A particularly bitter aspect of the catastrophe which befell the Jews at Hitler’s hands was the manner in which a number of them, in various towns and ghettos, were tricked into collaborating in their own destruction. This was a terrible lesson, and not for Jews alone, in the futility of trying to turn a totalitarian program from its intended ends by compromising with it.
Yet we should not condemn out of hand the two figures whose short and miserable passage across the scene of Jewish history is recounted here. Never was there so hopeless a trap as that in which millions of Jews were caught when the Nazis overran Eastern Europe. Hope being all the more necessary where there is least reason for it, they had in those trying months and years to invent it, to clutch at every straw and believe in and magnify every illusion. Few Jews were more self-deluded than those whom the Germans appointed to “govern” the Nazi-created ghettos; they thought they could use their figmentary power to influence the real course of events, and by sacrificing some Jews save the rest. Their tragedy turned into a moral as well as physical one.
The most destructive and demoralizing of all the tricks played by the Nazis on their Jewish victims was to grant the ghetto communities into which they were herded the appearance of self-government. In the macabre farce which ensued, “autonomous” Jewish councils and Jewish ghetto elders played the chief roles. Some ghetto “rulers” were invested with authority over the Jewish inhabitants of whole districts and provinces, and several became so drunk with their illusory power as to lose their moral balance as well as whatever sense of responsibility they may have originally had. One such dupe, Chaim Rumkowski of Lodz, was strikingly portrayed by Solomon F. Bloom in these pages (“Dictator of the Lodz Ghetto,” February 1949). Here are the stories of two others.
The twin cities of Sosnowiec and Bendin (Bedzin) lie in the Polish Silesian coal fields near the old German border. They had a total population of some 180,000 in 1939, of whom 55,000 to 60,000 were Jews. The area was taken by the Germans in the very first days of the war, and German troops entered Sosnowiec and Bendin on September 4, 1939.
A group of Jews in Sosnowiec were being manhandled by German soldiers in a particularly sadistic way when, abruptly, one of their officers ordered those in the group who were members of any Jewish communal body to make themselves known immediately. At first no one dared to step forward, but finally a small, insignificant-looking man detached himself from his fellows and resolutely walked forward. He was Moses Merin, a member of the town’s Jewish council and an adherent of the Revisionists, the radical right-wing Zionist party. Though in his thirties—some claimed he was thirty-eight—he looked no more than twenty-five. Very thin, actually weighing only eighty-eight pounds, he had strongly marked features and keen eyes. After greeting him with a few blows, the Germans proceeded to make Merin their liaison man with the Jewish population of Sosnowiec.
Several weeks later the Germans set up a Jewish community committee and made Merin its president, and then, toward the close of 1939, named him head of a newly formed Central Committee of Councils of Elders for East Upper Silesia. Thirty-seven Jewish communities, with about 100,000 “subjects,” were placed under the “Central’s” autocratic authority, which Merin wielded personally and exclusively. Before long he was having himself called “der Leiter”—the Leader, almost like Hitler himself (“der Führer” being prohibited to Jews).
The “Leader” ruled in the manner of a despot, engaged in a great deal of organizational activity, and displayed a prodigious amount of energy in general. Appointing and dismissing Jewish community officials at will, he named provincial ghetto dictators so that the smaller units of his empire could be ruled as autocratically as the whole, and he created so-called advisory councils to serve as the instruments of these lesser dictators. He levied heavy taxes on “his” Jews, which he fixed in each case according to his own arbitrary judgment, extorted contributions, confiscated furniture for the use of the Germans, and organized forced-labor squads. Jews who showed signs of disaffection were curbed by the threat of deportation to German labor camps. He also formed a Jewish militia or police and even set up elementary schools.
The “Central” had about 1,200 employees, in addition to those of the local Jewish communities in Sosnowiec and Bendin and in the provincial towns. Thirty close associates chosen from among the department heads of the “Central,” and the elders and officials of the larger Jewish community councils, functioned as Merin’s personal staff. Some of his most intimate friends were included in this “brain trust”—among them his personal secretary, Fanka Czarna, who accompanied him on more important trips and acted as his interpreter from time to time, since his own German was inadequate.
Thanks to his connections with the Germans, Merin was able to get in contact, through neutral countries, with foreign and overseas Jewish organizations. He was also one of the few “Oberjuden,” or “top Jews,” to enjoy a certain freedom of movement inside the different towns under his control, or even beyond the confines of his empire, to confer with the local ghetto leaders. In August 1940 he surprised the Jewish overseers of the Lodz ghetto, which lay outside his area, with the news that the American Joint Distribution Committee was ready to contribute $100,000 via Lisbon for the relief of their community. The Nazi superintendent of the ghetto administration in Litzmannstadt (as the Nazis called Lodz), Hans Biebow, got confirmation of this from the directors of the German Bank in Berlin, and a certain part of the sum named was actually remitted, it seems, to the Lodz council of elders (at the official rate of five marks to the dollar). But the records do not tell how much money Merin, the “honest broker,” received for his own domain.
His fame grew and he became an almost legendary figure. In a conversation recorded in August 1942 by a chronicler of the Sosnowiec ghetto (P. Wiederman), Merin stated:
Before me nobody ever had as much power over Jews as I have in my region. I wanted to extend this power to cover almost all the Jews of Europe, but a few wretched individuals blocked my way for the sake of their own ambitions and thus condemned their communities to destruction. The blame belongs to Dr. Hirsch in Berlin, Bieberstein in Cracow, and Rumkowski and Czerniakow in Lodz and Warsaw.
