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HolocaustJune 1941

Member of Einsatzgruppe

Petras Zelionka
In the Baltic states around 80% of the killing squads were eventually made up of locals – men like Petras Zelionka. In this devastating testimony he describes how he personally took part in the murder of Jews in the autumn of 1941.

Petras Zelionka's words are read by David Horovitch.

Testimony Transcript

Laurence Rees: Petras Zelionka was a Lithuanian who took part, alongside the Germans, in the killing of Jews in the Baltic states in the late summer and autumn of 1941. In part, his own attitude to the Jews had been formed in the wake of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania the year before.

Words of Petras Zelionka: In general, there was the greatest indignation when the Russians came. Many Lithuanian Jews became the political leaders, joined the police, and everyone was saying that in the security department people were mostly tortured by the Jews. They used to put the screws on the head and tighten them, thus torturing the teachers and professors.

Laurence Rees: Motivated by the fantasy of mass Jewish complicity in crimes committed by the Soviets, as well as more traditional anti-Semitism, Petras Zelionka supported the German invasion of the Baltic states as part of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. Within a few months, as part of a unit of the Lithuanian army, he was taking part personally in the killing of Jews.

Words of Petras Zelionka: We took them from the ghetto into some forest. In that forest they were shot: men, women, and everyone at the same time. It was our battalion and a German detachment. You could not do it without the Germans. They had machine guns. We had just to shoot, go back to the cars and go away. You just pressed the trigger and shot. And that was it. It was not a big ceremony. Everything short and clear. Without any ceremonies – nothing. We would shoot them, give them up for lost and that was it. At the edge of the grave, some of them used to say, ‘Long live Stalin!’ Only that kind of ‘prank’... Sometimes when I think about the story of my life – you could write such a book. You would read it without stopping.

Laurence Rees: One reason for the callousness of the killers was simple – for much of the time they were awash with vodka.

Words of Petras Zelionka: Maybe you could call them volunteers – they certainly were given more vodka. After you have a drink, everyone is braver then. When you came back to the barracks, no one used to pay any attention. They used to bring us vodka; we could drink as much as we wanted. If they give me, I drink. You know, after you have a drink, as the Russians say: ‘The sea is only to your knees.’ Everyone is braver then.

Laurence Rees: But it was clear that the killers were chiefly motivated not by drink, but by hate. 

Words of Petras Zelionka: Today, all this is very difficult to explain: whether to shoot or not to shoot. Some people were saying that they deserved it, that they tortured other people or helped torture them. We were told what they had done, how they used to kill even the women. Others did it because of their indignation. They thought the Jews were very selfish. They used to search them and take all golden things from them. Watches, etc. – everything made of gold. Our former warrant officer also had a suitcase where he used to put these things.

Laurence Rees: When I met Petras Zelionka, back in the 1990s, I was astonished at this matter-of-factness. But nonetheless I still wasn’t expecting the answer he gave to this next question – what had children done to deserve their fate at the hands of these murderers?

Words of Petras Zelionka: This is a tragedy, a big tragedy. How should I put it to you? How can I explain? It’s a kind of curiosity. You just pull the trigger, he falls, and that’s it. Some people are doomed and that's it.

Laurence Rees: And didn’t this man, who said he killed partly for curiosity, feel any guilt for his actions?

Words of Petras Zelionka: They can accuse me if they want. I was given a 20 year sentence for that, short and clear. And I served 20 years. While you are young, you do a lot of stupid things. Many stupid things you can do... There is such a saying: ‘A youth is foolishness.’ And now look what young people are doing. They rob, steal, strangle, kill. Everything. 

Laurence Rees: And when we asked Petras Zelionka about his own conscience in relation to these crimes, he decided simply to stop the interview.

Words of Petras Zelionka: I do not know. I am not going to answer such questions. 


Originally recorded in Lithuanian, this transcript is taken from a detailed written translation.