Historical Context

Dr. Arūnas Bubnys

Vilnius had the oldest and most numerous Jewish community in Lithuania, known in the world as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. According to unofficial data of the Department of Statistics published 1 January 1941, 58,263 Jews (27.78 % of the city’s population) were living in Vilnius before the war. (1) The German army occupied Vilnius on 24 June 1941. Only a small number of Vilnius Jews (no more than 3,000) managed to retreat to the Soviet Union and avoid death. (2)
The history of the Jewish community of Vilnius during the period of Nazi occupation can be divided into several stages: 1) the discrimination and killings of Jews before the foundation of the ghetto (24 June 1941 – beginning of September 1941); 2) the formation of the ghettos (the Small and the Large) and mass killings (from the beginning of September to November 1941); 3) stabilisation period (December 1941 – March 1943); 4) the liquidation of the smaller ghettos, labour camps and the Vilnius Ghetto (April to September 1943); 5) the imprisonment of remaining Jews of the Vilnius Ghetto in Estonian concentration camps and labour camps in Vilnius (October 1943 – September 1944).
The discrimination and persecution of Vilnius Jews began on the first days of the Nazi occupation. The German Military Commandant and Security Police, as well as the Lithuanian Administration subject to the Nazis (committee of the citizens of the city and district of Vilnius, the police, and self-defence units), issued discriminatory regulations, orders, organised arrests, imprisonment and the first shootings of Jews. Jews were ordered to wear distinctive signs, forbidden to walk the main streets of the city, the choice of food products available to them was limited, they were fired from their workplaces en masse, their means of transportation and radio devices were taken away, they were barred from using public transportation, recreation facilities, etc. In the beginning of August 1941, when the functions of the German military administration were passed on to the German civil administration (the commissioners), the political and racial discrimination and terrorisation became even worse.
Mass arrests and shootings of Jews began in the middle of July 1941. At first they were rather disorganised and chaotic. Jews would be arrested on the streets, in their workplaces and flats. Those arrested were taken to the Lukiškės prison, and later to Paneriai where they were shot. The arrests and convoying were handled by German Gestapo officers, the Lithuanian public police, self-defence units and members of the Sonderkommando. The mass killings in Paneriai were usually executed by the special squad of the German Security police and SD (Sonderkommando). The Jews that were lead to their death were told that they were sent to work. Jewish men were the primary target of the first mass actions. The money and valuables of the murdered were confiscated by the Nazi government. (3) Around 7,000 Vilnius Jews may have been killed before September of 1941.
The most extensive massacre was carried out in the initial stage of the formation and existence of the ghetto. It started in the beginning of September 1941. In September alone, 8,000 Vilnius Jews were killed. These actions were targeted not only at the men, but also women and children. The aforementioned Sonderkommando were the ones responsible for the shootings; occasionally they were helped by the Lithuanian police battalions dislocated in Vilnius.
The Vilnius ghetto was founded on 6 September 1941. In the beginning two ghettos (the Large ghetto and the Small ghetto, or Ghetto No. 1 and Ghetto No. 2, which were separated by the Vokiečių Street) were functioning in the old-town. The larger ghetto housed around 30,000 and the smaller one – around 9,000–11, 000 Jews. (4) The Nazis “solved” the issue of the lack of accommodation by organising mass killing actions. The occupation government planned to temporarily spare only qualified craftsmen able to work and their families. The rest of the Jews had to be shot. The smaller ghetto was fully liquidated through a few actions in October 1941. The mass killings, however, lasted almost until the end of 1941. From the beginning of the war until 1942, around 33,000 Vilnius Jews (of the 60,000 who lived there before the war) were killed. (5) Around 15,000 remained in the ghetto.
No mass killing took place from the end of 1941 until March of 1943. This period is called the stabilisation (peaceful) period. After the Germans failed winning their Blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union, their need for a labour force became a lot more prominent. Because of this, the Nazi government decided to temporarily leave qualified Jewish workers and their families alive. During this period, the life of the ghetto became relatively normal and stable. The administrational structure of the ghetto became steady, people worked every day. The ghetto became somewhat of a “state inside a state” with its own government, police, workshops, forms and institutions of spiritual and cultural life. The supreme institution of ghetto’s self-management was the Jewish Council (Judenrat, which was founded in accordance to a law passed by the German government on 4 July 1941). The Council was in command of the ghetto police and various departments responsible for labour, healthcare, welfare, food, flats, etc. The department of labour was especially important. Leaders of the ghettos believed that the ghettos would not be liquidated as long as they were economically viable to the Nazis. This is what their hopes of the ghetto survival were associated with. Almost all Jewish men and women of working age had jobs in various factories, workshops and labour camps. In the summer of 1943, about 14,000 of the Vilnius Ghetto Jews (two thirds of the entire ghetto population) occupied various workplaces. (6) In July of 1942, the Jewish Council was dissolved by the German government and Jacob Gens, the former chief of the ghetto police, became the sole head of the ghetto’s self-government. (7) In January of 1942, a secret anti-fascist organisation – the United Partisan Organisation (Fareinikte Partisaner Organizatzie (FPO), leader Yitzhak Witenberg) – was founded. Its members began preparing for an armed revolt and partisan resistance.
In March of 1943, the stabilisation period in the Vilnius Ghetto came to an end. At that time the smaller ghettos in the district of Vilnius (Mikailiškės, Švenčionys, Ašmena, Salos) were liquidated. A portion of their residents were transferred to the Vilnius Ghetto, while others were taken to Paneriai and shot (a total of around 4,000–5,000 people). (8)
In the summer of 1943, the Jewish labour camps of the Vilnius Ghetto (Baltoji Vokė, Bezdonys, Kena) were liquidated. A few hundred Jews were murdered during these Gestapo actions. In accordance with the order to liquidate ghettos in Ostland passed by Heinrich Himmler on 21 June 1943, the gradual liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto began in August 1943. (9) This operation was commanded by SS-Oberscharführer Bruno Kittel. The last phase of the liquidation came in September of 1943. By the end of September, the Vilnius Ghetto was liquidated. Most of the women and children (around 5,000) were taken to concentration camps in Poland and killed. Jewish men (around 2,000) were taken to Estonian concentration camps, while young women (around 1,400–1,700) were taken to the Kaiserwald concentration camp near Riga. An additional few hundred elderly and sick Jews were shot in Paneriai at the time of the liquidation. (10)
After the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto, a few thousand Jews were left to work in the “Kailis” factory, the Wehrmacht engineering unit workshops (HKP 562), the military hospital and the Gestapo workshops. Most of the Jews working in these places were killed as the Red Army approached Vilnius in the beginning of July 1944. (11) On 13 July 1944, the Soviet army occupied Vilnius, thus saving a small number of Jews hidden in the city. In September of 1944, the Nazis killed the Vilnius Jews imprisoned in Estonian concentration camps. Only 2,000–3,000 Vilnius Jews survived the Nazi occupation and the war. (12) Certain differences can be noticed when comparing the histories of the Vilnius Ghetto and the Kaunas and Šiauliai ghettos. The Vilnius Ghetto existed for a shorter period of time than the Kaunas and Šiauliai ghettos – only two years (from 6 September 1941 to 23 September 1943), while the Kaunas and Šiauliai ghettos existed for nearly three years (from the middle of August 1941 to the middle of July 1944). The latter two ghettos were liquidated at the very end of the Nazi occupation, while the Vilnius Ghetto was already gone in September 1943. In addition, the Vilnius Ghetto was founded almost a month later than the Kaunas and Šiauliai ghettos. The early liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto was probably associated to the growing Soviet partisan movement in the Vilnius District. The German Security saw the ghetto as a potential source of danger, because the young Jews who were escaping the ghetto in large numbers often joined partisan forces operating in the region of Vilnius. Thus, the occupation government decided against reorganising the Vilnius Ghetto into an SS concentration camp, as they had done with the Kaunas and Šiauliai ghettos, and liquidated the ghetto at once. Another feature specific to the history of the Vilnius Ghetto was very active cultural life. The prisoners of the Vilnius Ghetto carried on the traditions of the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” and continued expressing interest in art, science, literature, self-education and spiritual perfection even in the face of death.


