The slaughter of the Jews of Kelm
While Lithuanians and Nazis shared the same basic ideology, even in their own barbarity, the Nazis were appalled by the extreme, brutal, predilections and inhumanity of the Lithuanians.
When speaking with Jews, Lithuanians use the phrase “Nazis and their collaborators”. The focus is to be on Nazis with a distraction away from Lithuanians. In fact, Lithuanians are not mentioned – just alluded to, and only in the softest of terms. Almost as a whispered afterthought.
This is a specific and deliberate form of Holocaust revisionism, distortion and distraction. Their words are perfectly, excruciatingly and exactly crafted to minimize, eradicate and shift blame.
Read in the victims own words what they lived, saw and survived. These testimonies are from Leyb Koniuchowsky’ s 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). Either these Survivors were delusional or mendacious, or the government of Lithuania is lying.
Read their experiences in their own words……
THE SLAUGHTER OF THE JEWS OF KELM
The testimony of Yakov Zak, born February 3, 1920 in Kelm. He completed seven grades of Hebrew elementary school. He was an electrician by trade. The name of Yakov’s father was Azriel, and his mother’s name was Sore. Until the outbreak of the war on June 22, 1941, and until the annihilation of the Jews of Kelm, Yakov lived in his native town.
Kelm is on the highway between Shavl and Raseiniai, 55 kilometers from Raseiniai and 43 kilometers from Shavl, between the streams Krazhante and Villena.
The Population and Their Occupations
When the war broke out, some 2,500 Jews lived in Kelm, along with a smaller number of Lithuanians. By far the majority of Jews in town were occupied in trade, less in artisanry and even less in agriculture.
Among the largest Jewish enterprises must be mentioned:
- A sawmill belonging to the Jewish businessman Yitskhok Shapiro.
- A sawmill belonging to the partners Mende Rozin and Nokhum Udwin.
- An electric power station belonging to Moyshe Udwin (Nokhum‘s father).
- A starch factory belonging to the Jewish businessman Khonon Rubikovitsh.
- A candy factory belonging to the Jewish businessman Meyer Mordkholovitsh.
- A variety store belonging to the brothers Meyer-Mote and Leyzer Shtern.
- An iron business belonging to Moyshe Shafer.
- An iron business belonging to the Fridman family.
- A textile business belonging to the Jewish businessman Yisroel Gurvitsh.
- A textile business belonging to the Jewish businessman Shabsay Beker.
- A tannery belonging to the Jewish businessman Efroyim Milner.
- A tannery belonging to the Jewish businessman Avrom Podles.
- A tannery belonging to the Jewish businessman Zalmen Orl.
The economic situation of the Jews was not bad. One source of income for the Jews in Kelm was the famous yeshivas, where boys from various cities and towns in Lithuania and from the entire world, especially from America and from Israel (at that time still Palestine), came to acquire both Torah and worldly knowledge.
In and around Kelm there were the following Jewish agricultural compounds:
- Belonging to Zunde Lunts, in town.
- Belonging to Efroyim Milner, in town.
- Belonging to Avrom Zaks, in the village of Veidszhia, between Kelm and Shukian.
- Belonging to Shimen Osher, in the village of Madzhiunai.
- Belonging to Yankl Kholozhik, in the village of Lucinawa.
- Belonging to Berman, in the village of Kablowcisne.
- Belonging to Khatzl Kushelevski, in the village of Paduole.
- Belonging to Moyshe-Leyb Mendelovits, in the village of Blekharne.
- Belonging to Moyshe Gelman, in the village of Lukodeme.
The attitude of the local Lithuanian population toward the Jews was good until the outbreak of the war, on Sunday, June 22, 1941. After the arrival of the Red army in Lithuania in the summer of 1940, the compounds, larger enterprises and houses were nationalized. But the economic situation of the Jews on the whole did not deteriorate.
