Vilnius – A Garden of Eden in Times of War?

After the German attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, Vilnius became overnight one of the only places of refuge in Eastern Europe and offered temporary protection to over 30,000 Polish refugees in 1939/40. The existing Jewish infrastructure of the city granted Jewish refugees an unprecedented start-up aid for migrant life in the shadow of the incipient Holocaust in Poland. In this way, they called into being a project, which was the expression of migrant self-assertion and active Jewish resistance to Nazi terror.

Due to the strategic negotiations of the Lithuanian government in September 1939 and the revised version of the Molotov-Ribbentrop-Pact that followed, Vilnius was turned overnight into the capital city of what had been at that point the only neutral state in Eastern Europe. It was therefore on of the only escape routes for Polish, Jewish and non-Jewish, refugees who fled from Germany and Soviet-occupied Poland. Geopolitically, Lithuania’s capital was at first – although unintentionally and quickly overwhelmed – a city of refuge and transit for Polish refugees, but also a destination for many thousand Lithuanian migrants. At the start of December 1939, already 18,000 (among which were 6,860 Jews) and in February 1940, a total of circa 27,000 Polish refugees (with 11,000 Jews), were officially registered. These numbers remained the same until July 1, 1940 according to a “Report about the Aid for War Refugees and Migrants” from the Lithuanian interior ministry in July 26, 1940 – although this did not reflect the full extent. As a rule, only those who needed care registered themselves as refugees. The others avoided registering with the authorities out of fear of the register lists falling in the hands of the Soviets. 11Balkelis, Thomas, 2007: War, Ethnic Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in Lithuania, 1939–1940, pp. 461–477 in: Contemporary European History Vol. 16 (4), p. 464; Dieckmann, Christoph, 2011: Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944, Band 1. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 144–147. The total number of Polish-Jewish refugees is therefore estimated at 14,000, out of which 70 percent escaped from the German and 30 percent from the Soviet occupation zones. 22Levin, Dov, 1995: The Lesser of Two Evil. Eastern European Jewry under Soviet Rule, 1939–1941. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, p. 200.

So the refugees tugged across the streets of Vilnius from all over the land. Workers from
Warsaw, Yeshiva students from Lublin, dealers from Katowice, engineers, doctors – they
dragged themselves over the ancient streets of Vilnius and looked for a place of refuge.
A bed…
A piece of bread…
A shirt…
A little bit of warm food…
The first days were a big mish-mash of distress and pain. Who would be there to look after the thousands of refugees? Who would take care of them? Who would give them a comforting
word? Vilnius was busy with its own worries, with its own fears and suffering. Vilnius had
after all, just shaken itself out of the nightmare of war, and of the German bombardments, out of the dark nights and death-bringing days. Cut off from the world, Vilnius suffered from hunger and no one in those days had a mind for refugees. 33K., Hermann [Pseudonym of Hermann Kruk], 1940: Pleytim (Reportazsh), pp. 10–13 in: Folksgezunt: Ilustrirter populer-visnshaftlekher zshurnal far higyene un meditsin 1–2 (1940), p. 10.

For Vilnius, which had a population of around 210,000 (as of 1938) in the pre-war period, the influx of refugees meant a sudden population growth of around 15 percent, which could not simply be absorbed and led to a humanitarian crisis. In the words of Mendel Balberyszski, a Jewish refugee in Vilnius at the time, “the beginning of Lithuanian rule was [unfortunately] a bitter one for Jews,” 33Balberyszski, Mendel, 1967. Shtarker fun ayzn : Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe, Volume 1. Tel Aviv: HaMenorah, 73-75. since with the withdrawal of the Red Army and the transfer of Lithuanian troops to Vilnius on 28 October 1939, three days of anti-Jewish riots, mainly perpetrated by ethnic Poles, quickly turned into pogroms – not only in Vilnius, but also in Naujoji Vilnia, Maišiogala and Pabradė. 44Dieckmann, Christoph, 2011: Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941-1944, Volume 1: 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. The pogroms were ended with the help of the Lithuanian police, but help for refugees by the Lithuanian authorities beyond that could hardly be expected. But thankfully, the new arrivees in Vilnius, especially Jewish ones, did not have to settle in without any support from civil society.

