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Inside The Kovno Ghetto, Lithuania
By Michael Ruskin
Between 1920 and 1939, Kovno (Kaunas), located in central Lithuania was the country's capital and largest city. The city had a Jewish population of 35,000-40,000, about one-fourth of the city's total population. Jews were concentrated in the city's commercial, artisan, and professional sectors.
Kovno was also a center of Jewish learning. The yeshiva in Slobodka, an impoverished district of the city, was one of Europe's most prestigious institutions of higher Jewish learning. Kovno had a rich and varied Jewish culture. The city had almost 100 Jewish organizations, 40 synagogues, many Yiddish schools, 4 Hebrew high schools, a Jewish hospital, and scores of Jewish-owned businesses. It was also an important Zionist center.
Kovno's Jewish life was disrupted when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in June 1940. The occupation was accompanied by arrests, confiscations, and the elimination of all free institutions. Jewish communal organizations disappeared almost overnight. Soviet authorities confiscated the property of many Jews. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian Activist Front, founded by Lithuanian nationalist émigrés in Berlin, clandestinely disseminated anti-Semitic literature in Lithuania. Among other themes, the literature blamed Jews for the Soviet occupation. Hundreds of Jews were exiled to Siberia. The hatred of the Lithuanian Jews had a long history among the general Lithuanian population as well as the Soviet Union. But even worse, a third party would soon be joining the Lithuanians and the Soviets towards finding a final solution to the”Jewish Problem." It would be Germany and the Nazi Party.
Following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Soviet forces fled Lithuania and the Germans occupied the country. David and Dora had been married for nearly two years and were living in Kaunas, Lithuania. David worked in his electrical trade while Dora taught at a small Jewish school. Within days, the German occupiers placed posters in public places around the city announcing that the Jewish people now had to wear a yellow star on their clothes and would be no longer allowed to walk on the sidewalks. Shortly afterwards, there were new posters announcing that the Jews were to leave their homes within a wide region of Lithuania and move into the capital city, Kaunas. The majority of the Jewish people were then assigned to the Slobodka, the poorest section within the capital city.
Immediately before and following the German occupation of the city on June 24, 1941, anti-Communist, pro-German Lithuanian mobs began to attack Jews (whom they unfairly blamed for Soviet repression of Lithuania prior to German occupation), especially along the Jurbarko and Krisciukaicio streets in Kaunas. These right-wing vigilantes murdered hundreds of Jews and took dozens more Jews to the Lietukis Garage, in the city’s center, and shot them to death.
Soon, the Nazis established a civilian administration under SA Major General Hans Kramer. Between July 1 and August 15, 1941, the Germans concentrated the remaining Jews, some 29,000 people, in the Jewish Ghetto established in Slobodka. It was an area of small primitive houses and no running water. The ghetto had two parts, called the "small" and "large" ghettos, separated by Paneriu Street. Each ghetto was enclosed by barbed wire and closely guarded. Both were overcrowded, with each person allocated less than ten square feet of living space. The Germans continually reduced the ghetto's size, forcing Jews to relocate several times inside the ghetto. The Germans destroyed the small ghetto on October 4, 1941, and killed almost all of its inhabitants at the Ninth Fort. Later that same month, on October 29, 1941, the Germans staged what became known as the "Great Action." In a single day, they shot 9,200 Jews at the Ninth Fort*.
The Ninth Fort - An Execution Chamber
For a long time before World War II, the Ninth Fort, an 1800's military fortress near Kovno, served as part of the Kovno prison for dangerous criminals. During the Nazi occupation, it became a place of torture and mass executions. Some 25,000 of Kovno's Jews, as well as 15,000 Jews deported from the Greater Reich, thousands of Jewish Prisoners-of-War who had served in the Red Army, and many other Jews were murdered there. Single and mass arrests, as well as “Aktions” in the Ghetto, almost always ended with a “death march” to the Ninth Fort, which in a way, completed the area of the Ghetto and became an integral part of it. A road three to four kilometres long led uphill from the Ghetto to the Fort, a special road called by the Ghetto inmates the Via Dolorosa. The murderers called it the Way to Heaven.