These words may not be authentic, but given the jealous rivalry among the various ghetto dictators, each of whom saw himself as a sole savior chosen by providence to rescue his people, they sound plausible enough. It seems certain that the “three emperors,” Merin, Rumkowski of Lodz, and Czerniakow of Warsaw, did meet for a conference, probably in August or September 1940. The fact is mentioned in many of the memoirs of the three different ghettos. Their meeting apparently produced no concrete results: none of the three would give in to the others, each maintaining that his own plan of salvation for the Jews was the only right one. Nor was Merin able to get his “line” accepted in any of the other Nazicreated ghettos in Poland.
Did Merin believe in all seriousness that the Nazis would permit the creation of an all-embracing organization of Jews? “Führer” notions played no small part in his “ideology,” which appears to have been pieced together from all the banal political phrases current in Hitler’s Europe. One of his speculations ran like this:
The Jews have always been a stubborn people, a “stiff-necked people,” as Moses called them. They refused to obey or carry out the orders of their superiors. In our whole history no leader has ever appeared able to compel them to obedience. But none of them felt himself in possession of the force and strength I have. . . . I am the only one who was able to impose unconditional obedience upon his community.
His megalomania is further revealed in these words: “An inner voice said to me: ‘Thou, Moses, art called upon to deliver thy people from out of Hitler’s slavery as thy predecessor once led them out of Egyptian bondage.’ I deeply believe in this inner voice.”
Parasites and worshipful retainers dancing attendance upon him seem to have strengthened Merin’s belief in his mission. One of the scholars of Sosnowiec, a Rabbi Grossman, had the temerity to flatter him at a public meeting with the well-known saying about Maimonides, “From Moses to Moses [Maimonides] there was none like Moses.” But loud cries of protest came from the audience: “It’s a shame for a rabbi in Israel to say things like that!”
Merin himself indulged in fantasies bordering on insanity:
I will not be afraid to sacrifice 50,000 of our community in order to save the other 50,000. Then at last will my fame spread abroad through the whole Jewish world. In Palestine, the new homeland, I shall be received in triumph. Then only shall I appear in my full glory, and my capacities for leadership find their true field of action. I will create a great army equipped with modern arms that will back up our influence on world politics.
But Merin’s Messiah complex and all his spouting did not have much effect, seemingly, in the way of inspiring confidence in him among his closest associates, or even among those humbler. Secretly, his associates made fun of him.
A dramatic session of Merin’s “brain trust” was held before the first deportation of Jews from Sosnowiec, in May 1942. The “Leader” proposed that the “Central” itself undertake the deportation in order to prevent the Germans from carrying it out with their customary brutality. Several members of his staff argued, however, that this would be against Jewish ethics, and cited a classical passage from Maimonides: “When the enemy demands of a group of Jews: ‘Sacrifice one in your midst and the rest will be spared for it,’ the group ought to submit to collective death rather than abandon the innocent man to his fate!” Right after the meeting a violent controversy over this quotation took place in the rabbis’ council of Sosnowiec. (In Vilna, Kovno, and Heidemuehle near Turek in the neighborhood of Lodz, similar disputes took place on the eve of deportations, with the same Rambam text as the starting point in each case.) But against Maimonides and tradition, Merin asserted his own code, according to which only the lawgivers of the new order had the right to decide who was to live and die.
He was supported by several rabbis who argued that deportation, taken literally, did not mean death but forced labor, and who agreed that a “selection” conducted by Jews themselves would be preferable to one conducted by Germans. Nevertheless, the majority voted against Merin. In 1941 the director of the forced-labor section of the “Central” had already resigned in protest against his policies; now several other of his higher officials resigned. To maintain his control, Merin felt obliged to demote some of his council elders and even to denounce one of them, Bezalel Zucker, the Jewish elder of Chrzanow, to the Gestapo.
But Merin could not stifle the spirit of resistance among the various Jewish party and youth organizations, which had already begun underground activity against the Nazis in 1940. On the eve of that first deportation in May 1942, all the Jewish political parties issued a joint call to the Jews of Sosnowiec urging them to resist passively, and as a result only eleven Jews appeared in response to the 2,500 “invitations” that the “Central” sent out. Merin proceeded thereupon to carry out the “selection” by himself, with the aid of his Jewish militia, and when he had rounded up enough deportees he marched at their head to deliver them to the Germans personally. (Among the deportees was Rabbi Englard of Sosnowiec, who strode dignifiedly in their first row.)
Merin was able to compel the employees of his “Central” to collaborate with him in organizing the second transport of deportees from Sosnowiec. In the same period thousands of Jews were deported from the outlying ghettos under his rule. From May 1942 until the middle of July, 15,000 of “his” Jews were sent off into the unknown, none of whom ever came back.
At this point the underground Jewish organizations redoubled their fight against Merin, issuing proclamations and leaflets to inform the Jews of what was going on, and calling on Jewish workers to sabotage the work they were doing for German war industry. In Sosnowiec leaflets were distributed to the Wehrmacht itself, and preparations were made for armed resistance. Jews were provided with forged “Aryan” papers, and men and information were smuggled across the Slovakian and Hungarian borders. In the summer of 1942 two representatives of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw, Mordecai Anielewicz of Hashomer Hatzair (he was to lead the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943) and Eliezer Geller of the Gordonia, made their way to Sosnowiec for an emergency conference.
