The Vilna Ghetto or Vilnius Ghetto was a Jewish ghetto established by Nazi Germany in the city of Vilnius in the occupied Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic (nowVilnius, Lithuania), during the Holocaust in World War II.
During roughly two years of its existence, starvation, disease, street executions, maltreatment and deportations to concentration camps and extermination camps reduced the population of the ghetto from an estimated 40,000 to zero. Only several hundred people managed to survive, mostly by hiding in the forests surrounding the town, joining the Soviet partisans, or finding shelter among sympathetic locals.
Street in Vilnius Ghetto during the Holocaust
German troops entered Vilnius on 26 June 1941, followed by units of the Einsatzgruppe A death squads. Over the course of the summer, German troops and Lithuanian civilians and Lithuanian police killed more than 21,000 Jews living in Vilnius, in a mass extermination program.
Vilna or Vilnius was a predominantly Polish and Jewish city before World War II. After invading Poland, Joseph Stalin gave it back to Lithuania in October 1939 according to the Soviet–Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty. The Republic of Lithuania had claimed it as its capital and the dispute between Poland and Lithuania was a long-standing one at the League of Nations.
The Republic of Lithuania, operating out of the provisional capital Kaunas, sent in the Lithuanian Army to reclaim the city and embarked on a project to Lithuanianize the city. The Jewish population of Vilnius on the eve of the Holocaust was probably more than 60,000, including refugees from the German-occupied Poland, and subtracting the small number who managed to flee onward to the Soviet Union.
The kidnapping and mass murder of Jews in the city commenced before the ghetto was set up by the advancing German forces, resulting in an execution of approximately 21,000 victims prior to September 6, 1941.
The Lithuanian kidnappers were known inYiddish as hapunes, meaning grabbers or snatchers. In the months that followed Poles were also targeted by the German sponsored Lithuanian authorities collaborating with the Nazis in the extermination of Jews.
Lithuanian Nazi Policeman with Jewish Prisoners in July 1941
The Great Provocation refers to the incident the Nazis staged as a pretext for clearing the predominantly poorer Jewish quarter in the Vilnius Old Town in order to force the rest of the predominantly more affluent Jewish residents into the Nazi German-created ghetto.
Specifically, the Great Provocation of 31 August 1941, was led by SSEinsatzkommando 9 Oberscharführer Horst Schweinbergerunder orders from Gebietskommissar of the Vilnius municipality Hans Christian Hingst and Franz Murer, Hingst’s deputy for Jewish affairs, under “provisional directives” of Reichskommissar Hinrich Lohse.
Murer, Hingst and Vilnius Lithuanian mayorKarolis Dabulevi?ius selected the site for the future ghetto and staged a sniping at German soldiers in front of a cinema from a window on the corner Stikli? (Glezer, also known as Szklana in Polish) and Didžioji (Wielka, meaning in Polish Great Street, hence the name for the event) streets by two Lithuanians in civilian clothes who had broken into an apartment belonging to Jews. The Lithuanians fled the apartment, then returned with waiting German soldiers, seized two Jews, accused them of firing on the German soldiers, beat them and then shot them on the spot.
Stikli? and M?sini? (Jatkowa) streets were ransacked by the local militia, and Jews were beaten up. At night, in “retaliation,” all Jews were driven out of the neighbourhood the Nazis had selected as the future ghetto territory, street by street, and the next day the women and children on remaining streets were seized while the men were at work.
Men at workplaces were also seized. Jews were taken to Lukišk?s Prison, then to Paneriai, also known as Ponar or Ponary, where they were murdered between 1 September and 3 September. Five to ten thousand people were murdered, including ten members of the Judenrat. The objective was to clear a territory for the establishment of a ghetto to imprison all the Jews of Vilnius and suburbs.
On 6 September and 7 September 1941, the Nazis herded the remaining 20,000 Jews into the parameters of two ghettos by evicting them from their homes, during which 3,700 were killed.
Converts, "half-Jews" and spouses of Jews were also forced into the ghetto. The move to the ghetto was extremely hurried and difficult, and Jews were not allowed to use transportation. They could take only what they were physically able to carry.
The area designated for the ghetto was the old Jewish quarter in the centre of the city. While Vilna never had a ghetto per se except for some very limited restrictions on the movement and settlement of Jews during the Middle Ages, the area chosen by the Nazis for their ghetto was predominantly and historically inhabited by Jews. The Nazis split the area into two ghettos with a non-ghetto corridor running down Deutschegasse (Niemiecka or Vokie?i? Street).
This made it easier for the Nazis to control what the victims knew of their fate beforehand, facilitating the Nazis' goal of total extermination. Like the other Jewish ghettos Nazi Germany set up during World War II, the Vilnius Ghetto was created both to dehumanize the people and to exploit its inmates as slave labour. Conditions were intended to be extremely poor and crowded, subjecting victims to unsanitary conditions, disease and daily death.
Jewish Vilna was also known for its distinguished medical tradition, which inmates of the Ghetto managed to maintain to some degree during the Holocaust. As in front of most Ghettos established by the Germans, a sign was put right outside the Ghetto stating: "Achtung! Seuchengefahr", that is "Attention! Danger of Infection".
Mortality rates did, indeed, increase in the Vilna Ghetto as compared with pre-war demographics. However, due largely to the efforts of the Ghetto Health Department, the Vilna Ghetto had no major epidemics despite malnourishment, cold and overcrowding.
According to Dr. Lazar Epstein, the head of Sanitary-Epidemiological Section of the ghetto Health Department, the inmates of the Ghetto could, left to their own devices, have lived a very long time, certainly to the end of the war despite the numerous privations.
Liquidation A Holocaust memorial in Suba?iaus Street near the site of the HKP slave labour camp
By the end of October 1941, the Nazis had murdered all the inhabitants of the smaller second ghetto. They declared from that point on only 12,000 Jews would remain in the larger ghetto to serve the needs of the German military and economy.
In reality, 20,000 remained all together. The Germans systematically carried out Aktionen, or massive killing sprees, to reduce the number of sick and elderly and to meet quotas on the total of the population allowed. These Aktionen were conducted on a regular basis from the creation of the ghetto until January 1942.
The period between January 1942 and March 1943 was known as the time of ghetto stabilization when German murder in the ghetto decreased. From 6 August to 5 September 1943, however, 7,130 Jews were deported to Estonia by order of Heinrich Himmler.
Under the supervision of Oberscharführer Bruno Kittel, the ghetto was "liquidated" between 23 and 24 September 1943, and the majority of the Jewish population were sent to the Vaivara concentration camp in Estonia, killed in the forest of Paneriai, or sent to the death camps in German-occupied Poland.
A small remnant of Jews remained after the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto, primarily at the Kailis slave labour camp and at the HKP slave labour camp. The HKP camp (short for Heereskraftpark and an outfit involved in repairing German military automobiles) was commanded by Wehrmacht Major Karl Plagge, who, with the help of some of his men, managed to shield many of his workers from the murderous goal of the SS. Two-hundred and fifty Jews at HKP survived the war. They represent the single largest group of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Vilnius.
The Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (United Partisan Organization) was formed on 21 January 1942 in the Vilna Ghetto. It took for its motto "We will not go like sheep to the slaughter," a phrase resurrected by Abba Kovner. This was one of the first resistance organizations established in the Nazi ghettos during World War II. Unlike in other ghettos, the resistance movement in the Vilna Ghetto was not run by ghetto officials.
Jacob Gens, appointed head of the ghetto by the Nazis but originally chief of police, ostensibly cooperated with German officials in stopping armed struggle. The FPO represented the full spectrum of political persuasions and parties in Jewish life. It was headed by Yitzhak Wittenberg, Josef Glazman, and Abba Kovner.
