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[Pages 1869-1882]

Annihilation of the Jews of
Aukshtadvaris and of Trakai, Onushkis,
Valkenikai, Rudushikis, Leipunai and Lantvaris

by Jacob Saperstein [Yankev Sapershteyn]

Translated by Tina Lunson

Aukštadvaris, Lithuania

54° 35' / 24° 32'

Yiddish: Visoki Dvor, Trok, Hanushishok (Hanushishk), Volkinik, Rudzishok (Rudzshik), Zanashishok (Zanashishk), Leypun and Landvarove
Lithuanian: Aukštadvaris, Trakai, Onushkis, Valkininkai, Rûdiðkës, [Zanashishok], Lieponys [not to be confused with pre-WWI Lejpuny, in Suwałki gubernia; now Leipalingis] and Lentvaris

At dawn on Sunday the 22nd of June 1941, flocks of steel birds appeared in the sunlit skies of Lithuania and could be seen and heard in Visoki Dvor. Among the Lithuanian opponents of the Soviet regime, a celebration began. They turned on the retreating Red soldiers. The Jews, of course, whatever their political leanings, could only mourn Hitler's arrival.

By Monday the Visoki Dvor Jews had already felt and seen the great misfortune that was prepared for them. People started fleeing the shtetl. But the peasants would not let the Jews enter their homes.

The situation of the Jews became very critical because going back into the shtetl was impossible due to the arrival of the military. Not finding any place of refuge with the Lithuanians and not able to return to the shtetl, the Visoki Dvor Jews gathered in dugouts in the fields around the shtetl. On Sunday German parachutists had already been dropped into the forest around Visoki Dvor and Monday evening German regular army units were already ransacking. Lithuanian intellectuals, officials and town peasants greeted them with flowers, with welcome speeches, and distributed cigarettes and beer to every soldier as well as things left behind in the Soviet warehouses. These military units were only passing through the area.

In the evening a small group of Germans arrived in an armored vehicle and parked in the middle of the shtetl. The hospitality of the happy Lithuanian men and women was probably very unusual for the group of Germans, and they enjoyed themselves for a long time, until suddenly three Soviet tanks arrived from the Red Army. Recognizing the German armored vehicle, they started shooting and set it on fire. After finishing their work they quickly departed. The half-drunk Germans ran out and started shooting, not knowing where the enemy had gone. It was already dark and they were shooting at each other. The flares that they set off to illuminate the area set several shtetl houses on fire, and soon the whole center of town was in flames. The fire brightly illuminated all the streets and lanes and the Germans shot at the fleeing people.

After the shooting spree, four Germans and 14 shtetl residents were found dead. Zelik the lathe turner was found shot in the leg. After a few hours of suffering he died. The majority of the victims of the shooting were Lithuanians who had so anticipated the Germans. This cooled their passion a little to attack the Jews. The non-Jewish residents also suffered from the conflagration because the entire area burned, from Miller's house to Yankelevich's on one side and from Meyshe Farber's up to Broyder's and further– from Sheyne Rushl Sapirshteyn's to Trapinski's and from Degutsis' up to the bathhouse on the other side. The study-house also burned, with all its Torah scrolls and holy books.

The Jews camped out in the fields for a whole week, until the order came that all refugees must promptly return to their old places of residence. Those who had been burned out had to be crowded together in the few Jewish houses that remained. There was an immediate shortage of foodstuffs because the peasants, terrified of the Lithuanian partisans, were afraid to sell anything to the Jews.

It must be recorded that the town priest Trimanis immediately announced that he would establish two centers for the distribution of potatoes for those who had been burned out. This helped a little to alleviate the situation of the local Jews.

In the first days the news reached the town about the persecutions that Lithuanians had carried out in this or that town against Jews, which were blamed ostensibly on communism. The Jews in Visoki Dvor began to shudder in fear of going out in the street. Sad, difficult days began. The members of the Lithuanian organization T.D.A. (Tautos Drausmes Apsauga: Protection of National Discipline), with the help of the police and Lithuanian intelligentsia, arranged gatherings at which they incited people against Jews as communists, parasites and exploiters.