How well informed Merin was about all this underground activity is unknown, but the propaganda against him must have told him something. It is said that he tried to get in touch with the resistance leaders in order to convince them of the correctness of his “salvation policy,” but got no reply. In the autumn of 1942 the Jewish organizations decided to put him out of the way, assigning the job to Zvi Dunski, the leader of Sosnowiec’s Hashomer Hatzair, but the attempt was given up because of the heavy militia escort that accompanied Merin wherever he went.
On German orders, Merin staged the largest “mass review” of his career in the summer of 1942. All the Jews of the three cities of Sosnowiec, Bendin, and Dabrova were gathered together, and they stood, 50,000 of them, all one August day waiting to be chosen for death. More than 25,000—over half—were taken for Moloch. Merin also put in an appearance in other towns of his empire to witness the “selections.” Gerda Weissmann Klein, an eyewitness and a victim of the deportations, describes in her memoirs, All But My Life (Hill and Wang, New York, 1951), the sudden commotion that swept the Jews awaiting deportation at the railway station in her native town of Bielitz (Bielsko) in Silesia:
From mouth to mouth the news traveled: “Merin!” Merin was here. The king of the Jews, as he was called, had arrived. . . . I looked at him now. He was short, perhaps, a bit over five feet, pale and thin; he had watery eyes, dull brown hair, and he was clad in a brown raincoat. He talked in a hoarse whisper. He pulled a bottle of schnapps from his pocket, drank first and then handed it to the SS men about him. They drank after him. I saw it all and marveled. Yes, he was all right for them, he was their kind. . . .
Merin was walking in our direction. Mama prompted me, “ Go ask him if we are going to Wadowitz.”
I asked him in Polish—it was known that his German was very poor.
He looked at me, his eyes without expression.
“Are you crazy?” was his hoarse reply. . . .
We had assumed all along we were going on a train [to Auschwitz, for extermination] but now a truck came for us. I was the last one to enter it. Then I screamed, “I want to go to my mother!” [who was put on the train for Auschwitz] and jumped down. Just then Merin passed. He looked at me, and with strength unsuspected in that little man, he picked me up and threw me back on the truck.
“You are too young to die,” he said tonelessly.
I glared at him. “I hate you,” I screamed. “I hate you!”
His eyes were without expression; there was a faint smile on his pale thin lips. It would have been easy for him to order me down and send me with my mother. Why did he not? Strange that the man who sent my mother to death had pushed me into the arms of life!
Merin’s self-confidence remained intact:
I feel like a captain whose ship was about to sink and who succeeded in bringing it safe to port by casting overboard a great part of his precious cargo.
But where exactly was his “port”? It dwindled in the end to two miserable suburbs, into which the remnants of the Jewish communities of Sosnowiec and Bendin were herded after a succession of “selections.”
Merin continued to work with the diligence of a beaver—automatically and with a faith in the efficacy of what he was doing that by then must have appeared shockingly meaningless. He reorganized the Jewish militia, dismissing those of its members who had made themselves hated by their brutality during the deportations. Thereby he managed to get rid of some of the blame involved and even to regain the trust of many of his subjects, who praised their “Leader’s” righteous justice. In other ways too he labored constantly to keep his influence over the people, and tried to explain himself in a speech denouncing the underground Jewish organizations:
I know of the plans and preparations of the young people. . . . I know also of the foreign passports that come from Switzerland. . . . I warn you. . . . I stand in a cage before a hungry and angry tiger. I stuff his mouth with meat, the flesh of my brothers and sisters, to keep him in his cage lest he break loose and tear us all to bits. . . . And nobody shall dissuade me from this course. I will not do what Czerniakow did in Warsaw. . . . I will not commit suicide! Oh, would the day come when you will be in the position to judge me. Let history pass sentence upon me!
This speech was delivered early in 1943 in the little ghetto of Srodula, on the outskirts of Sosnowiec, into which Merin’s once mighty Upper Silesian empire had finally shrunk. About this time the Germans decided that they needed Merin no longer; they could take care of the rest of “his” Jews themselves: “The Moor has done his job, the Moor can go.” Toward the end of June 1943, Merin and several of his closest associates were invited to German police headquarters for a meeting. On the face of it, it was a routine conference like many held before. But Merin and his friends never returned from it. It was said later that they had all been sent to Auschwitz.
The disappearance of their “Leader” was regarded by the remnant of Jews in Srodula as a hard blow. They suddenly felt deserted. On the whole, they remembered Merin with affection. Many pitied him. He was no longer looked upon as one who had helped bring about misfortune, but as one who had tried to avert it. They wished and yearned for his return. Such is the effect of a forceful personality. But if Merin had succeeded in duping them, he himself had been even more duped.
The social and cultural atmosphere of Vilna’s Jewry was altogether different from that of Sosnowiec’s, and offered less favorable prospects for an experiment in autocracy. The “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” with its 60,000 to 70,000 Jews, had the 18th-century Gaon to its credit, and was a main center of the Hebrew and Yiddish literary revivals, as well as the seat of many Jewish national and social movements. Vilna’s Jews were enlightened and alert, and the course of events there after the Germans came was somewhat different than in Sosnowiec, though no less terrible.
Vilna was occupied by German troops on June 24, 1941, two days after the beginning of their attack on Russia. A Nazi-appointed Jewish council was set over the Jewish community—which did not prevent 21,000 Vilna Jews from being slaughtered before the rest of them were shut up, on September 6, 1941, in two separate ghettos, one of which was soon “liquidated.” With the creation of the ghettos, a Jewish police force was recruited and an obscure young man named Jacob Gens made its chief.
