Kruk, Kriger, Ruch Family Stories


 By Amanda Katz Jermyn  

Please note:  Amanda Katz Jermyn holds the copyright to these stories and they cannot be used without her permission.

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness. -William O. Douglas, judge (1898-1980)

My mother, Ray Kriger Katz, was born in Rokiskis (Rakishok), Lithuania in 1929, the youngest of five children. Her father, Pesach Tsvi Kruk, (later changed to Kriger), fought in the Russian army in the Russo-Japanese War and in World War I, suffering severe starvation. My grandmother, Riva Kavalsky Kruk, ran an inn during World War I, serving apple cider from the family’s apple orchards, to support herself and her children, as the army did not pay its soldiers. She also worked as a nurse, transporting wounded soldiers by train to hospitals from the Front.

My grandmother didn't want her children to go through another war, and she sensed another one brewing. The Lithuanian police became paranoid about socialists and communists. For example, they would pick up discarded pamphlets from Socialist meetings to see what was in them.  Many young people were arrested at such meetings which her son, Sam, had begun to attend. My grandmother was more concerned about the turmoil arising from the suppression of Socialism than about the intentions of the Germans. In World War I, they had behaved like gentlemen, especially compared to the Russians, and it was initially hard to conceive that the problems ahead would be of their making.  Many Lithuanians were, in fact, sympathetic to the Nazis because they were anti-Semitic themselves and, like the Nazis, were against the rise of Communism and Socialism. Much later, my grandmother recognized the rise of Hitler for what it was, but in the late 1920’s, she just knew it was time to leave Europe.

She therefore tried to persuade my grandfather that the family should immigrate to South Africa where they had relatives. However, he had soldiered through two wars and was only too happy to settle down in the new house they had built in Rokiskis, tending his apple orchards with his brother Nottel. He did not want to have to start out all over again in a strange land. People told my grandmother to consult the Lubavitche Rebbe who was visiting Rokiskis at the time, and so she did. He told her it would be safe to stay, that everything would be fine in Lithuania, and that she should not go to a “treife land.” (The Lubavitche Rebbe himself later left for America.) My grandmother, however, was determined that her family should leave, and they did. They sold their new house to pay for the boat tickets, and in 1930 my grandfather came out to Cape Town, South Africa with his eldest son Sam. The rest of the family followed a year later in June of 1931. Because of my grandmother’s foresight and determination, I am alive and this branch of our family was saved. Many other family members perished in the Holocaust. 


 By Amanda Katz Jermyn

Reuben Ruch was born in 1927 in Rokiskis (Rakishok), Lithuania, the son of Henna-Rocha Gurvitch and Rachmiel Ruch. Reuben’s grandmother, Rochel Kavalsky, was a sister of my grandmother, Riva Kavalsky, but he is affectionately known to me as Uncle Ruvka. In January of 2005 Uncle Ruvka sent me the first part of his memoirs, written in Russian, regarding the tragedy that befell the Jews of Rokiskis during the Holocaust.  He knew that I was writing a book on our family history and wanted me to include his story to make sure that the fate of the Jews of Rokiskis would be known and their memory honored. I am currently writing this book.

The Ruchs were a prominent Jewish family in Rokiskis.  Reuben’s father was a photographer.  His cousin Pesach Ruch had an iron goods store, and their two families lived in a large house over the Ruch businesses. 

They frequently went to Kovno on business and sometimes attended the opera there. In 1931 when the Lubavitche Rebbe visited Rokiskis he and his entourage stayed in the Ruch family home. According to my Auntie Leah, it was a big occasion, and the count provided a horse and carriage on his arrival, and he was also met by the priest.

In 1938, at the age of 17, Reuben’s sister Sonya developed tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium in Switzerland for treatment.  She remained there throughout the war. On June 15th, 1940 the Soviets occupied Lithuania.  In June of 1941, two Polish Jews came to Rokiskis, having escaped from Poland, and warned of the Nazis’ atrocities against Jews in Poland.  On June 22nd, Germany attacked Lithuania.  On June 25th, 1941, the Soviets departed from Rokiskis and panic erupted amongst the Jews. 

