The Road to Death (75th Anniversary of the Murder of the Jews of Molėtai)

Attorney Kazys Rakauskas sent the following to the Lithuanian Jewish Community webpage.

On central Vilniaus street in Molėtai the flowers bloom and the brightly-painted kindergarten greets the eye of passers-by. The bridge next to the statue of St. Nepomuk is also festooned with garlands of flowers. Small fish flash in the sun in the pure lake water flowing into the river. Cars quietly pass and young people flex their muscles on bicycles. The people of Molėtai hurry to work on foot.

They are a different generation of people. Even their parents only heard vaguely of the terror, tears and suffering which once overtook this street. Seventy-five years ago hundreds of Jews of Molėtai realized where they were being taken at this bridge. They threw their things they had taken with them when they were removed from the synagogues under armed guard into the Siesartis river. This street leading from the three synagogues on Kauno street became the road to death for two thousand people. They had been held prisoner there [in the synagogues] for days without food or water.

In roaring voices the murderers ordered the condemned to hurry. Turning their guns on the group, they threatened to shoot those who went slowly.

About one and a half kilometers away a long trench and team of dozens of murderers awaited them.

Only the children of older residents of Molėtai who were teenagers when the mass murder was committed share bits of recollections. There aren’t many of them, either. Deportations, difficulties and disease have completely overshadowed this entire period of horror in the history of Molėtai. These dark passages of life and death shouldn’t be forgotten. This is the now distant terror of August 29, 1941. Let’s remember, at least through some brief stories, those horrible days and the Jews of Molėtai upon whom Hitler’s terrible fascist axe fell.

It happened in broad daylight in Molėtai. I have never encountered such openness by murderers in any other criminal case. They didn’t hide their faces, they didn’t quell their frightful barbarity. After taking one group, they went back to the synagogue to take another, or remained on guard on the road to death to keep the victims from escaping. A team of drunken murderers carried out the dark deed at the bloody trench.

I have listened to some short retellings and have turned the yellowed pages of old criminal cases against the murderers.

Female pre-gymnasium student Vainbergaitė and a girl in her class who was the daughter of a rabbi jumped out of the column guarded by armed boys at a turn in the street. Vainbergaitė hugged her schoolmate Kazytė Gavrilkevičiūtė, who didn’t understand what was going on, and said: “Kazytė, Kazytė, farewell, we might never see each other again. They are sending us to dig ditches, the war has returned.” A sturdy boy from a village near Molėtai pushed the Jewish girls back in line.

This was the last meeting of these three classmates. The volleys of shots, the rat-a-tat of machine guns, the cries and wailing of women, children and men being shot in the vacant space outside town between the Videniškiai and Giedraičiai highways still wasn’t audible in the Molėtai town center.

Kazytė went home. Her mother found her weeping inconsolably. Their favorite neighbors next to whom they had lived for decades had been marched to the grave. Nearby in the other synagogues several hundred more victims remained.

The doctor Shmerl Perkus, his wife and their three-year-old daughter weren’t there. Molėtai residents said the doctor’s family had saved themselves… I discovered the unfortunate truth in a criminal case against the murderers of Molėtai in the Lithuanian Special Archive. It was a lie, or an attempt to profit. Or maybe it was a ray of humanity shining in the dark minds of terrible people. One of the most active murderers of his long-time friends and neighbors, the director of the Molėtai post office, together with police chief Tomas Valiukonis, led the doctor’s family from the ghetto set up on Kauno street at night to the end of Dariaus ir Girėno street and let them go so they might find a rescuer. Unfortunately the doctor and his family, already on the road to Vilnius in a horse-drawn cart, were stopped by the bestial peacekeepers of Giedraičiai even before they reached that town. They shot the family and buried the bodies in a location still unknown. So died another friend of the people of the Molėtai region who treated the afflicted from surrounding towns and villages.

His path to Molėtai is described with respect to his noble nature in the book “Mes iš Leliūnų parapijos” [We are from the Parish of Leliūnai]. In the book notable Lithuanians who hail from the area of Leliūnai write: “Of the ten Jewish families, Strole Perkas stood out. He had 73 hectares of land and farmed it. One son graduated agricultural school… The other son, who studied abroad, was a doctor. He was known for his goodneess and successfully treated patients, but didn’t accept money from the poor. He was shot in Molėtai…” (The authors of the publication didn’t have a more precise location. -K. R.). There is a brief recollection as well of their entire small town community: “Other Jews worked according to what they were good at. They didn’t ask for help from the government.”

But in court the former post office director, pleading for his life, said: “I solemnly swear to carry out fully the tasks assigned me and await a favorable verdict.” A KGB document in the case-file says regarding the execution of tasks: “Top secret. Due to former KGB colleague J. B. He made personal contact with leaders of the gang (that’s what the KGB called Lithuanian partisans) Antanas Streikus and others, and left a group of about 30 in a military attack operation, in which 13 bandits and their leaders were eliminated. When he returned to the Dusetos region to live in 1955, he continued his cooperation with the KGB. He performed positively during the period of cooperation. He concealed his participation in the murder of Soviet citizens.” The signatures of Utena region senior KGB representative lieutenant senior Margevičius and lieutenant colonel Dushansky, director of the KGB department to the Lithuanian Soviet Social Republic council of ministers, affirming the contents, “adorn” this document dated February 1, 1966.

The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic granted mercy to the former post officer director for service to the Soviet state, replacing the death sentence with 15 years of imprisonment, despite the finding in the verdict that he had personally shot people. The deciding factor was his work for Soviet security organs in the Dusetos, Zarasai and Ukmergė regions. The victims of that work were the people of Lithuania, shot to death and sentenced to long prison sentences during the Soviet era.

People of that ethnicity from surrounding settlements, towns and villages as well as the town of Molėtai were concentrated in Molėtai. Rich and poor were imprisoned in their own houses of prayer. People were packed into two synagogues only after detailed searches had been conducted. The documents show 20 gold rings, 25 watches and more than 5,000 rubles were taken from them. Everyone, rich and poor alike, was left without food and without a place to call their own. There were all sorts of people in this community. Except that there weren’t any drunks, thieves or bums. Neither were there any illiterate or unemployed. Synagogues had operated for thousands of years in this nation of people, together with mandatory schooling. Even before Christ they were teaching writing and arithmetic besides religious truths.

The Lithuanian language was no less important than their own among Jews in independent Lithuania. Everyone learned it, it was even taught at Jewish schools. Nikita Jemeljanovas, who spent his childhood in Molėtai, remembers how he picked up Yiddish from Jewish children and used to talk to the children in their native language. The late Simas Galkinas used to tell the story of how he was called up in the mobilization of February 16, 1944, was sent to the front without almost any military training and ended up a prisoner of the Germans. The Yiddish language he had learned in Molėtai saved him. It seems this language is a considerably changed variation upon Bohemian German. So he picked up the German language very easily and that helped him survive the war.

The inventive construction developer Berelis Natalevičius and his son didn’t enter the columns of the damned. Female residents of Meiliūnai village hid them. At the beginning of 1942, however, they fell into the hands of the police. Police officer Motiejus Narkevičius shot them and my neighbor, then “working” as a guard at the police jail, shot his son [sic]. The shooters didn’t care this person had undertaken and built the building of the most beautiful primary school in Molėtai, where their and their neighbors’ children attended school.

The young and elder people who lived in Molėtai followed their Jewish friends to their deaths with sad, powerless eyes in the distance. No one dared get close to the groups being marched. That both they and the others were Lithuanians didn’t mean anything. Angry guards of the victims also clubbed accidental passers-by with their rifle butts.

Three Jewish families also lived in the Videniškiai settlement. Benckiukas (his surname–K. R.) with two daughters and wife, Mauša with his daughter the seamstress and old Mendelis Gordonas, who never married.

Benckiukas wasn’t the richest man. His house was simple and he dressed simply. But he received small items and goods from the richer shopkeepers of Molėtai–needles, bed covers, thread, dishes and even perfumed soap–but not as gifts, but for selling, for which he received a percentage. The poor merchant would put his entire store on his cart, hitch up the horse and send one daughter to the settlements in Videniškiai parish. From those who paid cash, they took cents, and those who had rags, bones and empty bottles exchanged these so-called secondary resources for goods. They took these to Molėtai and sold them to buyers for some litai. The horse was their source of sustenance. They also had a garden next to their house.

