As the candles glowed, Miriam Bell (née Galperin), her parents and six siblings were singing and welcoming the Sabbath into their comfortable home in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania. Then gunshots were fired, and screaming erupted. The family ran outside to see Nazi soldiers, who had launched an invasion of the Soviet Union five days earlier, on June 22, 1941, attacking their city. “They were shooting, shooting … and then I saw my father full of blood,” Miriam recalled. Her mother tried to shield the 10-year-old girl’s eyes, but it was too late. “That’s what we’re going to do to all the dirty Jews,” Miriam heard a Nazi boast.
Miriam was born on Oct. 10, 1930, to Chaim and Faige Alperovich Galperin, the fourth of seven children. Her father ran a business renting and selling horses and carriages. “We were a happy family,” Miriam said, adding that they spent summers together at a Lithuanian resort and celebrated holidays with their many relatives.
Miriam attended public school, even after the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in June 1940. “The soldiers didn’t harm us, but we had to learn some Russian,” she recalled.
Under the Germans, the carnage in Kovno continued, carried out by Nazis and bands of Lithuanian collaborators. The surviving Jews were soon relocated to a ghetto in the suburb of Slobodka, where Miriam lived in crowded quarters with her mother, 9-year-old sister Dina, 6-year-old sister Chana Leah and 4-year-old brother Iserl. By Aug. 15, 1941, the ghetto was sealed inside a high barbed-wire fence.
In the early morning, Miriam, along with other slave laborers, would be marched at gunpoint to the Kovno military airfield, where she dug ditches all day, returning in the evening.
Miriam had blond hair and blue eyes, and one day she decided to see if she could pass as a non-Jew, slipping through the ghetto fence in search of food. A non-Jewish girl reported her, and she was taken to a field, “a special place where they buried people alive and dead,” Miriam said; she believes it was the Ninth Fort, a former military stronghold. There, in one of many aktions, she and other prisoners were lined up and shot. “It happened so fast,” Miriam recalled. “Everybody was falling.” She found herself inside a pit, covered in other people’s blood, not knowing if she herself was wounded. A soldier, a young man who had worked for her father, noticed her and not only saved her but also helped her sneak back into the ghetto after dark. “My mother was sobbing,” she said.
Miriam’s brother Iserl was later killed. And in another aktion, both her grandmothers and sister Chana Leah were rounded up and murdered.
In late summer or early fall of 1943, Miriam’s mother instructed her and Dina to deliver a framed family photograph to their oldest sister, Ethel, who lived elsewhere in the ghetto and who, Miriam’s mother thought, had the best chance of survival. But en route, Miriam and Dina encountered pandemonium, with Nazi guards beating and forcing hundreds of prisoners into two lines. Dina was shoved into the left line. A soldier then grabbed the photograph from Miriam, who tried to wrestle it back. In the melee, she was shoved to the right side.
Miriam and the others on the right were crammed into cattle cars, given a little water, and transported to Ereda, a labor camp in Estonia. Upon arrival, they came upon a stack of clothing, in which Miriam recognized Dina’s black shoes and red jacket and knew she was dead. Later, Miriam learned the prisoners in Dina’s line had purposefully been placed in airless cattle cars to suffocate. “They didn’t want to waste the bullets to kill them,” Miriam said.
One day, Miriam was ordered to distribute water to arriving male prisoners. Among the men, whom she described as “skeletons, almost dead,” she recognized her brother Simon. He and the others, many suffering from typhus, were put into dirty, lice-infested tents.
Miriam feared that Simon, who didn’t have typhus, would contract it. The next morning at roll call, as the prisoners were dismissed for work, Miriam stood there in place. A Nazi began pounding her on the head and nose with a baton. “You filthy Jew,” he yelled. “Move!” But Miriam remained there, demanding that the Nazi put her brother in the hospital. “Or you can kill me,” she said.
Impressed that Miriam could withstand such a beating, the Nazi transferred Simon to the hospital, where a physician who knew Miriam’s family promised to care for him.
Late in the summer of 1944, Miriam and other prisoners were evacuated by ship to Stutthof concentration camp. There they were forced to undress and endure a full body search for hidden valuables. Miriam was given a striped dress with a star and a number.
One day, when Miriam returned from work, she and the other prisoners were lined up, handed soap and a towel and marched, they were told, to the showers. “One by one, they went in like animals, and nobody came out,” Miriam said. Then abruptly the line halted; Miriam, only four rows from entering the gas chamber, was ordered to return to her barracks.
Another time, spying her brother Simon across the fence, Miriam tossed some bread she had been saving for him. A guard witnessed the action but couldn’t identify her, as all the women looked alike — “skeletons with shaved heads wearing identical clothing,” Miriam said. That evening, all the prisoners in Miriam’s barracks were taken outside and beaten, to make the offender confess. Miriam remained silent until she saw the guards take out a hose to douse the inmates with ice-cold water. She was then placed facedown on a bench and given 25 lashes, rendering her unconscious.
As the Russians approached Stutthof, around January 1945, Miriam and other women were transported to Ochsenzoll, a subcamp of Neuengamme, near Hamburg. There, working 12-hours shifts in a munitions factory, she sharpened grenades with a special tool, badly slicing her thumb in the process.
After three months, Miriam was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where she encountered “stacks of dead bodies, like bricks.” Her group was housed in dirty tents, with lice, mice and no latrines. “We were sent there to die,” she said. Two days later, however, she and a friend were selected to cook for the Germans and moved. But when Miriam was caught carrying a bucket of soup to her former tent mates, she was reassigned to a barracks, where she contracted typhus. There, certain she was dying, she was comforted by a vision of her mother.
On April 15, 1945, British troops liberated the camp. Miriam was 15 years old and weighed 50 pounds.
After she regained her health, Miriam and some friends headed to Lithuania. Their train stopped somewhere in Ukraine, where Miriam was accused of being a Nazi collaborator and jailed for one night. The next day, her oldest brother, David, returning from a visit to Lithuania, arrived unexpectedly. Miriam was released and the siblings were reunited. “Everybody was crying. Even the stones were crying,” Miriam recalled.
Miriam traveled to Berlin and was then sent to a UNRRA (United Nations Rehabilitation and Relief Agency) displaced persons camp for children, in Prien am Chiemsee, near Munich, where she stayed three years.
In summer 1948, now almost 18, Miriam was sent to Toronto, where she worked in a hospital. She met Sam Bell (originally Bull), a survivor from Bucharest, Romania, and they married on Dec. 17, 1950. On their first Passover, she set the table for 35 people, to commemorate the relatives who had perished in the Holocaust.
Miriam and Sam’s daughter Frances was born in May 1953, and Helen in May 1957.
In 1965, Miriam learned that her brother Simon and sister Ethel had also survived.
In the early 1960s, Miriam and Sam moved to Los Angeles for health reasons. Miriam immediately became involved with the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and, to this day, continues to serve on the museum’s executive board.
Now 83, she and Sam enjoy their family, including their four grandchildren.
But the memories are still fresh. When Miriam witnessed her father’s cold-blooded murder, she promised herself she would not let the Nazis kill her.
“I will never in my life forget it,” she said. “It’s still the memory I see wherever I go.”