Gens came from Kovno, was a Revisionist Zionist like Merin, and belonged to the Brith ha-Hayal. He had served as a volunteer in the Lithuanian struggle for independence, becoming an officer in the Lithuanian army, and it was probably his good connections with the Lithuanian nationalists that led to his appointment as police chief. Why he accepted the job remains something of a mystery. He had come to Vilna with his wife, a Lithuanian Gentile, and their daughter, both of whom were permitted to live outside the ghettos as “Aryans.” Gens himself could have easily hidden among his Lithuanian friends, as did other Jews who survived the war. Dr. Mark Dworzecki, a leader of Vilna’s Jewish underground who survived to write the best and completest chronicle of the fate of Vilna’s Jewry under the Nazis (Yerushalayim d’Lita in kamf un umkum, Paris, 1948), quotes a conversation he had with a wonderful Lithuanian woman, Ana Simaite, who saved many Jews. She knew Gens’s family and reported that in his first letter to his wife from the ghetto he wrote: “For the first time in my life I carry out tasks like these. My heart is bleeding. But I will always do what is best for the Jews in the ghetto.”
His duties were not easy, what with one “Aktion” or “operation” following another and each meaning a new blood bath. The Jewish police had to help drag the appointed victims from their homes, subdue by force those who resisted, and stand guard over them until the SS led them off.
November 24, 1941, was a St. Bartholomew’s Night in the Vilna ghetto, but not the first one. What marked it off from the others was that it was the “night of the yellow certificates,” the “life certificates” that the Germans intended to grant to some 16,000 Jews as documentary evidence of their “economic usefulness” to Germany and therefore of their right, and that of their families, to go on living. Gens was ordered to hold a mass review at which these certificates would be distributed; all the Jews who did not receive them were to be deported.
The inhabitants of the ghetto did not know the purpose of the review but had a foreboding of something terrible. Gens, surrounded by his policemen and a few SS officers, had the Jews march past him while he counted, “One, two three—one, two, three,” and divided them into two columns by touching the marchers with his stick. Those chosen for work—and life—were led into the yard of the Jewish council’s building. A family of five came toward him, and Gens waved the man, his wife, and two of their children into the garden, but the third child to the other side. The parents uttered heart-rending cries, and the crowd murmured, “Gens is a Jewish murderer, he’s a traitor.” Another family marched up, and Gens counted, “One—father, two—mother, three—child—” and then suddenly broke off to yell at the father: “You rascal you, where did you lose your child?”
When the man answered in confusion that he didn’t have a second child, Gens began to beat him with his stick, and while doing so touched the neck of a twelve-year-old boy with its tip. He immediately pulled the boy out of the crowd and shoved him toward the man, crying, “Here, you fool, here’s your child! Don’t lose him again, you jackass you!” Then he imperiously pointed his stick toward the yard where stood the saved. Now the crowd murmured, “Gens saved the boy. He is a Jew, after all. Gens has two souls, he’s a mystery.”
A Jewish poet commemorated this occasion by putting the words, “One, two, three—one, two, three,” into a poem which a ghetto composer set to music. The song caught on in the ghetto and since then has become one of the most popular of all Yiddish ghetto folk songs.
There were Aktions in November in Vilna, and Aktions in December. Twenty-seven thousand more Jews were killed out-right between September and December, mostly in mass executions in a place outside Vilna called Ponary. Thousands of others were deported. Eighty per cent of Vilna’s Jewish population was gone by the end of 1941, when a period of “stabilization” set in. “Maybe that was the German blood quota,” the surviving 20 per cent told themselves. “Now only the ‘economically useful’ ones among us are left. German industry needs workers. Work will save the ghetto.”
Gens preached work. He made many speeches to “his” Jews. In one he said:
We must show that we are very useful. . . . Work, especially work for the Wehrmacht, is the order of the day. . . . There are now 14,000 workers in the ghetto . . . and we must do everything to increase our production. . . . Jewish workers must give up easy jobs and take other [more strenuous] ones in order to increase their usefulness—for the sake of the collective interest of the ghetto.
The authority over Vilna’s Jews was all this while shifting from the Nazi-appointed Jewish council to Gens and his police force, and in July 1942 he was officially made governor of the Vilna ghetto by the Germans. He announced his appointment in a succinct proclamation smacking of Napoleon’s battle orders—the “Gens Manifesto,” it was called in the ghetto. Once again he preached the doctrine of work:
The basis of existence in the ghetto is work, discipline, order. Every able-bodied inhabitant of the ghetto is a pillar upon which our existence depends.
That evening Gens staged a solemn review of his police force, which was followed by a banquet that became known in the ghetto as “the coronation feast.” For the first time the Germans allowed flowers to be brought into the ghetto from the “Aryan” part of Vilna, and all the ghetto dignitaries attended.
Jewish wit had a mordancy all its own in Lithuania, and Gens seems to have taken it into account. He had a cage set up in the yard of the Jewish council’s building with a live goose in it as an emblem, more or less, of the ghetto’s “ruling house”—the Yiddish word for goose, gans, sounding very much like Gens. The Jews of Vilna sensed the self-mockery in this, and they all came to admire the goose—which, not accidentally, was being fattened—and it was commemorated in many humorous songs and verses.
