Studying the Holocaust is looking through a window to our present day. The Holocaust is one of the most documented, analyzed and examined human atrocities in history, and abortion is one of the least. Because the Holocaust is in the past and because nearly none of us lived in the environment where it took place, we can look at it objectively. But because abortion is an integral part of the culture in which we live, most of us accommodate it; and we breathe a fog of confusion, as did many Europeans when the Holocaust was taking place. The story I wish to tell about resistance and collaboration is from the Holocaust. There are detailed accounts of this story, but I will limit myself to the basic thread.
Partly because of the historical presence of outstanding Jewish scholars, the city of Vilna had been called the Jerusalem of the Lithuania. Vilna had drawn Jewish students from all over Europe and at the beginning of the 20th century, half the city’s population was Jewish. After World War I, both Poland and Lithuania claimed the city, but Poland took control in 1920. Under the terms of the German-Soviet Pact, Vilna, along with the rest of eastern Poland, was occupied by Soviet forces in late September 1939. In October, the Soviet Union transferred the Vilna region to Lithuania. The Germans invaded and took Vilna in June of 1941, when at that time some 70,000 Jewish people lived there, both residents and refugees.
In July, 1941 German Einsatzgruppen squads, helped by Lithuanians, killed 5,000 Jewish men at Ponary Forest a few miles outside of Vilna, and this was only the beginning. The Germans established two ghettos in Vilna and forced the Jews to relocate to them—the weak and the infirm into one ghetto which was liquidated after a few days. By the end of the year 1941, the Einsatzgruppen had murdered about 40,000 Jews in Ponary.
The techniques the Germans used for pacifying the Jews are well known—one being that they spread the lie that those taken from the ghettos were being resettled in labor camps, and the Jews did work in construction projects outside the ghetto, but periodic roundups and killings of those who had no work permits continued until the spring of 1942. Young men were particularly selected for being shot, because they were most likely to resist. The remaining Jewish people, for the most part, went along rather than resisted, in the hope of survival. Resistance, they believed, would mean death. Compliance meant perhaps that they could live another day, even if under tremendous hardship.
Two Jewish figures emerged as representing opposite poles of response to the atrocities.
Jacob Gens rose to a position of respect among the Germans and was appointed chief of the Judenrat—the Jewish police in September, 1941. Gens so pleased his masters that he eventually was appointed chief of the ghettos in all of Lithuania and White Russia.
The next section on Gens is an extract from
The Holocaust Chronicle,
and the Holocaust Research Project.
“Jacob Gens, leader of Vilna (Lithuania) Ghetto's Jewish Council, ruled his community with almost dictatorial power. Derisively called ‘King Jacob the First,’ Gens decided who would live and who would die. Convinced he could save Jews by demonstrating their value to the German economy, he selected those capable of ‘productive’ labor and surrendered to the Nazis those who were ‘unproductive.’ During the 1941 Einsatzgruppen roundups, Gens personally inspected each Jew's work permit. Those too old, too weak, and too ill to work,Yitzhak Wittenberg, a communist in his mid-thirties, and members of other political organizations, including Zionists, began meeting within the ghetto to discuss what they were certain of, that eventually all of the Jews of Vilna would be killed. The Zionists had the goal of fighting to form the nation of Israel, but they concluded that the dignity of the Jewish people imposed upon them a greater demand—that they remain and fight to defend their people in the event that the Germans would attempt to liquidate the entire ghetto. Others argued that it would be better strategically to fight the Germans in the forests. But in the end they all agreed to arm themselves and to resist from within the ghetto while trying to arouse the remaining 20,000 Jews into resistance, though they knew that military success was without hope. In late January of 1942 they chose Wittenberg to be their leader. The organization was named the Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye—the FPO.
or not in possession of the prized ‘yellow card’ were delivered by Gens to the SS, who then executed them.”
“When reproached by Jewish religious leaders for his tactics, Gens defended his philosophy: ‘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.’"
From the spring of 1942 until September 1943 there was a lull in the killings at Vilna, and Gens attempted to restore a sense of normalcy. During that time the Gestapo discovered the name of the FPO resistance leader, Wittenberg, and demanded to Gens that he be turned over to them. Gens requested a meeting with Wittenberg with the purpose of arresting him, but backed by FPO fighters, Wittenberg escaped with through the inaction of Judenrat police. The story is dramatized in the book Treblinka. What follows are excerpts from conversation between Wittenberg and Gens, and ruminations of Gens.
