by Amanda Katz Jermyn 

The original version of Amanda Katz Jermyn’s story “The Ruch Family” was published on the Rokiskis Kehilalinks website,  For this publication, she has updated the story.  Amanda Katz Jermyn holds the copyright to this story, which may not be used without her permission. 

Reuben Ruch was born in 1927 in Rokiskis (Rakishok), Lithuania, the son of Henna-Rocha Gurvitch and Yerachmiel (who was known as Rachmiel) Ruch. Reuben is my second cousin since his grandmother, Rochel Kavalsky, was a sister of my grandmother, Riva Kavalsky.  However, 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.

ruch fam

Left:  Photo taken in 1935. Back row, from left to right: Sasha Ruch, Liebke (Ahuva) Ruch, Chanan (who was also known as “Honeh”) Schneiderman, and Sonya Ruch. Front row: Henna-Rocha Ruch, Reuben Ruch, and Yerachmiel Ruch.  Sasha, Sonya and Reuben were the children of Henna-Rocha and Rachmiel Ruch. Liebke (known later in Israel as Ahuva) was Yerachmiel's sister, and her husband was Henach Schneiderman.  

Reuben Ruch      reuben ruch 

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. Before the Second World War, Reuben’s father Rachmiel used most of his money to send his siblings to safety in South Africa, so he didn’t have enough left for his own family to leave.  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. At this time the population of Rokiskis was about 7,500, of whom about 4,000 were Jews.  A year later, on June 14th, 1941, over 17,500 Lithuanian citizens were deemed to be enemies of the Soviet occupiers and deported to Siberia. Some members of the Ruch family were among them.


In accordance with the terms of the August 23, 1939, “German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact,” also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement, in September 1939 the Germans seized the western half of Poland and the Soviets seized the remainder. In the German-held area, Jews (and Poles) were considered “untermenschen” (sub-humans) and subjected to highly discriminatory laws that were enforced with severe punishments.  In June of 1941, two Jews who had escaped from Poland came to Rokiskis with first-hand accounts of the Nazis’ atrocities against Jews in Poland.  On June 22nd, Germany attacked the USSR, which included Lithuania. That same day Radio Kaunas proclaimed an interim Lithuanian government and announced that the Soviet regime had been deposed. The new pro-Nazi government made it known that 100 Jews would be shot for each dead German soldier. The next day the government ordered Jews to turn in all radios to the police. On the evening of June 24th, 1941, the Soviets began to depart from Rokiskis and panic erupted amongst the Jews.   

Almost half of the Jews tried to leave, including Rachmiel Ruch, his wife Henna-Rocha, and their sons Reuben, 14, and Sasha, 17.  They were among the few who succeeded in reaching the comparative safety of Russia.  The decision to flee was heart-wrenching for the Ruchs because it meant leaving behind three close relatives who lived with them in Rokiskis, namely, Reuben’s maternal grandparents, Hinda-Racha and Motel Gurvitch, and his aunt, Beile Kavalsky.  They were elderly and could not have survived the arduous journey. Reuben told me he remembered that Beile, who was deaf, had come to live with their family after her father Shabse Kavalsky, died. She was also my mother’s aunt. She had her own room and talked to herself. Rachmiel told Reuben to be nice to his aunt because she had no one in the world except them. He remembered that she sewed gloves and other items, and wore a long apron. Hinda-Racha and Motel Gurvitch and Beile Kavalsky perished in the Holocaust.


When the Ruch family set out on their journey, they had no horse and cart, only two bicycles, a couple of trunks, backpacks with food, and a jug of water. Initially they planned to walk to Dvinsk. However, when they reached the Obeliai train station they found a train there about to depart for Dvinsk, and they, along with many other Jews, were able to board it.  The Jews hoped that from Dvinsk they could transfer to a train heading east.

At the time, the Russians were using the train to send KGB documents and officials out of Lithuania and they cynically assumed that if the Germans saw that there were many civilians on the train the Germans would be less likely to bomb it.  When the train arrived in Dvinsk, however, the KGB plan became clear to the Jews:  Only Russian officials and documents were allowed to leave the train, which was then sent back with the Lithuanian Jews on board.  This happened three times.  

As it became apparent that the KGB did not want the Jews to cross the Russian border, the Jews disembarked and began to walk to Russia.  During this time, the German troops were advancing toward the major Russian cities of Leningrad (now, St. Petersburg) and Moscow.  As a result, the Jews traveled on foot through the forests, When they heard bombs drop in the distance, they felt temporarily assured that the German soldiers were not nearby; but when the forests were quiet they were worried because they never knew where the German soldiers would strike next. 

Reuben told me it took him and his family three weeks to walk to Russia. En route, one of their trunks was stolen and one of their bicycles taken. During this time his mother fell three or four times, asking the family to leave her there because she couldn’t walk any further, but each time she got up and started to walk again. Reuben said he tried to think of a way to make a wheelchair for her out of the remaining bicycle but he couldn’t.


Fortunately for the Ruchs, when they came close to the Russian border they encountered a retreating Soviet army unit that let them follow them across the border along an unguarded side path. The Ruchs were so grateful to those soldiers for saving their lives that they gave them all of the cigarettes they had, along with their two pens.

The Ruch family was 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 those Jews made their way back, they 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 of the Jews of Rokiskis and imprisoned them in a temporary “ghetto” that was created on the grounds of Count Tyzenhof’s estate. According to a secret SS report for the Kaunas area known as the Jäger Report, between August 15th and 16th, 1941, 3,207 men, women, and children were murdered in the Velniaduobė woods near the village of Bajorai and on August 25th, 1941, 1,160 men, women, and children were murdered in the Antanašė forest.  


Meanwhile, the Ruch family continued their eastward flight, finally settling in a small village in Uzbekistan near Tashkent, where they felt it would be easier to survive. There they remained until the end of the war.  The village experienced terrible starvation during the war and many people died.  Rachmiel and his family managed to find some way to obtain a little bread, and were thus able to save both themselves and many in the village. Reuben notes that during those tough times his mother, Henna-Rocha, fed her children at the expense of her own hunger, dropping from a weight of 154 pounds at the start of the war to 86 pounds at the end. She was also imprisoned for three years for attempting to make some extra money for her family by exchanging money on the black market.  While she was in jail, Reuben would visit her every two or three days to give her some food and other necessary supplies.

Reuben told me that during the war his mother bribed the authorities in Uzbekistan to change the dates of birth on her two sons’ passports, making them appear younger than they really were. So Sasha’s date of birth was changed from 1923 to 1926, and Reuben’s from 1927 to 1928. She did this in order to delay or avoid their conscription into the Red Army, as she was concerned for their survival. Nevertheless, in 1944 Sasha enlisted in the Red Army. He did so because he was grateful to the Soviets for saving him from the Nazis, and also because the early communists,

under Lenin, were against pogroms and the anti-Semitism of the Czar. While traveling with the Red Army Sasha met his future wife, Maria (Masha) Spector.

As noted above, Sonya Ruch spent the war in the sanatorium in Switzerland.  While her father was still in Rokiskis, he was able to send money for her care and she was well-treated.  However, 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.

Since Sonya’s parents and brothers lived behind the Iron Curtain, she never saw them again. From 1962 to 1973, her mother, Henna-Rocha, was bedridden, partially paralyzed from a stroke, but managed to write letters to Sonya by attaching a pen with Scotch tape to her left hand because she couldn’t use her right hand to write.

After the war, Sasha chose to continue in the military, where he served for seven years. In 1945 he was posted to Riga, Latvia, and all the family who had survived the war in the Soviet Union joined him, including his parents and brother Reuben.  Sasha later became a marine engineer. The family was very close, and each year they spent holidays together on the Black Sea. Their parents, Rachmiel and Henna-Rocha, died in Riga. In 1972, when the Soviets allowed Jews to emigrate, Sasha and his family moved to Israel. 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.

In Riga Reuben first worked in a factory. Then he trained to become an electrician. After that he studied for a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at a university in Leningrad. However, when his brother applied to immigrate to Israel, Reuben was no longer allowed to study because the government said, in essence, “you’ll just follow your brother, so there’s no point in educating you.” In Riga he worked for the government railway company. In 1977 he too left for Israel, where he worked in a similar field. His wife didn’t want to leave Riga, and divorced him when he left for Israel. In 1980, she and their daughter and her family immigrated to Sydney, Australia, and in 1984 Reuben moved there too. He has lived there ever since. In December 2007, I finally got to meet Reuben when our family visited Sydney. He turned out to be just as wonderful as I had imagined.

After the war, some Lithuanians who had collaborated with the Nazis were identified. Among those was Andrushka, who had been employed by Reuben Ruch’s uncle, the bagel-maker Chaim-Yerachmiel Ruch (not to be confused with Yerachmiel Ruch).  Chaim-Yerachmiel 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 Jonas 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.

The greatest number of the town’s Jews were murdered in a wooded area just north of the village of Bajorai, about 3 miles north of Rokiskis.  Each year from 1965 to 1975, on the anniversary of the massacre, August 15 and 16, about 60 or more of the surviving Jews from Rokiskis met at the monument at that site for a memorial service at which Kaddish was recited and speeches were made.  About 50 came by bus from Vilnius, including a rabbi, and Reuben and Sasha Ruch and their families came from Riga.  The group would also visit similar sites near Obeliai, Miliūnai, and “Vyžuonai” (probably the village of Vyžuona, just north of Bajorai).  These gatherings ended once the last Jewish residents of Rokiskis left Vilnius for Israel.


In 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 Holon.  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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