In the Lithuanian Division

By Eliezer Lipman (Tel Aviv)

I was born in Keidan in 1924. My father, Shmerel (Shmaryahu) Lipman, had a grocery store in Smilga (now Smilgos) Street, in a house that he had inherited from my grandfather.  The whole street had only Jewish residents. During the summer months, my father used to lease fruit, vegetable and cucumber gardens. My mother’s name was Cheine, nee Gurvitch. My grandfather, (my mother’s father) was a farmer. In the small Lithuanian village of Kalnaberžiai, he used to lease land and work it himself. Before World War I this village was the summer residence of the famous Tsarist minister, Stolypin.

My sister, Sheine-Gittel, was born in 1923, while my younger brother, Reuben, was born in 1929.

Until 1937, I studied at a Hebrew school in Keidan and continued at a Lithuanian gymnasium until 1941, when the war started between Russia and Germany.

During the Soviet rule in Lithuania, my parents liquidated the shop and my father started working at the building authority at the Keidan military airport.

Starting from the first day of the war, the Germans heavily bombarded the airport and the town. Fearing further bombardments, my family moved in with one of our uncles, in a nearby village. The following day, June 23, news arrived in the town that the Germans were approaching the region. In the evening, when our parents learned that the Germans were near, they ordered me to go to one of our aunts who lived in the village of Petkunai, northeast of Keidan. My parents cried when they separated from me. They gave me a few articles of clothing, food and money, and sent me away saying I “should try to survive.”

I set out by bicycle with three other friends. A few miles out of Keidan, we bumped into armed Lithuanians who took our bicycles from us. These were nationalists who had seized power in a few towns in the first few days of the war. We wanted to return to our parents, but were told that it was already impossible because the Germans were nearby. We were not far from a railway station. Just then an eastbound train stopped. We reached Dvinsk (Daugavpils) in Latvia, and from there, we walked on foot to the Russian border. We reached the border a few times, but were turned back every time. We were told we were Lithuanians, “foreigners,” and that we had to go back.

Shortly before the Germans arrived we succeeded in crossing the border. From there, we were transferred by train to the autonomous Republic of Mordovia, to the town of Krasnoslobodsk. I was sent from there to a collective farm named after Stalin, about three kilometres from the town. I worked in the fields there, but the weather turned cold and I had no warm clothes. I therefore decided, together with my Keidan friends who had remained in Krasnoslobodsk (Nachum Levitan and Yitzhak Gladstein), and two acquaintances from Keidan (Meir Toker and Lazar Blumberg), to travel to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Tashkent has a warm climate and there is no need for heavy clothes. However, we were not allowed to stay in the Uzbek capital because we were “foreign elements.” As a result, we went out to a collective farm of Bukharan Jews in the Tashkent region. The chairman had once been a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and was a Bukharan Jew.

The Jews of the collective farm, or kolkhoz, were devout and kept the Jewish traditions. The kolkhoz was well off. We lived in a room with a clay floor and were sent to work at a wood factory. At first I did physical labor and I later learned to work with the machines. My friends were a few years older than I was, and they were soon drafted into the army. While I worked for seven months in the factory, my living conditions were very difficult. With food coupons it was possible to obtain only bread, and a three-day supply was sufficient for me only for one day. For the next two days I was hungry. I did not want any help. Many people died then of hunger, and I myself was much weakened.

In August 1942, I was also drafted into the army’s Lithuanian Division. I was sent to a transition point in Tashkent, where all the draftees were gathered. These draftees were evacuees from Lithuania who lived in Central Asia. I stayed at the transition point for about a week.  A unit of 12 people was made up there, 10 Jews and two Lithuanians. Among the Jews were two young women. We were sent to Balachna, near Gorky. This was the base of the Second Reserve Regiment of the 16th Lithuanian Division.

This regiment prepared a reserve of soldiers for the Lithuanian Division, which was already then fighting at the front. I was sent to the first platoon of the third company. The company commander was a Jew from Kovno, a former officer of the Lithuanian army by the name of Strazh. (He now lives in Vilna). The platoon commander was also a Jew, named Kaplan. He was originally from Vilkija, a small town near Kovno. Our platoon consisted of 44 men, of whom 30 were Jews and the others Lithuanians. A few Jews found it difficult to perform military exercises and the Lithuanians used to mock them. Three of the Lithuanians in the platoon were not evacuees, but had been released from jail, after having been arrested in Lithuania and imprisoned in Russian jails. From these jails they had been sent to the Lithuanian Division. They must have been in prison for crimes, as political prisoners were not accepted into the division.

