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[Page 317]

“Escape! They'll Kill Everybody!”

By Shimon Toker [from Antaliept]

Translated by Shlomo and Sara Guberman

“In one of the proclamations distributed by the Lithuanian underground, the L.A.F., as early as the spring of 1941, it states: 'Lithuanian brothers and sisters, the fateful and final hour has come to settle accounts with the Jews. The right of sanctuary that was granted to the Jews during the time of Vytautas the Great – is now absolutely and completely null and void. All the Jews of Lithuania, without exception, are hereby warned to leave Lithuania without delay.'

In another proclamation (right on the eve of the Nazi invasion) pardon is offered to 'the Lithuanian traitors, on condition that they prove that each of them will liquidate at least one Jew.' The proclamation ends with a call to the Lithuanians: 'At the decisive moment you will receive their possessions, so that nothing is lost.' ”[1]

It was a Sunday morning when news of the outbreak of war began to spread and take off like the wind ... I was in Antaliept at the time where I lived with my parents Yosef and Sheine, and my brother.

By the Tuesday or Wednesday we already knew that the German forces were advancing, and rumor had it that the Germans had parachuted soldiers into certain places. The Shaulists[2] began roaming around the shtetl, acting as if they owned the place. Even a blind person could see that staying on had become too dangerous. The Russians had abandoned the shtetl, and the local Goyim were already strutting around the streets, pointing at houses and dividing the inheritance amongst themselves...

On that very same day, a group of boys and girls, including my brother David, gathered together and decided to escape. Each of us took just a small bundle, thinking we would be gone from home for only a short while.

We headed towards Zarasai, to the Lithuanian-Russian border. We managed to walk for about five or six kilometers when suddenly we came under fire. It was clear to us that the shooters were Lithuanians. We began running; some of us got hurt. Others, including my brother David and myself, managed to escape into the forest. I remember we debated in the forest whether or not to continue on our way, but we decided to go back to the shtetl right then. On the way back we met an old woman who told us: “Don't go into town. Run away. Escape! There is nothing for you to do there. Run away! They will kill you all!” Taking her advice, and under the cover of darkness, we continued through the forest towards Zarasai. The roads were flooded with people. Messerschmidts were flying directly overhead and dropping bombs. We arrived at Dvinsk (Daugavpils, Latvia), where groups of young people of different ages from various shtetls were gathering. (Yehuda Levin: “I remember that on the fourth day of the war, I joined Shimon, and together we covered a long distance.”) We began walking and were joined by the women and children. At Dvinsk we turned towards the Russian border, walking up to our necks in marsh. This is how we crossed the Belarus swamps. We then jumped on a train and after a month or so reached Siberia. There were thousands of Jews on the train, and I was in a group of twenty people.

We reached a lumber factory. The man in charge was a Jew called Lieberman. When he saw us literally naked, his eyes filled with tears. We were sixteen or seventeen years old. He organized a communal house with beds for us, where a woman took care of the cleaning. They gave us coupons (similar to army canteen coupons) so that we could buy groceries at the store. We washed ourselves; put on the clothing we were given and began working. Our dignity had been restored to us.

I worked there for approximately six months and then joined the Red Army, volunteering for the Lithuanian Division, where I heard more Yiddish than Lithuanian. I served on the front for a lengthy period, where many of Division were killed. Just a handful of us remained alive.

I remember one especially terrible day! I prayed that a miracle would get me out of there, or it would be my end. Lo and behold the miracle came true, and I was offered the chance to train as an officer. That was the period when Shmuel Levitt and I were together in the army.

In liberated Lithuania, we marched 250 kilometers, all the way from the German border to Vilna (Vilnius).

While still in uniform I left Vilna and made my way to Antaliept. Travelling with me was Yehuda Levin from my shtetl, and another friend. We had heard that the Lithuanian partisans would not think twice about hurting anyone they encountered on the roads, especially Red Army soldiers. We were nonetheless undeterred and went on our way.

