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Yikskhok Rudashevski was born in Vilna in the Soviet Union in 1927. His father was a typesetter for a Yiddish newspaper and his mother was a seamstress.
In 1941 Vilna was captured by the German Army. Soon afterwards all Jews were rounded up and forced to live in the Vilna Ghetto. While in the ghetto (June 1941 and April 1943) Yikskhok kept a diary and in his last entry on 6th April records that Jews from Vilna are being taken to Ponar to be executed.
The Rudashevski family went into hiding but the Gestapo discovered their hideout in October, 1943, and the family were taken to Ponar where they were murdered.
Yikskhok's cousin, Sore Voloshin, managed to escape on the way to Ponar and she joined the partisans fighting the German Army in the Soviet Union. After the war she returned to the hiding place and found the diary. Yikskhok's diary was published in Israel in 1968.
One must stand in long lines to receive bread and other products. Jews are ousted from them. Germans go to the rows, throw out the Jews. Jews receive less food than the Aryans. Our life is a life of helpless terror. One day has no future. We have one consolation. The Red Army shows a fighting spirit. It has become concentrated. It gives blow for blow, it is offering resistance
The degree was issued that the Vilna Jewish population must put on badges front and back - a yellow circle and inside it the letter J. It is daybreak. I am looking through the window and see before me the first Vilna Jews with badges. It was painful to see how people were staring at them. The large piece of yellow material on their shoulders seemed to be burning me and for a long time I could not put on the badge. I was ashamed to appear on the street not because it would be noticed that I am a Jew but because I was ashamed of what they were doing to us. I was ashamed of our helplessness.
Jewish policemen donned official hats. I walk across the street and here go some of them wearing leather jackets, boots and green round hats with glossy peaks and Stars of David. Here goes Smilgovski (an 'officer') in the dark blue hat and a golden Star of David. They march smartly by in unison, (jackets are being 'loaned' by force in the streets.) They impress you as Lithuanians, as kidnappers. An unpleasant feeling comes over me. I hate from the bottom of my heart, ghetto Jews in uniforms, and how arrogantly they have somehow become such strangers to the ghetto. In me they arouse a feeling compounded of ridicule, disgust and fear. In the ghetto it is said that the reason for the uniforms is that thirty Vilna policemen are riding to the neighbouring towns to set up a ghetto in Oshmene. This is not known for certain.
Today the ghetto celebrated the circulation of the one hundred thousandth book in the ghetto library. The festival was held in the auditorium of the theatre. We came for our lessons. Various speeches were made and there was also an artistic programme. The speakers analyzed the ghetto reader. Hundreds of people read in the ghetto. The reading of books in the ghetto is the greatest pleasure for me. The book unites us with the future, the book unites us with the world.
We have good news. The people in the ghetto are celebrating. The Germans concede that Stalingrad has fallen. I walk across the street. People wink at each other with happy eyes. At last the Germans have suffered a gigantic defeat. The entire 9th German army is crushed! Over three hundred thousand Germans killed. Stalin's city is the enemy's grave.
A command was issued by the German regime about liquidating five small ghettos in the Vilna province. The Jews are being transported to the Vilna and the Kovno ghetto. Today the Jews from the neighbouring little towns have begun to arrive.
The mood of the ghetto is a very gloomy one. The crowding together in one place of so many Jews is a signal for something. Danger is hovering in the air. No! This time we shall not permit ourselves to be led like dogs to the slaughter.
We now know all the horrible details. Instead of Kovno, 5000 Jews were taken to Ponar where they were shot to death. Like wild animals before dying, the people began in mortal despair to break the railroad cars, they broke the little windows reinforced by strong wire. Hundreds were shot to death while running away. The railroad line over a great distance is covered with corpses.
In the evening I went out into the street. It is 5 o'clock in the afternoon. The ghetto looks terrible: heavy leaden clouds hang and lower over the ghetto.
The Vilna Ghetto, Vilnius Ghetto, Wilno Ghetto or Vilniaus Getas was a World War II Jewish ghetto established and operated by Nazi Germany in the city of Vilnius in the territory of Nazi-administered Reichskommissariat Ostland. Ώ] During roughly two years of its existence, starvation, disease, street executions, maltreatment and deportations to concentration camps and extermination camps reduced the population of the ghetto from an estimated 40,000 to zero. Only several hundred people managed to survive, mostly by hiding in the forests surrounding the town, joining the Soviet partisans, ΐ] Α] or finding shelter among sympathetic locals.
- Born on December 10, 1927 in Vilnius, Lithuania
- Passed away on October 1, 1943 in Vilnius, Lithuania
Everything is being taken into account now – you, your writing, your family, the people in Vilna Ghetto – the Nazis lost, struck and smashed onto their own soil. The little narrow streets are no longer empty, nor are they filled with a black mirage of tanks, motorcycles, and machines. Your life will no longer be of helpless terror, it will no longer be of mockery and humiliation, but of respect and honor - your day has a great future – only if you can wake up and live it.
Eighty years. It has been eighty years since the last time you wrote. About your school, your club, your family, your comrades, your people – your dreams. I remember you talking about the books you read, the papers you wrote, the daily projects you made, and the grades you earned. You told me that the reading of books when you were in the ghetto was the greatest pleasure – I also picked up my book recently you told me that your time was not being frittered away – I am glad to tell you the same. You lived to see the day, the day you go to school – frankly, we are also surviving to see that day. The clubs you mentioned, the ones about youth spirit – we do them a little differently now, and you would enjoy being in one of those with your gifted art and writing skills. We rarely point fingers to one another now – there is no more mockery, no more humiliation, no more discrimination against each other – just determination and collaboration in the face of danger. Since the beginning of last year, a new enemy has been introduced – a virus – a common enemy, against us, the people. We are fighting together now, and we are spiritually closer to one another more than ever before. You would be thrilled to see the day, to see people standing together, to see your dream come true. If only you lived to see the day.
Eighty years. It has been eighty years since the last time you wrote. But your spirit lives with us all. Your interest in art and literature is something I have never seen before. Your urge for a creative mindset when you were in struggle encourages us all to live as fully as we could all the time. Your love for learning and making discoveries in times of injustice motivates many in their journey. Most importantly, your confident, critical, and firm mindset educates us all. Not only were you on-track even under vicious oppression, you also show us the power of such a firm mindset in face of difficulties.
Your story from eighty years ago makes our problems in the present seem like a drop in the ocean your interest in making new discoveries inspires us to be curious every day, and your determined mindset encourages us to fight on when facing any challenges.
Your mentality lives with us all – if only you lived to see this day, the day when the Nazis lost the day when Jews are no longer discriminated against the day when people are rarely judged by their race, but by who they are as a pure individual they day when your story influenced us all to make changes – to be creative, engaged, and determined more than ever before.
Tributes are short messages commemorating Yitskhok, or an expression of support to his closest family and friends. Leave your first tribute here, and others will follow.
The Diary of Yitzchak Rudashevski
“The first great tragedy. People are harnessed to bundles which they drag across the pavement. People fall, bundles scatter. Before me a woman bends under her bundle. From the bundle a thin string of rice keeps pouring over the street…I think of nothing: not what I am losing, not what I have just lost, not what is in store for me. I do not see the streets before me, the people passing by. I only feel that I am terribly weary, I feel that an insult, a hurt is burning inside me. Here is the ghetto gate. I feel that I have been robbed, my freedom is being robbed from me, my home, and the familiar Vilna streets I love so much. I have been cut off from all that is dear and precious to me.”1
This is how Yitzchak Rudashevski, in his diary, describes the expulsion to the Vilna Ghetto. The diary was written from within the walls of the ghetto. Yitzchak’s words give us the impression that he understood that he was a part of a significant historical process and could influence fate.
Yitzchak was an only child of the Rudashevski family, that settled in Vilna at the beginning of the 1920s. His father, Eliyahu, worked in a publishing house, and his mother, Rosa, was a seamstress. Yitzchak had a normal childhood whose family was influential, enlightened and educated. He was a talented young man who revealed unique issues in the fields of history and literature. He was a member of the Soviet youth movement and was considered a true “pioneer.” In June 1941, when the German army conquered Vilna, he was not yet 14 years old.
The first entry in his diary is dated June 1941, the month that Vilna was conquered, and the last entry is dated April 7, 1943. The assumption is that until September 1942, Yitzchak wrote about events after they occurred, and only from this date forward did he begin to write about events as they occurred. From the diary we learn that Yitzchak had a gift for language, was sensitive to the world around him, and understood reality. In poetic and sensitive language, he describes experiences, anxiety, amazement, and wishes of an adolescent in the ghetto. The diary is written in Yiddish on 204 pages of a small notebook, some in pencil and some in pen. The diary enables us to glance into the world and the lives of the struggling Jews in the ghetto, where the fear of death reigned. This is how Yitzchak describes his first day in the ghetto to which he was confined in September 1941:
“The first ghetto day begins. I run right into the street. The little streets are still full of a restless mass of people. It is hard to push your way through. I feel as if I were in a box. There is no air to breathe. Wherever you go you encounter a gate that hems you in. We drift to the gate which divides us from Strashun and I find relatives and acquaintances. Many of the people no longer have places to live in. They settle down on stairs, in stores…I decide to hunt up my friends in the courtyard. I have an idea that all of us will be there.”2
Yitzchak understood that in order to survive there would be a need for social organization and cooperation. This insight indicates a concern that grew out of loneliness, which he describes in his diary several pages before this: “We are so sad, so lonely. We are exposed to mockery and humiliation.”3
The writing of diaries during the Holocaust was not a rare occurrence. We know from other diaries written during this period, that keeping a diary stemmed from many factors: the desire to leave testimony a type of internal conversation between the writer and himself which served as a remedy for the soul a way to deal with dangers and loneliness.
Reading Yitzchak’s diary enables the reader to glance outside of the Vilna Ghetto walls and to experience the everyday life from the unique perspective of a young adult. The diary provides us the opportunity to uncover the emotional complexities of a young adult who was forced to grow up within the ghetto walls. The harsh reality in the ghetto undermined the normative family structure many children were involved in the livelihood and the support of the household, watching over younger siblings, cooking and cleaning.
Frequently, children found themselves as the sole people responsible for the care of the family, and were often forced to smuggle food and other necessities into the ghetto. Yitzchak was also responsible for jobs that were largely those of adults:
“Life has gradually begun to “return to normal.” The handful of surviving Jews has begun to become accustomed to the new conditions. My parents work and I have become the “mistress” in the house. I have learned to cook, to wash floors, and on this I spend my days. In the evening I go to meet my parents.”4
Although the heavy responsibility fell on him, Yitzchak did not relinquish his inner social world as a growing teenager. His love for the youth movement and its activities, together with his belief in the definite victory of the Red Army over the Nazis, is evident in his diary. Yitzchak was involved in clubs for literature, poetry and history, and recognized that these gave him immense joy – he received compliments and praises for the texts that he wrote and read to his friends. Similarly, he was party to the documentation of daily life in the ghetto he volunteered to interview residents of the ghetto and write their testimonies. Yitzchak saw this as valuable for the future:
“In our group two important and interesting things were decided. We create the following sections in our literary group: Yiddish poetry, and what is most important, a section that is to engage in collecting ghetto folklore. This section interested and attracted me very much…In the ghetto dozens of sayings, ghetto curses and ghetto blessings…even songs jokes, and stories which already sound like legends. I feel that I shall participate zealously in this little circle, because the ghetto folklore which is amazingly cultivated…must be collected and cherished as a treasure for the future.”5
As he said, these writings were extremely valuable in Yitzchak’s life. In his diary he tells of the different types of writing that he was engaged in, documentary, literary and poetic, and historical writing in the framework of his activities and those who he met. Among them is the eulogy of his respected teacher, Yaakov Gershteyn, who died in the ghetto. Yitzchak also wrote eulogies for people whom he loved, among them, his good friend Benkya Naar. The fact that he wrote a diary for himself, teaches us that these were intimate texts, that opposed to other texts in which additional people collaborated, this was not designated for anyone else’s eyes.
Writing a diary in close proximity to an event situates the importance of this event for future readers. The writer tells his story, without outside interference, and provides his interpretation of reality. In this way, Yitzchak’s writing draws from his inner world and represents the reality outside as is formed by his testimony. Yitzchak’s descriptions can change based on his mood at any given moment. For example, his descriptions of the High Holy Days differ and expresses the subjective point of view of the feeling surrounding holidays in the ghetto. Yitzchak writes on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year):
“It is twilight. I go out into the street. The streets are lively. People are walking around dressed up. Today is a holiday. This is evident in every house you enter, the poverty has been scrubbed away. Formerly this would not have made an impression on me. However, now I felt strangely good because the everyday gray day is so much in need of a little holiday spirit which should drive away for a while the gray commonplaceness of life. People walked around until late on the little Vilna ghetto streets. A strangely sad holiday mood. And now the crowds thin out more and more. A cold starry sky overhead.”6
This description teaches us that despite the difficult daily struggle in the ghetto, residents of the ghetto were successful in maintaining their inner spirit. On the contrary, on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Yitzchak describes the holiday in a nostalgic tone, as a day he fondly remembers, that shadows the difficult aura that existed in the home and on the streets:
“It is Yom Kippur Eve. A sad mood suffuses the ghetto. People have such a sad High Holy Day feeling. I am as far from religion now as before the ghetto. Nevertheless, this holiday is drenched in blood and sorrow which is solemnized in the ghetto, now penetrates my heart. In the evening I felt so sad at heart. People sit at home and weep. They remind themselves of the past…Drenching each other with tears as they embrace…I run out into the streets and there it is also the same: sorrow flows over the little streets, the ghetto is drenched in tears. The hearts which have turned to stone in the grip of ghetto woes and did not have time to weep their fill have now in this evening of lamentation poured out all their bitterness…The evening was dreary and darkly sad for me.”7
After the evacuation of the Vilna Ghetto on September 23, 1943, Yitzchak, his family and his uncle’s family, went into hiding. Approximately two weeks later, their hiding place was discovered and during the High Holidays of that year, they were all taken to Ponar, where they were murdered in mass graves.
Sarah Voloshin, Yitzchak’s cousin, was the only one who managed to escape. She became a member of the Partisans and participated in the liberation of Vilna, where she came across the family’s hiding place and found the diary. The discovery and exposure of the diary gave such materials a new role in the field of first-hand documentation.
Today, the original diary is kept at YIVO in New York (an institute established in Vilna in the 1920s for the research of Yiddish) and copies of the diary are in other archives, including the archive at Yad Vashem.
Teaching about the Holocaust through Children's Diaries
This lesson plan contains selected excerpts from the diaries of five children who lived and perished in the Holocaust. Through these diary entries, we will highlight some central stages many Jewish European children experienced: their pre-war existence initial Nazi occupation anti-Jewish decrees &ndash the &ldquobadge of shame&rdquo, economic policies and disruption of schools closure into ghettos or forced into hiding daily life in the ghetto.
Warsaw, Poland, Girls eating in a Soup Kitchen in the Ghetto
Éva Heyman, aged 13, in Hungary a few months before she was murdered in a gas chamber, 1944
Brussels, Belgium, Moshe Zeev Flinker
Starving children in the Warsaw ghetto, Poland
Adam Wnuczek, aged 12, with Two Other Boys, Krakow Ghetto, Poland, 1941
- Flinker, Moshe, Young Moshe&rsquos Diary: The Spiritual Torment of a Jewish Boy in Nazi Europe, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1965, p. 19.
- Heyman, Eva, The Diary of Eva Heyman, Shapolsky Punlishers, New York 1988, p. 23, 28.
- Heyman, p. 57.
- Sierakowiak, p. 36.
- Rudashevski Yitshok, The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto, Ghetto Fighters House and Hakibutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1973, p. 25.
- Heyman, pp. 71-73.
- Flinker, p. 19.
- Morgenstern, Naomi, I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1998, p. 12.
- Sierakowiak, Dawid, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 66.
- Sierakowiak, p. 46.
- Rudashevski, pp. 30-31.
- Heyman, Eva, The Diary of Eva Heyman, Shapolsky Punlishers, New York 1988, p. 68.
- Heyman, p. 70.
- Heyman, pp. 82-83.
- Rudashevski, pp. 31-32.
- Flinker, pp. 58-59.
- Heyman, p. 89.
- Sierakowiak, p. 94.
- Sierakowiak, p. 121.
- Rudashevski, pp. 34-35.
- Yad Vashem Archive O.48/47.B.1.
- Flinker, p. 36.
- Heyman, p. 104.
Children and Their Diaries During the Holocaust
Between 1939 and 1945, six million Jews, including one-and-a-half-million children and teenagers, were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. According to Nazi racial ideology, all Jews regardless of age were deemed unworthy of life.
The Holocaust was a period in which Jews were robbed of all liberties. They were starved, beaten, forced into hard labor, packed into closed ghettos, and murdered. Those still alive faced a daily struggle for survival. Despite and perhaps because of these hardships, we see a phenomenon of widespread diary writing, as well as personal and organized documentation efforts. The children, like all Jews, faced similar hardships, and many of them kept diaries as well. Due to the nature of war, only a very few of these personal accounts survived.
Overall, these children enjoyed a relatively normal, worry-free childhood before the Second World War. Whether from Poland, Germany, The Netherlands, Hungary or Lithuania, they were born into Jewish communities that had existed in Europe for thousands of years.
One these children was Moshe Flinker. Moshe Ze’ev Flinker was born in The Hague, The Netherlands, on October 9, 1926, and was eventually murdered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. In 1942, after the Germans and the Dutch police began rounding up Jews for deportation, he fled along with his family to Brussels, Belgium, where the 16-year-old Moshe kept his diary. He writes:
"For some time now I have wanted to note down every evening what I have been doing during the day. But, for various reasons, I have not got round to it until tonight. First, let me explain why I am doing this – and I must start by describing why I came here to Brussels.
I was born in The Hague, the Dutch Queen’s city, where I passed my early years peacefully. I went to elementary school and then to commercial school, where I studied for only two years .”1
- We can estimate Moshe’s motives for writing the diary:
- Why does someone keep a diary?
- Do you think Moshe’s motives for keeping a diary were similar to those of children today?
Eva Heyman was born in 1931 in Nagyvárad, Hungary. She was murdered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in 1944. Early in her diary she describes her thirteenth birthday, and lists the presents she received:
“I’ve turned thirteen, I was born on Friday the thirteenth. [..] From Grandpa, [I received] phonograph records of the kind I like. My grandfather bought them so that I should learn French lyrics, which will make Ági [mother] happy, because she isn’t happy about my school record cards except when I get a good mark in French [..] I do a lot of athletics, swimming, skating, bicycle riding and exercise. [..] I’ve written enough today. You’re probably tired, dear diary.”2
- What can we learn about Eva’s life and family from this excerpt? How would you describe her?
- How do you think Eva perceives herself?
To the teacher: This excerpt portrays Eva’s rich cultural and personal background – a thirteen-year-old girl with varied interests and hobbies. She has a supportive family, which encourages Eva in her activities.
The Onslaught of Nazi Occupation
The children’s daily routine was disrupted with the Nazi occupation. Although the Germans began to target Jews for persecution, the situation differed from country to country and region to region.
“Dear diary, you’re the luckiest one in the world, because you cannot feel, you cannot know what a terrible thing has happened to us. The Germans have come!”3
Dawid Sierakowiak was born in Lodz, Poland in 1934. He perished in the Lodz ghetto, a victim of starvation and illness. In his diary, he describes hearing the Germans have entered Lodz:
“Lodz is occupied! The beginning of the day was calm, too calm. In the afternoon I sat in the park and drew a sketch of a girlfriend. Then all of a sudden the terrifying news: Lodz has been surrendered! German patrols on Piotrkowska street. Fear, surprise [..] Meanwhile, all conversation stops the streets grow deserted faces and hearts are covered with gloom, cold severity and hostility.”4
Yitskhok Rudashevski was born in Vilna (now Lithuania) in 1927. He eventually perished in Ponary.
In 1941, the Nazi’s captured Vilna. Fourteen-year-old Yitskhok writes:
“Monday was also an uneasy day. Red Army soldiers crowded into autos are continually riding to Lipovke. The residents are also running away. People say with despair that the Red Army is abandoning us. The Germans are marching on Vilna. The evening of that desperate day approaches. The autos with Red Army soldiers are fleeing. I understand that they are leaving us. I am certain, however, that resistance will come. I look at the fleeing army and I am certain that it will return victoriously.”5
Read the following descriptions:
- How would you characterize the different reactions to the invasion?
- What do these reactions tell us about the children’s view of the situation?
To the teacher: with the outbreak of the war, many Jews hoped and believed it would end quickly.
