The long shadow of the past. Only a few Jews from Lithuania and Latvia managed to escape the Holocaust in the Baltics. Here are some of their accounts and the reasons for their difficult escape.
It is difficult to place this topic under the heading "migration".1  Even the term "escape" does not adequately describe what happened, for it was literally a race to the death. Only those Jews who managed to escape the advancing German units in the summer of 1941 and to cross hundreds of kilometers to the east under the most adverse conditions survived – with a few exceptions – the Holocaust in the Baltic States.
But not only were hundreds of thousands of people murdered by the German occupiers and their local helpers, these events also brought to an abrupt end a centuries-old Jewish culture and tradition in the Baltic States. While few Jews settled in 
deu. Estland, est. Eesti

Estonia is a country in north-eastern Europe and geographically it belongs to the Baltic States. The country is inhabited by about 1.3 million people and borders Latvia, Russia and the Baltic Sea. The most populated city and capital at the same time is Tallinn. Estonia has been independent since 1991 and is a member of the European Union.

deu. Lettland, eng. Latvian Republic, lav. Latvija

Latvia is a Baltic state in the north-east of Europe and is home to about 1.9 million inhabitants. The capital of the country is Riga. The state borders in the west on the Baltic Sea and on the states of Lithuania, Estonia, Russia and Belarus. Latvia has been a member of the EU since 01.05.2004 and only became independent in the 19th century.

 and especially 
deu. Litauen, lit. Lietuva

Lithuania is a Baltic state in northeastern Europe and is home to approximately 2.8 million people. Vilnius is the capital and most populous city of Lithuania. The country borders the Baltic Sea, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Latvia. Lithuania only gained independence in 1918, which the country reclaimed in 1990 after several decades of incorporation into the Soviet Union.

were known as centers of Jewry in East Central Europe. Last but not least,
deu. Wilna, rus. Вильнюс, rus. Wilnjus, yid. ווילנע, yid. Wilne, bel. Вільня, bel. Wilnja, pol. Wilno

Vilnius is the capital and most populous city of Lithuania. It is located in the southeastern part of the country at the mouth of the eponymous Vilnia (also Vilnelė) into the Neris. Probably settled as early as the Stone Age, the first written record dates back to 1323; Vilnius received Magdeburg city rights in 1387. From 1569 to 1795 Vilnius was the capital of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy in the Polish-Lithuanian noble republic. It lost this function in the Russian Tsarist Empire with the third partition of Poland-Lithuania. It was not until the establishment of the First Lithuanian Republic in 1918 that Vilnius briefly became the capital again. Between 1922 and 1940 Vilnius belonged to the Republic of Poland, so Kaunas became the capital of Lithuania. After the Second World War, Vilnius was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic until Lithuania regained its independence in 1990.

Already in the Middle Ages Vilnius was considered a center of tolerance. Jews in particular found refuge from persecution in Vilnius, so that Vilnius soon made a name for itself as the "Jerusalem of the North". Not least with the Goan of Vilnius, Elijah Ben Salomon Salman (1720-1797), Vilnius was one of the most important centers of Jewish education and culture. By the turn of the century, the largest population group was Jewish, while according to the first census in the Russian Tsarist Empire in 1897, only 2% belonged to the Lithuanian population group. From the 16th century onwards, numerous Baroque churches were built, which also earned the city the nickname "Rome of the East" and which still characterize the cityscape today, while the city's numerous synagogues were destroyed during the Second World War. Between 1941 and 1944 the city was under the so-called Reichskommissariat Ostland. During this period almost the entire Jewish population was murdered, only a few managed to escape.

Even today, the city bears witness to a "fantastic fusion of languages, religions and national traditions" (Tomas Venclova) and maintains its multicultural past and present.

was considered the "Jerusalem of the North"; it was in this city that the YIVO was founded in the 1920s, the first scientific institute to deal with the history of Eastern European Jews, in Yiddish, since this was the mother tongue of the majority of Baltic Jews. The Jewish communities could not be more different in terms of social composition and political beliefs. Actually, it was their enemies who 'invented' a unified Jewry. They included day laborers, small urban merchants, rich cattle traders working in rural settings, as well as middle-class entrepreneurs, successful academics, and a well-read educated middle class that was as familiar with German literature as with Russian. Also politically, all shades were represented: Zionists, Socialists, Orthodox and representatives of the Jewish Enlightenment. The committed Zionists saw their future in emigration to Palestine, while the socialists of the Jewish Social Democracy association (founded in Vilnius at the end of the 19th century), were closely affiliated with the left and communist parties. The representatives of the Jewish Enlightenment advocated assimilation, whereas the Orthodox insisted on the traditional Jewish way of life. The Shoah also destroyed a cultural diversity that was unparalleled.
1. The German attack and the first anti-Semitic measures and murders
When the Wehrmacht attacked on June 22, 1941, the Baltic States, which had been occupied by the
Soviet Union
deu. Sowjetunion, rus. Sovetskiy Soyuz, rus. Советский Союз

