Between 1944 and 1946, the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever produced a brief memoir of the Vilna Ghetto, which the Nazis created in September 1941 and destroyed two years later—after murdering most of its inhabitants or sending them to concentration camps, and letting countless others die of disease and starvation. In this selection from Justin Cammy’s translation, Sutzkever describes the malines (pronounced mah-LEE-ness), or underground hideouts, the inhabitants constructed to avoid the Germans and their local helpers. These makeshift bunkers were a testament to Jewish inventiveness and determination to live—and also, as Sutzkever relates, the locations of bone-chilling horrors all their own.
At the HKP concentration camp [just outside the ghetto], around 80 children managed to escape the killing. They were not allowed to show themselves in the camp [lest they be murdered]. 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 80 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.” . . .
Food was often provided by those neighbors 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.