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Jacob Gens

In the sense that Jews in positions of authority ever possessed any real power under Nazi rule, for a time Jacob Gens was one of the most powerful ghetto leaders in eastern Europe. He was born in Illovieciai in the Siauliai district of Lithuania in 1903 into a middle-class Jewish family, the eldest of four brothers. In 1919, he volunteered for the Lithuanian army. The country was then fighting for independence, and he was sent on an officers' training course, emerging as a second lieutenant. One of his compatriots at that time, Dr N Karni, wrote: “[Gens] had great personal charm. I do not remember him ever being in a bad mood… He was an excellent student… He had leadership qualities, he had personality, he was a man of principles.”

He married a non-Jewish Lithuanian woman in about 1922, and became the father of a daughter. He had hoped to transfer to the fledgling Lithuanian air force, but that branch of the armed forces only accepted bachelors. Instead he was sent to the front, joining an infantry regiment in the war against Poland, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and won a decoration. He remained in the army until 1924, at which time he enrolled in Kovno University and began to earn his living as a teacher of Lithuanian, literature, and physical education in the Jewish schools of Ukmerge and Jurbarkas. In 1927 he became an accountant in the Ministry of Justice in Kovno, completing his university studies of law and economics in 1935. At that time he resigned his government post and began employment with the Shell Oil Company. Two years later he left Shell to join the Lietukis company, the largest cooperative concern in Lithuania. He had remained a reserve officer, and in 1938 was recalled to the army, attended staff officers' school and was promoted to the rank of captain. When Lithuania became a Soviet republic in July 1940, Gens was dismissed from his job at Lietukis. As a right-wing Revisionist Zionist, he was fearful of being arrested, and moved to Vilna, where his mother and brother Solomon resided, and where he was not known. A Lithuanian friend who was the head of the municipal health department helped him find employment as an accountant in that division.

Having friends in the right places has never hindered a career. When the German invaders occupied Vilna on 26 June 1941, Gens' influential associate appointed him director of the Jewish hospital. A Judenrat was formed in the city in July 1941, headed by the engineer Saul Trotsky. Its membership consisted of representatives of the professions, the intellectuals, the middle class and the pre-war community organisations. This first Judenrat was fated to be quickly liquidated. In late August 1941, the Gestapo appeared during a meeting of the Council, seized its chairman and the sixteen other members present and sent them all to be executed.

Two ghettos were established in Vilna in early September 1941. At first, people were moved into either ghetto at random. 29,000 people were incarcerated in Ghetto 1 and 9,000-11,000 in Ghetto 2. Several days after the Jews had moved in, Ghetto 1 was designated for craftsmen and workers with permits, and Ghetto 2 was to be for all others. The transfer of orphans, the sick, and the elderly from Ghetto 1 to Ghetto 2 began. Those with work permits moved with their families into Ghetto 1. On 7 September 1941, the day after the ghettoization began, a new separate Judenrat was established in each of the two ghettos. Anatol Fried, a former director of the community bank, assembled the new Judenrat for Ghetto 1. The Judenrat for Ghetto 2 was appointed by SD and Security Police in Vilna and was led by Eisik Lejbowicz. Fried, who had been a patient in the Jewish hospital and thus became acquainted with Gens, appointed him as head of the ghetto police.

Gens proved efficient in organizing the police into a disciplined body. In Aktionen which continued from September to December 1941, thousands of Jews were shot at Ponary on the outskirts of Vilna. The Jewish police actively participated in these killings, helping to assemble those to be “resettled” and, in some cases, actually carried out the “selections.” There are those who believe that, within the obvious limitations placed upon him by the Nazis, Gens did his best to help Jews. For example, when in October 1941 the Germans sent 4,000 Jews without passes to Ponary, Gens attempted to obtain additional passes for those who had been seized – without success.

However, there are also those who believe that he was a willing tool of the Gestapo, and functioned in accordance with their plans and instructions. The latter seems to have been a more frequent state of affairs, since as chief of police he had direct contact with the German authorities, bypassing the Judenrat, and involving himself in matters far removed from police activities, such as employment and cultural affairs. In October 1941 he warned a woman who had escaped from Ponary, Pnina Arkian, to remain silent about events occurring there. She stated: “He [Gens] asked me, `Where have you been?' I told him all that had happened to me, how we were taken and how I succeeded in escaping. He asked me, `Do you want your parents and family to live? Then don't say a word of what you saw. I'll help you to get work, but just keep quiet. You saw and heard nothing.' I promised him… and kept my promise.” By no later than the beginning of October 1941, in Ghetto 1 the leaders of the Judenrat and the Jewish police were fully aware of the true nature of events. Most of those who had managed to escape from Ponary appeared before Gens and related their experiences. Gens advised them not to spread their stories in the ghetto. On 4 January 1942, Gens forbade “the spreading of false rumours and creation of panic among the people.”

Gens rapidly became the dominant personality of the ghetto, behaving as if he were its governor, a position he effectively achieved in July 1942, when the Germans dissolved the Judenrat and appointed Gens head of the ghetto administration and sole representative of the ghetto population (Ghettovorsteher), with Fried as his deputy for administrative affairs and Salk Dessler occupying the same position for police matters. In a conversation six months earlier, Fried had admitted that in reality Gens was the ruler of the ghetto, since he had good connections with the German administration and the Security Police. The decree appointing Gens named him personally as being responsible for implementing “the orders of the Gebietskommissar without reservation.” Gens was thus promoted to a position akin to that of Rumkowski in Lodz, Barasz in Bialystok, and Merin in Silesia, and like them, was an enthusiastic supporter of the concept of “survival through work”. Three days after his appointment, Gens declared:

“By Order of the Gebietskommissar of Vilna of 12 July 1942, I have assumed full responsibility for the ghetto as Representative of the Ghetto and Chief of Police. The basis of existence in the ghetto is work, discipline and order. Every resident of the ghetto who is capable of work is a pillar on which our existence rests. There is no room among us for those who hate work and in devious ways engage in crime. In the belief that all the inmates of the ghetto will understand me, I have given orders to free all persons now under arrest in the ghetto. I hereby proclaim a general amnesty, in this way permitting the criminals of yesterday to return to better ways, in the understanding that this is in their own interest. But let no one doubt that in time of need I will not hesitate to use stringent methods in the struggle against criminal elements wherever they may appear...”

Samuel Esterowicz, who lived in Vilna throughout the entire period of German occupation, had no time for Gens, and no doubt about how he had achieved his pre-eminence:

“Officially Gens was nominated by the Judenrat, the surviving members of which were reorganized in the ghetto under the chairmanship of Anatol Fried. However, the fact that Jacob Gens, a man completely unknown in our city, could immediately push the Judenrat aside, usurping all the power in the ghetto, points out clearly that Gens was leveraged into this position by our mortal enemies who needed him for the purpose of achieving our annihilation - after all they had prepared for Gens' installation by the execution of almost the whole Judenrat headed by Saul Trotsky. These facts and many others… should preclude any doubts about the fatal role that Jacob Gens played in our tragedy; nevertheless, I have to admit that there is no unanimity among the survivors of the Hitlerian cataclysm about Gens' role…”

In a speech delivered to the foremen of work units in June 1943, Gens made his policy of “survival through labour” quite clear: “While working for ghetto industry or for the kommandos outside the ghetto, we have, contrary to the trite opinion that we are poor workers, shown that we are very useful and irreplaceable. Under present war conditions, work in general and work for the Wehrmacht in particular is the command of the hour… It is urgent that we make changes to increase the output of the workers and thus enhance the justification for our existence.” Only the young and healthy were considered to be of value; the elderly, the sick and the unskilled were, of necessity, considered expendable. So far as it was achievable, women and children would be spared, since they formed the biological nucleus of the community, but otherwise it was a question of negotiating with the Germans in order to attempt to restrict the number of victims to the minimum possible.

This speech illustrates the fundamental misconception of Gens and other Judenrat leaders: the German army was not remotely concerned about the Jewish population, except to the extent that it could be exploited as slave labour. Moreover, this limited degree of interest only extended until such time as the indigenous non-Jewish inhabitants were in a position to be recruited to replace the Jewish workers. As late as June 1943, an article in Ghetto News (Geto Yedies), a newspaper published by Gens, continued to preach the doctrine of “work for life”, commenting on the remarkable growth of industry in the ghetto in the preceding year. Gens reassured everybody that the clouds of recent days had been scattered, and that economic factors alone influenced the issue. Samuel Esterowicz, whose views were perhaps extreme, commented bitterly:

“Having been placed as our leader by our cruel enemies during the terrible epoch when all around us was destroyed, Gens never inspired the ghetto dwellers to heroism and acts of self-sacrifice. To the contrary, Gens brought with him a poisoned atmosphere of moral decay, of shameless favouritism and - what was even worse - of treachery, in which one Jew would push another to his death to save his own hide; we find this in the disgraceful behaviour of the Jewish Police, which acted on Gens' command. Eagerly carrying out the Gestapo's instructions, Gens was on the one hand applying the `divide and conquer' rule, suppressing any attempt at organized resistance; on the other hand, by constantly assuring us that the ghetto would continue to exist, Gens was stretching out to us the `straw' for which we, the drowning, would eagerly reach and thus silently endure another of the sequential bloodlettings.”

Ghetto inmates derisively began to refer to Gens as “King Jacob the First”, (just as Rumkowski in Lodz was known mockingly as “King Chaim”). Like most autocrats, Gens wished to control every aspect of the population's lives. Hygienic measures were introduced, as well as the provision of improved medical help and food supplies, together with the feeding of the destitute. In addition ghetto children, the vast majority of them orphans, were cared for, receiving, amongst other things, a supplementary food ration. Together with the creation of shelters and orphanages, schools were also opened with Yiddish as the teaching language. There was a school of music and piano playing and a highly valued library. Gens was particularly anxious to establish a theatre in the ghetto as part of the normalization of everyday activities. Despite the protests of various influential persons and community activists, the theatre began to function. It had been difficult to convince actors that “theatre may indeed be performed in a cemetery.” This referred to the bitter Yiddish slogan posted by the Socialist Bund all over the ghetto in response to the announcement of the first concert: “Oyf a besoylem shpilt men nisht keyn teater' “: “In a cemetery no theatre ought to be performed.” The Bund's action reflected widespread indignation and constituted the first open defiance of the Gens regime. The theatre remained particularly dear to Gens, who never forgave the Bund for its protest. For Gens, the theatre was always more than a cultural embellishment or a source of employment for actors and musicians. Throughout the existence of the ghetto, the theatre remained an important calming influence on a ghetto population living in constant fear and uncertainty.

Gens did not easily tolerate autonomous activity within the ghetto. He was especially eager to receive the approval of the intelligentsia for his policies, even when this involved the sacrifice of thousands of Jewish lives. He eagerly accepted the appointment of intellectuals to positions on the Judenrate staff in order to ensure them some sort of livelihood and a modicum of security. In an attempt to appear not simply a policeman, but an enlightened intellectual, Gens formed a “club” in his home for discussion and debate between a select group of invited guests. Gens' desire to emerge from the war not only as the saviour of the remnant of Vilna Jewry but as custodian of its cultural heritage, continued to the end. On 15 January 1943, the first anniversary of the theatre's initial performance, Gens said:

“Last year they said that the theatre was just a fad of mine. `Gens is amusing himself.' A year has passed and what do we see? It was not just a fad of Gens. It was a vital necessity… For the first time in the history of Vilna we were able to get a curriculum of studies that was all Jewish… Our care for children has reached a level never seen before in the Jewish life of Vilna. Our spiritual life reaches high… How did the idea come up? Simply to give people the opportunity to escape from the reality of the ghetto for a few hours. This we achieved. These are dark and hard days. Our body is in the ghetto, but our spirit has not been enslaved. Our body knows work and discipline today because this maintains the body. The spirit knows of tasks that are harder. Before the first concert they said that a concert must not be held in a graveyard. This is true, but the whole of life is now a graveyard. Heaven forbid that we should let our spirit collapse. We must be strong in spirit and in body… I am certain that the day of the phrase `Why hast Thou deserted us?' will pass and that we shall still live to see better days. I would like to hope that those days will come soon and in our lifetime.”

His position Vilna also allowed Gens to have some degree of control over the Judenrat of the nearby ghettos of Oszmiana, Swieciany, Soly, and Michalliszki. At the end of October 1942, an aktion took place Oszmiana, in which the Vilna Jewish police were involved. Some 406 victims were executed; Meir Mark Dvorzhetsky alleged that the police even participated in the executions themselves. After the aktion had been completed, Gens delivered a speech:

“It is true that our hands are smeared with the blood of our brethren, but we had to accept this horrible task. We are innocent before history. We shall be on the alert to preserve the remnants. Who can tell whether victims will not be demanded here [in Vilna] as they were demanded there [in Oszmiana]? We shall give only the sick and the old. We shall not give the children; they are our future…The Jewish police took no part [in the aktion] in Kiemieliszki and Bystrzyca, so all were slaughtered [there]… After five million have been slaughtered, it is our duty to save the strong and the young and not let sentiment overcome us… We all want to live to leave the ghetto. Today, as we work, it may be that not many of the Jews fully comprehend the danger in which we operate. None of us can know how many times every day he could get to Ponary… Today we must just be strong. Those who have faith will say: the Almighty will aid us. Those who have no faith must ask the aid of the spirit of Jewish patriotism and public feeling. To survive it all and to remain, after the ghetto, a human being fit for the great Jewish future… I personally take responsibility for all that has happened. I don't want any discussion. I have called you to explain why a Jew dips his hands in blood, and that in the future, whenever we have to go, we shall go too.”

Dvorzhetsky comments that at the time, opinion in the ghetto was divided: “There were those who cursed [Gens] but, on the other hand, there were people who maintained that this was the only way to save at least a fragment of [the] Jews.” Nothing better illustrates the impossible dilemma facing those Jews in a position of authority. In his diary, Zelig Kalmanovich at first agreed with Gens:

“It is horrible, perhaps the worst of all predicaments, still there is no other way. Blessed be the God of Israel, who sent us this man [Gens]… The ghetto police have accepted this dreadful duty… The result: over 400 souls have perished – elderly people, the weak and ill, retarded children. However, 1,500 women and children were saved. If this had been the work of strangers, 2,000 would have perished, God forbid.”

But shortly afterwards, Kalmanovich appears to have had second thoughts. “We have bought our lives and our future with the death of tens of thousands,” he wrote. The post-war trial of Martin Weiss, the Sipo-SD officer in charge of the executions, revealed that the number of those killed had been reduced from an original demand for 1,500 victims by reason of a large bribe given to Weiss by Gens.

Judaism taught that if it was demanded that one Jew be unjustly surrendered to an enemy in order to be put to death otherwise all Jews would be killed, the Jews should all suffer death rather than surrender one of their number. When, in November 1941, more than 1,000 Vilna Jews were killed in an aktion, and a group of rabbis told Gens that he had no right to select Jews and hand them over to the Germans to be killed, Gens' was unrepentant. He later said: “I, Gens, lead you to death, and I, Gens, want to save Jews from death. I, Gens, order hideouts to be blown up, and I, Gens try to get certificates, work and benefits for the ghetto. I render the account of Jewish blood and not the account of Jewish honour… When they ask me for a thousand Jews, I hand them over; for if we Jews will not give them on our own, the Germans will come and take them by force. Then they will take not one thousand, but thousands. With hundreds, I save a thousand. With the thousands that I hand over, I save ten thousand. I will say: I did everything in order to save as many Jews as possible…..to ensure that at least a remnant of Jews survive.”

