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 Superbly complemented by Martin Gilbert’s introduction and Dina Porat’s notes, the diary is a historical document of major importance.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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.