Category Archive: Together

Hollywood’s Other Great Anti-Nazi Movie

Amid all the (quite justified) hoopla over the 75th anniversary of the release of Casablanca—propelled by Noah Isenberg’s marvelous appreciation We’ll Always Have Casablanca and the distinctly unmarvelous relevance of its beset-refugee theme—another septuagenarian classic from 1942 is in danger of being drowned out by the rousing choruses of “La Marseillaise” ringing out from Rick’s Café Américain. Like Casablanca, the film features an ensemble of indelible character actors, a phalanx of arrogant Nazis with no sense of humor, and a romantic triangle whose lovers realize that the problems of three little people in this crazy world must be sacrificed in service to a greater cause. And though more brightly lit and broadly played, To Be or Not to Be—Ernst Lubitsch’s racy, risky black comedy of manners—is every bit the expression of wartime values and classical Hollywood style as its more famous birth cousin. Skeptics can decide for themselves when To Be or Not To Be is screened as part of a two-week repertory festival commemorating the 125th anniversary of Lubitsch’s birth, beginning tonight at New York’s Film Forum.

Set in Nazi-occupied Poland—not the obvious locale for a laugh-riot night out at the movies in wartime America—To Be or Not to Be opens with a bracing sight gag: Adolf Hitler, alone, is walking the streets of Warsaw in August 1939—or rather his dead ringer is, the actor Bronski (Tom Dugan) who impersonates der Führer in an anti-Nazi play being mounted by a plucky Polish theatrical troupe. “Heil myself,” he ad-libs, a bit player stealing the spotlight from the egomaniacal star. That would be the “great, great Polish actor Josef Tura” (as Josef Tura puts it), an insecure grade-A ham played by radio superstar Jack Benny, who jumped at the chance to work with Lubitsch. Tura’s wife and co-star Maria (Carole Lombard) gets second billing but is first in the hearts of her countrymen, especially the heart of a dashing young flyer, Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack), who sighs over her from the second row. Since an actress has a duty to her adoring public, or at least its really handsome representatives, Maria agrees to meet the lieutenant in her dressing room when her husband is soliloquizing on stage. The signal for the assignation is the line “to be or not to be”—Tura is playing the Prince of Denmark. When Tura asks the question, the flyer leaves his seat to get cozy with Maria backstage. Lubitsch being Lubitsch, what transpires between the pair is left to the imagination: harmless flirtation or sexual tryst?

The Nazi invasion of Poland interrupts the backstage shenanigans. As the curtain of history slams down, the mood shifts from effervescent to somber. In the winter of its discontent, snow-smothered, war-ravaged Poland suffers under the jackboot of Nazi oppression. “And there was no censor to stop them,” mutters Greenberg (Felix Bressart), another bit player from the troupe, his line a self-reflexive comment on how the morality enforced on the American screen is not operative in the European theater.

In London, meanwhile, Lt. Sobinski, now a flyer for the Royal Air Force, discovers that a seeming Polish patriot is actually a Nazi double agent; the traitor must be stopped before he exposes the entire Polish underground. Parachuting into Warsaw, he is sheltered by Maria and suspected by Josef, but the possibly cuckolded actor forgoes husbandly revenge when he learns about the threat to the Polish resistance. The film is dead serious about the instinctive patriotism of the Poles and the casual brutality of the Germans.

Marie toys with her Nazi admirers, Josef impersonates a Nazi commandant (“So, they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt?”), and the entire troupe mounts an elaborate charade to foil the Nazis. Mission accomplished, the actors escape by plane to Great Britain. Once safely in the air, the Hitler impersonator dispatches the real Nazis by ordering them out the side door of the fuselage. “Jump!” he barks. “Heil Hitler!” they salute, before obediently leaping to their deaths.

Title notwithstanding, the best-remembered soliloquy in the film is not from Hamlet but The Merchant of Venice. In a plot machination too convoluted to recap, the perennially second-billed Felix Bressart, a Jewish character actor and Lubitsch stock-company regular, is given his moment in the spotlight, reciting the anguished monologue from the role he was born to play, Shylock. “Have we not eyes? Have we not hands, organs, senses, dimensions, attachments, passions?” he asks the Nazis, who are mesmerized despite themselves. (The post-Holocaust spectator will be especially spooked by the accusation: “If you poison us, do we not die?”) Spoken against a backdrop of Nazi uniforms, helmets, and swastikas, Bressert’s performance is transfixing. He seems to know already that wartime Hollywood cinema will never produce a more eloquent plea for religious tolerance than the one written in the 1590s.

Curiously, though, Bressart does not speak the trigger word that in Shakespeare launches the litany of rhetorical questions: “Hath not a Jew eyes?” Still radioactive, the word “Jew” was seldom heard on the Hollywood screen, even in war-minded scenarios where the topic of anti-Semitism was front and center. In The Mortal Storm (1940), for example, the Jewish professor murdered by the Nazis is never named as such—only called a “non-Aryan” with the letter “J” printed on his concentration-camp uniform.

Alas, no paper trail seems to have survived to explain the significant omission from Shylock’s speech. The Production Code overseers, who were often leery of Jewish content, raised no objections. “The studio bosses were always—even at this point—afraid of thrusting Jews into the spotlight,” speculates film historian Lester D. Friedman, author of Hollywood’s Image of the Jew, trying to make sense of the decision. William Paul, professor of film and media studies at Washington University and author of Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy, points out that To Be or Not To Be went into production in the wake of the U.S. Senate’s investigation of “Propaganda in Motion Pictures” (Sept. 9-26, 1941). In the highly publicized hearings, a group of Hollywood moguls were hauled before a dais of nativist senators and accused of using anti-Nazi films to sucker Christian America into the European maelstrom. Antony Polansky, professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, offers a nation-specific explanation. Since many Poles did not consider Polish Jews to be true Poles, the substitution of the pronoun “we” for “Jews” actually expanded the net of inclusion: Greenberg, the Polish Jew, was speaking as a Pole, not a Jew.

If Casablanca is hailed as the definitive example of the collaborative magic of “the genius of the system,” To Be or Not to Be is imprinted with the genius of one man, the great, great director Ernst Lubitsch. In the days before the auteur theory, Lubitsch was one of a handful of Hollywood directors whose name above the title meant something to average moviegoers. His trademark “Lubitsch touch” promised an effervescent European sophistication laced with risqué banter and sexual sparks—but that never crossed over into the smarmy, that skated right up to the edge of the Production Code without breaking through the ice. Even Joseph Breen, the straight-laced enforcer of the code, gave Lubitsch a longer leash than most Hollywood directors because, like everyone in Hollywood, he knew the man was a genius.

Though a German Jew, Lubitsch was not a refugee from Nazism: He abandoned the Weimar Republic for Hollywood in 1922, lured over by Mary Pickford, who wanted him to direct her as Gretchen in Faust, a concept that fortunately never came to light. Lubitsch thrived in the emergent Hollywood studio system with elegant costume dramas like Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) and So This Is Paris (1926) before gliding effortlessly into the sound era with The Love Parade (1929) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), each starring another European import, Maurice Chevalier. In 1932, when Lubitsch returned to Germany for a visit, he was asked if he ever planned to return to his native land. Already attuned to the bad vibes in the air, he replied, “In California, the sun shines every day.” Not that he forgot his less fortunate brethren as the Nazis consolidated their gangster state. He was a leading voice in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and a founding member of the European Film Fund, which tithed its members 1 percent of their salaries to support a community of film-minded refugees from Nazism so numerous that Hollywood was dubbed “Berlin on the Pacific.”

By the end of the 1930s, Lubitsch was at the height of his creative powers and box-office popularity. As American entry into WWII loomed, he was coming off two of his most intoxicating concoctions: Ninotchka (1939), in which a straight-laced Soviet commissar (played by Greta Garbo, who famously laughed) is seduced by the champagne and chapeaux of decadent Paris, and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), in which Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan conduct an epistolary love affair while squabbling like cats and dogs face to face. He died too young, at 55, in 1947, his last film, The Lady in Ermine (1948), completed by Otto Preminger. At Lubitsch’s funeral, eulogizing his beloved friend and mentor, the director Billy Wilder explained the sensibility that defined the Lubitsch touch. Lubitsch, Wilder observed, never wanted to follow the bride and bridegroom into the honeymoon suite and spy on their first night together; he wanted to observe the couple at breakfast the next morning.

Presented by Alexander Korda, produced as well as directed by Lubitsch, and written by Edwin Justus Meyer from and original story by Lubitsch and Melchior Lengyel, To Be or Not To Be went into production on Nov. 6, 1941. By the time the film wrapped on Dec. 24, it confronted a radically different zeitgeist. In the interim between Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) and the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo (Apr. 18, 1942) the war news for America was all bad: The Nazis dominated huge swaths of Europe, the Wehrmacht was locked in a death grip with the Soviet Army, and the Japanese controlled much of the Pacific Theater. Hitler and the Nazis—so lately fit subjects for hilarity in The Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy! (1940) and Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940)—were no longer laughing matters.

