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Episode 8

Chapter 8: Nazi Defeat

“We came out into the day of our liberation, which was a very scary day, because the whole city was burning and the smoke was just going up.”

Sheila Zwany, 1951. After liberation from the Nazis, Zwany emerged from Vilna’s sewers following nearly a year in hiding. Credit: Courtesy of the Zwany family.
                       

July 1944. For nearly two weeks, the Nazis and the Soviets fight for every street and block in Vilna. When the smoke clears, Jews hiding in the sewers emerge into daylight while other survivors and Jewish partisans filter back into the devastated city.

Photos and Artifacts

Samuel Bak, photographed in 1944, shortly after the liberation of Vilna. Credit: Samuel Bak.

Samuel Bak with poet and partisan Avrom Sutzkever in 1944, shortly after the liberation of Vilna. Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Samuel Bak in Vilna, 1945. Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Cover of The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania, the English-language translation of Herman Kruk’s diary from the Vilna ghetto and Estonian labor camps, published by Yale University Press in 2002. Pages from his diary were recovered from hiding places after the war and were first published in Yiddish in 1961.

A page from Herman Kruk’s diary, written when he was in the Lagedi labor camp in Estonia. It was one of the last entries he would write before he was murdered on September 18, 1944. Credit: Yad Vashem.

Jewish partisans in Vilna on the day that the city was liberated, July 14, 1944. At center in the back row stands Abba Kovner, commander of the Jewish partisan brigade in the Rudniki Forest. Others (seated, left to right): Pesach Mizerecz, unidentified, Motl Szames; (standing, left to right): Elchanan Magid, Jacob Prener, unidentified, Ruszka Korczak, Leib Szapirstein, Vitka Kempner-Kovner. Credit: Yad Vashem.

“Poet-Partisan from Vilna Ghetto Says Nazis Slew 77,000 of 80,000,” The New York Times, April 15, 1944. In March 1944, Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever was airlifted from the forest partisan brigade in which he was a combatant, to Moscow, where he gave testimony about the fate of the Jews of Vilna and about the resistance movement in the ghetto. Credit: The New York Times.

“Poet-Partisan from Vilna Ghetto Says Nazis Slew 77,000 of 80,000,” The New York Times, April 15, 1944. In March 1944, Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever was airlifted from the forest partisan brigade in which he was a combatant, to Moscow, where he gave testimony about the fate of the Jews of Vilna and about the resistance movement in the ghetto. Credit: The New York Times.

Soviet troops patrolling St. John’s Street, Vilna, on July 14, 1944, the day that the city was liberated from the Germans. Credit: J.N. Chalip via Facebook.

Poet and partisan Avrom Sutzkever and his wife Frida, Vilna, 1944. After the city was liberated from the Germans, Sutzkever and other members returned there to try to find Jewish cultural treasures that they had hidden. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Avrom Sutzkever, an unidentified man, and Gershon Abramowicz in the ruins of Vilna, bringing a cart of newspapers and artwork (including a bust of Tolstoy) to the temporary location of a new Vilna Jewish Museum they were working to establish, July 1944. Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

After the final liquidation of the Vilna ghetto in September 1943, Jews continued their struggle for survival in many different places and with varying chances of success. Among the unlucky ones were the 5,000 Jews who did not survive the brutal September 23 selection that took place in the pouring rain on Rossa Square. They met their death in nearby Ponar and in Sobibor. That same selection dispatched a few thousand younger men and women to labor camps in Latvia and Estonia, where they joined the Jews who had been deported there in August. A few hundred Jews ignored the order to report to Rossa Square and went to ground in hideouts. 

Almost a thousand Jews made their way to the partisans, either in the Narocz Forest, 120 kilometers to the east, or in the nearby Rudniki Forest to the south. A few thousand who worked in two German labor camps in Vilna—HKP and Kailis—won a temporary reprieve and remained alive—until July 1944. The testimonies in this episode recount the diverse experiences of Vilna survivors as they battled the odds and, thanks to a combination of sheer luck and unbelievable resourcefulness, lived to see the liberation of the city in July 1944. As we recall their stories, we should also remember that of the 18,000 to 20,000 Jews in the ghetto in July 1943, only about one in five survived—in the forests, in camps, and in hideouts. 

As we see from the testimony of Yitzhak Dugim, most of the Jews who holed up in malinas didn’t make it. Some did—like Sheila Zwany, who survived in the sewers for almost a year, thanks to the help of a sympathetic Pole. But her story was exceptional. Sooner or later, Jews in hideouts fell victim to the denunciations of their Polish and Lithuanian neighbors or ran into German patrols as they scrounged for food.

Yitzhak Dugim held out a few months in a hideout, but one by one, his fellow Jews were caught. Finally only he and his sister were left, and they too were arrested. The Germans sent Dugim to Ponar but consigned him to a fate that many considered worse than death: Dugim joined the “Burners Brigade,” a group of Jews who were forced to exhume the 80,000 bodies buried in the mass graves of Ponar, lay them on huge pyres, and burn them. They lived chained together in a deep pit, from which the Germans would remove the ladder each night to prevent escape. In his recorded testimony, Dugim recalled:

I worked with the group that was disposing of the bodies. We were forbidden to use the word “dead” or “killed.” They made us call them “Figuren”—figures. My job was to pick up the dead with an iron rod. Then a group would dig away the dirt, then take out the “figures,” and lay them out on boards. Then the so-called dentist would come—this was my brother-in-law—and pull out the gold teeth. Then two people would carry the bodies away to the areas we had cleared and make pyres for burning. There, other people would arrange the bodies. They had a system—how to put the boards, how to put the bodies. They kept building until there were three or four thousand dead bodies in one pyre. They poured on gasoline, and it burned for several days.

The first pit we dug into was the largest. There were 24,000 bodies in it. At the top, there were whole bodies, and as you went down, the bodies had deteriorated and become compressed. The lowest layer, with time, had nearly decomposed, it was only five centimeters thick. 

The desperate prisoners in the Burners Brigade knew that the Germans would murder them as soon as they finished their gruesome work and realized that their only chance of survival was to escape. But how? By February they hatched a plan to dig a tunnel from the pit where they lived to the nearby forest beyond the camp’s perimeter. They started in February 1944 and built a fake wall to hide the entrance to the tunnel. Using spoons, shovels, and anything practical they could retrieve from the pits, they worked in shifts each night. The Jews smuggled in wood to build struts to hold up the top of the tunnel. 

As the work progressed and the tunnel lengthened, they spread the large heaps of sand that they had dug out into even layers on the floor of the pit. As they dug, other prisoners sang loudly to drown out the noise, remembering to sing the songs that they knew the SS liked, especially arias from Johann Strauss’s The Gypsy Baron. As the distance increased, the growing number of burning candles depleted the sparse oxygen in the tunnel. But Dugim, who had been an electrician, hooked up rudimentary electric lighting. 

Along the way, there were major setbacks. At one point, the diggers determined that the tunnel was going in the wrong direction and had to shift the angle. When Dugim recognized the bodies of his wife, mother, and two sisters in one of the pits, he broke down and decided to kill an SS man. The other prisoners reminded him that the Germans would then murder them all. Dugim backed down, and as the weeks went by, the tunnel got ever closer to the perimeter of the camp. They decided that they would make their dash to freedom on April 15. Dugim went out first, cut a hole in the outer fence, and one by one they emerged from the tunnel and dashed toward the forest. Dugim recalled:

We started to climb out, one after another. We started to crawl in a line. We crossed through a field, then got into the trees, so I got up to walk, but when I got up, I fell into a hole—not very deep—that had been dug for new bodies. Just at that moment, the Germans turned on spotlights and started shooting. My head was out of the pit and there were bullets sailing past me. The others fled. I climbed out and followed them. Someone had pliers to cut the fence and we went through—five or six of us made it. They were still shooting. 

We crossed a shallow stream and ran. We went into some bushes and sat down. We were so tired, we slept. Some hours later I heard the sounds of cars. Two cars came close—with dogs. A German passed right by me with a dog. The dog sniffed my hand but continued on. Why didn’t the dog stop? I think it is because we smelled like dead people. We worked with dead people. 

A few days later, Dugim and some other Jews reached the partisans in the Rudniki Forest. Of the 80 Jews in the Burners Brigade, 11 survived.

In the aftermath of the Wittenberg Affair in July 1943 and the abortive attempt at an uprising on September 1, the FPO, as we have seen, finally changed its mind and began to send groups of Jews to join the Soviet partisans. Some wended their way in small groups through the city streets at night. Others had to undertake a tortuous and near-fatal crawl through the labyrinthine Vilna sewers. The first groups, including Abram Zeleznikov and Mira Verbin, rendezvoused with guides who led them to the Narocz Forest, 120 kilometers away. The very last groups, including Abba Kovner, Ruszka Korczak, and Vitka Kempner, left the ghetto in mid-September for the Rudniki Forest, to the south of Vilna.

As we learn from the testimonies of Zeleznikov and Verbin, the Jews who made it to the Narocz Forest were shocked and traumatized by their humiliating and hostile reception from the leaders of the Soviet partisans. During their entire time in the FPO, they had looked to the Red Army and the Soviet partisans as their eventual liberators. With superhuman effort they had acquired weapons in the ghetto and brought them into the forest. They had looked forward to fighting the Germans in a Jewish unit, in which they would have the chance to settle scores and take vengeance in the name of the Jewish people. But a couple of days after they came to the partisan base, they were lined up and told that Soviet policy did not allow separate Jewish units. 

No sooner had they absorbed this news than they were given the order to hand over their weapons. The Soviet commanders told them that since they lacked requisite military training, it was only right to give their rifles to non-Jewish fighters who had served in the Red Army. All this happened on September 23, the day that the Vilna ghetto was liquidated. But worse was to come. In the words of Mira Verbin:

On the third day they invited each of us individually for a talk. We started to worry. People were coming out of the meetings without their watches, without their leather coats and sweaters, without shoes or boots. The commander told us that weapons were expensive, we had no money, and these items would pay for weapons. Those who had weapons had to hand them in, and the partisan leaders would redistribute them as they saw fit. Some refused to give up their weapons, saying they were earned with blood. But they took all the weapons from us. In the next few days we saw the officers walking around in our boots and coats, wearing our watches and sweaters. It was horrible. Then they told us they were dismantling the Jewish brigade, and that all groups would be mixed

Soon afterward, the Germans began a major search-and-destroy operation in the Narocz Forest. The Soviet partisans fled the encirclement in small groups but left the disarmed Jews to their fate. Jews who tried to follow the retreating Soviet units were repulsed with warning shots. Many Jews perished during this German blockade, while others, including the poets Avrom Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, survived by finding remote patches of dry land in the middle of the trackless swamps.

Life began to improve for the remaining Vilna Jews in the Narocz Forest only in late 1943 and early 1944. As the Soviets dropped more and more weapons and supplies into the partisan zones, more Jews were admitted to partisan units. Just as important, many Soviet commanders recognized that unarmed Jews could help them as tailors, shoemakers, and cooks, and with other tasks. 

While in some partisan brigades Jews had a relatively easy time, much depended on the personality of the commander. In this episode, Verbin and Zelaznikov accurately describe the antisemitism rampant in many units. There were many cases of antisemitic partisans using the confusion and chaos of combat operations to murder their Jewish comrades. Jewish girls had an especially tough time. Although this subject was taboo after the war, it was a fact of life that unless she was extremely lucky or extremely tough, the only way a young Jewish woman could survive in the partisans was by living with a male partisan who could protect her. 

Although their testimonies are not included in this episode, the FPO fighters led by Abba Kovner who went to the Rudniki Forest had a better experience. They formed Jewish units that were not disbanded, and they became effective and respected fighters. A key difference between their situation and that of the Jews in the Narocz Forest was that the Rudniki Forest was regarded as part of the Soviet Lithuanian partisan command, whose leaders were more flexible. 

After the final liquidation of the ghetto, the Germans still maintained two forced labor camps for Jews in the city. Kailis, which had been a fur and leather factory before the war, produced winter clothing for the German Army. At its peak, about 1,500 Jews worked there; in the last period of the ghetto, desperate Jews tried everything possible to reach that camp, which seemed to offer a degree of relative safety. According to Yitzhak Arad, in 1943 and 1944 about 600 Jews used Kailis as a temporary shelter while they searched for safety somewhere else. At Kailis, the Germans lulled the Jews into a false sense of security and even assured them that their children were safe. 

But as we learned from Samuel Bak’s testimony in the previous episode, on March 27, 1944, SS officer Martin Weiss led a sudden raid that gathered all the children at Kailis and sent them to their death. Bak miraculously survived and was smuggled out of the camp to another hideout in the city. 

After the breakout of the prisoners through the tunnel in Ponar in April 1944, the Germans took 80 Jews from Kailis and forced them to dig up and incinerate the remaining corpses. On July 3, 1944, a week before the Red Army liberated Vilna, the Germans shot all the Jews remaining from the Kailis camp in Ponar. A few survived in malinas.

In this episode, William Begell describes the other major labor camp that remained in Vilna after the liquidation of the ghetto, HKP (Heereskraftfahrpark). HKP repaired Wehrmacht military vehicles. It was located not far from the former ghetto, on Subocz Street, in two large buildings that before the war had served as low-income housing for poor Jews. In early 1944, HKP housed more than 1,200 Jewish men, women, and children.

Although the German commander of HKP, Major Karl Plagge, had been an early member of the Nazi Party, he was shocked by the regime’s antisemitic policies and did all he could to help the Jews in the camp. He helped set up clothing workshops on the top floors of the camp to employ women and children, thus improving their chances of survival in the event of an SS roundup. Unfortunately, Plagge happened to be away on leave when the SS rounded up all the children in HKP on March 27 and sent them to be killed.

As the Red Army approached Vilna, Plagge gave a strong signal to the Jews in the camp that their lives were in imminent danger. As William Begell recounts:

On the 30th of, uh, June, 1944, the major who was in charge of the camp told us that we are being evacuated because the camp must move together with a front line. And in order to give us a hint that we are about to be killed, he said, “And just to reassure you, I want to tell you that you will be escorted by, um, the SS, which, as you know so well, is an organization for the protection of refugees.” And I quote him. This was as good a, uh, a warning that we’ll be killed as any, and that night, uh, I escaped, from the second floor of the machine shop, there were some, uh, young people, including myself. We cut through the grates, we jumped through the back of the camp and we ran away. This was about 10, 11 o’clock at night. 

Duly warned, Jews ran to escape and went to ground in malinas. Most were shot as they ran or were captured and shot in Ponar. But 200 survived. Plagge died in 1957. Thanks to the efforts of Vilna survivors and their children, including Dr. William Good and William Begell, Yad Vashem agreed in 2005 to recognize Plagge as a “Righteous Gentile.”

One of the most heartbreaking testimonies in this episode is the diary entry of the ghetto librarian Herman Kruk, who was among the 5,000 Vilna Jews deported from the ghetto to concentration camps in Latvia and Estonia. Facing terrible conditions in Vaivara, Lagedi, Klooga, Kaiserswald, and other camps, the Jews from Vilna, including many members of the ghetto’s cultural elite, did their best to survive. They organized religious services, held Passover seders, celebrated Chanukah and Purim. Many fasted on Yom Kippur. Communists and Bundists held clandestine meetings and tried to maintain their morale and hope. 

Herman Kruk was in Lagedi and Klooga, part of the Vaivara camp complex in Estonia. Despite beatings, abuse, and hunger, he and other inmates held out until the first day of the Jewish New Year in mid-September 1944. Vilna had already been liberated, the Red Army was approaching Estonia, and the Jewish prisoners were full of hope that they might live to see the miracle of survival. 

But the SS was determined to leave no Jews alive. Klooga became a collection point for Jews from other camps and by September 18, 2,000 Jews had assembled there. The Germans told them that they were going to be transferred to another labor camp in Germany and even served them a good meal. Then they took truckloads of Jews to a killing site a few miles away and forced their victims to lay on huge pyres of firewood. 

The trucks went back and forth, ferrying the next round of victims. The Jews at Klooga were guarded by a thick cordon of Estonian SS. Escape was next to impossible. When the Red Army arrived a couple of days later, they found 2,000 bodies, burned and half-burned, on the pyre. Among the victims was Herman Kruk. Just a day before he was murdered, Kruk made his final diary entry:

September 17. I received a package, a pleasure in the package. My Klooga diaries. Today, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a year after we arrived in Estonia by the Jewish calendar, I bury the diaries in Lagedi, in a barrack right across from the guards’ house. Six persons are present at the burial. 

One of those Jews survived. Thanks to him, the diary was retrieved.

In his poem “How,” the Vilna Jewish poet Avrom Sutzkever asked a troubling question: “Vi azoy un mit vos vest filn dayn bekher in tog fun bafrayung?” (“How, and with what, will you fill your goblet on the day of liberation?”) For many Jews, the days of liberation, the realization that they had survived the Nazis, brought not joy but deep depression. Now, and only now, did they fully grasp the extent of the destruction, the magnitude of what they had lost. 

As we see in these testimonies, Soviet soldiers met William Begell with antisemitic taunts. The Pole who had helped Sheila Zwany survive in the sewer begged her not to tell anyone. Clearly, Poles who had rescued Jews feared for their lives. Mira Berger fell into a suicidal depression. In her testimony she recalled: 

And I said to myself, now I’m going to walk. And I’m going to walk through the, the former Jewish quarters, and if I meet Jews in Vilna, fine. If I don’t meet any Jews all the way from here to the Green Bridge, I will walk up to the Green Bridge where I grew up, and I’ll jump straight into the Wilja, and this will be the end

Of course, not all Jews responded in this way. Abba Kovner led proud Jewish partisans into the city from the Rudniki Forest and helped in the final street battles. Avrom Sutzkever, Shmerke Kaczerginski, and others made plans to organize Jewish schools, an orphanage, and a Jewish museum. But all too soon it became increasingly clear that the Soviets had no intention of letting the remaining Vilna Jews rebuild a semblance of Jewish life in their city. The survivors were compelled to look elsewhere.

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