From the Relocation Action to Estonia
until the eve of the Action on the children,
the old and the sick (November 1943-March 1944)
|- Movement in the Ghetto to give the children to Christians. - Establishment of the first Jewish labor-camp in Alexot. - Jewish life in the labor-camp. - Founding the second labor camp in Shantz. - Clearing of the old ghetto region. - Further recruiting for Jewish labor camps. - Legendary escape of the Jewish labor brigade which worked in the 9th Fort burning Jewish corpses. - The situation in the Ghetto during the first few months of 1944: a. good news from the front, b. favorable economic situation, c. new obligatory registration, d. less recruiting, e. joining the partisans. f. Jewish fight against informers, g. Intensive building, h. Sending German Kapos to the Ghetto, i. Rumors, denials, etc., - More persons involved in connection with the Partisan Movement. - Individual and collective contact with private Christians.
The ghetto Jews hadn't yet managed to calm down from the huge blow of the relocation Action when nearly 3000 Jews were transported to Estonia. It was ten days later, when a notice was distributed in the Ghetto that on the 5th of November 1943, an Action on children, elders and the sick took place in the Shavl Ghetto. This action cost the Shavl Ghetto over 800 victims, mainly children up to 12 years old, older people over 55 and, in addition, the sick and disabled. When this became known in the Kovno Ghetto, the Jews became terribly upset, because it was expected that whatever happened in the Shavl Ghetto must, sooner or later, also happen in the Kovno Ghetto.
Many older and disabled people, who, according to their age or illness, were no longer able to do work duty and who happened to be without a work card, tried to acquire a workplace mainly in the Ghetto Workshops, where the work conditions were not as desirable as in the city work places.
It was difficult to figure out what to do with the children. Since they believed that the children who learned a trade in the ghetto trade school were in less danger than children who were at home, the parents started sending their children to the trade school.
Regarding the elderly and sick, there was no way they could help themselves, and they had to wait for the horrible day when the evil Hitlerite animal would come to devour them. The worry about the fate of the little children didn't leave them in peace. So, they started looking for opportunities to transfer children to the city or a village and give them up to Christian families. However, this was an extraordinarily difficult undertaking which ran into countless difficulties.
Before anything else, they had to find such a Christian family which would be prepared to take a Jewish child and, by doing so, risk the lives of all their family members in case they were discovered by the Gestapo.
Secondly, they had to possess a large sum of money to compensate the Christian family for taking and sustaining the child. Those parents who had no resources managed to create the necessary resources to arrange for the child to stay with the Christians.
Even more important than financial means, was the basic question: where do you find a suitable place to give up the child? And this question was not so simple either.
Too many abuses and tricks took place by individual crooked Christians. These Christians would take money and items from the Jews and right afterward they would try to get out of taking in the child, or a short time later they would send him back to the parents in the Ghetto, saying that the Gestapo was following them, and they could not keep the children any longer in their home. There were cases when children went from the Ghetto to the city and returned three or four times until they found a shelter. There was no shortage of cases of blackmail, pranks, and other pressure ploys from dishonest Christians, for whom the tragedy of the Jewish child was a good opportunity to make easy business…
There were not many Christians who were inspired mainly by humanitarian reasons, and who dared to take in a Jewish child. A humane understanding of saving Jewish children did show itself in certain persons from the Kovno Catholic clergy, like for example, the very endearing priest Paukshtis, the Jesuit priest Aloiz, the nun, Ana Brokaitite, and others. Some of them did it for purely humanitarian reasons; others did it for missionary motives: converting the Jewish children and raising them like Christians. Whichever, it was, thanks to the Catholic clergy, many children from the Ghetto were saved.
Aside from this, it was also no small problem to carry the children out of the Ghetto and place them with the Christian families. Specifically, most Jews coped in the following ways:
For a good reward, certain guards of the Ghetto Guard, during their gate duty would allow the child through the Ghetto Gate. Not far from the gate, one of the Christians would already be waiting, and would immediately take the child and transport him to his own home. However, the majority would be forced to place the children with Christians in the city.
With the help of various arrangements many children would be carried out through the Ghetto Gate. For example, after putting them to sleep with a narcotic, the small child would be covered up inside a bag or a backpack, and while going to work, they would carry them into the city. Or, for example, a strongly built man would tie up the sleepy child within his coat and, in this way, carry the child through the Ghetto Gate unnoticed.
Jewish carts from the ghetto institutions and from the ghetto workshops were often used to transport many children out of the Ghetto. These carts would travel into the city for various services, like bringing fertilizer to the Ghetto, taking away, or bringing, material for the Ghetto Workshops, etc.
In such cases, the guards at the Ghetto Gate were well rewarded by the parents of the children. When the regime in the Ghetto became much stricter, and Jewish carts started being accompanied by German guards, the Jews managed to get along with the guards, and they would close their eyes to what was being transported on the carts…
As mentioned, the children would be put to sleep with a type of narcotic just before being carried through the Ghetto Gate. This was so that the smaller children would not start crying during the transport out of the Ghetto and endanger themselves and their parents.
There was no shortage of cases when children would wake up just on the evening of the transport out of the Ghetto. Then they would have to turn back home and, in a day or two, try to put the child to sleep again. The danger was also great when the child would wake up on the other side of the gate too early, that means, before they arrived at the site.
In general, it was easier for Christians to take in girls, rather than boys. Since boys were circumcised, it was much harder to bring them to the city.
Another problem was also that the child had to know some Lithuanian to be understood in the new environment.
Then, there were Christians who would only be willing to take younger children. Others would only want to take older ones.
To deliver a child to the city, one had to manage all these issues, and only then come to the main issue: carrying the child out of the Ghetto.
At this opportunity we must note that the young Jewish man, Yankel Verbovsky[a], who worked at the Ghetto Gate, personally helped transport children out of the Ghetto.
Despite all the enormous difficulties, a large movement was initiated in the Ghetto to get the children set up in the city, as fast as possible. Those parents who had contacts with Christian acquaintances in the city or in villages and managed to acquire the necessary resources to carry out this very difficult operation, weren't deterred, and did it as fast as possible. The prospect of being caught by the Gestapo for setting the child up in the city and paying for it with the life of the entire family, didn't scare any of these parents. The ghetto Jews would do anything, just to save their children.
