In 1942, a train in Vilnius, Lithuania, was loaded with Nazi German troops, headed for the Eastern Front. Its destination was unknown, but the hundreds of troops aboard it were off to fight the Red Army of the Soviet Union. As the train departed the station, it exploded, killing nearly everyone on board.
It was one of the first acts of resistance in occupied Eastern Europe, and it caught everyone by surprise. The Nazis didn't know there were partisan fighters in Lithuania. What neither the partisans nor the Nazis knew was that the bomb actually came from the Vilnius Ghetto. The Jewish people were fighting back.
Vitka Kempner grew up in Poland, which was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939. She watched as the German Army rounded up the Jews in her hometown of Kalisz and expelled them from the city. She was appalled by the humiliation of the scene and decided she would not go quietly.
Kempner, who could pass for non-Jewish after dyeing her hair, escaped the roundup and made her way to Vilnius, hoping to find transport to the safety of the British Mandate for Palestine (today, Israel). By the time she was to set sail, the USSR had invaded the Baltic country. Soon after, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa, its war with the Soviet Union.
She once again found herself and her people under the Nazi jackboot. By 1942, Vilnius' Jewish population was herded into a ghetto. Kempner entered the ghetto, too, but moved in and out with her non-Jewish looks and accent-free Polish. She joined a resistance group led by the poet Abba Kovner.
Kempner, a girl in her early 20s, was the group's primary smuggler and spy, moving material in and out through rooftops and sewers.
Though the Jews of Vilnius didn't suffer retaliation for the train bombing, the liquidation of their people continued. The most notorious site was 10 miles south of the city in the Ponar Forest. Kempner's resistance unit met a girl who survived being shot and thrown into a pit of bodies in the forest.
At the Nuremberg Trials after the war, it was estimated that as many as 100,000 bodies were in the pit. The group began planning its retribution.
Their first target, one of the first acts of resistance against German occupation in the east, was the troop train. The Germans thought it was an act of Polish partisans and didn't suspect Jewish resistance. After the German loss at Stalingrad, pressure began to mount, and the Nazis cracked down on the ghetto.
Kempner and her band of fighters began to move to the forest, where they continued attacking and sabotaging Nazi troops and operations. Before they could move, they were betrayed by a member of the band, and a shootout began. The partisans were trapped in three apartments in the middle of the city, surrounded by the German Army.
The Germans began destroying entire buildings to kill the resistance fighters inside. As building after building imploded, Kempner and what was left of her resistance cell moved out of their position. They escaped through the sewers of the city. The 10,000 Jews left in the ghetto were liquidated. In about a year, 55,000 Jewish people fell victim to the Nazis.
Kempner and her group escaped to Rudnicki Forest, where Soviet partisans were staging. There, they also found anti-Semitism. With many Soviet fighters unwilling to work with Jewish fighters, Kovner and Kempner, who married during their time as resistance fighters, formed their own Jewish resistance group, Ha-Nokmim, "The Avengers."
The group of around 50 Holocaust survivors lived in the forest for nine months, attacking Vilnius and destroying its power plant and water works. The Red Army recaptured Vilnius and expelled the Germans from Lithuania in 1944. When the Avengers returned to the city, it was a shambles. They also learned the full extent of the Holocaust.
With the war over, they became obsessed with revenge against the Nazis and the German people, forming a plan to kill six million Germans in retaliation for the six million Jewish people lost during the war. The idea was to poison German water supplies, but that plan was abandoned when Kovner was arrested on his way back to Lithuania with the poison.
All that was left was to kill the Nazis being held at Nuremberg. The group broke into the bakery providing food for the prisoners and laced thousands of loaves of bread with arsenic. To their chagrin, the bread made the Nazis sick but didn't kill them.
Many of the surviving members moved to Palestine after this failure and became Israelis in 1948. Kempner lived until 2012, at age 91.
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