Yehuda “Yudel” Ronder (1923-2016) was among the small number of Keidaner Jews who remained in Lithuania after the Holocaust. His story is both singular – a heroic tale of survival and persistence – and representative of the lives and experiences of Keidan’s Jews before, during and after the war.
The following oral history is based on an extensive interview, conducted in Kaunas in October 2005, by Zhanna Litinskaya of Centropa.org, a non-profit, Jewish historical institute dedicated to preserving 20th century Jewish family stories and photos from Central and Eastern Europe. This version was extensively retranslated and edited by Aryeh Shcherbakov and Andrew Cassel. The original, more condensed English version appears on the Cetropa.org website.
I. My family / II. Early years in Keidan / III. Tense times before the war / IV. The Soviets arrive / V. War breaks out / VI. A perilous escape / VII. Into Russia / VIII. Refugees / IX. In the Lithuanian Division / X. I capture a prisoner / XI. Wounded at the front / XII. Return to Lithuania / XIII. Post-war years / XIV. Unexpected complications / XV. Life in the 60s / XVI. My life mission
I was born on March 17, 1923 in the Lithuanian town of Kėdainiai (Keidan in Yiddish). In the 1920s and ’30s it was a small district town in the Kaunas region. The population was a little over 3,000, about 2,000 of them Jews. It was a town with an old Jewish tradition. A famous sage, the Gaon of Vilna, studied there for seven years and married a girl from Keidan.
I don’t know much about my ancestors. I did not know my paternal grandparents; they died long before I was born. Grandfather’s name was Menachem Ronder. I cannot recall my grandmother’s name. Menachem was a gardener. He was especially good at growing cucumbers, which Kėdainiai took pride in. That business was taken over by his children, my father in particular.
My mother was not from Kėdainiai. I saw my maternal grandparents only once during my childhood, when my mother took us to visit them. Hirsh Bobtelsky and his wife Beila lived in a small town called Naujamiestis1 not far from the border with Prussia. They were born in the mid-19th century. I do not know how grandfather made his living; when we came to see him, he was elderly and not working. Grandmother was a housewife. The family was not rich, but also not poor. They worked and did not drink, and because of this, were not hungry. They had their own one-story house. We stayed in one room there for about a week. I did not see my grandparents after that. I know both of them died in the early 1930s, fortunately without having experienced the war.
Mother had three sisters and a brother. The eldest sister, born in 1875, was named Natalia in Russian. She probably had a Jewish name, but that’s how I remember she was called in the family. Natalia was married to a Lithuanian Jew named Frenkel. They left for South Africa in the early 1920s. Many Jews immigrated then to South Africa. Natalia died after the war. Her daughter and a son also lived in South Africa. Her son visited me in 1985 and died afterwards.
My mother’s second sister, Frieda, born in 1877, lived not far from her native town, but later they moved to Pilviškiai. Frida’s husband Meishe Markson owned land and sold poultry and horses to Germany. Frieda’s children were named Chana, Yudel, Leiba and Leya. When the Soviets came to power, the Markson family was exiled to Siberia. Leiba and the youngest, Leya, who probably hid somewhere, stayed. Leya, Leiba, and his wife were later shot in Pilviškiai. The other family members survived – thanks to the exile – in the Altai region of Siberia, and from there left for Israel in 1956 or 1958. Meishe died in Israel shortly after his arrival. It was not easy for him in Siberia. Frieda passed away after him. Frida’s daughter, Chana Friedman, currently lives in Jerusalem. I have visited her. At a conference I once said I was sorry my family had not been deported. A woman became offended and said I probably hadn’t seen anything and didn’t suffer. I know about suffering too, I said. I’m still sorry they were not deported, since fifty percent of those who were remained alive.
Mother’s younger sister, Tsilya, was born in the mid-1880s. She was widowed young, before the war. She and her son, David, left for Palestine in the early 1920s. Thanks to this, they survived, though they also had some dangerous moments in Palestine. For example, when the Germans were in Africa, they expected a battle with them. She died in the late 1940s. Her son David received a legal education and became a prosecutor. He currently lives in Israel.
Mother’s brother, Mordechai, born in 1890, was the youngest in the family. I saw him just once. In the 1920s he left for Palestine, then he went to England where he graduated from university and became a scientist. He was a professor of chemistry. He married a Jewish girl, Frieda, also a chemist. Mordechai, who was also called Max, gave lectures in London. He died in the 1950s. Frieda survived him by ten years.
My mother, Leya Bobtelskaya, was born in 1879. Her birth record, which I found in the rabbinate’s archive, shows the name Sarah Leya, but she was always called Leya. Mother went to elementary school. She could speak and write Russian, but spoke Lithuanian poorly. She said that when she came to Kėdainiai, most of the gentiles were Polish, so she rarely heard Lithuanian. Mother said that when Wolf Ronder, a Jew from Keidan, was courting her, he gave her a ball of tangled thread. It was a local Jewish tradition for a bride to unravel the thread, to show she was patient and hard-working. Mother accomplished this and indeed was a good, hard-working wife. She raised and educated eight kids, alone, without a husband.
After they married, mother moved to Keidainiai, where my father lived. My father, Ze’ev-Wolf, was born, I think, in 1875 in Kėdainiai. I didn’t know him. I do not know exactly where he studied, but he was literate. Like my grandfather, he was a farmer. He went to South Africa twice to work. He didn’t serve in the tsar’s army, since he was too skinny and had a cough. I do not know for sure how my parents met, but I think they had an arranged marriage in 1898. Mother was 18 at that time. My eldest brother, Abel, was born in 1899, followed by David in 1902, Mordechai in 1904, Leibl in 1906, Menachem in 1910, Benjamin in 1912, and my only sister, Beile, in 1914.
Father had siblings, but all I know of them is that they moved to South Africa and America. I only knew about father’s elder brother, Yudel. He was born in the early 1870s and died one year before I was born. I was named for him. He was also a farmer. I do not remember his wife, either. She perished in Kėdainiai. Yudel’s daughter Mina left for Palestine in 1934, and lived in Haifa until she died in 1990. Another daughter, Beile, was killed in Kėdainiai. I was close to Yudel’s son, Chaim Ronder. During the occupation he managed to escape the massacre and survived as a partisan in the forests. He passed away [in 1964], ten days before his scheduled departure to Israel. Yudel’s younger son, Aba, also perished with his wife and two children in Kėdainiai.
In 1914, the First World War began. As German troops advanced toward Russia, the tsar’s government in 1915 exiled Jews from the frontier regions, claiming they were spying for Germany. Our family, with all the children except me (I was not yet born), was moved to Kharkov [in eastern Ukraine]. The family stayed together. Father and my brother David were employed at a Wissotzky tea factory. The factory was located out of town, and to get to work they had to take a train, which ran past our house. Passing the house the train’s speed was not high, and so usually on the trip back home father and my brother just jumped off. This worked well until, one day in 1919, David fell under the train. Both his legs were cut off. He was a handsome, 17-year-old lad. Fortunately he had a strong heart and survived. The war was nearly over. It was the time of revolution, and health services were already better, but there were pogroms in Russia and Ukraine. After their return to Lithuania in 1920 or 1921, David even married, and was happy in his own way. His wife, Rivka, who came from a very poor family, had a deep affection toward David. She was not only a beauty, but was also very kind and intelligent. David and Rivka had a son, Wolf (he was named for my father, but called Volodya in Russian), who was a year and a half younger than me. So I was his uncle. He and I fled Kėdainiai together during the war. We were very close friends. David and Rivka stayed during the occupation and were killed in 1941. He was without legs, and couldn’t have gotten away even if he had wanted to.
In contrast with David, my brother Abel had an unhappy family life. Shortly after his return from Kharkov, Abel married a Jewish woman from Kėdainiai named Bunie, who was very angry and feisty. She often threw fits and even beat my brother. To please his temperamental wife and earn money, Abel went to South Africa twice within four years, along with my father, to do seasonal work on a plantation. Both worked very hard there, which undermined their health. In 1930, before he was scheduled to return to South Africa, Abel developed appendicitis, and was taken to the Jewish hospital in Kaunas, but it was too late, and he died. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery. This cemetery was destroyed during the Soviet time. Abel’s wife, Bunie, and their daughter, Yudita, lived in our house. Yudita was a real beauty, one year younger than me. She also was shot in Kėdainiai.
