Friday, July 13, 2018
— Simon Trakinski.
Simon Trakinski was born in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1925. Like many others, his family fled to the east when the war began in 1939, and sought refuge in the Russian village of Smorgon. The Germans invaded Russia in 1941, occupying Smorgon, and forcing all Jews into the ghetto.
Around this time, rumors started to circulate about escaped Soviet POWs and their partisan activities. When Simon’s family was transferred out of the Smorgon ghetto to Oszminian, he took with him the guns that a sympathetic German officer gave to his friends, telling them armed resistance is “the way of honest individuals these days.” Unfortunately, he never saw those guns again after he gave them up to a man connected with the underground in Oszminian. Soon after, the Trakinski family was taken out of Oszminian and transported to Vilna, where Simon was assigned to a work brigade building trenches.
In Vilna, Simon joined up with the United Partisans Organization, a resistance group headed by Abba Kovner. In early September of 1943, the Nazis locked down the ghetto, and the FPO realized the Germans were getting ready for its destruction. Simon took part in FPO’s failed uprising in the ghetto, but later escaped with the rest of his group when the Nazis blew up their headquarters with dynamite. They regrouped outside the city, hoping to join Markov’s all-Jewish brigade, which had ties with the FPO. Simon, like many of his partisan peers, left his family behind in the ghetto.
By this time, the partisans were a formidable presence in the area, and controlled the woods. Simon initially fought with the Markov Brigade, an all-Jewish otriad organized by a Russian partisan leader named Fyodr Markov. However, the Germans soon began a blockade of the swamps where Simon and the partisans were hiding; Simon escaped, but in the ensuing chaos, Markov’s all-Jewish brigade was disbanded and Simon was on his own again.
On his way to a relative Simon hoped would provide safe harbor, he ran into a Soviet partisan unit. Luckily, the unit was in need of locals familiar with the area, and Simon was accepted into their ranks. The unit was part of the regular Soviet army. They took orders from Moscow by radio and received air-dropped supplies towards the end of the war. Simon worked as a spy and a saboteur, gathering information about troop and supply movements, which his group used to effectively mine roads and blow up bridges. His group was especially active in disrupting the Berlin-Moscow rail route, which the Germans used for supplies. On one of the missions, Simon’s otriad attacked the rail line with several thousand other partisans, blowing up miles of tracks. The Germans guarding the tracks were so overwhelmed by the attack that they fled from their bunkers into the woods instead of fighting back.
As the war continued, Simon left the partisans to work for the Soviet government as a schoolteacher in a remote Russian village. When the war ended and the “iron curtain” began to descend across Eastern Europe, Simon returned to Poland and smuggled himself into the West. He spent three years in Austria attempting to immigrate to the U.S., before finally being allowed to enter in 1948.
Simon died on January 2nd, 2009, surrounded by his loving family at his home in New York.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Simon Trakinski, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.
Monday, March 12, 2018
"Resist, resist, to our last breath!" - Abba Kovner (z''l) and Vitka Kempner (z''l) galvanized resistance in the Vilnius Ghetto
In honor of their shared March 14th birthdays, JPEF highlights Abba Kovner and Vitka Kempner, partisans from the Vilnius Ghetto who eventually married.
Abba Kovner was born in 1918 in Sebastopol, Russia. His family eventually emigrated and he spent his high school years in Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania — the preeminent center of Jewish culture and learning at the time, often referred to as the "Jerusalem of Europe" — where he joined the Ha-Shomer ha-Za'ir youth movement and attended the University of Vilna as an art student.
Exactly four years younger, Vitka Kempner was born on the same day in the Polish town of Kalish, located near the Polish-German border. As a teen, Vitka joined the militarist Betar movement, later switching to Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir at the behest of her friends.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kalish fell and Vitka escaped to Vilna with a number of other youngsters, including her younger brother. Vilna was still a free city, and served as a hub for the various Zionist youth movements searching for passage to Palestine, away from the troubles of Europe.
Then, in 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, occupying Vilna and forcing its Jews into a ghetto. Abba Kovner, who watched through his window as Nazi soldiers tore an infant from a mother’s arms and smashed it against a wall , had no illusions about the intentions of the occupiers. Hearing rumors of killings and mass graves in Ponar1, Kovner and his youth group friends realized that armed resistance was the only possible course.
With these rousing words, spoken at a soup kitchen on December 31st of 1941, Kovner galvanized the youth movements and the United Partisan Organization, or FPO (Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye) for short, was formed. Their first commander was Yitzhak Wittenberg. Their only objective was armed resistance – anything else was seen as a waste of time. They snuck out of the ghetto to execute sabotage missions, manufactured bombs, trained fighters, set up illegal printing presses, and acquired weapons that were smuggled into the ghetto in false-bottomed coffins or through the sewers.
Vitka Kempner was responsible for the FPO's first act of sabotage; smuggling a homemade bomb out of the ghetto and blowing up a Nazi train line. The Germans did not even suspect Vilna’s Jews – organized partisan resistance simply wasn’t on their radar yet.
The FPO continually pleaded with the Jews of Vilna to join the partisans in a popular uprising, but the majority of the Jewish population actually considered the rebels a liability and a danger to the ghetto’s survival. The Germans reinforced this notion with pressure on the local Judenrat. Finally, after some skirmishes with the FPO, the Germans threatened the ghetto with total liquidation, which led to Yitzhak Wittenberg’s voluntary surrender; he was then promptly tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Before he surrendered, however, Wittenberg appointed Kovner as the new leader of the FPO.
The Germans liquidated the ghetto anyway, deporting its 12,000 remaining inhabitants. The FPO evacuated hundreds of fighters out of the city through the sewers, as Kovner and others briefly fought the Germans from atop abandoned buildings. Vitka herself led the last group of fighters – including Kovner – out of the city to the Rudnicki forests. The FPO was thus transformed into a partisan unit, naming themselves Nakam "The Avengers".
