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Gens, Jakub

(1903–1943), commander of the Jewish police in the Vilna ghetto and later the ghetto’s strongman. Born in Illovieciai, Lithuania, Jakub Gens joined the Lithuanian army at age 16, eventually rising to the rank of captain. In 1935 he graduated from Kaunas University in law and economics. A member of Betar, the rightist youth movement of the Revisionist Zionist party, he moved to Vilna following the annexation of Lithuania to the Soviet Union in June 1940. In September 1941, when the ghetto was established following the German invasion and occupation of Lithuania, Anatol Fried, chairman of the Judenrat, appointed him commander of the ghetto Jewish police. Gradually becoming the ghetto’s strongman by establishing direct contacts with the German authorities, he made the police a decisive force in ghetto life. In the summer of 1942 the Germans dismissed the Judenrat, and Gens officially became the only representative of the ghetto, as well as of the camps and small ghettos nearby. A year later, on 14 September 1943, just 10 days before the final liquidation of the ghetto, he was shot to death in the Gestapo courtyard.

Gens’s role in the ghetto is controversial: his policy of “salvation through work” was proven tragically wrong, but he was not alone among leaders of large ghettos to misconstrue Nazi intentions. Many of the police under his command, including his deputy Salek Dessler, behaved cruelly, helping the Germans deport ghetto residents and find Jews in hiding. On the other hand, Gens could have been hidden by his army comrades or by his relatives—his wife was Lithuanian—but he chose to divorce her and enter the ghetto, sparing her and their daughter a Jew’s fate. As a Betar member imbued with a strong Zionist sense of Jewish nationalism and an officer brought up to fulfill missions with distinction, he was a natural leader. The Vilna ghetto was well organized, clean, and productive. None of the 20,000 inhabitants died of hunger or cold, cultural and educational life was exceptionally lively, and very few committed suicide. Gens succeeded in instilling, at least partially, the hope for them to cling to life until the Red Army, advancing from the east since spring 1943, would liberate them. He promised the members of the ghetto underground that he would join them in battle when that day arrived. But he turned against the underground when he thought they endangered the ghetto’s existence, and made painful decisions, hoping first to save the majority, then a minority, and finally only a remnant.

During the last months of the shrinking ghetto, Gens fully understood that his policy had failed, that the underground had correctly predicted the inevitable end of the ghetto, and that his strong position inside the ghetto was worth nothing outside its gate. He could have avoided being shot by the Gestapo, having been warned beforehand, but chose not to, fearing the consequences to the ghetto. Though their end was looming, the ghetto residents felt bereaved at his death, having lost a leader and strong source of support.

Suggested Reading

Yitzhak (Tolka) Arad, Ghetto in Flames: The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust (Jerusalem, 1980); Zelig Kalmanovitch, Yoman be-Geto Vilnah (Tel Aviv, 1977); Herman Kruk, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939–1944 (New Haven, 2002); Dina Porat, Me-‘Ever la-gashmi: Parashat ḥayav shel Aba Kovner (Tel Aviv, 2000).