Ponidel in the Holocaust

The book, In Sacred Memory: Recollections of the Holocaust by Survivors Living in Cape Town, edited by Gwynne Schrire, was published by the Cape Town Holocaust Memorial Council in 1995.

Gwynne has graciously given us permission to reprint one of the stories from her book. Both this story and Gwynne's work were brought to our attention by Saul Issroff and we thank both of them for sharing with us.

In Gwynne's own words, "Ten years ago when I was asked by  our She'erith Hapletah to edit a book on the stories of the Cape Town Holocaust survivors I was shown a cherished letter in Yiddish, with many tear stains on it. There was no date on the letter. The letter was subsequently donated to the Jewish Museum. I had it translated into English and we inserted it into the book, which was called In Sacred  Memory."

Although this letter and story is about events and people in  Ponidel (Pandelys), I have included it because it is so relevant to the stories of our own families and there are so many ties and connections between Ponidel and Rokiskis.  

Letter to Ruth Green, Cape Town

My dearly loved Cousins ,

I kiss you and hold you. I feel as though I can see you. I cry. I cry for our suffering and joy. Believe me, until I came to Italy I did not cry, not even when I was in Lithuania four months ago. I went all over and I did not cry and now I can't hold back my tears. They are pouring from my eyes. Don't be cross with me at what I am going to write to you, crying as you can see. They are tears of joy - soft tears.

My dears, I lived in order to get that first letter from you telling me that my dears are well. I have read your letter hundreds of times. I cried, suffered and suffered and re-suffered my dear ones. So much suffering that it is no wonder that I became ill. It is a wonder, a miracle that I managed to arrive in May in Ponedel [Pandelys], my birth town.

I came to your house. The house still stands just the same as it was before - the little yatka, the butchery, is there, the stable is there, the garden is there, the brunem well where you got the water from is there. But my dearly beloved father Joseph, my mother Freda, Chaya and Rachmiel, my sister and brother-in-law and their small children - all, all are gone! It is a miracle that my heart did not collapse. Then I felt happy to think that my dear ones were safe in South Africa. Ruth, even the colour you and I painted on the floor before you left for South Africa is still there. Then I got hardened and started to investigate the facts about the Lithuanian bandits, about everything and everybody and I am going to write briefly about what happened.

When the War started nobody realized that Germany would soon overrun the country of Lithuania. They thought that they had time to get out - first the children, young women and old parents. But it was not to be that way. The Red Army was good for nothing - they too ran like the devil himself. The Lithuanian Catholic Christians started against the Russian "Savetsky Vlest" but they could not fight the Russians, so they started instead with the Jews.

All roads were blocked and only a few Jews managed to escape. My father, and Rachmiel with his two horses and the family and all the Jews from Ponedel drove to the border of Sevenishick [Suvainiskis] but the Lithuanian Roman Catholics had closed the road. They robbed and beat the Jews so they had to go back to their houses in Ponedel.

After a few weeks in their homes instructions were issued that all Jews were to gather at the big market place. The Lithuanian Bandits shot the Rabbi, Berka, the son of Moses, and Rufka, the son of Ichick. Once all the Jews were together they were pushed into a big stone house belonging to Simcha Shmuel Shies. They were locked in for days. After this they were driven on foot to Rakeshik [Rokiskis] 28 kilometres from Ponedel. About 13,000 Jews were driven from Rakeshik to Melumel, 3 km from Rakeshik, to the big forest there. There the young Jewish men had to dig a big hole. They dug not knowing why. Then the Lithuanian Bandits started shooting. They shouted "Kind und Kerk ."

The last to be shot was Jankel Shreiberg. The bullet hit him on the shoulder. He fell on top of them. He was not dead. The Lithuanians covered them with just four inches of soil. The cries from the grave were enough to kill. Jankel soon pushed away some soil so that he could breathe and waited until dark set in. Then he pushed away enough soil so that he could get out. He knew Rakeshik and had a friend who had a bicycle. He went to the house where the bicycle stood at the back of the house and off he went riding to the border at Dvinsk. The Russians still held the town. He rode at night, ate grass, and hid in the forest during the day time. It happened about the 13th October. He escaped deep into Russia.

Our house is still there but almost the whole town has been burned down, from Mr. Meliz up to our house has been burned down. From our house to the end of Birz street remains. The other side of the street from the Shammas's house down to the end of Simcha Shmuel Shies's house is also still there.

Now I will write about whom from my family remained alive. My brother Iserke is alive and well and has a wife and child. He was a great general in the Russian army and lives in Klaipeda near Memel. He is a Director, but would love to get out - it is difficult with a small baby. His sister Chaya was a good child and ran away with him to Russia at the beginning of the war. After the war they came to Lodz in Poland where she met a young man, Meyer Shumaker, and got married. Eliyahu walked to Czechoslovakia and Austria, and over the mountains of Austria to Italy until he came to Milan where he was so ill that the authorities sent him to a good place to get well, a sanatorium run by the organization, the Joint.

I am sick with lung trouble. I am honestly sick. All the tragedies I went through, and the sufferings in the Russian Army broke my health completely. I have been here for two months - who knows how much longer I will have to be here. The doctors and the sisters are very nice to me. They want me to get fatter. I must eat more but I have no appetite and the food does not always taste nice.

I thank you Ruth for the two pounds you sent me. I bought something that I like. I cannot always manage to eat. Don't get cross with me. The doctors and sisters beg me to eat. I promised I will eat. Oh! I want to get well, I so want to see you all. My dear ones, this letter is the first one to you all. Please you must all write to me. My dear, I cannot write any longer although I have a lot to tell. I will write again later. Regards to all those who are from Ponedel. The Sister will not allow me to write any more as I am bleeding and I must lie flat.

Your cousin,Abras Smidt,

Merano Sanatorium ATDC, Italy.

From Gwynne:  "Here are a few details about the woman who received the letter, as I interviewed her to get details about her childhood in Ponidel."

Interview with Ruth Green

19 March 1992

I, Ruth Green, was born in a small town in Lithuania known as Ponedel.  My late father was known as Josef (in Hebrew) or Jossel (in Yiddish) My son carries his name-but in English it is Joey. My father came from Rakeshik-a big town which had a doctor on the spot, a dentist to pull out teeth, a register for people doing crimes and two policemen as well. These did not have guns- they had sugar sticks in their mouths- because nobody in Rakeshik committed crimes.

Twenty eight miles away was a smaller town called Ponedel. There we just had a Rov who married you, made the brisses, got a sandak if the child was a boy and also buried you. Divorce was unknown. Everyone there was happy until G-d finally separated them.

My father was the fourth child of his parents. My grandfather was Joshua Oblowitz, my grandmother was Rosie (Raisel) She got married when she was 17. She had her first child. The second was Itzchak Oblowitz who later had the dress shop in Salt River where every smart women bought her dresses. Then came a daughter Leah and then Joseph, my father was born. When he was born, his older brother was already married with a son, Sydney. So my father was 8 months younger than his nephew.

The law in Russia was that if there was more than one son in the family you had to serve in the Army when you were 21. As my father was the younger of two brother, he had to go into the army. You had to be 21 because then you were mature. When he had finished his army service he came back to the little town of Rakeshik. He had been in the army for 5 years and he had also spent 18 months in America - he did not like America because he had to work on Saturday, so he had come back.

The town remained calm-there were no Christians, just Jews.  Nobody went to jail, there was no jail, there was no crime, nothing. The Jews lived like one community. G-d forbid someone died -every one cried. When there was a simchah, every one rejoiced. When there was a wedding, there were no invitations - forget about it - everyone came. The weddings took place in summer because the winter snow would drive the priests away. The wedding would take place next to the synagogue. The women would make a cholent - do you know what a cholent is? You would heat up the oven with coal or wood, then you would put into a big pot made of crockery, not of stainless steel, meat, not chicken, with beans, barley and carrots and would place this in the oven. You would also put in another narrow pot of chickory - not coffee, we had no coffee and cover it up. The oven would be closed with wood and a long long piece of material and the cholent would cook or simmer from Friday 4 p.m. until 12 or 1 on Saturday and it was the best food ever eaten. And the wedding went on. When the women were finished with the chores they would put on their dresses and everybody would go to the wedding. When the bride was led to the bridegroom, the bridegroom with his father and the father on the other side would go to pray. If the son was the only son and he was staying with his parents, the bride who had just been married to the parents's son would know when she took her first foot step, at 5 o clock or whatever time the wedding was, that now she had a shviger- a mother-in-law. She learns that two fingers come together - the shviger/mother-in-law and the shmuel(?) daughter-in law- and those two fingers come together to make 'v' for victory. It is one root(?) But the respect that the daughter-in-law would give to her mother- in-law is dead today, it no longer exists - even in America where there are many Jewish people, this respect no longer exists and the daughter- in- law never likes the mother-in- law.

The life in the little town was very hard. Nobody had money- a few were better off. We had a house, we had a stable. My father built on a little yardka - a small place for groceries and meat - we killed cattle. We had our own well with a bucket to draw up water. We had no lights, no lavatory inside- no such thing. Our cloakroom [outhouse] was built of wood and underground there was a special deep hole made of cement and every two days men would come and clean it away-so life was primitive. One thing, no matter how rotten the Roman Catholics in Lithuania were, I never ever heard of a young girl walking home from school, or walking even as late as 11 or 12 p.m. at night being raped or touched or robbed of their money. But one thing they did do - they had German hunter dogs - G-d forbid if its owner was not around and they went for your ankle, you had no ankle left!

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