Over the years they come back. Just a handful, to be sure, but they come. They come to find the site of the most confused chapter in the Lithuanian Holocaust. The Church of the Missionaries in Vilnius, where the Final Selection took place.
For the children and grandchildren of the few survivors, the very small group of witnesses who saw what happened there and lived to tell anyone, the site is Rosa. The name has been lost to modern residents of the city, many decades ago. The city itself has changed, not just the names. Once there was a courtyard behind the gate of the Church of the Missionaries on Subačius street just a block or two out of the Old Town. There was a railroad spur right there which connected with the central Vilnius train station, somewhat more distant than the Old Town and in a different direction. The square was called Rosa. There was a nunnery adjacent, and apparently a small jail called the Rosa Street Jail which the Nazis used, implying there was also a Rosa street. If you continue down Subačius or Subocz street past the church, you reach the two large apartment complexes where the Jews enslaved to the HKP, essentially the local automobile workshop for the Wehrmacht, were kept, just a hop, skip and a jump away from Rosa Square.
The church itself has been locked and boarded up for many decades now. Its forbidding almost Cyclopean oversized wooden front doors are still there in all their strange geometric glory, and the archway through the masonry fence into what was the courtyard is still there, but everything else seems to have changed permanently. We were there several years ago, almost ten now, with the unlikely-named Mr. Rosenson, a high school teacher in Tel Aviv, whose mother was a Vilna ghetto inmate who underwent the final selection at Rosa and survived. The entire area has a wild and abandoned aspect which isn’t interrupted by a rusting Soviet-era metal mesh fence dividing the churchyard proper from the slope behind it leading down to the Vilnele creek. Where the gate leads onto Subocz there was an old woman feeding what looked to be a hundred cats from food left out in a whole host of tins, pots and cans. Looking from the churchyard toward Subocz, to her right inside the ancient wall there were some sort of abandoned houses, presumably once completed during the Soviet era but subsequently abandoned to the ravages of time, cats and the homeless. The nunnery, or what looks like it must have once been, behind the looming church had been turned into some sort of infectious disease hospital rooms. At a much larger entrance to the churchyard down Subocz there is a sign announcing a small building is a repository for medical corpses. In between that small house and the church building itself there is another entrance behind a wooden gate to what is, or was then, the infectious diseases hospital. Chaim Rosenson took video footage of the entire site, including masonry and old motifs built into the former church and monastery, to show his mother, who did later confirm it was Rosa. Up until then it was sort of an open question as to whether Rosa meant Church of the Missionaries or was instead located at Rasu cemetery on the opposite side of Vilnius, out towards where another outsourced group of Vilna ghetto prisoners worked at a German military hospital and, as did the HKP prisoners in large part, survived the so-called “liquidation” of the Vilna ghetto proper.
Oversized front entrance of the towering Church of the Missionaries,
locked for decades, courtesy Yael Sadeh
Why do we say “liquidation?” Because the Nazis used this euphemism for mass murder and for many decades it has seemed somehow more tasteful to talk about the mass murder and deportation for later mass murder of thousands of Vilna ghetto prisoners using that word. There have been studies of all the special terminology the Nazis used in the Holocaust, but those studies have all been conducted in the West, and it hasn’t sunk in here yet that “liquidation” is really a veiled justification, almost a humane act: Himmler ordered all the ghettos in the East “liquidated,” and those who are wont to make excuses for the Holocaust can go on willfully believing the Jews were simply sent home, or died of typhus in refugee camps the humanitarian Nazi leadership set up.
Many have made the mistake of thinking the “liquidation” of the Vilna ghetto was something that happened over the course of a day or two. The same mistake has been made regarding the Final Selection at Rosa. In fact, the formal and wholesale disassembly of the Vilna ghetto took almost a month, not including holdouts in the aftermath, and was effected in stages, with ghetto leader Gens ordering thousands of Jews to “volunteer” for repatriation to labor camps in Estonia. This signaled the imminent destruction about to be rained down up the ghetto Jews, and the FPO, the united partisan organization, mobilized almost a month before the ghetto was “liquidated.” The only shots fired by the FPO turned out to be Yechiel Sheinbaum’s abortive attempt to keep German and Estonian Nazis from entering Strashun, now Žemaitija, street, and another episode which directly relates to Rosa. Sheinbaum fired on advancing troops, immediately drew fire and was immediately and fatally wounded, and died right there on the balcony where he stood. The Estonian and German Nazis responded by blowing up the entire building which formerly stood at Strashun No. 12, roughly almost at the intersection where Žemaitija now intersects Šv. Mykolojus street. Estonian roundups and Gens’s assurances “volunteers” would not be killed but would only be sent to work camps had the effect of completely annulling the FPO’s long-term plan which had been to defend the ghetto itself during an invasion. Ghetto residents now saw a chance to survive, while an FPO uprising only held the prospect of a quick death. The FPO shifted gears and began to exfiltrate its own members to Soviet partisan groups in the forests. Another armed battle took place as a small group of Jewish partisans escaped through the storm-drainage system, basically the sewers, from a manhole which was located where now Rudininkų intersects Vokiečių, right next to where one set of ghetto gates once stood. This group of four ran into a German patrol after they had emerged after several hours near Šv. Ignotas street. They had no intention of surrendering and opened fire on the Nazis, killing at least one. They were quickly outnumbered by Nazi reinforcements, and taken prisoner, frog-marched to Rosa and hung there in front of a captive audience. Their bodies were left dangling for days and different waves of the victims of the final selection were forced to witness the dangling corpses. For some it was one of the final shocking images in a life cut short. For others it was just another in the litany of atrocities leading up to eventual liberation, a litany which included Lithuanians and Ukrainians rounding them up from the Vilna ghetto, Ukrainians robbing and assaulting them as they sat outside for days in the Rosa courtyard on the way to the concentration camps of Poland, Latvia and Estonia and the image of hundreds of their fellow citizens killed and stacked like firewood ready for burning as the Soviets advanced on Estonia, Latvia, Poland and Berlin.
Two relatives of the leader of that expedition, the storm-drain faction who opened fire on the Nazis, recently visited the Lithuanian Jewish Community. The sisters Yael Sadeh and Chava Lev had come to Lithuania as part of the Mickey Cantor delegation of March of the Living marchers from Israel. Their father was Abraham “Abrasha” Chwojnik’s brother, in other words, he was their uncle. Besides marching at Ponar and attending some receptions at the headquarters of the Lithuanian government, both women visited Rosa, led by the local Jewish Vilna tourist guide Sofija Ligija “Iga” Makutėnienė, herself the granddaughter of famous Lithuanian Holocaust rescuer Sofija Binkienė, who has never harbored any doubts regarding the exact location of the site, which is rather clearly described, if fragmentarily, in both Kruk and Arad.
A party of four, among them Abraham Chwojnik and Jacob Kaplan, both members of the [FPO] Staff Command, were stopped by a German patrol which demanded that they identify themselves. The group fired at the patrol and killed a German security policeman. The four were caught, taken to Rossa Square, and hanged by Kittel in full view of the Jews gathered there.
(Yitzhak Arad, Ghetto in Flames, p. 434)
The “coverage” of the Final Selection at Rosa in Kruk is very poor, compared to the detail his diary contains regarding almost every other event in the life and death of the Vilna ghetto, and consists of fragments of eye-witness reports. It isn’t even certain Kruk compiled these fragments before he was murdered, they were simply placed in his archives which were subsequently hidden and recovered after liberation.
In Subocz: Here we gathered at the church, where women and children were separated. In the street, the men were assembled. There were probably 2,000 people. They slept under the rain. At night, an orchestra played from a car, and various announcements were made, for example, that the men would soon see their wives, that they would be taken away at 6 P.M. for work in Vaivara [in Estonia], that there would be coffee in the evening, that all instruments, knives, forks, spoons, and tools had to be turned in. The area was enclosed in barbed wire. At night, the Ukrainian guards walked among the half-sleeping people, robbed and beat them, fired a shot as a provocation, and ostensibly looked for the shooter, and so on.
Indeed, on the 24th in the morning, they took away the instruments; later we attended the execution of four comrades. Then followed the selection of 100 old people: Berlm Yitskhok Riklis, the owner of the house on the 3rd of May, Rashkes, and others. Finally, around 4 A.M., the trial of the four began.
The Execution: The SS men asked whether there was one Kovner here, for he has to go over to HKP. Later they were looking for Palevsky but didn’t find him, either. Then they called Grisha Levin, who was pointed out to them as Palevsky’s bodyguard. The German told him he would soon be shot with the others, and took him away. Later the verdict was read, charging them with attempting armed action against the Germans. The protocol was read by Weiss himself.
About the 100: Sitting in the field, the Ukrainians blubbered that the 100 were shot because 8 Germans were wounded. In exchange for this information, they wanted a watch. Comrade Mechanik gave him his watch… They asked for another watch for information about what happened to the women…
Travel: All the men were marched before the four corpses! …
(Herman Kruk, Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania)
The last time I visited Rosa, the hospital had been closed down, and evidently some considerable time before. There was a couple in a sports car in the parking lot embracing. The army of cats wasn’t there at the gate to Subocz at that time, but there was a very expensive looking black sports car and two men discussing something as one of them kept surveying the landscape furtively. The wild wood which had grown up in the space between the Soviet-era townhouses and the ravine was also gone, cleared away, and some sort of hint of new construction was underway there. I walked through the recently reclaimed wild meadow and almost stepped right on top of a small plastic bag filled with some brown liquid. As I bent over I made out the words “medical waste” on a white sticky label at one end of the sack, and noted the container was not breached and maintained its integrity. Somewhere near the former nunnery/hospital ward I thought I saw a rat peek out from behind a wall, but there were no cats to follow that up, and I quickly left, feeling slightly dirty about the legs and especially ankles.
The HKP dormitories down the street, which are still residential housing, have a sizable stone monument to the Jewish victims in the yard between them. There is no marker at Rosa. Kitty-corner across the street (the former Rosa Street? not Subocz, in any case) there is an abandoned prison with some razor wire around the top of the fence still visible. Inside the former prison there is a tidy little building, almost new-looking, with inscriptions in Polish announcing it is an affiliate or branch of some Polish nunnery, something about the Virgin Mary. No “railroad spur” is visible now in the immediate area, although the rail lines themselves are very close by.
Yael Sadeh promised to send the Lithuanian Jewish Community further information about her uncle and family, and this is what she did send, along with a collection of images from Vilna at that time:
Subject: Vilna- Abrasha Chwojnik’s story, Rossa square
From: “Yael Sadeh” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Sun, April 26, 2015 11:30 pm
Now, after we got back to Israel I’m sending you the information about Abrasha Chwojnik (my uncle), as I promised to send you in the meeting at the Jewish Community Center last week (hope it is not too late) including some pictures of Rossa square (an old picture and new one with Abrasha’s family).
The story of Abrasha (Abraham Issack) Chwojnik and his family:
There were 3 boys in this family that grew up in Bialystok: Fishel, Abrasha, Yosef (see attached pictures)
The Chwojnik brothers (both photos)
Doba Chwojnik (Abrasha’s mother):
She was a very active person in Bialystok Jewish life and she was also a Zionist figure.
She managed an orphan house. She immigrated to Israel in 1934. She returned to Bialystok in 1938/9 to take some possessions of the family to Israel but the war caught her and she died from a bomb that fell on a train on the first day of the war.
Moshe Halevi Chwojnik (Abrasha’s father):
He probably died many years before his family immigrated to Israel.
Fishel (1905) who was an activist in Hashomer Hatzair and so also a Zionist, immigrated to Israel at the beginning of the 1920s and was one of the founders of the kibbutz Ein Shemer. Unfortunately, he died at a very young age of 31 (in 1936) from a heart attack. His wife Rivka was 7 months pregnant with his son, —called Dagi (fish) after his father—and had also a 4 year daughter.
