Former Gazette reporter Keith Morgan had pretty much done everything and seen everything that life as a journalist had to offer when he met Ruth Kron Sigal.
The meeting changed his life. It re-defined her’s too. It enabled the Holocaust survivor to tell the shocking story of the near- annihilation of Lithuania’s Jews, more than 200,000 murdered, wiping out 96 per cent of the tiny Baltic state’s pre-war Jewish population.
Their paths converged at a school assembly. Ruth, a trained psychologist and counsellor, had reached deep within her own reserves to share with children her experience of life – at their age.
Ruth’s story transported them into the squalid ghetto of Ruth’s childhood and where she watched in terror, from a hiding place within the walls, the transportation of play mates, friends and family, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, their screams muffled by the loud band music blasted out from speakers atop trucks.
After almost 60 years of silence she told of the ultimate betrayal of Jews by neighbours once considered friends. And of her own family’s eventual escape from a land with no real hiding place.
One statistic shocked young listeners to their core. Ruth revealed: “Just before World War Two, Siauliai where I lived was a thriving small city in the north of the country. At that time the Jewish population was 5,360. The Jewish population grew to 6,500 as Polish refugees and other Jews tried to outrun the advancing Nazis. About 1,000 fled into Russia a few days prior to the Nazi takeover of Shavl.
“In the first two weeks of occupation 1,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and by many of our neighbours. A further 1,000 sent to nearby Zhager were killed in the last four months of the war and another 750, forced to work in nearby villages, were wiped out.
“ If you are good at maths you will have figured out that by the end of the year more than half of the original Jewish population was murdered.”
In all, Lithuania lost all but four per cent of its Jewish population. The term “lost” is misleading, concedes Keith. “They were thrown away by the Nazis and Lithuanian fascist collaborators.”
Ruth admitted her memories had been “locked away in a mental closet of my own making for many years.”
Then she realised her story would die with her – while it could yet make a difference.
She spoke to Keith after a news item from her native town revealed swastikas had been painted upon gravestones of Jews in the cemetery there on the anniversary of Hitler’s birthday. A year later neo-Nazis disrupted Hanukah celebrations. A poll revealed Lithuanian intolerance towards Jews remained high. In recent months there have been marches in support of Nazi collaborationists.
Ruth also told Keith of small but significant acts of kindness, food smuggled in, cherished smiles of support, a doctor risking his own life to save a Jew.
The Ruth who stood before him, finally speaking out about the Final Solution, was living witness to the compassion and courage of the Catholic husband and wife who made the girl from the ghetto their own.
They provided a safe refuge for seven year old Ruta after she was torn apart from her four year old sister Tamara. Her little sister was one of 725 children dumped in trucks by collaborationists to be gassed in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Ruth, rescued by a doctor claiming to be her father, was later smuggled into Ona’s care.
Ona told Keith that rescuing Ruth was “the right thing to do”. Ona had lost her own toddler son to diphtheria months earlier.
Ruth was reunited with her parents after the Germans retreated. They fled Lithuania under Russian occupation.
Ruta’s Closet was published yesterday in Britain by Unity Press. It’s already out in Canada where Keith has lived and worked as a journalist for 21 years since trading Blackpool for British Columbia.
Ruta’s Closet is hailed one of the “finest Holocaust memoirs” by Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Winston Churchill’s official biographer, one of Britain’s leading historians. It was Sir Martin who advised Keith to use the skills he had acquired as a journalist to establish the truth.
Ruth died in December 2008 shortly after the manuscript she inspired was completed. Keith, driving editor of The Province and Vancouver Sun, admits the experience “utterly altered” his life.
He says his early days as a local reporter helped. “If there’s one thing you learn it’s to question, question, question, and not rest until you have the facts.”
The award winning journalist worked at The Gazette in the ’70s covering Wyre and south Fylde. He became Wyre’s youngest elected councillor.
“I joined The Province in the ’80s, first on general assignment, then crime reporting took me all over North America, before morphing into car writing.
“But for a few years in the early 2000s I travelled the world writing about people who make a difference in the lives of others – and that’s how I met Ruth.
“It changed my life.”
He accompanied Ruth to the Baltic and travelled worldwide, at his own expense, to talk to survivors and witnesses.
He verified anecdotal evidence and turned it into a damning indictment not only of the Nazis – but those who collaborated with them.
Publication in Britain couldn’t be more timely.
Keith castigates Minister for Europe David Lidington for failing to damn recent marches in Lithuania and Latvia in honour of Nazi collaborators.
Lidington calls it a “matter for respective governments”.
Keith, 59, concludes: “Britain cannot sit on the fence.
“I left Blackpool Grammar School in the 1970s.
“I knew about ‘the great victory of the Allies over evil incarnate’, which was how my history teacher described the outcome of the war.
“I knew six million Jews perished at hands of Hitler’s henchmen.
“I didn’t know 200,000 Lithuanian Jews had been executed – or that thousands were murdered by their own neighbours.
“Ruth taught me to speak out against Nazism and fascism in all its forms.
“She said, ‘we survivors won’t be around forever. It could happen again. ’
“And she’s right. Anti-Semitism is on the rise.
“We all need to do the right thing.”
* Ruta’s Closet, by Keith Morgan (Unity Press, an imprint of Unicorn, £12.99)