We never really know to whom we are related. This is an odd tale of how my family changed the world.
When American vaudeville was in full swing, a desperately poor black child with nowhere else to turn found himself within a New York Jewish family who nurtured, supported and encouraged him. The boy was taught Jewish tradition, Jewish ritual, Jewish lore, Jewish song and dance, and he grew to love and embrace the Jewish faith.
Louis wore a Magen David (Star of David). He was rumored to have been bar-mitzvah. He imitated Jewish songs and mannerisms he saw around him. Yes, this was indeed the inimitable Louis Armstrong as molded by the Karnofsky family.
The Karnofskys showed no discernible difference between their own flesh and blood, and their little orphan. An accomplished trumpet player, Louis developed a distinct and amiable stage presence.
While Louis prospered under the loving tutelage of the New York Karnofskys, an ocean away in Lithuania, Karnofsky – a Jewish name – was to become a death sentence. In Vilkija and Kaunas, the Karnofskys lost their standing, their property, their rights, and ultimately, their lives – in gleeful insidious tortures and in Lithuanian massacres.
Those lucky enough to have escaped to America, Mexico or South Africa, found ways of creative expression that brought fame, fortune and newly worldwide recognition. Those who unfortunately were unlucky enough to have been forced to remain in Lithuania (for whatever reasons), were subject to torture, rape and murder – age and gender made no difference.
Unaware of even the existence of many of their hapless Lithuanian relatives, the New York Karnofskys continued to promote and present their pride and joy – Louis Armstrong.
In a multi generational photograph, shown here – the South African Karnofsky emigres built strong ties to their adopted homeland. My branch of the Karnofsky family, represented here, contributed to the building of South Africa and the cultural expansion of worldwide entertainment. I was born into this family in 1963. Twenty three years later, I became a permanent American.
When I could not satisfy my need to understand my family history, my curiosity grew. Gleaned from bits and pieces of my grandparents’ incomplete narratives, as well as books that seemed to reflect no such family in Lithuania, I became very nearly obsessed with finding out what happened to all the Karnofskys. This became my single-minded mission, resulting from the nightmare awareness of Lithuanian Holocaust denial.
I went through legal wranglings, personal attacks, floods of hatred, and disavowal from Lithuanian governmental officials, but I persisted nonetheless. I still do.
On the burgeoning new jazz circuit, new methods of syncopation and scat showed Louis Armstrong at the forefront, with an instantly recognizable vocal style. He was the face and the voice of American jazz. This was a direct result of being cocooned and raised within Jewish parameters. Jews can therefore be seen as having birthed what became a musical phenomenon.
Across the ocean, in bullets and fire, the Lithuanian Karnofskys were rapidly disappearing. There was no refuge, and there was no respite. In his own (translated) testimony, my cousin, Moshe Karnofsky (a Survivor of the Lithuanian Holocaust), testified to the horrific decimation of what was once, my family. While in many ways, it is just another recounting of rape, murder, torture, enslavement, infanticide, and complete dehumanization, it is jarring to realize that a whole different branch of this family and their protégé were wildly successful in countries where they were not murdered for their crime of being born Jewish.
THE SLAUGHTER OF THE JEWS OF VILKIJA
Eyewitness testimony of Moshe Karnovsky, born in Vilkija on November 4, 1907. Nearly all his life Moyshe lived in Vilkija. Just before the war broke out on June 22, 1941, Moyshe settled in Shiauliai. When the war broke out he was in Shiauliai. In Vilkija Moyshe graduated the Hebrew elementary school. He was a tailor by trade. Moyshe’s father’s name was Azriel. His mother was Khane-Zisle Tomer.
Geographic situation of the town:
Vilkija is located on the right bank of the Nieman. It is a one and a half hour trip by steamer and an hour by car to Kaunas. Vilkija is in Kaunas County.
The population and their occupations:
About 250 Jewish families lived in Vilkija, along with an equivalent number of Lithuanian families. The Jews in town were occupied in trade, artisanry and peddling. A significant number of the Jews worked transporting lumber on the Nieman. A few Jews worked as lumber merchants, shipping wood to foreign countries.
Among the larger enterprises in town the following should be mentioned:
- The saw mill and mill belonging to the Jewish businessman Shimen Fridland.
- The saw mill and mill belonging to the Jewish businessman Peysekh Yudelevitz (on the other side of the Nieman).
- Jewish-owned passenger and freight ships on the Nieman.
In general, the economic situation of the Jews of Vilkija was not bad.
Cultural life of the Jews of Vilkija:
The town had a Hebrew elementary school, a Hebrew-Yiddish library with a large number of books, an old synagogue and a study house. Almost all of the young people graduated from elementary school. Some of them studied at gymnasiums in the larger cities. Almost all of them knew Hebrew. Of course, there was no illiteracy among the young people. The youth read quite a bit, and they were interested in the development of the Land of Israel and the political situation in the world. The majority of the Jewish youth were Zionists. A small number took part in the illegal Communist party under Smetonas.
After the Red Army entered Lithuania, the language of instruction in the elementary school became Yiddish. The community bank was liquidated.
Some of the Jewish youth enthusiastically threw themselves into political life, and occupied important positions during the year of Soviet rule (1940-1941). The great majority of the Jewish youth did not participate in political life, and remained loyal to the Zionist idea.
The attitude of the Lithuanian population toward the Jews of Vilkija until the outbreak of war on June 22, 1941 was not bad.
The arrival of the Germans:
Regular German army units appeared in Vilkija on June 26, 1941. Some of the Jews who had escaped from town to hide temporarily in the countryside immediately returned to their homes in town. A few escaped together with the personnel of the Soviet government institutions to the Soviet Union from Kaunas, where they had been working.
The townspeople joyfully greeted the Germans and shot at the retreating Red soldiers from the back. Armed Lithuanians calling themselves partisans immediately appeared in town. The German army units did not remain in town.
The civilian administration in town was immediately formed by former members of the Shiauliai gun club, and by partisans. The chief of police in town was the Lithuanian Mikalonas. The leader of the partisans in town was a Lithuanian named Gudsas, the former antstolis under Smetona. This Gudzas had been the leader and inspiration of the antisemites in Vilkija since years earlier. The other leader of the murderous partisans in Vilkija was the medical student from Vilkija, Kestutis Angliskas, who was not from Vilkija. The military commander in town at that time was the German Schvarc, a terrible murderer.
The civilian administration immediately set about its main task, which it enjoyed; liquidating the Jewish community in town. The antstoltis Gudsas invited the partisans to his home, and proposed that they volunteer and get ready to begin the slaughter of the Jews of Vilkija, Veliuona, Seredzhius, Tsekishke and other smaller communities nearby.
He promised to give the partisans as much liquor as they wanted. He also promised that they would inherit the Jews’ goods. Almost all the partisans, police and Lithuanian civilians enthusiastically volunteered to participate in slaughtering the Jews of Vilkija and the surrounding towns. The antstolis chose only some of the many volunteers.
Among the ones who were chosen were:
- J. Oailyde, from town; his father was a tailor in Vilkija.
- Shtarmekaitis, from town; his father was a potter in Vilkija.
- Viltzinskis, two brothers. Their father had a lime oven.
- A Liepos, or Lapenas, as he was called.
- Tzernichovskis, from town, the son.
- Naujomshtzikas, two brothers, fisherman by trade. Both from Vilkija.
- Jotzys, not from Vilkija.
There were dozens others, whose names Moyshe Karnovsky no longer remembers.
The first victims.
The day after the civilian administration was established, Saturday, June 28, the partisans Yashke Dalydes, Liepas and Naujomshtzikas arrested three Jews from Vilkija:
- Khayem Videlevsky, the son of Itzik-Shloyme’s.
- Yitzkhok Groysman, a son of Ayge Avrom-Itshe’s.
- Khayem-Yudl Zojer, a grandson of Motl Kagan, a miller.
Khayem Videlesky had hidden in the field of a peasant acquaintance. The partisans looked for him at home and didn’t find him. Apparently someone was investigating Khayem’s hiding place. They arrested him. Yitzkhok and Khayem-Yudl lived not far from Shneyer Vaysfeld. All three Jews were taken away to the Nieman by the murderers. Not far from the houses of the Jews Dovid Yeglin and Katevushniks, three partisans shot the three Jews. Their corpses were thrown into a nearby pit and covered with garbage.
The next day, Sunday, June 29 (?), the representatives of the Jews in town, Shloyme Zaks and Dr. Shpunder, received permission to bury the three Jews at the Jewish cemetery in Vilkija.
At first, after the Germans entered Vilkija, the partisans and police arrested a group of Jews from town, 21 in all. The arrestees had occupied insignificant positions during the year of Soviet rule. But this was enough for the Lithuanians to accuse the Jews of helping the Soviets against the Lithuanians. Without investigation or judgment, the partisans took the group of Jews to the village of Jegminishkis, not far from town, and there everyone was shot. This took place on July 15, 1941.
Peasants later reported that before the shooting the Jews’ valuables were taken away and they were forced to strip almost naked. The peasants from the village were forced by the partisans to cover over the dead bodies in the pits.
The following Jews were shot that day:
- Dovid Sher and his son Motl.
- Leyb Tamshe, owner of a bakery.
- Moyshe Savitsky, a quilter.
- Max Vidutsinsky, a storekeeper.
- Yosl Katavushnik, a cashier on a river steamer.
- Avrom-Yitzkhok Shvartz, a grain merchant.
- Karabelnik, the son of Yankl, a lumber merchant.
- Motl Punsky, owner of a bakery.
- Ruven Atkatzik and two other brothers and two sisters, all children of Shimen-Yosl.
- Heysl Myasnik.
- Three men from the nearby town of Tzekishke, and three from Seredzhius. Their names are not known.
The group of Jews were shot by partisans in town. A group of twenty men, all from town, took part in the shootings.
Requisitions and robberies:
As soon as the Germans entered town, the German commander, Schwartz, imposed a requisition on the Jews. The Jews had to provide a certain sum of money, gold and other valuables, such as radios, cameras, and electrical appliances, by a specified time. The deathly terrified Jews came up with the requisition on time.
In addition to the requisition, the Jews in town also had to fill various “orders” for the partisans and police. Partisans and police openly robbed Jewish possessions during the initial period after the Germans arrived. They went through Jewish houses, taking everything they found useful.
The Jews have to leave their homes:
Some time after the Germans arrived there was an order for the Jews to leave their homes and settle in a few parts of town.
The women and children up to the age of fourteen had to settle in the house and barns belonging to Shimen Fridland. Girls between the ages of 18 and 22 were herded together into the town hall. From there they were taken to wash laundry, clean the floors and polish the shoes of the partisans and Germans. The partisans raped and murderously beat the girls. Some of the Jews were herded into the town synagogue by the partisans. Some of them, meanwhile, continued living in their houses.
The Jews who had been herded together in the various locations found themselves heavily guarded by partisans. The Jews could only go outside until 5:00 p.m.
Some of the men were taken to do various tasks. Some worked at the sawmill belonging to the Jew Shimen Fridland. At work they were guarded by partisans, who beat and tormented the Jews.
The Jews were neither fed nor paid in exchange for their work. Some of the Jews lived by exchanging their last clothing for food. Some of them managed to bring things along when they left their homes. It was strictly forbidden and mortally dangerous to communicate with Lithuanians. There were Jews who risked their lives going to the better Lithuanians in town to get food. Of course, they didn’t get anything for free. The “good” Lithuanian friends asked for clothes and valuables in return for everything.
The slaughter of the women and children:
The partisans announced to the men that they were getting ready to shoot the women and children, and they let it be known that in exchange for a certain sum of money and valuables they would let the women and children live and release them. The men handed over everything they still had left over after the requisition and all the robberies. After they had given everything to the Lithuanians, however, the women and children were taken near the village of Jautzikai, to a pit between the Bruza stream and the Nieman. Two pits had already been dug there. Next to the pits the women and children had to strip totally naked, and then they were shot.
A total of 1,800 women and children from Vilkija, Tzekishke, Seredzhius, Veliuona and other smaller communities were shot that tragic day.
The two mass graves of the women and children are located on the right side of the road, leading from Vilkija to the village of Jautzikai, near the village elementary school in a pit between the Bruza stream and the Nieman. The exact date of the shooting of the women and children is not known to Moyshe Karnovsky. Nor does he know any more details about the slaughter at the pits.
The slaughter of the men and girls:
Concerning the slaughter of the men, Moyshe Karnovsky has little information. According to what peasants told him, groups of men from Vilkija and the nearby towns were taken away and shot at Jese near Kaunas, not far from the Kaunas suburb of Aleksot.
Details about the slaughter of the men are unknown to Moyshe. He does know, however, that after the women and children were shot, the mass slaughter of the men began.
The young girls who were at the town hall were shot together with the men.
Two Jewish doctors, Krestin and Shpunder, lived in Vilkija at that time. Both were shot.
Moyshe does not know how long the young Jewish girls were kept in the town hall, nor the conditions under which they lived there.
Nor does he know how long the men were kept in the synagogue, or the conditions in which they lived there until they were slaughtered.
Not one of the Jews who were in Vilkija after the arrival of the Germans managed to escape and survive.
When the war broke out the Vilkija Jews Leyb Safir and Leyb Abir found themselves in Kaunas, where the lives of the Jews were not secure. Anyone the partisans caught was taken to the Seventh Fort near Kaunas and shot.
The two Jews left Kaunas and walked to their hometown of Vilkija. Not far from town they were both stopped by partisans who robbed both Jews, tormented them and then shot them. The names of the murderers are not known. Nor is it known where the two Jews were shot. Among the Vilkija Jews who were in the ghettos in Kaunas and Shiauliai, and then in the German concentration camps, only a few miraculously managed to survive.
All of the information about the slaughter of the Jews of Vilkija was reported to Moyshe in Munich by a Lithuanian tailor whom he knew well named Bronius Ignatavitsius. Moyshe wrote down all of the information. The Lithuanian tailor Bronius had a clothing workshop in Vilkija until 1944. His father Antanas was a tailor as well. When the Jews of Vilkija were annihilated Bronius was in Vilkija, and he saw everything with his own eyes, as well as hearing reports from Lithuanians from town and from the countryside.
Poor Lithuanians from town, as well as partisans, moved into the better Jewish houses. After the shooting of the Jews was completed, all the Lithuanians in town spent a few weeks digging and constantly looking for hidden Jewish treasure.
Before the Germans retreated from town in the summer of 1944 there was a battle with the Red Army. The center of the town was destroyed. Eighty houses were burned down. The synagogue was left intact, and is now being used as a grain storehouse. No more Jews live in Vilkija.
- THE SLAUGHTER OF THE JEWS OF VILKIJA
Related by Rokhel Gemp (born Karnovsky), born in Vilkija April 5, 1923. Until 1937 she lived in Vilkija, and then in Kaunas. Then she was in the Kaunas ghetto. Her father’s name was Berl. Rokhel completed five grades of Hebrew elementary school in Vilkija.
Vilkija lies on the right bank of the Nieman, 35 kilometers from Kaunas. About 2,000 Jewish men, women and children lived in Vilkija. The majority of the Jews were occupied in trade. The town had a Hebrew elementary school, a Hebrew-Yiddish library, two synagogues and one study house. The majority of the Jewish population, especially the young people, were organized in Zionist parties.
Five kilometers from town there was a compound belonging to a Jew named Fridland (Mote-zuse) and his son.
The attitude of the Lithuanians toward the Jews was not bad, superficially.
When the war began Rokhel stopped receiving news from the town of Vilkija, where all of her close friends lived.
A few weeks after the war began, a Jew from Vilkija came to Kaunas and reported that as soon as the Germans entered, the famous murderer, the Lithuanian from town, J Dailyde, a tailor, had stopped two Jewish boys from town named Khayem Videlevsky and Yudl Zojer, on the street. The murderer tormented them and shot them on the spot. This was later reported as well by peasants who came to Kaunas from Vilkija.
This Dailyde became the leader of the Lithuanian murderers in town, and he did whatever his heart desired to the Jews.
After being liberated Rokhel Gempl rode to her home town of Vilkija. The peasants in town told Rokhel that a few weeks after the beginning of the war all the Jews in town had been herded together into the synagogue, where they were kept for three days. Later all the men were taken near the village of Jausikai to a small forest, and there they were all shot. The village is located a few kilometers from town. Exactly where and when the women and children in Vilkija were shot is unknown to Rokhel Gempl.
Rokhl Gempl and her husband were partisans in the Rudnitsky Forests.
 Leyb Koniuchowsky collected 121 testimonies from Holocaust victims, which were made public in: The Lithuanian Slaughter of its Jews: The Testimonies of 121 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuanian, recorded by Leyb Koniuchowsky, in Displaced Persons’ Camps (1946-48).