Meanwhile peasants searched and rummaged through the burned ruins. Quite unexpectedly the entire archive of the former Communist Party office was found, hermetically sealed in an oven. Arrests began because of that. On the 4th of July, Friday evening, the director of the professional high school Shimkus, the student-murderer Zhukovski and Panasianis, armed, went to the home of Fayvl the ritual slaughterer. They took both of his older sons out of their beds: Dudke and Gershon, the “nice boy”. Afterwards they tore over to Balzamovich and took his only son, Eliahu. They also arrested Meyshe Kaplan and Eliezer Leyb. They did not even allow the arrestees to get dressed but drove them near the church with another five persons who were suspected of communism. They held them until 4 in the morning, then set them out on the Vilna highway with a heavy guard.

Terror fell over the Jews. They already refrained from going out on the street, not to flaunt themselves to the Lithuanians. That same Shabbes evening the two guards Zhukovski and Panasianis came and bragged that the work was already done. The parents of the arrestees started looking for their children. After lengthy searches they found footsteps leading to Rudzishok. According to later reports, they were horribly tortured there a whole day and beaten and in the evening taken to a nearby forest and shot. Several reports came in from all the nearby shtetls.

It was a kind of transitional time, without an official authority. In relation to Jews, any murderer could do whatever he wanted, knowing that there was no law and no judge.

That situation went on until the 8th of July, when the Lithuanians themselves began to organize a temporary authority and police. Already by the morning of the 8th of July all the shtetl Jews were driven out to sweep the streets and the market square. The Lithuanian hooligans were standing around, staring and gloating at the Jews' fallen state and powerlessness.

By evening announcements were pasted to all the Jewish houses, that from the 9th of July all Jews six years and older must wear patches on their breast and shoulder. The patch must be made of white linen, 10 by 10 centimeters with a yellow circle in which must be sewn a yellow letter “J” (Jude). The Jews were also to be forbidden to go out on the street in the evening. They were also not to leave the shtetl by vehicle or by foot without permission.

During that time the Lithuanian police got uniforms and designated Ignatovicius from Hubishok as police chief. The chief of the partisans was first Stasis and then later the murderer Shimkus, the “big student”.

On the evening of the 17th of July, 60 Germans arrived in town with a lieutenant. In the morning the German soldiers made searches of all the Jewish houses, ostensibly looking for weapons. During the searches they took everything that was left. In the evening the Rov Aron Elianovich was called to the lieutenant, who was already the shtetl commandant. To the Rov's great surprise he was received politely by the lieutenant. True, he spoke to him coldly and commandingly, but without special hatred. The Commandant informed him that the Jews would be separated out from the other citizens and were directly subject to him, therefore he assigned the Rov with responsibility for all of the shtetl Jews. He also ordered the Rov to send four Jews on Shabbes to wash the floors for the soldiers in the folkshul [public school building]. Leaving, the Rov let out his breath, because he had expected to hear much worse. That same day the Commandant told the Rov that on Shabbes at one o'clock all the shtetl Jews should assemble at the police station. That assembly further shocked the Jews. There was no motive or agenda given for the gathering.

Sadly, the Jews quietly prepared for Shabbes. They closed the doors, curtained the windows so that the Shabbes lights would not be seen. Yankev Belkher was in mourning for his murdered father Zelik, and people sometimes made a minyen at the house of Eliezer Baver the smith, where five families were now living since the fire. At first they held the minyen three times a day, but then the police began to spy on them. True, they did not openly disturb them, but feeling that they were being watched, many stopped coming to pray.

At one o'clock the Jews went out to the assembly. The meeting of all the shtetl Jews gave them the impression that they had arrived from other places, since they had not seen each other for days. The police chief Ignatovicius announced to the Jews that he had some decrees to read to them. The Jews should know that in the event that a Jew killed a German soldier or partisan, he would be promptly shot, and his twenty closest relatives would also be shot. Jews were subject to the German Commandant and the Lithuanian police. For resistance they would be summarily shot. The same punishment awaited any Jew who was found with weapons. He demanded the election of a Jewish council of elders. After lengthy discussions it was decided to elect only one elder and as such Abba Abramovich was chosen. It was announced that the Jewish Elder was responsible for the shtetl Jews and the Jews must be subject to his decrees. The police would advise the Elder on all matters and the Jewish population was forbidden to do anything without his knowledge, such as going out of town for food products and so on. Likewise the Rov must work together with the Elder.

