When the Nazis liquidate the Vilna ghetto, they send thousands of Jews to their deaths or to forced-labor camps. Others escape to the forest to join the partisans. Very few manage to hide. The Nazis also try to eliminate evidence of their efforts to murder Vilna’s Jews.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
By the middle of 1943, Jews in the Vilna ghetto began to realize that the yearlong period of relative stability was about to end. The slaughter in April of 5,000 Jews, mostly young and able-bodied, at Ponar undercut Jacob Gens’s argument that Jewish labor could buy precious time. But most Jews in the ghetto saw no alternative.
The Wittenberg affair showed that, when forced to choose between Gens and the FPO resistance organization’s call to fight the Germans in the ghetto, most Jews still preferred to take their chances with Gens. After July 16, the FPO faced a serious internal crisis. Did it still make sense to stay in the ghetto? All the while, Soviet partisan commanders such as Fyodor Markov in the Narocz Forest ratcheted up the pressure on the FPO to leave the ghetto.
That summer, Gens still played both ends against the middle as he sought to reassure the Germans and at the same time rein in the FPO with promises to support the fighters at the moment of decision. But by mid-1943, this was a losing game. Jews continued to leave for the forest, despite Gens’s warnings that their actions endangered the entire ghetto. Gens accused one Jewish partisan whom Markov had sent to recruit armed fighters to leave the ghetto of gross irresponsibility:
You want to save Jews by taking them into the forests? Tell me, how many Jews will you be able to rescue this way, 100, 200, or let’s suppose even 500? These people will all be physically fit, those who insure [sic] the ghetto’s survival. You want to take out just these and leave to the mercy of God only the aged, the sick, and the children whom the German will liquidate at once. I shall not allow it. . . .
The situation on all the fronts is changing. . . . It may be that the Germans will be compelled to retreat and won’t have time to liquidate the ghetto. . . . We must not shorten its existence, even by one day. I shall fight for every day, and history will judge me for this in the future. (Yitzhak Arad, The Ghetto in Flames, p. 383.)
One splinter organization, the Yechiel Struggle Group, which was only loosely connected with the FPO, began to send fighters into the forests. However, the FPO, commanded by Abba Kovner following Wittenberg’s death, wavered. The Soviets demanded that the FPO send armed men—and no women, who made up 30 percent of the FPO’s membership.
The FPO leadership was in a bind. It was unthinkable to defy partisan commanders, who spoke in the name of the Soviet Union and the Red Army. But it was equally difficult to abandon the vision of a valiant battle in the ghetto that would redeem Jewish honor and even give the Jews of Vilna a chance to escape. Kovner compromised. On July 24, he sent one group to join Markov’s brigade in the Narocz Forest. But the FPO’s plan to fight in the ghetto remained unchanged, even though it was obvious that such an idea was fundamentally unrealistic.
What neither Gens nor the FPO knew that summer was that on June 21, 1943, SS leader Heinrich Himmler had ordered the liquidation of the remaining ghettos in Ostland, including the ghetto in Vilna. Productive Jews would live in tightly controlled camps. The rest would be murdered. As a first step, the Germans discontinued the labor details that worked outside the ghetto, dealing a serious blow to the ghetto’s food supply, which depended heavily on the daily smuggling by workers returning from their shifts.
The Vilna ghetto suffered a further setback when the Germans ambushed the FPO group that had left for the forests on July 24. A search of the fallen fighters revealed identification cards and work documents from the Vilna ghetto. Acting on this information, the Gestapo shot 32 relatives of the escapees.
A few days later, Bruno Kittel, a vicious SS officer who would play a major role in the final liquidation of the Vilna ghetto, announced that henceforth all Jews would bear collective responsibility for anyone who escaped. If a Jew left the ghetto for the forest, the Germans would shoot his entire family. If there were no close relatives, everyone who lived in the same building would die. An entire work detail would go to Ponar if one Jew was missing at the end of the day.
