United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Witnesses: The Jeff and Toby Herr Testimony Initiative
Interview (in Lithuanian) at http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn45219
Transcribed and translated by Indre Joffyte, University of Vilnius
Interviewer: Firstly I would like to ask you to introduce yourself – what is your name and surname?
Viktoras Vaitelavicius: My name is Viktoras Vaitelavicius.
I.: Which year were you born?
V.V.: I was born on the 9th of June, 1927 in Skuodas. If you would like to know the address it is in the Old Town of Skuodas, Poskos street, number 12.
I.: Excuse me, I would like to ask a personal question – why are you wearing glasses?
V.V.: Because I have always worn eyeglasses for about 20 years now, about three diopters, I am shortsighted. And my sight was quite good while I was still working. The sight started to get worse when I retired, especially in the left eye. When I turned to the oculist, I was offered eye surgery to strengthen my sight, but it was only last week in the Klaipeda clinic (I am not sure of the exact name of the clinic) that I had the first surgery – lens insertion into the left eye. That is why I was told to wear sunglasses for at least a week or two, and later, in about four months, I will have to go back to the same clinic for the lens insertion into the second eye.
I.: Now I understand. We hope these operations will be helpful, and your sight will improve. And now I would like to go back to the past, to the things that I wanted to ask you. Tell me – where did you live when the Second World War broke out?
V.V.: On the 22nd of June, 1941, when the war broke out, I was in my hometown, in the Old Town, I was living in Poskos street, number 12, together with my family.
I.: Tell me please – at that time, were there many Jews in Skuodas?
V.V.: In Skuodas, people of Jewish nationality made up about half of the population. They were leaders in industry (though not very big) and trade. Anyway we were all learning together. They had their Jewish primary school, but we were going to the same gymnasium, we were learning in the same school. There were about five or six children of Jewish nationality in each class, and we were all friendly and got on well.
I.: Tell me please – how did the life of the Jews change when the war started?
V.V.: Since the first day when the German army entered Skuodas we stopped seeing any Jews – neither women, nor children – in the streets. It looked like they did not appear in public places according to some unwritten law, maybe there was an order from the German authorities, but it looked like they did not exist. Something similar to yellow stars was painted on their houses, and not only on the door, but sometimes also on the window. So we knew that these houses were not ours… All the neighboring Jewish houses in the Old Town were marked this way.
I.: Maybe you saw who was marking?
V.V.: No, we did not see who was marking, we just noticed it one day, it could be the second or the third day of the war.
I.: And what happened next?
V.V.: Then, perhaps it was the sixth day since the beginning of the war, it was Saturday, the 29th of June, a battle started in Skuodas. Soldiers of the Russian army in some old cars and trucks were going from the Latvian woods, from the grounds, from the Latvian border through Skuodas, of course expecting to reach the east. And here one could see that the place was full of German soldiers, in the streets and in the courtyards, so the shootings started. And there was a fire, the streets of the New Town were burning, also the Lutheran church – we saw it burning. Only the Old Town somehow was not burnt. Although there were only small houses, shootings were everywhere, we were lying at home on the floor, and we were scared to lift our heads up above the windowsill.
I.: How long did this battle last?
V.V.: The whole day Saturday. In the evening the German soldiers started to walk through the streets shouting and ordering the residents to get out of town. And we also took a few things, a small package each, and went with the whole family towards the railway station.
I.: Why did they order everyone to get out of town?
V.V.: People were saying among themselves that the battle was not over, the war would continue, and this was why the residents were being evacuated. By the way, some people (also some of our neighbors) did not go. With their Samogitian stubbornness they went down to the cellars and did not go out of their homes. And we – crowds of people – were going on foot to the railway station, and we were sent to go further, beyond the railway station. We reached the village and stayed in a farmer’s house (they let us stay with them) for about 24 hours. On Sunday evening they started saying that we could go back. So we returned.
I.: Tell me please – there were also Jews among those who left the town?
V.V.: No. There were no people of Jewish origin that we knew among them.
I.: When you came back from that village, what did you see, what happened?
V.V.: In the New Town part the houses were partly destroyed and burnt. The streets were full of dead bodies of Russian soldiers; most of them were wearing their uniforms.
I.: So you are saying that most of the dead were Russian soldiers, what other bodies were there?
V.V.: There were a few civilians too, I heard there, from Basanavicius street, mentioning the names, Barkauskas who was shot during the battle… Also, in the centre of the town, a few firemen were shot, they were employees of the town’s fire service, and they were still wearing helmets. They were probably trying to fight a fire, but were shot during the battle.
I.: I will return to the question – so what after all happened to the Jews?
V.V.: Then they started to convoy the Jews out of their homes to the Riflemen’s Hall, which was here, in the Old Town.
I.: Did you see when they were turned out of their homes?
V.V.: Yes, all of us saw it, from the New Town, and from the Old Town houses inhabited by the Jews – small groups of people, women, children, the elderly – soldiers were walking around with guns, and then Lithuanians showed up, wearing white bands on their arms (everyone called them baltaraisciai – white stripers), some sort of helpers most probably – so they were forcing out these groups to the Riflemen’s Hall.
I.: Tell me – did you see anyone you knew from Skuodas among these white stripers?
V.V.: Yes, I knew some of them, they were also from the Old Town – there was one Mockus, then Liebus – they were young men, with white stripes, unarmed, and the armed German soldiers were following. This way all the residents of Jewish nationality were gathered in the Riflemen’s Hall.
I.: How long did they stay in that Riflemen’s Hall?
V.V.: I cannot tell you how many days exactly they were there. I remember that in a few days one woman (she was our neighbor and had a cow) said that she should at least bring them milk, so she carried a jar of milk for the Jewish children. I do not know whether she was able to give it to them, if it was allowed, but her intentions were good… Then the second day the young Jewish men (it was already difficult to recognize them), our schoolmates from gymnasium, were forced out through the burnt town in groups, and were ordered to gather the corpses. They were placing the corpses in the carts, and were taking them, without horses, to the Riflemen’s Hall. Next to our gymnasium (the Riflemen’s Hall – this building was standing next to our gymnasium), close to the school’s football field, the people of Jewish nationality were placing corpses in a stack, and they were taking the Russian soldiers in Russian uniforms further, to the alder wood – they were kind of sorted this way.
I.: Tell me did you see it with your own eyes – Jewish men loading corpses into a cart?
V.V.: I saw. I knew one of them, he was from my gymnasium, and his name was Kagan.
I.: So you knew one of those who were loading the corpses?
V.V.: Yes, and he was not alone, a few of them were loading… And some of them were taking corpses from the streets, from the courtyards… About five or six men were pushing the cart towards the Riflemen’s Hall.
I.: So one stack of corpses, as you told, was of Russian soldiers, and the second one – could you be more specific?
V.V.: One stack was made of corpses of Jewish people. And we even spoke between ourselves with a neighbor and friend, I said: “Evaldas, look, this is our Deivis”. Deivis was our neighbor of Jewish nationality; he was distinguished by his tallness and leather boots.
I.: So he was the one who was sorting the corpses?
V.V.: No, he was already dead, and thrown on that stack.
I.: So you saw that Deivis in the stadium?
V.V.: Yes, this stack was at the end of the stadium.
I.: Try to remember, when all this was happening, how far approximately were you from that stack of bodies?
V.V.: About 40-50 meters away, we were standing on the side of our gymnasium; nobody told us anything, there were not many people. We were young boys, children, we heard someone saying that perhaps the bodies would be buried, and we thought for a while that maybe they would be buried here, in the stadium. But no – the bodies were buried further away, in the alder wood. And the burial did not take place the same day; it was probably the next day.
I.: So they buried Jews or Russians or all of them?
V.V.: They buried them all together, perhaps not in the same pits. They were buried there, by the end of the Riflemen’s Hall, by the bushes in the alder wood.
I.: You mentioned the pits. So how many pits were there?
V.V.: We did not see how many. We only saw later that some people were pulling the corpses towards the alder wood, and buried them in the pits.
I.: Who was pulling the corpses? Did you see? Were you able to see who did this?
