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A Letter from Bialystok

June 7, 2019

Our Executive Director, Andria Spindel, is on a Jewish Heritage Tour of Poland and Lithuania and shares a wonderful story of survival with us.

In a short while, the forest of Vilna will no longer have traces of the hundreds of Jewish Partisans who fought the Nazis, survived pogroms, escaped the Vilnius Ghetto, blew up train stations and Nazi command posts, and breathed life into the dying and diminishing long-surviving Yiddish-speaking cultural center of the Jewish world.

Now the Lithuanian government threatens to abolish the site. Too many Jews paid with their lives.  A simple lasting memorial is required.  This place is sacred and should be preserved; international pressure may have to be brought to bear.  Stay tuned for suggested next steps.

Dear Friends,

The following is a story from Day 4; a story from Vilnius -- “Vilna” in Yiddish. This story was written by a friend from US who has a journalism background.

We are boarding the bus for Treblinka now, having just walked two hours around this city that was 80% Jewish before WWII.


The Partisan

 Barbara Grossman and Andria Spindel, Toronto, Fania Brancovskaja and Dovid Katz, Vilnius
Barbara Grossman and Andria Spindel, Toronto, Fania Brancovskaja and Dovid Katz, Vilnius

Fania Brancovskaja (Brantsovsky) was the highlight of the morning. She's 97 and pictured above in the center. Fania is a survivor of the Vilnius ghetto, the only one of 50 family members. "I am sadly the only one who can tell you what happened" during the war, she said.

"Everything was uprooted." Though World War II began on September 1, 1939, it didn't start for Fania until Sunday, June 22, 1941 when the Germans began dropping bombs on Vilnius. Her father heard the bombs falling but thought they were part of a graduation ceremony. Her mother said they must have been some military exercise. Her parents couldn't believe the Germans were attacking them. But two days later the Germans arrived, the Soviets fled, and horrific violence broke out, helped by the local Lithuanians wearing white arm bands. They stole radios and bicycles from the Jews and immediately began sending the young men to what the Germans called "hard labor." The men were told to bring a towel and soap, but none of those men ever came back.

Photo of Fania’s family; Fania is seated bottom left, before the War
Photo of Fania’s family; Fania is seated bottom left, before the War

Fania's family heard rumors of a ghetto from the Polish Jews, but her parents thought they'd be safer there under German control and away from the Lithuanian thugs. The older and wiser family members said that they'd fought with the Germans during World War I, and that they were good people.

The ghetto was set up on August 31, 1941. On September 6, Fania's family moved in across the street near the synagogue, and then relocated near the ghetto library as ordered by the Germans, who wanted the Jews with work permits, like her father, to live near their jobs. Families were forced to move in; Fania remembers sleeping with sixteen people in one room. Jews with work permits thought they'd have a better chance to live, performing work for the Germans like repairing cars. But "Whenever we went to work we didn’t know if we’d come back that day," she said. Still, "without a work permit, there was no food permit."

At the end of January 1942, the Jews of Vilna set up a partisan unit to fight back. "Our first task was propaganda," she said. "We had a radio and could learn news outside the ghetto and report it ." The partisans began gathering arms, too. They smuggled them in from outside the ghetto, from Russian stockpiles. Or Germans brought in their guns for repair by the Jews, and workers would remove small parts. "Jews would bring little pieces of arms and guns into ghetto," she said, "and in the ghetto they were put together."

The partisans were also lucky in that one man named Shmuel Kapinsky had worked on the town sewers before the German invasion and knew the whole underground system. The partisans used that sewer system for smuggling. Later, when the ghetto was liquidated, Kapinsky helped over 100 Jews, escorting them out of the ghetto to safety through those sewers.

There were also Jews who were hired to be chimney sweeps, and they smuggled arms down the chimneys. "Arms were the most important thing for us," Fania said. "And we had to learn how to shoot." She practiced with the others in cellars, which were built with thick stone walls dating back hundreds of years.

In the summer of 1943, the partisans understood that the only hope for survival was to escape into the forests. On September 24, 1943, the partisan leaders decided to send females like Fania out of the ghetto. "There's an opportunity to get out now," one of the partisans told Fania. And he gave her instructions on what route to use to pass through the villages on her way to linking up with the other partisans camped out in the forests.

"I saw my father, mother and little sister and told them I had a chance to escape," Fania said. When a ghetto friend left the ghetto for work that day, Fania and a friend slipped out as well. The guards didn't stop them, but Fania couldn't help but notice a lot of activity in the street. The Lithuanian police stood every few feet, and not far away from large trucks and barking dogs near the ghetto gates.

That was the day the Vilna ghetto was "liquidated" and the Germans drove out the Jews, including her family.

Fania and her friend kept walking and accidentally found their way into a village that was not on their safe list of places to go. They were totally lost. A lady in a farm house gave them some milk and delicious black bread that Fania hadn't tasted in three years while in the ghetto. "The taste of that bread is still in my mouth," she said.

Out on the road, there were German soldiers, and a Lithuanian stopped them. "Young ladies, where are you going?" he asked them. "Those Germans just shot a young lady they thought was very dangerous." Luckily, none of the soldiers suspected the pair of being jews. They stayed in a woman's house and were fed milk and bread before heading on their way the next morning.

Fania and her friend made it to the forests to join the other partisans who were from several different countries. There were over 100 in the group. At first they built temporary "sukkah" shelter. "But winter was getting near, and winters were very cold, so there was no way we could survive the winter in those," she said. They dug out sturdier, roomier and warmer shelters in the ground.

Caves that held hundreds of Jewish Partisan fighters outside Vilna during WWII
Caves that held hundreds of Jewish Partisan fighters outside Vilna during WWII

How did Fania and the partisans find food? If there were German shops, she joked that they did a "good old fashioned hold-up." They also did their best to maintain good relations with certain peasants in the area who were sympathetic to fighting the Germans. "There were those who were loyal to us and warned us when Germans were coming," she said. The group carried out attacks on German convoys on the road not far from their shelters. They blew up railroads too. "We would hide out at a safe peasant's house during the day, but at night we would be moving." One partisan named Chaim Tolstoy knew how to sneak across the Polish-Lithuanian border. "He knew every inch of the road," Fania said. "He put his ear to the ground and said `we have to go that way.'"

Fania survived the war and married a fellow partisan. She is now a proud and happy grandmother and great-grandmother. Sadly, she never saw her father, mother, sister or relatives again. Her father was killed at a labor camp in Estonia two days before the Russians reached the area and liberated that camp. Her mother was herded onto a ship with other Jews near Riga, and the Nazis sank the ship. And her sister died in a concentration camp.

Fania speaks to many groups to tell her story. "When people say that the Jewish victims of the Second World War went like sheep to the slaughter, I can tell you that we fought back with everything we could, in every way we had."

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