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[Page 369]

To Hell and Back


[Page 376]

The Beginning of the Destruction

by Reizl David (Rashkes) of the United States

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photo page 376: Uncaptioned. Reizl David (Rashkes)

As an eyewitness, I will attempt to describe here the beginning of the destruction of Jonava on June 23-24, 1941.

Jonava was one of the army camps of Lithuania. The camp named Poligon was located five kilometers south of the town. When the Russians conquered Lithuania in 1940, they fortified this camp further with tanks and cannons. The Poligon Camp overlooked two large bridges over the Vylia. In Poligon, the Russians demonstrated their greatest opposition to the Germans. I say “Russians” for the Lithuanians immediately turned into collaborators with the Germans.

The opposition lasted for one day and one night.

On Sunday, June 22, toward morning, the roaring of airplanes at a high altitude was heard in Kovno. The airplanes innocently looked like tiny birds, flying calmly at the beginning of a lovely summer morning.

However, suddenly, those innocent birds began to drop bombs on Kovno (at that time, I was living in Kovno). People ran outside to see what was going on, but it became known immediately that these were German airplanes. The war had also reached Lithuania.

We Escaped from Kovno

My brother who lived in Kovno, Ben-Zion Rashkes of blessed memory, immediately arrived with packed suitcases. People ran back and forth without knowing where to flee, what to do, how to save themselves the confusion was great. We also ran, but we knew to where we were escaping: home to Jonava, in order to be together with Father, Mother and our sister; to be together with our closest, most beloved relatives, whatever may happen.

Hundreds of Jews escaped. Gentiles, of course, did not escape. We fled via the mountain road. The roads were overloaded. Nobody knew how far they would succeed in reaching during their escape. Everyone ran with great fear in their eyes and with large packages on their shoulders and in their hands. However, they were unable to drag all those bundles for a long period; and the roads were filled with abandoned suitcases, with their contents scattered. Gentile farmers stood in the fields at the side of the road and waited for these treasures, as if they fell from the sky, and grabbed them immediately. However, nobody cared about this, because we only thought that if we were to survive, we would also have belongings.

My brother saw a wagon driven by the Manoshovitzes and loaded up all our bags onto it. He also sat on the wagon, and we never saw him again.

The Russian Army was also in a state of confusion. Soldiers went by foot or traveled on tanks or vehicles without knowing where they were going. We saw them driving in opposite directions, with frightened eyes. They did not know how to answer the questions we asked them. The generals fled first and left the soldiers to their own devices.

We traveled for a full day. In the evening, we reached to a point next to the wooden bridge over the Vylia near Jonava. The bridge was already broken and bombed out, for the Germans had bombed there too. My dear father and sister Rachel were already standing there waiting for us on the banks of the river. Gentile farmers would transport people across the river in boats (of course in exchange for payment). Gentile women joined them in the boats in order to collect the belongings that the Jews had abandoned due to being unable to carry them further. On the other side of the Vylia, that is in Jonava, my dear, beloved mother was standing there waiting for us. This image is etched in my heart forever. She was happy through the tears of her eyes. Simultaneously, a great fear was expressed through her beautiful cherry-like eyes: What would be the end of her endangered chicks?

[Page 377]

Jews ran to and fro: “Tell me, Jews, to where are you escaping? Perhaps we will escape along with you!” The response was: “We also do not know. We were in the train station but the train did not arrive. Thousands of refugees were sitting there waiting for the train, including Jews from Poland who came to Lithuania in order to save themselves from the German, may his name and memory be blotted out. Then we ran to Wilkomir Road. The Germans bombed the roads. Many people were killed.”

In the Snares

We remained in Jonava. After one night, the cannons began to shoot over our heads. From one side, the Germans were behind Keidiani Street, and from the other side, the Russians from Poligon. We remained in the middle, as if in a trap.

Then, the Lithuanians began to act in a wanton fashion. They gathered in the bell tower of the church and shot with machine guns at the Jews who were running to seek refuge from the cannons. The young fascist Lithuanians also shot from the progymnasium at their Jewish fellow townsfolk, with whom they had lived in harmony until this time. The good neighbors turned into great, deadly enemies within a moment.

We fled from our house the Street of the Road to the parents of my sister's husband, The Goldmans (who owned a furniture factory). They lived on the Street of the Synagogue. Why did we specifically go to them? Perhaps because their house was close to the synagogue courtyard who knows? We hid in a pit that was quickly dug by the men in the yard of their house. My father and mother did not want to leave their house under any circumstance, for the house was filled with all types of food provisions that they had stockpiled throughout the year, since the time of the Russian regime (for the Russians would send the foodstuffs to Russia). The household economy had been firmly established for many years already, and leaving the house would leave everything ownerless something that the gentiles were awaiting.

In the morning, as we were lying in the pit, we heard a knock on the opening to the pit. We opened the wooden door, and saw Father standing pale. It was difficult to recognize him. With a trembling voice he asked that we give him a jar of honey. When we peered out from the pit, we saw a German in green fatigues. We had taken from the house jars of honey and jam, and other foodstuffs that we would be able to live on as Mother said when she gave them to us. She promised to bring the rest the next morning, when she and Father would come to us. They said that during the day, they would not be suspected of leaving the house. These unfortunate people were na?ve: they had faith in human beings they might come to pillage at night, but during the day, they thought, the gentiles would be embarrassed…

We gave Father a jar of honey and asked him if the house is still whole, and why do Mother and he not join us. Father answered quickly, with a trembling voice, “Mother is making coffee for the Germans,” and he quickly disappeared with the German.

Jonava in Flames

In the meantime, the bombardments increased. A shell damaged the synagogue. It seemed to us that it fell next to our pit. We peered out with our heads and saw that a large portion of the synagogue was missing. We could not continue to remain in the pit, for Jonava was already in flames by the afternoon. We already felt the heat of the fire in our pit, and the smoke penetrated inside. When we exited the pit it seemed that the Street of the Road, upon which our house stood, Kovno Street, Breizer Street, and Vilna Street were all burning. We ran to the Vylia River. At that time, the Lithuanians were shooting at us from their hiding places with machine guns. We miraculously reached the shrubs behind the bathhouse. Some gentiles also fled there with us, for the cannons did not discriminate, and they too were in danger. The gentiles were very friendly to us during those moments, but as soon as the bombardment stopped, they no longer knew us. It was already impossible to run back; therefore we dug as deeply as possible into the ground so that the bullets and shells that were literally flying over our heads would not hurt us. During the bombardment, Monas Klibensky the carpenter got up suddenly and said that he thinks that he did not lock his back door, and he started to go. His son-in-law Avraka Unterschatz dragged him back to the ground with his foot. His daughter Feiga

{Unnumbered page after 377. Photo: Jonava in flames. (The houses of Granovich and Zopovich in the foreground.)}

[Page 378]

began to weep and pleaded, “Father, where are you going? Everything is burning.” However Monas apparently foresaw the Holocaust and his nerves weakened. He again got up and said that he thinks that he forgot to close the windows. He felt it necessary to go to find out. Avraka once again dragged him to the ground, covered him with his body, and did not let him get up.

I saw the wife of Avraham the shochet lying there with my friend Feigcha, Berele the youngest of the children, and Hirshka. I did not see the daughters Rachel and Rivka, nor Avraham the shochet.

I lay down and wept, for nobody saw Father and Mother anywhere. Anyone we asked was not able to say anything, and I suspected that they all knew something but did not want to tell us. Father and Mother had remained with the Germans. Only G-d knows what they endured on that dark night. What did the Germans do to them? How can I live without Mother and without Father, heaven forbid? How is it possible?

The sight of Jonava that night was terrifying: a frightening sky, very red, and all of Jonava engulfed in flames like hell.

The shells flew over our head with greater strength. We were already able to tell if a shell was falling closer to or farther from where we were. Every time that a cannon was shot and its scream was heard above us, a gentile would be able to determine where the bullet was. (The bullets fell far away, whereas the shells rained upon us.) He would say, “A shell has fallen at a distance of ten feet, now a shell has fallen at a distance of five feet.” He was right, apparently, for we did no hear him speak anymore. The cannons quieted somewhat, and at sunrise they were almost completely silent. Then, when we began to arise and get up, we saw dead bodies lying near us. We did not realize that we had been lying beside dead bodies all night.

