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On the Front Line in Lithuania, 1915 (Part I)

Narratives of Jewish Eye-Witnesses in the fond of the Jewish Historical and Ethnographical Society. Translated by Gordon McDaniel.
By Anatolij Chayesh,

В прифронтовой Литве 1915 года
Рассказы евреев-очевидцев
(Первая Часть)

Анатолий Хаеш
On the Front Line in Lithuania in 1915
Narratives of Jewish Eyewitnesses
(Part I)   [go to Part II]

by Anatolij Chayesh
Translated by Gordon McDaniel

Russian original:

S.M. Dubnov wrote about the years 1914-1917 in The Book of Life : "I received copies of reports sent to our bureau by plenipotentiaries of the Committee to Aid Jewish War Victims who were traveling freely at the front lines."1 In the fond of the Jewish Historical and Ethnographical Society2 there are two record collections that evidently are excerpts from those reports.3 Regardless of the fragmentary and rough draft character of the excerpts4 they are valuable because they were not subject to censorship. The factual evidence about small towns and simple Jews contained in the excerpts are of interest to historians of Jewish communities and families, since such evidence is rarely published

These excerpts are given here, as far as possible, in chronological order, after some minimal editing.

Village of Pokroe, District of Panyvezys5

The increase in prices of products after the declaration of war had an influence on the relationship between the Christians and Jews, which had been relatively peaceful up to that point. There was talk that Jews were raising the prices because they needed the money for the Germans. For this reason there were conflicts.

Village of Pikeli, District of Telshe6

This is the story of Khaim Kusilovich. The narrator is over 70 years old.

The population of Pikeli was about 150 families. The overwhelming majority were Jews, but there were also Lithuanians and Latvians. Relations before the war were entirely benevolent, and mobilization took place peacefully. For a long time the village lived normally, neither the Russians nor the Germans came.

In 1915, about two weeks after Easter, the Germans came to the village. They behaved well toward the inhabitants, for the most part they paid for goods, and did not requisition them in the neighborhood. Once there was a fire. They didn’t let the residents put it out, but the Germans saved the property of those affected.

The Germans spent about three weeks in the village: then one day they were gone. There were no authorities, no police, but complete order reigned. The relations of the residents toward the Germans were restrained: in the synagogues they continued prayers for the health of the ruling dynasty, and the Jews tried to meet as little as possible with the Germans.

The week after the Germans left, Russian scouts entered the village, about ten of them. There were slanders against the Jews about their hospitality toward the Germans, but this time the Russians limited themselves to threats. For several days only the scouts were in the village, checking to see if there were any hidden Germans.

On Wednesday, May 2, 1915, there came a verbal decree about expulsion, but the officer who announced it allowed about ten people, old and sick, to remain. However, on Thursday, that decision was changed by another officer. Everyone was expelled, even the seriously ill, of whom there were seven. The son of the narrator, who had a large leather shop in Pikeli, got to Riga and then sent a cart to remove his goods, but all the shops had been destroyed by the residents who stayed.

The Village of Keidany, District of Kaunas7

All the time (April 1915) there were Cossacks. They stole in the shops, they got all the goods together and sold them on the spot to peasants for next to nothing. There were incidents of assaults and rapes. They went to the commandant, but he didn’t bother to answer.

The Village of Shaty, District of Wilkomir8

After the war began, Jews were sent to Kaunas to work. The groups were periodically replaced by other groups. In September (1914) troops and transport passed through. In spite of the agitation, there were no excesses. For the most part they paid for products.

Because of increased agitation among the local population, the Jews closed their shops and hid. When the Germans arrived, they didn’t go outside without a Christian neighbor. The Germans smashed the shops and took the goods, about which the constable later took statements.

When the Russians arrived, they looked for hidden Germans among the Jews. The rag merchant, Zundel Fain, who had a cart at the market, was accused by the Christians of asking questions about the units that had arrived. Fain was arrested, interrogated and punished by lashing. Plundering and assaults took place. They plundered the textile shop of Iosa Kagan, the shop of Mendel Ginzberg, and the grocery shop of Magid. Christian peasants took part in the plundering. Grinblat, the miller and Ivinitsky, the baker, who threatened to complain to the officer in charge, were severely beaten. A Cossack stopped Shimon Ziv on the bridge, said "Why are you walking on the bridge? Do you want to blow it up?" and beat him severely.

The City of Siauliai9

On April 17, 1915, the Germans descended on Siauliai from several directions. The population fleeing on all roads ran into German units, who turned the refugees back.

On the same day, a fire broke out in Siauliai, started in a stack of hay by our troops. Eight hundred houses burned in this fire, including the residence of the state rabbi, together with the archives and metrical books, and also the city offices and archives. Most of houses that burned belonged to Jews. The approaching Germans tried to stop the fire, which they did with much effort.

In the first days after the Germans arrived, they plundered private homes and also carried out requisitions. The dregs of the population took part in the plundering, including some Jews.

On the third day a residents’ committee was formed consisting of eight people, four Jews and four Christians, as was a residents’ militia for protection of the city. A deputation from the committee went to the commandant with a request to stop the plundering. The commandant, that very day, issued an order that threatened severe punishment for attempting to take the property of others. The plundering was completely stopped. The requisitions, however, continued.

The Village of Tyrkshle, District of Telshe10

On April 17, 1915, information was received that the Germans had entered Salantai11 (50 versts from Tyrkshle) and the Russians were retreating. Panic arose. All the Jews and a substantial portion of the Christian population packed their belongings to leave by train. That very night a mass of refugees passed through, both Jews and Christians, the latter mostly Russian bureaucrats from places closer to the border. But trains were provided only for the bureaucrats. Everyone else had to stay. Jews took their things into villages, while the Christians hid their property in cellars and holes.

