The slaughter of the Jews of Eržvilkas
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 THE JEWS OF ERZHVILIK (ERZVILKAS)
The Collective Eyewitness Testimony of:
Khayem Goldshteyn, born in Erzhvilik on July 8, 1903. Completed six grades of Lithuanian gymnasium in Erzhvilik. A butcher by trade. Father’s name Avrom-Berl and mother Gitl-Rivke, nee Paglinsky. Khayem’s wife Menukhe, nee Druker, born November 10, 1910 in Kelm. Completed five classes of Hebrew gymnasium in Kelm. Father’s name Avrom-Leyb and mother Leah. Married Khayem in 1934 and settled in the town of Erzhvilik. Khayem and his wife Menukhe were in Erzhvilik at the outbreak of the war, and they survived the mass slaughter of the Jews.
The Geographic and Economic Setting
Erzhvilik is in Tawrik County, 32 kilometers from Tawrik, 20 kilometers from Yurberik (Jurbarkas) and 35 kilometers from Raseyn (Raseiniai). The town lies on the river Shaltona. Gravel roads connect the town with the larger surrounding cities. The surrounding villages are inhabited by Lithuanians.
180 Jews lived in the town, along with a much smaller number of Lithuanians. The Jewish residents of the town were occupied in commerce. Almost all of the Jews had large gardens of their own and parcels of land, horses and cows, and their life was semi-rural. Economically, the life of the Jews in the town was not bad.
Some of the Jewish families received support from relatives overseas. The attitude toward the Jews on the part of the local Lithuanians was very good and even fraternal until the outbreak of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union on June.22, 1941. Nor did the material situation of the Jews of the town deteriorate when the Red Army came into Lithuania in 1940. The town possessed a study house, a Hebrew elementary school and a library.
The Outbreak of War
A few weeks before the outbreak of war on June 22, 1941, Khayem and his family settled in the village of Kulvertishke, two kilometers from the town, on their own small farm.
On the evening of Saturday, June 21, 1941, peasants from villages around Tawrik came to this village. They announced that on the next day, Sunday the 22nd, a war would begin between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Jews in town did not believe them. At 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, Khayem heard artillery fire around Tawrik, which was in flames. German airplanes flew undisturbed over the entire region. It was clear to Khayem that a war had begun.
On Sunday morning Khayem, his wife and both children drove back to their apartment in town. He left his farm in the hands of Lithuanian neighbors in the village.
The Soviet administration of the town assured the population that these were only maneuvers, and ordered everyone to remain calm.
All of the Jews in town prepared themselves to run away, with the goal of evacuating to the Soviet Union. They packed their things onto wagons; their doors were already locked. The Jews left their cows with peasants whom they knew well. At ten in the morning a Soviet general arrived in the town and ordered that no one leave. He threatened to shoot on the spot anyone who disobeyed his command.
Refugees from Tawrik arrived in town at around 11 a.m. They caused a panic in town. Jews from town ran away, most on wagons, some on foot. All of them went in the direction of Raseyn.
After ten kilometers Germans began strafing the roads, and Jews spread into the nearby villages. Eight Jewish men continued running, and they managed to evacuate to the Soviet Union.
In the afternoon of that same Sunday, the first day of the war, German military units appeared in the region. In the evening they entered the town. On the next day, Monday evening, the peasants explained that they didn’t want to give shelter to Jews, because an order not to do so had been broadcast over the radio from Kovno.
Throughout the first week and into the second week of the war, nearly all of the Jews returned to town from the villages. The town was not damaged in the war. When they returned to town, the Jews found that their homes had been vandalized and robbed. The Lithuanians had become the Jews’ heirs and had become rich overnight. Other Jewish houses, especially the better ones, were immediately occupied by German military, and some by local civilian Lithuanians as well.
Khayem and his family returned to their farm in the village. It was said at that time that Jewish agriculturists in the villages were safer. Later Khayem and his wife went into town to visit their home. They found nothing in their apartment. Everything had been robbed. The windows and doors had been torn out. Even the brick ovens had been demolished and taken by Lithuanian neighbors. Khayem recognized some of his stolen possessions, and took them back from Lithuanian neighbors. Khayem and his family returned to their small farm in the country.
The Civil Administration; Decrees; a Ghetto in Bathhouse Street
When the war was two weeks old, two armed Lithuanians named Juozas Marinas and Bronius Toliushius; both of them workers from the town of Erzhvilik, came to Khayem, and forced him with his wife and several other Jews to come to the police in town and register. Khayem was ordered to sign an agreement that he would carry no weapons, nor hide any Red Army prisoners. Khayem found out that all of the Jews in town had been registered several days after the arrival of the Germans.
On the afternoon the war broke out, armed Lithuanians appeared in the villages and town, calling themselves partisans. They supported the Germans against the Red Army, and began tormenting and robbing the Jews.
The municipal police and the administration were recruited from the ranks of the partisans. The town mayor was the Lithuanian Klimas Skilinskas, a carpenter in the town. The man who became the leader of the partisans was the Lithuanian Vytas Shalkauskas, a son of the pharmacist. The police chief in town was the Lithuanian Stongvilas.
Immediately after the arrival of the Jews in town, after they had hidden in the country, the partisans and police registered everyone and drove them together into seven Jewish houses on Bathhouse Street, the smallest and worst in town. Many of the Jews didn’t even have an opportunity to visit the ruins of their homes.
German military personnel forced the Jews to remove the books and the Torah scrolls from the study house, and throw them onto a single pile in the yard. The Jews had to ignite the holy books and constantly poke them deeper into the fire, so that everything would burn better. While the fire burned the Jews were forced to shout: “God of Israel, where are you?” Lithuanians and Germans cut the beards of elderly Jews.
The Jews were ordered by the Lithuanian administration: not to walk on the sidewalk, not to gather in large groups, and to wear a yellow Star of David on their chests. There were other decrees as well. Mikhl Kaplan became the Jewish elder. He was appointed by the partisans. There was no Judenrat and no committee in the ghetto.
The more prominent men of the town, along with the Rabbi, Zev Rapaika, were forced by the partisans to clean out the town’s outhouses by hand. The younger men and women were forced to report for work at the marketplace every morning at 7 o’clock. From the marketplace they were taken by partisans to do various jobs: chopping wood in the forest, cleaning the houses and yards, and so forth. The women were made to wash floors and clothes for the Lithuanians and Germans.
Lithuanian policemen and partisans used to stand guard while the work was being done, and they would beat and torment the Jews. The Jews received no payment nor anything to eat in exchange for their work. After work the Jews were taken back to the seven houses, which were surrounded by police and partisans.
Day and night the partisans would come into the seven houses, and rob Jewish possessions. There was no one the Jews could complain to about the Lithuanians. The Lithuanian murderers used to squeeze money from the Jews, using various threats and pretexts.
There was a detail of Germans in town. They did not involve themselves in the internal affairs of the civilian administration, and didn’t know about the robberies committed by the Lithuanians.
The First Four Jewish Victims
The first week of the war, partisans arrested four young Jews and put them in prison. The four Jewish boys had held responsible positions in the communist Party and the Communist Youth during the year of Soviet rule. Every day the four were taken out of prison to work at various dirty and difficult jobs. They were only given enough food to keep body and soul together. In addition, they were tormented night and day in various sadistic ways.
Together with the four Jewish Communists, four Lithuanian Communists were arrested as well. On August 31, 1941 all eight Communists were taken two kilometers from town into the Balandine forest, and they were shot.
The four Jewish boys were: Eliezer Goldshteyn and his brother Leyb, Khayem’s cousins; Hillel Diskant and Dovid Matis. They were the first four Jewish victims.
On Thursday, August 28 the partisans rounded up all the Jewish men living on farms and took them into the study house. On the same evening, the partisans arrested 31 more men living in the seven houses, and interned these as well in the study house.
On Thursday night the partisans called individual men out of the study house, and took away their watches, money, boots, shoes and better clothes. They were allowed to return, half-naked, into the study house. There was a close watch all around. None of the men was able to go outside, even to take care of his bodily functions. Every half hour the partisans would come into the study house, wake the Jews and force them to do various calisthenics. The harassment of the men continued until the next morning, Friday the 29th of August.
At 3:30 a.m. the men were driven out of the study house half naked, made to stand in rows of four and brought to the courtyard of the city hall. The Jews were guarded by 42 partisans. In the courtyard of the city hall the Jews, together with the town rabbi Rapeyka, said the prayers Jews recite before dying.
In order to frighten the Jews, one of the partisans shot several bursts of bullets from his automatic rifle over the Jews’ heads. Hearing the shots, two Germans came to the courtyard to investigate. The partisan Bobleckas, a son of a colonel in President Smetonas’ army, explained to the Germans that Jews had shot three Lithuanians, and they had to pay with their lives. The Germans were outraged, and permitted the Jews to be taken away to be shot.
The 42 partisans took the men out of town and brought them across the Shaltona River into a gravel pit owned by the peasant Babilis, across from the town hall. The Germans remained in the yard of the town hall. The 31 men were forced to line up at the edge of the gravel pit. Each Jew clung to the man next to him, and readied themselves to die. At that very moment the two Germans arrived at the gravel pit with the leader of the partisans, Shalkauskas.
The participant in this collective testimony Khayem Goldshteyn asked the German to permit him to say a final word. He explained to the Germans that he was a farmer and hadn’t been active in any political party. He accused the Lithuanians who had taken him away from his work during the harvest season. A few other Jews were emboldened, and told the Germans who the Lithuanians were and what they had done during the year of Soviet occupation.
Yeshayohu Libman told the Germans that during the previous night the Lithuanians had robbed the women in the seven houses and the men in the study house, and that they had done it all in the name of the Germans.
After listening to what the Jews had to say, the German personally accompanied the Jews back to the study house, from whence they were freed. Khayem and his father returned to his home in the village. Two days after this incident, the eight Communists were shot.
The Annihilation of the Town’s Jews
A week after this incident, an order was issued commanding all Jewish farmers, including women and children, to leave their farms and to settle in one of the seven houses in town. The Jewish farmers had to leave their livestock and other possessions where they were.
The Jews of Erzhvilik received dreadful news from peasants whom they knew, concerning the total annihilation of Jews in nearby towns and cities. Several men began hiding out, and sleeping in the villages with friendly peasants.
After the shooting of the eight Communists on August 31, 1941, the police and partisans commanded all the men aged 13 and over to sleep at night in the study house. The women were forbidden to leave the houses in the evening or at night. This order reinforced the suspicion that preparations were being made for the shooting of all the Jews. No man who had an alternative slept in the study house.
At night the partisans locked the study house and guarded it closely. In the morning the men were all released for work. Those incapable of working could go to their families in the seven houses.
The Lithuanians threatened to shoot all the Jews if one of them failed to return to the study house to sleep. The Jewish elder Mikhl Kaplan and several other Jews were quite careful to see that no one failed to come sleep in the study house. Khayem, however, spent many nights at the homes of friendly peasants in the country.
Eighteen kilometers from Erzhvilik is the town of Botik (Batakiai). In that town the partisans created a camp for women and children from the town of Botik, and for women and children who were brought from the town of Skaudvile. The men from both towns were annihilated during the first weeks of the war.
