Stronger Than Iron, the Destruction of Vilna Jewry 1941-1945: An Eyewitness Account by Mendel Balberyszski
Prior to World War II, Vilna was an intellectual and cultural mecca for European Jews- a contemporary cosmopolitan city in Poland with a total population of 270,000. Approximately 75,000 were of Jewish descent. What happened after the German invasion in 1941 was catastrophic for all humanity. In just three years the Nazis barbarically reduced the population to 110,000. Only 84 Jewish people survived. One of them was Mendel Balberyszski.
Mendel Balberyszski was a successful, highly respected, educated pharmacist who was deeply immersed in Jewish public life. He was devoted to his family and his community. Stronger than Iron is Mendel’s documented account of the Nazi invasion. In Mendel’s words, “All our notions of evil, suffering, brutality, human hate, pain and sadism, all our understandings about the greatest and most shocking fate that can befall humanity were to pale and count for nothing compared to what we were to go through in the next three years”.
Just a few months after the German invasion, the entire Jewish population was herded into two inadequately small rundown ghettos; ransacked buildings surrounded by fence. Forced to leave their homes and a lifetime accumulation of personal belongings, they were escorted to the ghetto with only as much as they could physically carry. The amazing thing about these people was their eternal optimism; courage, resourcefulness, and unwavering faith. The community elders immediately created an official advisory board- the Judenrat- to handle all administrative tasks: housing, a hospital, food distribution, cleaning crews, and the opening of a school and daycare for the orphans because hundreds of adults had already disappeared. But the Nazis didn’t waste any time in pushing the Jewish population to extinction; curfews, bans against working and walking on sidewalks, armbands for identity, scarce food supplies, and sadistic mind games. And then the round-up’s began, sometimes thousands of innocent citizens were taken away at once. Fear! Confusion! Chaos! Speculation after each round-up as people watched their loved ones, neighbors, friends, and family removed from the ghetto. Work crews? They wanted to believe in deportations to work crews. It was just too inconceivable to think intelligent, strong, productive people could be headed for systematic Death Squads. Such madness!
Stronger than Iron is not an easy book to read. Many of the graphic details are nauseating: families torn apart, starvation, torture, and death… day after day… for three long years. Always thinking that things couldn’t possibly get any worse, Mendel experienced the liquidation of two ghettos and then, separated from his wife and daughter, Mendel and his son made the four day journey in a closed dirty freight car to Klooga, the Estonia concentration camp. Mendel miraculously survived to tell his story.
First published in Yiddish in 1967, Stronger than Iron has recently been translated to English and is now available in the United States. As Mendel warned, it exposes the depth of monstrous evil acts of which human beings are capable. But above all, it is an inspirational example of one mans ability to survive with steadfast determination without losing faith and without relinquishing his dignity. I cannot rate this book high enough. Whether this would be your first experience in reading a true holocaust survivor story, or like me, you have a collection of these precious memoirs, Stronger than Iron is a powerful historical documentary you will never forget.
Rated 5 Stars – October 2010
All contents © 2015 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved