We did not run short of difficulties. Thanks to the “Joint,” the thousands who fled and we were not hungry, and on the streets and in general they had clothes to wear, but there was no lack of hardship and torture. First of all: the legalization issue. With how much bitterness did this legalization feed us? For about two weeks we stayed in a room that resembled a shack until our friends brought us the notes that like 100 witnesses confirmed that we had come to Vilnius a few months ago. Before we were given these permits, we had hardly ever gone out into the street and we had not felt safe in our hovel either. The police carried out searches and the illegal refugees – those who could not “prove” that they had come to Vilnius before the Lithuanian army arrived – were arrested. Some of the detainees were sent back to the places they came from. So we sat in our hovels and waited, as if in hope of the Messiah, for these wonderful “notes” that would heal us and cover our wounds. When we were forced to go out into the streets, we hurriedly walked and escaped like thieves, and every “hundred and eighty” (this is what the Jews of Vilnius called the Lithuanian policemen because of their size) made our hearts beat with excitement. At last the “notes” could be organized. We were relieved and cherished them like life itself.
So we got rid of the burden of legalization and hoped to be able to rest a little. We were wrong. The wrath of the registrations overcame us. The authorities set about sorting out their affairs with the thousands of refugees and for this they organized registrations. We knew that the government wanted to distribute the refugees into the small towns in the countryside and that very few would stay in Vilnius. Fear surrounded us. A big risk! We would be squatting in a remote town or village, far from the Jewish centre and exposed to the police. We began to hatch tricks and every day we brooded over how we could thwart the decision made about us. We kept reading and reading all the questions on the registration questionnaire and then we sat in the circle of friends in the accommodation of the group of refugee writers or in one of the meeting places of the Chaluzim or in one of the canteen kitchens built by the Joint and argued and discussed back and forth, hour after hour, hour after hour. How should we fill in the questionnaires? Here they ask you: “Are you able to work in the fields?” What to answer? We all agreed that the right answer would be, we don’t understand anything about this work. And how do you fill out the “Profession” section? Opinions are more divided on this question. Some say it would be better if you answered that you are a writer or a teacher, an intellectual, because the intelligentsia should definitely stay in Vilnius. And others say: On the contrary! Of all people, the intelligentsia will be expelled to the cities in the countryside. What is the reason? The Lithuanians are interested in the intellectual Polish refugees leaving Vilnius. In any case, they would expel the Jewish “intellectuals” as well. Hour after hour they sat and discussed back and forth and in the end decided that the matter should be left to a council of “experts” and these “experts” arranged everything. Neither by fighting nor by prayer, God forbid! By gifts, by gifts. And we stayed in Vilnius.
Yes, we did not run short of difficulties. But there were also moments of happiness and elation, precious moments that cannot be bought for gold. Sometimes our Lithuanian friends brought us a few issues of Hebrew newspapers from Eretz Israel. We pounced on the newspapers and read them thirstily and trembling. And how great was our joy when we received from them a new Hebrew book among those that have been published in Eretz Israel in the past months – before the war or in the first months of the war. And above all: the dance festivals that were held in different places on different occasions. We gathered and spent a few hours in the company of friends. We sang and daydreamed. When we got up to speak at these dances, it was like an unconscious being that grabbed us by the scruff of the neck and forced us to talk about the time of despair and suffering that had been inflicted on us in the occupied territories from which we had come, and all the hardships we had suffered and all the detours we had to make before we came to Lithuania. Those dance parties! How much the simple words you heard there shook the heart, and how sweet was the cup of tea poured for you there. There were countless migration groups in Lithuania! There was Polish emigration, there was “Bundist” emigration. But only our emigration, the Zionist emigration, was able to create a warm atmosphere, only it was able to create an environment that forged a bond between each other. The days were full of worries and the nights were dedicated to memories and dreams.
Benzion Benshalom tells of the difficulties of Jewish refugees in Vilnius during the first winter after the outbreak of the war. In this section, he describes the problems with Lithuanian authorities, to whom refugees had to prove that they had been in Vilnius before the city was taken over by Lithuania in October 1939. Refugees who could not prove this were criminalized and had to seek fake proofs of their earlier arrival or hide. He also describes the fear of being sent to the hinterland by Lithuanian authorities – a problem that in his case appears to have been solved by bribery. In spite of this worrying daily life, Benshalom says there were moments of joy and hope. This is how he describes exuberant dance parties in the Vilnius nights.
Benzion Benshalom (Katz) was born in Galicia in 1907 and studied, obtained his doctorate and taught Hebrew at the University of Krakow until 1939. Like many other Polish Jews, he fled with his family from the invading Wehrmacht in 1939 to Vilnius, which was still neutral and unoccupied until 1941. The city, which had just come under Lithuanian control in October 1939, became a refuge for thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees from occupied Poland at the beginning of the war. In the spring of 1940 he managed to emigrate to Mandatory Palestine. Until his death in 1968, he worked at Tel Aviv University as a Hebrew literary scholar, translator and author. Before and after his immigration to Palestine/Israel, Benzion Benshalom (Katz) was active in Zionist organizations. Between 1941 and 1963 he headed the Youth and HeChaluz Department of the Jewish Agency.
He recorded his memories of his time in Vilnius in the book “In the tempest of a stormy day” (בסער ביום סופה), published as early as the beginning of the 1940s, in the chapter “Days and Nights in Vilnius” (ימים ולילות בוילנה). For Benshalom, Vilnius, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”, was from the beginning a stopover on the way to then British Mandatory Palestine, from which Benshalom received books and newspapers with great excitement. Vilnius, like other European and especially Central and Eastern European cities, had already become the center of several Zionist (youth) organizations such as HeChaluz or HaShomer HaTzair before the beginning of the Second World War. These organizations prepared Jewish people with agricultural and handicraft training courses for emigration to Palestine and organized their emigration there. Benshalom counted himself among this “Zionist emigration group,” which he distinguished from, among others, the “Bundist” group, in which, for example, Herman Kruk was active.
Benshalom describes Vilnius on the one hand as a port of hope for Jewish refugees, who still find there the organizations and structures that were suppressed under Soviet and German occupation. Initially, he expresses his euphoria in the face of the virulent activities and hopeful gatherings of these Zionist organizations and testifies to the structures of Jewish self-help in Vilnius. Thus he tells of the extensive support activities of the Joint, and of the dormitory of the fled Polish Jewish writers. The extensive Jewish self-help structures in the city are well illustrated in the film “Refugium: Vilnius?“, which was produced in the context of the We Refugees project.
On the other hand, Benshalom describes the many difficulties and fears of the various people who fled to Vilnius: the harsh winter, the fear of impending German occupation, the hiding from the Lithuanian authorities, the general despair in a city he increasingly perceived as desolate.
Benshalom, Benzion, 1943/44: BeSa’ar beYom Sufa, Polin (בסער ביום סופה. פרקי פולין) [In the tempest of a stormy day. Parts about Poland]. Tel Aviv: Mosad Bialik. Part 4/Dalet, p. 156-158.
Translation from Hebrew to English © Minor Kontor.