The massacre at koniuchy

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A Tangled Web: Polish-Jewish Relations in Wartime Notheastern Poland and the Aftermath by Mark Paul

(Toronto: PEFINA Press, 2012) FORTHCOMING

Posted on line (in PDF format) at:
Civilian Massacres—The Case of Koniuchy

These were by no means the only such reprisals. Often the innocent and defenceless civilian population was targeted outright. In fact, the would-be Soviet “liberators” treated the civilian population no differently than the Nazi German persecutors. Nor did their ultimate designs differ significantly, as both occupiers wanted the complete subjugation of the population and would not tolerate unconformity with the ideology of the totalitarian systems they represented. The first agents of the impending Soviet order were the partisans encamped in the forests. As Timothy Snyder has observed,

The Jews who became partisans were serving the Soviet regime, and were taking part in a Soviet policy to bring down retributions upon civilians. The partisan war in Belarus was a perversely interactive effort of Hitler and Stalin, who each ignored the laws of war and escalated the conflict behind the front lines. 1
Israeli historian Dov Levin, who was a member of one of the Jewish partisan units operating under Soviet command, provided the following assessment of the Jewish partisan movement in Rudniki forest2—one that is relevant for other parts of Poland as well:
Wide-spread social anomie … was mainly apparent in the following forms: (a) exceptional recklessness in fighting, (b) increase in violent treatment of the German prisoners of war, (c) open hate and hostility towards the local population, (d) total rejection of everything connected with Lithuania [and Poland] …, and (e) occurrences of depression, introversion and mass hysteria.3
From the fall of 1943, Soviet partisan units in Rudniki forest, consisting initially of escaped Soviet prisoners of war, grew rapidly as they absorbed the Jews who fled from what was left of the ghettos and labour camps in Wilno and Kaunas. Only rarely did they engage in confrontations with the Germans, rather they concentrated on sabotaging railroads and telephone polls. In order to gather supplies, groups of partisans would set out on expeditions to raid the largely destitute countryside. Villagers encountered rapacious and increasingly more hostile bands of armed plunderers who seized large quantities of food, livestock, clothing, utensils, and other provisions. Violent confrontations with villagers, and less frequently with their Home Army protectors, ensued. Kazimierz Sakowicz, who penned a diary describing the massacres of Jews and Poles in the killing fields of Ponary outside Wilno, made the following notations in his diary, setting out the background to the animosity that unfolded in that region:
More or less until this year (1943) the Jews banded together in the forest behaved correctly. Now, however, in 1943 they have become bandits, attacking individual houses in the villages and even whole villages (Zwierzyniec). They also carry out attacks on the roads. On Sunday, July 11, 1943, Jews stopped and robbed a wagon in Rudnicka Forest on the way through Rudniki. They stole shoes and food and are ruthless. The villagers escaped and begin to defend themselves, turning [marauding] Jews over to the Lithuanians. On Monday, July 12, there was a [German] manhunt in the forest near Sienodwor [Sinodwory] and Nowickiszek [Nowickiszki]. About 30–40 Jews were killed and several Bolsheviks. Several hundred people were hiding in this forest, and there were seventy to eighty Lithuanians and Germans from Ejszyszki with several submachine guns.

Both the Jews and the Bolsheviks were well-armed; they had submachine guns and such like. Despite their numerical superiority the Jews and the Bolsheviks fired a few shots and escaped in panic. This can, perhaps, be explained by the fact that all those Jews and Bolsheviks were mainly escapees from Nacza Forest, where last month they were hunted down by a large number of Lithuanians and Germans from Wilno with three armored cars and several airplanes that bombed the forest. They assumed that it would be the same here, especially because the forest is small; thus they panicked and rushed to escape in several directions:

(1) to Butrymance [Butrymańce], where they came upon an ambush, dying [and killed]; the majority, however, went to (2) Stryliszki, or (3) directly to Jurszyski [Jurszyszki]. Some remained here in the forest; I saw them when I was traveling that way, naturally pretending that I do not see anything, and (4) directly to Rudnicka Forest.

