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Seemingly, in spite of anti-Semitism, life went on peacefully, until that Friday, September 1, 1939, when the radio announced the German invasion of Poland. This was not a full surprise, because war sounds, from the German side, have been heard much earlier.
A few days before the invasion, the Polish held an operation of a full mobilization of the army. Luckily, as a student, my service was postponed. Indeed, in the secondary school, we had undergone some military training - foot drills and using a rifle, but eventually they gave up on me. The Polish never trusted east Poland Jews, they did not rely on their loyalty. The fact is that, on those days, about 60 percent of the Jewish students were communists.
Of those days of uncertainty, I remember a conversation I held with my father, who was very pessimistic regarding the war and its outcome. Father still "lived" World War I and estimated that the Pollese district, where we lived, will be annexed to the Soviet Union, and that the city of Vilna will be annexed to Lithuania. As habitual in times of war, and mainly based on their experience of the previous war, World War I, people hastened to get rid of their money and buy, as quickly as possible, food and vital goods. The stores were crowded, the queues long and, of course, I helped in the store as much as I could.
On September 16, Molotov, the Soviet minister of foreign affairs, had declared that the Soviet Union is planning to "liberate" east Belarus and east Ukraine, and on the early morning of Tuesday, September 19, the Red Army entered our town.
Of course, at that time we didn't know that the double invasion to Poland, the Germans from the West and the Soviets from the East, has been agreed, long before, between Hitler and Stalin, through their ministers of foreign affairs - Molotov and Ribbentrop.
The Polish border guard burned down the bridge on the river Horin, retreated to the west bank of the river, and entrenched along the river, at a distance of about 120 meters from our home, which stood very close to the river bank.
My brother Yossel, had been mobilized to the fire brigade, for maintaining order. Father, mother, my youngest brother and myself, stayed home, waiting for the Red Army to arrive. We did not think that the Polish would endure with resistance. And here we saw the soldiers of the Red Army, armed with rifles and machine guns, entering our street, from east to west and heading forward towards the river. From the other bank, the Polish army was firing at them. One of the bullets accidentally entered our home and got stuck in the cupboard.
I carry with me a bright clear picture of a soviet officer laying at the riverbank, wounded and helpless, also a picture of a shot Russian soldier lying near our home porch. Quite some time passed before these two were taken away. The soldier's name was Yoorchenko and the street where our house is located, is named after him.
Of course, we had no shelters and we hid under the beds. Father managed to climb down the cellar in the yard. After a half an hour, the Russians crossed the river with small tanks, and with that, the conquest of our town was completed.
At that time, our town was populated with many Polish refugees, who fled from the occupied territories in the east, after the German invasion of west Poland. Many of these refugees arrived in our area. Among them were Shalom Kwetny a David-Horodok native, his wife Berta, their son Lolek, and their daughter Hannah - our relatives, who escaped from Warsaw and settled temporarily in our town. Later the Soviets expelled them to Siberia, as Polish citizens. After the war, they immigrated in Eretz Isroel and settled in Jerusalem.
I remember that one night we had a young couple, a pregnant woman with her husband, in our living room. During the following night, they left and fled southwards. All Polish refugees, including the Polish settlers, who arrived in the area after World War I, that were caught, were captivated by the Soviets, and were sent to Siberia.
We, Jews, feared the Red Army, because of the bad memories that our families carried with them of the Bolsheviks' conduct, in the twenties. I remember myself hiding my better suits, because I feared that they would take away anything that seemed valuable in their eyes. But, to our surprise, they behaved fairly; there was no looting, no injuries, and no pogroms against the Jews, as happened before at changes of regime.
Indeed, the Jews welcomed the Red Army with a certain joy. Undoubtedly, they preferred them than the Nazi German army. The joy of the Belarusians and Ukrainians was less restrained. From the language and culture point of view, they felt closer to the Russians, and rejoiced the defeat of the beaten Polish army. Every Soviet soldier was a walking horn of propaganda, which praised and glorified the Soviet regime, and this found a listening ear among the Jews.
This time they impoverished the businessmen in a different method. They set the rate of one Polish Zloty to one Russian Ruble. The purchasing power of the Ruble was much lower than that of the Polish currency. Only salt and matches were cheaper. The Soviets manned all official positions with people who were brought from Russia, and with a small number of local residents who identified with Communism, Christians, as well as Jews, among them the Jewish Communist Leibl Pilchik, who served four years in a Polish prison for being a Communist.
