The Jewish Tragedy in the Baltic States


by Roland Binet (Braine-l’Alleud, Belgium)



I   War

II   Ghetto

III   The Killing Pits

IV   Liberation

V   Remembrance


I  War

Saturday had been a warm day and so had been the night leading to Sunday. It had been a pleasant day despite the persistent rumors of war coming soon. Very early this Sunday morning, just before dawn, there had been weird rumblings, sounds in the sky, as if gigantic bumblebees had suddenly decided to invade the air. Many adults had woken up, nervous, anxious. The Germans were not the only ones capable of atrocities as they had already proved in Poland. The Soviets, too, were brutes. Just a week ago, sounds had broken through the night serenity as NKVD  men had invaded homes and taken men and sometimes entire families to be deported to Siberia. Making no differences between Balts and Jews.

Soon enough, crashing sounds resonated and soon enough, there was not any doubt any more about the cause of these sounds. They were definitely coming from the sky. From airplanes. The rumors must have been true. Something awful was truly happening.  Windows and doors were cracked open, eyes looked at the sky, perceiving reddening colors waving above roofs or houses far away. Flames, fires, certainly. Caused by bombs. The younger generations of Jews had not known war, but the older ones remembered how artillery fire sounded like. And these far-off echoes one heard now were similar to these dreadful incoming shells.

And then, suddenly, fear gripped them. The Jews. Who saw what they imagined was the beginning of war and what they had feared most. A war that would see German troops coming to their country, to their homes. Because they already knew what kind of particular hell their brethren in Poland had been going through since September of 1939. There had been tales, there had been rumors, there had been verbal reports, there had been clandestine whispers brought on by courageous men and women coming directly from the ghettos of Poland and speaking of unthinkable acts of barbarity committed there by the Nazis.

But suddenly, hope surged again. They realized that the Soviet Army, the invincible Red Army, was on their side. That these brave soldiers would defend them, protect them. They sighed with some degree of contentment. They were in good and safe hands.

Yes, some Soviet soldiers fought with abnegation, sometimes to the death.  Others fled, in disarray, because their officers panicked or were cowards. Nationalistic autochthonous bands of resolute and armed men had appeared as if from nowhere, as if from the entrails of the earth, and fired at the Red Army soldiers. The NVD troops were not inferior to the ordinary Soviet Army soldiers. They fought too. They liquidated all enemies of the Soviet State held in their jails prior to fleeing. But they did flee in a disciplined way, liquidating Soviet deserters and cowards as a side-show, putting barricades on the way in order to push away, to order back, those civilians — including the Jews —who had mistakenly thought that the great Soviet “Rodina’[1] would welcome them in the hinterland of the gigantic Soviet Union.

Soon, after some hours in some places, after some days in other places, but very quickly, too quickly, there were sounds of tracked vehicles appearing in the street bearing the hated Swastika.  Heavy tanks and half-tracks, followed by troops marching in on foot or transported in trucks.

The Jews, hidden behind their curtains, looked eagerly but anxiously at these German soldiers, nailed boots clinking on the pavement, walking erect, grinning, receiving flowers and kisses from the native inhabitants.  These soldiers were not conquerors, they were liberators, it seemed.

The same night, the very night of “liberation” by the Germans, knocks were heard on the doors of some homes. Jewish homes and apartments. Undesirable visitors came into houses, into apartments. They had recognizable armbands bearing the colors of self-proclaimed militias. Others had not bothered to put on any armbands. They all were marauding thugs intent on taking revenge on the hated Jews. They were not too violent at first, not overtly. They only took the Jewish husbands in order to have them killed in adjoining forests or put into jails to be tortured and killed later. And of course, some of these unwanted visitors availed themselves of these opportunities to steal. A kind of due compensation. Taking back what the Jews had stolen from their country, from them.  But very quickly, these roving bands turned more violent. And the German military or Sicherheitsdienst authorities barely needed to push them to it. Rumors had already been circulated that the Jews were totally or partly responsible for the Balts killed by the NKVD and found in their jails. There had been persistent tales that the Jews were friendly with the Soviets, that they had welcomed the Soviet Army in 1940.  That they helped the NKVD.

Spontaneous pogroms occurred in the Baltic States, mainly in the cities.  The level of violence and barbarity that took place in these early days of “liberation” by the Germans was such that it attested to a deep-seated antisemitism in the local populations.  A primitive, predatory antisemitism that could only find its resolution not only in killing the Jews but also in treating them as less worthy than animals, in defacing, debasing their very bodies.

