ON THE FRONT LINE IN LITHUANIA, 1915:
STORIES OF JEWISH EYEWITNESSES
by Anatolii Chayesh
Translated by Gordon McDaniel
Town of Smorgon, District of Oshmiany
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 ( later Mendel moved to Kurenets, he
perished in 1942 with his wife, his son and daughter Rosa Rabunski
survived and lived in the U.S) , 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
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."