In order to reach the destination of our operation, we had to go through the edge of the village under their control and cross a narrow footbridge. We did this noiselessly, thinking we had not been spotted. When we reached the designated village, our group leader, Michail Trushin, used all the defensive tactics at his disposal. He positioned guards at both ends of the village and ran to the home of the village elder, ordering him to prepare horse-drawn carriages. Once again, partisans were split into small groups and assigned to houses from which to requisition foodstuffs.
Zunia Shtromas [Shtrom], Boruch Lopjanski, and I looked on the window of the house assigned to us. The frightened owners lit the sapwood lamp and opened the door. Zunia demanded they brig bread, bacon, and salt. Boruch ordered them to open the door to the cowshed and bring out a cow. The farmer hesitated. Immediately, Boruch opened the door of the cowshed. He led out a cow, tied a rope to its neck and told me to lead it to the carriage. Zunia handed me a bag of salt.
All I wanted was to get out of that house and get away from the plaintive, pleading looks and moans of the owners. Before long, the command was given to gather at the carriages with our booty and the train of carts started back for base camp. I proceeded to the footbridge and, though my cow bucked a little, we both made it across.
One of the newcomers, Peisach Gordon, was one or two carriages behind me. He put his sub-machine gun on a cart as he went behind the carriage to try and cross the footbridge. Suddenly, a volley of machine gun fire hit us like a hurricane. The White Partisans were shooting at us from cover of the cemetery, directing their fire at the footbridge and those partisans who had not yet crossed. It cut Peisach down first. He was followed by Itzik Segal.
Newcomer Masha Endlin, disappeared in the fray. I heard Trushin’s command not to cross the bridge, but I was already on the other side of the river and I hit the ground, holding onto the cow. All the cows and horses began to run in a frenzy around me, taking the carriages with them.
The remaining members of our group waded through the shallow river that, at this time of year, was already covered by a thin layer of ice. Leizer Zilber, Israel Goldblatt, and Misha Rubinsonas [Rubinson] all managed to cross the river, avoiding the bridge, and returned feeble fire with their pistols. Trushin slipped and fell into the river but Boruch Lopjanski managed to pull him out. Meanwhile, the sub-machine gun cartridge was lost in the river. Returning fire, we retreated into the woods where we halted briefly, hoping Masha Endlin would catch up. Enemy fire continued as branches and pieces of bark, clipped by bullets, fell all around us. Then everything went quiet.
… Our group returned to base camp disconsolate and dispirited. We had lost three of our comrades and all the food, though I still gripped the small bag of salt in my hand. The commanders of our detachment were livid and sought out scapegoats for the disaster. They blamed the submachine gunners, the scouts, the informers and us, the fighters.26 Not all of this information is reliable, it turns out, as the following account of Nehemia Endlin shows. In fact, two of the three Jews allegedly killed by Poles (Masha Endlin and Itzik or Itzchak Segal), after they had been left behind by their comrades, in fact survived. It is not certain whether the Jewish raiders were repelled by partisans or by a group of vigilant villagers. Finally, it appears that the Poles fired shots not with the intention of killing the Jewish marauders, but to attempt to prevent them from leaving with their spoils.
On December 30, 1943 a group was put together to organize food, headed by Misha [Mikhail] Trushin, a lieutenant among the prisoners of war. My wife Masha [Endlin] and Chaya Shmuelov volunteered. The road led by Vishintzi [Wisińcza], Kaletanz [Kalitańce], towards Novostrelzi [Strzelce]. On the way to Kaletanz, there was a rivulet crossed by a little bridge, close to the cemetery. On the way back, when they were laden with goods, they fell into an ambush of Polish farmers who had positioned themselves in the cemetery and opened fire in the direction of the bridge. Peisach Gordon was shot and killed, and the others scattered and crossed the stream through the water. Misha Trushin and some of the partisans opened fire at the ambush. It was of no importance because the attackers did not come out, nor did they give chase to the group. Their intention was to drive off the partisans, leaving behind them their food and animals.
