Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
A few weeks after his daughter’s wedding, on September 23, 2001, Joe Sabrin’s father, Abrashe Sabrin, passed away. He was one of the few Holocaust survivors of Vilnius (Vilna). As he was going through his dad’s belongings, Joe discovered an attaché case. Inside it he found a war memoir written in Yiddish, a language that he didn’t understand. Filled with curiosity about his dad’s Holocaust experiences, which the latter rarely discussed with his family, Joe had it translated into English by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Once he could read his father’s memoir, Joe discovered an incredible tale of survival and courage. As Joe recounts, Abrashe Sabrin “came to Vilna in July of 1943 and by September 1943 was crawling through the sewers with 80 members of the FPO. They were headed to the forest on the day of the ghetto’s liquidation. In the forests this Jewish band fought among and with the Russians. Anti-Semitism was ever present. But they fought on, and my father, known by the code name ‘Razel’ was with them” (1). A few of those who, like Abrashe Sabrin, joined the Jewish Partisan movement in the fight against the Nazis, destroying train tracks and cars with mines, attacking SS convoys and guards—in and around the Forest of Rudnicki–managed to survive.
To put this remarkable memoir in historical context, the chances of escaping alive from the Vilnius Jewish Ghetto were almost nil. Nearly a quarter of a million Jews lived in Lithuania, which included the newly acquired city of Vilnius (Vilna). During the German invasion in June 1941, many Lithuanian deserters joined the pro-Fascist Lithuanian National Front and helped the Nazi Sonderkommando units (Einsatzgruppe A death squads) round up and shoot the Jews in the area. Vilna (or Vilnius) was a predominantly Jewish and Lithuanian city that Stalin had transferred back from Poland to Lithuania when he invaded Poland in September 1939. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, the Lithuanian government attempted to recapture Vilnius and “nationalize” it. During the Nazi era, this meant an “ethnic cleansing” of about 60,000 Jews that lived in the area. Even before the establishment of the Jewish Ghetto in the city, the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators captured and murdered over 20,000 victims. (see Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims Bystanders, pp. 98-99)
Between September 6, 1941, when the Vilna Ghetto was forcibly established by the Nazis, and September 24, 1943, when the Ghetto was liquidated, the Jews of Vilna endured extremely trying conditions, similar to those inhabiting the Lodz and Warsaw Ghettos. They suffered from overcrowding, disease, starvation, forced labor and the constant fear of mass deportations to concentration and death camps in the East, as well as shootings and beatings by the Nazis and local Lithuanian collaborators. The Nazis organized the Ghetto to better control the victims and facilitate their ultimate extermination plan. They divided it into two parts, separated by a corridor of streets that they and the Lithuanians patrolled. The “small ghetto” was made up mostly of the elderly, women, children and those deemed incapable of work. The “large ghetto” included the Jewish leadership as well as many able-bodied men and women that they could exploit for slave labor. The Nazis murdered the inhabitants of the small ghetto first, whom they perceived as less useful. About 20,000 Jews remained in the larger community until September 1943, when Bruno Kittel, acting on orders received from Heinrich Himmler, liquidated the Vilna Ghetto.
Only a handful of young people survived: about two hundred fifty Jews employed for slave labor in a German military automobile plant and those who belonged to the resistance movements and hid, along with the Partisans, in nearby forests. One of those few survivors was Abrashe Sabrin, who would become one of the leaders of the Jewish Resistance in the area. As Abrashe Szabrinski writes in the memoir’s introduction, “These Jews in Vilna were ready to fight to their last breath, as did the Jews of Warsaw. One the last day of Vilna’s existence, the fighters were poised for war… But rather than take on the Germans inside the ghetto and face immediate annihilation, orders were given to escape by means of the city’s canals into the forest. There they could fight on” (3).
Unlike in the Warsaw Ghetto, where resistance was mostly a last ditch effort at the end when all hope for survival was lost, resistance in the Vilnius Ghetto began early on, under the leadership of Yitzak Wittenberg, Josef Glazman and Abba Kovner (the leaders of the FPO, or United Partisan Organization, formed in January 1942). Kovner, who would become a famous Israeli poet, urged the Vilna Jews to support the Resistance. “We will not go like sheep to the slaughter” was his motto. The Resistance opposed the appeasing attitude of Jacob Gens, the Judenrat and Jewish Police leader, who opted for cooperating with the Nazis in their regular deportations in the hope of saving the Jewish leadership, their families and those deemed capable of work. Gens viewed Jewish resistance as a dangerous provocation to the Germans and feared that the Resistance movement would spread panic among the remaining inhabitants of the Ghetto. Kovner, Wittenberg, Sabrin and other members of the Resistance, however, maintained that the Jews couldn’t trust the Nazis. They realized early on that their ultimate plan was to exterminate the Jewish people, not only exploit them for slave labor.
When the Gestapo asked Jacob Gens to surrender Yitzhak Wittenberg or else they would graze the ghetto to the ground and kill everyone in it, Wittenberg, at Gens’ request, turned himself in. But he took a poison pill rather than allow himself to be tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Despite his acquiescence, the Gestapo summoned Gens to their headquarters on September 14, 1943 and shot him, suspecting him of collaboration with the Resistance movement he had tried so hard to ward off. Soon thereafter they liquidated the entire ghetto despite their earlier reassurances to the Jewish Council.
Abrashe Sabrin’s memoir, Dare to Live, fills in the details about the slaughter of Vilna’s Jews by the Nazis and describes the heroic and risky actions of the Jewish Resistance and its sometimes uneasy alliance with the Communist partisans. Alongside a handful of other members of the resistance, Abrashe Sabrin managed to survive the Holocaust and helped free Vilna of the Nazi occupation. However, as Joe remarks at the conclusion of his father’s narrative, this was a bittersweet victory for the Jewish Partisans. “When they finally joined with the Russian army and took the city, they found it totally devoid of Jews. The ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’ had been wiped from the face of the earth” (89). We can find some solace in the fact that, thanks to this memoir and others, at least its memory survives.
Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory