With the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the country is split between the Nazi invaders and the Soviet Union. Vilna winds up in the hands of the Soviets, then the Lithuanians, then the Soviets again, who set about seizing property and businesses, and arresting and deporting perceived enemies of the state.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
When the Germans attacked Poland on the morning of Friday, September 1, 1939, few could have guessed how quickly Poland would collapse. But for millions of Polish Jews, that day marked the beginning of a terrible journey that only a lucky few would survive. At the time, the narrators in this episode were all young people in Vilna, a city far from the front lines. Unlike Warsaw, Vilna was not seriously bombed. Its location gave them and their families an 18-month reprieve from the Nazi terror.
While some of the people in this episode, such as William Begell and Samuel Bak, came from prosperous, acculturated families, others, like Abram Zeleznikov, were more typical of Vilna Jewry: Yiddish-speaking and less well-off. What they all had in common was that from that Friday on, the world they had known was gone and would never return.
Although the fighting itself was quite intense and the Germans took some heavy losses, they conquered Poland in less than a month. Strategically, the Poles found themselves in a hopeless position because the German panzers moved much faster than the Polish armies could retreat. After a week, the million-man Polish Army disintegrated into isolated groups unable to cooperate or communicate with one another.
Within days, hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles alike confronted an agonizing dilemma: to stay home or to flee east, into the unknown. There was no time to think; they had to make split-second decisions. The Germans attacked on Friday and by the following Wednesday had taken dozens of major cities and were on the outskirts of Warsaw. The war had barely begun.
No one could even imagine the horrors that lay ahead, but many Jews—especially communal leaders, political activists, and young people hoping to join the Polish Army farther east—decided to start the long trek eastward. It was a trek from hell, one that stretched for hundreds of kilometers under a hail of German bombs, with little food and water, on roads clogged with panicked refugees and haggard Polish soldiers in retreat.
One of these refugees was Herman Kruk, the director of the Bund’s Grosser Library in Warsaw, who hit the road on September 6 and eventually made it to Vilna. His remarkable Vilna ghetto diary would survive the war, and excerpts from it will appear in these episodes. In the ghetto, Kruk meticulously recorded Jewish cultural life and left descriptions of the amazing library that he organized and ran. He kept writing even after the Germans sent him to a concentration camp in Estonia. The last entry appeared just a few hours before his murder in September 1944.
On September 17, 1939, while the Poles were still fighting hard to stall the Germans, the Red Army attacked eastern Poland, sealing the country’s fate once and for all. The Soviet invasion also marked the beginning of the end of the short-lived Polish-Jewish honeymoon that had begun in the summer of 1939. For a time, Polish antisemitism had abated as Poles realized that they and the Jews had to fight a common enemy—the Germans. But when the Russians attacked Poland, relations quickly deteriorated.
For Poles, the Russians were as bad as the Germans. Most Jews, on the other hand, welcomed (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) the Red Army as a lesser evil that would save them from German occupation. As one Jew in a small shtetl mordantly quipped, “Our death sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment.”
The Soviets occupied Vilna on September 19. But a few weeks later they handed the city over to the Lithuanians in exchange for military bases. From mid-October 1939 until mid-June 1940, therefore, Vilna—now neutral Lithuania’s capital—enjoyed an interlude of peace, freedom, and relative prosperity. It was an enclave of seeming normalcy in a war-torn Europe.
Within weeks, more than 20,000 Jewish refugees descended on Vilna from other parts of Poland. With the right papers, including a Soviet transit visa, one might be able to leave, via Soviet territory, for the United States or Palestine. Some were indeed able to flee, including a few thousand who received visas from the Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara. Many refugees came from the Polish Jewish elite: leaders of political parties and youth movements, relatively wealthy businessmen who hoped somehow to get out. But as we also learn from William Begell and Samuel Bak, many natives of Vilna, especially those who were better off, lived in a “golden cage” and hoped against hope that Vilna would avoid war and remain safe, even as it became completely surrounded by the Germans and the Soviets.
On June 16, 1940, Vilna’s fragile status as an enclave of security abruptly ended when the Soviets took over again and soon annexed the Baltic states. How did the Jews now fare under Soviet rule? While the image of the Jew as the arch collaborator of the Communists gave Poles, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians a moral alibi to attack and murder Jews when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the reality, in Vilna and elsewhere, was much more complicated.
