This account of the Vilna Ghetto is a brief description of what my Vilna
relatives lived and died through. It is not meant to replace the
more thorough books and diaries written by those who survived the ghetto.
When my wife and I had the opportunity to visit Vilnius, in August 1999, we were given a tour of Vilnius that included the story of the ghetto. It was a very moving experience. I had heard many stories of the holocaust before. This was different because it was the story of my family. This part of holocaust history is personal. It is also personal for anyone whose relatives lived in Vilna (Vilnius) as of June 22, 1941.
For the Jewish community of Vilna, the ending began on Sunday, June 22, 1941 (27 Sivan 5701). "The clear blue, happy sky has become transformed into a mighty volcano which has showered the city with bombs. It has become clear to all: the Hitlerites have attacked our land." Y. Rudashevski, Diary of the Vilna Ghetto.
Within two weeks the killing started. The first step was to eliminate those most likely to organize resistance, the young men. If you had a young male relative, he may have been killed within the first four weeks of German occupation, before the ghetto was even formed.
Working through the local Lithuanian population, they began to grab the Jewish teenagers and young men off the streets. The Lithuanians were called Khapunes, Yiddish for kidnappers. For every kidnapped Jew who was killed, the khapunes received 10 rubles. The spouses and families were told that the men were being taken to do work for the Germans.
Even those in hiding were not safe. Whole streets would be cleaned out. Going down the street, Khapunes would close the heavy doors to a courtyard and break into the homes surrounding the courtyard, taking away the young men.
By July 20, 1941, around 5,000 young Jewish men were killed. Taken
first to Lukiszki Prison, they were actually killed in the pits of Ponary
Forest. It was a terrifying time to be a Jew. Parents would
let their kids out to get food not knowing if they would come back or be
of the Jewish Quarter
The killing started in earnest August 31, 1941, under the accusation that three Germans were killed by Jews. This was called "The Provocation." The purpose of the action was simply to create a section of the city that would form the ghetto. Nearly 10,000 Jews were killed from Aug. 31 - Sept. 3.
On the evening of Sept. 1, 1941, the streets of the old Jewish Quarter were sealed off. There were two sections affected. The larger section contained Szawelska St., Straszuna St., Oszmianska St., Dzisnienska St., Rudnicka St., Jatkowa Ln. and Szpitalna St. The smaller section covered Zydowska St., Gaona St., Szklanna St., and Klaczko Ln.
"That night the Germans stormed into each house, into all the attics and into each cellar, and dragged everyone out: women, men, and children. The streets were coated with blood, and corpses lay everywhere." S. Rabinovici, Thanks to My Mother. Many were taken straight to Ponary Forest to be killed. The rest were taken to Lukiszki prison. Over the next couple of days, those in the prison were also taken to Ponary. Only a certain number could be killed each day at Ponary so, Lukiszki was used as a holding place. On my trip to Vilnius, I met one woman whose family survived that night because of Lukiszki's overcrowding. While her family was among those sent to Ponary, it was too full and they were sitting out on the pavement. As a result, they were told by the Germans to find a place in the Ghetto.
If you had relatives with homes on those streets, that night they suffered for hours, being driven from their homes, confused and beaten, and either marched 3.7 miles to Ponary Forest where they were shot or locked up in the prison and shot one or two days later. I had relatives living on Szpitalna St. and Jatkowa Lane. It happened to them.
There was now room to make the ghettos. For the next five days walls were erected to seal off these streets, windows were boarded up, and non-Jewish families living in those sections were moved out. During those five days the remaining Jewish population of Vilna lived in fear of what would happen next. During that time a fine of 5 million rubles was demanded of the Jewish community within a 24-hour period. Since there was an evening curfew, they were only able to collect close to 2 million rubles. As a result, the Nazis abolished the ruling Jewish council (Judenrat) and executed 2 of its members.
of the Vilna Ghettos
The morning of Sept. 6, 1941, all Jews were ordered to leave their homes and move to the ghetto. Taking only what they could carry, they tried to find a place in the ghetto. Many could not find room and were forced to sleep outside.