The Jews were defenseless because over the years they had lived in some kind of harmony with their Baltic neighbors and thought, mistakenly it seems, that no harm would come to them, at least not from that quarter. Friendly former neighbors or inhabitants of a tolerant country who now cut Jewish heads or limbs off, gouged Jewish eyes, squashed Jewish heads. These Balts, raging and on a killing-spree, made no differences, children and women had not been spared. These manifestations of a killing upsurge by nationalists and anti-Semites were of such an inhuman and barbaric nature that one could have thought that these killers had reverted to a Neanderthal state of psychological development.

But soon enough, the Nazis took the direction of the affairs. Of the Jewish affairs.  Which became extinct as they, the cursed Jews, had immediately — as if by a magical sleight of hand — harked back to an official and military state of non-being.  They had ceased to exist, these cursed Jews. Collectively and individually. The fact that hundreds of thousands of them were still living in the Baltic States at that time, during the first weeks of liberation by the German army, was an oddity in itself

Soon to be solved in a grandiose way.  As befits the parasites that they were, these pests of the Jewish race and creed.  That painful blot on the pure Aryan blood.

II  Ghetto

Orders, diktats, proclamations, interdictions, were trumpeted by the Nazi occupiers.

Soon, in the bigger cities, ghettos — as if in ancient Venice —  were created, walls, fences, barriers, were erected in order to prevent free movement to and from these special exclusion zones where only Jews were going to live.

The Jews were then forced to leave their – sometimes ancestral – homes or apartments, nearly all their belongings and properties, in order to “settle” in these zones protected from the outside world – the real world – by armed guards and barbed wire.

The Jews were then placed under their own “Jewish” jurisdiction with their own Jewish council and police.  A kind of make-believe world, as if there still had been a semblance of real life in what rapidly turned out to become the first circle of a hell Dante would never have imagined possible.

Food rapidly became scarce, water was a rarity, there was of course no electricity and barely warming. Scavenging became a profession, an art, a craft, a goal of life.  Bartering valuables against food another.  Bribing corrupt Germans, Balts, or even Jewish policemen or council members, became a craft too.

But the final fate of the Jews had been decided on in higher places. They were parasites, yes, but parasites that could be squashed and used and bled until they dropped dead, because the German war industry, the continuity of life in the Baltic States outside the ghettos and jails for the Jews, needed workers. Even parasitic workers.

Thus, before being erased from the sight of the world, the Jews were not allowed to live at leisure. They were forced into work kommandos which left the ghettos under armed escorts to walk to the places where they would toil as slaves. Yet, after the daily departure to work of the slaves, dark birds of prey walked the streets of the ghettos, killing haphazardly or with intent. Cold-bloodedly or in a flaming rage. No one was spared.  Children, women, old people, could be victims of choice if the basic impulse to kill became so great that it defied the 5th Commandment, and anyway the Jews had no protection by any rule, they were mere cattle. Whole legions of amateur killers got a lot of practice on living Jewish parasites. They quickly became professionals. Had not their Chief once said that the work they did was hard but necessary and that, in hindsight, the following generations would be thankful for the harsh and hard tasks these courageous men had taken upon themselves?

There was a normal rate of Nazi attrition in the ghettos as well as in the jails. This hell of the Jews was in fact a gigantic field of research and scientific experiments. One of the theoretical questions that might have been asked and solved in a practical way was to see how long thousands of human vermin enclosed in a sort of open air prison with barbed wire and guards, deprived of food, warming and means of subsistence, compelled to work and to forage for themselves, with a limited access to valuables, medication, doctors, hospitals, could hold out.

Little by little, with the coming of the first cold conditions and the deterioration of weather, some people died from almost natural causes. Nazi natural causes. In the streets, in crowded houses, in small backyards. When work kommandos set out or came back, some debilitated men or women became so weak that they ceased to live almost instantly, some just laid down to sleep eternally, others died while walking . Those who could not walk any more had to be born by their fellow-slaves or got shot.  This was never a mercy killing. This was a parasitic life that got squashed and good riddance too!

Some courageous men and women got together and organized forms of resistance but they were hampered in their intended action by just one small but essential detail. The men in the ghettos who were fathers or brothers or sons, cared about their loved ones, their families. They cared so much for them that, for these courageous men, there never really had been any choice between going to the forest to become a partisan and fight against the Germans and their henchmen or sharing the fate of one’s family and risk dying.

