She Fought Back – An Interview with Vilna Partisan Vitke Kempner

“Partisans of Vilna” is the first documentary on the Holocaust to focus on Jewish resistance against the Nazis. Produced by Aviva Kempner (no relation to Vitke Kempner) and directed by Josh Waletzky (“Image Before My Eyes”), the 130-minute film premiered in New York City in September 1986.

The film is a sensitive and powerful interweaving of interviews with more than three dozen former partisans and witnesses from Vilna—among them Israeli poet Abba Kovner, a founder of the partisan movement and author of the first call for Jewish resistance—and rare photographs and documents, including footage of partisan activity in the White Russian forests.

This call led to formation of the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsie (United Partisans Organization), the FPO, in January 1942.

Vitke Kempner, interviewed in the following pages, was a leader in the FPO and a partisan in the forests. She committed the first known act of sabotage by a Jew against the Nazis in Eastern Europe. Kempner, who is married to Abba Kovner, lives today in Israel, in Kibbutz En HaChoresh.

 —Rochelle Saidel

LILITH: Where were you living and what were you doing at the time the Second World War broke out in 1939?

VITKE KEMPNER: I was 19 years old when the war broke out. Before this, I was a student at Warsaw University, at the Institute for Jewish Studies connected to the University.

LILITH: And before university…?

V.K.: I was born in Kalish. It is not far from the German-Polish border. I go to a Jewish high school in Kalish and studied ten hours a week Hebrew and Jewish history and Tanach (Bible and Prophets). After high school, I go to the university in Warsaw, and I join organization of students connected with Hashomer Hatzair (the Socialist Zionist pioneering youth movement—Ed.). It is called Avuka.

In 1939, when I was on vacation in Kalish, broke out the war. September 1st.

I was maybe two months in Kalish, and then the Germans decided to [deport] all the Jews because Kalish was a border town, so they wanted it to be in the Reich. One night, they gather all the Jews in one empty church, and from there, they [deported] them to Warsaw district. But when they brought me to the church together with my family, I cannot stand it, and I escape already the first night.

LILITH: How did you escape?

V.K.: Through the window. I jumped with two, three boys, and we escaped. Our direction was to go to Vilna, because we heard that Vilna is a free city [under the Lithuanians].

And at this time, there was aliya (emigration to Palestine). Many students, families, have certificates for Palestine, and many people went. Thousands [of] Hashomer Hatzair [members] came to Vilna from all over Poland because from there was a way to Palestine. Many older chaverim (members) went. There was a Hanhaga Elyona (Central Committee) in Vilna.

Abba Kovner was the head of the Hanhaga Elyona. Abba had a certificate. I also had a certificate, but I did not go, because the Hashomer Hatzair decided that some people had to stay in Vilna and be together with the youngest people. I was 20, but I was the oldest among others! It sounds funny, but it was like this. Abba and me and Rushka, we are the oldest.

LILITH: Who is Rushka?

V.K.: Rushka Korczak was a very important person in the movement. We are together all the time—before the ghetto, in the ghetto, in the partisans, and now in Israel. We understand each other. She is my best friend.

LILITH: Where did you live?

V.K.: We live in a kibbutz (commune) there. We have 600 people [in Hashomer, living in] many kibbutzim, not one. We work there and prepare ourselves for Israel. But after [the Soviets took control of Vilna in June, 1940], the Zionist movement was not allowed. They [broke up] all the kibbutzim. [In June 1941], they arrest the people from Hashomer Hatzair, and send them to Siberia, and these were the ones who survived. If they know of someone, like me, that I have a certificate for Palestine, they look for me and want to arrest me. So I escaped from Vilna to Slonim, a very little shtetl (townlet), in the Russian zone.

LILITH: How did you escape?

V.K.: I run away all the night. They look for me all the night, because the Soviets always arrested in the night. And so, I go on the train…. I was in Slonim several weeks. And then the war broke out. [Germany invaded the Soviet Union, June 21, 1941.] The Germans come in, and from the first days, they exterminated Jews.

So I decided, if the Germans are in Slonim and they are in Vilna, then I’ll go back to Vilna. And is now the question of how I go back to Vilna—it is a real question, how you go back to Vilna! Because it is war, it was all occupied by Germans, and they did not allow Jews even to go out on the streets. They have to have the yellow star.

[Once] there was something decided, I do. I decide to go to Vilna, I go. I did not think how to go. I went on a train with German soldiers. They go to the Eastern front. It was very dark in the night. One officer asked me, “You are [Russian Orthodox]?” “No.” “You are Protestant?” “No.” ‘You are Catholic?” “No.” “Are you a Jew?” “Yes!”

It was so! I was so stupid that I say I am a Jew… And I understand it is very bad for me, so I jumped out from the window of the train, because if not, I’ll be finished. And I walk some ways to Vilna. It was not very far.

I come to Vilna in another day, and I saw—I never forget—nobody. It was an empty city. The Jews were not walking on the street. I came very late, eight, nine o’clock, was evening when I came. All the chaverim think that I was meshugganah.

LILITH: What had been happening…?

V.K.: We call it the khapunes—the Germans capture people on the street and take most of them to Ponar (a clandestine mass murder site near Vilna where 33,000 Jews were murdered between July and November, 1941—Ed.) [But] then, nobody knows of Ponar. Nobody knows where the people are being taken away to. Some of them really were taken to work camps and they write letters. It was a system for deceiving people. . .. We began from the first day of the war to look for hiding places for our chaverim outside Vilna.

Abba was [hiding] in a convent (five miles from Vilna). There were eight nuns, and there were maybe 20 Jews there.

LILITH: How did Hashomer find that convent?

V.K.: Hashomer was connected before the war with the Polish Scout Movement. And a very brave Polish woman, Irene Adamowicz, came from Warsaw to Vilna las a courier] and connected with another Scout named Jadwiga Dudziec. The Scouts were very nationalistic, and they connected us with the convent.

The Mother Superior from the convent, Anna Borowska, was a very special woman. It was a danger for them; in the end, the [Germans] arrest her and they [deport] all the convent to Germany.

[In September 1941] the Germans brought the Jews into a ghetto. They brought Jews from all over the city to an [area] from which other Jews had already [been taken out to Ponar]. Ghetto Vilna was very little, six little blocks. The houses were two, three stories. And they bring in 20,000 people there…. So they packed you in houses. They pack in one apartment—two bedrooms, and [another] room, and one kitchen— maybe 25, 30 people together. One kitchen was for four, five families. In every apartment there are three, four beds, maybe a chair (what remained from the property of Jews taken away from those apartments after looting by non-Jews and government officials—Ed.).

In the ghetto we live in a commune, 18, 20 [people], mostly Hashomer Hatzair. All of the commune were in two rooms. We lived in one room maybe ten people. Some people are sleeping in the beds, some on the floors.

We have a [community], something very special, and we work for our values.

LILITH: Was there equality between men and women?

V.K.: Yes.

LILITH: Did people become romantically involved with each other?

V.K.: Yes, this also. It was a regular life. [The] two years was such a terrible time, but we were young people…. We lived on discussions. We have many discussions—ideology, what to do about the group, all the time speaking, about after the war we are speaking and discussing, and about Israel.

Then we decided someone is to go out to the city, outside the ghetto, to be a courier with the cities, with Polish people and Jewish people, to know what to do…I was sent outside the ghetto, I was not alone, I remember another girl, too…

In work for Hashomer Hatzair, the woman was special. You know, it is important to stress here that the part of the woman was very, very important. It is easier for a woman to go in the streets and to be [unrecognized as a Jew], and also the Germans did not suspect the woman can be [doing illegal work]. All the really dangerous things, the woman did.

The role of women was very important during the war, not only in the ghetto, [but] in every place. Most of the men were taken away by the Germans in the beginning, and the women have to worry about the children, about parnassa (making a living). There was no choice.

You never know how can you be in different conditions. I was young, I was 19 years old, I know nothing about life. When I decided to escape [to Vilna], my father told me, “How can you go? You don’t know anything, you don’t even know how to wash the dishes. How can you dare go out in the world?” And he was very nervous about it, because I didn’t know and he didn’t know what can I do when I am in terrible [situations]. You have many forces in you hidden you don’t know about.

LILITH: Where outside the ghetto did you live?

V.K.: I was in a convent also, but an open convent. There are closed convents and open convents. Abba was in a closed convent. Closed convent, nobody goes out and nobody goes in. I was in a convent that was open, you can meet there and go out and go in, and there are [laypersons] who live there. They accepted me as a Catholic. We lived in one room, a woman and a child, and I was her governess, it was my disguise.

And to me come Hashomer people from Warsaw, from Bialystok, from Grodno. It was like a center for all the underground activities: Hashomer sent people to Warsaw, and from Warsaw they come to us. I was also a courier between people who hid in the convent, from the convent to the ghetto, from the ghetto to other people.

That is the first month. After that, when we saw what goes on, Abba wrote the first Call for Action [December 1941], for uprising against the Germans. And we decided that all people from Hashomer Hatzair who are hidden go back to the ghetto. Because our mind was, if [this] is the destiny of the Jewish people, we have no right to save ourselves. If all the people are in the ghetto, we have to be in the ghetto, and to prepare for action.

When I speak with the Mother Superior she says, “If you go there, I must go with you.” It is very touching. And I go with her all the way to the ghetto. But the police at the gate did not allow her to enter the ghetto; they say, “You are not a Jew.” She later brought Abba the first grenade for fighting.

LILITH: When Abba wrote the Call for Action—”Let Us Not Be Led Like Sheep To Slaughter”—did he have information about what had happened in other cities?

V.K.: Nothing. He said, “It cannot be that the Germans decided to exterminate only the Jews in Vilna. If they do it, they decided to do it in all the places, [and] maybe we are the first ones. And there will be thousands [more].”

The Jews did not believe us. The Germans developed a system of deception before they brought the Jews to Ponar. The people don’t know. And then for two years it was quiet. So the people say, “You see, all the people live. You speak about extermination, and you see, nothing happens.”

And in the last three weeks of the ghetto [September 1943], there were no uprisings, because the Germans say,”We take the Jews to Estonia.”—It is the same system—and then come letters from Estonia…The Jews say, “You are young, you don’t understand what living is.”

Maybe because we have no families, most of us, we have more open minds— because we are young, we were 20, 21, 22, 18, 17.

LILITH: Abba’s Call for Action led to the formation of the FPO, the United Partisans Organization, in Vilna on January 21, 1942. In Vilna at the time there were about 40, 50 Hashomer people. There were also people from other political parties. How was the FPO organized?

V.K.: In every little unit of five members were people from all the parties—one from Hashomer, one from [Jewish Labor] Bund, one from Revisionists, and so forth.

LILITH: This is very different from Warsaw where the ZOB [Jewish Fighting Organization! was organized in groups—of Hashomer, of Bund, etc.

V.K.: In Vilna, no.

LILITH: Why not?

V.K.: Because we were so dedicated, and we saw the most important thing was the uprising. We did not think about other things. For us, it was the only idea we have.

The Warsaw Ghetto began in 1939. So they had three years of regular life. Until 1942 they live regular lives; it was bad, but the [Germans] don’t kill people. But in Ghetto Vilna, it begins from the first day—the bloodshed… If you are up against death, the party is not important, only the one thing, the one idea: the uprising. If only one idea, you have not to be in separate parties. Therefore the groups were very unified. We did not think about anything else, only about the uprising. Our life was only this. We don’t go to the theater, we don’t read books. Our life was identical with the ideal.

LILITH: What actions did the FPO engage in?

V.K.: Most,of the movement was about sabotage and organizing and preparation for the [uprising]… We also send people to Warsaw and Bialystok to persuade them that all the Jews will be killed.

LILITH: Did they believe?

V.K.: In the beginning, no. It takes time…. We decided to send people to other places, too—to Grodno, to Kovno, many places. We send Chaika Grossman back to Bialystok to establish there an uprising movement [early in 1942].

LILITH: What kind of sabotage did the FPO do?