In this way, dozens of children were saved from the Ghetto, but hundreds of children had to remain in the Ghetto because their parents didn't succeed in finding a suitable place for them in the city.
A separate chapter was also taking place in this silent, but deep tragedy of the Jewish child who did get set up in the city with Christians. Not knowing the language to make themselves understood with the new people, the longing for their parents, the transition period of acclimating themselves in their new home, etc., is a theme which awaits future examination.
This movement to hand over the children to Christians in the city or the villages continued until, and after, the Children's Action, which took place in the Ghetto at the end of March 1944.
In the beginning of November 1943, as mentioned, the Ghetto was converted into a concentration camp. At the end of November, it became clear that later, at the Kovno Aerodrome (in the same building the Jews had constructed) they would establish a labor camp for 1500 ghetto Jews, called Alexot Labor Camp.
Right afterwards, they found out that they would have to finish the wooden barracks especially for Jews at an additional labor camp for about 1500 Jews in the Kovno suburb of Shantz. A third camp was planned for Petrashun, about 7 kilometers from Kovno, where about 700 Jews who worked for a German military service for Auto-Renovation (H.K. P.), were quartered. In addition, they had to enlarge the already available labor camps in Keidan, Palemon, Kashedar, etc. for the Kazernirungs Quartering Commission. Large tasks were set up and they started to speed up the tempo of work.
According to the orders of the Camp Commander, Goecke, they had to transport about four to five thousand Jews from the Kovno Ghetto to the labor camp as soon as possible.
Inside the Ghetto about seven to eight thousand Jews remained temporarily: 1) those working in various ghetto workshops; 2) the few, still functioning, Jewish work brigades in the city, and 3) the network of Jewish institutions serving the population of the Ghetto and the surrounding Jewish labor camps.
In the plan to accommodate the total ghetto population, it was foreseen how to quarter the remaining Jews inside the Ghetto. However, this was left for the same finale as with the quartering. In the first place, they had to establish the labor camp at the Aerodrome. The camp was set to be established on the 30th of November 1943.
Finally, the Kazernirungs Commission finished making the list of the people for the Alexot camp. Since it already became clear that every ghetto Jew would have to get through a period of being quartered in a work camp, and that avoiding such a thing would not be possible anyway, so now they didn't have to take the earlier measure of applying force to recruit people. Orders were sent a week earlier that the persons listed for the camp had to be prepared to be quartered.
Immediately from the start, most of the ghetto Jews who received such orders made peace with the thought of becoming quartered because they knew that this is a illness that some ghetto Jews would have to get through… and if so, what good would it do to remain in the Ghetto a few more weeks? This is pretty much what the average ghetto Jew thought.
This psychological preparation to become quartered contributed to these Jewish suppositions along with the following:
First, those who were now being quartered, supposedly knew that this is their last place. They now believed that they would either be freed by some miracle, or, at a critical moment, they would be killed.
Second, those who remained in the Ghetto could only expect various surprises. Many ghetto Jews speculated to themselves, as follows: since they needed more people for labor, and since there were still many Jews in the Kovno Ghetto, they would logically take them not from a work camp but from among the not-yet quartered ghetto collective. So why be dragged somewhere to the unknown, under who knows what conditions there would be, and where all the family members would be. So, it was worthwhile for them to be quartered in the vicinity of Kovno together with the entire family.
In addition, many ghetto Jews voluntarily allowed themselves to be quartered for the following serious reason:
As mentioned, at the beginning of November the Action on children, elderly and sick had already taken place in the Shavl Ghetto. Since the Action in the Shavl Ghetto happened in the Ghetto itself, the Kovno Ghetto Jews figured that the children, elderly, and sick would be safer in the work camp than in the Ghetto. Not a single ghetto Jew had any doubt that sooner or later such an Action would also take place in the Kovno Ghetto.
After putting aside, the last doubts about quartering, it was also the order from the Camp Commander, that right after the quartering at the Alexot Camp, the old ghetto area would be cleared out. So, this also contributed to the decision. That meant that in the original sector, where about 6,000 people lived, mainly Jews would become candidates for the work camp. Knowing in advance how many difficulties there would still be to find accommodation in the remaining ghetto area, where there would be no more than one and a half cubic meters of living space per person, most of the Jews who decided on quartering in Alexot absolutely didn't try to negotiate about remaining in the Ghetto. So, everyone was more than sure that when the day came for the quartering in Alexot, there would be, without a doubt, no shortage of Jews for the camp.
A few days earlier, the Jews who were assigned to the work camp, packed up their few soft rags, leaving behind furniture and housewares, etc. in the houses. They were prepared to get through the new, and, as everyone hoped, last stage on the sorrowful road in Hitler's hell.
On the morning of the 30th of November 1943, the designated people started gathering at the Ghetto Gate to go to the Alexot work camp. The hundreds of men, women and children were convened in family groups and with packs on their backs they waited for the order to leave the Ghetto and get on the road. The psychosis of being quartered made the masses of convened people impatient, and when ordered to go through the Ghetto Gate, they started to push through the gate as if they were being freed from the Ghetto.
But when the German convoy of soldiers came, standing with rifles stretched out in columns to guard the marching Jews, their hearts sank. Friends and acquaintances came to accompany those marching to the camp. The goodbyes took place in a very tense atmosphere: they cried bitterly, kissed each other warmly, and in this way wished them well wherever they should be. At that moment, it was very difficult to distinguish who was smarter: those who were going to be quartered, or those who remained in the Ghetto.
After the transport got to the work camp, those Jews who were involved in this relocation returned home at night. They were immediately heard describing the terrible welcome received by those who were relocated. These people were chased into large barracks where hard wooden grooves of three levels were prepared. The families were immediately torn apart, because the men were separated from the women, and the children were divided up: the older boys had to be with the father, the younger children with the mother.
The guarding of the camp was very tight, and the impression was that it was not much larger than in the Ghetto. The items that were brought were immediately taken away to a separate storehouse, giving each one only basic necessities in their hand: a portion of bedding, a pair of underwear, a towel, etc. Getting more items was only allowed once in two weeks. They would not be able to live off the official allotments, so Jews had to exchange their last items with Christians to get some food products. Losing the ability to freely use their own items was a hard blow.
The next morning, those who went out to work were not only the men and women who worked in the Ghetto, but even those who were free from work because of age or illness. In the camp there only remained those bed-ridden sick ones and elderly. Children up to approximately 10 years old were supervised the entire day by the few healthier older men and women. There is no need to describe what kind of supervision that was.
After a cold and wet winter evening of work on the open field of the Aerodrome, the Jews came back from work in the evening frozen and soaked. Returning from work, they no longer had a warm or peaceful family corner, like in the Ghetto. They only had huge barracks with taped-up grooves, one on top of the other, and one near the other. Understandably, in the din of about one thousand five hundred men, there was no way to get any rest. During the time in the Ghetto, each one still had the possibility of preparing food for himself according to his material possibilities, but in the camp, they had to be satisfied with a portion of soup from the common cauldron. And above everyone was the camp leader, the S.S. man, Miya, a real murderous soul with a history of service in other concentration camps.
Because of the murderous camp leader in Alexot, the work camp was transformed into a dreadful hell. For the smallest sin he would murderously beat them with his long whip, especially on the face. And he would always find a reason to beat and whip, at every step.
After carrying out an important partisan mission. All his friends were killed, so he blew himself up with a hand grenade, and in this way, he killed more S.S. people.
|Murdered camp inmates from the Estonian concentration camp, Klooga. Because of the Soviet offensive, the Nazi murderers didn't manage to burn the dead on the pyres.
According to the expected camp regime, they would conduct roll calls[b] twice a day on the campgrounds, during which he would unceasingly wave his whip to the right and to the left - for not standing as they should, for saying a word during line up, etc.
In the camp, men were not allowed to see their own wives and even if they met on the stairs or in a corridor, they wouldn't dare stop to say a few words. For violations of this order, the camp leader would use his whip.
If he would catch someone going to work carrying another shirt or something else to exchange for food, he would not only confiscate it from the Jew for this resistance but in addition, he would beat him heavily. He also liked to supervise the Jews returning from work, and if he would find purchased food products, the whip would fly like hail again. It was like this, day in, day out.
These tortured Jews had no way back and they were therefore forced to suffer and to shut up. If someone won by being seriously ill and would have to be sent to the Ghetto hospital for a specific time, he would consider it rare luck, even for a short time, to get out of this hellish nightmare of Labor Camp Alexot, under the supervision of the S.S. sadist, Miya. The people who would come from the camp to the Ghetto would look, with envy, at the ghetto Jews who had the good fortune to find themselves in the circle of their family, sleeping in their own bed and not having the cruel camp leader around at every step.
After such inhumane and insufferable experiences in the Alexot camp, the desire to be quartered fell strongly, and recruiting for future work camps became more difficult than before.
After the establishment of the work camp in Alexot, recruiting for the Shantz labor camp began, where Jews themselves built the wooden barracks for the camp. In Shantz there was an S.S. man by the name of Bentzko who was expected to become camp leader, but fortunately, he was not a murderer like his colleague Miya in Alexot. In a certain way, this eased the recruiting for the Shantz camp. Aside from that, the Ghetto at that time still lived in fear of the anticipated Children's and Elders' Action, and many Jews accepted any difficulty of camp life with love, believing that in this way, maybe they would be able to save their children or elders.
Finally, on the 22nd of December 1943 the clear out of the old ghetto area was also decided. It was certain that to delay the clear out any further wouldn't be possible. Once again, many Jews allowed themselves to be quartered, because the prospect of finding a small corner in the remaining ghetto area where they could lay their head, was very slim.
On the 19th of December 1943, a few days before the clearing out of the old ghetto area, exactly 1000 Jews became quartered in the Shantz camp. About 500 remaining Jews were quartered a bit later.
In the Shantz work camp, they managed to set up a much easier regime than in Alexot. The camp leader, Bentzko, allowed himself a fling and because of that he didn't bother the Jews too much in their inner camp life. Therefore, for the ghetto Jew, to be quartered in Alexot or in Shantz, was not the same.
At this opportunity it is interesting to add that in the beginning of July 1944, a few days before the deportation from the Kovno Ghetto and the surrounding work camps to the German concentration camps, Bentzko ran away from the camp together with a Jewish woman with whom he developed a strong relationship. In the beginning of August 1944, after the liberation of Kovno by the Red army, he appeared in Kovno accompanied by his Jewish lover, and let's say, he hoped to be well liked by the Bolsheviks, due to his better treatment of the Jews in the Shantz work camp. But during the Soviet regime his sins in the camps for Soviet war prisoners were established, before his arrival at Shantz and, according to the judgment of the war tribunal, he was shot.
On the 22nd of December 1943, thousands of Jews from the old ghetto area, from the abovementioned first sector, were forced to leave their homes and live in the remaining portion of the Ghetto.
The clearing out of the ghetto area made a painful impression. Starting from the early morning hours until the hour when they were permitted to stay in the cleared-out quarter, thousands of Jews carried bags, furniture, and other housewares on their backs. Understandably, there was no talk about transportation.
One could see, for example, how one Jew carried something on his shoulders; a second Jew had whatever packed in a washtub or in a little basin wrapped with a rope, he carried it like that on the ground; a third carried something of his riches on a broken little wagon or a sled on the sandy little streets of the ghetto; a fourth, not being able to carry his little table or closet any more, gave up and abandoned it. The entire day was noisy like at a fair on the small and twisting little streets of the Ghetto. The noise was like during a big fire. Each one, however, was predisposed to saving his things and bringing them over to his new furrow.
After the clear out of the old ghetto area, that area of the Ghetto became much smaller. In just a few hundred little wooden houses and in a few larger housing blocks seven to eight thousand Jews had to squeeze together. Because of the large crowding in many houses, they were forced to set up two levels of beds and remove furniture and less necessary items from the homes to fit in more beds.
That's why these Jews hung on to remain in the Ghetto as long as possible, and at any cost. They just did not want to be quartered in a labor camp where the living conditions were worse than in the Ghetto, even in these worsened conditions.
At the same time, while the recruiting was taking place for the large labor camps in Alexot and in Shantz, small camps in the province, like for example in Keidan, Koshedar, Palemon, were also enlarged. Later, new smaller labor camps were founded in the Red Courtyard [Raudondvaris], Bobet, Kazlove-Rude, and at other points near Kovno.
After the Action of the children, elderly and sick, the largest portion of Jews from the labor camps in Alexot and in Keidan were transferred to Ponevezsh, where at that time a Jewish labor camp was founded near the building of that Aerodrome. As mentioned in a previous chapter, Jews were brought to the Ponevezsh labor camp from Latvia. Among them, a specific number were Kovno Ghetto Jews, who were dragged to Riga on all fours during the two relocation Actions, which took place in February and October 1942.
As we will later see, at the end of June 1944, just before the deportation and liquidation of the Ghetto, the majority of the Jewish work brigades which worked in the city, hastily became quartered, but, by that time, the work brigade didn't live in the Ghetto. These brigades were quartered in the Alexot or Shantz camps.
The camp leader, Goecke, also planned to quickly quarter the Jewish work brigades which were working in the Slabodka factories, to the labor camp in Petrashon and, in addition, also to quarter them in the Kovno suburb of Slabodka. However, he didn't succeed in carrying out these quarterings, because on the 8th of July, the deportations and liquidations began in the Ghetto.
In the year 1943, a distinctive breakthrough on the eastern front took place in favor of Soviet Russia, and the Germans were forced to retreat in stages after their catastrophic defeat in Stalingrad. Among other things, the question of wiping out the evidence of their past horrific acts in the occupied territories as fast as possible, became very real for the Nazis.
At the 9th Fort[c] the Hitlerites set up the largest mass murder site in Lithuania, where tens of thousands of dead were lying in the mass graves. In addition to Kovno Jews and foreign Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, and non-Jewish victims of the bloodthirsty Nazi regime were also murdered. However, the majority of the murdered were Jews.
At the end of the Summer, 1943, they started digging out the dead bodies from the mass graves at the 9th Fort and burning them on pyres. A brigade of 64 men were employed for this work. Aside from the few dozen Soviet Jewish prisoners of war, who were already working a long time at the Fort burying the people after the executions, almost all the other brigade workers were Jews from the Kovno Ghetto.
The majority of the Kovno Jews were youth who got themselves out of the Ghetto enroute to the forest to join the partisans in the Summer of 1943. On the way, they fell into the hands of the Lithuanian Police, who delivered them to the Gestapo. The Gestapo murderers kept a few dozen Jews at the 9th Fort, preparing the ongoing burning of the murdered. A certain number of Jews were recruited from the Ghetto itself from those work brigades near the Gestapo, which Camp Commander, Goecke, liquidated at that time as part of the quarterings from the Ghetto
According to the Gestapo plan, this pressing work had to be finished by Spring, 1944 at the latest. Therefore a policy was decided that the brigade had to burn about four to five hundred dead every day. The people from the brigade were divided into separate work groups, and each work group had to fulfill a specific task, like, for example, pulling the dead out of the graves, preparing the pyres, laying out the dead on the pyres, burning them, etc.
Not to mention their heinous work of digging up and burning the dead, these people knew very well that when they finished the work, the Gestapo would definitely kill them all so as not to leave any living witness who could tell the world what they saw and heard at the 9th Fort.
The more energetic people of the brigade therefore got the idea to search for a way to escape from the Fort. It is certainly unnecessary to mention that the Gestapo guarded the 9th Fort appropriately.
Among the prisoners of war was a former Soviet officer, who was an engineer by profession. He had already worked at the Fort for a while and was on the work brigade longer than others. He was oriented to the environment of the casement where they were held. With the collaboration of a few prisoners of war and a few youngsters from the Ghetto, he actively started exploring the possibility of escaping from the Fort.
After long observations and explorations about how possible this really was in the framework of the harsh regime at the Fort, this small group of people succeeded in learning that in the vicinity of their chamber there was a tunnel through which they could break through to the exit of the Fort. It was possible to get to this tunnel through an iron door which was near their chamber but was bolted from the inside of the tunnel.
Among the people of the brigade there was also a Jewish doctor, Dr. Portnoy, who for whatever sin was brought to the Fort, where he performed the duties of a doctor for the brigade.
One young Kovno man in the brigade, Pine Krakinovski,[d] was a locksmith and belonged to the leadership group. For a while, he simulated a disease so that the Jewish doctor would free him from going to work and let him remain in the chamber. With the help of a self-made drill made from a little pocket-knife which they found in the clothes of the dead, he stealthily succeeded in drilling a hole in the door, which led into the unknown tunnel.
When this important work was finished the leaders decided to make the last preparations to escape from the Fort. Because it was just before Christmas, 1943, it was decided to conduct the escape on the night of the 24th of December, when the guards of the Fort would certainly be inattentive and not as alert, due to the festival.
At this opportunity we must add that the Gestapo gave the brigade men plenty of food and, from time to time, distributed cigarettes, and schnapps. The Gestapo did it for two reasons: first, so the people should be physically able to endure and complete the expected work, and second, to paralyze them from any urge to escape the Fort. After finishing the work, the Gestapo already planned to kill them on the same pyre where they burned the bodies.
The leaders of the brigade would take pains to show the Gestapo supervisors that they were good workers, and they did everything so that between the brigade and the Nazi guards they had, as they say, good relations. And, from time to time, before going to sleep, the brigade men would organize parties with songs and dance, in which guards from the guard post of the Fort also joined.
Regarding the weekend, on Christmas Eve they ended work earlier than other days and the brigade also received schnapps, cigarettes, etc. as gifts for the holiday.
At night the leaders of the escape reported to all the others in the brigade that a possibility to escape from the Fort was prepared and that it would happen that night.
We can imagine the surprise of the people who for the first time found out about the whole plan…they were given the details when and how this would happen and immediately told that they should maintain strong discipline and punctuality and follow the instructions of the leader. There was no compassion for any objection as it would spoil and disturb the general escape plan for all of them.