The Cultural Life of the Jews
Until the arrival of the Red Army, Kelm had a Hebrew elementary school with seven grades, a large yeshiva and a school for further rabbinic studies. After completing the yeshiva, the students entered the advanced school, and when they completed studies there, they received rabbinical ordination. The head of the yeshiva was Rabbi Sadovsky, and the head of the advanced school was Reb Daniel Movshovits (Siderer). The yeshiva occupied the large study house and the synagogue. The advanced school had its own building. In the courtyard of the study house stood a large, old wooden synagogue with a wonderfully carved Torah ark. In addition, Kelm had a study club for religious young men with its own separate building.
After completing the Hebrew elementary school, some of the young people would go off to study in the Hebrew gymnasiums in Kaunas and Shavl, or continue their studies at the local Lithuanian gymnasium. The great majority of the Jewish youth were members of Zionist organizations. After the arrival of the Red Army, a small number of Jewish youth took active part in the new political and economic life. The Jews in town were strictly religious, and they remained so after the arrival of the Red Army. Before the arrival of the Red Army, Kelm contained a Jewish national bank, a free loan association, and other mutual aid organizations.
The Outbreak of the War
On the day the war broke out, Sunday, June 22,1941, refugees from Taurage arrived in Kelm. Their arrival caused panic in the town. Many Jews locked the doors and windows of their houses that day, and fled the town.
On Monday, June 23, the panic was even greater, because the Communist Party personnel and the Soviets quickly evacuated from Kelm. In the course of two days nearly all the Jews of Kelm fled to stay with peasants whom they knew in the countryside, or to Jewish farm compounds around Kelm. On the road to Shavl hundreds of Jews from Taurage and Kelm hurried on foot and in wagons, aiming to-evacuate deeper into the Soviet Union. The highway was blocked, and interfered with the rapid retreat of the Red Army. The civilian populace were forced to abandon the highway, and precisely on account of this, many did not manage to evacuate.
When they arrived at the Padubisis compound, Lithuanian peasants stood on the highway, bearing Lithuanian flags decorated with swastikas. Some of them attacked the escaping Jews with axes, scythes, poles and other objects, and prevented the Jews from escaping. They met the Jews with slogans: “Cursed Jews, the day has come when we’re going to kill you all!”
On Monday, June 23, peasants from the Padubisis compound murdered a Jewish family from among the Taurage refugees, consisting of a woman, and man and two children. The Red Army was still in the area at that time.
On Wednesday, June 25 the German army marched into Kelm, which had been completely burned and ruined. The Germans caught up with some of the Jews, who began to return to their burned homes. A number of Jews stayed with peasants whom they knew in the villages, or at Jewish compounds.
The Civilian Administration; Decrees and Torture of Jews; The Barn Camp in Kelm
As soon as the Germans arrived in town, hundreds of armed Lithuanians from the countryside appeared in town. They called themselves partisans, and began to enjoy unquestioned authority. The civilian administration in Kelm consisted of these partisans. The man who became the mayor of Kelm was a Lithuanian named Tsesnys, a farmer from a village five kilometers from town. He had been the mayor of Kelm during President Smetona’s rule. During the year of Soviet rule he had been removed from his position.
The assistant to the mayor was a Lithuanian German named Shidlaudkas, who lived in Kelm. The head of the newly-created police force was the Lithuanian Barkauskas, a farmer from the village of Kokhinishkis, three kilometers from Kelm. He had been a policeman under President Smetona. the leader of the organized partisans was the Lithuanian Rickus, a tailor from the town of Kelm.
They issued an order stating that all Jews had to settle in Jewish compounds, and were forbidden to be found among Lithuanian peasants in the villages. Any peasant who continued hiding Jews was threatened with being shot together with his family. Nearly all the Jews settled in the surrounding Jewish compounds.
On Tuesday, July 1, 1941 the partisans issued a strict order, stating that all the men between the ages of fourteen and sixty had to move into a camp which had been established in a barn belonging to the Jew Zundl Lunts, which was located at the edge of town. Some of the Jewish men did not carry out the command, but remained with their families at the Jewish compounds. Policemen and partisans would come riding to the compounds, and violently herd the Jewish men into the camp compound.
