rescuers of jews

“A human being dies once,” he said to himself, “and maybe I could rescue them?” / Mykolas Šimelis

Mykolas Šimelis’ acquaintance with Meyer Koren (Mejeris Korėnas), who had owned a resin oil and turpentine workshop in Vievis, would heavily influence the forester’s act of bravery. At the beginning of the war, Meyer Koren with his two sons, daughter and a sister-in-law escaped from a shooting in Vievis, during which his wife and a brother-in-law with a child were killed. When he learned that his hiding could not last long and that his younger brother Tanchum was in the Kaunas ghetto, he asked his brother to help him get into the ghetto, too. Tanchum got the help of his acquaintance Aranovsky to both get Koren into the ghetto and find employment for him there.

Told by Polia and Moshe Musel saved by Mykolas Šimelis:

“One day Mykolas Šimelis came to Koren’s workplace saying “My doors are open” and disappeared. When the German Army lost their battle near Stalingrad, and the Red Army started marching westwards, a flame of hope was ignited among the ghetto residents that perhaps they would survive. At the same time, there was a threat that the Germans may take revenge against Jews for losing the war and annihilate them altogether.
Koren started thinking again about the escape from the ghetto and a place to hide. It was then he remembered forester Šimelis and his words. He had to solve two major issues. First, Šimelis could not affort maintaining the Koren family, which consisted of five members. During the war, it was not so easy to get food. Šimelis and his wife Jadvyga had five small children: Gražina, aged 8, Ramutė –7, Vidas – 5, Gediminas – 3 and Algirdas – 1.5. Koren decided to take Aranovsky and his wife along. The latter promised to pay for the food for both his family and the Šimelis family during the time they stayed with them. The second problem was getting to the Strošiūnai woodland of Tarpumiškiai village where Šimelis lived.
At the time, Aranovsky had no possibility to get a car and they approached my husband asking for help. Koren promised to take him and me, but we had to pay our share for the food. In this way, we became a group of nine people. In the garage, my husband became closely acquainted with a driver named Ignas Šepetys who had helped in taking a few other people from the ghetto before. My husband had to go back to the ghetto to organise cars which would take the people from the ghetto to the forest for underground work. In late November 1943, we drove from the ghetto as a workers’ brigade for our night shift. The car stopped approximately one kilometre from Šimelis’ house. We proceeded on foot. Koren banged on the window and soon the doors were open. Šimelis hugged Koren, and the latter explained that he had to bring along four more people. Šimelis responded that his door was open for everyone. The man who had driven us went back and we, a total of eight people, entered the house. From that moment, a life of great troubles and deadly threats began for the Šimelis family. For a short while we lived in a small room. Šimelis explained to his children not to say anything about the guests. We called each other Lithuanian names. Soon we started digging a bunker. The opening was made in a cupboard in a cold room where Jadvyga was storing food products. The room had a little window, letting in some air and light. To avoid other people seeing us, we poured the dug soil into buckets and took them to the attic rather than the field. Due to a heavy weight, the walls of the room started to crack. Šimelis brought some boards, and helped hammer them to the walls, brought an iron stove, fixed a small table to the wall, installed electricity and was taking care of us, offering humane living conditions.
On 10 January 1944, my husband and Ignas Šepetys brought in Koren’s brother, his wife and ten-year old Chaim Kaplan. All of them stayed with us, making the total number twelve who were living with the Šimelis family. It was a great challenge for Šimelis to get food supplies for so many people. It would be far too dangerous to go to the market and buy bags of potatoes and flour: people would suspect that he was not buying them for himself. Šimelis asked a reliable person, Vasilijus Baradulinas, to buy us food and he would take it to the forester’s home at night.
In April, Jadvyga Šimelienė died in the Kaunas hospital. Getting prepared to go to the funeral with his three children (two little ones stayed at home), Šimelis asked his neighbour to stay in his house. We were hiding in the bunker so that the neighbour would not see us.
Next day several Jews ran away from the Kaišiadorys labour camp. Germans and local police officers started looking for the fugitives. They also made their searches in our village, going from one house to another. In the bunker we heard them walking above us. When a German asked the woman whether Jews were hiding with her, she responded that the forester went to his wife’s funeral and she did not live here. The German started to look and failing to find anything was about to leave. Suddenly he noticed the door to the room and was about to move the door handle when Šimelis with his children came back home. He extended his hand to the German, greeted him and invited him in. He offered him vodka and snacks. After both of them had a few shots, the German said they were looking for the Jews who ran away from the camp. Šimelis felt relieved. After meals and drinks the German left, forgetting about the door.
In the evening, when everything calmed down, the neighbour left, and Šimelis silently knocked on the door and told what had happened. On his way back from the railway station he met a neighbour who was telling him that they were searching for Jews in the village. The neighbour, who talked for a few minutes, left, unaware of the shock the news caused for Šimelis. The forester was certain that they were looking for us, that the neighbour had noticed us and reported us. For a minute he was standing thinking what to do. Not to go back home? Hide in the forest with the children waiting to see what happens and in this way save himself and the kids? He decided to do something else. “A human being dies once,” he said to himself, “and maybe I could rescue them?” and ran back home with his children. He was in the nick of time: he extended his hand to the German, and distracted his attention from the door, which had been locked from the inside. One doesn’t have to write much about this person: this fact alone shows how extraordinary he was.
After a while, Elena Stankūnienė came to Mykolas and she had to stay in the village and help him raise the children. She was not informed about us, when suddenly she noticed Meyer Koren. She said to Šimelis that she was afraid to stay in his house and wanted to go back to town. After we learned that we wanted to leave his house and go to stay in the forest. Šimelis refused to agree, saying that in the forest we would soon be caught and killed. Every time we regretted how much troubles and concerns we were causing him, he would say: “The world is not without good people.” Those words were engraved on the monument built in Kaunas, in the Petrašiūnai cemetery, where Jadvyga Šimelienė is buried and the name of Mykolas Šimelis is inscribed symbolically. During that difficult day, when Elena did not want to stay with the forester, my elder sister with her husband ran away from the ghetto and came to Šimelis, who hid them in the bunker, too. We were fourteen then and we stayed living with Šimelis until 13 July 1944. When the Red Army rescued us, Šimelis refused to take any money, gifts or awards from us. He was a true humanist, he loved people, he was honest and kind-hearted. He was a Human!
Not everybody liked him, especially because he saved 14 Jews from death, giving them shelter and risking the lives of his family and his own. On 10 July 1945, Mykolas went to the forest to meet with a woodman and never came back. At night, people from the forest came to his house, took his clothes and said he would not return. That was a tragic end of this respectable person. In 1981, while in Israel, we addressed the Yad Vashem, asking them to acknowledge Mykolas Šimelis and Jadvyga Šimelienė as the Righteous Among the Nations. Our request was granted and they received this honourable award.
We, our children and our children’s children will forever keep the sacred memory of Jadvyga Šimelienė and Mykolas Šimelis. “Yad Vashem told us that Mykolas Šimelis was one of the most honourable people among the Righteous Among the Nations.”

That was the tragic fate of a person who thought that the danger was over with the end of the German occupation...

Prepared by Kaišiadorys museum historian Rolandas Gustaitis

From the 4th book Hands Bringing Life and Bread
The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum

Keywords: gelbėtojai Šimelis