Holocaust Mystery: What happened to Judel Cherniakov?

Snippets of information have been found, but what happened after the Holocaust remains an enigma.

May 1, 2019 07:58
Holocaust Mystery: What happened to Judel Cherniakov?

Kaufering Concentration Camp. (photo credit: Courtesy)

There is a deep ache when I think of his name. A yearning to solve his mystery, to find out the truth, to find out what really happened all those years ago.

Judel Cherniakov. It’s a name that’s haunted me for years, and something tells me, it may haunt me for the rest of my life. When I think of his face, I see that of my sister’s – at least that is how he was described when he arrived at the Kaufering concentration camp in Dachau.

Small, blonde hair, blue eyes, a dimple in his chin and a “normal sized” nose.

For years, we knew very little about my father’s family. All we knew was that they had come to South Africa from a small village in Lithuania. The rest was a mystery.

When I was 18, after visiting Poland on a trip during my gap year, the yearning to discover my roots began to seep into my veins. I wanted to know about my family’s past as I’ve always believed that you can’t look towards the future without knowing your past.

Upon returning to South Africa at the end of 2010, my dad took me to the cemetery to visit the graves of my great-grandfather Shimon and his wife Chana Chernick where we found Shimon’s father’s name.

After scouring the Internet, I began to find information on JewishGen.Org and LitvakSIG, all which helped me slowly piece my immediate family’s journey to South Africa together – a six year journey.

However, there was always one name that remained shrouded in mystery. And that name is Judel. He was my great uncle and this is how his story began.

Judel was born in 1908 to Shmuel and Sheine Cherniakov in the small Lithuanian shtetl of Shirwint (today, Sirvintos).

The youngest of at least four children, Judel bade goodbye to his eldest brother Shimon who set sail for South Africa with my two-year-old grandfather in 1927. Only two and a half years later would Shimon’s wife and eldest daughter join him on the southernmost tip of Africa.

After moving to South Africa, Shimon changed his name to Sam.

JUDEL’S SECOND eldest brother, Dovid, born in 1900, remained in Shirwint. He married a saleswoman named Lieba Dudinsk in 1931. This is the only existing record I have found of Dovid to date. It’s safe to assume that he was murdered, together with his parents and other family members in the Holocaust during a mass shooting in the Pivonija Forest on September 18, 1941.

On that fateful day, Jews were rounded up from the Lithuanian Shtetls in the Ukmerge district, which included Sirvintos, and they were taken to the site and shot by the SS and Lithuanian collaborators.

The Nazi’s invaded the Shirwint in June 1941 where they burned three of the synagogues

Over 12,000 people were murdered there.

Judel’s story continues in the 1930s when he moved to Kovno. In 1934, he found the love in the form of 25-year-old Base Cirel Shaievich. They married on January 6, 1935 and settled down in Slabodka (known as the Vilijampolė borough of Kovno) – the poorer and predominantly Jewish area of the city.

On January 12, 1941, Judel and Base were listed as living in 15 Veliuonos Street. The house still stands today.

Just six months later, in June 1941, the Nazis rolled into the city. They allowed Lithuanian collaborators to carry out pogroms – the most notable being the Kovno Garage Massacre. Systematic executions began and in July 1941, a large part of Slabodka, including Veliuonos Street, was demarcated as part of the “small” and “large” Kovno Ghettos.

Twenty-nine thousand Jews were pushed into its tight confines. Veliuonos Street formed part of the large Ghetto’s border and there were several instances where collaborators came into the Ghetto, terrorized residents and pillaged parts of Veliuonos Street because of its easy access.

Judel and Base managed to survive numerous Aktions, including the Great Aktion on October 29, 1941 in which 9,200 Jews were murdered by the Nazis in one day.

Several Aktions also took place on their street, and yet they still managed to survive. How? I don’t know. It’s something I wonder about constantly.

It seems that over 1942 and 1943, Judel avoided all of the mass deportations that took place to death camps and concentration camps. Base’s whereabouts at this stage are unknown.

JUST WEEKS before the allied forces were to make it to Kovno, on July 8, 1944, the Germans evacuated the Ghetto (which had become a concentration camp) and deported the small group of remaining Jews – just 2,500 – to concentration camps in Germany.

The SS razed the Ghetto to the ground and a further 2,000 people were killed. Judel arrived in Kaufering camp – a subcamp of Dachau – on July 15, 1944. The camp was located close to Munich. He was transported together with his brother in-law Israel Mordkhel Shaievich.

The Kaufering concentration had a very low survival rate, and for years my family believed he had died. Until July 16, 2014, when I was searching Holocaust records and found one stating that he had survived Kaufering and was listed as being in a Displaced Persons camp in Munich – München Neu Freimann. From there, the trail goes cold and his whereabouts unknown.

After much angst, as I was unsure what I would find, I finally visited Yad Vashem a few weeks ago and was shown communiques between my great-grandfather Sam, the Red Cross, the Central Committee of Liberated Jews and other organizations across the United States and Europe, who too were looking for Judel.

The communications take place between October 1945 and April 1948 through telegrams and calls over the radio – a bid that if Judel was still alive, that he would hear and get in contact.

How Sam, who was all the way in South Africa in 1945, knew that Judel may have survived is still a mystery. Why he looked specifically for Judel, and not other members of his family still haunts me.

I keep imagining the agony that Sam must have gone through until he died in 1966 not knowing if his brother had lived or died. Being in the dark for decades to come.

I cannot tell you how this story ends. I wish I could. But I can’t.

Learn about the March of the Living.

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