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(Vilna cont.)

Second World War Period

From September 1, 1939 until June 22, 1941

In the period between the outbreak of the war on September 1, 1939, until the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Vilna went through many changes of government and systems. Until September 19, 1939, there was great uncertainty as to the political fate awaiting Vilna in view of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the complete collapse of the Polish state and the efforts made by the Lithuanian government in Kaunas to have Vilna returned to its rule. From September 19, 1939, until October 28, 1939, Vilna was under direct Soviet control. From September 28, 1939, until June 15, 1940, it was included in Lithuanian territory. From June 15, 1940, until June 22, 1941, it was part of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic.


First Days of Uncertainty

From the very first days of the war Vilna Jewry was uncertain of its fate. Simultaneously with the advance of the Wehrmacht masses of Jewish refugees fled to the city, bringing with them the first awful accounts of the cruel character of the Nazi conquest. On September 17, 1939, the Red Army crossed the eastern Polish border and annexed western Ukraine and western White Russia to the Soviet Union, in accordance with the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. A secret protocol to the Pact, which dealt with the interests of the Soviet Union and Germany in Lithuania, stated ‘both sides respect the interests of Lithuania in the Vilna area’, although in the amended Treaty it was laid down that Lithuania fell within the Soviet area of influence.


Period of Direct Soviet Rule

The Red Army entered Vilna on September 19, 1939. The Jews received it with mixed feelings,on the one hand they were saved from the German invasion, but on the other hand they were afraid of the anticipated political, economic and social changes brought by the Soviet regime. They had no illusions as to the attitude of the Soviets in matters of religion, Jewish national activity or the well-to-do class. In the very first days after the annexation arrests took place of political oppositionist activists, opening with the Revisionists and closing with the Bund. The number of detained was small, but enough to cause concern as to the fate of a number of sectors in the population. In contrast with the above was the fact that many Jews were accepted into the manifold branches of the administration and governmental and municipal services. Jewish communists, particularly young ones, participated in public activities including in the ranks of the militia. This short period in Jewish life in Vilna ended as early as on October 28, 1939, with the transfer of the city and its environs to Lithuanian rule.


The Period of Lithuanian Rule, October 28, 1939, until June 15, 1940

The transfer of power to Lithuania began with anti Jewish riots. On October 28, 1939, with the transfer of power, gangs of Polish and Lithuanian anti Semites began their rioting. A young Jew was murdered by the rioters and a few others injured. On October 31 the rioting increased and some 200 Jews were wounded. In view of the shortage of food the price of bread rose drastically and Polish and Lithuanian political elements used this to agitate against the Jews, accusing them of black marketeering, profiteering, and the hiding of food supplies. Gangs of Polish rioters broke into Jewish shops and plundered the contents. The riots spread throughout the city and Lithuanian policemen also participated. Young Jews who attempted to defend themselves were arrested by the Lithuanian police. Jewish community leaders, led by Dr Ya'akov Wigodski requested the Lithuanian authorities to stop the terror and when that was ineffective they turned to the commander of the Soviet garrison in nearby Wilejka, within the Soviet area. The Soviet commander sent tanks into the city and the riots came to an end, but the apprehension of their recurrence did not evaporate. On October 6, 1939, the Jewish community leadership demanded that the Lithuanian government guarantee the safety of the Jewish population in the city. Such a guarantee was given but the Vilna Jews, having learned from past experience not to depend on official Lithuanian protection, set up a self defense organization. All the Jewish political organs and the representatives of the refugees joined this body. Although the Lithuanian authorities agreed to arm the Jewish defense groups they conditioned this upon the agreement to act only within the Lithuanian forces. The Jews would not accept this condition and insisted on the principle of being independent in their own defense, thus remaining independently neutral. This way they hoped not to raise Polish ire against them, who, like the Lithuanians, had hoped to preserve their rule in the city.

In the days of the direct Soviet rule, before the city was transferred to Lithuanian hands, crowds of Jewish refugees flowed unhindered into the city, from the Polish areas under German occupation. Among the refugees were both unorganized individuals and family units, but mostly they came in orderly groups – members of youth movements and members of khalutz training centers as well as a few yeshivas with rabbis and students. They left as soon as it became known that it was the intention of the Soviets to hand over Vilna and its environs to the Lithuanian government (the yeshivas were afraid more of the Soviets than of the Nazi terror). Members of the Zionist movements fled to Eastern Poland before the advancing German army. Later, they continued to flee to Lithuania and especially to Vilna. On the road, Jews joined the western Ukrainians and western White Russians who fled from the Soviets. Among these, members of Zionist youth movements and Yeshive students who insisted on continuing their life style stood out. By the end of 1939 some 10,000 Jewish refugees crowded into Vilna. A special refugees committee was set up chaired by Dr Ya'akov Rabinsohn. The representative of the ‘Joint’ in the city, Moses Bakelman also exerted himself greatly in assisting the refugees. The Rabbinic Rescue Committee, established in the USA and Canada, sent Dr Shmuel Schmidt to the city with the task of organizing economic assistance for the rabbis and to deal with their emigration.

At the beginning of 1940, the Soviets and the Lithuanians took special steps to deal with the illegal border crossings, but the infiltration of refugees across the border continued nevertheless. By the middle of June 1940, a short while before Lithuania became a Soviet republic, there were some 14,000 Jewish refugees in the whole of Lithuania, mostly in Vilna The refugees represented every political trend – about 2,000 members of the khalutz movements belonged to the Khalutz Coordination (a body established to coordinate between the Zionist youth movements), about 1,000 Revisionists and members of Betar, about 3,000 members of Poalei Zion, about 550 members of the Bund, and over 2,500 yeshiva students, yeshiva rabbis and community rabbis. Most of the refugees saw in Vilna and Lithuania a temporary relocation station on their way to the ‘Free World’. A few Jewish national leaders in Poland found temporary shelter in Vilna, such as Moshe Kleinbaum (Sneh), Zerach Warhaftig and Menachem Begin. Jewish immigration offices, HIAS, HIZM, and the Eretz Yisrael Office, did their best to help the refugees to migrate to Eretz Yisrael, or to America or to any other country available. The Lithuanian government saw in these refugees a burden and did not hinder their efforts to leave, but the target countries placed strict quotas on the number of visas issued to Jews. Much formal and informal meetings and efforts had to be made in this respect. In the period when Vilna belonged to independent Lithuania, from autumn 1939 until the middle of 1940, about 1,000 refugees, mostly from Vilna, left Lithuania in various ways. The refugee problem remained a public issue also when Lithuania became a Soviet republic.

In the eight months of Lithuanian independence Vilna stood out like an island in a stormy sea of events that engulfed the Jewish communities — those annexed to the Soviets and worse yet those under the German heel. Vilna remained the only Jewish center in Eastern Europe that retained contact with other Jewish centers throughout the world and drew to it Jews from the annexed Soviet area and also from the German occupied land. In the easy political climate created by the Lithuanian regime all the Jewish public bodies active before September 1939 were preserved in the city. The community council elected in 1939 provided all the services to the Jewish community within its power and the connections with other Jewish communities in Lithuania were strengthened. The separation from Warsaw, under Nazi occupation, furthered this tendency. Members of the Zionist youth movements and Zionist leaders who found themselves in Vilna because of the war continued on to the Lithuanian communities and strengthened the Zionist base. The Vilna Zionist Organization now became part of the Lithuanian Zionist Organization.

The increase in the number of yeshivas added to the religious life in the city. The yeshivas kept up almost full study activities, assisted by the JOINT and the ‘Rabbinic Rescue Committee’. The religious services continued on the same scale as before the war, the welfare services were expanded to assist the mass of refugees. Activities in the field of education and culture were intensive: thousands of children studied in the Jewish schools, YIVO continued its scientific work and literary circles and clubs continued their varied and lively activities. Three daily newspapers were published in the city containing many literary essays and publications. A historical society was established which collected evidence and details of harm and injury to Jews in the German conquered Poland.

Jewish economic activity-on the other hand-weakened in comparison to that of the period proceeding September 1939. The new border closed important Polish markets from Vilna merchants and struck hard at international connections. There were beginnings of economic connection with Lithuania, but within the short time little was achieved.

In the spring of 1940, the Lithuanian government ordered a reduction of the Polish presence in the capital, and many of the yeshiva students living there were transferred to towns in the vicinity. The Mir yeshiva, students and rabbis, moved to Kedainiai, the Kletsk yeshiva moved to Utena, and the Radon yeshiva was divided between Utena and Eisiskes.


The Lithuanian-Soviet Republic, June 15, 1940 until June 22, 1941

Vilna Jewry had had a taste of direct Soviet rule in the early days of the war, from the 19th until the 28th September, 1939. In those days they quickly learned of some of the characteristics of the regime: they witnessed the arrest of political opponents including Jewish public figures, the persecution of organizations having a national bent, and the oppression of people of means. The first period was too short to leave a lasting influence on Jewish life, but in the Lithuanian Soviet period radical changes took place in every aspect of Jewish life in Vilna and the surrounding area. At the end of June 1940, the communal institutions, public organizations and Jewish political parties were dissolved. Only members of the Communist Party and the Comsomol continued their activities, as part of the new regime and encouraged by the authorities. The Soviets began with arrests and some of the political opponents were exiled to Siberia. Before the elections to the new state institutions, which were intended to ratify the annexation of Lithuania to the Soviet Union, the Soviets conducted a vigorous propaganda campaign. The Jews and other national minorities were promised freedom from nationalist oppression who ‘exploited the masses for their own political and class benefits’. After the abolition of the previous political institutions the process of nationalization of banks, industrial plants, wholesale business and real estate began. During the nine months of Soviet rule 265 out of 370 Jewish-owned businesses in Vilna were nationalized. The process of nationalization of large industrial plants and wholesale business was fast compared to the pace of nationalization of the retail trade, but eventually the shopkeepers and the peddlers were forced to end their affairs, in particular because of the heavy tax burden imposed upon them. The Soviets also nationalized apartments, mainly large ones rented out, and their owners lost both the property and the income. Artisans were encouraged to form co-operatives (Artel). Indeed, most of them preferred this form of organization as against working for wages in large enterprises and thereby losing their independence. Considering the character of the regime, some of the members of the free professions, especially lawyers, had to change their occupation. The system of independent legal practice did not exist in the Soviet Union, and most of the Jewish lawyers sought work in other fields. The employment of Jewish teachers and doctors was basically altered: they now became employees of the state or the city but were able to continue in their work without much hindrance. Many Jews were integrated into the marketing and consumer chains belonging to the state or the cities. Jewish wage earners mostly continued to work in their usual work place, though there were occasional cases of workers leaving in order to better their positions professionally or materially. Most of the Jews previously unemployed now found work. The authorities emphasized that point in the propaganda and noted the fact that the regime offers security to the workers. To conclude, the changes that took place in the traditional Jewish economy were basic.

Jewish education underwent an accelerated process. Educational institutions which until June 1940 were under the aegis of the community and public bodies, such as the Zionists, the religious and the Bund passed into the hands of the state. In September 1940, with the opening of the new school year, the Jewish educational institutes were opened according to the Soviet system with Yiddish as the language of instruction. Subjects such as Tanakh, (Bible), Hebrew and Jewish national history were taken out of the syllabus. A few Jewish schools, mainly those having a religious bent, were closed and new ones opened instead. During the Soviet period Vilna had some 50 state educational institutes using Yiddish as the language of instruction: 4 kindergartens, 18 primary schools, 10 high schools, 4 trade schools, and 14 evening schools for adults.

The YIVO institute also went through reorganization in the spirit of the regime. The Bund and the Zionist leaders of the institute were defined as ‘Enemies of the People’, research and publications on Jewish national subjects were stopped, and the institute was mobilized to train Yiddish teachers for the Soviet Jewish educational system and was required to place its library at the disposal of Yiddish studying students in the upper high school classes. These changes altered the original Jewish character of YIVO. In January 1941 it was transformed into the ‘Institute of Jewish Culture’, an integral part of the Academy of Sciences of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic, with Noah Prylucki at its head. A chair in Yiddish was dedicated in the department of linguistics at the Vilna University. These steps surprised the Jewish public and the world. On the one hand, it was impossible to ignore the harm done to original Jewish research and publication and on the other hand the Soviets extended great help to the language and Yiddish culture, according to the well known expression ‘Yiddish culture in form and Soviet in content’.

The Jewish newspapers were also Sovietized. The ‘Vilner Kurier’ was closed. The Zionist Vilner Togblat, whose editor, Dr Wigodski was known for his Soviet sympathy, and its vigorous fight against anti-Semitism, continued to appear for a while, but on August 20, 1940 it too was closed as well and in its place appeared the communist Vilner Emes. It also appeared for a few months only. Subsequently, Vilna Jewry could only read the ‘Der Emes’ which appeared in Kaunas and provided a literary platform for Yiddish writers in Vilna. Jewish literature had a ‘Half Hour in Yiddish’ devoted to it in the official Vilna radio, 3-5 times a week.

The local theatre enjoyed a rich activity. Jewish actors, both local and from among the refugees, appeared in the framework of the ‘New Yiddish Theatre’, which was officially named the ‘State Jewish Dramatic’ theatre. It had a Jewish marionette theatre attached to it.

Great changes took place in the religious life. The authorities abolished the legal position of the rabbis in matters such as recording births or officiating at weddings and transferred these tasks to an official government office. The public nevertheless continued to require the services of the rabbis, the kosher slaughterers, mohels and other religious ministrants. A Brith Milah was done within the family circle or in the synagogue. Bar Mitzvah ceremonies were held as before. In spite of the wide anti religious propaganda and the heavy taxation, the synagogues remained open and filled with worshippers, particularly on Saturdays and festivals. Charitable and beneficiary activities took place within the synagogues. The Polish yeshivas which were officially closed by the Soviets divided off into small groups in various townships and attempted to continue to study in secret.

The Zionist organizations were disbanded and most of their members halted their activities, either because of fear of punishment or because of a genuine desire to adapt themselves to the new regime. The attempts of the members of the Bund to find a common language with the authorities was disappointing, they were presented as perpetual Trotskyite enemies of the Soviet state. A few of the Zionist youth movements organized underground activity. Their members held penetrating discussions on their ideological stance and the search for organizational means suitable for the new reality including smuggling members to the free world. A number of youth organizations connected with Betar decided, on their initiative, to disband, although the members continued to keep in touch personally. Members of Hashomer Hatzair faced a quandary – either join the new regime or hold on to their independent ideology even when that involved creating an illegal organizational framework. Their efforts to receive recognition of the Hakhshara training kibbutzim failed. Members of Freiheit also faced the question as to their path. Their attitude towards the Soviet regime was more reserved than that of Hashomer Hatzair, The ‘Khalutz Coordination’ in Vilna included also the movements Gordonia, Akiva, Zionist Youth and the Hekhalutz Hamizrakhi. Members of the movements who elected to continue their activities, divided off into small groups meeting in secret in private homes. Some dispersed outside the city.

After Lithuania turned into a Soviet republic, the Jewish leadership feared the complete halting of the exit of Jewish refugees, which, by then, had already been reduced. But the international effort of Jewish elements and others made continued emigration possible by various means. In negotiations conducted in Moscow and London, the Soviet authorities agreed to permit movement through the Soviet Union of Jews holding entry permits to Eretz Yisrael or entry visas to other countries,. Between 1,600-2,400 Jews entered Eretz Yisrael through Odessa and Istanbul, a few hundred came via India and Trans Jordan, 2,000-2,200 Jews left Vilna for Moscow, Vladivostok and continued from there by sea to Suruga and Kobe in Japan, a further 1,600-2,400 people left for Moscow, and continued through Kiev to Istanbul as an intermediate station on the way to Eretz Yisrael. The remainder, at most a few hundred, left Moscow, using Laissez passer documents, for Iran and passing through Trans Jordan to Eretz Yisrael. The exit of Jews stopped in the spring of 1941, just before the decision of the authorities to grant Soviet citizenship to the refugees as well. In total, some 5,000-6,000 Jewish refugees left Lithuania, mainly from Vilna, in the period between autumn 1939 and April 1941. These emigrants were spared the fate of their brethren who remained in Vilna and in the areas under the Nazi conquest.

While permitting emigration with relative ease, the Soviet authorities also took vigorous action against what was termed political opposition and disloyal elements both among the local population and among the refugees. In November 1940 the ministry of internal affairs (the NKVD) defined the categories of the ‘Enemies of the People’: Zionist leaders and activists (chiefly Revisionists and Betar members), leaders of the Bund, Jews who had participated in the struggle for Lithuanian independence, and refugees possessing entry visas to foreign countries. All the above were listed and subject to constant surveillance. They were called in for frequent interrogation by the NKVD. In June 13-14, a week before the German invasion, some 16,000 inhabitants of Vilna and other Lithuanian places (according to official Soviet documents), among them about 3,500 Jews, were exiled to far off places in the Soviet Union. The Jewish community was severely affected. In view of the mass exile there was anticipation that there would be a show of solidarity among the affected national groups. But the reality was different. The non-Jews pointed at the presence of Jews in the NKVD ranks and the Jews as a supporting component of the Soviet regime. This attitude fed the anti Semitic feelings and had tragic consequences in the Holocaust.


