The slaughter of the Jews in Mazheikiai
The Government of Lithuania tells us that they “lost” their Jews without ever explaining how they became “lost”. Obviously someone “took” them. Read in the Survivor’s own words who took them, and how they became lost.
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).
THE SLAUGHTER OF JEWS IN MAZHEIKIAI COUNTY
Eyewitness testimony of Khonon Reif, born in the town of Tirkshliai, Mazheikiai County, in 1908. He lived in Vekshniai for fourteen years prior to the start of the war. His father’s name was Abe-Moyshe.
The town of Vekshniai is located twelve or thirteen kilometers from Mazheikiai and fourteen kilometers from Akmene. Through the town flows the Venta river.
Until the outbreak of the war, some 700 Jews lived in town. The majority of the Jewish population was engaged in trade. There were many artisans. Some of the Jews were engaged in agriculture.
There was a Jewish national bank in Vekshniai until 1940, directed by a man named Rabinovits; a Hebrew and Yiddish library; and a large synagogue. The Jewish young people were organized in Zionist movements. The town possessed a mill, an electric power station and a woolen mill. These were all owned by a Jew named Yosef Lesemas. There were also efficient woolen dying mills owned by a Jew named Moyshe Lansky.
The Jews of Vekshniai had managed to develop industry on a modest scale. There were four efficient leather factories owned by the Jews Yisroel Kalvariye, Are-Yanke Rib, Zelig Shuster and Khonon Reif (this witness).
The potteries of Vekshniai were known throughout Lithuania for their high-quality work. The potteries belonged to the Jews Yeshaye Mikhel, Dovid Ginde and Zelig Klaf.
There was a fine Jewish theatre which belonged to a Jew named Moyshe Gordon. Vekshniai had an all-Jewish volunteer fire company, headed by Mikhe Vaks. The Jews got along well with their Lithuanian neighbors.
The Outbreak of War and Persecution of Jews
When the war broke out all the Jews in town tried to flee to the Soviet Union. Only five Jewish families were successful. The others were unable to escape, because during the very first days of the war armed Lithuanian bandits, calling themselves “partisans,” began shooting at fleeing Jews. In the bush, the forests and the fields the murderers shot at Jews who tried to save themselves from German fascism. German troops caught up with the Jews, and they all began to return to their homes. On their way back armed Lithuanians robbed the Jews’ better clothing and valuables.
The first Jewish victim in Vekshniai was Dovid Levin, a grain dealer. He was shot while trying to escape through the window of his house, when partisans came to arrest him.
On Saturday, June 28, 1941, the partisans drove all the Jewish men out of their homes, and herded them together at the marketplace. There they were assigned to various tasks. The Jews were forced to pull out the grass growing between the cobblestones in the marketplace, clean out the Lithuanians’ outhouses, and other similar tasks. While the Jews were doing the work, the Lithuanian bandits mocked and beat them.
When the work was finished, the Jews were forbidden to return to their homes. They had to sleep in the synagogue. The synagogue was guarded by partisans. The women brought food from home for the men. There were no Germans in town at that time. Generally they drove through town without even stopping.
At 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday, (June 31 or July 1), 1941, the bandits let the men out of the synagogue and ordered them to run to their homes. Next to every Jewish house the men found several armed partisans. They ordered all the Jews; men, women and children, the elderly and the sick, to assemble enough food for three days, and get ready to travel to Lublin, Poland. Next all the Jews were herded together at the marketplace. The bandits herded the women and children into the synagogue. The men remained at the marketplace. The last Jew brought to the marketplace was the town rabbi, Kalmen Magid.
The bandits made the men line up in rows. The director of the Lithuanian gymnasium, Miltsius, placed the rabbi in front of all the Jews, cut off his beard with a pair of scissors and cut a crucifix into the hair on his head. Rabbi Kalmen Magid stood with his head bowed, weeping. All the Jews wept with him. The Lithuanian population of the town and from the surrounding countryside had assembled to watch this show, and they enjoyed it thoroughly. When they were finished with the rabbi, the murderers pulled out the town doctor, Khayim Lipman. He was from Kaunas. His parents and brother were sent to Russia as bourgeois in the spring of 1941. The Lithuanian murderers ordered the doctor to point out the Communists among the Jews. Dr Lipman responded that there were no Communists among the Jews of Vekshniai. The Lithuanian murderers began to entertain the Lithuanian public. They forced the Jews to dance around the rabbi and clap their hands, and to fall down and get back up. If any Jew collapsed, the Lithuanians doused him with cold water and forced him to get back up and dance again. From the marketplace the men were driven into the synagogue yard.
A German SS man wearing short pants stood there. He beat all of the Jewish men with a whip. Many military horses stood in harness in the yard. The Jews were forced to lead the horses around, to crawl under the horses’ bellies, climb onto the horses’ backs and then jump down, and so forth.
Khonon Reif, this eyewitness, was ordered to polish a saddle.
Finally the Lithuanian murderers forced the rabbi to get onto a horse, and then they forced the assistant rabbi, Rabbi Bloch, to pour a bucket of water on Rabbi Magid’s head. On a nearby hill next to the study house stood the entire Lithuanian intelligentsia of the town, dressed in their holiday clothes, along with simple peasants. All of them watched as their Jewish neighbors were tormented, and they enthusiastically clapped as if they were watching a circus.
The German ordered all the Jews to line up, and each one had to pass by him. The German asked the happy Lithuanian “intellectuals” as each Jew passed him by: “Communist?” The Lithuanians answered each time, “Yes, Communist!” At this, the German would strike the Jew with his whip. The Lithuanians would begin to applaud. The show at the marketplace and then at the synagogue yard lasted for more than three hours.
The Jewish men were lined up in rows once again, and the SS man and the Lithuanians took away all of the Jews’ knives, watches, gold rings and similar items. Later the German announced to the Lithuanian murderers that they could do whatever their hearts desired with the Jews.
The Lithuanian murderers took the Jews from the synagogue yard into empty stores which had belonged to the former Jewish merchant Shimen Vaks, located near the study house. Khonon Reif was present at the marketplace and at the synagogue yard, and he was driven into the stores together with the rest of the Jewish men.
The men in the stores and the women with children in the synagogue were detained for several weeks. A few of them were taken to do various jobs. The men were rarely able to meet with their wives and children. The synagogue and the stores were always guarded by armed Lithuanians.
During the first days the Jews still had food. Subsequently they suffered greatly from hunger.
On Tuesday evening, July 15, 1941, the better clothing, money and other valuables were taken from the men in the stores and from the women in the synagogue. The murderers threatened to shoot anyone who didn’t give them everything.
The women were stripped stark naked and searched. Meanwhile they were bullied and mocked. The director of the gymnasium was in charge of the looting, along with his assistant Tautsius and a man named Jarashauskas who had been a policeman during the rule of President Smetona.
That same evening, after the men and women were robbed, Lithuanian partisans shot a Jewish shoemaker named Khatse Mandl. They took him out of the stores onto the bridge over the Venta, ordered him to run, and shot him in the back on the bridge. The residents of the town stood calmly by, watching the Jew being shot.
The same evening the Lithuanian murderers distributed half a loaf of bread to every Jew, promising that the next day all the Jews would be taken to a better and more permanent camp.
Dr Lipman set up a Jewish hospital in town, at the home of Dr Rakuzin. Some ten Jews lay sick there. On the evening of Friday, August 1, 1941, all of those in the hospital were placed together with the men in the stores. Among the invalids brought there were the wife of Rabbi Kalmen Magid; the wife of Koenigsberg, the town iron dealer; and Mrs. Tsipe Goldberg. These three women died the very next day, Saturday, August 2, 1941. All three were buried at the Jewish cemetery. Dr Khayim Lipman was deeply distressed, because he already understood that something terrible was being prepared for the Jews.
At 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 5, 1941, the Lithuanian bandits drove the men, women and children out of the stores and the synagogue. They were heavily guarded. As they left the stores and the synagogue, the murderers confiscated even the little packages the Jews carried in their arms. The men were lined up in rows, followed by the women. The smaller children and the weak were placed in carts.
