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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania,
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Translations by Shimon Joffe

[Page 90]

S) Under the Nazi occupation–destruction of Lithuanian Jewry

Because of the threats made by the Lithuanians in the period of Soviet rule, and the knowledge of what the German conquerors had perpetrated to the Jews in west Poland and in other places, the Jews in Lithuania were fearful of their fate should the Nazis invade Lithuania. The Lithuanian Jews could not foresee however, not even in their imagination, what the Nazi intentions were. The mantle of secrecy which enveloped the Nazi plan for “the final solution of the Jewish problem”, was perfect. The Jews did not believe that the fate awaiting them was the complete obliteration of Lithuanian Jewry. In fact, Lithuanian Jewry was the first community in which the “the final solution”, was practiced in its various forms, during the whole period of Nazi occupation.

 

        The continuing destruction of Lithuanian Jewry-from murder of individuals to mass murder

From June 22nd 1941, the very first day of the German invasion of Lithuania as part of “Operation Barbarossa” which began the war against the Soviet Union, harassment and attacks on the Jews began. In a number of towns in western Lithuania close to the German border. On the first day and the next, Jewish men, while being beaten by SS men and local Lithuanians, were thrown into work camps set up around the town Heidekrug (Shilute) in the Klaipeda (Memel) area. Some of them were sent later on to the death camp Auschwitz and a few individuals to a work camp in Gensza Street in Warsaw, where they were employed in clearing the ghetto ruins after its destruction.

In at least 40 Jewish communities throughout Lithuania, armed Lithuanians began to murder Jews on their own initiative, before the arrival of the Germans. Many of these Lithuanians had served previously in the police force or the army and were members of the “sharpshooters” organization (the Shaolists, so called by the Jews). During the period of Soviet rule, some of them were members of the Lithuanian nationalist camp the LAF, but at this juncture, both these groups tied white ribbons on their sleeves and called themselves partisans whose task was to fight the Red Army and those loyal to the Soviet regime. In time, most of them were inducted into police units (battalions) assisting the Germans in the mass murder of the Jews, not only in Lithuania but also in other countries conquered by the Germans.

In the first stage (mostly in the period from June 23 1941 until July 1942) the “partisans” busied themselves by finding and murdering Jewish youths, boys and girls, who had been in the past their neighbors or acquaintances, accusing them of having belonged to Communist organizations or served in Soviet governmental organs. They also harassed the families of the accused, arrested family members, extorted money from them, raped women and killed men. This new situation was exploited by many Lithuanians who owed money to Jews, more than one Jew was pulled out of his home, dragged outside the inhabited area and murdered. At the same time, there occurred many cases of harassment by Lithuanians of their Jewish neighbors who had begun to return to their homes after fleeing to the forests and villages in the vicinity, fearing the bombing and fires in the first days of the war. In north-eastern Lithuania, the Red Army held its own for longer, and many times they helped the Jews to escape the attacks by the Lithuanian “partisans” who had taken control of inhabited places and cross-roads. In Kovno, bloody riots took place in which hundreds of Jews were murdered after horrible brutal treatment. In total, some thousands of Jews were murdered in innumerable ways by the Lithuanians in the first weeks after the outbreak of the war.

From the beginning of July 1941, the murderous activity against the Jews spread throughout most of the cities and towns of Lithuania. At this juncture, the intervention of the German security apparatus expanded, particularly that of the “Einsatzkommandos” no. 2 and 3, which were sub units of the main execution formation Einsatzgruppe A, which had the task of eliminating physically, as clear as it sounds, all the Lithuanian Jews and those of the nearby areas conquered by the German army. Documentary proof for this action was provided by the “Fuhrer's Order” of the beginning of March 1941, which stated that the future war against the Soviet Union would require the absolute liquidation of “Jews, gypsies, the inferior races and other anti-social elements”. To these units were attached hundreds of Lithuanians, “partisans” and others, who from now on were employed in systematic murder activity. The ratio in these units was one German for every eight Lithuanians.

In their daily lives, the Jews were under the heel of the Lithuanian “partisans” and the local authorities, from the policeman on the beat to the city head and notables. Under their inspiration, the Jews were collected from time to time into the market and forced to do exhausting “exercises” or to sing Soviet songs. To the cheering of the local inhabitants, gathered to watch these performances, rabbis and other important community members had to dishonor Scrolls of Law, carry on their backs huge pictures of Stalin, and on occasion were tied to a garbage wagon or to a galloping horse. Cases of rape, murder or pillage frequently occurred during the nights. Many times, the victims were forced to dig their own graves before being murdered. In the big towns, men and women were kidnapped and dragged outside town where they were killed after undergoing terrible torture. In a few places the Jews were given a stern command to live only in a certain neighborhood (a kind of Ghetto), or in a Jewish farmer's estate. It also happened that they were imprisoned together with the women and children in a synagogue. The Lithuanians, guarding the hungry and subdued prisoners constantly humiliated them, taking them out daily to clean the streets or for heavy work on their Lithuanian neighbor's farms. All that, while brutally maltreating them.

On August 18th 1941, after the military rule was changed to “civilian administration”, and Lithuania became one district (Generalbezirk Litauen) of four in the “State Ministry for East Land” (Reichskommissariat Ostland), a set of “temporary guidelines for dealing with the Jews” were published by the German commander Heinrich Lohse. These were intended to “ensure minimal steps are taken by officials in charge of districts and sub districts as long as it remains impossible to continue with the measures aimed at the final solution to the Jewish problem.” Paragraph four of the instructions includes the demand to wear the yellow badge, the prohibition to change one's dwelling, the confiscation of Jewish property, including that held by non-Jews, the prohibition to practice certain professions and other prohibitions. Paragraph five includes the significant statement of the need to “clean the village areas of Jews” – or in other words, to liquidate the Jews physically in these areas (this was carried out almost fully before the publication of these instructions). Also, this paragraph mentions the need to concentrate the city Jews in Ghettos, and instructions are laid down for self-government in the Ghettos by a Jewish Committee (Yudenrat), and a Jewish police force to keep order in the Ghetto.