Throughout Europe, persecution of the local Jewish population began swiftly after the entry of the Nazis. Jews were often stripped of their citizenship and barred from public institutions. Severe limitations were placed on their economic activity, and many became unemployed and destitute. For the children, school was disrupted and often halted altogether, and many Jewish pupils were forced to support their families by working or smuggling.
Eva Heyman, 13, Nagyvarad, Hungary:
“Today they came for my bicycle. I almost caused a big drama. You know, dear diary, I was awfully afraid just by the fact that the policemen came into the house. I know that policemen bring only trouble with them, wherever they go. [..] So, dear diary, I threw myself on the ground, held on to the back wheel of my bicycle, and shouted all sorts of things at the policemen: “Shame on you for taking away a bicycle from a girl! That’s robbery!” [..] One of the policemen was very annoyed and said: “All we need is for a Jewgirl to put on such a comedy when her bicycle is being taken away. No Jewkid is entitled to keep a bicycle anymore. The Jews aren’t entitled to bread, either they shouldn’t guzzle everything, but leave the food for the soldiers.”6
“During the year I attended, the number of restrictions on us rose greatly. [..] we had to turn in our bicycles to the police. From that time on, I rode to school by street-car, but a day or two before the vacations started, Jews were forbidden to ride on street-cars.”7
Eva and Moshe are describing a process in which their daily life is becoming more constricted.
- What messages are these children receiving from their neighbors? How did the children experience the changes occurring in their environment?
To the teacher: In the students’ answers, direct them to Eva’s instinctive reaction towards the policemen, her protest when they take away her bicycle, and the response of the policemen to her resistance. Also allude to Flinker’s entry on the growing travel restrictions for Jews.
Flinker, November 24, 1942 (continued)
“I then had to walk to school, which took about an hour and a half. [..] At that time I still thought that I would be able to return to school after the vacations but I was wrong.”
Hannah Hershkowitz was born in 1935 in Biala Ravska, Poland. She survived the war. In her memoir, Hannah recalls:
“I was six years old. It was the first day of school in September, 1941. [..] Marisha, my best friend, invited me to come with her to school. We met in the morning and walked together with a lot of other children. We reached the big high gates. The watchman of the school was standing by the gate. [..] Marisha went through the gate, and I followed her, as the watchmen greeted her.
“Where are you going?” he asked me.
“To school, to the first grade,” I said proudly, and continued walking. The watchman blocked my way. “No, not you.”
“But I am six already – I really am!”
“You are a Jew,” he said, “Jews have no right to learn. No Jews in our school. Go home!” [..] Marisha, with the other children, ran into the building.
[..] I did not cry. I thought: I’m Jewish. There is no place for me. I stood there until no one stood in front of the school. Only me. The new school year had begun. But not for me.”8
Dawid Sierakowiak, 15, Lodz, Poland:
“School is falling apart like an old slipper. Yesterday two men from the Gestapo came to the school at four o’clock.
“The school has been taken away. The students help the hired porters. They give us until tomorrow evening to clear everything out. A deadly feeling mass looting of the library.”9
- What was the meaning of the first day of school for you? Were you escorted?
- In light of these excerpts, how do you think the Jewish children felt being barred from school?
Dawid Sierakowiak, 15, Lodz, Poland:
“My father doesn’t have a job and simply suffocates at home. We have no money. It’s all shot! Disaster!”10
- Try to describe how Dawid felt after his father became unemployed. How do you think this affected day-to-day life in his family?
To the teacher: A family naturally provides a certain degree of security to a child. Dawid seemed to know full well the immediate consequences of his father’s dire financial situation. No doubt having the traditional provider “simply suffocate” at home added great stress to an already stressful situation.
The Yellow Badge
Jews were forced to wear an identifying badge in order to identify them. This humiliating racial mark segregated them from society, and it made them easy targets for brutality. In the streets, Jews would often be harassed, beaten and humiliated in public.
Yitskhok Rudashevski, 14, Vilna:
“The decree was issued that the Vilna Jewish population must put on badges front and back - a yellow circle and inside it the letter J. It is daybreak. I am looking through the window and see before me the first Vilna Jews with badges. It was painful to see how people were staring at them. The large piece of yellow material on their shoulders seemed to be burning me and for a long time I could not put on the badge. I felt a hump, as though I had two frogs on me. I was ashamed of our helplessness. […] It hurt me that I saw absolutely no way out.”11
Eva Heyman, 13, Nagyvarad, Hungary:
“Today an order was issued that from now on Jews have to wear a yellow star-shaped patch. The order tells exactly how big the star patch must be, and that it must be sewn on every outer garment, jacket or coat.12
“[..] On my way to Grandma Lujza, I met some yellow-starred people. They were so gloomy, walking with their heads lowered. [..] I noticed Pista Vadas [a friend]. He didn’t see me, so I said hello to him. I know it isn’t proper for a girl to be the first one to greet a boy, but it doesn’t matter whether a yellow-starred girl is proper or not. Pa, Eva, he said, don’t be angry, but I didn’t even see you. The star patch is bigger than you, he said without laughing, just looking so gloomy.”13
Yitskhok and Eva portray a sense of helplessness in the Jews who are forced to wear the badge.
Entry into the Ghettos and Hiding
The next stage of anti-Jewish persecution was closure into ghettos. Most of the Jews of Eastern Europe were forced out of their homes, leaving most of their belongings behind, and into ghettos - areas within cities and towns specifically allocated for Jewish residence. They were essentially held there as prisoners. Entire families would be packed together in extremely cramped, inhuman conditions.
Eva Heyman, 13, Nagyvarad, Hungary:
“In the morning Mariska [the family’s maid] burst into the house and said: ‘Have you seen the notices?’ No, we hadn’t, we are not allowed to go outside, except between nine and ten! [..] because we’re being taken to the ghetto. Mariska started packing [..] Mariska read in the notice that we are allowed to take along one change of underwear, the clothes on our bodies and the shoes on our feet [..]
Dear diary, from now on I’m imagining everything as if it really is a dream. [..] I know it isn’t a dream, but I can’t believe a thing. [..] Nobody says a word. Dear diary, I’ve never been so afraid”14
Yitskhok Rudashevski, 14, Vilna, describes the expulsion to the new closed ghetto:
”It is the 6th of September (1941)
A beautiful, sunny day has risen. The streets are closed off by Lithuanians. [..] A ghetto is being created for Vilna Jews.
People are packing in the house. [..] I look at the house in disarray, at the bundles, at the perplexed, desperate people. I see things scattered which were dear to me, which I was accustomed to use. [..] The small number of Jews of our courtyard begin to drag the bundles to the gate. Gentiles are standing and taking part in our sorrow. [..] Suddenly everything around me begins to weep. Everything weeps. [..] The street streamed with Jews carrying bundles. The first great tragedy. [..] Before me a woman bends under her bundle. From the bundle a thin string of rice keeps pouring over the street. I walk burdened and irritated. [..] I think of nothing: not what I am losing, not what I have just lost, not what is in store for me. [..] I only feel that I am terribly weary, I feel that an insult, a hurt is burning inside me. Here is the ghetto gate. I feel that I have been robbed, my freedom is being robbed from me, my home and the familiar Vilna streets I love so much. I have been cut off from all that is dear and precious to me.“15
- How does Eva try to cope with the new reality?
- What do you think Yitskhok meant when he wrote “the first great tragedy”?
Nazi anti-Jewish measures in occupied areas in Western Europe differed from those in the East. For various reasons, Jews were not closed in ghettos. However, the Nazis did enact similar anti-Jewish legislation: their citizenship was revoked, and they were banished from economic and social life. The decree for wearing the Jewish badge was also enacted in these countries.
Everyday Life in the Ghettos
The Jewish population in the areas under Nazi control lived in constant fear of abuse, looting and of deportation to the camps, which meant almost certain death.
Sixteen-year-old Moshe Flinker, who was living in Brussels at the time, writes:
“Last night my parents and I were sitting around the table. It was almost midnight. Suddenly we heard the bell: we all shuddered. We thought that the moment had come for us to be deported. The fear arose mostly because a couple of days ago the inhabitants of Brussels were forbidden to go out after nine o'clock. The reason for this is that on December 31 three German soldiers were killed. Had it not been for this curfew it could have been some man who was lost and was ringing at our door. My mother had already put her shoes on to go to the door, but my father said to wait until the ring once more. But the bell did not ring again. Thank heaven it all passed quietly. Only the fear remained, and all day long my parents have been very nervous.”16
Eva Heyman, 13, Nagyvarad, Hungary, describes her situation behind walls:
“Dear diary, we’re here five days, but, word of honor, it seems like five years. I don’t even know where to begin writing, because so many awful things have happened since I last wrote you. [..] the fence was finished, and nobody can go out or come in. The Aryans who used to live in the area of the Ghetto all left during these few days to make place for the Jews. From today on, dear diary, we’re not in a ghetto but in a ghetto-camp, and on every house they’ve pasted a notice which tells exactly what we’re not allowed to do [..] Actually, everything is forbidden, but the most awful thing of all is that the punishment for everything is death. There is no difference between things no standing in the corner, no spankings, no taking away food, no writing down the declension of irregular verbs one hundred times the way it used to be in school. Not at all: the lightest and heaviest punishment – death. It doesn’t actually say that this punishment also applies to children, but I think it does apply to us, too.”17
Food and medicine in the ghettos were strictly controlled by the Nazis. The food rations they allowed per person were inhuman for example, in Poland, less than 10% of the minimum daily requirement. Many Jews died of disease, starvation and exhaustion, a condition that was grimly referred to as “Ghetto Disease”.
Dawid Sierakowiak, 17, Lodz, Poland:
“I’m damnably hungry because there isn’t even a trace left of the small loaf of bread that was supposed to feed me through Tuesday. I console myself that I’m not the only one in such a dire situation. When I receive my ration of bread, I can hardly control myself and sometimes suffer so much from exhaustion that I have to eat whatever food I have, and then my small loaf of bread disappears before the next ration is issued, and my torture grows. But what can I do? There’s no help. Our grave will apparently be here.”18
The sight of the dead and the dying was a daily occurrence in many ghettos. This inevitably took its toll on the children.
Dawid Sierakowiak, 17, Lodz, Poland:
“I was staggered today when I hear about the death of our former neighbor in the building, Mr. Kamusiewicz. I think he is the first death in the ghetto that has left me so deeply depressed. This man, an absolute athlete before the war, died of hunger here. His iron body did not suffer from any disease it just grew thinner and thinner every day, and finally he fell asleep, not to wake again.”19
Life in the ghetto became a constant struggle for survival. The lack of goods quickly meant money had little real meaning. The impossible Nazi restrictions created a black market for all products necessary to live – food, medicine and energy sources to keep warm.