The younger ones sometimes decided to leave the ghetto and go to the forest, sometimes in order to prove to the world that Jews – who had had a long tradition of fighting in the Land of Israel – could in fact fight.  But in the forests too, danger lurked.  Some nationalist bands, fighting against the Germans though, did not welcome Jews, even killed them. And Soviet units sometimes felt scorn for the Jews. They thought, as the Germans, that the Jews were on the whole cowards, parasites. Jews who had succeeded in escaping from death and who tried to have civilians take them in, feed them and – hopefully – hide them, were sometimes turned away, threatened or simply denounced to the Nazi or local thugs. Few were those who were welcomed and hidden by the local population.

III  The Killing Pits

Thousands had already been slain in the first July and August of the war, in the small villages, far from the madding crowds. Also in the jails, Jews had been killed, sometimes after having been tortured or played with for days on end. These killings had been organized haphazardly without any overall program except that the Jews had to be killed. But it had not been an industrialization process yet. But, as a consequence, already by the first September of the war, many small villages and entities had been “judenrein.”

Then, the leaves began to change colors in the first painful autumn of war. The time of harvest was past. The cold intensified, the first snows, black ice, appeared. Now was the time for the Nazi-faced Angel of Death[2] to appear in the sky. The Grim Reaper. And grim were certainly the circumstances of that new kind of harvest that the Nazis had devised for the Jews.

Orders were barked out or posted up on ghetto walls. Early in the morning, thus, when it was still crepuscularly dark, crowds were rounded up, children cried in terror, mothers tried to appease them, adults wore rigid countenances because they knew what was in store for them and their families. Darkly-clad monsters screamed orders in German or in the national languages, had the cursed Jews form orderly rows, had them in orderly files. Then they set out on foot to a destination unknown but which everyone could guess was not portent of good and nice things to come. Because, if one had to think in a detached way about what was happening, the single fact that the Jews were forced to leave the ghetto compound so early in the morning, before dawn, without any luggage, without any food, was crystal clear.  The end had come. There were no mercy killings underway.  Those who were too weak to walk the distance to the unknown destination, be they children, women, elderly or adults, were shot on the spot by the troops of the Einstazgruppen or their local helpers.

Very quickly, seeing such barbarity, every Jew understood that they were not going to be deported to settle in a camp or another ghetto. And, they were too numerous to be brought to jails. Nearly everyone who was not too starved to think clearly knew now. Still, the men in the columns did not revolt against the guards. Had they tried all together to overpower their armed guards, a few of them might have made it alive. Yet, the fathers had no wish to try to escape, knowing that their families were fated to get killed. They chose to die with their loved ones. And this was a magnanimous and courageous decision. Decades later, many historians or ordinary people interested in these atrocities never could fully understand or fully appreciate what elemental force of spirit it took for men who still were able to fight or to resist, to desist from armed resistance. Even a Freud who wrote about the death instinct would never have thought that in some heroic human beings, there had been a love instinct — or perhaps a responsibility instinct — greater than the fear of death.

Some thousands of Jews did not have to walk the long walk to hell, they were taken by trucks to these unknown places. But the prevalent conditions were as harsh and inhuman because in the trucks too they were treated as cattle to be brought to the slaughterhouses.

Russian or Jewish slaves had dug out gigantic pits in forests or in places far from indiscreet or curious glances of passers-by or inhabitants.

Finally arriving to the place, after hours of walking in the dark on icy and snowy roads, after a trip in trucks on slippery roads, the Jewish parasites were ordered to undress. No one thought of questioning these orders or protesting. They had had months of harsh training and mental conditioning in which they had learned – dearly – that any orders or commandments by the Master Race had to be obeyed on the spot because these Germans and their henchmen were trigger-happy and seemed to have received a divine carte blanche to kill the Jews at will.

The Jews undressed. Women and young girls, prudishly trying to protect or hide their intimate parts, the men and elderly with rigid faces and forlorn looks. Valuables, too, had to be deposited in special containers. Everything the Jews had possessed was to be collected, even worn clothes and coats, hats.

Then the Jews filed up.  And waited.  Their turn to get killed. The continuous sound of shots was heard away from them.  At the same time far and hellishly too close.  At first they could not see what was happening although they guessed easily enough. But curiosity has always the upper hand, even when death is close by.

“Many bore children in their arms.  The anticipation of a death close by touched them too, but the children did not cry, their terrorized eyes expressed a sheer terror that froze your blood.  The younger ones clutched their parents’, grandmother’s or grandfather’s clothes, seeking shelter behind them.  There are no words to express that monstrous sight of the mass killing of innocent people.”[3]

Then came their turn to die at the hand of their killers. Below and just a few feet beneath, they saw dozens, hundreds of bodies pressed as sardines, white backs and legs, the intense raven-black hair of the women and young girls, a sad contrast to the lividity of the corpses, although one could still hear moans and soft cries, some persons had obviously not died right away. Some just had time to murmur “Yisgadal v’yiskadash’, then, as a final curtain falling, a tremendous shock in the head, in the back, in the heart, and the final tumble forward, into oblivion.