On the way, a kilometer past the Vekshniai Jewish cemetery, three men were shot, all elderly men, who had stopped while they were walking. The three men were the town slaughterer Feinberg, Mende the Tinsmith and Khatse-Garbl. The three men were shot by the Lithuanian murderers Levis Dargis and Algis Korsakas, both members of the town “intelligentsia.”
All of the Jews were taken about nine kilometers away from Vekshniai, in a compound with a mill. It was between Mazheikiai and Tirkshliai, one kilometer from the Mazheikiai cemetery. The mill was owned by the local Germans Broitmozer and Latsch.
There were large barns at the mill compound, and the Jews brought from Vekshniai were placed in them. In the barns the Jews found torn tefillin, prayer shawls, Torah scrolls, and scraps of food and clothing. The Vekshniai Jews later found out that the men from Mazheikiai had been kept in the barns before they were shot. They realized why they had been brought to the barns.
A small town twelve kilometers from Vekshniai and six kilometers from Mazheikiai. Between Tirkshliai and Mazheikiai there is a Jewish cemetery. Khonon Reif was born in this small town, and he lived there for a number of years. Roughly sixty Jews lived in the town until the outbreak of the war. Tirkshliai was a resort. Every summer about a thousand guests from various cities and towns in Lithuania took their vacations there.
During the summer the town’s Jews earned their living by providing food for the guests. The town had a study house, a slaughterer, and a butcher named Moyshe Montvid. There was a hardware store owned by the Jew Bentse Zin; two textile stores owned by Gute Vareyes and Yankl Movs; and a tannery owned by Hirsh Heyman.
The town had a Jewish volunteer fire company whose chief was the Jew Shase Lan, a tinsmith by trade. He was the first Jewish martyr in town. The Lithuanian wigmaker in town got along well with all the Jews in town.
As soon as the Germans arrived in town, the Lithuanian wigmaker Alfon Verkutis shot for no reason the Jewish tinsmith and fire chief Shase Lan, who had been liked by the entire Lithuanian population before the war.
Gradually the partisans arrested all the Jewish men in town, shortly after the Germans arrived. No one has been able to determine exactly where they were slaughtered. On Tuesday, August 5, 1941, all the women and children were driven into the barns next to the Mazheikiai cemetery, in the mill compound.
This town is located 32 kilometers from Vekshniai, and 23 kilometers from Mazheikiai. Some 700 Jews lived in town. Most were occupied in trade, but a significant number were also engaged in agriculture. In the town itself there was a Jewish compound consisting of several hundred hectares, which was divided among twenty Jewish families during the period of Soviet rule in 1940.
The town possessed a large leather business owned by the Binder brothers, and a large china shop owned by Hirshe Kan. The town contained an elementary school, a study house and a small library.
There was a Jewish pharmacist who had been a member of the gun club (Siauliai) during President Smetona’s time. He was called Jonas Messe.
After the Germans arrived in town, Lithuanian bandits began arresting and taking away Jewish men. No one has managed to determine where the men were taken and slaughtered. It happened at the beginning of the month of July 1941. The pharmacist was shot together with the rest of the Jewish men. The women and children from Seda were brought to the barns at Mazheikiai on Tuesday, August 5, 1941.
A small town 29 kilometers from Mazheikiai. Some two hundred Jews lived there. They were occupied in trade and agriculture. There was a study house, an elementary school, and a few shops. There was also a larger textile and shoe store, owned by the Jew Meir Reif (a cousin of Rhone).
The attitude of the Lithuanian population toward the Jews before the war was not bad. Most of the Jews were poor.
As soon as the Germans arrived in town, the Lithuanian partisans began to arrest the Jewish men and take them away. No one knew where the men were taken. The women and children were brought to the barns near Mazheikiai by the Lithuanian partisans.
A small town near the Latvian border, 28 kilometers from Vekshniai and forty kilometers from Mazheikiai.