Shooting in the dark in the direction of the well-armed concealed attackers could have created a target for them to return fire against us. In the meantime, our people were in confusion. The machine-gunner Meishe Rubinson and his deputy, Eliezer Zilber, lost the machine-gun magazine. My wife [Masha Endlin] was left caught on a branch, and no one came to help her. Itzchak Segal got lost and threw away his SOT automatic rifle. Peisach Gordon’s body was left on the bridge. A sad end to the campaign, and we returned to the base empty-handed, having lost people and weapons …
The commander and the commissar vented all their anger on Meishe Rubinson and Eliezer Zilber for losing the magazines and bullets. Given the company’s meager armory, this was a serious and sad blow. The two of them were sent to find the lost ammunition, which of course they were unable to do. On their return, they announced that Peisach Gordon, Masha Endlin and Itzchak Segal were dead. In this way, apparently, they wanted to prove to the commanders that they had been to the place.
Nehemia Endlin continues:
It was the night of Sylvester [i.e., December 31]. That evening I was on guard by the HQ dugout. In the dugout they were welcoming in the new year, and as appropriate to partisans, they were drinking home brew and having a good time, even though the day before they had lost three men and weapons. The commissar came out to me late at night and told me that Masha had died near Kaletanz [Kalitańce]. I answered that we were fighting a just war and that no one could be certain he would come out of the struggle alive.
We reached the target and the commander posted a guard on both sides of the village. They were charged with letting no one in or out without a password. The action took place in the village. Everyone was warned not to take anything, even something of no value, from the farmers other than food.
The food raid was crowned with success. On the way back, Meishe Rubinson wanted to show me the grave of my wife Masha. When we reached the little bridge over the rivulet by Kaletanz, we came under heavy fire from the cemetery. We did not panic, and quickly took the food and livestock across, by the bridge or through the water, while the partisans covered us by shooting in the direction of the attackers. Thanks to this exchange of fire, Meishe Rubinson was saved from the unpleasant task of finding and showing me my wife’s grave …
I was sent to the ghetto to bring fighters to the forest.
One day Velvl Shavlan, a member of the underground fighting organization in the ghetto who worked for Liptzer in the Gestapo brigade, came to me and brought me a note he had received from a Jew who had come from the Vilna [Wilno] Gestapo brigade. The note was written by a woman called Mery Ezerhovitz to a family in the ghetto by the name of Rostovski. The handwriting had looked to Velvl to be similar to that of my wife, and he decided to bring the note to me.
Masha described in brief how she had fallen into the hands of the Vilna Gestapo. When she had freed herself from the thicket by the rivulet by Kaletanz her partisan comrades were no longer around. She was caught by armed Polish farmers, who already held Itzchak Segal. The two of them claimed that they were Jews who had lost their way, when they heard the exchange of gunfire. As they were unarmed, the Poles believed them.
The Poles did not know what to do with the Jews they had captured, and gave them to the Vilna Gestapo. There, they were interrogated and not found guilty of anything other than being “Jews who had gone astray”—and they were sent to a Jewish work brigade.
I showed the letter to Chaim Yellin. He immediately instructed David Markovski to take the opportunity of sending my wife 500 marks and clothes. The two of us, Chaim and I, went to Liptzer. He received us as honored guests, with coffee and rolls. I asked him, as the person in charge of the ghetto on behalf of the Gestapo, to get my wife out of Vilna and bring her to Kovno [Kaunas]. We set him a stay of one month.27
They brought Masha Endlin to Kaunas and Nehemia Endlin took her to the forest. However, Shmuel Chananovitch, a Jew who was apprehended by the Lithuanian police after escaping from Kaunas and taken to the Gestapo in Wilno, where he met Masha Endlin, maintains that Masha had also been caught by the Lithuanian police in the vicinity of Kalitańce and handed over to the Gestapo. This appears to be a far more likely scenario than the one suggested by Nehemia Endlin, given the villagers’ lack of contact with the Gestapo. According to Chananovitch,
On December 30, 1943, a group of partisans from the “Death to the Occupiers” battalion, went off on a mission to get food supplies. The group was led by Lieutenant Misha [Mikhail] Trushin, a former prisoner of war. On their way back to their base with a wagon full of provisions, they met with strong fire from the west. Gordon-Shtein was killed in this incident. The partisans lost their nerve, left the wagons with the provisions and dispersed. Neither Itzchak Segal nor Masha Endlin made their way back from this mission. They were caught by the police, to whom Masha said that she had got lost in the neighborhood while looking for a place to stay during the war. The Lithuanian police handed her over to the Gestapo. Itzchak Segal’s fate is not known.