Closer to home, another piece of grim news cast a shadow over the film. On Jan. 15, 1942, in Indianapolis, Carole Lombard joined fellow Hoosier Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, for a huge war-bond rally. “Great day today,” Hays telegrammed Clark Gable, whom Lombard had married in 1939. “Carole was perfect.”

Hours later the actress was dead when the plane carrying her back to Hollywood crashed into the mountains 35 miles west of Las Vegas, killing all 22 souls on board, including 15 Army aviators.

Unhinged with grief, Gable rushed to the crash site to help search for her body. “Carole Lombard gave her life in the service of America,” Will Hays declared in a public statement. FDR sent Gable a telegram of condolence. “She gave unselfishly of her time and talent to serve her country in peace and in war. She loved her country.” A stricken Jack Benny withdrew from his broadcast that Sunday night. Summing up the reaction throughout the industry, Variety noted that “no tragedy has struck the theatrical field with such widespread sorrow since the death, also by airplane disaster, of Will Rogers, in August 1935.” Pearl Harbor had claimed 2,400 American lives, and more telegrams from the War Department were being delivered every day, but Lombard was the first casualty of World War II everyone felt they knew.

United Artists announced “a respectful period of time” would be allowed to elapse before the release of Lombard’s last picture. On Feb. 19, 1942, To Be or Not To Be premiered in New York and Los Angeles; on Mar. 6, it went into general release.

Reviews were positive but mindful of the clouds hanging over the comedy. Watching the gorgeous star—lithe, supple, and radiant in a form-fitting gown—it seemed impossible that she was dead. “Individual reaction to the film is tempered, one way or another in all cases, by the fact of Miss Lombard’s death,” wrote William R. Weaver in Motion Picture Herald. He also noted the bigger picture. “Mass audience reaction is subject to variation with the tenor of the day’s war news.” For Polish neighborhoods, Weaver suggested, “it is well to test out specifically the local attitude toward a comedy which utilizes blizted Warsaw as a background for humor.” The reaction of one moviegoer verged on the traumatic. At the film’s premiere in New York, Jack Benny’s father took one look at his son in a Gestapo uniform, became nauseated, and bolted for the lobby.

Contrary to myth, however, To Be or Not To Be was a not a box-office flop. It was the year’s top attraction for United Artists, grossing $1.5 million, though, as with all Lubitsch films, it played better in the big cities than in the hinterlands. To put things in perspective, however, each of the four films starring Abbot and Costello that year outgrossed To Be or Not To Be.

In the years since, due to repertory screenings, the rise of auteurism, frequent television screenings, and ready DVD availability, To Be or Not To Be has gained steadily in stature. As the war and the memory of Lombard’s death receded, audiences were able to experience the dark satire without the queasy dread that filled the air of the first half of 1942. In 1983, it was well-enough-known to be remade by Mel Brooks, whose own directorial hand felt more like a grope than a touch.

“What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology,” Lubitsch explained to critics who felt his breezy style and glib quips were in poor taste. The tone and temper of the film “cannot leave any doubt in the spectator’s mind what my point of view and attitude are toward these acts of horror.” To Be or Not To Be may never be as vivid in the cultural memory as Casablanca, its lines as fluently quoted, but its bedrock anti-Nazism and spirit of resistance is just as fierce. It is also a whole lot funnier—and a laugh, as Felix Bressart remarks, speaking for the director, is nothing to sneeze at.

Chance find reveals only known footage of Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg

n newly discovered footage of Swedish Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg — the only known instance that he was caught on film — the man who would go on to save tens of thousands of Jews can be seen instructing army recruits at a firing range in 1940.

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The archive movie was first broadcast a month ago during a cultural program on the Swedish public service television SVT, but it wasn’t until last week that a researcher realized that the instructor overseeing the gun practice was Wallenberg.

It is the only known footage of Wallenberg, who, as a Swedish diplomat in Hungary, was credited with helping at least 20,000 Jews escape the Holocaust. He is believed to have died in Soviet captivity, but when and how remains unclear.

In the 25-second clip, Wallenberg can be seen at a central Stockholm location in what researchers say was the summer or autumn of 1940. Wallenberg, who would have been 29 at the time, wears an army uniform as he instructs recruits firing rifles at targets in the basement of a building.

According to Swedish media, the film showed an exercise of the Swedish Home Guard, a reserve force set up in 1940.

Gellert Kovacs, a Wallenberg scholar, happened to see the initial broadcast and thought he recognized Wallenberg. He found the clip online and after carefully reviewing it concluded that it was indeed the famous diplomat.

“I am now 100 percent sure – it’s Raoul Wallenberg,” Kovacs told SVT. For confirmation, he contacted another researcher, Susanna Berger, and she agreed with his assessment.

Wallenberg’s sister, Nina Lagergren, 96, told SVT that “there is no doubt” that it is her brother, based on the way he moved and stood in the clip.

“It’s a very emotional experience. It’s magical,” said Lagergren, who has not seen her brother since 1945, when he disappeared after being captured by the Soviet Army.

Wallenberg, who was born in 1912, helped Jews escape Nazi-occupied Germany by giving them Swedish passports.

A young architect and businessman, Wallenberg volunteered to travel to Hungary in 1944 as a special envoy to aid a US effort to rescue Jews from extermination at the hands of Nazi Germany.

In January 1945, while the Soviets were engaged in a prolonged and bloody battle with the Germans over Budapest, the 32-year-old diplomat was called in for questioning at the Russian headquarters in Debrecen over allegations of espionage. He was never heard from again.

The Soviets initially denied he was in their custody, but in 1957 they said he had died of a heart attack in prison on July 17, 1947. His fate was considered a mystery for decades. In 2016, 71 years after his disappearance, Swedish authorities officially declared him dead.

Many countries have memorials commemorating his works, including Israel, which designated him as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” the highest honor granted to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Facebook lenient on blocking Holocaust denial, leaked documents show

Facebook requires its content moderators to take down Holocaust denial material in only four countries, including Israel, even though it is illegal in 14, according to a company handbook provided to the network’s moderators.

The British daily newspaper The Guardian published information from leaked documents from Facebook on Wednesday, including from the moderators’ handbook.

According to the handbook, moderators should take down Holocaust denial material in France, Israel, Germany and Austria — countries that Facebook believes will take legal action. It also says that Facebook “does not welcome local law that stands as an obstacle to an open and connected world” and will only consider blocking or hiding Holocaust denial messages and photographs if “we face the risk of getting blocked in a country or a legal risk.”

“We believe our geo-blocking policy balances our belief in free expression with the practical need to respect local laws in certain sovereign nations in order to remain unblocked and avoid legal liability. We will only use geo-blocking when a country has taken sufficient steps to demonstrate that the local legislation permits censorship in that specific case,” the handbook says, according to The Guardian.

It also says: “Some 14 countries have legislation on their books prohibiting the expression of claims that the volume of death and severity of the Holocaust is overestimated. Less than half the countries with these laws actually pursue it. We block on report only in those countries that actively pursue the issue with us.”

Facebook denied that Holocaust denial blocking occurs in only four countries but would not discuss the issue further with The Guardian, according to the newspaper.

According to The Guardian, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers qualify as a “quasi-protected category, meaning they do not receive as many protections as other vulnerable groups.”

“As a quasi-protected category, they will not have the full protections of our hate speech policy because we want to allow people to have broad discussions on migrants and immigration which is a hot topic in upcoming elections,” the handbook says, according to The Guardian.

The leaked documents also deal with how moderators should handle suicide, pornography, racism and terrorism.

Books stolen from Polish Jewish communities during WWII donated to foundation

WARSAW, Poland – Some 33 rare books stolen during World War II from Jewish communities located in present-day Poland were donated to the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

The ceremony took place last week at the National Library in Warsaw.

Representatives of the Central and Regional Library in Berlin and of the Judaicum Center in Berlin jointly donated the books to the foundation director, Monika Krawczyk.

Most of the books handed over come from the former collections of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Fränkel Foundation in Wroclaw. The oldest book, published in 1644, is signed by the German-Jewish theologian David Rosin, who lived from 1823 to 1894.

There are also two books from the collection of the Great Synagogue in Warsaw: Ludwik Wachler’s “Literature Handbook of 1833” and a pastoral letter from 1785. One of the books comes from the synagogue in Legnica and contains fictional literature.

The books have been identified as part of a provisional study conducted by a team of specialists at the Berlin library and center.

