Fleeing to Russia, Stranded in Latvia, 1941
Jacob: The war started on Sunday. From time to time, there was bombing of the city. Some parts of the city were burning; some people were injured. And we were ready to stay, using the shelter, hiding temporarily, waiting until the Russians will stop the Germans, and hopeful.
Now, overnight, certainly, we couldn't sleep too much. We got up Monday morning early, around five, six o'dock. And my God, what kind of a picture we saw: the Russian families, the families of the Russian military, pulling out. A chain of trucks and automobiles-one after another without interruption, for miles and miles long-were pulling out eastward, away from the front. It was very suspicious for us. If the Russians were pulling out, so what will be with us? And it didn't take long, and we saw chains after chains of automobiles, military. Not the families but the military themselves, with all the equipment, pulling out. We lived not far from what we call the highway Yanovo Uonava], going through Kamen and going to Vilna, eastward. And another branch of the same highway going to Latvia, to the northeastern part of Latvia, to the city of Dvinsk [Daugavpils] and other cities.
So we understood and we realized quickly that the Russians were pulling out. And here we hear on the radio, and we hear from other people, that the Germans crossed already the border between Germany and Lithuania, and they occupied already some cities in Lithuania. The bigger cities are Vilkomir [Vilkmerge, now Ukmerge], Mariampol [Marijampole], and others.
So now we have to decide quickly what to do. We go or we stay? If we stay, what can expect us? The Nazis will come, and we'll be under the Nazi regime, and God forbid what can happen to every one of us. We heard what happened to the Jews in Germany and in Poland. Not to go? To go? What expects us? I'm telling you, this was a day of agony-a day, hours, minutes of agony-and we could not decide what to do.
Finally, we came to conclusion we won't stay here. I was young at that time, still in the thirties, and my ambition was, my feeling was, to Bee into Russia-is the right word, to Bee into Russia?-and to fight in the Russian army, to be accepted in the Russian army and to fight the Nazis. We heard some people advised to do it. But to stay under the Nazis? No.
So I was happy or unhappy this way. I had in my possession in the whole sovchoz estate, sovchoz units, about forty trucks, Russian trucks. I had in my own possession, as the director of the sovchoz, three cars. One was out of order, but two were good ones. One was a La.Salle, a huge car; I think eight or nine people could be seated there-La Salle. And I had another, smaller car, made in Czechoslovakia, by name Tatra. I don't know if you heard of this name of car. It was a small car but very powerful. Okay, I won't describe the car. It's not important. Finally, we decided to use the La Salle, big car, to pack what we could and to Bee. I had a driver. The driver was a refugee from Poland, Ostrovsky, a Polish. He was an official, high official, officer in the Polish army. He Bed, and I employed him as a driver.
In the last moment, I made a mistake-or not, hard to say. I accepted another family to go with us in the same car. Who was the other family? A daughter of the family was the main bookkeeper in my office. Here you call it accountant. She was the accountant. In Lithuania, we call it the head bookkeeper, the main bookkeeper. In the beginning, I thought she will be alone or with her sister, but when it came time to Bee, she came with her sister and old parents-so four people additional altogether. And we were four people: myself, my wife, and two children, your half brothers. So we were eight people and the driver, Ostrovskynine people in the car. We packed what we could, and Monday morning we locked the doors, and we said good-bye to Kovno, and we are on our way, on the Yanova highway and heading towards Vilna and farther.
It is easy to say driving towards Vilna. The roads were packed with refugees and Russian military. You couldn't move fast. The automobile was crowded, nine people with belongings. The other family, their name was Rouf; the father of the family was a well-known dentist in Kovno. Before we go, we were thinking what to do? What food to take? Nearby was a bakery, so we still could get two or three loaves of bread, and
what was in the house food we took with us. And we went on our way. It didn't take long on the Yanova highway, and we approached Yanova. The traffic was easier the farther away from Kovno. We went through the city ofVilkomir. We came to Vilkomir, and people see refugees, and they were laughing at us. Are you crazy? Why are you so panicky, and you bring a panic into our city? Our city is quiet. We depend on the Russians. The Russians won't let the Germans to come into Lithuania so fast. The opposite-the Russians will drive them out if they occupy.
So we were confused even more. Maybe they are right? Maybe to stay here and to wait for a while and to come back, to come back home? We were staying there, waiting maybe a half a day, and the news were coming worse and worse. We hear they occupied Vilkomir, they occupied Mariampol, they occupied others; and people say the Germans are at the outskirts of Kovno already, in two days, the blitzkrieg-and really, it was fast. And the longer we were waiting, the more bad news we are getting from Kovno, from around Kovno. Finally, we continued our way.
Continuing our way, and we got news: No use to go to Vilna for escaping. The highways are so crowded with military, with their families, with refugees, there is no way even for a car to squeeze in, and they don't let you go any farther even then. Is a better way to go through the city of Dvinsk, in Latvia. So after some consultation with our driverhe said he knew it; he knew the area-we turned toward Dvinsk. There was a longer way to come into Russia, but a safer way. It is again, I make the remark, easy to talk about.
Meantime, the fascists of Lithuania, the most reactionary, extreme reactionary-they call it in Lithuanian language shaulists; that means the fascists of Lithuania, the ugly fascists-raised their ugly heads and were attacking and shooting from the woods around till we see people are dead along the highway. Who killed them? The fascists from the woods.
Our car was attacked a couple of times. Two or three times, we had to stop somewhere and to hide under the car, to wait. I don't remember exactly how long it took; day and night, it was no difference to us. And with small children-the children were probably nine and seven
years old-and with the old people of the Rouf family.... We came to Dvinsk, crowded again.
Our purpose was now clear. We want to reach Russia, the border between Latvia and Russia, and there, we figured, we will find a place, a shelter for the children, for the women. And I myself will go into the Russian army and to fight.
Now we are approaching the Russian border, and we are already in the Latvian towns: Rezhitsa [Rezekne], other towns. We became close to the Russian border, let's say about a couple of kilometers. Two to three kilometers away from the border, we were stopped. The highway already ended. We were traveling through dirty roads, but as long there was no rain and it was dry, the roads were all right. We were stopped. What is?
You cannot go into Russia. We don't let in.
In the beginning, they let in people to escape from Lithuania or Latvia, but now they stopped. What was the reason? Rumors. Everything was built on rumors. Maybe that was true. Along with the crowd of refugees, of innocent refugees, some spies, German spies, came in into Russia. Certainly, the Russians didn't like it. Some spies were caught. Some spies were not caught yet. Anyway, we were stopped. For how long? We don't know. Maybe an hour, maybe two hours, maybe a day, maybe longer. Anyway, we came near a forest, and we find a place and a meadow. We stopped, and we made our home there at the edge of a forest. We ate up our food what we had. We were scarce of food already. Where to get food? So we bought from the surrounding farmers. Both not as much with money but exchanging something-a golden ring, a shirt, something else-giving, and getting some foods. Certainly, they exploited us.
I don't remember how long we stayed there. Maybe a few days. And then rumors came again: The Russians let you go. You can go.
We continued. We packed again, and we were afraid that our chauffeur-our driver, Ostrovsky-will leave us alone. Why should he run with the Jewish refugees? He was a Pole. But we found him, and we continued. We crossed the Russian border into Byelorussia; that's what borders with Latvia. The roads were bad, not highways, certainly-dirt roads, but it was still dry.
How to say it? All the way, we saw Russian soldiers fleeing. It was not an army already; it was just scattered remnants of the army, plundering where they could. In Russia, we went through many colchoz collectives, farm units. It was abandoned and left over cattle and chickens and whatever you want, so-as I told you, I was still young at that time, full of energy-so we had food enough. I became, I hate to use the word, a slaughterer of cattle, and we prepared meat-I was wondering myself how can I do it-a slaughterer of chicken. We had plenty of chicken was left over.
Ah, until the rain started. It was-oh, it was summertime, July, but rainy days came, occasionally. And we had difficulty with the automobile. It was sinking into the mud, deeper and deeper. To make the long story short again, one day the automobile refused to continue. What happened? The transmission broke, as the chauffeur told us. And without transmission in order, certainly you can't drive. The motor works, everything, but it doesn't move from the mud.
It was a tragedy again. We said good-bye to the automobile. The automobile became like our home, second home. A couple of times, the Russian soldiers wanted to take the automobile away from us. But every time, we were begging, so they left us. And now nature took it away. The automobile sunk in the mud in the middle of the road and couldn't be used. Maybe the Russians pulled it out, and they did something. It was a good engine, but we couldn't use anymore. And again, we established our home somewhere at the edge of a forest in Russia already, in Byelorussia, waiting. Waiting for what? We didn't know for what.
Meantime, it was a bad mood between us. And you know, when it is a bad mood, you don't know what to do with yourself and what to do with your neighbors. The Rouf family was a great abuse to uselderly people and two daughters in the thirties, helpless, and I was the only man in the group to think for everyone and to act for everyone. The chauffeur Ostrovsky left us. Why should he stay with Jewish people when the Nazis approaching? So he left for somewhere, and I was the only one to think and to do for the whole group.
And rumors coming back from Lithuania, from the front, were bad; the Germans approaching. We can hear it every day. They occupied this place and that place. They occupied already, as I mentioned before,
Vilkomir; and they occupied already Dvinsk in Latvia, not too far from us; and they are approaching here already into Byelorussia.
Luckily, not far was a colchoz, a collective farm, and I took a stroll, seeing. I found a lot of food left over, cattle as much as you want. And luckily, I found a horse left over-an old horse, not a great animaland a wagon. I managed somehow to put the horse onto the wagon, to arrange it. I put some food, as much as I could, in the wagon, and slowly, I came back to the two families.
We packed what we had, the women and the children on the wagon, and the old man, too. The abuse of the Rouf family was heavier and heavier from day to day. They demanded, and helpless. I was nervous, probably. And we continued-instead of the automobile, the La Salle, using the horse and wagon. I don't remember for how many days we were going this way, deeper into Byelorussia. One day, a bright, sunny day, traveling on the dirt road-and many refugees ahead of us, and many refugees behind of us, mixed with military, remnants of military groups-we heard a command. Stop! Don't continue any further!
The Germans are ahead of us!
Where, Germans? When, Germans? We don't see any Germans! We fell into-I will use the German name, kesselgrub. Kessel is cattle; grub is a pit. We fell into a kesselgrub; that means we fell into surroundings. They surrounded the whole area for many miles around, in front of us and all sides and in back of us; and wherever you move, like in a round cattle corral, you meet a wall. And who were there? The Germans. Can you imagine our mood? Our energy fell completely. Germans. And we didn't have to wonder too long. It didn't take too long, we saw ahead German motorcycles with German soldiers. On horses, we saw them. They didn't attack us; they didn't do anything so far. But we realized we fell into the hands of the Germans, and no more dreaming and thinking about moving ahead.
What to do now? Again, a problem: what to do? You can't go ahead into Russia. You can't stay here. The local people...and they start already separate Jews from non-Jews. Jews were persecuted by the Germans, hated. Non-Jews were still tolerated. Food becoming scarce and scarce. No food. So finally, we decided we'll try to go back home. What can be
worse? Under the Nazis...still, maybe at home, somehow we'll find a way to escape. Still, in Lithuania, I know people; I know this and that, the language. So try to go home. So I took the poor horse; we still had it. The horse was quite old, and he couldn't run, just walking, step by step, like an old man. And we put again the belongings, and we started again our way, our route, back home to Lithuania.
Again, it's easy to say that, but we are froin Lithuania already hundreds of hundreds of miles. Hard to go back to Lithuania. Ah, it was not a joyful route to go back. We go along; we see killed people along the road. We see starving people along the road. The rural population is not friendly anymore, as they were before. Now they came back to their farms. You cannot get any food.
And here we came, and we were stopped by a commander, by a group ofLatvians-we were already back in Latvia-of Latvian fascists. Who are you? What are you?
From Lithuania? Jewish people?
Yes, Jewish people.
So that's the end, we thought. Mostly, Jewish people caught on the road were killed on the spot in most cases.. I don't know what happened; they didn't kill us, probably because a German group camemilitary, simple military men-and they decided what to do with us. And they said, Put them on the platform of a train and send them back to Dvinsk.
They did so, and even the Germans were friendly. We came to the station. They gave us coffee; they gave some candies or cake, cookies, to the children. The children were hungry. And they put us on an open platform, and time came, the train moved back to Dvinsk.
We thought maybe we were lucky. Maybe we will this day reach somehow back to Lithuania. Ah, sitting-only our family was. We lost the Rouf family on the way. And we were traveling toward Dvinsk. We came to Dvinsk.
Josh: What happened to the Rouf family? They separated from you?
Jacob: Let me think what happened to them. They stayed in a small town, in a small town still in Russia. They wanted to stay there. They
said, We are exhausted. We have no more strength, the old people, to do, to move. We will stay here, and what will be, will be.
I was energetic still, as I had in mind-as I said, my purpose was if to stay under Nazis, then to go back to Lithuania, to stay in Lithuania. So we were left alone.
Before that, our horse was taken away from us. We had a cow-we had two-a cow for a couple of weeks. Before, we passed a sovchoz, and there was left hundreds of cattle. So in the evening time, the shepherd or somehow from the colchoz said, Take any cow you want. They will be anyway for the Germans. So I strolled like a cowboy in the old time among the cattle, greeting and touching hundreds of cows. Finally, one cow pleased me, and I took her and tied to the wagon, so we had milk for a certain period of time. For the children was a delight.
So on the way back, as I said, we were stopped, and our horse was taken away. One said, Look, they have a horse. This horse belongs to this-and-this colchoz.
I said, Yes, I took him. And luckily, they didn't kill me for stealing the horse. They took it away. Okay, who needs the horse? Although I was sorry that they took it away, because the horse still helped. They took away the horse; then I said, Take the wagon, too. What will you give me for the wagon? That is mine. And I got some food for the wagon.
Then later on, we had the cow. And further, I thought, I'll be in trouble with the cow. It belonged to a colchoz, and they'll find us for stealing the cow. So I came to a place, a woman was there, and I said, Maybe you'll buy the cow? We have a cow, so and so. She gave us some food, ridiculous, and we sold the cow to her.
And as I said, finally, we were placed by the Germans and the local fascists on the platform of the train, to go back to Dvinsk overnight, open platform, cold. In the morning, with the sunrise, we were already in Dvinsk, at the railroad station. Here another group of the local fascists Oh, Jews! greeted us, commanded. And now we were under command all the time. Forced Down! Down! Take what you can. We took what we could. We had some clothing, maybe some food, I don't remember; but we couldn't take everything on ourselves, on our shoulders, what we could. The children took what they can, a heavy load, and
they are driving us, four or five people with guns and with everything. Arrested. Driving us. Where?
Where. You will see.
I didn't know Latvian language, but I knew Lithuanian, and Latvian and Lithuanian are somehow close to each other, like Polish and Russian. And I could understand more or less. Where are you driving us? Where are we going?
You will see, a good place.
We were sure they are driving us to the last stop somewhere to be killed. Mter a couple of hours, it became hot, a hot day. It was in August. And we are approaching on the outskirts from Dvinsk, and we are approaching the river. The river is called Dvina. Dvina is the river, and Dvinsk, the city. We were approaching the Dvina. I am looking over the river. It is some way a pontoon bridge-that's the right expression?-a light bridge, and people are passing from the other side over the bridge, and I look and look and look. What kind of people, who are they, what are they? Dressed in funny clothes, a big one, a small one. Each one had a yellow Star of David-a Magen David-a big star in the front, same big star on the back, and the pants were stripes in yellow colors.
I was thinking, What? All of us, and another family joined us-on the way, they caught up another Jewish family-and they said the same thing. Who are they, what are they? And we couldn't answer this question. Jews or not Jews or some kind, masqueraded or decorated? And we came to the pontoon bridge; we were told to pass the river. We passed the river, and they brought us to a place what I recognized in the old time. It was called Dvinsk Fortress, fortress of Dvinsk. It was built in the times of the Tsars a long time ago, maybe a hundred years ago. They didn't use the fortress now anymore. It was useless, but all the buildings-the stone buildings, tens of tens of buildings-were left over, and they're driving us toward the fortress. And when we came closer, we saw many of these kinds of people with the yellow Star of David. What are they doing here? What is here going on?
We met the first one, and asking them, we understood they are Jewish people. What? Where are you? Where are we? What is it?
They said, Don't you know it? Don't you understand it?
No! We're just coming from the woods. They just caught us.
You are in the ghetto of Dvinsk. Ghetto, you know what a ghetto is? A separated place for Jewish people. This is the ghetto of Dvinsk. They brought us here by the end of June, beginning of July. And here are the whole Jewish population of Dvinsk and a lot of Jewish families from the surrounding towns.
Anyway, again-!used already the third time-to make the long story short, we were placed into the ghetto of Dvinsk. We were lucky, on one hand, that they didn't kill us on the way. And on the other hand, we realized that will be our dwelling place. Forget about going back to Lithuania and find our way to live; to stay in Lithuania, which is closer to us, more familiar to us. So we became dwellers, residents, of the ghetto of Dvinsk, the whole family: myself, my wife and two children.
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