THE SLAUGHTER OF THE JEWS OF STAJATZISHKIS
Eyewitness testimony of Zalmen Yofe, born in Vilnius on May 10, 1907. Graduated elementary school in Vilnius. A tinsmith by trade. Zalmen lived in Vilnius until 1938, when he settled in the town of Adutiškis. He lived there until the war broke out on June 22, 1941. His father’s name was Mordkhe and his mother was Hinde, born Shpitzberg.
Present during the reporting of the testimony was also Zalmen’s wife Reyzl, born June 11, 1912 in Stajatzishkis. Reyzl studied in a cheder in Stajatzishkis. She was a seamstress by trade. Her father’s name was Sholem Gantovnik, and her mother was Khyene-Leye, born Khodosh. Reyzl lived in Stajatzishkis until 1924, when she moved to Vilnius. In 1931 she married Zalmen.
Geographic, Economic and Cultural Setting of the Town
The village of Stajatzishkis is located in Švenčionys County between Adutiškis and Švenčionys, four kilometers from Švenčionys. About 45 Jewish families lived in the village, along with ten Polish, White Russian and Lithuanian families. It was thus a Jewish village. Jews had been working there for decades. The farms were handed over from generation to generation.
Almost all of the Jews in the village had substantial plots of ground which they farmed efficiently, along with horses, cattle and various other goods. Naturally, the Jews of this village worked their land themselves, making it fruitful with their own sweat and blood. There were a shoemaker, a tailor and a store to serve the needs of the Jews in the village. The Jews in this village were peasants in the full sense of the word. Their psychological makeup and habits of thinking were those of peasants.
When it came to competence and diligence the Jews lacked nothing in comparison to their non-Jewish neighbors, who called the Jewish village “little Palestine.” The Jewish peasant got along well with their Christian neighbors until the outbreak of the war.
“Palestine” had a cheder and a lovely study house. The Jewish peasants were not ignorant; they knew how to study. Many of them were quite capable of getting through a page of the Talmud. Almost all of the Jewish peasants were strictly religious. They did not have a rabbi. The rabbi of Adutiškis served “Little Palestine” as well. There was a kosher slaughterer in the village. The peasants sent their children to study in the gymnasiums in Vilnius and Švenčionys. On the Sabbath the young people from the village would gather at each other’s homes. In the summer they would leave the village and spend time on their own fields and pastures. The young people were not interested in politics at all, and in every respect they were isolated from the busy world around them. The young people married amongst themselves, so that almost everyone was related to each other.
The War Breaks out
The Jewish peasants were taken by surprise on June 22, 1941. None of them thought about abandoning their farms and evacuating to the Soviet Union. The Soviet village evacuated on Wednesday, June 25. There was no government left in town.
A day earlier Zalemn Yofe and his wife had come from Adutiškis and moved in with their parents. On Wednesday, July 2, 1941 Germans appeared in the village. A civil administration was immediately set up. The new mayor of town was the Polish farmer Jozuk Sinkewitz. At that time a town council was set up in the nearby town of Adutiškis, headed by the mayor, Pawl Rakauskas. There were no partisans or police in “Little Palestine.”
All of the orders and directives against Jews came from Adutiškis, and the mayor of Stajatzishkis would communicate them to the Christian and Jewish peasants. The arrival of the German army in the region caused little change in the lifeways of the Jewish peasants, who continued to live at their farms and work their land. At first there were incidents of robberies of Jewish possessions. During the third week of the war all of the Jewish peasants were ordered to put on insignia which were changed several times, until they finally settled on the yellow Star of David on their chest and back. But the Jews in town didn’t observe the order. They only wore the patches when the Germans appeared in the village. During the sixth week after the war broke out a hundred SS men came to the village. They all wore the Death’s Head insignia.
The Jews had to “clean out” the study house, carrying out the Torah scrolls and books. The Germans settled into the study house. They were in “Little Palestine” for eight days. During this period the Jews were obligated to provide them with eggs, butter, ham and other foods.
The chief of the Jews was Yisroel Gantovnik. He would collect from the Jews various taxes or food for the Germans and for the Lithuanian partisans who often came to “Little Palestine.”
Some of the Jewish peasants had to go to work repairing the roads, while others had to do forced work with horses and wagons in Adutiškis. The mayor Sinkewitz handed out the labor assignments. Although “Little Palestine” was far from the great, bloody world and there was no opportunity to be in contact with the larger Jewish centers, the Jews learned about the total slaughter of Jews in various regions of Lithuania. Jewish refugees began appearing in “Little Palestine,” people who had miraculously survived the slaughter of their towns. Some fled further, and others stayed in the village. The Jewish peasants heard various incredible details from them. There were even two Jewish refugees from the town of Preniai in the village, people who had escaped when the Jews were shot there. Not all of the Jewish peasants believed what they were told, thinking that the stories were certainly somewhat exaggerated.
The Liquidation of the Jewish Village
On Friday, September 19, 1941 two policemen drove in from Adutiškis. Accompanied by Mayor Sinkewitz, they went to the Jewish peasants and made a list of all the horses, cows, better furniture and valuables. They strictly forbade the Jews to hide the items which had been listed, and also forbade them to remove or sell anything. They threatened to shoot the entire family of anyone who failed to carry out their order.
The Christian peasants began to say that preparations were being made for the slaughter of all the Jewish peasants. The Jews didn’t believe them, suspecting that they wanted to trick the Jews out of everything they owned.
The next Friday, September 26, 1941, at 4:00p.m., four Lithuanian partisans came to town, dressed in civilian clothes but armed. They went to see the chief of the Jews, Yisroel Gantovnik. They stayed there for some time. Yisroel Gantovnik went through the town, telling the Jews to bring along enough food for three days, along with soap and a washcloth. Yisroel went to every house separately to pass on the instructions. The Jewish peasants furrowed their brows, trying to figure out what this meant. Yisroel Gantovnik explained to them that the partisans had come to take the furniture and other objects on the list. Apparently that is what they had told him.
Meanwhile one of the partisans went away to a nearby village to organize other partisans. On the way to the village he saw the Jewish peasant Itshe-Dovid Rudnitzky running with a pack of goods, and he shot the Jew on the spot. Rudnitzky was running with the things toward his own field. He was the first Jewish victim in “Little Palestine.”
The partisan returned from the other village with more partisans. In a short period of time the Jews had to prepare to go out into the street near the crossroads, near Ele Gdud’s house. They had to leave their houses unlocked, and the stalls open as well. Yisroel gave all of these instructions when he went to all the Jewish houses.
The mayor Sinkewitz himself went through the village shouting in Yiddish: “Zlatke, get out of the house! I’ve been patient with you long enough! Now I want to live in your house a while!”
Almost all of the Jewish peasants and their wives and children gathered at the assigned spot. The older Jews refused to leave the house, deciding that they would rather die in their own beds. A Jew named Nokhum Volik, aged over seventy, lay sick in bed. When they came to take him from the house, he slit his wrists. The Lithuanian murderers shot him in his bed.
The mayor delivered a speech to the Jews who had gathered at the crossroads, telling them that they were being taken to Adutiškis, and from there to work at the military compound near Švenčionėliai. From the crossroads all of the Jews were taken away on foot to Adutiškis that Friday, where they were herded into the crowded ghetto area. All of the goods the Jews had assembled with the hard work and sweat of generations fell into the hands of their Christian neighbors. Immediately after the Jews were driven out of their houses the partisans locked the doors and left a guard behind. Peasants from the village and other locations hurried to “Little Palestine” that evening, broke open the doors and windows and robbed the abandoned Jewish farms. Everyone stole whatever he could get his hands on. They took away furniture, clothing, the livestock and other farm inventory, and so forth.
Shmuel the smith hid in his own home, and didn’t go to the assembly point. A woman named Hode Abel hid in another house. The mayor Sankewitz found both of them after the Jews were taken from the village. He locked both Jews into Khaykl Volak’s cellar. He kept them there for two days without anything to eat or drink. Then he shot them himself. Zalmen was told about this by White Russian peasants in the same village of “Little Palestine.”
On Saturday, September 27, 1941 the Jews of Stajatzishkis and the Jews of Adutiškis were taken to the compound near Švenčionėliai.
On Wednesday, October 8 and Thursday, October 9, 1941 all of the Jews who had been assembled at the compound were shot not far from the compound.
All of the Jews from the nearby towns in Švenčionys County were shot there on those days.
How did Zalmen Yofe and his Wife survive?
When they saw four partisans going to see the chief of the Jews, Yisroel Gantovnik, Zalmen escaped from his house to a nearby woods next to his own fields. Throughout the entire time he stayed in the village Zalmen had been extremely careful, hiding every time Lithuanians or Germans appeared in the village, just as if he had been a refugee. In general Zalmen obeyed the principle that all of the directives issued to the Jews by the Germans and Lithuanians were meant to enslave them, insult them, rob them of their possessions and finally slaughter them. Thus it made sense not to obey the orders, nor to believe their promises.
Zalmen became friendly with the Jewish survivors from Preniai. He believed everything the two Jews told about the slaughter of the Jews there. While he lay in hiding in his own fields, he saw Yisroel’s father-in-law running away from the village. In his arms he carried a bit of food, a small package and something that had been partially baked. Zalmen asked him what was happening. Yisroel Gantovnik’s father-in-law answered that the situation was no good, and that preparations were being made for all the Jews to be taken out of the village.
Zalmen saw his wife Reyzl coming to get water. He asked her what was happening in town. She told her husband that Yisroel Gantovnik had spoken to her and reassured her that the partisans had come to take the furniture which was on the list. Zalmen didn’t let her go back to the village. They both hid and observed everything that happened in the village. Neither Zalmen nor his wife had any food with them. They went to see the mayor’s wife to get food. Sinkewitz wasn’t in the house. The peasant woman gave Zalmen and his wife food, and advised them to escape from the village.
Zalmen and his wife hid in some woods next to the mayor’s fields. They saw Sinkewitz riding toward his house on a horse. A son of his pointed to the woods where Zalmen and his wife were hiding. Sinkewitz shot in that direction several times, and began riding toward the woods. Zalmen and his wife made their way to another little woods and hid there. A short time later Zalmen’s two brothers-in-law, the brothers Moyshe-Zelik and Yisroel-Yitzkhok Gantovnik and his sister-in-law Mirl, came to those woods as well. Then they were joined in the woods by the youngest brother-in-law Yosele, aged 13. Yosele had been at the crossroads with his father. He reported that Yisroel Gantovsky had gone to the crossroads with all the Jews, but without his family. He disappeared from there. His father had sent him to find out what his son-in-law Zalmen’s children, who had run away, were planning to do. They explained to Yosele that they wanted to escape to Kazan. They refused to return to the village, and they also asked Yosele to stay with them. But Yosele wanted to be with his father, and he went back to the village.
Yisroel-Yitzkhok and his sister decided to go with all of the Jews. When they reached the village they looked at their houses from the distance and saw it locked, while a Lithuanian armed with a rifle stood guard. The two Jews ran back into the forest.
Zalmen and his wife, along with both brothers-in-law and his sister-in-law went to Kazan to be with his wife’s cousin Yudl Khodosh. They settled in there. Yudl was able to spend a certain amount of money and arrange documents for his newly-arrived relatives. He also got them registered with the police. Yisroel Gantovnik, his brother Avrom, his sister Etl and his in-laws also came to Kazan from “Little Palestine.” In Kazan Yisroel Gantovnik met his wife Rokhl and their little daughter Rivke, whom he had sent away from the village on that tragic Friday.
The surviving Stajatzishkis Jews in Kazan accused Yisroel Gantovnik, claiming that the partisans had told him everything, that he had known what was going on but hadn’t informed or warned anyone. Obviously he had understood in time that he had to send his entire family from the village. He personally was accused of having gone to the assembly point with the Jews in order to still the panic and calm the Jews down. When all the Jewish peasants had been brought from the village to the assembly point, he had left.
The Jewish survivors even said that when the partisans had gone to his house, he had negotiated with them to give him and his family an opportunity to run away from town. On account of these accusations Yisroel Gantovsky’s entire family had to leave Kazan, and they went away to Opsche instead.
Zalmen Yofe, his wife, his brothers-in-law and his sister-in-law stayed in Kazan until the Jews were taken away to the Gluboki ghetto in the winter of 1941-1942.
Zalmen and His Wife in the Pastoviai Ghetto
Before the Jews of Kazan were taken to the Gluboki ghetto Zalmen and his wife escaped to the White Russian town of Pastoviai. A few days later his brothers-in-law and his sister-in-law also arrived there.
Many Jews who didn’t want to go to the Gluboki ghetto gathered at Pastoviai. The German police ordered all of the refugees to register. They were helped a great deal in this by the Jewish ghetto police. The Jewish police would seize groups of refugees and force them to register. When they did this they told the refugees that nothing bad would happen to them. The refugees were registered at the police station and sent to the ghettos in Gluboki or Vidz.
Zalmen, his wife and his relatives hid from the Jewish police for some time with Jewish friends in the ghetto, until they were eventually summoned. Zalmen went to work in a tinsmith workshop for the German police in Pastoviai. He was the only smith in the ghetto. He had a special pass allowing him to enter the city, and he had the chance to obtain groceries for himself, his wife and his relatives. The Germans found him useful, and he obtained special privileges from them. Yet Zalmen did not allow himself to be lulled into a lethargic sense of security. He did everything he could to make contact with the Red partisans operating in the surrounding region. Zalmen and his comrades at the tin smithing workshop were successful in this attempt. At first the Red partisans gave the Jews the task of providing them with flints for lighters, and with glycerine for a hectograph. The Jews carried out the task and earned the trust of the Red partisans, who promised to get them out of the ghetto into the forest. Zalmen and his friends began to get ready. They managed to steal a rifle and pistol from the German police station. They stole two rifles at another location. They brought the stolen weapons into the ghetto in a tin tube. The entrance to the ghetto was only guarded by Jewish police, who didn’t search those coming in from town.
There was an underground resistance movement in the Pastoviai ghetto, divided into small units. They had rifles, machine guns and hand grenades. Their goal was self-defense. It was very difficult to leave the ghetto because the Jewish Council would not agree to this. Their reason was that if a small group of armed youth left, all of the Jews who were unable to leave the ghetto for the forest might be shot.
The Red partisans brought several young people who had been working at the tin shop to join them in the forest. Among the first ones to leave were a young man from Dolhinova named Zalmen Fridman, and Avrom Itze Fridman from Pastoviai. One month later they came with a Russian to take Zalmen, his wife and ten other Jews, all armed, out of the ghetto. This happened in the month of September 1942.
The German police asked about the master tinsmith several times. In order to erase the traces of Zalmen’s escape, the Jewish Council announced that the tinsmith Zalmen Yofe had suddenly died of a heart attack. They received permission from the police to “bury” Zalmen at the Jewish cemetery. The Jewish council faked several such “funerals” during this period. Zalmen’s brothers-in-law Moyshe-Zelik and Yisroel Yitzkhok, along with his sister Mirl, later died in Pastoviai, when all the Jews in the ghetto were slaughtered.
Zalmen and his Wife with the Partisans in the Zazerge Forest
In the forest they found a group of thirty people, including Jews and a few Russians. The group belonged to the “Avengers” company, which was still in the process of being organized. The group was not carrying out any special military assignments. During that time the Jew Yakov Segaltzik and a group of comrades took a few dozen Jews, including children, out of the Myadl ghetto. Entire Jewish families gathered in the forest. Preparations were being made to take them further to the east and bring them across the front. The Red partisans had already taken several groups across the front, deeper into the Soviet Union.
The newly-arrived Jews stayed in the forest for three weeks. From there the Red partisans took them further into White Russia.
The Red partisans’ constant attacks against Germans and their forays to get food from peasants gave away their locations. The partisans received reliable information that tens of thousands of Germans, Lithuanians and Poles were preparing a huge blockade in all the surrounding forest. They were ordered to divide up into small groups and head eastward. The partisans separated from the Jews and went away. They left the Jews a few weapons.
Zalmen, his wife and other Jews left the forest and went to a forest in White Russia. As they were going to get food in the countryside they met some Jewish Red partisans, who told them that there was an all-Jewish company. Among the Jewish Red partisans was a Jew from Pastoviai named Zalmen Rokhman, a friend of Zalmen Yofe. The next day he came and brought Zalmen Yofe and his wife into his company. He didn’t accept the rest of the Jews because they were parents with children. Zalmen and his wife joined the Jewish company at the end of the spring of 1943.
The Jewish Partisan Company: “Revenge”
When he joined the company Zalmen found a total of fifteen Jewish men and women who had escaped from White Russian towns. The company belonged to the brigade named after K Voroshilov. The leaders of the company were Boris Grayneman, an escapee from Old Vilejki, and a Jewish parachutist who went by the pseudonym Bitenas, who was from the Lithuanian town of Jonava. Bitenas planned to establish a larger Jewish company. He obtained a few weapons and went to work. Every day Jews used to come to the Jewish company, some with weapons and some without. Some Jews came armed from the non-Jewish company.
Groups of Jewish Red partisans began carrying out various missions, obtaining their own food and scarce weapons.
A group of three men went to Vilnius and returned with thirty Jews and weapons. Among the thirty Jews was Yoysef Glazman, from Alytus, who led the resistance movement in the Vilnius ghetto. (He was one of the founders and leaders of the resistance movement in the Vilnius ghetto LK)
The commander appointed Glazman chief of staff of the Jewish company. On another occasion a group of ninety Jews were brought from the Vilnius ghetto. The Jewish company became a large group. By this time it included more than three hundred men and women. They all settled into well-made bunkers, and they did not live badly. The women worked in the kitchens, washed clothes and repaired the men’s clothing. Some of the women did watch duty in the forest itself.
The fighters in the Jewish company several times attacked German positions. They attacked Kobilnik, the towns of Myadl, Kamay and other positions. These attacks were successful, and the Jewish company obtained more weapons and food.
Several times fighters from this company went into the Gluboki ghetto to bring Jews out. The Jews of Gluboki kept delaying until the total slaughter came. A few people were successfully brought out of the Gluboki ghetto, and they joined the Jewish company. At the same time the last group of Jews were brought from the Vilnius ghetto.
The Great Blockade
In the autumn of 1943 the Red partisans learned about a huge blockade which the Germans were preparing. The blockade hadn’t yet begun. The “Revenge” company of Jews received a visit from Commander Markov of the K Voroshilov brigade. Markov sent Bitenas away to carry out a mission for him in the Lithuanian interior. Actually Bitenas had been sent from Moscow to accomplish this mission.
Markov transferred most of the personnel and weapons in the “Revenge” company to the small “Komsomolsk” company, along with White Russians. The commander of the company was a Russian named Valotzky. The commander of the platoon was a Ukrainian. The newly-arrived Jews immediately recognized the Ukrainian. He was an infamous Jew-murderer from Pastoviai. The matter was investigated, and the accusation was completely corroborated. The Ukrainian was sentenced to death and shot. A Jew named Shurke from Švenčionys became the new platoon commander.
The Komsomolsk company began to obtain horses and got ready to become a cavalry company. Just at that time the huge blockage began. The few Jews remaining in the Revenge company divided into smaller groups of five or ten each, and began looking for ways to get out of the blockade. The sick and wounded, supervised by two Russian doctors and a certain number of fighters who were specially assigned, moved to an island in the great swamps.
It was estimated at the time that a total of about 80,000 Germans, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians and others participated in the blockade. They were well-armed and they used tanks and airplanes. During the blockade Zalmen Yofe was with the invalids on the island.
Yofe, his wife and several other Jews left the island during the blockade and tried to make their way out with the help of their weapons. One evening, however, they encountered Germans. They couldn’t escape in another direction, because there were Germans everywhere.
Zalmen Yofe, his wife and the rest successfully carried out a maneuver. They approached the Germans from the side and hid in deep swamps up to their necks. They covered themselves with branches. The Germans didn’t notice them because it was already dark in the forest. The Germans passed by the several men without noticing them. The hidden Jews kept their weapons ready to fire. Some of them could barely keep themselves from firing when they saw the Germans so close. Zalmen barely managed to restrain them. The Germans went further away. The Jews spent the night in that swamp, and went away to look for something to eat on the island. They found no-one there. The sick people had escaped from the island. All of the bunkers in the entire forest had been vandalized and destroyed.
For eight days the Jews who were with Yofe lay hiding in the forest. They met partisans and together they all went to the bunkers, which they found burned out. The Germans burned the surrounding villages for about two weeks.
The terrible blockade lasted for eight days. 104 Jews lost their lives. Most of them were people who had been brought from the Vilnius ghetto. Among those who died were Yoysef Glazman and a group of seventeen Jewish men.
The Death of Yoysef Glazman and his Group
Shortly before he left for Lithuania, Bitenas sent a group of eighteen Jews, including Yoysef Glazman at their head, on a mission. The group went far away from their base, armed with automatics and pistols. The Jewish dry goods merchant Peysekh Goldberg and his daughter Julke, both from Švenčionys, were wandering in that neighborhood. They met Yoysef Glazman and his group. The group spent the night in the forest. Everyone went to sleep. A group of Germans found them while they were sleeping. Julke managed to sneak into some brush. The Germans didn’t spot her.
They took her father and the other eighteen Jews prisoner and took them in an unknown direction. It is not known where the eighteen Jews were shot. Julke saw everything with her own eyes and later reported it. After wandering through the forest for some time Julke entered a newly-established Jewish production group in the Voroshilov brigade. Julke and her father had escaped from the Vilnius ghetto.
The Jewish Production Unit
After the blockade the Jews began to return toward their base. They entered the Zazerje forest. They were joined by Grayneman, who organized a Jewish production group consisting of thirty men. They also had a few weapons. The group went to another forest, built bunkers, got more weapons and assembled more Jews around them. Eventually there were sixty people in the group. [Shmuel] Katsherginsky and [Avrom] Sutzkever were in the group as well.
After the production group was organized, Grayneman was transferred to another location. He was replaced by a Russian commander. The head of staff was a Vilnius Jew named Khatzkl Eyfe.
The popular Yiddish poet from the “Young Vilna” group, Sutzkever, was taken away to Moscow in an airplane. His colleague Katsherginsky remained with the partisans until the liberation.
The production unit arranged their own tannery, shoemaker shop, tailor workshop, bakery and sausage factory in the forest. They also had a workshop where they repaired weapons, and Zalmen Yofe worked there. The production unit did not only serve its own brigade. Bread was brought to them to be baked for other companies, and they kept a certain percentage for themselves. The other units also worked for other brigades.
The production unit lived and worked in the Zazerje forest in this manner until the great offensive of the Red Army near Vitebsk in the spring of 1944. At that time there was an order for every partisan to blow up five meters of railroad tracks, all at the same time. The assignment was carried out. It was said at the time that eighty kilometers of track had been destroyed.
On June 5, 1944 in the village of Zazerje, the production unit met up with the advancing Red Army. Zalmen Yofe and his wife were rescued along with hundreds other Jews in the surrounding forests and villages.
Zalmen Yofe and his Wife return to “Little Palestine”
Immediately after the liberation Zalmen Yofe and his wife were in “Little Palestine.” There were no longer any Jewish peasants there. Their houses were occupied by non-Jewish strangers, who had also inherited the Jews’ possessions and their land. The former chief of the Jews Yisroel Gantovnik, along with his wife and child and his brother Avrom and sister Etl, settled into the village at that time as well. They had all hidden with peasants in the countryside.
Yozuk Sinkewitz, the former village mayor during the time of the slaughter of the Jews, was in the village as well. A high-ranking Jewish Red Army officer received complaints from nearby peasants stating that Yozuk had been a German traitor. The Jewish officer invited Zalmen to come and provide him with an explanation concerning Sinkewitz.
Zalmen told him everything. One more Jewish witness was needed, however. They appealed to the former chief of the Jews, Yisroel Gantovnik. He refused to accuse the mayor Yozuk. He refused, saying that he was afraid to testify, because he was planning to stay in the village. The Jewish survivors from the village had another opinion, however. They said at the time that Yisroel didn’t want to testify against Yozuk because the latter had both told Yisroel what was going to be done to the Jews (on Friday, September 26), and had also given him an opportunity to escape with his family. Zalmen found his cow and other stolen items at Yozuk’s house. Yozuk’s mother personally complained against her son, who had shed innocent Jewish blood and robbed their possessions. Yozuk later escaped from the village to join the White Russian partisans in the countryside.
Authors note: The village of Stajatzishkis is not discoverable on Google maps.
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 Lithuania, recorded by Leyb Koniuchowsky, in Displaced Persons’ Camps (1946-48)