The Period of the German Occupation, June 24, 1941-July 13, 1944

The German attack and the occupation of the city, June 22-24, 1941

On the first day of the Barbarossa Operation, Vilna was bombed and the rumor in the city was that the Germans were close by and the Soviets are preparing to retreat. The Jews were in a state of panic. The following day, June 23rd, the bombing intensified and the Soviet officials, Jews among them, abandoned the city by train and other means of transport. Many others, who did not find transportation, marched on foot towards the east in the direction of Minsk. In particular, the ones who left were mainly connected to the Soviet government bodies and were afraid of revenge by the Nazis and by the local population, as well as groups of Khalutz youth. The road taken was most dangerous. Transport vehicles and columns of marchers were targets for bombing from the air. Many were killed near the city, and others stumbled on German army units who were advancing at a furious pace. Many refugees were stopped at the previous 1939 Polish Soviet border. Finally, less than 3,000 Vilna Jews succeeded in reaching the Soviet interior. Others, those who did not fall casualty on the road, returned to Vilna, already in German hands. The reasons why such a limited number of Jews made it to the Soviet Union may be that little was known of what was taking place in conquered Poland and the danger facing the Jews under German rule and the almost total absence of means of escape in view of the complete collapse of the Soviet military and civil framework.


The Number of Jews in Vilna before the Shoah

The census of 1931 gave the number of Jews as being 55,000 in a total of 195,000 city residents, and in 1937, there were 58,000 – according to official statistics. After the annexation of Vilna to Lithuania, various estimates give a figure of 70,000 souls (including the refugees). During the period of Lithuanian and Soviet rule (in the years 1939-1941), some 5,000-6,000 Jews emigrated , a few thousand were exiled in the middle of June 1940 to the Soviet Union , some 3,000 fled to the interior of the Soviet Union at the German invasion, which leaves approximately 57,000 Jews remaining when the German army entered the city. They faced a new reality of a struggle for their actual existence.


Period of Military Rule-until August, 1941

On June 24, 1941, two days after the beginning of the invasion of the Soviet Union the Wehrmacht entered Vilna and set up a military government which lasted until August 1, 1941. The period of military control may be divided into two parts: 9 days of joint Lithuanian German control, from June 24 until July 2, 1941 and after that the beginning of direct German military rule. During the days of the joint rule, the Lithuanians, who were a minority in the city, attempted to establish their hegemony over the city's Polish majority. They expected the Germans to support them in their efforts as also in their plans to suppress the Jewish population. The ‘Frontas Lietuvio Aktivistu’ (LAF, The Lithuanian Activists front), which represented all the political parties active in independent Lithuania, and had kept in secret contact with Nazi Germany even during the period of Soviet occupation, hoped to lead Lithuania to full independence with the aid of the Nazis. Before the German invasion, the Front issued a proclamation in which they abolished the right of Jews to live in the land of Lithuania and demanded their immediate exit. In the beginning the German military government recognized the rights of the Lithuanians both in the state and municipal sphere, and supported them in the struggle against the Poles and to impose a Lithuanian content on the city. Although in the beginning of July 1941, the joint Lithuanian German administration was abolished, and the German military closed many of the institutions established by the Lithuanians and limited the authority of dozens others. The Germans followed a basic policy – namely, to avoid giving independence to the population in the Baltic lands and the other conquered areas in the east which were to come under direct German rule. Vilna, its Jewry, and of all Lithuania fell under German civil authority within the framework of the Ostministerium (The Ministry for the East).

In the first days of the occupation, the Lithuanians were engaged mostly in their struggles against the Poles, but very soon joined the Germans in harassing the Jews, enacting anti Jewish edicts and participating in the policy of mass murder of Jews. Lithuanian ‘Partisan’ units were disarmed but reorganized as regular police formations and placed under direct German command. A few members of the interim Lithuanian government were appointed advisors to the civil governor. Although the hope of Lithuanian nationalists to attain an independent Lithuania with German help was dashed, they did not lose faith in their expectations of changes in German policy and did not break off their connection with the new ruling authorities. The collaboration of political nationalist elements and other large population groups in the murder of Jews continued.

At the beginning of the occupation the Germans tasked units in the Wehrmacht with the execution of the anti Jewish policy. These units were attached to the military city government as well as the Einsatzskommando 9 which reached Vilna on July 2, 1941. On June 24-25, 1941, 60 Jews and 20 Poles were taken hostage. The German explanation given was that this was to ensure compliance with their orders, Until July 22, 1941 the Jewish hostages were kept in the Lukiszki prison (in Lithuanian Lukiskis), only six were freed, the remainder murdered. On July 26, the kidnapping of Jewish men for forced labor began. Many of the men did not return home and later it transpired that they were executed. Lithuanians and Germans breaking into Jewish homes for plunder became a common occurrence. Jews were thrown out of their jobs, chased out of the queues waiting at the food shops, and on July 5th separate food shops were set aside for them, and permission was granted to buy in the markets only in the late evenings when most of the fresh produce had already been sold. Travel on public transport and walking in the main streets was forbidden. According to an order issued on July 3, Jewish men and women of all ages were obliged to wear, a yellow badge, of 10 centimeter diameter, on the front and back of their clothes. A few days later, the order was changed obliging everyone, over 10 years of age, to wear a white armband on the sleeve 10 centimeters wide with a Star of David imprinted on it. Wehrmacht soldiers and Lithuanian police continued to snatch Jews off the streets for work in the army camps and suchlike while cruelly maltreating and degrading them. The plunder of Jewish property became systematized. Large businesses and industrial plants had already been nationalized under the Soviets, and after the German conquest the Lithuanians began to confiscate the small plants, workshops and shops that still remained in Jewish hands. The Jews were accused of hiding goods and rioters searched their homes, while stealing valuables and household articles. According to an order issued on July 21, Jews were forbidden to sell or transfer property to others or to change their abode.

At the beginning of July 1941 the Germans decided to set up a Judenrat (Jewish council) in Vilna. On July 4th, German officers of the military government searched for the community rabbi, and as he was not found, they placed the task of forming a Jewish representation within a day on the synagogue beadle, Haim Meir Gordon. The beadle reported this to a number of public personalities and a number of community activists. Rabbi S. Frid and the Zionist leader Dr G. Gershoni requested elucidation of this order from the Lithuanian authorities. The Lithuanians, who had hoped to have Jewish affairs left in their hands, replied that the Jews are expected to choose a representation of 10 members who would deal with them only and avoid any connection with the Germans. Dozens of public personalities from every shade of the political spectrum met that evening. In the meeting they heatedly discussed the creation of a Jewish representation. Dr Gershoni spoke with feeling of the difficult situation in which the community found itself and the need, especially in this fearful hour, of appointing a responsible and devoted committee. The delegates knew only too well that the framework for the establishment of the committee was being dictated by the Germans and that it would have to function under conditions hitherto unknown and not experienced. Not everyone was convinced by the excited speech by Dr Gershoni and his compatriots, and strong moral pressure was needed to convince them to assume public responsibility. The first Judenrat numbered 10 members, each of them a known figure within the community and among the various political groupings in the Jewish quarter. The Jewish public saw in the Judenrat their trustworthy representative which would work to ease the burden of the oppressive orders and represent their interests. Sh. Trotski was elected chairman with Antol Frid his deputy. Dr Ya'akov Wigodski, the well known leader who was active before the war in the anti Nazi struggle was not appointed to the first Judenrat out of fear that his public appearance would attract German attention and he would be harmed by them.

Immediately after its establishment the Judenrat attempted to deal with the most difficult of anti Jewish persecutions, such as the abduction of Jews for forced labor, or the expulsion of Jews living in the high streets from their homes. In order to halt the arbitrary abduction of men from the streets and their homes, the Judenrat took upon itself the task of providing the forced labor demanded by the Germans on a daily basis and evenly applied.

The first Judenrat as originally constituted did not last many days. In an order on July 15, 1941, the German governor of Vilna demanded it be enlarged to 24 members. The discussions and arguments on the character and tasks of the Judenrat and actual participation in it were renewed with the publication of the order. The anti participation delegates argued that the Judenrat was but a means in the Nazi hands to further oppress the Jewish people, whereas the ones favoring its existence saw its importance as a loyal and experienced national representation able to face the Nazis and the Lithuanians and alleviate, albeit a little, the worst of the distressing situation. The enlargement of the Judenrat was completed on July 24, 1941, and it largely represented the various political and social groups, excepting the Communists and the Revisionists. Among the members were the previous community head, Dr Ya'akov Wigodski, the jurist Shabtai Milkonowicki, and the Bund leaders Grisza Jaszunski and Yoel Fiszman. The enlarged Judenrat was indeed trusted by the public, who saw in it a loyal and efficient representation who struggled in their interests.


Mass Murder in Ponary

In anticipation of the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazi headquarters allocated the leading role in the elimination of the Jews in the conquered areas to the Einsatzgruppen and the Einsatzkommando units, while depending simultaneously on the collaboration of the local population. From July 4, until August 9, 1941, the task of murdering the Jews in Vilna was placed upon Einsatzkommando 9, belonging to the Einsatzgruppe B. The unit entered the city on July 2, 1941, and on their way they added a section of the German Police (ORPO). After two days of organization they began organized killings. In addition, 150 Lithuanian policemen and members of gangs were mobilized (Lithuanian nationalist anti-Soviet partisans secretly assembled in anticipation of the Nazi invasion).The extermination was conducted in a single continuous action: Jews were taken off the streets or from their homes, imprisoned in the Lukiszki prison, and from there taken to the Ponary killing fields and executed.

In Ponary, a wooded area some 10 km. south of Vilna, the Soviets had dug huge pits for the storage of fuel containers. The dug out earth was laid around it in a high embankment and hid the ditch from sight. The Einsatzkommando with their Lithuanian collaborators chose Ponary as the suitable site for their mass murders.

The prisoners were kept in the Lukiszki prison for periods which stretched from a few hours to a few days, in accordance with the absorption ability of the killing site. Once at Ponary, they were first taken to the waiting area, a few hundred meters from the ditches, there they were registered, forced to undress and to hand over their valuables. They had their eyes covered with bits of clothing, and then marched in line to the ditches. When standing in front of the ditches machine guns opened fire on them and then the bodies were flung into the ditches, often wounded ones or unharmed in body. After some time, the machine guns were changed to rifles to ensure better marksmanship. If the shooters noticed someone moving within the ditch, a further shot ensured the kill. The victims were covered with a thin layer of sand and then the next group of Jews was brought to the place. The murderers kept improving their system and achieved a kill rate of 100 persons per hour. At various times, Soviet prisoners were also executed in Ponary. It should be noted that the Einsatzkommando 9 murdered Jews outside Ponary as well. On July 11, for instance, they shot dead dozens of Jews in the approaches to the city in retaliation for shots fired at German soldiers from an unidentified place.

In July 1941, the Ponary victims brought via the Lukiszki prison were mainly forced laborers picked up on their way to or from work. The Judenrat now faced a difficult dilemma: when it took upon itself the task of providing forced laborers in order to stop the random abductions off the streets, they did not know what had happened to the men who had disappeared. As time went on, the anxiety grew as to the fate of these men, and it quickly transpired that the organized groups of laborers were the target of the Zonderkommando and its local collaborators.

It should be noted that the German military and civil administration as well as the Lithuanian one were not at ease with the activity of the Sonderkommando, mainly as this interfered with the regular supply of Jewish labor to industry and services. The Judenrat exploited this difference of interests between the various German authorities and requested of the employers of the Jews in the army camps and other essential services to provide their workers with passes (Scheine) which should stop them from being kidnapped in the streets. These efforts were successful and the authorities did indeed issue such passes but the murderers did not always respect them. At first, Einsatzkommando 9 concentrated on hunting down men only, both because it would hide the intention behind their actions (the explanation given to the Jews was that the men were sent to work in remote places) and also to eliminate that part of the population who may become a danger in the future. Besides the random kidnapping it was obvious that there was a systematic hunt for political leaders, rabbis and members of the cultural elite. Lithuanian police units subservient to the Einsatzkommando 9 were given orders to prepare lists of Jews belonging to these categories. The early elimination of the leadership and elite was intended to break Jewish resistance and ease the carnage work. The Einsatzkommando did not always work by the book in Vilna in systematic finding and killing special selected groups. At times they snatched Jews randomly and for no apparent reason, whereas on other occasions they carefully collected the victims from lists prepared beforehand. At dawn on July 14, for instance, the Germans and Lithuanians collected rabbis from their homes according to a previously prepared list. Later on, as is known, women and children were also taken and killed.

In the period July 4-20, 1941, approximately 5,000 Jews were executed in Ponary by Einsatzkommando 9 and their Lithuanian collaborators. Afterwards most of the members of Einsatzkommando 9 left Vilna for the east in the direction of Minsk. The remaining group continued in the city until August 9, 1941, and continued its murderous activities, though on a reduced scale. Their place was taken by Einsatzkommando 3 of the Einsatzgruppe A.


Lithuanian Units Participating in Arresting and Murdering Jews

The German authorities changed the Lithuanian law-and-order units into police battalions (Pagelbines Policijos, Tarnybos Battalionas), and these were vigorously used against the Jewish population over a long period and tasked with mass murder. A central role in the enforcement of the Nazi anti Jewish policy was fulfilled by the Security Police (Saugumas) commanded by Aleksandras Lileikis and his deputy Kazys Gimzauskas. They had under their command a body of some 100 policemen in civilian dress who searched for hidden Jews, and while the ghetto still existed, prevented attempts at breaking out and further attempted to stop the issuing of false documents to prove that the bearer is not a Jew. They were also active in handing Jews over to the Lithuanian murder squads ‘Ypatinga Burys’ which were active in Ponary. The Lithuanian Security Service, ‘Tautos Darbo Apsaugas Battalionas’ which was composed of over one hundred men, and was under the command of Martin Weiss and August Herring of the German Security Police, were responsible for the transport of the prisoners from the Lukiszki prison the killing grounds, guarding them before the killing, and guarding the area while the ‘Ypatinga Burys’ carried out the murders, and after the deed covered the ditches with soil. Their commander was a Lieutenant, Balys Norvaisa with Balys Lukosius second in command, who was later replaced by Sergeant Yonas Tumas.


The killing fields at Ponary near Vilna
Source: Yad Vashem photo archives


The Period between the Establishment of the Civilian Administration until the Creation of the Ghetto on September, 1941

The city administration passed from the hands of the German military to the German civilian rule on August 1, 1941, by the ‘Fuhrer's Order’ of July 17, in the matter of political administrative arrangements in the eastern conquered areas. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and parts of White Russia were included in the Reichskommissariat Ostland, with a further subdivision into Generalkommissariat (provinces) and Gebietskommissariat (counties). Lithuania became a province divided into five counties, one being the city of Vilna.

With the appointment of the SS as the security authority in the area, it was in fact established as the supreme power over the civilian and economic authorities and strained the relationships between the various arms of the German administration. The multiplicity of authorities caused a plethora of regulations regarding various activities including those affecting the Jews. Thus for instance, the Wehrmacht stores were tasked with the production of equipment and other necessities needed for the front. Military men ran plants and workshops and were interested in utilizing local skilled labor, including Jews. The SS officials and other factors in the civil administration, on the other hand, looked askance at the intervention of the army in dealing with the Jews. By the end of July 1941 a General-kommissar was appointed to the General-kommissariat, Otto von Renteln, who had his seat in Vilna. With the setting up of the German civil authority, the Lithuanian institutions having national state functions were dissolved.

The German civil administration, the Gebietskommissariat Vilna, set a number of essential goals before itself: the imposition of law and order in the city, maximum exploitation of local labor for the German war effort and the prevention of enemy activity against the rule of the conquerors. Its broad powers included dealing with the Jewish problem. The Brown Folder prepared at the beginning of September 1942, by the Ostministerium, contained basic instructions for administering the area in general including directives for dealing with the Jews. The overall responsibility for dealing with the Jews in Vilna was placed upon the governor (Gebietskommissar) Hans Christian Hingst. Franz Maurer, his assistant, was in charge of Jewish affairs. The executors of the Jewish policy were in direct contact also with the police HQ and the SS and with the police security units and the SD among them the Gestapo IV section.


August 1941 Edicts

On August 6 the Vilna Jews had a 5 million Rouble fine imposed upon them. Franz Maurer ordered 3 members of the Judenrat to his office and demanded that by 9 o'clock the following morning, they were to deliver 2 million rubles and the remainder during the rest of the day. He threatened that if they do not appear with the first payment as demanded they will be executed. The frightened Jews organized street and area committees for the collection of the money. The response to the Judenrat appeal to donate money and valuables was generous but the full sum was not achieved in the time limit and Maurer, who was not satisfied with the partial payment, continued to threaten. At the beginning he refused to extend the time limit for making the payment, but eventually he relented and allowed the continuation of the collection, and the members of the Judenrat who had been taken hostage were released. The ransom was collected within a few days and the Germans received some 1.5 million Roubles, about 16 kg. of gold and many watches.

