By Rebecca Frank, Curatorial Research Assistant
Quite nice weather, warm, white clouds, windy, some shots from the forest. Probably exercises, because in the forest there is an ammunition dump on the way to the village of Nowosiolki. It’s about 4 P.M.; the shots last an hour or two. On the Grodzienka I discover that many Jews have been “transported” to the forest. And suddenly they shoot them. This was the first day of executions. An oppressive, overwhelming impression. The shots quiet down after 8 in the evening; later, there are no volleys but rather individual shots. The number of Jews who passed through was 200.”
– Kazimierz Sakowicz diary entry from Ponary on July 11, 1941. Published in The Ponary Diary: A Bystander’s Account of a Mass Murder, edited by Yitzhak Arad, pgs. 11-12.
Kazimierz Sakowicz, a Polish journalist who lived in the village of Ponary, witnessed and documented the murder of Jews and non-Jews in the nearby forest. Between July and December 1941, Lithuanian collaborators and Einsatzgruppen (Nazi mobile killing units) shot approximately 40,000 Jews into large pits in the Ponary forest. The murder of Jews and non-Jews at Ponary was part of the Holocaust by Bullets, or “genocide by mass shooting.” With the support and complicity of local neighbors, Nazi units and their collaborators shot and killed between 1.5 and 2 million Jews in the Soviet Union. The Jews of Vilna (often referred to as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”) and surrounding towns were executed at Ponary, a wooded area about ten kilometers away. By July 1944, approximately 100,000 individuals were murdered at Ponary.
The victims’ clothes, money, and valuables were usually either taken by the Einsatzkommando to be forwarded to their superiors in Berlin or left for the Lithuanian murderers. In a few instances, however, the victim’s belongings made their way back to other Jews.
Kalman Farber (originally Farbman) recovered two tefillin bags and a prayer shawl (tallit) from Ponary. Farber was born in 1910 in Olkieniki, Poland and attended rabbinical school. During the war, he was in the Vileyka Ghetto from September to December 1939, escaped to Vilna, then was in the Vilna Ghetto from September 1941 to September 1943, at which point he was transferred to a labor camp. Farber and his family maintained their religious practices as best they could throughout the war, and his daughter, Yocheved, brought this miniature Torah scroll with her into the ghetto.
In the aktion of March 27, 1944, Yocheved was rounded up and murdered, perhaps at Ponary. Farber and his wife, Zipporah, survived the remainder of the war hiding in a bunker in Vilna. Following their liberation on July 8, 1944, Farber, along with other surviving Jews of Vilna, went to Ponary and took objects they found there. Farber does not seem to have had any personal or familial connection to the owners of the three religious objects he chose. The original owners of these pieces of Judaica, including someone with the initials “SB,” were murdered at Ponary. Along with the children’s torah scroll of his murdered daughter, Farber brought the two tefillin bags and tallit with him to the Land of Israel. He carried on the Jewish traditions of those who died at Ponary through their surviving religious objects, eventually donating the Judaica to the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
Two more personal belongings recovered at Ponary are now in the Museum’s Collection. In April 1943, Luba Gurewitz was tasked with sorting through the belongings of Jews murdered at Ponary. Among the piles of clothing, she recognized an embroidered blouse of one of her friends, Rachel Porus, thus indicating that Rachel had been murdered. Luba knew Rachel’s sister Chaya was in the Vilna Ghetto, and sought Chaya out in order to give her Rachel’s bundle consisting of the blouse, a towel, photo album, and coat. Chaya had embroidered the blouse for Rachel; it was the last birthday gift she gave her in the ghetto. When escaping the Vilna Ghetto with a group of partisans, Chaya wore her sister’s blouse and coat and brought the towel. She had to leave the photo album with a friend, who did not survive the war.
Chaya later recalled that throughout her time as a partisan in the Narocz forest, she wore the blouse in order to carry her sister close to her and used her sister’s towel to dry her tears. The blouse often faltered, and Chaya patched it together with material from a parachute. Like her sister and Luba, Chaya was a nurse. During her time with the partisan group Nekama (meaning revenge) and Fiodor Markov’s brigade she both served as a nurse and fought in resistance missions. All the while, she kept her sister’s blouse and towel from Ponary with her.
The memory of the original owners of these five objects from Ponary were kept alive by their second owners, and now, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. To learn more about the Holocaust by Bullets, watch this lecture by Dr. Wendy Lower in which she dissects a single, rare photograph and uncovers details about Nazi massacres in Ukraine.