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Remarks about the Situation of Lithuanian Jewry
during the Years 1918-1940

- Some characteristics of the political, socio-economic, and cultural situation of the Lithuanian Jews in the period between the two World Wars. - Outbreak of WWII. - Important events in the country until the entrance of the Red Army into Lithuania.

[Page 17]

The Jewish settlement in the land of Lithuania is six to seven hundred years old, located in the not-large agrarian territory near the shores of the Nieman and Vilya Rivers. The Jewish-Lithuanian collective survived various historical periods over the course of their generations-long existence- some worse and others considered better. Over the long centuries, the Lithuanian Jew, the “Litvak,” acquired a character trait of a specific Jewish folk-type and, after a while, became well known throughout the global Jewish family.

The contribution of Lithuanian Jewry to our cultural-societal diaspora was quite large in the new period of our old and much-celebrated folk story. As we know, all achievements in creative Jewish thought always found a loud and warm echo in the life of the Lithuanian Jewish people, for example, religious Judaism, learning, political Zionism, Jewish socialism, world culture in Yiddish and Hebrew, etc.

However, they not only excelled in general Jewish cultural creations, but Lithuanian Jewry excelled significantly in accomplishments and earnings. It was also well known that with their mastery and experiences and with their initiatives and entrepreneurial spirit in the economic realm, the Jews of Lithuania carried out quite a large part of the development and prosperity of the local social and economic life.

[Page 18]

Up to the first World War, Lithuanian Jews had daily personal contact with their Lithuanian neighbors, as they were mainly concentrated in the smaller provincial settlements, where they educated most of the general folks-people. Notwithstanding, the livelihood of the small-town Jew was dependent on the Lithuanian peasant. And the Lithuanian villager couldn't survive without Jewish dealers, shopkeepers, and artisans, who were the economic middlemen between the village and the city.

In those times there reigned a natural state of peace between Lithuanians and Jews, who coexisted well, notwithstanding occasional misunderstandings. At that time, the Jews in Lithuania didn't have any basis to complain about dangerous Jew hatred from the Lithuanian people. In addition, when Lithuania was under the Czarist yoke, significant layers of the democratic and progressive Lithuanian society and the literate Jewish circles found a common language about creating a partnership campaign against Czarism, etc.

In 1918, with the rise of an independent Lithuanian kingdom at the end of the first World War, there came a noticeable worsening of relationships.

Among other factors, the establishment of an independent Lithuanian national government was also the cause of a marked change in the socio-economic structure of the Lithuanian people. Suddenly, in this context, it became favorable and conducive for the young Lithuanian bourgeoisie and intelligentsia to suddenly envision new and big development opportunities for themselves.

In their urgency for expansion and hegemony, these same Lithuanian urban elements became offended by the natural reaction of the Jewish middle-class, who had holdings and great experience in the realms of industry, business, hand crafts and the liberal professions, which restrained their economic achievements.

In an open and masked battle to get their hands on key positions in the economic life of Lithuania, the aggressive fighters of the Lithuanian economic classes used the full backing and various privileges from the government hierarchy. Understandably, these same socio-economic contrasts between the Lithuanians and the Jews could not remain without noticeable signs in the form of opposing relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Lithuanian public life.

[Page 19]

In parallel to the growth of an economic appetite on the part of the Lithuanian nationalist circles, came the further strengthening of the anti-Jewish atmosphere among the Lithuanian people. The widening and deepening antisemitism in Lithuania in the later years was also noticeably influenced by the rapid advance movement of National Socialism in neighboring Germany, as was the anti-Jewish attitude in neighboring Poland, and in other countries in Europe.

Right in the first half of the 1920s, the reactionary class of the Lithuanian church, which was then supporting the regime, destroyed the institutions of Jewish national autonomy, which the Lithuanian Jews built up with great effort. Therefore, the existence of the duly recognized community was short, extremely short. That's why the Jewish National Council and a special Ministry for Jewish issues was established. After all these difficult battles and achievements for Jewish autonomy, in the final accounting, Lithuanian Jewry was only successful in holding control of specific positions in the domain of school education.

The totalitarian regime, under the leadership of the regime President Antonas Smetana, who led the country for over 13 years (from the 17th of December 1926 until the 15th of June 1940), was truly not open to anti-Jewish actions, due to the government's fear of outside countries upon whom little Lithuania became strongly dependent. But the process of expelling the Jews from their well-established positions in business, industry, handcrafts, and the independent professions, took on a feverish speed.

Thousands of Jewish families who went through this same battle for a Jewish living, were left without economic support and were forced to eke out a tortured living by being dependent on material support from relatives outside the country.

For the Jewish youth growing up in those years, the sole practical prospect for setting up their lives was immigration to the Land of Israel, and on a much smaller scale, also to wander out to the lands of Central and South America, South Africa, etc.

[Page 20]

Particularly difficult was the Jewish economic situation in Lithuania at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, when the general economic crises in the world also left deep tracks on Lithuanian economic life.

An interesting chapter took place in the Jewish social and cultural life in Lithuania. True, the 160 thousand Lithuanian Jews (without Vilna and environs) was quantitatively not one of the large Jewish collectives in the world, but that's why they lived a truly national-Jewish folk-life.

The scourge of assimilation, which so disruptively impacted the life of many large Jewish settlements, was not a problem at all in Lithuanian Jewish life. This might be explained by the fact that the young Lithuanian culture did not have the ability to attack the Jewish cultural position, which stood on a much higher level than the Lithuanian, or that the Lithuanian Jews gained more effective national immunity to assimilation than the Jews in the other lands; or perhaps both factors together played a role. In any case, Lithuanian Jewry did not suffer from the assimilation affliction. Aside from that, the Lithuanian Jewish intelligentsia was quite popular and felt tightly connected to all the sorrow and joys of the entire Jewish people.

