The Kovno Ghetto
Kaunas (Kovno) Jews move to the Ghetto
According to the decision of the temporary government, the Jews of Kaunas were put into a ghetto, which was closed on August 15, 1941. Initially a temporary Jewish committee was formed to handle all the problems of the transfer: arranging housing, work, and the like. This committee didn’t succeed in getting from the Lithuanians even a small part of the great amount of public property belonging to the Jewish Community needed for life in the ghetto.
The Council of Elders
The Jews elected an Ältesten Rat(Council of Elders) led by Dr Elkes. Due to atrocities falling on Kovno Jews, many presumed that perhaps being in a ghetto would save their lives until the situation bettered. They didn’t understand that the Germans incarcerated them in a ghetto to make it easier to use them for forced labor and murder them later. 29,760 Jews went into the Kovno Ghetto, mostly from Kovno and the rest from the provinces and Polish Jewish refugees.
The first action
Before the gates of the ghetto closed on August 8, 1941, Lithuanians kidnapped and murdered 1200 ghetto Jews. On August 15, the ghetto was closed and surrounded by a barbed wire fence; along its length walked armed German and Lithuanian guards. The Jewish Police, armed only with batons, operated inside the Ghetto. Initially fear of death ruled the ghetto, overwhelming fear of the future, and those living in the ghetto, full of dread, walked like shadows of men.
Deprivation and continuous killings
Within a short period of about 2-1/2 months, many decrees were imposed on the residents, besides the torture and misery involved in demeaning forced labor, the starvation that killed, the robbery and theft of every item of value and the punishments laid on miserable people who searched for food- much Jewish blood was spilled in these actions.
Action follows on the heels of action
When the ghetto closed on August 18, 1941, the Germans and Lithuanians kidnapped 534 Jews of the Intelligentsia, to be murdered by Lithuanians in the 4th Fort. The next day the Germans and Lithuanians began carrying out five weeks of extended house-to-house searches in the ghetto, including torture and murders, in order to rob the ghetto Jews of all their valuables. On September 26 the Germans and Lithuanians staged a provocation as if someone from the Ghetto attacked a German soldier, an act which “justified” the kidnapping of another 1200 Jews, to be brought to the 9th Fort and murdered by the Lithuanian 1st Battalion.
The big action
On October 4, 1941, the Germans and Lithuanians attacked the Little Ghetto to kidnap 1500 Jews, including hospital patients, residents of retirement homes, and 140 children from orphanages, who were taken to the 7th Fort to be murdered by the 1st Battalion. On October 28, 1941, after a humiliating selection, 9200 men, women and small children were chosen and moved the next day to the 7th Fort to be murdered by the 1st Battalion.
The “Quiet” Period
After the “big action” on October 28, 1941, there was a relatively quiet period in the ghetto lasting about two years. During this time, although there were almost no “actions”, there were no lack of fears, misery, torture and even murders. The “small actions” (like the Stalingrad Action), the decrees, the prohibitions, and the tormenting continued. There were still 17,412 Jews in the Ghetto. Although nearly half the Jews in the Ghetto had been killed, the Germans continued to demand the levy of workers as usual or even more. Because of this, the “Ältesten Rat” were forced to enlist for work not only men but also women and even boys. The work requirement fell on all men aged 15-65 and all women aged 16-60.
Kinds of work in the ghetto
The main workplace was the Alaksot Airport where more than 4000 people worked at oppressive tasks. About 3000 people worked in factories and workshops in the city. Working ACconditions there were mostly easier, but there were jobs where the Jewish workers were tormented. The Work Companies outside Kovno worked at very hard physical labor. Ghetto Jews worked in Janova(Yaneve) and Prienai (army barracks), in Kaisiadorys(Koshadar) (digging peat), in Kedainiai(Keidani) (an airport), in Palmon (making cement blocks), and in Babtai (cutting wood). Besides this, the “Ältesten Rat” set up the “Big Workshops” in the ghetto which were composed of forty assorted divisions. The number of workers there at various times reached 4,600. These workshops were an important factor for the ghetto; the Germans also saw them as a positive factor.
Educational activities in the ghetto
Throughout the years of history of Jews in Lithuania, even when they were endangered in the Chmielnicki period, the Hajdamackich period, or the periods of Russian or Soviet conquest, Jews did whatever was necessary to grant their children the chance to learn – Torah or secular- in order to gain knowledge or prevent idleness. Thus it was also in the Ghetto. Breaking the prohibition meant death, but Ghetto Jews found ways to set up real schools as well as studying in secret.
Cultural activities in the ghetto
For three years the Nazi animal tried to depress the spirit of ghetto residents using the most Satanic methods to cause them nervous breakdowns, to turn them into robots. But they did not succeed. The Jews of Kovno, continuously under death sentence, did not surrender to despair; they combated it by making use of every opportunity to straighten their backs and raise their community spirits, to live relatively “normal” lives. Intellectual activities were in demand: there was a literary circle, as well as lectures and symposia on social, literary, and scientific subjects which drew many listeners. There were concerts, musical evenings, singing events, plays, and art exhibitions.
Religious activities in the ghetto
Especially grave danger was involved in any religious activities. Even so, religious observances never stopped in the ghetto, but were carried on secretly. There were two regular synagogues and a hall for prayers and learning. Minyans were organized in private homes and one in the workshop. Additional Minyans were organized for the High Holy Days. Yeshivah students learned Gemara, mostly evenings after they returned from exhausting labor. There were people who worked with the last of their strength for additional hours on weekdays in order to be free from work on the Sabbath.
Activities of political parties in the ghetto
Activities of political parties in the ghetto In spite of the prohibition, political parties existed in the ghetto. Already when the ghetto closed, the “Zionist Center” (Hamerkaz Hatsioni- Matsok) party was formed, composed of representatives of the Zionist Parties (Hatsionim Haclalim, the Tsas Party, and Revisionists). Their principal purpose was to keep the Zionist flame burning in the ghetto, to look after any active Zionist in trouble, encourage him, and help him keep from being killed. Later it was decided to step up activities toward mutiny, when they joined forces with connections in the outside world, getting news via the radio and other activities.
Youth movements in the ghetto
Almost all the Zionist Youth Movements were active in the ghetto. They operated in three groups: 1. “Avatz” (Zionist Alliance Organization), composed of active members of “Hanoar Hatsioni”(Zionist Youth), “Maccabee Hatsair”(Young Maccabee), and “Bnai Akiva” (Akiva Youth); 2. the group of “Eretz Israel Haovedet” (Labor of the Land of Israel) which included “Hashomer Hatsair” (the Young Guard), “Dror-Hahalutz Hatsair” (Freedom-Young Pioneer), the “Gordonia”, and “Netsach”; 3. The Revisionists which included “Betar” and “Brit Hahail” (Soldiers’ Alliance). Besides the Zionist parties, there was an underground Communist Party in the ghetto.
Kovno (Kaunas) concentration camp
In September 1943 the “quiet period” ended. That month the ghetto was declared a “concentration camp” designated Kovna Camp; it was put under the administration of SA civilian authorities and passed to the SS. The elimination of the “Ältsten Rat” began; it was decreed that ghetto workers were to be transferred with their families to barracks at their work places. 1000 people were moved to a camp in Alexot and 900 to one in Shanz. After that hundreds more families were moved to camps in Kushidar, Palmon, Keidan, and other locations. The labor camp regimes were like those in German Concentration Camps: men were separated from women and forbidden to meet; they dressed in “striped pajamas” and there were two musters daily, morning and evening.
Deportation to Estonia
On October 26, 1943, 2800 men, women, and children were removed from the ghetto with force and cruelty, and were sent to Concentration Camps in Estonia.
Ghetto children in danger of being murdered
A rumor circulated in the Ghetto that the children who remained were in danger. Parents panicked, and began to look for hiding places among Lithuanian families. In order to save their children, mothers became separated from them. They didn’t find many Lithuanians who were willing to hide children; among those who did, some cheated the families and after they got money from the parents, returned the children, threw them out, or murdered them.
Ways of rescue from the ghetto
In light of German defeats at the Front, the ghetto residents understood that the day for finishing the ghetto was nearing and that the Nazis would not leave them alive, neither in the ghetto nor outside it. They searched for ways to save themselves- hiding places or sanctuary-inside and outside the ghetto. The three main possibilities were: building hidden places (“malinot”); escape from the ghetto to Lithuanians friends or just running away; or joining the Partisans.
Murder of part of the ghetto police
On March 26, 1944, the Jewish police received an order to appear in full complement beside the station in order to “prepare for air attacks”. 140 policemen appeared as demanded; immediately armed German soldiers appeared, forced them to enter vehicles, and drove them to the 7th Fort. There they were severely tortured; it was demanded that they reveal the location of the “malinot”. Only seven policemen out of the 140 broke under torture and were willing to reveal these locations. Against this betrayal, all the others withstood bravely, especially Moshe Levine, Judah Zofovich, and Ikey Greenberg. The Nazis murdered forty of these policemen, returning the rest to the ghetto.
Actions against children and the elderly
The same day began the cruelest action against children and the elderly. In this action, which lasted two days, 1300 children and old people were taken from the ghetto and murdered in the 9th Fort by the regular Lithuanian crew.
Final extermination of the ghetto
In early July Geka(The ghetto commander)notified Elkes that the ghetto was due to be closed and its residents moved to Germany. This notice raised an outcry among the ghetto residents, who expected that the Germans wouldn’t have enough time to take them out of the ghetto before the Red Army arrived. On July 8, 1944, the supply of food to the Ghetto was stopped, but the Germans started throwing grenades at suspicious places causing houses to burn down over hiding places. On July 12, 1944, the Germans removed the remainder of ghetto residents sending them to Germany. On the way they separated men from their women and children, sending the children to Auschwitz for destruction.