Before the Storm
After the district of Vilna was annexed to Lithuania in 1939, Eishishok was only a few kilometers away from the Russian-Lithuanian border. It became a major passage for the many Jewish refugees who escaped from the Russian and German occupied Poland to the still independent state of Lithuania, which at that time, was a center of the Zionists-Hebrew movement and other Jewish movements, Vilna, the new capital of the enlarged Lithuania and referred to as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, was the main attraction since it still offered possibilities of immigration to Israel and other countries across the sea. And in this between the wars period, Eishishok had an important function as a transit town for thousands of refugees.
We now present the stories of three people who found temporary refuge in Eishishok along with thousands of others. They have nothing but admiration and praise for the Jews of Eishishok for their helping-hand, warm treatment, and the Jewish love which they offered their unhappy brothers.
In those difficult days, the Jews of Eishishok proved that they were indeed truly merciful. They provided the refugees not only with financial means to continue their journey to Vilna and Kovna, not only with Kosher documents, but also surrounded them with a warm and encouraging atmosphere which strengthened their hearts and gave some comfort to their sorrow.
The wonderful conduct of our townspeople is a living monument in the hearts of the thousands of refugees who met them and is a source of pride and appreciation for us the town's survivors.
Poland collapsed a few months ago. Its eastern part was liberated from freedom of speech, of movement, of press and even of food and clothing. Persecution of Zionists has begun . there is an increasing desire to escape and many plans are laid to cross district, border, sea and continent to reach the country we have dreamed of from our youth on.
Only one way is open: through Vilna, Even there, chances are slim, but a prisoner will attempt to escape even through an invisible crack, The Belorussian-Lithuanian border is sealed tight, Lithuanian and Soviet authorities have tightened border security and chances of passing grow slimmer daily, ,Yes, there is no choice, we must hurry or else it will be too late We gathered in Lida, a couple of dozen kilometers away from the border. Our group consisted of 14 people. One woman with two children, an aged violinist with his handicapped son, three girls and the rest, young men of 20-25 years of age.
It was a cold night in the middle of 1940. When we stepped on the snow, it creaked and groaned, as if to inform on us. Here goes a border smuggler. I will not forget that night as long as I live. Nine hours in straits, frozen puddles, a river, frost, ice, woods shots the weeping of the children and their mother, a frozen old man and his handicapped son, miserable, beside him . the wailing of the girls and a cry of Help! Only nine of us reached the outskirts of Eishishok.
Stop! Do you have any money? demanded a tall Lithuanian policeman, the first to appear before me in the Lithuanian republic. Joseph Sh. began negotiating with him. We took off our watches and collected all of our valuables- we had no Lithuanian currency and he refused to accept Russian rubles.
Just as we finished with the first policeman, others appeared demanding more money. We told them we had no more valuables, since we had given all to the first policeman. We were promptly taken to the Eishishok. prison to sit there among the other candidates for Aliyah.
Through the prison windows, the faces of Eishishok. Jews peeped in. Many braved the cold to come greet us, give us breakfasts, encourage us and promise to help us.
Do not fear, we will get you out
During the day we were visited by the heads of the Jewish community of the town. They brought us food, linen and more encouraging words. The children of Eishishok. gathered round the prison asking us what else we needed. The elders issued orders, dispatched delegations, pledges were made, and finally we were freed.
Yes, our Eishishok. stood the test and truly deserves its reputation as a refuge for refugees. All 15,000 refugees who passed through the town praise it. It comforted, provided warmth, encouraged and gave provisions for the rest of the journey. And we do not mean only provisions of food but spiritual provisions as well and an increased will to survive and continue our wanderings to the shores of our homeland.
If you were lucky enough not to be spotted by a policeman, you could approach, in dark of the night, any Jewish home, without question, and be welcomed. They offered their beds and the beds of their children, rose to warm up tea, and helped you and your children.
Thus was the conduct of Eishishok. And therefore I dared , in a special song for Eishishok, to wish the Hebrew land of Israel, that it, too, will be blessed by such an Eishishok, on its Northern and Southern borders.
Eishishok too, was destroyed, together with its dear and warm Jews, my fellow Joseph tells me with tears falling from his eyes.
The Committee was founded in the early years after the First World War with the help and efficient support of the former residents of Eishishok in the United States of America
(sitting in the front row - Mr. Aharon Dan, the emissary of the former residents of Eishishok in America)
After the Vilna district was given, by the Soviets, to the independent state of Lithuania, a widespread transfer of pioneers was organized from the Soviet part of Poland, where all Zionist activity was prohibited, to Vilna and Kovna. The Zionist movement, in all its different branches, flourished in Lithuania at that time, and the pioneer movement had many, many members.
When my native town, Lotzk, became part of Russia, I was forced, as a Zionist, to escape to Vilna. The Hachalutz center in Vilna assigned me the task of organizing the smuggling of pioneers from the Bialystok-Polsia district, across the Lithuanian- Russian border. I accepted the assignment and went to the town of Voronova, which served as a meeting place and last station before the border smuggling. Some Jews in the town had connections with reliable peasants who took pioneers and other Refugees over the border for 100-150 rubles a person. The money was given to the peasants, by the Voronova Jews, only after they presented a note signed by the head of the group indicating a safe arrival. This activity continued successfully for several months till the matter was brought to the attention of the Soviet authorities (mainly through the fault of our Communist brothers). The border security was consequently tightened and those caught were sentenced, administratively, to 15 years of exile in Siberia.
My name was brought to the attention of the Soviets as organizer of the smuggling activities, and they began to follow me. I had to act extremely cautiously. One day, sitting at the barber's in Voronova, I overheard one Jew, probably a Communist, telling his fellow that tonight they were going to bring an end to the Zionist gang.
I quickly shaved and left, pretending to have heard nothing. I hurried to the butcher, who served as a middle-man between the other involved Jews and me, and told him what I had heard. Yes, I have heard of the matter. he told me, The town is surrounded by policemen and N.K.V.D. detectives. This evening they intend to search for pioneers and refugees who are not natives of the town. You have to get out of here!
What shall I do? I questioned him. Where can I escape and hide? Give me some advice! You know what awaits us if I am caught by the police!
The butcher thought for a moment and was suddenly struck with an idea. Come, I have a place for you. I hope that even the Soviet eye won't be able to find you there.
He brought me to a storage house for wood, in the corner of which there was a two meter deep pit. He covered the pit with torn sacks, old clothes and boards, on top of which he placed dry wood. I lay hidden in that dark and airless hole for several hours. At midnight, I emerged and, assisted by one of our peasants, made my way across the fields to an isolated house in the woods where nine pioneers awaited me. I intended to make my last trip across the border with them to Eishishok, which served as the first station across the Lithuanian border. From Eishishok, the pioneers were sent to Vilna or Kovna to join pioneer training groups.
We walked in a single file, headed by the peasant. In the middle of our journey, in a big forest, the peasant disappeared, leaving us to ourselves. We didn't know the way nor where we were. We had to decide whether to return or continue alone and pray for a miracle to happen. We decided that no matter what happened, we would continue.
For us, Russia meant Siberia and hard labour camps in the Taigas. We walked for another two hours and came to a wooden pole lying across the way. We realized we had reached the border. The journey was arduous, the ground was frozen, and the walk across the forest paths (we dared not use the roads) was very difficult.
Each of us was also wearing several suits of clothes and underwear, the only property we could smuggle with us, and carrying backpacks. We had one girl with us. Suddenly as if springing from the earth, three peasants appeared. These were robbers who waited in ambush for refugees smuggling across the borders to rob them of their money. Frequently, they stripped their victims down to their underwear and sometimes even murdered them. They had pistols and demanded we accompany them to the Russian border station. We pled with them and gave them the rest of our money, but they were still not satisfied. They demanded gold and jewelry. One of us gave his watch, another, his only ring, the third gave clothing. They demanded more and more - and since we had no more to give them, they began beating us. We could not even shout for fear that the soldiers would hear us and we had no weapons. We were desperate. Finally, after pleading and begging them, they left us. Frightened and beaten, we mustered what was left of our strengths and plodded on. We were exhausted and hungry and though frozen, we were covered with sweat from our encounter with death.
About an hour later we reached a small house faintly lit from within, standing on the outskirts of the village. We knocked and a peasant came to the door. We asked him to let us in to warm ourselves and he agreed. We found out later that he was one of the border smugglers and accustomed to such encounters. He informed us that we were on the village of Tavshun, about four kilometers away from Eishishok. For us, that meant that we were happily on Lithuanian territory. We sighed with relief and thanked G-d that we had safely crossed the border and escaped evil. The peasant knew the Jews in Eishishok who were involved in smuggling Jews across the border and agreed to escort us to them. We decided to leave the girl in the house with our belongings so that she could get some rest. The peasant's daughter, who appeared to be a quiet and honest Christian, remained with her. Thus, after a short rest, we started on our way to Eishishok. The peasant went ahead of us and we followed, scattered, about fifty meters behind him. About one kilometer away from his village, seven Lithuanian soldiers appeared. They beat the peasant and shouted at him. We did not understand the language. The peasant escaped and returned to his village. The soldiers surrounded us and thus we reached Eishishok at daybreak, on the first street we met Jews who looked at us with sympathy and compassion. One of them approached the soldier who appeared to be the officer of the group, and conferred with him for some minutes, hinting to us not to fear. We then went to a large house situated on the corner of two streets and belonging, as we later learned, to a warm-hearted Jew named Lubetzky.
We were received with a Jewish warmth that touched our hearts, given food and drink, and made to feel that we were among brothers. Upon a hint from the Jew, the soldiers left us. More Jews came to the house and we learned later that these were the members of the committee which took care of the refugees from Russia.
We told these warm-hearted Jews of the girl we had left behind in the village and they sent a coachman to bring her. We spent three days in Eishishok and liked the town immensely. Eishishok was full of refugees from all parts of Russia, Germany, and Poland. All found rest there after their hazardous journey. The spirit of the Committee to Aid the Refugees was the rabbi of the town, Rabbi Shimshon Rozofsky, who had a majestic face and wise eyes and could also recite a good Jewish joke to hearten the spirits.
The members of the committee used to gather in his house. The work of the committee involved ransoming refugees caught by the Lithuanian authorities. It also obtained Lithuanian passes for the refugees so that after a few days rest, they could continue their journey to Vilna, the Lithuanian capital. Money was also provided by the committee for the first few days of the journey. All this was done with such Jewish warmth and heartiness that all who passed through the town in those turbulent days were full of praise for the pleasant town and its kind inhabitants.
On the fourth day the committee rented a truck to take 60 refugees to Vilna. This was necessary because the train did not pass through the town, and the buses, leaving from the market-place station, were so full of people that strong elbows were necessary to get us on one. About one hundred kilometer away from the town, a Lithuanian police car, coming from the other direction, stopped the truck and began questioning as to who we were and what our destination was. We seemed suspicious and the driver was ordered to return us to the police station in the town. We knew that once the Lithuanian police discovered our identities, they would return us to the Russian border and we would be doomed to Siberia.
There was only one Lithuanian policeman with us and he was seated beside the driver. I and two other refugees, who on no account wished to face the Russians again, jumped off the truck when it reached the first street in Eishishok, Vilna Street, and disappeared among the houses. We returned to the house of the kind man who had accommodated us and told him what had happened. The committee was alerted and it decided to send to send another truck and transfer us to Vilna before the police would be able to conduct a wider investigation. Unfortunately, this truck was also stopped and we were all returned, under Lithuanian police guard, to the police chief. The police chief ordered the whole group, some 80 people, to be transported that same evening to the Russian border, which was located six kilometer from Eishishok. The night was dark and I decided to escape again, since returning to Russia was out of the question for me. We were escorted by 18 policemen. I slowly began to lag and fall behind the nearest policeman. When walking alongside of a ditch, I dropped to my belly, crawled to the ditch, and rolled into it. When the group had moved some distance from me, I began to run back to Eishishok. I heard the sounds of shouts and shooting behind me, but I safely reached the first house. I knocked on the window and a Jewish voice answered me. He took me in, I told him what had happened, and asked him to take me to the Lubetzky house where I had spent the previous night. Next morning, Mr. Lubetzky found me a place in a car going to Vilna Two hours later I safely reached the mother city of Israel, the Jerusalem of Lithuania. I later, learned that the whole group was returned safely to Eishishok. The dear Jews of that town had followed the policemen and on the order of their chief, whose heart was softened by a few hundred coins, returned them. I met many of that group in Vilna and together we reminisced about our mutual experiences in Eishishok and its wonderful people, whom I will never forget.
Ben Zion Ben Shalom
We are going to Vilna. We arrive at a small town. At the station, an assistant of the man organizing the smuggling across the Russian-Lithuanian border awaits us. At midnight we leave the town. The skies are cloudy but the layer of show affords some light. The pathless route is difficult. We cross fields and meadows rich with pits. The heavy back-pack is burdensome. One of the peasants heads the procession, the other brings up the rear. The Jew carrying the child is first on the line and I am last.
We have walked three hours already. Our guides promise us that in half an hour we shall reach the Lithuanian village across the border. We are at the end of our strength. We finally arrive at the first houses of the town. The town is asleep. Our guides knock on the door of one of the houses. We enter a small room lit by an oil lamp. My heart is full of happiness the like of which I have not experienced in years. My lips cannot move but all of me inside is whispering Thank G-d I have lived to see this day!
A heavenly morning. The earth is frozen but a wintry sun is shining. We walk the streets of the town and love every bit of it. Eishishok, Eishishok, how pleasant and beautiful you are! How every heart blesses you! We see your small, beautiful homes and your streets blessed with a special grace. You were so beautiful and perfect in our eyes that morning. Our first stop on Lithuanian soil! My pleasant town, we will remember you always with gratitude and love.
In that Jewish house we met the first group. Greetings were exchanged. They tell of their plights in passage and we tell of ours. In the corner the Jew's daughter is sitting doing her homework. I approach her. The books are Hebrew books and so is the lesson she is writing. Dear child, may you be blessed!
We spend that day in Eishishok. There is no train station here and it is very difficult to find room on the bus. We spent the night in the town. Next morning we capture places on the bus and after two hours drive, finally reach Vilna.
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