The poet Abraham Sutzkever (1913-2010) moved into the Vilna Ghetto not long after the Nazis created it in September 1941 and, with his wife Freydke, escaped to the forest in September 1943. During his two years in the ghetto, he worked with the theater and youth groups and was part of the legendary Paper Brigade, a group of ghetto inmates and their allies who rescued priceless Jewish books and manuscripts from Nazi destruction.
After their escape, Sutzkever and his wife joined a camp of partisan fighters before they were airlifted to Moscow by virtue of his reputation as a partisan poet. Soviet Jewish writers Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman, members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, commissioned him to write a firsthand account of the ghetto for their Black Book project, which was intended as an indictment of Nazi crimes. Sutzkever worked on a first draft during the late spring and summer of 1944, part of which he spent back in Vilna after the city’s liberation by the Red Army. There, he encountered a landscape of total devastation. When publication of The Black Book was thwarted by the Soviet authorities, Sutzkever’s ghetto memoir was published in slightly different editions in Moscow and Paris in early 1946. Sutzkever testified that same winter at the Nuremberg trials.
Soon after, Sutzkever left Moscow, spending time in Lodz and Paris before finally settling in Palestine just before the creation of the State of Israel. He quickly established himself as the central figure of Yiddish literary culture in Tel Aviv, where he edited the preeminent Yiddish quarterly Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain) for almost 50 years. In 1985 he was awarded the Israel Prize for Yiddish literature. He is considered one of the most important Yiddish poets of the 20th century.
In this excerpt from the first English translation of Sutzkever’s ghetto memoir, translated by Justin Cammy of Smith College, the author describes the vast network of subterranean spaces that existed as Jewish hideouts in the ghetto, observations that inspired his 1948 epic poem "Geheymshtot” (Secret City). The memoir itself is a literary masterpiece, documenting, with unwavering patience and precision, unimaginable cruelty and suffering.
Once upon a time, only a thief took to hiding himself in a maline. The saying used to be: “We caught the thief in his lair.” But now every inhabitant of the ghetto required not only a place to live above ground, but also a secure hideout below ground. The word maline became so popular that various new usages of it emerged: me darf zikh malineven [one must go into hiding], bist a guter malinshtshik [you are a good designer of hideouts], ikh bin gelegn malinert [I lay low by concealing myself ], and so on. When the teacher Stolitski’s wife gave birth to a baby girl in a hideout in the second ghetto, she named her Maline.
In the period before the establishment of the ghetto, malines were primitive. People hid in cellars, stoves, dark back rooms, or garrets. During the period of the ghetto, the design of malines developed into a true art. An underground city came to life.
When the Germans also sought to exterminate non-Jews in Vilna, the word also caught on in the city. I read the following slogan in an underground paper: “Poles, hide yourselves in malines!”
Malines were built at night so that nobody would notice. Even the best maline was useless if an unfriendly eye caught a glimpse of it.
Malines were built everywhere: underneath ruined buildings, in cellars, underneath garbage dumps, in caves, and everywhere else imaginable. People would put up a wall in a room, cover it in wallpaper, and construct a hidden entrance around back. This was known as an apartment maline. Thanks to this kind of hideout, people were able to spend the night at home. In case of danger, one could rush directly to the hideaway.
At Rudnitske Street 6, 40 wealthy Jews built an amazing maline. It was accessed through an oven. One opened the oven lid, and from there one was taken into the maline by means of a mobile electric platform, similar to a subway escalator. In the hideout there was a radio, a bath, a place to go to the bathroom, and even a library.
Spokoyni, an engineer who built more than one such living space beneath the ghetto, came up with a maline whose entrance was through a well.
At the HKP concentration camp, around 80 children managed to escape the killing. They were not allowed to show themselves in the camp. Children’s skin was sought after for cosmetic operations. Their parents agreed to wall in a portion of a side room, behind which their offspring could live. Access to them was through a tin stove that was purposely pushed up against the wall. The stove was on all day so that it would not occur to German inspectors to check it.
A school was opened for these eighty walled-in children in the maline. In the morning, their teacher, Opeskin, would crawl through the stove in order to hold class for the young pupils until evening. He organized a performance with them. The stage was decorated in greenery, and they were dressed festively. There, in that walled-in room in a concentration camp, Opeskin’s children performed his song “The Maline Jew”:
Jew, where are you off to in the windy night?
Why does your expression burn with murder and transgression,
And give off sparks of hatred?
I’m off to wherever my feet take me,
My wound is a burning glow,
I am the last Jew, The maline Jew.
Jew, what do you seek on the empty cobblestones?
I wander alone at night
And sneak around until dawn
In search of my beloved’s remains
There where the forlorn cry glows
There where I cannot find it.
Night veils and envelops me,
Daytime’s anger and chaos threaten me.
Where should I disappear?
My tongue is full of curses,
While my dreams today are of the dog that barks
At the maline Jew.
Off you go, Jew, cursing the world,
Blessed is your hand that takes careful aim.
Oh, let hands be put to a good purpose!
Will my sorrow then be stilled?
Will the sun then cast a gentle smile
On the maline Jew?
Those who planned ahead did not think highly of the ghetto hideouts because the Germans were teaching themselves how to locate them. Within the Ypatinga, groups dedicated to khapunes—seizing Jews—specialized in discovering malines. There was also the risk that the ghetto would be burnt to the ground. When the buildings collapsed, they would block access to the hideouts. That’s why malines were built in town, directly accessible from the ghetto. From Shpitol Street 6 an amazing cave was dug out leading to the monastery of the All Saints Church. An underground pathway led from the ghetto hospital to the Choral Synagogue situated on Zavalne. An underground cave led from Daytshe Street 29 to beneath the second ghetto.
There were malines for the wealthy and for the poor, large and small, some able to hold a single family and others a hundred people.
The maline at Daytshe 21, built by Herts Zusman, consisted of three cave-like rooms. Zusman walled in the last one, and dug a tunnel that extended from it into the sewer system, so that those in the underground cave could respond to a sudden danger. Some 60 people lived in its two rooms. Zusman installed a radio, and on the exterior wall, hidden in a water line, he mounted a device that allowed the inhabitants to hear what was happening on the street. He also managed to bring in water and gas. On the chance that those were cut off externally, Zusman dug a well and built a stove. He connected the chimney to that of a non-Jewish neighbour so that when the heating was on it would not arouse suspicion. But this hideout lasted no more than two weeks. The building watchman got wind of it and informed the authorities. The Gestapo came, and spent an entire day destroying the maline. With the help of four youngsters, Zusman broke into the third cellar room that was connected to the sewers, and everyone streamed out into the underground pathways. The five men had to remain behind to conceal the entrance to the cellar. The Gestapo roamed above ground. The five rushed to wall in the entrance with concrete, and to move the food reserves into the sewer pipes. A single man remained in the second cellar room to finish building the wall. When the Gestapo penetrated the maline, he slid through the chimney and reached the third cellar room, and from there he made his way to the sewers.
The same Zusman then hid himself with his family, a group of six, in the boiler room beneath the mass murderer Kittel’s apartment on Kashtan Street 3. Zusman reckoned that to be between a wolf ’s teeth was sometimes safer. Stanisław Stankiewicz, the man responsible for stoking the boiler, hid him there. He brought the family food, hidden underneath ashes in a bucket. The maline was located beneath a staircase cluttered with pieces of wood. The family lay hidden there, tangled together. Once a day, they would all roll over at the same time. Zusman had installed a radio with headphones there, and they would listen to the latest headlines from around the world all day long.
Kittel often came down to the cellar. His voice could be heard through the chunks of wood. The worst days were Saturdays, when members of the Gestapo in the building all took their baths. The wall of fire logs that hid the Zusman family diminished week by week.
The situation became critical as summer neared, when there was no longer any need to heat the boilers. The watchman no longer had a reason to be in the cellar, and he could not bring the family its food. Additionally, the inhabitants kept taking pieces of wood from the stack to heat the water for bathing. After four months of struggle in the maline, the protective wall consisted of only a single remaining log. Zusman and his family had to flee. He returned to the first maline at Daytshe Street 21, the one the Gestapo had previously discovered. They stayed there until the city was liberated. It was common to reuse a hideout that had been previously discovered. The reasoning was simple: it would not occur to the Germans that people would re-establish themselves in a location that had already been compromised.
Terrible tragedies took place in the malines. People died of hunger and suffocation. When the ghetto was liquidated, dozens of people were buried alive underneath collapsed buildings. Even today there are still victims under the rubble. Many malines were revealed because of children: their crying gave away the hideout.
I know of cases where parents suffocated their own children to keep them from crying. Most of the time they did so when threatened by other occupants of the hideaway. “We’re all going to die because of a single child.” In the frenzied conditions of the maline, children were smothered to death.
I took refuge several times in a maline. I know the atmosphere well, the terror of bodies huddled together. The slightest whisper, the slightest movement made one’s heart skip a beat and sapped one’s energy. In such conditions, humans are capable of anything. I hope to forget some of the trials I endured. Some of the horrors have already begun to fade. But I will never forget the moment in one maline when matches would no longer ignite because the air was so low on oxygen.
Several days before the entry of the Red Army into Vilna, the Jews interned in the HKP concentration camp were informed that the camp was to be liquidated and they would be evacuated to Germany. Everyone knew what the word “evacuation” meant. So, they decided to farmalineven, to conceal themselves in a hideout. Nine-year-old Shmuel Gutman told me about the madness that befell his hideout. Others also told me about how the group there lost its collective mind, but let us describe it through the words of a child:
One beautiful morning, Plagge [the head of the HKP camp] showed up and ordered everyone to gather their belongings because we would be departing any day. Everyone was agitated. My father specialized in malines. He took my mother and me to the cooperative. There was a hideout there where they hid the foodstuffs. My father lifted a trapdoor in the floor, and we descended into the cellar down a ladder. There were six rooms. Each of them was stuffed with people. It was suffocating. People were passing out. There was nothing to drink. We had to lick water from a gutter. I did so myself. Suddenly, through a slit, we saw the Germans arrive in a car, furnished with grenades and machine guns. Zmigrod, a quick-thinking man who was hiding among us, pierced a hole in the wall and crawled to a second hideout. He said it would be safer there. My father, my mother, and an entire crowd followed him to the second maline. There was a pipe there through which air was piped in. All of a sudden, someone pointed out to the Germans that there were people in the first hideout. They tossed in grenades that caused a breach in a wall. They seized those who were still hiding there. But they didn’t come across our hideout. All those who had been discovered in the first hideout were gathered together and machine-gunned on the spot.
Because of the grenades that had been tossed into the first hideout, gas penetrated into our maline and a woman suffocated to death. The aged lost consciousness. But children like me did not faint.
My mother lost her mind. She cried out: “They will soon discover our hideout!” But since we had to remain absolutely silent, people started to beat my mother. She couldn’t stop screaming. When one is consumed by terror, one screams. Then another Jew panicked. His name was Malkes, and he started hitting my mother with a brick. My father took out a knife and stabbed Malkes. Six men pounced on him and subdued him. My father, still restrained, cried out: “God, I’ve killed a man.” A person by the name of Kotler begged my father to stop sobbing, but without success. Kotler took out a gun and shot him with a single bullet, but the adrenaline had left Father with extra energy, and he broke free from their restraints and launched himself at the man. Three others finished the job with a brick. Whenever I recount what happened next I choke up. When my mother noticed what happened, she started to wail. Someone struck her in the neck with a brick, and she fell down. She was still alive. They finished her off with another bullet. The two were buried in a hole that was dug in the hideout. I screamed: “Murderers, what are you doing?!,” but nobody paid any attention.
A few days later, we were told that it was time to leave the hideout. A friend of my father’s took me along with him. By the time we made it out, the Russians were already in Vilna.
As mentioned previously, there was a maline for children in the HKP concentration camp. Parents certainly knew that their children would not be able to hold out for long. They tried to transfer them to the city. Dovid Gitelman had a two-year-old daughter in the maline. How could he get her out? The girl might start to cry, and the guards would catch her along with her parents. In the camp, there was a doctor. He suggested that the child be sedated with chloroform, and then smuggled out of the camp in a sack through a trench dug beneath the barbed-wire fence. That’s exactly what happened. The child survived.
