Writer Chaim Yelin, the organizer and leader of the ghetto partisan movement, dreamed of writing a book about the resistance, underground and Kovno ghetto partisans. The proof of that is in the material which he managed to have written during the war. However, only some of that material has survived. Having devoted all his being to the underground movement, Chaim Yelin perished in the fight with the brown plague without making public the Resistance documents, which were at that time written in blood of Kovno ghetto fighters.
These lines were written by his brother and his closest friend, who, from the very first days of Kovno ghetto,fought hand in hand with him.
The authors of the book aimed to describe the events with utmost precision. They see it as their duty both to the memory of those who were killed, who consciously gave their lives in the fight against the enemy and those who continue their fight for the reconstruction and growth of the new Soviet Russia.
May these lines serve as a historical document to the suffering of the Jewish people in the common fight of all Soviet peoples against the enemy of all humanity - German fascists - in the fight for a bright Communist future.Dimitri Ghelpernus -Author
I. AMONG THE RUINS
When at the beginning of August 1944 Kovno was liberated from the fascist invaders, partisan groups entered the city together with Soviet Army detachments. Among them was the group "Pirmin" ("Forward") and parts of the groups "Mirtis Ocupantams" ("Death to the Invaders"), "Vladas Baronas", "Laisvoi Lietuva" ("Free Lithuania") and others. Many Jews, former members of the Kovno underground anti-fascist ghetto organisation fought among them.
Having returned to their hometown, without washing off road dust, with their sub-machine guns over their shoulders, Kovno ghetto partisans crossed the river Neris (Villia) and entered the Kovno suburb of Villiampole (Village).
The partisans were going there with a heavy heart, where their fathers and sons, husbands and wives, friends and relatives suffered in the grips of the ghetto - all those who failed to make their escape via barbed wire fence and police cordons of the Jewish prison.
They faced a terrible picture: the whole ghetto was blown up and burned down. The remains of the burned and charred bodies could be seen everywhere. Smoke was still coming from the ruins of the houses. The bodies of people who resisted the Gestapo, who did not follow the orders of their oppressors, were lying under those ruins. These people resisted German orders and did not let the Germans transport them to the west. They were prepared to meet death rather than to leave like slaves.
And so the partisans walked among the ruins. Could it be true that everything had perished and all life had been turned into ashes?
A cowering figure of a man emerged from the ruins of a big block C (Varniu street 32; * now P.Zibertas street). His clothes were torn and soiled in clay and sand, his hands were bleeding. Having seen the Red Army soldiers and the partisans, having heard his mother tongue, this exhausted man came to the manhole which he had recently dug out with his bare hands and shouted, "Jews, you are free!"
Thirty four people, one by one, crawled out of the manhole. All were emaciated and painfully pale, even their skin was translucent. They had sunken cheeks, they were screwing up their cheeks because of pain - they had not seen daylight for three weeks! When the order to gather for transportation was issued, these people hid in a dug-out, six-meter deep shelter. The house above them was blown up. The exit was buried under the ruble.
But the hope of the imminent arrival of the Red Army which would bring liberation aroused inhuman efforts and the people withstood everything: the lack of air, thirst, unbearable heat.
Thirty four were from here, several dozen - from the ruins of the former ghetto public baths, eighteen escaped from a nearby saw-mill, about twenty were from the ghetto pottery and dozens and dozens of others restored to life; apart from them also those who came out of wells, sewage pipes and other shelters,where they had stayed for more than two weeks - they now acquire freedom.
A Lithuanian woman came up; she was leading a Jewish child whom she had been protecting throughout the war. Here was Yuosas Paulavichius. He saved fourteen Jews and three prisoners of war who had escaped from a concentration camp. He met the Soviet Army while holding in his hands a Soviet banner, which he kept in safety throughout the occupation. Maria Leshchinskiene - "a reliable mother" to twenty rescued Jews - was also present at this moving meeting in the ruins of the Kovno ghetto.
A group of partisans and Red Army guards approached the ruins of a house. Sergeant Boruch Sedak showed a special interest in it. Here, he was told, used to live his family. Boruch went around the building. Under some bricks he found a book. It was a book by Lermontov. The sergeant went through the pages and stopped on one of them, marked with a blue pencil. "It belongs to Gershel! It is my brother Gershel's handwriting!" - he cried out.
It was written in Russian. "People! We are locked up like animals here. For seven days we had been hiding from our executioners in the loft without water, in terrible heat. Then we were attacked with grenades and our house was set on fire. We managed to escape into the cellar. A great number of people in the house have already perished. Their only fault was that their origins did not meet with the approval of the racist scum, who have acquired the guise of Hitler fascists. Comrades! Revenge us! There used to be about forty thousand Jews in Kovno. We are only few remaining... People! Annihilate the fascist scum. No mercy! Let them have their just deserts. Let the mankind rid of the worst evil in its history. Comrades! May the sacred revenge become the essence of your life! One of the Jews killed - Ghirsh Sedack.15.7.44."
This note is one of the many documents from the ghetto. Several partisans, participants of a militant anti-fascist ghetto organisation, found a blown up cellar. Here, for a long time, were the headquarters of the organization, here they hid weapons and ammunition. From a nearby well they extracted a wooden box. In the box there was a small tin box. Having opened the box the partisans found some of the archives of the Kovno ghetto antifascist organisation. These documents were hidden at a critical time, at the beginning of 1944, when they were expecting the ghetto liquidation. The yellowed pages, which were handed from person to person in the ghetto, finally saw the daylight. These pages gave hope, lifted spirits, they helped to organize and to mobilize the fighting ghetto vanguard, who came out armed in order to take vengeance on fascists.
Among the found documents, which are now kept in the State archives of the Lithuanian SSR, was the charter of the ghetto antifascist organisation. The first article of it states that the main aim of the organisation is the fight against fascism until the bitter end. A "combat programme" of the movement was also found. Aims, methods and tactics of the fight were also formulated in it.
Introduction of the "combat programme", written in the occupied territory, contains information on the origins of the resistance movement in Kovno ghetto.
It says, "We were the first ones to experience the German invasion and occupation as we lived in the boarder region. Having attacked the Soviet Union, Germans occupied Lithuania as early as the first week. Storm which is sweeping a country has a terrifying power. Many town and country people, having been accused of sympathizing with the Soviet power, were killed. Tens of thousands of Jews, who tried to escape further into the country, were caught and executed. Hundreds and thousands of Jews were incarcerated in Kovno forts, prisons and synagogues in other Lithuanian towns and villages. From there they were led to an execution point. The dead and wounded were thrown together into prepared pits.
A small number of surviving Lithuanian Jews were incarcerated in Kovno ghetto..."
A number of other documents used by the author to write this book were found at the same time.
II. IN THE TURMOIL
Kovno - a former temporary capital of Lithuania - is one of the most important industrial and significant cultural centres of the republic. The city, which is situated in the very spot where the river Neris leads into Neman, was not far from the then border with Germany (80 km).
On the 22nd of June 1941 Molotov said in his speech," Today, at 4 a.m. without making their demands to the Soviet Union, without declaring war, German military forces attacked our country, breached the state border in many places and bombed the cities of Zhitomir, Kiev, Sevastopol', Kovno and a number of others."
And so Kovno became one of the first cities to suffer from German fascists, who treacherously attacked the Soviet Union. The fascist hordes forced their way into Kovno suburbs as early as the night of the 23rd of June.
A small group of city residents, having used transport means which were at their disposal, managed to evacuate; but many of those making their way eastward on foot were captured by the attacking fascists. Such a fate befell those Jews who were trying to evacuate further east into the Soviet Union, having left behind their houses and other property.
200 kilometres from Kovno the attacking Germans also caught up with the authors of this book, who were trying to evacuate.
Lithuania fell into the clutches of fascist executioners.
The invaders attacked Soviet population with savage anger.
Hitler's command virtually outlawed Jews. Kovno was turned into a death valley.
Order No. 1, signed by Oberführer SS Kramer,the "German commissar of the city of Kauen" (no longer Kovno!) declares,
Order No.2 compels all Jews, irrespective of their gender or age, wear a star of David, 8-10 centimetre in diameter, on their chests and backs. Jews are allowed to be outdoors only at certain times of the day. They are forbidden to sell, exchange or dispose of in any other manner any of their property. Jews are forbidden to live with non-Jews.
The orders were getting tougher and tougher with time going by. Each new order tightened its grip on the Jewish population further... It was forbidden to buy food. Jews were condemned to hunger. On the basis of this order, at the beginning of August, in one day twenty six Jews were shot dead for trying to buy food from farmers.
Armed gangs of Lithuanian nationalists, former members of fascist organisations in bourgeois Lithuania - "Shauliu saiunga" ( Riflemen ), "Yaunoi Lietuva" ( Young Lithuania ), "Neolietuva" - various scum and criminals got the freedom of action. They began persecution of Soviet activists and families of Soviet Army servicemen, best sons and daughters of Lithuanian people were killed.
There were endless arrests of Soviet activists in the city. A great number of people died at the hands of Gestapo: Budjinskiene, deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, Pranas Zibertas, deputy of the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania, Girsh Sesitskii, Sender Aigulskii and Jeruchim Natanzon, trade union activists, Vitautas Montvila,famous Lithuanian poet, Joseph Witz, Shcherbakov, well-known worker, with his wife and a newborn baby son, and very many others.
Over 1000 Jews were killed in a most terrible manner on the night of 26th of June in Kovno suburb of Villiampole. Ruthless executioners crashed children's heads with the butts of their guns. A six-year old girl was lying with a broken leg; she was grabbed and her body was hit against a telephone pole, this leg came off the body... Some bandits came across rabbi Salman Ossovskii while he was sitting clad in tallis with his prayer book. Those executioners cut his head off with a saw. They cut off the tongue and put out the eyes of the leader of Villiampole yeshiva Abraham Grodzenskii.
