Lesson 3
Duration:
2 class periods

Vitka Kempner: Identity and Resistance

Essential Questions

  • What is the relationship between identity, circumstances, and the choices we make?
  • In times of injustice, what is the relationship between resistance and dignity?
  • Is revenge ever justified?

Overview

Vitka Kempner was 19 years old when she made the choice to resist the Nazis. She had watched the Nazis gather Jews and force them into a monastery, and she heard their screams as they were beaten. She reflects that this was the moment when she decided to run away from home with friends and become a partisan. She fled to the city of Vilna and then moved into the Vilna Ghetto, where she joined other youth to become a founding member of the United Partisan Organization (FPO). 

Students will review Vitka Kempner’s personal stories from when she ran away from home to become a partisan until the end of the war. They will investigate what role, if any, age might play in the decision to engage in resistance. Central to Vitka’s identity as a partisan was her understanding of the concept of dignity. For her, her dignity and her choice to resist were deeply connected. Students will also consider Vitka’s choice to commit acts of revenge at the end of the Holocaust. The activities in this lesson require the use of critical analysis, teamwork, methods of comparing and contrasting, and creative thinking. 

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Identify how Vitka Kempner’s identity and circumstances influenced the choices she made as a partisan
  • Reflect on the way that Vitka Kempner’s ideas about dignity shaped her identity as a partisan
  • Critically deconstruct how views on age and gender created divisions between the “young people” and the older generations in the Vilna Ghetto 
  • Communicate effectively about Vitka’s experience of gender roles within the partisan groups and how this lesson’s content has affected students’ own view of gender roles 
  • Acknowledge the complexity of ethics in a wartime or postwar context as they consider the choice Vitka made to poison 1,900 German POWs at the end of the war 

Materials

Activities

  1. Introduce Vitka Kempner

    To introduce Vitka Kempner and provide the foundation for the activities that follow, ask students to begin by reading Vitka Kempner’s Biography. In small groups, work with students to create an Identity Chart for Vitka Kempner and encourage them to add to it throughout the next activity.

  2. Explore Age, Resistance, and Gender

    The following three excerpts explore different aspects of Vitka’s identity and their relationship to the choices she made. Have each group choose one of the following themes to investigate: age, resistance, or gender. Once they choose a theme, they will read the corresponding  text. They will then consider and discuss the questions that follow.

    • The Role of Age in Vitka Kempner’s Experience

      Read the Leaving Home excerpt from Vitka’s interview and discuss the following questions:

      • What do you think was the turning point for Vitka in deciding to leave the security of being with her family? What conditions were present that she felt would worsen?
      • Why do you think Vitka, at age 19 and with no security, felt that she was making the right choice? Do you think her age helped to motivate her? What other factors might have influenced her decision?
    • Youth, Elders, and Resistance

      Read the excerpt Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto and discuss the following questions:

      • What is Vitka implying about the relationship between age and the decision of young people in the Vilna Ghetto to resist?
      • Why do you think the older generations may have been more reluctant to take part in resistance operations, compared to the young people?
      • How did members of the FPO express their responsibility to Jews in the Vilna Ghetto?
      • Why did some in the ghetto believe that the partisans were irresponsible?
      • After the partisan group blew up the electricity transformers in the middle of the city to stop water flow, Vitka recalls, “They didn’t know that a few Jewish boys and girls did that.” What point is Vitka trying to make when she describes the partisans as "Jewish boys and girls"?
    • The Role of Gender in Vitka Kempner’s Experience

      Vitka observes that gender issues factored into the difficulty of life as a female partisan. Read her reflection The Role of Gender Among the Partisans and discuss the following questions:

      • What difficulties does Vitka point out about being a woman and carrying out fighting tasks like a man?
      • How did the participation of female partisans challenge gender norms during the war?
      • To what extent do Vitka’s comments about partisan gender roles challenge your own thinking? If you could speak with her about the role of women and girls in partisan movements, what would you say? What would you ask?
      • Does your reading of Vitka’s opinions about women “fighters” depart from how you expected gender roles to play out in the partisan groups?
      • What was the response of the female partisans to the Russian ideology that “whoever helps the partisans is a fighter”? Do you agree or disagree that whoever helps the partisans should be considered a “fighter”?

