Rukh Reuven

Born 1928 in Rokiškis, Lithuania, he spent the war in the Gorky region and Uzbekistan. After the war, his family moved to Riga. In 1977 he made aliyah to Israel. Since 1984, he has been living in Australia.

THE SOVIET REGIME DROVE JEWS INTO THE HANDS OF THE NAZIS

No, this is not an account of a personal tragedy: my fate and that of my family was entirely providential.

This is a story about the fate of the many thousands of Jewish refugees from Lithuania and Latvia, who, during the early days of the war, were driven back from the Soviet border by the Soviet authorities, to their certain death in the Nazi vice.

On June 22, 1941, at 4:00 in the morning, Nazi Germany invaded the USSR. At 7:00 a.m., while we were still asleep, a relative who was a radio fan ran over and told us of the German attack on the USSR. That same day, at 10 a.m., Radio Kaunas declared the proclamation of an interim Lithuanian government which immediately announced the overthrow of the Soviet regime. Jews were decreed outlaws: the new government was pro-Nazi and totally endorsed German policy toward the Jews − that evening, warned that 100 Jews would be shot for every dead German soldier... Rabbi Zelik Rukh, one of our cousins, lived with his family in a city in Poland (where he was the principal of a yeshiva) that was located in territory that had been occupied by the Nazi army for some time: we had received detailed information from him about Nazi Germany. A German army officer who was sympathetic to the Jews had spoken of the fate awaiting the Jews if they remained under German rule.

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There was no information from the front. Both the German and Soviet radio stations were silent.

On this morning of June 22, the young people who were members of the Komsomol and the Communist Party came to the district committee: most of them were Jews, because the Lithuanians had always refused to cooperate with the Soviet authorities. There, they received guns and were sent out to patrol Rokiškis and its suburbs: the population of Rokiškis was 7,500, about 4,000 of whom were Jews.

On the first day of the war, Sasha, my older brother, went to the store and bought rucksacks, because we already intended to flee the advancing Nazi army. By the end of the first day of the war, our relatives from Kamajai, a town 16 km south of Rokiškis, had arrived on carts. They spent the night with us; on Monday morning, they left for the Latvian border: they crossed it and survived.

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On Monday, the second day of the war, the new pro-Fascist Lithuanian government in Kaunas ordered the Jews to hand in all their radio sets. I myself took my Blaupunkt radio to the police station, where I found a line of fifteen Jewish friends. I gave in the radio and got a receipt. On the same day, after lunch, a meeting was held near our home. Several dozen Jewish men were discussing what to do. I was present at this meeting, without voting rights (I was 13 at the time). The younger people all wanted to leave; the older ones could not make up their minds; there were some who were simply reluctant to give up all their posessions and were frightened of becoming refugees. Many former Soviet Jewish activists were carrying guns. Our cousin Leiser Gafanovich said that he had two small children and was not going anywhere. Older people maintained that the Germans had not harmed the Jews in 1918, and there was no need to be afraid of them.

For our family, like to the most of the other Jewish families in Rokiškis, the question of whether to leave or to stay behind was both difficult and upsetting. Mom’s father, Mordechai (Mendel) Gurvich − who was disabled − and her mother Rachel, were both elderly and would be unable to go with us: we did not have a horse nor a cart, so we could not offer them transport. My brother Sasha confided to me that if our family decided to stay he would leave by himself, as several of his friends had already done. But the situation was worst of all for my mother, Hanna Rukh (Gurvich), who was torn between two loyalties: while she did not want to abandon her parents, she had to decide whether to stay with them and allow her husband and children to leave, or to go with us and leave her parents behind.

After we returned home, Sasha (aged 17) stated unequivocally that if our family decided to stay, he was leaving alone. Some of his friends, including Lev Yakubovich, Abraham Reznikovich and Marik Etingoff, had not waited for their parents and had escaped on bicycles. Skipping forward in time, I can say that because of this they survived: their families who remained in Rokiškis were killed by the Nazis. On the second and third day of the war, many refugees, on foot or in carts, stopped near our home. They were all heading northeast, in the direction of Daugavpils (Dvinsk) and the border with Latvia. Rumors were already rife that the Latvian border with Russia was closed to refugees, but so far no-one had come back to Rokiškis. On the evening of Tuesday, June 24, panic broke out because Communist Party workers had been loaded into cars and evacuated, and the Soviet police had dispersed. That evening, the Jews who had just fled to the Russian border returned and reported that the Lithuanians had shot at the refugees and that someone had been killed.

