Reuven Ruch

Born in 1928 in Rokiškis, Lithuania.
During the war he was in the Gorky region and Uzbekistan.
After the war he lived in Riga.
In 1977 immigrated to Israel.
Since 1984 he has been living in Australia.

THE SOVIET REGIME DROVE JEWS INTO THE HANDS OF THE NAZIS

  • No, it is not a story of personal tragedy. My and my family’s fate was quite happy. This is a story about the fate of many thousands of Jews, refugees from Lithuania and Latvia, who in the early days of the war with Germany were driven back from the Soviet border to their death in the Nazi jaws.

On June 22, 1941, at 4:00 in the morning, Nazi Germany attacked the USSR. At 7:00 a.m., when we were still asleep, our relative, a radio fan, came running and told us about the German attack on the USSR. That same day at 10 a.m. Radio Kaunas proclaimed an interim Lithuanian government, which immediately announced that the Soviet regime had been deposed and that 100 Jews would be shot for each dead German soldier. Jews were outlawed. This was due to the fact that the new government was pro-fascist and completely agreed with the German policy toward the Jews. Our cousin, Rabbi Zelik Ruch lived in Poland (he was head of the city yeshiva), and for some time his family was on Polish territory seized by the Nazi army. From him we received first-hand information relating what the Nazi Germany was about. A German army officer who sympathized with the Jews told what was in stock for Jews if they remained under the Germans.Ruch1

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

On this morning of June 22, young people, members of the Komsomol and the Communist Party, came to the district committee. Most of them were Jews as the Lithuanians refused to cooperate with Soviet authorities. There they were given weapons and sent to patrol the town of Rokiškis and its suburbs. The Rokiškis’ population was 7,500 people and about 4,000 of them were Jews.

My older brother, Sasha Ruch, on the first day of the war went to the store and bought backpacks because we intended to flee from the advancing Nazi army. By the end of the first day of the war our relatives who lived in the town of Kamajai, 16 km south of Rokiškis, came on carts and spent the night with us; Monday morning they went to the Latvian border. They crossed it and survived.Ruch2

On Monday, the second day of the war, the new pro-Fascist government of Lithuania in Kaunas ordered the Jews to turn in all radios. I myself took my BluePoint radio to the police station where I found a line of 15 Jewish friends. I handed the radio in and got a receipt.

On the same day, after lunch, a meeting was held next to our house. Several dozen Jewish men discussed what to do. I was present at the meeting without voting rights (I was 13 years old). The younger people wanted to leave. The older ones could not come to a decision. They were reluctant to throw away all their belongings and become refugees. Many Jews—former Soviet activists—had guns. Our cousin Leiser Gafanovich said he had two small children and he would never leave. Older people claimed that the Germans did not do anything bad to the Jews in 1918, and we should not be scared of them.

To our family, like to the most of the other Rokiškis Jewish families, the question whether to leave or to remain was very difficult and painful. Mom’s parents, the elderly, disabled Mordechai (Mendel) and Rachel Gurvich could not go with us. We had neither a horse nor a cart, so we could not take them. My brother Sasha told me that if my family decided to stay he would leave alone, as several of his friends had already done. Worst of all was the situation of my mother Hanna Ruch (Gurvich): she did not want to leave her parents and had to decide, either to stay with my grandparents and let her husband and children go, or to leave her parents alone.

As we returned home, Sasha (aged 17) stated categorically that if our family decided to stay, he’d go alone. Some of his friends, such as Lev Yakubovich, Abraham Reznikovich, and Marik Etingoff, had fled on bicycles without waiting for their parents. Looking ahead I can say that because of this they survived, and their families, who remained in Rokiškis, were killed by the Nazis.

On the second and third day after the start of the war many refugees, walking and on carts, stopped near our house. They all went to the northeast, to the border with Latvia, in the direction of Daugavpils (Dvinsk).

There were already rumors that the Latvian border with Russia was closed to the refugees, but nobody had returned from there to Rokiškis. On Tuesday evening, June 24, panic broke out because the Communist Party workers were loaded on cars and evacuated, and the Soviet police dispersed. At the same time, several of the Jews who had fled returned from the border with Russia and reported that the Lithuanians had shot at the refugees and some had been killed.

After the Soviet army had invaded Lithuania on May 15, 1940, and the country had been admitted into the Soviet Union on July 21, 1940, we Jews felt confident and were convinced that Stalin was able to protect us from the Nazis. The Lithuanian Jews collaborated most actively with the Soviets. As for the Lithuanians, however, most of them were not willing to cooperate with them. When the Soviet authorities conducted the deportation of Lithuanian and Latvian citizens whom they considered hostile elements, the local Jewish Communists were involved in this action, and this led to hatred on the part of the Lithuanian and Latvian population.