Alongside these instructions and the creation of the Ghettos, where thousands of Jews were employed in institutions and plants, some of which the authorities deemed essential to the German war effort, the activity of the “Einsatzkommando” continued unabated and with alacrity with the intention to advance the “Solution to the Jewish Problem.” At this stage, the number of mass killings increased, they were committed systematically and according to a strict timetable. The German word for this was the term “Aktion.” (called an Aktzia by the Jews). The Action included, generally, a number of stages, preparation of pits in the proposed killing field, concentration of the victims in their housing area or elsewhere under heavy guard, their transportation by foot or by vehicles to the killing fields, killing by shooting along the prepared pits, collection of the “plunder” of the victims (clothes, money, jewelery etc) and covering of the pits. In some places, in addition to the local Jews killed in the Aktion, Jews from the surroundings were included in the killing. In many places, first the men were killed, whereas the women and children were left to suffer (without knowing what had happened to their dear ones), a few more weeks before meeting the same fate.

While the German Einsatzkommando worked at planning the timetable, the preparation of the logistics and the supervision over the killings, the Lithuanians concentrated the victims before the killing, led them, with beatings and brutality and forced them into the prepared pits and there killed them by shooting. Before that, they forced the victims to undress, and to stand or kneel at the pits and then killed them by concentrated rifle and machine gun fire. Children and babies were often killed by smashing their heads with rifle butts or spitting them on bayonets. In small communities, Jews were murdered in this fashion in one or two Aktions. In larger communities, it was necessary to have a number of Aktions to liquidate the whole Jewish population.

During the months of July-September 1941, most of the Jews in the county towns were murdered in this manner, as well as the majority of Jews in the large cities, who had in the meantime been concentrated in the Ghettos, particularly during September-November. The Aktion was carried out with careful screening to find those who, according to their identity cards or physical shape, had desirable skills or were suitable for physical work. These were, temporarily, returned to their homes. The intention was to employ them for local needs or war work. The others – the old, the sick, invalids, women and children – were liquidated in over one hundred killing fields, the names of some becoming well-known outside Lithuania as well, for example the Ninth Fort near Kovno, Ponar near Vilna, Kuziai near Shavli, Pajuoste near Panevezys, Pivonija near Vilkomir, and Vizgirdas near Alytus.

 

Map drawn by Einsatzgruppe A showing the execution of
Jews in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia until end of 1941

A detailed report on the killings executed by Einsatzkommando No. 3 in dozens of cities and towns in Lithuania from the beginning of July until the end of September 1941, during which 107,259 men, women and children, mostly Jews, were liquidated is to be found in the report submitted by the unit commander, Standartfuhrer Karl Jager, who served also as chief of security police (Sipo), and the security services of Lithuania. By the end of December 1941 the actual number of murdered Jews in the whole of Lithuania reached a total of some 180,000, namely about 80% of the total number of Jews in Lithuania at the beginning of the Nazi invasion in June 1941.

According to the map attached to the report of the commander of the Division of the operation A, Brigadefuhrer Franz Walter Stahlecker, they killed in Lithuania, without including Vilna, in that half-year 136,421 Jews, and 20,500 were left alive for the time being, 16,000 in the Kovno Ghetto and 4,500 in the Shavli Ghetto. Together with the Ghetto in Svencionys and Vilna (where a considerable number of Jews arrived from the Kovno Lithuania) and a number of small work camps scattered throughout Lithuania, a total of just over 40,000 Jews remained alive at the end of 1941.

At that time, a temporary halt was made in the mass murder of the Jews. The reason for leaving them alive for the time being was that the Jews in the four large Ghettos were employed mostly in workshops and building works which made an actual contribution to the German war effort. Until a decision was made as to their fate, discussions took place between the civil and military authorities who needed the Jewish labor, on the one hand, and the SS, the Security Services and other authorities on the other, who were responsible for the “Final Solution.”

As a result of the halt in the mass Aktion, the Ghettos experienced a relatively quiet period from the beginning of 1942. In a period of time only a little longer than eighteen months, from the liquidation of the Svencionys Ghetto as that of a some small Ghettos in Belorussia (Oshmiany, Svir, Michailiskis, Sol and others), which had been annexed to Lithuania at the time and had been liquidated before April 1943, no mass Aktion had taken place. But at the same time, the killing of dozens of elderly Jews and invalids continued. Individual Jews were executed also for various crimes, such as not wearing the yellow badge, for being outside the Ghetto, for bringing food into the Ghetto etc. While constantly raising the exploitation of the Jewish work force, many of the Ghetto inhabitants were sent to work camps outside the cities and even out of Lithuania (for instance to the Riga Ghetto, to work camps in Estonia etc). As a result of the continued pressure, the number of employed in the Ghettos grew constantly, in spite of the fact that the Ghetto population did not increase. This was because the women and even youths were added to the work force (including mothers with babies), while on the other hand, the number of workers employed on internal Ghetto services was curtailed. The German authorities also encouraged the Jews to join in willingly in the forced labor work as, they argued, that would ensure the continuation of the existence of the Ghetto. The Ghetto was permitted to manage its internal life without interference from the authorities provided that did not interfere with the work to be done.

The Jewish Ghetto authorities, the Committee of the Elderly (Älttestenrat) and the Jewish police, a well organized and strong force, possessed almost unlimited authority to manage life in the Ghetto. The authority given them was from the provision of basic municipal services, food distribution and justice, to decisions in fateful matters such as imposing death sentences, exile and handing over people to the German authorities. This situation continued, with occasional exceptions during the whole “quiet period.”

