The massacre at koniuchy

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World premiere – Kammerklang 2009 – Sydney Australia – May 28, 2009

1 Snyder, Bloodlands, 250.

2 Soviet partisan activity in Rudniki forest began in the summer of 1943, when a group of parachutists set up a base in the area. The first large partisan detachment (“Defenders of the Homeland”) was led by Fiodor Pushakov, a paratrooper flown in from Moscow, and attracted escaped Soviet POWs and a few locals. Jews started to escape from the Wilno ghetto in September 1943 and made their way to Rudniki forest. The first to arrive were 70 members of Yehiel’s Combat Group, who left the ghetto at the beginning of September. The Jewish underground (FPO) members who left the ghetto on the day it was liquidated arrived in the forests in late September and early October. A nucleus of some 150 Jews from the Wilno ghetto were later joined by escapees from the HPK (Heeres Kraftfahrpark) and Kailis labour camps in Wilno and some stragglers from other localities living in the forest. A total of 250 men and women, mostly teenagers and young adults, reached the forest. Although they had brought guns with them when they left the Wilno ghetto, until December 1943 the Jews living in Rudniki forest were totally disorganized; they were taught survival and partisan skills by non-Jewish partisans, however, the latter also stole their boots and weapons. See the testimony of Pesia Bernstein (née Złotnik, then Schenbaum), Yad Vashem Archives, 03/1292. (Pesia Bernstein, the wife of Ilia Schenbaum, a Jewish underground leader in Wilno, states that a Polish underground organization in Wilno purchased weapons for the Jewish underground. The Polish Communist underground assisted in transporting weapons from the Wilno ghetto to Rudniki forest. See the testimony of Józefa Przewalska, Yad Vashem Archives, 03/3037.) Eventually, the Jewish refugees in Rudniki forest organized four partisan units (listed in order of formation), which were subordinated to the Soviet partisan command and incorporated into the Vilnius Brigade (sometimes referred to as the Lithuanian Brigade): “Avenger” [Mstiteľ], under the command of Abba Kovner; “To Victory” [Za pobedu], led by Shmuel Kaplinsky; “Death to Fascism” [Smerť fashizmu], commanded by Jacob (Yaakov) Prenner; and “Struggle” [Bor’ba], under Aron Aronovich. The four detachments eventually grew to about four hundred partisans, necessitating the assignment of large forces to “economic operations” which proved to be “hazardous” and “punitive raids against hostile villages.” See See Arad, Ghetto in Flames, 454–60, and Levin, Fighting Back, 187–88, 196, 198, 205, 277–78. At the outset, Abba Kovner was the commander of all four detachments, known informally as the Jewish Brigade. In mid–October 1943, Henoch Ziman (“Yurgis”), also went by his Lithuanian name Genrikas Zimanas (“Jurgis”), arrived from Narocz forest with his staff and took over the command of the Soviet-Lithuanian partisan movement in all of “southern Lithuania.” Ziman issued an order to the command of the Jewish units to desist from bringing more Jewish groups into the forests, but the order was ignored by the Jewish units. The newly formed brigade had two political commissars, Alfons Stankiewicz and Witold Sienkiewicz (“Margis”), local non-Jewish Communists who were said to be sympathetic to the Jews. Abba Kovner credits the “Lithuanian-Polish command” of local Communists with enabling hundreds of Jews to survive “in a way that, in contrast to other places, was reasonable and at times even respectable.” See Porat, The Fall of a Sparrow, 165. Izrael Kronik, a member of Kovner’s partisan unit, recalled the helpfulness of another Polish commissar named Szumski. See the account of Izrael Kronik, dated May 10, 1960, Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute (Warsaw), no. 301/5721. At the beginning of 1944, the Jewish commanders were replaced by Soviet ones, though Jews continued to hold such posts as commissars and deputy commanders, and a few dozen non-Jewish partisans were added to their ranks. One of the newly appointed Soviet commanders, Captain Vasilenko, turned out to be a Jew whose former name was Vasilevsky (his father had been a Zionist activist), but was reportedly “on numerous occasions very hostile to the Jewish Partisans.” See Abraham Zeleznikow, “Danke and Imke Lubotzki,” in Kowalski, ed., Anthology on Armed Jewish Resistance, 1939–1945, vol. 2 (1985), 416–17. Nonetheless, as Dov Levin explains, “The detachments continued to remain Jewish both in their composition and in their nationalist and cultural character. The presence of a few dozen non-Jews among 420 Jewish partisans in the Vilna [Wilno] detachments made very little difference.” See Levin, Fighting Back, 205. A tunnel dug out of the HKP labour camp in Wilno was betrayed to the Germans by a Jewish policeman; all those inside were killed, thereby bringing escapes from that camp to a halt. Ibid., 114–15. Anti-Semitism was said to be “rife” in Soviet detachments in Rudniki forest, and several Jews were executed for offences for which non-Jewish offenders got off leniently. Jews from the Kaunas ghetto underground began to arrive in Rudniki forest from the end of November 1943, and by the end of May 1944 they had reached a total of about 200, grouped in three battalions of the Kaunas Brigade. See Arad, Ghetto in Flames, 459. Despite being also known as the Lithuanian Brigade, only a small minority of its members were ethnic Lithuanians: its make-up was largely Russian and Jewish, with just a few Poles. According to Isaac Kowalski, because of a lack of willing Lithuanians, Ziman initially recruited partisans from among the Jewish underground in the Wilno ghetto. They joined the ranks of the Soviet partisans in Narocz forest and were later transferred to Rudniki forest. See Kowalski, A Secret Press in Nazi Europe, 270–71. According to historian Dina Porat, at the beginning of 1944 there were 1,000 partisans in Rudniki forest; 600 belonged to Jewish units, not counting the Jews in the Lithuanian and Soviet detachments, and 200 more joined the Wilno group in the following months. See Porat, The Fall of a Sparrow, 155.

