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Kaunas (cont.)

Written by Josef Rosin

In 1939, Memel (Klaipeda) was annexed by Nazi Germany. As a result, many Jews from Memel arrived in Kaunas, and settled in the city. In the winter of 1939, when Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, many refugees arrived in Kaunas where the Jewish community treated them with kind hospitality. Among the arriving people were authors and artists and they used to gather in the “Monica” café in the city. After Vilnius was returned to Lithuania, Kaunas was no longer the temporary capital and some government offices and also the university were moved to Vilnius.

 

During the Period of Russian Rule

In 1940, Lithuania, including Kaunas, was annexed by the Soviet Union, becoming a Soviet Republic. 466 businesses, large stores and also industrial factories were nationalized in Kaunas and its surrounding area within the Sovietization process. 393 of the businesses, stores and factories belonged to Jews. Houses that were larger than 220 square meters were also nationalized. The supply of goods decreased and prices skyrocketed as a result. The middle class, composed mostly of Jews, suffered a severe setback and their standard of living gradually declined. All of the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded. The Hebrew educational institutions of “Tarbut” and “Yavne” were shut down. Two Jewish National gymnasias were formed from the three Hebrew gymnasias that were shut down and from the gymnasia named after “Shalom Aleichem”: the first, number 11, which continued to be called in the name of “Shalom Aleichem”, was located in the building of the Hebrew Gymnasion (“Schwabe”); the other, number 12, was located in the building of the technical gymnasia. Several Jewish teachers were dismissed and they were forced to find other sources of livelihood. In that year, Kaunas had 7 kindergartens, 13 elementary schools and 3 evening schools for adults, whose language of instruction was in Yiddish.

The “Ort” organization in Lithuania was also liquidated. During the 1940/41 school year, only a single vocational school was open in Kaunas, and it received the name: “The National Vocational School Number 4”. Its number of students grew from 200 to almost 5000. Many of the teachers were dismissed, including the principal, the agronomist Ya'akov Oleisky. He continued to teach in the ghetto and after the war became the director of “Ort” and was the chairman of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel.

The Jewish students' unions and organizations were also dissolved and their property was confiscated. At the end of August, 1940, “The History and Ethnography Society of the Jews of Lithuania” was shut down and the collections in its archive and its museum were confiscated and disappeared.

The veteran Jewish newspapers were closed and in their place started to appear the newspaper “Der Emes” (The Truth). Other papers that started to appear were: the weekly “Shtralen”, in Yiddish, and a one-time publication by the name of “Bleter” to which contributed the following poets: Y. Latsman, H. Osherovitz, L. Rudnizki, H. Wegler; and the writers: H. Yelin, M. Yelin, Y. Yosade, D. Umaru and others.

Students from the Hebrew gymnasias in Kaunas, members of the “Noar HaZioni”, “Maccabi HaTzair” and the religious youth formed an underground organization. It was called the “Brit Zion Organization” and its purpose was to preserve the Hebrew language and culture. The members of the underground stole Hebrew books from the gymnasia's library and hid them. They also published a periodical by the name of “Nitzotz” (Spark) (6-7 editions made their appearance).

During the year of Soviet Rule, when the security agencies conducted arrests and deportations, against those who were called “Unreliables” or “Enemies of the People”, and especially between July 14-17, 1941, hundreds of Jews were also arrested and among them were the leaders of Zionist parties and their activists, businessmen whose businesses were nationalized, principals of the Hebrew gymnasias, editors of Jewish newspapers, and others.

 

The Germans Conquer Kaunas

On Sunday, June 22, 1941, before dawn, the Germans bombarded the airport in Kaunas. Three days later, on the 25th of June, the city was already under German occupation.

On that Sunday, many still believed that the Red Army would stop the Germans and crush them. The mass flight from Kaunas began only the next day, on Monday. On Monday and Tuesday, thousands of people, mostly young Jews, and among them members of the communist party, left towards Vilnius by trains, cars and on foot and reached Russia. Of course, most of the officials of the Soviet Rule also fled from Kaunas during those days.

A unit of German paratroopers, who parachuted in the rear of the retreating Red Army, created the chaos that took over. The Germans cut off the roads of retreat of the Red Army and captured hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

During the night between the 25th and the 26th of June, the Lithuanian nationalists waged a horrific pogrom in Slobodka, a suburb of Kaunas, where many Jews lived for generations and which had many famous Yeshivas. On that single night, 800 Jews were murdered in the most brutal ways, and among them were Rabbi Shlomo-Zalman Ostrovski and Rabbi Shraga Hurvitz. 52 Jews who were caught in the street were ripped apart by the Lithuanians in the Lietukis garage, on Vytautas street; other Lithuanians watched the scene with pleasure. The commander of the Lithuanian forces in Kaunas published a warning that for every single killed German, 100 Jews will be put to death.

 

Jews being tortured and murdered by Lithuanians in the Lietukis garage in the center of the city, as German soldiers and a big crowd of citizens watch the scene, June 27, 1941

 

The Decrees of Nazi Rule

At the end of the month of June and in the beginning of the month of July, the bulletin boards in Kaunas started displaying regulations concerning the Jews. They were signed by the city officer and the mayor of the city of Kaunas, both Lithuanians. According to the regulations, Jews were forbidden to use the sidewalks and were obligated to walk only on the roads. They were obligated to wear a yellow patch on their clothes, on the left side, on the front and the back. Furthermore, they were obligated to hand to the authorities all the radios and guns in their possession. Jews were dismissed from all public institutions where they worked, and every few days new decrees were publicized. The Jews lost their rights and everyone that wanted to harm them was permitted to do so. Indeed, many Jews were murdered during the first days of German rule. Lithuanian accomplices caught Jews in the streets and many others were taken out from their homes. They were all taken to the Seventh Fort (The Fortress) and imprisoned there. Jews, who returned to the city after their unsuccessful desperate attempt to flee, were arrested and taken to that same fortress or to Pravieniskes, a village approximately 12 km east of Kaunas, an area of forests and peat fields.

 

A Lithuanian killer next to the corpses of the victims he murdered while being cheered by the crowd in the street, June 1941

 

The fortress, which is known as the Seventh Fort, was one of 9 fortresses built, as noted above, around Kaunas during the rule of the czars. During the period of Independent Lithuania, they were used for various purposes: as a prison, as a hospital for the mentally ill, and as warehouses. Now, 6,000 to 8,000 Jews (the exact number is not known) were gathered and were imprisoned there for many days during the hot summer while lying on the ground without food and without water. Anyone who raised his head was shot. The women were kept in the fortress's cellars. At night, young women were taken out, were tortured, and were then shot. At least 36 young women were raped and murdered in this way. Within a few weeks, all the men were murdered. The women were moved to another fortress and after a while (on July 7), they were released.

Other Jews who were caught while fleeing were brought, as noted above, to Pravieniskes. During the period of Independent Lithuania and also during the year of Soviet rule, this camp served as a labor camp for criminal and political prisoners, who were forced to do hard labor in digging peat. After the Germans conquered Lithuania, the political prisoners were released from the camp and they were replaced by Soviet prisoners and Jews who tried to flee to the interior of the Soviet Union or to hide from the Lithuanian murderers in the area.

On August 7, Lithuanians kidnapped 1,200 Jewish men from their homes and from the streets and imprisoned them in the city prison. 300 of them were released; some were transferred to Pravieniskes and most of them were murdered there. A reign of terror existed in that camp; selections were conducted every few days, after which the sick and weak were taken out and shot to death. There was at least one case when Jewish prisoners tried to resist being executed. They attempted to escape, but almost all of them were caught and shot to death. Only two of them succeeded to escape from the camp and to reach the Kaunas Ghetto after overcoming the Lithuanian guards who guarded the camp. According to a German document (The Jaeger Report), 241 Jewish men and 8 Jewish women were executed on September 4, 1941, in the Pravieniskes labor camp due to their rebellion. Apparently, the report is referring to the attempted escape mentioned above. 253 men were shot to death about 500 meters from the camp's headquarters and 27 women were shot to death in another place in the forest. At the end of the 1980's, the local municipality erected memorial monuments made of stone in those two places.

 

The Entrance to the Ghetto and the Establishing of the “Altestenrat”

The authorities ordered all the Jews of Kaunas to be in the ghetto by August 15, 1941. The ghetto was established in the Slobodka suburb across the Vilija River, the Nemunas' main contributory stream. The main part of the ghetto was in the old Jewish neighborhood, which was renowned for its Yeshivas. Another part of the ghetto was established in a number of Lithuanian neighborhoods whose residents were evacuated and were transferred to other places. A main road, which led to the northwest of the country, passed through the entire ghetto. Thus, the ghetto was divided into two parts: the large ghetto and the small ghetto, and between them was a wooden bridge for pedestrians, which was built above the road noted above. The bridge was planned by Jewish engineers and it was constructed by Jewish workers from among the ghetto residents.

 

The two parts of the ghetto joined by a bridge with a guard on it; at the interior side of the ghetto fence is a Jewish policeman. Autumn 1941

 

The last assembly of the 28 Jewish public personalities in Kaunas convened on August 4, 1941. In that meeting, the assembly elected a committee whose task was to manage the transfer of the Jews of Kaunas to the ghetto. Dr. Elchanan Elkes was elected to be the chairman of this committee and its members were: the lawyer, Ya'akov Goldberg, the lawyer, Leib Gurfunkel, Nicolai Gamlitzki, Dr. Tzvi Wolf, Rabbi Shemuel-Aba Snieg, Michael Kopelman, Dr. Efraim Rabinovitz, and Rabbi Ya'akov-Moshe Shmukler.

When the Jews were assembled in the ghetto, the authorities required them to elect a body of Jewish representatives which was termed “Altestenrat”, that is, “Council of Elders”, or in short “The Committee” (which the people termed “Der Komitet”). This committee was also chaired by Dr. Elchanan Elkes, who was a nationalist Jew, a Zionist, and a famous doctor. His deputy was the lawyer L. Gurfunkel. The other members of this body were: the lawyer, Y. Goldberg, chairman of the “Jewish Front Fighters' Association in Lithuania's War of Independence”, the former military Rabbi S.A. Snieg, Dr. A. Rabinovitz, and Rabbi Y.M. Shmukler. This panel was approved by the German “Stadtkomissar” (the governor of the city) on August 8, 1941. Subsequently, the committee informally added Dr. Tzvi Wolf, L. Rostovski and Tzvi Levin to its ranks. On August, 1942, the Germans ordered them to decrease their number of committee members and afterwards its panel was: Dr. Elkes (chairman), L. Gurfunkel (deputy), Y. Goldberg (adviser), and A. Golub-Tory (secretary).

The Jewish ghetto police was organized at the same time that the committee was being formed. Until autumn of 1943, it was headed by the committee member M. Kopelman and then by Moshe Levin until he was murdered by the Gestapo and the police was liquidated. At its peak, the ghetto police had about 200 people. This number decreased each time that the area of the ghetto was lessened. The largest reduction was done in December, 1943, when the ghetto's three quarters were reduced to two. During the ghetto's existence, its area was decreased 6 times.

The role of the ghetto police was to maintain order within the ghetto, and mainly to ensure that the Germans would be supplied the number of workers they required. Naturally, the police were unarmed and they were not given even batons. Their authority was symbolized by their hat and the ribbon on their sleeves. A few of the senior commanders of the police were connected to the underground (see below); for example, Yehuda Zupovitz and Ika-Yehoshua Greenberg. The chief of the police, Moshe Levin, also helped when it was possible.

The committee established in the ghetto all kinds of institutions through which it tried to manage living in the ghetto and to make it easier for its residents. The committee had a number of sub-committees or offices: the work office, which was in charge of supplying workers as required by the authorities; the economic office, which was concerned with the small workshops, the transportation (by means of horses), the electricity, the public bath, the infirmary and laboratory, the laundry, the vegetable garden, the cemetery and the Hevra Kadisha; the nourishment office, which was in charge of receiving from the authorities the few groceries and distributing them to the ghetto residents by means of tickets; the housing office, which was the first sub-committee that was established in the ghetto in order to fit all the Jews from Kaunas and from the nearby towns in the small area that was allotted to them. The density in ghetto was so great that a number of families were squeezed into a single apartment. Subsequently, as the area of the ghetto was reduced by removing a street here and a whole neighborhood there, the housing office once again had to find housing for the people who were moved. In addition to the above sub-committees, the committee established a health department, a welfare department, a statistics department, and a department for schools. The latter operated schools for the ghetto's children for short periods of time, in spite of the ban which the authorities imposed on them on August 26, 1942. The committee also activated a fire department which at first had 97 people and by July 1942 it had only 25 people.

