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 Superbly complemented by Martin Gilbert’s introduction and Dina Porat’s notes, the diary is a historical document of major importance.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.
Virtually everything went wrong with Lithuanian political life in the early 1920s after a promising democratic start. The contesting parties refused to allow stable governments to be formed, and, as in most of the other East European states, a strong man took over. Simultaneously with the 1926 coup d’état of Marshal Pilsudski in Poland, Antanas Smetona seized power in Lithuania. He and his young officers and intellectuals abolished the opposition parties, curtailed civil liberties, executed a few Communists, and imprisoned a number of socialists, social democrats, and even Christian Democrats. But Smetona, like most other East European strongmen, was more of a conservative than a radical. In 1934 he imprisoned his former nationalist colleague Augustinas Voldemaras, whose fascist organization, the “Iron Wolf,” had long threatened the regime. Under Smetona, nonpolitical citizens, Jews included, could live in peace.
Smetona’s position was greatly weakened in 1938, when he was forced by an ultimatum to renew diplomatic relations with the Polish government dominated by the foreign minister, Colonel Beck, and again in March 1939, when Nazi Germany seized the harbor city Klaipeda/Memel. Since Latvia and Estonia were weak and uncooperative, Lithuania at the beginning of World War II hadn’t a single friend or protector. It was at the mercy of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which now proceeded to divide Eastern Europe between themselves.
There followed a curious interlude of semi-independence, when, as the secret agreement concluded between Stalin and Hitler provided, the Soviets returned Vilnius/Vilna to Lithuania but also forced Smetona to accept Red Army garrisons in his country—the garrisons for whom Tory worked. In July 1940, the Soviets put an end to this awkward situation by invading and annexing the three Baltic states, and then imposing a reign of terror in which hundreds of Lithuanians were killed, and according to one source, at least forty thousand were deported to Siberia, and large parts of the economy were nationalized.4 The Lithuanians responded with anti-Soviet revolutionary conspiracies, directed in part from Berlin, the only place where the Lithuanian leaders could find refuge and assistance. Smetona himself went into exile, never to return; his place was taken by extreme nationalists. Assured by the Germans that a war with the Soviet Union was impending, Lithuanians prepared for an anti-Soviet uprising, working with a desperate sense of urgency in order to present the German invaders with the fait accompli of an existing Lithuanian government. In fact, a national uprising preceded the arrival of the Nazis in 1941 by a few hours; when the German motorized units entered Kovno, the hunt for demoralized Red Army soldiers, local Communists, and Jews had already been in full swing. During one night, Lithuanian “freedom fighters,” called partisans, butchered at least a thousand Jews, and robbed, tortured, or imprisoned even more.
The Jewish Presence
How are these savage attacks to be explained? Jews had lived in the region since the fourteenth century, although some sources say that the first Jewish arrivals were prisoners of war captured by Grand Duke Vytautas at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. More came later, thanks to the hospitality of Polish-Lithuanian rulers and noble landowners. Some Jews may have been of southern European Khazar descent, that is, racially not Semitic; others were refugees from West European persecution. In 1755, 750,000 of Europe’s 1.25 million Jews lived in Poland-Lithuania. Jews were intermittently excluded from Kovno and other cities but never from Slobodka (Lithuanian “Vilijampolé”), now a part of Kovno, the ancient Jewish settlement that the Nazis would soon convert into the Kovno ghetto. Many more Jews lived in Vilnius/Vilna, and thousands of others in such places as Siauliai and Marijampolé.
Of these places, the most exaordinary was undoubtedly Vilna: capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, center of Polish Catholic culture, and seat of Jewish piety and learning. Nineteenth-century Lithuanian patriots revered Vilnius as the center of renewed Lithuanian greatness. For Poles, Wilno was a legendary city celebrated in Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, the Polish national epic. Roman Catholics embraced it as the home of the wonder-working image of the Virgin of Ostra Brama, a great cathedral, and some twenty-five other churches and chapels. The tsarist authorities chose Vilna as a center for their Russification drive. Finally, for Jews, it was a place that had led Napoleon to exclaim before its chief synagogue that Vilna was indeed “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.”
The most famous Jew to reside there was Elijah ben Solomon Zalmen (1720–1797), better known as Elijah Gaon or simply the Vilna Gaon, who, in the words of Lucy S. Dawidowicz, “gave Vilna its reputation as the fortress of rabbinic Judaism, the bastion for the study of Torah and especially halakha, the Jewish law. Even in his own day, he became a legendary figure, the embodiment of intellect, rationality, and scholarship.”5 A rentless enemy of hasidism, which he accused of dividing the Jewish people and undermining the rabbinic foundations of Judaism, the Vilna Gaon succeeded in limiting the influence of that movement in the city. Other local masters of Jewish scholarship and writing included Abraham Mapu, the creator of the modern Hebrew novel, the Hebrew poet and critic Judah Loeb Gordon, and Isaac Meir Dick, the first popular Yiddish novelist. But Vilna was also the cradle of the Jewish labor movement and the Jewish Labor Bund.
