Document 24 The story of a mass shooting is met with disbelief

This testimony by a Jewish physician from Wilno, Mark Dworzecki, was given at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in May 1961. Dworzecki later became a noted early scholar of the Holocaust.

The Germans occupied Wilno on 24 June 1941. They entered the ghetto on 6 September. During these two and a half months, about 40,000 Jews disappeared from Jewish Wilno ... The Germans said they were taking the Jews to the labour camp of Ponary. But the Poles were saying that they heard shots at Ponary. Ponary is a beautiful forest beyond Wilno ...

I was at the time a doctor in Wilno ... One morning I saw in the street a woman with dishevelled hair, barefoot, walking with flowers in her hands and giving the impression of a woman who had gone out of her mind. The woman came into my room and said to me: ‘I have come from Ponary’. I asked: ‘Have you come from the labour camp at Ponary?’ She said: ‘No, it is not a labour camp. They are killing the Jews there’. She described how, on the night of 31 August 1941, she was brought there together with ... about 10,000 Jews ... She heard the sound of shots. [Wounded,] she fell into the pit... She remained amongst the dead bodies until sunset. And that night ... she got out from amongst the bodies. She crossed the barbed wire fence, escaped, ran through the forest until she came to a little valley, and there she found a simple Polish peasant woman. The peasant woman made a bandage for her from a towel, gave her flowers in her hand and said to her: ‘Run away from here, but go with the flowers as if you are a plain peasant woman, so that they should not realize that you are a Jewess’. And then she came up to me and opened the towel-bandage and I saw the wound, the bullet hole, and ants were crawling in the hole - ants of the forest.

Then I realized the truth about Ponary. I went out into a street... I turned to the Jews and said: ‘Jews, Ponary is not a labour camp - in Ponary they are killing Jews’. And they said to me: ‘Doctor, you too are creating a panic? Instead of consoling us, instead of encouraging us, instead of giving us hope, you tell us horror tales - that there are killings in Ponary? How could it be that they should simply take Jews and kill them?’

(State of Israel, 1993: vol. 1, 447-448)

Document 25 The first Jewish intuition of a Nazi murder programme

This record of the origins of the United Partisan Organization in the Wilno ghetto (the earliest known Jewish armed resistance group) comes from the memoirs of Rozka Korczak, a local leader of the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatsair. It describes a secret meeting of the Wilno Hashomer Hatsair leadership in December 1941, presided over by Abba Kovner.

Abba: Since our last meeting ... our nearest and dearest have been torn from us and led to death with masses of other Jews ... With the uprooting of our comrades the naked truth stands before us. That truth says that we must not believe that those who have been taken from us are still alive, that they have merely been deported. Everything that has befallen us to this point means ... death. Yet even this fact is not the whole truth ... The destruction of thousands is only a harbinger of the annihilation of millions. Their death is our total ruin.

It is still difficult for me to explain why Wilno is bleeding while Bialystok is peaceful and calm ... But one thing is clear to me: Wilno is not just Wilno. [The shootings at] Ponary are not just an episode. The yellow patch is not the invention of the local SS commander. This is a total system. We are facing a well-planned system that is hidden from us at the moment.

Is there any escape from it? No. If we are dealing with a consistent system, fleeing from one place to another is nothing but an illusion ... Is there a chance that we might be rescued? Cruel as the answer may be, we must reply: no, there is no rescue! ... Maybe for dozens or hundreds; but for the ... millions of Jews under the yoke of German occupation there is no rescue.

Is there a way out? Yes. There is a way out: rebellion and armed resistance ...

Adam: ... How can we, in our present state, think of ... armed resistance when we know that this might precipitate the great, final catastrophe. After all, we have no assurance that we are facing the immediate absolute liquidation of the ghetto, its total annihilation. Once we begin our action will we not be endangering the entire ghetto? ... Do we have the right to assume responsibility for all Jews, to endanger their lives and to hasten their destruction if we fail? None of the ghetto Jews will stand with us; no one will understand us. They may even curse us and turn against us, for they will think that we are the source of the disaster that is befalling them ... Collective responsibility hangs over our head like a sword of Damocles ...

Abba: The unresolved point in the discussion is: How can we be certain that we are facing complete physical extermination? To me the matter is clear enough, but I shall not be able to convince the others. Only the last one of us who remains alive can be completely certain. But anyone who observes what is happening around us with a clear mind, an open heart, and mainly with a healthy instinct, cannot help but be convinced: we are headed for absolute, total annihilation. The day will come when that recognition will be common to all, but what is important is that it not come too late ... Thus we must choose to act as if we were certain, despite the doubts.

(Korczak, 1965: 4s9-51)

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