July 5, 2012
Survivor: Masha Loen
As Masha Sapoznikow returned to the Kovno ghetto just past noon on March 27, 1944, she sensed an eerie quiet. German and Lithuanian soldiers, armed with machine guns, were uncharacteristically posted at the gate. Masha, looking older than her 13 years, was coming back, along with seven other women, from cleaning a German officer’s house when a Jewish man approached them. “Girls, you came at the worst time. They are taking the children under 15 and the adults over 45.” Four Russian White Army soldiers surrounded the group and directed them through the ghetto, where dead bodies lay in the streets, eventually releasing them at the ghetto works barracks, where Masha usually spent her days making bullets for the Germans.
Fearing that her mother and two younger sisters had been rounded up, Masha was desperate to see her father, who worked at the tailor shop across the street. Finally making her way there, she found him and some other men walking in a circle, holding their heads in their hands, crying uncontrollably. Through a window, they could see soldiers dragging away children and old people. Masha held her head and cried, too.
The Children’s Action, or roundup, ended at 3 p.m., and Masha and her father ran to their shack. Tables had been turned upside down, and sand covered the floor. “They’re dead, Papa,” Masha said. Then, from the attic, they heard knocking. Masha’s mother had hidden the three of them, drugging the girls with sleeping pills.
Mariaska Sapoznikow was born on July 28, 1930, in Slobodka, a suburb of Kovno, Lithuania. Her father, Berl, was a well-respected tailor and her mother, Michle, a homemaker. Masha’s sister Itale was born in 1934 and her sister Rosale in 1941, in the ghetto.
As a child, Masha loved to play volleyball and ice skate. She attended the Jewish gymnasium through the fourth grade, until June 1940, when the Soviet Union took control of Lithuania, disrupting Jewish life.
A year later, on June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and German planes began bombing Lithuania. Masha’s family started running toward Russia. Three days later, however, learning that the Germans were near Leningrad, they smuggled themselves back. In Slobodka, they saw blood everywhere. Bands of Lithuanian thugs and Einsatzgruppen, paramilitary death squads, had gone on a rampage against the Jews.
In late July, Masha’s family moved to the ghetto. Masha’s father became part of the Jordan Brigade, Jews who made useful things for the Germans and were issued Jordan passes, named for the ghetto’s SS Capt. Fritz Jordan.
The Jordan pass saved Masha’s family during the many actions in which the Germans rounded up Jews and executed them, primarily in the notorious Ninth Fort, one of several military fortifications surrounding the city built by the czars. In one early action, both sets of Masha’s grandparents were killed.
On the morning of Oct. 28, 1941, the Jews were ordered to assemble in Democrats Square. There, an SS official making the selections recognized Masha’s father. “Brother tailor, take your family and go,” he said. In this “Big Action,” more than 9,000 men, women and children were taken to the Ninth Fort where, after undressing, they were pushed into large pits and machine-gunned.
On July 8, 1944, with the Soviet army approaching, the ghetto was liquidated. Masha and her family were loaded onto cattle cars and taken to the Stutthof concentration camp, east of Gdansk, Poland.
There, Masha’s father was taken to Dachau, and Masha, separated from her mother and sisters, was searched vaginally for hidden gold and taken to a barracks. A Nazi soldier, whom Masha called Max the Sadist, told her, “Black devil, you are going to be the room leader.” Masha, confused, answered, “What?” He slammed her head hard against the barracks wall. Blood gushed, but Masha didn’t cry. “He thought I was superhuman and never touched me again,” she said. She still bears the scar.
A week later, Masha’s mother and two sisters, dressed in civilian clothes, came to the fence separating their barracks and told her they were being sent to a camp. Masha never saw them again.
Three weeks later, Masha was transferred to a forced labor sub-camp. The youngest in a group of 200 women, she worked digging foxholes and peeling potatoes in the kitchen. The women lived in tents, moving frequently. The camps, however, were always near lakes, where Masha washed herself, even in winter. “I kept myself clean. I wanted to be left alive to take revenge,” she said.
On Jan. 23, 1945, as the Russian army advanced toward Stutthof, Masha’s group was sent on a death march. After three weeks, unable to proceed, they were confined in a silo in a village near Lauenberg. Typhus was rampant, and Masha contracted it.
At one point, hearing people screaming, Masha covered herself with straw and fell unconscious. She awoke in a German house with Russian soldiers caring for her. She had been liberated on March 10, 1945.
Masha worked in a Russian hospital and was then was sent to a Russian farm to work with cows and study veterinary nursing.
In the summer of 1946, Masha’s father, who had survived and was living in Lodz, sent for her. Soon after, she made her way to Bratislava, Slovakia, and then to Austria, where she lived in DP camps near Linz and where she met Cornelius Löwenberg (later Loen), a survivor from Yugoslavia. They married on Oct. 30, 1947, intentionally setting their date near the anniversary of the “Big Action.”
Masha and Cornelius came to Los Angeles in August 1949. Their son, David Michael, was born in 1958.
From 1953 to 1961, Masha operated Masha’s Knit Studio in Sherman Oaks. She attended English classes at Hollywood High School, where she met other survivors who together helped establish what is now the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Masha still serves on the board, though ill health prevents her from speaking there.
Now almost 82, Masha receives some assistance from Jewish Family Service. She spends her days doing crossword puzzles, writing poetry and, as she’s done since liberation, talking to people about the Holocaust.
“I didn’t let Hitler get me down,” Masha said.