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by AKIVA GERSHATER d.1970, Holon, Israel

in Bleter Vegen Vilna (Pages About Vilna)
published by Farband fun Vilna Yidden in Poilin,
Lodz, Poland,1947
Translated from the Yiddish
by Abraham Gershator b.1905, Vilna--d.1984, NY.      
assisted by David Gershator
with thanks to the late Dina Abramowitz
former YIVO librarian in New York

The surrounding world’s relationship to us was a chapter unto itself. If one should ask of the people who survived Vilna’s ghetto, “What was the attitude of the surrounding gentiles to our calamity?” the answers would vary greatly, and their impressions would be contradictory. By no means can we share a unified opinion and concept regarding this tragic episode. We can’t say that the surrounding population’s relation to the Jews was good, honest, and sympathetic. On the other hand we can’t say that the milieu was totally evil. People are different under different circumstances, and therefore the attitude towards us was also varied. Thus, if one would like to arrive at a general conclusion, we would have to say categorically that it would be impossible to do so. We’d be obliged to summarize all known details and consider them as statistical data in order to obtain results, as if this were a general question and answer inquest.

Our impressions of the relationship of the surrounding world to us, the Jews in Vilna, was received during various stages of our calamity and was as great and different as the general situation could be. Our notes are in chronological order. At the outset we must distinguish the two major groupings in the Vilna area, namely, the Poles and the Lithuanians. Besides the Poles and Lithuanians, there were also the White Russians and a small handful of Karaites. This was the situation up to June 24, 1941.

Most of the German military entered the city on motorcycles. The day before their arrival, the majority of younger Jews fled to the eastern side of the city to get away. Most of the neighboring Christians watched the panic with calm indifference, though the news coming from occupied Poland was not auspicious for the Christians. However, the majority of them expressed a certain satisfaction at the arrival of the Germans. These circles were inflamed by the old “clerical poison” and could not forgive the Soviet Union for what it had done during its occupation of Vilna. Vilna was the main stronghold of this negative attitude due to the USSR’s occupation policy.  However, on the second day of the German occupation, the Germans had seized 90 people--60 Jews and 30 Poles--as hostages. A few days later it was known unofficially that all 90 had been shot. Then the more cultured Poles came to their senses and their attitude changed. Their excitement at the swift Nazi victory cooled off. The Christian mob, however, was excited over the display of weaponry. And now the dark days for the Jews began.

For the time, we had coupons for bread and other provisions, but when a Jew came to the government depots to buy bread, he got thrown off the long queues, and none of the gentile population attempted to protect him in any way. On the contrary, they tried to extract the location of possibly hidden provisions from the womenfolk. No one protested the government’s actions. There were cases where honest Polish neighbors took the bread card from Jewish neighbors and obtained bread for them on this card as though it were for their own use. In many cases they were successful. Usually the sellers were Lithuanians and they manipulated the market in the sense of doing business as usual. Later, however, the Germans started looking a bit closer at the sellers. This was July, 1941.

In this period the Lithuanian kidnappers dressed in uniforms and civvies and went through all the courtyards, calling out to the concierges and asking them to point out Jewish residences. They carried away the males who were not heard from again. It was seldom that a Jew could find shelter with a Christian neighbor. There were two reasons: first, not every man is ready to do such a favor, and second--and we have to admit this is a major reason--the Christian neighbor who was friendly was simply afraid, knowing that he might be found out by the Germans or be denouced by his own neighbors.

However, we did find Poles in Vilna who did not refrain from helping a Jewish friend and put their own lives in danger doing so. The number of such friendly houses was not large. The courtyard guards in those days played an important role. Many of them were bloodthirsty, helping the kidnappers in their work. Yet we have singular cases where courtyard guards put their lives on the line in order to rescue a Jewish neighbor. This was September, 1941.

The Jews of Vilna were thrown partly into the ghetto and partly into a place called Ponar. At the very begining the thugs were exclusively Lithuanian fascists. They were also the executors of the German will. They were the ones who led the Jews into the ghetto and they were the ones taking the Jews to Ponar. They were the ones who were the de facto murderers. In general, the Lithuanians are the ones who played the most bloodthirsty role in Vilna. The Lithuanian fascists were the wolves, the predatory animals who the Germans sicced on the Jews. We seldom heard about a Lithuanian who showed humanitarian feeling toward the Jews. It was a rare case when a Lithuanian acted like a human being. According to reports from the Jews rescued by the Poles, we can affirm that the relationship with the Poles was entirely different. As examples we can relate a few cases.

The teacher Zlote Kacherginsky, whose married name was Burguin, was saved by the well known family of the Vilna professor Zezowski(Chezovsky). His wife took this teacher into her house as a servant and there she was kept until liberation. The chief guard of Bunyemovich’s courtyard on 22 Deutsches Gasse hid a group of mainly elderly Jews in the guise of cleaners and assistants.

Such an example was also found in the case of a woman serving as head guard on Panarska Street (previously called Poltawska). A group of Jews were concealed a full year in this house. The oldest of this group was a 75 year old man with wife and daughter and her groom. The Christian neighbors in the courtyard kept this secret up to a month before liberation. However, at the end, one of the neighbors got drunk and delivered the head guard to the Gestapo. The old man, Isaac, and his wife were caught, but the daughter, her groom, and the housekeeper succeeded in jumping out the window and disappearing.

In the first days of the ghetto the well known Vilna physician, Dr. Goldberg, told us that he was caught in the street while visiting a patient and thrown into the ghetto. But information reached a priest of All Saints Church for whom Dr. Goldberg was house doctor, and the priests, through their channels, supplied his wife and child with food whenever possible. In general, All Saints Church opposite the Ghetto Gate played a very big role in the life of the ghetto. Rumors had it that for his humanitarian deeds the priest himself fell into the hands of the Germans. They replaced him with their own priest; however, this ploy was not successful. The newly appointed priest was even nicer and better than the first. He struggled to supply bread not only in packages but in basketfuls and wagonloads. The Jews of the ghetto placed their hopes on the people of All Saints and many projects were carried out with the cooperation of the church. A group of Jews built a tunnel underneath the courtyard of 27 Rodnitzker Gasse facing the church. Through this channel many Jews escaped. Naturally this couldn’t have happened without the priest’s help.

A man named Eltzik Kaponsky built himself a niche in his own apartment at 23 Rodnitzker Street. It was constructed under his oven. There he hid for 10 months up to liberation. During the time the courtyard guard supplied him with food.

There is only a single case of humanitarian attitude on the part of a Lithuanian to which I can personally testify. This occurred after the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto for a period of six months, until the time of liberation. I myself was concealed by one of my friends, a Lithuanian, at number 9 Sadova. His name: Antonas Poska. He was a Lithuanian writer and scientist, and this transpired during the most horrible period of the German terror. Vilna was already considered to be Judenrein. We know of a second case of a Lithuanian in Vilna called Rosgiff who displayed humanitarian feelings concealing and saving from the ghetto a major group of Jews. Furthermore, one knows of the exceptional attitude of the Lithuanian woman writer Simyayta who saved many Jews and survived the horrors with them.

In general there were many cases when Poles from different social groups made friendly gestures towards Jews in those days. Our friend, an engineer named Jaffa, in his article titled “Miracle” presents a big list of such cases. I would like to mention lastly two Polish ladies of the aristocracy. I would like to call them simple women of great piety in the fullest sense of the word: Madame Marie Sedetzka occupied a very high and responsible position in the Polish government apparatus and Maryla Abramovich Wolska was a lecturer in languages at the University of Vilna. Now she occupies the Polish consulate in Rome. About their deeds on behalf of the Jews one must write a separate chapter. They were in constant close contact with the partisans in the forests. Undergoing exceptional personal trials and tribulations they lent their support even with material means. When somebody would call on them for help, everything was done in order to secure bread and a safe hideout. I recall the moment when I escaped from a discovered hideout in the ghetto area 19 days after the liquidation. I was going through the dark streets to Mme Maryla Abramovich of Great Pogulanka(Great Promenade). Her friend opened the door for me hesitatingly and finally let me in. I waited until Maryla (as we used to call her on an informal basis) came. At first she did not recognize me because she was myopic and I, naturally, had changed a great deal. I identified myself and her exuberance and elation was great and expressed by grasping my hands with both her delicate hands. She became red faced, turning this way and that and fixed her gaze on mine...sadness and happiness, deep sympathy and empathy, encouragement and maternal concern were shown in all these moments of my great distress, and I’ve never felt up to this moment such a heartfelt emotion of goodness. Her “criminal action” was finally revealed to the Gestapo. She was arrested and tortured. But she never revealed or disclosed anything about us and was finally released. However, she did not interrupt her activities and even after liberation she continued her efforts with greater tenacity.

To our sorrow the percentage of such people was a very small one and their number stood in great disproportion to the number of evil elements who surrounded the Jews in times of distress. There were also a number of cases of double crossing. A gentile, for example, who befriended Jews or lived in neighborly closeness would conceal a Jew through the most dangerous moments of the German liquidation, up until liberation. However, at the same time, the same Christian caused the destruction of other Jews, even by his own hands. In the ghetto such cases were not unique ones. I know a concrete example of such a person. One of my aquaintances, a Mr. A.L., along with his wife and little girl, was saved by a Christian neighbor, Mr. Simon, with whom he had earlier on made aquaintance. Mr. Simon had saved him by his own initiative, helping them by getting Aryan documentation. He took them to a village in the vicinity of Lieder to his relatives and invented a general excuse to settle them there because these Jews and their little child bore more facial resemblance to Aryans than Jews; and the Poles never discovered that these people were Jews. They were there during the entire occupation.

Thus, we would consider such a Christian as the better kind if not for the fact that a few weeks after liberation the same Christian was arrested through Soviet security under suspicion of collaboration with the Germans. My aquaintance, Mr. A. L., came running to me in a hurry with a petition to rescue Mr. Simon from libel. “How come,” he said, pleading with me, “that such a person should fall into such gross injustice! Friend,” he said, “you must help me.” We decided to compile a memorandum to the government. A.L. described distinctly how Mr. Simon had rescued him and his family from death for a period of three years. The memo was delivered by A.L. to the Security Commander. When the Commander eventually investigated, A.L. was thoroughly convinced that the intervention was a justified one...he then referred to the acts of Mr. Simon and proclaimed astounded: “This is an extraordinary case! He has saved one Jew and murdered another!” A few months later it was revealed that Mr. Simon’s case was not the only one.

Another category of gentiles was a group who were in a position to risk little and profit from the situation. For example, in the Fall of 1942 news came to the ghetto that in the vicinity of the district called Oshmene there was a manor house owned by a very fine person who offered the possiblity of sheltering a group of Jews in his domain by calling them farm workers. The estate was far away from the main battlefields and the Germans seldom went there as guests. The houses were built in such a manner that it seemed to be most secure. So what did this manor owner require? One thing only. A hundred gold rubles for each man and constant labor on his estate fields! The terms of concealment came after Passover,1943. Were there a number of people who accepted such a proposition? I didn’t hear since the results of the negotiations remained secret.

For a number of gentiles this chasing after Jews was solely a sport. For others it was a hypocritical approach to both sides in order to purchase grace. There were also those who kept the secret that here and there somewhere a Jewish child or adult was concealed. But as soon as they had a quarrel or difference among themselves, then these secrets went immediately to the Gestapo. They did this knowing full well that this meant sure death for the Jew. The main thing was that the neighbor with whom one quarreled or had a difference over a glass of brandy should be arrested or be punished by a fine--the Christian was not generally in danger of the death penalty. With money one could redeem oneself.

Such gentiles usually collected everything they could from the Jews before the Jews went into the ghetto, acting as trustees for their possessions. When a Jew succeeded in escaping and tried to get back something, even clothing against the advancing winter’s cold, then the Christian would tell him that the Germans searched the house and took everything away or simply that he was robbed. If the Jew exposed the falsehood, then the Christian trustee threatened to call the Lithuanian kapos. Others used to make more outrageous excuses so that the Lithuanian policemen would make a sudden search and snatch the Jew. This miserable Jew naturally had to disappear and in many cases was caught and shot.

There was a different attitude towards us on the part of the White Russians. The simple folk had in many cases shown brotherly sympathy, and in many White Russian villages they had concealed Jews with great success up to liberation, but the intelligentsia had from time to time shown a fascistic attitude. In Vilna the White Russians established a White Russian National Council which collaborated with the Germans. One of the important members of this committee was the well known Vilna lawyer Jan Bekish. One of the major activists was Anofri Alihanovich, the author of a pamphlet in Polish (“In the Clutches of the OGPU”). The pamphlet was edited by the monarchistic newspaper called SLOVO (Word) printed in Vilna. Alihanovich was shot by the underground anti-fascist resistance in Vilna at the start of l944. But the Germans gave him an extraordinarily pompous funeral. All along the boulevard a White Russian orchestra paraded with a conductor--the famous white Russian composer Sheman--all dressed in national uniforms.

