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Vilna Stories

Jacob Gens

From; The Terrible Choice
Some Contemporary Jewish Responses to the Holocaust

In the sense that Jews in positions of authority ever possessed any
real power under Nazi rule, for a time Jacob Gens was one of the most
powerful ghetto leaders in eastern Europe. He was born in Illovieciai
in the Siauliai district of Lithuania in 1903 into a middle-class
Jewish family, the eldest of four brothers. In 1919, he volunteered
for the Lithuanian army. The country was then fighting for
independence, and he was sent on an officers' training course,
emerging as a second lieutenant. One of his compatriots at that time,
Dr N Karni, wrote: "[Gens] had great personal charm. I do not remember
him ever being in a bad mood… He was an excellent student… He had
leadership qualities, he had personality, he was a man of principles."

He married a non-Jewish Lithuanian woman in about 1922, and became the
father of a daughter. He had hoped to transfer to the fledgling
Lithuanian air force, but that branch of the armed forces only
accepted bachelors. Instead he was sent to the front, joining an
infantry regiment in the war against Poland, was promoted to the rank
of lieutenant and won a decoration. He remained in the army until
1924, at which time he enrolled in Kovno University and began to earn
his living as a teacher of Lithuanian, literature, and physical
education in the Jewish schools of Ukmerge and Jurbarkas. In 1927 he
became an accountant in the Ministry of Justice in Kovno, completing
his university studies of law and economics in 1935. At that time he
resigned his government post and began employment with the Shell Oil
Company. Two years later he left Shell to join the Lietukis company,
the largest cooperative concern in Lithuania. He had remained a
reserve officer, and in 1938 was recalled to the army, attended staff
officers' school and was promoted to the rank of captain. When
Lithuania became a Soviet republic in July 1940, Gens was dismissed
from his job at Lietukis. As a right-wing Revisionist Zionist, he was
fearful of being arrested, and moved to Vilna, where his mother and
brother Solomon resided, and where he was not known. A Lithuanian
friend who was the head of the municipal health department helped him
find employment as an accountant in that division.

Having friends in the right places has never hindered a career. When
the German invaders occupied Vilna on 26 June 1941, Gens' influential
associate appointed him director of the Jewish hospital. A Judenrat
was formed in the city in July 1941, headed by the engineer Saul
Trotsky. Its membership consisted of representatives of the
professions, the intellectuals, the middle class and the pre-war
community organisations. This first Judenrat was fated to be quickly
liquidated. In late August 1941, the Gestapo appeared during a meeting
of the Council, seized its chairman and the sixteen other members
present and sent them all to be executed.

Two ghettos were established in Vilna in early September 1941. At
first, people were moved into either ghetto at random. 29,000 people
were incarcerated in Ghetto 1 and 9,000-11,000 in Ghetto 2. Several
days after the Jews had moved in, Ghetto 1 was designated for
craftsmen and workers with permits, and Ghetto 2 was to be for all
others. The transfer of orphans, the sick, and the elderly from Ghetto
1 to Ghetto 2 began. Those with work permits moved with their families
into Ghetto 1. On 7 September 1941, the day after the ghettoization
began, a new separate Judenrat was established in each of the two
ghettos. Anatol Fried, a former director of the community bank,
assembled the new Judenrat for Ghetto 1. The Judenrat for Ghetto 2 was
appointed by SD and Security Police in Vilna and was led by Eisik
Lejbowicz. Fried, who had been a patient in the Jewish hospital and
thus became acquainted with Gens, appointed him as head of the ghetto

Gens proved efficient in organizing the police into a disciplined
body. In Aktionen which continued from September to December 1941,
thousands of Jews were shot at Ponary on the outskirts of Vilna. The
Jewish police actively participated in these killings, helping to
assemble those to be "resettled" and, in some cases, actually carried
out the "selections." There are those who believe that, within the
obvious limitations placed upon him by the Nazis, Gens did his best to
help Jews. For example, when in October 1941 the Germans sent 4,000
Jews without passes to Ponary, Gens attempted to obtain additional
passes for those who had been seized – without success.

