Reproduced with permission of the publisher,
University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.
HJC Your reputation as one of the great resistance fighters is widespread. Would you say something about your experience in and around Vilna at that time?
YA Initially I was in the ghetto underground movement from 1942 until 1944. Then I joined the partisans until the end of the war. We fought against the Germans and their collaborators.
HJC How old were you then?
YA When the war started I was not yet thirteen. I began my underground activity at fifteen.
HJC How did you become involved in that?
YA The Germans occupied my native town of Swieciany, which had about 3,000 Jews, at the end of July '41. In September they told all of the Jews that they were being removed to a ghetto. A total of about 8,000 Jews were taken--not to a ghetto but to an isolated military camp instead. They shot them on the second day. I escaped.
HJC How did you get away?
YA The night before we were deported from Swieciany to the so-called ghetto a group of us fifteen- to sixteen-year olds decided to flee to Belorussia. Life for Jews there was (relative to those of us in Lithuania) much different. There were no mass killings, no ghettos. We did not know that we were escaping annihilation but we learned a few days after our arrival in Belorussia that Einsatzgruppen Eight murdered our people. Only 250 remained. They were skilled workers--tailors, shoemakers, carpenters--who were forced to work for the Germans. But after a few months the killing of Jews began in Belorussia. So I left there and returned to my native town. There I was captured by the Germans and taken out of the ghetto with about ten others. We thought they would shoot us because we didn't have any documents. However, they took us to a place outside of town where there was a camp where they collected captured Soviet arms. We were put to cleaning the weapons. On the first day I put a small gun beneath my shirt without knowing if I'd be searched at the end of the day. I wasn't and was able to bring it back to Swieciany that night. We continued to work this way for about a month, and I and my friends were able to steal about ten guns. So we started an underground group. In February 1943 we left for the forest, and our group operated for about two months.
HJC How many were you?
YA There were twenty-five youngsters. It was very, very hard to do very much. In the forest the local population was not collaborating with Jews. In order to survive in the forest you must have support from the local people--to get information about the enemy, to get some help with food. But they would immediately inform the Germans where we were, and peasants can always find you in a forest. It was very difficult; but in about two months we met up with a Russian partisan group and we joined with them.
HJC They were non-Jews?
YA Yes, non-Jews. It was the Markov Brigade. They had just come from the East, in a westward direction. Within another two months a Lithuanian Communist parachute group was sent to our area. These were Lithuanian Communists who escaped from the Soviet Union during the Russian retreat, and they were sent back to organize a partisan movement in their home country. So, as a Lithuanian citizen, I joined their ranks until 1944. I took part in blowing up sixteen German echelons. The details of these are in my book The Partisan.
HJC How was the relationship between you and the non-Jews in the Resistance?
There were many problems for a Jew to be with the Soviet partisans. First
of all, there were anti-Semitic feelings. Then, a Jew would only
be accepted in the ranks of the Soviet partisans if he had his own arms.
(Any non-Jew, whether a local peasant or one who had escaped from a prisoner-of-war
camp, would be accepted without arms.) Also, there was the image
of the Jew as a bad fighter or a coward. So you fought to prove yourself,
to say, "Anything you can do I can do--if not better at least as well."
So in the beginning we had to struggle for our places. But after
a few months I was able to prove myself--my courage--and was allowed to
take part in mining many trains, in ambushes and other activities.
But still it wasn't easy. There was some talk about making specifically
Jewish units, but we could not do it because the official attitude of the
Soviet partisan movement was that there was no place for Jewish units.
The Soviet partisan movement was organized according to the structure of the Soviet Republic: Lithuanian, Belorussian, Ukranian groups, etc. Since there was no Jewish republic, they forced us to disband. This became a problem because not all Jews were able to join partisan units. Some Jews even had their arms taken from them and had to face the dangers of forest life without weapons. But as time passed and the Soviet partisan movement became better organized and more disciplined the situation of the Jews became better. In the beginning of 1943 the control over all these groups became stronger, discipline was harder, so things became improved for Jews in some way.
HJC I take it that you mean for Jewish fighters and not for Jews in general?
YA Yes, for the fighters. There was another problem in the forests and that was for Jewish families. Some Jews were able to escape into the forest and establish family camps. It was extremely difficult for them to survive. Such a camp usually contained a small nucleus of armed men who had to guard the others and obtain food for them. When I say get food, what does it mean? They had to go ito the village and take the food by force, like the partisans did. As time passed, the food problem got worse because the peasants in the area became poorer and poorer. The partisans took from them, the Germans took from them, and those taking for the family camps had to feed the women and children as well as themselves. At the same time the Germans were increasing their activities in the forest. They brought large forces to encircle the forest. We as partisans usually knew the German moves beforehand (our reconnaissance units informed us), so we were able to break through or else disperse into small groups of two or three, infiltrate the area, and in a few weeks reunite in some distant place. The Germans would be unable to keep their troops in the forest permanently, so when they left, we returned. But mobility for families was quite limited, so of course they were the first victims. The partisan units did not want to take the families with them because it was rough to move. It was very hard on the families.