The goals of the FPO were to establish a means for the self-defence of the ghetto population, to sabotage German industrial and military activities and to join the partisan and Red Army’s fight against the Nazis. Poet Hirsh Glick, a Vilna ghetto inmate who later died after having been deported to Estonia, penned the words for what became the famous Partisan Hymn, Zog nit keynmol, az du geyst dem letstn veg.
Ghettos Reichskommissariat Ostland (marked with red-gold stars)
In early 1943, the Germans caught a member of the Communist underground who revealed some contacts under torture and the Judenrat, in response to German threats, tried to turn Yitzhak Wittenberg, the head of the FPO, over to the Gestapo.
The FPO was able to rescue him after he was seized in the apartment of Jacob Gens in a fight with Jewish ghetto police. Gens brought in heavies, the leaders of the work brigades, and effectively turned the majority of the population against the resistance members, claiming they were provoking the Nazis and asking rhetorically whether it was worth sacrificing tens of thousands for the sake of one man.
Ghetto prisoners assembled and demanded the FPO give Wittenberg up. Ultimately Wittenberg himself made the decision to submit to the Nazi demands. He was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Vilnius and was reportedly found dead in his cell the next morning. Most people believed he had committed suicide. The rumour had it that Gens had slipped him a cyanide pill in their final meeting.
The FPO was thoroughly demoralized by the chain of events and began to pursue a policy of sending young people out to the forest to join the Jewish partisans. This was controversial as well because the Nazis attempted to kill all family members of people who had joined the partisans. In the Vilna ghetto a "family" often included non-relations who registered as a member of a family in order to receive housing and a pitiful food ration.
When the Nazis came to liquidate the ghetto in 1943, members of the FPO went on alert. Gens took control of the liquidation in order to keep the Nazi forces out of the ghetto and away from a partisan ambush, but helped fill the quota of Jews with those who could fight but were not necessarily part of the resistance. The FPO fled to the forest and fought with the partisans.
The Vilna Ghetto was called "Yerushalayim of the Ghettos" because it was known for its intellectual and cultural spirit. Before the war, Vilnius had been known as "Yerushalayim d'Lita" (Yiddish: Jerusalem of Lithuania) for the same reason. The center of cultural life in the ghetto was the Mefitze Haskole Library which was called the "House of Culture".
It contained a library holding 45,000 volumes, reading hall, archive, statistical bureau, room for scientific work, museum, book kiosk, post office, and sports ground. Groups, such as the Literary and Artistic Union and the Brit Ivrit Union, organized events commemorating Yiddish and Hebrew authors and put on plays in these languages. The popular Yiddish magazine Folksgezunt was continued in the ghetto and its essays were presented in public lectures.
Yitskhok Rudashevski (1927–1943), a young teen who wrote a diary of his life in the ghetto during 1941 to 1943, mentions a number of these events and his participation in them. He was murdered in the liquidation of 1943, probably at Paneriai. His diary was discovered in 1944 by his cousin.
The Vilna Ghetto was well-known for its theatrical productions during World War II. Jacob Gens, the head of Jewish police and the ruler/dictator of the Vilna ghetto, was given the responsibility for the starting of this theatre. Performances included poetry by Jewish Authors, dramatizations of short stories, and new work by the young ghetto people.
The Ghetto Theatre was a great source of revenue and had a calming effect on the public. A total of 111 performances had been given by January 10th, 1943 and a total of 34,804 tickets were sold. The theatre was renovated to accommodate a bigger audience and create a better-looking theatre for the public eye. This theatre permitted the non-Aryan race to display their power through plays and songs; for instance, one of the songs that was sung was called "Endurance."
The last theatrical production, Der mabl meaning The Flood, was produced by the Swedish dramatist Henning Berger and opened in the summer of 1943, in the last week of this Ghetto’s existence. This play, set in an American saloon during a flood, featured a group of people who banded together during a time of danger and need.
Joseph Sobol's play Ghetto recounts the last days of the Vilna Ghetto theatre company