My third brother, Mordechai (also called Motl or Max) finished high school. He married a Jewish woman, named Luba, from Marijampole, and moved there with her. In that town Mordechai became a respectable man. He was the chief accountant at the mill. In 1941, Mordechai, Luba, and their baby, David, were shot in Marijampole.
My brother Leibl left for Argentina somewhere around 1939 to look for work. I remember him giving me a strong hug when we said goodbye. This is all I remember about him. I had a bad toothache at the time, and I did not understand what it was to say goodbye for good. At first, Leibl wrote sad letters that made mother cry a lot. He wrote that he had no place to live and nothing to eat, and he remembered the babka mother used to bake every Friday. He had to sleep on a bench in a city park in Buenos Aires. Then things improved for him: Leibl found a job, married a Jewish woman named Adel, from Belarus. They had a happy life together. Leibl’s son Kito currently lives in Israel, and their daughter, Chana, recently died in Argentina. Leibl had a long life. He died in the mid-1990s.
My favorite brother, Menachem, remained single and lived with us. He kept father’s business, growing and selling vegetables. He served in the Lithuanian army; I have a picture of him in uniform. Menachem was apolitical; he was fond of sports and was a member of the Jewish sports organization Hapoel. The fascists shot Menachem along with all the other Jews of Kėdainiai.
Benjamin, the youngest brother, was an underground Komsomol 2 member. When the Soviets came to power, Benjamin began working as an accountant in one of the Soviet organizations. He married a local Jewish woman, Miriam Joffe. Miriam became pregnant just before the war. She and Benjamin were shot during the first days of the German occupation in Kėdainiai, along with other Soviet activists.
My only sister, Beila, was beautiful. She received a good education, graduating from the Lithuanian lyceum. She was well educated and erudite. Beile married a rich Jew, the grain trader Feivel Shishansky. They had a house close to ours. I loved their little daughter, Iona, very much. I often came to play with her, carried her on my hands. She called me Yuka. They also remained in Kėdainiai, and were shot at the airfield.
My parents were already elderly when they returned to Lithuania, and then I was born on March 17, 1923. Father was about 50, and mother was in her late forties. By the time I was born my father was very sick, with tuberculosis I think. As he was dying, father asked mother to wait until after he died to name me, so I could be named after him in accordance with Jewish tradition. However, I was circumcised on the eighth day and given the name of his elder brother, Yudel. Two weeks later my father died.
The house where I was born was built by my father’s father. It was the one my family returned to after the exile. Later we bought another house, outside the town, near our vegetable gardens, where there was nothing around. I vaguely remember that place. Now it is renovated and occupied by some Mafiosi. The house grew crowded as my married brothers all brought their wives to live with us. As they started having children, there was less and less room. Then mother sold the old house and bought another one in town. It was a long building with a second story on part of it, made not of wood, but of brick. There were seven rooms: three small ones downstairs, four upstairs, and a large kitchen where the whole family met at dinner. Our family was neither rich nor poor. We had a modest living, but had all the necessary things and even helped poor people. My mother and brothers worked very hard; they did not have it easy. Although Мenachem was not the oldest, he mainly took over father’s business. Menachem supported and took care of me, and even now I consider him my second father.
We had five hectares of land and worked by ourselves, but sometimes had to hire people during harvest time. Women, if I remember correctly, received two lit per day. I also helped, for example by packing tomatoes. One summer, I remember, we had a very big crop of cucumbers. I was on vacation from school. On a market day my mother turned to me and said, “Look, here is a big pile of them on the ground, they will get rotten if we don’t sell them. So please sit by the road and while people are going to the market, offer them 60 cucumbers for five cents,” which was very little even then. She even taught me how to count: Take ten times three cucumbers in each hand… Still, a lot remained. We had to throw them into the river.
I don’t know what time mother got up, but it was long before sunrise. She had to take care of the livestock: chickens, cows and horses. When I was a child, I rose very early, usually at 5 am. By that time mother was at the stove, baking bread and pies. We usually spoke Yiddish at home, but in the mornings mother would speak Russian to me, so that I would have a command of that language. She taught me children’s verses about butterflies, and had me memorize them. The hardest thing was to feed me. I was a very skinny child. I most likely was afflicted with tuberculosis, as later on the doctors found some lung scarring. I had absolutely no appetite. I cursed those who invented eating. Why does a man need to eat? I also had constant toothaches, so meals were an ordeal. During the four years of the war nothing ached – such were the conditions. But before and after the war I had a lot of tooth pain, and still do even now, although only two of my own teeth are left. As in the famous curse by Shalom Aleichem – “May all your teeth fall out but one, so you have a toothache.” Mother would chase me with a spoonful of soup or porridge, begging me to eat something and promising presents if I did. They paid me 10 cents per spoonful. The only things I was willing to eat were her cutlets. I was such a poor eater that it is hard for me to remember what my mother cooked every day. I was extremely skinny, there were only bones in me, but the war cured me.
Our family was not very religious, especially after father passed away. It wasn’t easy for mother to keep the Jewish laws. She had many children and it was complicated, but she kept some traditions. Nevertheless, she did not cover her head. I do not remember her praying. She was a modern, cultured person, but although there were books at home, she had no time for them. We did observe Shabbat. Usually mother went to the synagogue on holidays. My brother and I also went. On Friday evening mother lit candles. I still remember how she leaned over them and put her palms on her eyes. She always prepared something special for Saturday. Mother tried to work less on Saturday, but it was impossible. You had to water and feed the cow, to milk it. There was a Polish lady living in our house. Sometimes she helped with milking, but not with the gardening or other jobs – mother was a hard worker and did almost everything by herself.
Mother got sick before the war, developing varicose veins. Once I returned home from the youth club to find her sitting, her foot wrapped in a towel, soaking in a bowl of water. A blood vessel had burst, which could have been fatal. Later, when the family attempted to flee the Germans, she couldn’t walk. When I think now how we left her there, I have pangs of remorse.
Chaim told me that, during the massacre, she was not shot – just thrown into the pit with other old people. She did not expect this. The pit was disguised before the massacre. When they were all gathered in the horse stables, they were told they would be taken to another place for work, and they believed it. As Chaim told me later, mother said, “Why did I let my weak Yudele go? He is probably killed by now and lies in some ditch by the roadside.” She didn’t know that I would live, and would be among the few Jews visiting her grave – not only hers but that of all the Jews from Keidan and two other small towns.
The family kept a diary, where important events were recorded by my brothers, and probably also by my mother. Someone once read me a description of my birth, how my father passed away, and his request to postpone my circumcision. It said I cried a lot when I was born, probably from stomach pain. I was generally a playful child, who grew up without a father. I spent a lot of time in the streets. Nobody spoiled or pampered me.
Jewish charity was very developed in our town. We helped the poor by collecting money for Shabbat meals. Rivka was especially good at that. She had a golden heart. She was from a very poor family. People gossiped about how such a beautiful woman could live with an invalid. But David was a very wise man. In 1940 people nicknamed him Molotov. I remember a very poor blacksmith who had many children, some of whom later went to Argentina. His wife was clumsy and managed things poorly. She didn’t know how to save. People collected money and food for them before Saturday, and by Monday they had nothing to eat.
We kept kosher at home, but the doctor suggested I eat pork fat. I liked it a lot. Brother Menachem warned me: He said, “Eat it if you want, but do it so that mother doesn’t see.” And that was what I did. A German named Neiman sold this. He rented space from us, for a shop where he sold sausages and delicious ham. I was obsessed by the smell of that ham. Once Neiman called me into his store and tried to talk me into eating a piece of ham. Even though I was already eating it sometimes secretly, I resisted, saying it wasn’t kosher, but he smeared pork fat on my lips by force and laughed, pleased with himself for humiliating me. I didn’t say a word to my mother about it, but never again stopped by that place. In 1940, when Germans living in the Baltic countries were repatriated, Neiman also left. After the war he fled to America.
On holidays such as Rosh Hashana, mother went to synagogue, and always took me. I especially liked Yom Kippur, since I didn’t have to eat then. Sukkot was a nice holiday, although we did not build a sukkah (hut). Chanukah was very enjoyable – we lit candles and played cards. On Purim we sang and exchanged gifts of food with our friends. I really liked homentaschen (traditional triangle cookies) with poppy seeds. Passover required special preparations. All my brothers came. I had to mix eggs with sugar, to bake matzot and a cake. I had a heavy old mortar to work with. We prepared a very tasty alcoholic drink out of honey. So we kept the tradition, But I already belonged to a very left-wing youth group, Hashomer Hatzair3, so I was not very observant. For example, I didn’t have a bar mitzvah. Some other kids had them, but not everybody.
