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Use our multimedia maps, and explore the family pictures, archival material, and personal stories of 21 Jewish Holocaust survivors to get a unique insight into Europe’s rich Jewish heritage, and to discover sites of Jewish life in towns in Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania.
Alongside the rest of eastern Poland, Vilnius was occupied by Soviet forces at the start of the Second World War. Over 55,000 Jews lived in the city, and an additional 15,000 Jewish refugees from German-occupied Poland sought refuge in Vilnius during that time. However, on June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet army, ultimately marking the invasion of eastern Europe. Just three days later, Vilnius was occupied by the Nazis.
The German army issued anti-Jewish decrees that forbid Jews from walking on the sidewalks, entering restaurants, and going to schools. In September 1941, they annexed several streets in the city centre, creating a section for the Vilnius Ghetto.
Jewish families were forced to move into the ghetto. They lived in very tight quarters, often sharing small rooms with a dozen other people. Two ghettos were created in Vilnius – Jews unable to work, including the sick and elderly, were sent to ghetto #2, and were deployed to Ponary with the help of Lithuanian auxiliaries.
Jews in ghetto #1 were forced into labour in factories or construction sites outside of the ghetto, while others were sent to labour camps in the Vilnius region. The ghetto was liquidated in late September 1943.
Fania Brantsovskaya, who escaped the Vilnius ghetto, describes the living conditions in the ghetto and her experience of losing much of her family at the hands of the Nazis.
Pogroms took place in our town. Fascists tortured religious Jews, making them shave their beards and forcing them to dance. Every day new orders were issued. My father and I were forced to work. We were sent to clean the streets and public toilets. All Jews were to wear a big white square with a yellow circle and the letter ‘J’ in it on our chest and back. We obeyed and immediately felt like outcasts. Later these were replaced with white armbands with a yellow star and then just a yellow star. Jews were killed for not following German orders. Jews weren’t allowed to walk on pavements, go to the market or stores or use public transportation.
Chasia Spanerflig, who escaped the ghetto alongside Fania, had to leave her two children behind in the ghetto, as she was unable to take them with her and hoped they would be spared. She never reunited with them again.
In the ghetto, I stayed with my friend on Rudnitskaya Street 13. There were twenty-five people besides us. All of us slept on the floor, using our clothes instead of pillows. My boy was crying. He was dirty and hungry. At night German policemen would come and if they didn’t like somebody, they would take them to Paneriai. Once such an action took place during the daytime. My son and I had managed to hide in some larder and waited while the Fascists took children away. I was covering my baby’s mouth so he would not burst out crying. Those who didn’t manage to hide on that day were shot.
Maria Rolnikayte, who was also imprisoned in the ghetto, further describes the conditions there:
The ghetto was like a small state. In the ghetto, there were different offices responsible for the distribution of ration cards and rooms (or rather corners in the rooms). There was a special department taking care of orphans (several boarding schools were organized). There were schools and even a grammar school for children, but it was half empty: not because there were no children, but because they all had to work. There was a prison, a hospital, a drugstore with a poor set of medicines. In the ghetto, there was even an underground organization which fought against fascism.