Abba Kovner (center) and Vitka Kempner (right) with fellow partisan and life-long friend Rozka Korczak.
The couple saw Vilna liberated in 1944, entering the city with Soviet troops. Gathering the surviving members of their old youth group, Kovner helped organize the Beriha2 movement, which helped smuggle hundreds of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe into British-mandated Palestine. Kovner and Kempner also organized a secret revenge unit, which sought to poison German POWs at a Nuremberg camp (the accounts on the effectiveness of this mission vary, though hundreds of POWs fell ill and had to be hospitalized).
Eventually, Kovner and Kempner were smuggled into Palestine, where they married. During the Israeli War of Independence, Kovner went on to lead the Givati brigade, and wrote ‘battle pages’, which contained morale-boosting essays and news from the Egyptian front.
He went on to testify at the Eichmann trial in 1961, play a major role in the construction and design of several Holocaust museums, and write several books and poems that recount his experiences, for which he won the 1970 Israel Prize in Literature. He lived on a Kibbutz with Vitka and other survivors from the underground until his death in 1987 from cancer.
Though she initially had a hard time adjusting to the Kibbutz life, and suffered from health problems, Vitka found her calling when she started helping children with their studies, and eventually turned to the field of special education. At age 45, she went on to study clinical psychology, receiving a degree from Bar Ilan University and developed a new form of non-verbal color-based therapy. She passed away on February 15, 2012, on the Kibbutz she called home for more than fifty years.
Abba and Vitka are survived by four grandchildren and leave behind a proud legacy of survival and resistance.
2. Jewish partisan Allen Small credits the Beriha with helping him escape from the Soviet Army.
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Born in the town of Kadish on the Polish-German border in 1922, Vitka Kempner Kovner escaped to Vilna after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union and turned Vilna into a ghetto, Vitka joined up with poet and future husband, Abba Kovner to organize the United Partisans Organization (FPO) – a Jewish armed resistance movement. Vitka committed FPO’s first act of sabotage when she blew up a Nazi train line with a homemade bomb.
When the Nazis gave orders to liquidate the ghetto in 1943, she helped evacuate much of the Jewish population to the forests following a failed uprising. Vitka continued her work in the resistance with the "Avengers," an all-Jewish partisan brigade formed from the ashes of the FPO and led by Abba Kovner.
After the war, Vitka and her husband helped hundreds of European Jews immigrate to Palestine, the land that would eventually become the Jewish state of Israel. They both followed in 1946, settling at Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, where Vitka passed away on February 15, 2012. She was survived by four grandchildren and left behind a proud legacy of survival and resistance.
For more information on Vitka, including seven videos of her speaking about her experiences, please visit her profile on the JPEF website and view the short film Women in the Partisans. Vitka is now featured on the websites of both Facing History and Ourselves and the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum through their collaborations with JPEF.
May Vitka and Abba's memories be a blessing.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Rachel Margolis was born in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania, in 1921. In 1941 Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania and Rachel was sent to live in hiding with a Christian family. A year later, she decided instead to move to the Vilna Ghetto; a ghetto so terrible that over the two years of its existence, the population fell from 40,000 to only a few hundred. During her time in the Vilna Ghetto, Rachel joined the Fareinikte Partisaner Organizatzie (the United Partisan Organization), headed by Abba Kovner.
When the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, under the orders of Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, Rachel and her future husband escaped to the surrounding forests. Although they faced the constant threat of starvation and disease – not to mention capture by their oppressors – the partisans actively fought back by blowing up Nazi lines of communication.
The sole Holocaust survivor in her family, Rachel went on to gain a Ph.D. in biology and worked as a teacher until the late 1980s. In 2005, Rachel found and published the diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz, a Polish journalist who witnessed the Ponary massacre of 1941 to 1944, which killed up to 100,000 people, the majority of whom were Jews. In a turn of events that astonished the international community, the Lithuanian authorities sought to question her in 2008 for her role in alleged war crimes. The motivation behind this is an ongoing historical revisionist movement that seeks to equate Soviet occupation with the Nazis and the Holocaust by describing it as a 'double genocide'. In 2010, Rachel published her own memoir, A Partisan from Vilna, chronicling her early life and battle to survive Nazi oppression during World War II.
Friday, April 11, 2014
Author Lauren Tarshis recently released an exciting edition to her I Survived series, published by Scholastic. Subtitled The Nazi Invasion, 1944, this short yet dramatic tale perfectly suits educators who wish to introduce elementary school students to the subject of the Jewish partisans.
The story centers around 11-year-old Max Rosen and his younger sister, Zena: newly orphaned inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto in Esties, Poland during the Nazi occupation. Tarshis expertly uses age appropriate language and content to paint a vivid picture of the children's adventure as they escape from the ghetto and are taken in by a group of partisans in the forests of Loda.
The author bases the characters in the book on the life stories of a number of partisans she learned about during her research: Leizer and Zenia Bart, Miriam Brysk, Leon Kahn, Ben Kamm, Vitka Kempner, Ruzka Korczak, Abba Kovner, Miles Lerman, and Shalom Yoran.
More information about these individuals is available at www.jewishpartisans.org/partisans.
I Survived: The Nazi Invasion, 1944 provides an intriguing and exciting account of the experiences of the largely unrecognized efforts of Jewish resistance to the Nazi regime of WWII. As a supplemental resource for the study of the Holocaust, Max and Zena's tale of escape, hiding, and battle, provides a personal and relatable viewpoint for students. The historical fiction genre, when approached with the care and accuracy of Lauren Tarshis, can provide an informative and engaging tool on which to build classes, projects, and plays.