Protocol 171: Pese’s flight through the No Man’s Land, February 1940
On 8 February, 1940, Pese R. entered the office of the “Committee to Collect Material about the Destruction of Polish Jewry, 1939” in Vilnius, Lithuania in order to give an interview. She told about her flight from her hometown of Suwałki through the no man’s land at the Lithuanian border.
די אײַנװוינער האָבן גלײַך געעפֿנט די קראָמען. די דײַטשן זענען דאַן אַרײַן אין אַלע ייִדישע געשעפֿטן, צוגענומען פֿון דער קאַסע דאָס באַרע געלט, אַרויסגעטריבן די אײַגנטימער און פֿאַרשלאָסן די געװעלבער, צונעמענדיק צו זיך די שליסלען. די קריסטלעכע געשעפֿטן האָט מען נישט גערירט.
זײַענדיק צום צװײטן מאָל אין סוּװאַלק, האָב איך זיך דערװוּסט, אַז אין שול זיצן נאָך אַרעסטירט 60 ייִדן, װאָס דאַרפֿן אָפּגעשיקט װערן קײן לובלין. די ייִדן זענען דאָרט ממש אויסגעגאַנגען פֿון הונגער. דערבײַ האָבן די ייִדן פֿון קאַלװאַריע (ליטע) זײער פֿיל געטון. זײ האָבן געשיקט ספּעציעלע שליחים קײן סוּװאַלק. און די לעצטע האָבן אײנציקװײַז אַרויסגעראַטעװעט די ייִדן און זײ איבערגעפֿירט קײן ליטע. בכּלל האָבן די ייִדן אין קאַלװאַריע זײער פֿיל געטון פֿאַר די ייִדישע פּליטים פֿון סוּװאַלק.
8 February 1940
Pese R., Suwałki
On October 4 or 5, 1939, the Russians left Suwałki. Before they left the city, they ceremonially transferred the city to the delegates of the German army on Magistrate Square. Thereafter, bigger German army detachments entered Suwałki.
The initial two – three days, the Germans behaved calmly and did not bother anyone. They only issued decrees that when Jews encounter a German soldier on the street, they have to go down from the sidewalk and take their hats off. Simultaneously, they decreed for all shops to open.
The residents immediately opened the stores. Then, the Germans went into each Jewish shop, took the cash from the check-outs, expelled the owners and locked the stores after having taken possession of the keys. They did not touch the Christian stores.
My cousin Genye Viner owned a rather big haberdashery store on Kashtshyushka Street 10 (now “General Bransch-Straße” (Kasciuszko Street)). Her husband enlisted to the Polish army and was killed near Warsaw. And she remained a widow with two small children. The Germans entered also her store, just as they did with the others, took from the check-out counter several thousand Złoty as well as all her merchandise. My cousin went to the German captain and requested to at least return the cash to her since she was a miserable widow with two orphans. The captain wanted to pay her back thirty Złoty. And when she started crying claiming that she won’t be able to do anything with such a small sum, he cynically replied: “You can buy a rope with the money and hang yourself.”
I myself had a store for candy, fruits and wine in my house. The first days, the Germans did not bother me thinking that mine was a Christian store. Later, though, they came into my store and took away all my merchandise. They also conducted a search in my home looking for gold and merchandise.
Soon after their arrival in the city, the Germans imposed taxes on Jewish homeowners. From myself they demanded 20 thousand Mark, to which I in turn gave an advance of 800 Guilds.
Whole days, the Jews remained locked in in their apartment because they were snatched up for the dirtiest kind of work on the streets. They did not even spare women and children.
The Germans also started to go to the homes of the rich Jews and robbed everything they could. Many Jews, unable to take it any longer, began to flee to the Soviet territories.
In the first days of the month December, the Germans suddenly issued a decree that the Jews should store up food for three days. In the city, there was a turmoil. One did not know what this meant. I went into the city in order to go shopping but on the way I noticed how the German police led Jews, Jewish women and children. The turmoil got even bigger. People started saying that all Jews will be expelled from the city and sent away to the Lublin Reservation. I immediately returned home and started preparing myself and the children for the journey. Soon, the Christian woman from next door came running to me and said that the Germans are already coming for me. I managed to escape with my children from the apartment through the backdoor and hid in the basement.
Not everyone was as “lucky.” Hundreds of Jews with their families were chased by the Germans to the synagogue courtyard. The Germans did not allow them to take any baggage – hitting the old and weak with whips if they were not able to walk fast enough.
I was laying with my children in the basement until 3am when an acquainted Christian led me out. I did not go back into my apartment. The Germans had looted it entirely in the interim and sealed the doors afterwards.
On circuitous routes, I, together with my children, ran away and we met many acquaintances on our way who had also succeeded in hiding from the Germans. We arrived in a village located four kilometers outside of Suwałki and there we hid for 2 days.
In the village, we later got a ride and drove to the Lithuanian border to the village Madani [?]. We drove for 2 days because driving was only possible at night. In the daytime, German patrols stopped [everyone] and sent them back to Suwałki.
All in all, we were 50 individuals at the Lithuanian border. From the remaining Suwałki Jews – around 3 thousand persons were arrested by the Germans and sent off to the Lublin border. 10 individuals saved themselves on the last day by running to [/across] the Soviet border. 2 of them – a woman called Dine Maryampolsky and Keltshinski, a shipping clerk – tragically died. The small boat, with which they wanted to cross the river Varta [?], capsized and they drowned.
We, on the other hand, who came to the Lithuanian border, wandered about “no man’s land” for three weeks in horrible conditions. Kotlinska, an elderly lady, got ill there and died. We also buried her in “no man’s land.” Blumberg, owner of a big glass-store, committed suicide, and his wife went insane from her sufferings. Also the dentist Shtern from Suwałki went insane.
At the Lithuanian border, the Germans arrested me and my daughter and they took all the money that I had and then sent us back to Suwałki.
Coming to Suwałki, the Germans wanted to send me off to Lublin. But after much supplicating and pleading, the Germans took me and my daughter back to the Lithuanian border, and this time I made it to Lithuania.
Being in Suwałki for the second time, I learned that in the synagogue there were still 60 arrested Jews sitting to be sent off to Lublin. The Jews there literally died of hunger. At the same time, the Jews from Kalvarija (Lithuania) did a lot. They sent special envoys to Suwałki. And the last one rescued the Jews one by one and took them across to Lithuania. In general, the Jews in Kalvarija did a lot for the Jewish refugees from Suwałki.
On 8 February, 1940, Pese R. entered the office of the “Committee to Collect Material about the Destruction of Polish Jewry, 1939” in Vilnius, Lithuania in order to give an interview. She was one of many Polish Jewish refugees who had found shelter in Vilnius. In the interview, Pese talks about her experiences escaping the German Wehrmacht and the crimes she witnessed. This interview also serves as the basis for the film “No man’s land” that was created for We Refugees Archive.
Pese R. and just three thousand other Jewish people from Suwałki managed to escape to Lithuania in early 1940. But not everybody was this lucky: While the Germans deported many Jewish Poles from the region into the area around Lublin and murdered them, others died on their escape.
With her interview, Pese R. contributes to the documentation of the German crimes in Poland for posterity. Her further fate is unknown. Did she venture to start a temporary new beginning in Vilnius? Did she manage to escape before Germany occupied Lithuania in June 1941 and murdered the Jewish population almost completely?
The long-established Jewish community of Suwałki was destroyed in the Shoah and did no longer exist after the Second World War. Today, only the Jewish cemetery reminds us of the ciy’s Jewish history.
Original Yiddish Text: Komitet tsu zamlen materialn vegn yidishn khurbn in Poyln 1939 (Committee to Collect Material about the Destruction of Polish Jewry, 1939). 08.02.1940. Wiener Library Document Section 532, Series 1, frames 0084–0087