Annihilation of the Jewish People in the Summer of 1941

 by Dr. Arūnas Bubnys

This article appears with the permission of Dr. Arūnas Bubnys.  The facts as presented represent the views of the author, Arunas Bubnys, and we claim no responsibility as to their accuracy or fairness.

Thanks to Aušra Jonušytė, historian at the Kupiskis Ethnographic Museum, and Phil Shapiro, for sending us this interesting article.

Arūnas Bubnys, a Lithuanian historian and archivist, has advanced degrees in history from Vilnius University. He works at the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania and is a member of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania.

After the restoration of the state of Lithuania the Jews of Kupiškis  took an active part in the economic, political and cultural life of the town. According to the Census of Lithuania in1923 Kupiškis had 1444 Jews (54 per cent o the local population). They were mainly engaged in handicrafts and trade as elsewhere in other Lithuanian cities. In the third decade of the twentieth century the town on the river Kupa had 50 Jewish shops. Most of them were concentrated around the market square. Larger Jewish industrialists and traders developed their business here. Nochemas Šmidtas (Nochem Schmidt) had a local power station. In 1931 he signed an agreement with the Municipality to supply electricity for Kupiškis and its surroundings. In the elections to the town Council in 1920 the Jews of Kupiškis raised their candidates and received the majority of votes. B. Alperavičius was elected the Chairman of the town Council. Seven of the twelve members of the town Council were Jews. Lešinas(Leshin) who was also Jewish became the Burgomaster of the town. In the subsequent years the Jewish influence in the town Council and in the municipality decreased. In 1936–1940 Nochemas Jachilevičius was elected the Elder of the Kupiškis Eldership. Various Jewish religious, cultural and youth organizations were established in the town, the representatives of this nation had their primary, secondary and religious schools, a kindergarten and a library. A Division of the Jewish People's Bank had been established. During the interwar period a large part of the local Jewish youth emigrated to the South African Republic and Palestine.

With the beginning of the Soviet occupation N. Jachilevičius was dismissed from the position of the Elder of Kupiškis and the activity of the Jewish religious schools was restricted. All the youth and students' organizations and political parties, except the Communist organizations were prohibited. Some of the Jewish companies were nationalized. An active Communist agitation and propaganda was implemented. In September of 1940 the Komsomol organization (Young Communists) was established and a certain part of the Jewish youth became its members. At the first meeting of this Communist Youth Organization the Jew zraelis Geršūnas (Israel Gershunas) was elected the Secretary. The members of the local Komsomol organized the Soviet literature readings, the celebrations of the Communist holidays, spread the communist ideology, etc.

On the eve of the Soviet-Nazi war about one and a half thousand Jews lived in Kupiškis (according to other sources about 1200 or 42 per cent ot the population of the town). The relations between the Lithuanians and the Jewish during the independence period were normal, no major conflicts or incidents had ever occured. The German troops occupied Kupiškis on the 26th of June, 1941. Already before their invasion the Lithuanian administration of the township had been restored. Jurgis Bukėnas was elected the Chief of the township of Kupiškis, he retained this position during all the time period of the German occupation and before that he had worked in the the same position in the independent times of Lithuania. He had under his authority 15 Elders of the smaller rural districts. The Chief of the rural district was mostly concerned with economic-administrative matters, tax collection and the supervision of fulfillment of various obligations. During the years of the Nazi occupation the rural district of Kupiškis belonged to the County of Panevėžys. When the Germans occupied the town, Petras Greičiūnas (in other sources the spelling is Graičiūnas) was appointed the police chief of the rural district. He was born in 1900, had a nickname Doctor and was killed in January of 1949 in the squad of partisans.

At first the Wehrmacht Major Hiubentalis (Hübenthal) worked as the military commandant of Kupiškis. After he had left Kupiškis at the beginning of July of 1941 the position of the commandant was taken over by the teacher of German language of the Kupiškis gymnasium school Verneris Liovė (Werner Loew). His assistants were pupils of Kupiškis gymnasium school Petras Bernatavičius and Antanas Jokantas. Werner Loew settled in the building of the Municipality of the township of Kupiškis.

Briefly about this officer. He was born in 1912, in Berlin. He graduated from the University of Innsbruck in 1935, where he obtained the doctoral degree in philosophy. In October of 1937 he arrived to Lithuania and stayed here to live. Already during the Soviet years he came to Kupiškis to work as a teacher and then he played  a role of an ardent supporter of the Soviet government and Communism.

He showed his true face at the beginning of the Nazi occupation. Teacher Algirdas Bočiulis wrote: "When the German troops entered Kupiškis the teachers of Kupiškis Gymnasium school were instructed to gather. W. Loew (Liovė) showed up, his jacket wrapped with a wide belt and the gun under it. He gave an inspecting look at everybody and exclaimed: "Where is this Communist director of the school Šimaitis?" Loew introduced himself as the Commandant of Kupiškis and told to carry out his orders. Lists of the Communists who had not escaped, lists of the activists of the Soviet government and lists of people of the Jewish nationality were made up under his command. The mass killings in the summer of 1941 was the extermination of the former Komsomol members of the school and even the students of the Commandant among them. Without any court order M. Baltrūnas, J. Vencevičius, J. Pretkus, S. Gurklys, A. Baseckas, G. Jokantas, I. Geršūnas and other Jews were shot".

After the war Mr. Loew settled in the Federal Republic of Germany, in Cologne. On the 28th of September, 1967 the Criminal College of the Supreme Court of the Lithuanian SSR decided to send the material relevant to the criminal activity of Werner Loew in July and August, 1941 to the government authorities of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Since autumn of 1940 the 618th artillery regiment of the Red Army had been deployed in Kupiškis. Most of the soldiers were Lithuanians. In May, 1941 the regiment moved to the polygon of Pabradė. Only a small part of the military unit (about 2530 people) remained in Kupiškis.

On the second day of the war (on the 23rd of June,1941) the Lithuanian unit of the Red Army that remained in Kupiškis gathered with weapons near the village of Račiupėnai. Several civilian men joined them too. Antanas Gudelis, former Lieutenant of the 618th Artillery unit became the leader of the squad. On the 24th of June a group of men of this squad went out for military observation and faced the retreating Soviet activists. Two members of the squad were killed during this firefight, one soldier and one civilian Vytautas Alešiūnas. On the 27th of June the squad led by A. Gudelis returned to Kupiškis. The town had already been occupied by the German army. At first the Germans disarmed the men of this unit and then held them in custody in the premises of the Officers' Club in Vytautas street. After a few days they armed them again and assigned them to the German commandant headquarters of Kupiškis that was under the direction of the already mentioned W. Loew. The members of this self defense squad were given red bands with a swastika on a white circle. The soldiers of the unit wore military uniforms of the Lithuanian army without any epaulets. During the first days of the occupation lieutenant A. Gudelis continued to command the self defence troops. In early July of 1941 he left Kupiškis,went to another location of the service and lieutenant Juozas Gylys who was his former deputy became the commander of the squad. In the second half of July 40 soldiers of the Kupiškis unit were transferred to serve in the 10th Lithuanian Police Battalion. About 20 soldiers remained in Kupiškis. At the end of September of 1941 W. Loew moved to Šiauliai and later joined the Šiauliai District Commissariat. After his departure the Kupiškis Commandant headquarters were abolished. In autumn of 1941 Kupiškis had only 8 members of the self defense squad who were transfered to the Panevėžys police battalion in spring of 1942. The self defense squad guarded the commandant headquarters of Kupiškis and patrolled at night in the town. Already in the first days of July this unit under the command of W. Loew began the shooting of the communists, the members of the Komsomol and Soviet activists of various nationalities who were arrested and held in custody. A large number of Jews was among the people shot to death. The Kupiškis custody in Gediminas Street on  the Kupa river held not only the detained local Soviet activists, but also the party activists from the surrounding townships, i.e. Viešintos, Šimonys, Skapiškis and Subačius. Sometimes the arrested detainees from Rokiškis were brought here. The custody was overcrowded with the arrested people. Men and women were detained in separate cells. The arrested were usually condemned to death without investigation and trial mainly because of their belonging to the Communist Party, the Komsomol or service in various institutions of the Soviet government. Sometimes the detainees were interrogated. Usually the main interrogator was P. Greičiūnas, the Chief of the township police. Often the interrogated people were beaten. At first the arrested were shot several times a week. Before the shootings they were often brutally tortured. The shootings occured at night in the Jewish cemetery or in the burial ground of freethinkers.

The Jewish cemetery was near the soldiers‘ barracks of that time, the burial ground of freethinkers was behind the Kupiškis church, near the village of Aukštupėnai. Typically they murdered a group of about a dozen of people. They usually appointed as many soldiers of the self defence squad as many the people condemned to death were foreseen to be shot. In most cases Juozas Damidavičius, non-commissioned officer led the massacre. The executioners of putting the people to death used to get a drink 150–200 grams of vodka before the shooting. The soldiers of self defence unit drove the condemned to death to the cemetery and ordered them to stand on the edge of the open pit. The executioners stood about 5 meters away from the condemned and shot them under the command of their senior, warrant officer Damidavičius in most cases. The dead people naturally fell down into the open pit. Then the senior commanders of the squad checked the pit with the flashlights to verify if all of them were dead for sure. The wounded were finished off with more shooting. Then the punishers returned back to the barracks. The shootings of the detainees lasted until the departure of Mr. Loew from Kupiškis. Mostly the killing of the arrested people occured under the decision of W. Loew and P. Greičiūnas, the Chief of the police of Kupiškis township. Vilhelmina Kregždaitė, born in 1913, the Kupiškis Gymnasium school teacher was the secretary of W. Loew in the Commandant quarters. She registered the files of the detainees and the people who were shot. According to the testimony and evidence of V. Kregždaitė until September of 1941 about 500 people of different nationalities were shot (mainly Lithuanian and Russsian) who were the members of the party and the Soviet activists. About 100 of detainees had been released from prison. The arrested and killed Jews were not included in the lists.On the day of shooting W. Loew delegated his adjutant to go to the self defence unit to collect the required number of soldiers for the execution. They dug open pits beforehand in the places of shooting in the Jewish cemetery and in the burial ground of freethinkers. The detainees or the Russian prisoners of the war (about 20 of whom were at that time in Kupiškis) had to dig them themselves. The soldiers assigned to carry out the executions arrived to the Commandant quarters located in the municipality building. Here W. Loew passed the list of the condemned to death. After that the soldiers went to the custody (jail) on the bank of the river Kupa. The local policemen led out the condemned to death prisoners according to the given list and with the assistance of soldiers herded them into the place of shooting. There they were shot at the open pits. The mass massacre of the Communists and the Soviet activists  in Kupiškis ended in 1941, at the end of August. The arrested had been held in the custody of Kupiškis and later transfered to the prison of Panevėžys.

During the first few days of the war about 40 Jewish families of Kupiškis  tried to escape to Russia but some of the fugitives were arrested near Rokiškis by the Lithuanian anti-Soviet rebels and later shot to death together with the Jews of Rokiškis. Many local Jews were hiding in the surrounding villages in homesteads of the Lithuanian farmers and waiting until the front would pass. Later they either voluntarily or forcibly returned to Kupiškis. Among the few who had managed to escape to Russia, were small children Tuvė Keselis with his sister Rosa and their father. The mother of T. Kesel was killed during the bombing. After the war, in 1957 the Kesel family managed to go to live to Israel through Poland.

