chapter  10
THE HOLOCAUST IN THE USSR: THE JEWISH AND WORLD RESPONSE, 1941–1944
Pages 21

The Germans aimed to keep the mass extermination secret. But Jews who escaped death pits and a few bystanders supplied information to some ghettos. Jews in Lithuania and Latvia were

the first subjected to mass killing, and most were killed between July and December 1941. At first, they did not accept the truth. In July 1941, Jewish Council members in Vilna thought news of mass shootings in Ponary was “an unfounded rumor.” 1 The same was true in Latvia. “We in Riga didn’t believe,” remembered survivor Eliezer Karstadt, “that the Jews were taken away and shot. . . .” 2 But additional witnesses forced realization. “We saw it with our own eyes,” reported six survivors from Ponary after making it back to Vilna in September. “There were whole mountains of people. . . .” “Is it possible,” asked Vilna diarist Herman Kruk, “that all of those taken out of here have been murdered? If heaven is heaven,” he wrote, “it should start pouring down lava.” 3

The truth arrived differently elsewhere. In the shtetl of Nowogródek in Belarus, large-scale killing did not begin until December 8, 1941, when German and Lithuanian police murdered 4,500 Jewish men, women, and children just a few kilometers from town. Jewish Council members there had already been shot. “Those of us who are still alive,” wrote Lyuba Rudnicki, “begin to comprehend that gradually all of us will be killed. . . . [The] Germans promised that the ones who were allowed to live were needed. . . . Despite that, the aspiration for most of us is to get out of the ghetto. But where can we hide?” 4

Matters were more obvious in Lida in Belarus, where mass killing began on May 8, 1942. German and local police killed more than 5,000 Jews just a short distance from town, tossing hand grenades in a pit with children. Days later police units moved to the nearby shtetl of Radun´, shooting Jews just a half-kilometer from the ghetto. “After hearing these shots,” remembered Avraham Aviel, “we were in no doubt that this was our last day on earth.” 5

Survival Through Work

Slim chances of survival depended on many factors, most beyond Jewish control. Testimonies reflect raw, overwhelming fear. Ilya Gerber, a teenager in Kovno, recorded how Jews fought for placement in labor brigades that they thought might preserve their families. “Nothing but ‘I’ existed,” he wrote, “‘my children, my wife, they are hungry, they ask for food, I must bring them something today.’” 6 In this perverse world, strangers were sometimes protected first. A work permit in Vilna could preserve four lives. “I had permission to register two children,” recalled Mark Dworzecki, who had none. “I wasn’t able to register my mother and father. . . . I took my sister and recorded her as my daughter. . . . In the midst of the general confusion, I suddenly saw a boy walking along and shouting, ‘Who wants to be my father?’ and I said, ‘I shall be your father.’ I gave him the slip. . . . We went as a family on the day of selection-I, my wife, my sister . . . and the boy, whose identity was unknown to me, who had become my son.” 7

Jews who survived as workers depended on Germany’s need for them, their own endurance, and luck. The largest German forced labor project in the USSR was Durchgangsstrasse IV

(Transit Road 4), a supply highway begun in September 1941 that was to run 2,175 kilometers through Lvov to southeast Ukraine. Crude labor camps dotted the route. The Germans worked prisoners to death, first Soviet POWs and, in 1942, Jews imported from Transnistria (the Germans had already shot most Jews from eastern Ukraine). Arnold Daghani and his wife Anisoara survived for an entire year in the camp at Mikhailovka before escaping in 1943. Daghani was an artist, and the German engineers wanted portraits of themselves. He repeatedly saw German and Lithuanian guards shoot Jewish workers at random. “My mind,” Daghani wrote in his diary, “simply refuses to understand all that is going on around me.” 8 After their escape, the Daghanis learned that the entire Mikhailovka camp population was murdered over the course of six hours. 9

Survival Through Hiding

Thousands of Jews trapped in ghettos, especially those without work permits, hid during Aktionen in self-built hiding places called malines . “An underground town was established,” remembered Dworzecki in Vilna. “Every simple house had a built-in hideout-either in the cellars or in the attic walls, or below a well, or beneath a lavatory or under any storeroom.” 10 But malines hardly guaranteed survival. They had to be used for days at a time. Police searched for them, became increasingly angry as they did so, and shot or threw grenades into possible hiding spaces. “People are usually discovered,” remembered one partisan from Minsk, “because of the children. Children cannot sit in complete silence and endure the hunger that lasts for days on end, the unbearably stuffy air, the darkness. They start to get fidgety and cry, which leads to the discovery of the maline .” 11

In Kovno, Jewish physicians injected children with sedatives before suspected Aktionen , the more mature among the children saying, “Doctor, it isn’t necessary, I’ll keep quiet, I won’t shout.” 12 Mothers in rural areas drugged their children with poppy seeds, and children played games based on silence in malines . But according to some, “nobody wanted a family with a baby . . . life for those with small children was even more precarious than for everybody else.” 13

During the Aktion in Radun´ in May 1942, adults hiding in a hayloft surrounded Zipporah Sonenson, whose baby Shaul would not stop whimpering. “He is just a baby,” said one. “We are all adults. Because of him we are all going to be murdered.” 14 Zipporah watched in horror as the adults smothered the infant. When the Aktion was over she catatonically rocked the dead infant. Days later she buried him. Other parents preferred their own deaths. In the Koretz ghetto in Volhynia in western Ukraine, a man strangled a crying infant in front of its mother. She surrendered herself to the Germans. “My conscience,” she said to the others, “does not permit me to stay here with you.” 15

Regardless, malines increasingly presented difficulties for the Germans and their auxiliaries. Wilhelm Kube, the general commissioner for the Belarus General District, received a report that in Dokshytsy, where the Germans killed 2,652 Jews in May 1942, “Jews in the ghetto had been so good at hiding that it took a full week to find the last of them.” 16 The Germans resorted to demolition. With the Soviets approaching Kovno in June 1944, Aharon Peretz remembered that the Germans “blew up the malines and following the explosion people emerged . . . wounded and stifled by the smoke. . . . All the remaining bunkers, which they were unable to discover easily, were blown up in the course of time, and then about 1,500 to 2,000 people were killed inside these bunkers. People emerged alive from only two. . . . When we left the ghetto it was all in flames.” 17

Jews could rarely hide with gentiles for long stretches of time. Most Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Belarusian, or Ukrainian gentiles were indifferent or hostile to Jews. Some collaborated with the Germans. Some hid Jews as long as Jews could pay and kicked them out afterward. But many inclined to help were simply afraid. Avraham Aviel escaped from Radun´ in May 1942 and hid with a Pole named Ancilowicz for several months. “If [the Germans] had found Jews in his house,” remembered Aviel, “he would have been killed, destroyed. No trace of him would have remained. . . . Naturally, in such circumstances, people were afraid to take us in.” 18

Jews worried for gentile rescuers. During an Aktion in Vilna in October 1941, the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever knocked on a door hoping for a miracle. “A barefoot old woman [named Yanova Bartoshevitch] opened the door,” he remembered. “My tongue was paralyzed. . . . She let me in, locked the door behind me, drew the curtain across the window and said, ‘Keep calm. I’ll hide you. . . . ’ She took me down to the cellar. . . .” Yanova’s husband, a street sweeper, agreed that “[w]e must help people in trouble.” The couple contacted Sutzkever’s family in the ghetto and passed them food. Sutzkever worried for his protectors’ safety and for his own family. “I couldn’t stay there any longer,” he remembered, “I returned to the blood-drenched streets of the ghetto.” 19 Sutzkever’s mother and newborn son were later murdered. He survived the war as a resistor.