In accordance with the policy of which he spoke, Gens had participated in the deportation of Jews to Ponary. Mendel Balberyszski recorded that Gens told him after the so-called “Old People's Aktion” in July 1942, in which some 84 elderly people were murdered: “I have no connection with the purge of the elderly. It was an old debt which the Judenrat owed them. They wanted several hundred people, and it was with great difficulty that the `price' was reduced to 100 aged…” On occasions he had stood at the ghetto gate and personally selected those who were to live and those who were to die. In the Gelbschein Aktionen that took place between 24 October 1941 and 3 November 1941, Gens himself had checked the papers of the Jews as they passed before him, three blue cards to one yellow card. Samuel Esterowicz commented:

“…After every succeeding bloody aktion the Germans would assure us through their mouthpiece, Jacob Gens (in whom they had found an eager executor of their plans) that we were needed by the German military machine as workers. As far as I am concerned, and I had the possibility of observing personally the activities of Jacob Gens in the ghetto of Vilna, there can be no doubt that he was performing a treacherous job according to the instructions and the plans of the Gestapo, whose goal was our complete annihilation. I will also add that, even if in the evaluation of Gens' activity we take into consideration the fact that he probably had been constrained into doing his treacherous job, this mitigating circumstance is completely offset by the disgraceful methods which Gens had so shamelessly employed… I would like to emphasize that, hunting with a cudgel in his hand for the “illegals” and condemning them to death, Gens in no way resembled the leader who, with pain in his heart, sacrificed a few in order to save many of the people entrusted to him - as he is described by some of our historians”

Avraham Tory in Kovno had equally little respect for Gens: “For quite some time we have regarded the Vilna ghetto as a barrel of gunpowder. Its inmates saw themselves as prisoners, not only of the German rulers, but of Gens as well. Gens added his yoke to the already harsh and strict regime imposed on the ghetto by the Germans. For all practical purposes he acted as the representative of the Germans. He introduced a regime of terror into the ghetto; this provoked the fierce resistance of numerous groups in the ghetto.”

Yet according to Mendel Balberyszki, at the time of the Gelbschein Aktionen, Gens and his ghetto police did all they could to save people. It is one of numerous examples of the conflicting evidence and opinions regarding the activities of many of the Judenräte leaders, particularly that of Gens.

That Gens could be utterly ruthless seems beyond doubt. On 4 June 1942, six Jews were hanged in Vilna in the presence of the Judenrat and thousands of ghetto inmates. The six were members of a group of black market criminals who had been found guilty of the murder of a Jew and the attempted murder of a Jewish policeman. A ghetto court had passed the sentence, which Gens authorised without consulting the Germans. Prior to the executions, Gens had addressed the assembly, saying: “… 16,000 out of 75,000 Jews of Vilna have survived. These 16,000 must be good, honest and diligent people. Anyone failing to uphold these precepts must expect the same end as these men sentenced today. We shall punish and eliminate them with our own hands…”

Fried and Gens published a notice on the day following the hangings, announcing that all crimes in the ghetto would be punished with the utmost severity, and that the death sentence would be imposed in appropriate circumstances. There were no further robbery connected murders in the ghetto. On 12 June 1943, a certain Chaim Levin was arrested by the Jewish police while trying to leave the ghetto. After the police would not release him, Levin produced a gun and shot and killed one of the policemen. Gens arrived, and demanded Levin's weapon. When Levin refused to surrender it, Gens shot him on the spot, perhaps in order to prevent the Gestapo from interrogating Levin; it was conceivable that such questioning might have resulted in Levin revealing information which could have led to further loss of life.

On 4 April 1943, Gens was entrusted with arranging the transport of thousands of Jews from the Vilna district to Kovno. In fact, the train carrying the Jews reached only as far as Ponary, where an execution squad awaited. Accompanied by 26 members of the Jewish police, Gens was in the first coach, which was not locked. It was only through the intervention of Murer of the Vilna Gestapo that Gens did not join the other victims. In Avraham Tory's words: “Gens' head swarms with thoughts: it is not good to live next to a beast of prey; he witnessed a massacre of scores of people who were his brothers and sisters. Gens is alive, but his methods are now bankrupt.”

Samuel Esterowicz was of the opinion the Gestapo had realized that, in order for Gens to successfully carry out his mission of sending the Jews to their deaths while keeping them submissive and non-resisting, it was indispensable to keep those same Jews in the dark as to his real function. It was also essential to strengthen Gens' authority and make the doomed trust him, giving him a chance to play the role of the leader who was endeavouring to save at least a small part of the ghetto population. For these reasons the Gestapo permitted Gens to organize the life of the ghetto, and even in some cases play the role of the rescuer when, upon Gens' plea, the Gestapo would release imprisoned Jews.

Gens appears to have had an ambivalent attitude so far as the resistance movement in Vilna was concerned. He maintained contacts with the United Partisans Organization (Faraynikte Partizaner Organisatsye; FPO), assuring them that when the time was right he would supply the necessary arms and personally take command of the uprising, since as an ex-army man he had greater experience of military matters. Yet some suggest that at the same time he opposed individual escapes to the forest or the storage of weapons in the ghetto, fearing German reprisals if such activities were discovered. Addressing a member of the FPO, he said: “You want to save Jews by taking them into the forests? Tell me, how many Jews will you be able to rescue this way, 100, 200, or let's suppose even 500? These people will all be the physically fit, those who ensure the ghetto's survival. You want to take out just these and leave to the mercy of God only the aged, the sick, and the children, whom the Germans will liquidate at once. I shall not allow it…”

In complete contrast, others, such as Avraham Tory, claim that as the liquidation of the ghetto approached, he helped the partisan movement, gave money to purchase arms, and assisted would-be escapees to leave the ghetto. It would appear that Gens kept his options open. He would join the resistance if all else failed; until then, he would not permit it to flourish. Because of this policy, he effectively blunted the influence of the resistance on the ghetto population. When in June 1943 as many as 100 young people had secretly escaped, he said:

“We face the problem of whether or not to go into the forest. In my opinion, it would be easier for me to leave than for all of you. Although I am a former officer [of the Lithuanian army], a former member of Brith Hachyal (a paramilitary group of Revisionist Zionists), and a policeman with no sympathies for Bolshevism, I will be gladly welcomed, for I know better than you do how to use firearms. Still I won't go… For the problem is one man against 20,000… We may all maintain that escape to forest is for the good of the ghetto. This may be so. But my task is to guard a loyal ghetto as long as it exists, so that nobody reprimands me.”

On 15 May 1943 he had made another speech to the leaders of labour units about the danger of bringing arms into the ghetto:

“Today I have called you here because there is something I have to tell you: A few days ago I went to the Gestapo and spoke to the Commander of the SD there about the revolvers. I may tell you that he is not at all stupid. He said to me: `From an economic point of view the ghetto is very valuable, but if you are going to take foolish risks and if there is any question of security, then I will wipe you out. And even if you get 30, 40 or 50 revolvers, you will not be able to save yourselves and will only bring on your misfortune faster.'

Why did I call you together? Because today another Jew has been arrested for buying a revolver. I don't yet know how this case will end. The last case ended fortunately for the ghetto. But I can tell you that if it happens again we shall be very severely punished. Perhaps they will take away those people over 60, or children... Now consider whether that is worthwhile! There can be only one answer for those who think soundly and maturely: It is not worthwhile!... As long as the ghetto remains a ghetto those of us who have the responsibility will do everything we can so that nothing shall happen to the ghetto. Nowadays a Jew's whole family is responsible for him. If that is not enough, then I will make the whole room responsible for him, and if even that is not enough – the apartment and even the building. You will have to watch each other, and if there are any hot-heads then it is your duty to report it to the Police. That is not informing. It would be informing if you were to keep silent and the people were to suffer… Don't cause trouble yourselves. If they do not provoke us, then we must not do it ourselves. Because it is we alone who pay! Look, think, and see where we stand!”

Gens considered strict control by the Jewish police at the ghetto gate, including, when Gestapo members were present, the beating of those attempting to smuggle in food, to be essential. He argued that if the Jews could not police themselves, the Germans would do it for them. The consequence would be that the smuggling of food would cease altogether. Gens was of the opinion that for so long as the Germans retained confidence in Jewish policing, it was still possible to bring large quantities of food into the ghetto, for only a relatively small amount of smuggled food was discovered and impounded, and even this found its way back into the ghetto via the public kitchens set up to feed the destitute.

