Simon Malkes Speaks at the Lithuanian Parliament

The following is the text provided by the office of Simon Malkes (Paris) of the speech he delivered at a conference held at the Lithuanian parliament on 22 September 2013, as part of the series of events of the Fourth International Litvak Congress in Vilnius, Lithuania. Mr. Malkes, a Vilna native and survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, is president of the ORT school network.

Simon Malkes (right) speaks to an old friend on Gedimino Boulevard in central Vilnius, after his speech at a session of the Fourth International Litvak Congress held at the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas).

My name is Simon Malkes. I am a French citizen, living in Paris since 1952. I am a rare survivor, among the less than one percent of Vilna Jewry. I survived thanks to the German officer Karl Plagge who managed the HKP automobile works camp in Vilnius between 1941 and 1944. In 2005, I succeeded to obtain from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem the Righteous Among the Nations title, posthumously, for Karl Plagge.

I would like to thank the Lithuanian government and Faina Kukliansky, president of the Jewish community, for having organized this anniversary, as well as the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel, Darius Degutis, who encouraged me to joint this event. Vilnius before the war was a unique center of Jewish culture known around the world. Napoleon called this city Jerusalem of the North. Some 35% of its 200,000 inhabitants were Jews.  We had a number of schools teaching in Hebrew or Yiddish, we had theaters, concerts and well over a hundred synagogues. Many famous artistes, writers and musicians came from Vilnius. Many Jews in Vilna were poor, but some were pretty healthy. They had houses, shops and even a bank owned by Bunimowicz.

A lot can be said about the dark years of the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Both had massive numbers of victims. But nothing was as cruel as the Nazi regime. Between 1939 and 1941 my father was imprisoned by the Soviets and his cousins, four of them — the family Riwkes — were sent to Siberia. They returned after the war. In Vilna, they would never have survived. In June 1941 the Germans entered Vilnius. During the first three months of the Nazi occupation around half  of the seventy thousand Jews then living in Vilna were regularly caught in the streets or houses and killed at Ponár (Ponary, Paneriai) ten kilometers away from the city, before the Vilna Ghetto was even set up.

In September 1941, the Jews were packed into two ghettos in the center of the old city, the large ghetto with over 25,000 people; and the small one, with around ten thousand, that lasted little over a month, its inhabitants all xecuted at Ponár. Every morning workers would leave the ghetto by groups to their working places.

My father and I, out of around 500 Jews who worked at HKP, a repair center for military vehicles, alongside 250 Germans and Poles and Russian prisoners. HKP was managed by Major Karl Plagge. A bit later, 500 Jews who didn’t have the right Ausweis were taken out from the ghetto and killed at Ponár. For about a year, no more actions took place in the ghetto, as the Germans badly needed their workforce. Some fifteen thousand Jews remained in the surviving (large) ghetto until September 23, 1943, the date of the Vilna Ghetto’s liquidation.

Two weeks before that final liquidation, two work camps were established in the city, both outside of the ghetto: HKP with 1,200 Jews, Kailis with a thousand.  The numbers comprise the workers and their families. Kailis workers produced fur coats for the German army. The rest, about 13,000, were taken to the outskirts of the city for a selection. Of those, young men and women able to work were sent to Latvia and Estonia to extract turf, the rest executed at Ponár. There remained in Vilna only 2,200 Jews by June 1944, just a few weeks before liberation in July. It is easy to imagine what happened to the last 2,200 remaining Jews in Vilna, or those sent to Latvia and Estonia. Of all these, an estimated five to seven percent survived.

Six million Jews were exterminated in Europe, the large majority from the East. With them their unique Jewish spirit and culture were erased from the surface of the earth. A year ego I wrote a book in French, Le Juste de la Wehrmacht which has been quite well received. The German version will appear in October 2013. It will be launched in Berlin and Darmstadt (Major Plagge’s city). An English edition will hopefully appear in due course. An entire section is devoted to Karl Plagge who saved us.

The Nazi Einsatzgruppen were not alone in killing Jews. A sizable number of Lithuanian collaborators, also Ukrainians and Estonians, gave them an efficient hand. Unfortunately no one was judged or punished after the war. All of them are receiving social security benefits from the German government.

In 1992 after Lithuania became independent, I visited the Lithuanian ambassador in Paris and asked him: How can I recover my grandfather’s house? His answer was straightforward, and it shocked me:

“If we will give back property to all of you, what will be left for us?”

I stood up and left him without saying a word. I recently wrote a letter to the president of Lithuania on this subject. I received a very nice response, indicating that this subject is now being dealt with by city authorities. Later on they wrote that this kind of property can only be restored to Lithuanian citizens. To become a Lithuanian citizen I would have had to apply before 31 December 2001. The only path open to me now was to go to court to apply for citizenship. Shocking, is it not, for a democratic country, a member of the European Union and at present actually president of the EU, to keep a Soviet-type policy on the effective nationalization of private property. If my memory is correct, the pilfered Lithuanian gold was returned by the French.

I don’t want to engage in polemics. It is not a question of money, it is an issue of dignity, justice and humanity. The Soviets nationalized the house. My grandparents, my aunt with her husband and two children were all killed by the Nazis and their local collaborators before even entering the ghetto.

I thank you for your attention.

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