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Life in the Jewish ghetto demands vigilance and adaptation. Families improvise spaces for hiding. Food is smuggled at the risk of execution. And while young people start to organize a resistance, cultural and sporting events prove to be a much needed diversion.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
By the fall of 1941, 80 percent of Lithuanian Jewry had been murdered. But just when the SS planned to make Lithuania completely Judenrein (German for “cleansed of Jews”) and destroy the surviving ghettos in Kovno, Vilna, and Shavil, the German military and civilian administration in Lithuania intervened: the Reich needed the skilled labor that the ghettos could provide, especially after the Germans failed to take Moscow. With the mass killings put on hold for the time being, the Vilna ghetto entered a period of “stability,” one that would last until April 1943.
Within the ghetto itself, Jacob Gens, who already headed the Jewish police, consolidated his power over the Judenrat and, with German approval, became the Jewish “commandant” of the ghetto. Gens had been an officer in the Lithuanian Army and looked the part. Unlike most Vilna Jews, who spoke no Lithuanian, Gens had many friends within the local Lithuanian establishment and was married to a Lithuanian woman. (His wife and daughter would live outside the ghetto.)
Thanks to his many contacts and his Lithuanian spouse, Gens could easily have gone into hiding. But he felt that he had a mission—to run the ghetto and save as many Jewish lives as possible—and chose to remain in the ghetto. During the whole period of the ghetto, Gens walked a dangerous and morally complicated tightrope, serving two masters: the Gestapo and the Jews in the ghetto. In the short run, he showed he knew how to wheel and deal. But in the long run, his chances of success were slim to none.
Gens’s guiding principle was that the survival of the ghetto depended on discipline, hard work, and total obedience to his commands. A telling incident occurred in June 1942, when the Jewish police arrested five Jewish criminals who had robbed, and then murdered, a yeshiva student. Violent crimes like these were relatively rare in the ghettos, and the wanton killing outraged everyone. The ghetto court sentenced the five to death, and for good measure, Gens added a sixth Jew to hang—a Gestapo informant who had caused the deaths of several Vilna Jews. At the gallows, Gens made a fiery speech in which, as Herman Kruk recalled in his diary, he told the assembled crowd that “of 75,000 Vilna Jews, only 16,000 remain. These 16,000 must be good, honest, and hardworking people. Anyone who is not will end the same way as those who were sentenced today.”
To ensure discipline in the ghetto, Gens used a Jewish police force that, as Arie Liebke Distal recalled in his testimony, “was hated by the people.” On the one hand, Jews understood the need for a police force to maintain basic order and ensure minimal sanitation. On the other, they resented the police corruption, the beatings at the ghetto gates, their lavish parties, and the favoritism they showed toward their friends. The memory of Yom Kippur 1941, when the police used trickery to deliver Jews into German hands in order to meet a Gestapo quota, still rankled. But even in the police force, there were individuals who tried to maintain their integrity, and several acted as key informants for the Jewish underground. One of the witnesses in these episodes, William Begell, believed that his father, who served in the police, retained the respect of his fellow Jews and acted well.
Like other Jewish ghetto leaders, including Chaim Rumkowski in Łódź and Efrayim Barash in Białystok, who also hoped to buy time through work, Gens walked into a moral quagmire. When the Germans demanded a quota of Jewish victims, should they hand over the old and the weak in order to spare the young and the healthy? In all three cases, the answer was yes. In October 1942, the Germans demanded that Gens send the Jewish police to the nearby town of Oshmyana to help them cull the ghetto. Gens agreed. Decked out in their uniforms and carrying rubber truncheons, and amply supplied with liquor, the Vilna Jewish police set out for the town and handed over 406 elderly, sick Jews to the Germans and Lithuanians. When the police returned to Vilna, Gens convened a meeting of leading figures in the ghetto and explained his decision. The Germans had asked him for more victims, but he had bargained them down from 1,500 to 406. In another small town, where the Germans acted alone after Gens did not send the Jewish police, they murdered everybody. Wasn’t it better for the Jewish police to sacrifice the old and infirm so that the young might have a chance to survive?
At a literary evening, Gens defended his actions in front of writers and intellectuals:
I have no choice but to get my hands dirty. Five million Jews are already dead, and it is all the more important to save the strong and the young. . . . From you my friends I expect moral support. All of us want to survive and leave the ghetto. Many Jews still don’t understand the great danger we’re all in.
I know that a lot of you think I’m a traitor and are asking yourselves, “Why is he here showing his face at this cultural gathering”? I , Gens, lead Jews to their death. I, Gens, rescue Jews from death. I, Gens, destroy hideouts and I, Gens, try to procure more work passes and jobs. My main concern is Jewish lives, not Jewish honor. When they ask me to hand over a thousand Jews, yes, I hand them over. If I don’t, the Germans will come into the ghetto, take many thousands, and leave the ghetto in shambles. . . .
You are the people of art and literature. You people can give the filth in the ghetto a wide berth. And when you leave the ghetto someday, you’ll have clean hands and a pure conscience. But if I, Gens, will somehow survive, my hands will be soiled with dripping blood. But I will willingly present myself before a Jewish court, before the judgment of my fellow Jews, and say that everything I did was to save as many Jews as possible.
Gens’s behavior was often unpredictable, affected no doubt by his growing use of alcohol to deal with the inhuman stress he was under. Just when people decided that he was a monster, he would redeem himself with a praiseworthy act. During the major selection in October 1941, as the yellow pass holders filed by, Gens, flanked by SS officers, pulled a little boy out of the line. His parents had tried to smuggle him through, because their pass had entitled them to claim only two children, not three. As the Germans looked on approvingly, Gens berated the parents. But a moment later, when the Germans were distracted, Gens pushed that same child into the hands of another Jewish family that was crossing through.
Jewish survivors of the Vilna ghetto, as well as historians, were deeply divided in their opinions of Gens. There were many, like Abram Zeleznikov, who despised him as a power-hungry German stooge who used any and all means possible—including beatings and handing Jews over to the Germans—to preserve his authority. “I regarded him as a murderer,” Zeleznikov recalled. But many other survivors took a more nuanced view of him. Dr. Mark Dvorzhetski saw him as a tragic figure, a complicated man who had good intentions but was ultimately playing a losing game.
Dvorzhetski and other survivors also gave Gens credit where credit was due. For example, along with his stress on work and discipline, Gens also emphasized the crucial importance of culture and education. It was no fluke that Gens sought to gain the understanding of ghetto intellectuals for his actions: he believed that they, too, could play a key role in ghetto life.
In January 1942, when the period of relative stability began, Gens ordered the establishment of a ghetto theater. Many Jews, especially political activists, reacted with anger and disbelief. Over 30,000 Jews were dead, and this was what Gens wanted? Herman Kruk was furious and noted in his diary that he and his fellow Bundists festooned the streets with the proclamation, “In a cemetery, one does not start a theater.”
Nonetheless, the first performance took place as scheduled. Hostile observers who expected a travesty were amazed by the solemn and dignified performances that duly paid respect to what the ghetto had endured. The poetry, the monologues, and the classical music all helped create a mood of solemn gravity, and the actors and musicians did not let the Germans and Lithuanians present in the audience intimidate them. One of the survivors featured in these episodes, Henny Durmashkin Gurko, praised Gens for his determination to start a theater. It reminded people that “they were still alive. By just doing it, he did a great thing.”
Indeed, many of the doubters were soon won over. Even Kruk swallowed his rage and slowly got used to the idea of a theater in the ghetto. By March 8, 1942, he wrote in his diary:
Nevertheless, life is stronger than anything. In the Vilna ghetto, life begins to pulse again. Under the overcoat of Ponar, a life creeps out that strives for a better morning. The boycotted concerts prevail. The halls are full. The literary evenings burst their seams and cannot hold the large number that comes there.
With Gens’s support, teachers organized a network of ghetto schools, with instruction in Yiddish, that included kindergartens and primary and secondary levels. Incredible as it sounds in retrospect, teachers and cultural activists resumed their prewar arguments about Yiddish versus Hebrew and about the role of religion in the curriculum. (Eventually, the teachers reached a compromise.) Religious Jews organized a yeshiva, and there was also a technical school that prepared students as locksmiths and electricians and in other skilled labor.