Two examples illustrate the nature of Gens' apparent policy regarding the resistance in Vilna. Josef Glazman had been deputy police commandant in the ghetto until Gens dismissed him from that position and appointed him head of the housing department. Glazman was also a founder member and deputy commander of the FPO, and in Gens' opinion, because of this constituted a threat to the stability of the ghetto. Gens ordered Glazman's arrest on 31 October 1942, but had him released on 5 November. Glazman was dismissed from his post and sent to the labour camp at Sorok-Tatar, but was released after a short time. In June 1943 Glazman was arrested once again; Gens had him sent to a labour camp at Rzesza. Glazman returned to the ghetto about two weeks later (his incarceration had been voluntary, agreed only against a guarantee of release, and arranged by the FPO in order to save face for Gens in the ghetto), but following the death of Yitzhak Wittenberg, Glazman escaped to the forest, joined the partisans and was killed fighting the Germans. In a speech delivered on the evening Glazman was sent to Rzesza, Gens told his audience that his intention was “to preserve the lives of the majority of the Jews in the ghetto, and not a small bunch of heroes.”

Yitzhak Wittenberg (Leo Itzig), a lifelong Communist, was elected commander of the FPO in January 1942. In July 1943 he was betrayed by one of his non-Jewish Communist contacts. The Germans demanded that the Judenrat surrender Wittenberg to them. Gens was quite willing to give up Wittenberg in order to keep the peace. Arriving at a meeting Gens' office, Wittenberg was pointed out to the police by Gens and arrested, only to be freed by FPO members and go into hiding in the ghetto. The Germans then threatened to raze the ghetto unless Wittenberg was handed over to them. Gens appealed to the ghetto population, claiming that the actions of the FPO were jeopardizing every Jew in Vilna, and that because of one man, the ghetto might be annihilated. A situation then arose akin to civil war between members of the FPO and many of the ghetto inmates. In his testimony at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Abba Kovner, another of the leaders of the FPO, described the dramatic course of events:

“Negotiations began - first of all we rejected all negotiations. And then there came an angry assault by those destined to be murdered, against us who sought to be their defenders - with axes, sticks, stones, even with arms - arms which they had received from the Germans against us. We stood facing our brethren. We explained matters to them. We gave an order to our fighters not to use their arms… Our people… explained to them… that this was not on account of one man… We hid Wittenberg. We said that he was not there, that he had escaped from the ghetto…Towards morning we came to Wittenberg's hideout, we the men of the headquarters, his colleagues… A revolver lay on the table. For a moment he wanted to commit suicide. But he did not kill himself. He asked us: `What? Do you want me to hand myself over?' We did not answer. Then I said to him: `Look, Jews are standing in the street. We shall have to fight them in order to reach the enemy, and he will probably stand there and laugh. This is the situation. Give us the order and we shall fight. Are you prepared for this?' No. He was not prepared to do it. He was a great man. He gave me the revolver, appointed me commander, and went out into the street. We all stood there, with our bandoliers, our wretched guns, the fighters on one side, the crowd surrounding us. He walked along the empty street to the ghetto gate in order to hand himself over to the Gestapo… We tried to smuggle cyanide to him. We did not succeed (But apparently Gens did, providing Wittenberg with a capsule at their last meeting) … Historians will judge us as having acted either shamefully of justifiably. If I myself am entitled to express an opinion, today - even more than then - I suppose that Wittenberg's death at that time - and it was with the approval of the high command and with my approval that we delivered him into the hands of the Gestapo - was one of the greatest achievements of the revolt, one of the greatest acts of heroism of Jewish underground fighting in the ghetto; for there is no fighting which can match it, since between us and the enemy there was something more.”

On 1 September 1943, deportations began from Vilna to Estonian labour camps. The FPO issued a proclamation: “Jews, prepare for armed resistance!...Who can still believe that he will survive when the murderers kill systematically? The hand of the hangman will reach out to each of us. Neither hiding nor cowardice will save lives.” In contrast, less than a week later, when more than 7,000 Jews had already been deported, Gens exhorted the remaining Jews of Vilna to register with the Judenrat so that there could be a “return to normal life in the ghetto as soon as possible.” The Ghetto News rejoiced on hearing that the Germans had assigned the conscription of labour forces for Estonia to Gens and the Jewish police. Samuel Esterowicz wrote of this time in his usual jaundiced fashion:

“… After seeing Gens late at night [our go-between] informed us that he learned from the latter that the Gestapo chief Neugebauer demanded 2,000 women from Gens - thus next day there would be an aktion against women… When we came into the yard of Rudnicka 4 on the morning of 4 September, we heard Gens addressing a crowd from the balcony with the following speech: `Fellow Jews, I managed to obtain the permission of the Gestapo for the wives and children of those deported to Vaivary (one of the Estonian labour camps) to join their husbands and fathers!' With this treacherous trick, Gens managed to lure 1,300 women and children who believed him into volunteering to go to Vaivary. After hunting all day in the ghetto, Kittel (another Gestapo officer) and the Jewish police managed to seize the lacking 700 victims and force them onto the transport. The treachery of Gens is made even more horrible by the fact we learned after our liberation - the transport of the women and children was not sent to their husbands but to the gas-chambers of one of the camps in Poland. According to Mrs Shapiro, who had been on that transport with her child, their train turned around immediately after their arrival in Vaivary and went in the opposite direction. She managed to jump out of the railroad car at the Eidkunen station in East Prussia and had thus survived.”

On 14 September 1943, Gens, whose Lithuanian wife and daughter both lived outside the ghetto in Vilna, was summoned to Gestapo headquarters. Reputedly, a grave had already been dug for him. In the past he had received a number of offers from friends and family who were prepared to provide refuge, but he had always refused, saying that his mission was to save the Jewish people – which some might regard as being somewhat hypocritical, given his earlier activities. Now he was once more urged to flee, but replied that if he were to run away “thousands of Jews will pay for it with their lives,” thus simultaneously displaying great courage and an example of his considerable ego. He parted from his brother Solomon at the ghetto gate, saying that if he had not returned by 8:00 p.m., he would never return. It is said that he was shot by Neuegebauer of the Gestapo at 6:00 p.m. that day for allegedly maintaining contact with the FPO and providing that organisation with funds. Since the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto began nine days later, it seems more probable that dispensing with Gens' services formed part of the Nazi's overall strategy of destruction.

Gens understood better than most what the future held. He told a young partisan in the Vilna ghetto: “The ghetto is a world alone, a special world. The ghetto is a death chamber which holds men, women and little children. The death sentence has already been pronounced but not yet carried out, and the final date is not known.” But he also attempted to vindicate himself before the bar of history, declaring: “I will say: I did everything in order to save as many Jews as possible…to usher them to freedom. To ensure that at least a remnant of Jews survive, I myself had to lead Jews to death; and in order to have people emerge with a clean conscience, I had to befoul myself and act without conscience.”

It was a questionable philosophy. As Samuel Esterowicz wrote: “I came to the conclusion (as did many others) that Gens was a man stripped of any moral standards long before his treacherous role became obvious to most of us… In defence of Gens' shameful deeds one often hears the argument that if not he but the Germans had carried out the aktionen, it would have been worse. I ask: worse for whom? Certainly not for the many thousands who Gens and the police acting on his orders sent to their deaths. In this case worse off could be only those who, by pushing others to their deaths, had hoped to save their own lives, a hope in which they turned out to be cruelly wrong… Faced with the demand of the Germans to furnish them with victims, without hesitation Gens seized the right given to nobody - to decide who of us should stay alive and who should die and then to deliver the victims to the executioners.”

Not all shared this view. Grisha Shur wrote in his diary after Gens' death: “… If Gens had supporters and opponents – there were no longer two opinions, nor any who hated him… Virtually all understood that the ghetto had lost… a man of wide vision and great understanding of historical moments…” And Chaim Lazar, a leading member of the FPO, wrote: “The hearts of the Jews mourn the tragedy of Gens…. All that he did during his tenure as chief of the ghetto was for his people… Everyone knows that Gens had many opportunities to save himself… but he renounced his personal safety to devote himself to the ghetto. He believed in his ability, and was convinced to the last moment that he would be able to save the remnants [of the ghetto].”

Perhaps Yitzhak Arad delivered the most charitable verdict on Gens. “In the prevailing conditions,” he wrote, “the policy laid down by Jacob Gens was the only one that afforded hope and some prospect of survival. But even this failed, and the fact that the ghetto was productive did not spare it from liquidation.”


Sources and Further Reference:

Arad, Yitzhak. Ghetto in Flames – The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews of Vilna in the Holocaust, Holocaust Library, New York, 1982

Arad Yitzhak, Gutman Israel and Margaliot Abraham, eds. Documents On The Holocaust, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1999

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews, Bantam Books, New York, 1979

Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, Collins, London 1986.

