Life Changes 1939-1941

I was there.

As 1939 was approaching Tobias’ father Rafael sensed the danger for the Jews to remain in Europe. Tobias family together with his cousin went to England. While travelling the mother worried about the family’s property in Lithuania, as well as she wanted to return back to the parents her sister’s daughter. The family got separated. The father and Azriel remained in England. Mother, Tobias and the cousin returned to Lithuania.

The Second World War broke out. The Red Army entered Lithuania in 1940. Tobias, his mother and extended family escaped the Soviet persecution and exile to Siberia. But the family lost any chances to reunite in England. Tobias dreamt to get into the Soviet pioneer camp. He got there in June 1941. When the Nazi Germany Army entered Lithuania, Tobias was in Palanga pioneer camp. Persecution of the Jews followed the Wermacht entry to Lithuania. The Jewish children of the pioneer camp went through selection, imprisonment, forced labour and finally murder. Tobias was lucky to escape the death. His friends helped him to return to his mother in Kaunas.

Tobias Iafetas (1930-2019), Lithuania

Tobias Iafetas (1930-2019), Lithuania


My Family Goes to England

As Tobias said, his father was right in predicting the dangers of staying in Lithuania. The II World War was approaching. Regretfully, part of the family – mother, Tobias and his cousin – returned to Kaunas. Due to the changes in world politics, the family couldn’t reunite. Father and Azriel remained in England. Mother and Tobias stayed in Lithuania.

1) Listen to Tobias as he talks about the changes in his life. Answer the questions.

  • 1a. Think of the relationship between the great historical events and choices of an ordinary man. Can an ordinary man make an influence on historical events?

  • 1b. Why did Tobias’ mother, Tobias and his cousin return to Kaunas?

Beginning of WWII

When the German-USSR war broke out, Tobias happened to be in the border area which Wehrmacht entered the first day of the war. Tobias appeared to be among those Lithuanian Jews who were the first to face the Holocaust. Tobias went through selection, imprisonment and forced labour. Just that Tobias escaped the death. Thanks to his friends he managed to run away and reach Kaunas.

2) Listen to Tobias as he talks about the beginning of the war in Lithuania. Answer the question.

Following the start of WWII the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania. The Soviet government started physical annihilation and deportation of the Lithuanian population. At that time Tobias was just ten years old. His memory of that time consists of his transfer from Hebrew into Yiddish school. As well as he desperately wanted to go to the pioneer camp. When during the Nazi occupation the Jews were persecuted and murdered, some Lithuanians didn’t notice or take part in those events.

  • 2a. Consider what it takes to be able to see and notice what is happening in the society, the surroundings and what it takes for people to take action?

Russian tanks roll through the streets of Kaunas during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. (The photo was taken through a hole in a piece of paper that was used to cover a window.)

     Historical text

The First Soviet Occupation of Lithuania and Outbreak of WWII

On September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. On August 23, 1939, the foreign ministers of Germany and the Soviet Union, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Viatcheslav Molotov, had signed a pact where the two states guaranteed that they would not attack each other. The pact included a secret additional protocol stating how the territories of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania were to be divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Lithuania belonged to the Soviet sphere of interest. On June 15, 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania.

Ordinary people of Lithuania did not grasp the true aims of the Soviet Union and the ways they were to be achieved. For some people, Jews among them, the new authorities with their socialist ideas seemed attractive. Another reason why some Jews welcomed or at least reacted neutrally to the Red Army’s arrival was the hope that it would block Nazi Germany’s march through Europe. Jews had heard of the dreadful persecution Nazis brought with them wherever they went. Jewish refugees from Poland and Klaipeda region reached Kaunas.

With the new regime in Lithuania Jewish religious and Zionist organizations suffered. All Hebrew schools were closed in Kaunas and Lithuania. Jews suffered from the nationalization of industrial and commercial enterprises. Mass deportation took place in Lithuania in mid-June 1941 when around 17 000 people were deported to the Gulag. Around 9 per cent of them were Jews.

Apart from the aforementioned tragic events, some developments that initially seemed positive also took place. The declaration of ethnic equality, made by the Soviet authorities, gave the Jews wider opportunities to join the country’s political and social life. For example, it was now possible for them to join the ruling Communist Party. At first, Jews made up 16.6 per cent of its membership, soon however it became more difficult for the Jews to join the Party. Jews could also join state executive organs (for instance, the Interior Ministry and Security Services). Two Jews became ministers (of Health and of Local Industry). A significant event in Jewish cultural life was the opening of the Jewish state theatre in Kaunas. In the field of education, the introduction of free schooling and open opportunities to study at universities and colleges was very significant for Jews. Such changes made Jews more visible in society. Less visible was Jewish concern regarding the Soviet occupation of the country and resistance to the action.

On June 6, 1940, the rabbis of Vilnius and its surroundings gathered in the Vilnius Great synagogue to pray against the Soviet danger. Nevertheless more visible were those who supported the Soviets. This increased existing biases and antisemitic feelings among the Lithuanian population. Later under the Nazi occupation attempts were made to blame the Jews for Sovietisation of Lithuania.


Author: Rūta Puišytė



Jidišo įnašas į Europos kultūrą. Vilnius: Vaga, 1998.

Žydai Lietuvoje. Istorija, kultūra, paveldas, Vilnius: R. Paknio leidykla, 2009.

Žydų gyvenimas Lietuvoje, Vilnius: Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, 2007.

Jewish Museum. Collection. Vilnius: Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, 2003.

Jewish Museum. Vilnius: Jewish State Museum, 1994.

3) Read the text about the first Soviet occupation of Lithuania and the outbreak of WWII. Then answer the question.

  • 3a. List positive and negative changes that Lithuanian Jews as a group had to go through during the first Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

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