Thirty Jews lived there, however, Jews from other places fled to the town during the first days of the war. On Tuesday, August 5, 1941, the men, women and children were all arrested and brought to the barns near Mazheikiai. They all wore yellow patches.
A small town near the Latvian border with a small Lithuanian population, including fifty Jews who were almost all farmers. From this town as well, all the men, women and children were brought to the barns near Mazheikiai. All of them wore yellow Stars of David.
A small town 34 kilometers from Mazheikiai and 18 kilometers from Vekshniai, lying on the river Venta. About two hundred Jews lived there. All of the men, women and children were brought to the barns near Mazheikiai on August 5,1 941.
A county seat, 75 kilometers from Shavl and two kilometers from the Venta River. At the beginning of the war, more than 1,200 Jews lived in Mazheikiai.
Mazheikiai had a Hebrew gymnasium; an elementary school; a community bank directed by Glikman, and a Hebrew-Yiddish library, until 1940. The Jews of Mazheikiai had built their synagogue not long before the war broke out. Most of the Jewish youth belonged to Zionist movements, until the Red Army entered Lithuania in the spring of 1940.
The majority of the Jewish population was engaged in trade and artisanry. There was a large mill, belonging to the Jewish partners Leybovits, Moyshe Kan and Peyres; two large tanneries which belonged to Leybe Kalvarye, Bere Tsindler and his father; a pharmacy owned by the Jew Shvab and his son; large leather businesses owned by the brothers Berkman; large iron works owned by the Jew Bloch and his son; and a pharmaceutical warehouse owned by Lozer Bobey.
The Outbreak of War, June 22, 1941
On Saturday, June 28, 1941, the Germans were in Mazheikiai. The armed Lithuanian partisans in town drove the Jews out of their homes and assembled them in the study house. For a week all the Jews were kept in the study house. Then the men were separated from their wives and children. The partisans explained that the men were being taken to do an important job in Kretinga. But they weren’t actually taken to Kretinga. Instead they were taken to the barns, where the Jews of Vekshniai, including this witness Khonon Reif, found torn tefillin, prayer shawls and scattered items of food. The Lithuanian murderers took all the Jewish men out of the barns to the cemetery and shot them.
The popular Jewish Dr Krongold was permitted to go away from the pit at the cemetery when the men were shot and to return to the study house. The murderers explained that the doctor was needed to tend to the Jewish women and children. Thus fate decided that the popular Jewish doctor would temporarily remain alive as a witness to the slaughter of the Jewish men of Mazheikiai, and describe the incident to Khonon Reif in full detail.
The Jewish women and children of Mazheikiai, along with Dr Krongold, were taken from the study house to the Pashirkshniai compound between Tirkshliai and Seda. They were kept in that compound until August 5, 1941, when they were brought to the barns near Mazheikiai. Khonon Reif does not remember exactly when the Jewish men of Mazheikiai were shot. But he is certain that it was the end of June or the beginning of July, 1941.
All the Jews Shot at the Mazheikiai Jewish Cemetery
At 7:04 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, August 5, 1941, the Lithuanian murderers took out of the barn a selected group of Jews from various towns. In all there were 130 of them, young, healthy men. They were all given spades and shovels. Heavily guarded by Lithuanians, armed with machine guns and hand grenades, the Jews were taken to the Mazheikiai Jewish cemetery, exactly a kilometers from the barns.
The following Lithuanian murderers from Vekshniai were present while the Jewish men were digging the pits at the cemetery: Pikevitsius Pranas; Kairys Kostas; Zhutautas; Algis Korsakas; Dargis Levis; Miltsius (the director of the gymnasium); Tautsius Pranas; Jarashauskas; Shpingis; Matsijauskas;. Mazheika, and other bandits whose last names Reif no longer remembers. There were fifty men all together. Three Germans accompanied them. When the 130 men were brought to the cemetery, they were all forced to lie on the ground. Dargis Levis and Jarashauskas told them where to dig the pit. Half of the Jews had to dig, and the other half had to rest on the ground. Every half hour the, Jews had to change places. Khonon Reif was among the 130 Jews. His two brothers, Leyzer and Yitskhok, were also present. At the last minute he wanted to be with them, and he crept towards them on his belly. The Lithuanian murderers noticed this, and brutally beat him with their rifle butts. The two Jewish doctors from Vekshniai, Lipman and Gelfand, were also present at the digging of the graves.
