M E M O I R S
by Yehiel Zilberman
Translated from Russian by Olga Gorelik
This is a chapter from the memoirs written by Yehiel Zilberman, translated from Russian by Olga Gorelik (© Yehiel Zilberman & Olga Gorelik). The chapter appears in Defending History by permission of the copyright holders, with thanks to the good offices of Victor Shifrin (Los Angeles).
Yehiel (Yekhíel) Zilberman was born in Lithuania in 1922. In 1940 he graduated from the H. N. Bialik Hebrew High School in Shavl (Šiauliai) and was admitted to the Institute of Commerce in the same city. In June of 1941, one year after Lithuania fell under Soviet rule, Yehiel along with his parents and brother Moshe (Mikhail) was exiled to the Altai Region in Russia where he lived until 1945. In 1949 he graduated with Honors from Gorky Industrial Institute and became a chemical engineer. Yehiel worked in both manufacturing and scientific research. In 1954 he received his PhD from the Moscow Institute of Chemical Technology. In 1965 Dr. Zilberman received the title of Professor. From 1970 to 1990 he taught at Gorky Polytechnic Institute.
Dr. Yehiel Zilberman has been resident in Haifa, Israel, since 1990.
June – July 1941
The night of the 13th to the 14th of June 1941 I didn’t sleep well. In the morning I had a final test in my “Commercial Calculations” class and I was planning on waking up no later than 6 o’clock. My friend Borke (Baruch) and I had agreed to go over the material together one more time. He was supposed to come to my place in the morning, but sometime between 4 and 5 am I was awaked by a piercing ring of the doorbell. Mama and I ran to open the door. When we asked “Who is it?” we heard the voice of our housekeeper Emilia, “Open up. Police!” As soon as we opened the door, three men marched in with Emilia behind them. They strode along our long corridor into the kids’ room. The first man was a middle aged Red Army commander. His serious face showed that he realized the importance of his mission. He was followed by a fellow I knew. Let’s call him Yashka Feld. He was smiling. It was obvious that all this was giving him pleasure. Later I learned that in this group he represented the town’s chapter of the Communist Party. The last one in the procession was a short and skinny Red Army soldier with a rifle. He was ogling us with curiosity. The commander said something to my mother. I caught the words “ordinance”, “Molotov”, “eviction”, “hurry up”. In 15 – 20 minutes mama, Misha, and I were dressed. Mama managed to grab a suitcase and throw whatever summer clothing was close to hand. We were in a state of shock, not understanding what was happening, not realizing that we were being sent somewhere forever and would need warm clothes, linens, and dishes. Documents and family albums did not even enter our minds.
Apparently we were incredibly unlucky with our “capture group”. Later we found out that in other houses the uninvited night guests doing the eviction sometimes showed pity on their victims and suggested that they bring more stuff with them. There were even cases where they helped them pack.
I heard the order “Let’s go!” and took one last look around my room. I walked to my desk with my open textbooks and notebooks still on it and silently said goodbye to everything on it and in it. I glanced at the familiar landscape outside the window and with our single suitcase in my hand followed mama out. Behind us walked the soldier. We slowly went down the staircase we were never again to climb.
Outside a truck was waiting for us. Similar trucks were parked next to a number of nearby houses. We climbed on to the back followed by Yashka and the soldier. Snippets of scary thoughts were scampering around my head, but I was unable to put them together into something whole. The horror of what was happening hadn’t hit me yet. We rode through the deserted streets of our still sleeping town. Only those trucks idling next to front porches caught my eye over and over again. I sat motionless, spent and depressed.
The soldier sitting on the opposite side of the truck facing us continued to study each one of us with blatant curiosity. He probably wanted to remember what live bourgeois and ”Enemies of the People” are like. Misha did not sit still; he was constantly looking around and fidgeting. Yashka pointed him out to the soldier who immediately aimed his rifle at Misha. The raised rifle shook me out of my stupor. I became enraged, my blood started to boil… and I began to think clearly. The hopelessness of our situation finally hit me, and I felt sick at heart.
I am going to step away from the story to talk about Yashka Feld. He was about three years older than me and at some point went to our Jewish Day School. One night in fifth or sixth grade he broke into the teachers’ room in order to improve his grades by making corrections in the class log and got caught. His father was a successful traveling salesmen, and our private school was extremely interested in students whose parents were able to pay full tuition. In spite of that Yashka was expelled. His reaction to the “social injustice” committed against him was to join the Communist underground. Yashka wasn’t stupid, and there, on the truck, he knew perfectly well that Misha had no intention of jumping off or doing anything at all. He just wanted to enjoy his power over us, and to mock us while we were still in his hands. At the beginning of the war Feld was evacuated deep into the USSR, then he was drafted into the army and killed. Since he died while fighting the German invaders, I felt that I should change both his first and last name in this story.
Our ride was short. The truck brought us to a long freight train guarded by soldiers. It was located far from the train station but still within the city limits. The heavy door of one of the boxcars slid aside. We were told to climb in. As soon as we got inside, the door was shut noisily. In our boxcar, as well as in the entire train, we were the only people. We were the first inhabitants of this “dwelling”. I looked around. Plank beds in two levels lined the walls on both sides. High up, almost under the roof, were four small windows crisscrossed by metal bars. At the center of the cart was a round hole in the floor. Unsurprisingly, it took us a while to figure out that this was the toilet. (A similar boxcar was described in the story “Boxcar” by Vassiliy Azhaev, 1988)
We weren’t alone in the boxcar for long. The heavy door would slide open, then close, and in a few hours our boxcar was full. Each plank bed had 5-6 people sitting on it. After a couple more hours, relatives and friends began to assemble at a permitted distance from the boxcars. People were trying to cheer us up but at the same time were themselves crying. Sometimes they managed to give the prisoners some food items. My mother’s sister Deborah was among the first to show up by our boxcar. When she found out from mama that we were taken with virtually no belongings, she left and took full advantage of her position as the wife of Doctor Pick, one of the top doctors in town. She sprang into action with such force, that she got an appointment the same day with the Secretary of the city’s Communist Party Committee Soloviov (?), and achieved the impossible. Accompanied by NKVD employees she went into our apartment, picked out bedding and various clothes, and then passed it all to us in our boxcar. Aunt Deborah also went to the Institute of Commerce where I had been a student and got my transcripts. She realized that any such documents might come in handy for us. Among the papers she got was a certificate, according to which I had successfully completed a teaching program for “the elimination of illiteracy”. I thought with sorrow, “Is this certificate my last diploma, ever?”. The entire time, until the train started moving, Aunt Deborah kept bringing us (her own) things and food items.
… Less than four years later our dedicated, high-minded, and principled Aunt Deborah would be slowly dying of starvation and disease on a plank bed in one of the Nazi concentration camps in Stutthof…
I hardly ever lay down by the window. I felt as if I was dying, and thus had no need for either clothes or food. I didn’t even want to see loved ones – relatives and friends who stood and waited near our boxcar for a long time. (Oh, how I regretted later that I didn’t thank them for their sympathy, didn’t look at them long enough! The majority of them perished during the German occupation.) Of those who came to see us before we were taken into the unknown, I remember the most the husband of my father’s sister Dina. He, Meishl Finkelshteyn, came by our boxcar often. When he came for the last time, he gave us his practically new tailor-made fashionable trousers and a small note: “Don’t despair. Soon we will all envy you.” About three months later, having already reached our destination, I put those trousers on and discovered 30 rubles in one of the pockets. If only I could thank him for his care and love. But, as we found out after the war ended, by then this honorable man was already dead. He was executed by the local (Lithuanian) thugs.
My first days in the boxcar were spent in terrible emotional pain. I felt as if an enormous weight had fallen on me and was about to crush me completely. The first three days I couldn’t touch any food. Only occasionally I would exchange a few words with Misha, who was bearing it a lot better. I remember, I once shared a thought with him that no matter how our lives turn out, they would always bear an imprint of these days.
From the very first day there was one thing mama and I could not agree on. She thought that my father, who at that time lived and worked in Kovno (Kaunas), should drop everything and join us. I loved my papa and wanted him to remain free. I also thought that because he lived in Kovno he would somehow be able to help us. Mama and I sent papa separate notes, with different contents and contradictory suggestions. A week later, when the German army attacked the Soviet Union, it became clear that mama was right.
When papa found out what had happened to us, he rushed to Shavli (Šiauliai). The family gathered at Aunt Deborah’s. The topic of discussion was my father’s next move – should he or should he not join his dispossessed family. The majority of those present believed that he should not voluntarily go into exile. Only Uncle Aron, Aunt Deborah’s husband said, “Forget it, Nokhem cannot live without his Polya and his kids.” Father himself had no doubt whatsoever about what he should do. He couldn’t wait to join us. At first NKVD did not even want to talk to him (“When we need you, we will find you.”) but my father managed to prove to them that he ought to be sent away without delay. It seems to me that the selflessness of my father’s actions surpasses that of the heroic women, who, in the distant past, followed their eminent husbands into Siberian exile. First of all, papa did not know what kind of fate awaited us. And second, unlike those women, he was losing his personal freedom.
On June 16th, in the afternoon, a guard brought my father to the boxcar. Youthful, energetic, smiling, he did not hide his joy at the fact that we were all together. He looked around the boxcar and immediately got busy with… the toilet. Dad proclaimed that under any circumstances humans beings should remain human, pulled a sheet out of our belongings, and called on the others to follow suit. Out of the collected sheets he devised something resembling a stall around the hole.
The next morning the train started to move. We were moving away from our native lands, from close relatives and friends, we were moving away from our life. All the plans that were laid out for us would never come to fruition, dreams would not come true. People were quiet, everyone was thinking of their own misery. The silence was broken only by heavy sighs, sobs, and women’s weeping coming from another boxcar.
Very soon the train arrived at Vilno (Vilnius) and stopped somewhere far from the station. First all our names were put on a list. Then it was done all over again. And again. Every time we were asked about professions, which gave people some hope. But the boxcar inhabitants remained frightened by the fact that the final destination was kept a secret from them. And then a process similar to the one that in another country was called “the selection” began. The heads of the households were led out of the boxcars. The doors were slid open and names were called followed by hurried goodbyes and the crying of those left behind. The people who were taken out received, without any court trails, 5 to 10 years in “labor camps”. Most of them would not survive the conditions, and would die from backbreaking labor at lumber camps, from hunger, frost, and disease. Some of the prisoners would be released, early or on time, but they would become disabled.
At that point of the deportation process, i.e. during the selection, we got exceptionally lucky – papa remained with us. The thing was that on our train from Shavli, the people separated from their families were those who used to be involved in the previous Lithuanian government or political organizations, while the so-called “socially dangerous elements” were spared. Apparently, our family belonged to the latter. Such a differential approach was quite notable because it was not applied to residents of other Lithuanian cities (Kaunas, Ukmergė). There, a former shopkeeper held no advantage over a former government official or a policeman – limb of the law. They were all sent to the camps for “re-education”. To this day I feel grateful to that anonymous employee of Shavli NKVD who, when compiling the lists of people bound for the camps, decided to skip “socially dangerous elements”.
By the evening of June 17th the selection was complete and our train with 400-500 prisoners on board (20-25 in each of the 20-25 boxcars) set out to the final destination. That same day we crossed the former Lithuanian border into the Soviet Union and a lengthy, peculiar voyage through Russia began. I barely remember the first days of the journey. All I recall is that I was indifferent to the conversations around me, continuing to bemoan our fate. Soon after we left Vilno, the guards started giving us food on a regular basis. From the beginning to the end of our trip we were fed pretty well. At certain intervals of time the boxcar doors were slid open and loafs of bread were tossed (yes, literally tossed!) in. We were given more bread than we could eat. During stops at bigger towns guards brought us hot soup, hot cereal, and other kinds of food. Some of the traditional Russian dishes, such as rassolnik and buckwheat kasha were unfamiliar to the majority of the prisoners and many refused to eat them. People hadn’t had a chance to start feeling hungry, and besides, they were still eating food they brought from home. Very soon the excess food got put to good use.
As the train traveled deeper into Russia, we encountered an odd phenomenon, which was happening with increasing frequency. The train would stop in a field or by a crossing, and immediately it would be flocked by ragged village boys, aged eight to twelve or so, asking the inhabitants of the locked boxcars for something to eat. I, like other prisoners, would put my hand through the bars and give the children bread and buckwheat kasha. The latter I would simply pour into their little caps. Before I became a prisoner, I always thought that it is the free person who could help someone who got thrown behind bars. It had never occurred to me that a prisoner could wind up in the role of a benefactor to someone who is free. That was the first paradox I stumbled upon in Russia. The destitute boys from the villages shocked me (we didn’t have kids like that in Lithuania). Now, as I am writing this, I am thinking about the fact that the older brothers of precisely those unfortunate children I had met, who, no doubt, also grew up in poor and famished families, defended the civilization from well fed barbarians. How much physical and spiritual strength did that take! I would also like to mention that, as I remember, in Siberia I did not see any such hungry beggars.
