Rescuers of Jews

Paulavičius Jonas

Once Upon A Time in Panemune.
The Story Of The Paulaviciai Family

Written by
Lauras Sabonis

Input and/or testimonies by
Arvydas Sabonis
Giedre Sabonyte
Aldona Saboniene
Janina Paulaviciene
Dr Schlomo Schafir
Dr Eli Ipp
Maya Ipp
David Leibzon

Miriam Krakinowski (née Schumacher) was born on May 22, 1924 in Troskunai, a small shtetl north-east of Kaunas (Kovno, Kovne). Though Troskunai was not a big town, it had a bustling and sizeable Jewish community – for example, according to the 1897 census, out of the total of 1221 people living there, 779 were Jews. The strong connection of the Jewish community to Troskunai is evidenced by the fact that after they had been sent to exile in central Russia during World War I, most of them returned to Troskunai after the war to rebuild their lives there. There was also a Jewish school, a Jewish library and not just one but two synagogues in Troskunai. Rabbi Schneur Reznikovitz was deeply respected in the town and the surrounding areas by both Jews and Lithuanians.
In June 1941, the war came to Lithuania and the Jewish community was not spared the fate of their brethren across the German-occupied territories. Initially, they were harassed and had their homes looted by the Lithuanian collaborators but soon the Jewish blood was spilt: fueled by the German anti-Semitic propaganda, some Lithuanians found enough hate in their hearts for their former neighbours to betray and slay them in the Jewish cemetery. The greatest tragedy, however, struck the Jews of Troskunai on August 21, 1941 when all of them who were in town at that time were rounded up, taken to Pajuoste Forest and murdered on August 23 by Einsatzkommando 3a.
Fortunately for Miriam, she was not in Troskunai at the time of the German invasion1. But as she was attending school in Kaunas and staying there, the war caught on with her as well. Miriam was sleeping on a Sunday morning when she was awakened by the terrible roars of a bombing raid the Germans had started over the nearby airport. She had heard that there were supposed to be trains heading eastward to Russia so she quickly headed to the train station to try to leave the city. However, luck was not on Miriam’s side on that day as there were hundreds, if not thousands of other people running and trying to secure a place on the trains for themselves – and in the end, Miriam could not even get close to the train because of the stampede. Almost at the same time, clashes began erupting in the city between the retreating Soviet forces (and communist collaborators as well) and the Lithuanian anti-Soviet activists. As Miriam recalled: “I was frightened, I cried. I ran for my life. Then the town became deadly quiet…”2
On July 10, 1941, a decree was issued ordering the Jews in Kaunas to relocate, by August 15, to a suburb called Slobodka (Vilijampole). On August 15, 1941, the area designated for the ghetto with its 30,000 inhabitants was sealed and cordoned off with barbed wire; in this way, the Kaunas Ghetto came into existence. Miriam recalled that Jews were in panic – they had been marched off to the ghetto with only the things they were able to carry themselves – and, furthermore, the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators took their belongings from them along the way as they pleased. Even once the Jews were inside the ghetto, they were not safe from the marauders as every day there were searches carried out by armed Germans and Lithuanians demanding the Jews turn in their hidden gold, silver or furs. Miriam recalled that once in a while the Germans would shoot one of Jews just to show that they meant business and to repeat that the prisoners should better turn over any hidden valuables they might have in order to avoid the same fate3.
Undoubtedly, life in the ghetto was harsh. Each room of each house in the area was overcrowded with people, and thousands more had to survive living on the streets. As Miriam said, "people didn't know what to do, how to live”4. Food was extremely scarce as well – children, for example, did not receive any rations at all (another survivor of the Kaunas ghetto recalled that he and his sister were once given a sandwich by someone and that they cut it into 7 pieces and then survived on them for a week5). Miriam realized6 that the only way to get any food was to go to work with the forced labor gangs, so she lied that she was 18 so as to be included in the workforce and thus have a chance to earn a small piece of bread and some watery soup. Miriam had to slave 12 hours every day doing arduous work: “Each morning we'd go out at 6 to rebuild the airport the Germans had destroyed. That was five or six kilometers away. We were not allowed to walk. We had to run. We didn't dare not to because we were being herded by the Germans with guns”7.
In December 1943, Miriam and her future husband Morris (Mosche) Krakinowski were transferred from the Kaunas Ghetto, which by now had been re-designated as a concentration camp and re-named as KZ Kauen, to nearby camps of KZ Kaunas-Sanciai (Schanzen) and KZ Kaunas-Aleksotas (Alexoten), respectively, where the men were being used as labour in railroad repair works and the women had been tasked with repairing and recycling uniforms taken from dead or wounded German soldiers. Though Miriam and Morris had casually met in the ghetto, their relationship continued to grow stronger during the months spent in the labour camps as they would sneek out and try to meet for a few moments at a time so not to attract attention from the guards.
In July 1944, as the Eastern Front shifted closer and closer to Kaunas, the Germans decided to move the prisoners out of the work camps around Kaunas (as well as the prisoners in the former Kaunas Ghetto) westward. When the group that Miriam and Morris were in was marching across a bridge over the River Nemunas (Neman, Niemen), they got tangled up with a column of German troops and armoured vehicles moving in the opposite direction. At that moment one of the prisoners decided to make a run for freedom and suddenly jumped over the railing into the river. The German guards quickly rushed to the side and started shooting at him. During this disarray, Morris8 pushed Miriam down to protect her from any stray bullets hitting her. Somehow she got pushed out of the prisoners’ column and onto the sidewalk, but she reacted quickly and got rid of her Jewish badge – and not a moment too soon, because a German guard grabbed her by the neck and was about to shove Miriam back into the line before she started screaming at him in Lithuanian (rather than Yiddish) to let her go. The guard got confused and turned to the prisoners to ask whether they knew her. Everyone denied knowing her, so the guard pushed Miriam down the embankment and the rest of the column marched off without her9.