Almost half of them fled, including Rachmiel Ruch, his wife Henna-Rocha and sons Reuben, 14, and Sasha, 17, who fled to Russia.  When they initially left Rokiskis, they, along with many other Jews, took a train to Dvinsk.  When the train arrived, the Russians on the train were allowed out, but not the Jews who were then sent back on the train to Rokiskis.  The Russians had allowed the Jews onto the train because they were sending KGB documents and officials out of Lithuania, and they didn't want the Germans to bomb the train.  They knew they wouldn't bomb it if they saw lots of people in it.  So the Jews were just used in order to get the Russian officials and their documents out.  Then they were sent back.  The KGB didn't want to allow Lithuanian and Latvian Jews to cross the Russian border, and three times sent the Jews back.  When they left again they walked to Russia. It took them two weeks.  They slept in forests, went between two lines of German troops heading for Moscow and Leningrad.  When they heard bombs drop they felt okay, but when it was quiet they were worried because they never knew where they would strike next.

They were lucky to escape.  Most Jews who fled were stopped by Lithuanian or Soviet soldiers at the borders and forced to return to Rokiskis and almost certain death.  As they made their way back, these Jews were shot at by Lithuanian partisans and German soldiers.  On July 9th, 1941, the Nazis, together with Lithuanian collaborators from the area, rounded up all the Jews of Rokiskis and imprisoned them in a concentration camp they had created on Count Tyzenhof’s estate.  According to a secret SS report for the Kaunas area, between August 14th and 16th, 1941, 3,693 Jews and 495 Lithuanian, Russian and Polish Communists were massacred in Rokiskis by the Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators.  Almost all the Jews of Rokiskis were murdered and buried in three mass graves.  Meanwhile, the Ruch family traveled deep into Russia, finally settling in a small village in Uzbekistan where they remained for the rest of the war.  This village experienced terrible starvation.  The Ruchs suffered too, and watched many people die.  Rachmiel and his family managed to find some way to obtain a little bread, and were thus able to save themselves and many in the village. Because Russia was fighting against the Nazis, Sasha joined the Red Army when he turned 18 and fought for Russia.  Many other members of the Ruch family perished in the Holocaust or were exiled to Siberia.

Meanwhile, Sonya Ruch spent the war in the sanatorium in Switzerland.  While her father was able to send money, she was well-treated there, but once the family fled Rokiskis and the money dried up, she was moved to an inferior part of the sanatorium and poorly treated.  My parents visited her there in 1953. Later, she moved to South Africa.  In 1962 she married an engineer from England and they moved to Manchester.  After the war, the rest of the family moved to Riga, Latvia.  Sasha remained in the military for seven years, studied marine engineering and became an oceanographer.  Reuben became an engineer. Their parents died in Riga.  In 1972, Sasha and his family moved to Israel after much difficulty and persecution, despite being members of the Communist Party. Reuben followed in 1977.  In 1980 his daughter and her family immigrated to Sydney, Australia, and in 1984 Reuben joined them there. Reuben has lived there ever since. Sasha and his wife Masha have both passed away. Their children and grandchildren all live in Israel, and their daughter Bella has become my friend.

After the war, some Lithuanians who had collaborated with the Nazis were identified. Among those was Andrushka who had been employed by Reuben’s uncle, the bagel-maker Chaim-Yerachmiel Ruch.  He and his whole family, except for one daughter, perished in the Holocaust.  Andrushka had worked for Jews all his life and spoke fluent Yiddish.  Reuben Ruch remembers him but says that he was not the worst.  In his view the worst were the Lithuanian SS Einsatzgruppen who traveled from town to town each day killing thousands of Jews.  In 1954 a number of Lithuanians who collaborated in executing Jews in Rokiskis were put on trial, having been named by Ionas Pupenis, the sole survivor of the massacre.  Of the many involved, only eight were convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. They were released in 1980 and became honored citizens of Lithuania.

Each year from 1945 to 1975, surviving Jews from Rokiskis met at the site of a small memorial in a park on the former estate of Count Tyzenhof in Rokiskis on the anniversary of the extermination of the town’s Jews.  Each year, Reuben and Sasha Ruch came with their families from Riga while everyone else came from Vilnius.  Speeches were made, Kaddish was recited, and the rabbi from Vilnius attended.  These gatherings ended once the last Jewish residents of Rokiskis left Vilnius for Israel. I n Israel, Reuben Ruch joined a Landsman Society of Jews from Rokiskis. This group raised money for survivors, helped them re-establish themselves in Israel, and created a memorial in Chulon.  Each year, on the anniversary of the mass murders, they meet there to commemorate the tragedy that befell their community during the Holocaust.

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