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003

Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders, Harper Collins, New York, 1993

Tory, Avraham. Surviving the Holocaust – The Kovno Ghetto Diary, Pimlico, London,1991

Trunk, Isaiah. Judenrat - The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1972

http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/site/pp.asp?c=gvKVLcMVIuG&b=395095

http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/site/pp.asp?c=gvKVLcMVIuG&b=394971

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Gens3.html

http://www.nizkor.org/ftp.py?places/poland/vilna/vilna.2

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Gens.html

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Gens1.html

http://www.searchformajorplagge.com/

http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/e/eichmann-adolf/transcripts/Sessions/Session-027-09.html


 

Hirsh Glik

On 1 May 1943, a group of Jewish writers and poets met in the Vilna Ghetto for an evening devoted to “Spring in Yiddish literature”. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was still raging and the meeting was filled with the spirit of the ongoing battle. At the meeting, the poet Shmaryahu Kaczerginski met his fellow poet Hirsh Glik, and was informed that Glik had written a new poem. They met the next morning. “Now listen carefully, I'll sing it for you,” Glik said. Kaczerginski recalled: “He began to sing it softly, but full of excitement. His eyes glowed with little sparks. `The hour for which we yearned will come anew.' Where did he get his faith? His voice became firmer. He tapped out the rhythm with his foot, as if he was marching.”

The song that Hirsh Glik sang that May morning - “Zog Nisht Keynmol“ - was to spread with amazing speed throughout the ghettos and camps, becoming a symbol of hope and defiance. Quickly adopted by Jewish partisans, it is sometimes known as the “Song of the Partisans”, inspiring Jews to fight if they could, but if they could not fight, at least to survive. After the war, the song was taken up by Jewish communities around the world, where it has been sung as a memorial to Jews martyred during the Shoah, even being included by some families in their Seder night Passover service. A transliterated version of the song in Yiddish follows:

Zog nisht keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
Khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg, -
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
S'vet a poyk ton undzer trot - mir zaynen do!
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
S'vet a poyk ton undzer trot - mir zaynen do!
Fun grinem palmenland biz vaysn land fun shney,
Mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey;
Un vu gefaln iz a shprits fun undzer blut,
Shprotsn vet dort undzer gvure, undzer mut!
Un vu gefaln iz a shprits fun undzer blut,
Shprotsn vet dort undzer gvure, undzer mut!
S'vet di morgnzun bagildn undz dem haynt,
Un der nekht vet farshvindn mit dem faynt,
Nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in der kayor,
Vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor!
Nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in der kayor,
Vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor!
Dos lid geshribn iz mit blut, un mit blay,
S'iz nit keyn lidl fun a foygl oyf der fray, -
Dos hot a folk tsvishn falndike vent
Dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent!...
Dos hot a folk tsvishn falndike vent
Dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent!...
To zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
Khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg;
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho -
Es vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho -
Es vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!
Translation from one language to another is always difficult if all of the nuances of the original are to be retained, but the task is even more demanding where poetry is concerned, because of the requirement that the translation scans and rhymes (where appropriate), as the author intended. What follows is one of many attempts to render Zog Nisht Keynmol into English. The translation may not be precise, for the reasons indicated, but the theme of the song remains clear:

Never say that you are going your last way,
Though lead-filled skies above blot out the blue of day.
The hour for which we long will certainly appear,
The earth shall thunder 'neath our tread that we are here!
The hour for which we long will certainly appear,
The earth shall thunder 'neath our tread that we are here!

From lands of green palm trees to lands all white with snow,
We are coming with our pain and with our woe,
And where'er a spurt of our blood did drop,
Our courage will again sprout from that spot.
And where'er a spurt of our blood did drop,
Our courage will again sprout from that spot.

For us the morning sun will radiate the day,
And the enemy and past will fade away,
But should the dawn delay or sunrise wait too long,
Then let all future generations sing this song.
But should the dawn delay or sunrise wait too long,
Then let all future generations sing this song.

This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
This is no song of free birds flying overhead,
But a people amid crumbling walls did stand,
They stood and sang this song with rifles held in hand.
But a people amid crumbling walls did stand,
They stood and sang this song with rifles held in hand.

So never say that you are going your last way,
Though lead-filled skies above blot out the blue of day.
The hour for which we long will certainly appear,
The earth shall thunder 'neath our tread that we are here!
The hour for which we long will certainly appear,
The earth shall thunder 'neath our tread that we are here!

Hirsh Glik was born in 1922 in Vilna into a poor family; his father was a used clothes dealer. Acknowledged as an outstanding young author, he began to write poems in Hebrew when he was only thirteen, later writing mainly in Yiddish. Because of his family's poverty he was forced to end his studies prematurely and become an apprentice in a paper business, later working in a hardware store. Following the occupation of Vilna by the Germans on 26 June 1941, Glik and his father were among those Jews arbitrarily seized and sent to work in the peat bogs at Biala-Waka and Rzesza. Even in captivity, Glik continued to write. In early 1943 the Biala-Waka camp was liquidated and Glik was sent to the Vilna Ghetto, where he joined the United Partisan Organization (Fareynegte Partizaner Organitzatsye – FPO) and continued with his writing.

Among the songs he wrote was “Shtil, Di Nacht Iz Oysgeshternt”, which recounted the heroic deeds of Vitka Kempner, a female resistance fighter, who together with two companions, Itzik Matzkevitch and Moishe Brause, blew up a German military transport carrying 200 German soldiers on the outskirts of Vilna in 1942, the first successful diversionary act of sabotage by the Jewish partisans of Vilna. Abba Kovner, married to Vitka Kempner, recorded her bravery at the trial of Adolf Eichmann:
“… In this courtroom, there sits a woman who spent a certain time outside the ghetto with Aryan papers [living as] a teacher of Catholic children in a secure place. And she, and others like her, were asked whether they were prepared to return to the ghetto; they were asked by comrades in the underground to leave their place of security in order to be partners in our fate in the War and to sacrifice themselves, with no chance of returning, and through this gate - where according to the announcement, according this document, whoever went through it in order to buy food and to bring in a kilogram of potatoes was shot to death - on her person she transferred explosives, dynamite.

And she went through the ghetto gate once, twice and three times and walked, a distance of 30 kilometres, in order to blow up a German military train. And she blew it up, the first German train to be blown up in the entire country of Lithuania; no train had been blown up, not by the Poles, and not by the Lithuanians, and not by the Russians, but one was blown up by a Jewess who, after she had done it, had no base to which she could return, unlike any other fighter.

She was obliged, after three days and nights of scouting and action, to return to the ghetto with injured feet and to pass through guard posts, and she got back. Imagine for yourselves what we, who sent her, experienced; what we experienced that night, for fear that she would not return, that she might be caught. This would have meant that not only she and her companions, but possibly the entire ghetto would have to pay the price. What was the significance of that day, of the challenge which no fighting man has encountered, at least in modern times - collective responsibility? In other words, for what I do in defence of my honour and my life, my mother, my brothers and my sisters, old people and children will be held to account. Nevertheless, we did it.”

It was the first of many acts of resistance in which Vitka Kempner was to be involved. The Yiddish transliteration and an English translation of “Shtil, Di Nacht Iz Oysgeshternt” follow:

Shtil, di nacht iz oysgeshternt,
Un der frost - er hot gebrent;
Tsi gedenkstu vi ich hob dich gelernt
Haltn a shpayer in di hent.

A moyd, a peltsl un a beret,
Un halt in hant fest a nagan,
A moyd mit a sametenem ponim
Hit op dem soynes karavan.

Getsilt, geshosn un getrofn
Hot ir kleyninker pistoyl,
An oto a fulinkn mit vofn
Farhaltn hot zi mit eyn koyl.

Fartog fun vald aroysgekrochn,
Mit shney-girlandn oyf di hor,
Gemutikt fun kleyninkn n'tsochn
Far undzer nayem, frayen dor.

Silence, the night is all be-starred
And the frost burned strong.
Do you remember when I taught you
To hold a machine-gun in your hands.

