Truth – Legends / Rabbi Gavriel Shusterman
Koshidar, a townlet in the south-eastern part of Lithuania, some thirty-five kilometers from Kovno, belonged to the Troki district. At the outbreak of war, there were approximately one hundred and fifty Jewish families living there. The Germans took the townlet on June 24, 1941. Immediately after their arrival, Lithuanian “activists” organized themselves, and proceeded to rob and murder Jewish families. On August 26, all the men women and children of the townlet and its vicinity – 1911 Jews in all – were taken and shot near the village of Vladikishkis.
The neighborhood of Koshidar was known for its peat fields and its forests, but the Germans did not exploit these natural assets for lack of manpower. Representatives of the Kovno municipality and the German labor exchange demanded that the ghetto allot them four hundred Jews to dig up the peat in the area of Koshidar. On June 16, 1943, the ghetto sent a hundred Jews from the Zhiezhmariai ghetto and another three hundred from the Kovno ghetto. In the forced labor camp of Koshidar, there were four hundred Jewish men and women at work on July 2, 1943.
On June 17, the Gestapo arrested a Jew by the name of Zilber for stealing a leather strap from a motor at his workplace. The prisoner was twenty-one years old, married and the father of a boy. His interrogator at the Gestapo was Shtitz. It was clear that the Zilber family would be taken to the Ninth Fort and shot. Zilber was tortured at the Gestapo headquarters. Wounded and beaten, he was thrown into a car. Shtitz ordered the ghetto guard to get Zilber’s wife and his child and bring them to the gate. He then took his submachine gun and went with Zilber to the ghetto. On the way, he said to his victim that if he would reveal to him who in the ghetto was involved with commerce or politics, he would let Zilber’s wife and child go free. Zilber agreed. He led the Gestapo man to the ghetto and showed him where the sales stands were. There Shtitz found a gold watch, a large sum of money, sausage, various fats and other goods which were generally in short supply. In the course of this search, Shtitz had two Jews arrested. Zilber and his family were released.
Zilber and his family were among the Jews who were sent to the labor camp in Koshidar on July 2. The leadership of the ghetto wanted in this way to get rid of a Jew who was forced to become an informer for the Gestapo and cause the ghetto difficulties. On July 8, Shtitz came to the ghetto and accused Margolis, head of the recruiting and punishing department of the labor exchange, who had sent Zilber to Koshidar on purpose as he was one of Shtitz’s agents in the ghetto.
Commander of the labor camp in Koshidar, officer Sharke, was a drunkard and was not interested in the Jews in the camp. He was replaced by Stabsfeldwebel Hans Pfankuch, who immediately made it clear that the “good days” in the camp were over. Work began at 3 A.M. and ended at 8 P.M. Supervision of the camp was in the hands of Ukrainians from the Soviet army of liberation and were all prisoners of war who had been subjected to the poisonous anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis. They abused the Jews and beat them on every opportunity.
One night, the Jews were awoken by the sounds of shots and the cries of the wounded. It was frightening. The firing continued for an hour. The German army arrived, both gendarmerie and police. Until the morning, no one was allowed to leave their huts. On August 2, at 8 A.M., the Jews were taken from the huts and counted – two men were missing. In the courtyard on the ground were the corpses of Stabsfeldwebel Pfankuch, the expert on peat from Holland, and two Ukrainian camp guards. It appears that five Ukrainian guards escaped from the camp as well as the two Jews who were absent during the counting of Jewish workers.
Among the Jews in the camps was Rabbi Gavriel Shusterman. He loved to hold sermons on religious subjects. He would open every sermon with the words “Moses’ son will speak." He was recognized by everyone as the rabbi of the Koshidar camp. The Gestapo investigated the camp guards and finally also Rabbi Shusterman.
He was interrogated and beaten, charged to tell who the Jews were who had organized the escape and who else was planning to flee from the camp. A rabbi was supposed to know everything about his flock. But Rabbi Shusterman knew nothing and could not tell the Gestapo anything. He, too, was brought to the Ninth Fort after being beaten and wounded.
At the fort, Rabbi Shusterman was placed in Cell Number 6. Like the rest of the inmates, he too would go out daily, chained, and work at the “battlefield." There he was engaged in exposing the murdered corpses and burning them. On December 25, he escaped from the fort together with a group of corpse-burners who had friends or acquaintances in the city.
On January 3, Faivl Margolis came to Rabbi Oshri, who was responsible for the bathhouse in the ghetto, and told him that the preacher “Moses’ son speaks," Rabbi Gavriel Shusterman, had fled from the fort and was in the ghetto. Margolis ordered him to wash the rabbi and change his clothes which smelt of burning flesh.
Rabbi Shusterman had lost his way for a whole week while seeking shelter during the cold mid-winter days. He finally arrived in the ghetto with both legs frozen and suffering immensely. The hospital in the ghetto tried to heal him but in vain. Dr. Zacharin, the hospital’s surgeon, had no alternative but to amputate both legs. Unfortunately it was already too late.
The preacher “Moses’ son speaks," Rabbi Gavriel Shusterman, died in the ghetto hospital on Monday, February 16, 1944.
On that same day, the Lithuanians were secretly celebrating their independence by flying their national flags. The Nazis did not recognize Lithuanian independence. The Lithuanians were disappointed for they had had great expectations from the Germans. Nor did their national flag do much to prove their loyalty to the Nazis.