Samuel Bak, who was only eight years old at the time, remembered the terror that gripped the Jews after this new regime took effect. Dr. Mark Dvorzhetski recalled that when a Jew left a building at night to go to the latrine, his neighbors would follow him until he returned to bed. Jews did not let one another out of their sight. House commandants took roll call in the middle of the night.
Gens turned up the heat on the FPO. He summoned Kovner and told him that the Germans now knew that there was a resistance organization in the ghetto. He would no longer tolerate any attempts to escape to the forest. Furthermore, he demanded that the FPO hand over its arsenal to him for safekeeping: he would return the weapons when the moment came to fight. The FPO played for time and agreed to negotiate but handed over no weapons.
In August, the Germans began to implement Himmler’s order to close down the remaining ghettos, including in Vilna. On August 6, 1943, the Germans and Estonian auxiliaries seized a Jewish work detail at the Vilna airfield and other sites outside the ghetto and deported them to labor camps in Estonia. As the frightened, bewildered Jews waited to depart, Gens assured them that they were going to work, not to Ponar. In light of what had happened in April, Gens failed to calm the frightened crowd. But a week later, letters from the labor camps in Estonia arrived in the ghetto and tensions eased somewhat.
The Germans kept demanding that Gens round up more and more workers for Estonia. On August 25, they told him to provide 5,000 Jews—and grudgingly settled for 1,500. The one silver lining was that the regime of collective responsibility came to an end. The deportations had so jumbled orderly recordkeeping in the ghetto that the Germans could no longer implement their threats to shoot the relatives and neighbors of Jews who escaped the ghetto. This made it easier for the FPO to send more groups to the forest.
On September 1, 1943, German and Estonian police entered the ghetto and demanded that Gens hand over 3,000 males and 2,000 females for transport to Estonia. That day, the FPO prepared for a showdown and mobilized its two battalions. But disaster soon struck. Tipped off by Jewish informants at Gens’s behest, the Germans made a beeline to the assembly point of the second battalion and nabbed one hundred fighters before they received their weapons.
Some members of the battalion, like Abram Zeleznikov, were able to hide and join the first battalion. But in an instant the FPO lost much of its fighting force. The FPO mustered its remaining forces on Strashun Street and issued a call to the Jews in the ghetto to defend themselves and to reject German promises:
Jewish masses! Go out into the street! Whoever has no weapons, take up a hatchet; and whoever has no hatchet, take steel and cudgel and stick! . . . Jews! We have nothing to lose!
But once again the Jews in the ghetto did not follow the FPO. Estonia offered a slim hope of survival. Armed confrontation meant immediate death.
Gens watched nervously as the Germans and Estonians approached the FPO positions on Strashun. As they reached Strashun 12, FPO fighters opened fire on the Germans, who shot back with machine guns, killing Yechiel Scheinbaum. But surprisingly, the Germans halted and did not advance down the street, where the FPO lay in wait, ready to fight. Perhaps the local German officials wanted to avoid a major battle, which might lead to embarrassing questions about how they had failed to keep weapons out of the ghetto.
Having suffered yet another fiasco, the FPO finally abandoned hopes of a fight in the ghetto and made plans to escape in small groups to the forests. Over the next few weeks, about 150 fighters left for the Narocz Forest to the east, while some other groups, among them Abba Kovner, left for the nearby Rudniki Forest to the south. (The record of the Jewish partisans in the forests will be discussed in the episode notes for chapter eight of this season.)
The ghetto was quickly emptying out. By September 5, more than 7,000 people had been deported to Estonia. Gens tried to reassure the remaining Jews in the ghetto, but his words now rang hollow. With the end of the work brigades outside the ghetto, the smuggling of food almost stopped and hunger set in.
On September 14, the Gestapo summoned Gens for a meeting. His Lithuanian friends warned him that his life was in danger and offered to hide him. But Gens believed that if he ran away, the entire ghetto would bear the consequences. He rejected what he believed was a dishonorable course of action. That afternoon, SS Obersturmführer Rolf Neugebauer shot Gens, who was replaced by Boria Biniakonski. The Jews who were left in the ghetto saw Gens’s death as yet another sign that the end was quickly approaching. They also realized that while Gens had made many enemies, he had also been a complex figure who had done all he could to save as many Jews as possible. His death came as a terrible blow.