Alarming reports circulated in the village. Towards evening the last groups of retreating Russian soldiers passed through. That evening the first German unit entered the village, 12 scouts, all Lithuanians from East Prussia. They talked freely with the Christian population, who brought them eggs, milk, and kvas. The scouts said that they didn’t feel like they were among enemies, but among brothers, saying that after the German victory the land would be given to the Lithuanians, not the Jews and Russians.

The Jews closed their shops. The Germans were satisfied with the explanation that the shops were closed on the Eve of the Sabbath. Seeing an "eruv"*i in the village, they began to try to find out whether it was a telegraph or telephone, but they were satisfied by the explanation of a young Jewish man. As a result, though, they asked different people several times about the term "eruv," in order to be convinced of the accuracy of the answers. Many Jews avoided even going to synagogue to get away from the German interrogations.{*i Editor’s Note:  An ERUV is a religious enclosure where one is halachically permitted to carry on the Sabbath and Festivals.}

One of the Germans saw on a wall the decree (command) of the Russian military district and asked Moisei Montvid, who was going to the synagogue, about its contents. He said that it was a decree about markets. But one of the Germans read the decree and said that "the Jew lies like a dog." That very same evening some Germans went into the little shop of Yankel Grin and asked for some loaves of bread. Grin told them that he didn’t have any. But they noticed "challah" on the table. Grin explained to them that it was a loaf specially prepared for the Sabbath, and the Germans did not take it.

Late in the evening several hundred Germans with machine guns passed through the village. That night, not a single Jew undressed. At midnight there was a thunderclap: the Germans had blown up the railroad bridge over the Venta.

On Saturday there were only two Germans left in the village. They were drunk. One of them went to the shop of Movsha Bai and began to kick it, demanding that it be opened to him. In the shop he did not like anything and did not take anything. That day, the constable left the village and the volost government and school were removed. By evening the Germans left.

It was quiet in the village during the next week. On April 19th, the Russian troops burned the wooden bridge over the Venta between Tyrkshle and the Muravevo train station.12 All connections with other villages were severed, and conflicts with the peasants began. They were afraid that with the Russian defeat their paper money would lost its value, and demanded that the Jews exchange paper for hard cash (coins). After Sunday a shortage of small coins began to be felt. A rumor started that the Jews were gathering all the small coins and giving them to the Germans. Riots began, that quieted down when the Germans arrived.

This new unit the Christian population found less easy to make themselves understood to. This time the Germans left about one hundred soldiers who gathered foodstuffs from all the residents, as well as other things: silver watches and spoons; they wanted to take a 20 kopeck coins from a girl. When she asked why they were doing that, why they needed 20 kopecks, they answered "To remember Russia." The girl offered them one kopeck for a memento, and they took it. The Jews complained to the commandant, who ordered the soldiers to pay for everything they took. The soldiers began to shop in Jewish stores and pay with their own money.

For entertainment, the soldiers decided to "play a joke": they arrested all the males on the street as though to have them work in the fields. They kept those arrested in the house of the peasant Mozis for two hours. The Jews were released a little earlier because they could make themselves understood to the Germans. Then they released the others.

Some German officers stopped at the place of the Jew Gurvich. They set off some fireworks and made the old woman of the house afraid they would burn the entire village. When the old woman pleaded with them, they said they would not burn down the village if they were given 100 marks within two hours. When the money was brought to the Germans, they laughed and did not take it.

People talk about other similar incidents. When the Germans were looking for and taking things before the commandant ordered them not to, they had taken two pounds of sugar from Lozer Movshovich. On the road they met Peisakh Levin and demanded sugar from him, too. He told them to take all they could find that he had with them. Then the Germans gave him the two pounds of sugar and said, "If you offer all you have, then you have nothing."

One German doctor visited an old woman who was sick. Because the pharmacist had fled the village, there was no medicine to be had. The doctor sent his batman [personal valet in military] to Siady for medicine.

Among the German soldiers there were two Jews who took part in the plundering with the others; they took a gold watch from one peasant, from a girl her headdress. Besides these two Jews, there was also a Jewish non-commissioned officer. He met the narrator of this story on Shavuos and asked what Jewish holiday it was. The narrator answered. "Today is Shavuos," the non-com repeated. The narrator was surprised but the non-com explained that he was also a Jew, but asked that he tell no one. The non-com asked about the material and political situation of the Jews in Russia.

While the Germans were in Tyrkshle, there were several clashes between the Germans and Russians on the Venta River. The Germans warned the Jews so they wouldn’t go outside. The other inhabitants escaped into smaller villages. The Germans spent three weeks in the village. During the entire time the Jews continued to read prayers for the Russian Tsar. But on May 6th they did not display flags.13 The Germans defaced the monument to Alexander II.

On the Friday after Shavuos came the actual battle. Most of the inhabitants fled to farming settlements. The most religious stayed home because they did not want to spend the Sabbath among Christians. The Germans retreated toward Siady.14 Before they left, they took everything they could.

The next morning Russian scouts came. Jews, regardless of the fact that it was the Sabbath, opened their shops and did everything for the Russian soldiers that they could.

After the scouts came the regular Russian troops. The Jew Abramovich asked an officer if he could go to Muravevo to get goods. The officer answered that going "would be useless, because the Jews were to be driven out." By evening all Jewish males were arrested. One Christian was arrested, too, Kleikis, who was always doing favors for the Germans. But they let him go in an hour. All the arrested Jews were taken to the garden of the Catholic priest. There they were all made to undress and all except the most elderly were beaten unconscious by several soldiers. All of those who had been beaten were driven into the shed. Then they brought seven Jews from Zhemeliany (there were about ten Jewish families there). They brought them on foot 8 or 9 versts to undergo the fate of the others.

City of Shadov, Siauliai district15

On April 16th, the police left the city. Russian scouts appeared in the city and began to talk to the peasants. Some Jews approached. The soldiers attacked them, beating them with rifle butts, especially Khaim Perlov, Nakhemia Milonsky, and Ber Lapidus, age 80.

On April 25th, there was exchange of fire with the enemy. Jews hid in the synagogues. Cossacks appeared demanding money and severely beating them. They smashed the skull of the elderly Talmudist Kravets. Many Cossacks arrived on the 27th, and then there began endless beatings and plunder. Local peasants took part in the plundering. They robbed Aizik Zal, beat him, damaged his eyes and cut off an ear; they beat Mordkhe Shender, Beila Melman and many others half to death. At night they broke into homes and beat and raped. They raped Yakha Merson, age 30, in front of her elderly father, and raped many others. Residents protected the names of the defamed women and children. On April 29th and 30th police came from Vilkomir. Plunder and rape continued in the presence of the officials, who claimed to be powerless.

Town of Vilki, District of Kaunas16

On April 20, 1915, the 6th Border Brigade arrived. Beatings and plundering took place, especially at night. There were many cases of extortion on threat of being accused of espionage.

In the pharmacy shop of Dot, soldiers demanded eau de cologne. Dot answered that, without authorization, he could not issue it. The soldiers poured eau de cologne they had taken from the barber into a glass and threatened to take it to the commandant saying Dot was selling hard liquor. They left after getting 15 rubles from him.

Town of Vendziagola, District of Kaunas17

Russian troops passed through during the middle of April. They bothered no one.

On April 25th and 26th, Cossacks and dragoons appeared. Violence and plunder ensued. They stole all the goods of Faivel Fain, Shmuel Raibshtein, Zeltser, Isroel Press, and others. They took all the bread from the bakers Fridman, Berel, and Mordka Keidansky. They rode into shops on their horses. They took things they did not need at all, a lot of dishes and purses. They gave or sold the goods to the peasants. They established a curfew of 9 [unclear whether AM or PM]. Many were subjected to violence because of it. "Even if we are not deported, it would still be best to leave," said the old rabbi.

Town of Kroki, District of Kaunas18

The relations between Jews and Lithuanians got worse, first because of the rise in prices and then in connection with the first retreat by Russian forces from East Prussia. Further events caused them to deteriorate drastically. Rumors were started that Jews were hiding foodstuffs for the Germans, that the retreat from Prussia was caused by aid, primarily monetary, from the Jews.

Various military units passed through the town. They were greeted with the most cordial and attentive response of the Jewish population: they were given food, drink, shoes and underwear, cigarettes and sweets. The Jews rarely took payment; in some cases when they had received money, they gave it back to the soldiers. Jews also responded cordially to collections by the Red Cross, of which there were several. Everyone gave, even the poorest.

On May 1st, because of the approach of large enemy forces, the commander of the unit suggested that the residents leave the town. The Cossacks who entered laid waste to the city; everything that had not been gathered up was smashed to pieces. In this plundering, the peasants took part, too. The constable of Beisagol took from many peasants what they had stolen and stored it in the yard of the owner of the state wine shop. The peasants complained to the Cossacks, who gave everything back to them. The peasant Samonis said that the butcher Moisei Raf had given a quantity of meat to the Germans. They flogged him publicly on the street. He lay bloody without aid until the evening. There were other excesses and insults. A Cossack went around to Jewish homes with a bunch of peasant children and plundered. There were many cases of extortion accompanied by beatings. That went on until May 3rd.

Town of Tsitoviany, Rossien District19

After the Germans left, around May 1 or 2, 1915, a unit of Cossacks and two squadrons of a Hussar regiment entered. A continual pogrom started that even went through the night. Not one shop was left alone. They stole, assaulted people, broke into homes, they broke open boxes, chests of drawers, raped the women. The peasants bought stolen goods for a pittance and helped search for hidden goods, opening cellar doors with shovels. They stole everything from even the baker Mordka Melamed, who baked bread night and day for the Hussars and Cossacks. The chief of communications, the Staff Captain Bobrovsky took pity on the old man Iona Meshkovsky: he ordered that the hidden remnants of the manufactured goods be taken into the shop. The women were hidden in cellars while their husbands and fathers sat nearby and guarded them. A female Leizerovich who had been raped ran naked around the town, a daughter of the tailor Blum was defiled by five soldiers in her father’s presence. The next day Cossacks went to Blum and demanded his "beautiful daughter." There were other cases of rape.

Expellees were assaulted. They were attacked on the road from the town and also in Radzivilishky20. "We don’t care, at least we are further from that hell," said one expellee.

City of Vilkomir21

The economic consequences of the expulsion of the Jews was quickly felt. Prices of goods went up, trade almost came to a halt. Tax collection also suffered because tax contractors had been expelled. As a result, the order [for expulsion] began to be partly disobeyed. Hardly one day had elapsed and Garb received papers: "Permit Zelik Davidovich Garb to return with his family to Vilkomir to carry out his duties as tax contractor."

City of Kaunas22

Those who came from Kaunas related a few details about life in the city after the expulsion of the Jews.

Economic life almost completely died. On the main streets, almost all stores were closed. A few small shops were functioning on the outskirts. These were formerly Jewish shops given for a pittance, and then only after receiving money in advance, to Christian neighbors. In the entire city there is only one iron and one leather shop. They are located on the outskirts, and people come from all over the city to buy. Deliveries continued to be made by Kaunas contractors who have moved to Vilnius.

Town of Meishagol, District of Vilnius23

In the town, after the expulsion of the Jews, there settled several dozen families that had been expelled from elsewhere. The arrival of a significant number of people was reflected in the rise of prices for the most necessary goods. Some goods even became very difficult to obtain at all.

Town of Biniakoni, District of Lida24

On the morning of May 29, 1915 a military train stopped. About 30 Cossacks, knowing the addresses of rich Jews, went to the colony store of Meer Devenishsky, the first on the road. Thirteen-year-old Mendel Devenishsky asked them to pay for cigarettes and was struck on the head with a whip. In turn, the owner of the shop and his son Movsha were severely beaten. Some Cossacks were doing the beating while others put sugar, blue dye, and other goods into empty sacks. They took about 200 rubles of goods and all that was in the cash box. While leaving, they beat again the owner of the shop, who was just about to escape. Some of the Cossacks went to the train station, others continued to plunder and assault people in shops and apartments. The Christian shopowner, Parvitsky, showed the Cossacks the cross on his chest, and they left without touching him.

After the train left, the station police sent a telegraph report about what had happened to the chief of military transport. On the afternoon of May 30th, by order of the station guards and woodcutters, soldiers on a train passing through went into the town and carried out a pogrom. On May 31 there again appeared an echelon of Cossacks. They were surrounded by peasants and brought into town. They stole goods, but did not attack anyone. Many Jewish shopkeepers put Christians at their counters, and that saved them.

Town of Soloki, District of Novo Aleksandrovo25

The story of Rabbi Valkovsky.

On Sunday, August 6, 1915, Cossacks entered the town. A systematic pogrom of the Jewish shops at the market ensued. When one Cossack officer tried to interfere and stop the plundering, the Cossacks said they had been ordered to carry out a pogrom. The officer asked who issued the order and left, but the pogrom continued. Many residents of the town and peasants from neighboring villages took part in the plundering. Often the Cossacks sold the stolen goods right on the street for a pittance.

Cossacks searched out Jews and took whatever money they had on their persons. This was a general occurrence. For example, the narrator was robbed of more than 500 rubles, and the Jew Breid lost a significant sum. This was done quietly, in the complete absence of the authorities. The narrator had the impression that all of this was ordered from above. A particular indication of this was the careful destruction of goods and comparative order which ruled in the town during the pogrom. During this pogrom there were no cases of assault.

On that same day, the Jew, Katz, was arrested on the accusation of an Old Believer that the accused had a hostile attitude toward the Cossacks. According to the stories of residents, the Old Believer was involved in litigation with Katz, who had occurred losses in a fire. Katz had accused the Old Believer of arson. The arrested Katz was severely beaten and taken 10 versts from Soloki, but was freed there due to lack of accusatory material, and after a whole series of rehabilatory testimony of Russians (a police officer, and a priest). Mrs. Korb, the wife of a reservist who had gone on active duty in the war, was approached by a Cossack who tried to rape her, but her brother and relatives ran in response to her cries and took her away.

That very same day, people began to flee. It was forbidden to obtain carts from the Russians, and the Jews were afraid to harness up because they realized the impossibility of evacuating everyone on the carts they had at hand. Then the rabbi went around to all those who had horses, and convinced them to harness up but not to take any belongings, and provide the carts for children and the infirm. Finally, in the evening a long row of carts set out. Then followed the adults on foot, and they walked to the Dukshty26 station (15 versts), where they boarded a train. A few, who were afraid of meeting Cossacks on the road, took a circuitous route, but were gathered up by the mounted patrols they encountered. The Jew, Lanaik, the assistant of the state rabbi, lost a son with a cart of goods. Many people hid their personal property and remaining goods in the forest before departure.

Town of Maliaty, District of Vilnius27

At the end of July, 1915, Maliaty gave shelter to thousands of refugees from Oniksht, Trishkun, Kovarska28 and a series of other places in the Gubernia of Kaunas, where the Jewish population was threatened, beaten, and driven out within a few hours.

On August 15, Maliaty suffered the same fate. The entire town was plundered. An all-out pogrom was carried out by soldiers and the entire mass of refugees as well as the local Jewish population were expelled in three hours. In the town of Gedroitsy29 other excesses occurred, and the all the residents fled, primarily to Vilnius, where they hoped to be saved in the big city.

City of Vilnius30

Toward evening on August 14, 1915, on the outskirts of the city, especially in Snipishky, the Cossacks became unruly, demanding vodka, bothering women. On Kurland Street, Cossacks broke into a Jewish watchmaker’s shop and destroyed it. On 1st Solomian Street, they broke into the apartment of Sima Balitsky, and neighboring apartments, at night demanding women. The alarmed inhabitants of Snipishky, gathering their belongings, fled to Vilnius on the 15th.

On Novgorod and Kiev Streets, Cossacks threatened to cut up all the Jews before they left. It became impossible to stay on the outskirts. Many Jews moved to the center of the city, hoping that they would be safe there.

But even in the center of the city, on Sholenov Street, an old NCO came up to Peisakh Obelnitsky from Oran 31 on August 19th and asked him where he had come from. In response, Obelnitsky asked, "Why do you need to know?" The NCO stubbornly tried to get an answer, and when he found out where Obelnitsky had come from, said he would take him to the commandant. When Obelnitsky saw that they were not taking him in the direction of the train station, where the commandant was, but in the other direction, to Lipovka, he said we would not go any further. The NCO struck him with the butt of his rifle. That was on a street full of people, but no one approached. The NCO called over a second Cossack and they took him outside town, beat him badly and stole 200 rubles. He tried to file a complaint, but the gendarmerie said it was none of their business, the criminal investigators had been evacuated, and so the matter ended.

Rumors about excesses so alarmed the inhabitants that there appeared an announcement over the signature of the army commander, General Rodkevich, in the newspapers of August 28:

"Among the population in the region of military activities there are rumors about plundering and assault against civilians, supposedly by Cossack units.

I suggest that the population of the region of the army under my command treat these rumors with the greatest circumspection possible and not facilitate their dissemination. The majority of these rumors come from persons wishing in one way or another to cause discord between the soldiers and civilians. Individual cases of rude behavior of Cossacks toward civilians are given the coloration of almost general plundering and assault against civilians.

