On The Bloody Roads of
Lithuania, Latvia, and Byelorusia
Bombs are Falling
In fright and haste we are leaving our settled old homes. We are running. We no longer have any place of our own, no peaceful little corner, no ground under our feet. We are homeless.
Like thunder in broad daylight, the phenomenon that has driven us out was unanticipated, astonishing, and unnatural. So surprising were the cracking sounds that shook us out of our deep early morning sleep. Yesterday, Saturday night, we had quietly and peacefully gone to bed as usual, and all at once, just before dawn-boo-oom-bang!...shsh-boo-oom-bang! Bombs were ripping from the sky.
I don't remember clearly. I can't figure out whether the noise pitched us out of our beds, or whether we jumped out. I remember that we ran over to the windows, that the windowpanes, the walls, and the whole house shook as though from an earthquake. Disheveled heads with frightened eyes were looking out of the windows of the surrounding houses. In one moment, the ghetto of Kovno had sprung up and was standing on its feet. The strange conversations began:
What happened? What's going on?
Well, you can see.... Airplanes.... They are dropping bombs. Bombs?...
Oh, come on! It's just the Russians practicing air maneuvers. They are trying them out. There has long been a lot of talk about that.
Air maneuvers?... Why are you talking foolishness? You can hear, can't you? Real bombs are falling. Right now, do you hear? Can you hear?
Look, look! Something is burning, not far from here.... Look how much smoke it's causing!
What a tremendous noise and cracking! See, see, just over there, behind the roof, the airplanes!... It seems they aren't Russian planes... How can that be air maneuvers?
Well, what just happened suddenly?... Ha?...
A confusion, a loud racket. We don't know what's going on. The airplanes are flying close to us and very low. A crackling noise and screaming corning from all sides. From a few places columns of smoke are rising. Things are burning, it seems.
What kind of invasion is this? What can it mean?
My telephone is ringing. A friend of mine is calling me. I can sense in the telephone receiver that his voice is trembling. He informs me:
It's a war! Germany has attacked Russia.... It's bad....
But how can that be? Why would Germany, just like that and for no good reason, attack Russia? It seems to me that only yesterday, late at night, these two powerful neighbors went peaceably to sleep, each within its own borders, with pleasant feelings toward each other. The rulers of these great countries have visited each other; they have had their photographs taken together; they have shaken hands in a friendly fashion. They have made a multi-year friendship pact, and they have sent each other huge shipments of food, machines, and other valuable merchandise! We simple people, the one-year-old Soviet community on the border of Lithuania-we can see that both of the two huge nations between whom we find ourselves want to hold on to a firm and lengthy peace.
In any case, we, simple people that we are, want it absolutely and for sure. And we simple people really do want to believe in the good will and peacefulness of both these great neighbors, because that is human nature: What we wish to see, we make ourselves believe....
So the bombs that fell that night were completely disorienting. But they were disorienting not only for us simple people but for a good many more important people as well. On the twenty-second of June, 1941, during a Sunday pleasure outing, it happened. With lightning speed, Hitler's dark forces broke through the eastern border, and before long death had marched across the Baltic and other eastern lands of Europe.
We soon discerned that this was a new kind of war-the most frightening and bloodiest in a chain of wars and destruction.
We had hoped, in our quiet comer of the earth, that we would be spared, and now the horrible, all-destroying war fell upon us also. Just yesterday, we were the hospitable, settled homeowners, the peaceful supporters and caregivers for the refugees, the Jews of Poland who had fled the war, and now, all at once, the black wings of war hovered over our heads, too.
Our entire life suddenly took a tum, and we became war victims, abandoned.
Kovno Digs and...Runs
As in a fever the hours fly by, until we have somewhat recovered from the first blow. We have already heard our fill of disquieting and nerve-wracking news and noises from all sides. Now it becomes clear that, as always in this type of case, clever, foresighted people had known what was about to happen. They had known, but no one would listen to them.
The Kovno airport building, bridges, and surrounding neighborhoods are constantly bombarded by German airplanes. They fly in, in groups, suddenly; they carry out their lightning quick air attacks, throw down their death-dealing cargo, and just as quickly they vanish into the heavenly void, leaving behind them destruction, fire, and panic. Here and there, buildings are burning. In other places people are already wounded or killed. Bomb splinters fly over
roofs, over heads. People run around confused, beseeching one another, calling on the telephone. One detects that the fear of death is great, and death is near-oh, how near....
But what will happen? What is our situation? And the main issue: What do we do? Should we run? Run where? How can we run? How can we leave behind what little goods and property we have? What do you do with an old mother, with a weak father, with small children? It's easy to say run, but how do you do it?
On the first day of the war, almost no one ran from Kovno. People allowed themselves to be calmed down. Kovno is after all almost one hundred kilometers from the border, we reasoned, and the Russian soldier is no helpless coward. We thought, It is not so bad. We are under the protection of the great and mighty Red Army. Russia will not let Germany freely go forward and reach Kovno so quickly. Germany attacked so unexpectedly that the Red Army was probably a bit lost at first, but just tomorrow or the next day, you will see what a blow it will strike at Germany's head. Just wait a little, let the Red soldiers gird up their loins, and you will see what they are capable of. He, the Russian bear, is heavy, a bit clumsy, not as agile and cunning as the proud German eagle, but just have a little patience, and you will hear a blow, a smash powerful enough to send Germany rolling backwards all the way to hell!
That is the way we thought, and hoped. So what if bombs are falling? You can see that the Russians are strong, and are not at all thinking of retreating from Kovno, we told ourselves. As evidence, they are advising us, the civilian population, to dig shelter holes, protection trenches, a kind of bunker in which to hide, and be protected from air attacks, from the bombs and splinters. And there are already, somewhere here, instructors, knowledgeable people, and committees, who teach and quickly demonstrate how and where to dig, how and when to hide, and what to do in case of fire. Everything is organized, it seems. Everything is foreseen and calculated.
So people threw themselves into the digging of shelter holes the first day. Wherever there was a spade, an axe, a pickaxe, a shovel-everything went into the task of digging. People who lived in larger buildings got together, and combined with a few neighbors, and began digging in partnership. That way it was easier, more comfortable. The men worked hard, and sweated, and the women also lent a hand, as did children. Death hovered over their heads, from the skies, and people dug feverishly, fast, under strain. Around the patios of the houses, in gardens, in orchards between the trees, in every suitable place shelter holes and bunkers were soon half finished, and strengthened with dragged-in boards, stones, and whatever else could be found.
In factories and institutions people came to work, mainly to get relevant instructions. I myself fulfilled my duties right up to the last minute. I was not at all thinking of pulling out of the work I was doing. I ran to my superiors and got from them specific instructions (or weak and unclear ones), and without
worrying about the frequent air attacks, I traveled across town and out of town to give these instructions to the land management groups that were under my agronomist supervision.
I showed how to deal with the dangers that might arise, what to do with the inventory of the living and the dead in case of fires or riots. I calmed people, and it seemed to me that I calmed myself also. There is no reason be afraid just now, I said. There is nothing to be perplexed about. The Nazis aren't coming yet, not today and not tomorrow.
The first to start packing and evacuating were the commissariats, the organizations, the higher-ranking state officers, and the civilian and half-civilian Russians, with the wives and children of the military people-the Soviet people. Hundreds and hundreds of automobiles, cargo carriers, and trucks filled the streets, squares, and throughways. Everything that could be driven out was feverishly packed and loaded. The Soviets took seats in the vehicles, and lo and behold, they were ready to travel. They were already moving; they were running away. Just before nightfall, I telephoned my superiors. I wanted to consult them, to find out what I could, but-they were not anywhere to be found. They had run away.
With regret and pain, we now paid attention to the panic, which grew greater and greater, and to the haste and confusion among the first to flee. We wondered, Is the danger really that close, then, that they have to leave now? Are the Germans really advancing that fast? It was not to be believed; no one wanted to believe it.
On the first night of the war, people didn't sleep much. They dug shelter holes; they got ready; they were feverish. Enemy airplanes broke into the stillness of the night, cut through the darkness with their colorful rockets, cast a sense of horror on the people below, and vanished for a while into the heavenly void. The darkness of the night frightened people, and they were frightened also by the mysterious noises in the area, and the uncertainty of what the coming day might bring.
And then comes the early morning. The sun comes up, clear, hot-a hot burning day is coming. I go out. I approach the main street-and suddenly, I experience a shudder, a frantic incomprehensible fright: The whole city is moving, on foot and on wheels, everything is walking, riding, and running in a terrible confusion, in an animal-like panic and stampede. I see eyes full of desolation. In the commotion of people, wagons, and machines, a mother is pushing a small cart in which a child screams for the breast. A father is carrying a pack of the most useful articles for his household, and a young boy is carrying his little sister.
People are running, one to catch the train, another to hitch up a horse and wagon. Still another is driving an automobile, and someone else is on foot. Jews want to save themselves. They don't want to stay. They want to run away from the ruthless enemy, who is forging ahead, nearer, nearer.
But not everyone can run. It isn't easy to pick yourself up and leave a settled place. Others don't believe in running. They put no stock in it. One can't, in any case, run very far.... Still, everyone senses that the bloodthirsty enemy is marching at a tremendous tempo. He is getting closer. The magic heroism of the Russian army, it turns out, cannot stop him.
And in truth, toward the end of the second day of war, the dead march of the enemy had already approached the outskirts of Kovno.
On Burned-out Roads
We are running away from Kovno. I have an automobile at my disposal. I take with me the family of Kovno's dentist, Ruf-the elder father and mother and two daughters. The roads are flooded with people, horses, machines. Civilians are running, intermixed with retreating Russian military details. The chaos, the shouting, and the noise, the crowds at the points of bottleneck are indescribable. The automobile takes us over the Vilkomir road, through Yanova, Vilkomir, Utyan, Dvipsk, Kreslavke, and Indra to the Latvian-Byelorussian border.
Here and there places are burning from the bombs that have been dropped. No one even tries to put out the fires-there is no time, and there is nothing that isn't already worthless. The retreating Russians also set fire, here and there, to storage dumps of benzine, machines, food, and other things that can't be quickly taken away and saved from the enemy. Already many Jewish homes are standing empty, with doors and windows hastily nailed shut. Everywhere Jewish belongings and goods are lying around abandoned, and we see that the greedy eyes and fingers of Christian neighbors are upon them. We see frightened Jewish eyes as well. Everyone wants to flee, everyone feels that they must flee, but some can't quite make up their minds. We'll see, they seem to be saying. Who knows? Maybe we will not have to flee. Maybe the Russians will stop the Germans.
We leave Vilkomir behind. All at once-a panic! German airplanes are flying overhead and dropping bombs on the roadway. The noisy movement dies suddenly. People leap from their autos and wagons, and hide along the edge of the roadway. We do the same. We are lying hidden in holes between tall grass and small trees, huddled on the ground. We hold our breath, as though the airplanes could hear us. The earth shakes. The noise of the nearby motors deafens us. The children are crying; the women try to help them. Death is hovering over our heads.
And then the noise becomes faint. The airplanes are far away now. One by one, people stick out their heads. They become bolder. They crawl out of their hiding places and look around. Not far away, there are a couple of smashed autos and a wagon. Two horses with smashed-up heads and bellies torn open lay dying in pools of blood. And people are also hurt and killed. A soldier under a wagon points to his shattered feet, weeps, and begs for mercy: Don't
leave me behind! Take me with you! Take me with you! His screams and groans grow quieter, weaker...he is dripping with blood. Then he is dead.
This is the first bloody death that we have seen. The first, but not the last. That bloody death has already attached itself to us permanently.
They are Shooting from the Woods
We are traveling onward, amid the commotion. As we get farther from Kovno, the crowds running with us grow thin, and their movements smaller. We see fewer military people from the regular army. Instead there are Russian and local party members, and high office holders with their families. Their autos roll over the roadway by the score. They feel that they must get out of this place as fast as possible, because nothing good awaits them here. People of the village look at them with mockery. They make light of them, shrug their shoulders, and disappear into their houses, or into the thick woods.
We are traveling through Utyan. A part of the city is standing in smoke and flames. We are going through a wooded neighborhood. The roadway is almost empty of people. All at once-the cracking sounds of rifle fire. They are shooting from the woods, from both sides of the road, it seems. One bullet makes a hole in the automobile's window; another bullet rips through the door. No one is hit. We get away with only a scare. We drive off, not very far, and find that other automobiles are blocking the road. Again a cracking sound: shots from rifles and also from machine guns. We have to stop. We go outside. We crawl on our knees and hide ourselves in trenches. Bullets are flying and whistling over our heads. What's happening here? I crawl the length of the trench and get closer to a group of Russians, who are lying down not far away. I ask them. They point to the woods, and one of them says, Bandits. Large bands of Lithuanian fascists, of your shaulists, are firing at us. Can you hear? They also have machine guns. We have to wait it out.
The shooting lasts a good half-hour. Afterward, three people are lying there wounded. We bandage them; we lay them down in the autos and drive on. We don't want to be separated from the group, because we know we are safer that way. We are shot at a couple more times, and we do the same thing we did before: We hide in the trenches along the sides of the road, and when the bandits have shot all they can, we travel on. Again bloody corpses are lying before our eyes. Death has become our faithful companion.
Before us is a new danger. The people who have acted as our protectors are eyeing our auto. They like it. They want to take it away from us. After all, it's wartime, and whoever has the power has the say. Without looking at other dangers, I decide to take my passengers and leave the group. We stay off the road for a bit, and at the first opportunity we tum onto a side road in the woods and disappear. Let whatever may be ordained come, but we don't want to give up the automobile.
We run away from our protectors.
On the Byelorussian Border
We avoided going through the city of Dvinsk. It was too crowded and noisy on the streets. Here and there places were burning. Also, we were afraid, lest they take away our automobile. For these reasons we traveled on side roads. We reached Kreslavke and Indre, in Latvia, and finally the border of Byelorussia. Here there began a new problem, a very big problem.
They would not let us travel any farther. Beside the border were hundreds of refugees from Lithuania and Latvia, and their number grew from hour to hour. To all requests and arguments, the Soviet border guards had one answer:
It's an order not to let anyone through! Get back twenty paces! If not, we shoot! We shoot!
We slept beside the border for twelve days, twelve long, empty days and nights. We hid the automobile in the densest part of the woods, and we ourselves stayed in a nearby barn. We began to run out of the food we had brought, and little by little we grew hungry. By this time, the number of refugees had reached into the thousands. Armies of people, mostly Jews but here and there also non-Jews, lay about in trenches, in the woods and fields. They begged to cross the border, but only communists, party members with kosher papers in hand, were allowed through. We, the rest, were non-kosher. We had no right to save ourselves, even though we had been, for more than a year already, Soviet citizens.
Meanwhile, the Germans were marching with tremendous speed. Like ghosts and devils, the motorized units pushed to the forefront and created a sense of terror. Kovno had long been occupied. Soon Dvinsk and Kreslavke fell also. And only then, when the Germans were ten to twelve kilometers from the Latvian-Russian border and the border guard had suddenly disappeared-only then were we able to move to the front. But how far were we going to run now, when the tremendous might of the enemy was so close, when he was already treading on our heels?
I have often, very often, wondered whether the Russians, who were at that time our friends and protectors, did not share some of the blame for the calamity that befell tens of thousands of our people. After all, refugees at the Bigosover border point and other border points had the same experience that we did. Why did the Russians keep the way barred for weeks? Why did they refuse to let us to go ahead until...until we had all but fallen into the hands of the murderers? Why? Why?
That is only one of the many whys that we have shouted at the world and at fate, that has played us so bitter a turn....
In any case, we crossed the border at last. We were on Byelorussian soil. It was raining. The roads were bad, swampy. Our wheels dug in. The automobile pulled with its last powers. A few more times we kept it going, until finally a group of soldiers, led by an officer, took it away from us, throwing the chil-
dren and the baggage onto the road. We were not far from the village of Sarya, behind Bigosova.
What were we going to do? Where could we run? How could we save our families? The enemy was near; he was right behind us....
Our deliberation did not last long. We threw everything away and set out on foot.
In the Enemy's Encirclement
It is not important to tell how we were able to go-two castaway families with weak women and children. Without mercy the July sun burned our fatigued bodies; without mercy stones cut into the tender little feet of the children. Hungry and worn out, we dragged ourselves over the dusty roads and trails of Byelorussia. We kept going forward, ever forward, carried by momentum, which in tum created courage and hope. For those few weeks of wandering, the simple thought that we must run and save ourselves gave us strength.
It is also not important to tell how I was able, very quickly, to put together an entire mobile household-a horse and wagon, a cow for milk, sheep for meat, chickens for eggs, and flour for bread, along with other necessary items. In fact, I don't dare tell everything, because even now we can be accused of stealing something or other. But back then we did not stop to think about whether what we took was rightfully ours. Hunger, fear, and the instinct to live did not allow any questions to enter our minds.
We passed through dozens of abandoned and half-abandoned kolkhozes (huge collective agricultural developments) and sovkhozes (agricultural developments established by the Soviet government). Thousands and tens of thousands of heads of cattle, pigs, and sheep blocked the roads and raised clouds of dust. Those animals were being herded away to the farther reaches of Russia, in order to save them from the enemy. Peasants, young boys and young girls, were riding on horses over the roads and fields, driving the wild, hungry animals onward. Everything-soldiers, autos, refugees, wagons, animals, peasants--everything was braided together in a thick, running stream.
Over a dusty, sandy road, between high walls of thick, thousand-year-old woods, we approached the town of Nevel, which had once belonged to the province of Vitebsk, and now belonged to the Kalinin district. People told us that the Germans were about ten to fifteen kilometers behind us. We called upon all our strength to move forward to the Leningrad highway, which ran a couple of kilometers behind Nevel. We were approaching Nevel when...here something happened, the likes of which not even the high-ranking Russian military command had imagined possible: The Germans somehow encircled a Russian army of about a million men, on a huge tract of land near PolotskNevel. After a heavy battle lasting several days, the army was crushed.
It is not my objective to depict the dramatic moments that played them-
selves out before our eyes, to tell how the entire stream of soldiers, refugees, and animals suddenly threw itself into reverse after coming up against the enemy's wall of steel and fire. I remember how people at first mistook the enemy in front of them for a small aerial troop and tried to drive them away. I remember how some soldiers, seeing that they could not break through the encirclement, wept like small children, while others did the opposite, gladly throwing down their rifles and rejoicing that they would finally be safe as prisoners of war. Although I had been a soldier, and even a reserve officer in the Lithuanian army, I had never seen such heart-wrenching scenes as I saw there, at that time. But I am not interested in describing them.
What mattered, for us, was that everything came to an end. We had to confront the bitter, horrifying fact that we, like thousands of other refugees, had fallen into the hands of the enemy. Our road forward was cut off. The tragic, dispirited, and hopeless road back lay before us.
The Road Back
We were stranded in the tiny village of Pararnky, some ten or twelve kilometers from Nevel, in a region of large forests. We hadn't yet seen any Germans other than the troops that had encircled the Russian army, but we felt their beastly hot breath. The whole region was flooded with flyers or leaflets written in Russian. They cursed Soviet power and blamed the Jews for every kind of trouble that had been visited upon the Russian people. Every appeal ended with the well-known phrase Bei Zhidov ee polit-rukov, which means Beat the Jews and the political leaders. Many of the non-Jews among the Soviet citizens seemed receptive to such appeals.
Our landlords and neighbors in the town let it be known that the sooner we got out of there, the better. Our lives weren't secure there, they said, and they couldn't guarantee anything for themselves either.... So we had no choice but to turn around and go back home (that's how na'ive we still were at that time).
Almost on the very same roads through Latvia to Lithuania, we set off for home. The same Byelorussian peasants who had previously received us with friendship and decency now would not even let us near their houses. Even in the most remote backwoods towns, we sensed that we Jews were doomed. Instinctively we knew this was why everyone felt they must get rid of us as soon as possible.
With broken spirits and without weapons-and already without courage or hope-we dragged ourselves once again over demolished roads and blown-up bridges, and through burned-out towns. Again we covered hundreds of difficult kilometers. Like hungry wolves, bands of demoralized kholkoznickes (former inhabitants of the collective farms) now roamed about. Their greedy glances fell upon our horse and wagon and our other riches.
A fateful misfortune occurred. We were on the rim of a small forest, resting
up when we heard, in the distance, a noise, screams. A group ofkholkoznickes was approaching. One of their children cried out, See what a fine horse they have! (The fine nag, alas, was barely able to stand on its feet.) Such a horse we would really need to have, the child continued. I mean, they will give us the horse to be kind. It will be a gift, a remembrance from them.
The kholkoznickes started to unharness the horse. I didn't let them. I struggled with them. The children were crying. The women were screaming. With a knife in my hand, I protected the horse, but it didn't help. What can you do against a whole band, armed with knives and pitchforks? They took the horse. Badly beaten, I remained on the ground, still holding tight to the reins.
What does one do without a horse? The wagon doesn't go by itself. The women and children could barely stand up. How could we drag on any further? I raised my own spirits and went looking for help in a nearby town.
But once the horse was gone, we were at a loss. The auctioning off' of our remaining belongings went very quickly. To take us to the border station of Bigosova, I gave up the wagon. The cow (oh what a valuable cow, and how useful she became for us!) I traded for a couple ofloaves of bread, ten pounds of rye flour, and a little meat and butter. And finally, since there was no other choice, we reported to the German commandant of Bigosova.
The Germans told us to remain at the station and wait till morning, when a freight train would come. They did us no harm in the meantime. On the contrary, a couple of German soldiers had a conversation with us, and told us that they, the Germans, carried with them culture and freedom from the Soviet yoke. For the children (how worn out they were!) they brought black coffee and cookies. After a twenty-four hour wait, they seated us on an open platform of a freight train, and sent us off in the direction of Dvinsk.
The road back was dark and bitter. At the train stations in Latvia, we were met by groups of armed eizsargs (fascist bandits volunteering as Latvian police aides). They pierced right through us with their dark looks. We could not escape the feeling that we were in the hands of conscienceless opportunists and murderers. As to what awaited us the next day, however-about that we had no conception, no inkling.
The Welcome in Dvinsk
In the morning, when the first rays of the rising sun had reddened the sky, we arrived at the Dvinsk train station. There, a group of eizsargs were already waiting for us. They ordered us to get off the train, to take our packages and go. We told them that according to orders issued by the Germans, we were going home to Lithuania, but they answered us with a cynical laugh. We didn't need to go home, they said, because a good home had already been prepared for us here. What that meant we did not yet understand.
Dead tired, hungry, and sleep-deprived, with heavy packs on our backs, we were driven over the half-destroyed, burned-out streets of Dvinsk. We looked
for Jewish faces, to ask what was going on and where we were being driven, but there was no Jew to be seen.
The sun began to beat down. Rivers of sweat poured off of us. The sleepy children, and also we grownups, walked and fell down, walked and fell down, crossing streets and alleyways and empty squares. Where they were driving us we still did not know. I noted that the road was leading to the river, the Dvina.
At last we came to a narrow wooden bridge, a sort of footbridge, which had, it seemed, been built not long ago. We went across the river and approached high stone walls. I realized that this must be a section of the old Dvinsk prison, which we had driven by a few weeks earlier. Suddenly I was overwhelmed. It seemed as though a picture from medieval times had popped up in front of us.
Under the supervision of a few police officers, a group of people were dragging themselves out of the prison-young and old, men and women. All were wearing large yellow Stars of David on their chests and backs, sewn onto their clothes. In the case of men, there was a third yellow star on the left knee. I looked at the people. I looked and was astounded.... I couldn't take my eyes off them. I was confused. What was I seeing here? Was I perhaps asleep? Was I dreaming?
And yet I was not sleeping. I was seeing live people. It seemed to me that they were Jews. We went over a bit closer. Yes, certainly Jews! I could hear them talking among themselves in Yiddish, quietly and fearfully. A horror, a loneliness, a feeling of inhuman offensiveness and pain came over me and all of us....
Could this be where they were keeping the Jews locked up? Could this be where they were taking us also? All at once, we became old and wise. We now understood everything.
This happened on August the 5th, 1941, in the seventh week since we ran away from Lithuania, after we wandered alone through the woods and fields of Byelorussia.
From then on the Germans made us inmates of the Dvinsk ghetto, and we shared the same road as all Jews of Dvinsk and its environs. I became closely acquainted with many of them, and acquired a number of friends. I met a few of them again in the Riga ghetto, and in other concentration camps, and together we ran away into the woods.
Should I try to convey what happened to us in Dvinsk and Riga, in the aforementioned camps and forests?
Should I tear open wounds not yet healed on the bodies of our long-suffering people? Should I?
I don't know. I don't know.... I am in doubt.
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