At Leizer Bart's funeral, one of the mourners told his son Michael that the gravestone should include a reference to the Freedom Fighters of Nekamah, to honor his late father's involvement in the Jewish resistance movement in Vilna (now Vilnius), Lithuania, at the end of World War II. Michael had never heard his parents referenced as Freedom Fighters.
Following his father's death, and with his mother in failing health, Michael embarked on a ten-year research project to find out more details about his parents' time in the Vilna ghetto, where they met, fell in love, and married, and about their activities as members of the Jewish resistance. Until Our Last Breath is the culmination of his research, and his parents' story of love and survival is seamlessly tied into the collective story of the Vilna ghetto, the partisans of Vilna, and the wider themes of world history.
Zenia, Bart's mother, was born and raised in Vilna. Leizer fled there to escape the Nazi invasion of his hometown of Hrubieshov in Poland. They were married by one of the last remaining rabbis ninety days before the liquidation of the ghetto. Leizer was friends with Zionist leader Abba Kovner and became a member of the Vilna ghetto underground. Shortly before the total liquidation of the ghetto, Zenia and Leizer, along with about 120 members of the underground, were able to escape to the Rudnicki forest, about 25 miles away. They became part of the Jewish partisan fighting group led by Abba Kovner--known as the Avengers--which carried out sabotage missions against the Nazi army and eventually participated in the liberation of Vilna.
Until Our Last Breath is intensely personal and painstakingly researched, a lasting memorial to the Jews of Vilna, including the resistance fighters and the author's family.
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St. Martin's Press
May 01, 2008
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Excerpt from Until Our Last Breath by Michael Bart
Until Our Last Breath
BEFORE AND AFTER
He stands, cradling his wife in his arms. Her left shoulder is pressed upward toward her chin as she leans back, letting him hold her upright for the photograph. She wants to be strong and tough in this moment, but her head is tilted to one side, as if the thoughts crowding in behind her eyes are too heavy to bear. Her face looks taut with pain. In her right hand she holds a rifle.
Towering behind her, his body and face are all angles. His jaw is clenched. The shadows under his narrowed eyes make smoky triangles in the bright sunlight. His shoulders, shrunken from years of hunger but still strong, are swallowed up in the folds of an oversized army jacket. He stands as if every nerve in his body is crackling with rage.
They are Leizer and Zenia Bart. Two weeks have passed since they left their base in the Rudnicki forest of Lithuania to participate in the liberation of Vilna from the Nazis. The oncepale cheeks of their fellow partisans now glisten and redden in the sun as they stand together squinting into the camera lens of a Soviet army photographer. A few women grin and embrace. The men strike either fierce or nonchalant poses with their weapons. One man cups his hands to light a cigarette, while next to him Abba Kovner, the renowned poet-hero of the Jewish resistance, stares off to the side.
USHMM, COURTESY OF YIVO INSTITUTE
Zenia does not look at the camera. For her there is no victory on this day. As of the beginning of the battle for Vilna, her mother and brother were still alive in the work camp where they had been interned. As quiet settled over the city, she and Leizer had gone to look for them. There, among the scattered corpses in a courtyard, they found the crumpled body of her mother. A few feet away her younger brother lay sprawled, shot in the back.
It is the sheer spite of it--of the Nazis, even as they drove away from the camp, not allowing the last Jews to live--that pummels Zenia with a grief more ferocious than any Nazi artillery fire. Too late. Too late. Now, only a day after finding their bodies, she stands for a photograph meant to commemorate a victory, but for her there is nothing to do but bury the dead. That, and learn how to go on.
The future lies beyond the camera's lens. Only the story of how Leizer and Zenia came to be in each other's arms at the end of the war, posing with one of the most illustrious resistance groups of World War II, can be told as the shutter clicks and the moment is recorded forever.
Ten o'clock Sunday morning, June 22, 1941. Summer mornings come early to the northernmost cities of Europe, and by the time Zenia Lewinson stepped out of the entrance of her home at 29 Zawalna Street the sun had been burning for hours in the cloudless cobalt sky over Vilna. The leaves glowed an almost iridescent green, as yet unsullied by summer's heat and dust. The colors of the flowers seemed to explode out of balcony pots all along the street. Unencumbered by thick winter coats and heavy shoes, the people on the street no longer hurried to their destinations with their heads down, but nodded at passersby and stopped to chat with neighbors in the street.