The Jews of Erzhvilik knew about the camp in Botik. Several letters were received from the women in the camp there. The Jews of Erzhvilik even sent food for the women and children in the Botik camp. However, the peasants took these provisions and kept them for themselves.
On the afternoon of Saturday, September 13, Jews began fearfully saying that the Jews of Erzhvilik were to be taken to the camp in Botik. This news apparently had come from the wife of the town police chief, Stongvilas. The Lithuanian woman had Jewish acquaintances, and told them about this. In the evening some of the Jews began running away from town.
The Lithuanian police noticed them, and returned the runaways to the seven houses. A heavy guard made up of policemen surrounded the seven houses in the ghetto. Men who had been hiding out in the villages found out about the plan to take the Jews to the camp in Botik and returned to be with their families in town.
There were various opinions among the Jews. Some believed that the Jews would in fact be taken to the Batik camp, where they would be interned and forced to work. But there were also Jews who no longer believed the Lithuanians’ reassurances.
On the morning of Sunday, September 14, the Lithuanian police officially announced to the Jews that they would be taken away to work at the Botik camp. They permitted the Jews to take along whatever they considered necessary.The Jews began to prepare. They packed their things. Whatever they could not carry they distributed among their Lithuanian neighbors, making arrangements to retrieve their things after the war. The Jews baked bread and cakes, and packed food. A few, however, got ready to escape from town and hide in the villages.
During the time the Jews had been interned in the seven houses, they had done everything they could to win the Lithuanian police and partisans over to their side, including giving them frequent “gifts.” These were given to the police chief Stongvilas, the mayor of the town and other Lithuanian notables. The collection of money was carried out by the leading Jews of the town, who negotiated with the Lithuanians to annul the various ordinances and decrees.
Rabbi Rapeyka, Hirsh Shereshevsky, Zev Shayevitsh, Shmerl Mazhinter, Yeshayohu Libman and a few others went off to see the town priest, asking him to use his influence on the police and partisans to prevent the Jews from being taken away. The commission achieved nothing by going to the priest.
At six a.m. on Monday, September 15, the partisans and police brought in peasants with horses and wagons from surrounding villages. All of the Jews’ belongings were piled onto the wagons, and the Jews were brought to the chief of police under a guard consisting of partisans and police.
All of the adults had to go to the police chief and surrender their money and valuables. All of the Jews were carefully frisked. The same morning the Jews were taken from the town to the camp in Botik.
A truck stood ready near the Botik camp. Groups of Jews were taken off the wagons, carried by truck to the Griblaukiai Forest and shot. All of the women and children in the Botik camp had already been shot there that morning.
All the Jews of Erzhvilik, men, women and children, were shot on that tragic Monday, September 15, 1941.
Two Jewish families from the church compound at Gaure, sixteen kilometers from Erzhvilik, were shot at the same spot. The men from the two families had been shot earlier. Some 1,400 Jewish souls were shot in the Griblaukiai Forest that day.
The Dreadful Cruelty During the Mass Shootings
Khayem and his wife happened to receive reports from peasants as well as from partisans about various tragic episodes that took place in the course of the mass execution: The Jews who were taken to the pit were beaten with clubs and rifle butts so badly that most of the unfortunate Jews wanted to die as soon as possible.
- While riding on one of the wagons, Khayem’s father Avrom-Berl jumped down and began running into some shrubbery. He was caught, and the Lithuanians tormented him using various sadistic techniques. He was brought to the pit barely showing signs of life.
- Before she was shot, a girl named Peshke Segal was raped by two partisans, Juozas Ambrozaitis and Bronius Toliushiush. These two Lithuanian villains boasted to their friends about what they had done.
- Mrs Rokhel Beker, nee Niselevitz, did not want her two small children, aged one and three, to be murdered by the Lithuanians, so she threw them into the pit herself with her last bit of strength.
- Mrs Tsipe Kulesha, nee Paglinsky, had left her possessions in the care of the policeman Juozas Ambrozaitas, who promised to hide her and let her live. At the pit, the woman cursed the policeman. The murderer struck Tsipe’s youngest daughter Rokhel, aged ten, on the head with his rifle butt. The child’s brain spilled out next to her mother. Tsipe immediately fainted away. Her other two children were also next to her, and they witnessed the death of their sister. Tsipe and her children were then shot.
- Everyone had to strip stark naked. A girl named Ite-Bashke Ofnbakh refused to remove her underwear. The partisans tortured her until she died.
- Unable to bear seeing the torture and beating of the women who refused to remove their clothes, Khayem’s mother Gitl-Rivke threw herself into the pit and was buried alive.
- Moyshe Kaplan, a youth, could not bring himself to believe that Jews were being shot. When he was shot, the bullet wounded him in the throat. He escaped from the pit. The partisans who were standing nearby caught him. They beat him over the head with their rifle butts until he died.
- The strongest Jew in town, 40-year-old Hirsh Yofe, jumped on the Lithuanians at the pit and struggled with them. The Lithuanians twisted his arms and legs and threw him into the pit alive. His wife Tsivye Yofe and three small children died together with him.
- The partisans and police snapped the small children on their knees and then threw them half-dead into the pit. The partisans boasted about this to their peasant friends. The partisans bashed the heads of other small children against trees and threw them into the pit. Later they also boasted about this to their peasant friends. For several days blood seeped up out of the pit. It appeared to seethe and boil.
The peasants who had brought the Jews from town carried away the possessions of those who were shot. They brought everything to the compound of the Lithuanian peasant Jonas Zhilaitis in the village of Rumshiai, one kilometer from town. At that peasant’s home the peasants divided among themselves, the murdered Jews’ possessions.
71 partisans and policemen from the town of Erzhvilik, Gaure, Skaudvile and from the entire region participated in the slaughter of the Jews.
Among those who actively participated in shooting the Jews, or who brought them to the pit and guarded them, Khayem and his wife recall the following Lithuanians:
- Juozas Ambrozaitis, a farmer from the village of Garshvilai.
- Bronius Toliushiush, a farmer from the village of Tshepaitshai.
- Pranas Jankauskas, a farmer from the village of Garshvilai.
- Shakalauskas, a tailor from the village of Balandzhai.
- Bronius Bruzhas, a farmer and smith from a village six kilometers from town.
- Aleksa Izidorius, a farmer from the village of Tautshelai.
- Jankauskai, two brothers from the church compound at Gaure.
- Bronius Jonikas, a farmer from the church compound at Pashaltonis.
- Starkus, a farm worker from the compound Budai, four kilometers from town.
- Latvis, a former church organ player from the village of Girdszai, 14 kilometers from town.
- Bronius Mockus, a farmer from the village of Purvishkiai, nine kilometers from town.
- Babilius, a farmer from the village of Padvare.
- Shpudvilas, a farmer from a village near the church compound Gaure.
- Izidorius Shickus from the village of Garshvilai.
- Bronius Beinarys, a medical student from the town.
- Bronius Banys, a gymnasium student from the village of Karklotis, one kilometer from town.
- Juozas Marinas, a farmer from the village of Kulvertishkis, two kilometers from town.
- Jonas Bosas, a watchman in the mill at Erzhvilik.
Khayem and his wife remember no more names.
Two Germans were present while the Jews were being slaughtered, and they photographed everything. The same evening after the shootings the Jew-murderers arranged a party at the home of Jonas Zhilaitis. The next day, Tuesday, September 16, there was a second party in the town of Erzhvilik.
The town intelligentsia were present, along with all of the police and they sang nationalist songs, got drunk and danced for joy.
During the party the partisan Bronius Jonikas showed everyone a golden watch which he had received from a woman from Tawrik named Sore-Dvoyre, nee Berman, for letting her get away from the pit before being shot. A second partisan, Bronius Mockus, shot her in the forest. The police chief took the watch and kept it for himself. The other murderers took the side of their offended comrade and informed in Tawrik against the chief, saying that he had taken “gifts” from Jews and allowed them to escape from town.
Those Who Died After the Mass Slaughter
More than fifty Jews had escaped from Erzhvilik. A hunt for the hidden Jews was undertaken through the forests, fields and villages.
Khayem and his wife remember the following incidents:
- Rabbi Rapeyka, his wife and little boy had escaped the town on the morning of September 15 and hidden in different places every day and night. Stongvilas the police chief and several other policemen found him at the home of the peasant Juozas Shaulys in the village of Jerebishkiai, three kilometers from town. After taking the rabbi’s gold watch and robbing his family, they shot the three Jews in a small wood near peasant Shaulys’ home. This was precisely two months after the major slaughter of the Jews, September 15, 1941.
- Yankev Kulesha had no place to hide, and came to the father of the Jew-murderer Juozas Ambrozaitis. The peasant gave him food and sent someone to tell his son in town. Bronius Toliushus arrested Yankev. Two hundred meters from the farm he shot Yankev in an open field near a forest by the village of Uzsakmeniai, next to a brook called the Akmena. This happened one week after Rabbi Rapeyka and his family were shot.
- With the knowledge of the police chief, a 75 year old woman named Khane Zarkin, her daughter Sore-Yente and the six-year-old daughter of Khane’s other daughter were hiding at the home of a partisan named Antanas Butkus in the village of Baciey (or Kuzhiai?). The police chief wanted to let Sore-Yente live, and ordered that only her aged mother and the granddaughter be killed. The same Butkus, together with Juozas Ambrozaitis and a third man, permitted Sore-Yente to escape, but they took the old woman and the little girl, Mashele Press, a hundred meters from the farm and shot them. Sore-Yente hid with peasants whom she knew, and she survived.
- Two sisters named Taybe and Sore Gans deliberately hid in different villages. Sore was caught in the village of Rudkishkiai; Bronius Toliushius tortured her to death and buried her on the spot. A few weeks later her sister Taybe was caught in the village of Libishkiai, 10 kilometers from Erzhvilik. She went into a peasant’s home to get warm. A policeman from Erzhvilik was sleeping at the peasant’s. He shot Sore. This was before New Year’s Day, 1942.
- Two brothers named Motl and Mayer Vilentsik hid at the home of the peasant Danelius in the village of Openishkiai, four kilometers from Erzhvilik. There was a party at the peasant’s house on December 31, 1941. The neighbors noticed that Jews were hiding under the straw in the barn, and they reported this to the police in Erzhvilik. Toliushius, Mockus and a third man tormented the two brothers in various ways and demanded that they reveal the hiding place of the third brother Moyshe. Moyshe was hidden at the home of a peasant named Butkus in another nearby village. One brother could not withstand the torture and revealed the third brother’s location. All three brothers were shot.
- Velve Shayetiz, his wife Khase and daughter Khaye Rishe; Shmerl Mazshinter, his wife Tsipe and son Are-Hirshl; two brothers named Velve and Ruven Shereshevsky were all hidden at the home of the peasant Bendiktas Butkus in the village of Butkaitziai. The peasant kept them for a large fee. During the winter of 1941-42 they were discovered at the peasant’s home and taken to Erzhvilik. Shmuel Mazshinter tried to escape on the way, and was shot.
The Jewish arrestees were brought to the Erzhvilik prison. After holding them for some time, they were all shot at the Jewish cemetery. Only one woman, Tsipe Mazshinter, who was lightly wounded in the leg and fainted, took advantage of the evening darkness and the drunkenness of the partisans and escaped from the cemetery in just a shirt. After suffering in various ways while hiding out with peasants, she survived.
- Yankl Gering hid for quite some time together with Tsipe Mazshinter in the cellar of the home of the mother of the student partisan named Bronius Beinarys in the town of Erzhvilik. Later he wandered around in the villages, until he came to visit a female Christian acquaintance of his in town, with whom he had left money. The peasant woman’s son-in-law Balashaitis was a policeman in town.·The policeman sent the partisans Toliushius and Mockus. They spotted him leaving the town and strangled him. He was buried at the Jewish cemetery by the town police. This was in the fall of 1942.
- Gutke Kulesha, aged 21, hid for a long time. He became friendly with a hidden Red Army soldier who had stayed behind. The Red Army soldier shot Gutke in the course of a dispute. This was in the winter of 1943-1944.
- Brayne Kulesha, a sister of Yankl Kulesha, hid with peasants in villages and survived until the Liberation. After the Red Army marched into Lithuania the Lithuanian partisans and Jew-murderers began to go into hiding. The murderers found Brayne in a village called Potsaitsiai at the home of the peasant Veitsys and dragged her away. It has been impossible to ascertain how she died.
How Did Khayem Goldshteyn and His Family Survive?
On the morning of Saturday, September 13, the town was surrounded by Lithuanian police and partisans.
There was great panic in town on Saturday afternoon. Jews who had contacts with the police received news about the danger facing them, and escaped from town with their families.
Khayem made up with his wife and parents that they would all escape in different directions, and meet up at a certain spot in the country.
He escaped from town Saturday evening and arrived in the village of Karklote, one kilometer from town. He went to the home of Jokubas Jushtsius, a good peasant and a friend of the Jews.
It was not possible to stay at that peasant’s home, because the entire region was occupied and surrounded by partisans. Khayem managed to escape this unsafe place and arrived on Sunday morning at the home of the peasant Pakutinskas in the village of Palabaukshtsiai. The peasant’s son had gone off to town with a letter from Khayem in which he asked everyone in his family to come join him. The peasant’s son returned from town in the evening with a letter from Khayem’s aunt, Tsipe Kulesha. In the letter Tsipe wrote that Khayem’s wife and two children had already escaped the town, and were on their way to a friendly peasant. Khayem’s father decided to go to the Botik camp with all the Jews. Khayem’s mother and aunt also decided to spend the war in the Botik camp.
On Monday evening Khayem went to the home of the peasant Antanas Brasas in the same village where he had been hiding, and there he met his wife and two children. Because of the warnings and threats of the partisans against any peasant who might be hiding Jews, the peasant no longer wanted to hide them. The whole family left and went to the poor peasant Antanas Potsius in the village of Palabaukshtsiai. They hid in a tumble-down building for exactly three weeks. Neighbors found out about them, and informed the police in Erzhvilik.
Khayem and his family escaped in time. The day after Khayem and his family left the peasant, the police surrounded the entire farm and searched through all the barns and storage rooms. The police announced to all the peasants that there would be a large reward for anyone who caught or gave information about the whereabouts of Khayem and his family.
For more than a week Khayem’s family wandered through the forests without anything to eat or drink, until they reached the home of peasant Jonas Butkus, in the countryside two kilometers from town. The family lay hidden in hay two meters deep in this good peasant’s barn. During this time the family found out about the death of the Erzhvilik rabbi’s family and about the capture of Mozshinter, Shayevitz and Shereshevsky families, as well as the death of Khayem’s uncle Yankl Kulesha.
(See incidents 1, 2 and 6.)
All over the surrounding area Jews in hiding were being sought out. There was a careful inspection of this peasant’s farm as well. Policemen and partisans stuck lances into the hay above the heads of Khayem’s hidden family. It was unsafe for them to remain at the peasant’s home any longer.
Khayem’s Family Hides in a Forest During the Winter of 1941-2
One bright moonlit night deep in the cold autumn of 1941, Khayem put his younger child into a sack and held his older child by the hand, and thus they snuck away from the guarded village and arrived at a barn near a forest in a second village. A farm belonging to the barn’s owner was eight kilometers away. The family stayed in that barn for some five weeks’ time. Every Monday and Thursday the parents fasted. The little bit of bread they got was given to the children.
By now it was just before Christmas 1941. The cold weather that year was tragically severe. The family had nothing to cover themselves with. All they had to protect themselves from the cold was hay and straw. However, the wife of the barn’s owner found out about the hidden Jews and came to the barn with her son. Khayern took his wife, whose leg was badly injured, out of the straw and carried her into the nearby woods. Then he did the same thing with his two children.
The peasant woman and her son would under no circumstances agree to allow the Jews to remain in the broken-down barn.
Some fifty meters from a sandy road, in some bushes, Khayern made up a “shelter” out of branches, just like a bird would make a nest. He camouflaged the spot with pine saplings. From Christmas 1941 until the March 1, 1942 Khayem and his two children remained in the “nest.” Of course, they had no bedding. They didn’t take their clothes off the entire time. In order to prevent the children from becoming frozen, Khayern and his wife constantly kept them between their legs and warmed them with their own half-frozen bodies. The family did not wash the entire time. Khayem had no chance to shave or to cut his hair. From day to day the forest did its job, hiding these strange creatures, dirty, lousy and infested with bedbugs, and making them resemble orangutans.
