You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.
Escaping from the Vilna Ghetto: An Authentic Memoir
by Shmerke Kaczerginski
translated from the Yiddish, with notes, by Rachel Field
SHMERKE KACZERGINSKI was a Yiddish poet, ethnomusicologist, activist, and cultural leader, who survived the Holocaust in a partisan unit. Born in Vilna in 1908, Kaczerginski was educated in the city’s Talmud Torah, a community-sponsored school for orphans, and became active in the banned Communist Party. In 1929, he joined Young Vilna, a group of writers, poets and artists that included prominent figures such as Abraham Sutzkever and Chaim Grade. The life of the party, Kaczerginski would serenade the group with Yiddish folk songs.
When the Germans arrived in Vilna in October of 1941, Kaczerginski managed to procure forged papers stating that he was a deaf-mute and an “Aryan.” For seven months, the gregarious Yiddish bard wandered in silence through the Lithuanian countryside, living in constant fear that someone would recognize him.
But Kaczerginski couldn’t stay away from Vilna for long. Upon returning to the Vilna ghetto, he was recruited into the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg brigade, a Jewish labor unit comprised of intellectuals whom the Nazis forced to sort though thousands of stolen Jewish cultural possessions. Among the treasures were rare books, art, important documents, and religious artifacts. The Nazis planned to ship the most valuable possessions to Germany for an exhibition on the extinction of the Jewish race and burn the rest in the paper factories outside of Vilna. Each morning, the members of the “Paper Brigade,” as the group was called by other inmates, were led out of the ghetto to the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Jewish Cultural Institute, YIVO) building at 18 Wiwulskiego Street, where Nazi plunder awaited them.
As soon as the Nazis began burning the material in June of 1942, Herman Kruk, a Jewish librarian who oversaw the creation of the ghetto library, enlisted members of the Paper Brigade, among them Kaczerginski, to smuggle the most valuable possessions into the ghetto, where the material was stored in underground hideouts or given to Jews or Poles for safekeeping. Soon the work of the Paper Brigade came to the attention of the ghetto underground resistance, the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatyse (The United Partisan Organization, FPO), which was planning an uprising and needed Soviet munitions manuals that were now housed among thousands of other Soviet books in the YIVO building. In the following months, Kaczerginski and other members of the Paper Brigade joined the FPO.
In September of 1943, as work at YIVO was drawing to an end and liquidation of the ghetto seemed imminent, the FPO realized that it lacked the support for an uprising and decided to send groups of fighters to the Narocz forests to fight alongside a Soviet partisan unit.
The excerpt below, translated from Shmerke Kaczerginski’s memoir Ikh bin geven a partizan: di grine legende (I Was a Partisan: The Green Legend), published in Argentina in 1952, tells the story of the ghetto fighters’ escape to the forests, where they fought until liberation in July of 1944. This memoir, one of three that Kaczerginski published after the war, is a poignant, dramatic, and candid account of life in the Vilna ghetto and the surrounding forests and a testament to the Vilna Jewish community’s determination to save Eastern European Jewry and its rich cultural history.
Following the war, Kaczerginski returned to Vilna to recover the hidden Jewish cultural treasures, which were to be housed in a new Jewish museum. However, it quickly became apparent that the fate of the material was uncertain under the Soviet regime, and Kaczerignski began smuggling the most valuable material out of the country.
Kaczerginski ultimately settled in Argentina, where he continued writing and was a popular lecturer and cultural leader until his sudden death in an airplane crash in 1954.
FAREWELL TO THE GHETTO
(Pictured above: Abba Kovner and Shmerke Kaczerginski; Kaczerginski and Abraham Sutzkever; Shmerke as partisan)
I COULDN’T so much as hint to a soul that I was leaving the ghetto. An order was an order. My heart broke when my dear friend Rachela Pupko (note 1) stopped me and asked how I was doing. I tried to shrug my shoulders as if everything were normal. But she could read the truth in my eyes. The same thing happened with Rachela Pregger and Rachela Sarabsky. Then Yitskhok Rudashevski (2) stopped me.