We looked up to see whether Jonava was still burning, and we saw thick smoke bursting forth to the sky. We ran back to the house of the parents of the husband of my sister Rachel. The house was still whole, almost the only one in the entire alley. The Jewish hospital opposite the Goldman's house was burnt. The ill people were lying burnt in the iron beds.

Running About

We did not yet know what had happened to our parents. It was dangerous for women to leave the house. I sat and prayed to G-d, and the door at the side of the house opened. They entered quickly, short of breath, sweaty and panting first Father and then Mother. The joy was great. We hugged, kissed, and all wept from joy. Once again, we were all united with an eternal connection. Mother was wearing only a dress, and Father a cloak and pants. They could not salvage any more of their property. Father told us what had happened to them. When they were left alone in the large house, they were unable to sleep at night. Father went out to the yard and dug a deep pit as a refuge from the shells. Father said that the shells were flying very low between the houses. Not a living soul was seen on our street (the Street of the Road). The appearance was terrifying, like a city of ghosts. Only shadows were seen here and there sneaking into the abandoned houses and pillaging, even in the midst of the bombardment. Therefore, Father and Mother were very afraid to remain in the house, lest the pillaging gentiles kill them. They then decided to escape to us, to the Goldmans. However, before they had time to pack various valuables, they heard knocking on the door. It was still dark. Father approached the door with trembling steps and asked who was knocking. They answered in German, “Open the door, Jew!” With great fear, father opened the door. A group of 30 German soldiers broke into the house. Apparently, these were the first soldiers -- scouts. The commander ordered Father to go through all the rooms with them, then to the cellar and the storehouses in the courtyard, and even the pit that Father had dug in the yard all this in order to check that no Russians were hiding there. Then the commander ordered to bring water. Father brought them pails of water from the well that was in the cellar. They all washed up. As per their order, Mother brought them towels and underwear so that they can change. Then they ordered Mother to make them coffee and give them something to eat. The Germans drank from the cups from the fine dishware set that belonged to my sister. Then they put the dishes into their backpacks along with many other valuables, such as the silver candlesticks, the silver cups, silver boxes, and other such items. Then one of the Germans asked Father

[Page 379]

if he had any honey, for he loved honey. Since Father was naîve and innocent, he told the German that his daughter had taken the honey with her. That is why they came to us to get the honey. All of this took place under the rain of shells, as Jonava was already burning and almost the entire Street of the Road was in flames. The Germans did not permit my parents to escape from the fire and bullets until our house was bombed and began to burn. In the meantime, they saw other Jews, who before had apparently been hiding in the cellars. They also ran. Among them were Gitel Klotz and Zusman Klotz, our maternal cousins. Suddenly shots were fired from some place behind the fleeing Germans. The Germans captured Father, Zusman Klotz and other men whose names I do not know, and stood them against a burning wall in order to shoot them, out of suspicion that they had been shooting at the Germans. They would have been killed within another second, but suddenly two Lithuanians with guns in their hands burst forth from behind the burning wall. They were searching for a refuge from the fire. The Germans caught them and shot them, and freed the Jewish men. The Jewish men continued to escape toward us, but they could not run through the Street of the Synagogue because everything around was burning. Burning houses became shaky, and the streets were filled with ruins and fire. All of Jonava was one large ruin. They ran to a place where it was still somewhat possible to save oneself from the hell, and they came to the brick kiln. They lay down all night. In the morning, when the shelling ended, they ran to us.

Dangers Lurk

Father stood on his feet and said, “We do not have time now to speak a great deal. Let us go out to see what the situation is.” He told my sister Rachel and I to not dare to go outside. We accompanied him to the rabbi of the town, Rabbi Ginzburg, who was apparently leaving some hiding place. We surrounded him with questions, “Rabbi, what will be?” His fine face was pale, and his appearance had changed greatly. He spoke in choppy words, with tears choking his throat: “We have to be careful with security. G-d will help. Jews, we must be strong.” He himself was wailing like a baby. Everyone was weeping. We returned home in order to hide from the dangers that began to stalk us.