In this regiment we spent the whole day doing military exercises. Soldiers were also selected here for training as officers. The choice was made on the basis of nationality: In the first rank were Lithuanians, members of the Communist Party or the Komsomol (Young Communist League.) However, because their numbers were small, Jews were also accepted. We Jews were not ashamed, and spoke Yiddish among ourselves. Because we were the majority, more Yiddish was heard here than Lithuanian. About Jewish holidays, we had no idea.

In April 1943, I was sent to the front near Oryol. At that time, the division required reinforcements as most of its soldiers had been killed in the battles there. The authorities took care to see that Lithuanians stayed with the regiment while Jews were sent to the front. The Lithuanians were required to free Lithuania, since the division was “Lithuanian.” A few Jews also stayed with the regiment, veteran Communists who preached Communist doctrine among the soldiers. They spoke of the great honorable mission of the war against the Hitlerist gangs at the front. They themselves, however, didn’t go to the front.

The regiment’s food was very bad and we often went hungry. They frequently gave us three days’ ration of bread that lasted just one day. Smokers often used to exchange bread for tobacco.

When we were sent to the front, we were given new uniforms. When we arrived at the division’s encampment we were divided among the regiments. I was sent to the 167th regiment, and I was named the liaison between my company and regimental headquarters. I took part in the fighting starting from July 5, 1943, when the Germans tried to break through our lines. Before that the two rival armies had stood opposite each other in the same positions for half a year. A vast number of people fell in these battles, including many Jews.

According to my calculations,  about 60 Jews from Keidan took part in the Lithuanian Division. The division headquarters tried to save the Lithuanians as national cadres. Therefore, their casualties was low relative to those among the Jews. It is also possible that the Lithuanians were not put in dangerous places because the Russians lacked confidence in them, and always feared that at the first convenient opportunity, they could switch to the German side. On the other hand, because of a desire to give the division as much Lithuanian character as possible, Lithuanians were preferred as candidates for officers’ training.

In the battles near Oryol, I received a shrapnel wound in my hand, and was hospitalized for three months at Lipetsk in Voronezh province. There was a special ward for the wounded of the Lithuanian Division, which had many Jews. Of these, I remember Boris Rozhansky (who arrived in Israel in 1967); Nehemia Luria (he was then 55 years old), who was in the division with his three sons. One of his sons fell in battle near Oryol (winter 1943). The other two live with him in Kovno. There was also Fisher from Zarasai and Tuvia Gorski from Ponevezh (Panevėžys).

At the request of the hospital director, we performed at the concert of Lithuanian songs in Lipetsk. From the hospital I was returned to the reserve regiment in Balachna in October 1943. Two months later, I was transferred to the regimental choir, which had been established at that time. Most of the members of this choir were Jews, amongst them: Rozin, Zatsepinsky, Sher, Ephros, Kurtzman and Meckler. We used to sing Lithuanian and Russian songs; Yiddish songs were out of the question. These were folk songs, and some were battle songs. I remember a song whose music was composed by Benjamin Gorbulski, then a Jewish youth aged 19. He is now a well-known composer in Lithuania. The choir existed for about nine months, and when the liberation of Lithuania started, all the choir members were sent to the division to take part in the battles.

In August 1944, I was sent from Balakhna with a reinforcement to the Lithuanian front near Shavli (Šiauliai). I was attached to 249th regiment there. My company commander was the Jewish officer, Senior Lieutenant Gurvitch, who was born in Mariampol (Marijampolė). He was a former member of Beitar, and was killed in a traffic accident in Vilna in 1966. Gurvitch’s two brothers also served in the division.

I took part in a number of battles in Lithuania, and was later appointed machine-gun instructor for the new recruits. After a while, I was once more attached to the anti-tank unit of a regiment whose commander was the Jew, Wolf Vilensky. He received the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ award and lives at present in Lithuania[1]. I moved with my unit to the Latvian front, where I was lightly wounded. When I came out of hospital after a short treatment, I was not returned to the Lithuanian Division, but was sent to a regular Russian division. This was already at the end of 1944. I also participated in battles near Koenigsberg, and was wounded once more on February 7, 1945. This time it was a serious abdominal wound.

While I was in the Russian division, an anti-tank company was also set up there. Jews were not accepted for this unit. Its commander, a Russian captain, told us openly, “We don’t need Abrahams.”

At that time, many Lithuanians were already being sent to Russian units, not necessarily to the Lithuanian Division. It appeared that, despite the fact that Russia’s victory was already certain, many Lithuanians were still deserting the Lithuanian Division. It was probably decided, therefore, to disperse them among Russian units to prevent them from organizing and discussing desertion. These Lithuanians, many of whom were murderers of Jews and had previously served in the German Army or in Lithuanian units of the hitlerist army, were afraid to publicly reveal their hatred for Jews, thinking that the Russians were the Jews’ defenders. However, they soon discovered that the Russians were Jew-haters like them and that they had no reason to hide their enmity.