On August 12 Gebietskommissar Hingst issued a decree which contained many regulations: Jews were forbidden to buy in the market place during the daylight hours, dire punishments for dealing in the black market, curfew during the night hours, confiscation of all sorts of vehicles etc. The murders continued during August 1941, although in smaller numbers than in the previous month. According to the reports by Einsatzkommando 3,144 Vilna Jews were killed in the days between August 12 and September 1, but it is possible that the real number was greater.

During the summer Vilna Jewry came to the conclusion that the main chance of immunity lay in working for the Germans or the Lithuanians, who needed Jewish labor (it must be remembered that at that time the bitter fate of the ones taken to Ponary was as yet unknown). Jews who received Scheine from their workplace felt relatively safe and everyone anxiously searched for workplaces which issued such Scheine, and these were occasionally respected by the Jew hunters. At a later date, the Judenrat too came to this conclusion for saving people, albeit only partially, by working for the German economy, and a separate Judenrat department allocated labor as demanded. The Germans and the Lithuanians handed their demands for workers to the Judenrat and these were immediately supplied. Many Jews found a workplace directly, not through the Judenrat, but rather by personal connections or by bribing employers. In addition to the Scheine, the work also provided opportunities to meet non Jews and buy foodstuffs, thus easing the hunger reigning in the ghetto.

Dr Ya'akov Wigodski, one of the outstanding leaders of Vilna Jewry, died in August 1941, aged 86. From the very beginning of the conquest he stood out by his dignified attitude to the German pressure and served as an example for other public figures. He tried to prevent the members of the Judenrat from sending workers for labor outside town without knowing what will befall them. He was arrested on August 24 by the Germans, possibly because they did not relish his courageous stand. Dr Wigodski was already ill during his imprisonment and the harsh prison conditions hastened his demise. His death was a heavy loss to Vilna Jewry, who was much in need of great leadership in those distressing days.


The Great Provocation

In the days between August 31 and September 3, 1941, 8,000 Jews, men, women and children were murdered in Ponary, in an act that was named ‘The Great Provocation’, which was connected with the preparations for the creation of the ghetto in Vilna. On August 31, two Lithuanians entered a house inhabited by Jews and fired on a group of Germans who were milling around in the square outside a cinema. The two conspirators quickly disappeared and the Lithuanians accused the Jews of the act. They themselves, together with German soldiers, broke into the house and killed two Jews who were accused of the assumed deed. Immediately after that, the kidnapping of Jews in the area intended for the ghetto began. Work Scheine were not honored, and their owners were included among the kidnapped. The Jewish population was placed under curfew to facilitate the kidnapping. People were taken out of their homes by the Germans and the Lithuanian collaborators and concentrated in the Lukiszki prison. This place, which already had a history of malevolent treatment by the Lithuanian guards in July, once again became a place of robbery and ill-treatment by the Lithuanian guards. The prisoners were taken to Ponary on foot or by truck, taken to the ditches in groups of ten, shot by the Lithuanians (under German command), and fell into the pits. Some were only wounded and were buried alive. Six wounded women managed to crawl out of the pits in the dark and with the help of local peasants returned to Vilna and were hospitalized in the Jewish hospital. The Vilna Jews learned from them, for the first time, of the horrors of Ponary. In this Aktzia the members of the Judenrat were also killed. On September 2, in the course of the kidnappings, a member of the SS, Horst Schweinberger, entered the offices of the Judenrat and took with him 16 out of the 22 in the place, 10 of these were members of the Judenrat including the chairman, Shaul Trotski. They were all taken to Ponary and murdered. The Germans did not touch four other members of the Judenrat in the office: deputy chairman Anatol Fried, A. Zeidsznur, Grisza Jaszunski, and Yoel Fiszman.

In the first days after the Aktzia, with rumors of the erection of the ghetto in the background, the remaining members of the first Judenrat with other Jewish activist figures kept in touch with the Lithuanian city authorities in an attempt to find out what was intended to be the future policy. But the Lithuanian officials had no influence whatsoever on the Nazi policy vis a vis the Jews.


The Establishment of the Ghetto

The preparations, both practical and ideological for, the establishment of the ghetto, were set in action before the ‘Great Provocation’.


Map of Vilna Ghetto


In a document dated August 18, 1941, the German Ostland administration detailed the basic policy regarding the Jews: the establishment of ghettos in the areas holding a Jewish majority, forbidding Jews from leaving the ghettos and providing a minimal food supply (enough to keep alive), the setting up of an independent Jewish administration in the ghetto with a Jewish police force to keep order, the isolation of the ghettos from the outside world by cutting off mail and phone connections. During August 1941, the local German administration decided to establish a ghetto in the city in keeping with these principles.

The Great Provocation was but a small Aktzia in this policy, meant to reduce the Jewish population in the area intended to serve as the ghetto and to enable to the Germans to squeeze into it the Jews from the other parts of the city. The Germans decided to set up two ghettos: Ghetto A, the large one, based on the streets Straszun, Oszmiana, Yatkever, Rudnicki, and Szpitalne. Ghetto B, the small one, based on Zydowska (Yiddishe Gas), Szklara (Glezer) and Yatkever streets. The transfer to the ghettos was put into the hands of Lithuanian police units.

On September 6, 1941, the city Jews were ordered to remain in their homes and were forbidden to leave for their work. The move from the houses began and was carried out with great cruelty. The Jews were permitted to take with them only as much as they could carry. During the day the Germans changed the direction of the ghetto by adding or subtracting streets in whole or partially. Thousands of Jews were not transferred to either of the ghettos but were taken directly to the Lukiszki prison. A few hundred workers, possessors of Scheine from work places, proving that the are essential workers, were returned to the city, whereas the others, estimated at 6,000 souls, were brought on September 10 and September 11 to Ponary, their property was confiscated and they were executed. The remaining Jews were forced into the two ghettos – some 30,000 into Ghetto A and 9,000-11,000 into Ghetto B. Many died shortly after the transfer as a result of maltreatment or because of the difficult conditions.

The transfer of the Jews to either of the ghettos was random, without any consideration as to their belonging to any particular part of the population, but it soon transpired that the Germans had a specific purpose for each ghetto. On September 15, they began to transfer people who did not work-the elderly, the sick and orphan children in the orphanages, from Ghetto A to Ghetto B and Scheine possessors with their families from Ghetto B to Ghetto A. On September 15, some 3,000 residents of Ghetto A who did not possess Scheine were moved to Ghetto B. As they left Ghetto A, some 2,400 were taken to Ponary and murdered there and then and about 600 were put into Ghetto B. It was said that this was done to hide the German intention to eradicate Ghetto B earliest. The inhabitants of Ghetto B soon became aware of the German program and began surreptitiously to infiltrate back into Ghetto A.

The forced abrupt congestion of thousands of Jews in a small area created a housing crisis. Every room, corridor, storeroom, attic and basement turned into living quarters and many were left out in the courtyards under the open sky. Before the transfer to the Ghettos, as mentioned, the first Judenrat was executed, and in the absence of a guiding body to allocate living space, violent elements took possession of property and housing of victims taken to Ponary. In the first days, in addition to the terrible physical conditions and the economic distress, a heavy feeling of calamity descended upon the inhabitants of the Ghetto: many now occupied the apartments but recently emptied of those taken to be murdered in Ponary.

On September 7, the day after the transfer, the Germans created a separate Judenrat for each Ghetto. Antol Frid, deputy chairman of the first Judenrat and a survivor of the ‘Great Provocation’, was ordered to form a new Judenrat in Ghetto A. He included three survivors of the previous Judenrat Grisza Jaszunski, Yoel Fiszman, Szabtai Milkonowicki, and G. Gochman connected with the Bund. The shock of the past weeks' events destroyed the belief in the Judenrat, and Antol Frid labored hard to renew the public support and faith in the Judenrat. A few public figures promised to assist the new Judenrat, which had begun its activities under more difficult conditions than its predecessor. The Judenrat in Ghetto A consisted of five departments in the beginning – a food department under Jaszunski, a health department under Milkonowicki, a housing department under Gochman, a labor department under Yoel Fiszman who was also responsible for relations with Ghetto B, and administration headed by Frid himself. The Germans also formed a Judenrat in Ghetto B consisting of five appointees, headed by Isaac Leibowitz, his colleagues were unknown to the public and subsequently, Leibowitz formed an unofficial leadership of a few known and respected people. The Ghetto B Judenrat was divided into departments similar to those in Ghetto A. The Ghettos had a joint department of education under S. Gezundheit.

The underlying reason for the erection of the ghettos was the German program to limit the Jewish population through starvation and the creation of intolerable living conditions. The Judenrat and the activists assisting it did their best to maintain minimal living conditions for the Jews and thus enable them to survive. Their first consideration was the easing of the hunger which reigned throughout the ghettos and the prevention of plagues. Ghetto A saw the establishment of a hospital and both ghettos had clinics and sanitary services. The medical staff, doctors and nurses, treated the sick with extraordinary care, despite of the shortage of equipment and medicines. The food department shared out the foodstuffs brought by the Germans into the ghetto, made efforts to acquire additional food from elements outside the ghetto and opened public kitchens. The housing department did its best to bring order into the allocation of living space and took care of those who were living in the open in the streets and courtyards. The Judenrat also paid attention to education and opened schools and libraries. Ghetto A had some 3,000 registered pupils at the end of September 1941. Special frameworks were established for orphaned children whose parents died in the mass executions. The employment office provided laborers to meet the German demands. Despite the hard and demeaning work in many places, the Jews acknowledged the importance of the work and continued to consider the Scheine issued to the workers a sort of guarantee against falling victim to an Aktzia.

A special role in the Vilna ghetto was played by the Jewish police. Immediately after the completion of the transfer to the ghetto, the Judenrat published, under order of the Germans, a call to the young Jews to join the ranks of the Ordnungsdienst (Security service). Preference was given to ex servicemen, officers were given command. Frid appointed Ya'akov Gens, an ex officer in the Lithuanian army commander of the ghetto police (Later on, Gens had a central and contentious role in the Vilna ghetto). His deputy, Yosef Muszkat, a lawyer, was a refugee from Warsaw, who arrived in Vilna in the autumn of 1939. Gens, Muszkat, a few other officers in the police and many of the policemen were in the past members of the Revisionist party and Betar – organizations which had more ex army personnel and officers than other groups. It is reasonable to assume that Gens and his officers accepted into the police ranks men known to them personally. A struggle took place in the ghetto as to the public function of the police. The Bund members of the Judenrat took exception to the fact that the police was run by members of Betar, and introduced their own man, Herman Kruk, into the top echelon, but he did not find himself at ease within the police. Tension existed between the Judenrat and the police. Ghetto B had a separate police force. The Judenrat appointed the lawyer Fabiarski commander. In the second ghetto the Judenrat exercised control over the police and unlike the police in Ghetto A, it did not have a party coloring. In both ghettos the Judenrat saw the police forces they established as bodies which were meant to secure the population struggling for its survival and provide essential basic services.


The Yom Kippur Aktzia on October 1, 1941

On October 1, at noon, Germans and Lithuanians broke into Ghetto B and the seizures began. The synagogues, filled with worshippers, were the first targets. Within a short time, 800 Jews were collected and taken out of the Ghetto. After an interval of a few hours, the pursuit was renewed and another 900 were taken. That day, the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators took some 1,700 Jews to the Lukiszki prison. The Aktzia came as a surprise and there was initially no difficulty in seizing Jews, but in the afternoon many tried to hide and the pursuers had greater difficulty in finding them.

The Judenrat and the Jewish police in Ghetto B were not required to participate in any way in the Aktzia. The opposite was the case in Ghetto A. There the Germans demanded that the Judenrat bring one thousand Jews without Scheine to the Ghetto gate before evening. They threatened that if the demand was not fulfilled, they would enter the Ghetto and gather the Jews by themselves, as they did in Ghetto B. Not having a choice and after much hesitation the Judenrat decided to gather the people using the Jewish police for this. The Jewish police announced throughout the Ghetto that anyone without a Scheine should present himself at the Ghetto gate, but by the appointed hour only 46 men appeared. The Germans retaliated by commanding all the Ghetto Jews without distinction to immediately gather at the gate and announced that they will choose the victims themselves. They immediately entered the Ghetto and assisted by the Lithuanians pulled people out of their houses. The Scheinless men suspected the worst and hid whereas many owners of Scheine did appear being certain of their safety. Some 2,200 Jews gathered at the gate and all were taken by the Germans and Lithuanians to the Lukiszki prison.


Program of shows by the Vilna Ghetto Theater for 1943
Source: Yad Vashem photo archives


The Jews from both the Ghettos were kept at the Lukiszki prison until October 2. A few hundred were freed thanks to the intervention of representatives from their work places, who requested that high priority essential workers be freed. A few dozen more were freed thanks to personal connections or bribery. All the others were taken to Ponary and killed.

All the sources at our disposal show that the Yom Kippur Aktzia signaled a change in the attitude of the Judenrat towards the German demands: until that date the Judenrat fulfilled demands relating to the economy and the supply of workers only, but in the above Aktzia they crossed the line and consciously participated in the collecting of people and handing them over, in spite of being well aware of the fate awaiting these outside the Ghetto. Thus, the Judenrat laid down a new rule: foregoing some of the Jewish population in order to save others. This behavior brought about bitter arguments within the Judenrat and among the Ghetto inhabitants. The head of the Judenrat, Antol Frid and the chief of the Jewish police, Gens, overcame the opposition to this policy but the price was the creation of a gulf between the Judenrat and the Jewish police and large sections of the Jewish public. In October 1941, organized opposition to the policy of the Judenrat did not appear as yet.

After the Yom Kippur the belief was strengthened among large sections of the Jewish populace that safety lay only in working in secure places and the holding of a Scheine was the only way to save life.


The Liquidation of Ghetto B

Following the Yom Kippur Aktzia, further Aktzias followed quickly, and by October 21, 1941 the Ghetto was completely liquidated. In the night between October 3-4, a further 2,000 of its inhabitants were sent via Lukiszki Prison to be murdered in Ponary. The cover story told by the Germans to avoid opposition was that they were being sent to another ghetto in the area which was short of working hands. Most of the Ghetto B residents, who were not part of the working population and who feared for their lives, seized this story like a drowning man holding onto a straw, and willingly responded to the German call to report. That night an unusual event occurred: a group of Jews noticed that they were being led in the direction of Lukiszki prison. The men lay down on the ground and refused to move. The Germans opened machine gun fire at them and some dozens were killed on the spot. Others succeeded in escaping, but as they didn't find shelter outside the Ghetto they infiltrated back again. The researchers see in this event the first passive mass opposition by the Vilna Jews.

On October 15-16, the days of Simkhat Torah and Succoth's Isru Khag, an additional Aktzia took place when 3,000 Jews were led to Ponary and there were put to death. Ghetto B now held less than 4,000 Jews. Filled with growing fear and the expectation of the imminent liquidation of the Ghetto many attempted to steal across to Ghetto A. The final Aktzia in Ghetto B took place on October 21. Germans and Lithuanians inspected thoroughly each house and each possible hiding place. Hundreds who had prepared themselves hiding places were discovered and led to Ponary with all the others. The bloody harvest totaled over 2,500 souls. Individuals remained concealed in hideouts (Malinas), and later infiltrated by various means into Ghetto A. The Germans transferred to Ghetto A groups of Jews useful for work. This brought to a close the tragic saga of Ghetto B.


Continuation of Mass Murder in Ghetto A

The hunt for Scheineless Jews was renewed in the first Ghetto, while organizational changes took place in the organization of the supply of Jewish Labor. In the first months, a number of German and Lithuanian authorities dealt with the matter of Jewish labor, but from October 1941 the German Labor Office at the Gebietskommissariat in Vilna dealt with the requests for workers, their placing in various work places and the issuing of Scheine. The certificates issued by work places were cancelled and only the new Scheine issued by the Labor Office were now valid. The color was yellow and three close family members were included in it. The term ‘Yellow Scheine’ became of great importance in the following events in the Vilna Ghetto, and the registration anew of employees in workplaces about to issue the new Yellow Scheine created much tension in the Ghetto. The employers, including German army units were requested to supply to the labor Office lists of Jewish Labor needed. Hopes were raised again that the lucky holders of Scheine and their families would have immunity from Aktzias. Many tried by all means to be included in the lists of essential workers, either through personal connections or by bribing the foremen or the employers. The German Labor Office issued over 3,000 Yellow Scheine, and some 400 were handed to the Judenrat to be given to its employees. Out of about 28,000 Ghetto residents, only 3,000 workers and 9,000 family members, 12,000 all told, saw themselves as temporarily safe. The Ghetto became a seething place of thousands without Scheine who turned their anger against the Judenrat which had received 400 Scheine for its employees. The request by the chief of the Jewish police, Ya'akov Gens, for the Germans to grant employees of the Judenrat and public bodies in the Ghetto extra Scheine was refused. In order to exploit to the full the possibilities latent in the Scheine, false registrations of weddings took place in the Ghetto, and women and children were added to bachelor worker's records.

