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Episode 4

Chapter 4: The Ghetto

“Any house that had a doorway to the outside, to the street, which was not included in the ghetto, they blocked it with, with bricks.”

Jewish and Lithuanian police guard an entry gate to Vilna’s Jewish ghetto. Pictured at left is William Begell’s father, Ferdinand Begell, early 1940s. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of William Begell.

They are given minutes to pack. A suitcase, a sheet-wrapped bundle, whatever they can carry. Thousands of the city’s Jews are marched at gunpoint to the newly enclosed Jewish ghettos, where the previous inhabitants have already been murdered.

Photos and Artifacts

Page from the diary of Herman Kruk (1897-1944) describing hunger in the Vilna ghetto. Between 1941 and 1944, Kruk, the ghetto librarian, wrote an almost daily account of life and death in the Vilna ghetto and the labor camp in Estonia to which he was deported in 1943. Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Map of Ghetto 2, the smaller of the two ghettos in which Vilna’s Jews were confined, beginning in September 1941. Ghetto 2 was short-lived: All of its inhabitants were murdered a month after it was established. Credit: Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History.

Map of Vilna and its environs, highlighting the two ghettos in which Vilna’s Jews were confined; the Ponary forest, where the Nazis and their collaborators killed 60,000-75,000 people (the vast majority of them Jews); and the Narocz Forest, a base for anti-Nazi partisans. Credit: Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Map of the Vilna ghetto. The ghetto originally consisted of two sections, Ghetto 1, and the smaller Ghetto 2. In October 1941, all of the Jews in Ghetto 2 were murdered. Ghetto 1 was liquidated in September 1943, when all its inhabitants were either murdered or deported to labor or death camps. Credit: Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

The Great Provocation of August 31, 1941, marked another turning point in the tragic history of Vilna Jewry. Until then, the Germans and their Lithuanian helpers had murdered mainly Jewish men. But from now on, women and children were also fair game. The German record keepers at Ponar, meticulous as always, tried to note the precise number of men, women, and children murdered at each mass execution. According to the late Yitzhak Arad, who wrote the standard history of the Vilna ghetto, from the beginning of the occupation to the end of 1941, about 33,000 Jews died in Ponar. 

Mass murder and ghettoization went hand in hand. During the first week of September 1941, the Germans planned two ghettos, both in the old Jewish quarter in the center of the city, where mostly poorer Jews lived. Between Sunday night, August 31, and Tuesday, September 2, the Germans prepared for the influx of Jews from the rest of the city by killing the Jews who were already in the area of the planned ghetto. Detailed German records listed 864 men; 2,019 women; and 817 children shot in Ponar on September 2. 

While in other cities like Kovno, Kraków, Łodz, and Warsaw, Jews were given a few weeks to get ready for their move into a ghetto, in Vilna Jews had a day at most, often just a few hours. In these other cities, Jews hired carts and wagons to move their things, but in Vilna they could take only what they would carry. As a result, from one day to the next, they had to abandon their family heirlooms, their furniture, and the rest of their hard-earned possessions. There was no time to think. Mira Berger remembered that her family had only about 10 or 15 minutes to pack. 

As families frantically prepared large bundles, many too heavy for them to carry all the way to the ghetto, Gentile neighbors stopped by. Some were sympathetic and offered to hide valuables and furniture for safekeeping. Others came to look over the loot that they hoped would soon be theirs. As the pharmacist and political activist Mendel Balberyszski wrestled his hefty pack onto his back, he noticed that the electric kettle that had been tied to its side was missing: just seconds earlier, a Gentile neighbor had filched it. He stormed into her apartment, retrieved the kettle, and set off. Other Jews made one last gesture of defiance. Before the well-known physician Mark Dvorzhetski left his home forever, he grabbed an axe and smashed his piano. Why leave it for the Germans? 

From all directions, thousands of Jews converged on the two ghettos. More than 30,000 men, women, and children, all loaded down, many sweating profusely under the several layers of clothing that they had put on, struggled to carry their packs. It was a hot day and rain added to their misery. Often, when people stopped to rest, they lacked the strength to lift their belongings again. Here and there, sympathetic Gentiles stepped up to help. But in other cases, onlookers swooped down and ran off with their packages. Many just gave up and left their bundles by the side of the road. 

Fourteen-year-old Yitzhak Rudashevsky wrote in his diary:

The small number of Jews from our courtyard begin to drag the bundles to the gate. Gentiles are standing and taking part in our sorrow. Some Jews hire Gentile boys to carry the bundles. A bundle was suddenly stolen from a neighbor. The woman stands in despair among her bundles and . . . weeps and wrings her hands. Suddenly everyone around me begins to weep. Everyone weeps. The people weep looking at the bundles that they can’t carry. . . . I walked laden down, angry. The Lithuanians egged us on, not allowing us to pause. I did not see the streets in front of me. I only felt a terrible fatigue. I felt a storm of indignation and pain burning within me.

