The Bernstein Family - Ylakiai, Lithuania

In 1941, Eta and Jacob Bernstein and four of their seven children were murdered in the killing pits in Ylakiai, Lithuania.

Eta (née Judelman) and Jacob Meir Bernstein lived in the town of Ylakiai in northwest Lithuania.  They had seven children: Ida, Arye-Leib, Liba, Benzion, Rivka, Hinda and Menachem-Mendel.  Jacob owned a store and made a living in trade.  Between the World Wars, Ylakiai was part of independent Lithuania.  In 1923, 409 of the approximately 1,000 residents of Ylakiai were Jews.

In 1933, Ida immigrated to Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) and married Levi Feifer.  They settled in Tel Aviv and changed their family name to Lev.  After leaving home, Ida corresponded with her family in Ylakiai.  On the reverse side of one of the photographs they sent her in May 1938 was the inscription in Hebrew: " Ida, remember your family, the Bernstein family from Ylakiai".  Ida's sister Rivka married Shmuel Gil, and they settled in Kretinga in western Lithuania. They had two children, whose names are unknown. A photograph of Rivka and her children is displayed in this exhibition.

In late summer 1940, Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and Ylakiai came under Soviet rule.  In a postcard that Hinda sent from Ylakiai to her sister Ida in Tel Aviv on 9 May 1941, she wrote, in Hebrew:

Greetings to you!
Although not much time has passed since we received a letter from you, we are still waiting for another one… Here, everything is as it was.  Benzion came to visit us… from 1-3 May.  Here too, it was a good and beautiful day.  All the houses were adorned with flowers, and in the evening, the lighting was very pretty.  Processions came through the town.  In short, it was very pleasant to see it all.  Benzion looks well.  I'm sure he'll also write you a letter from Kovno.  For now, keep well.  Your far-away sister, Hinda .

On the other side of the postcard, Ida's parents wrote a message in Yiddish:

Dear children, Levi and Ida!
We are waiting for a response, and will continue writing… here, we are thank God well… Benzion came home to visit.  He's got a good job.  He earns 350 rubles a month… So far, pretty good, and please God… it will be even better, so we hope.  Dear Ida, we are very worried about you.  For God's sake, write often, we are waiting for good news from you.  Mother doesn't sleep, and mentions you all the time.  Be well, very best wishes, Jacob.

Dear children, you will be happy with the postcard, and we will be even happier to get your answer… Write to us always and immediately, with good and happy reports… Your devoted Mother.

That postcard was the last sign of life from the three of them.  Less than two months later, all three were murdered at the killing pits on the outskirts of Ylakiai.

On 22 July 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and quickly reached Ylakiai.  On 6-7 July, the Jews of Ylakiai and the surrounding villages were gathered and shot to death by Lithuanians at the Jewish cemetery in the town.  Some 300 Jews were shot over two days, including Eta and Jacob Bernstein and their children.  Benzion, who was living in Kovno at the time, eventually joined the partisans. 

Rivka, her husband Shmuel and their children were in Reseiniai at the time of the massacre.  Shmuel fled eastward and enlisted in the Red Army.  Rivka, who was pregnant, stayed in Reseiniai.  The Germans entered Reseiniai on 23 June 1941, and the mass murder of the city's Jews began on 29 July.  Hundreds of Jewish men were taken by the Germans to the quarry near the village of Žieveliškės, 5 km from Reseiniai, and were shot to death there.  Between 15-16 August, approximately 600 Jewish men, women and children were shot to death, seemingly at the same murder site.  Between 29 August and 6 September, the last 840 Reseiniai Jews were shot in the adjacent village of Kurpiškės.  Rivka managed to remain hidden with her children during these Aktions, but was ultimately caught, and sent to the Kovno ghetto.  In February 1942, Rivka gave birth to her daughter Rina in the ghetto, and from then on, searched desperately for a way to save her baby girl.  In 1943, an acquaintance of hers approached her Lithuanian friend, Anelė Glaveckienė, and asked her to take in little Rina.  Rivka wrapped her baby in a blanket, and passed her over the ghetto fence to Anelė, who took care of her devotedly.  Rivka and her children were caught in the ghetto, and murdered at the Ninth Fort.  Shmuel survived, and was informed that his wife and two older children had been murdered, and that his daughter had been saved by Anelė and her husband Juozas, later recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.  Benzion was killed in the ranks of the partisans.

Shmuel married again, and had a son.  He remained in Lithuania.  Rina married and had two daughters, Rivka and Renata, who were born in Vilna.  Remaining close with her rescuer, she saw Anelė as a mother, and a grandmother to her daughters.  In 1989, Rina, her husband and children immigrated to the US. 

In the 1950s, Ida Lev (Bernstein) submitted Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem in memory of her parents Eta and Jakob, her brothers and sisters, and other relatives.  In 2012, Ida's son Isack Lev, donated letters and family photographs to Yad Vashem as part of the "Gathering the Fragments" national project.  Some of those letters and photographs are featured in this exhibition.