On October 23, 1941, the Jewish police published an order demanding owners of Yellow Scheine to register that very evening with the Ghetto police in order to receive blue tickets for their families. Before dawn, large German and Lithuanian forces encircled the Ghetto. Residents without Scheine made frantic efforts to find hiding places in the Ghetto and some even broke through the fence in their efforts to find some refuge outside. Early in the morning the Jewish police called out to the owners of the Yellow Scheine to report, together with their families, at the gate to leave for work outside the Ghetto. The Judenrat employees, together with their families, were ordered to assemble in the theater hall near the Judenrat building. Germans and Lithuanians carefully inspected each house and possible hiding places. Many bunkers were discovered and whoever refused to come out was shot on the spot. The hunt in the Ghetto continued all day, and 5,000 Jews were brought to the Lukiszki prison, all to be murdered in Ponary within two days. The workers, together with their families, remained at work that day, and returned to the Ghetto in the evening. On the morrow after the Aktzia, the Germans published a notice to the Scheinless inviting them to move over to Ghetto B where they will continue their existence and even promised to find them work. Some 1,500 were deceived into believing the Germans and moved to Ghetto B. On October 29, they were taken to Ponary and murdered.

Despite the German and Lithuanian efforts to deceive them, thousands of Jews without Yellow Scheine remained in Ghetto A after the October Aktzia. On November 3, the Germans ordered the Scheine owners to move to Ghetto B together with their families for three days, after which they will be returned to their homes in Ghetto A. While passing from Ghetto to Ghetto the Scheine were carefully inspected and anyone whose Scheine did not appear to fit the details was set aside. The Judenrat workers were also transferred together with the other Scheine possessors from Ghetto to Ghetto and Ya'akov Gens together with his men checked them during the passage. There are differences of opinion as to the behavior of Gens and his men in this affair: critics blame them for separating children from their parents and thus sealing their fate, whereas his defenders tell of him adding orphan children to families with Scheine and thus saving them from certain death. In the meantime the Lithuanians, under German eyes, combed the Ghetto A and searched for anyone secreted there. A number of bunkers were detected, in spite of their being well camouflaged: dozens of Jews found there were immediately killed. On October 5, the Scheine owners were returned to Ghetto A and many Jews who had hidden in Ghetto B joined them. About 1,200 ‘illegals’ were caught at the gate to Ghetto A, transferred to Lukiszki prison and executed a few days later in Ponary.

By the end of the Aktzia 12,000 souls remained in the Ghetto, possessing yellow Scheine and a further 8,000 Jews without Scheine. Leaving for work began again, but the allocation of housing was changed. Workers in the security depots (called the Gestapo workers), workers in the captured arms stores and workers in the military hospital were housed in three separate housing blocs, and near a few plants housing blocs were raised for the workers. The Judenrat was convinced that the separation of the workers in housing areas would strengthen the image of the ghetto as an essential productive unit, and assisted this process. The Jews who did not work and lived illegally in the Ghetto saw this as a dangerous move and great tension was created in the Ghetto as a result.

In the night of December 3, some 70 Jews, members of the underworld, were arrested. On December 4, some 90 Jews having a criminal record were arrested and taken out of the Ghetto. The arrests were made by Lithuanian and Jewish policemen according to lists prepared by the Judenrat, seemingly to rid the place of unsavory elements who might spoil the image of the Ghetto in the opinion of the Germans. Be that as it may, the fact remains that this was a planned precedent in which Jews were handed over to the Germans by the Jewish police.

Jews employed in service work at the various security services (who were called, as mentioned above, Gestapo workers), enjoyed a number of advantages. They were permitted to register in their Scheine, in addition to wife and two children up to age 16, their parents, brothers and sisters. In the Ghetto they lived in two separate blocs. Their extra rights were envied by many and the demand was great for work in these places. But soon it transpired that the extra immunity was a fiction. In the night between the 15th and 16th December, 1941, all the Gestapo workers and their families were commanded to leave the Ghetto. The people did not suspect anything, quite the contrary. They assumed that something was about to happen in the Ghetto and their employers were ensuring their safety. They were taken to Lukiszki and there they learned that only 200 from amongst them would be returned to the Ghetto and their previous employment. The remaining 300 were taken to Ponary.

Approximately 1,000 Jews worked in the Kailis fur plant producing for the German army. The plant was outside the Ghetto and the workers with their families lived in a number of houses nearby in a kind of work camp. The plant manager, Oskar Glick, was a Vienna Jew posing as an Aryan under false papers. In January 1942 a fire broke out in the plant, and in the investigation by the security services his real identity was revealed and he and his wife were executed.

After the many Aktzias, the Germans knew, nevertheless, that there were thousands of ‘illegals’ still left in the Ghetto. The Judenrat and the Jewish police were aware of the danger and searched for ways and means to legalize all or at least, some of them. The Germans on their part exploited the efforts of the Jews to achieve immunity as a means to sow illusion among the Ghetto inhabitants and thereby dull their awareness of the process of extermination. This happened with the affair of the Yellow Scheine. From the beginning of December 1941 the Jewish police issued Pink cards to family members of holders of Yellow Scheine (who had received blue cards on October 23, 1941, as mentioned above), as well as to professionals among the ‘illegals’, to past public leaders, rabbis and members of the elite. The issuance of the Pink cards was completed by December 20, and immediately after that, Germans and Lithuanians entered the Ghetto and caught anyone without a Yellow or Pink Scheine. The inspection continued until December 22. Hundreds of Jews hid, but despite the improved camouflage efforts many bunkers came to light. The concealed in a bunker in 13 Szpitalne Street refused to leave when discovered and attacked the Lithuanians. Two youths from the bunker, Moshe Hauz and Barukh Goldstein, died in the fighting. 400 Jews found in hiding places were sent to their death in Ponary. The Pink cards Aktzia completed one of the tragic chapters in the Shoah of Vilna Jewry: out of 57,000 Jews in the city at the beginning of the German occupation, 34,000 were murdered by the end of 1941. A further 3,000 Jews escaped to White Russia during the Aktzias, where Jews still lived a relatively quiet life, or found shelter outside the Ghetto, mostly under assumed identity and with false Aryan papers. Some 20,000 ‘Legal’ and ‘illegal’ Jews remained in the Ghetto.


Ways of Dealing with the 1941 Aktzias

The fact that by the end of 1941 some 60% of Vilna Jewry found their deaths by the various mass Aktzias raises a number of fundamental questions: how did the Jews understand the Nazi policy towards them? did they take in the possibility of complete extermination, or was it that they believed that such a horror after each Aktzia would not be repeated? When did they learn the truth about Ponary? How did they relate to the misleading Nazi policies and the separation of essential workers from the other Ghetto residents? What possible realistic means of defense did the Jews possibly have to oppose the Nazi war machine, considering the animosity of wide sections of the population in the city and the vicinity? We shall try to answer these questions one by one.

In the first months the Jews had no knowledge of the executions taking place in Ponary, and they mostly believed that the missing persons had been taken to work somewhere else, but as time went by, more and more rumors were heard of the events in the killing fields of Ponary. At the beginning of September 1941, with the return of six wounded women from the Ponary death pits, the first parts of the bitter puzzle came to light. The stories of the escapees from the death pits did not reach the public — the Jewish doctors who tended them kept the news from spreading in the fear that the Germans would harm these survivors in order to silence them, whereas those who did have the facts given them, among them public figures, found it difficult to accept the facts and to comprehend the full implications of the horror of Ponary. In October a few more women who had escaped from Ponary returned to the Ghetto. The Jewish police warned them not to speak of what they had experienced and seen, fearing that their story would bring a disaster on the Ghetto. The bewildered Ghetto residents could not ignore the partial news about the events in Ponary, but they found it difficult to believe that it is possible for mass murder without distinction to really take place.

The Judenrat and the HQ of the Jewish police held deep and thorough discussions as to the attitude to be adopted in view of the proven knowledge of the murders in Ponary. The head of the Judenrat, Antol Frid, was of the opinion that it was impossible to prevent the extermination of a part of the Jewish population, but also that it may be possible to save some by having them employed in essential German plants serving the war machine and thus keeping the Ghetto alive as a ‘Working Ghetto’. The workers, possessors of Yellow and Pink Scheine agreed with this perception of their situation. Some Scheinless persons attempted to hide in various bunkers in the Ghetto or with non Jews outside by posing as Aryans holding false papers. During the Aktzias there were a few incidents of spontaneous opposition, mostly by individuals.


The Relatively Quiet Period, from the Beginning of 1942 until 1943

For a period of over one year no mass Aktzias took place in Vilna, although the murder of individuals and the killing of the elderly and sick continued in Ponary. The death sentence was imposed on Jews caught outside the Ghetto without the appropriate documentation, on smugglers of food, on Jews who tried to live outside the Ghetto using false papers and a borrowed identity, and on others who disobeyed the various orders of the German authorities.

On July 17,1942 the Jewish police, acting on German orders, collected a group of the elderly, the sick and invalids, and brought them to the Ghetto prison, and then to the disused convalescence home of the Women's Health organization in nearby Pospieszki. On July 22 a further 40 elderly and sick were arrested: 8 of these were taken to Pospieszki and the rest freed. On July 26 the Jewish police handed over the Pospieszki prisoners to the German security police and their Lithuanian assistants who took them directly to Ponary and executed them. After this event, Gens spoke to the brigadiers (Jewish leaders of working groups) where he tried to explain the action and justify himself. He told them that he refused to hand over children but was forced to submit regarding the elderly and the sick.

Despite the murders mentioned, limited in scope, the Jews considered the period as being stable and calm compared to the endless shocks they knew in the first half year of the invasion. The 20,000 Jews still remaining in the city hoped they could continue their existence and the leadership concentrated on organizing the internal life of the Ghetto. In the period of ‘relative calm’ new forms of Ghetto living came into being, and changes took place in the organization of the Judenrat and the Jewish police.

The new re-organization after the great Aktzias was followed by internal strife between the Judenrat, the Jewish Police and remaining political public figures. Alongside the five members of the Judenrat (Antol Frid, Chairman, Grisza Jaszunski, virtually considered his deputy, Shabtai Milkonowicki, Yoel Fiszman and G. Guchman), a council of heads of departments existed. At the beginning of 1942 the Judenrat extended its activities and added to the administration and existing departments (food, health, housing, work) four new departments — social services, education, culture and finance.


The theater play “Shlomo Molcho” in the Vilna Ghetto, June 1943
Source: Yad Vashem photo archives


The Jewish police, which initially was the executive power of the Judenrat, slowly disengaged itself from the control of the Judenrat, particularly after January 1942. In the first half of 1942 some 200 officers served in the Jewish police and this included a HQ, three regional units, a crime investigation unit, gate police, work police, sanitation police and a prison. The HQ which included Gens, his deputy Yosef Glasman, the secretary, the jurist A. Dimitrowski and a few senior officers (among them captain Isidor Frucht, Salk Dasler and G. Gruner), widened its sphere of activities and annexed tasks which were previously with the Judenrat, mainly in the matter of work. Gradually the Jewish police connected directly with the Germans, its standing improved and in time the Germans preferred Gens, whom they saw as the strong man in the Ghetto rather than Frid. Gens was married to a non Jewish woman and retained his close connections with his Lithuanian friends, but nevertheless he did not try to escape the fate of the Ghetto inhabitants. In the beginning he won the faith of the Ghetto residents. In order to strengthen his public position, he created a kind of political club of the elite. In their meetings they discussed the problems of the day and in particular the situation of Jewry in those fateful days. The German recognition of the strong position of Gens and his Jewish police received official imprimatur in the ‘Directive for the Activities of the Jewish Police’ issued by Franz Maurer on April 29, 1942. In this document the tasks and authority of the Jewish police were expanded. It now had the responsibility for the Jews to working outside the Ghetto, was responsible for the food brought into the Ghetto and was in fact recognized as the ruling factor in the Ghetto subordinate to the Gebietskommissar, while ignoring the Judenrat.

In the middle of July 1942, the Germans dissolved the Judenrat and appointed Ya'akov Gens the Ghetto representative while retaining his position as chief of the Jewish police – an act which was to make the Jews more responsive to orders and exploit more efficiently Jewish labor. The members of the previous Judenrat were appointed heads of departments in the newly constituted Ghetto authority: Antol Frid was appointed deputy in charge of administration and Salk Desler-deputy in police matters. The previous deputy chief of police, Glasman, was appointed head of the housing department, but before accepting the appointment he consulted with his colleagues in the HQ of the F.P.O. (the Jewish resistance organization), who agreed to the change in the hope that the new task would enable him to find places for hiding arms and training the resistance fighters. Grisza Jaszunski was moved from heading the food department to managing the broadened education and culture department: Kathriel Broide accepted the administration of the labor department; Yoel Fiszman was appointed head of the light industries department (tailoring, carpentry, shoemaking, etc); Guchman was transferred from heading the housing department to leading the technical department, which was also responsible for the workshops in the Ghetto and Milkonowicki remained chief of the health department.

In order to improve the connections with the Ghetto residents, Gens published a weekly Yiddish bulletin in September 1942, ‘Ghetto News’. This included information on events in the Ghetto and announcements by the administration and departments. Gens also saw great importance in the contact with the Brigadiers (the men in charge of work groups), as a means of tightening the bond with the workers. In November 1942, he created a council of Brigadiers headed by David Kaplan-Kaplinski which quickly became the fundamental support for Gens in the Ghetto.


Labor department

The very first Judenrat emphasized the strengthening of the image of the ‘Productive Ghetto’ as part of their concept of labor as a means of saving life. With the ending of the mass Aktzias in the beginning of 1942, this concept became the accepted policy which determined the behavior of the Judenrat. The labor department under Yoel Fiszman was the important factor in the Judenrat.

On April 15, 1942 the Germans announced that by the end of the month the Yellow Scheine would be changed for new work permits, and authorized the labor department to issue new work permits without limit or expiry date. The Ghetto inhabitants saw this as proof of the importance of their work to the Germans and from the spring of 1942 the Germans constantly increased their demands for production and service laborers for their departments. At the end of 1941 some 3,000 Jews worked outside the Ghetto and a further 1,000 were employed by the Judenrat institutions in services and in plants within the Ghetto; in July 1942 the number of laborers reached 8,000, at the end of December 1942 it rose to 9,270 and in April 1943 10,115 were registered and in June the number reached a peak of over 14,000. Gens hoped to achieve the number of 16,000 laborers out of a total population of 21,000 Ghetto residents. The main thrust of the effort was to open industrial plants and workshops within the Ghetto. In the beginning of 1942 the Ghetto workshops served only for house maintenance and repairs to the water system, electricity and sewage, but gradually they went over to production for the Germans. The workshops opened courses to train new artisans.

Vilna Jews also worked in work camps outside town digging up peat and felling trees. In view of the living conditions in the work camps, which worsened constantly, most Jews refused to join these camps willingly, and the Jewish police used force to fill the quota of laborers demanded by the Germans.

The Ghetto organization was based on the division by work places. Each group of laborers in a particular work place was considered a separate unit headed by a brigadier (chief of the group). The brigadiers were in direct contact with the German and Lithuanian employers and they enjoyed a superior standing in the Ghetto. They exploited this position to secure their families during Aktzias and to get food. This situation created tensions between the Judenrat and the Jewish police. Thus for instance, an open quarrel broke out between Gens and Weiskopf, the brigadier of the tailoring workshop where over 200 persons worked for the German army. In May 1942, Weiskopf reached an independent agreement with the German stores by which his workshop received large scale repair work to army uniforms. Gens was angry at this arrangement and demanded that in future all work arrangements be made through the Judenrat labor office. Weiskopf asked the Germans with whom he stood in contact for help, but finally Gens won the support of the Gebietkommissar and Weiskopf's public standing was weakened. As a consequence of the above affair the power of the brigadiers fell and they accepted Gens' authority.


Ya'akov Gens
Source: Yad Vashem photo archives


Food Department

At the beginning of January 1942, the Germans provided the Ghetto with 659 grams bread per person per week, and small quantities of groats (grits), sugar, flour and meat, in total less than half the rations allocated to non Jews. The food department shared out the rations by means of food ration cards. Over time, the ‘illegal’ Jews in the Ghetto became legal residents and the number of food cards rose from 13,600 in January 1941 to the number of 19,500 in July that year. In the middle of 1942 a slight increase took place in the quantities supplied by the German authorities. The increase was intended mainly for the 5,600 laborers working outside the Ghetto. But the increase in the rations did not improve materially, the problem of shortage and hunger remained and the smuggling of food into the Ghetto continued, particularly by those working outside. Strict inspection took place at the gate and smugglers caught could expect heavy punishment, even a death sentence. Frequently, the Jewish guards at the gate confiscated the food and took it for themselves (although in many cases they warned the incoming workers when the Germans were searching at the gate). The German authorities demanded an immediate end to smuggling and threatened to stop the supply of food to the Ghetto. In March 1942, 73 Jews were executed in Ponary, among them 23 women and two children, mostly having been charged with smuggling food. Besides the laborers who smuggled food mainly to feed their families, professional smugglers were also active in the Ghetto who, thanks to their connections with Jewish and Lithuanian policemen and by bribery brought into the Ghetto large quantities of food using hidden passages, attics and basements. The smuggled foodstuffs were sold on the black market and only the well to do could pay the high prices; all others had to make do with the rations. The food department of the Judenrat used initiative and in illegal manner obtained food, by paying bribes to the Lithuanian company which supplied the Ghetto the food allocated by the Germans in order to add to it. Food from this source and others enabled the department to open four public kitchens for the needy.


