2. The slaughter of the Jews of Kelm
Part 1: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-slaughter-of-the-jews-of-kelm/
Yakov Meets the Jewish Family Kholozhin
After escaping from the pit, Yakov lay in the nearby forest until Sunday evening, August 24, without eating or drinking. Yakov knew the peasants living nearby, and he was very careful not to encounter them. Yakov went to the peasant Pranas Balsis in the village of Auksaiishkis. Yakov stayed there for two weeks. He found out from the peasant that the police and partisans in Kelm were searching for him intensely.
Yakov got a rifle and ammunition, along with a revolver, from this peasant, and went to another peasant named Vladas Urbelis in the village of Pakartsama. This peasant was an acquaintance of Yakov’s, and received him very warmly. Yakov stayed with the peasant for twelve days. Meanwhile the peasant often went to Kelm, and returned with the news that there was an intense search for Yakov. The peasant grew afraid of keeping Yakov any longer, and found him a place to stay with his fiancee’s mother, the peasant woman Kasperiene in the village of Berzhinishkis, eight kilometers from Kelm, Yakov hid for more than two weeks in a granary. A neighbor of Kasperiene spotted Yakov, and he was forced to go to the peasant Kazlauskas at the Navestron compound, nine kilometers from Kelm. Kazlauskas had known Yakov’s father well, and received Yakov warmly. At Kazlauskas’ home Yakov found things which his parents had left there before they died. Yakov took some of the things. He gave the rest to the peasant as payment for hiding him. Yakov stayed among the straw in the peasant’s barn for exactly two weeks. From there he went to a brother-in-law of Kazlauskas named Mikolas Jasinskas. He stayed there for three days, and then returned to Kazlauskas.
Yasinskas told a smith named Stabokas about Yakov. This smith knew that Shmuel Kholozhin was hiding in the area with his father and brothers. Yakov Kholozhin had owned the Ludinave compound for three years, and had gotten along very well with the smith Stabokas.
There was a camp for Jews at Yakov Kholozhin’s compound. While the Jews were being taken from the compound to be shot, he managed to escape from the compound together with his wife, three sons and two daughters. Shmuel Kholozhin found out about Yakov Zak from the smith Stabokas. Exactly two months after the Jews were annihilated, Shmuel Kholozhin met Yakov Zak. They were both overjoyed.
That same night the two comrades went to join the Kholozhin brothers and sisters. Then everyone went to join the Kholozhin parents, who were hiding with the peasant woman Kasperiene in the village of Berzhinishkis. It was impossible to stay together. Yakov went away by himself. The Kholozhin brothers and sisters divided into small groups. Yakov returned to the peasant Kazlauskas. A week later, Hirsh Kholozhin came there seeking a place for his sisters. Shime Kholozhin was a good seamstress. Kazlauskas took her onto his compound as a seamstress. She worked in secret.
Yakov and Hirshl went to the peasant Jasinskas and convinced him to provide a place for the Kholozhin parents. Yakov Kholozhin and his wife were there for a few weeks. The peasant was poor. The location was not secure, and the Kholozhin parents went to the village Shirvidukai, to the peasant Ravinskas, where they stayed for exactly four weeks. Meanwhile the good peasant Jasinskas found a place for the Kholozhin parents in the village of Opshkalnis at the home of the peasant Povilas Valtsiukas, where they stayed for more than a year.
Valtsiukas was a poor man, with a family of seven. Yakov Zak and the Kholozhin brothers did not have a steady place to stay. They divided into two groups, and frequently met. Yakov wandered with one of the three Kholozhin brothers, usually Hirshl Kholozhin. Here a day, there a night the four boys wandered through the hostile countryside. It was very hard for them during the first winter, 1941-42. But they were all armed. They often stole produce and brought it to the peasant Valtsiukas, who hid the Kholozhin parents.
More than once the youngsters harnessed peasants’ horses to wagons which didn’t belong to them, and stole entire wagonloads of produce for the peasant Valtsiukas. After completing a “job,” they would bring the horse and wagon back to the original spot, so that the peasant wouldn’t know about the mode of “transport.”
The First Act of Revenge
A peasant whom Yakov knew named Jonas Kareivis lived in the village of Dirvonukai, one half kilometer from the pit where the Jews had been shot, and one and a half kilometers from the town of Kelm. Yakov’s father Yisroel and his uncle Velvl Eliashevits had left quite a few of their possessions there. Yakov knew about this. Late in the autumn of 1941 Yankl Zak and Hirsh Kholozhin went to the peasant to get some of the things. On the way they went by the mass grave of the slaughtered Jews. Before entering the peasant’s house the two comrades hid their rifles, and with their revolvers in their pockets they went in to see the peasant, who pretended to give them a friendly greeting and fed them. Yakov complained that he was having a hard time from a material standpoint because he had no possessions, and he asked the peasant to give him some things. The peasants gave him only part of the goods.
But Yakov knew that the peasant had his uncle’s gold watch, and asked him to hand it over. The peasant resisted. Yakov took out his revolver and threatened to shoot’ the peasant. The peasant handed over the gold watch.
He asked them to come another time, promising that he would dig up everything and surrender it. Kareivis then complained to the Kelm police that Yakov (Izraelkuk), together with fourteen Jews and Russians, had attacked his farm in the middle of the night and robbed him. The Lithuanian police and partisans began hunting for Yakov and his comrades. Special announcements were hung in Kelm, stating that whoever captured Izraelkuk (Yakov), or provided information about his whereabouts, would receive a bounty of 5,000 marks and eighty ration points.
The entire surrounding region trembled in fear of Yakov and his comrades.
At the end of 1941, Yakov and his friend Hirsh Kholozhin decided to take revenge on the peasant Kareivis. They took along a peasant woman named Bronia Niutautaite, a Lithuanian girl from a distant village whom they knew well. They came late at night in her wagon to a spot a half kilometer from Kareivis’ home. The Lithuanian girl stood waiting with her horse and wagon in a nearby forest. The two comrades approached the peasant’s farm. When they arrived in the yard, the two noticed a room which was brightly lit. Around the table sat a large number of peasants eating supper. There were a total of fifteen men and women. On the table stood bottles of whiskey. In the yard stood a threshing machine. That day there had been a talka, a gathering of peasants who threshed the grain together. Yakov suggested that they come again a second time.
But Hirshke disagreed, and came up with a plan to get the things from the peasant. Yakov stationed himself next to the front door with his revolver in one hand and a hand grenade in the other. Hirshke went to a back door and knocked. One of the peasant’s workers appeared at the door. Hirshke pointed his revolver at the man. The worker swore that he knew nothing, assured Hirshke that there weren’t any police or partisans in the house, and promised to send out his boss, as Hirshke demanded. The worker went away. A while later Kareivis came out. Hirshke whistled. Yakov ran to Hirshke and announced to the peasant that if he didn’t surrender Yakov1s father’s and uncle’s possessions, he would be shot like a dog. The two comrades forced everyone present to gather in a corner, and ordered them not to leave the room, “because more of their friends were outside,” and would “shoot anyone who went close to the door.“ Yakov and Hirshke led the peasant and his worker out of the door. In the granary in the courtyard, the two comrades found the things and took everything they found, even things that didn’t belong to them. They took all of the pork and fat, along with a sack of white flour. Hirshke beat the peasant badly for having betrayed the Jews to the police.
The two comrades brought the peasant and his worker back into the house. Before they left, they threatened to shoot and burn the farms of any peasant who dared to leave in less than an hour. They threatened to shoot the entire family and burn the farm of anyone who reported them to the police.
Hirshke brought the peasant girl with her horse and wagon, and they packed everything up. At midnight they arrived at the peasant girl’s farm. The peasant Valtsiukas received one of Yakov’s father’s suits as payment for hiding Hirshke’s parents.
Nevertheless, the police in Kelm found out about this incident. A determined search for Yakov and his comrades began. The two comrades were forced temporarily to abandon the region, and they arrived at the home of the peasant Butkus in the village of Gedvainiai, who was well acquainted with Yakov’s family. The peasant agreed to hide Hirshke’s second sister Libe Kholozhin. The comrades immediately brought both sisters to the peasant Butkus.
The other two Kholozhin brothers wandered separately, a day here, a night there. The young people stayed in contact through the Kholozhin parents and through peasants whom they knew well.
One kilometer from the peasant Valtsiukas, where the Kholozhin parents were staying, was a large compound called Pakeviuk. The owner of the compound Macijewsky, a Pole, openly sheltered a Jewish girl from Telshiai named Khane Pelts (at present Yakov’s wife). Khane spoke Lithuanian and Russian fluently, and was a nanny for the landlord’s children. A Soviet prisoner told Yakov Zak and Hirshke about Khane. The two comrades met Khane, and another young girl was added to the group of survivors. This was on Saturday, March 13, 1942.
The Tragic Death of Hirsh Kholozhin and His Parents
On Monday, March 15, 1942, the three Kholozhin brothers met, conversed and separated again. Yitskhok and Shmuel went to their sisters, while Yakov and Hirshke went to the Kholozhin parents.
On the morning of Tuesday, March 16, 1942, the peasant Valtsiukas rode to Kelm with a load of requisitioned hay and straw. The peasant returned in the evening. Yakov went out to feed the cattle, and saw two civilians with rifles going into the peasant’s house. Hirshke immediately came to Yakov in the stall and told him that the two civilians had looked at him suspiciously. The two civilians asked the peasant woman about Hirshke. The peasant woman assured them that he was a friend of hers. The two civilians asked why Valtsiukas hadn‘t brought in the requisitioned goods. They took him and asked him to show them his cattle. But they didn‘t take the peasant to the stall; instead they took him to Kelm. Valtsiukas was arrested. Peasant neighbors coming from Kelm corroborated the information that Valtsiukas had been arrested. Yakov proposed that they immediately abandon the spot, which was entirely insecure. Hirshke and his parents refused, saying that Yakov was panicking, and adding that they had no place to go in any case. They comforted themselves by saying that the peasant would be interrogated about his failure to bring the requisitioned goods on time, and then he would be released.
All night long, Yakov pleaded with them to leave the place temporarily, and trying to show them that the peasant’s failure to return was a very bad sign, Yakov and Hirshke loaded grain onto the wagon and got the peasant’s wife ready to take it to Kelm in the morning to make up for the requisition they still owed.
At 1:00 a.m. Hirshke went to sleep. But Yakov couldn’t sleep. He was deeply worried about the arrest of the peasant and about the possible danger to the Kholozhin parents.
At 5:00 a.m. Yakov once again proposed to his comrade and Hirshke’s parents that they temporarily go away, until the situation became clearer. They refused, declaring that they didn’t have anywhere to go. With regret and fear for their lives, Yakov took his leave of them, and made up a meeting place with Hirshke. The peasant’s wife rode away to town with the grain. Hirshke, feeling very tired, went up onto the large, warm oven and fell into a deep sleep.
At 8:30 a.m., Wednesday, March 17, 1942, an automobile bringing Lithuanian policemen and Germans from Raseiniai drove into the village and surrounded the entire area. Two of them went into Valtsiukas’ house and asked the children where their parents were. They noticed Hirshke sleeping on the oven. Hirshke woke up and saw two revolvers pointed at him. The policemen took Hirshke out of the house with his hands raised, and led him away from the house. Apparently Hirshke understood that he was being taken to be shot. Lightning fast, he took out his revolver.
A rain of automatic fire riddled his body. His intestines fell out of his belly. The unknown Jewish hero did not lose his presence of mind during the last moments of his life. He opened fire and wounded one of the Lithuanians. The policemen ran away from him. Hirshke emptied his revolver, shooting the last bullet into his own head. The Lithuanian bandits were angry as tigers on account of Hirshke’s unexpected resistance. They entered the house, and with the help of their loaded revolvers and beatings, they managed to get the children to tell them where the Kholozhin parents were hiding. The latter were arrested. They were both taken to the Raseiniai prison, where they died.
While this horrifying tragedy was being played out at the home of the peasant Valtsiukas, Yakov Zak was at the home of a second peasant, a kilometer and a half away. Yakov heard shooting, and understood the tragedy that had befallen his friend and his friend’s parents. That same night, Yakov met the two brothers and sisters of the murdered Hirshke and his parents. The sorrow Yakov and the children suffered was terrible. Yakov had lost his loyal comrade Hirshke, who had been a great support in the difficult struggle for life.
The peasant Povilas Valtsiukas escaped from the police and hid for nineteen months in the forests, until the arrival, of the Red Army. All of his possessions were confiscated. The peasant was one of the few whose goodness cannot be described in words.
Everyone in the surrounding area spoke about the incident with great fear. Peasants who were hiding Jews were afraid to continue keeping them. The partisans’ and policemen’s hunt for hidden Jews was intensified. The mourning Jews separated. Yitskhok Kholozhin and his sisters remained with the peasant Petrauskas. Yakov Zak and Shmuel Kholozhin went to the village of Jungyre in Uzhvent Township.
Yakov and the Kholozhin Brothers Fight for their Lives
Yakov Zak and his comrade Shmuel Kholozhin were well armed. With decisive, determined steps they marched throughout the region, mocking with every tread the laws and plans aimed at the surviving Jews who were still in hiding. With their rifles pressed close to their bodies, the two comrades marched into an unknown future. Enemies lurked nearby on every side, in the peasant homes and the villages, in all the shrubs and forests. Every bush, every bit of earth was foreign to them. Hardened by the various privations and threats to their lives, they wandered through the villages determined to live until the liberation.
Yakov Zak was dressed in a leather jacket and high boots. His comrade Shmuel Kholozhin wore peasant clothes and a coat. They had a bitter struggle against the cold and snow in winter, and against the rain, heat and wind in summer.
Shmuel became Yakov’s comrade who suffered along with him and accompanied him in his struggle for life. In the village of Jungyre peasants found out about the two comrades, and were afraid of them. The two comrades went to the priest Macijewsky in the village of Kolainiai. The preist’s brother was a well-known landowner in the village of Pakeviuk in Vaiguva Township. At the priest Macijewsky’s home they found the elderly Mrs Basye Broyde in hiding. For several days the two comrades rested at the priest’s home, and then they went to the home of their peasant friend Petrauskas. They picked up Yitskhok, Shmuelfs brother, and returned to the area of Krazhiai. The two Kholozhin sisters stayed with Petrauskas.
There Yakov took his leave of the Kholozhin brothers with a heavy heart. If they all stayed together, it was harder for them to find resting places with peasants, and the danger of being caught was also greater. For about three months Yakov spent a day here, a day there in Vaiguva township. Nevertheless, he met with the Kholozhin brothers several times during that period.
With the Red Partisans
In the year 1943 peasants in the villages received permission to use Red Army prisoners as workers. Quite a few of them later escaped from the peasants into the forests. Many prisoners escaped from the camps, and wandered through the villages and forests. Yakov met them and became friendly with them.
In the spring of 1944 Yakov found out that Red partisans had begun operating in the region of Kelm. These groups were made up of Red Army prisoners who had escaped from POW camps. With the assistance of Red Army prisoners who worked for peasants, Yakov managed to make contact with the Red partisans. Yakov was sent to work with a Russian group.
At the same time a Jewish group began to be organized. The leader of the group was an older lieutenant in the Red Army, who had escaped from internment. His name was Victor.
A new period began in the hidden Jews’ difficult struggle for life. They were full of hope that they would live to see the liberation and to take revenge against those who had murdered the Jews.
Five Jewish women were hidden by the Polish landowner Lencberg, in the village of Budkishka. The five women were Mrs. Gutman and her sister, the two Kholozhin sisters and Yakov’s sister. Shmuel Kholozhin was always close to the compound, guarding the five women from possible dangers. The Polish landowner was a very good man, and greatly assisted both the women and the Red partisans. At the landowner’s home the Red partisans prepared the explosive materials for various diversionary actions.
Yakov’s knowledge of the peasants in the area and his competence in the geography of the area, were both of great use to the Red partisans, who became fond of Yakov. Yakov took part in more than one conflict with the Lithuanian partisans and Germans, angrily aiming his bullets at the heads of the murderers of the Kelm Jews. Yakov was trusted by the Red partisans and a constant collaborator with their reconnaissance group. Yakov acquired from the peasants whom he knew, all the information which the Red partisans needed. Living in the forests with the Red partisans gave Yakov a chance to rest and calm his nerves, which were frayed from all his suspenseful experiences.
At the end of the spring of 1944 the Red Army rapidly began advancing toward Lithuanian. The peasants began flattering and smiling at Yakov and the Jews in hiding. They wanted to acquire a place in the Red “world to come.”
During those hopeful days Yakov remembered his acquaintance from Telshiai, Khane Pelts. Once, in the middle of the day, Yakov rode to visit her in the village of Muzhkalnis, in Krazhiai Township, at the home of the peasant Stradumsky, a Pole.
While riding back Yakov heard the news that the Red Army had already taken Krazhiai. Peasants in the villages escaped from the front. Quite a few Jew-murderers ran in confusion like poisoned mice.
At the home of the peasant Ulinsky, a Pole in the village of Gorainai, Yakov met a Jew whom he knew who was in hiding. The man’s name was Froman. He had escaped from the Shavl ghetto with his wife, child and mother-in-law. Yakov and Froman decided to travel to Krazhiai with the peasant’s horse and wagon. When they approached Krazhiai, they saw heavily armed German military detachments instead of the Red Army. They quickly turned around and stayed for two days in the village of Pakaviuk, at the home of the peasant Girkantis, who lived at the edge of the forest. All night shooting could be heard. Canon shells exploded in the forest. The next morning there were Red Army soldiers in the area. Yakov was overwhelmed with joy. He looked at every Red Army soldier with great love, wanting to kiss and thank them for the long- awaited liberation. With joy and pride they told the Red Army soldiers that they were among the few Jews who had survived Lithuanian and German Fascism. But their joy was contained within the frame of their sorrow for their murdered friends and relatives. The Red Army soldiers were very friendly to the two Jews. They all went away except for one, a young Jew. The young Red Army soldier conversed with the two liberated Jews in a Lithuanian Yiddish. He rebuked the two liberated Jews for having volunteered the information that they were Jews. “It would be healthier for you if you pretended to be Lithuanians!” the Jewish Red Army soldier insisted.
Like a storm in the middle of a bright, sunny day, like a sudden eclipse of the sun – such was the effect of the young man’s speech.
The two liberated Jews looked at each other in great sorrow, understanding the significance of the young Red Army soldier’s speech. A dark black cloud suddenly blocked the bright sky of freedom and joy which had just appeared before the two liberated Jews. The two Jews who had lived through so many trials well understood what the Jewish soldier had said to them: “Does that mean that even the liberators hate Jews?” – they wondered.
A short time later Yakov was arrested on suspicion of being a German spy. Two captains interrogated him. Nevertheless they behaved toward him in a very friendly way,and even expressed their regret at his bitter struggle for life. Yakov had managed to acquired some vodka, and he got along very well with the officers. Their celebration drew on until late at night.
Suddenly a counter offensive by German tanks began. The Red Army quickly abandoned the area, which was saturated with the fires rising from burning villages. Desperate battles continued all day long. Yakov was at the front lines. It seemed to him that his hopes of remaining alive until the liberation would die together with him in the fire of battle. Fortunately Red Army soldiers appeared again the next day, this time for good.
After Kelm was liberated by the Red Army Yakov and his comrades returned to their home town, which had been completely burned. The surviving youth of Kelm were the organizers of the Red Militia in town. Their chance to take sweet revenge on the Jew murderers had come.
Later the three comrades settled in Shavl. Shmuel Kholozhin became the warden of the. Shavl prison. His brother Yitskhok began working in the Verpstas factory. Yakov was named chief of the militia in the town of Vaiguva, where he organized the entire militia. In that position Yakov was able to breathe more freely. He had full authority to take revenge on the Lithuanians who had participated in the slaughter of Jews. More than one Lithuanian degenerate paid with his dog’s life for the innocent Jewish blood which had been shed.
Yakov and a Russian caught the infamous Jew murderer Stasys Gedrimas at the home of a peasant, playing with a child. Yakov beat him and took him to the headquarters of the militia. The murderer had taken part in the shooting of Jews in Zhagare, Uzhvent and Shavl. But the murderer would not confess. While taking the Lithuanian degenerate from Vaiguva to Shavl, Yakov shot him in the back with his revolver. When the Soviet security bureau found out about this, Yakov was arrested and kept in prison for several days.
After that incident Yakov began working in a division of the Soviet security police, the Border NKVD Yitskhok Kholozhin also began working there. The two comrades helped clear out both Lithuanian Jew- murderers around the village of Shukian, and also Lithuanians who hadn’t reported for service in the Red Army. After that the two went to work for the Soviet security organs in Kelm. Yitskhok’s brother Shmuel also came to work with them. The three “old friends,” who had an intimate knowledge of the entire area, helped the Soviet security organs to clear the entire area of all the Lithuanian bandits and Jew-murderers. The three Jewish men took revenge as far as they could for the death of thousands of Jews in the area. The three youths became the terror of the entire area, and peasants-sought opportunities to get rid of them. Informants in the countryside warned the three youths about this. The three comrades left the area after they had taken partial revenge on the Jew-murderers.
Those who survived from the town of Kelm were Yakov Zak; the brothers Shmuel and Yitskhok Kholozhin and their sisters Shime and Libe; Mrs Basye Broide; Mrs Khave Roz; Frumka Meyashnik; Malke Karabelnik and her mother Tsipe (refugees from Taurage); Rivke Mendelovits and her brother Leyzer; Itke and Bashke Karabelnik (the two sisters remained converted in the monastery of Kruk, in Kedainiai County); and Khonon Levin. In addition to these, there were a small number of survivors who had escaped to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the war.
To be continued………….