Abraham Sutzkever-Szmerke Kaczerginski Vilna Ghetto Collection
Scope and Content Note
The Sutzkever-Kaczerginski Collection, RG 223 Part I, relates to the Vilna Ghetto during the Nazi occupation. The records of this collection reflect primarily the activities of the Judenrat in Vilna Ghetto No. 1, its various departments and antecedents, and the Jewish interaction with the German and Lithuanian authorities. Daily life and living conditions in the ghetto are clearly reflected in these documents. Detailed reports of the Statistical Department based on material gathered from all departments of the Judenrat, serve as good sources for studying Jewish life in the Vilna Ghetto. Added to this material are records generated by the experiences of former Vilna Ghetto inhabitants among the partisans, and in Nazi labor camps and concentration camps during the war. Some of these records were written while the war was still in progress; some, soon after it had ended. Also included in this collection are items which relate to Jewish life in Vilna immediately after the Holocaust, and post-war testimonies against war criminals or in praise of righteous gentiles.
The records consists of: maps of the ghetto, 1942; diaries, chronicles and manuscripts on the history of the ghetto by Zelig Kalmanowicz, Herman Kruk, Yitskhok Rudashevski, and Szmerke Kaczerginski; personal identification documents such as badges, armbands, identification cards, food cards, and a variety of different colored passes, each with its own meaning; materials on the ghetto administration and its divisions: health, social relief, distribution and supply, statistics, ghetto police, ghetto court, cultural affairs, labor, and education; materials on various cultural groups and their activities; issues of the “Geto yedies” (Ghetto news-bulletin), 1942-43, a weekly bulletin, appearing every Sunday; materials about the partisan groups in and outside the ghetto, including underground publications, and materials on life in the labor and concentration camps.
It should be noted that the Records of Vilna Jewish Community Council 1800-1940, RG 10 in the YIVO Archives, includes numerous documents generated during the first year of the German occupation of Vilna. Also to be noted are many items in the Berlin Collection, RG 215 in the YIVO Archives, which are relevant to the Vilna Ghetto, such as folders: OCCE 3-33, 38, 40, containing the correspondence during 11/7-12/3/41 of the Reichskommissar für das Ostland concerning the Wehrmacht complaint about the liquidation of Wehrmacht-employed Jewish workers in Vilna, and folder OCCE 3bα-99, containing ordinances of the Vilna District Commissioner, Hingst, 1941.
- Creation: 1939 - 1950
On 9/19/39, Vilna was taken over by the Soviet Army. A few weeks later, on 10/10/39, the city was ceded to the Lithuanians. On 10/28/39, the Lithuanians took control of Vilna and three days of anti-Jewish rioting took place, with the Lithuanian police joining the rioters and beating the Jews. On 7/15/40, the Soviet Army took over Lithuania, and by 8/3/40, Vilna, as part of Lithuania, was incorporated into the Soviet Union. All Jewish institutions and organizations were disbanded, which created a vacuum of responsible and committed communal leadership, so long characteristic of Vilna Jewry.
On 6/22/41, the Germans invaded Lithuania, and by 6/24/41, they occupied Vilna. Persecution of Vilna’s Jewish population began immediately. A few days after the invasion, the German military authorities and the Lithuanian local officials proclaimed a number of anti-Jewish decrees: Jews had to wear special bands and later on, the yellow badge; they could not change their living quarters, use the sidewalks, public transportation, or recreational areas, and certain streets were entirely off limits; a night curfew was imposed, and shopping for the Jews became highly restricted. On 7/4/41 the Germans ordered that a Judenrat (Jewish Council) be established. In 7/41, Einsatzkommando 9 together with Lithuanian collaborators rounded up 5000 Jewish men in Vilna, took them to Ponary, a town 7.5 miles away, and murdered them.
Between the end of 7/41 and early 8/41, control of Lithuania passed from the German Army to the German Civil Administration, Lithuania becoming part of Reichskommissariat Ostland. Hans Christian Hingst was appointed the Vilna District Commissioner, and Franz Murer became his Deputy for Jewish Affairs. On 8/6/41 these officials demanded that 5 million rubles be paid to them as tribute; only 1,490,000 rubles, 33 pounds of gold, and 189 watches could be collected by the Jews.
Then came the “Great Provocation,” staged by the Germans as a sniper attack on their own soldiers, but blamed on the Jews, and followed by the Aktion of 8/31-9/3/4, carried out in retaliation for this supposed crime. 8000 Jews were taken to Ponary and murdered, including most members of the Judenrat. Two ghettos were then set up where most of these Jews had lived, Ghetto No. 1, and Ghetto No. 2. On 9/6/41, about 30,000 Jews were moved into Ghetto No. 1, and about 10,000 Jews into Ghetto No. 2, and 6,000 more were taken to Ponary and killed. On 9/7/41, the Germans set up a Judenrat for Ghetto No. 1 headed by A. Fried and a Judenrat for Ghetto 2, headed by E. Lejbowicz. They also organized a Jewish police force headed by Jacob Gens.
From 9/15/41-10/21/41, those families having at least one parent with a work permit were moved into Ghetto No. 1, but families without at least one parent with a work permit were moved into Ghetto No. 2. Meanwhile, the “Yom Kippur Aktion” took place on 10/1/41. Further Aktionen took place on 10/3-4/41, 10/15-16/41, and 10/21/41, which liquidated all the Jews in Ghetto No. 2.
The Germans planned to allow 12,000 Jews to remain alive in Ghetto No. 1. They distributed 3,000 work passes among the Jews in this remaining ghetto, permitting the bearers to register a spouse and 2 children. The Aktionen of 10/24/41, 11/3-5/41, and those in December, brought the legal population of Jews in Ghetto No. 1 down to 12,000, with another illegal 8,000 Jews in hiding.
A relatively peaceful period without mass murders now began, lasting from January of 1942 until March of 1943. Most Jews were employed at workshops in the ghetto or at jobs outside of the ghetto, in accordance with the Judenrat belief that the Germans would allow those Jews to survive who were of economic value to them. Cultural activities were resumed. On 7/15/42 Jacob Gens, as ordered by the Vilna District Commissioner, became the sole Judenrat chief, with Fried continuing as the assistant for administrative matters. In this capacity, Gens was personally responsible to the German authorities for law and order in the ghetto, and the dispensing of food, clothing, heating materials, and all social services needed to maintain the well-being of the ghetto inmates. The Judenrat established a wide range of departments in order to control all aspects of ghetto economic, social, and cultural life. Religious life, synagogues and yeshivas, continued to function surreptitiously.
The situation of the Jews in the Vilna Ghetto began to deteriorate in the spring of 1943. The surrounding smaller ghettos were first liquidated. In 6-7/43, labor camps where Vilna Ghetto Jews worked were liquidated. These liquidations undermined the confidence of the Vilna Ghetto’s inmates in their future. They could no longer believe that their economic usefulness to the Germans would protect them from extermination.
On 1/18/42, the FPO (United Partisan Organization) was established in the Vilna Ghetto. This movement coexisted with the Judenrat leadership well enough at first until the spring of 1943, when Jacob Gens began to feel that the partisans’ activities posed an ominous danger to the remaining Jews of Vilna. The most serious confrontation occurred in 7/43 when Yitzhak Wittenberg the commander of the FPO, while under arrest, was freed by FPO members. The Nazis demanded his return, and under pressure from Gens, the ghetto inmates, and even fellow FPO members, he surrendered himself to the Nazis and was soon dead.
Heinrich Himmler’s order of 6/21/43, that all the Jewish ghettos in the Reichskommissariat Ostland were to be liquidated, meant that the end of the Vilna Ghetto was near. The final liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto occurred on 9/23-24/43. 3,700 Jews were sent to concentration camps in Latvia and Estonia. Other Vilna Jews perished in Sobibór and Ponary, with about 2,500 remaining in Vilna labor camps. A few hundred FPO members escaped into the surrounding forests. On 7/2-3/44, the Jews in the local labor camps were taken to Ponary and were killed there. From the time of the establishment of the Vilna Ghetto until a year after its liquidation in 1943, approximately 70,000 Jews met their death at Ponary. Vilna was liberated by the Russian Army on 7/13/44. Only between 2,000 and 3,000 Jews survived, out of a pre-war population of 57, 000.
Arad: Yitzhak Arad, “Ghetto in flames,” Holocaust Library, New York, (1982).
Kruk: Herman Kruk, “The last days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” YIVO and Yale University Press, New Haven and London, (2002).
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Language of Materials
The bulk of the collection contains documents generated by the Judenrats of the Vilna ghetto during Nazi occupation. The Yiddish poets Abraham Sutzkever and Szmerke Kaczerginski, interned in the Vilna Ghetto before escaping to the forests as partisans, were instrumental in the removal of this collection from Vilna and its subsequent transfer to the YIVO Archives in New York. The collection is therefore named in their honor.
The collection is divided into the following 31 series:
Series I: Maps
Series II: Diaries and Chronicles of the Ghetto
Series III: Notices, Orders, Announcements, Releases, Ordinances, etc.
