Episode 6

Chapter 6: The Underground

“You had always prepared yourself to fight against the Germans… But suddenly you are standing in front of a crowd of Jews that has come to attack you.”

Yitzhak Wittenberg, the first commander of the FPO (Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye, United Partisan Organization) in a prewar photo. Credit: Courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archives.

“You had always prepared yourself to fight against the Germans… But suddenly you are standing in front of a crowd of Jews that has come to attack you. And they came to us and demanded, ‘Where is Wittenberg? Give us Wittenberg!’”

Photos and Artifacts

Members of the United Partisan Organization (FPO), in Vilna, in July 1944, after the liberation of the city from the Germans. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Irma Gurwicz.https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/pa1179441

Members of the Jewish police in the Vilna ghetto, ca. 1942-1943. (Front row, center) Ferdinand Beigel, William Begell’s father. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of William Begell. https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/pa1151835

Three members of the “Paper Brigade” (the group that smuggled Jewish cultural treasures looted by Nazis into the ghetto and hid them) on a balcony in the Vilna ghetto, 1943. (Left to right) Shmaryahu (Shmerke) Kaczerginski, Rakhele (Rachel) Pupko-Krinski, and Avrom Sutzkever. Pupko-Krinski was an educator; Kaczerginski and Sutzkever were well-known Yiddish poets and writers. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the Sutzkever family.

After learning that Rachel Pupko-Krinski had hidden her child, Sarah, outside of the ghetto, Kaczerginski wrote The Lonely Child as a tribute to Sarah and all Jewish children who had been forced into hiding by the war.


First page of the "rules of combat" of the United Partisans Organization (FPO) in the Vilna ghetto, ca. 1943. Credit: Moreshet, The Mordechai Anielewicz Center for Holocaust Documentation, Research and Education.
Contact: Inbal. Moreshet
Originally seen: Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, Israel/ Photo Archive. *INFO: https://www.fold3.com/memorial/286160648/vilna-ghetto-partisants/stories


Nisan Reznik, a member of the United Partisans Organization (FPO) in the Vilna ghetto. (Note: This photo has been digitally enhanced.) Credit: Ghetto Fighters House Archives.https://infocenters.co.il/gfh/notebook_ext.asp?book=34207&lang=eng&site=gfh

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

While the world remembers the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, in fact it was the young people of the Vilna ghetto who first called on Jews to get weapons and prepare to fight. This episode tells the story of the major resistance organization in the Vilna ghetto; its tense relationship with Jacob Gens, the commandant; and its moment of truth on July 16, 1943, when the fighters realized that the Jews in the ghetto saw them not as idealistic fighters but as dangerous young troublemakers.

As we heard in the previous episode, at a clandestine meeting of youth movement members on December 31, 1941, Abba Kovner had called on Jews to prepare for armed resistance. The killings in Lithuania were not a local affair but the first step in a diabolical plan by the Germans to murder all the Jews of Europe. German promises were worthless; if Jews continued to believe them, they would lose not only their lives but their honor as well. But for many, Kovner’s call was a hard sell. Were the Germans really planning to kill all the Jews or was Lithuania a special case? This was a key question. If the killings in Vilna were committed because of specific Lithuanian antisemitism, then it made more sense to flee elsewhere than to fight. 

Nisan Resnick recalled that Mordechai Tenenbaum, a leader of Dror, urged his comrades in Vilna to move to the Warsaw and Białystok ghettos. Compared with Vilna, these ghettos seemed safer, and their large numbers of youth movement members offered a wider scope for political and cultural activity. Tenenbaum had befriended an anti-Nazi Austrian sergeant named Anton Schmid, who helped these young Jews. Schmid, who would be arrested and executed a few months later, took Tenenbaum and some of his friends in a truck to Białystok in January 1942. Tenenbaum would lead the resistance movement in the Białystok ghetto and perish in the uprising there in August 1943. 

On January 20, 1942, a secret meeting of youth movement activists, Communists, and right-wing Revisionists organized the FPO (Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye, or the United Partisan Organization) in the Vilna ghetto. Unlike the Jewish Fighting Organization that fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, where the combat groups were affiliated with a particular party or youth movement, the FPO consisted of mixed groups, in which fighters from different organizations trained together. 

As Arie Distal explained, secrecy was paramount: each group consisted of five members, and only one of them had direct contact with the next echelon. Prewar rivals now worked together: Bundists and Zionists, Communists and Revisionists. Abram Zeleznikov believed that this intraparty cooperation reflected Vilna’s prewar ethos, whereby strong Jewish loyalties often allayed ideological squabbling. 

The FPO chose Yitzhak Wittenberg, a Communist, to be its commander. Zenia Malecki recalled that Wittenberg was “our hero.” A shoemaker by trade, Wittenberg was a quiet, serious person who commanded respect. More important, the Soviet Union and the Communist movement were the ghetto’s only long-term hope for salvation, especially because of the hostility of the local units of the Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army). Therefore, it made sense to choose someone linked to the Communist Party. 

Within the FPO, it was the young people, members of the youth movements, who predominated. Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner, Ruszka Korczak of Hashomer Hatzair; Nisan Resnick of Hanoar Hatzioni; Abrasha Khvoynik of the Bund; and many others. Close bonds that had developed over many years inspired trust and mutual support. Whether Zionist, Bundist, or Communist, these movements imbued their followers with a sense of idealistic commitment and stressed the common good over the selfish needs of the individual. Since most of these young people were unmarried and childless, as Abram Zeleznikov pointed out, they did not have a burden that would have deterred many adults from contemplating armed resistance.

Although at first armed attacks on Germans were hardly an option—the FPO lacked guns—these Jewish young people successfully deployed one key weapon: information. As the Germans did their best to isolate Jews and keep them ignorant of what was happening around them, the youth movements sent couriers to move across Nazi checkpoints and established personal contacts between ghettos. 

Most of the couriers were intrepid Jewish girls like Tema Sznajderman and Lonka Kozibrodska, who had an “Aryan” physical appearance, spoke excellent Polish, and possessed a brazen self-assurance. Non-Jewish couriers, like Irena Adamowicz, Poles from the democratic wing of the prewar scout movement, also helped carry information to and from Vilna. In turn, in 1941 and early 1942, these messengers conveyed news of the massacres in Lithuania to the Białystok and the Warsaw ghettos. Information gleaned from the couriers played a key role in the psychological preparation for armed resistance in the Warsaw ghetto and elsewhere. 

Against incredible odds, as we learn from Arie Leibke Distal and others in this episode, the FPO managed to smuggle weapons into the ghetto: pistols, grenades, rifles, and even machine guns. Borukh Goldstein worked in a German armory and smuggled in the FPO’s first pistol, in January 1942. Shmerke Kaczerginski, a Yiddish poet who was a member of the FPO and worked in the Paper Brigade (see the notes for the previous episode), got weapons from Lithuanian Communist contacts. 

Other members of the Paper Brigade, as Abram Zeleznikov recounts, smuggled in arms and Soviet manuals that showed how to make grenades and repair weapons. Some Jewish policemen were secret agents of the FPO and arranged to be on gate duty when they knew that a Jew would arrive with weapons concealed in a sack of potatoes or under a pile of onions. By the middle of 1943, the FPO, which boasted some 300 fighters organized in two brigades, had amassed a respectable arsenal.

Women played a prominent role in the FPO, and their heroism inspired the other fighters. In June 1942, Vitka Kempner, who would later marry Abba Kovner and become a distinguished psychologist in Israel, carried out the FPO’s first successful attack when she placed a mine under a German train. The young poet Hirsh Glik composed a poem about this exploit, and it soon became a hit song: “Shtil, di nakht iz oysgeshternt” (“Quiet, the Sky Is Full of Stars”). Two young women set out on a mission to infiltrate the German front lines and convey information about the Vilna ghetto and the FPO to the Soviet Union. They were caught by the Germans but escaped and returned to the ghetto. Liza Magun, arrested and tortured to death by the Germans, wrote out a defiant message in her own blood on the walls of her cell. Afterward, when FPO members heard the password “Liza ruft” (“Lisa is calling”), they were to grab their weapons and mobilize.

As it prepared for a final showdown with the Germans, the FPO faced enormous challenges. In a tiny ghetto, how could they maintain secrecy and security? How could they recruit trustworthy people? (Mira Verbin relates how each recruit had to undergo a rigorous interview.) Where could they find and store weapons? Or learn how to shoot? In a ghetto that had only one gate, where each Jew had to undergo thorough and humiliating searches, how could they smuggle guns and grenades past the German and Lithuanian guards or the Jewish police? As if these problems were not enough, the FPO had to wrestle with basic questions about its role and purpose. If its goal was to fight, then how could members persuade the ghetto population to support them when secrecy had made it impossible to even let other Jews know of the organization’s existence and goals? 

And then there was the most important question of all: if the FPO was going to fight, where and when should it do so? Common sense dictated that it was insane to fight inside the Vilna ghetto. The ghetto was like a mousetrap, easily isolated and offering no chance of survival. Wasn’t it better for the FPO to leave the ghetto for the forests and join the Soviet partisans? There they could kill more Germans and more likely live to fight another day.  

But was it? Morally speaking, could the fighters just leave the ghetto and abandon the Jews to their fate? And what exactly were these young Jews fighting for? As Nisan Resnick reminds us, few members of the FPO believed that they would survive. But as one Jewish resistance leader in Kraków wrote before he died, these young Jews were fighting for “three lines in history.” No, they couldn’t really defeat the Germans or save the Jews in the ghetto. Nor could they save themselves. But the world, and the Jewish people, would remember that they fought back—as Jews. On the other hand, if the FPO fled to the forest and joined the Soviet partisans—and not all Soviet partisans were friendly—would they earn those “three lines in history”? Or would they simply be remembered as bit players in the glorious battle for Stalin and the Soviet state? 

Throughout most of 1942, the choice of the ghetto or the forest was more theoretical than real, since no real Soviet partisan movement existed. But by 1943, as Soviet partisan units got organized and sent emissaries into the Vilna ghetto to persuade FPO members to leave for the forest, the organization faced a major dilemma. But it made its decision: stay in the ghetto, fight back when the Germans came to kill the remaining Jews, give as many people as possible a chance to escape, and then—and only then—go to the forests. They knew that this scenario was highly improbable and that they would probably all die in the ghetto. Yet, as Nisan Resnick explained, it was not so easy to escape to the forests and leave their families and the mass of unarmed Jews to their fate. 

It had been an article of faith in the FPO that, at the decisive moment, they would get the support of the wider Jewish population. But they made a major miscalculation. The priorities of a father or mother with children were quite different from those of idealistic teenagers in the FPO. If a tailor worked in a shop that had six months’ worth of guaranteed work from the Wehrmacht, Gens’s call to buy time through work made more sense than the chimeric idea of “resistance.” Armed resistance seemed not only suicidal but pointless and irresponsible. Was it worth sacrificing the whole ghetto to kill a couple of Germans? After Stalingrad, after North Africa, maybe—just maybe—Germany might collapse so quickly that the remaining Jews might survive. Or perhaps some German officer might kill Hitler? As long as there was hope, it was important to live, and not to die. 

One of the most respected intellectuals of the ghetto, Zelig Kalmanovich, kept a diary in Hebrew, which was retrieved after the war. In this diary, Kalmanovich praised Gens for doing all he could to save the ghetto. At the same time, he lambasted the FPO for its recklessness and  irresponsibility. Abba Kovner revered Kalmanovich, who died in the Nazi labor camp of Vaivara in 1944. He was quite hurt when he read the diary but nonetheless had it published in Israel after the war. Indeed, Kovner admitted, had he been 10 years older in the ghetto, he might even have agreed with him. 

By April 1943, ominous portents heralded the beginning of the end. Early that month, the Germans announced that 5,000 Jews from surrounding towns, just dumped into the overcrowded Vilna ghetto, would be sent to Kovno, where more Jewish workers were needed. The German officials who organized the transport actually intended for the Jews to go to Kovno, but at some point the security services intervened and vetoed the idea: it was too dangerous, they said; Jews from these towns had been in cahoots with the partisans and constituted a security risk. Gens, convinced that the train was really going to Kovno, offered to accompany the transport. Much to his horror, after a few miles, the train was shunted off to Ponar.