A public database of these institutions contains more than 35,000 volumes. Among them there are thousands of books containing traceable names or surnames, and identifiable volumes owned by specific individuals or organizations.

Holocaust survivor gets high school diploma in Minnesota

LYMOUTH, Minn. — A Minnesota woman who survived the Holocaust received her high school diploma more than seven decades after the Nazis robbed her of the privilege.

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PLYMOUTH – Esther Begam was 11 years old in 1942 when Germany invaded her native Poland and she was forced to work, first in a Jewish ghetto, then in a forced labor camp. Wayzata High School in the Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth presented Begam with a diploma this month, KARE-TV reported. The 88-year-old grabbed her blue graduation cap and tossed it skyward as she was treated to a standing ovation.

“It feels good,” she said, surrounded by her great-grandchildren.

Begam’s father, a rabbi, was never seen after he left to serve as a chaplain with the Polish army. Her mother and younger brother were killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Her older sister, who was also forced into labor, didn’t survive the ordeal.

“I had very educated families,” Begam said. “My father knew seven, eight languages.”

When World War II ended, she found herself alone. At age 17, she married another Holocaust survivor and moved to Minnesota.

Begam told her story at Wayzata High School seven years ago, and a student asked her to name her biggest regret.

Holocaust survivor Esther Begam in her high school graduation gown (screen capture: Kare 11)
Holocaust survivor Esther Begam in her high school graduation gown (screen capture: Kare 11)

“I expected her to say I wish we would have run, I wish we would have hidden, I wish we would have saved pictures — and she said, ‘The one thing I regret is not getting my high school diploma,’” said Candice Ledman, a teacher.

Ledman came up with the idea to give Begam a diploma, but the school administration originally turned her down.

“It definitely sat with me,” Ledman said. “It’s one of those things, you want to do something for her.”

The opportunity presented itself again when a new principal, Scott Gengler, took over.

“I wasn’t four sentences into explaining Esther’s full story and he said, ‘Absolutely, let’s do it. We need to do this,’” Ledman said.

Ledman’s class decorated a small auditorium, and a cake was prepared for after the ceremony. Most of Begam’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were present.


When my grandfather Leszek was alive, he’d tell stories of his life in Krakow before the war. About how he’d sneak out of his ultra-Orthodox yeshiva to attend the Zionist gymnasium down the road. Or the times he played soccer with his grandmother’s neighbor, a boy named Karol who would eventually become Pope John Paul II. Or how he courted the beautiful older daughter of the famous Karmel family, a girl who was Jewish royalty in Krakow but somehow was convinced to love him back.

I’d listen, hanging on every Polish-accented word, trying to picture this ancient-seeming man as a teenager in love. I’d weigh my life against his, an imbalanced equation that had me—a lazy suburban fuck-up, struggling with school and a failure with girls—on one side and my grandfather, an intimidatingly brilliant Holocaust survivor, on the other. But there was always a point where his stories stopped.

He had other stories about what happened after the war: Reuniting with my grandmother Henia in a hospital room in Leipzig; returning to her the poems she wrote in the camps that she sent to him for “when the world became the world again.” Moving to America and finding work cleaning diamonds for the friend of a rich uncle in the morning, and teaching at a Lower East Side yeshiva in the afternoon. But there was a gap in his stories between “before” and “after,” a hole that I knew included a stop at the infamous Plaszów concentration camp, which was later immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. (When the film came out, his only words on the matter were: “No one should have made that film while any of us are still alive.”) When I asked him directly about his time in the camps, his reply was simply to change the subject: “History took over. How’s school?”

In fact, the only time I remember him mentioning his experience during the war was when I grew my hair long and he demanded I cut it short. Thinking I’d please him, I bought a hair trimmer and gave myself a buzz cut. That weekend, we drove to Scarsdale, to his second wife’s house, for dinner. He took one look at me and said, “You look the way we looked in the camps.” Then he turned away, the look on his face the same one I’d see when I dropped out of college the first, second, and third time, and the same one I’d see whenever I’d visit him in the nursing home. The look that said, “I’m disappointed in you.”

That was all I’d ever heard about his time in the camps, between “before” and “after.” Until last week, when I finally heard my grandfather tell his stories—five years after his death.

In 1995, a pretty, middle-aged woman with a European accent named Dora Sorell visited my grandfather’s house, along with a small camera crew, and interviewed him for Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, as part of the Visual History Archives. For more than 12 years, the tapes sat in my father’s house, unwatched. A few months after my grandfather passed away, my father mailed them to me with a note asking me to convert them to DVD so that the family could watch the interview together. Those tapes sat on the shelf under my television for five more years, untouched, unconverted, and unwatched.

I don’t know why I avoided watching the tapes for so long. One creates images of one’s fathers and grandfathers, and mine are golems capable of superhuman feats that are at once inexplicable and inconceivable. Perhaps I needed to know only that he survived. Perhaps I was afraid to learn how he managed it, preferring to believe that his intellect alone was his superpower. Or maybe it’s simply that this golem terrified and protected me, and I wasn’t ready to let it go by learning the truth.

I also don’t know why I suddenly decided to learn my grandfather’s story, at last. It would be nice to say that something happened during our Passover Seder this month that pushed me to watch it (it didn’t), or that Yom Ha’Shoah means so much to me that I was gripped by a need to know more (it doesn’t, and I wasn’t). The truth is that I always wanted to know and had been too afraid of what I would find. The truth is that two weeks ago, I rearranged our living room and in doing so, I found myself staring at my grandfather’s tapes. There was no more avoiding it. History had taken over, and ready or not, I was going to watch. The truth is: I just wanted him to be proud of me.


I turn on our Paleolithic VCR, pop in tape one, and settle in to finally learn about the “during.” I watch my grandfather’s familiar pauses and laughs, hear his voice again for the first time in five years, and see things I have long forgotten, like the way he closes his eyes gently when he speaks and how his chest rises and falls as though every breath is his last … or his first.

Several times I rewind sections of tape that I miss because my mind has drifted, just as it would during Passover when he’d drone on and on about some tiny detail from the Haggadah that he thought was particularly mistaken or incomplete. Back then, I’d sit next to him, ready to perform tasks like washing his hands or passing him items from the Seder plate, worried that I’d do something wrong and have to deal with his disappointment—never anger, always just that look. Now I sit on my couch in my living room in Brooklyn, listening to him as he slips into lecture mode discussing the specifics of “what I call the ‘interbellum period of Krakow’ ” and worry that I may not have the stamina for this.

His eidetic memory delivers dates and names at such a pace that it seems, at times, rehearsed, and at other times simply overwhelming. At first, it’s a general history lesson, and I wonder if I will feel anything at all about these tapes, if I should press pause and take a walk and see what’s playing at the Cobble Hill Cinema. And then it shifts. Suddenly he’s talking about himself, and I can’t turn away.

There’s the exact date that he signs up for the Polish Army to escape deportation. The town where he hides when it becomes clear the German invasion will succeed. The name of the rabbi who marries him and my grandmother.

He talks about ditches: The schaffensfreude—the pride one feels from the act of creation—that is denied him in the ghetto when he’s sent to dig ditches and then simply fill them up again. The fear that every ditch could be a grave. And the ditch outside of Lublin that is to be his grave, until the local Gestapo head issues a last-minute reprieve.

Then there is the final selektion in the Krakow Ghetto before his deportation to Plaszów, when he forgets his jacket at home and has no number sewn onto his shirt. He describes a terrifying man with a gun and whip who screams at him and raises the whip to beat him. Here my heart pounds, here my mouth goes dry, here my lips curl as I watch him speak, effortlessly, about how my grandmother grabs the arm of Amon Gàth—the mad killer of Plaszów—and tells him, “Don’t you dare hurt my husband.”

There is so much in these two hours that cannot be captured in my words; they are barely captured in his. You have to hear his throat get dry when he talks about how cold it was and how lucky he was to work inside with the books. You have to see the moment he laughs when he recalls the endless series of coincidences that begin to add up to the improbability of his survival. You have to see his heart rate elevate as he describes the man caught whistling Russian melodies who was hanged over and over again because the rope kept breaking.

I cannot comprehend what it is to have survived. My mind balks at trying to hold in place the idea that he was truly there and that these events truly happened. And it is not until close to the end of the two hours that I finally find a glimmer of me in my grandfather and, as a result, can suddenly picture a fraction of the pain and horror that he must have felt.

“The rule in the camps was just like in the Army—never volunteer,” he says. But a man comes to the barrack one night and says that he needs men to perform a mitzvah: to dig a mass grave to bury Jewish women who were recently killed for living among the Poles. My grandfather agrees to go. He describes lifting a young woman’s naked body and holding her in his arms before burial. He says she was beautiful—a sculpture. He says he fell in love with her, then put her in the ground and covered her with a thin layer of dirt.