 

        Jewish survival in the Ghettos and the forests

As the tide of the murderous attacks on the Jews throughout Lithuania rose during the summer and autumn of 1941, no institutions or organizations remained to represent the Jews, as they had all been abolished by the Soviet regime. The Jewish public was completely cut off from the rest of the world. It was also without a leadership, as some had been exiled to the USSR interior and others were murdered in the first wave of pogroms. The efforts of Jewish notables in various places to persuade Lithuanian authorities, with money and presents, to act to stop the killings and the harassment was to no avail at that time, as the power of the Lithuanian nationalists waned as the Germans refused to grant Lithuania any measure of independence.

Until the setting up of the Ghettos and the appointment of a recognized Jewish leadership within them, it was a case of every man for himself. As a result, their response to the murders were different and varied. One Jew dipped his finger in his flowing blood and wrote on the wall “revenge!” At a killing place Jews attacked their attackers, cursed them, scratched and bit them, and even caused the death of some. The latter was exceptional behavior of desperate people who knew their fate was sealed, there could be no escape and there was nothing to lose. Others preferred to take a risk between the Aktion and tried to escape out of the towns. Some were handed back to their oppressors and were killed, others found refuge with peasants, on farms and in monasteries. There were others who tried to save their lives by converting with their families to Christianity, but this helped only for a short time, as the Germans did not take this into consideration. A better way to save life, at least for a short time, was to find a hiding place, or to make one (these were called Malina). At first the hiding places were used to hide until the end of the Aktion, or the capture for forced labor. People hid in basements, attics, storerooms etc. Over time, the making of these Malinas became highly sophisticated, people learned to cleverly camouflage and make them suitable for living in for lengthy periods.

Since rations allocated to the Jews were on a starvation level, existence was centered on getting food and smuggling it into the Ghetto. In this matter, the Jewish authorities namely the “Ältestenrat” and the Jewish police often collaborated.

Thanks to this cooperation it was possible, on occasion, for the inhabitants to evade the vicious German decrees, such as the duty to inform of a birth (which was forbidden), and of a case of infectious disease, in spite of the danger involved.

On occasion, the Ghetto leaders assisted the inhabitants in circumventing decrees imposed by the Germans intended to lower the Jewish morale, such as the prohibition on possessing books, to keep open schools, synagogues etc. The Jewish leaders did not spare means, energy and organizational action to keep the Ghetto inhabitants physically and mentally healthy. Dozens of institutes and services were created for this purpose, beginning with public kitchens and ending with the opening of schools and the holding of musical concerts and theater performances. In the “quiet periods” it became possible to renew the activities of the political parties and youth organizations.

Underground resistance groups arose, prepared to oppose the Nazis, when the time came. This activity was prevalent throughout the work camps and Ghettos, and encompassed some 1,500 activists, mostly young men and women belonging to the Zionist youth movements and others. The aims of the various groups differed, depending on the emphasis they placed on organized defense in moments of danger, the armed struggle against the Germans and their associates and various ways of saving Jewish lives. For many months the underground groups were active collecting weapons and storing them, undergoing military training as well as dealing in matters of culture and education, publishing leaflets and pamphlets. Girls sent to the Lithuanian Ghettos from Poland, brought to the local activists news of the struggle waged against the Nazis in other places, amongst them in the Warsaw Ghetto. This activity was carried on often with the knowledge of the local Ghetto leadership and even with their blessing.

Nevertheless, the Ghetto leadership was very scrupulous in fulfilling the German instructions in matters of work seeing in this the basis for the physical survival of the remaining Jews. In order to impose work duty, the authorities employed the Jewish police. The force was active in mobilizing workers and sending them to the work camps, but they also cooperated partially, and perhaps unwillingly, in the planning stages in preparing the Aktion and in finding Jews sought by the Germans.

Towards the end of the “quiet period”, it was rumored that there would be a mass transfer of Jews to work camps. As a result there was a renewal of escape of individuals and families to non-Jewish friends in the city and villages, in the hope that these would hide them for cash or for payment in valuables, until quieter times. The attempt to save children reached its peak then. At the same time, the anti-Jewish agitation among the Lithuanians continued unabated, as well as the harassment and informing. But in view of the defeat of the German army on the Stalingrad front, a tendency could be discerned among the Lithuanian masses to aid the small number of Jewish survivors. Nevertheless, each attempt to save a child became a complicated and dangerous affair. By endless inventiveness and in great danger and by sacrificing their remaining meager possessions, the desperate parents did their best to find a home with a family, or an institution for the child outside the Ghetto. Because of the continued informing and the detentions and perhaps because of the inability of some of the children to adapt to life among non-Jews, only a few succeeded in enduring their situation until the end of the occupation. At the same time, there was an increase in cases of Jews getting hold of arms and escaping to the country districts in the hope of joining up with armed groups of escaped Soviet prisoners of war and others who wandered in the forests. Many of them, the exact number will never be known, are lost and their fate is unknown. Only a small number managed to overcome the hardships and to join armed groups or genuine partisan formations, those who were part of the Soviet partisan organization and began to actually fight in the Lithuanian region in 1943, when but a few Jews still remained alive in Lithuania. The Jewish underground made endless attempts to contact the partisans and to collaborate with them. In the conditions of absolute isolation of the Jews imprisoned in the Ghettos and because of the hostile attitude of most of the local population, this remained the only alternative open to participate in the anti-Nazi struggle and at the same time to avenge the murder of their families and also to connect with the outside world, even though the connection had to be via Moscow. In this matter there was general agreement between all the political groups whose members participated in the underground, and of course with the Communists cells in the lead. They were the most trusted by the leadership of the Soviet partisan organization. The Communists controlled communications with the partisan units operating in Lithuania and these were the only frameworks agreeing to absorb the Jews who succeeded in fleeing the ghettos. For political and military reasons the partisans preferred to accept Lithuanians and Russians rather than Jews. Of these, only men with army experience were acceptable, provided they came with a long weapon (a rifle). Often, the ones who escaped to the forests to join the partisans fell into ambushes set by the Lithuanian police or simply by armed Lithuanians who would not accept the fact that some Jews still survived. The hardships en route, the ambushes, arrests and informing by the local inhabitants caused many casualties before they reached the forests.