On the morning of September 23, the Germans told Biniakonski that all the remaining Jews were to be sent to labor camps in Estonia. As Germans and auxiliaries entered the ghetto, Kittel ordered all Jews to assemble and march in the direction of Rossa Square. While a couple thousand Jews went to ground in malinas, most obeyed the German order. But as they neared Rossa Square, they were shocked to discover that the Germans began to separate men from women and separate children, the sick, and the elderly from the rest of the Jews.
The Jews sat all night in the open under a driving rain as the selection proceeded. To add to their miseries, the Jews had to watch the hanging of four Jews from the FPO who had been caught trying to flee to the forest. About 2,000 able-bodied males were put on a train to Estonia while about 1,600 females went to Kaiserswald, near Riga, Latvia. Some 5,000 Jews sent “to the left” began their final journey to the death camp of Sobibor.
After the official liquidation of the ghetto, a few thousand Jews still remained in Vilna, either in malinas or the remaining labor camps at HKP (Heereskraftfahrpark) and Kailis. As we learn from the testimony of Yitzhak Dugim and Sheila Zwany, few hideouts held out for long. Forced to endure frightful conditions, living in sewers or in rat-infested cellars, betrayed by their tracks in the snow when they went out to look for food, refused help by most Gentiles, Jews in the malinas had little chance of survival.
Compared with the malinas, the Kailis and HKP labor camps in Vilna offered the 2,300 Jews quartered there somewhat better chances to stay alive—for the time being. The Jews in Kailis processed furs, while those in HKP worked on Wehrmacht and SS vehicles. Jews in these camps lived together as families, and as we hear from Samuel Bak’s testimony, there were many children whose presence seemed to be tolerated by the Germans. The Jews in HKP were especially fortunate in that the German commander, Major Karl Plagge, was an anti-Nazi who did what he could to help the Jewish inmates.
Unfortunately, Plagge was away on leave on March 27, 1944, when the Germans began the Kinderaktion, the murder of the children in both camps. The SS fooled the parents by ordering them to present their children for mandatory vaccinations. As the Germans loaded the children onto the trucks, frantic parents fought tooth and nail to protect them, and many were shot.
As we learn in Samuel Bak’s testimony, he was saved at the last minute. As his mother was preparing to present him for the “vaccination,” a woman suddenly diverted them to a nearby hiding place. Bak’s mother then escaped from the camp, reached his aunt, who was a convert to Catholicism and who lived in the city, and prepared her son’s escape. Bak’s father put him in a sack and dropped him out of a window and into the arms of a rescuer sent by his aunt. Smuggled out of the work camp, Bak miraculously survived. But he never saw his father again.
After Yitzhak Dugim was flushed out of his hideout, he and the other captured Jews were sent to Łukiszki Prison and then to Ponar. Although Dugim expected to be shot along with everyone else, he was selected for a far more gruesome task: to join the work detail ordered to dig up and burn tens of thousands of Jews buried there. This was part of SS Operation 1005, the project to destroy evidence of mass murder at the major killing sites in eastern Europe.
The Vilna ghetto was no more, but in the labor camps and in the forests, Jews continued their fight to live on.
Samuel Bak: As a child, I always thought about some miracles, maybe some miracles will happen to me and that, uh, after all, they won’t kill me, but I knew that they have killed my best friend, the son of my mother’s, uh, friend Manya, a boy who was found in a hiding place and taken down to the courtyard of the prison. And, uh, policeman has put him a bullet in the head. I knew that. I knew that. So I knew that when a—when a boy like myself was found by the Germans, this could happen to him.
Eleanor Reissa: You’re listening to “Remembering Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania.” I’m Eleanor Reissa. Chapter seven: “Liquidation.” This episode is set in the fall of 1943 up to the spring of 1944. It begins with the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto. You’ll hear the voices of Henny Durmashkin Gurko, Sheila Zwany, and Yitzhak Dugim.
