The Shtetl of the Gillis Family
Kretinge, Kretynga, Crottingen, Krottingen, Krettingen,
Кретинген, Кретинга, קרעטינגע, קרעטינגען
The Death of a Community - The Holocaust in Kretinga
Like all the Jewish communities of Europe, Kretinga Jewry was devastated by the events of the Holocaust. Though not directly related to the actions of the German Nazis, the attitudes of the Lithuanian neighbours would become central, leading to the direct complicity of the local Police in the massacre of the Jews in Kretinga. The murder of the Jews of Kretinga and the adjacent towns of Palanga and Gargždai are also important in the development of the holocaust as these were the first organised Nazi massacres of entire communities in Eastern Europe.
Pre War Anti Semitism
Anti Semitic incidents had been part of the life of Kretinga’s Jewish community during the interwar period of Lithuanian independence. The economic depression of the 1930s led to the rise of the antisemitic Lithuanian organisation of merchants (Verslas) who called for the boycott of Jewish traders. Furthermore, the proximity of the pro-Nazi Germans in nearby Memel in East Prussia strongly influenced the growth of anti Jewish feeling across the border in Lithuania.
Significant anti-Semitic episodes included the smearing of tar across shop fronts with Hebrew and Yiddish signs in 1928 and a blood libel that was repressed by the local authorities in 1936. The entrance of the Benedictine nunnery displayed the sign, "Entrance to strangers and particularly to Jews is forbidden". The situation deteriorated further after the Nazis annexed nearby Memel to Germany in March 1939, causing an exodus of Jewish refugees. Some 300 refugees from Memel were absorbed by the Jewish community of Kretinga, raising the Jewish population just prior to the war from 700 to around 1000.
In 1940, as a result of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union, who immediately nationalised the factories and the retail trade, much of which was in Jewish hands. All the Zionist parties and youth movements were disbanded and the Jewish educational institutions closed. The NKVD was active in Kretinga and kept the local jail crowded with Lithuanian nationalists and anti-communist Jews. indeed, seven ‘undesirable’ Jews were exiled to Siberia in June 1941, a move that paradoxically saved their lives. However, many Jews welcomed the new rulers and took an active part in its institutions and in the Soviet celebrations of October 1940.
Map of Kretinga area after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: This map shows the border between East Prussia and the Soviet Union in 1941. Kretinga was only two-kilometres from the Nazi border (blue line) until Operation Barbarossa. The German customs house (southern red dot) is clearly marked alongside the rail station to Memel (Klaipeda)
Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, commenced on June 22nd 1941. On the heals of the invading Wehrmacht were mobile killing squads known as Einsatzgruppen divided into four groups (A, B, C and D), which were in turn divided into smaller units called Einsatzkommandos and Sonderkommandos. Einsatzgruppe A, commanded by SS - Brigadefuhrer Walter Stahlecker, was fomed to carry out mass executions of the Jewish population of Lithuania and other Baltic areas. Operating in Lithuania was Einsatzkommando 3 of Einsatzgruppe A, the deeds of which are described in detail in a report sent by its commander, Karl Jaeger, on December 1st. 1941. In the report Jaeger totals the executions, town by town, outlined the deaths of 137,000 Lithuanian Jews beginning in July 4th. 1941.
However, the massacre of the Jews of three towns - Gargždai, Palanga and Kretinga, commenced in the period between the Nazi invasion and start of the murders of Einsaztkommando 3. These killings were the first mass executions conducted by Germany and are regarded by many as the beginning of the Holocaust.
Images of the infamous Jaeger Report detailing the murder of Lithuania's Jews
The Taking of Kretinga
Just three hours after the opening shot of Operation Barbarossa, on the 22nd June 1941, the German's 61st Infantry Division of the 176 Brigade of the Nord Heeresgruppe led by General Major Robert Sattler, entered Kretinga without opposition. Either under orders of Dr. Walter Stahlecker, the Commander of Einsatzgruppe A, or more probably as we will see, on their own initiative, the group given the task to ‘deal’ with the communists and Jews in the Kretinga area was the Tilsit Gestapo of Eastern Prussia (now Sovetsk in Russia), under the command of Dr. Erich Frohwann and Edwin Sakuth of the Memel Border Police. This military grouping, known as the Einsatzkommando Tilsit, was led by SS-Major Hans - Joachim Böhme. Unlike the organised structure of the other Einsatzgruppen units which were staffed by convinced and deeply anti-Semitic Nazis, the Einsatzkommando Tilsit was created the day of the invasion as an ad-hoc execution squad. Its membership largely consisted of randomly recruited ordinary police officers, civil servants, security forces, and border guards. Few were convinced Nazis and some were not Nazis at all. Yet, within a day they went from policemen to Holocaust perpetrators. Soon their actives soon became part of the organised policy of Nazi operations in the Lithuanian border region. Böhme, proud of his work, filed a report back to headquarters in Tilsit detailing their actions and copied it on to Berlin in the "Operational Situation Report no. 14", giving us a detailed insight into their evil doings in the days following the occupation of the Kretinga region.
With the Tilsit Einsatzkommando was a Lithuanian, Franas Lukys Pranas alias Jakys, the former chief of the Lithuanian state security police. After the Soviet occupation in 1940 he fled to Germany, returning with the Nazis with the position of Secret Police Commander in Kretinga for the newly formed Lithuanian Security Police (LSP), also known as Saugumas. Under his command were a number of Lithuanian nationalist activists, headed by the monk Petras Janušaitis, a brother of the local minister.
On arrival in Kretinga, Jakys and other Kretinga members of the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF - Lietuvos Aktyvistų Frontas) began compiling lists of Communists, Communist Youth and Soviet activists on the first day of the war, and turned the lists over to the Gestapo and the German military commander. On June 23rd. 1941, the military commander issued an order that all males between 14 to 60-year-old male were required to assemble at the town square at 10 A.M. on June 24th. Some two thousand people assembled and were immediately surrounded by Germans and LAF members, wearing white armbands. The commander ordered communists to step forward, and some of them did. White Armbanders forced others forward. In total about 100 to 120 people were selected. Jews were then segregated and the gentiles were released. Soviet activists and Jews were herded into a section of the town square and guarded by German soldiers. A total of 189 people were lined up in rows of three. Those detained were taunted and forced to run around the square in a kneeling position while the Germans and Lithuanians beat them mercilessly with belts and clubs. This humiliation continued through the day and at twilight the Jews were forced into the synagogue on Meguvos Street while others were taken to the Tiškevičius manor and locked up.
On this same day the Lithuanian workers of Bezalel Cale Gillis drowned him in the dye vat of his own clothing factory.
The First Massacre of Kretinga Jews
On the next day, on the 25th June 1941, the Germans, led by the Lithuanian Police, marched 180 Jewish men from the synagogue to a fenced plot on the ruins of the Orthodox Church, which had been hit and destroyed in the first days of the war. In addition 30 Jewish men who had defied the assembly order were rounded up and forced to join the others in the square. At 5 pm the Germans (30–40 soldiers) put the Jews on trucks and drove them about three kilometers west, on the road from Kretinga to Palanga, to the Kveciai forest near Pryšmančiai, where the retreating Red Army had prepared anti-tank ditches. The Jews were forced to build embankments alongside these ditches. The German plan was that the victims would stand on the embankments, be shot, and then fall into the ditches. But with evening approaching the embankments were not ready. To make them work faster, the Jews were beaten. The screams of the victims were heard from a great distance. Somewhat later Jakys, his deputy Gabrielius Bražinskas and a high-ranking German officer arrived. With the completion of the preparations, the Jews were taken in groups of ten to the top of the embankments with their backs to the pits, facing the firing squads.
Operational Situation Report no. 14 of the Tilsit Gestapo: detailing the actions of the Tilsit Einsaztcommando in Krottingen (Kretinga) up till July 1st 1941 - The First Massacre of Kretinga Jews
The Gestapo chief then read out the sentence of the Jews, “You are to be executed on the orders of the Führer, as you have harmed the German army”. The firing squads consisted of 20 Nazi soldiers, including members of the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe cadets and Lithuanian policemen. Those who did not die in the first volley were finished off individually by members of the Gestapo. Bodies that did not fall off the embankment were thrown into the pits by the following group of victims.
Among the victims were fathers and sons. In one group a boy of 12 was in line after his father. The father was counted the tenth of his group. The son begged the Germans to let him die with his father. The Gestapo officer agreed and removed another Jew from this group and allowed the boy to take his place. In a further incident a former World War I Jewish German officer displaying his Iron Cross First Class on his chest was removed from the line and taken to Memel. His fate though not known is clear.
On the same day 50 Lithuanian gentiles, accused of being Communists, were arrested. The Germans considered the number too high and brought them before an investigating board. After a short while, 30 were released, the remaining 20 meeting the same fate as the Jews.
On this day, the 25th. July 1941, 214 Jewish men of Kretinga were murdered. The Operational Situation Report USSR No. 14 dated July 6th. 1941, to SS-Brigadeführer Müller in the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, notes the euphemistically named 'mopping-up operations' in the former Soviet-Lithuanian border area, detailing the murder of over 500 Jews in the towns of Garsden (Gargždai), Krottingen (Kretinga) and Polangen (Palanga). The report states that in Garsden and other towns the "Jewish population had supported the Russian border guards." The Germans were thus clearing the former border area of all Jews and communist sympathisers. Incredibly the document also shows that the killings were not undertaken on order of the Reich but were conducted voluntarily. Page three of the report testifies that, "The collaboration with the German armed forces was coordinated by the town commanding officers who voluntarily assisted with the planned operations. The implementation of the operation was discussed on June 24 with SS-Brigadeführer Stahlecker who basically declared his agreement with the mopping-up operations near the German border".
In the course of the trial at Ulm of the Tilsit Einsaztcommando it was revealed that of the 214 people murdered that day, about 180 were Jews, the rest being Lithuanian Communists. Those shot included chairman of the Kretinga executive committee Padleckas, Jeronimas Galdikas, attorney Šmučkovičius, Doctor David Karlinski, Mendalovičius with his two sons, and others.
The Burning of the Synagogue & More ExecutionsMany Jews remained imprisoned in the synagogue. During the night of the 26th. July a fire 'mysteriously' broke out in the synagogue quickly spreading to the surrounding area, destroying many of the buildings in the centre of the town. Jewish men who had been looked in the synagogue perished in the flames. The Jews were accused of arson, though the fire had been ignited by Vincas Smilgys, an officer of the Lithuanian Security Police. As punishment, on 28th. June a further 63 men were taken from to the Kveciai forest and executed, followed by 15 more on subsequent days.
Other Jewish men were imprisoned in the local jail under the watch of Lithuanian guards. In the board of inquiry after the German defeat, a witness, Antanas Betzanicius, reported that he had seen 80 Jews being taken out of the cells to the Akmena river bank and forced to crawl from the bank down to the river. Those who did not crawl fast enough were severely beaten with clubs. Later the guards forced them into the river to swim from bank to bank. Those who did not succeed were shot in the river. Afterwards the survivors were returned to the cells.
Massacre in the Jewish CemeteryJewish prisoners locked up in the Kretinga jail were led to the southern edge of the Jewish cemetery, near the river, to dig a ditch. Within a few days a ditch of about 6 meters in length, 2.5 meters in width and about 2 meters deep was dug. Between July 11th. to the 18th., 120 men were taken from the jail to be shot at the Jewish cemetery. The murders were committed by security police officer Vincas Smilgys, known for his extreme cruelty. In late July 1941, Pranas Jakys summoned Smilgys and told him that 17 Jewish women needed to be liquidated the following night “without any screaming and noise”. Smilgys together with the white armbanders dug a pit in the Jewish cemetery, brought the women there and, assisted by other white armbanders, killed them with shovels. This killing was carried out during the night. It seems there were other similar cases, because some people saw Smilgys killing Jewish women early in the morning.” In mid-August, 20 further women and children, members of families of 15 men already murdered, were executed.
At the beginning of August 1941 a meeting was held at the headquarters of the military governor of the region. Šedviatas, the head of the district council; Piktučys, the mayor of Kretinga; Jakys, the Secret Police Commander; and Petrauskas, the Police Commander and leader of the LAF nationalist activists of the region, together with a number of Gestapo officers, attended.
