Margaret Kagan | Life in Hiding

"I often wonder, would I have risked my family to save somebody's life? I don't know the answer to that."

Margaret grew up in Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania. Her mother was from St Petersburg, her father was from near Kaunas and had worked for the Lithuanian Embassy in Berlin, and the family was  international in outlook. Margaret and her younger brother Alik were brought up as "citizens of the world".

When the German army invaded Lithuania in 1941, many Jewish families fled. Margaret's family stayed in Kaunas because they didn't want to leave Alik, who was away at a children's holiday camp. The city was in chaos. Jews were targeted with shootings and arrests. Margaret's father was arrested and never came back. By August, when the Jewish population was sent to the ghetto, many people felt relief, believing that they would be safe.

Margaret's mother and father, 1922    Margaret aged 11 and brother Alik aged 4

 

Margaret describes the ghetto years as 'dreadful'. The people were forced to do hard labour and deprived of food, in overcrowded conditions with three families living in just two rooms. Morale was poor, though many people believed that the war would soon be over and had no idea of the Nazi plan to exterminate them.

School group 1938/1939. Margaret left of teacher.  Margaret in Kaunas ghetto 1942/1943.

Margaret's life changed when she met Joseph Kagan. Joseph refused to accept the ghetto conditions. He extended his living space by pitching a tent in a vegetable garden and managed to smuggle luxuries, such as extra food and gramophone records, into the ghetto. He was also convinced that the Jewish population would be wiped out, and persuaded Margaret that they should get married and go into hiding. While Joseph worked on arranging a hiding place, Margaret found a friend ouside the ghetto who agreed to keep blond, blue-eyed Alik in safety. Joseph and Margaret married at the ghetto registry office and shortly afterwards they, along with Joseph's mother, sneaked away from their slave labour brigade and hid in the attic of a local factory.

They remained in hiding for nine months. It was a dangerous plan, especially for the Lithuanian friends who risked their own and their familes' lives to help them. It was enormously stressful: a "strange, eerie existence" in which they had to remain absolutely silent during the day and were constantly wary of being caught. Eventually, in July 1944, Soviet troops reached Kaunas and they were free.

Margaret was euphoric at regaining her freedom and being reunited with Alik. However, she soon began to realise the enormity of what had happened. She discovered that her father had been murdered in one of the earliest massacres of the war and that her mother had committed suicide in a concentration camp.

Joseph's father lived in England where he ran a textile company, so the couple decided to move to England and rebuild their lives. They started their own business, Kagan Textiles, from a Nissen hut and built it up from scratch to become a major firm, eventually employing a thousand people. Joseph patented a new cloth, called Gannex, and manufactured coats which were famously worn by Prince Philip and Harold Wilson. He was knighted in 1970 for services to industry. As well as working in the business, Margaret became involved in community work and brought up their three chihldren.

Joseph with Vytautas Rinkevicius, his daughter and Antanas Macenavicius  Margaret and Alik reunited in 1964 after separation of 13 years  Margaret in 2010, copyright Paul Banks

Margaret stayed in contact with her rescuer, Vytautas Rinkevicius, and the Macenavicius family who looked after Alik.  In 1964 she travelled to Riga to meet Vytautas and Antanas Macenavicius for the first time in twenty years. She has since made several visits to Lithuania, which holds many emotional memories. Margaret still lives in Yorkshire.  She speaks out about the dangers of prejudice, and the immense bravery of the people who intervened to save the lives of those who were persecuted during the Holocaust.

Sadly Margaret died in 2011. We all miss her greatly. 

 

 

Videos

    • Chapter 1: Margaret describes her background in a cultured family in Kaunas, Lithuania (3 mins 48)

    • Margaret chapter 1
    • Chapter 2: Margaret recalls the invasions of Lithuania by the Soviets then the Germans (7 mins 53)

    • Margaret chapter 2
    • Chapter 3: Margaret describes her wedding in the ghetto and her decision to go into hiding (8 mins 16)

    • Margaret chapter 3
    • Chapter 5: Margaret describes the aftermath of war and how she came to England (3 mins 37)

    • Margaret chapter 5
    • Chapter 6: Margaret and Joseph start a successful business from an Anderson shelter in Elland (7 mins 24)

    • Margaret chapter 6