The winter was terrible. The people talked about it, because Vilnius – this Vilnius, for whom a hard winter was an ordinary thing – could not remember such a winter. Many said that it depended on the war. The proof was that the first winter of the previous war had also been very hard. And if this year’s winter was even more merciless than that one, then it could be expected that this war would be even longer and more bitter than the last one.
The snow fell in masses and covered all fields and ways. Everything was white now. Even the forests wore coats. The rivers froze. Mountains of snow piled up on the streets of Vilnius and a thick layer of snow weighed on all its roofs. The secret of this grandmother, whose name was Vilnius, was revealed. Come out and see what made her head so old and white! Afterwards, after everything was snowed in, the sky cleared up and the sun began to shine. And the cold grew from day to day, from hour to hour. As if the sun didn’t warm up, but rather made it freeze. And the cold grew and grew. 20 degrees, then 25, 30, 35. During the day the sun was shining and at night the stars were shining and the cold grew bigger and bigger. A merciless winter! A newspaper told us that a few hundred years ago winter was at its hardest and the Baltic Sea froze, so people traveled on sledges from Stockholm to Riga. The newspaper announced its opinion that this year, too, would be an exceptional winter.
It was a terrible winter. But the people kept coming. Every day they came. Mostly young people, but also the old people came, and just Jews and families, men, women and children. In the midst of the terrible days of cold they came. Tragedies took place in the border areas. Some of them lost their ears, noses or hands due to the frostbite. And there were those who were brought in when their feet and legs were frozen. Some came and the doctors treated them for weeks until they recovered their strength. And some were brought directly from the border into the operating room of the hospital. There were also those who did not reach their destination, they froze to death in the border area. Oh, how many secrets were hidden in the woods on both sides of the border. How many tragedies took place there during the terrible nights of winter? And they came daily. Neither winter nor the border guards could frighten them away. They came and let us know that many more would come. For the flame was not extinguished. They came with few Złotys in their pockets and the dream of Zion in their hearts.
Every day new ones came, but there were also those who returned. Sent by the movement. For underground work and to make connections. They went and obeyed. They left in the days of terrible cold, when even the streets froze and it was as if all living things were frozen. Some I saw before they left. They were silent. “Of course I want to go and I have to go,” replied one of them in the dormitory of the Chaluzim group on Stephanska Street when I asked him if he was going voluntarily. One day a woman was sent: young, blooming. After some time she was brought with frozen feet. Her situation was very critical. It was suspected that she might suffer from blood poisoning. When she was taken to the hospital, the doctor said that he feared she would have to have one of her legs amputated. A Russian sentry had found her when she was already very frozen, and a military doctor had treated her, smearing iodine on her swollen legs. Her pain was cruel. In the end they saved her: Only three toes were lost. But she did not complain and did not regret anything. Zion, Zion, do you know how you are loved?!
Benzion Benshalom describes the harsh winter of 1939/40, which made life even harder for refugees in Vilnius. He tells how more refugees could not be deterred from fleeing by that winter and continued to try to get to the still unoccupied and safe Vilnius. Some froze limbs while fleeing, others even froze to death. He also tells of people who sacrificed themselves and, despite the cold, set off in the opposite direction to become active in the underground in occupied Poland.
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 from there 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, 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). In this section, too, it becomes clear how much Benzion Benshalom views Vilnius from a Zionist perspective: He sees the city as a stopover on his way to then British Mandate of Palestine; and he focuses on the activities of Zionist organizations in the city. At the end of this section, he reaffirms his conviction that it is the hope for a life in Palestine that gives Zionist Jewish refugees the strength to defy the winter.
The dangers to which the refugees on the Polish-Lithuanian border were exposed, particularly in the harsh weather conditions, are also described by other refugees and aid organizations. The situation was particularly tragic in the no man’s land of Suwałki. A witness report on this was turned into the film “No Man’s Land” as part of the We Refugees project.
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 5/He, p. 159-160.
Translation from Hebrew to English © Minor Kontor.