3 Dov Levin, “Some Facts and Problems About the Fighting of Lithuanian Jews against the Nazis and Their Collaborators (1941–1945),” in Emanuelis Zingeris, ed., The Days of Memory: International Conference in Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto. October 11–16, 1993 (Vilnius: Baltos Lankos, 1995), 276–77. Partisan Anatol Krakowski offers an apologetic version of the partisans’ experience: “An attitude filled with moral standards drawn from Jewish traditions characterized our year with the partisans.” See Krakowski, Le Ghetto dans la forêt, 87.

4 Kazimierz Sakowicz, Ponary Diary, 1941–1943: A Bystander’s Account of a Mass Murder (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), 95–97. The last entry in Sakowicz’s diary is dated November 6, 1943, but according to his family, he continued to keep his diary until the day he was shot and mortally wounded while riding his bicycle from Wilno to his home in Ponary on July 5, 1944. The fate of the missing diary pages is unclear. Sakowicz may have hidden them separately from the rest, and they were never found. It is also possible that they were concealed with the other pages but destroyed when in the possession of the Jewish State Museum, or later when the diary was kept in the Central State Archives of Lithuania, the Museum of the Revolution, and the Historical Museum, all in Vilnius (Wilno). In the annotation to this edition of Sakowicz’s diary, it is suggested that the pages could have been destroyed by Lithuanian or Soviet elements because they contained a severe indictment of the Lithuanians for participating in the atrocities in Ponary or against specific Lithuanians who were involved in the murders. Ibid., 143–44. This speculation seems rather unlikely. The bulk of the killings in Ponary had been completed and recorded in the extant entries. Increasingly, Sakowicz turned his attention to violent attacks on villagers by Soviet and Jewish partisans which culminated in the massacre at Koniuchy. If such descriptions had fallen into the possession of the Soviet authorities, it is more likely that they would have been destroyed for compromising the Soviet partisan movement.