Yitskhok Rudashevski, Vilna:
“Father goes to work again in the munitions store houses. It is crowded and smoky in the house. Like many others I go hunting for firewood. We break doors, floors, and carry wood. One person tries to grab from the other, they quarrel over a piece of wood, the first effect of these conditions on the human being. People become petty, cruel to one another. […] I often go to work with father. I continue to go through the Vilna streets. The group goes to the munitions store houses […] In the evening I return with the group and fall back into the ghetto.”20
- Eva, Dawid and Yitskhok describe different aspects of ghetto life. What picture arises from these excerpts?
To the teacher: Each of the children has a different observation on the new reality: Eva points out the disproportionate punishments that apply even towards children Dawid talks of the hunger with great despair. His neighbor’s death affected him profoundly, and he fully expects to find his own death in the ghetto Yitskhok notes how he’s forced to search for fuel, as his father works in the munitions store. He also points out the growing quarrelling and cruelty, brought on by the struggle for survival.
Hopes and Dreams
Despite the severe hardships Jewish children had to endure, many still harbored hopes and dreams for the future. These wishes were often expressed in the children’s diaries, drawings and poems.
Avraham Koplowicz was born in Lodz in 1930. He lived in Lodz during the war, and was eventually deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp and murdered. A notebook of his survived, containing drawings and poems.
By Avraham Koplowicz
When I grow up and reach the age of 20,
I’ll set out to see the enchanting world.
I’ll take a seat in a bird with a motor
I’ll rise and soar high into space.
I’ll fly, sail, hover
Over the lovely faraway world.
I’ll soar over rivers and oceans
Skyward shall I ascend and blossom,
A cloud my sister, the wind my brother.[…]21
Many children expressed their hopes for the future during the war.
- Avraham wrote this poem while living in terrible conditions in the Lodz Ghetto. Yet this text presents a completely different reality – how do you think that can be? What is the role of imagination in survival?
”During the past few days when my mother raised the question of my future, my reaction was again one of laughter, but when I was alone, I too began to ponder this matter. What indeed is to become of me? It is obvious that the present situation will not last forever--perhaps another year or two--but what will happen then? One day I will have to earn my own living. [. ] After much deliberation, I've decided to become. a statesman.”22
- What can we learn from this excerpt about Moshe’s attitude towards the war?
- What influence, if any, do you think his situation had on Moshe’s decision to become a statesman?
On April 7, 1944, after being betrayed to the Gestapo, the entire Flinker family was arrested and eventually sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, where Moshe and his parents perished.
Eva Heyman, 13, Nagyvarad, Hungary:
“[..] dear diary, I don’t want to die I want to live even if it means that I’ll be the only person here allowed to stay. I would wait for the end of the war in some cellar, or on the roof, or in some secret cranny. [..] just as long as they didn’t kill me, only that they should let me live. [..] I can’t write anymore, dear diary, the tears run from my eyes, I’m hurrying over to Mariska… (End of diary)”23
Éva was caught by the Nazis, along with her grandmother and grandfather, and sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, where she was murdered. She was 13-years-old.
Categories of Diaries and Journals
The prominence of Anne Frank's diary served for a time to eclipse other in situ works written by children during the Holocaust. Nevertheless, as interest in the Holocaust has increased, so has the publication of many more diaries, shedding light on the wartime lives of young people under Nazi oppression.
Young journal writers of this period came from all walks of life. Some child diarists came from poor or peasant families. Others were born to middle-class professionals. Some grew up in wealth and privilege. A handful came from deeply religious families, while others grew up in an assimilated and secular community. A majority of child diarists, however, identified with Jewish tradition and culture regardless of their degree of personal faith.
Child diaries and journals from the Holocaust era can be grouped into three broad categories:
- Those written by children who escaped German-controlled territory and became refugees or partisans
- Those written by children living in hiding and
- Those maintained by young people as ghetto residents, as persons living under other restrictions imposed by German authorities, or, more rarely, as concentration camp prisoners.
These additional online resources from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will help you learn more about the Holocaust and research your family history.
The Holocaust Encyclopedia provides an overview of the Holocaust using text, photographs, maps, artifacts, and personal histories.
Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center
Research family history relating to the Holocaust and explore the Museum's collections about individual survivors and victims of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution.
Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos
Learn about over 1,000 camps and ghettos in Volume I and II of this encyclopedia, which are available as a free PDF download. This reference provides text, photographs, charts, maps, and extensive indexes.
Yitskhok Rudashevski : Nazi Germany - History
The Life of Yitskhok Rudashevski Yitskhok was the only child born to Rose and Elihu Rudashevski. Yitskhok's father worked as a typesetter for a well-known Yiddish newspaper. His mother worked as a seamstress. Yitskhok had a relatively comfortable childhood. He was part of a large, closely-knit and loving family. He lived in Vilna, the capital of Lithuania. Vilna had a large Jewish population and was a world center for Jewish culture and learning. In 1941, the city was home to over 80,000 Jews. Yitskhok completed one year of high school at the prestigious Realgymnasium. He was a good student and his favorite subjects were literature and history. He loved to read, and wrote as often as he could in his diary. He went hiking or to camp with his youth group.
When the Germans invaded Vilna in June 1941, Yitskhok was fourteen years old. The Germans immediately set about persecuting the city's Jews, and in July, took 35,000 men, women, and children to the Ponary forest, about 10 miles outside Vilna. Forced to dig their own graves, the Jews were massacred. In September, the remaining Jews were herded into two overcrowded, sealed-off ghettos. The smaller one was closed 46 days later, after its residents were murdered. Conditions were horrible in the remaining ghetto. There was little food, poor sanitation, and the residents were subject to random Nazi brutality and periodic roundups. Despite these conditions, underground cultural events were organized, newspapers were published, and various social welfare groups continued functioning. Yitskhok attended a clandestine school for two years. He joined various clubs including one that collected folklore. He continued to write in his diary, describing life in the ghetto.
The destruction of Vilna's Jewry continued, as the Nazis rounded up Jews and murdered them in the Ponary forest. A strong underground resistance group was formed, gathering weapons and planning for the defense of the ghetto. After the group was betrayed, many of its members escaped to the forest. In August 1943, as a prelude to their plan to empty the ghetto, the Nazis began sending the remaining Jews to Estonia. In September 1943, the Germans decided to murder those who were left. Yitskhok and his parents moved to a "hideout" in the attic of his uncle's home. They hid there with his uncle's family , along with five other people, for two weeks. In early October 1943, the Germans discovered the hideout. Sixteen year-old Yitskhok and the others were taken to the forest and murdered. One of Yitskhok's cousins managed to escape the massacre and joined the partisans in the surrounding forests. He returned to Vilna after the war and found Yitskhok's 204-page diary.http://www.museumoftolerance.com/mot/children/list4.cfm
Abba Kovner "Uri"
partisan and commander of the FPO (United Partisans Organization) in the Vilna ghetto
Lova Gershtein, Vilna 1912 son of Gershon Gerstein and Mera Meres was born in 1893. He was a physician in Kovno.He perished in concentration camp 1945
Lyova Klaczko, killed during the battle of Stalingrad in the Soviet army
Shmuel Klaczko, murdered in Ponary 1941.
My mother Lija Klaczko (Kliatschko in the ghetto census of 1942), born May 22, 1917, St. Petersburg, died New York City February 7, 1999
Members of the board of the Vilna Yiddish Writers and Journalists Association: A.Frydkin, Sh. Bejlis, A.J. Goldszmidt, Ch. Lewin, H.Abramowicz, Moshe Szalit, and A.J. Grodzenski and Abe Safir. (The photographer is reflected in the mirror.)
Vilna Informal outdoor portrait of students from a Tarbut gymnasium (secondary school) on a Tu-Bishvat excursion in Vilna: teenagers in overcoats pose with their teacher (left) in the snow.
Studio portrait: "A group of young [Jewish Socialist] Bundists from Lodz. standing 2nd from right is Yankev Dovid Berg. now president of the Sholem Aleichem Institute in N. Y. Seated, 2nd from left is his brother Avrom" ('Forward' spread, 1937).
Outdoor portrait of teachers and activists who led "the big school parade" (written in Yiddish): (2nd row from bottom, l to r) Helena Khatskeles (3), Dr. Zemach Shabad (Szabad)(4), Pats (5) Mazo (10) (3rd row, near center in white hat) Rivka Gordon (Tolpin 1917
City Vilna Flanked by two German soldiers, boys sell the "Wilnauer Zeitung," a newspaper issued by the Germans, who occupied the city on September 18, 1915.
Group portrait of Henry Morgenthau with American officers. Morgenthau headed a commission sent by President Wilson to investigate antisemitic pogroms and the conditions of the Jews in the newly formed Polish republic.
City Vilna Date 1929
Description Dr. Ignacy Schipper, historian, and other prominent scholars.
Description Students in a gymnastics class at the Kuperstein School for Girls of the CEBEKA (Central Education Committee) network pose with their instructor (in striped sweater).
Studio portrait: "A European family. Fayvl Leibowitz, of Vilna, photographed with his wife, daughters, sons, son-in-laws, and grandchildren." (Yiddish caption. From a 'Jewish Daily Forward' spread: "The Family Album -- . Submitted By Our Readers.")
pub. Nov. 1, 1936 Vilna
ca. 1900 Vilna
Outdoor portrait of Zemach Shabad (Szabad) (standing, r), son of Yosef Szabad, with his wife Stefania and others. Shabad (1864-1935) was a prominent physician and a leader of the Folkist Party, member of the Polish Parliament, and a founder of YIVO in Vilna
Looking into the Mirror: International Holocaust Remembrance Day
It’s a day for the international community and men and women of good will everywhere to call to mind the six million Jews and all the other victims killed by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, is designated by the United Nations General Assembly. It’s a day for the international community and men and women of good will everywhere to call to mind the six million Jews and all the other victims killed by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. The specific event it commemorates is the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by the Red Army in 1945.
To remember is to be human. And to remember the Holocaust is to stand in solidarity with the victims. The very act of calling the Holocaust to mind is, in a sense, a victory for humanity. If Hitler had succeeded in his genocidal plan, no one would be remembering it today. Indeed, as we read in the memoirs of those who suffered in Auschwitz and the other camps, their main fear was that, even if they survived to tell the tale, no one would believe them. Their Nazi tormentors told them as much. One prisoner at Auschwitz, Primo Levi, never forgot the cruel taunting by the guards—“No one will believe you or remember,” they told him, laughing in his face. It was a sadistic and dehumanizing act, an attempt to render the victims helpless and alone. Levi would remain haunted by that fear his entire life.
