A Secret Revealed? On Destruction of the Jewish Community of Betygala, Lithuania




H I S T O R Y

by Aleksandras Vitkus and Chaim Bargman

Betygala (in Yiddish: Betigóle) is one of the oldest towns in Samogitia (Žemaitija), known since the time of Duke Mindaugas in the thirteenth century. The small town is located about 2 kilometers from the River Dubysa, near the little Vieversa stream. The surroundings of Betygala are very beautiful, especially the valley, shores and effluents of the River Dubysa. In Betygala we can find the monument of Vytautas the Great which remained standing even during the Soviet period.

Before the Second World War the Jewish community consisted of fourteen to sixteen Jewish families. An ethnographer E. Skudrienė registered the Jewish families in Betygala and indicated that there were fourteen Jewish families in Betygala during the interwar period. There was a chemist, a doctor, a number of traders, some of them undertook agricultural activities. The Jews in Betygala had their own synagogue, destroyed after the war (RKŽ,140,150).

Nowadays there is no Jewish community in Betygala. Most of the Jews were killed at the beginning of the war in June or July 1941. Only a few local Jews who had at the homes of people of Betygala, far away from the center of the country, in rarely visited granges, were lucky to survive. They left the area after the war. Today it is difficult to trace in literature and on the internet where and how the Jewish community was destroyed.

According to Joseph Levinson (SK,147) and according to the map of the mass grave sites which was composed by the Vilnius Gaon State Jewish Museum, the main site of death of the Jews in Betygala is in Ariogala, 2 kilometers from the small town, on the south shore of the River Dubysa. There is a monument there to the Jews killed (SK,147).

The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum indicates three additional Jewish massacre sites on the map of the Jewish mass graves: Antupyčiai, Zaciškės and Pilkalnis villages which are located in the area of Betygala. There is however a note that these sites were ascertained using the memories of the local inhabitants but they were not researched, the territories not indicated and they were not included into the lists of the protected objects. There are not any signs of commemoration. In the book The Jews in the Raseiniai Region (by L. Kantautienė, Kronta, 2004) the director of Raseiniai Museum L. Kančiauskienė indicates that the Jews in Betygala were killed in the surroundings of the village (RKŽ,83). Marijona Birutė Navakauskienė (a museum specialist), Ramunė Jasulaitienė (a teacher) and Emilija Skudrienė (a specialist in regional studies) collected the narration of the witnesses about the death of the Jews in Betygala in the article “The Jews in Betygala” (RKŽ,140-151). The narration of the witnesses are presented here which indicate that these three villages in the surroundings of Betygala are where the Jews from Betygala were killed.

The authors decided to travel together to Betygala to look for any signs of the Jewish community and the places of their destruction.

There is a mound located to the south of Betygala near the village of Pilkalnis. This is the place where the chemist Kogan and his wife were killed in the hollow of Arkliai between the mounds in July 1941. When other Jews were taken to the temporary ghettos, the chemist and his wife were allowed to work in Betygala for some time because the new government still needed a pharmacist. Moreover, the priest Janulaitis interceded with them as much as he could. When the resources of the medicine decreased, the chemist Kogan and his wife were taken for fusillade. When the lorry turned from the highway to the path, leading towards the direction of the hollow Pilkalnis, the victims began to move about and shuffle. At that point, three Lithuanian murderers, Veliuona, Povilaitis and Gečas killed them immediately. They were taken dead to the hollows. After the shots, two brothers Jarovskiai peeped out of their caches and they were also killed immediately. According to the narration of the witnesses T. Stankūnas and K. Stepulienė, the rabbi of Betygala Abelis Jarauskas (Jarovskis) and his brother were also killed (RŽK,142,150). M.B. Navakauskienė suggests (RŽ,142) that one of the brothers Leibas Zivas (Leyb Ziv), who transported trades and had a house of call, was killed.

“Local people narrate that the priest Jonas Plankys (he established the library in Betygala before the war) asked all hiding Jews to come to the church for baptism in order to avoid the German persecution. Then, all those Jews who gathered in the church were arrested and taken to the River Upytė and killed. […] There is a witness statement, written by Aronas Smolenkis’s daughter Birutė (B. Šlapikienė) on the 12th of August, 1994 that “this priest was going around the village and gathering Jews himself.” 

Another site of murder of the local Jews is the village Antupyčiai village. Considerable information is presented in the narration of the witnesses recorded by museum specialist Emilija Skudrienė. In the summer of 1941 the Jews (about five of them) who were guarded in Pažvirintis, in the manor of Jagučianskienė (in the barn), were brought to the River Upytė from the Ugoniai and were killed in Antupyčiai. A small ghetto was established in Antupyčiai (the Jewish Smolensky family had lived there before the war) when a further group of Jews were brought here from Betygala and spent a few days here in the barn (RKŽ,142,149).

