Episode 3

Chapter 3: Nazi Invasion

“We had to wear a yellow star… I did quite a number of those yellow stars that I painted on fabric and cut them out. And my mother sewn them on, on our clothes.”

A Lithuanian police officer directs the passage of an armored car and German troops on Gediminas Avenue under a swastika banner and Lithuanian flags, Vilna, June 30, 1941. Credit: Bundesarchiv.

When Germany attacks the Soviet Union in 1941, the Nazis occupy Vilna and begin imposing their harsh antisemitic rule, banning Jews from sidewalks, requiring the wearing of an identifying yellow star, and worse. “Within just a few days,” Mira Verbin recalls, “they started kidnapping Jews.”

Photos and Artifacts

German tanks on the streets of Vilna, 1941.Credit: Photo: Mossdorf/Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy.

Page from the diary of Herman Kruk (1897-1944) dated July 25, 1941, describing a round-up of Jewish men in the ghetto. Between 1941 and 1944, Kruk, the ghetto librarian, wrote an almost daily account of life and death in the Vilna ghetto and the labor camp in Estonia to which he was deported in 1943. Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

The prison in the Vilna ghetto. The building had previously housed a printing press. Credit: Yad Vashem. https://www.yadvashem.org/vilna/during/german-occupation/ghetto-establishment.html

Lukiškes (Łukiszki) Prison, Vilna. The massive prison complex was first used as a collection point for Jews in July 1941 soon after the Germans took control of Vilna. Five thousand Jewish men were rounded up, brought to the prison, and then taken to the Ponary Forest and murdered. Credit: J. Stacevičius.

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

The German attack on the Soviet Union on the morning of June 22, 1941, came like a bolt out of the blue. There had been rumors that war was imminent, to be sure, and Red Army generals begged Stalin for permission to put the troops on high alert. But he ignored their pleas and lulled the population into a false sense of security. As Abram Zeleznikov recalls in this episode, on the very morning of the German invasion, party hacks were still toeing the line that the real warmongers were not the Germans but the British.

When the Germans struck that Sunday, they sliced through the Soviet defenses and moved fast. Whereas during the First World War, from basically the same starting point, it had taken the Germans one year to reach Kovno and Vilna, and almost four years to take Minsk, in 1941 they took Vilna and Kovno by Tuesday and captured Minsk—200 miles from the border—by the following Sunday.

Happy to have good weather on their one day off, many Vilna residents were at nearby lakes and forests. Assured by the authorities that war was unlikely, they assumed that the planes that suddenly appeared in the sky were Soviet. But all too soon, they realized that once again their lives would change in an instant, as they had in 1939. For many, the transition from peace to war was sudden and traumatic. Samuel Bak, who was only six years old, remembered that a bomb hit a nearby building, killing the teenaged daughter of a family friend. “They found her body, but they could not find her head.” A little later, his own father found it and came back “shattered.” To a young child, this was an introduction to a war that would upend his life.

That Sunday and Monday Jews anxiously debated what to do. Run? But what about aged parents or children? Stay? And leave oneself to the mercy of the Germans? But as people debated and hesitated, they all realized that they had to act fast. There was no time to lose. In 1939, the Bundist cultural activist Herman Kruk had fled Warsaw. This time, in Vilna, he decided that he would stay put, come what may, and record what he saw. Some older Jews remembered the “good Germans” of World War I and hoped against hope that they would somehow get by. Others were not so optimistic and tried to leave.

Crowds of people rushed to the train stations, but with few exceptions, only party members and Soviet officials made it onto a train. But they were still not safe. The two trains that left Vilna that Monday suffered nonstop bombing. At the old Polish-Soviet border, Soviet border guards turned back anyone who lacked a special permit to travel farther east. This happened to Benjamin Harshav, a future professor at Yale. With remarkable presence of mind, Harshav, only 13 at the time, did not panic but sneaked back onto the train when the guards weren’t looking, and survived the war. 

Other Vilna Jews set out on foot. The Yiddish writer Chaim Grade and his wife set out on the road toward Minsk. But his young wife soon tired and begged Grade to go off alone. After all, rumor had it that the Nazis arrested men but not women. Grade left his wife, got a ride on a passing Red Army truck, and eventually survived the war in the Soviet interior. But he never overcame his feelings of guilt for having left his wife. The poet Avrom Sutzkever and his wife, Freydke, also tried to reach safety on foot. But they could not outrun the German panzers and within a few days they, along with almost all the other Vilna Jews who tried to flee, returned to the city. In all, only about 3,000 Vilna Jews, out of approximately 60,000 in the city in June 1941, managed to escape.

