Despite great obstacles, Jews throughout occupied Europe attempted armed resistance against the Germans and their Axis partners. They faced overwhelming odds and desperate scenarios, including lack of weapons and training, operating in hostile zones, parting from family members, and facing an ever-present Nazi terror. Yet thousands resisted by joining or forming partisan units. Among them was Vitka Kempner.
Vitka Kempner was born in Kalish, Poland, on the Polish-German border, in 1922. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kalish fell and Vitka escaped to Vilna, Lithuania. When Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, was launched in 1941, Vilna was occupied and the Jews forced into a ghetto. Hearing the rumors about the death camps, Vitka decided to take her destiny into her own hands.
Vitka joined the Vilna chapter of Ha-Shomer Ha-Tsa'ir, a Zionist youth group. The group decided to transform itself into a resistance cell, led by Abba Kovner. Vitka became a founding member of the ‘Avengers’, which would go on to become one of the most famous and most successful all-Jewish partisan units during the war.
Vitka was responsible for the FPO's first act of sabotage, smuggling a homemade bomb out of the ghetto and blowing up a Nazi train line. The group began to arm themselves, smuggling weapons through the sewer system, and helped successfully organize the larger Vilna resistance movement, known as the United Partisan Organization (FPO). Eventually, Vitka became one of Kovner’s chief lieutenants; they would marry after the war.
After a failed uprising, Vitka helped the FPO to evacuate much of the population through the sewer system to the surrounding forests. Several of the escapees became soldiers in their unit.
The Avengers continued their sabotage operations, destroying both the power plant and the waterworks of Vilna, the city they once loved.
As the Soviets advanced westward, the Avengers emerged from the forest and joined the struggle openly, helping to liberate Vilna. Following the war, Abba Kovner helped surviving Jews reach mandate Palestine. He also formed a new organization with 50 other partisans, reportedly attempting to poison thousands of Nazi and SS prisoners in a Nuremberg POW camp. Accounts differ as to how many Germans were injured or killed.
Besides avenging the Jews killed by Nazis, Abba and Vitka also reached out to the survivors. They helped smuggle hundreds of European Jews in to British-occupied Palestine. Vitka and Abba followed in 1946, settling at Kibbutz Ein Horesh and raising two children. Vitka passed away in February 2012 in her home in Israel, two and a half decades after Abba’s death. She is survived by four grandchildren.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What obstacles and limitations did Jews face when considering resistance?
- What pressures and motivations may have influenced Vitka Kempner's decisions and actions? Are these factors unique to this history or universal?
- How can societies, communities, and individuals reinforce and strengthen the willingness to stand up for others?
- Investigate the experiences of women who participated in or became leaders in resistance. Did they face additional pressures and obstacles?