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The Roads to Revolt: The Different Paths of the Vilna and Warsaw Ghettos

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posted on 01.04.2013, 00:00 by Zachary Stahl

The carnage that pervaded the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe had been envisioned by Adolf Hitler and the Schutzstaffel (S.S.) long before the German armored divisions crossed the flat plains of Poland in the fall of 1939. This war in Europe, a war that would become a global entanglement, was not limited to mere territorial pursuits in the quest for Lebensraum2, but was a war intended to decimate the “subhuman” Jewish entity that had, long in Nazi ideology, plagued Germany and the world. However, in the midst of their machinations, the Germans encountered something from the Jews that had been soundly unexpected from such an inferior race— the prospect of armed resistance within established Jewish ghettos. And yet, this is what the Germans encountered in the ghettos of Vilna (Lithuania) and Warsaw (Poland); Jews willing to fight and die, Jews who would not be deceived and led to slaughter, but Jewish men and women who were willing to believe in something again, if only for a short while.

The story of Jewish resistance is neither simple nor symmetrical-- while the Jews of Warsaw rose in unity to defy their Nazi occupiers, the majority of the Jewish population of Vilna allowed themselves to be slowly siphoned off until almost nothing remained of the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Why did the Jews of Vilna not fit the mold of Warsaw and unite together and rise up in defiance of tyranny, especially considering that Vilna hosted an ideologically unified underground resistance movement, the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye, or F.P.O.?3 This paper seeks to answer this question by comparing elements within the two ghettos that, the paper argues, may help explain their final outcomes. There is no definitive answer for why Vilna and Warsaw met such divergent fates; however, by focusing on several discernable factors within each ghetto and tracing the chronology of each, a much better understanding of why Vilna did not engage in the same unified resistance that embodied the epic tale of Jewish heroism during the Warsaw Uprising can be ascertained.





Donna Harsch



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