After the Soviet army invaded Lithuania on May 15, 1940, and the country became part of the Soviet Union on July 21, 1940, we Jews had been pleased and felt confident that Stalin would be able to protect us from the Nazis. Most Lithuanians were unwilling to cooperate with the Soviet régime. The Lithuanian Jews, however, actively cooperated with the Soviets: when the Soviet authorities deported Lithuanian and Latvian citizens whom they considered "hostile elements", the local Jewish Communists were actively involved, an act which provoked hatred among the Lithuanian and Latvian population. On the night of June 14, 1941, one week before Germany invaded the USSR, more than 15,000 Lithuanian citizens who had been declared "hostile elements" (mostly Lithuanians, but about 10% were Jewish) were deported to Siberia. To prevent the entry of "undesirable elements" into the Soviet Union, border guard units were then deployed along the frontier with the Baltic States. After the outbreak of war on June 22, this restriction was not lifted.

Early in the morning of Wednesday, June 25, some of our relatives arrived in Rokiškis and reported that a column of German tanks was moving along the highway between Kaunas and Daugavpils, heading for Daugavpils. My grandmother appeared from the room she shared with my grandfather and told us to go and leave them behind. At that point, my mother said she would leave with us; dad made arrangements with a Lithuanian he knew to take care of my grandparents.

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June 25, 1941, Wednesday, 4th day of the war

At 2:00 p.m., father, mother, Sasha, and I left our home in Rokiškis, accompanied by Michael Cour (an employee at our photo atelier) and his wife, Hinda. Our group of six people with two bikes (Sasha’s and mine), four rucksacks, two trunks, a knapsack with food and a jug of water (my permanent responsibility) set off together, leaving behind my grandmother and grandfather. We decided to walk to Daugavpils: the German army had never crossed the Dvina River during the First World War and we were confident that in Daugavpils (Dvinsk) we would be able to wait out the war.

And so we left: the central square and the streets in Rokiškis lay empty and silent. Jews were not yet being killed. (The murders in our town were to begin just two days after our departure. On Friday, June 27, a column of German tanks entered Republic street. Mr. Jacobson, whose windows overlooked the street, opened the window and looked out—and was shot. The same day, during his funeral, two more Jews were killed by Lithuanians. In our little town, over 3,800 of the entire Jewish population of about 4,000 were killed by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators.)

We walked down the alley leading to the Count's estate and turned left toward the Obeliai railway station (6 kilometers east of Rokiškis). Rokiškis station stood idle: the station staff had run away and trains were only passing through. A few hundred meters along our way, we met up with a cart heading in the right direction: a price was settled, the luggage stowed on the cart, and we began to move faster.

Sasha and I rode ahead on our bikes. When were a few kilometers ahead of the others, we decided to wait for the cart. We sat down in a ditch and looked around: it was a pleasant evening: the sun was setting, wonderful smells wafted up from the fields, birds were singing, wild flowers blossoming. It seemed so unreal, set against the reality of war and death... Where were we running? Why? It was so beautiful all round! (Only the next day, Jews fleeing Rokiškis were killed on this very spot.) We decided to return to our cart: we turned around, met it, and after some time safely reached Obeliai station.

When we arrived at about 5:00 p.m., we were overjoyed to see a train filled with refugees from Panevėžys and Kupiškis standing at the station. Dad hurried off somewhere and talked to somebody. There were not very many people in the station itself: the train had taken on its passengers prior to our own arrival. We quickly threw our belongings and the bikes into the goods wagon (designed for coal and timber freight), climbed inside, and 20 minutes later the train began moving eastwards in the direction of Daugavpils.

Only much later did I realize how lucky we were: this was the last train going east. Had we been some 20 minutes later, we would have faced the same fate as the remainder of the refugees who were forced to return to Rokiškis.

And so we were on our way. Mama was just giving us something to eat, when, all of a sudden, my dad threw himself bodily over me and pinned me to the floor. I did not understand what was happening and attempted to lift my head from under him. I could see chips bouncing off the walls of the wagon: we were being shot at − we were crossing the border into Latvia. At the other end of our car a woman was wounded, but not seriously.