On Sept. 12, those sleeping outside were rounded up and taken to Ponary Forest. Thus, another 3,000 Jews were killed.
Now we know what was happening. During those times the people heard rumors of the killing, but did not know for sure. They still could not believe so many were really being murdered.
1 and Ghetto 2
In the beginning there were two ghettos. At first, people were moved into either ghetto at random. Ghetto 1 had 29,000 people and Ghetto 2 had 11,000. The Germans appointed had a new Jewish council in the ghetto, the Judenrat, headed by Jacob Gens. A Jewish Police force was also established to carry out the directives of the Germans and keep order in the Ghetto.
|Plaque showing the two ghettos, the smaller ghetto top right and the larger below.||"The model of the biggest ghetto made
on the order of the Gestapo by the Jewish masters. Among them Rokhl
Sutzkever, Uma Olkenitski, Yudl Mut and Liza Daykhes (Daiches)."
From Spiritual Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto by Rachel Kostanian-Danzig of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The Germans in charge of the ghetto were there with one, simple purpose: to kill all the Jews. They established quotas for the number of Jews needed to be killed on a certain day. It was no different than quotas for a steel mill to produce a number of ingots of steel per day or quotas on the number of traffic tickets that must be written each day.
The gathering of Jews to meet the quota was called an "action." During the actions thousands went into hiding. At first, the Germans and their Lithuanian accomplices carried out the actions. Once established, the Jewish police were expected to provide that number. The police would announce for everyone to assemble in the outer courtyard of the Judenrat building. From there they would select who would be taken. If there were not enough assembled they would go into houses to meet the quota.
The first big action started on the evening of Yom Kippur and lasted throughout the holiday. It stopped when the quota of 4,000 men, women, and children had been collected.
Over the next 14 days, until the end of Sukkot, the actions continued and the people lived in torment. Day after day, without break from the terror there were searches, purges, and thousands of people taken away. It was a terrible time. People would see their own mothers and fathers and family members disappear. They had to face it and move on. Their struggle was to only survive. The Jewish police would break into apartments and take whole families. There were 16,000 Jews killed in 14 days.
During that time there was at least one instance of spontaneous resistance. A group of Jews who had been rounded up simply lay down in the street and refused to move. The Jewish police did not know what to do. So, they let them stay. Their lives were spared but, only for a little while, for there were more actions to come.
Permits = Life
In Oct. 1941, the Nazis brought 3000 work certificates to the ghetto and said to distribute them among the workers. They were called schaynen from the German word for certificate, schayn. At first, printed on pink paper, they were called pink schaynen. The schaynen could contain four people, a husband and wife and two children. So, 12,000 people were temporarily safe.
One place where they gave out the schaynen was in the inner courtyard of the Judenrat building at 6 Rudnicka St., the former mansion of a Polish nobleman. Given out in one night, the courtyard was full of people who were shouting and begging for one of the schaynen because they knew it meant life. The Judenerat became corrupt and the price for schaynen jumped from 50 rubles to 15,000 rubles.
In other places, there was a more honest distribution of schaynen.
One of these places was the Jewish hospital, given to its workers.
Also teachers got a small number of schaynen. In the 1942 list of
prisoners of the Vilna Ghetto, some of my relatives are listed. One
is a hospital orderly. She would have received a schaynen given out
at the hospital.
The passes meant life. If the pass owner did not have a spouse or two children, they would add the names of other relatives or the children of neighbors who either didn't have passes or had more than two children.
The final work certificate color was yellow. Yellow schaynen were given to workers and they could request blue schaynen for their spouses and two children. Those with a yellow schaynen could leave the ghetto to go to work. Those with a blue schaynen could only leave if accompanied by a someone with a yellow.
|A shayn. From the Vilna Gaon
Jewish State Museum Archives
From Spiritual Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto by Rachel Kostanian-Danzig
of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The schaynen worked to fragment the Jewish community into those slated
to die and those to live. It falsely focused their hope of surviving
on a piece of paper and away from other means of rescue. However, even
yellow schaynen did not guarantee life. If a worker were grabbed in an
action, even if he showed his yellow pass, sometimes his captors would
just laugh at it and throw it away.
By October 21, 1941 all those found without schaynen were transferred to Ghetto 2. Ghetto 1 contained the tradesmen and skilled workers along with their families. Ghetto 2 was filled with the old, the sick, the non-skilled, the merchants, and the intellectuals.
The people in Ghetto 2 lived in fear, knowing that their lives were in danger. They served no useful purpose; they were the "useless eaters." The newly segregated Ghetto 2 lasted only days.
Some workers were lucky enough to work in the Kailes work camp in another section of Vilna, outside of the ghetto. There were barracks there for them and their families.
In mid October 1941, the next large action was the "action of the yellow schaynen." Those with yellow schaynen were told to go with their families to their place of work. While away, the Lithuanian auxiliary searched Ghetto 1 for those without schaynen. That day, 5,000 Jews were killed at Ponary or transferred to work camps.
A week later, over three days, Oct. 29-31, Ghetto 2 was liquidated. All 11,000 Jews in the small ghetto were killed in Ponary. Some of my relatives were merchants. If they survived the earlier actions, they may have been among those 11,000 killed from Ghetto 2. Once liquidated, Ghetto 2 was abolished.
The last big action occurred on early November, 1941, and was known as the "Second action of the yellow schaynen." Once those with yellow schaynen went with their families to their workplaces. This time they stayed three days. For three days they rampaged the ghetto, breaking into each house, street by street. All those found were taken away; some children and elderly were tossed out the windows.
The numbers of Jewish men, women, and children killed in 1941 between Aug. 9 and Nov. 25 by the SS Einsatzgruppen are documented in a secret Reich letter dated Dec. 1, 1941. The numbers killed and dates are listed as:
|8/12-9/1/41||City of Wilna: 425 Jews, 19 Jewesses, 8 Comm. (m.), 9 Comm. (f.) = 461|
of Wilna: 864 Jews, 2,019 Jewesses, 817 Jewish children (sonderaktion
because German soldiers shot at by Jews) = 3,700
|9/12/41||City of Wilna: 993 Jews, 1,670 Jewesses, 771 Jewish children = 3,334|
|9/17/41||City of Wilna: 337 Jews, 687 Jewesses, 247 Jewish children and 4 Comm. = 1,271|
|10/4/41||City of Wilna: 432 Jews, 1,115 Jewesses, 436 Jewish children = 1,983|
|10/16/41||City of Wilna: 382 Jews, 507 Jewesses, 257 Jewish children = 1,146|
|10/21/41||City of Wilna: 718 Jews, 1,063 Jewesses, 586 Jewish children = 2,367|
|10/25/41||City of Wilna: 1,776 Jewesses, 812 Jewish children = 2,578|
|10/27/41||City of Wilna: 946 Jews, 184 Jewesses, 73 Jewish children = 1,203|
|10/30/41||City of Wilna: 382 Jews, 789 Jewesses, 36 Jewish children = 1,553|
|11/6/41||City of Wilna: 340 Jews, 749 Jewesses, 252 Jewish children = 1,341|
|11/19/41||City of Wilna: 76 Jews, 77 Jewesses, 18 Jewish children = 171|
|11/25/41||City of Wilna: 9 Jews, 46 Jewesses, 8 Jewish children = 63|
Smaller actions still continued. One small action occurred in December
1941. The Jews who had been working closely with the Gestapo were
living at #1, 2, and 3 Straszuna St. They were told by the Germans that
they would be taking them out of the ghetto. Thinking that they were
being taken out to protect them during the next big action, they left with
their families. They were all taken to Ponary. The men were
sent back to the ghetto and the families were killed.
