An excerpt from Khurbn vilne
These are the minutes of a February 1943 meeting led by Mordkhe Tenenbaum—a partisan sent to organize in the Bialystok Ghetto—to discuss the need for resistance. Having witnessed massacres in Vilna and Warsaw, he feared that the Germans were about to liquidate the Ghetto in Bialystok as well. The speakers from Hekhalutz Hatzair-Dror and others grapple with the problem of lacking enough weapons for successful resistance and with their options: dying “with honor,” hiding to fight another day, or going into the woods. Shmerke Kaczerginski published the minutes in Khurbn Vilne (New York, 1947), an early work documenting the Holocaust. He writes that he got them from “comrade Diana Greenberg, who got them from a farmer near Bialystok, who had safeguarded them.” They may have been in the archive that Tenenbaum was compiling. He committed suicide that August after fighting the Germans during liquidation. When the Red Army liberated Bialystok, only about 300 Jews were still alive of the original 50,000.
Mordkhe: It’s good, at least, that the mood is positive. But unfortunately this meeting will not be a cheerful one. It’s a historic meeting, if you will, but a sad one, certainly a tragic one. The few of us who are here are the last khalutzim (Zionist pioneers) in Poland. The dead are all around us. You know what has happened in Warsaw. No one is left. The same is true in Bedzin, in Czestochowa, and probably everywhere. We are the last. It’s not a particularly good feeling to be the last, but it is a special responsibility. We need to decide today what to do tomorrow. Sitting around in a warm atmosphere with our memories is senseless! Just waiting for death together, collectively, also makes no sense! What should we do?
We can do two things: start an uprising the very first time they take a Jew out of Bialystok. No one will go to work in the factories. No one will hide during the massacre. Everyone is mobilized to revolt. We can stop any Germans from leaving the Ghetto alive. We can destroy the factories. It is not impossible that someone may still be left alive after our actions. But we have to fight to the end, until we die.
Or we can decide to leave for the woods.
We need to weigh the alternatives realistically. Two of our people have left to prepare a place. But whatever happens, we need to uphold military discipline after this meeting. Now we have to decide. Our fathers will not take care of us. This here is an orphan asylum. One caution: our approach should be ideological, our thinking should be informed by the movement. Whoever wishes, or hopes, or thinks, that he has a realistic possibility of staying alive — good, we will help him as best we can. Let everyone decide his life and death. But we need to come to a decision together as to our common fate. I don’t want to force my views on anyone, so I won’t express my opinion now.
Yitzkhak: Today we’re talking about two ways to die. Going on the attack today means certain death. The second option means death two or three days later. We need to analyze both ways. Maybe we can do something. I’d like to hear more specifics from those who are more knowledgeable. If some of my comrades think they can survive here, we should consider it.
Hershl: It’s too early to bring to an end what we have struggled with for the last year and a half. In coming to a fateful decision, we have to take into account what we have struggled with. Hundreds of thousands of Jews have been murdered this past year.
The enemy has used the most sophisticated trickery to disorient us like beasts, to lead us to the slaughterhouses of Ponar, Chelmno, Belzec, and Treblinka. The chapter on the extermination of the Jewish communities of Poland will not just be the most tragic but the ugliest chapter of Jewish history, a chapter of weakness and fear. The movement has not always been at its best. Instead of giving the signal to hopeless resistance, we have delayed the decision everywhere. In Warsaw too, resistance would have looked different if it had occurred not at the end but at the beginning of the liquidation. We here in Bialystok are fated to play out the last act of the bloody tragedy. In weighing what we can do and what we should do, I see the situation objectively this way. The overwhelming majority of the Ghetto and our families are sentenced to death, and we never thought of the woods as a place to hide. We have thought of it as a battleground, a place for revenge. The dozens of youth who are going into the woods now are not looking for a battleground. Most of them are living a beggar’s life, and they will probably die a beggar’s death.
In our present circumstances, we will share the same beggar’s fate. Only one thing remains for us, to organize collective resistance in the Ghetto, at any price. To see in the Ghetto our Musa-Dagh [site of Armenian resistance to Turkish massacre], to write a proud chapter of Jewish Bialystok and of our movement.
I can imagine what the natural reaction would be if each of us did what the crudest non-Jew would do, to spit on life and plunge a knife into the guilty. Our only emotion would be that of revenge. Let us begin our resistance with the very first Jew. If someone manages to take a gun from a murderer and get to the woods, good! An armed youngster can find a place in the woods. We still have time to prepare a place in the woods and to look upon it as a battleground and a place for vengeance.
