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Yad Vashem The Jerusalem of Lithuania: The Story of the Jewish Community of Vilna

Vilna During the Holocaust

Daily life in the Vilna Ghetto

  • An inscription on the wall surrounding the sports field in the Vilna Ghetto
  • Shabtai Shepsel Prushan (sitting second from the right) with other factory workers, in Vilna, probably in the ghetto
  • Abraham Sutzkever (right) and Shmerke Kaczerginski on the balcony of their flat in the Vilna Ghetto, July 1943
  • A Jew climbing out of a melina (hiding place) at 6 Strashun Street in Vilna. In this melina the underground fighters learnt to shoot
  • A poster by the culture office in the Vilna Ghetto, 1943
  • Two contact prints of scenes from a theatre production in the Vilna Ghetto
  • Notice about a Chanuka party in the Vilna Ghetto
  • A ghetto work certificate issued by the Fliegerhorst Kommandantur (German Air Force Headquarters) in Vilna
  • Vilna, Poland, A letter to the ghetto police commander, asking for permission to conduct a memorial evening for Dr. Hertz Kawodski, June 20, 1943

The murder of Vilna's Jews halted temporarily in December 1941 and a period of relative stability began. Until the liquidation of the ghetto in September 1943, of the 20,000 Jews in the ghetto, it was primarily the sick and elderly that were murdered. Nursing, education, health and cultural institutions were established in the ghetto. In July 1942 the Germans appointed Chief of Police Jacob Gens as sole leader of the ghetto and the Judenrat worked under him to manage the ghetto. The perception of "working to live" strengthened, according to which a productive ghetto would secure the life of its inhabitants and buy them time until the German's defeat. With this perception in mind, Gens established workshops and factories and organised the ghetto as a productive unit that benefited the Germans.

The Judenrat established departments for assisting with food, health, accommodation and work and departments for social work, education, culture and finances. Associations of lawyers, teachers, writers and artists were established. An old age home was founded and a public library was established on Strashun Street. The library included an archive with much material about the ghetto including the theatre, orchestra, Hebrew and Yiddish choirs and a music school.

Aktions During the Period of Relative Stability

The Elderly Aktion
On the 17th of July 1942 following Gens's appointment as sole leader, the Jewish police arrested 84 elderly and sick Jews in their homes and a few days later handed them over to the Germans who murdered them in Ponary. There were rumours in the ghetto of additional aktions that had taken place against women and children. In a speech to the heads of households, Gens claimed that he had refused the orders of the Germans to take children and that no further aktions were expected.

Oszmiana Aktion
In Autumn 1942 the Germans decided to murder 1,500 Jews from Oszmiana. The members of the FPO (Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye – United Partisan Organisation) knew about the planned aktion; they sent underground member Liza Magun to warn the Jews of Oszmiana before the aktion, she managed to sneak into the Oszmiana Ghetto and to make contact with its residents but they did not believe her warning.

In October 1942 the Jewish police in Vilna were ordered to select victims. Once more the fear of aktions arose in the Vilna Ghetto. On the 27th of October, Gens spoke before a gathering of public figures in the Vilna Ghetto. He told them about the aktion in Oszmiana and explained that he had managed to reduce the number of victims that the Germans had ordered from 1,500 to 406 elderly and sick. At the gathering Gens said:

I do not want to dirty my hands and to send my police to carry out this contemptible act but I say that it is indeed my task to sully my hands, because the Jewish people is living through its most terrible period… and it is our job to save the strong ones, the young, not just in age but in spirit, and not to be dragged along by emotions.

Ruzka Korchak, Flames in the Ashes, p126
The exhibition was made possible through the generous support of Mr. Nehemia Burgin in memory of his dear and beloved parents, Holocaust survivors Zlata (Zehava) Burgin and Yehiel Burgin of blessed memory.