From diary excerpts
June 22, 1941
The piercing sound of sirens blended with screams and cries, and loud horns from the factories in town awoke me. The bombs falling from enemy planes overhead left no doubt that a war had started. Everyone asked, 'what happened to the enormously powerful Red Army that arrived in Lithuania only a year ago? Where are they now?' .
Broken sidewalks and uneven cobblestones, still crooked from the Stalinovic tanks and katucha, were unmistakable reminders of the Soviet invasion of the previous year. Now we listened for a Soviet response to the Nazi bombing, but none came not even a shot. Had they tricked us, pretending to be invincible?
The streets are filled with people; in front of the gate to our yard, the neighbors, a mixture of Jews and gentiles, speak (since when are they so friendly?). Everyone is discussing the news on the radio, repeating Molotov's statement: The Lithuanians betrayed the Soviets, like putting a knife in their backs. Molotov's statement is repeated by the Polish doorman, who betrays his elation, and by the Soviet Varstanzig clerk from the East, who repeats it with bitterness and disgust.
Long lines form in the bakeries, especially the central ones of town. People are preparing, hoarding bread for any trouble to come. Green trucks keep driving through the streets; when one looks inside, one sees large Soviet families going back east to the Soviet Union. All of our new neighbors the Russians that arrived from the east a year ago and still hadn't really mixed with the local population immediately understand the meaning of this new situation and come to the right conclusions. All the belongings that they purchased in impoverished Lithuania they now gather in bundles. They dress in their best clothing, and the women stand in the yards with their children, waiting for their husbands to arrive with trucks and take them to their homeland. Meanwhile, they pull into the yards furniture they only recently bought, not wanting to leave it behind: who knows if they will get a chance to purchase such items in the Soviet Union?
At four in the afternoon, we gather by the office of preservation of national possessions, on Rodinsky Street, and here we receive commission to serve as guards during curfew hours. With us is Aaron Epstein and his brother Alexander, sons of Leib Epstein, from Vileyka. They tell me that today they met the well-known Rabbi Alter Parlov and his wife, from Keidanov and Branovic. The couple came to Vilna during the Soviet occupation in an attempt to flee, having already handed in their immigration papers. Here too is an old rebbetzin, the widow of Rabbi Josef, and her daughter Sara; the two had also applied for immigration at the NKVD. Now the two families have left the apartment and are hiding in an attic near the big synagogue on Novgorod Street. They are hiding from the NKVD, who are looking to arrest and send them to Siberia for their attempt to immigrate. They now asked whether they should return to their old apartment or remain in hiding, fearful of capture. If only they were lucky enough to go to Siberia!
After thinking for a while, we suggested they should remain in hiding for the next few days, to see what would happen. Anyway, it was safer to remain on Novgorod Street, at the edge of town, because this area was bombed less and one had an easier time getting food supplies there. On Pylimo Street, across from the home of Rabbi Rubinstein, I was appointed to guard two Soviet public shops. That evening, the town was shelled by enemy planes. All the neighbors once again came out to the yard and stood at the entrance, by the gate. They could not go to the bomb shelter as it was filled with possessions and food. Only when the actual shelling was in full force would they squeeze into it.
The wives of the Soviet officials sat on their suitcases in the yard, waiting for their husbands. The yard guard was responsible for everyone that lived there, and so when someone came in from outside he would check them very carefully, fearing a disturbance. Whenever anyone entered, the wives of the Soviets would ask him, is he one of ours? I noticed that someone dressed very fancily came to the yard a few times throughout the night, and looked in through the windows. He would go up and down the stairs and then out. He repeated this several times. The Polish guard told me in anger that it had been a few days now that this NKVD man would come, looking for victims. The person he was looking for knew about him and was hiding at a friend's home.
Even today, the guard said, during the explosions, he keeps coming to look. One can now understand why I suggested to Aaron Epstein that the rebbetzen remain in hiding.
August 29, 1942, Friday Afternoon
Two days before the raid, I found myself in Deutsche Street (Vokeèiu G.), visiting the Parlev family, who lived at Deutsche 8, in the Schulhof region. The rabbi's wife told me that only a few days ago she had returned with her daughter Sara from Novgorod Street. When she entered her home, she learned that thieves had broken in and plundered it, taking some precious antique silver artifacts. These religious artifacts were heirlooms that had been in her family for many generations. Amongst them was the Blessing Cup that once belonged to the Holy Jew from Przysucha, whose descendant she is. The thieves also stole her money and other possessions. The house looked as if a pogrom had just occurred there. The rebbetzin was not as upset about the clothing and money, although she could have exchanged them for food, as about the holy artifacts that had belonged to the most famous Hasids of older generations. She had inherited them, and it was from her possession that they had been stolen. The one blessing, she said, was that she had been able to convince her children to immigrate to Israel, and her son, Rabbi Avraham, had immigrated during the last possible hours.
During the pogrom that took place in Deutsche Street on August 31st, the rebbetzin and her daughter Sara were taken to their deaths in Lukiskes Prison and Ponar.
In the Judenrat building, on Straszuna Street 6, every day gathered dozens of people wanting to take part in physical labor. They wanted to work because they were very fearful of the Nazis and their collaborators, who would come to the ghetto and kidnap people, later to kill in Lukiskes Prison and Ponar. They also knew that at work, they sometimes had the opportunity to meet gentile acquaintances and trade some possessions for food. It is interesting that the first people who registered to work were the refugees: leftover yeshiva students who were not able to leave Vilna with the yeshiva, members of the Zionist movement who had come here in an attempt to immigrate, and some renters who had come to Vilna in the last few years. Residents of the town who were home-owners Independent Vilna Owners, as they were known did not take part in the labor and thus became the main victims of the kidnappings and killings at Ponar.
The famous Rabbi Alter Parlov was amongst those refugees who came to the Judenrat building, but someone soon made him a Judenrat member. He always greeted me with great happiness upon seeing me after the daily work was over. His job at the Judenrat was to sign out all the people leaving for work in the morning; when they returned in the evening he always made sure that each person returned in peace. Sometime during the Yellow ID Action of 1941, during the Jewish month of Cheshvan, at the end of the day, Rabbi Alter's malina, or hideout den in the Klois yard, was discovered. Nazis found the hiding place and, together with the father-in-law of Aaron Epstein, Rabbi Alter Parlov and his wife were taken by the murders to Lukiskes Prison and Ponar.
I recall another, happier, day, when the Jews entered the ghetto and I meet them on Straszuna Street, looking for apartments. All their belongings were hidden in a basket that the Rabbi's wife carried. I remember how happy they were in the ghetto when they established a department for housing, butu skyrius. This department was instituted by the Judenrat, and it was decided then that each family would live together in one yard and would not depend on the kindness of others for housing.
Jewish month of Tevet, 1942
I started working as a smith for a German military unit. My work place was in Rogteks in Snipisiuk. Our smithy opened onto the street. People who traveled to town from the direction of Misigula, Vilkija, and Podebrad would all pass by. Our gentile neighbors knew us, the two Jewish smiths who wore yellow tags, and recognized the German officers with the red badges of the SD who would often scream and become wild, so the neighbors would try to avoid passing by the smithy.
One day, during the month of Tevet of 1942, I noticed a sleigh harnessed to a horse and, nearby, saw a very tall gentile whose gait seemed familiar. When this Christian man came near, I recognized that it was Michael the Blind from Vileyka, who brought the wife of a Polish officer from Vileyka to Vilna, to stay with her relatives. Trains were not running from Vileyka to Vilna, so she had come in a sleigh.
When he saw me come out to the street to talk about Vileyka, the driver started crossing himself, saying You are still alive!? I was told all the Jews were killed by the Germans! When I asked him what he could tell me about Vileyka and the Jews there, he answered tersely, saying that a few Jews had remained alive, if one could call theirs a life. He was willing to tell me no more. He said he had relatives who lived on this street and, for my service, he sent me one of his relatives who intended to go to Vileyka in a few days and return to Vilna two months later. Many gentiles took merchandise from Vilna to neighboring towns, and as there was a lack of provisions, inhabitants of the small towns would pay large amounts of money for such wares. This man promised to take a letter there for me but demanded ten advance gold rubles for the service.
That evening, all the Vileyka natives who lived in Vilna met in the apartment that belonged to Nechama Levin, the daughter of Schmuel, the kosher slaughterer, who had organized a meeting about this situation. Nechama's brother Jacov, Pesah Levinsohn, and Batjah Eidelman, and I attended. Collectively, we decided we would pay no advance money, but if the man brought a written letter from Vileyka in response to our letters he would receive his payments. When he returned three months later, he didn't even come to us to report any information. From his relatives, we learned that no Jews had survived in Vileyka, other than a few professionals that the Germans were using to work, such as the saddlers. The Jews in the Vileyka labor camp had all been brought there from other towns. This camp was headed by someone named Schatz. When we heard the name, we assumed they were talking about someone named Shat, a native of Vileyka. After the war we found that Schatz was in fact an Austrian refugee living in the area. Since he spoke German, he became the leader of the camp in Vileyka.
Meetings with Chaykel Lunski
My meetings with Chaykel Lunksi Lunski took place at a Strassen in Vilna. I did not recognize him when I met him in the winter of 1941, because he had been forced to shave his beard, and his face was hollowed out from starvation, and he was very depressed. His eyes looked feverish and large in their sockets. A few families were practically starving in his ghetto household, and he was the only man working and was trying to feed them. In his usual way, he worked for them like this modestly and in secret. I saw how difficult his work was for him, but he was not used to asking people for help, even for the sake of others, despite the fact that nobody would have refused him.
As we conversed, he mentioned the library, saying that the keys to it were still with him, since he had worked there until the day it was closed. One day, members of the German secret police came to Lunski's house, ordering him to bring his library keys, and took him to the Gestapo. They asked him about all the precious archived books that were a rare and invaluable part of the library's collection. Recording everything, they insisted on knowing the exact location and titles of these books. Meanwhile, they put him in Lukiskes Prison, in cell number 16 in the basement. In this cell, he found professor Noah Prilutski, Doctor Epstein, and Professor Lesersohn. During the three days that Lunski stayed with them, Pelutski and Epstein were very depressed.
Chaykel ended by saying, in truth, I must say that after I was released from this prison I was much more depressed than when I entered. If such prominent and wise people were now so disillusioned and in such awful condition, what could we expect from simple people? It seems that one must have deep reservoirs of faith to truly feel the life-force of one's nation, and feel the courage and spiritual strength enabling one to overcome any obstacle or horror that occurs. But if all these reservoirs have dried out inside of you, and you have lost your faith, you cannot not find any solace or hope for salvation.
On the third day, Chaykel Lunski was taken to the library and was ordered to remove from the safe in the basement three of the most rare books, first printed hundreds of years ago. The SD specialist carefully examined these books and then put them back into the safe, returning Lunski his keys and releasing him. Two weeks later, Chaykel was taken again to the Lukiskes Prison, where he was incarcerated for two weeks. None of the prisoners from last time were there anymore. After those two weeks, he was taken to the library, where he showed German officers the rare books. This time they took them, then releasing and sending him back to the ghetto.
In the ghetto, he worked as a simple laborer doing odd jobs, until the Judenrat arranged for a ghetto library, where he became the librarian. This library was established on Straszuna Street. All his days Lunski lived in poverty, but never lost hope until his last moments, when he perished in an Estonian camp.
At one point, there was news in the ghetto that the Germans had bombarded Tel Aviv and Haifa, approaching the borders of Israel. This rumor truly scared the residents of the Vilna ghetto. The rabbis declared a day of fasting and in the synagogue, they themselves prayed and read certain religious passages from Psalms. Many were already very depressed by the condition, and this announcement further dampened their mood. Chaykel Lunski came, saying that he had found an old prophetic book in the library stating that a truly evil kingdom was to conquer most of the European countries and arrive at the gates of the land of Israel, and only there would it experience the mighty hand of God that would conduct the same miracles as it had with the Egyptians. This brought great hope to the ghetto inhabitants, and they now fully believed that the enemy would be annihilated, and destruction would begin in the land of Israel.
The Rabbi and his Problems
Near my ghetto apartment lived the family of Tankun, the former owners of a pharmacy in Poholenka Street. His family was very close to that of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Zalmanovich, who lived on the same street. The old rabbi was the only one left of his entire family. Together with the Rabbi Pylavski, his son-in-law Rabbi Yitzhak Kurnik, and Rabbi Israel Guttesman, these were the only four rabbis left from the entire Vilna rabbinical community. The wife of the old rabbi, the rabbi's son - Doctor Hillel Zalmanovich, and Hillel's family were kidnapped by the Germans and taken to be killed at Lukiskes Prison and Ponar.
The family of Tankun was very helpful to the old rabbi, often inviting him to their home to eat with them. He ate with them every Tuesday, and they assisted and supported him in his loneliness. During the winter of 1942, the rabbi often complained to this friends, saying as if talking to himself, I don't understand what the Commandant of the ghetto, Mr. Gens*, wants of me. He keeps asking, 'Does the religion permit giving up Jews who are handicapped, old, or sick to the Gestapo in exchange for the promise that the rest of the Jews of the ghetto be kept alive?' He wants me to give him permission to turn over Jews to be killed in order to save those who are young and healthy! I keep telling him, 'how can you demand of me to give permission for something the Torah disallows!? Don't you know you can't discriminate between the young and old!?' I keep bringing him passages of Rambam, and other Jewish writings, but he keeps insisting, 'I ask you, as a rabbi, to give me permission!'. And I cannot understand, why does he keep asking me to give permission!? I wonder, would he not do what he intends to do without getting my permission... He concluded, After this conversation, I started following the orders of the Commandant but I understand that his conscience will not let him rest, and he is looking for a way to ease his guilt.
Winter of 1942
It has been days since passage in and out the ghetto has become very difficult. To sneak food into the ghetto has become nigh on impossible. The police check all the belongings of the workers, trying to find anything contraband, and your fate is in your own hands if any food or forbidden possessions are found. Bread has become very expensive, costing more than 40 Rubles for one kilogram, and to be able to get such an amount of money has become very difficult. Legumes are impossible to acquire. Both young and old walk around starving and disheartened. Since I work as a smith outside of the ghetto, I look for ways to get some food in my workplace so I don't have to take the food of the starving Jews locked in the ghetto.
One day, I was able to sell some possessions and clothes to a Christian neighbor near my workplace in return for a few items of food like potatoes, flour, and vegetables. But how am I to transfer this food to the ghetto? The Christian man was very content regarding the exchange. For the good clothes I gave him, I received only some potatoes, flour, and vegetables that he usually fed to his livestock. Yet this Christian Polish man wanted to prove to me, a poor Jew, that he had Polish royal blood, so he invited me to a meal attended by his son and the son's fiancé. On the table stood a large pot containing baked meat with cabbage and oil. Another pot was piled high with potatoes. The strong smell of the cabbage made my empty stomach growl. For a minute, I felt as if only by looking at the food I was gaining nourishment from it, but when the Christian man encouraged me to take part in the meal, I told him, I thank you greatly for the invitation but I cannot accept because the meat is not kosher and I cannot eat it. He was truly shocked, but pressed on, trying to convince me to eat. He wanted to show me that he was familiar with the Jewish rules and pointed out that in cases of saving a person's life one is allowed to discount the kosher rules. He said he had other Jewish friends who in these times would not decline such a meal in order to save themselves. Despite his pleas, I refused to eat.
Next door to our apartment in the ghetto lived Lena Kopilovic, the granddaughter of Yitzhak Kopilovic from Vileyka (known as Der Glassner). She had moved to Vilna, and worked as a nurse at the hospital. Even now she worked as nurse, and although she could hardly sustain herself, she took meticulous care of sick patients. Every day, she would return home exhausted from this hard labor and the lack of food to sustain her already-emaciated figure. The food that she received at work she shared with her two sisters, who were sick and could not work. The sisters did not want to register themselves as sick and receive the designated sickbed rations because they were too fearful of being black-listed as ineffectual and then killed by Nazis.
After some time of such conditions, Lena became sick and was operated on but passed away in the same hospital where she worked. Everyone was jealous of her: the nurses as well as the members of the house envied her of her natural death, as opposed to one at the hands of the Nazis. When I returned from work, the relatives of the deceased, the mother of the doctor Gileles, and other neighbors waited for me to ask a moral religious question: since the sisters of the deceased were now in such a terrible state, sick and starving, and their supporter was dead, would it be unethical or shameful if they removed Lena's gold teeth and sold them so the sisters could buy some food? Was it permissible, they asked, in order to save souls, to sacrilege in this way?
When the sisters heard of the relatives' pleas, they said, how can you even consider such a thing!? We are fully ready to die rather than shame the honor of our sister by removing her gold teeth!
Vileyka Residents of the Vilna Ghetto
The Nazi 'action'** collecting people from the Vilna ghetto and sending them to Estonia lasted three days. The first Jews taken were those who had recently arrived from abolished camps and neighboring towns like Oshmiany, Smorgon, and Svenciunai. These Jews received notice that they must come to the yard of the Judenrat, but, in spite of this the ghetto police went to people's homes and physically forced them to the yard of the Judenrat next morning. Some Jews were able to prepare malinas, or hideouts, ahead of time, and thus were not taken. Since the Germans had issued a quota of Jews they intended to take, when the police could not fulfill this order they started kidnapping anyone whom they could catch.
During the first day of this action, I hid with my neighbor in a childrens' home on Straszuna Street 4. The four floors of this building were filled with children; on the top floor I found an out-of-the-way small corner room, between a window, another room, and the roof - this was an ideal hideout. In this building, a twelve year old child a refugee from Poland, a relative of Ytzhak Livschitz from Vileyka was hiding. I already knew this child in 1940, when he came as a refugee from an area of Poland occupied by Germans. This child was very clever and quick, becoming the ghetto's contact with the outside world. When this action started, however, and the police announced that everyone must come the yard, even the children were told to go to their study rooms and not walk outdoors. So now we were left without a contact.
My friend left our hideout, going to one he had prepared ahead, and I was left all alone. I could hear other people talking in other rooms, but had no way of knowing if they were Nazis, Jewish policemen looking for victims, or others like me. Finally, I snuck out through the window and saw a member of the resistance trying to throw a heavy machine gun onto the windowsill. When he saw me, his eyes lit up. I was able to help him with the machine gun, and so I became the ghetto contact person. My job was to locate an apartment in house 9 on Straszuna Street, where a certain Roska stood in the balcony, whose job it was to give a sign to start the resistance attack. On the other side, in building number 6, hid the members of the Underground, with their weapons.
