This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania,
Editor: Prof. Dov Levin, Assistant Editor: Josef Rosin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.
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P) Major changes at the outbreak of the war, renewal of connection with Vilna Jewry*
In the wake of the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, and the neutrality declaration of the Lithuanian government, the Jews too enjoyed the short period of economic prosperity in the Lithuanian economy brought about by the war. Nevertheless, the events that followed shortly placed upon Lithuanian Jews situations, roles and demands entirely different from anything they had known over the two previous decades a time of complacency and stability more or less. A spontaneous rallying took place to rescue exiles from the nearby Suvalki region and contact was renewed with Vilna Jewry, while extending assistance to care for the refugees from Poland who had found refuge in the town.
The largest group of refugees from Poland reached the south-western Lithuanian border in October 1940. These were Jewish families who had previously lived in the Suvalki region and were banished by force from their homes by the new authorities after the German conquest to the Lithuanian border and were left there in the cold and rain without shelter or food. The Lithuanian border guards shot at anyone trying to cross the swampy no-man's land where they had been thrown. When the Jews of the local Lithuanian towns heard of their plight, they spontaneously organized groups of rescuers who stole into the area at night and secretly brought out the exiles. In this manner, and in other ways, at least 2,400 refugees were brought into Lithuania and found a first haven in the homes of Jews in Kalvarija (800 people), Vilkaviskis (300), Marijampole (250), Lazdijai (150), Naumiestis Sakiai (100), Kybartai (125), Virbalis (100), Simnas (75), Balbieriskis (50), Seirijai (50), Kazlu-Ruda (50), and other places (150). Most of them were rehabilitated by the Lithuanian Joint, represented by Moshe Bekelman.
In various places, Jewish inhabitants helped to release their brethren from amongst the thousands of Polish soldiers who had found refuge in Lithuania and were placed by the authorities in a sort of prisoner camp.
After the return of Vilna and surroundings to Lithuania, about two months after the breakout of the War between Poland and Germany, the Jews of Kovno Lithuania reunited with their near 70,000 Vilna brethren from whom they had been separated 19 years earlier. Despite the family connections which Jews had fostered across the hermetically closed border during the period of division and despite the similar background in public and political activity by the Kovno and Vilna Jews during the period of struggle to set up the Lithuanian state and autonomy, differences emerged between the two groups both in socio-cultural terms, and politically.
For many generations Lithuanian Jewry and its leadership held Vilna Jewry in high regard for their highly developed organizational ability, and for the high standard of their communal institutions and political organizations. Now that they met again, however, the economic and political advantages the Kovno Lithuanian Jews enjoyed stood out in sharp contrast to the hunger and distress suffered by the masses of Vilna Jews and the helplessness of their leaders in the new situation.
These differences also came into bold view in the scale of absorption of the war refugees who had escaped from occupied Poland to Lithuania at the end of 1939 and beginning of 1940. A great part of the 15,000 refugees were of the Polish elite, 2,440 students of the religious seminaries with 171 of their rabbis, 2,065 members of the Halutz youth movements, some 1,000 adherents of the Revisionist camp, some 800 members of the Zionist parties, 561 members of the Bund and its affiliates, and over 100 writers, journalists, artists, actors, theater staff and musicians. Although most of them reached Lithuania in the hope of quickly continuing on their way to Eretz Israel or to other countries across the seas, they first of all needed assistance for their immediate survival.
On their arrival in Vilna they did receive immediate assistance from the many institutions the city was blessed with, with the community committee in the forefront. Unfortunately, the means available were meager, in view of the great poverty of the Vilna Jewish population, a poverty that increased with the war and the Soviet occupation, which lasted some six weeks. The refugees together with the Vilna Jews and those of the local surrounding area totaled about a quarter million people (approx. 10% of the total population).
A great change took place in the assistance given to the refugees after the annexation of Vilna to Kovno Lithuania. The first Jewish visitors from Kovno arrived with food parcels in their hands for the starving local Jews and for the refugees. Moreover, as the Vilna Jews did not know Lithuanian they required the intercession of the Kovno Jews in their various dealings. It fell to the latter to assist the refugees in their dealings with the authorities. This task was taken up by the special coordinating committee led by the ex member of the Sejm Dr I. Rabinson. This committee was in effect the central organ of all the bodies that worked with the refugees. Amongst other things, this committee came to an agreement with the Lithuanian authorities as to the efficient use of the large sums of money (totaling over a million Dollars) funneled by the Joint, HIAS, and other Jewish organizations for the Refugees in Lithuania. The committee also agreed to the request, in consultations with the representatives of the refugees, to relocate some of the refugees among the small Lithuanian towns. This applied in particular to the organized groups of seminary students and members of the training centers in Poland. An example: the Mir yeshiva, its students and rabbis (284 people), settled in Kedainiai; the Beth Yitzkhak yeshiva from Kamenetz (203), settled in Raseiniai; the Hafetz Hayim yeshiva from Radom (202), settled in Utena and the members of the Hashomer Hatza'ir kibbutz At the Front settled in Panevzys. Members of the Hapo'el Hamizrachi settled in Azuolu-Buda etc.
Spreading out the refugees assisted the local Lithuanian Jewish organizations to absorb in a reasonable manner many of the activists from their sister organizations and parties who had arrived from Poland. Some of them were successfully absorbed in the daily activities. The Jewish public too, benefited from the arrival of well-known personalities in Jewish Poland, famous in politics and the arts. Directors and actors well known to the Jewish Polish public, now graced the local theater stages. The Jewish press published daily, articles and essays, memoirs and stories written by refugees, considered amongst the best Jewish writers in Poland.
This immediate and direct contact with such a sophisticated and diverse public was both a cultural and social experience as well as a shock, which brought them out of their complacency and sharpened awareness and fears. In addition a reminder in the shape of bloody violence was visited upon them in Vilna in October 1939 with the encouragement of the Lithuanian police, and it came to a stop only after the intervention of Jewish communal workers and the threat of an appeal to foreign bodies including the Red occupation Army. Serious physical attacks also took place against Jewish students at the Kovno University. Jewish passers-by in the streets were also attacked.