At age seven, I entered the Hebrew progymnasium [middle school], and studied there for six years. So I knew Hebrew quite well. After the war, and also in recent years, I taught potential olim, those planning to emigrate to Israel. I even taught Lithuanians, and some of them learned Hebrew better than Jews. There was also a Yiddish school, attended mostly by left-leaning Jews. I was not a very good pupil, but when I turned fifteen, I started to be very serious. I graduated Hebrew school in 1936. There was no Hebrew gymnasium in town. If you wanted to continue your studies you had to go to another town or to the Lithuanian gymnasium. There was a teacher there, Nisim Zaltsburg, a friend of my brother Menachem, who prepared me to enter the Lithuanian gymnasium. I had to pass a few exams in subjects that were not taught in my school, and I entered the third level class. Zaltsburg hung himself when the Germans entered Kėdainiai.
Kėdainiai during my childhood was a quiet Jewish town. There were mostly tailors, cobblers, watch repairmen, glaziers and other craftsmen, also owners of small shops. The richer people owned workshops. There were one or two doctors. I remember the pediatrician, Mulyar; I went to school with his two daughters. He was later shot with the others. I remember an old lawyer, Abramowitz, a very intelligent person, who loved children and treated them to desserts. Chaim told me that when Abramowitz was taken to the massacre site, he, the rabbi and another person were loaded on a cart, smudged in tar and chicken feathers, and mocked by the townspeople. There also was one Jewish drunkard, Goldberg, who could sometimes be found lying, drunk, in the street. Another Goldberg family, not related to him, was the only one to all survive. They managed to be evacuated to Russia and later came to Israel. Jews generally were not big drinkers. But my brother Menachem, my “second father,” after his service in the Lithuanian army, used to keep a small bottle of vodka and drank a bit before dinner, for “appetite.”
Until I was 14 I was not serious. I invented all sorts of pranks, and did not think about my studies. People complained about me. After I read Sholem Aleichem, I decided to get some apples in the way he described in his stories about Motl, the cantor’s son. I fixed a nail to the end of a rod (closely following the instructions in the story) and went to my neighbor’s fence. Mrs. Schneider (her son later served in the Lithuanian division) had an apple orchard and sold apples. Even in winter she would sit before her doorstep, with coals under her skirt to keep warm, selling apples. I knew she kept the apples in the cellar, so one day I crawled there with my rod and was preparing to pilfer her stock, when I was suddenly snatched by an adult, who took me home to mother.
One winter a hen got out on the frozen river, and we kids threw stones at it. I joined in and killed the hen. Its owner came to my mother, shouting “we can’t eat this hen now” (since it was no longer kosher), so mother paid her for the hen. But we were not hooligans; we didn’t fight much.
There was some antisemitism among the local gentiles, and I felt it. I had no non-Jewish friends. We lived separately from Lithuanians. On Passover, some youngsters threw stones at our windows. They also sometimes carried knives. It was especially bad in gymnasium. My friend and I even talked of running away, to Spain, to fight the fascists.
When I began my studies there were only boys at the gymnasium; girls studied separately. There were nine Jews out of thirty-two students in my class. We were called zhids and sometimes beaten up outside class. My classmate, Gelsburg, was beaten badly. Usually, the principal just told us all to calm down, without blaming anyone.
It started in universities and gymnasiums in Poland and later in some places also in Lithuania, but not everywhere. In other Kėdainiai schools the situation was better. A few times, at the end of 1930s, we were ordered to sit on separate benches. One day one of the pupils stood up and said, “We don’t want to sit with zhids; let them sit on the left side.” The Lithuanian language teacher, a woman, agreed. Well, we didn’t want to sit with them either; some of us already were sitting separately, and another three or four moved to the left side of the classroom. But there was one local Polish guy, Katkevichius, who was not a successful pupil, he always was behind the class, and we Jewish pupils helped him from time to time. So this Katkevichius stood up and came to sit with us on the left. I saw it as a heroic act. I kept remembering him all through the war. He stayed in Kėdainiai during the war, but he was a decent person, and didn’t participate in the shootings. After the war he became chairman of the physical training committee.
When the Germans came, a new gymnasium administrator was appointed, a teacher of literature and the author of a few books, named Paukštelis. He was a very bad man. He and his brother shot Jews in some other small town. On August 28, 1941, he ordered the Kėdainiai teachers to come, armed, for an important mission. So the teachers also participated. After the war, his daughter said on TV that I had slandered her father’s memory, and threatened to sue me. But I was not afraid. He had also beaten his wife, a nice person and a good teacher. We had seen this once when they were on their balcony, while we were on the way to gymnasium.
I was a serious lad when I was in the senior grades. I decided to get a good education, no matter what. I did pretty well. I started taking an interest in politics, read newspapers and listened to the radio at home. Hashomer Hatzair, my youth organization, prepared youth for emigration to Palestine, and purchased land and established kibbutzim there. We had strict democratic rules in Hashomer: No smoking, no drinking, no wearing ties, no dancing in pairs – only a collective dance, the hora. So a girl didn’t have to sit and wait for a boy to ask her to dance. In general the organization’s ideas were pretty close to communism, although when the Soviets came in 1940 they shut the organization down, and later it became dangerous to acknowledge that you had ever belonged to Hashomer. I absorbed every bit of information about the Soviet Union, believing that country to be a land of justice and happiness. I dreamed of going to Spain to fight in the civil war, or to Palestine, even if I had to walk there. I began to prepare two years before the war, using my pocket money to buy a German backpack (which later almost cost me my life) and stuffing it with biscuits and sweets. I also had a topographic map of Lithuania, a flashlight and a diary. I took it all very seriously. If the Soviets had not taken control of Lithuania, I might have realized my dream.
When Soviets entered Lithuania in 1940, my mother was very worried; she cried that our land and everything else might be taken. I tried to calm her down, saying we would at last be free and have equal rights. I was not a Komsomol member, but it was a happy event for me. My pal, who already was a Komsomol member, and I went to Didžiunai, where the first units of the Red army were stationed. They were like saints for us. Underground communists had organized pro-Soviet demonstrations, which were broken up by Lithuanian soldiers and their commander, Kroulialis. A Jew who had been carrying a red flag was beaten till he bled.
Once in charge, the Soviets deported the rich to Siberia. My only relative who was exiled was mother’s sister Frida, who was then living in another town. Our family in Kėdainiai was not affected, although we thought we might be deported. I personally was not afraid of deportation, just because I had no idea what was going on there. On the other hand, almost all Kėdainiai Jews who were not deported during the Soviet time were killed.
Part of our family’s land was nationalized, but we kept a small plot. It was enough for our living, and mother had some savings. Schools were reformed. In the fall of 1940 our gymnasium was turned into a Soviet school. Subjects were taught in Lithuanian, but our teachers remained. I felt an inner freedom. Although I was not a member of Komsomol, I was friends with our Komsomol leader Isaac Joffe, who was preparing me to join the organization. When we decided to run away, his father didn’t let him go, and he was shot with other activists at the very beginning of the German occupation.
V. War breaks out
On Saturday, June 21, 1941, we had a celebration at school to mark the end of the term. The party was organized by a military unit based in Kėdainiai. The school choir gave a concert. We danced, sang and watched a movie. It was a nice party, marking the end of my happiest year. My comrade Mordechai Mulyar and I came back home at 2 am. On our way home we were singing a popular Soviet song – “…beloved city can sleep quietly…” When we parted, we said we’d see each other the next day. I never saw Mordechai again: He was shot after the Germans arrived.
In the morning, as we learned about the start of the war, the whole house was in turmoil. What to do? My brothers Menachem and David insisted on leaving the city immediately and going east. As we started to harness the horse and load the cart, our Lithuanian neighbor, Vitas, threatened me with his fist, yelling “Komsomols! Zhids!” I still remember this. When the war began my mother was over 60. She had problems with the veins in her legs and could hardly walk. Mother, my legless brother David, and his wife, Rivka, got on a cart. I, Menachem, and Volodya, my nephew, followed on foot. People were walking, riding on bikes and in carts, all heading east. Yet most Jews stayed in the town, believing the Germans would behave as they had during the First World War.
Near evening we reached the town of Šeta, Rivka’s family home. Later I learned that all Šeta Jews were brought to Kėdainiai and shot there. Rivka’s elderly parents lived in Šeta. I had never seen such poverty in my life, such a wretched house. We spent a night there, but we could not sleep. The aerial bombing started, so we went down to the cellar. David and Menachem spent all night discussing the situation, and at dawn they called Volodya and me. Menachem said he could not leave the old folks and David, and insisted that we, the two youngest, should leave immediately. Other young people overheard our conversation and wanted to join. Fifty of us young people were ready to go. Some were prepared to walk, others to ride bikes. We wanted to take the road to Ukmerge. I didn’t think about the fact that I was leaving my mother. I could not imagine that I would never see her again.
The brothers assured me we wouldn’t be parted for long: The fascists would be beaten back and the family would soon be reunited. There were all kinds of rumors, some even said the Red Army had already taken Koenigsburg. But we didn’t think too much about all this, as it was clear we had to leave as soon as possible; the Germans could arrive at any minute. When Rivka and mother found out that we were going to leave, they burst into tears: “What are you doing? Where are you going?” They did not want to let us go. Menachem took Volodya and me aside and told us not to pay attention, just go. Nothing good would happen here. I was already dreaming of serving in the Soviet Army. Young people are always full of heroic ideas. Menachem gave me his bike and found another one for Volodya. He gave me a role of ten-ruble banknotes, about 600 rubles I think, and his Tissot Swiss pocket watch, saying I might need it on the road. He also gave me his green waterproof cloak. David also gave Volodya some money. There were four of us: I, Volodya, Meishe Shneider (he passed away recently in Israel) and another, from whom we were later separated, but who survived. My friend Isaac Joffe wanted to join us, but his father, a volunteer in the town fire brigade, didn’t let him go. “What will be with me, will be with him,” he said. In July, Isaac was shot in the field with other activists. Other parents also refused to let their children go. There remained four of us, young boys, riding together on our bikes. I took biscuits and toffees, the flashlight and the map of Lithuania in my backpack. Mother ran out crying, “Here, my son, you like my cutlets with garlic, take them for the road.” She gave me two of her cutlets, the last I was ever to eat. And we went.
We took the road to Ukmerge. Near that town a group of Lithuanians carrying rifles and wearing white armbands jumped out of the bushes. “Where are you running to, zhids? Go back where you came from!” They had been instructed to turn all Jews back to prevent their escape. We had no choice; we turned back, but after a little while decided not to return home but to head toward Panevėžys. It was the evening of June 23, and we heard the sounds of bombing, shooting. I told the boys we needed to look for a place to sleep. In the village of Nevėžis, we called on a Jew. He had no idea what was going on – where were we running, and why? We told him we needed a place for the night, and in the morning would continue to Panevėžys. He let us in. I slept on a bench, putting something underneath to make it softer. Early the next morning we started toward Panevėžys. Lithuanian women working in the fields threw stones at us. We ignored them. On the morning of June 24, as we came to Panevėžys, we heard shooting and bombs, very close. Warehouses at the train station were burning. What to do? We went to the local Komsomol committee building to ask for weapons to fight the fascists. People there were in a panic, running around with papers, documents. There was nobody to talk to.
Suddenly a uniformed man rushed up and arrested me, but not my pals. “Let’s go!” he said. With my formal school cap, green waterproof cloak and German backpack I looked to him like a saboteur paratrooper. There were already German saboteurs at that time. Without a word they took me to the NKVD office, in a red brick house. An officer was sitting at a desk; from his shoulder patch I judged he was a colonel. There was a wooden holster, and a pistol on the desk. He started to interrogate me. “Sit down. Who are you?” I told him I was a Jew, running east with my friends to join the Red Army. The colonel didn’t listen. “Why do you need the flashlight, a map of Lithuania? To signal military objectives? Where did you get a German backpack?” He called the guards. “Take him.” Two soldiers with rifles entered the room and ordered me to put my arms behind my back. They took me to a nearby yard and pushed me into a cellar. As they led me through the NKVD yard, I noticed bodies of some dead tank crewmen, lying on stretchers in their military overalls. Seven or eight Lithuanians were being held in the cellar. They asked why I was there. I thought quickly and told them, in pure good Lithuanian, that I had no idea. After that they left me alone. I heard them boasting to each other. One said he had killed the tank crewmen with a knife while they slept. Another told how he cut a wire someplace. Well, I thought, I’m in a good company! What to do? After five minutes the guard entered and called someone’s name: “Get out with your belongings.” The guy took his bundle and went out. I heard a bang, close to our cellar: He was shot. After five or ten more minutes, another one. Outside people were running, panicked. That’s bad, I thought. I’m lost. But I’m not the enemy, and I’m going to die for nothing! How could I prove I wasn’t guilty?
I remembered seeing a movie called “We Are From Kronshtadt,“4 where a sailor tore his shirt before being executed, in the name of the revolution. I thought maybe I would do the same. But revolution is something different. I decided that, to show I wasn’t the enemy, when I was taken out for execution I would sing the Internationale5 “…Arise, ye prisoners of starvation…” No bandit would sing that. Maybe they would check again, and maybe that would help me. Only two of us were left in the cellar. When they called for me, I immediately started singing. Then I saw my three friends standing by a NKVD lieutenant and pointing at me. “Here, this is him…” So, I didn’t have time to sing the song. The lieutenant, who did not look typically Jewish, asked me in Yiddish if I was a Jew. Yes, I was. Sure? Absolutely. Where from? Volodya said I was his uncle, and they let me go. My friends told me that when I was arrested, they followed to see where I was being taken. Before we left, the NKVD people let me take food from their storehouse. I took two packs of canned poultry.
We returned to the station and boarded a train going east. We heard explosions all around, very near. At Daugavpils, the bombing was so intense that one Jewish woman in the car next to ours lost her mind. We had already crossed the border into Belarus when the train stopped and all civilians were told to get off. They were afraid spies would cross the border with the refugees. We had to walk along the tracks back into Latvia. We spent the night in the house of some Russians, who welcomed us warmly. In the morning we tried to cross the border, but border guards had been hiding behind bushes and did not let people cross. They had no time to check people individually and also didn’t know other languages, and I knew only a little Russian. We were driven back, but finally found a gap and slipped back into Belarus. We walked for several kilometers, then stopped at a collective farm to ask for food and water. My mother’s cutlets and the sweets from my backpack were long gone.
The farm managers gave us water, but were suspicious; they summoned the border guards as we rested. My friends tried to persuade me to lose the backpack, but I would not. Suddenly, the mounted border guards appeared. We were made to lean against a wall with our hands raised, right in front of a portrait of Stalin. We were checked and released, and walked again until our feet were swollen. We slept in the fields. Eventually we reached Nevel, northeast of Minsk. Germans were already somewhere nearby. There was a train at the station; some soldiers and a wounded pilot were lying on an open car. They told us that this would probably be the last train. We asked to go with them, explaining we were refugees from Lithuania. They helped us climb up and we headed farther east. We plucked some grass to cushion the ride. It was very hot. We were hungry. At one point I noticed a familiar guy from our area, from a poor family. He was constantly looking for lice in his clothes. Before that I had no idea what lice looked like. I had started scratching even before I saw him. But now I removed my boot. My god; there was a whole anthill of lice! But there was nothing to be done, so we stayed on the train.
We reached Sverdlovsk [now Yekaterinburg] in the Urals. Totally exhausted by lice, we left the train. The train station was an evacuation point for refugees. We were put through disinfection right away. It was my first time, and I didn’t understand what it was all about. I was ashamed to take my clothes off in front of the women, but they didn’t look at us. We had to remove all leather items; I lost my leather belt there, and had to use a simple rope after that. But when I took a warm shower, the first since our escape, I felt extremely good, despite the red bites that covered my body from the lice.
Next, we had to find work. It wasn’t long before the so-called “recruiters” came looking for people. Volodya and I agreed to work in a local coal mine. We were promised dormitories, food and a good salary. Our passports were seized right away, and we were taken far into the taiga. After about 180 kilometers of extremely dense woods we arrived at a godforsaken village. They housed us in a hostel, and within a day Volodya had gone to work in the mine, while I went to dig pits. It was a newly developed mine, all wet. Water dripped down our necks. The workers drank vodka constantly; they even drank up the eau-de-cologne from local stores.