The skin peeled off their bodies. The nails of their toes and fingers were bloody and full of pus. Once every few weeks Khayern would leave the “nest” and steal in to see peasants in both nearby and more distant villages. Khayem had to take great care to camouflage and cover his footsteps in the deep snow. The peasants were not eager to give food for nothing. Khayem put on his tallit and tefillin and prayed every morning throughout that tragic time. Nor did he fail to say the afternoon and evening prayers. The family ate no non-kosher food the whole time, living instead on bread and water.
In the beginning of the month of March 1942, Khayem and his family left that location and came to the home of a peasant named Vincas Potsius, also in the village of Usheshuviai-Palabaukshtsiai. The peasant warmly received the half-dead family and fed them. But he was afraid to keep them on his farm, and instead permitted them to remain in a small wood in the middle of his own fields. There the Jews had to be extremely careful not to be noticed by peasants. The good peasant used to bring water to the Jews. One night every couple of weeks Khayem would go far away and beg for potatoes, bread and onions from peasants.
When spring arrived, the family’s situation improved. The trees became covered with leaves, which camouflaged their hiding place. They no longer had to be quite so careful. There was nothing but fields of grain around the woods. No roads or paths led to the woods. In the summertime the peasant did everything he could to help the Jews heal their injured bodies. The peasant brought Khayem a razor. However, they didn’t receive any clean clothes, and they were constantly lousy. During the summer Khayem made home-made alcohol in the woods for the peasant.
The summer and autumn of 1942 passed without incident. In this forest Khayem and his family gathered their strength to continue fighting for their lives.
Khayem and His Family in the Arms of Death
Their life in the forests affected the health of Khayem and his family. The older boy began to grow ill. An abscess began to grow on his leg, starting in the bone. It was already October by then. The peasant saw that the child was suffering and growing worse from day to day. He agreed to take the sick boy into his home and do what he could to save him.
One Friday evening the entire family came into the peasant’s house for the first time, bringing the sick boy. During the night the peasant placed hot compresses on the boy’s leg. The abscess broke. The child grew better. Friday night everyone slept in the kitchen.
On Saturday morning the peasant rode off to the forest for firewood. At three in the afternoon Lithuanian police from the town of Batik suddenly appeared in the house. Menukhe immediately fell at their feet and began begging them to forgive her. The police, who had come seeking home-made alcohol at the peasant’s home, accidentally found the Jewish family.
An armed policeman stayed and guarded the Jews. The rest went into the barn looking for alcohol. Khayem and his wife understood the danger facing them. Khayem decided he would die together with the Lithuanian policeman who was guarding them. He communicated his intention to his wife, but she talked him out of it. Khayem told his children that when he started running, they should try to hide under the big oven, and he told his wife to run in a different direction. Like an aroused tiger, Khayem threw himself toward the low window, pushed out the frame and ran away. Apparently, the policeman wasn’t expecting this, and he lost control. He ran out into the courtyard to his comrades. They immediately caught Menukhe.and beat her. One of the murderers shot at Khayem and wounded him in the head. Khayem could run no longer. The policemen prodded him brutally with their heavy boots. They bloodied him, and then brought him back into the house, from which he had escaped. That same evening the policemen forced the peasant to harness his horses to a wagon. They bound the entire family and took them to Batik.
They gleefully took Khayem and his wife to the police chief in Botik. The police chief did not give the murderous collaborators a very friendly reception. He immediately announced that the Jewish arrestees were human beings for whom he had compassion, and he asked Khayem all about his painful struggle to remain alive. The police chief found out that Khayem had been a school mate of his wife in the Lithuanian gymnasium in Erzhvilik. He calmed Khayem and reassured him. Khayem asked to be left alone with the police chief. Khayem bluffed the police chief, “confiding” that an aunt of his in Tawrik had, before being shot, hidden an iron chest containing a treasure” of gold, silver and diamonds.
Khayem offered to give this imaginary “treasure” to the police chief, and to go show him the spot himself. The police chief believed Khayem, and promised to do everything he could to save Khayem and his family. Meanwhile Khayem and his family were imprisoned.
Khayem and His Family in Tawrik Prison
The first night in prison was terrible. Khayem, his wife and children did not sleep. They prepared themselves to die. They hardly believed that they would be allowed to live. Experience had taught them the attitude of the Lithuanian police to Jews who were caught in the villages. There had been no cases in which they had failed to shoot a captured Jew. Khayem and his wife said their final confession before God. Khayem put on his tallit and tefillin and looked through the window as morning came, expecting it to bring a terrible death.
In the morning a wagon drove up. Sixteen policemen led the arrestees out of the prison. The police chief was not present.
That morning peasants from surrounding villages had come to town to confess to the priest and to ask forgiveness for their sins. The peasants found out about the family of Jewish arrestees and surrounded the prison from all sides.
Menukhe did not go on the wagon. She was certain that they were being taken to be shot. She threw herself onto the ground and began to weep and shout loudly and wildly. The two children lay at her on the ground and wept as well. Khayem stood up in the wagon wearing his tallit and tefillin, and with tears in his eyes, in a trembling voice, he begged that he and his family not be shot. He begged the peasants standing nearby to help him. He also threatened that his good friends would take revenge for his life. He passionately shouted and bewailed all the terror, suffering and sorrow of the innocent Jews who had been shot, and the mass graves of the Jews from all the towns and cities in Lithuania. There were peasants who listened attentively to the moral reprimands and the threats of the “Yid!” in his tallit and tefillin, and many of them wiped tears from their eyes.
But there were also some peasants who laughed heartily. Two peasants who had inherited the possessions of the murdered Jews from Botik threw Menukhe and the two children into the wagon. Two policemen went along. The police chief rode in front on his motorcycle. The Jews were brought to Tawrik. A policeman drove the Jewish family back and forth through the streets of Tawrik. Together with them was the peasant who had allowed the family to stay in his woods.