5 Ibid., 126.

6 Ibid., 130.

7 Ibid., 137.

8 Ibid., 140–41.

9 Ibid., 142–43.

10 Krajewski, Na Ziemi Nowogródzkiej, 430–31, 498–500. For altercations in the vicinity of Nacza forest see 434.

11 Krajewski, Na Ziemi Nowogródzkiej, 430–31. According to Polish sources, 13 Soviet partisans lost their lives.

12 Testimony of Anna Bardzyńska (“Nowina”) in Grażyna Dziedzińska, “Dziewczyna z tamtych lat,” Nasza Polska, December 20–27, 2005.

13 Barbara Sidorowicz, “Nigdy z pamięci,” Magazyn Wileński, no. 11 (November 2003): 25–26.

14 Andrzej Kołosowski, interview with Witold Aładowicz, “‘Bogdaniec’ z Rudnik,” Nasz Dziennik (Warsaw), January 13–14, 2001.

15 Šarūnas Liekis, “Koniuchy in the ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Polish and Jewish Memory,” Conference Paper, “Between Coexistence and Divorce: 25 Years of Research on the History and Culture of Polish Jewry and Polish-Jewish Relations,” Hebrew University of Jerusalem, March 17–19, 2009.

16 For a description of the difficult conditions and poverty in the nearby village of Butrymańce see Marian Butrym, “W mojej ojczyźnie, w Butrymańcach…,” Magazyn Wileński, no. 11 (2001): 21–26.

17 Andrzej Kumor, interview with Edward Tubin, “Nie przepuścili nikomu…: Z naocznym świadkiem pacyfikacji wsi Koniuchy rozmawia Andrzej Kumor,” Gazeta (Toronto), May 4–6, 2001. For a description of a similar raid on the village of Korsaki see Błażejewicz, W walce z wrogami Rzeczypospolitej, 84. A diary in Russian was found on one of the armed partisans killed after that raid which referred to the pacification of Koniuchy. Ibid., 85.

18 Kowalski, A Secret Press in Nazi Europe, 281.

19 Lazar, Destruction and Resistance, 142. Chaim Lazar was a member of the “Avenger” detachment.

20 Account of Abram Mieszczański, dated June 10, 1947, Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute (Warsaw), no. 301/2536.

21 Joseph Harmatz, From the Wings (Sussex, England: The Book Guild, 1998), 84–85. Joseph Harmatz was a member of the “To Victory” detachment.

22 Faitelson, Heroism & Bravery in Lithuania, 1941–1945, 307. Alex Faitelson was a member of the “Death to the Occupiers” detachment.

23 Krakowski, Le Ghetto dans la forêt, 58, 62–63, 69. Anatol Krakowski was a member of the “To Victory” detachment which carried out most of its activities jointly with the “Avenger” detachment.

24 Margolis, A Partisan from Vilna, 481–82. Margolis was a member of Kaplinsky’s “To Victory” detachment; the other detachment referred to is Kovner’s “Avenger” detachment.

25 Shuv (Shub), Meever lisheme ha-ananah, 122. See also the interview with Baruch Shub, November 5, 1993, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives For another—more vivid—description of these raids, see Zunia Shtrom, Hurbn un kamf (fun Kovner geto tsu di Rudnitsker velder): Zikhroynes (Tel Aviv: Aroysgegebn fun “Farband fun partizaner, untergrunt-kemfers un geto-oyfshtendlers in Yisroel,” 1990), 226–34. Shtrom writes that armed groups counting as many as 25 partisans would set out on forays and return to the base with cattle and wagonloads of products. They would block the entrances to a village and then the partisans would fan out in twos to rob individual peasants’ cottages, taking virtually all their livestock. Threats and intimidation were commonly used, such as burning down their homes.

26 Sara Ginaite-Rubinson, Resistance and Survival: The Jewish Community in Kaunas, 1941–1944 (Oakville, Ontario and Niagara Falls, New York: Mosaic Press, 2005), 139–41. Ginaite-Rubinson accuses a group of Soviet partisans loyal to the detachment’s commissar, Dimitry Parfionov, of being “directly, or perhaps indirectly, responsible for the killing of several of our very close ghetto partisan friends.” Ibid., 130.