In another action, on July 26, 1942 there was the "old people's action" when the elderly were removed. The philosophy of Gens and the Judenrat was to give the Germans the victims they demanded: choose the old and the sick to sacrifice, in order to save some of the people, especially the young and strong. Not everyone in the ghetto agreed with this. The different political organizations in the ghetto fought against this strategy of the Judenrat.
Before the war there were 60,000 Jews in Vilna. Within a year of the German occupation the Nazis had killed 70% of the Jewish population.
of Relative Stability (only for a time)
After the Nazis had gotten rid of the majority for the Jews, there was a time (18 months) of relative stability when there were no big actions in the ghetto. The Judenrat took the first steps to bring some normalcy to life in the ghetto. They were against resistance. They wanted to cooperate, keep things quiet, and keep the ghetto performing work for the Germans. There were many workshops set up in the Judenrat building to get the Jews doing work for the Germans. They thought that if they could make their services indispensable maybe they would be saved. They also encouraged culture, education, health care, help for the needy, and social care. On a stage in the Judenrat building there were concerts and plays. At #4 Dzisnienska St. they set up a club for children where there were classes, performances, singing, and dancing. Follow this link to an interesting essay called The Cultural Life of the Vilna Ghetto by Solon Beinfeld.
The House of Culture on Straszuna St. contained the Jewish library. The library was a great place to go in the ghetto. It was warm and quiet, with table and chairs to work on. The reading hall lent 200 books each day. The people read to escape life. At first, most of the books borrowed were enjoyable reading, mysteries and novels. Later, in 1942, people started to borrow more of the classics, serious books. In 1942, they celebrated the loan of 100,000 books.
||Courtyard behind House of Culture. Notice the entrance to the mikvah used by the partisans on the left of the passageway and the ghetto prison in the rear of the courtyard|
In the courtyard behind the House of Culture they used to hold sporting
events. There would be races (from the courtyard to the Judenrat
and back), volleyball, high jump, etc.
A building in the back of this courtyard, previously a Talmud Torah, was used by the Jewish Police as the ghetto prison for crimes committed in the ghetto. The police had to arrest their fellow Jews, even for such things as smuggling food, because they were under the Nazis. The ghetto police said that at least they don't kill them. If the Gestapo enforced the rules then, they would kill them. So, they would beat and lash them, but they did not kill them.
of the Ghetto and Kailis Work Camp
Throughout the entire ordeal, lasting more than two years, people had hope. They did not lose their humanity. If they could survive, the Germans would be defeated and they would continue their lives. Today, we know the facts about the mass executions. Then, they did not know. There were rumors. There were stories. In July 1941, before the ghettos were formed, some of those taken to Ponary were only wounded. Escaping from the pit once it got dark, the wounded survivors went to the Jewish Hospital in Vilnius. They told the doctors what had happened. The doctors kept silent, deciding that they must be crazy.
Over the next two years others also escaped Ponary and returned to the ghetto with horror stories. However, it was difficult for many to fathom that murder on such a large scale could really be happening.
The following section
is taken from Spiritual Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto by Rachel
Kostanian-Danzig of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The Germans began to liquidate the "smaller ghettos around Vilna; Oshmene, Svintsyan, Mikhaleshik and Sol among them. The people were told that some of them could be resettled in the Kovno Ghetto. Many were happy: this Ghetto was rumoured to be the best.
About 4,000 people were put on a train of 83 freight vans on April 5, 1943. There had been no fears: the Jewish Police and Yakov Gens were with them. The 'passengers' were not aware that the train conductor had warned Gens that their destination was Ponar. Gens appealed to Martin
Weiss, the SS chief of the 'operation,' but the train moved on ... and it indeed stopped at Ponar instead of going to Kovno. The shaken Jewish Police, almost all of them, together with Gens, desperate and broken, were put on trucks and sent off to the Vilnius Gestapo.