Masha Endlin managed to send a letter via a Jew from a working-crew employed by the Gestapo in Vilna [Wilno] who was going to Kovno [Kaunas]. Nehemia Endlin received the letter and approached Chaim about it. Chaim succeeded with Benni Liptzer’s help in having Masha transferred from the Gestapo in Vilna to the Gestapo in Kovno, and from there she came to the ghetto and was taken by Nehemia to the forest.28
Accounts gathered by the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland shortly after the war indicate that altercations with the Home Army occurred almost always in the context of raids on villages staged by Soviet partisans. Casualties among the Soviet partisans were relatively few. Planting mines proved to be a much more hazardous undertaking: five Jewish partisans were killed when a mine exploded prematurely. The accounts also describe frequent assaults (including rape) and robberies of Jews perpetrated by Soviet partisans and the unwillingness of both Jewish and Soviet partisans to accept unarmed Jews and women into their ranks. The commanders of a partisan unit abandoned a group of Jewish partisans who were thought to be a liability, leaving them to fend for themselves without almost any weapons. The Soviets killed many persons who tried to join their units as suspected “spies.” The partisans even murdered some friendly Polish railway workers they had captured, fearing they would betray the location of the whereabouts of the partisans if released. After being subjected to interrogation, captured German soldiers were routinely executed.29 However, these accounts are silent about the massacre of the villagers of Koniuchy.
It is also worth noting that many Jewish partisans had received assistance from Poles on their way to Rudniki forest, and some had even left their children in the care of Poles.30 Contrary to their boastful accounts, their role in the defeat of the German forces was negligible. In fact, actual military operations were few and far between and militarily inconsequential. By January 1944, the director of the military operations branch of the Wilejka Partisan Centre had secured permission to cease talks with the Home Army and to destroy the “Łupaszko” Brigade but its plans were foiled because of precautions taken by the Poles.31
In the fall of 1943, a handful of villagers in Koniuchy formed a self-defence unit in response to repeated “economic” operations or armed raids carried out by Soviet and Jewish partisans. The villagers’ meagre supply of weapons initially consisted of three rifles (one of which didn’t shoot) discarded by Soviet soldiers who had fled the area in June 1941. Later they acquired a few more rifles. The armed strength of the villagers, who were allegedly well equipped by the Germans, was greatly exaggerated in Soviet wartime reports and Jewish accounts that sought to provide a justification for the attack. A night watch was set up to warn residents of impending raids, but proved to be totally ineffective in the crucial test confrontation with the Soviet partisans. Koniuchy was selected by the leadership of the Soviet partisans based in the Rudniki forest for “an act of vengeance and intimidation.”32 The mission was carried out on January 29, 1944, by some 120 to 150 Soviet partisans, or possibly more according to Soviet sources.33 Although referred to as a military operation in Jewish reports, and indeed touted as one of the greatest wartime accomplishments of the Jewish partisans, the assault on Koniuchy in fact bore no such hallmarks. The assault was not directed against a German military target or an outpost of their collaborators, nor even against the members of the small self-defence unit in the village, but rather it was an indiscriminate and wholesale massacre of the village’s civilian population.