Once, I saw in one of the windows a pile of books, and behind them, hiding, a Vileyka native Jakov Levin, the son of Schmuel the kosher slaughterer. Being an active member of the underground, he had in his hand a machine gun.
My Last Day in the Vilna Ghetto, Tuesday November 14, 1943
It had been eight days since the action sending people to Estonia had finished, although, I thought, perhaps this was just a break in the action. Now all Jewish workers were forbidden to work outside; the ghetto had become hermetically sealed. Around the ghetto, armed police, compromised of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Germans, kept watch. Each corner where the ghetto bordered the city was diligently guarded. Thousands of people had already been sent to the killing camps in Estonia during the first four days of the action. Amongst them, were the Vileyka natives Alexander and Aaron, sons of Leib Epstein, and Pesah Levinsohn, son of Lipah, with his wife, who was also from Vileyka. Very few Jews had received special permits from the Gestapo to work, and those that did work did so only on the condition that special units of Germans and collaborators would guard the Jews on the way to work and when they returned to the ghetto.
Every day a car would arrive at the Panzer unit that was part of the HKP, guarded by German soldiers. It took with it the remainder of Jewish workers. I was amongst these workers. The ghetto was in dire situation: food had become even more expensive, vegetables cost 70 to 80 Rubles per kilo and were almost impossible to get. The lines for public restaurants became longer and the cooks served soup that was practically clear. Fear still permeated the ghetto, a fear that had not subsided since the raids. The rest of the ghetto inhabitants looked for any jobs they could find in order to survive. Jews who had earlier had special privileges and worked in town now found ways to get new jobs, but there were others in the ghetto who did not leave their hideouts. They did not trust anyone and decided that they would be safest in hiding; but how long can one sustain oneself in such a situation? During the day one encountered nobody in the ghetto. After five o'clock, when people returned from their workplaces, the streets filled with young and old, with everyone discussing the situation, rumors, and hopes.
One day we found out that Gens and Dessler had been ordered to go to the Gestapo. Gens was imprisoned by the Gestapo, but Dessler returned that afternoon. Strong rumors circulated that something horrible had happened, that there had been some informer.
The Camp of the HKP
In the HKP unit, everyone was very nervous since our leader announced that he was going to look for a permit to take all the people who worked for him outside of the ghetto to a separate camp, one similar to the Kriegslazarett. The Commandant of the ghetto, Gens, opposed this plan, saying that the appropriate place for workers was in the ghetto and not outside of it. The unofficial brigadier of HKP unit was Pincher, a teacher who had come to Vilna as a refugee. A decent man, he was liked by the unit. He would usually sit in his office-like room on Jetkowa Street. By evening, the room would be filled with workers of the unit, begging him to do something to get the HKP unit out of the ghetto and to a safer location, like the special camp. Poor Pincher would ask in a naïve tone, what do you want from me? Don't you know the brigadier of the unit Kulich, is one Gens' people? He is an ex-policeman, and they are the ones who will decide our fates, not I. We cannot change anything.
In the streets, a rumor spread that a group of young men in the ghetto, who were not members of the PPA (the official resistance movement), wanted to escape the ghetto to the forest but the Jewish policemen resisted this idea. The Jewish policemen once again separated people, to prevent such a collective escape. Life became very difficult. Despite this, we all knew that some members of the police were active members of the PPA.
Fearful Night in the Ghetto: Midnight of September 15, 1943
The streets are filled with people and the narrow alleys cannot contain them all. Here, at this moment, one could find practically every surviving Jew in Vilna. I encountered Shlomo Kevis, his wife, daughter, and son from Vileyka. His wife said that their room is like a low-ceilinged catacomb, and when they are inside they must continuously stoop. Shlomo now worked as a cobbler for the Germans, making slippers. He received this job upon arrival here from the ghetto of another town. His son and daughter went everyday with the TAT to work at building a highway at the outskirts of the town, on the road to Ponar. Shlomo's sister Rivka and her husband, Ytzhak Livschitz, were also there, with their son and daughter. They claimed that this was the most stressful time they had experienced during the entire war years.
Livschitz worked for a shoe-polish factory, the same factory that he used to once own, and is now in the hands of a Christian man, who used to work for him. Livschitz gave him all rights to the factory; in return, the man arranged for Livschitz's special permit to leave the ghetto to work. Ever since Jews' permits to work outside the ghetto were revoked, Livschitz had been working in one of the small factories in the ghetto.
Yitzhak spoke with much envy of the PPA members who were able to escape from the ghetto to the forest. Nehamah, the daughter of Shmuel, the kosher slaughterer, is here with her daughter and sister-in-law. Her brother, Jakov is a member of the PPA. Nehemah had a chance at an escape with her daughter to the forest but declined, and now is very sorry that she stayed. She now spends nights in the hideout that the PPA built. When Jakov's brother his wife attempted to escape, he gave his son to his sister, but the family refused to separate and for this they paid with their lives. They were caught together with other members of the PPA when the ghetto was destroyed, and were transferred to the Estonian camps where all contact with them was lost.
Batjah Edelman Golum and her husband Boryah were very fortunate in their evasion of the kidnappers; they were not sent to Estonia. Boryah said, I was born in Vilna and raised here and every corner and stone here is known to me. How can I go to Estonia? I don't even know the language there! All I want is to join the PPA and escape to the forest He was never able to achieve this goal.
The Ghetto Bakery
The bakery fills the air with the smell of freshly baked bread. As soon as the people smell it, immediately they stand in line, dozens of them. They threatened the owner of the bakery and so he has started selling bread to each person by the quarter kilogram. Everyone is elated to receive bread. It is now eleven at night. Rumors have spread that Gens was shot by Noig Boyer because he was found guilty of contact with Lithuanian partisans. Others say that this is not true, that some of Gens' acquaintances in the Gestapo told him ahead of time that they were to kill him and suggested that he escape, but he didn't, saying that he could not betray and forget his responsibility to the Jews of the ghetto. Now a conversation ensued about the character of Gens, with everyone in the crowd giving his opinion. Most had a positive view of him: he was a proud Jew, but all that he did was good in the long run, improving lives of Jews in the ghetto. Others said, his intentions may have been positive, but some of his actions were not quite as good. The members of the unit of the HKP whispered amongst themselves, and were very fearful of saying the improper thing. Some said that if the ghetto commandant was no longer here, nobody was left to stand up for the Jews and nobody would now object to the idea of moving to a camp outside of the ghetto.
The next morning, we learned that Dessler was appointed as the ghetto commandant instead of Gens, and the murderer Kipler became head of the police.
Leaving the Ghetto: September 1943
The next morning, it was announced that all HKP members wanting to go to a special camp in town must register in the office of the unit, the Gestapo. About three hundred families (about nine hundred people) could leave the ghetto and go to Bilieger Hauser (in German, affordable housing). The buildings that were established by Baron Hirsch on Subaèiaus Street 19. After they received permits to leave the ghetto, everyone started organizing and registering, running all around. Some said that it was not a good idea to leave the ghetto, that it would be better to share the fate of those still here, whatever this would be. If the inhabitants of the ghetto could not survive, how could a group of one thousand Jews survive outside of it? Other said that the Heiles camp had already been in existence for some years and its residents lived much better lives that Jews in the ghetto did. The others answered that the reason the camp members survived was only because of the protection the ghetto offered them whenever they encountered some problems, the ghetto workers, commandant ,and Judenrat worked on their behalf to solve them. While these arguments went on, we encountered new faces; the Jewis with special privileges came to sign themselves up as special workers in the HKP. Until now, they had paid with good money to ensure thier survival. They seemed to know how to escape troubles of any kind. The wives of all the Jews taken to Estonia now registered as their husbands, taking their professions.
As the day came to conclusion, all the people who had registered were told to come for special permits and to leave the ghetto in cars assigned for the job. Each group received a different departure time, and were told to wait at the corner of Jetkova and Disnanski Street on an empty lot with all their belongings.
I registered with the HKP without any hesitation or further thought. Some inexplicable instinct drew us to do it, for everyone from the Panzer unit registered. When I returned from the registry office, I went to the camp and met Rabbi Yitzhak Kornik, the son-in-law of Rabbi Pilovski from Piskas. He had been a member of the rabbinical court of Vilna already at the time of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky and was considered among the most promising of young rabbis. I asked his opinion about my leaving the ghetto to join the HKP, and he immediately said, I look very positively on it. If I received such an opportunity, I would immediately leave. He gave me a quick sermon about the issues of security in Judaism and the special location and priveledges of Vilna, Jerusalem of Lithuania. He suggested that keeping the family as one unit and staying together was unadvisable at such a dangerous time. The Torah-learned people of the past saw going to exile as a positive thing, believing that if the Jews diffused and spread, at least a few were bound to survive.
The rabbi said, who knows what responsibility a practicing Jew faces at such a time? The issue is not what each individual experiences, or whether he will survive or not. But each individual must indeed take care of himself and try to find safety. The special privilege of the Jews as a group is that when they meet individuals who have lost their identity, they can empathize with them. And so, similarly, God will be with whoever encourages and helps Jews in such difficult times. We must keep our spirit strong. I am sure that the yeshiva boys who come to the ghetto at this difficult time are heaven-sent in order to keep the spiritual fire burning strong and to support us as much as they can. Even if each individual does not arrive at the feet of the savior, if one looks at it in general terms of the nation, each person has purpose and he achieves something meaningful.
After some of the families living in our apartment had been sent to Estonia, our crowded condition improved. When I came home and announced to my family that we must prepare to leave home the next day, the other residents of the house were not pleased. They were not jealous on the contrary, they acted sorry for us. Where are they taking you? Are you sure it is not a trap? they asked. Berta and Manya Kopilovich, the two granddaughters of Yitzhak, der Glassner from Vileyka, could not accept the fact that we will leave them behind. You were able to overcome all the troubles you encountered here! they say. Why are you going to an unknown place? In spite of their protests, we started giving our humble possessions away namely, our furnace and our firewood. We didn't have to spend much time organizing our belongings, as we were left with so little. All of them could be put into one or two sacks.
It was very difficult to say goodbye to the household members. We went through a long period of danger together with these people; we had been partners in destiny and we did not know if this would be our last meeting. In a child's stroller, we transferred our few belongings to Disnanski street, and waited for the HKP car to arrive.
Rabbi Jakov Zladin
On the way, I met with Rabbi Jakov Zladin, one of the best students of Beit Joself Yeshiva, and the spiritual leader of the Lutsk Yeshiva. Some years before, he came to Vilna with his students from Lutsk, and found himself stuck here as a refugee. Now he looked sick his face was white as chalk. During the four days of the Estonia action, he had hid in a malina, where he had no food or water and almost suffocated. Now he was very serious, and his eyes burned in their sockets. He was looking for something to eat for family he had adopted in the ghetto. He felt responsible for about forty families mostly widows and orphans whose husbands and fathers were taken away by the Nazis. They all depended on him. It became known in the synagogue beit shaul how charitable he was, and so people shared with him food and money. His family was in Lutsk and he had no information about them. He, too, saw my leaving the ghetto as a good idea, saying that even if there was only a 1% chance of saving oneself, it made such an attempt right. He said to me, you know my saying: our struggle to survive, here in the ghetto, is the way we make God's name holy. This we should remind ourselves morning and evening to console ourselves, finding every way and opportunity to survive, even if only one of us will be able to live to tell the next generation what has been done to us at the hand of the Nazis - 'members of the most cultured and enlightened nation in the world.'
I understand the way he reasoned. We met often, but one conversation in particular comes to mind. It occurred during the three-day raid when Nazis discovered the hideout in the attic of the synagogue beit shaul. During this raid, many rabbis and important religious Jews were discovered and taken to be killed in Lukiskes Prison. When we learned that Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman was kidnapped from the Kovno ghetto, I asked him, what right do we have to be amongst the few rabbis who survived in the ghetto while some of the most famous and righteous yeshiva leaders like Rabbi Wasserman, Salmon von Eishyshok, and the 'one quote from Shzozin' perished? Why did the few of us survive?
He said, to explain this, we must learn from the first Jew in the world, Father Abraham, and his son Isaac, and recall that the highest level for a Torah Jew is martyrdom. When a man is finally willing to give his soul as a martyr and to make the name of God holy, his individual identity and self-preservation exist no more, and all that is left is the desire to ascend and become One with Eternity itself. Very few are able to ascend to such a state. Those who manage to reach it have a huge spiritual reserve, and this is the reason why righteous men died thus, while we live on. We still have a long journey to travel until we reach such a state. You must prepare yourself to overcome tribulations in order to be capable of spiritual introspection. We must experience much and endure many troubles before we are able to arrive at the highest spiritual state as martyrs.
I asked him to explain, saying, you seem to contradict yourself and say that martyrdom in our time is the struggle to survive. Must we overcome such obstacles to walk in this direction of spiritual elation? Isn't this the opposite of what you told me two years ago in the ghetto about martyrdom and the purpose of man and sacrifice in the name of the Holy?
Rabbi Jakov responded, there is no contradiction here. A man cannot climb the steps of the ladder without being alive to climb them in the first place. The dead have no more need of spiritually ascending. Clearly, the ways of the Holy are hidden from us. A person who still possesses hope and trust has many opportunities to improve himself, especially in our time. Even with one word of comfort and encouragement one saves other souls, and especially when what one is saying is something one really believes in. Then the words you one is saying are like seeds that take root and bring hope and faith to others. So you can lift people from despair. The world is free for you to study the Torah and moral rule and to avoid temptation, even in these miserable conditions. But this is only possible if you are alive. As Chafetz Chaim said: even one recited passage from Psalms or one Mishna chapter would have no import in the world above if you did not prepare for it in this, our lower world. But this world is not really a lower world. Anyone who is blessed with a good brain can use his gifts. A person who, during his life here, collects Torahs, and for whom Torah studies are a first priority, does not leave this world of illusions empty-handed when he dies. The way to reach the stage of martyrdom is through life. This is why you must now put effort into survival. You must struggle to survive in any possible way.
It seemed like he opened his heart up to me at that moment, and started talking non-stop, but as if not seeing me, looking at the clouds in the sky, the white clouds moving in the sky, while standing in the ruins of Disninski street on the corner of Jatkova.
A Smith in the HKP Camp of Vilna
The HKP camp of Vilna was in a building on Valkovsky Street, in the neighborhood of nipiskes. There was also an auto-mechanic shop to repair transportation vehicles here, as well as a barrack of two rooms, intended to contain 120 workers. Their families lived in the main camp on Sobotsh Street. Every morning, at six, the Nazis arranged a headcount: a Jewish policeman counted the workers, giving a report to the Lithuanian guards and the SS men at the head of the guard unit. Upon our return from work, there another such headcount.
In the middle of the winter, I was transferred to the main camp to work in a smithy. Here the new rules stated that professional workers must arrive together at the workplace the Hallah (the big room of the smithy) - and sign their names in a notebook belonging to this unit to register their arrival. From here, they dispersed, each one to his own workplace. Only the physical laborers in the yard were given a headcount, while the rest of us signed in. The same arrangement also existed for Sabbath all the workers had to come, sign in, and return to work. I did not know of the Sabbath rules and so I came to work that day to ask the man in charge not to give me any job that would require me to do physical work desecrating the Sabbath. Since one is not allowed to write on Sabbath, I did not sign my name. Instead, I went directly to the workplace. Usually, anyone not signing his name in the notebook was treated as absent from work. If he was sick, then an SS man with a doctor would come to check him. If the doctor found him healthy, the punishment would be notorious...
At seven in the morning, brigadier Schneider came running to me and said, I saw you in the smithy at six in the morning when people signed their names in the notebook! Why is yours not there? Did you forget? You must not forget! Go and sign. The brigadier was surprised to find I did not sign on purpose, not wanting to desecrate the Sabbath. Are you crazy!? he exclaimed. What planet do you live on!? Go and sign! When he found me stubborn about this, he went to the general work manager and asked for his intervention, seeing me as a troublemaker who was trying to challenge the leadership. The manager promised me to make different arrangements for next Sabbath, but he insisted that this Sabbath I sign. I made a speech, but the words passed from mouth to ear. I attempted to remind the Jews of certain rules that they neglected to observe during the time in the camp and ghetto: to believe in the God of Israel, to keep Sabbath, and to obey other commandments. The camp residents became excited people were arguing both sides of the issue. When I said I was willing to go to Lukiskes Prison and Ponar rather than desecrate the Sabbath, they left me alone.
From then on, every Friday, I had to sign ahead for the page left for the Sabbath. Every Sabbath at six in the morning I came with the rest of the workers to the place where they signed, but one time I noticed that the German SS commander took the book before anyone signed and looked at it to make sure that no Jewish workers who wanted to sleep late on Saturday had signed the book on Friday. He kept looking for a signature in the notebook so he could satisfy his urge to hurt some Jew. Finally, the SS man put the notebook down and left, not realizing my signature was already in it. The brigadier, Schneider, who had signed my name the previous night, was vey nervous. He stood stone-still, not able to say a word for fear of my name being found. Finally, when the SS man left he came down and said, do you see!? Do you see what happens!?.
Like this, the Sabbath won over the SS man and during every subsequent Sabbath I did not sign on that day but the previous one.
The Engineer Joselsohn
The engineer Joselsohn worked as a bathhouse attendant in the HKP in Vilna. It seems like ever since he arrived in the camp with the other survivors, he could not lift his eyes from the ground and was filled with despair. His heavy wooden shoes and patched clothes made of flour- and sugar-sacks made him a recognizable personage in the HKP. The bathhouse he worked in was located on the bottom floor of Block A, and every day I would encounter Joselsohn on the way to work and when I returned. Every Saturday and Sunday, I would converse with him. In fact, I knew him ever since he was a successful wholesale merchant before the war.
As I knew him to be a deep thinker, I asked him, Why are you isolating yourself so? Do you think you are alone in your troubles? Don't you know: when your troubles are shared by many, half of your salvation is in that very fact. He answered that when he found a chance, he would tell me about his woes.
During one of our subsequent conversations, he said, there are two things I cannot forgive myself for. On one occasion, I was too rushed, and did something I shouldn't have, and then I thought too much, and did not do something I should have. Both of these incidents occurred when the Gestapo soldiers discovered our malina hideout, after the ghetto was liquidated. They brought my wife, my daughter, my mother, and me to prison cell number 17 in the Gestapo. We knew we were on the road to Ponar to be executed.
The next morning, the Nazis took me to work and I knew that the fate of the women was already decided. I learned from people who worked in the Gestapo that on certain occasions, people would be transferred from their imprisonment to the camp of the HKP if they bribed the Nazis with gold. I also found out that Martin Weiss, the 'Hanger' of the Gestapo, was the one who made the final decision about inmates. So I thought to myself, 'what is anything I hid underground worth to me if my family members do not survive?' and I said to Weiss, 'I have a big treasure in town. If you release my family in cell number 17 in the Gestapo I will give you my treasure, which contains gold and diamonds.' Weiss answered me in a very gentle way, swearing by the honor of a German officer, that he would release my family. 'Meanwhile,' he said, 'be prepared. Tomorrow we will go to get your treasure. If you lied to me, you will suffer greatly.'
The family was ready to be released. The next morning, he took me in his car to Pilsudski Street. Gestapo officers stood outside, guarding the yard of our home. Together with Weiss, we entered the basement. I took a shovel and other tools and started digging. I needed to dig about a meter under the ground, and Weiss took turns with me in digging. As I was holding an iron pole in my hand, I said to myself, 'here is the murderer of tens of thousands of Jewish victims who were killed for no reason, and now I have an opportunity to avenge them and kill him right here.' I kept considering this, but then I thought, 'it's fine if you will lose your life for killing this man, but why your family, too? This could be your chance to let them survive.' The thoughts kept coming to my head as the hole became deeper and deeper. Finally, Weiss reached the treasure and his hands shook when he saw what these bags contained. I was filled with self-loathing at my weakness. Why didn't I kill this murderer, standing in this basement? Who knows how many Jews would still be executed at his hands?
We quickly returned to the Gestapo, and the first thing I asked him to do was release my family from their cells. Reaching the Gestapo, we found that during the time we had spent in the basement all the Jews imprisoned in cell 17 were taken to Ponar, among them my wife, daughter, and mother and they had all perished there. I screamed at Weiss, 'is that your promise of retribution? Is that the honorable word of a German officer?'
Ever since then, I keep beating myself. How could I be so easily deceived? How could I have believed a murderer whose hands were stained by the blood of the Jewish nation? Why did I offer him such a deal that by its very nature allowed him not only to murder but inherit the riches of his victims!? This louse does not let me rest either during the day or night. All I see around me is darkness without one ray of light. As long as this nation of desecrators exists, no light will come to the house of Israel. This is my private story and when I think of my future, I don't see any value in life. I don't see any reason to go to all the troubles and pain that we experience in order to survive and see a new world of tomorrow I can't imagine the state of the Jewish nation after the Holocaust. What would the image of a Jewish nation without the Jews of Poland and Lithuania ? Think about this. Here in Vilna, from the ninety thousand Jews who lived here, only about two thousand people survived in the camps about 2.2%. How many of these two thousand Jews contain geniuses and righteous among them? How many of them are people of leading social qualities, are doctors or engineers, or members of the judicial system? How many of them are public leaders?
We must tell the truth: there survive only the remainders of the few lucky people, people who have strong elbows, those hard-shelled people with the ability to survive inhumane torture. How many future generations of intelligent Jewish students of yeshiva must sit and study until they produce great scholars of the Torah like those of the past, great contributors like Chafetz Chaym, Chaim Ozer Grudzinski, or Doctor Vigodski? From the remainders, I don't think that you can rebuild the home of Israel. And of all the Jews who were doctors, engineers, and writers, who is left? Very minute numbers of the Polish-Lithuanian Jews still exist, and who knows if any of them will still be alive at the time of the Liberation. And of the survivors, who will be the leaders? Is there any hope for the house of Israel?
I answered him, It may be that you are right. Although you speak rationally, we know that nature brings miracles that cannot be explained. For example, when a person loses part of his body, he can survive and use other parts of the body to replace the function of the lost one. Can we not hope for a miracle of nature that will allow the Jewish people to be rejuvenated? Maybe what logic could not achieve, time will. Maybe after the Holocaust, a period of spiritual awakening will come to the world, and it will become a beautiful place: the land of Israel will awaken to a life of Torah and work.
This was the type of conversations we had in the HKP camp of Vilna in the year 1943 and 1944, at the time when thousands of our brothers were still taken daily to the ovens and gas chambers.
* Before the end of 1941, with German support, Jacob Gens, born in 1905 in Illovieciai, at the time of the German invasion appointed director of the Jewish hospital and on creation of the ghetto, head of the Jewish police, gained authority in the ghetto. Gens was a Zionist revisionist from Kovno (Kaunas) and a former officer in the Lithuanian army. On 10 July 1942, the SS appointed Gens as the head of the ghetto, dissolving the Judenrat. Fried was appointed deputy head. Gens craved office and the trappings of office. There were probably elements of megalomania in his personality; ghetto residents referred to him as King Jacob the First, although there is no doubt that he believed passionately in the philosophy expressed in the slogan work for life. Return
** The Nazi selection of Jews to meet some particular quota was called an 'action.' Return
When the Jews from the war camps that were under the supervision of the TAT transferred from the Osmieny area to Vilna, many young men and women who worked in the neighborhood of Vilna arrived at the ghetto. The young men who worked in this camp all appeared very strong, were tall like pine trees, used to hard labor, and were able to easily withstand the difficult conditions. Their skins were very tan and they were free-spirited, as if knowing of all the horrors that awaited them but not letting fear penetrate their hearts. It was as if somehow, their faces were void of the panic written so clearly in the eyes of the ghetto inhabitants.
Perhaps this could be explained by the fact that their physical situation was much better than that of the ghetto worker'. Due to the war, the overseers of their camp, which was under TAT supervision, were mostly aged professionals, people whom the Germans had brought from Holland and Belgium. Hardly any were Germans, and thus the Jews in the camp were treated with more respect than those of the ghetto. But maybe their spirits seemed so free because they were very determined to escape and reach the forest - they did not intend to stay in the ghetto or in camps awaiting their ends.
Part of the residents of the camp found lodging in a separate building, in what used to be the Hebrew high school, on Zeblana Street 4. They formed a separate labor camp. Every Sunday, they would arrive at the ghetto to wash and visit relatives. Amongst them were those who would secretly come to the ghetto daily to visit friends. Three natives of Vileyka were part of this group. They were Abrasha (Abraham) Kevis , the son of Schlomo and Mina Kevis, Abrasha Livschitz, the son of Yitzhak and Rivka Livschitz and Siama Svirski, the son of Joshua and Batja Svirski. The three young men lived together in the kalhoz, as the camp was known, and helped each other in collecting food and selling possessions in return for needed supplies. They would divide everything equally amongst themselves.
The men lived in their separate labor camp until the families of Abrasha Kevis and Abrasha Livschitz arrived from the ghetto of Osmieny. When the Osmienyghetto was minimized, some people were sent to the Vilna ghetto. When the two families came here, their sons joined them in the ghetto. The three cousins were tall and strong. One was more handsome than the others; all three had a lively expression with smiles always on their faces - they had expressions of self-confidence as if they, deep down, believed they would survive and see the day of the enemy's defeat.
Of the three of them, Svirski was the most subdued and looked older than his years. He lived in the kalhoz without his family, which was still in the Osmienyghetto. On Friday, the 26th of March 1943, early in the morning, carriages filled with possessions arrived to the park in Rodnitski (Rudininku) Street near the ghetto. The remaining Jews of all the schtetls of the area had been brought to the Osmienyghetto, and from there, the young and strong walked to Vilna. The elderly and the weak were taken by carriages. As we later learned, the day the Osmieny ghetto was liquidated, Gens arrived there with Jewish policemen from the Vilna ghetto, saying that the Germans gave the OsmienyJews two choices: to either go to the Vilna or Kovno ghetto. The Jews who registered to go to Vilna were immediately taken to the town. Those going to Kovno stayed in Osmienyfor a few more days.
Going to Kovno
Now, residents of the Vilna ghetto received an announcement that anyone wishing to join the OsmienyJews being taken to Kovno were permitted to do so. Since we had heard rumors that life in the Kovno ghetto was slightly better and the Jews there received slightly larger apartments, anyone with relatives in Kovno immediately registered to join the people who were going there. They felt secure in doing this, as they were told that the Jewish commandant of the ghetto - Gens - as well as the police and doctor were going to take them there personally. In addition, some people who had moved from Kovno to Vilna now decided to return to their families.
Joshua Svirski had registered in Osmienyto go to Kovno. When his son Siama found out that his parents were going to Kovno, he decided to join the people going there so he could see them for the first time in many months. I remember my last meeting with Siama. Amongst all the other things we talked about, he said, Despite the fact that I am with my people here in the Vilna ghetto, and I even made contact with the resistance movement here, I prefer to join my parents in Kovno.
I have no doubt that the parents had very convincing arguments for why they decided to go to Kovno, but I said to him, in spite of what you are saying it seems that you are ambivalent, and are joining the group going to Kovno hesitantly.
He answered, you are right. I have not yet made up my mind. I will make a final decision when I meet my parents in the train station of Vilna.
He left to go to the train station and never returned.
On Monday, the 5th of April 1943, a rumor spread through the ghetto, originating from the people working at the train station. Ghetto residents said that the trains that we thought were going to take the Jews to Kovno had been transferred to another destination. New rumors continued to circulate, and we had awful forebodings about those on the train. In the early evening, Gens returned to the ghetto. He was very nervous and seemed sad, going directly to his room and avoiding everyone. This we took to be an ominous sign.
We soon learned that the train supposed to take Jews to Kovno took them directly to Ponar. Once again, the Germans had betrayed the Jews and Gens, our ghetto commandant. We knew that many of the young people who had come from the schtetls had weapons hidden among their belongings. Had they used them? Had there been a secret plan involving the commandant of the ghetto, the Jewish man Gens? Anguish spread in the ghetto, for many people had left the Vilna ghetto hoping to unite with their families in Kovno.
We learned later that the Jews had not accepted their fate willingly, and had started riots in the train when they had found out they were being taken to Ponar. Jews refused to get out of the train cars, and young men attacked the Lithuanian policemen and the Germans. They fought them with their hands, their teeth, their nails, and defended themselves with whatever they could find. They took rocks from under the train tracks, throwing them at the police. We heard there was a mass escape, but only very few ultimately survived.
A Visit to the Killing Field of Ponar
The next day, the murdering Commander Weiss came to the ghetto and asked for twenty Jewish policemen to bring the bodies of the people killed in Ponar to a mass brotherly grave. This was the very first time that Jews would visit Ponar and return alive, with the Gestapo officer Weiss. Together with them were also some German soldiers and Lithuanian policemen.
A Jewish policeman by the name of Tsvi took part in this operation. He told me that by the side of one of the fences were a few bushes, and around them lay many bodies. It seemed that here, people had hid behind the fence in the bushes to escape the shooting and the chasing enemy. From the way the bodies lay, he said, one could see that they had fought their murderers to the death.
The Martyr Siama Svirski
Amongst all the bodies one was still alive. He must have been in shock, but when Weiss kicked his foot he opened his eyes. Weiss yelled at him, get up, you bloody Jew! and kept kicking him. This living corpse was none else than Siama Svirski, the son of Joshua and Batja from Vileyka. His clothing was completely torn and saturated with blood. He may have been wounded, but his face was still beautiful, particularly in contrast to his surroundings - blood and mud. It made his face shine and sparkle with amazing luster.
The policeman later said, I was amazed by his beauty and very surprised that I had never noticed this striking face while in the ghetto. Weiss was also very impressed by this handsome countenance, and said to him, 'handsome young Jew, are you born of a woman?'
Siama answered him, 'I am only a man, a young Jewish man who wishes very much to survive. So far, the bullets of death have not killed me. Perhaps it is a sign that I am not yet fated to die. For that, you should allow me to live.'
The answer of Weiss came swiftly. 'Your privilege, then, is that you will be shot to death at the hands of a German officer.'
Siama answered serenely, 'Jewish blood spilled at the hand of a German officer demands vengeance.' A shot pierced the heart of Siama, the martyr son of our town - a shot from the filthy hand of the most awful murderer the earth has ever carried.
In conclusion, the policeman said, while holding his face in his hands, this young man does not let me rest. Everywhere I go, I see him alive before my eyes, whether I am awake or asleep. His radiant dying face comes to haunt me in dreams and nightmares.
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