shtetlinks
Gargzdai (Gorzd), Lithuania


Gargzdai and the Holocaust

by

John S. Jaffer


    I.    Jewish Residents of Gargzdai killed in the Holocaust

    The total number of Jewish residents killed in or near Gargzdai is at least 500: 200 men (and one woman) killed on June 24, 1941, and 300 women and children killed on September 14 and 16, 1941.
    In November, 2004 Yad Vashem posted online its Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names. A search for the location Gargzdai or Gorzd yields a list of 389 names. These names include persons killed in Gorzd, and those born in Gorzd who perished elsewhere. Each name is linked to further information from the report in the Yad Vashem archives, as well as a copy of the report. This site is an invaluable resource for anyone researching Gorzd.
    A list containing names of 78 victims was compiled by the Gargzdai Town Secretary during the War: Jewish residents of Gargzdai killed in June and September, 1941. The original list is now kept at Gargzdai Area Museum. 
    The Court Judgment in Ulm (Vol XV, Case. No. 465), 1958, lists twelve Jews from Memel killed in Gargzdai.
    The figure of 200 men and one woman is set forth in the German trial records, and is supported by written reports by the perpetrators nearly contemporaneous with the killings.  The figure of 300 women and children is set forth in Pinkas Hakehillot Lita and on the monument at one of the two women's sites.
     Soviet investigations before the end of the war included exhumation of the killing sites: "Act about Slaughter of Civil Soviet People by Fascist Aggressors on the Temporary Occupied Territory of the Gargzedai [sic] Volost, the Kretinga Uyezd, the Lithuanian SSR," The Tragedy of Lithuania: New Documents on Crimes of Lithuanian Collaborators during the Second World War, ISBN 978-5-903588-01-5, pp. 205, 219, http://common.regnum.ru/documents/the-tragedy-of-lithuania.pdf. According to the report dated February 11, 1945 the killing site within the town of Gargzdai contained bodies of 396 men shot by firearms. At the women's sites in the forest, the Soviet report states that one of the mass graves contained 107 "girls," while the other contained 347 women and children. The report dated April 11, 1945 gives a total of 850 "innocent Soviet citizens - men, women and children" killed in Gargzdai, a figure which the report says was confirmed by opening the graves and through the testimony of three witnesses.

     The events surrounding these killings are set forth below.



  

    II.    Einsatzgruppe A

    Germany invaded the Soviet Union beginning on June 22, 1941. Mobile killing squads known as Einsatzgruppen followed the German Army into the occupied areas. There were four Einsatzgruppen (A, B, C and D), which were in turn divided into smaller units called Einsatzkommandos and Sonderkommandos.
    Einsatzgruppe A, commanded by SS - Brigadeführer Walter Stahlecker, carried on mass executions of the Jewish population in Lithuania and other Baltic areas. Einsatzkommando 3 (a subunit of Einsatzgruppe A) operated in Lithuania. The deeds of Einsatzkommando 3 were set forth in an infamous document known as the Jäger report, which was dated December 1, 1941.   In that document Karl Jäger, commander of Einsatzkommando 3, set forth totals of executions by location in Lithuania. The executions outlined in the report began on July 4, 1941, and totalled over 137,000. The Gargzdai killings are not included in the
Jäger report.



