The Briss Family and the Holocaust



The last Briss family members to live in Lithuania were
Zundel Skaist, his sister Yentel Matelson, and their families.

Here are their stories.



Zundel was born around 1891 in Ukmergė ("Vilkomir" in Yiddish). In his adulthood he became a professional photographer, despite having the eye condition strabismus (crossed eye). It is possible that he first learned to use photographic equipment while serving in the Russian army. He had a photography studio in Schwartzort, a shore resort town on the Baltic sea.

Zundel married Maryane (Meri) Kohen in Kretinga, near the Baltic coast, in May 1927. They lived in the town of Skuodas ("Shkud" in Yiddish) and had three children: Yaakov Lazar (born 1929), Menucha (born 1930), and Naomi Sheine (born 1937).

In 1941, the Nazis arrived from the west and overtook the Baltic coast. On June 22, the first Germans arrived in Skuodas. Within a week, Russian forces had been surrounded in other towns on the Baltic, and carnage began in Skuodas.

On June 29, hundreds of men of Shkud were taken in groups to be shot behind the Shaul Hall in town.

Starting on July 17, most of the women and children were made to march 75 km, over two days, to the town of Dimitravas. This road became known as "the Way of Torment" for the atrocities that were committed along the way.

In Dimitravas, the women were made to do fieldwork for about a month. On August 15, Lithuanians from Skuodas arrived to kill the women and children in groups on Alka Hill in Jazdai Forest. Many were shot; many were buried alive.

On June 13, 1963, there was an official funeral in Skuodas known as "the Funeral of the Bones," in which most of those who were killed in the town and on the road to Dimitravas were respectfully interred in two mass graves to the left of the Shaul Hall. A monument was created, which in 1987 was replaced with a larger one. Small stone markers were placed at the foot and summit of Alka Hill, where the women and children remain buried.

The Memorial Book of Shkud lists Zundel, Meri, their son (no name given), and their daughter Sheine among those who perished. Menucha is not mentioned; it is not known whether she had died before 1941 or is simply missing from the official account. A Page of Testimony recorded for Yad Vashem by a relative of Meri Kohen names all three children and their parents.

Because Zundel was a photographer, we are fortunate to have many photos of his children, both in straighforward portraiture and in whimsical poses, as seen below.

Sources:

Shtetl Shkud

Testimony on the Murder of the Jews of Shkud, Lithuania


Yentel Skaist was born around 1894 in Ukmergė. She married Aaron Matelson, a glazier, in February 1926, and they lived in Ukmergė. They had one son, Chaim (born late 1926).

On June 22, 1941, the Germans invaded Ukmergė. Just as in Skuodas, looting and mayhem began immediately. Doctors, nurses, Rabbis, lawyers, community workers, and those suspected of working with the communists were the first to be arrested. On July 4, they were taken to Pivonija Forest, about 4 km from Ukmergė, murdered, and buried.

In early August, Jews were ordered to leave their homes and move into the ghetto which had been created on the poorer side of town. The ghetto was guarded by armed Lithuanians. Jews were taken daily to perform physical labor. The group murders in the forest continued.

Between September 5 and 18, most of the Jews of Ukmergė were slaughtered in Pivonija Forest along with the Jews of several other nearby towns. Women, children, the elderly, and the sick remained in the ghetto until September 26, when they too were taken to the forest.

In 1950, the few survivors of Ukmergė's Jewish community gathered money and had a memorial placed at the mass graves in Pivonija Forest.

I have not yet found an official record of Yentel and Chaim's deaths, but I assume they perished with the rest of their neighbors.

Sources:

Pictures of the Vilkomir Memorial, taken by the Gefen family

Monument at Site of Mass Shootings, Pivonija Forest, on the site Information Portal to European Sites of Remembrance

"Ukmergė", from the Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Lithuania




May their names be remembered;
may their memories be honored.
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Zundel, Meri, Lazar, and Menucha Skaist, ca 1935


Menucha, Sheine, and Lazar Skaist, 1937


Yentel Matelson, her father Notel Skaist, and her son Chaim, ca 1930


On back of photo: "L'Shanah Tovah Tikatevu.
As a memento for my beloved uncle and aunt,
a picture of me, Chaim Matelson, from Class IV."


Yentel and Zundel Skaist, center, back row.
Circa 1924, Ukmergė.

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The wedding of Yentel Skaist and Aaron Matelson.
Zundel, standing behind Yentel and Aaron.
26 February 1926, Ukmergė.

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Zundel

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Zundel and his brother Lazar, 1925

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Zundel, 1928

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Lazar, 1933

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Lazar and Menucha, Rosh Hashana card

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Menucha, 1933

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Lazar, 1930

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Menucha, 1930

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Sheine, 1937

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