(1) I. Guzenberg, “The Vilnius Ghetto and the Population Census of 1942”, Vilnius Ghetto: Lists of Prisoners, part 2, p. 8–9; Data of the Department of Statistics on the ethnical composition of residents of Lithuania dated 1 January 1941, Lithuanian Central State Archives, f. R-743, ap. 5, b. 46, l. 172.
(2) “Wilna”, Enzyklopedie des Holocaust: die Verfolgung und Ermordung der europäischen Juden, München – Zürich, 1995, Bd. 3, S. 1599.
(3) Reports from the USSR, No. 21, Bundesarchivabteilungen Potsdam (BAP), R58/214, S. 147.
(4) I. Guzenberg..., part 1, p. 13; G. Šuras, Sketches: Chronicle of the Vilnius Ghetto 1941-1944, V., 1997, p. 37;
(5) “Wilna”, Enzyklopedie des Holocaust..., Bd. 3, S. 1601.
(6) “Wilna”, Enzyklopedie des Holocaust..., Bd. 3, S. 1601.
(7) Letter from Schroeder, adjutant of the Vilnius City Commissioner, to J. Gens, chief of Jewish Police of the Vilnius Ghetto dated 10 July 1941, Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen Ludwigsburg (ZSTL), Sygn. UdSSR Ordn. 245, Bl. 59; G. Šuras..., p. 70.
(8) Masinės žudynės Lietuvoje (Mass Murders in Lithuania) 1941–1944, collection of documents, V., 1965, Vol. 1, p. 172; Record of interrogation of J. Oželis-Kozlovskis dated 16 December 1944, Lithuanian Special Archives, f. K-1, ap. 58, b. 27968/3, l. 12–48; G. Šuras..., p. 106–109; K. Sakowicz, Dziennik pisany w Ponarach od 11 lipca 1941 r. do 6 listopada 1943 r., Bydgoscz, 1999, p. 79–84.
(9) I. Arad, Holocaust: Katastrofa evropejskogo evrejstva (1933-1945), Erusalim, 1990, s. 88.
(10) G. Šuras..., p. 147–150; Masinės žudynės Lietuvoje, Vol. 1, p. 172; Record of interrogation of A. Rindziunskis dated 21 December 1943, archive of former Latvian SSR KGB, b. b. Nr.-18313, t. 3, l. 165–166; Y. Arad, Ghetto in Flames: The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust, New York, 1982, p. 432.
(11) Wilna unter dem Nazijoch. Berichte von Dr. Med. Mozes Feigenberg aufgenommen von Mosze Wajsberg, Landsberg, 1946, S. 46–48; I. Guzenberg, The H.K.P. Jewish Labour Camp 1943–1944, documents, V., 2002, p. 9.
(12) “Wilna”, Enzyklopedie des Holocaust..., Bd. 3, S. 1603.
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