Now it is time to introduce those to whom until now I have been referring to as “we” – the inhabitants of our boxcar. There were a total of 22 people aged 12 to 70-80, split about equally between men and women, Jews and non-Jews. All lived in harmony. The shared misfortune brought together people who under normal circumstances were isolated from each other. I remember Misha had really bad constipation, and everyone was concerned for him, eagerly awaiting the outcome whenever he would disappear behind the curtains of the improvised toilet. I was not aware of any even remotely serious ethnicity-related frictions between the deportees. That applies not only to the time we spent on the train, but throughout the entire length of our exile.
So, who were the deportees? Which social or political groups did they represent? The Jewish population of our boxcar was comprised of three families. Each was headed by someone who, in the eyes of the Soviet authorities, was too wealthy before 1940. The former social status of the majority of the other deported Jews was similar, but the interpretation of it varied widely – along with the truly affluent, among the exiled were people with very modest incomes. In 1941 the Soviet authorities deported families of active Zionists, who were arrested back in 1940. I once encountered the entire family of a former communist from the underground, who, while he was held in a Lithuanian prison (prior to 1940) betrayed his comrades during interrogation.
Among the non-Jews in our boxcar, I would like to mention an elderly couple from some village, who, probably due to advanced age, simply could not understand what was happening to them. Most likely these poor people fell under the definition of “kulaks”. And then there was a woman whose last name was Kimeriene – the wife of an arrested former employee of the Lithuanian Police Department, with her son Vytautas (around 17 years old) and daughter Birute (around 15). The kids were good looking, well mannered, and kind. It wasn’t until 1988 that I found out from the diary of Eliezer Yerushalmi, writing about the Šiauliai Ghetto, that during the German occupation, the chief of the Lithuanian Secret Police in Šiauliai was Kimeris, who struck horror into the inhabitants of the Ghetto. The book also mentions that at the beginning of the war Kimeris was in the Šiauliai jail, from which he was liberated by the Germans. Considering that the surname “Kimeris” is fairly uncommon, there is no doubt that the husband and father of this family, with whom we happened to share our journey, was that very same Nazi collaborator.
Generally, deported Lithuanians were usually families of former members of various national organizations, which were post factum declared counter-revolutionary, such as “Šauliai”, as well as the owners of factories and commercial establishments and members of their families. The master-minds of the repressions viewed this stage as only the beginning of an even larger scale reprisal against the local population. Intelligentsia (teachers, doctors, etc), regardless of ethnicity were not targeted at this point. Still, many members of that group were already being deported. Like others, they got onto the NKVD’s black lists as members of the existing organizations the new government classified as anti-Soviet, or as family members of those deported under other statutes.
My foot first stepped, literally, onto Russian soil in Rybinsk. That was when my turn came to respond to the order, “One person to get water!” The day was sunny and warm. I was walking along the platform with a bucket of water and looked around at people walking about and merrily chatting. How I envied them! They weren’t being followed by armed soldiers!
Soon the inhabitants of the locked boxcars noticed that at all the train stops, the free citizens seemed to be worried about something they were reading in the newspapers. Their faces expressed concern. We would turn to the guards asking them to tell us what was going on, but they insistently kept silent. The masters of our fate, who always gave us plenty of bread, they apparently thought that spiritual food was not necessary for us. Throughout the duration of the trip they shielded us from all information, and refused to give us newspapers. Nevertheless, we soon learned that the country was now at war. Here is how it happened. At one of the stops, a gentleman, Ts., from our boxcar, in his former life a successful businessman, was walking along the platform with a bucket of water. Naturally, he was accompanied by a guard. At that time some guy was strolling about engrossed in a newspaper he was reading. The desire to find out what was going on was so strong, that Ts. deftly grabbed the paper and dashed toward his boxcar still holding the bucket of water in the other hand. The bewildered guard hurried after him.