Every day someone was drafted into the army. We tried to enlist, but they told us, “No, you’re from Lithuania, we don’t need you. If you’re needed later, we’ll call you.” I had never worked so hard. The earth consisted of very hard clay, and we had to dig six pits per day to meet the quota. In the morning we had oatmeal porridge; it was the first time I had ever eaten this kind of porridge. But somehow we managed. At the mine we made friends with a sickly young man, Kopelev. He took us to his place to saw wood. His mother, a kind Russian woman, took pity on us and gave us food. She said, “Boys, you must leave this place. You will be lost here. There is nothing but hunger and cold here; you will not survive the winter. Go to the south.” She advised us to ask the personnel department, in the district center, for our passports. They gave us all kinds of excuses. I said I wanted to study, and Volodya said he had heart trouble (which was true – he passed away later in Israel because of it) and that we had nothing to eat. Finally we convinced them and they returned our passports.
We took a train south. We went first to Chelyabinsk, and from there to Aktyubinsk [now Aktobe, Kazakhstan]. Finally we reached Tashkent [now the capital of Uzbekistan]. We spent several days at the train station, where thousands of refugees were encamped. It was warm during the day, but cold at night. There were lots of thieves. Each night somebody lost this or that. We left for Fergana, where we found jobs washing lemonade and water bottles. A doctor from Kėdainiai, Joseph Silber, was washing bottles with us. We laughed that he was a doctor, and we were nothing, but we all had the same job. He later escaped to the U.S. In the afternoon we went to the tea room and just had tea, as we could not afford anything else. With no money for rent, we spent nights on benches in the park, under the falling leaves. Autumn came and the nights grew colder. The landscape was beautiful there, but we couldn’t enjoy it. We went to the recruiting office. They took our information and said they would call when we were needed, but meanwhile nothing happened.
Volodya found job as a draftsman in an industrial settlement, while I and some others found work at a collective farm named for the Seventeenth Party Congress. They housed us in a hooded cart, without doors or windows, and just quilts inside. Hunger was widespread there. We worked in the fields, harvesting cotton. The daily harvest quota was unachievable for hungry people. One of the workers tried adding stones to his bags of cotton, but was caught. Uzbeks called him a “karabsik” – Russian thief. We obtained a kettle, and in the morning drank water from the irrigation ditch, ate onions and went to work. We talked only of food. Since then I have had a good appetite. In the army I always exchanged my ration of vodka for bread. And there was always a queue for it. Some of those I traded with probably hoped I’d be killed before they would have to make good their end of the deal.
There was one woman from Kėdainiai there, Chana Shneider. Her son was later killed in battle. Some locals were sorry for us, while others were indifferent. I remember one time a man was riding a donkey and eating dried apricots, and we followed him and picked up the pits. I do not know how we would have survived the winter in that poor collective farm.
In December 1941, we suddenly got lucky: We were called to the recruiting office and mobilized into the army. In January or February 1942 we were sent to Balakhna, Gorky District [now Nizhny Novgorod], where the 16th Lithuanian Division6 was being formed. When we arrived we received dry food rations, which they told us had to last for three days. But we consumed it all immediately. I stayed there a year. We weren’t starving, we ate cabbage and beet soup. We met local people, they had pity on us. Still, at the beginning, when I still had my wool jacket from Lithuania, I exchanged it for food. At the front line we recalled Balakhna as a paradise.
I trained to be a combat engineer, and was sent to the engineering unit. Volodya, my nephew, played the violin and was assigned right away to the Lithuanian military orchestra, based in Pereslavl-Zalessky. We corresponded, and I looked forward to Volodya’s letters. Moshe Shneider was also in our division, and there were other guys from our area as well. I met Mendel, a pal from a very poor family in Kėdainai. He was an infantry man, a nice and merry fellow. All his brothers were in the front lines and almost all of them perished.
I was sent to the front lines in late February, 1943. Our first battle was very hard. It was on February 23, near Alekseyevka, in the Oryol district. The artillery lagged behind, our training proved inadequate and we lacked sufficient arms. The winter was very cold and snowy. Horses didn’t survive. There was no food supply, so we ate the meat of the frozen horses. Once we and another unit almost opened fire on each other over a German horse carcass that we found under the snow. We cooked it over open fires and ate it without salt, too impatient to wait until the meat was properly done. Everybody had diarrhea afterward.
We had hardly cleared a path for the attack when it snowed again. Germans had already entrenched themselves firmly. The night before the attack, I was building an observation position for the division commander. Suddenly, in the darkness, I heard Mendel’s voice. He was digging a trench to prepare for the attack. I called to him and he answered, in Yiddish: “Yudel, today will be a big battle.” It was actually his last battle: Mendel was killed that day.
The same day I was lightly wounded by a shell fragment when a mortar shell fell nearby. I felt a blow on the hand and fell down. Shofar, a Jew from Kazan, asked me, “Are you alive?” “I am,” I answered. “I thought you were killed,” he said. There was some blood, but fortunately, the shrapnel had been slowed down by my coat. My buddy Teitelbaum took it out of my hand. They gave me first aid, so I didn’t lose much blood. The commander told me to go back to headquarters in Alekseyevka, to report on the mission and let them know I was wounded. When I reached headquarters I nearly fainted from the smell of food. Officers were sitting at the table as a young woman served them freshly baked pancakes. They saw I was wounded and ran to me, asking what happened. One officer, Karlovsky, a Lithuanian from the Far East (who didn’t know a word of Lithuanian) – a big coward, by the way – looked at my wound. He suggested that I had deliberately exposed my hand in order to receive a light wound. I lost my temper, yelling that while we were fighting, they were enjoying themselves with the pancakes. How is it possible to deliberately catch a shell fragment in one’s hand? The officers calmed us down, and took me to the village. I spent the night on hay, as soft as at a spa, in some poor people’s hut, without a floor, but with a cow and a goat inside. In the morning I returned to my unit. In March the Alekseyevka fighting ended, and we were taken to the rear to rest and regroup. Almost a third of our division had perished. I was wounded twice more before the war ended.
A funny incident occurred while we were resting up. The snow had started melting as spring arrived, and our felt boots became soaked. There were a lot of gas masks scattered around, and one of the old-timers, a sergeant and veteran of the Finnish war, named Shishkin, advised us to put gas masks over our felt boots in place of galoshes. This we did, but when a general from headquarters passed by, he noticed the situation, stopped his car, ordered us to line up and yelled out, “Attention, gas!” We had to put the masks on our faces immediately.
In June 1943, during fierce battles on the front, I received a letter from Volodya, telling me his orchestra was coming to visit our division. I prepared for our meeting by stashing away bread from my rations, since I knew musicians were fed more poorly than we were. When we met, I gave him this bread without revealing that I was hungry myself. Later he sent me a letter in Yiddish, with his photograph, urging me to stay alive, keep fighting and avenge the blood of our parents. We knew by then they had most probably been killed.
After my meeting with Volodya that summer, our division was transferred to the area between Orel and Belgorod, where one of the most important battles of the war was being prepared. I was in the combat engineering intelligence group. We had to find a suitable position between our trenches and the German lines, crawl there during the night, dig pits and observe. During the day we were to report whatever we had seen the previous night on the German side – any digging, planting of mines, building of bunkers, and so on. We were to return the next night. My partner was a Lithuanian from the Caucasus named Domark. Before the war he had received bad news from Lithuania, and he hated the Soviet regime.
We were dressed in camouflage overalls, armed with grenades. That night, after we had reached our observation position and begun to dig the pit, we suddenly hit something hard. We couldn’t cut through it, so we dug around and below. In the morning we saw it was the arm of a dead Soviet soldier. During the day we stayed below the decomposing corpse and observed. There was a lot of movement and earth works on the other side. Suddenly we saw a unit of about fifty German soldiers, moving between two small groves. We quickly transmitted their location to our artillery, and our shells fell precisely in the Germans’ midst. Two or three arose and ran; the others were killed or wounded.
The Germans broadcast a radio announcement, in Russian, saying they would begin a major attack the next day – July 5, 1943 – with new and more powerful weapons. They said Soviet soldiers who surrendered would be spared and treated well as prisoners of war, telling us to stick our bayonets into the ground as a sign of surrender. At one point I saw a tall German officer in pince-nez glasses, probably of high rank, climb out of the trench and survey our positions through binoculars. I fired my rifle but missed – the bullet hit above and behind him, he got frightened and.
The German attack started with a massive air bombardment, followed by heavy artillery fire. It was worse in the rear than on the front lines, since the Germans avoided dropping bombs close to their own forces. Finally, they brought in tanks – Tigers and Panthers – and then infantry. We were desperately low in arms; our unit had just one anti-tank gun. We were all highly anxious, but Jewish soldiers feared death less than capture. Domark, my partner, said, “Let’s surrender. I won’t tell them you’re a Jew.” Of course I thought he would be the first one give me up. Domark was killed later on, in 1944.
The German tanks split into two columns and surrounded our regiment. It took the whole day for our forces to break out of the encirclement. Domark and I had to travel a long distance, through numerous trenches, to reach our headquarters in Kamenka village. It had been heavily bombed, and there were a lot of casualties. Captain Dashevsky, a military doctor, a nice-looking Jew from Vilnius, and our sergeant-major, a Lithuanian, were standing outside and were killed together. Before Domark and I had left on our mission, he had wished us luck and said, “I don’t know whether you’ll see Lithuania again, but I surely will.” They hadn’t been in the fighting, and here they died while we survived. In the war, you never know.
After the Oryol battle, we were sent to Vitebsk, in Belarus, then recently liberated, for rest and reorganization. I was already a sergeant. But soon our squad was recalled and assigned to build a bridge across the Emenka River. It wasn’t to be a very broad structure, only about 6 meters in width, just wide enough for our tanks to cross. But it was an urgent and important task. The bridge had to be built in one night, amid artillery and mortar fire, probably directed by a German observer somewhere nearby. We worked amid the shooting, and by morning half the squad had been killed, but the bridge was built. A Lithuanian friend my age named Gelaytis was fatally wounded next to me. He was already turning blue as I dragged him aside. I felt under his coat – it was full of blood. He had likely been hit in his stomach. Before dying he managed to say, in Lithuanian, “Tell my mother…” and that was all. I looked for her after the war, but she died two months before I could find her. I did find Gelaytis’ sister, who knew nothing of his fate, and told her how he died. We buried the bodies of our soldiers across the river, carrying them over our bridge. After the war they were reburied in Plestsy village, in a military cemetery.
After that our unit was sent to the area of Polotsk. I and two other soldiers were assigned to a battalion commanded by Major Wolf Vilensky, who was later named a Hero of the Soviet Union. Having fought under his command, I can attest that he was indeed a hero. Later he went to Israel and was made an honorary colonel in the Israeli Army. He passed away there. He was my age, born in 1923, and he once saved my life. We were in the middle of the battle. I was running and shouting, and didn’t see the wounded German lying in the bushes, aiming an automatic rifle at me. Vilensky was running behind me. He saw the German, shouted at me to be careful, fired and killed him. He called me in later and said “You should be careful.”
By the way, before that attack, in the summer of 1944, I applied to join the Communist Party.
During this battle, on July 10, 1944, I captured a German soldier. Another two or three were captured as well. They were from Alsace-Lorraine [the German-French border region]. One of our guys was beating one of them with the butt of his rifle, and the German was shouting: “Je suis français.” I said, “Don’t beat him, he’s French.” But mine was a real German. He was a guy my age, wearing a helmet and a camouflage mosquito net. He appeared suddenly in front of me and I shouted, “Hände hoch!” (“Hands up!”). I ordered him to drop his weapon. He obeyed. I said: “Ligen!” (“lay down!”) He obeyed again. Then I got down close to him. Our conversation lasted less than two minutes. He told me his unit had just arrived from Danzig and it was his first day at the front. He was very afraid and kept his hand in front of my gun. I said, “Don’t be afraid. Jews and Communists do not kill captives.” When he heard “Jews” and “Communists,” he became even more frightened. He thought I was playing with him. I said, “You killed my mother.” He said “Nein, nein! Ich bin von Berlin” (“No, No! I’m from Berlin”). He took out a photo of his family: a father, mother, and five children. The battle had paused at that moment, but a shot came from the German side that hit his hand. He started bleeding. He was still so afraid of me that he kept looking at my rifle, certain the bullet had come from there. I put the gun down, bandaged his hand and repeated that Jews and Communists didn’t kill captives. Then an officer from headquarters, a Jew, came to collect the prisoners, and took that lad away.
I never saw him again, but the event later sparked an argument between me and my cousin Chaim, who barely survived the occupation and who hated all Germans. When I told him about that prisoner and how I had treated his wound, Chaim wanted to beat me. He scolded me fiercely for not killing the German. I replied that if I had known that he participated in the killings and humiliation of our people, I would have killed him. But I didn’t know that, and he was only about twenty years old. I have since talked with quite a number of Jews about this case. Opinions varied. The vast majority agreed with me, but some thought I had been wrong to help the German. Still, I am convinced now that I was right, and that by this act I defended the honor of the Jewish people and all humanity.
After Chaim died, I wrote to a Russian newspaper in Berlin, describing the incident and asking them to notify me if anyone there responded. I heard nothing for two months. Then, suddenly, a letter arrived from a German woman. She wrote that her son had been captured by the Soviets and returned home in 1947, and that he had told everyone that a Jew had spared his life and bandaged his hand. In 1954 he died from meningitis. The mother invited me to visit if I was ever in Berlin, but I never met her. Everybody appreciated the story, and today I admit I feel proud of it.
Shortly after that incident, I and another Lithuanian guy, named Rumsha, were sent on a reconnaissance mission in the same forest where I had captured the German soldier. Rumsha was in the intelligence unit; I was with the engineers. Vilensky had ordered us to walk about 150 meters ahead of our battalion. We were to signal the battalion to stop if we saw anything suspicious. Suddenly we heard a motor. Stuck in the dirt, spinning its wheels, was a heavily loaded German truck, covered by a tarpaulin. The driver saw us, jumped out and fled. I said, “Be careful, it might be mined”. But Rumsha raised the tarpaulin and we saw it was loaded with boxes with wine. What an occasion! I was not a big wine drinker. But Rumsha pulled out two bottles, broke off their necks and drank both of them. Then he emptied his sack – tossing out towel, bullets, and so on, and filled it with bottles of wine. Meanwhile, our unit was waiting. We put a sign on the truck – MINED – and continued walking, thinking we’d return later and bring the truck to our unit as a present. Our battalion followed. We stopped to see what happened. They approached the truck. Seeing the sign they hesitated. But one soldier was impatient; he checked the truck and saw the wine. Officers waved pistols to try and stop the looting, but in vain. The truck was emptied.
We continued walking in the forest. As Rumsha began to tell me something, automatic gunfire came from behind a tree. He was shot in the chest, and blood ran from his mouth. I managed to pull him aside, but soon after, a mine exploded and I was wounded. I was taken to a hospital in the Vitebsk district, badly bruised, almost blind, and wounded in my hand. I thought my army career was finished. My sight eventually returned, but I still have problems with my eyes. At the hospital I met Rumsha, who had survived. But gangrene had developed in one of my fingers, and a doctor named Krivoruchko, a good Jewish woman about 25 years old, wanted to amputate it. I pleaded with her, “If I am to be a blind invalid in a wheelchair, I will have to make my living after the war by playing accordion in the streets. Please, leave my finger.” She said, “I can’t leave it – we have no penicillin. If the gangrene gets into your arm, we’ll have to amputate the whole arm.” I asked to be released from the hospital as soon as possible. She said, “You needn’t hurry. You will not find anybody at home. Everyone has been killed.”
In the hospital I learned Vilnius had been liberated. That happened on July 13, 1944. In August, Kaunas was liberated as well. But there was no home for me to go to. While still in the hospital, I asked the nurse to write to the Kėdainiai city executive committee, asking who had survived. They answered that only a partisan, Chaim Ronder, remained. All the rest had perished.
I wanted to return to my division, but it was already with another army, somewhere around Klaipeda. There was another wounded Jew from Kelme in the hospital. We received orders to join the 37th Division in Latvia. He said, “Let’s take these orders and try to reach the 16th Division by ourselves.” I also wanted to return to our division, but I said. “Look, there are NKVD patrols on the roads. They will stop us and accuse us of desertion; we’ll get the death penalty. The war will be over soon, so what difference where we fight?” He agreed and we both went to the 37th. I did not want to remain a combat engineer, and asked to be transferred to any other kind of unit. They said some artillerymen had been recently killed, and we could replace them. I had never been near the big guns, only heard them firing. They said not to worry, that they would teach us. In three minutes we both were artillerymen. They were still showing me what to do when the Germans and Latvians began to attack. We had to respond immediately. You need to rotate the aiming handles with both hands simultaneously. One raises the barrel, the other… and you need practice to do this properly. I reacted a bit slowly at the beginning, afraid to hit our own forces, but the commander, Bezgin, shouted at us to shoot quickly, adding some coarse Russian words. He raised the barrel higher. “Fire!” he yelled. I fired. It was like being scalded with hot water. To this day I do not hear well with this ear. Eventually I learned to be an artilleryman. Sometimes we had to shoot at point-blank range.
After Latvia, we were supposed to join the offensive in Yugoslavia. We were brought to Nikolaev [in southern Ukraine] and then traveled on foot from Odessa into Romania. We covered almost half of the country, arriving at Ploiesti, about 50 kilometers from Bucharest. Our regiment stopped at the palace of the king, Michael. While standing guard at the park there, I met his grandmother. By the way, the king helped the Soviet Army and was awarded the Victory Order. I was still there on May 9, 1945, Victory Day.
I received several medals: Great Patriotic War Orders First and Second Class, an Order of the Red Star, two medals for bravery and a few others for the liberation of cities and participation in the war. I stayed in the army until November, 1945, and might have stayed another year or two, but those who had been wounded more than three times were demobilized, irrespective of age, and I was given a free train ticket and a ration. They asked me where I was heading. I named the northernmost town in Lithuania, Mažeikiai, figuring I could get off the train wherever I chose en route. I knew that my nephew, Volodya, was staying in Vilnius with a relative, so I got off the train there. Volodya was not there – he was in Pereslavl – so I spent a couple of nights with his relative, then moved on to Pagėgiai, where Chaim Ronder and his wife were living.
They welcomed me as if I were their son, and we talked all night. Chaim told me the horrible details of how my family had perished. Chaim had recently worked as an NKVD inspector in Kėdainiai. He had a boss there, a very good Lithuanian from the Caucasus, who respected Chaim very much. He received a work transfer to Pagėgiai and suggested Chaim join him. I arrived just after he and his wife, Sarah, had moved there. It was the second marriage for Sarah, who had recently returned from the Stutthof concentration camp. Her first husband had been our cousin from Šiauliai, David Ronder, who died in Riga just before the war. Their two children Yankel and Sarah, had been sent to the Stutthof crematorium. She was a very nice woman and liked me, probably, because I resembled her son Yankel, who was just 15 years old when he was killed. This was the situation: They were two survivors, he from the death pit, she from the death camp.
Chaim had managed to escape the massacre in Kėdainiai. He hid in the forests, digging pits for shelter. Another Jew, named Lison, sometimes hid with him. Some local Lithuanians and Polish people helped him, but he had several brushes with death. People knew he was hiding in the woods, and a big reward was offered for his head, dead or alive. Early one morning a village chief, a Lithuanian who was always spying and eavesdropping on people, noticed a young woman take food to the forest. He followed her, discovered the pit were Chaim was hiding, and called the Kėdainiai police. Lison was somewhere else that day. They surrounded the pit and ordered Chaim to surrender. Chaim hardly had time to put on his boots. He thought this would be the end of his life, but he had two grenades and a pistol. It was February, 1942, very cold, with snow all around. He raised the cover of the pit. There were about 20 civilians with rifles and white bands on their sleeves, shouting “Get out, Chaim!” He threw a grenade, which didn’t explode; he had forgotten to pull the pin. He threw the second one. This time there was an explosion. People fell, crying in pain. Chaim jumped out of the pit and ran like a hare, as fast as he could. They fired at him, but missed. He ran about two kilometers and hid at the home of a peasant, Savitsky, whom he had visited before.
Chaim told me another story about Savitsky. Shortly after the massacre, Chaim was wandering in the woods. It was very cold and he had no idea where to go or what to do. At night, frozen, hungry, and exhausted, he came to Savitsky’s house. “Where are you from?” Savitsky asked. “I ran away,” Chaim said. They fed him and let him rest above the stove until morning. As he began to warm up, Chaim realized that the room was wallpapered with sheets of parchment from Torah scrolls. He became frightened. He knew he could rely on Savitsky to help him, but he could not remain there. He arose in the middle of the night and put on his cold, wet clothes. “Where are you going?” they asked him. “I must go,” he said and left to look for another place to stay. Some time later he returned to Savitsky’s house, and saw that the Torah sheets had been taken off the walls. Decent people, they had realized why he had left that night.
Because of my war medals and knowledge of Lithuanian and Russian (I knew Yiddish and Hebrew as well, but they were not required), I soon found a job with the district authorities in Pagėgiai, as an instructor in a party district committee. Unfortunately, I was fired three months later, because some Jew told the committee secretary that my parents had been rich. After a while they reconsidered, and I was hired back. Those were hard and very dangerous times: We started organizing collective farms, and fought with Lithuanian gangs that were hiding in the forests. I always carried Chaim’s pistol, and never told anyone in advance where I planned to sleep.
Once I stopped for night at the house of a chairman of a collective farm. Some of these chairmen were partisans themselves, but not this one. The bandits learned I was there, and left him a notice on the door: “Say farewell to your soul because of this Jew, and we’ll take care of your body.” “Well,” I said, “I will not stay the night with you.” “No,” he said, “Stay, we’ll fight together.” And I stayed. But they didn’t come; it was just a threat. The director of the high school, who was connected to the gang, apparently wrote the note.
Another story: During a meeting at the village, one of our men, short of breath, broke in and told us the bandits were attacking nearby. We had to react fast. We called the district center, which dispatched a unit of the “stribs“7. Back then we called them “defenders of the Soviet people,” but today they are very unpopular. I had nothing to wear but my military field jacket, with my medals on it, took Chaim’s pistol with its wooden holster, and ran to the forest to join the fight. Yet in spite of all I did back then, they eventually kicked me out of the Party…
Chaim and I were best friends, but his nerves had been frazzled: He was never able to move past his memories of the war. We were seven kilometers from Tilsit [in East Prussia, later renamed Sovetsk], and at that time a lot of hungry Germans were wandering around. Once, an elderly German woman came and asked for bread. Sarah gave her a piece of bread. Chaim grew furious, ran and snatched the bread away and pushed the woman outside. “Were you giving us bread?” he shouted at her. Sarah and I were silent. I told him I would not have done this. He said, “You were fighting at the front; you didn’t see what they did here.”
Chaim and his wife moved to Kaunas, hoping it would be easier to emigrate from there, but I stayed in Pagėgiai until 1949. By then I had met a young Lithuanian woman, a former member of the [pre-war] Komsomol underground. She was not a Party member, but had very strong communist convictions. During Stalin’s time she believed in him very much. We were married in 1948, and that same year our daughter was born. We named her after my mother, Leya. My wife’s name was Meybute (Liuba) Tamunaite; she kept her maiden name. She was born in 1925. She also worked for the municipal and district authorities. My wife’s father was a communist, a very good-natured, progressive and humane person. Once he was wounded by bandits. He treated me very well. But later I was sorry I had not married a Jewish woman. My wife was not antisemitic: She was an educated woman and was interested in many things, but she couldn’t understand the depth of my feelings for Israel.
In late 1949 I left for Kaunas, while my wife and daughter remained in Pagėgiai. In Kaunas I was employed as assistant to the municipal executive committee chairman. Later I became a legal advisor. I did not have a problem getting jobs; it was enough to show up at the human-resources department in my military jacket with the medals. I never wash it, and keep all my decorations on it. After a while, my wife and daughter moved in with me and I was given an apartment. I have lived in Kaunas since then.
I should say that the Soviet government’s antisemitic campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s was less active in Lithuania than it was in other parts of Russia. I was not affected by it directly but I understood what it was about. My wife had her own opinions, but didn’t speak of them openly.
In 1953 I quit my job with the municipal authorities and was employed as a human-resources department manager at a factory. I also signed up for graduate law courses at Vilnius University. I went to Vilnius several times a year. Twice a year there were two-week exam periods. In 1959 I was supposed to write a thesis for my diploma. It was the centennial of Sholem Aleichem’s birth, and a special postal stamp had been issued for that. I went to the Vilnius post office to buy some. A lady in front of me in line caught my attention. She was a well-dressed Jewish woman who did not look like a local, and spoke neither Russian nor Lithuanian. When she reached the counter, she had difficulty explaining how many stamps she wanted. She meant 15, but said 50, in a soft accent, as people have in Israel. The postal clerk asked, “So many?” but started to count them out. The woman said, “No, no, I meant 15.” I spoke to her in Yiddish, and discovered she had been born in Kaunas, but lived in Israel. At first she regarded me suspiciously, thinking I might be one of her KGB followers. She had come to Lithuania from Moscow, where her husband, Liova Eliav,8 worked as first secretary in the Israeli embassy. I enjoyed talking with her, and asked her for a souvenir from Israel. She invited me to her hotel. I went but did not go to her room, remaining in the lobby. She brought me an Israeli newspaper, and we talked for more than an hour.
