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Episode 9

Chapter 9: Judgment and Revenge

“We appeared at the International [Military] Tribunal at Nuremberg… We played for the media from all over the world, and we wore concentration camp uniforms and the Stars of David while we were on stage.”

Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra, 1946. Henny Durmashkin Gurko is in the first row, second from the left. Her sister Fania is fourth from the left. Credit: Courtesy of Sonia P. Beker.
                       

At war’s end, Vilna’s survivors struggle to regain their health, look for missing family members, and search for ways to leave Europe for the United States or Palestine. But a small group join an effort to seek revenge in Nuremberg, where an international tribunal is underway.

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

When the nightmare of German occupation ended, Jews emerged from the death marches, concentration camps, hideouts, and forests and faced the question, what now? Their families were gone, strangers were living in what had been their homes, and former neighbors greeted them with, “What, you’re still alive?” The Jewish Vilna that these survivors—Mira Verbin, Avrom Sutzkever, Arie Liebke Distal, and Henny Durmashkin Gurko—remembered from before the war was gone forever. 

The survivors hit the road and crossed borders in the dead of night. Some tried to run the British blockade of Palestine. Others found temporary refuge in the displaced persons (DP) camps of Germany, Austria, and Italy. Many of the survivors just lived from day to day while coping with the memories of murdered family members and the realities of shattered lives. Others set themselves a goal, a mission that would help them understand why they had suffered and why they had to look ahead and build a better future. This episode features the testimony of Vilna survivors who found different ways to give their lives meaning and purpose.

In the Vilna ghetto and in the Nazi camps, Henny Durmashkin Gurko never stopped singing. As she had grown up in one of Vilna’s leading musical families, Yiddish and Hebrew music was her passion and helped remind her in her darkest moments who she was and why she had to survive. Just after her liberation from the Dachau camp complex by the U.S. Army, Gurko, along with many other survivors, was sent to the St. Ottilien monastery in Bavaria for rest and recuperation. There, together with other survivors, she helped organize an extraordinary musical ensemble—the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra—which toured the DP camps, performed in front of the officials of the Nuremberg Tribunal, and visited various German cities. Gurko recalled:

We were brought to St. Ottilien, which was a hospital in Bavaria. And, uh, there were nuns. Uh, it was a beautiful place. And they brought us to restore our health there, our strength back, and they took care of us. In St. Ottilien we started the orchestra. All the musicians came. Only eight people. We didn’t have any instruments. We got instruments.

And we were going from DP camp to DP camp, traveling and entertaining. And there were a few more musicians that survived. And, uh, they joined the orchestra. And when David Ben-Gurion came to Germany and spoke, we, uh, were there with our music. I sang a lot of ghetto songs, Yiddish songs, and Hebrew songs.

Then, we also appeared at the International Tribunal, uh, in, uh, at Nuremberg. In Nuremberg, when the Nazis were on trial. We played for the media from all over the world, and we wore concentration camp uniforms and the Stars of David while we were onstage. 

The first concert, as Abby Anderton writes in Displaced Music, her important study of the orchestra, took place on the lawn of the monastery on a warm afternoon in May 1945, just a few weeks after liberation. The performers, mostly survivors from the Kovno and Vilna ghettos, were all dressed in concentration camp uniforms. Before the concert, Zalman Grinberg, the monastery’s head doctor, made a short speech in which he asked the audience to remember “what a triumphant record of crime and murder has been achieved by the nation of Hegel and Kant, Schiller and Goethe, Beethoven and Schopenhauer.” 

Audiences showed a special appreciation for Gurko’s Yiddish songs, many of which had originated in the Vilna ghetto. Songs like “Yisrolik,” about a young orphan who tried to act tough but who shed tears in secret for his dead parents, spoke to the survivors’ own memories of loss and pain. Another popular song was “Vu ahin zol ikh geyn?” (“Where should I go now?”), which expressed the yearning of the DPs for a place to call home. 

In September 1946, the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra merged with another survivor ensemble to create the Representative Concert Orchestra of the Surviving Remnant. In the last six months of 1947 alone, the orchestra gave 44 concerts in different DP camps before 27,000 viewers. 

The May 1948 arrival of the young Leonard Bernstein was a major milestone in the history of the orchestra. Bernstein had been invited to Germany to conduct the Bavarian State Opera but also insisted on working with the Orchestra of the Surviving Remnant. During the two concerts that he conducted with the group, Bernstein accompanied Gurko as she sang songs from the ghettos and from Jewish Palestine. As Anderton points out, the German musicians who attended one of those concerts threw roses on the stage at the end. Not surprisingly, the Jewish musicians made no effort to break the ice and befriend the Germans. 

The story of Henny Durmashkin Gurko and the Orchestra of the Surviving Remnant underscores just how memories of cultural resistance in the ghettos gave survivors the psychological wherewithal to find some meaning in their lives after the liberation. By the same token, the great Vilna poet Avrom Sutzkever never forgot for a moment that he, too, had a sacred mission: to keep Yiddish culture alive. Yiddish had been the language of most of the murdered Jews. Just as the survivors had to rebuild their lives, so, too, did Yiddish writers and poets have a sacred obligation to continue to write in the language of the martyrs and to fight for its future.

In the Vilna ghetto, Sutzkever wrote extraordinary poetry, in every conceivable circumstance. After the war, he wrote in the introduction to a collection of his wartime verse that “when the very sun became like ashes—I believed with perfect faith: as long as poetry does not abandon me, lead will not destroy me; as long as I live my life as a poet in the valley of the shadow of death, my sufferings will merit tikkun [repair] and redemption.” What Sutzkever wrote was the literal truth. He hid from death in a coffin—and wrote a poem. He dug his own grave, escaping execution by a last-minute miracle—and wrote a poem. The Germans shot his mother. And Sutzkever wrote a poem. 

But he did much more. Sutzkever became a mainstay of the ghetto’s cultural life. He gave poetry readings, worked with youngsters in their clubs, and encouraged the artistic genius of the young Samuel Bak. He was a key figure in the Paper Brigade, which was based in the prewar headquarters of YIVO (the Yiddish Scientific Institute). Ordered by the Germans to sort valuable documents and books for shipment to Germany, Sutzkever and other brigade members smuggled valuable books, archival materials, and guns into the ghetto. He was also a member of the FPO (Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye, or United Partisan Organization) and joined the trek to the Narocz Forest in September 1943. Although angered and disillusioned by the antisemitism he encountered there, he finally managed to find a place in a partisan unit. 

Ilya Ehrenburg, one of the most popular Soviet writers and a Jew who had been deeply shaken by the tragedy of his people, read some Sutzkever poems that had been transmitted to Moscow. Thanks to him and to the intervention of the Lithuanian Communist leader Justas Paleckis, the Soviets flew Sutzkever and his wife out of the partisan zone in Belarus to Moscow in March 1944. Tens of thousands of Jews in the war-torn Soviet Union, traumatized not only by the Holocaust but also by the growing antisemitism in their own country, eagerly read all they could about the sensational young man who had emerged from the ghetto and the forest. In a rare acknowledgment of Jewish suffering and valor, Pravda published Ilya Ehrenburg’s article about Sutzkever in April 1944. 

After the liberation of Vilna in July 1944, Sutzkever returned to his native city and was shattered by the Communist authorities’ refusal to allow him and others to build a Jewish museum, start Jewish schools, or establish a Yiddish newspaper. He recoiled in horror as the Soviets prepared to destroy Jewish books that had survived the war and that he himself had helped rescue. At great risk, he and his close friend and fellow poet Shmerke Kaczerginski smuggled many valuable manuscripts to YIVO in New York City.

In February 1946, the Soviet prosecution team asked him to testify at the Nuremberg trials. As we see in this episode, Sutzkever eagerly agreed. But the trip to Germany was an emotional ordeal. Under severe strain, he even thought about smuggling a pistol into the courtroom and shooting Hermann Goering. Sutzkever finally took the stand and, under questioning by the Soviet prosecutor, spoke about the Vilna ghetto and about what had happened to his own child: 

In the evening, when the Germans had left, I went to the hospital and found my wife in tears. It seemed that when she had her baby, the Jewish doctors of the hospital had already received the order that Jewish women must not give birth; and they had hidden the baby, together with other newborn children, in one of the rooms. But when [a group] with Murer came to the hospital, they heard the cry of the babies. They broke down the door and entered the room. 

When my wife heard that the door had been broken, she immediately got up and ran to see what was happening to the child. She saw one German holding the baby and smearing something under its nose. Afterward, he threw it on the bed and laughed. When my wife picked up the child, there was something black under his nose. When I arrived at the hospital, I saw that my baby was dead. He was still warm. 

More than anything, Sutzkever had wanted to testify in Yiddish. He had hoped to look the Nazi defendants in the eye as he spoke on behalf of the Jews they had killed. On February 17, 1946, he wrote in his diary:

I feel the terrible responsibility of my upcoming journey. I pray that the souls of the martyrs find expression in my words. I want to speak Yiddish. Absolutely Yiddish. . . . I want to speak the language of the people the accused attempted to exterminate along with their language. Let them hear our mame-loshn [mother tongue]. Let them hear our language, and may Alfred Rosenberg explode in astonishment. May my language triumph at Nuremberg as a symbol of its unshakability!

But in the end, the Soviet prosecutors told Sutzkever that because of “technical reasons,” he would have to testify in Russian.

Two months later, in April 1946, Sutzkever left Vilna forever. The Soviets now allowed former Polish citizens to leave for Poland, and from there Sutzkever made his way to Mandatory Palestine by late 1947. In Palestine, he continued to defy the odds. In a new country so intent on reviving Hebrew that it discouraged Yiddish and other Diaspora languages, Sutzkever started what would become the most important Yiddish literary journal in the postwar world, Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain). The Germans had murdered most of the world’s Yiddish speakers; Sutzkever was determined to salvage what he could from the ashes. The journal lasted for almost 50 years.

Even as Henny Durmashkin Gurko toured the DP camps and Avrom Sutzkever defiantly continued to write Yiddish poetry despite all that had happened, other Vilna survivors dedicated themselves to meting out vengeance to the Germans who had killed their families and their people. During the war, vengeance had been the fervent wish of many Jews as they faced death. After the war, Abba Kovner, the charismatic leader of the FPO and the commander of a Jewish partisan detachment in the Rudniki Forest, organized a secret group of survivors to plan revenge in postwar Germany. Called Nakam—the Hebrew word for vengeance—the group included about 50 people, including Mira Verbin and Arie Liebke Distal, who testify in this episode. For people like Mira Verbin, who had lost everyone, revenge was the only thing that now mattered:

I was very extreme. I did not care who would die, a child or an adult, if that German was guilty or not. I did not care. I was ready to erase them from the face of the earth.

[Our people] achieved beyond their ability. They were not military people. They were people from nice homes who went to school, to youth groups, who had wanted an easy life. They went ahead and got it done. No one else did it. It was a big deal.

Some people didn’t believe in us and thought we were a group of dangerous adventurers. But I believed in it, and after the Holocaust, just belonging to this group made me happy. I do not regret it for a moment.

The group had a plan A and a plan B. Plan A involved the mass killing of Germans by throwing a powerful poison into the water supply of a major German city. That plan went awry when Abba Kovner, who was carrying the lethal package, threw the poison overboard just before the British arrested him on a troopship where he was traveling on false papers. That left plan B: poisoning the bread rations of SS prisoners who were being held in an American camp. As Distal recalls: 

They told me the poison would be in liquid form and that it would have to be mixed. It would be the same color as the underside of the loaves. It wouldn’t have a taste or a smell. We had a team of three people. The plan was that I would handle the loaves, someone else would mix the poison, and another person would apply the mixture to the bottoms of the loaves. I would put the loaves back exactly the way they had been.

There were two kinds of loaves: round and square. The round loaves were sent to the general public. We realized that some people from the general public might also get poisoned, but that was that. The square loaves went to the prisoners, and the bread was divided in four, the daily ration was a quarter loaf. There were 5,000 SS prisoners in the camp. 

About a week before the big day, I smuggled the bottles of poison into the bakery. I had experience from the ghetto, smuggling stuff on my body, so I put them near my belly, and I had a big jacket. I put them in my locker with my clothes. We didn’t turn on any lights. We mixed the poison and put it in pots. We each had a brush, and we started to apply it to the loaves. We got into a rhythm, and I rearranged the loaves back into stacks. 

The poison sickened hundreds of SS men, but none died. Most of the Nakam group made their way to Israel. For years they kept their secret, and it was only in recent years that the Israeli historian Dina Porat interviewed the surviving members of the group and wrote a book about their plans. Porat was thankful that in the end Kovner’s plans failed and that most of the survivors chose to get their revenge by starting families, building new lives, and creating a Jewish state. 

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