As people familiarized themselves with the contents of the newsletter, they began discussing the situation. The wife of the abovementioned Ts. gloated about the fact that “they” were now getting, as she put it, “eggs” dropped on them. And Vytautas started reciting the official biography of Hitler, which he probably heard from friends or at some underground club. These words intensified my emotional pain; they were like salt on the wound that opened inside me when we were kicked out of our home. It would seem that these people with whom we shared the same misfortune would be our natural allies. And if they could view what Hitler was doing as positive, then my situation was even worse than I thought and the hole I had been thrown into was so deep that there would be little chance for me ever to dig myself out of it. Misha reacted to the Hitler talk in an entirely different way. He suddenly started yelling very loudly that Hitler is a criminal and a murderer and that he has no desire to hear about him ever again. “Bolshevik!” someone uttered, maybe seriously, maybe jokingly. There were no more conversations like that in our boxcar after that.
My first reaction to the war breaking out was sympathy towards my relatives and friends who stayed behind and worry about all those who were going to be fighting off the aggressors. That reaction was conscious. The second reaction, subconscious, was the feeling of relief, because I was moving further and further away from places where, possibly, the Nazi plague was already raging. That was something that had struck incredible fear in me ever since I was a child. Thanks to that second, subconscious reaction, my emotional state quickly began to improve. Ten days after being kicked out of my home I was finally getting my appetite back. That was also when I noticed that 17 year old Salya, whose plank bed was next to mine, was cute and pleasant to chat with, and a smile appeared on my face. Salya and I spent time on the top bunks by the open window, enjoying the warmth of the summer breeze, the sweet smell of the fields and the beauty of the vast Russian land. It seemed I was already beginning to accept my fate.
The train continued on its way to the still unknown to us destination. It was taking a long time. The train was moving East in a zigzag fashion, turning North, then South, then North and South again, on and on. The roads were packed. From the West to the East, tens, maybe hundreds of trains, carried the deportees from the Baltic republics, and parts of Poland and Romania occupied in 1939 and 1940. From the East to the West raced the trains with soldiers and weaponry.
At some point after we’d crossed the Ural Mountains, for the first (and only) time, all of us were allowed to step out of the boxcars onto an open field together. Next to the field was some kind of a pond. The women started washing clothes. In that field we got to meet the inhabitants of the other boxcars. Finally we found out who exactly was deported from Šiauliai. I was able to observe, ask questions, and draw conclusions. It was very noticeable that a large portion of the deportees was made up of frail elderly people and children of all ages, including infants. From the Institute of Commerce I used to attend, I only met one other student – a Lithuanian whose father had the misfortune of becoming a tradesman. There were a lot of Jews, no less than 15%. According to the data from the book “Lithuanian Jewry” by Dr. D. Levin (1984, Volume 4, Page 455), Jews made up as much as 23% of the people banished from Lithuania, while they represented only 7% of its general population. I didn’t pay attention to these kind of facts at the time, but later, after the war, I went back to them many times.
Around July 2, 17 days after we were taken from our home, the guards ordered us to vacate the boxcars. We were in the city of Biysk in the Altay Region, just outside the main train station. All the former boxcar dwellers, with all their belongings, settled in the nearby woods. It immediately became clear that in the woods no one was guarding us anymore. However, soon after, a group of respectable-looking civilians showed up. Later I realized that these people were the directors and various other managers of state farms. They immediately got to business – distribution of the deportees – figuring out who would take how many to their farm. Now, as I am writing this and recalling my first day in the Altay, I can’t help associating it with a slave market. Although for the sake of fairness I should point out that the similarity with the slave market was not complete. The main difference was that “the buyers” did not look at each of us separately, they did not examine or feel us with their hands, because our future “owners” were getting “the goods” for free. They weren’t investing anything in the deal, yet were getting a free labor force that had even fewer rights than the native farm workers. So, they took us in bulk and could afford to follow the principle “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”.
Those of the deportees whose new destinations were not too far away were taken there that same day. The rest, including our family, remained in the woods near Biysk until the following day.
Our train remained where it had dropped us off. The deportees found out that one of the carts had a store, which during our trip served our numerous guards, and now the leftover goods were offered for sale to the general public. My father’s former business partner Josif Reznik, who himself did not smoke, was clever enough to purchase a sizeable batch of cigarettes. In time, those cigarettes would prove helpful in negotiations with our direct superiors on the farm. My parents bought some canned food.