Before the men were driven into the camp, they were herded into the market place and a German delivered a poisonous antisemitic speech to them and to the Lithuanians. He declared that the Jews had to be interned in camps because they bore the primary responsibility for the Second World War.
The barn-camp was surrounded by barbed wire, which had been in place before the war. Armed partisans stood guard around the camp. A military kitchen was established in the courtyard. Generally the Jews received black coffee and a piece of bread in the morning, and then black coffee again for supper. Lunch consisted of a soup of potatoes with water, without any fat.
Every morning the men were taken under heavy guard to work at various hard tasks, clearing away the ruins and taking rubble away from the street. They also had to take care of all the heavy, dirty work that needed to be done in town.
The men slept on the ground in the barn, but because of overcrowding, the younger men slept on boards in the attic of the barn. They were woken up at 6:00 a.m. After they drank black coffee, they were immediately taken out to work. The partisans very often forced the Jews to pray out loud and to sing religious hymns. This made the partisans helpless with laughter. At lunch time the Jews were brought into the camp for an hour. They were forced to work until six p.m.
Armed partisans kept watch while the Jews worked. They forced them to work faster and faster, teased them and bullied them in various ways. The partisans very often took the men to the stream Krazhante after work, so that they could bathe, and drove them into the water with their clothes on. On the way back, the Jews had to be cheerful and sing various Soviet and religious melodies.
The women, children and older men, along with a number of sick or weak people, remained in the Jewish compounds, where they helped out with the farm work. There were no guards at these compounds. But very often it turned out that the partisans would “visit” the compounds, and rob the Jewish women and children.
While the Jewish men were being herded into the camp, they were forced to mark themselves with yellow Stars of David on their chests.
The Jews living in the Jewish compounds had to do the same. In rare cases women received the opportunity to visit their husbands in the barn camp.
The First Jewish Victims
- On Thursday, the day after the Germans arrived in town, they arrested a yeshiva student named Moyshe Benyash and tortured him to death.
- A young boy named Binyomen Orl, a tanner, fell out of the attic of the barn camp at night. He sprained his foot, and the Lithuanian doctor in town, Zhemaitis, released him from work and ordered him to lie down. This was Thursday, July 10, 1941.
The Jewish supervisor in the camp was the optician Morgnshtern. Every day, one Jew remained in the camp, cleaning up and straightening out the camp.
On Thursday, July 10 Yakov Zak returned from work to pick up some tools he had forgotten at the camp. In the yard he found a Lithuanian named Jurgelis, a shoemaker in Kelm; Merkelis, a farmer; and Matulevitsius, a student in the Kelm gymnasium.
The Lithuanians were investigating why Binyomin had not gone to work. A Jew named Shimen Shevelovitz remained behind that day to clean up the camp.
The three Lithuanians forced Yakov and Shimen to dig a pit near the barn. They ordered the invalid Binyomin to crawl on his belly to the pit, and shot him. They ordered Binyomin to be buried while he was still alive. The Jews from the camp managed to bury Binyomin in a Jewish grave at the Jewish cemetery. The Jews were given ten minutes to exhume the deceased. Yakov was present while the grave was being dug. Binyomin was found turned over, with his face down, because he had been buried while wounded.
- A young girl named Frida Keltz had been a Communist during the Soviet period. When the war broke out, she escaped to the nearby town of Laukuva. Lithuanians who knew her spotted and arrested her, and took her to Kelm. She was brought to the Lithuanian gymnasium, where the partisan headquarters was already located.
