Vilna During the Holocaust
Final Days of the Ghetto
In Spring 1943 Partisan activity in Lithuania increased. Following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943 the Germans became aware of the possibility of armed Jewish resistance in the ghettos. On the 21st of June 1943 authority over the ghettos of Lithuania was transferred from the German Civil Administration to the SS.
In March 1943, during the distribution of the new scheins, rumours spread through the ghetto about the final liquidation of the work camps and small ghettos in the Vilna region, Oszmiana, Swienciany, Michaliszki and Sol, over which Gens was in charge. Simultaneously there was a large aktion in the Grodno Ghetto. The Germans promised Gens that the Jews of the small ghettos would be resettled in Vilna and Grodno. Gens and groups of police from the ghetto left to organise the resettlement. About 3,000 people were sent from the small ghettos to the Vilna Ghetto and to the work camps, but about 3,800 people were sent to Ponary by train, where they were murdered. News of the murder spread through the ghetto, bringing fear and despair. The synagogues filled with prayers and the religious Jews declared a Yom Kippur Katan (Minor Day of Atonement).
From the end of June until the beginning of July 1943 the Sicherheitspolizei (SiPO - security police) of Vilna, under the leadership of Bruno Kittel, liquidated the work camps in the Vilna region, Biala Waka, Kene, Bezdany and Nowa Wilejka, because of the prisoners' links to the partisans and because of cases of escape. Although Gens claimed that the Germans needed a working ghetto which was beneficial to the Germans and that working for the Germans was the only possible means of survival, there was a growing sense that the end of the ghetto was near.
On the 21st of June 1943 the SS Chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the ghettos in Ostland and that the Jews be sent to concentration camps.
On the 6th of August Jews who worked outside the ghetto were kidnapped. Many of them resisted but about 1,000 of them were sent by train to Estonia. Gens promised the public that they had been taken to work in Estonia and not to be murdered. On the 24th of August a second transport, of approximately 1,500 men, women and children, was sent to Estonia.
On the 1st of September towards dawn, the ghetto was surrounded by German and Estonian security forces and leaving for work was forbidden. Estonian soldiers began arresting men and removing them from the ghetto. The Germans demanded 3,000 men and 2,000 women for deportation to Estonia. People began hiding in melinas. The FPO issued a call-up order for all members of the movement. About 100 members of the underground who had amassed around the weapon stores were surrounded by Germans and Estonians before they managed to arm themselves and were removed from the ghetto. A number of them managed to escape and to remain in the ghetto. The FPO concentrated their remaining forces in Strashun Street. The FPO published a notice calling the Jews to resist but the ghetto inhabitants did not respond. Yechiel Scheinbaum, in command of the force on Strashun Street, opened fire on the Germans and was killed in an exchange of fire. Gens wanted to avoid a battle and agreed with the security forces that the ghetto management would supply the quota of Jews without the entrance of the Germans to the ghetto.
The aktion continued until the 4th of September 1943, following which the FPO abandoned the idea of an uprising and began sending their members to the Rudniki and Narocz forests. On the 14th of September Gens was murdered in the courtyard of the Gestapo headquarters in Vilna. On the 23rd – 24th of September the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated. Over 4,000 women, children and elderly were sent to the death camps in Poland where they were murdered. Hundreds of sick and elderly were taken to Ponary and murdered. About 3,700 men and women were sent to the concentration camps in Estonia and Latvia. In Vilna about 2,500 Jews remained in the work camps Kailis and HKP under the command of the Wehrmacht captain Karl Plagge and in the military hospital and the factories of the SiPO. Over 1,000 people hid in melinas in the ghetto and the majority were caught over the course of the following months. Hundreds of underground fighters left for the forests. On the 23rd of September the final group of FPO members, 80 - 100 fighters led by Abba Kovner, left the ghetto. Members of the organisation established a number of partisan units in the forest. They worked in partnership with the Red Army in the battles to liberate Vilna in July 1944.