I personally knew of 10 such cases of children who were sedated with chloroform so that they could be smuggled to acquaintances in town.
Many malines were revealed because of children: Their crying gave away the hideout.
After the liquidation of the ghetto, a group of Jew-snatchers led by the officer Lukosius descended on Rudnitske Street 6. Their task was to find Jews still hiding in a maline. At the same time they brought workers who were supposed to take all the bedding, furniture, and products from ghetto workshops that had been left behind. The workers were told that they would get a bonus if they happened upon a hideout. The amount of the bonus depended on the number of Jews the worker managed to deliver.
The Jew-snatchers took courses. When I returned to liberated Vilna, I found a chalkboard at their base upon which all the different kinds of malines were described. There were also papers there in the Yiddish alphabet. They were learning Yiddish to assist them in their hunt for malines. They would move from building to building, shouting in Yiddish: “There’s nobody left in the ghetto! You can come out now.”
When they came upon a maline, the Jew-snatchers would drag its occupants to their headquarters, where they stole everything from the Jews, searched them, and delivered them to the Gestapo. They kept young women behind to rape them. Later, they tried to convince them that their lives would be spared if they revealed where other Jews were hiding.
Itsik Lurie told me that while he hid underneath the parquet floor at Oshmener Street 1, he saw two Jew-snatchers through a crack guiding a fettered horse into the building. They walked it around the full length of the room which had once housed a felt-boot workshop several times. They were trying to detect whether there was a void where Jews could hide by listening to the sound of the horse’s hoofs on the floor.
Meanwhile, Lurie was confused. He did not understand what was happening. While the horse was above his maline, he overheard one of the Jew-snatchers say: “Perhaps here, let’s look.” And Lurie heard the sound of an axe right above his head. He escaped through a second exit.
Eliohu Kopanski’s maline at Rudnitske 23 was among the few to hold out until liberation. Kopanski enclosed a section of his maline to conceal a room, and covered the partition wall with newspapers. He and his family took refuge behind the partition. The little room had three entrances: through a cellar, through a wall which had an opening covered with bricks and was hidden by a layer of earth on the outside, and through the partition wall, itself masked by newspapers. In front of the entrance to this hidden room he purposely tossed all his belongings and bedding to give the impression that the place had already been ransacked and that there was no need to search it again. Kopanski even left the wall clock.
After a month in the maline subsisting only on peas, he crawled out of his maline to another room and looked outside. He wanted to know if the HKP camp was still there. He saw two young girls go by. He had a sense they were Jews. He popped his head out of the metal door and asked the girls about the camp. They did not respond. A Jew-snatcher happened to be right across the way. He screamed at the young girls: “Do you know who just spoke to you. A zhid!”
Kopanski sped back to his maline and concealed its entrance. He remained in his little room and listened through the false partition wall to determine what was happening. A few hours later, the metal door opened and some people entered the front room. Kopanski heard the voices of two girls. One asked the other in Yiddish, “Where did you come from?” and the other responded, also in Yiddish, “From HKP.” Conversations such as this in Yiddish repeated themselves again and again over the next couple of weeks. The murderers were trying to trick Kopanski in order to uncover his maline. But he understood their games and did not fall into their trap.
Kopanski was running low on food. He counted how many peas remained. He and his family subsisted on 50 peas per day. During the two weeks before liberation they got by on only 22 peas per day. When Kopanski could no longer bear the hunger, he left the maline to search for food, only to discover that the city had been liberated a week earlier.
Most of the malines, whether in the city or in the ghetto, did not manage to hold out. They were revealed through denunciations or through searches. The will to live drove ten Jews who were being hunted to the sewers. They felt more secure in this mouse-ridden, disgusting realm than anywhere in town. They accustomed themselves quickly to the flow of water, learning how to fasten themselves to the pipes with their hands to prevent themselves from being carried away by the current. They came to know this underground network by heart, recognizing every blind nook, and naming these underground sewer lines according to the streets under which they passed. They used to say, “I’m on Rudnitske,” or “I’m on Breyte,” and so on. They wandered these Vilna “streets” by night, crawling out of the sewer covers in search of food. People lived with the hope that liberation was near.
There were different kinds of sewers. The pipes underneath main roads ranged from 1.2 to 1.8 metres in height. Those underneath smaller streets were not more than 80, 50, or even 40 centimetres. The oldest pipes were no longer used for discharge. There were small reservoirs in them. When the water was flowing, all of the refuse gathered in these reservoirs. One needed to pay careful attention while walking. It was possible to fall in, hurt oneself, and even to drown if the current was strong enough.
It was impossible to remain in the sewers for long. Even during the summer it was cold down there, and still more so when winter approached. Different groups and families were in contact with non-Jews in the city who lived close to the sewer lines, and with their help malines were constructed underneath their apartments. From these malines, tunnels were dug to meet up with the sewer system, and sewer lids were made that could be closed from the inside so that they would not be noticed. People lived in these newly constructed malines. At the first sign of danger they escaped to the sewers.
There were 15 such malines connected to the sewer system. Around one hundred and fifty people hid in them, and they were all over the city on the following streets: Stefn, Rudnitske, Novigorod, Subotsh, Glezer, and Ignatover. These sewer-Jews spent most of the day sleeping. They did not move around because during the day sanitation workers were present. Life began at night when the sewer lids were opened, and people called on one another. From the maline at Vilner Street 22 they made their way to Subotsh Street 10. From Glezer Street 9 they went for tea at Daytshishe Street 19.
The maline at Daytshishe 19 was one of the most important. I was there. It was a masterpiece in the full sense of the word. Its entry was through a private apartment. Its owner, Monika Kolvaitis, helped in its construction. One opened a hatch in the floor that led down to a dark and humid cellar. In one corner there was a crate of potatoes. One removed two boards from the crate and crawled on all fours until one was able to push open a cover with one’s head to access a second cellar. In the corner, one rolled away a stone to crawl up a steep set of steps until one arrived at a nook between two walls. There was a well shaft there. One descended the shaft by a ladder, and about 2 metres from the water’s surface, there were two wooden logs upon which one slid into a very narrow sewer. Only after passing through the entire pipe did one arrive at the maline.
The maline gave off the impression of being a normal apartment. There was electricity and a radio on a table. The wooden beds were impeccably made, and the walls were well painted. What most impressed me was the blue fabric that beautifully covered the walls. There was a pantry, a kitchen, and a bathroom. In the bathroom there was a shower, whose water flowed from the concrete floor into a pipe which carried it away. At the entrance to the bathroom was a wooden doormat to clean one’s shoes. When the doormat was lifted, one entered a hole that led to the sewers.
Dozens of Jews from different “streets” visited the maline at Daytshishe Street 19 at night. They left with the latest radio reports that they then spread throughout the “underground city.”
People went out on dates in the sewers. They pursued their romantic relationships down there. It was forbidden to light a match, to prevent any light from being seen through the grates above ground. But young people still managed to rendezvous in prearranged spots. Love provided moments of brightness in the dark. Such amorous encounters sometimes almost revealed the location of a maline. On one occasion a young couple in the heat of passion found themselves underneath a sewer grate gazing up at the moon. During this moment of intense pleasure, the lovers forgot that the Germans were on the sidewalk above them. The couple were talking and giggling out loud. A passerby heard them and alerted the Gestapo, which came to arrest them the next morning.
When 30 people in the underground city heard that the maline at Daytshe 19 was under attack, they abandoned the cave for the sewers. The Germans blocked the road above ground and tossed grenades into open manholes. Most of the maline’s inhabitants managed to escape the explosions and take refuge with their subterranean neighbours. Three people died: a paralysed woman, an old man, and a child.
Food was often provided by those neighbours in whose cellars malines were constructed. From time to time, those in hiding would slip into town to purchase supplies. A synagogue and a cemetery were also created during the year spent underground. Six people were buried in a makeshift cemetery located in the maline at Glezer Street 9. Celebrations were also held in the sewers. They lit candles on Hanukkah, and ate latkes.
The first of May was celebrated in a unique way. Young girls embroidered red flags, and at night the flags were tossed into the streets above through sewer grates.
