Vileyka Natives in the Vilna
Translated from Hebrew by
Eilat Levitan and Ona Kondrotas
June 22, 1941
Broken sidewalks and uneven
cobblestones, still crooked from the Stalinovic tanks and katucha, were
unmistakable reminders of the Soviet invasion of the previous year. Now
we listened for a Soviet response to the Nazi bombing, but none came
not even a shot. Had they tricked us, pretending to be invincible?
The streets are filled with
people; in front of the gate to our yard, the neighbors, a mixture of
Jews and gentiles, speak (since when are they so friendly?). Everyone
is discussing the news on the radio, repeating Molotovs statement:
The Lithuanians betrayed the Soviets, like putting a knife in their backs.
Molotovs statement is repeated by the Polish doorman, who betrays
his elation, and by the Soviet Varstanzig clerk from the East, who repeats
it with bitterness and disgust.
Long lines form in the bakeries,
especially the central ones of town. People are preparing, hoarding bread
for any trouble to come. Green trucks keep driving through the streets;
when one looks inside, one sees large Soviet families going back east
to the Soviet Union. All of our new neighbors the Russians that
arrived from the east a year ago and still hadnt really mixed with
the local population immediately understand the meaning of this
new situation and come to the right conclusions. All the belongings that
they purchased in impoverished Lithuania they now gather in bundles. They
dress in their best clothing, and the women stand in the yards with their
children, waiting for their husbands to arrive with trucks and take them
to their homeland. Meanwhile, they pull into the yards furniture they
only recently bought, not wanting to leave it behind: who knows if they
will get a chance to purchase such items in the Soviet Union?
At four in the afternoon, we
gather by the office of preservation of national possessions, on Rodinsky
Street, and here we receive commission to serve as guards during curfew
hours. With us is Aaron Epstein and his brother Alexander, sons of Leib
Epstein, from Vileyka. They tell me that today they met the well-known
Rabbi Alter Parlov and his wife, from Keidanov and Branovic. The couple
came to Vilna during the Soviet occupation in an attempt to flee, having
already handed in their immigration papers. Here too is an old rebbetzin,
the widow of Rabbi Josef, and her daughter Sara; the two had also applied
for immigration at the NKVD. Now the two families have left the apartment
and are hiding in an attic near the big synagogue on Novgorod Street.
They are hiding from the NKVD, who are looking to arrest and send them
to Siberia for their attempt to immigrate. They now asked whether they
should return to their old apartment or remain in hiding, fearful of capture.
If only they were lucky enough to go to Siberia!
The wives of the Soviet officials
sat on their suitcases in the yard, waiting for their husbands. The yard
guard was responsible for everyone that lived there, and so when someone
came in from outside he would check them very carefully, fearing a disturbance.
Whenever anyone entered, the wives of the Soviets would ask him, "is
he one of ours?". I noticed that someone dressed very fancily came
to the yard a few times throughout the night, and looked in through the
windows. He would go up and down the stairs and then out. He repeated
this several times. The Polish guard told me in anger that it had been
a few days now that this NKVD man would come, looking for victims. The
person he was looking for knew about him and was hiding at a friends
"Even today," the
guard said, "during the explosions, he keeps coming to look."
One can now understand why I suggested to Aaron Epstein that the rebbetzen
remain in hiding.
Two days before the raid, I
found myself in Deutsche Street (Voke?iu G.), visiting the Parlev family,
who lived at Deutsche 8, in the Schulhof region. The rabbis wife
told me that only a few days ago she had returned with her daughter Sara
from Novgorod Street. When she entered her home, she learned that thieves
had broken in and plundered it, taking some precious antique silver artifacts.
These religious artifacts were heirlooms that had been in her family for
many generations. Amongst them was the Blessing Cup that once belonged
to the Holy Jew from Przysucha, whose descendant she is. The thieves also
stole her money and other possessions. The house looked as if a pogrom
had just occurred there. The rebbetzin was not as upset about the clothing
and money, although she could have exchanged them for food, as about the
holy artifacts that had belonged to the most famous Hasids of older generations.
She had inherited them, and it was from her possession that they had been
stolen. The one blessing, she said, was that she had been able to convince
her children to immigrate to Israel, and her son, Rabbi Avraham, had immigrated
during the last possible hours.
During the pogrom that took
place in Deutsche Street on August 31st, the rebbetzin and her daughter
Sara were taken to their deaths in Lukiskes Prison and Ponar.
In the Judenrat building, on
Straszuna Street 6, every day gathered dozens of people wanting to take
part in physical labor. They wanted to work because they were very fearful
of the Nazis and their collaborators, who would come to the ghetto and
kidnap people, later to kill in Lukiskes Prison and Ponar. They also knew
that at work, they sometimes had the opportunity to meet gentile acquaintances
and trade some possessions for food. It is interesting that the first
people who registered to work were the refugees: leftover yeshiva students
who were not able to leave Vilna with the yeshiva, members of the Zionist
movement who had come here in an attempt to immigrate, and some renters
who had come to Vilna in the last few years. Residents of the town who
were home-owners Independent Vilna Owners, as they were known
did not take part in the labor and thus became the main victims of the
kidnappings and killings at Ponar.
The famous Rabbi Alter Parlov
was amongst those refugees who came to the Judenrat building, but someone
soon made him a Judenrat member. He always greeted me with great happiness
upon seeing me after the daily work was over. His job at the Judenrat
was to sign out all the people leaving for work in the morning; when they
returned in the evening he always made sure that each person returned
in peace. Sometime during the Yellow ID Action of 1941, during the Jewish
month of Cheshvan, at the end of the day, Rabbi Alter's malina, or hideout
den in the Klois yard, was discovered. Nazis found the hiding place and,
together with the father-in-law of Aaron Epstein, Rabbi Alter Parlov and
his wife were taken by the murders to Lukiskes Prison and Ponar.
