“And my brother who was nearby in the bushes ran. That’s how they encountered him and sprayed him on the head with the automatic weapon. His head what shattered in half. …
“Stanisław Bandalewicz was burned in his house with two sons. I myself saw him lying on the veranda with his burned bones. … His children had hidden under the stove and were burned, they had suffocated. …
“There was no difference, they killed whomever they caught. Even one woman who ran toward the cemetery to the forest, they didn’t shoot her but killed her with a rock, a rock to the head. When they killed my mother, they sprayed about eight bullets in her chest.48
The following somewhat conflicting, at times exaggerated and often inaccurate accounts are by Jews who took part in that heinous crime. (Rather than concoct stories, Russian partisans spoke of their involvement in this massacre with great reluctance, seemingly recognizing it as a shameful and compromising event and not a show of heroism.) Contrary to what these accounts allege, there never was a German garrison in Koniuchy. There were no policemen, either Lithuanian or Polish, stationed in the village. (The nearest outpost of Lithuanian police in the service of the Germans was six kilometres away in Rakliszki.) Nor did the village have elaborate fortifications. A few men from the self-defence patrolled the village for several hours after nightfall. In the face of repeated raids, they had refused Soviet demands to disarm. The notion that the villagers were Nazi sympathizers who organized ambushes of well-armed Soviet partisans, or that they captured and killed any of them, is without any merit. The poorly armed villagers, who certainly had no automatic weapons or arms caches, barely put up any resistance during the unexpected attack in the early morning hours of January 29, 1944. Overtaken by swarms of well-armed fighters, it appears that they did not even return the fire. The assailants suffered no casualties. What happened in Koniuchy was a virtual bloodbath of defenceless civilians—another Lidice or Oradour. However, the perpetrators’ own accounts try to outdo each other in attempting to justify the wanton butchery and vilify the victims. The hoax that of an alleged German garrison in the village is repeated in almost every account, doubtless to enhance the “military” nature of the assailants’ exploits.
According to an account penned in 1950 by Chaim Lazar of the “Avenger” detachment of the Vilnius Brigade:
For some time it had been known that the village Koniuchy was a nest of bands and the center of intrigues against the partisans. Its residents, known for their villany [sic], were organizing the people in the area, distributing arms among them which they received from the Germans, and leading every attack on the partisans. The village was well fortified. Every house was a military position and there were defense trenches near every dwelling. There were watchtowers on both sides of the village, so it was not at all easy to penetrate the place. Nevertheless, the partisans chose this very place to carry out an act of vengeance and intimidation. The Brigade Headquarters decided to raze Koniuchy to the ground to set an example to others.
One evening a hundred and twenty of the best partisans from all the camps, armed with the best weapons they had, set out in the direction of the village. There were about 50 Jews among them, headed by Yaakov [Jacob] Prenner. At midnight they came to the vicinity of the village and assumed their proper positions. The order was not to leave any one alive. Even livestock was to be killed and all property was to be destroyed. …
Up until midnight the villagers would keep a heavy watch. At midnight they would reduce the number of guards, since it was well-known that the partisans would not begin an attack so late, as they would not have enough time to reach the forest before dawn. The villagers certainly could not imagine that the partisans would return to the forest in daylight, victorious.
The signal was given just before dawn. Within minutes the village was surrounded on three sides. On the fourth side was the river and the only bridge over it was in the hands of the partisans. With torches prepared in advance, the partisans burned down the houses, stables, and granaries, while opening heavy fire on the houses. Loud explosions were heard in many houses when the arms caches blew up. Half-naked peasants jumped out of windows and sought escape. But everywhere fatal bullets awaited them. Many jumped into the river and swam towards the other side, but they too, met the same end. The mission was completed within a short while. Sixty households, numbering about 300 people, were destroyed, with no survivors.
The news spread quickly throughout the area. … The next day, the Gestapo heads came from Vilna [Wilno] with large army forces. The Germans photographed the ruins and the charred corpses and publicized the photos accompanied by biting articles on the cruelty of the partisans.49 According to Isaac Kowalski of the Second Fighters’ Group of the Vilnius Brigade:
Koniuchi [sic] was the name of a big village that was some 30 kilometers from Vilna [Wilno] and 10 kilometers from the periphery of our partisan base.
The Germans convinced the wheeler-dealers of that village that if they would be obedient they would receive security, riches and peace, and they would be able to live thus through the entire war. [In fact, the villagers lived in dire poverty and the Germans took no steps to arm, fortify or protect them from marauders. M.P.]
All they had to do was to inform the Germans of the activities of the partisans in the region.
The villagers did the best they could to please the new occupants.
Whenever our partisans crossed in groups of five or ten men to important and dangerous missions, they met with sniper fire and always suffered casualties. [These “important and dangerous missions” were the so-called “economic” operations or, put simply, foraging in villages, since there is no evidence of any military activity by the partisans directed against the Germans. M.P.]
The individual commands then decided that their men should pass the village in groups of about 40 or 50, and when shot at by snipers should chase after and destroy them. The rest of the group would guard the village.
For a while the situation was so. But then the Germans supplied the villagers with rifles and machine-guns. A permanent guard was established, whose purpose was to shield the village day and night.
It became so bad that bigger groups could not be safe crossing the village on the way to an important mission, or passing the village on the way to the railroad, highway, etc. We always ended up with casualties. [There is no evidence of any such casualties inflicted by the villagers. M.P.]
The brigade-staff decided to remove the cancer that was growing on the partisan body.
Our base commander gave the order that all able-bodied men should be prepared in an hour to leave for an operation.
The order was that all men, without exceptions, including the doctor, the radio-telegraphers, the workers of the brigade staff, and people like myself who were working in the propaganda and printing department, be ready on time.
At the correct time all of us were ready in full battle-gear, and left for our destination.
When we were closing in on our destination, I saw that partisans were coming from all directions, from various detachments. …
Our detachment got the order to destroy everything that was moving and burn the village down to its roots.
At the exact hour and minute all partisans from all four corners of the village started pouring rifle and machine-gun fire, with incendiary bullets, into the village. This caused the straw roofs of the houses to catch fire.
The villagers and the small German garrison answered back with heavy fire, but after two hours the village with the fortified shelter was completely destroyed.
Our only casualties were two men who were lightly wounded. [These alleged casualties are not confirmed by Soviet reports. M.P.]
When, later we had to go through Koniuchi we did not encounter any sniper shots, because it was like crossing through a cemetery.50 Interviewed in 1991, Kowalski further embellished his story:
One time we went to … a very strong village, a big village. The Germans … give them rifles everybody and say listen, “Your task is when see going through the partisans, you have to kill them … You don’t have to wait to call for the Germans to do the job. First, you will protect yourselves this way from the partisan [sic], and on the other side, if you are not going to do the way what we like, you’ll get killed from us.” So they didn’t really have another choice, and they took the rifles from them … When we … have to go to this village, they used to apprehend us and … we have to fight with them. We have all the time a little ... people were fell in battle and the Germans were very happy with their work so they give them all kind of ... sugar, things, other things what there were shortage and but we decided if you are working with the Germans, then we’ll give you a lesson … So one day we for fuel places [sic] and we apprehended the village and we killed a lot of people there and we destroyed the village. … all the villages around saw what happened if you take ammunition, if you take weapons from the Germans, then the partisans … will go after you.51 Abraham Zeleznikow, a partisan from the “Struggle” unit of the Vilnius Brigade, did not mention the attack on Koniuchy in an earlier account,52 but in an interview in 1993, he recalled the obliteration of this village very vividly:
There was a Polish village, about 400 people. The village’s name was Koniuchy, and it was on the way for us to go from the forest. If we would have to go around, it would be another 20 miles. And if you have to make in the night, mostly it was taking the night, you went out in the dark in the evening, and in the morning when you come back, the light, you had to be back in the forest. If not, you haven’t be [sic] safe. So you had in 12 hours to make about 60–80 kilometers. If you would have to make another 20 kilometers, it would take you at least another two hours if not more, and physically it would be very hard. And when we went to this village, quite a few times we had attacks from the Polish partisans, what had the support of the people in the village. So we got from Moscow that the village should be destroyed, all the village. Nothing what is alive in the village should stay alive. We are not allowed to take anything from the village. Partisans come around the village, everything was torched, every animal, every person was killed. And one of my friends, acquaintances, a partisan, took a woman, put her head on a stone, and killed her with a stone. When I asked him, how could you do it, he said they did it with my mother. Still, you see, it was, this was the atmosphere in which you have been living.53 Characteristically, Zeleznikow’s account is also strewn with false justifications for the assault. There was no Polish partisan base in Koniuchy and the village lay off the beaten track, so there was no need to traverse it unless one was carrying out raids in the immediate vicinity.
Israel Weiss of the “To Victory” detachment of the Vilnius Brigade appears to allude to the destruction of Koniuchy in the following account:
We succeeded in wresting considerable quantities of arms and ammunition from villages who collaborated [sic] with the Germans and were supplied with arms by them. Punitive measures were undertaken against collaborators; and one village which was notorious for its hostility to the Jews was burned down completely.54 Zalman Wylozni, who escaped from the Wilno ghetto and, with the assistance of friendly Polish farmers, made his way to Rudniki forest where he joined the “Death to Fascism” detachment of the Vilnius Brigade, provides a rather laconic description of his role in the attack on Koniuchy:
As a partisan I took part in many and various operations and raids. Among others I participated in the important action of the liquidation of the village of Koniuchy, whose inhabitants collaborated with the Germans [sic]. The peasants of this village did a lot of harm to the partisans in the surroundings. In retaliation, the entire village of 80 farmsteads was burned to the ground and its inhabitants were murdered.55 Rachel Margolis, a member of Kaplinsky’s “To Victory” detachment, tells the following story:
A Nazi garrison was stationed in Kanyuki [sic] village. It blocked the partisans’ way into the region beyond it and it was very dangerous for us. The brigade high command decided to attack the garrison and send all our detachments there. Fania [Jocheles, later Brantsovsky] went on this operation with a group from the Avenger Detachment. Our guys went, too.
In a few days they returned, bearing their wounded with them. It had been a very prolonged battle. The partisans had surrounded the garrison, but the Nazis were exceptionally well armed and beat off all attacks. They broke the flanks of the Jewish detachments, and the partisans withdrew precipitously. Then [Elhanan] Magid jumped up on a rock and yelled:
“We are Jews. We will show them what we are capable of. Forward, comrades!”
This sobered the men up; they ran back and won. … Everyone felt uplifted. We had returned with a victory despite the enemy’s superiority in numbers. The Kanyuki garrison in Kaniuki no longer existed.56
As Margolis points out, the recollection of these events became a source of merriment for the Jewish partisans:
Fania [Jocheles, later Brantsovsky] told a very funny story about Magid, who spoke Russian poorly. As he said it, it came out, “We are Jews, we’ll show them what we have.” Everyone laughed, and the expression took root in our conversations.57 Another member of Kaplinsky’s unit, Pesia Złotnik Schenbaum, attributes the fate of the villagers to their “betrayal” of the partisans: There was a Lithuanian village that betrayed the partisans, for which it faced a harsh punishment. The entire village was encircled at night and burned alive. No one came out of it alive, which was ensured by the guard that was mounted.58 Joseph Harmatz, who escaped from the Wilno ghetto and, with the assistance of a Polish acquaintance, made his way to the Rudniki forest, joined the “To Victory” detachment of the Vilnius Brigade. He recalls: “Taking food away from the peasants is not easy because they didn’t have enough and they would hide it. … And some of the peasants would be angry and would alert the Germans.”59 Harmatz advances the dubious claim that Jews who had escaped from a special brigade of 80 Jewish prisoners tasked with exhuming and burning bodies at the mass execution site in Ponary outside Wilno played a particularly savage role in the pacification of Koniuchy.60 Their wrath was directed at Polish villagers even though the Poles had nothing to do with the crimes committed in Ponary, but rather had themselves been killed in Ponary by the hundreds. In the nearby village of Kanyuchi [sic], where the locals collaborated with the Germans—these newly-recruited partisans, furious at what they had seen at Ponar [sic], burned down all the houses and killed every single one of the inhabitants, shouting as they shot each one: ‘That’s for my mother, and that’s for my father, and that’s for my sister,’ and so on.61 The eyewitness testimony of Paul Bagriansky, cited later, confirms the element of misdirected revenge described by Harmatz.
According to a popular book based on Jewish accounts,
Konyuchi [sic] was a village of dusty streets and squat, unpainted houses. … The partisans—Russians, Lithuanians and Jews—attacked Konyuchi from the fields, the sun at their backs. There was gunfire from the guard towers. Partisans returned the fire. The peasants ducked into houses. Partisans threw grenades onto roofs and the houses exploded into flame. Other houses were torched. Peasants ran from their front doors and raced down the streets. The partisans chased them, shooting men, women, children. Many peasants ran in the direction of the German garrison, which took them through a cemetery on the edge of town. The partisan commander, anticipating this move, had stationed several men behind the gravestones. When these partisans opened fire, the peasants turned back, only to be met by the soldiers coming up from behind. Caught in a cross fire, hundreds of peasants were killed.62 Israeli historian, Dina Porat ties Abba Kovner closely to the assault on Koniuchy and identifies another participant, Senka Nisanelewicz. However, this version is also replete with inconsistencies as to why the village was attacked (was it Jewish revenge or Soviet orders? or did Soviet orders provide an ideal outlet for pent-up but misplaced revenge against victims of partisan raids?) and inaccuracies (notably the strength of the Soviet partisan forces). After acknowledging that the partisans “raided the peasants and took food by force” and that “often the Jewish partisans did not follow orders” to take only what was absolutely necessary to survive,63 Porat states: Sometimes the partisans took revenge on villages that were particularly hostile and had caused them loss of life or were the home base of the murderers of Jews in Vilna [Wilno]. For example, about twenty partisans, Jewish and non-Jewish, razed and then set fire to the village of Konyuchi [Koniuchy], having received orders from partisan headquarters in Rudniki to destroy it. … Kovner mustered his men, announced the operation had been successful, and praised the fighters who had distinguished themselves. However, he said, the partisans should do nothing that the Germans could use against them. Kovner could not be too critical because the orders had been given by the partisan general command. He later sat individually with each of the fighters, spending several hours explaining, according to Nisanelewicz, that they “were partisans but first of all Jews, and we do not kill the way the Germans do. We were angry with him again, the poet-turned-partisan, who was trying to turn us into members of Hashomer Hatzair with its ideas about morality in combat. We were young and hot-headed, we had lost everything and were eager to take our revenge on the Lithuanians. In retrospect, of course, he was right again; we had gotten carried away.”64 Contrary to Kovner’s reported admonition, the pacification of Koniuchy was every bit as brutal as any German pacification, a fact that Nisanelewicz seems to acknowledge.
The accounts of “second generation survivors” (i.e., children of Jews who lived through the Holocaust) are equally problematic. They simply regurgitate well-worn clichés and even embellish them. The following account is Michael Bart’s, the son of Leizer Bart, who was a policeman in the Wilno ghetto, a group that had deservedly acquired a very bad reputation, before joining Kovner’s partisans in Rudniki forest. (As Rachel Margolis noted, “The detachment … contained many ‘underworlders,’ former thieves and vagrants for whom theft was the normal state of affairs.”) Leizer Bart, a member of the Second Fighter’s Group of the Vilnius Brigade, claims to have taken part in the assault on Koniuchy. Much of what Michael Bart writes is simply fiction. No one has ever attempted to identify the two Jewish partisans who were allegedly killed by the villagers and whose their corpses they put on public display, or the scout who allegedly penetrated the village. It should be the simplest of tasks to do so if they existed. (Ruzhka Korchak, cited later, also refers to the capture of two unnamed guerrillas from the “Lithuanian units” who were tortured to death, but does not claim they were Jews, nor does she name them.) Besides, why would the partisans need to send a scout to check out a village they had entered and robbed several times in the past? It is not surprising, therefore, that even Soviet reports do not repeat such nonsense. The novel claim advanced in this book that only resisters were to be killed, and that the villagers were warned to leave to avoid harm, is contradicted by all reliable sources. One wonders why Michael Bart would have resorted to such concoctions, tampering with the sources he cites (Israel Weiss, Isaac Kowalski, Chaim Lazar, and Rich Cohen), unless to save face for his father and his cronies, whose vile deeds he glorifies. Interestingly, Michael Bart hastily abandons the victim count advanced by Jews over the years and, conveniently, adopts the much lower German victim count to facilitate spinning a web of deceit about the partisans’ goodwill and compassion toward those villagers who allegedly agreed to leave the village and save themselves at the urging of the highly principled partisans. While this is a touching example of attempting to salvage his father’s reputation, it is ultimately misguided. Any reputable historian and informed reader will see through the ploy and recognize it for what it is: a deliberate falsification. Bart’s book is thus discredited as a historical record, even though it received a Christopher Award in 2009—given to works that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit”—for describing his parents’ “heroic efforts in the underground resistance, and their role in the liberation of Vilna.”
Abba Kovner began meeting with other Jewish, Russian, and Lithuanian partisan leaders to plan a response against the Polish villagers who had attacked them. One particular town, Koniuchi [Koniuchy], was notorious for its enthusiastic support of the Nazis against the partisans. The Germans had helped the residents fortify their village by building defense trenches and lookout towers, and organizing the men of the town into an antipartisan militia, armed with German rifles and even machine guns.
One day in April [sic] a scout returned from Koniuchi. Because he looked “Aryan” and spoke unaccented Polish, he had been able to enter the village posing as a member of a pro-Nazi militia from another village. In the village he had seen the corpses of two Jewish partisans, who had been killed and afterward placed on public display.
When Kovner heard this, he reported the event to the Russian partisan commander, with whom the leaders had already been discussing retaliation against hostile villages. The commander ordered an unprecedented call-up of all available fighters from the various Jewish and non-Jewish brigades in Rudnicki [Rudniki] for an attack on Koniuchi.
Leizer [Bart] and the other Avengers would be part of a small army of well-armed and trained partisan fighters. They would surround the town from all sides and destroy it. No building was to be left standing. All residents who resisted in any way were to be killed. Only those who surrendered would be spared. They were not to take anything from Koniuchi—no food, no livestock, no valuables. It needed to be clear that they had come for one reason alone, to make the other villages think twice about turning them in or shooting at them as they passed by on their missions.
The fighters disappeared down the path with rifles slung over their backs while Zenia [Lewinson-Bart—i.e., Leizer’s wife] and others at the camp began an edgy and sleepless wait for the fighters’ safe return.
By dawn the strike force had surrounded the three land-locked sides of the village and taken control of the river on the forth side. Several partisans had torched houses, stables, and granaries on the outskirts of the village, while the others began riddling the town with gunfire and incendiary bullets.
The people of Koniuchi returned fire from their houses and defensive positions. The straw roofs burst into flames, and within minutes the German ammunition hidden inside homes began to explode. Soon the whole town was ablaze. Half-clothed villagers, roused from their sleep, jumped out of windows and escaped across the river. Anyone in the town who surrendered was told to leave, but those who fought back or ignored calls for surrender were killed. Within two hours the mission was complete. The town had been leveled, three dozen people were dead, and another dozen had been injured.
Leizer and the other Avengers came back safely from Koniuchi. All any of them had to say was that it was done and that Koniuchi would not be a problem anymore. Once other nearby villages saw the price to be paid, they would most likely not be problems either. Kovner had once said that, unlike the Nazis, the Jewish partisans didn’t kill because they wanted people to die. Making an example of Koniuchi had been necessary for their survival, and the validity of their cause made the choice between their survival and that of the people of Koniuchi a defensible one. After the war, when recounting their exploits, Koniuchi was rarely spoken of.65 A recent media report provides yet another self-serving spin on the assault that no eyewitness account or official report has ever advanced:
The Lithuanian partisans, who operated under the aegis of the Central Partisan Command of the Soviet Union, had information that there was a German garrison in the village. After the fact, it turned out that the Germans had abandoned the place. In the battle that ensued, 38 villagers were killed, including women and children.66 [emphasis added] The most fanciful accounts were published in the Soviet Union, shortly after the war. The Black Book of Russian Jewry, based on Jewish testimonies compiled by Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman in 1944, reported that the Jewish partisan units “Avenger” and “To Victory” carried out a “series of military operations” in the vicinity of Rudniki forest, and “helped destroy a German garrison in the heavily fortified town of Konyukhi.”67 A memoir by Dmitri Gelpern (Gelpernas) and Meir Yelin published in Moscow in 1948 speaks of a German-infested fortress equipped with machine guns. This version is at odds not only with Soviet and German reports but also with later Jewish accounts that toned down the scale of the fighting considerably. Having got reinforcements from Kovno [Kaunas] ghetto, [the] group “Death to Invaders” [“Death to the Occupiers”] received an opportunity to participate in large operations alongside other groups from Rudnizky [Rudniki] forest.
In village Koniukhi [Koniuchy], some 30 kilometres from the partisan base a German garrison took up position. [The] Fascists followed partisans, set up ambushes on the roads. Several partisan groups, among them the “Death to Invaders,” were ordered to liquidate this bandit cell.
At first the Germans were ordered to stop their actions and hand in weapons. When they refused to do so people’s avengers decided to act according to the law: “If the enemy does not give in, the enemy should be eliminated.”
