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).
My speech at the Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Center on October 27, 2022 is here:
Lithuania did not punish a single Holocaust perpetrator, instead, the government of Lithuania deem many of the murderers as their national heroes. Lithuania is the only country in the world to have gone to court to defend the good reputation of a genocidal murderer of Jews.
THE SLAUGHTER OF THE JEWS OF VAINUTA (VAINUTAS)
The collective testimony of:
- Yitskhok Markus, born May l, 1917 in Vainuta. He lived in Vainuta his entire life, until the outbreak of the war. Completed Hebrew elementary school there. A butcher by- trade. Father’s name, Khayem Leyb; mother Gite Darbyan from the town of Drubyan.
- Yakov-Mendl Nekush, born in Vainuta on June 5, 1924. Completed elementary school there in 1941. Father’s name, Leyzer; mother Zelde Mendelson. A butcher by trade. The family had nine children, six boys and three sisters. Yakov Mendl was the fifth child. Zelde died in her last childbirth. Leyzer was left with nine young children, and had a very hard time raising them.
Vainuta is in Tawrik County, 35 kilometers from Tawrik, 10 kilometers from Neishtot-Tawrik. The small river Shishe flows through the town. A gravel road connects Vainuta to Neishtot and Tawrik. In 1941 the town was located five kilometers from the border between Lithuania and Germany.
The Jewish Population and Their Employment
Exactly 70 Jewish families lived in Vainuta, amidst a much larger number of Lithuanians. The Jewish families all observed the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” and had many children. The majority of the Jews were occupied in agriculture and owned large plots of land, pastures and gardens. A smaller number were engaged in wholesale and retail trade, and in artisanry. All, including the latter, had small plots of land which helped provide their livelihood.
The life of the Jews in this town was very similar to that of village peasants. All the Jews without exception owned horses and cows. There were Jews who had a large numbers of horses and cattle. For instance, Leyzer Nekush had forty hectares of land which he and his children worked. He also had twelve cows and twenty horses. Leyzer also traded in horses, which were sent to Germany. The Jewish farmers had acquired farm machinery, and worked their land intensively.
The mill, sawmill and electric power plant belonged to a Jew named Avrom Markus and his partner Khayem Aranovitz. Jewish men named Yisroel Javitz and Yosl Leybovitz owned large manufacturing concerns. A small number of the Jews in town were peddlers, who made a poor living. A number of the town’s Jews often received support from overseas. In general, however, the economic situation of the Jews was not bad.
Relations With Lithuanian Neighbors
These were not good. Relations grew quite bad and even intensely anti-Semitic every year before Passover. Before Passover the Lithuanians in that region always spoke about the famous blood libel, that Jews slaughter a Christian child and use its blood to make matzoh. When the Lithuanians came from church late at night at Easter time, they would break windowpanes in the Jewish houses. Each year before Passover the town’s Jews were afraid of the likelihood of a pogrom. There were a few Jewish peasants in the surrounding villages. They came to town for Passover every year, because they were afraid of staying in the village at Passover.
Before Passover in 1940 a Lithuanian serving girl working for the Khatskelevitz family made up a story that her boss had killed her child.
When the Lithuanians came from church at midnight, the serving girl met them, weeping and shrieking. In front of the entire outraged crowd, she accused the Jews of slaughtering her child for matzoh.
In the middle of the night the wild, agitated mass attacked the Jewish houses, knocking out windowpanes, breaking doors and shutters and beating Jews. A number of them also looted the possessions of several wealthier Jews. The Lithuanian child who had disappeared was found after Passover in the countryside, where his mother had taken him.
After the Red Army arrived in Lithuania, in the summer of 1940, the attitudes of the Lithuanians toward the Jews in town improved superficially. The Jews felt like equal citizens, and took part in economic, political and social life, just like the Lithuanians.
Cultural Life in Town
The town possessed a Yiddish-Hebrew elementary school, a heder, a small Hebrew-Yiddish library and a study house. After completing the elementary school, a small number of the youth studied in the Tawrik Hebrew gymnasium, and several in the yeshiva of Telsh (Telshai), however, the great majority of the young people helped with domestic and farm work in the fields and gardens after finishing school.
The older generation as well as the young people in Vainuta were strictly religious and were organized in several Zionist movements, where they worked actively. A few young people belonged to the Communist party, which was illegal under President Smetonas’ rule until the summer of 1940.
The Outbreak of the War
On Sunday, June 22, 1941 at four in the morning, the inhabitants of the town were surprised by the roar of German airplanes. Rifle and machine gun fire could also be heard not far off. A half hour later, the German advance guard entered the town.