In order to maintain the life and property of civilians, it is ordered, after investigation, to call to account any military rank guilty of illegal behavior toward civilians with the full force of the law, even to the most severe measures.

In order to prevent in the future even individual cases of damage to the interests of the population of the region of the army under my command, I am taking measures and issue the corresponding orders.

I also declare a mandatory evacuation of all those subject to military service between the ages of 18 and 45; the remaining population may either stay or voluntarily move to the interior of the gubernia.

The population will be informed in sufficient time of the approach of the enemy, and at that time those who wish to leave must do so quickly and not wait for the arrival of military personnel, because the soldiers will keep refugees off the road so as not to interfere with the movement of men and materiel.

At present, population will be evacuated from the region west of the line Inturki - Nemenchin - Kiiany - Pavlovo - Voronovo.

The population remaining will be provided foodstuffs in monthly rations ..."

The Jewish inhabitants were frightened and often saved themselves by fleeing. On the ways out of Vilnius, on the main highways, in places were there were few Jews, everywhere one could see their boarded-up homes. In Rukoiniky, Medniky, and Nemenchin32, everywhere the same picture: troops would pass through, and Jews, fearing excesses, would move into larger towns or to Vilnius. But even in larger towns there was unrest. In Smorgon, Oshmiany, and Vileika33, everywhere there was almost a pogrom situation. The entire fate of the Jews depended upon the mercy of the local commander. His energetic interference occasionally prevented catastrophe. In Oshmiany, only the constable responsible for the Jews was beaten. In Molodechno, in order to suppress drunken soldiers, arms were deployed and there were dead and wounded. In Vileika, the commander gave orders not to touch the civilian population. Without their interference in these places, where now tens of thousands of soldiers were concentrated, the situation of the Jewish population would have been unbearable.

Town of Orany, District of Trok34

According to several refugees, a mass of Russian troops entered Orany on August 18th and 19th.

During the night, a German scouting unit of about 200 men approached. Somehow they managed to lull the sentry’s watchfulness. They say that when asked "Who goes there?" they replied in Russian "Ours" and they let them through.

Having gotten into town, the Germans gathered in stone houses (belonging to Kopansky, Shapiro, and others), set up their machine guns and began firing. The residents hid in cellars and crypts. The Russian troops, deciding that there were many Germans, retreated. The Germans fired after them, and thousands of bodies lay in the streets. Soon, however, it became clear that the number of Germans was not large. The number of Russian troops greatly exceeded it. A battle broke out and the Germans retreated.

Soon the rumor arose that the Jews had brought the Germans in, and were shooting themselves. A violent reprisal began. Russians fired into crypts where women and children were hiding. On August 19th, six people were killed, the cart-transporter Shimon-Girsh, Kochik, and other. They grabbed Kreiner and started to drag him to the commandant, but he died of a heart attack on the way. Shooting continued the next day. Almost the entire town was shot up, then set on fire.

According to hearsay, about 150 people suffered. Leib Katz and Girsh Kagan fled to Lida but were arrested on the way. Etl Girshovsky was in Vilnius, her two children killed, herself wounded and gone mad.

Town of Smorgon, District of Oshmiany35

On Wednesday morning, September 2, 1915, police went through the streets shouting, "Come out, run, we are going to burn the city!" (Later they actually found bottles with kerosene in various parts of the city.) About one in the afternoon, after a short skirmish, German troops entered Smorgon.

The inhabitants, frightened by the skirmish, had hid in cellars. Shops and dwelling quarters were locked. Entering the city, the German soldiers first attacked the shops, the import wine cellar (renskovyi pogreb*ii ) of Tabarisky, the colony store of Kazhdan, and others. They took watches and shoes from whomever they met; at first they took only what they needed. Machine guns left for repair in local shops were taken by the enemy. The personnel from post and telegraph, tax, and other offices were arrested. Some of them were saved by the actions of local Jews. For example, Izrail Mendelev put his cap on the assistant post office manager and surreptitiously led him out of the ranks of those arrested by the Germans. Ios-Gershon Badanov put different clothes on constable Rai and saved him from capture.

Establishment of order. Hostages. The German commandant demanded to see representatives of the town and clergy. He compiled a list of prominent citizens who would be responsible for keeping order in town, for obedience to the German authorities, for providing foodstuffs in good faith and not hiding them. At first, the hostages consisted of 30 Jews and 20 Christians (10 Orthodox and 10 Catholics). The number of hostages later varied between 42 and 34 because not everyone carried out their duties. At first, they wanted to lock the hostages up in jail, but through negotiations this was changed.

The head man [starosta] of the town, Doctor Potovko, was named mayor [burgermeister]. The fire brigade took over responsibilities of the police. Arkadii Gurvich was named its chief. As co-chiefs were confirmed two others: the Orthodox Vladimir Kozlovskii, the deputy mayor; and the Catholic Jozef Sadowski, the deputy fire chief.

Plundering. Since German soldiers continued to rob and plunder stores and shops, some representatives of the town went to the commandant with the request that the soldiers be stopped. The commandant said that the lawlessness was being done by an Uhlan regiment, which corresponded to the Russian Cossacks, and it was not in his power to command that unit. Another time he said that he had many other responsibilities and he did not have time to follow after his own soldiers. Plundering continued the next day.

The German commandant required 50 pounds of sugar, 500 pounds of oats, hay, etc. Arkadii Gurvich, the head of police, went around with a convoy of German soldiers to food stores looking for the required provisions. Because of a lack of supplies from outside, a large gathering of refugees and a large number of troops passing through, the required amount was not to be found in town. There was not even enough for its inhabitants. Merchants refused to open their shops because the German soldiers did not pay. The commandant called together several soldiers who began to break into locked shops.