Yakov Zak and his friend Emanuel Rozenfeld were working cleaning out the rooms in the gymnasium that day, and they saw Frida. Two Lithuanians named Mykolas Jokubaitis and Vylautos Butkus, both from the tenth grade in the Lithuanian gymnasium – Frida’s schoolmates – beat her murderously. The two Lithuanians took her outside of Kelm into some sand pits, and shot her. Before she died they let her smoke a cigarette. The two Lithuanian murderers boasted about this to everyone later. Nearly every day Germans came into the barn camp to “have fun,” forcing the Jews to sing various religious hymns, forcing them to beat one another, and to perform various painful acrobatics. One time the Germans shaved off half of the beard of Meshulakh Kaplan. They forced him to gather the prayerbooks, holy texts, phylacteries and prayer shawls belonging to all the Jews in the camp, and burn them in the middle of the yard.
- At the beginning of July 1941 several partisans came into the barn camp and said that any sick Jew who wanted to go to a doctor should speak up. This was a Sunday. The Jews weren’t taken to work that day.
Eleven Jews responded. The armed Lithuanians took the eleven Jews away to the Jewish cemetery, forced the Jews to dig a pit and then shot all eleven of them. Several days later, Yakov Zak had the occasion to see for himself the mass grave which was located on the slope next to the stream that flowed nearby the Jewish cemetery. The Lithuanian Stasys Bartkus who lived next to the Jewish cemetery, personally saw the eleven Jews being shot, and he later related the episode in more detail to Ydkov Zak.
Among the eleven Jews who were shot were Binyomin Pupki, aged 50; Moyshe Shafer, aged 55; Shloyme-Itshe Shamesh, aged 46; Yoysef Adelevitsh, aged 33 or 35; Zalmen Orl, over 50; Hirshl Levin; Shmuel Shamesh; Yisroel-Leyb Podles; and the former director of the Jewish National Bank, Mr Mer.
The First Mass Slaughter
On Sunday, July 27, 1941, partisans registered men who wanted to go to do agricultural work in the surrounding compounds. The majority of the men in the camp seized on the proposal, hoping to get better food in the countryside, and to meet with their families in the Jewish compounds.
Seven Jewish men from the camp, including Yakov Zak, had the special task of repairing the telephone lines on the road between Kelm and Skaudvile. The seven men slept in the villages. They worked under the supervision of a partisan. On Monday, July 28, they went out to work the same as every day. When they had worked for one hour, an employee of the Kelm post office arrived on a motorcycle with an order to bring the seven Jews to the camp. The Jews did not guess what awaited them, and went back to the camp, where they found out about the registration the previous day, July 27. That Monday, July 28, 1941, all the Jews in the camp still went off to work.
On Tuesday, July 29, 1941, the fifth day of the Jewish month of Av, at 4:00 a.m., two armed Lithuanians arrived in the camp and asked for twenty young, healthy volunteer workers. They explained that the twenty men would have to deepen a lake in the village of Dirvonukai belonging to the peasant Jonas Kareivis. The two Lithuanians promised that the twenty men would have to work only from four until eight a.m., and they wouldn’t have to work all day. All of the men in the camp volunteered, because in town they had to work hard all day long. In addition all of them wanted to be in the country.
The two Lithuanians selected only 25 men, all of them young and healthy. They were taken not far from the Kelm compound belonging to the Lithuanian landowner Gruzhewsky, among the sand pits, and forced to dig a large pit. When the pit was finished, the 25 men were shot. Shooting was heard in the barn camp, but no one understood the horrible truth. Among the 25 men were Kopl Udwin; Yeshayohu Baksht, a son of a rabbi from Shavl; Tevye Pras; Meyne and his brother Shmuel Margolis; Dovid Tartak; Sher Kleyn and his brother Velve, and others.
The two Lithuanians who took the 25 men from the camp were Juosas Merkeles, a farmer from a village one and a half kilometers from Kelm, and his friend Mikalauskas from the village of Pupsiai, three kilometers from Kelm.
At nine in the morning that same Tuesday, July 29, 1941, eight armed Lithuanians came to the camp and took sixty men from the camp, assuring them that they were taken to nationalized government compounds to do agricultural work. The Lithuanians took the sixty men to the sand pits and shot them.
At eleven a.m. that same Tuesday, armed Lithuanians took away a third group of forty men. They too were given assurances that they were being taken to do agricultural work. But they were taken to the gravel pits and shot.
At 1:00 or 1:30 p.m. the same Tuesday, armed Lithuanians took away a fourth group of forty men and shot them at the same spot. This continued until evening. There were no more than 36 men remaining in the camp, and they had no idea that the men taken away “to work” had been annihilated, it was quite common to hear shooting continuing for hours all around the town. The Jews thought that the shootings that day as well were “innocent.”
One young man left the camp every midnight to go to work in the Kelm dairy, and returned in the afternoon. When he returned from work on July 29, 1941, he reported that all the groups of men who had been taken away had been shot at the gravel pits. This was told him in secret by a Lithuanian friend of his. Only then did the men in the barn camp understand that the Lithuanians had deceived them, taking the men not to farm work, but to be shot. Among the Lithuanians who took Jews away and shot them on that tragic Tuesday, Yakov Zak remembers the following:
- Adomas Jurgelis, a shoemaker in Kelm.
- Vylautas Baratsevitsius, a gymnasium student in Kelm.
- Alekna, a clerk in the municipal offices, from Kelm.
- Rickus, the leader of the Kelm partisans, a man from town.
- Jonas Bartsauskas, from the village of Ginayke.
- Tilys, an office worker at the Kelm co-operative.
- Meshkauskas, an office worker at the co-operative.
There were many more who took part, whose first and last names Yakov Zak does not remember. At six o’clock that same Tuesday evening the Lithuanian Shpukas, a student at the gymnasium in town, arrived with Mykolas Jakubaitis, a tenth grader in gymnasium. They requested that eight men volunteer for a special task. The 36 men, who by now knew exactly what had happened to the groups of men who had been taken away, began hiding. Everyone wanted to be the last. The two gymnasium students told them that everyone taken away that day had been shot. Shpukas, who had been a childhood friend of Yakov’s, said that Yakov’s father had been sot by the Lithuanian Jonas Pikturnas, a mechanic from Kelm. Shpukas also said that all the Jews, men, women and children from the nearby town of Vaiguva and a large number of the Jews who had been staying in the Jewish compounds, had been shot at the gravel pits that day. He also said that the rabbi of Kelm, Kalmen Benushevits, who had escaped to Vaiguva at the outbreak of the war, had been brought together with the Jews from Vaiguva. He had been forced to kneel next to the pit the entire day. He had quietly whispered a prayer, watching while the Jews were shot. After all the Jews were shot, he was shot as well.
The two gymnasium students took eight Jewish men out of the barn and herded them into the yard of the town gymnasium. Among the eight men was Yakov Zak. In the gymnasium courtyard stood four wagons loaded with the possessions of those who had been shot. The eight Jews had to carry the possessions of their murdered fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters into a cellar in the gymnasium.
Yakov recognized the suit and coat of his father and those of other Jews whom he knew well. While the Jews were unloading the wagons, all the Lithuanian murderers who had been shooting Jews all day arrived.
All their sleeves were rolled up. Their arms, clothes and boots were bloodied. There was a well in the courtyard. They washed their faces, arms and boots. Red water flowed next to the well.
After the Jews brought the things down into the cellar, the eight Jews were brought back into the camp.
In the courtyard next to the well, Yakov saw all the local Lithuanians he knew. They were all drunk. They said that a few hours earlier they had finished shooting the Jews of Vaiguva, those from the Jewish compounds, and all the men who had been taken away from the camp. But they promised not to shoot the 36 surviving men.
Vytautas Baratsevitsius related that the popular Dr. Kagansky, who came from a compound near Vilkovitsh, begged to be left alive before he was shot, saying that he had often tended the families of the murderers without charging them. He promised to continue treating them without charge. When he saw that his words had no influence, he tried to escape from the pit, and Baratsevitsius shot him.
That same evening, about nine o’clock, the eight men were again taken out of the barn and forced to carry beer from a nearby warehouse up to the second floor of the large hall in the Lithuanian gymnasium. The murderers arranged a ball in the auditorium in honor of the mass murder of Jews.
