|Vilnius Ghetto Map
It has been estimated that of the 265,000 Jews living in Lithuania in June 1941
254,000 or 95% were murdered during the German occupation. No other Jewish community in Nazi-occupied Europe
was so comprehensively destroyed.
Today Vilnius is the capital of the Republic of Lithuania. Known to Jews as Vilna (Wilna
) and to
Poles as Wilno, the city once was known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania". Out of a population of approximately 196,000
, 28% or 55,000 were Jewish. This figure has been estimated to have risen to
57,000 by September 1939
. Due to an influx of refugees, the Jewish population had
swollen to at least 80,000 by June 1941
Once part of the Russian Empire, on 16 February 1918
the Lithuanian Council in Vilnius
proclaimed an independent Lithuanian Republic. In the autumn of 1920
, Vilnius and the
region to which it belonged were occupied by Poland. On the outbreak of WW2 in 1939
Lithuania, originally to be occupied by Germany as part of the secret protocol, attached to the Ribbentrop-Molotov
pact, was ceded to the Soviet Union in exchange for German occupation of central Poland, which had initially been
allocated to the USSR.
The Red Army occupied Vilnius on 19 September 1939
. Lithuania and the Soviet Union
signed a treaty of mutual aid, in accordance with which Vilnius and the Vilnius region were returned to Lithuania.
, Vilnius became the capital of Soviet Lithuania.
Vilnius remained under Soviet control until 26 June 1941
, when the city fell to the invading
German Army (Wehrmacht
). Close on their heels came Einsatzgruppe A
, a unit consisting of SS, SD,
and Sipo policemen, commanded by SS-Standartenführer Franz Walter
. The Einsatzgruppen
and their SS and policemen cohorts were charged with the murder of
Communists and, especially, Jews. A Sonderkommando
of Einsatzkommando 9
was set up at
12 Vilenskaia Street
, under the command of the SS men Horst
, and Martin Weiss
On 8 July 1941
an order was issued stating that all Jews must wear a special patch
on their back; subsequently they were ordered to wear the patch on their chest. The commandant of the town of Vilnius,
, signed this order. But two days later another commandant named
ordered that the Jews should not display these patches, but must
instead wear the yellow Star of David.
|Lukiszki Prison *
In addition Jews were forbidden to walk along the main streets of the city, and shops were ordered to sell them
food in limited amounts. Jewish people were fired from their jobs, deprived of the means of personal transportation
and radios, forbidden to use public transport, and prohibited from public places. Jews were arrested on the streets,
at their work places, and in their houses. The arrested would be first taken to Lukiszki prison
and then to
for execution by German police units (SS and SD), Lithuanian police units, and
Lithuanian "self-defense" units.
The first shootings of Jews in Vilnius occurred on 4 July 1941
(or even earlier),
after the military administration was replaced by a civil administration. On the same date the Germans
ordered the establishment of a Judenrat
(Jewish Council) which was intended to control the Jewish
ghetto police and various departments of: work, health service, social welfare, food, housing, etc. Of special importance
was the department of work. The Judenrat
considered that as long as the Jewish workforce was of use to the Germans,
the ghetto would not be liquidated. This was a kind of warranty, allowing Jews to retain some hope
of continued existence and eventual survival.
Almost all men and women of suitable age and fitness were employed in different factories and workshops, but were often
also impressed for forced labour.
The mass extermination of the Jewish people in Vilnius began at the moment when district commissar
Hans Christian Hingst
arrived, together with the "expert on Jewish questions",
Between the time of the German occupation of the city and the creation of the ghettos on 6
, 20,000 Jews either vanished or were killed (approximately 7,000) outright.
By the end of 1941
, the murdered Jews of Ponary
numbered at least 48,000, the majority of them from Vilnius.
|Anton Schmidt *
As the reports of Einsatzgruppe A
testify, the rapid annihilation of the Jews of Lithuania was
only made possible because of the eager participation of the local population. The German invasion
found the Russians militarily unprepared and the civilian population disoriented and demoralised.
Exploiting the superstitious anti-Semitic prejudices of the local population and their hatred of
the Soviets, the Germans utilised these willing collaborators to round up and kill the Jews. In
Vilnius, Lithuanians roamed the streets, capturing Jewish men and hauling them away,
purportedly for work. The activities of these Lithuanian auxiliaries were so in tune with German plans
that by the end of July 1941
, twenty local police battalions were formed.