However, there are also those who believe that he was a willing tool
of the Gestapo, and functioned in accordance with their plans and
instructions. The latter seems to have been a more frequent state of
affairs, since as chief of police he had direct contact with the
German authorities, bypassing the Judenrat, and involving himself in
matters far removed from police activities, such as employment and
cultural affairs. In October 1941 he warned a woman who had escaped
from Ponary, Pnina Arkian, to remain silent about events occurring
there. She stated: "He [Gens] asked me, `Where have you been?' I told
him all that had happened to me, how we were taken and how I succeeded
in escaping. He asked me, `Do you want your parents and family to
live? Then don't say a word of what you saw. I'll help you to get
work, but just keep quiet. You saw and heard nothing.' I promised him…
and kept my promise." By no later than the beginning of October 1941,
in Ghetto 1 the leaders of the Judenrat and the Jewish police were
fully aware of the true nature of events. Most of those who had
managed to escape from Ponary appeared before Gens and related their
experiences. Gens advised them not to spread their stories in the
ghetto. On 4 January 1942, Gens forbade "the spreading of false
rumours and creation of panic among the people."

Gens rapidly became the dominant personality of the ghetto, behaving
as if he were its governor, a position he effectively achieved in July
1942, when the Germans dissolved the Judenrat and appointed Gens head
of the ghetto administration and sole representative of the ghetto
population (Ghettovorsteher), with Fried as his deputy for
administrative affairs and Salk Dessler occupying the same position
for police matters. In a conversation six months earlier, Fried had
admitted that in reality Gens was the ruler of the ghetto, since he
had good connections with the German administration and the Security
Police. The decree appointing Gens named him personally as being
responsible for implementing "the orders of the Gebietskommissar
without reservation." Gens was thus promoted to a position akin to
that of Rumkowski in Lodz, Barasz in Bialystok, and Merin in Silesia,
and like them, was an enthusiastic supporter of the concept of
"survival through work". Three days after his appointment, Gens

"By Order of the Gebietskommissar of Vilna of 12 July 1942, I have
assumed full responsibility for the ghetto as Representative of the
Ghetto and Chief of Police. The basis of existence in the ghetto is
work, discipline and order. Every resident of the ghetto who is
capable of work is a pillar on which our existence rests. There is no
room among us for those who hate work and in devious ways engage in
crime. In the belief that all the inmates of the ghetto will
understand me, I have given orders to free all persons now under
arrest in the ghetto. I hereby proclaim a general amnesty, in this way
permitting the criminals of yesterday to return to better ways, in the
understanding that this is in their own interest. But let no one doubt
that in time of need I will not hesitate to use stringent methods in
the struggle against criminal elements wherever they may appear..."
Samuel Esterowicz, who lived in Vilna throughout the entire period of
German occupation, had no time for Gens, and no doubt about how he had
achieved his pre-eminence:

"Officially Gens was nominated by the Judenrat, the surviving members
of which were reorganized in the ghetto under the chairmanship of
Anatol Fried. However, the fact that Jacob Gens, a man completely
unknown in our city, could immediately push the Judenrat aside,
usurping all the power in the ghetto, points out clearly that Gens was
leveraged into this position by our mortal enemies who needed him for
the purpose of achieving our annihilation - after all they had
prepared for Gens' installation by the execution of almost the whole
Judenrat headed by Saul Trotsky. These facts and many others… should
preclude any doubts about the fatal role that Jacob Gens played in our
tragedy; nevertheless, I have to admit that there is no unanimity
among the survivors of the Hitlerian cataclysm about Gens' role…"
In a speech delivered to the foremen of work units in June 1943, Gens
made his policy of "survival through labour" quite clear: "While
working for ghetto industry or for the kommandos outside the ghetto,
we have, contrary to the trite opinion that we are poor workers, shown
that we are very useful and irreplaceable. Under present war
conditions, work in general and work for the Wehrmacht in particular
is the command of the hour… It is urgent that we make changes to
increase the output of the workers and thus enhance the justification
for our existence." Only the young and healthy were considered to be
of value; the elderly, the sick and the unskilled were, of necessity,
considered expendable. So far as it was achievable, women and children
would be spared, since they formed the biological nucleus of the
community, but otherwise it was a question of negotiating with the
Germans in order to attempt to restrict the number of victims to the
minimum possible.