A lass, a fur jacket and a beret,
Holding a pistol tight in her hand,
A lass with a velvet face
Watches over the enemy's caravan.

Aimed, fired and - hit,
With her dear little pistol,
She stopped a car - a nice one full of arms -
With one bullet.

At daybreak, she crawled out of the woods
With snow garlands on her hair,
Encouraged by the precious little victory
For our new, free generation.

The references to frost and snow were Glik's embellishments. The poet used three words, “shpayer”,”nagan”, “pistoyl”, to describe the same object, an automatic pistol. It has been suggested that shpayer was a common word in the Vilna region, nagan was the equivalent Russian word, and pistoyl was the German term. The use of all three within one song demonstrated the presence of Jews from all over Europe, often herded together by the German occupiers within one ghetto, one concentration or death camp.

On 1 September 1943, the FPO unit to which Glik belonged was captured and he was deported to Estonia, initially to the camp at Narva, subsequently to that at Goldfilz. Even in the camps Glik continued to create, reciting his poems to his fellow prisoners who memorized them and passed them on. Some written copies of his poems were buried in the Vilna Ghetto, but the great majority of his works are presumed lost. In summer 1944, together with eight other FPO men, Glik escaped from Goldfilz. Meir Mark Dworzecki testified: “In Estonia I went through the concentration camps of Narva, Kureme 1, Kureme 2, Goldfilz, Kureme, Lagedi, until the day arrived when we felt that they were about to remove us from the concentration camps of Estonia. There, too, an underground was created; amongst the members of the underground was Hirsh Glik, the same young man whom I mentioned as the composer of the partisans' anthem. One night we agreed between us that every hour we would leave in groups for the forest. On the sound of the watchword, the first group went out - amongst them was Hirsh Glik.” The advancing Soviet Army was in the region and the intention was to join the local partisans. But Glik and all of his companions disappeared, probably captured and executed by German soldiers in the area.

During the years of Nazi persecution, Glik had deliberately composed poems that were intended to be sung - to raise morale, to encourage the partisans and to strengthen the Jews' faith and hope in the future. His most famous song “Zog Nisht Keynmol” based on a melody by two Soviet Jewish composers, Dimitri and Daniel Pokras, has been translated into many different languages and remains a lasting monument to the triumph of the human spirit, a beacon to illuminate a world of darkness.


Sources:

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990

Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986

http://www.leonarda.com/

http://www.stolaf.edu/

http://www.stolaf.edu/people/hend/songs/ShtilDiNakht.html

http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/e/eichmann-adolf/transcripts/Sessions/Session-027-06.html

http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/e/eichmann-adolf/transcripts/Sessions/Session-027-09.html

http://savethemusic.com/yiddish/bin/music.cgi?Page=zognitkeynmol&Song=about_zog


 

Vasily Grossman

“The time of Hitler arrived: a wolfish century. It was a time when people lived like wolves, and wolves lived like people.” – Vasily Grossman.

Vasily Grossman named his epic novel of World War Two, “Life and Fate.” Grossman's own destiny was inextricably bound up with that of Berdichev, a town in the Zhitomir Oblast of Ukraine, renowned as both a centre of Hasidism and of Haskalah; to gain some insight into the events of Grossman's life it is appropriate to consider the fate of both the man and the town in which he was born.

On the outbreak of war, the Jewish inhabitants of Berdichev numbered nearly 50% of the population of 66,000; even in pre-revolutionary times the town had been known as the “Jewish capital.” By the time the Germans occupied Berdichev on 7 July 1941, the number of Jews in the town may have fallen to about 20,000; as many as 10,000 Jews had possibly fled eastward. As in many other cases, it is difficult to be definitive concerning numbers – sources vary. In any event, the SS were well aware of the significance of Berdichev as an important centre of Jewish religion and culture. Erwin Schultz, head of Einsatzkommando 5 of Einsatzgruppe C, testified at his post-war trial that at a meeting held in Zhitomir in early August, those present were informed that an order had been issued by Heinrich Himmler to the effect that all Jews in Ukraine not engaged in essential work were to be shot. Sonderkommando 4a, headed by Standartenführer Paul Blobel was stationed in Berdichev, and was to be primarily responsible for subsequent events in the town.

By virtue of an order issued on 13 August by Field Marshall Walther von Brauchitsch (commander in chief of the Wehrmacht), ghettos were to be established throughout occupied Ukraine. On 25 August, the Jews of Berdichev were ordered to move into a ghetto situated in Yakti Bazaar, the most dilapidated area of the town. Ten days later, at least 1,500 young Jews were removed from the ghetto and shot on the outskirts of the town (some sources suggest as many as 10,000 individuals were shot in this aktion.) On 15 September, around 2,000 people, skilled craftsmen and their families, were singled out. The remainder, 18,600 individuals, were marched out of Berdichev to the killing site and shot. To assist with crowd control, the SS mustered all the available Ukrainian police, who were charged with rounding up the Jews, forming them into columns and marching them to pre-prepared pits at a military airfield near the village of Romanovka. 13 year-old Naum Epelfeld provided an eyewitness account of the process:

“Everything began at 3:00 in the morning. The Polizei broke into our building… [and] drove us into the streets. They beat us with rifle butts, screamed at us… we did not understand what was happening… they drove us to the market square… My father and I ended up in one group, and my mother, grandmother and sister…in another… The weak and feeble people were thrown into…trucks like sacks, then the trucks set off. Load after load of trucks left…. In the evening our group returned to the ghetto.”

At the killing site the Jews were ordered to remove their outer clothing, forced toward a pit and shot. A further 2,000 Jews were killed on 3 November. By then Sonderkommando 4a had moved on to Kiev, where on 29-30 September 1941 they murdered 33,771 Jews in the ravine of Babi Yar. Naum Epelfeld recorded that the massacre of the Jews of Europe had started in Berdichev, which had served as the template for SS methods of large-scale massacres by shooting. Over the next few months, the remainder of the Jews of Berdichev were murdered, so that when the town was liberated by Soviet forces on 15 January 1944, there were just 15 Jews found alive. The massacre of 15 September 1941 was to affect Vasily Grossman for the rest of his life. For one of the victims buried in the pit near Romanovka was his mother.

Vasily Semyonovich (Iosif Solomonovich) Grossman was born on 12 December 1905 in Berdichev, the son of Semyon Osipovich (Solomon Iosifovich) Grossman and Yekaterina Savelievna. The writer Sholem Aleichem had lived for a time in Berdichev, and used it as one of his models for the shtetl of Anatevka, immortalised in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” but the Grossmans had little in common with the great majority of the Jews of the region. They were thoroughly assimilated, with no interest in Judaism. They had adopted Russified versions of their names, and they conversed and read in Russian, not Yiddish. In Vasily's own words:

“We were not like the poor shtetl Jews described by Sholem Aleichem; the type that lived in hovels and slept side by side on the floor, packed like sardines. No, our family comes from a quite different Jewish background. They had their own carriages and horses. Their women wore diamonds, and they sent their children abroad to study.”

Vasily's father was a chemical engineer, his mother a French teacher. Probably before Vasily was five years old his parents separated. The mother and child went to live in Geneva, where they stayed for about two years. By 1914 they had returned to Russia and were living in Kiev. Following the October Revolution of 1917 they returned to Berdichev, where Vasily continued his education. In the autumn of 1921, he entered the Kiev Higher Institute of National Education. Two years later he enrolled at Moscow University, finally graduating with a degree in chemistry in 1929. In the intervening six years his life has undergone some startling changes. He had married Anna (Galya) Petrovna Matsuk in 1928; a daughter, Yekaterina (Katya) had been born in January 1930; and he had begun to write professionally. The newly-wed couple hardly appear to have been the most caring of parents. Katya was sent to live with Vasily's mother in Berdichev. The marriage of Galya and Vasily was of short duration; they divorced in 1932.

Vasily was an enthusiastic supporter of Bolshevism, seeing in it the answer to centuries of institutionalised Jew baiting. Although uncertain of, and confused about, his own Jewish identity, he welcomed the new country of the Soviet Union, where in 1918 a law had been proclaimed banning anti-Semitism. At last all Jews were to have equal rights as citizens - or so it was promised. He would become a “New Soviet Man.”