Despite the above, approximately 1,150 men and women, members of the underground organizations, in Lithuania and Belorussia, as well as some 650 ordinary non organized Jews, escaped from the ghettos and work camps to the partisans in the forests. These were mostly inhabitants of the small towns who were familiar with the forests in the area and were of great value as guides, scouts and as links to the village population. In total some 1,800 left for the forests. In addition, some 200 more, singly or in underground groups, did not make it to the partisans for various reasons. Therefore, the total number of participants in the struggle against the Nazis was some 2,000 men and women, in other words, some 5% of the 40,000 Lithuanian Jews who still survived at the beginning of 1942, after the mass killings.

In the absence of precise figures on the losses of Lithuanian Jews in the partisan struggle, there is no choice but to use partial material as a basis, and the data given is based on that.

[Page 101]

T) Imprisonment of surviving Jews in concentration camps

In view of the turnabout which began on the Russian front and the growth of the anti-Nazi partisan activity in the eastern regions of Ostland (east land), including Lithuania, the chief of the Security Services and the SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered in June 1943 the destruction of the ghettos there and the transfer of the inhabitants to concentration camps. The process of extracting the majority of the inhabitants and their transfer to concentration camps was named, in the language of the day, Kasernierung, namely, placing in barracks. In the autumn of that year the Vilna ghetto was annihilated, and some 10,000 of its inhabitants were transferred to work camps in Estonia and Latvia. More than 4,000 children, women and the old were sent to the Sobibor camp in Poland and murdered there. Only 2,500 men remained in the city work camps.

 

Table 19: Jewish partisan fatalities in Lithuania in the Second World War, according to how they fell

Cause of death Numbers Percentage
Total 1956 100
Killed by the enemy forces, total 112 72
Killed by the Germans (83) (53)
Killed by White Poles (A.K.) (14) (9)
Killed by Lithuanians (9) (4)
Killed by peasant guards (6) (4)
Killed by the partisans, total 16  
Punished legally (10) (6)
Killed for various reasons (6) (4)
Died of various causes; total 28 18
Suicide for various reasons (9) (6)
Death of sickness (5) (3)
Fell in the line of duty after leaving the forests (14) (9)

 

At that time, control of the Kovno and Shavli ghettos was transferred from the “civilian administration” to the exclusive authority of the “department of concentration camps” vested with the head office of the Security Services, namely the SS. These camps were attached to work places. Approximately 2,600 Jews from the Kovno ghetto were transferred to work camps in Estonia, some of which already contained Jews from the Vilna ghetto. Living conditions were very hard in the camps, backbreaking work, meager food, inhuman quarters and brutal discipline. Men and women were separated.

In all these camps, as well as in the central ones of Kovno and Shavli, Aktions took place from time to time, in which the elderly, children, and the sick were selected and sent to their death. In the central camps, the internal organization such as the Council of Elders, the Jewish police was either abolished or else its authority was reduced. The important tasks were given to Jews, most of whom were collaborators of the Germans.

 

Final issue of Nitzotz (“Spark”),
publication of the underground in the
Dachau concentration camp, April 1945

When the Germans were forced to evacuate Lithuania in a hurry in the beginning of July 1944, because the Red Army was coming close to the Lithuanian border, they also hastily evacuated the Jews from the camps, and transferred them to concentration camps within Germany. Until July 22nd they managed to move to Germany (with great brutality and threats of execution, in freight trains and ships), most of the Jews still in the Kovno and Shavli central camps as well as from dozens of subsidiary camps, including the camp at the flying field in Panevzys. A few thousand Jews who refused to join the transports were shot to death by punitive units or burnt to death in their hideouts. Only a few hundred managed to survive after they hid in various places or jumped from the trains.

On arrival at the first station in Germany (Tiegenhof), the men were separated from the women and children and sent on to the Landsberg area in Bavaria, where they were given prisoner garb and sent on to various branches of the Dachau concentration camp, especially to camps 1, 2, 3 and 10. The women were moved to the central camp in Stutthof near Danzig. Together with them, many Jewish women arrived who had previously been transferred from the Lithuanian ghettos to the Riga ghetto. A short while after the arrival of the Lithuanian Jewish women in Stutthof a “Selection” took place. The elderly and the weak, as well as mothers with their children were sent to their death in the crematoria there. Young and strong women were sent to the work camps Lubicz in the Torun region, Trunz in the Elbing region, Strasbourg and other places in Prussia where they worked in fortifications. A small number of Jewish women from Lithuania were sent to Dachau camps and some were left to work in Stutthof. In the month of August, 4,000 Jewish prisoners from Lithuania, who survived the work camps in Estonia, were transferred there. The others were killed by shooting or other means. The backbreaking labor was generally performed under the open sky, in rain, wind and cold. The day's work lasted 12 hours or more, and mostly 7 days a week. The rest period lasted 6-7 hours only. The majority of the prisoners were forced to march, day in day out, long distances to and from work, in wooden clogs which injured their feet. The starvation rations consisted of 300 grams bread and watery soup, without meat or oil. This ration provided but a few hundred calories. Every morning at dawn, a roll call took place before setting out to work and a second one took place after the return. These roll call parades took a long time and were accompanied by maltreatment and degradations.

In addition to the suffering experienced by the men and women imprisoned in the various concentration camps because of the hard labor, the endless hunger and the fear of being sent to the crematoria they also suffered from overcrowding, filth, cold, shortage of clothes and shoes, and of course from the brutal treatment of the SS, the huts overseers and the “Kapos” (orderlies), a few of whom were Jews from Lithuania. At the same time, there were many instances of mutual aid and sacrifice among the Lithuanian Jews.

Yet even within the reality such as Dachau-Kaupering, where men died daily, of deaths strange and varied, or were suddenly sent to other places, a Zionist framework was created. This was the “Federation of National Youths”, it included past members of the Irgun Brit Zion from the Kovno ghetto and members of the Zionist underground organization active in the Shavli ghetto. These had kept in contact before. Their joint publication Nitzotz (a continuation of the IBT publication in 1940, issued during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania), was the only Hebrew publication of this sort to appear in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War.

