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An Interview with Nadia Kaplan
Born in Lithuania in 1907, Nadia Kaplan would someday be forced to flee her homeland. 1940, as the threat of persecution mounted in Lithuania, Nadia's husband Bernard managed to secure a visa permitting him and their two children to leave the country; but Nadia had no passport of her own and no way out. In these excerpts from an interview conducted by filmmaker diane estelle Vicari in 1998 during the making of Sugihara, Nadia tells of her brief encounter with the Sugiharas and her family's extraordinary escape. It is a moving testimony of a mother's brave and broken heart as she tried desperately to ensure her family's survival, while confronting the bleak prospect of losing her own life.
Nadia Kaplan died recently, having settled in later years in Vancouver, Canada. Her story is also documented in One More Border: The True Story of One Family's Escape from War-torn Europe, a children's book by Nadia's grandson William Kaplan. What follows is an edited transcript.
Tell us where were you born.
NADIA KAPLAN: I was born in a small settlement of 10 Jewish families by the name of Pordibisi. And that's where I was born. And this was in Lithuania. And this was the first time in this part of Lithuania that Jewish people were allowed to buy land. So my grandfather decided to buy. And since he had six sons and four daughters. So anyway, that's why — where my father was born and I was born. All of us were born there. ...
... As a child, there was no school for girls. Only the boys went to Jewish school which was — we had a little synagogue. And the boys went and they got an age, maybe five, they went to school, girls didn't go. But I learned to play cards with my mother. I was — my mother's companion. She had a nanny, who had raised my father and she raise all of us. And she had a maid. So she didn't have much to do. So I was her companion. I was 4 years old, 5 years old. And all — then when my father started in — in the lumber business, the overseers used to come spend weekends with us, you know Shabbat. And so they taught me checkers; that's what I knew. I could count, but I couldn't read. I couldn't read until I was maybe 8 years old. Seven or 8. 1915. When they came to the city and I started — was German occupation — I started German school. And I learned A-B-C. And my father decided to enter ... the intelligent people speak Russian. ...
... I went to school. It was a German school. And took — and to the house Russian teacher used to come. So — and I still apply many things to the first Russian fairytales. You know, there always was a moral. And also Hebrew teacher used to come to teach us to read Hebrew, you know. And I didn't — I didn't speak German. I spoke Yiddish at that time. But I could read German. And when I was about 10 - 11 years old my father sent my brother and I and my younger brother to Mamal which was a separate territory after the first world war. To learn German and sort of get the German culture. And we — we stayed to — in board with a ... in a synagogue. And that's where I learned German. I didn't fit in. I didn't fit in in any class because I could read but I — I wasn't as far in the mathematics. So they send me when I was 12 and a half years old, they send me to France ... to a private girl school. And there — there I bloomed. Ha, ha. I learned English, I learned French, I learned mathematics. I — as a matter of fact I'm not a big in algebra, but in the X and the Y I was very good. So they used to send me to boys' school in the afternoon. To get instructions from boys' school. And naturally I had to play the piano. And my mother was very proud when I played piano.
When was your very first experience of anti-Semitism? Do you remember?
KAPLAN: Um, not in Lithuania. Not in the country. I know only and during the war when the Germans came and the Lithuanians came, there was one Russian and he denounced my father as a spy. And they wanted to arrest him and he talked his way out of it. So — and my father in [inaudible] ... was taken into the Russian army. And I don't know how many years they kept him, but you could buy a stand-in. So my grandfather bought a stand-in. One Lithuanian said he'll go instead of my father.
And where did you move to? Once you got married, did you stay with your parents? Did you —
KAPLAN: No, we went to — we went to — on a honeymoon, and a boat. And my husband was sick for three days. And we lived in Berlin. And we lived in Berlin until 1932. I got married in 1928. 1932 my son — my little son was born. And I used to see Nazi flags, you know, and — in Germany there are many beer parlors on the corner of the street. And there you saw the Nazi flags. And I saw a Nazi flag, I used to cross the street. I was afraid of them. I — I was afraid because I heard about the — that they're very ugly men. ... And then I insisted — I don't want to live in Berlin any more, I want to go home. So we went home.
What was your husband's nationality?
KAPLAN: He was Jewish and he was born in Germany. And when I married him he was a Turkish citizen. It's, again, politics. — German politics. Around the turn of the century was [Otto von] Bismarck. Bismarck decided all the Jews who live near the Russian border have to leave Germany. So he went to [inaudible], Germany. He went to Saxonia and bought a Turkish passport. I saw the passport. The passport still had the name of the Turkish citizens but the — ha, ha — like it was a pencil. And then under it was his name. And so my husband was Turkish until they took it away because he didn't volunteer to fight against the allies, [with] the German people. So he was stateless. Stateless means he had a non-[valid] passport. ...
... We heard about Sugihara. We went up to Sugihara. And it was — there were no people, nobody was standing outside. And then we see a car coming. And my husband stopped the car. He was standing in front of the car and stopped it. And Mr. Sugihara opened the window and says, "What — what is it?" You know, in German. So my husband just showed him the passports. He took the passport, stamped it, looks at me and I said, "I don't have a passport." So he said like this [shrugs regretfully], and he went.
When you went to the consulate that day and the car drove up, do you remember who was in the car?
KAPLAN: Yeah, oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I remember he was sitting and — and his wife was in the front seat, and it was three children in the back. And noses, ha, ha, against the window to see better, you know. Ha, ha. And I remember children, but I can't remember faces. You know, I think you showed me a picture and I pointed him out. You know, don't forget that we were under great stress and very, very nervous. And very, very happy that we got the visa. Yet, still didn't know if this would help or we will go or whatever.
Your husband and your children have this stamp to go to Japan. And at that moment, standing there, do you remember how you felt?
KAPLAN: Yeah, I felt that I — I wanted to save the children. The children have to get out. And — but they — last weekend, they were going to leave on Wednesday. I was crying so dear — I can't even talk. [She cries] ...
... And I went to this Lithuania fellow [inaudible] ... I said, what can I do? Isn't there somebody here? He told me, "Yes, Altkotes. Try him." They — so I went up to the office, I said, "[inaudible] ... Friday. The plane — the train was leaving Wednesday. I can't, Friday's too late." So I went back to [inaudible] ... I said, "I can't — what does he look like?" So he tells me. He's tall. He wears a Russian shirt, you know, it's — it's embroidered here and down, and then the belt. And he smells of cologne. And I was there already 6 o'clock in the morning. 10 o'clock, I — ha, ha — I get a whiff. I smelled something. So he's coming. He's walking. At one step and I pull on his [inaudible] ... and he says, "What do you want?" I said, "I want to speak to you." He says, "There's the office." I said, "They don't --" I said, "Friday my family's leaving Wednesday." Okay, come up. And so, I came up and I tell — I show him the papers, I show him the visa. I show him everything. That my children are leaving and I haven't got the passport. He calls up a [inaudible] ... and I felt — I felt sorry.
... And he bangs his fist on the table and he says in Russian, "We don't tear families apart. You see to it that this [inaudible] ... leaves together with the family." So he whispers something in his ear. He says, "Okay, I'll tell her." He says, "You go to the secret police, the head of the secret police of Lithuania is Kaden, Rog Kaden, a citizen Kaden, and you tell him that Altkote sent you and he has to give you a passport." So by night, it's right away, takes all my papers. He takes — they called him a page, you know, another name. He carried — carries it because they didn't trust me, somebody might steal it which has happened several times. And we go to the secret police. They told me where it is and I said I want to speak to Rog Laden Kaden. They got very scared. That here an ordinary citizen knows the name of the head of the secret police for all of Lithuania. Yeah, but why? Why? I said I have to get my passport. — "Okay, sit down." I sit and I sit and I sit and it's 4 o'clock and no passport. I said now — now it's closed. Come back tomorrow. The next day, again, almost 4 o'clock, I said, "You want Altkotes to come? I have to speak to Mr. Kaden right?" "Right. Okay, okay, we'll give you the passport but the place where they issue passports will be closed. They closed at 4 o'clock." So my page called, "Stay open even if it's 12 o'clock at night." So, it was open and he gave me the passport and I paid and he says, "That's nothing yet. You have to get a visa. And you wouldn't get a visa. He told me, you wouldn't get a visa ..."
... So the next day I'm — it's 6 o'clock in the morning — waiting and one was before me already. And they open at 10. At 10 o'clock the masses of people. And before I left — before I went, my husband told me that the consul is the very nice person. But his secretary is a mad dog. He'll just throw you out. ...
... So I open the door and he says, "Come in." You know, hard voice. And I see the young man who I talked to before the Russians occupied Lithuania. And I started to ball. And I started to cry. And he comes over and he touches my shoulder, "What's the matter? What's the matter? And what happened?" And I show him my papers, and my children are leaving, my husband is leaving, my children are leaving, and I can't go. I have no visa. "You will go," [he said], "You will go. Leave it to me. You will go ..."
... I can tell you because on the 17th of September, 1940, the train was leaving and I got two hours before the train left. I got at 12 o'clock, the visa — I mean, the fellow went down to sign — to have it signed. And at 2 o'clock the train left. And people that come to me, to children and my husband, and they cried when they saw me. And the train — they — they were so happy that I'm going.