A large number of the Jews packed their most necessary possessions into wagons, drove their horses and cows out to pasture, locked their houses and rode to the homes of friendly peasants in the surrounding villages.
At 8:00 a.m. the same Sunday German military details began to march through the town, hurriedly chasing the retreating Red Army units. The Red militia and activists in the party and youth groups had also left the town at daybreak. Some of them were recognized and shot on the roads by armed Lithuanians, who immediately began to be active in town and in the villages.
On Monday, June 23 the peasants in the villages began to drive the Jews from their farms. The majority of the Jews returned to town the same Monday. The rest also came back to town in the course of the first week of the war. Only a few Jews who had actively taken part in political life during the year of Soviet rule managed to evacuate to the Soviet Union.
When they returned from the villages, the Jews found their homes, barns and storerooms looted. Some of the horses had been taken from the pastures by Germans, and some by local Lithuanians. The cows and poultry were likewise shared by the Germans and the Lithuanians.
Germans settled into the better homes of the Jewish refugees, and Lithuanians settled into the rest. They inherited the furniture and other contents of the houses. The Lithuanians brazenly drove the Jews away from their houses, and would not even let them into the yards. In one day the Lithuanians had become rich. All of the possessions which the Jews had managed to accumulate with hard work over the course of generations fell into the hands of their Lithuanian neighbors.
The Jews who returned from the villages had to settle in the study house or with relatives and friends who had not fled the town. The Jews who came back also moved into the attics, barns and storerooms.
The very first day after the Germans arrived, the Jews began to be harassed and to be subject to decrees. The Jews had to wear a yellow armband, were forbidden to walk on the sidewalk and were only permitted to leave their houses at a certain time each day.
The Civilian Administration
As soon as the Germans arrived in town, armed Lithuanians from town and from the surrounding villages appeared, wearing white armbands. The civil administration was formed by these armed Lithuanians, who supported the Germans.
A man named Antanas Cuzauskas from the village of Krigelishkis, three kilometers from Vainuta, became the head of the town. Until the outbreak of the war he had been in prison in Tawrik for criminal violations. As soon as the Germans entered Tawrik he came to Vainuta. He was also the chief of police and the head of the armed Lithuanians, who called themselves partisans.
Cuzauskas was only the head for a few days. Almost immediately he was replaced by a man named Paulius, who had occupied the same post under President Smetonas. He had been removed from his position by the Soviets. When the Germans arrived, he returned to town. He was from the village of Zhvingiai, ten kilometers from town. Another leader was the farmer Andriushas, from a village three kilometers from town.
The newly created administration began to lord it over Jewish lives and possessions.
The Mass Arrests and Regulations
In the evening of Monday, June 23, 1941, the partisans went to the homes of all the Jewish youth whose names were on a list of those who had been active in political and economic life under the Soviets. They took them to the town prison, where they were tortured and beaten. They were given nothing to eat. After detaining them until the end of the week, they were released.
Several days after the Germans arrived, the Lithuanian administration ordered all the Jews to surrender their radios, money, gold and valuable, as well as hidden weapons to the police. They threatened that they would then search all the houses, and that if they found any of the items which were to be turned over, they would shoot the entire family. The Jews only obeyed the order partially. A number of the Jews hid their valuables, or brought it to the town priest “until after the war.” The town priest, Dundulis, gladly agreed to “hide” the Jewish possessions, horses, cows and assorted other valuables “until after the war.”
On Sunday, June 24 the partisans ordered that all the male Jews over the age of twelve had to report to the police. When they arrived the men were registered, and the healthier ones were ordered to report for work at the courtyard of the police headquarters every morning at eight.
From there the men were assigned to various tasks burying dead horses, maintaining the roads and the smaller bridges, cleaning the streets, and serving the Germans and Lithuanians in town. The men were taken from the police headquarters to work by partisans, who guarded them while they worked. At midday the men were allowed to go home. At 2:00 p.m. they had to return to the police headquarters, and from there they went back to work.
In the evening the Jews were brought back from all the work sites to the police headquarters and from there they were allowed to go home. The Jews worked like this for precisely four weeks.
Harassment and “Performances”
After the radios and valuables had been taken to the police, a Lithuanian named Petras Linkus, who had worked for Leyzer Nekush years before the war, came to Leyzer’s house. He claimed that his former employer had hidden a radio and a revolver. He also reported this to the partisan command. Several partisans took Leyzer out past his house, gave him a revolver and ordered him to shoot himself. Leyzer fell on his knees before them and begged to be let go, because he had not hidden anything. Then they threatened to shoot Leyzer with the revolver. They tortured him in this fashion for three evenings in a row.
