With the Red Army

By Ze’ev Ronder (Jerusalem)

We felt the first explosions of bombs dropped from German planes on June 22, 1941. At that time the general situation at the front was not clear, because, as everyone knows, Radio Moscow was silent until 12 o’clock, and never mentioned a word about the war.

At that same time, my parents heard Ribbentrop’s speeches on the radio, announcing that the Germans had decided to attack Russia. Apart from this, only rumours, rumours. There were rumours that the Red Army was advancing, and many people believed it was a strong, regular army. Yet the next day the majority of Keidan Jews decided to leave, each in whatever way he could, and to move east toward the Russian border.

My family had a horse, and because we had a grandmother and because our father was disabled and couldn’t walk, these two sat in the cart and the rest of the family walked alongside.

We left at about three in the morning on June 23, walking in the direction of Vilkomir (Ukmergė), but we only managed to get about 18 kilometres beyond the town of Shat (Šeta), and couldn’t go farther because the Lithuanians already stood in Vilkomir, armed with knives. They claimed Jews had greeted the Red Army with flowers a year earlier. Almost all the Jews from Keidan were in Shat by then, so we remained in that town until the following night.

Toward morning it was already clear that the Germans’ arrival in Shat was imminent. This was after the fleeing Red Army units had already admitted the truth, and advised whoever wished to flee, because the Germans were at their heels.

I was 17 years old at the time. It was very difficult for me then to leave my parents, because as I mentioned, my father was an invalid, and I was their only son. I had only an uncle,[1] a year older than me, and the whole family decided that he and I should try to get away. We were given two bicycles, but no money or provisions. They were simply forgotten.

Three other young men about our same age were with us. The father of one of my good friends, who was prepared to join our flight, approached my father a few minutes before we set out, and said to him: “How can you do such a thing? I would prefer to see my son shot before my eyes than not know what fate befalls him!” My friend remained behind. This family was massacred in Keidan, even before the other Jews.

We went out, but not towards Vilkomir, because we knew the Lithuanian hooligans were there; instead we turned toward Ponevezh (Panevėžis). The Lithuanians attempted to stop us a few times, but we evaded them and reached Ponevezh toward evening. There was already a curfew from 6 pm, and because we arrived after this hour, we were arrested and put in jail with youths who had fled from other towns, including some from Kovno.

This was done in order to check our identities, so we were taken to the NKVD in Ponevezh. We were awoken at 2 am and told we were being taken to an investigation. The five of us discussed among ourselves who should go first, and it was decided that I would. I was taken into a large room. There were tables on all sides, with an interrogator in militia uniform next to each table. During the interrogation I was asked my name, my surname, etc. Suddenly a man dressed in an NKVD uniform entered, and asked me “How did you get here?” This was a friend of mine from high school, older than me. I told him the truth, and he turned immediately to the interrogator with the recommendation that they free me and all my companions. We were taken into a cellar where there was an open buffet. Apparently all the reserve food supplies were there. We took cans of meat and ate on the spot. It is possible that we also dozed off for a short while. When we went outside, I saw the same friend sitting on a military truck on which there were some “Maxim” machine guns. He allowed us to get up on to the vehicle, but about a quarter of an hour later a commander arrived and made us get down. We returned to the NKVD, where there were many bicycles. We chose the best of them. We also had a map in our possession and headed northeast, toward Latvia.

At that time I didn’t know where the Germans were, but Ponevezh had already been destroyed. I understood that if the NKVD was evacuating the place, they were likely to be the last to escape. At the last moment, we decided to see about catching a train. We reached Ponevezh station and found a train there displaying red crosses. It was full to the limit. These were plainly freight cars, but we saw we might still be able to squeeze in, without bicycles of course. We gave the bicycles to some gentile boys who were standing nearby and got in. We stood, squashed like herring in a barrel. After that the train began moving. There were civilians among the passengers and also wounded soldiers from the Red Army.

In the course of the journey, it was clear to us that we were travelling toward Dvinsk (Daugavpils, Latvia). We passed through Dvinsk and crossed the old border between Latvia and Belarus or Russia. I can even remember the name of the train station: Bigosovo. There the border guards held up the train and said to us, “All civilians have to leave the train.” We got off and began to wander about. A few hours later, a whole company of border guards arrived, carrying machine guns. They surrounded the whole railway station. Their commander said they knew we were fleeing the Germans, but they had been ordered to watch for spies, and to turn all the people back to the crossing through the old border. He told us they would soon send a train to transport us back to Dvinsk. 

It is easy to imagine our situation. However, we decided to leave the train at the first opportunity. We heard the Germans were already approaching Dvinsk, so why should we be going to meet them? And so it was. Everybody got into the train cars, and at the first uphill rise, when the train slowed a bit, we jumped. We saw we weren’t the only ones. Many had jumped and we began walking along the railway tracks, not knowing another route. Our map covered only the area of Lithuania, not Latvia. We returned to the same station and were met by the same border guards, who turned us back again, this time not by train but on foot. We decided to try again but to avoid the railway tracks. We asked a farmer how to reach another point on the border and he showed us. We turned slightly north. We spent that night with a Latvian farmer who spoke Russian. He fed us and when we lay down to sleep, a friend arrived who told him the Germans were only about four kilometres from that village.

Of course, after that we could not shut an eye. We dressed and again asked him the way. The border at that point was only a small river, which we crossed without even removing our boots. We continued walking and after sunset arrived at a kolkhoz (collective farm). This was the first kolkhoz we encountered meaning we were on Russian soil. We found no one there because it had been abandoned; a single hen was the only living thing in the entire place. We continued walking and came to a second kolkhoz. We saw the inhabitants standing ready to stone us with rocks, because they suspected we were saboteurs. Only after we explained in Russian who we were did they invite us in. Meanwhile they called the border guards.

When the commander of the border guards arrived with three or four soldiers, I began to explain our situation to him. Apparently my words touched him, but he replied that he could not permit me to cross the border that way. Then, as if revealing a secret, he told me that if we continued north about 10 kilometres we would reach a bridge, which as far as he knew was abandoned. There we would be able to cross. We set out and walked in that direction, but when we reached the bridge, we found the commander and a few others standing there with guns in their hands. They said: “Flee if you can! We are awaiting a reconnaissance patrol. The Germans are about to arrive in another few minutes!”

We moved off some distance from that place, and crossed without encountering a living soul. We reached a village called Asvieja, which during the war served as a sort of a center for partisans under the leadership of Kulpak. Many Jews gathered there, among them those who had been on the train and also some Latvian Jews.

For some reason we were now considered by the authorities (if it was still possible to speak about authority), as “evacuees” and not “refugees”, so they didn’t deport us again. In the evening we approached the commander of the town for help, but he said he was unable to provide it. He advised us to continue walking to a train station 60 kilometres away. He said we should only move by night because the German planes were bombing by day, and military units were on the roads.

According to the farmers, the whole area was already surrounded by the German army, and in their opinion we had no chance to break out. This took place on the 27th or 28th (of June), no later. Of course we didn’t abandon our journey. The peasants fed us and we moved on. We didn’t meet many Jews on the way. Valuable goods, gold watches and furs, lay about on both sides of the road and no one even picked them up. One of the peasants directed us to a certain forest path, and we eventually got out of the encircled area. We calculated we had travelled about 600 kilometres from Keidan, making many back-and-forth detours rather than walking in a straight line. In the last days our legs were swollen and we each had to use two walking sticks to support ourselves.

During that whole time we, five youngsters, never separated. We would stop to rest for only a few minutes, and barely had the strength to get up again. The only thing keeping us going was the knowledge that we had already come a long way, and that the Germans were about to reach us. I fell asleep on my feet walking more than once, and only woke instinctively as I reached a ditch. All this time we looked forward to the end of our troubles, thinking trains would come and we would get out of there. When we arrived at Nevel we saw no sign of a train, not even of train tracks. The Germans had managed to bomb everything, but the stationmaster was still on site. He gave us some large chunks of Russian sugar and opened a big tin of canned milk for us. He also gave us some dried crusts of black bread.

He advised us to continue on to Velikiye Luki, about 70 kilometres away, where we might be able to find a train. And that is what happened. We continued along the railway, a difficult and dangerous path. German planes appeared from time to time. We threw ourselves into the ditches but the pilots shot at us, even though they could see we weren’t soldiers. When we finally arrived at Velikiye Luki, we found a train, but all the coaches were so full it was impossible to get in. To our joy there were also a few open-platform cars transporting large rocks. We sat on the rocks. We didn’t care that these cars were open, as long as we didn’t have to travel on foot. We didn’t leave that place until the train began to move. And it actually began moving straight east, into the Russian heartland. To this very day I don’t understand why the train cars were loaded with rocks and not people during wartime. Of the larger stations I remember Yaroslavl and Gorky, but we never left the train there because we were afraid of being separated from it and were trying to get as far into Russia as possible. I recall that we almost lost the train in Yaroslavl because one of our friends did get off. And we did actually lose one of our group in Arzamas, because he got off and didn’t manage to return in time.

The authorities never bothered us, although they knew very well who we were.  Fortunately we could get food at Yaroslavl station, because there was no committee assigned to take care of refugees or evacuees.  Near Yaroslavl a few places were vacated in the closed coaches and we occupied them, frozen from sleeping on the exposed rocks. We even made jokes, suggesting to each other to choose softer rocks on which to lay our heads. When we entered the coach we met a Jewish family from Belorussia, and another from Karelo-Finland[2].

After we entered the coach and came into close contact with other people we became infested with lice. Neither I nor my friends were accustomed to such a thing. When we arrived at Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains we were told there was an assembly point for evacuees, so we decided not to continue the journey. We were well received by the Russians at that point. They didn’t ask too many questions. They only required identity documents from us. They saw that we were from Lithuania and immediately gave us food ration cards and allotted us beds. Before going to sleep we went to the bathhouse. There they disinfected our clothing, but it didn’t solve the problem. We spent two or three days in Sverdlovsk and met some Latvian Jews there. I remember the Diamant family, from one of the settlements not far from Dvinsk. After a few days we had to decide about our future.

Suddenly, a man arrived to conscript people. He advised us to go to work in the mines. We were young and willing to work to earn our food, so we were conscripted. We received a small sum of money from him and went out to the workplace. It was apparently a defunct mine that the Russians wanted to reactivate because of the war. When we arrived there we were allocated a room and the next day we went to work. I was to take the place of a young Jewish man from Kiev who had lost his hand working with an electrical saw.

My uncle worked at the diggings. A few days later they decided to send us down into the mine. We heard from miners who had worked there earlier that they had had to stand in water up to their knees all the time. This was a coal mine. We tried to resist. There was a doctor on site and I complained I had a heart condition. There was a Jewish family from Minsk and I asked their advice. I told them among other things that I had studied music before the war and they wrote a letter in Russian in my name to the conservatory of Sverdlovsk. I received a reply that they would let me take the entrance exams. Based on this letter we, my uncle and I, managed to get released from the mine. I said my uncle was a pianist and they never investigated the matter.

Of course I never began lessons at the conservatory, since I hadn’t intended to do so. If I had begun to study, what would have become of my uncle?  The local people also wondered how we intended to survive the winter. We had only light clothing, and we were told that in winter the temperature fell to  50 degrees below freezing. So we decided to try to reach warmer places. We knew the Germans were still approaching. We tried to reach the border of Iran, to Uzbekistan. We got on a train and travelled.

We arrived in Tashkent and saw that the whole square adjoining the train station was packed with evacuees. At night it was difficult to find a place to lie down. When we got into the station building, the guard repeatedly told us we weren’t allowed to sleep there and kept waking us if we fell asleep. We met another five Keidaners there who were working in Tashkent. It soon became obvious that it was very difficult to gain legal status in Tashkent: the authorities claimed the city was over capacity, and demanded that we move on.

We chose Fergana, which was also a big city in Uzbekistan, and headed there. We couldn’t manage there. By chance I met a Keidaner youth there who led us to the Kuvasay station, where he was employed as a doctor in the clinic. His name was Silber, and he is now in the USA.  With his help, I obtained a position in a chemical factory that had been transferred from the Moscow region, until I was drafted. Silber himself was drafted together with my uncle even earlier, in April 1942. Conscription was handled by a representative of the Lithuanian government who was in Tashkent.

There was a time when people asked to be taken into the army because otherwise they would expire from hunger, and it was common knowledge that the army had food supplies. There were of course also many people who wanted to take revenge against the Germans, but they weren’t accepted, because Lithuanians were feared and not trusted. At first they said the Lithuanians had betrayed Russia. However, after consulting with the Lithuanian representatives they apparently changed their minds, and conscription began.

At first, when my uncle couldn’t find work, he went out to a kolkhoz, about eight kilometres away.  One should mention here that the Uzbeks somehow differentiated between Jews and non-Jews. They stated openly that they didn’t like all the “whites,” but that they especially disliked the Jews.

I received food ration cards from the factory where I worked when I lived in the city. Among these were cards for green tea, a favourite of the Uzbeks. However when I came to them to exchange the tea for potatoes or dried apricots, they did this with ill will and sometimes forced us to give them the tea very cheaply. Of course they didn’t tolerate the Russians either.

When old folks were asked why they hated Russians, they recalled times when they didn’t have to lock their houses and didn’t know what theft was, before the Russians arrived. I continued working until I was also drafted, at the end of summer 1942. I was also drafted by the same representative and sent directly into the Lithuanian Division. I was relatively satisfied with this because I knew there were many Jews in this division and that my uncle was there too. I was taken by train to somewhere nearby Gorky.

I used to receive letters from my uncle, and I also got from him the address of Russians whom he used to visit in the evenings to exchange his tobacco for bread or sugar. He intended for us to meet at this family’s home when I was conscripted. And so, as soon as I arrived, I went to seek them out and found their house easily as it was located precisely opposite our barracks. I spent about two hours with my uncle and also some other Keidaners, one of whom was an officer who was later severely wounded. His name was Dinershul, and he is now in Vilna.

There were Lithuanian nationals in the Lithuanian Division who couldn’t speak Lithuanian. These were people who had lived on collective farms in Siberia since the First World War, or Russians whose mothers possibly were Lithuanian, but whose fathers were Russian. The group I arrived with consisted only of Jews, and the commander was a Jew from Belorussia. We stayed there a few hours because in the evening we were supposed to travel by boat to Gorodets, where the 167th Regiment was encamped.

We reached there the following morning and were quarantined for a few days on suspicion of  contagious diseases, after which they began to train us in the use of Russian rifles and 81mm mortars. Apparently I wasn’t feeling well, because I couldn’t get up on the second and third days. My temperature rose to 40 degrees (Celsius). Meanwhile, everyone went to the front. Both the soldiers themselves and the civilians called them “cannon fodder” because of their inferior training. I remained in the hospital in Gorodets.  This was a civilian hospital, as there was no military hospital there. I received my food rations and supplies once a week.

A few impressions of the Lithuanian Division:

Apparently it was not the only military unit in which theft took place.  The cooks stole, and every day they caught someone stealing food supplies. I quickly had the impression that the Lithuanian Division was more Jewish than Lithuanian. In my estimation, from 60% to 70% of the soldiers were Jews. Among ourselves we certainly spoke Yiddish, not Lithuanian nor Russian.

One of my most unpleasant experiences occurred when my military greatcoat was stolen. My immediate superior hauled me out of a morning roll-call in front of everybody and announced that I had apparently sold my coat to buy vodka. He said they were going to conduct a court-martial. What was I to do? I thought I was finished. It was my good fortune that the commander of the unit would go out in the evenings with Russian girls, and liked to boast to them that he had a watch. For this purpose he used to borrow my watch. So when I asked for his help in this matter, he told me not to worry. He took two armed soldiers and went to the market of Balakhna. It was against the law to sell army clothing. He got hold of the first old man selling such a coat, confiscated it and brought it back. So the court-martial which had to take place was cancelled.

Stories were also told about incidents of samostrel – self-inflicted injuries, designed to put a person on the disabled list. I personally never witnessed such things but I did hear of them. There were also many Lithuanians ready to change sides and go to the Germans. My uncle used to tell the following story: It took place one cold winter night when he was sent with a reconnaissance mission beyond the enemy lines on the front at Oryol, accompanied by a Lithuanian soldier. The Lithuanian didn’t know my uncle’s nationality and while they lay at the observation point behind the enemy lines, he suggested to my uncle that they should both surrender to the German army and thus end their war, which he thought the Germans would win anyway. Yehuda’s situation was perilous: he couldn’t get rid of the Lithuanian by force, since the noise would reveal him immediately to the Germans.

He tried to convince the Lithuanian that it wasn’t worth it for a variety of reasons. (I think the safety of his family in Lithuania was one of the reasons he gave.) In any case, after they completed their task they returned to their unit. I don’t remember if my uncle reported this to his superiors, and if so what the result was.

I would like to mention a particular unit in the division. It was called spetzrota (commando) and its members were trained especially to parachute on to enemy soil. One of these was Abrashke Yosselevitch, who later was killed. When I met him in Balakhna he was in high spirits and even played the accordion. Siomke Yakobson was also among them. I was later told that Abrashke Yosselevitch was a radioman and was naturally carrying his apparatus when he parachuted. Apparently they were betrayed, because the Germans began to comb the forest immediately. Some people escaped and perhaps even survived. Abrashke fought until the very last minute, and at the end shot himself. All this I learned after the war, when our people went to the Council of Ministers of Lithuania to protest that names like Abke Diskant, Abrashke Yosselevitch and Siomke Yakobson were kept hidden.

As I have said before, I was in hospital at the beginning. I spent two months there and after I was returned to the reservists’ unit in Balakhna. This happened in November. At that time they began to organize a Lithuanian State Orchestra, and I was put on the list of players. About a hundred and fifty Lithuanians were released from the army by order of a deputy of the Soviet War Minister. We were given a building, which didn’t suffice, and many of us were accommodated in private homes and the work began.

There was a considerable percentage of Jews in this orchestra. The first director was Drazdauskas, who was a very extreme nationalist, and things got to such a point that Jews were ordered to speak only Lithuanian, even among themselves. We notified him explicitly that we would continue to speak only Yiddish among ourselves, for the same reason that he as a Lithuanian spoke his native language with the Lithuanians. Four members of the orchestra (all Lithuanians) were arrested by the local NKVD and accused of spying and treason. Some of them returned to Lithuania after serving their terms and some were rehabilitated under Khrushchev.

As mentioned, I was one of the lucky ones admitted to the Lithuanian State Orchestra. We were transferred to the small town of Pereslavl. I recall that the town’s food supply was very poor, and the citizens looked at us unfavourably. Whenever we entered the shop that distributed bread rations, we always received ours without any problems, because we were still in uniform, and according to the law, soldiers didn’t have to queue for bread. But people complained among themselves that their sons and fathers were at the front, while here were young, healthy men who had been liberated from the fighting.

Eventually people’s attitudes improved, particularly after they heard our first performances, which included popular works from the front that were very close to their hearts. After a time the authorities stopped considering us as soldiers, and our food situation worsened. Apart from our bread rations, we received food in the restaurant three times a day: In the morning a plate of watery cabbage soup with no fat or other ingredients; at noon a plate of cabbage, and for a main course – cooked cabbage; and in the evening, cabbage once more. This was very difficult for young people.

We received 650 grams of bread per day. In fact we would exhaust our ration cards by the 15th of each month, and afterwards we had to think up new stratagems. For example we would exchange a towel, a shirt or a salt ration in the market for potatoes and similar things. This continued for two or three months. After that, our complaints reached headquarters in Moscow, and one day the order came through that we had to be given the same portion of food as those with university educations.

When we had prepared a performance, we were brought to a nice hotel in Moscow. Our first appearance was at the Kamerny Theatre in that city. The program of course included Lithuanian folk songs and songs in Russian and Lithuanian that were popular at that time at the battlefront. We also included “Mayn Yiddishe Mame,” but without words of course, and also “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn.”

Pereslavl remained our base camp, and we left from there for our first cycle of concerts. We visited Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk among other places and also performed at the front. I met up with my uncle for the second time in Yasnaya Polyana in 1943. Our meeting was very emotional. I still remember two stories that I heard from Yehuda. One was how a Jewish major, a Hero of the Soviet Union named Vilensky, saved his life. This took place in a grove, after a bloody, difficult battle. They were inspecting fallen German soldiers. My uncle didn’t notice that one of them, who had only been wounded, had aimed his machine gun at him. Major Vilensky was faster and shot the German. He then scolded Yehuda for not being careful enough.

The second incident concerned a German who remained alive and was taken prisoner. It would have been easy to eliminate him at that point with a single bullet. Yehuda approached him and explained that even though he was a Jew, and he knew the Germans had annihilated his people, he would let him live as a humanitarian gesture. This German fell down and began kissing my uncle’s hands and feet.

Later my uncle was severely wounded when he stepped on a landmine, as a result of which he lost his sight for about half a year, and his letters to me were written by a nurse. He regained his sight after several operations, and described very emotionally his special feeling when the bandages were removed and his sight was restored. Afterward he returned to the front and was assigned to a Russian fighting unit in the Red Army.

We performed many times until 1944. After the liberation of Vilna in August, we were relocated to Lithuania. Before I left Russia, when it was already common knowledge at my workplace that I was going to Poland, I met a certain Lithuanian. Actually, he was half Lithuanian and half Polish, and he said to me: “Look here sir, you behave well, don’t be afraid of me. I am a Lithuanian. Your place is not in Poland. You know, you have only one place in the whole world, that is Eretz Israel. There you must go!” I was thrilled by his words. The Jewish people were already united and tried to help one another as much as possible. And so I am very happy to be in our homeland, to build a family here.

Translated by Bella Golubchik

[1] Yehuda Ronder, author of other articles in this collection.

[2] Karelo-Finnish autonomous republic, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939-1940.