Vitka Kempner (1922 – 2012)

Vitka (Witka) Kempner was born in Kalisz, Poland, on March 14th. 1922 to Parents, Hayyah and Zevi, who owned a retail business. There is much to be learned from the life that Vitka brought forward, and to those whose study is The Holocaust which has presented the Jewish People with many heroes, amongst these were many Women and one of those was Vitka Kempner. In 1939, at the age of just 17, Kalisz fell into Nazi hands on September 4th., the day following Britain and France’s declaration of War upon Germany. Here, with the Wehrmacht immediately provoking assaults upon the Jewish residents, and a formative Einsatz formation roaming freely and attacking and killing Polish Jews, wherever they found them, Vitka realised the serious predicament for All of Polish Jewry.

Vitka then escaped from certain assault and even death as a Jew in Kalisz and trudged her way to Vilna, Lithuania where Jews were more freely enabled by a more Soviet oriented outlook. However, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, and attacked Russia, June 22nd. 1941, Vilna too was now under occupation. Two days later, on June 24th. 1941 and the position of the Jews, some 57,000 Jewish People were living in Vilna, became more and more intense and then violently deadly. It didn’t take long for the Jews here, Vitka included, to realise what was coming for the Jews being shipped out toward Ponary Woods.

Friday July 11th. 1941 “..already know what was going on. ..3 pm ..large group of Jews ..taken ..300 people. ..hour later ..volleys began. Ten ..shot at a time.” Kazimierz Sakowicz.

What this witness, Kazimierz Sakowicz, notes in his Diary entry is the graduating procession of Vilna’s Jews toward Ponary and their destruction at the hands of the Einsatzkommando 9 and then Einsatzkommando 3. This was not entirely accomplished by the Nazi’s alone as other’s, Lithuanian and Ukrainian collaborative Kommando’s assisted. These formations were lined up to resolve the Vilna Jewish Question on behalf of Hitler’s demands for the Final Solution of the entire Jewish Question for all of European Jewry. On September 3rd. 1941 the Vilna Ghetto was established as one of the 9 Major Ghetto’s and with still over 55,000 Jews enclosed, was strictly administered.

A Ghetto Judenrate was forced to come to terms with what the Nazi’s would demand and with Shaul Trotzki and Anatole Fried, and eventually Jakob Gens becoming its Chairman, the reach of Hitler’s hatred was given to a Jewish distribution. On September 4th. 1941, when 10 Jewish Females who had been transported away from Vilna and toward the confines of Ponary Woods, returned to Vilna, their evidence was both incredulous and understood. With Judith Trojak amongst the escapees, their escape from Ponary alerted many within the Vilna Jewish Community, not least of these Abba Kovner. This report back to Vilna with the evidence of what Ponary meant for the Jews enraged and armed a Jewish Resistance that was to exemplify the coming fight back from Jewish Europe.

Wednesday December 31st. 1941 “..Ponar is not a ..Camp. Jews ..shot there. Hitler plans to destroy all ..Jews of Europe ..Jews of Lithuania ..first in line. ..We must not go like sheep to ..slaughter!” Abba Kovner.

In the Vilna Ghetto, Vitka joined the unit of the Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist Youth Group being led by Abba Kovner and they soon transformed this into The Avengers, with Vitka as one of Abba’s ablest Chief Lieutenants. This Partisan Resistance Fighter Group, sought to bring the fight to the Nazi’s, their collaborator’s and any of those who would collude with the actions being taken against Lithuanian Jewry. By this time, Ponary was no longer recognised only as an isolated series of incidents, nor as a vague rumour of supposed atrocity. As the bold facts were now being laid out for the World, the Jews of Vilna and of all of Lithuania, it was evident that this was a coordinated and systematic approach to destroy all and any Jew the Nazis’ sought to annihilate.

Tuesday June 30th. 1942 “..Jewish population under ..impact of news from London. has been stirred by ..reports of ..slaughter in Poland ..aroused ..deepest emotions in all of us. Formany ..many months ..endured ..most terrible sufferings ..asking ourselves ..Does know about our sufferings ..if it knows ..why is it silent. Why was not outraged 10’s of 1,000’s of Jews ..shot Ponary. ..10’s of 1,000’s of Jews poisoned in Chelmno. 100’s of 1,000’s of Jews ..slaughtered in Galicia. ..slaughter in Vilna. ..180,000 Rostov ..Jews ..murdered Kiev. ..blood is flowing in rivers. Is ..blood of ..Jews more precious…Only now have we come to understand ..cause of this silence. ..Polish government ..its own radio station .knew nothing about it. ..if London knew day 100 people ..shot ..Pawiak prison ..why ..did it take many months before they learned of ..100’s of 1,000’s murdered Jews…a question which cannot be turned away by excuses!” Emanuel Ringelblum.

With Vitka fully ensconced as a fighting member of The Avengers, she also became an immense force in her own right dealing with the Nazi threat on her doorstep. While it is true that most of the Jews in the Vilna Ghetto still believed, hopefully, that within Ponary Woods there was a Labour Camp, Vitka and Abba Kovner grew to appreciate the overwhelming evidence of the concerted effort being undertaken to destroy all of Lithuanian Jewry. The Nakam force set in motion every effort to ensure the fight back would save more and more Jews from being annihilated in Ponary.

“..only reply to a murderer is resistance. Brothers is better to die as free fighters than to live at ..mercy of killers. Resist ..resist our last breath.” Abba Kovner. #The truth for the Nakam, as it became the truth for 6,000,000 Jews of Europe, the Slaughter mounted would not be derailed, detained or stopped. Hirsh Glik, more famous for his Partisan bravery and the Song he wrote that commemorates their heroism in Vilna in particular and Ponary and Rudnicka Forests, also wrote a song of Vitka Kempner, Die Shtil, Di Nacht Iz Oysgeshternt, The Silent Night is Filled with Stars. This reminisces over what Vitka and Moyshe Brause with Itzik Matskevitsch achieved when they destroyed a German military transport with 200 German troops aboard.

The Quiet Night is Full of Stars

The quiet night is full of stars

And the frost has strongly burned;

Do you remember how I have taught you

To hold a gun in the hand?

A girl, a fur coat and a beret

And holds in her hand tightly a Nagant

A girl with a face as smooth as velvet

Holds up the enemy’s caravan.

Aimed, fired and hit its target

Has her tiny pistol.

A vehicle filled with weapons

She has stopped with a bullet.

Before daybreak, she comes out of the forest

With snow garlands on her hair,

Encouraged by a minuscule victory

For our new, free generation.” Hirsh Glik.

The wreckage caused by the Nakam was the first known Jewish assault upon the German logistical lines of both supply and communication. The very detail of the account has been much comented upon and none less so than that of Abba Kovner, who as the combative leader of one of The Holocaust’s most recognised Resistance fighter’s knew of Vitka’s leadership qualities as he relates to her:

“..Lithuanians did not do it ..nor Poles ..nor Russians. A Jewish Woman did it ..a Woman who ..after she did this ..had no base to return to. She had to walk 3 days and nights with wounded legs and feet. She had to go back to ..Ghetto. Were she to have been captured ..whole Ghetto might have been held responsible.” Abba Kovner.

A mine, constructed in the Vilna Ghetto was placed by Vitka on a train line on July 8th. 1942 and an immediate dent was made against the Reich’s entire War effort, the first of the many made by Jews, just like Vitka. As it was not believed feasible that the Jews could have done this, there were no reprisals against the Jews conducted at the time. It was to be the first of many acts of resistance in which Vitka Kempner was to be no ordinary Partisan, nor was she an ordinary Jewish Woman. Vitka was to prove an exemplary focus for all physical assaults, retaliations and retributions exerted against the Nazi’s and their Collaborators.

“..Jews ..Prepare for Armed Resistance. ..German and Lithuanian hangmen have reached ..gates of ..Ghetto. They will murder us all. They will take us by group, through the gates.” Vilna FPO.

On September 1st. 1943, the FPO called for an uprising in the Vilna Ghetto and while the call went largely unheeded, Vitka sought to extricate as many Jews as was possible from the noose that surrounded their necks within the Vilna Ghetto. Here, the sewer system provided the perfect place for Vitka and her teams of fighters to deliver more and more Jews from Vilna to the Forests.

