Vilna Ghetto (Julian Klaczko Street), 1941
Vilnius Old Town|
|Date||6 September 1941 to 24 September 1943|
|Incident type||Imprisonment, mass shootings, forced labor, starvation, exile|
|Organizations||Nazi SS, Ypatingasis būrys|
Kailis forced labor camp|
HKP 562 forced labor camp
|Victims||About 55,000 Jews|
The Vilna Ghetto[a] was a World War II Jewish ghetto established and operated by Nazi Germany in the city of Vilnius in the territory of Nazi-administered Reichskommissariat Ostland. During the some two years of its existence, starvation, disease, street executions, maltreatment, and deportations to concentration camps and extermination camps reduced the Ghetto's population from an estimated 40,000 to zero. Only several hundred people managed to survive, mostly by hiding in the forests surrounding the city, joining Soviet partisans, or sheltering with sympathetic locals.
Before the German-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, Wilno (Vilna in Hebrew) was the capital of the Wilno Voivodship in the Second Polish Republic. The predominant languages of the city were Polish and to a lesser extent, Yiddish. The Lithuanian-speaking population at the time was a small minority, at about 6% of the city's population according to contemporary Lithuanian sources. By 1931, the city had 195,000 inhabitants, making it the fifth largest city in Poland with varied industries and new factories, as well as a well respected university.
Wilno was a predominantly Polish and Jewish city since the Polish-Lithuanian borders were accepted in 1922 by the League of Nations in the aftermath of the Great War. After the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, Joseph Stalin transferred Wilno to Lithuania in October, according to the Soviet–Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty. Two years later, the German Army entered Vilna on 26 June 1941, followed by Einsatzkommando death squads of Einsatzgruppe B. Over the course of the summer, German troops and their Lithuanian collaborators killed more than 21,000 Jews living in Vilnius, in a mass extermination program. The Provisional Government of Lithuania had claimed Vilna as its capital along the lines of former dispute with Poland. The Republic of Lithuania, operating out of the provisional capital Kaunas, sent in the Lithuanian Army to reclaim the city and embarked on a project to Lithuanianize (i.e. ethnically cleanse) the city.
The Jewish population of Vilnius on the eve of the Holocaust was probably more than 60,000 (some estimates say 80,000), including refugees from the German-occupied Poland to the west, and subtracting the small number who managed to flee onward to the Soviet Union. The kidnapping and mass murder of Jews in the city commenced before the ghetto was set up by the advancing German forces, resulting in an execution of approximately 21,000 victims prior to September 6, 1941. The Lithuanian kidnappers were known in Yiddish as hapunes, meaning grabbers or snatchers.
1941: Establishment of the ghetto
In order to pacify the predominantly poorer Jewish quarter in the Vilnius Old Town and force the rest of the more affluent Jewish residents into the new German-envisioned ghetto, the Nazis staged – as a pretext – the so-called Great Provocation incident. The Great Provocation of 31 August 1941 was led by SS Einsatzkommando 9 Oberscharführer Horst Schweinberger under orders from Gebietskommissar of the Vilnius municipality Hans Christian Hingst and Franz Murer, Hingst's deputy for Jewish affairs under “provisional directives” of Reichskommissar Hinrich Lohse. Murer, Hingst, and Vilnius Lithuanian mayor Karolis Dabulevičius selected the site for the future ghetto and staged a distant sniping at the German soldiers in front of a cinema, from a window on the corner Stiklių (Glezer, also known as Szklana in Polish) and Didžioji (Wielka, meaning in Polish Great Street, hence the name for the event) streets by two Lithuanians in civilian clothes who had broken into an apartment belonging to Jews. The Lithuanians fled the apartment, then returned with awaiting German soldiers, captured two Jews, accused them of firing on the German soldiers, beat them and then shot them on the spot. Stiklių and Mėsinių (Jatkowa) streets were ransacked by the local militia, and Jews were beaten up. At night, in “retaliation,” all Jews were driven out of the neighborhood the Nazis had selected as the future ghetto territory, street by street, and the next day the women and children on remaining streets were seized while the men were at work. Men at workplaces were also seized. Jews were taken to Lukiškės Prison, then to Paneriai, also known as Ponary (or Ponar), where they were murdered between 1 September and 3 September. Five to ten thousand people were murdered, including ten members of the Judenrat. The objective was to clear a territory for the establishment of a ghetto to imprison all the Jews of Vilnius and suburbs.
On 6–7 September 1941, the Nazis herded the remaining 20,000 Jews into the parameters of two ghettos by evicting them from their homes, during which 3,700 were killed. Converts, "half-Jews" and spouses of Jews were also forced into the ghetto. The move to the ghetto was extremely hurried and difficult, and Jews were not allowed to use transportation. They could take only what they were physically able to carry.
The area designated for the ghetto was the old Jewish quarter in the center of the city. While Vilna never had a ghetto per se except for some very limited restrictions on the movement and settlement of Jews during the Middle Ages, the area chosen by the Nazis for their ghetto was predominantly and historically inhabited by Jews. The Nazis split the area into two Jewish quarters (Large Ghetto and the Small Ghetto), with a non-ghetto corridor running down Deutschegasse (Niemiecka or Vokiečių Street). This made it easier for the Nazis to control what the victims knew of their fate beforehand, facilitating the Nazis' goal of total extermination. Like the other Jewish ghettos Nazi Germany set up during World War II, the Vilnius Ghetto was created both to dehumanize the people and to exploit its inmates as slave labor. Conditions were intended to be extremely poor and crowded, subjecting victims to unsanitary conditions, disease and daily death.
1942: Quiet period
Jewish Vilna was also known for its distinguished medical tradition, which inmates of the Ghetto managed to maintain to some degree during the Holocaust. As in front of most Ghettos established by the Germans, a sign was put right outside the Ghetto stating: "Achtung! Seuchengefahr", that is "Attention! Danger of Infection". Mortality rates did, indeed, increase in the Vilna Ghetto as compared with pre-war demographics. However, due largely to the efforts of the Ghetto Health Department, the Vilna Ghetto had no major epidemics despite malnourishment, cold and overcrowding. According to Dr. Lazar Epstein, the head of Sanitary-Epidemiological Section of the ghetto Health Department, the inmates of the Ghetto could, left to their own devices, have lived a very long time, certainly to the end of the war despite the numerous privations.
The Vilna Ghetto was called "Yerushalayim of the Ghettos" because it was known for its intellectual and cultural spirit. Before the war, Vilnius had been known as "Yerushalayim d'Lita" (Yiddish: Jerusalem of Lithuania) for the same reason. The center of cultural life in the ghetto was the Mefitze Haskole Library which was called the "House of Culture". It contained a library holding 45,000 volumes, reading hall, archive, statistical bureau, room for scientific work, museum, book kiosk, post office, and sports ground. Groups, such as the Literary and Artistic Union and the Brit Ivrit Union, organized events commemorating Yiddish and Hebrew authors and put on plays in these languages. The popular Yiddish magazine Folksgezunt was continued in the ghetto and its essays were presented in public lectures. Yitskhok Rudashevski (1927–1943), a young teen who wrote a diary of his life in the ghetto during 1941 to 1943, mentions a number of these events and his participation in them. He was murdered in the liquidation of 1943, probably at Paneriai. His diary was discovered in 1944 by his cousin.
The Vilna Ghetto was well known for its theatrical productions during World War II. Jacob Gens, the head of Jewish police and the ruler/dictator of the Vilna ghetto, was given the responsibility for the starting of this theatre. Performances included poetry by Jewish Authors, dramatizations of short stories, and new work by the young ghetto people.
The Ghetto Theatre was a great source of revenue and had a calming effect on the public. A total of 111 performances had been given by January 10, 1943 and a total of 34,804 tickets were sold. The theatre was renovated to accommodate a bigger audience and create a better-looking theatre for the public eye. This theatre permitted the non-Aryan race to display their power through plays and songs; for instance, one of the songs that was sung was called "Endurance."
The last theatrical production, Der mabl meaning The Flood, was produced by the Swedish dramatist Henning Berger and opened in the summer of 1943, in the last week of this Ghetto's existence. This play, set in an American saloon during a flood, featured a group of people who banded together during a time of danger and need.
Joshua Sobol's play Ghetto recounts the last days of the Vilna Ghetto theatre company.
The Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (United Partisan Organization) was formed on 21 January 1942 in the Vilna Ghetto. It took for its motto "We will not go like sheep to the slaughter," as proposed by Abba Kovner. This was one of the first resistance organizations established in the Nazi ghettos during World War II. Unlike in other ghettos, the resistance movement in the Vilna Ghetto was not run by ghetto officials. Jacob Gens, appointed head of the ghetto by the Nazis but originally chief of police, ostensibly cooperated with German officials in stopping armed struggle. The FPO represented the full spectrum of political persuasions and parties in Jewish life. It was led by Yitzhak Wittenberg, Josef Glazman, and Abba Kovner. The purposes of the FPO were to establish a means for the self-defence of the ghetto population, to sabotage German industrial and military activities and to support the broader struggle of partisans and Red Army operatives against German forces. Poet Hirsh Glick, a Vilna ghetto inmate who later died after having been deported to Estonia, penned the words for what became the famous Partisan Hymn, Zog nit keyn mol.
In early 1943, the Germans caught a member of the Communist underground who revealed some contacts under torture and the Judenrat, in response to German threats, tried to turn Yitzhak Wittenberg, the head of the FPO, over to the Gestapo. The FPO was able to rescue him after he was seized in the apartment of Jacob Gens in a fight with Jewish ghetto police. Gens brought in heavies, the leaders of the work brigades, and effectively turned the majority of the population against the resistance members, claiming they were provoking the Germans and asking rhetorically whether it was worth sacrificing tens of thousands for the sake of one man. Ghetto prisoners assembled and demanded the FPO give Wittenberg up. Ultimately Wittenberg himself made the decision to submit to the Nazi demands. He was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Vilnius and was reportedly found dead in his cell the next morning. Most people believed he had committed suicide. The rumour had it that Gens had slipped him a cyanide pill in their final meeting.
The FPO was demoralized by the chain of events and began to pursue a policy of sending young people out to the forest to join other Jewish partisans. This was controversial as well because the Germans applied a policy of "collective responsibility" under which all family members of anyone who had joined the partisans were to be executed. In the Vilna ghetto a "family" often included a non-relation who registered as a member of the family in order to receive housing and a pitiful food ration.
When the Germans came to liquidate the ghetto in September 1943, members of the FPO went on alert. Gens took control of the liquidation in order to keep the Nazi forces out of the ghetto and away from a partisan ambush, but helped fill the quota of Jews with those who could fight but were not necessarily part of the resistance. The FPO fled to the forest and fought with the partisans.
From the establishment of the ghetto until January 1942, task groups of German and Lithuanian Einsatzgruppen regularly carried out the surprise operations called Aktionen, often on Jewish holidays. The ghetto residents were rounded up and deported usually for subsequent executions. In the Aktion on Yom Kippur of 1 October 1942, the Germans ordered the Judenrat to lead the arrests; residents found by the Jewish police to lack the work permits were arrested and transferred to German custody. The same month the Germans liquidated the small ghetto, where they had relocated "unproductive" individuals (i.e., who were old, ill, or otherwise considered unfit for labour); most of the prisoners were taken to Ponary and shot. About 20,000 Jews including 8,000 without papers remained in the large ghetto. The period between January 1942 and March 1943 was known as the time of ghetto 'stabilization"; the Aktionen ceased and some semblance of normal life resumed. The quiet period continued until 6 August, when the Germans commenced the deportation of 7,130 Jews to Estonia on the order of Heinrich Himmler; this was finished on 5 September. On 23–24 September 1943 the ghetto was liquidated under the command of Oberscharführer Bruno Kittel; the majority of the remaining residents were sent to the Vaivara concentration camp in Estonia, killed in the forest of Paneriai, or sent to the death camps in German-occupied Poland.
A small group of Jews remained in Vilna after the liquidation of the Ghetto, primarily at the Kailis and at the HKP 562 forced labor camps. Inmates of HKP 562 repaired automobiles for the German Army; the camp was commanded by the Wehrmacht Major Karl Plagge who, with the cooperation of his officers and men, was able to shield the Jewish auto-workers from much of the abuse slave laborers were ordinarily subjected to. When the Red Army approached Vilna and the SS came to take over the camp, Plagge gave his workers a covert warning; some workers escaped, others hid in hiding places they had prepared with Plagge's knowledge (from which they subsequently escaped). Two-hundred and fifty Jews at HKP survived the war. They represent the single largest group of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Vilnius.
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- Kuperstein, Isaiah (2005). Partisans of Vilna, the Study Guide (PDF file, direct download). New Video Group.
- "Final Days of the Vilna Ghetto - Vilna During the Holocaust - The Jerusalem of Lithuania: The Story of the Jewish Community of Vilna". www.yadvashem.org.
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- The Jerusalem of Lithuania: The Story of the Jewish Community of Vilna an online exhibition by Yad Vashem
- Gens in response to resistance
- Gens in response to the concert
- partisans on their program
- Chronicles of the Vilnius Ghetto
- About the Holocaust
- Jewish Partisan Group Near Vilnius
- Partisans in Vilnius
- Rozka Korczak & Abba Kovner with members of the United Partisan Organization (FPO)
- Vilnius Partisans
- Testimony of Grzegorz Jaszuński concerning life in the Wilno Ghetto in "Chronicles of Terror" testimony database (Polish and English)
- Vilnius, Lithuania at JewishGen