The village of Koniuchy (now Kaniūkai) is currently a sleepy hamlet currently located in modern-day Lithuania and adjacent to the country’s border with Belarus. On 29 January 1944, however, Koniuchy awoke to a sudden attack by Soviet partisans. The communist assailants massacred brutally and ruthlessly anyone they could catch – including men, women, and children – approximately 40 victims in total. In addition, they slaughtered the cattle and razed the village. After the return of the Bolsheviks, the survivors would be shipped to the Gulag. The objective of the punitive raid was to send a clear message to the denizens of the area: a similar fate will befall any other village whose denizens dare to resist the Soviets. To maximize the propaganda effect and further justify their actions, the communists of course claimed that Koniuchy had been a nest of “fascist collaborators” containing a German garrison. Thus, the victims completely deserved their fate. In official Soviet historiography the massacre of Koniuchy would be portrayed merely as a typical guerrilla operation to destroy the alleged Nazi garrison. The testimonies of Jewish Holocaust survivors would also parallel closely the Soviet propaganda while adding the charge of “anti-Semitism” to the list of accusations against the inhabitants of Koniuchy.
To comprehend the origins of these clearly divergent accounts, it is essential to understand the historical background of the area. As part of interwar Poland’s Eastern Borderlands, the village of Koniuchy was subjected to the terror and brutality of both the Soviet and Nazi occupations. In the wake of Hitler’s attack on his erstwhile ally, Stalin, in the summer of 1941, pockets of Soviet troops cut off from their units remained in the area. The fate of those captured and sent to German POW camps was almost certain death. Hence, many stragglers attempted to survive by working as farmhands, or joining auxiliary police units, the partisans, or criminal gangs. In the case of communist guerrillas and bandits, the two categories often overlapped.
The Soviet partisan movement intentionally terrorized the local population to pave the way for the red comeback. It supplied itself by plundering the natives with no regard for their plight. In fact, the communists adhered to a policy of “the worse, the better” by deliberately provoking German reprisals and terror to swell their own ranks and revolutionize the desperate population.
Quite naturally, the local Poles, Orthodox Ruthenians/Belarusians, and ethnic Lithuanians resisted. It is important to remember that the Germans exacted an onerous and punitive food quota from the peasantry, which meant that precious little remained for consumption and planting. Coerced “contributions” on behalf of other groups – whether partisans or bandits – constituted a great nuisance, especially if the individuals helping themselves to their meager possessions were Soviets. The latter were agents of an enemy power, opposed Polish independence, and often raped women. To protect themselves, the locals attempted to form self-defense units or supported their own underground movements, such as the Polish Home Army (AK). We must, however, keep in mind that the possession of firearms was punishable by death under the German occupation. Thus, the residents of Koniuchy were forced to ask for permission to form a small night watch and obtain a few old rifles from the Lithuanian auxiliary police, which functioned as the agent of the Germans in Wilno Land.
Meanwhile, the Jews attempting to elude the Nazi dragnet found themselves trapped in the context of a Soviet-Polish conflict. To survive, the escapees from the ghetto were forced to beg for or steal food. Sometimes survival also necessitated joining the Soviet partisans, although the communists gang-raped women and accepted only armed young men. There were also instances of communist units killing and robbing Jews. Yet, the natural desire to survive overrode these considerations, although cooperation with the Soviets placed the Jewish escapees on a collision course with the locals. Thus, the participation of Jewish fighters in the Soviet force obliterating Koniuchy and exterminating its inhabitants, whom they would portray as anti-Semites and Nazi collaborators. It would be their narrative which would become the dominant one in the West.
Historians attempting to establish the truth about Koniuchy faced the challenge of conflicting accounts with almost no access to original sources. The regnant post-modernist temptation to circumvent the difficult and tedious work accompanying the search for the truth by simply denying its attainability will not satisfy the serious scholar. In such cases, the duty of the historian is to cross-check and verify all the contending narratives by amassing the largest possible amount of data and carefully sifting through it in an attempt to reconstruct the past. Hence, research on Koniuchy resembled a forensic crime scene investigation. This meant weighing not only Soviet and Jewish testimonies but also German military and Lithuanian police reports as well as Polish survivor accounts. In the case of the latter it was difficult to overcome the decades of imposed silence and terror regarding the massacre. Even the local Poles had been indoctrinated to believe the Soviet propaganda version of events. An even greater challenge was posed by the fact that a few Jews, the victims of the Holocaust, had functioned as victimizers in this case. Thus, a historian was also forced to respond to the erroneous argument that delving into the Koniuchy massacre was an act of Holocaust revisionism attempting to undermine or relativize the plight of the Jews during the Shoah. Generally, the closer an event is to the historian and his times, the more difficult it is to conduct an objective inquiry. Last but not least, Dr. Chodakiewicz pointed out that cases like Koniuchy elicit emotions, which prevent clear thinking and should not be confused with empathy. Ultimately, the historian’s motto should be the famous Aristotelian “amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas” (“Plato is a friend, but the truth is a greater friend”).