According to Jewish sources, around 50 to 60 partisans from the Jewish detachments of the Vilnius Brigade (of the Lithuanian Staff Partisan Movement) joined in the pacification of the village of Koniuchy. The Jewish partisan contingent was led by Jacob Prenner (Yaakov Prener), the commander of the “Death to Fascism” detachment, and included fighters from the following detachments: “Avenger,” under the command of Abba Kovner; “To Victory,” under the command of Shmuel Kaplinsky; and “Struggle,” under the command of Aron Aronovich.34By and large, the members of the four Jewish units of the Vilnius Brigade (sometimes referred to as the Lithuanian Brigade), who were mostly escapees from the Wilno ghetto, considered themselves to be first and foremost Jewish partisans.35 The composition of the Vilnius Brigade was approximately 60 percent Jewish, and their share in the Jewish units was overwhelming.36 Their ranks also included a number of women, some of whom took part in the attack on Koniuchy.37 The perpetrators also included quite a few Jewish members of the “Death to the Occupiers” detachment [Smierť okkupantam—sometimes translated as “Death to the Occupants/Invaders/Conquerors”] of the Kaunas (Kovno) Brigade, which was composed of some 80 fugitives from the Kaunas ghetto and a larger contingent of escaped Soviet prisoners of war,38 as well as the small “Margiris” (or “Margirio”) detachment, consisting mainly of ethnic Lithuanians, and a special intelligence group, composed mostly of Russians, attached to the Lithuanian partisan movement. The “Death to the Occupiers” unit is believed to have played a key role in the assault.39
Jewish sources claim that some 300 villagers—mostly women and children—were slaughtered in the pogrom. According to an incomplete Polish investigation, the number of victims may have been smaller, perhaps as low as fifty, of whom 39 have been identified by name. The youngest was about a year and a half; other victims were as young as four, eight, nine and ten years old.40 Another Polish source estimates the number of victims to be higher: 46 victims were buried in the local cemetery and about a score were taken by family and friends and interned in the nearby villages of Butrymańce, Soleczniki, and Bieniakonie.41 Some of the wounded were taken to the hospital in Bieniakonie where several of them died.42 It is quite possible that there were many more victims, especially young children and the elderly, who were simply incinerated in the inferno and never identified. Fifty fatalities is therefore a minimum figure, with 300 victims being a maximum.
The descriptions of the slaughter by Polish eyewitnesses are horrific. People attempting to escape from their burning homes were shot, regardless of their age or gender.
Józef Bondalewicz: “We were awoken from our sleep by the shooting and the glow of fire in our windows. It was as light as day and crawling with partisans who fired at everyone who tried to get out of their homes. The noise from the fire and crash of buildings falling apart were reminiscent of a thunderstorm. From various sides one could hear the desperate moans of people being burned alive in their homes and the groaning of animals locked in their sheds.
“When I ran out of my house I saw a mother with an infant in her hands running out of the neighbouring Wójtkiewicz house. Two women whom I recognized by their voices to be Jewish, since there were no women in Soviet units, mowed her down with a series of bullets from their automatic weapons. One of them darted toward the dying woman, tore her child away, and threw it into a burning cottage. The terror and uncanny heat forced everyone who made it out of the buildings to take flight without delay. Out of breath I managed to reach friendly brushwood from where I made my way to the village of Kuże.”43
Antoni Gikiewicz: “…they surrounded the entire village and started murdering everyone, one after another.”
Stanisław Wojtkiewicz: “…they didn’t even spare pregnant women.”
Stanisława Woronis [née Bandalewicz]: “…whomever the Soviets found in the bushes or in a hole in the ground, they killed.”44
“I remember that it was the 29th of January. At dawn, around 7 o’clock—it was usually dark so I could not understand where the light was coming from—my husband woke me up, pulling me sharply by the arm and screaming that we should leave our home immediately. Our house was in the middle of the village. The first farmsteads were already on fire …
“On the other side of the road that crossed our village is a forest—a silent witness to these awful events. Soviet partisans often came around before. They usually made firm demands or with a revolver in hand demanded that we give them chickens, pigs and other food. Then they simply carried out robberies, just like bandits. Our men rebelled. We didn’t have enough food to feed our own children. Some villagers were so poor that they couldn’t make both ends meet. When a self-defence was organized they dealt with us in a brutal manner employing both murder and fire. I could understand settling scores in a manly fashion, but the killing of innocent people—never! It was worse than war. During war you run from bullets. Those who were not hit with a bullet in Koniuchy, or were just wounded, they finished off alive.
