Episode 5

Chapter 5: Ghetto Life

“He had this feeling that in these terrible conditions, music, beginning of culture, will give the people a lift.”

Members of the Judenrat at the opening ceremony of the ghetto’s sports yard, July 10, 1942. Jacob Gens is seated in the front row, sixth from the left. Credit: Vilna Ghetto Collection, National Library of Israel.

Life in the Jewish ghetto demands vigilance and adaptation. Families improvise spaces for hiding. Food is smuggled at the risk of execution. And while young people start to organize a resistance, cultural and sporting events prove to be a much needed diversion.

Photos and Artifacts

A drawing by child artist Samuel Bak in the Vilna Ghetto, depicting a round-up of Jews: people try to escape from a building via ladder as a policeman or soldier rushes towards them. Credit: Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History.

Marija Mikulska, in a photograph taken after 1945. Mikulska was a Benedictine nun in Vilna who rescued twelve Jews, including Samuel Bak and his mother. She encouraged young Samuel to develop his artistic talent and supplied him with painting and drawing materials. Credit: Yad Vashem.https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/bak/biography.asp

Marija Mikulska, ca. 1941. Mikulska was a Benedictine nun in Vilna who rescued twelve Jews, including Samuel Bak and his mother. She encouraged young Samuel to develop his artistic talent and supplied him with painting and drawing materials. Credit: Yad Vashem.https://www.gedenkstaette-stille-helden.de/en/silent-heroes/biographies/biographie/detail-289?cHash=07d4d445c4bc4f8be05b141594864800#fancybox289

Handmade Yiddish poster with the schedule for the Vilna Ghetto Theater for the last week of October 1942. Events included a symphony concert benefit for a charity, Winter Aid; a cabaret revue or play, “It’s impossible to know anything”; a memorial gathering for choirmaster Yakov Gershteyn; a jazz concert; and a performance by the Hebrew Choir. Credit: Avraham Sutzkever Collection, The National Library of Israel.You may use the item for any purpose. This item is part of the public domain and is not subject to copyright restrictions in the State of Israel.

Handmade Yiddish flyer advertising lectures on public health in the Vilna Ghetto Theater, May 24, 1942 or 1943. The talks, organized by the magazine Folksgezunt (Popular Health) include: "The sick person, his environment, and the doctor"; "Typhus and anti-typhus vaccinations"; and a humorous sketch, "The Doctor," performed by actor Y. Rotblum. Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

“Jews, buy lottery tickets!” Yiddish flyer advertising a lottery, whose proceeds will fund the charity, Winter Aid, which collected winter clothing for distribution to the needy. Credit: Borowicz Collection/Yad Vashem.https://www.yadvashem.org/vilna/during/german-occupation/ghetto-establishment.html

Handmade Yiddish flyer advertising a New Year's program at the Vilna Ghetto Theater, January 5,6,7,1943. Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

The Rudninku (Rudnicka) Street entrance to the Vilna ghetto, 1941. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Jews sorting books and other documents in the YIVO building, located outside the Vilna ghetto, 1942 or 1943. The Nazis established a sorting center there for Jewish cultural treasures looted from YIVO and other Jewish institutions. Members of this sorting team risked their lives to smuggle rare books and documents into the ghetto. Some of the items they hid were recovered after the war. Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.YIVO Institutional Records, RG 100, 1942.2. CREDIT: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Workers sort through piles of confiscated books and papers at the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO). Vilna, Poland, April 1943. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archive, Jerusalem, 1495/9.)

ALSO - Workers sorting books for the Rosenberg Squad in the YIVO building, 1942-1943

“60,000 Jews Executed in Vilna Last Month in Continuous Two-Week Pogrom.” News bulletin issued by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York reporting on the mass murder of Jews from the Vilna ghetto. Credit: Jewish Telegraphic Agency/70 Faces Media.https://www.jta.org/archive/60000-jews-executed-in-vilna-last-month-in-continuous-two-week-pogrom

William Begell and his parents, Liza and Ferdinand Beigel, in the Vilna ghetto, 1941-1943. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of William Begell.Photograph Number: 64122

Abba Kovner, a leader of the United Partisan Organization (FPO), and later the commander of a Jewish partisan brigade in the Rudniki Forest, in Vilna, in July 1944, after the liberation of the city from the Germans. Credit: Shmerke Kaczerginski/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Vitka Kempner Kovner.

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

By the fall of 1941, 80 percent of Lithuanian Jewry had been murdered. But just when the SS planned to make Lithuania completely Judenrein (German for “cleansed of Jews”) and destroy the surviving ghettos in Kovno, Vilna, and Shavil, the German military and civilian administration in Lithuania intervened: the Reich needed the skilled labor that the ghettos could provide, especially after the Germans failed to take Moscow. With the mass killings put on hold for the time being, the Vilna ghetto entered a period of “stability,” one that would last until April 1943.

Within the ghetto itself, Jacob Gens, who already headed the Jewish police, consolidated his power over the Judenrat and, with German approval, became the Jewish “commandant” of the ghetto. Gens had been an officer in the Lithuanian Army and looked the part. Unlike most Vilna Jews, who spoke no Lithuanian, Gens had many friends within the local Lithuanian establishment and was married to a Lithuanian woman. (His wife and daughter would live outside the ghetto.) 

Thanks to his many contacts and his Lithuanian spouse, Gens could easily have gone into hiding. But he felt that he had a mission—to run the ghetto and save as many Jewish lives as possible—and chose to remain in the ghetto. During the whole period of the ghetto, Gens walked a dangerous and morally complicated tightrope, serving two masters: the Gestapo and the Jews in the ghetto. In the short run, he showed he knew how to wheel and deal. But in the long run, his chances of success were slim to none.

Gens’s guiding principle was that the survival of the ghetto depended on discipline, hard work, and total obedience to his commands. A telling incident occurred in June 1942, when the Jewish police arrested five Jewish criminals who had robbed, and then murdered, a yeshiva student. Violent crimes like these were relatively rare in the ghettos, and the wanton killing outraged everyone. The ghetto court sentenced the five to death, and for good measure, Gens added a sixth Jew to hang—a Gestapo informant who had caused the deaths of several Vilna Jews. At the gallows, Gens made a fiery speech in which, as Herman Kruk recalled in his diary, he told the assembled crowd that “of 75,000 Vilna Jews, only 16,000 remain. These 16,000 must be good, honest, and hardworking people. Anyone who is not will end the same way as those who were sentenced today.” 

To ensure discipline in the ghetto, Gens used a Jewish police force that, as Arie Liebke Distal recalled in his testimony, “was hated by the people.” On the one hand, Jews understood the need for a police force to maintain basic order and ensure minimal sanitation. On the other, they resented the police corruption, the beatings at the ghetto gates, their lavish parties, and the favoritism they showed toward their friends. The memory of Yom Kippur 1941, when the police used trickery to deliver Jews into German hands in order to meet a Gestapo quota, still rankled. But even in the police force, there were individuals who tried to maintain their integrity, and several acted as key informants for the Jewish underground. One of the witnesses in these episodes, William Begell, believed that his father, who served in the police, retained the respect of his fellow Jews and acted well.

Like other Jewish ghetto leaders, including Chaim Rumkowski in Łódź and Efrayim Barash in Białystok, who also hoped to buy time through work, Gens walked into a moral quagmire. When the Germans demanded a quota of Jewish victims, should they hand over the old and the weak in order to spare the young and the healthy? In all three cases, the answer was yes. In October 1942, the Germans demanded that Gens send the Jewish police to the nearby town of Oshmyana to help them cull the ghetto. Gens agreed. Decked out in their uniforms and carrying rubber truncheons, and amply supplied with liquor, the Vilna Jewish police set out for the town and handed over 406 elderly, sick Jews to the Germans and Lithuanians. When the police returned to Vilna, Gens convened a meeting of leading figures in the ghetto and explained his decision. The Germans had asked him for more victims, but he had bargained them down from 1,500 to 406. In another small town, where the Germans acted alone after Gens did not send the Jewish police, they murdered everybody. Wasn’t it better for the Jewish police to sacrifice the old and infirm so that the young might have a chance to survive? 

At a literary evening, Gens defended his actions in front of writers and intellectuals: 

I have no choice but to get my hands dirty. Five million Jews are already dead, and it is all the more important to save the strong and the young. . . . From you my friends I expect moral support. All of us want to survive and leave the ghetto. Many Jews still don’t understand the great danger we’re all in.

I know that a lot of you think I’m a traitor and are asking yourselves, “Why is he here showing his face at this cultural gathering”? I , Gens, lead Jews to their death. I, Gens, rescue Jews from death. I, Gens, destroy hideouts and I, Gens, try to procure more work passes and jobs. My main concern is Jewish lives, not Jewish honor. When they ask me to hand over a thousand Jews, yes, I hand them over. If I don’t, the Germans will come into the ghetto, take many thousands, and leave the ghetto in shambles. . . .

You are the people of art and literature. You people can give the filth in the ghetto a wide berth. And when you leave the ghetto someday, you’ll have clean hands and a pure conscience. But if I, Gens, will somehow survive, my hands will be soiled with dripping blood. But I will willingly present myself before a Jewish court, before the judgment of my fellow Jews, and say that everything I did was to save as many Jews as possible.