Near the new pits was a half-filled pit where the men from Mazheikiai had been shot.
At noon the German commandant of Mazheikiai, an SA man, arrived at the cemetery. He took some measurements and indicated how long the second pit the Jews had to dig would be. He was very angry, constantly shouting that the “work” had to be done as fast as possible. Then he left immediately.
The pit wasn’t finished yet. Men were brought from Akmene. They immediately began to help digging the new pit. The partisans brought the weaker men back to the barn. Among them were Dr. Lipman; Dr. Gelfand; Ben-Tsion Peysekhovits; Khonon Reif and others. While taking these men back to the barn, the Lithuanian murderers beat them and forced them to sing Soviet songs.
When they arrived at the barns, partisans warned the fifty men who had been brought back that anyone who reported that pits were being dug at the cemetery would immediately be shot. Khonon Reif entered the barn where the men from Vekshniai were staying, and told them everything he knew. Then he went to see his wife and child, kissed them and said goodbye. Before he left his nine-year-old son Berele asked him; “Papa! The partisans said that they would shoot all of us. Is it true?”
Khonon denied this, and trying to hide the tears in his eyes, he left and returned to be with the men from Vekshniai. There he found Dr Krongold, who had been brought from the Pashirshkshniai compound together with the Jewish women and children of Mazheikiai, while Khonon was at the cemetery helping to dig the pits. Next to Dr Krongold sat Dr Khayim Lipman, Dr Gelfand, Rabbi Magid and Rabbi Bloch, all from Vekshniai.
Dr Krongold described the shooting of the Jewish men from Mazheikiai, and how he had been permitted to remain living, Krongold asked Reif exactly how long and wide the new pits were. He also asked whether there was evidence of the blood of the Mazheikiai men near the pit where they were buried, and which had been covered over with dirt.
He described the exact location of the pit. Khonon Reif confirmed for Dr Korngold that the two new pits were in fact being dug next to the pit where the Jewish men from Mazheikiai lay murdered.
Yone Galpern, also from Vekshniai, was worried about his son Pinkhos, who was lame in one leg. He constantly complained that he didn’t know how his son would be able to walk all the way to the pit. He ended with a sigh, saying that he wished they had been shot already.
Rabbi Kalmen Magid ordered everyone to recite the Jewish confessional prayer, and did the same himself. Everyone sat hopelessly, recited Psalms and wept. In the second barn the women tore the hair out of their heads, kissed their small children, wept bitterly and wildly, and took leave of one another.
Khonon Reif suggested to Dr Khayim Lipman that they try to escape from the barn and find a way to survive. Lipman told him that there was nowhere to run to, that the same thing was doubtless happening all over Lithuania. He mourned the fact that his family, whom the Soviets had taken away as bourgeois early in the spring of 1941, wouldn’t even know where he had died.
At the gate of the barn stood a Lithuanian from Vekshniai, a close acquaintance and client of Khonon Reif’s leather goods store from before the war. Reif asked the bandit, whose name was Kerys Antanas, to let him bring a bucket of water from the pump, which was located approximately forty meters from the barn. The bandit accompanied Reif. Next to the pump he sat down calmly. He put his rifle down next to him. Khonon Reif seized the moment when the bandit was looking the other way, and began to escape in the direction of the Jewish cemetery and the grain fields. The bandit immediately began shooting at Reif, but didn’t hit him. Khonon made his way into a field of potatoes, and lay there until evening. While he lay in the potato field, Reif heard a huge commotion in the barn, and constant shooting in the direction of the area toward which he had been running. In the evening the commotion was stilled. At 8:00 p.m. the men who had finished digging the pits were brought back from the cemetery to the barns.
When they were brought to the barn, terrible weeping and shouting could be heard. It lasted for quite a while. When it grew dark, Khonon approached the cemetery more closely, and he lay there until the next morning. All of this took place on August 5, 1941.
On Wednesday, August 6, 1941, at 6:00 a.m., the first group of men were taken from the barns to the pits. The shouts of the men could be heard: “Help, save me! My little children!” Immediately afterward shouting and moaning could be heard. Khonon escaped confused and terrified, to a forest five kilometers away in the direction of Vekshniai. Then he began to go closer to Shavl. Reif didn’t know what was going on in Shavl at the time.
It took three nights until Reif arrived in Shavl. It was impossible for him to walk during the day. In Shavl the Jews were still living in their own homes, and they had no idea what was happening in the countryside.
Khonon immediately turned to the Council of Elders and told everything to Engineer Abramson and Mendl Leybovits, both members of the Council of Elders. They didn’t believe Reif, thinking that he was mentally ill. Later, when the shooting of the Jews of Shavl began, these men began to believe what Reif had told them.
In the Shavl Ghetto. How Did Khonon Survive?
Khonon Reif entered the ghetto together with all the Jews of Shavl. In the city, he and Hirsh Davidov established a fur workshop, following the Germans’ orders. Later a brigade of sixty Jews from the ghetto worked in that shop.
After Reif had been in the Shavl ghetto for three weeks, a servant of his who had worked for him two years, came to see him. The servant was a Russian woman named Nina Kukhalskyte. She told Reif that she had gone from Vekshniai to the barns near Mazheikiai, hoping to get his son Berele out. All the men, women and children had already been shot at the Jewish cemetery, in the course of three days – Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, August 6-8, 1941.
Khonon Reif is certain that more than 2,300 Jewish men, women and children were shot during those three days. Khonon Reif escaped from the Shavl ghetto one month before it was sealed. He went to the peasant Kostas Zhutautas, in the village of Baleneliai, seventy kilometers from Shavl, between Telsiai and Seda. He stayed there for six weeks, and meanwhile a good friend of his, Khatskl Fleysher, sent a letter saying that all the children had been taken away from the Shavl ghetto by the Germans and Lithuanians, and that Reif should do whatever he could to save him. Khonon sent a peasant with a wagon, who brought Khatskl and his wife out of the Shavl ghetto. All three spent four weeks in a bunker which Khonon had prepared, and then they had to leave. Peasants had found out about the bunker, and even reported it to the Lithuanian police in the town of Seda, the police searched the peasant’s home but didn’t find the Jews.
Khatskl Fleysher and his wife left for the countryside around Telsiai, while Reif set off for the village of Navareniai, near Telsiai. Reif lived there for about seven months, together with a Jewish woman named Movshovits from Shavl and her child Avrom, aged 13, whom he had earlier found staying with the peasant. Two days before the Red Army arrived, Lithuanian bandits discovered the woman and child, and shot both of them in that same village. At that moment Reif was in the attic. He lowered himself from the attic with a rope, and escaped back to the peasant Kostas Zhutautas. He was there just one night. The Red Army was just 15 kilometers from the village. The peasant Kostas Zhutautas called the police in Seda, telling them that there was a Jewish bandit at his house.
While Reif lay in the barn, two SS men and two Lithuanians arrived in a car, and found Reif in the barn. They tied his hands, and took him to Seda. He spent the night from Friday evening until Saturday morning there. (That was precisely the time that the Soviets took Telsiai.) In the morning preparations were made to shoot him.
Suddenly the Red Army began shelling the town. The Lithuanian and German murderers escaped, and Reif was left in the jail. All the arrestees broke down the walls of the prison and freed themselves.
Several days after the liberation, Reif went to the peasant Kostas Zhutautas, accompanied by the Red police of Seda and a Soviet Jewish military doctor. They brought the peasant to Seda. Under interrogation the peasant confessed that he hadn’t wanted Reif to be left alive, so that he could inherit the things Reif had hidden at his place. Reif had left two suitcases containing his possessions at the peasant’s place.
Reif attests that if he hadn’t had any money he would not have survived, because not a single peasant would have even fed him or sheltered him a single day. Every month Khonon had to pay a golden Russian ten-ruble coin.