Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lithuania: Time to Save Jewish Partisan Fort in Rundninkai Forest
by Samuel D. Gruber

All photos courtesy of Adalbert Wagner

(ISJM) In the Rundninkai Forest about 25 miles (40 kms) southwest Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and only a few miles (5 kms.) from the village of Senieji Maceliai, is the only vestige of the heroic resistance of Jewish survivors of the Vilna Ghetto. The drive takes about forty minutes to an hour, and in that time one is transported into a different place, and also a different time. Today, one member of that Jewish Resistance group, Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, is still alive, and she has made it her cause to tell the story of the Jewish Partisans in Lithuania, and to remember their hidden place of refuge. According Dovid Katz of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, at Vilnius university, where Fania Brantsovsky is librarian, in all, “about a hundred escapees from the Vilna Ghetto, lived (literally) under the ground during the period they fought with the anti-Nazi partisans, in alliance with the Allies, during the final period of the Holocaust in Lithuania.”

The 87-year old Brantsovsky, still takes visitors to the site to where she escaped when she fled the Vilna Ghetto on 23 September 1943. The history of the Jewish Partisan struggle is told by historian Dov Levin in his book Fighting Back. Lithuanian Jewry’s armed resistance to the Nazis, 1941-1945. (New York and London: Holmes & Meier, 1997). Levin recounts the complex history of the partisan units whose size, location and access to arms ebbed and flowed depending on the demands and pressures of the larger more organized Partisan forces - those directed by the Soviets, and those more nationalist groups. Both groups - whether of the left or right - had little love or repect for Jewish partisans - who needs were often sacrificed for the benefit of the non-Jewish groups (this was not unique to Lithuania). The Jews, of course, with no where else to go but the forest, had little recourse. Still, according to Levin, at least four substantial Jeiwsh fighting groups were created in the Rundninkai Forest, totalling about 400 men. There were Jewish families there, too. Any preservation of the site must make sense of the conflicting claims of the different partisan groups and recognize that the political and ideological complexities the past still continue in many ways today.

The “accommodations” at the surviving anti-Nazi Partisan fort were primitive, but the historical significance of the remaining simple dug-out structures and the paths that join them is tremendous. Not only do they represent an important aspect of the anti-Nazi fight in Lithuania – something all Lithuanians should acknowledge – but they also record a momentous movement in Jewish history, comparable to the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, when oppressed Jews chose to fight (sometimes to their death) in the face of overwhelming odds. It is this tradition - an training -of the Holocaust, as much as the suffering and death of Camps (of which Barack Obama has recently spoken), that gave life to the State of Israel in 1948 and afterward.

Adalbert Wagner, a volunteer at the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum/The Green House has documented the forest site (and has graciously provided pictures for this report). For more photos click here.

As an historian, preservationist and a Jew I think it is essential that these remains be protected and preserved. It is not a preposterous goal. Already large sums are being allocated for the preservation of sites of the “Forest Brothers” (many of whom were ex-fascist collaborators and “Jew-shooters” who fled into the forests in 1944 to escape the Soviet advance). This fact should encourage the preservation of this site, too, but in fact the possibility of preserving this site, and teaching its history, aggravates and even enrages those in Lithuania who continue to celebrate the pro-Nazi participants and policies of the war years. Today’s government, while in no way complicit, would rather the whole thing go away. Most likely, like an insurance provider facing a malpractice suit, there are many who are just sitting back and waiting for Faina Brantsovksy to pass away, and her memories to follow.

It would be so much better to celebrate Fania’s life, struggle, survival and accomplishments and protect and preserve the Rundninkai Forest fort in her honor, and in the memory of those who lived and fought from there. I call on the Lithuanian government, which has done so much to preserve the memory of Ghetto Jews at the memorials at Panerai (Ponary)
and Kaunus’s Ninth Fort, to step forward to protect this simple site, too. I call on the international community, which has done much to assist in the conservation of Auschwitz and the building of memorials at Mauthausen, Belzec, Rumbula, and most recently the Labor Camps of Estonia, and so many other places, to step forward to assist this effort, too.

The International Survey of Jewish Monuments is ready to act as facilitator for this project, in the right circumstances. If funds are available, ISJM will assist in putting together an international conservation and interpretation team to work with local professionals and authorities for the long-term protection and preservation of the Rundninkai Forest fort.


Unknown said...

I am trying to piece together my fathers journey from the town of Kosany - his family fled into the forest nearby the town. His older brother and sister were members of the Spartaka partisan group which I think was in the Rudninju Forest. I am trying to find out if this is the forest that that spartak partisans were in. Can you tell me if that is the partisan group that you have reseached. They were in the forest for 3 years but did not come from the city Vilna. They came from Kosany.

Unknown said...

I am doing my research on my fathers family that fled into the forest during the WWII. My father told me his brother belonged to the Spartaka Partisan group along with his sister Briana Gochman. They were from the town Kosany. Which I understand Vilna was the big city near by. In your research did you find that the spartak partisans were in the Rudninku Forest. And if so were members of the group in the woods from various farm town along the way or only the Vilna Getto?

Unknown said...

After a little more research I found out that it is not the rudninku forest - they were in the kosany forest and were members for the spartak brigade. My Aunt and uncle were members. I found my aunts name as a member of the group and that she fell in combat. Which I know. Do you have any research on this specific group from Kozany Forest - since there are many towns like this spelling the latitue 55 degress 18' logitute is 26 deress 52' if that helps. All information will be helpful. I am trying to find town people by the name of hochman and tilles.