Righteous Gentile family hid Jews from Nazis
When Nancy Wright Beasley, a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond, turned down an assignment to cover the newly opened Virginia Holocaust Museum in 1998, she did so because she felt the Holocaust was too disturbing.
But her assignment editor was persistent and out of respect for her, Ms. Beasley reluctantly decided to attend an annual Kristallnacht commemoration at the Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Center in Richmond which recognizes martyrs of the Holocaust. That event changed her life.
Out of that visit she met Alan Zimm, a survivor of the Holocaust who became a tailor with his own business in Richmond. In hearing his story, she felt she needed to tell the stories of others who had survived the Nazi prison camps.
She wrote “Izzy’s Fire” in 2005. The book is the result of much research and her introduction to a small group of people called “Righteous Gentiles” who at risk to their own lives hid Jews from Nazi soldiers and other enemies of the Jews who would have killed them instantly or snatched them off to the concentration camps.
Mrs. Beasley recently visited the office of The Catholic Virginian with two friends, Barry Mann and his wife, Virginija (pronounced Vur-gee-niah), who now live in El Paso, Tex., after being married there in 2007. The story of how the three met goes back more than 50 years although Mrs. Beasley met the couple only three years ago.
Barry, a Jewish man, is originally from South Africa where he was a computer programmer. He came to El Paso in 1971, where he found work for a wholesale plumbing supply firm. He is now retired after starting his own piece goods business.
Virginija is a Catholic who grew up in Kaunas, Lithuania and was a professor in a university there. She is now involved in academic research.
In the book “Izzy’s Fire” Mrs. Beasley writes about a man named Emmanuel (Mannie) Shlom. He and his mother were hidden by a Catholic farm family in Lithuania who saved 13 Jews from the Nazi death camps.
“I interviewed all these survivors or obtained information about their stories through a family member,” Mrs. Beasley told The Catholic Virginian. “It took me seven years to write the book.”
In 1963 when Barry was 18 he went on a Jewish youth pilgrimage to Israel. Here he met Mannie, a survivor of the Holocaust who was part of the youth group.
“There were 32 of us and Mannie remained in Israel while everyone else returned to South Africa,” Barry said.
“We spent six weeks in Israel. We worked on a kibbutz, a communal farm, for 10 days and then we toured.”
In 2002 — 39 years later —Barry read a genealogical article about a Holocaust survivor named Emmanuel and his mother, Raja, and their survival because of help from the Lithuanian Catholic farm family. After Barry called Mannie, they remembered meeting on the same student trip to Israel.
“I got excited,” Barry said. “In 1997 I had discovered a second cousin who survived the war because a priest hid him and his mother.”
Barry also learned that Mannie and his mother had stayed with the cousin and his mother. All lived together in an apartment in Kaunas after the war.
“But I did not remember Mannie at that time,” Barry said, pointing out that 39 years had intervened since they spent that summer camp experience in Israel.
“We started talking and we both realized that we knew each other from the student trip to Israel,” Barry told The Catholic Virginian. “Mannie was very excited to learn about my cousin whom he remembered.
Here the paths of Barry and Virginija begin to merge. During World War II Virginija’s grandparents, her mother and her uncle had hidden eight Jews — five adults and three children — on their farm. The Jews had escaped from Kovno Ghetto which was located in Kaunas. Virginija had not yet been born.
One of those five adults is Henry Kellen, now 97, and founder of the El Paso Holocaust Museum. He had moved to El Paso after the war because he had a relative there.
“Henry lost contact with Virginija’s family after the war,” Barry said, pointing out that Lithuania was for many years protected from the rest of the world by the Iron Curtain under Communism and communications were restricted.
Lithuania gained independence in 1991.
Barry met Henry Kellen in El Paso in 1974. In 1997 Barry discovered the second cousin who survived the war, still living in Lithuania.
In 1999 Mr. Kellen asked Barry, who was planning a visit to Lithuania, to call on the Catholic family who saved him. During this visit Barry went to the Ninth Fort, which is a Holocaust museum in Kaunas. He also met Virginija, who was working as a professor at the Kaunas University. She became the facilitator who arranged for documents and photos and other memorabilia at the museum to be sent to the Holocaust Museum in El Paso.
In 2000 Virginija came to Penn State University in State College, Pa., as an exchange professor. Mr. Kellen invited her to El Paso to visit him and speak at the museum where her family is honored for saving him.
In 2005 she went to Princeton University as an exchange professor and accepted another invitation to visit El Paso.
“Virginija and I used to exchange information about the two Holocaust Museums (in Kaunas and El Paso) and we became good friends,” Barry said.
Friendship developed into romance and the two were married in February, 2007 in El Paso.
While in Richmond, the couple visited the Virginia Holocaust Museum. They stayed with Mrs. Beasley who had met them a few years earlier in El Paso. After Mannie died in 2005, his son, Gadi, introduced the Manns to Mrs. Beasley.
Virginija is currently working on preparing a scholarly edition of the Book of Sermons of a Jesuit priest which will be published with the Lithuanian Language Institute. She hopes to have it completed by the end of the year.
Virginija wonders why her grandparents risked their lives to save eight Jews from what would likely have been death in prison camps. She says they never told her.
“They never questioned their own motives or thought that they had done something important or heroic,” she said. “They did not try to justify their actions using any high political or ethical explanations.
“They just did what they thought was the right thing to do — their customary way of acting towards other human beings.”
But she believes their Catholic faith was important and likely played a part in their actions. They were regular churchgoers.
“God told them to save the lives of other human beings if they are in danger,” Virginija said. “My grandparents were religious is the best sense of that word. They were aware that they should help helpless, persecuted people.
“I believe they did not consider that their own lives were more valuable than the lives of other people.”
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