The Children's Home in the Vilna Ghetto
By Libale’ Augenfeld nee Mahrshak of Montreal, Canada
Liba Mahrshak fought as a partisan from the Vilna ghetto. She met her late husband, David Augenfeld, also a partisan, and eventually came to Montreal with daughter Rivkah in 1948
Liba Augenfeld (nee Maharshak)
Born in Vilna in 1923
Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan
`I was born and raised in a secular Jewish home in Vilna. My father; Israel, was born in Vilna in 1895, to Reuven Hirsh and Shula. My mother; Sara Dina was born in Vilna in 1895, to Leib and Rachel Sofer. They were teachers in the school named TZ”BK,(Central Committee of Education.) It was part of the central Yiddish school organization .A calisthenics demonstration by students from schools of the CBK network in Vilnius, 1929
Later on, my father was appointed as the head of the school named for Liza Gurevich, and my mother returned to school and became a certified nurse. She was a nurse until the German army entered Vilna. I studied in the elementary school named after Sofia Gurevich.
Students wearing Purim costumes, in the Sonia Gurevich school in Vilna,1933
After some time, I transferred to the Jewish Real
Gymnasium that was renowned in Vilna. It may sound ironic,
but we finished our matriculation examination one-day before Germany attacked the Soviet Union
The graduating class of the Jewish
gymnasiya for the sciences in Vilna ( Real) with their teachers 1931-1932
On Sunday morning, the 22nd of June, the first bombs fell in
Vilna. At that point, we were still preparing for our graduation ball that for
us symbolized the end of a chapter in our life and a new beginning.
This new beginning came, but it was not what we had expected. The
minute that Germans entered Vilna, they started kidnapping Jews in the street
and staged pogroms in different parts of the city, like Snipisiuk and
Novgorod.. There was a most awful pogrom in the heart of the Jewish
neighborhood. The epic of this pre-ghetto period was when the Nazis cleared
the streets Straszuna, Shavlaska, Rodnitska, Yatkova, Glaser, and others, of
all Jews. Some were transferred and others killed. Out of these streets they
started making a ghetto, including Glazer, Yatkovka, Jewish Streets. Parts of
Gaon street were used to make the so-called “Little Ghetto” or #2. Ultimately, the
streets Straszuna, Shavlaska, Disinienska, Svetlana, and part of Rodnitska all
became part of the big ghetto, or First Ghetto.
A drawing showing part of the Vilnius (Vilna) ghetto. An arrow in the lower right corner indicates the hiding place of the headquarters of the FPO (United Partisans Organization) Jewish underground
Much has already been written about orders and rules that took all
rights from the Jews, so I will not dwell upon them. I myself started working
at the children's home, which was really an orphanage. Where did these
children come from? The first ones arrived from an orphanage in town - all the
Jewish children who had lived there were expelled. Let me give you a short history of the place…
Young charges from the Jewish orphanage in Vilnius .. playing chess
When the Soviets came to Vilna in 1940, they united all the orphanages in town, and all the Jewish children were moved to one orphanage. As soon as German conquered Vilna, they did the opposite: they made the general orphanage Jew-free, which is why many
Jewish orphans arrived in the hospital. In the confusing days that the ghetto
was first established, there was nowhere for them to go and nobody to take
care of them. The children were pushed into two rooms at the edge of the
building, in what used to be the department of infectious disease, and they
were practically left there all alone. I felt bad for the children and started
working in the hospital, or, as it was known, Zlubek.
A teacher on the staff of a Jewish orphanage in Vilnius playing chess with one of the residents
I soon found out that my friends who worked there for two
not stand it and escaped from there. I was tempted to do the same but my
father talked to me and convinced me to keep working there, saying it was
better than washing floors for Germans. He said I was doing a much better deed
by washing the floors for orphaned Jewish children. He was right, however what I
first saw when I came there was impossible to describe, the sight will never
leave me. The children lay in beds without mattresses or pillows; they didn't
even have hay-sacks. Six children lay vertically crammed into each bed; they
did not have any sheets but only some green vinyl material. They didn't even
have any rags. They lay for hours in absolute filth in their own excrement.
They would stay like this until someone would come and wash them. But even
this did not last long, as one would encounter the same picture a few hours later.
I was only eighteen, but I forced myself to return each day. In order
to work at this type of job (for eight hours a day) you really needed strong
willpower. The children would scream continuously every time we took them to
wash or move them to clean the place. After some time, it was as if we did
nothing - everything returned to the same disarray anyway. Everyone who has
been to the Jewish hospital in Zemlanka street knows that the main entrance
was closed off by a impenetrable fence during the war years, since from there, one
could leave the ghetto. So now the entrance was in the gate on Spetlina
Street. At the entrance to the gate, on the right, was the pathology ward. On
the left was a big hall. This hall was now given to us for the orphanage.
Slowly, we cleaned the place: beds were brought in, and sheets, and nurses and
teachers started working there, and the children received some rudimentary treatment.
Due to the horrible condition that the children experienced during the
first weeks there, many had stopped talking or walking. They became accustomed
to sitting for hours in one place without moving. We put a lot of energy into
getting them to say but one word, but most of our time was spent with them
encouraging them to walk and act like children...During the entire time of the
existence of the ghetto, which was two years, we were never able to bring them
to a stage of childhood normal for their age.
After a few months, the children were moved again. This time, it was a
large and comfortable building in Zvelana Street. I don't remember the number,
but I recall that when we came from Svitalna Street, the building number was
3. This building was once the syagogue of Rabbi Shaulke. This Beit midrash
where the stage had stood now was the dinging hall, and the place where the
children played and studied. In the synagogue area, where the women used to
sit, we arranged a sleeping room for girls. The boys slept in smaller rooms to
the side. we also organized a kitchen and a laundry area.
Life began to take on a dubious sort of order. All the children
started attending schools in the ghetto and the little children had nursery
school teachers inside the institution. Very quickly, the core group of
children enlarged. During each action, parents would bring their children to
us thinking that if they would survive the action they would take the children
back. Sadly, only rarely did the parents survived. I saw many heart-tearing
moments when the little children would run after the parents screaming but, to
our great sorrow, we could in no way aid this situation.
It was here that I met Zlata, the wife of Yehiel Borgin. She started
working there while she was still on the Aryan side. But when living on the
Aryan side became very perilous, she moved into the ghetto. Here, she
encountered very difficult conditions. As the number of children in the
institution rose, two other children’s' institutions were established for
children over 14. They took from us all the children over 14 and we were left
with the younger children.
A Member of the FPO
I don't want to give a detailed account of daily life in the
This, too, is something that much has been written about. I will say that I
lived in a very crowded condition among those friends and comrades who had
survived the actions. As I mentioned before, we only recently had graduated,
so we were very close to each other and made sure to meet every night. We knew to detail whatever was occurring with each one of our friends. Together, we
went to literary meetings in the ghetto, and sometimes we even went to
concerts. We hardly met any new people. We did not try. Life continued like
this until we found out that there was a resistance movement in the ghetto -
the FPO - and many of us joined this movement. This was a period when morally our spirits lifted and we were excited to be part of a resistance, despite the horrible conditions in the ghetto.
The steps leading to the FPO quarters in ghetto Vilna
This commitment to resist and be part of a
movement gave us support and enabled us to survive the impossible conditions.
In spite of the fact that many of my friends belonged to the FPO, we
never talked about it amongst ourselves because we did not know who was a
member and who was not. We could only assume that some one else in the
group was a member.
Aba Kovner became the head of the FPO after the death of Vitenberg.
During the onset of the FPO, everything was underground, and
people never met in large number, although there was an occasion when many of
us sat in a room, and suddenly people stood up and went in different
directions, nobody knew where they went. We met in small groups of five to
exchange information or participate in missions.
When I first came and asked to join the movement as a member, I had to
come for an interview with the members of the headquarters, whom I did not
know. I was very excited; I don't know if I can truly describe the feelings I
had; I was 18 years old. I knocked on the door of Oshmani Street 8 and was
faced with Aba Kovner and Yosef Glasman. With my friends, I expressed very
articulately the importance of resistance to the occupiers, but here, I had to
talk to strangers, and convince them that I was worthy of being a FPO member.