It is the falling in love that does it. It is the spark of humanity and truth that glowed within him that now burns in my chest as I watch this man retell these stories. All the confusion is gone. All the struggling, the pain, all the golems now melt back to Earth and all that is left is a man who once fell in love with the image of a woman and a boy who will forever be in love with his grandfather.

“To digress for a moment,” he says, his breath suddenly shallow. “As I am fully cognizant of the fact that this will be for posterity … I personally don’t like the term ‘survivor.’ It is my judgment that every morning each and every one of us waking up is a survivor. Conversely speaking, thousands of Vietnam veterans, hundreds of hostages who survived don’t identify themselves as former hostages as POWs. So, the whole notion of ‘survivor’ rubs me the wrong way, the whole notion of second generation and third generation …”

Here the interviewer interrupts: “Well, will you find a label for these people?”

“There’s no label,” my grandfather replies. “Former prisoners of Nazi concentration camps? I don’t mind following my name a B.A., M.A., or PhD … but I don’t want to brand myself as survivor … as being some accomplishment.”

These last words he speaks directly into the camera, as if to tell me that our equation will never be balanced, because the emotional calculus is false. The tape ends with photos. There is a sister I didn’t know existed, an afternoon by the docks, his father, his mother, a brother with a beard, then a photo of his grandchildren. This is the world. This is what mattered to him. The rest was just history.


I hardly thought it was a life-changing question.

We were driving home from a family gathering one evening this past May with my husband’s 95-year-old grandmother, Frieda, a Holocaust survivor from a small town outside Warsaw. I told her I’d been spending a lot of time on genealogy websites, immersed in tracing the trajectories of my immigrant relatives, most of whom—lured by the promise of America—had left Eastern Europe long before World War II. I had always thought Frieda’s family’s story was not as flush with immigrant tales; most of her relatives had stayed in Poland, which is precisely why Frieda had so few relatives. She and her late husband Chaim had survived the war by fleeing to Russia in November of 1939. They spent the next six years doing forced labor under increasingly dismal and treacherous conditions. They were the only members of their immediate families to have lived.

And so I asked Frieda what she had heard about America as a child. Did people talk about wanting to go there?

“I didn’t know very much. We didn’t talk about it,” she said. She shrugged dismissively.

And then, almost as an afterthought, she added: “My mother’s two older sisters went there. She was supposed to go, too, but the First World War broke out.”

My pulse quickened. In the 14 years I had known her, I had heard numerous stories about Frieda’s past recounted in vivid detail. But I couldn’t recall her ever once mentioning two aunts in America. And Frieda wasn’t someone who could afford to have two aunts unaccounted for.

“Mumma!” I said excitedly. “They must have had children and grandchildren here. We can find them! We have to!”

Frieda seemed skeptical. Her mother, Chaya Rojza, had somehow lost touch with her sisters before Frieda was even born; Frieda remembers her crying over the one photograph they’d sent back from America, a formal studio shot in which they wore long black skirts. Find them? It seemed preposterous. She didn’t even know their last names. All Frieda knew was that her aunts once lived in Chicago and that one had a husband named Avram. One aunt, she said, had died of cholera. When Frieda arrived in Baltimore in 1958, she’d tried to track them down using the meager methods at her disposal, to no avail.

It became immediately clear to me that we needed find out absolutely everything we could about what had become of Frieda’s aunts. And we needed to find out as fast as humanly possible.

It took two weeks of intense sleuthing—two frantic, fevered weeks during which I all but ignored everything and everyone else—to get the whole story. I pieced most of it together online, poring over ships’ manifests, census records, old city directories, and Social Security documents. The incredibly generous people of the listserv run by the website helped me use what I had found to get a solid bead on the first aunt. And, in a bit of amazing serendipity, I connected with a professional genealogist who had been hired a few years ago to trace a branch of Frieda’s American family; she found an old newspaper clipping that connected all the dots and led me to the second aunt.

Neither woman, it turned out, had ever lived in Chicago or died of cholera, though one did have a husband named Avram. The actual story was both entirely mundane and, for Frieda, far richer. Her Aunts Beile and Henia Ruchel had renamed themselves “Bessie” and “Rachel” in America. They’d lived long, full lives in New England, with six children between them and scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

And one Monday evening in June, more than 70 years after the Holocaust claimed both of her parents, her grandfather, all six of her siblings, her in-laws, and an almost inconceivable number of all the aunts, uncles, and cousins she had ever known, we learned the astonishing news: Frieda had three first cousins alive and well, the octogenarian American daughters of her mother’s older sister Bessie.

I set about connecting Frieda with these women, a process both wondrous and strange; unlike some long-lost relatives, they didn’t actually know a single person in common. Bessie and Rachel had shared next to nothing about their lives in Poland—names, details, family stories—that could elicit a satisfying, Lifetime-movie moment of recognition. But the scant details we had all fit. And when a cousin emailed a photograph showing an eerie resemblance between Frieda and her Aunt Bessie, we took solace in what we thought was our only bulls-eye.

Until the night of Frieda’s first call to her 89-year-old cousin, Irene. I sat in Frieda’s apartment with her son Allan, and her daughter Rita—my mother-in-law—all of us craning our necks to listen as the two women talked on speakerphone. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Frieda asked Irene the question weighing most heavily on her: “Did your mother ever talk about her sister, Chaya Rojza?”

My heart sank. The previous two conversations had made clear that this wouldn’t bear fruit. I braced myself for Frieda’s inevitable disappointment that her mother Chaya Rojza Szarfsztejn, murdered so unceremoniously at the Majdanek death camp, would once again be overlooked, lost to history.

We were completely unprepared for what happened next.

“Chaya Rojza? Well, my name is Chaya Rojza,” Irene announced, to the surprise of even her own granddaughter, who was also listening on speakerphone from Irene’s apartment in Massachusetts. “That’s what I was called until I was 10. Then I said, ‘No more of that. My name is Irene Rose.’ ”

Chaya Rojza. Frieda’s eyes fluttered closed. She reached out for me to hold her hands. And we sat silently like that for a moment or two, the past and the present suddenly seamlessly connected.

I thought of a favorite Sharon Olds poem. Upon hearing the news of the death of her first love, Olds writes that she wanted to “close myself like a door/ as you had been shut, closed off, but I could not/ do it, the pain kept coursing through me like/ life, like the gift of life.”

It was the gift of life that coursed through us that day in a senior-living facility in Baltimore, more than a hundred years after two Polish sisters left their entire family behind to start anew in America. It can be almost unbearably brutal, that gift of life. But it is an awe-inspiring gift indeed.


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How Did Itzik Wittenberg, Hero of the Vilna Ghetto, Die?

On July 8, 1943, Bruno Kittel, an Oberscharfuhrer in the German Security Police, drove into the Vilna ghetto and summoned Jacob Gens, the chief of the Jewish Police and the de facto head of the ghetto. Kittel—who two months hence would supervise the liquidation of the ghetto—demanded the immediate surrender of Itzik Wittenberg, the Communist commander of the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (FPO), the United Partisans Organization, the ghetto’s underground resistance movement. What exactly Kittel knew about Wittenberg was not made clear: Either affiliation, Communist or FPO, was a capital crime; either affiliation would, of course, mark Wittenberg as someone the Gestapo would be very interested in questioning.

But Wittenberg had been warned, likely via underground Communist channels, and had gone into hiding. Zenia Berkon, a member of the FPO, has said that Wittenberg hid in her small apartment, with her and her mother, and that he disguised himself with a mustache, dark glasses, and a rubber coat. Some accounts claim that Kittel was told that Wittenberg was dead.

Kittel, frustrated, arrested a ghetto policeman named Aurbach. Aurbach was also a member of the FPO—a fact Kittel was almost certainly not aware of—but was returned to the ghetto the next day, showing no signs of being tortured, and claiming he had not given up any incriminating information. Why Kittel arrested and subsequently released Aurbach has never been wholly explained: It may have been a ruse to lure Wittenberg, to demonstrate to him as well as the ghetto brass that Wittenberg was wanted only for questioning, and would be released unharmed.

In the wake of Kittel’s visit, the FPO leadership went on high alert. The Nazis’ reaction to real or even suspected underground movements—especially since the Warsaw ghetto uprising earlier that year—was scorched earth: They would raze villages, murder entire populations. The FPO had thus far successfully maintained a low profile; they had eschewed open and armed resistance for covert operations of sabotage, smuggling, and communication; even inside the ghetto, relatively few Jews were aware of its existence. But if the Germans had somehow learned of the FPO and its activities, the destruction of the ghetto could very well be at hand; and if that was, in fact, the case, the FPO—which from its inception in January 1942 had committed to revolt when, and only when, the liquidation of the ghetto was imminent—would launch the uprising. They would not, in the language of their manifesto, be led “like sheep to the slaughter.”

