“Exhausted, frozen and only half alive.” The Suwałki No Man’s Land

Michal Frankl, Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences

 

At the end of the 1930s, the emergence of so-called “no man’s lands” symbolized the desperate situation of Jewish refugees expelled from Nazi-ruled countries. Found in many places around the uncertain borders in East-Central Europe, they visualized the refugees’ statelessness and the erosion of the sovereignty of the nation states. This article traces a little known group of refugees (many on their way to Vilnius) caught in a strip of land between German-occupied Poland and still independent Lithuania. The history of the “no man’s land” offers a fresh look at current refugee spaces in which refugees are often denied protection and rights.

Inspecting “No Man’s Land”

“A cold, rainy day in November. A sharp, penetrating wind is blowing. A black field changed into marsh by the autumnal rains. Figures rise up as though out of the ground… Rage, cries, shouts: ‘Help us’.  Terrible faces, swollen from the wind and the cold… Insane looks… The cries don’t cease.” 11Memorandum – “Nobody’s Land”, 10. 11. 1939, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York Office Records, 1933-44, file 874.

The picture he encountered shocked even the otherwise experienced physician of the Jewish health organization OZE. On November 5, 1939, together with a group of humanitarian aid workers and a journalist, he inspected refugees confined at the border between Nazi-occupied Poland and the still independent Lithuania, close to the town of Suwałki.

They found a group of two children, fourteen women and fifteen men exposed to the elements on a muddy field. The group was expelled, a week earlier, by the new German administration in Wiżajny (Vižainis in Lithuanian). A girl of about eighteen years told the visitors that Jews from the town were ordered to assemble at the main square and had to turn in their money and valuables, but also shoes and coats they were wearing. Insufficiently dressed, 281 people were marched several kilometers to the Lithuanian border. She herself had to walk the distance only in her stockings, and two paralyzed elderly people had to be carried. After this torturous march, the group was caught between the border posts of both states. 22Memorandum – “Nobody’s Land”, 10. 11. 1939, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York Office Records, 1933-44, file 874; Traurige Bilder aus dem “Niemandsland” (German translation of an article from Lietuvos Žinios, 14. 11. 1939, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, RG 14.108M, Selected records from the Political Archive of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs (RZ 214, Referat D-Abteilung Inland), R99491, microfiche No 5845.

Giving her testimony shortly after events, another witness described how on October 27, a Shabbat night, the Germans armed with whips and revolvers raided Jewish homes and drove Jewish families away. The witness hastily packed two woolen blankets into a sack and fled with her little daughter. Yet just outside of the town, escaping Jews were detained and (together with ill people who arrived on wagons) brought to the border. German guards confiscated their last valuables and sent them to the Lithuanian side. An agreement with the Lithuanian government to receive them existed, the frightened refugees were told. In reality, they were stuck between Lithuanian guards denying them entry and a large German which repeatedly pushed them back to the border.

“This happened during the night and it was raining and dark. Women and children cried awfully, but in vain. We had to stay between the two borders in a no men’s-land [sic].” 33Undated and anonymous testimony (first page missing), American Jewish Joint Distribtuion Committee Archives, New York Office Records, 1933-44, file 874.

The refugees were forced to arrange living on the field, in rain and subfreezing temperatures. They slept on the muddy and waterlogged field; in the first few days, German soldiers prevented them from building even rudimentary structures to protect them from the wind, rain and cold. Only later, they were allowed to build makeshift cover made of reed, rags, paper and whatever they could find on the field. Some women and children could find shelter in the huts of the local farmers. For some time, the soldiers even prevented the peasants from helping the refugees with the little food they were able to provide. After a few days, Jewish communities from Lithuania were able to clandestinely come to their help and provide food and some other necessities. German soldiers raided and further humiliated the group daily (formally, the no man’s land was located on the territory of occupied Poland) in search of hidden valuables. A young woman, in her thirties, died overnight due to the cold and hunger and the visitors found her body on the field, covered with twigs.

According to Moses Beckelman, the delegate of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint) to Lithuania, most refugees they found on the field were “unable to talk coherently but kept screaming to us and crying to be taken away.” Beckelman managed to take a few photographs which show the group of refugees exposed to the elements. (The better dressed men with hats were members of the visiting committee.) Due to the objections of a Lithuanian commander, he could only shoot from the side and from a certain distance. Yet even these imperfect photographs powerfully capture the desperate situation of refugees. After a very short stay (a longer one wasn’t allowed by the Lithuanian border guards), the visitors handed out some food and cigarettes, and headed back to Kaunas… 44Beckelman, Moses: Memorandum re expulsions over the Lithuanian German border, 8. 11. 1939, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York Office Records, 1933-44, file 874.

Uncertain Borders

The no man’s land near Suwałki visited by the commission wasn’t unique – quite the opposite: it was characteristic of the radicalization of anti-Jewish policies, expulsions and the erosion of Jewish citizenship in East-Central Europe. These parallels weren’t lost to contemporaries: Beckelman described the Suwałki expulsions as “recent ‘Zbaszyn’ deportations” 55Beckelman, Moses: Memorandum re expulsions over the Lithuanian German border, 8. 11. 1939, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York Office Records, 1933-44, file 874. and associated them with the deportation of up to twenty thousand Jews with Polish citizenship who lived in Germany, one year earlier. Many of them were caught in the no man’s land at the border town of Zbąszyń (Bentschen in German). Smaller or larger groups of refugees likewise lingered on the borders following the Anschluß of Austria, the Munich Agreement and the First Vienna Award (leading border revisions in which Czechoslovakia was forced to cede territory in favor of Nazi Germany and Hungary).

Not only Nazi brutality, but also the very phenomenon of the no man’s land came as a shock to those trapped within its confines as well as to observers who attempted to make sense of this strange space. Invoking images of the barren front landscapes of the First World War, the term no man’s land drew parallel to the abandonment of soldiers between the lines. Although often compared to refugee camps and labeled as such, the encampments in the no man’s land differed from these expected refugee spaces. In contrast, the no man’s land was a stateless space, one in which the nation state didn’t execute its sovereignty and enforce the rule of law. The fluid nature of these frontiers and random raids notwithstanding, no state or other agency took responsibility for the rules inside the no man’s land and ordered the time and space of the refugees; the states drew an artificial border around such groups and the application of their powers was generally restricted to guarding of the perimeter. Carving out space for those who lacked protection, as citizens or as refugees, the no man’s land embodied and made visible Jewish statelessness. Improvised no man’s lands, such as the one in the vicinity of Suwałki, lacked not only in physical structures associated with civilization and the certainty of home, such as a street grid and infrastructure, but also in preexisting social structures and hierarchies. The dynamic social groups between the lines depended on outside assistance, in particular that of the Jewish communities and aid organizations.

The higher frequency, duration and visibility of the East-Central European no man’s land, in comparison to similar events on the Western borders of Nazi Germany, increased thanks to the multiethnic and disputed character of the region as well as the uncertain and shifting sovereignty. The territory often labeled as the Suwałki Triangle embodied these tensions: historically a zone of contest between the empires and a Polish territory during the inter-war period, it was home to a diverse population of Polish, Lithuanian and Yiddish speakers and to important Jewish communities. 66Holc, Janine, 2018: The Polish-Lithuanian Borderlands, Past and Present: Multicultural versus Decolonial Responses to Local and State Violence, pp 654–670 in: Nationalities Papers 46(4). The same characterized the other side of the border: Vilnius (or Wilno in Polish) had a Polish majority and, at the same time, was the focal point of traditional Jewish learning as well as the cradle of modern research into the history and culture of East European Jews.

The turbulent events of September 1939 underscored the insecure condition of the border region. Based on the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (August 1939), the Soviet Union followed the invasion of Nazi Germany into Poland and occupied its East, including the Suwałki Triangle. By the beginning of October, however, as a result of a correction of the border, its administration was transferred to Germany. The Vilnius region, which was also part of the inter-war Poland, was also first occupied by the Red Army. Yet, following the Soviet-Lithuanian negotiations, the authority of the region was transferred to Lithuania, in exchange for the permission of Soviet military presence in the country. The Red Army vacated Vilnius on October 27, 1939 – just as the Nazi expulsions from the Suwałki region started. 77Żbikowski, Andrzej, 2017: Poles and Jews in Vilnius Region in 1939-1941, pp 55-65 in: Venclauskas, Linas (ed.): Casablanca of the North: Refugees and Rescuers in Kaunas 1939-1940, Vilnius / Kaunas: Versus aureus / Sugihara Diplomats for Life Foundation, 2017, pp 56. Immediately after the Soviet evacuation from the Vilnius region, based on the allegations of Jewish loyalty to the Soviets and accusations that Jews drive up the price of bread, local Poles started a pogrom in Vilnius. 88Żbikowski, Andrzej, 2017: Poles and Jews in Vilnius Region in 1939-1941, pp 55-65 in: Venclauskas, Linas (ed.): Casablanca of the North: Refugees and Rescuers in Kaunas 1939-1940, Vilnius / Kaunas: Versus aureus / Sugihara Diplomats for Life Foundation, 2017, pp 57.

The Nazi expulsions from the Suwałki region were preceded by public humiliation of Jews and the confiscation of their property. In a way reminiscent of the expulsions of Jews from Burgenland, immediately after the Anschluß of Austria, Jews from Suwałki, Sejny and other border communities were rounded up and expelled, under chaotic circumstances. At the beginning of November, Lithuanian authorities registered 560 Jews from the Suwałki region who were in Lithuania and claimed to be aware of another 1500 who were pushed by the Nazis to the border. At the same time, reports of other groups stuck on Lithuanian-Soviet frontier poured in.

Lithuanian diplomats repeatedly intervened in Berlin – yet with only limited success. The German authorities only admitted that two hundred refugees were supposedly expelled by a mistaken order of the mayor of Sejny, with no authorization from above – an explanation no one could have taken seriously. While the Gestapo and the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Auswärtiges Amt) allowed this small group back, they refused to accept the majority. The communication of Kazys Škirpa, the Lithuanian ambassador in Berlin, with the officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sometimes bordered on the absurd. While Ernst Woermann, a high-ranking German official, suggested to the Lithuanians to dispose of the unwanted refugees in a different way (that is pushing them across the Soviet border), the Lithuanian ambassador opined that instead of sending their Jews into the tiny Lithuania, the Nazis could concentrate them elsewhere, for example into a ghetto in the Lublin area. 99Liekis , Šarūnas, 2017: The Suwalki Triangle. A Window into the Genocidal Future, 83-93 pp 83-93 in: Venclauskas, Linas (ed.): Casablanca of the North: Refugees and Rescuers in Kaunas 1939-1940, Vilnius / Kaunas: Versus aureus / Sugihara Diplomats for Life Foundation, 2017, pp 90.

These were no empty phrases: the diplomat was clearly aware of the deportations to Nisko, the first Nazi attempt to launch mass relocation of Jews to the occupied territories in the Lublin area. In the second half of October 1939, several thousand Jews from Vienna, Moravská Ostrava (Mährisch Ostrau) and Katowice were deported by Adolf Eichmann and his men into an improvised camp in the Lublin area. The plan was eventually abandoned, and some deportees were allowed to return, but the majority was hunted across the Soviet frontier, roughly at the same time as the Suwałki expulsions unfolded. At the beginning of December 1939, the German administration in the town of Suwałki ordered the expulsion of local Jews – in panic, many Jews fled towards the Lithuanian border and roamed around the no man’s land. 1010Berelson, Yeheskel: The Destruction of Suwalk, in: Kagan, Berl (ed.): Memorial Book of Suvalk, http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Suwalki/suwe049.html (June 22, 2017). Those who stayed behind were deported to the Lublin area. The simultaneous occurrence of expulsions and deportations is indeed no coincidence – it demonstrates the strong connection between Nazi expulsions, restrictive refugee policies of other states and first deportations.

Into Lawlessness

The no man’s land emerged as an unintended result of the attempt of states to establish a clear and impenetrable border line and keep aliens out, at the time when refugees knocked on the doors in large numbers. Yet in practice, the sealed borders also led to the proliferation of clandestine activities, blurring the borders and turning them into a wide zone of illegality. While unauthorized acts accompany every border of the nation state and smuggling of goods and people was widespread on East-Central European borders, the no man’s land gave this layer of illegality a new quality and intensity.