Thankfully, the Nazis failed in their quest, and on this day, the world remembers. We today are more fortunate than those living in the immediate postwar era. Then, the trauma was too fresh, too raw, and few survivors wished to testify to their ordeal. Indeed, the language didn’t even exist. The word “Holocaust” wouldn’t become common usage until some time had passed. A few voices eventually broke the silence, however: Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl appeared in the United States in 1952, followed by Elie Wiesel’s Night, and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, still an astonishing book for its power, its brutal realism, and its humanity.
It took a while for the floodgates to open, but today we have an entire library of literature on Auschwitz, on the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe, and on the Holocaust in general. Anne Frank was not the only teenager to write her story. Many young Jewish victims of the Holocaust turned pen to paper during those horrible years: Petr Ginz, Moshe Flinker, Yitskhok Rudashevski, and many others.
And in January, a new diary from a survivor has been published. Sheindi Miller was 14 when Hitler targeted her for death at Auschwitz, but she kept a diary all the while she was in Auschwitz. She and the journal both survived, and now, at 90, she has decided to share her testimony with the world. The diary, written in Hungarian, recently went on display at the German History Museum in Berlin. Here’s hoping it will soon be translated into English to join all the other testimonies now available.
The human imagination can never truly fathom a place like Auschwitz without having been there. What we can do is stand with the victims and the sufferers and cry “Never again!” In the chilling ending to Night, Auschwitz survivor Wiesel describes looking into a mirror and seeing a corpse look back at him. On this day of the year, we must try to peer into that same mirror, to perceive the true depth of horror that human beings can inflict on one another. The survival of our civilization may depend on it.
Sometime in early October 1943, fifteen-year-old Yitskhok Rudashevski and his entire family were rousted out of their hiding place in the Vilna Ghetto, taken to nearby Ponary, shot to death and buried in a mass grave.
The Rudashevski family were among the last remnants of a once-vibrant Jewish community in the city once known as “the Jerusalem of the north” for its culture and scholarship. People came there from as far away as the United States to study in its highly regarded yeshivas.
After the start of World War II, Vilna was annexed by the Soviet Union. It became a sanctuary to Jews fleeing from the Nazis, who occupied western Poland.
All of that changed on June 22, 1941, when Operation Barbarossa began. On the day Germany invaded the USSR, there were approximately 80,000 Jews living in Vilna, many of them refugees from the Nazi terror. By the time the Red Army arrived and kicked the Nazis out three years later, Vilna’s Jewish population had been reduced –through starvation, disease, deportation and executions — to zero.
Yitskhok (also spelled Yitzhak, Yitzak, etc., or anglicized to Isaac), was thirteen years old at the time his city was occupied by the Germans.
An only child, he was the son of a typesetter and a seamstress. Talented in writing, history and languages, he was also a faithful Communist and a member of the Pioneers, the Communist youth organization.
From June 1941 to April 1943 he kept a diary in Yiddish. Yitskhok had a sense of the significance of his account at one point he wrote, “I consider that everything must be recorded and noted down, even the most gory, because everything will be taken into account.”
He not only wrote about his own life and his family and friends, but about the wider community events and the devastation the Germans wrought on his people. The historian Allan Gerald Levine called him “an astute and passionate observer of the times,” and compared him to Anne Frank.
Nor was the diary Yitskhok’s only writing project.
When one of his teachers, a beloved figure in the ghetto, died, he wrote a eulogy for the man and read it out before a large audience. He was a member of a literary group and was also attached to the ghetto’s history project, for which he interviewed ghetto residents about their lives:
I got a taste of the historian’s task. I sit at the table and ask questions and record the greatest sufferings with cold objectivity. I write, I probe into details, and I do not realize at all that I am probing into wounds … And this horror, this tragedy is formulated by me … coldly and dryly. I become absorbed in thought, and the words stare out of the paper crimson with blood.
The Vilna Ghetto, whose population initially numbered 40,000, had a rich cultural life, just like prewar Jewish Vilna had. There were theaters, cabarets, the symphony, art exhibits, a library, public lectures, and underground schools for both children and adults.
Vilna Jews saw art, music, literature and the pursuit of knowledge as a form of resistance. As Jacob Gens, head of the “ghetto’s Judenrat, put it, cultural activity gave a person “the opportunity to free himself from the ghetto for a few hours … We are passing through dark and difficult days. Our bodies are in the ghetto, but our spirit has not been enslaved.”
Reality intruded, however, and in the final analysis the Vilna Jews were doomed to extinction.
Yitskhok’s final diary entry was dated April 7, 1943, two days after five thousand Vilna Jews had been rounded up and shot at Ponary. He was understandably in a very grim mood. His prophetic last line was, “We may be fated for the worst.”
On September 23, 1943, the Nazis began the final liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, which had by then been reduced to about 10,000 people. After a selection, those who could work were sent off to labor camps in Estonia and Latvia, where almost all of them died due to the brutal conditions there.
Children, the elderly, and the sick were shot at Ponary or sent to the extermination camp Sobibor and gassed.
Yitskhok, his parents and his uncle’s family chose to go into hiding rather than take their chances at the selection. In hiding he sank into apathy and said very little. After about two weeks in the hideout, they were discovered and taken to their deaths.
The only surviving member of Yitskhok’s family was his teenage cousin, Sarah “Sore” Voloshin. Somewhere on the route to Ponary she was able to escape. She joined a partisan group in the forest and survived until the Red Army liberated the area in the summer of 1944. After the war was over, she returned to the family’s hiding place and found Yitskhok’s diary. As of 2010, Sore Voloshin was still alive in Israel.
And the diary she retrieved had become one of the major sources on day-to-day life in the Vilna Ghetto.
Yitskhok Rudashevski suffered and died in just the same way as hundreds of thousands of others, but unlike them he did not remain anonymous: he is one of the ghetto’s most famous inhabitants. His writings have been published in their original Yiddish and in Hebrew, German and English translations. Extracts of his diary can be found in several anthologies, and it’s available in its entirety under the title The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto.
On this day..
Possibly related executions:
1943: 1,196 Jewish children from Bialystok
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1943, a special transport of 1,196 children and 53 adults arrived at Auschwitz and were gassed shortly thereafter. Thus ended one of the lesser-known tragedies of the Holocaust.
The children were very nearly the last survivors of the Bialystok Ghetto, which had been liquidated in August 1943. Almost all of the inhabitants of the ghetto wound up being sent to the Treblinka Extermination Camp and killed, but over a thousand children were mysteriously separated from their parents and taken away for some as-yet-unknown purpose. (The transport list can be found here.)
At the time, there were tentative negotiations between the Red Cross and the Nazis to trade Jewish children for either German prisoners of war or cold, hard cash. The exact details are unclear, and there’s a great deal of contradictory information about the entire event.
In any case, the Germans selected children from Bialystok, one of the few places in Nazi Europe where there were any Jewish children left alive.
The children, all of them under 16, spoke only Yiddish and Polish. They were in terrible shape, both mentally and physically. One witness later described them:
Suddenly, a column of bedraggled children appeared, hundreds of them … holding each other’s hands. The older ones helped the small ones, their little bodies moving along in the pouring rain. A column of marching ghosts, with wet rags clinging to their emaciated bodies, accompanied by a large number of SS men …
The children, looking like scarecrows, refused to undress. They held on to their dirty clothing, the older stepping in front of the young ones, protecting them with their bodies, clutching their hands and comforting those that were crying. Their clothing permeated with lice, their bodies full of sores, these children refused to wash.
Their first stop was Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, the so-called “model ghetto” which was used by the Nazis as a propaganda tool to show that they weren’t mistreating their Jews.
Theresienstadt was in fact a horribly overcrowded, disease-ridden city and its inhabitants were all dying of starvation, but it was the best there was available. There were no gas chambers there, and the Theresienstadters knew nothing about the kinds of horrors the Bialystok children had been through.
To keep knowledge of said horrors from leaking out, once in Theresienstadt the children were placed in isolation and weren’t allowed to leave their barracks. 53 doctors and nurses were recruited from the local population to take care of them, and they were locked up with the children.
In spite of these security measures, some of the adults were able to make contact with people from the outside. Theresienstadt youth leader Fredy Hirsch got caught making an unauthorized visit to the children’s barracks, for example, and as punishment he was sent to Auschwitz on the next train.
The adults — one of whom was Franz Kafka‘s sister, Ottilie — didn’t know what to make of the children’s behavior at first.
For instance, why, when they were invited to take a shower, did they start crying and screaming about gas? The children started to talk about their experiences, and their caregivers were horrified by their stories.
The Nazis intended to quite literally fatten up the children before they were sent off into the world, so the group was treated very well. Everyone got enough to eat, and they were given baths, clean clothes, medical treatment and even toys. Anyone who got seriously ill was taken away “to the hospital” and, ahem, never returned.
Slowly, assisted by their kind caregivers, the children got their equilibrium and began to act like normal kids again.
Meanwhile, negotiations continued …
The Allies wanted to send the children to British Mandate Palestine. The Germans, however, were against this plan because they didn’t want the children growing up there, strengthening the Palestinian Jewish community and possibly establishing a Jewish state someday. (The Mufti of Jerusalem, whom the Nazis were quite friendly with, didn’t like the idea either.)
The Germans wanted the children sent to Great Britain instead.
The UK, however, had already accepted many Jewish refugees, including 10,000 German, Austrian and Czech children with the Kindertransport, and were unwilling to take in any more.
And there was another problem, relating to the prospect of exchanging the children for money.
This money would have to be provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish welfare agencies, and they flat-out refused to give anything to the people who had promised to wipe them off the face of the earth.
In the end, the negotiations collapsed, through what one witness later called “an ill-applied sense of ‘correctness'” on the part of the Allies. Of course, given the Nazis’ track record, one wonders if they ever seriously intended to release the children no matter what they were given in return.
The plan was discarded and the Germans were left with 1,196 useless Jewish children on their hands. They dealt with them in the usual manner.
None of the Bialystok group or their caregivers had any idea what was coming up for them when they were sent away from Theresienstadt. They’d been told the negotiations had been successful and they were on their way to Switzerland, and thence to Palestine. They were told to take off their yellow stars and the adults had to sign a statement promising not to say anything bad about the Germans.
The transport set off in high spirits, rejoicing at their upcoming freedom.