The following were all the expressions of the national intense and lush Jewish folk life in Lithuania in the period between the two World Wars: study groups and Yeshivas, among them the world-famous yeshivas of Slabodka, Telz, and Ponevesh; kindergartens, public schools, secondary schools, teachers' seminaries, as well as many education and educational institutions from the Yiddishist-progressives; Jewish and Hebrew libraries; three daily newspapers of varying streams, like “Yiddish Voice” (generally Zionist), “the Word” (Zionist-Socialist); various newsletters in Yiddish and Hebrew; acknowledged theaters as well as Yiddish and Hebrew studios; more sport-unions, like “Maccabi,” Hapoel”, “Yac” (Yiddish Athletic Club); a wide-branched network of public banks at the head of which was the Central Jewish Bank; economic organizations of Jewish industrialists, businessman, artisans, grocery store owners, people from the free professions, etc.; institutional charity and all kinds of charitable associations; legal, and also, illegal parties, starting from the extreme right, “Agudas Israel” and ending with the extreme left Jewish Communists; youth organizations of various shades of society, etc.

[Page 21]

Kovno stood at the center of Lithuanian-Jewish social life– the biggest Jewish community in the independent Lithuanian Republic. It was the city of world-famous Jewish personalities: the Rabbi Hagaon Itzhak-Elhanan Zitchl, Abraham Mapu, great sage, etc., and the great minds of Israel, who made the name of Jewish Lithuania famous in the whole world.

When Vilna was occupied by Poland, Kovno was fated to become the Lithuanian capital.[a] This same fact greatly influenced the growth and development of Kovno, which, over several years took on the face of an official city.

From a population of approximately 50-60 thousand souls at the end of the first World War, Kovno grew into a city of 130-140 thousand people on the eve of the Second World War. This same boisterous growth of the general Kovno population strongly lowered the percentage composition of the local Jewish population. While in the earlier years, the Jews in Kovno made up about half of the general number of people in the city, on the threshold of destruction, the Jews were not more than a third of the general population.

As we know, due to the conflict between Lithuania and Poland over Vilna, no diplomatic relations were established for over 18 years[b], and each of the countries was bordered off from the other as if with a Chinese wall. The lack of active contact with Polish Jewish neighbors stimulated the Jewish community in Lithuania to become self-sustaining, in a national sense. The Jewish intelligentsia of Lithuania had to carry all the socio-cultural needs of Lithuanian Jewry on its own shoulders. This forced them to become active in all realms of Jewish national creation.

[Page 22]

As mentioned, the tone of Lithuanian-Jewish life was set by Kovno. In Lithuania, there were famous Jewish communities in Shavl, Ponevezsh, Memel[c], etc., but the initiative for various Jewish social activities always came out of Kovno, where the most important Jewish central institutions were found.

There was a strong flow of Jewish youth coming from the provinces to Kovno. From dozens of smaller and larger Jewish villages there was a continuous draw for groups of Jewish boys and girls to come to study in the higher and middle learning institutions, in the yeshivas, etc. Many provincial Jewish youth would get organized in various handicraft trades in Kovno, or according to employment in enterprises in the commerce industry. Particularly strong was this wanderlust stream from the village to the city that went on during the Soviet period in Lithuania.

All of this left an indelible Jewish stamp on Kovno – the metropolis of Lithuanian Jewry. Not only were there such purely Jewish city sectors like, for example, Slobodka, Altshtot, etc., but also, at every corner of the city there pulsed an intensive and effervescent Jewish life, full of Jews and Yiddishkeit and with creativity.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, which started on September 1, 1939 with armed conflict between Lithuania's two neighbors, Germany and Poland, Lithuania proclaimed itself neutral.

Due to the boisterous collapse of the Polish regime in the first weeks of the war, Lithuania became flooded with a large tide of Polish refugees, among which were also many Jews. The Lithuanian Jews, according to their capabilities, made efforts to support their unfortunate brothers from Poland and helped them find temporary lodging in Lithuania. A Jewish refugee committee was specifically established, among others, to take care of immigration for those war-refugees, who had the opportunity to get out of the country.

[Page 23]

Also, due to many factors related to the war at this time, a period of so-called war prosperity impacted the economic life of Lithuania. This also trickled down to the local Jewish population, but the outbreak of war strongly disturbed the Lithuanian Jews. However, from that same new world slaughter, and despite the favorable economic juncture for the Jews, only the Jews saw the obvious; sadly, nothing good would come out of it for Jews.

Later, because of their previous agreement with Nazi-Germany, the Soviet Union started to spread their sphere of influence into the Baltic lands. There they installed the Soviet war bases, etc., where many Soviet garrisons were quartered.

The installation of the Soviet war bases in Lithuania had a strong impact on daily life. You could touch this small buffer of the Baltic lands with your hand. In war time, even more than in peace time, it was not more than an object of diplomatic “cow-trading” between the major powers.

As was expected, this newly established situation in the country strongly shook up the foundations of the dictatorship. They clearly felt that due to the development of international political events, their further existence was in jeopardy. Ruling Lithuanian nationalistic circles were even prepared to forgive the Soviets for their “gift” to Lithuania. This gift, which was captured by Poland, was the reinstatement of its capital, Vilna, within the borders of the Lithuanian kingdom - if things should only remain like they were before.
In fact, we must say that the Lithuanian opposition and progressive elements – except for the Communists, of course, were also not too strongly enthusiastic about the growing Soviet influence in Lithuania. In this way they hoped that now they would finally succeed in achieving their long-term dream to throw off the Smetana-regime. During this regime, all democratic elements in the country were already forgotten. They wanted, once and for all, to bring a democratic royal ordinance to Lithuania.

[Page 24]

The overwhelming majority of the Jewish population in Lithuania were sympathizers with the side of the democratic forces, and most Jews, together with the opposition bands in the country, waited with impatience for the fall of the Smetana clique.

The incorporation of Vilna and environs into the borders of the Lithuanian Republic, enlarged the Jewish collective in Lithuania by more than 100,000 souls. At that time, when the 160 thousand Lithuanian Jews made up 7% of the general population in the country, the quarter million Jews became 10% of the general population. From the start, the Jews thought that because of their aspiration to Lithuanianize the newly acquired areas, the Lithuanian government circles would have to consider the Jewish factor, especially in Vilna itself, where 75 thousand Jews lived. They thought this would benefit the general situation for Lithuanian Jewry.

