It was already mentioned in the Prologue to the book that the goal of this Monograph is to describe the activities of the Jewish institutions in the Kovno Ghetto, and to finally clarify the kind of influence the Jewish institutions had on the formation of the inner life of the Ghetto. However, it is not possible to create an exact description of life in the Ghetto, which touches on the work of the Jewish administration.
As is known, the role of Jewish autonomy in the ghettos during Nazi sovereignty has been discussed very passionately. Most of these rebukes were of a negative character, and they very sharply condemned the handling of the Jewish population by the Jewish Councils, super-Judas, and other Jewish ghetto governors.
To our shame we must admit that in those reproaches there was much truth. Alas, many Jews who were standing at the head of the ghetto settlements did not uphold humane Jewish practice. Some ghetto witnesses recounted the shameful events of their morally corrupt leaders.
However, the responsibility for historical truth demands that we differentiate between the efforts by Jews to somehow control their lifelines, so to speak, even in the inhumane ghetto conditions, and the criminal handling by the despicable Jews for whom the Ghetto was an arena to reveal their personal ambitions and power-lust. That's why we should not approach this painful problem too lightly from our nightmarish ghetto reality.
At this opportunity the editor wishes to underscore that with this monographic work that he is not, God forbid, trying to respond to the very serious, main question. The question about whether Jews, under the Hitler occupation, should, or should not have engaged with the Nazis in matters related to the life interests of the Jewish population. Since this was not a localized issue of the Kovno Ghetto alone, but a general Jewish question, it is understandable that such a judgment can only be carried out by recognized Jewish social authorities.
The editor would be very pleased if this monograph, aside from its actual task of describing of the Kovno Jewish ghetto institutions, would indirectly also serve as a stimulus for an objective critical review of the Jewish ghetto administration in the horrible Hitler years.
The Elder's Council
|- Establishment of the Jewish Committee in the first weeks of the occupation and its further development. - Some main elements about the activity of the Elders Council as the highest representatives of the ghetto settlement. - About the Jewish ghetto administration in general and the politics of the Elders Council, specifically. - Leading persons of the Elders Council.
A few weeks after the Nazi occupation, when the mass-excesses against the Kovno Jewish population had partially subsided, the Gestapo decided to organize a Jewish committee in Kovno with which the occupation regime would be in contact on issues relating to the Jewish population.
At first, the Gestapo approached the Kovno Rabbi, Shapiro, wanting to designate him to be the representative of Jewish Kovno. He refused giving the reason that he is old and sick. At this opportunity he gave the names of a few Jewish community leaders, like Advocate, I. Goldberg, Advocate L. Garfunkel, Dr. Yefis Rabinowitz, and others, who the regime could contact regarding Jewish issues.
On the 4th of July 1941 the aforementioned three persons, as well as Rabbi Snieg and Rabbi Shmukler were also brought to the Gestapo where the Chief of the Gestapo, S.A. Colonel Jaeger and a certain General Paul had the following chat:[a]
Since all Jews are Communists the Nazis claimed therefore, the Lithuanians cannot live together with the Jews, so the Jews will have to go over to live in a ghetto. As for the ghetto area, the suburb of Slabodka was the prospective site. If the Jewish representatives were prepared to help organize the relocation into the Ghetto, the regime, on their part, was prepared to give all of Slabodka to the Jews for the ghetto area and, if necessary, also the smaller villages near Slabodka. They were given one month's time to transfer the Jews to the Ghetto.
The German regime, the Gestapo higher-ups continued, is against the outbreak of a pogrom on the Jewish population by the Lithuanians. The only effective means to stop this outbreak of the Lithuanian popular wrath is for the Jews to go over to live in the Ghetto. Then the regime hopes that the Jews in the Ghetto will be able to live in tranquility. By the way, if the Jews demonstrate good will the regime is prepared to immediately free the arrested Jewish women and children who were located at the 9th Fort.[b]
Hearing such talk by the Gestapo leaders, the Jewish representatives relayed the following wishes:
The Gestapo higher-ups responded that the Lithuanian magistrate would have the final decision about whether to designate the ghetto area to be in Slabodka or in the Old City. Regarding the lengthening of the time frame for the relocation, they would take it into account, if there really would be a need. The Gestapo men reiterated that the main thing is that the Jews by their actions demonstrate that they are helping the regime carry out its objectives.
On the same day after this meeting, a broader social meeting took place in the house of Rabbi Shapira. Aside from the aforementioned people who were at the Gestapo meeting, a long list of other people, like Dr. Grigory Wolf, Kopelman, Engineer Roginski, Gemelitzski, Dr. Berman, Arloik, Ch. Kagan, Shtreichman, and others also took part. This consultation announced that we should ensure that the regime not set the ghetto area in Slabodka but rather in the Old City. And in addition, they should intervene for a longer time frame for the relocation to the Ghetto.
No real resolution came from the Jewish stubbornness to force this issue from the official German and Lithuanian authorities. Furthermore, the Kovno Lithuanian magistrate was disposed to be more religious than the Pope and the Lithuanians did everything not to fulfill the Jewish requests.
In the first half of July 1941, the newly established Jewish Committee quartered themselves in one of the rooms of the Kovno Council Building. From that time on, there started to be frequent activities on the Jewish streets.
As was previously mentioned about this issue[c] at that time, one of the most important jobs of the Jewish Committee was to help locate temporary shelter for those Jews who, after the outbreak of war, tried to evacuate, but were arrested along the way and turned back to Kovno, where they found their homes taken over by Christians. The Committee would take pains to regulate these issues with the help of the Lithuanian offices which the magistrate delegated to the Committee. Secondly, and this was the main point, the Jewish Committee had to organize the relocation into the Ghetto.
After lengthy dealings with the regime, they forced the size of the ghetto area. It became clear on which Slabodka streets Jews were to live. The Jewish Committee worked out a plan, according to which the relocation would take place. Jews from the suburbs and from the newer city quarters were to be relocated first, and lastly, came the turn of the Old City Jews.
Organizing the relocation was not only about a rational distribution of available living space in the ghetto area, but another serious problem was the issue of means of transportation. Wagon drivers had their horses taken away, and to get a Christian wagoneer was very difficult for many Jews. And additionally, during those days, Jews themselves had to rapidly build a barbed wire fence around the ghetto quarter, build the hanging bridge on Paneriu Street, dig a tunnel on Jurborker Street, etc. It already became clear why in those first days of the existence of the Jewish Committee, it was bogged down with a lot of work.