    III.    Einsatzkommando Tilsit

    The execution of the Jewish men in Gargzdai took place on June 24, 1941, prior to the first execution listed in the Jäger report. These killings in Gargzdai were the first mass execution following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and may be regarded as the start of the Holocaust.   The group which perpetrated the killings is sometimes called Einsatzkommando Tilsit.  Tilsit was in East Prussia, close to the border with the Soviet Union.
    Einsatzkommando Tilsit was not formally part of Einsatzgruppe A, but acted as an adjunct to it.  The Tilsit unit was commanded by SS-Major Hans - Joachim Böhme, and composed of personnel from the Gestapo and Security Service in Tilsit, as well as police from Memel (led by Oberführer Bernhard Fischer-Schweder) and Memel Border Police.  It committed mass executions in the area of the Soviet Union close to the border with Germany.
    The killings by the Tilsit unit were reported to Berlin in the same "Operational Situation Reports" which reported the killings by Einsatzgruppe A.  Report No. 12, dated July 4, 1941, states that Stapo Tilsit had so far carried out 200 shootings.  These are evidently the shootings in Gargzdai.  Report No. 14, dated July 6, 1941, lists the killings in Garsden (the German name for Gargzdai), as well as in Krottingen (Kretinga) and Polangen (Palanga). The Report lists these killings under the heading of Einsatzgruppe A, but states that "Tilsit was used as a base" for these "major cleansing operations." The Report sets forth that 201 persons were executed in Garsden, and gives a cover story to explain the Garsden shootings - that the "Jewish population had supported the Russian border guards." Similar cover stories were given with regard to the other two towns.
    In Report No. 19, dated July 11, executions in additional towns are attributed to "Stapo Tilsit," including Tauroggen (Taurage), Georgenburg (Jurbarkas), and Mariampol (Marijampole). The author no longer found it necessary to give any supposed excuse for the executions.
    In Report 26, dated July 18, a total of 3302 executions are attributed to "Police Unit - Tilsit," and these are set forth separately from Einsatzgruppe A.
    Stahlecker later wrote a document dated October 15, 1941, known as the Stahlecker Report, which referred to a total of 5502 killed by State Police Security Service Tilsit.
    The summary figures in Report 26 and the Stahlecker Report presumably include the 201 persons previously reported as killed in Garsden.
    Scholars have more recently discovered in the archives of the former Soviet Union Report from Staatspolizei Tilsit to RSHA, July 1, 1941. This document was evidently used as a source for Operational Situation Report No. 14 (which was dated five days later), and also contains additional information.



    Several members of Einsatzkommando Tilsit were prosecuted by the West German Government for War Crimes. These trials took place in Ulm and Dortmund, West Germany, for crimes including the killings at Gargzdai/Garsden.  Summaries of War Crimes prosecutions related to Gargzdai (including the sentences) are located at the site for the University of Amsterdam.



    IV.    Killing of the Jewish Men of Gargzdai

    The Court in Ulm entered a lengthy Judgment which is a major source of information about the Gargzdai killings.  This Judgment was published in Justiz und NS-Verbrechen, Vol. XV, University Press Amsterdam (1976), and in KZ-Verbrechen vor deutschen Gerichten, Band II: Einsatzkommando Tilsit - Der Prozess zu Ulm, (Frankfurt am Mein: Europaïsche Verlagsanstalt, 1966). The judgment is summarized in the Gorzd Yizkor Book, pages 75-79 [Image 426].  Further information about the killings is contained on page 38 of the Gorzd Yizkor Book [Image 463].
    Two letters about the killings are posted at the JewishGen Yizkor Book Project. One is a
letter in the Gorzd Yizkor Book from Leyb Shoys (or Leibke Shauss), dated February 5, 1945, page 342-344 [Yiddish section]. Shoys had returned to Gargzdai, collected information from town residents, and wrote this report to his brother in South Africa about the killings. A similar letter from Shoys to his uncle Khaim Shoys in America is set forth in the book Lite, as the Chapter titled "The Destruction of Gorzd". Lite gives the name only of the uncle who received the letter and not the nephew who wrote it, but the Gorzd Yizkor Book, page 38, identifies the author as Liebke Shauss.
    Further details are contained in the Gorzd Chapter in
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita, also posted at the JewishGen Yizkor Book Project.
    In the Court Judgment, the following facts are reported:
    At the time of the attack, Gargzdai had a population of around 3000, of which 600-700 were Jews.  This included Jewish refugees who had come from Klaipeda/Memel after Germany annexed the Memel Territory in 1939.
    Germany attacked at 3:05 AM on June 22, 1941.  There was heavy resistance by the Soviet army, and the town was not secured until the afternoon of June 22.  During the fighting, most of the civilians hid in a cellar, and much of the town was burned.
    The Gestapo and SD (Security Service) from Tilsit began to round up the Jewish men, as well as suspected Communists, for execution.  They were held overnight in the park.  The males were forced to work on defense trenches, an old rabbi was abused, and a Jewish boy was shot for allegedly not working hard enough.
    On June 24, the men were led to a trench. They were shot by a firing squad consisting of 20 persons, including the Tilsit personnel as well as police from Memel.  Some of the victims who were refugees from Memel knew their executioners among the Memel police. The total number executed on that day was 201 persons.
    The Shoys letters add some additional details. The men were kept without food or water until the 24th. The shootings took place near a house belonging to David Wolfowitz, at around 1:00 PM.
    The Gorzd Yizkor Book [Image 463] states that the killings took place in a field at the end of Tamozhne St.  A town diagram in the book [Image 13] shows this name for the main street leading west to the old border and Laugallen. ("Tamozhnya" is the Russian word for "Customs.") The Report of Staatspolizei Tilsit states that the 201 persons killed on June 24, 1941 included one woman. The persons committing the shooting were selected by the police director in Memel, and consisted of 30 men with one police officer.
    According to a Soviet report dated February 11, 1945, exhumation of this site revealed a total of 396 men, killed by firearms.
"Act about Slaughter of Civil Soviet People by Fascist Aggressors on the Temporary Occupied Territory of the Gargzedai [sic] Volost, the Kretinga Uyezd, the Lithuanian SSR," The Tragedy of Lithuania: New Documents on Crimes of Lithuanian Collaborators during the Second World War, ISBN 978-5-903588-01-5, p. 219, http://common.regnum.ru/documents/the-tragedy-of-lithuania.pdf.