Under the supervision of Franz Lechthaler
, commander of the 11th Battalion
of the German reserve police, about 8,400 Lithuanian volunteers were charged with the murder of local Jews. By the
end of 1941
, when most Lithuanian Jews had been killed, some of these battalions
were sent to Byelorussia and Poland, where they perpetrated killings in towns, ghettos and camps, including
, as well as taking part in the destruction of the
It has been estimated that between one-half and two-thirds of all Lithuanian Jews were killed by local militia,
although it should be said that there were also some Lithuanians as well as Germans who assisted Jews. Even if few in
number, their courage serves to highlight the barbaric acts of their compatriots. One Austrian
soldier in particular, Anton Schmidt
, hid Jews in the basement of
a mattress workshop and arranged for their transfer to Byelorussia in military trucks. He was executed for his actions.
Between end of July and early August 1941
, Lithuania was transferred from
military rule to the Reichskommissariat Ostland
The killings continued at Ponary
in the following weeks without respite.
By 1 December 1941
had raided Vilnius no less than fifteen times. Einsatzkommando 9
of their Lithuanian auxiliaries to participate in the liquidation of the Jewish community. Every
morning and afternoon they seized 500 people, who were murdered the same day. The victims were
not only Jews of Vilnius: Jewish residents of many nearby towns and villages as well as Polish
priests and Russian POWs were murdered there. Nor was Ponary
the only murder site;
hundreds died in the Lukiszki prison
in Vilnius itself.
On 31 August 1941
, before the ghettos were established,
, a young Jew, witnessed an Aktion
commence, as a result of
which 2,019 Jewish women, 864 men and 817 children were taken from Vilnius in trucks to
and murdered. Nobody knew of their fate until on
3 September 1941
, a dishevelled Jewish woman arrived in the city.
She spoke to a doctor, Meir Mark Dvorjetsky
. Wounded, she had escaped from
. It was not a labour camp but an extermination site. The woman was alive
because men were shot first. Only by being amongst the last to be shot and thus not covered by the bodies of those
already dead or mortally wounded, could a person survive.
On 1 September 1941
, 4,000-5,000 (3,700 - according to EK3 chief
SS-Standartenführer Karl Jäger
) Vilnius Jews were herded together
by the Germans. An endless column walked through the nocturnal streets. Nearly nobody knew what would happen to them.
One day later, on 2 September 1941
, the witness Sakowicz
saw them arriving at the Ponary
killing site. Only two girls survived this massacre
by crawling out of the pits: the 16 years-old Pesia Szlos
and the 11 years-old
After 3 September 1941
, six survivors are known to have crawled out of the pit alive.
All of them were girls or women. Dvorjetsky
related the woman’s story to a
gathering of Vilnius' Jews. They refused to believe him, accusing him of panic mongering. The Aktion
for four days, resulting in 8,000 deaths.
|Ghetto Street *
On the morning of 6 September 1941
, all Jews were ordered to leave their
homes and move to the ghettos. 3,000 of those unable to find shelter in the ghetto were taken to
Two ghettos were installed, separated by Niemiecka Street
. This street was
outside the limits of both ghettos and served as a barrier between them. A wooden fence enclosed each ghetto, and the
entrances of houses facing the outside were blocked off. Each ghetto had only one gate for exit
and entry, placed at opposite ends of the enclosed area, so that it would be impossible for those
entering and leaving to cross paths. At first, people were moved into either ghetto at random.
29,000 people were incarcerated in Ghetto 1 and 9,000-11,000 in Ghetto 2. The living conditions were
those common to the ghettos of countries under Nazi occupation - dilapidated housing, lack of
sanitation, unbearable congestion. A doctor calculated that in the 72 buildings, which comprised
Ghetto 1, the average living space was 1.5-2 square meters. The killing never stopped. Even on
the day of the setting up of the ghettos, a day on which it was intended to lull the Jews into some
sense of security, killings had taken place. Every day in September 1941
continued to be slaughtered by Einsatzkommando
Several days after the Jews had moved in, Ghetto 1 was designated for craftsmen and workers with
permits, and Ghetto 2 was to be for all others. The transfer of orphans, the sick, and the elderly
from Ghetto 1 to Ghetto 2 began. Those with work permits moved with their families into Ghetto 1.