Thanks to a Jewish cultural and social infrastructure, that had developed in the course of several hundred years, spanning from respected traditional educational institutions, reputable Hebrew and Yiddish publishers, magazines and newspapers as well as secular Jewish institutions of learning and culture, culminating in Jewish labor unions, professional associations, and social help networks, Vilnius advanced. Long worshipped as the “Jerusalem de Lite”, a traditional center of Jewish learning, the city also became the navel of the secular cultural and political movements of Jewish modernity. 55Harshav, Benjamin, 2002: Introduction: Herman Kruk’s Holocaust Writings, pp. xxi–lii in: Kruk, Herman (Author), Harshav, Benjamin (ed..), Harshav, Barbara (trans.), The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939–1944. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. xxix–xxxiv. This Jewish infrastructure that was woven into the city was what awaited Jewish refugees from occupied Poland, even after the incorporation of Vilnius into Lithuania in October 1939.

A number of active Jewish aid organizations, such as the Society for Safeguarding the Health of the Jewish Population of Poland, TOZ (Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia Ludności Żydowskiej w Polce), the Society for Manual and Agricultural Work among Jews in Russia, ORT (Obshchestvo Remeslennago i Zemledelecheskago Truda Sredi Evreev v Rossii) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint), worked together as part of the Committee for Refugee Assistance of the Jewish Community of Vilnius, one of the five organizations operating under the Red Cross Lithuania, and were financed by foreign donors in particular as well as by the Lithuanian treasury.

One can already say, that thanks to the Committee for Refugee Assistance of the Jewish Congregation of Vilnius, thanks to the financial support of “Joint”, thanks to the collaboration of TOZ in the field of healthcare – there is not a single hungry Jewish refugee in Vilnius, every refugee has an address, where he can go and sign up for supplies and where he has both clothing and housing assistance, medical care, legal assistance and if necessary also gets a professional training etc. 66Koren, L. [Pseudonym of Herman Kruk], 1940: Pleytim: 2ter artikl, pp. 14–15 in: Folksgezunt: Ilustrirter populer-visnshaftlekher zshurnal far higyene un meditsin 3 (1940), p. 15.

Demographically speaking, the refugee collective was made up of all layers of the Polish Jewry, but consisted especially of its political and intellectual elite. On October 11, 1939, one day after the signing of the contract between Lithuania and the Soviet Union, a train from Warsaw arrived. On board: 29 Jewish writers and journalists whose numbers would further rise to 60. With the financial support of the Joint and the help of the scientific infrastructure of YIVO, Noyekh Prilutski, 77Noyekh Prilutski (1882-1941) was a publicist, philologist and politician. He first published in Russian and Hebrew, from 1908 then mainly on and about Yiddish, for example in the journal Yidishe filologye, co-founded and edited by him. He founded and led the Jewish Folk Party, with which he became involved in the 1920s, beginning as a parliamentary representative for the political interests of the national minority. After his escape from Poland to Vilnius, he took over the chair of Yiddish language and culture and headed the YIVO from January 1941. After the German occupation of the city Prilutski was murdered by the National Socialists in August. See Weiser, Kalman: Pryłucki, Noah, in: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe: https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Pry%C5%82ucki_Noah (17.10.2019). together with the 59 other writers formed what is probably the earliest Jewish historical Commission in Eastern Europe, dedicated to the documentation of German crimes in their Polish homeland. The work of the so-called Komitet tsu zamlen material vegn yidishn khurbn in Poyln (Committee for Collecting Material on the Destruction of Jewish Communities in Poland 1939) was entirely based on the cooperation with the refugee community. Everyday interviews were conducted with refugees to report about German crimes, escape and displacement, which subsequently formed the basis for the summary reports of the committee. 88On the history of the Committee, see Schulz, Miriam, 2016. Before the Bow That Was Drawn: The Vilnius Komitet and its documentation of the destruction of Polish Jewry, 1939-1940/41. http://metropol-verlag.de/produkt/miriam-schulz-der-beginn-des-untergangs/.