Welfare and Social Work

In the first half of 1942, the department of social work in the Judenrat spent 1,430,000 Roubles – about 22% of the income of the Judenrat, on direct assistance to the needy. Members of the elite in need received special grants. The department participated in the budgets of the hospital, orphanage and old age home.


Health and Sanitation

The poor sanitary conditions, the overcrowding and the lack of food created a danger to the health of the Ghetto dwellers. The head of the health department in the Judenrat, Shabtai Milkonowicki set up a committee of 5 doctors and together they made great efforts to develop health services to prevent epidemics. The department kept a hospital, a clinic and a sanitary-epidemiological unit in the Ghetto. Over 3,000 persons were treated in the hospital in 1942, thousands received treatment in the clinic and many more were treated by dozens of doctors in their homes. The German order was that births in the Ghetto must be prevented. But women continued to give birth and the Jewish doctors hid the newly born from the Germans. The workers in the sanitary department took care of personal and public cleanliness. The Ghetto was divided into defined wards and each ward had a doctor and a team of nurses. Thanks to the enormous efforts of the health workers and the co-operation of the inhabitants, there were no outbreaks of plagues and infectious diseases.


Education and Culture

In the first months after the Nazi occupation, the Judenrat, in conjunction with a number of public bodies, established an educational framework. Its activities were temporarily stopped due to the waves of Aktzias. In December 1941 and mainly in the beginning of 1942, when the mass murders stopped and life in the Ghetto stabilized, educational activity was renewed. Approximately 700-900 children aged between 5-12 years, studied in two primary schools in the Ghetto. A few dozen studied in the religious school and about 120 studied in the work camp of the Kailis plant, a further 100 youths attended a high school of four grades, and about one hundred attended the music academy. With the schools, there existed also mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc. and extra curricular classes. Altogether about one hundred teachers, organized in an association, taught in these institutes. They also conducted extension classes and lectures on Jewish and general subjects. A few kindergartens were opened in the Ghetto in order to ease the burden on parents who had to go out to work and in March 1942 a home was opened for very young orphans. Youths who wandered about in the streets and alleyways of the Ghetto and ended up criminals were now organized under direction and employed in transport and cleaning.

The department of culture of the Judenrat initiated theater and musical shows, and ran a public library of 45,000 books. It had 2,500 regular readers and about 5,000 visitors monthly to the reading room. An archive and a section for the collection of documents and witnesses accounts of the time of the conquest was established (emphasis was placed on the witness accounts of survivors from Ponary and other communities of the region). A sports club was also active in the Ghetto which attracted hundreds of youths and sportsmen.

The initiative to revive cultural life after the great Aktzias brought about sharp arguments. Those against argued that this was not a time for theater shows, and leaflets distributed in the Ghetto stated ‘theater shows are not put on in cemeteries’. On the other hand, public figures, with Gens in the lead, saw in a rich cultural life a means to raise the spirits and strengthen the peoples' will. Gens and others initiated the creation of an orchestra in the Ghetto, and on January 18, 1942, it gave its first concert, in an atmosphere of mourning and existential anxiety. Two choirs also existed in the Ghetto — Hebrew and Yiddish — and at the end of April 1942 the curtain opened on the first theater play ‘Shlomo Molcho’. The concerts and shows continued during the existence of the Ghetto. In the spring of 1942, the Association of Writers and Artists was founded, its stated aims were to encourage artistic and literary creation, the organization of cultural events and assistance to members suffering economic hardship.

In July 1942, the departments of education and culture were combined, and Grisza Jaszunski, a Bund member of the Judenrat was placed at its head. The uniting of the two departments brought about a rejuvenation of both fields. Over time, the opposition to cultural events weakened and events drew large crowds. A struggle waged between the Bund and the Zionists within the framework of the education and culture over control over the contents. The head of the department, Jaszunski and his colleagues outside the Judenrat favored a Yiddish content education in the spirit of the Bund. Opposing them, the Zionist groups organized and founded the ‘Brit Ivrit’ (Hebrew Union) to boost Hebrew education and to offer Hebrew cultural events with a Zionist content. The Yiddish language finally remained the formal language of instruction but the teaching of Hebrew language, Bible and the history of Israel was amplified. Gens, who during the whole period of heading the Ghetto, personally followed the education struggle and supported education having a nationalist character. Thanks to his pressure, Jaszunski was forced out from the position as head of the department, and was replaced by Dr Leo Bernstein, a Zionist. In June 1943 Gens dismissed Dr Bernstein because of the latter's membership in the Jewish resistance underground, which carried on a struggle against him (see further comment), and appointed in his place Dr Israel Diamantman, a Zionist.


Religious Activity

Three synagogues were included in the Ghetto space, constantly filled with worshippers, especially during the festivals. A Yeshiva functioned in one of them. Observant Jews, who had restrictions placed upon them during the period of the Soviet regime, were now forced to work on Saturdays and on Jewish festival days, made great efforts to continue to observe the religious laws, even if only partially. Matzohs were baked in the Ghetto before the Passover, and the festival of Sukkoth was celebrated widely by all. Local rabbis and rabbis from the surrounding communities who had found refuge in Vilna voiced their opinions as to the behavior of the Ghetto leaders during the Aktzias. At the beginning of November 1941, after the Yellow Scheine Aktzia, they warned Gens against the handing over of people to the Nazis and quoted the Hallacha rule laid down by RAMBAM (Maimonides), ‘they should allow themselves all to be killed rather than give over a single soul to [the gentiles]’, but Gens would not change his opinion that surrendering some Jews to the Nazis was the only means of saving the rest.


Jurisdiction and Punishment

A judicial tribunal was set up in the Ghetto in February 1942, with the right to deal with various matters, criminal activity, disagreements among neighbors, refusal to obey Judenrat orders, assaulting Jewish policemen while carrying out their duties or leaving the Ghetto without permission. The main punishment was fines or imprisonment, and for serious crimes, such as robbery or murder, even death by hanging. The Jewish police carried out the sentences.


Political Parties and Youth Movements

The Zionist parties as well as the non Zionist ones were disbanded during the period of the Soviet rule, and many of their members were killed in the various Aktzias. Until the close of 1941, they limited their activity to keeping in contact and occasional group meetings. Members of Poalei-Tzion (Socialist Zionist-United) discussed in July 1941 the question of sending a representative to the Judenrat, which was then in the process of being set up. Bund members also were in constant counsel assessing the situation in the Ghetto to determine their position as to the composition of the Judenrat and its activities. Their members on the Judenrat, few in number, attempted to influence the public character of the Jewish police, but as is well known, without much success.

The Jewish Communists kept their separate framework within the Ghetto, but until the end of 1941 their public presence was slight. Their attempts to make contact with Communists outside the Ghetto were not successful because no non Jewish Communist underground had yet been formed in Vilna city. Occasionally, past activists of other parties met for discussions.

The Youth movements which had belonged to the Khalutz Co-ordination, continued to keep up their organized framework, met on occasion in large meetings, and often took organizational decisions. In the beginning their efforts were directed to saving their members. Using personal connections, the members were placed in work, many had Yellow Scheine, and for the others, false work papers were made up. During the Aktzias the members searched for hiding places in the Ghetto and escape routes in times of emergency. A few female messengers were issued false papers, smuggled out to the Aryan side and were instructed to integrate into the general population and carry out tasks for their organization.

Outside of the ‘Co-ordination Hakhalutzit’ the separate elements in the movement engaged in safeguarding their specific ideology and in extending assistance to their members as well as to their families. The members needed food, clothing and housing. Mordekhai Tenenboim-Tamarof, among the leaders of Hekhalutz Hatzair-Dror, who possessed a Karaite identity card, left the Ghetto on occasion, found work as a guard in a Vilna suburb, and his apartment was used as a hiding place for the members during the Akzias. The members of Hashomer Hatzair also often discussed the Ghetto situation and developed a wide reaching system of mutual aid. A Polish woman with whom they made contact, Yadwiga Dudżec, assisted 17 of their members, including Abba Kovner, to find shelter in a monastery near Vilna. They also attempted to make contact with the Polish resistance but anti-Semitic elements in that movement sabotaged their efforts. A plan to escape to Sweden prepared earlier also failed. The members of the Hano'ar Hatzioni created a collective within the Ghetto in an image of a Kibbutz. A few of their members worked in the free kitchen on 2 Straszun Street, and it served as a meeting point. The members of ‘Akiva’ (religious youth movement) and ‘Betar’ kept their movement's framework intact in the Ghetto. Over and above material assistance each movement continued its educational ideological work, holding cultural evenings and literary discussions, in the effort to keep alive their humanity and spirits in inhuman conditions. Over time, the activities of the youth movements developed in the direction of underground resistance. At the end of October 1941 the parties and Zionist youth movements, of every political inclination, founded a joint committee of seven members to coordinate the framework of Zionist activities in the Ghetto and to gather the information brought to them by the movement's emissaries from the outside.


The Ripening of the Concept of Armed Resistance and the Creation of a Jewish Fighting Force

In view of the accelerated rate of mass murder and the endless rumors of the killings in Ponary, the matter of a Jewish response arose again acutely in the autumn of 1941. The basic assumption was that the efforts at saving people by providing work permits or hiding places in the Ghetto worked, and despite the mass killings, it nevertheless did not mean total annihilation. In the midst of 1941, elements in the Ghetto began to question this assumption, and many began to talk of contrary historic events in the long and troubled history of the Jewish people. More and more came to the conclusion that the policy of the Nazis, at least in relation to Lithuanian Jewry, was bent on genocide. Against this background, the budding of the concept of armed resistance is to be seen.

The initiators of this idea were the activists of the youth movements. Initially, the movements' members in Vilna collected information on what was happenings in other ghettos. Young people equipped with false papers, assisted by people willing to aid them, left for the ghettos in White Russia, in Bialystok, and in Warsaw. They carried with them the bitter news of the gradual destruction of Vilna Jewry.

Emissaries from other places reached Vilna, mostly Polish contacts who came representing local Jewish youth movements to learn of the situation of the Jews in the city. Henryk Garbowski came from Warsaw to Vilna at the end of September 1941 in order to create a link between the youth movements in both cities. At the end of October 1941, two female emissaries belonging to the Hekhalutz Hatzair-Dror, Tamara (Tama) Szneiderman left for Warsaw and Bela Hazan went to Grodno. In December the following were smuggled into Warsaw with the aid of Sergeant Major Anton Schmidt, who was connected with the Jewish underground, Adek Burkas of Hashomer Hatzair, Shlomo Antin of the Hano'ar Hatzioni and Israel Kampfner and Yehuda Pichewski of Betar.

The news brought back to Vilna by the emissaries, was of relative calm in Warsaw, Grodno, Bialystok and other communities in White Russia, while at the same time, the near complete annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry as early the very first months of the German invasion. Considering the great differences in the conditions of the Jews in various places, the members of the youth movements were in grave doubt as to the political aims of the Nazis, what course to take in underground organization and the preferred means of armed resistance. Abba Kovner, a leading member of Hashomer Hatzair, argued that the policy of the annihilation of the Jews is not unique to Lithuania, and therefore, he argued, there is no logic in moving their movement's activists to relatively calm areas where they would develop underground activity, but rather, they should remain in the Vilna Ghetto with all the other Jews and prepare for an underground armed struggle in the city. Mordekhai Tenenboim-Tamaroff of the Hekhalutz Hatzair-Dror on the other hand, favored the extraction of activists of the Khalutz movement from Vilna, where they faced the danger of almost immediate annihilation and their transfer to large ghettos where they would be in a position to continue their underground activities. Should the wave of Aktzias reach those ghettos then they should respond with armed revolt. But in the meantime, the activists should be safeguarded. In the middle of January 1942, a large group of members of the Hekhalutz Hatzair-Dror were smuggled into Bialystok. Small groups of Hashomer Hatzair, Hano'ar Hatzioni and Betar moved to Bialystok and to Warsaw but most of the members remained in Vilna. Discussions on the preparations for armed resistance took place also among the Communist youth in the Ghetto.

The conditions for the crystallization of armed resistance matured slowly. On the night of the Christian New Year of 1942, some 150 members of the Khalutz youth movements met in the free kitchen at 2 Straszun Street. During the meeting a manifesto was read, composed by Abba Kovner entitled ‘Don't go like sheep to the slaughter’. The historic importance of this document lies in that it revealed for the first time the true character of the Nazi policy towards the Jews and gave voice to the concept of armed resistance. The process of the annihilation of Vilna Jewry in stages, as it was practiced until the end of 1941, is described in detail in the manifesto:

‘…don't let us go like sheep to the slaughter: don't believe the preachers leading you astray. Out of the 80,000 Jews in the Jerusalem of Lithuania only 20.000 have remained. All the Gestapo roads lead only to Ponary and Ponary means death… everyone is shot there… Hitler plots the annihilation of all European Jewry… and the Lithuanian Jews were chosen to be the first in the queue… although weak and defenseless nevertheless the only answer to the murderers is armed uprising…’

Further to that night's meeting, practical preparations began to be made to form a fighting organization in the Ghetto. On January 21, 1942, after separate internal discussions within the various youth organizations, their representatives met and agreed to create a ‘Joint Partisan Organization’ (Fareinikte Partizaner Organizatzie, the FPO). Participants in that night's meeting were Abba Kovner (Hashomer Hatzair), Itshak (Itsik) Wittenberg and Chenya Borowska (Communists), Nissan Reznik (Hano'ar Hatzioni), Major Isidore Frucht (not belonging to any defined movement), Josef Glasman (Betar). The latter was trusted by all despite being deputy chief of the Jewish police. Together with Glasman, other members of Betar, Glasman's friends, joined the FPO. Itzhak Wittenberg was appointed head of the organization, and Josef Glasman and Abba Kovner his deputies. The Communists recognized that it was necessary to unite all the forces in the struggle against the Nazis and this eased the negotiations as to their joining the resistance. It should be noted that the organization of the Jewish Communist resistance in the Ghetto preceded the founding of the non Jewish Communist resistance in the city. A group of members of the ‘Hekhalutz Hatzair’ led by Yechiel Scheinbaum, who had not gone to Bialystok, did not enter the ranks of the FPO, and that members of the Bund, too, did not join the FPO at its inception. It was only in the spring of 1942, after long negotiations, that the Bund youth decided to join the FPO and their representative, Abraham Chwojnik, was added to the staff command. Nissan Reznik was adopted representing the ‘Hano'ar Hatzioni’. Bund seniors, most of whom were active in the Judenrat and in the cultural and welfare offices in the Ghetto, did not join, and members of ‘Akiva’ joined personally and were not represented in the Staff Command.

The organization prepared a document stating out its aims. The major aim was preparations for mass armed resistance in the event of a final Aktzia to destroy the Ghetto. In an additional section of the document it states that the members will carry out acts of sabotage in the rear of the German army as part of the general partisan movement aiding the Red Army in its war. This section was added under the influence of the Communists in the desire to connect with the Soviet partisan movement and to receive from it, in time of need, weapons when forced to flee the Ghetto and take to the forests.

Following the decision in principle to create the Jewish fighting unit in the Ghetto, the basic organizational structure was laid down and the mustering of recruits began. The FPO recruited principally youth belonging to the youth movements and recommended by their organizations, and in exceptional cases people not belonging to any political framework. In the first four months, the organization consisted of cells of three members belonging to the same movement, and later the ‘three’ were changed to ‘five’ who belonged to different organizations but lived in the same vicinity. Three ‘fives’ constituted a ‘company’ and four to six companies made up a battalion consisting of 100–120 fighters. In addition to two battalions the FPO included a number of special units: signalers, saboteurs, machine gunners, instructors and intelligence under Glasman, which collected information on the proceedings in the German and Lithuanian offices and on the situation in the Ghetto. A few members of the intelligence were infiltrated into the Jewish police. The special units stood in direct contact with the command center of the FPO. The mixing of members of different youth movements in the ‘fives’ strengthened the unity among the fighters. Outside of the FPO the movements retained their separate ideological identity and continued their varied cultural and social activities, together with many of their members who had not joined the FPO.

The detailed regulation code issued to the members of the FPO, of April 4, 1942, lays down the manner of introducing new members to the organization as needed, instructions as to behavior during battle and detailed manner in which commanders are to be appointed. The fighters were instructed what to do in case of partial annihilation and also when the danger of the total annihilation of the Ghetto is imminent. Particular attention was given to the question why, at this stage, the FPO is delaying the escape to the forests: ‘…we shall make for the forests only as a result of battle. After we accomplish our tasks we shall take with us the greatest possible number of our people, force our way out to the woods and continue there our struggle against the murderous invaders as part of the general partisan force…’. Hiding in bunkers during an Aktzia was forbidden to the fighters and was considered mutiny.

