Erev Shavuot, the evening of the Feast of Weeks, 1942. There has been a special find, for today I procured some fish. I camouflaged them in the usual way, wrapping them in rags and hiding them on my body. Then I headed back to the ghetto.”
So begins one of the entries in the extraordinary diary of Kalman Farber, a rabbinical student in Vilna, who with his wife, Zipporah, and three-year-old daughter, Yocheved, struggled to survive the occupation of the Nazis, which began on June 24, 1941.
When Russian troops liberated Vilna on July 13, 1944, of the city’s 57,000 Jews, 2,000 to 3,000 had survived, including the Farbers. Their daughter, Yocheved, however, was not with them. She had been abducted in a children’s aktion, one of the roundups periodically organized by the Nazis to eliminate a portion of the population and to terrorize those who remained alive. Yocheved had been taken away and murdered.
Here is how Farber recorded that staggering event in his diary entry of March 27, 1944: “On this day, the children of Israel were taken from H.K.P. [forced labor] Camp … among them our Yocheved. … There are holy things we simply do not understand until a time in the future when God, blessed be He, might explain them to us.”
Such sustained, profound faith in the face of tragedy was not an isolated instance in the Vilna Ghetto and elsewhere during the Holocaust. Kalman Farber and thousands of Orthodox Jews resisted dehumanization out of a conviction that nothing in the Nazi arsenal of terror would deter them from trying to live the daily life of observant Jews.
In the Farber family, this took the form of observing the Sabbath and the festivals, praying regularly, and, perhaps most daunting, maintaining kashrut, the exacting Jewish dietary laws, under conditions of mounting starvation, daily brutality, and death.
“Rosh Hashanah 1943 is nearing. There is pouring rain without letup. The cold is unbearable, and getting worse. Yet on the sixth floor of Block 2 we arranged for a place for prayers. We had a cantor and a shofar blower and also a Sefer Torah-a treasure from the ghetto. There was no shortage of people to say kaddish [the prayer said by mourners].”
On October 4, 1943, the day before Yom Kippur, Farber did not eat the soup prepared for all the workers, because it was not kosher. He refused to return to the camp from the work site by truck because he did not want to be riding when the holiday started.
From their apartment in Vilna, Kalman Farber had brought Yocheved’s miniature Sefer Torah. It was the kind children carry and dance with on Simchat Torah, the holiday for the conclusion of the reading of the Torah; in 1943, it was celebrated on October 23. In the spring, he prepared the camp kitchen for Passover and baked matzot, the unleavened bread required for that festival. Each mitzvah (commandment) fulfilled was an assertion of will, dignity, and Jewish identity.
For the Farbers, religious observance went hand in hand with other acts of defiance and spiritual resistance. Since the Nazis deliberately provided Jews a ration insufficient to sustain life, smuggling of food was essential to survival. It was often necessary to try to find and bring in not only the special foods required by a holiday but also any food at all–peas, flour, beans–in order to survive. For Kalman Farber and his family, mere survival without remaining faithful to their religion was not an option.
Farber frequently wore a smuggling bag, specially sewn and fitted inside the leg of his trousers. When he returned to the ghetto from town, where he had bartered jewelry or other valuables for food, he was always at risk of being beaten by the Lithuanian police or German soldiers at the gate.
More than once, he was caught, intimidated, and then ordered to strip down to his underwear and to lay out on the table what he and his fellow smugglers had managed to obtain: “The German smells the butter and asks the Lithuanian if it’s fresh. Then he takes the fish for himself. After each item they take from us, they ask, ‘Don’t you have anything else, Jew?’ Then they hit us with murderous blows. We left that place beaten up, wounded, and the financial loss was great too. But none of this deterred us, we were by no means broken, and we knew we would be going out again. As we used to say to each other, ‘as long as your head is in one piece, then you need to keep going out tomorrow.'”
Having liquidated nearly all the Jews remaining in the Vilna Ghetto as the Soviets approached in the summer of 1944, the Germans targeted for annihilation all the remaining workers in the H.K.P. and other forced labor camps near Vilna. Farber and his wife made several unsuccessful attempts to escape. Finally, they were able to find a maline in the Vilna Ghetto, one of many hiding places in basements fashioned out of chimneys, cupboards, and ovens. On July 4, 1944, the Jews remaining in the H.K. P. were rounded up and taken to the nearby forest of Ponary. About six miles from Vilna, this was the site where tens of thousands of the Jews of Vilna had already been executed. And then in July 1944, the remainder of the Jewish population of Vilna, once known for its vital Jewish life, was forced into pits and shot. Kalman and Zipporah Farber in their maline in the empty ghetto had evaded evacuation to Ponary and this fate.
Having managed to elude the last roundups, the Farbers fled the ghetto as the Germans were blowing up the evidence and as the guns of the liberating Soviet army neared. When he left the area of the Vilna Ghetto for the last time, Kalman Farber was carrying with him a copy of the Book of Psalms and, in the other pocket, a pair of tefillin, or phylacteries. He and Zipporah were among the first of many Holocaust survivors to settle in Palestine.