Our train comprised twenty cars: there were four passenger cars and, in front of them, were sixteen goods wagons, carrying mainly Jewish refugees. There were approximately 80 people in every wagon, so that we were able only to squat on our suitcases and bags: there was no room to lie down, or even to stretch our legs. The group of refugees consisted mainly of the elderly and children. It got dark. At about 11:30 p.m. our train entered Dvinsk (Daugavpils) station. There was a total blackout, with only the criss-crossing of searchlights lighting up the sky. Our train was shunted onto another track and stood there for a while; by 1:00 am on June 26, 1941, it set off toward the east and the Soviet border. Hooray! We are saved!

Many years later, looking through operational reports of the German Command, I found General Manstein’s report to Hitler's headquarters: "Today, 06.26, at 08.00 the 4th Tank Corps captured the bridges over the Dvina and by 12.00 Dvinsk was in our hands."

We had again been fortunate: we were ahead of the Germans by seven hours, and they did not bomb the bridges we crossed, leaving them intact for themselves.

June 26, 1941, Thursday, 6.00 a.m., 5th day of the war

Our train arrived at the Bygosovo station (8 kilometers over the border, in the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic). Incredible joy overwhelmed us. Why, it's so easy, here we are − already in Russia! What happiness!

But ... suddenly the train was surrounded by border guards and soldiers. A group of people, mostly women and children with luggage, alighted from the four passenger cars to the rear of the train: these were families of military commanders, Communist Party workers, and the NKVD. They passed through the checkpoint.

And we, more than 1,000 Jewish refugees, who had traveled in the sixteen goods wagons, were watching this happy stream of free people… I tried to disembark, to go to the station toilet. But on the couplings of each wagon a soldier stood guard, armed with a rifle! At first we thought we would also be allowed off, but then the soldier said: "You are not permitted!" We had to attend to our personal needs inside the car. Then there were shouts of: "Stop! get back!" and a bucket of water was brought in. Then our train was shunted onto another track: another two or three wagons full of people were coupled on, and the train set off ... but in the opposite direction—to the West! In the direction of the advancing Nazi army!!

Back − to Latvia. We were tired, hungry, sleepy, and anxious. What is going to happen? Where are we going? Why are we going back? No answer. (I have no proof, but I believe we were deliberately loaded onto the open freight wagons to prevent German planes from bombing this last train evacuating the families of Soviet Communist party workers and army officers in passenger cars − in the early days of the war, German pilots did not fire on transports carrying civilian population. But then we were sent back, because at the start of the war the June 14 decree prohibiting the entry of refugees from Latvia and Lithuania into the territory of BSSR had not yet been repealed.)

We drove all night, making occasional stops, and by 5:00 a.m. the train finally came to a halt in the middle of the Kraslava–Daugavpils line. We had traveled, in all, about 50 kilometers back in the direction of the German forces.

June 27, 1941, Friday, 5:00 a.m., 6th day of the war

The train engineer escaped (or was killed). Rumor had it that the train would not go any further. We were located in the third car from the tail end of the train. Not much further and we would have reached Daugavpils, then already occupied by the German army... When the train stopped, a column of German motorcyclists appeared, and one of them drove up to the train. This was apparently the German advance guard.

The train was engulfed in panic: people began jumping out of cars; they threw out their belongings, bicycles; the women barely barely managed to climb out: the railway embankment was very high. What should we do? A man approached, apparently from the NKVD; in a commanding voice, he said he needed a bicycle to ride to the station for help: he took my bike and rode off. What could I have done? We moved our belongings to another bike (Sasha's), our rucksacks on our shoulders. And off we went, along the railway sleepers, eastwards.

The Kraslava–Daugavpils railway line. A trailing column of the elderly, women with baby carriages, suitcases, and packages, stretched back behind us several kilometers, as we walked along the sleepers. After all, everyone had expected to travel by train, so there were both old and young among us. By comparison, our family was more mobile than the others: I was the youngest at 14 and my mother the oldest, at 43.

After some time, two fighter planes flew over from the east (I had never previously seen aircraft like these: they had crosses on their sides.) The entire swarm of people flung themselves into roadside ditches, as did we. In a flash, the planes were gone, without firing on us. People got up and resumed walking, but suitcases and bags, as well as hundreds of people, remained on the tracks. We passed many people: but it was painful to see the old men and women sitting apathetically on the rails, too weak to continue the journey.

Many left the railroad and turned south, toward the city of Kraslava. Kraslava was occupied by the Germans that very day, June 27. Those who stayed in Kraslava and didn’t follow us were shot. By whom? By Lithuanians? Or by the Nazis?

We continued on our way. Sasha held the bicycle by the handlebars; Dad pushed; and I, as the water-carrier, carried a can of water. That was when I learned how to walk on the sleepers − alternately. Before nightfall we reached the sub-station of Skaista. For an hour or two we lay down in a haystack at the railroad crossing, and in the morning we marched on again to the East.

June 28, 1941, Saturday, 7th day of the war

The sky was overcast and it drizzled. This was the day when the Germans captured Minsk, situated some 150 km southeast of our location. We continued walking eastwards, and by 10:00 a.m. we had reached Indra station in Latvia, 7 km from the Soviet border. The throng of refugees had been transformed into a flood. We walked in the direction of the local synagogue, which was already overcrowded - but we managed to find somewhere to sleep.

Around midday an announcement was made: All refugees were to go to the station. Again, there was a feeling of hope: maybe we're going East. People were still arriving: the crowd already numbered not hundreds, but thousands. We were now running, along with everyone else.

Finally, we burst into the station, where we saw a massive crowd of people. We found ourselves surrounded by a fence; soldiers with rifles were stationed around us — we had been arrested again. On a kind of raised dais stood an officer who proclaimed: "Don't panic! Our brave troops have held the Germans back on the banks of the Dvina, in Daugavpils. They’re fighting off the attacks, advancing and driving the Germans back. So all Latvian refugees can safely return home, and Lithuanian refugees will be placed temporarily on farms and villages, where they should quietly wait for several days until their own towns (in Lithuania) have been liberated from the German invaders. Don’t worry, because our great leader, Joseph Stalin, has pledged: 'Victory will be ours!'"

We were divided up — Latvian Jews were sent one way, and Lithuanians another. After some time, a train came in, a passenger one this time, and we, the Lithuanian refugees, were all put on it. After a while, the train started up. Again, we found ourselves being sent west, back in the opposite direction, alongside the road we had walked the previous night - in the direction of the advancing Nazi army! Shame on you! Why are we being punished? Why are we being forced back? We traveled for a short while, then there was a stop for two or three minutes; a group of people from our train got off and walked towards a nearby village.

We assessed the situation and moved closer to the door (guarded by a soldier), so that we would be able to disembark at the first opportunity, and thus closer to the Russian border. Another stop. We got off (with the bicycle), took a left from the railway and walked two kilometers until we reached a small farm. We made it! Our hosts, however, were not happy to receive uninvited guests. With our belongings and the bike stowed in the barn, we were given an empty room and instantly fell into a deep slumber.

June 29, 1941, Sunday, 8th day of the war

Some farm or other, 20 km west of the Soviet border. We awoke early, bought potatoes from our hosts, cooked. Milk, bread — we had a feast. No news: no radio, no newspapers. Where is the frontline, where are the Germans? — total uncertainty; fatigue. We managed to persuade our hosts to heat a tub, washed, and took our rest in this state of uncertainty. We fell asleep. During the night, we heard some people arriving at our hosts' home in a state of alarm.

June 30, 1941, Monday, 9th day of the war

We rose early, at 4:00 a.m. It was decided that Sasha and dad would go on a foray to a nearby village to find out what was happening. They left. Half an hour later they returned at a run. They had been shot at from behind some bushes (Latvians!). Fortunately, they were not injured. (My teacher Jacob Harith escaped from Kaunas on Monday, June 23; when crossing the bridge over the river, the crowd of refugees was shot at by Lithuanians. He was wounded in the shoulder blade and was permanently disabled.)

We packed quickly (one of our trunks was missing) and loaded our belongings onto the bicycle. We put our backpacks on our shoulders, and set off once again, just like yesterday, along the sleepers, toward the East — to freedom, to the Russian border!

By one o'clock we had again reached Indra. This time, however, we took a detour to avoid the station and went down a parallel street. Robbery on the streets — people with sacks and furniture — no signs of authority — neither soldiers, nor border guards, nor even NKVD — and no other refugees... Only our group and the robbers. Not a pleasant feeling.