In view of the danger of the repetition of such events a number of Jewish organizations met in Kovno to discuss setting up a system of self defense and detailed plans were made, which included regular patrols, communications and collection of arms.
In an atmosphere of tension and fear in the Jewish circles of the possible Nazi conquest of Lithuania, infantry and armored units of the Red Army moved into Lithuania on June 15th 1940, and within seven weeks Lithuania turned into a Soviet republic.
Q) Under Soviet Rule (1940-1941)
Many of the Lithuanian Jews knew that a possibility existed that the Red Army would march into the country and saw that as the lesser of two evils, considering the other prospect, much talked about, that the Germans would take the country in a Blitzkrieg and the implications of that for the Jews. When the lines of tanks rolled into the Lithuanian towns on June 15, There were many Jews among the masses, particularly the youths, who cheered the Red Army soldiers. This behavior stood out in contradistinction to the feeling of anger and sorrow that the coming of the Soviets aroused among large segments of the Lithuanian people. Among the Jews too (particularly in the Zionist circles, the religious and the comfortably established class), there were many who were filled with anxiety for their future under the Soviet regime. But these were few. Most of the Jews were enthusiastic and felt great relief. Among those who rejoiced were of course the Communists, many of whom, including the Jews, immediately joined the new regime and filled important functions in the administration and the economy as well as in the internal security organs. Some of them even received bonuses from the new rulers or betterment in their positions and rank and enjoyed a rise in their economic and social standing.
After a short interim period, when elections took place to Popular Sejm, elections in which the Jewish vote was of importance, public meetings in Yiddish took place everywhere, in which efforts were made to convince the Jews of every social level to support the new regime. Although the four Jewish delegates of the Communist camp who were elected to the Popular Sejm were hardly known to the Jewish public, and in spite of their tiny numerical number among the Sejm delegates (5% of the total number whereas the Jews constituted some 10% of the population), their election nevertheless evoked much satisfaction among the Jewish masses. Great satisfaction was also felt at the appointment of Jewish policemen and officers to responsible positions in the new regime.
Together with the relative physical security felt by the Jews with the creation of the Soviet authority, all the discriminatory regulations and limitations on the Jewish minority, which had previously existed, were now abolished. There was Jewish participation in the interim government with a Jew serving as minister. The Communist government, which confirmed the annexation of Lithuania to the Soviet Union, had two Jewish Popular Deputy Commissars (Deputy Ministers). Also, one of the two vice chairmen of the Supreme Soviet (previously the Sejm), and one of the ten members of the Presidium of this august body were Jews. The High Court had 2 Jewish judges (out of 6). In contradistinction to the period of Lithuanian independence when 74 Jews were employed (apart from teachers) in governmental service, the Soviet regime used many more Jews in the civil service to carry out its economic policy. Almost one third (32%) of the 153 commissars appointed to manage the nationalized plants were Jews. Some had been political prisoners under the previous regime. The Jews constituted almost half (44%) of the administrators in the popular commissariat (ministry) for industry, and most filled senior positions. This was true too of a series of state companies, which until then were almost without Jews. This stood out particularly in the security institutions such as the NKVD, the NKGB, the militia and the political officers in the army. Among the members of the Communist Party, which had 3,130 members in 1941, were 479 (15%) Jews.
Among the other forms of relief the new regime introduced was free education at all levels, from kindergarten to university. The limitations and numerous clauses imposed on ethnic grounds were abolished. As a result, many Jewish youths registered at institutes of higher learning to get a higher education or a profession and their numbers reached 700, as against 500 the previous year, when Lithuania was still an independent country.
Unfortunately, the festive atmosphere felt at the beginning of the new regime did not last. After the short Honeymoon an accelerating process of Sovietization began, felt by all the population. Because of the special situation of the Jews (economic, religious, cultural and educational), the effect of Sovietization was very serious and brought about serious consequences.
First and foremost: Jews were hit hard socio-economically as a direct result of the nationalization of the banks, of industries which employed more than 20 workers and trading businesses with an annual turnover of 150,000 Lit or more. The personal deposits of industrial and nationalized business owners were seized. Of the 1,593 trading companies and shops nationalized, with a total annual turnover of 500 million Lit (based on 1939 figures), 83% (1,320) were Jewish-owned as against 10% for the Lithuanians and 7% for all others. The nature and quality of the Jewish owned industrial plants nationalized can be seen from the following table;
|Branch||All industries||Lithuanian owned||Jewish owned||Owned by other|
(in 1,000 s)
(in 1,000 L)
(in 1,000 L)
(in 1,000 L)
|Paper & Printing||128||50,069||38||11,899||60||5,391||30||32,779|
|Clothing & footwear||68||21,863||4||151||63||21,675||1||37|
Out of 986 plants nationalized, 560 over one half (57%) belonged to Jews. Most of these dealt in food processing, clothing and footwear, weaving or leather working. But in value, they were only valued at approx. 36% of the nationalized industry, whereas the monitory value of 426 nationalized plants (43%), owned by Lithuanian and others were valued at 64% of the total value of the nationalized industry. These were mainly in metal, electricity, paper and printing. The owners of the nationalized plants were exiled from the big cities.
The agricultural reform too affected the Jews negatively, as there were many who owned large tracts of farmland that they didn't work personally, but by hired labor and were therefore defined as exploiters or estate owners who had part of their farm distributed among peasants. Another branch, which suffered was the small shopkeepers. They had heavy taxes imposed on them and difficulties were placed in their way in replacing sold goods. As a result many were forced to close their businesses and lost their source of income. In a number of towns, Jews who had their businesses nationalized, had to resort to working at public services. The Sovietization policy hurt in particular the Jewish minority for whom commerce, shop keeping and light industry were the main source of income. Many other Jews, especially from the well-established class, were uprooted from their economic base. Many too were denied the possibility of taking on another position because of the need to work on Saturday and Jewish festival days. Only those who showed a willingness to accommodate themselves to the new conditions found themselves absorbed in the commerce administration of the Soviet economy.
On the other hand, Jewish artisans could now integrate into the economy by joining productive co-operatives (known as Artels). A minority remained independent (they were called Kustarniki). Jews in the free professions now had state and municipal positions open to them. Sovietization was specially kind to wage earners, laborers and the poorest sections of the population, and of course, to the senior members of the Communist party and the upper strata of the public and state administration. As to the other Jews, the new regime caused a sharp drop in their standard of living and the day-to-day existence.
A revolution of no lesser importance was also caused by the Sovietization in the sphere of education and culture. Instead of the previous schools, where the Hebrew language ruled together with national and religious values, a new system arose in which Yiddish became the language of instruction and national content was taken out of the curriculum. Hebrew libraries were closed by order and the Yiddish literature was carefully vetted and only some of it was included in the municipal public libraries. Parties, organizations, youth movements and cultural institutions were disbanded. At the same time, pressure was exerted on some of the members of these organizations to join the Communist camp that had now become the leading and most influential element in every aspect of life. Many of the leadership of the organizations were arrested, among them: Reuven Rubinstein and Leib Garfunkel of Kovno; Menakhem Begin, commander of Betar in Poland who had found refuge in Vilna and others. Within a short time all the newspapers in Yiddish were closed down, leaving only one daily, Der Emes (The Truth), published in Kovno. The Yiddish phonetic spelling as used in the Soviet Union, now appeared in the newspaper and was taught in the Jewish schools. The Minorities Section of the Communist party of Lithuania was in charge of making the drastic changes in the Jewish sector, headed by the teacher Generikh Ziman. As an uncompromising Communist functionary, he personally accompanied each act in the elimination of the Zionist movement and the Hebrew educational system, which was justified in Marxist ideological terminology and was brutally enacted. Once, at the height of the liquidation process, he burst into the office of Zvi Brik (Barak), the director of the Eretz Israel Office in Kovno, conducted a search of his clothing, took the office keys and those of the post box and drove him out of the building. Other Jews with the same functions in the regime acted likewise with regard to their national brethren, who were defined, as was customary Zionist Reactionaries, Capitalists, enemies of the workers and similar terms.
The definition of Sunday as the weekly day of rest in the educational system hurt not only the religious orthodox public, but also wide sections of the religiously observant who saw this as discrimination as opposed to the Christian public whose day of rest was not touched. Although the existence of prayer houses, yeshivot for the study of the Torah were not forbidden, for economic and other reasons the number of men appearing for prayers (especially for the morning and Sabbath and festival prayers) decreased considerably. This was true too of the seminary students. A vigorous campaign was carried on against the rabbis and religious functionaries publicly and in the press. But at the same time, the authorities authorized the Committee of Religious Jews to be in charge of the cemeteries and other institutions and permitted a limited slaughter of animals and fowls according to religious precepts. Surprisingly, the authorities granted exit visas to Eretz Israel (via Turkey) to a few thousand Jewish refugees from Poland, among them seminary students, rabbis and Zionist activists and entry visas to the USA (via Japan or Iran). In a few cases, local Jews managed to infiltrate the above lists of emigrants.
With the strengthening of the regime there came also an ascending scale of conflicts with the traditional framework of the Jewish public. This resulted in a sobering down of enthusiasm and hopes regarding the new regime and an increase in the reservations. But the threat created by the German neighbor and the definite feeling that if given an opportunity the Lithuanians would riot against the Jews increased the understanding among all that this regime was the lesser of two evils. Only thus can it be explained why the Jews of all classes tended to accept the situation and even adapted themselves to it, to avoid coming into open conflict with the regime and public opinion and to hide their dissatisfaction with the state of affairs.
Despite the above however, various and sundry underground activities increased, beginning with searching for ways to immigrate to Eretz Israel via the Baltic Sea. Hebrew books were moved to hiding places, Hebrew leaflets printed in secret and activities to continue and keep alive Jewish education. The Jewish national ethos was fostered in various frameworks, such as teaching the Hebrew language, its literature and the history of Israel, learning the past of Eretz Israel, celebrating festivals and clinging to national symbols. In this respect, there was almost no difference between Hashomer Hatza'ir which decided on scattering but not liquidation, without being drawn into anti-Soviet activity, and Betar whose members continued to train in the use of arms for a further period. Other organizations which came into being, joined in the underground activities, e.g. Herut (Hehalutz Hatza'ir-Dror-Netzach), and ABTZ (Irgun Bnei Tsion), with the intention of uniting the youth on the basis of safeguarding the cultural and national values. Besides the nationalist motive, the longing for tradition and the romance of underground activity, it represented a reaction of the young to the impotence of the Zionist leaders and their inability to face the test. The traditional Zionist leadership did not even attempt to deal with the ferment among the youth and to fight for their positions, which were disappearing from under their feet. Giving all kinds of reasons and fearing for themselves, the leaders of the past forsook all public activity among the Jews and were naturally unwilling to lend a hand to underground political activity of the young.
Jewish underground activity did not escape the attention of the Soviet security authorities. In addition to keeping their activities under surveillance, the authorities also prepared lists of everyone who had belonged in the past to political organizations (excluding adherents of the Communist camp) and other people. All these were defined by the Soviet regime as anti-Soviet elements, and Enemies of the People, even small shopkeepers and ordinary Jews (listed by Jewish members of the security apparatus as candidates for exile at times because of simple mistakes or for personal reasons), these were arrested and exiled to Siberia and other remote parts of the Soviet Union. The number of Jews was almost double that of the Lithuanians.