On Christmas Eve a party took place in the brigade's chamber with songs, dances, etc. and a portion of the guards came to the ball. The men from the brigade already arranged for the schnapps that they received to be drunk by the guards…
After the party, the guards left and the gang went up to their bunks, as if, to sleep. When the light was turned off, all laid down on their beds, dressed, and held their breath, waiting for further orders. All felt that their fate would quickly be decided. Life or death?
A long time passed, and it became very quiet around their casemate. The leaders of the escape gave the order for groups to come out of the chamber quietly, holding their shoes in their hands, and closed the door that led to the tunnel.
With great care, all managed to get out to the door, slowly and without noise through this drilled-out hole in the unlocked door. The hall was lit up with portions of light which allowed them to get through the tunnel to the exit. After a longer search they came to the exit which was located just in front of a high walled fence encircling the entire Fort building.
The guards were in the vicinity that separated the exit from the tunnel up to the entry to the fence around the Fort. So that the dark silhouettes of the escapees would go unnoticed on the snow, a pair of men held a stretched bedsheet like a linen screen, and the men came out in groups until they got to the fence, hiding under the linen.
With the help of the rope ladders, which were pre-arranged and made from hand towels, all the people got to the fence safely. All managed to climb over the fence and they found themselves in the fields outside the Fort.
Then everyone dispersed in small groups or individually, and quickly managed to get out of the area of the Fort. A portion went to the Ghetto in the middle of the night, which was about 5-6 kilometers distance. They snuck inside the Ghetto itself, or into the cleared-out area of the old ghetto, from where they later somehow got themselves into the ghetto domain. The other men went in the direction of the forests around Kovno.
One can imagine the teeth-grinding at the Kovno Gestapo when they learned about the escape from the Fort. Sadly, the Gestapo had a disrupted Christmas. Wanting to avoid a devastating scandal for allowing such a terrible event from the higher Nazi spheres in Berlin, the Gestapo quickly organized a chase after the escapees. Many escapees were killed while being pursued or fell into in the hands of the Gestapo still alive.
A few dozen men, mainly those who managed to sneak into and hide out in the Ghetto, later went out to the partisans, with arms in their hands to take revenge against the Nazis. A portion of them got safely through the partisan period and eventually survived to liberation.
All those who were captured by the Gestapo were immediately shot. To recruit a new work brigade, the Gestapo collected Jews from the Ghetto and also from the labor camps, according to the instructions from the German Labor Office in the Ghetto. At that time, they told the ghetto population, the creation of a list of people for this same brigade took place with the collaboration of some higher Jewish ghetto functionaries who had influence over the activities of the German Labor Office in the Ghetto. The newly organized brigade had to finish the work that had been started in burning the excavated dead bodies. These men were now kept under very strong guard, and after the end of the work they were killed.
The ghetto Jews, understandably, took strong pleasure in the heroic story of the escape from the Fort. The fear was that the Ghetto would have repercussions but, luckily, it turned out to be unfounded. The Ghetto did not suffer because of this event.
The first few months of 1944 went by in a relatively calm atmosphere in the Ghetto. The Camp Commander, Goecke, during the New Year, went away for a few weeks leave. During the time of his leave, all assumed that no serious events would probably take place. And so, it was.
During this period, life in the Ghetto was characterized by the following, more or less, important happenings:
The worsening military situation for Nazi Germany and their collaborators on all the fronts, had a strong soothing effect on the ghetto population and strengthened the hope for better times. These included, the unheard-of retreat of the German forces from most of the occupied territories of Russia, and from Italy where the western allies had noticeable victories, the systematic bombardments of the German industry-centers, ports, large cities, etc. It then became very clear that if the Hitlerites got caught up for an additional day, it would be one day closer to their ruthless defeat. The main question was only: who among the ghetto Jews would survive to the moment of liberation?
General and political news at that time about the situation on the fronts, would reach the Ghetto from various sources: from the Lithuanian and German newspapers, which were purchased illegally at work in the city and afterwards smuggled into the Ghetto, and from those Jews who worked as radio mechanics and found appropriate opportunities at work to listen to foreign radio. Aside from that, for a certain time, the leftist elements in the Ghetto had a home-made radio unit and disseminated the news mainly from Moscow radio.
The most important news from various sources went from person to person and would be disseminated among the ghetto population with the speed of a blitz. Understandably, due to the topics, the interest in political and military events was great among the ghetto Jews. A few Jews in the Ghetto knew very well that their personal fate was, in great measure, dependent on the outcome of the great world events.
The economic situation in the Ghetto was not bad at that time. Aside from the official disbursements, which were much better than when the City Commissar ruled the Ghetto, the Camp Commander, Goecke, practically didn't disturb the Jews from bringing in food products which they would buy at work in the city.
True, some ghetto Jews lived according to what their material circumstances allowed. No one suffered from hunger at that time in the Ghetto.
At this opportunity it is necessary to note that more than a few people from the ghetto aristocracy, that means higher functionaries from the Jewish ghetto units and those connected to the German regime leaders, would from time to time even have parties in their home where our people would get drunk all night and allow themselves to go on a spree of other earthly pleasures.
This conduct from a specific portion of big-shots[e] stood as an offensive blow to life for most of the ghetto population, who carried the yoke of ghetto exile with great suffering.
In general, there was the impression that Goecke deliberately allowed the living standard to rise in the Ghetto to this level, to paralyze their preparedness to leave for the forest or for the city. These political ploys by Goecke, we must admit, were successful. Many ghetto Jews who had specific difficulties and who could create the opportunity to get out of the Ghetto, allowed themselves to maintain the good life in the Ghetto, and thought less about going out into the city.
In the balance we must therefore admit that in relation to the economic situation, the ghetto population didn't have any reason for strong complaint.
At the end of January 1944, Goecke ordered a registration to be conducted of the entire population in the Ghetto and in the labor camp, including children, non-working elders, sick, etc. Formally, this registration was related to the setting up of a specific file of the entire Jewish population which belonged to Concentration Camp Kauen. So, for the ghetto Jews, the Action that took place in the Shavl Ghetto on children, sick and elderly, was fresh in their memory and there was a suspicion that such an Action could soon await the Kovno Ghetto. Thus, the fear of registering their younger children was understandable. Also, the older people were afraid to add their real age at the registration.