All kinds of delicacies were laid out on gaily decorated long tables in the auditorium, just like for a rich wedding. The murderers and their families, dressed up in the clothes of those who had been murdered, sat down to gorge themselves. All of the Lithuanian intelligentsia of the town came, headed by the mayor, Tsesnys. It was smoky and stifling in the room. They all sang Lithuanian songs, drank and ate. The room was full of drunken voices and even a phonograph and a radio. The Jews had to bring beer for the murderers who had shot their near and dear ones. One of the gluttonous partisans, seeing the Jews coming, shouted out: “Look there are still some Jews left!” He grabbed his revolver. His comrades calmed him, and forced the eight Jews to drink a glass of beer. Tears poured from the eyes of the eight Jews. Meanwhile the drunken crowd was helpless with laughter.
Afterward the eight Jews were taken back to the barn camp. The guards changed frequently at the barn. Several of them related that the men and women had been forced to strip to their underwear while standing by the grave. They tried to imitate how the Jewish women had kneeled by the pits, begging in a broken Lithuanian not to be shot. Each one of them imitated the expressions of the women, while the rest of the murderers held their sides and laughed heartily.
Stuffed, drunken, new guards came from the ball telling various details about the shooting of the men. Thus, for example, the murderers Shpukas, Jakubaitas and Baratsavitisus related that during the shootings, two Germans stood nearby. They didn’t do any shooting, but they filmed the entire incident. They also related that small children would fall into the pit half-dead, and began to kick wildly with their little legs. Several older children had their heads bashed against a stone, and were then thrown into the pit.
The next day, Wednesday, July 30, partisans took the remaining possessions of the murdered people out of the barn.
The partisans took Yakov Zak and his friend Emanuel Rozenfeld away to do field work in the village of Vanagina, at the home of the peasant Klimas. Not far from the spot there were two Jewish compounds, where the surviving women and children were working. They helped the Jewish farmers do their work. The thirty-four Jews from the barn camp were taken every day to clean out the ruins, repair the roads, and so forth.
Almost every evening the partisans came to the Jewish compounds, robbing everything they chose to.
The front was already far away. There were no Germans in Kelm. The fate of the surviving Jews was in the hands of the local Lithuanians.
On Wednesday, August 20, 1941, Yakov rode to the town of Ludovan with his employer to get lime. In Ludovan and in the Jewish village of Padubisis there were Jewish camps, the residents of which were informed by Yakov about the annihilation of the Jews of Kelm. The panic in the Jewish village was great. Many Jews escaped the village. The German commandant of the region found out about this. Yakov was arrested and interrogated. The commandant ordered that he be sent back to the barn camp in Kelm. Before he was returned to the camp, the partisans kept him interned in prison in Kelm until Thursday morning, the next day. Then he was brought back to the men’s camp at Zundl Lunts barn.
The Second Mass Slaughter
The next day, Friday, August 22, 1941, at four in the afternoon, they began bringing Jews from the Jewish compounds near the Kelm compound, to the gravel pits. The men in the barn camp saw the possessions of the Jews in the compounds being brought on wagons. Behind the wagons walked masses of women, children and old men. A short time later shooting was heard near the sand pits, followed by individual shots.
The Jews in the barn camp had been joined by fourteen men who had been working the whole time in peat bogs at the village of Narushiai for the peasant Antonas Jankaustas. It became clear to the men in the barn camp that they were completing the final moments of their lives. Their panic was great. They all began destroying their valuables, breaking their watches. The guard around the camp was strengthened. The gate of the barn was open. The partisans warned that they would shoot anyone who tried to approach the gate. They also warned that they would shoot anyone who wept out loud. Nevertheless the following men managed to escape from the camp that day: the Jewish farmer Yakov Kholozhin, Yisroel Nokhomovits; Khonon Levin, and Hirsh Shevelovits, who worked as a butcher in town.