Although some Jews, such as Wiera Goldman or William Begell’s parents, were pleasantly surprised at first by the discipline and bearing of the first German troops they saw, their relief would be short-lived. Within a week, the persecutions of the Vilna Jews began: the mandatory wearing of the Jewish star, random beatings in the streets, curfews, restricted shopping hours, a ban on using sidewalks. No one was exempt from random beatings and humiliation. 

When William Begell’s mother and aunt—both well-dressed women—showed themselves on the street looking well-to-do, with Jewish stars sewn to their clothing, Lithuanian police nabbed them and took them to a German police station, where a sergeant ordered them to take off their underwear and clean the windows. Later that night, they returned to their worried family, dirty and in tears.

But worse was soon to some. What is now called the Holocaust, the mass murder of European Jewry, actually began in Lithuania. Between June and December 1941, while Polish Jewry remained relatively untouched, and before the death camps were built, Germans and their Lithuanian helpers murdered 80 percent of Lithuanian Jewry. By January 1942, only 20,000 Jews remained alive in Vilna.

As soon as the Soviets fled, in June and July 1941, scores of bloody pogroms in Lithuania and eastern Poland—fueled in part by widespread accusations that Jews had collaborated with the hated Soviets—claimed thousands of Jewish lives. Mass arrests of “unreliable elements” by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) just a couple of weeks before had been blamed on “the Jews” and had raised antisemitic passions to a fever pitch. After all, who else but the Jews controlled the Kremlin and staffed the hated secret police? In fact, the prison trains that carried thousands of people to the gulag included many Jews: former businessmen, political activists, and others. (In reality, few Jews staffed the higher levels of the secret police in 1941. But at times like these, who cared about the facts?) That June, those who escaped arrest, like the formerly wealthy parents of William Begell, counted themselves lucky. How could they have known that Siberia, for all its hardships, offered much better chances of survival than Vilna? 

During that summer of 1941, the Final Solution was still a work in progress. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union, SS Einsatzgruppen (special units) attached to the advancing German Army had orders to murder “unreliable elements,” especially Communists and male Jews. (For the killers, Communists and male Jews were virtually identical.) By the time the Einsatzkommando 9 arrived in Vilna on July 2, local Lithuanian nationalists had already begun to hunt down and shoot Jewish men. 

When the Germans appointed their civil administration and the SS put a security apparatus in place, the killings became more organized. Under overall German supervision, Lithuanian volunteers did most of the actual killing, with one unit in particular, the Ypatingi Burai, playing a key role. Lithuanians also suggested to the Germans that nearby Ponar, where the Soviets had excavated enormous pits to store aviation fuel, was a convenient spot for mass murder. 

Lithuanian nationalists hoped that their eager collaboration would win them favors from the Germans: recognition of Lithuanian independence; support against the Poles, who outnumbered them in Vilna; and, of course, a generous share of looted Jewish property. They soon discovered, however, that while it was relatively easy to grab Jewish wealth, it was much more difficult to gain German support for independence. 

In keeping with the initial guidelines, during those first few weeks the killers—Jews called them khapunes (kidnappers)—targeted Jewish men. As Yitzhak Arad points out, in the 16 days between July 4 and July 20 they murdered 5,000 Jews, mostly men. Every day, they roamed the city, snatched Jewish men off the streets, and barged into homes, searching for their prey. 

As the Final Solution was still being formulated, no decision had yet been made about whether Jewish women and children would be killed. (That would not begin until late August and September.) The men were hauled off to Łukiszki Prison and then taken straight to Ponar. Herman Kruk recalled that “the whole city is depressed by the men who have disappeared. Groups of snatchers wander about the streets and courtyards, snatch men wherever they can, and drag them off. The excuse is they are taken ‘for work,’ but seldom does anybody come back.” Testimonies in this episode convey the terror and the helpless despair that Jews experienced those first weeks of the German occupation. Overnight, new Yiddish words appeared: khapunes or khapers (catchers or kidnappers), malinas (hideouts), shayn (a German-issued labor card that might, or might not, offer protection).

Virtually every Jewish survivor from Vilna recalled the horror of that summer, as their husbands, fathers, and sons were abducted and never seen again. In this episode, we hear about Wiera Goldman’s father, Mira Berger’s brother, Mira Verbin’s father, Samuel Bak’s father. No one was safe, not even well-known members of the community, such as Mira Verbin’s father, who was seized on his way to a meeting to form a Jewish council. Verbin’s mother gave her money and told her to go to Gestapo headquarters to see what she could do. Many years later, Verbin still remembered the callous cynicism of a Gestapo man who assured this frightened young Jewish girl that her father would be fine: “‘I promise you, by the time you’re back home, your father will be back as well.’ We never saw my father again.” 

Huddled in their malinas, terrified Jews hoped that the Lithuanian kidnappers would not find them. In this episode, we hear several witnesses who remembered the hiding places their families prepared that summer. William Begell recalled that his father built a hideout concealed by a cellar wall, with its entry concealed by a radiator and a windowsill. Sheila Zwany remembered how she stood guard and gave her family the signal to run to their hideout when she saw the khapers approaching. As her testimony shows, during that summer it was common for women to act as lookouts.

The key question on everyone’s minds was, what happened to the men? People hoped against hope that they were in some labor camp and would return. A few—like Samuel Bak’s father—did come back, but most were never heard from again.

As the rumors spread about the mass shootings at Ponar, Jews refused to accept the truth. Abram Zeleznikov at first believed that Poles were spreading the rumors to frighten the Jews and cause them more pain. Herman Kruk recalled that the Judenrat “didn’t want to hear anything and considered it an unfounded rumor.” But in early September, the first, badly wounded survivors, who had played dead and crawled out of the pits, came back to tell their story. Kruk struggled to find the words to describe what he heard: “Can the world not scream? Can history never take revenge? If the heavens can open up, when should that happen, if not today? . . . How can you write about this? How can you collect your thoughts?”

What made the terror of that summer even harder to bear was the absence of any coherent Jewish leadership in Vilna. In nearby Kovno, where the community was also devastated in 1941, one source of comfort was that a meeting of prominent communal figures—lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and rabbis—implored one of the most respected members of Jewish Kovno, Dr. Emanuel Elkes, to head the Jewish council. Elkes and the council remained at their posts until 1944. Like all Jewish leaders under the Nazis, they were playing a losing game and some of their actions were controversial. But most survivors agreed that they worked for the good of the community, and that made life just a little easier.

But the case of Vilna was different. To be sure, as in Kovno, the leading Jews in the community followed German orders and called a meeting on July 4 to elect a Jewish council. Herman Kruk described what happened in his diary. As Dr. Gershn Gershuni, a respected physician, opened the meeting, he recalled the special place of Vilna in Jewish history and the belief that, thanks to the memory and legacy of the Vilna Gaon (the Sage of Vilna) and others, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” would always enjoy some kind of protection. But now, Gershuni admitted, their luck had run out. Like it or not, the meeting had to elect a Jewish council and no one had the moral right to refuse a nomination. 

The members of the council soon realized that they were helpless. They tried to stop the kidnappings, but in vain. Some believed that if the council promised to supply the Germans with a daily contingent of Jewish workers, the kidnappings would stop. But they quickly recognized that it was a terrible mistake to volunteer Jewish men unless they knew for sure that they would return. 

On August 6, Franz Murer, head of Jewish affairs in the German civil administration, summoned three members of the Jewish council and demanded that the council collect five million rubles by the next day. If not, the members would be shot. By nightfall, the council had managed to collect 667,000 rubles and one pound of gold and diamonds. After Murer extended the deadline, the Jewish council ramped up its pleas to Vilna’s Jews to hand over valuables and cash. Samuel Bak recalled his mother “gave away everything she had: her wedding ring, the jewels, … So did most of the people.” Within a few days, the Jewish council came up with almost 1.5 million rubles, 33 pounds of gold, and 189 watches. (The German officials pocketed the loot themselves and issued no receipts.) Therefore, even before the Germans pushed the remaining Jews into a ghetto in September, they robbed them of much of their wealth. 

On August 24, the Germans arrested and then tortured to death one of the most respected leaders of the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” the venerable 85-five-year-old Dr. Jacob Vygodsky. One week later, they staged what Vilna Jews came to call “the Great Provocation.” On Sunday, August 31, the Germans falsely accused Jews of firing on German soldiers standing in front of a movie theater. (The shooting was staged by Lithuanian auxiliaries.) This was the excuse the Nazis needed to set up two ghettos. They also used the Great Provocation as a pretext to murder 10 members of the Vilna Jewish council on September 2. 

Jews could not imagine that their lives could get any worse. But no matter how bad everything seemed, even greater horrors were in store. And the Jews of Vilna would have to face them without those trusted leaders who had made the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” so special.