The municipal government had announced there would be another air-raid drill that day, and it had almost derailed Zenia's plans for the morning. Her mother, Rose Lewinson, and her stepfather, Hillel Botwinik, had been unwilling to let her leave the house, out of concern about where she would be when the sirens went off. Even the most ordinary things could be risky for Vilna's Jews, and Zenia's pretty face and smile might not be enough to keep her from harm if she went too far or stayed away too long from home.
Hillel Botwinik, who had married Rose after the premature death of Zenia's father, was a prominent lumber merchant. 1 On occasion he helped Rose with her office supply store on the ground floor of another large building owned by Zenia's family a few blocks away on Sadowa Street.2 Both Hillel and Rose had prospered, serving Jews and Christians alike. Zenia's family had a loving and devoted Christian housekeeper, Kajya, who had also served as a nanny for Zenia and her brother, Michael, known as Misha, when they were younger. Michael was only a year younger than Zenia, but still a boy, a very nice one, far away from adulthood.3 All of Zenia and Michael's friends were Jewish, but this was typical, and Zenia felt no doubt that in the world of Vilna they would both find a comfortable place to build their lives.
Zenia's liberation for a few hours was probably, at least in part, due to the influence of her maternal grandmother, Bluma Balcwinik. Bluma was a successful hay and grain merchant, whose business was on the ground floor of a family-owned three-story building.4 Bluma lived above the store in spacious private quarters, as did two of her daughters, Rose and Lizzie, who lived in separate apartments with their families. Lizzie, her oldest daughter, was married to Wolf Skolnicki, with whom she had three sons: Shashka, Avraham, and Nachum. Bluma's daughter Sonia also lived in the city with her husband, Avraham Bulkin, and their two daughters, Fania and Sima.5 Zenia's was a strong and loving family, and a successful one.6 Bluma's business had flourished since the time of the Russian czars,7 when brightly uniformed soldiers of the cavalry had brought horse-drawn wagons through the building's covered entry to buy feed. Even then being Jewish made life precarious, but business was business, and horses needed to be fed.
Left: Rose, Michael, and Zenia Center: Hillel Botwinik
Right: Kajya the nanny, pictured when Zenia was young
BART FAMILY COLLECTION
Bluma's own strong spirit provided the argument that daughters blossom and thrive when their parents do not constrict their lives quite as much as Rose and Hillel wanted to do with Zenia. She was a vivacious young girl on the verge of high school graduation, who had been cooped up for months by a Baltic winter, and, after all, life went on and there were still errands to run. Rose and Hillel had relented, and Zenia was free. The necessary task of returning a borrowed item to her stepfather's niece Sonia Etingin, whose house was only six or seven blocks away, had resulted in the good fortune to be out amid the bustle and clanging streetcars and horse-drawn carriages of Zawalna Street.
For Jewish parents in Vilna even a perfect summer day gave only a fleeting sense of well-being, barely enough to let a Jewish child venture out alone. Nerves had been jangled and raw for months. Crimes against Jewish property, and physical assaults including occasional murders, had characterized life in Vilna for as long as anyone could remember, and some gruesome tales of persecution were centuries old. But many seemed to think the situation was going to get steadily worse, and they were not just the people who were always shaking their heads and prophesying doom. The diatribes of Adolf Hitler in Germany had encouraged all the old ethnic hatreds, and if a person could get away with hurting a Jew, well, what was going to stop him? The latest problems were whispered about at night and downplayed in front of the children the next day. The only thing Jews knew they could count on was that almost everyone--Pole, Lithuanian, and Russian, atheist and Christian alike--would think it was perfectly all right if the Jews simply ceased to be.
Sonia Bulkin Center:
Grandma Bluma Balcwinik
Wolf and Lizzie Skolnicki BART FAMILY COLLECTION
Cease to be? Impossible. Certainly their allies were few, but far more people were indifferent to their presence than hostile to it. This fact had kept life in Vilna more than tolerable--in fact quite pleasant--for Jews like Zenia Lewinson. They could all find a way to make a living, go where they wanted, and do more or less what they wished.8 Her family kept the holidays and went to the synagogue unmolested.9 They followed Jewish dietary laws and other customs as a matter of tradition, belonged to Jewish clubs, and contributed to Jewish charities. There was a fit for Jews in Christian-dominated Vilna, despite the many cultural differences between the two groups, and despite a hate-driven fringe that could not leave the Jews alone.
Zenia knew a little about the hatred against Jews fomented by Hitler in Germany, but she had other things on her mind that June. She was working a few hours a week for Grandmother Bluma, and she heard the low chatter of mothers murmuring how pretty she was and how good a match she would make for their son or nephew. She was graduating from the Epstein-Szpeizer Gymnasium, a private Jewish school for the privileged class of Vilna,10 and life seemed on the verge of getting far more interesting. She might even consider continuing her education at a local university, but nothing specific appealed to her. Though she would remain living at home, graduation would give her a bit more freedom to be herself before she settled down with a good Jewish husband, had babies, grew stout, and turned into her mother.
To most of Vilna's Jews, Hitler was a madman soon to be set right by an outraged world. Until that happened, Vilna seemed safer than many places, as measured by the steady stream of Jewish refugees from Poland arriving there each week. Zenia had met a few at meetings of Betar, a right-wing group of young Zionists preparing to go to Palestine to resist the British, whose policies were perceived as hostile and overly restrictive to Jews who wished to settle there. They had told her of terrible murderous rampages against Jews by occupying Nazi troops, rumors of mass graves outside Polish cities, and plans to imprison all the Jews of Poland in ghettos.
Pictured on the left is 29 Zawalna Street. A horse-drawn carriage is turning into Bluma's hay and grain business.
COURTESY OF LEYZER RAN'S JERUSALEM OF LITHUANIA
When Zenia arrived at Sonia's house on Zeligowsky Street,11 the family was out, and there was nothing to do but turn back toward home. As she made her way back along Zawalna Street, her ears picked up the distant drone of engines in the southern skies. Within seconds, the air-raid sirens howled, their shrill urgency freezing everyone in the street. Was this the real thing, or only the scheduled drill? If it were possible to simply stand there and endure the screaming sirens for a few minutes, perhaps they could all just go about their day afterward.
It was no drill. Within seconds, planes flew high overhead, then dropped to skim low above the city streets. A loud thud in the distance near the Porobanek Airport was followed by the shadow of a plane streaking down Zawalna Street. The rolling roar of a blast from the direction of Sonia's house unfroze her feet, and she ran for home.
Safe inside, she watched as Bluma turned the radio dial. Signals swam in and out of hearing until one came in clearly. They recognized the rasping, pulsing voice immediately, and though they did not speak German, Yiddish was similar enough for the meaning to be clear. Adolf Hitler was announcing that Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, was under way. In two weeks, he vowed, he would be addressing the world from Moscow's Red Square.
Michael and Hillel had been out but had returned home quickly with the news that Sonia's building had been hit by a bomb. Zenia had averted certain death by only minutes. She had no way of knowing how many times in the next few years she would again be just outside the reach of death, but that morning of the invasion had marked the first time. Sonia's family had been in the park when the bombs fell, and they were safe. The couple sharing the same staircase in their apartment building was not so lucky. They, along with their young child, lay dead in the rubble.12
There is a before, and then there is nothing but after. A voice on the radio told the grim news: The Germans had invaded and had crossed the Nieman River. Impossible as it seemed for an army to move that quickly, they were already only sixty miles away.
A droshky, or horse-drawn carriage
COURTESY OF LEYZER RAN'S JERUSALEM OF LITHUANIA
It had been commonly agreed among Vilna's Jews that it was a good thing that, as a result of the August 1939 Nonaggression Pact between the Germans and the Russians, Vilna had once again become part of Lithuania, as it had been before World War I. Otherwise, the Nazi occupation of Poland in September of that year would have already put them in Hitler's grasp, instead of under the protection of the Soviet Union. But being part of Lithuania had its own nightmarish qualities, and it was hard to know how much worse the situation would get under the Germans. Because Vilna had been a part of Poland for two decades, Lithuanians who lived there were actually a minority group, smaller than either Poles or Jews.13 For many Lithuanians in the Vilna area, the easiest means to strongly, quickly, and cohesively assert their new status as part of Lithuania had been to reject whatever or whoever was un-Lithuanian among them. Thinking of themselves as patriots, gangs had spent the previous few years terrorizing and assaulting Poles as well as Jews,14 primarily in rural and outlying districts of Vilna, not only as a means of stamping the area as Lithuanian, but also as a form of resistance to the suppression of national and ethnic identity occurring everywhere in the Soviet Union.
The Poles disliked the Lithuanians, and had the numbers and the political power in Vilna to keep the ugliness from escalating. But the Poles were equally anti-Semitic,15 and most of the violence against Jews was not ideological or even political. It was centuries-old, inbred hatred, pure and simple.
Nevertheless, tensions between Jews and non-Jews had shown signs of abating somewhat in the last year, though not so much so that Jews had relaxed, or even much noticed. Since the Soviet Union had cut short Lithuanian independence by annexing the country in 1940 as a means of strengthening its position against Nazi territorial aggression, the Soviets had retaken control of the government and the police. Anyone, Jew or non-Jew, who was considered hostile or otherwise a threat to the Soviet regime was dealt with harshly,16 and street violence by ordinary citizens against Jews was harder to get away with, because the Soviets simply would not tolerate disorder, regardless of who the perpetrators or victims might be. The random anti-Semitic cruelty displayed by Lithuanians who beat up Jews in the street or who ransacked the shelves of Jewish merchants epitomized a debased humanity the Soviets hoped to destroy altogether in favor of a new world order without the divisive forces of nationality and religion.
The ideological distaste that Communists felt for Lithuanian thuggery against Jews was tempered, however, by inbred anti-Semitism that ran as deeply in Russian history as it did in Poland or Lithuania. Exploiting the general illiteracy and ignorance of the peasantry, the medieval church had sought for centuries to protect its image as God's agent and messenger by accusing those who had not embraced Christianity of causing natural disasters and all human afflictions. The Jews were the particular target of such preaching because it had been the Jews among whom Jesus had lived and preached. This fact evolved into the erroneous but universally held belief among medieval Christians that the Jews had been responsible for the crucifixion.
Branded as "Christ killers," the Jewish population had been the target of violence and subjected for centuries all over Europe to constriction of rights and privileges. Since the reign of Russia's Catherine the Great, the Jewish population had been concentrated in Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In 1791, she established what was known as the Pale of Settlement along her empire's western border, and by 1794, all Jews were uprooted from other parts of the Russian Empire and forced to resettle in the Pale.17 There, life was "isolated, stifling, and oppressive,"18 but despite hardships and restrictions on their activities, a lively Jewish culture evolved over the next century and a half.
Vilna was a jewel of that culture, proudly called the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Jews came there in such large numbers at the time of the Russian decree that at one point the sixty-four thousand Jews in the city constituted almost 40 percent of the total population. It was natural for Jews to gravitate to Vilna, for it had been a center of Jewish spiritual life for several centuries. Earlier, in the second half of the seventeenth century, of the twenty-five hundred Jews in Vilna, forty were rabbis, and hundreds of others devoted their lives to Talmudic study. In the eighteenth century, the great scholar and spiritual leader the Gaon of Vilna brought the city even greater fame among the Jews of Europe. If a Jew wanted to do business, the saying went, he should go to Lodz, but if he wanted wisdom he should go to Vilna. The prestige of Vilna as a spiritual center gave special status to all Jews living there and, whatever their occupation, to be Jews from Vilna gave families like Zenia Lewinson's a source of great pride.
Any sense of special status the Jews of Vilna may have felt in the generations leading up to World War II did not extend beyond the Jews themselves. Like all other Jews, they were banished to the outskirts of the Russian Empire, and subject to the whims of the czars, who from time to time unleashed rampages of pillage, rape, and murder known as pogroms. These official purges by the Russian cavalry were frequently mimicked by ordinary citizens holding ancient and irrational grudges against the Jews. By the time Zenia was born, the same joke had been told a million times, about how non-Jews always seemed to be able to spot them from a mile away. It wasn't the basic and stereotyped physiognomy at all, not the shape of the nose, or the build, or the hair. It was the look of eternal persecution on their faces.19
Only a week before the air raid, Zenia's mother, Rose, might have served as an example of the type. The local police had arrested a number of prominent members of Vilna's Jewish community, including some of its most socially active businessmen and scholars. Most were deported to Siberia,20 a remote and frozen wasteland, where they were put to forced labor in conditions so harsh few of them survived. It was part of a general purge of those considered anti-Soviet, and all told, seven thousand of Vilna's Jews were among the thirty-five thousand deportees from all over Lithuania.21 There had been no provocation, no crime, but their families were so certain they would never return that they took the unusual step of kriah, the ritual tearing of clothing that began the Jewish mourning process for the dead, even in advance of knowing for certain their loved ones had died. Rose lived in fear that Hillel would be next.
