The International Institute for Holocaust Research
Lithuanian Testimonies’ Project
The International Institute for Holocaust Research in understanding the extreme value of survivors’ testimonies began this important project on Lithuanian Testimonies in its attempt to research the atrocities and murders of Jews that occurred in the country during World War II.
Immediately after the war, a number of Shoah survivors were interviewed in the DP camps in various institutionalized documentation ventures. The largest collection of testimonies collected by an individual is the one by Leyb Koniuchowsky, an engineer from the Lithuanian town of Alytus, himself a survivor of the Kaunas ghetto.
Lithuania ranks among the countries with the largest percentage of Jewish victims during the Shoah. Of the approximately quarter of a million Jews who lived within its borders in 1941, only some 8,000 were fortunate to see the end of the Nazi occupation. To these survivors one should add between 8,000 and 15,000 who escaped to the Soviet Union upon the German invasion. Whereas the extermination of the Jews of Vilnius and Kaunas received considerable attention, Koniuchowsky thought that the fate of the Jewish communities in the rural districts was not given proper consideration and he seized the importance of documenting as fast as possible the course of the Shoah in the provincial townlets and villages by collecting eyewitness evidence of survivors while they were fresh in their memory. He managed to make over 150 interviews written on 1683 folio pages, and collect 157 photographs of individuals, pictures of mass graves and memorials and 13 maps.
This rich documentary evidence provides a detailed account of the destruction of 171 provincial Jewish communities of Lithuania. The largest part of the information is on villages of the countryside, resort towns, or small townlets. Thus the uniqueness of the testimonies collected by Koniuchowsky lies in the fact that it allows us to study the Shoah in Lithuania on a local and regional perspective. These testimonies “from below,” provide the victims' point of view and show the extent to which conditions in the Lithuanian provinces affected the dynamics of the ‘Final Solution’.
Koniuchowsky began interviewing survivors immediately after the war ended in Lithuania and continued his project over the next four years in Poland and Germany. The largest part of his interviews in the German DP camps was made between November 1946 and October 1948 on behalf of the Union of Lithuanian Jews in the American Zone. In this capacity Koniuchowsky traveled the length and breath of occupied Germany recording survivors in the Displaced Persons camps of Bad Salzschlirf, near Fulda, Feldafing, Bad Reichenhall, Munich, Landsberg, Rosenheim, Zeilsheim, Weilheim, Goldcup bei Kassel and Moencheberg bei Kassel.
The majority of the testimonies taken by Koniuchowsky are group testimonies, i.e. collective testimonies of residents from the same town that tell the same story from different angles and from various perspectives. Koniuchowsky was very concerned about historical precision and he, therefore, read aloud the testimony just taken from the witness to make sure the accuracy of what he recorded. After testifying the interviewee was asked to read and sign every page of his declaration and both the testimony and the signature were certified by representatives of the DP camp administration. Furthermore, the facts, names and dates mentioned by one witnesses on a particular community were cross-checked by comparing them with other testimonies on the same place. Consequently, the testimonies invariably confirm one another, differing only in minor details that reflect individual experiences. They offer interesting insights into the manner in which the refugees perceived their plight. One has to bear in mind, however, that while it is truly remarkable how well informed the refugees appear to have been regarding events that took place in their villages or close to their homes, the descriptions become more uncertain as soon as the witnesses portray events in cities and neighboring villages.
Those who testified were often the only Jews who remained alive to tell the story; some of them saw the entire process of extermination first-hand, while others testified on the basis of what they heard from gentiles who witnessed the atrocities in villages, where the Jewish population had been entirely annihilated. As the testimonies were recorded in the years immediately after the war, the witnesses’ recollections were fresh and the events were still vivid in their memory. They remembered the dates, and described clearly, and in detail, what concerned individuals and families in their communities. They remembered the names of the Jews who were tormented and killed and also of the murderers, some of whom they knew well and others whom they were only acquainted with by name. Furthermore, whereas, the German and Lithuanian documents are written in an impersonal language that hides the viciousness of the segregation and extermination, the survivors describe the same events in a concrete way. Their testimonies are not formulated in a detached and abstract language. Their importance lies precisely in the fact that they do not cover up the brutal treatment and the cruelty that were subjected.
Over the past several years the International Institute for Holocaust Research has been conducting a research project on testimonies of survivors of the extermination of provincial Lithuanian Jewry. The testimonies analyzed and researched were chosen out of over 150 testimonies from Leyb Koniuchowsky’s collection at Yad Vashem. All the testimonies were written in Yiddish in Koniuchowsky’s own handwriting. In the choice of the excerpts, the Institute attempted to establish the conditions in which the process of mass extermination took place in the different communities. The testimonies were then organized by central themes: the beginning of the occupation, forced labor, the plunder of property, ghettoes and concentration sites, expulsion and extermination, the local populations and the perpetrators. Each theme was discussed in the various communities, which were in turn arranged in an alphabetical order. Basic information was also collected on each community. Whereas the Shoah in Lithuania’s big cities of Vilnius and Kaunas has been studied in detail, the annihilation of the Jews in the provinces still deserved to be researched. The few studies that exist are based almost exclusively on perpetrators’ documents. This project fills that lacuna by deepening our knowledge on what happened to the Jewish communities in provincial towns on the basis of Koniuchowsky‘s collection. The interviewees testify on villages in the following districts: Alytus, Birzai, Eishishkiai, Keidainiai, Kaunas, Kretinga, Lazdijai, Marijampole, Mazeikiai, Panevezys, Raseiniai, Rokishkis, Shakiai, Shiauliai, Shvencionys, Taurage, Telshiai, Trakai, Utena, Ukmerge, Vilkavishkis, Vilnius and Zarasai
Given that the participation in the murder of Jews, Lithuanians were transformed from being bystanders into perpetrators who by their association in the actions sealed the fate of the Jews. Thus, an attempt was also made to uncover who were the initiators and the implementers of the persecution of the Jews and their murder. Attempts were also made into the motivations and reactions of the populace who observed the events.
Although there are discrepancies between survivor testimonies, there value cannot be denied since they were able to identify those who humiliated, abused and tortured them, pillaged their belongings, ejected them from their homes, and in the end, massacred their families and people. The testimonies in this collection do not purport to present an objective reality. They are rather a representation of the events from the perspective of the victims; what they experienced or witnessed, or what they heard from other victims and eyewitnesses at the time of the occurrences, or right after the war.
The project has just been published by Yad Vashem under the title Expulsion and Extermination: Holocaust Testimonials from Provincial Lithuania.