V.V.: I think these were the same people who gathered and brought the corpses. But I could not confirm that I saw Kagan that day. I saw him gathering the corpses – I knew him well, he was studying in the same gymnasium, one class higher than me. The Jews were forced to bury the bodies of the Russian soldiers as well as their own relatives who died during the battle.
I.: How long approximately were you watching the burial?
V.V.: We were watching it with horror for about half an hour, then we ran away back to our Old Town, because we were scared even to watch.
I.: Were there any guards by the burial – perhaps German, or white stripers, or anyone?
V.V.: I did not notice. They were doing it, but whether someone was supervising them, I do not know – I did not see it.
I.: What happened next?
V.V.: Later… The next week, in approximately a week, people started saying that the Jews were being shot. And we heard in our street the noise of shootings, and people were saying that the Jews were being shot. The three of us, three boys, decided to go and see where they were being shot, and who was shooting them. So we passed that street towards Sodra, now it is called Shauliu (Riflemen) street, we thought we would reach the Riflemen’s Hall – the shooting noise came from that side – we passed the Riflemen’s Hall on the street (the Riflemen’s Hall stands further away from the street), we passed the street, and there stood the house of our gymnasium’s gatekeeper. We knew the gatekeeper’s son, so we came up to that house of Shimkus, and the boy came out, he was of the same age as we, and he said to us: “have you seen that the Jews are already being shot, the Jews are being shot.” We went behind their woodshed, hiding and not going further, and we saw that by the Riflemen’s Hall, by the alder wood, a group of Jews, mostly women and children, were brought to the pit. We did not see men though, maybe there could have been just a few, but mostly women and children. We were watching what was happening, yet hiding. They were lined up. There was also a group of Germans and white stripers, like drovers. They lined up the Jews, took everything from them, whatever they had in their hands, most probably some small things taken out of their pockets, because they came without suitcases or other things, only their pockets. The German were standing to the side, and the white stripers were gathering the stuff, they carried a bag where they put everything. And then most probably they were commanded to turn around. And they turned round so that their backs were facing those standing. Then some Germans, about three or four, unslung the guns from their shoulders and released a volley of shots. We went hiding behind the house; we were really scared of hearing these terrible shots. Then the people were falling to the ground. We knew that they were standing at the edge of the pit, so they fell into the pit. We were standing there talking about the horrible sight with the kid, and in about 15 minutes, another group, of approximately 10 people, was brought. And again the ceremony was the same. They lined them up, we saw women, children and teenagers standing right at the edge of the pit, and again they took all the things from their hands, turned them to face the other side, and again from about two meters’ distance the Germans took the guns from their shoulders and released a volley of shots, and again they were all falling. We were horrified, we were so scared that we decided to run back home. We said that it was too scary to watch, so the three of us who we were from the same street left, the boy who lived there stayed, and we went out into the street planning to return to our Old Town. But the street was full of white stripers, and they asked us: “Children, where are you going?” We replied: “We are going home.” They told us to go back, in the opposite direction, towards the railway station. So we were going through the fields, as we were not allowed to go through the street, we thought that we would take another way, through Laisves street. That is what we did. When we reached our street, the shots could still be heard, the shootings were repeated more than once that same day.
I.: Could you say how far away from the shooting place you were standing then?
V.V.: Approximately 100 meters. Now I remember where that house stood – it is where the building of Sodra now stands, so from there to the beginning of the park’s territory, where the alder wood was, the distance is about 100 meters.
I.: Tell me, did you see that there was a pit ready there, or did you see that later on?
V.V.: We saw only a small slope, and a few spades standing there, and the second time, after the second shooting, someone (most probably the white striper) was throwing dirt into the pit. We saw some small hills around, but the pit itself was on the slope.
I.: When the shot people were falling – did they fall on the ground or into the pit?
V.V.: They were falling into the pit, as they were standing at the edge of the pit.
I.: So you were not able to see them after they fell?
V.V.: No, we could not see them.
I.: You mentioned that there were about 10 women and children in the second group.
I.: What about the first group? How many people were there?
V.V.: Approximately the same size. About 10 people, we did not count, it could have been also up to 12.