The persecution of the Jews of Kupiškis began in the first days of the Nazi occupation. At first all  the Jewish people of Kupiškis were forced to settle in one remote street of Kupiškis (some witnesses indicate the Vilnius street). This was how the policemen of Kupiškis could easily make up the lists of all the Jewish of Kupiškis. The local police troops had obligation to arrest the Jews and as we had already mentioned, P. Greičiūnas was their Chief  at that time. About a month later they were transferred to the custody in Gediminas street. From here groups of people regularly were driven to the Jewish cemetery and shot. Before the shootings under the command of W. Loew they had been robbed of their valuable possessions and money. W. Loew placed the confiscated money into envelopes and sealed them. Then he sent them to the bank. Some Jews tried to protect themselves from death and hid their property at the homesteads of Lithuanians. The witness Povilas Petronis (born in 1900) at the hearing of the court in 1967 told the following story: „During the war once a few Jewish people had stayed with us. They left us their possessions and I hid them in the ground Geršonas (Gershon) had left a bag full of gold, its weight was about 40 kg. When Abromienė was interrogated she was forced to tell where the assets of Gershon were hidden. Loew accompanied by other people came to me and told me to hand back the possessions. I dug out the bag and Loew with others began to examine what was there. They began sorting the personal property in my room. There were watches, dollars and other money. Commandant Loew took everything and went out“.

Since July of 1941 Jews in groups of a few dozen people had been herded to the Jewish cemetery and the cemetery of freethinkers and had been shot by the soldiers  of the self defense forces. Almost all the Jews were annihilated by September of 1941. Only a small group of Jewish craftsmen was left in the town. However, in the fall of 1941 a self defense battalion of soldiers came from Panevėžys to Kupiškis and the remaining Jews (about 50 people) were taken to Subačius. There is some knowledge available that in September of 1941they were shot to death alongside with the Jews of Subačius in the forest nearby the town. Not only local Jews but also Jewish people from other townships, e.g. from Šimonys and Viešintos were murdered. According to the evidence of one participant of the massacre in mid-August of 1941 several dozens of Jews from Rokiškis were shot to death. One evening two German soldiers entered the headquarters of the barracks that were established in a Jewish house near the market square. They ordered the Lithuanian policemen and members of the self defence squad to go with them to the district municipality building in Stotis (Station) street. The Jews brought from Rokiškis were held in this building. There was also a German commandant and about 15 German soldiers. The Commandant told the Lithuanian policemen that  they would have to shoot the Jews. Then they led out about 15 Jewish men from the municipality building. They drove them into the Jewish cemetery behind the town and shot them at the open pit. On the next day the Germans and the Lithuanian policemen repeated the same act and murdered the Jewish women. On the third day the last group of Jews brought from Rokiškis was shot. Then some of the Jews of Kupiškis were killed in Pajuostė near Panevezys. It is likely that the total number of the tortured Jews of Kupiškis and the neighboring areas was about 15002000 people. In the post-war years medical nurse Stefanija Glemžaitė with the assistance of some helpers made up a list of names of the annihilated Jews. It registered 824 names of the Jewish of Kupiškis. In 2004 they were inscribed on the bronze memorial plaque that was mounted on the wall of the former main Synagogue of Kupiškis (nowadays the public library). After the war memorial monuments to commemorate the victims of the Nazi terror in the former Jewish cemetery of Kupiškis and in the cemetery of freethinkers (in Taikos street and in Pergalės street) were erected.

At the end of July of 1941 Commandant W. Loew appointed Viktoras Žvirinis to maintain and manage the property of the murdered Jews. Their furniture, clothes, shoes and bed linen  from their houses and the custody were transported to the warehouse. It continued for about two months. W. Loew obligated Kupiškis gymnasium school teachers Feliksas Visockas, Kazys Pajarskas, Petras Snarskis and some others to make lists of the property. The lists of the registered property and its prices were delivered to W. Loew. The latter then confirmed them and gave instructions to sell them. V. Žvirinis was appointed to set the price of the items for sale. The Jewish property was sold out to the local residents. Former anti-Soviet rebels were able to buy it by 50 per cent cheaper than the rest of the population. Loew passed the Jewish valuable possessions, furniture of good quality and expensive jewelry to the Commissariat Headquarters of Šiauliai district. The received money was deposited into a special account in the bank of Kupiškis. The total property of the Jews was sold for no less than 10 thousand roubles. The houses of the Jews that were of poor condition  were demolished by the war prisoners under the order of the Commandant and the building material that had still retained some value was stored in the warehouse.