The executioners slaughtered whole families living in the streets Paneriu, Vidurine, Jurbako, Arëgalos and others. But even then there were already people who did not give their lives without a struggle. Sarah Soifer saw worker Benzl Fain breaking the skull of the fascist who entered his home first.The executioners attacked the owner of the flat, his wife and his child. Benzl was torn to pieces. The child's head was torn off and thrown out of a window into the street. This severed head was left there for several days.
A young Jew by the name of Strazh, an accountant in a Kovno bank, threw himself at one of the marauding bandits and put out his eyes.
Blacksmith Shmuel Katz fought against fascists like a lion. But what could one do in the face of all rifles and machine-guns! And yet he fought for his human dignity till his last breath.
Blacksmith Jitzik Fridman, a Jewish strongman, came out with an axe to meet thugs from the "New Order".
Such cases were numerous. Dead bodies of men and women were found at entrances into houses, in cellars, at entrances to those cellars and sheds, where they defended with axes and truncheons approaches to where their families were hiding.
A whole family was massacred in a flat at 10 Arëgalos street. Seriously wounded head of this family, Akiva Pukhert, metal craftsman in Kovno factory "Drobe", managed to write before his death in his own blood on a wall, "Revenge!" his body was found next to this inscription.
The hunt for Soviet people continued in the streets of the city. Captured people were delivered to Kovno prison under a strict guard, and later, when the prison became full - to the Seventh Fort (one of the forts belonging to the former Kovno fortress). At the end of June about eight thousand men, women and children were gathered here. Women and children were kept under lock in underground cells. People were deprived of food and water; they were not allowed out even to relieve themselves. Both dead and living were lying together.
Men and older boys were kept in the open, in a deep ditch surrounding the fort. Sentry posts with machine guns and sub-machine guns were set up around the ditch on the embankment. Day and night armed fascists selected and took away groups of people supposedly for work. Shortly after one could hear shots coming from nearby woods...
The guards constantly robbed the prisoners. If one of them took a liking to some clothing or a pair of boots, the unlucky owner was taken away to the woods and shot dead. A favourite pastime for the guards was shooting people who were kept in the ditch. Not every bullet used to kill a person outright. The wounded moaned, though all were under orders to keep silence and not to move. When one of the wounded would cry out with pain the sound of flying bullets could be heard again until silence would set in.
But people managed to resist even in those conditions. Aaron Vilenchuk and Gilel Mariner, who miraculously survived the terrible massacre in the Seventh Fort, remember several cases of people attacking armed guards with their bare hands.Famous Kovno doctor Boris Hodos ignored the order to stay down without moving and got up. He openly told the bloodthirsty animals in human disguise what they really were. "Your day of reckoning will come!"- he shouted at them. Boris Hodor called on his Jewish fellow- prisoners to resist the fascists. A guardsman opened fire and wounded the brave man. He was "allowed" to die in terrible agony.
Worker Haim Hendle, teacher Moishe Goldman and many others acted in a similar manner.
On the first of July, those men who were still alive were shot dead. The fascists' main aim of killing Jewish old and young men during the first days - to weaken the force of possible resistance - was achieved to some extend.
There was a daily hunt for Jews. Those who were captured were supposedly sent to work. Yet nobody returned from this "work". The witness account of hairdresser Pinhos Markovich gives one a vivid description of what this work was about,
"A group of Jews, a part of which I was, was brought for work into the cellars of a school in Aukshtaichiu,52. All the walls of these cellars were spluttered with blood. Severed hands, feet, individual fingers, bits of human flesh lay everywhere on the floor. We were made to wash walls, pick up and dig into the ground in the yard the human remains. We were "encouraged" by whips."
Other Jews were forced to gather one afternoon in the courtyard of a garage at 43 Vitautas Avenue (now it is Lenin Prospect), in the centre of the city. Some of them were killed with shovels, iron bars or by other barbaric methods. Bodies were thrown into a pile. One of the executioners climbed on top of this pile and began playing harmonica. The others, drunk on vodka and at the sight of human blood, sung with him and danced. Among those rushed to witness the terrifying event were German officers with cameras in their hands. The fascist were in a hurry to photograph the harrowing scene.
All those events showed the true face of fascism and deeply angered the whole city. Lithuanian doctors Kutorgene, Staugaitis, Alekna, Kairiukshtis, woman-writer Bortkiavichene and others tried to persuade the invaders to stop Jewish pogroms. German leaders warned them against interference in this matter; if they showed compassion for Jews they would finish up sharing their fate.
Many Lithuanians took Jews into their flats thus saving them from executioners. Ionaitis, who lived in 16,Iurates street, hid in his house the persecuted during the worst days of massacre in Villiampole. He kept them there for a week and saved them from all dangers.
Father and son Boruchovich were near their place of execution by fire at a "shaulist house". Woman-worker Brone Lipskiene, wife of a communist, attacked the fascist who was taking them there. She shouted, "Murderers! Bloody dogs!"
Risking her life, Brone Lipskiene, gave the two Jews an opportunity to escape.
Worker Stasis Iovaisha of Benedictine Nuns street ( now it is Pakalnes street) warned all passing Jews not to go to Villiampole when pogroms took place there. Iovaisha hid many people at his place and kept them hidden all the time while the massacre went on in the town. Lithuanian writer Kasis Binkis' house was turned into a real Jewish refuge. During the days of the gravest danger the persecuted found a shelter here. The Binkis family shared with them their remaining bread and clothing.
One can cite many more examples of help given to Jews by Russians, Lithuanians and Poles. This help is a living proof that friendship among various Soviet nationalities found its roots during the first year of the Soviet power in Lithuania.
III. IN THE GHETTO
On 10 July a new decree appeared in the streets of Kovno making it compulsory for all Jews to leave the city by 15 July 1941 and to resettle in designated for them quarters of suburb Villiampole.
In order to luer Jews to the designated quarters ( Hitler's officers did not use the word "ghetto" ) they stopped temporarily anti-Jewish acts. Nevertheless, the majority of the Jewish population was not in a hurry to move in there. They hoped that in a little while the old order would come back... And when they started fencing off the Jewish quarters with barbed wire and turning them into a ghetto, people were still convinced: before the fencing would be completed one would have a chance to dismantle it...
Germans noticed that the "resettlement" was going at a very slow pace while the permitted time for it was running out. On the 7th of August a massive round up of Jews was carried out in the city. The rounded up were put into trucks and taken away. No information is available about those people. A few hundred men were still kept for a little while in Kovno prison. At times they were taken out for work in the city docks. Later traces of them were also lost. 1,400 Jewish people lost their lives on "black Thursday" - that's how people called that round up.
While increasing the terror from day to day Germans drove the Jewish population of Kovno to a specially designated part of the city. Around 33 thousand Jews had to live in the quarters where there used to live 4 thousand people.
A so-called "Jewish committee" was set up to oversee the distribution of accommodation, meagre food supplies and to keep some internal order. Former shop keepers, factory owners, representatives of the Church and people from various nationalist parties made up the majority of this "committee". When Kovno ghetto was established officially, Germans named this "committee" "Council of the Jewish Ghetto Elders" ( in the everyday language "Council of Elders").
When taking his office of a "commissioner of Jewish affairs" at Kovno German Commissariat hauptsturmführer SS Fritz Jordan, a short scum and a failed shop owner from a small German town Aitkuny by the Lithuanian border (*now it is village Chernyshevskii in Nester district of Kaliningrad oblast) defined functions of the "Council of Elders" as follows, " You have no right to address me. You must simply listen and carry out my 'corders!"
In order to give his orders Fritz Jordan used to arrive at the ghetto "Council of Elders" by car, kick the door open with his boot and burst into the building. Everyone had to leave the room. Only the chairman of the "Council of Elders", seventy-year old doctor from Kovno Hona Elkes was allowed to stay behind; he had to listen to the orders while standing at attention without any movement or a single word.
Jordan used to speak with an arrogance of a German sergeant major. He used to work himself up into hysterics, he growled, stumped his feet and hit the table with his fist. The fate of 33 thousand people lay in his hands.
"In three weeks time you must hand in all your money, gold, silver and other valuables. You are allowed to leave only ten marks for your family!"
"Jews are not allowed to own electrical appliances, musical instruments, sewing machines, bicycles, cameras!"
"In two hours time you must deliver to my office two large palm trees and two Persian rugs!"
"Horses, cows, goats, and also chickens, pigeons,parrots must be handed over to Germans!"
Such orders were issued regularly. Jordan ordered to hand in textiles, suits, fur, leather, furniture, art objects. It goes without saying that if those orders were not fulfilled the offenders could expect only death!
Naturally, the gravest of all crimes was hiding weapons. Even Finnish daggers and theatrical props, such as swords, were seen as weapons. People lost their lives for keeping them too. If hidden weapons were found all residents of that house and even of the block faced death penalty.
On the 26th of September Germans took over 1,000 people - men, women, children - from the ghetto and shot them in the 9th fort. They were accused of attacking a ghetto warden. From that day the 9th fort had become a mass grave for the Jewish population of Kovno. Pits 120-150 metres in length, three metres in width and two metres in depth lay ready to accept thousand of innocent victims. And not only Jews from Kovno ghetto - Lithuanians, Russians, Poles and also whole wagonfuls of people from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, France and other European countries (mainly of Jewish origin) were killed in the 9th fort. Just in one month, December 1941, fascist murderers killed around ten thousand foreign citizens on the orders of the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Kovno residents called the terrifying place of mass murders - the 9th fort - "death fort". Gestapo people felt no shame when they officially designated the 9th fort as "Kovno extermination factory".
The first action after the formation of the Kovno ghetto undertaken by Hitlerites was directed against intelligentsia.On the 16th of August Jordan made a demand via his Lithuanian fascist adviser Kaminskas that the "Council of Elders" were to pick out five hundred men from intelligentsia for "light professional work in the city": to put in order old archives... As by that time selection of people for forced labour had become a norm, that demand did not cause either concern or suspicion. Yet,only few turned up at the gathering point. Hitler bandits set out to gather the required number of people. 534 people were captured. They were led out of the ghetto under heavy guard. No one from that group returned later home... (* It has become known now that they were shot in the 4th fort).