The families which had little children or elders and sick members, worried terribly about this issue of registration.
During the first two months of 1944 a large quartering meeting took place in the Shantz work camp, and, in addition, smaller quartering meetings took place in the other work camps. The smaller quartering meetings dealt with a few topics: first, in general, it was necessary to enlarge the number of people in the camps. Second, a few people were liberated from the labor camps because of sickness or good connections with the relevant local Jewish ghetto rulers, and they now had to send new people in their place.
Quartering a person in a labor camp, especially in the Alexot Camp, was a special tragedy for a ghetto Jew. By the way, it was also one of the punishments for violations of the rules of the ghetto policies.
The motivation to break out of the labor camp was very big. Whoever had the smallest chance of freeing himself from the camp, would do so. The contrast between living standards in the Ghetto and in the labor camp was so glaring that a ghetto Jew couldn't be indifferent to the question about remaining in the Ghetto or being sent out to a labor camp.
At this specific time, an intensive movement spread among the ghetto youth - to get out to the forest to join the partisans. At that time in the Ghetto, an illegal organization was established which was involved with recruiting and transferring people to the partisan camps. The secret Partisan Committee was made up of representatives from the former social groupings in the Ghetto. Members of Elders Council and respected people from the Jewish Ghetto Police also belonged. This fact was very significant for the development of the partisan movement in the Ghetto.
At the beginning, the initiators of the partisan movement had to be careful not only because of the non-Jewish factors outside the Ghetto. They also had to be careful, partly because the Jewish administration, just at the last moment, had been phased down, and this was very significant. Moreover, this coordination of the various social groupings in the Ghetto, including the highest divisions of the Jewish ghetto administration, the Elders Council, and the people from Jewish Ghetto Police, suddenly opened entirely new and relatively wider perspectives for growth of this Jewish resistance movement against the Nazis.
While this specific movement widened its base inside the Ghetto, steps were taken by the leftist elements to set up tighter contact and collaboration between this organization in the Ghetto, and the leftist circle in the city. This was done with the calculation that everything that is related to this specific work should move along as always.
The collection of money in the Ghetto was carried out mainly from the well-situated brigade people. This would cover the expenses of purchasing arms for the departees going to the forest and getting trucks to send people over as close as possible to the partisan nests. This entire movement engaged large groups of young people and it was impressive that neither the Gestapo, nor the Camp Commander, Goecke, were informed about what was taking place in the Ghetto.
Meanwhile they managed to take advantage of the favorable circumstances, and in this sense, it was lively.
Since this all took place with the knowledge and support of the Jewish ghetto institutions, everything in the Ghetto stood at the disposition of this movement. The Jewish functionaries at the Ghetto Gate played tricks and twisted the head of the German guard, so when a Jewish group from the Ghetto would go out to the partisans with arms in their pockets, the guards would say - here goes a brigade to work in the city.
Or, similarly, as mentioned, when they would smuggle items like German military clothes, boots, and other necessary clothes out to the partisans from the Large Ghetto Workshops where Jews worked in various jobs for the German Werhmacht, it was done with the knowledge of the Jewish leaders from the Workshops.
To make it easier to get out of the Ghetto, they also managed to take advantage of the fact that at that time there was a bigger work brigade[f] which set an underground telephone and telegraph cable between Kovno and Mariampole. Since, at the beginning, the Jewish workers would travel daily from the Ghetto to their work and back, many of the youth who were prepared to leave for the partisans would join them on the Kovno-Mariampole highway, on their way to work, and from there, they would disappear. Later, this same brigade became quartered in Mariampole, where it remained until that time when the work was finished.
Because of all these things, that period could be counted as the golden era in the story of the partisan movement in the Kovno Ghetto.
The activities of these movements became more difficult when the mass murderer, Kittel, arrived at the Kovno Gestapo. This tragically famous liquidator of the Vilna and other ghettos was the Gestapo specialist for Jewish issues. He took active interest in ghetto life. Finally, the smashing blow for the partisan movement came from the Gestapo through the Children's Action and the arrest of the Jewish Ghetto Police at the end of March 1944.
It is necessary to mention the names of the most important ghetto Jews who were personally active in the secret organization to recruit partisans and send them off into the forest:
A. From the leftist circles:
B. from the Zionist stream:
In addition to the organized Partisan Movement there were in that period also individuals and smaller groups of Jews who went out of the Ghetto to get things organized with Christian acquaintances in the city or in the villages, who prepared special hideouts for them.
These ghetto Jews who had a place to hide somewhere, managed to get there. In this case, the majority had to sneak themselves out through the Ghetto Gate or disappeared during their work in the city, and with great care, found Christian acquaintances, as soon as possible. In the dark of night, so no one should notice them, G-d forbid, these lucky Jews arrived at their mark with the Christians and entered and quickly hid themselves in the prepared hiding places.
The number of such Jews who left the Ghetto was not big. For various reasons, many of them fell into the hands of the Gestapo who killed them. Others didn't even manage to get to the Christian acquaintance and were arrested on the way.
The following tragic accident happened to a larger group of Kovno Jews who hid out in a bunker near Yorborek:[l]
About 100 Jews hid in that same bunker which was in a forest. In Summer, 1944, when the Red Army was about to liberate Lithuania, many large battles took place around Yorborek.
One day, the Jews noticed two Latvians around the bunker who told them that they were deserters from the German army, and they were looking for a place where they could hide. Since the Latvians promised the Jews from the bunker that they would be helpful with their military practice, the Jews agreed to allow them into their hiding place.
After spending a certain time together with the Jews, the Latvians declared that they wanted to go get arms for the people in the bunker. The Jews did not foresee anything bad, and they let them leave the bunker. On the way, the Latvians fell into the hands of the Germans who took them for spies and wanted to shoot them. Wanting to save their own lives, the Latvians promised to show the Germans where a bunker of Jews was located.
In a day or two after the departure of the Latvians, the bunker was suddenly attacked by a large group of Germans. The assaulted Jews maintained heroic resistance, but almost all were killed in the battle. Only a few Jews who, by coincidence, were away in the woods at the moment of the attack, were not in the bunker. They survived the destruction and later survived to liberation.
