Picks and Pans Review: Partisans of Vilna

updated 08/28/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/28/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PBS (Tues., Aug. 29, 10 P.M. ET)


Whatever you do this week, make room for this powerful two-hour documentary, which had a theatrical run in 1986. Despite the horrific subject matter, the killing of 60,000 Jews during World War II in Vilna, Lithuania, you'll be deeply moved. Even uplifted, This is a film about heroes—young Jews who exhibited great courage by forming an underground army to fight their seemingly insurmountable enemy.

For those who think that Jews didn't resist their Nazi oppressors, Partisans of Vilna is an eye-opener. Forty surviving members of the United Partisan Organization (known by the initials FPO, from the group's name in Yiddish) are interviewed, including Israeli poet Abba Kovner. The chilling recollections of these men and women, interwoven with news-reels and songs, are riveting. Realizing early on that a total extermination of Jews was underway, they vowed, in the words of their manifesto, not to "go like sheep to the slaughter." The FPO, which was formed from a merger of five Jewish youth groups, took enormous risks, smuggling food, firewood and weapons into the ghetto. One woman recalls how she sneaked out of the Jewish enclave at night to plant a bomb under a railroad track, blowing up a Nazi troop train.

Through these FPO survivors we get an extraordinary glimpse into the twisted sociology of the ghetto and into the ways its residents reacted to the Nazis' campaign of terror, including mass executions in the nearby forest. Former FPO members recall how the Jewish Council, maintained to keep order in the ghetto, tried to placate the Nazis by selecting hundreds of people—mostly old and sick—to be handed over for execution. At another point the FPO, having freed its captured leader from the Nazis, was forced to give him back under the threat of massive retaliations. Frustrating the FPO's efforts to resist was the partisans' lack of support from ghetto residents—many felt to fight back was certain death—and the group's survivors eventually were forced to flee.

Josh (Metropolitan Opera: The First 100 Years) Waletzky has directed this recounting of the rise and fall of the FPO in a scholarly, relaxed manner. There is little voiceover or narration; little is needed. This is a tale of passionate commitment, told by those who lived it. You can't help asking yourself, "Could I have been so brave?"

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