But their train went not to Switzerland but to Poland, marked for “special treatment” on arrival at its destination. Apart from a few of the adults who were selected to work, there were no survivors.
On this day..
Possibly related executions:
1942: Henryk Landsberg, Lvov Judenrat
[Adolf Eichmann] did not expect the Jews to share the general enthusiasm over their destruction, but he did expect more than compliance, he expected — and received, to a truly extraordinary degree — their cooperation. This was “of course the very cornerstone” of everything he did … Without Jewish help in administrative and police work — the final rounding up of Jews in Berlin was, as I have mentioned, done entirely by Jewish police — there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower …
To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.
-Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem
Among the many horrors of the Holocaust were the Judenräte, Jewish administrative councils set up under the aegis of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Eastern Europe.
Typically recruited from local elites and granted special privileges by the Germans, these collaborators managed the day-to-day operations of the ghettos, up to and including the horrible sharp end of Final Solution: confiscating Jewish property for the Germans, registering and organizing Jews destined for slave labor or extermination, and even managing deportations with the desperate hope that willingly engaging a sacrifice they could never prevent might enable them to save some others. Once all the deportations were done, the Judenrat itself would be executed or deported: Faust had nothing on this bargain.
Chaim Rumkowski, perhaps the most (in)famous Judenrat administrator, issued posterity the definitive howl of a collaborator’s agony when he was forced by the imminent Lodz Ghetto children’s action to implore Lodz’s families to peaceably surrender their young people to certain death: “I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”
Rumkowski, a deeply checkered figure who fended off liquidation of his ghetto until the very late date of 1944, well knew that Judenrat personnel were entirely disposable. After all, he delivered this plaintive speech on September 4, 1942 — just three days after his counterpart in the Lvov Ghetto had been publicly strung up on a balcony.
Six Jews (including Henryk Landsberg) hanged in the Lvov Ghetto, September 1, 1942 (via). The US Holocaust Memorial Museum also identifies this clearly distinct execution as a picture of Lvov Jewish Council members being hanged in September 1942.
The city of Lwow/Lvov (or to use its present-day Ukrainian spelling, Lviv) had had a centuries-old Jewish population when the Soviet Union seized it from Poland in consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. That population almost immediately doubled as Jewish refugees fleeing the half of Poland that Germany got in the deal poured into the city.
Practically on the frontier of the German/Soviet border, Lvov was captured in the opening days of Germany’s June 1941 surprise invasion of the USSR. In November-December 1941, the 100,000-plus Jews* still surviving in Lvov (after several post-conquest massacres) were crammed cheek to jowl into the new Lvov Ghetto. There they endured the usual litany of privations for World War II ghettos: starvation rations, routine humiliation, periodic murders. forced labor at the nearby Janowska concentration camp.
The ghetto’s first chairman, Dr. Josef Parnas, didn’t live to see 1942 before he was killed in prison for non-cooperation. Dr. Adolf Rotfeld followed him, and died of “natural” causes in office a few months later.
Dr. Henryk Landsberg, a lawyer, succeeded Rotfeld. He had been a respected community figure before the war, but was disposable to the Nazis as his predecessors during a large-scale Aktion to cull the camp and further reduce its boundaries, a Jewish butcher resisting the SS killed one of his persecutors. Landsberg and a number of the Jewish policemen employed by the Judenrat were summarily put to death.
“I have gladly accepted the nomination,” Landsberg’s successor remarked. “Maybe they will shoot me soon.” He was indeed shot (or perhaps committed suicide to avoid that fate) in the first week of January 1943. (All this from Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation)
The Lvov Ghetto was liquidated June 1, 1943 a bare handful of its former inmates escaped into the sewers or managed to avoid death in the camps before the war ended. After the Red Army took back the city, a 1945 survey of the Jewish Provisional Committee in Lvov tallied just 823 Jews. Today, there are all of 5,000.
* Among the Lvov Ghetto residents was Simon Wiesenthal.
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1941: 534 Lithuanian Jewish intellectuals
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1941, 534 Jewish intellectuals were lured out of the Nazi ghetto in the city of Kovno, Lithuania (also known as Kaunas), taken to Ninth Fort, and shot to death.
Over 5,000 Jews would die there during the Nazi occupation.
The Nazis had captured these people using a very clever ruse: on August 14, they had advertised for 500 Jews to help sort out the archives at City Hall, which were in disarray due to the chaos that followed the Germans’ conquering the city in June.
The workers had to be intelligent, educated types and fluent in German and Russian. They would be treated well and given three solid meals a day, in order that they could do the work properly and make no mistakes.
Most of the other jobs available for Jews at that moment involved manual labor under brutal conditions, on starvation-level rations.
More than the requested 500 showed up. The Nazis happily took them all.
Vilius “Vulik” Mishelski (later anglicized to William Mishell), who was 22 and had studied engineering in Vytautas Magnus University [Lithuanian link], was nearly victim no. 535. His mother told him about the job offer, because it upset her when he home from working at the airfield, “my clothes torn, my face covered with dust and sweat, my fingers bleeding, and I myself so exhausted I could hardly speak.” The archives job seemed like a gift from heaven to her.
Why, he asked, had the archives not been sorted out sooner? After all, the Germans had conquered Kovno a full two months earlier.
And why not get Lithuanians to do the job? It certainly wasn’t necessary to employ Jews.
He debated with himself for the next four days, then finally decided to go. Many of his friends were going, he wrote later on, and “this put me at ease. All of them could not be crazy.”
When he actually arrived at the gate, however, what he saw made him profoundly uneasy. The size of the guard was unusually large, and he witnessed Jewish police and Lithuanian partisans mistreating and beating people. Because it was taking long for the quota of 500 people to arrive, the Lithuanians started dragging people from their homes by force.
This struck me as odd. This was supposed to be a job where we were to be treated in a civilized manner was this the treatment awaiting us? Oh, no, I would not be caught in this mess! Without hesitation, I turned around and rushed back home.
My mother was astounded. “What happened, why are you back?” she asked.
“Don’t ask questions,” I said, “move the cabinet, I’m going into hiding.”
Vulik was right not to trust the Nazis’ promises. He stayed in his hideout, a little cubbyhole behind the kitchen cabinet, all day.
The chosen 534 didn’t return that night, or the next night either, and no one believed the assurances that the work was taking longer than they thought, and they had spent the night at City Hall. Before long, the truth leaked out.
That same day, the men had been lead away in several smaller groups to an area containing deeply excavated holes in the ground. Then the Lithuanian guard, known as the Third Operational Group, had shot them all. Several men who tried to escape were killed on the run. Almost the entire intelligentsia of Jewish Kovno had thus been liquidated in one mass execution.
Mishelski stayed in the Kovno Ghetto until 1944, when he was sent to Dachau. He survived the war: 95% of the Lithuanian Jews, including most of his family, did not.
Mishelski moved to America, changed his name to William Mishell, got a master’s degree in engineering from New York University, and settled in Chicago. Following his retirement in the 1980s, he wrote a memoir titled Kaddish for Kovno: Life and Death in a Lithuanian Ghetto, 1941 – 1945. Mishelski died in 1994, aged 75.
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1945: Louis Till, father of Emmett
The Aug. 28, 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers by an all-white Mississippi jury were among the American civil rights movement’s pivotal events.
For a certain indecent number of people, however, the passion of the 14-year-old youth — alleged to have flirted with a white woman — was to be mourned only insofar as it confirmed the menace that insatiable Negro libidos posed to southern way of life.
Further to that end, the months following Emmett Till’s death brought to the headlines the formerly obscure* July 2, 1945 hanging of an American G.I. in Italy: Emmett’s father, Louis Till.
The violent Louis Till ruined his marriage to Emmett’s mother Mamie shortly after his son’s birth. Repeatedly violating her restraining order eventually landed Till pere before a judge, who gave him a choice between hard time and enlistment. Till joined the U.S. Army.
In 1945, he was court-martialed for murdering an Italian woman and raping two others. His execution near Pisa — he’s buried in Europe in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, the same final resting place as Eddie Slovik — was the no-account end of a no-account man for many years thereafter. Mamie Till said that she wasn’t even told what happened to her ex-husband, and was stonewalled when she sought information.
By the end of 1955, everyone knew.
In Jim Crow’s backlash against nationwide condemnation of the Till lynching, Louis Till came back to life in newsprint all that autumn to visit the sins of the father upon his late son: here was the mirror of the young predator all grown up, violating Italian women. Mississippi’s white supremacist senators used their rank to obtain his army file, and leaked it to reporters.
According to Davis Houck and Matthew Grindy’s study of the Mississippi media’s conflicting reactions to the events of 1955, “Louis Till became a most important rhetorical pawn in the high-stakes game of north versus south, black versus white, NAACP versus White Citizens’ Councils.”
The pawn’s sacrifice did not figure in the endgame.
Crude attempts to impose blood guilt for Louis Till’s crimes aside, Clenora Hudson-Weems argues in her Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement that it was Emmett Till’s shocking death that catalyzed the civil rights movement — that the horrifyingly mutilated face at his open-casket funeral and the insouciant confession of his killers once they had been acquitted shook southern blacks and northern whites alike so profoundly as to dispel any confidence that legal briefs or political incrementalism could grapple with America’s race problem. Civil rights lion Joyce Ladner was an 11-year-old Mississippi girl when Emmett Till was lynched she would tell Hudson-Weems of the shock it delivered in her world coming on the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregating schools.
A very important thing is that it followed the Supreme Court decision in 1954. It’s like the Whites said that they don’t care what rights we were given … So when the spark came in Mississippi to sit in the public library, for example, people who participated had been incensed by the Till incident and were just waiting for the spark to come. The Till incident was the catalyst.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, launching the famous bus boycott. “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back,” Parks said later.
Emmett Till’s body was exhumed for autopsy and DNA testing in 2005, in part to dispel the old story first promulgated by the attorneys who defended Till’s murderers — that the body wasn’t Emmett Till’s at all. On the corpse’s finger was a ring inscribed with the initials of his father: L.T.
* Louis Till did have one small claim to fame prior to his son’s murder: the fascist poet Ezra Pound chanced to be imprisoned with Till he mentions the later-famous execution in his Pisan Cantos:
Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings
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1943: Willem Arondeus, gay resistance fighter
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this day in 1943, Willem Arondeus and eleven other Dutch resistance members were executed for sabotage and treason in connection with their anti-Nazi activities in the Dutch Underground.
Arondeus, an artist, novelist and biographer, was rather old for a resistance fighter he was 48 at the time of his death.
He was the son of theater costume designers and one of six children, but became estranged from his family after he came out as gay at the age of seventeen. At a time when homosexuality was still illegal and deeply taboo, Arondeus spoke openly about it.
For seven years in the 1930s he lived with his lover and struggled to make a living. In 1940, after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, he joined the resistance.
Arondeus utilized his artistic skills by forging identity papers for Dutch Jews. (Being himself part of a persecuted minority, perhaps he felt a special kinship with them.) He urged other artists to stand up against the Nazi invaders.
On March 17, 1943, he and other members of his resistance unit set the Amsterdam General Registry Office on fire, trying to destroy all the original records so the false identity papers couldn’t be checked. They successfully destroyed about ten thousand records, but five days later the entire unit was arrested. Their conviction was a foregone conclusion.
Arondeus said he hoped that by his life and death, he could prove that “homosexuals are not cowards.” Yad Vashem has honored him as Righteous Among the Nations. (pdf)
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1944: A day in mass executions in Axis Europe
June 29, 1944, saw several noteworthy mass executions around Axis western Europe.
France: Seven Jewish hostages for the assassination of Philippe Henriot
Poet and journalist Philippe Henriot (English Wikipedia entry | French), the “French Goebbels”, was the Vichy government’s able chief propagandist.
On June 28, 1944, Henriot was assassinated by Maquis operatives disguised as milice paramlitaries.
Incensed, the real milice this morning gathered seven Jews already held in prison as hostages at Rillieux, drove them to the cemetery, and shot them one by one.
(Paul Touvier, who orchestrated this retaliatory execution, managed to stay underground until 1989. At his 1994 war crimes trial, he claimed that the Germans wanted 30 hostages killed, and therefore what he actually did was “save 23 human lives.” Touvier was convicted on the charge of crimes against humanity.)
Italy: Massacres in San Pancrazio, Cornia, and Civitella
As dawn broke this date, German soldiers retreating from liberated Rome fell upon several Tuscan villages.
German columns had been beset by partisans on the way, and standard operating procedure was to retaliate against partisans indirectly, by killing civilians — as in the notorious massacre in the Ardeatine caves. This vengeance was visited on the three towns: over 200 civilians were summarily executed on June 29, 1944.
“My mother later said she went to speak to my father,” remembered one San Pancrazio man. “A soldier turned her back and told her they were taking him to be tortured. She and my father both cried.” The father and those taken with him were shot in the basement of a farmhouse.
Caution: Graphic video.
The towns themselves have kept this date in remembrance, but the massacres were swept under the rug in the postwar settlement as Italy, Germany, and their former western enemies realigned for the Cold War. Only in the 21st century have they come to wider attention, when the discovery of secret archives documenting the atrocities enabled an Italian court to convict an aged German soldier in absentia.
There’s a CNN documentary on these events focusing particularly on San Pancrazio. Called “Terror in Tuscany”, it may be viewable here or here, depending on your location.
Denmark: The Hvidsten Group
The Danish resistance group named for a Jutland tavern was betrayed by a captured Brit under torture.
S. P. KRISTENSEN * 20. 8. 1887
ALBERT IVERSEN * 28. 9. 1896
NIELS N. KJÆR * 2. 4. 1903
JOH KJÆR HANSEN * 2. 4. 1907
HENNING ANDERSEN * 16. 7. 1917
MARIUS FIIL * 21. 6. 1893
PETER SØRENSEN * 8. 6. 1919
NIELS FIIL * 12. 6. 1920
1944 on the 29 June
They fell before German bullets
Precious is their memory to Denmark
Hvidsten Group stone photo is a (cc) image from Hansjorn.
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1944: Jakob Edelstein and family
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1944, Jakob Edelstein, his wife Miriam, their twelve-year-son Arieh and his mother-in-law Mrs. Olliner were shot to death at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland. They had been inmates in Auschwitz since the previous December Jakob had been in an isolation cell the whole time while the others stayed in the so-called “Family Camp.”
For two years prior they’d lived in Theresienstadt (also known by its Czech name, Terezin), a the former Czech fortress town that had been turned into a city just for Jews. Jakob Edelstein was named Eldest of the Jews and was nominally in charge of the place, but in practice he had no choice but to cater to the whims of the Nazis. He was assisted by a deputy and a council of twelve.
Edelstein, a Czech Jew born in 1903, had been a leader within the Jewish community in Prague and had had papers for himself and his family to emigrate to Palestine. But when the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, Edelstein and the other Zionist leaders decided it was their duty to stay and do what they could for the community during this time of crisis.
He became a liaison between the Germans the Jewish community and tried to facilitate immigration to Palestine. From 1939 to 1941 he made several trips back and forth between Czechoslovakia and Palestine, with permission from the Germans, trying to find ways for more Jews to emigrate.
Theresienstadt was a strange place: neither concentration camp nor ghetto but something in-between, it was billed as a “paradise” and a “gift” from Hitler to the Jewish people.
Elderly Jews were sent there, as well as Jews who were “prominent” for some reason or had Aryan connections (such as Jews who had a non-Jewish spouse). It was advertised as a luxurious resort community where they could live out the rest of their lives in ease and plenty.
Residents were allowed to receive food packages from the outside, and send postcards (one per month, limited to 30 words, and censored).
Many people believed the propaganda and were persuaded to go there voluntarily, signing all their possessions and assets to the German government in exchange for what they thought would be a comfortable and peaceful retirement.
The 500-ish Danish Jews who weren’t evacuated to Sweden by the Danish Underground right after the Nazi invasion of Denmark were ultimately sent to Theresienstadt. Many talented artists, actors, musicians and scholars lived there. The Nazis would ultimately make a propaganda film about how wonderful life was in Theresienstadt, and a Red Cross delegation toured the place and came away satisfied.
As you might have guessed, living conditions within the fortress city didn’t exactly live up to what it said in the brochures.
It’s true that it was possible to survive in Theresienstadt for an extended time period, even for the duration of the war. There were no gas chambers and relatively few executions. Certainly it was worlds apart from, say, Auschwitz or Treblinka. But that was as close to “paradise” as it got.
Theresienstadt was, as George E. Berkley says in his book Hitler’s Gift: The Story of Theresienstadt, “a joke hatched in hell.”
Yes, there were stores, more than a dozen of them, but their stock consisted of “goods the Nazis had originally confiscated from the residents and later found they didn’t need or want.”
Theresienstadt, like the Lodz Ghetto, had a bank and its own money, but there was nothing to spend it on. “The ghetto crowns,” Berkley says, “were used mostly like Monopoly money in playing cards and other games. Still, the bank staff kept themselves busy balancing their books, and auditors arrived regularly from Berlin to ensure the accuracy of the bank’s essentially fictitious accounts.”
Theresienstadt’s population, at its peak, was 58,497, in a town which before the war had a population of less than 10,000. Nearly everyone had lice, toilets and taps were scarce, and disease was rampant.
Families were separated, with husbands, wives and children each residing in different barracks.
“Horrendous as Theresienstadt housing conditions may have been,” Berkley says, “they were not the residents’ chief source of daily suffering. Food, or rather, the lack of it, weighed on them much more heavily.” The menu, he explains,
consisted chiefly of bread, potatoes, and a watery soup. Some margarine and sugar — about two ounces a week of the former and less than one and one-half ounces of the latter — were sometimes included. The residents were also to receive up to four ounces of meat, mostly horseflesh, and up to eight ounces of skim milk a week, though many a week would see less or none of those foodstuffs available. No fruits were ever officially distributed, and turnips were the only vegetable to show up with any regularity.
Estimates of total per capita calories provided daily ranged from 1300 or less, to 1800, with the lower figure being more frequently mentioned. This should be compared with the “Special Regime” given the worst offenders in the Soviet labor camps which provided about 2,000 calories.
According to modern nutritional guidelines, to maintain a healthy weight, the average adult with an average level of physical activity needs 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day. At Theresienstadt all inmates between age 14 and 70 had to work long hours, many of them at strenuous jobs. In addition to being calorie-deficient, the Theresienstadt rations lacked essential vitamins and minerals. It’s no wonder that one survivor later recalled, “After three months in Theresienstadt, there was only one feeling left in my body: hunger.”
Six months after his arrival, Edelstein and the Council of Elders made a difficult decision about the food problem, as Berkley records:
It became apparent that an even distribution of the food supply would not allow the ghetto to survive. Those doing heavy work needed more than those doing normal work, and the latter needed more than nonworkers. In addition, children required extra rations, for they represented the Jewish future…
Thus, heavy workers … began to receive a little over 2,000 calories of food a day. Children were to get 1,800 and regular workers a little over 1,500. But the daily intake for nonworkers, which included most of the elderly, fell to less than 1,000 calories.
This terrible choice, however necessary to the population’s long-term survival, consigned thousands of people to death.
But even though starvation and disease took many lives, the most deadly aspect of life in Theresienstadt was deportation.
Contrary to what the propaganda messages said about people living out their lives in Theresienstadt, it was largely a transit camp. Most people who arrived would be sent on “to the east” sooner or later some of them lasted only a few days in the fortress city before being deported.
Although certain classes of people, such as decorated World War I veterans, “prominent” people and those over 65, were in theory exempted from deportation, in practice anyone could be sent away and just about everyone ultimately was.
Approximately 145,000 denizens passed through Theresienstadt during the course of its existence, most of them from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria. About a quarter of these inmates died within Theresienstadt itself. Another 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other camps in the East, almost all of them dying there. Out of about 15,000 children who passed through Theresienstadt, less than 2,000 survived, and some estimates put the number in the low hundreds.
When the camp was liberated, it had a population of about 17,000, and most of those had arrived in the during the final months of the war.
Jakob Edelstein didn’t know about the gas chambers when he became Eldest of the Jews at Theresienstadt in December 1941, but he knew that conditions in the East were very bad and realized that, in order for the community to sustain itself, as many people as possible had to remain within Czechoslovakia.
As a committed Zionist, he hoped that the young people in the camp would survive and go on to colonize Israel. Like most other leaders of Jewish communities throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, he made the decision to cooperate with the occupiers in hopes of saving lives.
And as far as that goes, he failed, as the numbers quoted above indicate. But if he failed, so did everyone else.
Unlike many Jewish officials in the Nazi ghettos, he wasn’t corrupt and he wasn’t a toady to the Germans. It’s worth noting that he had many opportunities to flee the country with his family, even after the war started: all he had to do was not come back to Europe after one of his trips overseas.
But he stayed, because he felt he had a responsibility to his beleaguered people.