Gens’s behavior was often unpredictable, affected no doubt by his growing use of alcohol to deal with the inhuman stress he was under. Just when people decided that he was a monster, he would redeem himself with a praiseworthy act. During the major selection in October 1941, as the yellow pass holders filed by, Gens, flanked by SS officers, pulled a little boy out of the line. His parents had tried to smuggle him through, because their pass had entitled them to claim only two children, not three. As the Germans looked on approvingly, Gens berated the parents. But a moment later, when the Germans were distracted, Gens pushed that same child into the hands of another Jewish family that was crossing through. 

Jewish survivors of the Vilna ghetto, as well as historians, were deeply divided in their opinions of Gens. There were many, like Abram Zeleznikov, who despised him as a power-hungry German stooge who used any and all means possible—including beatings and handing Jews over to the Germans—to preserve his authority. “I regarded him as a murderer,” Zeleznikov recalled. But many other survivors took a more nuanced view of him. Dr. Mark Dvorzhetski saw him as a tragic figure, a complicated man who had good intentions but was ultimately playing a losing game. 

Dvorzhetski and other survivors also gave Gens credit where credit was due. For example, along with his stress on work and discipline, Gens also emphasized the crucial importance of culture and education. It was no fluke that Gens sought to gain the understanding of ghetto intellectuals for his actions: he believed that they, too, could play a key role in ghetto life.

In January 1942, when the period of  relative stability began, Gens ordered the establishment of a ghetto theater. Many Jews, especially political activists, reacted with anger and disbelief. Over 30,000 Jews were dead, and this was what Gens wanted? Herman Kruk was furious and noted in his diary that he and his fellow Bundists festooned the streets with the proclamation, “In a cemetery, one does not start a theater.”   

Nonetheless, the first performance took place as scheduled. Hostile observers who expected a travesty were amazed by the solemn and dignified performances that duly paid respect to what the ghetto had endured. The poetry, the monologues, and the classical music all helped create a mood of solemn gravity, and the actors and musicians did not let the Germans and Lithuanians present in the audience intimidate them. One of the survivors featured in these episodes, Henny Durmashkin Gurko, praised Gens for his determination to start a theater. It reminded people that “they were still alive. By just doing it, he did a great thing.”

Indeed, many of the doubters were soon won over. Even Kruk swallowed his rage and slowly got used to the idea of a theater in the ghetto. By March 8, 1942, he wrote in his diary: 

Nevertheless, life is stronger than anything. In the Vilna ghetto, life begins to pulse again. Under the overcoat of Ponar, a life creeps out that strives for a better morning. The boycotted concerts prevail. The halls are full. The literary evenings burst their seams and cannot hold the large number that comes there.

With Gens’s support, teachers organized a network of ghetto schools, with instruction in Yiddish, that included kindergartens and primary and secondary levels. Incredible as it sounds in retrospect, teachers and cultural activists resumed their prewar arguments about Yiddish versus Hebrew and about the role of religion in the curriculum. (Eventually, the teachers reached a compromise.) Religious Jews organized a yeshiva, and there was also a technical school that prepared students as locksmiths and electricians and in other skilled labor.

Survivors remember the school concerts, often given on Jewish holidays, where the children recited poetry and sang songs. At one concert, students recited Peretz’s paean to humanism and his hopes for a better future:

Fun trern vert taykhn; fun taykhn yamin

fun yamin, a mabul; fun funken, a duner

O, meyn nisht leys din v’leys dayan.

(Our tears will turn into rivers / the rivers will become oceans / the oceans will become a deluge that will cover the world / the sparks will become thunder / No, don’t think that the world is without rules and without a judge.)

Young people continued the prewar tradition of youth clubs that brought together students and teachers to discuss history, literature, and music. Abram Zeleznikov recalled the evenings he spent in this club as his best times in the ghetto. Students staged public trials of figures in Jewish history such as Herod; Josephus, who collaborated with the Romans; and Bar Kokhba, who launched a hopeless revolt after the destruction of the Second Temple. The parallels were plain for all to see and led to intense discussions about collaboration and resistance. Some defended Herod, pointing out that, in the face of Roman power, he chose the best way to serve Jewish interests. And as others condemned him, the parallels with Gens were all too obvious. 

In his ghetto diary, Yitzhak Rudashevsky described a club meeting that took place in December 1942, a couple of days after his 15th birthday:

This was the happiest evening I have spent in the ghetto. . . . I look around at the crowd, all our kind teachers, friends, intimates. It was so cozy, so warm, so pleasant. This evening we demonstrated what we are and what we can accomplish. Club members came with songs and recitations. . . . We have proved that from the ghetto there will not emerge a youth broken in spirit; from the ghetto there will emerge a strong youth that is hardy and cheerful.