 

        Final Accounting

When the Red Army reached Lithuania in July 1944, following battles with the retreating German army, approximately 20% (50,000) of Lithuanian Jews were still alive out of some 250,000 who had lived there before the Second World War. Of these, approximately 17,000 were under Soviet rule-mostly scattered throughout the USSR and some in regular units of the Red Army (including the Lithuanian Division) or with the partisans. Approximately 33,000 Jews were still alive under the Nazi heel, some in ghettos in Lithuania itself and others in work camps in Latvia and Estonia.

When the Red Army took Vilna with the assistance of the partisans, the city was almost empty of Jews, and as it pushed on westwards, the German authorities managed, as mentioned, to transfer to concentration camps in Germany tens of thousands from among the Lithuanian survivors. Well over ten thousand were executed and died of various causes in their desperate attempt to evade transfer to Germany. 186 sites of mass murder remained in Lithuania.

By autumn 1944, when most of Lithuania was already free of the German occupation, some 2,000 Jews remained there, mostly partisans and a few survivors from the work camps or the ghettos, who had managed to hide with local people.

Lithuania was freed in summer 1944. Some of the refugees hastened back to their previous homes to find out what had been the fate of their dear ones. Mostly, they did not find them alive, as they had been murdered by the Lithuanians or shot by the Germans or died in one of the concentration camps.

With the surrender of Germany in May 1945, some of the Lithuanian Jews imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps won their freedom. Their number is estimated to have been 8,000 out of the 220,000 Jews remaining in Lithuania in June 1941. During the time Lithuania was under the Nazi and Lithuanian rule, at most 10,000 souls remained alive (4%). The ratio of destruction of Lithuanian Jewry (94%) was the highest among all the countries in Europe touched by the Shoah.

A greater number of Jews found themselves under the Soviet regime during the war years; the number of exiles, refugees, members of the various security services and soldiers in the different units totaled altogether some 15,000. At the end of the war, the total number remaining alive out of a quarter million Lithuanian Jews added up to a mere 25,000 (10%).

 

        The Survivors

For various reasons related to military tactics during the Second World War, the freeing of the surviving Lithuanian Jews from the murderous Nazi grip, took from July 1944 until April-May 1945. In the second half of 1944, it was mostly single Jews who survived on Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian soil, and in the first half of 1945 – the remainder in the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Among the latter, those returning to Lithuania came back to search for their families. But when they did not find any one alive, they went back whence they came. The few who decided to remain in Lithuania joined the tiny Jewish population consisting of survivors who hid in sundry hiding places, past partisans, and the early returnees from the USSR.

Two groups of Lithuanian Jews survived, therefore, after the war. One group stayed in Lithuania, which returned to the Soviet fold, with all the consequences involved, and the other, in defeated Germany, in the American zone. Over time, most of the ones living in Lithuania and also the others in Germany left Europe together with their descendents. Of these the majority settled and were absorbed in Israel and a minority immigrated to the USA.

 

        Displaced persons camps in Germany

Among the organizations established among the survivors who had remained on German soil and were living, temporarily, in the displaced persons camps, was the Association of Lithuanian Jews was formed in 1946, headed by Reuben Rubinstein, who came to Germany after being released from imprisonment in the USSR. A major aim of the Association, in addition to tending to economic and cultural matters, was to fulfill the displaced members' heartfelt wish to leave the cursed German land for a new home, namely, Israel or the USA, but not Lithuania. At the same time, a few hundred Lithuanian Jews who had lived in Lithuania managed to infiltrate the camp and had escaped from Lithuania ,not being able to adjust to life under the Soviets and to “living among the graves.”

Former Lithuanians, many of them having had a higher education and experience in public and cultural activity, filled central roles in the displaced persons organizations as well as in the Jewish newspapers beginning to flourish in the displaced persons camps. They especially stood out in Zionist activity. The central figures of the Zionist Council which was established immediately after the release from Dachau, were survivors of the Alliance of National Youth founded originally by the Alliance of Brit Zion in Kovno. The activist in this organization, Shlomo Shapir, who had edited the publication Nitzotz in the Dachau camp, continued in this position after the freeing of the camp. This publication, first published in the underground (in 1940, under the Soviet regime), was the first Jewish newspaper openly published among the survivors and became within a short time the mouthpiece of the “United Halutz Youth.” A number of ex-Lithuanians were among the first members of this organization to reach Eretz Israel by secret routes and joined the kibbutz Giv'at Brenner. Other groups of ex-Lithuanians joined the kibbutzim Beit Zera, Yagur, Daphna, and others. Many of this immigrant wave settled in Tel Aviv, in Haifa and in villages.

Besides the activity of ex-Lithuanians in general Jewish matters, they were also active in memorializing the their dear ones who died during the Shoah. Among other things, they organized a mass visit to the huge mass grave near Landsberg, where hundreds of victims from the Kovno and Shavli ghettos were buried, and conducted mass assemblies in which the destroyed Lithuanian Jewry was eulogized. In the first convention of Jews of Lithuanian extraction, held in the spring of 1946 in the Munich theater, a special declaration was passed about the part the Lithuanians played in the wiping out of Lithuanian Jewry, in their country. This declaration, published in the press, states inter alia:

We, the few survivors of Lithuanian Jewry … living witnesses to the cruelty of the Lithuanians to their Jewish neighbors. Each one of us can testify to innumerable facts describing the horrendous murders committed by the Lithuanian people against the innocent and helpless Jewish nation during the years of occupation … All classes of Lithuanian people (the educated, officials, peasants, artisans, workers) collaborated actively with the murderers in the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry, particularly in the county towns. A great many of these murderers are to be found in the American zone, the British and the French zones in Germany and Austria, where they appear as displaced persons and enjoy the support of UNRRA. The convention authorizes the new executive committee of the organization to distribute the information throughout the world about the horrors committed by the Lithuanian people – the mass murders of Jewish citizens of the country before the entry of the Germans.