Despite the fact that the majority of Jews suffered from the Sovietization policy, not less and possibly more than the rest of the population, the Jews nevertheless were seen by the Lithuanians as associated with the Russian Communist regime, long hated by them. As a result, anti-Jewish hatred which had existed in the past, increased yet more among the Lithuanian people. The appointment of Jewish youths to posts in the Soviet militia was now seen as an act of thanklessness and disloyalty. The anger grew yet greater when Jewish militiamen, as part of their official task, arrested Lithuanians considered by the public as patriots. The embitterment and deep frustration felt at the loss of independence caused the Lithuanians to see the entry of a few hundred Jews into the management of governmental companies which previously had not permitted Jews a foothold, this was now seen as support for the hated conqueror.
Since the Lithuanians, and in particular the nationalists among them, were not in a position to harm the Jews, they were forced to swallow their anger and satisfy themselves by grumbling and uttering threats of the day to come when they will revenge themselves on the Jews. Leading the agitators and the abusers of the Jews in the hope that the day was not far off when the war between Nazi Germany and the USSR would break out was the nationalist underground called the Activist Lithuanian Front (Lietuvia Aktivistu Frontas, the LAF), formed by the adherents of Voldemaras mentioned earlier. Some of them, inspired by the Abwehr (the German counter espionage agency), organized and trained in Germany. Cells of this underground, widely supported by the Lithuanian populace throughout the country, threatened to annihilate the Jews in the days to come and rob them of their property.
A manifesto published by the LAF on March 19th 1941 stated:
The hour of Lithuanian independence is coming shortly at that moment, local mutinies must break out ... and you must assume authority. The Communists and other traitors of Lithuania must be arrested immediately (the traitors will be amnestied only if they can each prove to have killed at least one Jew). By now the Jews know that their fate has been sealed and therefore, whoever can, should leave Lithuania now at the decisive moment take their property in hand making sure that nothing gets lost.
And so it happened, four months later, with the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany on June 22nd 1941, the local Lithuanians butchered their Jewish neighbors in at least forty Lithuanian localities, before the entry of German troops into those areas.
R) Refugees, Soldiers and exiles in the Soviet Union
With the sudden invasion of Lithuania by the Nazi German army on June 22nd 1941, and the immediate collapse of the Red Army forces stationed there, many Jews in the government and the Communist party were included among the people hastily evacuated east, to the inner parts of the Soviet Union. At this juncture, the members of the LAF, armed, came out of their hiding places and began to harass the retreating Soviet soldiers and at the same time, as promised, began to decimate the Jews, who were left behind to their bitter fate. Having an intimation of the fate awaiting them at the hands of the Nationalist Lithuanians, and having heard of what the Germans had done to Polish Jewry, many Jewish families scattered in the forests and nearby villages in the hope of finding shelter until the worst would be over. Others, in particular the young, including members of the youth organizations, preferred to escape from Lithuania by all possible means following the Red Army eastwards. Most of these refugees made their way on foot, carrying their suitcases and packs in the summer heat. Many succeeded in finding transportation, whether it was a bicycle or a cart or hitched onto a vehicle or train. Many of the refugees became casualties in the bombing of the roads by German airplanes and at the hands of the nationalist bands lurking at the roadsides.
As the orders given to the Soviet guards at the frontier posts were not always clear, many of the refugees were forced to turn on their tracks after reaching the borders. On their way back they suffered ambush by the armed Lithuanians or by German bombing.
Out of the thousands of Jews attempting to escape on foot or by transportation, some 15,000 managed to cross the Soviet border in the summer of 1941 (including employees of the governmental staff and members of the Communist Soviet establishment evacuated by the Soviets).
After the setting up anew of the essential Soviet Lithuanian institutions (the government, the Supreme Soviet, and the Lithuanian Communist Party center) and the establishment of the Lithuanian Division within the framework of the Red Army, these bodies began to cultivate close contact with the majority of refugees and extended them assistance, in keeping with the Soviet policy which saw Lithuania absorbed in the Soviet Union after the war.
The fate of the 7,000 Jews exiled from Lithuania to the distant inner parts of the Soviet Union was different, as they were defined as dangerous elements to the regime and enemies of the people. They were under the aegis of the All Soviet security apparatus, which refused to permit any contact with them by the Lithuanian institutions in exile.
With the outbreak of the war between the Soviet Union and Germany and after the conquest of Lithuania by the German army, some 22,000 Lithuanian Jews found themselves under Soviet rule. Until the end of the war the impenetrable fighting front divided them from their families who had remained under Nazi rule,
Lithuanian Jewish refugees in the Soviet Union
At first, on coming into the interior of European Russia, most of the Lithuanian refugees were absorbed into agricultural work within the framework of the collective farms (the Kolkhoz), in factories or in other work in the cities. The summer months were a time for adjustment to the new atmosphere and conditions, a search for relatives and for the struggle to survive. The Jews who were evacuated from Lithuania, because of their official or political positions in the Soviet regime in the period 1940-1941, were also considered evacuees. By 1941, many of them began to wander, of their own accord, singly or in groups, into the warmer regions of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other Soviet republics in central Asia-mainly for fear of the coming winter. Many of the refugees had escaped from Lithuania dressed only in their summer clothes.
A further reason was the fear of the German force, which was relentlessly moving forward in the European part of the Soviet Union. Some of the refugees hoped that they would be able to get to Iran or Afghanistan via the central Soviet republics and then continue on their way to Eretz Israel. Only a few succeeded. Many were caught at the borders and heavily punished.
The situation of most of the refugees in the central Asian republics was far from satisfactory. Both in the large cities Tashkent, Ashkhabad, Samarkand, Fergana and others as well as in the Uzbek, Kirghiz and others kolkhozes, many suffered hunger and great need. Living conditions were primitive and hard. They lived in mud huts and the fieldwork, such as cotton picking, went on from dawn till dusk. The official wage was tiny and hardly sufficed for the purchase of necessary articles in the market, only a few work places provided one hot meal a day. On top of the hard conditions, Typhus fever and a high mortality rate took their toll, in particular among the elderly and babies. Children were orphaned and many families were left without a breadwinner.
