In June 1943 the Germans arrested two communist activists in Vilna. One of them, Kozlowski, broke under interrogation and admitted to having links to Yitzhak Wittenberg, the Commander of the United Partisan Organisation. These were Jewish partisans fighting the Nazis. On the 8th of July the SiPO (security police force created by the Germans in 1942 in occupied Lithuania) demanded that Jacob Gens, head of the Ghetto, arrest Wittenberg. On the 15th of July Gens summoned the UPO to a conference in his house. The Staff Command, including Wittenberg, arrived at midnight. During the meeting Lithuanian police entered the room and demanded to know which was Wittenberg. Gens pointed at Wittenberg and the Lithuanians handcuffed him and took him away. Members of the FPO attacked the Jewish police and the Lithuanians that were transporting Wittenberg and forcibly freed him. Wittenberg decided on a full mobilisation of the underground, distribution of weapons and manning the positions that had been predetermined for an emergency situation. Wittenberg himself went into hiding on the advice of his friends.
At 3:00 am Gens called the police, the heads of the work groups and the shtarke (“The strong ones” in the ghetto, some of whom were gangsters; they were a supplementary force to the police and were also active in smuggling) to the courtyard of the Judenrat. Rumours about the release of Wittenberg spread through the ghetto and many of the ghetto inhabitants came to the courtyard. Gens informed them that the Germans were threatening to enter the ghetto if Wittenberg was not arrested. Fearing that the ghetto would be liquidated, a hunt for Wittenberg began. A delegation from the ghetto leadership and public figures turned to the underground Command requesting that Wittenberg be turned in to save the rest of the ghetto. The Staff Command faced a difficult decision. On the one hand, they had reached a situation that could lead to an uprising, and on the other, the UPO members found themselves before a united public demanding Wittenberg’s arrest. UPO members were even physically accosted by the public.
The German’s ultimatum was postponed. Gens promised that he would try to free Wittenberg. During the day Wittenberg met with members of the Staff Command. The difficult situation in the ghetto was described to him. He considered suicide but according to Gens the Germans had demanded him alive. Once even the Communists in the ghetto demanded his arrest, Wittenberg accepted the decree. He gave his pistol to Kovner, appointed him leader and went out into the street.
Wittenberg’s prayer ‘Ich gehe’ (Yiddish – I Go) spread like thunder through the ghetto. Cries suddenly became silent. Jews began to swarm outside. Doors and windows were opened again.
Shmerke Kaczerginski, I Was A Partisan
Wittenberg turned himself in to Gens, was taken out of the ghetto by a side gate and delivered to the Germans. In the prison cell, he took poison and was found dead in his cell the following morning.
Following this episode many underground members abandoned the idea of an uprising and decided to leave for the forests. The pursuit of Wittenberg by the ghetto leadership in order to turn him over to the Germans had proven to the underground members that the majority of the Jews in the ghetto were not prepared to fight. Following stormy arguments, the UPO Staff Command decided that although for the most part they would remain in the ghetto, some members would begin leaving for the forests. The first group of UPO members to leave, left on the 24th of July 1943, numbered 21 members and was called “Leon” (Wittenberg’s pseudonym in the underground).
Shmerke Kaczerginski was a poet, communist and member of the UPO. He wrote this poem about Izik Wittenberg
Somewhere the enemy
Lies hidden like a beast
The Mauser is ready in hand,
Watch out – the Gestapo!
They’re leading a captive
At night – our Commander-in-Chief!
Night in the Ghetto
Was torn by lightning
“Beware!” warns a tower, a wall ;
Rescue our comrades
They’re with our Commander-in-Chief!
The night is foreboding
Death is lurking around us
The Ghetto, in fever and dread;
The Ghetto is restless
As Gestapo threatens
“Your commandant, or Death!”
Itzik then spoke up –
Words that struck like lightning
“Don’t take any risks for my sake
Your lives are too precious
To give away lightly.”
Proudly to his death went our Commandant!
Again, somewhere the enemy
Lies hidden like a beast;
My Mauser is ready in hand
My gun is my guardian,
Be you the liberator
Be you my Commandant now.
S’ligt ergets fartay-et
Der faynt, vi a chaye,
Der Mauzer er vakht in mayn hant;
Nor plutzim – Gestapo!
Es feert a geshmidtn
Durkh fintsternish dem Commandant!
Di nakht hot mit blitsn
Dos geto tseshnitn:
“Gefar!” Shrayt a toyer, a vant
Fun keytn bafrayen
Farshvindn mit dem komendant…
Di nakht iz farfloygn
Der toyt- far di oygn
Dos geto es fibert in brand;
In umru dos geto –
Es drot di gestapo:
“Toyt, oder dem komendant”
Gezogt hot dan Itsik
Un durkh, vi a blits iz:
-“Ikh vil nit, ir zolt tsulib mir
Darfn dos lebn
Dem soyne opgebn!”…
Tsum toyt geyt shtolts der komendant
Ligt vider fartayet
Der faynt, vi a khaye
Kh’halt vider mayn mauzer in hant:
“Du bist bay mir tayer,
Zay du mayn bafrayer,
Zay du itster mayn komendant!”
Shmaryahu (Shmerke) Kaczerginski
Photo of Kaczerginski, UPO fighter.