    V.    Killing of the Jewish Women and Children

    The women and children of Gargzdai were initially rounded up at the same time as the men. After the men were killed, the women and children were kept prisoner for several months.  The Gorzd Memorial book and the Shoys letters say they were kept in the village of Anelishke and forced to perform hard labor.  Then, during September of 1941, they were taken to the woods northeast of Vezaiciai, on the road to Kule (Kuliai). The Gorzd Book says the children were killed by the Germans with bayonets, and their mothers and grandmothers killed two days later.
    The Court Judgment points to statements that women and children from Garsden were killed by "betrunkene litauische Hilfspolizisten" (drunken Lithuanian auxiliary police) in August/September 1941, but further states the Court could not determine if Gestapo personnel were involved.  The Court concluded that a minimum of 100 were killed.
    The monument at one of the women's killing sites states that the killing occurred in October, 1941, and 300 were killed. Yosif Levinson, Skausmo Knyga - The Book of Sorrow (Vilnius: Vaga Publishers, 1997), page 110. However, the monuments are not necessarily accurate sources of information as to dates. The monument at the men's site in Gargzdai has a clearly erroneous date of July, 1941 despite the known date of June 24.
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita gives the dates of the women's killings as September 14 and 16, and states that about 300 were killed. The same dates of September 14 and 16 are given by Dr. Hershl Meyer in the Gorzd Memorial Book, p. 38.
    There was one survivor of the women's shooting, Rachel (or Eyne) Yami, who provided chilling detail to Leib Shoys which is set forth in his letters.  Because the former residents of Gorzd would want to know the dates of the killings, it is reasonable to suppose that Rachel Yami was the source for the dates of September 14 and 16 set forth in Pinkas Hakehillot Lita and by Dr. Meyer.
    A Soviet investigation included an exhumation of the sites,
"Act about Slaughter of Civil Soviet People by Fascist Aggressors on the Temporary Occupied Territory of the Gargzedai [sic] Volost, the Kretinga Uyezd, the Lithuanian SSR," The Tragedy of Lithuania: New Documents on Crimes of Lithuanian Collaborators during the Second World War, ISBN 978-5-903588-01-5, p. 219, http://common.regnum.ru/documents/the-tragedy-of-lithuania.pdf, and also the eyewitness testimony of a priest, Ionas Aleksens, also identified as Jonas Aleksiejus. He was riding a bicycle from Gargzdai to Vezaiciai when he encountered the women and children being conveyed to the killing place in the forest. He unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade the perpetrators from committing the killings. "Transcript of Interrogation of Witness Aleksens I.A.," id. at p. 221; Dr. Arunas Bubnys, Holocaust in Lithuanian Province in 1941 at 40-43. According to the exhumation, one of the graves contained 107 "girls" killed by firearms and blunt objects.  The other contained 347 women and children, with the women having been killed by firearms and the children by blunt objects.  Some of the children had no visible injury, indicating to the investigators that they had been buried alive.



Karte des Deutschen Reiches (1921-1929)

Scale in Meters (1000m = .62 miles)



Detail of forest area from Stadt- und Landkreis Memel (1941)

A place name sometimes found in accounts of the killing of the women and children is Ašmoniške, which is not shown on the above German maps. For example, Bubnys indicates at p. 42 that on the way to the second killing, the column turned into the forest near Ašmoniškiai. The Destruction of Gorzd in Lite states that the killings took place in the Ashmonishke forest. Dr. Meyer states in the Gorzd Memorial Book, p. 38 (image 463), that the killings took place in the Ashmanien woods.

Asmoniške is shown in a clearing within the Vezaitine Forest (Miskas Vezaitine) on the Lithuanian Army topographical maps from 1938-39, very close to the border between maps 1201 and 1301.

The symbol with the deer horns, to the left of the "A" in Asmoniške, may represent a forest service station or ranger's house. Similar symbols are used for these designations on Russian and German maps. On the German Stadt- und Landkreis Memel map above, a similar symbol and the notation "W.W." [Waldwärter = forest guard] is shown just above the latitude line, close to where Asmoniške is shown on the Lithuanian Army topographic maps.


Four Lithuanian Army topographic maps of this region may be combined as shown below:

Combined Excerpts from Sheets 1200, 1201, 1300, 1301

The name Oszmianiszki is shown on the 1:300,000 Übersichtkarte map of Tilsit at www.mapywig.org.

The Lithuanian Army map shows the village of Perkunai, northeast of Vezaiciai and just southwest of the forest.  The killing of the women and children is stated to be close to this village in The Tragedy of Lithuania: New Documents on Crimes of Lithuanian Collaborators during the Second World War, ISBN 978-5-903588-01-5, p. 219, 221. http://common.regnum.ru/documents/the-tragedy-of-lithuania.pdf. The latter reference says the killing site is 5 km from Vezaiciai and 27 km from Perkunai, but evidently "27 km" is a misprint for 2.7 km.


    VI.    Orders to Einsatzkommando Tilsit

    The men's killing in Gargzdai is particularly important to historians of the Holocaust because it was the first in the Soviet Union.  The source, timing and content of orders to Böhme concerning the first killings are the subjects of controversy.



    VII.    Visiting the Memorials

    The Memorial to the Men's killing is on the west end of Klaipedos gatve (Klaipeda Street), between the bus station and an apartment complex.  A photo of the Men's Monument is on this website.  The monument erroneously dates the killings in July, 1941, rather than on June 24.  Also on this website is a German aerial reconnaissance photo, taken in January, 1945, obtained from the U.S. National Archives, which shows the area of the killing site.
    There are two Monuments to the killing of the women and children.  Both are in the Vezaitines Forest, northeast of Vezaiciai, on Road 166 leading to Kuliai. Locations of the monuments are set forth in the Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania, Item 171 (southwestern site) and Item 158 (Northeastern site). The location of Vezaiciai and Road 166 to Kuliai may be seen at the Mapquest link on the
Gargzdai main page. As of 2009, there were separate marked entrances off the east side of Road 166 leading to the two sites.  The more northeasterly site is more easily located, because there is a direct road from 166 to the site.  The more southwesterly site is more difficult to locate, and a guide may be desirable.  Photos of the Women's Monuments are on this website.


    VIII.    Discrepancy between German and Soviet Records as to Number of Victims at Men's Killing Site

    There is an apparent discrepancy between the German records and the Soviet report as to the number of victims at the men's site.  The Soviet report has only recently become available online, and its figure of 396 male victims has apparently not been previously discussed in the literature regarding the Gargzdai killings.  The figure of 396 men may be supported by comments of George Birman, a former resident of Gargzdai, who provided much of the material for the present site.  Mr. Birman told the author (long before the Soviet report became available) that some former residents of Gargzdai believed the German figures were too low in comparison to the Jewish population of Gargzdai at the time. He did not believe that any men who were in Gargzdai at the time of the invasion survived the shootings.  The only survivors were those (like Berman himelf) who were not in the town at the time of the invasion.