At six in the afternoon the same Friday, the men were taken from the barn camp to the Kelm compound. Twenty-odd men, among them Yakov, were locked up together in a barn. Jews from the Jewish compounds were taken into the same barns. These groups were first led into the barn, and then taken to the field next to the pit. From a distance an entire field filled with Jewish women, children and old men could be seen, guarded by Lithuanian partisans. The shooting of machine guns, along with the shouts and weeping of women and children, could be heard. This dreadful execution continued until evening. The gloom of evening echoed with the cries for help of the women, children and men at the pit. Rain dripped down. The sky was heavily overcast. The compound of Kelm, in which Yakov and his friends were interned, was located exactly one-half kilometer from the spot where the dreadful executions were carried out.
At 7:30 p.m. partisans began taking the last groups of Jews from the barn away to the pits. A group of ten men, Yakov’s comrades, were taken away. They went away depressed, their heads bowed, their eyes filled with tears. Only ten men remained in the barn. At the gate stood two guards armed with automatics and grenades. The two guards were Shpukas and Merkelis, both of whom Yakov knew well. They promised that the remaining men would not be shot.
Yakov agreed with his comrades that he would go to the gate to have a talk with the two guards. When he gave the signal, they were to attack the two Lithuanians, drag them into the barn and strangle them. That was the arrangement. But while Yakov was talking and smoking with the two Lithuanians, the men failed to respond when Yakov gave the agreed signal. Later they excused themselves by saying that they didn’t want to remain alive while their families had already been shot.
It was already dark outside. The rain did not stop. Four partisans came to the barn and took away the last ten Jews, among them Yakov. Yakov and his friends were physically exhausted, desperate, full of resentment toward everyone and everything, and little interested in life. The last ten men slowly moved forward, dragging their exhausted feet through the mud. At that moment Yakov thought about his beloved ones, who certainly lay dead in the pit. An “unnatural” impulse moved Yakov to try something. The will to remain alive suddenly began to possess his entire being. He convinced his comrades that they all should begin running at once. The Lithuanian murderers forbade Yakov to speak Yiddish.
“I’m about to die, and I have the right to speak Yiddish to my comrades for the last minutes of my life!” Yakov protested bitterly.
The Lithuanians stopped interfering in Yakov’s conversation with his comrades. He proposed to everyone that they begin running in different directions, so that everyone would have a chance to survive. Whatever God wants, that’s what will happen! – That was the men’s response to Yakov’s proposal.
The ten men were brought to the field next to the pit, where a few dozen Jews still stood waiting for their turn to be shot. Some were forced to strip to their underwear, some still stood in their clothes. The partisans drove the naked Jews to the edge of the pit, and shot them from behind with automatics. The cries and weeping of those brought to the edge of the pit were so dreadful that only someone who saw and heard them can have any idea of the terrible suffering of the victims. Many of them fell into the pit wounded. The wheezing and moaning of the dying and wounded could be heard coming from the pit.
It was dark already. A heavy rain fell. On both sides of the pit lamps had been set up, and they cast rays of light on the victims who had been brought, on the edge of the pit and on those who had fallen into the pit. Everything around the pit looked like a slaughterhouse at night.
Yakov and his comrades were guarded by the Lithuanian Mikalauskas from the village Pupsiai; he stood close to Yakov. The Lithuanian struck a match to light a cigarette. In the light of the burning match, Yakov saw Mikalauskas’ murderous face. Suddenly the idea came into Yakov’s head to act, to try to escape and remain alive as a witness to the entire world against the Lithuanian murderers. Lightning quick, he grabbed the automatic from the Lithuanian and brought it down on the Lithuanian’s head. The Lithuanian fell. With his last strength, Yakov began running in the direction of the nearby forest. But the inhuman experiences of the previous hours had exhausted Yakov’s strength. He jumped over a ditch by the side of the road, and threw himself down in a potato field. There was a commotion among the Lithuanians at the pit, and immediately afterward they began shooting in the direction of the woods.
Yakov lay pressed against the ground among the potatoes. He heard his heart banging loudly. The murderers ran past him in the direction of the forest. In the darkness, they failed to notice Yakov. Yakov lay a few dozen meters from the pit. The agitated Lithuanians quickly ran back to the pit, apparently because they were afraid that the rest of the Jews would escape from the pit.
Yakov clearly heard the shouts and weeping of those brought to the pit, then the report of automatics and wheezing and moaning from the pit.
Yakov carefully crept on his belly to the edge of the forest. From there he heard the cries of his nine comrades, with whom he had been taken out of the barn. Again automatic fire was heard, and the cries of the last nine Jews at the pit were eternally silenced.
Yakov watched from a distance as the Lithuanian’s prepared to leave the pit. They gathered the possessions of those who were shot, took down the lamps next to the pit, and returned to Kelm.
For a few hours Yakov continued lying at the edge of the forest. Everything around him was mute, and wrapped in a leaden darkness, soaked with light drops of rain. In the thick, dark air Yakov still heard the echo of those Jews whom he knew and loved, who had been silenced forever, whose bodies filled the pit. It was a pit from which Jews and Lithuanians had excavated gravel over the course of decades, for use in various construction projects. The buildings which had been constructed belonged to the Lithuanians now, and the dark pit belonged to the Jews of Kelm.
Later tragic details about the executions at the pit became known. While wandering through the villages, Yakov heard the following heart rending details from peasants:
- The peasant Gajauskas from the village of Pakartzama, five kilometers from Kelm, was forced to carry Jews to the pit with his horse and wagon from the Jewish compound of Katelaushishke, which was located next to his home. Many peasant wagons carried Jews to the Kelm compound. In Gajauskas’ wagon was his Jewish neighbor, the owner of the compound, Mr Berman, and his pregnant wife Dvoyre (nee Kaplan, from Vaiguva). Dvoyre’s brother Yudl Kaplan and his wife Ida Markowitz were in the same wagon. Berman was well-liked by all the peasants nearby, and Gajauskas quietly advised him to escape from the wagon and try to survive. But Avrom Berman refused to make the attempt, explaining that he loved his wife and couldn’t leave her alone at a time when she was expecting to give birth any day. On the way the partisans assured the unfortunate Jews that they were all being taken to the Jewish village of Padubisis, where they would all live in a camp. When they were brought to the Kelm compound, all the Jews understood that they had been brought to the slaughter.
And in those tragic hours, Dvoyre felt that she was going to become a mother. She asked the partisans to bring her a doctor. “Lie quiet, frog, and fight it out with death. Soon you won’t need a doctor!” the partisans viciously shouted at the pregnant woman.
Some of the Jews were already at the field, not far from the pit. Dvoyre lay on the ground, twisted in pain. Tears poured from her eyes and with a deep, pained sigh, she looked at the Jews who were preparing to die. She heard the shootings and the moaning of the dying and wounded Jews in the pit. She turned to the partisans standing nearby and begged them to shoot her before she bore the child. The murderers ordered her: “First give birth to another little Jew for us to shoot!”
After she gave birth, Dvoyre was shot and thrown into the pit. The Lithuanians threw the new-born child into the pit alive after its dead mother. The Lithuanian partisan Juosas Merkelis, a neighbor of the peasant Gajauskas, had related this all proudly and in precise detail. The peasant Gajauskas later told it to Yakov Zak.
- The Lithuanian Kariauskas from the village of Lukodeme, three kilometers from Kelm, shot his Jewish neighbor Borukh Lunts with his own hands. Borukh fell wounded into the pit, and tried to climb out. The partisans Kariauskas finished him off with his revolver. Yakov heard about this incident from peasants to whom Kariauskas himself had boasted.
Jews from the nearby villages of Lial and Vaiguva, and Jewish families from the Jewish compounds, were shot together with the Jews from Kelm. They were shot not far from the Kelm compound. One pit is located directly in the gravel pits, and the second not far from the gravel pits. The second pit was dug by peasants from surrounding villages.
To be continued……