The Houdini of the Vilna Ghetto

Abraham Sutzkever. From the Vilna ghetto to Nuremberg Ed. and trans. Justin Cammy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP (475 pages, 45 photos, paperback $37.95/£28.50.

The beautiful medieval city of Vilna, known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”, was for centuries the heart of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. Before World War II, there were 80,000 Jews out of a population of 200,000; after the war, only 600 remained alive. Justin Cammy writes that during the war the city was controlled in “rapid and disastrous succession by the Red Army, independent Lithuania, the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic and Nazi Germany”. [in June 1941] before its liberation by the Red Army in July 1944.

Abraham Sutzkever (1913-2010), the greatest modern Yiddish poet, lived in occupied Vilna until the liquidation of the ghetto in September 1943. During this time his mother was beaten and killed; and her infant child, designed for the survival of the race, was murdered immediately after birth by Nazi doctors. He and his wife then fled to the forest and spent the winter with the Soviet partisans. In March 1944, Sutzkever, considered a cultural treasure, was helped by the influential Soviet Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg. A Russian seaplane dramatically rescued him behind enemy lines and transported him to Moscow.

He wrote his ghetto diary in Russia, where it was published in 1946. In July 1944, he returned to Vilna to help rescue other Jewish cultural treasures hidden from the Nazis. In February 1946 he testified at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, and in September 1947 he emigrated to Tel Aviv.

Although the Jews were innocent and had committed no crime, the Nazi assassins wanted to destroy the Jewish people and all traces of their culture. They enjoyed absolute power and took sadistic pleasure in robbing, humiliating, persecuting, tormenting, torturing and killing their helpless victims. The soldiers carried out their duty with fanaticism, in some cases to avoid being sent to almost certain death on the Russian front. The Nazis paid Christians a bounty of ten rubles for each Jew kidnapped and destined for extermination. They were actively aided by anti-Semitic Lithuanians, who stole Jewish property and took over their empty apartments.

Officials of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council that served the Nazis, claimed they were trying to save Jewish lives. In fact, they identified all the Jews, rounded them up, collected their gold and valuables, and persuaded them to obey orders, which made the massacre more effective and freed the German soldiers to fight the Allies. Sutzkever fiercely declares that the senior official “was only a tool in the hands of the Gestapo. While trying to help the Jews, he actually helped the Germans suck the life out of the ghetto…Those who were temporarily left alive were rendered so spiritually dead, without soul or conscience, that they blindly followed the German orders.

Some Jewish doctors and lawyers escaped death by becoming chimney sweeps, who were able to leave the ghetto, work all over town, and carry secret messages. Other Jews even hid under nun’s clothes during the fatal searches. Although Sutzkever knew he was probably doomed and living some sort of posthumous existence, he felt he had to survive the anguish of silence and continue to bear witness in his poetry.

The ghetto Houdini, who actually lived to be 97, had many amazing escapes from death. He hid in a coffin, in a mass grave and in a lime pit. He jumped out of a high window. He walked right past a drunken guard. He dodged a hail of bullets. He acted like a madman to distract the soldiers, who shouted: Wer ist der verrückte Jude? (“Who is this crazy Jew?”). Like movie characters in “The Third Man” and “Kanal,” he hid in the sewers, stood up to his neck in filth, and nearly drowned in the strong currents. Desperate lovers met in the dark sewers and “continued their romantic relationships.” He was also hidden by a Christian peasant, a complete stranger, who treated him like his own son, smuggled bread to his starving family, and risked his life to save them.

Sutzkever writes short dramatic sentences, describes the physical effects of fear – “My head was about to explode, my throat was constricted as if choked by a fist” – and gives brief journalistic accounts of the horrific events that took place. he actually experienced or heard from eyewitnesses. The Nazis paraded the mentally ill, frightened and restless through the streets of Vilna as typical specimens of the decadent Jewish race. Bloody corpses were dragged through the prison with iron hooks. He was forced to strip naked and dance around a fire of burning Torah scrolls. He saw the mass grave where the Jews were buried and seemed to be trying to escape: “It started moving. It was getting bigger every minute. Bodies swelled and heaved the earth above them. Nazi doctors took blood from Jewish children for transfusion to Germans and “extracted the most delicate facial skin for use in cosmetic surgery on wounded and burned German soldiers.”

When life became unbearable, a man hanged himself with his phylacteries (thongs worn during prayer). Another man, asked if he needed anything, replied, “Give me poison. The Nazis treated prisoners of war with the same cruelty. Three hundred Russians “were barefoot. Their hands and feet were frozen and their bodies were starving. They were thrown on top of each other. Many were already dead. Others were still moving, barely breathing.

The worst horrors took place in Ponar, a seaside resort eight kilometers from Vilna, where a river meandered through beautiful landscapes that inspired Napoleon on his way to Russia and Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz. After the destruction of the ghetto and the execution of all the inhabitants, the Nazis began to burn 80,000 bodies in Ponar to eliminate any evidence of their atrocities. Their victims also included priests, nuns, Roma, Poles, Lithuanian partisans, Soviet prisoners, and Germans in uniform. After the corpses were burned, the remains were ground into a fine powder and mixed with yellow sand. Sutzkever found and kept in his pocket a pocket of thick, sticky gray human ashes. At one point a Nazi guard was bitten by his own rabid dog who also had to be put down. The Nazis even killed a German Oberscharführer (Senior Squad Leader), who had fulfilled his duties, was no longer needed and knew too much.

The Jewish victims were not entirely passive, and Sutzkever took an active part in their surprisingly effective sabotage campaigns. Resistance fighters stole bullets, pistols, rifles, machine guns and gunpowder to make bombs from German factories, bunkers and armored cars. They blew up a train and killed 200 soldiers, blew up a bridge and killed 200 more. Unfortunately, the Resistance could not fight inside the ghetto. Their commander was betrayed and surrendered when the Nazis threatened to kill the 20,000 Jews who remained in the ghetto. Instead, they broke his arms, burned his hair, and gouged out his eyes before killing him. Torn between overwhelming grief and a burning desire for revenge, Sutzkever was lucky enough to smuggle a gun to the Nuremberg Trials and execute Hermann Goering. But as a Russian citizen, he would have upset the Americans, who would not have believed that he was acting on his own. He was forbidden to take revenge, and Goering took poison before he could be hanged.

Justin Cammy’s 54-page afterword and 63-page endnotes are excellent. But he includes dozens of obscure names in this historical record, which obstruct the narrative, make no sense to English-speaking readers, and should have been removed. Cammy fails to explain a vital question: how did Vilna’s four well-known mass murderers escape execution and even prison after the war, or avoid capture by Israel’s Mossad? Bruno Kittel disappeared in 1945. No prison sentence or death date is given for Horst Schweinberger. Martin Weiss was released from a German prison long before serving his life sentence and lived until 1984. Franz Murer, “the butcher of Vilna”, sentenced to 25 years of hard labor, was released from Russia, returned to Austria and lived until 1995.

Sutzkever’s valuable book avoids two crucial questions. It describes an exceptionally attractive 18-year-old girl who was forced by a guard to strip naked, pulled out of the execution pit, held by the hand and told “a beautiful girl like you must not die” – before to be shot in directing it. But scores of guards raped the women before killing them, and Sutzkever mentions only one case, an 8-year-old girl “forced into sex.” More importantly, although he wrote a poem “Kol Nidre” on Yom Kippur, he does not ask why the almighty Jewish God allowed the extermination of his chosen people.

The poignant themes of From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg, which ranks in Horror Power with Emmanuel Ringelblum Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (1958), are the Jews’ attempt to retain their humanity when brutalized and enslaved, their desire to preserve the physical remains of Jewish culture, and the need to bear witness to the Holocaust.

Jeffrey Meyers’ four grandparents were born in Vilna. If they hadn’t left for America in the 1890s, he wouldn’t be alive to write this review

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