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“Hashomer Hatzair” youth group members in Kovno
with their counselor Haika Grossman (1940)

The author is second from the right, middle row

 

When she came to us in Kovno as a war-refugee from the area of Poland taken over by the Soviet Union, she told us that in light of her experience there, that here, too, in Lithuania all Zionist activity would be banned if and when the Soviets would enter. And so, the same thing happened to us. Some of us continued our Zionist activity underground, but most unfortunately studying in Hebrew was forbidden and so we found ourselves in the Sholom Aleichem (spelled in the communist fashion, a phonetic mish mash that bent over backwards to avoid the correct Hebrew spelling). There classes took place in Yiddish, which was an acceptable language according to the Soviet communist regime and was exploited as a propaganda tool among the Jews. The Hebrew language was identified by the new government with Zionism, which was considered anathema to the communist ideology. I knew all of this too well, but it was still difficult for me to reconcile myself to the fact that I would be continuing my studies in a different language in the very same building that for many years housed the legendary Shwabbes Hebrew Gymnasium and where I so enjoyed studying in the Hebrew language which was so dear to me. It is no surprise that at night I would sneak into the storeroom where the Hebrew books were demoted and choose for myself some of the best works of the giants of literature and smuggle them home. In time, I found out that a fair number of the longtime students of the Gymnasium did the same thing and at least one of them was arrested after being betrayed to the authorities by members of the Komsomol [the communist youth organization]. Therefore, we were extremely wary of them!

Three generations of the extended Levin family at a festive gathering
in honor of Uncle Benjamin (Hone) Lewin from New York (mid 1930's).

The author and his sister are sitting on both ends of the bottom row

 

This, and even more so - During the year of Soviet rule (June 1940 to June 1941) my family and I, along with many other Jews had additional crises: my parents, like the rest of our neighbors were required from then on to work on the Sabbath as well as on Jewish holidays and so we could no longer continue to properly maintain the tradition of the festive family Sabbath meal accompanied with song. The well known store for tailoring needs and talitot of my grandfather, Reb (Rabbi) Dovid Levin, along with the stores of most of my uncles and relatives were confiscated by the government, and their owners were became unemployed and without the possibility of earning a living. Some of them and many of the Zionist activists were declared 'capitalist exploiters' or simply 'enemies of the Soviet government.' Several, like my teacher Kantorovitz, were even sent into Siberian exile. A similar fate faced me if the Zionist activities that were banned according to the law and that I continued secretly were discovered.

In spite of all of this, among my family and most of the Jews there was the feeling that this situation was better than if God forbid Lithuania would be conquered by the German Nazi army as was anticipated. Thus, the Soviets were the lesser of two evils. On the other hand, the looks of hatred and the threats by our Lithuanian neighbors did not let up since for some reason they blamed us Jews for the Sovietization of their country.

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Like other members of our people, I was occasionally assaulted by nightmares concerning the possibility that the Soviets would withdraw from Lithuania. To our misfortune, catastrophe overtook us only a year and a week after Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union.


II. My First Reaction to the Nazi German Conquest

When I came on Sunday morning (22.6.1941) to my high school to receive my graduation certificate, we were surprised by German air force bombing. This was the beginning of the War, known by the code name Operation Barbarossa, between Germany and the Soviet Union. Two days later, when it was clear that the Soviet army was about to retreat in light of the continuing might by the German side, the telephone in our apartment rang. It was my classmate Avraham (Abrasha) Yashpan, who suggested that we flee together deep into Russia in light of the retreating Soviet army. My answer was, “I am staying with my parents and sister!” He said, “You want them to slaughter us?” I then heard the voice of his mother in the background inveigh against him, “Your friend is a more faithful son than you …” I later found out that Abrasha succeeded in escaping and like many of those who fled he joined the Soviet army. He was wounded a few times in battles against the Germans.

My friend, Abrasha Yashpan,
in the Betar Movement uniform

 

Just a few hours after this conversation when the German army was about to enter the city, the telephone in our apartment in the center of the city at Vilna Street 14 was disconnected. This was true of most of the Jewish homes in Kovno. This was the first anti-Jewish act of the Lithuanian nationalists who meanwhile had taken over the city. In one of the announcements that I heard over the radio by their commander, Colonel Jurgis Bobelis, for every German killed, 100 Jews would be put to death.

Before we even had time to think about these blood-curdling threats, armed Lithuanians broke into our apartment accusing us of having fired from our windows at the columns of the German army. While at our house, the marauders satisfied themselves with stealing items of value, which evidently saved our lives; in the neighboring apartments, they murdered the men and raped the women and girls. In the Slabodke neighborhood, across the Viliya River local Lithuanians carried out a frightful slaughter of their Jewish neighbors, including rabbis. It is no wonder that in contrast to the Lithuanian masses that packed the streets greeting the German army with flowers, we and our other Jewish neighbors pulled the shutters closed, drew the curtains and locked ourselves in our houses. Apparently, my curiosity won out over my fear and I could not resist from looking outside from a corner of the closed shutter. It became clear to me that the German soldiers entered the city using the same route that the Soviet tanks traversed the year before. Unlike the Soviet army, whose dress was poor and who looked neglected, the outward look of the brightly polished German army was impressive exuding confidence and good health. At that moment, I felt

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that no army could stand up to an army like theirs and that they were capable of conquering the entire world. Even more so – in light of the acts of plunder, murder and rape carried out that very day by the armed Lithuanian gangs(who called themselves 'partisans'), I found some consolation in the large signs that appeared with the arrival of the Germans, “Wer Pluendert Wird Erschossen – Whoever steals, will be shot to death.” However, very quickly it became clear that this warning did hot apply to the Jews and the Lithuanians continued with their murders, looting and raping in the Jewish neighborhoods and especially in Slabodke. One of the Lithuanian gangs also broke into our apartment claiming that shots were fired at the German army from our house. At a certain point, one of them aimed his loaded weapon at me and there was a very good probability that he was about to shoot. In a loud voice, my mother calmed me down telling me that they would not do anything bad to me. She did this in order to win over the marauders. From that same reasoning, she and my sister repeated the sentence, “After all, they are not criminals …”

My mother's family from the village
of Vekshne (Veksniai), Lithuania

Bottom row, seated left: my maternal grandmother,
Paya Wigoder; my Aunt Haya Berzhanski

 

Since these gangs especially targeted young men, my parents sent me to my grandfather, Reb Dovid Levin who lived on a quiet side street. But one day, these bands of intruders arrived at his house. One of them, an armed Lithuanian, bragged about the number of Jews he had murdered and as proof, he showed us their passports that were covered with blood. He tried to drag my 78-year old grandfather as though he was taking him for work. The old man adamantly refused. I acted somewhat as a translator between them. But, he was actually saved by a German soldier whose unit was stationed in the courtyard. I am convinced that had it not been for the reaction of the soldier who became angry, it would seem, by the Lithuanian's breach of law and order, my grandfather would have been shot on the spot or taken by that same Lithuanian to the 7th Fort (one of the nine fortresses surrounding Kovno) that during those days was transformed into a place of detention, torture and execution for thousands of Kovno's Jewish men and women.

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