The Karaites assumed a singular attitude. This handful of Vilna and also Troki karaites, immediately started proclaiming that they were radically different from the Jews. Because of their Jewish religion they were very frightened that they shouldn’t, by mistake, be attached to the Jewish Nation and least of all to the Semitic race. Their main hacham (chief rabbi) in Vilna, Professor Shafsal (a famous anti-semite), was jumping out of his skin to prove to the (Nazi) Rosenberg Department the scientific Judaistic theory that the Karaites had no relationship to Jews. We, a group of ten Jewish Hebraists, as the Rosenberg group called us, worked in those days in the YIVO building preparing and sorting all Jewish libraries and printing houses and translating them into German.

At the head of this task force was Zalman Kalmanovich, may he rest in peace, a famous Judaist and scholar. The Germans called upon this group of scientists to find for them all the materials relating to this question: the full truth about the Karaites, and translating it into German. The work dragged on for many months. Our group of Hebraists investigated and researched thousands of manuscripts, journals and any other papers pertaining to the Jews and Karaites, especially what pertained to the Karaites. Dr. Yacov Gordon, Dr. Dina Jaffa, and Dr. J. Lam worked for months and months on the translation of this material into German. And on a certain day the Germans arranged a symposium about this question between Zalman Kalmanovich and the renowned Professor Shafsal, the Karaite. According to Kalmanovich, of blessed memory, someone told me that he was already in agreement with the opinion that the Karaites have no relationship to the Jews because, besides the Pentateuch, they have no connection with the Jewish Nation. This means that they do not belong to the semitic race. Professor Shafsal visited us several times at the Yivo Institute in order to verify the accumulated material. At the same time he told our colleagues that he often visited the District Commander, the hangman by the name of Hingst. And according to information he was entrusted with, there would be no more slaughter of the Jews. This was 4 to 5 months before the liquidation of the ghetto. The bloody deeds of the Lithuanian fascists were already well known to the outside world. One may say that the major part of Vilna Jews and Lithuanian Jewry was already destroyed via and through the Lithuanians.

We will recount here an interesting episode in connection with the persecution of the Jews. In the begining of Spring,1945, the rivers Nieman and Viliya overflowed their banks, inundating great stretches in the vicinity of Kovna. Because of certain technical defects the dams in Kovna broke open suddenly in the middle of the night. Thousands upon thousands of people saved themselves from their submerged houses only by swimming. It is understandable that there were many victims, mostly in the lower parts of the region nearer the river. However, Jews did not live in that area and therefore they were spared. In this flood and purely by chance no Jews drowned. The Lithuanian rabble which is mostly religiously inclined started to run to the churches to pray after the flood broke loose and they had suffered many casualties. A year before, the Lithuanians together with the German murderers had set the Vilna ghetto on fire. The priest of Kovna’s cathedral took this opportunity to deliver a fiery sermon to the congregation and said, “This comes to you as a punishment from the Lord God Himself for the innocent blood which you have shed last year on the very same day.” The public wept bitterly and many Lithuanians openly agreed with the preacher that the punishment was surely meted out to them by heaven for the sins that they had committed against the Jews. The flood however did not wipe away the flood of evil committed by these very same people.

Post Script--D.Gershator, 2010

This essay published in Lodz is all I know of Akiva Gershater’s writing, but in his attempt to be objective, he reveals quite a bit of himself. The essay, supposedly detached and attempting to be chronological, ends on a veritable fable Kafka would appreciate. Most of this information has been documented by other eye witnesses, but the Karaite account adds an unusual element.

Was Akiva a close or distant relative? I don’t know. What he didn’t say can fill volumes, of that I’m sure. Through another contact, Ginette Gershater Gottesman, discovered through Dina Abramowitz of YIVO, I learned that Akiva was a Bundist and a professional photographer. He became a shoemaker in order to survive during the war. Not mentioned in the essay is the fact that he also lost a wife and daughter. How does one interpret this omission?

Dr. Gottesman told me that after the war, Akiva married a cousin in Paris and that they had a daughter in Israel, where he lived in Holon until his death in 1970. Immediately after the war he took on the mantle of rescuer of Jewish orphans in Poland. He had a self imposed mission to round up as many children as he could find and send them to Palestine. He was mostly successful in this quest and celebrated many birthdays of his “rescued” children, and their children, year ’round in Israel.