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A Look From The Distance Of Yearsn the Vilna Ghetto commander Yaakov Gens
As I mentioned in the book, Yaakov Gens was an officer in reserve of the Lithuanian army. Being married to a Christian Lithuanian woman, he could find shelter at the Aryan side and save his life. There is no argument, that he considered his assignment in the ghetto as a public mission.
The known facts are that he collaborated with the Germans, fulfilled their demands, and handed over to them quotas of Jews. There is no doubt that he had known that these Jews are being murdered.
Like him, there were many heads of Judenrats, among them communal workers. All, as well as Yaakov Gens, were executed as the ghettos were eliminated.
The question is to be asked, why did Yaakov Gens act like most other Judenrat heads acted.
While being with the underground that stood for opposing the Germans, I was at the time inclined to blame Yaakov Gens, just because he was a public figure. It is now obvious that his policy, as well as the policy of the other Judenrat heads, eventually harmed the Jewish interest. On the other hand, he, as well as all the others, paid the price with their lives.
From a distance of years, things look different. Here is, somebody had to take upon himself this tragic task. Yaakov Gens was convinced that he would succeed in saving, at least, the younger people. And “he who saves one soul of Israel, is like he saved the entire world”.
It should be said in Yaakov Gens favor, that he did not utilize his position for making profit, as did his deputy Desler, who collaborated with the Gestapo and, first of all, took care of his own interests.
Gens cooperated, in one way or another, with the underground. He thought and even insinuated that he himself will oppose the Nazis when the suitable time for rebellion will come. But the Germans were more sophisticated and succeeded in convincing him, and all the ghetto inhabitants, that living for the time being, with some chance for rescue, is better than a certain death (in rebellion).
Yaakov Gens’s Christian wife escaped to the west, and I was told that she is blaming the ghetto survivors for his death. Even today, this debate is not closed.
If only we, and all our descendants, will never be forced to face such dilemmas.
When I recently reviewed history books, related to the holocaust and resistance, which are being taught in secondary schools, I found in one of the books that in Vilna there was a rebellion attempt.
At a study day, recently held at the Diaspora House, on the subject “Historiography of Zionism”, I strengthened my opinion that in a historic evaluation there is no early or late, as long as the historian is truthful with the facts and memory.
In my opinion, the academy doesn’t deal enough with the research of the holocaust, and even less with the “resistance”. Learning the holocaust, in various institutions, is indeed a great achievement, but this is not a substitute for research, which I have no doubt will come, even though it is delayed.
Since I was one of the underground members in the Vilna ghetto, and personally participated in the rebellion against the Nazis, that took place between 1 and 5 of September 1943, on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I find it necessary to enlighten what happened there, from a perspective of more than 50 years.
I am aware that not everybody will agree with me. I don’t invite a debate, but I don’t fear one.
My decision to join the underground and the partisans was, like the rebellion, against the consensus that prevailed in the ghetto on those days. I know that with regards to events in the ghetto, between 1 and 5 of September 1943, there is a plot of silence. I understand that my underground comrades, as myself, had undergone a trauma, at that time. But a trauma cannot be healed by silence.
Others don’t want to cope with the issue, thinking that maybe it will arouse a debate that might turn to a political channel. In any case, I don’t have any political motivations.
Following are the facts. And as to the conclusions, “may the people see and judge”.
The rebellion against the Germans, in the Vilna ghetto, started with the establishment of the Zionist co-ordination in the underground, by the end of 1941, and after the Communists joined, it was named F.P.O
On Sylvester night, December 31, 1941, Abba Kovner read the famous proclamation “let’s not go as lambs to the slaughter”. In the kitchen at 2 Strashon Street, there were, on that night, about 150 young people, myself among them.
A lot has been written about the ghetto, as of its erection on September 6, 1941, till its extermination on September 23, 1943. Much has also been written on F.P.O actions in and outside the ghetto. Among these are important events, entitled “Glazman affair”, “Wittenberg Day”, stealing and purchase of arms, training with arms, the underground printing press, the escape of the Swienzin group people, the armed resistance and the rebellion, the smuggling of arms to the cemetery, the escape to the Naroch forests at 250 kilometers from Vilna, the escape of three F.P.O groups between 11 and 13 of September 1943, the exit through the sewage system on September 23, 1943, and the escape to the Rudniki forest the day the ghetto was exterminated.
I belonged to the F.P.O as of the day of its establishment, and with the first group, I escaped the ghetto to the partisan groups that were active in the Naroch forests, after the rebellion on September 11. The road to Naroch was very dangerous and took seven days and nights. A short while after my arrival to the partisans, many of the 38 combatants that left with the Glazman group from Naroch to the Nacha forests, were killed in an ambush.
The purpose of this article is to do a second thought assessment of the rebellion that took place during four days between 1 and 5 of September 1943.
For those who are not closely familiar with the subject, here is some background.
At first, the underground stood for armed resistance against the Germans, if and when they will come to exterminate the ghetto, with the assumption that the F.P.O. will be a sort of “pioneer”, hoping that the Jews of the ghetto will join the uprising. The underground took into consideration, that under the current circumstances and with the power relativity between the Nazis and us, there is no chance of winning, neither of surviving.
The ghetto was erected in the middle of the city, at the location where the old Vilna ghetto existed between 1633 and 1861; it was surrounded by a hostile Polish population and was guarded by the Germans and their Lithuanian assistants.
Kidnapping Jews, mainly men, and murdering them, happened even before the ghetto was erected, in accordance with the Vanse conference resolution regarding “the final solution of the Jewish problem”. In Ponar, which was only about 8 kilometers from the city, 80,000 were murdered, but in the ghetto, except for action days, life went on lively. The Judenrat was tolerable and headed by public activists.
Indeed, the Jewish police collaborated with the Germans, by supplying the “quotas”. But there was also a sanitary police, an economic police, a courthouse, a functioning administration, a theatre, a newspaper, synagogues, schools, Yeshivas, a hospital, social welfare, clubs, teachers, authors, poets, musicians, a choir, and more (some of Vilna ghetto songs are known and famous till today).
Many factories were setup. Many ghetto Jews worked forcefully in factories in and outside the ghetto. The ghetto Jews did not die of hunger or sickness, the Germans and their Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Latvian, and Estonian helpers, murdered them, in cold blood.
The active opposition to the underground, by most of the Jews, on “Wittenberg Day”, also points to the strong will to survive at any cost, and not to indifference and acceptance of the lurking and approaching death.
About 65% of Vilna Jews were murdered already in 1941. In ghettos that were setup in Poland, many died of hunger, diseases, and harsh living conditions. Indeed, the Germans, in cold blood, murdered a part of them, but not systematically, as happened in Vilna and in Lithuania.
At the beginning of 1942, the Vilna ghetto underground sent Solomon Entin and the Zilber sisters as emissaries to Warsaw, for warning the youth movements that the Germans intend to physically destroy all the Jews. The murder that is going on in Vilna and Lithuania is the beginning of genocide.
Practically, the Warsaw underground had been imbued by the roots of the Vilna underground that preceded it.
Now, to the point:
After 57 years, after I obtained combat experience with the partisans and Israeli battles, and after consulting Israeli army officers, I will try to analyze the ghetto military formation as it was during the rebellion.
On September 1, at 5 am, German and Estonian armed groups entered the ghetto, which had been surprisingly surrounded by heavy guards. Within a half an hour, the F.P.O. headquarters mobilized all underground members.
The first battalion settled at the headquarters on 6, Strashon street. I was assigned to this battalion and we waited for the arms that were hidden in hideouts. The second battalion, about a hundred people, was located in Spitlana Street 2, and even before the arms were distributed, it was surrounded by Germans and policemen and was captured by the Germans, who entered the ghetto through the back entrance at Zavalna Street. Twenty-five combatants managed to escape and joined the first post. At Strashon 8, there was frontal post No. 2. At the block, opposite Strashon 7, was another post that was supposed to cover the first post, should the Germans enter Strashon Street. It was assumed that the Germans will enter the ghetto through its main gate, and will arrive through Jatkova Street in the counter-clock direction.
The weapons we had were very poor; it consisted mostly of pistols, a few riffles, and one machine-gun. I got a riffle with a few bullets. Most headquarter and underground people had no military experience. Only a few of them have served in the army.
I stood with a cocked riffle, aimed at the direction of which we expected the Germans to arrive. It never occurred to us that the Germans are able to encircle us from our back, through Zavalana Street.
Post No. 3, at Strashon 12, has been ordered to open fire as the Germans enter the street. Illya Scheinbaum, who served in the army at his time, was appointed post commander. At noon, a German company advanced towards the street. Scheinbaum was the first to open fire and other threw grenades, a few Germans were injured and the others responded with deadly fire. Illya Scheinbaum was killed on the spot and the rest retreated to the first central post. The Germans blew up the entire block where post No. 3 was, and then retreated and left the ghetto.
The ghetto police and the Jewish administration were not interested in a shooting battle, I think that it was because of the lesson they learned from the Warsaw ghetto uprising, because of the many casualties that were there, and the way it echoed in the world.
The Jewish police handed the Germans the quota of 6,000 men and women, and these were transferred to a labor camp in Estonia. The Germans saw to it that the Jews that were transferred to Estonia send letter to their relatives at the Vilna ghetto, announcing that their situation is reasonable and there is no threat on their lives.
This is how a harsh battle, of which thousands of victims could have been killed, has been avoided.
About 600 underground combatants have also been saved, and in accordance with a headquarter resolution, following “Wittenberg Day”, they started to flee to the forests and join the partisans.
During the years 1941-1942, there was no contact between the underground and the partisans at the Vilna vicinity, who started organizing only at the end of 1942, after the group of Swienezien and provincial towns people, with Moshke Shootan, escaped the ghetto. On June, contact was established with Markov the commander of the Voroshilov brigade, in the Naroch forests.
On September 12, the first F.P.O group escaped under the guidance of the famous painter Alexander Bogen (Katzenbogen) with me among them. The second group escaped on the following day, with the guidance of Saike Gertner and the third group with the guidance of Itzhak Rudnizky. On the next day, another group of about 50 people, of the “second organization”, escaped to the Rudniki forest.
On September 23, the day of the extermination of the ghetto, another F.P.O. group of about 150 people, left through the sewage system and escaped to the Rudniki forest. Later, more Jews of H.K.P. and Keilis escaped to the Rudniki forest.
The term “rebellion”, as it is accepted in our national memory, is identified and linked with sacrifices rather than with successes. The Bar Kochba rebellion, Massadah, Kiddush Hashem (martyrdom), the Maccabees; etc. The same applies to the polish uprising against the Nazis, in 1944, which is identified by the many victims. In France, for example, it is totally different. Since the war against the Nazis ended with De Gaulle’s victory, in spite of the many sacrifices, the French underground, the “resistance”, is identified with victory.
During the days of our rebellion, the F.P.O. headquarters envisioned the Warsaw ghetto rebellion, in April-May 1943.
The State of Israel had set the “Holocaust and Heroism Day”, to be on the 27th day of the Jewish month of Sivan, the day that the Warsaw ghetto rebellion broke out. The Warsaw ghetto rebellion became a symbol of Jewish resistance and uprising during the holocaust, mainly out of a deep identification of the Israeli people with the rebels and combatants that gave their lives in the battle.
On October 2000, Dr. Edelman, of the “Bund”, one of the leaders of the Warsaw ghetto rebellion, who lives in Poland, visited Israel. On the occasion of this visit, the “Haaretz”, Israeli newspaper, published several reportages that spread more light on the rebellion in Warsaw: In 1943, a few hundred combatants, under Dr. Edelman’s command, exited through the sewage system to the Aryan side and were saved. Nowadays, Dr. Edelman is considered in Poland as one of the heroes of the resistance to the Nazis, who fought against the Germans.
We all must express the words “holocaust” and “heroism” in one breath. I think and am even certain that as of the rebellion in the Warsaw ghetto, the Germans decided not to murder Jews on the spot where they lived, in order to avoid the arousing of resistance and uprising, as happened in Warsaw.
It is hard to know the extent of influence that the famous Warsaw ghetto rebellion had on the Israeli “War of Independence”, in 1948. Who can tell how it influenced the Diaspora Jews in their struggle against rising anti-Semitism throughout the world.
What was expected of the rebellion? – During the years 1941-1942, the intention was to rebel, with the specific knowledge that we have no chance of survival. Following the bitter disappointment of the “Wittenberg Day”, on July 16, 1943, and when contacts with the partisans were established, the concept had been completely changed, and the headquarters decided to transfer all F.P.O. combat bases from the ghetto to the forests. This was the first time that it occurred to us that it is possible to fight and even survive (in spite of the fact that the escape to the forest could not guarantee rescue).
We rebelled and fought in the ghettos and together with the partisans, we participated in “Aliyah Bet” (illegal immigration), immigrated in our country, built it and were built by it, raised families, rehabilitated, contributed to the rising of Israel and are ready to go on. We lived up to the Mitzvah “preserve your lives” and we fulfilled the slogan “Massadah shall not fall again”.
The bottom line; Hitler, may his name be cursed, wanted to destroy the Jewish people forever. The uprising and rebellion in the ghettos, as well as the fighting within the partisan framework, even though they did not overbalance the war, they undoubtedly had their impact on Hitler’s defeat.
The Jewish people, in Israel and abroad, associates today with the memory of members of our people who gave their lives on Kiddush Hashem (martyrdom), and with the memory of our heroes who had fallen in the sacred war on Jewish honor.
I wonder what granted me, the holocaust and rebellion survivor, the privilege to stand here before you. I feel that fate entrusted in our mouths, the words of our brethren who with their death commanded life to us.
It is not my privilege it is their privilege.
We had sworn not to forget the bloody events of the dark days. We had sworn to tell the chapter of heroism of ghetto rebels, underground fighters, and Jewish partisans.
We had sworn to tell it to ourselves, to our children and to their children, not only for remembering what has happened, but for learning the lesson of the past, so as to repeatedly remind ourselves and those who will be after us, that such occurrences should never happen again.
Our history is paved with struggles on our physical existence. But during all generations, the struggle on our physical existence has been tied with the struggle on the spiritual and moral values of the Jewish people.
This stood in front of our eyes when we established the resistance movements in the ghettos. We did not wander then about the question “who is a Jew”, but it was naturally accepted that the Jewish rebellion grew on the background of the national society and the organic affiliation with Am Isroel (the Jewish people).
It was only natural that Zionist youth movements, in all their varieties, were the spearhead of the active resistance against the Nazi conqueror.
This was a Hebrew rebellion; the national character of which stood out the more it functioned on the background of a Jewish concentration. Tragic as this may be, such a concentration developed in the ghettos. That is the reason that history recorded the rebellions in the ghettos of Warsaw, Bialistok, Vilna, Lachva and many more communities, as part of the Jewish people’s struggle for its existence, honor and national independence.
When we left the ghetto in an organized manner and joined the partisans, we asked to organize a Jewish regiment, but we were rejected. At that time, we didn’t evaluate the extent of danger that was involved in the very presentation of such a request.
Our time is not available nowadays for mending the history of other nations. We need to write our own history with our own hands. But, alas, those Soviet Katyusha rockets, the glorious beginning of which was by smashing German bunkers at the eastern front, have recently turned into a murder weapon that kills babies in peaceful settlements in our country that is being built.
In the war, we fought for honor. Our arms were pure. There can be no comparison between our arms’ purity and our struggle against Arab terror murderous activity. There is no parallelism with the Jewish rebellion movements, during World War II. The world must be aware of this.
We struggled not only for our lives, but our eyes were focused on Zion. It is not accidental that right after liberation we were the first to guide the survivors and get them to strive up, together with us, to the shores of our land.
Our struggle integrates with the struggle of generations for the freedom of Israel, the rise of Israel, the independence of Israel, and the Eternity of Israel.
This historic continuity found its very symbolic expression in the superb heroism of our dearest Solomon Entin, of the founders of the Vilna underground movement, his brother Mera Entin of Kibbutz Nitzanim, during the War of Independence, and Captain Gaddi Manella from Tel Yitzhk, at pursuit after Arab terrorists.
This “Massuah” (beacon) that we shall erect here, is the expression of this historic continuity.
We paid dearly till we arrived from Jerusalem of Lithuania (Vilna) to Eternal Jerusalem.
And as we arrived here, in our ears echo the words “the day we longed for shall rise and come”.
Speech in the survivors´ name: Litman Mor
(Live broadcast on Israeli TV)
The honorable president of Israel, honorable prime minister, honorable chief rabbis of Israel, honorable audience.
It is a great privilege for me to bring to you the word of the survivors.
I stand here not on my own merits. It is fate that deposited in our mouths the last will of our parents, brothers, sisters, and children “remember, do not forget”. Indeed, “Remember what Amaleq did to thee”.
Who can describe what had come over the six million holocaust victims, among them about a half million children?
Is it possible to imagine the feeling of a mother whose baby is taken from her arms and murdered in front of her?
What did our dearest feel before they were slaughtered with “O Hear Israel” in their mouths?
We remember the individual’s struggle for survival, the survival instinct of hungry children, who search, while endangering their lives, for a slice of bread. We remember the struggle for survival in hiding places, ghettos, camps, and forests.
On the night of December 31, 1941, I took part in a meeting of the Vilna ghetto underground, where, for the first time, the proclamation “let us not go like lambs to the slaughter”, was made public. There were rebellions and uprisings in the Warsaw ghetto, Vilna ghetto, and many other places, all out of national identification and a sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
In 1943, we escaped the ghetto and fought among the partisans. We asked to organize a Jewish regiment, but we were denied. To us the war was not only against Germany, not only revenge for the murder of our families, but it was a war on human dignity and the honor of the Jewish people.
With the liberation, the survivors became homeless. For us, the Zionists, Eretz Isroel was always the homeland.
Already in 1944, we begun gathering the survivors and organizing Aliyah Bet (illegal immigration), with the purpose of striving up, in any possible way, to the shores of this country.
I will never forget my excitement when I saw the Magen David on the uniforms of the Jewish Brigade soldiers. What was a symbol of humiliation became a symbol of freedom. Right after liberation, we began searching and saving babies who were in monasteries. Children, that were hidden by righteous gentiles.
On December 25, 1945, I carried in my arms a baby, through the snowy mountains, from Poland to Czech.
Thousands like her were returned to Judaism and brought here. I hope that that baby had been absorbed here, and maybe found her identity. Many have lost their identity till today.
We immigrated in this country and in our mouths were the songs “the chain hasn’t been broken yet”, “we came to this country to build it and be built by it”. Blessed are we that we lived to realize these songs, and to be a part of “Am Isroel Chai” (the Jewish people is alive). We rehabilitated, raised families, participated in the wars of Israel, contributed to the building of the country, and profited.
We paid a heavy price before we arrived from Jerusalem of Lithuania to Eternal Jerusalem, capitol of Israel. The words of the partisan’s anthem still echo in our ears: “The day we longed for will rise and come, and our march will thunder we are here!”.
And thank God, we are here!.
To the Rabin family, and the entire State of Israel.
The bullets that hit Rabin hit all of us.
I am a holocaust survivor and in my worst dreams, it never occurred to me that a Jew would hit the prime minister of Israel.
How could it happen that a human beast, that pretends to be Jewish, shall murder our prime minister.
Rabin was a symbol of the rise of Israel, a brave warrior in Israel’s wars and a brave fighter for achieving peace and security.
I will not forget for a moment what I have gone through on the “Wittenberg Day” in the Vilna ghetto, in 1941.
We experienced terrible days that are hard to describe. We were one step away from a war between brothers. Blessed are we that we didn’t come to it. What stood before us was the resistance to the Germans. The spiritual power that helped us fight and survive was the linkage with the Jewish people, love of the Jewish people and the aspiration to the land of Israel.
I have no words, in my poor language, for expressing my sympathy with the grief of the Rabin family and of the entire Jewish people in Israel and in the Diaspora.
We all pray for peace, Rabin in his tragic death commanded us peace, may his death prevent us and all generations to come from a brother’s war, which may, god forbid, lead to the destruction of the Third Temple.
Tel Aviv, November 11, 1995
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