By now, I have read several recent histories of Lithuania, and even more holocaust memoirs, so I hesitated to read more. But I found a little known book entitled “Jerusalem of Lithuania: the Rise and Fall of Jewish Vilnius” by N.N. Shneidman, a soft cover book of fewer than 200 pages, and I couldn’t resist.
I saw that Shneidman was a retired professor in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Toronto, that he had written several books on Soviet literature, Soviet “physical culture” (what was that?) and Soviet education, and that he was also a Holocaust survivor. I quickly learned that he was a careful and very clear writer of the English language.
“Jerusalem of Lithuania” is about more than Vilnius or even Jewish Vilnius. The first three chapters are about the pre-war period – they give a history of Lithuania and its capital city, a history of Jewish settlement in Vilnius, and a description of Jewish Vilnius when Shneidman was a young man, growing up in the city (Vilnius then being in Poland, south of its border with Lithuania). His parents were of the middle-class, his father a businessman descended from a family with a business background in Vilnius, and his mother from a small town, southeast of Vilnius, probably more Polish than Lithuanian (as was Vilnius, or Wilno, in those days). He attended schools run by the Jewish ‘Tarbut’ movement, a moderately Zionist, non-religious (but not anti-religious) system active in Poland and Russia, teaching Jewish history and culture, as well as Hebrew language, along with general secular, and required Polish, studies. His childhood brought him fluency in Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German and Lithuanian – this was not unusual, for an educated Jewish youngster in a cosmopolitan city like Vilnius, it was almost the norm. Hard as it is to believe.
Although the Jewish and gentile residents of Wilno did not mix much socially, and there were sporadic problems that occurred from time to time, the Jews did not live in a ghetto, and life was fairly calm. Shneidman’s situation was a bit unique, because he was an athlete, and in particular a boxer, which brought him into contact with non-Jewish boxers and gentile society in general. When word came that the Germans had invaded Poland, on September 1, 1939, Schneidman was out of the city at a boxing camp, finding it hard to return home. When the Soviets, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty, moved into Vilnius almost immediately, it was a great relief to the Jewish population (then about 1/3 of the city), if not to the gentile residents, who had much less to fear from the Germans than the did from the Sovietization of their city.
But things did change – Schneidman’s school was no longer to permitted to operate as a ‘Tarbut’ school and, worse his father, as a capitalist, was designated to be exiled to Siberia. His father’s deportation did not occur, however, as before it could be carried out, the Germans came to town, and the Soviets departed. Life would never be the same.
“Soon after the capture of the city by the Wehrmacht,, the SS, the Gestapo, and the German civil administration made their appearance. 30 June 1941 the Lithuanian temporary government announced the formation of auxiliary police battalions, the main objective of which was to assist the Nazis in their anti-Jewish endeavors. Beginning early in July 1941, a number of decrees concerning the Jewish population were issued by the local German administration. They imposed numerous restrictions on the Jews of Vilnius. At first, every Jew was required to wear a white band with a yellow circle and the letter “J” for Jude or Jew, on his or her right arm. Somewhat later all Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars of David on the left side of their chests and backs. Jews were ordered to turn in their telephones and radio sets and they were forbidden to use public transportation, parks, and recreational facilities. They were also required at all times to be ready to perform any job assigned to them by those in power. Henceforth, they were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks and were required to march only in a single line on the right side of the road. All Jewish business and social activity was stopped and a curfew from dusk to dawn established for all Jews….”
Shortly after this, Jews began to be escorted out of the city to the Ponar Forest on the outskirts, and shot. Shneidman escaped to Taboryszki, which seemed much safer to him, but he was arrested there, and threatened with death. Surprisingly, the death threat was not carried out, and he decided he’d be better off back in Vilnius (clearly, his choices were limited).
He describes the next few years in the Vilna ghetto – the work, the conditions, the family tragedies, the resistance (including clashes between resistance groups), the cultural life. He was involved in many of the events depicted in, for example, the documentary “Partisans of Vilna”. He talks of his escape from the ghetto and his venture into the forests, to join the partisans, fighting with (or sometimes not with) the Soviets against the Nazis as the Soviet troops began to push the Nazis further and further west. Having read a number of ghetto and partisan survivor accounts, I must say that I found this one of the most informative, going into details of life that some other accounts barely mention.
After Vilnius was freed from Nazi control, it of course went under Soviet control – and the fate of Jewish partisan fighters was not certain. Shneidman wound up in the Soviet army, back in the fray, until his boxing skill led him to get special treatment. Only somewhat later was it possible for him to return to Lithuania, where he took up again his athletic pursuits, boxing and playing ice hockey. He received a degree in Minsk in physical culture.
When it was possible for him to be repatriated to Poland, he jumped at the chance, becoming a coach in Gdansk. Somehow (the book is not clear on the point), he was able to get a foreign passport and, with his wife and young daughter, go to Canada, where he continued his education and began his new career.
“I lived an eventful and stirring life. I faced a Nazi firing squad at the age of sixteen and spent two years in a ghetto. I did battle for a year in the ranks of a Soviet partisan unit and I served as a private in the Soviet Army which invaded Germany. I was among those who reached the outskirts of Berlin in May 1945, and several days later joined hands with American and British soldiers on the shores of the Elbe river. I did my duty and served in the army with distinction. I was awarded several orders and medals for my contribution to the anti-Nazi war effort. Yet I do not regard myself as a hero. I passed through all circles of hell and survived. Only once was a slightly wounded in combat. I survived not because I was wise or more courageous than others; not because I was cunning or treacherous; not because I was hiding in the dark, or killed many enemies. I survived because I was lucky…..” (Take my word for it, he was also courageous and cunning.)