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Appendix II: Memories of Mordechai Yerushalmi z“l [1]

Camp Polangen (Palanga)

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

The “Polangen Camp” was a resort place for children. Over two thousand Lithuanian and Jewish children lived in the large camp, which was divided into 4 smaller camps, 500 children in each. Each of these smaller camps was in turn divided into 4 companies, 100 children in a company, and each company contained 4 “chains.”

The camp was situated in the forest, on the shore of the Baltic Sea. The living conditions were good. So was the food.

Each company occupied 2 large houses; each child slept in his own bed and next to it stood a little cupboard where he kept his clothes. The children received 4 meals a day, and twice a week they were taken to the beach to bathe.

However, in spite of the pleasant conditions, the Jewish children, who were the minority, did not feel good. The Lithuanian children hated them mortally. They had to endure theft of food and clothing, beatings, and ugly name-calling.

The hatred towards the Jewish children grew even more when the rumor spread that war is about to break out between the Russians and the Germans and that Hitler is planning to annihilate all the Jews of Europe. It soon became unbearable, and many Jewish children began to run away. Unfortunately, war broke out indeed and the attempts to escape had to stop; moreover, instead of the minor troubles that the Jewish children had suffered before, much more terrible tragedies awaited them in Polanga.

On 22 June at dawn we woke up at the sound of cannons and exploding bombs. The teachers entered the children's rooms and tried to calm us down, explaining that there was no reason to be scared since these were only maneuvers, not real fighting. Still, they ordered all of us to get dressed and pack our belongings. We did so and gathered in the hallway.

It was cold and we were shivering. Outside the sun was beginning to rise. The sky was red, and every once in a while a cannonball would explode and set fire to a tree.

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The fire spread quickly to other trees and soon the rumor was that the entire forest was burning in the west. This confused the teachers, who could not understand what it really was: war or maneuvers. A delegation of teachers approached the commander of the camp asking for instructions. But the delegation did not come back. In the meantime, we gathered in the hallway and waited.

Suddenly a terrible explosion was heard – boom! boom! Fire and smoke began to rise from the “first camp”, where a bomb had fallen. We became very frightened, and the Lithuanians cried: Oh Jesus! Oh Maria! After several minutes we could see the first children that escaped from the bombed camp. They told us that 19 children, who slept near the window, were wounded, and since they had nowhere to run they were burned alive[2]. In a few moments all that remained from camp No. 1 was burning embers.

The gunshots became more and more frequent. Armed Russians could be seen passing through the forest, alarm and fright on their faces. A delegation came to the camp, announcing that today, 22 June, war broke out between Russia and Germany and we must leave the camp as soon as possible. To the question “where to?” the answer was “to the Baltic Sea.” We were ordered to form a line, and then “March!” Where? Home – one of the teachers said. We were very happy. Our spirits rose, and the children began to sing. But a half an hour later, when we reached the sea, our mood changed entirely.

We were told to climb down into a large hole in the ground, because the gunshots were getting more and more frequent and the bullets were flying over our heads; after about 15 minutes of sitting in the pit we heard the voices of the fascists Lithuanian partisans, who were having a meeting beyond the sand dune. We had to leave the place, and in spite of the gunfire all around we were ordered to climb out, since the enemy was already very close.

We began marching along the beach. The heat was terrible. The sun burned like a furnace. We were very tired and we had nothing to eat. Many children left their belongings at the side of the road because they had no more strength to carry them. There was no time to rest – the enemy was only about 2-3 km. behind us. We walked all day along the beach, until we arrived to Shvantai, a town about 17 km. from Polanga. There we rested and were told to wait for a ship that will take us to Riga. But the ship didn't come. The Germans were close, and could reach us every moment. The danger was great. In addition to this, some of the teachers had disappeared, and we were left only with 30 instructors, who, in turn, were about to leave soon.

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When the teachers realized that the ship would not arrive, they ordered us to get up and start walking. They gave us dried fish, a fish to a child. We walked all afternoon. In the evening we stopped at a farm, some 18 km. from Polanga. We received food, but not enough. We slept outside on the ground, and in the morning we continued our journey. The second evening we arrived at another farm, where we remained two days. Then we walked again the entire afternoon, and when evening came we found another farm where we could spend the night. But when we were about 200 meters from the farm we saw 6 armed Germans riding on motorbikes. We became terribly frightened. I was clear: in an hour or so we would be captured by the Germans. The teachers were scared as well, since they knew that we could not go on further: we had no more food and it was imperative that we get food somewhere. Our teachers ordered us to continue walking until we would reach another farm. All of us were very tired; but we had no choice but to do what the teachers said. However, when we reached the other farm, we realized that we were surrounded by Germans on all ides. The Russians had run away several hours earlier. This situation terrified us. Every child thought: now we have really fallen into the hands of the Germans.

We had no choice but to return to the camp again. We bought food and the same day we started our journey back. On our war we met Germans. The Lithuanian children were happy meeting them; we, the Jewish children, almost wept: we understood very well what fate awaited us and all the other Jews.

The journey back was easy for the Lithuanians and very difficult for us. The Lithuanians sang all along the way, and we walked with our heads down, as if we were at a funeral.

When we reached Polanga, the town was full of German and Lithuanian flags. The Lithuanian fascist partisans marched everywhere, rifles on their shoulders. Drunken Germans also walked in the streets. All of them performed “very important work:” the partisans robbed the Jews and the other Lithuanians collected the booty and carried it to their homes; the Germans – they would stop the Lithuanians and take away their “treasures.”

We arrived finally and went to camp No. 4. We rested and we were given food. The Jewish children gathered and sat on the ground, and we told each other about the hardships on the way. The way back had not been easy. The Russians were about 20 kilometers away, and Russian airplanes would fly over us and throw bombs. When our teachers felt the danger, they would order us to hide under trees and behind fences. We would run and wait for a miracle. The good God wanted us to stay alive…

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Suddenly we heard that beds were being supplied. All of us ran inside, but it turned out that the Lithuanian children were receiving beds including sheets and pillows, and we, the Jews – only empty beds. And even that – only the very young children. I received a hard bed. I had no pillow, and my bag with all my clothes, on which I could have put my head, I had given to an older Lithuanian boy to carry, because I was too week to hold it. How sorry I was at that moment for having done that! I never saw my clothes again.

Next day we received food, but less in quantity and worse in quality than the Lithuanian boys received. The Jews and the Lithuanians lived in the same house – the Lithuanians in the rooms and the Jews in the attic. We spent there 7 days. On the 8th day we were transferred to camp No. 9. The Jewish children were immediately separated from their Lithuanian friends. Again the Lithuanians received nice rooms and we were put in the attic and we were ordered not to step into the Lithuanians' rooms. When a Jewish boy stumbled into one of their rooms, he was chased away and sometimes beaten.

We didn't stay there long. One day we were told to assemble in the courtyard and the teachers will give us regards from our parents, tell us about the news and give us instructions. We went outside and waited for the news.

At this moment, a Lithuanian boy told me that he had seen my things in the storeroom with my name written on the bag. I wanted to rush to the storeroom and retrieve my bag, but unfortunately they wouldn't let me in.

In the meantime everybody gathered outside. The head teacher came and stood in the center. She signaled us to be quiet and began to speak. After several items that she took care of, she got to the question of the Jews in the children's camp and in the entire world. She said: Since the Jews are to blame for the war and they are an evil nation, a nation of thieves and evil-doers, therefore we must hate them as we hate the snake… This is the way she spoke, like all other anti-Semites, until she reached her main point: she announced that all Jews – teachers and pupils – must leave the camp and go to a place that the German authorities would show them[3]. She then ordered the Jews to leave the courtyard immediately and get ready to go.

After we left, the teacher explained to the Lithuanian children that this command was not her fault; she was so ordered by the Germans.

This was the way this teacher spoke – a teacher who only two weeks ago was an enthusiastic communist…

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We didn't need much time for preparations, so we left immediately. We just walked and looked for a place to live. After quite a long walk, we reached Camp 4, the camp we had been at the beginning. The natural beauty around was great, but our lives were difficult. The food was worse than we ever had before, and we received only two meals a day. We slept on hard beds, some of us slept on the floor. Apart from all that, we were tortured by fear that wouldn't let us sleep. I had terrible nightmares and was constantly hungry. Every day we were visited by German soldiers and officers and by Lithuanian fascists, and they always brought bad news. These visits would frighten us very much. It was forbidden to leave the camp, so that the only food we had was the rations we received. Hunger was so bad, that we began to look for bread crumbs on the grounds around the house. But even this was hard to find. We were hungry, day after day.

One afternoon, at two o'clock, 10 Lithuanian fascists came, called several children and told them: We have come to take you home. Take your belongings, form an ordered line and follow us, with your teachers.

The rumor spread through the camp like fire, and the children shouted with joy. But our teachers did not join us in our merriment. Their faces were drawn and they looked nervous. We could see they were worried, but we were so happy – we didn't pay attention.

The Lithuanians kept urging us: “If you don't hurry, you will miss the buses and you won't go home.”

Scared, we hurried and stood in line. The Lithuanians led us to the bus station of the town Polanga. After thoroughly checking us and our belongings, they ordered us to enter the station. When we came in, we were horrified: hundreds of Jews, men, women and children, all of them Polanga residents, were sitting on the ground in the courtyard, brought there by the order of the German commander. The women and the children were crying. Now we understood why our teachers were so worried when the Lithuanians came to the camp. We realized that the fascists had cheated us, when they said that we were going home.

One of the Germans pointed to a place for us and we sat down among the crowd. The Germans and the Lithuanians, in turn, began making speeches against the Jews. They repeated over and over the senseless accusations: The Jews were guilty, they were the ones who caused the breakout of the war, they and their money. “But it will not take long now: we, the German people and all the other European nations are about to destroy you.”

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This is how the murderers spoke to us, just like all the anti-Semites in the rest of the world.

Evening came, the sun had set and the murderers still hadn't stopped talking. Suddenly one of the Germans rose, waited until the last Lithuanian finished talking and issued an order: all men over 13 years assemble on the other side of the yard. Most of us obeyed, but some hid among the group of women and children. However, the Germans and the Lithuanians began checking around, found them and took them to the other side. Some of the men were 80 years old. They were ordered to form lines and were taken out through the gate. As they passed, the women and children began to cry. The murderers said that the men are being taken to work, but we didn't believe them.

After they took the men away, we remained there for some time. Every once in a while they would fire shots in the direction of the gate, in order to frighten us. Later the Lithuanians and the Germans came and ordered us to follow them. They took us to the Bet Midrash [synagogue and house of learning], which was not far from the bus station, and herded us in. They closed the windows and locked the door from the outside, and guards were stationed at the door and at the windows.

We barely had time to sit down, and the Germans began to break the windows with their rifle butts, yelling: Air! We must have fresh air here! Almost all the windows were broken.

We tried to go to sleep, but there was not enough room. We did what we could, finding a space on the benches and on the floor, which was full of pieces of glass.

It was a terrible night, sleepless, the silence broken only by the sharp screams of women, awaking from a nightmare. Morning came, and we received no news. We didn't know where they had taken the men. Noon came, and they hadn't given us even a cup of water to drink. Food was out of the question. Only two days later we received a little food. We were not allowed to go out for our natural needs and the air in the Bet Midrash was terrible.

This was how the first day passed. On the second night we threw ourselves on the dirty floor, hungry and again unable to sleep.

The next day, the rumor spread that all the men had been shot and killed while we were waiting in the courtyard of the bus station. It was whispered that the same fate awaited us, too. One cannot imagine our fear.

On the second evening they brought us some food, but we couldn't eat much.

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After we ate we tried to sleep, but in the middle of the night Germans broke into the room and smashed the remaining windows. A cold wind blew in, and the floor was full of shreds of glass, wounding everybody. To this day I can see the scar where a piece of glass penetrated my hand.

Next morning the teacher Ms. Kassin gave me a piece of bread and a lump of sugar. As the head of the people in the Bet Midrash she had permission to go out, and in town she bought bread and sugar for the younger children. This was our food during the time we remained in the Bet Midrash.

Every day we were visited by German officers, who never failed to tell us that we were dirty Jews, that the room was filthy and so on. They never asked whether our guards would let us out.

One day the Lithuanian fascists came and brought bloodstained clothes. After a moment of dead silence, loud screams broke out. The women had recognized the clothes of their husbands, sons and relatives. It was clear that all the men had been murdered. A heavy grief fell upon all.

Six days we remained in the Bet Midrash. On the sixth day, the fascists announced: We have been ordered by the Germans to tell you, you wicked warmongers, that you are given a beautiful house to live in, on the condition that you keep it clean! So we will take some of the women to clean the house!

Several women left and I don't know whether they returned or not. The next day, they ordered us to form a line and go out. We rushed out of the building, longing for some fresh air.

We filled our lungs with air, but we were afraid, because we had no idea where they had planned to take us. At the order “March!” we began walking. After some thirty minutes we arrived to another courtyard, out of town, and the command came: “Halt!” The Polanga women and children were directed toward two sheds that looked like barns or animal pens, and the camp children were ordered to remain in the yard.

The Lithuanians brought a table, a chair and a register. They began to register our names, the names of our parents and our addresses, and then gave us the order to go to the shed that had been, probably, a pigpen.

After that, the Polanga people were registered as well, and we were not allowed to step out of our shed. In the evening we received a meal: sauerkraut and a few potatoes. Then we took some straw from the yard, to sleep on. But there was not enough straw for everybody and some of us had to sleep on the bare cement floor. Life became harder and harder.

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The Lithuanian murderers woke us every morning at five and sent us to work. Our work was to collect the amber from the Jewish workshops in the neighborhood and take it to the general warehouse[4]. We returned from work at six in the evening. Food was very bad. We had two meals a day, morning and evening, consisting in a piece of bread and dried fish. We became so weak that we were not able to walk. My body was covered with wounds and I couldn't eat even the meager food they gave me.

We spent there two weeks. We were under the command of the Lithuanians, who were crueler than the Germans. In the middle of the night they would fire a few shots into our shed in order to frighten us. The Germans came seldom, only out of curiosity, as one visits the zoo. They would point to us and say “fat lousy Jews” – we really looked more like animals than people. We were messy and filthy, since we were not allowed to wash or clean ourselves.

Luckily, the Siauliai people were allowed finally to leave. One rainy day a policeman came and ordered us to go out in the yard and form a line. He brought again a table and a chair and began to write in his register. All that time we stood in the rain and waited in line. Finally he registered all of us and we went back to our shed.

Several days later, on a warm day, the same policeman came with a truck and called the Siauliai children by their names, and I was among them. We took our belongings and went into the truck. As soon as everybody was inside, the truck began to move.

This is the way we left our prison and went home. On the way the truck broke down and we had to spend the night in a village. But the next day we were home.

I do not know what became of the other children[5].

Table of Contents

  1. Author's note: These memories were written in November 1941 by the author's son, in Hebrew, which was the language they spoke at home. Return
  2. The camps were situated less than 1 kilometer from the border and it was unlikely that the Germans wouldn't know about them. Return
  3. The intention of the Lithuanian teachers was to return the Lithuanian children to their homes and to leave the Jewish children in the hands of the Lithuanian fascists and the Germans, to do with them as they pleased, in other words to murder them. Return
  4. For more than a hundred years, Polanga was an important center of the amber industry, almost all of it in the hand of Jews. Return
  5. None of the remaining children survived. Soon after the Siauliai children had left, they were murdered together with the Polanga women and children. Return

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