Simnas (Simna) and Lithuania

Lithuania, the southernmost and largest Baltic state, has a population of almost 4 million and a shared early history with Poland (an alliance sealed by marriage that lasted from the 1300s until the 1700s), although in the past couple of centuries it is Russia that has loomed large over Lithuania. The historic capital has been Vilnius (Vilna), but because the city became a bastion of Polish culture in the 19th century and was annexed by Poland in 1919, Kaunas (Kovno) became the capital of a smaller, independent Lithuania after World War I.

The whole country became one large killing field from 1940 to the early 1950s: first courtesy of the Soviets when they occupied Lithuania in 1940; then under Nazi Germany during 1941-44; and then again under the Soviets during 1945-52. All told, more than half a million Lithuanians perished, including almost 200,000 Jews. The country’s independence was recognized by the Soviet Union in September of 1991, though it took two more years for the last of the Soviet troops to depart Lithuanian soil.

The pre-1940 Jewish presence in Lithuania consisted of some 200 settlements with a total of about 240,000 souls, of whom nearly 100,000 lived in Vilnius where they accounted for nearly half of the city’s population. Vilnius had 105 houses of prayer, there were six daily Jewish newspapers, and Yiddish was the language of choice. Vilnius, and to a lesser extent Kaunas, had nurtured many eminent rabbis since the 18th century, such that Lithuania was renowned among Jews as one of the world’s greatest theological, educational and publishing centers. Many an early Zionist also hailed from Lithuania, such as Eliezer ben Yehuda, who initiated the revival of the Hebrew language in Israel.

The ancestral home of the Porzecanskis/Perecanskis is the small rural village (shtetl) of Simnas (Simna), located in the southern part of the country in the district of Alytus (Alitus), some 70 miles west of Vilnius. We do not think that the family lived there for many generations, however; chances are that they came from Poland proper or from other Slavic territories to the south or east, since the family name is definitely of Slavic origin. It was from Simna (as it was called then) that Cusiel Porzecanski (1875?-1949) left for Libau (Liepaja) in Latvia, possibly already married to Lina Halpern, at some point in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and later (in the mid-1920s) emigrated to Montevideo, Uruguay. It was from there that Cusiel’s sister Sheine Porzecanski (1890?-1938?) left directly for Uruguay, also in the mid-1920s, after her husband Joel Fonkatz passed away. It was from there that Cusiel’s older sister Beile Frank Perecanski (1862-1952) and older brother Barney Frank (1873-1929), as he renamed himself, left for the United States early in the 20th century. Chana Green Kaplan (1905-89), the daughter of Cusiel’s other older sister Sara and her husband Saul Kaplan, likewise left Simna for South Africa. Moshe (Perecanski) Ziskind (1856-1931?), a younger brother of Leibzhik, also left Simna for Providence, RI, changing his last name to Frank, as well. Another brother of theirs, Shmuel Perecanski, likewise left for Springfield, MA, giving rise to yet another branch that adopted the Frank last name. And it was from Simna that Lea Elhanani Perecanski (1918- ), the daughter of Cusiel’s younger brother Fivel, left for Palestine in the 1930s, as did Leibzhik’s sister Sheine Michle Rabinowich Perecanski (? - 1956), with an offshoot in the U.S. (the descendants of Sara Rabinowich Berman). (For the Porzecanski/Perecanski family tree, click here.)

Virtually all those who didn’t leave Simna perished during August-September 1941, at a time when most of the rural Jewish communities of Lithuania were annihilated in the wake of the German invasion of late June of that year. In the cities of Kaunas and Vilnius, most Jews were herded into ghettos and then they were taken out to be shot, while a diminishing minority was allowed to stay in the ghettos – and starve. [For a first-person account of the slaughter in Kaunas by a survivor, see The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry (Brooklyn: Judaica Press, 1995).]

Among the few survivors of the massacre in Simna were two teenage brothers who spent three years in hiding in various farms in the vicinity of Simna. The eldest, Abelis Veinsteinas, kept a diary that was finally published in Israel more than three decades later [see Hope in Darkness by Aba Gefen (New York: Holocaust Library, 1989), an English translation distributed by the U.S. Holocaust Museum]. According to this eyewitness account, one hundred Jewish males were rounded up and shipped from Simna to Alitus on August 22nd 1941, never to be seen again; 60 young men and women suffered the same fate on September 1st; and the remaining Jews, 413 in all, were slaughtered in a forest outside Simna on September 12th.

Partial corroboration for this testimony can be found in a December 1941 secret report filed by SS Standartenfuhrer Karl Jager, who took over security police duties in Lithuania in July 1941. He provided a detailed accounting of all of the executions, including those involving our ancestral hometown of Simna. According to Jager, it only took a raiding squad under the command of SS Obersturmfuhrer Hamman – Hamman, of all names! – consisting of up to 10 men from the SS plus groups of Lithuanian partisans, to kill more than 130,000 Jews all around the country in less than six months. That averages out to about 800 killings per day. Jager’s macabre list includes the shooting of 68 males, 197 females and 149 children taken from Simna on September 12th, 1941. The date matches the Gefen account, the only difference being that the Nazis admitted to the shooting of 414 rather than 413 people on that day. The 160 Simna residents taken to Alitus were probably shot on September 9th, when according to Jager 1,279 people were killed there on that day (see http://remember.org/docss.html).

Unlike in Poland, where 3 million Jews lived and their liquidation could be accomplished only in large-scale death factories such as Auschwitz, in Lithuania (and elsewhere in the Baltics) the Jews, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands, were mainly shot to death in situ or in nearby forests or at military installations such as two forts in Kaunas. The single largest killing field was the Paneriai forest just outside Vilnius, where approximately 70,000 Jews were shot. The shootings were carried out largely by Lithuanian nationalists, who were encouraged to avenge Jewish collaboration with the hated Russians and were supplied and supervised by Nazi SS officers. Most of the Lithuanians who took part in the murder of Jews fled to Germany in the summer of 1944, when the Soviet army liberated Lithuania, and apparently were later deemed to be “displaced persons” – and were treated as war refugees worthy of assistance. (For a picture of a Lithuanian militia unit supervising the undressing of Jewish women before their execution in the Pajuoste forest see http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/, search photos for Lithuania, and go to picture #4; a member of the Lithuanian auxiliary police auctioning off the personal belongings of executed Jews in the outskirts of Kaunas can be seen in picture #9.) Consider the following information contained in a secret report by SS Brigadefuehrer Walter Stahlecker, which was found after the war’s end among SS Chief Heinrich Himmler’s private papers (see http://www.heritagefilms.com/LITHUANIA.html#EINSATZGRUPPEN).
In the very first hours after the entry of German troops [into Kaunas], local anti-Semitic forces were organized, despite the considerable difficulties involved, to carry out pogroms [persecutions] against the Jews. The [SS] security police [had] received appropriate orders and were in fact prepared to solve the Jewish problem by all available means and with utmost severity. It seemed desirable, however, that at least in the beginning the extraordinarily harsh means [to be employed] should not be recognized for what they were, for that would have caused concern even in German circles. On the surface the impression had to be created that it was the local population that had initiated the anti-Jewish measures as a spontaneous reaction to their oppression by the Jews for many years and to the Communist terror to which they had been exposed in the recent past. …

In Lithuania the initiative was taken by Lithuanian [anti-Soviet] partisans. On the night of June 25-26, they staged a pogrom in Kaunas in which 1,500 Jews were killed. Several synagogues were burned down or otherwise destroyed, and a Jewish neighborhood of 60 houses went up in flames. The next night, an additional 2,300 Jews were rendered harmless [sic] in the same manner. Kaunas has served as a model for similar actions in other parts of Lithuania. Pogroms, however, could not provide a complete solution to the Jewish problem. Large-scale executions have therefore been carried out all over the country, in which the local auxiliary police was also used, and they cooperated without a hitch.
Our trip to Simnas was helped greatly by a prior visit involving a Susan E. King, the founder and President of JewishGen Inc., a non-profit corporation formed to encourage Jewish genealogy, who posted a trip report on Simas on the Internet, apparently in 1997 (see http://www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/simnas/simnas.html). The report told us precisely what to look for in and near the town. We were also helped by descriptions of the location of our family’s original homes provided by our Great Aunt Lea Elhanani Perecanski, who as mentioned previously emigrated to Palestine when she was a teenager. She went back to visit her parents in the mid-1930s, and thus had a recollection of the various properties, which she identified positively after we sent her prints of the pictures shown here, in the section entitled Simnas. We are grateful to her son Avner for pointing out the existence of the Gefen eyewitness account.

Pictures of Simnas

Pictures of Lithuania

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