Nakhman Dushanskii was born in 1919 in Šiauliai, Lithuania. His father, Noah, had fought in World War I, where he was hurt in a German gas attack. He returned home half-blind, and worked as a porter at a local railway station. From an early age, his son Nakhman got involved in underground Communist activities in Lithuania, and he spent the years 1936-40 in Lithuanian jails. He was released in June 1940, following the occupation of Lithuania by Soviet forces. In August 1940, when Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union, Dushanskii was drafted into the Red Army.
As a former underground fighter and political prisoner, the young Communist Dushanskii was recommended for service in the NKVD, the Soviet political police (a precursor of the KGB). He was assigned to "operative work" in Telšiai, a town close to the border with the German-annexed "Memelland" (Memel territory). There, he was tasked with intercepting would-be infiltrators trying to cross into the territory of Soviet Lithuania through the new border. In April 1941, two months before the German attack on the Soviet Union, Dushanskii intercepted a clandestine Lithuanian courier who was carrying a pack of leaflets issued by the LAF (Front of Lithuanian Activists), a pro-Nazi émigré organization based in Germany. These notorious leaflets, titled "Dear enslaved brothers!", not only promised the Lithuanians that Hitler would soon liberate their homeland from the Jewish-Bolshevik yoke, but also warned that those Lithuanians who collaborated with the Soviets would be punished – with one conspicuous exception:
"The traitor will be pardoned only provided he proves beyond doubt that he has killed one Jew at least". Dushanskii recalls that this leaflet "struck him dead" 1. It strengthened his conviction that he had done the right thing by joining the Soviet political police, since the enemies of the NKVD were also the enemies of the Jewish people.
Lithuania was occupied by the Germans during the first days of the Soviet-German war. Nakhman managed to be evacuated from Lithuania, but his parents and siblings stayed behind, and were later killed by Lithuanian Nazi collaborators. Nakhman's path into the Soviet rear was difficult and twisted. In early 1942, he found himself assigned to a saboteurs' course taught by the NKVD under the auspices of the Central Staff of the Partisan Movement. There, Dushanskii was thoroughly trained as a "wolfhound" – an NKVD saboteur whose tasks included crossing the front lines, killing men with his bare hands, capturing enemy officers and bringing them over to the Soviet side, liquidating particularly "troublesome" collaborators, and carrying out other acts of sabotage and espionage in enemy territory. Like the other NKVD "wolfhounds", he was also fluent in German. Dushanskii completed the course at the end of 1943 in the rank of NKVD second lieutenant (by the end of the war, he would be promoted to Red Army captain). He and his teams were initially deployed in the Smolensk region (western Russia), and were later moved to Belorussia, and then (in 1944) in Lithuania. He took pride in the fact that his "wolfhounds" had managed to enter Kaunas, the second-largest city in Lithuania, in advance of the Red Army.
Following the Soviet re-occupation and re-annexation of Lithuania in 1944, an anti-Soviet partisan movement emerged in the country. The Lithuanian partisans wished desperately to restore the independence of their country. However, in Nakhman's eyes they were former Nazi collaborators and murderers of Jews (many of these partisans were indeed former collaborators). As an NKVD man, Dushanskii continued to fight them with righteous zeal throughout the late 1940s – early 1950s.
In an interview given in Israel in 2008, Dushanskii described an incident from his interrogation of a captured Lithuanian partisan:
"– 'Well, okay, you would shoot at militiamen, communists, Red Army men and 'hawks' – but what about your ordinary fellow Lithuanians? Why did you kill them? The forester – for what crime did you kill him? He did not cooperate with us ... '- and I heard the 'rebel''s reply – 'But this forester had saved ten Jews during the war, thus he paid for it'... We checked, and it turned out that this forester had indeed sheltered ten escapees from the Kaunas ghetto from the Germans and policemen …"2
A less well-known fact is that, in 1945-46, Nakhman Dushanskii cooperated with Brikha – a clandestine Jewish organization that was smuggling Jews from postwar Eastern Europe to Palestine. These activities could easily land him with a ten-year Gulag sentence (in the best-case scenario), but Dushanskii was lucky… In 1989, when the retired Colonel Dushanskii immigrated to Israel, many former Lithuanian Jews acclaimed him as their savior.
Nakhman Dushanskii died in Haifa in 2008, shortly after giving the interview quoted here.
July 1944: Nakhman Dushanskii arriving in the area of the Kaunas ghetto in Slobodka
"… [The Lithuanians] told us that, a week ago, the Germans had taken the remnants of the ghetto Jews to concentration camps in Germany. One of the Lithuanians told me that there were still Jews who had hidden away during the ghetto evacuation, and continued to live underground. He pointed to a house. I ran up, saw a wall blocked by a cabinet, and heard some voices behind it. I fired a shot into the air and shouted – 'People, go out! The Red Army has arrived! You are free! You will live!' I shouted in Russian and Lithuanian, but there was no response from the 'vault'. Then I started shouting in Yiddish – 'Jews! Get out! We are Russian soldiers!' I heard a voice from there – 'Nakhman! Is it you?' It was my former neighbor from Šiauliai, Hitl Vaisman-Bereznitska, who recognized my voice. 17 people left the secret refuge. These were surviving underground fighters of the Kaunas ghetto: bedraggled, exhausted, and hungry. We helped them to the best of our ability: fed them, found a bale of cloth near a burning factory and gave it to them, found some shoes for them, and took them from Slobodka to the city, housing them in abandoned apartments. The next day, Jewish partisans entered the city. And then I went to the Ninth Fort, in which the Germans had killed many tens of thousands of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war. On that day, while looking at the death pits, I vowed to myself that I would not rest, and would go on destroying all these torturers and executioners, until I have avenged my dead family and all the murdered Lithuanian Jews. And whereas, until that day, I had thought of myself as an NKVD man and communist officer first, and a Jew second, now everything had changed, and I said: I am a Jew, first and foremost, and everything else is not so important to me. And I vowed to myself that I would not rest from the task of avenging my people, of which only a handful had survived in Lithuania, until each and every killer lies in his grave, or rots in the snows of Kolyma...".
