I have just watched a fascinating little documentary about Fania Brantovskaya, now in her 90s, who conducts walking tours of old Jewish Vilnius (Vilna) in Yiddish.
Listening to her speak I was vividly reminded of my own grandmother, Pearl, and the recordings my father made of her talking about her life back in Russia. Fania’s intonation, the cadence of her language, mirror almost exactly my grandmother’s speech.
Fania was born in 1922. She had just started university in 1941 when the Nazis occupied Vilna. She tells how two Lithuanian policemen knocked on her door at 6am on 6 September and told her family they had to move into the ghetto, giving them just half an hour to pack.
Fania lived with her parents and sister in a crowded apartment shared with four other families. She points out their three windows, on the middle floor of a large three-storey building. Fania guides us past the hospital, school, theatre and library that continued to function within the ghetto walls. Indeed, the Vilna ghetto was known as the Jerusalem of the ghettos for its intellectual and cultural richness. But death was never far away, with regular deportations from the ghetto to Ponary, now Paneriai, a suburb of Vilnius, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered.
Fania’s father changed her birth date to make her appear four years younger than she actually was, enabling her to avoid the call up to work in the Nazis’ forced labour camps. Instead she joined the United Partisan Organisation that was formed in the ghetto in January 1942 by the poet Abba Kovner, among others, as a means of Jewish self-defence and to sabotage German industrial and military activity.
The partisans smuggled arms, food and medicine, and found ever more ingenious ways of doing so. Chimney sweeps carried guns in false-bottomed cases, while wounded men and women hid supplies in their bandages. Fania worked as a messenger, using the slogan “Lisa is calling,” in honour of a partisan who had died early during the resistance.
After more than two years in the ghetto’s stifling narrow streets, in September 1943 Fania managed to escape to join other partisans living in the forest a two-day march away. She couldn’t have known at the time, but her escape was to precede the liquidation of the ghetto by just a few hours. Fania never saw her family again. They were divided up and taken to different concentration camps across the area, where they perished.
From September 1943 until the end of the war, Fania lived in the forest, where she and her fellow partisans continued their struggle against the Nazis and their local collaborators. They lived in tents and underground shelters dug from the earth, with walls of wooden planks and foliage pulled over for cover, sleeping on pieces of wood covered with spruce branches. They had very little to eat, surviving mostly on grain flour donated by local people and hot water. Some locals would willingly give them food, she says, but others would not. Nevertheless, after two years in the ghetto, Fania says, the forest made her feel like a human being again.
Today Fania works as a librarian at the Yiddish Institute in Vilnius, where she created a collection of Yiddish books. She leads walking tours of the city of her youth, keeping alive the language and memory of her family and the tens of thousands of other Vilna Jews murdered at Ponary and elsewhere.
Fania is one of just two or three thousand Jews living in Vilnius today, a city that had been a major Jewish population centre for over four hundred years. Around 70,000 Jews were resident there by 1941, close to half the city’s population. Through much of its history, Vilna was a hub of Jewish culture and learning. The definitive edition of the Talmud was printed on the Vilna presses, the famous Talmudist Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman—known as the Vilna Gaon—was one of the most authoritative Jewish scholars since the Middle Ages. And YIVO, an organisation dedicated to the study of Yiddish life and language, was founded in Vilna.
After the war, Vilnius became part of the USSR, as capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. I visited in 1989, shortly before Lithuania finally gained lasting independence. Even in Soviet times, the city had a lively and attractive air, but it has changed a lot since then--the historic centre has been restored and a buzzing arts and entertainment culture has taken root. It must be time for a return visit, before Fania and her walking tours are no more.
The documentary, by Edita Mildazyte, can be viewed here:
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. As my research for a new book set in Ukraine continues, articles published here will focus on three tumultuous periods in particular: the Second World War, the Russian Civil War and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14.