We walked the seven km to the border but we did not reach the checkpoint: the road we found ourselves was a dead end, with posters proclaiming: "Stop! Border ahead!"; "Mines! - This area is mined!" What were we to do? Depressing… We lay down by the roadside, without taking off our backpacks, feet up, for a sorely needed rest: we'd covered 25 km in one day, and were lying there, half asleep. Suddenly, from behind came a clatter and a clanging, with shouts and the noise of a large crowd. Fear is uppermost in our minds: Germans! We scrambled off the road and hid in the bushes, waiting. Is this the end? Are we really not going to manage to escape?!! My heart contracts in self-pity. Mom is hysterical — everyone else is too, but trying not to show it. And, just as suddenly, the panic is over: it was only a retreating Soviet army unit escaping from an encirclement: exhausted, hungry, bedraggled soldiers!

We tried to approach them — we got no reaction. So we ask: "Can we go with you?" — "Come along!" They crossed the now unguarded frontier via a side path, unnoticed, with us behind them. Thank G-d! It was a long time since I had experienced such joy. Finally, on our third attempt, and after great tribulations, we had reached our destination! It was something like the feeling experienced by climbers on conquering the summit of Everest, or by explorers reaching the South Pole. A sense of victory! I think we had never walked so fast before. Once on the Soviet side of the border, we parted company with the soldiers. We gave them all the cigarettes we had, and our two fountain pens, too. I shall be eternally grateful to these anonymous Russian lads − to those young, distressed, and abandoned soldiers, caught in the inferno of war, who saved our lives so selflessly.

You can try to rationalize it or not, but we needed to move on, and so we began walking. We covered another eight kilometers and reached Bygosovo, the town where our train had stopped on June 26. Around ten o’clock that night, we dragged ourselves into to some club or school, and lay down to sleep. I used to wonder how my mother, managed to endure it: pretty, physically weak, and somewhat overweight, she was unaccustomed to the adversity of nomadic life. Yet she rose above it all, not for her own safety but, rather, for the sake of her children and husband. I have always marveled at her stoicism: she was a real "yiddishe mama".

July 1, 1941, Tuesday, 10th day of the war

We ate a snack and were about to move off, but couldn't make up our minds which way to go. German Panzer divisions were already approaching Smolensk in central Russia; this was the day when Riga would fall. Refugees clustered in groups: some people believed they should go to Polotsk, others northwards to Sebezh, but a guiding hand steered us in the right direction, towards Velikiye Luki in the North East.

It is important to note here that we enjoyed the status of normal human beings in this province: no one could kill us here simply because we were Jewish, in contrast to Latvia. We were just refugees, like everyone else.

And then began a two-week, 250 kilometer trek on foot to the station of Pustoshi on the Riga–Moscow railway line. My recollections of this arduous passage are fragmented. Individual scenes preserved in my memory bear witness to the fact that this journey across Republic of Belarussia and the Kalinin region, while very difficult, was not as life-threatening as its precursor, when we were apprehensive about being shot by any Latvian or Lithuanian we met.

Dad always kept to the country roads, and indeed, they proved to be safer. One day, going past the town of Lisna, we were caught in an NKVD raid. A big crowd of refugees was being held in a wooded area. NKVD soldiers were stopping everyone and examining their documents because large numbers of German saboteurs had penetrated into the district. Quite by chance, father and Sasha noticed our distant relative, Jacob Harith, who was a teacher in Kamajai. Jacob had fled Kaunas without any documents and had been wounded, moreover, by Lithuanian partisans, during his escape. We incorporated him into our party and passed the inspection successfully (they were less stringent with Jews.)

The Lithuanian and Latvian Komsomol members caught without documents were led behind the hill and shot, in accordance with the regulations of martial law. Jacob remained with us: he lived with us during both the first evacuation in the Gorky region, and the second, in Uzbekistan. Due to his invalidity, he was released from military service and at the collective farm he once again worked as a teacher. After the war we moved to Riga, while he went to Vilnius.

Today, 70 years after those tragic events, I remain constantly tormented by one thought: How could it have happened? We Jews had lived for 500 years in the same town, in harmony and enjoying good, neighborly relations with our Lithuanian neighbors. Yet it later emerged that many of our Lithuanian neighbors had themselves participated in the mass killings of Jews, the seizure of their homes, and other property.

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