That same day, I encountered a phenomenon that was already familiar to me, that was very characteristic of the USSR, as I realized later having observed it many more times throughout my life – a useless political agitation, incapable of changing anything. A tall young man with a consumptive appearance showed up in the woods, got the exiles together, and made a long speech. At that time I couldn’t understand Russian very well, but the speaker’s main point was clear to me: we had come to the land of plenty where life is very good. Did the organizers of this propaganda activity really consider it possible that upon hearing the story of the Altay at least one of the deportees would rejoice over their plight? Or maybe they assumed that the information about the virtues of the Altay Region would keep people from trying to escape? Yes, that day we weren’t scattered around at distant farms yet, we were still in a big city and near a train station. Nonetheless, an escape was virtually impossible because the exiles did not have identification papers, the majority knew little to no Russian and had no idea what a soviet city or its residents were like. I am guessing that the people who conceived that speech didn’t really believe in either their ability to affect the state of mind of the people brought there by force, or the possibility that these people were considering escape. Most likely, this was a typical activity for the Soviet way of life, the sole purpose of which was to put a check mark somewhere.
One particularly striking thing about the speaker’s oration was a repeated comparison of the Altay Region with Switzerland. The Russians’ admiration of the West clearly manifested itself here. The people who wrote the speech must have assumed, mistakenly of course, that the similarity between the Altay Region and Switzerland would have a positive effect on the audience.
That first night in the Altay Region our family, like all the others still waiting to be dispatched to remote areas, slept under the stars, covered with whatever they had. We lay on the ground under our posh down comforters, which Aunt Deborah had managed to retrieve from our sealed apartment. It was quite a sight.
Next day, early in the morning we were loaded onto trucks and got on our way. There were several families in the back of our truck and it was very crowded and uncomfortable. The truck headed South on Chuy Tract, climbing higher and higher up the mountains. Only by the end of the day did we arrive at our final destination – a Tenga sheep farm in Oguday’s aimak located in Oirot (now Gornoaltay) Autonomous Region. The distance from this state farm to the nearest railroad, if I remember correctly, was 400 kilometers.
What was our life like at the state farm? It is another story. Before moving on to describe the next stage of my life’s journey, I would like to attempt to understand and assess the act of large-scale deportation in mid June of 1941 from Lithuania and other territories that were annexed by the USSR a year or two earlier. And it simply cannot be ignored that this perfectly well organized action took place just days before the start of the war with Germany.
First of all, I must note: the likelihood that the deportation saved me, my family, and other Jews from certain death is extremely high. What would have happened to me if Germany had attacked the Soviet Union not on June 22, but ten days earlier? I would have been determined to run away from the Germans. My mother would have strongly opposed it and could have prevailed. Let’s assume that I would still have attempted to run. While on the road, I could have been killed by the Lithuanian guerrillas (the so called “white armbands”) who were catching and executing Jews and Red Army soldiers. If I had made it onto a train for evacuees, the chances are that the train would have been bombed by German planes, and I could have been killed. Had I stayed in Šiauliai, death would be lurking at every corner. I could have been shot in August-September 1941 along with other Jewish residents. That was when my father’s brother, Uncle Gershon perished, as did Aunt Dina’s husband Meishl Finkelshtein, the former principal of the Jewish High School Mordechai Rudnik, Rabbi Nochimovski, and many others. Uncle Aron was supposed to meet the same fate, but thanks to his standing, Lithuanian doctors managed to free him. That bought him three more years. If the firing squads did not get me, I would have wound up in the ghetto. I don’t know if I would have been able to handle the backbreaking work ghetto inmates were forced to do. I am not even talking about the endless humiliation. Had I survived the ghetto, like others from my town, I would have been sent to Dachau concentration camp. There I would have likely died of starvation and disease.
There is no question that the lives of thousands of Jews were saved as a result of their deportation. But it is also clear that masterminds, organizers, and executors of the repressions by no means intended to rescue the “class enemies”. It was a completely accidental byproduct of their actions. Besides, the majority of those sent to” labor camps” and remote areas were not Jewish and generally would not have been in any danger in the areas occupied by the Germans. So, why was the Soviet Government conducting this colossal action and what were its chief effects and consequences?