We went to Antaliept as well as Dusiat, but could not find even a single Jew in either place. Lithuanians and Russians were living in our houses and life was continuing in our absence. Everyone there was putting on innocent faces, and expressing sorrow for what had happened…

I was not given a single item from my home. They did me a great favor by giving me the photographs of the slaughter pit. Only recently did I find out that a memorial had been erected there on the spot.

On the day war broke out, my father was not at home. However, later I was told that when he returned to the shtetl he was murdered there with everyone else. Today in retrospect, I know that whoever remained in the shtetl had no chance of surviving. Anyone who wanted could have escaped in the nick of time, just as we did, although many of those who did get out were killed on the way.

I knew that my uncle, Yitzchak Toker, my father's brother, had made aliya to Eretz Yisrael as a pioneer. I had heard from my father how Yitzchak had managed to avoid military recruitment, and had fled Lithuania. After the war I went to visit him in Kiryat Chaim. My cousin David, uncle Sender Toker's son, had also made his way there. Both had survived the Dachau concentration camp, but his father died in his arms right after liberation. David put down in writing their story of suffering and tribulation during the Holocaust.

Footnotes

  1. [16] Levin, Dov. Fighting Back: Lithuanian Jewry's Armed Resistance to the Nazis, 1941-1945, in Yahadut Lita, Vol. 4, p. 37, note 2. Return
  2. The Shaulists were members of the Sauliu Sajunga – Lithuanian National Sharpshooters Association. At first they comprised paramilitary (civilian fighters) who fought for Lithuanian independence. Over time they become anti-Semitic extremists, and during the Nazi occupation they played an instrumental role in the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry. Return


[Pages 318-322]

The Shaulists Armed Themselves

By Zelig Yoffe

Translated by Shlomo and Sara Guberman

Parents Eliyahu-Hirshl and Itel Yoffe (Burstein) with their children:

Zelig (center between his parents), Chaimke (behind his father), Honke in front of him, Goldke extreme left
On the right: Guests from Zarasai - Ber-Itzke Burstein (Itel's brother) and his wife Leah (née Zurat, from Utian)
On the left, seated: Chana-Rivl (née Burstein, Itel's sister) – widow of Moshe Zeligson (from Dusiat)
Bottom: Chana-Rivl's children Meir, Mina and Efraim

Zelig: My brother Zamke is missing from the photo above. With the exception of myself and my uncle Ber-Itzke and his family who immigrated abroad before WWII, the rest perished in the Holocaust.

 

On Sunday, June 22, 1941 the German-Russian war broke out. I was in Dusiat at the time and we did not yet know what was happening. We tried to make phone contact with Zarasai, in order to get some news, but the Shaulists[1] had already taken over the phone lines...

The next day, the district administrator assembled all the Komsomol activists (Communist Youth Movement) in the shtetl and reassured us with words like “Dear friends! War has broken out, but we will be triumphant. We are advancing in all directions...” He calmed us down, and called for order. That evening, a vehicle loaded with ammunition arrived and I remember that the pistol I received was jammed ...

Throughout the night we walked around, preventing the gathering of more than three Lithuanians in any one place. Two Lithuanian policemen, Sapokas and Silaikis who were Communists, were with us.

We then saw the Lithuanian Repsis coming into the shtetl, pushing his bicycle with a parcel on it. We asked him where he had come from and what was in the parcel, and he told us that he had come from Utian (Utena) and that he had his relatives' belongings in his possession. He also told us that things were under control over there. After a short while it became clear that his parcel contained concealed weapons. The two policemen were helpless since it was apparent that the Shaulists were already arming themselves.

In the morning I went to sleep. All of a sudden, some friends came over to my house and asked me why I wasn't leaving. One of them said that people from the Komsomol center in Zarasai were urging us to get away and join them. “You're just panicking,” I screamed at him. After all, they had reassured us, and had told us that all would be okay because the Russians were advancing...

My mother intervened and advised me to go out to see what was going on. I went and, lo and behold, the distant skies were red. Zarasai was already engulfed in flames, and we had no idea what had been happening. In the meantime, the two policemen had taken bicycles and ridden away.

We were afraid that we had been deceived, and I decided to make my way to Zarasai. I put on old clothing over my good clothes. I tore out several photographs of my family from an album, as well as a picture of the teachers in a boat on the lake ... I also took with me my report card from school, which I kept throughout the war, and in my jacket pocket I concealed documents from the Komsomol, the very ones that we had been ordered to destroy the previous day. These documents gave me the courage to escape to the Russians.

 

Teachers sailing with their Pupils on the “Ozere” [lake], Dusiat

“This picture I kept throughout the war…”
From right to left: Teacher Yudel Slep, Zelig Yoffe, Principal Hillel Schwartz, Hene-Bailke Griez, (-) pupil from Abel [Obeliai], Malka Feldman
In front: Motale Pores
Zelig: Of all those in the picture, Malka Feldman and I are the only survivors.

 

I remember my mother was in the process of baking bread. Both my father and my aunt were at home as well. Menashke Adelman offered to lend me some money. My aunt deliberated on what to do, since she had heard that during World War I those who had not run away from the shtetl had been better off.

I remember that Hillel the teacher walked in and asked whether he could have a bicycle. I must point out that under the Russian regime, the people in charge had been ordered to collect all the bicycles in the shtetl and leave them at the disposal of those clerks who dealt with the allocation of land ... Therefore I couldn't help Hillel out.

I bade farewell to everyone. My mother handed me a small parcel and gave me a hug. Even today I can feel her arms around me. We kissed and cried. At the doorstep, I told mother that I would be back that night.

“On June 22, 1941, after heavy bombing, the first columns of the Nazi forces overran the Lithuanian borders, while the Red Army, which had been stationed there, retreated from them under desperate rearguard actions. The local civil and party rulers were also shocked and surprised. Their sole response was to gather the party apparatchiks together and wait for instructions. The instructions were not late in coming, and referred mainly to the immediate evacuation of the families of Soviet activists, and most of the government vehicles were recruited for this purpose. The members of the government and the party, headed by the people's commissars, the commanders of the militia, and the secretariat of the Lithuanian Communist Party, also began to leave Lithuania.”[2]

Escaping Eastwards...

 

From right to left, top: Elke Slep, son of Yudel and Rochl-Gitel (Feldman), Zelig Yoffe
Kneeling: Michke Yosman and Yoske Treives
Zelig: Of them all, I am the only survivor.
There were three of us who escaped the shtetl, my friends Michke Yosman, Yoske Treives and myself.

We hadn't gone very far when I saw the Shaulists advancing towards the police station. Amongst them, I was able to identify the teacher Gailusas. As a member of the Komsomol, I had been in charge of school matters, and during examination committee meetings, I used to meet with Gailusas who was a teacher and committee member. This is how we came to know each other. For a split second our eyes met. I fumbled in my pocket as if I had forgotten something, and when I looked up again, saw them breaking down the door of the police station.

We ran towards Silvitzke's Grove, when suddenly somebody screamed: “Hands up!” I turned around and saw Gailusas standing about twenty meters from me, gun in hand. I raised my arms, but right away started running, and that's when I heard gunshots! I was holding my shoes in my hands, and dropped one of them. When I turned back to pick it up, I thought I saw Michke limping.

Immediately afterwards, Michke and Yoske were caught, while I kept on running.

On the way, I spotted two Lithuanians from the Komsomol who were hiding in a potato field. I was afraid of them and started shouting out: “They are searching for you! Let's run away!” One of them wanted to go back, but I managed to talk him into continuing forward in the same direction as I was going.

Dusiat is located at a distance from the main road and it was impossible to know exactly what was going on. Several kilometers from the shtetl we began meeting groups of people, from Antaliept as well.

I arrived at the village of Mukila, and met up with Yona Treives, who had returned from Zarasai, and who told us that the town had gone up in flames.

Two Jewish families lived in Mukila. We entered Leibl Karpel's yard where we found several Lithuanians, one of whom I recognized from Antaliept and another, a teacher from Dusiat, who was a Shaulist. He asked to where we were running. I replied that we had heard that planes would be bombing the area soon and that it was better to get away from the shtetls. The teacher asked whether there were any Komsomol members amongst us. I lied and said no. I recall the other Lithuanian doubting my words, and the teacher ordered us to remain there. When he turned away and walked into the forest, we escaped.

I don't remember exactly when I met up with my brother Zamke. I do, however, remember that we were together in Mukila, and that from there he decided to return to Dusiat. Many went back upon hearing that Zarasai was burning and that going forward was no longer an option. However, I decided to press on, no matter what.

In Zarasai, the Shaulists broke into the church and from there fired their machine guns. They were also shooting from an island in the lake near the entrance of the town.

I managed to cross Zarasai, intending to reach one of the nearby villages where some of my family lived. My grandfather, Moshe Burstein, lived in Vedariai, my uncle Itche Berke lived in Milgedzai and an uncle of my father lived in Imbradas.

The whole way I could hear the sound of shelling. I managed to get within five kilometers of Dvinsk (Daugavpils, Latvia), and stayed there overnight. The next day I reached Dvinsk where I met some Lithuanian Communists from Dusiat. Dvinsk had been bombed and hordes of people were fleeing.

We took a train from Dvinsk to Zilupe, close to the old Russian border, but they would not allow us to go any further. We got off the train, planning to sleep near the railroad tracks. However, they moved us to the local school and that's where we stayed overnight.

That's where I met Malkale Feldman and Mashale Hamburg. Ammunition was exploding all around us, and it was horrendous!

At this point we were separated into groups of party members and Komsomol members, and thus kept walking. And once again we heard bombing. We dropped to the ground, got up and re-formed into groups. Still we were not allowed to cross the border. On the contrary, they reassured us by saying the Russians were gaining on the Germans and that “we should go back home.” Indeed, we decided to return, and set off in the direction of Ludza.

In the forest we met some Russian officers who examined our papers and asked us where we were headed. We told them we had been advised to return home. “Do as you wish,” was their response ...

That night we were informed that the Germans had already crossed the River Dvina in Dvinsk, and that they would reach us in a short while. A Russian officer drove through in a private vehicle. He stopped his car and warned us not to be seen out at night. The guard heard us and began shooting. Burstein, the judge from Dusiat, who spoke Latvian, talked to the guard, and thanks to him we were allowed to enter one of the houses where we slept the night.

In the morning we were told that the bridges had been blown up. “Where shall we go?” we asked ourselves. We kept moving towards the border ...

We crossed the border and kept on walking until we arrived at a kolkhoz (Soviet collective farm). There they checked our papers, allowed us to continue and we reached Sebez.

Bombing accompanied us the entire way. A train, packed with refugees, was stopped near Sebez. We boarded, but were delayed for another day and night until the train eventually pulled away...

In Sebez I met my brother Zamke as well as Meir-Leibke Mordechowitz who was also from Dusiat, and together we continued our train ride. There was no food on the train, so whenever it stopped, we would get off in order to search for something to eat. I remember stopping in Kuybyshev where we did receive some food. Gradually more and more people got off the train, and did not get back on again.

In Chelyabinsk, not too far from Siberia, we got off the train and were taken to a kolkhoz. We were hungry and exhausted. For a month we had been without proper food. We had left our warm family homes, and where had we gotten?

When we arrived at the kolkhoz, a group of young boys and girls came to greet us with their balalaikas. They had been told that some young people were arriving, but in fact what they saw was a bunch of men falling asleep on their feet. We were barely able to keep our eyes open. We were filthy and infected with lice, and we asked if we could wash ourselves. The following day they gave us bread and milk.

In the kolkhoz we worked at various jobs. Zamke went out to the fields while I worked in the smithy. I didn't really like that work, and since working in the fields was difficult for Zamke, we switched. I had to stack hay. My pants got ripped, and I patched them myself using scraps from sacks. We were barely given anything to eat. The conditions were horrific!

