July 1944. For nearly two weeks, the Nazis and the Soviets fight for every street and block in Vilna. When the smoke clears, Jews hiding in the sewers emerge into daylight while other survivors and Jewish partisans filter back into the devastated city.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
After the final liquidation of the Vilna ghetto in September 1943, Jews continued their struggle for survival in many different places and with varying chances of success. Among the unlucky ones were the 5,000 Jews who did not survive the brutal September 23 selection that took place in the pouring rain on Rossa Square. They met their death in nearby Ponar and in Sobibor. That same selection dispatched a few thousand younger men and women to labor camps in Latvia and Estonia, where they joined the Jews who had been deported there in August. A few hundred Jews ignored the order to report to Rossa Square and went to ground in hideouts.
Almost a thousand Jews made their way to the partisans, either in the Narocz Forest, 120 kilometers to the east, or in the nearby Rudniki Forest to the south. A few thousand who worked in two German labor camps in Vilna—HKP and Kailis—won a temporary reprieve and remained alive—until July 1944. The testimonies in this episode recount the diverse experiences of Vilna survivors as they battled the odds and, thanks to a combination of sheer luck and unbelievable resourcefulness, lived to see the liberation of the city in July 1944. As we recall their stories, we should also remember that of the 18,000 to 20,000 Jews in the ghetto in July 1943, only about one in five survived—in the forests, in camps, and in hideouts.
As we see from the testimony of Yitzhak Dugim, most of the Jews who holed up in malinas didn’t make it. Some did—like Sheila Zwany, who survived in the sewers for almost a year, thanks to the help of a sympathetic Pole. But her story was exceptional. Sooner or later, Jews in hideouts fell victim to the denunciations of their Polish and Lithuanian neighbors or ran into German patrols as they scrounged for food.
Yitzhak Dugim held out a few months in a hideout, but one by one, his fellow Jews were caught. Finally only he and his sister were left, and they too were arrested. The Germans sent Dugim to Ponar but consigned him to a fate that many considered worse than death: Dugim joined the “Burners Brigade,” a group of Jews who were forced to exhume the 80,000 bodies buried in the mass graves of Ponar, lay them on huge pyres, and burn them. They lived chained together in a deep pit, from which the Germans would remove the ladder each night to prevent escape. In his recorded testimony, Dugim recalled:
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.
The desperate prisoners in the Burners Brigade knew that the Germans would murder them as soon as they finished their gruesome work and realized that their only chance of survival was to escape. But how? By February they hatched a plan to dig a tunnel from the pit where they lived to the nearby forest beyond the camp’s perimeter. They started in February 1944 and built a fake wall to hide the entrance to the tunnel. Using spoons, shovels, and anything practical they could retrieve from the pits, they worked in shifts each night. The Jews smuggled in wood to build struts to hold up the top of the tunnel.
As the work progressed and the tunnel lengthened, they spread the large heaps of sand that they had dug out into even layers on the floor of the pit. As they dug, other prisoners sang loudly to drown out the noise, remembering to sing the songs that they knew the SS liked, especially arias from Johann Strauss’s The Gypsy Baron. As the distance increased, the growing number of burning candles depleted the sparse oxygen in the tunnel. But Dugim, who had been an electrician, hooked up rudimentary electric lighting.
Along the way, there were major setbacks. At one point, the diggers determined that the tunnel was going in the wrong direction and had to shift the angle. When Dugim recognized the bodies of his wife, mother, and two sisters in one of the pits, he broke down and decided to kill an SS man. The other prisoners reminded him that the Germans would then murder them all. Dugim backed down, and as the weeks went by, the tunnel got ever closer to the perimeter of the camp. They decided that they would make their dash to freedom on April 15. Dugim went out first, cut a hole in the outer fence, and one by one they emerged from the tunnel and dashed toward the forest. Dugim recalled:
We started to climb out, one after another. We started to crawl in a line. We crossed through a field, then got into the trees, so I got up to walk, but when I got up, I fell into a hole—not very deep—that had been dug for new bodies. Just at that moment, the Germans turned on spotlights and started shooting. My head was out of the pit and there were bullets sailing past me. The others fled. I climbed out and followed them. Someone had pliers to cut the fence and we went through—five or six of us made it. They were still shooting.
We crossed a shallow stream and ran. We went into some bushes and sat down. We were so tired, we slept. Some hours later I heard the sounds of cars. Two cars came close—with dogs. A German passed right by me with a dog. The dog sniffed my hand but continued on. Why didn’t the dog stop? I think it is because we smelled like dead people. We worked with dead people.
A few days later, Dugim and some other Jews reached the partisans in the Rudniki Forest. Of the 80 Jews in the Burning Brigade, 11 survived.
In the aftermath of the Wittenberg Affair in July 1943 and the abortive attempt at an uprising on September 1, the FPO, as we have seen, finally changed its mind and began to send groups of Jews to join the Soviet partisans. Some wended their way in small groups through the city streets at night. Others had to undertake a tortuous and near-fatal crawl through the labyrinthine Vilna sewers. The first groups, including Abram Zeleznikov and Mira Verbin, rendezvoused with guides who led them to the Narocz Forest, 120 kilometers away. The very last groups, including Abba Kovner, Ruzhka Korczak, and Vitka Kempner, left the ghetto in mid-September for the Rudniki Forest, to the south of Vilna.
As we learn from the testimonies of Zeleznikov and Verbin, the Jews who made it to the Narocz Forest were shocked and traumatized by their humiliating and hostile reception from the leaders of the Soviet partisans. During their entire time in the FPO, they had looked to the Red Army and the Soviet partisans as their eventual liberators. With superhuman effort they had acquired weapons in the ghetto and brought them into the forest. They had looked forward to fighting the Germans in a Jewish unit, in which they would have the chance to settle scores and take vengeance in the name of the Jewish people. But a couple of days after they came to the partisan base, they were lined up and told that Soviet policy did not allow separate Jewish units.
No sooner had they absorbed this news than they were given the order to hand over their weapons. The Soviet commanders told them that since they lacked requisite military training, it was only right to give their rifles to non-Jewish fighters who had served in the Red Army. All this happened on September 23, the day that the Vilna ghetto was liquidated. But worse was to come. In the words of Mira Verbin:
On the third day they invited each of us individually for a talk. We started to worry. People were coming out of the meetings without their watches, without their leather coats and sweaters, without shoes or boots. The commander told us that weapons were expensive, we had no money, and these items would pay for weapons. Those who had weapons had to hand them in, and the partisan leaders would redistribute them as they saw fit. Some refused to give up their weapons, saying they were earned with blood. But they took all the weapons from us. In the next few days we saw the officers walking around in our boots and coats, wearing our watches and sweaters. It was horrible. Then they told us they were dismantling the Jewish brigade, and that all groups would be mixed.
Soon afterward, the Germans began a major search-and-destroy operation in the Narocz Forest. The Soviet partisans fled the encirclement in small groups but left the disarmed Jews to their fate. Jews who tried to follow the retreating Soviet units were repulsed with warning shots. Many Jews perished during this German blockade, while others, including the poets Avrom Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, survived by finding remote patches of dry land in the middle of the trackless swamps.
Life began to improve for the remaining Vilna Jews in the Narocz Forest only in late 1943 and early 1944. As the Soviets dropped more and more weapons and supplies into the partisan zones, more Jews were admitted to partisan units. Just as important, many Soviet commanders recognized that unarmed Jews could help them as tailors, shoemakers, and cooks, and with other tasks.
While in some partisan brigades Jews had a relatively easy time, much depended on the personality of the commander. In this episode, Verbin and Zelaznikov accurately describe the antisemitism rampant in many units. There were many cases of antisemitic partisans using the confusion and chaos of combat operations to murder their Jewish comrades. Jewish girls had an especially tough time. Although this subject was taboo after the war, it was a fact of life that unless she was extremely lucky or extremely tough, the only way a young Jewish woman could survive in the partisans was by living with a male partisan who could protect her.
Although their testimonies are not included in this episode, the FPO fighters led by Abba Kovner who went to the Rudniki Forest had a better experience. They formed Jewish units that were not disbanded, and they became effective and respected fighters. A key difference between their situation and that of the Jews in the Narocz Forest was that the Rudniki Forest was regarded as part of the Soviet Lithuanian partisan command, whose leaders were more flexible.
After the final liquidation of the ghetto, the Germans still maintained two forced labor camps for Jews in the city. Kailis, which had been a fur and leather factory before the war, produced winter clothing for the German Army. At its peak, about 1,500 Jews worked there; in the last period of the ghetto, desperate Jews tried everything possible to reach that camp, which seemed to offer a degree of relative safety. According to Yitzhak Arad, in 1943 and 1944 about 600 Jews used Kailis as a temporary shelter while they searched for safety somewhere else. At Kailis, the Germans lulled the Jews into a false sense of security and even assured them that their children were safe.