We continue with Samuel Bak.
Samuel Bak: The atmosphere in the ghetto was terrible. It was clear that the Russians started to advance. It was clear that the Germans were going to do something. They were saying that, uh, the Germans prepare many trains on the station. And the trains are going to take away the people from Vilna.
They were speaking that, uh, some other ghettos have been eliminated and liquidated, and there were rumors about what was going on in the ghetto of Warsaw and so on. So I think that, uh, it was quite clear. People were prepared, and the atmosphere there was, was, was, was, was very black, very black.
Sheila Zwany: Early in the morning they announced that the ghetto is going to Rossa. Rossa was a place where they, you know, liquidate, where they put—took out all people, and they put them in the—you know, like segregate, one on right, one left, who to shot and who to leave to the camps, whatever.
Henny Durmashkin Gurko: Rossa was an area of Vilna, very quiet, um, hilly. And, uh, they brought us to this hill, to this valley, and we saw some people were being hung. And that, we thought that we’ll all be hung one by one. We became so hysterical. So unbelievably hysterical that we said, “Let us beg for, for shots and not to be hung.” And, uh, turns out that they were caught running away to the partisans and they were hung. Those two people, a girl and a, and a boy.
And, uh, we stayed there overnight, no food, crying of children, carrying on. The conditions were terrible outdoors naturally in this valley, from the moun—from the hill we were looking down, there was so many of us. And then the next day they said, “Let’s go up. It’s going to be a selection.” Selection, of course, meant death or life.
And they brought us up the hill and they said those that cannot work will go to the left. And we tried to make my mother look younger. We tried to put rouge on her and make her look, you know, so that maybe she’ll pass as a younger person. And when the selection started, we went all the way up the hill and it was left and right. My brother was taken away right away—and my mother.
And I survived with my sister. They brought us to trains, because nearby were railroad tracks with trains. They put us in those trains. These were trains for cattle. No windows. We were pushed in savagely, into those trains. And one part of our life was gone. The ghetto life was no more, which was bad enough, but worse was coming on.
Eleanor Reissa: When the Vilna ghetto was liquidated, thousands of Jews were sent to their deaths or to forced-labor camps. Others escaped to the forest as partisans. Very few managed to hide.
Yitzhak Dugim: We had a meeting about what to do—go or stay. We saw that everyone was coming out of their houses. I said that we should stay in the ghetto. If we die, we die together. So we stayed; everyone went into our hiding place, a small room with no windows. There were 24 of us, including my friend and his family. Outside we heard screaming and people being caught.
Sheila Zwany: This early morning, my brother took us—me, and my mother, my father, my mother, my brother, and this cousin, and my aunt with the two children and other people, … And we went to this sewer. They made like a hole through a store, and you had to climb through houses to go to the hole. Then we went through the hole to the sewers. What we could take on ourselves and a little package. And we had to walk to the place through the sewers to hide there. The place where we were, were eighteen people there. We were sleeping like, like the sardines.
Yitzhak Dugim: At night it was quiet. We could open the door and get some air. After a few days, groups started to come from the city and throw everything from inside the houses out the windows. So we knew that soon someone would come and find us. What could we do?
Under our roof there was a crawl space. I closed up the entrance with boards and we all went in. We brought blankets and took everything up, under the beams. We were on the fourth floor and we could see what was happening outside, down below.
Sheila Zwany: We made their electricity, in the sewer. We made, like, a little toilet, and they made, like, a stove. But we didn’t have anything from what to eat. And you couldn’t talk, because right here, the next door, the Polish people went for their potatoes. They keep there the potatoes, so you couldn’t even say a word. People went there—terrible, without food, without nothing. You could get crazy even to sit there.
Yitzhak Dugim: There we were. We had no food. It started to snow. My friend and I started going out at night to search for food. In one house we’d find five kilos of flour. I found a faucet in a bathroom in the courtyard and took water from it. We would mix half a cup of flour with water, divide it among everyone. At first we had some some sugar to add for the kids. That was our food. When it started to snow, it became a problem, because you’d leave footprints.
Sheila Zwany: A Polish man, which was working as a janitor, he took us once in a while a bread, but very little. Under the coat, he saved this. He came to a hole and this how he pushed the bread through the hole; a little, little, little bread.
And he said to us, whatever happen to me, I’m going with you, but my family shouldn’t know about nothing. A lot of Gentile people, they took the, you know, the money, and they gave out the people. He was religious, and because he was religious, he didn’t give us out. He was afraid God will, uh, punish him.
Yitzhak Dugim: At night, the soldiers, the Gestapo, left the ghetto. I would go out. There were other people out sneaking around, but every few days there were fewer. People were caught. Eventually, we were the only ones left. After a month, guards started entering the houses. They’d lift up floorboards and find that there were Jews hiding in the basement.
Sheila Zwany: One time we got so hungry, we got so tired that my brother took my mother, and he, in the middle of the night, he took her out through the sewers, took an hour and a half to go there, and he put her out to the street. And she went out to the house where we used to live to our neighbors, because we leaved by them things, like a sewing machine, like clothes, whatever, you know, in case.
My mother came to these good neighbors, our good friends, to get something, we should have a piece of bread. So they said to her, if when you gonna live through the war, then we’re going to give you. Now we don’t give you nothing.
Yitzhak Dugim: One day the guard came into our place. My friend and I rushed out alone. We gave him a coat. He brought us bread and onions. He asked, “It’s really just the two of you?” We said, “Yes, they caught everyone else already.” Then he disappeared.
Sheila Zwany: One time, the Gentile, this man, he came to us. He says, “Look, you have to leave, because people, they’re hiding in another place, also in the sewers, and somebody talked. There were 23 people, they took everybody and they shot them together.” So he got afraid. He said, “You must go out.”
So we went all out. We couldn’t even walk. Some pipes, they were high. Some pipes, they were low. Some pipes, you have to walk on the, on the, on the four, like this crawl. The smell three times a day, what came from the sewers, the smell could eat you up.
And, and so my brother took my father on the back, and he carried him. He wasn’t so sick, but he already didn’t have the strength. He couldn’t walk. And we went to the water. And a place we find near the water, it was water, but not high yet, and then start a big storm. So we says, “Here, we’re going to drown already.” But somehow on our luck, the water stopped.
And we stayed there a couple of days without food, without nothing. And then we say, “Where we going to go? Maybe he’s going to close again the hole and he wouldn’t let us in anymore.” And we came back, and we saw the hole was open. “Oh,” we said, “thank God that we can go back.”
Yitzhak Dugim: Two more months passed with us living that way. One morning, we looked down into the courtyard and saw soldiers coming with the Polish guard. They found us and made us come down. A truck came. They beat us and told us to get in. We knew the truck meant Ponary. We refused to get in until my younger sister got in first. She told us to show them we were not afraid of death. They took us to the Gestapo.
At the Gestapo they put us in the cellar, room 21. We were all together, women, children, everyone. After a few hours they opened the door, came in, and forcibly took out the women and children. “You can’t be together,” they said, “you have to be separate.” They took all the women and children. Only the men were left.
Sheila Zwany: My father got sick. He couldn’t stand it anymore. The hunger, and he didn’t have what to smoke. He got sick, and after three days, he died there. And we had to bury him and left him in the sewers.
Eleanor Reissa: At this time, Samuel and his parents were in HKP, the forced-labor camp inside Vilna.
Samuel Bak: This working camp was organized in a way in which the Germans have succeeded to bring every, every Jew who was in that place into a state in which he was the guardian of the others, so that the others will not escape. Because we had all to wear metal medals here with our number on it. And every morning, men, women, children, they were controlling the numbers. We had to stand according to the numbers.
Now, if one number was missing, five people before that number, five people after that number were taken away and shot. So now there was a situation where everybody was watching everybody. Because if you escaped, I was going to pay for it. This was this diabolic brutalization of, um, people.
But then in the camp, the children, from, I think, less than 12 or so, were not supposed to work. And we were free. And we were walking around on the, on the grounds of the, of the camp. And I had some very good friends. And, uh, we had a lot of snow always. And we used to play with the snow. The important thing was not to be near where the soldiers were.
Children were quite left to themselves. The parents were working day and night. And rumors, again, arrived that the Germans have a—are having a very hard time on their fronts, that they are trying to eliminate now not only the camps of the few remaining Jews, but they were trying to eliminate the traces of the elimination of the Jews. We heard of those commandos that were taken to Ponary that had to dig out corpses and burn them. We heard of those things. And I knew of those things.
Yitzhak Dugim: They took us, [the men], to Ponary—for work. There were pits that the Russians had dug for underground fuel storage. We lived in one that was five, six meters deep, 30 meters wide. It had stone walls, and the Jews who had worked there before built a roof with boards and rooms inside. It had a kitchen, a storeroom, and a bunk room.
We had to cut trees and drag the logs. We had to gather everything. My father also worked, but he wasn’t young, and it was hard. I took the logs on my back so that I had most of the weight.
One day we stood in a line. A Gestapo official from outside Vilna came and started talking, lecturing about the work we had to do, that the work that was done was a big mess, pigs did it, and we have to get rid of it. He said that whoever worked and finished the job well could earn the right to go to Berlin and work in his real profession, but whoever starts any nonsense, that’s the end of his life. They put chains on our legs.
They told me since I was an electrician I had to install electricity at the pits. I didn’t know anything about the rest of the work the group was doing. My father was with the group, my brother-in-law, too.
They went to the first pit. They dug into the ground and found dead bodies. They started screaming. The Germans beat them. In the evening, many came back with injuries from the beating. This went on for three days, and then they got used to that kind of work.
When I wasn’t working on electrical projects, I worked with the group that was disposing of the bodies. We were forbidden to use the word “dead” or “killed.” They made us call them “figuren”—“figures.”
My “job” was to pick up the dead with an iron rod. Then a group would dig away the dirt, then take out the “figures,” and lay them out on boards. Then the so-called dentist would come—this was my brother-in-law—and pull out the gold teeth. Then two people would carry the bodies away to the areas we had cleared and make pyres for burning. There, other people would arrange the bodies. They had a system—how to put the boards, how to put the bodies. They kept building until there were three or four thousand dead bodies in one pyre. They poured on gasoline, and it burned for several days.
The first pit we dug into was the largest. There were 24,000 bodies in it. At the top, there were whole bodies, and as you went down, the bodies had deteriorated and become compressed. The lowest layer, with time, had nearly decomposed, it was only five centimeters thick. There we found people from before the ghetto, those that the “snatchers” had caught.
How did we know? There was a bag with the soap and a towel next to each one. So we knew that this was from before the ghetto [when people who were snatched were told to bring soap and a towel]. So we were passing through every period. We could tell what time period the people were from.
A German was always there with a book, and in the book he had a list, how many dead in each pit. That’s how we knew—twelve thousand, seven thousand… How many bodies.
After the bodies were burned, there were still parts left. There were people who had to cut them into pieces. Every trace had to be destroyed. What should we do? We knew they wouldn’t let anyone out of this place alive, even the guards.
There was one incident that I saw myself. A German soldier wandered in from the road—he said he was looking for water. They caught him and they killed him. I saw it. I came out of the pit and took his shoes.
After a month or so, I was standing at the gate and I saw a truck arrive with more people—prisoners—some were Jews, some were Soviets. They brought them from Łukiszki prison. The Gestapo officer lined them up in a row and barked: “Profession!” Teachers, engineers, doctors, they put to the side. “You don’t belong here, you need different work.” They took them into the forest and killed them. The rest stayed and worked with us. Together we were 80 people.
There was a group that went in a truck after work, from Ponary to the Gestapo. They crossed paths with a truck carrying women and children. The Gestapo officer Kenap was there and took an automatic rifle. He came back to Ponary with the women. This is how I know he killed the women and children. This is how I know that was his job.