After a few hours, Father returned with a darkened face. He told us, “An entire group of Jews was burned in Liber Farber's basement.” Father was the first one to open the iron door of the cellar burnt skeletons were resting on the door. The first skeleton was the largest, and they realized that it was of Meir Wunder. The door of the cellar locked itself on them, and they were unable to exit and save themselves from the fire.

“Our house,” Father said, “and the streets in general are unrecognizable, for the destruction was great and went to the foundations. Here and there, smoke was coming out of the ruins.” Father recognized the lot in which our house had stood from the pit that he had dug. Father noted, “A smart cat hides in a pit, but I locked our cat in the house. Perhaps it too was hiding in the pit…”

In the meantime, the Jews began to search for food, for a morsel of bread. Hunger pervaded the city. One Jewish bakery that by chance remained intact at the end of Kovno Street was taken over by gentiles who chased out the former owners and baked bread for he gentiles. Jews stood and stuck out their hands for a morsel of bread, and the gentiles chased them away, saying, “Go ask the Communists. They will give you bread.” My sister risked her life and left the hiding place. A gentile acquaintance gave her a piece of bread and told her, “Hide and do not go outside. They are plotting to rape the young women of Jonava.” The Jews of Jonava began to feel that danger was waiting for them not only from the Germans, but also from their Lithuanian neighbors.

There used to be a pharmacy in our house in which a gentile woman had worked as a cashier. We were good friends. Father came running to me with fear in his eyes and told me that this woman was looking for me, and of course, she was not planning to do anything good to me. She had become an important leader and immediately began to threaten the Jews of Jonava. With his clear sense, Father suspected that a great danger was awaiting me, his youngest daughter: The gentiles were wandering around looking for Jewish girls to rape. When I later was in the Kovno Ghetto, a group of Jonava woman arrived.

[Page 380]

One of them was Chanka Rabinovich who told me that the shkotzim forcefully put young Jewish girls into a barn and tortured hem to death.

Return to Kovno

Father immediately decided that I was to return to Kovno. “There, the gentiles do not know you,” he said with a trembling voice. He was about to part from his beloved daughter for who knows how long, perhaps forever. Mother was overtaken by convulsions, and Father began to plead with Mother to calm down. “This is the only way,” he claimed. As has been said, we, that is my husband and I (I got married only a few months before to Wolf David from Kretingen near Memel), parted also from my sister Rachel, from my brother-in-law Yitzchak Goldman, and from the entire Goldman family, none of whom survived. The Goldmans had five sons and a daughter Batya. The sons were Yitzchak the eldest, Mordechai, Zerach, and two twins whose names I do not recall.

Father said that we must escape back to Kovno via the old path, for he realized that a large army would be passing through the main road, and that we would be safer on the old road that begins on the descent of Kovno Road, for it is an inferior road. That is indeed the way it was, as my wise father had known. Many refugees returned to Kovno. The refugees were from all over Lithuania and also from Poland, who had come to Lithuania a year earlier when the Germans entered Poland. They wanted to reach some safe place, perhaps to Russia, but they had remained in Jonava. We, a full camp, went back to Jonava. All of the family and many other Jonavers accompanied us to the brick kiln. Father pleaded to everyone to refrain from making this public farewell procession, for this might end badly, heaven forbid. Nevertheless, everyone wanted to give us a farewell blessing. Taibl, Rachka Jalinowitz' mother, hugged me, kissed me, and wished me good fortune. I asked her, “Where is Rachka?” and she answered: “Hiding.”

This was the last time that I saw my family and that I set foot on the ground of Jonava, my dear birthplace with its dear, heartwarming Jews, may their memory be a blessing, may G-d avenge their blood.

[Page 382]

The Last Day

by Yerachmiel Garber of Neve Sharet

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photo page 382: Uncaptioned. Yerachmiel Garber}

In the morning of Monday, June 23, I went as usual to my workplace in the Oren match factory. The war had begun, but the work had to take place no matter what. In any case where was Jonava and where was the front? We were given spades and told to dig protective ditches. Some of the diggers were immersed in thoughts, some tried to joke that there was no need for ditches. The jokers trusted that the Soviets would not let Hitler reach Jonava.

Suddenly, the noise of autos reached our ears. We put down the spades and ran to the road to snatch a glance. We saw the Red Army trucks covered in green branches, such as Sukkot covered with Sechach[1]. The faces of the soldiers were black with dust. We only saw white teeth and glittering eyes. We suddenly heard the sound of thunder, but the skies were clear without any clouds at all. It seems that this was the echo of an artillery battle. Everyone's face became serious. People were immersed in thought.

I did not return to the spade. I hastened to town to see what was going on. It was the same town, but unrecognizable. We felt hasty movement. Everyone's face was serious and perplexed, as if they were seeking a refuge from a crazy situation. Hundreds of people were running on the ascent of the road. Others turned toward the wooden fence. Refugees from Kovno turned in that direction. I turned toward the bridge with large steps. It seemed as if Jews were gathering here for Tashlich[2], however we heard no prayers, but rather conversations between Jonavers and Kovnoites who were astounded at the situation. I could not understand, what was with them? Did they take leave of their senses to run by foot from Kovno?

Among those who were coming, I met a lad who was an acquaintance, Shliten. I had studied together with him in ORT[3]. We turned aside, and I asked,

“Oh, what is taking place here?”

“Don't ask questions,” he responded, “lift up your feet and get out of here as fast as you can. The Germans are already in Kovno.”

I was still rolling my eyes, but the seriousness of the situation penetrated my consciousness. I returned home. I met friends along the way, and we decided to leave Jonava for a brief time and to go to Wilkomir, with the belief that the Germans would quickly receive a deathly blow from the Soviet Army…

I ran to my friend Hershe-Yankel Stein. I heard shrieks and screams next to the house, as if during a funeral. Taibl Katzav was taking leave of her son, who was about to leave on his bicycle. This was strange in my eyes: is this how one weeps for a living person? He told me that he and his friends were setting out on their bicycle, and that they would wait for me. I ran home quickly. I met Uncle David, who had moved in with us with his family until the storm would pass. I told my parents about my plan, and they accepted it with understanding. They gave me several rubles, and I went out of the house without even taking leave. We did not grasp the seriousness of the situation, that we would never see each other again.

As we passed by the post office, we ran into young Lithuanians who were looking at us with a bitter smile and gnashing their teeth. We were on the ascent to the mountain. The entire way was strewn with people and wagons. The wagon drivers loaded their belongings and families, and fled for their lives. We passed under the railway crossing. Suddenly, airplanes appeared low above our heads. They shot at us and dropped bombs. We were lying in the ditches at the side of the road. We were not injured. We continued to move. Bad thoughts went through the head. It seemed that we were separating ourselves from Jonava. The journey was not easy, even though we were young and healthy. The repeated running back and forth to search for a hiding place in the ditches drained our strength. The enemy did not stop sending his airplanes at us, shooting at the refugees. Along the way, we lost some people and met up with others until we reached Wilkomir.

It was night. It was dark. The Germans shot shiny bullets that looked like stars from the airplanes. In Wilkomir, I met Mosheke Goldschmid of Jonava immersed in worries: There was a puncture in his tire. I helped him with the repair, and we prepared for the journey. It was only possible to move at night. The question was, in what direction. Some advised to go to Vilna, the capital of Lithuania. It would not be easily captured by the Germans. There, they would break their teeth. Others felt that we should go toward Zarasai (Ezrani) at the Latvian border. I supported this, and the group agreed.

We travelled all night. At dawn, the airplanes appeared again, and everything repeated from the day before. At times, we ran to the ditches. The breaks between the air attacks continued to shorten. We turned away from the road, went up to the side road, and lay in the grass to rest. An army truck stopped next to us. We wanted to have a conversation with them, but they did not know Russian. One person succeeded in asking what was happening in Jonava. The response was: In Jonava the Germans.

This oppressed us, and we did not ask further.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. A Sukka (plural Sukkot) is the tabernacle of the holiday of Sukkot, and Sechach is the foliage covering of the Sukka. Return
  2. A ceremony that takes place near a river or body of water on Rosh Hashanah. Return
  3. Organization of Rehabilitation through Training, that ran (and continues to run) various trade schools within some Jewish communities. Return

[Page 402]

My Activities in the Kovno Ghetto

by Tzvi Levin of Frunze, Russia

Translated by Jerrold Landau

During the years of the German occupation, 1941-1944
(A brief account.)

{Photo page 402: Hirsch Levin, one of the important organizers of the Jewish resistance movement of the Kovno Ghetto.}[1].}

In December, 1941, with my initiative, I organized a clandestine meeting in the ghetto with the representative of the Communist underground (Galperin). At this meeting, the foundations for the united underground of the Kovno Ghetto were laid. Its members were Zionists and Communists.

Between 1942 and 1944, I was a member of the leadership of the underground organization. I carried out the following actions:

  1. Through my initiative, at the beginning of 1942, a radio receiver that operated only through earphones was set up in the cellar of the ghetto pharmacy. News from the fronts was received through this radio throughout the duration of the ghetto period. The transmissions were recorded, transcribed, and distributed among the members of the underground and the ghetto population.
    My father Chaim of blessed memory played an active role in the distribution of the news. He was burned in a bunker at the time of the liquidation of the ghetto.
  2. I played an active role in the drafting of the Zionist youth, with the aim of transferring them to partisan camps in the forests.
  3. I conducted a campaign to raise funds and obtain valuables inside the ghetto and outside of it, with the goal of purchasing weapons.
  4. I played an active role in obtaining weapons from outside the ghetto, and I often personally smuggled weapons into the ghetto.
  5. Through my initiative, Segalson, the director of the large workshops in the ghetto, organized a group of trustworthy individuals to transfer army coats, boots, underwear and other items of army clothing to the Jewish partisans. These items were stolen from the workshops where they were being prepared for the Wehrmacht.
  6. I was the communications man between the leadership of the underground organization and the directors of the ghetto, who secretly helped the partisan movement in the ghetto a great deal.
  7. I remained in constant contact with the “Matzok” (Merkaz Tzioni Vilijampolė, Kaunas - Zionist Center of Vilijampolė, Kaunas), and helped transfer young people of that organization to the partisan camps.
  8. I provided revolvers to some members of the group of Jewish partisans who escaped from Fort Nine on December 25, 1943, and hid in the ghetto. Similarly, I hid in the ground a metal chest filled with gold teeth that had been extracted from murdered Jews, and that the partisans had taken with them during their escape. After the liberation of Kovno, the chest with the gold teeth was given over to Kotargna the dentist, who was then at the helm of the committee for assisting the surviving Jews.
[Page 403]
  1. Through the means of the directors, I placed trustworthy Jews of our people in important tasks in the guarding of the ghetto. These people would carry out the directives of the united underground movement and Matzok, and thwarted the commands of the Germans.
    One of these people was Yudel Zopovich from Jonava, who along with the Zionists Moshe Levin and Ika Grinberg of the ghetto guards helped the Jewish partisans leave the ghetto and smuggle weapons outside. Yudel Zopovich was tortured and shot to death at Fort Nine along with a group of Jewish guards, by Keitel, the infamous murderer of Jews. Witnesses related that Yudel Zopovich took a brave stand until his bitter end, and encouraged those who shared his fate.
  2. At the end of March, 1944, after provocateurs informed the Gestapo about the roles that I played in the ghetto, Gestapo men, headed by Keitel, appeared at the ghetto council and demanded that they reveal my place and turn me over to their hands.
With the assistance of the underground organization, I escaped from the ghetto and hid in secret places and underground hideouts.

As I was told by those who had been among the directors of the ghetto, Keitel searched for me until the last day, and nicknamed me “Levin the leader of the gangs.”

January 24, 1971

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Hirsch is the Yiddish form of the Hebrew name Tzvi. Return

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