During the first and relatively quiet phase of Gens’s dictatorship there was a kind of cultural renaissance in the Vilna ghetto. A Yiddish theater, a Hebrew dramatic workshop, an orchestra, a workers’ auditorium, children’s and youth clubs, a music school, choir, a vaudeville theater, several yeshivas, an athletic club, elementary schools, professional schools, clubs for literature, for teachers, and for engineers, a scholarly society, Brit Ivrit, and other activities were started. The police, for their part, gave balls, dances, parties. Certain of the policemen, along with what speculators and war profiteers there were in the ghetto, were possessed by an insatiable craving for pleasure: Après nous, le déluge!
“Jacob the First,” as they called Gens in Vilna, became a patron of the arts and sciences. Literary gatherings were held in his hall, and a “Vilna Ghetto Publishing House” was founded on his initiative. Though nothing was ever actually printed, he had authors paid for every sheet of manuscript they turned in. He also had historical documents on the ghetto carefully collected and preserved. He sponsored a theater that in 1942 gave a hundred and twenty performances, with a total attendance of 38,000 the items of its repertory were serious throughout, and mostly classical). But Gens’s chief love was the children and their schools; he visited these personally, took an interest in their curricula, and diligently attended their ceremonies. During the Passover of 1942 he himself took childlike pleasure in the performance of a ghetto Haggadah specially composed by children in which he figured as a hero. At the joint ceremony of all the ghetto schools at the close of the school year in the spring of 1943, he delivered a speech to the children in which he said:
Be comradely, little brothers, respect your parents, love your people, and work for the ghetto. Be proud and brave Jewish children.
Gens also gave the main speech at the founding of the ghetto’s athletic club, which soon had some 400 young members, and whose field was his favorite place of exercise during the summer. Whether he was aware that this field became the main meeting place of the Jewish underground resistance organizations in Vilna is not known.
Many new workshops were opened in the ghetto, and Gens tried to raise the living standards of his subjects. He got permission from the Germans to cut down part of a forest near Vilna for firewood for the ghetto, and it was promptly dubbed “Gens’s Forest” (Yaar Gens) in ironical allusion to Herzl’s Forest in Palestine. Later, the Jews of Vilna came to appreciate this forest more seriously, since it was the only place where they could work in the open and enjoy fresh air as well as trade with peasants for food and prepare hiding places. It was there, too, that feelers were put out to make contact with the partisans who roamed the wooded country all around. Gens may or may not have known about this.
Meanwhile his fame and power grew. A few months after being appointed governor of the Vilna ghetto he was made governor of all the ghettos and Jewish work camps under German civilian authority in Vilna district and in a part of White Russia as well. To all these new “colonies,” he sent his police to establish his kind of order. Like Merin in Silesia, he ruled with a strong hand. His courts of justice even had the power to pass death sentences, and in June 1942 they condemned six Jews to death—five for a murder they had committed in the Vilna ghetto, and one for having been instrumental as an informer in bringing about the massacre of the Jews in the Lida ghetto by the Germans. The sentences were executed by the Jewish police, and afterwards Gens maintained that these punishments did much to discourage murders in the Vilna ghetto.
His Jewish police were empowered to administer corporal punishment to men and women, and some of his policemen proved to be rough and sadistic. Gens’s deputy chief of police, Salek Dessler, became an agent and symbol of corruption and demoralization. And a number of young women who worked for the police—in particular one known as the “beautiful Thea”—exercised a marked influence over Gens himself. As a Jewish writer of Vilna expressed it, “Many no longer believe in deism but in ‘theism.’”
Gens did not kowtow to the Germans, who called him “the proud Jew.” Once, after an air raid by the Russians, a group of Germans invaded the ghetto in order to “take revenge on the Jews,” but Gens had them thrown out and handed over to the German military police. The Nazis’ Lithuanian auxiliaries, as well as the German ghetto guards, feared Gens like death.
Although his police were generally hated, Gens himself was trusted and respected by many of the Vilna Jews—at least until the mass deportations of the summer of 1943. “Gens is smiling: everything is all right,” they would say. “Gens is gloomy: things are bad, there are dark clouds over the ghetto.” People wanted to persuade themselves that, in spite of everything, they did have a benevolent and powerful guardian angel.
Try as he did, however, Gens could not win the approval of the more politically conscious and responsible Jews in the Vilna ghetto—not even in the best days of his regime. They held demonstrations to protest against the “selections,” and the holders of “white cards”—that is, those Jews not considered “economically useful” and therefore liable at any moment to deportation—even demonstrated once against the brutal behavior of the Jewish police. “Trials of Flavius Joseph and Herod” were staged by the historical section of the ghetto youth club in which the allusions to Gens were unmistakable. But Gens himself did not perceive any resemblance between his role and that of the two renegades who had curried favor with the Roman enemy. The parallel he assigned himself was much loftier, and the same as that which Moses Merin fancied for himself. Nusia Dlugi, a girl active in the Jewish underground, tells in her reminiscences: “Gens regarded himself as the second Moses; he would say again and again, ‘You Jews will see, I’ll lead you out of the ghetto.’”
At the opening of the theater he sponsored, leaflets with black borders were distributed among the crowd: on them was printed “No theater performances in a graveyard!” After the “night of the yellow certificates” a delegation of rabbis went to Gens and told him that he lacked the right to undertake “selections” and decide which Jews were to die and which to live. They quoted to him the same famous passage from Maimonides that was used against Merin in Sosnowiec. Even earlier, an “emergency committee” composed of twenty persons representing each of the Jewish political parties had been formed in Vilna, and in the course of time this committee, which opposed Gens uncompromisingly and enjoyed great respect, developed into a kind of ghetto parliament. Thus Gens began to see opposition growing up all around him.
He continued to assure “his” Jews that they could face the future with confidence, but they refused to believe him. Hiding places were dug in the air-raid bunkers in the ghetto, and in the sewers. A whole underground city came into being, the “Secret City” described so vividly in Abraham Sutzkever’s poem of the same name. One bunker was converted into a school that could accommodate eighty children. Gens’s Judenrat (Jewish council) was referred to more and more often as his Judenverrat (treason to the Jews). And, punning again, the Vilna Jews circulated the saying: “People in the ghetto pay more attention to katchkes than to gäns” (katchkes, meaning ducks, standing here for wild rumors, and gäns, meaning geese, for Gens’s reassurances). In the effort to fight this distrust Gens made many speeches, some of them remarkable for their candor. One, delivered at a distribution of literary prizes in the ghetto coffee house, amounted to a confession and an apologia.
Many of you look upon me as a traitor, and many of you wonder by what right I come to your literary gatherings. I, Gens, am leading you to your death, yet I, Gens, want to save you from death. I, Gens, let you dig your dugouts, and I, Gens, try to bring work, life certificates, and benefits to the ghetto. I balance the accounts of Jewish blood, and not those of Jewish honor. When the Germans ask me for one thousand Jews I give them that number. Otherwise they would come themselves and take not one but many thousands. With a hundred victims I save a thousand people. With a thousand I save ten thousand. You are people who work with your minds and your pens. You don’t come in contact with the dirt in the ghetto. And if you survive, you’ll say, “We came through with clear consciences.” If I, Jacob Gens, survive, however, I shall have come through all covered with dirt and with blood dripping from my hands. Yet I will offer myself for trial, before a Jewish court. I will say: “I did everything to save more Jews in the ghetto and bring them to deliverance. And in order that some should survive, I alone have had to lead Jews to their death. In order that some people should be able to come out of the ghetto with clean consciences, I had to wallow in filth and act without conscience.”
Gens was probably honest in stating what he felt and how he saw—or wanted to see—the situation. But was he moved only by a spirit of self-sacrifice, and not by ambition and lust for power? Was he not exposed to temptations and tests such as no human being ought to know?
At the beginning of 1943 the Germans ordered the Jewish police of Vilna to go to Oszmiany and carry out a deportation there. Fourteen hundred Jewish victims were demanded. After hard bargaining Gens managed to reduce the number to 400, but only on condition that the Jewish police itself carry out the “selection.” When Gens returned to Vilna after having complied with this condition, he called his higher police officers, the Jewish council, and the rabbi of Vilna to him in his apartment. To them he declared: “In Kimelishki and Bistritz the Germans carried out Aktions by themselves, without help of the Jewish police. They slew the entire Jewish population. In Oszmiany only 400 out of 4,000 perished. We intend to save as many as possible in this way, even though my heart bleeds in the course of it.”
Shortly afterward, all the Jews still left in the small towns in the area were transported to Vilna. Gens announced that they as well as the Jews of Vilna could go to Kovno if they wished and report for work there. Many, especially among the new arrivals, offered to do so in the prevalent belief that the German administration in Kovno was more humane than that in blood-drenched Vilna. Gens personally led to Kovno the 5,000 who volunteered. As it appears, he did this in all honesty and with the best of hopes. On the afternoon before the journey he went to bid his Gentile wife goodbye. “I don’t like his optimism,” Mrs. Gens said to Ana Simaite. It turned out that she had good reason not to. For the Germans, instead of sending the trains to Kovno, turned them off to the execution grounds at Ponary just outside Vilna, where their occupants were slaughtered en masse. “Operation Kovno,” they called this in the ghetto. At Ponary Gens was arrested by the Germans but promptly released, and he returned to Vilna without hue and cry, locked himself in his room, and refused to talk to anyone. The legend of his great influence and his own belief in his mission as a savior were gone.
Until then Gens had played for time. He had believed what Martin Weiss, a high-ranking Gestapo officer whom he used often to invite to lunch, told him: that the Vilna ghetto would be spared from total destruction because of its importance as a workshop. Gens had thought to buy time by periodically sacrificing small numbers to Moloch, but he began to look for another way out.
Toward the end of 1941 a Jewish combat organization had been formed in the Vilna ghetto. On New Year’s Day, 1942, it issued its first call to the Jewish population: “We do not want to go to the slaughterhouse like sheep, we want to fight!” By the end of January 1942 all the political groupings of the ghetto were represented in the organization—the Zionists, Hashomer Hatzair, the Bundists, Revisionists, and the Communists. It was called the “United Partisan Organization,” or “FPO,” and worked under a single unified leadership.
From the beginning Gens’s attitude toward the FPO was uncertain and wavering. He was a man full of contradictions and whims, easily influenced, and able to change his position unexpectedly and abruptly. Several chroniclers of the Vilna ghetto, most of them former members of the FPO, maintain that Gens helped the organization; that he knew about the Jews who fled to join the partisans in the forests, and would let the ghetto gates stay open at night in order to make it easier for them to escape; and that he even contributed money to the FPO for the purchase of arms. Some even claim that he was secretly preparing his police for the time when he would lead them over to the FPO. But other chroniclers say that Gens demanded the disbanding of the organization, offering in exchange further guarantees of peace and security for the ghetto. Still others term him bluntly a traitor. Shmerke Kaczerginski writes that Gens made advances to the FPO: “But he was so entangled in a thick web of blackmail and corruption that with the best will in the world he could not help himself.”
This last remark holds the key perhaps to an understanding of the “Gens complex.” He remained, as he had been before, an autocratic ruler. His ambition and his belief in his saving mission prevented him from subordinating himself to others. This may also explain why a united resistance front was never achieved in the Vilna ghetto, and why it was haunted instead by the specter of a fratricidal struggle. What is certain is that this specter caused the FPO’s carefully prepared plan of battle against the Germans to be completely frustrated in the end.
Before the war Joseph Glasman had been commander of the Revisionist Betar and a member of the editorial board of the Revisionist publication, Hamedinah. After the Nazis came he was appointed vice-chief of the Jewish police force of Vilna, a step to which his party consented because it hoped to secure great organizational advantages and freedom of movement thereby. At the same time Glasman became a member of the FPO’s inner staff of command—according to some chroniclers, the FPO’s first meeting took place in his apartment. He was at that time made head of a “special section” whose function was to gather intelligence, unmask Gestapo agents and informers, and keep a check on FPO members themselves. This special section even had men in the Jewish police.
Energetic and of great ability as an organizer, Glasman soon became popular in the ghetto. This aroused Gens’s jealousy, and he was removed from his post as vice-chief of police under mysterious circumstances. Some chroniclers claim that Glasman himself asked the leaders of the FPO for permission to resign. At any rate, after his dismissal he was made head of the ghetto’s housing office. Suddenly, an order came from Gens to go to Sventzany and clear up the housing situation in the ghetto there. But Glasman, guessing that a deportation from Sventzany was being prepared, and that he was to be made an accomplice in the crime, refused to obey the order. Gens called his policemen together, denounced “the rotten intelligentsia that was carping at the difficult work of the police,” and had Glasman arrested and put in chains.
An FPO group attacked the police and succeeded in freeing Glasman after a short clash. The threat of civil war in the ghetto that then arose was only averted when both sides agreed to negotiate. Reluctant to reveal the identity of its leaders, the FPO sent only members of its Communist faction to the peace talks. It was in July 1943, the Russians were knocking at Lithuania’s door, and Gens had become very tender toward Communists. But he must have soon succeeded in winning the confidence of the FPO, for all its leaders took part in the later talks. A compromise was reached. Glasman was given a symbolical punishment by being sent, this time unchained, to dig peat in a labor camp. (After a short time he was released, and returning to the Vilna ghetto, he organized a group flight to the forests in July 1943. There he became one of the leaders of a fighting unit called “Revenge,” which he recruited eventually to a strength of several hundred men. Not long afterward Glasman met his death in a clash in the woods with German or Lithuanian forces.)
Gens’s symbolic victory over Glasman was followed by a purge of all the latter’s followers in the Jewish police. But hardly was this accomplished before a new conflict threatened to divide the ghetto. On July 9, 1943, the Germans arrested two Polish Communists in Vilna, one of whom admitted having been in contact with Jewish Communists through Itzek Wittenberg. The Gestapo ordered Gens to hand Wittenberg over to them. Apparently, the Germans had still not discovered the existence of the FPO, or they would have asked for the whole staff of that organization, not just the Communist Wittenberg.
Gens acted with craft. In his usual way lie invited the FPO leaders to an emergency meeting with him at midnight of July 16. Lithuanian auxiliary police, led by Gens’s deputy chief, Salek Dessler, broke in during the middle of the meeting and led Wittenberg away. But then something happened that Gens had not foreseen. The FPO staff had made it a practice whenever it met with Gens to post its own guards outside the meeting place, and when the FPO guards saw Wittenberg being led out in handcuffs by the Lithuanians they went into action, and within half an hour Wittenberg was free.
Gens countered by proclaiming an emergency. His whole authority was now at stake. It was two in the morning, and a large and excited crowd had gathered in the square before the building of the Jewish council. Gens spoke to them from the balcony: “The Gestapo demands one Communist from us, otherwise the whole ghetto will be destroyed. Shall all Vilna Jewry be wiped out for the sake of one man?” The crowd responded with hysterical cries of “Hand over Wittenberg! Save the ghetto!” Why, they felt, should they sacrifice themselves for Wittenberg—least of all at that moment, when a new Russian offensive was being expected any day and the liberation of Vilna with it?
As chief of the highly conspiratorial FPO, Wittenberg was still unknown to the mass of people in the ghetto. But his fellow FPO members respected him greatly, whatever their party allegiance, as a born leader and a responsible man who never lost his head. Armed FPO members, ready to shoot, now stood guard around the house where he had taken refuge. Gens mobilized the riffraff of the ghetto, and they were soon gathered in a mob around Wittenberg’s house calling for his surrender and threatening to go in and take him by force. Meanwhile Gens and Dessler went from courtyard to courtyard haranguing the people: “The Gestapo has given us an ultimatum expiring at six in the morning. Then they’ll annihilate us with planes and tanks. Who’ll protect us then? Those schoolboys with their toy guns?”
