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Lusky, Irena (ca. 1925-) | Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

Name: Lusky, Irena (ca. 1925-)

Historical Note:

Irena Lusky, née Deuel, was born ca. 1925 in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania in an upper middle-class, well educated, and assimilated Jewish family. She describes her childhood experiences in the well-off family focusing on the interfamily relations between herself, her parents, her grandparents, and her sister. Further, Irena Lusky’s narrative depicts a certain strata of Jewish intelligentsia of interwar Lithuania.

The period of 1940-1941, during the Soviet annexation of Lithuania, is reflected through the prism of a young adult’s comprehension of social and political changes taking place in mundane life, as well as of the events jeopardizing the very existence of their family. The latter is related to their arrest and initial stage of deportation, and their release from the transport to Siberia at the last moment. The Deuel family was freed due to the influential intervention of Dr. Finkelstein, an old family friend, who was in high esteem by the new Communist government of Lithuania.

The Deuel family was exposed to the war hardships from the first day, June 22, 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. After a failed flight attempt, they returned to German-occupied Vilnius (Vilna). While en route to Vilnius, they were arrested several times. Although, at that initial stage of German occupation, it was still possible for them to be released from jail either with the help of bribery or simply appealing to “a good German.”

Irena Lusky describes the life in the Vilna ghetto from two perspectives: first and foremost as a young adult experiencing all ghetto hardships and second, to a lesser extent, as a memoir writer of late 1970s. This latter perspective shows the post-Holocaust interpretations together with the author’s personal reckoning. Overall, this combination of two uncorrelated perspectives culminates in the authentic and independent account with regard to the various sides of ghetto life. Ghetto inhabitants, Judenrat members, resistance activities, German authorities, and numerous existential situations are reflected in the narrative. The reader will find among other such reflections, the author’s insights on Jewish leadership as a whole and specifically on such controversial figure as Jacob Gens, the head of the Judenrat and the Jewish Police Force in the ghetto.  The Wittenberg Affair is also accounted as the author’s first-hand experience.

Irena was also only indirectly involved in the FPO (Fareinikte Partizaner Organizatsie—United Partisan Organization) and therefore did not join its members in escaping from the ghetto into the forest to continue the partisan struggle. The FPO decided to leave the ghetto before it was liquidated. The Deuel family survived the liquidation of the ghetto only to face German selection. In September 1943, the remaining ghetto inhabitants were taken outside the city into an open field called Rossa for the selection. The first stage of selection separated male and female family members. Irena would never see again her Father, Dr. Finkelstein, and her boyfriend Gamek Sturman. The next stage of selection resulted in the separation of Irena and Tamara from their mother. The Germans directed the daughters to the right, while their mother was sent to the left.  The sisters sensed that “right” meant life and some hope, while the people sent on the left were doomed. Irena remembers how her mother was calmed and pleased by seeing the daughters on the life side. Irena and Tamar Deuel were deported to the Kaiserwald concentration camp near Riga, Latvia.

After a ten-week imprisonment in Kaiserwald, Irena and Tamara were transferred to the AEG factory in Riga, a labor camp officially referred as Riga-Strasdenhof camp, where they lived at worked. The conditions there were slightly better than in the Kaiserwald camp. In 1944, with the Soviet Army nearing Riga, the Germans evacuated AEG labor camp to Toruń (Thorn), Poland. Here, another underground factory was to be set up in the former castle, designated as “Fort 13.” Irena Deuel (Lusky) remained in Thorn-AEG, the official camp name, through December 1944. At the end of December 1944, the female prisoners of the Thorn-AEG camp were forced to march west, in the direction of Germany. Being badly wearied and ultimately starved, the prisoners were compelled to keep pace under German command.

Irena Deuel managed to escape from the forced march when the column was passing the city of Bydgoszcz (Bromberg), Poland. She ran up to a house and begged for shelter. Only after the long persuasion, a Polish woman let Irena in. After a week of hiding, in January 1945, the entering Soviet Army liberated Irena and the other girls at their hideout. Wandering through the streets of Bydgoszcz, Irena met her sister Tamara and other girls from the camp. Soon after their group left Bydgoszcz for central Poland and headed for Lublin, then a Polish provisional capital. In Lublin Irena learned that her Mother, Father, and Gamek had not survived. Her father was killed in the Klooga concentration camp, Estonia. Her mother was gassed in Majdanek concentration camp, and Gamek died of typhus.

It was in Lublin that Irena, Tamara, and a few other Jewish girls joined the Bricha Movement (an organized Jewish illegal immigration movement from East-Central Europe through the allied-occupied zones to the British-Mandate Palestine). Eventually Irena met the former Vilna Jewish partisan commander Abba Kovner, who was in charge of Bricha operations in East-Central Europe. This meeting played a decisive role in her future when she made a commitment to Palestine, her eventual Jewish home. In total, Irena’s journey to Palestine lasted from March 1945 to January 1946. After a year and a half of wandering through Romania, Hungary, Austria, and Italy, their group finally arrived in the British-mandated Palestine in January 1946. She, as thousands of others at that time, was an illegal Jewish immigrant brought there by the means of another clandestine Jewish movement-- Aliyah Bet, under the patronization of the Jewish Brigade. Upon their arrival to Haifa, the British authorities interned all the repatriates from their ship in the Atlit internment camp.

Eventually the Jewish Agency provided the internees with appropriate papers, and the British set them free. Her first encounter with fellow Jews in a kibbutz was a disappointment to Irena’s expectations and visions for a free and peaceful life in her Jewish state. Irena highly resented the indifference the locals showed to the newcomers in particular, and to the fate of European Jewry during the Holocaust in general.

It was not until Irena Deuel met Maikel Levin in the summer of 1946 that she began to feel differently about herself and the people around her.  Confidence, sympathy, and hope had again filled her life. Having met Maikel at the party, she moved to the Beit Zera kibbutz, on the bank of the Jordan River, near the Sea of Galilee, to be with him. Maikel was a real pioneer and a patriot of the Land. His love helped Irena to appreciate the land and people of Israel. She soon married Maikel and for a while, the couple continued to live at the kibbutz. Irena did not fit into kibbutz work and although she tried her best, kibbutzniks were not satisfied with her. Eventually, it was Maikel’s decision to leave the kibbutz and settle down in a town.

They settled in Givatayim and with the help of a friend Maikel found a job and an apartment. Although they lacked money and situation of the country worsened with every day, they were happy. Adding to this happiness, she became pregnant and looked with hope to the future. On 14 May 1948, independence and establishment of the Jewish State in Eretz-Israel was proclaimed. The war for independence had begun. As a Haganah soldier, Maikel was called up for service. He had to arrive to the Recruitment Center on 18 May 1948. He left home in the morning heading first for work and then, after the workday, to the Recruitment Center. The war between the Israelis and Arabs had already begun, with Jerusalem under siege and local skirmishes beginning to erupt in many places. On that day, 18 May 1948, an explosion at the Central Bus Station, perpetrated by the terrorists, killed Maikel Levin. Irena remained unaware of his fate until the next morning. She was then eight-month pregnant.

In a month Irena gave birth to a girl, but was going through an extremely hard time and suffered mentally and physically. As she recalls, “I was hardly alive, little I comprehended what was going around me.” She could not even take care of her daughter Michal. Eventually time cured her wounds; she remarried to Shimon Lusky, and gave birth to another child, a son. In the 1970s, she was still living in Israel, her past never having left her. She took up this writing with the intention to separate herself from this burden and to place her personal vision, recollections, and reflections in a literary, truthful, and intimate account of her and her time.

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