They escaped without their caps, some even in their underwear, taking caps from those whom they chanced upon, and where possible taking their clothes from them. They also carried out robberies, escaping, among other places to Stryliszki. The manhunt occurred at about 5 in the evening. The attacks by Jews were not dictated by necessity, that is, a lack of money. No, during the manhunt the Lithuanians found considerable sums on money on the bodies.4
October 1943

On October 2 the band stole for a second night (October 1 and 2); they take the wagons with the merchandise and drive to the forest. This night, October 2, Polstoki [Półstoki], Wojsiaty, Jacewicze, Podborze [were robbed]. …

When the bandits came into the courtyard, they spoke among themselves in Lithuanian. Among the bandits were Bolsheviks who emphasized that they were from the wostock [vostok, i.e., eastern regions of the Soviet Union], and they only take food—bread, lard, that’s all. But for what do they need clothing, especially women’s clothing and other items, like rings? That is the way Bolsheviks steal: only food [ironically], no other stuff.5
October 6, 7, and 8

Three nights in a row the bandits rob the village of Strakiszek [Strakiszki]; the population is in tears. That night Stary and Nowy Miedzyrzecz [Stare and Nowe Międzyrzecze], Pilalowka [Pilatówka], Dobrowola, and Wielki and Maly Ligojn [Wielkie and Małe Ligojnie] were also robbed and several dozen wagons left for the forest with looted property and provisions.6

Saturday, October 23

On Monday, October 18, 1943, Blinow, who hid from the conscription and joined the [partisan] bands, was found in the forest near Lukanc [Łukańce], shot and near death.

On Wednesday, October 20, the band surrounded the house of L. Zacharzewski in Lukanc]. They killed a woman from Madziun [Madziuny] who happened to be there and burned the house, immolating the dead woman, together with her 2 small children and the 2 small children of L. Zacharzewski, who sat hidden in the pigsty with his wife during the raid and saw everything. Zacharzewski is in hiding, since he is suspected of the killing of Blinow.7
Friday, October 28 [29], 1943

In the winter of 1942–43 many Jews were employed in the exploitation of the forest in the region of Gob [Goby] near Czarnobyl. The conditions of their work were horrible. … despite this the Jews did not die of hunger, and in general looked well. Above all, this was thanks to the Gob farmers who fed the Jews. They did not hide their appreciation …

When the work in the forest was finished and the Jews (as superfluous) had already been threatened with the base, the Jews fled to the virgin forest, thanks to the farmers from Gob. About a half year has passed since that time. On October 28, at night, a band robbed the farmer Wiernakowicz [Wierchonowicz] from Gob; three pigs were taken, seven lambs, clothing, linen, flour, kitchen utensils, shoes, etc.8
Saturday, November 6 [1943]

Practically all of Gob [Goby], and actually all the richer farmers in Gob, were thoroughly robbed last night. Six wagons, loaded with locally slaughtered pigs, lambs, and, in addition, clothes, shoes, and the like, left in the direction of the forest. The band appeared at 6 in the evening. In addition, some of the farmers were grievously beaten and several dogs shot. It is interesting that the Bolsheviks, who that night appeared at the farms, declared at the beginning that “by order of the Soviet authorities they demand that the following be furnished immediately, etc.”—after which they named, among other things, small items, such as wristwatches, and when the farmer would try to explain that he didn’t have any, he was asked, “Then where is that [high quality] Cyma silver watch”?

How did they know that? Very simple: their guides were the Jews who were sawing in the forest. Now they went together openly. …

I forgot: at Wierchonowicz’s on October 2, two wagons were loaded. One of the Jews told Wierchonowicz that the cow would be taken another time (he pointed to her in the pigsty); until then the cow should be fattened. Wierchonowicz is feeding the cow better now.9
Historian Kazimierz Krajewski details more of this history, as well as altercations with German forces and their Lithuanian collaborators and attacks on German outposts in the vicinity of Rudniki forest, in his important monograph on the Home Army in the Nowogródek region.10 On September 11, 1943, a large contingent of Soviet partisans staged an attack on Polish partisans in Posolcz, killing three Home Army members including Second Lieutenant Tadeusz Brykczyński (“Kubuś”).11 A Home Army member from Bieniakonie recalled how a group of Soviet partisans invaded a cottage where they came across a woman baking bread. Despite the woman’s pleas to leave some bread for her malnourished children, the partisans took everything they could lay their hands on. Later they returned and torched the house.12 Kazimierz Orłowski, a Home Army member, was killed by Soviet partisans from Rudniki forest when they came to rob his village of Andrzeiszki.13 A Pole from Rudniki recalled, “I counted 19 times that the [Soviet] partisans scoured the village looking to take something. Among them was a Jew by the name of Kuszka from Olkieniki who said, ‘Do not take lean sheep or those with lamb.’”14 Soviet reports mention that partisans from the Jewish units “Death to Fascism” and “Struggle” confiscated the last cows from several households, leaving the families destitute.15 Additional examples, based on German reports and Jewish accounts, were cited in Part Two of this study.

One of the targets of the wrath of Soviet and Jewish partisans was Koniuchy, a small village of several hundred people near the town of Bieniakonie, at the edge of Rudniki forest, southeast of Wilno. Koniuchy was not only remote, it was also a poor village—the soil was sandy and crops and livestock were not abundant. But since it was situated close to the forest it became an easy target for robbers.16 Soviet and Jewish partisans regularly stripped the villagers of virtually all their possessions, especially their livestock, food supplies and clothing. According to the recollections of Edward Tubin, a resident of Koniuchy,
The first time they came it was to us alone. They told us to harness our horse … They took the keys to the storehouse and stable, they chased everyone into a corner, one of them watched us with an automatic weapon. They took everything. Then they came at the end and said that ‘there’ll be no mercy: If you report us, we’ll come and burn you down.’ … The next time more of them came. They came in the early evening and went to take, to rob in the entire village. They came to us and also ordered us to harness our horse. … When they were leaving, two of them burst into our home. There was nothing in the house. I was sleeping on the bed with my brother Leon. We were covered with a village coverlet of our own making. They burst in, saw that there was nothing, and tore the coverlet off us. My father said to them, “Comrades, the children won’t have anything to cover themselves with.” So one of them said using a really dirty word, “shit on your children.” And they left.17
These descriptions fully accord with the accounts of Jewish partisans from Rudniki forest that follow. As Israel Kowalski explains, “In due time, the Jewish units became experts at foraging for themselves and the non-Jews began to envy them.”18
The more people we had in the partisan camp, the more pressing the matter of a food supply. … Every night groups of fighters went out on food forays.19
The “zagotovki” or economic operations began. Twenty-five to thirty people were chosen. The group was directed to a selected village, distant about 25 to 35 kilometres from the base. Of course, those people were armed. There they set up watch at either end of the village, and the rest of us split up into several groups consisting of several persons. Each group went around to several houses and was to requisition everything that we needed: usually potatoes, bread, flour, onions and livestock.20
Going into the local villages to get food, however, was another matter. We came in like bandits and, after all, we were robbing the local peasants of their livelihood, first a sack of flour, then a pig or a cow or a horse. In the early days, we were able to befriend the locals and persuade them to give us food voluntarily, but soon we would need another sack of flour and more cows, and more chickens. In addition, the number of partisans inhabiting the forests grew, as more and more people fled from the ghettos into the forests and as the Red Army moved westwards, Russian soldiers who had imprisoned by the Germans and had escaped, tried to join the partisans. …

