Poet of the Vilna Ghetto

Lea Rudnicka

Lea Rudnicka (alternatively Rudnitzka or Rudnitzky) was born in 1916 in the city of Kalwarija in southwestern Lithuania.

Showing early talent as a poet, she moved first to Kovne (Kaunas), where she published her work in Jewish literary magazines. In 1939, she made the city of Wilno her home, where she quickly integrated herself into the well-developed Yiddish literary scene.

In 1940, while the city was under Russian occupation, she joined the publishing staff of the Yiddish journal ווילנער אמת (Wilno Truth).  After the German invasion in 1941, her poetry changed, reflecting the worsening conditions of the Jews of Lithuania in its dark and tragic imagery.  At this time, she composed a small volume of poems entitled נעלפּען (Mists) and also produced a song collection.

Lea Rudnicka’s classic lullaby as reprinted by Szmerke Kaczerginski

Rudnicka was an active member of the Literary Artistic Circle of the ghetto, which met regularly for lectures, discussions, and readings of the classics as well as of original work created in the ghetto. She often read from her works at these evenings and her poetry was selected at least twice for literary prizes.

These evenings were of tremendous importance to their participants as a source of spiritual recovery. Dr. Mark Dworecky, a survivor of the Vilna ghetto, recalled that in the middle of one of these evenings, air raid sirens began to blow but not a single person was willing to leave the meeting to take shelter. They thought it was better to be killed by a bomb while engrossed in literary discussion than to die slowly at the hands of the Germans.

On 5 April 1943 about 4,000 people from Vilna and the surrounding ghettos were put on a train of 83 freight cars and told that they would be resettled in the Kovno Ghetto. The train actually stopped in Ponary, about 10 kilometers from the center of Vilna, where the passengers were then driven by uniformed Germans and Lithuanians into the woods, van after van, abused, and finally shot.

Many people who witnessed this from the freight car windows attempted to run away. Those who managed to escape wandered in the forest until they could make their way to the ghetto where they gave gruesome testimony to Zelik Kalmanovitch, who kept a daily record of what he saw.

In the days that followed, children who had miraculously escaped from the pits wrote essays at school which described the horrors they had experienced.

The Memorial at Ponar

The Memorial at Ponar

When Rudnicka, who had previously taken an orphan into her home in the Vilna ghetto, heard the stories of children who had lost their parents at Ponar and countless other roundups, she wrote the lullaby poem “ ס׳דרעמלען פייגל אויף די צווייַגן (Birds are dozing on the branches).”

The moving lullaby was set to music by the composer Leyb Yampolski and Rudnicka dedicated the song a three-year-old child who escaped.

Lea Rudnicka’s lullaby-poem was dedicated to a three-year-old child who escaped the murders at Ponar. Its haunting final stanza reads:

איך האָב געזען דייַן טאַטן לויפן
אונטער האָגל פון שטיין
איבער פעלדער איז געפלויגן
זייַן פאַריתומטע געוויין…

I have seen your father running
Under a hail of stone
His orphaned cry
Flew over the fields.

Here’s a recording of tenor Louis Danto singing Rudnicka’s most remembered work.

In addition to her cultural activities, Rudnicka was heavily involved in partisan resistance. She aided in acts of sabotage and was in contact with the other resistance fighters around Vilna. Her job in the ghetto was running a sewing workshop, where one of her workers was a woman named Pesye Aronowicz. During one of the frequent selections, Aronowicz and her two children were selected for a transport to Ponar. One of the last to be shot, Aronowicz did not die but waited until night before crawling out of the pit at Ponar and wandering back to the ghetto. She arrived at Rudnicka’s workshop wounded and hysterical, but managed to convince her of what she had witnessed. This knowledge encouraged Rudnicka to pursue her underground activities.

Rudnicka was ultimately arrested by the Gestapo and, it is believed, sent to Majdanek where she was murdered.