 

The First “Aktions” (Organized Murders)

When the ghetto was established it had 29,760 men, women and children. On August 14, one day before the people were locked up in the ghetto, the committee notified the public that the Germans needed 500 young and intelligent, “well dressed” men, in order to organize the archives in the city. In the morning, only 200 reported at the ghetto gate. The Germans and their collaborators from the Lithuanian police immediately started hunting for men in the streets and houses. After gathering 534 men, they were loaded on trucks, and were transported to the Fourth Fort where they were murdered. No one in the ghetto knew of their fate because the Germans, through their Lithuanian agents, circulated rumors that the men were seen working in different places and even said that letters were received from them. It was a tactic intended to mislead the public so that they could perform their plot in secret.

A short while after the Jews were locked in the ghetto, on the eve of Rosh HaShana, 5701 (1941), when the Jews were returning from work and carrying with them a few provisions, they were “greeted” by Fritz Jordan from the German SA. At that time Jordan was the commander of the ghetto and on that day he shot 10 Jews on the spot. On the 15th of September, the same Jordan handed to the committee via Kaminskas, the Lithuanian adviser for Jewish affairs, 5000 certificates intended for the artisans in the ghetto. Those certificates were known as the “Jordan Certificates” (Jordanscheine). Among the people who were to receive those certificates were also 11 doctors, whose names were included in the list. It has been conjectured that at that time the Germans intended to leave in the ghetto only the listed Jews and murder all the others. This plan was not executed. The reasons for that are not known. Those certificates, which were considered to be certificates to live, generated quarrels, and even beatings, among the Jews who tried to get them.

On the 26th of September, 1,845 Jews: 315 men, 712 women, and 818 children, were taken out of the ghetto to the Ninth Fort and were shot there on the pretense that an attempt was made to assassinate the German commander of the ghetto guards.

On the 4th of October, 1941, the Germans liquidated the small ghetto. Most of its residents, 1,608 people - 412 men, 615 women, 581 children, and among them 180 children from the children's house that was established in the ghetto - were taken by foot to the Ninth Fort and all of them were shot to death there. The hospital that was in the small ghetto was burned down together with the 60 people in it, including the doctor and the nurse. Only those who had the “Jordan Certificates” that were distributed to the artisans, as it were, or those who had money to buy such a certificate, were transferred to the large ghetto.

 

Confiscation of Property and Various Decrees

After the small ghetto was liquidated, German policemen started confiscating all kinds of articles. They went from house to house in groups of 3-4 and took whatever they wished. Every now and then they shot to death one of the men in order to instill fear. This unruly behavior went on for a number of weeks (from October 17 to September 8), until a notification was publicized saying that the confiscation would stop if the ghetto residents will freely hand over all of the valuables in their possession: money, gold, jewelry, silver artifacts, musical instruments, stamp collections and more and more. The Germans set a dateline for complying with this decree and the articles were to be brought to the committee's offices. The notification was accompanied by a threat: anyone who would not hand over the valuables in their possession will be put to death together with his or her family. The Jews, who were already being terrorized for a number of weeks, were terrified and made haste to hand over everything they possessed. On the designated day, the Germans arrived with a few trucks, loaded on them a huge amount of possessions, which were valued at 50 million marks, and left.

In the coming months, a flood of decrees and prohibitions fell on the ghetto: it is forbidden to leave the ghetto without permission; it is forbidden to bring into the ghetto newspapers or groceries; all electrical equipment must be handed over; horses, heifers, cows, harnesses and the poultry must be handed over; each family must hand over one piece of soap or shaving cream; scissors for cutting iron wires must be handed over; it is forbidden to be on the streets after 21:00; and more and more.

 

Work in the Airport (the “Flugplatz”)

From the middle of September, 1941, thousands of men and women who resided in the ghetto were used as forced labor in the suburb of Aleksotas, where the Germans were building a large military airport. At certain times, 3,000 people worked in the construction of the airport. In order to get to the construction site, the Jews were led by foot a distance of 5 km. Part of the way was uphill and they were always accompanied by armed guards. The marching people crossed the bridge on the Vilija River, then walked through the lower city, then crossed the bridge on the Nemunas River, and then climbed the Aleksotas Mountain where they worked in two shifts, 12 hours per shift. The work was difficult because of the mud and the water, the frost and the winds in the winter and the heat in the summer. During an entire shift, the workers ate only once, after receiving hot soup, which was mostly water with a little cabbage and sometimes also with potatoes. 14-16 hours passed from the time they left home until they returned. It all depended on how long they were delayed in front of the ghetto gate while their implements were being searched. Usually, they were searched for foodstuff.

The “committee” tried to find ways to compensate the people who worked at the “Flugplatz”, for example, by giving them some money or from time to time transferring them to do more convenient work, but usually such attempts failed. A good working place was a place in the city, where Lithuanian workers also worked and where it was possible to obtain food in exchange for clothes or money. By contrast, the airport workers were cut off from any contact with the population, and were unable to smuggle anything into the ghetto, except perhaps some worthless wood for heating.

Many of the Jews in the ghetto worked in work groups (brigades) in the various units of the German army and also in the SS and Gestapo institutions. Others worked in industrial factories in Kaunas, such as in the saw mill, the rubber factory, the “Maistas” meat processing factory and other places. Many people competed for working in a good work place. Quite a few used their connections, “protectzia”, and sometimes they also bribed the manager of the Jewish brigade, who at times was able to choose workers as he wished. On June, 1942, Kaunas had 16 brigades which included 282 men and 246 women. Their numbers increased over time.

 

The Ninth Fort, the main location where the Jews of Kaunas and the surrounding area were murdered

 

“The Big Aktion”

On the 27th of October, 1941, a notification on behalf of the committee was publicized in the ghetto, ordering all ghetto residents, including the elderly and ill, without any exceptions, to report the next day, October 28, (7 Chesvan, 5072), at 6 in the morning, in the “Democratu” Square within the ghetto. Anyone found at home, would be shot on the spot. The rumors that spread in the ghetto said that the intention was to divide the ghetto residents into workers who contributed to the war effort from those that did not work; the latter would be moved to the small ghetto. The workers would receive more food and their living conditions would improve. All of the 26,400 ghetto residents assembled according to families and marched slowly towards a Gestapo officer by the name of Helmut Rauca (after the war Rauca lived in Canada as a normal citizen until 1983 when he was expelled to Germany where he died the same year in prison) who stood with his entourage from morning till night and with a movement of his stick selected those who passed in front of him: right - to death, left - more torture in the ghetto. Approximately 9,200 men, women and children were sent to the right on that day. Towards evening, when the selection was finished, all of those who were selected to the right were taken to the “small ghetto” and those who were selected to the left were permitted to return to their homes. After 14 hours of standing on their feet without food and without water, people returned to their homes after members of their families were torn away from them. Apartments in many houses remained empty after their residents were taken to their death.

The next morning, all the people in the “small ghetto” were taken out and were led by foot to the Ninth Fort where large pits were already prepared and which were dug by Russian prisoners of war. Throughout that day, the ghetto heard the rattle of the machine guns with which all the thousands of Jews were murdered. That was the blackest day in the Kaunas ghetto and it was named “The Big Aktion”. The annual memorials for Lithuanian Jewry are held on that day in Israel and in other places in the world.

A few days later, the German in charge of the ghetto declared that if the Jews would fulfill their working obligations, they would not be taken out of the ghetto again.

 

Ghetto residents being urgently evacuated from the Vinozhinski area, January 1942

 

A Gloomy Intermediate Balance Sheet
From the 16th of November, 1941, until the middle of December, 1941, approximately 20,000 Jews, who were brought from Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Breslau, Vienna and from other places, were murdered in the Ninth Fort. From August, 1941, until December 31, 1942, 13,421 of the ghetto residents were murdered, 12,199 of them in “Aktions”, 366 “incidentally”, such as when Lithuanian guards fired into the windows of houses near the ghetto fence; an additional 646 people were taken out of the ghetto and did not return. During that time, 240 people passed away in the ghetto. 17,400 people - men, women and children remained in the ghetto after “The Big Aktion”.

 

“The Quiet Period”

From November 1, 1941, until the autumn of 1943, the ghetto had its “quiet period”, as it were. Nevertheless, not a day passed when individuals were not killed due to various pretexts and each day brought new decrees. According to a census conducted by “the committee” at the end of December, 1942, the ghetto had 16,489 people who lived in 728 houses in 46 streets; each resident in the ghetto occupied on average 2.95 square meters of dwelling space.

On December 27, 1941, the Jews in the ghetto were ordered to hand over the furs that still remained in their possession. On February 27, 1942, a notification was publicized ordering them to hand over all the books. More than 100,000 books were confiscated and a few Jews who knew Hebrew were taken to sort out the books. Valuable books were packed in boxes and were shipped to Germany, and the rest were taken for paper processing. Members of the Zionist underground (see below) hid Hebrew books in containers which were buried in the ground. Books from the “Mapu” library were found after the war and were transferred to Israel. Most of them are kept in “The National Library” in Jerusalem and some of them were given as a gift to the Dimona Municipal Library.

On May 7, 1942, a notification was publicized forbidding women in the ghetto to give birth; anyone transgressing this decree would be shot to death. The Jewish doctors in the ghetto at that time performed hundreds of abortions.

On November 18, 1942, a public hanging was executed in the ghetto. A young Jew by the name of Nahum Meck was accused of trying to shoot a German sentry with a pistol while attempting to escape from the ghetto. His mother and sister were arrested and were shot to death in the Ninth Fort.

During that period, the Jews in the ghetto had to struggle not only with forced labor but also with such hardships as lack of food, clothes and shoes, difficulties in obtaining heating materials for winter, and more. A few of the ghetto residents, especially those who smuggled food through the fence, did not suffer from such wants. The ghetto had camouflaged restaurants and shops where it was possible to eat almost anything and buy foodstuffs for high prices.

 

“Aktions” of Transports to Riga

On February 6, 1942, the German authorities demanded that 500 Jews be sent to work in Riga, the capital of Latvia. After all the “aktions" and the killings, the ghetto residents no longer believed that the men would be sent to work and not to their death. Because the Jewish police did not succeed in gathering quickly the requested number of men, the Germans entered the ghetto and snatched 380 people (among them 140 women) from their houses, from the building of the Jewish committee, from the workshops, etc., and on the same day they were transported to Riga.

On October 20-22, 1942, an additional 370 men were taken out of the ghetto and were sent to work in Riga. The fate of this group and the previous one was similar to the fate of the Jews of Riga. Among them were some who joined the local underground.

 

The Large Workshops

The large workshops in the ghetto, which were established in 1942, worked mainly for the German army. They included 44 departments: sewing workshops, shoemaking, a knitting workshop, a welding workshop, carpentry, laundry, workshops for hats and furs, basket weaving, brushes, and more. Sometimes 4,600 Jews worked in them in two shifts. Most of them were artisans; the rest had “protectzia” (favoritism). Those workshops were considered a good place to work in. Working in them did not require walking by foot many kilometers to another workplace in the heat and cold. Also, in the workshops people did not suffer from the accessibility of German supervisors.

 

The shoemaking department in the ghetto workshops
Second from left: Baruch Grudenik (Gofer). On his right: Shpitalnik

 

The Ghetto Branches

In addition to the working places in the city, groups of Jews from the ghetto were sent to work outside the city, for example, in Jonava, where from the beginning of the summer of 1942 they worked for a year in fixing the Bridge on the Nemunas, and later in cutting trees for heating; in the Palemonas camp, which existed throughout the German occupation, they worked in digging peat, in the brick factory, and in constructing the railway. The work was difficult and the workers suffered because they were tortured and some were also killed; in the Kedainiai camp they worked in mining coarse sand and loading it on railway wagons. They worked while they were beaten and tortured by the soldiers who guarded them. Women worked in agriculture and in the hospital of the German army. 14 people escaped from the camp and became partisans; 4 women who also tried to escape were caught and shot to death in the presence of the entire camp. Approximately 300 people from the ghetto were taken to the Kaisiadorys camp to dig peat and later to cut trees. 12 young people were taken from this camp to the Ninth Fort to burn those who were murdered. On April 11, 1944, 44 people escaped from the Kaisiadorys camp after making contact with Soviet partisans in the area. More than 250 people from the camp were taken to Kaunas and were added to the labor camp in Aleksotas. In the summer of 1943, a group of people was sent to Babtai, 25 km from Kaunas, to cut wood.