    Reconvene the class and have each group share their reflections from their small discussions.

  3. Define Dignity

    The concept of dignity is often deeply tied to the way that people think about their identities.

    • Guide students to build a working definition of the word dignity to develop a deeper understanding of how the Nazis’ efforts to dehumanize Jews in the Vilna Ghetto fueled Vitka Kempner’s conviction that acts of resistance were needed to preserve the Jews’ dignity. A working definition is one that builds in meaning as students receive information and gain clarity on the topic being explored. Explain that the dictionary definition of dignity is “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.” Have students take a few minutes to write an individual definition of dignity in their journals.
    • Have students form small groups and apply the Close Reading Protocol to read Joining the FPO.
    • Have students revise their definitions of dignity with their small groups. Ask one person from each group to take notes. The following questions can be used as entry points to begin and further the groups’ discussions:
      • Clarify what Vitka means when she speaks of the fight for dignity.
      • Based on Vitka's recollections, how did the Nazis try to strip the Jews of their dignity in the Vilna Ghetto? How might the efforts of the FPO have reshaped Vitka’s own sense of identity and that of the Jews of the ghetto?
      • What does Vitka mean when she says of the Germans' attitude regarding her fellow Jews in the Vilna Ghetto that “they didn’t feel like human beings, so it was easy to kill them”?
      • What is dehumanization? What is the relationship between dignity and dehumanization?
    • Ask the the groups to share their definitions, and then guide the class in creating one agreed-upon definition for dignity.
  4. The Choice of Revenge

    Explain to the class that during the liberation of Lithuania and the German defeat, Vitka Kempner chose to avenge the Nazis. In one of her most morally questionable actions, Vitka snuck into the bakery at the Stalag 13 POW camp for German SS officers and laced 3,000 loaves of bread with arsenic. According to British journalist Jonathan Freedland, an Associated Press report from 1946 indicated that 1,900 German POWs became sick.

    • In their small groups, students should consider and discuss the following questions:
      • Based on what you know about Vitka, how do you think she would explain her decision to poison the bread?
      • After having studied the atrocities committed by the Nazis, do you think that the decision to poison the German SS officers after the war ended was justified? Why or why not?
    • Some teachers may choose to spend additional time reflecting on the issue of revenge. One way to discuss Vitka’s action is to use the Barometer teaching strategy. This exercise will give students the opportunity to share their opinions about Vitka’s choices and take a stand on the controversial issue of revenge. After you debrief following the exercise as a class, allow time for students to reflect individually in their journals.
  5. Return to a Discussion of Identity, Circumstances, and Vitka’s Choices

    By this point in the lesson, students will have had the opportunity to explore a range of the choices that Vitka Kempner made. You may want to remind students that many of these choices were made in a context in which survival for individual Jews, as well as the whole Jewish population in Europe, was in doubt.

    A child of Holocaust resisters, Anna Wrobel, explains that joining the resistance was not an insurance against death. She writes, “The majority of resisters and fighters, after all, were also killed. ‘Hero’ and ‘victim’ blur within actual contexts. Jews were trapped across a whole continent, where many non-Jews, too, lived in terror while others murderously practiced Jew-hatred without legal repercussions. All European Jews lost families, homes, and futures, as two-thirds of the nine million fell to bullets, gas, and dust.”

    • With that context in mind, encourage students to return to the identity chart they began for Vitka at the beginning of the lesson and add to it based on what they have learned about her. Consider using the Think-Pair-Share teaching strategy to facilitate this discussion.
    • Then, as a whole group, consider the first two essential questions as a way to close the lesson:
      • What is the relationship between identity, circumstances, and the choices we make?
      • In times of injustice, what is the relationship between resistance and dignity?

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