Righteous Among the Nations: Zháger (Žagarė)



Yad Vashem Award to be bestowed by Israel’s Ambassador to Lithuania 19th March 2013 at the Gymnasium (High School), Žagarė at 1300 hours
to honor

 EDVARDAS LEVINSKAS 1893-1975

TERESE LEVINSKIENE 1903-1949

LILIJA VILANDAITE 1900-1948

Edvardas Levinskas was a member of a group of Tolstoyans, supporters of the philosopher Lev Tolstoy, who advocated and preached humanity, spirituality, manual labor and a natural way of life.  The group, led by Juozis Petrulis, rescued and hid a number of Jewish families after arranging their escape from the Siauliai ghetto.  Edvardas’ wife, Terese, and her sister Lilija came from a German family. The Levinskas family was from Panevezys (Pónevezh) where Edvardas worked as supervisor of primary schools. Because of his opposition to the government he gave up his job in 1941 and moved to Žagarė, where Edvardas, Terese and Lilja worked in agriculture.  They got permission to employ Jewish laborers from the Žagarė ghetto to work in their fields, and obtained food for them, and helped them.   They were witnesses to the massacre of the Jews of Žagarė in October 1941.  In 1944 they gave shelter to Batya Trusfus and her granddaughter Ruth Yoffe who had escaped from the kinderaktion and liquidation of the Siauliai ghetto, with the help of Petrulis.  Ruth Yoffe stayed with Levinskas for a few days, and then moved to the Kalendra family. Batya Trusfus was hidden in the Levinskas house for eight months, the last months of the German occupation. Their son, Leonas Levinskas, was 12 years old at the time. He will receive the award on behalf of his parents.

In 1980 Petrulis was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.  In 2008 the other members of the group who had saved Jews from the Siauliai ghetto (among them other members of the Trusfus family) were honored by Yad Vashem: the Kalendra family (including the daughter Zofija Kalendraite Levinskienė, wife of Leonas Levinskas), the Plekavičius family, the Vaskys family and the Garbaciauskas family.  The Levinskas family was not honored in 2008 because the necessary testimony had not been recorded, and the file was incomplete.

In 2012 Sara Manobla, who lives in Jerusalem, was researching the history of Zháger’s Jewish community, and learned about the Levinskas family and the missing testimony. She found details of the Trusfus/Yoffe family on a family tree posted on the internet and discovered that the granddaughter Ruth Yoffe, now aged 77, was living nearby in Jerusalem.  She tracked her down, and recorded her memories of her childhood in Lithuania.  Ruth’s recollections of her grandmother, the escape from the ghetto, and the reunion after the war with her family were sufficient for Yad Vashem to complete the file and make the posthumous award of Righteous Among the Nations to Eduardas and Terese Levinskas and Lilija Vilandaite. The medals and certificates will be bestowed on the son Leonas Levinskas by the Israel Ambassador to Lithuania, Hagit Ben-Yaakov, on 19th March 2013 in Žagarė, at the Gymnasium High School.

TESTIMONY AND MEMOIRS FROM THE YAD VA SHEM FILE

1.         MEMOIR OF EDVARDAS LEVINSKAS, written in 1970, translation           from Lithuanian

In the summer of 1940 when the government changed in Lithuania, I was appointed supervisor of primary schools in the region and the town of Panevezys (Pónevezh in Yiddish). I worked in this until the beginning of 1941.  This was a difficult and responsible job, and there were many difficulties.  Afterwards I began to work in adult education in Panevesy and this was even more difficult, mainly because my views and my philosophy of life did not fit my job. I could not cope with this and so I resigned my post. I moved to Žagarė and here together with my wife’s sister Lilja we started to work in agriculture – growing fruit and flowers. My wife and her sister had learned this work from their parents, who worked the land.  Lilja had done this work all her life.  Then WWII came to Lithuania and to Žagarė. The town was occupied by the cruel Nazis.  During the occupation I did not have any official job and I had nothing to do with the Nationalists. Their private life, their false ideas were foreign to me. In the spring, the summer and the autumn I had a lot of work in the field. In my free time, mainly in the winter I busied myself with translating the writings of Tolstoy into Lithuanian. In these terrible times we suffered many tragedies.