While I was still in Gurvitch’s unit, we feared the Lithuanians would try to knock us off during the battle, and we worried about them no less than about the Germans. At the same time, the numbers of Jews in the fighting lines had decreased. A large majority of us fell in battle, and we became a small minority. Instead of the Jewish atmosphere that had been dominant within the division, there was now an anti-Jewish atmosphere. We felt threatened and fearful. We therefore tried as much as possible to be together and to lean on one another.

After my injury in February 1945, I stayed for five months in military hospitals in Kovno. When I was released I was discharged from the army in June 1945. I was awarded decorations “for bravery in battle” and “for the victory over Germany.”

I returned to Keidan but found no one there. All my relatives had perished together with all the Jews of Keidan on August 28, 1941. Only one Jew survived the destruction, Chaim Ronder, (who died in Kovno after having received an exit permit for Israel) He was saved by a miracle from the slaughter. He was the one who told me about the fate of my family. I stayed in Kovno. There are no Jews in Keidan. The remnants of the Holocaust concentrated in Kovno and in Vilna.

In Kovno, I worked at the centre for restaurants, and from 1947 was the head of the Kovno Tobacco Trade Center.

The links of brotherhood among Keidaners in Russia and their devotion to the memory of those who were murdered are worthy of special mention. They help one another and always maintain close contact. The mass grave in Keidan was sowed over with barley until those who returned cleaned the whole area, fenced the place in and installed a fine memorial with their own money. Every year on the anniversary of the massacre they travel to Keidan to honour the murdered. When the local people started digging in the grave, searching for gold teeth, the Jews of Keidan complained to the municipality, the militia and military authorities. Yet the desecration of the grave did not stop.

Some Keidaners have emigrated to Israel. Those who remain still dream of making aliya but are prevented from doing so. I graduated from the evening high school in Kovno, and I also took some courses. I received a disability pension, all the while dreaming of emigration.

In March 1956 I went with my wife to Poland, and from there, in August 1957, I reached Israel.

Partial list of Jews from Keidan who served in the Lithuanian Division, 1942-45. Locations as of 1977:

  • Shaya Bernshtein – in Israel.
  • Zerach Bernshtein – in Israel
  • Yosef Bin – in Chicago
  • Leib Goldberg – in Vilnius
  • Leib-Yudel Gurvich – came to Eretz-Israel in 1969
  • Leib Ginzburg– came to Eretz-Israel in 1957
  • Eliyahu Gamus – in Vilnius
  • Efraim Kagan – in Kaunas
  • Yudel Ronder – in Kaunas
  • Velvel (Ze’ev) Ronder – in Jerusalem
  • Chaim Teper – in Vilnius
  • Yakov Dinershul – Vilnius, now in Israel
  • Meir Toker – in Vilnius
  • Lazar Blumberg – in Vilnius, now in Israel
  • Chaim Lomkin – in Vilnius
  • Berl Lomkin – in Vilnius
  • Aba-Yankel Grinberg – in Vilnius
  • Moshe Shneider – in Vilnius
  • Shlomo Rits
  • Moshe Rits
  • Avigdor Upnitsky – in Vilnius, now in Israel
  • Hirshel Yoffe
  • Benjamin Kaplan – in Beer-Sheba
  • Tuvia Shneider – in Vilnius, came to Eretz-Israel in 1970, returned to Vilnius in 1971
  • Moshe Dameretsky – passed away in the USA

Jews from Keidan in the Lithuanian Division who fell in battle:

  • Itzhak Gladshtein
  • Nachum Levitan
  • Michael Rogov
  • Moshe Zisle
  • Shmuel Zisle
  • Feivel Dushkes
  • Berl Kaplan
  • Moshe Kaplan
  • Meir Gorklan
  • Michael Bin
  • Berkovich
  • Aba-Yankel Shneid
  • Yankel Dameretsky
  • Mendel Dameretsky
  • Merelevich

Among the survivors:

  • Pesach Shater – partisan, now in Vilnius
  • Moshe Upnitsky – partisan, in Vilnius, now in Israel
  • Michael Goldberg – partisan, now in Vilnius.
  • Chanoch Sandler – returned from camps, came to Israel in 1967, now in Jerusalem.
  • Moshe Crost – returned from camps, now in Chicago.
  • Chaim Ronder – partisan, passed away in Kaunas.
  • Fania Karnovsky – was in Kovno ghetto, saved by Lithuanian peasants, now in Israel
  • Shmuel Girshovich – was in ghetto and in camps, now in Lithuania.
  • Ben-Zion Birger – escaped from the massacre, was hidden by Lithuanian peasants close to Keidan. Now in Keidan, married to a Lithuanian woman.

Translated by Chaim Charutz


[1] After a long struggle with the authorities, Wolf Vilensky managed to emigrate to Israel in 1983.