But as we learned from Samuel Bak’s testimony in the previous episode, on March 27, 1944, SS officer Martin Weiss led a sudden raid that gathered all the children at Kailis and sent them to their death. Bak miraculously survived and was smuggled out of the camp to another hideout in the city.
After the breakout of the prisoners through the tunnel in Ponar in April 1944, the Germans took 80 Jews from Kailis and forced them to dig up and incinerate the remaining corpses. On July 3, 1944, a week before the Red Army liberated Vilna, the Germans shot all the Jews remaining from the Kailis camp in Ponar. A few survived in malinas.
In this episode, William Begell describes the other major labor camp that remained in Vilna after the liquidation of the ghetto, HKP (Heereskraftfahrpark). HKP repaired Wehrmacht military vehicles. It was located not far from the former ghetto, on Subocz Street, in two large buildings that before the war had served as low-income housing for poor Jews. In early 1944, HKP housed more than 1,200 Jewish men, women, and children.
Although the German commander of HKP, Major Karl Plagge, had been an early member of the Nazi Party, he was shocked by the regime’s antisemitic policies and did all he could to help the Jews in the camp. He helped set up clothing workshops on the top floors of the camp to employ women and children, thus improving their chances of survival in the event of an SS roundup. Unfortunately, Plagge happened to be away on leave when the SS rounded up all the children in HKP on March 27 and sent them to be killed.
As the Red Army approached Vilna, Plagge gave a strong signal to the Jews in the camp that their lives were in imminent danger. As William Begell recounts:
On the 30th of, uh, June, 1944, the major who was in charge of the camp told us that we are being evacuated because the camp must move together with a front line. And in order to give us a hint that we are about to be killed, he said, “And just to reassure you, I want to tell you that you will be escorted by, um, the SS, which, as you know so well, is an organization for the protection of refugees.” And I quote him. This was as good a, uh, a warning that we’ll be killed as any, and that night, uh, I escaped, from the second floor of the machine shop, there were some, uh, young people, including myself. We cut through the grates, we jumped through the back of the camp and we ran away. This was about 10, 11 o’clock at night.
Duly warned, Jews ran to escape and went to ground in malinas. Most were shot as they ran or were captured and shot in Ponar. But 200 survived. Plagge died in 1957. Thanks to the efforts of Vilna survivors and their children, including Dr. William Good and William Begell, Yad Vashem agreed in 2005 to recognize Plagge as a “Righteous Gentile.”
One of the most heartbreaking testimonies in this episode is the diary entry of the ghetto librarian Herman Kruk, who was among the 5,000 Vilna Jews deported from the ghetto to concentration camps in Latvia and Estonia. Facing terrible conditions in Vaivara, Lagedi, Klooga, Kaiserswald, and other camps, the Jews from Vilna, including many members of the ghetto’s cultural elite, did their best to survive. They organized religious services, held Passover seders, celebrated Chanukah and Purim. Many fasted on Yom Kippur. Communists and Bundists held clandestine meetings and tried to maintain their morale and hope.
Herman Kruk was in Lagedi and Klooga, part of the Vaivara camp complex in Estonia. Despite beatings, abuse, and hunger, he and other inmates held out until the first day of the Jewish New Year in mid-September 1944. Vilna had already been liberated, the Red Army was approaching Estonia, and the Jewish prisoners were full of hope that they might live to see the miracle of survival.
But the SS was determined to leave no Jews alive. Klooga became a collection point for Jews from other camps and by September 18, 2,000 Jews had assembled there. The Germans told them that they were going to be transferred to another labor camp in Germany and even served them a good meal. Then they took truckloads of Jews to a killing site a few miles away and forced their victims to lay on huge pyres of firewood.
The trucks went back and forth, ferrying the next round of victims. The Jews at Klooga were guarded by a thick cordon of Estonian SS. Escape was next to impossible. When the Red Army arrived a couple of days later, they found 2,000 bodies, burned and half-burned, on the pyre. Among the victims was Herman Kruk. Just a day before he was murdered, Kruk made his final diary entry:
September 17. I received a package, a pleasure in the package. My Klooga diaries. Today, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a year after we arrived in Estonia by the Jewish calendar, I bury the diaries in Lagedi, in a barrack right across from the guards’ house. Six persons are present at the burial.
One of those Jews survived. Thanks to him, the diary was retrieved.
In his poem “How,” the Vilna Jewish poet Avrom Sutzkever asked a troubling question: “Vi azoy un mit vos vest filn dayn bekher in tog fun bafrayung?” (“How, and with what, will you fill your goblet on the day of liberation?”) For many Jews, the days of liberation, the realization that they had survived the Nazis, brought not joy but deep depression. Now, and only now, did they fully grasp the extent of the destruction, the magnitude of what they had lost.
As we see in these testimonies, Soviet soldiers met William Begell with antisemitic taunts. The Pole who had helped Sheila Zwany survive in the sewer begged her not to tell anyone. Clearly, Poles who had rescued Jews feared for their lives. Mira Berger fell into a suicidal depression. In her testimony she recalled:
And I said to myself, now I’m going to walk. And I’m going to walk through the, the former Jewish quarters, and if I meet Jews in Vilna, fine. If I don’t meet any Jews all the way from here to the Green Bridge, I will walk up to the Green Bridge where I grew up, and I’ll jump straight into the Wilja, and this will be the end.
Of course, not all Jews responded in this way. Abba Kovner led proud Jewish partisans into the city from the Rudniki Forest and helped in the final street battles. Avrom Sutzkever, Shmerke Kaczerginski, and others made plans to organize Jewish schools, an orphanage, and a Jewish museum. But all too soon it became increasingly clear that the Soviets had no intention of letting the remaining Vilna Jews rebuild a semblance of Jewish life in their city. The survivors were compelled to look elsewhere.
Yitzhak Dugim: I went down [into the tunnel]. There were 20 people behind me. I started to dig. I had no air. I had an iron rod, and when I got to the end, I used it and made an opening, and another. Finally—air. I told them to turn out the light and take off the chains.
Eleanor Reissa: You’re listening to “Remembering Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania.” I’m Eleanor Reissa. Chapter eight: “Nazi Defeat.”
In this episode, you’ll hear the voices of Mira Verbin, Abram Zeleznikov, William Begell, Samuel Bak, Sheila Zwany, Mira Berger, and Haim Bassok, as well as diary entries by Herman Kruk. We continue with Yitzhak Dugim.
Yitzhak Dugim: I made a hole and poked my head out. I saw the Germans sitting, facing our prison. We were now behind them.
Eleanor Reissa: Yitzhak was part of a forced-labor crew in Ponar, the mass-murder site outside Vilna. There they were ordered to exhume and burn tens of thousands of bodies. They had also spent months digging a secret tunnel out of their underground prison. Finally, the time had come to attempt an escape.
Yitzhak Dugim: We started to climb out, one after another. We started to crawl in a line. We crossed through a field, then got into the trees, so I got up to walk, but when I got up, I fell into a hole—not very deep—that had been dug for new bodies.
Just at that moment, the Germans turned on spotlights and started shooting. My head was out of the pit and there were bullets sailing past me. The others fled. I climbed out and followed them. Someone had pliers to cut the fence, and we went through—five or six of us made it. They were still shooting. We crossed a shallow stream and ran.
We went into some bushes and sat down. We were so tired, we slept. Some hours later, I heard the sounds of cars. Two cars came close—with dogs. A German passed right by me with a dog. The dog sniffed my hand but continued on. Why didn’t the dog stop? I think it is because we smelled like dead people. We worked with dead people.
Eleanor Reissa: Yitzhak and several others escaped on April 15, 1944. They walked for nearly a week, skirting hostile villages and digging for leftover potatoes, until they joined a group of Soviet partisans.
Several hundred Jews from Vilna had already joined partisan groups in the forests outside the city. Mira Verbin was one of them.
Mira Verbin: There was an assembly, and they brought us in. They announced the establishment of a Jewish brigade. That seemed good. But on the third day they invited each of us individually for a talk. We started to worry. People were coming out of the meetings without their watches, without their leather coats and sweaters, without shoes or boots.
The commander told us that weapons were expensive, we had no money, and these items would pay for weapons. Those who had weapons had to hand them in, and the partisan leaders would redistribute them as they saw fit. Some refused to give up their weapons, saying they were earned with blood. But they took all the weapons from us.
In the next few days we saw the officers walking around in our boots and coats, wearing our watches and sweaters. It was horrible. Then they told us they were dismantling the Jewish brigade, and that all groups would be mixed.
We slept in wooden bunkers that stuck a little above the ground. We slept with our clothes and shoes on. We did not change. There were severe problems with hygiene. We cooked at night so no one could see the smoke. By then, everyone had a weapon. I had a short Soviet rifle.
It was a festival of antisemitism there. They’d say, “Ah, Jewish and brave? Whoever heard of such a thing?” When one of our women was killed, at her funeral, the commander said, “Even though she was Jewish, she was a brave fighter.”
Eleanor Reissa: Abram Zeleznikov had also joined a group of partisans in the forest.
Abram Zeleznikov: It was a very hard time, because we didn’t have enough weapons. And not having, um, enough weapons, you haven’t been, given to go and fight.
Of course, the Russians, being military men, got higher positions than the Jews, and the commander of our group was a Captain Vasilenko. He was very strict with the partisans, especially strict with the Jewish partisans. And very unpleasant to the Jewish girls.
Mira Verbin: The forest was dangerous, because we were young women. There were Soviet paratroopers in the forest who were sent there to rest after completing their combat service, and they were hungry for women.
Abram Zeleznikov: There was, uh, a group of about 60 in our group, and I think that it was about 12 girls. Of course, uh, the, the girls who didn’t want to send to fighting to fights, they put them in the kitchen, and then there was al-also sexual advances where we had to defend, uh, the Jewish girls.
Mira Verbin: There was no one to talk to about it. In the partisans, women had to “pay with their body” to get food, soap, anything they needed. If you promised and did not fulfill your promise, you would suffer.
A woman had two options: either have a man next to you or be strong enough to cope. To cope, you had to know how to curse. I had a friend who was with me in the forest who was very helpful for us. They would say, “Don’t start with her, because you’ll never hear the end of it.” I did not know how to curse.
Avram Zeleznikov: Vasilenko was a very good military man, and our group was well organized. What we have been doing is we derailed railways, we cut down communication—telephone, telegraphs—and we get it information about German formations.
Then it starts, the Soviet off-offensive in Smolensk, where the tanks went three weeks in front of the infantry. The order was that we have to go, uh, all the partisans from the forest has to go out to go to Vilna.
Eleanor Reissa: Abram’s partisan brigade moved toward Vilna. Approximately 1,000 Jews were still living in the HKP labor camp inside the city. One of them was 15-year-old William Begell.
William Begell: In June of 1944, we heard through, uh, BBC, because we are listening to BBC all the time, that the, uh, Russian front in our sector started moving. And we all knew that the Russians are going to be there within a matter of a week.
On the thirtieth of, uh, June, 1944, the major who was in charge of the camp told us that we are being evacuated because the camp must move together with the front line. And in order to give us a hint that we are about to be killed, he said, and just to reassure you, I want to tell you that you will be escorted by, um, the SS, which as you know so well is an organization for the protection of refugees. And I quote him, this was as good a, uh, a warning that we’ll be killed as any, and that night, uh, I escaped, from the second floor of the machine shop, there were some, uh, young people, including myself. We cut through the grates, we jumped in the back of the camp and we ran away. This was about 10, 11 o’clock at night.
And, uh, since the camp was in the suburbs, there were a lot of dogs and there was barking all over the place. And we sat in a garden and, uh, six, seven o’clock in the morning, when it became light, there were two people with me. One of them, uh, looked very much like a Jew. He had a long nose, and my friend did not. And I said, “Well, unfortunately, you can’t go with us. You have to go by yourself.”
Eleanor Reissa: William went to stay with a non-Jewish friend of his father’s. He thought the outskirts of the city would be safe, but the neighborhood turned out to be an epicenter in the battle for Vilna.
William Begell: During one noontime, when the shells were falling all around us, and we’re sitting in a, in a, uh, cellar of one of the summer houses, uh, the door to the cellar opens up and the Germans yelling, “Raus,” and we come out and the Germans say you are, um, partisans and you’ll get killed because we, our people have been shot at by partisans all the time. And, uh, you are obviously one of them, and they put us against the wall and, believe me, that when you look at a, at a machine gun or an automatic pistol pointing at your belly from, uh, maybe five feet and about to be killed, the, uh, the size of the muzzle looks like the, like a size of a, of a large, uh, artillery piece.
And I said, “What are you talking about? What kind of partisans?” And I spoke German quite well at that time. “We are women and children, we are afraid of the artillery shelling, and, uh, please let us go back because you can get killed with these artillery shells.” And the Germans, they started laughing and they said, “Okay, go back to you… Go back to the cellar.” And I went to the cellar and, just to make myself more obnoxious, uh, on the way back, I said, “Maybe you’ve got a cigarette?”
Eleanor Reissa: The Nazis and the Soviets fought for every street and block in Vilna. The battle lasted for about two weeks. Ten-year-old Samuel Bak, his mother, and a handful of other Jews were hiding in a monastery.
Sam Bak: Now, I must say that the building, where we were hiding, was occupied by Germans. Now, the Germans started to pack, they started to leave, the bombs started to fall, and, uh, at a certain point, uh, we had to leave that very room that was exposed to the street. And although there was about, um, I don’t know, that much of books piled up in front of the windows. Bullets came through the, those books and they landed in the, the, in the, in the wall opposite, through miracle not killing anybody. I remember I went to sleep, and there was all of a sudden this terrible noise. And when I got up, I saw that on the wall, just near where I was sleeping, there was a row of, of holes from a machine gun.
So, um, we started to move out from there and tried to, the, the, the building was abandoned now by the Germans. We tried to move towards the corridor and tried to hide there. The bombing was very heavy, and the building was a very ancient building. So the, the corridor was a more safe place, because the walls there were, were more, more heavy. And, uh, at a certain point, I remember we, um, we hid in an enormous, uh, cupboard. We must have been about six or eight people, hiding in this enormous cupboard.
And then the tower of the church was hit by a bomb, and it fell and it was a terrible noise. And I asked my mother, “Mommy, do you think the Germans are also bombing the Louvre in Paris? And what about the Mona Lisa?” The people around me started to laugh.
William Begell: The whole German Army was in our backyard in, in those suburban houses. Then the entire civilian population was taken to, uh, places of concentration, into large centers, theaters, hospitals, warehouses, um, schools, et cetera. This is, uh, where I found myself in a warehouse with about five, six thousand Gentiles. There was only one other Jew, as far as I know.
We were put, uh, into very large rooms and, uh, the German sergeant walked in and said, “Look, make a list of people who is in that room, give, uh, the beds to women and children. Uh, select a, uh, a leader of your group.” And then he said, “Does anyone here understand German?” And I said, “I understand German.” I became the, the chief interpreter for about 6,000 people who were, uh, concentrated in that warehouse. They never knew that I was Jewish.
Samuel Bak: At a certain point we felt a little more relaxed. Uh, there were no Germans anymore there. And, uh, we can go back into our hiding place and maybe lit that oven and, uh, warm up some water and so on. And that’s what we did.
Only, to our misfortune, there was a Polish militia around, trying to, um, trying to deal with the fire that started in many places because of the bombing. And when they saw the smoke coming out, they thought it was a fire. They came rushing, the head of this Polish militia, who was known in that neighborhood as one of the worst antisemites, uh, discovered us. And he ran like mad to find some Germans that would deal with us. And he rushed after a truck with Germans that he tried to stop, and one of those blind bullets just landed in his belly, wounded him, and he died a few minutes after that. Another miracle.
William Begell: The liberation of Vilna, total liberation of Vilna, took place on the 13th of July. I didn’t know where my mother and grandmother were, but I stood on the corner. And I was wondering where the front line went, because we are surrounded for about seven, eight days. And there was a Russian major who was standing by while Soviet tanks were passing.
And I said to him, “Could you tell me, uh, comrade, uh, Major, where is the front line by now?” And he said, “And who the hell are you?” using, uh, very profane language. And I said with great pride, “I’m a Jew. I have escaped from camp.” And he said, “No Jews escaped from German camp. You must have been a collaborator with the Germans, because the Germans don’t let Jews escape from camp. And, as a matter of fact, to tell you the truth, I don’t like Jews, because they stay behind the front line and make love to our wives and sisters while we fight the Nazis. So if you don’t want to get hurt, you better run.” And, boy, did I run, but this was my first encounter with reality of, uh, Soviet antisemitism within 15 minutes of, of my liberation.
Eleanor Reissa: Sheila Zwany’s family had been hiding in the sewers under Vilna for nearly a year. The Polish man who had occasionally brought them food returned to help them get out.
Sheila Zwany: After we got liberated, we didn’t know. So the men—the gentleman—the super opened the hole. He came to us. And he start crying. He said, “If I wouldn’t be there, I would never believe that you could survive in these conditions and live through 10 months.” But he said, “After this,” he said, “I don’t want to know—nobody should know that I saved Jewish people.” No, he was afraid.
So then we went out, sick, hungry, we couldn’t walk. The feet got swollen. The hand got swollen. We didn’t have anything. The Russian came to us. And you know what he said? It’s so stupid, that he—“How come that you hide? Why did you not fight? We had to fight against them.”
Sam Bak: We came out into the day of our liberation, which was a very scary day, because the whole city was burning and the smoke was just going up. And there were dead soldiers, German and Russian, in the streets, and they started to be covered with flies because they were dead already for days, nobody was picking them up.
Eleanor Reissa: Mira Berger had escaped from Gestapo headquarters when the ghetto was liquidated. She had false documents and had hidden as a non-Jew on the “Aryan” side.
Mira Berger: And I said to myself, now I’m going to walk. And I’m going to walk through the, the former Jewish quarters, and if I meet Jews in Vilna, fine. If I don’t meet any Jews all the way from here to the Green Bridge, I will walk up to the Green Bridge, where I grew up, and I’ll jump straight into the Wilja, and this will be the end.
All right. So I walk and I walk, and I hear some people speaking Jewish. First of all, you could recognize them because they were, they were wearing torn clothes. I, I came over. “Are you Jewish?” Jewish. “Are there any… Where do you come from?” Of course, they came from Lithuania. They were not Lit—not Vilna Jews. “Are there. More Jews?”
“Where can I meet the Jews?”
“Oh, there is a house here and here and this and this street. There is a Jewish community—in the process of being organized.”
I walked over there and, sure enough, and there’s a list that you’ll find that a list of people, everybody will come signs his name, so you’ll be able to go through the list. You can imagine the list wasn’t that big. You could go through the list and you’ll see if you know somebody or not. And I come there, I don’t know a living soul. All those who are there are either from Lithuania or from some provinces. None from Vilna. And I look through the names, and I don’t know a single name.
So I’m going to… I’m going, I’m walking to my Green Bridge. And as I walk and I come to the, to the river, I’m shocked. There’s no Green Bridge. The Green Bridge was gone. It was bombed. There was some makeshift, makeshift bridge, no Green Bridge. I had no place to jump from.
Eleanor Reissa: Mira Verbin came back from the forest with a small group of Jewish partisans. Her shoes had disintegrated. She walked barefoot.
Mira Verbin: We crossed the famous bridge of Vilna, and a woman ran towards me, crying and hugging me, “You are alive, at least I know one person!” I didn’t know who she was, but she knew me.
A Soviet officer saw us when we entered the city and directed us to an address where we would meet some friends—Jewish partisans who had come back from the forest and gotten an apartment together.
Six or eight friends were hanging around on the sidewalk, talking. When they saw us, nobody was able to speak. We were standing in two separate groups: they were on one side and we were on the other, and we were staring at each other, unable to speak.
Sam Bak: And then we went, again, towards the house of our aunt, only that the bridge that we had to cross did not exist anymore. So we found a man with a little boat, who was taking a lot of money to make people pass from one side to the other side. And there we arrived to my aunt’s house. My mother started to look if there were any Jews around and she found that there were a few. I think there must’ve been about 200 Jews from Vilna in the town that came out from various hiding places, unbelieving that it was real, that they were alive. And, uh, she also learnt about the fact that, uh, the body of my father was seen in Ponary.
Mira Verbin: Of course, I started to look for my sister. I looked for her on every bus, I left notes on each wall and window. I registered with the Jewish community. People began to return from the concentration camps with horrific stories. They would tell stories about who survived and who didn’t. When you want to believe someone is alive, you begin hoping, so I hoped maybe she would come back.
Eleanor Reissa: Mira’s sister was in a concentration camp called Klooga, in Estonia, which the Nazis still controlled. The Vilna ghetto librarian and diarist Herman Kruk was also in that camp. He had hidden his original diary in the ghetto and had started a new one in Klooga.
Herman Kruk: July 14, 1944. Klooga concentration camp. What happens to us will be determined, first of all, by the camp. Evacuation is impossible. No place to go. Will they leave us here? Who knows? So we stand perhaps more than ever before on the boundary between life and death. Vilna is liberated, and here we groan under our yoke, crying over our lot. The FPO is surely now marching victoriously through the alleys of the ghetto, searching and looking. I hope they also try to save my materials.
July 23. Our situation seems to be coming to a head. We are so upset. Our nerves choke us, and every day is superfluous. We count not just the days but the hours and minutes. Any minute we may get out of hell. When I write about it, I can hardly believe it.
Eleanor Reissa: In late summer, Herman Kruk was transferred to another camp.
Herman Kruk: August 31. Lagedi. In the barracks, it is cold. The wind blows, and when it rains, it gets wet. Everything is damp. You can smell us rotting.
September 17. I received a package, a pleasure in the package. My Klooga diaries. Today, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a year after we arrived in Estonia by the Jewish calendar, I bury the diaries in Lagedi, in a barrack right across from the guards’ house. Six persons are present at the burial.
Eleanor Reissa: The next day, the Jews from Klooga and Lagedi, including Herman Kruk, were ordered to pile up logs and lie on them. They were shot and killed. The pyre was burned. The Red Army liberated the area the next morning.
Back in Vilna, Mira Verbin was still looking for her sister. A man who had escaped from Estonia brought news.
Mira Verbin: I just thought I would go and talk to him. I wore a blue skirt, an elegant white shirt, clothes I had gotten from the Joint, and I went there happy. When I went in, I found a guy dressed with rags, totally broken. I was so ashamed of myself, the way I had dressed up. That evening, he told me about my sister.
She was in a camp in Estonia, Klooga. When the Red Army was closing in, already near the camp on the outskirts of the city, the Germans created a pyramid of wood and people. They burned everyone alive. It was six hours before liberation. I accepted this as the truth, since my friend was trustworthy. Then I knew. I had no reason to wait and nobody to look for.
Sheila Zwany: Vilna was like a cemetery. I couldn’t live there. I couldn’t see. Every time I went to the ghetto, you saw the, the, the—like graves. One time, I went to Ponary after the war, you know—they took us. And the documents were still there. Some blood still were there. This was from the last people what they killed. So I couldn’t stay in Vilna anymore. It wasn’t for what.
Haim Bassok: On erev Yom Kippur 1944, a group of us—partisans and fighters and survivors—set out to visit Ponar—to see the place where they destroyed the Jews. We traveled in Red Army trucks. We were crowded in, standing up, but each in our own world, preparing to witness that gate to hell.
We passed the exclusive neighborhoods of Vilna, we passed the Zakręti Woods, where people would go on vacation, and through a village called Ponary.
We spotted it from a small grove in the woods. We saw a barbed-wire fence, and we found ourselves on the edge of one of the pits. It was a deep pit with a huge perimeter, many meters across. Sand. We went down. It was a field of bones—ground-up bones.
We saw parts of hands, leg bones, people’s scalps that were sticking out of the sand. The entire area was sown with bones ground to dust. The golden sand and the bones were mixed together like one substance.
It was two months after Vilna was freed: There were only trees, bushes. Birds were chirping as if nothing happened.
Nobody talked. We were each in our own thoughts. We were stepping on the bodies of our relatives—maybe brothers, grandparents, friends. We didn’t know what was going on within ourselves. I think we were almost hallucinating. The sun was at its fullest, it was around noon. We didn’t see the sun. I don’t know if I cried. It was hard to know whether you were crying, hysterical, or frozen, or in a dream, running crazed as if you could find anyone alive. I saw in front of me the image of the prophet Yehezkiel. The valley of bones. But these were not dry bones. They were shredded, ground bones.
I found an envelope for a yellow work permit, an ID—just the envelope. I filled the envelope with sand and bones. I put it in my pocket. I carried this envelope full of sand with me for many years.
Someone recited psalms by heart, and they said Kaddish in a heartbreaking cry. I’ve never seen a Kaddish like that, the crowd of men and women, everybody standing together. When we returned to Vilna, our eyes were red from crying, as if blood flowed instead of tears.
It was the evening of Yom Kippur. We gathered where the Great Synagogue used to be, in the basement. The Kol Nidrei service shook us. There were scheduled blackouts, so we had to pray quickly before the electricity went out.
Eleanor Reissa: The Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators murdered 60,000 people in Ponar. Approximately 45,000 of them were Jews.
Within a year of the Soviet reoccupation of Vilna, nearly all of the small number of Jews who had survived the war fled. They came to realize that life for them under the Soviet regime was untenable. Haim Bassok stayed on and joined a covert Jewish organization that was helping young refugees escape from the Soviet Union and move to Israel.
After Herman Kruk was killed, one of the six people who saw where Kruk had buried his diary went back to retrieve it. He was the only one of the six witnesses to survive.
In this episode, you heard the voices of Abram Zeleznikov; William Begell; Samuel Bak; Sheila Zwany; and Mira Berger; as well as Yitzhak Dugim, whose Hebrew testimony is voiced by Arnie Burton; Mira Verbin, whose Hebrew testimony is voiced by Rachel Botchan; and Haim Bassok, whose Hebrew testimony is voiced by Claybourne Elder. You also heard diary entries of Herman Kruk, read by John Cariani.
Next up: chapter nine: “Judgment and Revenge.”
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.”