The young FPO men who stood ready with their guns were undergoing an agonizing conflict. “Jews look on us as though we were their murderers. We collected guns together in hope of fighting the Germans, but now—who are we supposed to fight? Jews?” Finally Gens sent emissaries to the headquarters of the FPO; the latter refused to negotiate with him at first, but finally consented. Gens’s argument ran: “You yourselves are to blame for this situation because of your carelessness. Resistance to the Germans is impossible at this moment. You’ll be beaten. It’s better to lose one man than to lose everything. You’ll gain time. When the right moment comes you’ll be able to break out and get to the forest.” Wittenberg sat calm and relaxed, in complete possession of himself, and listened silently to the heated debate of his fellow-leaders in the FPO. They were unable to reach a decision. Mean-while the yells of the crowd came through the windows of the attic in which they were gathered: “We want to live! To live!”
Finally Wittenberg spoke: “Listen. I’m going to leave the whole thing up to my party.” Acting upon this wish, the leadership of the Communist party in the Vilna ghetto decided that he should give himself up to the Gestapo, and some of Wittenberg’s own party comrades (among them Sonia Madeysker) were sent into the room in which he was sitting to inform him of their decision. At first he could not understand. “Are you serious, Sonia?” he said. “Are you sure you’re not wrong?” When they had at last convinced him that there was no other way out, he is reported to have said abruptly: “No movement ever handed its leader over to the enemy. A movement that does that is bankrupt.” According to a different report, all he said was: “If you wish it I will go.” At any rate he surrendered himself, accompanied, as a gesture, by Jewish policemen. Some claim he was tortured to death by the Gestapo; others say that he was able to swallow cyanide poison before he could be questioned. A song by Shmerke Kaczerginski telling of how Wittenberg went to his death soon became a popular Yiddish folk song.
Wittenberg’s surrender to the Gestapo was Gens’s last victory.
Aktion swiftly followed Aktion: one on July 1, another on August 6, and a third from August 19 to 24. Between the 20th and 23rd of August the remaining ghettos in the towns around Vilna were cleared. From the 1st of September to the 5th, a great deportation of Jews to Estonia took place. Rumors were spread beforehand that there really were labor camps there; postmarked letters came back to Vilna from one camp called Vayvari, which indomitable Jewish wit at once baptized “Camp Veh-Veh” (or “Woe, Woe”). The Jews of the Vilna ghetto were promised work and life, but they no longer trusted in promises. Yet the train stood waiting. Gens, beside himself and drunk, ran around literally beating people into the train with his stick. He shot one Jew down on the spot because he was slow in obeying. The Jewish policemen themselves, now carrying firearms given them by the Germans, went wild as they smelled blood. And thus the Aktion was carried out, 5,000 persons being taken away. To those who remained in the Vilna ghetto, Gens once again promised peace—the final peace.
But final peace was destined to come to himself first. The Gestapo had been watching him carefully for a long time. It had its own agents, thirteen of them, in the Jewish police. On September 14, 1943 he was ordered to report to Gestapo headquarters. A friend of his there, probably Martin Weiss, advised him to disobey and flee, for a death sentence hung over his head. But Gens answered, “If I, the head of the ghetto, run for my life, thousands of Jews will have to pay for it with theirs.” He then summoned all his policemen, told them that he had been called to the Gestapo, and named a deputy to serve in his absence. The next day he went to the Gestapo office and did not return. On the same day a high Gestapo officer named Kittel held a roll call of the Jewish police, to whom he announced that Gens had been shot for disobeying the orders of the German police. An unofficial report that circulated in the ghetto said that Gens had been accused of maintaining contact with the FPO and helping the partisans.
That evening the Jewish police held a memorial service for their former chief at which the official ghetto rabbi spoke, beginning with the words: “We no longer have a father,” and Gens’s brother said kaddish. Shortly afterward, on Yom Kippur, all the synagogues in Vilna held memorial services for “Jacob Gens, the martyr.” Two Jewish girls slipped out of the ghetto that day and went to Rossa, where they prayed at Gens’s grave and laid a wreath of flowers on it. Whether these gestures expressed the real attitude of most of Vilna’s surviving Jews is more than doubtful.
A few days later came the end of the ghetto, too, in an Aktion carried out on September 23, 1943. The report for October and November 1943 of the German general commissioner for Lithuania contains the following short and dry account: “In view of the urgent need of labor power in the shale-oil region of Estonia, and because of certain difficulties in the Vilna ghetto, the latter was completely evacuated.”
Nazi persecution left the Jews who were its victims no room for normal behavior. The higher the individual’s position and the greater his responsibility, the more enormous became the “agony of choice” to which he was exposed, and the lower he fell in making his choice. In the old Torah tradition, it was precisely those angels who had risen highest in the hierarchy of created beings who were cast down into the lowest depths. Merin and Gens were by no means angels, but by consenting to be lifted up by the servants of Hell they were turned into servants of Hell themselves. To what extent they themselves, as individuals, were responsible for what circumstances made of them is impossible to say, yet one feels that no loyal, self-respecting Jew would have done what they did.
At least we can see what the “role in history” of the Genses and the Merins really was. They permitted themselves to be used by the Nazis to lull the Jews with false hopes. Because of people like Merin and Gens, the Nazis were able to make their victims do much of the dirty work themselves. The Merins and the Genses worked to keep the Jews from realizing the desperate truth of their situation and joining together to do what could be done about it. A leading Polish politician has said: “The Germans used to boast that the annihilation of the ghettos had been achieved through the agency of the Jews themselves, and there was a measure of truth in this, so far as the ghettos in Poland were concerned.”
The Polish politician in question cannot quite be considered a friend of Jews (though he happens to have a Jewish wife) and there is an unpleasant edge to his words. But the lesson in what he reports is one for Poles too—and for everybody.