Before their execution, the detainees were incarcerated in underground cells known as “casements” in dampness, darkness, and fear. There, people fought with one another for a brighter corner in the cells, for a piece of a straw mattress, for a scrap of food or a crumb of bread. There, Jews were shackled in iron chains, harnessed to ploughs in place of horses, forced to dig into peat-pits inside the fort, and often whipped to death. There, life turned into senseless pain, after which death came as redemption. (Most of Dora's Family was killed at the Ninth Fort or were deported to Auschwitz, never to be seen again.)
The Kovno Ghetto served mainly as a forced labor camp for the German military. Jews were employed primarily as forced laborers at various sites outside the ghetto, especially in the construction of a military airbase in Aleksotas. The Jewish council ( Council of Elders), headed by Dr. Elchanan Elkes, also created workshops inside the ghetto for those women, children, and elderly who could not participate in the labor brigades. Eventually, these workshops employed almost 6,500 people. The council hoped the Germans would not kill Jews who were producing for the army.
Life in the Ghetto was brutal. The food that was distributed to the people inside the Ghetto was meager, 200 grams of bread per person per day, 100 grams of horse meat once in two weeks, and occasionally, a kilogram of potatoes. Most were starving, so the black market began to flourish. This market dealt in provisions smuggled into the Ghetto by those who worked forced labor outside the Ghetto during the day, including David and Dora. They didn't have any money, so they exchanged gold coins, clothes, household items and anything else that the non-Jews outside the Ghetto were willing to take in exchange for food.
Working outside the Ghetto was advantageous despite the harsh conditions and misery associated with it. The laborers had to be in front of the entrance to the Ghetto at 5 a.m., 7 days a week, where the Germans took count and organized the laborers into work groups. The work day ended at 8:00 pm. The work places and tasks were quite varied, including digging at the airport at Aleksot, or doing maintenance work for German soldiers around the city. The most sought after places were those where the Jews could have some contact with the local population. Such contact was an opportunity to exchange valuables and clothes for food.
David and Dora walked slowly through the city on their way to various work places. They walked on the street, with the German soldiers walking on the sidewalk. Every Jewish person had a yellow star on his or her chest and on his or her back. As a matter of principle, Jews were not allowed to walk anywhere but on the street, with the horses. The yellow star had to be worn on one's clothes at all times, and a German was to guard the Jews at all times.
Not all in the Ghetto were able to leave during the day to work. Many were too sickly, too young, too old, or had duties assigned to them inside the Ghetto by the Nazis. As time went by the Germans took advantage of those who remained in the Ghetto by rounding up certain people for executions. Those who were outside the gates working were safer and less likely to be seized than those who stayed inside the gates.
In the autumn of 1943, the SS assumed control of the ghetto and converted it into the Kauen concentration camp. The Jewish Council's role was drastically curtailed. The Nazis dispersed more than 3,500 Jews to sub camps where strict discipline governed all aspects of daily life. On October 26, 1943, the SS deported more than 2700 people from the main camp. The SS sent those deemed fit to work to labor camps in Estonia, and on March 27, 1944, they deported over 250 children and many elderly to Auschwitz. One was David and Dora’s 3-year-old daughter, Rose. Of the 2700 people deported, few survived.
On July 8, 1944, the Germans evacuated the camp, deporting most of the remaining Jews on boxcars for the Dachau concentration camp in Germany (for men) and the Stutthof camp, near Danzig on the Baltic coast (for women). David was sent to Dachau and Dora to Stutthof. But before departing, they made a vow that they would be strong for each other, get through whatever conditions awaited them, and somehow find their way back to Kovno and each other. It was their way of keeping hope alive,but deep down they feared, as they embraced for the last time on July 8, 1944, that they were saying good-bye forever. Three weeks later, the Soviet army arrived in Kovno to liberate the camp, but it was already too late for most of the Jews of the Kovno Ghetto. The Germans had already razed the ghetto to the ground with grenades and dynamite. As many as 2,000 more people had burned to death or had been shot while trying to escape, while the remaining Jewish population of the Kovno Ghetto were already dead or were on their way to Hitler’s extermination camps.
On August 1, 1944, The Soviet army defeated the Germans and liberated Kovno as the Germans retreated. Of Kovno's few Jewish survivors, 500 had survived in forests or in bunkers. The Germans had evacuated an additional 2,500 to concentration camps in Germany. Of the original 40,000 Jews in the Kovno Ghetto, only approximately 3000 survived including David and Dora. By the end of the War (April 1945), 90% of the total Jewish population of Lithuania had fallen victim to Hitler’s “Final Solution”.
from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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