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[Pages 265-298]

Chapter 8

Pitchayev in America

A Series of Figures,
Activists in the Landsmanshaft

 

[Pages 271-272]

Israel Kravitz

by Charles Saltz

Translated by Elli Epstein

Israel Kravitz was born in Trostinetz, Podolia Province. Fate placed him, and the old home, to Pitchayev. His father, Hersh, wanted that his son, who had a very capable head on his shoulders, should become a rabbi. He gave Israel over to the best teachers. He was at home with Tanach and the Talmud. He also learned languages with a private “writer” and he was knowledgeable in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. At 21 years, he was taken to military service, in the Yakutzker Regiment, stationed in Kremenetz. The 5th group of the regiment, where Israel served, spent the winter in Pitchayev. The Jews of the town were concerned that the Jewish soldiers from this group should avoid eating non- kosher food. The people divided these soldiers among their households, as if they were Yeshiva boys, to eat “days.” (This is a form of free room and board for Yeshiva students before the establishment of dorms.)

This led to the situation where the Jewish soldiers came to feel comfortable and at home with the Jews of the town. They became a part of the community, and some of them made shiduchim (matches.) Israel also became engaged. When he finished his service, he married Pearl, a daughter of Hersh Mindes[1]. That is how he remained a resident of Pitchayev.

Even though his wife had an inheritance, where the capital gains would be sufficient for livelihood, Israel did not approve of this. In 1900, he immigrated to America. He settled in Philadelphia, where he became a tailor in a “shop.” Later in 1904, his Pearl came to him. They established a family. They had two sons[2]. In a few years, Israel became independent and established his own business.

As soon as he came to Philadelphia, he became involved with other people from Pitchayev. He became more closely involved when his wife came with other Pitchayever—among those who came was his brother-in-law Khone[3].

His home became the center for all Pitchayever. His wife Pearl lovingly welcomed people to their home. It became the home for all newly arrived immigrants. She was always the first to help them with all their needs. If someone needed an interest free loan, Pearl supplied them with the loan.

After the First World War, the Pitchayever group developed an Aid Society for their home town. Pearl and Israel devoted their efforts into this project with all their heart and soul. Israel had the postion of treasurer of the “Pitchayever Aid Society Corporation” for the rest of his life. With pen in hand, from his home, he conscientiously and honestly carried out his function for the Aid activities.

Footnotes for this story were added by the Pochayev Yizkor Book Project Coordinator.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The author is referring to his father Hersh Mindes Saltz. Return
  2. They also had a daughter who is not mentioned in the story. Return
  3. The author is referring to himself, the brother of Pearl. Return


[Pages 285-298]

Events in the Life of a Native of Pitchayev
and the Holocaust Years in Lithuania

by Chaim Gechtel (Galeen), Israel [1]

Translated by Judy Grossman

I left Pitchayev in the fall of 1939, shortly after the Soviet forces occupied the Western Ukraine, including Pitchayev. At that time a largish group of young people left for Vilna, when the Soviet government handed the city over to Lithuania, which at that time was formally still a sovereign country. From Vilna I went to a provincial town with a group of young people, where we established a hachshara[2] farm. Our goal was Eretz Israel.

Lithuania did not remain independent very long, the Country was annexted by the Soviets and the Lithuanian government was liquidated. I did not succeed in leaving there in time to look for a new haven. Afterwards it became absolutely impossible to leave. I found myself in an extremely difficult situation: I couldn't go back to Pitchayev, and understandably also didn't want to. At the hachshara farm we lived in a tight circle, like a close family. However, in the new situation we could no longer remain together as a Zionist group. We had to separate. It was not at all easy to settle in a place; we did not know the local language, and the people weren't very friendly. The Lithuanians showed their true face later on. As refugees from the Germans, or as escapees from Pitchayev, we were also in a special state vis-à-vis the powers that be and I had to change my place of residence frequently. A month before the outbreak of the German-Russian war, I landed up in the town of Janowo, thirty-something kilometers southeast of Kaunas (Kovno), the capital of Lithuania.