 

Converting the Ghetto into a Concentration Camp and the Expulsion to Estonia

In the summer of 1943, the Germans decided to convert the ghetto into a concentration camp and to transfer the authority over it from the civilian government to the control of the SS. Another decision was to scatter the Jews in the labor camps by assigning to them barracks which were close to their working places (In the ghetto they were called “Kasirkut”). In September 1943, an SS official by the name of Goeke, arrived in ghetto Kaunas in order to implement the decision. At the end of October 1943, an order arrived from Goeke to get 3,000 people ready to leave and go to a labor camp that would be built in the town of Ezereciai in Lithuania, where they supposedly would work in the forest and in digging peat. At that time, the people in the ghetto knew that the Germans intended to scatter most of the ghetto residents in labor camps. That was the reason why some of those who were supposed to leave accepted that verdict. But when doubt arose as to whether they would leave for Ezereciai, the Jews started hiding. The Germans brought into the ghetto a large group of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers that they mobilized into the ranks of the Germans and who in sheer frenzy and promiscuously, started kidnapping people from the houses.

On that day, 2,700 men, women and children were taken out of the ghetto. At the place of assembly, before the people were placed in the transport carts to Estonia and not to Ezereciai, as it was said, the aged and the children were selected from the entire group and were sent to the death camp in Auschwitz. Very few people survived from the group that was sent to Estonia because in July 1944, when the Germans withdrew from Estonia, they sent part of the Jews to concentration camps in Germany and those who were not sent there, were shot to death.

During the kidnapping spree for the transport to Estonia, the people realized that anyone who found a good hiding place was not found or kidnapped. As a result, people started building “Malinas” in the ghetto, that is, bunkers, which were usually dug under the houses and their entrances were camouflaged. The “Malina” had to have an opening for ventilation, a place that functioned as a toilet, and also water and food for a few weeks' stay. Wells were dug in places where ground water was close to the bottom of the “Malina”. In other places, they stocked a supply of water in all kinds of containers. Some “Malinas” even had electricity.

As the people were moved to the barracks' camps, labor camps were established in Aleksotas, in the Shantz suburb and in Kazlu-Ruda. In those camps, the women's quarters were separated from the men's. But everyone, except children under ages 10-11 and the aged, were sent to do hard labor.

The authorities in the Aleksotas camp were extremely strict. In the course of time, Jews who worked in different places in the city were brought to this camp and its number of inhabitants was approximately 2,000. From September 1, 1943, while they were being scattered to the barracks' camps, the number of urban brigades was reduced from 93 to 44.

On March 27, 1944, “The Children's Aktion” was conducted in the Aleksotas camp. While everyone was at work, a few trucks entered the camp at daytime and the children and the elderly were put to death in them. The workers reacted by declaring a strike and did not go to work or eat for three days. In June, 1944, the hair of all the imprisoned were shaved off and they had to wear striped clothes. On June 6, the people were boarded on small boats and were sailed on the Nemunas, to Germany. They were then transported by freight cars to Stutthof and Dachau.

In December, 1943, about 1,500 Jews from the ghetto were transferred to the Shantz labor camp where they had to work for the “military construction unit” (Heeresbau), which was the largest employer of Jews after the airport. Jews who worked in the nourishment and clothing offices and in the military's filling stations were also transferred to this camp. The reign in this camp was less extreme than in Aleksotas. Although the men were separated from the women, they nevertheless were able to meet each other and also with the children, who lived in a separate shack. On March 27, 1944, “The Children's and the Elderly Aktion” was conducted in this camp as well (see below). On that day, 70 children and 20 elderly were taken out of the camp and were transported by freight cars, apparently to Auschwitz. The other imprisoned people in this camp were transferred in the middle of July to Germany - the women to Stutthof concentration camp and the men to Dachau concentration camp. Only a few of them succeeded in reaching the day of liberation.

The Kazlu-Ruda camp was established in the spring of 1944, when 300 people from the ghetto were sent to work in digging peat. They contacted the partisans who were active in the area, and on July 8, when the camp was liquidated and when the authorities started to transfer the heavy guarded prisoners on their way to Kaunas, the partisans fired a few shots in the air in order to create a commotion, as was agreed to in advance. 130 people took advantage of the commotion and escaped. 10 Jews were shot and killed by the Germans. Part of those who escaped joined the partisans and others wandered in the forests until the area was liberated by the Red Army at the end of July. The rest were brought to the Kaunas ghetto and were sent with the rest of the Jews in the ghetto to Germany.

A number of labor camps had regular contact with the ghetto, for example, in things that concerned supply. The ill were transferred to the hospital in the ghetto.

 

The anti-Nazi Underground Movement in the Kaunas Ghetto

Shortly after the Jews entered the ghetto, they established a body that coordinated, among others things, the activities of the Zionist underground. Later, this body called itself the “Vilijampole-Kaunas Zionist Center” or, in short, “Matsok” (which is the acronym of the Hebrew name of that body). It had representatives from the General Zionists, the Revisionists and the Social Zionists. In order to remove anti-socialist and unreliable elements from key positions, “Matsok” tried and succeeded in having their own men join the ghetto committee and other institutions in the ghetto. This act was fully coordinated with committee members Dr. E. Elkes and L. Garfunkel. A number of “Matsok” activists were introduced as workers in the large workshops, and with the consent of the committee, they were permitted to leave work to attend to matters that concerned the Zionist underground and to offer it their help (see below). “Matsok” also succeeded in contacting the ghettos of Siauliai and Vilnius and thereby to break the ring of isolation that the ghetto was in; a radio was brought into the ghetto and the news they heard was circulated among the residents.