In 1930, his father obtained a job for Vasily as a mining engineer at Stalino (now Donetsk) in eastern Ukraine. Vasily had hated life in Berdichev, which he regarded as provincial and unsophisticated, but Stalino was much worse. The working conditions were awful, and the miners were little more than slave labourers. Grossmann couldn't wait to return to Moscow. At the end of 1931 he was misdiagnosed by a local doctor as suffering from chronic tuberculosis, and managed to get away from Stalino, returning to Moscow in summer 1932. He had decided to abandon chemistry and the mining industry for ever; now he was determined to pursue a career in literature.

Through his cousin Nadya, whose apartment he shared, he found employment at the Sacco and Vanzetti factory, an establishment whose principal product was pencils. Whilst working at the factory, he devoted all of his spare time to writing. His first novel, Glyukauf (“Good Luck”) was published in 1934. Grossman became a protégé of Maxim Gorky (Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov) the leading light of Russian literature, and under his patronage produced several short stories, including “In the Town of Berdichev”, the work that first brought him to prominence. Determined not to become a Stalinist hack, politically naïve, and an unusually (for the place and time) honest author, Grossman was lucky to escape the Great Terror of the 1930s. Nadya was not so fortunate. She was arrested in March 1933 for alleged Trotskyism and exiled to Astrakhan for three years, thereafter being sent to the labour camp at Vorkuta – Pechersk in the far east of Russia for a further three years.

Grossman steadily progressed up the ladder of the Russian literary world, finally becoming a fully-fledged member of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1937, an honour that brought with it many privileges. In 1935 he began a relationship with Olga Mikhailovna Guber, and the couple were married in May 1936. Simply because she had previously been the wife of Boris Guber (a writer who had been arrested and shot in 1937), Olga was herself arrested in 1938. The chain of guilt by association led naturally to Grossman, who was summoned to the KGB's Moscow headquarters at Lubyanka for interrogation in February 1938. The couple were extremely lucky; Grossman was never arrested, and Olga was released in late summer 1938.

Between 1937 and 1940, Grossman's novel Stepan Kolchugin was serially published to general critical and popular acclaim. He had become a part of the literary establishment. But everything changed on 22 June 1941, with Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. Grossman immediately volunteered for the Red Army, although 35 years of age and quite unfit for military service. Instead, he became a war correspondent for Red Star (Krasnaya Zvezda), the official Red Army newspaper. He was to spend three of the next four years at the front, more than 1,000 days in total, becoming the favourite writer of the ordinary soldier, renowned for the honesty of his reporting. He showed extraordinary personal courage and an unerring ability to capture the reality of this most brutal of wars. But he lived with a tragedy which was to haunt him for the rest of his life.

It took the Wehrmacht just over two weeks to advance more than 350 kilometres to Berdichev. Such a rate of progress seemed inconceivable at the time. Grossman's mother and, as far as he was aware, his daughter, were still in Berdichev. In fact, Katya was safe at a children's summer camp. It would have presented no problem to Grossman to arrange for his immediate family to have boarded a train for Moscow, where they could have stayed with Olga and himself for a time, before being evacuated further eastward if necessary, as was Grossman's father. Instead, Grossman did nothing. Olga had persuaded him that there was insufficient room in their apartment to accommodate other family members. Grossmann never forgave her for her lack of compassion. Before he could fully realise the enormity of what was happening, Berdichev had been overrun, and all contact with his mother had been lost.

Grossman accompanied the Red Army virtually every step of the way from Stalingrad to Berlin. As he progressed across the war-torn landscape of the Soviet Union, Poland, and Germany, the nature and extent of “The Final Solution” was visible everywhere. As more and more evidence of the annihilation of the Jews was uncovered, so Grossman's sense of his own Jewish identity grew. In 1943, he wrote a piece called “Ukraine Without Jews”. To indicate the extent of the genocide, he produced a list of victims, each preceded by the word ubity – murdered:

“There are no Jews in Ukraine. Nowhere – Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, Yagotin – in none of the cities, hundreds of towns, or thousands of villages will you see the black tear-filled eyes of little girls; you will not hear the sad voice of an old woman; you will not see the dark face of a hungry baby… All is silence. Everything is still. A whole people have been brutally murdered.”

Together with a second piece, “The Old Schoolteacher”, which dealt with the events culminating in the shooting of hundreds of Jews in an unnamed Ukrainian town (i.e. Berdichev), Grossman had produced the first exploration, fictional or documentary, in any language, of what came to be known as the Shoah. Although Soviet censorship prevented the mention of such matters, he was beginning to suspect the extensive Ukrainian participation in the murder of their Jewish neighbours. As in other Ukrainian towns, some Jews from Berdichev survived because of the help of courageous Ukrainians. But these were the exception, rather than the rule.

In January 1944, Grossman arrived back in Berdichev, to confirm what he had always known, but desperately hoped was not true. His mother was dead, killed with most of the other Jews of the town in September 1941. Because of the speed of the Red Army's advance, the Nazis had not had time to exhume and cremate the bodies of their victims as they had done elsewhere, and so the two burial pits at Berdichev remain the largest Holocaust massacre sites to contain actual corpses. His mother's body lay in one of the pits. In his novel Life and Fate, Grossman has Anna Shtrum, a fictionalization of his mother, write a long final letter to her son. It is one of the most moving passages in Holocaust literature:

“An announcement was soon made about the resettlement of the Jews. We were each permitted to take 15 kilograms of belongings. Little yellow notices were hung on the walls of houses. `All occupants are required to move to the area of the Old Town…' What a sad journey it was, my son, to the medieval ghetto… We walked down the roadway while everyone else stood on the pavement and watched… I realized there were two different crowds: there were the Jews – the men in winter coats and hats, the women wearing thick dresses – and there were the people in summer clothes on the pavement…

… God, what poverty there is everywhere! If only the people who are always talking about how rich the Jews are, how they've always got something put by for hard times, could have a look at the Old Town now… I never used to feel I was a Jew… But now, during these terrible days, my heart has become filled with maternal tenderness towards the Jewish people. I never knew this love before…

… [Shchukin] told me that a new decree was being printed: Jews are to be forbidden to walk on the pavements; they are required to wear a yellow patch, a Star of David, on the chest; they no longer have the right to use public transport, baths, parks, or cinemas; they are forbidden to buy butter, eggs, milk, berries, white bread, meat, or any vegetable other than potatoes; they are only allowed to make purchases in the market after six o'clock, when the peasants are already on their way home…Shchukin's father-in-law…had travelled in from the nearby village of Chudnov. He had seen with his own eyes how all the Jews were herded into the forest with their parcels and suitcases. All day long he heard shots and terrible screams; not one Jew returned… The Germans are killing all the Jews in the district, children and old men included… Our turn will come in a week or two, according to plan…

… What a lot of children…there are! … Probably future scientists, physicists, professors of medicine, musicians, even poets… They say that children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren't going to become musicians, cobblers or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bake honey-cakes and goose-necks – this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear for ever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won't be here, we will have vanished – just as the Aztecs once vanished.

The peasant who brought us the news about the mass graves said that his wife had been crying at night. She'd been lamenting: 'They sew, and they make shoes, and they curry leather, and they mend watches, and they sell medicines in the chemist's. What will we do when they have all been killed?'”

Of course, in reality Yekaterina Savelievna wrote no such letter. But this was a case of art transcending reality. It was part of Grossman's search for the expiation of his guilt, of his endless grieving for a death he felt he could have prevented. In 1950, on the ninth anniversary of the massacre, he penned a letter to his long dead mother, a reply to Anna Shtrum:

“Dear Mama,

I learned about your death in the winter of 1944. I came to Berdichev, entered the house where you used to live…and I felt that you had died. But as far back as September 1941 my heart already felt that you weren't here any more. One night at the front I had a dream. I entered your room. I knew for sure it was your room, and I saw an empty armchair, and I knew you had slept in it. A shawl with which you'd covered your legs was hanging down from the armchair. I looked at it for a long time, and when I woke up I knew that you weren't any longer among the living. But I didn't know what a terrible death you had suffered. I only learned about it when I came to Berdichev and talked to people who knew about the mass execution that took place on 15 September 1941. I have tried, dozens, or maybe hundreds of times, to imagine how you died, how you had walked to meet your death. I tried to imagine the person who killed you…

… I have not forgotten you and I have not been able to overcome your loss, and time has not healed the pain… I can feel you today, as alive to me as you were on the day when I saw you last, and as alive as when you read to me when I was a little boy. And my pain is still the same as it was on that day when your neighbour…told me you were dead. There was no hope of finding you among the living. And I think that my love for you and this terrible sorrow will not change until the day I die...”

