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Heroism in Hell

The Early Months of Terror

If the Lithuanians thought that they would now regain their freedom, they were soon to be disappointed. The Germans would not hear of a free Lithuanian state within what soon became the Reichskommissariat Ostland, a vast region annexed by the Great German Reich. The Germans allowed the Lithuanians to set up all sorts of councils and head local administrations, but none of these institutions had any influence on the SS, SD, SA, Einsatzgruppen, Gestapo, Kripo, Sipo, NSDAP, and Volksdeutsche offices, or on the Feldgendarmerie, the various German civilian administrations, the Wehrmacht, the Todt organization, and the rest of the bewildering assemblage of competing institutions in charge of the Nazi occupation.

As Tory recalls, the German authorities announced in July 1941 that a ghetto would be created and, within a month, about 30,000 people were locked up there. This figure no longer corresponded to the original number of Jews in Kovno and its surroundings because Einsatzgruppe A, the SS police battalion specially assigned to the Baltic nations, had meanwhile begun its killing.8 Lithuanian partisans working with Einsatzgruppe units murdered thousands of Jews in the nearby Seventh Fort and Ninth Fort, huge military fortresses built by the Russians during World War I. It is important to note that Einsatzgruppe A, consisting of about one thousand men, was assigned to the rear guard of the entire German Army Group North; this meant that no more than a few Einsatzgruppe soldiers, as well as some SS men from other units, could be spared for the specific actions at Kovno. Even with the Jews who were completely bewildered and obedient, the liquidations could not have succeeded without extensive local assistance. As every document demonstrates, hundreds of Lithuanian auxiliaries accompanied every major convoy of Jews, shooting some on the way and killing the rest at the forts.

Early in August, there were still 30,000 people in the ghetto, but on August 18, SA Captain Fritz Jordan and Mikas Kaminskas, the Lithuanian head of the Kovno municipality, requested that 500 intellectuals volunteer for scientific work in the city archives. As Tory reports, a total of 534 did so; they were taken to the Ninth Fort and killed. Other Aktionen followed in quick succession.

Survivors in the ghetto immediately began working for German military and other enterprises, and some were given special identity cards, generally referred to as “Jordan certificates,” which were also called “lifesavers.” Doctors and nurses and other health workers also thought their lives would be spared, but on October 2, the ghetto hospital for contagious diseases was boarded up on the orders of Jordan and Kaminskas, and two days later it was burned down, along with all its patients, doctors, nurses, and technical personnel. Children, including babies in swaddling clothes, were taken from the children’s home to the Ninth Fort and there shot dead.

In late October a Grosse Aktion, as the Germans called it, began when SS Captain Heinrich Schmitz and Master Sergeant Helmut Rauca of the Gestapo requested that 10,000 people be selected for “transfer” during a general assembly of the entire ghetto population. As Tory writes, the Council of Elders wanted the people of the ghetto to resist the order, but on the advice of Chief Rabbi Abraham Kahana-Shapiro, who spent a horrible night consulting Talmudic and rabbinical sources, the SS order was finally obeyed. In the morning of October 28, 27,000 people appeared on Demokratu Square so that Rauca could make his selection. He directed the members of the Council of Elders, the ghetto police, and holders of Jordan certificates and their families, to go to the left side of the square, which later turned out to be the “good” side. There, too, went a special brigade employed by the Gestapo, whose members bore a conspicuous “Gestapo” next to their Stars of David. People characterized by Rauca as “trash,” including single women, nonexempt families with children, the old, and the sick, were sent to the right. Selection went far into the night, and next morning the ten thousand selected were taken by the militia to the Ninth Fort in full view of the other ghetto inhabitants and Lithuanian spectators. Once there, the victims were stripped naked, pushed into the pits, and machine-gunned. (Sergeant Rauca emigrated to Canada after the war and became a Canadian citizen. He was tried in Toronto in 1984, with Tory testifying as a witness, and was deported to the German Federal Republic; he died in a prison hospital.)

The selections for execution ended soon thereafter, and on February 8, 1942, SS Colonel Karl Jäger reported to Berlin, in a triumphant statistical analysis, that; thus far, 138,272 Exekutionen had taken place in Lithuania. The figure included 136,241 Jews, 1,064 Communists, 56 partisans, 633 insane persons, 44 Poles, 28 Russian POWs, 5 Gypsies, and 1 Armenian. Of the total number, Jäger reported, 55,556 were women and 34,464 children.

Precarious Survival

Following the orgy of killing in 1941, the next two years were relatively calm, disproving, if further proof is needed, the historian Arno Mayer’s strange contention that there was a close relationship between the Final Solution and setbacks suffered by the German army on the Eastern front.9 According to Mayer, the Germans’ primary motive was anti-Communism and only secondarily anti-Semitism; they liquidated the Jews mainly because they had been unable to liquidate the Bolsheviks. In reality, in the Baltic countries at least, mass executions took place well before any German military setback; thereafter, most of the survivors were kept alive to help support the German war effort. In Vilna there was to be a second great wave of extermination in the spring of 1943, but in Kovno, those who died in 1942 and 1943 did so mostly because of malnutrition and diseases such as typhoid. In the spring of 1944 another large group of Jews was killed at Kovno and, in July, the last survivors were sent to Germany, where again many perished from sickness and hunger. At the end, only 17 percent of the Lithuanian Jews survived, a horrifyingly low figure matched only by the rates of Poland and Greece.10

For those of us who have read of mass killings to the point of nausea, the most welcome portion of Tory’s diary describes the relatively peaceful months of 1942 and 1943, when the ghetto was organized under the wise leadership of Dr. Elchanan Elkes. Thousands marched off every morning to work on construction sites or in German households. They returned in the evening, some of them smuggling in the food they needed to stave off starvation. Small factories producing mainly clothing and shoes for the German army thrived within the ghetto. And in the spring of 1942 the Germans slightly increased its supply of food, which allowed the Council of Elders to set up a soup kitchen. There was an excellent symphony orchestra; secret schools carried on classes; some women gave birth, even though this had been strictly forbidden by a Gestapo order issued on July 24, 1942. There were political parties and several underground organizations; the council created an impeccably clean secret bakery and a pharmacy as well; in the fairly well-equipped hospital typhoid patients were carefully hidden. Tory himself visited Kovno city almost daily to negotiate with the Germans or to be given orders.

Some Germans, especially civilians and even members of the SA, proved to be fairly decent in their relations with Jews; a few, such as SA Lieutenant Gustav Hermann, who headed the German labor office in the ghetto, were solicitous and helpful. Others persisted in being bullies. The Germans were proud of “their” ghetto and liked to show it off to visiting Reich dignitaries. A well-functioning ghetto, after all, could save their lives as well; the alternative was service at the front. Most Germans were willing to accept bribes, as were the Lithuanian guards; this fact alone assured temporary survival. But no one ever doubted that if the order for liquidation came from Berlin, it would be obeyed.

Unlike some other Jewish councils, the council at Kovno succeeded in reducing compliance with German orders to an absolute minimum, and again, unlike some other places, for instance Vilna, the Jewish ghetto police were anything but zealous in assisting the Gestapo. Its members kept in close contact with the underground organizations, and they helped to build hiding places, an activity for which many Jewish police officers were later to pay with their lives. Thousands of illegal refugees from other Jewish communities, or Jews who had to come out of hiding, found shelter in the ghetto. A few inhabitants accumulated small fortunes through trading and smuggling; the rest barely survived. Contacts were maintained with sympathetic Lithuanians, even with the Kovno Bishop Vincentas Brizgys, who in the early days of the German occupation had sent a telegram of thanks to Hitler and even later forbade his clergy to assist the Jews. By 1943, however, Brizgys, like many other Lithuanians, had second thoughts and now declared himself ready to help Jewish children. The mood had changed significantly. Now Lithuanians were being persecuted as well, and thousands evaded conscription into the German army by escaping to the forests. The anti-Nazi partisan movement grew swiftly.