When they forced this poor man to Molėtai into the ghetto set up to hold Jews there, he kept asking the angry guards: for what? They replied: because you are a Jew.

But who is going to feed my horse without me? And the horse needs to be shod…

Don’t worry, we’re going to shod you, and everything will be in order, a neighbor with a rifle hanging from his shoulder said in ridicule.

This isn’t an imagined conversation. It was told by a now dead resident of Videniškiai who heard this mockery of the poor man with his own ears.

Poor Benckiukas was barely able to walk but was marched in one group of people to the execution ditch on the pretext of being sent to dig ditches. He was alone, without his wife and daughters, who had been sent to another group of the condemned.

Mendelis Gordonas died before the German occupation and was buried at the Jewish cemetery in Molėtai. Mauša’s daughter the seamstress got married before the Germans came, but was marched down the same path of blood together with her husband to the grave of two thousand.

They were laid down together there in lines, leaving their clothes on the edge of the trench, the rich and poor Jews of Molėtai. On the orders of the murderers they kneeled down on top of the line of people already shot, another group of several hundred, and that’s how all of them, one after another, two thousand residents of Molėtai, two thousand citizens of the Republic of Lithuania, lay down forever in the sandy, now bloodied soil where they and there ancestors had lived and worked for centuries, in the town of Molėtai, surrounded by lakes and forests.

After the shootings in the spring, as the gardens began to bloom, the merchants who bought up the harvests no longer came to the farms of well-to-do farmers. Once upon a time the apples didn’t rot in the orchards, they were picked and gathered by village boys paid to do so, and on Christmas Eve the apples preserved in the cellars were sold at the small shops, and loaded onto wide-bodied “Jewish” sleds and taken to the Karazija winery in Anykščiai and to shops in the larger towns. It happened the same way with wheat bought in the fall. Large heavy bags were loaded onto horse-drawn carts and taken to the former Valtūnai mill on the other side of Želva. They carried it at night, and took a place by the mill in the early morning, and came back two days later to Molėtai with white wheat flour, which they called “valtūnized.”

And what about the enlivening of the town by its first two Diesel trucks… Kušelis Šneideris and Faivušas Šnipeliškis created two groups. They chipped in and paid the down payments to buy two powerful Diesel trucks, connecting Molėtai with the rest of Lithuania before the war. And only 7 or 8 years later here, for the second time in civilian life, not for military use, the first vehicles reappeared.
Jewish men worked like beavers. Meanwhile their wives did the housekeeping and worked in the little shops, and showered Jewish love and care upon their children in a way unknown to many of our countrymen. Children went to primary school at the state Jewish school, where Dr. Perkus’s wife was also a teacher, and then went to pre-gymnasium together with all the other children of Molėtai.

The children of older residents of Molėtai, now in old age themselves, recall the funeral at the Jewish cemetery of “Monteris,” who died in the fire which consumed the electricity plant before the war: “All the residents of Molėtai were there, the students from Jewish and Lithuanian primary schools and even people from nearby villages.”

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There will be a commemoration of the victims who were shot on August 29. A monument is to be unveiled at their mass grave. The museum will host an exhibit about the Jewish community of Molėtai. These efforts by the people of Molėtai and relatives of those murdered are another call to reflect on what a human being is, his place under the Sun which shines down upon all humanity in common, and the right to live, defended by the ancient Judaic belief as well as the tenets of Christianity.

Relatives of those murdered, including their grandchildren and great-grandchildren from around the world, will come join the procession from the former synagogues on Kauno street to the mass grave site.

Young and old, simple Jewish people and Jews of the academic, artistic and business world, people who have heard about our region only from the tales of their elder relatives, will come to honor their ancestors. They come to Molėtai from Buenos Airies, from Montevideo, from New York and Washington, D. C., from Johannesburg and Tel Aviv, from Moscow and the great cities of Western Europe.

It is known that Israeli television, the US-financed radio station Svaboda, and Lithuanian television and radio are planning programs featuring this commemoration of victims. Ambassadors and embassy staff from the Israeli embassy, the Finnish embassy, the French and US as well as many others in Lithuania are planning to attend.

This is one dark passage from the history of Lithuania. It is hard to write about. We cannot forget what happened, we must comprehend it with our minds and judge it with our hearts.

Kazys Rakauskas, attorney
Molėtai, Lithuania
August, 2016