Despite the German and Soviet occupation of Poland, the news about the extraordinary activities of the Committee made it to Warsaw. Emanuel Ringelblum (1900-1944), 99Emanuel Ringelblum (1900-1944) was a Jewish-Polish historian, political activist, collaborator in aid organizations and director and chronicler of the secret Warsaw Ghetto Archive. As a historian he worked especially with the history of Polish Jews especially in Warsaw. With the exploration of their history – and thus their historical participation in Polish society – Ringelblum also wanted to strengthen the political integration of Polish Jews. He was also involved in Yiddish Cultural associations. During the Second World War, Ringelblum worked for Jewish aid organizations. In particular, in 1940 he founded a secret archive documenting life in the Warsaw Ghetto. Until his murder by the Nazis In 1944, Ringelblum continued to write historical works, including the annihilation of the Jewish population of Poland during World War II. world-famous director and chronicler of the later Warsaw Ghetto Archive, noted on January 3, 1940 the following sentence in his diary:

די שרײַבער געהערט װעגן דעם װילנער גן־עדן, װאָס יצחק  פֿאַר זײ געמאַכט. געצויגן אַהין װען װאַרשע נישט געקאָנט זײ אַזוי שיצן.

The writers heard about the Garden of Eden in Vilnius, that Yitskhok 1010Yitskhok Giterman (1889-1943) was Director of the Joint (link to Glossary) in Poland from 1926-1923. After he first fled Poland in 1939, he returned in 1940 and continued to lead the operations of Joint. After the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, he supported the interests if its residents and also supported underground resistance groups. He was murdered by SS soldiers on 1943. Cf. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Yitzhak Gitterman, in USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/yitzhak-gitterman (10.17.2019) has prepared for them. They moved there when Warsaw was not able to protect them any longer in the same way.

Emanuel Ringelblum, 3 January 1940 1111Ringelblum, Emanuel, 1961. Ksovim fun geto. Warsaw: Yidish bukh, p. 65.

Vilnius as a paradise of Jewish life in times of this war – what a bizarre statement in view of the fact that more than 95 percent of the Jewish population on Lithuanian territory (of originally 200,000 Jews only 9,000 to 10,000 survived) were murdered between 1941 and 1944 by the German occupying forces and their local helpers, i.e. only a few years after this phrase found its way into Ringelblum’s diary. Indeed, the Lithuanian Holocaust has the highest death toll in Europe. 1212For information on the Holocaust in Lithuania, see Dieckmann, Christoph, 2011: Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941-1944, Volume 1 Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag; “Lithuania,” in: USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/lithuania; Subotić, Jelena, 2019. Yellow Star, Red Star : Holocaust Remembrance after Communism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 150-204, 164.  The Biblical analogy to the Garden of Eden may be surprising, but one might find here an appropriate categorization of a particular welcoming and beneficial moment in Jewish migrant life and self-assertion in Lithuanian Vilnius, whilst taking into account its limited time period at the same time. Vilnius as a Garden of Eden for refugees describes both the opportunities found, seized and self-created by refugees in order to make Vilnius their city in a certain sense, but also the fact that Vilnius, after the invasion of the Wehrmacht at the latest in June 1941, was turned into the absolute and extreme opposite. The overwhelming majority of Jewish refugees who had failed to leave Vilnius in one way or the other, as well as the majority of Lithuanian Jews, died in the Holocaust – among them Noyekh Prilutsky. 1313Noyekh Prilutski (1882-1941) was a publicist, philologist and politician. He first published in Russian and Hebrew, from 1908 then mainly on and about Yiddish, for example in the journal Yidishe filologye, co-founded and edited by him. He founded and led the Jewish Folks-partey, with which he became involved in the 1920s, beginning as a parliamentary representative for the political interests of the national minority. After his escape from Poland to Vilnius, he took over the chair of Yiddish language and culture and headed the YIVO from January 1941. After the German occupation of the city Prilutski was murdered by the National Socialists in August. See Weiser, Kalman: Pryłucki, Noah, in: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe: https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Pry%C5%82ucki_Noah (17.10.2019).