By the end of 1949 almost all the Lithuanian Jews in Germany managed to leave the country. Some, as mentioned, immigrated to Israel, and others to lands across the seas, especially to the USA. The activity of public figures continued in the Associations of Lithuanian Jews in the large cities in Israel, in Northern and Southern America. Some of them were among the initiators and collaborators in the dedication of memorials to Lithuanian Jewry, such as four volumes devoted to Lithuanian Jewry published in Israel, the erection of a gravestone in the Nachalat Itzkhak cemetery in Tel Aviv dedicated to the 224 Lithuanian communities etc. The committee of the Association of Lithuanian Jews participated in the financing of the memorial “Valley of the Destroyed Communities” in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and holds a mass memorial assembly in Tel Aviv every year on the eighth of the month of Markheshvan (October 29th) the date of the great Aktion in the Kovno ghetto.

 

        Lithuania under the Soviets

At the freeing of Lithuania from the German occupation in the summer and autumn of 1944, and the restoration of Lithuania as a Soviet republic, approximately 2,000 Jews were to be found there who had succeeded in escaping death by various means. Additional Jews joined them almost daily – soldiers from the Lithuanian Division, refugees and evacuees who had found refuge in inner parts of the USSR and surviving prisoners from the Estonian concentration camps. In the spring of 1945, some of the women who survived the concentration camps in Germany began to return. They came with the vague hope of finding family members, but few had the good fortune to find anyone alive.

In the large cities, religious communities began to act, concentrating at first on the burial of the masses of Jewish dead still above ground in some places. The communities saw to the upkeep of the few synagogues where it was still possible to hold services. By the initiative of Abba Kovner, Avraham Sutzkever and Dr Binyamin Bludz and with the help of a Jewish senior officer in the Red Army, Col. Prof Yosef Rebelski, educational facilities were established for Jewish children in Vilna (the school was closed in 1948) and in Kovno. The school in Kovno was the last of its kind active in the Soviet Union (closed in 1950). Over a period of about four years (1944-1948) a Jewish historical museum was open.

Parallel to their public activity and desire of some of the surviving Jews to rebuild their lives again in Lithuania on the ruins of the past, a broad movement took place on the part of the others survivors to leave or to escape from Lithuania abroad. Great was their desire to leave Lithuania at all costs, both because it was a huge Jewish graveyard, because of their disgust at having to live among murderers who walked about freely, and also because of the disappointment in the Soviet regime. Generally, they left Lithuania legally, in groups, crossing Poland within the framework of the repatriation agreement between the USSR and Poland which affected pre-war Polish citizens. Some of the hundreds who left in this manner stayed on for a while in Poland and then immigrated to lands across the seas.

While the intent to leave or escape from the land matured slowly, and generally after failed attempts made to integrate into the new life, the decision to immigrate to Eretz Israel was made clearly from the very beginning without any doubt by those who intended to do so. The first to attempt to make this a reality were, naturally, past activists of the Zionist movement, who continued to nourish this ideal while in the ghettos, in the forests and with the partisans throughout the USSR. They established an underground organization (which later on merged with the general “Brikha”) and within its framework and assistance, some 1,000 men and women left Lithuania with forged papers during 1944-1946. The first to arrive in Eretz Israel (in December 1944!!!) was the past partisan Ruzhka Korchak. The movement of the intended immigrants to Eretz Israel was slowed down by difficulties on the way, arrests and frontiers, and there were some who reached it only after the establishment of the state.

In view of the defection of Jews with the aid of forged papers, who suddenly left senior posts or deserted from military service, the authorities became highly suspicious of the Jews in general and this brought about a serious deterioration in their situation. Many Jews were arrested and accused of taking the law into their own hands, in other words, taking revenge on the murderers of their families during the Nazi occupation. Conflict with the authorities was also exacerbated over the matter of returning Jewish children (hidden with Christians during the war) to their relatives, as at times the Jews had perforce to use violence to this end.

Moreover, in the many trials of Nazi collaborators that took place, full emphasis was not given, for political and internal reasons, of the uniqueness of the Jewish victims, and the punishment did not always fit the crime. The tendency of the authorities to conceal the fact that the majority of the victims of the Nazi occupation were Jews was obvious also in the newspapers, in official documents (including reports by inquiry committees looking into the Nazi crimes), and even on the gravestones and monuments erected to the memory of the Jews murdered in the killing fields. In most cases it states and they were referred to as “Soviet citizens” or “peaceful inhabitants” and the like. The few Jews who protested and dared to speak out or write reminding of the cruel fate of their brethren during the Nazi occupation, brought upon themselves the wrath of the authorities.

The local population too, changed its tone. At the beginning, when they feared the reaction of the Soviet authorities, they treated the Jews with respect, but once they realized that the Soviet establishment does not interfere much in the Jewish interest, the Lithuanians returned to their old ways. In a number of towns and villages the Jewish survivors were murdered by Lithuanians, their past neighbors. In other places, the Jews faced the danger of pogroms because of blood libels. Lithuanian nationalists harmed Jews during the war they conducted until 1950 against the security services. Before Stalin's death, in the days of the “Doctors Trial” (1953), there was a real danger to Lithuanian Jews that many of them might be exiled to other places in the USSR. According to rumors then current among the frightened Jews, the veteran general secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party ( A. Snieckus) had come out in the defense of the Jews.

With the change in the political atmosphere and the stabilization of the regime after Stalin's death, the situation of the Jews improved as well. After much solicitation, the Jews were now permitted cultural activities (founding of a dramatic troupe, having reading and lecture evenings in Yiddish etc). The Jews made progress in particular in the economic, the professional and the academic fields. In view of the higher standard of living in Lithuania as compared to other parts of the USSR, an increased flow of Jews from the rest of the Soviet Union into Lithuania took place. Out of the 12,314 Jews living in Lithuania in 1989, almost half that number, 5,400, were born outside its boundaries: 1,900 in Belarus, 1,800 in the Ukraine and 1,900 in Russia.

