WITTENBERG, YIẒHAK (Itzig ; 1907–1943), first commander of the Jewish fighters' organization in the Vilna ghetto (Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye, United Partisan Organization, fpo). He was born into a working class family and worked as a tailor before the war and was a Communist from his youth. During the Soviet occupation of Vilna he was a Communist activist. He became one of the leaders of the Communist underground during the German occupation.
The fighters' organization was established in the ghetto after the Nazis systematically murdered more than 40,000 Vilna Jews, after transporting them to the site of the massacre at *Ponary. After the organization was established, Wittenberg was chosen commander. He headed the training program and was an outstanding officer. On July 15, 1943, one of Wittenberg's contacts was caught by the Nazis outside the ghetto, who were apparently unaware of the existence of the fpo. On the evening of the same day, the leaders of the fighters' organization were ordered to appear before Jacob Gens, the chief of the Jewish police in the ghetto, to provide an explanation. The commanders appeared at the appointed hour, and after a short period *ss men broke into the office by the side door with their guns pointed at the fighters. They were ordered to identify Wittenberg, but refused to answer, until Gens himself pointed him out. Wittenberg was handcuffed and taken out in the direction of the gate of the ghetto, but his captors never succeeded in getting him there. The ghetto fighters attacked the ss men and in an exchange of fire succeeded in freeing Wittenberg. Instead of attacking the ghetto and destroying it with Wittenberg inside, the ss handed Gens an ultimatum that he must turn Wittenberg over to them before 3:00 a.m. or they would destroy the ghetto and all its inhabitants.
Due to the tempestuous situation created in the ghetto after Gens repeated the ultimatum, it was necessary to extend the time to 6:00 a.m. At first, people were unwilling to believe Gens' testimony that the Germans intended to destroy the ghetto. Two camps quickly emerged: representatives of the fighters, who believed that under no circumstances was Wittenberg to be given over to the Nazis; and those who supported Gens and demanded that it was necessary to spare the ghetto and hand Wittenberg over to the Germans at the appointed hour, so as not to endanger the entire ghetto for the sake of one man. They also felt that the time was not ripe for a general uprising. The exchanges between the two sides reached the proportions of a civil war in the eyes of the Nazis, who stood on the side waiting for the time to run out. The fighters opened up negotiations with the chief of police with the intention of offering a volunteer to deceive the Germans or to claim that Wittenberg had escaped. But Gens rejected the suggestion. The fighters were close to despair, seeing all their preparations for the fateful day collapsing because of one incident, and they demanded that Wittenberg give the order to fight. But Wittenberg was not prepared to allow Jew to fight Jew until his fighters reached their real enemy. Full of confidence, he walked out into the deserted street, approached the ghetto gate, and turned himself over to the Germans. He was subsequently tortured and died. Some say that he took his own life in prison.
J. Robinson, And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight (1965), 219, 343 note 235; M. Rolnik, Ani Ḥayyevet le-Sapper (1965), 89–92. add. bibliography: Y. Arad, Ghetto in Flames:The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust (1980).
[B. Mordechai Ansbacher /
Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]