I recall another, happier,
day, when the Jews entered the ghetto and I meet them on Straszuna Street,
looking for apartments. All their belongings were hidden in a basket that
the Rabbis wife carried. I remember how happy they were in the ghetto
when they established a department for housing, butu skyrius. This department
was instituted by the Judenrat, and it was decided then that each family
would live together in one yard and would not depend on the kindness of
others for housing.
Jewish month of Tevet, 1942
I started working as a smith
for a German military unit. My work place was in Rogteks in Snipisiuk.
Our smithy opened onto the street. People who traveled to town from the
direction of Misigula, Vilkija, and Podebrad would all pass by. Our gentile
neighbors knew us, the two Jewish smiths who wore yellow tags, and recognized
the German officers with the red badges of the SD who would often scream
and become wild, so the neighbors would try to avoid passing by the smithy.
One day, during the month of
Tevet of 1942, I noticed a sleigh harnessed to a horse and, nearby, saw
a very tall gentile whose gait seemed familiar. When this Christian man
came near, I recognized that it was Michael the Blind from Vileyka, who
brought the wife of a Polish officer from Vileyka to Vilna, to stay with
her relatives. Trains were not running from Vileyka to Vilna, so she had
come in a sleigh.
Meetings with Chaykel Lunski
My meetings with Chaykel Lunksi
Lunski took place at a Strassen in Vilna. I did not recognize him when
I met him in the winter of 1941, because he had been forced to shave his
beard, and his face was hollowed out from starvation, and he was very
depressed. His eyes looked feverish and large in their sockets. A few
families were practically starving in his ghetto household, and he was
the only man working and was trying to feed them. In his usual way, he
worked for them like this modestly and in secret. I saw how difficult
his work was for him, but he was not used to asking people for help, even
for the sake of others, despite the fact that nobody would have refused
As we conversed, he mentioned
the library, saying that the keys to it were still with him, since he
had worked there until the day it was closed. One day, members of the
German secret police came to Lunski's house, ordering him to bring his
library keys, and took him to the Gestapo. They asked him about all the
precious archived books that were a rare and invaluable part of the librarys
collection. Recording everything, they insisted on knowing the exact location
and titles of these books. Meanwhile, they put him in Lukiskes Prison,
in cell number 16 in the basement. In this cell, he found professor Noah
Prilutski, Doctor Epstein, and Professor Lesersohn. During the three days
that Lunski stayed with them, Pelutski and Epstein were very depressed.
In the ghetto, he worked as
a simple laborer doing odd jobs, until the Judenrat arranged for a ghetto
library, where he became the librarian. This library was established on
Straszuna Street. All his days Lunski lived in poverty, but never lost
hope until his last moments, when he perished in an Estonian camp.
At one point, there was news
in the ghetto that the Germans had bombarded Tel Aviv and Haifa, approaching
the borders of Israel. This rumor truly scared the residents of the Vilna
ghetto. The rabbis declared a day of fasting and in the synagogue, they
themselves prayed and read certain religious passages from Psalms. Many
were already very depressed by the condition, and this announcement further
dampened their mood. Chaykel Lunski came, saying that he had found an
old prophetic book in the library stating that a truly evil kingdom was
to conquer most of the European countries and arrive at the gates of the
land of Israel, and only there would it experience the mighty hand of
God that would conduct the same miracles as it had with the Egyptians.
This brought great hope to the ghetto inhabitants, and they now fully
believed that the enemy would be annihilated, and destruction would begin
in the land of Israel.
The Rabbi and his Problems
Near my ghetto apartment lived
the family of Tankun, the former owners of a pharmacy in Poholenka Street.
His family was very close to that of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Zalmanovich,
who lived on the same street. The old rabbi was the only one left of his
entire family. Together with the Rabbi Pylavski, his son-in-law Rabbi
Yitzhak Kurnik, and Rabbi Israel Guttesman, these were the only four rabbis
left from the entire Vilna rabbinical community. The wife of the old rabbi,
the rabbis son - Doctor Hillel Zalmanovich, and Hillels family
were kidnapped by the Germans and taken to be killed at Lukiskes Prison
The family of Tankun was very
helpful to the old rabbi, often inviting him to their home to eat with
them. He ate with them every Tuesday, and they assisted and supported
him in his loneliness. During the winter of 1942, the rabbi often complained
to this friends, saying as if talking to himself, I dont understand
what the Commandant of the ghetto, Mr. Gens*, wants of me. He keeps asking,
Does the religion permit giving up Jews who are handicapped, old,
or sick to the Gestapo in exchange for the promise that the rest of the
Jews of the ghetto be kept alive? He wants me to give him permission
to turn over Jews to be killed in order to save those who are young and
healthy! I keep telling him, how can you demand of me to give permission
for something the Torah disallows!? Dont you know you cant
discriminate between the young and old!? I keep bringing him passages
of Rambam, and other Jewish writings, but he keeps insisting, I
ask you, as a rabbi, to give me permission!. And I cannot understand,
why does he keep asking me to give permission!? I wonder, would he not
do what he intends to do without getting my permission... He concluded,
After this conversation, I started following the orders of the Commandant
but I understand that his conscience will not let him rest, and he is
looking for a way to ease his guilt.