The condition of the refugees improved somewhat in the beginning of 1942, following the appointment of representatives of the Lithuanian government in 20 republics and provinces of the Soviet Union. Their major task was to assist in the mobilization of thousands of Lithuanians to the Lithuanian Division, but with the passage of time their remit was broadened to include assistance to the soldiers families and to the general Lithuanian public. This assistance consisted mainly in the distribution of food, clothes, shoes, and cash grants to needy families and singles, as well as to wounded soldiers from the Lithuanian Division and other units of the Red Army. Most unfortunately, because of their limited means, and even more because of difficulty in finding the refugees spread out in distant places, the assistance did not reach all of the great number of needy. In consequence, the high mortality rate among the refugees, in particular the elderly, continued.
Fearing death by starvation, the refugees, particularly the elderly, were prepared to accept any work even when the work conditions were inhuman. People did not dare to absent themselves from work, as doing so without permission in times of war was considered a serious crime and carried in its wake a heavy sentence. Those among the refugees able to work hard, did so in the expectation of bettering their position and their conditions, or sought other better-paying work. Another legitimate means of escaping from the hard work and hunger was to be accepted for courses given by the Lithuanian government, which were meant to prepare cadres (labor reserves) for the future return to Lithuania after the war. The participants in the courses received food, shelter and most importantly a promise of work in the future. It is no wonder there were so many candidates for these courses. Preference was given, of course, to experienced workers and to members of the Communist party. While the number of Jews in these courses was large, the number of Jews in the higher echelons of the Lithuanian government was very small.
Many of the Jewish refugees received assistance from abroad, especially from Eretz Israel, relatives, friends and institutions such as the Jewish Agency and The Association of Lithuanians in Tel Aviv, New York and Johannesburg who sent food parcels, clothes and other necessities. The parcels were followed by extensive correspondence with the senders and other relatives found later on, fearing as to the fate of the families left behind in Lithuania after receiving information of the horrors perpetrated there and the fate of the Jews under the Nazi regime.
According to a special survey conducted by the Lithuanian government in May 1943, there were 19,592 Lithuanian refugees and evacuees in the territory of the Soviet Union not under the Nazis, included in this figure were 10,643 soldiers in the Lithuanian Division and other army units, including the partisan HQ. 8,446 citizens were scattered in over 30 different places, from the Yakutia province in the far-east to Ivanovo in western European Russia. Following are details of the refugees and evacuees from Lithuania, both Jews and non-Jews.
|gender & age||ethnic|
|Gorky District (USSR)||737||201||387||149||359||302||51||25|
|Tatar Autonomous Republic||546||163||294||146||396||112||34||1|
|Chukchi Autonomous Republic||464||91||232||141||300||104||27||3|
|Kuibyshev District (USSR)||416||97||214||105||206||110||91||9|
|Yaroslavl District (USSR)||402||153||189||56||135||243||19||5|
|Saratov District (USSR)||335||58||197||53||193||112||29||1|
|Chekalov District (USSR)||269||68||122||76||138||99||19||9|
|Chelyabinsk District (USSR)||253||59||141||53||157||45||46||5|
|Sverdlovsk District (USSR)||250||36||146||63||216||21||11||2|
|Molotov District (USSR)||236||45||158||33||142||63||27||-|
|Moscow District (USSR)||234||129||85||20||93||122||15||5|
|Mari Autonomous Republic||224||31||115||78||126||47||36||15|
|Novosibirsk District (USSR)||203||56||94||53||157||46||-||-|
|Bashkiri Autonomous Republic||200||31||113||56||110||49||28||13|
|Mordovian Autonomous Republic||171||39||96||36||97||64||6||4|
|Udmurt Autonomous republic||161||42||101||18||74||75||11||1|
|Penza District (USSR)||147||44||70||33||86||48||11||-|
|Ivanovo District (USSR)||97||19||43||35||36||35||26||-|
|Omsk District (USSR)||89||21||51||17||55||31||-||3|
|Tanbov District (USSR)||56||14||33||9||13||37||5||-|
|Stalingrad District (USSR)||48||12||30||32||16||-||-||-|
|Vologda District (USSR)||47||17||17||13||2||38||-||-|
|Turkmenistan Soviet Republic||25||5||15||5||25||-||-||-|
|Yakutsk District (USSR)||22||5||13||4||3||-||-||-|
|Krasnoyarsk District (USSR)||22||-||8||14||-||22||-||-|
|Voronezh District (USSR)||4||1||1||2||4||-||-||-|
| * Evacuees include all those evacuated by the authorities and others who made their own way
** The figures do not include conscripts to the Red Army and exiles
*** Children under the age of 15
The Jews constituted, therefore, a majority, almost two thirds (65%) of the civilian Lithuanian refugees still alive after the first two difficult years in Russia. Only in a few districts (particularly in the European Soviet area, like Kuibyshev, Yaroslavl, Moscow and Ivanono) did the Jews constitute less than half of the Lithuanian refugees. In most cases, the Jews tended to concentrate together, but there are known cases where Jews singly or in family groups, lived for extended periods in villages until their return to Lithuania. These were mostly members of professions in demand, such as teachers, engineers and doctors.
As more than 5,000 Lithuanian refugee males served in the Lithuanian Division and other units, the majority of the civilian refugees (75%) were consequently women and children. 503 of the children, some of whom had been evacuated from Pioneer camps in Palongen and Druskenik and other child institutes in Lithuania, were placed afterwards in 5 children homes in inner Soviet areas. Although well over half of the children were Jewish, the language of instruction was generally Lithuanian. Nevertheless, due to the efforts of a number of Jewish teachers, such as Yehuda Meshi in Bashimorsk (near Gorki), and Nesia Orlowitz in Kadria (near Tashkent), in a few places the Jewish children studied in their own language and from Yiddish school books. As far as is known, these were exceptional cases.