The German attack surprised everyone. Everyone, especially the Jews, firmly believed that the Red Army was super strong. Consequently, no one rushed to leave in time, even though we were quite close to the border. When everyone recognized the danger, it was already too late to escape. On the day after the invasion, a group of us set out towards the east. We had barely walked thirty kilometers (riding could not be considered as there was nothing to ride in), when we ran into the Germans.

I still see the picture in my mind today: we, frightened by the unpleasant encounter, and they, healthy, clean, well-fed young men with rolled-up sleeves, “the conquerors of Europe”. How miserable we looked in comparison to them, with their gigantic tanks and machine guns! We were destined to spend one night under the same roof as the “liberators of the world”. We didn't yet know them then, but what we overheard about Hitler's “liberators” was enough for us not to feel too well. But the army units did not show any special interest in us. They evidently knew that they had someone to rely on. They made do with questioning us briefly, and in their way gave us a lecture on “Jewishness” and let us go. They just warned us not to flee to the east, because we would anyways encounter their comrades everywhere. Later we also persuaded ourselves that the Lithuanians were lying in wait for us in the places that the Germans had not yet reached, as they had turned their coats overnight and simply treated us like bandits.

We were at a loss. There was no way forward, but the way back was also not easy. From the moment we encountered the Germans, we sensed that we were abandoned, exposed to the danger of every outcast and bloodthirsty “Aryan”. We were held up everywhere, searched, ransacked, with anything that appealed to our searchers taken from us. We thanked the Lord that we came out of their hands alive. It took us several days to draw near to Janowo. We discovered that there were still battles going on around the town. It took the Germans several days to capture the town. For all that time we lay in trenches in a village, because the bullets were flying from all sides. We encountered many Jews there who had undergone the same experience as we had.

After the Germans took over the town, we returned there in fear. It is still better to be under a roof than in an open field, but we only found a few houses in the town. The majority of the houses had been destroyed, and there was no place to enter.

That very day we decided to go to Kaunas (Kovno). Our calculation was simple: first of all, the town had been destroyed and we had nowhere to put ourselves; secondly – what really decided us and was also a correct calculation, was that there were about thirty thousand Jews in Kovno, a large group of people, which is not so easily killed.

We again had to make the journey on foot. We were more careful on the road, walking singly or in pairs, and on side roads. The way to the capital was peaceful. Several Christians even warned us not to enter the city, because a pogrom was taking place there. We didn't particularly believe them. As usual, everyone hoped that it wouldn't happen to him. We could no longer remain outside.

We sneaked into the city quietly, without noise. The streets were empty, either because of the hot summer day (the end of June), or because of the new government, which in a few days had already shown what it was for the Jews. Several thousand Jews were brutally murdered within three days, simply massacred. The Lithuanians fell on their Jewish neighbors with knives and axes. Several thousand Jews, men and women, were dragged out of their homes and taken to the “Seventh Fort” fortress. From the few who succeeded in escaping, I learned of the terrible suffering the people underwent until they were killed. Without food or water, they were brought outside and surrounded by Lithuanian thugs who shot machine guns into the mass of people concentrated into a small space. That was the face of the first days of Jewish enslavement in Lithuania.

Although we were not cautious when entering the city, we nevertheless did not encounter the powers in control. We had no acquaintances in that big city, and we didn't know where to enter. We had to wander through the streets for a while. The Lithuanians caught us. They didn't make a big deal of us (they were apparently sated with Jewish blood), didn't ask for any documents, because Jews didn't need them anyway. If you were a Jew you were already everything they didn't like. After being held imprisoned for several hours, they told us that we were being sent to work. In the meantime, they had admonished us a bit and made several nice statements such as “You have had a good life for long enough; that's over now, now we will see how you, who have lived from our labor up to now, will work.”

Twenty more Jews that they had caught were added to our group. We were brought by convoy to a match factory, which was located outside the city. The entire yard was full of Germans who had set up house in the tents and the few houses in the yard. The Lithuanian who brought us unfortunately knew no German, and even here he was not fated to manage without the mediation of a Jew.

The first half of the day passed with hard labor, chopping wood and loading flour, and we also received some “taps” from the overseers. However, we knew where we were and we had to bite our tongues. The second half of the day was a bit different; all the Germans in the yard started up with us. We had to do their dirty work with our hands, but that was not enough for them. Several times they made us stand in two rows and march along singing. At the same time, the German officers took out their expensive Leica cameras and photographed the “Jewish march”. For that they encouraged us with sticks and iron bars. But of all poses, they liked one best – how we would look with our hair shorn off in their “style” – a strip of hair lengthwise and widthwise (like a cross) on our heads. They weren't too lazy to do it. Only then were they happy, and looking for something more to arouse German “joy”, they couldn't find anything more than to beat us.

Late in the evening they began to consult about what to do with us. Apparently they were also a bit tired from their day's “work” and they didn't feel like dealing with us at night as well. They were also certain that it was very easy for them to obtain such satisfaction. They only needed to ask their friends the Lithuanians, and they would immediately provide as many Jews as they wanted. The officer “invited” us to come to work in the morning, and he warned us that anyone who didn't come would be shot. But it was “not his luck” (a phrase that was adopted in the ghetto) – that I should return to him or at all go to work for the Germans. I was careful. I hid in a small synagogue in the Kovno suburb of Slobodka. That “day's work” taught me a great deal.

Things went on in this way for over a month, with the “unofficial” annihilation of the Jewish people in the Lithuanian capital of Kovno. Afterwards came the decree: to the ghetto!

 

Ghetto

The ghetto was set up in the suburb of Kovo' Slobodka. The same houses in which barely a few thousand people had formerly lived now had to absorb over thirty thousand Jews – residents of Kovno and also Jews from cities and towns in its environs – who ended up there in various direct and indirect ways.

Very quickly Jewish hands under German-Lithuanian supervision placed a barbed wire fence around the entire area of the ghetto. Jews were ordered to move to the quarter within a specified time. During the time of moving over, the Lithuanians would stand and take away everything that took their fancy.

I was spared the move with my possessions. What I possessed did not pose any danger for me. But not possessing a thing did not make things easier for me. The little bit of money that I had with me when the war broke out quickly disappeared, and I didn't earn any more. The barbed wire fence absolutely limited the movement of all the Jews. Food began to be expensive, and later was altogether hard to obtain. A large proportion of the Jews quickly began to hunger. At the beginning, life in the ghetto was not organized. People were depressed and frightened. A black cloud enveloped everyone together and each one individually. The situation led to people requesting to be taken to work. I recall, as though it were today, because I was also among the thousands who gathered every morning in the large square in front of the ghetto gate in order to push against the door from which one could go out to work. What work? It was all the same: dirty, humiliating. That is how all work for us was under the supervision of the Herrenvolk[3] for whom we worked.

There was always someone to make sure that you felt humiliated – and that was the main reason for their taking Jews to work. Nevertheless, anyone who succeeded in going out the gate, after many blows, was lucky – he had a chance to eat something, to allay his hunger, no matter how. He could pass by a garden and steal a carrot, a beet, a cucumber, or steal away from the column and sneak into a Gentile home and beg for something to eat, and it sometimes worked. It might be hard, or a bit funny, if I admit that very often the food was a kind of gamble. We could visit five-six houses and eat everywhere. It was as though we wanted to ensure that we had a certain reserve in our bodies, so that we would be able to hold out for a while without eating. And you couldn't always get out of the city – so you had to take advantage of the day!

The Germans quite quickly demanded that everyone go to work. But work was already a bit different. Now, even those who had done it previously no longer pushed themselves to the gate. To build an airport in the autumn rain and mud, day and night without any remuneration, or, more correctly, for the remuneration of beatings and under strict guard, where there was no possibility of “organizing” (as it was called) something to keep body and soul together. The harsh situation in the ghetto pushed a group of responsible people to do something to organize life in the ghetto. With the agreement of the Germans, a council was established in the ghetto, which was called the Judenrat. But before it could do something, the ghetto received its first and greatest blow. Over ten thousand people were selected from among the inhabitants of the ghetto and were led away. They were shot in the Ninth Fort in Kovno (which later also served as an extermination camp for Jews from other countries). This calamity was later called “the big action” of October 28 by the Jews. If I could draw, I would draw a picture of the big action. It would have to be a huge picture: evil and cruelty, sadism and hooliganism on the one side, pain and helplessness on the other side.

It is hard to find an example for the “laws” that the Germans applied to us. And it is hard for me to imagine what that day caused the German from the Gestapo to send me to the side of those who had not yet been sentenced to death, just as I didn't know at all which side was which.

Those who remained could not calm down for a long time after the disaster. There wasn't a family that wasn't affected by the calamity. Few of my friends remained. The 'big action” swallowed several of them up.

Life in the ghetto became shook up. The uncertain tomorrow pushed people to various thoughts. One idea gained the upper hand: “live as long as you can!” People began to sell their best and most valuable possessions, which through some miracle they still had with them, in order to live in hiding. People moved into the homes of their neighbors who had not returned from the action, took over their possessions, so that they did not fall into German hands, and they would be useful as long as one lived. Even with ten thousand fewer people it was still crowded, because the area of the ghetto was reduced.

After this, life in the ghetto came to a standstill. The time of leaving the Jews alone, except for minor incidents, gave everyone the opportunity to get settled according to his/her means. People began trading, obviously illegally. Food began to be brought through various ways. That made things much easier for the people who had money or possessions. The people who didn't have these again had to look for other ways to support themselves. Over time people began to work in vital places outside the city, which made it possible to bring home something that didn't cost any money, legally or illegally. We would put something for the sentries into our pocket or bag, which none of us ever went without, because if not something to eat, it was good for bringing a piece of wood or a bit of coal, for yourself or to sell to someone in the ghetto. In this way, everyone managed according to his/her means. I wasn't one of the former, but one of the latter, those who fed themselves with what came to hand, with bringing a piece of wood to sell, etc.

Although I described the time after the “big action” as a quiet one, this was only in comparison to what had happened previously, because in general, no short period of time went by without victims. Things continued in this way endlessly.

In the summer of 1942 I managed to find work in a large meat factory in Kovno. Now my situation improved greatly because I always brought something home: meat, sausage or preserves. I would sell some of it and that enabled me to obtain other things. However, my “luck” only lasted for two months. One fine day on my way back from work, I was caught and taken to a labor camp.

I need to stop and explain the basic difference at that time between the ghetto and a labor camp. Later on the camp was even worse. In the ghetto you had freedom of movement, could keep yourself clean, etc. In the labor camp it was otherwise. First of all, there was a regime to which everyone had to adapt. For twenty-four hours a day you had to do what you were told. A few hundred Jews from the Kovno and Vilna ghettos worked at the construction of a railway depot with almost no food and in terribly unsanitary conditions. Luckily for me, I was only there for two months. Afterwards, with the help of my friends I was able to return to the ghetto.

Shortly before I was taken to the camp, we began to get organized, first the pioneering organizations and later on the others. Only a few individuals who had been members of the youth organizations before the war still remained, and the times assigned the organization of the young people who had grown up since then to them. At the time it was called “out of the ghetto to fight”!

The work had to be kept secret from the ghetto inhabitants because we didn't know them. We had to guard against undesirable elements. Poor, but with great will, the groups began to work. Without discussing it, everyone had the same goal. The ground was not yet ripe for a mass organization of the ghetto. Preparing the ground took more than a year, i.e. until the summer of 1943, when the first partisan groups left the ghetto.

While relating this, I will stop for a minute to relate the story of the group to which I belonged.

There were five of us who knew each other from Hechalutz Hatzair. We met infrequently because everyone was taken up with making a living. Shortly afterwards we met a few more friends from the movement, among them one who worked in the ghetto police. Such a member was very useful to us. After a while we decided to meet once a week to obtain information from each of the members who had something to relate. After several such gatherings we had the idea of increasing the size of our circle through uniting with other Hashomer Hatzair groups and the Labor Zionist Students Association.

The general partisan movement in Lithuania began in 1943.

As I said, the first group left the ghetto in the summer of 1943. I was one of this group of 18 people. We had three pistols, five grenades and knives. The composition of the group was good. We were supposed to be the pioneers of a partisan base that we wanted to set up in the forests of southwest Lithuania. We were ready, but we were lacking one thing – partisan experience. You don't only need to know how to shoot in order to be a partisan; you also need to know how to operate in the area, where you are surrounded on all sides by enemies. Without knowledge of partisan tactics, our group was not successful. After marching for two days, we looked around and saw that we would not reach our goal this way. After a short gathering in a wood, the majority decided to return to the ghetto and in a period of time work out a better plan. Getting back into the ghetto was a little harder than getting out. We decided to enter with the group of workers returning from work to the ghetto in the early evening. It is obvious that there was no possibility of returning with our “arsenal”, lest they catch us and find the weapons, which would seal our fate. Consequently, we buried all the “non-kosher” things in a certain spot, so that we could quickly retrieve them.

We punctiliously worked out to which side and which work group to attach ourselves. But not everything works out according to plan. The sentries stopped me and two others as looking suspect. They suspected us of not belonging to the group. For over half a day, the officer of the watch interrogated us and threatened us with shooting, asking us how we had come there. The fact that we were not registered by number with the group leader increased the suspicion. At noon we were taken to a nearby jail (the Germans erected such jails all over the place) and the officer phoned the Gestapo in Kovno to ask about us.

Late at night, when we were already asleep, we were awoken and brought to the Gestapo in a special limousine. You can imagine how we felt knowing where we were, and also knowing that in the protocol that the officer had written, it clearly stated that “the three detained Jews belong to a partisan group”.

The three of us spent that night in a narrow cell. We were interrogated unofficially in the middle of the night from the nearby cells with “innocent” questions that were meant to determine how long we had actually been outside the ghetto and whether we were at all locals. I have to state here that thanks to the fact that I immediately caught on to what the “questions” meant, and to the fact that I had been able to exchange a few words with the Jews that I had met that morning at work, with my short and bold answers I was able to mess up the accepted German procedure – of questions by ostensible prisoners through the wall.

The official interrogation was drilling through our minds, and we had to think up a good excuse that would really answer the question of how we happened to be with that work group. It was quite clear that we didn't belong to that group. We could no longer cling to that. The fact that there were no minutes of our interrogation when we were detained made it possible for us to be more flexible about what we said there, which is what we actually did: we said something completely different to what we had previously said.

We were taken to be interrogated before noon. While we were standing in the corridor, a Jewish doctor from the ghetto noticed us. He worked for the Gestapo as a doctor. He immediately knew what was going on. He had a certain amount of influence with a few Germans and began doing something for us. His work was not in vain. Even before the interrogation he made the matter a bit “softer” and told us not to be frightened. I have to add here that the doctor had received instructions from the partisan headquarters in the ghetto – as I later found out – to do everything he could to prevent an interrogation.

Each of us was interrogated separately, and we managed to get away with only a beating. Each of us received more than 60 blows with a lead-tipped whip. Only in the evening, when we were finally let out of the locked doors and brought to the ghetto, did I feel my pain. I had to lie on my belly for a week. The matter ended with that.

It took about two months. We had to change our plan and become more practical. During that time, we did additional training with weapons, this time with rifles and machine guns, which had been brought into the ghetto. We also learned about many more problems connected to partisan life. Two months later we went out again. This time we were a larger group – 40 men – and well armed. We were led by two friends who had come to get us from the forest. We began being partisans within the first two hours of leaving the ghetto, before we reached the base group.

 

Partisans

My time of being a partisan in the forest abounds with various stories and episodes.

It is hard to describe the feeling of a person who is liberated. Surrounded on all sides by enemies, you feel good in the little partisan kingdom. The actual appearance of the camp, in the middle of the forest, convinced us that these were organized people. I don't want to describe the whole matter as an idyll. There were also anti-Semitic elements in the ranks of the "red partisans". This must not be denied, because it had a specific effect at that time too, especially after we met up with the army. Mainly, it was various elements from among the Russian prisoners-of-war who began coming to us. During the time of their imprisonment, they had eaten well from the anti-Semitic kettle that the Germans had cooked up for them. However, none of this interfered with our work.

For the nine months that I was a partisan, I took part in a campaign almost every day, frequently in great battles in which several partisan divisions took part. The majority of my friends fell in battle. However, the fact that you might fall in battle did not hold anyone back.

I remember a case in which I was almost desperate, although I didn't think that all was already lost. It was in June 1944. The Germans had already received some serious blows. They retreated every day. Their retreat was so fast that it sometimes came as a surprise. I was in a group that was on a mission deep inside Lithuania. We were supposed to return at a certain terminal, but now the front moved dangerously, and all the secure routes to our base were no longer secure. We decided that there was work for us here too. Quartered in a small wood, we would go out on various missions as a group.

The main highway, not far from the place we were staying, had for several days been under our control. Six of us went out in a group to do something… We succeeded in shooting at and stopping two vehicles carrying senior officers. It was obviously quickly liquidated, and we had to return to the woods. Imagine how astounded we were to suddenly see ourselves surrounded on all sides by German soldiers. Fifty meters away from us they were installing telephone lines, and an entire column was approaching from another side. What could we do? The first few minutes of tension went by, and we searched for a way out. None of us believed that we would come out of it alive. When we returned, we found that the Germans had occupied new positions when they were retreating. Luck was with us, in that no one noticed us until dusk. Late at night with heavy fire we cut through a route that separated us from the whole group, and we arrived safely. Such events were not infrequent occurrences. Sometimes they were more dangerous, sometimes less, but always dangerous.

My activity as a partisan ended on July 24 1944, when our group took part in the fight to liberate the city of Vilkomir. There we met up with the Red Army. A few days later we were sent to our headquarters, which at that time were located in Vilna.

 

Free Again

A few friends met again under different circumstances – as free men. The war was still going on. None of us had given up our goal – Israel. However, it was still too soon to do something in practice. In deep shock we stood over the mass graves in Vilna and in Kovno. There was not a single trace of our friends who had remained in the ghetto. The only thing we did was to reorganize. As former partisans, we all received positions. Our goal now was to search for all those who had participated in killing Jews and bring them to justice. We did a lot in this matter; not a hundred percent, because we didn't know everyone and didn't know what this or that one had done. There were very few Jews, and therefore it was hard to expose all the murderers, but to a certain extent we paid them back.

In April 1945 I set out on my way from Lithuania to Israel. That journey was also not an easy one.

Three years later I finally arrived in Israel, on the day of the great historical event – on the day that the Jewish state was established.

I had already arranged to see the friends with whom I had shared many experiences in the ghetto and the forest, and afterwards. Almost all those who remained alive are already here. Now we are again facing a fateful fight. We hope that we will win this time too and assure many years of peace and liberty for our weary people.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The narrator is a native of Pitchayev. His narrative is mainly about Lithuania, to which his wanderings led him. However, the destruction of the Jews of Lithuania was the same as that of Pitchayev. Return
  2. A training farm for life in Israel, run by the pioneering Zionist youth movements Return
  3. Master race Return

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