A few days after the Soviet occupation, our quiet town was filled with loudspeakers that deafened our ears, day and night, with speeches and Soviet propaganda. Being a student, I was accepted by the Communist regime. But, my parents and brothers, who were considered wealthy merchants, were ordered to sell the entire stock of the store for half free. At that time, I became a kind of spokesperson for the business; I once even succeeded in preventing them from troubling my father.
Since I feared that I would not be allowed to continue my studies, I decided to return to Vilna. I knew that in Warsaw, there is an immigration permit to the United States waiting for me, and I hoped that through Vilna it would be easier for me to exit Europe.
At the beginning of October 1939, I traveled to Vilna and stayed with my study mate Iziya Alperovitz, at Portowa Street, No. 5, in a building that belonged to his parents.
In Vilna, I found that the university opened as usual, and that it was possible for the students to continue studying. At the end of that month, precisely as my father predicted, the Soviets have decided to turn over the city of Vilna to the Lithuanians. I decided to stay in Vilna, but I felt that I must go home to say goodbye to my family members, as it was obvious that on the day that Vilna will be turned over to the Lithuanians, it will become difficult to maintain consistent contact with my family in David-Horodok, which belonged to the Soviet Union. During the few weeks that I lived under the Soviet regime, I realized that the Soviet Union is many years behind Europe, not necessarily from the military aspect. I did not have a fluent command of the Russian language. During my long years of study in a Polish secondary school and in the university, I learned and got acquainted with the Polish language and culture, and I did not feel like starting everything all over again. Furthermore, under the Soviet regime there was significant importance to one's family social status, and since my family was in commerce and belonged to the bourgeois layer, I could have been considered an unreliable element. On the other hand, I feared that if the Soviet authorities in David-Horodok will find out that I intend to leave for Vilna, that means escaping from the Soviet Union, they might detain me. This was a quite feasible danger on those days. Nevertheless, I decided that I must go and depart from my family.
But, there is a big difference between deciding to depart and practically depart. When I arrived home, my family members aroused doubts regarding my leaving for good. Mother, with her healthy reasoning and unusual courage, said: "on days like these we must divide the family, maybe somebody will be saved". Father, who was considered in town as a clever man, but seemingly has been more sensitive, found it hard to accept that I am leaving home, at the age of 22, when the future is vague. My brother Zeev said to me: "If I were you, a bachelor without children, I would leave the country, in spite of the cost involved". The price bothered me, but I was eager to go out to the open world. I traveled to our town and spent with my family one whole day. On the next day, I returned to Vilna.
By the way, at that single night that I stayed home, we invited to our house, our community rabbi, Shlomo Zalman Shapira, and the Mishalov family. Both these families had relatives in Eretz Isroel, and they were considering immigrating there. They were interested in the happenings in Vilna. At this getting together, we learned that they too decided to leave our town and move to Vilna. Indeed, they so did and, in 1940, they succeeded in going to Eretz Isroel via Moscow and Turkey.
After a sleepless night, as I remember it was October 12, 1939, I left home secretly, not to return. My brother Zeev, escorted me to the railroad station, to help me loading my luggage into the coach.
At the beginning of October, before my returning to Vilna, I had sewn new cloths for myself, of which I did not separate for many years. They reminded me of my home, which was so close to my heart, and of my family members whom I missed and worried about, every day, ever since our separation. When I came to Eretz Isroel, I brought with me my winter coat and my boots, and one day I put the coat up there in the attic and forgot about it. On summer, when we renovated our apartment, I found the coat in a very good condition; I handed it over to the "Yad Vashem" Museum as a remembrance of those horrible days.
Another interesting detail - when I left my family, my parents gave me two bills - a 5 Dollar bill and a 20 Dollar bill. I kept these during all the years, for the same reason that I kept the cloths, they symbolized home to me. When I came to Eretz Isroel, I hid the bills among my belongings, and, for some reason, I cannot find them till today.
In the fall of 1939, a Communist regime, with all that it implies, ruled in Vilna. All Zionist movements were outlawed, including the Socialist Bund Movement, which was considered illegitimate even more than the Zionist movements. Movements' activities went underground. Heads of movements were expelled to Russia, among them Menachem Begin, Natan Yelin Mor, Moshe Kleinboim, the head of Bund from Poland, and the lawyer Chernichov who defended the Communists in trials in Poland. By the way, Chernichov was a Territorialist who believed in equality for the Jews wherever they are, and opposed the Zionist movement. But, after visiting Eretz Isroel, his objection to the Zionist movement had moderated.
At that time, the chief Rabbi of Vilna, Reb Chaim Ozer Grodziensky, had passed away, and a gigantic funeral, in which tens of thousands of Vilna Jews participated, was held. We all felt that we belong to Klal Isroel (the Jewish people as a whole) "one for all and all for one". I personally remember this feeling well. Like most Jews, I saw in the gathering of masses of Jews, at the Rabbi's funeral, a sign of identification with the Jewish national consciousness, and a protest against open anti-Semitism by the Polish nationalists and hidden anti-Semitism by the Communists.
On October 10, Lithuania was forced to allow the setting up of Russian bases on its territory. The feeling of frustration, resulting from these agreements that violated Lithuanian sovereignty, enhanced significantly the incitement against the Jews and impingement of their bodies and property. Since the anti-Semitic bursts occurred in several towns on the same day, it is possible to assume that these were schemed as a countrywide plan.
When the Lithuanians entered Vilna, as always at the time of changes in regime, the Christians took advantage of the situation and launched bloody pogroms on the local Jews: they smashed windowpanes, looted stores, killed and injured about 200 men and women.
In November 1939, the Soviets handed over to the Lithuanians their historic capitol Vilna, together with a huge area surrounding it. The returning of Vilna to Lithuanian sovereignty increased the number of Jews in Lithuania to about a quarter of a million, about 10% of the population.
In January 1940, the Lithuanians transformed the Vilna University from a Polish university into a Lithuanian university. I succeeded in completing my studies, presented my final project, and freed myself for one and only goal - my strong desire to leave Vilna and immigrate abroad.
Vilna of those days was a city with many refugees. Ever since the Nazis invaded Poland, and even more so, after Vilna had been handed to Lithuania, which was then an independent republic, many people, from all over Poland fled to Vilna; many of them were Jews whose final goal was either to go to Eretz Isroel or to immigrate abroad. The best of youth, of all Zionist youth movements, concentrated in Vilna and in adjacent provincial towns, in groups that were called "Kibbutzim".
Since I lived in Vilna, as of 1931, I did not feel as a refugee, although - formally - I have been considered a refugee. Economically, I managed more or less, thanks to a small financial support from my uncles in America; in any case, I do not remember need. Lunch I used to eat in small cheap restaurants for refugees, which were subsidized by the Joint. Food didn't bother me at all. I had other worries.
The most important concern was the situation of my family at home, under the Soviet regime. The Soviets nationalized private property and I feared that my parents and brothers were left in great poverty. At a certain phase, I tried to send them money, but this was impossible. Using mail for this purpose was too dangerous, because of the Russian harsh control of foreign currency.
When the border between Lithuania and Russia closed, many tried to illegally cross the border. I personally knew a few of my townsmen who arrived in Vilna, like me, [among them: Zeev Shefer, Yaakov Slumiansky, Goldman, Yaakov Kaluzny, Shimshon Gittelman (escaped to Russia, participated in escaping to Eretz Isroel, established a large family, a member of the management of the David-Horodok Townsmen Organization)] and others. A part of them were exterminated later in the Holocaust, another part managed to escape to Russia, the minority of them immigrated in Eretz Isroel. Youth movements were very active in smuggling the border. Some of them were caught and sent to Siberia for 10 years. Among them were David Meller and Yehoshua Gilboa (later a prominent journalist of "Maariv" and close to the Minister of Tourism Moshe Kol). On the other hand, there were Polish refugees who, due to the economic hardship, wanted to return to their homeland, via Belarus, but the authorities returned them to Lithuania. The winter of 1939/40 was very difficult and many of the refugees suffered from various diseases.
At that time, I got acquainted with Nissan Reznik, a refugee from Pinsk, who was among the leaders of the "Zionist Youth" and fled from Pinsk to Vilna. Later on he was among the founders of the underground in the Vilna ghetto, a member of the F.P.O staff, fought together with the partisans and, after the holocaust, came to Eretz Isroel and settled in Nitzanim.