The people on the train became terrified. They saw through the narrow-wired windows how their fellow passengers were being driven by uniformed Germans and Lithuanians into the woods, van after van, terribly beaten, abused, and finally shot.
The people frantically began to tear the boards off the vans in an attempt to run away. Many, including women, attacked the executioners. This was spontaneous mass resistance. More than thirty managed to escape. Among them were several women from Svintsyan. One of them said that their entire van attempted to run away, encouraged by the guard. 'Like wounded animals, bleeding, in torn clothes, they wandered in the forest until they could make their way to the Ghetto'. There they gave their gruesome testimonies to those who were writing the Ghetto's history for posterity, such as Zelik Kalmanovitsh and Herman Kruk.
In the days that followed, children who had miraculously escaped from the pits wrote essays at school entitled 'What I saw at Ponar', 'How my Family was Killed', and the like. They described the horrors they had experienced - how they were chased to the pits where they were met by machine-gun fire, how their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters fell dead, how they crawled out from under the dead or wounded, groaning corpses and how human cheeks, eyes and brains were hanging from the branches of trees. The slaughter field was a terrible mess when, a day later, Jewish policemen were forced by the Gestapo to collect pieces of bodies scattered in the forest, and to bury them in the pits."
In June of 1943 the actions in the Vilna Ghetto started again and became
more and more frequent. Once again people lived in terror. In mid
September the Germans executed Gens. Many felt that if Gens could
be killed how much hope could the rest have? Toward the end of September
the deportations started. On Sept. 23 and 24 all the ghetto inhabitants
were ordered to leave the ghetto for work camps. Except those in hiding
or in the Kailis work camp, everyone gathered in the courtyard of the Judenrat.
The strong and young were sent to workcamps, the men to Estonia and the
women to Latvia. Those too old or young were sent to Ponary.
The ghetto was over.
There were many still hiding. The Germans came in and tried to find them. For those caught, some of these were sent to work camps, others were killed at Ponary.
Life continued for those in the Kailis work camp. In March 1944 the Germans knew they would lose Vilna to the Russians. They told the parents in Kailis to dress their children nicely to be taken for medical checkups. Once loaded into transport vehicles, the children were never seen again. On July 2, 1944 the Jews still in Kailis were taken to Ponary and killed. Another 200 or so who had been hiding were found and killed in the work camp. There was no time to take them to Ponary because of the approaching Russians.
Memorial to the murdered children of Kailis Work
Camp at a site thought to be their mass grave.
and Help from Outside
There was Jewish resistance. It was made up of people from various parties (Zionist, communist, bundist, etc). The leader wasYitzak Wittenburg. He had experience with underground activities.
Inside the courtyard of the library was the Mikvah with its ritual baths. Wittenburg was a director of the bath by day and at night he was a partisan. Since the walls were so thick at the baths and it is a deep cellar, the partisans taught shooting in the baths. That is also where they hid many of their weapons.
Arms were smuggled into the ghetto in various ways. There was a young orphan, Sam Tiften, who worked in an arsenal for the Germans. He tried to smuggle in weapons. He put a bandage on his arm and for a week walked through the gate with the bandage on. Then he put pieces of the revolver under the bandage and was able to smuggle a revolver in. They caught him when he was still in the arsenal, and tortured him, but he gave out no names. Weapons were also smuggled in over the roofs and through the sewers.
At one point permission was asked to bring salt into the ghetto. Instead of salt they brought in dynamite powder. They filled electric bulbs with the powder and made grenades.
One of the workshops at the Judenrat was a mechanical workshop. One day Gens came in and asked a mechanic to make a copy of a special key that opened a gate out of the ghetto. The mechanic secretly pressed the key into a loaf of bread to make a mold so he could make duplicate copies of the key later on. These keys were later used by partisans to escape.
The partisans had plans of resistance for when the ghetto was to be liquidated. There was however debate. Some wanted to fight and died with guns in their hands. Others thought it better to leave and join the partisans in the forests.
The partisans had hidden arms in many places. One place was a house at the corner of Straszuna and Zmudski. On Sept. 1, 1943 the Germans required 5000 Jews and only a few hundred could be found, since everyone was in hiding. The Germans entered the ghetto to round up the 5,000. As a group of Germans were marching down Straszuna the partisans opened fire from the windows of the house. The Germans were surprised that the Jews had guns and that they would fight. In fighting back they exploded the building on the corner. The partisans escaped over the rooftops to the building where the mikvah was. They had guns hidden in the mikvah.
The building on the left is on the site from which the partisans
shot the German soldiers as they marched down Straszuna.
The plan was to regroup in the courtyard of the Jewish Hospital on Szpitalna
St. Once gathered they were suddenly surrounded and captured.
They had been betrayed to the Germans. They were all taken
to work camps in Estonia.
Entrance into the inner courtyard of the Jewish Hospital
The German officer in charge of the ghetto, Kittle, demanded that they
turn Wittenberg over or the whole ghetto would be killed. He refused
but, all his direct reports met and decided that he had to turn himself
in for the common good. Wittenburg was very disappointed that his
followers would be so quick to give up their leader. He then
asked permission to commit suicide. That was denied because Kittle
wanted him alive. So he left his men at the resistance headquarters
and insisted that he walk alone to the Judenrat to turn himself in.
It is not known when or how he died. It is known that Gens was asking
for poison that day. It is hoped that Gens gave it to Wittenberg
so that he could commit suicide instead of suffer at the hands of the Germans.
Within days Gens was also killed by the Germans.
On the day of liquidation, Szmuel Kapinsky was able to take 120 people out through the sewers. They were taken out a few at a time. One man fainted from the fumes in the sewer. His wife stayed with him. In the end, they came back for him and got him out also. The sewer exited under a stairway in a house. They all reached the partisans in the forests.
In a final story, the Church of all Saints is at the end of Szpitalna St., where the main gate was. There was a tunnel through the sewers connecting the church with the ghetto. The priest of the church would provide bread to be taken into the ghetto through the tunnel. He also hid some Jews smuggled out of the ghetto through the tunnel. It should also be noted that there were Lithuanians who helped smuggle food into the ghetto.
There were over 3,000 survivors. Around 2,000 of the 10,000 sent
to labor camps survived. Among them was my grandfather's cousin Yudel
Katz. Over 1000 had escaped to the forests, and others
were hidden elsewhere. I met one woman whose family had been in the
Kailis Work Camp in Vilna. As a 15-year-old, she had run out of the
main gate at a moment when it was unguarded. She made her way to
a Lithuanian friend's house and was hidden for the rest of the war.
Email Rachel Kostanian, author of
Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto. This highly
recommended book is about the successful Jewish struggle to maintain dignity and spirit
while under siege in the Vilna Ghetto. Rachel Kostanian is Director of the Vilna Gaon Jewish
L. Historic Documents from the Ghetto
1. A Young Jew into the Vilna Ghetto (September 1941)
2. The United Partisans Organization Calls for Revolt in Vilna (September 1, 1943)
3. Jacob Gens After His Appointment as Vilna Ghetto Leader (July 15, 1942)
4. Jacob Gens on the Danger of Bringing Arms into the Vilna Ghetto (May 15, 1943)
5. Education and Culture in the Vilna Ghetto (1942)
6. Jacob Gens on the First Anniversary of the Vilna Theater (January 15, 1943)
Gens Tells Vilna Jewish Leadership About the "Action" in Oshmiany
(October 27, 1942)
8. Jewish Pioneer Youth Group in Vilna Calls for Resistance (January 1, 1942)
9. Partisans in Vilna (April 4, 1943)
from Zelig Kalmanovitch's Diary Following the Report by Jacob Gens
(October 27, 1942)
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