As a result of the fact that the Jewish children studied in institutions which taught in Russian or Lithuanian, there was a significant fall in the use of Yiddish by the Jewish public. Whereas in the census of 1959 (the first to be conducted after the Shoah), 69% of the Jews declared Yiddish to be their mother tongue, in 1989 only 35% claimed that. Despite the anti-Israeli campaigns and the condemnation of Israel and Zionism conducted by the authorities with the enthusiastic support of the Jewish communists such as Genrikh Ziman and others, open sympathy for Israel and the Israel Defense Force grew among the Jewish public. This developed especially after the Kadesh Campaign and the Six Day war. In Lithuania, as in other parts of the Soviet Union, this centered round the demand for the right to emigrate and to go to Israel. A number of memoranda, mentioning also the rising antisemitism in Lithuania, were smuggled abroad during the 1960's, and were published in foreign media. No less heroic, but also effective, were the demonstrations held by Jewish delegations in Lithuania at the central offices of the Communist Party and the Interior Ministry of Lithuania. This campaign was accompanied by intense activity of individual artists of the stage, like Nechama Lifshitz and theater troupes, such as the troupe later known as “Anachnu Kan” (We are here). Only in 1971 did the authorities begin to issue exit permits in increasing numbers. Most of the recipients of these permits in the 1970's went to Israel.

Because of the continuation of the cold war and for other reasons, the crimes committed in Lithuania during the Nazi occupation were brought to the fore once again by the authorities. Moreover, TV and newspapers coverage of the trials of that period and the multiple essays and publications appearing on that subject, all contributed greatly to the spreading of the knowledge among the general public about the Jewish Shoah. In addition to the many publications appearing under the title “The Facts Accuse”, and the like, much is owed to the book “Mass Murder in Lithuania” (Masines Zudynes Lietuvoje). It appeared in print in two volumes in 1965 and 1973. In these publications, German documents are quoted describing the murder and sadistic treatment of Jews. The names of the murdered and those of the murderers are given, as well as the names of Lithuanian officials and officers who collaborated with the German conquerors. In these books, what the Soviets called “Nationalist Bourgeois Elements” are chiefly accused, as if they were the only ones participating in the horrific acts. On the other hand, they lauded the acts of the ordinary folk who defended the victims.

At the end of the 1980's, a change took place in Lithuania in the attitude to the Shoah, inspired by the spirit of Glasnost and the whirlwind growth of the reviving Lithuanian national movement “Sajudis” (meaning “the movement”). The new attitude opposed the exaggerated attention given to the Nazi criminals and especially to the local collaborators. Instead, the call was made to put on trial the “Stalinist Functionaries” including Jews, who had committed serious crimes in 1940-1941 and during 1944-1950 had taken part in the arrest and exiling of hundreds of thousands of local citizens, among them “Patriots Loyal to their People” etc. These demands were accompanied by exaggerated emphasis on the part the Jewish functionaries played in the exiling action, and on the other hand, the deliberate disregard to the fact that most of the “Patriots” had been ardent collaborators of the Nazi conquest and had participated in the murder of the Jews. There were many who adopted an algorithm of “symmetry”, prevalent for many years among the nationalist Lithuanians who had escaped to the west after the war. According to this theory, the Jews paid in the summer of 1941 for their collaboration with the Soviets in 1940.

 

        Jews in the renewed independent Lithuania

The Symmetry argument mentioned above, became increasingly popular with the rebirth of independent Lithuania in 1990 and a consensus was practically reached on this subject with immigrant groups in the west, some of whom had participated in the murder of Jews in their time. But along with the moral and political pressure the Lithuanians exerted to break away from the Soviet Union, they sent out frequent signals of reconciliation and rapprochement with the Jewish survivors. Jewish cultural centers were established in Lithuania already in 1989, headed by activists in the Sajudis movement close to the new nationalist establishment. In the cities Vilna and Kovno Jewish schools were opened with Yiddish and Hebrew being taught. In Vilna, the Jewish State Museum was reopened which had been closed in the past by the Soviet authorities. A Jewish journal, in Yiddish, English and Lithuanian made its appearance, “Yerushalayim DeLita” (The Jerusalem of Lithuania), edited by G. Shmuliakov. In addition to the limited news of the Jewish world it published also, in the five years of its existence, material mainly about the past culture of the Jewish people in Lithuania while emphasizing the good neighborly relationships which had existed between them and the Lithuanians, identification with the State of Lithuania and memories and recollections from the Shoah period where praise was heaped on the Lithuanian rescuers. Occasionally, the journal also responded to anti-Semitic attacks which continued in Lithuanian abated, since the latest independence.

On the basis of the law “Rehabilitation of the Rights of People who Suffered because of Opposition to Occupation regimes”, passed by the newly reconstituted Lithuanian government, an amnesty was declared for thousands of people including the murderers of Jews who had been condemned in the past by Soviet courts. As a rejoinder to the harsh reaction to this step by Jewish bodies and public opinion throughout the western world (including a very sharp article in the New York Times), the Lithuanian government made a number of gestures to the Jews. On November 7th 1990, the Presidium of the National Council of Lithuania decided on the restoration of the graves of the “victims of genocide” (as the mass murder of the Jews is called in euphemistically referred to), of the Jewish graveyards, and of the preservation of the Jewish cultural past. The implementation of this program was to be with the cooperation of the renewed Jewish community. The Lithuanian body politic sees this decision as a sort of symbolic expression of sorrow at what is called the “Jewish Tragedy”, and what may also be an expression of guilt. The establishment sees this as correcting the outrageous discrimination practiced by the Stalinist regime against the remnants of the Jewish people in the national and cultural domain; discrimination, which completed metaphorically the actions of the Nazi occupation. Simultaneously, broad hints were floated that world Jewry should assist Lithuania in achieving state independence and economic consolidation (through investment, loans and grants given by the western world), as the Jews had done efficiently and successfully at the end of the First World War. No wonder that the heads of government, especially the then President of the Council of Ministers (Vytautas Landsbergis) constantly published diplomatic “declarations of reconciliation”, agreeable to the ears of the Jewish leaders throughout the world. Among other things, the representative of the Jewish Agency was allowed full free activity in Lithuania. But at the same time, the activity continued to obliterate the uniqueness of the Shoah in Lithuania, by artificially mixing it with facts relating to the struggle of the Lithuanian people against the Soviet regime. Despite protests of Jews throughout the world, including the Israeli Federation of Lithuanian Jews, documentary evidence relating to the deportation of Lithuanians to Siberia was included in the permanent exhibition in the Ninth Fort (the valley of the mass murder of Kovno Jews).

