The Partisans of Vilna (1986) – PopMatters Film Review )

The Lithuanian city of Vilna (Vilnius) endured a checkered history, successively claimed by the Russian tsars, the German emperor, Lithuania, Poland, Lithuania again, the Soviet Union and finally, in 1941, by the invading Germans once more. The city was both cosmopolitan and dynamic, especially for almost 60,000 Jews whose long tradition of scholarly excellence and religious education, combined with a modern fascination for radical ideas, had earned it the sobriquet, “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” In 1939, Jews fleeing western Poland flocked to Vilna, and even after the Soviet Union formally annexed Lithuania in June 1940, it served as a refuge for Jews. That refuge collapsed with the arrival of the Germans in June 1941, and the formation of the Vilna ghetto two months later.

The scale of the loss was huge. At the beginning of The Partisans of Vilna, Israeli poet Abba Kovner looks into a model of Vilna’s synagogue and describes the potential lost with the German victory. As he recalls the young scholars working in some rooms, the noisy meetings in others, and the lone readers perched around the courtyard with their books, he remembers their conviction that, out of a maelstrom of ideas — from the Torah to Jabotinsky, Marx and Lenin — they created something new. Producer Aviva Kempner and director Josh Waletzky capture that potential. Instead of focusing on the extermination of the Jews, as many other documentaries have done, they celebrate the richness of their lives.

In so doing, they illuminate why so many Jews failed for so long to comprehend that one European nation would exterminate another. They unpick tensions between those who hoped that obedience to deportation dictates would appease the Germans and those who resisted. And they remind viewers that even for the Jews who managed to join their supposed allies, the Russian-controlled, multi-national partisan bands, persecution did not end. Finally, the reissue of this 1986 documentary amid discussions about the ethical representation of reality in nonfiction film champions traditional documentary filmmaking as legitimate historical record and human narrative.

To that end, Docurama includes a range of supplementary materials. In addition to the standard filmmaker commentaries, this DVD includes the film’s soundtrack on CD, with Yiddish songs composed in the ghetto, by and for the partisans, later issued independently as a Grammy-nominated CD (1989, Folk). These songs offer a vivid snapshot of the creative energy and aspirations of those forced to live in daily expectation of death in the ghetto and emphasize the intellectual ferment of Vilna. For every song set to a traditional Yiddish melody, another borrows a Russian tune, from the music favored by the Communists and Socialists among the partisans.

This background is further enhanced by the DVD’s succinct historical analysis of the Jewish partisan resistance in Vilna, with a timeline, glossary, and comprehensive, up-to-date reading list. Against this background, which even knowledgeable viewers should find illuminating, Kempner and Waletzky achieve their portrait of a community and a generation of radicals through the accretion of details, each perspective slightly different, according to the experience of the teller.

They introduce the murderous Aktions of the German Einsatzgruppen, enthusiastically supported by the Lithuanian police, through the story of a nurse who tended an injured woman shot through the arm. The woman described being marched with many other Jews to a popular picnic spot about eight miles from Vilna. There, the Germans ordered everyone to undress and opened fire on men, women, and children. She survived because the bodies around her, including those of her children, shielded her from a fatal bullet. The nurse, deeply disturbed, told the story to a respected doctor and member of the Judenrat, who immediately responded that she was not in her right mind, as such a thing could not possibly happen.

By December of 1941, the Aktions had murdered 40,000 of Vilna’s Jews, a chilling reminder of the efficiency of German genocide prior to the death camps. Barely a month later, Abba Kovner called the young people of Vilna to resistance with the words, “Let us not be led like sheep to the slaughter,” which inspired the creation of an umbrella resistance in the ghetto, called the United Partisans Organization (FPO), dedicated to sabotage and armed resistance. Determined, as their first act, to blow up a train, the FPO realized no one knew how to make a pressure mine.

Remembering one of the many instances of serendipity and opportunism that sustained them, the partisans recall how the Germans, not for the first time, were undone by their own bureaucratic pedantry. They had drafted several young Jewish scholars to work in the Yiddish Scientific Library to catalogue Yiddish scholarly works for the racist Nazi project, Jewish Studies without Jews. There they uncovered a translation into Russian of a Finnish “anarchists’ handbook,” from which the FPO assembled a bomb.

Not every act of courage was so successful. One interviewee recalls walking, with a friend, eastwards toward the German-Russian frontlines. Pretending to the German occupiers they were searching for their husbands, they finally reached the area where they had heard partisans were active. They walked deep into the forests and called out for help, explaining who they were, but the trees returned nothing but silence. They went home convinced that everyone, even allies, had abandoned the Jews to their deaths.

Worse awaited the resistance in the summer of 1943, when their commander, Wittenberg, was arrested by the Jewish police on the orders of the Gestapo. Such was the terror of deadly repercussions that when Wittenberg escaped custody, his fellow Jews fanned out across the ghetto to roust him out and surrender him as quickly as possible. Like Jacob Gens, head of Vilna’s Jewish police and, from 1942, the Jewish intermediary with the Germans, the majority believed that the only way to survive in the ghetto was obedience the occupiers, the principle of “labor, law, and order.” Though the FPO wanted to save Wittenberg, its members realized they faced a terrible moral dilemma. The only way to save their commander was to shoot their fellow Jews, an action they could not contemplate. Wittenberg perished in Gestapo custody, possibly through self-administered cyanide, and those who hunted him perished soon afterwards, in the final liquidation of the ghetto in September 1943.

This comprehensive DVD package demonstrates how the reissue of significant cinematic or historical documents might create new interpretive contexts. The rapidly falling costs of digital reproduction and memory-rich computers invite more complex multimedia framing of each individual artifact. The Partisans of Vilna allows viewers to enter the Vilna ghetto and the lives of its youthful defenders. While much of this potential is devoted, in the current DVD market, to the manufacture of nostalgia, The Partisans of Vilna demonstrates that the conjunction of exceptional filmmaking with exceptional presentation serve both art and memory, providing witness to both the approximately 55,000 Vilna Jews who perished, and the fewer than 5,000 who survived.