VILNA: 1941-1943

Poland and Lithuania both claimed Vilna (Vilnius) after World War I. Polish forces occupied Vilna in 1920, and before the outbreak of World War II, the city of Vilna was part of northeastern Poland. Under the terms of the German- Soviet Pact, Vilna, along with the rest of Eastern Poland, was occupied by Soviet forces in late September 1939. In October 1939, the Soviet Union transferred the Vilna region to Lithuania. However, Soviet forces occupied Lithuania in June 1940 and in August 1940 incorporated Vilna, along with the rest of Lithuania, into the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked Soviet forces in eastern Europe. The German army occupied Vilna on June 24, 1941, the third day after the invasion.

The Germans established two ghettos—ghetto #1 and ghetto #2—in Vilna in early September 1941. Jews considered incapable of work were concentrated in ghetto #2. In October 1941, German Einsatzgruppen detachments and Lithuanian auxiliaries destroyed ghetto #2, killing the ghetto population in Ponary, a wooded area about eight miles southwest of Vilna. Lukiszki Prison served as a collection center for Jews who were to be taken to Ponary and shot. By the end of 1941, the Einsatzgruppen had killed about 40,000 Jews in Ponary.

The Jews in ghetto #1 were forced to work in factories or in construction projects outside the ghetto. Some Jews were sent to labor camps in the Vilna region. In periodic killing operations, most of the ghetto’s inhabitants were massacred at Ponary. From the sprint of 1942 until the spring of 1943, there were no mass killing operations in Vilna. The Germans renewed the killings during the final liquidation of ghetto #1 in late September 1943. Children, the elderly, and the sick were sent to the Sobibor extermination camp or were shot at Ponary. The surviving men were sent to labor camps in Estonia, while the women were sent to labor camps in Latvia.

The Vilna ghetto had a significant Jewish resistance movement. A group of Jewish partisans known as the United Partisan Organization (Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye; FPO) was formed in 1942 and operated within the ghetto. The resistance created hiding places for weapons and prepared to fight the Germans. In early September 1943, realizing that the Germans intended the final destruction of the ghetto, resistance members skirmished with the Germans, who had entered the ghetto to begin the deportations. The Jewish council, however, agreed to cooperate in the deportations of Jews from the ghetto, hoping to minimize bloodshed. Consequently, the FPO decided to flee to the nearby forests to fight the Germans. Some ghetto fighters escaped the final destruction of the ghetto, leaving through the sewers to join partisans in the Rudninkai and Naroch forests outside the city.

In September 1943, in an attempt to destroy the evidence of the killing of Jews at Ponary, the Germans forced detachments of Jewish laborers to open the mass graves and burn the corpses. Jews from nearby labor camps continued to be killed at Ponary. During the German occupation, tens of thousands of Jews from Vilna and the surrounding area, as well as Soviet prisoners of war and others suspected of opposing the Germans, were massacred at Ponary.

The Soviet army liberated Vilna in July 1944.

Text Credit
The text on this page is reproduced with the permission of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, from the
Historical Atlas of the Holocaust (New York: Macmillan Publishing USA and Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996).

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