On September 5, complete havoc reigned in town. The requisition of required supplies had turned into plundering. They searched residents on the streets and at home, gathering money. They took horses from Avraam Lukman, Sh. Marshikovich, M.L. Ovseevich, Z. Magidson, and others; they stole goods in consumer shops, paying only for small items, and rarely even then. The receipts given out were a mockery, and the commandant himself said they had no monetary value. The German soldiers were helped somewhat by refugees from Mitava36, who were then in Smorgon. They pointed out stores to the soldiers, they themselves robbed Tabachinsky’s store, in full view of members of the Jewish Committee for Aid to War Victims, they were prompted to plunder his warehouses. There were instances when German soldiers demanded women, but it is not known whether there were cases of rape.

Behavior toward Jews. There occasionally appeared negative German behavior specifically toward Jews (the Christian population, which lived mostly in the surrounding area, was seldom found in town). Late one evening, when M. Danishevsky had gone out onto the street, a soldier approached, searched him, took 90 kopecks, hit him on the shoulder, and shouted a German curse.

In response to E. Shimshelevich’s question about the reasons German soldiers behaved badly toward the residents of Smorgon, one soldier explained, "We take, but we don’t hit." A German soldier who was staying at the home of Gershon Vainshtein said that in Russian areas that were under firmly under German control the residents lived well, but in those areas that could go back to the Russians, the Germans could not consider the residents to be on their side.

On that day, September 5, the warehouses were burned, except for the platform where the kerosene storage of Iser Ryndziun was located.

Suspicion of espionage. On September 5 and 6 there were skirmishes with our troops. Some buildings burned during this period from the shelling. German soldiers sometimes helped put out the resulting fires. That day, the telephone apparatus was removed from the labor office of the Jewish Committee because they thought residents had contact with Russian troops. The Germans suspected Tsukerman, Gitlin, and G. Vainshtein of this. The soldiers wanted to arrest them, they struck them with rifle butts, but later came and said that the suspicion was unfounded, but that the guilty party was the fire guard, Yakub Romanovsky (an old man of 80). The next day, on September 7, an announcement in Russian was posted around town, signed "commandant", in which it was stated that Yakub Romanovsky had been hung for telephone communications with Russian troops, and that the bootmaker Mikhnevich was being sought. If telephone communications continued, then several people would be arrested and the town would have to make a contribution of 10,000 rubles.

On the same day, German soldiers noticed a pole with a scarecrow against pigeons at the house of Abel Katz. For this, five persons were taken as hostages (Mendel Khosid, the two Shulkin brothers, and two refugees from Kaunas) and led to the commandant, who in response to their oaths of innocence said that it was now war, and they had to accept responsibility.

The advance of the Russian troops on September 7 forced the Germans to release those being held and leave Smorgon.

Return of the Russians. The plundering of supplies and some personal property carried out by the Germans had greatly frightened the residents. Our troops were met joyfully and with shouts of "Hurray" from both Christians and Jews, who brought out food and cigarettes, even kissing the soldiers whose arrival stopped the skirmishes that had cost the lives of many from Smorgon.

Denunciations of Jews. At first our troops behaved well toward the civilian population, but quickly their behavior toward the Jews became hostile. This was facilitated by denunciations from townspeople who told soldiers about Jewish friendliness toward the Germans; that Jews opened two wine cellars for them, that they had found sugar for the Germans that the Jews had hidden earlier. In fact, even before the Germans came, because they did not want to sell sugar at the statutory price of 20 kopecks a pound to soldiers and Christian residents, some merchants had told them that there was no sugar, but were selling it at 35 kopecks a pound to other Jews who did not protest at such an increase in price. During the plundering by the Germans, sugar supplies were found in shops, which gave rise to much name-calling and embittered the non-Jewish population.

Robbery and assault. During the night of the 7th, there was unrest in the town; soldiers entered many houses both in the outskirts and in the center of town and took things without permission and stole. The residents found out that now in Smorgon were the Gdovsky, Krasnoselsky, and Novorzhevsky regiments of the 68th Division, that had earlier been in Orany and carried out the slaughter of Jews. This news caused a general panic. Jews started leaving town. They did not counsel with one another or give each other advice, but hundreds of families turned up on the roads leading through Boruna and Krevo toward Minsk, driven by only one desire and that was to get as far away from Smorgon as possible.

By that time, robbery had become a general occurrence in town, although without a violent character at the beginning. Soldiers took 120 rubles from Sholom Gordon, about 400 from Yosha Gershon Soifer, 50 rubles and a watch from Khaia Mikhla Ovseevich, etc. Sometimes the soldiers passing through would ask directions to one or another shop: clearly, one group of plunderers informed and directed another. So on September 10, some soldiers approached Movsha Gelman, who was standing in Shapiro’s warehouse where remnants of cloth belonging to his brother Meer were strewn about, and asked, "Where is the cloth store?"

On the road from Smorgon37

The entire population of Smorgon, both Jewish and Christian, left town, taking nothing, in the overwhelming number of cases. On the road, soldiers often stopped the refugees, searched them, robbed them, ransacked their carts if anyone had one, took their horses. In the village of Belaia (7 versts from Smorgon), the rabbi of Vladislavovo38, Ronin, heard the shouts of men and women and was an eyewitness to bloody beatings of refugees. On the road from Gorodok to the Zaslavskii forest, a certain Gersh Yehuda was robbed of 315 rubles. In the village of Minki, one hundred paces from the Russian positions, were about 50 women and children. The soldiers attacked them. The women began to shriek from fear. They screamed so loudly that the German troops skirmishing with our troops, turned their attention to the screaming and sent several shells in that direction.

The behavior toward the refugees by those in villages lying along the road was hostile. In many places they came out with staves and would not allow anyone into the village. In the village of Sutsky (6-7 versts from Smorgon), peasants beat the refugees with clubs.