Through him, I renewed my connections with the "Zionist Youth" movement. My major Zionist activity, at that time, was within the students' organization, in the framework of the "LaMatara" corporation. I have been then in contact with Aron Mazeh, who died in Israel. Following are the names of some whom I remember well: Shalom Saziler, who succeeded in going to Eretz Isroel, prior to the German invasion, and lived all the years in Kibbutz Usha. Aharon Guttman from Villeika, a medicine student, who succeeded in getting a certificate through the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Chilkeh Burshtein and his wife Shoshanah. Chayah Mazeh, and her late husband Zvi Levine. Yanek Shtool; Sima Kaganovitz. And others whose names slipped my memory, and I apologize to them.
There were also Eretz Isroel citizens who spent their vacation with their families in Europe, and wanted to go back home. Among them was Bella Guberman from Kibbutz Usha. Bella arrived on summer to spend a vacation among her family in Pinsk. She had a Palestinian passport. The sovereign Lithuanian government allowed people of this status to leave Lithuania provided they submit proof that they are tourists and that they visited in the area, which was Polish before the war broke out. One of my university friends, Dr. Lissak, asked me to travel to the town of Eishishok, which then belonged to Poland and was annexed to Lithuania, and get her passport stamped with the municipality stamp, as proof that she stayed there during the summer. I traveled to that town. It was an especially hard winter. I stayed with a teacher's family who, in return for a payment to the former Polish mayor, stamped the passport with the municipality stamp. As the Lithuanians entered Vilna, the Polish mayor "confiscated" the Polish stamp and took it to his home. Thus, Bella Guberman returned to Kibbutz Usha legally. I see in this event one of the buds of the "Bricha" ("Escape") phenomena, which got organized right after the holocaust.
As I concluded my university studies, my major longing was to emigrate from Europe. The possibilities for immigration were limited. There were rumors that a very few people succeeded in infiltrating into Sweden, by means of boat via the Baltic Sea. The legal possibility to emigrate was getting from the mandate regime in Palestine (Eretz Isroel) a certificate for entering Eretz Isroel.
As I already mentioned, in Eretz Isroel lived my two sisters, Esther and Bella, with whom I corresponded regularly. I also corresponded with my secondary school schoolmate Baruch Ozech (Egozi), who immigrated in Eretz Isroel in 1937 with a student certificate. I could also be granted a student certificate through the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but I lacked the money needed for this purpose. The certificates were distributed through the Eretz Isroel office in Kovna, but refugees were not allowed to dwell there.
I asked my uncle in the United States to transfer the required money to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Indeed the money was received, and I sent from Lithuania a verified copy of my matriculation certificate and of my birth certificate that I had in my possession, but then Italy entered the war, and all passages through Europe were blocked.
I decided that I must move to Kovna, where all foreign embassies are, so that I can be "close to the center of things". For achieving this, I had to go to the police and request a special permit to stay in Kovna. I was aware that the Lithuanians are nationalists in character and bigots with regards to their language, but my command of the Lithuanian language was very poor. So, before going to the police, I learned a few words in Lithuanian. When I approached the chief of police, I told him, in my broken Lithuanian, that I am sorry that I don't know the language well. He was happy with my effort and, finally, gave me the requested permit. I am sure that, partially, his appreciation of the effort that I made to approach him in his language, contributed to his positive decision. I was accepted to the Polytechnic in Kovna to do research work in chemistry. While being there, I obtained a foreign Polish passport that was issued by the British embassy that represented the Polish government in exile, which stayed in London. I reported daily at the American consulate in Kovna, to check whether the approval for my entry in the United States has already arrived from Warsaw. One day the papers indeed came from Warsaw, but then I was told that since I am a Polish citizen, due to the Polish immigrants quota, I would have to wait another four years.
There were many knocking on the doors of the consulate, like me. The Russians were out and the Germans were at the threshold, and no one had any illusion with regards to the lifespan of free Lithuania. But all this was to no avail; again and again, the consulate rejected us. There was this joke circling around between us: "at what time is it good to arrive for getting the visa?" and the answer was: "at six after the war".