Because the Vilna ghetto was blessed with a critical mass of fine composers, writers, poets, and theater directors, the Jews could go to first-class theater, cabaret, and concerts. Composers and songwriters such as Wolf Durmashkin, Kasriel Broyde, and Leyb Rozenthal, teamed up to prepare four revues with original songs. All became instant hits. In July 1942, the revue Korene yorn un veytzene teg opened with the Broyde song “Efsher vet geshen a nes” (“Perhaps a Miracle Will Happen”), which was soon sung throughout the ghetto.

The hauntingly beautiful revue Peshe fun Reshe told the story of a young girl who had lost all her loved ones but would always find a way to survive. The upbeat revue Moyshe, halt zikh (Moyshe, Hold On), sung to a jaunty ragtime tune, reminded the Jews in the audience that they “had to hold on, not let go; better days are coming.” (Unfortunately, Moyshe, halt zikh was the last revue in the ghetto, and it coincided with the beginning of the deportations in September 1943.) Other ghetto theater ensembles produced four full-length plays in Yiddish and one in Hebrew—David Pinski’s The Eternal Jew—with music composed by Wolf Durmashkin (the brother of Henny Durmashkin Gurko, who acted in the play).

In the ghetto, the brilliant Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever wrote poems that reflected his faith that art and beauty could survive even in the face of death. Some of the poems written by him and his good friend Shmerke Kaczerginski were set to music and became songs that remain popular even to this day: “Unter dayne vayse shtern” (“Beneath the Whiteness of Your Stars”), “Friling” (“Spring”), and many others. Zelig Kalmanovich gave lectures on major figures of Yiddish and Hebrew literature, while Gens encouraged and supported the establishment of an Association of Writers and Artists that awarded prizes and organized art exhibits. Sutzkever won a prize for his poem “Dos keyver-kind” (“The Grave Child”). 

A March 1943 art exhibit included some paintings by a brilliant nine-year-old artist, Samuel Bak, who also appears in these episodes. Sutzkever and Kaczerginski had taken the young boy under their wing and encouraged his work. Commenting on the art exhibition in the ghetto in a diary entry of March 29, 1943, Herman Kruk wrote that “the drawings of the nine-year-old S. Bak attracted the most attention. The child is apparently an extraordinary talent in every respect.” Bak himself, now a world-renowned artist, remembered the stark contrast between the exhibit inside the building and the tragedy playing out outside the building as hundreds of desperate Jewish refugees who had been dumped into the ghetto from a nearby shtetl milled about. But he also recalled that after the exhibit, the poet Kaczerginski gave him an old chronicle in which the young artist could draw on the empty pages of parchment. It was a priceless gift. 

Kaczerginski had been able to procure that precious chronicle because he was part of a group of Jews that left the ghetto each day to work in the old YIVO building on Wiwulska Street. The “Paper Brigade,” as it was known in the ghetto, began in 1941, when German “scholars”—Dr. Johannes Pohl and others working for the Einsatsztab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR)—arrived to loot Vilna’s enormous collections of Jewish archives and books that were located in the Strashun library, YIVO, and elsewhere. Their goal was to stock the libraries in the Reich—especially in Frankfurt—that would help Aryan scholars properly study the “Jewish question” (Judenforschung ohne Juden, Jewish studies without Jews). Realizing that they lacked the linguistic skills and manpower to do this themselves, the ERR assembled a team of Jews to sift through the collections and select no more than 30 percent for transport to the Reich. Everything else would be pulped. 

The Paper Brigade included poets (Avrom Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski), librarians (Herman Kruk), eminent scholars (Zelig Kalmanovich), resistance members (Ruszka Korczak, Abba Kovner), and several others, including Abram Zeleznikov, who describes their work in this episode. Working in the YIVO building on Wiwulska Street, they risked their lives to smuggle the most valuable books and documents into the ghetto, where they concealed them in various hiding places. Were they doing the right thing? Might not the books be safer in Germany, where Jews could retrieve them after Hitler’s defeat? Kalmanovich thought so. But Kruk angrily disagreed. Along with prized manuscripts and documents from YIVO, the Paper Brigade also smuggled in Soviet manuals on how to make grenades and mines. In time, its members also began to smuggle in guns. (For more on the Paper Brigade, read the excellent book The Book Smugglers by David Fishman.)

After the war, Dr. Mark Dvorzhetski wrote glowingly of the cultural life in the Vilna ghetto. The prewar “Jerusalem of Lithuania” had become the “Jerusalem of the Ghettos.” But not everyone thought so. The literary critic Shloyme Belis, who fought in the Red Army during the war, compared the vibrant cultural life in the ghetto to a narcotic that lulled the Jews into passivity and distracted them from the need to get weapons in order to fight. But Dvorzhetski and others sharply disagreed. Cultural resistance and armed resistance complemented each other. The theater, the lectures, and the clubs helped people stave off depression and gave them a sense of purpose. This in turn was an essential precondition for the formation of a fighting organization.