Rescuers of Jews

Žemaitis Jonas

Jonas ŽEMAITIS On 8 July 1934 in Turin, Italy, J. Žemaitis was ordained a priest. Upon his return from Italy J. Žemaitis was appointed the chaplain of the Salesian office in Vytėnai, and later he worked in Saldutiškis for two years. In 1940 he became the director of the Laurai children's home. When the Vilnius region was ruled by Poland, a large orphanage was built in the village of Sakiškes, in the centre of the Byrai estate, not far from Vilnius. The orphanage was named Laurow (Laurų, in Lithuanian) after its founder, the Italian nun Laura Meozzi, who was declared blessed by the Church. In 1939, when Lithuania regained the Vilnius region, many offices were short of Lithuanian managers. As members of the Salesian congregation, Laura Meozzi and 64 other nuns appointed J. Žemaitis, a Salesian priest, director of the Laurai orphanage in 1940. About 300 children lived in the orphanage at the time. When the Nazis occupied Lithuania, Jews were facing grave danger. At the request of Doctor Giršovičius, J. Žemaitis set out to organize the rescue of the children from the Vilnius Ghetto. “As a Jew I am aware of my fate. I will die. Save the children if you can,” J. Žemaitis recalls the doctor's request. The nuns, dressed like ordinary women, would smuggle the children from the ghetto. With three or four children in a long horse-drawn carriage, the nuns would go to Vilnius under the pretext of checking the children's health. While they were passing the Vilnius Ghetto, three or four Jewish children would join the ones already in the carriage. They would be brought to the Laurai orphanage. Initially J. Žemaitis counted the children so that he would know how many little mouths to add to the permanent residents of the orphanage. The number gradually reached forty-seven. Later the nun Zofija Sowinska was in charge of counting. About a hundred Jewish children between the ages of four and twelve were saved from the ghetto under J. Žemaitis' name and responsibility. These children escaped death, the fate of many Jews during the war. Their rescuers were taking grave risks, however. When somebody informed the authorities that the director of the orphanage was hiding Jewish children, the Germans decided to verify it. German army nurses were sent to the orphanage to find Jewish children by checking for circumcision. The orphanage staff hid the children in the forest and sent others for the check-up. This time the Jewish children, J. Žemaitis, and the nuns escaped death... To provide food for a hundred additional children salvaged from death was hard due to the shortage. According to priest J. Žemaitis, the parsons of Nemenčine, Naujoji Vilnia, Saldutiškis, and especially the Lithuanian islands of Byelorussia were very helpful in supplying food. Stefanija Ladygienė managed to get trucks to reach them. When the war ended, Laura Meozzi, the Polish nuns, and the majority of the children of the Laurai orphanage, which included about a hundred rescued Jews, left for Poland. “I am really sorry that all my little Jews were taken to Poland”, says the priest. After the war, Priest B. Paukštys entrusted J. Žemaitis with the return of Jewish property, which had been kept in the Holy Trinity church in Kaunas to its owners. J. Žemaitis worked in the church of the Holy Trinity, the Students' Church, and the Cathedral in Kaunas, as well as in Onuškis and in Pivašiūnai. From 1956 to 1994, he was the parson of the Rumšiškės parish. For twelve years he taught rhetoric at Kaunas Spiritual Seminary, and he also accompanied the heads of the Church of Lithuania on their trips abroad. Although in 1994 he ceased consecrating mass, he continues to assist the parson of the Pravieniškės penal colony in his pastoral work. When asked about the most important thing he did in his life, the 95-year-old man responds after a long pause, “Most probably that for which the President awarded me. The risk was grave...”

From Hands Bringing Life and Bread, Volume 2,
The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. Vilnius, 1999
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