Various problems of the region were discussed, among them the problem of providing for the remaining Jewish population. The Germans suggested that the Lithuanians exterminate the remaining Jewish women and children as they were not worth feeding, nor were they of value as labourers. They also recommended that the Lithuanians carry out the executions themselves. The Lithuanians hesitated, declaring that they had no orders to do so from the newly formed puppet government in Kaunas (Kovno), delaying the decision until the next day. In the meanwhile the Chief of Police in Kaunas telephoned and told them that no central decision had been made to carry out the murder of women and children, leaving the judgment to the local commanders. Understanding the agenda, the Lithuanian leaders of Kretinga prepared to carry out the execution of the women and children at the beginning of September.
The Massacre Continues - The End of Kretinga Jewry
Hundreds of Jewish women, children and elderly men had also been arrested in late June 1941. Through much of July and August they were forced into the makeshift 'ghetto' in a farmhouse in the hamlet of Pryšmančiai, just west of Kretinga, while others were held in a barn on Kluonalių (Taikos) Street in Kretinga. Around 100 women were taken to a camp in Valderiškės, a village near Palanga. On the 12th October 1941, they were shot in Kunigiškiai Forest, together with 300 Jews from the Jewish community in Palanga. On order of Böhme and Franz Behrendt, Chief of the Memel Police, the killings were organised by Jakys together with the police commander of Palanga, Juozas Adomaitis. Twenty policemen arrived and marched the women to the massacre site. Using the headlights from a truck belonging to the Palanga cooperative and another brought by Jakys from Kretinga, the shooting began after midnight and ended in the early morning.
A group of 120 women, children and old men remained in Pryšmančiai. They were told that the heads of their families had been taken to a separate labour camp and that their request to join their husbands would be granted in the beginning of September.
The victims, now defined as unnütze Esser, literally 'useless eaters'' were assembled, taken to a nearby barn and told that they would undergo a medical examination. Each in turn disrobed and stepped outside. As each person came out, the Lithuanian policemen fell upon them with branches, iron bars, bayonets and knives, beating and stabbing them. The known leaders of the Police involved in these murders were again Jakys, Smilgys and Bražinskas. Throughout, the Tilsit Gestapo stood watching and photographed this event. The remaining Jews were later shot.
The Sad Conclusion
Between June and September 1941 700 Kretinga Jews were murdered in the Kveciai Wood. A further 356 were murdered and buried in August 1941 in the Kretinga Jewish cemetery and 100 in October in the Kunigiškių Forest. Over four short months centuries of Jewish life in Kretinga had been destroyed. A memorial page to Kretinga's Jews can be found here. After the war the Soviets established a commission to report on the war crimes in Kretinga.
The Memorial to the Jews of Kretinga at the Massacre Site in the Kveciai Forest
The Memorial to the Jews of Kretinga at the Massacre Site in the Jewish Cemetery
The Memorial to the Jews of Palanga and Kretinga at the Massacre Site in the Kunigiškiai Forest
Returning Humanity to the Victims - Faces of Some of the Murdered Jews of Kretinga
This article is based on a series of articles that use original documentation as their factual basis. Please feel welcome to contact if you wish to correct or augment the information.
1 - There are a series of Wikipedia articles - Einsaztgruppen, Stahlecker etc.
2 - Kretinga. In. Dov Levin. 1996. Ed. Pinkas Hakehilot: Lite. Yad Vashem. Jerusalem Pp. 617-621.(Hebrew).
3 - Shtetl Links - Kretinga
4 - Eyewitness account of Shraga Alswang, Academy of Sciences of Soviet Lithuania.
5 - The Popular Massacres of Lithuania, Part II. Vilnius, 1973.
6 - Report from Stapo Tilsit,1 July 1941, on the killing of the Jews in Garsden, Krottingen and Polangen.
7 - 'Justiz und NS-Verbrechen' - lists of Nazi war trials.
8 - Article by Christoph Deickmann on the Extermination of Lithuanian Jewry (in Hebrew).
9 - Patrick Tobin. 2009. No Country for Old Fighters: Postwar Germany and the Origins of the Ulm Einsatzkommando Trial. MA Thesis. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
10 - Alfredas Rukšėnas. 2014, Annihilation of the Jewish Community of Kretinga in Summer and Autumn 1941.
11 - Konrad Kwiet. 1998. Rehearsing for Murder: The Beginning of the Final Solution in Lithuania in June 1941. Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12.1: 3-26.
12 - Milda Jakulytė-Vasil. Ed. 2011. Lithuanian Holocaust Atlas. Vilnius.