Rescued from oblivion, the testimonies of Jews from the small shtetlach who miraculously survived
By Dr. Efraim Zuroff
(*First published in The Jerusalem Report June 26 2023)
On April 4, 1945, Leyb Koniuchowsky sat down in Kovno with Lithuanian Holocaust survivor Dina Zisa Flaum and carefully recorded by hand her testimony in Yiddish regarding her harrowing experiences during the Holocaust. Flaum was one of the very few survivors of the community of Rasein (in Yiddish), or Raseiniai (in Lithuanian), a pre-war community of some 6,000 Jews, and Koniuchowsky was a man on a mission, a sacred mission.
Originally from Alytus, Lithuania, Koniuchowsky survived the Kovno Ghetto and decided to record the testimonies of all the (few) Jews who had miraculously survived in the small shtetlach (villages with Jewish communities) in the provinces. Of the 220,000 Jews who lived under the Nazi occupation in Lithuania, only about 8,000 survived. The overwhelming majority of them, however, were from Lithuania’s large urban Jewish communities in Vilna (Vilnius), Kovno (Kaunas), and Shavli (Siauliai), where the Nazis had established ghettos and kept alive several thousands of Jewish forced laborers. The decimation in the small communities was almost total. Flaum’s testimony was particularly important because she had seen at least one of the mass murders in Rasein (not all the Jews were murdered at the same time) and could identify several of the killers. This is her description of one of the most horrific crimes she witnessed:
“While lying in the hay [close to the murder site], I clearly saw two women standing near the pit [which the victims fell into after being shot] smashing the skulls of small children with a large rock or killing the children by smashing their heads together. One of the women was the student Klimaite.”
Koniuchowsky started his project in Lithuania immediately after the end of World War II, and later continued in the displaced persons camps in Germany for several years. By the time he finished in 1948, he had collected testimonies that covered over 100 communities, and he sought a publisher to publish his collection in its entirety. And that’s where the story of this book hit a very unfortunate snag. Having by this time, immigrated to the United States, he could not find a single publisher willing to print his entire book as recorded by its author. And believe it not, that was still the situation 32 years later when I first met Koniuchowsky in 1980 in Israel while I was working as a researcher for the Office of Special Investigations of the US Justice Department, established to prosecute Nazis who had entered the United States illegally by hiding their service with the Nazis. I tried to convince Koniuchowsky to let me see the material, but he adamantly refused. He kept on saying that he collected the testimonies for the kedoshim [martyrs], to which I replied in utter desperation, that those who had turned them into kedoshim were walking around free, and that there is every chance that they will die in peace and tranquility if we cannot have access to his material – all to no avail. Only nine years later was the problem solved, after Prof. Dov Levin, a survivor of Kovno and the world’s leading expert on the fate of Baltic Jewry in the Holocaust, finally convinced Koniuchowsky to donate his collection to Yad Vashem, even though they did not commit to publishing his magnum opus. According to press reports, Koniuchowsky was getting old, and he wanted to make sure that he kept his promise to the victims. “They yelled, ‘Brothers and sisters, Yidden, please remember us! Take revenge for our poor blood! And I didn’t forget for a minute of my life.”
What Yad Vashem did do was publish a book titled Expulsion and Extermination; Holocaust Testimonials from Provincial Lithuania. It gives an in-depth treatment of the various stages of the persecution and murder of the Jews, using excerpts from the testimonies to illustrate the trials and tribulations suffered by the Jewish inhabitants of the more than 200 Lithuanian towns and villages that had Jewish communities. The unique historical significance of Koniuchowsky’s project becomes clearly apparent because the witness statements provide critical dimensions and details of the tragic fate of approximately half of Lithuanian Jewry, the most important of which are the major role played by local volunteers from all strata of Lithuanian society in the mass murders, and the incredible cruelty of the perpetrators. In view of the persistent efforts of successive Lithuanian governments since independence to hide and/or minimize the role of locals in the murders, The Lithuanian Slaughter of Its Jews is an invaluable addition to the historical record of the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry, and it makes available vital information for the English-speaking public. This is not an easy or comfortable read, and the format is not reader-friendly, but its 569 pages present a message that must be heard and learned.
I cannot conclude this review without two additional points. The first relates to the potential importance of the testimonies in the efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice. Koniuchowsky’s collection consisted of 1,684 pages of testimony in Yiddish, and listed the names of 1,284 participants, only 121 of whom we had information about from other sources. Given our ability to trace the immigration destinations of thousands of Holocaust perpetrators, especially from the Baltics, to the Anglo-Saxon democracies, the decades-long delay in obtaining access to the testimonies was a veritable tragedy, which allowed many killers to escape punishment. The fact that it was a survivor, well aware of the horrors of the Holocaust, who refused to cooperate, makes it much more painful.
One final note. This volume has 121 testimonies from the Koniuchowsky collection, but for some reason additional witness statements were not included, including the testimony of Dina Flaum cited above. Their omission is not explained.
The Lithuanian Slaughter of Its Jews: The Testimonies from 121 Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuania, recorded by Leyb Koniuchowsky, translated by Dr. Jonathan Boyarin with a forward by David Solly Sandler. 2022; 569 pages. Available on line.
About the Writer:
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His latest book (with Rūta Vanagaitė) is Our People; Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust, published by Rowman & Littlefield
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