1945: Nakhman Dushanskii's cooperation with the "Brikha" organization
"Q. How did it come to pass that the famous 'wolfhound of the NKVD' – then still known as Captain Dushanskii, a devout internationalist communist of the prewar generation –suddenly decided to engage in such activities, in contravention of contemporary Soviet laws?
A. I am forced to repeat myself, because I have already told you that, after the war, while serving in the state security organs, I continued to regard myself primarily as a Jew, and only secondly as a GB [state security] officer and communist. I clearly realized this for the first time in the summer of 1944, as I was standing at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, in which tens of thousands of Lithuanian Jews and Russian prisoners of war had been killed, when I learned that only one out of twenty Lithuanian Jews had survived. And I swore to myself that I would take revenge on these hangmen and executioners, until I have destroyed – or, at least, captured – all of them, down to the last vermin… Yes, there were cases when I had to disregard all laws and orders to save my co-religionists, and not only them.
Here is an example… In November 1945, on the eve of the [Lithuanian] Catholic holiday of Vėlinės, a covered Studebaker truck was stopped close to the Lithuanian-Polish border. It was filled with 57 Jews from Kaunas, survivors of the ghetto and the war. They were trying to cross into Poland, hoping to get to Palestine by a well-tried route. The driver, a Lithuanian, 'handed them over' in advance, and the car was detained following his tip…
When I came back to the office, I could not understand what was going on: The whole staircase was crammed with Jews, and there were guards posted downstairs and on the flights. And then I saw a familiar face: it was my former neighbor, with her husband and three children sitting on the steps next to her. She recognized me and whispered: 'Nakhman, save us'. <…> And they quickly explained everything to me, and the officer on duty at the office said that they had been detained during an illegal attempt to cross the border, and were now waiting for the arrival of the prosecutor and the investigator. <…> The local prosecutor was Ivan Iuzhnyi, himself a 'crypto-Jew'… I addressed them in Yiddish: 'Listen to me and remember what you have to tell the investigator. You were not going to cross the state border, you simply drove from Kaunas to the border for one day to celebrate Vėlinės, intending to visit the graves of loved ones and show your children to your Polish relatives!'. Now it was necessary to get the prosecutor 'on board'. <…> I quickly found Colonel Iuzhnyi. He understood everything and immediately gave the order: 'Women and children! March out of here!' He left 11 people, all men, took them into a room, and once again explained what they ought to say during the investigation. The investigator Linev came in, and we – Iuzhnyi and me – told him: 'We are filing their case under Article 74 of the Criminal Code of 1926 – i.e. 'staying in the border zone without a permit', and Linev did not object. The judge sentenced all eleven to 6 months in the camps, and they were sent to Pravieniškės [in Lithuania], but I saved them from the 58th article [treason against the Motherland].
Another incident occurred during the first post-war deportation from Lithuania in the summer of 1945. It was the [ethnic] Germans of Lithuania and Memel… who were to be deported to the Krasnoiarsk Region [Eastern Siberia]… In Kaunas, there were 600 people. … I came home from work and saw my wife, a medical student, sobbing with two of her fellow students. They used to do their homework together, and now one of the four girls was missing… I asked my wife: 'And where is Nadia? What's happened?' – 'Don't you know? She has been detained with her family at Daukše 7, and is to be deported to Siberia; they are German' – 'How can they be German? She was in the ghetto! Her last name is 100% Jewish!' – 'Her mother is German, so they are to be deported'. I took along two [Lithuanian] comrades … and we, uniformed and armed with tommy guns, drove to the railway station. The whole station was surrounded by the police and troops of the NKVD, but we showed our [GB] IDs, which stated that no one had the right to detain us, and I found Nadia's family in one of the freight cars onto which the deportees from Kaunas had been loaded. I brought the whole family out and took them with me. Suddenly, we were approached by some major with an armed retinue: 'By what right!?' – 'By this right. The Anti-Banditry Department. We are taking them under our responsibility!' I wrote him a permit for 4 people, put the whole family in the car, and drove them back to their home, only to find that their apartment had already been completely looted by their Lithuanian neighbors... I told them – 'Leave for Vilnius. Contact a certain person at the synagogue (I gave them his name), he will help you'. I gave them the name of someone who had direct access to the Brikha organization, which sent people to the British Mandate of Palestine… I had been told about the underground Brikha organization by my comrades - Jews who had known me back in Šiauliai, with whom I had grown up, and who had survived by joining partisan units or fighting at the front".