There came a time when some Germans showed more sympathy for Jews than for Lithuanians; food confiscated from the local population was occasionally donated to the ghetto, and the Jewish police were used to help evict Lithuanian families from houses the Germans needed. A few Jewish policemen used the occasion to vent their hatred on the Lithuanians—for which, Tory writes, they were severely reprimanded by the Council of Elders. Lithuanians in turn called the ghetto police “Jewish Gestapo,” and “Jewish SS.” But thousands of Lithuanian families were living in former Jewish flats, using Jewish furniture, and wearing Jewish clothes.

A few amazingly brave Poles and Lithuanians, such as Irena Adamowicz (of whom Tory writes) and Sofija Binkiene, regularly visited the ghetto, bringing news from other ghettos and helping some to escape. The Kovno priests V. Vaickus and Bronius Paukstys, both friends of Tory, were no less heroic; the latter, incidentally, later spent ten years in solitary confinement in a Soviet prison.

Following are summaries of some of the entries in Tory’s diary:

January 14, 1942: The Germans ordered all Jewish cats and dogs to be delivered to the small synagogue, where they were shot.

June 23: Master Sergeant Rauca came to the ghetto to order a statue of a naked woman from the sculptress Gehrscheim. The Jew Joseph Caspi gave a party at his house in the city which was attended by Rauca and other Gestapo officials. [Caspi, a journalist who had volunteered his services to the Germans because of his hatred for the Soviets, worked as a Nazi agent. He alternately helped and harassed the Council of Elders. He and his family were later shot by the Germans, as was Benjamin Lipzer, the head of the Jewish Gestapo brigade, who also had had excellent connections with the Germans.]

July 7: Bathing in the Vilija river was permitted to Jews. [The book shows a photograph of an attractive woman wearing a bathing costume on the river shore.]

December 13: The German ghetto commandant attended a concert given by the Jewish police orchestra

February 15, 1943: Jewish workers in the city attempted to give food to some starving Russian POWs.

April 7: News of the massacre of 5,000 Vilna Jews at Ponar has reached the ghetto. [A total of 70,000 to 100,000 people were murdered at Ponar during the war.]

July 14: The ghetto police were authorized by the German authorities to deal with civil and criminal matters according to the laws of the defunct Lithuanian republic. [No information on these trials was released to the Gestapo]

All this should not create the impression that the inhabitants of the ghetto ever felt secure. There was no end to rumors of impending disaster, to the horrible news from Warsaw and elsewhere. The Germans had so often and so brazenly lied to the Council of Elders that no one believed them even when they gave orders for what later turned out to be a normal labor assignment. The Jewish police had to hunt down those selected for jobs.

The End of the Ghetto

In November 1943 the ghetto was officially renamed a concentration camp; by then a part of its population had been transferred to work in the other Baltic countries. In January 1944, with the Red Army approaching, an extensive cleanup of the Seventh and Ninth Forts began: 45,000 corpses were burned in the Ninth Fort alone. On March 23, Tory escaped from the ghetto; a few days later, 1,200 people, mostly children, were killed, but, meanwhile, well over a hundred members of the underground had escaped to the forest. During the following month the Council of Elders was abolished, and in July, after further killings, the remaining 8,000 Jews were shipped to Germany. Dr. Elkes died in Dachau. The ghetto was burned to the ground.

By July, much of Lithuania was on the move. Lithuanian peasants hid in the woods; German peasants from the Klaipeda/Memel region attempted to flee the country; if caught by partisans or the Red Army, they, too, were butchered. The new Soviet administration deported thousands of Lithuanians to the interior of the Soviet Union and murdered others.