This speech illustrates the fundamental misconception of Gens and
other Judenrat leaders: the German army was not remotely concerned
about the Jewish population, except to the extent that it could be
exploited as slave labour. Moreover, this limited degree of interest
only extended until such time as the indigenous non-Jewish inhabitants
were in a position to be recruited to replace the Jewish workers. As
late as June 1943, an article in Ghetto News (Geto Yedies), a
newspaper published by Gens, continued to preach the doctrine of "work
for life", commenting on the remarkable growth of industry in the
ghetto in the preceding year. Gens reassured everybody that the clouds
of recent days had been scattered, and that economic factors alone
influenced the issue. Samuel Esterowicz, whose views were perhaps
extreme, commented bitterly:

"Having been placed as our leader by our cruel enemies during the
terrible epoch when all around us was destroyed, Gens never inspired
the ghetto dwellers to heroism and acts of self-sacrifice. To the
contrary, Gens brought with him a poisoned atmosphere of moral decay,
of shameless favouritism and - what was even worse - of treachery, in
which one Jew would push another to his death to save his own hide; we
find this in the disgraceful behaviour of the Jewish Police, which
acted on Gens' command. Eagerly carrying out the Gestapo's
instructions, Gens was on the one hand applying the `divide and
conquer' rule, suppressing any attempt at organized resistance; on the
other hand, by constantly assuring us that the ghetto would continue
to exist, Gens was stretching out to us the `straw' for which we, the
drowning, would eagerly reach and thus silently endure another of the
sequential bloodlettings."
Ghetto inmates derisively began to refer to Gens as "King Jacob the
First", (just as Rumkowski in Lodz was known mockingly as "King
Chaim"). Like most autocrats, Gens wished to control every aspect of
the population's lives. Hygienic measures were introduced, as well as
the provision of improved medical help and food supplies, together
with the feeding of the destitute. In addition ghetto children, the
vast majority of them orphans, were cared for, receiving, amongst
other things, a supplementary food ration. Together with the creation
of shelters and orphanages, schools were also opened with Yiddish as
the teaching language. There was a school of music and piano playing
and a highly valued library. Gens was particularly anxious to
establish a theatre in the ghetto as part of the normalization of
everyday activities. Despite the protests of various influential
persons and community activists, the theatre began to function. It had
been difficult to convince actors that "theatre may indeed be
performed in a cemetery." This referred to the bitter Yiddish slogan
posted by the Socialist Bund all over the ghetto in response to the
announcement of the first concert: "Oyf a besoylem shpilt men nisht
keyn teater' ": "In a cemetery no theatre ought to be performed." The
Bund's action reflected widespread indignation and constituted the
first open defiance of the Gens regime. The theatre remained
particularly dear to Gens, who never forgave the Bund for its protest.
For Gens, the theatre was always more than a cultural embellishment or
a source of employment for actors and musicians. Throughout the
existence of the ghetto, the theatre remained an important calming
influence on a ghetto population living in constant fear and

Gens did not easily tolerate autonomous activity within the ghetto. He
was especially eager to receive the approval of the intelligentsia for
his policies, even when this involved the sacrifice of thousands of
Jewish lives. He eagerly accepted the appointment of intellectuals to
positions on the Judenrate staff in order to ensure them some sort of
livelihood and a modicum of security. In an attempt to appear not
simply a policeman, but an enlightened intellectual, Gens formed a
"club" in his home for discussion and debate between a select group of
invited guests. Gens' desire to emerge from the war not only as the
saviour of the remnant of Vilna Jewry but as custodian of its cultural
heritage, continued to the end. On 15 January 1943, the first
anniversary of the theatre's initial performance, Gens said:

"Last year they said that the theatre was just a fad of mine. `Gens is
amusing himself.' A year has passed and what do we see? It was not
just a fad of Gens. It was a vital necessity… For the first time in
the history of Vilna we were able to get a curriculum of studies that
was all Jewish… Our care for children has reached a level never seen
before in the Jewish life of Vilna. Our spiritual life reaches high…
How did the idea come up? Simply to give people the opportunity to
escape from the reality of the ghetto for a few hours. This we
achieved. These are dark and hard days. Our body is in the ghetto, but
our spirit has not been enslaved. Our body knows work and discipline
today because this maintains the body. The spirit knows of tasks that
are harder. Before the first concert they said that a concert must not
be held in a graveyard. This is true, but the whole of life is now a
graveyard. Heaven forbid that we should let our spirit collapse. We
must be strong in spirit and in body… I am certain that the day of the
phrase `Why hast Thou deserted us?' will pass and that we shall still
live to see better days. I would like to hope that those days will
come soon and in our lifetime."

