The Road of Salvation for the Condemned
From the 4th book Hands Bringing Life and Bread
I was born on 5 June 1927 in Riga, even though my parents and my entire family lived in Telšiai at the time but my mother, who had health problems, decided to give birth in Riga.
I remember my childhood from three years of age. It was really very good, I was taken care of, and my parents employed governesses. My parents Chaim (Chaimas Gurvičius) and Roza Gurvitch (Roza Gurvičienė) were known and respected people in Telšiai. Together with my family, mother Roza, father Chaim, sister Ruth (Rūta Gurvičiūtė), her first husband Cemach Ginsburg (Cemachas Ginzburgas) and me, the family of my mother’s brother Gershon Volpert (Geršonas Volpertas), lived in the same house: his wife Chaja, my cousins – Gershon Volpert’s daughters Hinda and Miriam alongside with the beloved and respected grandmother Alida Volpert.
My father, together with my uncle Gershon Volpert, had a huge store in the same house. One could find everything there: textiles, clothes, and small articles for sewing.I remember when I was seven, I was sent to the Jewish school, a cheder. I managed to stay there for a year and then I escaped, I did not like the main subject, which were the readings of the Holy Book, which seemed so boring to me. My sister Ruth helped me in my studies for the gymnasium for one year and in 1936 when I was nine, I entered the recently reformed preparatory class of the Lithuanian gymnasium. I studied there till 1941.
Before the war, Telšiai was a Jewish town. The central street was full of Jewish shops. The city was famous for being very religious, and the Telšiai Yeshiva was one of the most famous and biggest in Europe. Young people from different European countries and the US would come to study here. There was also a Mechino that prepared pupils for their studies in the Yeshiva, the girls’ gymnasium Javne and the Jewish teacher seminary. Thus Jewish life in Telšiai was full of activity.The year 1939 marked the beginning of the upheavals in our lives.
In March 1939 the Germans occupied Klaipėda and came very close to where we were.
We knew already about the pogroms of Kristallnacht in 1938 and anti-Semitic attacks in Germany, we had heard on the radio about the hysteric screaming of Hitler. This was already well-known.
However, many had remembered that when the Germans occupied Lithuania in 1915-1918 they treated the Jews well. Many Jews served in the German Army, a Jewish German officer lived in our house. So we did not expect anything atrocious from such a cultured nation. We knew nothing about the bad intentions of Hitler and Stalin, the partition of Lithuania and did not even have an inkling of this.
On 15 June 1940 the Russians occupied Lithuania and in a week or two they started introducing their order.
Soon we were persecuted as rich people, and our house and shop were nationalised. My father started working in a sawmill, and my uncle in retail (Voentorg).
We did not know and did not expect that repressions would start soon alongside with the deportations to Siberia. The members of our family did not take part in any political activity, we had nothing against the Soviet government. Their only fault was the fact that they were quite wealthy.
On 14 June 1941 part of our family – my mother’s brother Gershon Volpert with his wife and daughters, my cousins – were exiled to Siberia. Only later it became clear that deportation saved them and they all survived.
The rest of us were convinced that we would be exiled as well, we were waiting for this every day, however, it did not happen – on 22 June 1941 the war started.
The Germans occupied Telšiai on 25 June and on 28 June all the Jews of Telšiai, us among them, all the members of the Gurvitch family, were expelled from our flats and housed in the barns of the Rainiai estate.
Another camp was established in Viešvėnai. All the Jews of Luokė, Varniai, Laukuva and other surrounding towns were detained there.
In Rainiai there was neither a barbed or other type of wire around the camp. We could walk freely. The men were taken to work during the daytime and the women were allowed to go into the city to bring some food back. There was a small river near the camp and we, the children, used to go bathing there. The men had the hardest time: they were forced to dig out and wash the corpses of the inmates of Telšiai prison killed by the Soviets. To clean the debris, do other work, the guards humiliated the workers, and beat them up.
At the time I was convinced, that there is no possibility for us to survive. There was a feeling though that nobody cares about our fate.
That is how we lived till 14 July.
On 14 July at lunchtime ten or so German SS , and the head of the city police Juodikis, my former teacher of physical education, and a Lithuanian reserve officer who actually was on very good terms with the Jews, came to the camp. Mikuckis and Siurbalis were both from the Security Department, whereas Juodviršis was the Head of the Security Police. All the men of the camp were taken to the central square of the estate and the “dance of death” started. They were forced to run in a circle, and lie down and get up on command. The others were standing around and beating on the head with the butt of their guns those who did not manage to carry out the commands. This lasted for two or two and a half hours. I was also in this circle. I was among the adults, since as a teenager I was quite tall. When all were exhausted, 30-40 young men were selected and told to stand nearby. We did not understand why. One German said out loud: “Now go to the barracks, say farewell to your women and children as you will be gone tomorrow. Do not try to escape. If you escape, we will kill the women and children. If you keep quiet – we will spare the women and children”.