Everybody knew there was no easy way to be a Jew in Vilna, in Lithuania, or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter. There never had been. It might be a little better, a little worse, but nothing was really new. But as the Nazi bombers fueled up, and as Zenia walked out on that summer Sunday, the world of the Jews was about to become worse beyond anyone's ability to imagine.
On the outskirts of Vilna in a large brick building known as the Cheap Houses, Leizer Bart had slept in that Sunday morning. The apartments at 37 Subocz Street had traditionally been the place that the newest arrivals in Vilna went to live, and the left-wing Zionist group Ha-Shomer ha-Tzair, the Young Guard, to which Leizer belonged, was no exception. Zionist groups had been outlawed by the Soviets, and thus they lived in small groups scattered within the Cheap Houses and conducted their business with as much secrecy as possible. Some of the members, including Leizer, had come from a hakhsharah, or Zionist training camp, located in Czestochowa, Poland,22 where they had learned survival skills, agricultural methods, and physical fitness, in anticipation of immigrating to Palestine. In the evenings they continued their studies of agriculture, basic engineering, and other subjects they would need to build a Jewish homeland.23
Leizer Bart (top row, left) with fellow Ha-Shomer ha-Tzair members, 1937
BART FAMILY COLLECTION
Rumors had been flying since the night before about the invasion, and everywhere in the Cheap Houses people hovered over their radios listening for news. At 11:00 A.M., the Soviet foreign minister finally took to the airwaves to say that the unthinkable--the invasion of the Soviet Union--was under way.
Leizer and his friends had escaped from Poland just ahead of the occupying Nazi army, but apparently they had not run far enough. And now it seemed everyone was on the move. Cars, laden with suitcases and furniture, were already creeping up Subocz Street. Other people were walking, pushing their belongings in small carts or carrying them by hand. It seemed almost impossible, at the rate cars and people were moving, to make it even to the next town. And what would be the point of that if the Nazis could move with the lightning speed they had already demonstrated?
Young Zionists lived in the Cheap Houses at 37 Subocz Street.
COURTESY OF LEYZER RAN'S JERUSALEM OF LITHUANIA
Leizer had nowhere to go. All he and his Ha-Shomer ha-Tzair group had to fall back on was each other. For the time being, they would remain in the Cheap Houses, watching and waiting to see what happened next.
He heard the drone of engines overhead shortly after noon. The sound grew louder, merging with the crackling sound of antiaircraft rounds. Flames from an incendiary bomb lit up the sky in another part of the city. Inside the rooms of Ha-Shomer ha-Tzair members, the attitude quickly changed from shocked silence to frantic activity. People were coming in and out with information about the German advance. Some were talking about leaving Vilna to be with their families, while others had already decided to join the Red Army to fight against the Nazis.
Leizer worried about his parents and his younger brother and sister at home in Hrubieshov, a Polish town near the Bug River. Though the town was under Nazi occupation, the river marked the boundary between Soviet and German territory, and his family felt a small measure of safety in the possibility of escape across the river if things grew worse. Now it was obvious that the Nazis did not intend to respect any borders, and if the German army, the Wehrmacht, pushed across the Bug as easily as it had just crossed the Nieman, the entire Bart family would be completely trapped.24
Leizer had left home almost two years before, unable to get the others to come with him while they still could. His dream of going to Vilna to find a way to get exit visas for his family to go to Palestine had come to nothing. He had managed to get a transit visa for himself from the office of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kovno who had defied his government by issuing hundreds of transit visas to local Jews. These visas could be used to cross the Soviet Union by train, en route to Shanghai.25 The visa had done him no good because he had already decided he would not use it if it meant leaving his family behind in Poland.
And now, what would happen? The Germans were coming, laden with centuries of hatred, spurred on by a madman, and all he could do was watch and listen in disbelief.