These Jewish expectations were not considered. Instead, the chauvinistic Lithuanian elements tried to play the Vilner Polaks against the Jews. That way, for example, right after the entry march of the Lithuanians into Vilna, anti-Jewish Actions took place. After they divided up Lithuanian police and antisemitic Polaks, Jewish hopes ran out into the river…

In the meantime, the Second World War continued in the following way. Hitler's Germany went from victory to victory. After smashing Poland in September 1939, we know that in Spring of 1940, Denmark, Norway and later-on Holland and Belgium, were occupied and a German general attack was started against France. On the 14th of June 1940, Paris fell.

Thus, on the 15th of June 1940, one day after the fall of the French capital, the Red Army marched into Lithuania. President Smetana, who, it seems did not calculate well, barely managed to run away to Germany. The dictatorship fell apart like a house of cards. It became established as a “people's government”, and, at the head, the well-known Lithuanian writer, Professor Kreve-Mizkevicius (who, by the way, remained in Lithuania during Nazi occupation after the outbreak of war between Germany and Russia, and was, perhaps under pressure by the occupiers, publicly applauded by the Soviet Union.) He became appointed as a substitute for the President by the Lithuanian journalist Justus Paletzkis, who was in that last year known for his pro-Soviet speeches.

These surprising political occurrences, which presented a stormy turning point in the newest story of Lithuania, soon caused far reaching changes in the life of the Lithuanian-Jewish collective.


Original footnotes:

  1. Formally: The Temporary Capitol Return
  2. From 1920 until 1938 Return
  3. From 1923 until 1939 the Memel region belonged to Lithuania Return



One year of Soviet Rule in Lithuania (June 1940-June 1941)

- Radical changes in the life of the Jewish population in Lithuania, with the establishment of the Soviet regime in the country. - Hasty deportation of politically non-loyal elements right before the outbreak of the war between Germany and Russia. - Increase of the anti-Soviet and anti-Semitic feelings among the Lithuanians.

[Page 26]

As we know, on the 23rd of July 1940, after a five-week internal political judgment process, the newly selected Lithuanian “People's Group” proclaimed Lithuania a Soviet Republic, which later became incorporated as part of the Soviet Union.

Understandably, the introduction of the Soviet regime order into Lithuania brought on widespread changes in all areas of public and private life in the country. These changes also affected the Jewish population in Lithuania.

In the legal-political sense, the Jews of Lithuania, for the first time in the history of this country, received complete equal rights with all the other citizens of the country. Being a Jew suddenly stopped being a reason for all sorts of national-political discrimination and persecution, as was the case until that time.

The new Soviet regime opened their doors wide to the Jews, just like for non-Jews. This new and uncustomary situation allowed the Jews in Lithuania, once and for all, to raise their heads freely and not think of themselves as lower class citizens.

The reorganization from a former capitalistic regime-order to a new Socialist foundation was very necessary, according to the knowledge and the understanding of the Jewish working intellectuals. They threw themselves into the work force with dedication and contributed to the rebuilding process. Jews played a visible role, not just in the administrative and economic structure, but also, in various instances, in the dominant party.

[Page 27]

The Jewish citizenry now had equal rights. But it was mainly because Jews acquired responsible positions in the regime and party system, that the Lithuanian Anti-Soviet elements took advantage of it for their illegal agitation against the newly installed Soviet regime in Lithuania. Privately, antisemitism was useful material for them, and the Lithuanian pro-Fascist circles attempted to extract from this as much capital as possible.

We must say the Soviet regime knew how to restrain these Fascist anti-Semitic people, and thus, no anti-Jewish occurrences took place.

Most Jews in the country had happy feelings because of their complete political equality in Lithuania. However, the process of nationalization of the larger and well-resourced trade and industrial enterprises from the larger homes, was quickly accepted as the result of the newly installed Soviet regime in the country. This caused the lowering of social class for large portions of the Jewish population.

The declassified Jewish population was, understandably, strongly unhappy with the economic changes that the Soviet regime introduced in the country. Those previously well-to-do families who received the order from the regime to leave their homes in the city were strongly shaken up. They had to move out somewhere else to the smaller towns in the Kovno environs. These unhappy elements had no choice and had to make peace with the newly established situation. So, they searched to find a way to grasp the order of the new regime organization.

Except for the Jewish Communists and their periphery, the turbulent liquidation of the entire previously active social and cultural life made a very painful impression on the Jewish population. The crisis came so fast and was also so severe, that there simply was no opportunity to adapt themselves gradually to all the fundamental changes.

[Page 28]

At this opportunity we must add that right after the Soviets marched into Lithuania, many Jews, mainly from the earlier well-established strata, as well as activists from the liquidated societies, parties, and organizations, made desperate attempts to get themselves out of Lithuania at any price. They tried to travel to Eretz-Israel, to the Scandinavian countries, or toward Japan, from where they hoped to get to America and other places.

The immigration scare was enhanced by a large portion of Polish Jewish refugees, who for political reasons, had reason not to remain under the same roof with the Soviet regime.

Many of these people would camp out daily at the institutions of HIAS, “Palestine office”, and “Intourist” (Soviet tourist society for foreigners), to find any opportunity to go anywhere. With no less difficulty, this was also connected to receiving a permit to get out of the country.

The arrests were carried out from among the Jewish (and, also non-Jewish) leaders from their prior social life. This increased the drive for emigration for even more people. On the other hand, the danger increased when entering the regime institutions to try to emigrate, as this could awaken suspicion of anti-Soviet intentions. For those whose numbers were quite large, they suffered many difficult days.

And the Second World War continued. After achieving a military victory over France, in June 1940, the appetite of Nazi Germany became even more brazen and aggressive. Hitlerism swallowed new kingdoms, Yugoslavia, and Greece (April 1941), the island of Crete (May 1941), and finally in June 1941 came the most important point of their aggressive plans: war against the Soviet Union.

[Page 29]

The detailed preparations by Hitler's-Germany for a war against the Soviet Union (which, of course, did not remain a secret for Soviet Russia) advanced the issue of deporting the traitorous political elements from Lithuania.

In Lithuania, in mid-June 1941, about a week before Germany's conquest of the Soviet Union, a hasty deportation of politically “unfit” people took place.

