Vitka Kempner was a young Jewish woman from Poland who fought the Nazis as a resistance leader and fearless saboteur.
Born 1920 in Kalisz, Poland, Vitka was a bright and independent young woman. As antisemitism rose in Poland, Vitka joined Betar, a militaristic Jewish youth movement that taught teens self-defense skills. Vitka was the first girl to join Betar. After graduating from high school, she moved to Warsaw and studied in a seminary for Jewish students. She was proud of her dual identity as a Jewish Zionist and a Polish intellectual, and saw no conflict between the two roles.
Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and the persecution of the Jews began. Vitka declared to her family that she would “not be humiliated.” She and her younger brother Baruch left their parents and fled to Vilna, Lithuania, where they connected with other Zionist youth group members and planned to immigrate to Palestine. The British, who controlled the Holy Land, made it very difficult for Jewish refugees to settle there. Unable to leave Europe, the young Jews hid their identities and found factory and farm work to support themselves.
The Germans occupied Vilna in June 1941. As in Poland, they immediately began arresting Jews for no crime other than being Jewish. Nazi soldiers brazenly murdered Jews in the streets. Vitka and the other young Zionists who’d escaped Poland were now in fear for their lives. They needed places to hide, and Vitka helped find safe locations and transfer others there.
Meanwhile, the Germans created a ghetto in Vilna and herded 50,000 Jews into it. Vitka joined FPO, a resistance group of Jews determined to fight the Nazis any way they could. Vitka snuck in and out of the ghetto through sewage canals. On her dangerous forays, she was able to obtain weapons and train Jews in self-defense, and even make explosives.
Vitka used a homemade bomb to carry out the first act of anti-Nazi sabotage on the eastern front. She affixed a bomb to a Nazi train line, leading to an explosion that took the Nazis completely by surprise.
In September 1943, the Nazis liquidated the Vilna ghetto. They transported thousands of Jews to a nearby forest, where they slaughtered them and buried the bodies – sometimes still alive – in mass graves. Vitka and some friends in the FPO resistance managed to escape the Gestapo and establish a secret camp deep in the woods outside Vilna. The camp grew to 600 people. There, led by Abba Kovner, the young Jews in the FPO, most of whom had already lost their entire families, carried out a remarkable resistance campaign. According to the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, the brave band of resistors blew up five bridges, destroyed 40 train cars and 180 miles of tracks, and killed 212 Nazi soldiers! Vitka was integrally involved in the sabotage activities, as well as taking care of the fighters trying to survive in the frigid Lithuanian forest.
Vilna was liberated by the Soviets in 1944. As the ragtag FPO group emerged from their hiding place in the forest, they started singing a song in Yiddish about Vitka’s heroic exploits as a saboteur.
Now that Vitka and Abba Kovner were safe, their thoughts turned to revenge. Together they planned and carried out a shocking act of vengeance. They snuck into a bakery where bread was being prepared for thousands of German soldiers who’d been taken prisoner by the Soviets. Once inside, the two young Jews – who’d lost their families, communities, homes, and everything they held dear – poisoned the German POW’s by lacing loaves of bread with arsenic. 2280 inmates became ill but nobody died. Their act of attempted mass murder was ethically questionable, but perhaps understandable considering the situation.
Soon after the failed revenge plot, Vitka and Abba emigrated to Palestine, where they got married, settled on a kibbutz, and had a son and a daughter. Vitka worked in the kibbutz school, where she found her calling as an educator of special-needs children as well as those with emotional problems. At the age of 45, she earned a degree in clinical psychology from Bar Ilan University. She developed her own pediatric therapy methods, including “Non-verbal therapy by color” and trained other teachers in addition to continuing to treat children.
Vitka’s husband Abba became a prominent writer in Israel, widely known and respected for his poetry, philosophy and visionary leadership. He died of cancer in 1985, and for the next three decades Vitka continued working as a kibbutz child psychologist. She said of herself, “I lived life fully, actively, without dragging grievances and offenses behind me.”
Vitka died in 2002. After her passing, Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem called Vitka’s story “one of struggle, courage and determination, not only to survive but to triumph.”
For leading Jewish resistance efforts against the Nazis in Lithuania, we honor Vitka Kempner as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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