Many Jews, along with Poles and others, also suffered under Soviet rule. The new rulers shut down Jewish cultural institutions and schools, replacing them with Communist ones in Yiddish. The entire Jewish entrepreneurial class lost its property, as we see in Begell’s testimony. Jews with large apartments typically lost them to Russian officers. Almost all Jewish private businesses were shut down, and soon everybody had to spend hours a day in line to buy food and basic goods that had been in plentiful supply before the war.
The Soviets arrested and even murdered many key members of Vilna’s cultural elite, including Joseph Chernikhov, Zalmen Reyzen, and Anna Rosenthal. The hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens sent to the gulag included a significant number of Jews. The Jewish victims of the Soviet secret police included Yankl Zeleznikov, the father of Abram Zeleznikov, who later played an important role in the armed resistance in the Vilna ghetto and whose voice often appears in these episodes. Tellingly, leftist Jews, including Bundists and progressive fellow travelers, found themselves in greater danger than religious Jews and Zionists. Many were arrested after being denounced by Jewish Communists who were eager to ingratiate themselves with the new regime.
But there is no denying that many young Jews, especially from poor families, benefited from Soviet rule. While Polish antisemitism, quotas, and high tuition fees had kept most poor Jewish youth from continuing their education past primary school, now they could realize their dreams of going to high school and even university. Many jobs in management, city administration, and education that had been closed to Jews under Polish rule opened up. Officially, at least, antisemitism was now a crime.
Most Jews managed to get by. They pitied their neighbors and acquaintances who had the bad luck to be picked up and deported to Siberia. Little did they realize that those deported east would in fact be the lucky ones. After all, more than half of all the Jews arrested by the Soviets would survive the war. Of the Jews who found themselves trapped in Vilna after Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, fewer than one in 20 would live to see the liberation.
William Begell: First thing in the morning, the Russian tanks roll in. I saw the Russian tanks from the third floor of our hotel. The Russian tank drivers wore helmets, rubber helmets, and you could see them from, uh, the third floor with the open turrets. But at that time, to a 12-year-old, they looked like, uh, real spacemen. And I was very scared. I was very scared.
Eleanor Reissa: When World War II began, the Nazis and Soviets divided Poland between them. The Nazis occupied western Poland and the Soviets occupied the east, including Vilna.
William Begell: Within two days we realized several basic things about the Russians. That they have nothing. That they are very poor, that they have never seen any luxury or abundance of good or merchandise in their lives. And that they are saying sheepishly that they have everything.
Eleanor Reissa: You’re listening to “Remembering Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania.” I’m Eleanor Reissa. Chapter two: “In the Shadow of War.” In this episode, you’ll hear diary entries by Herman Kruk, and the voices of Samuel Bak, Abram Zeleznikov, and Mira Verbin. We continue with William Begell.
William Begell: Almost everybody spoke Russian in Vilna, and when they asked the Russians, uh, “Do you have this?” they say, “Yes, we have, we have everything. We got anything.” “Do you have silk?” “Yes, we have. We have everything.” “Do you have oranges?” “Ah!” they said, “We have factories of oranges, uh, all over, uh, the Moscow district.”
The music and the songs were terrific. All the soldiers were walking on the streets, singing all the time and we all learned these Russian songs, starting with “Katyusha” and ending with, uh, uh, “Moscow” and, uh, and war songs within weeks.
Samuel Bak: It was actually, uh, not so very bad for a child at the beginning. It seemed even rather amusing.
Eleanor Reissa: Samuel was an only child, and just six years old when the war started.
Samuel Bak: Very interesting things happened to us as far as, uh, when the Russians had succeeded to establish themselves in Vilna. Apartment of my mother’s parents was, uh, taken away in order to put there a Russian general with his family. And all they permitted my grandparents to take out was an enormous aquarium of fish. I was so happy that this aquarium which I always admired in, uh, the apartment of my grandparents had to come to our house.
Then another wonderful thing happened for instance that my, uh, my mother’s parents went to live with my father’s parents because they had no apartment. So I had my two grandmothers and my two grandfathers staying together. So when the war started, actually, all these things did not seem terrible at all.
William Begell: One immediate reaction to the, uh, Russian Army’s entry into Vilna was lack of food. There were no stores open. There were no, uh, no commerce going on at all. And Vilna was a beautiful commercial city, uh, with, uh, elegant stores on the main street and, uh, all over the place. A lot of Jewish-owned and, uh, all the stores were closed. And everything that you wanted to buy, you had to buy sort of under the table from peddlers on the street.
Abram Zeleznikov: In 1939, when the Second World War broke out the first of September, I remember that I was very happy with it, because it was some adventures, something is going to happen. I remember going out and have to dig some trenches, and I got the feeling of being very important. Being a quite young man, only 15, I didn’t understand the dangers of the situation.
Eleanor Reissa: Since before he was born, Abram’s parents had been active in the Jewish Bund, a socialist political movement.
Abram Zeleznikov: The Bund in this time was split. One part what was supporting the Russian Bolshevik revolution and one part what was very much against. My father belonged to the part what was very much against the Bolsheviks.
I remember that, uh, um, Jewish Communist, a friend of my father, come over and told him, “Yankl, I know that there is an order that you will be arrested.” And this was a day after some others had been arrested, and he told him, and he said, “Look, I have a place. A friend of mine, a Poli—a Polish Communist, that knows you very well personally, wants you to come over to his place. It will take a week or two and, uh, and you will be saved.” He said, “Uh-uh. No. I will not run away from, uh, the Soviets. I am not frightened for them. I’m frightened for the Nazis,” and my father want to stay and to, and to welcome the Soviet Army.
Eleanor Reissa: The Soviets arrested Abram’s father. He never heard from him again. The Soviets were arresting, deporting, and even assassinating activists they considered anti-Communist.
At the same time, the Nazis were tightening their grip on western Poland. That’s where 19-year-old Mira Verbin was when the war started. She was living far from home at a Zionist agricultural school in Częstochowa, Poland.
Mira Verbin: On the first night, local farmers in their underwear came to tell us to run away, since the Germans just crossed the border. They said, “Why are you sitting here? Why are you sitting here? The Germans are already in the village!” We got organized fast. We split up what money there was. I took a little suitcase. And we started to run.
We went out to the main road. It was horrible. So many refugees, all going in one direction. No one knew where to go, but they were going. We ran until morning.
We went into a forest to rest. As soon as we sat down and put out something to eat and drink, suddenly the German bombers arrived and laid waste to the place. Dead and wounded—people and animals. It only took 10 minutes. So we learned to walk only at night and hide during the day. I did 500 kilometers on foot during that first week.
We arrived in Vilna after curfew. How did I arrive? With no shoes! No shoes, shivering from cold. It was already October, it was cold. I saw a Russian officer. I approached him and told him my whole story. I said, “Look, I want to go home.” I was young, not thinking that this was a guy who had already been through a war—I don’t know him… You see what faith I had in human beings? On a dark street, there was no electricity, there was a curfew, and I’m going with this Russian soldier. He could have done anything to me, and no one would have known. And he walked me home.
We lived on the second floor. I saw a light in the apartment. My knees and hands were weak, and I couldn’t go up the stairs, I couldn’t ring the bell. I started shouting, and my sister recognized my voice. When he saw that they were coming down to meet me, he left. It was a terrible picture at home. I found my parents and my sister huddled in a single room with a few possessions and no food.
This is what I found out. When the war broke, all the phones were cut off in private homes. My father ran to the post office to call me in Częstochowa, to find out what was going on with me. Częstochowa was already in German hands. At the post office, there were informants, and they arrested him as a German spy. They took him to a concentration camp in Poland. He was released the day before I came back.
Dad came back broken from the concentration camp. He was there for close to three weeks. He told me in secret that if he had to stay another 24 hours he would have committed suicide.
In Vilna there was no work, there was nothing to eat. Mother was sick. Once the Soviets got set up in the city, my father couldn’t get a job, since he was a bourgeois merchant. Then the Soviet authorities found the four of us in our luxurious apartment, which they did not allow. They started putting people in our house—one officer, two officers. Until one day we were told that we must leave the apartment since it was too big for us.
William Begell: Just as quickly as they came in the space suits and, and tanks, that’s how they left. And all of a sudden the Lithuanian Army, in quotation marks, walked in. They said that they had two small armored personnel carriers that, uh, drove around the city 20 times to say that it’s, they have a big army. And all of a sudden we heard people of Lithuanian descent. I never heard the word Lithuanian before and I never heard a word of Lithuanian language before. And all of a sudden they are.