“Together with my husband and little daughter I took shelter a few kilometres from our village with the Stackiewiczes. Although we were only humble villagers we found understanding and refuge there. Mrs. Stackiewicz was shocked that instead of a dress I wore a nightshirt and that my child, whom we covered a warm scarf (it was January and there was frost), had bare feet. They rubbed her with alcohol, wrapped her in a warm blanket, and gave her tea. She survived, but all of us suffered the consequences. I’ll remember the fear and whizz of bullets behind my back for the rest of my days. Just like the burning village begging for pity in vain.
“We didn’t return to Koniuchy at once. The Soviet partisans were vigilant and God help those they found. Close family members of my husband also perished that blood-filled day. Twenty-year-old Anna Woronis was renowned for beauty in the entire vicinity. I felt so sorry for the lad Antek Bobin. Young, handsome, and hardworking. He didn’t live here, but worked for farmers elsewhere. He just happened to be visiting his home village. His father was taken to the hospital in Bieniakonie. But Antek died so innocently. The same was true for the Pilżys family who had moved here from Wilno and bought a house. We were not in close contact with them because they lived farther out, beyond the river. But I know that they had children. How were the children to blame? Mrs. Molis had a young daughter who was a year and a half old. She held her in her arms as she ran away. They both fell from bullets.”45 Anna Suckiel: “The partisans murdered everyone regardless of their age and sex. People ran from their burning homes and perished from rounds of machinegun fire. Stanisława Jankowska was paralyzed and couldn’t escape from her burning home. She was burned alive. Here, on this spot, where they erected a cross with the names of my deceased neighbours, partisans finished off Urszula Parwicka with stones. Miraculously I survived.”46
“But why did they murder so many women and children? What did the little Molis daughter do to them? She was not even two years old. Or the Bandalewicz boys—one was eight and the other nine.”47
Edward Tubin: “Automatic weapons started to go off and we see fire, it’s burning. The thatched roofs were made of straw. People started to run away, they rushed into the forest, into those bushes. …
“My mother and I ran to a hollow to hide, and I see them running from the cemetery—there may have been twelve of them—they’re shooting. Maybe if I were older I would have followed my mother, but I left her, ran across the village, to our neighbour … My [11-year-old] brother Leon was there. And Leon and I ran to the river. I saw incendiary bombs dropping. … We ran up to the river. We look and see a large alder that had grown on the other side of the river. A hole had been hollowed out. And we look and see a neighbour sitting there who had run and hidden with his family near that river. And we went there.
“We sat there and heard shots on the other side. The Pilżys family lived there. We saw how they came for them, they entered their house. They shot them. That’s to say they shot the two daughters, the father and the mother. They left the house and set it on fire. They set fire to everything. Then we see how quite near us, well maybe about 50 metres away, Woronis, an elderly man, was running and fell into the water with his sheepskin coat. Two men with automatic weapons ran right behind him. They ran to the river and sprayed a series from the automatic weapons into the river. They thought they’d killed him and so they turned back. Thank God they did not look to the left, where we sat under that little hill. …
“We thought that [Woronis] had perished … We look and look, he crawled out of the water on the other side … They had wounded his hand very seriously. … The partisans killed his wife, his daughter and his son. …
“My mother had run to that hollow and fell in. They probably knew … They approached. My sister was sitting nearby with her young daughter. They sprayed her with shots from the automatic weapon. … My sister may have been around thirty. She had a young girl, four years old, in her hands. They shot at the girl in her hand and killed her. My sister sat there, and another man saw her and said that she’s still alive and raised his rifle. Another fellow said to leave the woman alone … But he shot at my sister. She was sitting, and he fired at her head diagonally right in the cheek and through the jaw. The bullet ripped through her teeth and jaw. My sister fell. So that the bullet entered through her jaw and ripped out part of her breast.