Survivors remember the school concerts, often given on Jewish holidays, where the children recited poetry and sang songs. At one concert, students recited Peretz’s paean to humanism and his hopes for a better future:
Fun trern vert taykhn; fun taykhn yamin
fun yamin, a mabul; fun funken, a duner
O, meyn nisht leys din v’leys dayan.
(Our tears will turn into rivers / the rivers will become oceans / the oceans will become a deluge that will cover the world / the sparks will become thunder / No, don’t think that the world is without rules and without a judge.)
Young people continued the prewar tradition of youth clubs that brought together students and teachers to discuss history, literature, and music. Abram Zeleznikov recalled the evenings he spent in this club as his best times in the ghetto. Students staged public trials of figures in Jewish history such as Herod; Josephus, who collaborated with the Romans; and Bar Kokhba, who launched a hopeless revolt after the destruction of the Second Temple. The parallels were plain for all to see and led to intense discussions about collaboration and resistance. Some defended Herod, pointing out that, in the face of Roman power, he chose the best way to serve Jewish interests. And as others condemned him, the parallels with Gens were all too obvious.
In his ghetto diary, Yitzhak Rudashevsky described a club meeting that took place in December 1942, a couple of days after his 15th birthday:
This was the happiest evening I have spent in the ghetto. . . . I look around at the crowd, all our kind teachers, friends, intimates. It was so cozy, so warm, so pleasant. This evening we demonstrated what we are and what we can accomplish. Club members came with songs and recitations. . . . We have proved that from the ghetto there will not emerge a youth broken in spirit; from the ghetto there will emerge a strong youth that is hardy and cheerful.
Because the Vilna ghetto was blessed with a critical mass of fine composers, writers, poets, and theater directors, the Jews could go to first-class theater, cabaret, and concerts. Composers and songwriters such as Wolf Durmashkin, Kasriel Broyde, and Leyb Rozenthal, teamed up to prepare four revues with original songs. All became instant hits. In July 1942, the revue Korene yorn un veytzene teg opened with the Broyde song “Efsher vet geshen a nes” (“Perhaps a Miracle Will Happen”), which was soon sung throughout the ghetto.
The hauntingly beautiful revue Peshe fun Reshe told the story of a young girl who had lost all her loved ones but would always find a way to survive. The upbeat revue Moyshe, halt zikh (Moyshe, Hold On), sung to a jaunty ragtime tune, reminded the Jews in the audience that they “had to hold on, not let go; better days are coming.” (Unfortunately, Moyshe, halt zikh was the last revue in the ghetto, and it coincided with the beginning of the deportations in September 1943.) Other ghetto theater ensembles produced four full-length plays in Yiddish and one in Hebrew—David Pinski’s The Eternal Jew—with music composed by Wolf Durmashkin (the brother of Henny Durmashkin Gurko, who acted in the play).
In the ghetto, the brilliant Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever wrote poems that reflected his faith that art and beauty could survive even in the face of death. Some of the poems written by him and his good friend Shmerke Kaczerginski were set to music and became songs that remain popular even to this day: “Unter dayne vayse shtern” (“Beneath the Whiteness of Your Stars”), “Friling” (“Spring”), and many others. Zelig Kalmanovich gave lectures on major figures of Yiddish and Hebrew literature, while Gens encouraged and supported the establishment of an Association of Writers and Artists that awarded prizes and organized art exhibits. Sutzkever won a prize for his poem “Dos keyver-kind” (“The Grave Child”).
A March 1943 art exhibit included some paintings by a brilliant nine-year-old artist, Samuel Bak, who also appears in these episodes. Sutzkever and Kaczerginski had taken the young boy under their wing and encouraged his work. Commenting on the art exhibition in the ghetto in a diary entry of March 29, 1943, Herman Kruk wrote that “the drawings of the nine-year-old S. Bak attracted the most attention. The child is apparently an extraordinary talent in every respect.” Bak himself, now a world-renowned artist, remembered the stark contrast between the exhibit inside the building and the tragedy playing out outside the building as hundreds of desperate Jewish refugees who had been dumped into the ghetto from a nearby shtetl milled about. But he also recalled that after the exhibit, the poet Kaczerginski gave him an old chronicle in which the young artist could draw on the empty pages of parchment. It was a priceless gift.
Kaczerginski had been able to procure that precious chronicle because he was part of a group of Jews that left the ghetto each day to work in the old YIVO building on Wiwulska Street. The “Paper Brigade,” as it was known in the ghetto, began in 1941, when German “scholars”—Dr. Johannes Pohl and others working for the Einsatsztab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR)—arrived to loot Vilna’s enormous collections of Jewish archives and books that were located in the Strashun library, YIVO, and elsewhere. Their goal was to stock the libraries in the Reich—especially in Frankfurt—that would help Aryan scholars properly study the “Jewish question” (Judenforschung ohne Juden, Jewish studies without Jews). Realizing that they lacked the linguistic skills and manpower to do this themselves, the ERR assembled a team of Jews to sift through the collections and select no more than 30 percent for transport to the Reich. Everything else would be pulped.
The Paper Brigade included poets (Avrom Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski), librarians (Herman Kruk), eminent scholars (Zelig Kalmanovich), resistance members (Ruzka Korczak, Abba Kovner), and several others, including Abram Zeleznikov, who describes their work in this episode. Working in the YIVO building on Wiwulska Street, they risked their lives to smuggle the most valuable books and documents into the ghetto, where they concealed them in various hiding places. Were they doing the right thing? Might not the books be safer in Germany, where Jews could retrieve them after Hitler’s defeat? Kalmanovich thought so. But Kruk angrily disagreed. Along with prized manuscripts and documents from YIVO, the Paper Brigade also smuggled in Soviet manuals on how to make grenades and mines. In time, its members also began to smuggle in guns. (For more on the Paper Brigade, read the excellent book The Book Smugglers by David Fishman.)
After the war, Dr. Mark Dvorzhetski wrote glowingly of the cultural life in the Vilna ghetto. The prewar “Jerusalem of Lithuania” had become the “Jerusalem of the Ghettos.” But not everyone thought so. The literary critic Shloyme Belis, who fought in the Red Army during the war, compared the vibrant cultural life in the ghetto to a narcotic that lulled the Jews into passivity and distracted them from the need to get weapons in order to fight. But Dvorzhetski and others sharply disagreed. Cultural resistance and armed resistance complemented each other. The theater, the lectures, and the clubs helped people stave off depression and gave them a sense of purpose. This in turn was an essential precondition for the formation of a fighting organization.
Samuel Bak: My father and my uncle built a hiding place in the monastery in case there is a control or anything happens where we have to disappear, we’ll be able to go there. But much sooner than we thought. There was, at night, some bombing of Russian bombers. And in the morning, German mar—Army marched into the monastery, saying that the nuns were giving signs with light from the windows to the bombers. And they told all the nuns to come out.
Eleanor Reissa: You’re listening to “Remembering Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania.” I’m Eleanor Reissa. The nuns had been hiding Samuel Bak and his family for several months when the Germans took over the monastery.
Samuel Bak: We left everything, and in a very big hurry we ran to a room where there was a ladder standing on a very, very, uh, high ceiling, with beams, and between two beams, there was a certain passage, part of the ceiling was open. But it could have been lowered so that you would never tell. There was a ladder standing there. And we all walked up the ladder, we disappeared under the roof, the ladder was taken away, and a few minutes later, the Germans were already in that room.
We waited a day. We waited another day. We were terribly hungry because we had nothing, we have not succeeded to prepare anything. Fortunately, um, my father succeeded to open a little hole in the roof and grab with his hand some of the snow that was on the roof. So at least we could drink the dirty snow which was on the roof.
But after two days, he decided to try and see what is happening. So th— when it seemed to be very quiet in the evening there, he opened this trap in the ceiling, and he lowered himself with a rope to the room, but when he, uh, tried to open the door of that room, he realized that that corridor was full of German soldiers. So he came back immediately.
So there, my father and my uncle started to work on a wall, and actually we succeeded to go over into another building. My father, my mother, uh, my uncle, my aunt, and myself. We succeeded to get to some place where there was a door leading to a staircase that was coming down into the street. And at a certain point, when we got down, the door to the street was locked.
My father looked for, uh, the guardian of this, of this, uh, building, and he found a man. And, uh, he paid the man and he opened the door, and there we were late in the evening in, uh, the street. After a day, we succeeded to get back into the ghetto.
Eleanor Reissa: Chapter five: “Ghetto Life.” In this episode, you’ll hear the voices of Samuel Bak, Abram Zeleznikov, Nisan Resnick, and Henny Durmashkin Gurko, as well as diary entries by Herman Kruk.
In the early months of 1942, thousands of imprisoned Jews in the Vilna ghetto were organizing around the arts, education, social services, and a newly forming resistance movement. By this time, many young people were left without families. They felt they had nothing left to lose.
Abram Zeleznikov: Because where there was a family, you had to, uh, you had them obligation to look after your family, you had first of all to look after your mother, your brother, your sister, your children. So for this, um, youth groups, where there was only single men or single women, it was easier to organize and to start thinking about resistance.
Nisan Resnick: We were very pessimistic. We thought there was no chance of staying alive.
Eleanor Reissa: Nisan Resnick was one of the early activists in the underground and a member of the command.
Nisan Resnick: We had no weapons, we had no means. We stood mere hundreds against an enormous military apparatus—with no help. And since we were going to die anyway, we decided to get weapons and prepare for self-defense.
Eleanor Reissa: The leadership and makeup of the underground units was intentionally diverse—they called the group the United Partisan Organization. Over time, a broad range of groups joined, including Communists, Bundists, Revisionist Zionists, labor Zionists, and religious Zionists.
Nisan Resnick: They chose Itzik Wittenberg as a leader, not because he was a martial man, but because he was a little older than us, he was an honest and direct man, and he was a Communist. We chose a Communist because we believed the connection with the Soviets was important. We thought they were the only ones who could help us, so we chose Wittenberg as the head of the underground.
Abram Zeleznikov: The fighting organization, what in Yiddish was called Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye—United Partisan Organization, FPO, was divided in two battalions. And every battalion was divided in four groups. And every group was divided in four smaller groups for five people. The group of five was meeting every day. Nobody know anybody else except his five members of the group, and the leader of the group.
Nisan Resnick: We succeeded immediately in obtaining a radio. It was in the kitchen at Strashun 2. We listened to all the communications from London and spread the news around, since it was illegal to have a radio in the ghetto. It was death to have a radio. We kept it in the kitchen at Strashun 2.
Abram Zeleznikov: Every day, we got information. We had one [garbled] radio, where we listened to Soviet and to English BBC Radio, and we made bulletins what’s going on.
Henny Durmashkin Gurko: It was a very powerful underground, and as a matter of fact, when my brother started conducting, organizing the orchestra, they said—they, they sent out flyers saying that on a cemetery there shouldn’t be any concerts.
Eleanor Reissa: Henny was a teenager and a talented singer from a musical family. In the early days of the ghetto, her father was killed in Ponar. Her older brother, Wolf, was a conductor and started the first orchestra in the ghetto.
Henny Durmashkin Gurko: He had this feeling that in these terrible conditions, music, beginning of culture, will give the people a lift. Because you can’t always live with this pain, and, uh, a lot of people lost so many people in their families. So he started to organize a choir. He organized a Hebrew choir of 75 people and a symphony orchestra. I sang, uh, with the orchestra. We were lucky that there was one old little theater there. And they had a stage, and this is where the whole thing started.
Herman Kruk: January 17. Today I received a formal invitation. In the auditorium of the Real Gymnasium at Rudnicka 6, a dramatic and vocal musical program will be presented. I felt offended, personally offended, about this whole thing, let alone the festive evening.
Eleanor Reissa: Herman Kruk had become the librarian of the Vilna ghetto. Along with the underground, he objected to plans for the orchestra to perform, and wrote about it in his diary.
Herman Kruk: The organized Jewish labor movement has decided to respond to the invitation with a boycott.
Henny Durmashkin Gurko: [Sings song in Yiddish.]
Abram Zeleznikov: Herman Kruk and our group was very much against this. We even tried to sabotage the concert, we want to switch off the electric light, now it didn’t work out.
Eleanor Reissa: Henny’s brother persisted in spite of the controversy.
Henny Durmashkin Gurko: [Sings song in Yiddish.] He didn’t feel like it’s a cemetery. He wanted the people to have courage.
Herman Kruk: January 19. The concert we have already written about is over. In general, it was a success. Under ghetto conditions and with the ghetto possibilities, the concert is an achievement of the highest order. One and a half hours of elevation and forgetting is a great achievement.
Abram Zeleznikov: You see, that was the contradiction. By giving this resemblance of a normal life, you’re playing the German in the, in the Germans’ hand, you give them time. From the other side, you, you must let the people live. Bring back their dignity. You couldn’t keep them all the time in the, in the feeling that there, there is nothing. You had to give them some hope if you want to organize them. If you want to prepare a resistance, you have to bring them back to the, the human dignity and to human life.
Because an animal what is hiding, what is all the time under oppression, is not able to resist. And I think that the, the, uh, cultural work in the ghetto, the work of the youth club, the work of the library, the work of the, the concerts of the auditoriums, the lectures brought back to the people their dignity.
Henny Durmashkin Gurko: In the end it was great because the theater started. They started schools. They started a college. They started so many things that were important, as far as culture goes. It was very good for us, it gave us a lift.
Eleanor Reissa: When Samuel Bak’s family returned to the ghetto from their hiding place in the monastery, his mother brought him to one of the newly organized schools.
Samuel Bak: I saw all the children sitting there, crowded in a small room. They all had shaven heads, because there was lots of lice. It looked so miserable. And I looked at my mother, and she looked at me, and she said, “You know, I’ll find you a teacher, I don’t think it’s really necessary to sit here a whole day.”
And I never went to a school. What I did a lot was reading. In the ghetto, as a part of the ghetto, was the—a very big library, a very big Jewish library that existed there before and it remained there. And I was, uh, enjoying myself in making illustrations or drawings connected with what I was reading.
M-my mother found for me a teacher, she was a very lovely person. And she encouraged me very much, continuing to draw and to paint. And she has also shown my, uh, drawings and paintings to some of her friends who were quite-known Yiddish poets in the, uh, ghetto, Vilna, like, uh, Shmerke Kaczerginski or Avrom Sutzkever. Now they have decided to make an exhibition of my work in the ghetto.
Herman Kruk: Yesterday at noon in the lobby of the ghetto theater, the opening of the long-promised art exhibit took place. The drawings of the nine-year-old Samuel Bak attracted the most attention. The child is apparently an extraordinary talent, in every respect. The exhibit is heartwarming. But when you leave it, you are once again cooled off. There is another exhibit in the courtyard of Rudnicki 6. Lying here on their bundles are families with all their belongings, the newly arrived refugees from Mikailiškis.
Samuel Bak: It was a very sad opening, because the day before, some small towns around Vilna were liquidated, and part of the people were brought to the, uh, ghetto, Vilna. And the people that were brought to the ghetto were simply left in the streets, in the courtyards.
And I remember we went through that exhibition of mine and, um, people were sitting like this on the sidewalks, on the cobblestones of the, of the yard with, with their shmatas, with their suitcases, with their peklach, and, um, they looked so forlorn and there was children and so on.
When this exhibition was over, I received from, I think, from Kaczerginski, the poet Kaczerginski, I received an old book that belonged to the community into which they used to inscribe all the marriages and, uh, births and, uh, important happenings of the, of the Jewish community. And this was, this one was a book of the, I think the last century, it had those important facts on one side and the other side of this very precious paper, it was almost like parchment paper, it was blank. And they told me, “Go on drawing in this book.”
And then I went on drawing and watercoloring in this book wherever there was a blank space between somebody marrying, somebody dying, I was making a drawing maybe of Tom Sawyer [laughs], because I read Mark Twain. Or of, I don’t know, Samson between the pillars.
Eleanor Reissa: The community ledger Samuel Bak was drawing in was just one fragment of the historical record of Jewish life that was on the verge of destruction, along with the Jewish civilization it chronicled. A group of people set out to save some of that record. At the forefront of the effort was Herman Kruk.
Abram Zeleznikov: Vilna was a city where there was a lot of Jewish printers, old Jewish books, new Jewish books. And there was a lot of libraries. From the beginning of the ghetto, Kruk was trying to collect and to save, eh, Jewish books, Judaica, sefer Torahs, anything what was about Jewish life. He was very concerned about this.
Herman Kruk: As a result of our efforts with the expeditions to Ghetto 2, the objects and museum valuables were saved by us according to the attached lists. Inventory of religious objects and museum valuables now at Straszun Street 6: 126 scrolls; 9 scrolls; 170 Prophets and Megillahs; 26 shofars; 13 Hanukkah lamps and menorahs; 12 silver, brass, and copper candle holders; 15 chandeliers and wall lamps, …
Abram Zeleznikov: And I remember a meeting where Gens said to Kruk, “When the Germans have been killing the Jews, I was trying to save Jews. My hand are in Jewish blood because I couldn’t save all Jews. Now I tried to save Jews. You tried in this time to save Jewish books.” And it’s true.
Eleanor Reissa: Many of the books and documents Herman Kruk wanted to save were housed at YIVO, the Jewish Research Institute, which was on Wiwulska Street, outside the ghetto.
Herman Kruk: It is hard to convey my feelings on my first visit to YIVO. Yesterday I saw a picture that truly crushed me. The cellar is stuffed from top to bottom. I step on the excellent card catalog of the bibliographical center. The cards are lying on the floor in a heap half a meter high. Along with them, all mixed up, lies the card catalog of the YIVO library. The books from the library shelves, which are in the same cellar, are strewn and confused, piled more than a meter high. Everything is broken, torn, soiled.
Eleanor Reissa: Herman Kruk wasn’t the only one who was interested in preserving Jewish books and objects. Paradoxically, the Nazis were, too.
Abram Zeleznikov: The Germans had a institute for Judenforschung without Juden–for the study of Judaism without Jews. This was the so-called Rosenberg stab. Frankfurt was his headquarters.
Herman Kruk: Three Germans appeared at the gate of the ghetto and ordered to be taken to Strashuna 6. Accompanied by the Judenrat and a horde of police, the three Germans came to Strashuna 6. The director [of the Rosenberg Task Force], refined and elegant, asked for [me], questioned [me] about [my] work, and inquired about old books.
Abram Zeleznikov: And they, they made them at the responsibility to have a group of Jews to collect all the Judaica and to collect it in the Jewish Scientifical Institute of Wiwulska, it’s a part of Vilna, and prepare the material to be sent to Frankfurt.
Herman Kruk: I become a German “boss.” Today I received a written appointment as supervisor of the work of ordering the Jewish books. The work has been done so far in the university library building and in the ghetto. A warehouse of Jewish books is being set up in the ghetto. This is the fruit of my first labor.
Eleanor Reissa: Unbeknownst to the Nazi officials who ran the Rosenberg Task Force, Kruk was sorting books to send to Frankfurt and books to smuggle into the ghetto.
Herman Kruk: I am the supplier of the ghetto. The guards at the gate are amazed. I bring desks, tables, benches, cabinets, card catalogs, sleeping boards, et cetera, into the ghetto. The Jews in the ghetto are amazed at how I obtained them, and only a few know that I’ve got a special permission in my pocket. But no one knows that under the furniture, I’m smuggling a mass of books for the ghetto schools into the ghetto. A sense of accomplishment that pleases me as much as climbing the high Carpathian Mountains once did.
Eleanor Reissa: Zelig Kalmanovich was a member of YIVO’s prewar staff. There was an argument between Kalmanovich and Kruk about the best way to save books and other artifacts.
Abram Zeleznikov: Kruk was thinking that we should save whatever we can and put it in hiding. And Kalmanovich said, no, we shouldn’t save anything because everything what we will save will disappear. We have to pack them the best we can, let them take to Frankfurt. That will come the day when Germany will be defeated, then this material will be saved.
So Kruk, Kruk was a very good organizer. And he organized a group of Jewish intellectuals. I was also with, with them, and then I stopped working, working as an electrician in the ghetto and went to work in the YIVO. What we did is we went over all the places where there was Jewish book and Judaica, we brought them to the, um, YIVO, sorted them, make list of them, put them in, uh, packages, and then it was sent to, um, to Germany.
Herman Kruk: Germans have now come to the YIVO building to carry out a final selection of the books they can use—to take them out! Seventy percent of the books from the YIVO treasures, along with the books gathered up from the city, were rejected and thrown into the trash as scrap paper. The Jewish workers employed on the project are literally weeping. Your heart can break as you watch.
The death throes of YIVO, the Jewish Scientific Institute, are not only long and slow, but, like everything here, it dies in a mass grave, along with scores and scores of others. The library, the documents, the archives are all mixed up in one mess, and, following the Germans’ order, is segregated as they want, and, most important, most of it is thrown away as scrap.
A small part remains where it is, waiting to be transported. The mass grave, the scrap paper, grows bigger every minute. Seeing that destruction, several staff members picked out a lot of literature and brought it to [me]. The risk to their life by taking away any piece of paper is awesome; every scrap of paper endangers your head. Nevertheless, there are idealists who do it easily.
Eleanor Reissa: Nineteen forty-two was a relatively quiet period in the Vilna ghetto. Still, the Nazis’ rule was brutal.
Abram Zeleznikov: The chief of the civil administration of the city, the Gebietskommissar, the Gebietskommissar for Vilna, was Hingst, his Judenreferent was Murer, and they tried to make a semblance of normal life in the ghetto. Normal life wasn’t meaning that the Jews haven’t been killed. Now, instead of thousands, hundreds taken out, every day, there or there, five, ten Jews have been taken and killed, but it was normal.
Herman Kruk: December 16, 1942. Now an illegal Lithuanian newspaper is lying in front of me. This issue states, among other things, that in the territory that is now Lithuania, 80 percent of the Jews were annihilated.
December 18. Only now has the world grasped that the Germans are murdering Jews by the hundreds of thousands. Only now! Today I learned from the radio: the governments of London, the Soviet Union, and the United States issued a joint declaration today about the persecution of Jews in all countries occupied by the Germans. The declaration says…
Announcer: The attention of the Belgian, Czechoslovak, Greek, Jugoslav, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norwegian, Polish, …
Herman Kruk: In view of the persecution of Jews taking place all through the German-occupied countries in a way unprecedented in history aiming at the annihilation of the Jews in Europe.
Announcer: … that the German authorities, not content with denying to persons of Jewish race in all the territories over which their barbarous rule has been extended the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe. From all the occupied countries Jews are being transported in conditions of appalling horror and brutality to eastern Europe. In Poland, which has been made the principal Nazi slaughterhouse, the ghettos established by the German invader are being systematically emptied of all Jews except for a few highly skilled workers required for war industries. None of those taken away are ever heard of again. The able-bodied are slowly worked to death in labor camps. The infirm are left to die of exposure and starvation or are deliberately massacred in mass executions.
Herman Kruk: The declaration was supposedly broadcast simultaneously on Moscow, London, and Washington radio.
Announcer: The number of victims of these bloody cruelties is reckoned in the many hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent men, women, and children.
Herman Kruk: In all countries, three minutes of silence were proclaimed yesterday.
Eleanor Reissa: In this episode you heard from Samuel Bak, Abram Zeleznikov, Henny Durmashkin Gurko, and Nisan Resnick, whose Hebrew testimony was voiced by Claybourne Elder, as well as diary entries of Herman Kruk, read by John Cariani. The declaration was read by Arnie Burton.
Next up, chapter six: “The Underground.”
This special series about Jewish life in Vilna is written and produced by Nahanni Rous and Eric Marcus. Stephen Naron is the executive producer. Our composer is Ljova Zhurbin. Our theme music is an arrangement of “Vilna, Vilna,” the 1935 song by A. L. Wolfson and Alexander Olshanetsky. The cellist is Clara Lee Rous. Our audio mixer is Anne Pope.
This podcast is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University and YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research. I’m Eleanor Reissa. You’ve been listening to “Remembering Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania.”