Famous Sons of Rokiskis

Below are the brief biographies of some of Rokiskis' finest who achieved fame beyond the shtetl.


Joseph Harmatz

Son of Abram and Dora Baron Harmatz, born in Rokiskis on January 23, 1925 and died on September 22, 2016, was one of the leading activists in the Vilna Ghetto.  He escaped from the ghetto in 1943 as it was being liquidated and became a partisan.  He smuggled weapons for the FPO, the Fareinikte Partisaner Organizatzie (United Partisan Organization) and was involved in high level work for FPO.  After the war he moved to Israel and eventually became the General Director of World ORT in 1980 (ORT is the world's largest Jewish education and vocational training non-governmental organization), till his retirement in 1994.  He is the author of  From the Wings, Sussex: Book Guild, 1998 and Life with ORT, ORT Israel, 200



New York Times, Sept 30, 2016

Joseph Harmatz, Who Led Jewish Plot to Kill Germans After World War II, Dies at 91

By Sam Roberts SEPT. 29, 2016

Investigators in Nuremberg, Germany, examined the hiding place where arsenic was found in 1946 in a bakery that supplied captured SS officers. Credit U.S. Army ignal Corps, via Associated Press Imagine a real-life version of “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino’s quixotic movie about Jewish avengers in World War II but in this case involving a plot by a band of refugees to kill millions of Germans just after the war by poisoning their water supply.

The plot, which targeted five major cities in retribution for the Holocaust, failed. So did the conspirators’ Plan B, which followed in mid-April 1946: to murder 12,000 captured SS officers — members of the very unit that enforced the Nazis’ reign of terror and ran the death camps — by lacing their bread rations with arsenic.

The second scheme was not a complete failure, however. Led by 21-year-old Joseph Harmatz, a survivor of the Vilnius ghetto in Lithuania, the plotters sickened more than 2,200 German prisoners, inducing vomiting and other symptoms of cholera. Their weapons were 3,000 loaves of black bread, which had been painted with a mixture of arsenic and glue at a bakery that had been infiltrated by one of the group.

Mr. Harmatz, who died at 91 on Sept. 22 at his home in Tel Aviv, never publicly expressed remorse for his role in either conspiracy. But later on, his son Ronel said on Tuesday, he did acknowledge privately that he was grateful that the mass water-poisoning plot was abandoned after one of his collaborators was arrested. “He did admit that it is good that this plan did not happen,” the younger Mr. Harmatz said in a telephone interview. “He knew at the back of his heart that it would have damaged” the prospects for a state of Israel, then being advocated, “and that they would have compared the Jews to the German people.” Still, he said, Mr. Harmatz was sorry that the plan to fatally poison the SS officers had not been as successful as he had hoped.  The conspirators claimed that the poisoned bread killed several hundred prisoners at Stalag 13 in Langwasser, a district of Nuremberg. That was never confirmed, but Army investigators found enough arsenic at the bakery to kill tens of thousands. “Was he sorry? He was sorry that it didn’t work,” Ronel Harmatz said. “He wanted to do more.”

The conspirators were made up of 50 or so former guerrillas who had fought the Germans from the sewers of the Vilnius ghetto and from the Rodniki forest south of the city. (Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, was also known then as Vilna. During the war, its Jewish population plunged from about 40,000 to a few hundred.)

After the war, in 1945, the guerrillas reconstituted themselves in Bucharest and become known as the Nakam, Hebrew for avengers. Their mission was simple. “Kill Germans,” Mr. Harmatz told The Associated Press this year. How many? “As many as possible,” he replied. The avengers were believed to be responsible for the kidnapping and killing of countless individual former Nazis in Europe and elsewhere after the war. In another daredevil plot, they sought to assassinate more than a dozen top Nazis on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg, only to cancel the operation after failing to find American guards to help them.

Ronel Harmatz said he never doubted his father’s motivation: “He wanted the Germans to pay for their crimes, and for him it was not like the Nazis were aliens from a different planet. They were just Germans.” He added: “I remember he was standing with us at a graveyard outside his birthplace, where his grandparents were buried in Lithuania, and he was asking, ‘What were they thinking before they were shot, what had they done to deserve this?’ At that moment I understood why he wanted to avenge them.” 

Joseph Harmatz was born on Jan. 23, 1925, in Rokiskis, Lithuania, the son of Avraham and Devora Harmatz. His father was in the wholesale food business, and the family was well-to-do. After the Germans invaded and Jews were confined to a Vilnius ghetto, his father, unable to provide for the family, left a suicide note and disappeared. All four grandparents were murdered. So was Joseph Harmatz’s younger brother. His older brother was killed in combat. Only his mother survived.

At 16, as a young Communist, he joined the underground and smuggled partisans through the sewers to the forests so that they could join a group of guerrilla fighters and saboteurs led by Abba Kovner. After the war, they reorganized as the Avengers. (Kovner became a prominent Israeli poet.)

Mr. Harmatz wrote about his experiences in “From the Wings,” a book published in English in 1998. By his account the plot to poison the SS prisoners had been sanctioned by Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader who would become the first president of Israel. Weizmann was not told about the scheme to poison the water supply, Mr. Harmatz wrote, but other Zionist leaders were, and it worried them; they feared it would jeopardize support for the proposed Jewish state. The plot was aborted when Kovner was arrested while returning to Europe from the Middle East aboard a ship carrying the poison, which had been secreted in cans labeled condensed milk. (His compatriots dumped the cans overboard after he was seized.)

Mr. Harmatz helped thousands of European and North African Jews reach Palestine. He settled in the new state of Israel in 1950 and married Gina Kirschenfeld. She died in 1987.  Besides their son Ronel, who confirmed the death, he is survived by another son, Zvi, and three grandchildren.  Mr. Harmatz studied law and economics in Israel, became the manager of a French shipping company and was director general of World ORT, short for Organization for Rehabilitation Through Training, a charity that runs vocational and technical schools.

“Our ultimate intention was to kill six million Germans, one for every Jew slaughtered by the Germans,” Mr. Harmatz told The Observer of Britain in 1998. “Would the British and Americans ever have bombed Dresden if the Germans had not bombed Coventry? It was revenge, quite simply. Were we not entitled to our revenge, too?” He continued: “And should I look to my conscience? Maybe I was a bastard. But there is no pardonnez-moi. There have never been any such feelings of conscience. So many other people should look to their consciences, not us.”


Rabbi Shmuel Aba Snieg

Born in Rokiskis, studied in the Slabodka Yeshiva.  As a rabbi, he devoted himself to communal work and was chairman of the Vaad Kehile (Communal Council) and of the People's Bank. During  independent Lithuania, Reb Shmuel Aba was the chief rabbi of the Lithuanian army and was awarded the rank of colonel. He often wrote for the Lithuanian press and the Lithuanian army newspaper.  During World War II he served on the Kovno Ghetto Judenrat.  He survived the war and was a rabbi in Germany after the war.

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