Vilna GhettoOn June 24, 1941, the Germans occupied Vilna which had been a Soviet Republic just prior to the invasion. A series of anti-Jewish decrees followed. Jews were ordered to wear the yellow star front and back. Certain streets were out-of -bounds, shopping was restricted and a curfew imposed. A Judenrat was established.
In July 5,000 Jews were rounded up and taken away. No rumors of their fate reached Vilna; it was thought they were sent to work in the east. In fact they were taken to a popular forest preserve 7.5 miles outside of Vilna and shot. In August and September 8,000 more Jews were taken to Ponary.
Two ghettos were set up in the areas where the deportations took place. The remaining Jews were forced into the ghettos. More "Aktions" (deportations) to Ponary, occurred. The Germans distributed work permits which made the fortunate holders of such permits exempt from deportation.
By the end of 1941 the Germans had killed 33,500 of the 57,000 Jews who been in Vilna. Remaining in the 2 ghettos were 12,000 "legal" Jews who had work permits and 8,000 "illegal" Jews who were in hiding. There was relative quiet for about a year.
The dominant figure in the Ghetto leadership was Jacob Gens, the Jewish police commander. Gens' position was controversial since he participated in the deportations. Yet he saw himself as a utilitarian preserving the greatest number for the longest period of time. In the beginning of 1942 an underground fighting organization was formed, the FPO. The FPO was an alliance of all the political factions. A Communist, Yitzhak Wittenberg, was chosen commander partially in the hope that the Soviet Union would give material support to the organization.
A fiasco for the FPO occurred in July 1943. Wittenberg's name became known to the Nazis who demanded his arrest, threatening the liquidation of the entire ghetto. Wittenberg was arrested by the Lithuanian police only to be freed by armed FPO members. He went into hiding in the ghetto, and the consensus of the ghetto's population was that 20,000 people should not be jeopardized for the sake of one man.
Wittenberg hid in an attic and at one point dressed in woman's clothes. When the FPO leaders presented Wittenberg with the facts and proposed that he surrender himself, he argued that the ghetto faced liquidation anyway and that armed resistance should begin immediately. Wittenberg convened with the Communist members of the FPO, and they influenced him to agree to give himself up. The ghetto population, the FPO command and his party comrades were all in favor of his surrender. Wittenberg surrendered himself, and the next morning he was found dead in his cell from cyanide poisoning.
In August and September 1943 deportations to work camps in Estonia began. During the September Aktions the FPO called on the ghetto population to rebel. Abba Kovner had been chosen commander after Wittenberg. The call to rebellion was unheeded and Gens provided the Germans with the quota they demanded. On September 14 Gens was shot by the Gestapo. The final liquidation of the ghetto occurred on September 23 and 24, 1943, although a few hundred members of the FPO escaped and formed partisan groups in the Rudninkai and Naroch forests. At that point about 2500 Jews were left in Vilna in the Kailis and HKP labor camps, four thousand old men woman and children were sent to extermination camps, and 3700 men and women were sent to labor camps in Estonia and Latvia. Also, eighty Jews were taken to Ponary to open up the mass graves and burn the bodies. On July 13, 1944 Vilna was liberated by the Soviet army, but ten days earlier the Jews in the local labor camps had been taken to Ponary to be killed.
Sources: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Arad, "Ghetto in Flames." Menszer, Interview with Zenia Malecki, May 1998; Oral History Web Site Inteview with Zenia Malecki, www.interlog.com/~mighty/zenia.htm.