It’s a story Suly Chenkin has told countless times: at schools, synagogues and, on Sunday afternoon, at Unity Presbyterian Church in Fort Mill, which houses the Temple Kol Ami Jewish congregation.
Chenkin was just 6 months old when the Nazis invaded Lithuania in 1941, turning her family’s life upside down.
It started with laws that barred Jews from attending schools or using public transportation, then mandated that all Jews wear clothing marked with the Star of David and live in the Kovno ghetto, located in an area now called Kaunas. The original ghetto was torn down and burned to the ground near the end of World War II.
In 1944, Chenkin’s parents smuggled her outside of the ghetto in a potato sack, just weeks before thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps abroad. Chenkin’s parents were later sent to separate camps.
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Of Kovno’s estimated 40,000 inhabitants, only 2,000 or so are believed to have survived.
“My parents told me they loved me, they told me they had to send me away,” said Chenkin, who was only 3 years old at the time but has since pieced together her story with the help of her parents and the woman who waited for her outside the ghetto.
Tossed gently over a barbed-wire fence, Chenkin was received by Miriam Shulman, a Lithuanian woman who would raise Chenkin for a time along with her other children. Shulman, also a Jew, managed to evade discovery by the Germans by posing as a Christian.
After the war ended, Shulman relocated her family, along with Chenkin, to the Middle East in 1946, in part to escape a growing Russian presence in Lithuania. The camp where Chenkin’s mother was a prisoner also had been liberated by the Russians, who continued to operate it as a labor camp.
But Chenkin’s mother escaped and eventually reunited with her daughter in Israel. Neither mother and daughter nor Shulman knew whether Chenkin’s father had survived.
But he also had managed to escape the Russian labor camp where he was being held. And once free, he went to work for U.S. forces in Germany.
He later went to Cuba, where he had relatives. And through registries of Holocaust survivors, Chenkin’s mother and father learned about each other’s survival. Mother and daughter traveled to Cuba in 1947 to join Chenkin’s father.
Once reunited, Chenkin’s parents took her to New York where other family members lived.
Now 73, Chenkin said she gets to “relive” the “happy” story of her family’s survival during the Holocaust.
“Even with all that despair, there still can be hope,” said Jonathan Shaw, a congregation member who attended the event with his family from Lake Wylie. Shaw’s wife and daughter also spoke at the event, reciting passages from Holocaust victims such as Anne Frank and survivor Elie Wiesel.
Clover High School student Micaela Shaw, 16, was most struck by Chenkin’s story about her father, who distributed bread in the ghetto. “The fear of saying no to someone can impact everyone else around them,” said Micaela.
Chenkin’s father was accountable for every ounce of flour and every slice of bread rationed in the ghetto. Her father could not give others more bread or take extra for his own family because it meant other families would not get their share, Chenkin said.
Micaela’s mother, Bonnie, 46, said it can be difficult to tell whether stories of the Holocaust are being understood in a meaningful way by children, which is why it’s important that they get a chance to hear speakers such as Chenkin in person.
“The story becomes much more difficult, it becomes for the history books,” said Bonnie. “You have to be able to give them a frame of reference.”
Sunday’s event was Patricia Brown’s first time hearing a Holocaust survivor speak in person. Brown, 62, attends the congregation’s services with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, who are members.
“It just shows how the Jewish people have managed to survive so long,” said Brown. “So many people would have given up.”
Bonnie Shaw said with the dwindling number of survivors, it’s becoming harder for generations to get the opportunity to hear first-person accounts – making oral tradition especially important.
“It’s our job to tell Suly’s story,” she said..