Review of “Stronger Than Iron: The Destruction of Vilna Jewry 1941 – 1945: An Eyewitness Account” by Mendel Balberyszski

As the Holocaust Museum online site explains:

“Under the terms of the German-Soviet Pact, Vilna, along with the rest of eastern Poland, was occupied by Soviet forces in late September 1939. In October 1939, the Soviet Union transferred the Vilna region to Lithuania. The population of the city was 200,000 at this time, including over 55,000 Jews. In addition, some 12,000-15,000 Jewish refugees from German-occupied Poland found refuge in the city. Soviet forces occupied Lithuania in June 1940 and in August 1940 incorporated Vilna, along with the rest of Lithuania, into the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked Soviet forces in eastern Europe. The German army occupied Vilna on June 24, 1941, the third day after the invasion.”

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

The destruction of the Vilna Jewry began soon thereafter.

Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” It was an important center of the Jewish Enlightenment and had a number of famous institutes of research and education, including the Jewish Scientific Institute, YIVO. The book Stronger Than Iron reports on the fate of Vilna Jews from the moment the Germans came in June, 1941 until the Soviet liberation in September, 1944. Some seventy thousand Jews died. The author notes that “by the most optimistic assessment only one thousand Jews [of Vilna] survived.”

I have read quite a few books written by Holocaust survivors, but I think this one stands out because of the astute observation skills of the narrator, who was a prominent member of the Jewish community in Vilna, Lithuania. (The book was originally written in Yiddish by Theodore Balberyszki, and translated into English by his son Mendel.)

As you read about the amazing sequence of events that led both Theodore and his son to live in spite of all they endured, you will understand how rare and crucial this eyewitness account actually is.

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

Mendel Balberyszski, in his Preface, explains the title of this book:

“My book is entitled Stronger Than Iron, for a human being had to be stronger than iron to endure the savage brutality and hatred of the Germans and their Lithuanian helpers, who were determined to implement a policy of the extermination of Vilna Jewry.

One had to be tough as iron to absorb the blows of the ‘good’ German during the slave labor; to survive when the body was swollen from hunger; to overcome disease and lice and to work from dawn till night in rain, snow, blizzards, winds, frost and heat.

“One had to be tough as iron not to collapse physically as well as morally when witnessing the pain of an old mother, of one’s wife and most importantly of one’s little children who all of a sudden, from a beautiful, cultured, materially secure life, were thrown into the abyss of need, confinement, dirt, hunger and horrible suffering.”

Evaluation: I will say that, in spite of having read many survivor accounts, I found this book riveting. If you are at all interested in this genre, this is a book you won’t want to miss.

Note: There is a good article on Vilna Jewry and what happened to them on the online site of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, here.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gefen Books, 2011


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10 Responses to Review of “Stronger Than Iron: The Destruction of Vilna Jewry 1941 – 1945: An Eyewitness Account” by Mendel Balberyszski

  1. Rural View says:

    I have to be just in the right mood to read this kind of book. If it were fiction, I’d be okay but since I know this actually happened it would tear me apart unless I feel particularly strong. I do think a knowledge of what happened is vitally important for us, lest we allow it to happen again. WW II is a fascinating period in history.

  2. zibilee says:

    Though I am a little burnt out on literature of this time period, something about this book entices me. I am going to have to check this one out, as it sounds haunting and really very interesting. So glad to hear that you enjoyed it! Wonderful review and quotes!

  3. Sandy says:

    It seems like each survivor story is just a little bit different, and each horrific. I absolutely loved The Book Thief, but these true stories just can’t be replicated. I’m going to see if I can get this one on my Kindle. Only one and a half days until my TBR Dare!!!!

  4. not my usual genre, but it sounds fascinating.

  5. Staci says:

    This one sounds amazing and riveting!

  6. Margot says:

    I have a very hard time reading about or thinking about this kind of treatment to children. It sounds like a work that I should read, however.

  7. maphead says:

    Thanks for reviewing this excellent sounding book. In 2011 hope to read a lot related to Jewish eastern Europe. I am putting this book on my TBR right away.
    THANKS !!!!

  8. I just had to add this to my to-read list after reading your review! I’ve linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

  9. Leora says:

    I asked my library to order this book. I look forward to reading it. My grandfather’s family is from Mariampole, which is close to Vilna. Thanks for the review.

  10. Duane says:

    You have it the wrong way around Mendel was the original author, Theodore his son who translates the book into English. I had the pleasure to meet Theodore tonight and he told us about his upbringing and experiences in the ghetto and camps. A fascinating man!

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