The City of Vilna
Vilnius, known as Vilna in Yiddish, is the cultural and financial capital of Lithuania. Located in southern Lithuania on the Viliya River, Vilna is built on river terraces, with the outskirts on densely wooded plateaus. The Rudniki forests are 35 miles to the south of the city and the Narocz forests 125 miles to the east.
On the eve of World War II, Poles, Lithuanians and Jews made up the majority of Vilna's population, with smaller numbers of Byelorussians, Russians and Ukranians as well. Approximately 60,000 Jews lived in the city, representing about one-third of the total population.
Because of its strategic location between east central Europe and Russia, Vilna was a battleground in many wars and subject to shifting national boundaries. In 1795, it was annexed by the Russian Empire and was ruled by the tsars until 1914. During the First World War, Vilna was occupied by the Germans and at the war's end, it briefly became the capital of the recreated free country of Lithuania. In 1920, however, Poland annexed Vilna by force and continued to rule it until the start of World War II. The neighbors of truncated Lithuania in the interwar period were Latvia on the north, Poland on the east and south, and Germany on the southwest. Today Lithuania is bordered by Latvia on the north, Belarus on the southeast, Poland on the southwest, and the Kaliningrad region of Russia, as well as the Baltic Sea, on the west.
In September 1939, when Germany invaded the western part of Poland, the USSR appropriated its eastern part, including Vilna. On October 10, the Soviets returned the city to Lithuania, creating an escape zone for Polish Jews. But independence was short-lived. In June 1940, the Red Army forcibly annexed all of Lithuania, including Vilna.
At the beginning of World War II, anti-Semitism was rife in Lithuania and Poland (which controlled Vilna from 1920 to 1939). While in the 1920s Jewish educational, social and cultural life flourished, in the 1930s the governments of both countries moved to the extreme right under the influence of pro-Nazi nationalists, limiting the access of Jews to government and higher education. When the Soviets took over, Jews in Vilna again were offered equality. Many Jews, especially the youth, welcomed the Soviets. The Lithuanians, on the contrary, generally had great antipathy toward the Russians, who had ruled them for more than a century. Lithuanians merged their deep-seated hatred of the Soviets with their hostility to the Jews, whom they called "Bolsheviks." The Jews also suffered at the hand of ethnic Poles, who rioted against them in October 1939 when the Soviets withdrew and awarded Lithuania its freedom.
With the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941, the city again fell under German rule. It was liberated in 1944 and re-annexed by the Soviet Union. A half-century later, in 1990 it became the capital of an independent Lithuania.
The Vilna Partisans
The first written document calling for organized Jewish armed resistance against the Germans came from Vilna. On New Year's Eve, 1942, 150 members of the left-wing Zionist movement Hehalutz (which included Hashomer Hatzair and Dror) came together to hear the proclamation in Yiddish and Hebrew calling on all Jewish youth to resist. It was written by Abba Kovner, a 23-year-old poet and youth leader, and was titled, "Let us not be led like sheep to the slaughter." That term, used for the first time at this meeting, later came to signify Jewish passivity during the Holocaust, but from the first, it was meant as a rallying call-to-arms.
Partisans were armed units that hid out in the forests of Europe and conducted hit-and-run operations against German military units. While most of Europe's Jews were unable to escape the Nazi stronghold, between 20,000 and 30,000 people did succeed in fleeing the ghettoes and work camps to densely wooded forests nearby. There, they formed fighting groups to sabotage and resist the Nazis and their collaborators.
At the beginning of the war, the Rudniki forests largely were inhabited by Lithuanian and Polish partisan units. In October, 1943, a group led by "Yurgis"--a Lithuanian Jew who kept his true identity secret--took over command of all southern Lithuania, including the Rudniki forests. Three battalions of Jewish fighters operated there. The largest, called the "Mstitel," or Avenger, was headed by Abba Kovner. It successfully sabotaged highways, bridges and power lines. Jewish partisan units from the nearby Kovno ghetto, totaling about 200 people, arrived in the Rudniki forests at the end of November 1943, and formed three additional battalions.
In June of 1944, the Red Army advanced toward Vilna with the help of partisans. After intense fighting and many casualties, Vilna was finally liberated by Russian troops on July 13, 1944.
This text is excerpted from the study guide included with the DVD, written by Isaiah Kuperstein and edited by Aviva Kempner and Sara Brzowsky