After we said goodbye, I went to the train station, where I was arrested. I was interrogated all night. In the morning I was released, but when I returned to Kaunas, I was not allowed to enter my factory. I was dismissed immediately from my job, and a couple of days later expelled from the Communist Party. I was jobless, but decided to continue writing my thesis. When I was presenting my paper someone there tried to arrange for me to fail, but I still succeeded. I was a very good student, receiving top marks.
I returned to Kaunas and looked for a job, but nobody was willing to hire me. Finally I wrote to the first secretary of` the Party central committee. I said I had been out of work for four months, with no way to feed my family, even though I had graduated from the law department of the university. I said if he did not help me, I would be forced to parade down Laisvės Alėja, [the main boulevard in central Kaunas] with a poster, saying “A Soviet lawyer is looking for a job as a janitor.” After awhile the municipal authorities called me in and offered me a job as a lawyer in a small shoe factory. I worked there until I retired, then I worked for a couple of years at the Vilnius Jewish museum. In 1975 I went to Israel for the first time. Eliav’s wife, with whom my troubles had begun with the KGB, came to visit me. She brought me a huge bouquet of roses.
My next encounter with the KGB occurred in the mid-1960s. In 1964 my cousin Chaim and his wife finally obtained permission to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. Chaim was very nervous, as leaving was extremely difficult at that time – even with a visa you couldn’t know if you’d be allowed to leave until the last minute. Ten days before their scheduled departure, Chaim had a heart attack and died. He was buried in Kaunas. I personally designed his tombstone, with an inscription and a star of David. Soon I was called in by the KGB and asked who instructed me to put a star on Chaim’s grave. I said it was my own idea.
In the 1960s there was an amateur Jewish theatre in Kaunas, which was a great rarity in the USSR; the only other one was in Kishinev [now Chišināu, the capital of Moldova]. Even Moscow didn’t have one. We staged plays by Sholem Aleichem, learned and sang Jewish songs. In our programs we highlighted the memory of Jews murdered during the war, and sometimes mentioned how local people had collaborated with the Germans. The Soviet authorities didn’t like that. We might not have been hard-core dissidents, but we were on the verge. We gave a large concert in 1963, on the anniversary of the Oct. 29, 1941 massacre in Kaunas, when about 10,000 Jews were killed. The KGB threatened to close the theater down.
In 1975 I filed papers to visit Israel. I didn’t intend to move there permanently, but I decided I would fight for the right to visit. My wife initially didn’t want to give her consent, which was required, as she feared I might stay there. I told her I would never leave my family; that wasn’t in my nature. If she didn’t believe me, I said, it would be better to separate. Eventually she agreed. To go to Israel at that time you also needed a letter of invitation from a close relative, which I did not have. With the help of a woman friend, a lawyer, I forged an invitation from my murdered sister, Beila, claiming she was living in Israel. My poor sister, who was in the mass grave with her little daughter Iona, did me one last favor. After I submitted the documents, I was summoned by the KGB and told I would never be let out of the country. Yet strangely, a while later I received a visa. This caused me so much stress that I ran a fever. Some Kaunas Jews shunned me, thinking I might be an informer. One even wrote to my friend in Israel, telling him to beware of me. The Israeli, who knew me perfectly well, laughed at that letter and even showed it to me.
In Israel I met some distant relatives, and most importantly saw my nephew Volodya. He had married a Jewish woman from Ukraine shortly after the war. He had two sons. Unfortunately my nephew had heart trouble; that was our first and last meeting after the war. Volodya died in 1976, aged 51. I went to Israel three times more during the Soviet time, and once in the 1990s.
I dreamed continually about immigrating to Israel, but my wife was against it, and I did not want to leave my daughter. My wife died in 1989. I did not marry again, and at my age then it was too late to move to Israel. My daughter Leya identifies as Jewish, and at the age of 16 she chose to have Jewish nationality written in her passport. She married twice, each time to non-Jews, which I was not pleased about, but retains my last name, Ronder. To my shame she moved to Germany in the 1990s, which was not acceptable to me. She invites me to visit, but I’m not going there. After the Holocaust, I think, Jews should have nothing to do with Germans. Leya has two children: David, born in 1976, named after my brother. He also took my family name, Ronder. He dreams of going to Israel with me. My granddaughter, Ethel, born in 1981, is studying at the university.
I always considered myself a great internationalist, but they forced me to become a nationalist. Since the war, a major part of my life has been dedicated to three tasks: finding Lithuanians who saved Jews, finding those who killed them, and also fighting antisemitism. Here are some examples.
In 1987 or 1988 a Jewish cemetery was vandalized: The criminals opened graves, trying to find gold teeth. They knew Jews do not bury their dead with jewelry, so they only removed heads. I filed a lawsuit, asking for only one ruble in compensation, to show it was not for my profit. The gang leader received a five-year sentence, and some of the others received four years. One of them, following his lawyer’s advice, said at first that he was sorry and wanted to apologize for defiling the graves. But after the sentence was announced, he shouted out that it was a pity that not all the Jews were shot.
I also helped many of those who had helped and saved Jews receive recognition as “righteous gentiles”.9 I have a sponsor, who assists such people. His parents were rescued by a miracle, escaping to Switzerland, though he now lives in the United States. He invited me there and I visited the States several years ago. I gave my list of the murderers and rescuers of Jews to the Holocaust museum in Washington. Thus I completed my mission.Once I found out that one of the Lithuanian murderers of Jews lived nearby. He was very rich and had a well-furnished apartment; he had plundered a lot of Jewish property during the war. I was aware of his testimony at one of the postwar trials, when they could not prove his participation in the roundups and murders. I was then writing anonymous letters to the murderers, warning them not to sleep quietly. I also wrote to this man, describing his awful deeds. His daughter read my letter, and asked her father if it was true. The father called it rubbish, but that day he hung himself in his bathroom. His daughter brought the letter to the militia department, which sent her to the KGB. Her case ended up before a Lithuanian major whom I had served with in the war. He knew immediately that it was my doing, as I wrote at least 20 letters of this kind.
Now I live in the independent Lithuanian Republic. Of course, it became easier for the Jews when they no longer needed to conceal their nationality, but antisemitism is still there, and it is more dangerous when it is hidden than it is out in the open. I know there are a lot of hidden antisemites around, but there is a small percentage of good people, in whom I have absolute trust. I am old and sick now. I transferred ownership of my apartment to a Lithuanian woman, Stepha, a granddaughter of a righteous gentile whom I also helped. Stepha lives here with her daughter. She is a great person. She looks after me and I trust her completely. We talk a lot on these issues and she, being Lithuanian, asked me once, why I am inclined against Lithuanians. I answered: Imagine you were me, and your entire family– mother, sister, everybody – had been killed. She loves her family very much, so she understood.
- Most likely Kudirkos Naujamiestis, in the Šakiai district, near what is today the border with Kaliningrad, formerly part of Germany.
- Communist youth political organization, created in 1918.
- Literally, “Young Guardian.”
- 1936 film about a Red Army naval detachment defending Petrograd from White Russian forces during the 1919 civil war.
- Anthem of the international worker’s movement and of the Soviet Union between 1918 and 1943.
- A Red Army unit made up of residents of the annexed former Lithuanian Republic. Around a third of its 10,000 soldiers were Jews. The unit took part in many battles during World War II and suffered a disproportionate share of casualties.
- Short for “istrebitels,” paramilitary “destruction brigades” made up of Soviet soldiers and Communist Party members, set up to combat anti-Soviet resistance fighters in the Baltic countries after World War II.
- Aryeh “Liova” Eliav, Moscow-born Israeli politician and member of the Knesset between 1965 and 1992.
- In Hebrew, “chasidei umot ha-olam,” – literally, “righteous among the nations” a designation given by the Israel museum Yad Vashem to gentiles who aided Jews during the Holocaust.