To take care of all their issues, the Committee had to put together quite an operation. So, it created special committees which took care of questions about accommodation, transportation, legal help, social support, etc. These committees were the origin of the later standing Jewish ghetto institutions of the Elders Council.
The Jewish Committee didn't remain in the building of the Rathaus very long. Already in the second half of July they transferred their quarters to a local former Elementary School on Daukshos (Yatkever) Street number 24.
At the end of July, the relocation into the Ghetto was moving forward at full speed. Large portions of the Jewish population, mainly those with material means, the well-to-do, as was mentioned, had the means to acquire an apartment for themselves in the Ghetto and thereafter get an apartment from the Housing Office of the Committee. Jews without means did not have any other option but to wait for a shelter designated by the Jewish Housing Office. Because of the hundreds of interested people who besieged the Committee daily, they mainly had to deal with apartment issues. All other matters for the Jewish population were then moved to the shadows because some Jews, before everyone else, wanted to ensure themselves a little corner in the Ghetto to lay their head and a bit of their baggage.
At the end of July, the Jewish Committee selected a Jewish Elders Committee from among its members and announce this to the regime. As can be imagined, there were no volunteers for such a position because none of the committee members had any motivation to take upon himself such a difficult and responsible duty. After a long committee meeting, which was filled with tragic and dramatic moments, Dr. Elchanan Elkes[d] agreed to take over this office, according to the will of all the participants.
At the beginning of August 1941, when the largest portion of the Jewish population moved into the Ghetto, the Jewish Committee transferred itself to the Ghetto. At first it had its quarters on Krisciukaicio Street 107, where there was also one of the largest reserves of community buildings for the ghetto poor. In a few weeks it moved across to Varniu Street 49, where it remained until the end of 1943. The S.D. workshops which were run by the Gestapo were set up in this building in the city. The Jewish representatives then went over to Margiu Street 32, where it remained until the arrest and liquidation of the Elders Council.
During the 2.5 months[e] which included the locking up of the Ghetto for the Big Action, the Jewish Committee succeeded in creating the most important ghetto institutions: the Jewish Ghetto Police, the Jewish Labor Office, the Offices for Social Care, Workshops, Housing, etc.
Indeed, the Jewish Committee, which later was officially called the Elders Council, was not able to complain or even partially mitigate the extermination Action, which at that time passed through like a storm over the Ghetto and swallowed up about 13-14 thousand Jewish victims. The occupation regime, particularly the Gestapo, which conducted the Jewish extermination, would carry out its Actions according to their own plan. The Elders Council, as well as the entire ghetto population, were powerless to change or do anything about it.
Life in the Ghetto became normalized in stages after the Big Action. That's when the Elders Council activated its activities. At that time, work was more or less, stabilized at the Jewish ghetto institutions and the Large Ghetto Workshops were also set up. As we saw, these played an important role in the life of the ghetto population.
The growing activity of the Elders Council aligned with the partial normalization of the general situation in the Ghetto. This is the period which started at the beginning of Spring, 1942 and ended at the end of Summer, 1943, when the Ghetto was converted into a concentration camp. There are many topics to describe of what happened during this same half year, but it is opportune to mention that no extermination Actions took place in the Ghetto. At this same time came a period of relative improvement of economic well-being.
In the Summer, 1942, the City Commissar reduced the status of the Elders Council to four persons. However, unofficially, from time to time, other persons would take part in the Elders Council meetings, specifically those who, from the start, belonged to the Elders Council, or who later played a visible role in the activity of the illegal social groupings.
Aside from the forced labor issues which were overseen by the German Work Office in the Ghetto,[f] the Elders Council would receive directives for their work from the City Commissar, mainly through their representatives on ghetto issues. Members of the Elders Council would be in the City Commissariat almost daily, taking care of various ghetto matters. Very often, the Nazi ghetto bosses would also come personally to the Elders Council. These souls would come to the Ghetto on purpose as often as possible because they knew very well that they would not return home with empty hands. The Elders Council would systematically give them fat gifts.
As representatives for ghetto issues of the City Commissariat there were: the Lithuanian, Kaminskas, the hero of the Intellectuals Action and other decrees right after locking up the Ghetto. After Lithuania was liberated, he, like many other Lithuanian Jew murderers, hooked himself up in the camps for displaced persons in Germany.
Jordan from the beginning of Autumn 1941 until before Spring 1942. He was a fearsome Jew murderer and one of the head leaders of the extermination Action in the first months of the Ghetto's existence. Previously, he was removed from his post and sent to the Soviet front where he was killed in August 1942 near Reshev for carrying out excesses by stealing valuable items for himself from robbed Jewish possessions.
Videman a bitter Nazi, he took up this post during the months March-May 1942
Von Kepen a young S.A. man from the German aristocracy. Was in this office during the summer months of 1942 and managed to create quite a bit of problems for the Ghetto.
Miller from Autumn, 1942 to Autumn, 1943. Really crazy. During his strange speech and actions, the ghetto Jews considered him out of his mind. In general, however, he was comparatively more moderate than his predecessors.
Every month, the Elders Council would send the City Commissariat detailed reports about the activity of the most important ghetto institutions. In addition, the Jewish Labor Office[g] had to submit exact reports to the City Commissariat every 10 days about the total number of Jewish workdays according to the individual workplaces.
There were a few shocks which took place in the Ghetto during this period. For example, the two relocation Actions to Riga (February and October 1942), the Mek incident, the arrest of the Elders Council (November 1942), the Stalingrad Action (February 1943) etc. The Elders Council, as the highest representative in the ghetto collective, had to withstand many difficult days and nights. Every ghetto commotion needed to be calmed all over again so that the Elders Council could continue with its work as before.
A fundamental change for the worse in the activity of the Elders Council came at the end of Summer, 1943 when the Ghetto was converted into a concentration camp and went over to the authority of the S.S. Lt. Colonel, Goecke.[h]
Taking over the leadership of the ghetto administration, Goecke transferred the most important functions of the Elders Council and their institutions to the camp management which was trained by the Camp Commander. From that moment, the decline of the Elders Council and its institutions began.
