No one can ever truly understand what the Holocaust was like unless they were unfortunate enough to experience it. The humiliations, suffering and depravity imposed on Jews were on a level that can only be equated with the worst aspects of humanity. It is little wonder that some of those who did survive later committed suicide. Those of us who read accounts or watch documentaries or movies about the Holocaust know that the closest approximation of the experience often comes by identifying with the victims on a personal level. Substituting ourselves in place of the persecuted, if only for a moment, can bring about a certain degree of empathy. To understand what the Jews of Konigsberg in the German province of East Prussia went through is impossible. The best that can be done is to try and make a rough parallel from a shared experience. One that might give some semblance of an idea concerning the choices that victims were forced to make. This can be revealing in the extreme.
Impossible Choices – Taking Belongings, Taking Lives
Let us say that you have been booked on a flight to travel from Warsaw to Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg). You do not want to go, but work demands it. If you fly business class than the weight limit for a piece of luggage is 32 kilograms. The central question quickly becomes how many shirts, shoes, undergarments and personal accoutrements can be stored in this lone piece of baggage. Now imagine that one suitcase must supply you not for just a few days or a week, but for the rest of your life. Look at that small space inside that one lonely piece of luggage and imagine that this must hold all your belongings not just for this trip, but they must last forever. Everything else is to be left behind. Family heirlooms, pets, furniture and photos, anything of entertainment value suddenly becomes worthless. The prospect of survival strips everything to its essence.
Filling up that suitcase with the proper items, while at the same time discarding all nonessentials, is an impossible exercise. But what if you had dark intimations about your journey, strange feelings that survival may depend on what you choose or do not choose to take. At least that is what you have been led to believe by insidious rumors that have filtered through. Oddly your ticket is one-way with no return date yet given. Little do you know that upon arrival at the destination, you have only about a ten percent chance of survival for a few months at most. And if you are lucky enough to survive it would be as a half-starved slave laborer. Those belongings that were so carefully and excruciatingly chosen for the journey are worthless upon arrival. Does this scenario seem unimaginable? You say this could never happen, especially not to you? Why you are from the professional classes, a doctor or lawyer, an accountant or professor. You are just going on a short trip, an excursion to a land you have never visited, a place where they speak a foreign language and use an entirely different alphabet. What really awaits you? There is no way of knowing.
The above scenario may be difficult to conceive, but it is not nearly as improbable as the Holocaust, which led to much tougher choices for the Jews of Konigsberg. An even more difficult and ultimately deadlier situation than can be imagined faced them just after the start of summer in 1942. Orders were issued for Konigsberg’s Jews to gather at a riding school. They were supposedly being transported for resettlement. Each Jew was only allowed to take 30 kilograms of personal belongings with them. That is two kilograms less than allowed on the hypothetical business class flight outlined above. Eyewitness accounts attest to the fact that many tried to take much more than was allowed. This despite the fact most looked beaten with empty stares of resignation on their faces. There was a certain sense of the inevitable. As for their belongings, they would eventually be taken from them, as would their lives.
Dark Forebodings – The Final Order
The resettlement was a malevolent fallacy, meant to placate the Jews and get them to death camps without maximum coercion or an uprising. No one knew for sure what was going to happen, but many had dark forebodings. Ever since Kristallnacht in the autumn of 1938, the Jews of Konigsberg had been subjected to prejudicial laws and onerous rules which stripped them of their livelihood and dignity. Schools for Jewish children had long since been closed. Anyone fourteen or older was forced to work. Jews were given the most dangerous jobs and hardest labor. Food was scarce and could only be purchased in special shops that held meager rations which were often cut. Jews were not allowed to take part in drills meant to protect the populace from Soviet air raids. All this added up to marginalization and demoralization.
Now on a Friday evening in late summer, the kind of day which had once been reserved for joyous occasions such as late nights spent strolling along the riverfront of the Pregel, the death knell was finally sounded. Once at the riding school, the 465 Jews who had reported there were given yet another order, the last one they were to ever receive in Konigsberg. They would now be marched to the city’s North Train Station for final departure. Guards soon ushered them on to a passenger train. None of the Jews had any idea where this transport was headed. Just after half past ten in the evening that train, known in documents as Da 40, pulled out of the station. Eighteen hours later they arrived in what is now Vawkavysk in western Belarus where they were transferred, along with hundreds of other Jews, into freight cars. The next morning, a day and a half after their journey had begun, they arrived in Minsk.
Far From Home – On The Outskirts Of Minsk
Later that same day, all but about 70 of the deportees – who had been selected for work battalions – were driven by truck to the outskirts of Minsk. The journey halted on the grounds of a former Soviet collective farm near the village of Maly Trostinez. This area was in the process of becoming the site of Trostinets Extermination Camp. The Jews from Konigsberg were taken out to a wooded area and forced into pits where they were murdered by gunshots in the back of the neck. As for each one’s 30 kilograms of belongings, those had been taken away earlier and pillaged for valuables, just as their dead bodies would be. Then soil was thrown back over the pits. Such was the final act of the final journey for most of Konigsberg’s Jews. They spent their last moments far from the soaring spires and cobblestones streets of the magnificent city they had done so much to help develop. Their final resting place was in an obscure field, on the edge of an obscure village, buried beneath Belarusian soil. Such was the end to four centuries of Jewish life in Konigsberg.