The Suwałki Triangle expulsions made refugees roam around the border and search for the opportunity to cross illegally. The thirty-one men, women and children, for instance, the commission found on the field, were all what remained of the 281 Jews expelled from Wiżajny: younger and physically capable refugees tried to escape and left behind families with small children, the elderly and sick people. The witness brought to the no man’s land together with her daughter reported that after about two weeks they had joined a group that tried to cross the Lithuanian border illegally and was led by a man with four children.

“I shall not be able to forget this night until I die. We dragged over the fields, tired, exhausted, frozen and only half alive. As it was dark we lost our way and sank into the marshy ground up to our knees. […] We have threatened the children that if they would say a word, we would have to eat them.”

The help of a Jewish activist from Lithuania and of a paid smuggler notwithstanding, the witness was eventually caught by Lithuanian soldiers and returned to the no man’s land. Only several days later, she and another fifteen refugees were successfully smuggled across the border and reached the Lithuanian town of Vilkaviškis where they were assisted by local Jews and the Joint. For a short time, Lithuania became a volatile refuge and for few, a gate to further emigration.

For countries like Lithuania, the no man’s land was a space which shouldn’t exist in the world of the nation states. Instead of border and territory security, it stood for the increasing crisis of their sovereignty. For the refugees, the no man’s land was the ultimate nightmare: it combined their physical suffering and a sense of abandonment with the recognition of exclusion from citizenship and rights.

This article was created as a part of the „Unlikely Refuge?“ project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program (Grant Agreement No. 819461).The research for this article was made possible by the Sorrell and Lorraine Chesin/JDC Archives Fellowship and the Margit Meissner Fellowship for the Study of the Holocaust in Czech Lands at the Jack,
Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

    Footnotes

  • 1Memorandum – “Nobody’s Land”, 10. 11. 1939, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York Office Records, 1933-44, file 874.
  • 2Memorandum – “Nobody’s Land”, 10. 11. 1939, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York Office Records, 1933-44, file 874; Traurige Bilder aus dem “Niemandsland” (German translation of an article from Lietuvos Žinios, 14. 11. 1939, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, RG 14.108M, Selected records from the Political Archive of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs (RZ 214, Referat D-Abteilung Inland), R99491, microfiche No 5845.
  • 3Undated and anonymous testimony (first page missing), American Jewish Joint Distribtuion Committee Archives, New York Office Records, 1933-44, file 874.
  • 4Beckelman, Moses: Memorandum re expulsions over the Lithuanian German border, 8. 11. 1939, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York Office Records, 1933-44, file 874.
  • 5Beckelman, Moses: Memorandum re expulsions over the Lithuanian German border, 8. 11. 1939, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York Office Records, 1933-44, file 874.
  • 6Holc, Janine, 2018: The Polish-Lithuanian Borderlands, Past and Present: Multicultural versus Decolonial Responses to Local and State Violence, pp 654–670 in: Nationalities Papers 46(4).
  • 7Żbikowski, Andrzej, 2017: Poles and Jews in Vilnius Region in 1939-1941, pp 55-65 in: Venclauskas, Linas (ed.): Casablanca of the North: Refugees and Rescuers in Kaunas 1939-1940, Vilnius / Kaunas: Versus aureus / Sugihara Diplomats for Life Foundation, 2017, pp 56.
  • 8Żbikowski, Andrzej, 2017: Poles and Jews in Vilnius Region in 1939-1941, pp 55-65 in: Venclauskas, Linas (ed.): Casablanca of the North: Refugees and Rescuers in Kaunas 1939-1940, Vilnius / Kaunas: Versus aureus / Sugihara Diplomats for Life Foundation, 2017, pp 57.
  • 9Liekis , Šarūnas, 2017: The Suwalki Triangle. A Window into the Genocidal Future, 83-93 pp 83-93 in: Venclauskas, Linas (ed.): Casablanca of the North: Refugees and Rescuers in Kaunas 1939-1940, Vilnius / Kaunas: Versus aureus / Sugihara Diplomats for Life Foundation, 2017, pp 90.
  • 10Berelson, Yeheskel: The Destruction of Suwalk, in: Kagan, Berl (ed.): Memorial Book of Suvalk, http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Suwalki/suwe049.html (June 22, 2017).
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