The Lithuanian Slaughter of its Jews
Reviewed by Sorrel Kerbel
16 February 2021
Dr Sorrel Kerbel, D.Phil (UCT), is editor of Routledge Encyclopedia of Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century, 2003 and 2010 , and a contributor to the Memorial book of Rakiskis, Rokiskis Lithuania, Bakalcuk-Felin, M, Jewishgen.com, 2018.
And if I were to light a yellow candle, it would serve to remember and honor the portable hell of The Lithuanian Slaughter of its Jews by Leyb Koniuchowsky, 2020. His book of testimony from 121 survivors is a wonderful achievement that will allow readers in English to learn for themselves what happened in so many small villages, (shtetls or shtetlach in Yiddish) in the Lithuania of World War II. We read detailed and graphic testimony from tiny villages, not the main Lithuanian cities, where just a few Jewish families lived side by side with their Lithuanian neighbors. A very few eye-witnesses escaped to tell their tragic stories.
Leyb Koniuchowsky (1910-2003) was born in Alytus/Alyta and trained as an engineer in Kaunas/Kovno. After WWII and his release from the Kovno ghetto, he wandered the Lithuanian countryside looking for fellow survivors to bear witness. Those he found were in Displaced Persons camps. The book he produced acts as a memorial for all those silenced tongues who could not speak for themselves. It further contains details of shtetlach and forced labor camps never previously noted.
Leyb’s witnesses lived in places where the bleak pits in which they were massacred are now covered over and forgotten, and the villages themselves are now no longer to be found on official maps of Lithuania: Adukishkish, Akmene, Anykshtsiae, Alsedzhiai, Alytus/Alyta, Anykshtsiai, Babtai, Biliunai (near Raseniai), Botik (Batakia), Darshuniskis, Daugelishkis, Dukshtas, Erzhvilik (Erzvilkas), Geruliai (near Plunge), Heidekrug (Silute, Memel/ Klaipeda), Ignalina, Jonishkis, Jonava, Jerusalimka, Jurbakas, Kalwelischken, Kedainiai, Khaltinenai, Khvedan (Kvedarna), Klikoliai, Kelm, Koltinan (Kaltinenai), at the Seventh Fort, Kovno/Kaunas, Krazhiai, Kruonis, Krukiai, Lentupis, Laukuva, Liplauke, Luoke, Malagenai, Marcinkonis, Maishiogala, Mazheikiai, Maktubern, Nayshtot/Naishtot, Nementzine, Padibiskis, Padbrade, Pabersha, Pajuris, Pakuonis, Piktaten, Pilviskes, Ponari/Ponary, Rieshe ,Rumsiskis, Rusne, Shimkaitsia, Tawrik (Taurage), Telzh, Tirkshlaiai, Titovenai, Tverai, Tzaikinia, Sheta, Shvekshne (Sveksna), Shvetzionyz (Shventzionelai), Shilale, Silven, Skaudvile, Stakiai, Seda, Shtajatskiskis, Suderwa, Tveretszius, Tzeikiniai, Upnyas, Valkininkai, Varnia, Varus,Vainuta (Vainutas), Vendzhiogala, Versmininken, Verzhan (Veivirzhenai), Vidz, Viedukle,Vilkija, Vegerai, Vekshniai, Vieshvenai (near Rietuva).
For centuries people lived in this way. A myriad of sparsely populated small villages alongside rivers, lakes and the Pripet marshes, in the deep unspoiled countryside surrounded by farms and woods “of birch and oak, fir and pine … their roots entwined” (here I quote Koniuchowsky’s description of their natural environment, to be published later this year as Slaughter of the Jews, Part II.)
The few Jews in the countryside lived there side by side with their relatively peaceable neighbors. Then a sudden litany of terror.
Lithuania began slaughtering its Jews in June 1941, before and then after the ‘official’ invasion of Operation Barbarossa on 22 June when German tanks began rolling across Lithuania in two spearheaded directions into Russia. They were organized and appear to have been galvanized by a coterie of like-minded antisemitic Lithuanians.
Long before the Wannsee conference of January 1942 began determining in minute detail how to define a Jew for extinction, there were Lithuanians like Jonas Noreika and Antanas Baltūsis-Žvejys who took the initiative in this climate of extremism. In the period June-December 1941, many thousands of Jews, men, women and children, perished before the gaze, and often participation of their neighbors. Yet the record also reveals instances of individual courage and morality by brave and good Lithuanian people, “Righteous Gentiles” who hid and helped their Jewish neighbors. This offers us a glimmer of hope for the future.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz In the UK in January 2020, we were shown a number of interesting films. One, a BBC documentary called ‘Confronting Holocaust Denial’, featured celebrity Jewish comedian David Baddiel, who visits Vilnius in Lithuania and interviews a Lithuanian farmer’s son and other neighbors. The farmer in a flat cap smiles as he remembers how his village watched their few Jews rounded up in their high street. “Yes” – he saw and heard their cries as they were rounded up.
We now know that these farmers hastily moved into the now vacant homes after their owners had been forcibly removed to ghettos and murdered after the officers had taken first choice. And we are also shown upturned Jewish grave stones with their inscriptions intact that were commonly removed from cemeteries to be used for pavements and building supplies.
But we also learn from the caring Lithuanian historian who guides Baddiel on his travels how napalm had to be used to destroy corpses in pits many years later, when even the Lithuanian peasant farmers had left to settle in cities .“It’s not easy to burn a corpse”. We saw Baddiel shocked – tears well up – as he hears the historian relate how bones and skulls were ground “fine as ash” to be used as fertiliser. Unimaginable.
Baddiel challenges a right-winger who has Nazi emblems in his home, to read the newspaper stories written by Sylvia Foti in her quest for the truth about her grandfather Jonas Noreika. Widely known as General Storm and honored for his resistance to the Russian occupiers, Noreika’s plaque was put up in many Lithuanian centres, and streets are named in his honor. But Foti discovers verbal accounts, ghetto and plunder accounts of her grandfather’s orders. In this book of testimony, we read of Jonas Noreika ‘s influence over locals who then compelled the few Jews in these isolated villages to march out to woods nearby and having to dig their own graves in a clearing before locals would gun them down or kick them into these pits. Initially lime was poured over the mass pits where the bodies fell. There were few witnesses because the success rate in these “death by bullets” was so high. This book provides many verified witness accounts.
In the above-noted BBC documentary, David Baddiel disarms us with his humor. But here in Lithuania he shows a film of a plaque honoring Jonas Noreika in Vilnius being destroyed recently by a local lawyer, Stanislavsky Tomas, surrounded by a group of cheering students – perhaps they too had read the stories emerging in Lithuanian newspapers. Hopefully next year they will read Sylvia Foti’s book, called Storm in the Land of Rain: a Memoir Unmasking a War Criminal (due to be published in English by Regnery History, in 2021)
In her account, Foti discovers Lithuanians who knew her grandfather who claim that he was forced to be a signatory to the deaths of many Jews. The Genocide Centre in Vilnius disputes this – their denials include the worrying misinformation that no-one told Noreika anything nor did he see any slaughter of Jews. But when he did, according to the Genocide Centre, he started a “secret” rescue operation of Jews. Nor was he aware that the house he had acquired belonged to a Jew, and that the very underwear he received for his wife came from a Jew. His grand-daughter unmasks him as a war criminal.
Antanas Baltūsis-Žvejys was another of the worst Holocaust deniers and killers of Jews. As District Commander of Police in Vilnius, he was ordered to guard and protect everyone including his Jewish neighbors. But on his watch they were rounded up and force-marched to clearings in the vast Ponary Forests, now a nature reserve, where men , women and children were compelled to dig their own graves in vast communal gravel pits, and were then shot by locals in possession of a gun, shot or kicked into the pits.
In publisher David Sandler’s editorial introduction (p6), we read that Leyb Koniuchowsky took yet more witness accounts from other Lithuanians after the war when he landed up in She’erit Hapletah DP camps in Germany.This term, Sh’erit ha-Pletah , requires more explanation . It derives from Biblical phrases found in the books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, and refers to those Jews who remained behind in Israel after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The modern phrase was adopted by Rev. Abraham Judah Klausner, an American Army Chaplain in June 1945 when he compiled a six- volume registry of Jewish Displaced Persons, and the name was taken up by delegates to the Congress of Sh’erit ha-Pletah, in Munich, February 1946, an organisation that exists today. Later, Koniuchowsky researched other Lithuanian records that he found in concentration camps at Auschwitz, Warsaw, Warsaw Ghetto, and Birkenau. Now his meticulous records have been published in February, 2020, we know that 90-95% of Lithuania’s Jews perished: a percentage that sadly exceeds that of Poland, Yugoslavia, Latvia and indeed that of Nazi Germany.
