Joseph Harmatz photograph collection
Document | Accession Number: 1999.193
The collection consists of twelve photographs relating to Joseph Harmatz and his family before and during World War II and his life after the war with members of the Nekama (Revenge) Group.
- Document Creator
- Joseph Harmatz
Joseph Harmatz was born January 23, 1925 to Abrasha (Abraham) and Dora (Dvora) Baron Harmatz of Rokiskis, Lithuania and had two brothers, Zvi Hirsch (b. 1923) and Efraim (b. 1927). Joseph's father was a wholesale merchant, who owned a warehouse in Rokiskis' market square.
The Harmatz family moved to Vilna in 1940, where Abrasha purchased several factories. Joseph was enrolled in a Lithuanian gymnasium for his final years of high school and soon became involved in the Komsomol, the communist youth movement.
Before the family had time to set down roots in Vilna, the Germans occupied the city and forced. Abrasha and Dora moved into the Vilna ghetto with their two younger sons on September 6, 1941. Zvi had already left for the Soviet Union by this time. Several months later Zvi enlisted in the 16th Lithuanian Division of the Soviet Army, which was formed in the Gorky region at the beginning of 1942. A year later, his battalion was sent to the front to defend Moscow. Zvi was killed that winter in the Oriol region.
The transition to ghetto life was particularly difficult for Joseph's father. Lacking a trade or personal contacts within the Jewish community, Abrasha was unable to obtain a work permit, and had to rely upon his sixteen-year-old son to provide for the family. He soon lost the will to live and took his own life in 1942.
Joseph worked for a time at the Vilna railroad station, but when leaving the ghetto each day became too risky, he used his connections to secure a position on the ghetto police force. By this time, Joseph had joined the underground (FPO), a role he had to conceal since the ghetto administration viewed the FPO as a threat to the continued existence of the ghetto and its remaining Jewish population.
In the summer of 1943 Joseph's mother was deported to the Kaiserwald concentration camp in Riga. A year later, she was transferred to Stutthof, arriving on August 9, 1944. When the camp was evacuated in January 1945, she was sent out on a death march. Soon after, she was liberated by Soviet troops. Joseph's younger brother, Efraim, was deported from Vilna to the Klooga camp in Estonia in September 1943. He was killed there one year later, only a day or two before the arrival of the Red Army.
Together with the members of his FPO unit, Joseph escaped from the Vilna ghetto on September 23, 1943. Their escape route was through the city's sewer system. Eventually Joseph's group reached the Rudnitski Forest, where they formed the La Nitzachon (For Victory) battalion and Joseph was appointed head of special operations.
For several months after the liberation in July 1944, Joseph worked in a high level position for the Soviet-Lithuanian Ministry of Building Materials. He might have remained there indefinitely had not his fellow partisan leader, Abba Kovner, entreated him to leave for Palestine. Departing on January 17, 1946, Joseph proceeded to Lublin, where he met a large group of former resistance fighters. There, he participated in the founding of the Bricha (the organization to assist surviving Jews from Eastern Europe to reach DP camps and ports in the western zones of occupation, in preparation for their immigration to Palestine). Joseph was assigned the task of creating a secure Bricha route from Poland to Romania. Shortly after reaching Bucharest, Joseph was reunited with his mother. He desperately wanted to accompany her to Palestine, but felt compelled to remain in Europe and participate in the mission of the emerging Nekama (Revenge) group, headed by Abba Kovner. In the early summer of1945 the Nekama group left Bucharest for Ponteba, the base of the Jewish Brigade in the mountains above Tarvisio in northern Italy. Kovner hoped that a meeting of the two groups of Jewish fighters would convince the Brigade to lend its support to his mission of revenge. Though the former partisans were warmly welcomed in Ponteba and were actively aided by individual Jewish soldiers, they did not receive the Brigade's endorsement, just as Kovner would not receive it from the Yishuv leadership during his trip to Palestine a short time later.
Joseph left Ponteba on September 7, 1945. His destination was Nuremberg, one of five German locations where Nekama intended to mount a retaliatory attack on their former persecutors. In coordination with the Nekama central command in Paris, Joseph developed two projects: Project A, to infiltrate toxins into the local water supply and Project B, to contaminate the bread supply of the Stalag 13 POW camp for members of the SS near Nuremberg. Project A was aborted after five months of preparation, when Abba Kovner was arrested by British authorities on his way back to Europe from Palestine, where he had obtained the required toxins. Project B was then implemented, but the operation went awry and thus had minimal impact. Joseph and his group were quickly led out of Germany and given places aboard the illegal immigration vessel, Josiah Wedgwood, sailing from Italy. When the ship reached Haifa, the passengers were taken to the Athlit detention camp. Upon his release, Joseph joined his mother in Tel Aviv. After a few difficult years Harmatz married, started a family and launched a distinguished career of service in the Jewish Agency and ORT Israel.
- Legal Status
- Permanent Collection
- The collection was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1999 by Joseph Harmatz.
- Conditions on Access
- No restrictions on access
- Conditions on Use
- No restrictions on use
Record last modified: 2020-04-20 08:45:06
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