Even after the nationalist camp based on the Sajudis movement was defeated in the elections to the Lithuanian Sejm in 1992, and instead of Landsbergis the Executive President, Algirdas Brazauskas, leader of the left camp, was elected, the internal tension did not cease and the economic situation did not improve. Either because of world public opinion or because of a sincere desire to appease Lithuanian Jewish survivors, the new government made a number of gestures. For instance, on the hundreds of gravestones placed over the sites of the mass murder of the Jews a line was added: “murdered by the Nazis and their local helpers”. A delegation of Israeli Knesset members was invited to discuss the problem of the wide amnesty given to the Nazi collaborators; a number of Jewish partisans and leaders of the Jewish underground in the ghettos received commendations etc.

Notwithstanding the above, murderers of the Jews continue to freely and openly walk the streets. Although five amnesties to war criminals were withdrawn, it transpired that this touched people no longer alive. Also, most of Jewish property (public and private), has not yet been returned to its rightful owners and the chances that this will happen are very slim. For the above reasons and because of the rising antisemitism of the public at large the scale of the “exodus of Lithuanian Jews” increased even by comparison to the large immigration to Israel which took place after the Six Day War, as is evident from table 40.

As a result of the never ending emigration and the endless fall in the birthrate among the aging Jewish population (the birthrate fell from 3.8 for each Jewish couple in 1959 to 2.7 in 1989), there is a constant reduction in the Lithuanian Jewish population as can be seen in table 41.

 

Table 40: Jewish exodus from Lithuania after the Second World War, after the first census (1959-1994)

Period   number
leaving
1959-1994   19,257
1959-1988 From the first census until the end of the Soviet regime 12,705
1959-1969   3,100
1970-1978   7,604
1979-1989   2,001
1990-1994 The first 5 years of independent Lithuania 6,552

 

Table 41: Jewish inhabitants in Lithuania after the Second World War by community size

<
Area size 19591970 1979 1989 1992  1994
All inhabited places 24,672 23,563 14,644 12,314 6,365*** 5,500
Large towns* 23,190 22,648 13,888 11,759
Towns and townships** 1,216 702 567 451
Villages 266 213 189 104  

*    Mainly Vilna, Kovno, Memel Shavli and Panevzys
**  77 towns and townships, in which between 1 and 58 Jews lived in 1989
*** Approximately 5,300 of those lived in Vilna

It is not surprising that the ratio of Jews in the whole population fell, from 0.9% in 1959 when the total Lithuanian population numbered 2,711,445, to 0.3% in 1994, when the total population reached 2,751,400. A further result of this was the rapid reduction in the number of survivors among the Jewish population. Out of 5,000 Jews living in Lithuania in 1994, less than 400 were survivors, and their average age was 70 years. A lower average age was to be seen among the the Lithuanian Jews who found themselves in the USSR, either as refugees, evacuees or exiles. Although they do not consider themselves “survivors”, they are associated with them in many respects and participate greatly in activities connected with commemoration etc. Most of them were not witness to the acts of murder committed to their families by the non-Jewish neighbors. Moreover, since during the war they were in the USSR, they had friendly relations with the non-Jews especially with those who shared a similar background, such as work camps, exile settlements and the Lithuanian Division within the Red Army. This relationship continued after the return to Lithuania after the war. The relations between the genuine survivors who remained in Lithuania, with the majority nation also improved with time, in spite of the increasing antisemitism.

This tendency is seen yet most specifically in the second generation of Jews born after the War. It is not surprising that a very young man, Emanuel Singer, has been appointed head of the Jewish community. His father was a soldier in the Lithuanian Division and the mother was confined in the Kovno ghetto. During the critical period when Lithuania declared independence and later, when the support of the Jewish world was considered to be most desirable, Singer served simultaneously as the head of the foreign relations committee of the Lithuanian parliament. Needless to say, Singer and a few of his Jewish compatriots were active in the Sajudis movement already mentioned.

One other Jew in the community, the writer Gregory Kanowitch, elected in 1989 to represent Lithuania in the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, often attacked the antisemitism in the Soviet Union on the one hand, but pointed out the positive approach to Lithuanian Jewry, on the other hand, yet he himself immigrated to Israel.

This is the place to point out that a considerable number of Jews born after the War in Lithuania or who came into it from greater Russia already have strong family ties to members of other nationalities there. This factor too may, naturally, have much influence on their decision whether to leave for abroad and for Israel in particular.

In light of all the facts discussed above, one may sum up by saying that today – half a century after the Shoah of Lithuanian Jewry – the period of “after the Shoah” which still retains memories of “what had happened” is about to end. In the period which is about to come, the generation which had experienced directly the Shoah in Lithuania will disappear completely.

This fact, as well as the Geo-political and the social changes already knocking at the door of the approaching century, suggest, so we hope, that the study of all issues surrounding the Shoah of Lithuanian Jewry will be dealt with a greater understanding of the known facts and of those yet to be uncovered. Of course, none of this is any consolation for the terrible loss which is so hard to accept. The Jewish community which lived in Lithuania for hundreds of years is completely destroyed and will not rise again.

Dov Levin

 

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