Episode 2

Chapter 2: In the Shadow of War

“And all of a sudden the Lithuanian Army walked in. I never heard the word ‘Lithuanian’ before and I never heard a word of Lithuanian language before.”

Postcard image of Lithuanian tanks arriving on Vilna’s main street, Gediminas Avenue, replacing the Soviet occupiers on October 29, 1939. Soldiers are greeted with flowers. Credit: Originally published by S. Kuprevičius.

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.

Photos and Artifacts

Antokolskio Street, Vilna, in the heart of the old Jewish quarter, where mostly poorer Jews lived. This picture was taken in 1940, when the city was under Lithuanian control. Credit: Photo by Mečys Brazaitis.

Soviet Red Army troops entering Vilna, October 5, 1939. A few weeks later, they handed over control of the city to Lithuania. Credit: Imperial War Museum.https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soviets_entering_Wilno.jpg

Soviet Red Army troops on Gediminas Avenue in the center of Vilna on June 15, 1940, after they retook control of the city. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.CREDIT: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park. * PUBLIC DOMAIN

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.