The arts also thrived underground. The composer Bernshteyn spent half a year in the sewers. Before she found a corner for herself in a nearby maline, she hid in a little well shaft underneath Hotel Europa. For days on end she would listen to the splashing of mice in the water, and to their unusual sounds echoing in the cavernous sewers. Pieces of glass, tin cans, and stones also floated by in the water. When combined with the sounds of mice, these objects all came together in a kind of harmony for the musician, who was inspired to compose a piece there in the sewers.
I have a diary written in the sewers by the aforementioned famous architect of the underground city, Gershn Abramovitsh. Here are a few remarkable excerpts from his diary:
Mendl crawled first. He was holding a pouch of dry toast between his teeth. It had already fallen in the water several times when Mendl had started to speak, forgetting that his mouth was full. Fetid drops dripped from the bag. Mendl was carrying his daughter on his back, who had her little arms grasped tightly around his neck. Mendl was sweating. Because of the little bag in his mouth, he had to breathe through his nose. The sewer pipe was 80 centimetres in height. He had to bend over so that it would not scrape his daughter’s back. From behind, he resembled a mythological creature carrying its child through prehistoric caves. He was impatient and extended his right arm. His right leg had to keep up. Because of his awkward movements, when his backside rose his daughter fell forward. She wanted to scream out “Daddy!” but caught herself because she knew the Germans might overhear.
I was crawling behind Mendl. My bundle was crushing my shoulders, and the sack of bread I was holding in my mouth threatened to tear out my front teeth. I had to brace with my knees against the cast-iron walls, so that the current would not carry me away.
The cast iron tore my pants, and my knees were burning in pain. My arms were bleeding, too. Khayke and Mother crawled behind me. And behind all of us was the din of water streaming in from Stefn and Zavalne Streets. The noise was amplified a thousandfold and resonated through the sewers like a waterfall.
We crawled on. The noise from our “waterfall” diminished. We heard the drone of passing cars.
All of a sudden we heard a cry. We overheard Yiddish words. Nobody could tell where it was coming from. The sewer continued on to the right. We could see a somber grey light in the distance. We came to a small well-shaft. Mendl and I crawled inside it. The rest of our group remained in the water to catch its breath. The voices were getting closer. Through the sewer grates we could see the edges of blue sky. The sound of footsteps. We looked up, and, through the grates, we saw boots, luggage, slippers, and even naked feet. The feet were running. It seemed as though they were being chased. At the time, I was just opposite the ghetto gate. The last ghetto Jews were being liquidated. I heard the voice of a child: “Mother, help! They’re beating me!” The mother gathered her remaining strength and rushed over to her child. The blows of a rifle-butt rained down on her.
I climbed the stairs all the way to the grate. Above my head soldiers’ boots were treading on the metal. Only 20 centimetres separated us. A woman passed carrying a large bundle on her shoulders. A little girl emerged from under the bundle. I saw a grey beard dripping with blood. I recognized the man. He had been my neighbour in the ghetto. There were also young men, arms linked.
Trucks stopped. They were stuffed with the inhabitants of the ghetto to take them to their death.
… We had been wandering in the sewers for five days. It had rained the day before. A strong current came in its wake. The water took us for such a ride underneath Zavalne Street that we rode it like a motorcycle. Thanks to a miracle, I managed to grab hold of a branch of the sewer pipe at Troker Street. Had I not, the current would almost certainly have been the end of me. The sack of bread that I had been holding in my teeth was lost. Mendl found it the next day against a grate by the river.
When the Red Army encircled the Germans in Vilna and every street became the frontline, the inhabitants of the underground city rushed to the sewers to see what was going on above ground through the grates. Were they in a part of the city under the control of the Germans or the Red Army? If they saw a Red Army soldier it was a sign that the street had been liberated. Youth in the sewers would call back to their comrades: “Run away from Germany and come over here! We are no longer under Hitler’s heel!”
They escaped through the grates into the liberated streets to take up the battle to help liberate others.
Translated from the Yiddish by Justin Cammy. Cammy is professor of Jewish Studies and World Literatures at Smith College. His prize-winning critical edition and translation of Abraham Sutzkever’s From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg: Memoir and Testimony was published by McGill-Queens
University Press in 2021.
Abraham Sutzkever (1913-2010) was an acclaimed Yiddish-language poet. He has been described as “the greatest poet of the Holocaust.”