On the night of June 14, 1941, a week before Germany attacked the USSR, more than 15,000 citizens of Lithuania declared as hostile elements (mostly Lithuanians but about 10% Jews) were evacuated to Siberia. To prevent the entry of "undesirable elements" into the Soviet Union, border guards units were deployed on the border with the Baltic States. After the war’s beginning on June 22, this barrier was not withdrawn.
Early in the morning of Wednesday, June 25, our relatives came and reported that a column of German tanks was moving on the highway linking Kaunas and Daugavpils, heading for Daugavpils. Then my grandmother appeared from the room where she lived with my grandfather. She told us to go and leave them alone.

It was just then that my mother said that she would leave with us. Dad made arrangements with a Lithuanian he knew to take care of my grandparents.Ruch4

June 25, 1941, Wednesday, the fourth day of the war

At 2:00 p.m., father, mother, Sasha, and I left our home in Rokiškis. Two persons accompanied us, Michael Cour (an employee of our photo atelier) and his wife, Hinda. All in all we were six people on two bikes (Sasha’s and mine), with four sacks, two trunks, a knapsack with food, and a jug with water (my permanent duty). We set out leaving behind my grandmother and grandfather. We decided to walk to Daugavpils. Since the World War I, the German army had never crossed the Dvina River, so we were confident that in Daugavpils (Dvinsk), we would wait out the war

Thus we left. The central square and the streets of Rokiškis were empty and silent. Jews were not being killed yet. (The murders in our city started two days after our departure. On Friday, June 27, a column of German tanks entered Republican 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 people of the entire Jewish population of about 4,000 were killed by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators.)

We went by the alley down to the Count's estate and turned left toward the Obeliai railway station (6 kilometers east of Rokiškis). The Rokiškis station was not in operation: the employees had scattered away, and the trains were only passing through.

After a few hundred meters we met up with a cart that headed in the desired direction. A price was agreed upon, the luggage put on the cart, and we went faster. Sasha and I drove forward on our bikes. When a couple of miles ahead, we decided to wait for the cart. We sat down in a ditch and looked around. It was a nice evening: the sun was setting, wonderful smells from the fields, birds singing, wild flowers blossoming. It looked so unreal next to the reality of war and death ... Where were we running to? Why? Such beauty all around! (The very next day, on this site they were killing Jews escaping from Rokiškis.) We decided to go back to our cart. We turned around, met it, and after some time made it safely to the Obeliai station.

As we came there about 5:00 p.m., we were overjoyed: a train with refugees from Panevėžys and Kupiškis was standing at the station. Dad ran off somewhere and talked to someone. There were not very many people at the station; the train had been loaded before we came. We quickly threw things and bikes on the goods wagon (for transportation of coal and timber). We climbed inside the wagon and 20 minutes later the train move eastwards in the direction of Daugavpils.

Only much later I realized how lucky we were—if we had been some 20 minutes later, we would have faced the fate of the remaining refugees who were compelled to go back to Rokiškis. This train was the last one going to the east.

Well, we were on the way. Mama was just giving us something to eat, when, all of a sudden, my dad fell on me and pinned me to the floor with his body. I did not understand what was happening, trying to lift my head from under him. I saw the chips bounce off the walls of the car. 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 consisted of 20 cars. Of these, there were four passenger cars and before them, 16 goods wagons carrying mostly Jewish refugees. In every car were approximately 80 people. We were able only to squat on our suitcases and bags. No place to lie down, or even to stretch our legs. The majority were the elderly and children. It became dark. At about 23:30 p.m. the train entered the Dvinsk (Daugavpils) station. A complete blackout, just searchlights crisscrossing the sky. We were transferred to other tracks and the train stood for a while; by 1:00 am on June 26, 1941, it departed to the east toward 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 8.00 the 4th Tank Corps captured the bridges over the Dvina, and by 12.00 Dvinsk was in our hands."

We were again fortunate. We were ahead of the Germans by seven hours, and they did not bomb the bridges oven we passed, leaving them to themselves.

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

Our train arrived at the Bygosovo station (8 kilometers from the border, in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic). What an incredible joy overwhelmed us. Why, it's so easy, we are already in Russia! What a joy!

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

And we, more than 1,000 Jewish refugees, who had traveled in 16 goods wagons, were watching this happy stream of free people. I tried to go to the station toilet. It was impossible: on each wagon’s wall brackets was a military guard with a rifle! At first we thought we would be also released. But the soldier said: "It's not allowed!" There were shouts: "Stop, back." We had to solve our problems directly in the car. Then they brought in a bucket of water, and ferried our train to another track. Another two-three cars carrying people were coupled, and the train set off ... but in the opposite direction—to the West! In the direction of the advancing Nazi army.