The mood was dire. Nevertheless the majority did not want to believe that tomorrow they would kill them. Everyone went to the barns and went to sleep. There was a second floor in our barn where the grain was kept. Women and children slept downstairs, and the men on the second floor. Then I do not know what helped me – the instinct of life or self-defence that protected me during all these years of the war. I woke up at midnight and like a child I wanted to go to my mother – I went downstairs, lied next to her and fell asleep.
About 4 a.m. baltaraiščiai stormed into the barn shouting and screaming and all men from the second floor were taken outside, nobody cared whether they were young or old, dressed or half-naked. I was hidden by the women, covered with what they had, they also sat on me. We did not know where they were taking the men but soon it became clear. After 20-30 minutes we heard the shooting of machine-guns, and heard the screams of our relatives.
All this lasted for the entire 15 July. On that day my father Chaim Gurvitch and the first husband of my sister Ruth, Cemach Ginsburg, were shot.
It soon became clear that these 30–40 men were selected for digging the holes. To avoid panic in advance, they were killed quietly. They were drowned in the pond, next to the estate. They were taken by legs, and immersed in the water till they drowned. The torturers did this on the night of 14-15 July. I know this well from the story of my friend Boris Vain (Borisas Vainas) who was lying among the corpses for a day and a half.
On 16 July there was a rainstorm from the early morning. During it, the execution was stopped, and when the rain stopped, the men were taken in groups from other barns and shot.
I remember very well that the campaign ended on 17 July. On that day my friend Avraham Desiatnik (Abramas Desiatnikas) came to the barn. He was dressed in short trousers and told us that the Action is over and that the children who are under 15 will not be shot. My mother quickly shortened my trousers, and shaved the hair from my chest so I looked like a child. We, the children, went to look for the place where the shooting took place. It was quite close to the estate, the earth was still swaying, the blood was seeping out of it. Among the scattered items next to the pit, I found my father’s wallet and the glasses of my sister Ruth’s husband.
After all men were shot in Rainiai, we realised that we would face the same fate, and that sooner or later we would be killed.
On 28 July we were told that we would go to a new place. All who were still in the Rainiai camp, Viešvėnai and those who were still alive in the neighbouring towns were taken to one place called Geruliai. Thousands of children and women from Telšiai County were taken there. In Geruliai, the situation was even worse than in Rainiai. People started dying of starvation and various diseases.
We, the teenage boys who remained alive, had to supply food to the entire camp. We had horses and drove through the villages asking the farmers to help us with food, and at that time we saw that there were still many good people in Lithuania.
At the end of August, there were talks that there would be another massacre. A ghetto quarter was being set up next to the lake in Telšiai. All the residents of that quarter were being moved from there. The girls who worked in the governor’s office found out that the Action was going to take place on Saturday, that 500 young women would remain alive and the rest would be shot together with the children. From my bitter experience, I knew this might be the case. Therefore, on 28 August, on Thursday, I together with Boris Vain and Liova Šavelis left the camp around 5 a.m.. Security was not so strict on that day.
We hid in the village of Juodsodė at farmer Domeika’s place, about 1.5 kilometres from the Geruliai camp. About 12 boys gathered at Domeika’s place, and all of them were hid in the sauna by Domeika.
On Saturday at about 7 or 8 a.m. we heard the shootings, the screams of women and children. This lasted for the entire day. We were sitting locked in the sauna, the boys, one could say children, of between 12-15 years of age, and heard everything. It was terrible. That day we aged twenty years. On Sunday the shootings stopped.
Domeika went to see what was happening there. He saw a long, huge pit. The peasants from the neighbouring villages had to dig this pit as there were no Jewish men left alive. When Domeika came back he said that about 500 young women were taken to the Telšiai Ghetto. I do not remember who told me but I knew that my mother and Ruth survived and had been taken to the ghetto.
After this terrible shooting, Domeika was afraid to keep us and we spent a few days in the forest. A Lithuanian named Girtas brought food to us.
Two or three days later we separated and went to the peasants to look for work. We were digging potatoes, and I grazed the cows.
In the middle of September one stranger came to the village I lived in (later on, I realised it was Stanislovas Liškus, who helped the Jews a lot during the entire war). He started asking about me. It became clear that my mother sent him and asked him to bring me into the ghetto. However, I did not go to the ghetto, as I was very afraid at the time. After some time he came again and brought a letter of my mother written in German: “Jasha, come back – you are in danger”. Then I decided to come back. He took me by bike. This is how I ended up in the Telšiai Ghetto.
The living conditions in the Telšiai Ghetto were better than in Rainiai or Geruliai. My mother had a rather orderly room there. My sister Ruth, grandmother Alida Volpert, aunt Sonia Deletickiene (Sonia Deletickienė), who came back to live with us from Kaunas before the war, and whose husband and daughter were at the Kaunas ghetto, lived there with my mother. I did not know where my grandmother was hiding those few days once she left the Geruliai camp, but she managed to get into the Telšiai Ghetto with the others. I spent a few days in the ghetto at the beginning of October. My sister Ruth found refuge at the Alka Museum in Telšiai for some time, whereas before the liquidation of the Telšiai ghetto, Ruth was taken to the house of Pranas Laucevičius, an old friend of hers.