In Žagarė the Jews were severely persecuted;  the children, pregnant women, the sick and the disabled were mistreated and abused, and also the strong and healthy population. Women were raped and then murdered.  On 2 October 1941, the date when the Jews were rounded up and murdered, my wife was with them, and she was grabbed because she tried to protect the Jews. During the nights some of the Lithuanians who called themselves Activists White Bands, started to kill the rich Jews, and to take their possessions.  It became clear that soon the rest of the Jews would be killed. My wife travelled to Siauliai to the Commissar Regional Governor, to speak about the situation of the Jews.  She thought that everything was the initiative of the Lithuanian activists.  She was not allowed to speak to the commissar. She went to other people whom she knew, wrote a letter, and sent it by post to the commissar, in her name and in the name of other righteous people.  She asked not to kill the innocent Jews, and by doing so to debase the German people, and to display humanity.  She signed this letter with her own name and address, and added that she was herself of German origin. When the commissar received the letter he decided that she must be insane, and gave the order to kill her together with the Jews. To carry out the order (on the day of the mass-killing of the Jews) he sent an SS office and told the murderers to bring my wife to the police station. The executioners came to our home and took her away. By chance she managed to escape death because of the help given by the Burgomeister Mayor of the town Rakshchu.  He found out that my wife was at the police station, went there, persuaded the German SS officer to meet him, and managed to make him drunk. Afterwards, he put the officer in his car, and ordered the driver to take him to Siauliai.  Later, towards evening, the mayor came to the police, and released my wife and let her go home. But this was not the end of the story.  Two weeks later, the same SS officer came and took out all my family from our house.  He demanded that my wife would recant all the main points in her letter to the commissar, and if she wouldn’t agree he threatened to shoot her. He was very angry, but he didn’t dare to use force, and simply commanded my wife to keep quiet about the fate of the Jews of Žagarė.

In the last days of the occupation, we hid a Jewish old woman, who had escaped from the Siauliai ghetto. Nobody turned us in, even though the neighbors were suspicious. We were very happy that in the autumn of 1944 her son came from Moscow and took her.  He wanted to give us money, but we told him we did this out of pity and not for profit. Both of them thanked us, and we parted as friends.  The old lady was the wife of the pharmacist, Trusfus, from the village Sabena.  The pharmacist Trusfus was killed in autumn 1941, in the village Grundys.

2.         MEMOIR OF LEONAS LEVINSKAS born 29.12.1931 in Žagarė,       translated from Lithuanian

My parents and all my family knew many of the Jews of the community.  I studied at school with Jewish children, and we were friends.  When I was ill, as a child, the Jewish doctor looked after me. With my family lived my aunt Lilja Vilandaite, 1900-1948.  In`1941 when the Germans conquered Lithuania and put the Jews in the ghetto, she managed to obtain from the authorities permission to use Jews as laborers in our garden.  Through them we maintained connection with the ghetto, and helped the people with food.  The workers came to us and returned, without armed guards. Some of the ghetto guards allowed people to bring food inside. Sometimes I went with Aunt Lilja to bribe the guards, and afterwards we took food into the ghetto and visited our friends. The Žagarė ghetto was surrounded with barbed wire, and was guarded by armed guards, mainly white bands activists.  In the Žagarė ghetto were Jews from Joni skis and from other places.  When we discovered that in the Žagarė Park they were digging a deep pit it was obvious to everyone that now they were going to kill the Jews. We advised our laborers to run away and hide with people. But they wouldn’t believe us, and others did not want to leave their relatives, and returned to the ghetto, and were killed with everyone.  It is our belief that on that day more than 3000 victims were killed. I do not know if anyone was saved.  No one spoke about this, and I was a child at the time. A special unit of German soldiers supervised the killing.  The officers took photographs and even filmed the happening. Another special unit of killers came which was in action throughout Lithuania. Among them were men born in Žagarė and nearby villages.  After the war most of them were imprisoned in Soviet camps, and died there.  There were some who became crazy from feelings of guilt, or became alcoholics.  This is how the killing was organized:  they ordered all the Jews on the day of the massacre to come to the Žagarė Town Square, to bring documents, food, and clothing.  They were told they would be taken to work camps. When everyone came to the square, surrounded by the killers, the German officer gave a speech, that they were taking them to a place where there were would be no problems, no suffering.  Panic set in, and the murderers began to shoot with explosive bullets and most of the people were lying on ground, completely blown apart. The wounded were killed off immediately.  Afterwards the bodies were loaded on trucks and taken to the Naryshkin park and thrown into the pit.  The rest of the ghetto inhabitants were taken from their houses by the murderers who ordered them to lie down on the trucks, one on top of the other.  Those that were alive they beat and raped them. By the pit they were ordered to undress , take off their shoes, and jump into the pit. A layer of bodies was covered with earth, and then another group of victims was shot and thrown into the pit. All the killers were drunk.  Some of them couldn’t cope with the situation, and started to run away, and they were shot.  On the day of the murder, I saw in our street some men running away from the town center.  The shots went right by me.  I fell down on the earth and crawled to the garden of our house. I saw that these men entered the courtyard of another house.  I heard people shouting, and the noise of trucks.

Next day I went to school, as usual through the Town Square.  The dead bodies had gone, but there were pools of blood, lots of documents, scraps of food, pieces of torn clothing, and remainders of flesh and blood. Even though the square was flushed out with hosepipes by the fire brigade, the blood stains remained for another month on the paving stones.  I saw how they brought to the pit more Jews, who had escaped the first killing, mostly women and children and one old man. There were people who went to the ghetto and took everything from the houses. Gold, silver, jewelry and money, and all the valuable things were taken by the murderers.  The less valuable things were sold at a public auction.  My family was very upset by the happenings. My father’s hair went white because of this. And in protest I refused to learn German in school (and I never regretted this).

A month later my father and I returned from the fields which were at the outskirts of the town.  A German officer caught up with us, with skull and crossbones on his hat, He took out his pistol with one hand, and with the other hand he grabbed my father by his beard, and said to him:  “You are a Jew”.  He kicked me aside with his foot. Father said that he was Lithuanian, married to a German, and if the officer would come with us, his wife would explain everything to him, in German.  The officer ordered my father to walk in front of him, with his arms raised, and walked behind him with the pistol aimed at my father.  Mother explained that my father was not a Jews, the beard notwithstanding,  The officer asked her why her family had not returned to Germany.  Because of this the family was suspect, and would receive the same fate as the Jews.  Afterwards he gave me a piece of chocolate, which I threw into the toilet after he left.

In 1944 an old lady came to our house, with a little girl. I was told that they were Russian refugees. Later the little girl was taken to another family, and the old lady stayed with us. At this time we lived in a very small house, with a kitchen and two small rooms. The old lady was always locked in one of the rooms.  At this time a German unit was based in Žagarė.  Because Mother and her sister spoke German, the Germans used to drop into our house for a chat.  On the doors between the rooms there was no lower strip.  The old lady, who didn’t hear well, wanted to listen to the conversation, and came right up to the door and her shoes could be seen on the other side of the door.  It was lucky that no-one asked who was in the other room.  Because the Germans used to come to our house, it helped us to hide her.  No one would suspect that a Jew was hiding in the house where Germans came to visit.   The old lady had a typical Jewish appearance, and had a Jewish accent. She knitted for us socks and gloves, which we wore and were grateful for.   The little girl was called Ruta Yoffeite, and the old lady was her grandmother.

Juozas Petrulis and his friends helped them to escape from the ghetto.  He was then living in Siauliai and was a friend of my father.  My future wife, Zofia Kalendraite, 1928 born, was living at this time with our family, and was studying at the Gymnasia in Žagarė. In the summer holiday she would return to her family. Her father had similar ideas to my father.  In the occupation time he helped Jews, brought food to the Siauliai ghetto and hid Jews in his house, and in the houses of other farmers. These Jews were saved from death, and succeeded in surviving until the arrival of the Soviet army.  I want to note that also there were Lithuanians who during the occupation were officials or worked in the police, and they helped those who were hiding Jews by giving advance warning of searches.  During the searches the Jews were taken to hiding places in the forest. I do not know the names of the Jews who were hidden by Kalendra and others.   The daughters of Kalendra can tell more.