As a result of this ‘invasion’ of the forests, the villages close to our base soon ran out of food; everyone was after the same source of supplies. Gradually the villagers, with whom we had at first tried to negotiate, became our enemies. We explained our needs to them and did our best not to take too much of their livestock and their crops, but there was just so much they could provide, and finally we ended up not taking just one cow but by leaving just one cow. We would arrive in the village and load up wagons, or in winter, sledges pulled by horses—which we’d also taken from them, and which we often did not return. After all, their very existence depended on their livestock. Sometimes we would even take a farmer or two with us just so they could return the horse and cart we had used to their village. This also made them less likely to alert the German police that we had been in their village and had taken their goods.

… expeditions to the villages for food took hours—and usually ran into daylight hours. A fully laden wagon train—which inevitably moved very slowly along the dirt roads—took hours and hours to reach base, and it was not uncommon to come across peasants who rushed to denounce us to the Germans who waited to ambush the wagon on the way back to the camp.21
Tuesday, January 11th [1944]. The group of nine are called to carry out a mission: to confiscate the weapons owned by the farmers. The commander is Leib Zaitzev, a Byelorussian Jew, and a veteran partisan. His aide is Nikolai Dushin, a former prisoner-of-war … and we were seven Jews: Shimon Eidlson, Michael Gelbtrunk, Mendl Deitch, Aba Diskant, Itzchak Lifszitz, Jankl Ratner and myself [Alex Faitelson]. Zaitzev was armed with a P.P.S.H., a submachinegun of Russian make, Dushin, with an automatic rifle of the S.V.T. type. We had pistols. The battalion did not have enough weapons to go around. If it was necessary to go out to the villages in order to get foodstuffs, there was an armed group whose task this was. Their arms had been lent to the base by the Jewish partisans from Vilna [Wilno].

It is now three days that we have been “combing” the villages deep in the enemy’s hinterland. We look into and search the farmers’ dwellings for hidden weapons, forcing their owners to empty their hiding places and hand over their arms. Whenever we stop, we interrogate the farmers as to who possesses arms. … In the nearest village we loaded three sleighs [of provisions] and went off to this village. It was a clear night. The moon and the snow in the fields light our way. White expanses. The horses harnessed to the sleighs prance rapidly. We are three to a sleigh. It’s a wonderful feeling—being the rulers of the night!22

Paradoxically, the battle against the Germans was easier and less dangerous than the activity of provision gathering. …

The food expeditions unfolded in general as follows: about thirty partisans went to a village located about forty kilometres from our base, passing along the way closer and non-hostile localities that we did not want to alienate. Usually, after an overnight march, when we arrived in an unfriendly village, first we occupied the house of the village head after placing guards at the outskirts of the dwellings. These operations were more dangerous that combat activities because they were accompanied by a great deal of noise, barking dogs, pigs whose throats were cut, horses that were hitched to wagons on which we loaded the products that we had just confiscated. The rule was to give to the peasants receipts for our booty so that they could later prove to the Soviets [on subsequent raids] that they “aided the partisans.” The booty was restricted only to flour, oil, pork, sometimes beef. The rule was not to touch “luxury” foodstuffs like butter, milk, cheese. … Despite everything, these rules … were not always strictly observed by all the partisans with regard to bread, butter and cheese. …

We were supposed to capture a peasant denouncer in a hostile village, but he was not there when we arrived. To compensate, we put our hands on foodstuffs that were usually forbidden such as bread, cheese, vodka and some clothing.23
I could not stand going out on “foraging” expeditions. I was so ashamed of dropping in on a hut and demanding potatoes, flour, and especially animals—sheep and cows—from the peasants. The women cried, and the men cursed us. It happened that our men surreptitiously seized extra things belonging to the working people who supplied us—boots, clothes, even watches and money. Meetings were held in the detachment to explain to everyone that this was mere pillage, that it was wrong to steal, and that by doing this we [would be] making enemies out of the peasants. The detachment, however, contained many “underworlders,” former thieves and vagrants for whom theft was the normal state of affairs. Some of them contended that they had the right to do this:

“These folks did not suffer from fascism, but our people all died. Why shouldn’t they share something? …”

We were principled members of the FPO. On these expeditions we tried to make sure that nothing was taken except food, but these efforts were not always successful. Our ragged partisans … continued to plunder the peasants, who cursed and hated us. We went out “foraging” after sundown and continued long into twilight. We had to range far afield, since the close-in farms had already been fleeced. Both [Jewish] detachments had complements of up to one hundred forty men. A horde of this size required a great deal of food. In general they took potatoes, flour, cabbage, and sometimes cottage cheese for the sick. The order was given to take cattle only from prosperous peasants who had no fewer than two cows. It was forbidden to take one from a really poor peasant who had just a single cow. …

We finally got to the village we targeted and posted sentries. We ordered the owners to hitch up a cart. We loaded produce on it, tied a cow to the back, and put some confused sheep on it. We worked to the accompaniment of wails and tears on the part of the peasant men and women. We had to hurry. We went back, carefully, looking around from time to time.24

Our sources of sustenance were the neighbouring villages. Despite the fact conditions were hard for their own inhabitants, they shared with us what they had. On the other hand, from time to time it was necessary to turn to arguments of force, including the use of weapons. The Germans attempted to present us to the peasants in the worst possible light calling us bandits. …

In partisan parlance the food-gathering expeditions were called “zagotovka.” They were carried out in the following manner. A group of partisans headed towards the vicinity of a selected village in the early evening hours. It had already been placed under surveillance earlier. In addition we would set up a guard around the village so that no one could leave the area during the operation. The peasants were ordered to gather food and load it onto carriages, to which they had to harness their horses. We took flour, potatoes, bread and pigs. … The peasants brought the loaded carriages out of the village, at which point we intercepted them … We drove the carriages to a location from which we could readily carry the supplies to our base. The horses and carriages were left in places from which the horses could make their way home alone. All of this had to be completed within a few hours, before daybreak.25

The myth that villages located near the bases were friendly by nature, whereas outlying villages were hostile and pro-Nazi, has been amply debunked. No village appreciated being plundered repeatedly, and, as could be expected, the villagers became hostile because of such relentless raids. Villagers who lived near Soviet partisan bases were simply fearful of retaliation, hence their docility; the partisans treated them with more civility because they did not want hostile villagers in close proximity to their bases. The notion that the partisans exercised restraint in their provision-gathering expeditions is, as numerous accounts have shown, equally baseless. Under the circumstances, the villagers had every right to defend themselves and their possessions from the incessant plundering and brutal treatment they were subjected to. Those who, out of desperation, turned to the German authorities for protection cannot simply be regarded as collaborators.

Not all expeditions were carried off as smoothly as those described above. The following account by Sara Rubinson (Ginaite), a member of the “Death to the Occupiers” detachment, describes a raid in late December 1943 which, exceptionally, was cut short because of defensive action by Polish partisans.

Meanwhile, our detachment had been preparing for a very important and dangerous mission in a hostile district, far from our camp, to seize food. Our group of about thirty partisans also included the recently arrived newcomers from Kaunas Ghetto who had not yet had an opportunity to gain any experience in guerrilla warfare. As we all knew, experience could only be acquired by going on missions and fighting in skirmishes. We left our camp before dawn, after all the rifles and automatic weapons, and even our only sub-machine gun, had been distributed. When we reached the village of Inklerishkes [Inklaryszki in Polish, Inkleriškės in Lithuanian] at daybreak, we stopped for a short rest. …

We rested in Inklerishkes until dusk when we left the village, following order to stay on high alert to potential dangers from all directions. We were heading close to the hostile village of Koletanca [Kalitańce], known for its support for the Polish White Partisans. …

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