• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Heroism in Hell

Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary

by Avraham Tory, translated by Jerzy Michalowicz
Harvard University Press, 578 pp., $34.95

Kovno, Kaunas, Kowno, Kauen: all denote a single city in Lithuania that, in typical East European fashion, has gone by many names. “Kovno” is Russian and Jewish, bringing to mind the long periods of Russian domination and the ancient but now defunct Jewish presence there. “Kaunas” is Lithuanian and draws attention to that small nation, which in recent history lost, regained, lost again, and may soon recover its independence. “Kowno” is Polish, evoking the many centuries of Polish-Lithuanian joint rule but also Polish expansion into the region. Finally, “Kauen” is German, recalling the Germans who had a part in building the city and were merchants there, but also Nazi occupation. The city is said to derive its name from a Prince Koinas who allegedly founded it in 1030.

Avraham Tory partly wrote, partly dictated his ghetto diary, which begins on June 22, 1941, the day Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and ends on January 9, 1944, a short time before he escaped from the ghetto, and before the Jewish community of Kovno ceased to exist.1 Before he left, he hid the diary in five crates, along with the original copies of German orders and decrees, badges, insignia, photographs, and drawings by ghetto artists. Following the Red Army’s occupation of Kovno in the summer of 1944, Tory returned to the city and recovered much of this material from the ruins. He has the diary’s Yiddish original in Tel Aviv, where he lives; a Hebrew language edition appeared in Israel in 1988, but this is the first publication in any other language. Superbly complemented by Martin Gilbert’s introduction and Dina Porat’s notes, the diary is a historical document of major importance. It helps us to understand the relations among Germans, Lithuanians, and Jews, the complex hierarchy within the Jewish slave society created by the Nazis, the role of Jews and Christians in saving Jews, and the phenomenal achievements of Jewish Council members, teachers, artists, and medical workers.

Avraham Golub was born in 1909. (He adopted the name Tory only after moving to Israel.) He attended the Hebrew Gymnasium at Marijampolé in Lithuania, and then studied law at the Universities of Kovno and Pittsburgh, and he became assistant to a Jewish professor of law at the University of Kovno. A good athlete and a dedicated Zionist, he took part as a gymnast in the first Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv in 1932. When the Soviet Army set up bases in Lithuania in October 1939, Tory worked for the local Soviet military construction administration but was dismissed after five months because of his Zionist past. After being interrogated repeatedly by the Soviet NKVD, he went into hiding to avoid deportation to Siberia and emerged just in time to see the German troops enter Lithuania on June 23, 1941. A month later, after the Nazis had decreed that a ghetto must be created, he became deputy secretary of the local Council of Elders until his escape two and a half years later. He went into hiding with Lithuanian peasants, reappeared when the Red Army reentered Kovno in 1944, and after the war made his way to Palestine. He still practices law in Tel Aviv. Tory emerges from the diary as a deeply religious, sober, and modest man who rarely shows great passion, and who preserved admirable self-control when confronted with indescribable horrors.

Great and Small Lithuania

People with a remarkable number of languages and confessions lived together for centuries in what is today Lithuania; it was a workable arrangement as long as human beings were distinguished not by ethnicity but by tribal law or by their estate within the feudal system. With the arrival of national ideologies early in the nineteenth century, the situation grew increasingly difficult, culminating in the vast hecatomb that has been the price of modern nationalism. At least today’s Lithuania prides itself on being a true nation state. It is not quite that. Although Lithuania comes closer to being the home of one national ethnic group than neighboring Latvia and Estonia (there are scarcely any Jews and Germans left in the country and not many Poles and Byelorussians), new immigrants have come from deep in the Soviet Union. The most important recent change, however, is that whereas Jews, Germans, and Poles used to make up a large part of the educated classes, today’s elite consists primarily of ethnic Lithuanians. The Soviet immigrants are mostly manual workers. That the native elements are at the top of the social scale in Lithuania and in the rest of Eastern Europe is indeed one of the most important social developments in the region’s recent history.

The origin of the Lithuanians is no less mysterious than that of other East European nations. All we know is that tribes speaking Lithuanian have lived in the region from ancient times and that they, and the related Latvians, speak an ancient Indo-European tongue bearing some striking resemblances to Sanskrit. Neither Lithuanian nor Latvian is a Slavic language. Nor, for that matter, is Estonian, which resembles Finnish and belongs to the Finno-Ugric language group, of which Hungarian is another well-known member. Estonian is thus wholly unrelated to Latvian and Lithuanian, which are as foreign to Polish and Russian as English.

In the Middle Ages Lithuanians had great leaders with such names as Mindaugas, Gediminas, Algirdas, Kestutis, and Vytautas,2 who transformed Lithuania into a vast and powerful state. Lithuanians remained pagans longer than any other European nation. Mindaugas accepted baptism in 1251 and was crowned king at the order of the Pope, only to recant and sacrifice prisoners to his ancient gods. Gediminas called himself a grand duke, a title that would be borne by Lithuania’s rulers for centuries. He is said to have founded Vilnius (in Polish “Wilno,” to Russians and Jews “Vilna”) in 1323. Under the brothers Algirdas and Kestutis, Lithuanian power extended to the shores of the Black Sea and came close to Moscow, and under Algirdas’s son, Jogaila, the crowns of Poland and Lithuania were united in 1386. Jogaila, better known as the Polish King Wladyslaw II Jagiello, also restored the University of Kraków, which bears his name. On the powerful equestrian statue in New York City’s Central Park, the crossed swords raised above Jagiello’s head symbolize the union of Lithuania and Poland.

The Lithuanians finally accepted Christianity but not yet union with Poland. Soon Kestutis’s son, Vytautas (Polish “Witold”), reasserted his country’s independence, at least for a short time. Vytautas, too, performed great deeds, among them at Grunwald in 1410, when his Lithuanians—and allied Poles, Russians, Tartars, and Czechs—defeated the German Teutonic Knights. (Poles, of course, know that the battle was won by Jagiello’s Polish army, and that the others were allies.) During the next 150 years the Polish-Lithuanian alliance was confirmed repeatedly but the balance gradually tipped in favor of Poland.

By joining with Poland, the British historian Norman Davies writes,

the Lithuanians opened the door to many changes. Their pagan religion was abolished, the sacred oak groves ritually felled, and the people baptized in legions. Their closed world was thrown open to Western influences, and their boyars began to demand the same rights and privileges as the Polish nobility. In due course, all but the lowest levels of society were thoroughly Polonized—both in language and in outlook. The “Polish connection” in Lithuania came to have the same connotation as the “British” connection in Scotland. The “Lithuanian connection” in Poland brought still further enrichment of its rich multinational heritage.3

At the end of the sixteenth century, the lands of the Polish crown had become much greater than those of Lithuania, and Polish laws and customs were adopted in Lithuania.

By the eighteenth century, Polish-Lithuanian political life had become a farce; the king had lost most of his power to the nobility represented in the country’s parliament, but the nobles became so insistent on making decisions democratically that they could neither legislate nor govern. Beginning in 1772, the dual state gradually succumbed to its absolutist neighbors, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, and in 1795, most of what is today’s Lithuania was acquired by the tsar. Granted autonomy at first, Lithuania was later subjected to intense Russification. After the Polish revolt of 1830 the tsarist regime prohibited the use of the Polish language in the region (a prohibition from which the Lithuanian national movement profited indirectly), and the very name of the province was abolished. After the Polish revolt of 1863, Roman Catholic schools, the mainstay of both education and of the spirit of national revival, were closed. Nobles and intellectuals from what is today Lithuania participated in all the nineteenth-century Polish uprisings against Russia.

The Lithuania eulogized in the works of the great Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz during the 1850s was, despite its regional peculiarities, a part of Polish culture; but during the last half of the nineteenth century, a new movement, inspired partly by journalists and other intellectuals, partly by embattled Catholic clergy, claimed that Lithuania’s language and ethnic identity defined it as a separate nation. Lithuanian nationalists participated in the 1905 Russian revolution, but even the Russian progressives who contemplated autonomy for Poland did not contemplate it for Lithuania.

Toward the end of the German occupation of the Baltic region during World War I, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian nationalists, Russian and local Bolsheviks, counterrevolutionary White Russians, Poles, and a German Free Corps battled each other in a confused war of all against all. Meanwhile, however, prominent Lithuanian leaders such as Antanas Smetona and Augustinas Voldemaras proclaimed their country’s independence; the Russian Bolsheviks recognized it in July 1920, and the newly independent Polish government on October 7. Two days later, however, the soldiers of the Polish Free Corps invaded Vilnius/Vilna, and in 1922 the city was officially incorporated into the Polish republic. Having lost its capital, Lithuania persisted in a state of war with Poland for sixteen years, although without further bloodshed. Kaunas/Kovno became the country’s temporary capital.

Not to be outdone by their fellow East Europeans, Lithuanians organized their own Free Corps in 1923, invading the port city of Klaipeda (in German, “Memel”) and taking it over from the Weimar republic. Lithuania was now seen as an enemy by both Germany and Poland. Nor was there much hope that the Soviets would not soon reassert Russia’s traditional interest in the Baltic states.

Lithuania between the wars was poor, although not desperately so. Its economy was mainly agricultural and it exported butter, beef, live pigs, eggs, flax, and the pride of the country, fattened goose liver and white down, to Great Britain and Germany. A major land reform, which expropriated the lands of the Polish and Russian gentry, achieved the dual purpose of satisfying the peasants and ridding the country of some rich foreigners. Meanwhile, newly independent Latvia and Estonia had achieved the same result by expropriating the lands of the famous German Baltic barons. Illiteracy was much higher in Lithuania, which was largely rural and Catholic than in the mostly Lutheran and somewhat more industrialized countries of Latvia and Estonia. Lithuanian commerce and industry were largely in the hands of Jews and Germans, who together made up 11 percent of the country’s population of nearly three million.

  1. 1

    I am aware that the place should be called Kaunas, for it is now a large city in Lithuania, but here I will refer to it as Kovno, following the book under review. Place names are, of course, no minor matter for most East Europeans, and I remember well the furious scolding I received as a child from a stranger in a train somewhere in Slovenia when I referred to the country’s capital as Laibach, its German and Hungarian name, and not as Ljubljana.

  2. 2

    As many as half a dozen variations for East European personal names may be in use and this is the case with the Lithuanian heroes mentioned in the text.

  3. 3

    Norman Davies, Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 292.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print