There are attempts to explain the mass deportation as an effort to strengthen the Soviet’s authority on the recently annexed territories. Presumably, the hostile elements hindering such an effort were removed. I am not going to talk about whether or not that goal was really justified. I just want to show that those who were exiled did not pose a threat to the “building of socialism”. Here is a quote from the newspaper “Moscow News” (1987, #48): “On June 14, 1941… a couple of thousand Latvians, mostly those with ties to the former bourgeois Government, officers of the national army, members of the white guard and policemen, were deported from Latvia.” That is not true. Those who were deported were mainly children, elderly, and women – people who had no ties to the bourgeois Government and who under no circumstances posed any threat to the new regime. In our populous train I didn’t meet a single person who would fall into any of the categories named in the above mentioned article. The former officers were not deported, but rather thrown into” labor camps”. Plus, they were taken not on June 14, but, generally, much earlier. Officers and policemen made up a negligible fraction of those that were repressed. It is especially important to note that the arrested officers and policemen, just like the businessmen, factory owners, well-to-do farmers, functionaries, former members of various political movements and parties were not accused of any unlawful actions. They were only charged with once belonging to certain social or political groups. The aforementioned article, set out to justify the mass banishment of people to remote locations, also lowers the numbers of those who were innocent. D. Levin in the book “Lithuanian Jewry”, which I sited earlier, provides a document-based number of people who were deported from Lithuania in the June of 1941. It is 30,000. It is unlikely that the number of people deported from Latvia during that time was much smaller. Yet here is another remarkable quote from “Moscow News”: “There were some people among the deported who were actually innocent (as if anyone’s guilt had been proven – Y. Z.), who were taken as a result of a false report by someone seeking to settle personal scores.” How interesting! Obviously they are talking about false reports on children, including newborns, and settling some old scores with them… No, no matter how you look at it, the Soviet authorities were not benefiting from these mass deportation at all. On the contrary, because the majority of deportees had done nothing wrong and did not pose any threat, these actions had the opposite effect – they facilitated the discredit of the Soviet system in the eyes of the people in the Western parts of the country.
Sometimes people try to explain the fierce repressions of June 14-17, 1941 by the fact that the war with Germany was about to begin. As if it were necessary to clean out the potential enemy from the areas near the front lines. That excuse was attributed to the Soviet Union even by such a prominent politician as Dr J. Robinson in the aforementioned book “Lithuanian Jewry” (Page 19). However, it is just as unsubstantiated as the other excuse for a number of reasons, the chief of them being that the Soviet leadership, as is commonly known, did not believe that Germany intended to attack the USSR and thus was not making preparations for defense. Besides, as I’ve already mentioned, the majority of the deportees presented no danger to the country in case of a war. It is significant that the deportation left intact a perfectly organized Lithuanian underground, which was getting ready to assist the Germans in their approaching war with the USSR. What is more, as it became clear from the material that was published in Lithuania in the late 1960s, the NKVD knew quite a bit about that underground. At the same time, it is possible that among the exiles could have been those ready to serve the Nazis, but, again, considering the makeup of the entire group, there weren’t many. And, what is especially important when looking at the causes of the deportation, these people were taken not because they were potentially dangerous, but most likely, based on various ideological dogmas. Furthermore, if the authorities had given even a little consideration to the possibility that war could erupt any day, they wouldn’t have sent hundreds (possibly thousands, if we consider other areas of the country) of railroad cars to the East on June 14-17. Had those railroad cars stayed in the West on June 22, they could have been effectively used to evacuate the wounded, military families, and other civilian populations, as well as to move machinery, equipment, etc.
Depriving the Western regions of a significant amount of transportation was not the only damage the mass deportation of innocent citizens did to the country’s military defenses. There was also the aforementioned discredit of the Soviet system as well as enragement of the local population. That played into the hand of Nazi Germany and its henchmen among local criminal-nationalist elements. The population of Lithuania fell under the influence of the latter to a very large degree. And that meant that having been caught off guard on June 22nd, Soviet military units had no reliably safe area behind them. Retreating Soviet troops were shot at by both the Germans and local guerrillas -“white armbands”. Thereby, the deportation of a very large number of civilians from the Western areas just before the war became a knife in the back of the country’s defenders who took on the first brunt of the German war machine.
There is no doubt that the suffering and destruction of the majority of the Lithuanian Jewish population during the first months of the German occupation was also exacerbated by the events that took place in mid-June 1941. This is something I would like to take a closer look at, so I will start by going back in time. My ancestors lived in shtetls, villages, and estates of Žemaitija (Samogitia) for many generations, possibly since the first Jews appeared in Lithuania, i.e. for five centuries. Their co-existence with the native population could not be called particularly easy. There were social disagreements and ethnic/religious discords. There were also incidents of incitement against Jews coming from, for example, the Catholic Church. But despite all that, Jews in Lithuania were not getting killed for being Jews. In other Eastern European countries, where the social and economic position of the Jews was not different from that of their Lithuanian brethren, Jewish blood was spilled on a regular basis. In Poland, pogroms would break out here and there. Ukraine went beyond pogroms. In the 17th century, during the times of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, in some areas the entire Jewish population was exterminated.
And now we have the years 1940-1941 in Lithuania. Soviet rule establishes itself. It is no secret that the number of Jews among the communists and Soviet officials is quite high. The anti-Semites from the native population are attempting to put the blame for the imposition of the alien system on the local Jews. In reality everything that is happening in Lithuania is controlled by Moscow. Had there been no Jews in Lithuania, the outcome of the Soviet invasion would have been the same. But to the instigators that doesn’t matter. They keep saying that it is all the Jews’ fault. Amongst a population whose anti-Semitic sentiments have deep roots, such propaganda work begins to bear fruit. And then the alien authority begins the mass deportation of civilians from their native land. The actual evictions were carried out by people of different ethnic groups, including Jews, who did not always act properly (if it is even possible to talk about propriety in such an evil deed). Let us remember that jerk Feld who took part in our eviction. The inhumanity of the evictions is obvious to everyone.
A few days pass. Those left behind have not yet forgotten or accepted what has happened, and the war begins. Within a couple of days, the German army takes control of the affairs in Lithuania. Blood-thirsty local criminal-nationalist elements receive free rein. A large-scale propaganda campaign blames all the Jews for the deportation. The intent is to convince everyman that there were no Jews among the victims (the deported). Never mind that there was actually a higher percentage of Jews in those boxcars than among the general population. False rumors are spread. I learned about these in 1948 when looking through a bookshelf in the apartment of a Lithuanian family that had led a more or less normal life during the German occupation. In one of the books I read that as soon as the trains carrying the deportees had left Lithuania, all the Jews were freed, and the Lithuanians were robbed of everything, including the clothes they were wearing, dressed in rags, and sent to “labor camps”. Back in 1941 propaganda against Jews in the media and from the podiums is going on full steam. Once public opinion is turned to be extremely hostile towards the Jews, small packs of murderers can get down to their work. They kill, rob, and, after dividing the loot amongst themselves, throw drunken orgies. The majority of the population does not participate in that, but does not condemn the atrocities either. What takes place is generally accepted as a matter of course: it is the Jews’ own fault; by their actions they asked for the reciprocal violence. As a result, within 3-4 months of the start of the war, the entire Lithuanian country side was cleansed of Jews. The total extermination of the Jewish population in the shtetls and towns (with the exception of Vilnius, Kaunas, and Šiauliai) was done exclusively by the locals. The German masterminds of the actions played the role of observers. During that period, in August 1941 in the shtetls and towns of Lithuania, tens of my relatives were brutally murdered.
And one more tragic consequence of the mass deportation: many Jews who witnessed those cruel actions were driven back from the USSR. When the war began and many were faced with the question of whether or not to try and run to the USSR, there were those who chose to stay simply because they were disappointed with the Soviet rule and had lost faith in it. The deportation of innocent people shattered their faith that running away from the Nazis would bring them to safety. Unfortunately, by the time it became clear that no matter what, anyone who could, should have evacuated as far as possible into the USSR, it was too late. By the way, another reason that in the June of 1941 future victims of the German national-socialism did not find it practical to leave their native lands and head East was the lack of information in the USSR about the true face of Hitler’s Germany. It is a known fact that for two years (from September 1939 to June 1941) the political leadership and the media in the Soviet Union thoroughly hid from the public any information that might have cast the slightest shadow on the Nazi regime in Germany.
Returning once again to the questions concerning the events that took place in mid-July of 1941, of which I was involuntarily a part, I am convinced that exiling large groups of the residents of the Western regions of the country in June 1941 was a crime against each and every one of those people, against all the ethnic groups living in those areas, and against the Soviet state. There is no way to justify these actions. They were brought about by the evil policy of the leaders of the country and the Government.