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July 17: Commander of the Vilna Partisans

July 17, 2014
01sYitzhak Wittenberg, communist commander of the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye, the United Partisan Organization of the Vilna Ghetto, was found dead from swallowing poison in his jail cell on this date in 1943, after surrendering to the Gestapo the day before. His surrender had been arranged by Jacob Gens, head of the Vilna Yudenrat (Jewish Council), whose primary survival strategy for Vilna's Jews had been to organize their labor to support the German war effort. Gens had at times cooperated with the partisan underground, but when the Nazis threatened to raze the entire ghetto unless they could lay their hands on Wittenberg (who had already escaped from the hands of Lithuanian police in the ghetto), Gens mobilized the ghetto for his capture. "The pursuit of Wittenberg by the ghetto leadership in order to turn him over to the Germans had proven to underground members that the majority of Jews in the ghetto were not prepared to fight," says Yad Vashem. "Following stormy arguments, the FPO decided that although for the most part they would remain in the ghetto, some members would begin leaving for the forests. The first group to leave... numbered twenty-one members and was called 'Leon' (Wittenberg's pseudonymn in the underground)." To see and hear testimonies from Vilna partisans, filmed by Yad Vashem, look below (turn on your English captions). "Wittenberg's [statement], 'Ich gehe' ('I go'), spread like thunder through the ghetto. Cries suddenly became silent. Jews began to swarm outside. Doors and windows were opened again." —Shmerke Kaczerginski, I Was A Partisan frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>