WASHINGTON — Rhona Liptzin grew up with the Holocaust. Her mother and father, Rachel and Saul Leibowitz, and her oldest brother, Melvin, were survivors of the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania.
Rhona and her other brothers, Sam and Mark, listened to stories their mother told of life in the ghetto. But she had no pictures of herself — nothing to document five years of her life filled with hatred, suffering and, ultimately, survival.
All that changed several months ago. While walking through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's "Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto" exhibit in December 1997, Liptzin was stopped in her tracks when she saw a 4-foot tall photo of her mother standing on a mud-filled street in Kovno, bundled in a coat but shivering from the cold. She was apparently conversing with an older women whose head was covered by a large scarf.
"I saw the picture and I was blown away," said Liptzin, a successful businesswoman in Mineola, N.Y. "I could identify her immediately."
In a letter to the museum, she wrote: "In my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined this scenario. I hoped I would be lucky enough to see a picture of her. It would make her story real. I never dreamed I would see a full-sized picture of my mother in the museum. I stood there and stared right back at her. I stood there frozen in a particular space and time. I no longer noticed anything or anyone around me and forgot I was in the museum. I was in Kovno — and it was 1941."
From the photo and her mother's slim figure, Liptzin estimated that the picture was taken sometime in 1941, soon after the Leibowitzes were herded, along with Kovno's other Jews, into the ghetto that was to become their prison for three years.
During the summer of 1942 and against the orders of the Nazi dictatorship, Rachel Leibowitz became pregnant with her oldest son, Melvin. She immediately went into hiding, and on March 26, 1943, her son was born. During her pregnancy, she never set foot outside, but in one of many acts of defiance, Rachel and Saul Leibowitz had their son circumcised eight days after his birth.
Leibowitz' profession as a jeweler and a craftsman gave him access to valuables that he used to bribe a Lithuanian policeman, who saved the baby from certain death.
When Melvin was 11 months old, he was drugged and smuggled out of the ghetto in a potato sack to be hidden with a Lithuanian family. One month later, the infamous "Children's Action" of March 1944 occurred when thousands of children were rounded up and exterminated in Fortress IX in the ghetto.
Eventually, Melvin ended up in an orphanage outside the ghetto walls. He remained there until the end of the war.
"I stayed in the exhibit for six hours," said Liptzin. She could not pull herself away. As she wandered through the pictures, which included one of her uncle, a member of the Ghetto Firefighters Brigade, she recalled stories her mother would tell her every night of her life and survival in the ghetto.
She also saw pictures of her father taken by photographer George Kadish, whose clandestine photography of the Kovno Ghetto was another act of defiance.
Liptzin immediately called her brother Sam and told him of her discovery. At first, he didn't believe her.
Sam Leibowitz said his mother always wanted to be able to tell her story, something his father never could bring himself to do. "With her photo at the entrance to the exhibit, she is telling her story."
The Kovno Ghetto was liquidated in July 1944 as the Germans began regrouping and moving further west. Rachel Leibowitz was transported to Stutthof concentration camp, where she was liberated by the Russian army in the spring of 1945.
Saul Leibowitz was taken to Dachau, along with his two brothers-in-law, and they were liberated by the American army in April 1945.
In a letter dated July 25, 1945, to her cousin Sarah in the United States, Rachel Leibowitz wrote: "Finally, the time has come that we are free to write to you again…We have suffered terribly at the hands of barbarians. We have lost everything. Our parents have been murdered…I have lived through hell, yet I am a fortunate mother. My son was born in the ghetto, but with God's help, we were able to save him from the hands of the barbarians. They took all the children from their mothers' arms and murdered them…
"I am living with a horrible nightmare. I cannot understand why this happened. It is difficult for me to go on. The horror of it all is constantly before my eyes. I cannot forget. I cannot stop crying. Yet I know I must go on for my child's sake…"
Rachel Leibowitz returned to Lithuania soon after the war's end in search of her husband and her young child, by now over 2 years old. She found him in an orphanage but could not secure his release because she did not have the proper paperwork. She offered her services as a volunteer, and one day, after having worked there for several weeks, walked off with her son. She later found her husband and they eventually made their way to Brooklyn, N.Y., in June 1949.
Sam Leibowitz was born in the American sector of Germany in 1947. His brother Mark was born in 1950, and Rhona was born in 1955.
Saul and Rachel Leibowitz died in 1979, eight weeks apart.
For Sam Leibowitz, there are still unanswered questions. But, he said, "my mother made two critical choices. She decided to have a baby [against Nazi regulations], and she had him circumcised on the eighth day."
Liptzin calls these not only acts of defiance but acts of faith.
Despite surviving the Holocaust, Liptzin's mother "never achieved closure," her daughter said. One of the issues is the fate of her own parents, who were rounded up to be slaughtered. "She wishes she had a grave to visit. She never said Kaddish because she didn't know if her parents were really murdered."
But after the war and once they were in America, Liptzin said her parents led a life built around their family. "They made big celebrations with family and children. They had several wishes: that we [she and her siblings] should remain friends and that we would tell her story."
Her story has been told, said Liptzin. "Now she can rest in peace."