Edelstein did the best he could with what he had to work with, which is all you can say for anybody. He worked tirelessly, making himself available at all hours, and under his leadership the camp developed a welfare system as well as many cultural and sports activities.
His job as Eldest of the Jews in Theresienstadt, trying to play the balancing act between advocating for his people and not pissing off the Germans, was always extremely stressful, difficult and dangerous.
But things really started to go downhill for him after the city’s first commandant, Siegfried Siedl, got reassigned to Bergen-Belsen in July 1943.
Siedl’s replacement, Anton Burger, hated Czechs and took an immediate dislike to Edelstein as a result. He replaced Edelstein with Paul Eppstein [German language link, as is the next], a German, and demoted Edelstein to first deputy to Eppstein. Benjamin Murmelstein, an Austrian, became second deputy.
This wasn’t enough for Burger, however, as George Berkley records:
As leader of the Czech Jews, [Edelstein] naturally bore the brunt of Burger’s hatred for them. The new commandant had not only deported many of his countrymen and his chief aide … but had also moved Germans and Austrians into key positions formerly held by Czechs. Burger had apparently also stirred up his own superiors against him for during the fall some bakery workers, looking out the window, saw and heard Eichmann sharply dressing down Edelstein and even threatening to have him shot.
The incident alarmed Edelstein’s many loyal followers and the next day the leaders of Hechalutz, the largest Zionist organization in the camp, met with him to urge him to flee. They said they could help him escape … But though he suspected a Nazi scheme to get rid of him, Edelstein refused to run away.
In the end, the Nazis didn’t need to trump up any charges of insubordination or sabotage against their former Eldest of the Jews: they found some real “crimes.” It seems that Edelstein had been saving people from deportation by allowing them to remain in Theresienstadt, off the books, and adding the names of dead people to the transport lists to make the numbers match up.
He was immediately arrested. It was November 9, 1943, the fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Edelstein was kept in custody in Theresienstadt until December 18, when he and his mother-in-law, his wife, and his young son were sent to Auschwitz with a transport of 2,500 others. The transport became part of the Auschwitz “Family Camp”, joining 5,000 Czech Jews who’d arrived there from Theresienstadt in September.
Edelstein’s family was allowed to join the Family Camp. Edelstein himself was put in the punishment block and subjected to interrogation although not, apparently, tortured. He gave nothing away.
In March 1944, the residents of the Family Camp who’d arrived in September were gassed. The December group was allowed to stay alive for the time being.
On June 20, an SS officer went to Edelstein’s cell and told him he’d been sentenced to death. While the condemned man (who’d become quite popular in jail) was taking leave of his fellow inmates, the SS officer got impatient and snapped, “quickly, quickly.”
Edelstein replied, “I am the master of my last movements.”
He was driven to the execution site and then the car went away to fetch Miriam, Ariah and Mrs. Olliner. Miriam had measles and had to be brought on a stretcher. The Nazis forced Jakob Edelstein to watch as his wife, child and mother-in-law were shot to death. He was the last of them to die.
The remaining residents of the family camp were gassed in early July 1944.
Paul Eppstein was executed in Theresienstadt in September. Murmelstein became Eldest of the Jews in his place and actually managed to survive the war. Because he had lived, he spent the rest of his life under a cloud of distrust and suspicion as a possible collaborator.
Siegfried Siedl was hanged for war crimes in 1947. Anton Burger escaped Allied custody (twice) after the war, assumed a new identity and died of natural causes in Essen in 1991. His true identity wasn’t discovered for years after his death.
After the war, the city of Theresienstadt reverted to its former name of Terezin, and the fortress became an internment camp for ethnic Germans, who found themselves quite unpopular in the newly liberated Czechoslovakia and were expelled from the country in droves. The internment camp closed in 1948.
The modern town of Terezin has a population of 3,500 and is noted for its manufacture of knitwork and furniture. Tourists from all over the world come to learn about its important role in one of the most tragic events in modern history.
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1942: Stjepan Filipovic, “death to fascism, freedom to the people!”
On this date in 1942, this happened:
The young man striking the dramatic pose is Stjepan Filipovic, an anti-fascist partisan hanged in the city of Valjevo by the Serbian State Guard, a collaborationist force working with the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia.
Filipovic is shouting “Death to fascism, freedom to the people!” — a pre-existing Communist slogan that Filipovic’s martyrdom would help to popularize. Smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu! … or you can just abbreviate it SFSN!
In the city where Filipovic died, which is in present-day Serbia, there’s a monumental statue in his honor replicating that Y-shaped pose — an artistically classic look just like our favorite Goya painting, poised between death and victory.
Filipovic was a Communist so we’re guessing that he would not have had a lot of truck with the ethnic particularism that’s latterly consumed the Balkans. Times being what they are, however, the national hero to Tito’s Yugoslavia has become a post-Communist nationalist football.
That Valjevo monument — it’s in Serbia, remember — calls him Stevan Filipovic, which is the Serbian variant of his given name. But as Serbia is the heir to Yugoslavia, he at least remains there a legitimate subject for a public memorial. Filipovic himself was Croatian, but his legacy in that present-day state is a bit more problematic: in his native town outside Dubrovnik, a statue that once commemorated Filipovic was torn down in 1991 by Croat nationalists its vacant plinth still stands sadly in Opuzen. (Opuzen’s film festival, however, awards its honorees a statuette replicating the destroyed monument.)
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1945: Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck, Wehrmacht deserters
On this date in 1945, five days after the Germans had surrendered to the Allies in World War II, two deserting sailors were shot at Amsterdam.
The strangest thing: Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck were deserters of the Wehrmacht’s Kriegsmarine … and they were shot by a court-martial conducted by the Wehrmacht itself.
This surprising and shameful story is told in full by Chris Madsen in “Victims of Circumstance: The Execution of German Deserters by Surrendered German Troops Under Canadian Control in Amsterdam, May 1945,” a 1993 Canadian Military History journal article available online in pdf form.
Basically, a pocket of fortified German resistance remained hunkered down in the Netherlands as the war approached its close. That force of 150,000 surrendered to a much smaller number of Canadians on May 5 on terms that maintained German responsibility for administering its armed forces and the civilian areas under its control — a highly anomalous situation in an occupied country as the Third Reich winked out of existence altogether.
Canadians and Germans, according to Madsen, enjoyed a collegial relationship as the Canadians gradually took German forces into custody … or received German forces who helpfully marched themselves into custody. But even under guard, these “imprisoned” Germans still retained significant autonomy and a German command structure that Canadians were loath to interfere with — an arrangement so expedient that it severely tested the bounds of propriety. So invested were the Canadians in maintaining their opposite numbers’ unit cohesion* that they handed some deserters (and plenty of men were deserting the German army) back over to the nominal prisoners!
Rainer Beck had been deserted for the best part of a year: the son of a Social Democratic father and a Jewish mother, he’d ditched harbor defense the previous September and had been laying low with his sister in Amsterdam. Bruno Dorfer was a more recent deserter. They naturally assumed that with the Canadian takeover, they’d be good to go: they turned themselves in to Canadian soldiers with an eye towards regularizing their status.
They were in for quite a surprise, as Madsen relates:
Major Oliver Mace, acting commanding officer of the Canadian regiment, ordered Major J. Dennis Pierce, the company commander in charge of the former factory [where the German prisoners were being held], to place the two deserters inside the compound because “they were certainly Germans and we had no other place to put them.” …
At 1005 hours on 13 May 1945, Pierce informed 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade of the intended German course of action: “German Marine deserters being tried this morning. German Commander intends [to] shoot them.” The German camp leadership established a Standgericht or a court martial within the camp … [and] brought Dorfer and Beck before three officers, a team of military lawyers “whom Pierce himself had ‘put in the bag’ in the streets of Amsterdam earlier in the week.” [Fregattenkapitan Alexander] Stein regarded the proceedings as a show trial for his authority. At the insistence of the German naval commander, the entire camp population witnessed the event. A parade state, taken earlier that morning, counted 1,817 German marines inside the camp. The two accused, represented by a German military lawyer, underwent rigorous cross-examination before this large staring crowd … Oberleutnantnginieur Frank Trmal, a young German officer present at the fifteen-minute trial, remembered Beck’s defense:
For some reason Beck, who was older, decided to defend himself and told the court that we (the Germans) all knew several weeks ago the war was all over for us and that it was a matter of time before we surrendered. He told the captain and the court that any further fighting by us against the Canadians would be senseless bloodshed. With this the captain jumped to his feet in a rage, screaming at Beck that he was calling all of us, his comrades, and his officers, murderers. It is something that I will never forget.
After the inevitable-yet-incredible conviction, Stein appealed to his Canadian guards for a bit of comradely assistance in carrying out the court-martial’s order.
The Seaforth Highlanders obligingly delivered up eight captured German rifles with ammunition, plus a heavy truck to help their “prisoners” execute their deserters. A Canadian military cable testifies in its clipped and plaintive language to the egregious moral vacuum afflicting the chummy occupation: “German marines in Amsterdam have picked up some of their own deserters. They have been tried by military law and sentenced to be shot. May they do this.”
The answer was determined not by any senior Canadian officer, but by the German high commander who had surrendered the Dutch pocket the week before, Johannes Blaskowitz. It was on his approval that Dorfer and Beck were shot against an air raid shelter wall at 1740, not eight hours after their bizarre public trial.
When the story surfaced publicly in 1966 as a result of Der Spiegel investigations, Stein was unrepentant. “Beck would never have been a credit to Germany anyway,” he told the Globe and Mail (Oct. 28, 1966). “Deserters only turn into criminals in civil life too.”
This execution is dramatized in the 1969 Italian-Yugoslav film Dio è con noi (The Fifth Day of Peace, also released as Gott mit Uns and The Firing Squad).
* Conceivably as part of a policy to have Wehrmacht troops in readiness in case the western allies segued directly into war with the Soviet Union. Jacques Pauwels writes in The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War:
it is a fact that many captured German units were secretly kept in readiness for possible use against the Red Army. Churchill, who not without reason had a high opinion of the fighting quality of the German soldiers, gave Field Marshall Montgomery an order to that effect during the last days of the war, as he was to acknowledge publicly much later in November 1954. He arranged for Wehrmacht troops who had surrendered in northwest Germany and in Norway to retain their uniforms and even their weapons, and to remain under the command of their own officers, because he thought of their potential use in hostilities against the Soviets. In the Netherlands, German units that had surrendered to the Canadians were even allowed to use their own weapons on May 13, 1945, to execute two of their own deserters!