I was nineteen years old then, and wanted to join the army. However, at that time they still did not trust us. After ten months we were recruited into the work brigade, but were not yet posted to the front. We did receive an advance on our salary with which we were able to buy food.

My Brother Zamke - War Hero

We joined the Lithuanian Division as soon as it was formed. They were asking for volunteers for the artillery and I volunteered without even knowing what a machine gun was …

Soon after, Zamke also volunteered. One day, when the Germans surrounded his unit, Zamke shot and killed most of them, and even though he was injured, he refused to retreat from the battlefield. Later on he died from his wounds.

Zamke was buried in Novosibirsk, and despite my repeated requests, the Russians would not allow me to visit his grave.

The story of Zamke's heroism - Zalman Yoffe - is mentioned in Russian war annals: in Einikite (Moscow) No. (59) 38, December 23, 1943:

“ … After his commander was killed in battle, he assumed command of the unit. During the fighting, he was attacked by six Hitlerites, and managed to shoot and kill them to the very last one. He was wounded in this battle, yet refused to leave the battlefield, and for four straight hours continued to command his unit ...”

Thus wrote I. Erenburg:

“… Yoffe, the young machine-gunner, remained all alone. Hitlerites shouting attacked him: 'Surrender, you Russian!' To which he replied: 'Get this, damn you,' and managed to kill four of them with his machine gun, until the fifth one pierced his neck with a bullet. Yoffe, however, remained in the battle zone ... this was only one of many episodes of the war. This was how the Lithuanian Division fought the war...”[3]

The Germans pounded the Red Army, and suddenly we received orders to relieve another division that had suffered serious casualties at the front. Our trucks got stuck in the snow, and it was impossible to transport arms and ammunition. We were hungry and had not been given any rations, and I remember that on the way we killed a horse and ate its flesh...

My first hour in battle had come. We were ordered to capture a hill. The Germans launched a counter-attack from above, hitting our men. Almost the entire division suffered serious casualties. In Alekseyevke, the place where this difficult battle took place, a monument has been erected, with the names of all the fallen soldiers from the Lithuanian Division engraved on it.

I took part in the Battle of Kursk-Orel as well, where the Germans surrounded us from all sides. In the end, however, we managed to overcome them. This battle is mentioned in war chronicles [and is remembered for being the largest clash of armor during WWII]. In White Russia (Belarus) we crossed swamps and forests. Oh, how difficult it was! We reached a point that was controlled by partisans, and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by Germans. We fought a tough battle and defeated them.

Days and months went by. Eventually our Lithuanian Division entered Lithuania

I ended the war in the Courland (Kurland) swamps in Latvia, near Libau (Liepaje) on the Baltic coast. It was May 9, 1945.

When I was a little boy, my father told me stories of when he was a soldier during the WWI. Now I was passing through places he had mentioned. Each time I was reminded of my father …

“Although the Sixteenth Lithuanian Division was the largest framework, which contained the largest number of Lithuanian Jews, it was in no way the only framework.

Just as official Soviet data in most cases distort the number of Jewish Holocaust victims within the Soviet Union, through listing them all as 'Soviet citizens' – in the same way, we cannot learn the real number of Jews in this unit from the official Soviet literature, even that which deals solely with the Lithuanian Division.” [4]

Footnotes

  1. The Shaulists were members of the Sauliu Sajunga – Lithuanian National Sharpshooters Association. At first they comprised paramilitary (civilian fighters) who fought for Lithuanian independence. Over time they become anti-Semitic extremists, and during the Nazi occupation they played an instrumental role in the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry. Return
  2. [17] Levin, Dov. Fighting Back: Lithuanian Jewry's Armed Resistance to the Nazis, 1941-1945, in Yahadut Lita, Vol. 4, p. 30. Return
  3. [18] Erenburg, I. Lietuviai, Zygiai, apkasos, atakos, Red. J. Klicius, Vilnius 1961, p. 499. Return
  4. [19] Levin, Dov. p. 33. Return

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