This summer I had the honour of sitting in the park in Rudininku Square with Rachel Margolis. We enjoyed the shade of the trees and soft grass on a warm summer’s day while she told me of the horrors of the Jewish Ghetto that had existed in that very location during the Holocaust.
“There was only one tree in the ghetto at that time, and where we sit now – in the green open park – was a labyrinth of small and crumbling houses.” Rachel points to the corner of the park and tells me that the local barber worked there, while opposite was the food store. Forget the grass, trees, asphalt and concrete, then it was just dirt, stones and ghetto.
Rachel Margolis is 84 years old now and one of the few survivors of the Vilnius ghetto. She lived in Vilnius her whole life until recently moving to Israel to live with her only daughter, though she still returns to Vilnius every summer to work in the Jewish Museum at 4 Pylimo Street.
With the benefit of hindsight, I was interested to know why more Jews didn’t flee Lithuania when they heard the Germans were coming. “We knew the Germans would be bad for us, but we had no idea they would get to Vilnius so quickly. Just two days after they attacked Russia, they were already in Vilnius and it was only the biggest pessimists that believed they could do it so quickly and managed to escape. The Germans were already in Prussia so they were very close. And we were scared of the Germans because we had heard what had happened to the Jews in Poland.
“After the first day they were already putting up signs that Jews can’t walk in side streets, that we were only allowed to walk on the main roads with the buses and trams, and that we had to wear the Star of David, first just one on the arm and then one on the back and chest as well. We were not allowed to buy food from non-Jewish shops and could only go to the markets late in the day when there was usually nothing left. They just thought up awful things to demean us Jews.”
I was surprised by Rachel’s straightforwardness and lack of bitterness as she went about explaining how her life was back then, and how the ghetto became her home.
“I entered the ghetto of my own free will. I had been hiding with various families around Vilnius and Kaunas for the previous six months, but was tired of all the hiding, was tired of worrying about my own safety as well as my hosts, and my father’s expense of paying for my upkeep and to keep me hidden; so in 1942 I entered the Vilnius ghetto where my family was already living.”
In fact Rachel said that many Jews welcomed the idea of the ghetto at first and most entered of their own accord because the German authorities had organised pogroms where they would round Jews up, or wait until everyone was at the synagogue and then come in and start killing people. So when they announced a ghetto many saw it as a good idea to get away from the cruelty, where they might have some measure of safety in numbers.
“Inside the ghetto was cramped and crowded but we tried to organise ourselves like any small city with our own government, schools, police, guards and sanitation inspection, because in the crowded and dirty conditions we had to be very careful that disease did not break out. We were people from all walks of life but worked together well which was surprising because they say that if you have two Jews you will have three political parties.
“We had a room of six square metres for our family of four with my parents and my brother, and that was considered luxury at the time, such was the crowding. People were starving. There was little food and the only meat we had was horse-meat.
“The street along the southern edge of the ghetto was called Strasiunas Street at the time, named after a man who had donated the largest collection of Jewish books to the people of Vilnius in the 19th century. I met my husband in the ghetto and we courted by taking walks along Strasiunas Street which was the closest we had to a promenade, and we were later married in the ghetto.
“Down the end of Strasiunas Street was the library and cultural centre. It was the centre of our cultural life and I worked there for almost one and a half years. The director was Herman Crook from Warsaw where he was also a librarian. From 1939 he wrote down everything that happened, every detail of life during the war and in the ghetto and made three copies which he buried before the end of the ghetto. Only one of the copies was found and then only 60% of it, but the Russians found it and released it in Yiddish, the language of the European Jew, and later the 1,000 page book was released in English and Lithuanian as well.
“There were days when people would take out up to 600 books from the library in the one day. Detective novels were especially popular. And the Germans liked them as well, and we would lend them copies in exchange for curfew passes, because otherwise everyone had to be off the street by 8pm, and we used those passes to smuggle weapons, medication and food into the ghetto, as well as to promenade down Strasiunas Street, and at night we would smuggle components and construct guns and plan our uprising.
