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The Sixteenth Lithuanian Division in the Red Army

 

The German invasion uprooted overnight thousands of Jews from the towns and villages of Lithuania, forced them to flee eastward and scattered them all over Russia. The general headquarters of the Soviet army issued an order at the end of 1941 to organize a Lithuanian division. In answer to the order many Lithuanian Jewsish refugees gathered in the vicinity of Gorky on the Volga river and joined the fighting units of the Red army.The 16th Lithuanian rifle division started to organize in the beginning of 1942. The Jewish soldiers were a majority during the first months of its establishment. They were concentrated mainly in rifle companies and divisional support units. A great percentage served also in medical as well as engineering units.

Initial formation of the division

The 16th Lithuanian rifle division started to organize in the beginning of 1942. The Jewish soldiers were a majority during the first months of its establishment. They were concentrated mainly in rifle companies and divisional support units. A great percentage served also in medical as well as engineering units.

Disastrous " baptism of fire"

The Soviet army trained the division a long time and did not spare means and equipment, but to the first battle of the division at the end of February 1943 she was sent hastily and unprepared. The commanders especially the division commander Žemaitis and division Commisar Mačiauskas proved their inability to wage war in tough situations under inhuman conditions without needed equipment and armaments. The commanders hid the true situation from the army headquarters, thereby causing its disasterous initial setback. In the battle in the vicinity of Auriol, around Aleksyevka many units of the division suffered heavy casualties, among them many Jews.

Change in command and reorganization

It became clear that the division command had to be changed and it was done. After the change and the reorganization, the division proved its fighting ability in battles moving all the way west up to the German border.Since the bitter battles around snow covered Auriol the division took an active part in the summer battles in the Kursk salient, stood firm during the German offensive in July 1943, repulsed all the attacks of the enemy, freed wide areas on the central front around Auriol-Bryansk and from the fall of 1943 till summer of 1944 fought bitter battles in the Byelorussian swamps and forests.  

The division finally arrives in Lithuania

 In spite of the desire to to be the first to enter Lithuania, the wish was not granted to them. Only after the Red army entered Vilnius on the 12th of July 1944, did the division received the desired orders to go to Lithuania. The division was quite far east from Lithuania and it took it 20 days to arrive to its destination. There were still many Germans in Lithuania and the division took part in the battles on Lithuanian soil around the city of Šiauliai, in the area of Kelmė, Šilelė and others, from the 2nd of August 1944. They fought around the city of Klaipėda and vicinity. On the 9 th May, 8 German divisions from the Courland pocket in Latvia(33 divisions ) surrendered to the division.

Spoils of war and "casualties"

Statistics show that from the the moment that the division went into battle, it freed 646 settlements, inflicted 30,000 casualties to enemy soldiers and took 12,000 prisoners of war. It destroyed a tremendous amount of enemy equipment but also suffered thousands of casualties in killed and wounded, among them many Jewish soldiers. Many mass and individual gaves of Jewish soldiers are strewn along the road of the Lithuanian divisions advance. We have to point out the big mass grave in the village of Aleksyevka where hundreds of Jewish soldiers are buried. The division was still active after the war and was finally desolved in 1956.

Jewish Pride

 A special honor and praise should be extanded to the Jewish soldiers in view of their ability so stand firm against anti-Semitic outbreaks in the division since they made up about 30 % of the manpower, the Russians and the Lithuanoans the rest and they used to make provocations and start fights. They not only stood firm against the priovocations but showed their Jewishness by having speaking Yiddish and having a lively communal life (even Hebrew could be heard occasionally).

Yiddish and Hebrew singing

They sang Yiddish and Hebrew songs while marching or sitting by a fire trying to overcome the bitter cold ,songs they learned in the youth organizations or schools. One should not forget that the large concentration of Jews in the division, more than a third of the men in the unit were raised in the national Jewish culture and traditions and they flouted it without shame or fear. A majority of the Jewish soldiers were young, Hebrew speakers, members of Zionist youth organizations etc.

The best of Lithuanian Jewry

They were the boys and girls who were lucky to escape the hell that was Lithuania right after the German invasion and came from various places; cities and towns. There were many from Vilnius and Kaunas, the two capitals, the permanent and the temporary ones of Lithuania, there were from šiauliai and Panevėzys Rokiškis and Kėdainiai, from Ūkmergė and Utena, Raseiniai and Mariampolė and other provincial communities. A few of them escaped from Lithuania by themselves, others succeeded in bringing with them part of their families and they found refuge in the Asian areas of the Soviet Union. The represented all strata of Lithuanian Jewry before the war. There were among them workers and intellectuals, pupils, teachers, clerks and people of other professions.

Jewish division soldiers; like a family

After their induction, the division became the family that they left in Lithuania. The soldiers, like a family acted together, bound by their common destiny. They had enough specific reasons to destroy the common enemy. Those reasons united them and gave them incentive and courage to fight.This could be seen by the thousands of medals and decorations granted to the Jewish soldiers for bravery in battle. 5000 Jewish soldiers of the division made a tremendous contribution to the war effort against the Nazis. They did not fight for Stalin or the Russian “Motherland” but mainly against the Nazi devil, whose declared aim was to annihilate the Jewish people.

For our "fathers and mothers"

When they received, during the battles, the first bitter news of the catastrophe that befell the Jewish communities in Lithuania, the desire to take revenge increased even more. Even before going into the first battles they took an oath “in Yiddish” that they will not spare themselves and shouted: “brothers, for our fathers ad mothers”. They still did not know the true extent of murder in Lithuania, that the Lithuanians murdered most of Lithuanian Jewry and not the Germans. It is still unclear how they would have reacted should they have known these facts while fighting in Lithuania.

Decorations for bravery

The Jewish soldiers of the division fought heroic battles and many of them received decorations and medals for outstanding courage and bravery. Among the twelve recipients of the highest order: “hero of the Soviet Union”, were four Lithuanian Jews. The Jewish combatants would have received many more decorations for bravery if they were not Jews. Their heroic battles against the Nazis disproved the false anti-Semitic claim that Jews are unable and unwilling to go to war.

Wolf Wilensky

The soldiers of the division point specifically to their friend Wolf Vilensky, born in Kaunas in 1919, the son of a baker, raised in a Zionist household where he received a traditional Jewish upbringing. Wolf studied in the Yavne high school and finished his studies in the Ort school. He worked in a Chalutz farm preparing for alyah his Zionist dream. He was drafted into the Lithuanian army in 1939 and when Lithuania became a Soviet republic was sent to an officers course in Vilnius.
He already showed his courage and ability of command from the first day the Germans invaded and was wounded in action. Subsequently he was sent to complete his officers course and was commisioned as a lieutenant.He quickly rose in the ranks of the Lithuanian division because of his courage, personal example and leadership and became the commander of the third battalion of the 249th brigade and finally the brigade commander.Because of his personality, the willingness to advance in front of his troops in battle and his courage he was loved in the division and among his friends and became a legend. He received many medals and decorations of the highest order including the “hero of the Soviet Union” and achieved the rank of a brigadier general.

Denied promotion by the Soviet regime

In spite of his reputation, his Zionist background and pride in his Judaism did him some harm. The anti-Semitic establishment gave him much trouble, denied him the advance in the ranks of the army and refused him the right to leave the Soviet Union and immigrate to Israel which was finally allowed in 1983 after much pressure.He passed away in 1992 and is sorely missed by the divisions veterans living in Israel.

 


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