Wittenberg: “Listen to me, Gens. I know you believe you are acting for the good of the Jewish people, but you are wrong, for the Germans have condemned us all. All your acts of cowardice, all your betrayals may postpone the end, but the end is inevitable. We have always suffered greatly, and pogroms have been our daily bread, but what is happening now exceeds the worst we have ever known. Before, they killed us with hatred and without method; today they are exterminating us without hatred but with method, and this is serious. It is no longer men we are up against, it is machines. If they still hated us we might try to talk to them, if they had something in particular against us we might try to show them that they are wrong, but they no more hate us than you hate spiders. Our only fault in their eyes is that we exist. We are all dead, Gens—you, me, your son and mine. It is merely a question of chronology. But we still have one thing left to save: our honor.”
Gens: “The future may prove you right, Itzak, and my name may be cursed; and yet something tells me you are wrong. You talk about honor like a Gentile, not like a Jew. Honor for a Jew is honoring God, as Moses us commanded us to do. In Spain when the Gentiles tried make us deny our God, we died at the stake. But today it is not our honor that is being threatened, it is our lives.”
“Therefore, Itzak Wittenberg, I say that you are wrong, because you are mistaken when you talk about Jewish honor. Why God has imposed this punishment on his people, I do not know. But one thing I do know, and that is that God can not want His whole people to be exterminated, for if He wanted that, He would be denying His own Word. He would be breaking His Covenant. This is why I know that I am obeying Him, even when I betray you to save Jewish lives. Moses delivered the Jews from Pharaoh’s clutches, and Esther from Haman’s; perhaps God has chosen me.”
Wittenberg: “You are mad, Gens! Mad with pride! You are nothing but a puppet in the hands of the Germans, and you think you are the savior of the Jewish people!….”
“Gens did not sleep that night. He saw his own strategy collapsing because of one man, when 40,000 had been exterminated in Ponary. What was one man compared to the 40,000 already dead and the 20,000 who were going to die?Gens believed that by betraying Wittenberg he could save the Jews in the ghetto, and those Jews were persuaded of this also, turning against the FPO. Even many of the partisans agreed—and, disheartened, Wittenberg said to them, “We don’t even have the right to die fighting. We were children; all of this is too big for us” and turned himself over to Gens and the Judenrat. The next day, July 16, 1943, Wittenberg died, though the stories conflict about how this took place. Wittenberg apparently requested cyanide so that he could take his own life rather than be subjected to German torture. Some stories say that he was denied the cyanide; one story says that Gens supplied it to him.
He did not care about his own life, he had already sacrificed it for his people, but all his efforts reduced to zero, the ghetto liquidated because of this imbecile who should have gone to the forest if he was so determined to fight! Since he could not count on his police, he considered setting the ghetto against him, but he remembered what the sages had written: ‘When the idolater says, “Deliver one of your people to us, we will kill him, but if you refuse we will kill you all,” let all consent to perish and let not one soul of Israel willingly be delivered to the idolater,’ and he was shaken for a moment.”
In September 1943 the Germans completed the destruction of the Vilna ghetto. The FPO revolted and some fought to the death, while others escaped. Most Jews did not resist. Gens was shot by the Gestapo on September 14. One source said that Germans had accused him of aiding the underground. Most Jews that had remained in the Vilna ghetto were sent to forced labor camps, death camps, or they were shot at Ponary Forest. About 2,500 Jews were kept in labor camps near Vilna.
On July 13, 1944 Soviet forces liberated Vilna, but in anticipation, the Germans had already murdered those Jews in the labor camps. A few hundred Jews escaped the massacre and hid in the forest. Of the original 70,000, only between 2,000-3,000 Vilna Jews survived the war—they who fled during the German occupation, or found hiding places in the city. A few of them survived in concentration camps in Germany.
Beth Hatefutsoth, Museum of the Jewish People, www.bh.org.il/Communities/Archive/Vilna.asp
Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team,
Noar Family, www.noarfamily.net/Vilnaghetto.html
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org/
Shoah Resource Center,
Treblinka, by Jean-Francois Steiner, 1966
For further study, see the “docurama” film, Partisans of Vilna, 1986, available on DVD and featuring interviews with the real person of Abba Kovner, Israeli poet and leader of the Vilna Jewish resistance after Wittenberg’s death. The surrender of Wittenberg, Kovner declared, was, “one of the greatest acts of heroism of the Jewish fighting underground in the ghetto.” Also, you may wish to study the paintings of Vilna child-survivor Samuel Bak.
End Note: I believe that there are many parallels between what happened in these events and what is taking place now with abortion, especially with regard to the “Blue Moon Group” here in Asheville, featured in the Time magazine cover story of February 26, 2007. Of course, there are differences. But, I will leave you to consider your own conclusions. -MEH