HJC Before you young boys of fifteen and sixteen joined up with partisans, how were you able to maintain any discipline?
YA There were two or three among us who became leaders. This was a kind of personal leadership but some had more experience, too. A couple of them were in their early twenties and one had served in the polish army, so he knew a little more about military ways. And those who joined the group in its beginning had some status. Even as a young boy I had some authority because I was the one who brought the first arms into the ghetto.
HJC The younger ones were willing to follow the lead of others? They recognized the need for that?
HJC Did you know what was going on beyond your area, in the Vilna Ghetto for example?
YA Even before we were partisans, when we were in the Swieciany underground, we had contact with the Vilna Ghetto. Later, as partisans, they asked us to leave the forest and join them in the ghetto because they planned an uprising. In April '43, I and another boy reached the Vilna Ghetto--it's a long story which I tell in my book--and we met with the leadership of their underground group, including Abba Kovner. They asked us to participate in the uprising in the ghetto. We told them that we thought they had no chance of success, that such an act would be just another way to die. We told them to organize as many youths as possible, instead, and leave the ghetto to unite with us in the forest. This was my final personal contact with the ghetto. Some of our other boys continued to be in contact with them and eventually some did leave the Vilna Ghetto to come with us. After the uprising--which occurred in September 1943--others from the Jewish underground there came with us, too. Part of them reached the area where I operated, in the Narocz forest. Some of them went south of Vilna, to the Rudnicki forest.
HJC How does one who had participated so long and so courageously in the battle against the Nazis react to the charges that the Jews did not resist, did not fight back?
Look, such charges are based on a misunderstanding of the situation of
the Jews at that time and of not knowing of the existing Jewish Resistance.
The main problem of the Jewish Resistance then, I would say, was that the
way to the forest was open only for young men who could get arms and fight
in the forest. For the Jewish masses--women, children, elderly people--there
was no way. I was without a family, without children, so it wasn't
a question for me. But I ask myself today, "If I had been twenty-four
or twenty-five, married, and with two children in the ghetto, what would
I have done?" I might have been working, say, in some German factory.
That gave us a little security, a way to get food for my family.
And I would live like some others in the ghetto, hoping that some miracle
might happen. Maybe Hitler would be killed, maybe the Allied forces
would land in a second-front assault, maybe Germany would collapse, or
there would be a successful Russian offensive. People lived with
some hopes. Maybe as a young man I might have possibly escaped to
the forest with some guns and left my wife and children behind in order
to fight and blow up some German trains or something.
I have asked myself many times, "What would have been the right thing to do? What does courage mean in this situation?" If you go out to fight and destroy things, you leave your family helpless. At the first selection or first aktion they become immediate victims. Even before that they will suffer from lack of food. If you stay with them you hope you will survive together. Which is the most courageous choice? When I lecture in Israel, I raise this question--asking army men, cadets, officers, "What would have been the right thing to do?" Silence. How can one answer? I behaved one way as a young man and I do not have to justify my activity, so I can ask the question. If people escaped from the ghetto they went to a village, to a second village, to the forest to try to survive. But they were most usually caught either by local collaborators or someone informing the Germans or the Lithuanian police. Very few had a chance to reach the forest. Fighting gave very little chance for surviving. And the main aim of the Jews at that time, I would say, was to survive. The Jewish victory would be in survival. Some might try to prolong their existence by hiding, others by escaping to the forest. Some chose to remain in the ghetto, to try to make it more productive with the hope that there would be a chance to survive that way. All the ways were right ways. Today when we look at the Judenrat, we think it did not prove itself in working life. But if we look at it from the point of view of 1942 or '43, what else could they have done? It was the only way.
HJC In your book Ghetto in Flames you say that the Judenrat you knew about did the best they could.
YA Yes, the best they could. No other real policy was open for the Jews at that time.
HJC Let me ask you a different kind of question: What has it meant to you to be the director of Yad Vashem?
YA I came to Israel illegally, in a small boat on Christmas night in 1945. I was active in the underground, against the British. In some way, I pushed the Holocaust out of my consciousness. But when I came back to the Event, I came with all of my energy--not for eight hours of work a day but twenty-four. I came to Yad Vashem as a historian, as a teacher. I have this obligation to the people who were less lucky than myself. In order to survive, in addition to everything you did, you needed some luck. If you are religious you can say you needed God's help. What I am doing at Yad Vashem is my obligation to those who did not survive. Fate enabled me to live, and I must do something to commemorate the war, to write about it, to make it more understandable to people. I think there are many lessons from the Holocaust, for us as Jews, for human beings in general--there is a whole universal meaning. If, in some way, I succeed in doing something in this direction--to promote more awareness, more knowledge, the lessons that should be learned--this is for me a great satisfaction.
HJC I have seen you work, I am involved with it in a small way, and you are succeeding very well.
YA Thank you very much.
Copyright © 2000 M S Rosenfeld