Having left their base in the evening and gone through marshes and forests, the partisans reached suburbs of the village by morning time. Red rocket was a signal for the start of the attack. Twenty partisans from the group “Death to Invaders”, headed by unit leader Mikhail Trushin, went entered [sic] the village. Germans occupied several houses and started drum-fire from their submachine- and machine-guns. Every house had to be stormed. Incendiary bullets, hand grenades, flares were used to exterminate the Germans. Kovno partisans Dovid [David] Teper, Jankl [Yakov] Ratner, Peisach Volbe, Leiser Zodikov [Tsodikov] and others charged the enemy in the face of bullets. Strong Leib Zaiats [Zaitsev] stormed one of the buildings after using all his bullets, wrestled a rifle from a German and proceeded hitting the enemy with a butt so that the butt broke.68
Other members of the Death to the Occupiers unit, including some women, who claim to have taken part in the assault on Koniuchy include: Hilel Aronovicz, Edvarda Bekker, Matvei (Mordechai) Brik, Pela Chas, B. Gelenina (Beila Ganelin), S. Gilis, Sara Hempel (Gempel), Khoks (Chanan) Kagan, Boris (Beryl, Beka, Dov) Kot, Faiga Kulbak (Kolbak), Misha Meyerov (Meirow), Lazar Mozas (Eliezer Mozes), Itzek (Izhak) Nemzer, Peretz Padison, Ida Pilownik (Wilencok), Mikhail Rubinson, Moshe Sherman, Lita Teper, and Eliezer Zilber.69
A kindred account by Ruzhka Korchak also turned the massacre into a pitched battle. (This account was constructed for the 1977 Russian edition of Korchak’s expanded memoirs that were first published in Hebrew in 1946. It is based on “the testimonies of participants of the resistance,” most of whom were interviewed by the author, and on documents in the Moreshet kibbutz and Yad Vashem archives.70)
At the [Soviet partisan] brigade headquarters they considered what means to employ for revenge. It was obvious that if no decisive measure was undertaken, most villages could refuse to obey the brigade. If there was no reaction to the instances of the killing of partisans, all their activities could be endangered and the prestige of the brigade would be undermined. The Lithuanian village of Koniukhi [Koniuchy] was known for its actions against the partisans. Its inhabitants actively collaborated with the Germans and the Lithuanians of Plechavičius.71 They distributed weapons they received among the neighbouring peasants and organized them [for self-defence]. The village itself was large and well fortified; the partisans eschewed coming up to the village. The inhabitants of Koniukhi organized ambushes; they captured two guerrillas from the Lithuanian [Communist] units and tortured them to death.72
The staff of the brigade decided to carry out a great punitive expedition against the village. Šilas, the commander of one of the Lithuanian detachments, infiltrated Koniukhi pretending to be an officer of the Plechavičius army who had come to organize the watch. [Not only does this whole episode not sound plausible, but also there is an apparent non sequitur: either the village was well fortified at the time, or it wasn’t. Moreover, no other account mentions this episode. M.P.] Since he was a Lithuanian and military man, he was not suspected. He studied all posts and weak points of defence. Based on his report the staff of the brigade prepared an operation. All partisan forest units contributed fighters for the operation; in total about 150 persons participated, including about 40 Jewish fighters. A Soviet officer from the Šilas detachment was appointed commander. The Jewish fighters were led by Iakov Prener [Jacob Prenner].
Some partisans surrounded the village and entered it. Others, including Jewish partisans, remained outside of the village, laying an ambush, to prevent a relief force from the German garrison from arriving. The village cemetery served as the place of the ambush. Those partisans who rushed into the village were moving in from three directions. According to the plan, the central storm group was to shoot its way in, while those attacking from the flank were to set the village on fire. The Lithuanians [i.e., inhabitants of Koniuchy] opened fire as the left flank approached its target. Hand-to-hand combat commenced. Many Lithuanians succeeded in fleeing the village. They began running toward the German garrison. They were ambushed. They were slaughtered; only a few saved themselves.
Seeing that the attempt to take Koniukhi by surprise failed, the commanding officer sent couriers to the partisans manning the ambush site and ordered them to assist the fighters in the village. Two Lithuanian couriers failed to get through and then the commander dispatched another one—Pol Bagrianskii [Paul Bagriansky], who served as a liaison between the command post and the ambush spot. Bagrianskii broke through and delivered the order. Jewish partisans left the place of ambush and entered the fray. After a fierce fight the resistance of the villagers was broken. The partisans burned down one farmstead after another. Many peasants, women, and children fell from their bullets. Only very few saved themselves. The village was erased from the face of the earth.
The following day the superior Gestapo authorities from Vilnius arrived on the spot along with soldiers. The ruins and the bodies of the fallen were photographed and then the pictures were published as proof of the bestiality of the “Red bandits,” who ruthlessly destroyed the peaceful population.
Both the operation and German propaganda shook everyone around. The staff of the brigade undertook damage control. Leaflets were disseminated in the villages telling the truth about Koniukhi. The leaflets also contained a warning that everyone collaborating with the enemy would meet the same end. However, those who assisted the partisans would be rewarded. One can suspect the village inhabitants were influenced not so much by admonitions, agitation, and leaflets, but by fear of revenge by the partisans. The story of Koniukhi tamed other villages of the region for a long time.73 The testimony of Paul (Pol) Bagriansky, referred to in Ruzhka Korchak’s account, however, in no way substantiates her claim of a “fierce fight” on the part of the villagers. It describes in gruesome detail a bloodbath with virtually no resistance. Bagriansky does, however, make unfounded claims about the villagers being “well armed,” that each hut held “thousands of German bullets,” and that Koniuchy was under the special protection of the Germans. The alleged pretext for the Soviet assault was the improbable claim that villages as far away as 20 kilometres brought their cows and hogs to Koniuchy for the night, thus depleting stock for Soviet partisans to seize. He also alleges that the partisan headquarters later issued orders to reprimand and punish those who attacked Koniuchy. No such orders were ever issued. No one was ever punished for these crimes. In fact, several villagers were charged and convicted by the Soviet authorities for having organized the local self-defence.
When in April [sic] 1944 our partisans were told that we are going [to] teach a lesson to a village by the name of Koniuchi [sic], I was not surprised. … Our Jewish unit of 25 men was put under the command of Jacob Prener. Other units of mixed nationalities made up another 125 partisans. A total unit of 150 men, well equipped, represented an impressive force for us. …
Before we started, the commanding officer told us briefly in Russian what our mission was about. Many villages in the radius of about 20 kilometers from Koniuchi decided to bring their cows and hogs during the night to the village of Koniuchi. Koniuchi was well armed by the Nazis and soldiers from Armia Krajowa. Partisans who went for food to the surrounding villages would find them empty. Very often the Germans would come there overnight to protect the village of Koniuchi. Therefore, the commanding officer told us, we are going to teach Koniuchi a lesson. …
We marched from midday till the late evening and stopped in a village to rest and to eat. I was appointed by our commanding officer as interpreter and messenger between various units. … I spent an hoour [sic] or two in the headquarters where we studied the map with other officers, and being there I understood that our purpose is to destroy the entire village including all the villagers. I asked why such harsh inhuman treatment? The answer was that this is what the high command had decided to do. We cannot permit such heavy armed villages to disrupt our partisan activities. This lesson will teach the other villages to think twice before they try again with Nazi’s [sic] help to arm and to oppose us. …
Around 4 o’clock we started moving again and we reached our destination close to 11 at night. A specific task and territory was assigned to each unit. At midnight everybody was in his place and waited for the sign to start the attack on the village Koniuchi. Some units had the task of setting the huts on fire while the others had to close the escape routes. Exactly at midnight the village was set on fire and in a few minutes the stored ammunition started to explode. The cows and hogs as well as horses that were in their stables started to make terrible noises. A few horses succeeded to escape and they were running like mad out of the burning village. The explosions from fire of all the thousands of German bullets that were held in each hut, the terrible noises of the burning animals and the shooting of the escaping villagers made such a hell of an uproar that no human cry or voice could be heard. The first hour I was standing with the commanding officer and few of his aides on a hill watching this awful inferno. In the meantime I received an order to get in touch with my unit and to order them to take a new position. When I reached my unit I saw one of our people holding the head of a middle aged woman against a big stone and hitting her head with another stone. Each blow was accompanied by sentences like: this is for my murdered mother, this is for my killed father, this is for my dead brother, etc. He was a young man of about 22 years old and I was with him all the time in the underground. He was a friendly and quiet person, I would never have expected to see him doing what he was doing now. What brought this sudden change? I did not react and told Jacob Prener what new position he should take and return to our commander. When I was back he ordered me to go to another unit to give them their new position. … When crossing the road I saw a man escaping from the village. Probably he saw me first and shot at me [?] on the run, but missed. Realizing it, he stopped for a second to aim better with a second shot. But now I was ready and before he pulled his trigger, I pulled mine and the man’s gun fell from his hand. The man descended slowly to his knees and then stretched out. He was dead. …
When I reached the unit to tell them their new assignment, I saw an awful, gruesome picture. … In a small clearing in the forest six bodies of women of various ages and two bodies of men were lying around in a half circle. All bodies were undressed and lying on their backs. The full moon was shining on them. One man at a time was shooting in between the legs of the dead bodies. When the bullet would strike the nerve the body would react as if were alive. It would shiver, quiver for a few seconds. The women’s bodies reacted much more violently than the dead bodies of men. All men of the unit were participating in this cruel play, laughing, in a wild frenzy. I was first petrified by this performance, and then started to be sickly interested. I had been standing fascinated for several minutes, when the unit commander approached me and asked if I would be interested to participate in these experiments. Only then I remembered why I was here, and told him what new position his men must take without further delay. They were not in a hurry, and only after the bodies ceased to react to the bullets, they moved to the new position.
The village by now was burning with big red flames, the explosions still continued, as did the terrible howl of the burning animals. On my way back to the command post I saw several bodies of the peasants who had been shot on their way to escape. A horse with a burning tail and mane was galloping full speed, probably to find some river or pond to ease the pain in the water. …I remembered that horses know their way around and so he was galloping full speed to reach the water. I hoped he would make it in time.
Around two o’clock in the morning the village of Koniuchi was completely burned, not one hut was visible, no sound was forthcoming. Presumably all people, including the young, the women and the men were burned, shot with their own bullets exploding from the fire or finished by our men when trying to escape from this hell. Probably a few horses escaped and survived, if they made in time to the water. It is possible that a few people succeeded to escape and to stay alive in one way or another. The village Koniuchi was now a memory full of ashes and of dead bodies. The lesson had been taught. The commanding officer assembled all units, thanked them for their well accomplished job, and ordered them to be ready to start to go back to our base. The people were tired but their faces looked satisfied and happy with the accomplished assignment. Only a very few of them realized what a terrible murder had been committed within one hour. Those few looked dejected and downcast and felt guilty. …
We reached our base late at night. I was tired and exhausted and went to sleep at once, as did most people of our unit. As we learned the next day, the other units got a heros’ [sic] welcome for destroying Koniuchi and they drank and ate and sang all night. They enjoyed the killings, the destruction and most of all the drinking.
Three weeks later there was a message from the Partisan Headquarters in Moscow to reprimand and punish the people that initiated and led the destruction of the village Koniuchi.74
A Russian partisan from the “For the Fatherland” detachment, Anatolii Mikhailovich Kotskin vividly recalls the mission the partisans received: everyone in Koniuchy was to be killed. He paid little attention to the victims he sprayed with his automatic weapon.75 Baruch Shub, another fugitive from the Wilno ghetto who joined Kovner’s partisans in Rudniki forest, also describes the “punitive action” directed against the village of Koniuchy.76 Not all Jewish partisans from Rudniki forest, however, share those recollections. Harry Reischer, a member of the “Death to Fascism” unit, does not recall any attacks on Poles or Polish villagers, but makes wild claims about his unit being surrounded by 16,000 [sic] “White Polacks” who were famous for killing Jews and “10,000 times worse” than the Germans.77 Similarly, Anatol Krakowski, who served under Kovner in the “To Victory” detachment, recalls only in a general way “punitive expeditions against Nazi collaborators and those who had denounced Jews.” Krakowski levels the following accusation against the Home Army: “They did not constitute any threat for the Nazis, for they killed essentially Jews and Communists.” He concedes, however, that the Jewish partisans steered clear of pitched battles with the Germans and incurred relatively few casualties.78
Genrikas Zimanas (nom de guerre “Jurgis” or “Yurgis”)—the Yiddish version of his name is given variously as Henrich, Henoch or Hanoh Ziman, and the Russian is Genrikh Ziman79—who headed the partisan command in southern Lithuania in January 1944 (his title was secretary of the “South Area” Underground Committee of the Lithuanian Communist Party), oversaw the entire operation. He filed the following report with Antanas Sniečkus, First Secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party (from 1940 to 1974) and head of the Lithuanian Partisan Movement Headquarters, who had reportedly issued the order authorizing the assault on Koniuchy.
The joint forces of the Vilnius [Wilno] partisan units “Death to the Occupiers,” Margirio and General Headquarters Special Intelligence Group [Soviet Military Intelligence–GRU] destroyed Kaniūkai [Koniuchy], the village with the fiercest self-defence in the Eishyshok [Ejszyszki] area. Kaniūkai had not only objected to the Soviet partisans entering the village but used to organize ambushes on the roads, was attacking villages friendly to the partisans and forced villages that were neutral to the partisans to arm themselves. The [village] self-defence suffered heavy casualties. We did not have casualties on our side.80 This latter statement from an official Soviet report written at the time of the events bears repeating: “We did not have casualties on our side.” This statement is difficult to reconcile with reports of a pitched battle that lasted up to an hour. Some Jewish accounts, however, allege there were casualties, but do not provide details. Providing no source for his information, Lithuanian historian Alfonsas Eidintas goes even further, claiming that “Lithuanian police at the village returned the fire for about 45 minutes. … The Red partisans lost one man, and took away 3 of their seriously wounded members.”81 This claim has simply no basis in fact. There was no exchange of fire involving policemen, certainly not one that lasted 45 minutes. No report has ever identified any Red partisan who allegedly fell in battle or who was injured. Furthermore, when the Soviets brought to trial several members of the Koniuchy self-defence in 1947, they were not charged with murdering any Soviet partisans.82
According to Report No. 53 of January 31, 1944, from the commander of the Lithuanian Police post in Bołcieniki to Vladas Zibas, the commander of the 253rd Lithuanian Police Battalion,
1944.01.29 at 6 a.m., around 150 bandits (Jews and Russians) armed with 1 heavy machine gun, 3 light machine guns, machine pistols, rifles and grenades, attacked Koniuchy village. The village was burnt down, people were killed and cattle were slaughtered. (35 were killed in action and 15 wounded.) Bandits had arrived from Daučiunai [Dawciuny] and WLK Salky [Wielkie Sałki] directions. They spent one hour there. Then they retreated in the same directions.83 A Wehrmacht report of February 5, 1944 confirming the massacre can be found in the Central Archives of Modern Records (Archiwum Akt Nowych) in Warsaw. According to that report the village was burned to the ground by a group of Jews and Russians, who killed 36 residents and wounded 14.84
The most accurate depiction of what occurred in Koniuchy is doubtless that of Polish historian Kazimierz Krajewski, who summed up the situation as follows:
The only “fault” of the inhabitants of Koniuchy was the fact that they had had enough of the daily—or, rather, nightly—robberies and assaults, and they wanted to organize a self-defence. The Bolsheviks from Rudniki forest decided to level the village to the ground in order to terrorize into submission the inhabitants of other settlements. …
The murder of the population of Koniuchy, including women and children, has been described by Chaim Lazar as an outstanding “combat operation,” of which he is genuinely proud. The description [of Lazar] of the village’s “fortifications” is complete nonsense. It was a normal village, in which some of the men had organized a self-defence unit. Their equipment consisted of a few rusty rifles.85
The final episode of this sordid affair occurred after the “liberation” when Soviet officials descended on the village to investigate and interrogate the survivors regarding the “bandits” in their midst and their “crimes” against the Soviet partisans. A number of Poles were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and deported to the Gulag.86 The real perpetrators of the massacre were never brought to justice. The partisans of the “To Victory” detachment were transferred to “the organs of the militia and other organs” of newly liberated Wilno.87 Henoch Ziman, who oversaw the assault on Koniuchy, was bestowed Poland’s highest military honour, the Virtuti Militari, by its Communist rulers.88
Other villages in the Nowogródek region such as Szczepki, Babińsk, and Prowżały, as well as the small town of Kamień, met with a similar fate at the hands of the Soviet and Jewish partisans in the early months of 1944.89 On April 12, 1944, Soviet partisans burnt down the village of Bakaloriškės (Bakałaryszki) near Onuškis (Hanuszyszki), murdering eighteen people in this and neighbouring villages.90 Another assault, on a Lithuanian village that dared to defend itself in the face of continuous partisan raids, is described by Yitzhak Arad (then Rudnicki):
The last operation I participated in that winter was a punitive action against Girdan [Girdany], a large Lithuanian village on the road between Hoduciszki and Swienciany [Święciany]. The inhabitants of the village were prepared for self-defense and had been armed by the Germans. … During February when a Vilnius [Wilno] force had tried to enter the village to requisition provisions, the inhabitants opened fire and killed two partisans. Our command decided to punish them. About twenty of us went on this retaliatory mission, which would serve also as a warning to other villages. We broke into the village from two different directions, and the defenders fled after putting up feeble resistance. We took the residents out of several houses in the section of the village where our two comrades fell and burned down the houses.91 These were not the only murders of civilians in this area. Other settlements in the vicinity of Rudniki forest were also attacked and razed by the Soviet-Jewish partisans. A number of farmsteads were burned to the ground by Jewish partisans in Niewoniańce and eight villagers killed.92 The village of Bojary near Werenowo was also torched and several people were killed. Entire settlements like Popiszki, after being stripped of their means of livelihood, were abandoned and became ghost towns. A different tactic was employed to exact revenge for the self-defence undertaken by the villagers of Pirciupie (or Pirczupie), a mixed Polish-Lithuanian village on the western edge of Rudniki forest. On June 3, 1944, Soviet partisans ambushed some vehicles carrying German military personnel on a road near the village, killing fourteen of them. The provocation resulted in a punitive operation by German and Latvian forces, who immediately descended on the village, drove the inhabitants into barns and then set the barns ablaze. The village was burned to the ground and 119 people, including 49 children, perished. Soviet partisans based nearby in Rudniki forest did nothing to protect the villagers even though the operation lasted several hours.93 On other occasions villagers from “hostile” villages were seized for suicide missions:
The Germans finally came up with a deadly device that should have stopped this kind of sabotage once and for all. They inserted a trip wire in each [telephone] pole, attaching it to a buried mine which was detonated when the saw touched the wire. As we always worked in the dark, we couldn’t be sure which poles were mined, but we resolved this problem by recruiting men from nearby villages to cut the poles, By choosing only those who had been hostile to the partisans and to the Jews, we forced the Germans to kill or injure their own sympathizers and collaborators, while we gained extra labourers to help in the fight.94 Other villages, such as Gumba, were pacified by the Germans for helping the Soviet partisans.
The various Jewish accounts about the Koniuchy massacre demonstrate that even a multitude of testimonies about one event is no assurance of the accuracy of the story. Curiously, some Jewish historians have taken umbrage at the fact that events such as the massacre at Koniuchy are even being raised by Poles, although they had not shown any concern in the past when these exploits were passed off in Jewish memoirs as heroic deeds that justly punished “vile” Poles. This response is one mired by denial, contempt for the victims and obfuscation. It is not the Polish side who claimed that 300 persons were murdered in Koniuchy, but rather the Jewish partisans who have been boasting about the scale of their misdeeds for decades. The following defensive article appeared in Forward, a leading Jewish-American newspaper, in August 2003:
Poland’s official National Institute of Remembrance, created to investigate historic crimes of the Nazi and communist eras, is currently investigating allegations that Jewish partisans participated in a massacre of civilians in Poland in early 1944.
The institute launched the investigation in February 2001 at the request of the Canadian Polish Congress.
Robert Janicki, deputy commissioner for prosecution of crimes against the Polish nation, told the Forward in a written statement that the institute was interviewing witnesses, including both victims and perpetrators, and was gathering archival material from several countries, but that no date had been set for the conclusion of the investigation.
Still, the institute has issued some preliminary reports, which contain allegations that some 50 to 60 Jewish partisans were part of a 120-strong Soviet partisan unit that attacked the village of Koniuchy on January 29, 1944. At least 35 civilians were killed, and the village, now located in Lithuania and called Kaniuakai [sic—Kaniūkai], was burned to the ground, according to the reports.
The investigation, which has not been reported in the United States and was unknown to a series of scholars interviewed for this article, is creating unease among Jews because of its possible political motives.
“It is very convenient for the Canadian Polish Congress to raise this issue instead of providing explanations about pogroms of Poles against Jews during and after the war,” said Hebrew University historian Dov Levin, who was a member of one of the Jewish partisan units operating under Soviet command in that region and has written several books on the issue. …
The institute is now trying to reconstruct the actual events that took place in Koniuchy, a small village at the Polish-Lithuanian-Belarus border.
Severin Hochberg, a historian with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said material he had seen suggested that civilians were indeed killed by partisans, a view endorsed by several experts interviewed for this article.
“At the time, the Soviets were on the offensive and the Jews fought with them, so I believe something serious took place,” he said. “But there is still a lot of research to be done.”
One of the issues needed to be settled is the number of deaths, which the Canadian Polish Congress puts around 300. Most accounts hover between 30 and 40. [This claim is a baseless manipulation. The figure of 300 dead originates from accounts of Jewish partisans who took part in the massacre. It was the Canadian Polish Congress who identified other, non-Jewish sources that pointed to a lower toll. M.P.]
A spokesman for the institute, Andrzej Arseniuk, told the Forward the institute was basing its research on the lower estimate.
An examination of preliminary findings summed up in several interim reports confirms that the institute is basing its research on the assumption that 36 to 50 people were killed. …
Professor Levin of Hebrew University, who was a member of the “Death to the Occupants” partisan unit, said Koniuchy was an “event.”
He refused to discuss the events further on the phone, adding that there were probably mischievous designs behind the initiative to publicize the events.
A key issue facing Polish researchers will be to determine the degree of autonomy of the Jewish units in the Soviet partisan hierarchy. The units were incorporated within the Soviet command-and-control chain at the time, according to historians Hochberg of the Holocaust Museum in Washington and Israel Gutman of the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem. …
However, Hochberg added that one could possibly speak of a “semiautonomous” situation in which the Jewish units had to fall in line with the Communist leadership while maintaining some leeway in deciding their participation in specific operations.95
It is perhaps understandable that Dov Levin should feel threatened by the revelations about Koniuchy, since he assiduously avoids mention of this massacre of civilians in his monograph and extensive writings on Jewish armed resistance in Lithuania, but rather subsumes it under the rubric of the fight against “Nazi collaborators”:
Concurrent with the battle against the German military and civil administration, the partisans conducted a methodical fight against Lithuanian collaborators serving in special German auxiliary units in the peasant militia in the villages, and in police forces on the forests’ periphery and at strategic communication points.96 Among the “operations” carried out by the “Avenger” detachment, Levin lists “reprisals and punishment” which resulted in the killing of “a number of peasants who collaborated with the enemy.”97 Moreover, he fingers and chastises Polish partisans in the area for “their brutal attitude toward [Soviet] partisans in general and Jewish fighters in particular,”98 even though the Home Army did not go out of its way to attack Soviet partisans in that area. According to Levin’s own count, only fourteen Jewish partisans from Lithuania fell at the hands of “White Poles” during the entire occupation.99 Similarly, historian Yitzhak Arad, who also fought with the Soviet partisans in this area, speaks of “punitive raids against hostile villages” and blames the Home Army for instigating the conflict and killing Soviet partisans and Jews.100 An excellent gauge of alleged “viciousness” of the Polish partisans are the statistics compiled by the Soviet command itself. Out of the 722 partisans who crossed the front line or were parachuted into Lithuanian territory in 1941–1942, 141 were reported dead by May 1944. The vast majority were killed by the German army and Lithuanian police, died in accidents or as casualties of the local population, and only seven of them were killed by the Home Army.101 Despite this evidence and the Home Army regional commander’s specific orders forbidding the mistreatment of the civilian population, regardless of their nationality, historian and former partisan Yitzak Arad claims that the Home Army was waging a war against the Jews for purely ideological and racial reasons: The Jewish partisans active in the forests were portrayed as gangs of robbers, who behaved brutally towards non-Jews. This picture of the Jews … was rooted in political evaluations and inherent anti-Semitism. The result was that many Jews of Vilna [Wilno] and its environs who found refuge in the forests or with farmers, as well as Jewish partisans, were murdered by bands of Polish partisans.102 The reaction to an investigation launched by the Lithuanian authorities in 2007 concerning Koniuchy and other allegations involving former partisans such as Yitzhak Arad and Sara Ginaite-Rubinson (the latter is the wife of Mikail Rubinson, who reportedly took part in the assault on Koniuchy), was even more shrill and jarring, and exhibited nothing but contempt for their accusers as well as the victims. Their “line of defence” was twofold: how dare those anti-Semites question the conduct of the Jews, and besides, the peasants murdered by the Jewish partisans had it coming to them. They were just a bunch of vicious Nazi collaborators. (In this case, the partisans project their own pro-Soviet sympathies onto the villagers, whom they accuse, without any basis, of being Nazi sympathizers.) Although she insists she was not in Rudniki forest at the time, Ginaite-Rubinson states: “There were many villagers, hostile to the partisans, who were organized into armed groups, supplied by the Germans. Yes, they were villagers, but no, they were not unarmed civilians. Such a conflict was most likely the reason for the tragedy in Koniuchy.”103 In a subsequent interview, she attempts to link the villagers of Koniuchy to a raid on the village of Kalitańce that she took part in, which is described earlier on. The villagers in Koniuchy had a record of hostility to the partisans and attacked us whenever we passed in the vicinity of the village. They organized an armed group to fight the partisans, were supplied with weapons by the Germans, and collaborated with the Nazis and the local police. At the end of December 1943, during a food-gathering assignment in a village close to Koniuchy, we were spotted and attacked by the villagers. During the battle, two of our partisans were killed and a third was captured and handed over to the Nazi-controlled police.104 In fact, as we have seen, only one Jewish partisan was killed in that altercation, which was commenced by the Jewish partisans, and another two were captured by the Lithuanian police and survived.
Former partisans such as Arad and Ginaite-Rubinson are championed by a chorus of ethno-nationalist journalists, politicians, and community leaders, who endeavour to justify the Jewish partisans’ misdeeds. They rail against the anti-Semitic Lithuanians for raising the issue105 and the “vile” peasants who, as alleged “Nazi sympathizers,” had only themselves to blame for their well-deserved fate. “There is no evidence of a ‘war crime’ at Koniuchy,” proclaims Adam Fuerstenberg, former director of Toronto’s Holocaust Centre, indignantly. Another pundit proffered the following “insights,” based largely on sheer fiction: The investigation centered around the supposed massacre of civilians in a small village, Koniuchi [Koniuchy], near the Rudniki forest, which was controlled by Soviet partisans late in the war. Here’s what seems like a probable scenario: Jewish and Soviet partisans regularly commandeered food and supplies from local villages. Nazi efforts to contain the partisans in Rudniki consisted mainly of arming villagers and local police as proxy fighters. Koniuchi was hostile to Soviet requisitioning, and contained Nazi sympathizers who organized ambushes of Soviet partisans—who organized a counterattack and put torch to the village by firing incendiary ammunition into wooden buildings. The pro-Nazi police officers made a last stand and fired back. Around thirty-five villagers, mainly men but also women and children, died in the battle. To date there is no reason to believe any of the people sought by Lithuanian prosecutors were present during this violence.
Was the incident worth a criminal investigation in 2008?106
Writing for the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel in an article entitled “Falsifying History,” Abe Lawre attained new heights in the realm of fantasy and laying blame on the victims of this human tragedy.
All existing evidence points to the fact … that Kaniukai [Koniuchy] was not an innocent village but a fortified position of the German anti-partisan units and their local collaborators. They roamed the surrounding countryside hunting and killing any partisan and Jew they encountered. Had the garrison of Kaniukai won the battle not a partisan and especially not a Jew would have been spared the torture and cruel death that the locals were so adapt [sic] at.107 However, the Jewish partisans who actually took part in the indiscriminate massacre of the civilian population—whose only “crime” was, on occasion, defending their homes from robberies and not supposedly attacking Soviet partisans because of their alleged pro-Nazi sympathies—describe the events in the following graphic terms, without mincing words:
Isaac Kowalski: “Our detachment got the order to destroy everything that was moving and burn the village down to its roots. … after two hours the village with the fortified shelter was completely destroyed.”
Abraham Zeleznikow: “Partisans come around the village, everything was torched, every animal, every person was killed. And one of my friends, acquaintances, a partisan, took a woman, put her head on a stone, and killed her with a stone.”
Zalman Wylozni: “the entire village of 80 farmsteads was burned to the ground and its inhabitants were murdered.” Paul (Pol) Bagriansky: “the shooting of the escaping villagers made such a hell of an uproar that no human cry or voice could be heard. The first hour I was standing with the commanding officer and few of his aides on a hill watching this awful inferno. … When I reached my unit I saw one of our people holding the head of a middle aged woman against a big stone and hitting her head with another stone. Each blow was accompanied by sentences like: this is for my murdered mother, this is for my killed father, this is for my dead brother, etc. He was a young man of about 22 years old and I was with him all the time in the underground. He was a friendly and quiet person, I would never have expected to see him doing what he was doing now. …
“When I reached the unit to tell them their new assignment, I saw an awful, gruesome picture. … In a small clearing in the forest six bodies of women of various ages and two bodies of men were lying around in a half circle. All bodies were undressed and lying on their backs. The full moon was shining on them. One man at a time was shooting in between the legs of the dead bodies. When the bullet would strike the nerve the body would react as if were alive. It would shiver, quiver for a few seconds. The women’s bodies reacted much more violently than the dead bodies of men. All men of the unit were participating in this cruel play, laughing, in a wild frenzy. …
“Around two o’clock in the morning the village of Koniuchi was completely burned, not one hut was visible, no sound was forthcoming. Presumably all people, including the young, the women and the men were burned, shot … or finished by our men when trying to escape from this hell.”