27 Nehemia Endlin, Oyf di vegn fun partizaner kamf: Zikhroynes (Tel-Aviv: A komitet fun gev. yidishe partizaner un untergrunt kemfer fun Kovner geto, 1980), as cited in Alex Faitelson, The Truth and Nothing But the Truth: Jewish Resistance in Lithuania (Jerusalem and New York: Gefen, 2006), 437–40.

28 Faitelson, The Truth and Nothing But the Truth, 288–89.

29 See the following testimonies in the Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute (Warsaw): Mania Glezer, dated June 19, 1947, no. 301/2517; Miriam Jaszuńska, dated July 15, 1947, no. 301/2530; Beniamin Brest, dated July 8, 1947, no. 301/2531; Abram Mieszczański, dated June 10, 1947, no. 301/2536. Mordechi Zeidel (Motka Zajdl) also describes the killing of two Poles who were guarded by Jewish partisans. See the interview with Mordechi Zeidel, June 25, 1993, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives. Rachel Margolis mentions the execution of the son of the commander of a peat-working camp in Biała Waka who was alleged to have mistreated the prisoners. See Margolis, A Partisan from Vilna, 479–80.

30 In preparation for their escape from the Wilno ghetto, the Jewish underground had received plans of the city sewers from a Polish engineer. On their way to Rudniki forest, they relied on Polish scouts and received assistance from Polish farmers. See the account of Abram Mieszczański, dated June 10, 1947, Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute (Warsaw), no. 301/2536; account of Miriam Jaszuńska, dated July 15, 1947, Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute (Warsaw), no. 301/2530. Efraim Plotnik and Riva Epsztajn (Rivka Epsztien) were taken in by Aleksander and Jadwiga Milewski of Wilno, who had contacts with the Jewish partisans, before joining the Jewish partisans in Rudniki forest. See Gutman and Bender, eds., The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, vol. 4: Poland, Part 1, 517–18. Chaim Engel (Lewin), who had worked in the Keilis factory in Wilno before joining the partisans in Rudniki forest, placed his young son with Stefania Lipska, a Polish Christian woman. See Grynberg, Księga sprawiedliwych, 308; Gutman and Bender, eds., The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, vol. 4: Poland, Part 1, 458–59. Sara Janiska, the daughter of a fallen Jewish partisan who fought in the Rudniki forest, was sheltered Jan and Józefa Przewalski and their relatives. See Gutman and Bender, eds., The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, vol. 5: Poland, Part 2, 644–45. A Pole gave shelter and food to Fania Jocheles Brantsovsky after she escaped from the Wilno ghetto and guided her in the direction of the partisan base in Rudniki forest. See Dulkinienė and Keys, eds., Su adata širdyje; With a Needle in the Heart, 51–52. The Szewiel family provided shelter to Joel and Nechama Milikowski in the village of Pogiry for about six months after the couple fled the Wilno ghetto in the fall of 1943; afterwards they joined the Jewish partisans in Rudniki forest. See Gutman and Bender, eds., The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, vol. 5: Poland, Part 2, 786. Additional examples are found in the note on Ponary.

31 Wołkonowski, Okręg Wileński Związku Walki Zbrojnej Armii Krajowej w latach 1939–1945, 159.

32 Lazar, Destruction and Resistance, 174.

33 For a recent treatment of the Koniuchy massacre see Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Intermarium: The Land between the Baltic and Black Seas (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Transaction, 2012), 500–19. For an early article in Polish see Leszek Żebrowski, “Koniuchy,” in Encyklopedia “Białych Plam” (Radom: Polskie Wydawnictwo Encyklopedyczne, 2002), vol. 9, 315–20. For an early Polish-language compilation of Jewish accounts see Ryszard Tyndorf, “Zwyczajna pacyfikacja: Źródła żydowskie o zagładzie wsi Koniuchy,” Glaukopis, no. 2–3 (2005): 376–84. For a study by a Lithuanian historian, see Rimantas Zizas,Žudynių Kaniūkuose pėdsakais,” Genocidas ir rezistencija, no. 1 (11), 2002, posted online at

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