It was a dreadful scene. Blood still trickled from Khayem’s wounded head. His face was black and blue from the blows he’d been given, and his wife and children were also pale, starving, exhausted, dirty and in tatters. There was a market in Tawrik that day. Some of the residents of Tawrik accompanied the “demonstration.” With their fists clenched they threatened the police, expressing their sympathy for the innocent tortured Jews.
The Jews were placed in a cell in the Tawrik prison. The good peasant was interned as well. In the evening a policeman took Khayem to the SS in Tawrik. The chief of the German SS men was a man from Tilsit named Schwartz. He already knew everything about Khayem and promised him his life in exchange for revealing the precise location of the treasure. Khayem told him about the attitude of the Lithuanians toward him, and asserted that he would rather give the treasure to the Germans.
Early the next morning a Lithuanian policeman brought Khayem and two Lithuanian arrestees to a burned building. There was an SS. man present as well. Khayem didn’t know exactly where the “treasure” he had invented was. For eight days in a row the arrestees searched for the “treasure, taking apart the broken, burned walls, but they found nothing. Khayem sensed that his last hopes were disappearing.
Khayem Becomes a Domestic for the German SS Men
Khayem told the head of the SS that after the Jews of his town were shot, he had had nowhere to hide. A peasant had promised to prepare an underground bunker for him, his wife and his children. But because he hadn’t had anything with which he could pay the peasant for hiding him, he had told him the location of the hidden “treasure.” The peasant had gone to Tawrik. When he returned, he had driven Khayem and his family out. Khayern asserted to the SS man that the peasant was the only one who could have found the “treasure,” because no-one else knew about it.
Khayern declared that he was ready to go with the SS chief to demand the return of the treasure. The SS chief believed him, and agreed to go along with Khayern’s proposal.
The next morning Khayern was brought from prison to the home of the SS men. The SS chief explained that there were Lithuanians working for them as servants, but they could not communicate with them because of the difference in language. Furthermore, they didn’t trust the Lithuanians. The chief proposed that Khayern become their domestic.
Khayem was glad of the idea. He saw it as a chance to win time and to extend the life of his family. Khayem happily thanked the SS chief, promising to be loyal to him and to fulfil his every wish. Every morning Khayem was released from prison and walked freely through the streets of Tawrik to the SS men.
The work consisted of bringing in wood and heating twelve brick ovens, shining 24 pairs of boots each morning so that they were good and shiny, washing the floors in twelve rooms, slaughtering, plucking, roasting and boiling several chickens. Khayem was never allowed to taste the good meals he prepared, and ate in the prison instead.
The SS men threw good pieces of bread into the ovens, and Khayem went hungry for entire days. Sweat would run from his tired body as he did the difficult tasks, which had to be carried out precisely and quickly, and which were often accompanied by blows and curses from the SS men.
The chief, however, was polite to Khayem and did not beat him. He still hoped to find the treasure.
After an entire day’s work, Khayem returned by himself to his wife and children in prison, who were kept under close guard as hostages in case Khayem ran away. At lunchtime he came and ate in the prison. Thus it continued for six weeks, from late 1942 until after New Year’s 1943.
During this time, Khayem’s wife Menukhe knitted sweaters for all of the guards and officials at the prison. She did everything she could to please them and make herself useful.
Khayem and His Family Are Freed from Prison
Shortly before New Year’s a prison guard told them that the coming days would be decisive for Khayem and his family. He told them that the SS chief had sent an inquiry to the regional commissar in Riga, asking what to do with the Jewish arrestees. There were two possibilities: either the Jews would be taken to the Shavl (Shiauliai) ghetto, or they would be shot.
Khayem and his wife didn’t sleep the whole night, considering what to do. They decided to ask the SS chief, to let them relate a dream Khayem hadn’t actually had. The next morning, a Sunday, while Khayem was sweeping the chief’s room, he requested that the chief permit him to relate his dream. The chief was amazed. Khayem said that he had seen the chief standing in a room, dressed like a king, and that Khayem and his family were kneeling before him. Just then the door opened and Khayem’s murdered mother came in, dressed in black. In a mild voice she assured Khayem that his life was in the hands of the ruler, and that on account of the ruler he would remain alive. Then she disappeared.
The chief was bewildered and frightened. Khayem also lied to the chief that every evening he heard the Lithuanians in the prison corridor saying that they would shoot all the Germans in town together with his family as soon as the Russians approached Tawrik.
The chief became very upset and demanded that Khayem tell him which Lithuanians were saying these things. Khayem answered that when he returned from work it was dark in the prison corridor, and he couldn’t see the Lithuanians’ faces.
Khayem managed to have his family released to live freely in the city. The chief agreed. Khayem and his family were released from prison, and found quarters with a peasant in the middle of the city. When Khayem came to work the next day, all the SS men greeted him happily. They gave him gifts, including clean clothes, razor blades, whiskey and other good things. Khayem does not know why the S.S. men celebrated with him that day.
Living in the city, Khayem received a ration card like all the other residents of Tawrik. His wife and children recovered from their wounds and gathered a bit of strength for the continued struggle. Friendly peasants from the city and the countryside brought the only Jewish family in Tawrik enough to eat and drink. Khayem also received invitations from village peasants to come running to them and hide in case his and his family’s lives were threatened.
Times were changing by then. The “victorious” German armies began to suffer decisive blows. It was clear to everyone that the German army was being crushed by the heavy blows they received from the Red Army. Many anti-Semites and Jew-killers began to tremble in fear of the revenge the Soviets might take on them. More upright Lithuanians began to assure themselves of a “Red heaven” after the war, and tried to ingratiate themselves with the few surviving hidden Jews in the countryside, as well as with Khayem’s family.