According to Ruzka Korchak, these shocking scenes caused considerable consternation among some of the partisans who participated in the massacre, though she surely exaggerates the extent of that constituency since not one participant who wrote about it openly expressed such humane sentiments.
This punitive operation, as well as the manner in which it was carried out, caused deep consternation in the Jewish camp and sharp criticism among many fighters. … this cruel operation, prepared and carried out by the military and political leadership of the Brigade, in the course of which men, women and children were killed indiscriminately … Many of the Jewish fighters who took part in the operation returned to the camp shaken and dejected.108 The commentary took a rather bizarre twist at the hands of Nick Bravin, who described the enormous international campaign mounted by Jewish circles to pressure the Lithuanian authorities to stop all their investigations and, in advancing a “defence” for one of the alleged participants of the Koniuchy massacre, for which he blames the victims of the “raid,” seriously undermined the value of partisan memoirs.
The Arad case “created so much damage” for Lithuania, [Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Secretary Oskaras] Jusys said, referring to the significant diplomatic pressure imposed by the United States, the European Union, Israel, and international Jewish groups. Lithuania’s foreign minister and president appealed personally to the prosecutor to drop the Arad investigation, Jusys said, and in September  the case was closed. But in the meantime, prosecutors had opened investigations into several other Holocaust survivors. …
The most public of the ongoing investigations involves Rachel Margolis … who joined the Soviet partisans after escaping the Vilnius [Wilno] ghetto. … In Magolis’s memoir, … she recounts a partisan raid on the village of Kaniukai [Koniuchy] in January 29, 1944. Facts about the raid are heavily disputed, including whether the villagers were acting in concert with the Nazis …
According to Margolis’s memoir, she did not take part in the Kaniukai raid, but her longtime friend and fellow partisan, Fania Brancovskaja [Brantsovky], did. …
Brancovskaja met with prosecutors last May to explain that she was recovering from an operation at the time of the Kaniukai raid and had not taken part in it. Margolis sent her old friend a letter backing up Brancovskaja’s account, and said her memoir should be regarded as literature, not historical fact.109
Remarkably, when word got out her wartime exploits the Irish, American, Brirtish, Austrian, and other embassies in Vilnius started to fete Fania Brantsovsky.110 German President Horst Köhler even bestowed an award on her.111 British commentators write of “the collaboration between ordinary Lithuanians and German occupiers that was in evidence in places like Kanyuki [sic]” and “the battle … between armed pro-Nazi villagers and the [Soviet] partisans,” implying that the massacre was “a legitimate partisan military operation, with inevitable civilian casualties.”112
Some observers are more circumspect. Antony Polonsky, Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University and editor-in-chief of the journal Polin, offered the following matter-of-fact rebuttal—so very different from the obscene media spectacle put on by the defenders of the murderers of the Koniuchy villagers: “partisans often took actions which were quite brutal, and this applies also to Jewish partisans.”113 Further: “The same pertains to the massacre in Koniuchy and the pacification of Naliboki, and the role that Jewish partisans played in them. I have no problem in saying that these people also did very bad things.”114 Common decency is as simple as that. In subsequent pronouncements, however, Polonsky has sought to justify the actions of the Soviet partisans and essentially accuses the villagers of bringing the tragedy on themselves for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis and “hampering [Soviet] partisan activity.” The victims are simply written off as collateral damage of war who had it coming. Polonsky refuses to acknowledge the impact of the incessant raids that the villagers endured at the hands of the partisans and stubbornly clings to the blatant fiction that there was a garrison in the village of Koniuchy and that the villagers organized ambushes on the roads and attacked villages friendly to the partisans. He dismisses those who have noted that there were many Jews among the partisans who attacked the village as “ethno-nationalists,” conveniently forgetting that it was the Jewish partisans themselves who were the first to acknowledge this fact and turned Koniuchy into a central episode of their “military” accomplishments. To suggest, as Polonsky does, that Poles are not aware that Koniuchy was a Soviet-ordered pacification is simply a bizarre subterfuge designed to turn attention away from the grisly crime. These conflicts intensified from the end of 1943 when there was an increase in the fighting between Soviet partisans and village self-defence set by German and Lithuanian police in eastern Lithuania. During this period many encounters between partisans and the local police from the villages took place, marked by the arbitrary killing on both sides of suspect civilians. No doubt, many of these suspects were innocent.
One such episode was the attack by Soviet partisan units on the village of Koniuchy (Kaniukai [Kaniūkai]), a village today in Lithuania, but largely inhabited by Poles. At the time of this attack the Soviet partisans were in a critical position and were being harassed by the local police force and its German superiors. …
The action was undertaken by all the partisans in the Rudnicki [Rudniki] forest. Although subsequently, ethno-nationalists in both Lithuania and Poland have claimed that it was a ‘Jewish’ action, it is not possible definitively to determine the ethnicity of those who participated. … Clearly what was involved was an attack on a village which harboured collaborationist police and had hampered partisan activity. As so often happen in such incidents, there were also many innocent victims.115 Tellingly, Jewish historians are now quick to discount accounts by Jewish perpetrators that mentioned 300 victims in Koniuchy and take issue with Poles who refer to those accounts. This is in marked contrast to their treatment of the massacre in Jedwabne in July 1941, where they consistently refer to a grossly inflated toll of 1,600 or more in spite of the fact that the investigation carried out by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance point established that no more than several hundred Jews perished in Jedwabne.116 Since the perpetrators of the Koniuchy massacre openly and repeatedly boasted of their accomplishment of having annihilated the entire village of Koniuchy and murdered all of its 300 inhabitants, and vilified the villagers in the process, there is really no moral impetus to lower the toll in the case of Koniuchy. Jedwabne and Koniuchy must be treated as equivalent crimes, both having been inspired and planned by Poland’s invaders—Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
The significance of the pacification of Koniuchy cannot be overstated. While Jewish partisan groups committed out various acts of sabotage (train derailments, cutting down telegraph posts), carried out ambushes on small groups of German soldiers, and were caught up in occasional defensive skirmishes, they did not as a rule engage the Germans in direct military confrontations. The assault on Koniuchy was therefore embellished to enhance their wartime exploits, growing into—reputedly—the largest military operation undertaken by Jewish partisans on Polish territory. The legend that it spawned underscores the following significant facts: (1) the small scale of Jewish partisan warfare; (2) the widespread grassroots conspiracy to tarnish Poles as Nazi collaborators; and (3) the unreliability of memoirs of Jewish partisans as an objective source concerning relations with the Polish population. Accounts from other areas of Poland (for example, Wyszków forest) give further support for this assessment.
As James M. Glass has demonstrated, former Jewish partisans expressed no guilt about taking from the peasants whatever they needed, and spoke of having killed Nazi “sympathizers” without remorse. Revenge was foremost in their minds, and blind hatred, which they projected onto the entire surrounding population, often overwhelmed them. They justified their misdeeds by resorting to a twisted logic. Moreover, they were intensely proud of being Jewish.117 Therefore, their conduct cannot be subsumed under that of Soviet partisans, but must be judged on its own merits, as an expression of their ethnicity.