In 1941, the Jews of Vilna were herded into a ghetto. By 1943, most of the Jews in this ghetto were killed, despite the armed resistance of a few.
This is the narrative that most Jews today have internalized — perhaps with one addendum. Many of the tens of thousands of Jews in the Vilna Ghetto tried to lead normal lives, and this, too, was a form of resistance. But an attempt at normal life, even in the teeth of slaughter, is not just resistance. It is a different response to death entirely: the creative building of community. The grand and awful civilization occasioned by the Nazis is depicted in an album titled “Vilna Ghetto Posters,” recently issued by Lithuania’s Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum. These 83 posters are evidence of what the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto did from day to day, in the midst of genocide. For that reason they deserve our attention, for the Jews of Eastern Europe, in our Holocaust memorials, have had their death re-enacted again and again — while their lives have been forgotten.
Like life, these Vilna Ghetto posters are not inspiring at first glance. Some of them could even be called uninteresting, the sort of thing we would pass on a busy Manhattan street without a second glance. A Hanukkah party, a lecture, a basketball game. But initial glances can be deceiving. First, many of these posters are handwritten (some with calligraphic skill); second, the great majority of them are in Yiddish, and third — and most important — the posters are the uppermost, visual layer of daily life in the ghetto. The most famous record of the ghetto’s short life is the classic diary of Herman Kruk — but this is in Yiddish; even in translation, and as a work of genius, it cannot help but be locked into the clichéd genre of Holocaust literature and thus be ignored by people who otherwise might find it interesting. To see these posters — multicolored, crisp and restored to something like their original appearance by the expertise of archivists — is to be reminded of the organizations that sprang up almost overnight after the Jews were forced into the ghetto: theaters, schools, clinics, orchestras, art exhibitions, concerts. These are modern memorials of a modern slaughter and are immediately eloquent. It’s a lavish volume, too high in price for the average book buyer but — one hopes — affordable for libraries and institutions. The posters are reproduced side by side with translations into Lithuanian and English (not without some awkward turns of phrase and outright errors, at least in the English). Just as fascinating as the posters are the biographies (in the back of the book) of those who figure in them: artists, pianists, writers, teachers, doctors and scholars.
A sampling: In May 1942, a puppet play was organized by the Jewish wardens of the ghetto gate; their insignia, two German letters intertwined, crowns the poster. In the summer of 1942, you could have bought tickets for a number of various tournaments: basketball, volleyball, youth sports, broad jump, high jump. On December 13, 1942, at 12 o’clock, there was a celebration of the one hundred thousandth book loaned by the Ghetto library. Almost two weeks before that was a gala Hanukkah celebration, titled “What the Candles Have to Say”; N. Lando spoke about the miracle of Hanukkah, and Ch. Bartman talked about the victory of the Hasmoneans. (Their fates are unknown.) It isn’t clear whether Sz. J. Szub (topic at the gala: “The Jewish Mother”) was the son of Rabbi Joisef Szub; Szub’s son was deported after the liquidation of the ghetto, together with his sister, to Estonia’s concentration camps. Abram Leibl Neboszczik (“Judaism and Hellenism”) “died of general bodily exhaustion several months prior to liberation.”
“The choir members say it was very difficult [to meet] in the beginning,” writer Masza Rolnik relates in her ghetto memoir. “That the choir would diminish after each Action. And they’d have to find new people. But it’s not easy — some claim that they get very tired, others aren’t allowed by their family, and the majority — are in mourning…. But still, they would rehearse each Tuesday and Friday. Now they have two rooms, a piano, and even a uniform.” The Hebrew Choir performed February 13 and 14, 1943, accompanied by a symphony orchestra. Seats were on sale starting at 0.30 reichsmarks.
Zackary Sholem Berger is a regular contributor to the Forward.
Zackary Sholem Berger is a frequent contributor to the Forward and the Yiddish Forward. He lives in Baltimore.