The Linkimer diaries

  • 2005-02-02
  • By Pauls Raudseps
RIGA - In the early afternoon of April 28, 1944, a car full of German SD men (Sicherheitsdienst, or security police) drove into the German army base of Paplaka, about 30 kilometers south of Liepaja. Thirty-two Jews had been assigned to work at the base; their usefulness as craftsmen meant they were among the very few Jews who had managed to stay alive so long in German-occupied Latvia. But the Russian army was getting closer, and even "usefulness" had lost its power to forestall the Nazi's deep and unwavering commitment to destroy every Jew in territories under their control.

The former Liepaja teacher Kalman Linkimer (photo above) was woken from his nap by Hedda Gutmann, who was sitting next to his bed and crying, "They have surely come to take us all away." Linkimer understood all too well what the arrival of the SD men meant. In July 1941, when the Germans, aided by Latvian auxiliary policemen, were nabbing Jewish men on the streets of Liepaja and driving them away to be shot behind the lighthouse or by the water tower in the navy docks, Linkimer had survived only thanks to his quick wits and pure luck.

In December he avoided being taken away to Skede, a coastal village north of Liepaja, where in the course of three days almost 3,000 people, mostly women and children, were killed. In the summer of 1942 the Germans transferred the city's remaining 832 Jews to the Liepaja ghetto, from where Linkimer was sent to work in Paplaka. On Oct. 8, 1943, he was taken back to the ghetto only hours after all of its inhabitants had been put on trains and sent to the Kaiserwald concentration camp in Riga.

The appearance of the SD men in Paplaka meant that the moment of truth had arrived. Together with two resolute friends, Aaron Westermann and Zelig Hirschberg, Linkimer chose an opportune moment to escape across fields and through a bog. They took refuge for a few hours on a neighboring Latvian farm owned by the Bruvers family, but when another farmer's wife came by and said that the Germans were searching the area with dogs, looking for three Jews, they understood that they couldn't stay. As darkness fell, they set out for Liepaja. A Latvian named Roberts Seduls lived there, maybe he could help them.

Bearing Witness

We can trace Linkimer's footsteps and get such a precise sense of what he felt because, being one of only 33 Jews that were still alive in Liepaja when the war ended, he kept a diary from 1941 to 1945. The first part of the journal was left in Paplaka, but Linkimer restored it from memory soon after the war. The second part, in which we read how the former seaman Robert Seduls and his wife Anna saved 11 Jews, hiding them in a small, overheated cellar in the very center of Liepaja, is one of the rare documents of its kind that has survived. It gives us insights into the Holocaust in Latvia that cannot be gleaned from statistics or generalized descriptions and lets us feel both the horror of those years and the heroism and perseverance shown by some of the people caught up in those terrible events.

For many years Linkimer's diary was not widely available. It was written in Yiddish and after his death, was kept by the son of another Jew saved by Seduls. However, Rebecca Margolis recently translated the diary into English thanks to the efforts and material support of Edward Anders, a Liepaja-born Jew now living in the United States. In recent years Mr. Anders has devoted considerable efforts to preserving the memory of the Jewish residents of his native city. Thanks to his kind permission, the readers of this article can also discover the dramatic and complicated story of Kalman Linkimer.

Apparently Linkimer had heard about Seduls from his close friend David Zivcon. When the three fugitives arrived at the front door of Seduls' two-room apartment on Tirgonu Street that early April morning, Seduls received them warmly, gave them some skabputra (a traditional Latvian dish made of grits and cottage cheese), handed Linkimer a pistol and then led them down one-by-one to the cellar that would be their home for the next 12 months. Seduls told them to go behind a pile of coal for a moment. When they came out, Linkimer froze. In front of him, having appeared as if out of thin air, stood eight people who had already found refuge with Seduls: five men 's David Zivcon, Michael Skutelsky, Shmerl Skutelsky, Michael Libauer, Yosl Mandelstamm 's and three women 's David's wife Henny Zivcon, Michael's wife Hilde Skutelsky and Riva Zivcun).

David, who had constructed the secret hiding place, immediately challenged the newcomers to find the place from which they had emerged. After a fruitless search, David finally showed them a small opening, chiseled in a 50 cm thick brick wall, covered by a sliding panel and hidden behind a workbench. The residents of this hiding place had learned to get in and out in a matter of seconds. "I shall never forget this sight for the rest of my life. Just like animals, they got down on all fours, and with remarkable agility slipped inside and through the hole into their cave. The door was slid back into place and every trace was gone."

The tension mounts

With the arrival of Linkimer and his companions the cellar now housed 11 people who had to spend their days in extraordinarily cramped conditions. The scarcely ventilated cellar air was heated up by a bread oven in a bakery on the first floor of their building. At night it was difficult to sleep; during the day they could only talk in whispers. There was a warning light hooked up to a switch in the Seduls' third-floor apartment allowing Roberts to warn them if anyone was coming down into the cellar. There was also a radio with headphones that the men listened to constantly to hear the news: what was happening on the Italian front, how the Americans had landed in Normandy, and, most importantly, how far the Red Army was from Liepaja.

Linkimer's diary reveals the growing psychological and physical strain of living in the cellar. From the very beginning the conditions were difficult, but as the front line approached Liepaja, the air raids started and the house on Tirgonu Street shook violently. As the months went by it became increasingly difficult for Seduls to provide everyone with sufficient food, and some storekeepers started to become suspicious of his unusually large purchases.

The inhabitants of the cellar had to live in constant fear that one loud word or untimely noise could betray them to the bakers working in the shop above their heads. The women argued among themselves. Linkimer became increasingly intolerant of the others because, in his mind, they were too careless. Moreover, as a proud man, Linkimer found it difficult to be dependent for such a long time on someone else's charity. Seduls, also under stress, would on occasion fly into rages, irritating Linkimer more and more.

The final days

The last entry that we have from Linkimer's diary was made on Feb. 20, 1945, Roberts Seduls' birthday. "I suggest several times that we have to give him something, even if only a small token, but everyone responds very apathetically," writes Linkimer. "[Zelig] is very irresponsible. He saws wood in the boiler-room although Robert is not there, and a padlock hangs on the door. His careless behavior could cost us dearly."

We do not know whether the final pages of the diary have been lost or whether Linkimer just did not have the strength to continue, but his tribulations were hardly over. On March 10, Seduls was killed when a Soviet bomb fell near the house and he was hit by a piece of shrapnel. The whole weight of responsibility for the 11 Jews in the cellar had to be borne by his widow Anna. She also had to take care of their daughters Indra and Irida, who were not told anything about the secret of the cellar because they were still too young. For two long months Anna continued to look out for them all, and then on May 9 the war was finally over.

Irida, who still lives in Liepaja, vividly remembers her confusion when, as a five-year-old girl, she saw another little girl in a white hat with flowers sitting on the steps of her house 's Adinka Zivcun, who had returned from her place of refuge. A woman she had never seen before came out of the cellar (Adinka's mother Riva), saw the girl, and started crying uncontrollably.

After the end of the war the 11 were forced to live in the cellar for a while longer, but as time went by their lives led them in different directions. Only three of them are still alive at the time of this writing: Henny Zivcon in Liepaja and Aaron Westermann and Hilde Skutelsky in Israel. Anna Seduls spent most of the rest of her life working in the Liepaja paper mill and continued to live in the house on Tirgonu Street. In his diary Linkimer has only good things to say about Anna, and her daughters remember how after the war, when he had moved to Riga, he never forgot to send her greeting cards during the holidays. The other Jewish families also maintained close ties with Anna and her daughters, but in the eyes of the Soviet regime that was hardly something to be proud of. When Anna retired in the early '70s and all the Jews she had helped to save petitioned the authorities to grant her a larger pension because of her heroism, the request was curtly turned down.

To the Soviets the very fact that a Jew had remained alive in territory occupied by the Germans was suspicious, and this distrust was later reinforced by the ideological struggle against Zionism. Moreover, there were still people living in Liepaja who had benefited from the Holocaust, taking property left behind by the murdered Jews. So Anna lived out her life without any public recognition for her bravery, but in the eyes of her daughters and, as far as we can tell, from the diaries of Linkimer as well, she was the real hero of this story. "She was a righteous woman," says her daughter Irida.

Linkimer died in 1987. His diary remains a heavy reminder of the suffering that engulfed Latvia during the German occupation, but it is also a story of heroism and loyalty. In the cramped, emotion-torn cellar of Liepaja there was no sentimental background music to lift the spirits. Yet, for the heroes of our story, the oppressiveness of everyday life never became an excuse to abandon or betray their fellow human beings. For all their human frailties they followed the path of the righteous.

Pauls Raudseps is editorial page editor for Diena, Latvia's leading daily. This article is an abridged translation of the article "Linkimera dienasgramatas," which appeared in Diena on June 5, 2004.