On 15 September 1941
, the ghetto police published a notice stating that those
without work-permits would have to move to Ghetto 2 to alleviate congestion. That night approximately 3,000 people
started towards the second ghetto; only 600 reached its gate. The rest were taken to Lukiszki
and then Ponary
, where they were murdered.
|Judenrat Building *
On 7 September 1941
, the day after the ghettoization began, a separate
was established in each of the two ghettos. Anatol Fried
engineer, assembled the new Judenrat
for Ghetto 1. The Judenrat for Ghetto 2 was appointed by SD and Security
Police in Vilnius and was led by Eisik Lejbowicz
A Jewish police force was also established under Jacob Gens
, a name
that was to figure large in the history of the ghetto. Whilst the council of Ghetto 1 had as its
members public figures, party activists, and members of the intelligentsia, Ghetto 2's membership
consisted of those previously less active in community affairs. Due to their inadequate leadership,
the council members of Ghetto 2 invited public figures and members of the intelligentsia to become
members of the council.
In the period from 15 September to 21 October
, families in which neither
parent was employed were transferred into Ghetto 2. The other Jews were put into Ghetto 1. It was during this period
that the "Yom Kippur Action" took place, on 1 October 1941
. 3,000 Jews were deported to
In three more "actions", on 3-4, 15-16, and 21 October
, Ghetto 2 was liquidated and
its inhabitants murdered at Ponary
|Gelber Schein Supervision *
On 23 October 1941
yellow coloured Scheine
(certificates / permits), among the Jews in Ghetto 1. A Gelbschein
enabled its bearer to register three additional family members, who carried blue permits. This presented
the holder of the Schein
with an agonizing dilemma. Who was to be saved? Every Schein
holder tried to
save those closest to him. He might have to choose between his parents, his wife and children or his
brothers and sisters. If he was unmarried, widowed or childless, he entered the next closest members of
his family as wife and children. Nephews were entered as sons, fathers as husbands, wives as children,
mothers as wives. Those without the protection of a Schein
On 24 October 1941
and 3 November 1941
took place, claiming the lives of a further 9,000 victims who held no permit. This was
followed in December 1941
by further smaller "actions".
In addition 3,500 Jews had fled from Vilnius to Byelorussian towns and villages, or had hidden outside
the ghetto. The official "legal" population of the ghetto was now 12,000. In reality there were at
least a further 3,000 "illegals" in hiding, in the ghetto or on the "Aryan" side.
There now followed a period of relative quiet in the ghetto, lasting until summer of 1943
Vilnius became a "working ghetto". The Judenrat
’s policy of "rescue through work" was based on
the assumption that if the ghetto would be productive, it would be worthwhile for the Germans to
keep it going, for economic reasons. In this it shared a belief common to the Judenrat
of many other
ghettos. All sought, in their different ways, to preserve the precarious balance between work and
death. Daily, they were faced with the same devastating choices, which had faced the holders of
. Their responses to the desperate position in which they were placed are amongst the
most controversial aspects of the Holocaust. Some were admired for their passive resistance, insofar
as that was possible, others were despised for their presumed collaboration.
Few Jews wanted to be members of the Jewish councils. The Judenräte
were instruments by which the
Germans held control over the Jews. Since the council's functionaries were Jewish, the members felt
as if they were betraying their co-religionists. The Vilnius Judenrat
was initially established with
extreme difficulty, as those who were selected as members by Rabbi Simeon Rosowski
refused the position. Thus, the decision was made at a meeting in the prayer house, that if someone was elected,
they were obligated to accept.
The first Jewish underground organisation calling for armed revolt against the Germans was formed
in the ghetto on 1 January 1942
. Under the leadership of
, the "United Partisans Organisation" (FPO - Fareinikte Partisaner
Organizatzie) was a combination of Communists and various Zionist organisations. Their first proclamation was unusually
prescient: "All the roads of the Gestapo
lead to Ponary
is death! ... Hitler aims to destroy all the Jews of Europe.
The Jews of Lithuania are fated to be the first in line. Let us not go as sheep to the slaughter!"
But whilst a core of activists continued to attempt to rouse the population to fight their persecutors,
there was no effective armed resistance in Vilnius.
hymn of the FPO
See our page about
|Jacob Gens *
Before the end of 1941
, with German support, Jacob Gens
born in 1905
, at the time of
the German invasion appointed director of the Jewish hospital and on creation of the ghetto, head of the Jewish police,
gained authority in the ghetto. Gens
was a Zionist revisionist from
and a former officer in the Lithuanian army.
On 10 July 1942
, the SS appointed Gens
the head of the ghetto, dissolving the Judenrat
appointed deputy head. Gens
craved office and the trappings of office.
There were probably elements of megalomania in his personality; ghetto residents referred to him
as "King Jacob the First", although there is no doubt that he believed passionately in the philosophy
expressed in the slogan "work for life". Eventually 14,000 out of 20,000 residents in the ghetto were in
employment. By September 1942
, the Judenrat
itself employed 1,550 people,
more than 10% of the then "legal" population of the ghetto.
