Vilna During the Holocaust
German Occupation – June 1941
Responses to the Mass Murder and Rescue Efforts
When the murders began in July 1941 rumours about the mass murder in Ponary reached the Judenrat. At the beginning of September six women who had been wounded by gunfire returned from Ponary to the Vilna Ghetto hospital where they told the hospital staff and Jacob Gens what was taking place in Ponary. The information was kept secret out of fear that the women might be taken back to Ponary. For the first few months the Jews of Vilna believed that the thousands of kidnapped men had been taken to work. The rumours slowly reached the public and it took months for their meaning to be understood.
At the end of September 1941 the Judenrats of the two ghettos met. Fried, chair of the Judenrat in Ghetto I claimed that cooperation between the two ghettos would cause harm to Ghetto I because three quarters of its inhabitants were over the age of fifteen and fit for work. In contrast to Ghetto II where there were many sick and elderly. The Judenrat in Ghetto I believed that the murder of a proportion of Vilna's Jews was unavoidable and that it was necessary to strive to maintain a ghetto which would bring together those who were fit to work and so save as many as possible. The police forces of the two ghettos worked together and Gens became responsible for the police of Ghetto II as well.
In their individual struggles to survive the Jews would try to obtain a "Schein" (work certificate) which they considered to be equivalent to a permit to live. An additional option was hiding in the ghetto during the aktions. The Jews used great imagination and initiative and prepared "melinas" (hiding places in basements and roofs, hidden rooms in apartments and so on). Jews hid in the "melinas" during aktions, once it was over they rejoined the main ghetto population until the next aktion. There were also Jews able to hide outside the ghetto with the help of Christian friends or by passing as Aryans. It is estimated that hundreds of Jews hid in Vilna outside the ghetto. Hundreds of Jews fled Vilna for Belorussia, where, at the time of the mass aktions in Vilna, the Jews still lived in relative stability. In a number of cases individuals and small groups of Jews resisted during the aktions, in most of these cases the resistance ended with their immediate execution.
Response of the Youth Movements in Vilna and Rescue Efforts
From the beginning of the German occupation the youth movements in Vilna continued to function and simultaneously renewed the "The Coordination of Pioneering Youth Movements". Nissan Reznik and Shlomo Antin of Hanoar Hatzioni, Edek Boraks and Jedrzej Leved of Hashomer Hatzair and Mordechai Tenenbaum and Zvi Mersik of Dror Hechalutz were active in the "Coordination". They helped their members with accommodation and food, found ways to save them from being kidnapped and found them places to work. The "Coordination" ran a forgery for identity cards and Scheins, located in the kitchen at 2 Strashun Street. Groups of "Coordination" members hid outside the ghetto with false papers, among them Mordechai Tenenbaum of Dror Hechalutz who disguised himself as a Karaite (regarded by the Nazis as Aryans) and Haika Grosman of Hashomer Hatzair who passed herself as an "Aryan". A group from Hashomer Hatzair, including Abba Kovner, hid near Vilna in a Dominican convent headed by Mother Superior Anna Borkowska and with the help of Righteous Among the Nations Jadwiga Dudżec.
Members of the pioneering youth movements maintained contact with their members in other ghettos of Poland and Belorussia. Thus they understood that in contrast to Vilna where the Jews were being murdered, in other ghettos in Poland the majority of the Jews were still alive. At the end of 1941 they began discussing an armed revolt and spreading the idea to other ghettos. Members of the "Coordination" and Beitar debated whether the mass murder in Vilna was a local German-Lithuanian initiative or part of a comprehensive, premeditated program. The members of Dror Hechalutz claimed that there was no reason to remain in Vilna and that the movement should move elsewhere, in order to organise a unit that would be able to fight the Germans. Members of the movement organised by Mordechai Tenenbaum moved from Vilna to Bialystok with the help of the Wehrmacht Sergeant Anton Shcmid. Few members of the other movements left Vilna.
Don't Go Like Sheep to the Slaughter
The idea of resistance arose simultaneously in most of the youth movements and led them to unite with the communists, who had also been contemplating resistance. On the 1st of January 1942, 150 members of the pioneering youth movements gathered in the kitchen at 2 Strashun Street. During the gathering an announcement written by Abba Kovner was read out in both Hebrew and Yiddish.
They shall not take us like sheep to the slaughter!
Jewish youth, do not be led astray. Of the 80,000 Jews in the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" (Vilna), only 20,000 remain.
Before our eyes they tore from us our parents, our brothers and sisters. Where are the hundreds of men who were taken away for labour by the Lithuanian "snatchers"? Where are the naked women and children who were taken from us in the night of terror of the "provocation"?
Where are the Jews [who were taken away on] the Day of Atonement?
Where are our brothers from the second ghetto?
None of those who were taken away from the ghetto has ever come back.
All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponary.
And Ponary is Death!
You who hesitate! Cast aside all illusions. Your children, your husbands, and your wives are no longer alive.
Ponary is not a camp – they were all shot there.
Hitler is scheming to annihilate all of European Jewry. The Jews of Lithuania were tasked to be first in line.
Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter!
It is true that we are weak and defenseless, but resistance is the only response to the enemy!..
Resist! To the last breath.
This proclamation represented a turning point in an understanding of the situation and how to respond to it. The idea of resistance was disseminated from Vilna by youth movement couriers, mainly women, to the ghettos of Poland, Lithuania and Belorussia.