The Soviet Union (SU or USSR, Russian: Союз Советских Социалистических Республик (СССР) was a state in Eastern Europe, Central and Northern Asia existing from 1922 to 1991. The USSR was inhabited by about 290 million people and formed the largest territorial state in the world, with about 22.5 million square km. The Soviet Union was a socialist soviet republic with a one-party system.

as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in the summer of 1940 and incorporated into the USSR as Soviet republics, were the first target of the German Army Group North, which advanced on 
rus. Leningrad, deu. Sankt Petersburg, eng. Saint Petersburg, rus. Ленингра́д, rus. Петрогра́д, rus. Petrograd

Saint Petersburg is a metropolis in the northeast of Russia. The city is home to 5.3 million people, which makes it the second largest in the country after Moscow. It is located at the mouth of the Neva River into the Baltic Sea in the Northwest Federal District of Russia. Saint Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and was the capital of Russia from 1712 to 1918. From 1914-1924 the city bore the name Petrograd, from 1924-1991 the name Leningrad.

. Lithuania was occupied within four days, and the Wehrmacht marched into , Latvia, as early as June 30-31, 1941. Finally, by the end of August, all of Estonia was in German hands. Especially in the Baltic States, the German attack was perceived as a liberation from Soviet rule.
This was due in no small part to Stalinist mass actions that began on June 14 in all three Soviet republics and targeted supposed opponents of Soviet rule. Thousands of "class enemies" were arrested and deported with their families to the interior of the Soviet Union. This action was still in progress when the German divisions attacked. Especially in Lithuania, a spontaneous uprising against the Soviets arose, which, in addition to attacks on the retreating Red Army, was directed primarily against real and perceived collaborators with Soviet power. In particular, a wave of violence was unleashed against the Jewish population, which led to intimidation from the very first day. In addition to the well-known anti-Semitic stereotype of 'Jewish' communism, the Jews were accused of having welcomed the invasion of the Red Army in the summer of 1940.
The victims' accounts show the tremendous brutality and hatred they faced as supposed 'traitors' and Soviet friends. Armed Lithuanian free-army men, recognizable by their white armbands, hunted down Jews, invaded their homes, looted and raped. People were shot in the open street. Aba Gefen fell into the hands of such a gang:

I was [...], together with a group of twenty other Jews, captured on June 24. We were led to the town hall square, with our captors laughing and threatening to kill these 'damned Jews.' At the same time, the partisans began persecuting the Orthodox Jews who lived in the suburb of Vilijampole [...]. They started with sadistic games: they captured the Jews, forced them to dance, recite Hebrew prayers and sing the Socialist International. When they were tired of the games, they ordered the Jews to kneel down and shot them from behind. But that was only the beginning. 

Aba Gefen: Ein Funken Hoffnung. Ein Holocaust-Tagebuch, S. 25
2 The Time Factor and the Difficult Decision to Escape
The rapid advance of the Wehrmacht played a fateful role in the events that followed. The Lithuanian Jews in particular had literally only hours to escape the advancing divisions. They had to drop everything and head eastwards as fast as they could. People often forget that such a decision meant giving up their previous existence and facing a completely uncertain future. Sara Ginaitė reports that her family decided not to flee because they had no relatives or acquaintances in the Soviet Union, and her parents were not in good health. Moreover, despite the Nazi hostility towards Jews, no one could have imagined what awaited the Jews in 
deu. Kauen, pol. Kowno, rus. Ковно

Kaunas is a town in Lithuania, about 100 km west of the capital Vilnius, and with nearly 304,000 inhabitants the second largest town in the country. From 1920 to 1940, Kaunas was itself the capital of Lithuania. Before 1918 - the founding year of the Lithuanian Republic - Kaunas was part of the Russian Empire, and for a long time before 1795 it belonged almost permanently to Poland-Lithuania.

.2  In almost all cases, it was not only a question of young people, but also of children and older family members.
And finally, it was completely unclear how the situation at the front was developing. In the first days, the Soviet radio announced one victory message after another, which contributed to the fact that many Jewish families initially waited. It was only when people reported scenes of a Red Army in Kaunas that appeared to be completely disintegrating that the real situation became clear. But by then it was usually too late to escape, because the infrastructure had collapsed in the meantime.
What also proved fatal was the older generation's image of Germany and their experiences with the German occupation in the First World War. They relied on their perceptions of that earlier time and the German literature and culture they were familiar with. Zvi Katz's grandfather tried to reassure his family on June 22:

You don't have to be afraid of the Germans. I remember them from the First World War – they are a highly civilized and cultural people.

At first, moreover, it was mainly Lithuanian so-called "Freischärler" who harassed the Jews, invaded their homes, and looted and robbed, while the Germans remained in the background. In some cases, the Jewish victims hoped for protection from their local tormentors through the German military administration. But by the time the German civil administration with its its anti-Semitic decrees had seized power, it was clear who the real masterminds of the measures were: After the pogroms and riots had been covertly initiated by the German security police, in the summer of 1941 the German civil administration transferred direct contact with the Jewish councils of the ghettos to the regional Lithuanian administration. In Vilnius, the notorious advisor on Jewish affairs Franz Murer justified this procedure to his Lithuanian counterpart in a manner that spoke for itself: "Matters concerning the ghetto are to be received by you and carried out according to my instructions. I will therefore negotiate only with you and not with individual Jews or the Judenrat (Jewish council)." The people in the ghetto knew who was behind their misery – and Murer, who loved to have returning Jewish workers searched for contraband at the ghetto gate, became the terror of the ghetto population.
An exception to the wait-and-see attitude was the Ganor family:

I ran downstairs and found my family already gathered around the radio [...]. At breakfast father held a family meeting. We all felt that it would be too dangerous to stay in Kaunas. As frightening as the thought of the Russian police was, that of the Nazis was even more so [...]. Even if we ended up in Siberia, it would certainly be better than falling into the hands of the Nazis.

Solly Ganor: Das andere Leben. Kindheit im Holocaust, S. 37
Many memoirs describe family conversations similar to this one. In the small Jewish community in Estonia, there were discussions about the food situation in the Soviet Union being far worse than in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Orthodox Jews joined the fateful decision of the chief rabbi in 
deu. Reval

Tallinn (until 1918 Reval) is the capital of Estonia. It is located in the Harju County, right on the Baltic Sea and is home to about 434,000 people.

 not to leave the city.
Thus, the people in Kaunas, as well as in Riga, had little time to make a decision that, from today's perspective, seems much clearer than it was at the time. "To leave everything like that and run to the railroad, in light clothes, to a foreign and cold country, without any means to live – it was hard to imagine. If we had only had a glimmer of what awaited us, we would certainly have walked barefoot to the train."3   Most of them decided against the vagaries of escape and thus fell into the hands of their murderers.
Herman Kruk, who had already fled from Poland to Vilnius to escape the Nazis, combined his decision with a task:

I've no more strength to take up the walking stick once again and set off on foot [...] I've taken off my heavy shoes, unpacked the backpack. I'm staying! [...] This is my final decision: I will rely on God's counsel, I'm staying. And at the same time I have made the final take up my pen... The Germans will make the city fascist. The Jews will have to go to the ghetto – and I will write all this down. My chronicle must see, must hear and become the mirror and the conscience of this great catastrophe and these difficult times.

Hermann Kruk: The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuanian
Kruk, who was murdered in a concentration camp in Estonia in September 1944, stayed true to his mission: his diary is one of the great testimonies of ghetto literature. 
One final impressive example of humanity deserves mention here. Moses Braunsas, one of Lithuania's leading epidemiologists and head of the infection department of the Jewish hospital in Kaunas, was offered the chance to evacuate with his entire family on June 23. In 1998, his son Jack reported in an interview with the Shoah Foundation that his father had refused the offer and sent away the waiting car and driver because he did not consider it morally acceptable to leave his patients alone.4
3. Experiences of flight
But even those who immediately set off as fast as they could soon found themselves in a dangerous situation. The rapid German advance and the Luftwaffe's air superiority meant that even the supposed hinterland could not be considered safe. Added to this were the local insurgents, who considered any person moving eastward to be a supporter of Soviet power and concentrated their guerrilla activity on the Red Army's retreat routes. Executions of Jewish 'traitors' were apparently not uncommon. Trains were few and far between practically from day one; most had been requisitioned by the Red Army and were strafed by German fighter planes during the day. The scenes at the train stations were chaotic, and especially the elderly were no longer able to cope with the situation, as in the case of one Jewish family from Kaunas:

After a few hours, the Zinghaus parents returned. They had boarded a crowded train together. More and more new people had crowded in. Then they, the old people, were overcome by such fear of this journey into the unknown that they parted from their children [...] and got off again. There they sat with us again. The old gentleman, already seventy years old and frail, with thick bristly white hair, crying like a child, and his wife was so worried about him and also crying, and we comforted her.