Samuel Bak: I remember one night, was a, a terrible tension, because there were many trucks around the camp, and nobody knew what was going to happen. We hardly slept that night. And then the next morning, very early, the trucks came into the camp. And there was shouting, there was shouting in German: “All women and children should come out!” At a certain point, my mother took my hand and we started to walk. In the corridor of that building, towards the door that had to lead us out.
And when we were in that very door, a friend of my mother grabbed her by the arm and shouted to her, “Mitzia, are you crazy? Why do you go?” She grabbed her by force, I came along. And there was a door that opened all of a sudden. And she brought us in. And in that little room was her daughter and another child or two. And she told me to be under the bed. Meanwhile outside, I understood that they were putting all sorts of garbage in front of, of that door.
Now this, the window, of, of, of, of, of this room, was a first floor, where a—on the side where all the women and the children were gathering. One truck, I think, left with children, with women with their children. But after that, I think the Germans realized there was not enough place for the women.
They started to shout, “Only the children!” And there started something terrible. There was some screaming and some yelling and—and some shooting. There were, there were a few women that really attacked the soldiers, shouting into their faces, “Murderers!” and they were shot on the spot. And the children were crying, I mean, it was really terrible… I’m sorry.
Well… All this was over after two hours, and there I was left in this room with these other two children and three children, and the sound of the crying people in the corridors was just unbelievable. And my parents were very much afraid that I might be seen. Because there were, there were parents who became absolutely mad, absolutely crazy, to see another child for them, they didn’t know how they would behave. So they hid me under a bed with some blankets on me and so on. I was not to appear, I was not to exist.
Now, since a number of women were taken out from the camp, and since a number of women were killed and buried on the premises of the camp, my mother thought that it was a wonderful occasion for her to try to escape and to take me out from the camp.
So at night, my father succeeded to bribe, um, one of the, of the German, uh, Wehrmacht guardians. And, um, and she succeeded to get out from, from the camp. She was not anymore a danger to anybody leaving the camp because the Germans didn’t know how many women left nor how many women were buried. And she went again to the aunt.
Now, the next day, the maid of the aunt came to the camp and started to walk nearby the, uh, barbed-wire fence, wearing my mother’s handkerchief. People came to my father to tell him, “Look, there is most probably sign from your wife.” He understood that now the question was to get me out from the camp.
Yitzhak Dugim: We started to talk. What to do, how to escape? Every night, they pulled up the ladder and we were stuck in the pit, five or six meters deep, with stone walls, a fence, mines, another fence, and guards around it. During the day, also, while we worked, guards surrounded us.
We had all kinds of ideas. We agreed on digging a tunnel. I spotted a place outside the fence I thought would be the best to get out. It was about 30 meters from the pit. We made a plan. First we had to get past the foundation, so we had to dig at least three meters down.
There was a storeroom with bread and other food. We made a double wall and a doorway behind it. From there, we started to dig.
Samuel Bak: Before it became dark, he came with a sack. Like those used for the cubes of wood. He put me in the sack, took me on his shoulder, and he succeeded to join the line of the workmen that were carrying those sacks to be put on some trucks that were always waiting there. And he went with me in the sack through the whole camp, with the others, and brought me to a room where there were thousands of those sacks piled up. Two of his friends worked in that place where they were putting the sacks on the trucks.
And, um, they have made in a way that they started as if to fight at a certain corner of that place, calling the attention of all the Germans that were around. And that very moment, the friend of, of, of, of my father who was in the room grabbed me with the sack and threw me out from this window. It was not very high. The moment I landed on the ground, I felt a hand. This was the maid of my aunt that took my hand, and she told me only, “Now we walk very slowly.”
And very slowly, we started to walk along the barbed-wire fence, as if it was a Polish woman with a child that were just making a promenade. And there we arrived to the house of the aunt. When my mother saw me, she could not believe her eyes. She never thought she’ll make it. This was also the last time I’ve seen my father.