Against all odds, some Jews survived. Crept out of the pits during the night, hid in the forests, became human beasts foraging in the forests for weeks on end, or were lucky enough to find compassionate souls who hid them. There is a tale, a true tale, of the members of a whole Jewish family who, after years of hiding without possibility of getting new clothes or bathing facilities, were in such pitiful and dire straits when they were captured by a German unit that some of these soldiers cried openly. And, finally, these Wehrmacht soldiers saved these pitiful Jews, simulating an execution in some wood after their officer had ordered them to kill these cursed Jews, but, luckily, waited for them out of sight.[4]

IV  Liberation

They had known for weeks now, the surviving Jews, that the Russians were approaching. In their underground or cave-like bunkers, in the camps still in activity, living hidden from view in houses or apartments with compassionate persons, living in the forests as human beasts, fighting in partisans” units, the few thousands of surviving Jews were hoping for that day to come quickly.

It took time because the Germans fought a cruel and tough war. Their best and toughest military units had been put up against the Soviet Army. They were retreating, certainly, but fighting for every meter of occupied territory. They were helped by foreigners” troops, the chosen among the chosen, the Waffen SS renegades from Europe, also by renegades from Russia, the Ukraine, Croatia, the Baltic States, Slovakia. These indoctrinated souls who believed in the Great Cause of Nazism fought in a tenacious way.  These men – who believed themselves idealists – had swallowed it whole, that garbled mish-mash of pseudo-scientific theories about the supremacy of the Aryan race and the necessity to exterminate the cursed Polaks, Russians and Jews.  But now, retreating all the way to the former frontiers of the Reich, these Waffen SS men felt trapped. They felt the war was lost. They felt that soon they were going to have to explain and take responsibility for the crimes they had committed during these years of fighting and exterminating parasites. They were cornered now. As rats.  And as rats, they fought and prolonged a senseless war. And with each day, some hidden Jews were discovered and killed. Or killed by the hundreds just in time, just before the Red Army would arrive.

They could not have cared less, these Waffen SS men, these Wehrmacht soldiers, these Einsatzgruppen members.  Because, in truth, they did not fight for the Reich any more, they fought for their naked life, fearing capture at the hand of the Soviets, a fate worse than death.

Finally, the rumble of artillery, the proximity of air raids by low-flying planes displaying a red star, became familiar to the ears and eyes of those few thousands of Jews who were still alive, a small percentage of the overall Jewish population before the start of the war.

Then came the day. Soviet soldiers, advancing in a wary fashion – not flat-footed, noisily and proudly as the Germans – appeared, as if from nowhere.

“Mir zaynen fray” said the Jews who spoke Yiddish and who had the luck to have fellow persons or family members to speak to.  “Мы свободные” said the Jews who spoke Russian and who were not alone. Some began to pray and to thank G-d, others thought, veiled in sadness, of their loved ones who had departed for ever. Some sang the “Hatikvah” because their country of settlement, for many their country of birth, had forfeited all emotional ties they could have fostered for this insane country where they had been living before the war came, and, now, they thought that their only refuge was the Land of Israel, the Land of their ancestors.  Some, although not forming a Minyan recited, albeit silently, the Kaddish for the souls of the departed loved ones.

Some other Jews had no such luck because in the ebb and flow of battles, sometimes retreating Germans counter-attacked and gained the upper hand, and these desperate soldiers were in a foul mood, especially when they belonged to the Waffen SS elite, and, thus, when they came upon recognizable Jews – the friends of the Soviets and the NKVD -, they shot them out of hand to show these pests that Hitler had been right after all, that damned war had been the fault of the Jews who had dragged the whole world into it.

The surviving Jews were thus quite happy to be free.  But at the time of liberation, what they did not know was that they would exchange some form of captivity with another one.  But with a fundamental difference. They would be held captive, not differently from the other Soviet citizens, but they would not be at risk any more of dying at any given moment on a whim or on order. But the NKVD would replace the SS and some of the Jews would be jailed, and some of them would die in captivity or murdered by the NKVD.

V  Remembrance

A Nazi-faced Angel of Death had descended from the skies and alighted on the Baltic States and it had ordered that all Jews must be erased from the face of the earth

And thus, it happened, thanks to armies of obedient black and green military ants – who in fact bore no responsibility for what they did, they just followed orders, do you understand? Or else they had not known – and thanks to local armed and criminal enthusiasts too happy to bend to their occupiers” wishes, occupiers they had welcomed with flowers and greeted by cheers, the women even kissing the cheeks of these brave liberators.

And now nearly seventy years after the Nazi “judenfrei” policy took its military and civilian course and its heavy toil in human lives, in fact there are so few surviving Jews in the Baltic States that in some places these old men and women experience difficulties in forming a mínyen or to say the Kaddish when one of them dies.

The last survivors, the ones who went through the horrors of the Holocaust are disappearing as if the Nazi-faced Angel of Death still claimed them inexorably, as if He had a list and would not rest until the last ones of these Jews had died.

But, the Nazi-faced Angel of Death and His cohorts of obedient followers not only killed human Jewish beings. They also erased all traces of a rich centuries-old Jewish culture: of the Litvaks, the Hasidim, the Misnágdim, the ordinary Jews, the assimilated Jews, the half or quarter Jews, the Maskilim, the lapsed ones, the artists, the writers, the great spirits of Judaism. They had wanted to create a “brave new world,” “judenrein,” the Nazis, and they almost succeeded.

But now and here in the Baltic States, it is as if there had never been a Jewish presence, as if there had never been a Venice of the North, a Gaon, hundreds of thousands of people speaking Yiddish, Russian or the local languages, hundreds of thousands of Jews living a normal life before the black pest bearing a swastika descended upon the countries.

Now, in Riga, in Vilnius, in Tallinn, the capitals of the Baltic States, there are no Jewish neighborhoods any more because there are too few survivors desirous to live in countries that were so inhuman to them during the war. There are no recognizable Jewish places. The only recognizable Jewish places are the ones where thousands of Jews were murdered or held captive, kept as memorials, remembrance of the Holocaust.

In the places of remembrance and worship of the dead Jewish souls, in the places where the soil still bears the imprint of so many feet, gorged by the blood of so many innocent victims, where so many cries of help, shots, once were heard, there are barely visitors now.

These places are empty. Deserted. Forlorn. Places that saw immeasurable horror, places that swallowed the cries for help, the desperate last words, words of prayer, the sighs, the moans, the howls of rage, helplessness, in these places now, there is a veil of silence, without any echo of what happened more than seventy years ago. It is as if nature itself had been blind and deaf to the immense tragedy that occurred in these bare killing fields, in front of these killing pits. Or in the cellars or yards of jails, or in the streets of ghettos.  Or in concentration camps.

Silence everywhere.  The silence of eternal death.

“Once you hear the sound of killings, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air, you can never capture it again.”[5]

There is an evident sadness inherent to the task of tackling the theme of remembrance of the Holocaust in the Baltic States, because in these countries all cards are still stacked against the Jews. Again. Cohorts of autochthonous lovers of SS and Jew-killers still march annually in the streets of the principal cities, horrific scenes condoned by the local authorities while the European Union remains shrouded in a mortal silence.

There is an Iron Wall of indifference and silence that enshrouds the Holocaust in the Baltic States. It is a bit as in the well-known French song “tout va très bien, madame la marquise” (all is perfectly well, marchioness). It is in fact as if nothing had happened in those cursed countries during the Holocaust. As if no 200,000 innocent Jews had never been slaughtered in the course of the war, by Germans but also frequently with the help of enthusiastic and rabidly antisemitic Balts.

A few courageous voices here and there try to restore some kind of balance, try to put some historical perspective into what has become a denial of responsibility, a curtain that separates a present from its bloody past that nobody wants to contemplate because the image that the mirror would show would be an extremely ugly one.

A few voices trying to get heard, a mere sparkle in an ocean of indifference and silence…

[1] Fatherland

[2] These words are used in a pejorative sense, with reference to Mengele, the German SS officer, doctor and butcher of Birkenau, who worked at the ‘Ramp’ sorting out the Jews and other incoming persons, deciding by a flicker of the hand who might still live a while and who would be gassed outright

[3] An excerpt from David Silberman’s book И ТЫ ЭТО ВИДЕЛ, in the words of Ella Medalye, a survivor of the Rumbula massacre of December 8, 1941. I used that fragment for a part of the speech I gave at the November 17, 2013 Yizkor commemoration at the Park East Synagogue at 67th Street in New York.

[4] This real story was told in David Silberman’s French version of the same book.

[5] This is a paraphrase from a well-known sentence by a jazz musician, Eric Dolphy: Once you hear music, when it’s over, it’s gone in the air, you can never capture it again.

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