It's hard for me to now remember the details of the conversation, although I
remember that after many months, I met Josef Glasman, one of the leaders, and he told me that after I spoke his heart broke and he cried like a child.
Yosef Glazman- he was killed while fighting in Naarutz forest in 1943.
In Vilna, we heard the details of the revolt of the Warsaw ghetto, and
we imagined that soon enough this would be our fate, and we would fall in
battle in the Vilna ghetto.
A manifesto of the FPO (United Partisans Organization) Jewish underground in the Vilnius (Vilna) ghetto. Dated July 1, 1943 and written in Yiddish, it calls for armed resistance against the Germans
Wittenberg Day and the Liquidation of the Ghetto
On July 16, 1943, during the night I worked at the orphanage. Every
third night, I would stay there. When you took the job, it was mandatory that
you stay there for twenty-four hours. I was awake. Actually, in the ghetto,
even while you slept, it seems as if you always had one eye open to make sure
that nothing awful was happening. For me, especially, with the responsibility
of all these children, I could not sleep.
Around midnight, I heard someone running on the outside steps. Since
it was a summer night and it was very light, when I looked I immediately
recognized little Bashka, a member of a Zionist Socialist Movement (Hashomer Hatzair). Bashkale, whose last name I do not remember now, was killed after her
escape to the forest. She was a member of the partisan unit named for Prachomenko. They say that she was killed by friendly fire when one of the partisans cleaned his weapon. Back in July 1943, she was a dedicated contact for the FPO. I knew that she was a contact, and I also knew that Tsvi Tzipilevich lived in a near- by yard In that building lived an entire kibbutz / commune that
belonged to the Chalutz.
I understood that something was occurring in the ghetto but did not
know what. The orders were that in any case of instability, I must come to a
meeting place of the FPO. But how could I leave the orphanage at an hour when
I was the only responsible adult and the whole orphanage was under my care! I
could not decide what to do. Luckily, after some time, the head of the
institution entered - Manya Levi. She was a wonderful person. Before being a
teacher in Vilna, she had spent many years abroad. I knew her well because she had been a good friend of my mothers. They had studied together in the same grade of the gymnaisium. Now she lived in an orphanage. As she neither married nor had children, she put all her love and toil into taking care of the children.
When she walked through the rooms they hugged her and held on to her,
following her out of their great love.
When she entered the room where I was, I was ready to take my uniform
off and run. Before leaving, I said, "I must go."
She said, "I understand. Go. I will stay here and watch the children."
I left and quickly walked to Nemiacka Street 31, the place we had decided
ahead of time would be our meeting. On the way there, i met a runner who had
been sent to me. He told me that the code world for the FPO was 'liza is
calling.'. This was chosen to memorialize Lisa Magon, who was with the
partisans and killed on a mission to the Arian side. This code word indicated
that everyone meet at a certain place. I now understand that the real meeting
place was at Straszuna 6.
I arrived there and met others but nobody seemed to know what had
occurred. Then we had to go to the alley on Oshmni 8, where the headquarters of FPO stayed. Some other comrades waited in the yard of the library. We stood
in the yard for a few hours. Sometime in the morning I was given a paper with
a song lyric on it: "Do not say that this is my last road." During that day,
we really thought that these were the last hours of our life. We did not know
if the mass number of ghetto residents would revolt with us or give up and not
fight. We believed that the Germans would enter at any moment.
I don't have to tell you know these tragic events concluded.
Wittenberg was supposed to give himself over to the Gestapo, and not by the orders the FPO but by orders of the main headquarter in town. After we spoke and argued for a while, we saw
Wittenberg leave the ghetto to give himself up. The next day he was dead. The week to follow was
filled with nervousness. It was a week of painful guilt and heartbreak. The
depression and hopelessness was hard to endure. It became clear to us that a
big group of Jews who were members of the underground had become exposed to the Germans during this event and they must leave the ghetto. Since it was large amounts of members of the resistance they started arguing about who should leave from each party, how many should go and so on…..,
The first group to leave the ghetto left on July 24, but David will
tell about that since he was with this group and he is amongst the very few
who are still alive today and can tell the exact details. The next day, we
were all filled with fear. On the second day, we learned the awful news that
the Germans lay in wait for them. The Germans found some of their IDs, so they
collected all the family members of the people who's IDs they found and
In the ghetto I was registered as the wife of a classmate who was in
this group. When I arrived at work the next day, not knowing what had
happened, I found my friend looking at me with a horrified stare. The Gestapo had found the ID of my friend, and they were sure that I had been shot. It was only a miracle that I was not shot that night. There were two reasons as to why I was spared. Firstly, the person who wrote the list in the Work Office knew me
personally, and second, my address is not the same as the address of my
“husband's”. It was easy to skip me on the list. Father was able to arrange for
me a new ID, but this cost a lot of money, so now next to my real name they
wrote that I was dead. I received a different identity.
The few months between the time the first group left the ghetto and the time it was liquidated were filled with anxiety.
Jews from the region were being transferred to the ghetto and from
there many of them were sent to Estonia, and on September 1st, the ghetto was
surrounded, and they started kidnapping people and sending them to Estonia.
The ghetto was isolated and nobody could come in or go out. The Four Day
Action marked the beginning of the end. Early in the morning, when we found
out that the Estonian divisions surrounded the ghetto, no one was allowed to
leave to go to work. The members of the FPO ran to the meeting-place on
Nimiacka Street 31. On the way, they ordered the fighters of the second
battalion, to gather on Svetlana Street 8. From the yard we could transfer to
Stranszuna Street. After a short time, we all gathered in the yard. Behind us,
near the windows, stood containers with Molotov cocktails and light-bulbs
filled with pyre devices. We did not know what to do, and we waited for
the commanders to give us orders. Before we could even think much, a group of
Nazis, headed by Niaga Borin, entered, and he started a speech. He said that
all of us were being sent to camps, and that the ghetto would not exist any
more. He suggested that all the women go and arrange for bags for the men to
take. He spoke to us very peacefully and gently, and a group of men left the
ghetto directly to the train, where they entered train cars and were truly
sent to Estonia. We, the women, and some men who escaped stayed in the
yard embarrassed and heartbroken.. We were ready to revolt. Many months we waited
with nervousness and anticipation the fight, and here, when we stood face to
face with the enemy, we let them once again cheat us. Now that there were very
few of us here, it was clear that it would be senseless to start a revolt in
such conditions. We stood in the open yard without weapons, but still, it did
not reduce our pain and embarrassment.
Meanwhile an order came to go to Straszuna Street to buttress the
empty apartments and wait. A few hours later we were transferred via the
yards in that street near the library, and there we waited for four days.
These four days were filled with anticipation and nervousness. We did not know
what has occurring; we only knew that Germans had opened fire on Straszuna 12.
and some leaders, like Yechiel Ilya Sheinbaum,( pictured above) and one of our friends from high
school, Chaym Napoleon, were killed while returning fire.
We waited for information or instruction about our escape to the forest. I was sent to
one of the gates on Zavlana Street to see if there was any instruction, but I
waited there for a few hours and nobody arrived, so I returned empty-handed.
During those days they took my father to Estonia and I did not even have a
chance to say good bye to him. I walked around crying without consolation; I
totally lost all self-control. At home or in the street, tears kept falling
and there was nothing I could do.
This building housed the Headquartes of the FPO (United Partisans Organization) Jewish underground in the Vilna ghetto. The underground had a combat position here, where Yechiel Scheinbaum was shot to death
The Escape to the Narootz Forest
I was very conflicted. I could not make up my mind about what to do:
should I try to escape and leave my mother? Should I stay in the ghetto and
wait for the fate that would surely come to all of us? The decision was taken
away from me as soon as my mother found out I had the opportunity to escape to
the forest and I could not make up my mind. She came to me and said very
determinedly, "go, You might survive." At that point we did not really think
that anyone would survive. We were sure that we would fall in battle, but the
determination of my mother and the blessing that she gave me remain in my
memory as a shining memorial of the awful moment that I had to leave her.