V.K.: It was one of the first [acts of] sabotage. Planning the sabotage goes on for a long time before, because I had to look for a place on the railroad (the Vilna-Vileyka line going to the front—Ed.). And the Jews work on the railroads—cleaning, bringing food, digging. The Jews work in every place. I have to find a place where are no Jews, because if it will succeed and they found out that Jews were working there, they can exterminate the ghetto.

The hardest work of all the sabotage was to look for the place. For three days I go every day and look for a place. And it was dangerous. If the Germans [caught me], they would exterminate me at once.

Every day I have to put on the yellow star, and go out with the people to work. The Jews always go together with German [guards] to work, 40, 50 [people]. There were some women, for cleaning, for simple work. And I go together with the work [group] at six, seven o’clock in the morning. And I go back into the ghetto the same way—wait for a group, sneak into the group and go back, five o’clock in the evening.

I was two nights alone in the forest by the trains, to watch when the train goes, what are the hours. And then I have to find out the way to come back after the sabotage to the ghetto, not close to the peasant houses, [so] that the dogs will not listen, and the Germans do not see me.

It was two, three o’clock in the night. I go and I look for a way. I see a forest, a little forest, and I think it is a good place to go through the forest. I go in and I hear shooting, a shot here and a shot there. So I understand I am trapped— many, many Germans around me, and I’m in the middle. It was a firing range for training German soldiers.

I decided I will be a stupid woman. I go first to the Germans; I say, “You know, I was mistaken, I don’t know how to go out. Please tell me how to get out.” I cried. “I don’t know where to go, I’m so afraid, please do me a favor.” So they get me out. They even send one soldier with me.

LILITH: When you finally found a place to put the mine, how did you do it?

V.K.: We take the bomb, the mine, outside the ghetto and bring it to the place. We were two—one boy who was a policeman, our [undercover] policeman, I was the other one. We went out in a group of workers [The place] was 15 kilometers [outside] the city.

We take the bomb and we put it under the rail tracks. One-thirty at night (the night of July 8, 1942), we put the bomb. We escaped very quickly. When the train goes [over it] at two, it explodes, and from far away we heard the explosion. We come back to the ghetto. Six o’clock we are in the ghetto, I when] they let in [a group of] people who come after the nightwork.

LILITH: Did the Jews in the ghetto know that this was a Jewish act of sabotage?

V.K.: No. Jews didn’t. Nobody knew. Only us…If the Germans will know there is an underground they would exterminate the ghetto…But in all our units, we stand together and we speak about it, and we are very proud about it…

LILITH: Was it after this that Hirsh Glik wrote, in your honor, the song “Shtil Di Nacht” (“The night is still and bright with stars/There is a burning frost./ Do you remember how I taught you/To hold a gun in your hand?”)?

V.K.: Yes.

LILITH: When you fought in the forests from September 1943 to July 1944 (when Vilna was liberated), how many Jewish partisans were there?

V.K.: In the Rudniki Forest, 600, maybe a thousand. There are four Jewish groups. There are also a Lithuanian group, a Polish group, and a Russian group. Our forest was the only place where Jews were fighting as Jews.

Most of the Jewish partisans were not Hashomer Hatzair, and were not young movement chaverim. From Hashomer Hatzair, maybe were 20. And from 20, there maybe were four, five boys, and all the others were girls.

LILITH: Of all the Jewish partisans in your forest, how many were women?

V.K.: I think 30 percent, 40 percent.

LILITH: Were there any children?

V.K.: No. But we have some 14 year-olds, two older-age children. At 16, they were already soldiers.

LILITH: Did any women get pregnant?

V.K.: Yes. But it was strictly forbidden to be pregnant. There was even punishment. Because there were no conditions for pregnant women. But for one of us, it happened. She delivered the baby—after the war.

LILITH: How did you prevent pregnancies?

V.K.: People were careful…

LILITH: What did women do in the partisans?

V.K.: The function of women in the partisans was harder than in the underground. The women in the partisans, in our group, they fought terribly to go out, to fight. Nobody wants to come and not to fight. And they were all capable to fight.