Shortly after the ghetto was established it already had underground organizations: the main ones were:

  1. “Brit Zion Organization”: its members were devoted to educational and cultural activities among the youth and emphasized the need to maintain “tselem enosh” (the image of humanity) in the difficult conditions in the ghetto. They tried to find hiding places in the “Malinas”. At its prime, in 1943, the organization had 150-200 members. The organization's journal, “Nitzsotz”, which was written by hand, was published in the ghetto 20-30 times. After the liberation, 50 of the organization's members survived. Most of them emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael.
  2. “The anti-Fascist Fighters Organization”: was already established in December 31, 1941, by the communist camp that remained there. Among its leaders stood out the author Haim Yelin, who succeeded in contacting anti-fascist circles in Kaunas and through them contact with the partisans. Subsequently, they were joined by the underground organization “Zarag”.
  3. The “Eretz-Yisrael HaOveded” bloc of organizations: “HaShomer HaTsair”, “Gordonia”, “HeKhalutz HaTsair”. Those organizations were highly encouraged when a Polish woman, Irena Adamovitz, an envoy of the underground of “HaShomer HaTzair” in Vilnius and Warsaw, made a surprise visit to the ghetto in July, 1942. Many members of the bloc formed a “collective” (Kibbutz) in two apartments at number 7 Mildos street. Underneath the house they built a “Malina” for members who would be unable to go to the forest.
  4. Members of “Beitar” also functioned in the underground and trained with arms.

Subsequently, a common organization was established by the name of “Organization of Jewish Fighters”. Among other things, it coordinated its activities with the ghetto institutions and made efforts that its members would not appear on the lists of the people to be sent to the barracks' camps. It also assisted its members to obtain vital equipment and other necessities.

 

The Journey to Augustova

 

In September 1943, direct contact was made with the Lithuanian Partisan Movement through Gesia Glazer (Albina), a Jewish parachutist, who visited the ghetto in secret on behalf of the Partisan Party and the Lithuanian Communist Party. As a result of this contact, the underground movements tried to establish a partisan base in the Augustova Forests, 160 km south of Kaunas, on the border with Poland and Prussia. From the practical standpoint, this attempt was a complete failure and several dozen of the elite young people in the ghetto lost their lives in this attempt. About 100 people took part in the journey to Augustova. The Gestapo caught 43 of them. 10 were killed in clashes with the police or with Lithuanians. The others returned dejected to the ghetto. Only two members, Nehemya Endlin and Shemuel Mordkovski, made it to the Augustova Forests and returned unharmed to the ghetto, however, without finding any traces of partisans or of parachutists who were supposed to be there.

 

The Escape from the Ninth Fort

Of those who were caught by the Gestapo, 15 died in prison. Some of the others who were caught were returned to the ghetto after being interrogated while being beaten and tortured. 12 of them were taken to the Ninth Fort, where more than 30,000 people were murdered, including Jews from Kaunas, Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, and also Jewish prisoners of war from the Red Army. In addition to the underground members, other Jews who were brought from the ghetto were also in the Ninth Fort, and also a group of Soviet Jewish prisoners of war, most of them officers, and also several Lithuanians, 64 people in total. All of them were forced to remove corpses from the immense mass graves and to burn them in huge bonfires, because the Germans decided not to leave any evidence of their horrific deeds. At times, the people who had to do those terrible tasks, found their dear ones among the corpses. On December 24, 1943, on the eve of Christmas, all of the 64 prisoners succeeded in escaping from the Fort. 19 of them made it to ghetto, which was about 4 km away. Most of the others were caught by the Germans. Those who made it to the ghetto were hidden there with full cooperation from the ghettos institutions and the Jewish Police. Several weeks later, 11 of them went to the forests, to join the partisans.

A model of the Ninth Fort, the largest extermination site in Lithuania, is displayed at the Yitzhak Katzenelson Museum in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot.

 

Leaving for the Forests

The partisans' headquarters in southern Lithuania was in the Rudninkai forests, southeast of Vilnius. Its leader was a Jew, G. Ziman, who was a teacher and one of the activists in the communist camp in Kaunas. In the underground he was known as Yurgis. In order to establish a partisan movement and a communist underground in Lithuania, he parachuted into Western Belarus on behalf of the partisans' headquarters that was active in Moscow. Ever since the failure of the journey to Augustova, the next underground groups from the ghetto were sent to the Rudninkai forests. The distance from Kaunas to the partisans' headquarters was about 150 km and it was clear that it would be almost impossible for large groups to traverse that distance without being caught. But they found a way to get across most of that distance quickly and with less risk. After some efforts, they found a Lithuanian driver who worked in the German Security Police in the city. He agreed, in exchange for a substantial fee, to take the risk and drive a German police truck from the ghetto to a place close to the Rudninkai forests.

Except for the first group, which left by foot on November 23, 1943, all of the other groups were driven there by the German truck. On December 14, 1943, the first group to leave the ghetto to the forest included 17 people. That entire operation, including obtaining the money to hire the truck, was done with the help of the ghetto institutions and especially with help from the Jewish police and people in the Jewish work office, who stood at the gate and assisted in checking those who came in and went out. Those who escaped from the Ninth Fort were part of the 5th group. All the groups made it safely to the base in the forest, after being driven by truck through a dense and dangerous area in central Lithuania. In the middle of January 1944, a 6th group was being organized. Its members received German military equipment from the workshops in the ghetto, taken with full knowledge by those in charge. The equipment included boots, belts, cartridges for bullets and also uniforms and underwear. The members of the group were trained with rifles by Yehuda Zupovitz, deputy commander of the ghetto police, and others. A month later, on March 9, 1944, another group of 26 people left the ghetto in the same way. The members of this group were well armed and they also made it safely to the forest. At the end of March another group, the 8th, left the ghetto and made it safely to the forest.

 

A group of underground fighters from ghetto Kaunas in the partisan regiment “Death to the German Vanquishers”

 

At the beginning of April 1944, Haim Yelin, the commander of the anti-fascist organization, was busy in the city looking for a means of transportation to the forest for a group of 30 people, who were already well organized and well armed. Yelin was discovered and after he was chased and wounded, he was caught. He was handed over to the Gestapo and was interrogated for a long time while being severely tortured until he died. In the middle of April 1944, an additional group of 12 people left the ghetto by car. As they approached the bridge on the Vilija River, close to the ghetto, the driver stopped the car and immediately a massive gunfire was opened at it from all directions. 4 of the 12 underground members managed to escape alive. All the others, including the betraying driver, were killed on the spot. That is how the organized escapes from the ghetto to the forest came to an end. After that, only a few individuals made it to the Rudninkai forests to join the partisans (to the regiments “Death to the Vanquishers”, “Kadima”, “Vladas Baronas”), to Kedainiai, Kaisiadorys and others.

Of the 600 members in the underground organization in the ghetto, about 350 were armed when they left to join the partisans in the forests. Not only did the committee secretly cooperate with this task force, but they also received significant assistance from other ghettos institutions and above all the Jewish police. Close to 220 underground members and supporters lost their lives in those missions, either in the ghetto or in the forest, or on the way to the forests. Throughout the years, many of them were able to reach Israel. Some of them emigrated in the 1940's and 50's, and others during the 1970's and 80's.

In 1922, the “Massuah” Museum in Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak inaugurated a permanent exhibition of the underground and partisans from ghetto Kaunas. It also has a memorial tablet with the names of those who were killed.

 

Alphabetical list of the 208 fallen underground fighters in the ghetto and of 33 of the policemen who were murdered
(Permanent exhibition of the underground that fought at ghetto Kaunas, “Massuah” - Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak)

 

“The Children and Elderly Aktion” and Liquidation of the Jewish Police

On November 4, 1943, an “Aktion” of children below age 12, of adults over age 55, of the ill and the handicapped, took place in ghetto Siauliai. When the people in ghetto Kaunas learned about this, they became extremely restless. Many parents tried to hand over their children to Lithuanian families who, for various motives, were willing to receive them and hide them until the storm blew over. In many cases a lot of money (or its equivalent) was needed in order to pay the Lithuanian family for keeping the child. In spite of all the difficulties and dangers, several dozen of children were taken out of the ghetto and handed over to Lithuanian families or to the orphanage in Kaunas.

On March 27, 1944, the ghetto was placed under curfew and the Gestapo arrested all of the police personnel in the ghetto, except the members of the orchestra, who also functioned within the framework of the police. The policemen were led by buses to the Ninth Fort, where they were ordered to reveal the locations of the “Malinas” in the ghetto. The chief of the police, Moshe Levin, and the officers, Yehdua Zupovitz and Yehoshua (Ika) Greenberg, were beaten and severely tortured. They were accused of helping young people to leave the ghetto and join the partisans. On that day, 40 of the 130 policemen that were brought to the Ninth Fort were shot to death. The others were taken back to the ghetto. Only 7 of them were unable to withstand the interrogations and revealed details about the “Malinas”. They did not know what was happening in the ghetto at that time. On that day and the next day, Gestapo men and Russian soldiers who worked in the service of the Germans, took out of the ghetto about 1,200 children under ages 12-13, and also elderly older than 55. It was done with sheer brutality. Children were torn from their mothers' arms by force. Some of the mothers joined their children.

Those who were taken out on the first day were led to Auschwitz and were gassed to death there. The unfortunate ones who were kidnapped on the second day of the “Aktion” were led to the Ninth Fort and were shot to death there. Only a few of the children and the elderly were able to hide and avoid, at this stage, their death. The same atrocious act of ripping children from their parents occurred on that very same day in all of the labor camps where the Jews of Kaunas worked.

The Jewish police ceased to exist from that day on and in its place was established the “Jewish Stewards' Service”, whose men were subordinated directly to the Germans. The committee was also liquidated and Dr. Elkes was appointed by the Germans to be the “Ober Jude” (elder of the Jews) of the Kauen concentration camp.

&nsbp;

Liquidation of the Ghetto

In the first half of July, 1944, as the battlefront approached Lithuania, the Germans started to evacuate all of the remaining Jews in the ghetto and in the labor camps to Germany. Some of them were transported by rafts on the Nemunas, while others were transported in freight cars by train. At that time, the total number of Jews in the ghetto and in the labor camps in the area stood at 7,000-8,000. The transports began on Saturday, July 8, 1944. Several thousand hid on that day in the “Malinas” that were prepared for that moment. In the middle of the week, when Goeke, the Gestapo man in charge of the ghetto, saw that according to his account several thousand Jews are missing for the transport, he brought Gestapo and SS units into the ghetto, including sappers, and they methodically blew up one house after another.

Most of the houses were made of wood and they burned like torches. But the Germans also blew up the big buildings with 4 stories, which were made of concrete. Almost all of the Jews who hid in the “Malinas” burned or suffocated in them. Those who tried to get out of the smoke or fire were shot on the spot and their bodies were thrown into the flames. From the 8th to the 12th of July, no less than 1,500 of the ghetto residents perished. Only a few “Malinas”, which were built below the buildings, stood firm and the people who hid in them (about 90 people) remained alive.

Three weeks after the destruction of ghetto Kaunas, on August 1, 1944, Kaunas was liberated by the Red Army.

The evacuated Jews from Kaunas were transferred to the transit camp in Stutthof. Many of the Jews of Kaunas, who remained working in the Stutthof camp and the sub-camps in the area, perished. Some of the women fit for work were sent to dig ditches in northern Poland and to other areas within Poland. Others were scattered in concentration camps around Dachau. A handful of members from the “Brit Zion Organization” continued to publish the “Nitzotz” periodical, under the editorship of Zelimar Frenkel, who later became the journalist Shelomo Shafir.

Of the nearly 40,000 Jews that were in Kaunas before the war, approximately 3,000 remained alive. About 2,500 of them were liberated in Germany, and 500 were among the partisans and in various hiding places with Lithuanians. On August 4, 1944, 265 Jews gathered in the courtyard of the synagogue in Kaunas.

The names of the Germans and the Lithuanians who participated in murdering the Jews of Kaunas are kept in the archives of Yad Vashem. The names of the handful of Lithuanians, Poles and Russians who helped the Jews in any way whatsoever to survive the years of horror are also kept there.

 

After the War

In the years after the war, Jews returned to settle in Kaunas. Some of them returned from concentration camps in Germany and others were among the escapees or the exiled in the Soviet Union.

Immediately after the war, a great wave of emigration to Eretz-Yisrael started and people escaped to other countries. The people who left were motivated to do so for two main reasons: first, the great desire to leave the country that became a huge cemetery for Jews, a country where the killers continued to roam freely, or the disappointment from the Soviet rule; the second reason was a yearning to reach Eretz-Yisrael, a yearning whose source was embedded in the tradition of the ideological movement and also the need to draw lessons from the Holocaust. This aspiration was adopted by non-Zionists as well.

The center of these activities was in Vilnius. It was led by Abba Kovner, the last commander of the “United Partisan Organization”, the underground organization in ghetto Vilnius, and by two young women, Ruzhka Korczak and Vitka Kempner, and also by Yitzhak Kovalski and Nisan Reznik. All of them were former members of the Vilnius partisan regiments and the Zionist movements. Already in July 1944, Roshka Korczak, the former partisan, came to Kaunas and met other former members of the movement in order to organize her comrades in the underground and get them out of the Soviet Union to Eretz-Yisrael. Shortly afterwards, most of the former members of the Zionist youth movements got organized and formed a framework which was called “Coordination”. It was headed by Yitzhak Kopchovski, today Dr. Kashiv.

At that time, the public learned of the “Repatriation” agreement between the Soviet Union and Poland, according to which all former polish citizens who ended up during the war in the Soviet Union, could return to their homeland. The agreement applied also to the eastern part of Lithuania, including Vilnius, which was under Polish rule until 1940. Anyone who was able to prove with some document that he was a polish citizen was given the opportunity to go there. The organization decided to take advantage of that agreement. In the city of Lida, which formerly belonged to Poland and at that time to the Soviet Union, members of the organization found a Russian officer who worked there in the Ministry of the Interior and was willing, for a substantial fee, to provide birth certificates to Jews who were born in Lida and who disappeared in the Holocaust. 150 - 200 activists in the Zionist camp left Kaunas between the years 1944-1946 through this arrangement. In order to make it easier on the “escapees”, the organization established transit stations along the route of escape where its activists welcomed them, fed them, provided them a place to sleep, and also instructed them on their future route to Romania or Italy, from where they would be taken to Eretz-Yisrael within the framework of the “Ha'apala”.

About 80 children hidden by Lithuanians during the German rule were returned to Kaunas and were absorbed in the “Children's House”, which was established in the city through the lobbying and assistance of Lieutenant Colonel Josef Benyaminovitz Rabelski, the head psychiatrist of the Third Belarusian Front. Together with the “Children's House” which was called (number 4), a Jewish elementary school was being built with 4 classes (school number 14). A kindergarten was established next to the “Children's House” which had 60 children. Within a year, the number of the children in the “Children's House” grew to 120, mainly because they were joined by children who were in the Soviet Union during the war. About 80% of the children were orphans.

Nearly all of the needs of these institutions were supplied by the headquarters of the Third Belarusian Front, including food, milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, clothes, shoes, bed sheets, etc.

The “Children's House” was managed by Liuba Solomyn and her assistant Moshe Sherman, both of them veteran communists who took an active role in the war against the Germans.

In the summer of 1950, a formal announcement was published to liquidate those institutions. The children who remained in the children's house were scattered among other institutions in the city or were adopted by Jewish families. The same thing happened to the children of the Jewish school. During its six years of existence, about 200 children, most of who are now in Israel, finished their studies there. The principals were Rafael Levin and after him Haim Yehuda Gertner, who was released for that purpose from the Red Army through an intercession by Professor J.B. Rabelski.

Of the 4,792 Jews who filled in the census in Kaunas in 1959 (2.2% of the overall population), 3,613 (75.4%) declared that their mother tongue was Yiddish. In the 1970 census, the number of Jews in Kaunas decreased to 4,157 (1.4% of the overall population). In 1979, there were only 1,830 Jews in the city. In 1989, their number decreased to 1,359, and in 1992 not more than 600 Jews remained in Kaunas.

Throughout the years of Soviet rule in Kaunas, almost no Jewish activities took place in the city. Towards the end of the 1980's, when new spirits started blowing in the Soviet Union in general and in Lithuania in particular, a branch of the “Jewish Cultural Center”, whose main center was in Vilnius, was established in Kaunas. The city also has a branch of the “Maccabi” sports association.

In 1991, an adorned fence with Stars of David was built around the big Jewish cemetery on the “Green Mountain”. The cemetery was neglected throughout the years and part of it was destroyed. Many of the tombstones were stolen or were used for “picnic” tables or for other purposes, outside the cemetery area. The “Society for Jewish Culture” in Kaunas tried to receive the buildings that belonged to the community and with the rent it would receive from them it hoped to renovate the cemetery. Today's tidy and active cemetery is located in Aleksotas and the tombstones from the cemetery that were in the former ghetto were moved to it.

The only synagogue left in the city is the “Khor Shul” (the Choral Synagogue), which is being renovated (1992). The leader of the Jewish community is Josef Tatz.

An impressive monument was built in the infamous Ninth Fort in memory of the victims murdered there. It is composed of three parts which symbolize the killing, the struggle and the victory. In the course of time, the number that was engraved on the monument of those who were murdered was changed from 80,000 to 30,000. In 1991, a large memorial tablet was fixed on the mass graves and it is inscribed in five languages: Lithuanian, Hebrew, Yiddish, English and Russian. The inscription states: “This is the place where the Nazis and their assistants killed more than 30,000 Jews from Lithuania and other European countries during the Holocaust years, 1941-1944”. Inside the “Fort” there is a permanent display entitled: “The Tragedy of Lithuanian Jewry”. A separate section is devoted to the escape from the “Fort”. In October 1992, a display was added in memory of the victims of “The Big Aktion”, in the course of which 9,200 Jews from Kaunas were murdered in that Fort. In spite of vigorous protests from Jews, the “Fort” also displays documentary materials about the expulsion of Lithuanians to Siberia.

Apart from that monument, memorial monuments for Jews were established in other places. A stone monument was erected in the Fourth Fort and on it an inscription in Lithuanian and Hebrew: “Here, in the Fourth Fort, the Nazis and their local assistants, killed in 1941 about 4,000 Jews. On the day of August 18, they killed more than 500 educated prisoners from the Jewish ghetto in Kaunas.”

A large monument was erected in the Seventh Fort and on it an inscription in Hebrew and Lithuanian: “Here, in the Seventh Fort, the Nazis and their local assistants killed in 1941 about 3,000 people, mostly Jews from Kaunas”.

A monument in memory of the victims of the pogrom was erected in the suburb of Slobodka and on it the inscription: “Buried here are the holy and the pure who sacrificed their lives for the Holiness of God's Name and the Jewish people. They were murdered and slaughtered in their homes in Slobodka by fascist killers, 26.1.1941”.

A large stone monument was erected in the former ghetto site and on it an inscription in Lithuanian and Hebrew: “In this place, during the years 1941-1944, was the gate to ghetto of Kaunas”.

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Updated 13 Nov 2010 by LA