Judaism taught that if it was demanded that one Jew be unjustly surrendered to an enemy in order
to be put to death otherwise all Jews would be killed, the Jews should all suffer death rather
than surrender one of their number. In many ghettos, rabbis wrestled with this moral problem.
Few dissented from the traditional view. But for those burdened with the terrible choices,
Halacha (Jewish law) was no answer to the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust.
During the selections of October and November 1941
himself checked the papers of the Jews as they passed before him, three blue
cards to one yellow card. In October he participated in the Aktion
that removed about 150 old and incapacitated
Jews from the ghetto. In two "actions" in December he supervised the delivery of over 150 Jewish "criminals" to
In October 1942
, who was also responsible
for several smaller surrounding ghettos, sent his deputy to the Ozmiana Ghetto
choose 400 elderly and chronically ill people to be killed. The Germans had demanded 1,500 for transportation to
believed that by helping to
supervise the "actions", a proportion of those who would otherwise be killed might be saved. Justifying his "actions",
"The Jewish Police saved those who must live. Those who had little time to live were taken
away and may the aged among the Jews forgive us. They were a sacrifice for our Jews and our future.
On another occasion he defended himself, saying:
"When they ask
me for a thousand Jews, I hand them over; for if we Jews will not give them on our own, the Germans will
come and take them by force. Then they will take not one thousand, but thousands. With hundreds,
I save a thousand. With the thousands that I hand over, I save ten thousand. I will say: I did everything in
order to save as many Jews as possible…..to ensure that at least a remnant of Jews survive.
was aware of the resistance, but tolerated it only as a means
of last resort. His primary concern was to maintain the policy of survival through work. Anything that
interfered with that strategy was not to be tolerated. So when, on 16 July 1943
the Germans discovered
’s identity and demanded his surrender with the threat that
they would otherwise burn the ghetto to the ground, Gens
the Jews of the ghetto and announced that because of Witenberg
ghetto might be annihilated. Chaos broke out, with Jews attacking the partisans and demanding
be handed over to the Germans. After consultation
with his colleagues, Witenberg
surrendered to the Gestapo
. Some accounts
suggest that Gens
had given Witenberg
a cyanide pill; others report that he was immediately shot and that his mutilated body was found the next day.
, his successor as leader of the FPO, later declared that
’s surrender was a heroic act, preventing a conflict between
Jew and Jew.
|The Old Cemetery *
In the end, whichever strategy the Judenrat
had adopted made no difference. The Judenrat
together with the fragments of the communities they had tried to save by whatever means, were
was summoned to Gestapo
14 September 1943
and probably shot. Forewarned of his impending execution and urged to flee,
he replied that if he were to run away, thousands of Jews would pay for it with their lives.
By then, the final death throes of the Vilnius Ghetto had begun in accordance with Himmler's order of
21 June 1943
to liquidate the ghettos of the Reichskommissariat Ostland
All provincial work camps of the Vilnius Ghetto (in Baltoji Voke, Beznodys
) were dissolved, and several hundreds of their prisoners killed by the
Following the transfer of Jews from smaller neighbouring ghettos, in the summer of 1943
there were in excess of 20,000 Jews in the Vilnius Ghetto, 12,332 of whom were counted
as workers. By 5 September 1943
, a further 7,000 Jews had been sent to
and murdered. In "actions" on 4 and 24 August
and 1 and 4 September
, over 7,000 men and women, capable of working, were sent to
labour camps at Vayvari
and other places in Estonia. The FPO called in vain
on the ghetto to revolt.
|Bruno Kittel *
Under the supervision of Bruno Kittel
, head of the Jewish section
of the Gestapo
from June 1943
, the Vilnius Ghetto was liquidated on
23 and 24 September 1943
. 8,000 of the 10,000 surviving Jews were taken to
. There, a selection took place. Those able
to work were sent to labour camps, men to Estonia and women to Latvia. Some were eventually transferred
to the Stutthof
concentration camp. Between 4,300 and 5,000 elderly women and
children were sent to
. None survived. Several hundred children and elderly
men and women were sent to Ponary
Now came the task of destroying the evidence. Paul Blobel
was ordered to perform this task. He arrived in the
end of September 1943
By 25 September 1943
, only 2,000 Jews officially remained in Vilnius, in four small
labour camps. More than 1,000 were in hiding inside the ghetto. Those in hiding were gradually hunted
down and executed. Those permitted to live continued to work at the Kailis
factory (fur factory) and the
HKP 562 (Heeres-Kraftfahr-Park
/ Military Vehicle Repair Park) workshops
which were situated at several locations in Vilnius.
