The rewriting of Holocaust history by the government of Lithuania requires that we hear the truth in the words of the eyewitnesses.
THE SLAUGHTER OF THE JEWS OF VEIVIRŽĖNAI
The testimony of the brothers Shimen and Yoysef Shlomovitz. Both of them were born and lived in the town of Veiviržėnai. Shimen was born on April 18, 1923. He completed the Hebrew elementary school in Veiviržėnai and studied in the commercial school of Memel (Klaipeda) for some time.
Yoysef was born on the 15th of December, 1924. He completed the Hebrew elementary school, studied in the Lithuanian elementary school for two years, then one year in the yeshiva of Riteve (Rietavas), a half year in the yeshiva of Kelm (Kelme), and two years in the Telz (Telshai) yeshiva. Father’s name, Leybe Shlomovitz; mother, Blume Gershinovitz. Leybe had three daughters: Golde, aged 15; Taybele, aged 13 and Sheynele, aged 11.
Veiviržėnai is in Kretinga County, 30 kilometers from Kretinga and 28 kilometers from Memel. The river Veivirzhe flows through the town. A gravel road connects the town with Riteve, Gardzh (Gargzhdai) and Shvekshne.
The Jewish Population; Their Economic and Cultural Life
Some fifty Jewish families lived in the town, among a large number of Lithuanians. Most of the Jewish population was engaged in trade. There was a smaller number of artisans and a few farmers.
The main source of income for the Jews in town was their trade with Memel. The Jews bought various produce from peasants, including fruits and vegetables, and delivered it to Memel. Leybe Shlomovitz had a center for purchasing flax in town. The flax was delivered to Memel. After Memel was annexed by Hitler’s Germany in the year 1939, the trade in flax shifted to Shavl. Trade in general declined on account of the annexation, and the economic situation of the Jews grew worse.
The larger manufacturing concerns in town belonged to the Jewish businessmen Avrom-Shaye Rutznik, Leybe Borukhovitz and Shmukler. A Jew named Mendl Falkovisky had a large iron business. In general the economic situation of the Jews of Veiviržėnai was not bad until Memel was severed from Lithuania.
There were a Hebrew elementary school, a Hebrew-Yiddish library, and a study house in town. After completing elementary school, some of the Jewish youth studied in the Lithuanian gymnasium in the nearby town of Shvekshne. A few studied in yeshivas in the larger cities nearby. The Jews in town were strictly religious and involved in Zionist movements.
Relations Between the Local Lithuanians and the Jews in Town
These were not bad until the Memel region was annexed to East Prussia. Then there appeared anti-Semitic agitation, which drew its inspiration from the other side of the border, from Hitler’s Germany.
The “Verslas” organization successfully aroused the population against the Jews and printed leaflets in which they urged the Lithuanians to buy “from their own.”
More than once Jewish store windows were broken, and their signs were smeared with pitch. The police never caught or found those guilty.
In the summer of 1939 a Lithuanian in town tried to set fire to the center of town, where Jews lived. Yoysef Shlomovitz spotted him, and let all the Jews know. The Lithuanian himself lived in the home of a Jew. He was arrested, but nothing was done to him.
After the Red Army arrived in Lithuania in the summer of 1940, the Lithuanians began to “get along well” with the Jews. A large number of the Jewish youth took part in the economic, cultural and social life of the town. The chief commissar in town was a Jewish boy from Shvekshne, Yisroel Gesl. He organized all the young people for various projects. The economic worries disappeared.
The Outbreak of the War
On Saturday night, June 21, 1941 the Jews in town sensed a nervous unease among the Red Army and Soviet responsible in town. The Red Army built fortifications all along the border with Hitler Germany. A large number of the Jews in town were occupied at that task. They were the first to sense the tense situation along the border.
At 5 a.m. on Sunday, June 22, 1941, the Germans began to bombard Veiviržėnai with artillery fire. Several artillery shells fell in town and caused a great panic. One shell fell in the home of the Jewish farmer Leybe Kahan. Gitl Khononovitz, a young girl who lived next door, had just gone in to Leybe’s house, and she was torn to pieces.
The courtyard belonging to the Jew Yisroel Belogorsky in the village of Trepkalnis, about two kilometers from town, was burnt down in the bombardment. The Russians blew up all the bridges over the stream near the town.
At ten in the morning a small battle for the town began. At noon the Germans entered Veiviržėnai. All of the Jews had fled the town to hide in the countryside. Only a few remained in town. On Monday, June 23, the Jews who had fled returned to town, where they found their houses and establishments untouched. Two Lithuanian farmers in town, the brothers Cirtautas, had robbed a Jewish family named Ayznberg. The Jew reported this to the German commandant, who took the two Lithuanians out of their house and shot them. The Jew got his things back.
The Civilian Administration
Pogrom and Vandalism of Religious Property
The Lithuanian farmer Petras Cirtautas became the chief of the town on Tuesday, June 24. A Lithuanian veterinarian from a different place became the head of the armed Lithuanian partisans. At the end of the first week of the war a large number of Lithuanians from town and from the countryside joined the police and the partisans. Among them were these men from town:
- Ushelis, a tailor (?).
- Ignas Gershminauskas, a stone cutter.
- Petras Pakalnishkis and his brother; both gymnasium students.
The police and partisans began forcing Jewish men to do various jobs each day, both for the Germans and partisans in town, and along the roads.
In the morning of Friday, June 27, 1941 the Jews found the study house ransacked. The Torah scrolls lay unrolled on fences and on the roadsides. On the floor of the study house torn books were strewn around. The windows had been knocked out.
During the day that same Friday the Lithuanian administration ordered that a list of all the Jews in town be presented. They demanded the list in order to be able to distribute ration cards. A girl named Libe Sheftelovitz went from house to house, registering everyone. She gave the list to the chief in town.
The Jewish Men Are Taken to a Camp
On Saturday, June 28 the partisans drove all the men out of their houses. They had to clean the streets until the evening, and then they were allowed home. Before they had a chance to rest, German SS men arrived in town. One of them shot a rocket as a signal. Right away the SS men drove all the Jewish men out of their houses and rounded them up in the marketplace, where two trucks with trailers stood waiting.
The custodian of the synagogue, Ore Ayzikovitz, tried to hide, and was shot on the spot. The children and old men were allowed to go home. The synagogue secretary, Yankev Magid, and Yitskhok-Dovid Shlomovitz were allowed to get off the truck and go home, because of their advanced age. The rabbi, Rabbi Yoysef Graz, who was over 70 years old, was taken away on the truck. The men didn’t manage to take along any personal belongings or food from home. Some of the women managed with difficulty to bring packages of food and personal items to their fathers, brothers and husbands in the truck.
At 7:00 p.m. that evening, the men from Veiviržėnai were taken in the trucks to the synagogue courtyard in the town of Shvekshne. Near the study house, the men saw Torah scrolls and religious books burning. The men were ordered to get down from the trucks and stand around the fire.
Partisans from Shvekshne guarded the Jews. Near the walls of the study house the Jews noticed shovels and spades. None of them doubted that they all were about to be shot. The rabbi began leading everyone in Viduy, the confession before death.
The SS men ordered the Jews to take their watches and golden rings off, and pile them together in a spot near the fire. They also demanded that the men surrender their money and gold. The head of the SS men, Dr Schau from Heidekrug, was present. His adjutants cut off the rabbi’s beard. They tied up the hair and stuck it onto the doctor’s taxi. They drove the men into the trucks and drove in the direction of Heidekrug.
The rabbi’s cut off beard, tied to the taxi, fluttered in the air. The SS men were happy and contented. At 11:00 p.m. that Saturday, the Jews were brought close to Heidekrug, to a camp where men from the town of Shvekshne had been brought earlier the same evening. For a few hours the men from Veiviržėnai were kept in the trucks. They were strictly forbidden to talk to the men from Shvekshne.
A few hours later they were taken away to the courtyard of the Heidekrug city council, and herded into a barn. The SS men threatened to shoot ten men if one tried to escape.
On Sunday, June 29, 1941 the situation was explained to the men from Veiviržėnai. They were being assigned to work at a camp near the Heidekrug city council. Over fifty Jewish men had been brought from Veiviržėnai.
The Slaughter of the Women and Children of Veiviržėnai
A short time after the men were taken to Heidekrug, partisans from town drove the women, the children and the few remaining elderly or sick men out of their homes and quartered them at the Trepkalnis compound, a few kilometers from town. The women were taken to work at various jobs in town and on peasant farms. The women and children were kept in that compound until October 21, 1941. Then they were shot in woods near the Trepkalnis compound. A cousin of Shimen and Yoysef Shlomovitz named Frume Pups, who was then in the compound, managed to escape from the execution near the pit. She wrote a letter to them from Lithuania about the tragic end of the women and children.
(Concerning the further history of the men of Veiviržėnai, see the collective testimony about the camps around Heidekrug – LK)
Note: The town of Veiviržėnai, Kretinga County, is described together with, the towns in Tawrik county. This is because the men from Veiviržėnai were also taken to the Heidekrug camps, and followed the same agonizing, tragic path of suffering as the men from the towns in Tawrik County.