In the evening the Commandant demanded that another two Jews be sent for the soldier's kitchen. He also announced that in the morning, Sunday, all Jews without exception must come at exactly eight in the morning to the market square to pull out the grass that was growing between the stones of the cobblestone pavement.

Monday at eight in the morning everyone was again at work. The Commandant arrived and had all the workers arranged into three groups: the women remained pulling up grass at the market square and other places and streets. Of the men, ten were sent to build roads and the other 32 work-capable men were sent to clean up the sand and debris from the destruction. The women were given a small workload.

The road building was under the supervision of a Pole who demanded a lot of work, but at the same time he demonstrated sympathy and would often enter into conversation. He wanted to show that the Poles were fellow-sufferers with the Jews.

The peasants from the other side of the river were called to the police, and told that they would have to move out of their houses by a certain time because a ghetto was going to be organized for the shtetl Jews in seven cottages there. The Jews were seriously shocked at hearing that. It was decided to send a delegation of three people to the German Commandant about this plan. Designated for the delegation were Asher Miller, Ida Broyder and Tuvye Shaltuper. They went uncertainly. The Commandant received them at about twelve o'clock. He approached them very politely and listened to them attentively. Ida and Asher spoke. He answered that until now there had been no decree about confining the Jews in a ghetto. Meanwhile they should be calm.

That is how it appeared until Thursday evening. Suddenly, with tumult and noise, an angry Commandant arrived at the market square with the police chief and the head of the partisans, the Shaulists [Lithuanian squads that collaborated with the Nazis], and demanded that there should immediately be put together a Jewish committee of twelve people, six men and six women, because he had something important to impart to them. The committee was put together on the spot. Among the women was Ida Broyder, who did not speak German badly, and was bold. Receiving the committee, the Commandant told them that the Jews must move out of their houses into the ghetto prepared on the other side of the river. The ghetto consisted of seven peasant cottages, fenced in with barbed wire. Upset, the Jews began to complain and asked if a decree had really come from a higher power about this. The Commandant answered that he had such a decree. To their question, “from whom?” he answered very agitatedly and with anger, “from God”. The Jews understood that the Lithuanians had influenced the Germans to quickly confine the Jews in a ghetto. The cynical answer from the Commandant upset Ida and she said that it was not possible that God would issue such an inhumane order. Ida's answer, her proud bearing and boldness very much angered the Commandant's Lithuanian companions. Tuvye Saltuper and Beyle Yankelevich, as members of the delegation, also expressed disgust at the attitude of the Lithuanians to their Jewish fellow citizens. The Lithuanians exchanged looks with the Commandant. He indeed soon told them to arrest Ida for her impertinence in defying a German officer. He emphasized that no woman had had the audacity, in all his years in battle, to stand up to him and here it was Jewess who had done it. Ida was taken to prison.

A military court made up of the same three – the Commandant, Chief of Police and Chief of the Partisans – sentenced her to death. A half hour later six German soldiers with rifles took Ida from the prison to the yard of the folkshul [public school building]. Along the way Ida spotted Varsatske, the doorman for the town manager. She asked him to tell her sister Gutke that she would not cry, that she was going bravely to her death. The soldiers brought her to the yard and told her to take off her shoes and to cover her eyes. She refused to follow their orders. The six soldiers shot at once and Ida fell in a pool of blood.

The police chief hurried to the men's workplace and searched out Ida Broyde's father. At the same time he took another two Jews and told them to bring two shovels. These were Ptashnik and his son. He brought them to the place where Ida lay and ordered them to bury her right there. Broyde, realizing his terrible misfortune, began to weep terribly and to scream. The police chief advised him to calm himself down, or else he would soon meet his daughter's fate. Broyde begged for permission to at least bury her in a Jewish grave. After a long dispute the chief gave his permission and the old, shattered father and the two other Jews carried Ida's still-warm body through the shtetl streets and her blood ran from her wounds onto the cobblestones and sidewalks of the town.

The Lithuanians watched through their windows. But they were not laughing. They were not rejoicing yet because they saw that the game with Satan was too appalling. By now the bullets had reached Ida, who had been much loved by the Visoki Dvor Lithuanians.