Abram Zeleznikov: After my father was arrested and the Lithuanians come in Vilna, it was a little pogrom in Vilna. Fortunately, the Jews resisted straightaway and the Lithuanians stopped it. So it was not very clear if it was organized by the Poles or by the Lithuanians. Anyway, by the resistance of the Jews that this pogrom was stopped.
And the time between, um, on November 1939 and June 1940 under the Lithuanians have been a very flourishing Jewish life in Vilna. Economically, the life was much better than in other part of the Soviet Union, because it was a lot of food and still even under the Soviets where food disappears, when you had to stand in lines to get some things, you got it, you could get it quite easily.
William Begell: It was in a way, a free economic zone. It was out of Russia and still had some connections with Russia. Poland as such did not exist anymore. It was out of Germany and still had very good economic connections with Germany. It had connections to the Scandinavian countries, which were right across the Baltic Sea. And via those countries, it had connections to western Europe and England and America. And, uh, through Russia, it had connections to Japan.
Abram Zeleznikov: Thousands and thousands of, um, refugees from Nazi-occupied, um, Poland come over to Vilna. Quite a lot come over from the Soviet-occupied parts of Poland and there was an active life in helping the refugees and also in Jewish cultural life. It was the center also for the Zionist organizations what tried from Vilna to organize their aliyah to Palestine.
Eleanor Reissa: Among the Jews who sought refuge in Vilna was Hershel, or Herman, Kruk. Kruk was in his early forties and living in Warsaw when the war started. Under attack from the Nazis, he fled in a horse-drawn cart. He chronicled his experiences in a diary.
Herman Kruk: September 6: The highway presents an extraordinary picture. Traveling is almost impossible. The road is completely blocked. You drive barely a few feet and you have to stand still for 15 or 20 minutes.
September 7: Everyone is running, rushing as if he were pursued. People who left Warsaw today tell horrible stories. Four men were killed during an air raid. The fifth was thrown up a tree, where he broke his spine. A bomb hit a horse, and as it ran in horrible torment, it trampled two pedestrians. A woman went mad. Many cars ran out of gas. People left them and continued on foot. The number of dead cars on the highway steadily increases. Suddenly, we were horribly sprayed with bombs and strafed with machine guns.
Eleanor Reissa: Kruk made it to Soviet occupied Poland and arrived in Vilna just as the Soviets handed control to the Lithuanian government.
Herman Kruk: The sea overflowed and flooded Vilna. A place to lie down is a dream. A piece of bread is rare. A shirt. Who thinks now of shirts? Soap is a luxury. Warm food, a fantasy. Every room that looks normal makes you tremble. A room. Do people still have rooms? Are people still sleeping in beds? Are they sleeping? Every refugee trembled when he saw that normal life is still going on somewhere and not everything is destroyed and crushed. A week ago, a landlord, the director of a bank, an industrialist. Today, hungry, naked, and hunched. Who will take care of the tens of thousands of refugees?
Samuel Bak: All of a sudden our, uh, apartment was filled with people who came from Warsaw, who came from other parts. And our house has become a-a small hotel for refugees. Some strange things were happening. My father was a dentist and he was helping people, for instance, to build in diamonds into their, uh, false teeth because with these, they wanted to go to Shanghai and they wanted eventually, to get with the little capital which was hidden in their mouth, to the States.
William Begell: These people were living only with one thought, how to get out of Europe and get to America and certainly get out of this region. They had seen the horror of German armies, of Gestapo, of SS, of persecution, of all sorts of terrible things that the Germans were doing to Jews.
On the other hand, the local Jews were smirking ironically at these refugees who wanted to run away. Lithuania was a democratic free country, business was terrific. People were making money. People had the furniture that they got as a dowry. They got silverware, they had, uh, crystal bowls, they had a piano, they had silk, uh, linen and, uh, tablecloths, and, and some gold, and what have you. And nobody wanted to just leave it all behind and go to America. The, the Jews from Vilna, either emotionally or, or economically, they were tied to their homes.
On the other hand, uh, the refugees, the Poles, the Jews from Poland had nothing. They just wanted to get out. So the Poles left, and we remained in Vilna, and my father was in charge of running the hotel. And, uh, imagine that in order to, uh, make the hotel a little bit more attractive to clients who came from other parts of Lithuania and from the rest of the world, they ordered, and there were about 50, 60 rooms in the hotel, a complete new set of furniture for every room at the expense of thousands and thousands of dollars, rather than taking the money and saying, “Goodbye, Charlie. Here is the hotel. And, please, let’s go to America or some other place.”
Abram Zeleznikov: In the beginning, thanks to the consul from Japan what helped a lot of Jews to get transit visas to Japan, we have been approached to go to the United States together with these refugees. Thing was that my mother said she couldn’t, uh, go, she doesn’t want to go because she wouldn’t like to leave my father in a Soviet jail. I by myself didn’t want to, uh, to go, so we stayed on in Vilna.
William Begell: My father had an opportunity to go to America or to England because he was a Polish officer. He had connections, uh, through the underground to the Polish government that was formed in London. Well, it never happened. Uh, they thought that the, uh, uh, that the boom will last forever. And also, at that time, uh, my mother did not want to leave her, her family and my father’s, uh, connections with the West went unused.
Samuel Bak: My mother, for instance, was told by some of the people who came already from Germany that, um, there is a real danger for Jews. And that it would be very good to try to get to Shanghai and from there, further on. And the, uh, it was just a matter of packing a couple of suitcases and trying to put together some money and leave. But my mother said, “Leave? I? From the city which I was born and which I have all my friends and the family and what will I do with all the furniture and the rugs and the things and the… Impossible. I, I cannot live without all these things. This is my life and I live like this and if not, well… Anyway, people exaggerate.”
William Begell: Then all of a sudden the, uh, the Russian tanks roll in again and take over all of Lithuania. The first thing that happens to our family is a double blow. My father is arrested by the Russians as a former Polish officer, having been denounced by whoever it is. And, two, the Russians take away the hotel and nationalize our hotel. And we moved to an apartment in a, uh, apartment building that the family owned. And very difficult times begin for my family.
My mother, uh, by hook and by crook, begs, uh, KGB to release my father—somehow she liberates him from KGB. And my father comes back, and he could not get a job even as a night watchman. So my father, who was always the well-to-do, well-dressed Polish officer, spends his time by walking me to school or to the conservatory and back. Uh, I joined the, as everybody did, uh, the Pioneers, the Russian Pioneers, I was wearing a red scarf. Uh, I didn’t have the slightest idea of what it meant politically.
Abram Zeleznikov: In, uh, May and June from 1941, they, they start to arrest a lot of people. Lithuanian people, and Jewish people, especially they arrested people what had, uh, factories or shops. Because my father was arrested in 1939, we expected every day to, to be arrested. Now unfortunately, and I say unfortunately because maybe if we would be arrested we could be saved, the whole family somewhere in the Soviet Union. No. We haven’t been arrested.
William Begell: They took all the people who were, uh, bourgeois at one time or another. And, uh, considered anti-Communist were being sent to deep Soviet Union.
We were absolutely sure that we will be sent out. At that time, we were told that if the, if and when the KGB comes in to deport you to Siberia and you are ready with packages and suitcases, they say, “Aha, you knew that you were going to be deported! Therefore, you’re doubly guilty of being, uh, oppressors of the working class,” or whatever epithets they used. “You can take nothing with you.”
So we had things prepared, and we went through packing drills that my father conducted so that when the Russians came in and said, “You have 10 minutes to pack,” everybody knew what to take and where to pack, and et cetera. Uh, we were prepared to be, uh, taken to, uh, Kazakhstan or Siberia. Uh, however, uh, our turn did not come because the Germans, uh, the Germans came first.
Eleanor Reissa: On June 22, 1941, the Nazis broke their non-aggression pact with the Soviets and invaded the Soviet Union.
In this episode you heard from William Begell, Samuel Bak, Abram Zeleznikov, and Mira Verbin, whose Hebrew testimony is voiced by Rachel Botchan. You also heard diary entries of Herman Kruk, read by John Cariani.
Next up, chapter three: “Nazi Invasion.”
This special series about Jewish life in Vilna is written and produced by Nahanni Rous and Eric Marcus. Stephen Naron is the executive producer. Our composer is Ljova Zhurbin. Our theme music is an arrangement of “Vilna, Vilna,” the 1935 song by A. L. Wolfson and Alexander Olshanetsky. The cellist is Clara Lee Rous. You also heard a recording of “Katyusha” by the Red Army Choir. Our audio mixer is Anne Pope.
This podcast is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University and YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research. I’m Eleanor Reissa. You’ve been listening to “Remembering Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania.”