For the Lithuanian Jews tsarist rule during the nineteenth century alternated between outright oppression and grants of civil rights. In 1858, for instance, Jews were allowed to settle freely in Kovno, but in the early 1880s two pogroms organized by Russians resulted in hundreds of Jews either being killed or driven out of their homes. By World War I Kovno had a Jewish population of perhaps 30,000. As the German army approached, the Russian government sent most of them into the interior of Russia, but many returned a short time later. The Russian regime did not want Jews living under German rule since the Jews on the whole sympathized with Germany, and scores of them were helpful to the occupation authorities—understandably in view of traditional tsarist anti-Semitism and the more liberal practices of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Following the establishment of a free Lithuania after World War I, the new democratic regime granted special rights to all ethnic minorities, and thus also to the Jews. A ministry of Jewish affairs was set up in Kovno as well as a Jewish national council. Jews served in the Lithuanian administration, in parliament (where they were free to address their audience in Yiddish), and as officers in the army. Street signs in Hebrew characters were permitted in Kovno. In 1919 both the minister of Jewish affairs and the deputy foreign minister were well-known Zionists.
There were good reasons for such behavior on the part of President Smetona, the then still moderate Prime Minister Voldemaras, and their colleagues. There was relatively little traditional anti-Semitism among the Baltic peoples; for them, the Russians and the Poles were the problem, not the Jews. The Lithuanian leaders felt that their young but old nation, made up almost exclusively of peasants and intelligentsia, needed the skills of Jewish traders and artisans. They also mistakenly believed that the Jews, through their international connections, would be able to guarantee the country’s independence and help fend off Polish and Russian aggression. Lithuanian Jewish leaders, in turn, saw the coming of a Golden Age, in a kind of East European Switzerland in which they would enjoy complete cultural and educational autonomy.
All this was not to last, of course. First, by far not all the Jews of the former Lithuanian grand duchy were included in the new state; most found themselves in Soviet Russia and Poland, and the question they faced was what would happen to them if the Jews of Lithuania chose to become Lithuanian patriots. Second, the Jews were deeply divided among a nonpolitical Orthodox majority and militant minorities made up of Bundists, other socialists, several varieties of Zionists, and Folkists, with each group having a different idea of precisely what attitude to take toward the new Lithuanian state. Third, the first census showed that independent Lithuania was much less of a multi-ethnic state than had been originally assumed; there was no need to think of creating a commonwealth of nations. Finally, no sooner had the new state been created, than the rural population began to move into the cities, beginning a process of “Lithuanization” that put in doubt the need for Jewish skills. According to Ezra Mendelsohn, “In 1897 only 11.5 percent of the urban population of Kovno (Kaunas) Province, then under Russian rule, was Lithuanian, but already in the mid-1920s the city was more than 50 percent Lithuanian.”6 Within a few years autonomous ethnic institutions were abolished under the slogan of “Lithuania for the Lithuanians.” By the mid-1930s, as the result of vigorous assistance from the government, there were more Lithuanian than Jewish shopkeepers in Kovno.
This campaign, too, paralleled similar pressures for ethnic nationalism in other East European countries; in each case a new native middle class was demanding the positions and the wealth held by people they claimed were foreigners.
Still, Jewish life in Lithuania was less troubled than it was, for instance, in Poland, and as late as 1940, five Yiddish dailies were published in Kovno. The Jews who made up more than a quarter of Kovno’s 150,000 inhabitants were largely Yiddish speakers, and most were not assimilated into Lithuanian national and cultural life. Only a minority identified with the Lithuanian nation and another minority were drawn to the Communist movement. Altogether, more than 150,000 Jews lived in Lithuania between the wars; they amounted to 7 percent of the total population. That proportion was greatly increased by the German-Soviet agreement of October 1939 to return Vilnius/Vilna to Lithuania and by the arrival of large numbers of Jewish refugees from both German-occupied and Soviet-occupied Poland.
No doubt, there was a disproportionate number of Jews in the Lithuanian Communist movement (some sources say that they made up one half of its members, which would have meant one thousand Jewish Communists). They were recruited mainly from among younger members of the intelligentsia.7 Between 1940 and 1941, a few thousand Lithuanian Jews, such as the NKVD director Todes, served in the Soviet administration, the Red Army, and the political police, and they incurred the hostility of Lithuanians for doing so. But other Jews, usually the well-to-do and the politically independent, were harassed by the Soviets, and when the largest deportation to Siberia took place, between June 14 and 18, 1941, that, too, included a disproportionate number of Jews. The Soviet decision suddenly to jam 40,000 people into cattle cars and send them to Siberia (most of them never to return) drove the Lithuanian people to fury. Thousands escaped to the woods to avoid arrest, only to return a few days later when the Lithuanian national uprising began, soon followed by the German invasion. The Red Army fled immediately; and the Lithuanians managed to kill only a few stragglers. Local Communists were not easily recognizable, but Jews were; and, in any case, extreme rightist propaganda had made the Jews responsible for the tragedy of Lithuania.
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.
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?
November 8, 1990
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. ↩
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. ↩
Norman Davies, Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 292. ↩
Algirdas Martin Budreckis, The Lithuanian National Revolt of 1941 (Lithuanian Encyclopedia Press, 1968), p. 44. ↩
Lucy S. Dawidowicz, From that Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938–1947 (Norton, 1989), p. 43. My review of this highly readable work appeared in the September 28, 1989, issue of The New York Review. ↩
Ezra Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe between the World Wars (Indiana University Press, 1983), p. 225. Much of my information on interwar Lithuanian-Jewish relations was culled from this fine book. ↩
On the popularity of communism among young, middle-class Lithuanian Jews, see the memoirs of the Jewish survivor Frieda Frome, Some Dare to Dream: Frieda Frome’s Escape from Lithuania (Iowa State University Press, 1988), pp. 7–10. My review of this book appeared in the September 28, 1989, issue of The New York Review. ↩
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). ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