The Germans detached Gens’s car and sent him back to the ghetto. Thousands of Jews jumped off the train, saw where they were, and hurled themselves on their Lithuanian and German guards, wounding many before they were gunned down. Gens, in a separate car, returned to the ghetto. To make matters worse, the next day the Germans told the Jewish police to go to Ponar, help bury the victims, and collect old clothing. They no longer cared whether the ghetto knew the details of Ponar or not. As for Gens, this was a real blow to his prestige. For more than a year he had been telling Jews that if they worked, they might stay alive. But most of those 5,000 Jews murdered in Ponar were young and able to work. If the Germans shot them anyway, it showed that they believed that the liquidation of the Jews was more important than their possible economic value. 

But in fact Gens now doubled down on his pleas to the Jews to stay calm and to work. “Kovno-Ponar” made Gens even more fearful of the growing contacts between the FPO and the Soviet partisans, who had been sending emissaries into the ghetto. The disaster, Gens warned, had just gone to show how dangerous it was for Jews to give the Germans any reason to suspect their behavior. In one incident, Gens shot a Jew from the forest who refused to hand over his pistol. He tried to arrest a key FPO commander, Josef Glazman, but was forced to release him when the FPO threatened violence. The commandant tried to reason with the FPO and convince them that they were playing with fire and putting the ghetto in danger. 

Gens was trying to play a double game. On the one hand, he sought out the leaders of the FPO, gave them money, turned a blind eye when a few non-Vilna natives left for the forests, and even promised to lead the battle if and when the Germans came to finish off the ghetto. On the other hand, he looked for allies—in the ranks of the underworld and among the leaders of the work brigades—as potential support in case of a final reckoning with the FPO.

That showdown came on July 16, 1943—the “Wittenberg Day” that Jews remembered as one of the most tragic incidents in the history of the ghetto. Yitzhak Wittenberg, the commandant of the FPO, wore a second hat that his non-Communist comrades knew nothing about: as a member of the secret Communist city committee in Vilna. When a Polish Communist arrested by the Gestapo broke under torture and revealed Wittenberg’s name, the Gestapo demanded that Gens arrest him and hand him over. In talking to the Germans, Gens ascertained that the Gestapo wanted Wittenberg because he was a Communist, not because he was in the FPO. Indeed, Gens got the impression that the Germans had no idea the FPO existed. 

Many survivors in this podcast have their heartbreaking memories of what happened next. Gens called Wittenberg, accompanied by other FPO members, to a meeting. When Wittenberg showed up, he was surrounded by Jewish police, who grabbed him and led him toward the ghetto gate. But before he got there, armed FPO members jumped the police and freed Wittenberg, who went into hiding. The FPO now mobilized for what it thought was the final battle; to hand over their commander was out of the question.

But then matters took a disastrous turn. Gens spread the word that if the Germans failed to get Wittenberg, they would destroy the ghetto. Should 20,000 Jews die because of one person? Crowds of Jews went through the narrow ghetto streets and hunted the FPO commander. As the FPO realized that the ghetto was against them, they had to decide what to do about Wittenberg. While the commander urged his comrades to fight, some of his fellow Communists told him that he had no choice but to give himself up. 

Arie Distal stood outside and held a grenade. Jews were yelling for Wittenberg to come out and give himself up. What should he do? Your whole way of looking at the world changes in an hour. You had prepared to fight the Germans, attack them when they entered the ghetto, and save as many Jews as possible. But now you’re facing a crowd of Jews who want to attack you?” That was the only way to avoid a fratricidal showdown in the ghetto. 

As the ghetto watched in shamed silence, Wittenberg walked through the streets on his way to Gens’s office. The two had a private chat that lasted a few minutes. Gens told Wittenberg that he had had nothing to do with his arrest, that someone outside the ghetto had informed on him. Somehow Wittenberg procured a cyanide capsule. Did Gens give it to him? A fellow member of the FPO? No one knows. But Wittenberg killed himself in his cell. He would give the Germans no information. 

The final liquidation of the Vilna ghetto was about to begin.