On the 14th of June 1941, six families were sent to Siberia including Ear Retavel of the town of Riteve. It was the fate of one such person to comprehend the inhuman treatment by the past Soviet regime against these people. I was told by a Lithuanian woman, named Olympia Gritsene, who related how she was taken with her husband and their children in trains that were used to transport Jewish families from Plungyan to Siberia – the same rail cars used to transport cattle.
Those sent to Siberia included: Chotse Gamzu, the richest Jew in Plungyan, and of whom I have already written. He was a horse trader and a leader in the Jewish community; Itsik Tsivye, the director of the Betar in Plungyan with his wife and small children. On the journey one of his children became deathly ill and needed immediate assistance or at least some water. But unfortunately, there wasn't any to be had. It wasn't known when the train would stop next and they did not know what to do. Olympia just happened to be carrying a bottle of champagne. They decided to give the child some of the champagne and miraculously, the child was revived.
Arriving in Siberia, Olympia was placed in the same camp with Chotse Gamzu and his wife who was elderly and didn't have any children. They became isolated and depressed. They were starved as those "unfit for work" and were barely given enough food to sustain themselves. Even though she worked very hard and she didn't have much herself, Olympia helped the elderly couple as best she could. They toiled like slaves in the worst Siberian frosts and hardly received enough food to keep up their strength for such hard labor. Olympia told me that Gamzu never lost hope that someday he would return to Plungyan. He even promised to buy her a booth or two when they returned to Plungyan in return for her kindness. But fate would deal them a different hand. Painfully, Olympia recounted that despite her efforts, both Gamzu and his wife died of starvation and disease, a gruesome twist of fate that the elderly couple could not have imagined, even in their worst nightmares. Chotse Gamzu's demise was also hastened by the fact that thieves had removed his teeth for their gold. You can just imagine how it must have been for him not to be able to chew on a piece of bread.
Rumors were beginning to circulate from the other side of the ocean and from local extremists claiming that Jews had jubilantly greeted the Soviet army with flowers in their hands as they entered Lithuania. They also claimed that Jews were employed in repressive institutions involved in enforcing the Soviet regime in Lithuania. This huge lie that spread throughout Plungyan and other shtetlech , serves to illustrate just how absurd things were getting. It was primarily Lithuanians and not Jews who met the Soviet army with flowers and cheers. You did not find cheering in Yiddish anywhere.
There were no Jews at the managerial levels of government. Lithuanians and Russians almost exclusively laid the foundation for the Soviet regime in the towns and cities. Jews were entirely not part of this process. Only in the bigger cities did a few Jews hold these posts. It was the Lithuanians and Russians that organized and directed the regime.
Most Jews were well aware of the Soviet regime's treatment of them starting with the nationalist policies of the 1940's. This was all part of an initiative to kill the Jewish spirit and culture by repressing the Jewish intellect. The best representatives of the Jewish people were murdered off (in the early 1950s] (writer, Moyshe Kulbak and theater artist, Michoels among many others). It was obvious the Lithuanians knew nothing about this. The Jews in Plungyan worked harder than the others. There were no special privileges. And as a result of the Soviet occupation, many Jews lost their property, further crushing the Jewish spirit. So it is a mystery how the Jews could have possibly cheered the incoming Soviet army when they knew that what was happening to their brothers in the Soviet Union, could happen to them next.
It must also be stated that both Lithuanians and Jews were deceived by Soviet propaganda that was put out by the Aktiv of the Communist party in an attempt to rally people around the idea that the best and most correct state was the Soviet Union. We were told that people don't live and breathe as freely as we do in the Soviet Union. Today we understand that we were seduced, and lived with these illusions for fifty years.
Later, on the streets groups of people began to gather, including fleeing Jewish refugees from Kreting. The Germans had already reached their towns and these refugees had a sample of what was in store for them. Between Hitler's henchmen and the local collaborators, they had to get out of there as quickly as possible. There were also Jewish refugees living in Plungyan from Poland had who witnessed the German invasion of 1939. They knew that the Germans intended to do the same to them as they had done to the Jews of Poland and Germany.
Low flying German war planes appeared in the skies and began firing machine guns at groups of people standing in the cemetery. Groups of entire families gathered together to flee Plungyan. But even before the Germans arrived, trouble started for the Jews when the local Lithuanian fascists and anti-Semites reared their ugly heads. They began capturing lone Soviet soldiers and Jews not allowing them to evacuate. They had already grabbed a few of them retreating from the area when the shooting started. There was a small uprising by the Russian Army personnel who were stationed in Plungyan. The Russian army continued its retreat pushing ahead of the refugees who clogged the escape routes that lead out of the town. Parents with infants in their arms, leading small children by the hand, escaped by what ever means possible. Some had horses and wagons loaded with possessions that eventually had to be tossed away to make room for more children or those exhausted from the trip. We, a group of boys, ran further ahead of the others. We were then detained by the Soviet soldiers, who were lying in wait in the forest in preparation for battle. They searched us for guns because apparently civilians were shooting at Soviet soldiers, clearly the work of the fascist Lithuanians. They finished searching us. On one youth named Rachmilke they found a Russian grenade. It turned out that he had taken the grenade from the munitions factory where he had been employed so that he would be armed against the local fascists. The fact that we were Jews and opposed the Germans who wanted to destroy the Jewish people was of no consequence to the Russian soldiers. No excuses were valid. They said they should shoot us all. They then decided to let us go farther on. But they led Rachmilke away, deep into the woods.
We walked a little further and then came to a stop. We waited, thinking that maybe they would let him go (he was partially handicapped) when we heard a few shots. We took that to mean that they shot him.
It was especially horrible when the low-flying German planes would fire at the long rails of women and children in wagons or on foot. The fascist pilots definitely saw they were civilian refugees and not military personnel. It was on the road that the first Jewish casualties occurred. People didn’t know where to take shelter. Some tried to take refuge in the woods that lined both sides of the road, but fell in ditches trying to flee. Mothers shielded their children with their own bodies. The noise from the screaming and yelling was loud. People became separated from one another. After the attack, people were looking for each other, calling out the names of their loved ones.
I recall a certain tragic image. Not far from a ditch lay a little girl, maybe 4 years old, covered with blood. There was no sign of life. Not far stood her mother with two children who were crying. The mother took the dead child in her arms. Lying further up the road was a dead horse that was killed while still harnessed to a wagon.
These were not the only tragic incidents that we witnessed along the way. It was a sad situation. No one knew if he would survive, die on the way, or be captured by the "White Bands," Lithuanian fascists who had organized before the Germans came. (The name came from the white bands they wore on their arms.) They would halt Jews and shoot them.
It happened to the Glickman family. They were stopped and the bandits wanted to take their horse and wagon and their belongings, and they were ready to shoot them. As luck would have it, the Glickmans managed to escape such a fate. Amongst this band of killers was one who knew the Glickmans well and he was persuaded to let them move ahead unharmed, thus saving them from certain death.
Only 10% of the Plungyan Jews saved themselves in their flight deep into Russia. But all the others who remained in Plungyan and surroundings were rooted out, their names eternally erased. Narrating the demise of women and children, how the killers subjected them to all kinds of tortures, makes the heart weep and shudder, as if in electric shock, And it is difficult to visualize that such events could take place, that on a certain day a handful of Lithuanians would take upon themselves the right to decide to become beasts of prey and to begin to kill, to murder, to annihilate human life. This the murders did, but others remained indifferent as Jews were being put to death. But there were others who spat curses upon the killers and confessed with sorrow their helplessness to do anything, to change anything or to help the victims.
Very few Plungyan Jews survived. The rest were killed in the same gruesome manner in which Jews everywhere were being massacred. Entire families were wiped out, leaving not a single trace that they had once lived. From here on not much will be written about my birthplace Plungyan. There are few witnesses to the events that took place later in Plungyan attesting to the manner in which men, women and children were brutally murdered. But what I did manage to learn will be told further on. A human being cannot respond to these events with indifference but instead with shock and horror. Telling the story is also difficult. It is painful to the heart, but it is our duty to relay the accounts that I have successfully collected as proof so that people around the world could learn what happened to the Jews during the time of vengeful Hitler’s fascism.
On July 23, 1941 Plungyan was taken by the Germans. As I mentioned before, the Lithuanian fascists in Plungyan got a hold of the remaining Jews before the Germans even arrived. When the Germans arrived, they (the Lithuanian fascists) became the Germans’ first collaborators in the persecution and later in the extermination of the Jews.
In Plungyan all the Jews were rounded up and locked in the Groyse Shul (Great Synagogue) where they praised the very God Who had forsaken them.
A Jew who had converted to Christianity was also locked up with all the Jews in the synagogue with his three children. His Lithuanian wife was free. With the help of the priest Pukis, who did the conversion, she was able, after a certain period, to get them out. He witnessed everything that was happening there. It is this man who related to me the gruesome details.
For a period of two weeks they weren’t given anything to eat or drink. Small children were crying. There was a lot of confusion and no air to breathe. Later there came a terrible stench. They didn’t even let anyone out to go to the bathroom. Old and sick people began to die of thirst and hunger. The dead were not permitted to be taken out. Not being allowed to open the windows or the doors, a lot of people went out of their minds. When people tried to make a run for the door just to get a breath of air, the guards shot at them. A seamstress, named Ida Sher, gave birth to a child in the synagogue.
The synagogue was not the only place where Jews were being treated sadistically. Also outside in the courtyard of the synagogue, terrible things were taking place. A Lithuanian woman who lived close to the shul in a room on the second floor was able to see, through the window, what was happening in the courtyard of the synagogue. The courtyard was enclosed by a fence. A hole was dug and the holy sforim (holy books) sefer toyres were thrown in it and then set on fire. In order to make them burn better, the well-known photographer of Plungyan named Berkowitz was forced to stir the embers with a stick. The murderers then forced him closer to the fire in an ugly way, mocking and making fun of him. A little later they lead in the blacksmith named Gilis. Gilis hadn’t been locked in the synagogue because he was needed to finish a job he was working on with his son. He had been falsely accused of setting fire to a house on the Bod Gas not far from his foundry (such accusations were common place in the shtetlech , where the fascists attempted to stir up hatred against the Jews).
A certain German stood in one spot with a whip in his hand hitting the man and ordering him to walk around the fire. Then they circled him and, being in close proximity, loathsomely spat in his face and hit him with clubs. After the man fell to the ground covered with blood from the beating, the German approached him while he was still lying on the ground and finished him off with a pistol at point blank range, then threw his body into a hole. The murderers then decided to continue the spectacle. They lead in three Lithuanian women who had been detained because one of them, whose family name was Bogdanaite, had married a Jewish boy before the war. The boy was a tailor and was already locked in the shul. She went secretly to give him something to eat. The third woman, whose family name was Boltrukaite, was the wife of a Soviet officer. The three were lead in and forced to hug and kiss Gilis and shout that he was their very good friend. Elderly Jews were then let out into the synagogue courtyard and were forced to balance a heavy block of wood on their shoulders, and carry it back and forth, a very difficult task for those who were weak. To make the task more difficult, the murderers especially selected those smaller in stature. Those who attempted to hold the piece of wood in place with their hands, received a beating from the fascist murderers who surrounded the Jews. One of them was beaten because his shoulders couldn't take the weight of the piece of wood. Another man was beaten for moving too slowly under the weight of the wood. He had simply reached the end of his strength.
A group of Jewish women were lead out, and standing near the door of the synagogue, were forced to witness the old men being tortured. One of them was unable to bear what she was seeing and ran over to the men and knocked the wooden blocks off their shoulders. The murderers then began to push the woman around. In the beginning they were taunting and laughing at the one woman. When they realized that it wasn’t so easy to shove her off, one of them shot her.
There lived not far from the synagogue (due to my initiative the street was renamed "Synagogue Street") a Jew whose business was cows' intestines. A Lithuanian, by the name of Fumpus Kazis, was working for him. At the beginning of the war, when the local fascists began on their rampage, they forced this Lithuanian man to give his employer a live bird to eat, while the others insulted and made fun of the man. (Later Fumpus met an unfortunate demise. In 1948, he fell from a truck, was run over and fatally injured).
On the 15th of July 1941 came an order that all Jews locked in the synagogue were to be driven out. The old and handicapped who were unable to walk were taken away in vehicles with the old and sick, thrown in trucks like pieces of wood. The eye witness recognized a certain elderly paralyzed Jewish man name Brik. There were a lot of witnesses. She used to buy flour from him. She and many others heard the echoes, groans and shrieks from the agony of broken limbs.
The sad procession of half-dead men, women and children were led to their death through the main street of Plungyan, the Vytautas Gas. Lithuanians milling about on the sidewalks stared at the half-dead Jews, some with small children in their arms. They walked supporting one another. Those who were too weak were heaped onto trucks. People gazed at them with both pity and confusion at being powerless to help them. Others looked on with indifference. A woman with a newborn was seen in the crowd being led away, being supported by her husband. It was Ida Sher who gave birth to the child in the synagogue. They arrived like shadows barely moving their feet to the place where a day before, about 40 Jews had dug 6 pits. The pits were prepared for those doing the digging as well as for those arriving from the holy synagogue where they used to turn to their God in prayer. Their God had abandoned them.
Having reached the gravesites, they were now to be killed in a most horrible manner. The Lithuanian witness related further that whoever didn't see it would neither believe nor comprehend how a mother in the last moments could sacrifice herself for her child. They attempted to tear from mothers' arms small children tightly pressed against their breasts. When they succeeded in wresting the children from their mothers, they took them by their little feet and cracked their little heads on a tree or a rock. They didn't want to waste a bullet on them. Then they were tossed into the pit with their murdered mothers. Those mothers who refused to let go, were shot together with their children. The screams of mothers and children about to be shot were heard with the cries of those who lay wounded in the graves. Gunfire mixed together with gut wrenching screams melted into one sound.
As soon as one group was killed, another group was brought to the grave site. With them came a new group of murderers. Having completed their dirty work, they went to the place where the whiskey had been set up for them. The new murderers were even more drunk than the first group, and it started all over again. Being drunk, it was obvious that the murderers’ bullets would not hit their victim in a way that would kill them right away. The increasing number of wounded or half-dead were thrown into the pits and shot again. Those who were shot were covered with a thin layer of dirt. Blood flowed from under the raised earth. It was in this way that approximately 1,800 Jews from Plungyan were killed. On this spot a monument called the Koshan Memorial was erected. At the time of the massacre of the Jews of Plungyan, there was a certain man who was not in full possession of his faculties. I mentioned him in the beginning of this writing. They called him Leibke der Leibn bein . These murderers convinced him that if he would help them throw people into the pits who hadn’t fallen in by themselves after they were shot, they wouldn’t shoot him and he would be permitted to go home. After the last Jews had been killed, they told him to go and sit on a rock to rest. No sooner did he sit down to rest, then a murderer shot him from behind.
A Lithuanian (recorded on a cassette) told how he was forced to spread earth over the last mass grave. Before that, Jews were compelled to cover the pits with dirt. When there were no more Jews left to perform this function, the firing squad leader, Pabriezsha, gave an order to grab some 10 Lithuanians in Plungyan. The squadron surrounded the church and waited until the service had ended. As soon as the worshippers began to exit the church, they began to nab the men. They put them in a truck that was waiting for them, and drove them to Koshan to cover the graves. With tears in his eyes he described an image that he sees in his mind as if it were yesterday: A gruesome sight, it is impossible to convey in words. Children, big and small, including newborn infants, lying in the graves with smashed heads covered in blood and bone marrow. A woman was lying half naked. They made them remove the best clothes before they shot them. She was lying in a strange pose still clutching her child in her arms. There were others who were lying in various poses hugging each other as if they were protecting themselves and those below them. He couldn’t stomach anymore and fell unconscious, and didn’t see anything. When the grave was covered they loaded the men in the truck and drove them back to Plungyan. After returning home he wasn’t able to eat or sleep for a few days because of the violent bloody images that plague his thoughts even to this day. A woman lived on the other side of the road near where the tragedy took place in Koshan. The murderers entered her courtyard covered in blood and began to wash the blood from their hands in the trough in the courtyard. She overheard their conversation. One of them with a drunk voice yelled to another bragging about how they ridiculed, mocked and robbed their victims, sadistically killed men, women and children and how they smashed babies’ heads against trees. She recounted hearing how they beat those who refused to take their clothes off. Listening to the account, she became sick to her stomach. It was so unbearable to listen that she wanted to run away. When they left the courtyard, she saw that the water was full of blood. For an entire month she wouldn’t let her cows go near the trough to take a drink. Instead, she brought water from a neighbor who lived close by.
Later a man with a few of his sons arrived with a couple of baskets full of bloody clothing to wash in the woman’s courtyard. It was clear to her that the clothes belonged to the murdered Jews. The water became even more tainted with blood.
People still talk about one particular grave in which 74 high school girls were shot. This is what happened: The Nazis and their local collaborators selected these girls from the school, used them for their own pleasure and than brought them to the mass grave sites to be killed. But then for a brief moment a miracle happened. A priest arrived and told the girls that he would convert them to Christianity, and thereby save them from being shot. Was this a sincere gesture on the part of the priest to save the girls? Or was it merely the commander’s cruel deception of the priest and the girls? These are still unanswered questions. It soon became clear to the girls that no such miracle had occurred when they saw the murderers making the preparations to execute them. And when the girls began to resist, they began shooting. One of the girls was able to grab hold of a half drunken murderer and began choking him. She was immediately fended off by another one of them who split her head open with his rifle. In this way everyone was killed on the spot and tossed into a mass grave. They say that this particular girl who put up a fight was tall and strong. Her name was Rochale Tsin. This is how all the girls were killed. Today they lie in the first grave by the entrance at the Koshan Memorial.
Jews were killed in groups and individually. The leader of the murderers, whose name was Pabrieshza, can be considered the most guilty of all in the extermination of the Jews of Plungyan. He personally tortured and murdered Jews, and in 1988, in his seventies, he was found living in Australia. At the request of the Soviet Lithuanian government he was to be turned over for extradition. After a long search the Australian government wasn’t able to find him. Perhaps he had already died upon hearing about the extradition.
A Lithuanian farmer who lived close to the Kolneshiker forest related that Heid Pabrieshza and a few other murderers passed through his farm with a couple of pretty young Jewish girls, one of whom he recognized to be Tsipele Kest. (Everyone bought leather goods from her father's leather shop). They asked for a drink. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the farmer to look at the girls who returned his looks with horror in their eyes, hugging each other tightly. The farmer's dog pulled at his chain and barked at the uninvited guests. He probably sensed that they were bad people. There was no way that the farmer could make the dog quiet. At this point the murderer went right up to the farmer and said, "If you can’t shut up your dog, then I am going do it for you", and then shot the dog dead. The girls were very shaken up and the farmer was also concerned for his own life.
Shortly thereafter, the murderers led the girls into the woods. As they walked
away, the poor, innocent girls turned their heads to the farmer, as if pleading
to save them. What could he do? They were murderers whose only response to
everything was to shoot. They remained in the woods with the girls for three to
four hours. Later a few shots were heard, and then it was as still as a
graveyard. For awhile you couldn’t even hear the birds. Pabrieschza and the
other killers returned drunk and in high spirits. They ordered the farmer to go
into the woods and bury their victims. It was horrific to see what they had done
to the girls. It was evident to him that they had been raped. You can just
imagine what those poor girls must have gone through in their final moments.
Empty bottles of whiskey were found on their breasts and other places. Also
found were left over pieces of food. He cried while he buried them.
At the Koshan memorial, not far from Plungyan, there is a yearly gathering honoring the yahrzeit of the genocide. At the inaugural gathering those in attendance included the few elderly Jews, who remained, and Jews from other towns but originally from Plungyan, as well as Lithuanians. All gathered to commemorate the extermination of the Jews of Plungyan and the surrounding area. At the opening of the memorial, the guests included people from Vilnius (Vilnius), Klaipeda, Shavl (Siauliai), Kovne (Kovno) . Lithuanians were among those who expressed a sense of sadness, condemning those Lithuanians who aided and abetted in the implementation of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people. The following words were spoken: When one stops to consider what happened to the Jews, it makes your blood run cold because you have to remember that most of the people gathered together for this opening of the memorial and Yortzeit could not have been born early enough to know that there exists such a girl with black hair and brown eyes who arrived clutching a bouquet of red flowers - reminiscent of blood! Could not this also have been a gray haired man? A woman clutching her grandchild? If their fathers, grandfathers, and grandmothers could have left their birth places in June of 1941? Those who did not leave, lie under the mounds here at Koshan, their final resting place. Out of the 1800 Plungyaners who lie in six mass graves, no one will even know what those high school girls felt standing before the open grave, or mothers, who with blood curdling shrieks were separated from their children, or the kind of threats and accusations heaped on the old people by those murderers. Or what kind of look did the children have in their eyes as their little heads neared the tree trunks? Were they looks of confusion and terror? They were even begrudged a bullet. The trees are still groaning to this day, having absorbed the lamentations of those who perished, in whose echo the hearts of the Plungyaner Jews can be heard.
The history of the Jews of Plungyan was left unfinished. There is no one left to finish, to write it down. They lie here in Koshan, people, former friends and neighbors of the Lithuanians in Plungyan, 2,234 Jews from Plungyan and the surrounding area lie murdered in innocence. This is hallowed ground for those that rest beneath the mounds of Koshan , in the forests of the surrounding villages of Loialenko, Vilashai, Vilisaicon, Pirvaithai, Iovashiskai, Vestuven and towns: Platel, Alsad and Tverai . This place should serve as a sacred reminder that man’s memory is stronger than steel. This memory preserves within itself the names of the innocent.
It gives me pleasure that I was successful as one of the few Jews who took upon himself the difficult task of perpetuating the memory of those martyred. These tasks include maintaining all of the mass grave sites as well as restoring the old Jewish cemetery, with the help of the Jewish community center and financial support of the City Council of Plungyan and other esteemed Lithuanians. These people were instrumental in carrying out the difficult but necessary work. To date, all of the conservation work is finished at almost all of the mass grave sites in the cities and towns of Lithuania. Everything that can possibly be done has been done.
I would like to end this chapter with a poem written by my sister Hene Bunko-Gornsteyn. It’s called:
O My Shtetale Plungyan,
With life teeming –
Full of decent hard-working folk
Of tailors and
Craftsmen united as one in the
Bath house, intent
The High Holy Days to embrace
And love of Rosh Hashanah’s awe
Of Yom Kippur
Of Passover in springtime joy
For big or small.
In freedom to recall the walk
Marking time with never a watch
Attuned to heaven
And who can forget "Blue Yank’le"
On Friday eve
With cries, heralding the Shabbos,
‘In shul are in’.
With klapper through the shtetl streets
Of those winter nights when kin
Would feathers pluck,
To warm the beds of children’s sleep
With tender love
And Toybeh the Blind who would knit
Her woolen tales
Her Bible’s coats of many colors
And lo! Behold Chaye Yoseh
The way she stood
Large, on synagogue stairs looming,
With curses and hisses
Not letting children to mothers run
Lest they disturb
The holy silence of the shul
As shofar sounds
Its broken cries, its stirring call
To heal the world
And Oh what beautiful girls we had!
Of such beauty
Eyes have not seen no never till
The end of time
(Angels weep on their massive graves
By white birches)
In Bet Medresh and shul we prayed
Packed to the roof
Of heaven for God’s providence
For life and health
"And I the Almighty will guard
You from Evil
The Great One promised you shall be
As stars in my
Domain when Messiah comes to
To the dream of generations
But also, oh!
The Great One forgot His promise
A black wave came
Instead of the Messiah, hell
In this same shul packed were the Jews
For days on end
Without water, or food or air
By murderers who exiled God
From hearts of stone
Who trampled the Divine Name
His holy place
Defaming in demonic rage
Brewed in whiskey
Their cross-bred piety of death
Of Roman guilt
Upon God’s people so innocent
Of such a deed!
On the Lord’s Day in ’41
In summer month
Into the forest the half-dead
Were driven from
The synagogue, driven as corpses
Through Plungé street
O home of centuries among
Have the dead been resurrected?
Young and old
In twisted columns of sorrow
They walk their death
Dogs howl with the howl of killers
Wild, mean and crazed
Thus through the main streets of Plungé
Are my Jews driven
Driven deep into the forest of
The trees in the woods stand frozen
In sheer horror
Mute witnesses to crimes beyond,
Why were these living dead taken
Into the woods?
Shot in rapid fire by master race
By waiting graves…
At my shtetl’s common grave I stop
And bow my head
Here rest the martyrs of Plungyan
I read their names
In the stillness of the forest
I hear their sighs
Echoing, whispering in the wind
A kaddish in praise of the God
"Vengeance is Mine"
Not yours O mortal man, not yours!
Pray for the land
One pure in native song – long, long
Before the cross!
Ride your horses to the river
To the waters of Nemunas!
Wash off the blood
From your tainted death once so noble
Land of my birth!
Hear again, Lithuania
The echoes of
Your dianosian conscience
Or be renounced.
Vilnius (Vilnius) March 20th 1998
Adapted and revised by Benyamin Herson
There is another mass grave of 60 strong, young Jewish men located near the village of Milashaits approximately 9 kilometers from Plungyan. They were led away to their deaths in chains, and consequently there were only a few murderers accompanying them. People witnessed them as they walked past, the murderers with shovels in their hands prepared to dig graves for the young men they were about to murder. They approached the area on foot. In the last moment before they were to be killed, one of the young men shouted to the others to start fighting for their lives, to kill the murderers themselves or to take the murderers with them. Suddenly, they all began to move to attack their captors. A few fell immediately, others succeeded in reaching the criminals and put up quite a fight despite the fact that their hands were shackled. Confusion followed, with shouting mixed with volleys of shots. This event was personally witnessed by a farmer standing some 50 meters away. He reported hearing the criminals recount the struggle as they stopped in the farmer’s courtyard to rest after the massacre. He saw a few of them with cut up faces as well as bandaged hands and heads. They had bottles of whiskey with them.
The mass graves of the Jewish genocide in Plungyan are located at 10 sites. It was in those places that 2234 Jews from Plungyan as well as the surrounding area were murdered. I was able to learn new information pertaining to the areas of Kratinga, Salant, Meisada and Riteve.
A Lithuanian man from Kratinga who has been living in Plungyan for the last few years related the following: He was 18 years old at the time when he accidentally witnessed Jews being tortured in Kratinga. A building was set on fire and the Jews were falsely accused of the crime. A group of Jews was taken and forced close to the smoldering building to choke on the smoke. With their trousers rolled up to their knees they were then forced to walk back and forth on their knees over sand and gravel until they were writhing in pain and their knees became swollen. Even the sand became bloody, but the murderers continued to urge them by hitting and mocking them. Those who could no longer bare the strain and fell senseless were dragged to the side. As he relates, in his naivete, he thought that the fascists intended only to humiliate the Jews. Suddenly, he started to shout at the murderers. At that point one of them sprang to his feet and struck him on the back with a rifle. He fell on the ground in a lot of pain. He quickly stood up and got out of there as quickly as he could.
They tell me that near the monastery in Kratinga, 50 men, women and children were driven into a swamp. They were forced to trudge back and forth through the mud and water. The less fortunate became weak and fell into the water. Mothers carried children in their arms. The strong attempted to help the weak because the murderers were picking people off who were too worn out to continue. Great was the screaming and crying of the children. Those who witnessed the children in their distress wept. The Lithuanian also wept so much that he used up two handkerchiefs. He sees the image as clearly today as if it were yesterday. It is something he will never forget as long as he lives.
In Riteve a teacher at the gimnazye, Jonas Abukevitchus a former officer in the army of independent Lithuania, and Dr. Leonas Kontvainus organized the so- called aktiv (in effect, a gang) to fight against the soviet Aktiv . They started by making arrests. One of them, whose name was Goldikoiskas, arrested Mote Zaks and five other Jews from Riteve and shot them in the Reyner woods seven kilometers from Telz in July of 1941. On orders from Abukoyskas, the commander of the so-called Aktivistn group, Galdikoiskas, with the aid of a few other criminals, rounded up a group of Jews and took them to the village Gerulai. They brought the Jews to the edge of a 20 meter long pit that had already been prepared and shot them. Another group of Jews was brought in and forced to shoot at those who were just murdered before being shot themselves. Goldikoiskas estimated that he shot five or six times. According to Goldikoiskas’ own estimate, he could substantiate having personally killed 50 to 60 Jewish men, women and children. Some of the mothers were still clutching their children in their arms as they were shot. The Jewish victims of Riteve were also forced to participate in the shootings. Mikolas Rubeshzus, Smilgevitchus, Srebalis, Antonas Gurtshis, [or Gurtshif], Ioazas Alutis, Petras Varnelis, climbed into the truck after they finished killing all the Jews and drove into Riteve singing.
On the 23 of July, 1941, Ionas Petroiskas from the village of Gedgoydzu, began organizing the so-called partisans in the town of Salant. The first to register were: Antonas Ereminas from the village of Perkunkaimo, a former leader in the army of independent Lithuanian; Petras Kuzis from the small town of Erlen, later from the town of Plate ( Plateliai ) and Difreionas Skridaila. Their leader, Ionas Benetis, reported to the former chairman of the independent council of Salant, Paranas ( Paronas ( Baltonas ) on October 19th, 1941, that Salant was free of Jewish elements, which in their language meant the Jews had been killed. Basie Abelman who was born in the Kratinga region in the area of Kalupen (e) in the village of Salinai , relates that in June of 1941 she and her father were arrested by the Germans. When they were about to be shot, she was able to run away from the grave site where they were standing with other Jews who had also been rounded up for execution. The Germans, with their local collaborators, forced the remaining Jews of Salant and the village of Imbares into the synagogue of Salant. From there a group of Jewish girls were sent to work the fields of a farm in Saline. Later she was able to work for a farmer named Fronas Kaspirovitchus from the village of Saline. She worked four weeks for him after which came an order to go back to the previous farm. As she returned, she saw a large group of girls and immediately understood they were to be taken away and shot. She ran away and returned to Kaspirovitchus who hid her for three years until the area was liberated.
Difreionas Skridaila, born in the Plungyan region in the village of Virkshai, was a former petty officer in the army of independent Lithuania. In the years, 1941 through 1945, he was a member of the so-called "Security Battalion." At the beginning of July, 1941, through the initiative of the Chairman of the Independence Council of Salant, Fronas Baltone, those fit for work were turned over for execution. Two cars with SS Personnel arrived along with members of the so-called "Correction Battalion" (Criminals). The Germans selected men, handed them shovels and led them away to the village of Zshvainai, not far from the Jewish Emetay , and forced then to dig their own graves. A German arrived from Salant and suggested to him, and to Baltone, to observe how they were going to shoot the Jews. In the beginning it was agreed upon to shoot first those who dug the grave. Those who were dressed in good clothing were ordered to undress, led to the edge of the grave and shot. (The Lithuanian from Kratinga doesn’t elaborate on how this is carried out. However, it was well known what was perpetrated in the places where people were shot.) Afterwards, a few more groups were brought from other shtetlech to the open pits whereupon they were shot. In total, there was said to have been killed some 150 Jews there. (In actuality I know there were 405 men, women and children killed there.)
At Meisada: a few days after the war broke out, all the Jews of Meisada were rounded up and herded into the synagogue where there was neither air to breathe nor a place to stand. Nor were they permitted to leave to take care of their physical needs. They were held without food or water. The young and the old suffered a great deal. Jews were ridiculed and murdered at a whim. Pretty Jewish girls were taken away to be raped and taken advantage of. They forced the men to clean up manure with their bare hands. One Sunday when people were coming out of church, the murderers decided to make a special show. They led elderly Jews out of the synagogue and ordered them to race, to run fast and beat those who fell behind with whips. It’s hard enough for old men to walk, let alone run. And in addition they were weak from hunger. A Lithuanian woman recounted how a girl around 16 years old named Zelda fell to her knees in front of one of the murderers and begged him to shoot her together with her parents because she couldn’t bear to watch them torturing her parents and others.
Ms. Esther Milner, who presently lives in Israel visited her birthplace, Meisada, directly after the war. She entered the house where they lived prior to the war. She knew the Lithuanian woman and her daughter who now occupied the house. The Lithuanian woman told her what she witnessed and spoke to Esther’s mother. She also related that her son (who Esther Milner couldn't stand) had participated in the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and after the war was tried and found guilty of war crimes. The Jews of Meisada were confined to the synagogue for almost a week. Leizer Hodes and Yankl Katz were tied to a wagon and taken away to Skud where they were shot together with the Jews of that community. Later the remaining 125 Jews of Meisada were taken away to Kratinga and killed at the Jewish cemetery together with the remaining Jews of that community. The Lithuanian woman continued that she saw Esther Milner’s mother in the group of Jews being led away. She noticed that when she began falling behind, one of the criminals hit her and shoved her with a rifle in an effort to make her walk faster. You couldn’t even recognize her; she looked so terrible. All the Jews of Meisada were taken away to Kratinga and killed.
In 1944, a Jew from Meisada whose family name was Gutkind had just been discharged from 16th Lithuanian division, which fought against the Germans. He went to the place in Kratinga where the Jews of Meisada were killed. Among other things that remained, he was able to locate his sister’s documents. She was 17 years old at the time. He donated the documents to the museum in Telz. He also was told that as the Jews were lined up by the edge of the grave to be shot, a woman named Ester Hodes was seen among them kissing and tightly embracing her two children, and then taking a look at them, began to cry. Those who witnessed it expressed that it was difficult to watch. This was recounted to Ester Milner during her trip to Meisada by her acquaintances, Baltinaite, Galdikas, amongst others.
Constructing a summary of the events that took place in the Shzemaiti(er) region of Lithuania is difficult because many of the facts are obscure, and getting at these facts is even more difficult today. The Nazis took great pains to destroy all evidence of their dirty work. And to a certain degree they succeeded. It is necessary, however, to recount what is known. Thanks are to those who have made great efforts to research the Jewish genocide, a process that includes searching for those who remember and then recording their recollections. What we do know concerning these events is because of them. But more people from the younger, upcoming generations need to know what happened to the Jewish people during the period of Hitler’s fascism.
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