Another option, that seemed then as more realistic, was to request a transit visa to Japan. Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kovna, (who was later recognized as one of the righteous of the nations), generously granted visas to Japan, without any payment. With such a visa, it was possible to obtain a passage visa via the Soviet Union to Japan. Indeed, a few thousand Jews arrived in Japan in this way. Among them were a large number of Yeshiva students who arrived in Vilna as refugees from Poland and Belarus, when Vilna had been transferred to Lithuania. Among them was Zorach Varhaftig, one of the leaders of Religious National Party. Holocaust survivors, who emigrated from Shanghai in the United States, honorably welcomed years later, the Japanese ambassador's wife, and son. Some of these survivors immigrated in Israel and I met them here.
Well, I tried this channel too, and, thanks to the contacts I had with the movement, a transit visa to Japan had been stamped in my passport. I should point out that this was an original visa, as opposed to the situation at the end of 1940 and beginning of 1941, when Japanese visas were forged. No one could read what was in the stamp, from up downwards. I searched for a way to get out of Lithuania, but then, in May 1940, the Russians entered Kovna.
The Russian tanks entered the city on Saturday, with the excuse that the Lithuanians schemed against a Russian soldier, in Vilna. The soldier was from one of the military bases that remained in Lithuania, according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. On that Saturday, I was in the main street of Kovna and witnessed the welcoming of the Red Army. Kovna Jews joyfully welcomed the Red Army with flower bouquets.
The Soviet authorities let the Lithuanian president, Smetona, to escape, and he died a few years later in South America. Latvia and Estonia experienced the same fate. The Russians returned to the Baltic Sea as in the days of Peter The Great.
The Soviets formed a temporary government and, following election in the all mighty Stalin style, the country was formally annexed to the Soviet Union, as The Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania. The communist party was legal in free Lithuania and many Jews belonged to the party, some of them were among the party leaders.
Now the Jews were granted an adequate representation in the state institutions. High education institutions were open for Jews with no limits, and this allowed them to integrate within the local and central administrations, which till then were closed for Jews. On the other hand, the Jews were hurt more than others, from some of the Sovietization steps, mainly in the fields of economy and culture. 83% of businesses and 57% of factories, that were nationalized, belonged to Jews. The entire Hebrew education system was abolished, many Yeshivas, some of which renown in the Jewish world, were closed down. Jewish workers were forced to work on Sabbath and on Jewish holidays. In reaction to the Sovietization of the state, underground groups started in Lithuania. Most of these were extreme nationalist (like the "Lithuanian Activists Front") who were linked with Nazi Germany.
I stayed in Vilna with the Alperovitz family. I suffered no need, but my mood was very bad. I held a transit visa through Japan, and the Soviets allowed holders of such visas to pass through Soviet territory, but an exit permit had to be requested from the Soviet regime in Vilna. I feared that the Soviet authorities would find out that I escaped from Soviet Russia. They probably did not know about this, but I knew and therefore feared. At that time I learned that in the ministry of the interior there is working a schoolmate of mine, from the Polish secondary school, who wasn't a declared communist but neither was he a Zionist, and I was convinced that he surely knows that I escaped from the Soviets. That is why I feared to go to the ministry of the interior for getting an exit permit. I had severe doubts and couldn't find within me the strength to gamble and find myself in Siberia. No body knew then that Siberia was, practically, the lifesaving board for many. In retrospect, considering the conditions that existed then, my decision was right, in spite of the fact that it was obvious that, sooner or later, the Germans might attack Russia. And maybe it was all a matter of luck. I got stuck in Vilna and stayed with the Alperovitz family, until the day we were taken to the ghetto.
One week before the German invasion, the Soviets followed lists that they have prepared during the year, and arrested tens of thousands of Lithuanian inhabitants, among them 7,000 Jews, who were defined as "People's Enemies" "Politically and Socially Untrustworthy", namely all those suspected of not favoring the communist regime. Following their slogan "who is not with us is against us", they deported all of them to Siberia. This happened along the entire western Russian border, from the north in Estonia to the south, including Besserabia that was annexed from Romania to Russia. The Alperovitz family left their house and hid till the storm blows over. One night, there was knocking on the door and an N.K.W.D. officer and soldier searched the house, they entered my bedroom and asked about my friend and his family, but didn't touch me. "The thief's cap blazons his guilt" - in my room there was a cupboard with documents concerning the university in Jerusalem. As they approached the cupboard, I told them that it belongs to me and they didn't touch it. When the search was over, they left me alone.
There are things that are forgotten and there are things that are engraved in your memory, to an extent that you can see them in front of your eyes, as if they are happening right now. The Germans' entering Vilna and the conquest of the city, I remember to the smallest details. Those days are hard to forget.