1945 my family and Lilja were sent to Tajikstan because we were a German family.  In 1950 I was ill with dysentery.

3.         LETTER FROM RUTH’S AUNT ETA TRUSFUS translated from     Lithuanian

After the war in 1945 Eta Trusfus wrote an account of their noble actions and sent it to the Lithuanian Communist Party, asking for them to be officially recognized.

Dear Friends!

Forgive me for taking up your precious time. This letter is written in gratitude and wonderment for the people who sacrificed themselves in order to save other people. I am one of the few Lithuanian Jews who were saved from the Fascist criminals. All my family – father, two sisters, family of my brother, husband and all his family – were murdered by the Hitlerites.  Those who were saved – myself, my mother and the two small children of my sister – were saved only because of the self- sacrifice and the humanity of some Lithuanian citizens. In my opinion, their acts were acts of heroism. I would wish that all our country would know about them, the finest sons and daughters of our country.

Juozas Petrulis, now lives in Vilnius and works at the National Education Museum. Even though I did not know him before, we- myself, my mother and my niece and nephew – lived in his apartment in Siauliai until other hiding places were found for us. Notwithstanding the danger to his life, he did his duty as a human being. Afterwards, when my mother (Batya Trusfus) an old lady of 80, had to leave the previous hiding place and return to Siauliai, Comrade Petrulis came in the full light of day to the place where she was waiting for him, and found another hiding place for her. My sister’s daughter (Ruth Yoffe) stayed with him in Siauliai until rumors began to circulate that Petrulis was helping Jews and was a communist. Petrulis was forced to leave Siauliai, but before leaving he found another hiding place for the child with good hearted people.

Andrejus Kalendra a resident of the village Senaukiai hid me, my nephew (my sister’s son Misha Yoffe) and another Jewish child. For 11 months he fed us and protected us from danger.  Povilas and Paulina Alekna from Lepine protected my sister’s daughter (Ruth Yoffe) for 8 months, fed her and looked after her as if she were their own child. Levinskas family, and their sister Lilija Vilandaite, residents of Žagarė, for 11 months hid, fed and looked after my mother (Batya Trusfus).

All these people, who did so much for us, were not known to us before. As time passes and we are more distant from the terrible period and the terrible happenings, the feeling of wonderment at their doings grows ever stronger, as does our wish to show our gratitude. I would like everyone to know about them, not only their acts of heroism, but also their acts of love for the homeland.

SIGNED:  Eta Trusfus Kolodnaya, now living in Kazan.

Juozas Petrulis, a resident of Siauliai, an archaeologist and a scholar of Lithuanian folklore, was the leader of this group of Tolstoyans who organized the rescue of a number of Jewish families.  It was he who arranged for Batya Trusfus, Ruth Yoffe and other members of the family to escape from the Siauliai ghetto and come to his home where they were hidden. When the neighbors’ suspicions were aroused he arranged new hiding places for them.  In 1967 Ruth visited Petrulis, and she remembers him with great affection and gratitude.  After the war Ruth’s mother Riva Trusfus Yoffe wrote to Petrulis:

4.         LETTER TO PETRULIS FROM RIVA TRUSFUS YOFFE taken from        the book “Soldiers without Arms”, by Sofija Binkiene (Lithuanian)

There are no words to express my thanks to you for saving my family. I cannot compensate you for what you have done, and I will express my profound gratitude till my dying days. My daughter Ruta calls you “the good uncle” and my mother Batya calls you “the angel”.

MEMORIES OF RUTH YOFFE RECORDED BY SARA MANOBLA

The following is an extract from “Accepting Žagarė” by Sara Manobla, soon to be published.