Yitzhak Dugim: When we started digging the tunnel, at the beginning it was 10 people, but then we brought in more—15, 20 people. The tunnel was about 60 centimeters wide and 70 tall. The dirt was actually sand. You could even dig by hand. But it caved in easily. There were two people who cut trees for our kitchen. We gave them measurements, and they brought wood to fit.
We dug two meters. We had started to dig without accounting for where to put the dirt. We spread sand on the floor. The floor of our place got to be 10 centimeters higher. What could we do with the sand? We told the Germans it was cold and we wanted to insulate the walls of the rooms. So we did, and we put sand behind the walls. The toilet was outside, you’d sit over a hole. We’d put sand in our pockets and when we were sitting over the hole, we’d throw sand in. When you opened the door of the kitchen, sand came out. Sand was in the coffee and in the food. We knew why, but the rest of the group didn’t.
Samuel Bak: It was very difficult to be in the camp, it was very difficult to be outside, because there we were a real danger to, too, to my mother’s aunt. What can be done with us? Where can she put us? She could not hide us in her, in her house. So, we spent hidden in a closet for one day in her house, and she meanwhile went around in town to look if she could find someplace for us. And she came and said, “Look, I think I found a place. Now, I found a woman that for quite a lot of money is ready to give you lodgings.”
We, um, came to a place where… An old lady opened the door and, uh, she said, all she said, “This is something I’ve already done before. I have hidden here people, only they did not like very much this place, they went away. So now you can stay here,” she said. “Only I’m afraid that the child, uh, is not afraid of rats and mainly he does not scream when they bite him. Because if you told me that this child is going to scream when the rats bite him, then he cannot stay here.” And then we left.
Yitzhak Dugim: After four or five meters, there was no air. A candle wouldn’t light. At 10 meters, I could only stay in there for 15 minutes, and I was healthy.
Samuel Bak: My mother took me out and we went to a—towards the town, we were standing on a bridge, and down the water was… It was the period of the year which the ice melts and the water was really—like a tempest, whirling underneath. And, um, we stood there, and I did not understand why, what was my mother’s intention.
Yitzhak Dugim: A month passed, and we dug 20 meters. Twenty people were working [on the tunnel] in shifts. Eventually we came to dirt that was not sand. We found roots. We knew that we only had about a meter left. We were almost there. We started planning our escape.
Samuel Bak: And then we went towards the place where we were hiding, in the monastery. It was unbelievable, but one of the nuns that took care of us and who knew the secret of our being in the monastery opened the door. There was a number of, I don’t know, eight or ten people, who were hiding in that very place.
She went to them and told them, “Look, there is a woman and a child here and, if you don’t agree to accept her and to share with her the space that you have and the food that you have, and so on, you must know that she is doomed.” And they accepted us. And it was for us like a miracle, all of the sudden to be in a place where we could have some food, eat, and be—and feel protected.
Yitzhak Dugim: The big pits were already done. We were now working in pits that had just a few hundred people, not thousands. We knew it was almost the end of the work, and the end of us.
Some of the pits had bodies with clothes, and some were without clothes. It depended on the pit and the time period. Sometimes we found watches. The Germans wanted the watches, and they would give them to me to repair, instead of going to work.
One day, I stayed in the bunker to fix a watch. I finished the watch, came out to give it to a German. And I saw, not far away, a pile ready for incineration. I got closer and I recognized a green blouse. My sister. Then I saw it was my whole family. My mother—I became crazy and threw down my work and ran. The Germans raised their rifles to shoot me, but someone told them I saw my family. They did not say a word.
After I recognized my family, I no longer had any desire to escape. I told the group they should go, I would stay behind, take a stone, throw it at the mines, and bring all the German guards down with me. I did not want to live.
One of the other men talked with me for a long time. He convinced me to stay alive. The world needs to know what happened here.
Eleanor Reissa: In this episode, you heard from Samuel Bak, Henny Durmashkin Gurko, Sheila Zwany, and Yitzhak Dugim, whose Hebrew testimony is voiced by Arnie Burton.
Next up, chapter eight: “Nazi Defeat.”
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. 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.”