Sometimes that attitude was fostered by soldiers forbidding the peasants to allow Jewish refugees into their homes. In Ponary (15-20 versts from Smorgon), the Circassians told the peasants, "Take all the (Jewish) heads, nothing will happen to you."

Town of Koziany, District of Disna39

On September 2, many soldiers passed through the town of Koziany, but everything was peaceful and quiet. Cossacks appeared that evening and robbed shops, but took only what they needed. In the morning they said the peasants could take from Jewish shops and homes whatever they needed. The peasants did not let this opportunity pass by. On September 4, the Cossacks burned the bridge; on the 5th and 6th the excesses increased; they went from house to house carrying off whatever they could, all the rest -- furniture, utensils -- they smashed and destroyed.

Two prosperous local residents, Girsh Averbukh and Peisakh Gordon, began asking the Cossacks to leave them at least something so they would not be left destitute. For this, they were beaten with whips.

There were pogroms in the neighboring towns of Germanovichi and Postavy. All sorts of horrible things were done to women there.

The Town of Zaskevichi, District of Oshmiany40

Recorded September 20, 1915.

The town is 14 or 15 versts from Smorgon. There are 40 or 50 Jewish families.

After the German troops entered Smorgon in September 1915, Zaskevichi found itself also in the center of military actions. On Thursday, September 3, our soldiers appeared in the town (there are some indications they were Cossacks) and ordered people to leave.

Jews left from Levedzev41, Christians went into the nearby forest, and quickly returned to town. On September 9, a few Jews went into Zaskevichi to get their belongings, since the refugees, forced out by curses and blows from the soldiers, had not been able to take anything with them. Those who returned found their homes and shops robbed, as well as all the other Jewish residences (Mnasha Gilman, Iose Gurvich, Kham Malkus, and others). The Jews who returned were attacked by soldiers and local residents, searched, beaten, and robbed. When Elka Malkus showed resistance, in revenge Marysia Gorbachevsky and other locals went to her house at night and beat Elka and her children and then burned the house, killing Malkus, who was weakened from the beating. Yankel Kantorovich, who was also in the house, broke away from the thugs, but they caught up to him, beat him (wounding him, according to some), and threw him into the fire. All of this took place with Elia Gurvich and Tsivia Zaretsky as witnesses; they were advised by Andrei Vasilevsky to leave Zaskevichi as soon as possible, or they would do the same thing to them that they had done to Malkus. From some witness accounts, the devastation of the Jewish residences was carried out not only by Gorbachevsky and Vasilevsky, but also Roman Rudkovsky, Elena Konard, and the convicts Grigorii, Ivan, Osip, and Nikolai Miliuk, who had been released from a prison gang.

The homes of the Jews Nakha, Yute, Abe Pozniakov, Leiba Levin, and others, in the neighboring volost of Beintsy were also robbed.

The Town of Krasnoe, District of Vileia42

From August 1915, our troops began to pass through Krasnoe, behaving themselves peacefully toward to inhabitants. However, starting with the battles near Molodechno, Cossacks appeared in Krasnoe. On September 4 they began to rob Jewish shops: they plundered the colony store of Shlioma Movsha Brudner, robbed and destroyed the property of the rich merchant Iona, the flour shop of Iosel Gordon, and others. Some of the local residents helped the Cossacks, and the latter gave them part of the loot. They handed 700 pounds from the steam mill of Getsel Bik. Aron Monin saw them rob the crypt of Rakhila Gordon and pointed out four of the robbers to the commandant of the town and to constable Bokhan.

In fear of the pogrom, Jews left town, some of the Christians also left, frightened by the expected battle. Then Christians from neighboring villages (Rekuvshchizna, Osovtsy, Ulianovshchina) came to Krasnoe and, taking advantage of the absence of the owners, broke open one cellar after another and plundered the goods stored in them. A certain Adam Mankovsky went around town and noted who the robbers were. Two residents of Krasnoe, Aron Monin and Movsha Brudner, hid in the house of the nobleman, Stanislav Targonsky.

On September 7th or 8th, peasants told the Cossacks that German spies were hidden in Targonsky’s place. Cossacks went to Targonsky’s, but he explained that he had neighbors as guests, and they went away. At that time, the lame Varfolomei Bogachevsky said that Monin and Brudner were hiding Germans, and that at all costs they should be gotten rid off.

The robbing went on for several days. During the night of September 14, the plenipotentiary of the Society of Artisan Labor, Slonim, passed through. There were no residents in the town. Captured Germans were put in the synagogue. The Torah scrolls were torn and cut, and Cossacks rolled their own cigarettes out of pages of the Talmud.

The Town of Glubokoe, District of Disna43

From a personal letter dated September 19, 1915.

"Dear ..."

Starting September 7th and 8th, Cossacks rode in and started to commit excesses, rob stores and then houses. They visited all the residents, and did not distinguish themselves with good behavior. They called B. Kraut to the Cossack captain, who held him several hours and constantly threatened to hang him.

The Cossacks dishonored many women in town; they attacked the synagogue in the name of Kraut, and gathered there many girls. Some of the Cossacks with sabers stood openly around the synagogue, some were inside, and one could hear the screams and cries of those poor unfortunate girls. No one was allowed to go inside to help the unfortunate victims.

When they let Kraut go, he was met on the road by Cossacks who took his gold watch and his money and beat him so badly he barely got home alive, did not say a word and spent 24 hours half-dead. When he calmed down a bit the next day, he told everything that had happened to him, all his experiences.

Where Doctor Gets has his apartment, the Cossacks entered. There were girls there who were threatened with the same horror. The doctor asked the Cossacks to go with him and he would show them even better girls. Meanwhile, the girls hid. When the Cossacks understood that Doctor Gets had fooled them, they hit him several times on the head with a stone. His wounds are now visible.

Glubokoe was in such a situation for two days. On the third day, officers and police came. Only then did things start to quiet down. Now it’s peaceful in Glubokoe."