Among those "five hundred thirty four" killed people were the leader of the Lithuanian State Opera, violinist Robert Stender, famous film director Marek Martens, who had made a number of Jewish films in Poland, engineers Mordhai Klein and Daniel Goldberg, economists Lion Beliatskin and Shmuel Bloch, artist A.Kaplan, journalist Max Volfovich, sportsman Nojahc Blat, director of Kovno furniture factory Shimon Zimmerman and other representatives of Kovno Jewish intelligentsia.
IV. BEHIND BARBED WIRE.
The ghetto was finally fenced off from the rest of the world with the help of high lattice barbed wire and heavy guard.
Germans declared territory of two metres on both sides of the barbed wire as a "dead zone". Guards were given an order to shoot without a warning anybody seen in that zone. All chances of meeting non-Jews, buying food from them, receiving medical and other help as well as getting information about the course of war became virtually nil.
However,the bravest of people used to come up to both sides of the fence and, having fooled the guards, they exchanged a few words, letters, packages. A sort of exchange trade took place there. Jews gave clothes, household goods and received in exchange bread and potatoes.
In the streets adjacent to Kovno ghetto fence one could frequently meet a dainty Lithuanian woman by the name of Bogushiene. Using a suitable moment she passed on bread and vegetables from her kitchen garden to familiar and unfamiliar Jews.
Aleksas Miksha technica| shop foreman at rubber factory "Inkaras" - could not forget his former colleagues from work, who lived in dire need. He and his wife frequently came to the fence to pass on necessary things.
Not everyone managed to get away from the ghetto fence successfully. Nurse Maria Vaichiene from Kovno city hospital No.1 set out to help persecuted Jews during the occupation. Her son joined her too. But one day the lad was captured and then sent to Germany for forced labour. Nevertheless, the tragic experience did not undermine the spirit of this brave woman - she carried on with her help.
Germans shot dead 65-year old doctor Zhakiavichus for helping his colleague - Jewish doctor Matusevich.
Nurse Leocadia Shlepetiene, who helped Jewish doctors Braun, Woshchin and others, was imprisoned in a German concentration camp.
Bronius Kutka,brought down by a guard's bullet,stayed hanging on the ghetto barbed wire. One can mention many more of similar examples!
Naturally, Jewish losses were even greater.
A different possibility of contacting the outside world was created in places where Jews were delivered for forced labour. It was virtually impossible to avoid compulsory work if you lived in a ghetto. All ghetto residents of 14 to 65 years old were declared as "able to work". In the mornings Germans stormed into the ghetto. Like hungry animals they searched through the narrow winding streets of the old Villiampole and made people open doors and shutters of small bent wooden houses. Feeling still sleepy and tired, dressed in old rags,Jews dragged their aching bodies in the morning dusk. They went to the collection point at the ghetto gates in Arëgalos street. Here they formed groups which were sent to various places. Counted and formed into ranks of four (later also five), these groups under armed guard were taken to their place of work.
The biggest number of Jews were taken to do heavy manual work at Kovno airfield. Hungry and poorly dressed they dug ground, pushed trolleys, carried stones, bricks, iron in strong winds, severe frosts and heavy rain. Guards armed with rifles and supervisors armed with whips oversaw the work. Nevertheless, the work proceeded slowly and as soon as supervisors left their posts even for a short while, the Jews stopped working altogether. When the Germans returned, the Jews warned each other with a special parole "Yale veiove" (the boss is coming). That meant that they again had to pretend that they were working. This is how the word "Yale" (rising) came into Kovno ghetto Jewish everyday language -symbol of a boss, a manager.
One song, which came from the "airfield men" (this is how men working in the airfield became known) gained big popularity throughout the whole ghetto existence. It was sung to the tune of "The Sea Stretched Out Wide". Here are some verses from this song:
Jews were made to go not only to the airfield to perform forced labour, but also to construction sites, transport, timber felling. All types of work performed by Jews were hard and denigrating.
Using every available possibility Jews tried to avoid forced labour. However, hunger often made them go there: he, who did not go to work, lost his right to the meagre food "ration", which was at times distributed among ghetto prisoners. But the main reason lay in the fact that work in the city presented them with their only chance to meet non-Jews, to get at least a little food, to hear a word of encouragement.
To do this people dared to leave their place of work and to go to the city without their yellow stars. But police lay in wait for them. The captured people were shot dead. "The Master of Jewish lives" Jordan personally shot dead on the spot Sholom Rabinovich, who was captured at the market trying to buy a few greens from a peasant. Not a single day passed without a similar incident.
