Kelme is not a common destination for visitors to Lithuania. It is a small and unremarkable town in the northwest of the country; it has a population of about 11,000 people, and serves as a market and administrative center for one of the country’s 60 municipal regions.
It was a cloudy and chilly day in early April 2007 when I arrived here with my friend Abraham Allison. Abe was in Kelme to research the history of the Chaluzin family, farmers in the area for generations. In the 1929, a young member of the family, Louis, left the depressed economic conditions of Kelme and made his way to South Africa, where he made his home and changed his last name to Allison. Louis was Abe’s father.
According to an 1897 census, 2,710 of Kelme’s 3,914 inhabitants were members of the town’s Jewish population, the vast majority of whom — unlike the Chaluzins — were merchants and traders and lived in the town. I saw only three signs of this once-thriving community during my visit. There were the upended and fading headstones in the old Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Kelme (right). There was our host and guide in Kelme, the widow of the town’s last Jewish inhabitant. And there was a memorial alongside an unpaved road, adjacent to what had been a gravel pit on the old Grozhebiski farm. In Hebrew and Lithuanian, the memorial notes that this is the site of a mass grave holding the remains of the 483 Jews who were killed here in 1941.
The fate of Kelme’s Jewish population is in many ways similar to that which befell similar communities in much of Europe during the Second World War. After Lithuania was invaded by German forces in June of 1941, some of the Jews of Kelme fled north and east, hoping to escape to the safety of the Soviet Union. Others remained, hoping that the cordial relations Jews had had with Germans during the First World War would be repeated. As it turned out, it was not only the Germans Kelme’s Jews should have been concerned about, it was a small group of Lithuanian nationalists. In the wake of the German occupation, they rounded up Kelme’s remaining Jews, confining women to a barn on the Chaluzin farm, and the men to a granary. Days later, the killing began.
On July 24, Lithuanian soldiers arrived at the Chaluzin farm, and ordered the Jews to stand in rows in the farmyard, and to put any jewelry and the contents of their pockets in front of them. The soldiers then announced that all Jews who were capable of working would be taken to a labor camp. They were marched off, and none were seen again. Locals later reported that they had been shot. On August 22, Lithuanian soldiers announced that all of the Jews still living in Kelme were to be taken to a work camp in the nearby town of Padubisis. They were ordered to load their possessions onto waiting wagons, and to follow the wagons on foot as they left the town.
Their destination was not Padubisis. It was the gravel pit on Grozhebiski farm. There, most of the remaining Jews of Kelme were shot, and their bodies dumped into a mass grave.
A few did, however, manage to escape the massacre. Among them were five members of the Chaluzin family, Abe’s grandparents, three of their sons, and two daughters. All were aided by sympathetic Lithuanian gentiles, who risked their lives by giving food and shelter to Jews. One of the young women managed to pass for a gentile for the remainder of the war, and worked as a seamstress. The other lived in the home of a gentile family, hidden away in a drawer when outsiders came by. The three young men spent most the rest of the war hiding out in the forests, arming themselves with weapons taken from the bodies of dead soldiers, and surviving by their wits and the kindness of supportive Lithuanian gentiles.
The Chaluzins did not all survive the war, however. An informer tipped off the Gestapo, who in 1943 ambushed the Chaluzin sons at a local farmhouse. A shootout ensued, and one of the sons was killed. Abe’s grandparents were captured, taken to a prison camp in nearby Raseinaia, where they were presumably killed.
Today, there is a small local history museum in what what used to be the mansion on the Grozhebiski estate. A framed two page document headed “The History of Kelme Town” is on display at the entrance to the museum. It tells the story of the town from 1410 to the present. The description says nothing about the fact that a majority of the town’s population was once Jewish. And it makes no mention at all of the 1941 massacre, or of the mass grave only a few hundred meters away.
I have drawn here on several sources in addition to my own observations in and around Kelme. There is detailed account of Jewish life in Kelme on the website jewishgen.org, based largely on the recollections of one of the Jews who escaped the 1941 massacre. The site also contains a description of the Kelme Jewish cemetery, and a list of names transcribed from the headstones at the cemetery. Part of the story of the Chaluzin family was told by our Lithuanian host, Lilli, and her mother. Many of the details here were provided by Abe Allison, who has done extensive research into his family’s history.
Note: I came across another interesting Jewish cemetery in my subsequent travels, this one in Penang, Malaysia. You can read about it here.