Grandmother Batya and Ruth lived in the Siauliai ghetto for two years, crammed into one small room with other members of their family, three women and four children.  Ruth’s mother, Riva Yoffe, a doctor, had been sent by the departing Soviets at the outbreak of war to work in a military hospital in Russia; her father had been drafted into the Red Army and was killed in battle in 1943. Their children, Ruth and her brother Misha, had been left in the care of their grandmother. Together with them in the ghetto were two of Ruth’s aunts – her mother’s sister, Eta, and her mother’s sister-in-law Irle with her daughter, also called Riva.  Ruth remembers that there was another girl, a teenager, who looked after the children during the day when the women, after the morning roll-call, were taken to work outside the ghetto.  In the evening the women would return with food hidden in their clothing. If caught they could be killed.  Grandmother Batya did not go out to work.  Her granddaughter remembers her ill in bed, lying down.  In the room was a folding sofa bed. Here were kept the valuables which the family had managed to bring with them from their home town of Pasvitin. This was the currency used to buy the food which Lithuanians from outside would smuggle into the ghetto. The folding sofa bed was closed during the day.  Ruth has a memory of German policemen coming into the room with a dog, asking for a drink and sitting on the sofa, with the family treasures hidden inside.

In November 1943 came the kinderaktion, the round-up which would eliminate all the children in the Siauliai ghetto.  The inhabitants had some advance warning, and desperately tried to save their offspring. Somehow Ruth’s aunt made a connection with people outside the ghetto.   Ruth remembers a Lithuanian woman who twice came to the house and talked for a long time with Aunt Eta.  Eta gave her some of the family’s possessions to take out of the ghetto, as they would have to leave without any baggage. When the woman left after the first visit she took with her Aunt Irle and her daughter Riva.   They were never seen again. Ruth gave testimony to Yad Vashem that they were killed when attempting to escape from the ghetto.  The fate of the child-minder is unknown.   Next day when their absence was noticed, the police came and said they would keep under surveillance those who remained to make sure they did not escape.  Ruth drew for me a sketch of the ghetto as she remembered it, the parallel inner streets surrounded by an outer street. One side of the street was closed off by a barbed wire fence, and under the barbed wire was an opening, a dip or hollow dug out of the earth, and covered with a board.  Ruth doesn’t know who excavated it. One night the four family members crawled under the fence through the dip and escaped from the ghetto.  No one saw them. Some distance from the ghetto they met by arrangement the same Lithuanian woman. She took them in a horse-drawn cart to a house where they were hidden in the attic.  From here the refugees were taken to different homes, and moved whenever there was a fear they might be discovered. Batya, Eta, Ruth and Misha were among the few from the Siauliai ghetto who managed to escape the murderous attackers. “We were saved by God”, sighs Ruth as she remembers those tense hours of fear and danger. “We children were constantly told to be quiet.”  Her eyes fill with tears, her voice cracks as the memories come flooding back.

The final chapters of the Trusfus-Yoffe saga I heard from Ruth on my next visit to Rehov Bar Yochai.  After the end of World War II the surviving members of the family – Batya, Ruth, Misha and Eta – were reunited with Riva, Ruth’s mother, and left Lithuania, never to return.  They moved to the Russian city of Kazan, where Batya’s eldest son had settled many years previously.  Here Ruth spent the remaining years of her childhood, trained as an engineer, married, and gave birth to her son Ya’akov.  Following the break-up of her marriage she became increasingly attracted to Jewish spirituality and learning. Throughout the Soviet era religious observance and practice were frowned upon, and Ruth was frustrated in her attempts to learn Hebrew and study Jewish subjects. Emigration to Israel was not allowed in this the period of the refuseniks. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the gates Ruth did not hesitate.  Soon she was on her way to Israel, to fulfill her heart’s desire and make a new life in Israel for herself and her son.

Shortly after her arrival in Jerusalem in 1991 Ruth made her way to Yad Vashem.  She She

Her wish was to commemorate those members of her family who had been murdered by the Nazis, among them her aunt Irle and cousin Riva with whom she had lived in the ghetto.   Since its establishment in 1953, Yad Vashem has been collecting testimony with the aim of preserving the memory of every victim of the Holocaust.  Ruth filled out a form with details of the life and death of six of her relatives – her grandfather, her father, her aunt, and three of her cousins.  But she was not aware of the Yad Vashem project which commemorates the Righteous Among the Nations and their heroism in saving Jewish lives.  She left Yad Vashem without leaving the testimony needed to make the prestigious award to the people in Lithuania who had saved the lives of her grandmother Batya and herself.  It was this missing testimony which had held up the award to the Levinskas family of Žagarė.

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