where to go. Rachel was afraid to go to Domicėlė’s place as there were important German institutions in front of her house with German soldiers around them. Rachel found a small storage room and fell asleep there. It was the end of December 1941, and the night was very cold. When Rachel woke up, she was very cold and could not feel her toes. She had no other choice but to go to Domicėlė’s place. It was almost dawn when she knocked on the window of her room. Domicėlė let her in, sheltered, fed and tried all the methods and treatment measures she knew to treat the toes of Rachel but nothing helped. After a few days the toes started turning black. Domicėlė understood that it was gangrene and there was no other way out but the hospital. At Telšiai hospital the clever and inventive Domicėlė had good and reliable friends. Rachel was treated by doctors under a different name. Her frozen toes were amputated. Rachel came back to Domicėlė’s place after leaving the hospital. Later on Domicėlė took the girl to live with her brother Julius, who lived together with his wife and two children in Vilkaičiai village. Domicėlė looked after Rachel during all the years of hiding, would visit her and find new places for hiding and even would bring her special footwear that was needed because of her amputated toes. After the war, in the summer of 1945, Rachel managed to get to Palestine. Up until Domicėlė’s death, Rachel used to write her letters and send presents. At the end of 1944 when the Germans retreated, the eye clinic was closed and the Russians established the Telšiai Regional Party Committee in the former Patients’ Fund building, and the Rajkom (the Communist Party Regional Committee) members settled in our house. They moved Domicėlė out. At the beginning of 1945 we went to live in the village together with Domicėlė near the town of Ylakiai, on the former farm of my mother’s uncle. We lived there for a year and a half. In the middle of 1946, we came back to Telšiai together with Domicėlė. Even though my mother had a certificate that the house on Kalno str. No.15 was her property, there was nowhere to live; the house was all full of Rajkom employees. The only empty place was the former room of Domicėlė, suka, full of rubbish and other unnecessary things. After having cleaned the room, myself and my mother started to live there. My brother never came back to Telšiai. In the summer of 1945, he managed to escape to Palestine together with my mother’s sister Leja. There was no place for Domicėlė in our house then, so she lived with the Budzinskas family in the village of Degučiai. After three years my mother managed to get rid of all the Rajkom employees. Then Domicėlė returned to live in our house. My mother gave her a room, where she spent the rest of her life. Domicėlė was almost illiterate. Being a student and later working in Vilnius, I used to spend my holidays in Telšiai together with my mother. During all of those years I was Domicėlė’s secretary. I would read her the letters that she received and would write the replies for her. Each letter that she received from Rachel would start with the words: “Dear Domicėlė”. In one of her letters Rachel wrote: “I have so many beautiful flowers, you loved flowers so much. When I water them, I always remember you, my dear. Your motherly love, I keep your motherly love forever in my heart. I remember you while cooking, going to the cinema and putting my children to bed. You are the most precious of all to me.” My mother lived in Telšiai until 1965. Then she sold the house in Telšiai and moved with me to Vilnius. The Petrikas family, Domicėlė’s cousin, bought half of the house, where Domicėlė’s room was. My mother sold this house on the condition that this room would belong to Domicėlė until the end of her days. The Petrikas family kept this condition. Domicėlė was a very dear person to me. She gave all of her energy, intelligence and love to other people. She rescued those who were condemned to die, the ill and the suffering, she helped make their lives easier and supported everyone as much as she could. I will never forget her. I am indebted to her forever. Jehoshua Shochot Israel, 2004 From the 4th book Hands Bringing Life and Bread The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum