The Case of Joniškis
The Jews of of Joniškis in northern Lithuania were terrorized and robbed in June and July of 1941. Then in late August the larger portion were murdered, 493 people. Just 150 Jews from Joniškis were sent to the ghetto set up in Žagarė, where they were murdered on October 2.
The testimony of Efroyim Veinpres was published in Times of Israel on December 26, 2022, here: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-slaughter-of-the-jews-in-joniskis/
We will attempt to find out what happened in June and July, 1941, in Joniškis. Four documents in document collection R-739 at the Lithuanian Central State Archives (LCVA f. R-739, ap. 1, b. 4) provide a rather good picture of events there. They showed the events which took place in the town were exceptional and followed a different course than elsewhere in Lithuania. The so-called June Uprising began on June 28 in Joniškis, i.e., at a time when, according to story widespread among Lithuania’s historians, this so-called Uprising had already ended. A fairly exhaustive description of events can be found on page 3 in the case-file:
1. The LAF activists began operations Saturday, June 28, 1941. They immediately formed a committee to maintain security and order in the town (a separate act for this is appended to the case-file);
2. Activities by the LAF activists:
a) liquidation of victims of war; partisans worked in conjunction with LAF activists;
b) restoration of order at enterprises and institutions;
c) collection and protection of military assets;
d) establishment of Municipal and Rural District governing bodies and City Police;
e) participation in battles against Russians and Jews;
f) protection of the Bank of Lithuania and its assets on the initiative of LAF activist Kakliauskas.
“Later the activists organized separate groups called commissions: the cadres commission, the commission for ordering Jewish affairs, the interrogation commission, the economic propaganda commission (for agricultural affairs) and the commission for order and security. The commissions were formed after receiving information from the Kaunas LAF. The Joniškis LAF activists were in charge of protecting all property in the town under the command of Petras Butkus, commander of the marksmen’s division.”
The document shows rather clearly what they did and from whom they received organizational instructions, namely, from the Kaunas Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF).
The document also provides the numbers of Lithuanian Activist Front activist partisans involved: 54 armed and 50 unarmed activists were engaged in organizational activities. There were 5 people on the general staff. It’s worth noting the Joniškis LAF had a plan for the Jews right from the beginning:
“To concentrate the Jews at one location and exploit them as field labor and for town maintenance and cleaning.”
It would appear no one disarmed the Joniškis partisans and on July 13 they and the marksmen formed the foundation for an auxiliary police unit. They were armed with 44 rifles and 8 tracer-fire machine guns, taken from Russians. They had at their disposal between three to four thousand firearms. Petras Butkus became chief of police (page 29). Both regular police and auxiliary police officers received a monthly salary of 450 rubles. In point of fact auxiliary police only began receiving salaries from August 8.
The commission for ordering Jewish affairs issued 9 orders for Jews on July 11. Judging from events the week following that, Jews weren’t predisposed to follow those orders. At least that’s what the commission for ordering Jewish affairs of the LAF general staff headquarters claimed in their order regarding “contribution:”
“The Commission for Ordering Jewish Affairs of the General Staff Headquarters of the Activist Front publicly announced on July 11 of this year nine orders for Jews, most of whom did not carry out those orders. For instance, not all Jews returned from the villages to the town, no individual Jew at all has yet made and has yet worn a star of David on his chest, some Jews are still walking on the sidewalks, some Jews are still making use of services provided by Aryans, and so on.
“The General Staff Headquarters of the Activist Front, observing that the Jews have not followed the orders issued, resolves to place a Contribution of 20,000 rubles upon the Jews which must be paid to the Activist Headquarters between 12 and 3 o’clock on July 19” (page 13 in the case-file).
The general staff headquarters of the LAF in Joniškis received this so-called contribution and deposited it in their bank account on July 24 (page 15). The process took that long because the LAF headquarters only opened an account that day (page 14). It appears they wanted to keep the money as cash, but perhaps they were enlightened on procedures by order no. 2 from the Šiauliai LAF general staff headquarters forbidding wanton and independent action by subordinate LAF branches in other towns (page 17).
The general staff headquarters of the LAF in Joniškis used the money for their own needs. They issued salaries on July 30:
“Four hundred rubles to head of affairs Šplitas. Monthly salary of 350 rubles each to Titanevičius and Kvašys without deductions. For the month, ten rubles per day to guards.” (page 9.)
To prevent a lack of funds, the same act says the Miltai mill must pay half the sum for grain held at the railroad station to the Joniškis LAF headquarters. It also orders the sale of petroleum jelly located at the mill and for the payment to be made to the Joniškis LAF headquarters.
There was a bullying and public disgrace operation carried out on July 26. Young men and women whom the Joniškis LAF general staff headquarters believed belonged to the Communist Youth organization were lined up in columns of four people and marched by police behind them armed with tracer-bullet machine guns along the streets of the town, forced to carry portraits of Communist leaders, publicly derided and forced to endure humiliation. Witnesses reported there were about 100 victims. The case-file contains a list of the alleged Communist Youth members numbering 104 people.
The LAF headquarters’ unlimited power in July, however, did come to an end. On August 4 the Joniškis LAF “approved cooperation with Greater Germany and the unification of all noble Lithuanians under the single flag of Lithuanian nationalists.” They also greeted and hailed general kommissar von Renteln and the commander-in-chief of the German military. This is how they marked the dissolution of the Provisional Government of Lithuania. From that point on, the fate of the Jews of Joniškis and not just Joniškis was in the hands of the einzatskommando department deployed in Šiauliai, just over a dozen people including Šiauliai district head Jonas Noreika, soldiers from the Šiauliai TDA battalion and police from the Joniškis police department as well as auxiliary police. The Jews of Joniškis were murdered in the Vilkiaušis forest with a portion of them sent to the ghetto in Žagarė.
These are the broad strokes of in the portrait of the extermination of the Jews of Joniškis, although mysteries remain. About 493 Jews were shot in the Vilkiaušis forest. Another 150 were sent to the Žagarė ghetto. The records of the LAF commission, the same document where it was decided to place a 20,000 ruble “contribution” on Jews, also states: “There are about 1,200 Jews in Joniškis.” If this is true, about 500 Jews disappeared somewhere. This number is too high for that many people to disappear without a trace and that no one would notice the discrepancy. It’s likely some of them fled to the Šiauliai ghetto where they were exploited for agricultural work, for which there wasn’t good bookkeeping. Perhaps a portion of them fled to Žagarė. Given both cases, 500 is still too high a number. It’s a possibility some of them were shot elsewhere.
The report on the establishment of the auxiliary police does mention one Jewish man who was shot. There might have been more. The Joniškis police had a taste for murder and even when to kill Jews in Gruzdžiai even before the mass murder in the Vilkiaušis forest. Even so, it’s not very credible that all of them would have been able to keep this secret. We know their names. The case-file contains a list of salaries for both the regular and auxiliary police, i.e., a list of their names. Whatever the case, the mystery remains of where almost half the Jewish population of Joniškis vanished.
A brief history of the Joniškis Lithuanian Activist Front: they began operating when the Nazis occupied Joniškis, they looted the town’s Jewish community, convened the murderers whom they called police officers and then disappeared when the Lithuanian Provisional Government resigned. The documents, especially minutes of meetings, show they operated fairly independently and considered the property they looted to be their own, taking it for themselves and their own needs. They claimed they were following orders dictated to them by the Nazis in their operations, but didn’t follow these orders themselves, especially when it came to the distribution of seized property. All of this supports the contention they were an independent genocidal organization. That’s how it looks to us, but Lithuanian institutions hold a completely different view. Here’s what Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania historian Alfredas Rukšėnas had to say about the Joniškis LAF:
- The plaintiff, using single documents, is attempting to show the Joniškis LAF organization was the initiator and author of the contribution on Jews. The directive by the Joniškis LAF organization to the Jews, however, should be considered the result of implementing a directive received from the occupational regime (see Lithuanian Central State Archive, f. R-739, ap. 1, b. 4, l. 13). The following factual circumstances lead to this conclusion:
25.1. The head of the Kaunas district, carrying out instructions from kommissar A. Lentzen, wrote to the aldermen of the rural districts on August 21, 1941: “As kommissar of the military district I order the gentlemen by August 25 of this year to place upon and demand from all Jews (of both genders) within the borders of the rural districts contributions of the following amounts: 1,000 rubles for from one to ten heads, 2,000 rubles for from eleven to twenty Jewish heads, and so on. The demand must be presented to the elder (balabos) of the Jewish committee with the warning that if the payment demanded is not made within 24 hours, each one of them [the Jewish council elders] face execution by firing squad. The monies demanded are to be taken to the treasury of the municipal government and placed in a separate account. When this order has been fulfilled, report to me not later than August 26 of this year the exact numbers involved in this operation” (see “Letter from the head of the district of Kaunas no. 768 to the aldermen of the rural districts, August 21, 1941,” Lithuanian Central State Archive f. R-1534, ap. 1, b. 190, l. 1). After the collection of contribution fees, the head of the Kaunas district informed kommissar Lentzen of the results. In a later dated September 19, 1941, the head of district reported to the kommissar they had collected sums of contribution fees of 9,000 rubles from the Jews of the Babtai rural district, 15,000 rubles from the Čekiškė rural district, 25,000 from Garliava, 120,000 from Jonava, 8,000 from Kruonis, 3,000 from Pakuonis, 15,000 from Pažaislis, 100 rubles from the Jews of the Raudondvaris rural district, 8,000 from the Rumšiškės rural district, 19,200 from Seredžius, 20,000 rubles from Vandžiogala, 16,000 from Veliuona, 21,400 from Vilkija and 18,000 rubles from the Jews of the Zapyškis rural district. In the Panemunė and Lapiai rural districts no contribution taxes were paid. The total sum collected came to 298,600 rubles (see “Letter from the executive council of the district of Kaunas to the commissar of the Kaunas military district, September 19, 1941,” Lithuanian Central State Archive f. R-1534, ap. 1, b. 190, l. 87, 87 a. p.).
25.2 Orders from the Joniškis LAF to the Joniškis rural district government show they assumed excessive functions to itself within the borders of the rural district (see Lithuanian Central State Archive, f. R-739, ap. 1, b. 4, l. 11, 12 and f. R-739, ap. 1, b. 4, l. 17). Nonetheless, the anti-Semitic content of these orders and their origin should be seen as arising from the implementation of the anti-Semitic orders from the occupational regime. Historical works lend credence to this statement. The historian Christoph Dieckmann writes the German occupational regime tried to collect information about Jewish property, to seize it, then to inventory and sell it. From late June and in early July of 1941, the military administration was in charge of Jewish property affairs. During this time-period there was still in effect on the Wehrmacht the order of July 7, 1940, which ordered the collection and confiscation of money, stocks and bonds and other valuable items in occupied countries, and their deposit with the Reich treasury in Berlin. Local and battlefield komandantūras were supposed to report property confiscations first to the Operational Groups, then to the civil administration.
25.3 According to the Plaintiff, the Joniškis LAF organization was the all-powerful executor of Jewish property affairs, in effect the owner of that property. This conception raises doubts first because the German occupational regime considered all the property of the Jews of Lithuania the property of the Third Reich. This is confirmed in documents the Plaintiff himself presented to the court referenced above (appendices 26.9, 24.4 and others). Historian Christoph Dieckmann says: “Although the anti-Semitically-inclined Lithuanians held themselves to be the rightful heirs to Jewish property, the German occupational regime considered this property to be the property of the Third Reich.” In a letter dated March 10, 1942, the head of the Kaunas district wrote the following to the alderman of the Pažaislis rural district: “I instruct the good sir to tell Feliksas Matulaitis, resident of Romučiai village in the Pažaislis rural district, that the bicycle will not be returned to him, because all Jewish property as of June 20, 1941, has become the property of the German Reich. The bicycle has been sold to the Pažaislis rural district in the prescribed manner.”
These excerpts are interpretations of the historical documents selected especially for the court. We apologize for their length, but we want to try to follow the logic of this historian who is attempting to minimize the guilt of the Joniškis LAF. So yes, the residents of Joniškis likely did borrow the idea of placing a contribution tax on Jews from the Kaunas district, all the more likely because in describing their own actions they said they received information from the Kaunas LAF. But this certainly was not an order from the Kaunas military kommandant; Joniškis is fairly distant from the Kaunas district.
Likewise, if there had been a German order on the issue, it’s highly unlikely the Joniškis Jewish affairs commission would have considered that issue during their meetings. That would have displeased the German kommandant and could result in prison, as happened in the case of Jonas Noreika.
Furthermore, examining the size of the “contribution” placed on the Jewish population of Joniškis, it was five times smaller than the head tax outlined in the documents from the Kaunas district. Moreover, the money taken from Jews, received from selling their property and grain and from selling the petroleum jelly mentioned earlier located at the railroad station did not go into the treasury or bank account of the Joniškis municipal government, but was taken by the LAF who used it for themselves, namely to pay themselves salaries.
Calling these activities “connected with the implementation of the anti-Semitic orders issued by the occupational regime” is highly dubious. While it is true that after the Nazis dissolved the LAF a portion of the property, the portion which the Joniškis “activists” hadn’t managed to use up yet, items such as the bicycle Feliksas Matulaitis stole and which historian Alfredas Rukšėnas mentioned above, were turned over to the Third Reich. The bigger looter looted the loot, basically. But this in no way negates the fact that the Joniškis LAF looted for their own benefit. What is happening here is that Genocide Center historians are trying to deny the genocidal criminal nature of the LAF, in this case specifically the culpability of the Joniškis LAF.
We would not be surprised at all to learn that some of the Joniškis LAF general staff and Joniškis police have been rehabilitated by current Lithuanian law enforcement, nor would it surprise us to learn the so-called Genocide Center has awarded them the status of volunteer soldiers “who fought for Lithuania.” The descendants of these murderers can now enjoy all the respect paid them. After all, the so-called Genocide Center says they’re not guilty, only Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic orders are guilty! Of course there is the problem of concluding too much from a single case, but the Genocide Center is probably trying to suppress the clear and obvious connection between the June Uprising, the Lithuanian Activist Front and the Holocaust. This attempt is completely obvious in the case of Joniškis. From the first hours of their existence the Joniškis LAF “fought partisan battles against the Russians and the Jews.”
This article was co-authored by Grant Gochin and Evaldas Balčiūnas.