WILKES-BARRE — Tikva Chlamovitch Jeral was just a little girl when friends of her parents pushed her through a small opening in the barbed wire fence in the ghetto of Kovno, Lithuania, in 1944.
Waiting on the other side of the fence were Adomas and Brone Gecevicius, Catholics who would take Jeral into their home and raise her with their other two children.
Jeral’s natural parents — Yosef and Asya Chlamovitch — would never see their only child again. They would be killed by the Nazis soon after — two of more than 6 million Jews murdered under Adolf Hitler’s regime during World War II.
Jeral, now 71, told her story to more than 400 Wyoming Valley West Middle School students Tuesday at the Jewish Community Center.
“I got out and I survived,” she said. “I was lucky — very lucky.”
Lucky in the sense she lived to grow up, marry, have children and grandchildren and friends and to work. But she doesn’t remember her parents; she doesn’t remember that awful time when she was hidden in a bunker, asleep with the help of chloroform, while her parents worked in the Nazi-occupied ghetto.
Jeral had been staying with the Gecevicius family for two years when her aunt and uncle — Nechama and Bezalel Tauman— came to Lithuania for her and took her to Israel. From there she would be sent to her cousins in the United States, where she was adopted by Izz and Edna Polsky of Philadelphia.
Her story is chronicled in the book, “Tikva Means Hope,” written by her husband, Sheldon Jeral. Their oldest son, Joe, wrote a short play — “The Story” — about his mother’s plight that is included in the book. Sheldon and Tikva live near Baltimore now. They spent 20 years in Wilkes-Barre and Mountain Top from 1982-2002 when Sheldon was executive director of Jewish Family Services and Tikva worked as a social worker.
“A dark journey from the hell of war to the light of freedom and a new family, Tikva’s story demonstrates the tenacity and hope inherent in each of us,” Sheldon Jeral wrote in the book. “The true story of Tikva Jeral is a frightening, powerful and, finally, uplifting tale of one woman’s survival through one of the most horrific evils perpetuated in recent history.”
The students sat in silence and awe as Tikva Jeral detailed her story. After the presentation, which included a film on the Holocaust — “Remember the Children” — Tikva said she often thinks of her parents and how they must have struggled to make the decision to send her to the arms of strangers.
“I think about it all the time,” she said. “But I would not have survived. I wonder why did I survive and not somebody else.”
Seven Wilkes University education students who attended the presentation marveled at Tikva’s story. Vicky Klem, 35, of Plymouth, said her youngest child is 18 months old.
“I can’t imagine ever having to give my child to strangers,” she said.
Megan Petrochko, 21 of Nanticoke, was touched by the story.
“They gave away their only child not knowing if she would survive,” she said. “And they died never knowing what happened to her.”
Many students posed for pictures with Jeral and asked for her autograph.
“Some 71 years later I feel very lucky to be alive and to remember those who kept me safe,” she said. “So, that’s my story.”
Jeral said she enjoyed her time living as a Catholic. She prayed to Jesus; Christmas was her favorite time of year. She said the schools she attended taught that Jews were bad — very bad.
“I didn’t want to leave,” she said of the time her aunt and uncle came to get her. “I was a good little girl. I didn’t want to be Jewish.”
She said she got used to her aunt and uncle and learned what had happened. But she will never forget the people who took care of her.
“They took great risks,” she said. “We had to move to another part of town because the neighbors knew there were only two children living in our house and now there were three. Our lives were always in danger.”
Sheldon wrote in the book’s forward:
“It is so important to recognize that every survivor of imprisonment in concentration camps, and every hidden child have horrible, painful and impossible stories to tell. This story is just one among those who survived and the millions who did not. It is a story of survival and of some lives which were lived thereafter.”