“Well, teacher, how do you think it will end?”
“End?” I repeated, unsure how to answer. Soon I’d be leaving, and Yitskhok might be as well. But, like everyone else, he didn’t know when. “The end,” I said, “can’t be good, Yitskhok, even if we survive. But we’ll have accomplished a lot.”
“True, teacher, true.”
I went up to my apartment. Miriam Reyzen sensed my agitation but knew better than to ask questions. Dr. Feinshtein (3), Abramovitsh (4) and Mrs. Biber were already there.
Soon an old friend, Akiva Gershater (5), arrived: “So, children, our lives have been prolonged for another few days.”
“It’s impossible to know,” I said. “We can discuss it once we’re free.”
“What, what?” he asked, shaking his grey mustache. “I can’t imagine that.”
Were Zelig Kalmanovitsh (6) here, I thought, we’d surely manage to bring him along to the forest. In fact, we’d already made the necessary arrangements. But he’d left his apartment and surrendered on his own to the Germans, who soon transported him to Estonia.
THE CLOCK was ticking. Time passed. At 5:00, the whole group assembled at my apartment. From there we went to the reading room of the Mefitse Haskole Library, where we formed a line and awaited further instructions. Abba Kovner (7) and Liova Ziskovitch entered.
We stood at attention. Kovner kept his distance as Ziskovitch strode past our line, looking each of us in the eye. “Headquarters is evacuating fighters to other combat positions,” he said, stopping to gaze at his reflection in the mirror. “Be aware that the battle in the forest will require more determination, daring, and heroism than you demonstrated, or hoped to demonstrate, in the ghetto. In the forest, you’ll meet many non-Jewish partisans who are fighting a shared enemy. You must be an example of sacrifice in battle, of heroism. You must be the pride of all the partisans in the forests. Who else needs to evince such revenge upon the murderer? We must be the best. Remember. You must be the most daring. Don’t shame our dead. Don’t shame our FPO organization. Don’t shame the Jerusalem of Lithuania, our people. Remember, remember!”
“You aren’t going to the forest to save yourselves. You’re fighting to defeat a merciless enemy, to take revenge,” he said, hammering us. Then, regaining his composure, he continued: “Headquarters has voted fighter Meydenberg commander of your group. His every word is an order. Your leader will be Moshe-Yudke Rudnitsky. His every word is also an order. Listen to their instructions. Be careful. Remember that once you leave the ghetto, you’re no longer ghetto fighters, you’re partisans. Again, don’t disgrace Vilna. Be Jews!”
Surveying the group, I became somewhat disheartened. So many unknowns. Hardly anyone had proven himself a hero in the ghetto. In total, there were twenty men, six women, and the appointed commander, who was still a new fighter and not, I thought, the right person for the role. But an order was an order. Doubts weren’t permitted and had to be rooted out.
We assembled at the old FPO headquarters, on Oshmener Street, leaving behind all our documents and any other signs that we came from the ghetto, in case we were captured. We isolated ourselves from the rest of the ghetto so that no one would know we were leaving or discover our route of escape.
The final instruction: to distribute arms to the group. Not everyone received a weapon though. Abraham Sutzkever (8) and I had our own pistol, so we received nothing from the stash. One pistol for the two of us. It wasn’t enough, but what could we do? Fewer weapons than people. Everyone should have been armed.
DARKNESS DESCENDED. Our final hour in the ghetto had arrived. The final moments. We were instructed to leave in pairs and to meet in front of the train tracks on Subacz Street, where Zelda (9) would be waiting for us. Once outside the gate, we were not to wait for one another but to move quickly, concealing our weapons in our pockets or inside our pants.
We removed our patches and dressed so as to arouse as little suspicion as possible. I came up with a plan and requested several bottles of lemonade. Carrying the bottles as though I were transporting them from a soda fountain shop to a house party, I set out into the street. After just a few yards, I sensed the desperation that had overtaken some Jews. In the darkness, groups of Jews were walking in circles at the gate. They must have sensed that Jews had fled to the forests from there. They sought out different ways of escaping the ghetto, and, like captives in an iron cage, they tried the gates, which wouldn’t budge.
I continued on, weighed down by the bottles. Having removed my glasses and drawn a hat over my face, I recognized those around me, but no one recognized me. I neared the gate on Butcher Street, which led out of the ghetto to German Street. Only the Gestapo, Jacob Gens (10), and Felix Dessler had the keys to the gate, which wasn’t used by ghetto inmates. FPO headquarters had made a copy of the key. As I approached the gate, the battalion commander, Shmuel Kaplinsky, held a small lamp up to my face.
“What are you doing here?” he yelled.
“What do you mean, ‘What am I doing here?’ Obviously, I was sent here.”
He held the light up to my face again, laughed, and gave me a slap on the back.
“It’s you, Shmerke. I’d never have recognized you. Of course you may go.”
He carefully turned the key in the lock and embraced me with a kiss.
“Take care, Shmerke. Remember!” he whispered.
“I will. May we meet again!”
Once more he carefully opened the gate a crack.
“Slide out. Be very careful.”
Like a cat in the night, I slipped out through the gate, leaving behind the horror -- the ghetto.
- Rachela Pupko-Krinsky was a high school teacher who left her 22-month-old daughter Sarah outside the ghetto in the care of her Polish nanny. Kaczerginski wrote the song, “Dos elnte kind,” about Sarah. During the war, Rachela worked at YIVO as a member of the Paper Brigade. She survived the war and settled in New York with her daughter.
- Yitskhok Rudashevski was a teenager imprisoned in the Vilna ghetto. A student of Kaczerginski’s, he wrote a diary from June 1941 to April 1943 detailing his life in the ghetto. Rudashevski was murdered at Ponar. After the war, Kaczerginski helped recover his diary, which was later published in Di goldene keyt.
- Daniel Feinshtein was an anthropologist and popular lecturer in the Vilna ghetto. He was a member of the United Partisan Organization and the Paper Brigade.
- Gershon Abramovitsh was a young construction engineer who designed the bunker at 6 Shavel Street, where many of the rescued cultural treasures were stored. He survived the war and settled in Israel.
- Akiva Gershater was a photographer and a well-know Esperantist in Vilna. He was a member of the United Partisan Organization and the Paper Brigade. He survived the war thanks to a Lithuanian Esperantist, who hid him.
- Zelig Kalmanovitch was a linguist, historian, and translator, and the director of YIVO before the war. He served as the deputy director of the ghetto library and was a member of the Paper Brigade. Kalmanovitch joined a transport to Estonia and settled in a camp in Narva, in the northeast of Estonia, after Jacob Gens, the Jewish head of the Vilna ghetto, lied to him and assured him that the living conditions would be better there. Kalmanovitch died in the camp.
- Abba Kovner was a Hebrew and Yiddish poet who became a leader in the United Partisan Organization. He settled in Israel after the war.
- Abraham Sutzkever was a poet and partisan fighter who settled in Israel after the war. He is regarded as the greatest postwar Yiddish poet.
- Zelda Treger was a member of various Zionist youth groups. She escaped from the Vilna ghetto and was hidden by Christians. She served as a courier in the United Partisan Organization.
- Jacob Gens was the Jewish head of the Vilna ghetto. He was executed by the Gestapo shortly before the ghetto’s liquidation due to suspicions that he was secretly aiding the United Partisan Organization.
Rachel Field is a neuroscientist and a 2017-2018 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center. She is currently translating Shmerke Kaczerginski’s memoir Ikh bin geven a partizan: di grine legende. Her writing on science and other topics has been featured in the Forward, Der Forverts, Labocine, and The Riverdale Press.