“..October 29th. 1943 Sabotage operation ..Vilna ..4 transformers ..mechanical water conveyor ..destroyed. ..sabotage party ..Witka Kempner ..Matys Lewin ..Rozow ..Chajele Szapiro.” Rudniki Forest Partisan Unit.

There they harried and pressed the Germans until the Russian Army was close enough for them to join forces and assist in the final Liberation of Vilna. From their positions in these Forests, Vitka and the members of the FPO returned repeatedly to Vilna to destroy the infrastructure of the City and therefore deny the Germans any of the amenities they had need of. All the while, raiding parties entered the Ghetto to extract more and more Jews, to become liberated and then Fighters against the Nazis.

“..November 2nd. 1943 ..60 People were brought to ..partisans from Vilna. Witka Kempner and Chajele. ..safely.” Rudniki Forest Partisan Unit. #Continually in hiding in the Rudniki Forest and around Ponar Woods, the Nakem ventured further and deeper with their sabotage operations against the Nazis. Whether they were killing Nazi’s or their Collaborators, they also set about destroying both the power plant and the waterworks of the City of Vilna. This made life challenging both for the remaining Jews in the Ghetto, thought their lives were in excess of the challenge that met the residents outside the Ghetto, but it was enough for the Nazi’s to know, The Jews Fought Back.

“..December 31st. 1943 Discovery of Gestapo agent Andriuszkiewicz from Dajnowa village. Those who took part ..Lipenhole and Witka Kempner.” Rudniki Forest Partisan Unit. #On July 13th. 1944 Vitka, alongside her FPO units, with Abba Kovner, marched with other Jewish partisans to help liberate Vilna. More than 55,000 Vilna Jews were Murdered and barely 2,500 of Vilna’s Jews had survived Hitler’s fuller intention for them all. The cost of liberation of Vilna and Lithuania came at too hefty a price and amidst the sought after German defeat, the loss and grief over so many Jewish lives, literally torn from all existence, tormented many like Vitka to act punitively. Their operational command Nakam, the Hebrew reference to their Avengers Partisan group, was not yet finished with the Nazi’s, and more particularly, their SS.

“..We did not want to come back to Palestine without having done something ..and that is why we were keen. kill Germans. ..As many as possible.” Joseph Harmatz.

On April 13th.1946 Vitka got a position within the bakery at the Stalag 13-D POW Camp at Langwasser, near Nuremberg alongside fellow FPO Fighter, Joseph Harmatz and Leipke Distal. This Allied run camp, which detained nearly 15,000 members of the SS was an obvious choice for the Nakam to act against those whose ideological remit was the destruction of All Jews, everywhere. Here though, this Jewish contingent sought to lace over 3,000 loaves of bread with arsenic and Murder as many of them as possible. This however, only subsequently resulted in more than 2,200 of these Criminals being sick. The Nakam Team made their escape toward the Czechoslovakian border where an Auschwitz Survivor, Yehuda Maimon extricated them and ensured their safe passage to Eretz Israel. With Vitka Kempner and Abba Kovner Married, they brought about the increased smuggling of Jewish Survivors to Eretz Israel.

They themselves settled into Israel to raise their 2 Children. Vitka was widowed with the passing of her Husband Abba, in 1987, and Vitka herself passed from us on February 15th. 2012 at their home in Israel. For me, it is essential that for Justice to be recognised, and in doing so it has to be recognised that retribution is Not justice, Justice must serve all those in need of it. But, and while 6,000,000 Slaughtered Jews seek some form of a Just response, the lack of any Justice seethes with the Jewish demand for it. That said, and it is fully understood, who am I in this civilised World to deny the Nakam, the Jewish Survivor, 6,000,000 Revenges.

“..I lived life fully ..actively ..without dragging grievances and offenses behind me.” Vitka Kempner Kovner.

Jewish Fighters Zelda Vitka Kempner, Nisanilevich Treger, Rozka Korczak-Marla
Jewish Fighters Rozka Korczak, Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner.