Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel has written stirring volumes about the Holocaust, but has had few appreciative words when it comes to films dealing with that era.

Trivialization and distortion have been two of his key terms, whether responding to NBC’s “Holocaust” in 1978, or to recent films that focus on the mentality of the Nazi more than on the victims.

When it comes to “Partisans of Vilna,” however--the last film Wiesel saw before being named recipient of the prize earlier this month--his assessment is quite different: “It’s one of the best and most eloquent documentaries on the suffering and dilemmas Jews faced during the darkest years in their history,” he said during an interview in his New York apartment. “Anyone wishing to learn why heroism in the ghettos was not affected on more than one level should see this film. ‘Partisans of Vilna’ is enlightening, truthful, challenging and heartbreaking.”

“Partisans of Vilna,” at the Westside Pavilion, is the first documentary about the Holocaust that chronicles and celebrates Jewish resistance against the Nazis. (The Vilna ghetto is also the subject of Joshua Sobol’s “Ghetto,” which just opened at the Mark Taper Forum and is reviewed by Dan Sullivan on Page 1.) Narrated by actress Roberta Wallach, it tells the little-known story of how thousands of men and women fought in the Vilna ghetto and in the surrounding forests of Lithuania.


It is part of a growing genre of films that explore Jewish identity. Another illuminating example, Oren Rudavsky’s “Spark Among the Ashes"--a documentary about the highly publicized bar mitzvah of an American boy in Poland a year ago--is being shown today at the Fox International in Venice.

The focus of “Partisans of Vilna” is, however, the Jewish call to arms and its fulfillment by brave and idealistic inhabitants of the ghetto. Forty survivors are interviewed, speaking primarily Yiddish or Hebrew. Although dispersed geographically, they are linked by corroborating memories of hope, betrayal and resiliency.

The film’s producer, Aviva Kempner--the child of a Holocaust survivor and a U.S. soldier (whose marriage made her the first American war baby born in Berlin after World War II)--conceived of the project in 1980. “Whereas other kids grew up with the images of cops-and-robbers movies, I grew up with the fantasy of fighting the Nazis,” she said with a grin. “I think that’s true for many children of survivors.”

Her main tasks were to raise the money and to convince Josh Waletzky--who had made the acclaimed documentary “Image Before My Eyes"--to direct “Partisans of Vilna.”


The 38-year-old New Yorker accepted because, in his words, “I grew up with this history, feeling a part of Jewish culture, and wanted to interpret this unexplored area of the Resistance. I grew up knowing Yiddish songs, for example, and I even sing two of them in ‘Partisans of Vilna.’ ”

Finding survivors of the Vilna ghetto as well as appropriate archival footage was the next step. Kempner realized that the latter was more problematic. “Most of the Holocaust documentaries I’ve seen include footage taken by Nazi propaganda film crews,” she said. “Jews are depicted as victims by their oppressors.”

“Since we wanted to present the Jewish and resisters’ perspective, we restricted the use of Nazi footage, relying instead on Russian material and footage from the National Archives in Poland. But when we asked for permission to film in Vilna, a Soviet Union Embassy official denied the request. So two Vilna survivors, one a partisan, took 8-millimeter cameras and filmed clandestinely around Vilna today.

“By the way,” she said forcefully, “under protest, I had to pay a copyright fee to Germany for the invasion of Vilna footage, but no fee to the National Archives for Russian partisan and American newsreel footage. I think it’s a scandal that anyone profits from footage taken by the Third Reich.”


Archival footage, newsreels and Yiddish Resistance songs enrich the testimony of the “Vilna” survivors. The central figure is Israeli poet Abba Kovner. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, he helped found the Jewish underground partisan organization and in 1943 took command of the United Partisan Organization of the Vilna ghetto. He composed the first Vilna Resistance Manifesto in 1941, and shortly before the extermination of the ghetto, led the Jewish Partisans’ Battalion in the neighboring forests. After the war, Kovner settled in Israel and testified at the Adolf Eichmann trial.

In “Partisans of Vilna,” he recounts that the ghetto resisters believed they had to make their presence felt by blowing up a Nazi train. Fine, but who had ammunition, or even knew how to make a bomb? Clandestinely leafing through manuals in the library, and utilizing whatever bits of explosive material could be found, the Jews fulfilled their dream.

Kovner offers a revealing trajectory of wartime experiences, from the monastery where “the Jews in hiding outnumbered the nuns,” to the ghetto where priorities were decided upon--"what must be done, and then what can be done"--to the forests where the Soviet army accepted Jewish partisans, but also disbanded the Jewish unit when its exploits became too successful.

His testimony is interwoven with, among others, that of his wife Vitka, who committed the first known act of sabotage by a Jew against the Germans in Eastern Europe. For the film’s producer, she exemplifies the special problems of female Jewish partisans.


“In the ghetto,” Kempner said, “women played a critical and dangerous role as couriers. But in the woods, they risked being relegated to nurses, cooks, or worse, sex objects. So they had to prove themselves doubly, as fighters among the non-Jewish partisans.”

Romance and politics were inseparable at the time, and Waletzky included a song that illustrates the link: A male voice sings a gentle melody with Yiddish lyrics; it could well be a love song. The subtitles reveal that he is saying, “Do you remember how I taught you to hold a machine gun in your hands?” According to Waletzky, “This was a generation, a time, when everyone marched with banners. One of the survivors said that to be apolitical as a teen-ager was to be a nerd. She was teased for being without a party. And during the war, this continued. I came across the phrase ‘Green Fields and Red Flags’ in a Yizkor (memorial book). Politics was something that young people got high on. It made them feel euphoric to be part of a May Day demonstration.”

Solidarity became more important than individual survival, and this drew the director into a dramatic tale of Vilna: “Some of these young people left hiding places that promised relative individual safety to join the underground. All of the individual political youth organizations sacrificed ideological principle and prejudice to join friend and rival alike in the United Partisan Organization.

“I wanted to explore what were their goals. What were their dilemmas? How did they persevere with almost no support from outside or, ultimately, inside the ghetto? And, when they reached the forests, how did they take their places in the Soviet partisan movement?”


Kempner said the choice of Vilna was motivated partly by the fact that “the strongest cultural statements--both poetry and songs --were composed there. Many members of the Resistance had been poets and writers before the war. We toyed with the idea of naming the film ‘The Revolt of the Poets.’ We also chose a ghetto that, unlike Warsaw, did not consist of glorious gun battles per se. The emphasis was not on how long and well they fought, but on why and how they chose to resist.”