Early in the morning of Sunday, June 22, 1941, I heard on the radio an announcement by Molotov, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, that Germany has invaded Russia. In those hours, the Barbarossa Operation had commenced. Prior to the conquest of Vilna, the Germans launched a two-day heavy shelling of the city.
Already on the morning hours of the first day, the Germans succeeded in destroying the adjacent to the city Porrubanek airfield, and destroyed all the aircraft that were there. During the whole day, the Germans bombed the city indistinctively, and focused mainly on the bridge that connected the two banks of the Villia River. The bombing was not accurate, but it smashed the windows in the apartment where I stayed, which was relatively close to the bridge. The Germans destroyed, from the air, the Kovna radio station and started broadcasting ostensibly from "Radio Kovna" as if the city is already in their hands.
The Red Army retreated on the following day. And at 4 am on the third day, the Germans were already in the city.
Their entrance to Vilna was very impressive. They entered, with an enormous military power, a mechanized well-equipped army. The difference between the Russian entrance and the German entrance was enormous. The German army was a power of an enormous invincible strength, and we couldn't imagine when and what power will be able to push it back. But, in spite of their strength, in no way did they seem as murderers to us.
Already on the first day, I was mobilized to the civil guard as chemist, but, practically, the war broke out suddenly and the inhabitants were not prepared for it. The Soviet censorship on newspapers and radio prevented from us information regarding the German demands from the Soviet Union. It also forbade listening to foreign radio stations. Practically, we were disconnected from the world.
On the first night, after the German invasion, I went to sleep at my friend Alperovitz's family relatives, Chonke Romer, but we couldn't fall asleep. The Germans bombarded indistinctively during the whole night. They dropped from the air delay bombs and hit lives and property.
Even before the Germans arrived in the inland, the Lithuanians launched pogroms in 40 settlements. In most of them Jews were murdered and injured. In 25 places, there were rapes, and in 36 places Rabbis were abused, houses were burned and synagogues were desecrated.
During the few days before the full conquest of the country, most of the leaders and activists of the Soviet regime and of the communist party in Lithuania managed to escape into the Soviet Union, and so did many civilians, who did not want to stay under the Nazi conquest regime.
Many Lithuanian Jews made desperate efforts to escape, but because of the German air force raids, the difficulty in crossing the old Soviet border and the offenses by Lithuanian underground groups, who curtailed the retreating Red Army, only about 15,000 Jews managed to get into the Soviet Union. More than a third of them participated in active fighting against the Nazis, from among them the headquarters of the Lithuanian Partisan movement and the Lithuanian riflemen division, in which more than 50% were Jews, far more than their rate in the population, was established within the Red Army. More than 220,000 Jews stayed in Lithuania.
In the morning of Monday, June 23, I decided to escape eastwards, in the direction of the Soviet border, as did many Jews who had links with the Soviet regime, and Jewish youth, of all movements, who were concentrated in "Kibbutzim" in the city. The truth is that I hesitated all morning whether to escape to the Soviet Union or stay in Vilna. It didn't occur to me turning southwards to my parents, maybe because I knew that the Germans were advancing eastwards in all fronts. Also, the transportation in my home direction was distorted. I returned to where I lived, packed a part of my belongings in a rucksack, I also put on my new leather coat and went to the train station. There I realized that I missed the last train, and I began searching for a ride. But, since I couldn't catch a vehicle that will take me eastwards, I decided to start moving on by foot. I remember that it was very hot, I walked a few kilometers and got tired, because of the warm cloths that I wore.
Subsequently we learned that all those who escaped eastwards, in the direction to Minsk, didn't make it to Russia, because, already on the fourth day of the war, the Germans surrounded Minsk and the entire area. More over, the Germans bombed and fired from airplanes on the escaping refugees who crowded the roads, and many of them were killed or injured. Most of them were forced to go back. Only those who fled northwards, before Monday morning, managed to escape the Germans and arrive in Russia.
Later it became impossible to exit Vilna. No one knew or forecasted what might happen. The common slogan on that day was: "What happens with all of Israel, will also happen with Reb Israel" (meaning - what happens with everybody will happen with me too) and so, I returned to my friend's apartment and waited for what is to come.