Winter of 1942
It has been days since passage
in and out the ghetto has become very difficult. To sneak food into the
ghetto has become nigh on impossible. The police check all the belongings
of the workers, trying to find anything contraband, and your fate is in
your own hands if any food or forbidden possessions are found. Bread has
become very expensive, costing more than 40 Rubles for one kilogram, and
to be able to get such an amount of money has become very difficult. Legumes
are impossible to acquire. Both young and old walk around starving and
disheartened. Since I work as a smith outside of the ghetto, I look for
ways to get some food in my workplace so I dont have to take the
food of the starving Jews locked in the ghetto.
One day, I was able to sell
some possessions and clothes to a Christian neighbor near my workplace
in return for a few items of food like potatoes, flour, and vegetables.
But how am I to transfer this food to the ghetto? The Christian man was
very content regarding the exchange. For the good clothes I gave him,
I received only some potatoes, flour, and vegetables that he usually fed
to his livestock. Yet this Christian Polish man wanted to prove to me,
a poor Jew, that he had Polish royal blood, so he invited me to a meal
attended by his son and the sons fiancé. On the table stood
a large pot containing baked meat with cabbage and oil. Another pot was
piled high with potatoes. The strong smell of the cabbage made my empty
stomach growl. For a minute, I felt as if only by looking at the food
I was gaining nourishment from it, but when the Christian man encouraged
me to take part in the meal, I told him, I thank you greatly for
the invitation but I cannot accept because the meat is not kosher and
I cannot eat it. He was truly shocked, but pressed on, trying to
convince me to eat. He wanted to show me that he was familiar with the
Jewish rules and pointed out that in cases of saving a persons life
one is allowed to discount the kosher rules. He said he had other Jewish
friends who in these times would not decline such a meal in order to save
themselves. Despite his pleas, I refused to eat.
Next door to our apartment
in the ghetto lived Lena Kopilovic, the granddaughter of Yitzhak Kopilovic
from Vileyka (known as Der Glassner). She had moved to Vilna, and worked
as a nurse at the hospital. Even now she worked as nurse, and although
she could hardly sustain herself, she took meticulous care of sick patients.
Every day, she would return home exhausted from this hard labor and the
lack of food to sustain her already-emaciated figure. The food that she
received at work she shared with her two sisters, who were sick and could
not work. The sisters did not want to register themselves as sick and
receive the designated sickbed rations because they were too fearful of
being black-listed as ineffectual and then killed by Nazis.
After some time of such conditions,
Lena became sick and was operated on but passed away in the same hospital
where she worked. Everyone was jealous of her: the nurses as well as the
members of the house envied her of her natural death, as opposed to one
at the hands of the Nazis. When I returned from work, the relatives of
the deceased, the mother of the doctor Gileles, and other neighbors waited
for me to ask a moral religious question: since the sisters of the deceased
were now in such a terrible state, sick and starving, and their supporter
was dead, would it be unethical or shameful if they removed Lenas
gold teeth and sold them so the sisters could buy some food? Was it permissible,
they asked, in order to save souls, to sacrilege in this way?
When the sisters heard of the
relatives' pleas, they said, how can you even consider such a thing!?
We are fully ready to die rather than shame the honor of our sister by
removing her gold teeth!
The Nazi action**
collecting people from the Vilna ghetto and sending them to Estonia lasted
three days. The first Jews taken were those who had recently arrived from
abolished camps and neighboring towns like Oshmiany, Smorgon, and Svenciunai.
These Jews received notice that they must come to the yard of the Judenrat,
but, in spite of this the ghetto police went to peoples homes and
physically forced them to the yard of the Judenrat next morning. Some
Jews were able to prepare malinas, or hideouts, ahead of time, and thus
were not taken. Since the Germans had issued a quota of Jews they intended
to take, when the police could not fulfill this order they started kidnapping
anyone whom they could catch.
During the first day of this
action, I hid with my neighbor in a childrens home on Straszuna
Street 4. The four floors of this building were filled with children;
on the top floor I found an out-of-the-way small corner room, between
a window, another room, and the roof - this was an ideal hideout. In this
building, a twelve year old child a refugee from Poland, a relative
of Ytzhak Livschitz from Vileyka was hiding. I already knew this
child in 1940, when he came as a refugee from an area of Poland occupied
by Germans. This child was very clever and quick, becoming the ghettos
contact with the outside world. When this action started, however, and
the police announced that everyone must come the yard, even the children
were told to go to their study rooms and not walk outdoors. So now we
were left without a contact.
Once, I saw in one of the windows
a pile of books, and behind them, hiding, a Vileyka native Jakov
Levin, the son of Schmuel the kosher slaughterer. Being an active member
of the underground, he had in his hand a machine gun.
My Last Day in the Vilna Ghetto,
Tuesday November 14, 1943
It had been eight days since
the action sending people to Estonia had finished, although, I thought,
perhaps this was just a break in the action. Now all Jewish workers were
forbidden to work outside; the ghetto had become hermetically sealed.
Around the ghetto, armed police, compromised of Lithuanians, Latvians,
and Germans, kept watch. Each corner where the ghetto bordered the city
was diligently guarded. Thousands of people had already been sent to the
killing camps in Estonia during the first four days of the action. Amongst
them, were the Vileyka natives Alexander and Aaron, sons of Leib Epstein,
and Pesah Levinsohn, son of Lipah, with his wife, who was also from Vileyka.
Very few Jews had received special permits from the Gestapo to work, and
those that did work did so only on the condition that special units of
Germans and collaborators would guard the Jews on the way to work and
when they returned to the ghetto.
Every day a car would arrive
at the Panzer unit that was part of the HKP, guarded by German soldiers.
It took with it the remainder of Jewish workers. I was amongst these workers.
The ghetto was in dire situation: food had become even more expensive,
vegetables cost 70 to 80 Rubles per kilo and were almost impossible to
get. The lines for public restaurants became longer and the cooks served
soup that was practically clear. Fear still permeated the ghetto, a fear
that had not subsided since the raids. The rest of the ghetto inhabitants
looked for any jobs they could find in order to survive. Jews who had
earlier had special privileges and worked in town now found ways to get
new jobs, but there were others in the ghetto who did not leave their
hideouts. They did not trust anyone and decided that they would be safest
in hiding; but how long can one sustain oneself in such a situation? During
the day one encountered nobody in the ghetto. After five oclock,
when people returned from their workplaces, the streets filled with young
and old, with everyone discussing the situation, rumors, and hopes.
One day we found out that Gens
and Dessler had been ordered to go to the Gestapo. Gens was imprisoned
by the Gestapo, but Dessler returned that afternoon. Strong rumors circulated
that something horrible had happened, that there had been some informer.
The Camp of the HKP
In the HKP unit, everyone was
very nervous since our leader announced that he was going to look for
a permit to take all the people who worked for him outside of the ghetto
to a separate camp, one similar to the Kriegslazarett. The Commandant
of the ghetto, Gens, opposed this plan, saying that the appropriate place
for workers was in the ghetto and not outside of it. The unofficial brigadier
of HKP unit was Pincher, a teacher who had come to Vilna as a refugee.
A decent man, he was liked by the unit. He would usually sit in his office-like
room on Jetkowa Street. By evening, the room would be filled with workers
of the unit, begging him to do something to get the HKP unit out of the
ghetto and to a safer location, like the special camp. Poor Pincher would
ask in a naïve tone, what do you want from me? Dont you
know the brigadier of the unit Kulich, is one Gens people?
He is an ex-policeman, and they are the ones who will decide our fates,
not I. We cannot change anything.
In the streets, a rumor spread
that a group of young men in the ghetto, who were not members of the PPA
(the official resistance movement), wanted to escape the ghetto to the
forest but the Jewish policemen resisted this idea. The Jewish policemen
once again separated people, to prevent such a collective escape. Life
became very difficult. Despite this, we all knew that some members of
the police were active members of the PPA.
Fearful Night in the Ghetto:
Midnight of September 15, 1943
The streets are filled with
people and the narrow alleys cannot contain them all. Here, at this moment,
one could find practically every surviving Jew in Vilna. I encountered
Shlomo Kevis, his wife, daughter, and son from Vileyka. His wife said
that their room is like a low-ceilinged catacomb, and when they are inside
they must continuously stoop. Shlomo now worked as a cobbler for the Germans,
making slippers. He received this job upon arrival here from the ghetto
of another town. His son and daughter went everyday with the TAT to work
at building a highway at the outskirts of the town, on the road to Ponar.
Shlomos sister Rivka and her husband, Ytzhak Livschitz, were also
there, with their son and daughter. They claimed that this was the most
stressful time they had experienced during the entire war years.
Livschitz worked for a shoe-polish
factory, the same factory that he used to once own, and is now in the
hands of a Christian man, who used to work for him. Livschitz gave him
all rights to the factory; in return, the man arranged for Livschitzs
special permit to leave the ghetto to work. Ever since Jews permits
to work outside the ghetto were revoked, Livschitz had been working in
one of the small factories in the ghetto.
Batjah Edelman Golum and her
husband Boryah were very fortunate in their evasion of the kidnappers;
they were not sent to Estonia. Boryah said, I was born in Vilna
and raised here and every corner and stone here is known to me. How can
I go to Estonia? I dont even know the language there! All I want
is to join the PPA and escape to the forest
He was never able
to achieve this goal.
The Ghetto Bakery
The bakery fills the air with
the smell of freshly baked bread. As soon as the people smell it, immediately
they stand in line, dozens of them. They threatened the owner of the bakery
and so he has started selling bread to each person by the quarter kilogram.
Everyone is elated to receive bread. It is now eleven at night. Rumors
have spread that Gens was shot by Noig Boyer because he was found guilty
of contact with Lithuanian partisans. Others say that this is not true,
that some of Gens acquaintances in the Gestapo told him ahead of
time that they were to kill him and suggested that he escape, but he didnt,
saying that he could not betray and forget his responsibility to the Jews
of the ghetto. Now a conversation ensued about the character of Gens,
with everyone in the crowd giving his opinion. Most had a positive view
of him: he was a proud Jew, but all that he did was good in the long run,
improving lives of Jews in the ghetto. Others said, his intentions
may have been positive, but some of his actions were not quite as good.
The members of the unit of the HKP whispered amongst themselves, and were
very fearful of saying the improper thing. Some said that if the ghetto
commandant was no longer here, nobody was left to stand up for the Jews
and nobody would now object to the idea of moving to a camp outside of
The next morning, we learned
that Dessler was appointed as the ghetto commandant instead of Gens, and
the murderer Kipler became head of the police.
Leaving the Ghetto: September
The next morning, it was announced
that all HKP members wanting to go to a special camp in town must register
in the office of the unit, the Gestapo. About three hundred families (about
nine hundred people) could leave the ghetto and go to Bilieger Hauser
(in German, affordable housing). The buildings that were established by
Baron Hirsch on Suba?iaus Street 19. After they received permits to leave
the ghetto, everyone started organizing and registering, running all around.
Some said that it was not a good idea to leave the ghetto, that it would
be better to share the fate of those still here, whatever this would be.
If the inhabitants of the ghetto could not survive, how could a group
of one thousand Jews survive outside of it? Other said that the Heiles
camp had already been in existence for some years and its residents lived
much better lives that Jews in the ghetto did. The others answered that
the reason the camp members survived was only because of the protection
the ghetto offered them whenever they encountered some problems,
the ghetto workers, commandant ,and Judenrat worked on their behalf to
solve them. While these arguments went on, we encountered new faces; the
Jewis with special privileges came to sign themselves up as special workers
in the HKP. Until now, they had paid with good money to ensure thier survival.
They seemed to know how to escape troubles of any kind. The wives of all
the Jews taken to Estonia now registered as their husbands, taking their
As the day came to conclusion,
all the people who had registered were told to come for special permits
and to leave the ghetto in cars assigned for the job. Each group received
a different departure time, and were told to wait at the corner of Jetkova
and Disnanski Street on an empty lot with all their belongings.
I registered with the HKP without
any hesitation or further thought. Some inexplicable instinct drew us
to do it, for everyone from the Panzer unit registered. When I returned
from the registry office, I went to the camp and met Rabbi Yitzhak Kornik,
the son-in-law of Rabbi Pilovski from Piskas. He had been a member of
the rabbinical court of Vilna already at the time of Rabbi Chaim Ozer
Grodzensky and was considered among the most promising of young rabbis.
I asked his opinion about my leaving the ghetto to join the HKP, and he
immediately said, I look very positively on it. If I received such
an opportunity, I would immediately leave. He gave me a quick sermon
about the issues of security in Judaism and the special location and priveledges
of Vilna, Jerusalem of Lithuania. He suggested that keeping the family
as one unit and staying together was unadvisable at such a dangerous time.
The Torah-learned people of the past saw going to exile as a positive
thing, believing that if the Jews diffused and spread, at least a few
were bound to survive.
After some of the families
living in our apartment had been sent to Estonia, our crowded condition
improved. When I came home and announced to my family that we must prepare
to leave home the next day, the other residents of the house were not
pleased. They were not jealous on the contrary, they acted sorry
for us. Where are they taking you? Are you sure it is not a trap?
they asked. Berta and Manya Kopilovich, the two granddaughters of Yitzhak,
der Glassner from Vileyka, could not accept the fact that we will leave
them behind. You were able to overcome all the troubles you encountered
here! they say. Why are you going to an unknown place?
In spite of their protests, we started giving our humble possessions away
namely, our furnace and our firewood. We didnt have to spend
much time organizing our belongings, as we were left with so little. All
of them could be put into one or two sacks.
It was very difficult to say
goodbye to the household members. We went through a long period of danger
together with these people; we had been partners in destiny and we did
not know if this would be our last meeting. In a childs stroller,
we transferred our few belongings to Disnanski street, and waited for
the HKP car to arrive.
Rabbi Jakov Zladin
On the way, I met with Rabbi
Jakov Zladin, one of the best students of Beit Joself Yeshiva, and the
spiritual leader of the Lutsk Yeshiva. Some years before, he came to Vilna
with his students from Lutsk, and found himself stuck here as a refugee.
Now he looked sick his face was white as chalk. During the four
days of the Estonia action, he had hid in a malina, where he had no food
or water and almost suffocated. Now he was very serious, and his eyes
burned in their sockets. He was looking for something to eat for family
he had adopted in the ghetto. He felt responsible for about forty families
mostly widows and orphans whose husbands and fathers were taken
away by the Nazis. They all depended on him. It became known in the synagogue
beit shaul how charitable he was, and so people shared with him food and
money. His family was in Lutsk and he had no information about them. He,
too, saw my leaving the ghetto as a good idea, saying that even if there
was only a 1% chance of saving oneself, it made such an attempt right.
He said to me, you know my saying: our struggle to survive, here
in the ghetto, is the way we make Gods name holy. This we should
remind ourselves morning and evening to console ourselves, finding every
way and opportunity to survive, even if only one of us will be able to
live to tell the next generation what has been done to us at the hand
of the Nazis - 'members of the most cultured and enlightened nation in
I understand the way he reasoned.
We met often, but one conversation in particular comes to mind. It occurred
during the three-day raid when Nazis discovered the hideout in the attic
of the synagogue beit shaul. During this raid, many rabbis and important
religious Jews were discovered and taken to be killed in Lukiskes Prison.
When we learned that Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman was kidnapped from the Kovno
ghetto, I asked him, what right do we have to be amongst the few
rabbis who survived in the ghetto while some of the most famous and righteous
yeshiva leaders like Rabbi Wasserman, Salmon von Eishyshok, and the 'one
quote from Shzozin' perished? Why did the few of us survive?
He said, to explain this,
we must learn from the first Jew in the world, Father Abraham, and his
son Isaac, and recall that the highest level for a Torah Jew is martyrdom.
When a man is finally willing to give his soul as a martyr and to make
the name of God holy, his individual identity and self-preservation exist
no more, and all that is left is the desire to ascend and become One with
Eternity itself. Very few are able to ascend to such a state. Those who
manage to reach it have a huge spiritual reserve, and this is the reason
why righteous men died thus, while we live on. We still have a long journey
to travel until we reach such a state. You must prepare yourself to overcome
tribulations in order to be capable of spiritual introspection. We must
experience much and endure many troubles before we are able to arrive
at the highest spiritual state as martyrs.
Rabbi Jakov responded, there
is no contradiction here. A man cannot climb the steps of the ladder without
being alive to climb them in the first place. The dead have no more need
of spiritually ascending. Clearly, the ways of the Holy are hidden from
us. A person who still possesses hope and trust has many opportunities
to improve himself, especially in our time. Even with one word of comfort
and encouragement one saves other souls, and especially when what one
is saying is something one really believes in. Then the words you one
is saying are like seeds that take root and bring hope and faith to others.
So you can lift people from despair. The world is free for you to study
the Torah and moral rule and to avoid temptation, even in these miserable
conditions. But this is only possible if you are alive. As Chafetz Chaim
said: even one recited passage from Psalms or one Mishna chapter would
have no import in the world above if you did not prepare for it in this,
our lower world. But this world is not really a lower world. Anyone who
is blessed with a good brain can use his gifts. A person who, during his
life here, collects Torahs, and for whom Torah studies are a first priority,
does not leave this world of illusions empty-handed when he dies. The
way to reach the stage of martyrdom is through life. This is why you must
now put effort into survival. You must struggle to survive in any possible
It seemed like he opened his
heart up to me at that moment, and started talking non-stop, but as if
not seeing me, looking at the clouds in the sky, the white clouds moving
in the sky, while standing in the ruins of Disninski street on the corner
A Smith in the HKP Camp of
The HKP camp of Vilna was in
a building on Valkovsky Street, in the neighborhood of ?nipiskes. There
was also an auto-mechanic shop to repair transportation vehicles here,
as well as a barrack of two rooms, intended to contain 120 workers. Their
families lived in the main camp on Sobotsh Street. Every morning, at six,
the Nazis arranged a headcount: a Jewish policeman counted the workers,
giving a report to the Lithuanian guards and the SS men at the head of
the guard unit. Upon our return from work, there another such headcount.
In the middle of the winter,
I was transferred to the main camp to work in a smithy. Here the new rules
stated that professional workers must arrive together at the workplace
the Hallah (the big room of the smithy) - and sign their names
in a notebook belonging to this unit to register their arrival. From here,
they dispersed, each one to his own workplace. Only the physical laborers
in the yard were given a headcount, while the rest of us signed in. The
same arrangement also existed for Sabbath all the workers had to
come, sign in, and return to work. I did not know of the Sabbath rules
and so I came to work that day to ask the man in charge not to give me
any job that would require me to do physical work desecrating the Sabbath.
Since one is not allowed to write on Sabbath, I did not sign my name.
Instead, I went directly to the workplace. Usually, anyone not signing
his name in the notebook was treated as absent from work. If he was sick,
then an SS man with a doctor would come to check him. If the doctor found
him healthy, the punishment would be notorious...
From then on, every Friday,
I had to sign ahead for the page left for the Sabbath. Every Sabbath at
six in the morning I came with the rest of the workers to the place where
they signed, but one time I noticed that the German SS commander took
the book before anyone signed and looked at it to make sure that no Jewish
workers who wanted to sleep late on Saturday had signed the book on Friday.
He kept looking for a signature in the notebook so he could satisfy his
urge to hurt some Jew. Finally, the SS man put the notebook down and left,
not realizing my signature was already in it. The brigadier, Schneider,
who had signed my name the previous night, was vey nervous. He stood stone-still,
not able to say a word for fear of my name being found. Finally, when
the SS man left he came down and said, do you see!? Do you see what
The Engineer Joselsohn
The engineer Joselsohn worked
as a bathhouse attendant in the HKP in Vilna. It seems like ever since
he arrived in the camp with the other survivors, he could not lift his
eyes from the ground and was filled with despair. His heavy wooden shoes
and patched clothes made of flour- and sugar-sacks made him a recognizable
personage in the HKP. The bathhouse he worked in was located on the bottom
floor of Block A, and every day I would encounter Joselsohn on the way
to work and when I returned. Every Saturday and Sunday, I would converse
with him. In fact, I knew him ever since he was a successful wholesale
merchant before the war.
As I knew him to be a deep
thinker, I asked him, Why are you isolating yourself so? Do you
think you are alone in your troubles? Don't you know: when your troubles
are shared by many, half of your salvation is in that very fact."
He answered that when he found a chance, he would tell me about his woes.
During one of our subsequent
conversations, he said, there are two things I cannot forgive myself
for. On one occasion, I was too rushed, and did something I shouldnt
have, and then I thought too much, and did not do something I should have.
Both of these incidents occurred when the Gestapo soldiers discovered
our malina hideout, after the ghetto was liquidated. They brought my wife,
my daughter, my mother, and me to prison cell number 17 in the Gestapo.
We knew we were on the road to Ponar to be executed.
The next morning, the
Nazis took me to work and I knew that the fate of the women was already
decided. I learned from people who worked in the Gestapo that on certain
occasions, people would be transferred from their imprisonment to the
camp of the HKP if they bribed the Nazis with gold. I also found out that
Martin Weiss, the Hanger of the Gestapo, was the one who made
the final decision about inmates. So I thought to myself, what is
anything I hid underground worth to me if my family members do not survive?
and I said to Weiss, I have a big treasure in town. If you release
my family in cell number 17 in the Gestapo I will give you my treasure,
which contains gold and diamonds. Weiss answered me in a very gentle
way, swearing by the honor of a German officer, that he would release
my family. Meanwhile, he said, be prepared. Tomorrow
we will go to get your treasure. If you lied to me, you will suffer greatly.
The family was ready
to be released. The next morning, he took me in his car to Pilsudski Street.
Gestapo officers stood outside, guarding the yard of our home. Together
with Weiss, we entered the basement. I took a shovel and other tools and
started digging. I needed to dig about a meter under the ground, and Weiss
took turns with me in digging. As I was holding an iron pole in my hand,
I said to myself, here is the murderer of tens of thousands of Jewish
victims who were killed for no reason, and now I have an opportunity to
avenge them and kill him right here. I kept considering this, but
then I thought, its fine if you will lose your life for killing
this man, but why your family, too? This could be your chance to let them
survive. The thoughts kept coming to my head as the hole became
deeper and deeper. Finally, Weiss reached the treasure and his hands shook
when he saw what these bags contained. I was filled with self-loathing
at my weakness. Why didnt I kill this murderer, standing in this
basement? Who knows how many Jews would still be executed at his hands?
We quickly returned to
the Gestapo, and the first thing I asked him to do was release my family
from their cells. Reaching the Gestapo, we found that during the time
we had spent in the basement all the Jews imprisoned in cell 17 were taken
to Ponar, among them my wife, daughter, and mother and they had
all perished there. I screamed at Weiss, is that your promise of
retribution? Is that the honorable word of a German officer?
Ever since then, I keep
beating myself. How could I be so easily deceived? How could I have believed
a murderer whose hands were stained by the blood of the Jewish nation?
Why did I offer him such a deal that by its very nature allowed him not
only to murder but inherit the riches of his victims!? This louse does
not let me rest either during the day or night. All I see around me is
darkness without one ray of light. As long as this nation of desecrators
exists, no light will come to the house of Israel. This is my private
story and when I think of my future, I dont see any value in life.
I dont see any reason to go to all the troubles and pain that we
experience in order to survive and see a new world of tomorrow
cant imagine the state of the Jewish nation after the Holocaust.
What would the image of a Jewish nation without the Jews of Poland and
Lithuania ? Think about this. Here in Vilna, from the ninety thousand
Jews who lived here, only about two thousand people survived in the camps
about 2.2%. How many of these two thousand Jews contain geniuses
and righteous among them? How many of them are people of leading social
qualities, are doctors or engineers, or members of the judicial system?
How many of them are public leaders?
We must tell the truth:
there survive only the remainders of the few lucky people, people who
have strong elbows, those hard-shelled people with the ability to survive
inhumane torture. How many future generations of intelligent Jewish students
of yeshiva must sit and study until they produce great scholars of the
Torah like those of the past, great contributors like Chafetz Chaym, Chaim
Ozer Grudzinski, or Doctor Vigodski? From the remainders, I dont
think that you can rebuild the home of Israel. And of all the Jews who
were doctors, engineers, and writers, who is left? Very minute numbers
of the Polish-Lithuanian Jews still exist, and who knows if any of them
will still be alive at the time of the Liberation. And of the survivors,
who will be the leaders? Is there any hope for the house of Israel?
I answered him, It may
be that you are right. Although you speak rationally, we know that nature
brings miracles that cannot be explained. For example, when a person loses
part of his body, he can survive and use other parts of the body to replace
the function of the lost one. Can we not hope for a miracle of nature
that will allow the Jewish people to be rejuvenated? Maybe what logic
could not achieve, time will. Maybe after the Holocaust, a period of spiritual
awakening will come to the world, and it will become a beautiful place:
the land of Israel will awaken to a life of Torah and work.
This was the type of conversations
we had in the HKP camp of Vilna in the year 1943 and 1944, at the time
when thousands of our brothers were still taken daily to the ovens and
* Before the end of 1941, with
German support, Jacob Gens, born in 1905 in Illovieciai, at the time of
the German invasion appointed director of the Jewish hospital and on creation
of the ghetto, head of the Jewish police, gained authority in the ghetto.
Gens was a Zionist revisionist from Kovno (Kaunas) and a former officer
in the Lithuanian army. On 10 July 1942, the SS appointed Gens as the
head of the ghetto, dissolving the Judenrat. Fried was appointed deputy
head. Gens craved office and the trappings of office. There were probably
elements of megalomania in his personality; ghetto residents referred
to him as "King Jacob the First", although there is no doubt
that he believed passionately in the philosophy expressed in the slogan
"work for life".
** The Nazi selection of Jews to meet some particular quota was called an action.
From the Vileyka Memorial Book
From diary excerpts
When the Jews from the war
camps that were under the supervision of the TAT transferred from the
Osmieny area to Vilna, many young men and women who worked in the neighborhood
of Vilna arrived at the ghetto. The young men who worked in this camp
all appeared very strong, were tall like pine trees, used to hard labor,
and were able to easily withstand the difficult conditions. Their skins
were very tan and they were free-spirited, as if knowing of all the horrors
that awaited them but not letting fear penetrate their hearts. It was
as if somehow, their faces were void of the panic written so clearly in
the eyes of the ghetto inhabitants.
Part of the residents of the
camp found lodging in a separate building, in what used to be the Hebrew
high school, on Zeblana Street 4. They formed a separate labor camp. Every
Sunday, they would arrive at the ghetto to wash and visit relatives. Amongst
them were those who would secretly come to the ghetto daily to visit friends.
Three natives of Vileyka were part of this group. They were Abrasha (Abraham)
Kevis , the son of Schlomo and Mina Kevis, Abrasha Livschitz, the son
of Yitzhak and Rivka Livschitz and Siama Svirski, the son of Joshua and
Batja Svirski. The three young men lived together in the kalhoz, as the
camp was known, and helped each other in collecting food and selling possessions
in return for needed supplies. They would divide everything equally amongst
The men lived in their separate
labor camp until the families of Abrasha Kevis and Abrasha Livschitz arrived
from the ghetto of Osmieny. When the Osmienyghetto was minimized, some
people were sent to the Vilna ghetto. When the two families came here,
their sons joined them in the ghetto. The three cousins were tall and
strong. One was more handsome than the others; all three had a lively
expression with smiles always on their faces - they had expressions of
self-confidence as if they, deep down, believed they would survive and
see the day of the enemy's defeat.
Of the three of them, Svirski
was the most subdued and looked older than his years. He lived in the
kalhoz without his family, which was still in the Osmienyghetto. On Friday,
the 26th of March 1943, early in the morning, carriages filled with possessions
arrived to the park in Rodnitski (Rudininku) Street near the ghetto. The
remaining Jews of all the schtetls of the area had been brought to the
Osmienyghetto, and from there, the young and strong walked to Vilna. The
elderly and the weak were taken by carriages. As we later learned, the
day the Osmieny ghetto was liquidated, Gens arrived there with Jewish
policemen from the Vilna ghetto, saying that the Germans gave the OsmienyJews
two choices: to either go to the Vilna or Kovno ghetto. The Jews who registered
to go to Vilna were immediately taken to the town. Those going to Kovno
stayed in Osmienyfor a few more days.
Going to Kovno
Now, residents of the Vilna
ghetto received an announcement that anyone wishing to join the OsmienyJews
being taken to Kovno were permitted to do so. Since we had heard rumors
that life in the Kovno ghetto was slightly better and the Jews there received
slightly larger apartments, anyone with relatives in Kovno immediately
registered to join the people who were going there. They felt secure in
doing this, as they were told that the Jewish commandant of the ghetto
- Gens - as well as the police and doctor were going to take them there
personally. In addition, some people who had moved from Kovno to Vilna
now decided to return to their families.
Joshua Svirski had registered
in Osmienyto go to Kovno. When his son Siama found out that his parents
were going to Kovno, he decided to join the people going there so he could
see them for the first time in many months. I remember my last meeting
with Siama. Amongst all the other things we talked about, he said, "Despite
the fact that I am with my people here in the Vilna ghetto, and I even
made contact with the resistance movement here, I prefer to join my parents
He answered, "you are
right. I have not yet made up my mind. I will make a final decision when
I meet my parents in the train station of Vilna."
On Monday, the 5th of April
1943, a rumor spread through the ghetto, originating from the people working
at the train station. Ghetto residents said that the trains that we thought
were going to take the Jews to Kovno had been transferred to another destination.
New rumors continued to circulate, and we had awful forebodings about
those on the train. In the early evening, Gens returned to the ghetto.
He was very nervous and seemed sad, going directly to his room and avoiding
everyone. This we took to be an ominous sign.
We soon learned that the train
supposed to take Jews to Kovno took them directly to Ponar. Once again,
the Germans had betrayed the Jews and Gens, our ghetto commandant. We
knew that many of the young people who had come from the schtetls had
weapons hidden among their belongings. Had they used them? Had there been
a secret plan involving the commandant of the ghetto, the Jewish man Gens?
Anguish spread in the ghetto, for many people had left the Vilna ghetto
hoping to unite with their families in Kovno. We learned later that the
Jews had not accepted their fate willingly, and had started riots in the
train when they had found out they were being taken to Ponar. Jews refused
to get out of the train cars, and young men attacked the Lithuanian policemen
and the Germans. They fought them with their hands, their teeth, their
nails, and defended themselves with whatever they could find. They took
rocks from under the train tracks, throwing them at the police. We heard
there was a mass escape, but only very few ultimately survived.
A Visit to the Killing Field
The next day, the murdering
Commander Weiss came to the ghetto and asked for twenty Jewish policemen
to bring the bodies of the people killed in Ponar to a mass brotherly
grave. This was the very first time that Jews would visit Ponar and return
alive, with the Gestapo officer Weiss. Together with them were also some
German soldiers and Lithuanian policemen.
A Jewish policeman by the name
of Tsvi took part in this operation. He told me that by the side of one
of the fences were a few bushes, and around them lay many bodies. It seemed
that here, people had hid behind the fence in the bushes to escape the
shooting and the chasing enemy. From the way the bodies lay, he said,
one could see that they had fought their murderers to the death.
The Martyr Siama Svirski
Amongst all the bodies one
was still alive. He must have been in shock, but when Weiss kicked his
foot he opened his eyes. Weiss yelled at him, "get up, you bloody
Jew!" and kept kicking him. This living corpse was none else than
Siama Svirski, the son of Joshua and Batja from Vileyka. His clothing
was completely torn and saturated with blood. He may have been wounded,
but his face was still beautiful, particularly in contrast to his surroundings
- blood and mud. It made his face shine and sparkle with amazing luster.
The policeman later said, "I
was amazed by his beauty and very surprised that I had never noticed this
striking face while in the ghetto. Weiss was also very impressed by this
handsome countenance, and said to him, 'handsome young Jew, are you born
of a woman?'
"Siama answered him, 'I
am only a man, a young Jewish man who wishes very much to survive. So
far, the bullets of death have not killed me. Perhaps it is a sign that
I am not yet fated to die. For that, you should allow me to live.'
"The answer of Weiss came
swiftly. 'Your privilege, then, is that you will be shot to death at the
hands of a German officer.'
"Siama answered serenely,
'Jewish blood spilled at the hand of a German officer demands vengeance.'
A shot pierced the heart of Siama, the martyr son of our town - a shot
from the filthy hand of the most awful murderer the earth has ever carried.
"In conclusion," the policeman said, while holding his face in his hands, "this young man does not let me rest. Everywhere I go, I see him alive before my eyes, whether I am awake or asleep. His radiant dying face comes to haunt me in dreams and nightmares.