Khayem and His Family Escape from the German SS
One morning shortly after the great defeat of the German military at Stalingrad, Khayem overheard a conversation between the SS men, who still lay in bed. Khayem heard one of the SS men suggesting, “Tonight we should bring the woman and the two children.” Khayem understood quite well whose wife and children they were talking about.
At that moment an SS man ran in to the nearby room where Khayem stood, and kicked him. “What did you hear?” he asked Khayem in agitation. Khayem played dumb, insisting that he hadn’t heard a thing. Khayem tried to work just as he did each day and tried with all his power to control his agitation, but one SS man guarded him with a revolver in his outstretched hand.
In the afternoon the same SS man took Khayem to heat the ovens in their garage. Suddenly all the SS men came to the garage, with the SS chief at their head. They ordered him to take the key from the garage into their office. They all drove off in a hurry. Khayem didn’t take the key from the garage into the office, but he carefully hung it outside on the door of their office.
Making his way stealthily through back streets, Khayem reached his wife and children. To be sure that the Lithuanian neighbors wouldn’t notice anything, Khayem put better clothes on the children in the middle of the day and very carefully they made their way out of town.
The family hid out in various places, including for a short time in the homes of friendly peasants. Then they were helped by a peasant to cross the Sheshuvis River and arrived at the home of the peasant Eitsas Pranas in the village of Stirbaitsiai. In a disguised room in the entrance way they lay hidden for over three months, until the spring of 1943. Then they went to the peasant Juozas Gaizhauskas in the village of Milgaudzhiai and hid for another two months, until the beginning of summer. For several months Khayem and his family did not stay with peasants, but hid in various villages, fields and forests. One night each week he would go off to distant villages to get food. During the harvest season Khayem met for the first time other surviving Erzhvilik Jews who were in hiding. The surviving Jews from Erzhvilik were Akiva Libman and his three sisters Lyuba, Sore and Khave, along with the Erzhvilik Jew Aron Kelts.
Actions to Save Jews from the Kovno Ghetto
From them Khayem found out first of all that there was a ghetto in Kovno and that Jews were still living there, and also that among these Jews was his sister-in-law Rokhel Druker and two other young sisters from Erzhvilik, who had lived in Kovno since before the war. The Erzhvilik Jews decided to take Khayem’s sister-in-law and the two sisters out of the ghetto.
Khayem and Sorele Libman were appointed to travel 26 kilometers to the peasant Rakevitsius, a Pole, in the village of Keidshiai, about six kilometers from the town of Vidukle. Khayem’s wife Menukhe and the two children remained hidden in a large field of grain.
The peasant Rakevitsius received a dress suit, and in exchange he safely took out from the Kovno ghetto Khayem’s sister-in-law Rokhel Druker and the two sisters Sore and Lyuba Ziv, along with a small girl. Rokhel Druker hid together with Menukhe and the children in the grain. Akiva Libman made arrangements for the two sisters Ziv with the peasants he knew.
A relative of Menukhe’s named Yisroel Leybson was living in the Kovno ghetto with his wife and grown daughter. Through the peasant, Khayem corresponded with the Leybnzon family, asking Yisroel to escape from the ghetto and to take along as many young people from the ghetto as he could.
A group of more than ten Jews drove out of the Kovno ghetto with their belongings in a German automobile, supposedly on their way to work. They came to a pre-arranged spot, not far from the villages where the Erzhvilik Jews were hiding. They paid off a German to let them do this. The peasant Rakevitsius came along to show the way.
The good-hearted peasant later brought two more groups of Jews out of the ghetto. All told 36 souls were rescued from the Kovno ghetto during that period. Those who were brought from Kovno were settled in together with the Erzhvilik Jews hiding with friendly peasants in various locations. The Kovno Jews brought along money and valuables from the ghetto and used them to pay the trusted peasants well. The peasant Rakevitsius received precious little for his effort and risk from the Jews who were brought out.
The worthy peasant also hid at his own place, a Jewish girl named Sore-Yentele Zarkin, a survivor from Erzhvilik. Sore-Yentele hid with the good peasant throughout the entire war.
Khayem, his wife Menukhe and both children, his sister-in-law and Leybnzon’s family stayed together in the village of Padvariai, 12 kilometers from Erzhvilik, at the home of the peasant Juozas Sturonas. For a small price, this good peasant took the Jews in. He helped the Jews set up a hiding place in between two walls, and there they lay hidden until Passover of 1944. Khayem got food for his family from friendly peasants in surrounding villages. The peasant would buy produce for the Leybson family with their money.
The good peasant brought the hidden Jews newspapers, and passed on the news from the radio. The Jews rejoiced to hear about all the defeats of the German military on the eastern front.
Some time before Passover 1944 the Germans began to prepare fortifications in that village. The Jews had to leave the place, and moved into the home of the peasant Pranas Shimkus in the village of Stirbaitsiai. Beneath the peasant’s home the Jews set up a bunker, where they hid until the arrival of the Red Army in the village.
The peasant was a poor man. Khayem often stole off to see friendly peasants in the area from whom he would get produce. The Jews hid with this peasant for exactly three month. During that time the Jews, along with the peasant, his wife and two children went hungry. After the Red Army arrived the Jews went to Erzhvilik.
The town didn’t suffer from the war. There were Lithuanian families living in the Jewish houses, and they greeted the Jewish survivors with hostility. The Libman and Zarkin families, together with the Jews who were brought from the Kovno ghetto, hid with peasants and all survived until the Liberation.
All told, 30 of the Erzhvilik Jews survived. Eight had escaped to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the war. Six of those who were evacuated survived.