    On the other hand, the figure of 200 men and one woman adopted at the Ulm trial is set forth in early documents, including the Situation Reports used at the trial, and the even earlier Report from Staatspolizei Tilsit to RSHA, July 1, 1941 (a document which was unknown at the time of the trial).  The Ulm judgment points out that the figure of approximately 200 victims at the men's site was supported by seven witnesses who were not defendants in the case, as well as the written Situation Reports.  While a few defendants contended the number was lower, apparently no one at the trial contended it was higher. Further, although some of the male victims were unmarried adolescents or had no family, others had a spouse and several children. For example, an account submitted to Yad Vashem indicates one family with a husband, wife, and five children who all perished in Gargzdai. It would seem that the number of women and children would be substantially higher than the number of males. The ratio of men to women and children might favor the figure of 200 men, rather than 396, in relation to the reported number of women and children found at the exhumation of the two sites in the forest.

    The German judgment states the Jewish population at the time of the invasion was between 600 and 700. If the figure of 200 men and one woman killed at the men's site is correct, then adding the 454 women and children found at the two women's sites totals 655. This figure is within the range of the the total Jewish population set forth in the German judgment, but would leave unexplained the discrepancy between the 201 victims stated in the German judgment, and the 396 bodies found in the exhumation of the men's site.

    It is possible to suggest highly speculative theories to account for the conflicting numbers.

    Theory A: The German figure of 200 men was only an estimate, and the actual figure was 396.

Arguments in favor:

     Is it numerically unlikely that shooting all the men would result in the round number of 200? 
     In light of the unprecedented nature of this first mass shooting of the war, is it possible that accidentally or deliberately, no one kept an exact count on June 24?
     
During the trial, did prosecution testimony naturally converge on the figures set forth in the written Situation Reports? No one had an incentive to testify to a higher figure.
     Pretrial interrogation of witnesses yielded estimates of between 50 and 300 victims. Tobin (2013), p. 165.
     Yidishe Shtet states pre-holocaust Jewish population was around 800, which compares with the Soviet total of 850 victims found in exhuming the sites.

 Arguments against:

   Given the very large number of mass shootings throughout Lithuania, chance could easily result in an accurate count at one location being an even multiple of 100.
    Failure to keep exact records would be uncharacteristic of SS personnel involved, and other conduct of perpetrators during the Holocaust.
    In pretrial interrogation, driver Kersten gave a figure of 200. Tobin (2013), p. 148. There is no apparent indication he was influenced by the written documents.
    The discrepancy between an estimate of 200 and a true figure of 396 is too large; someone would have realized that the estimate was too low. In his reports Böhme had no incentive to underestimate and could not have done so to this great extent.
    Ratio of men to women and children suggests figure of 396 men would be too high.
    No pretrial estimate was higher than 300. Tobin (2013), p. 165. If the true figure was 396, someone would have provided an estimate higher than 300.
    No published source aside from this Soviet report supports a figure as high as 396 Jewish victims on June 24th.    
     

   Theory B:   The grave also contains Soviet troops or NKVD border guards who died in the battle of June 22, 1941

    Arguments in favor:

    Prior to the executions on June 24, the Jewish men were forced to bury Soviet soldiers who had died in the battle on June 22. Dr. Arunas Bubnys, Holocaust in Lithuanian Province in 1941, p. 41.  The number of Soviet troops who died in the battle is unknown (Gargzdai Area Museum). The Ulm judgment reports that approximately 100 German troops died in the unexpectedly difficult attack. The battle lasted 15 hours. (Konrad Kwiet, Rehearsing for Murder: The Beginning of the Final Solution in Lithuania, p. 6).  Were 195 dead Soviet soldiers or NKVD border guards buried in the same ditch as the mass grave of the 201 Jewish victims, or in an immediately adjacent ditch which was not recognized to be separate at the time of the exhumation?

    If the dead Soviet soldiers are not in the same ditch or an immediately adjacent one, where were they buried?

    German reconnaissance photo from January, 1945 may show several ditches end to end within the killing site.

    Arguments against:

    This theory apparently finds no support in the German trial records, and may be contradicted by the following passage in the judgment:  "Die gefangenen Juden wurden bis zur Exekution mit verschiedenen Aufgaben beschäftigt. Einige mussten die herumliegenden Leichen der gefallenen Russen beerdigen. Andere mussten einen von den russischen NKWD-Soldaten angelegten Verteidigungsgraben zum Exekutionsgraben vertiefen und erweitern." (The Jews held prisoner were employed in different tasks prior to the execution.  Some had to bury the corpses of the fallen Russians which were lying about. Others had to deepen and widen a defensive ditch built by the Russian NKVD soldiers into an execution ditch.)

    If half of the bodies wore military uniforms, one might expect at least some durable remnants such as boots, metal buttons and buckles to remain visible upon exhumation, and this fact to be noted in the Soviet report. The border guards were members of the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB); some uniforms of NKVD frontier guards are pictured at armchairgeneral.com

    In response, a reader of this site has suggested that the SS may have foreseen a need for Soviet uniforms to use in future commando operations. For example, approximately 25 SS troops wore US uniforms during the Battle of the Bulge, in Operation Greif organized by Otto Skorzeny. At Gargzdai, uniforms could have been removed from the Soviets prior to burial, which would prevent their identification as military personnel at the time of exhumation. 

    Theory C:   Soviet records from the time of Stalin's rule are not reliable enough to be given any credence.  The figure of 396 should be disregarded.

    Arguments in favor:

    There are notorious examples of Soviet manipulation of alleged fact-finding to serve the ends of propaganda.  Best known is the investigation of the Katyn massacre of approximately 22,000 Poles. Although the perpetrators were Soviets, the Soviets planted evidence to implicate the Nazis.  An official Soviet commission in 1944 issued a false report stating the killers were the Nazis.

    Criticisms of the Soviet Commission which resulted in the reports and trials regarding the killings in Lithuania are set forth in Alfonsas Eidintas, Jews, Lithuanians and the Holocaust, Trans. Vijolė Arbas and Advardas Tuskenis, Vilnius: Versus Aureus, 2003. See unsigned review at shtetlshkud.com, p. 15. For example, the Commission did not distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish victims, a motive of the Soviets was to discredit certain Lithuanian individuals including emigres, and some of the convicted individuals may have been innocent.

    Arguments against:

    As to Gargzdai, while the Soviet reports contain propagandistic language, and downplay or omit the fact that the victims were Jews, it is difficult to see any propaganda value in inflating the number of victims in a report which was given little if any publicity at the time.

    As to the reliability of the Soviet investigations, see N. Terry, The Einsatzgruppen Reports, paragraphs 20 and 21.

_______________________________________________________

     Perhaps the Soviet archives contain further information (such as notes or data forming the basis for the report) which will eventually cast further light on the matter. Further information could emerge from other sources. In the meantime, any input from readers would be welcomed.

     


    IX.    The Kovno Ghetto

    A number of residents or former residents of Gargzdai who were elsewhere in Lithuania at the time of the invasion were imprisoned in the Kovno Ghetto.  Many died there due to illness caused by intolerable living conditions, or were killed in various "Actions" during which residents were selected for execution.  Executions took place at the old forts ringed around Kovno: at Fourth Fort, Seventh Fort and Ninth Fort. The ghetto was liquidated in 1944, with the residents transported to Dachau and Stutthof Concentration Camps.  Some in the Ghetto tried to hide in underground bunkers, but most of the hidden persons died when the Nazis set the Ghetto on fire.
   
Gorzd Yizkor Book, page 351 (Hebrew Section), posted at the JewishGen Yizkor Book Project, contains a list of Gorzd residents killed in the Kovno Ghetto and in concentration camps, as well as those who fought in the Lithuanian Division or fell in battle at the front.




Gargzdai main page
Aerial Photo of Gargzdai  |  Identification of Features on Aerial Photo  |  Aerial Photo of Killing Site
    Photos, Page 2 (Women's Memorials)    |    Photos, Page 4 (Men's Memorial)

This page was updated November 29, 2016


Copyright © 2002-2016 John S. Jaffer