In 1961, on the twentieth anniversary of her death, he wrote again to his mother:

“Dear Mama,

Twenty years have passed since the day of your death. I love you, I remember you every day of my life, and my sorrow has never left me in these twenty years… I last wrote to you ten years ago, and in my heart you are still the same as you were twenty years ago… As long as I am alive, you are alive too… When I die, you will continue to live in this book [`Life and Fate'], which I have dedicated to you and whose fate is closely tied with your fate.. My novel is dedicated to my love and devotion to people, and that is why it is dedicated to you. For me, you are humanity, and your terrible fate is the fate and destiny of humanity in this inhumane time.”

On 22/23 July 1944 the Red Army liberated the concentration and extermination camp at Majdanek, on the outskirts of Lublin. Although Grossman was available, he was not permitted to file a report of the event with Krasnaya Zvezda; that task was assigned to his rival, Konstantin Simonov. A few days later, Grossman did accompany troops of the 1st Belorussian Front as they arrived at the death camp at Treblinka. The Red Army managed to locate about forty survivors of the camp, who were interviewed by Grossman. The resulting piece, “The Hell of Treblinka” was the first comprehensive account of an Aktion Reinhard camp to appear in any language. Although subsequent research has corrected some errors Grossman made in his report, it remains an extraordinarily powerful and important piece of Holocaust documentation, so much so that it was produced in evidence before the post-war International Military Tribunal in Nürnberg.

In late 1943, Grossman had been invited by Ilya Ehrenburg to join the new Literary Commission, charged with reporting to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JA-FC). The Commission, officially created in spring 1944, existed for the purpose of collecting eyewitness and survivor testimony concerning the events of the Holocaust on Soviet soil, and to then edit and publish the evidence in a volume to be called “The Black Book”. Ehrenburg wrote:

“At the end of 1943 Grossman and I began compiling a collection of documents to which we gave the working title `The Black Book'. We decided to collect diaries, private letters, stories of potential victims or witnesses, who had somehow managed to escape the total destruction of all Jews carried out by the Hitlerites on occupied Soviet territory.”

It did not take long for the project to run into problems. The Soviet authorities were unhappy with the concept of a book devoted solely to Jewish persecution and suffering. Their philosophy was summed up in the phrase: “Do not divide the dead”. In what today would be termed “spin-doctoring”, the victims were to be recognized only as Soviet citizens; their nationality, race or religion was not to be publicised. Nor was that of those Soviet citizens who had collaborated with the Nazis. The politically sophisticated Ehrenburg quickly perceived the manner in which obstacles were developing. At a meeting of the Commission held on 13 October 1944, he reported his irritation at the slow progress the project was making:

“ I was told… that we should put the book together, and if it is a good book, then it will be published. Since the Germans are the authors of this book, not us, and its purpose is obvious, I do not understand what it means to say `if it is a good book.' After all, this is not a novel whose plot nobody knows ahead of time.”

Ehrenburg stressed to his colleagues that the manuscript must be quickly assembled and published before the war ended. He sensed that a book full of the kind of angry emotion that Grossman wished to produce, one that was devoted exclusively to Jewish victims and included mention of the widespread anti-Semitism of much of the Soviet population, would not find favour in official circles. For his part, Grossman felt that by devoting so much space to the survivors, they were losing sight of the victims:

“All the materials in our possession are accounts by people who managed to escape death by some miracle. But we also have the responsibility of speaking on behalf of those who lie in the earth and cannot speak for themselves. We must shed light on what happened to the 99% of those led off to Babi Yar, and not to the five people who escaped from Babi Yar.”

The wartime Soviet propaganda organisation, which was to be responsible for publishing “The Black Book”, was Sovinformburo, headed by Solomon Lozovsky. In March 1945, when he had seen the first drafts of the book , Lozovky wrote to Ehrenburg. From the contents of the letter, Ehrenburg knew that trouble was brewing. He wrote to Grossman, stating that it had been decided that “The Black Book” should be turned over directly to the JA-FC, and that the Commission should be dissolved. Ehrenburg resigned as chairman of the Commission; Grossman replaced him. It is evident that Grossman was driven to complete the book and see it through to publication, but in the increasingly hostile and overtly anti-Semitic post-war Stalinist climate, it soon became apparent that the book would never appear. In October 1947, the Commission was informed that the book contained “grave political errors” and was therefore banned. The JA-FC was disbanded (many of its members were subsequently arrested; a number were shot), and the type of “The Black Book” was broken up.

It was not the end of the story. In 1965, the bulk of the text of the book was delivered to Yad Vashem in Israel. Fragments of the manuscript were discovered from a variety of sources in a number of different countries, and in 1980 a reconstructed text was published in Russian. A year later an English translation appeared, but it was not until 1993 that a comprehensive and definitive edition of the book was published. As well as co-editing “The Black Book”, Grossman contributed several major texts to the book, “The Murder of Jews in Berdichev” and “Treblinka” perhaps being the most notable.

Grossman's post-war career initially flourished, but he was too honest in his writing to escape the wrath of Stalin and his successors for long. The poet Semyon Lipkin believed that it was Stalin's post-war anti-Semitic campaign that destroyed Grossman's belief in the Soviet system:

“In 1946... I met some close friends, an Ingush and a Balkar, whose families had been deported to Kazakhstan during the war. I told Grossman and he said: `Maybe it was necessary for military reasons'. I said: `...Would you say that if they did it to the Jews?' He said that could never happen. Some years later, a virulent article against cosmopolitanism appeared in Pravda. Grossman sent me a note saying I had been right after all. For years Grossman didn't feel very Jewish. The campaign against cosmopolitanism re-awoke his Jewishness.”

It was almost certainly only Stalin's death in 1953 that prevented Grossman's incarceration and probable execution. The manuscript of his masterpiece, “Life and Fate”, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, was completed in 1960 and submitted to the literary journal Znamya. A year later, “Life and Fate”, somewhat unusually for a book, was “arrested” by the KGB. Not only the manuscript, but even sheets of used carbon paper and typewriter ribbons were confiscated. Grossman was informed that the book could not be published for two hundred years. However, a microfilm of the novel was smuggled to Switzerland by Vladimir Voinovich, a leading dissident. A Russian version appeared in 1980, quickly followed by translations into French, German, English and many other languages. The significance of “Life and Fate” was immediately recognized. Grossman's “crime” lay in acknowledging the parallels between Nazism and Stalinism. Although “Life and Fate” is ostensibly mainly concerned with the battle of Stalingrad, it is in the triumph of man's humanity, the need to fight totalitarian ideologies and the power of the state, the necessity for compassion and kindness in everyday life that Grossman's genius shines through.

Grossman never lived to enjoy the recognition his talent deserved. He died of cancer of the stomach on 14 September 1964. For 15 years, until the publication of “Life and Fate” in the West, he was the forgotten man of Russian literature; he had become a “non-person.” But the man who never practiced Judaism, was confused as to his Jewish identity and had initially eagerly embraced Communist ideology, ultimately recognized his heritage. His final wish was to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, to rest for eternity with the Jewish people he had learned to love, even as he recorded their extinction. Fate, however, had one more cruel trick to play on him. Olga disregarded his instructions. He was cremated and his ashes buried in Moscow's Troekurovskoe cemetery, yet one more victim of the wolfish century.


Sources and Further Reference:

Beevor, Anthony & Vinogradova, Luba, eds. A Writer at War – Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945, The Harvill Press, London, 2005

Ehrenburg, Ilya & Grossman, Vasily, eds. The Black Book: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the Temporarily-Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the Death Camps of Poland During the War of 1941-1945, Holocaust Library, New York, 1981

Garrard, John & Garrard, Carol. The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman, The Free Press, New York, 1996

Grossman, Vasily. Life and Fate, The Harvill Press, London, 1995

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990

http://www.berdichev.org/index.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasily_Grossman

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