    Footnotes

  • 1Balkelis, Thomas, 2007: War, Ethnic Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in Lithuania, 1939–1940, pp. 461–477 in: Contemporary European History Vol. 16 (4), p. 464; Dieckmann, Christoph, 2011: Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944, Band 1. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 144–147.
  • 2Levin, Dov, 1995: The Lesser of Two Evil. Eastern European Jewry under Soviet Rule, 1939–1941. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, p. 200.
  • 3Balberyszski, Mendel, 1967. Shtarker fun ayzn : Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe, Volume 1. Tel Aviv: HaMenorah, 73-75.
  • 4Dieckmann, Christoph, 2011: Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941-1944, Volume 1: 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.
  • 5Harshav, Benjamin, 2002: Introduction: Herman Kruk’s Holocaust Writings, pp. xxi–lii in: Kruk, Herman (Author), Harshav, Benjamin (ed..), Harshav, Barbara (trans.), The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939–1944. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. xxix–xxxiv.
  • 6Koren, L. [Pseudonym of Herman Kruk], 1940: Pleytim: 2ter artikl, pp. 14–15 in: Folksgezunt: Ilustrirter populer-visnshaftlekher zshurnal far higyene un meditsin 3 (1940), p. 15.
  • 7Noyekh Prilutski (1882-1941) was a publicist, philologist and politician. He first published in Russian and Hebrew, from 1908 then mainly on and about Yiddish, for example in the journal Yidishe filologye, co-founded and edited by him. He founded and led the Jewish Folk Party, with which he became involved in the 1920s, beginning as a parliamentary representative for the political interests of the national minority. After his escape from Poland to Vilnius, he took over the chair of Yiddish language and culture and headed the YIVO from January 1941. After the German occupation of the city Prilutski was murdered by the National Socialists in August. See Weiser, Kalman: Pryłucki, Noah, in: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe: https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Pry%C5%82ucki_Noah (17.10.2019).
  • 8On the history of the Committee, see Schulz, Miriam, 2016. Before the Bow That Was Drawn: The Vilnius Komitet and its documentation of the destruction of Polish Jewry, 1939-1940/41. http://metropol-verlag.de/produkt/miriam-schulz-der-beginn-des-untergangs/.
  • 9Emanuel Ringelblum (1900-1944) was a Jewish-Polish historian, political activist, collaborator in aid organizations and director and chronicler of the secret Warsaw Ghetto Archive. As a historian he worked especially with the history of Polish Jews especially in Warsaw. With the exploration of their history – and thus their historical participation in Polish society – Ringelblum also wanted to strengthen the political integration of Polish Jews. He was also involved in Yiddish Cultural associations. During the Second World War, Ringelblum worked for Jewish aid organizations. In particular, in 1940 he founded a secret archive documenting life in the Warsaw Ghetto. Until his murder by the Nazis In 1944, Ringelblum continued to write historical works, including the annihilation of the Jewish population of Poland during World War II.
  • 10Yitskhok Giterman (1889-1943) was Director of the Joint (link to Glossary) in Poland from 1926-1923. After he first fled Poland in 1939, he returned in 1940 and continued to lead the operations of Joint. After the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, he supported the interests if its residents and also supported underground resistance groups. He was murdered by SS soldiers on 1943. Cf. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Yitzhak Gitterman, in USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/yitzhak-gitterman (10.17.2019)
  • 11Ringelblum, Emanuel, 1961. Ksovim fun geto. Warsaw: Yidish bukh, p. 65.
  • 12For information on the Holocaust in Lithuania, see Dieckmann, Christoph, 2011: Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941-1944, Volume 1 Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag; “Lithuania,” in: USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/lithuania; Subotić, Jelena, 2019. Yellow Star, Red Star : Holocaust Remembrance after Communism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 150-204, 164.
  • 13Noyekh Prilutski (1882-1941) was a publicist, philologist and politician. He first published in Russian and Hebrew, from 1908 then mainly on and about Yiddish, for example in the journal Yidishe filologye, co-founded and edited by him. He founded and led the Jewish Folks-partey, with which he became involved in the 1920s, beginning as a parliamentary representative for the political interests of the national minority. After his escape from Poland to Vilnius, he took over the chair of Yiddish language and culture and headed the YIVO from January 1941. After the German occupation of the city Prilutski was murdered by the National Socialists in August. See Weiser, Kalman: Pryłucki, Noah, in: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe: https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Pry%C5%82ucki_Noah (17.10.2019).

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