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Only 10% of Lithuanian Holocaust prisoners survived. Arther Pais was one such survivor.

Pais recounted his experiences of discrimination, captivity, starvation, fear, destitution, loss, and liberation on the front lines of the Holocaust. 

Pais was born in Ukmerge, Lithuania. In 1941, at nearly 14 years old, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, violating the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939. Soon afterwards, an edict was issued requiring all Jews to be relocated by Aug. 16 of that year. 

That date marked the beginning of the war as he knew it. The Germans forced the Jews into the Kovno Ghetto of Kaunas Fortress. There were more than 25,000 Jews crowded into the ghetto when it was sealed off in August. Pais lived there with his parents, his brother and sister, living in a slum surrounded by barbed wire. Lithuanian guards stood at each post and Germans policed the walls and gates. 

Pais recalled the memory of a little boy, a few years younger than him, back-talked a Lithuanian guard. He was shot as Pais stood by, helplessly watching. This was the first in a long line of cold-blooded murders that Pais would witness. 

Atrocity replaced normalcy.  

One week, the Nazis circulated a notice stating they were looking for 500 people for clerical duties; they urged the beleaguered Jews to apply. Pais’ father and brother wanted to apply. It meant much easier work. On the day they were supposed to apply for the cleric positions, Pais’ mother made them wait so she could make them a sandwich. They missed their opportunity. The Nazis had received 510 applicants, all of whom were subsequently surrounded by guards and perforated by machine gun fire. 

Pais’ sister was a nurse at the ghetto hospital. One day, she arrived to find it surrounded by Lithuanian guards, who then proceeded to set it on fire, killing everyone inside, including doctors, nurses and patients. 

Incidents such as these were used to control the independent thinkers and the educated Jews in the ghetto.

“It is almost unbelievable that most of our immediate family survived,” said Pais, “sheer luck.”

In October of 1941, Lithuanian guards were going from house to house pulling people in the ghetto out of their homes and assembling them into two groups – one to the right, the other to the left. Pais’ family was shuffled to the right, the other group was gunned down. Pais said they could hear machine guns for days upon days; it was estimated that 10,000 Jews were executed. The guards would take groups to the nearby fort, just outside the ghetto, and kill them there. Their Jewish numbers declined, as did the conditions and rations. 

As the Soviet Union began advancing towards the ghetto, nearly 80,000 bodies were exhumed and torched by the Germans in an effort to destroy the evidence of their evils. 

“We could smell the burning flesh,” said Pais. “The guards told us, ‘When this ends, you’re not going back.’”

In July of 1944, the Pais family was loaded into cattle cars, standing room only, with a single bucket of water and single bucket for sanitation. They traveled like this for three days. Several died on the way- to Dachau. 

The Pais men were taken to one of more than 30 outer lying sub-camps that made up Dachau to work in the Germans’ underground airplane factory. They were assembled, given a cup of “brown water” (coffee), and forced to work nonstop for 12 long hours. When they returned, they were given a crust of bread with sawdust in it and one ladle of watered down soup. This 250 calorie per day diet did next to nothing to maintain the prisoners, who were being worked to death. 

“It didn’t take long before we had about 30 people dying every day,” Pais recalled. 

There were constant beatings, many hangings and detainees were forced to watch every execution. 

On April 29, 1945, U.S. forces liberated the main grounds of the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. Meanwhile, Arthur Pais and his brother were being detained at one of more than 30 Dachau subcamps, completely unaware of how close they were to a long awaited liberation. As Allied Forces neared, Nazi German SS officials ordered the evacuation of concentration camps on the front lines. In what was later coined “death marches,” prisoners were forcibly herded for days on end, walking extreme distances while exposed to the brutal elements. Forced to leave his father with the sick and dying because he could not walk, Pais embarked on a march for his life. His salvation lay ahead, but he did not know it at the time. What he did know was that prisoners who could not keep up, who were hobbled by exhaustion, or who were dying from disease and severe malnutrition were shot and left behind. Those who continued to march were pushed further south toward Tegernsee and the Bavarian Alps; the Nazis were keeping them as leverage. Pais marched for his life, for his brother’s life, for his disabled father’s life. Pais marched for what he hoped, for what he feared, for what he could.

The day after Dachau was liberated, Adolf Hitler committed suicide. 

Victory in Europe was declared on May 8, 1945. However, the war was not quite over for Pais. The spring of 1945 still lingered in the wake of a harsh winter and conditions did not improve as they proceeded along the brink of the Bavarian Alps. After walking for what he remembers to have been five days, Pais and those who remained reached the barracks with their one possession – a single blanket. 

Pais recalls, “I remember May 22, I think it was. I woke up to a foot or two of snow. The guards were gone. And that’s how we were liberated.”

American troops had caught up to them and not a moment too soon.

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