But in the following week, there were no further demands or arrests, no signs of German mobilization, no further inquiries about Wittenberg, either from the Jewish authorities or the German; the matter seemed to be forgotten. There was also encouraging intel: It emerged that Wittenberg had been identified by a Lithuanian Communist named Kozlowski, who had been arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. This meant that Kittel had wanted Wittenberg because he was a Communist, not because he was the leader of the FPO—which, for now, remained underground. Life in the ghetto resumed.


ne week later, on July 15, 1943, ghetto chief Jacob Gens summoned the leaders of the FPO—Wittenberg, Abba Kovner, Abrasha Chwojnik, and Chenia Borowska—to a meeting at his office in the Judenrat building, Gens’s headquarters. Such a meeting was not particularly unusual or suspicious: Gens and the FPO maintained close, if covert and often tense, contact—if Gens did not support the FPO outright, he did so tacitly, turning a blind eye to their “illegal” activities—and Gens would often host unofficial nighttime meetings at his office or apartment.

Abba Kovner (center) with FPO members. (Wikipedia)
Kovner has said that he and the other FPO leaders were of the impression that the meeting had no particular agenda, that whatever Gens wanted to meet about had nothing to do with Wittenberg. Had they suspected otherwise, Kovner said, they would not have gone, or, at the very least, Wittenberg certainly would not have. But another member of the FPO, Abrasha Krizowski, friend of Wittenberg and a fellow Communist, has claimed that it was Wittenberg who had scheduled the meeting—Krizowski said that Wittenberg wanted to touch base with Gens, to clear the air. Given the fractured and overlapping allegiances and lines of communication—Wittenberg and Krizowski were affiliated with both the Jewish underground and the Communist underground, two organizations without established and trusted means of sharing information—it is possible that Kovner simply did not know that Wittenberg had initiated the meeting.

For unknown reasons, Gens postponed the meeting, then postponed it again. By the time the five gathered in Gens’s office, it was close to midnight.

The meeting seems to have begun congenially; the atmosphere, according to those present, was that of a friendly get-together. Kovner has said that Gens poured drinks, that there were toasts and l’chaims. But at some point, likely not more than 20 minutes after the FPO leaders had arrived, German (or, in some accounts, Lithuanian) soldiers entered the room. (According to some accounts the soldiers were escorted by Salek Dessler, Gens’ deputy, and easily the most reviled and least trusted man in the Vilna ghetto.) Kovner testified in the Eichmann trial about Wittenberg’s arrest:

A side door in the office of Gens opened and SS men appeared in the doorway with submachine guns pointing at us. They ordered us to stand up and asked: “Who here is Wittenberg?” Nobody answered. Then Gens pointed to Wittenberg and said: “That is Wittenberg.” They bound him in chains and removed him with their submachine guns.

The other three FPO leaders remained in the room with Gens, who had, it was now clear, orchestrated Wittenberg’s arrest. Kovner reported the following exchange: “We said to Gens, ‘You disgraceful traitor—we shall meet again.’ Gens replied, ‘I am not responsible. One of your men was caught by the Gestapo, passed on the name of Wittenberg, and I was obliged to deliver him; otherwise, others would have paid for him with their lives.’ ” According to Krizowski—who was not inside the room—Chiena Borowska spat in Gens’ face. (However, in Borowska’s own, fairly detailed account, she makes no record of this.)

The German/Lithuanian soldiers escorted Wittenberg from Gens’ office to the Judenrat courtyard, then started toward the ghetto gate, which was a couple hundred meters away. But they were spotted almost immediately by the FPO, who had set up vantage points near the Judenrat building. (Accounts disagree on whether this was standard FPO protocol—i.e., if every meeting with Gens mandated “backup,” or if such measures were taken only because of lingering tension between Gens and the FPO. And some FPO members have claimed that the organization’s partial mobilization was in response to reports that Salek Dessler had been spotted leaving the ghetto and returning with German/Lithuanian soldiers.)

The FPO set upon the soldiers, and freed Wittenberg. Joseph Harmatz has said that he and two other partisans “fell on the police and cut off his handcuffs,” and that the rescue “was very quick.” According to Harmatz, there was very little commotion. Rachel Korzak, another member of the FPO, offers in her memoir a much more dramatic version:

In the courtyard the tumult increased. The police were running with lanterns in their hands. At this moment I didn’t care. I ran to the gate, pushed the gatekeeper, and broke into the street. Behind me were the sounds of footsteps and shouting. I ran to Rudnicku 7 and shouted loudly: “Comrades! They captured the commander! Everyone to the gate! Free him!” In the courtyard windows opened. People who had been woken up stuck their heads out [of the window] and asked what’s going on. But there was no one to answer them. All ran and charged to the other side of the street, crying: We will not give up our commander!

Itzik heard the cry. He understood to move his legs quickly. He spurted from his captors and ran towards the voices. The Gestapo chased after him. But immediately [FPO members] stopped them, fell on them, hit them. We could hardly discern in the dark the figures of our fighters who struggled with the guard. And afterwards nothing was seen except tremendous rushing; at the head ran Itzik, free.

Others accounts are more or less dramatic, more or less exciting. Regardless, in the breaking hours of July 16, 1943, Itzik Wittenberg, commander of the FPO, member of the Communist underground, became a fugitive from the Gestapo, and, by proxy, from Gens and the Jewish ghetto government.


ess than an hour after Wittenberg had been freed, Gens called a ghetto-wide meeting in the Judenrat courtyard, the ghetto’s de facto public square. Such a meeting was unprecedented, and ghetto residents began to panic. Rumors of an aktion (purge), even of liquidation, began to spread. It was by now around 1 o’clock in the morning.

Gens addressed the assembled from the balcony of the Judenrat building. He announced that the Gestapo had identified Itzik Wittenberg as an underground Communist and had demanded his immediate surrender. If—so Gens relayed the Gestapo’s warning—Wittenberg was not delivered, alive, within the hour, the ghetto would be destroyed. Mark Dworzeski, a prominent survivor-historian, paraphrased Gens’ speech:

In the city a Polish communist, Kozlowski, was captured. While being interrogated he revealed that he maintained contact with a certain Wittenberg, who runs a secret printing press in the ghetto that prints leaflets for the Communist party in the city. The Gestapo demands Wittenberg. They have given an ultimatum to the ghetto police to deliver Wittenberg within one hour and if not—the German tanks will enter the ghetto; they will raze the ghetto streets with bombs. … What should now be done? Should the entire ghetto population be sacrificed for the sake of one, or should the one be given over in order to save all?

Was Gens telling the truth? Did the Gestapo, in fact, issue such a threat? Did Gens exaggerate or invent? Was the ghetto actually in danger of being destroyed? It is impossible to know. There are no records of German orders to this effect. At no point over the course of the night was there any indication that the Germans were mobilizing forces; at no point over the course of the night did any Germans even re-enter the ghetto.

But this question—whether Gens was accurately relaying German demands or partially or wholly inventing them—is moot, because Gens delivered his speech not in order to inform the ghetto population but in order to influence and manipulate them. Regardless of whether the ghetto’s imminent destruction was actually in the balance, what Gens did was primarily tactical: He persuaded the ghetto inhabitants that their lives depended on the capitulation of one man.

The gathering, unsurprisingly, turned violent. To some extent this was encouraged by Gens, who had summoned the shtarkers—quasi-criminal characters the Judenrat relied on in emergency situations; in other words, muscle for hire. The mob—riled up by Gens, fueled by the shtarkers, and condoned or even joined by the Jewish police—armed themselves with stones and clubs. There are reports that the Jewish police distributed revolvers.

The mob, carrying the slogan “one or 20,000,” began to tear the ghetto apart searching for Wittenberg. Dworzeski writes that he helped hide Wittenberg’s wife and child, who were afraid they’d be arrested, in a melina (hidden compartment). They could hear the Jewish police outside:

Jews inside the house, inside the melinas, listen! Help catch Wittenberg. Save the ghetto! Wittenberg is disguised in women’s clothing. In a black dress, and a light kerchief. Look in the house, in the melinas: Perhaps he is among you? Jews, save yourselves!

But Wittenberg had barricaded himself inside an FPO safe-house (the precise location of which is disputed), and the mob, frustrated and panicked, swarmed outside the FPO’s headquarters, a narrow, wooden house. They demanded Wittenberg’s immediate surrender and threatened to rush the building. Armed FPO members were ordered to prevent anyone from entering.

The FPO leadership attempted, unsuccessfully, to placate the crowd. Kovner had printed an appeal that called on the Jews in the ghetto to rise up in the face of imminent destruction—“as Wittenberg’s arrest was nothing but a pretext for the subsequent liquidation of the ghetto.” (The appeal was not distributed, and, after the war, Kovner admitted that what he had written was baseless, that he had had no reason to suspect an impending aktion.) The overwhelming majority of the ghetto population, the FPO realized, was against them.

The crowd seethed: The reported deadline—the deadline many in the ghetto believed their lives depended on—had passed, and Wittenberg had not yet been found, had not yet been persuaded or forced to surrender.

The standoff turned violent. A man named Shapira, widely considered by surviving FPO members to have been a provocateur, fired shots; some accounts claim the FPO returned fire. One member of the FPO was struck in the head with an ax. (During an interview on the documentary Partisans of Vilna, he bows his head to display his scar, a jagged slant that traverses crown to brow.)

At least eight FPO members were arrested and jailed. A policeman was shot and wounded. Vitka Kempner recounts her comrades’ mothers shouting at their children: “How can you sacrifice us for this nonsense? There is a chance that we will stay alive.” Abba Kovner’s poem Today is the Sixteenth of July contains the verse: “On the dawnless night / of the sixteenth of July / a wretched horde is ready / to eat you alive.” The ghetto was on the brink of a civil war. Gens sent to the FPO a series of delegations—uniformed policemen at first, then more-trusted ghetto leaders—in order to negotiate Wittenberg’s surrender.

According to Abba Kovner, who claimed to have led the negotiations on behalf of the FPO, Gens’ delegates successfully persuaded the FPO of two critical facts. First, that the Germans knew only about Wittenberg—i.e., they had identified Wittenberg as a Communist, and only as a Communist, not as a leader of the FPO—and remained unaware of the FPO’s existence. And second, that there was no impending aktion—that is, if Wittenberg were to surrender, the ghetto, for the foreseeable future, would not be in danger. Kovner further said that Gens relayed a promise that everything possible would be done to secure Wittenberg’s release, provided he could withstand the torture. According to other accounts, Gens (or, according to some, Dessler) explicitly guaranteed Wittenberg’s release.

Negotiations between Gens and the FPO continued; the Gestapo’s deadline was repeatedly extended, from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. (Again, the Gestapo’s role in all this is unverified—their commands were conveyed, perhaps faithfully, perhaps not, by Gens/Dessler. One survivor relates that Dessler was constantly and with increasing urgency suggesting to the FPO that the Germans were mobilizing tanks, which was almost certainly not true.)

The decision the FPO now faced—surrender their leader or put the entire ghetto at potential risk—in many respects mirrored Gens’ central moral quandary as ghetto chief—namely, should a few be sacrificed in order to save many? Gens was always explicit that his goal, as leader of the ghetto, was survival, was staving off extinction as long as possible, even if that meant the concession of lives. Judgment of Gens has hinged on this question: Is it morally acceptable, or perhaps even morally incumbent, to let a few die in order to save many?

This sort of moral equation—the decision the FPO was forced into was the same decision Gens and the Judenrat had been continually forced into since the ghetto’s inception—is a theme invoked often in the literature of the Vilna ghetto. In Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews, a semi-satirical novel about an imaginary ghetto, the Edmund Trilling Brigade (a stand-in for the FPO) must decide whether to sacrifice Lipsky (a stand-in for Wittenberg). They vote to surrender him, and Lipsky bursts into tears:

I’m not crying for myself. I don’t care about having to die. Poof! One more Jew! I’m crying for Trilling and Szypper and Professor Zygmunt because they gave up their lives. For what? So that we could behave exactly like their great foe, the Judenrat! Hand one over, we’ll save many! … There is something in history that makes all men act the same!

The FPO leaders decided that Wittenberg must surrender himself to the Germans. How exactly this decision was reached, who pushed it through, and how reluctantly the decision was accepted by FPO brass, is disputed. Some accounts claim that the decision was first reached by representatives of the Communist underground, and, subsequently, the FPO fell in line. Others claim the decision was reached independently by both the Communist underground and the FPO. It is also unclear whether Wittenberg was present when the decision was made, or if he was informed afterward. Regardless, it was ultimately the opinion of the FPO and the Communist underground, not to mention Gens, the Judenrat, and the majority of the ghetto population, that Wittenberg should surrender himself.

But Wittenberg refused. He left the meeting place and, disguised as a woman, wearing a dress and a kerchief and holding a basket, went into hiding. He was briefly caught by ghetto residents but escaped—some accounts claim he fired warning shots from his revolver—and went to an FPO stronghold, where he met with FPO leaders to discuss his fate.

Wittenberg was initially adamant: He argued that there was no known case of a resistance movement surrendering their commander, that surrendering would be detrimental to the FPO’s cause. Kovner recounts that Wittenberg was struck by a “fear that [the FPO] should not be stamped into history as frivolous.” Wittenberg proposed that he commit suicide: This was rejected, as the Gestapo had demanded (or Gens claimed that the Gestapo had demanded) Wittenberg alive. Escaping to the forest was rejected for similar reasons. One of the FPO leaders suggested that the entire head staff commit suicide, an idea which, according to some accounts, Wittenberg himself rejected, as it would damage the organization.

Wittenberg then proposed that the FPO begin the revolt, that they launch the uprising they’ve been readying and training for since the early months of the ghetto. But the FPO brass demurred: They had resolved to fight only when liquidation was imminent, and, more important, they did not have the ghetto’s support—in order to fight the Germans they’d first have to fight Jews.

Still, Wittenberg was their commander; Kovner relates that the decision whether to launch the uprising or not was, ultimately, Wittenberg’s. Kovner has claimed that he told Wittenberg, “Give the order, everyone is ready, everyone is at his post. Give the order and we’ll fight.” Wittenberg, Kovner said, did not give the order.

Eventually, Wittenberg capitulated: He would surrender to the Gestapo. (Zenia Berkan, an FPO member, claimed that Wittenberg was forcibly turned in, but later admitted to not have been present at the meetings.) Many accounts relate that Wittenberg stood and handed Kovner his revolver before exiting.

On the morning of July 16, 1943, Itzik Wittenberg, whether on his own accord, or compelled, or something in between, met with Gens near the Judenrat building, where a car was waiting. He was taken to the Gestapo headquarters, a couple kilometers outside the ghetto, and the next day he was dead. Nissan Reznik, an FPO member, ends his account thus: “[Itzik said] ‘If that’s what you want, I’ll go.’ And out he went.”


he story of Itzik Wittenberg—the betrayed and perhaps twice-betrayed leader of the ghetto underground—has been preserved and even enshrined; it has been told and retold, in myriad forms and with various emphases. At least a dozen different plays, most prominently Joshua Sobol’s Adam, and scores of songs and poems have been written about Wittenberg. Virtually every relevant book—about the ghetto, about the partisans, about Jewish resistance, as well as many of the more-general Holocaust histories—dedicates at least a few lines to Wittenberg and the events of the night of July 16, 1943. Most memoirs written by survivors of the Vilna ghetto, even those who did not interact with Wittenberg, who had nothing to do with the FPO or Gens, speak more about Wittenberg than any other character in the ghetto (with the exception of Gens). Wittenberg has been valorized, pitied, memorialized, mythologized; he’s been a hero, a victim, a symbol; his story has been used to demonstrate the nefariousness of Gens, the impossibility of the FPO’s plight, the shortsightedness/delusion/misplaced hope of the ghetto population. It isn’t difficult to understand the appeal of Wittenberg’s story, for the poet as well as the historian. It is exciting, complex, involved: It’s got elements of resistance, authority, betrayal, partisans, politics, machinations, negotiations, mobs, manipulations and implied and actual violence.

But the narrative has a gaping hole: We don’t know perhaps the most significant part of the story—how it ends. We don’t know with certainty how—at whose hands, by what means—Wittenberg died. Based on the couple dozen or so testimonies, memoirs, diaries, histories, and interviews—the various records of those who claim to know how Wittenberg died—there are three possible scenarios.

The first scenario—which we might consider a sort of default—is that Wittenberg died in the manner one would expect a Jewish Communist prisoner in Gestapo custody to die, i.e., he was interrogated, tortured, mutilated, and, eventually, killed. In the KGB archives in Lithuania there are records of a postwar interrogation of a man named Ginzburg, a stoker in the Gestapo building, who claims that he informed the FPO that Wittenberg was murdered and cut into pieces with a saw; the same document details a similar report of M. Kamermacher, another Jewish worker employed at the Gestapo facilities. Abraham Sutzkever wrote in his memoir that “Wittenberg’s body lay in the corridor of the Gestapo building. His hair was burned, his eyes pierced and his arms, bound behind, broken.” In the restored version of The Black Book, Sutzkever even names the Gestapo agent who tortured Wittenberg: Max Gross.

The second scenario is that Wittenberg was murdered by Gens and/or Dessler, who were worried that Wittenberg might reveal damaging information to the Germans. The method of murder? In this scenario, Gens and/or Dessler slip delayed-reaction cyanide into Wittenberg’s drink before delivering him to the Gestapo; Wittenberg thus died while in custody but before he could be tortured. From the memoir of Rokhl Korczak, an FPO member:

In the afternoon some strange news reached us: Wittenberg’s soul had departed before the interrogation. He died in the morning. His corpse that was taken out from the jail was blue. The matter of his death was a serious mystery. We did not manage to smuggle the cyanide to him! After many days, our suspicion was confirmed—that Wittenberg, before he left the ghetto, was poisoned by Gens and Dessler, who were worried that he might endanger their standing.

The third and most widely espoused scenario is that Wittenberg killed himself by willingly ingesting cyanide that Gens and/or Dessler had provided for him. This scenario has, in fact, two versions: (1) Wittenberg took a delayed-reaction cyanide pill while still in the ghetto and died some hours later, after he’d been apprehended; and (2), Wittenberg hid on his body a “regular” (not delayed-reaction) cyanide pill—one account has him hiding the pill in his ear—which he ingested in the Gestapo building and which killed him more or less instantly. In either case, Wittenberg’s death occurs outside the ghetto and before he could be tortured; the main difference between these versions is whether the cyanide pill was delayed-reaction or not. Most accounts seem to agree that it was. Perhaps noteworthy is the testimony of Brayna As, a survivor who claims that though Wittenberg was in possession of poison, he chose, for unspecified reasons, not to take it. According to As, Wittenberg’s body was discovered in the Gestapo building showing “signs of terrible torture.”

This third scenario is the one put forth unhesitatingly by Yitzchak Arad in Ghetto in Flames, the most respected and frequently cited history of the Vilna ghetto. “[Wittenberg] had poisoned himself with cyanide of potassium,” writes Arad, “which he had brought from the ghetto. It had been given to him by Gens at their last meeting, before he was surrendered.” Arad continues:

Wittenberg decided to take his life when he realized that he would not leave German hands alive, and out of fear that he would not be able to endure the interrogations and torture, would break and give the names of his underground comrades. He gave no information to the Security Police before he committed suicide, and none of his friends in the ghetto underground or outside was arrested in the wake of his detention.

(The sources, though at odds with one other, are for the most part remarkably assured; in fact, I’ve seen only one account, that of Nusia Dlugi, a survivor and FPO member, that allows for any uncertainty: “The next day in the morning the news came that Wittenberg is dead. Exactly what happened at the Gestapo isn’t known—whether he was badly tortured, whether he died immediately. Others say that Dessler or Gens poisoned him while he was still in the ghetto or that he had the poison with him. But as far as I know he did not have any poison on him.”)

It’s sometimes the case that, with the passing of however many years, a historical disagreement may be decided; evidence may emerge that will show this or that version of to be correct (or, more likely, incorrect), and we are able to arbitrate, to discard accounts, to undo the transmutation of hearsay into history. The disagreement over Wittenberg’s death is not a case like that: None of these three versions has been discredited or validated.

There is no conclusive evidence in any direction; what evidence there is, is almost always speculative.

There is no known German record of Wittenberg’s death. There are no reliable eyewitnesses who saw Wittenberg’s corpse, tortured or not, in spite of the KGB records, which are notoriously unreliable. We have no testimony—not second-hand, not third-hand—that Gens and/or Dessler admitted to poisoning Wittenberg or admitted to providing Wittenberg with the poison. (Neither Gens nor Dessler survived the war.) And no FPO member—many of whom, like Abba Kovner, had relatively intimate knowledge of the events in question—has ever claimed to have provided Wittenberg with poison. (Many FPO members claim, in memoirs and interviews, that they had wanted to get Wittenberg the poison, and some say that they had tried to. These attempts have never been clarified.)

In a 1983 letter to Professor David Roskies, Abba Kovner wrote that “Arad’s version is close to the truth … according to all the evidence we were able to collect at that time, the Gestapo agents never got to torture Wittenberg.”

But the evidence Kovner is referring to has never been elaborated on. And Kovner, who testified or was interviewed about the Wittenberg affair at least half a dozen times, was far from consistent. In one interview he stated that Wittenberg was tortured, that Wittenberg’s mutilated corpse—with broken arms and gouged-out eyes—was discovered the morning after his arrest.

Many Holocaust history books like Lucy Dawidowicz’s War Against the Jews and Isaiah Trunk’s Judenrat sidestep neatly the entire issue by being vague and nonspecific: They record that Wittenberg was brought to the Gestapo building “where he perished,” or was “found dead,” or expired in a similarly nonparticular fashion.

Perhaps this seems like a largely academic distinction—Wittenberg died by cyanide, or he was tortured; he was killed by the Gestapo, or he was killed before the Gestapo could kill him; what difference does it make? Either way, a tragic death.

What does Wittenberg’s death—and, in turn, Wittenberg himself—stand for?
But the details of Wittenberg’s death (the final image of his body, how he succumbed, who was responsible) inform the narrative of his death (hero/victim/traitor/betrayed), which, in turn, informs the meaning of his death. The at-odds “versions” of Wittenberg’s final hours are not alternative histories of Wittenberg’s death as much as competing narratives and competing moralities. Death by cyanide is relatively quick and painless; the Wittenberg who died thus avoided torture, mutilation, humiliation, degradation; he frustrated the Gestapo’s ambitions until the very end; he died above suspicion of divulging information. The tortured Wittenberg is a mutilated carcass: a symbol of the Gestapo’s reach and power. The two Wittenbergs stand as opposing answers to the question: What does Wittenberg’s death—and, in turn, Wittenberg himself—stand for?


istory in the Soviet Union had little to do with history; accounts of the past either conformed to Soviet ideas and ideals or were effaced. Wittenberg, a fallen Communist partisan, was posthumously recognized as a Soviet hero, an icon—after the war, a street in Vilnius’ Old Town was named for him. Via expurgation, revision, suppression, censorship, and promotion of quasi-propagandistic literature, Itzik Wittenberg was redacted into an outstanding example of Soviet courage.

In 1944, a few months after Vilnius was liberated, newly installed Soviet authorities launched an investigation into the betrayal of Wittenberg. As there were survivors, in particular partisans, who were in danger of being implicated, the poet Abraham Sutzkever hid 17 pages from the diary of the ghetto librarian Herman Kruk (who did not survive the war), because they contained, according to Sutzkever, a “sensitive issue.”

The diary of Kruk—one of the only nonpartisans who maintained close relationships with both Gens and FPO leaders—is one of the few significant Vilna ghetto sources written during, not after, the war, and is by far the best entrée we have into the characters and politics of the ghetto. Those 17 pages, which date from July 15, 1943, to Sept. 27, 1943, almost certainly contain clarifying details of Wittenberg’s death. But those pages have never been found; their contents remain unknown. This amounts to a kind of indirect Soviet censorship.

In the late 1960s, Masha Rolnik, who as an adolescent had survived the Vilna ghetto, published her diary, I Must Tell, in the Soviet Union. The book garnered considerable attention: I Must Tell was one of the few available Holocaust documents available in the U.S.S.R.; Rolnik became known as the Anne Frank of Lithuania.

In I Must Tell, Rolnik writes, matter-of-factly, that Wittenberg was poisoned with cyanide, and Arad, the prominent Vilna ghetto historian, and others have cited her book as a primary source. But there are issues regarding the authoritativeness of I Must Tell. In July 1943 Masha Rolnik was 14 years old and in no position to know what was clearly privileged information—at best, her diary is a reflection of whatever the prevalent rumor in the ghetto may have been. Further, Rolnik’s diary is not really a diary: Rolnik’s original diary, what she recorded while in the ghetto, was left behind and never recovered. What was ultimately published is an attempted reproduction, a sort of memoir in diary form, that she wrote after the war.

Even putting those issues aside, some historians claim that parts of Rolnik’s manuscript were censored and/or forged by Soviet authorities, who sought to portray Wittenberg as a Communist hero who died a noble and befitting death. Lucy Dawidowicz, the pre-eminent Holocaust historian, explicitly rejects Rolnik’s diary as a historically accurate document: that Wittenberg died by cyanide, Dawidowicz says, is 100 percent invention, a “flagrant falsification” of the actual events.

Dawidowicz’s version of what happened that night is far more banal. Wittenberg, disguised as a woman, was apprehended by the Jewish police. He surrendered without incident and was taken immediately to the Judenrat offices, where a Gestapo car was waiting. Dawidowicz continues:

Of course the Gestapo murdered [Wittenberg], probably the same day. The Rolnik diary offers altogether a fanciful version of those events, with whose dramatic course the whole ghetto had become familiar and whose true history Rolnik had been bound to know.

