Murderers who take pride in their crime
by Krzysztof Janiewicz

Partisans or bandits?

On February 12, 2001, the Canadian Polish Congress wrote to Poland's Institute of National Remembrance/Memory (Instytut Pamieci Narodowej-IPN) to initiate an investigation into a mass murder perpetrated in the village of Koniuchy (now Kaniukai, Lithuania) during World War II. According to the count of the perpetrators themselves, some 300 defenceless Poles-mostly women and children-were massacred in that bloody orgy.

Professor Witold Kulesza, the director of the IPN's Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation, announced on February 22, that there would be a formal investigation into this matter, thus bringing to fruition an undertaking commenced by the Congress' Information Services in 1996.

One of the most tragic aspects of any war is the murder of the civilian population which, most often innocently, gets caught up in sweeping events that unfold around them and over which they have little or no control. As extensive documentary evidence shows, Jews hiding in the forests were most often killed during German raids, by Soviet partisans, and by marauding bands of various descriptions. A much smaller number of Jews—partisans and forest people—were killed by Polish partisans for taking part in incessant raids for provisions against the Polish population. There are abundant descriptions authored by Jewish partisans attesting to how cruel and violent these robberies could be.

The Jewish partisans in Rudniki forest, who had subordinated themselves to the Soviet partisan command, consisted of four divisions: "Death to Fascism," led by Jacob (Yaakov) Prenner; "Struggle," led by Avrasha Rasel; "To Victory," led by Shmuel Kaplinsky; and "Avenger," led by Abba Kovner.

There were fifty partisans in each division, and the four divisions together formed the so-called Jewish Brigade, of which Abba Kovner was the commander. See Rich Cohen, The Avengers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 110.

Subsequently, the Jewish Brigade was disbanded and the Jewish partisans were merged into the Lithuanian Brigade which, despite its name, contained few ethnic Lithuanians; its make-up was said to be 20 percent Jewish. Ibid., 112, 121.

We also learn that after the city of Wilno was taken and the Red Army advanced into East Prussia, because of the intervention of a Jew who worked for the Soviet high command Jewish partisans were excused from engaging in battle; they remained in Wilno were they were presented with Medals of Valour, the highest honour in the Red Army. Ibid., 154.

According to Isaac Kowalski, the partisans of the almost exclusively Jewish "Nekamah" unit were appointed to various important economic posts in the city. Isaac Kowalski, A Secret Press in Nazi Europe: The Story of a Jewish United Partisan Organization (New York: Central Guide Publishers, 1969), 386.

In northeastern Poland, the peasants were close to starvation after they "met" both the German and Soviet "requisitions." In some cases, they defended their property and resisted these raids, only to see their homes and villages "pacified." Soviet-Jewish partisans obliterated the village of Koniuchy in the Rudniki forest, near Wilno, in April 1944. According to Jewish participants who took part in this bloodbath, some three hundred inhabitants—mostly women and children—were slaughtered. Peasants attempting to escape from the inferno were shot. Even an infant found by two Jewish women partisans near the body of his murdered mother was picked up and hurled into a blazing hut. The following account is by a Jewish participant of that inferno:

"The Brigade Headquarters decided to raze Koniuchy to the ground to set an example to others. One evening a hundred and twenty of the best partisans from all the camps, armed with the best weapons they had, set out in the direction of the village. There were about 50 Jews among them, headed by Yaakov Prenner. At midnight they came to the vicinity of the village and assumed their proper positions. The order was not to leave any one alive. Even livestock was to be killed and all property was to be destroyed. …

The signal was given just before dawn. Within minutes, the village was surrounded on three sides. On the fourth side was the river and the only bridge over it was in the hands of the partisans. With torches prepared in advance, the partisans burned down the houses, stables, and granaries, while opening heavy fire on the houses. … Half-naked peasants jumped out of windows and sought escape. But everywhere fatal bullets awaited them. Many jumped into the river and swam towards the other side, but they too, met the same end. The mission was completed within a short while. Sixty households, numbering about 300 people, were destroyed, with no survivors."

See Chaim Lazar, Destruction and Resistance (New York: Shengold Publishers, 1985), 174-75

"Konyuchi [sic] was a village of dusty streets and squat, unpainted houses. … The partisans - Russians, Lithuanians and Jews - attacked Konyuchi from the fields, the sun at their backs. The partisans-Russians, Lithuanians and Jews-attacked Konyuchi [sic] from the fields, the sun at their backs. There was gunfire from the guard towers. Partisans returned the fire.

The peasants ducked into houses. Partisans threw grenades onto roofs and the houses exploded into flame. Other houses were torched. Peasants ran from their front doors and raced down the streets. The partisans chased them, shooting men, women and children. Many peasants ran in the direction of the German garrison, which took them through a cemetery on the edge of town.

The partisan commander, anticipating this move, had stationed several men behind the gravestones. When these partisans opened fire, the peasants turned back, only to be met by the soldiers coming up from behind. Caught in a cross fire, hundreds of peasants were killed."

See Rich Cohen, The Avengers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 145.

"The entire village [of Koniuchy] was laid in ashes and its inhabitants were killed," according to Zalman Wylozny who served in the "Death to Fascists" detachment.

See Golota, "Losy Zydów ostroleckich w czasie II wojny swiatowej," Biuletyn Zydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, no. 187 (1998): 32.

Kowalski, A Secret Press in Nazi Europe, 333-34; also reproduced in Isaac Kowalski, comp. and ed., Anthology on Armed Jewish Resistance, 1939-1945, volume 4 (Brooklyn, New York: Jewish Combatants Publishers House, 1991), 390-91.

According to Kowalski, Koniuchy was located about ten kilometres from the periphery of the partisan base, but there is no mention by him that the residents were going out of their way to hunt down Jewish or Soviet partisans. (Indeed, such conduct would have been suicidal.) Rather, whenever the partisans "crossed" or "passed" the village on their way to "important and dangerous missions" of an unspecified nature, they "were met by sniper fire." Since there was no compelling reason for the partisans having to pass repeatedly through a village ten kilometres from their base, it is apparent that these confrontations occurred during "economic" actions, i.e., raids on this village.

Polish historian, Kazimierz Krajewski, disputes the Jewish versions. The village was not the "fortress" it is made out to be and its entire "arsenal" consisted of several rusted rifles. The sole cause of the villagers' misfortune was that they attempted to fend off relentless and increasingly violent partisan raids. Krajewski also mentions that, on April 27, 1944, shortly before the assault on Koniuchy, Soviet partisans attacked the hamlet of Niewoniance, which also supported the Home Army. Two families of Home Army members consisting of eight people-were murdered and their farmsteads burned to the ground.

See Krajewski, Na Ziemi Nowogródzkiej, 511-12. We now know, as well, that the nearest German garrisons or police post was six kilometres away in Rakliszki. See Malewski, "Masakra w Koniuchach," Nasza Gazeta, March 8,

According to the Polish historian Kazimierz Krajewski's "Na Ziemi Nowogrodzkiej: "Now"-Nowogródzki Okreg Armii Krajowej", published in Warsaw in 1997:

"The only 'crime' committed by the inhabitants of Koniuchy was the fact that they had had enough of the daily - or, rather, nightly - robberies and assaults, and they wanted to organize self-defence. The Bolsheviks from the Rudniki Forest decided to annihilate the village in order to terrorize into submission the inhabitants of other settlements. ...

The massacre of the population of Koniuchy, including women and children, has been described by Chaim Lazar as an outstanding 'combat operation,' of which he is genuinely proud.

The description [by Lazar] of the village's 'fortifications' is a complete nonsense. It was an average village, in which a group of men has organized a self-defence unit. Their equipment consisted of a few rusty rifles."

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