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In this final chapter of “Remembering Vilna,” several of the survivors whose stories we’ve featured tell of their journeys to safety and new beginnings, even as the traumas they experienced remained ever present.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
When the war ended, the survivors of Vilna emerged from the concentration camps, from their hideouts, and from the forests. They were soon joined by more “Vilners” who returned from the Red Army and from their wartime places of refuge and hard labor in the Soviet Union. After the war, Vilna once again became part of the U.S.S.R., the capital of the Soviet Lithuanian Republic.
But because Vilna Jews had been Polish citizens before the war, they, unlike the rest of the Jews of pre-1939 Lithuania, were able to take advantage of the Polish-Soviet repatriation treaty and leave for Poland. For almost all the Vilna survivors, Poland, with its postwar antisemitic violence and encroaching Communist oppression, was no more than a temporary stopping point before they left for displaced persons camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy.
How many Vilna Jews survived the war? According to Anna Lipphardt, when the Red Army entered Vilna in July 1944, it found 500 survivors out of a prewar community of 60,000. (Just a few days before the liberation, the Germans had murdered a few thousand Jews from the HKP and Kailis labor camps.)
In April 1946, a survey conducted by the Association of Vilna Jews in Poland estimated that 3,500 Vilners survived the Holocaust, 43 percent of whom were in the Soviet Union. Thus, no more than 2,000 survived under German occupation. Some years later, the total number of survivors, including those who spent the war in the Soviet Union, was revised upward to 5,000.
By 1949, the DP camps of Germany had emptied out. Anna Lipphardt calculated that about 1,200 Vilners went to the United States, a number equal to those who went to Israel, while the rest emigrated to Canada, Australia, Latin America, and France. A few remained in Poland and the Soviet Union, although most of this group left the U.S.S.R. and Poland for Israel and other countries in 1957–59. Most of the postwar Jewish community in Vilna, which consisted of Jews who had been born elsewhere, left the city between 1972 and 2000.
After the war, even as the Vilna Jewish survivors rebuilt their lives in different places and in different circumstances, even as they mourned their murdered families, they also showed their love for and attachment to the memory and legacy of the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” In the United States, the survivors looked to YIVO, that bedrock of Yiddish secular Vilna that had moved from Vilna to New York in 1939–1941.
It was YIVO that helped the survivors establish the Nusakh Vilne society in 1953. Nusakh Vilne held annual memorial meetings (azkores), collected material about Vilna’s history, and put out a journal for Vilna survivors. A key organizer of Nusakh Vilne, Leyzer Ran, published books about Jewish Vilna that researchers and the children of Vilna survivors treasure to this day. One of Ran’s greatest achievements was publishing the two-volume Yerushalyim d’Lite (1974), which included, in addition to text, thousands of drawings and photographs that illustrated Vilna’s Jewish history, from its beginnings through the postwar period.
In Israel, Vilna survivors started the Association of Jews from Vilna and the Vicinity, which rented a building in Tel Aviv (Beit Vilna) and conducted a wide range of activities, some in conjunction with the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum (Beit Lohamei HaGhetaot) and with Yad Vashem. With the encouragement of Yitzhak Zuckerman, a native Vilner and the deputy commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization in the Warsaw ghetto, the association created a permanent exhibit in Beit Lohamei HaGhetaot.
In this final chapter, we hear the testimonies of different survivors of the Vilna ghetto as they rebuilt their lives in the United States, Israel, and Australia. The emphasis in chapter 10 is not on collective commemoration but on individual memory. The individuals who appear in this final chapter were, like most survivors, still young when the war ended. With luck, they could still seize the chance to resume their education and make a new start in life.
William Begell, who had already lost his father, learned that the Germans had shot his mother and grandmother just days before the liberation. Like other survivors, he made his way to Lodz, Poland, and from there to DP camps in the American zone of Germany, where he resumed his interrupted studies. Thanks to the sponsorship of an uncle, he arrived in the United States in 1947, changed his name, married Esther Kessler, a fellow Vilna survivor, and had two children. With degrees in nuclear engineering from Brooklyn Polytechnic and Columbia University, Begell worked at Columbia and then for the U.S. Air Force. He subsequently founded Begell House, which became a major scientific publisher. Begell suffered his share of personal heartbreak, including the tragic deaths of his two children. But in true Vilna tradition, he persevered and kept working until his final illness.
Samuel Bak became a world-renowned artist, just as Avrom Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski predicted in the Vilna ghetto. He and his mother went to a DP camp, and then to Israel, where he studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, served in the IDF, and eventually moved to France. Bak and his wife settled permanently in Boston in 1993. Museums dedicated to his work have opened in Vilnius and at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In a recent interview, Bak said that “my hometown is eternally imprinted in my soul. Vilnius, the Jerusalem of the north, was an important center of Jewish culture and a source of Litvak pride. Being part of the cultural map of my hometown is extremely important to me.”
Abram Zeleznikov became a well-known figure in Melbourne, Australia, where for many years he and his wife, Masha, ran the legendary Café Scheherazade, immortalized in Arnold Zable’s book of the same name. Melbourne was a Jewish community like no other in the world, transformed by the migration of thousands of Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors from eastern Europe. There, as they picked up the threads of their lives in a place as far from Europe as they could get, they would come to the café on Sundays and after work to speak Yiddish and share stories from home, from the ghettos and from the camps. People who could not pay got free meals. Abram and Masha were married for 67 years and had three children.
Abram also became a major community figure in Melbourne, serving as president of the Australian Jewish Welfare and Relief Society, as a member of the executive of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies, as chairman of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, and as a representative of the Jewish community on the Ethnic Communities’ Council. Abram also remained true to the traditions of Yerushalayim d’Lite and to the legacy of the Jewish Labor Bund. Each Sunday morning, he conducted Yiddish classes. And whenever naive “dolts” on the Left began to extol the virtues of the Soviet Union, he was there to remind them that the same system that had killed his father and so many other Bundists still remained a despotic dictatorship.
Another Vilner who carried on the traditions of her native city was Henny Durmashkin Gurko. She grew up in one of Vilna’s most musical families. Her father, Akiva, had been the choir director of the famous Choral Synagogue and her brother, Wolf, had conducted the symphony orchestra in the ghetto. As we saw in the notes to chapter nine, after she survived the camps, Gurko helped organize a celebrated orchestra and ensemble that toured the DP camps after liberation. While Gurko had hoped to go to Israel, her sister persuaded her to come to the United States. On the boat, she met her future husband, Simon Gurko. They settled in New Jersey, where they had three children and six grandchildren. Gurko did not forget Vilna; she recorded an album of ghetto songs and sang at many memorial events.
Mira Verbin was the only member of her family to survive. As we saw in chapter nine, “Judgment and Revenge,” she joined the secret group assembled by Abba Kovner right after liberation to wreak vengeance on the Germans. In 1946, she boarded one of the rickety ships that ran the British blockade and arrived in what was then Palestine, eventually settling in Kibbutz Yakum. She married Moshe Verbin in 1947, and they had two children.
These notes can only describe some of the survivors who appear in this 10-part series. Despite their different backgrounds and experiences, what they all shared was their love of their special native city and their realization that giving testimony and bearing witness were sacred gifts that they could pass on to future generations.
The author wishes to acknowledge Anna Lipphardt, whose work he has used extensively in preparing the beginning section of these notes.