in 1943, 21-year-old Fania Brantsovsky escaped from the Vilnius Ghetto through a gap in a wall and fled to a forest 12 miles away. For the next year, she lived with 100 other Jews in a wooden bunker deep in the woods, from where they launched attacks against the Nazis.
Today, Mrs Brantsovsky, who turned 100 in May, is the only surviving member of the group of partisans led by the poet Abba Kovner who called themselves the Nokmim, Hebrew for “Avengers”.
Now Mrs Brantsovsky has called for the now rapidly disintegrating fort in the swampy Rudnicki Forest to be preserved as an international Jewish heritage site.
“It’s my dream that this place be preserved for my grandchildren and great grandchildren,” said Mrs Brantsovsky, who lost almost her entire family in the Holocaust. “They should be able to come here and know about the resistance of the Vilna Ghetto escapees.”
A bunker at the fort
The fact people even know about the rotting structure where the partisans slept and fought is already thanks to Mrs Brantsovsky, says her long-standing friend Dovid Katz, a Yiddish scholar, who told the JC that until last year the centenarian would regularly guide tourists through the woods to the underground hideout.
“Fania usually wears a dress or skirt. When she put on trousers for the forest’s thorns and bugs, we knew it was a fort day. Far-right historians determined to smear the Jewish resistance against Hitler want this last remnant of that period to disappear from memory,” he said.
“It is because of Fania that knowledge of this fort has already persisted 30 years longer than it might have.” This Holocaust survivor is no stranger to smears, however.
In 2008, she was under investigation by Lithuanian authorities for alleged war crimes against Lithuanians.
She strongly denied that the Nokmim ever targeted local people and no charges were ultimately brought.
The fort is sinking into the swampy forest
But Mr Katz claims the malicious belief endures in some quarters and partially explains why the fort, reinforced by concrete during Soviet times, has since been allowed to slowly sink into the earth.
“The bunkers need to be properly preserved,” he said. “They are part of Holocaust history, of the fight against Nazism. It’s not a matter of recreating the fort from photographs, of saying, hey, from the GPS we think it was here. The original is here.
“These people didn’t survive by being saved by a righteous Gentile or by surviving slave labour.
“They survived by fighting. It is a tremendous story of Jewish resistance and heroism.”
Mrs Brantsovsky agrees. She told the JC: “I didn’t want all Jewish people to die without resistance.
“I feel very proud and very glad that I had the opportunity to do something for honour and humanity.”