“The ghetto was started on 6 September 1941 and they had 40,000 Jews at the start, and at its peak it held about 80,000 people. The entrance to the carpark at Rudininku Square is where the gates to the ghetto gate once was, where the guards stood and searched everyone as they came and went and confiscated goods and items at their whim, or sometimes they just took things away from the Jews and threw them on the ground.
“Then they started to arrest men. They said they were just taking them to work camps and to bring a clean shirt and a towel with them and they would be back in a few weeks – none came back. This is where we first learned of our fate, when some Jewish police in Panerai said they found 8,000 men shot dead in a mass grave, and they were all holding small bundles of shirts and towels.
“It was dangerous because every few days the Germans would just come into the ghetto to round people up. Sometimes they came inside themselves, and sometimes they just told the ghetto leaders how many people they wanted and they would be handed over. It was always the Germans that gave all the orders and made all the decisions, but it was their Lithuanian henchmen that did all the dirty work, they would just come in and grab whoever they could.
“We planned to have an uprising, and this was long before the Warsaw uprising. We had been collecting and building guns in the basement of the library which was very deep and we could even fire guns to test them without being heard on the street. We had a number of arms experts among us and we would bring in guns a bit at a time and then put them together, or even manufacture them inside the ghetto.
“There was one Jewish leader that the Germans learned was in the ghetto and he was told to give up, and he did because we were not ready to fight yet, but he poisoned himself on the way to being interrogated by the Gestapo. That was in July 1943, and in August that year they started to gather Jews to be taken to the Estonian prison camps.
“It was a bit early for us to make a counter attack, and the Germans approached before we could even make an announcement about our uprising, but one battalion was in place as they entered the ghetto. Unfortunately we started shooting a bit early, before the Germans were in range and they just turned back and called in the artillery, and in less than three minutes the whole building in Stasuino Street was destroyed. We realised that it was useless. Some of us that were left went and hid in the library and the other battalion went to where they had their weapons hidden, but a Jewish policeman gave them up and they were taken to the Estonian camp and we were left without any weapons or leaders.
“Soon after the failed uprising four Jewish partisans came into the ghetto and they told us that the ghetto would not last much longer and they wanted to recruit us into the partisan movement, and so us younger ones joined.
“There was a large house where the Contemporary Art Centre is now and someone noticed that it had an entry into the sewerage system under the city and one of the ghetto inmates, Samuel Kaplinski, was an expert in the canals and he helped organise the escape of many hundreds of people as the ghetto was coming to its end.
“I was with the first group to leave and they took us some 200 kms into Belarus. Altogether around 400 Jews were saved through the sewer before the ghetto was destroyed and everyone was killed.”
I was totally mesmerised by Rachel’s story, and how she was able to tell it without a suggestion of malice, until she mentioned her role with the partisans, and even then all I noticed was a hint of regret.
“In that time we were in the forest and we were cold, we had no food and there was a blockade of the forest and anyone seen near it was killed straight away. I also contracted typhus when I arrived in Belarus and when I got back I was taken to Rudininku into a Soviet partisan brigade and we fought against the fascists. Today we are not recognised as partisans because they say we fought for the Soviets, but the Lithuanian partisans would not take us Jews into their ranks.
“In July 1944 the Soviet army approached and we blew up train tracks so they couldn’t take valuables out of Lithuania. Then we were told to go back to Vilnius which was already surrounded by the Soviets with the Germans trapped. We fought for a whole week and in that time all the Jews were taken to Panerai and 100,000 of them were killed including 30,000 Polish Jews. That happened on 5 July and we got there on 8 July.
“So I was left without a family or friends or any sort of extended family. There were barely a few thousand Jews left after the war whereas before there had been 80,000 in Vilnius.
“The Germans also burned my house and then blew it up as they were leaving and I was left with nothing. My father had gathered all his documents and given them to a neighbour and he found me and gave them to me. It included a letter from my father telling me to go and study because he knew we would not meet again, and so I went to Vilnius University where I finished in 1949. I worked at Vilnius University for 43 years and finished as an associate professor.
“Many people died here, but while I can keep telling of them, their plight and their memories are still with us”, Rachel said as we finished the tour of the Jewish ghetto and she returned to her work at the Jewish Museum.