Among the Jews killed were also small children who had been saved during the Children's Action in the Ghetto after great sacrifice.
At the same time, the Ghetto undertook an intensive movement to hand over the children to Christians. Anyone who had even a small possibility to do it, gave up the child to someone in the city or the village.
It was a more or less quiet period at that time in the Ghetto, so many Jews tried to talk themselves into the possibility that there would not be a Children's Action in the Kovno Ghetto, like in the Shavl Ghetto, so quite a few parents who had difficulties keeping their child in the city, brought them back to the Ghetto. The largest portion of these returning children were caught during the Children's Action at the end of March 1944.
When the United Partisan Committee became a prominent factor in the Ghetto and its authority grew stronger over the ghetto Jews, the time came to begin an energetic fight against Jewish stooges and other scoundrels.
The first concrete case happened one night at the end of 1943. While they were looting, some underworld characters from the Ghetto shot three Jews.
The members of the Jewish Ghetto Police, together with the secret Partisan Committee, decided this time to punish the guilty ones themselves. They did not want the Gestapo to research the issue and start asking the question: from where did the murderers get arms? Such a question by the Gestapo would cost the Partisan Movement dearly.
Through various means, they succeeded in finding the guilty ones and they enticed them into the hands of the Partisan Committee. After determining their guilt, a death sentence was pronounced which was immediately carried out in secret.
At the same time as the fight against the looting, a campaign began against the operatives who served in the Gestapo and who violated the ghetto interests in various ways.
Catching a Jew in their hands, the Gestapo murderers would very often give them the following alternatives: either they would be shot together with their family at the Fort, or they could provide the Gestapo with information about the Ghetto - and they would be freed.
No one should, God forbid, judge those Jews who wanted to save their own lives for the price of informing on other Jews. We must, however, also not forget the psychological condition of those unlucky Jews who, by accident, fell into the Gestapo hands and were suddenly placed in such a difficult situation.
On a separate note, Kittel very much liked using Jewish stooges. This way he would have double the sadistic enjoyment: on one hand a Jew dies, and on the other it goes through a second Jew.
When the provocative activity by these Jewish stooges would take on a dangerous character, there was no other way to get rid of them except to clear him out of the way.
There was also a case when a certain Jewish young man, Mony Levin, conducted a robbery together with Lithuanian Police and squealed about a well-organized hideout which was in the cleared-out old ghetto area. There were no victims, but the bunker was discovered and robbed by the Lithuanian Police. This same Jewish scoundrel was also shot, according to a verdict from the Secret Committee.
Truth be told, it must be said that such political murders were very few in the Ghetto. In total it only reached a count of about a dozen.
After the clear out of an operative, Kittel did not wait for his agent according to the prearranged time, and immediately came into the Ghetto to look for him. Understanding that the Jews got rid of him he would, through various threats, telling the Jewish ghetto administration that they should give up those who kill people in the Ghetto. With large difficulties, the Elders Council or the Jewish Police succeeded in getting themselves out of Kittel's demands.
Such energetic actions by the Secret Committee served as a warning to both the Jewish stooges and the simple scoundrels, that they should be cautious about their criminal activities.
The total number of Jews who tore themselves out of the Ghetto was relatively very small. Therefore, they had to think about how to organize certain security measures inside the Ghetto. The only practical way was the construction of special hiding places, bunkers which the Ghetto called malinas.
Just after the relocation Action to Estonia, as previously mentioned, a movement began to build hiding places in the Ghetto where they could hide themselves in moments of trouble. Those who had a place to hide might survive the Action. Therefore, it was understood that they should expect Actions any day in the Ghetto, especially a Children's Action. So, many Jews got caught up in the movement to build hideouts.
The building of a malina was however, not a simple and easy thing and was full of all types of difficulties. For your information, there were various types of malinas in the Ghetto and it is worthwhile expanding on this.
The majority of real, specially-built malinas were built in this way:
Under the floors of the house, or in another building (stable, storehouse, etc.) in the vicinity of the apartment, a big pit was dug out, which, with the help of thick wood, and other facilities had to be strengthened so it shouldn't fall in. The entrance to the malina was one of the most important problems in the construction of the bunker. First, the entrance would have to be well-camouflaged, so that no outside people could easily notice it. Second, it would have to be organized, so that one could get into the bunker as quickly as possible. The malinas had various masked entrances and inventions were very creative. So, for example, the entrance to the malina could be through an oven, through a cabinet, through a cellar, etc. There were malinas in which the entrance was through a bathroom, through a well, and the like.
A second important problem in the building of a malina was to arrange for air and water. Air would flow with the help of pipes, which were pulled from the bunker to an unnoticeable exit around the building where the malina was located.
In the larger malinas they would dig out a pit until they would find a layer of water inside the malina. Otherwise, they would have to prepare water in larger utensils, barrels, etc.
In the malinas they would also prepare food products for a longer time. So that the food shouldn't become rotten, they would have to prepare preserved and dried food products, like bread-zwieback, preserves, and smoked meat, and fish, etc.
The malinas would possess various interior facilities like, for example, where to sit, sleep, have the natural needs, and the like. To provide hidden light in the malina, they would string up the bunker with an electric current and bring in light. They would also use the electric current to cook.
The malinas would possess radios, to maintain contact with the outside world.
Building a malina would take a long time and would, by the way, cost a lot of money. Therefore, only those ghetto Jews who could afford it could build well-organized malinas.
The first and most important work in the building of a malina the digging of the hole- mostly had to take place at night so that they could carry out the excavated earth without being disturbed and spread it out in the garden around the house.
In the Ghetto at that time, Jews didn't have to be so careful about building a malina because the Jewish Police and the Jewish ghetto institutions unofficially supported the building of the bunkers. The situation in the Ghetto changed after the Childrens' Action and the liquidation of the Jewish Ghetto Police. In its place, the Gestapo set up the Service Order where more than a few Gestapo agents were allowed in.
In building a malina they had to be very careful of the dozens of S.S. men from the Camp Commandant. They would have to be especially careful of the Camp Commandant, S.S. Sergeant Major Pilgram, a big hooligan, who would wander around every corner of the Ghetto, day, and night.