And I remember the first day. Our girls wanted to be fighters like the boys, and the boys did not want to go with women. They say, “No, you are a woman, you are not prepared, you can’t do it, you get upset, you are weak, you cannot go.” In our group, Abba was the Commander. If not [for] Abba, no woman would be a fighter. It was he who demanded that in every action has to be one woman. [Ours] is the only group where women are very active. It was our wish, we come to fight, not to sit and to cook. So the girls went once in some weeks [and were] better than the men…The women were very important in the partisans, because the couriers were women.

LILITH: What was your main work?

V.K.: I was in intelligence and scouting. I was the only woman in all of the forest who was an intelligence scout. There were only five scouts. I was the commander of the little group of five scouts. We go out every day, to look for good places to make sabotage; to work for espionage, to seek information from the peasants, to find out where are the Germans stationed, what are they doing; to know all the good ways through the forest, to know how to go, not to come close to the Germans.

Every day I make 40 miles on foot. In winter, in hard winter. I go all the time alone. By night, by day, alone, all the time alone. Many times I was very frightened. You don’t know where the Germans are, you don’t know which peasant is good, which is not. It was frightening.

Once I go to Vilna for some sabotage action. I come back and the snow was one-half meter high (about 16 inches— Ed.). And I did not recognize the way, I don’t know where to go—south, east. And I cannot make mistake because the Germans were in all the places. I saw the forest, but I don’t know how to get there. I saw from far away partisans…They told me how to go…I was from town, I don’t know all the things from the woods. And they say to me very important thing, that in the woods, on the north side of the trees grows the moss, and it helps me, because I know where I am.

LILITH: Did you bring out Jews from the ghetto?

V.K.: It is what I think is my most important job, to bring Jewish people to the forest. Not only me; Zelda Trager, Chaika Lazar, Dina Kagan. I think, if I am proud about something I do, I am proud that I did this.

LILITH: How did you do it?

V.K.: I’ll tell you [about the last group I brought out in mid-October, 1943]. One night, we go from the forest, four people, two girls and two boys. The other girl, Chaika Lazar, went with me to put bombs [to blow up[ the transformers in Vilna. On the way back, I brought [out] 60 Jews. After the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto [September, 1943], there was a place, Kailis, [where there] were some thousand Jews, for work…We organized them. Burak is the Commander there, he organizes them and they go out, as if going to night-work. I met them outside the city, I know the way, and I brought them to the forest.

LILITH: I remember from the film that the non-Jewish partisans didn’t like the fact that you were bringing Jews out.

V.K.: On the way, I get the message not to bring Jews, but I decided, I bring Jews. What can they do with me?

LILITH: What did they do?

V.K.: Nothing. I brought them. And they say that they will be the last ones, no more Jews can be accepted in the woods, [not] even one Jew. They can’t stand that there are 600 Jews, that’s enough as it is.

LILITH: Did you ever get into any shooting battles with the Germans?

V.K.: Yes, but not much. The work of the partisans is not shooting the Germans, but to make sabotage of railroads and telephone poles.

LILITH: Were a lot of women killed in the partisans?

V.K.: In my group, two of my best friends were killed.

LILITH: In the film, everybody seemed to say that they expected they were going to die…

V.K.: Because we know that nobody can live in the ghetto and we want to fight, and without hope for victory, for being saved. Death was a fact, always a fact. In the partisans, we think the same; we fight until we die.

Everyone was sure that we will die…You live in the ghetto and your eyes were open, and you see that all the people are gone, most of Jewish people were killed. Other people did not want to believe it, but it was the truth, because the Six Million were dead. We [believed] there would be an uprising in the ghetto, and all the people will die.

In the ghetto, the fighting was enough—without hope [for] victory, only for honor, national and personal honor…We believe that the future will know the story. And you see—40 years after, in New York, you hear the story.

Aviva Cantor, Editor of LILITH, authored the critique of the TV mini-series “Holocaust” in issue #5.


Copyright © Aviva Cantor 2012. All rights reserved. 

Aviva Cantor, a journalist, originated Lilith and served as the magazine’s Founding Co-Editor during its first decade. She is the author of Jewish Women, Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life, a feminist exploration of Jewish history, culture and psychology (Harper, 1995), and of the self-published The Egalitarian Hagada.