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Jacob Gens - Jewish leader in Vilna

The Judenrat

Jacob Gens

The Holocaust in the Vilna Ghetto

Jacob Gens

Jacob Gens was appointed by the Germans in 1941 to head the Judenrat (Jewish Council) in the Vilna Ghetto. He held this post until Sept 14th, 1943 when he was summoned to the Gestapo headquarters and shot. The Vilna ghetto was completely liquidated 10 days later, this is his story.

 

Jacob Gens was born in 1903 at the village of Illovieciai in the Siauliai district of Lithuania. to a middle-class Jewish family, the eldest of four brothers.

In 1919, when Lithuania was fighting for its independence, he volunteered to serve in the Lithuanian army, and three years later In 1922 married a non-Jewish Lithuanian woman, and became the father of a daughter. Gens  had hoped to transfer to the fledgling Lithuanian air force, but that branch of the armed forces only accepted bachelors. Instead he was sent to the front, joining an infantry regiment in the war against Poland, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and won a decoration.

 

He served in the army until 1924, and in the same year he enrolled in Kovno University, earning his living as a teacher of Lithuanian and of physical education in the Jewish schools of Ukmerge and Jurbarkas. Three years later he became an accountant in the Ministry of Justice in Kovno, he completed his university studies in law and economics in 1935.

In July 1940 when Lithuania became a Soviet Republic, he was dismissed from his post. As a Zionist who was close to the Revisionists, Gens feared that he was in danger of being arrested in a campaign that was being waged against anti-Soviet elements, and he moved to Vilna, where he was generally unknown. A Lithuanian friend who headed the municipal health department there helped him obtain work as an accountant in the department.

When the Germans occupied Vilna in late June 1941, his Lithuanian friend appointed Gens director of the Jewish hospital. In the beginning of September 1941, two ghettos were established in Vilna in early September 1941. At first, people were moved into either ghetto at random. 29,000 people were incarcerated in Ghetto 1 and 9,000-11,000 in Ghetto 2. Several days after the Jews had moved in, Ghetto 1 was designated for craftsmen and workers with permits, and Ghetto 2 was to be for all others.

 

The transfer of orphans, the sick, and the elderly from Ghetto 1 to Ghetto 2 began. Those with work permits moved with their families into Ghetto 1. On 7 September 1941, the day after the ghetto relocation began, a new separate Judenrat was established in each of the two ghettos. Anatol Fried, a former director of the community bank, assembled the new Judenrat for Ghetto 1.

 

The Judenrat for Ghetto 2 was appointed by SD and Security Police in Vilna and was led by Eisik Lejbowicz. Fried, who had been a patient in the Jewish hospital and thus became acquainted with Gens, appointed him as head of the ghetto police.

Rudnicki Street entrance to the Vilna ghetto

Gens established the Ghetto police force, and made it into an orderly and disciplined body, and the Germans used this force to assist in the Aktionen that took place in the Ghetto from September to December 1941, in which tens of thousands of Jews were murdered. Gens and his police force  had participated in the deportation of Jews to Ponary.

 

Ghetto chronicler Mendel Balberyszski recorded that Gens told him after the so-called "Old People's Aktion" in July 1942, in which some 84 elderly people were murdered:

 

"I have no connection with the purge of the elderly. It was an old debt which the Judenrat owed them. They wanted several hundred people, and it was with great difficulty that the `price' was reduced to 100 aged…"

 

On occasions he had stood at the ghetto gate and personally selected those who were to live and those who were to die. In the Gelbschein Aktionen that took place between 24 October 1941 and 3 November 1941, Gens himself had checked the papers of the Jews as they passed before him, three blue cards to one yellow card.

 

According to other available evidence, Gens, within the framework of his role, did his best to aid the Jews. He became the predominant personality in the Ghetto and its de facto Governor. His direct contact with the German authorities, bypassing the Judenrat, added to his prestige among the Jews in the Ghetto. Gens involved himself in affairs that had nothing to do with the police, employment, cultural activities and other aspects of Ghetto life.

Gens did not easily tolerate autonomous activity within the ghetto. He was especially eager to receive the approval of the intelligentsia for his policies, even when this involved the sacrifice of thousands of Jewish lives. He eagerly accepted the appointment of intellectuals to positions on the Judenrat staff in order to ensure them some sort of livelihood and a modicum of security.

 

In an attempt to appear not simply a policeman, but an enlightened intellectual, Gens formed a "club" in his home for discussion and debate between a select group of invited guests. Gens' desire to emerge from the war not only as the saviour of the remnant of Vilna Jewry but as custodian of its cultural heritage, continued to the end.

 

On 15 January 1943, the first anniversary of the theatre's initial performance, Gens said:

"Last year they said that the theatre was just a fad of mine. `Gens is amusing himself.' A year has passed and what do we see? It was not just a fad of Gens. It was a vital necessity… For the first time in the history of Vilna we were able to get a curriculum of studies that was all Jewish… Our care for children has reached a level never seen before in the Jewish life of Vilna. Our spiritual life reaches high…

Read more here: http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ghettos/gens.html

The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
www.HolocaustResearchProject.org

Copyright Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2010

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