As previously mentioned, after the arrest of the Elders Council and its liquidation at the beginning of April 1944, the only person connecting the ghetto collective and the Camp Commander on the part of Goecke, became the appointed Dr. Elkes, who, as the all-knowing came out to represent the Jewish community in the last couple of months of the dying Ghetto.
Imagine a separate chapter with attempts by certain persons and social associations in the Ghetto to exercise influence on the activity of the Elders Council. In the first tier we must mention each individually: Caspi-Serebrovitz and Liptzer, about whom we should take the opportunity to give more details.[i]
In Spring, 1942 Matzok[j] was established, in which there were resentful representatives from the Zionist streams. One of the tasks of Matzok was to influence the activities of the Elders Council and their institutions. Matzok regularly participated in the most important decisions and orders of the Elders Council and its institutions. It was truly not difficult to achieve it because most of the members of the Elders Council belonged to the Zionist groups.
Also in the Kazernirungs Commission, one of the most important institutions of the Elders Council, we know that there were representatives from among the social directors in the ghetto who were resentful.
At the end of 1943 and beginning of 1944, a movement caught on with the youth groups in the Ghetto, to get themselves out to the partisans in the forest. Also, the Partisan Committee strongly attempted to use the work of the Elders Council and its institutions.
In the authority of the Elders Council there were the following ghetto offices: 1) Jewish Ghetto Police, 2) Labor Office, 3) Workshop Office, 4) Social Care Office, 5) Housing Office, 6) Health Office, 7) Social Office, 8) Statistics Office, 9) Education Office, 10) Ghetto Court[k], 11) Ghetto Firefighters. For a specific time, the Elders Council also led[l] the large Ghetto Workshops which were later transferred to the direct authority of the City Commissariat and, finally, to the camp management by the Camp Command.
The Elders Council would appoint a leader as head of a few offices. The general guidelines for the work of the ghetto offices would be established by the Elders Council. The leaders of the institutions, from time to time, had to give an activity report to the Elders Council so it was always oriented about what was going on in the Offices.
The Elders Council would publish general laws and orders from the regime to the ghetto population through public acquaintances in German, but mostly in Yiddish. Some publications from the Elders Council or from a ghetto office would not only be read carefully, but also strongly commented upon, wanting to read between the lines about what was often not said…
Confirmations and denouncements of the appointees to the ghetto institutions were also heard, regarding the competence of the Elders Council. At first, the ghetto operation was active with a larger number of employees and workers. When, over time, the demand for Jewish work forces was increased by the regime, the Elders Council was forced to reduce the number of associates from the employees.
According to other ghetto Jews, since the employees of the Magistrate, as the Jews of the ghetto administration called it, enjoyed an entire list of privileges, it is understandable why any reductions would create a panic among the employees. Those who were lined up to be removed from their posts, would search in every possible way to apply pressure from the Jewish influencers of the Ghetto, to remain working in the ghetto operation. Those reduced colleagues would be transported to work in the city work places or in a ghetto workshop.
The employees would receive no rewards for their work. Like all working ghetto Jews, they would receive a ration of a couple of kilograms of bread per week, etc., aside from the normal ghetto distribution. However, the higher office workers would receive larger rations of food products and other items from the resources which were found in the authority of the ghetto offices.
Aside from this, the colleagues of the institutions had a comparatively easier time than most ghetto Jews, who took on the hard burden of forced labor. So, the Jews doing hard labor looked at the administrative employees like parasitic elements. This same antagonism, which would often take on sharp expressive forms, was reduced with the downfall of the Elders Council and their institutions, starting at the end of 1943.
To receive a somewhat objectively critical picture about the activities of the Elders Council and its institutions, it would be appropriate at this time to bring forth the general arguments for and against the existence of the Jewish ghetto administration.
As previously mentioned in the introduction to the Monograph, this work does not pretend to give an exhaustive answer to the complex problem which is connected to the Jewish Ghetto autonomy. The raising of both types of arguments is only intended to touch upon this responsible theme, as much as possible.
The comparative complaints from the supporters of a Jewish ghetto administration are summarized as follows: witnesses reported that the defenseless Jews absolutely could not hope for help from the neighboring Christian world during the horrific murders by the Lithuanian population in the first chaotic days, even before the Nazis managed to warm their feet in occupied Lithuania. Jews were likened to an animal which fell into a trap, from where there was no way to tear himself out. In such a case, Jewish interests dictated accepting the requirement by the occupation powers to create Jewish representation with which it could come in contact about Jewish issues.
By the way, we should not forget that at that time no one could even vaguely imagine the thought that the Hitlerite murderers had created a devilish plan to annihilate the Jewish population in the occupied areas. Logically thinking, it was then actually desirable not to be locked out of the possibility of affirming contact with the Nazi rulers in whose hands lay the fate of the Jewish prisoners.
By having Jewish representation, they hoped to be updated and informed about understanding the decrees. They believed that thanks to Jewish advocacy they succeeded in canceling this or that decree, and if not entirely, at least lightening it somewhat.
If, in principle, we rejected this collaboration with the Nazis, they would be forced to organize Jewish life by themselves. They then thought that such a situation would surely increase the murders and suffering of the Jewish population, because then there would not be any possibility to intervene.
Going on these basic assumptions at that time, there was no other way out but to take advantage of the one and only chance to save as many people as they could. The only hope at that time was securing their aspiration of winning as much time as possible, and that stimulated the search for how to adapt to their tragic fate.
They purposefully did not want to give the evil ones any opportunity to bad mouth and pitch the Jews as if they were parasites and useless people, an argument which was then used to bring fatal results for the entire Jewish collective. Taking that into account, there was no other choice but to request that the Jews work on various forced heavy labor jobs, no matter how costly it should be for a Jew to toil in drudgery. They also had to require that he carry out the regime's order to give up his possessions. They had to make it clear for the people that in all these persecutions and insults about us as Jews and as a people, no one should lose their patience, because reacting against the scoundrels, even if they actually deserved it, would only serve as provocation for new murderous evil acts.
There was no other way but to agree to build a Jewish organization which should, on the one hand, be a mediation authority between the regime and the Jewish population, and on the other hand, help organize the public needs of the ghetto Jews. They had to cooperate as much as possible on all these issues of life and death.
Speaking objectively, of all the preventable and unpreventable defects of the Jewish ghetto administration, they were more helpful for the general Jewish public than it would have been with the best of the Nazi ghetto higher-ups. Somehow, the Jewish ghetto administration always remembered that it represented the Jewish public, and it had to deal in their interests. Confirmation of this can be found in the following facts:
First, the Jewish ghetto representatives tried, in various ways, to personally interest the Nazi ghetto governors through hefty bribes, gifts, etc., in the long-term existence of the ghetto settlement. This helped a lot for those upon whom the existence of the ghetto was dependent and perhaps defended our aspirations not to liquidate the ghetto collective, contrary to their Nazi principles.
Second, the intention to establish ghetto institutions was a social-positive: to ensure fairness in equalizing the heavy loads of ghetto slavery and bringing some order to the areas of forced labor, food products, workshops, health, housing questions, social help, etc.
Third, when it was time for groups of youth to escape with arms in their hands to the forest, to get to the partisans to fight the Nazi enemy, or when in the Ghetto they started building hideouts where they could hide themselves in a moment of distress the ghetto administration, especially the Ghetto Police unofficially helped these life-saving ghetto movements.
Fourth, the smuggling of dozens of Jewish children out of the Ghetto, to give them away to Christian families, was possible thanks to the help of the Jewish ghetto organization, mainly help from the Jewish functionaries at the Ghetto Gate.
Fifth, according to their possibilities, the Jewish administration took care of the intellectuals, for whom it was much more difficult than for the general public to get accustomed to the inhumane ghetto conditions.
Sixth, it is an unquestionable fact, that the politics conducted by the Jewish ghetto representatives played a large role in the Kovno ghetto settlement. They were one of the last Mohicans of the ghettos in the East, existing for three years and continuing up until the liberation of Lithuania. On the day of the ghetto liquidation, more than 10,000 Jewish souls remained alive. If the Soviet offensive, which started on the 22 of June 1944 near Vitebsk, would have continued its tempo all the way from the start until Kovno, a larger portion of the ghetto collective and the surrounding labor camps would have, without a doubt, survived to liberation. The Nazis would never have managed to deport the Jews to Germany, which was indeed the case, when they had the Ghetto under their authority for a few extra weeks.
And above all, we must establish the fact that after Dachau, where the men were taken, and after Stutthof, where the women were located, a few thousand Kovno Jewish men and women remained alive. This was an absolute gain in the final political account of Jewish ghetto leadership.
The opponents of a Jewish ghetto organization put forth the following motives against this thesis:
First, Jews should in no way have ever dared work together with the most bitter murderers of the Jewish people, because a few collaborations with the Nazis (no matter how good and honest the Jewish intentions were) were in essence against Jewish life-interests. Already from their first bestial acts toward the Jewish population, before the establishment of the Ghetto, as well as in the first months of the Ghetto's existence, it was clear to see that, sooner or later, the evildoers would annihilate us all, and every illusion to this detail was unfounded. So why would a ghetto Jew dare take upon himself such a violation and stain of shame, like laying his hand out to confirm the fate of another ghetto Jew? Every Jew, who wore the same yellow patch as another Jew, always had to remember that no matter how miserable it was, his direct or indirect participation in Hitler's murders against the Jews was his fault. This is not in comparison to the greater one, like the Nazi murders, because they, the evil doers, are allowed to do it, and Jews are absolutely not.
Second, the agreement by Jews to create a Jewish ghetto organization, under the protection of the Nazis, in a certain sense helped the mass murderers reach a state that Jews themselves should do a portion of their annihilation work. Examples were, chasing the people to forced labor, relocating Jews from the Ghetto to the labor camps where the regime and the living conditions were much harder than in the Ghetto itself. In addition, aside from the fact that the Jewish ghetto administration was itself actively involved in the relocation Actions outside the borders of Lithuania, like, for example, toward Riga and specifically to Estonia, where the relocated people were placed in conditions of destruction and extermination. The contribution of the Jewish ghetto governors became clear to all of them seeing what Jews had to withstand during the horrible Hitler years.
Third, a few honest and objective-thinking ghetto people would have to recognize that all the community leaders of the Jewish ghetto power holders were really nothing more than a means to protect their own skin and create for themselves a privileged and lighter living situation on the backs of their other brothers. The so -called argument about gaining time for the community, for these specific elements, meant first, to protect themselves and their families. During various larger and smaller ghetto decrees, the Jewish ghetto managers, before anything else, attempted to get themselves out of the general troubles.
Fourth, during these three years of ghetto existence, the responsible people of the Jewish ghetto administration undertook no noticeable, serious steps to curb the protectionism, corruption, and other anti-social and immoral acts by specific office people of the ghetto institutions. The Elders Council, as the highest representative of the ghetto settlement, allowed to go undisturbed the rampage by the various Arnshtam's (Ghetto Police), Lurie's, Margolis' (Labor Office), and other ghetto tyrants, who were at the top of the ghetto population. This created a situation where the simple, helpless ghetto Jews had to withstand double pressure: both by the Nazi murderers, as well as, by the Jewish ghetto-government.
Fifth, all the better and easier workplaces in the city and in the Ghetto were controlled by the protected elements. Because of this, the simple-Jew, was actively worked to death at the Aerodrome and in the heavy city brigades, where extreme heavy labor would batter the Jews and, aside from this, they did not have any possibility to purchase even a small bit of food products.
Sixth, the Kazernirungs Commission, which, in a justified way, ordered the quartering from the ghetto settlement, exclusively sent those people to the labor camps who didn't have access to any of the Jewish ghetto rulers who could take on their grievance.
Seventh, the Elders Council allowed all the ring leaders of the social groupings to protect their activities on the backs of the ghetto community. Therefore, it was an entirely normal phenomenon in ghetto life that a young and healthy person from whichever party would have an easier workplace, and an older and weaker, simple-Jew would be torn apart by punitive work.
Eighth, although the Elders Council and its institutions could not be blamed for co-responsibility in the annihilation Actions, the blame remains on the conscience of certain leading persons from the Jewish ghetto administration for the following:
A) Just on the eve of the test Action which took place in September 1941, the Elders Council agreed to distribute 5000 Jordan-certificates among the ghetto population, when in the Ghetto there were then close to 30,000 Jewish souls. There was no doubt that the owner of a Jordan certificate would, in this way or another, be more privileged than others who did not get a certificate. And truly it was just like that: both during the test Action, and also during the Action in the Small Ghetto in October 1941, the Jordan certificates were life certificates in the literal sense of the word. The Elders Council should have handled the question with more seriousness and responsibility about whether or not to accept the Jordan certificates.
B) Without a doubt, on the eve before the Big Action, the Elders Council was in the picture, based on a talk with the murderer, Rauca, the Gestapo in charge of Jewish issues. They knew that the Ghetto was on the eve of an Action, but it was not openly announced to the ghetto population in a way that they could understand the upcoming danger. On the contrary, their announcement to the ghetto population about the order from the powers to appear at Democracy Square, did not indicate the purpose of the assembly. It contributed to the assembly of all the 26,000 ghetto Jews at the selection place, from which over 10,000 men, women and children were sent away for annihilation. The sin of the Elders Council cannot even be minimized by a hair because it received approval by Rabbi Shapira to publish the order in the version in which it was announced.
C) Many ghetto Jews started to hide themselves at the time of the relocation Action to Estonia in October 1943, when at lunch time in the Ghetto it became clear that the assembled people were not being deported to the work camp Ezheretshai, near Kovno, as was at first promised by Goecke, but rather to somewhere else. So, the Kazernirung Committee of the Elders Council started putting together new lists of Jews for relocation. This was done without considering something which had serious cause for suspicion - that perhaps the people were being taken somewhere to be killed.
These were the basic reasons of those who believed that, in the final balance, the existence of a Jewish ghetto administration served the interests of the Nazi murderers more than those of the general ghetto population.
Dr. Elhanan Elkes was Chairman of the Elders Council the entire time during the existence of the Ghetto
Until the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, Dr. Elkes was one of the most well-known Kovno internists at the Internal Department in the Kovno Jewish hospital Bikur Holim. He was also the house doctor of the Lithuanian Prime Minister Tuvialis, and for a few foreigner legations (among them, also from the German legation) in the Lithuanian residence.
Ideologically, Dr. Elkes was close to Zionism, but he did not actively mix in Jewish social life. He was renown as an independent person, and he had gained large popularity as an honest doctor.
Since it was expected that due to his non-political past, the Nazis would not be able to reject him, and in addition, he had connections with responsible persons of the previous German agents in Kovno, so he was nominated by the Jews to stand at the head of the Jewish representation on the Elders Council. The occupation powers accepted his candidacy as the Chairman of the Elders Council without objection.
At this opportunity it is worthwhile adding that the Nazi ghetto governors behaved toward him with great respect (as much as one can talk about respect by the Nazis to a Jew). He especially had good fortune with the S.S. Lt. Colonel Goecke, who after converting the Ghetto into a concentration camp, became the Camp Commander. This high-level S.S. functionary would very often call on him to confer on various ghetto issues and would, by contrast, treat him as an equal.
Because of this relationship between Dr. Elkes and Goecke, just before the liquidation of the Ghetto, when the Red army was already standing near Vilna, Dr. Elkes dared to make the following proposal: If he, Goecke, would cooperate so that the Ghetto should peacefully fall into the hands of the Soviets, he would, on the part of the Jews, receive a large gift of money, and in addition he would help him rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the Soviet powers. True, Goecke, after certain deliberation rejected the proposal, and as we know, a short time later he liquidated the Ghetto in the cruelest way. But the very fact that Dr. Elkes made such a proposal bears witness to the level of their relationship.
Dr. Elkes was not very interested in the daily work of the ghetto institutions, which stood under the authority of the Elders Council. This happened not only because of his weak health condition, but also because he gave free rein to the people of the individual ghetto offices. Therefore, it would very often happen that high influencers in the Jewish Ghetto Police, or from the Labor Office would often not consider his wishes and they would do whatever they wanted. This relationship of Dr. Elkes to the daily ghetto issues indirectly helped create chaos, lawlessness, and other negative phenomena in the public life of the Ghetto. Mainly, he would become active when they would need to engage with the powers to condemn or soften a decree for the Ghetto.
Thanks to his restrained and honest private life, Dr. Elkes gleaned the attention of the ghetto population. The ghetto Jews believed that Dr. Elkes had good intentions in every case regarding the Ghetto. And whatever he could do for the benefit of the ghetto collective, he certainly did.
At the liquidation of the Ghetto, he was taken to the Dachau labor camps near Landsberg together with all the men. There he was active as a doctor in the sick ward in the concentration camp. As a sick and weaker person, Dr. Elkes could not survive the camp tortures and he died in the camp on the 17th of October 1944.[m]
The entire time that Dr. Elkes was Chairman of the Elders Council, his Vice Chairman was Adv. Leib Garfunkel.
In pre-war Jewish social life in Lithuania, Adv. Garfunkel had an important position. His active leadership in Lithuania started after the First World War, when independent Lithuania laid the basis for Jewish national autonomy and he was later ostracized by the Lithuanian Jew-haters. For a certain time, he was also the Jewish deputy in the Lithuanian Parliament. He belonged to the leaders of the Zionist-Socialist movement in Lithuania.
When the Red Army marched into Lithuania on the 15th of June 1940, after a few weeks, he came out together with a few active leaders of the liquidated Zionist organizations. He was arrested and sat in the Kovno jail. A few days later, after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war he was freed from jail, because the Soviets didn't manage to evacuate the prisoners, so the arrested freed themselves. The fact that he was persecuted by the Soviets, without a doubt, contributed to his confirmation by the Nazi powers as the Vice Chairman of the highest Jewish ghetto authority.
In the Elders Council, Adv. Garfunkel dedicated himself mainly to the activities of the Ghetto Police and other ghetto institutions. He was infrequently in contact with the Nazi ghetto authorities because Dr. Elkes, and sometimes also other members of the Elders Council, occupied themselves with this.
In the Ghetto, when the Zionist groups started reviving their social activities, Adv. Garfunkel demonstrated full interest in this issue, especially in the work of the Zionist-Socialist group. He also demonstrated understanding for the youth movement going out into the forests to the partisans. At the time, as previously mentioned, when the Elders Council was arrested after the liquidation of the Jewish Ghetto Police, he was arrested by the Gestapo and was at the 9th Fort longer than other members of the Elders Council; he was strongly tortured.
Like Dr. Elkes, Adv. Garfunkel also conducted a modest and restrained private life and he, together with Dr. Elkes, were showered with respect and trust by the ghetto population. In his personal life there were a few that rejected him because he also did very little to curb the anti-social phenomena in the Jewish ghetto organization.
After the liquidation of the Ghetto, he was taken to the labor camp near Landsberg, where he survived to the liberation at the end of April 1945. After liberation he was active with the remaining remnant in Italy, where he was the chairman of the Zionist Committee of the Jewish refugees.
Adv. Yakov Goldberg was one of the most distinguished members of the Elders Council during its existence.
As a former officer of the Lithuanian army, he stood at the head of the Jewish Front-Fighters-Union in Lithuania. Because of that, he was arrested during the time of Soviet sovereignty in Lithuania, and when the Germans marched into Kovno he was freed from jail. Also, like Adv. Garfunkel, because of the persecution he endured by the Soviet regime, he was accepted by the occupation powers as a leading person in the ghetto settlement.
Aside from his office as a member of the Elders Council, Adv. Goldberg was active as a high-level person of the Jewish Labor Office in the ghetto, from Autumn of 1941 to Summer 1943.
As mentioned, Adv. Goldberg was also at the 9th Fort during the arrest of the Elders Council, and suffered terribly from the Gestapo.
He was freed in the Dachau labor camp where he was taken together with the men of the Kovno Ghetto. After liberation he did not get involved in social life.
We should mention the other people who were members of the Elders Council from the beginning:
Hirsh Levin was one of the most important speakers in the Elders Council, especially in the first period of the ghetto's existence.[n]
Rabbi Sgieg a former army Rabbi in Lithuania. Freed in Dachau concentration camp. Later he became the Head Rabbi of the remaining remnant in Bayern.
Rabbi Smukler a former Rabbi of Shantz. Died in the Ghetto.
Dr. Grigory Wolf a familiar Jewish Social Worker in Kovno. Died in the Ghetto.
Dr. Chaim-Nachman Shapiro mainly dedicated himself to cultural issues and Zionist activities in the Ghetto.[o]
The following were active as Secretaries of the Elders Council: Adv. Israel Bernstein took over this office until Spring 1942, when he was arrested in association with the fallout of the illegal mail links between Kovno and other ghettos.[p] After being freed from arrest, he worked in other ghetto institutions. Died in a hideout during the liquidation of the Ghetto.
Adv. Avraham Golub at first was a helper to Adv. Bernstein. Later, after Bernstein's arrest, he became Secretary of the Elders Council. Wrought a very strong influence on the activities of the highest divisions of the Jewish ghetto administration and, as they said, was the uncrowned dictator. As a man with a strongly developed ambition for power, he was always disposed to pushing through his opinions in all the most important decisions of the Elders Council.
In addition to the ghetto organization, Adv. Golub was also one of the head speakers for Zionist life in the Ghetto, especially in the grouping of the general right-wing Zionists.
After the relocation Action to Estonia, in Autumn 1943, he went away from the Ghetto and hid out with a Christian in the countryside. Later, after liberation, he wound up in Italy where a court case took place about his activity during the ghetto times.
Adv. I. Shinberg worked a long time in the Secretariat of the Elders Council. Thereafter he went over to work in the food base in the Social Welfare Office. During the days of the liquidation of the Ghetto he went out into the city and saved himself. He died after an operation, Passover, 1945, in Kovno.
The following also worked together in the bureau of the Elders Council:
Rastovsky professional of German correspondence. An older Jew from Memel. Escaped during the Action of the children, old and sick, at the end of March 1944.
Miss Elstein typewriter technician. During arrest of the Elders Council in April 1944, she also was taken to the 9th Fort. Was taken to Stutthof. After liberation she wound up in Sweden.
Shmukler (son of Rabbi Shmukler) courier of the Elders Council. As a gate keeper, he had the opportunity to see and listen to everyone and knew what took place in the Holy of Holies in the Ghetto. He really listened in to the best-informed people in the Ghetto. Many Jews would often be jealous of this boy, who was always updated on the most important ghetto happenings. Died somewhere in a hideout during the liquidation of the Ghetto.
Jewish Ghetto Police
|- Founding of the Jewish Ghetto Police and its basic tasks. - The role of the police in the ghetto life. - The Ghetto Police and the Service Order. - The separate units of the police. - The Police Orchestra.
Right after the locking of the Ghetto in the middle of August 1941, the Jewish Committee slowly started to regulate public life in the Ghetto. The powers ordered the set-up of the Jewish Ghetto Police. It was said that the Jewish Police would have to supervise the public peace and order in the Ghetto and, additionally, stand in service to the Jewish institutions.
To recruit young people for the Ghetto Police, the Jewish Committee put out a request to those who served in the military to come forth for police service. We must say, however, that they were then dealing with a total of about 50 people, but not more than a few dozen young people responded voluntarily. The additional ones had to be recruited on the way from the gathering.
At the start, the composition of the Jewish Ghetto Police, aside from military servicemen, also included athletes from Makabi who stepped up, and a certain number of intellectuals. The simple people kept themselves back from police issues. The founders of the police therefore decided to mobilize a few young people from the levels of the simple folk, to create trust in the activities of the police by all strata of the ghetto population.
After the Ghetto was locked up, the newly created Ghetto Police had a lot of work regulating the housing issues. Hundreds of Jews still did not have any roof over their heads. Many people didn't even have a corner in which to house themselves. Every day the Housing Office would become besieged by hundreds of interested people and the Ghetto Police had to help the Housing Office carry out their functions.
Later, when the other ghetto institutions became involved in more intensive activity, it was necessary to get the help of the Ghetto Police once again. So, for example, the Ghetto Police was used by the Labor Office to recruit the necessary number of Jews for various forced labor; Ghetto Police had to keep order at the food distribution shops, where there were long lines to pick up the ghetto rations; they also had to protect the communal ghetto gardens which were stormed by hungry ghetto Jews.
The duties of the Ghetto Police were increased, as the necessity to complete the operation and to coordinate the functions of the various police agencies was understood.
At the head of the Ghetto Police there were people who ran all the police issues. The police center was made up of a police chief and his helpers, a police inspector, people from the various police resources, a bureau person with an entire staff of colleagues, etc.
The Central Police dealt with the following issues: the agreement with the Elders Council established the guidelines for the police's activities in the Ghetto: to help the ghetto institutions carry out their duties, instruct the other police precincts, manage the ghetto jail, and the like.