In the middle of the third week after the war broke out, while the Jewish men were coming to report for work at the yard of the police headquarters, partisans lined them up in rows and marched them off to an open area near the church. They forced the Jews to stand in a circle around a stage that had been built during the Soviet occupation for meetings and parades. The partisans brought men from their houses as well as the town Rabbi, Reb Yoysef-Yakov Shur, who was over sixty years old, and the kosher slaughterer, Yoysef Shtern. Both of them were brought to the platform with their hands tied behind them. The partisans drove the rabbi onto the stage. At that moment the Nazi flag was raised on a high pole nearby.
The partisans gave the slaughterer a pair of scissors and forced him to cut off half of the rabbi’s beard. S.S. men came to the “performance.” They tied the rabbi to a horse with a rope. One of the SS men got onto the horse and began riding around the circle of Jews. The rabbi had to run after the horses. Partisans ran after him and beat the rabbi with whips.
Lithuanian men, women and children stood nearby, and were beside themselves with amusement.
After these tortures the Jews were allowed to go home. The rabbi was quite sick, and had to stay in bed.
The First Jewish Victims
The tailor Hirsh Grinshpan and Leybe Shukhavolsky, the 30-year-old owner of a restaurant, were members of the Communist party. When the war broke out, they fled the town together, and they were chased by the Germans. They returned to town with their families. At the end of the first week of the war, Lithuanian partisans arrested both of them and took them to prison. That same week Itsik Osherovitz and Moyshe-Mendl were also arrested and taken to prison.
On Sunday, June 29 Yitskhok Markus was walking in the street. Lithuanians threw stones at him. Yitskhok got into an argument with them. The Lithuanians reported to the partisans that he had spoken badly of the Germans and of Hitler. He was arrested, beaten and put in prison.
On Sunday, June 29 all five men were taken to a small forest three kilometers from town, in the direction of the village of Lazdenan. There they were forced to dig a ditch. Itsik Osherevitz and Moyshe Mendl were brought back to prison after digging the ditch. Itsik remained in prison until July 19, 1941, at which time he was taken away and shot at the forest of Shaudvits together with other Jewish men.
Moyshe Mendl managed to get out of prison with the help of the priest, Dundulis.
Hirsh Grinshpan, Yitskhok Markus and Leybe Shukhavolsky were brought to the pit and prepared for shooting. Leybe ran away from the environs of the pit. He was shot at, but not hit. He hid among thick shrubs.
Hirshl and Yitskhok were shot that day. Leybe hid in a potato cellar in a forest for three days and nights. A peasant woman spotted him and reported him to the partisans who arrested him, beat him and let him go home. On July 19, Leybe and other men were taken to a camp near Heidekrug.
Only Lithuanians from town and from the nearby countryside took part in the arrest of the five men and the shooting of the town men. Among them was Antanas Venckus, a shepherd living in town.
In the village of Zhvingiai, ten kilometers from Vainute, lived a family of Jewish farmers. The owner of the farm was named Yitskhok. His son-in-law was caught in Vainuta by partisans and shot near the Jewish cemetery. The son-in-law was a native of the town of Batik (Batakiai).
These murders made a dreadful impression on the Jews in town. There was also a polite form of robbery: partisans and police would go to Jewish houses and “request” that various items be given to them.
Everything Sacred Is Destroyed
At the end of the second or the beginning of the third week of the war the men only worked until midday. When they returned to the police yard in the afternoon, partisans took everyone to the study house. They also brought all the men from their homes to the study house. The men were forced to carry all the benches and lecterns out of the study house.
They had to destroy the holy Ark and pile everything together outside in the yard. Then they were forced to bring the Torah scrolls and all the holy books out of the study house. The Jews also had to bring all the religious books and tefillin that were kept in private houses. The partisans threatened to shoot anyone who was caught keeping religious articles in their homes or hiding them.
Women, grown children and old Jews with beards wept as they brought all the holy books, tefillin and tallioth from their houses and threw them onto one heap.
The German commandant in town directed this “work.” The rabbi, Reb Yoysef-Yakov Shur was ordered to light the fire. The rabbi categorically refused, and begged to be shot instead. The tailor Fayvl Markus, who lived near the study house, ignited the fire, weeping bitterly and with his eyes stretched toward Heaven. Tongues of flame covered by thick smoke consumed all the Torah scrolls and books, the teffilin and tallioth. The Jews had to stir the fire from time to time, and see that it burned thoroughly.
Local Lithuanians gathered around the bonfire, celebrating and applauding. In the evening the Jews were allowed to go home.
