Heroic Young Women
By Shmerke Kaczerginski, translated by Lillian Leavitt
- Written by:
- Shmerke Kaczerginski
- Translated by:
- Lillian Leavitt
- Summer 2022 / 5782
- Part of issue number:
- Translation 2022
“Heroic Young Women” is a translation of a chapter in one of Shmerke Kaczerginski’s memoirs known as Partizaner geyen (Partisans on the Move) (Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina, 1947). Serving under a Russian partisan commander aware of his literary abilities, Kaczerginski was assigned the ongoing task (among others) of recording the living conditions and actions of the partisan brigade and its members. Partizaner geyen was written almost completely from those notes.
This particular chapter heralds the exploits, skill, and bravery of Kaczerginski’s comrades Vitka Kempner and Zelda Treger. Along with other daring young men and women in the Vilna ghetto, they surreptitiously organized the FPO, the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatzye (United Partisan Organization), whose mission was to prepare and carry out an armed resistance within the ghetto and to later evacuate the ghetto and fight Nazis with the forest militias known as partisans. This Jewish militia unit named itself “The Avengers.”
“Heroic Young Women” may well have been the first publication citing Vitka Kempner’s and Zelda Treger’s valor and expeditions. Vitka later received the highest badge of courage in the USSR. Her heroism was immortalized in the song “Shtil di nakht is oysgeshternt” (“Quiet, the Night Is Full of Stars”) by the Yiddish poet Hirsh Glik (who tragically did not make it to the forest). Vitka was also a producer of the 1975 documentary film The Partisans of Vilna along with her husband, Abba Kovner, the first FPO commander in the Vilna Ghetto, commander of The Avengers, and renowned Israeli author and poet after the war.
Zelda Treger continued her heroic work after liberation as well. She was instrumental in searching for Avengers who had survived and organizing them for immigration to Palestine. She also smuggled and helped other revenge activists to safe havens in various parts of Europe. She and her husband, Nathaniel Nisnilevich, another partisan in The Avengers, settled in Israel in 1946.
“Let’s not go like sheep to slaughter! Of the 80,000 Jews in the Jerusalem of Lithuania, only 20,000 remain. All roads from the Gestapo lead to Ponary, and Ponary is death . . . Our only response to the enemy is—resistance! Brothers and sisters! It is better to fall as free fighters than live at the murderers’ mercy. Resist to your last breath!”
These are the opening words of a proclamation by the United Partisan Organization, known by the Yiddish name “Di Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatziye” (FPO), that formed within the Vilna Ghetto. The words took hold of Vitka and Zelda. The call to action ignited sparks in their hearts that grew into flames. It was January 1, 1942, and this was the first call to arms, printed and released to the Vilna Ghetto Jews.
Vitka had already experienced what the Germans were like. She had had the dubious honor of being detained by the Gestapo in Kalisz, the city of her birth. By 1942 Vitka had joined the ghetto partisans and thrown herself into the fight against the Nazis.
The FPO decided to send messengers to other ghettos in the occupied regions.
“Kovno and Bialystok! Warsaw and Lemberg! Be aware that Nazism is bringing you death! Get organized! Set up partisan units! Carry out acts of sabotage and diversion in German facilities in which you work. Prepare the Jewish masses in ghettos to do battle!”
Coloring her hair blonde, removing her yellow patch, and stealing out of the ghetto into the city dressed as an Aryan, Vitka scouted out routes for the Vilna partisans to bring the warning to the other ghettos.
Vilna Ghetto was drowning in blood. Tens of thousands had already been murdered. The newly formed partisan group organized to take revenge. They formulated a plan to explode a German military transport traveling on the Vilna rail line, Nay-Vileyka. Vitka Kempner and Izye Matskevich were charged with carrying out the assignment. For three days and nights, Vitka wandered through the woods close to the train line to ferret out a secure spot for the sabotage. It was snowy and muddy, windy and cold. On a howling dark evening, encircled by night, the two Jewish partisans stole out of the ghetto through a concealed hideaway.
Thanks to Vitka’s exploration, they did not lose their way through the side trails, forests, and hills. It took only seconds to fasten the dynamite to the steel rails. Minutes later, just as they reached the woods, the air suddenly broke into blue and pink flames. Pieces of shattered train cars whirred through the sky. Broken wails flew into the new purple night.
In the morning, whispers of the news moved quickly through the local population, through the German battalion, and reached the Gestapo: two hundred German officers and soldiers, along with their weaponry, had been blown to bits and pieces.
After that success, Vitka was appointed to the rank of group commander, where she continued to display leadership, daring, and bravery.
Bloody days and months passed and rolled into years. The ghetto was being liquidated. The assignment of getting into the city, investigating the situation, and finding secure roads for the partisans to make their exit to the forest was handed over to Vitka.
Vitka was in charge of secreting weapons out of the ghetto, using every possible way imaginable to do so. Traveling through the melinas (hidden passageways), she personally carried out pistols, machine guns, and bullets. She hid weapons in coffins where corpses lay waiting to be taken to the cemetery, which was also the meeting spot for the partisans. Here, among the hundred-year-old headstones, new life was born. Here the Jews took off their yellow patches and replaced them with weapons.
Vitka led ghetto Jews through back trails cutting across train lines to get to the Norocz Forest. She and her friend Zelda Treger walked through fire to discover better locations from which the partisans could achieve their goals.
One night, in a courtyard on Ignatov Street in Vilna, several policemen stood guard. Chatting with them in the friendliest, most relaxed manner was Vitka. Who were those policemen? They were FPO members dressed in police clothing, standing guard for fellow partisans who were leaving the ghetto and making their way to the forest through the city sewage pipes.
Another time, in the Rudnicki Forest, Vitka was assigned a major task: to get back into the city and disable the electrical transformers and water system. Dressed in fashionable city clothing and makeup, carrying a small, elegant valise (which held the dynamite), Vitka walked through the Vilna streets. On her way to her destination, she stole into the forced labor camp Kailis, where she organized a group of Jews and arranged for them to meet her at the cemetery so she could lead them to the forest. In the evening she snuck out of the camp and into the city. Arriving at the crossroads of Orzeszkowa and Zygmuntowska Streets, she placed the dynamite under the electrical transformers and at the sewage pipes that led into Zarzeczna Street and . . . suddenly the city shook in explosion. (To this day, Vitka’s work is still visible on Zygmuntowska Street.) After the explosion, she slipped away to the predetermined spot at the cemetery to meet the sixty Jews she had organized at the forced labor camp and led them to the partisan base.
The group, virtually weaponless and with little experience, was totally dependent on Vitka’s exceptional familiarity with the terrain to get through the thousands of dangers along the sixty-kilometer journey. Vitka saw it through and brought the men safely to the partisan forest camp.
Was it any wonder that the Jewish partisan unit in the forest, “The Avengers,” entrusted her with the important position of commanding a reconnaissance division? Her division provided the unit with information as to where the enemy was situated, what their number was, and what weaponry they possessed. It also identified local traitors who were robbing and beating the population.
The partisan groups were extremely grateful for Vitka’s division. They could proceed more securely along paths that had recently been surveyed by its reconnaissance.
Vitka, however, wasn’t satisfied with that alone. She also commanded a group that destroyed a military unit of hundreds of Nazis. She participated in burning down two bridges and two locomotives. She and two other partisans stole into the town of Olkenik, where a German garrison was stationed, and bombed a turpentine factory.
When literature printed on the printing press in the forest needed to get to the illegal group in town, it was hard to find couriers better than Vitka and Zelda.
At one point Vitka fell into the hands of the Gestapo, who had discovered partisan literature on her. Armed guards attempted to take her to prison. She, however, had no intention of going so far as the gate. Her one thought was: “Better to be felled by a bullet on the street than be in their clutches in prison.” Taking advantage of a moment when one of the guards turned aside, she, like a cat, disappeared into the darkness of the night and along the way even managed to take the city committee secretary along with her to the brigade leadership.
Vitka also had Zelda Treger as a partner.
I had seen Zelda in the ghetto and never imagined that this soft-spoken, young twenty-year-old could be as stubborn and bold a fighter as she was. Zelda, too, went into town disguised as an Aryan to carry out various assignments.
It was hard to get her to talk much about herself; quieter than quiet, very modest, she would blush when she had to talk about her life in the partisan unit.
“I came to the forest from the ghetto on the 23rd of September, 1943. In the early days, when I wasn’t sent on assignments, I used to ask the commander what had I come for, if I were not to be assigned missions. A week later I was instructed to find my way into the village and find out what capacities and strengths the enemy garrison in Biale-Vake and Dahti possessed. When I had completed the assignment, I was ordered to make my way to town to become the liaison for the underground organization. I took advantage of being in town to acquire weapons to bring back to the partisan camp, where many were unarmed.
“On a wintery night, December 28, I was surrounded in a farmer’s house on my way back from Vilna. The S.S. were there and beat me with revolvers, demanding that I confess to being a Jew. I didn’t cry; I just began screaming at them, saying that I was a Pole, and showed my documents. But nothing helped. Apparently they already knew who I was because they had been watching me. They began inspecting my bag filled with warm clothing that I had packed for friends in the forest. As they were rummaging through my things, I bolted and ran into the darkness.
“Another time, I was encircled by a group of Plechavicius’s military unit [Plechavicius was a fascist Lithuanian general]. At the time, they were on the hunt for partisans. My cool-headed temperament helped me out then as well. I went over to the first soldier and casually asked him if I could leave. He only asked whether I had seen any bandits (meaning partisans) in the vicinity, and when I firmly said that I hadn’t, he let me go on my way. It was a good thing that my hands weren’t shaking, since I was carrying three revolvers and five grenades in my bag.
“Yet another time, while carrying medications and correspondence from the party, I was detained in the village Popiszki by hostile Polish partisans. I told them I was a speculator, hoping to make some money. Unsuspecting, they let me go. Death hung over me more than once, but my determined manner of dealing with whatever occurred always helped me out.”
Zelda went from the forest to the city and back again no fewer than eighteen times. The fifty-kilometer trek over unpaved paths was never easy. She knew the various back trails well and, wading through swamps and mud, reached her destinations.
Hundreds of partisans had the heroic young women Vitka Kempner and Zelda Treger, as well as their friends Doba and Dinah Rosenwald, to thank for getting them out of the ghetto and labor camp and bringing them to the partisans in the forest.
The young women always said, “We consider the assignments of bringing Jews to the partisan base, saving them from murder, and giving them the possibility to fight Nazism as our most important accomplishments. We are proud of this work. We only regret that we couldn’t have saved more.”
For those remaining in the ghetto and in the forced labor camps, for those who couldn’t get to the forest and were murdered by the Nazis, these young women have taken and will continue to take revenge.
Prior to World War II, Shmerke Kaczerginski was part of the Vilna literary group known as Yung Vilna and penned many well-known poems and songs. When the Germans occupied Vilna, forcing Jews into the ghetto, he initially resisted and spent months using falsified papers to pose as a Pole who had been wounded at the front and become deaf and mute. When living like this became untenable, Shmerke entered the ghetto and joined the United Partisan Organization, whose mission was to carry out an armed resistance within the ghetto as well as to prepare members to join other partisans fighting in the forests.
In the ghetto, Shmerke was drafted with other artists to select literature and artifacts from Vilna’s libraries for shipment to the proposed museum in Germany that would showcase extinct Jewry. The group known as the “Paper Brigade” managed to smuggle and hide materials back into the ghetto and in buildings outside the ghetto.
After liberation, Shmerke settled in Argentina, continuing to write his memoirs and songs and speak about his experiences. In 1954 a tragic plane crash took his life. He was mourned by family, friends, and the Yiddish literary world. In 1955 a memorial book paying tribute to his life’s works, Shmerke Kaczerginski Ondenk-Bukh, was published in Buenos Aires.
Lillian Shporer Leavitt, a former IT business analyst, has been teaching Yiddish for three decades. Born to Shoah survivors in a displaced persons camp several years after World War II, she grew up with Yiddish as her first language. She holds an undergraduate degree from Boston University and a graduate degree in public administration from Boston State College (now part of University of Massachusetts).
After leaving IT work, she began translating as well as teaching Yiddish. She rewrote subtitles for several Yiddish films restored by the National Jewish Film Center. In 2012 she translated several hundred Yiddish letters written from 1939 to 1945 by the Jewish historian Zoza Szajkowski to YIVO’s Elias Cherikover, which were excerpted and incorporated into The Archive Thief (Oxford University Press, 2015) by Lisa Moses Leff.