Back into Latvia. We were tired, hungry, somnolent, and anxious. What is about to happen? Where are we going? Why back? No answer. (I have no proof, but I think we were put in the open goods wagons on purpose and used to prevent the German planes’ bombing this last train that evacuated the Soviet party and military workers’ families in the passenger cars. In the early days of the war, German pilots did not shoot the transports with the civilian population. And then we were sent back, because at the beginning of the war the order of June 14 forbidding refugees from Latvia and Lithuania entering the territory of BSSR had not yet been canceled.)

We drove all night with stops and by 5:00 a.m. the train was finally stuck in the middle of the Kraslava–Daugavpils line. We drove totally about 50 km, back to the Germans.

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

The engineer of our train escaped (or was killed). Rumor had it that the train would not go any further. We were in the third car from the tail of the train. Several more kilometers, and we would have reached Daugavpils, 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. Apparently, it was the German advance guard.

The train was engulfed in panic. People started jumping out of cars. They threw out things, bicycles. Women barely got out: the railway embankment was high. What to do? A man approached, apparently from the NKVD; he needed a bicycle to ride to the station for help. He took my bike and rode off. What could be done? Our things were reloaded to another (Sasha's) bike, backpacks on the shoulders. And off we went, on the ties, to the east.

The railroad span Kraslava–Daugavpils. A several-kilometers-long column stretched out: the elderly people, women with baby carriages, suitcases, packages. After all, everyone was supposed to go by train, so there were both old and young. Our family was comparatively more mobile than the others. I was the youngest, 14 years old, my mother the oldest, 43, and so we walked on the ties pretty fast.

After some time two fighter planes came from the east (never seen before: with crosses on the sides). The whole mass of people rushed into the ditch, and so did we. In a moment they were gone, they did not shoot. People stood up and resumed walking, but a number of bags and hundreds of people remained on the tracks. We overtook many: it was painful to look at the old men who sat idly on the rails, unable to continue the journey. Many left the railroad or moved to the south, toward the city Kraslava. It was occupied by the Germans on the same day, June 27.

Those who didn’t follow us and stayed in Kraslava were shot. By whom? By Lithuanians? Or by the Nazis?

We continued our journey. Sasha was holding the bicycle by the handlebars; Dad was pushing. And I was the water-carrier, carrying a can of water. From that time, I learned to walk on the ties: one through one. At night we came to a small station named Skaista. For an hour or two we lay in a haystack at the railroad crossing, and in the morning we marched again to the east.

June 28, 1941, Saturday, the seventh day of the war.

The sky was overcast and it drizzled. On this day, the Germans captured Minsk, located some 150 km southeast of us. We were going eastwards. By 10:00 a.m. we came to the Indra station in Latvia, 7 km from the Soviet border. The crowd of refugees increased. We went in the direction of the local synagogue. It was already overcrowded but somehow we lay down to sleep.

Around midday there was an announcement: all refugees must come to the station. Again, there was hope: maybe we'll go to the east. People arriving, the crowd was already not hundreds but thousands. We are running along with the others.

Finally we rushed into the station. There was a huge crowd, we were surrounded by a fence, soldiers with rifles were placed around us—arrested again. On a certain elevation stood an officer who gave a speech: "Do not panic! Our brave troops have detained the Germans in the Dvina, in Daugavpils, they’re warding off the attacks, advancing and driving the Germans back. Therefore, all refugees from Latvia can safely return home, and Lithuanian refugees shall be temporarily placed on farms and villages, and they should quietly wait there for several days until their cities (in Lithuania) are freed from the German invaders. Don’t doubt, our great leader Joseph Stalin has pledged: the victory will be ours!"

We were divided—Latvian Jews in one direction and Lithuanian in another. After some time, a train was brought up, though this time a passenger one, and all of us, the Lithuanian refugees, were put there. After some time the train started. And again we were being taken to the West, in the opposite direction, along the road that we had walked on last night. Again, to meet the advancing Nazi army! It's a shame! For what are we being punished? Why are we being chased back? We drove a short time, there was a stop for two-three minutes, a group of people from our train went to a nearby village.

We assessed the situation and moved closer to the door (where there was a soldier), to land as soon as possible, closer to the Russian border. Once again, a stop. We went out (a bicycle with us) and walked two km to the left of the railway into a village. The hosts were not happy to have the uninvited guests. Our things and the bike were left in the barn, and we were given an empty room where we instantly fell asleep.

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

The village, named Neizvestnyi, was 20 km west of the Soviet border. We woke up early, bought potatoes from the hosts, cooked. Milk, bread—we were feasting. No news. No radio, no newspapers. Where is the frontline, where are the Germans? Complete uncertainty and fatigue. We managed to persuade the hosts to heat a bathhouse, washed ourselves, and had a good rest in this obscurity. Fell asleep. At night the hosts were visited by some people which aroused our anxiety.

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

We got up early, at 4:00 a.m. We decided that Sasha and dad would go exploring to a nearby village and learn what was happening. They were gone. Half an hour later they returned running. They were shot at from behind the bushes (the Latvians!). Happily 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 became disabled.)

We quickly packed (one of our trunks was missing) and put things on the bicycle. We took backpacks on our shoulders, and set once again, just like yesterday, on the ties, to the east—toward freedom, toward the Russian border!

By one o'clock we had again reached the town of Indra. This time, we did not go to the station and walked on a parallel street. Robbery on the streets. People with bags and furniture. No signs of any power, neither the soldiers nor the border guards or NKVD. And no other refugees. Only our group and the robbers. The feeling was not pleasant. We walked seven km to the border trying to avoid the checkpoint. The road led to a dead end, there were posters: "Stop! The border!"; "The territory is mined." What should we do? Sadly! We lay on the roadside, backpacks not removed. Feet up, they really needed a vacation; they’d covered 25 km this day. Lying half-asleep. Suddenly, from behind came a clatter, shouting, noise of a large crowd. A terrible thought: the Germans! We ran off the road into the bushes, hiding there, waiting. Is this the end? My heart flinched in self-pity. Mom is in a panic! Everyone else is too, just trying not to show it. And suddenly, relief came. It was just some retreating Soviet army unit coming out of an encirclement. Exhausted, hungry, ragged soldiers! We try to approach them—no response!

We ask, can we go with you?—Go! Soon they walked across the border, guarded by no one, by a side path, unnoticed. We walked behind them. Thank G-d! Such a joy had not been experienced before. Finally, after the third attempt and all these sufferings, the goal was achieved. It must be a feeling experienced by climbers upon reaching the summit of the Everest, or by researchers getting to the South Pole. We won! I think we have never developed such a speed of walking.

On the Soviet side we split with the soldiers. All the cigarettes we had were given to them, and our two pens too. I will forever be grateful to the unknown Russian fellows, young, unhappy, abandoned in the thick of the war, the soldiers who so selflessly saved our lives.

Anyway, we had to walk, and we walked. It took another eight kilometers, and we came to the city of Bygosovo, at the station of which we had been on June 26. Around ten o’clock we dragged to some club or school, and lay down to sleep. I wonder how my mother, pretty weak and quite heavy, not accustomed to such hardships of wandering, endured it all. She was a real "yiddishe mama." All this she had overcome not for her own salvation but only for the sake of her children and husband. I always admired her self-control.

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

We had a snack and were about to start moving, but where? German panzer divisions in central Russia were approaching Smolensk; just on this day, Riga was occupied. Refugees gathered in groups. Some advised to go to Polotsk, others northwards, to Sebezh, but a kind of a guiding beacon directed us in the only right direction, to Velikiye Luki in the northeast.

It should be noted that on this territory we were fully human: no one could, as in Latvia, kill us simply because we were Jewish. Here we were, like everybody else, just refugees.

And then we had a two-week, 250-km-long walking passage to the station of Pustoshi on the railway line Riga–Moscow. Memories of this transition are sketchy. The individual scenes preserved in my memory confirm that this journey through Belarus Republic and the Kalinin region was, although very difficult, not as mortally dangerous as the previous one when we anticipated shots from every Latvian or Lithuanian we came across.

Dad always kept to country roads, and did it correctly; it was safer. One day, passing the town Lisna, we fell into a raid. The soldiers of the NKVD arrested everyone and examined their documents, because a lot of German saboteurs had penetrated. A large crowd of refugees had accumulated in this grove.

Quite by accident, father and Sasha saw Jacob Harith, our distant relative, a teacher in Kamajai. He turned out to be without documents, and moreover, wounded by the Lithuanian partisans, when he escaped from Kaunas. We took him into our company and were able to pass the check (which was less severe for the Jews).

The Lithuanian and Latvian Komsomol members, caught without documents, were led behind the hill and shot, according to the laws of war. Jacob remained with us; he was with us both in the first evacuation in the Gorky region, and in the second, in Uzbekistan. As an invalid he was released from military service. At the collective farm he also worked as a school teacher. After the war we went to Riga, and he went to Vilnius.

Today, 70 years after those tragic events, I’m still incessantly tormented by one thought. How did it happen that we Jews had lived for 500 years in that town in harmony and good neighborly relations with our neighbors, the Lithuanians. And then it turned out that many of our neighbor Lithuanians participated in mass killings of Jews and the seizures of their homes and other property.Ruch3