Sisters Margarete and Maria Holzman were teenage girls when the Nazis invaded Lithuania. Only Margarete survived the Holocaust. Their mother Helene was part of a network courageous people who helped persecuted Jews.
Margarete Holzman is sitting in her living room in Giessen, holding an old photograph in her hand.
"That's my sister Marie," she says. A pretty young girl with open eyes and a smile can be seen in the image taken in 1940. "Sometimes we argued like tinkers, but we really loved one another - even though we were so different."
Marie was the lively, extroverted elder sister, and Margarete was the quiet, shy younger of the two.
In 1923, the family moved from Jena in Germany to Kaunas, then the capital city of the Lithuanian Republic. There was a large German-speaking community there and a special interest in German culture.
Their father, Max Holzman, soon opened a successful international bookstore which became a meeting point for intellectuals in the city. Holzman had Jewish roots, but religion did not play a role in daily life.
In their new homeland, the family was met with a confident, integrated Jewish community with diverse cultural institutions.
Occupation and death
Their mother Helene was a painter and art teacher. In 1936, as her daughters were 12 and 14 years of age, the Holzmans became Lithuanian citizens. They lived a well-situated, intellectual bourgeois life until June 25, 1941.
Shortly after the Wehrmacht invaded, Max Holzman was arrested by Lithuanian collaborators with the Nazis and disappeared without trace somewhere in the death camps built for the purpose of exterminating the Jewish population.
His daughter, Marie, who with youthful élan had campaigned for peace and belonged to a communist youth group, was also arrested and shot dead at the end of October. She was 19 years old.
Helene Holzman was left alone with 16-year-old Margarete - who, in the racial ideology of the Nazi's was considered a "half-Jew." Their lives were also threatened. Their apartment was routinely searched and daily life in Kaunas was hard. "Everyday something horrific happened," Margarete recalls.
But they both survived. Young Margarete found work as a typist. Her mother overcame fear and desperation to become a lifesaver for other persecuted people. "She was a courageous and strong woman. I knew that she went her secret ways while I was at work. When I came home and she wasn't there, I went almost crazy with fear," Margarete Holzman explains, holding photographs of her family firmly in her hands.
A ghetto child
A good 1,500 kilometers northeast of Giessen is Kaunas. Fruma Kucinskiene, 79, looks pensively through the window at the green trees outside. She's going through her memories.
When she talks about Margarete, she lovingly calls her "my sister." And even today, the now deceased Helene Holzman is "Aunt Lene." They met in fall 1943. "When I first saw Aunt Lene and heard her speaking German, I thought I needed to hide myself quickly!" Fruma says.
Back then she was a 10-year-old Jewish girl whose childhood had been taken away and who, as a ghetto child, faced the abyss of death of desperation.
"It's a wonder that I survived," she says today, knowing that she owes her life to Helene and Margarete Holzman. Helene Holzman was part of a network of courageous people who helped persecuted Jews, provided food and shelter.
But above all, the network smuggled children out of the ghetto and hid them from the Nazis - in their own families, with acquaintances or under false identities in children's homes. Sometimes, up to seven people were sheltered in Helene's small apartment.
Helene Holzman was one of those people whose boundless solidarity with the persecuted was only recognized among the wider public years later. After the war, she jotted down the memories which for years she had kept to herself in a notebook.
A book was published based on the notebook, although its author did not live to see its release. Those visiting museums and memorials in Lithuania can find the names and photographs of people like Helene Holzman everywhere.
The house in which the Holzmans lived, and where the 10-year-old Fruma lived for months under the false Lithuanian name "Danute," is still standing. And it looks almost exactly the same as it did all those decades ago, she says.
We're standing in the garden as Fruma looks from the building's façade to the balcony decorated with flowers and then over to a small window on the left. "That was my hiding place; I always looked out from there," she recalls.
Life underground, under a false identity, was permeated with fear and insecurity. Lithuanian neighbors were often curious or mistrustful, many informed the police - in which case a new shelter had to be quickly found.
Fruma herself was forced to change her hiding place on numerous occasions. She kept in contact with the Holzmans. For a long time, she was unaware of what happened to her own family: "Straight after the war I went to the synagogue every evening, where there were lists of the names of the few who had returned from the concentration camps."
Her parents and brother were not listed. While hiding in a malina (a secret hiding place built by Jews, usually underground), they were burned to death when the ghetto was liquidated in 1944. It is still difficult for Fruma to talk about what happened.
What the humble 79-year-old does not talk about is an act of rescue in the post-war period. Margarete tells the story.
One day in the summer of 1945, the war was over and Soviet troops had marched into Kaunas. Fruma, then an orphan, lived legally with the Holzmans. She went to school and was suddenly the only Jew in the class. An army truck pulled up outside the house. Helene and Margarete Holzman had to quickly pack a few things when they realized they were to be transported to Siberia since they were now classed as Germans.
Fruma was threatened with the loss of her new foster family. In panic and desperation, she alarmed the neighbors who then called a high-ranking official at the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKWD).
A miracle occurred: The secret service officer ordered that both Helen and Margarete could stay in their apartment.
In 1965, the Holzmans moved to Western Europe. Today, Margarete and Fruma live a great distance apart. But they always remained close, as close as only sisters can be. They telephone, visit and laugh with one another; their nieces and nephews also have contact.
The stories of life and death, of rescue and friendship, have united them for over six decades. And Marie, the courageous, life-loving sister, remains unforgotten.