Abrasha (1907), unlike the rest of his family, was an activist in the Bund (an anti-Zionist movement) and so he didn’t immigrate to Israel. He was a lawyer. He studied at Vilna University—and therefore he moved from Bialystok to Vilna.
Abraham Chwojnik (photo and exhibit display)
He was one of 5 commanders at the headquarters of the FPO—the partisan organization in the Vilna Ghetto. On the last day of the Ghetto, 23.9.1943, the rest of the partisans (those who stayed until the last day in the ghetto) escaped through the sewage pipes and their goal was to reach out of the ghetto and then to go to the forest near Vilna. Most of the partisans including their commanders (the chief one being Abba Kovner) succeeded in escaping to the prepared shelter in the city of Vilna (outside of the ghetto) but as soon as Abrasha and his girlfriend Asia, and one more partisan (Yaacov Kaplan) got out of the sewer, they faced Nazi policemen and so Abrasha shot at the officers and killed one or two of them. They continued shooting until they ran out of all their ammunition. The three (some evidence say they were 4) of them got caught and were hung immediately at Rossa Square in front of all the rest of the Jews who were gathered there (before taking them to concentration camps).
Abrasha received a posthumous award from the Polish Army in 1945 – A Virtuti Militari stage 5.
Abrasha probably had some disability in one of his hands.
From Alexander (Shura) Bugen’s story :
“After the meeting ended (moments before escaping to the forest), only Abrasha Kavinik and I were left. He showed me his very thin hands, saying, ‘Look at my hands, Alexander. Do they really need people like me in the forest?’ He looked at me with a very stressful look. I was very anxious. I could not say a word. It was as if my throat would betray me. I said, ‘Don’t be foolish. Go quickly and be ready to join us.’ An expression of hope filled his eyes, but this gentle and noble man did not arrive at the forest.
“A bitter fate awaited him on his route. When they reached the edge of the forest, he and his two friends, Jacov Kaplan and Asia Bik, encountered the Germans. They were not fearful; they shot them, he himself killing two Germans, and continued shooting until they ran out of all their ammunition. They were captured and tortured and were hung in front of thousands of Jews who stood by train cars that were just about to take them to the concentration camp in Estonia”
“I also met Abraham Kavinik—he was a member of the Bund. I also knew him from the University of Vilna. He was thin and handicapped in one arm. He was a true intellectual.”
Abrasha was a much-loved person in Vilna.
Yosef (my father) (1913) came to Israel in 1929 by himself and first of all he studied at Mikve Israel—an agricultural school—for 2-3 years, and then found many jobs, until he joined the Israeli Army (1948). He was a general in the Air Force for several years. After his retirement from the army he worked as an administrative manager at Gimnasia Hertzelia in Tel Aviv (the first Hebrew school). He died at the age of 67 from heart problems.
Some more information about Abrasha Chwojnik:
* From “The Escape to the Rudnicki Forest” [on the internet]:
At seven o’clock in the morning on September 23, 1943, the final liquidation began. The remaining sixty, some say eighty F.P.O. underground members that still remained in the ghetto [Rossa Square: http://www.untilourlastbreath.com/rossa.html ]
Old road to Rosa from the ravine side
escaped by crawling through the city sewers. The underground members emerged out of the sewer at Ignoto Street and split into two groups. The first group gathered themselves in Pushkin’s cellar underneath the Gestapo’s Central Police Station where they remained for four days before heading to the forest, and the second group proceeded to Kailis, a work camp of furriers that produced coats for the German troops on the front. However, on the way to the gathering point three F.P.O. members were stopped by the Gestapo. There were shots fired and Max Gross, a Gestapo policeman, was killed. All three FPO members were caught alive, brought to Rossa Square, and hanged at the gallows by Nazi officer Bruno Kittel.
* Monument at the New Jewish cemetery:
The path through the sewer pipes (in black):
Hope you may find this information suitable for your needs. If you have any questions, I’ll be glad to help
All the best,
PS: We’d be happy to receive your article (paper) if possible.
(Yael and Nava- daughters of Yosef, Dagi – son of Fishel)
Friends and relatives at Rosa in 2015
Remembering the dead at Rosa, 2015
commemorative marker, current