We left the ghetto Sunday evening, the 12th of September, 1943. I was with the
second unit of the FPO that was sent there. The first unit was taken by
Alexander; our unit was headed my Moshe Rodnitski. Immediately, as we left,
even before we all met in the suburb, we already lost one person. He got lost
on the way and instead of going to the forest, he encountered German guards
and was killed. The road was very difficult. Our unit contained over thirty
people and more than half were women. We had but few weapons, and our scout
many times did not know where to go. It happened that sometimes after we had
walked for the entire night we would return to the same place we had started
from. We had to cross The bridge over the Valinka river where the first unit encountered the
German blockade. We did not use any rules of resistance fighters in crossing.
We crossed it running, not using even minimal discretion.
This was night time, and the only sign that we had to prevent us from
getting lost was a little piece of pig-hide thrown there when our scout came
to meet us in the ghetto. This was the only sign for us that we were on the
right road. But we were very lucky in finding it and after we had walked for
seven days we arrived at the forest without encountering any Germans.
Avraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, members of the Jewish underground in the Vilnius ghetto.
were Avraham Sozkover, his wife Vitka, the author Shmarke Katzerginski, Galika
Yankelevich, Firka Landau, and others I do not remember. When we arrived to
the first partisan village, and we could walk there during daylight, our
happiness could hardly be described. We entered the base of the division
Nekama/Miest, or Revenge, and we encountered many of our friends from Vilna and felt
great. Tragically, this happiness did not last for long. Yosef Glasman greeted
us with these words, "my comrades and friends, I am very happy to see you, but
I'm also very miserable that you arrived here because we sent an order to the
ghetto but it must have been that you did not receive it. We announced that
all the groups must go to the forest of Rodniki and there we would build new
partisan bases." He hugged and kissed us but said there wasn't much he could
do for us here. After us, there were a few other groups to arrive from the
Vilna ghetto; some members from the FPO but also others whom I did not know.
Yosef Glazman shortly left, together with a group of members of the
FPO. He joined the Lithuanian partisans, from where he was supposed to go to
the Rodnicki forest. We were very sad that we couldn’t join them. This occurred
during the week when the Germans staged a blockade and Glasman with his group
of 35 people were all killed while fighting the Germans. The blockade in our
area only started when we were five or six days in the forest and we were
still unfamiliar and inexperienced and did not know what we should do. We were
left in the forest without anyone to advise or help us. We did not know where
Vlodka Saulovich, who was the head of
Nekama, took his division from
the base very late, on the second day, as his wife had started labor and he
had waited for her to deliver. When he finally organized his division to move,
we tried to join him, but he dismissed us cruelly after having taken all the
weapons we had brought from the ghetto. He now used the weapons that we had
risked so much to get. He drew one such weapon, pointing it at us, and said
that he would kill us if we tried to follow them.
So, we returned to the abandoned base and all gathered, becoming one
group: members of the FPO from Vilna. We started wandering through marshes and swamps. Together, we survived the period of the blockade in the only way we could. I would like to here end this chapter of my life by saying that I lived
in the forest for a year. On the 24th July 1944, we returned to Vilna after
the Red Army liberated the town.
Jewish partisans in the
area on the day of the liberation of Vilnius (Vilna). In the photo:
Elchanan Magid (standing, on the left), Jacob Prener (standing, second from the left), Bluma Markowicz (standing, third from the left), Abba Kovner (standing, fourth from the left), Ruzka Korczak (standing, third from the right), Leib Szapirstein (standing, second from the right), Vitka Kempner (standing, on the right), Pesach Mizerecz (kneeling, center), Motl Szames (kneeling, on the right
– Some of Liba Mahrshak Augenfeld submissions from Yad Vashem
submitted on 01/01/1978 by her daughter
Yosef Maharshak was born in Wilno, Poland in 1936 to Avraham and Sheine. Prior to WWII he lived in Wilno, Poland. During the war was in Wilno, Poland. Yosef perished in 1943 in Wilno. This information is based on a Page of Testimony (displayed to the left) submitted on 01/01/1978 by his cousin