Temporary Haven in Lithuania
In the fall and winter of 1939, an estimated 15,000 Polish Jews found temporary refuge in politically independent Lithuania, most of them in Vilna. The majority belonged to a diverse, educated elite who faced persecution in war-torn Poland for their Jewish cultural, political, and religious affiliations. Some families simply had the financial means to escape the dangers of war and occupation. Many refugees wanted eventually to reach the United States or Palestine.
Having fled with few belongings and barred from employment in Lithuania, most refugees were forced to depend on others. The largest share of relief support and funds came through an American Jewish charitable organization, the Joint Distribution Committee. Uncertain of their future and consumed by fears about relatives still in occupied Poland, the refugees could only hope that war would end soon or that Lithuania’s neutrality would remain undisturbed. Neither thought proved to be realistic.
Profile of the Refugees
The largely adult male refugee population included organized groups of Zionist youth whose goal was to build a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and rabbis and students from Poland’s prewar religious schools (yeshivas). Both resumed their studies and training activities in Lithuania. There were also businessmen, lawyers, teachers, journalists, and physicians, many resigned to unemployment or volunteer work in the refugee community. In soup kitchens and cafes, writers and political activists met to discuss news of the war. For some, emigration was stalled because Lithuania’s authorities, fearful of endangering its neutrality, prohibited Polish citizens of military age from leaving the country.
“The Jews who fled to Lithuania were those who were equally in danger from the German and Soviet occupiers.”
—Zionist leader Moshe Kleinbaum, Vilna, March 12, 1940
Zorach Warhaftig was a lawyer from Warsaw and a leader of the religious Zionist He-Halutz Mizrachi. As a refugee, he led efforts to rescue Zionists from occupied Poland and set up training farms for them outside Vilna. Working for the Palestine Commission for Polish Refugees in Lithuania, Warhaftig’s activities supported aliyah, immigration to Palestine. He helped 500 refugees get there through Scandinavia and France before the German invasion of western Europe blocked this route. With his assistance, 700 persons escaped through Turkey in early 1941.
A myriad of agencies worked with the Lithuanian government and Red Cross to provide relief for the Jewish refugees. The largest was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which channeled funds through Jewish refugee aid committees in Vilna and Kaunas. The “Joint” sent a dynamic American, Moses Beckelman, to work with Yitzhak Gitterman, a refugee who had moved the organization’s Warsaw office to Vilna. The energetic team set up group homes and soup kitchens, distributed clothes and shoes, and provided other services.
“Had it not been for the money made available by the Joint . . . [we] would have found…derelicts here.”
—American relief worker Samuel Schmidt, March 17, 1940
A social worker from New York City, Moses Beckelman began his career with the “Joint” in 1939. In Lithuania he proved an astute negotiator as he struggled to support the refugees in the face of a maze of government regulations and limited financial resources. In December 1939 Beckelman left Lithuania with reports detailing Nazi persecution of Jews in occupied Poland, but the Germans stopped the ship in the Baltic Sea and arrested all Polish nationals of military age aboard. Beckelman was allowed to return to Lithuania, where he assisted the refugees until February 1941.
Fears for Family in Occupied Poland
The refugees worried constantly about loved ones back home. While all Polish citizens alike suffered during the early months of the German occupation of Poland, the segregation and Nazi persecution of Jews included roundups for forced labor, orders to wear special markings, and the establishment in Lodz of the first major ghetto confining Jews. Many refugees attempted to bring family members into Lithuania, but for every one person who entered the country illegally, another failed. Many Jews never tried to flee because of the risks of arrest and their wishes to remain with elderly parents or young children.