In his precise daily reports, SS Commandant Karl Jaeger of the 7th Fort at Žaliakalnis district of Kaunas also records for his Nazi masters, and now for posterity the “essential help of local Lithuanians, 4000 were liquidated in pogroms and executions exclusively by Lithuanian partisans.”
In this book, evidence is taken about the shtetl of Keidan where the Lithuanian mayor, pharmacist and hotel keeper acted entirely on their own, and were so cruel the Jews actually appealed to the Nazis to protect them from their cruelty.
The victims deserve proper memorials like Stolpersteine (stumbling stones). Not plaques and streets named after their killers, along with National awards and honors – insults that deny the truth about their victims.
Leyb Koniuchowsky almost gave up hope of publication of his testimonies. He bravely kept these fragile handwritten papers safely under lock and key, but shored them up within himself, so he could sleep at night after repeated rejections from publishers.
Meanwhile the killers of the countryside Jews were not arrested for their crimes in independent Lithuania. During the Soviet period, the murder of innocent victims was found to be a crime, but Lithuanians still do not acknowledge these massacres as crimes. After all, today, the names of the villages themselves are lost to memory, the burial pits covered over so arable crops can be grown there.
What is unknown is that the Lithuanian leadership proposed the elimination of Jews to Germany, and completed their genocide as an example to it. Only after the completion of the Lithuanian slaughter of its Jewry did the Nazis follow suit to implement the Final Solution.
In 1950, Leyb was persuaded to give copies of his documents to Yivo, and in 1989 entrusted them to Yad Va’shem, where they were lodged and verified so he could resume his life after so many rejections. Then many years later in 2020, in distant Perth in the land of Oz a willing publisher emerged, David Solly Sandler. He didn’t ask the usual questions “Will it sell? Will it make money?” So Sandler also deserves much praise.
The book also offers a precious glimpse of the good times as well as gruesome horrors perpetrated in the second half of 1941.
But the extent of the Lithuanian participation in the genocide of Jews and their collaboration with Nazis continues to be downplayed in Lithuania. And so it goes…
In September 2020 the Lithuanian government is seeking to legislate their responsibility away after the summer recess this year. Is it serendipity or fate that Leyb’s important publication is now published this year? A proposed resolution by an MP in the Lithuanian parliament declares that Lithuania should be absolved of responsibility for the murders of Lithuanian Jews because Lithuania had the misfortune to endure much suffering during its occupation by Soviets and then by Nazi Germany. What is the logic in this?
We hope that this resolution fails, that the Lithuanian honoring of criminals will change. “From our mouths to God’s ears” as we used to say.
Yet the Litvak Roots industry from around the world continues to boom. It is disgraceful to many survivors and their families that delegations of Lithuanian travel agents arrive in Johannesburg to appeal to wealthy Jews in South Africa for help in the restoration of Jewish graves, memorials and plaques to enhance their Jewish visitors’ Lithuanian travel experience.
The testimonies above make these positions absurd and the Lithuanian government is answerable for its lack of awareness – it is they who ought to bear the financial burden of responsibility for restoration, they who ought to understand the plight of their own Jewish victims and their existing Jews, and not be so bound up within their own Nationalist grouping that they can’t perceive the calumny of their callous distortions of truth. At the same time, we recognize that contemporary Lithuanians are not guilty of the crimes of earlier governments. We salute and honor all Lithuanians who are honest now in exposing the truth.
The Lithuanian Slaughter of its Jews: The testimonies from 121 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuania, recorded by Leyb Koniuchowsky in Displaced Persons’ camps from 1946 to 1948, English translation by Dr Jonathan Boyarin, published by David Solly Sandler, February, 2020. Available in soft cover from the publisher at email@example.com, priced at US$60 (£45) including delivery; full proceeds go to Arcadia Jewish Children Home in Johannesburg.
Uploaded by Eli Rabinowitz