His position Vilna also allowed Gens to have some degree of control
over the Judenrat of the nearby ghettos of Oszmiana, Swieciany, Soly,
and Michalliszki. At the end of October 1942, an aktion took place
Oszmiana, in which the Vilna Jewish police were involved. Some 406
victims were executed; Meir Mark Dvorzhetsky alleged that the police
even participated in the executions themselves. After the aktion had
been completed, Gens delivered a speech:

"It is true that our hands are smeared with the blood of our brethren,
but we had to accept this horrible task. We are innocent before
history. We shall be on the alert to preserve the remnants. Who can
tell whether victims will not be demanded here [in Vilna] as they were
demanded there [in Oszmiana]? We shall give only the sick and the old.
We shall not give the children; they are our future…The Jewish police
took no part [in the aktion] in Kiemieliszki and Bystrzyca, so all
were slaughtered [there]… After five million have been slaughtered, it
is our duty to save the strong and the young and not let sentiment
overcome us… We all want to live to leave the ghetto. Today, as we
work, it may be that not many of the Jews fully comprehend the danger
in which we operate. None of us can know how many times every day he
could get to Ponary… Today we must just be strong. Those who have
faith will say: the Almighty will aid us. Those who have no faith must
ask the aid of the spirit of Jewish patriotism and public feeling. To
survive it all and to remain, after the ghetto, a human being fit for
the great Jewish future… I personally take responsibility for all that
has happened. I don't want any discussion. I have called you to
explain why a Jew dips his hands in blood, and that in the future,
whenever we have to go, we shall go too."
Dvorzhetsky comments that at the time, opinion in the ghetto was
divided: "There were those who cursed [Gens] but, on the other hand,
there were people who maintained that this was the only way to save at
least a fragment of [the] Jews." Nothing better illustrates the
impossible dilemma facing those Jews in a position of authority. In
his diary, Zelig Kalmanovich at first agreed with Gens:

"It is horrible, perhaps the worst of all predicaments, still there is
no other way. Blessed be the God of Israel, who sent us this man
[Gens]… The ghetto police have accepted this dreadful duty… The
result: over 400 souls have perished – elderly people, the weak and
ill, retarded children. However, 1,500 women and children were saved.
If this had been the work of strangers, 2,000 would have perished, God
But shortly afterwards, Kalmanovich appears to have had second
thoughts. "We have bought our lives and our future with the death of
tens of thousands," he wrote. The post-war trial of Martin Weiss, the
Sipo-SD officer in charge of the executions, revealed that the number
of those killed had been reduced from an original demand for 1,500
victims by reason of a large bribe given to Weiss by Gens.

Judaism taught that if it was demanded that one Jew be unjustly
surrendered to an enemy in order to be put to death otherwise all Jews
would be killed, the Jews should all suffer death rather than
surrender one of their number. When, in November 1941, more than 1,000
Vilna Jews were killed in an aktion, and a group of rabbis told Gens
that he had no right to select Jews and hand them over to the Germans
to be killed, Gens' was unrepentant. He later said: "I, Gens, lead you
to death, and I, Gens, want to save Jews from death. I, Gens, order
hideouts to be blown up, and I, Gens try to get certificates, work and
benefits for the ghetto. I render the account of Jewish blood and not
the account of Jewish honour… When they ask me for a thousand Jews, I
hand them over; for if we Jews will not give them on our own, the
Germans will come and take them by force. Then they will take not one
thousand, but thousands. With hundreds, I save a thousand. With the
thousands that I hand over, I save ten thousand. I will say: I did
everything in order to save as many Jews as possible… ensure that
at least a remnant of Jews survive."

In accordance with the policy of which he spoke, Gens had participated
in the deportation of Jews to Ponary. Mendel Balberyszski recorded
that Gens told him after the so-called "Old People's Aktion" in July
1942, in which some 84 elderly people were murdered: "I have no
connection with the purge of the elderly. It was an old debt which the
Judenrat owed them. They wanted several hundred people, and it was
with great difficulty that the `price' was reduced to 100 aged…" On
occasions he had stood at the ghetto gate and personally selected
those who were to live and those who were to die. In the Gelbschein
Aktionen that took place between 24 October 1941 and 3 November 1941,
Gens himself had checked the papers of the Jews as they passed before
him, three blue cards to one yellow card. Samuel Esterowicz commented:

"…After every succeeding bloody aktion the Germans would assure us
through their mouthpiece, Jacob Gens (in whom they had found an eager
executor of their plans) that we were needed by the German military
machine as workers. As far as I am concerned, and I had the
possibility of observing personally the activities of Jacob Gens in
the ghetto of Vilna, there can be no doubt that he was performing a
treacherous job according to the instructions and the plans of the
Gestapo, whose goal was our complete annihilation. I will also add
that, even if in the evaluation of Gens' activity we take into
consideration the fact that he probably had been constrained into
doing his treacherous job, this mitigating circumstance is completely
offset by the disgraceful methods which Gens had so shamelessly
employed… I would like to emphasize that, hunting with a cudgel in his
hand for the "illegals" and condemning them to death, Gens in no way
resembled the leader who, with pain in his heart, sacrificed a few in
order to save many of the people entrusted to him - as he is described
by some of our historians"
Avraham Tory in Kovno had equally little respect for Gens: "For quite
some time we have regarded the Vilna ghetto as a barrel of gunpowder.
Its inmates saw themselves as prisoners, not only of the German
rulers, but of Gens as well. Gens added his yoke to the already harsh
and strict regime imposed on the ghetto by the Germans. For all
practical purposes he acted as the representative of the Germans. He
introduced a regime of terror into the ghetto; this provoked the
fierce resistance of numerous groups in the ghetto."

Yet according to Mendel Balberyszki, at the time of the Gelbschein
Aktionen, Gens and his ghetto police did all they could to save
people. It is one of numerous examples of the conflicting evidence and
opinions regarding the activities of many of the Judenräte leaders,
particularly that of Gens.

That Gens could be utterly ruthless seems beyond doubt. On 4 June
1942, six Jews were hanged in Vilna in the presence of the Judenrat
and thousands of ghetto inmates. The six were members of a group of
black market criminals who had been found guilty of the murder of a
Jew and the attempted murder of a Jewish policeman. A ghetto court had
passed the sentence, which Gens authorised without consulting the
Germans. Prior to the executions, Gens had addressed the assembly,
saying: "… 16,000 out of 75,000 Jews of Vilna have survived. These
16,000 must be good, honest and diligent people. Anyone failing to
uphold these precepts must expect the same end as these men sentenced
today. We shall punish and eliminate them with our own hands…"

Fried and Gens published a notice on the day following the hangings,
announcing that all crimes in the ghetto would be punished with the
utmost severity, and that the death sentence would be imposed in
appropriate circumstances. There were no further robbery connected
murders in the ghetto. On 12 June 1943, a certain Chaim Levin was
arrested by the Jewish police while trying to leave the ghetto. After
the police would not release him, Levin produced a gun and shot and
killed one of the policemen. Gens arrived, and demanded Levin's
weapon. When Levin refused to surrender it, Gens shot him on the spot,
perhaps in order to prevent the Gestapo from interrogating Levin; it
was conceivable that such questioning might have resulted in Levin
revealing information which could have led to further loss of life.

On 4 April 1943, Gens was entrusted with arranging the transport of
thousands of Jews from the Vilna district to Kovno. In fact, the train
carrying the Jews reached only as far as Ponary, where an execution
squad awaited. Accompanied by 26 members of the Jewish police, Gens
was in the first coach, which was not locked. It was only through the
intervention of Murer of the Vilna Gestapo that Gens did not join the
other victims. In Avraham Tory's words: "Gens' head swarms with
thoughts: it is not good to live next to a beast of prey; he witnessed
a massacre of scores of people who were his brothers and sisters. Gens
is alive, but his methods are now bankrupt."

Samuel Esterowicz was of the opinion the Gestapo had realized that, in
order for Gens to successfully carry out his mission of sending the
Jews to their deaths while keeping them submissive and non-resisting,
it was indispensable to keep those same Jews in the dark as to his
real function. It was also essential to strengthen Gens' authority and
make the doomed trust him, giving him a chance to play the role of the
leader who was endeavouring to save at least a small part of the
ghetto population. For these reasons the Gestapo permitted Gens to
organize the life of the ghetto, and even in some cases play the role
of the rescuer when, upon Gens' plea, the Gestapo would release
imprisoned Jews.

Gens appears to have had an ambivalent attitude so far as the
resistance movement in Vilna was concerned. He maintained contacts
with the United Partisans Organization (Faraynikte Partizaner
Organisatsye; FPO), assuring them that when the time was right he
would supply the necessary arms and personally take command of the
uprising, since as an ex-army man he had greater experience of
military matters. Yet some suggest that at the same time he opposed
individual escapes to the forest or the storage of weapons in the
ghetto, fearing German reprisals if such activities were discovered.
Addressing a member of the FPO, he said: "You want to save Jews by
taking them into the forests? Tell me, how many Jews will you be able
to rescue this way, 100, 200, or let's suppose even 500? These people
will all be the physically fit, those who ensure the ghetto's
survival. You want to take out just these and leave to the mercy of
God only the aged, the sick, and the children, whom the Germans will
liquidate at once. I shall not allow it…"

In complete contrast, others, such as Avraham Tory, claim that as the
liquidation of the ghetto approached, he helped the partisan movement,
gave money to purchase arms, and assisted would-be escapees to leave
the ghetto. It would appear that Gens kept his options open. He would
join the resistance if all else failed; until then, he would not
permit it to flourish. Because of this policy, he effectively blunted
the influence of the resistance on the ghetto population. When in June
1943 as many as 100 young people had secretly escaped, he said:

"We face the problem of whether or not to go into the forest. In my
opinion, it would be easier for me to leave than for all of you.
Although I am a former officer [of the Lithuanian army], a former
member of Brith Hachyal (a paramilitary group of Revisionist
Zionists), and a policeman with no sympathies for Bolshevism, I will
be gladly welcomed, for I know better than you do how to use firearms.
Still I won't go… For the problem is one man against 20,000… We may
all maintain that escape to forest is for the good of the ghetto. This
may be so. But my task is to guard a loyal ghetto as long as it
exists, so that nobody reprimands me."
On 15 May 1943 he had made another speech to the leaders of labour
units about the danger of bringing arms into the ghetto:

"Today I have called you here because there is something I have to
tell you: A few days ago I went to the Gestapo and spoke to the
Commander of the SD there about the revolvers. I may tell you that he
is not at all stupid. He said to me: `From an economic point of view
the ghetto is very valuable, but if you are going to take foolish
risks and if there is any question of security, then I will wipe you
out. And even if you get 30, 40 or 50 revolvers, you will not be able
to save yourselves and will only bring on your misfortune faster.'
Why did I call you together? Because today another Jew has been
arrested for buying a revolver. I don't yet know how this case will
end. The last case ended fortunately for the ghetto. But I can tell
you that if it happens again we shall be very severely punished.
Perhaps they will take away those people over 60, or children... Now
consider whether that is worthwhile! There can be only one answer for
those who think soundly and maturely: It is not worthwhile!... As long
as the ghetto remains a ghetto those of us who have the responsibility
will do everything we can so that nothing shall happen to the ghetto.
Nowadays a Jew's whole family is responsible for him. If that is not
enough, then I will make the whole room responsible for him, and if
even that is not enough – the apartment and even the building. You
will have to watch each other, and if there are any hot-heads then it
is your duty to report it to the Police. That is not informing. It
would be informing if you were to keep silent and the people were to
suffer… Don't cause trouble yourselves. If they do not provoke us,
then we must not do it ourselves. Because it is we alone who pay!
Look, think, and see where we stand!"

Gens considered strict control by the Jewish police at the ghetto
gate, including, when Gestapo members were present, the beating of
those attempting to smuggle in food, to be essential. He argued that
if the Jews could not police themselves, the Germans would do it for
them. The consequence would be that the smuggling of food would cease
altogether. Gens was of the opinion that for so long as the Germans
retained confidence in Jewish policing, it was still possible to bring
large quantities of food into the ghetto, for only a relatively small
amount of smuggled food was discovered and impounded, and even this
found its way back into the ghetto via the public kitchens set up to
feed the destitute.

Two examples illustrate the nature of Gens' apparent policy regarding
the resistance in Vilna. Josef Glazman had been deputy police
commandant in the ghetto until Gens dismissed him from that position
and appointed him head of the housing department. Glazman was also a
founder member and deputy commander of the FPO, and in Gens' opinion,
because of this constituted a threat to the stability of the ghetto.
Gens ordered Glazman's arrest on 31 October 1942, but had him released
on 5 November. Glazman was dismissed from his post and sent to the
labour camp at Sorok-Tatar, but was released after a short time. In
June 1943 Glazman was arrested once again; Gens had him sent to a
labour camp at Rzesza. Glazman returned to the ghetto about two weeks
later (his incarceration had been voluntary, agreed only against a
guarantee of release, and arranged by the FPO in order to save face
for Gens in the ghetto), but following the death of Yitzhak
Wittenberg, Glazman escaped to the forest, joined the partisans and
was killed fighting the Germans. In a speech delivered on the evening
Glazman was sent to Rzesza, Gens told his audience that his intention
was "to preserve the lives of the majority of the Jews in the ghetto,
and not a small bunch of heroes."

Yitzhak Wittenberg (Leo Itzig), a lifelong Communist, was elected
commander of the FPO in January 1942. In July 1943 he was betrayed by
one of his non-Jewish Communist contacts. The Germans demanded that
the Judenrat surrender Wittenberg to them. Gens was quite willing to
give up Wittenberg in order to keep the peace. Arriving at a meeting
Gens' office, Wittenberg was pointed out to the police by Gens and
arrested, only to be freed by FPO members and go into hiding in the
ghetto. The Germans then threatened to raze the ghetto unless
Wittenberg was handed over to them. Gens appealed to the ghetto
population, claiming that the actions of the FPO were jeopardizing
every Jew in Vilna, and that because of one man, the ghetto might be
annihilated. A situation then arose akin to civil war between members
of the FPO and many of the ghetto inmates. In his testimony at the
trial of Adolf Eichmann, Abba Kovner, another of the leaders of the
FPO, described the dramatic course of events:

"Negotiations began - first of all we rejected all negotiations. And
then there came an angry assault by those destined to be murdered,
against us who sought to be their defenders - with axes, sticks,
stones, even with arms - arms which they had received from the Germans
against us. We stood facing our brethren. We explained matters to
them. We gave an order to our fighters not to use their arms… Our
people… explained to them… that this was not on account of one man… We
hid Wittenberg. We said that he was not there, that he had escaped
from the ghetto…Towards morning we came to Wittenberg's hideout, we
the men of the headquarters, his colleagues… A revolver lay on the
table. For a moment he wanted to commit suicide. But he did not kill
himself. He asked us: `What? Do you want me to hand myself over?' We
did not answer. Then I said to him: `Look, Jews are standing in the
street. We shall have to fight them in order to reach the enemy, and
he will probably stand there and laugh. This is the situation. Give us
the order and we shall fight. Are you prepared for this?' No. He was
not prepared to do it. He was a great man. He gave me the revolver,
appointed me commander, and went out into the street. We all stood
there, with our bandoliers, our wretched guns, the fighters on one
side, the crowd surrounding us. He walked along the empty street to
the ghetto gate in order to hand himself over to the Gestapo… We tried
to smuggle cyanide to him. We did not succeed (But apparently Gens
did, providing Wittenberg with a capsule at their last meeting) …
Historians will judge us as having acted either shamefully of
justifiably. If I myself am entitled to express an opinion, today -
even more than then - I suppose that Wittenberg's death at that time -
and it was with the approval of the high command and with my approval
that we delivered him into the hands of the Gestapo - was one of the
greatest achievements of the revolt, one of the greatest acts of
heroism of Jewish underground fighting in the ghetto; for there is no
fighting which can match it, since between us and the enemy there was
something more."
On 1 September 1943, deportations began from Vilna to Estonian labour
camps. The FPO issued a proclamation: "Jews, prepare for armed
resistance!...Who can still believe that he will survive when the
murderers kill systematically? The hand of the hangman will reach out
to each of us. Neither hiding nor cowardice will save lives." In
contrast, less than a week later, when more than 7,000 Jews had
already been deported, Gens exhorted the remaining Jews of Vilna to
register with the Judenrat so that there could be a "return to normal
life in the ghetto as soon as possible." The Ghetto News rejoiced on
hearing that the Germans had assigned the conscription of labour
forces for Estonia to Gens and the Jewish police. Samuel Esterowicz
wrote of this time in his usual jaundiced fashion:

"… After seeing Gens late at night [our go-between] informed us that
he learned from the latter that the Gestapo chief Neugebauer demanded
2,000 women from Gens - thus next day there would be an aktion against
women… When we came into the yard of Rudnicka 4 on the morning of 4
September, we heard Gens addressing a crowd from the balcony with the
following speech: `Fellow Jews, I managed to obtain the permission of
the Gestapo for the wives and children of those deported to Vaivary
(one of the Estonian labour camps) to join their husbands and
fathers!' With this treacherous trick, Gens managed to lure 1,300
women and children who believed him into volunteering to go to
Vaivary. After hunting all day in the ghetto, Kittel (another Gestapo
officer) and the Jewish police managed to seize the lacking 700
victims and force them onto the transport. The treachery of Gens is
made even more horrible by the fact we learned after our liberation -
the transport of the women and children was not sent to their husbands
but to the gas-chambers of one of the camps in Poland. According to
Mrs Shapiro, who had been on that transport with her child, their
train turned around immediately after their arrival in Vaivary and
went in the opposite direction. She managed to jump out of the
railroad car at the Eidkunen station in East Prussia and had thus
On 14 September 1943, Gens, whose Lithuanian wife and daughter both
lived outside the ghetto in Vilna, was summoned to Gestapo
headquarters. Reputedly, a grave had already been dug for him. In the
past he had received a number of offers from friends and family who
were prepared to provide refuge, but he had always refused, saying
that his mission was to save the Jewish people – which some might
regard as being somewhat hypocritical, given his earlier activities.
Now he was once more urged to flee, but replied that if he were to run
away "thousands of Jews will pay for it with their lives," thus
simultaneously displaying great courage and an example of his
considerable ego. He parted from his brother Solomon at the ghetto
gate, saying that if he had not returned by 8:00 p.m., he would never
return. It is said that he was shot by Neuegebauer of the Gestapo at
6:00 p.m. that day for allegedly maintaining contact with the FPO and
providing that organisation with funds. Since the liquidation of the
Vilna ghetto began nine days later, it seems more probable that
dispensing with Gens' services formed part of the Nazi's overall
strategy of destruction.

Gens understood better than most what the future held. He told a young
partisan in the Vilna ghetto: "The ghetto is a world alone, a special
world. The ghetto is a death chamber which holds men, women and little
children. The death sentence has already been pronounced but not yet
carried out, and the final date is not known." But he also attempted
to vindicate himself before the bar of history, declaring: "I will
say: I did everything in order to save as many Jews as possible…to
usher them to freedom. To ensure that at least a remnant of Jews
survive, I myself had to lead Jews to death; and in order to have
people emerge with a clean conscience, I had to befoul myself and act
without conscience."

It was a questionable philosophy. As Samuel Esterowicz wrote: "I came
to the conclusion (as did many others) that Gens was a man stripped of
any moral standards long before his treacherous role became obvious to
most of us… In defence of Gens' shameful deeds one often hears the
argument that if not he but the Germans had carried out the aktionen,
it would have been worse. I ask: worse for whom? Certainly not for the
many thousands who Gens and the police acting on his orders sent to
their deaths. In this case worse off could be only those who, by
pushing others to their deaths, had hoped to save their own lives, a
hope in which they turned out to be cruelly wrong… Faced with the
demand of the Germans to furnish them with victims, without hesitation
Gens seized the right given to nobody - to decide who of us should
stay alive and who should die and then to deliver the victims to the

Not all shared this view. Grisha Shur wrote in his diary after Gens'
death: "… If Gens had supporters and opponents – there were no longer
two opinions, nor any who hated him… Virtually all understood that the
ghetto had lost… a man of wide vision and great understanding of
historical moments…" And Chaim Lazar, a leading member of the FPO,
wrote: "The hearts of the Jews mourn the tragedy of Gens…. All that he
did during his tenure as chief of the ghetto was for his people…
Everyone knows that Gens had many opportunities to save himself… but
he renounced his personal safety to devote himself to the ghetto. He
believed in his ability, and was convinced to the last moment that he
would be able to save the remnants [of the ghetto]."

Perhaps Yitzhak Arad delivered the most charitable verdict on Gens.
"In the prevailing conditions," he wrote, "the policy laid down by
Jacob Gens was the only one that afforded hope and some prospect of
survival. But even this failed, and the fact that the ghetto was
productive did not spare it from liquidation."



Sources and Further Reference:
Arad, Yitzhak. Ghetto in Flames – The Struggle and Destruction of the
Jews of Vilna in the Holocaust, Holocaust Library, New York, 1982

Arad Yitzhak, Gutman Israel and Margaliot Abraham, eds. Documents On
The Holocaust, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1999

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews, Bantam Books, New York,

Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, Collins, London

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan
Publishing Company, New York, 1990

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews, Yale University
Press, New Haven, 2003

Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders, Harper Collins, New
York, 1993

Tory, Avraham. Surviving the Holocaust – The Kovno Ghetto Diary,
Pimlico, London,1991

Trunk, Isaiah. Judenrat - The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under
Nazi Occupation, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1972