I.: Tell me who was convoying them? Who took them to the pit?
V.V.: They were brought to the pit by the white stripers, and some three or four armed German soldiers were also guarding them.
I.: How many white stripers participated in this entire episode?
V.V.: Maybe around 6-8 of those who were convoying them, accompanied by armed German soldiers, one was walking in the front, like the leader.
I.: When they took the things, what happened to that bag? Who was holding it?
V.V.: We could not see that; at first, before the shooting, they put all the things on the ground, there was grass around them, not ploughs or anything like that.
I.: Where did they convoy those people from?
V.V.: From the Riflemen’s Hall, through the courtyard.
I.: Were you able to see that the people were convoyed from the Riflemen’s Hall?
V.V.: We could see. We could see the back door, and small groups of people going through the door. They were lined up in a row and convoyed to the pits.
I.: So there were groups of around 10 women and children. How many people were convoying?
V.V.: About five or six white stripers, and at least three or four German soldiers.
I.: Did I get this right? 10 people were convoyed by about 12 people?
V.V.: Yes. Their group was bigger. Some went in the back, some white stripers in front of the group were leading them. German soldiers were going alongside the whole line.
I.: Did you hear any commands from the Germans or the Lithuanians?
V.V.: We did not hear any commands, only someone shouted something so that they all turned around. At first they were standing facing us, we could recognize that there were women and children, and then the order was given, not loud, we did not hear exactly what words were used, but they all turned around to face the pit.
I.: What other sounds did you hear besides that command? Any sounds from people?
V.V.: Wails, wails and cries of children, and screams of women, but I did not hear any male voices. We little boys were speaking among ourselves: “Why are they silent? Why are they not resisting? Why are they not running? They can escape, so that not all of them will be shot.” It seemed to us that it was possible to try to run to the bushes to hide. But we did not see anyone running. Only the wails and crying could be heard.
I.: Could you recognize any of those who were convoying?
V.V.: No, I could not. Only later I saw Mockus and Liebus; I saw them convoying after about two weeks, or maybe sooner, when the Jews were not being shot anymore, just convoyed somewhere. Then people started to say in the Old Town that the Jews were being taken either to the railway station, or to Kretinga, or to jail or somewhere. So we children ran looking around to Laisves Street. They were not convoyed through the main Laisves Street, but through the parallel street, now called Simonas Daukantas street. Two groups of Jews – of about 15 or 20 people each, one following another – were convoyed through that street towards the station.
I.: So we stopped when they were being convoyed towards the railway. So I will ask you a question, and we will continue. We were speaking about you having seen groups of Jewish people convoyed to the railway station.
I.: What did it look like? Tell us.
V.V.: The Jews were going, some of them carrying children, some of them had small parcels in their hands. And we were standing in Laisves street saying among ourselves that most probably they will be taken somewhere, because they were being convoyed to the railway station. And a few groups were passing by, there were German soldiers, about three for every group, and about five white stripers accompanying them. It seemed to us that they were more peaceful now, as they were not taking them for shooting, just for deporting. But we were disappointed that after some time we started to hear shots again, from the direction of the railway station. We were asking around, what is going on, who is shooting? And we were told that the Jews are being shot beyond the cemetery of Kulai, which is close to the railway station. They had moved the shooting place. We said among ourselves that we would not go there; we were still horrified from what we had seen before. So we did not go there to watch. And then ten years later some commission came, and with the help of the residents and workers, disinterred the bodied of the shot Jews. I was a teacher in the primary school here at that time. So after classes we went there to see what they were doing – was it true? And when we came there we saw people digging and finding mostly bones and skulls, putting them in rows, and measuring; there were about 100 heads, about 100 piles of body remains. Then they loaded everything into a car, loaded everything in piles, and said that they were going to rebury it. They brought the bones to the Riflemen’s Hall, and dug holes, and buried them. But before they were measuring and counting; maybe they wanted to discover their ages, but anyway they did this ceremony of reburial.
I.: They reburied them next to the Riflemen’s Hall, at the place where they were shot?
V.V.: Beyond the Riflemen’s Hall. Next to the park, the park was already started to be planted, in the territory of the park.
I.: It means they are now buried there?
V.V.: Yes, they are still there.
I.: Is there any monument there?
V.V.: There is monument; the monument stands on the left, not at the shooting place itself, but a bit to the left. The monument stands by the end of the Riflemen’s Hall, from the side of the gymnasium.
I.: I want to ask about the two groups that you saw being convoyed to the railway station. How many people approximately could be in each of those groups?
V.V.: About twenty, up to twenty.
I.: They were men or women?
V.V.: Mostly women, some older children, but I did not see old people or men.
I.: And how were they dressed?
V.V.: They were wearing shabby dirty clothes, some were carrying children, and others were leading children by the hand. The children were not so shabby. You see, it was about three weeks since they had been arrested. It happened in July.
I.: Could you see anyone you knew among the convoyed women and children?
V.V.: No, I did not. I did not watch very carefully, I was really scared, and I was horrified to look at those poor people. And there were no people standing and watching them on the street. We were watching through a gap. We came from Laisves street to the square of the Jewish synagogue. And we were standing there, about five or ten meters away from the street, and that is how we watched the two groups passing.
I.: So you were standing about five or ten meters away from the group?
V.V.: Yes, from the group, we were not standing right next to these people.
I.: You could clearly see who was convoying them? I mean, did you see any people you knew among them?
V.V.: Yes, I saw Mockus, I knew him from our street. He was working in Latvia, but his parents were living in our street, they were our neighbors, they lived a few houses away. And then I also knew Liebus, a young guy, he was younger.
I.: And how were they dressed?
V.V.: They were dressed like civilians, but with white stripes.
I.: Were they armed or not?
V.V.: No, they did not have guns.
I.: Maybe you know their destiny? What was the destiny of Mockus and Liebus?
V.V.: Mockus was sentenced to 10 years of exile. Not exile, but work camp. So Mockus spent 10 years in Karelia, and when he came back, we saw him, as he showed up at his parents’ place. But very soon he left, said that he had a job in Latvia, on a farm. But he was sentenced to 10 years. Liebus… We only heard about Liebus from his sister, she said that our Alis was hiding in the forest. And we never saw him again, neither coming back from the forest, nor… Later his sister said that he passed away in the forest, so probably that was his destiny.
I.: Returning to the Riflemen’s Hall – these women and children – how were they dressed?
V.V.: They were wearing their everyday clothes, simple clothes, sweaters; women were wearing skirts of different colors – just like we used to see them any day walking in Skuodas, through the town, when they were still free.
I.: Could you see anyone that you knew there, next to the Riflemen’s Hall?
V.V.: No, we did not recognize anyone from the line of those who were shot. They were too far away from us, so we could not see.
I.: And what happened with the Jewish property, when there were no more Jews?
V.V.: Just after the Jews were taken to the Riflemen’s Hall, all the property, including furniture from the houses that were not burnt, was brought next to the shelter home, by the church. The property was given to people whose houses had been burnt. The furniture was given to the victims of the fire. I did not see clothes. I did not see anyone trying to hide any clothes. But there were chairs, tables, wardrobes next to the parish’s shelter home, just on the path. And the victims of the fire were coming, and were given things according to the order of local government. I remember there was a local officer, Kuprys, I remember him, he lived somewhere in the Old Town. He had a pen and was writing down what he gave to whom. So that is how the property was divided. Some of the apartments were immediately given to those whose homes had been burnt. But there were no burnt houses in the Old Town; the fire did not reach the Old Town. The residents of the New Town were given rooms, and one by one were settled.
I.: Did you see people taking the property from Jewish homes and carrying it?
V.V.: No, I only saw it already brought to the parish’s house. I cannot tell how it was carried, I did not see that.
I.: I want to ask what this place is, what is special about it? Were you here then? Show me where you were standing?
V.V.: This place, in June and July of 1941, was a horrible place where people of Jewish nationality were shot. I saw it; I was standing by the corner of that little house. Here the groups of Jews were brought out of the Riflemen’s Hall surrounded by armed German soldiers and local white stripers; and they were taken this way to the territory of the park to be shot. Here, from the back entrance of the Riflemen’s Hall, they would bring out a group of people, and convoy them (this house was not standing here back then) there by the bushes, to the dug pit to shoot them. Armed German soldiers were shooting using self-firers, Lithuanian white stripers were beside them to accompany.