A witness, Petrūna Jukilaitytė-Gailiūvienė indicates that in 1942 (she could be confusing the year) the Jews were killed here (RKŽ,148). A witness J. Štuikytė-Andriukaitienė with other children tore a plank in the barn and observed the groups of Jews who were shot in fusillades in the basements (RKŽ,149). From all these only one, Aronas Smolenskis (Smolensky) escaped by hiding at the farmer’s Dominykas Viščius. Local people narrate that the priest Jonas Plankys (he established the library in Betygala before the war) asked all hiding Jews to come to the church for baptism in order to avoid the German persecution. Then, all those Jews who gathered in the church were arrested and taken to the River Upytė and killed. There is a testimony written by Aronas Smolenkis’s daughter Birutė (B. Šlapikienė) on the 12th of August, 1994 where there is a note that “this priest was going around the village and gathering Jews himself.”

Viščiuvienė advised Smolenskis not to go to the church. That is how he avoided death! After the war Smolenskis married Viščius’s daughter and started a family (two sons and one daughter). During the period of modern independent Lithuania Smolenskis’s children got the land and a monument was built an the Jewish massacre site but the Smolenskis family did not know who inspired its building and when. Dominykas Misius, an inhabitant of Antupyčiai, presented us with important information that around 1942 the Jews in Betygala were killed in Antupyčiai village and reburied in Ariogala(?). Then, the monument appeared at the Antupyčiai Jewish massacre site. It was built by the builders who repaired Požėčiai School but it was not completely finished. This is a stony pyramid with a stony case on it. There is a niche in the monument and a space left for a record but it was not done completely. There are a lot of stones gathered around the monument which could be a perfect decoration for the monument. It is very difficult to find the monument without help of the local people because there are no signs indicating this monument and you need to go straight down the field 200 meters far from the simple village road. The government of Betygala ought to do it. The monuments should be meaningful and findable and not stand derelict.

The third Jewish massacre site is Začišiai village which is located beyond Ilgižiai and Ročiai. Far away, the Jews were brought to a spot about a kilometer from Ročiai to Začišiai Grange (Začišiai Jewish property) the Jews from Ilgižiai and Betygala. According to a witness G. Gudauskienė (Mačianskaitė), three trucks full of Jews passed through Kymantai, Didkaimis, by the way to Krakės and turned towards Začišiai village. They were taken to the barn (it was like a ghetto) and stayed there for three days. They were not allowed to leave the property.

As E. Skudrienė suggests (RKŽ, 146), Mina Vinikaitė who lived at the place of her uncles, Berelis and Sliomas Vinikas (Berl and Shloyme Vinik), understood that something was going on in the barn and one early morning she took the cows to the fields and used the opportunity to hide in the forest. She moved to Israel after the war.

Witness M. B. Navakauskienė (RKŽ, 142) indicates that the Jews were taken out from the barn and were killed on the edge of the pit, near the forest. The Jews in Začišiai village were killed by the farmers from Ilgižiai. It was suggested that the Jews were killed in Daugirdas wood near the ditch there. Only one Jewess escaped, one of the Zivaičiai (Zivaytsh) sisters. When the shots ceased, she came out of the hole and found a shelter in Lukauskai homestead. A knoll of ground was fenced after the war as an eternal Jewish resting place (a narration of the witness Vincas Akstinas; RKŽ,147-148). Nowadays, there are no homesteads here, the Jewish property’s borders and structural foundation disappeared.

According to witnesses, after the war the death place was fenced and later the mass-shot people were reburried, perhaps in Ariogala. Today some age-old oaks are still left and there is a cross next to the one oak which reminds the bypasser about the former life here.

As it is indicated in some sources, the Jews in Betygala were killed in Ariogala. In July – August, 1941 the Jews in Ariogala were brought to the ghetto – into two big synagogue buildings fenced by a stone wall with an iron gate (RKŽ,134; Bub02,43). On the 14th of August, 1941 the Jews from Josvainiai rural district (about 200 people) were brought to Ariogala. However, the Jews from Betygala were not mass-shot here and only around the period 1962 to 1965 were they reburried from the Jewish massacre place in Antupyčiai. The exact date should be searched in the archives of Ariogala and Betygala rural districts.

Individual Jews were also killed in other places. As M.B. Navakauskienė’s recorded testimony indicates that Volf Todrasavič, by nickname Ulfa, was killed in Šilininkai village. According to E. Skudrienė, a sawyer Grabauskis was killed in the slope near the River Dubysa, going to the mill of Maslausiškės.


A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S

Sincere thanks to the former geographer museum specialist Marijona Birutė Navakauskienė and to specialist of regional studies Emilija Skudrienė for  information provided about the Jewish community in Betygala and for visiting together with us the Jewish massacre sites.

This entry was posted in Cemeteries and Mass Graves, Chaim Bargman, History, Lithuania, Litvak Affairs, News & Views, Opinion. Bookmark the permalink.
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