Some Lithuanians pretend that the Jewish massacres in 1941 were the work of criminal elements who had infiltrated the ranks of the freedom fighters. Some Jews claim that most Lithuanians were fascists. Both are wrong, but it is probably useless to argue with them. That many Lithuanians participated in the early spontaneous killings, and that many volunteered for militia service under the Germans does not make the Lithuanian situation any different in these respects from that prevailing in the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Slovakia, Austria, or France. Most of the countries that were occupied by the Nazis or were allied with them produced roughly the same proportions of butchers, of the indifferent, of sympathizers, and of active rescuers. But it was not the same thing to offer to help the Jews in the East and in the West. In Lithuania and Poland, gentiles who tried to rescue Jews were routinely executed and so, often, were their families. How many Americans could conceive of risking and even sacrificing their lives and those of their families for the sake of a stranger? Some Lithuanians and many Poles took that risk and made that sacrifice.

What did the East Europeans gain who assisted the Nazis? Not much, I would argue, for even though World War II enabled them to speed up the process of “nationalization,” and native elites are now firmly in power, the ethnic Germans and the Jews would have been very likely either to assimilate or to leave in any case. Having found refuge in Eastern Europe over the centuries, the Jews began their reverse migration westward well before World War II. There is every reason to believe that, because neither side needed the other any longer, emigration of Jews and Germans from the region would have continued at a quicker pace. The mutually beneficial symbiosis of Jews and East Europeans was coming to an end.

Threatened by fascism, acutely aware of Nazi anti-Semitism, a number of East European Jews embraced the outdated concept of international workers’ solidarity, which in the case of the Communists among them, ultimately meant serving Soviet imperialism. This was exploited by the Germans and by the East Europeans who became their allies in their determination to “settle the Jewish question.” The Lithuanians were outraged by the terrors of Soviet occupation in which some Jews took part; and some, although far from all, ethnic Lithuanians lent their services to the Germans in the Final Solution. Others turned against the Jews or, at least, washed their hands of them. Tory quotes what Matulionis, a moderate Lithuanian politician, told a Jewish visitor early in July 1941:

I am a practicing Roman Catholic; I—and other believers like me—believe that man cannot take the life of a human being like himself. Only God can do this. I have never been against anybody, but during the period of Soviet rule I and my friends realized that we did not have a common path with the Jews and never will. In our view, the Lithuanians and the Jews must be separated from each other and the sooner the better. For that purpose, the Ghetto is essential. There you will be separated and no longer able to harm us. This is a Christian position.

The guilt of the Lithuanians pales next to that of the Germans; still, some committed grave crimes, while other Lithuanians, to repeat, showed their humanity under the most adverse conditions.

Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipeda were once marvelously colorful, cosmopolitan cities, enriched by the learning and the skills of their multinational populations. The color and the excitement are gone, as they are from most other places in Eastern Europe. The members of the new government at Vilnius have made no effort to recall publicly the memory of the many ethnic groups who once made Lithuania such an extraordinary country, or to express their regret for what happened to more than a hundred thousand of its Jewish citizens. Isn’t it time they did so?


Lithuania and the Jews January 31, 1991

  1. 8

    On the special police battalions in the East, see Yitzhak Arad, Shmuel Krakowski, and Shmuel Spector, eds., The Einsatzgruppen Reports: Selections from the Dispatches of the Nazi Death Squads’ Campaign Against the Jews, July 1941–January 1943 (Holocaust Library, 1989).

  2. 9

    See Arno Mayer, Why Did the Heavens not Darken?: The ‘Final Solution’ in History (Pantheon, 1988). I reviewed this book, too, in the September 28, 1989, issue of the The New York Review.

  3. 10

    The most reliable statistics on this difficult and terrifying subject seem to be in Israel Gutman, ed., Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (Macmillan, 1990), Vol. IV, p. 1799.

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