I.: Tell me please, you were standing at that corner – was this house standing here or not?
V.V.: There was no house in this place, here was a vegetable garden, and this was not here as well, so it was perfectly visible when the groups of Jewish people were convoyed to the shooting place.
I.: You mentioned that you came here with your friends from the Old Town, yes?
I.: Do you remember their names and surnames?
V.V.: One was my closest friend Evaldas Pakalniskis, the other was Vytautas Navickis, smaller than me, the three of us we came to Shimkus – the son of the owner of that place – all shocked by what was happening, and curious to see what was going on. So we saw that horrible sight of shooting.
I.: I understand that this big house was not here as well.
V.V.: No, there was a little wooden house with a small pisé building; at a distance of about 100 meters they were performing the execution, shooting…
I.: You mentioned that you came to the son of the gatekeeper, so I imagine this boy must have seen and heard much more than you did. Have you ever spoken to him about it?
V.V.: No, he has not lived here since after the war. After his father’s death he moved to Klaipeda, I think, or somewhere else.
I.: Maybe he told you something at that time?
V.V.: No, he was only explaining to us: “look, another group will come out soon, and will also be taken to be shot.” He was like a commentator, that friend of ours.
I.: What was this building called?
V.V.: The building was called the Riflemen’s Hall, and from the end of June to the beginning of July 1941, Jewish residents of the town were brought here by force.
I.: Who was guarding the building, was it at all guarded?
V.V.: When we were passing by this building, there were a few white stripers standing there, and we could see a small group of soldiers standing further away, a group of German soldiers.
I.: Could you see anything through the windows?
V.V.: The windowsills were covered with things; perhaps the belongings of the Jews.
I.: On the windowsills?
V.V.: Yes, on the windowsills. We could also see some faces, it was clear that there were people inside. Those to be shot were convoyed from the Riflemen’s Hall through here and were shot standing at the edge of the pit [pointing to the place].
I.: I understand these trees were not standing here. What kind of territory was here?
V.V.: There was a field with bushes further back, and now there is a park.
I.: Could you point approximately to where the corpses of the Russian soldiers were lying and where the bodies of the Jews were? When they were brought from the town…
V.V.: At the side of our gymnasium [pointing again].
I.: So it was not here?
V.V.: Not here. All the dead bodies from the town were gathered there.
I.: Was the gymnasium far away from the Riflemen’s Hall?
V.V.: You can see the gymnasium from here, about 100 meters away. The gymnasium is now the History Museum.
I.: So the stadium was between the gymnasium and the Riflemen’s Hall?
V.V.: Yes, between them. The dead bodies – the Russian soldiers, and the dead of Jewish nationality – were brought from the town to approximately the place of the present monument.
I.: Did you see them from the gymnasium?
V.V.: From the side of the gymnasium square we approached pretty close, to a distance of about 30 or 50 meters; we even recognized some of them lying dead on the top, one of them was our neighbor of Jewish nationality Deivis, all of us who were here recognized him, we knew him well, he was tall.
I.: Who else did you recognize?
V.V.: We did not recognize anyone in particular; we were just guessing that there might be the saleswoman from the Old Town’s shop, a Jewess. But that Deivis – we all recognized him because of his big leather boots and his tallness, also we could almost see his face as he was lying on the top.
I.: Tell me please what was going on with all these places, the one where the bodies were lying, the one where there was shooting etc.? What happened with the graves during the war and after the war, until the excavations? Or did nothing happen?
V.V.: All this territory was designated to be a park after the war. About five to eight years after the war, we and the schoolchildren started to plant the park, we planted the territory from the gymnasium to the Riflemen’s Hall with young trees.
I.: I understand. But still, during the war, the corpses were buried, and the people were walking on them?
V.V.: There was only a small path on this side; people could walk on it to our bathhouse. And here on this side were the fields, and they were partly waterlogged, so nobody was walking here.