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When the Nazis liquidate the Vilna ghetto, they send thousands of Jews to their deaths or to forced-labor camps. Others escape to the forest to join the partisans. Very few manage to hide. The Nazis also try to eliminate evidence of their efforts to murder Vilna’s Jews.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
By the middle of 1943, Jews in the Vilna ghetto began to realize that the yearlong period of relative stability was about to end. The slaughter in April of 5,000 Jews, mostly young and able-bodied, at Ponar undercut Jacob Gens’s argument that Jewish labor could buy precious time. But most Jews in the ghetto saw no alternative.
The Wittenberg affair showed that, when forced to choose between Gens and the FPO resistance organization’s call to fight the Germans in the ghetto, most Jews still preferred to take their chances with Gens. After July 16, the FPO faced a serious internal crisis. Did it still make sense to stay in the ghetto? All the while, Soviet partisan commanders such as Fyodor Markov in the Narocz Forest ratcheted up the pressure on the FPO to leave the ghetto.
That summer, Gens still played both ends against the middle as he sought to reassure the Germans and at the same time rein in the FPO with promises to support the fighters at the moment of decision. But by mid-1943, this was a losing game. Jews continued to leave for the forest, despite Gens’s warnings that their actions endangered the entire ghetto. Gens accused one Jewish partisan whom Markov had sent to recruit armed fighters to leave the ghetto of gross irresponsibility:
You want to save Jews by taking them into the forests? Tell me, how many Jews will you be able to rescue this way, 100, 200, or let’s suppose even 500? These people will all be physically fit, those who insure [sic] the ghetto’s survival. You want to take out just these and leave to the mercy of God only the aged, the sick, and the children whom the German will liquidate at once. I shall not allow it. . . .
The situation on all the fronts is changing. . . . It may be that the Germans will be compelled to retreat and won’t have time to liquidate the ghetto. . . . We must not shorten its existence, even by one day. I shall fight for every day, and history will judge me for this in the future. (Yitzhak Arad, The Ghetto in Flames, p. 383.)
One splinter organization, the Yechiel Struggle Group, which was only loosely connected with the FPO, began to send fighters into the forests. However, the FPO, commanded by Abba Kovner following Wittenberg’s death, wavered. The Soviets demanded that the FPO send armed men—and no women, who made up 30 percent of the FPO’s membership.
The FPO leadership was in a bind. It was unthinkable to defy partisan commanders, who spoke in the name of the Soviet Union and the Red Army. But it was equally difficult to abandon the vision of a valiant battle in the ghetto that would redeem Jewish honor and even give the Jews of Vilna a chance to escape. Kovner compromised. On July 24, he sent one group to join Markov’s brigade in the Narocz Forest. But the FPO’s plan to fight in the ghetto remained unchanged, even though it was obvious that such an idea was fundamentally unrealistic.
What neither Gens nor the FPO knew that summer was that on June 21, 1943, SS leader Heinrich Himmler had ordered the liquidation of the remaining ghettos in Ostland, including the ghetto in Vilna. Productive Jews would live in tightly controlled camps. The rest would be murdered. As a first step, the Germans discontinued the labor details that worked outside the ghetto, dealing a serious blow to the ghetto’s food supply, which depended heavily on the daily smuggling by workers returning from their shifts.
The Vilna ghetto suffered a further setback when the Germans ambushed the FPO group that had left for the forests on July 24. A search of the fallen fighters revealed identification cards and work documents from the Vilna ghetto. Acting on this information, the Gestapo shot 32 relatives of the escapees.
A few days later, Bruno Kittel, a vicious SS officer who would play a major role in the final liquidation of the Vilna ghetto, announced that henceforth all Jews would bear collective responsibility for anyone who escaped. If a Jew left the ghetto for the forest, the Germans would shoot his entire family. If there were no close relatives, everyone who lived in the same building would die. An entire work detail would go to Ponar if one Jew was missing at the end of the day.
Samuel Bak, who was only eight years old at the time, remembered the terror that gripped the Jews after this new regime took effect. Dr. Mark Dvorzhetski recalled that when a Jew left a building at night to go to the latrine, his neighbors would follow him until he returned to bed. Jews did not let one another out of their sight. House commandants took roll call in the middle of the night.
Gens turned up the heat on the FPO. He summoned Kovner and told him that the Germans now knew that there was a resistance organization in the ghetto. He would no longer tolerate any attempts to escape to the forest. Furthermore, he demanded that the FPO hand over its arsenal to him for safekeeping: he would return the weapons when the moment came to fight. The FPO played for time and agreed to negotiate but handed over no weapons.
In August, the Germans began to implement Himmler’s order to close down the remaining ghettos, including in Vilna. On August 6, 1943, the Germans and Estonian auxiliaries seized a Jewish work detail at the Vilna airfield and other sites outside the ghetto and deported them to labor camps in Estonia. As the frightened, bewildered Jews waited to depart, Gens assured them that they were going to work, not to Ponar. In light of what had happened in April, Gens failed to calm the frightened crowd. But a week later, letters from the labor camps in Estonia arrived in the ghetto and tensions eased somewhat.
The Germans kept demanding that Gens round up more and more workers for Estonia. On August 25, they told him to provide 5,000 Jews—and grudgingly settled for 1,500. The one silver lining was that the regime of collective responsibility came to an end. The deportations had so jumbled orderly recordkeeping in the ghetto that the Germans could no longer implement their threats to shoot the relatives and neighbors of Jews who escaped the ghetto. This made it easier for the FPO to send more groups to the forest.
On September 1, 1943, German and Estonian police entered the ghetto and demanded that Gens hand over 3,000 males and 2,000 females for transport to Estonia. That day, the FPO prepared for a showdown and mobilized its two battalions. But disaster soon struck. Tipped off by Jewish informants at Gens’s behest, the Germans made a beeline to the assembly point of the second battalion and nabbed one hundred fighters before they received their weapons.
Some members of the battalion, like Abram Zeleznikov, were able to hide and join the first battalion. But in an instant the FPO lost much of its fighting force. The FPO mustered its remaining forces on Strashun Street and issued a call to the Jews in the ghetto to defend themselves and to reject German promises:
Jewish masses! Go out into the street! Whoever has no weapons, take up a hatchet; and whoever has no hatchet, take steel and cudgel and stick! . . . Jews! We have nothing to lose!
But once again the Jews in the ghetto did not follow the FPO. Estonia offered a slim hope of survival. Armed confrontation meant immediate death.
Gens watched nervously as the Germans and Estonians approached the FPO positions on Strashun. As they reached Strashun 12, FPO fighters opened fire on the Germans, who shot back with machine guns, killing Yechiel Scheinbaum. But surprisingly, the Germans halted and did not advance down the street, where the FPO lay in wait, ready to fight. Perhaps the local German officials wanted to avoid a major battle, which might lead to embarrassing questions about how they had failed to keep weapons out of the ghetto.
Having suffered yet another fiasco, the FPO finally abandoned hopes of a fight in the ghetto and made plans to escape in small groups to the forests. Over the next few weeks, about 150 fighters left for the Narocz Forest to the east, while some other groups, among them Abba Kovner, left for the nearby Rudniki Forest to the south. (The record of the Jewish partisans in the forests will be discussed in the episode notes for chapter eight of this season.)
The ghetto was quickly emptying out. By September 5, more than 7,000 people had been deported to Estonia. Gens tried to reassure the remaining Jews in the ghetto, but his words now rang hollow. With the end of the work brigades outside the ghetto, the smuggling of food almost stopped and hunger set in.
On September 14, the Gestapo summoned Gens for a meeting. His Lithuanian friends warned him that his life was in danger and offered to hide him. But Gens believed that if he ran away, the entire ghetto would bear the consequences. He rejected what he believed was a dishonorable course of action. That afternoon, SS Obersturmführer Rolf Neugebauer shot Gens, who was replaced by Boria Biniakonski. The Jews who were left in the ghetto saw Gens’s death as yet another sign that the end was quickly approaching. They also realized that while Gens had made many enemies, he had also been a complex figure who had done all he could to save as many Jews as possible. His death came as a terrible blow.
On the morning of September 23, the Germans told Biniakonski that all the remaining Jews were to be sent to labor camps in Estonia. As Germans and auxiliaries entered the ghetto, Kittel ordered all Jews to assemble and march in the direction of Rossa Square. While a couple thousand Jews went to ground in malinas, most obeyed the German order. But as they neared Rossa Square, they were shocked to discover that the Germans began to separate men from women and separate children, the sick, and the elderly from the rest of the Jews.
The Jews sat all night in the open under a driving rain as the selection proceeded. To add to their miseries, the Jews had to watch the hanging of four Jews from the FPO who had been caught trying to flee to the forest. About 2,000 able-bodied males were put on a train to Estonia while about 1,600 females went to Kaiserswald, near Riga, Latvia. Some 5,000 Jews sent “to the left” began their final journey to the death camp of Sobibor.
After the official liquidation of the ghetto, a few thousand Jews still remained in Vilna, either in malinas or the remaining labor camps at HKP (Heereskraftfahrpark) and Kailis. As we learn from the testimony of Yitzhak Dugim and Sheila Zwany, few hideouts held out for long. Forced to endure frightful conditions, living in sewers or in rat-infested cellars, betrayed by their tracks in the snow when they went out to look for food, refused help by most Gentiles, Jews in the malinas had little chance of survival.
Compared with the malinas, the Kailis and HKP labor camps in Vilna offered the 2,300 Jews quartered there somewhat better chances to stay alive—for the time being. The Jews in Kailis processed furs, while those in HKP worked on Wehrmacht and SS vehicles. Jews in these camps lived together as families, and as we hear from Samuel Bak’s testimony, there were many children whose presence seemed to be tolerated by the Germans. The Jews in HKP were especially fortunate in that the German commander, Major Karl Plagge, was an anti-Nazi who did what he could to help the Jewish inmates.
Unfortunately, Plagge was away on leave on March 27, 1944, when the Germans began the Kinderaktion, the murder of the children in both camps. The SS fooled the parents by ordering them to present their children for mandatory vaccinations. As the Germans loaded the children onto the trucks, frantic parents fought tooth and nail to protect them, and many were shot.
As we learn in Samuel Bak’s testimony, he was saved at the last minute. As his mother was preparing to present him for the “vaccination,” a woman suddenly diverted them to a nearby hiding place. Bak’s mother then escaped from the camp, reached his aunt, who was a convert to Catholicism and who lived in the city, and prepared her son’s escape. Bak’s father put him in a sack and dropped him out of a window and into the arms of a rescuer sent by his aunt. Smuggled out of the work camp, Bak miraculously survived. But he never saw his father again.
After Yitzhak Dugim was flushed out of his hideout, he and the other captured Jews were sent to Łukiszki Prison and then to Ponar. Although Dugim expected to be shot along with everyone else, he was selected for a far more gruesome task: to join the work detail ordered to dig up and burn tens of thousands of Jews buried there. This was part of SS Operation 1005, the project to destroy evidence of mass murder at the major killing sites in eastern Europe.
The Vilna ghetto was no more, but in the labor camps and in the forests, Jews continued their fight to live on.