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[Pages 329-332]

The Jews Excelled In Valor

By Shmuel Levitt

Translated by Judy Grossman

 

 
Shmuel (right) with his sister Devora-Dora and brother Shaul

 

Do you have a motorcycle? Go to Russia!

On Sunday, June 22, 1941, the first bomb fell in Kovno [Kaunas]. At that time I was working as the department manager of a building supplies cartel. My brothers Shaul and Issar were also already in Kovno. Shaul was working in the tanks industry and lived with me in a room, and Issar was working in a cigarette factory. My brother Dov-Berke and my sister Dvora-Dora were living with my mother in Dusiat.

At dawn they announced on the radio that war had broken out, but asked not to create a panic, and for everyone to go to work. Shaul went to work in the morning, but I stayed home.

German planes bombed the city. I went out on my motorcycle to look for Shaul and Issar. Jews stopped me and said: “Where are you going? The Lithuanians of the Fifth Battalion are killing Jews in the street!” Anti-Semitism had long been felt. It was known that there were emissaries of Hitler among the Lithuanians. They advised me then: “Do you have a motorcycle? Go to Russia! If you have fuel, flee!” The Germans were about ten kilometers from Kovno then. I returned to my room in the hope that I would find Shaul there, but he wasn't there. I took clothes with me and left him a note.

I reached the train station, and there I learned that Issar and his wife had already left for Dusiat. A train was standing in the station, and as I learned, it was intended for the important party activists [Communists]. It was strictly guarded, and they didn't allow others to get on it. Jews stood and pleaded, but in vain. It was a long train, with about twenty cars. I encountered Batya Shub there and suggested to her: “Come, let's flee to Russia,” but she said that she would try to get to Dusiat.

I took advantage of a moment when the soldier guarding wasn't paying attention, got on the train and hid under one of the seats, and the train set out on its way.

The shooting accompanied us the entire way. The fascist Lithuanians attacked from all sides. Suddenly – two trains collided. Many people were injured, especially those sitting in the front of the train. I was in a car in the middle and wasn't injured. I went out and saw destruction around me. The sky was black, and the planes were bombing incessantly. Nearby was a train station that was bombed mercilessly. I went down to the tunnel, where there were masses of Russian soldiers. I went out when there was a break in the bombing. Everything was burning! Everything was in ruins! I saw remains of the cars from the train in which I had come from Kovno. I found my suitcases there. I walked for about twelve kilometers, and boarded the train that was leaving for Russia.

Like Migrating Birds

After wanderings and hardships on the trains, I reached Viksa [Russia], where they worked mainly at digging peat, but thanks to the good advice I received from a man from Kovno (Litvaks always help each other…), I was saved from this by registering at the registration station as an expert in painting and car repair.

I remember the speech of a Russian in Viksa: “Our brothers are spilling their blood in the terrible war. There are doctors and engineers among you (“and you suspect that they are also spies” – I said to myself), but at this time of difficulty we can't employ you in your professions. We need peat for the winter!”

This peat looked like a pile of garbage crawling with huge cockroaches, and a bite by such a cockroach meant death!

I was in Viksa for about two months, and when the Germans advanced into Russia, I went to Omsk at the advice of a fellow who said to me: “Let's go to Omsk. I have an uncle there and he'll help us.” The trip took a month and a half. In Omsk we were met not by the uncle, but by the fierce cold of Siberia, forty degrees below zero [Centigrade]! My nose froze and grew red, and a good woman rubbed my face with snow. I couldn't bear this terrible cold, and like migrating birds, I also wandered to the warm lands.

I reached Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. A woman from Riga and her children were sitting in the train station, with a pile of suitcases around them. The woman was apparently tired from moving from place to place, and her head kept dropping to the side. It was night and I had nowhere to sleep, and wandered back and forth in the station. Each time that I approached the woman, I saw that the pile of suitcases had grown smaller. One was missing, and another one, and another one. The thieves “had a party” there. But I didn't dare come near, because they were liable to cut off my nose.

We weren't allowed to remain in Tashkent for longer than twenty-four hours, and I was forced to continue wandering. Ten days later I reached Dzhambul [Kazakhstan]. Lithuanian communists wandered around there. From them I learned about the establishment of the 16th Lithuanian Division, and I volunteered for it.

 

 
The 16th Lithuanian Division's road to combat 1942-1945[1]

 

The 16th Lithuanian Division's road to combat began in the bitter winter battles in February-March 1943, on the snow-covered Oryol steppes. The first battles in the area of Alekseyevka were very fierce. They were bloody, with heavy losses…The Division took part in the well-known summer battles (July 1943) in the Kursk-Oryol Arc, and successfully repelled all the enemy attacks and went on to counter-attack…[2]

 

We Set Out to the Front to Take Revenge!

I was enlisted with the rank of captain thanks to my “past as a commander” in the Lithuanian Army.

I drilled soldiers, at which time I also learned Russian.

I was already in the army in the winter of 1942. We set out for the front, we retreated, and we reorganized in Tula (the city in which they produce the samovars…). Then our division was sent out to Alekseyevka during the Battle of Kursk-Oryol. I was in the Engineering Corps. Our job was to locate and lay mines, and we erected bridges in place of those that had been blown up. That was where we encountered the most terrible battle fire. A very high percentage of the soldiers in the division fell within a month. The Germans closed in on us. They would allow us to advance, and then suddenly attacked…

 

 
Shmuel Levitt in Uniform

 

Half a year went by and we again set out to fight. Our division was stuck in a valley; the Germans were on top of the mountain, hid between the trees and shot at us. Our infantry dragged in the mud. The Germans didn't cease shooting, and it was hard for us to dig in. Many soldiers simply went mad, and many were killed.

One day a Lithuanian polkovnik [equivalent to a colonel], who knew me from Lithuania, came up to me and whispered to me that I had been chosen to cross the German lines, a distance of about ten kilometers, and blow up the cement bridge there. The bridge served them to move from one mountain ridge to another, and the Germans guarded it extremely closely. Our intelligence reported that the Germans planned to bypass the Lithuanian Division, and that was why it was so essential to blow up the bridge. Of course, the mission had to be carried out in absolute secret.

We, a group of soldiers under my command and I, set out with a large quantity of explosives. We had to cross a Russian army minefield, and after that a German army minefield. After that we had eight more miles to the bridge.

There was a Jewish sergeant from Ponivezh [Panevezys] with me called Kavas. The two of us “cleared” the way. It was dark, with the cold of fall. We reached the forest at nine o'clock, already three kilometers inside the German lines.

The action was supposed to start around midnight, during the changing of the guards. I did a roll call and saw that eight soldiers were missing. I set up a rearguard, so that soldiers couldn't desert.

We waited in the forest until one o'clock. We approached the bridge and saw the sentries there, walking towards each other. You could see that they were cold. We had soldiers with us who were specialists in knife fighting, and three of them attacked the sentries and shut their mouths. One of the sentries, an SS sergeant, who resisted, was stabbed to death. The second one didn't resist and murmured something like “Hitler kaput, Stalin gut” [Hitler is finished, Stalin is good], and we took him prisoner.

I didn't trust anyone with the placing of the explosives other than Kavas. We laid the explosives in two places and pulled wires. It was a long, well-built bridge. We did what we did and were already on the way back.

Darkness and gloom! We had only three kilometers to go until the crossing that had been cleared of mines, which we had marked previously. Suddenly we heard a loud explosion! I had never in my life heard such a thunderous explosion. I felt the earth quake, just like in the movies. Despite the fact that we were more than six kilometers from there, it seemed as though the explosion was taking place beside us.

I knew then that I had fulfilled my mission, but you can't say that I felt proud. We already had dead and injured. We had not yet reached our goal, and the Germans already opened artillery fire and tanks began to move…

When I returned to the assembly point, I found the eight deserters. I ordered them to go out and bring the wounded and then I wouldn't report that they deserted. They left, and two of them didn't return.

We were welcomed with kisses and hugs, and were able to have a good wash and received new clothes. We also received two weeks of R and R, which were two weeks of drinking and enjoyment.

 

 
Shmuel Levitt (right) on Vacation …

 

Footnotes

  1. The Road to Victory: Jewish Soldiers of the 16th Lithuanian Division 1942-1945, Veterans' Council by the Association of the Lithuanian Jews in Israel, Tel Aviv, 1999 [Hebrew version]. Inside back cover. Return
  2. Avraham Kretchmer. Ibid p. 355. Return

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