In the Lithuanian Division and other Red Army units
During the invasion by the German army of Lithuania in June 1941, members of the Komsomol, Jews amongst then, were mobilized to defend with arms public buildings and institutions. They conducted short battles, especially in the north east of the country against Lithuanian nationalist bands. Among the masses attempting to escape by foot and by transport at the heels of the retreating Red Army and under the ceaseless bombing by German planes and the burning hot sun, were a great many Jewish men who asked to participate in the desperate rearguard action of the Red Army. After reaching the inner regions of the Soviet Union many of them made their way to the mobilization centers volunteering for the Red Army to participate in the war against the Germans. Most were refused induction, because of the suspicion shown by the Soviet authorities for inhabitants of the western regions of the Soviet Union.
For political and other reasons, the Soviets changed their policy at the end of 1941 with regard to accepting Lithuanian refugees into the army, and decided to form the 16th Infantry Division as a national Lithuanian unit within the Red Army. In addition to three infantry brigades (156, 167 and 249), an artillery brigade (224) and over ten headquarter and support units the division (which at its peak numbered some 12,300 soldiers) contained also a choir and orchestra, a large political section and a special unit unit (Spetzrota) for special tasks including guerrilla activity.
Despite the difficult situation at the front, the Lithuanian Division saw active battle action only late in the fighting, at the end of 1943, in the Oriol sector. In the first baptism of fire in the vicinity of the village Alexeyevka the infantry suffered many casualties and the Division did not recover to its previous strength. But after a change of commanders and reorganization, the Division recovered and continued its westward progress, while fighting bitter battles, and took part in the freeing of Lithuania as well as the port of Klaipeda in January 1945.
In the early months the Jews constituted a majority in the Division. Mostly concentrated in the riflemen and in the support units of the infantry brigades. Company 6 of the 167 brigade was known as the Jewish company. Many Jews, men and women, served in the medical corps and its ancillary units. A large number of Jews served in the engineering corps and in the political sections. In the first year of the existence of the division, at least, when it numbered 12,388 soldiers, the Jews constituted almost half of the total number in the ranks.
|Lithuanians (incl. born in the USSR)||25-30|
This situation changed after a few thousand Russian soldiers were attached to the division to fill out the ranks, following the blood letting in the battles of the Oriol sector. In the political and military institutions of the Soviets there was of course particular interest in highlighting the Lithuanian makeup of the Division in the last two years of the war and accordingly, data showing this was published, as can be seen in the following.
According to the data, the Lithuanians were the largest ethnic group in the division. At its peak, the division divided off as follows: 36.3% Lithuanians, 29.9% Russians, 29% Jews, and 4.8% others. Later on, the number of Lithuanians increased, whereas that of the Jews decreased.
The ratio of Lithuanians and Russians among the officers and sergeants was particularly high, whereas the ratio of Jews among the privates (especially in the fighting units of the infantry), in the first part of 1943, compared to the other ethnic groups, was over one third (34.%). It may be assumed that during the whole period of the existence of the division well over 5,000 Jews served in it, about 2,000 fell in the battles and many were wounded
The actual existence of such a large concentration of Jews who excelled in their national cultural tradition, known and appreciated by the headquarters (at least the lower echelons did so), brought into being a living Jewish ambiance in the unit. The Jewish language, Yiddish, ruled in the day-to-day life and was often used as an official military command language both when the orders were given and received by Jews. The use of Yiddish was very often a measure of the relations between the soldiers and the commanders. Due to the common cultural background and as a result of the particular demographic makeup of this unit, where there were many members of the same family, expatriates from the same town or village, students from the same schools or youth movements, all of which constituted a bond at all levels which contributed to mutual help and solidarity among them. There were also attempts at literary creations in Yiddish and Hebrew. Many of the Jewish soldiers kept diaries, evenings of poetry and entertainment often took place, in Yiddish and Hebrew, which included dancing the Hora. At times, soldiers also dared to pray in the open. In a few cases traditional funeral services took place for their fallen comrades.
Although the high command did not officially recognize differentness of the Jewish soldiers, they nevertheless had to take that fact into consideration and to exploit the possibilities that lay therein. For instance, the upper command of the political section used the Jewish soldiers' family connections throughout the world and in spite of the restrictions existing on correspondence with people abroad, encouraged the Jews to write to their relatives in the USA, in South Africa and even in Eretz Israel. Their aim was, among other things, to spread the idea of the need to open a second front by the Allies against the Nazis which was most important to the USSR and its army.
In one way or another, the Lithuanian Division served as a means of connection among the Jews in the USSR, and Jews in the rest of the world including Eretz Israel. Jewish parachutists, who underwent special training in the Division, were sent to enter the Lithuanian ghettos and partisan camps, and carried personal greetings there and back.
The closer the Jewish soldiers came to Lithuania, the clearer became the picture of the destruction of their homes and the murder of their families. As a result, the desire for vengeance, until then vague and misty, turned concrete. In the command call when attacking (in Russian) comrades for the fatherland, for Stalin, forward could also be heard the cry in Yiddish brider, far unsere tates un mames (brothers for our fathers and mothers). In one of the many propaganda musters specially organized for the Jewish soldiers, the commissar gave a speech in Yiddish in which he called to avenge the tears of our mothers and the cries of our children and for the innocent blood spilled In this case there was a full empathy between the speakers and the listeners.
The enthusiasm the Jewish soldiers showed in fighting in the ordinary battles and in volunteering for special fighting tasks is seen in the large number of mention in dispatches, medals and decorations given to the Jewish soldiers in the Division. Moreover, among the dozen soldiers of the Division who had received the honored title Hero of the Soviet Union were four Jews: private Boris Zindel, artilleryman in the artillery brigade 224 (after his death in battle); corporal Hirsh Uzhpol, Gun layer in brigade 249; first sergeant Kalman Shor, gun commander in brigade 249; major Wolf Wilenski, commander of a battalion in brigade 249 (the latter three immigrated to Yisrael and were given an honorary reception by the heads of government and by the Israeli Army). A further Jewish fighter who received this distinction was Major Leonid Buber of Lithuania, who commanded an infantry unit for a time within the Division.
Standing, right to left: lieutenant Yudel Bendet, Sergeant Major Zelbowich, Blekher, Segal, Nadel
The heroism in battle of the Jewish soldiers of the Division resulted in a high price paid in killed and badly wounded. Because of the high number of Jewish casualties on the one hand, and the absence of Jewish mobilized reinforcements on the other hand, the total number of Jewish soldiers in the Division fell month by month. After the Division entered and freed Klaipeda a mere 540 Jews remained in the Division (9% of the total number of soldiers in the Division at that time). The majority of soldiers in the Division were at this stage, Lithuanians mobilized from the cities and towns which had emptied of their Jewish inhabitants. The angry and bitter feelings in the hearts of the surviving Jewish soldiers grew once they realized that the murder of their dear ones was committed with the active collaboration of the Lithuanians. Although they distinguished well between the Lithuanian murderers and their comrades in arms with whom they had gone through battles over a period of three years, their faith in their comrades was, nevertheless, somewhat shaken. Many of them gave vent to their anger and desperation by taking spontaneous revenge on the murderers of their dear ones. It was not by chance that most of the Jewish soldiers and officers, many of whom were war invalids, rushed to leave Lithuania the moment it became possible to do so, and left for Eretz Israel and other countries.
While in Lithuania, freed from the Nazi yoke by the men of the Lithuanian Division, the memory of their fallen and the honor of the survivors was slowly being obliterated, in Israel the men of the Division were highly honored by the public and the spiritual and official establishment. This expressed itself in the state funeral in 1979 given to the ashes of the Jewish fighters of the Division, laid to rest on the Mount of Olives in an impressive ceremony attended by representatives of the government, Israel Defense Force, Ministry of Defense, Veteran Soldiers organizations and a large crowd. On the fiftieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, the remaining Jewish survivors of the Division published a memorial book.
Exiles and Prisoners in the far ends of the Soviet Union
Early in the spring of 1941, some of the leaders of the Lithuanian Zionists were imprisoned in prisons and work camps in the far corners of the land (Reuven Rubinstein of Kovno, Miron Sheskin of Vilna, Isaac Levitan of Shavli and others). They had been sentenced to lengthy periods of imprisonment by the Soviet regime for their past Zionist activity. The arrest and exile on a larger scale of Zionist activists and other untrustworthy elements took place in the night between June 14-15 1941, just about one week before the outbreak of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union. Approximately 7,000 Jews, some of whom had been active in Zionist activity in some form or another defined by the authorities as anti-Soviet activity, were included in the mass expulsion in which 30,000 Lithuanian inhabitants were deported to distant corners of the Soviet Union.
The criteria for drawing up the lists of Jews to be arrested and expelled, drawn up earlier by order of the Commissariat for Security matters (the NKGB) in Soviet Lithuania, tasked with investigating Nationalist Elements and Counter Revolutionaries in the Jewish body public. These instructions included the leaders of all the Zionist organizations and the staff of the Zionist publications, the leaders of the Bund and its journalists, members of Jewish organizations defined by the authorities as militaristic and fascist (The Association of Battlefield Veterans), the Soldiers Federation, Betar, ElAl and the Revisionist Party. In addition to the above, the lists also included past owners of factories, merchants, refugees, followers of the deposed leader Trotsky, past members of the Communist party, and others.
According to the instructions, family members and relatives living with them were included. Although the preparations for the banishment were made in great secrecy, many Jews made haste to hide much earlier because of their past political activity (e.g. the head of Betar, Yosef Glazman) and thus were not found in their homes on the night of the expulsion. But there were cases where the 'action squads', which frequently included Jews, broke into the homes late in the night with drawn guns, and added relatives or others who were in the house at that time, to their victims. Those selected for banishment were allowed to take along with them money and luggage up to 100 kilo in weight, this included clothes, shoes, bedding, cutlery and food enough to last the family one month.
Because of the pending war atmosphere, Lithuanian Jewry accepted the expulsion of their brethren to Siberia with mixed feeling. There were those who claimed that the gvirim (the rich), always land on their feet they have all the luck. The fate awaiting those who remained was bound to be worse. At the same time, many were shocked at the sight of the trucks carrying the frightened exiles. They were, first of all, brought to the railway stations throughout Lithuania, and from there were taken to the main collection center the railway station in Novo Vileika in White Russia near the Lithuanian border. Here they were divided into two groups: the first contained mainly the heads of families, many of whom were part and parcel of the Lithuanian Jewish elite, ones who had held important political or economic positions, while the second group took in their families and other families, which had not been separated for some reason. Both groups were crowded into freight cars but were sent in different directions within the Soviet Union. Conditions were very difficult in the journey. Babies, the elderly and the sick in particular suffered from the overcrowding, lack of essential sanitary conditions, water and fresh air. The wagons were closed tight for most of the time and each wagon had only two small apertures left open for air air circulation. In these difficult conditions of suffering they traveled days and weeks, all in one direction: work camps, village areas, the desolate Siberian places, and far northern districts.
The Lithuanian exiles included mainly the previous political elite and high army and police officers, government officials and state loyalists from every corner of Lithuania, even from the most remote villages. But among the Jews, the exiled were mostly large factory owners and large scale merchants, senior journalists and leading party figures in the various organizations (such as the Federation of War Veterans). Since most of the political activity and wholesale trade was concentrated in the large cities, well over half the exiles were from Kovno, Shavli, Panevzys and Ukmerge (Vilkomir).
Some of the family heads were transported via Starobielsk to work camps in the far north, such as Pechorlag in the Verkuta region in the Komi Autonomous Republic, or to the various camps in the Ural Mountains. Others were transported to Siberia and imprisoned in the Geri camps in the Novosibirsk region etc. The living conditions in the camps, the hard work and diseases caused a high mortality rate. Many were killed by falling timber while working at felling trees in the Siberian forests. Others froze to death while working in the Taiga (the Northern steppes), many died of exhaustion. In addition to all this, one must add the exhausting interrogation to prove their guilt. In 1943 the majority of the exiles were given set sentences: most past political activists were sentenced according to paragraph 58 to 5-10 years; most of the factory owners and merchants were sentenced according to paragraph 35 to 3-5 years. By the mid fifties, the prisoners still alive at the end of their imprisonment, were transferred to specified areas (they were called Spetzpersilenzi, special transferees). Only a small number were permitted to return and join their families, from whom they had been parted at the beginning of the exile.