Series IV: Badges, Armbands, and Personal Documents
Series V: Department of Housing
Series VI: Department of Health
Series VII: Department of Social Services
Series VIII: Department of Distribution and Care
Series IX: Relief Committee
Series X: Employment in and outside the Ghetto: Slave Labor, Brigade Council
Series XI: “Geto-yedies” (Ghetto News-Bulletin)
Series XII: Statistical Office; General Division
Series XIII: The Ghetto Police
Series XIV: The Ghetto Court
Series XV: Culture in the Ghetto; General Materials of the Cultural Department
Series XVI: The Library and Reading Room; The Bookstore
Series XVII: The School System
Series XVIII: The Theater
Series XIX: Union of Authors and Actors
Series XX: The Museum
Series XXI: Cultural Institutions
Series XXII: Cultural Events
Series XXIII: Sports Department and the Youth Club
Series XXIV: Ghetto Organizations
Subseries XXV: Ghetto Documents
Series XXVI: History of the Ghetto; Research Works Written in the Ghetto, etc.
Series XXVII: Partisans
Series XXVIII: Various Materials from inside and outside the Ghetto
Series XXIX: Ghettos outside of Vilna
Series XXX: Photographs
Series XXXI: Supplement
The collection is of mixed provenance. The Vilna Ghetto material was generated there by a number of governmental and organizational bodies: German military and civil authorities, Lithuanian municipal authorities, the first Judenrat of Vilna, the Judenrats of Vilna Ghetto No. 1 and Vilna Ghetto No. 2, the numerous departments and divisions of these Judenrats, the cultural institutions and organizations of Vilna, and private individuals.
Herman Kruk, head of the Vilna Ghetto Library, must be credited with seeing to it that there was a ghetto archive where much of this material was gathered and preserved. A number of Vilna Ghetto Archive accessioning log books of various departments of the Judenrat have been preserved in this collection, and many of the items in this collection have the word “archive” written or stamped on them in Yiddish or German. These documents are often referred to in Kruk’s diary or even copied there, and the diary itself, in turn, often supplies the historical context for properly understanding the archival items. For this reason, frequent reference is made in this finding aid to the entries in Kruk’s diary. A small number of these documents were published in facsimile in YIVO Bleter, volume XXX (1947), pp.135-141. The ghetto material was recovered after the war from the ashes of the Vilna Ghetto. The Yiddish poets Abraham Sutzkever and Szmerke Kaczerginski, for whom the collection is named, founded the Vilna Jewish Museum right after the war, where this material found a temporary home. Soon enough, Sutzkever and Kaczerginski realized that this archival material was in grave danger of being destroyed by the Soviet authorities, and they subsequently were instrumental in removing many of these documents from Vilna and sending them to the YIVO Archives in New York. Much of the remaining material was taken after the Museum was closed in 1947, to the basement of the Lithuanian National Book Chamber in Vilna where it was rediscovered in 1988 and 1993. While these items were returned to YIVO in 1995 and 1996 for copying and restoration, YIVO retains only copies of the material, since the original items were returned to Vilna at the insistence of the Lithuanian government, where they remain to this day in the Lithuanian Central State Archives Collection (F. R-1421 Ap.2). Many related items are also preserved in the State Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum Collection. In Israel, Yad Vashem and the Bet Moreshet Archives in Kibbutz Givat Haviva are also repositories of Vilna Ghetto material.
In addition to the documents related to the Vilna Ghetto, there are documents generated in the post war period, collected in the Jewish Museum, and sent by Sutzkever and Kaczerginski to YIVO after the war together with the ghetto materials.
List of changed file numbers in this finding aid:
Folder 389 changed to folder 400
Folder 390 changed to folder 401
Folder 391 changed to folder 401.1
Folder 392 changed to folder 402
Folder 393 changed to folder 403
Folder 394 changed to folder 404
Folder 395 changed to folder 405
Folder 396 changed to folder 405.1
Folder 397 changed to folder 389
Folder 398 changed to folder 390
Folder 399 changed to folder 391
Folder 400 changed to folder 392
Folder 401 changed to folder 393
Folder 401.1 changed to folder 394
Folder 402 changed to folder 395
Folder 403 changed to folder 396
Folder 404 changed to folder 397
Folder 405 changed to folder 398
Folder 405.1 changed to folder 399
Folder 526 changed to folder 757.1
The following folder numbers were not used: 92, 211, 276, 339, 369, 641,672.
- Guide to the Abraham Sutzkever-Szmerke Kaczerginski Vilna Ghetto Collection
- Language of description
- Script of description
- 2019: ArchivesSpace finding aid created by Andrey Filimonov
- 2009: Collection rearranged and enhanced finding aid compiled and edited by Rabbi Shmuel Klein
- 2006: Additional work by Chana Mlotek