To be able to properly carry on with the police issues, the Ghetto was divided into a few police areas, and in each area, there was a police precinct. At the founding of the Ghetto, there were in total four police precincts. After the liquidation of the Small Ghetto, in October 1941, there remained three police precincts. When in December 1943, the area of the old ghetto was cleared out, that police precinct was also liquidated. From then on, there remained only two police precincts in the Ghetto until the liquidation.
Each police precinct had a precinct chief, bureau office worker and a certain number of police, depending on the size of the area. In addition to the police functions, as mentioned, the Ghetto Police were very active in helping the Labor Office in the issues of work duty. Therefore, in a few police precincts there was also an active labor inspector who was the mediator between the Labor Office and the Ghetto Police.
From the start, there was a police reserve active at the police center, which, among other duties, also organized the division of the Jewish Police which guarded the Ghetto Gate. Later, the police reserve was liquidated and the Jewish policemen at the gate were trained for a separate division of the Ghetto Police.
At the end of 1941, a criminal police force was set up, in whose capacity was the punishment of criminals. The number of criminal violations increased after the big Action, when over ten thousand Jews were taken out of the Ghetto. Various people were caught with property belonging to the Jews who were taken away.
The Criminal Police also had to deal with uncovering the guilty in robberies of private persons, and of the ghetto institutions. Thank goodness, in the Ghetto, there was no shortage of private and social hoaxes and the Criminal Police had to clarify all these issues. To proceed with their work, the Criminal Police had in its authority special agents who would provide confidential reports, which were important to uncover various crimes.
There was also a Police Court in the Ghetto, which was an inheritance from the liquidated general Ghetto Court.[a] Like the Ghetto Court, the Police Court would handle various civil and criminal issues of the ghetto population. Court judgments were harshly carried out.
Under the authority of the Ghetto Police there were also a few ghetto jails, where those convicted for jail would suffer their punishment. In addition, the Ghetto Jail served as a collection point for recruiting people for the labor camps. The so-called labor deserters were also held there, until they were sent to work in such workplaces where there was always a shortage of people.
There was also a Sanitary Division which was active In the Ghetto Police, which supervised the sanitary hygienic situation. The shortage in sanitary facilities necessitated active measures to maintain the sanitary conditions in the Ghetto, at least at a minimal level. The police would, therefore, systematically go to control the cleanliness in and around the houses. In this detail there was collaboration between the Sanitary Division of the Police and the Health Office.
The telephone exchange in the Ghetto also belonged to the Ghetto Police, which organized and had available, what could pass for a telephone network. It was made up of dozens of telephone units. The telephone exchange was linked to the outside world by the Ghetto Guard, when the Ghetto belonged to the City Commissariat and, in Goecke's time, with the Camp Commander.
In the second half of 1942, the situation in the Ghetto became more-or- less stabilized and the regime organizations had a shortage of German guards to accompany the Jewish work brigades to the city. For a certain time, the Jewish Ghetto Police was attached to the guards of the Jews in the city workplaces. By the way, it is worthwhile adding that at that time the City Commissariat mobilized ghetto policemen a few times, by applying police tactics to the non-Jewish population in the city.
This is being presented as an evaluation of the activities of the Ghetto Police in normal times. The Ghetto Police played a very important role when the Ghetto received unexpected decrees, like for example, to quickly recruit a certain number of people for a labor camp outside the Ghetto, or when the Ghetto had to collect people somewhere for a foreign place (relocation Actions to Riga and Estonia).
Since the Jewish Ghetto Police, in essence, was not more than an executor for the decisions of the Elders Council and its institutions, we must admit that it was not very popular among the ghetto Jews.
Photo by G. Kadisch
The Jewish Police were disliked by the wide ghetto world for the following reasons:
First, it had to conduct various thankless jobs, for example, chasing work duty people to forced labor, collecting the designated screaming people for the labor camp; forcing Jews to suffer punishment in the Ghetto Jail, etc.
Second, there were plenty of young men in the police who, with their strong and frequently brutal interactions with people, increased the gap even more between the Police and the vast majority of the ghetto population.
In addition, we must not forget, the simple ghetto Jew was not indifferent to, nor did he ignore the fact that the Jewish policeman and his family belonged to the protected element in the Ghetto. True, people from the other ghetto institutions were also drenched in quite a bit of privileges, but these protections were mainly from an internal Jewish character.
The Jewish Police was the only ghetto institution protected not only by the Jewish organization, but also by the regime organization, under whose authority the Ghetto existed. So, for example, the Nazi ghetto bosses, starting at the Big Action in October 1941 until the liquidation of the Jewish Police in March 1944 placed the police in a protected position in various critical situations for the Ghetto.
During these 3.5 years, being a ghetto policeman meant relative assurance that his family would be less affected by community troubles. During this period, belonging to the police organization was real protection from all kinds of decrees in ghetto life. Because of this, there was an understood, and a justified antagonism between the Ghetto Police and the ghetto population.
However, truth be told, we must highlight a few activities of the Jewish Police during its existence:
The Police Chief and his assistants took an active part In the Secret Committee leading the partisan movement. For this activity, he, together with another 40 ghetto policemen were arrested and paid with their lives.
Just these enumerated facts speak positively of the Jewish Ghetto Police, who, to a certain extent, rehabilitated themselves, at least partially, for past injustices done to large portions of the ghetto population.
As previously described,[b] the Jewish Police was liquidated in a cruel manner and the Service-Order was created.
Applying a small parallel between the Ghetto Police and the Service-Order it was established that with all its shortcomings, the Jewish Police was an institution whose activities were conducted with the approval of the Elders Council. The Service-Order, by contrast, was organized by the Nazis, and it was hypothetically inclined to comply with the requirements of the regime organization, without regard for how these requirements subjected the ghetto settlement to the bloodiest life events. As roughly described, there were also problems which the Service-Order imposed on the ghetto collective just before the liquidation of the Ghetto.
Because of this, the Jewish Police were left with a comparatively good name, and the Service-Order remained in the memories of the ghetto Jews like an anti-Jewish authority, which only caused harm to the Ghetto. These strongly negative opinions were even strengthened because of the painful fact that among the ranks of the Service-Order there were betrayers and revealers who quite often betrayed the Ghetto. And Jews were deathly afraid of them, not less than of the Gestapo itself.
But even here, truth be told, we must say that not all members of the Service-Order were as corrupt, as this group of criminals. More honest people from the liquidated Ghetto Police, who didn't want to go to the Service Order were forced by Liptzer, the all-powerful of the Service-Order. These honest people, however, were not able to influence the activity of the Service-Order, and, as we say, they became insignificant. The reputation of the Service Order was created by the immoral and asocial elements.
Aside from the general Jewish Police in the Ghetto, an autonomous police institution in the Large Ghetto Workshops and in the Service Order workshops was also active. These separate police units stood in service only for the relevant institutions and they had very little to do with the general Ghetto Police.
The police at the Large Ghetto Workshops became trained in 1942, and its main task was, first, to guard the workshops, where, as we know, a few thousand Jews worked in various appointments from the German Wehrmacht. In these workshops, large amounts of various materials were always found, as well as, finished products, which were worth hundreds of thousands of Marks. Since the Jewish leaders of the workshops were responsible for all the workers, they needed a special police guard.
In addition, at the exit from the workshop at midday, or after the end of work, police were stationed to check the Jewish workers at the exit gate, so that they couldn't carry any stolen items or materials out of the workshops. If they caught someone violating the commandment thou shall not steal, he was strongly punished. In more serious cases of guilt, one would not only get punished, but they would kick him out of the workshop and transfer him to a job in a harder workplace outside the Ghetto. Nevertheless, dozens of Jews, day in and day out, ignored these controls and took things out of the workshop and somehow got through with the vital items.
Three or four dozen men were active in the Ghetto Workshop Police. At the head of the police was a chief who conducted his work with approval of the Jewish leaders of the workshops.
At this opportunity it is worth mentioning that during the arrest of the Jewish Police, at the end of March 1944, the Gestapo freed all the workshop policemen from the 9th Fort. This liberation happened because the Gestapo dismissed any collaboration between these policemen and the partisan movement in the Ghetto.
The Chief of the police in the Large Ghetto Workshops was Melamdovich (was killed in a hideout during the ghetto liquidation). We must mention some of the other higher police officers: Weiner (shot during the evacuation march from Dachau); Kalvariski (died by Gestapo because of a betrayal by a Christian as he was looking to buy arms for the Ghetto); Tkatsh (liberated in Dachau); etc.
Also, the Service Order workshops had their own police force of a dozen people who oversaw close to a hundred Jewish artisans who worked in appointments by the Gestapo. Their duties were like the duties of the police in the Large Ghetto Workshops, which was to protect the property of the workshops, etc. During the arrest of the Jewish Police, none of these policemen suffered.
As we know, a police orchestra existed in the Ghetto since Summer, 1942. From time to time, it gave concerts for the ghetto population. In addition to playing in the orchestra, the police orchestra also had to carry out various duties for the general police or for the police of the workshops to which they belonged.
During Goecke's time no concerts took place for the ghetto population. But very often, the orchestra gave concerts for the Camp Commander and for invited Nazi higher-ups from the city.
At this opportunity it would be of interest to submit the following characteristic episode:
As was already mentioned, a heavy battle was going on between the Kovno City Commissar, Kramer, who belonged to the S.A., and Goecke, who belonged to the S.S., over the leadership of the Ghetto. Since this battle finally ended with a victory for Goecke, Kramer looked for an opportunity to compromise Goecke.
After one concert, where Goecke invited guests from the city, the City Commissar, Kramer, sent a report to Berlin, in which he described Goecke's great sins; that he and other invited Germans listened to music conducted by a Jewish orchestra.
Right after this, a harsh inquiry arrived for Goecke from Berlin, demanding an immediate clarification about this issue. Despite these difficulties, he never succeeded in smoothing over this issue, and he continued to remain in disfavor among those in the high Nazi sphere in Berlin. It could be that this incident contributed to his being sent away to the Italian front after liquidating the Ghetto, where he was killed.
Goecke strongly favored the Police Orchestra, and it was demonstrated by the fact that during the arrest of the Police, none of the orchestra policemen were ever arrested.
In the labor camps of Dachau, where the orchestra musicians were grouped together with other Kovno Jews, the orchestra - from time to time - gave concerts for the S.S. leaders of the camps, and on occasion, also for the camp inmates.
After liberation this camp orchestra became active in the American Zone in Germany where it gave concerts for the remaining remnant of Jews.
The director of the orchestra was Misha Volfmekler. The following orchestra participants should also be remembered: Abrasha Stopel, the brothers Borshtein, Pomerantz, Persi Hayir, Volfberg, Frau Dukshtolski, Levitan, Frau Gladstein, Rozmarin (all survived to the liberation); Yellin, Finkel, Dariski, Frau Shor, Lint (all died), and others.
The vocal numbers in the ghetto concerts would be carried out by: Yakov Zaks, Mrs. Ratshka, Mrs. Dr. Shmukler, Miss Nechmod (all were killed); Mrs. Bar Kopritz (freed in concentration camp). Most recitals were given by the artist Kupritz (died in Dachau).
The size and composition of the Jewish Police varied at various periods of ghetto life. At first the police had 50 people, later a couple of hundred persons. During the various reductions of colleagues in the Jewish organizations, there were concomitant reductions in the composition of the Police.
Not only did the ghetto settlement have a Jewish Police, but also there was a Jewish Police in the labor camps, which helped administer the labor camp and was subject to the Jewish camp Elders.
In 1942, the Jewish Police distributed special ghetto passes to the entire ghetto population. From then on, those few ghetto Jews always had to have their ghetto pass with them. Each pass had to be reported to the relevant police precinct.
It is certainly unnecessary to mention that the Jewish Ghetto Police was not armed with either hot or cold arms. It didn't even have any rubber sticks or other effective police features. The only symbols of police power they had was this dark blue uniform hat with the metal police emblem, and the white and blue police band (on the left arm) with Jewish Ghetto Police Viliampole written in German.
For the defeated ghetto Jew, who found himself under double pressure non-Jewish and Jewish these innocent symbols were enough (more than enough!) to obediently carry out the orders of the Police. The plagued and broken ghetto Jew, willingly or unwillingly, had to make peace with the idea that there is a Jewish power present in the Ghetto, and one must be subjected to it…
The following leaders were active in the Jewish Ghetto Police:
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