Unbeknownst to Miriam, the whole ordeal was observed by two people, a man and his son, who were at the time sitting in a boat not far from the bridge. As Miriam got up and started walking away, this is what happened: “I kept walking along the river when I saw a man in a boat with a sack of flour. He called to me in Lithuanian, and I answered his greeting. He asked me if I saw what happened on the bridge, and I told him that I didn't know. I kept walking. A few minutes later, I heard the man’s voice again behind me. I turned around and asked him why he was following me in his boat. He said that he felt I needed help. I answered firmly that I was in no need of any help and asked him to stop following me. The man told me… that the Germans were checking everyone’s personal documents and I would be caught by them. I told him that I didn't have any money or jewelry to give him and asked him why he wanted to save me. The man asked me to trust him. I didn’t really trust him, but I had no place to go”10.
Not really knowing if she had any other options at that time, Miriam decided to accept the man’s offer and followed him to his home. Before entering, the man told her that they had a guest at his house so if he asked her, Miriam had to tell him she had fled from Prienai, a town south of Kaunas. But first he led her down to the basement and told her to wait. Miriam recalled, “I was sure he went to bring the German police to arrest me. I considered running away, but I was too frightened and exhausted. I just sat and waited”11. The man returned rather soon and invited Miriam to join him and his family along with their guests at the dinner table. As Miriam had been quite overwhelmed and tired after all the events of the day, she excused herself – so the man took her upstairs instead and told her to lie down and get some rest.
After a while, the man returned to Miriam and led her back to the basement. Next, he moved a carpenter’s workbench that was standing there aside, took a broom, swept away the wood shavings from the floor and then knocked a few times on the floorboards. A small lid was then opened up from the inside and the man motioned Miriam to step into the hole. As she did so, she realised that below was a small space full of people. Miriam recalled emotionally: “I found myself in a very small, hot room filled with half-naked Jews. I began to cry as they asked questions about the fate of the [Kaunas] ghetto12”. Not long after Miriam was rescued, the Germans retreated from Kaunas and when the Soviet soldiers arrived there was no need to continue hiding, so Miriam headed back to Kaunas where she, by a miraculous twist of fate, reunited with Morris (who himself had earlier escaped German captivity) and the two finally married in February 1945 to live their long and prosperous lives together.
The man who had rescued Miriam and the other Jews was Jonas Paulavicius, a Lithuanian carpenter from Panemune (one of the districts of Kaunas). With the help of his wife Antanina, son Kestutis and daughter Danute, he saved 16 people during the war including 12 Jews, 2 Russian POWs and 2 Lithuanians. This happened not by chance – Jonas was fully aware of the ruthless punishment he and his family would undoubtedly have faced if they had ever been caught by the Germans, so he took no unnecessary risks. He rented an apartment in another part of Kaunas for his young daughter whom he loved very much and sent her away to live separately from the rest of the family and the house where all the rescued people had been hiding, in order to minimise the danger to her life if his actions had ever become known to the authorities.
Jonas Paulavicius had a plan – he wanted to save as many educated and professional Jews as he could, so after the war was over, they could help rebuild a viable Jewish community. He did not develop this plan immediately after the war had started, but when he did, he did so meticulously and carried it out with utmost effort: he and his son built a secret room under his home to house the rescued Jews and fitted it out with double bunks, a radio and a map to track the approximate movement of the frontlines. When the room was finally filled with people whom Jonas had saved from danger, he sold another house he owned in order to be able to feed all of them (and not to forget – his wife had to prepare meals for 20 people every day!) – though Jonas always had to stay vigilant and buy only small amounts of products in one place at a time so as not to raise suspicion. He and his contacts even bribed a Gestapo driver a few times so he would hide a few Jews in a Gestapo officer’s car, drive them out of the ghetto and drop them off at a designated point where Jonas or his son would meet them and take them to the hiding place in his home.
Jonas’s attitude toward the plight of Jews during the Holocaust was only natural, because before the war, apart from some vile anti-Semitic individuals, Lithuanian and Jewish communities had been living in harmony and there was plenty of mutual respect and friendship between the two, Jonas’s niece Aldona recalls – she relocated to Kaunas with her parents in the late 1930s but the family was originally from Anyksciai (Anyksht), a small town north of Kaunas (and only 20 km from Troskunai), where Jews accounted for about one half of about 4,000 people who used to live there before the war. According to Kestutis13, Anyksciai was a popular destination among Jews from nearby towns – they used to come there often and also have soccer matches with the local “Maccabi” team. Jewish traders and shopkeepers had always been willing to agree to a bargain even if the initial price was high, and if the buyer did not have enough money on hand, they were ready to offer credit and the customers were able to repay it after receiving their salaries. Many Lithuanian and Jewish families were living door-to-door for generations, maintaining good relationships.

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