Friday, June 28, 2019
Two years later, in 1942, the Nazis established a Russian POW camp in Kurzeniec, where the prisoners were treated brutally. Shalom first learned about the partisans through stories he was told by escaped Soviet POWs. The day before Yom Kippur 1942, the Kurzeniec ghetto was ordered to be liquidated.
Shalom was given an early warning, but his family was not as lucky. Shalom and his brother Musio managed to hide themselves in a barn in the nick of time, and were forced to listen as the entire remaining population of the ghetto, totaling 1,052 people, were murdered. The brothers later found out their parents were among them. The farmer whose barn they hid in turned out to be friendly, and the brothers safely made it to the woods - the Naroch puscha - where they found many other survivors in hiding. Shalom reasoned it was only a matter of time before the Germans conducted an organized raid on the forest, so the brothers decided to leave the area. After the brothers recruited three younger refugees to follow them, the boys spent the frigid winter of 1942 in the forest near the river Sang, where they built a zemlyanka for shelter and lived mostly off a large store of food they took from local farmers.
At first, they resorted to stealing and begging, but Shalom eventually had an idea: he fashioned the tops of his boots into a holster, and whittled a wooden handle to look like the one on a Soviet Nagan revolver. No longer needing to steal potatoes in the dead of night, Shalom now demanded provisions, brandishing his holstered "weapon". The balance between menace and generosity was of vital importance, and for a long time the peasants did not suspect anything.
However, one night as they ventured into the village one last time to acquire matches, an angry mob chased them down and beat them with sticks. Though he was robbed of all his clothing, Shalom miraculously escaped with his life, and even managed to avoid frostbite as he ran barefoot through the snow. Luckily, all five of the group survived the assault and managed to return to the zemlyanka.
In the spring of 1943, Shalom and the group ventured out of their hiding area. By this time, the tide was turning for the Nazi war effort, and the German army was suffering serious setbacks both in Africa and on the Eastern Front. On the road to Zazierie, the boys encountered fellow survivors of the Kurzeniec ghetto and a group of partisans roaming the village. Since neither he nor his group had weapons, Shalom was denied entry into the group — a common practice among the partisans. Unsure of what to do, Shalom and his brother stayed in the puscha. Though their winter companions went their separate ways, they were soon joined by others, including some escapees from a labor camp in Vileika.
Shalom and his companions spent the rest of the spring trying to join partisan groups roaming the area, but without weapons, they received the same reply every time. Finally, a partisan commander relented and offered them a deal: they would be allowed into the partisans if they returned to Kurzeniec and burned down a factory that made wooden rifle butts. For this mission, they were given a handgun with a single bullet and two hand grenades. Despite the odds, they were successful. However, when they returned to the partisan camp, they were met by a different officer, who took away their weapons and reprimanded them, threatening to shoot them if they didn't leave. The Russian partisans never even thought they could succeed, and had no intention of letting Jews into their group. Little did they know that the group's commanding officer - the one who initially gave them the assignment - was himself a Russian Jew.
But in the end, the specgruppa found the weapons caches, and for his work, Shalom and Musio were both given working rifles (though Shalom's did not have a butt, and Musio's was sawed-off).
After his work with the specgruppa, Shalom heard rumors of the formation of an all-Jewish otriad, organized by one Colonel Markov, who by that time had a brigade of over a thousand partisans under his command. He was in contact with the FPO in Vilna, and their members formed the core of an all-Jewish otriad called Miest - the Russian word for "revenge". Since they brought weapons, Shalom and his companions were readily accepted into the unit. In the wake of the German defeat at Stalingrad, Shalom’s unit ambushed the retreating German troops, cutting communication lines, blowing up bridges, and destroying railroads. The unit was disbanded and merged with another otriad some months later. This would not be the last all-Jewish unit Shalom belonged to during the war - and, unfortunately, not the last to be disbanded by the Soviet high command.
When Belarus was liberated by the Soviets in 1944, Shalom and the rest of his comrades were drafted into the Russian regular forces. Fighting in the Red Army, he was appalled by the brutality and political persecution he experienced. Eventually he deserted and made his way to Italy, where he worked for the British Army through the end of the war.
In 1946, Shalom traveled to Palestine with the aid of a fake British Military passport, and joined the newly formed Israeli Army. Though he left Israel to attend an American university, he returned to become an officer in the renowned Israeli Air Force. Shalom became a leader in the Israeli aerospace industry.
Shalom moved to the US in 1979 where he lived with his wife, artist Varda Yoran. Shalom passed away on September 9, 2013 leaving a tremendous legacy.
In 2003, he published his memoir, The Defiant: A True Story of Escape, Survival & Resistance. The book, written shortly after the Shoah but rediscovered many years later, is dedicated to his parents. Click here to listen to Larry King reading excerpts from the book.
Tuesday, March 12, 2019
"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 31, 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, or "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, February 22, 2012
In 1984, the New York Times declared Abraham Sutzkever, “the greatest poet of the Holocaust.” His poems (which are written in Yiddish and have been translated into 30 languages) possess a subtlety met with powerful imagery, his language stripped down by the directness that comes from witnessing far more horrors of reality in a few years than most do in the span of their lives. Before he was a universally acclaimed figure in poetry, Sutzkever was a renowned poet in Vilna, known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania because of its intellectual and cultural development.
Sutzkever, who lost his mother, his newborn son, and his city of Vilna in the occupation, did not give up his fight or his art. He smuggled weapons into the ghetto and composed poems whatever the conditions. Sutzkever even hid in a coffin to write, during which he witnessed the liquidation of a smaller ghetto. These lines were composed here:
I lie in this coffin
The way I would lie
In a suit made of wood,
Tossed on treacherous waves,
A cradle, an ark.
Sutzkever and a group of intellectual friends, who were known as the “Paper Brigade”, rescued cultural works from destruction by the Nazis. Originally tasked with collecting Jewish cultural documents for the Nazi-created Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, which intended to study the Jewish race after they were annihilated, Sutzkever instead carefully hid the works, including drawings by Chagall and the diaries of Theodore Herzl.
Before the ghetto was liquidated, Sutzkever, his wife, and a few of his friends escaped through sewers. They joined with partisans and fought against the Germans and collaborators until the end of the war. Sutzkever recalls, "conditions for the Jewish partisans in the forest were very difficult. A typical Jewish partisan had to prove himself to the partisan headquarters. They gave these Jews missions that were almost impossible to fulfill in order to test them."
After the war was over, Sutzkever returned to Vilna, resurfaced the precious cultural treasures he had hidden during the occupation, and with these works launched the Museum of Jewish Art and Culture. Sutzkever also testified at the Nuremburg trials (click here to watch a video of the testimony). In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Abraham Sutzkever said: “When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in the Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.”
"A Wagon of Shoes”:
The wheels they drag and drag on,
What do they bring, and whose?
They bring along a wagon
Filled with throbbing shoes.
The wagon like a khupa
In evening glow, enchants:
The shoes piled up and heaped up,
Like people in a dance.
A holiday, a wedding?
As dazzling as a ball.
The shoes — familiar, spreading,
I recognize them all.
The heels tap with no malice:
Where do they pull us in?
From ancient Vilna alleys,
They drive us to Berlin.
I must not ask you whose,
My heart, it skips a beat:
Tell me the truth, oh, shoes,
Where disappeared the feet?
The feet of pumps so shoddy,
With buttondrops like dew —
Where is the little body?
Where is the woman too?
All children's shoes — but where
Are all the children's feet?
Why does the bride not wear
Her shoes so bright and neat?
'Mid clogs and children's sandals,
My Mama's shoes I see
On Sabbath, like the candles,
She'd put them on in glee.
The heels tap with no malice:
Where do they pull us in?
From ancient Vilna alleys,
They drive us to Berlin.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
"Why would a man in grave danger create art? For an artist, the motivation to create is even more powerful than existence itself."
— Alexander Bogen.
Alexander Bogen’s sketches during World War II show a tremendous knowledge of the human condition: an abandoned child in the streets of the Vilna ghetto, an old man who is dying, comrades drinking vodka and playing cards around a bonfire. Although condemned to record his subjects often without—or in place of—the ability to save them, his passion for art was a weapon in itself against the Nazi forces.
Bogen was, however, able to save a great deal of lives through his efforts as the commander of a partisan unit. Born in 1916, Bogen grew up in Vilna, Poland, and studied painting and sculpture at Vilna’s university. When World War II began, he left and joined a partisan movement in the endless forests surrounding Lake Naroch in Belarus. Facing discrimination from the non-Jewish partisans, Bogen assisted in forming an all-Jewish otriad called Nekama, meaning Vengeance. He served as a unit commander, helping transport people from the Vilna ghetto before it was liquidated.
During the war, Bogen compulsively sketched his surroundings to document ghetto and partisan life, dropping his gun to capture his brothers in arms. In the forest he scavenged scraps of packing paper, burnt twigs, charcoal from fire to continue his representations of life. These sketches serve as an invaluable record not only of Jewish partisan life, but also of human perseverance.
Once the war was over, Bogen completed his studies at the university and worked as a professor of art. The versatility of his work after the war blossomed and Bogen became famous in Poland as an artist, set designer and book illustrator.
For Alexander Bogen, who wrote on his work, art fulfilled several needs:
For more of Alexander Bogen’s story and artwork: