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 for over a decade at the outbreak of the Second World War. In the interwar period, Balberyszski was an editor of the Yiddish newspaper Der Tog (The Day) in Vilnius. He became a member of the Polish Jewish Folkspartey (People’s Party) and, as part of it, fought 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 the largest Jewish aid organization Noten Lekhem (Bread Giver). In 1939, he became the leader of 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. He arrived in Vilnius on 29 September 1939. His memoir Shtarker fun ayzn : Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe (“Stronger than Iron, Surviving in Hitlers era”), this text being among them, was published in 1967.
Balberyszki’s notes are an eyewitness account of a pogrom in Vilnius at the end of October 1939. Indeed, with the withdrawal of the Red Army and the transfer of Lithuanian troops to Vilnius on October 28, 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 as 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; Balberyszski and other sources point to complicity. By October 31, 1939, a Jew named Fayvl Magun had been killed, hundreds more injured, and Jewish stores looted. 11Dieckmann, Christoph, 2011: German occupation policy in Lithuania 1941-1944, Volume 1. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, pp. 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. Particularly in the face of the pogroms, but also because of ideological proximity to communism or the hope for a better future, between 2,000 and 3,000 Jews left Vilnius by November 11, 1939, and moved to Soviet territories. [2 Levin, Dov, 1995. The Lesser of Two Evils: Eastern European Jewry Under Soviet Rule, 1939-1941. Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society. 181.]
Balberyszski survived the “liquidation” of the small and large ghetto in Vilnius and experienced the 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 Association of Partisans and Camp Survivors, of which he became president.
1Dieckmann, Christoph, 2011: German occupation policy in Lithuania 1941-1944, Volume 1. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, pp. 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.
Mendel Balberyszski, Shtarker fun ayzn : Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe, Vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: HaMenorah, 1967), pp. 73–75.