Even after people had managed to get some bread or a few potatoes, while risking their lives, there was no guarantee that they would succeed in delivering it to hungry members of their families. On entering the ghetto there was no certainty that one could enter it safely. Often people were deprived here not only of their hard gotten food but also their very lives. Leiser Fisher, Faivl Strashunsky, Meir Zwick were among the first in the long list of names of people killed at the ghetto gates while trying to smuggle food. The ghetto gates were always the most dangerous place there. Often brutal Germans killed people for little reason. They killed if numbers of those sent to work were insufficient or because a guard did not like the way Jews were passing through the gates. They even killed for no reason at all - by shooting into a crowd of people who simply happened to be there. On the evening of 22nd of September one of the guards at the ghetto gates "greeted" with shots a group of people returning from work on the construction of a garage in Kiastutis street. The "occasion" was "Rosh Gashan" (Jewish New Year). Seven Jews were shot dead, one - Klugman, escapee from Warsaw - was buried alive.
Germans called their extermination of Jews from the ghetto "action". Actions in Kovno ghetto followed one after another.
On 4th of October 1941 around 3 thousand people without work permits were arrested in the "little ghetto" ( a separate part of Kovno ghetto). They were sent in large groups to the 9th fort. Residents from an old people's home and orphans from a children's home were sent there by lorries too. During this action ghetto hospital with all the patients and medical staff still in it was burnt down.
Kovno ghetto residents remember the events of 28th of October as "the big action". On that day on gestapo orders all Jewish population were lead into Democrat Square for an "inspection of ghetto workforce". After a process of selection, which was accompanied by terrifying scenes, 11 thousand people were sent to the infamous 9th fort. Remaining people went to the empty ghetto streets not knowing what to do...
But in the very depths of the ghetto forces were growing which could see a way out.
The following text was taken from the above mentioned "struggle programme":
"...Jewish people together with all Soviet people are burning with desire to fight fascist murderers. There is already a basis for organising Jewish masses in their fight with the invaders in the ghetto. They simply need an organisation which is capable of preparing and leading people in an open fight with the enemy..."
The formation of the organisation began during the first days of the ghetto. It was done on the initiative of a number of communists and non-party bolsheviks who acted independently.
Communist Haim Yelin, young writer and former public activist in bourgeois Lithuania, lived in the ghetto in a flat at 18,Baioru street under the name of Haim Kadisson.
As a student at Kovno university Chaim Yelin established links with underground activists. Haim Yelin performed various tasks on the orders of the banned Lithuanian Communist party: he gave speeches at various meetings, open debates, literary evenings, does underground work. In 1937 he was a delegate at the First World Jewish Congress of Culture in Paris. Haim Yelin was one of the participants and organizers of the progressive group of Jewish literary figures in Lithuania; he worked on the magazines published by this group - he wrote stories, essays and articles on art. In those articles Yelin concentrated his attention on the position of working class people in a capitalist system. Yelin's sympathies were with courageous, brave fighters who constantly sought a way out of a difficult situation and are ready to give up their lives for the sake of "a better future, which must come one day..."
In 1940-1941 Yelin was appointed by the Soviet authorities a head of a printing trust. At the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War Yelin tried to evacuate further into the Soviet Union but his progress was interrupted by invading fascists. Together with other persecuted Jews Yelin found himself in Kovno ghetto. His inner energy turned to tireless activity: resisting invaders. Communist Haim Yelin became a central figure in Kovno ghetto resistance and struggle.
Haim Yelin could not openly appear in the ghetto. Hitlerites sought him everywhere in Kovno. In order to avoid recognition Yelin grew beard and frequently wore a bandage across his cheek to give appearance of toothache. Outside his home he kept contacts only with his closest and most reliable friends. Haim Yelin kept in contact with his old friend Dmitry Galperin (one of the co-authors of this book), former anti-fascist activist and MOPR secretary (*organisation helping political prisoners) in Kovno university, via his father Leiser Yelin. Rivka Uriash, director of a textile factory during the Soviet rule lived under the name of Etha Raibstein in the same house at 18, Baioru street. Alia Maisel, Leia Senior, Itzik Iuhnikov regularly came to that house. The flat became a gathering point for those communists and non-party bolsheviks whose aim was to wage a struggle against the worst enemy of their Fatherland and their people in the most severe ghetto conditions.
Initially they sought contacts with anti-fascists outside ghetto. The closest and most trusted of Haim Yelin's friends - Saul Finkel, Meir Yelin, Shabsai Fleishman and others - volunteered to do forced labour. On their return they told news they had heard in the town. When they succeeded in getting a newspaper and at a great risk smuggled it into the ghetto (even though that newspaper was published by the Germans ghetto residents knew how to read between the lines) - it was a special occasion.
At their meetings people listened to all the information brought from the outside and from the ghetto itself and drew their conclusions. Haim Yelin produced a map of Europe, kept in a safe place (it was a banned article and keeping it could lead to death penalty). They used to start their meetings with discussions of the latest war operations. Then the speaker would report on the latest world events and later returned to the situation in the ghetto and the most important question - what they could do at that particular time. Nobody yet heard anything of the historic speech delivered by Stalin on 3,July 1941. There was no clear plan for struggle. Every day brought news of more closest friends losing their lives which lead to undermining of more and more initiatives. Germans delivered fresh blows on the ghetto without a let up. A decision was taken to primarily cheer up the residents of the ghetto and to bring hope. Those words of hope were passed on in the ghetto from mouth to mouth...