Samuel Bak, barely eight years old at the time, recalled the heavy rain and the pillow that his mother made him carry:

And there I saw a, a sort of a caravan of people walking on the road because we’re not permitted to walk in—on the sidewalk. And on the road, near the sidewalk, of course with this enormous rain, it was full of water. And everybody was walking in the water. And they were just walking, you know, like a procession. Everyone carrying something. And I, I had the pillow in my hand. And this pillow became more and more soaked and it started to become so terribly heavy. At a certain point, I threw it away.

That march into the ghetto was yet one more spin on the roulette wheel of life and death. If you lived on certain streets—Mickiewicz or Portowa, for example—you went straight to Łukiszki prison and from there to Ponar. Jews from other, northerly neighborhoods were sent to Ghetto 2 (Glezer, Yidishe, Gaon Streets), while Jews coming from the south were sent to the larger Ghetto 1. But here, too, the Germans toyed with their victims. About 3,000 Jews who were approaching Ghetto 1 from the Novigrod neighborhood to the southwest were shunted into Lidzki Street, and from there to Ponar. But Jews coming from another direction continued straight into the ghetto. Sheila Zwany remembered that “half of our place, half of our house where we used to live, they moved to the ghetto, to the left. Half they moved to the right. This one going to the right were going straight to the jail and from there they shot them. This one going to the left, they went into the ghetto.”

And what about those who reached the ghetto? The very first Jews who entered the ghetto were “lucky.” They quickly took over the empty apartments left by those taken to Ponar over the previous few days. But the half-finished meals on the tables, cups of tea half-drunk, family pictures on the walls, and beds just slept in deepened their feelings of depression and displacement. Samuel Bak remembered:

There were things on the tables. Uh, coffee, which people have not finished to drink, food in the kitchen that was just standing there. Some hungry cats moving around, clothes, clothes on, on the chair near a bed. I mean you could feel that people are still living there. We did not know that these people were already by then dead. We thought that… I don’t know what we thought. I cannot say. We, I was completely disoriented.

Since more than 30,000 Jews had to squeeze into space that could hold only one-fifth of that number, people who arrived a few hours later pushed their way into apartments that were already occupied. Fights broke out. Gangsters—the “tough guys,” as they were called in Vilna—used their fists to grab space. But even as more and more Jews crammed into the ghetto buildings, still more masses of people were forced to sleep in the open, in the narrow streets and courtyards of the two ghettos.

To maintain some semblance of order, Jews in each ghetto formed two new Jewish councils, which quickly got down to work. They allocated housing, set up a rudimentary health system, put plans in motion for schools, and established a Jewish police force, commanded in Ghetto 1 by Jacob Gens, a former officer of the Lithuanian Army, who will figure prominently in the subsequent history of the ghetto. Anatol Fried, one of the few survivors of the first Judenrat slaughtered in early September, headed the council in Ghetto 1, while an ad hoc group of Jewish merchants and artisans formed the council in Ghetto 2. 

Some Jews recalled that even in their despair, the first emotion they felt upon entering the ghetto was relief. Now, at least, the Germans and the Lithuanian kidnappers would leave them alone. As Zelig Kalmanovich, a former leader of YIVO, surveyed the crowded lanes packed with people who had nowhere to sleep, he murmured, “Abi tsvishn Yidn.” (At least we’re among our fellow Jews.) His interlocutor, the brilliant Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, penned a poem that began, “Di ershte nakht in geto iz di ershte nakht in keyver. Dernokh gevoynt men zikh shoyn tsu.” (The first night in the ghetto is the first night in the grave. And then you get used to it.) But this fragile optimism did not last. 

The grim reality of the ghetto and the German talent for psychological manipulation quickly ended whatever hopes some Jews had that shared suffering might at least lead to communal solidarity and self-sacrifice. Within days, the Germans spread the word that Ghetto 1, centered on Rudnicka Street, was “better” than the smaller Ghetto 2, which was meant to house “unproductive” elements. Jews in Ghetto 2 did all they could to wangle their way into the “productive” ghetto. (Abram Zeleznikov risked his life to move his mother from one ghetto to the other.) 

The Judenrat in Ghetto 2 asked for a meeting with their counterpart in the larger ghetto and were shocked to learn that the Judenrat there had already written them off. Believing themselves privileged, they showed little concern for the Jews living just a few blocks away. Or at least that’s how the representatives of Ghetto 2 felt. In his memoirs, Mendel Balberyszski, who attended the meeting as a representative of Ghetto 2, recalled, “We were appalled by what we heard from them.”

In their cynical and brilliant game of divide and conquer, the Germans’ main weapon was the shaynen: pieces of paper that supposedly guaranteed life and survival but more often turned out to be worthless markers on the road to death. As Mira Verbin recalled, “Every time they would announce new and different types of certificates.” One day a white shayn promised safety, and Jews used up their last reserves of gold coins and jewels to buy one. Five days later, however, the announcement would come that the white shayn would expire unless it was stamped “artisan.” So there would be another, panicked rush for these new documents, which in turn would be superseded by the yellow shayn (see below). In the meantime, new classes appeared in the ghetto: those who were lucky enough to land an apartment with reserves of food and valuables and those who were not; those with a shayn and those who lacked one; those with personal connections in the Judenrat and those who were friendless. 

But if the Judenrat in Ghetto 1 thought that they were better off, they would soon learn how wrong they were. That September, the Germans continued their roundups in both ghettos, as Ponar claimed more victims. One of the worst days was Yom Kippur. As Jews in Ghetto 2 gathered to pray, squads of Germans and Lithuanians took 1,700 victims to Łukiszki, the way station to Ponar. Jews in the “privileged ghetto” breathed a sigh of relief: they seemed safe. But in the late afternoon, the Germans told the Judenrat in Ghetto 1 to assemble 1,000 Jews at the gate by 7:30 in the evening. Since only a few turned up, the Judenrat ordered the Jewish police to rustle up the requested number. 

The police moved through the ghetto and assured Jews with work papers that if they came to the gate, they would simply get their passes stamped and could then go home. But those who believed the Jewish police and showed up at the gate walked into a trap. The Germans marched 2,200 Jews off to their death—including many who held passes. As the historian Yitzhak Arad points out, that Yom Kippur was yet another turning point in the wartime history of the Vilna Jews: for the first time, the Judenrat and the Jewish police took a direct role in handing Jews over, and the ghetto population accused them of collaboration and treachery. 

But Yom Kippur was only a prelude to the massacres that reached a crescendo in October. Over the course of that month, the remaining Jews in Ghetto 2 were murdered. In mid-October, the Germans announced that all existing passes would lose their validity. Instead, the Labor Bureau would issue 3,000 yellow passes. Each pass, which had to have a registration number and a special stamp, entitled its holder to include a spouse and two children. In all, 12,000 Jews would gain the right to stay in the ghetto. What awaited the 15,000 Jews without passes was all too clear.

Various Jewish institutions received a limited quota of yellow passes, always fewer than the number of employees. It fell to Jewish directors and managers to play God and to decide who would get a pass and who would not. Dr. Mark Dvorzhetski, who worked in the Jewish hospital, recalled how he waited alongside a longtime colleague and friend, Dr. Kolocner, to learn his fate:

Both of us sat in the corridor of the Judenrat waiting to learn what would happen. Even as we chatted, we knew that a shayn for one of us meant death for the other. . . . I got the shayn, my friend was left to his fate. I was ashamed to look him in the face but I took the document and left. In his place he would have done the same.

Crowds gathered in front of the Judenrat headquarters on Rudnicka 6 and noisily accused the Judenrat members of hoarding the precious yellow passes for their friends and relatives. Meanwhile, lucky holders of the passes registered sisters or even mothers as their wives. Women or men without a pass tried to marry someone who had one. People with three children had to figure out which two children to save or find someone who could put an extra child on their pass. Mira Verbin’s sister quickly married a friend from high school who had a pass. There was no way, however, to save aged parents who were abandoned to their fate. 

Those who had no pass had only one option: a malina (hideout). What happened in those hideouts defied description. Mendel Balberyszski remembered that as dozens of terrified Jews cowered in the dark, a mentally disturbed woman suddenly took off her clothes and began to shriek. In other hideouts, people forced mothers to suffocate their children. In one hideout, just as Jews raised a board to let in some breathable air, a passing Lithuanian policeman noticed and took them all away. Yitzhak Rudashevky remembered:

We are like animals surrounded by the hunter. . . . The light of an electric bulb seeps through the cracks. They are pounding and tearing. . . . Suddenly somewhere upstairs a child bursts into tears. We are lost. They stop up the child’s mouth with pillows. The mother of the child is weeping. People shout in wild terror that the child should be strangled. The child is shouting more loudly, the Lithuanians are pounding more strongly against the walls.

Fortunately, that hideout survived, and just in the nick of time Rudashevsky’s mother even secured a yellow pass. On October 24, all holders of yellow passes had to appear at the ghetto gate with their spouses and children for a detailed check. They were then sent to the now-empty Ghetto 2—to allow the Germans and Lithuanians to comb through Ghetto 1. Rudashevsky wrote in his diary:

Grandmother cannot go with us. We are in despair. People can no longer enter the hideout in our courtyard. They have locked themselves in from the inside. . . . We quickly say goodbye to grandmother—forever. We leave her alone in the middle of the street and we run to save ourselves. I shall never forget the two imploring hands and eyes which begged, “Take me along.” We left the ghetto. 

The searches for hidden Jews finally petered out in December 1941. By the beginning of 1942, there were about 20,000 Jews in the ghetto: 12,000 who were legal residents—yellow pass holders and their relatives—and about 8,000 who were “illegal” and for whom the Judenrat eventually secured some kind of pass. 

During the mass murders, which claimed the lives of about 33,000 Vilna Jews in the second half of 1941, few in the ghetto thought about resistance. People were too busy just trying to find food, a roof over their heads, a pass, a job. Nonetheless, here and there, Jews defied the Germans and the Lithuanians. Sutzkever reported that as the 18-year-old Moshe Frumkin was marching with others to the Łukiszki prison, he suddenly yelled, “Don’t let them take you! Escape into the streets!” Dozens were gunned down, but many, including Frumkin, managed to escape.

One group in the Vilna ghetto that struggled to maintain social cohesion during this traumatic time was the cadre of youth movement leaders, the activists of the HeHalutz (the Pioneer), an umbrella organization that included some key Zionist groupings: Dror, headed by Mordechai Tenenbaum; Hashomer Hatzair, led by Abba Kovner; and Hanoar Hatzioni, led by Nisan Resnick. (Another important youth movement, Betar, would play a key role in the Jewish police as well as in the future underground resistance.)

During the months of roundups and mass murder, activists from these prewar youth movements stuck together and did what they could to survive. In their late teens and early twenties, most of them were unmarried. The bonds of ideological commitment and comradeship, formed over the course of many years, deepened in the face of German persecution as these young people, like other Jews, tried to figure out what to do. Some youth movement leaders established contact with non-Jews who stood ready to help, and this enabled several to elude the roundups. For many weeks, friendly nuns hid Abba Kovner of Hashomer Hatzair in a convent, while Mordechai Tenenbaum of Dror secured fake papers that identified him as a Tatar. He also befriended an Austrian sergeant, Anton Schmid, who would soon help them in many important ways.

As one German roundup followed the next in the last few months of 1941, the leaders of the youth movements in the Vilna ghetto had sharp disagreements over the greater significance of the mass murders in Vilna and in Lithuania. Was this disaster just the beginning of a diabolical German plan to destroy all the Jews of Europe? Or did the killings reflect the specific antisemitism of the Lithuanian population? 

By the end of December 1941, 80 percent of Lithuanian Jewry had been annihilated, with only about 40,000 Jews left in the ghettos of Kovno, Vilna, Shavil, and Svientsyan. But elsewhere, most Jewish population centers were untouched. Some leaders, like Mordechai Tenenbaum, argued that the killings in Lithuania were a local phenomenon. What his comrades should do, he urged, was to get out of Vilna and go to other cities, such as Białystok and Warsaw, which seemed “safer.” Using their contacts with the Austrian sergeant, Tenenbaum and his friends eventually left the Vilna ghetto. 

But Abba Kovner of Hashomer Hatzair challenged Tenenbaum. Kovner was convinced that Lithuania was just the beginning of the planned annihilation of all European Jewry. Jews had to wake up and realize that all German promises were worthless, that hopes to buy time through labor were illusory, and that the only option was to prepare to fight back. 

Kovner and others prepared a proclamation that would be read in Yiddish and Hebrew at a special meeting called for New Year’s Eve 1941. Hopefully, the Germans and Lithuanians would be inebriated enough to leave them alone. This meeting laid the groundwork for the special resistance organization, the United Partisan Organization (FPO), which would form in the Vilna ghetto in 1942. Kovner’s proclamation read in part: 

Your children, your wives, and husbands are no more. Ponar is no concentration camp. All were shot dead there. Hitler conspires to kill all the Jews of Europe, and the Jews of Lithuania are just the first victims. Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter. True, we are weak and defenseless. But the only answer to the murderer is: Rise up! Get weapons!

A new year was beginning in the ghetto. Compared with 1941, 1942 would be relatively “quiet.” The Jews of the ghetto settled in, worked for the Germans, and hoped against hope that someway, somehow, they might yet survive the war.