Completely unexpected, the Soviet regime started to deport the high-ranking persons from the previous Lithuanian administration. These deportations into the deepest areas of Russia included the officer circles of the previous Lithuanian army, the active leaders of the defunct political organizations, together with the previous owners of the larger establishments which were nationalized, etc.

This step by the Soviet regime also included many Lithuanian Jews, who were deported together with non-Jews. But the Lithuanian anti-Semitic elements turned the entire thing around and presented it to the Lithuanian people as, “the work of the Jews”.

The provocation against Jews was disseminated and militant antisemitism started in no time. From day to day, new waves of gluttonous poison against the “Jewish” NKVD elements who conducted these measures, flooded the furthest corners of the Lithuanian provinces.

As mentioned, the Lithuanian antisemitism created a mood which made the Jews responsible for the harsh measures of the Soviet regime. This generally tense atmosphere in the country, combined with the exceptionally inflamed hatred against the Jews, led up to the day and the moment Nazi Germany so proudly pounced on the Soviet Union, the 22nd of June 1941.



Outbreak of the German-Soviet War
and the Panicked Evacuation

- Armed fights between the Lithuanian “5th Column” against the retreating Red Army. - Partial evacuation of Jews to the far regions of the Soviet Union. - First Jewish victims of the war.

[Page 30]

The unexpected ambush of Red Russia, which took place in the early hours of Sunday, the 22nd of June 1941, made an exceptionally strong impression on the Soviets as well as on the Jewish circles in Lithuania.

At the same time, when large portions of the Lithuanian population received notice about the outbreak of war, they reacted with enthusiasm and happiness. This was especially evident among the Nationalist and pro-Fascist elements, who were terribly enraged and frightened due to the deportations to Russia. These Lithuanian circles were now seeing the realization of their dream: a war between Germany and Russia. At that time, they believed, with complete faith, that it would bring on the unavoidable destruction of the Soviet Union, and the re-establishment of their Lithuanian national independence.

The Red Army at this time did not engage in any great battle for the tract of Lithuanian territory and retreated to their Russian territory. Whether this was due to strategic reasons, or for other reasons, this offered the German army an opportunity to move itself quickly into Lithuanian territory. During the first days of war, large areas of Lithuania were occupied by the fast-marching German army divisions.

[Page 31]

In parallel to the retreat of the Red Army, and the hasty evacuation out of Lithuania of the institutions of the regime, the pro-Lithuanian-Hitlerite elements started raging, and immediately began to organize themselves into “Lithuanian partisan camps.”

A few days after the outbreak of war, in addition to these pro-German elements, there were also political and mainstream criminals from Lithuanian jails standing on the Lithuanian streets. The Russians had not yet managed to evacuate them from Lithuania. Since the jails remained without supervision, the prisoners freed themselves.

This Lithuanian “fifth column” which, without a doubt, had already established prior contact with Nazi-Germany and had accumulated a secret arms reserve, soon armed itself. With arms in their hands, they started a battle behind the retreating Red Army.

In parallel to the battle against the Soviet army divisions, these Lithuanian armed forces started their long-dreamed bloody terror against the unprotected and extremely anxious Jewish population in Lithuania.

At this time, no one even thought about the possibility that the Hitlerite murderers would completely annihilate the Jewish people. Nevertheless, large numbers of Jews hastily started to evacuate themselves into the deeper domain of Russia. The first to leave were former Jewish officers and higher employees from the Soviet institutions, who expected strong reprisals in the event of a German occupation.

Due to the surprising speed of the evacuation by the military state institutions, there was a great shortage of means of transportation for civilians. This was one of the reasons why very few groups of Lithuanian Jews managed to evacuate in time.

By the way, we must also add that in the beginning, the Soviet border guards did not allow entry into the domain of Russia proper to those refugees who came from the Baltic countries or environs, which became part of the Soviet Union from the outbreak of the Second World War. Because of this, many refugees had to return to their previous homes from where they ran away, but these places were already occupied by Germans. A few days later, the Soviet regime opened the borders, and all the refugees were allowed to enter freely into the country. Because of the original prohibition on crossing over the Soviet border, many Jewish refugees, also those from Lithuania, fell into the hands of the Nazis.

[Page 32]

Those Jews who were allowed into Russia were among the fortunate ones. They were successful in avoiding the horrific Jewish slaughter that was conducted by the bloodthirsty Hitlerites with predatory cold bloodedness.

Large groups of Jews who did not have any means of transport, went on foot carrying their children in their arms or transporting them in children's carriages, leaving behind all their possessions in their abandoned homes. Almost all of them were caught enroute by the Lithuanian partisan groups. Many Jews were killed on the spot, a large portion of them were arrested, and the others, after much torture in the “partisan-headquarters,” were forced to retreat through the danger-filled road to their old residences, which were already occupied by the Germans.

Add to this everyone's shudder and horror of the war operations of that time, mainly the ceaseless German bombardment of the roads on which the retreating Soviet military divisions and other evacuees travelled. It was clear what the Jews lived through during those horrific days of war.

Actually, the two main directions of the evacuees were toward Vilna and Dvinsk. During the first week of war, these roads were full of dead Jewish bodies while the final occupation of the Lithuanian territory took place.



First Mass-Actions Against
the Jewish Population in Kovno

- The situation in Kovno on the eve of the German occupation. - Anti-Jewish incitement on the Lithuanian radio. - Attacks against Jews in Kovno. - The horrible pogrom in Slobodka. - Bestial murders in the garages.

[Page 33]

Already in the first hours of the war, Kovno started feeling the impact of the outbreak of the German-Soviet war. In the early morning hours of Sunday, the 22nd of June 1941, the city was bombarded by a German air attack. All day Sunday, the German bombardment was repeated many times. From the bombardments, more and more fires broke out. That same afternoon, the Soviet regime institutions began evacuating.

As one can imagine, the panic among the Jews became great. People ran to friends to consider what to do. Every Jew suddenly felt that the ground was burning under their feet. The evacuation of the Soviet institutions strengthened the agitation of the Jews. It was clear to most of the Jews, that if the Russians are evacuating the city, the Jews should not remain either.

The shock and disorientation of the Jews became so great with the outbreak, that at the same time one noticed how the Kovno Jews ran to the provinces, hoping that perhaps the awaiting storm would pass much easier over there. And, Jews from the smaller settlements near Kovno ran into the city trying to find safe protection, because in the little towns there were very few Jews.

[Page 34]

On Monday, the 23rd of June, there actually was no Soviet regime in Kovno any longer. Since the Germans had not yet occupied the city, the actual bosses of the city were the self-established Lithuanian Anti-Soviet partisan camps.

That same day, the Lithuanian leaders of the nationalist circles made an announcement via Kovno radio to the Lithuanian people. They declared that the re-establishment of Lithuanian national independence had finally been formed with a national Lithuanian government, headed by Polkovnik Skirpa, the former Lithuanian envoy to Germany.

We must note that when the Germans occupied Kovno, they did not recognize the Lithuanian proclamation of independence, not even the establishment of the Lithuanian government. In addition, they didn't even allow any Lithuanian “ministers”, who were in Berlin, to come to Lithuania. From the start, the Germans agreed to recognize only the existence of a Lithuanian military command, and of a Lithuanian magistrate. Later, as we know, the “Lithuanian Quisling,” General Kobiliunas, formed a Lithuanian government with “General Ratgeber.” They were no more than lackeys of the German occupation forces.

To curry favor with the Germans, the pro-Hitler Lithuanian elements then started their anti-Jewish murders. They hoped that through such acts, like Jew-murders, they could convince the Nazis that they could leave it to the Lithuanians and could trust them fully.

From minute to minute during those horrifying days, the Jewish situation in Kovno became even more deplorable. The provocative radio proclamation by the Lithuanian military commander, Polkavnik Bobelias, said that, because Jews are shooting at the arriving German military, for every German soldier killed, 100 Jews would be shot; the pogrom atmosphere against the Jews became highly charged.

According to a previously prepared plan, the Lithuanian partisans then started their first mass Action against the Jewish population in Kovno.

[Page 35]

Carried out by the “highest partisan staff” the armed Lithuanian partisans scattered around various areas of the city and started attacking Jews in their homes. During these attacks, the partisans shot quite a lot of Jews on the spot and arrested many others. The arrested Jews were transported to the “partisan headquarters” in the just recently established Lithuanian Security Police, and in the jails. As a collection point for the Jews that were held in the Old City, the place was exactly on the same site of the neighborhood Council House. From the selected collection points, most of the arrested Jews, mainly the men, were later sent over to the 7th Fort (one of the forts from the past fortifications of Kovno; the first large mass-annihilation site for Kovno Jews.)

At that time, horrific scenes were being played out while the blood-thirsty Lithuanian partisans conducted their murderous acts on the helpless Jewish population. Here and there lamentous cries from the mortally frightened Jewish men, women, children, and elderly, were heard, who were wildly and murderously rushed and kicked-out of their houses. Jews who were attacked and who dared bargain with the partisans not to arrest them, would be murderously hit and cursed with the worst curse words.

Surviving Jewish witnesses relate the following street pictures, about those past painful days for the Kovno Jews.

Groups of Jews, who were captured in Slabodka, were demonstratively taken through Leisvus Aleya, the central street in Kovno. Among the transported Jews, many were seen dressed in tallit and tfilin, reciting Tehillim out loud. These murderous processions were accompanied by beatings from rifles and intimidating shots from the accompanying Lithuanian partisans.

Not far from the Slabodka bridge, on Yaneve Street, the Lithuanian murderers captured a group of about 25 Jews who were forced to dance, do various “sport exercises” and loudly sing Jewish religious prayers and Soviet songs. The bandits invited the passers-by to make merry over the tortured Jews.

[Page 36]

When the outcasts became bored with the blood-play, they forced the Jews to stand on their knees and they shot them all from behind. Among those shot was also the former editor and colleague of the Kovno “Folksblat” newspaper, Dr. Shmuel Matz (known under the pseudonym, “Shmulik”.

One young Jewish man, who managed to extricate himself from the execution and jump into the Vilya River, was shot as he was swimming in the river.

A photographic essay of this execution was later published in a German illustrated journal with a caption: “how the native-born Eastern people take revenge on their enemies…”

In parallel to the murders, robberies of their belongings also took place in many Jewish houses.

At this opportunity, it should be asserted that during those exact fatal days, when the previously mentioned murders of the Kovno Jewish population took place, in front of all the world to witness, not one Lithuanian voice was heard. To the disgrace of the Lithuanian people, no one would weigh-in and condemn the shuddersome mass-murder of the Jews by the Lithuanian Hitlerites. That same shameful and tragic fact made a very strong impression on the beaten Jews at the time, and already made their hopeless situation under the government of the Nazis and their Lithuanian partners very clear.

On the night of Tuesday, the 24th of June, when the first German military divisions showed up in Kovno, the murders by the Lithuanians were very strongly advanced. Most of the Kovno Jewish population didn't manage to evacuate at the right time, and they started shutting themselves up in their homes in tremendous fear, waiting to see what the next day would bring.

[Page 37]

The building watchmen played a large role during those dark days of the attack by the Lithuanian partisan camp on the helpless Kovno Jews. Most of them suddenly wanted to settle accounts and get rid of their Jewish neighbors and did everything so that the wild partisans could capture as many Jews from their courtyard as possible. In this way, they could get their hands on Jewish belongings. Only a few house-watchmen didn't allow themselves to benefit from the greed to grab Jewish possessions, and they partially helped protect their Jewish neighbors, telling the oncoming partisans that these Jews had already been taken away, or that in their courtyard there were no Jews, etc. Such virtuous and good people were very few among the house watchmen.

In the earlier few days, one would see some passersby on the Kovno streets, but later they became “clean of Jews.” That's how, for example, on Wednesday, the 25th of June, you could notice how the few Jews were running through the streets with great fear and nervousness, like animals who were being persecuted by their hunter. Many Jews knew very well what kind of deathly danger was lurking for him from the Lithuanian partisans if they appeared on the street. People put their lives in danger to go out on the street with one goal: to contact relatives or good friends who live on other streets, in order not to feel so lonely and isolated during those horrifying days and nights.

