United Partisan Organization
(Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatye - FPO)
Jewish anti-German underground organization in the Vilna ghetto.
In July 1940, when Lithuania--including Vilna--was occupied by the Soviet Union, the existing Zionist youth organizations had to go underground. When the city was taken by the Germans on June 24, 1941, the Zionist organizations preserved their underground framework. In the first few months of the German occupation, their efforts concentrated mainly on saving their members from the extermination Aktionen that were then being conducted in Vilna by the einsatzgruppen. At that time there was discussion in the Zionist underground groups about whether they should continue their underground activity in the Vilna ghetto, where most of the Jews had been murdered, or move to ghettos in Belorussia or the generalgouvernement, where at the end of 1941 the Jews were still living in relative quiet. All the movements, except for He-Halutz ha-Tsa'ir-Dror, headed by Mordechai Tenenbaum (Tamaroff), were in favor of remaining.
On New Year's Eve, December 31, 1941, 150 members of the Halutz (Pioneer) youth movements in the ghetto attended a meeting, where for the first time Abba Kovner's appeal "Not to Go like Sheep to the Slaughter" was read. Kovner declared that all the Jews who were taken from Vilna were murdered at Ponary, and called upon the Jewish youth to organize for armed struggle against the Germans. On January 21, 1942, representatives of the Zionist youth movements--among them Kovner of Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir, Nissan Reznik of Ha-No'ar ha-Tsiyyoni, Josef Glazman of Betar, and Yitzhak Wittenberg of the Communists -- held a meeting at which they decided to establish a united resistance movement, to be called the Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye. He-Halutz ha-Tsa'ir-Dror was absent, as was its leader Tenenbaum, who had left Vilna for the Warsaw and Bialystok ghettos. Wittenberg was elected the commander of the FPO, with Kovner, Glazman, and Reznik serving on his staff.
The organization's aim was to prepare for armed resistance in the event of the ghetto's being in danger of liquidation, and also to spread the idea of resistance to other ghettos. The bund, which had not taken part in the founding meeting, joined the FPO in the spring of 1942. Members of He-Halutz haTsa'ir-Dror who had stayed in the ghetto established their own underground group, under the leadership of Yechiel Scheinbaum, calling themselves "Yechiel's Combat Group." The FPO divided itself into underground cells, with five to a cell, based on their places of residence in the ghetto; three such cells made up a platoon and six to eight platoons formed a battalion. The FPO had two battalions, each composed of one hundred to one hundred and twenty fighters. In addition, there were units that were subordinate to headquarters. The FPO headquarters included representatives of all the parties and youth movements that had united to join in underground activities.
The FPO sent emissaries to the Grodno, Bialystok, and Warsaw ghettos in order to establish contact with them, propagate the idea of resistance and rebellion, and inform them of the mass extermination of the Jews in Vilna and the rest of Lithuania. Attempts were also made to establish ties with the Polish underground army (armia krajowa) in Vilna, but these efforts failed. There was contact with a small non-Jewish Communist group that was active in Vilna, and the ghetto underground lent its aid to this group. An attempt was also made to send women emissaries through the front lines to the Soviet Union, to tell the world of the mass extermination of the Jews and to appeal for help. These emissaries were stopped by Germans near the front lines, but they managed to escape and make their way back to Vilna.
The FPO's most pressing problem was to obtain arms. Only a few possible sources existed. Weapons could be purchased from the local population, and members of the underground working in the German captured-weapons depot at Borbiszki were able to smuggle out some weapons and give them to the FPO. Primitive hand grenades and Molotov cocktails were manufactured in the ghetto itself. The weapons that the underground managed to acquire consisted primarily of pistols, plus a small number of rifles, hand grenades, and submachine guns; they were kept in a cache in the ghetto. At its height, the FPO had some three hundred organized members, and for each a weapon of some sort was available. The FPO carried out acts of sabotage outside the ghetto - such as mining the railway used by trains heading for the front lines, or sabotaging equipment and arms in German plants in which underground members were employed.
The chairman of the Vilna judenrat (Jewish Council), Jacob Gens, knew of the underground's existence and maintained contact with its leaders. In the spring of 1943, when the small ghettos and labor camps in the Vilna area were liquidated, the FPO intensified the smuggling of arms into the ghetto and contacted the partisans active in the forests of western Belorussia. Several groups of young people who were not FPO members headed for the forests, and partisan emissaries came to the ghetto. The Judenrat, warned of these activities by the German authorities, regarded them as endangering the continued existence of the ghetto, and this led to friction between it and the FPO. At the same time, the Communist underground became more active in the city of Vilna, and its ties with the FPO grew stronger; the FPO commander, Wittenberg, was also a member of the Vilna Communist underground committee.
Acting on information that was passed on to them, the Germans arrested the members of the Vilna Communist underground committee and demanded from Gens that Wittenberg be handed over to them; otherwise the ghetto and its entire population would be liquidated. On July 15, 1943, Gens invited the FPO command to his house and arrested Wittenberg on the spot. As German security police were leading Wittenberg to the ghetto gate, they were attacked by FPO members, and Wittenberg was set free. The FPO mobilized its members and took up positions in several of the ghetto houses. On the following day there was a confrontation between the FPO and the ghetto police, in which many of the ghetto inhabitants sided with the latter and demanded that Wittenberg be handed over, in order to save the ghetto from the Germans. To avoid a bloody battle among the Jews, Wittenberg gave himself up to the Germans, and that same night he committed suicide. Abba Kovner was elected to take his place as the FPO commander. For the FPO the affair served as a warning, and it decided to establish a partisan base in the forest that would be available as a place of refuge for FPO members should the need arise.
On July 24, 1943, a group of FPO men, headed by Glazman, left the ghetto for the Naroch Forest. On September 1, when the Germans launched the deportation Aktion to Estonia, which was a step in the ghetto's liquidation, the FPO mobilized its members, took up positions in one section of the ghetto, and called on the Jews not to report for deportation and to rebel. The ghetto inhabitants did not respond to the call, believing that this time they were being sent away for work elsewhere and that they were not destined for extermination. On the evening of that day there was an armed clash between underground members and the German forces combing the ghetto; in the clash, Yechiel Scheinbaum, who was cooperating with the FPO at the time, was killed. When darkness fell, the Germans left the ghetto and did not return to it for the duration of the Aktion, which lasted until September 4. Gens, the Judenrat chairman, had promised to provide the Germans with the required quota for Estonia. In the wake of the Aktion, the FPO gave up the idea of an uprising, since the ghetto inhabitants had not heeded its call, and began moving its members out, to the Naroch and Rudninkai forests.
On the day the ghetto was liquidated, September 23, 1943, the last group of FPO members, numbering eighty one hundred persons and headed by Abba Kovner, left the ghetto by way of the city sewers and made their way to the Rudninkai Forest. Most of the five hundred to seven hundred FPO members escaped to the forests and joined the partisans, forming themselves into Jewish battalions as part of the Soviet partisan movement. Altogether, about six hundred to seven hundred young people left the Vilna ghetto for the forests and joined the partisans. Some of the Jewish units, however, were disbanded and their members absorbed, and others were joined by non-Jewish partisans, in line with Soviet partisan headquarters policy, which opposed the existence of separate Jewish units. Partisans from the Vilna ghetto fought in the forests until the Soviet army reached them, and they took part in the liberation of Vilna, on July 13, 1944.