During Soviet rule (June 1940-June 1941) some Jewish businesses were nationalized. All Zionist parties and youth organizations and also several community institutions were disbanded. The Hebrew school became a government school, with Yiddish as the teaching language. Three Jewish families (Gendler, Beker, Lifshitz, altogether 16-17 persons) were exiled to Siberia.
On the 1st of September 1939 the German army invaded Poland, occupying the country over a period of several weeks. Many Jewish youths, mostly from Zionist youth organization, managed to infiltrate into Lithuania. The Jewish community took care of the refugees in various ways, one of which was the establishment of Kibbutsei Hakhsharah, where these young people were accommodated and worked for their living. In 1939 a Kibbutz Hakhsharah (training kibbutz) was established in Birzh for refugees from Poland, which was active till March 1940.
The German army entered Birzh on Thursday the 26th of June 1941, arriving from the north, from Latvia, and found the Lithuanian nationalists already organized, headed by a local lawyer. Persecution of the Jews began on the first day of German entry, the first victim being the doctor, Avraham-Zalman Levin. On a pretext of being asked to visit a sick person, two Lithuanians took him out of his house and one of them shot and killed him. Motl Beder was shot trying to defend Rabbi Bernshtein, who was murdered because he dared to protect his community. The young doctor Aptakin tried to hide in a forest, but Lithuanian nationalists found and murdered him. Advocate Kirshon and his family found asylum with Lithuanians who were considered friends, but who handed the whole family over to the police to be murdered. The local "Shokhet" was tied with his beard to the tail of a horse and then towed through the streets till his death.
One month after the Germans entered Birzh, on the 26th of July 1941, all Jews were ordered to leave their houses and to move to a ghetto which had been established in several shabby alleys around the synagogue and the Beith Midrash. Jewish men continued to be arrested all the time, then taken to the Jewish cemetery and other places in the town or its vicinity, and shot.
On the 8th of August 1941 (15th of Av 5701) the final phase of the murder of Birzh Jews began. On this day men, women and children in groups of 100-200 persons were led to the Astrava forest about 3.5 km north of Birzh, about 1.5 km on the road to Paroveja. There, by the edges of the forest, two pits 20 and 30 meters in length and 2 meters wide had been prepared, having been dug previously by 500 Jewish men who were forced to do this work. The victims were ordered to remove their upper clothes and kneel near the pits, into which they were pushed and shot. Whoever still showed signs of life was shot again with a pistol. The massacre took place from 11 o'clock AM till 7 PM in the evening. A local Lithuanian "with a yellow beard" (Jonas Kairys) excelled in brutality during the massacre. The murderers divided the robbed Jewish property among themselves, only giving expensive items to the Germans, after which they returned to the town singing.
According to the report of the special governmental commission of the 25th of May 1945, the number of the Jewish victims in the two pits, each 2.5 meters deep, was 2,400, amongst them 900 children. In a third pit, a smaller one, the corpses of 90 Lithuanians, also murdered by the Germans, were found. 30 more Jewish victims were found in three pits uncovered in the Jewish cemetery, all victims having been shot in the head. After the war the site was fenced, a monument was erected and on it an inscription in Russian and Lithuanian, saying: "Here are buried 3,000 Soviet citizens who were shot in 1941 by Hitlers Fascists."
At the beginning of the nineties this tablet was changed and a new inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian says: "In this place Hitlers murderers and their local helpers murdered 2,400 Jews - men, women, children and about 90 Lithuanians, on the 8th of July 1941."
A small number of Jewish youngsters managed to escape to USSR and fought with the Red Army, mainly in the Lithuanian Division. A few survived.
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The article I included in the "Anthology of the History of the Jews in Poland", Tel-Aviv 1991, pages 23-44).
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Birzh by Rafi Julius - Pinkas haKehiloth. Lita (Encyclopedia of Jewish Settlements in Lithuania) (Hebrew), Editor: Dov Levin, Assistant editor: Yosef Rosin, Yad Vashem. Jerusalem 1996.
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Naujienos (Lithuanian) Chicago. 11.6.1949.