Lucky family members who were not sent to work camps, were concentrated generally in village areas or in small towns. One of the central concentrations of Lithuanian exiles was in the Altai region in southwestern Siberia. There, as also in other places of banishment (silkah), they were to remain forever, and were expected to report to the local security services on occasion. Some of them found themselves forced into agricultural work. Others, into factories or timber felling in the Taiga (steppe), and a minority-into professional or office work. In many cases, the work place was far removed from the living quarters, as much as 10 kilometers or more, and the road to work had to be covered on foot. The payment was in money, and it what was more important food coupons. In view of the conditions of hunger pertaining at that time, the food coupons were the major stimulant to go out to work. The old and the sick were not obliged to work, and survived with the help of other members of the family and by the sale of personal property. Within a short time, they learned to manage within the new reality, and some even created auxiliary farms, others cleared forest land and grew potatoes there. In the summer of 1942, a year after being brought to the Altai region some were again moved to remote parts of the Verkhoyansk region in the Lena river basin, and its delta up to the Laptiev Sea in the Yakut Autonomous Republic, and also to the capital city Yakutsk and the port city Alkaminsk, as well as to remote fishing villages in the Arctic circle-areas most of which are covered by a permanent thick ice layer and the cold reaches a temperature of fifty below zero. During most of the year the arctic night rules and snowstorms are frequent. The exiles subsisted on fishing: in winter-under the ice mantle and in summer with the aid of fishing nets. In addition, the exiles worked on preparing fishing nets, salting fish and other work connected with these activities. In addition they sewed for themselves Bushlatim (anoraks) and collected driftwood on the banks of the Lena River for heating. Permanent housing was in a Yurt built of a wooden framework covered with earth and moss. The first initiative of the Jewish Lithuanian exiles was to improve the inner structure of the Yurt, thus providing a private corner for each family. They assisted each other and attempted to create a cheerful atmosphere in those difficult times. They tried also to celebrate the Jewish festivals for which they improvised a calendar, using various calculations and even hearsay.
In one of these remote exile places, Bikov Mis, in Yakutia north, where the Lena River meets the Arctic Sea (72 degrees north), some one hundred exiles from Kovno and other places in Lithuania created a miniature Jewish community. They assisted at all times the wives and children of the men imprisoned in work camps and others in need. The Jewish dead received traditional burial with the appropriate rites, in spite of the difficult conditions in the place. There were even volunteers who were able to carve the Hebrew inscriptions on the gravestone. Prayers were said in one of the Yurts almost all the time, young people who previously had not practiced traditional life, now participated in the prayer sessions. Passover was celebrated with all its punctilios with participation by all. As they did not have copies of the Scroll of Esther or a Passover Haggadah these were written out and copied by hand. During festivals, and more so during the Days of Awe (between New Year and the Day of Atonement) many did not work. The children and youths grew up in a warm Jewish atmosphere, speaking Yiddish and singing Hebrew songs and receiving instruction in Jewish history. Adults taught them Hebrew. In order to bring their lives, private and public, as close as possible to the one practiced in Lithuania before the war, they continued to use, in their public and institutional activities, names customarily used back in their original homes, such as Talmud Torah, Minyan, Ma'ot Hitim, Tzdaka Gdola, Winter-Hilf etc. This stubborn clinging to the traditions they had brought from their homes expressed itself also in their recreational activity, in particular in public celebrations of matters connected with Jewish tradition and practices. There was not a single case of intermarriage of the exiles with the local population, and they were not permitted to leave even after the end of the war.
Although the fate of the exiles in the remote Bikov Mis peninsula was exceptional among the Jewish exiles, some of the activities among them were more or less typical of the other Lithuanians in other Siberian places. The majority, especially families which had been separated, made efforts to stay together, or, at least to keep in touch. This was of great importance to the prisoners in the work camps. The letters received from their dear ones raised their spirits and enabled them to withstand the harsh conditions. The food parcels and other products, delivered to them with great difficulty from their families and friends stood them in great stead. By these means and through the Polish Jews who had been freed from the camps in the meantime, Lithuanian Jewry living abroad now learned of the fate of their brethren in the work camps and other places of exile in the USSR and food parcels were now also sent to the camps from abroad. Jewish public bodies throughout the world joined in this activity and thanks to the show of solidarity, many more Lithuanian Jews in Soviet exile remained alive than Lithuanian non-Jews.
On the left: Menakhem Klibanski, Lithuanian Betar activist
Jewish public figures attempted to develop connections with the non-Jewish Lithuanian intellectual exiles, but without much success. The difference of opinion as to the character of the war against Nazi Germany was too deep. The Lithuanians tended to see in the Germans an element which would assist them in freeing them from Soviet hegemony, whereas the Jews supported the war until the defeat of the Germans. The Jews supported wholeheartedly the announcement of a call for contributions to a fund for tanks for the Red Army whereas the Lithuanians stoutly opposed it. Jewish deportees showed a willingness to join the army to fight against the Germans and even approached the authorities in this matter. The authorities, though they refused the request as it came from disloyal elements, nonetheless did not miss the opportunity to use this in the propaganda among world Jewry to build support for the Soviet Union in its war against the Nazis.
Many of the Jewish and Lithuanian prisoners remained in the camps until the completion of their sentences, even after the end of the war. After serving their time, they still suffered various restrictions and as a result their exile continued in far off parts of the Soviet Union for many more years. Few of the freed managed to return to Lithuania after the war. Some were arrested and were exiled again after their return. This time they had to live in their places of exile together with Lithuanian war criminals and others who had murdered Jews during the Nazi occupation. It was only in the mid fifties and towards the end of that decade that a considerable number of exiles were permitted to return to Lithuania. At t.he beginning of the seventies many of them emigrated to Israel.
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