However, at the height of those first mass Actions against the Jews, came a horrific pogrom in Slabodka. This horrific mass slaughter took place during the night between Wednesday, the 25th and Thursday, the 26th of June 1941.

Under darkness of night, murderous bands broke down the doors of the Jewish homes on the small streets of Slabodka. Among them were many Lithuanian students in uniform and partisan guards with guns, revolvers, axes, and knives. With murder previous unheard of, they shot, stabbed, hacked heads, etc. This slaughterous pogrom went on the entire night.

Human body parts, torn to pieces, were found in many attacked houses, and in the courtyards around the houses, because a portion of the murderers also used “dum-dum” bullets. After the pogrom, for example, on Yorbuker Street, where the Kovno Zionist community leader, Mordechai Yatkonski, lived, the head of Yatkonski was found in one corner of the room, and the rest of the body parts – in the other end of the room. The body of his wife (a dentist) was found with her breasts cut off.

[Page 38]

A dreadfully mutilated body was found in the apartment of the Slabodka Rabbi Osofsky with the Rabbi lying on top of a bloody Gemorah [holy book], which he was studying at night when the murderers came to kill him.

There was even talk that in one of the shop windows in Slabodka, decapitated Jewish heads were put on display.

On Krisciukaicio Street, opposite the Slabodka post office building, a Jewish house was set on fire. A few Jewish families who were shot were burned in the flames.

These are only a few details of the horrors of the Slabodka pogrom, in which about a thousand Jews were annihilated in this bestial manner.

On Friday, the 27th of June, the dead were collected on garbage wagons and a portion of them were buried in the Old Slabodka Jewish cemetery, and the rest in a mass grave on the edge of the Vilnya River, near Slabodka.

The Slabodka pogrom, as it turns out, did not quench the bloodthirst of the Lithuanian murderers. Their animal-like greed for Jewish blood demanded even more new Jewish victims. During those horrible days for Jews in Lithuania, the Lithuanian pogromists allowed themselves to satisfy their sadistic tendencies on a mass scale, which they could never ever have dreamt of. Confirmation of this can be found in the following horrific facts:

On Friday, the 27th of June, about 60 Jews, who were captured together in the district of Vitoft Prospect and Gedimin Street, were transported to the courtyard of the “Lietukis” Garage on Vitoft Prospect and were tortured to death in an extraordinarily horrific manner.

Witnesses from the neighboring houses described some dozen Jews being murdered by the Lithuanian mass murderers by battering them with auto instruments, shovels, and axes. Hoses, used to wash cars, were shoved into the mouths of a portion of the victims, and as the water was turned on, the Jews' bodies burst.

[Page 39]

After this bloody execution in the courtyard of the garage, a shapeless bloody mass of hacked human limbs were torn to piece and left lying about.

Similar horrific events took place at the same time in another garage in the neighborhood of Vytaut Prospect. Also in this garage, the murderers tortured their victims so long until the Jews fell, powerless. Then, they poured cold water on those powerless prone Jews to revive them, and then they tortured them again. This was repeated so long, until the unfortunate Jews became totally tortured.

On the same day, in another part of the city, a group of captured Jews were forced to pull a Soviet tank out of the Nieman River with ropes. The tank had fallen into the water at the time of the battle near the river bridges. Because there was no way the Jews could accomplish such a heavy job, they were murderously battered by the Lithuanian partisans, who kept on screaming that the Jews “are too lazy to work…”

Unfortunately, the horrible Slabodka pogrom, the bloody Actions in the garages, etc., were nothing more than an introduction to the later inconceivable murders of the defenseless and desperate Jewish population, both in Kovno and in the provinces. In this mass slaughter there were representatives of all strata of Lithuanian people, like peasants, workers, intelligentsia, clerks, etc. They actively participated with genuine predatory, cold-bloodedness, and sadistic pleasure bathed in oceans of Jewish blood.

So, this is how tragically hopeless the Jewish situation appeared already in the first days of the Hitlerite occupation in Lithuania.



Horrible Killing at the Seventh Fort

- Murderous crimes by the Lithuanian Partisans against the 10,000-12,000 Jews caught and gathered in one place. - Shaming, raping, and shooting Jewish women. - Murder of about 8,000 Jews.

[Page 40]

At the time of the mass arrest of the Kovno Jewish residents, the Lithuanian partisans (LAF) enjoyed capturing some 10-12 thousand Jews. As previously mentioned, the arrested Jews were from various collected towns, and were transferred to the 7th Fort, which is located near the Kovno suburb of “the Green Hill.” [Zaliakalnys]

Only a few Jews managed to get themselves out of this hell, through bribery and some other kind of arrangements. All the others, among whom were mainly men and fewer women and children, remained arrested at the Fort. The women and the children were imprisoned in the casements of the Fort, and the men were held under the open skies.

During the lead up to the mass executions, the terror at the Fort was cruel. For the smallest “sin” they would be shot on the spot, without warning by the Lithuanian partisans who were guarding the arrested Jews.

[Page 41]

The men were being held in the terrible heat, under the burning rays of the sun during those many endless days. They were lying immobile and were not allowed to speak a word among themselves. If any one of the men lifted their head, or if they would move to get more comfortable, the partisans on patrol at that spot immediately would start shooting with their machine guns. There was no mention of food during the first days. The arrested were languishing for a drop of water. Some found an opportunity to drink from a nearby stream, but the partisans would shoot them on their way back, saying that it was for trying to run away.

To make the week more brutal and sadistic for the Jewish prisoners, they would systematically become drunk. Many soldiers would almost always be in a drunken state.

A separately horrible account was the situation for the young women. At nightfall, the drunken Lithuanian partisans started grabbing women from the casements and dragged out young Jewish women and girls to rape and then shoot them. The panic among the women reached the skies. Many of the victimized women lost their minds from the shock. These gruesome scenes took place over a few nights. Dozens of Jewish girls and young women were raped and shot during these night orgies by the wild Lithuanian scoundrels.

To make themselves undesirable to the partisan eye, the prettier and younger women and girls would smear their faces with mud, etc. However, this did not deter the beast-like sadists from their criminal deeds, and the toll of Jewish girls who were raped became greater. There were even cases among the raped girls and tortured women where young girls were raped together with their mothers.

The then Lithuanian Kovno commander, Palkavnik Bobelis, came to visit the 7th Fort and give the necessary directives to the guards himself.

One day he ordered a selection of those Jewish men who served as volunteers in the Lithuanian army. About 70 young Jewish men who served as volunteers in the Lithuanian military, were selected out from among the other men and imprisoned in a separate casement. These Jews were forced to sing and dance for the drunken guards, who at various times were overseeing them. Later, they were transferred to the Central Kovno Prison and, after some time, were murdered. Only a few of them were saved by various means, and from the jail were then able to get out to their families.

[Page 42]

Witnesses to the horrible murders at the 7th Fort gave testimony to the irrefutable scream-to-the-heavens fact: at the same time the captured prisoners were held at the Fort, there was a basketball game taking place in Kovno, between a German military team and a Lithuanian team. The Lithuanians were great experts in this sport and for a time were the champions of basketball in Europe, so they had a victory match. As a “prize” every one of the victorious Lithuanian team members got the right to shoot a dozen Jews at the 7th Fort. A Lithuanian officer, Kirkila was there and because of his strong bestial bloodthirstiness, he himself shot hundreds of Jews. Tortured by his conscience, he committed suicide a few days later.

Afterwards, in the beginning of July 1941, as soon as the Soviet prisoners of war prepared the mass graves, the arrested Jewish men, totaling 7-8 thousand persons, were shot by machine guns.

Before the murder of the men, the Jewish women and children were transferred from the 7th Fort to the 9th Fort which is 4-5 km from the Kovno suburb of Slabodka. After a short time, they let most of the women and children go home, where a flood of plunder and persecutions awaited them.

And, once again, it should be stressed here, that during the enormous bloodbath at the 7th Fort, the Lithuanians were not only carrying out the slaughter, but together with the Gestapo, they were also the organizers of the mass murders. This specific appalling fact took place not only in Kovno, but also on a much larger scale in many places in the Lithuanian provinces where the Lithuanian Hitlerites murdered the resident Jews without any decree from the Gestapo. For generations to come, this will remain a mark of shame in the history of the Lithuanian people, whose sons and daughters carried out such horrific and shameful violations.

[Page 43]

The Jews around the world, and especially the Lithuanian Jews, will forever have etched in their memory these shameful and horrific killings on the part of the Lithuanians, who during this critical moment in our story of martyrdom, had a hand in spilling the blood of our innocent martyrs.



The establishment of the Ghetto in Slabodka

- The Creation of a Jewish Committee. - The Jewish population of Kovno and surrounding towns forced to relocate to the newly founded ghetto. - A flood of anti-Jewish orders. - The first Action of the Jewish Committee moving the population into the Ghetto.

[Page 44]

A few weeks after the outbreak of the war, when the war operations were moved further behind the borders of Lithuania, the occupation powers started to “stabilize” the situation in the country in general, and in Kovno in particular.

In the beginning of July 1941, the Kovno Gestapo started by calling on a few Jewish leaders, who were notified that the Lithuanians can never live together with the Jews in the city because “all the Jews are Communists.” Thus, from the 15th of August of this year, a ghetto will be established for Jews in Kovno. The suburb of Slabodka was planned as the district for the Ghetto. The previously mentioned Jews were ordered to set up a Jewish Committee* in the Ghetto, which would deal with the Jewish abuses in the city.

At this opportunity the Gestapo “assured” the Jewish leaders that no further Actions against Jews would take place.

On the 10th of July an order was made public, according to which all those of Jewish heritage in the city of Kovno and in the surrounding towns must leave their homes by the 15th of August 1941. They must relocate to the town of Viliampole (Slabodka), where a ghetto will be established for Jews.

*Specifics about the establishment of the Jewish Committee, see “Eltestenrat” in the Monograph “Jewish Institutions in the Kovno Ghetto.”

[Page 45]

In the middle of July, after the first wave of unspeakable mass-murders against Jews in Kovno passed, a short “quiet” pause arrived. At that time many Jews snuck into the city by various means and with great personal danger. These were the Jews who were caught enroute from their evacuation by the fast-advancing march of the German army division. These were people, who, for various reasons enroute, didn't fall into the hands of the Lithuanian partisans, or escaped from them after a variety of tortures and persecutions.

At that time in Kovno, there was a population of approximately 30,000 people. They were comprised of Jews who didn't manage to evacuate, and the few women and children who were arrested in the first days of the war and then released.

In truth, there were no more systematic attacks by the Lithuanian partisans on Jewish homes, as had taken place until this time, but walking on the street, especially for Jewish men, still entailed great danger. In those days, Jews were afraid not only of being arrested, but also of being caught at work by the Germans or the Lithuanian partisans, because at work they would murderously beat and jeer at them. Therefore, Jews hid themselves away with fearful heart palpitations, and waited with unease for the development of future events.

On the 17th of July 1941, in Kovno, a civil regime was finally established, that is, in the city a German City-Commissariat was established, which started organizing all issues of the civil population. The S.A. Brigade Leader, Kramer, who was the former Mayor of Dachau was installed as the City Commissar, and as later shown, was a big Jew-hater.

The Lithuanian, Kaminskas, the former High officer from the Kovno Magistrate and for a short time, was Mayor of Vilna during the time of Smetana, was instated as the Councilor of Jewish Affairs in the City Commissariat. Later, the young Nazi from the German border town Eidkugen, S.A. Major Jordan was instated as the speaker of Jewish affairs in the City Commissariat. He was a Jew murderer on a mass scale, who on his own accord was responsible for thousands of Jewish victims.

[Page 46]

At this time, the authorities of the City Commissariat managed to give out the first anti-Jewish orders. As usual, there was a law for Jews to wear a yellow Magen David star on their chest, and a few days later a new order to wear a second Magen David star on the back. There was now a law that Jews were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks, like all other people, but they must walk on the edges of the street, near the gutters of the sidewalk. There were more laws forbidding Jews to show up in frequented areas, or use common means of transportation (like autos, horse-drawn carriages, etc.), have telephones, radios, have Christian employees, go to the market to shop for food, etc.

A special law also forbade Jews from selling or even entrusting their earthly possessions, whatever they were, to Christians, including furniture and homewares. As it later turned out, the purpose of this last rule was so that Jews and all their possessions should be transferred to the Ghetto, for the Germans to rob them of everything.

These anti-Jewish laws were publicized in the name of the German City Commissar, or from the Lithuanian military commandant. Violations of these laws would receive death penalties.

After the bloody Actions against the Jewish population during the first few weeks of the Nazi reign, when thousands of Jews were killed, this wave of anti-Jewish laws bore bi-weekly witness to the situation for Jews in the world.

The tragic experiences up to this point, and the unsettling worry about the near future caused daily increase in depression and anxiety in the Jewish population. The Jewish faces mirrored their woes, problems, and sorrows.

In the first weeks of the occupation the Jews were completely broken down. Later, the Jews became partially hardened to the endless bloody events, and they became less sensitive to the various Nazi orders.

[Page 47]

Immediately from the beginning, the so-called established Jewish Committee had a lot of work thrown upon them. On this Committee were assembled, among others, Dr. Grigori Wolf, Dr. Elhanan Elkes, Dr. Yefim Rabinowitz, Advocate Leib Garfunkel, Advocate Yakov Goldberg, Rabbi Shmukler, Rabbi Snieg, etc.

Although the “power” of the Jewish Committee, as one can imagine, was very minimal, the defenseless Jewish population, who were without rights, laid daily siege to the Committee on various issues, searching for help and advice.

To model productive work, the Jewish Committee established various commissions, which were dedicated to issues, legal help, housing, work distribution, abuses in the Ghetto, etc.

At the start, the Committee had much to do with those Jews who returned from the city after an unsuccessful attempt at evacuation. They found that their apartments along with their possessions which were left after running away from Kovno were taken over by Christians. They had to find housing for these Jews, or shelter somewhere, and then retrieve at least a portion of their possessions. To regulate the housing situation for Jews within the Jewish Committee, a Lithuanian officer from the Housing Office of the magistrate was delegated to them. Getting back their possessions was dependent mainly on the Housing Administration, an institution which remained active since the Soviet days when the big houses were nationalized.

But, as mentioned, the prime task of the Jewish Committee was to organize and put order into the relocations into the Ghetto.

There was much to negotiate with the Kovno Lithuanian magistrate in establishing the ghetto domain. The Lithuanian tone setters of the magistrate were disposed to designating a somewhat smaller area for the Ghetto, in order not to, God forbid, “upset” the Christian population in Slabodka. The Jewish representatives, therefore, had to fight with the magistrate to add another street to the ghetto area, with a few dozen wooden huts.

[Page 48]

Under the supervision of the Lithuanian magistrate official, the Jews themselves had to fence in the ghetto quarter with a high fence of barbed wire.

As was foreseen at the start, Jews were also living in homes on both sides of Yorbuker Street, but the main street had to be kept open for non-Jewish traffic. So, they considered building an underground tunnel near Yorbuker street (not far from the Slabodka bridge) which was supposed to be designated for Jewish traffic. But, in the middle of construction of the tunnel it became clear that Jews would not be allowed to live on Yorbuker Street, so the work of digging the tunnel was cancelled.

Also, from the start, the ghetto domain included a part of Paneriu street, which had the uneven numbers, and in addition a few nearby little streets, for example, Naoialo, Lampedzshiu, parts of Dvara, Gashtauta, etc. This portion of the ghetto was called “the Small Ghetto.”

Thus, because Paneriu Street was one of the central streets of Slabodka and led to important streets in the city, this specific street was also designated for non-Jewish traffic. That is, Jews lived in the houses on both sides of the street so the main street was separated from the houses by tall fences of barbed wire so that you could travel from the Small Ghetto to other parts of the Ghetto. It transferred to Paneriu street (near the cross street with Dvara street) and a special wooden hanging bridge was constructed by Jews. (a viaduct).

To create space for the Jews in the previously foreseen ghetto concept, the local non-Jewish population had to leave their homes and relocate to the former Jewish homes in the city, or in the part of Slabodka where no Jews were allowed to be.

For a few weeks, long lines of hundreds traveled, packed up, loaded up with baggage and thousands on foot with packages on their backs stretched out on the streets of the city to Slabodka, and from Slabodka to the city. The first were Jews, the others - Christians. By comparison, it looked like a “people-wandering”-a wandering, forced by the Gestapo, which had premeditated their horrific plans regarding the fate of the Ghetto.


Map of Kovno and the environs, in 1922


At the 7th Fort. Thousands of captured Jewish men,
who were murdered in the beginning of July 1941.
(The Kovno Jew, S. Burshtein got this photo from a German in Munich)

[Page 49]

Knowing that the order to transfer the Jews to the Ghetto will have to be fulfilled punctually by a specific time, a rush began among the Jews to find a house in the Ghetto. Those who could financially afford it, would offer a larger sum of money to Christian Slabodka house owners who had to leave their homes, and they would take over their homes. At this opportunity, there was plenty of deceit and more than a few tricks played on the part of dishonest Christians.

Meanwhile, among the Jews in the Jewish Housing Office, which regulated the housing issues in the ghetto area, there was a rumor that there were dishonest negotiations among corrupt Jewish officers, who wanted to create a source of “easy earnings” from the Jewish misfortune.

A large portion of the Jewish population, who were without means, and who were not able to acquire housing, simply attempted to transfer their belongings to the Ghetto and put them somewhere with a friend, in storage, in an attic, etc. There were rolled up packages with Jewish possessions near many houses in the Ghetto. Included were disassembled furniture, and various home items, which Jews brought with them to the Ghetto but did not have any personal corner to lay them all out.

From one day to the next, new groups of Jews left their apartments in the city and resettled in the Ghetto. By the first week of August 1941, the largest portion of the Kovno Jewish population was already settled in the Ghetto. At that moment they could not yet foresee what kind of incredibly tragic fate awaited the ghetto Jews very soon.


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