Compiled by A.I. Chayesh
Saint Petersburg


1. S.M. Dubnov. Kniga zhizni: vospominaniia i razmyshleniia (Book of Life: Memoirs and Meditations). St. Petersburg, 1998, p. 342.
2. The history of the Society is presented briefly in the article of V. Lukin "On the Centennial of the Petersburg School of Jewish History," in Istoriia evreev v Rossii: problemy istochnikovedeniia i istoriografii (History of Jews in Russia: Problems in Sources and Historiography) [Anthology of Scholarly Works] (Trudy po iudaike. Seriia "Istoriia i etnografiia" / Peterburgskii evreiskii universitet. Institut issledovaniia evreiskoi diaspory) (Works in Judaica. Series "History and Ethnography" / Saint Petersburg Jewish University. Institute of Jewish Diaspora Studies). Editor D.A. Eliashevich, Vol. 1, 1993, p. 13-26.
3. Central State Historical Archives of Saint Petersburg (TsGIA SPb), fond 2129, group 1, record 67, 1914: "Copies of documents on the material situation and expulsion of Jews of the Western Gubernias," on 44 leaves (henceforth denoted as D. 67), and from the same fond and group, record 69, 1915: "Materials concerning the behavior of soldiers of military units toward the Jewish population," on 96 leaves (henceforth denoted as D. 69).
4. Materials of the fond, kept in Kiev before the Second World War, were taken by the Germans in 1941-1943 in chaotic condition. These materials were put in order as well as possible after the war (TsGIA SPb., fond 2129, foreword to finding aid 1).
5. D. 67, leaf 23. Now the city of Pakruois.
6. D. 69, leaf 55. Now the settlement of Pikialiai, Mazeikiai region.
7. D. 69, leaf 23. Now the city of Kedainiai.
8. D. 69, leaf 54. Now the settlement of Seta, Kedainiai region.
9. D. 69, leaf 57. Now the city of Siauliai
10. D. 67, leaf 24, D. 69, leaves 57-60.
11. Now Salantai, Kreting region.
12. Now Mazeikiai.
13. The birthday of Nicholas II.
14. Now the city of Seda, Mazeikiai region.
15. D. 69, leaf 23. Now Seduva, Radvilishkis region.
16. D. 69, leaf 10. Now Vilkija.
17. D. 69, leaf 14. Now the settlement of Vandziogola, Kaunas region.
18. D. 67, leaves 16-17; D. 69, leaf 24. Now the settlement of Krakes, Kedainiai region.
19. D. 69, leaf 14. Now the city of Tituvenai, Kelme region.
20. Now the city of Radvilishkis.
21. D. 67, leaf 16. Now the city of Ukmerge.
22. D. 67, leaf 16. Now the city of Kaunas.
23. D. 67, leaf 20.
24. D. 69, leaves 24-25. Now Beniakoni, Lida region, Belarus.
25. D. 69, leaves 25-26. Now the settlement of Salakas, Zarasai region.
26. District of Vilnius, now the city of Dukstas, Ignalina region.
27. D. 69, leaf 11. Now the city of Moletai.
28. Towns in the district of Vilkomir, now the cities of Aniksciai, Troskunai, Kavarskas, all in Aniksciai region.
29. District of Vilnius, now the settlement of Gedraciai, Moletai region.
30. D. 69, leaves 38-41. Now the city of Vilnius.
31. Troksa district, now the city of Varena.
32. Vilnius district, now the settlements of Rukainiai, Miadininkai, Nemenchine, Vilnius region.
33. Smorgon, Oshmiany, Vileika and Molodechno are now in Belarus.
34. D. 69, leaf 35.
35. D. 69, leaves 62-64.
36. Kurland Gubernia, now the city of Elgava, Latvia.
37. D. 69, leaves 11-12.
38. Vladislavov (Trishkuny), Vilkomir district, now the city of Troshkunai, Aniksciai region.
39. D. 69, leaf 34.
40. D. 69, leaves 12-13.
41. Vileja district, now Lebedevo, Molodechno region, Belarus.
42. D. 69, leaves 36-37.
43. D. 69, leaves 67-68.


*i An ERUV is a religious enclosure where one is halachically permitted to carry on the Sabbath and Festivals. For more on this subject, see or
*ii Renskovyi Pogreb
The Russian term "renskovyi pogreb" cannot be found in any existing dictionary. The term "pogreb" means "cellar"; the term "renskovyi" was alluded to indirectly in the dictionary of Dal (1882), where he notes:

Renskoe (vino), compare reinvein, wine from the Rhine, or wine from vineyards in general."

From this, one can say in brief that "renskovyi pogreb" is a wine store selling foreign wines from vineyards.
The term renskovyi pogreb is historic, relating to Russian law at the time on sale of alcoholic beverages. So it should be retained in the text, written in italics.
Let me give a more detailed explanation. In Russia, the "reduced sale" (not in bottles from the manufacturers or warehouses, but in smaller quantities) of "strong drink" (containing alcohol) was done for "here" (consumed at the place of purchase) or "to go." The renskovyi pogreb was strictly "to go". Of the various types of establishments that sold "to go" (wine shops, bulk shops, cellars selling exclusively Russian wine from vineyards), the renskovyi pogreb was the only one authorized to sell wine from foreign vineyards and in unlimited quantity, while stronger drink could not be sold in quantities larger than 3 vedro (63 pints). Thus, a renskovyi pogreb is a wine store selling exclusively "to go" wines, both foreign and Russian, in unlimited quantity, as well as stronger beverages in quantities not more than 3 vedro.

about the author
Anatolij Chayesh


Anatolij Chayesh has been a scientific researcher since 1991 at the St. Petersburg Jewish University, where his area of interest is searching for materials and documents on the Jews of Imperial Russia in the libraries and archives in St. Petersburg.