As elsewhere in other areas of Lithuania there were courageous people of good will in Kupiškis who were determined to help the persecuted Jews. Medical doctor Ipolitas Franckevičius had hidden 3 or 4 Jewish women, but upon somebody‘s discovery the women were detained and murdered.

Povilas Balčiūnas from the Didžiagrašiai village offered shelter to one of the Jewish families. They lived there for maybe a couple of years but have also been tracked down and executed. In spite of his noble and risky gesture the Soviets exiled the Balčiūnas family to Siberia for 10 years in the postwar times. Some Jews survived the Nazi occupation and after the war returned to Kupiškis or other Lithuanian towns and cities for a longer or shorter period of time. Ginsburgas, Sniegas, Abromienė, Ida Gafanovičiūtė should be mentioned among those. The family of peasant Povilas Vilkas from the village of Laukminiškiai had hidden a young Jewish man who escaped from the massacre place and called him by a different Lithuanian name of Petriukas. However, in the evening of late autumn the policemen of Kupiškis invaded their home and one of them (Greičiūnas) shot the young Jewish fellow. The policemen violently grabbed the wounded as if he were a piece of wood, had thrown him into the carriage and took him to Kupiskis. They even threatened to shoot the owners of the house but at that time did not carry out their intention. On the 2nd of October, 1943 P. Vilkas went to Pandėlys and was found murdered on the road. The circumstances of this murder remained undisclosed. The massacre of  the Soviet activists and the Jewish in Kupiškis in the summer of 1941 had very common traits as elsewhere in Lithuania and specific features characteristic to Kupiškis only. The common trait was that throughout the Nazi-occupied Lithuania the communists, Soviet activists and Jews were en masse arrested and shot. The officials of the Lithuanian government that was subordinate to the Germans were involved into this universal policy of repressions and genocide: the municipalities of counties and municipalities of townships, the policemen and the auxiliary police troops marked by whitebands. In the first weeks of the Nazi occupation , approximately until the end of July mostly the communists, the members of Komsomol, the officials of the Soviet regime and their supporters of various nationalities (Lithuanian, Russian, Jewish, etc.) were arrested and shot. The people hostile to the Nazi occupation regime and potentially dangerous individuals had been persecuted for political reasons. From the end of July to the autumn the mass killing of people of the Jewish nationality occured. It was carried out on the racial grounds  and the whole families of Jews were murdered not considering their sex, or age, or political positions. According to the Nazi ideology and policy of the Third Reich all the Jews in Germany and its occupied countries had to be completely exterminated. This brutal executions in the townships of Lithuania had been carried out before the end of 1941. The most intense mass killing took place in August and September, 1941. When analyzing the tragic events of 1941 it is possible to distiguish the specific traits that were characteristic to this area. It should be noted that the massacre of the non-Jewish (Lithuanian, Russian) Communists and Soviet activists in Kupiškis was particularly mass killings. There are not many other Lithuanian townships where so many Communists of Lithuanian nationality and Soviet activists were killed as in the township of Kupiškis. The number of victims of this category could reach several hundred. As it was already mentioned, not only the local residents of the town and the township were annihilated, but also the prisoners and detainees, including the Jews from other counties, townships and towns (Viešintos, Šimonys, Subačius, Skapiškis and Rokiškis) were shot. In the summer of 1941 about 1.5–2 thousand people of different nationalities could be murdered. Thus, the Jews of Kupiškis town and the township suffered most of all, in fact all the local Jewish community was destroyed. Another different feature is that in other Lithuanian cities and towns the mass killings were organized by the local police and its auxiliary troops. Meanwhile the destruction of the Jews in Kupiškis was carried out not by the local residents but by the self defence units that were formed from the former Red Army deserters. The role of the Commandant W. Loew in Kupiškis was exclusively extraordinary and it would be difficult to find a similar case that a civilian coming from Germany would lead the local (non Wehrmacht) Commandant and the mass repressions. The collected facts prove that the summer of 1941 was a particularly tragic period of history of Lithuania and Kupiškis. Probably there had never been a more horrible event in the historic past of Kupiškis when so many people were killed  in such a short period of time,in fact within two months.

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