Helene Holzmann: "Dies Kind soll leben", S. 13
Thus, the Jewish refugees were usually left with only one option: an arduous trek on foot. „The narrow road to Ukmerge and the Latvian border overflowed with refugees and retreating Soviet troops. An endless stream of vehicles, horse-drawn wagons, motorcycles, and bicycles wound through the vast swarm of pedestrians. Columns of ragged Soviet soldiers mingled among them, but primarily there were civilians on foot, most of them Jews. No sooner had we left Kaunas than the Luftwaffe bombed the road. It seemed as if everything that moved was to be fired at. Everyone threw themselves into the ditch. I was lying with my face in the dirt, shaking, while the bullets were landing all around us, raising clouds of dust.“5
Rumours were spreading fast. Lithuanian policemen told the fugitives that they were surrounded, that the Germans were already further east and that they should turn back.
And then there was another not insignificant obstacle to overcome on the old Soviet border: The Baltic Soviet republics were still considered a restricted military area a year after the invasion, so that border traffic was permitted only with special passes or for party officials. Those Lithuanian Jews who had made their way to the old Soviet territory were not let through by the Soviet border guards. In Latvia and Estonia the situation was far less chaotic, but even there it was not easy for civilians to advance eastward. Many failed in this way at the last minute and were overrun by the Wehrmacht.
The full extent of the catastrophe is shown by the numbers of victims. People's chances of a successful escape depended primarily on the time their particular town was captured. It is very difficult to give exact figures on the situation in Lithuania. This is because it is difficult to determine how many Jews who had fled from 
deu. Polen, pol. Polska

Poland is a state in Central Eastern Europe and is home to approximately 38 million people. The country is the sixth largest member state of the European Union. The capital and biggest city of Poland is Warsaw. Poland is made up of 16 voivodships. The largest river in the country is the Vistula (Polish: Wisła).

 were in Lithuania (especially in the Vilnius area) in June 1941. It is assumed that there were at least 160,000 people: When those who had fled Lithuania were registered in the Soviet Union in 1943, 5,504 Jews were among them. In Latvia, about 15,000 Jews escaped from the German murderers (about 86,000 Jews may have lived in the Soviet Republic in June 1941). Over 150,000 Jews in Lithuania and more than 75,000 in Latvia were murdered – mostly between June and December 1941. In Estonia, the majority of Jews escaped despite the rabbi's decision, which was especially significant for Orthodox Jews, with only 5,400 Jews residing in Estonia in June 1941. About a quarter of them were murdered in the fall of 1941.
Due to the circumstances described above, only a few Jews managed to escape from the anti-Semitic murder campaigns; only a few survived the ghettos in Lithuania and Latvia and found themselves in Poland, in
deu. Pommern, pol. Pomorze

Pomerania is a region in northeastern Germany (Vorpommern) and northwestern Poland (Hinterpommern/Pomorze Tylne). The name is derived from the West Slavic 'by the sea' - 'po more/morze'. After the Thirty Years' War (Peace of Westphalia in 1648), Western Pomerania initially became Swedish, and Western Pomerania fell to Brandenburg, which was able to acquire further parts of Western Pomerania in 1720. It was not until 1815 that the entire region belonged to the Kingdom of Prussia as the Province of Pomerania. The province existed until the end of World War II, its capital was Szczecin (today Polish: Stettin).

or in Bavaria in May 1945. Many never returned to Lithuania, partly because the experiences of the summer of 1941 meant they could not again live alongside the local population. Besides Palestine (from 1948: Israel), it was mainly the United States that became the new home of the uprooted people. It is a tragic fact that many Jews decided not to flee because they identified the German conquerors with the German language, literature and culture they were familiar with, despite all their hostility towards Jews. And it is a paradox of a special kind that those Jews who became victims of the Stalinist deportations in June 1941 escaped almost certain death. An exact number is difficult to give, because the Soviet files do not specify the victims according to ethnic criteria, but instead in their social function as class enemies (bourgeois, capitalists, etc.), but a figure of more than 2,600 Jews seems realistic. With the total number of deportees now estimated at just under 20,000, the Jewish victims were disproportionately represented, accounting for about 8% of the total population. Thus, a Stalinist mass crime contributed to the fact that many Jews did not fall into the hands of the German murder squads.
English translation: William Connor

Siehe auch