The main aim of the group was to create a strong resistance movement, to establish contacts with the town underground party organisation and to unite all ghetto Jews who strived for struggle and revenge with partisans.
Right from the beginning the organized group faced a problem of helping their comrades in arms who were on the verge of death from hunger. Communist Pinia Garmanik fell ill with tuberculosis, woman-communist Alta Fain was physically very weakened. This help was a matter of life and death for many fighters who had to endure many years of imprisonment in bourgeois Lithuania because of their fight for working class causes. Children of Soviet and party workers (Eda Schneider, Basia Toiba and Benzion Leibes and others) were also in the ghetto. Their parents evacuated further into the country but had no time to collect them from camps in Palanga; it was paramount to take care of those children and save them from fascist beasts. And just like in the times of bourgeois Lithuania solidarity secret participation in MOPR actions were considered the most important friendly duty, so did the movement to help comrades in need began in the conditions of ghetto underground movement.
A group of communists - Moishe Raf, Doba Haet, Basia Krepko and others - created a nucleus of most active members. Among them was Moishe Sherman - he came from an underground organisation of bourgeois Lithuania. He was completely devoted to the resistance cause; his comrades liked and respected him for his businesslike attitude, composure, ability to understand other people. Music teacher and director Jacob Gleser, Girsh Gutman and others former progressive public figures of Kovno actively persuaded not to carry out German orders, not to hand in money or other valuables.
Tireless Alta Boruchovich became group's secretary. She became also group's messenger. She would not be intimidated by the terror in the ghetto. From early morning till late at night she visited her friends in their houses; she knew all their needs. Alta Boruchovich used to find a way to help people before organized help could be arranged. She would get a pair of boots, mend clothing, help to get medicine or food.
The group organized a komsomol cell with Monia Golzberg as its secretary. An important point in the cell's existence was the appearance of a rather primitive radio, which was assembled by its members. This radio could receive only a local station but even from it it was obvious that Hitler's army was already experiencing difficulties in its war with the Soviet Union.
One more cell emerged in the ghetto around communists Mary Lan and Elia Shmuilova, secretary of Kovno city MOPR committee. Mary Lan, a long standing party member, introduced bolshevik principals to their work and passed on her underground work experience. Pesach Shater, Haia Shmuilova, Meilach-Leib Goldschmidt and others were active members of this group. They also supported friends and helped those pioneers who were without their parents, they also incited against carrying out German orders.
Haim Yelin established a link with Komsomol members, former Shalom Aleihem grammar school students. The first meeting between Yelin and Moishe Rubinson, secretary of the group took place in one of the ghetto streets. It was arranged for Rubinson to approach a man dressed in a winter coat and a hat with its earflaps down and ask him the time. The answer had to be "a quarter to three". Rubinson met a passer-by who had an appearance of a peasant at the agreed spot. The man was pacing the street to and fro. Rubinson hesitated whether to approach him. Then the passer-by - Haim Yelin - approached the young man and pretending to be mentally handicapped asked, "Is it not a quarter to three now?" The contact was made. Rubinson met Yelin, whom he had known since before the war, a few more times. However, Yelin so masterfully disguised himself that Rubinson was not sure who his contact was. Komsomol members received a plan of action and instructions on how to set up a circle.
Isolated in the ghetto members of separate resistance groups could not know yet that there were headquarters of Lithuanian partisan movement headed by Antanas Snechkus, first secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party. This body organized resistance of the population against fascist occupiers. The appeal of October 10, 1941 by the headquarters to the Lithuanian population stated,
"Resist the occupation authorities any way you can, harm them, make it more difficult for them to carry out military operations against the Soviet Union! Set up committees to fight the invaders, attack German military bases and headquarters, damage their transport, hinder its movement, damage telephone and telegraph poles, burn bridges, derail their trains. Destroy, blow up and burn depots and food storehouses of the German army, join the partisans. Give every help to the partisans!
Communists of Lithuania! Be in the forefront of the struggle against the invaders! Give leadership to the masses in their fight against the enemy!
May Lithuanian soil burn under the feet of the German occupiers! The victory will be ours!"
The leadership of the ghetto resistance movement understood that their main task was establishing contacts and links with the city party organization. A number of courages attempts were made to achieve the aim...
Every minute outside ghetto compound represented a deadly danger to a Jew. But this did not frighten those whose goal was to devote his life to struggle and if needed to sacrifice his life.
Haim Yelin was among the first who attempted several times to go into the town.The main way out was over the ghetto fence. In the darkness, hiding from the ghetto guards, they used to cut the fence wire with pliers; the ends of the cut wires were rejoined again. When those ends were separated one person could easily get through an emerging gap. Such passageway in the fence became known as "reisferschlus"(lightning) among people. In Haim Yelin's papers of that time there was a short story which described one of his outings with his messenger R. through a "reisferschlus":
"We met with R. at an arranged place not far from the ghetto fence. We stopped some two dozen metres from a guard and waited for a suitable moment. R. got through the passage and disappeared in the darkness on the other side of the fence. Then it was my turn. I put my leg through, then threw my body over and pulled my other leg. My shoulder stuck. I pulled my body again. The wire made a loud sound... The guard shot his rifle... I could hear him running along the pavement but he could not catch me. I took my contact partner by her hand and we went pretending to be a couple in love chatting happily and laughing. The clothes of a Jewish beggar I left in the ghetto. My friends dressed me into very fashionable clothes - good coat, brown hat, cigarette... My heart was thumping in the chest - I had committed an offence: I, a Jew, took off my yellow stickers and went for a walk in the town to carry out a special task... That task gave me strength... I became a constant link between the ghetto and progressive circles in the town. The task was difficult but my friends were convinced I could do it..."
