Earlier in our time in Vilna we did a walk of pre-war Jewish Vilna. As we’ve noted Vilna was the prior name of Vilnius and we will refer to it by that name when talking about that earlier period. Yesterday we did a more focused walk within the Jewish Ghetto. Rokhl Kostanian, Deputy Director of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum (“the Green House”) was our guide.
She started the walk on the street on which we live where there is a plaque with a map of the streets encompassed in the small ghetto. It speaks of how 11,000 Jews were rounded up in the small ghetto and taken to their death, primarily at Ponar (Paneriai). Across the street stands the Austrian Embassy in what used to be a prayer house. She noted that their Gedenkdienst Program enables the museum to carry out its work. You can read more about it in the posting titled Program Beginning. Young Austrians spend 14 months working at the museum as part of their required national service. Lithuanians don’t want to work on Holocaust issues, but the young people from Austria come without prejudice and become engaged in the topic.
She asked us if anyone had read the book From That Place and Time:A Memoir 1938-1947 by Lucy Davidowicz. Several of us had. The book is based on Lucy’s year working with YIVO in Vilna in 1938. She writes of the rich Jewish culture which existed at that time and the many friends she made during that year. She discussed the anti-Semitism that existed in Vilna prior to the war as well as the mounting fears of impending war. She returned to New York after a year and it was not until after the war that she learned the terrible fate of most of her Vilna friends. Her book provided a vivid picture of what Vilna was like before the war.
Our guide pointed out that most buildings at that time were only two stories. Since post-war development an additional story has been added to some structures. We arrived at the area in front of our building where we always observe tour groups stopping to take quaint pictures. Here she pointed out a circular brick configuration out of which five streets emanate like spokes from a wheel. The streets include Gaono and Stikliu which border our apartment building along with Zydu on which the main synagogue used to stand.
She shared with us that they had recently validated a census of the ghetto in which names are recorded as well as memories and photographs. In 1939 there were 58,000 Jews in Vilna. In addition Polish Jews began to come to Lithuania as Warsaw and Vilna had very close ties. About 10-15,000 Polish Jews were added to population and brought stories of war and atrocities that the Lithuanian Jews found difficult to believe. When the Germans attacked Lithuania in June 1941, there were 75,000 Jews. Before the Germans arrived the local neighbors began to attack the Jews in the street and in homes. When the ghetto was organized on 9/6/1941, the Jewish community was relieved, feeling that at least they’d be with their community in greater safety. Within the small ghetto area there had lived 3,500 Jews. When the ghetto was formed it more than doubled in size. People slept on staircases, under tables, on chairs and in the streets. The Germans required the Jewish community to pay a 5 million Ruble ransom. The German laws required first identification and then concentration of the Jews. Their objective was to use them for slave labor and ultimately annihilate them when their usefulness was exhausted.
The Germans required the formation of a Jewish Council (Judenrat) whose primary function was to provide Jews for slave labor. Most disturbing was the requirement of the Judenrat to provide a required number of people for deportation and execution. As the fate of those deported became known, increasingly difficult choices were made to save the young and send the sick and elderly to their death.
Prior to the formation of the ghetto Jews assembled at the synagogue where they were taken to work. Work was one way of staying alive so Jews who were working wanted identity papers. A pink certificate (schein) was issued if they were working and family members received a blue certificate.
As we walked by area buildings she pointed out those with only one window. She noted that the poor had one window and one door. They were often shopkeepers and would put what they had to sell in the window. A curtain would hang between the shop and the living area behind it. Those who were more affluent had two windows and could live on one side. When the ghetto was formed wooden walls were erected at the end of the street with barbed wire or dogs. Windows that faced outward were painted or boarded up.
We walked up Zydu (Jew) Street which is where the main synagogue once stood. In 1938 they were celebrating the 500 year anniversary of the synagogue. Now a school stands on the site, but there is a signboard with photographs and text about the synagogue. The synagogue by law couldn’t be higher than the churches so they dug down to get the necessary height. Jewish homes also couldn’t be higher than the Christian homes. The synagogue’s armored doors allowed the basement to serve as a hiding place during violent pograms. Next to the site is a statue to the Vilna Gaon, the famous rabbi for whom the area is named. About 15 years ago they got the old names of the streets back to regain a place in the memory of the city. Gaono and Zydu Streets were renamed at that time.
The smaller ghetto had only 6 weeks of existence. On 8/31/1941 the “Big Provocation” occurred. The German administration staged an event in which shots were fired at German soldiers. The Lithuanian police cried, “Jews have killed a German!” They then went house to house and assembled the Jews in front of what is now the Stikliu Hotel (and in front of our apartment). If they didn’t come, they were thrown out of windows. Half of them were taken to Ponar and killed. The others were taken to a prison in the center of the city. Six thousand Jews were held for three days in cells and in a courtyard without food, water or toilets. Some were half dead or crazed by the time they were taken to Ponar. The Germans had a saying that they didn’t waste bullets on children. Instead they often would throw them against a wall. All of this was done on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. There were approximately 30 synagogues in the small ghetto which were organized by guild (the shoemaker’s synagogue, the dressmaker’s synagogue etc.) As they were praying at the time of the roundup, many were found in the pits wearing their prayer shawls.
Those who were necessary workers were taken to the bigger ghetto with their families. The Germans kept families together as they found that people worked more efficiently if they were with their families.
We walked down Zydu Street through the arch that once separated the small ghetto from the Christian areas onto Vilnius Street. Vilnius Street is divided in the center with cafes and bike paths today. Prior to the war it was divided with Jews on one side and the local German population on the other. The buildings on the German side appear as they had at that time while the Jewish side was destroyed and rebuilt.
We walked down Vilnius towards Rudninku Street which is part of the big ghetto. Our guide pointed out where ghetto workshops had been located as well as a Jewish bank. An engineer had a house in the area with a sewer through which 120 people escaped to the forest. We entered a courtyard through which there was the building in which the Judenrat met. The original Judenrat had 16 members. Eventually 10 of them were arrested and shot which didn’t exactly encourage participation. There were 30,000 people in the big ghetto. When the big ghetto was formed there was no notice. This was unlike Kovno where people were given a month notice. In the morning Lithuanian police came to each home and people were taken to the ghetto. Many family members were searching for each other in the resulting chaos. The first to extend help were the teachers and nurses, followed by the doctors. If one had an acquaintance in the area one went to live with them. Otherwise one fended for oneself. Sanitation was a big problem and a typical picture of a ghetto courtyard had excrement and potato peelings. The Judenrat contacted local peasants who took it away to fertilize fields. Children were organized into brigades to help the sanitary police. Typhus was a big concern and many efforts were focused on living a sanitary life. The Judenrat dealt with lodging, food, labor, health and child care. Finding adequate space was a huge issue and we later heard of 17 people living in three rooms. In addition there were the “selections” that the Germans enacted. The main issue was how to remain alive.
There were 3000 “scheins” issued which could have four people. These were “life” scheins which entitled one to live legally in the ghetto. One could have a husband, wife and two children. Imagine the dilemma of those with more than two children. People looked for a schein where there was room resulting in “marriages” between uncles and nieces and other such unorthodox combinations to save the lives of family members. Again there was the devilish problem of choosing one life over another. Songs were created about it and our guide told us the words of one of them. It translated to “I’m Tesha, a girl from Resha, I look for a father, to put into a schein”. The Nazis required the re-registration of scheins at the Judenrat. They announced it at night so people had to come at night to get their schein stamped. Bribes occurred to be put into a schein.
There were 12,000 people with yellow scheins and 20,000 people in the ghetto. The others; elderly, children and parents hid. Hiding became a major focus. They hid under floors, in cupboards and behind false walls. The safest place for a time was in bunkers under the toilets. Those with money had water and electricity in the bunker. Many people sat for hours waiting until it was safe when there were Aktions. People would go out of their minds because of lack of air and babies were smothered if they made a sound.
On the wall in Rudninku there is a map of the big ghetto. In the plaza in front of Rudninku there is a statue of Tsemakh Shabad and a child. Shabad was a doctor and one of the founders of YIVO. We went down Zemaitijos Street where we found two shops with Yiddish writing. One advertised Avrom’s Colonial Business, a store that is believed to have sold spices imported from the colonies. The other appeared to be a coal warehouse. On the dust of one of the window was written in Hebrew, “You were not killed. The nation of Israel lives”.
Also on that street was the space which had housed the ghetto library. The library was so popular that lines used to form there. Finally they began to have people make appointments to borrow books. The building is currently for sale for 500,000 Litas and the hope is to save the building for the Jewish community. We learned that in the same complex as the library was a prison and a sports area. A partisan arms depot was housed below. Our guide recounted a story of a man who wrapped his arm in a sling for a week so the Germans would get accustom to seeing him that way. He then hid parts of a dismantled revolver underneath it and brought it into the ghetto.
Across from the library we saw a Star of David engraved into a stone wall. While it was now an exterior wall, one could see the outline of the house that had stood next to the wall revealing that it was carved into an interior wall.
The walk was a very emotional one as it reminded us of the reality of what we have read of in books and seen in movies. We could see from the expressions on our classmates' faces that they were also moved by this experience.
We were especially struck by the impossible choices forced upon the Jews, a manipulation that was designed to break the human spirit. Despite those efforts, the Jewish community came together to maintain a community infrastructure of schools, libraries and hospitals to counter the daily assaults on the human spirit. We were also struck by how little evidence there was of the significant Jewish presence that had made up almost half of the city. Two Yiddish storefront signs, a few plaques and a sculpture were all that remained in this section of the city. Our guide recounted that in the course of renovations, Yiddish writing had been uncovered. It was only by chance that she saw it and asked that they preserve it. When she returned the following day, she found that it had been painted over. It was only through her persistence that the original signage was restored. The history of the Holocaust and the Jewish community is at serious risk of being obliterated.