The Slaughter of the Men
In the afternoon of Saturday, July 19, 1941, all the men who were capable of working had to come to the yard of the police headquarters. From there the men were herded into the study house, and ordered to line up around the walls. Partisans searched everyone’s pockets, taking watches, rings and whatever they found worthwhile, on the pretext of searching for weapons.
At three o’clock they were still taking men who did not have to work and who had been at home. The partisans took everyone out of the study house, lined them up in rows of three and drove them through town under heavy guard.
Other partisans forced the women and children to come outside of their homes, or to watch through the window as their husbands, fathers and brothers were taken “to work.” Among them were many who were refugees from Tawrik in Vainuta.
A dreadful weeping and shrieking could be heard in all the Jewish homes. The women and children accompanied their near and dear ones on their march to eternity.
One of Yakov-Mendl’s brothers shouted to Leyzer: “Dear father, where are they taking you from us?” Tears welled up in the eyes of the men and rolled down their exhausted, desperate faces. When they were far outside of town, they still heard the cries and shouts of their wives and children.
Outside of town the men were ordered to run quickly. The Lithuanians ran after them on all sides and beat them. When they were three kilometers outside of Vainuta on the road leading in the direction of Neishtot, not far from the village of Shaudvitz, the men were told to halt in a meadow, where they were lined up in rows of three.
Two light automobiles arrived at the meadow, together with a truck which had a trailer attached. SS men led by Dr Schau from Heidekrug and his adjutants Dembrowsky and Jakshtas came out of the cars.
The doctor read everyone’s first and last names from a list. He announced that everyone was being taken to work, and asked who was feeling sick or weak. The vast majority did not understand what was in store for them, and even healthy young people complained that they were sick. Only thirty out of the 120 said that they were healthy.
The other ninety were loaded into the truck and the trailer and taken in the direction of Neishtot (Tawrik). The thirty healthy men were taken to Neishtot on foot. The Lithuanians returned to Vainuta from the meadow. On the way the SS men beat and tortured the thirty Jews. When they had gone a few kilometers the truck arrived. Shots could be heard in the distance. One SS man asked his comrade: “Are they shooting one by one?” The second one indicated that they weren’t supposed to talk about it, and winked to the thirty Jews, who had heard and paid attention. The fate of the ninety became clear to everyone.
The thirty were loaded into the truck, taken to Neishtot and locked into a barrack. The truck returned the same Saturday evening. The Jews in the barrack were loaded into the truck, which already contained the possessions of the ninety men who had been shot. The thirty men even recognized the overclothes of their loved ones and friends. Men from Neishtot were taken from the barracks on the same truck. When they arrived at the marketplace in Neishtot, the men from Neishtot were allowed to go home to get food and personal possessions.
That same evening the men of Vainuta and Neishtot were taken to Kalvelishkis, the compound of Dr Schau near Heidekrug. In the morning of Monday, July 21 the thirty men were ordered to bring the clothes from the truck to a warehouse at the same barrack.
Among the thirty men were the eyewitness Yakov-Mendl Nekush, his two brothers and friends. When they carried the clothes from the truck, Yakov-Mendl and his brothers recognized their father’s clothes. Other men also recognized the belongings of their murdered fathers, brothers and acquaintances. No one doubted any longer that before the thirty men were taken away from the barracks at Neishtot, the ninety men who had previously been selected had been shot.
On Monday, July 21, the thirty men from Vainuta were taken to a German doctor in the town of Heidekrug, who gave them injections in their chests. Several men passed out from the injections.
Among the ninety men who were shot, Yakov-Mendl and Yitskhok Markus remember the following:
- Yosl Leyzerovitz, from Tawrik.
- Yankl Leyzerovitz, Yosl’s son.
- Fayvl Leyzerovitz, Yosl’s nephew.
- Shrnuel-Yitskhok Kahan, from Tawrik.
- The rabbi, Rabbi Yoysef Shur.
- The pharmacist, Yankl Getz.
- Kirsh, the Jewish doctor in town.
- Hirshe Rozin, a bookkeeper at the mill.
- Khayem, a teacher in the elementary school, from Jurbarkas.
- Avrom Markus, the owner of a mill.
- Khayem Aranovitz, Avrom’s partner in the mill.
- Yoysef Shtern, the town’s kosher slaughterer.
- Leyzer Nekush, a rich farmer; Yakov-Menal Nekush’s father.
- Yisroel Fogelman, owner of a restaurant.
- Yakov Meltser, a merchant.
- Pale Meltsner, a brother of Yakov.
- Avrom Aranovitz.
- Zelik Aranovitz.
- Khayem Aranovitz, the last three were brothers.
- Yankl Aranovitz, a merchant.
- Davia Murinik, a butcher, and his brother Yoysef Murinik.
- Leyzer Murinik, Davia’s nephew.
- Melekh Grinshpan, the tailor’s son.
- Tankhum Aranovitz who had been to Palestine and returned.
- Yehoshure Kahan, a merchant.
- Meir Segal, a farmer.
- Hirshe-Zelik Sokhovolsky, a shoemaker.
- Yitskhok Osherovitz, a horse dealer and farmer.
- Velve Kahan, a merchant.
- Yankl Markus, a farmer.
- Isser Yoselovitz, a horse dealer.
- Yitskhok Yoselovitz, Isser’s son.
- Meir Leybovitz, a horse trader.
- Khayem Oberman, a dealer in manufactured goods.
- Eliyohu Aranovitz, a glazier; Tankhum’s father.
- Gershon Kulman, a butcher.
- Moyshe Shlomovitz, a tailor.
- Two young brothers named Levinson from Tawrik.
- A father and a son named Balk, from Tawrik.
- Khayem Margolis from Vainuta.
The eyewitnesses do not remember who else was among the ninety. On that same tragic Saturday, July 19, the sick and weak men were selected in the camps around Heidekrug, taken to the same place as the ninety men from Vainuta and shot. Since the first week of the war, men from the small towns in Tawrik County had been driven into the camps around Heidekrug. All of these men were shot three kilometers from Neishtot in the Shaudvitz forest.
That Saturday was the first day of the Jewish month of Av. Those who rounded up the Jewish men in the study house, and took them from there to the meadow three kilometers from town were all Lithuanian partisans and police.
Among the thirty partisans were the following:
- Antanas Cuzauskas, the leader of the partisans.
- Kleinas, a farmer in town.
- Rimkus, a farmer in the village of Galne, four kilometers from town.
- Vituvis, a gymnasium student from the village of Lazdenan.
The Ghetto in Vainuta
After the 120 men were taken from town, the women, the children and the few remaining men were moved into an area near the yard of the study house. They occupied six or seven houses, and also the study house. There were also a few families of refugees from Tawrik in town.
Some 225 people remained in town at the time. It is hard to imagine the crowded conditions in which the unfortunates had to live. The partisans reassured the women that all of the men who had been taken away were living and working in the Memel region. There was no exchange of reliable information between the men and the women in the ghetto. Later on the women began to get letters in various ways. It was even possible for them to send a little bit of money and personal items. They never found out about the murder of the ninety men on Saturday, July 19. The partisans constantly reassured them that the men would soon be brought back to town.
The small ghetto at the synagogue yard was not fenced in. The Lithuanian partisans stood watch. The healthier women were taken to work each day in the priest’s fields and on peasants’ farms. Smaller groups also worked as servants in the German and Lithuanian offices.
A German named Anton Hofman had worked for Leyzer Nekush for some time before the war. He was from a village near the town of Pagenen in the Memel region. He became a foreman in the camp where Yakov-Mendl worked. On Saturdays the men worked until noon. Every Saturday Anton took letters from the Vainuta men to their families in the ghetto. He also brought letters and a considerable amount of money to the men. Each time he carried out such a mission, he received a gold watch from the women in the ghetto. From the letters which the men received from the ghetto, they found out what was going on there.
The SS men from the Heidekrug camps often drove to Vainuta, took young, pretty girls from the ghetto and raped them. They even took some of the girls into the camp and raped them. For example, an SS man took away Yakov-Mendl’s sister Feygele Nekush, aged 15, and brought her to the camp The SS man had worked for the Nekush family for years before the war. After raping Feygele, the German scoundrel did her a favor by bringing her letter to Yakov-Mendl and his brothers. The SS man worked in a different camp. After raping the girls, they used to bring them back into the ghetto. The Lithuanian partisans and police in town used to do the same thing.
In the letters which the men received from the women, they used to complain about this. They also wrote that conditions were very bad for them, and that they suffered from hunger. The men wrote them comforting letters, saying that they would survive everything and they would see each other again. They did not write anything about the ninety men who had been shot.
On the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, Anton Hofman took letters from the Vainuta men and went to town to deliver them to the women in the ghetto. He returned the next day, Sunday, bringing all the letters back. He reported that on Saturday all the women, children, elderly and sick had been taken out of town under heavy guard. Before they were taken out of the ghetto, partisans reassured them that they were being taken to their husbands.
All the Jews were taken four or five kilometers from Vainuta along the road leading toward Shilale, near or in the Gerainiu forest and they were all shot. It was not possible at the time to obtain more precise details about the tragic executions of the women and children.