Haim Yelin managed to set up a link with those Soviet activists who failed to evacuate in time, with some escaped prisoners of war. He found out that a detachment called "Red partisans" was set up in Kovno. It prepared to go into the woods of Eastern Lithuania.
A group was urgently formed in the ghetto in order to join them. November 17 was the day of departure. Gestapo managed to trace the detachment and it had to leave before the set date with no time to inform their Jewish friends. People in the ghetto received neither news, nor instructions.As it later became known the detachment came upon a strong German group near Kovno and all its members died heroically in the ensued unequal battle by the woods near village Ibenai of Babtai district.
Elia Shmuilov (Lucy) searched for his pre-war Lithuanian friends in the town. He worked with them in the underground movement during the bourgeois period. On his orders Hana Videlevskaia, Hinda Markulevich, Haia Shmuilova went to make contact in the town. They succeeded in establishing contacts with a group of anti-fascist fighters headed by P.Malinauskas. Shmuilov joined the leadership of the group. This komsomol member changed his appearance - he died his hair, put on glasses. His friends found him a secret address in the town. The group armed themselves and began their work. They distributed leaflets, appealed to the population not to carry out German orders, to undermine mobilization and to carry out acts of sabotage. However their work did not last. Gestapo tracked down the group and surrounded the house where a meeting of the group leadership was taking place. There were exchanges of gun fire. Several comrades died in the fight. Others, among whom was E.Shmuilov,were kept for some time in Kovno prison and later shot dead in the 9th Fort. So Elia Shmuilov became one of the first fighters of Kovno ghetto to lose his life while organizing resistance in the enemy's rear.
Various "actions" continue to take place in the ghetto. Resistance movement experienced heavy losses: in a "big action" died Moishe Raf, Doba Haet, Basia Krepko, Jacob Gleser and others. Terrible life conditions: daily killings, robberies, hard labour, where everyone was expected to work without exception - this all interfered with the development of active resistance, complicated contacts between various independent ghetto groups.
Later such links between those groups and separate individuals were established. A basis for a broad military organization headed by communists was set up.
VI. WE ARE PARTISANS
December 31, 1941. It was nearly 8 o'clock. Biting frost. Darkness reigned in the ghetto streets. Only high snow hills looked white in the narrow, interlaced streets of the old town.
Ghetto streets seemed to be deserted. People were allowed to walk in the streets until 8 pm but as soon as darkness fell people did not dare to leave homes. The ghetto plunged into blackness. At times the silence was broken by the sound of shooting. In that darkness lonely figures minced along the streets. They moved in various directions and at certain intervals, but their paths lead them to one place - a small house at the back of a large snow covered courtyard. Two people guarded it by the entrance in the shadow of the fence. Those guys had to meet their guests and to guard illegal gathering which took place in their small flat.
All arrived on time. People sat or stood up in a very small space. Even seriously ill Moishe Sherman could not stay at home that evening; he overcame his illness and got there. All participants arrived but the meeting did not start. Some kind of worried look could be seen on people's faces. It was the third day since Haim Yelin had arrived in the town.He promised to come in order to participate in the first general meeting of the leaders of antifascist ghetto groups. Had any harm come to him? The clock indicated eight o'clock and no walking in the streets was permitted... All were waiting for Haim Yelin to bring latest news from the town and no one was inclined to start the discussion of the agenda without him. The meeting was to set up a united antifascist ghetto organization and draw out an action plan.
Suddenly the door opened and a young tidily dressed peasant of average height squeezed through the door. He took off his fur hat, lowered the high collar of his short fur coat and the gathered recognized Haim Yelin, who had died his hair white and grown long moustache which was pointing up. Yelin had just managed to get through the ghetto fence. The gathered drew a sigh of relief. Smiles appeared on their pale faces.
The meeting started. A unanimous decision was reached - all resistance units joined into one organization. It was necessary to work out an action plan and the rules of the organization, to establish the direction for further action.
A decision was made to continue searching for links with Kovno city Communist party organization and to begin the fight against fascist occupiers under its leadership. They discussed the aims of the movement. Haim Yelin formulated those aims briefly but sufficiently clearly:
- We lived only a year under the Soviet rule. But we remain Soviet citizens! We will not leave the ghetto to its fate, but our main aim is armed struggle among partisans. A member of our organization is a partisan!
The gathered listened to those words with inspiration. "We are partisans!" - This sounds great!
"We are partisans!" - members of the meeting joined in saying those words and took them to all antifascist movement cells.
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