I have lost everything, all my loved ones, and yet, despite that, there is the will to live. We have no choice. When I see that it isn’t just individuals who can survive but 50 to 60 percent of the Jews, then I say that the path of our movement must be: stay alive at any price. We are condemned to death.
Sarah: Comrades! If we’re talking about honor, then we lost that a long time ago. In all the Jewish communities the massacres were not resisted. It’s better to stay alive than to kill five Germans. There is no doubt that we will all die in resistance. by contrast, in the woods perhaps 40 to 50 percent of us will survive. That will be our honor and our history. We are still needed, and we can still be useful. We don’t have our honor anyway. Our mission is to stay alive.
Khanokh: No illusions! We can expect a liquidation of the last Jew. We have two ways to die. Neither the woods nor resistance will save us. Dying with honor is what’s left. The odds of a resistance are not good. I don’t know whether we have the necessary means for the battle. It’s all our fault that we have so few weapons, but it’s too late now. We’ll have to make do. Bialystok will be completely liquidated like all the other Jewish cities.
Even if the factories are spared in the first massacre, no one believes that they’ll be spared the next time. Of course the woods hold the greater promise of revenge, but we dare not go there hoping to live on the mercy of the farmers to buy food and to live. Going to the woods means going to be active partisans, and for that we need appropriate weapons. The weapons we have are not suitable for the woods. If there’s still time, we should get weapons and go to the woods.
But if the massacre starts first, then we’ll fight back when they take the first Jew.
Khayim: There are no Jews left, just the remnants. No movement, just the remnant. It’s no use talking about honor. We have to save ourselves if we can, and it doesn’t matter if others will judge us. We have to take refuge in the wood…. [Interruptions from the comrades.]
Mordkhe: If we wanted it badly enough, and we made it our mission, we could protect our people till the end, as long as there were Jews still alive in Bialystok. I put this question before you: do those of the comrades who are for going to the woods think we should hide and not take action during the next massacre so that we can go out to the woods afterward? [Voices all around saying, “No, not that!”]
There are two opinions: on one side Sarah and Khayim and on the other Hershl and Khanokh. You have to choose. One thing is for sure: we will not go into the factories and pray to God to let our people be taken from their schronienie [hideouts] so that we can save ourselves. We will also not watch from the factory windows as our comrades are taken from another factory. We can take a vote: Hershl or Khayim.
Fanye (member): I agree with Khanokh. We need to choose either a big action right here or smaller actions, many more, which means choosing the woods. Since it is impossible for us to leave right now, and our situation is of the utmost urgency, we have to make a stand right here, when they take the first Jew, whatever the consequences. But if there’s a delay of a few weeks, we should make every effort to leave.
Eliezer Sukhanicki (member): Comrades! In my opinion, we cannot go two ways. The woods, that’s a nice idea. It gives us the possibility to stay alive. But right now it is an illusion when a massacre is so close. We could not succeed even if we had three or four weeks to gather up all the necessary materials and flee into the woods. I believe that there is only one way out for us: to meet a massacre with resistance. I believe that we have to do it right here and give an appropriate response with our meager means.
Yokheved: Why are we talking so much about death? It doesn’t matter. In the midst of the greatest danger, a soldier at the front and a partisan in the woods think about life. We know what our situation is, but why should we fear death so much? We’ll go to the woods if we have to, but we should start the resistance here. That doesn’t mean we’ll be slaughtered. We’re talking here against the most basic life instinct that is in us.
Khayim: I disagree with Yokheved. We have to be logical. We cannot encourage anyone to escape. This isn’t contract work. If we fight, it’s to the end. To fight means to be killed. I believe that we can accomplish more if we live to survive in the woods. [He suggests that they build a hideout outside the Ghetto so that after the massacre they’ll be able to continue sabotage.]
Moishele: First start with resistance. If possible, prepare the woods. We all have to express ourselves without reservation, because the life and death of our comrades depend on this meeting, even if it takes all night.
Khayim: You’re pushing everyone to speak because you want the vote to be no. [Interruptions called out.]
Dorke (member): I think that our position is the position of the members of a movement, people who are aware and who know what has happened to our loved ones. We want to die an honorable death. But the woods offer a greater possibility of revenge. But we cannot go there like beggars, rather like active partisans. And it’s impossible for us to make the necessary preparations at this time. Therefore we have to focus all our energy on resistance.
Tsiporah: It’s hard to know what to say. It’s hard to choose one’s death. I feel torn inside between life and death. It’s not important to me whether I or someone else stays alive. After everything that we have lived through and seen with our own eyes, life is really of no importance. But I’m thinking more about the movement.
We are proud of what our movement has done through the most difficult times for the Jewish community in Poland. They sent me and others here from Vilna to save other decent people. But it wasn’t just you and me; it was the movement that came. The question now remains: will the movement go down completely? Does it have the right to? We share all the sorrows of our people.
But when it comes to the question of surviving, I say, yes, we certainly have that right. Our movement may be the only one to take a stand when the time comes. Take the example of Warsaw. No action from the movement before a beautiful, worthy, decent death. An act of the movement means to survive! Not survive just to survive but to continue our work, to pull the chain a bit more, which has not broken yet in our blackest days. Our efforts may be small, minimal, but we will succeed if we devote all our strength to the effort.
Shmulik: The first time in my life, a meeting about death! We’re moving toward resistance not to make history but to die an honorable death, as befits Jewish youth in our times. And if someone does manage to write history, ours will be different from that of the Spanish Jews who leapt into the flames with Shema Yisroel [“Hear O Israel,” a prayer often recited before death] on their lips.
Now, about the roundup. Based on all our experiences, we know that we cannot trust the Germans at all — despite all their assurances — that those who are rounded up will be protected, that only those who don’t work will be rounded up, and so on. They have succeeded in leading thousands of Jews to the slaughter with their lies and deceptions. But we still have a chance of coming out alive after the next roundup.
Everyone plays for time, and we have to also. In the little time that is left we can build up our weapons, which are few and weak. We also need to work toward our second objective, the woods. I don’t want to be misunderstood: hiding in the coming roundup is not cowardice. No, no! The will to live is a strong instinct, and we have to be egoistic. It does not bother me that others will die and not us. We have a greater right to life than others, and justly so. We have an aim in life, to stay alive at any price. We were sent from Vilna because liquidation seemed imminent and it was vital that eyewitnesses stay alive. That’s why, if there is no liquidation immediately here, we have to wait and win time. But if there is a liquidation, then let everyone resist, and let me die with the Philistines.
Sarah: I want the comrades to know that I will do whatever we decide. What surprises me is the calm with which we are discussing this. When I see a German, everything in me starts to tremble. I don’t know whether the comrades, and especially the young women, will have the strength for it. What I said before I said because I don’t believe in my own strength.
Yekhazkiel: I disagree with Sarah. Facing death can make a person feel weak and powerless. But you can also become very strong when there is nothing to lose. I agree with Shmulik. We should mount resistance only in case of a final liquidation.
Etl: Let’s be specific. If a roundup starts in the next few days, then we have no alternative but to resist. But if we have more time, then we have to start preparing for the woods. I hope that I will be able to carry out what we must do. It may be that I will get stronger in the course of events. I am resolved to do everything that has to be done. Hershl was right. We’ll be committing an act of desperation whether we want to or not. Our fate has been sealed. We need only to choose what kind of death. I am calm and collected.
Mordkhe: The position of the comrades is clear. We will try to take as many people as possible out to the partisan camp in the woods. All of us who are in the Ghetto when the massacre takes place must resist as soon as they take the first Jew. It’s no use arguing about life. We have to grasp the situation objectively. The most important thing is to maintain to the last minute the pride and the dignity of the movement.
The February 1943 meeting was held three weeks after the first mass liquidation of Jews from the Bialystok ghetto. The ghetto’s final liquidation would not come for another six months, in August of 1943. On the night of the 16th the Anti-Fascist Military Organization launched the Bialystok Ghetto Uprising upon receiving word that the ghetto was to be liquidated. The resistance was extinguished within three days, the ghetto set aflame, and the leaders committed suicide when their bunkers were overrun. Although the deportation of the ghetto’s remaining 10,000 Jews was not delayed as hoped, several hundred young Jews did manage to use the uprising as a diversion by which to escape to the forest and join Partisan units. Out of a prewar Jewish population of 60,000, only 150 or so were alive when the Soviets retook the city exactly a year after the uprising. Haika Grossman, one of the leaders of the uprising, survived the war and settled in Israel, serving in the Israeli Parliament.
Maurice Wolfthal translated the Gulag memoir of Yitzhak Erlichson, My Four Years in Soviet Russia, as well as Shmerke Kaczerginski’s book The Destruction of Jewish Vilna: The Extermination of the Jews in Vilna and the Vilna Region and Ponar, the Valley of Death. Wolfthal is currently translating Nokhem Shtif’s The Pogroms in Ukraine: The Period of the Volunteer Army.