The next morning there was a sudden commotion in the town. The Germans who had been sent in now had to go immediately to the front. The Jews uttered bloody curses as the murderers departed. After the Germans had left, the Lithuanians threw all the blame for all the decrees and Jewish persecutions on the Germans. They promised to lighten the work, reduce the workloads and destroy the plans for the ghetto.

Friday evening, the 1st of August, the police and the partisans arrested many people suspected of communism. The local government had decided that half the total number of arrestees should be Jews. For no cause whatsoever they arrested 13 Jews: Alter Shapiro, Yankev Bliakher, Azriel Teykan, Khaim Eliashevich (“the eternity”), Hirsh Levin (Gudzianer), Yehudis Farber, Beyle Yankelevich, Sheyne Zlatkovich, Elimelekh Zlatkovich, Sheyne Karabelnik, Akhitovich (from Krans), Avrom Kaplan (Yankelevich's nephew), Shimen Farber (Mikhal's son). Wailing broke out. It was said that the people were being sent to Trakai for investigation, but it was understood that returning would be difficult. They did not hold them in Visoki Dvor for long. The Christians and the Jews were promptly sent to Trakai. There they were investigated and on the second day they were sent to Vilna.

It must also be noted that on the 18th of July they took Avrom Vaysman and Zusman Aronovich (the tailor's younger son). They were taken off to Hanushishok and from there to Alyta. There was no further word of them.

A week went by after the arrests and the arrested Christians began to return to the shtetl. They came from the Lukishk prison in Vilna. In the space of a week all the peasants were released. During the third week all five Jewish women suddenly arrived in town. They were quite exhausted from the investigations and from hunger. The eight men did not return. According to a later report, it appeared that they were horribly tortured in the Vilna prison. Afterwards they and some Vilna Jews were taken to Ponar and shot there.

On the 16th of August an order was issued to change the patches. The new patches had to be in the form of a yellow Star of David. The Jews were herded out to clean up several warehouses, carry water, saw wood, clean the streets; wash the windows, doors and floors in the police station, post office, town manager's office; and repair the bridges and roads. The police and partisans threatened to take revenge and pressured this or that Jews for money, boots, clothes and whatever they wanted.

There were peasants who understood how to take advantage of the situation of the Jews. They posed as benefactors. From time to time they secretly brought a little bread, a bottle of milk, a cheese, a bit of butter, eggs, potatoes and other such products. Since these were very difficult to procure, the Jews appreciated the favor and thankfully paid however much was requested. However, foreseeing the end, they realized that the supposed favors were a means to take their possessions.

On the 8th of September our “benefactors” – the inheritors – came and with a smile on their lips told us that a ghetto had been created in Butrimants. All the Jews remaining in Butrimants [Butrimonys], Staklishok [Stakliðkës] and Pun [Punia] had been driven into it. One fine night they had been assembled and then held for three days in the study house, tormented by hunger and thirst. At the same time peasants were brought from the shtetls to dig pits two kilometers from Butrimants. Visoki Dvor Jews wanted to comfort themselves by thinking that it was not true. The enemies of the Jews had told them this especially in order to break the terrified Jews' hearts. Then Friday evening, the 11th of September, wild shooting took place in the streets, which increased the terror.

During those same days, a meeting took place in Trakai between all the shtetl elders and the German governor Wolf. At that meeting the fate of the Jews of the Trakai area was sealed. All the elders signed [approval of] the extermination and annihilation of the local Jews. The town manager Bingelis attended from Visoki Dvor.

After that Friday night the Jews sensed even more powerfully the approaching catastrophe. On Shabbes they were afraid to go out on the street. They sat and waited for the coming night as though it were the last of their lives. Night fell and many began to say the first penitential prayers. Spontaneously, without discussing it together, all the men and women, even children, decided to fast. One must look death right in the eyes. The night passed quietly. The men got up and recited penitential prayers individually, because they were afraid to make a minyen. Fasting was easy for everyone because no one was concerned about a trifle like eating.

In the evening people closed their doors, curtained the windows and sat down to eat, some with bread with pickles, some with onions. At the house of Eliezer Baver the smith (Mikhal Aron's grandson), where five families had been crowded in together, as they broke the fast there was a sudden knock at the door. They all trembled and were afraid to go to see who it was or to open the door. Several seconds went by and a 12 year old boy tore away, went to the door and asked who it was. A soft weak answer came, “Open”. They recognized the voice as that of the priest Trimanis. They all ran to the door with joy, opened it and asked him to come in. Seeing from the doorway the terrified faces of the Jews, he told them, “Be calm! I have good news for you. I'm just coming from the police. They told me that they have just gotten the report that the terrible part of the work is over. The Vilna province remains untouched. You are lucky.”

That is how he spoke. People listened to the priest's news with open mouths and ears. It was something very hard to understand, for why should the Jews of the Vilna province be better than any others? But the Visoki Dvor Jews considered the priest a solid man and a friend of the persecuted Jews. Jews themselves had heard how one time, talking with Catholics, he had asked them to support the Jews. With this news he then appeared like – lehavdil [Jewish expression meaning “to separate” or “to distinguish” used in comparisons such as this one likening a priest to an angel ] – an angel from heaven. The priest next went to the Rov and gave him the news. In the morning when it became known around town, there was joy and celebration.

Monday was a calm and quiet day. Perhaps too quiet. No decrees. Early Tuesday the priest arrived and asked the Jewish elder Abba to send all of the Jews out to clear the fields of stones. Understanding the police, Abba knew what this meant. Old and young went off – everyone, because how could you not go for the Jew-friendly priest? They really did work and gathered together all the stones from a large and stony field. The work took all the daylight hours. Would a good friend exploit the Jews for such work? Except that the friendship [of the priest] with the police was suspicious.

Even more suspicious was that the police kept reassuring everyone that such a thing could not happen. People felt that this was a provocation to fool the Jews, so that they would not run away. The Jews, wanting to know exactly what had happened in Butrimants, sent a special messenger with a letter. On Wednesday he brought an answer from a Jew who had remained alive by chance, that their suspicion was reality – there was a new cemetery in Butrimants. Once again there was tumult. Many left town Wednesday to spend the night with peasants. However, the night passed peacefully and Thursday they all returned to town. A rumor spread that the priest had traveled to Vilna to intercede for the town Jews. Later some felt that he had gone to rescue Jewish children; others said that it was to convert them. But he did not succeed. The authorities demanded complete extermination. Regarding the priest's attitude at that moment, it was difficult to judge. Did he really not know the truth and blindly believe the false reports from the police, or did he know the truth and simply want to comfort the Jews with false talk so that they would not run away?

Thursday night also passed peacefully and Friday morning Jews prepared once again for Shabbes and a bit for a holiday. Someone secretly slaughtered a sheep, someone else slaughtered a chicken. Here and there someone even baked khale, although from black rye flour. People were free of work that day. That also was not a good sign.

People went to the bathhouse and prepared for the Day of Judgment. Before nightfall peasants came to all the Jews, looking around very strangely, quietly discussing and advising them to take everything away. The Jews turned over their possessions to the peasants to keep for them. The peasants grabbed it and fled. One doesn't want to talk to the Jews too much. Jews blessed the lights and prepared to welcome the Shabbes. Suddenly came the terrible news – girls and boys were passing it from house to house – that soon on one of these nights the seizure would take place. Perhaps this Friday evening, or late Monday night, the second night of rosh-hashone.

It is hard to depict the mood of the Jews with words. People started running away. Generally this was associated with risk, because it was forbidden for Jews to leave town after six in the evening. One must slink out unnoticed. More than half the Jews took this way of sneaking out. In the end the police did notice but officially they did not interfere and no one was arrested.

That night also passed peacefully and most of the Jews returned to town in order to prepare for the holiday. The day of Shabbes went by quietly too. Saturday evening passed quietly and those who had not spent the night in town came back on Sunday morning. People went to the bathhouse, cooked, and baked. Shooting broke out at eight in the morning. The town was surrounded by 80 policemen, foresters, and peasant volunteers from the partisans and the town. They were all armed with rifles, revolvers, rubber truncheons. They attacked all the Jews passing through. They arrested them and took them to the Lithuanian folkshul. After that they attacked the Jewish houses, taking out all the men. Soon they also took all the women and children. The Jews were permitted to carry only a small package. Many tried to run away. They were pursued and most of them caught, while others succeeded in getting unnoticed to a non-Jewish townsperson, but the peasants were also afraid and drove them away with hatred, or turned them over to the police. Several of the Jews succeeded in fleeing into the forest. They wandered around for several hours and having no place to hide, having no food, knowing that their dearest ones had already fallen into the hands of the murderers, decided to return.

It is worth recording that many Jews, mainly the elderly and women, hearing that the seizure had begun, remained sitting at home, waiting for them to come and take them. When the women arrestees were being taken away, Zelda Miller screamed, “No! You will not exterminate us! There will still be Jews in Erets Yisroel, in America, they will take revenge for us.”

The wails, weeping and screaming from the captured Jews could reach to the heavens. They were all confined in the folkshul and watched by a strong guard. They spent the whole day and night there, the first night of rosh-hashone 5702.

At six in the morning all of them were put on thirty farm wagons and taken to Trakai. They were told that they were being taken to the ghetto in Trakai. After being brought to Trakai, they were confined in the old barracks on a half-island.

On the second day were brought many of those who had fled, who had not found any safe refuge with the “benefactors” who had earlier taken their possessions. Altogether there were about 200 Visoki Dvor Jews in Trakai. It must be recorded that during the day that those unfortunates were under arrest in the folkshul, the priest and God-fearing peasants sent in food – bread, milk and potatoes.

For ten days the 2,500 Jews of Visoki Dvor, Hanushishk, Trok, Volkinik, Rudzshik, Zanashishk, Leypun and Landvorove were held in Trakai. For the first days they were allowed to dig in the nearby gardens for potatoes; later that was forbidden too, and from Friday until Tuesday, the eve of yom-kiper, they were given nothing to eat and were not allowed to procure any food products. It was related that during that time many died from hunger. Of the Visoki Dvor Jews, five souls died.

Tuesday, erev yom-kipper, three drunken Lithuanians arrived and took away all the men. They were taken to the pits that had been dug. After that they took the second group – the women, and finally the third group – the children. It is not possible to write about their final journey. They stood everyone by the pits and read out the murderous, barbaric decree from Hitler, may his name be blotted out. All the Jews were sentenced to be exterminated by shooting.

A few of the unfortunates were permitted a last word. Asher Miller spoke. In brief words he described the horrible persecution the innocent Jews had been subjected to. He shouted out: “We are innocent and for our innocent blood you murderers will pay dearly. You have yet to find out who will take revenge for us.” He requested that he be shot first.

The drunken murderers attacked, hitting and shooting. The shooting further excited the murderousness in them and they threw all the dead and wounded into the pits. They tore children in half or hit them in the head with hammers. They covered over the pits and for hours afterwards could be heard the moaning of those buried alive. The cries and wails of those tortured during the day of erev yom-kipper in the town of Trakai echoed for kilometers.

It should be recorded in history that in the town where 530 years earlier Jews had received an invitation to come to Lithuania to help develop the country, in that very town the Jews were tormented in such a horrible way.

The Germans dug up the bones from all the mass graves of Jews at the end of 1943, so that there would not be evidence of their hideous crimes. Behold the horrible destruction of the holy community of Visoki Dvor.

Fourteen shtetl Jews, hiding, wandered among the forests, dugouts and barns. They were brought back to the shtetl on the 14th of December 1941 and shot in the new cemetery. Among them were Rivke Katis and her husband Mayer Grobman. Two older women – Sheyne Sapershteyn and Rivke Levin – were frozen in the snow in the Gudziantse fields and were brought back by the peasants for burial in the cemetery. On the 4th of February the captives Abba Abramovich and his son Arye Leyb, Eliahu and Meyshe Farber and his wife Ettl were shot.

As we know, surviving witnesses to the great tragedy are the following Jews: Mikhal Farber and his daughter Yehudis, Khaye Baver (daughter of Mikhal Aron the smith) and Yankev Sapershteyn. In addition, the entire Kareyvishke family survived.

Visoki Dvor Jews, who are spread all over the world, of course remember their relatives and neighbors – the Visoki Dvor martyrs. May their memory be sanctified!

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