Immediately after the retreat of the Wehrmacht
from Vilnius and the abandonment by them of the HKP workshops
on 2 July 1944
the SS took 1,800 of the prisoners to
and shot them. A small number of the workers remained in hiding until
the Red Army entered Vilnius on 13 July 1944
|Karl Plagge *
|Vilnius Map (560 KB!)
The largest group of Jewish survivors from Vilnius came from the HKP sub-camp on
. Many of the survivors credited the efforts of their unusual
camp commander, Wehrmachts-Major Karl Plagge
, as being
a deciding factor in their survival. Throughout the German occupation, Major
used his position to shield his Jewish workers from the murderous
intent of the SS by certifying them as essential workers for the war effort, supplying them with supplemental food
and freeing them from prison when at times they were arrested by the Gestapo
Ultimately 250 of the HKP Jews survived until liberation because Plagge
had warned them that SS killing squads were coming. It was the single largest group of Jewish
survivors from Vilnius during the Shoah
. On 11 April 2005
, after years
of research by HKP survivors and their descendants, Karl Plagge
the title of "Righteous Among Nations" by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem
(More about Karl Plagge
in German and English!)
Between 2,000 and 3,000 of the original 57,000 Jewish inhabitants of Vilnius survived, either
in hiding, with the partisans, or in camps in Germany and Estonia, a mortality rate of
approximately 95% - almost exactly corresponding with that of Lithuania as a whole. The 2001 census
indicated that the population of Vilnius was 542,287, of whom 0.5% or about 2,700 were Jews.
In post-war trials of the major war criminals of Vilnius, Franz Murer
the "expert on Jewish affairs" in the city from 1941 to 1943
, also called by
survivors "The Butcher of Vilnius"
was arrested in 1947
and extradited to the Soviet Union. There he was sentenced
to 25 years hard labour. In 1955
he was released and returned to his native Austria,
where he became a farmer.
He was eventually traced by Simon Wiesenthal
. A further trial took
place in Austria in 1967
, at the conclusion of which
, who had personally participated in
the murders at Ponary
, was tried in 1950
sentenced to life imprisonment,
as was August Hering
, head of the Sonderkommando
in Vilnius from
January to June 1942
. Bruno Kittel
, who had supervised
the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto, disappeared at the end of the war. Soviet courts tried some
Lithuanians. Most perpetrators were never prosecuted.
See The Memoirs of Samuel Esterowicz
Atlas of The Holocaust
- Martin Gilbert - William Morrow and Company Inc, New York 1993.
- Martin Gilbert - Collins, London 1986.
The Holocaust in Lithuania - Dina Porat - The Final Solution - Origins and Implementation
David Cesarani (Ed) - Routledge, London 1996.
The War Against The Jews
- Lucy S Dawidowicz - Bantam Books, New York 1979.
The Good Old Days - The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders
Ernst Klee. Willi Dressen and Volker Riess - Konecky & Konecky, New York 1991.
The Destruction of the European Jews
- Raul Hilberg - Yale University Press, New Haven 2003.
Ghetto in Flames
- Yitzhak Arad - Yad Vashem - Jerusalem 1980.
Judenrat. The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation
- Isaiah Trunk -
The Macmillan Company - New York 1972.
Encyclopedia of the Holocaust
- Israel Gutman (Ed) - Macmillan Publishing Company - New York 1990.
Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka - The Operation Reinhard Camps
- Yitzhak Arad - Indiana University Press -
Bloomington and Indianapolis 1987.
Documents on the Holocaust
- Yitzhak Arad, Israel Gutman, Abraham Margaliot (Eds) -
University of Nebraska Press - Lincoln 1999.
Testimony of Abram Gerzevitch Suzkever
- International Military Tribunal - Nürnberg 1946.
Michael Good www.searchformajorplagge.com
Die geheimen Notizen des K. Sakowicz
- Margolis, Rachel and Tobias, Jim G. (Eds) -
Antogo Verlag - Nürnberg 2003.
Liquidation of Wilno Ghetto
- Belberyszski, Mendel - in: "Dokumenty i materialy" of CZKH (Jewish
Central Historical Commission), Vol. II - Akcje i wysiedlenia (Actions and Deportations)", Lodz 1946.
Yad Vashem *
© ARC (http://www.deathcamps.org) 2005