Dawidowicz, despite her assured tone, is overstating her case—as of 2014, Rolnik was alive and living in St. Petersburg, and over the last 40 years has overseen numerous printings and translations of her diary, which means any instances of flagrant censorship or wholesale inserts could have been corrected. More significantly, the rumor—irrespective of its factuality—that Wittenberg swallowed cyanide was not invented by Soviet authorities: even on July 16, 1943, ghetto inhabitants were citing cyanide as the cause. Zelig Kalmanovich, a well-respected philologist and public figure (who, notably, consistently sided with Gens and against the FPO), wrote in his diary, “Not being able to stand the tortures of that day, [Wittenberg] took poison and bequeathed life to all the living.”

Nevertheless, Dawidowicz’s larger point stands: Wittenberg’s death by cyanide was certainly a version of history the Soviets promoted and approved of. Soviet authorities may or may not have gone so far as to alter Rolnik’s diary—such a move would certainly not be unprecedented—but regardless, it’s clear they were sensitive to the historical and political implications of the story of Itzik Wittenberg, and in indirect and direct ways altered, bowdlerized, and exaggerated his legacy. What the Soviets sought and to some unknowable extent succeeded at was to reshape the complex, multivalent narrative of Wittenberg’s death into a straightforward and morally unambiguous story of Communist resistance/triumph. Wittenberg was thus recast as a fallen Communist hero: not a Jew, not a Jewish partisan, not a victim of the Holocaust, but as a member of the Communist underground who sacrificed his life fighting the German Fascists.

The most striking example of this Soviet slant can be found in a story that ran in 1968 in two issues of Sovietish Heimland, the only government-sanctioned Yiddish magazine in the Soviet Union. (Heimland, incidentally, rejected Rolnik’s manuscript in the early ’60s: The editors—or whoever was actually in charge—felt there was a surfeit of war-related material.) The story, which runs about 100 pages and includes illustrations, is nominally about the Vilna ghetto but is in every sense that matters about Wittenberg: The ghetto and its inhabitants are little more than a dramatic backdrop for the tale of the heroic Communist leader of the underground.

Wittenberg depicted in Sovietish Heimland, 1969. (Courtesy H. Kravtzov)
The Wittenberg of Sovietish Heimland—handsome, terse, abandoned, solitary, and of extraordinary moral temperament—is reminiscent of nothing so much as a comic-book hero. (“You know, you really could have been a movie star,” Wittenberg is told in Sobol’s Adam.) Sovietized Wittenberg is pure hero; there is no moral adulterant. Even the central moral dilemma of the Wittenberg affair—one versus 20,000—is inverted: Whereas in reality Wittenberg was urged, and perhaps even forced, by the decision-makers (FPO, Gens) to surrender himself, in Sovietish Heimland Wittenberg chastises his comrade for offering to smuggle him out, explaining that such a move would endanger 20,000 people:

Sonia Madeysker came and told him that she can smuggle him out to the forest. [Wittenberg said] “What would that do for me? There are two numbers: 20,000 and one. You want to save one. And the 20,000? It’s possible the Germans are bluffing, but you can’t be certain. Do you want the annihilation of 20,000 Jews?”

Nowhere is the tendency, even insistence, of portraying Wittenberg as gallant and defiant more apparent than in the rhetoric used to describe Wittenberg’s exit from the ghetto. Sovietish Heimland’s account ends thus:

Itzik Wittenberg took one last look at the ghetto gate and surrendered to the Gestapo. In the morning he had had the premonition that he must leave. … He had wanted to save 20,000 with action, with weapons, with victory. Now the time had come to save them with his life.

Sovietish Heimland is but an extreme example: In other, non-Soviet accounts, the image of the heroic, solitary, dramatic, almost cinematic march to the ghetto gate appears so often that it’s very nearly a trope.

Though in reality the details are disputed—it’s unclear if Wittenberg walked out on his own or was escorted, if there was a crowd or only a few furtive observers—Wittenberg’s exit is described in impassioned rhetoric in nearly every single telling. “As [Wittenberg] walked in the direction of the gate,” Abraham Sutzkever wrote, “so he walked into history.” The historian Dina Porat has culled some of the recorded sentiments of those in the ghetto at the time: “he died as a martyr for the ghetto,” “sacrifice for the population,” “will be called holy,” “walked like a king,” “like our ancestors at their deaths.” The poet-partisan Shmerke Kazerginski wrote a song about Wittenberg:

Itzik Wittenberg’s exit in Sovietish Heimland. (Courtesy H. Kravtzov)
Then Itzik said—
And it penetrated like a
bolt of lightning—
“I don’t want you on my account
To have to surrender your lives
to the enemy…”
Proudly to his death goes the

Here is Abba Kovner’s testimony from the Eichmann trial:

[Wittenberg] gave me the revolver, appointed me commander, and went out into the street. We all stood there, with our bandoliers, our wretched guns, the fighters on one side, the crowd surrounding us. He walked along the empty street to the ghetto gate in order to hand himself over to the Gestapo.


he other image of Wittenberg, the Wittenberg-as-victim, invokes not admiration but pity. The sources wherein Wittenberg does not die via cyanide, the accounts in which no hidden or slipped poison pill spares Wittenberg the Gestapo’s tortures, are brutally explicit: mutilation, dislocated arms, gouged-out eyes, hacked and scattered carcass. Wittenberg-as-victim is crushed and disposed of. He is pathetic: a leader betrayed, delivered—against his wishes, perhaps—to his gruesome death by Jews, by his comrades-in-arms.

In the Eichmann trial, in 1961, Kovner testified: “We tried to smuggle cyanide to [Wittenberg]. We did not succeed. Something strange happened. He was tortured and died. Historians will judge us as having acted either shamefully or with justification.”

A depiction of a Itzik Wittenberg, arms bound and broken, and eyes gouged out, by Israeli artist Naftali Bezem. (Courtesy Ghetto Fighter’s House Archive)
It’s true that most accounts agree that Wittenberg died by cyanide, not torture; and widespread belief constitutes its own kind of reality, one that historians must not dismiss. Yet it is important to distinguish group beliefs from historical fact. The death-by-cyanide scenario is unproven, and, at this point, unprovable. The accounts and testimonies cite other accounts that in turn cite other accounts; underneath this narrative spiral seems to be a rumor, a belief, even a kind of a hope, in the ghetto and up until today, that Wittenberg avoided an ignoble death, that his body—and, subsequently, his memory—were left undamaged. We want, it seems, to remember our heroes a certain way. As Adam, the Wittenberg stand-in in Sobol’s play, says: “Everyone tells my story to suit themselves.”

A few years ago I delivered a speech about the Vilna ghetto to a large crowd at YIVO, in New York. The speech was an overview, a general introduction to the social, cultural, and political institutions of the ghetto; I briefly mentioned the FPO, Wittenberg, Gens. Afterward, a middle-aged woman, visibly upset, approached me. She waited until there were no more well-wishers, and then, taking me aside, accused me of smearing Jacob Gens, who was, she said, her grandfather. “Everyone repeats these lies,” she said. “All of you should remember: It’s only the partisans who have gotten to tell their side of the story. No one was left to tell the other side.” Then she walked away.

I don’t know if she knew something about the night of July 16, 1943, that I didn’t, or if she was reflexively defending her grandfather’s legacy. (Wittenberg-as-hero versus Wittenberg-as-victim is a referendum on Gens, too. Did Gens smuggle cyanide to Wittenberg—an act of mercy, perhaps of redemption?) Regardless, her larger point is worth considering: History is shaped by its tellers. And the story of Wittenberg, Gens, and the night of July 16, 1943, has largely been shaped by the surviving members of the FPO.

Usually, and ideally, history precedes sentiment; story precedes moral. How we feel about what happened depends, or would seemingly depend, on our knowledge of what happened. But with respect to legend—that is, to events/persons whose narratives stretch history’s bounds—the direction of influence can reverse itself. The story we tell might very well depend on sentiment; history can conform to what we think that history should be. Wittenberg was a hero and therefore died a hero’s death. Wittenberg was a victim and therefore died a martyr’s death.

The story we tell may or may not be what happened, but it is the story nonetheless. The scholar David Roskies, writing about the legacy of Wittenberg, put it best: “It is only the myth that mediates the polarities of real heroism and utter degradation.”

Abba Kovner, in his testimony at the Eichmann trial, said the following:

Wittenberg gave himself up to the Gestapo with his, and our, assent. It is likely that history will blame us for it. It is likely that no one will know exactly what our situation was, for a long time, and that our act stemmed from the great responsibility that we have towards the ghetto, the masses, with whom we could not—dared not—fight. Wittenberg’s image will be tied to the life of our people, and for us he will always serve as a noble symbol of heroism.


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