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Showing posts with label Vilna ghetto. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vilna ghetto. Show all posts

Monday, March 13, 2017

"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.


"Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter, Jewish youth! Do not believe those who are deceiving you. Out of 80,000 Jews of the Jerusalem of Lithuania (Vilna), only 20,000 remain. In front of your eyes our parents, our brothers and our sisters are being torn away from us. Where are the hundreds of men who were snatched away for labor by the Lithuanian kidnappers? Where are those naked women who were taken away on the horror-night of the provocation? Where are those Jews of the Day of Atonement? And where are our brothers of the second ghetto? Anyone who is taken out through the gates of the ghetto, will never return. All roads of the ghetto lead to Ponary, and Ponary means death. Oh, despairing people, - tear this deception away from your eyes. Your children, your husbands, your wives - are no longer alive - Ponary is not a labor camp. Everyone there is shot. Hitler aimed at destroying the Jews of Europe. It turned out to be the fate of the Jews of Lithuania to be the first. Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter. It is true that we are weak, lacking protection, but the only reply to a murderer is resistance. Brothers, it is better to die as free fighters than to live at the mercy of killers. Resist, resist, to our last breath!"
         
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.

Vitka was appointed commander of a patrol group in charge of gathering information and maintaining ties with the Vilna underground. It was during this time that Kovner and Kempner began their relationship. Their all-Jewish group was unique: Kovner was convinced that Jews could gain self-respect through fighting, and that Jews must fight as Jews, so he refused to be absorbed into other Lithuanian or Russian partisan groups. The group earned a distinguished record: they destroyed over 180 miles of train tracks, 5 bridges, 40 enemy train cars, killed 212 enemy soldiers, and rescued at least 71 Jews, including prisoners from the Kalais labor camp. They also managed to destroy Vilna's power plant & waterworks. At the end of the war, Vitka was awarded Soviet Union’s highest badge of courage.


Abba Kovner at the old FPO headquarters in Vilna after the liberation.

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.


Clip from a video interview by JPEF "The only punishment is death in the partisans"
Video Transcript: "I wanted in a few words to tell what life was like in a partisan forest. We were part of a Lithuanian/Russian partisan brigade, where the rules were very strict, almost incomprehensible to a Western person, who lives in the present time. Actually, everything was tuned towards fighting...life was very, very hard, and the rules were strict. If somebody would transgress even the smallest rule, the only punishment was death. Actually, there wasn't any other punishment. So let's say, we had to have food in order to survive. So to get food we'd go out on operations." 
-Vitka Kempner

Watch Vitka's video testimony about her wartime partisan experiences on the JPEF Partisans page. . Vitka is also featured in JPEF's short film: Women in the Partisans

Abba Kovner (far left) at a reunion of Vilna partisans.
1. Ponar was an oil storage facility site abandoned by the Soviets halfway through its construction; it had many large pits dug for the oil warehouses, which the Nazis deemed a convenient place for mass executions.
2. Jewish partisan Allen Small credits the Beriha with helping him escape from the Soviet Army.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hirsh Glik, Poet/Songwriter - Hymm of the Jewish Partisans

In the summer of 1944, Hirsh Glik disappeared from the ghetto in Goldfilz, Estonia, and was presumed dead. He was only twenty-two but had devoted his life to writing and had already established his legacy through the song, “Zog Nit Keynmol” (“Never Say”). This song was a triumphant, a hopeful call for defiance, inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. “Never Say” became a beacon to many and quickly grew to be known as the “Song of the Partisans”.

Hirsh Glik was born in Vilna, Poland, in 1922. He demonstrated talent early: at age thirteen he began to compose poetry in Hebrew—and then solely in Yiddish—and his works were published frequently in the Jewish-Soviet press. When the Germans occupied Vilna in June 1941, Glik was sent to work the peat bogs in Biala-Waka, Rzesza. Displacement and grueling labor did not prevent him from writing: in between hauling impossible loads of turf, Glik would ask friends to hum a tune so that he could improvise lyrics. When Biala-Waka was liquidated in 1943, Glik returned to the ghetto in Vilna and joined the United Partisans Organization (FPO), where he took part in the literary scene. Here, Glik first recited “Never Say” to a poet friend, Shmaryahu Kaczerginski, at an event arranged to pay tribute to Yiddish writers, called “Spring in Yiddish Literature”. The scope of anguish, defiance, and hope in the song made it an anthem to many in Vilna.

Glik was also inspired by the actions of Vitka Kempner, a founding member of FPO, and wrote “Shtil, Di Nacht Iz Oysgeshternt” (Still the Night is Full of Stars) about her first act of sabotage, blowing up a Nazi train line.

The struggle to survive at Biala-Waka, Vilna, and later Goldfilz in Estonia, never broke Hirsh Glik’s inspiration to write. He composed sometimes on scraps but mostly in his head, reciting poems to other prisoners. Some written copies of Glik’s poems were discovered buried beneath the Vilna Ghetto. Though most of his words were lost, “Hymm of the Jewish Partisans” is considered worldwide one of the most important anthems of Jewish partisans and is still sung today in remembrance of those who died in the Shoah.

Hymm of the Jewish Partisans (audio)
Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.

As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!

From lands so green with palms to lands all white with snow.

We shall be coming with our anguish and our woe,

And where a spurt of our blood fell on the earth,
There our courage and our spirit have rebirth!



The early morning sun will brighten our day,

And yesterday with our foe will fade away,

But if the sun delays and in the east remains –
This song as motto generations must remain.

This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
It's not a little tune that birds sing overhead,
This song a people sang amid collapsing walls,

With pistols in hand they heeded to the call.



Therefore never say the road now ends for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.

As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!

Transliterated Yiddish:
zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.

kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
s'vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!



fun grinem palmenland biz vaysn land fun shney,
mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey,
un vu gefaln iz a shprits fun undzer blut,

shprotsn vet dort undzer gvure, undzer mut!


s'vet di morgnzun bagildn undz dem haynt,

un der nekhtn vet farshvindn mit dem faynt,
nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in der kayor –
vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.



dos lid geshribn iz mit blut, un nit mit blay,
s'iz nit keyn lidl fun a foygl oyf der fray,

dos hot a folk tsvishn falndike vent

dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent.

to zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,

khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.

kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho –
es vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Partisans in the Arts: Abraham Sutzkever, Poet (1913-2010)

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,
A bark
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, February 16, 2012

Partisan Vitka Kovner (A''H) passes away at the age of 92

On February 15th, 2012, Jewish partisan Vitka Kovner passed away at the age of 92 at her home in Israel.
Born in the town of Kadish on the Polish-German border in 1922, Vitka 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.
Photo Courtesy of USHMM
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. They both followed in 1946, settling at Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, where Vitka passed away this Wednesday. She is survived by four grandchildren and leaves behind a proud legacy of survival and resistance.
For more information on Vitka, including seven videos of her speaking about her experiences, please visit the JPEF partisan pages. Vitka is also featured in JPEF's short film Women in the Partisans. Click here to read her obituary in the JTA.
UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post published a good article about Vitka, which you can read here.