After the consolidation of the organizational structure of the FPO the matter of arming the fighters was next considered as well as linkage with underground resistance groups in the city and with the partisans who were becoming active in the forests. Abba Kovner succeeded in making contact with the Polish underground, the ‘Armia Krajowa’, which was connected to the Polish government in exile sitting in London, and acted to ensure that the Vilna city and region retained a Polish character and its return to the Polish borders after the war. The Armia Krajowa saw in the Jewish fighting organization a Communist pro-Soviet force and refused to extend it any assistance. At the beginning of 1942, a Polish Communist underground was organized in Vilna, ‘The Union of Active Struggle’, and its leader was Jan Paszwalski. They kept in touch with the FPO but their limited means did not enable them to assist the Ghetto fighters.

In the summer of 1942, a group of Lithuanian Communists were parachuted into the Rudniki forest ‘Alksnis’, with the aim of organizing anti Nazi resistance in the region. The FPO made contact with them, Itzhak Wittenberg met them near the work camp ‘Biala Waka’ and a message was sent through them to the heads of the partisan movement sitting in Moscow asking to recognize the FPO as a Jewish fighting force in the Vilna Ghetto and to give their agreement in principal that the FPO should open an armed struggle if the Ghetto faced final destruction. The Soviet demand for all the anti Fascist forces to immediately concentrate on the struggle against the Nazis and their collaborators forced Wittenberg to choose between one of two choices – either to obey as a Communist or to act in the interests of the FPO. After lengthy negotiations, the Alksnis group agreed for the FPO to limit itself to assisting the Soviet parachutists to create a partisan base in the Vilna region and to collect information on the German military and economic dispositions in the area, and the partisans, their part, would supply the FPO with arms and explosives. Members of the FPO who went out of the Ghetto on forced labor, collected intelligence which was transferred to Alksnis , but at the end of the summer of 1942, local inhabitants betrayed the Alksnis unit and these were killed to the last man. The FPO again remained without supplies of weapons.

Over time, members of the FPO working in the captured weapons stores in Burbiszki began to steal arms, spare parts and ammunition and to smuggle same into the Ghetto. Simultaneously, money was raised in the Ghetto from donations and other sources to purchase arms from non-Jews. The smuggling and concealing of weapons in the Ghetto was most dangerous and demanded secrecy and great care. Towards autumn 1943 the FPO already numbered 300 members and the first arms store had been established: handguns, rifles, sub machine guns, hand grenades etc, and the training of the fighters began. Most of the FPO members had never received any military training before. The training took place in basements, and closed yards, generally without live fire. The Jewish underground resistance had much opposition among the Ghetto inhabitants and among the Jewish policemen who saw in it a danger to the existence of the Ghetto.

Together with the preparations for the armed struggle within the Ghetto, the Command did not forego sabotage activities outside the Ghetto. In order not to endanger the Ghetto the fighters were careful not to reveal the Jewish identity of the saboteurs. Members of the FPO working in German plants and stores sabotaged military equipment. They damaged the firing mechanisms of cannons, introduced delayed action chemical fuses into the fuel tanks stores of vehicles and thereby damaged the engines – all this in such a manner that the damage was not evident for some time and suspicion did not fall upon the Jewish workers. On June 8, 1942, three FPO fighters, under the command of Vitka Kempner laid a mine on the railway line, some 7 Km. south east of Vilna. The following morning it exploded under an ammunition train, the locomotive and carriages were damaged. The identity of the perpetrators was not discovered.

The FPO also undertook propaganda action within the Ghetto and fighting agitation among the non Jewish population outside. Members of the organization had a radio receiver and word about the situation on the front was printed and distributed in the Ghetto. The printing of agitation material for the general population was done in conjunction with the underground ‘Union of Active Struggle’. The FPO played a central role in the setting up of an illegal printing press, in the preparation of material and in the publication of an underground newspaper in Polish – ‘The Freedom Flag’. One printing press existed outside the Ghetto in the apartment of Jan Paszwalski, and another within the Ghetto. The spread of underground explanatory material was of great service in the strengthening of the spirit of opposition among the Jewish population and the anti Fascist forces among the local populace. The Jewish and gentile population learned from this source of the failures of the German army at the approaches to Moscow and their defeats on the eastern and other fronts.


Other Underground Bodies

Besides the FPO a number of other underground bodies existed in the Ghetto which had also adopted the ideology of armed struggle. Chief among them was the Yechiel group. About 20 members of Hekhalutz Hatzair-Dror ,who had not joined Mordechai Tenenbaum-Tamaroff and his followers in their exodus to Bialystok, continued in their independent framework under the leadership of Yechiel Scheinbaum. They did not join the FPO when it was founded, possibly because of personal rivalry between the leaders. The Yechiel group was in favor of immediately leaving the Ghetto for the forests, and for preparing for armed struggle. In the spring of 1942 Scheinbaum and his followers were invited to join the FPO individually but he refused, demanding that they be accepted as a group with representation on the Command. Finally, they joined another underground organization, ‘The Struggle Group’, which was organized in the spring of 1942 under the initiative of Burke Friedman, Shlomo Brand and Dr Leo Bernstein. Friedman left the FPO because of rivalry between himself and Josef Glasman over the leadership of Betar in the Ghetto. The leaders of the ‘Struggle Group’ argued that the public base of the FPO was too narrow, and the limiting of membership to members of youth movements prevented many from participating in the armed struggle. The ‘Struggle group’ was joined by a police officer, Nathan Ring, together with companions close to him personally, mostly activists of Betar.

At the end of 1942 the Yechiel group and the ‘Struggle Group’ joined forces. The union gave them greater importance as an organization and attracted additional groups. In the spring of 1943 they were joined by members of ‘Gordonia’ who had escaped the destruction of the Grodno Ghetto, members of Akiva who were saved when the work camp at Biala Waka was destroyed and youths from White Russian communities and eastern Lithuania. In the summer of 1943 the united organization of Yechiel and ‘The Struggle group’ numbered some 200 fighters and increased its efforts to find arms. Some of the money needed was given to Nathan Ring by Ya'akov Gens, who, in spite of his reservation in giving full support for the enterprise, fearing that it would come to the Germans' knowledge and result in the early destruction of the Ghetto. The FPO objected to the existence of the rival organization and argued that uncontrolled and separate underground activities would result in revealing both underground organizations, and as a result in the destruction of the whole Ghetto.


Aktzia in Oszmiana

In March 1942, parts of White Russia close to Lithuania were added to the Generalkommissariat. A few towns containing Jews, among them Oszmiana were joined onto the Gebietskommissariat Vilna. Gens was ordered to organize the Jews in those places in the same manner as in Vilna Ghetto. The Oszmiana Ghetto contained 4,000 Jews brought from the surroundings. In October 1942, the Germans decided on an Aktzia and demanded that Gens with his men deliver to them 1,500 from the Oszmiana Ghetto. On October 19, 1942, Jewish policemen left Vilna for Oszmiana under the command of Desler and handed over to the Germans and Lithuanians 406 old persons, who were then taken to Ogliowo, some 6-7 km. from Oszmiana, and executed there. The collaboration of the Jewish police in the Oszmiana Aktzia was seen as a crossing of the red line and caused a great shock in the Vilna Ghetto. On October 27, 1942, Gens called in the Vilna leading public figures and attempted to explain to them his motives. He claimed that thanks to his efforts and bribery, he managed to reduce the figure from the number of 1,500 women, children and aged persons to only 400 of the aged and crippled. To bolster his claims he mentioned that during the Aktzia in Kiemieliszki, he refused the German demand to have Vilna police cooperate with them, the result was that they themselves carried out the Aktzia and not a soul survived of the 800 Ghetto residents.

Opinions were divided about the Oszmiana actions of Gens and his men. Many condemned their action but others saw it as an inevitable deed. Josef Glasman opposed the use of the Jewish police in the collection of Jews and handing them over to the Germans and their collaborators. At the end of October 1942 Gens arrested Glasman but was forced by public pressure to release him. He dismissed Glasman from the position of head of the housing office and tried to discredit him as well.


The Destruction of Small Ghettos and Work Camps in the Vilna Region

In March 1943, the commanders of the German administration decided to do away with the remnants of small Ghettos and work camps in the Vilna region, and informed Gens and the Judenrat in Kaunas that the Jews of the Swieciany, the Soli and Oszmiani Ghettos would be transferred to the Vilna and Kaunas Ghettos. Ten Vilna Jewish policemen were sent to effect the transfer. In the first stage, which lasted from February 2 until March 26, 1943, some 1,300 Jews were brought to the Vilna Ghetto: over 700 from Oszmiana, some 200 from Michaliszki and a further 350 from Swieciany. A further 1,460 Jews from Oszmiani were sent to the work camps in Zaslisi, Zezmariai, Kuna and Nowa Wileijka. Those remaining in the Ghettos were to be transferred to the Kaunas Ghetto in the second stage. The Oszmiani and Michaliszki Jews were brought to the Soli railway station on April 3-4, and together with the local Jews were loaded onto a freight train. On April 4, the Jews from Swieciany were also loaded onto the same train at Novo Swieciany.

The Germans announced in Vilna that anyone wishing to join family members in the Kaunas Ghetto may join the train collecting Jews from the small ghettos which would pass through Vilna in the journey to Kaunas. Those who wished to travel to Kaunas were put into 6 coaches on April 6, accompanied by a group of Jewish policemen under the leadership of Gens. During the travel Gens and his men realized that the train was not moving in the direction of Kaunas but rather in the direction of Ponary, at that point they realized they had been led astray. Gens, the Jewish policemen and a small group of Jews were taken off the train and returned to Vilna. The remaining Jews on the train from Swieciany and from Soli as well as those added in Vilna were carried to Ponary. When they were taken off the train the following morning, they too realized the purpose of the journey. Many attacked the Germans and the Lithuanians with their fists, with knives and with a few guns they had hidden among the belongings. Some 600 were killed in the struggle. About 3,800 Jews brought to Ponary on that day were murdered on their arrival. A few dozen managed to escape and returned to the Vilna Ghetto. The Germans demanded they be surrendered but Gens refused and handed over 7 old persons instead. At the end of that Aktzia, the Jewish police were called to Ponary, for the first time, and instructed to collect the bodies scattered in the fields and throw them into the pits. This time too, Gens attempted to justify the work by claiming that thanks to his efforts hundreds of Jews from the small Ghettos were introduced into Vilna Ghetto. The fact that in the Aktzia against the small ghettos, work capable Jews were killed, shook their confidence in the immunity of the Vilna Ghetto because of its economic value, and it appeared that the period of relative safety had come to an end. Once again, the Jews became afraid for their lives.

After the destruction of the small ghettos the German administration began also to do away with the work camps. On March 23, 1943, the inmates of camp Sorok Tatary were moved to the Vilna Ghetto. At the beginning of April 1943, Vilna received some 700 workers with their families from the Riese camp, and the inmates Biala Waka were quartered in a large building outside the Ghetto in 4 Zwolna Street. Some of the workers were returned to their previous camps, but not for long. At the end of June and the beginning of July 1943 three work camps were closed: Biala Waka, Kuna and Bezdany (Bezdonis). 6 workers escaped from of Biala Waka and joined a Jewish fighting group in the Rudniki forest. At the end of June 1943, 67 persons were executed in retaliation, and a few days later the remaining Jews in the camp were murdered. On July 8 240 Jews were killed in the Kune camp. The following day, 350 Jews were killed in Bezdany camp. At the end of July the Jews from the work camp at Nowa Wileijki were murdered in Ponary. In most of the camps underground groups were active, their members collected arms and prepared themselves to escape and for partisan fighting. The few survivors from the mass killings in the work camps infiltrated back into the Vilna Ghetto or made their way to the forests and joined the various fighting units in the area.

The destruction of the camps evoked deep anxiety in the Vilna Ghetto. Ya'akov Gens attempted to calm the situation, he called on the Ghetto inhabitants to continue in their work for the German economy as the only means to save themselves, and argued that the work camps were done away with because their workers had connected themselves with the partisans, but the Jewish public did not free themselves of the feeling that their final annihilation was approaching.


The Jewish Underground from the Beginning of 1943 until the Destruction of the Ghetto in September 1943

During 1942 all the Jewish underground groups did their best to strengthen their organization, collect weapons and train, as well as establishing contact outside with non Jewish elements and even in sabotage activity outside the Ghetto. The developments in the spring and summer of 1943 forced the activists to revise their ideas and planning. Rumors reached the Vilna Ghetto of the revolt in Warsaw: of the wide spread partisan activity in Lithuania and White Russia, of the changes in the balance of power after the Soviet victory in Stalingrad, and also of renewal of the mass murders in the Vilna region. The discussion within the underground was renewed as to whether to offer armed resistance within the Ghetto or to escape from the Ghetto into the forests and to join the partisans. During the winter of and spring of 1943 the FPO, the ‘Struggle Group’ and the Yechiel group negotiated combining forces. Yechiel with his fighters refused the FPO proposal to join individually and continued to act as a separate group. Nevertheless both organizations agreed in May 1943 to increase collaboration and the differences faded regarding the path to be followed. The ‘Struggle Group’ retreated from its opposition to resistance within the Ghetto, and the FPO accepted, at a certain stage, the idea of retreating to the forests.

In the spring of 1943 a Communist committee was formed with the participation of all the active Communist groups in Vilna. The committee was headed by a veteran Lithuanian Communist, Vitas Valunas Juzas, and Ghetto leaders Itzhak Wittenberg and Boris Shereshnewski. In May 1943, an agreement between the FPO and the city Communist committee was reached on the setting up of a ‘Vilna Anti Fascist Committee’, and it was decided that if a revolt should break out in the Ghetto, the Committee would assist the Jewish fighters from the outside. There was talk also of setting up a partisan base in the Vilna forests to which Jewish fighters could escape in time of need. Most of the plans remained on paper.


Jewish partisans from Vilna, (center standing) Abba Kovner
Source: Yad Vashem photo archives


The Jewish Ghetto administration was aware of the existence of the Jewish underground from its very inception at the beginning of 1942, but until the spring of 1943, there was no tension between the two bodies. The underground accepted Gens' policy of raising the productive capacity of the Ghetto, although it was not party to the appreciation that the Ghetto could be saved thereby. During the period of calm, Gens, in his role as the head of the Ghetto and the chief of police, did not take any exceptional steps against the underground, and occasionally hinted that he would support resistance to the Germans. However, with the renewal of the mass murders in the region and the threat to the existence of the Vilna Ghetto, the tension between Gens and the underground increased. The behavior of Gens and his men against the old persons in the Oszmiana and the other ghetto Aktzias moved the underground to question once again their relationship, whereas Gens saw in the knitting together of the connection of the Jewish underground with the Communists outside the Ghetto and the Soviet partisan movement an existential danger to the Ghetto. In May 1943 the move to the forest from the Ghetto increased. A few of the escapees were captured and arrested: the Germans threatened they would punish the Ghetto if the movement to the forest did not stop immediately, and Gens began to molest the underground. At the end of May 1943 the Germans demanded the sending of 50 workers for forced labor in Panevezys. Gens asked to include among them Abba Kovner, Haim Lazar and Borka Szneijder, FPO leaders, in order to distance them from Vilna, but the three hid and after pressure from the FPO Command Gens refrained from pursuing the matter further.

On June 12, 1943, a Jewish policeman at the gate caught a young man about to escape to the forest, the two fought, and the youth, Haim Levin, killed the policeman. Gens hurried to the gate, demanded the gun of the youth, and being refused, shot him. Following the event, the Jewish police arrested young persons suspected of organizing the purchase of weapons and escaping to the forest. The FPO decided to forcibly resist any attempt to harm the underground.

In the spring of 1943 the first contacts were made between the Jewish underground groups in the Vilna Ghetto and in the vicinity with Soviet partisans active in the surrounding forests. There were also attempts to co-ordinate between the FPO and Jewish groups from the small ghettos who were already in the forests and were beginning to organize for partisan activity. Two young partisans from the Swienciany Ghetto, whose unit was active in the Vilna area, infiltrated into the Ghetto and tried to convince the FPO activists to accept the technique of forest fighting, but the FPO Command still held to their decision to resist within the Ghetto. In June 1943, Fiodor Markow, a Polish Communist commanding a partisan battalion in the region, agreed to receive into his unit members of the Jewish resistance, but these, once again, sent a negative answer. In the meantime, FPO liaisons who kept in contact with the partisans began to organize, by themselves, groups of youths in Vilna and the Ghettos in the vicinity for escape to the forests. The Jewish police noticed this activity and arrested a messenger who was organizing the escape to the forests, Moshe Szutan. Gens conversed with him and tried to convince him that leaving for the forests may be a solution for individuals but does not solve the problem of the thousands remaining in the Ghetto. Moreover, the underground activity within the Ghetto as well as that of those who have already joined the partisans endangers the very existence of the Ghetto itself. After that conversation, Gens freed Szutan and even permitted him to take with him to the forests 25 Ghetto youths. The group left the Ghetto on June 12, 1943, and on June 24, a further group of ten members of Yechiel's ‘Struggle Group’ under the command of Borka Freidman left for the Narocz forest in order to prepare a base for their future fighters. On the way, they passed the camp of Biala Waka and took six Jews with them. Borka Freidman had served as an officer in the Jewish police and the group contained yet another officer. The action of the officers aroused Gens' anger, and in order to pressure the underground he arrested Josef Glasman, despite the fact that he was held in high esteem in the Ghetto and had influence in the police force. On June 25 Josef Glasman was taken to the police HQ and he was about to be sent to the work camp at Rzesza but on the way to the gate he was freed by force by members of the FPO. This was the first open conflict with the Ghetto administration, but the FPO Command decided to avoid any further worsening of relations with Gens and agreed that Glasman should go the Rzesza work camp willingly for a short time. Two weeks later, with the dissolution of the camp, Glasman returned to the Ghetto.

At the end of June 1943 the Germans discovered the Communist city committee and arrested the commander Vitas Valunas Juzas and a member named Wlaclaw Kozlowski. Under torture, Kozlowski revealed that he had contact with a Jewish Communist in the Ghetto, Itshak Wittenberg. On July 8, 1943, security police came to the Ghetto and demanded of Gens that he hand over Wittenberg, who had hidden himself. On July 15, Gens invited the whole FPO Command for a conversation at his home. The FPO leadership was not yet aware of the arrest of the non Jewish Communists and of the demand for the surrender of Wittenberg. Abba Kovner, Chenya Borowska, Abraham Chwojnik and Wittenberg himself, who was not in the least suspicious, came to Gens' house. During the meeting, Desler entered with two Lithuanian policemen, handcuffed Wittenberg and led him to the gate. A Jewish policeman, a member of the FPO, noticed the action, and warned his compatriots in the underground, who freed Wittenberg. During the conversation with Gens, after Wittenberg had been caught by the deception, the FPO became aware of the discovery of the Communist underground in the city and of the German demand for the surrender of Wittenberg. They decided that Wittenberg would continue to hide and the FPO would resist violently any attempt at his arrest. But, Gens published throughout the Ghetto the details of the event and the Ghetto inhabitants accepted his position that Wittenberg should surrender himself in order not to endanger their lives. A number of violent clashes took place and members of the FPO were attacked. The FPO argued that the attack on Wittenberg and on the resistance movement is the beginning of the end of the Ghetto, but to no avail. In view of the growing public pressure, the FPO leadership decided that Wittenberg has to surrender himself. This decision was transmitted to him in his hiding place but he refused to accept it. At a certain point, as the German pressure grew and with it the threat to the Ghetto, Wittenberg proposed to commit suicide and his body would then be given to the Germans, but the Germans demanded to receive Wittenberg alive. His comrades, the FPO Communist members, also agreed that the circumstances demand that he surrender himself. What brought Wittenberg to conclude that he has to surrender was the public opinion in the Ghetto and in the FPO Command and among his comrades in the underground. He surrendered to Gens, and in the conversation between them the possibility was looked into that he would be released after being handed over to the Germans. All those present knew however, that that possibility did not really exist. For that reason, Wittenberg received poison to take in case he could not stand the torture. In the evening of July 16, he was handed over to the Germans, imprisoned and in the following morning was found dead in his cell having poisoned himself. The Ghetto inhabitants, in spite of supporting Gens that the Ghetto should not be endangered because of one man, nevertheless appreciated Itzhak Wittenberg. The members of the FPO held deep discussions after that event. Most of them believed that the Germans demanded his surrender because of his membership of the Communist organization and not because of his leadership of the FPO, whose existence was not revealed in their opinion. The attitude of the Ghetto inhabitants proved to them that they could not count on broad support for the resistance, and they were obliged to rethink their path. According to the new circumstances they decided to continue the preparations for battling within the Ghetto and simultaneously to prepare to leave for the forests.

In the meantime, the partisan unit commanders renewed their call to the underground organizations in the Ghetto to send them fighters. Fiodor Markow renewed his call to the armed Jewish men to join his battalion. Although the FPO was anxious to save what little arms they had, they nevertheless decided to send an armed group of youths to the forest under the command of Josef Glasman and the secretary of the Communists in the Ghetto, Boris Shereshnewski. On July 24 a group of 21 fighters left — the Leon group (Itshak Wittenberg's nom de guerre) — for the Narocz forest east of Vilna. On the way, 14 more youths from the Nowa Wileijka work camp joined them. On the first night, on July 25 at dawn, they stumbled on a German ambush, some 20 km. from Vilna. Nine of the fighters fell in the battle, and the others scattered. Glasman collected 13 survivors and a few days later reached the Narocz forest.

The Germans did not let the matter of the Leon group pass quietly. On July 25 men of the security forces entered the Ghetto and demanded the arrest of the families of the fighters and the brigadiers of their work places. Gens arrested the families, added to them a few old men and kept them all in the Judenrat prison. When they were taken to Ponary the Germans noticed that he had sent old men instead of the brigadiers. The Germans returned to the Ghetto and demanded the brigadiers and their families. After these were delivered they too were taken to Ponary and 32 persons were executed on July 27. On July 28 the work camp at Nowa Wileijki was destroyed and the remaining workers were also taken to Ponary. The Germans announced that the latest Aktzias in Vilna and the destruction of the work camp in Nowa Wileijki were a punishment for the escape to the forest and threatened that in the future the families of each youth who escapes to the forest would be executed and all the residents of a house where they might hide would be executed as well. The principle of collective punishment applied to Jews working outside as well. They were divided into groups of ten and warned that if one in the group did not return to the Ghetto all the members of that group would be executed. In this manner the Germans tried to stop the escape to the forests and the participation in the partisan struggle. Gens warned the underground organizations in the Ghetto not to encourage the exit to the forests and demanded that they hand over all their weapons. The FPO replied in a roundabout manner in the hope of putting off the conflict with the Jewish administration in the Ghetto.


Expulsion from Vilna Ghetto to Estonia

On June 21, 1943, Heinrich Himmler published a command ordering the liquidation of all the Ghettos in Ostland (East land), the destruction of all Jews unfit for work and the concentration of the workers in work camps. This command was applied in the Vilna Ghetto as well. On August 1, the work was stopped of some 3,000 laborers employed outside the Ghetto. On August 6, 1943, thousands of Jews left the Ghetto for outside work as usual. About one thousand laborers left for the airfield and were surrounded by Estonian soldiers. Some attempted to run away and even attacked the soldiers. Over twenty were killed instantly, many others were wounded but a few succeeded in escaping. The remainder of the workers were caught, taken to the railway station and forced into freight wagons. A further hundred workers were caught in the Burbiszki weapons depot. Here too, resistance developed and dozens were killed or wounded as they tried to escape. The Germans and Estonians assembled about one thousand Jews in both these places and transported them to work camps in Estonia.

It was assumed in the Ghetto that the captive workers were taken to Ponary. Gens tried to calm the people and repeated again and again the promise that these were being sent to Estonia. On August 11, a brigadier returned from Estonia and reported that everyone was working in the Vaivara work camp. The number of people sent at the beginning of August did not satisfy the Germans, and in the middle of the month the deportation was renewed and this time on August 24 an additional 1,500 workers were taken from the Vilna Ghetto and sent to Estonia. This number too, was not sufficient for the German needs, and the Ghetto expected further deportations. Despite the anxiety and the uncertainty the Ghetto inhabitants found solace in the news of the approaching battle front and tried every which way to gain time in the hope of surviving until the liberation. It would appear that Gens too, realized that the days of German rule was coming to an end, and his compliance with the demands to send workers to the camp in Estonia was only a means whereby to prevent the final annihilation of the Ghetto.

In the morning of September 1, 1943, Germans and Estonians surrounded the Ghetto and prevented the workers from going out to their outside work. A few hours later, Estonian soldiers entered the Ghetto and began to seize men. Many hid in bunkers. The Germans intended to collect 3,000 men and 2,000 women to be sent to Estonia. With the renewal of the deportations, the FPO mobilized all its activists, and began preparations for armed resistance. The first battalion mustered at 15 Straszun Street, and the second at 6 Szpitalne Street. As a result of information given them by an informer, the Germans surrounded the second battalion, which consisted of 100 fighters, some 25 succeeded in breaking out of the encirclement but the others were captured, taken out of the Ghetto and sent to Estonia. After the elimination of the second battalion the FPO concentrated its remaining forces in Straszun Street. The ‘Struggle Group’ under Yechiel also prepared to fight nearby. On that day, September 1, the FPO published a call to the Ghetto inhabitants to resist forcefully the deportations using all the means at their disposal, including arms. The majority of the public did not respond to the call. In their hunt for workers the Germans and Estonians reached 15 Straszun Street, called on the concealed there to come out and as they were not heeded, blew up the building. A resistance unit, under the command of Yechiel Scheinbaum, which was near the place, opened fire on them. In the firing exchange with the Germans Yechiel Scheinbaum was killed and the group scattered. The building from which the fire had had been directed at the Germans was also blown up. During the day, the Germans captured some 1,500 men, but that did not complete the quota set for dispatch to Estonia. Gens was certain that if he would succeed in handing over a sufficient number of men, the Germans would refrain from searching the Ghetto. That would prevent the clash between the Jewish resistance fighters and the Germans. In order to handle the matter more efficiently, he added an auxiliary unit to the Jewish police in their search for men to be sent to Estonia. The search continued into September 2 and 3. Gens begged the men to volunteer to go to Estonia so as to prevent direct intervention of the Germans in the collecting of workers. Many women volunteered to go following their husbands already working there. On September 4 they were still a few hundred men short to fulfill the quota. Gens handed over to the Germans, by subterfuge, some of the police force of the Ghetto. The total sent from the Vilna Ghetto to Estonia at the beginning of September numbered about 7,000 persons.

After the three deportations to Estonia at the beginning of September 1943, some 12,000 Jews remained in the Ghetto. Outside work had almost completely stopped, and Gens' efforts to increase the number of workers in the Ghetto workshops were to no avail. Workers in the depot repairing military vehicles, workers in the military hospital, some of the workers in the Kailis plant and workers in the workshops and service personnel working in the security police were taken out of the Ghetto and housed in camps near their work. Some 9,000 persons remained in the Ghetto.

The large scale escape to the forests took place with the encouragement and aid of emissaries of a number of Soviet partisan units and of the Communist Party underground in the non Jewish part of the city. Josef Glasman informed the FPO of the possibility of setting up a separate Jewish partisan unit in the forest. A few members of the FPO left via a side gate to the Ghetto, with Gens' knowledge, and turned in the direction of the Narocz forest and another group was directed by the Communist Committee to the partisan camp under the command of Jurgis Zimanas, in the Rudniki forests. During the days of September 11-15 around 70 fighters of the Yechiel Struggle Group also left for the Rudniki forests.


The Death of Ya'akov Gens

On September 14 Gens and Desler were asked to come to the security police. Gens was warned beforehand that he was in danger but nevertheless he went. Upon their arrival at the security police HQ Gens was taken to the small prison in the Rossa square and there executed. Desler was returned to the Ghetto. According to a number of sources the Germans accused Gens of being aware of the existence of the Jewish underground and that he hid that fact from them. But he may also have been executed because they had already decided to eliminate the Ghetto and he was no longer needed. The Ghetto inhabitants understood that with the execution of Gens their days, too, were limited. There existed a difference of opinion in the Ghetto as to the personality and behavior of Gens. Those who justified his actions argued that even when he agreed to hand over many Jews to the Germans he did so in with only one purpose – to save many others. His critics, on the other hand, argued that he made the German and their henchmen's murderous deeds easier.

After the execution of Gens, the Germans appointed Salk Desler. On September 18 the Ghetto artisans were ordered to register in the Judenrat offices in anticipation to their transfer to the special blocks outside the Ghetto. The Jewish police encouraged the artisans to obey the order, and many did indeed report for registration. That same day Desler disappeared with his family and with a number of his Jewish police companions to a hiding place prepared previously outside the Ghetto. The rumor of his running away increased anxiety among the Jews, most of the policemen hid in bunkers and artisans, including those who had already registered, decided not to report at the meeting place. The Germans entered the Ghetto by themselves and began to seek out men, but by evening they had captured only a few dozen and left without completing their task. After Desler's escape, the Germans appointed a new Ghetto administration under Boryah Biniakowski from Kaunas, and appointed as his assistants Antol Frid, Shabtai Milkonowicki, Guchman and Yoel Fiszman of the earlier Judenrat, and Gens' brother, Solomon Gens. Oberhart was appointed the new chief of the Jewish police.


The Liquidation of the Ghetto, September 23-24, 1943

On the dawn of September 23 the Germans with their Ukrainian collaborators surrounded the Ghetto. The security police commander ordered the Jewish Ghetto administration to concentrate all the Jews in the Judenrat courtyard, there they were informed of the final liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto and the transfer of its inhabitants to work camps in Estonia. The people were sent back home to pack their belongings and were given until noon to report with hand luggage at the Ghetto gate. The Germans reiterated that everyone must leave and anyone found hiding in a house will have it blown up with them inside it. The Jewish policemen were promised that if the evacuation proceeds in an orderly manner, they, with their families, would be sent to the camp near Siauliai in Lithuania, where the living conditions were better. During the noon hour the people made their way, with their belongings, in the direction of the gate and there they were directed to the Rossa Square. The whole way was lined by German and Ukrainian security personnel. At the meeting point, near the monastery at Subucz Street, the men were separated from the women and children.

Ukrainian police auxiliaries brought the sick from the hospital and children from the orphanage to Rossa square and at the same time searched the Ghetto houses for concealed Jews. During the Aktzia workshop equipment was removed. Towards evening, the Jewish police with their families were assembled in the police offices in 11 Szpitalna Street, and a few hundred Jews who had hidden themselves during the day joined them. According to various estimates, some 2,000 Jews assembled in the police HQ in Szpitalna Street. On the morning of September 24 the Germans began the selection. The Jews were divided into three groups in the square: men, young women capable of work and adults; the elderly; and children. Witnesses recount the heart breaking scenes when wives were separated from husbands and children from parents, and of the cruelty of those carrying out the selection. The Ukrainian and Lithuanian auxiliaries dealing with the emptying of the Ghetto and the selection plundered the Jews of the last of their possessions.


The Last of the PPO fighters Leave for the Forest

In September 1943, the FPO command decided to evacuate to the forests all their remaining members still in the Ghetto. When the Ghetto liquidation began, they assembled in order to plan the escape route and decided to leave via the city sewage tunnels. FPO liaisons made contact with the Communist underground in the city who undertook to send people to wait for the FPO fighters at the exits of the tunnels, to prepare temporary hiding places for them and to help them to make their way to the forests. Besides the difficulties of executing the plans, the FPO also faced moral problems – whom to smuggle out through the sewage tunnels, as the possibilities of escaping through them were very limited. After much fervid discussion it was decided to allow only their members to leave that way, without taking their family members and youths who were not members of the FPO. At midday on September 23, when the last of the Jews made their way to the gate, the remaining Ghetto fighters, numbering some one hundred made their way through the sewage tunnels and after hours of crawling they emerged from the sewage on the Aryan side. Members of the non Jewish Communist underground awaited them and took them to two hiding places, one in the Kailis camp and the other in the basement of the Pushkin palace. The ones hidden in the palace left on the night of September 26 and reached the Rudniki forest the following day. Their fellow fighters in the Kailis camp left on September 27 and reached their target area two days later. A new and final chapter for the FPO now began in the Rudniki forest.


Burning Bodies in Ponary-Commando Task Force 1005

When the Germans began their retreat on the Eastern Front, Himmler created a special unit, Commando 1005, whose task was to deal with the burning of bodies lying in the killing fields and to erase all signs of mass murder. For the execution of this task a special work unit was formed of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war. In September 1943 a group of 80 men was sent to do this work in Ponary. During the night, they were kept in a deep pit and during the day, while their legs were shackled with chains, they worked at opening the graves, taking out the dead, arranging the bodies in heaps and burning them. The workers, who knew all too well that at the end of their work they too will be killed, dug a tunnel 35 meters long from the pit they were kept in, under the fences up to the mined area. After intensive work lasting three months, in the night of April 15, 1944, the escape began. The prisoners cut the cuffs on their legs with a file and 40 began to exit the tunnel, but were seen by the guards and over half of them were either shot or captured. 15 succeeded in escaping and 11 reached the partisans in the Rudniki forests. In order to complete the work of burning the bodies the Germans brought 70 new prisoners. All the participants in the work were murdered before the German retreat from Vilna. According to estimates the workers of Commando 1005 burnt some 60,000 bodies in Ponary.


The Liquidation of the Work Camps in Vilna

After the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto 2,300 workers remained in the Kailis work camp and in the military vehicles depot, and another 150 in two small camps: at the military hospital and at the security police quarters. Compared to other concentration camps, the conditions in these were much better — the men were not separated from their wives, and many families succeeded in keeping their children. On March 22, 1944, an Aktzia took place in the Kailis camp and the Vehicles depot when children under 15 were sought out and killed. A day earlier, the families were told to bring the children to the clinic to receive anti typhus injections. Upon arrival at the clinic they were caught by the Germans and Lithuanians and loaded onto trucks. Mothers who resisted forcefully were taken as well. The Germans and the Lithuanians searched the camp looking for hidden children. About two hundred children who had been caught were sent to the extermination camp in the ‘General Guvernman’. The same day, a few dozen elderly were taken and murdered in Ponary.

On July 2-3, 1944, the work camps in Vilna were finally liquidated. Approximately 2,200 Jews were taken to Ponary and murdered there. Hundreds tried to hide in bunkers but most of them were discovered and shot out of hand. Attempts were also made at mass flight but most of the escapees were caught and murdered.


The Fate of Vilna Jewry in the Camps in Estonia, Latvia and the Forests

Before the liquidation of the Ghetto, during August and September 1943, 9,000 men, women and children were sent to the camps in Estonia and some 1,600 women to the Keiserwald camp near Riga in Latvia.

The main camp in Latvia was in Vaivara and about 20 small camps in the area were attached to it. Children 13 years of age were included in the heavy work. In the middle of February 1944 some 800 children under the age of 13 were sent to a death camp at the General-Gubernman. A number of Jewish resistance groups were organized in a few of the concentration camps and attempts were made to contact the partisans' active in the area. At the end of June1944 the fighting front neared the Baltic lands and the local German army was in danger of being encircled. At the end of July 1944 a ‘Selection’ took place in the concentration camps and feeble and sick prisoners were killed. In August 1944 thousands of Jewish prisoners from the Estonian camps and women from the Keiserwald camp in Latvia were transported across the Baltic Sea to the Stutthof camp in Eastern Prussia. In the second half of September 1944, the Red Army liberated Estonia. Before their retreat the Germans murdered the remaining prisoners in the concentration camps. About one hundred survivors from the Estonian camps returned to Vilna in November 1944. In January 1945, with the approach of the Red Army, the Germans marched thousands of prisoners on foot from Stutthof to the German interior. Many, among them Vilna Jews, died on the way of cold and hunger or were shot by SS men who accompanied them on this death march. Individuals managed to slip away and hid until the liberation of the area.


Vilna Jews in the Narocz and Rudeniki Forests

At the end of 1942 and during 1943, with the liquidation of the ghettos in the Vilna area, hundreds of Jews escaped from the local ghettos to the Narocz forests. Most of the Soviet partisan detachments accepted only young armed Jews, all others were housed in family camps. When the FPO fighters, Josef Glasman among them, reached the forest in the summer of 1943, they contacted the commanders of the Soviet partisans and requested their agreement to the setting up of separate Jewish partisan units, which would enable them to stay within the FPO framework within the forest. At the beginning a few of the Soviet partisan leaders agreed. The FPO fighters created a separate unit, called it ‘Mstitel’ (Revenge) within the partisan battalion led by Fiodor Markov. In August 1943, the Jewish unit numbered some 70 fighters. Within a few weeks it swelled to 250 partisans.

The situation was particularly difficult for the Jewish partisans and those living in the family camps during the great manhunt conducted by the Germans in the autumn of 1943 in the Narocz forests. Over one hundred were killed in that in the campaign. Over time, the Jewish partisans had to contend with anti-Semitism in the Soviet units. But with the gradual enforcement of discipline among the partisans the attitude to the Jews improved, although the hatred did not disappear entirely.

The first to escape to the Rudniki forests to the south of Vilna, were 70 members of the Yechiel ‘Struggle Group’, who left after the Aktzia at the beginning of September 1943. They requested permission to join the unit led by Major Alko, but he agreed to accept only armed men and as a result they formed an independent unit. After the final liquidation of the Ghetto they were joined by FPO fighters led by Abba Kovner and set up a joint base. Within a few weeks their numbers grew from some 150 to about 350. A difference of attitude arose between the members of the two groups as to the connections with other partisan groups. The ‘Struggle Group’ wanted the connection to be with Alko and his men, whereas Kovner preferred the connection to be with the Lithuanian-Soviet units under the leadership of Yurgis Zimanas. Finally, Abba Kovner's recommendation was accepted and he was appointed the commander of the Jewish camp. Chiena Borowska was appointed the political commissar. With the increase in their numbers, the camp was divided into four groups: one, Mstitel, under Abba Kovner; another, ‘To Victory’, under S. Kaplinski; another ‘Death to Fascism’ under I. Prawer and the fourth, ‘Struggle’, under A. Aharonowicz. In the days of October 10-15, four fighters, Matityahu Levin, Israel Rozov, Vitke Kempfner and Chaya Shapira, sabotaged the water and electricity networks of Vilna.

Opposition to the existence of separate Jewish units grew within the partisan movement during the autumn of 1943. They insisted on the formation of partisan units on a territorial and not a national basis. The Mstitel unit existed for a mere seven weeks and was disbanded on September 13, 1943. Some of the members of the FPO were integrated into the Iserbitel and Kalinin partisan units as fighters and most of the others were transferred to support units. In the middle of October 1943, Yurgis Zimanas forbade the commanders of the Jewish units to smuggle additional Jews to the forest. That order impaired the possibility of saving the remnants of the Jewish people in the work camps and hiding in bunkers in Vilna and the vicinity. It would appear that the partisan command adopted a policy of halting the constant growth in the number of Jewish partisans within the partisan units in the Rudniki forests. In November 1943, a group of Jewish fighters in the Rudniki forests were sent to the Narocz forest to prepare a base for the partisans. Due, however, to the hostile attitude of the local population and the few weapons in their hands, they could not exist there as an independent group and returned to the Rudniki forests. In the spring of 1944, with the approach of the Soviet forces, new groups of partisans organized in the Rudniki forests belonging to the Armia Krajowa, in order to ensure the return of the area to Polish rule after the war. Clashes occurred between them and the Soviet partisans, the Jewish partisans sided with the Soviet partisans. The Polish partisans murdered many Jews who had sought safety in the Rudniki forests.


A Jewish partisan among the ruins of the Vilna Ghetto
Source: Yad Vashem photo archives


At the end of June 1944 the Soviet army approached Vilna and the partisan groups, among them Jews, joined in the battle for liberation.


After the war

The Red Army invested Vilna on July 6 and on July 13 entered it. The Jewish fighters entered the city together with the liberation troops. After the liberation some 6,000 Jews assembled in the city: partisans and Jews who had found refuge in the forests and hiding places in the various villages in the vicinity, Jews with Aryan appearance who survived by using false papers, survivors from other communities in the region who found refuge in Vilna during the German conquest, and the first of the Jews returning from the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, a growing tendency developed among the returnees to the city to leave for other countries. Young Zionists were active in the ‘Brikha’ organization, and helped to smuggle Jews via Poland to Eretz Yisrael.

According to the census of 1970, Vilna had 16,491 Jews (4% of the total population), mostly not of the pre-war Vilna population. 10,133 declared Yiddish their mother tongue. The Soviet authorities restricted the activities of Jewish activists trying to revive communal life and suppressed whoever wished to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael. In the emigration wave of the early seventies many of the city Jews left for Israel, and from the end of the eighties, when emigration was permitted, most of the remainder also departed.


Monument to the perished in Ponary
Source: Yad Vashem photo archives



Yad Vashem Archives, sections TR/10, M/49, M41, M1/Q, M1/E, 033, 03.
Affidavit of Dr. YItshak Arad, USA vs. Aleksandras Lileikis, Civil Action no. 94-11902-RGS, January 25, 1996 (in English)
Arad Y, Jewish Vilnius in Struggle and Destruction, Tel Aviv: Yad Vashem and Hotsa'at Hapo'alim, 1976. (in Hebrew)
Bauer, Y., “Rescue Missions Through Vilnius”, Yad Vashem Anthology 9, Jerusalem, 1972. (in Hebrew)
Cohen, Israel, Vilna, Philadelphia, 1943 (in English)
Documents Accuse, Vilnius: Gintaras, 1970 (in English)
Dworzecki, M, Jerusalem of Lithuania during the Revolt and the Holocaust, Jerusalem: MAPAI Publishing, 1957. (Hebrew translation of the Yiddish original)
Dworzecki, M, The Jewish Camps in Estonia 1942-1944, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1970.
Fü nn, SY, A Faithful City, Vilnius, 1860 (in Hebrew)
Government's Memorandum in Support of Motion For Summary Judgement, USA vs. Aleksandras Lileikis, Civil Action no. 94-11902-RGS, February 2, 1995 (in English)
Grossman, H., The Underground Men, Merhavia, 1965. (in Hebrew)
Kalmanovitz, Z., A Diary of the Vilnius Ghetto, New York, 1951 (in Yiddish)
Kaczerginski, Szmerke , The Destruction of Vilnius, New York: Tsike Bikher Farlag, 1947 (in Yiddish)
Klausner, YG, Chronicles of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Vilnius, Vilnius, 1935 (in Hebrew)
Klausner, YG, The History of the Hebrew Community in Vilnius, Vilnius, 1937 (in Hebrew)
Klausner, YG, The History of the Jews in Lithuania (“Jewish Lithuania”), Jerusalem, 1959 (in Hebrew)
Klausner, YG, Vilnius, Jerusalem of Lithuania, Ghetto Fighter's House and Hakibbutz HaMeukhad, 1983 (in Hebrew)
Korczak, R., Flames in the Ashes, Merhavia: Moreshet and Sifriyat Poalim, 1965 (in Hebrew)
Kovner, A, “A First Attempt to Tell”, Yalkut Moreshet 16, Giv'at Haviva: Moreshet, April 1973 (Hebrew translation of Polish Manuscript)
Kruk, Herman, Vilnius Diary Ghetto, New York, 1961 (in Yiddish)
Maimon Y.L., Great Jewish Cities, Vol. 1: Vilnius, Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1946 (in Hebrew)
Lazar, H, Destruction and Revolt, Tel Aviv: Muzeon halohamim vehapartizanim, 1989

(in Hebrew)

Levin, D., Digressed Times, 1939-1941, Tel Aviv: Hebrew University Press, Hakibutz Hame'uhad, 1989 (in Hebrew)
Levin, D., (ed.), Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Latvia and Estonia, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1988, p. 314 (in Hebrew)
McQueen, M., “Different cities, Different conditions, Similar Outcomes: Kaunas and Vilnius in the First Six Month of the Nazi Occupation”, lecture delivered at US Holocaust Memorial Museum, February 1998 (in English)
McQueen M., “The Context of Mass Destruction: Agents and Prerequisites of the Holocaust in Lithuania”, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, vol, 12 no. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 27-48 (in English)
Oren, B., “From Vilnius via Japan to the Free World”, Yalkut Moreshet 11, Tel Aviv: Moreshet, 1969 (in Hebrew)
Porat, D, “The Proclamation that was Read in Vilnius on January 1st, 1942: A Historical Perspective”, Yad Vashem Anthology 25, Jerusalem, 1995 (in Hebrew)
Resnick, Nisan, “The (Youth) Movement in the Vilius Ghetto and in the Forrests of Lithuania”, Massuah No. 1, Tel Yitshak, 1973 (in Hebrew)
Rudashevski, Isaac, The Diary of a Boy from Vilnius: June 1941-April 1943, Tel Aviv: Hakibutz Hame'uhad ,1968 (Hebrew translation of Yiddish Manuscript)
Segal, Y., “The First Concert in the Vilnius Ghetto”, The Last Destruction No. 1, Munich, 1946.
Sutzkever, A, Vilnius Ghetto, Tel Aviv: Sekhvi, 1946 (Hebrew translation from Yiddish)
Tenenboym-Becker, Nina, The Man and the Fighter: Mordechai Tenenboym Tamaroff, Hero of the Ghettos, Jerusalem, 1957 (in Hebrew)
Tenenboym-Tamaroff, Mordechai, Pages from the Flames, Tel Aviv: Ha-Kibuz Ha-Meuhad, 1948 (in Hebrew)
The Book of Jewish Partisans, Vol. 1, Sifriyat Poalim, 1959 (in Hebrew)
Zuckerman, I. and Basok, M., The Book of Wars in the Ghettos, Tel Aviv: Hakibutz Hame'uhad, 1954 (in Hebrew)
Trunk, I., Judenrat, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1979 (in Yiddish)
Shabad, Tz., Vilnius Anthology, A-B (1917-1918), Vilnius. (in Yiddish)
Zeidel, H., Man on Trial, Tel Aviv: MAPAI Press, 1971. (in Hebrew)

Yiddish Newspapers and Mass Media

Tog (Day) , Vilnius 1922-1939.
Yiddish Tsaytung (Jewish Newspaper) , later called Undzer Fraynd (Our Friend) and later yet Tsayt (Time) , 1922-1939.
Vilner Lebn (Vilnius Life), Vilnius between the two wars
Undzer Kurier (Our Messenger), Vilnius in the 1930s
Undzer Gedenk (Our Thoughts), Vilnius between the two wars
Undzer Shtime (Our Voice), Vilnius between the two wars
Dos Frie Vort (The Free Word), Vilnius between the two wars
Di Vokh (The Week), Vilnius between the two wars
Dos Vort (The Word), Vilnius between the two wars
Vilner Express (Vilnius Express), Vilnius in the 1930s
Vilner Literarishe Kunst Zhurnal (Vilnius Literary Art Journal), Vilnius in the interwar period
Vilner Moment (Vilnius Moment), Vilnius in the interwar period
Vilner Radio (Vilnius Radio), Vilnius in the 1930s
Yeshurun, Yefim (ed.), Vilnius, New York: Arbeter Ring, 1935 (in Yiddish)

Varient Spelling of Place Names


Polish Yiddish Other
Amdur Indura  
Brzesc Brisk (Lithuania) Brest, Brest Litowsk
Amdur Indura  
Chomsk Khomsk  
Fü rth (Germany) First  
Graf Potocki Count Pototzky  
Grodno Hrodno  
IIya   a community adjoining Vilna
Karlin Karlin-Stolin  
Lwów Lviv Lemberg
Olkieniki Olkenik, Olkeniki Valkininkai
Pinsk Brest Province
Poznan Posen Poysen
Province Gubernia  
Troki Trakai  
Warszawa Varshe Warsaw
Wilejka Vilnia Warsaw
Wilija Neris, Viliya (Neman)
Wilno Vilne Vilnius, Vilna
Włodzimierz Ludomir  
Zelva Padzelva Gelve –Gelvanes-Ezeras
Zmudz Samogitia Zhamut, Zamaitija




Ba'al Shem Tov (BEShT) Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer, founder of Hassidism and miracle worker
Beth Din Religious court
Brigadier A Ghetto man in charge of a work detail, comparable to a foreman
Cantonist decree Every Jewish community was forced to supply a given number of recruits to the Tsarist army, to serve for 25 years
Community A self governing (autonomous) Jewish population group
Congregation Body of worshippers connected to a synagogue
Dayan (dayana) A rabbinical jurist
Germayza Worms, one of the three German cities referred to as ShUM
GRA The Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu, also known as ‘The Genius of Vilna’
Kahal (Kehila) The community governing body
Karaites A breakaway sect from rabbinic Judaism from around the seventh century. According to a Karaite tradition, several hundred Crimean Karaites were invited to Lithuania by Grand Duke Vytautas to settle in Trakai ca. 1397. A small community remains there to this day, which has preserved its language
Korovka Tax A tax on the sale of meat
Ma'alot Hatora A collection of moral teachings
Magid Itinerant preacher in Judaism and ethics
Maskil (maskilim) ‘Enlightened’, the movement for general education among the Jews in the nineteenth century
Mefitsei Haskala ‘Spreaders of Education’, an organization for the dissemination of Hebrew culture and education.
Midrash An ancient interpretation or commentary on the Biblical text
Moreh Tsedek ‘The teacher of justice’, a rabbi responsible for making Halakhic decisions. He is subordinate to the rabbi of a town
Parnas (pl. parnasim) An important lay position in the community ruling council
Prushim Students studying in isolation without distractions
Pshat Plain meaning
Safra (sofer) Scribe, writer
Sefer Ha'brith A Jewish compendium of scientific knowledge, first printed in 1797
Shulchan Aruch A 16th century shortened compendium of religious laws and practices.
Shvil Hayashar ‘The Straight Path’, a commentary on Alfasi's oeuvres by Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Shuskes of Vilna in 1839
Tsel Hama'alot A book of aphorisms containing a critique of Jewish life at the times. The name is an allusion to Isaiah 38:8
Yair Kino A commentary on the tractate concerning sacrificial birds. The name is an allusion to Deut 32:11
Zmir aritsim ve'kharvot Tzurim An anti-Hassidic pamphlet published in 1772, which deepened the rift between the Mitnagdim and the Hassidim. The first two words are from Isaiah 25:5 (the song of evil ones) whereas the next two words are from Joshua 5:2 (knives of flint). The Hassidim were called upon to purify themselves once again having defiled themselves by adopting the Hassidic practices.

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