Early in the morning of Tuesday, June 24, the Germans entered Vilna without resistance. The Lithuanians welcomed them happily and wore white stripes on their sleeves. The Lithuanian soldiers of the Soviet Army, deserted in masses, and there were rumors that they used their personal weapons to fire on Soviet soldiers who ran away in panic, without firing a single shot.
Lithuania became an integral part of the "Austland Reich Commissionership". The Lithuanian national army was not reestablished, and soldiers that served in it before, were integrated within Lithuanian police regiments.
On the first days, there were no killings in Vilna, as opposed to other places. We did not know what to expect. It should be understood - the contact between Lithuania and other areas under Nazi conquest was very weak. We knew that the Germans have established in Poland, ghettos, and labor camps. We heard about the restrictions imposed on Jews, we knew that the Germans are "trouble makers", but we didn't imagine that it would be a mass massacre.
On July 4, 1941, the "Judenrat" was formed, the Jewish council that consisted of prominent citizens, among them Dr. Yaakov Vigodsky. On July 10, the order for wearing the Yellow Patch, on the chest and on the back, was issued.
As of August 3, it was forbidden for Jews to walk on the sidewalk and they were forced to walk on the roadways.
We never knew what is awaiting us, but one thing was clear to us, we must find work and be "productive". We innocently thought that every one who works and holds a "schein" - a work certificate, signed by the German authorities, is safe. "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Liberates). Of course, we didn't know that this slogan will be inscribed on the gates of extermination camps, but this was the feeling already on the first weeks. Indeed, the Germans began mobilizing workers for forced labor. Our heart's desire was to acquire the certificate, but this presented a serious problem. The certificate, the "schein" as we called it, could be acquired only at the offices of the Jewish community, that were located in the Jewish neighborhoods, and I lived with the Alperovitz family at the other side of town, at about an hour and a half walking distance. It was forbidden for us to travel in public transportation, and walking through the town involved mortal danger. There were rumors that Jewish men are being kidnapped in the streets and disappear as if swallowed by the earth. This was the time of "chappung" - kidnapping. Rumors suggested that the kidnapped are sent to labor camps; the term "concentration camps" was not familiar to us at that time. Anyway, we didn't know how we can reach the community offices, to obtain the longed for certificate.
Finally, my friend Iziya Alperovitz and me hired, for a notable sum of money, the services of a Lithuanian policeman to escort us to the offices of the Jewish community. This way we got work at the railroad station, at about an hour and a half walking distance from our residence. Our job was to rehabilitate the railroad tracks that were destroyed in the bombings and to narrow the width of the track, since the Russian railroad track was wider than that of Western Europe. We also worked in maintaining the infrastructure, tightening the wooden sleepers, and the like. I worked within a group of Jews from the city, the foreman was Polish, and we didn't get any payment. Never before have I experienced physical work, but the hard work didn't bother me. I was bisected, with all my thoughts focused on what is going on in my hometown, in my parents' house and among my family members. I felt very oppressed for having left home. I was at the age of 24, at the best of my years. I knew that the Germans arrived in David-Horodok and I was old enough to be helpful to my family. My elder brothers Velvel (Ze'ev) and Yossel were already married and had families; my sister Zisl was also married. I felt that, at such a crucial time, I should have been with my father and mother and help them. I was tormented by my conscience, I saw how youngsters in Jewish families helped their parents, helped their relatives, and helped each other, and I was alone. On the other hand, I must say that my being alone helped me in a way, as I did not have to take decisions for others, and was free to decide for myself.
The physical hardship did not oppress me. I remember being very oppressed because of two matters - my being far from my family and the uncertainty. Day by day, Jewish men, who were kidnapped in the streets by Lithuanian policeman, disappeared. Later, raids on Jewish residences have started, mainly at nights. All the blame we attributed to the Lithuanians. Since they were those who implemented the decrees, we were certain that they are also responsible. We thought that these severe decrees and the disappearance of men are unique for Lithuania. We didn't know then that this is the fate of the Jews in all German occupied territories. We thought that the Lithuanians are scheming against Jews in general and particularly against Vilna Jews "the Polish". To them, we were "double" strangers - once for being Jewish and second for being Polish. We thought that they are taking advantage of the situation to get even with the Jews for the past.
During the period of Soviet regime, the Lithuanians were considered opponents to the communist regime, and many of them were deported to Siberia. In spite of the fact that many Jews were then deported to Siberia, the Lithuanians still took the Jews as communists and as implementers of the communist regime policies. In any case, our hatred we aimed towards the Lithuanians. I must point out that there were also Lithuanian, righteous of the nations, who risked their lives and the lives of their family members and hid Jews in their home, or helped Jews in various ways. These cases were mainly in Lithuania, not in Vilna.
We thought of the Germans as a civilized law abiding people. It can be said that, until the war, we felt sympathy towards Germany. It never occurred to us that they are capable of such atrocities, things that a human mind cannot bear.
Anyway, the war for survival had started. I accepted the yellow patch and the walking in the middle of the street, the lack of food (although there was no famine yet). Maybe, as Jews, we got used, during the years, to be discriminated and to have only limited rights. I, personally, have already experienced anti-Semitism and discrimination and this feeling wasn't new to me. The distress resulted from mental suffering which is always tougher than physical suffering.
On one night, the Lithuanian police raided the house of the Alperovitz family, with whom I stayed. The Alperovitz family was the owner of the building and they had the keys to all the apartments in it, one of which, as we knew, was empty. The building had two staircases, in front and at the rear, and every apartment had two entrances at the front and at the rear. We heard the steps and voices coming from downstairs. All the three of us, Mr. Alperovitz, my friend Iziya and I, were already well trained, and we had everything ready near the bed. Within less than two minutes, we dressed, set the beds, and left through the rear entrance to the empty apartment, where we hid until the storm blew over. When the Lithuanians entered the Alperovitz apartment, they found there only Mrs. Alperovitz and left empty handed. We were lucky and saved. The word luck will appear many times in my story.
One by one, the men were taken out from all the apartments. Yelling and screaming came from all over. Especially engraved in my memory are the screams of one of the residents whose son has been taken by the Lithuanians, on that night. She screamed: "they took my son while others hid".
I remember that even then, in the midst of the horror, I thought that it is strange that she is screaming like that, what would she have gained if we too were taken? Have we been rescued in exchange of her son?.
The Lithuanian policemen gathered all the men that they found in the building and took them to the Lookishky prison. We didn't know anything more about them. One day, as we were sitting in the kitchen, the Alperovitz's gentile - every Jewish family had a gentile "family member" - innocently told that he hears every night shooting from Ponar (7 kilometers from Vilna) and he thinks that Jews are being shot to death in the Ponar forest. I was shocked, and didn't believe my ears. I remember thinking to myself "how can this gentile spell out such an idea, surely it is impossible that Jewish men are taken and shot to death only because they are Jewish".
All human and civil rights were taken away from us, but it never occurred to us that Jews are being killed. It didn't cross our minds that this is a schemed genocide. We didn't think that such things could happen. We knew what the Turks did to the Armenians, but this was far from us, it didn't happen in Europe. We still believed that the "kidnapped" are taken to labor camps. There were rumors that in concentration camps Jews are being enslaved and starved, but it didn't cross our minds that right here a systematic massacre and mass murder are commencing. In fact, we learned later that already on July 11, Jews were systematically shot in Ponar.
Two months passed since the Germans conquered Vilna. We knew, of course, that the Germans are advancing toward Russia in all fronts. But, we had no contacts or information, not with our adjacent surrounding and, of course not, with more distant areas. We were isolated. Even social relations we couldn't maintain with friends and relatives, every one of us was occupied with the everyday war of survival. As time went on, we learned, bit by bit, that the Germans are behind all the decrees and persecutions.
On October 6, 1941, a collective fine of 5 million Rubles has been imposed on the Jewish community. On the same month, the Germans eliminated the leaders of the community, among them Dr. Vigodsky, a Zionist activist and renown public figure, of the leaders of the Vilna Jewry.
On the night of August 31, the Germans and the Lithuanians raided one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in Vilna. They arrested all the neighborhood Jews, about 8,000 men women and children, and took them to the Blukishky prison, and from there, to Ponar. On that night, the neighborhood was emptied from all its inhabitants. This action was given the name "provocation", because according to the authorities' claim, this was a collective punishment of the Jews, who, seemingly, shot and killed a German soldier. A week later, it became clear that the Germans evacuated this neighborhood because they planned the Vilna ghetto to be established there. The rumors of Jews being murdered became stronger, uncertainty turned into fear; what may the day bring forth?
David-Horodok - Spring 1935
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