Mendel Balberyszski: Pogrom in Vilnius, October 1939
Mendel Balberyszski (1894-1966) was born in Vilnius but had been living in Łódź for over a decade at the outbreak of the Second World War. After fleeing through Poland and over Ukrainian villages for almost a month, he arrived in his home town of Vilnius on 29 September 1939 by foot. He witnessed the annexation of Vilnius to Lithuania and on 31 October 1939 witnessed and was affected by the pogrom that broke out in Vilnius immediately after the withdrawal of the Red Army. He analyses from his migrant-Jewish perspective how the pogrom could have come about and tells of its effects.
At the end of October the Lithuanians arrived in the city: soldiers, police and civil servants. It was already known that Lithuania was going to take over Vilnius and that they had already installed an administrative apparatus in Kovno to administer the city.
The Red Army has handed over the authority to the Kovno government. And so Vilnius was again annexed to Lithuania.
On Tuesday, October 31, a pogrom broke out in Vilnius. According to what the Lithuanians later explained, this happened because of a young Jewish man who tore down a Lithuanian flag from a magistrate building. In reality, however, the riots were provoked by Lithuanians. Where, however, so many progromists immediately came from; where they so quickly learned by heart the Torah of beating, robbing and destroying belongings – it was incomprehensible. Every hour there were new nasty information: that on Boyakes Street a housekeeper threw the owner of the house off his balcony, that feathers were let out of cushions, houses were robbed and everything was destroyed.
We lived in the city center and all the residents gathered in one room and watched through the window how Lithuanian soldiers chased after Jews and beat them mercilessly with rifle butts. It was only when Dr Wygodzki [recognised head of the official Vilnius Jewish community, Zionist activist and former representative in the Polish Sejm] told the Lithuanian city commander that he would turn to the Red Army Commander, who was in Porubanek, 4 kilometres from Vilnius, for support, that the Lithuanian commander sent out patrols and thus directly controlled the situation.
As I stood by the window and watched what was happening, I saw a group of impertinent guys chasing a Jew and beating him mercilessly.
I started threatening them with my fist through the window. My roommates started shouting at me that I would drive our house to ruin. Very soon stones actually started flying through the window. All the windows and the big lamp were broken and all the food was covered by glass.
“That’s what you get for being a hero,” my roommates told me.
It was precisely at this time that the Jewish youth began to leave the city en masse and move to the Soviet Union.
The authorities issued exit tickets, a hesitation was enough and they left the city by legal and illegal means.
Unfortunately, the beginning of Lithuanian rule was a bitter one for Jews, and its end – the darkest thing that even the most shameful fantasies could not have imagined.
Mendel Balberyszski (1894-1966) was born in Vilnius, but had been living in Łódź, Poland, for over a decade at the outbreak of the Second World War. During the interwar period, he was editor of the Yiddish newspaper Der Tog (The Day) in his home town of Vilnius. He left Vilnius and became a member of the Polish Jewish Folks-partey to fight for cultural autonomy for Polish Jewry. In 1925 Balberyszski founded the Association of Jewish Craftsmen and Small Entrepreneurs in Łódź and became the president of Noten Lekhem, the largest Jewish aid organization. In 1939 he led the Polish Democratic Party, one of the three most important political parties in interwar Poland. In the first days of September 1939, he decided to flee from the German Wehrmacht to Vilnius, where he arrived in relief on 29 September.
Balberyszki’s notes are an eyewitness account of the pogrom in Vilnius at the end of October 1939. Indeed, with the withdrawal of the Red Army and the transfer of Lithuanian units to Vilnius on 28 October 1939, three-day anti-Jewish riots broke out not only in Vilnius but also in Naujoji Vilnia, Maišiogala and Pabradė, which quickly turned into pogroms. Contrary to Balberyszki’s statements, these were mainly committed by ethnic Poles and had started with anti-Lithuanian and anti-Soviet demonstrations, which were then quickly directed against Jews. That the Lithuanian government itself was behind the pogroms has been refuted by research, contrary to Balberyszski, but the role of the Lithuanian police remains unclear and Balberyszski and other sources point to complicity. By 31 October 1939, one Jew named Fayvl Magun had been killed, hundreds more injured and Jewish shops looted. 11Dieckmann, Christoph, 2011: Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944, Band 1. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, S. 142–143; Levin, Dov, 2008, pp. 107-137. The Jews of Vilna under Soviet Rule, 19 September-28 October 1939, in: Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 9 In particular, in the face of the pogroms, but due to ideological proximity or the hope of a better future, between 2000 and 3000 Jews left Vilnius by 11 November 1939 and moved to Soviet territories. 22Levin, Dov, 1995. The Lesser of Two Evils: Eastern European Jewry Under Soviet Rule, 1939-1941. Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society, 181.
After the German occupation of Lithuania, Balberyszski survived the “liquidation” of the small and large ghetto in Vilnius and experienced liberation by the Red Army in a concentration camp in Estonia. After the end of the war he emigrated to Australia and continued to be actively involved in Jewish community work. He founded the Society of Partisans and Camp Survivors, of which he became president. His memoirs, including this text, were published in 1967 under the title Shtarker fun ayzn : Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe.
1Dieckmann, Christoph, 2011: Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944, Band 1. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, S. 142–143; Levin, Dov, 2008, pp. 107-137. The Jews of Vilna under Soviet Rule, 19 September-28 October 1939, in: Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 9
2Levin, Dov, 1995. The Lesser of Two Evils: Eastern European Jewry Under Soviet Rule, 1939-1941. Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society, 181.
Mendel Balberyszski, Shtarker fun ayzn : Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe, Vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: HaMenorah, 1967), pp. 73–75.