Specially built malinas would be built in the Ghetto with a few families together. This would happen for two reasons: first, during the entire work of digging the hole, etc., they would have to use mainly their own people, so that fewer outsiders would know the details of the malina. Second, it was a huge financial expense.
In addition to the bunkers of private people there were also a certain number of communal malinas in the Ghetto, built by social groupings. Like for example, the leftists had their malinas, the Zionists- theirs, etc.
In those houses where it wasn't possible to build any malina underground, they would make other hideouts: for example, they would build a double wall of planks or of bricks and decorate it like all the other walls in the room. Through a hidden entrance they would go into the middle space between the natural and the built walls. In such a hiding place they would be able to hide in an emergency.
Ghetto Jews without resources, who could not afford to build a special malina, would seek any kind of hiding place in their houses, for example, in the attic, in the cellar, in a wood storehouse, etc., to have a place where they could hide until the rage had passed.
As we will see later in the days of the Action on Children, Elders and Sick, the Gestapo undertook a step to discover the malinas. This work was conducted by the Gestapo-murderer, Kittel, who already had a lot of experience at this job from liquidating the Vilna Ghetto, where there were also many bunkers. They were successful at uncovering many malinas and blowing them up.
Quite a few malinas remained undiscovered. In place of the destroyed bunkers Jews built other hiding places.
At the beginning of July 1944, when the deportation and liquidation of the Ghetto was ordered, and Jews were determined not to allow themselves, under any circumstances, to be deported, most of the Jews hid in malinas, and other hiding places.
The Gestapo, which conducted the deportations with the help of special bombing commandos and sniffing dogs, spread out over all the houses in the Ghetto to find the malinas and hiding places. Since every covered space was bombed with hand grenades, all the bunkers were discovered.
In the last days of the deportation, the Gestapo set fire to the Ghetto and all the houses and the yet-to be-discovered malinas were burned, along with many Jews who were hiding in them.
From all the ghetto malinas only two remained undestroyed: one of these malinas was built very deep under a cellar in one of the tower housing blocks. When the block was blown up with dynamite, the explosion didn't reach the malina. In this malina a few dozen Jews were saved and lived to liberation. The second, a smaller malina, remained whole because it was not built under a house like most of the ghetto malinas, but in a garden. Also, this malina remained undiscovered and in it 15 people were saved. Not a trace remained of all the other malinas in the Ghetto.[m]
At that time a few dozen German Kapos were sent into the Ghetto. Who they were, and what kind of function they had in the Ghetto was at first unknown. Various rumors circulated about them.
After a while it was clarified that these German Kapos were former German criminals. A few of them were also political criminals. They came to the Kovno Ghetto from other concentration camps where they conducted various duties supervising and guarding camp prisoners.
Already from their external appearance it was noticed that they were skilled in their duties and, as it turns out, had a lot of experience in this area.
Jewish work brigades which worked in the city had Jewish brigade leaders (Brigadiers) appointed by the Labor Office. Now, Goecke ordered a German Kapo to oversee everything that happened in every larger brigade.
As known, most of the Jews took advantage of their work in the city to engage in opportunities to purchase food products or stay in contact with Christian acquaintances. By sending the German Kapos into the Jewish work brigades the fear was understood that the Jews would no longer be able to do business on the brigade or meet with Christians. Right from the beginning, the Kapos started showing what they can do, and even started beating the Jews at work.
However, the Jews, very quickly managed with these guys. They would stuff their mouths with bacon, eggs, and other necessary items. Since they were transitory youths, they understood that if they kept good relations with the Jews, they would have it better than if they would strictly follow the law. Jews later started feeling as undisturbed as before the arrival of the Kapos in the brigade.
One of the German Kapos got along so well with the Jews that when the ghetto deportations took place, they ran away from the camp command and hid out until the arrival of the Russians.
When the Soviets freed Kovno, these freed German Kapos went out on the streets and felt like real kinsmen… however, they were later arrested by the regime, and they disappeared from the Kovno horizon.
The situation in the Ghetto during the first few months of 1944 was relatively calm for ghetto life and there were no extraordinary happenings. But from time to time there were quite a few rumors which caused much confusion among the ghetto population.
Most of the rumors described the fact that a larger group of Jews had to be transported out of the Ghetto. These rumors were mainly started by Christians in the city. How these Christians received this information was difficult to ascertain. In any case, the Ghetto was strongly unnerved because of these tense rumors.
Wanting to find an authentic clarification of all the tense talk, the ghetto Jews, who had access to various higher German ghetto functionaries, had a chat with them about this topic. We must say that these Germans would always deny that something bad was going to happen in the Ghetto. If they were, or were not, aware of this question, or if they were telling the truth or not, understandably, it was difficult to discern.
There were a few times in the Ghetto when various German commissions and inspections would hold consultations about ghetto issues together with Camp Commander, Goecke. Also, at this moment, the Ghetto would become strongly unsettled and would look to ascertain what they said and what was decided during the consultation. If anyone got even a little piece of news, it would immediately be spread among all the ghetto Jews.
In the beginning of March 1943, weighty rumors started to circulate in the Ghetto that soon there would be transports of a few thousand Jews from the Ghetto to somewhere. They even said that this would take place around the 15th of March.
When the rumors started to spread from person to person, it caused Chairman Elkes of the Elders Council to visit the Camp Commander, Goecke, to find out something about this issue. It was March 14, 1944.
Goecke categorically denied these rumors. He shared that he believed such rumors had provocative intent and were coming from the Lithuanians. They were trying to create panic among the Jews so that the Jews should start running into the city and they, the Lithuanians, would meantime take the opportunity to pressure the Jews for money and other valuables.
To finally calm Dr. Elkes, he told him that if something were really supposed to happen in the Ghetto on March 15, he, the Camp Commander, should already have had notice on the 14th of March meaning, only one day in advance.
In any case, Goecke's clarification gave the impression that in the run up to the coming days nothing bad would happen in the Ghetto.
Slowly the panic started to pass, and the Jews started to talk themselves into the idea that maybe Goecke was actually right; that nothing was going to happen in the Ghetto. Again, the Ghetto calmed down and ghetto life went back on its normal path.
But, this time, unfortunately, for only a very short time.
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