|- The significance of labor in the life of the ghetto population. - Early forms of forced labor for the ghetto Jews. - Gradual formation of stable Jewish workplaces in town. - First concrete steps to regulate the problems of forced labor. The organizational structure and basic activity of the special labor offices sections. - Important periods in the history of the Jewish Labor Office.|
In public ghetto life, the Jewish Labor Office occupied a place of honor among the Jewish ghetto institutions. The specific importance of this ghetto office developed because of the problem of work more correctly stated - forced labor. It was also due to a few issues which were some of the most painful problems during the three-year existence of the Ghetto.
During the descriptions of the general ghetto occurrences, we opportunely saw that for the ghetto Jew, work often meant did you or did you not survive a selection connected to an extermination Action? Did you remain in the Ghetto where there were comparatively favorable living conditions, or were you relocated somewhere to a labor camp belonging to a concentration camp regime? Did you have a source of somehow living through or being dependent on the official starvation distribution by the regime? Did you work in the open field at hard punitive work, or have lighter work in a factory, or in the Ghetto itself? Did you work in the neighborhoods of the Ghetto, or have to get through a daily march of 10-12 kilometers to get to work and back, etc?
So, why did the activity of the Labor Office have such a decisive influence on the fate of the ghetto Jew? And why were the existential questions of the ghetto population dependent on many of these fair or unfair dealings?
Before we step closer to familiarize ourselves with the structure of the Jewish Labor Office and its activities, it is necessary to, at least, provide a quick basic story about the development of forced labor in the Ghetto.
Already in the first weeks of the Nazi occupation in Kovno, when the huge wave of mass excesses against the Jewish population was over, they started capturing Jews for various jobs for the German military units or for the Lithuanian partisans. The work was random then, and it would mainly consist of loading merchandise on the train, in clearing up military casements, and the like.
The attitude toward the Jews by the Germans, and even more by the Lithuanian partisans, was then very brutal: they would beat the Jews murderously, ordering them to do the most difficult work, not allowing them to catch their breath and, above all, there was no shortage of rude obscenities and humiliation relating to Jews and Communists, which was for these murderers one and the same. At work the Jews would be guarded by military guards and after ending work, the Jews were allowed to go to home.
The Jews could not free themselves for very long from the specter of being captured by the mass arrests and pogroms. These were in evidence at the same time as the Nazi occupation, so most Jewish men remained hidden in their homes. Only those Jews who went out on the street to do various urgent errands would be caught. This arbitrary manner of capturing Jews for work continued until the founding of the Ghetto.
At the end of July and beginning of August 1941, Jews themselves had to fence in the entire ghetto area with barbed wire, build the hanging bridge over Paneriu Street, and dig the tunnel on Yorburker Street, etc. So, the Jewish Committee mobilized the needed number of Jews for these jobs from among their employees every day.
As we know, the Ghetto was locked up on the 15th of August 1941. German military service sites, which needed Jewish workers, would come to the Ghetto Gate demanding the necessary number of Jews from the Ghetto.
At first, the newly established Jewish Ghetto Police, from time to time, collected the required number of workers from among the ghetto population. Later, when in the Jewish Committee started to organize the structure of the Jewish Labor Office, each skilled laborer, through the Ghetto Police, would be requested to come on scheduled days of the week to the Ghetto Gate to be ready for work wherever they were needed. In cases when the resultant number of Jews at the Ghetto Gate would be too small to fill the demand for Jewish laborers, the Jewish Police would go through Jewish houses to capture the missing number of Jews.
However, the demand for Jewish forced labor rose even more from day to day. And hundreds of new ghetto Jews were dragged into the process of hard punitive work.
The random, disorganized capturing of people for work couldn't be maintained. The need to quickly regulate this question became frightening. The first test of the self-established Jewish Labor Office was to bring some order to the sector of forced labor.
At that time, many German military workplaces needed continuous Jewish labor and they started requiring that the same Jews come to work for them every day. Now, this workplace was a favorable one. That meant, the attitude toward the Jews was not so cruel, since they would not beat them, relocate them, etc. So, the Jews themselves wouldn't let any other Jew get this work. Not to mention, that at work they would throw out a bit of bread to the Jews or give them a bit of soup. Then, the permanent workers had to do battle with people on the sidelines who also wanted to get into to this workplace.
Because of hunger and semi-hunger in hundreds of ghetto homes, such a workplace invoked envy from thousands of half-hungry Jews who couldn't get at such luck…
It was difficult to recruit the needed number of Jews for workplaces where the work was terribly difficult physically, and there were various humiliations and insults. In such workplaces they had to capture people each day by force, and each one would take pains not to fall into such an unfavorable workplace.
At this moment it is necessary to add that at this workplace, the various Jewish artisans like carpenters, locksmiths, electricians, and others, had a much easier fate than the unqualified workers. The Germans related to the artisans with a greater attitude of respect than to the unqualified workers. By the way, there were many Germans who were surprised about the fact that there were authentic Jewish artisans available, and they watched the work of the Jewish skilled workers with curiosity. The more decent Germans would state that they now see how incorrect was the generally accepted opinion that Jews do not know how to work.
Many Jews who had the right to work at a workplace where they were treated less harshly, started to work on the security guards. With the help of bribes, they allowed them to buy some food products from the neighboring Christians. Carrying it back home, the Jews somehow smuggled the food products into the Ghetto. Due to the catastrophic nutritional status in the Ghetto at that time, this was an issue of greatest importance and significance.
When the guards from this workplace came to the assembly point at the Ghetto Gate to pick up the Jewish workers, there was terrible chaos because everyone wanted to break into the good work brigade.
To reinstate order, the guards at the Ghetto Gate would start beating the Jews brutally. Blackjacks, loaded guns, and the like, started flying over Jewish heads. Frequently there would also come shocking gunfire, and other various strategies to calm the Jews.
However, hunger never frightened anyone away, and no one would step away from the Ghetto Gate or give up the effort to go to work. These were painful scenes, which illustrated the low and lawless Jewish situation. The cultured Germans from the Ghetto Guard would, at each opportunity, continue to reject the Jews because of their inadequacy.
In the Ghetto, getting into such a workplace, from where they could bring home some food, was a very painful question. It is demonstrated by the fact that many higher officials from the Jewish ghetto administration voluntarily gave up their privileged posts in ghetto institutions to go to work in the city, especially in the good brigades of the engineer Mil.[a]
As was previously mentioned,[b] in mid-September 1941, the construction people from the Kovno Aerodrome, where the Germans were approached to carry out large reconstruction work, started requesting Jewish labor forces from the Ghetto. In the first days it dealt with only about a hundred or two hundred Jews per day. Later, the demands for Jewish workers rose to a few thousand people per day.
As mentioned, the work at the Aerodrome carried on day and night, and work conditions there were extremely difficult. The attitude of the German masters toward the Jews was terrible. Furthermore, the actual work at the Aerodrome was horribly exhausting and they would beat the Jews dreadfully without any reason. Aside from that, there was no possibility of bringing any food products home from the Aerodrome. Therefore, getting such a relatively large number of Jews to work at the Aerodrome daily became a very difficult and painful problem for the Ghetto.
On the first day of Rosh Hashana [New Year] 1941, the Elders Council called the entire skilled ghetto population of workers together in an open place, with the aim of clarifying to those in attendance about the urgent importance of collecting the needed number of Jews for work at the Aerodrome. A few Jewish skilled workers demanded to understand the responsibility of this issue for the ghetto's existence and not to turn up for work duty at the Aerodrome.
At first, these appeals from the Elders Council had some effect. From day to day however, the collection of the needed number of Aerodrome workers created even more difficulties. The efforts of the Jewish Labor Office to establish a bit of order and a certain sequence for going to work at the Aerodrome, did not help much.
Issuing special work certificates, validated by the German front-construction-people, labor armbands, etc., for Aerodrome workers, did not have much impact on recruiting the needed number of people for Aerodrome work either.
For the ghetto Jew, working at the Aerodrome became a real scourge, and they could not get rid of it. On the other hand, the regime organization started giving even greater importance to this front construction work. Therefore, this created an extraordinarily difficult situation in the Ghetto.
For the ghetto Jew, the problem of work was not only a question of fulfilling the duty of forced labor, but at the same time it was also a question of having an opportunity to bring home some livelihood or not. So, the Jewish ghetto leadership, especially the Jewish Labor Office, had to quickly start bringing in a bit of order and a bit of justice to this serious and important issue.
The Jewish Labor Office was first approached to carry out a detailed registration of all the skilled workers among the ghetto population. In addition, they also had to make other preparations which were needed for the activity of the Labor Office. But the mass extermination Actions, which took place in the Ghetto during the Autumn of 1941, did nothing for all the attempts and preparations.
The Big Action cost the Ghetto a huge number of victims, and the little remnant of the surviving ghetto Jews were physically and spiritually shaken up to the core. Because of the depression and apathy which predominated in the Ghetto right after that catastrophe, no one even contemplated organizing the lives of those already on a death sentence…
Relating to the fact that during the horrible Action, thousands of skilled Jewish men and women workers were killed, among them hundreds of artisans. For the ghetto Jews, the illusion that work is a little piece of salvation allowing the Jews to live, was completely overturned. No one in the Ghetto was able or wanted to believe that the question of working- or not - had a significant influence on the fate of the Jews. During such a general depressed atmosphere among the ghetto population, at first, this Labor Office let everything go, as they say, with the flow.
Weeks passed. The surviving ghetto Jews, willingly or unwillingly, had to continue carrying the heavy yoke of forced labor, and the Jewish Labor Office started to organize the issue of forced labor once again.
In the second half of November 1941 the Jewish Labor Office distributed special work passes, i.e., work duty cards to all the skilled working men and women. The age limits for men were established from 14-60 years old. For women, it was, at first, from 16 to 45 years old and later, from 15 to 55 years old. Women who had little children up to 8 years old (later up to 4 years old) were completely freed from work duty.[c]
For healthy men, a full work week of 6 and even 7 days per week was established. At the workplace they would demand Jewish workers also on Sunday. For women, at first it was decided that work duty would be only 3 days per week. Later, when the demand for Jewish labor rose strongly, younger women had to work 5 days per week, and older women, 3 or 4 days per week. The number of weekly work duty days for those with weaker health conditions would be established through the Jewish Doctors Commission of the Labor Office.[d]
During the distribution of the work duty cards to the skilled-worker ghetto population, the Labor Office succeeded in establishing available contingent work duties for men and women. In addition, over time, they also set up certain controls over how Jews had to fulfill their work duty obligation for forced labor.
Before the distribution of the work duty cards, it was possible for a skilled worker to avoid going to work. Now this ended. A few skilled workers, men, and women, had to punctually fulfill their work duty in the workplace to which they were attached. If not, they would have heavy sanctions placed on them by the Jewish ghetto administration.
If the work duty person didn't have any permanent workplace in a city work brigade, or in the ghetto itself, he would have to go to work at the Aerodrome, where all Jews had to work at that time. The construction people from the Aerodrome would demand such large numbers of Jewish work forces from the Ghetto, that they would have to pull people away from other work places every day, to fill the required number of Jewish workers for the Aerodrome work.
At the end of 1941 and beginning of 1942, the general situation in the Ghetto started to become relatively stable. As a result, the Jewish ghetto institutions started normalizing their activities. Thus, the Labor Office also managed set up an entire system to regulate the issues of forced labor.
The Labor Office consisted of a specific dozen divisions, and a few divisions had a full list of functions to carry out. Within each division there were lead division people, under whose authority there were special personnel to carry out the needed work.
At the head of the Labor Office was a person who had oversight over the activities of all the Labor Office divisions. This person in the Labor Office would be in contact with the Elders Council, where they, among others, would decide the general guidelines for the various ghetto institutions.
At the time of the existence of the Labor Office, that means from August 1941 until April-May 1944, the following persons worked in this office: Engineer Frenkel the first few weeks since the founding of the Ghetto (died in Dachau); Advocate Yakov Goldberg- from Autumn 1941 until Summer 1943 (liberated in Dachau); Herman Frenkel from Summer 1943 until the liquidation of the Jewish Labor Office in Spring 1944 (died a few weeks after the liberation from Dachau); General Secretary and later Vice-Chair of the Labor Office, was Dr. Shmuel Grinhaus (liberated in Dachau); for a short time Engineer Bargman was also Vice-Chair of the Labor Office (died in a Dachau labor camp).
Print machinists who were active in the Secretariat of the Labor Office were: Ms. Krakinovski (died in a labor camp in Germany) and Ms. Sukenik (was taken to Estonia and died there).
To present the activities of the Jewish Labor Office, it is necessary, at least schematically, to become familiar with the structure and most important functions of each separate Labor Office division.
A. The Registry Division
The Registry Division had 2 main functions:
For the Registry Division to have control over how the work duty people did their work at each workplace, a Jewish Brigadier or Colonel was designated.[e] Aside from carrying out their direct duties with the work group and mediating between the Jewish workers and the workplace, each Brigadier and Column person had to submit a report to the Registry every day[f] about the relevant men and women who worked at their workplace that day.
After signing off on the received reports in the work control logs at the Registry, they would immediately establish who on this particular day, did, or did not, fulfill their work duty.
When a worker on duty became ill and was not able to go to work, he would have to turn to the Medical Division which would give him a permit for the time of his illness.
If, for a specific reason, a work duty person had to remain in the house for a day, he would have to get a permit from the work inspector[g] of his area.
The list of persons authorized for leave due to illness or other reasons was immediately sent to the Registry to be signed off in the work control books. In this way the Registry would be able to establish exactly who was without a justification on that specific day and did not work. The person without justification who avoided work duty was transferred to the Mobilization and Punishment division to be punished.
For the Registry to know to which work place the worker was sent, the other divisions of the Labor Office sent over a list of all those working at the Aerodrome, in the city brigades, as well as in the Ghetto Workshops, and in the ghetto institutions. Every workplace had its specific code and every work card from a workplace in the city or in the Ghetto had to have a stamp of the Registry. Without such a stamp on a work card, it was invalid.
Through separate divisions of the Labor Office, all permanent and even temporary modifications in individual workplaces about the workers would immediately have to be reported to the Registry so that they were informed where the work duty person was supposed to work.
There were better and worse work jobs and people from the worse workplaces would take pains to selfishly run across to the better workplace. So, the Registry provided daily reports to the Brigadiers and Column people so that they would also know the exact behavior of these defectors, who for such a sin became motivated by the responsibility.
For older women on work duty who had children up to 8 years old (later up to 4 years old), the Registry would give out special exemptions from work duty so that during the time of a work review by the Jewish Ghetto Police, this relevant woman would not be arrested as a work deserter and be sent to the police district or to the Ghetto Jail.
It was also established from the start that a work duty woman who served and conducted housework for at least 3 work duty persons, who worked not less than 6 days per week (if at home there were no other non-workers, like older women, and the like, who could do the household chores), would be freed from work duty. Later, this very decision was cancelled.
When the work duty women worked only 3 times per week, half of the women would work Monday-Wednesday-Friday, and the other half, Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. Such a division of work duties relieved the women from exhaustion from the work. In addition, on their free days, they could prepare food and organize their home economics on the days when they did not have to go to work.
On the women's work card, in large, highlighted letters it would show which work cycle she belonged to. That meant, which day of the week she had work-duty. If it was not her workday, a woman could peacefully walk around in the Ghetto and not be afraid of a labor patrol. The Jewish Police would systematically carry out these patrols in the streets and in the homes, with the aim of catching and punishing the work deserters.
So that the file folders and other materials from Registry would always be in order, the Registry systematically collected all the notices about the changes in the condition of the ghetto population. For example, they noted communications about deaths, newborns, relocations from the Ghetto to other labor camps, etc.
After an Action, when the Registry didn't have any idea which persons were pulled out of the Ghetto, a new registration of the ghetto population was carried out.
So, this was the way the Registry of the Labor Office was able to receive continuous information about a work duty person about his previous or current workplace, how this person fills the work duty, when and how long the worker was authorized because of illness, or other reasons, etc.
The heads of the Registry Division were: Zundelevich (saved himself during the liquidation of the Ghetto); as colleagues: A. Daitch (was shot in Ghetto during the deportation); R. Levin (jumped off a train during the transport to Germany and was thereafter freed); Vinik (died in a labor camp in Estonia); Griliches (was burned in a hideout in the Ghetto); Ogov (left during the Action of Children, Elders and Ill); Beregovski (died in Ghetto during the deportations); Mrs. Davidovich (liberated in Liubitsher labor camp where she was a Camp Elder), and others.
B. Mobilization and Punishment Division
The task of the Mobilization and Punishment Division was, firstly, to mobilize the needed number of workers for the various labor places. These were mainly for the difficult and bad work positions, where no volunteers would ever want to go. They had to force the people to go there. In addition, the functions of these divisions were to tie together the responsibility of those work duty persons who would violate the determinations of the work duty.
For the Mobilization & Punishment Division to be able to carry out its functions properly, it maintained close contact with the Jewish Police. To this aim, in each police precinct there was an active work inspector whose task was to supervise how the work duty people from the relevant police areas fulfilled their work duty. There were three or four such work inspectors, based on the number of police precincts in the Ghetto. The activity of the various work inspectors would be coordinated by one higher work inspector.
Receiving the presentation from the Registry about those persons who, on that respective day violated the determinations of their work duty, so the Jewish Police were brought to the work inspectors, who after establishing the guilt carried out their verdict against the work deserters.[h]
In most cases the violators would immediately be transferred to the Ghetto Jail where they would be held overnight. In the morning, as a punishment, they were sent to work at the Aerodrome or to another hard workplace, where they would always have to send people by force. When they were dealing with a person who frequently did not fulfill his work duty, he would receive a similar punishment, not for just one day, but for a much longer term.
It would frequently happen, that right after the work duty person left for work, the Labor Office would get a sudden request that the Ghetto should immediately send a determined number of workers for urgent work. In such cases, the Mobilization and Punishment Division, with the help of the Jewish Police, went all around the Ghetto catching the needed number of people. Understandably, they would not consider whether the other had a legal permit, or not, etc. The main thing would be to carry out the regime's request as fast as possible.
Until the creation of the Quarterings Commission at the end of Summer, 1943, it was also the job of the Mobilization and Punishment Division to recruit for the labor camps.[i]
The people from the Mobilization and Punishment Division, as well as the labor inspectors, had the right to give permits to the work duty people for a day or two for important family issues. Because of patronage and influence only the more privileged layers of the Ghetto could enjoy this right. The simple helpless folk-people were seldom able to attain such a permit. A determination for this can be found in the ghetto folk-creations[j] where these injustices were very often portrayed.
In addition to these functions, the work inspectors, along with the heads of the people from the Mobilization Division would also be involved at the Ghetto Gate when they would let people out for work.[k]
The Mobilization and Punishment Division had to carry out the requests of the regime regarding forced labor. Understandably, the ghetto Jew could not call out any other feelings other than hate or contempt. And that is how it really was. Because of its thankless duty, this specific division of the Labor Office was the specter of the working ghetto population.
At this opportunity we must add that the person from the Mobilization and Punishment Division, P. Margolis, who excelled with his harsh and brutal relationship with the workers, was tried and sentenced for hard jail time after the liberation of Kovno by the Soviet regime.
The work inspectors were deported to the Dachau labor camps together with the other ghetto Jews. There, they were so harshly persecuted that not one of them survived to liberation. Such was the great bitterness of the ghetto Jews toward the leaders from this institute of the Labor Office.
Aside from Margolis, more important members of the division were: Zaks, Mendelson, Kaptchevski, Prisman (all were work inspectors and died in Dachau); Melamedovitch, Secretary of the Division (was burned in a hideout); Markovski, technician colleague (saved himself by leaving the Ghetto), and others.
C. Aerodrome Division
The Aerodrome Division had to establish the necessary numbers of Jewish labor forces for the Aerodrome. This was one of the most difficult, and, by the way, the largest workplace of the ghetto settlement. From Autumn 1941 until Spring 1942, there were 3-4 thousand Jewish workers working daily at the Aerodrome. This division was the most important division of the Labor Office.
The Aerodrome workers were mostly recruited from the lower social levels of the Ghetto population. The hard yoke of the real punitive forced labor was carried on the shoulders of these simple ghetto Jews.
Aside from the punitive slave labor under the open sky throughout a long workday, there were persecutions and insults by the murderous masters during the exhaustion of walking, day in and day out, the long distance to work and back, etc. The aerodrome worker at this workplace, did not have any opportunity to acquire a little livelihood, like those who worked in the city brigade.
True, at the Aerodrome there were also a small number of workplaces that were not so bad. The overwhelming majority of Aerodrome workers however worked in inhumane work conditions. A few aerodrome workers had one wish: to get out of this slave labor and get work in a city brigade, where the type of work and the relations with the Jewish workers and above all the chance to acquire a bit of food products was relatively better than at the Aerodrome.
There was talk about all sorts of bonuses that the Aerodrome Division organized for the punctual aerodrome worker, with the aim of improving their material situation. However, the harsh material situation of the aerodrome-worker was not improved and the bonuses did not have any serious meaning specifically to win over the ghetto Jews for aerodrome work.
Relating to the increase in the number of workers for the city workplaces, in Spring of 1942 many aerodrome workers went over to work in the city. This meant a radical change for the better for them in an economic sense.
The demand for aerodrome workers was always increasing, and this created a huge stress. Thus, it was decided that people who worked in the city brigades would also have to work at the Aerodrome a few times per week. This principle did not only apply to men, but also to women on the city brigades. For example, it was established that women, who worked three times per week in the city brigade, in addition must also work at the Aerodrome one or two days a week.
It must be said, however, that because most of the more privileged men and women of the Ghetto worked in the better city brigades, a large portion of them already found a legal foundation to free themselves from that work at the Aerodrome. Due to all these reasons, a strong antagonism developed in the Ghetto between the aerodrome workers and the workers at the better work brigades. On this very terrain, unique social relations would play out.
Those working at the Aerodrome were divided into a few dozen work columns. At the head of each work column stood a Jewish Column Leader, appointed by the Aerodrome Division. The various construction companies from the Aerodrome would through the construction workers demand the needed number of Jewish artisans and physical laborers every day from the Jewish Labor Office. And the Aerodrome Division would take pains to follow the request from the construction people.
To mediate between the construction workers and the Aerodrome Division, there were specially chosen Jewish functionaries who were called Shift Leaders. A few shift leaders at the Aerodrome had their shift people. The column leaders had to mediate between the workplace and the work column, put together the reports for the Labor Office, etc.
Aside from the workplaces at the Aerodrome itself, the Aerodrome Division dealt with a few out of city workplaces which had a connection to the aerodrome work, like for example, in Gayzhon, Keidan, etc. The work in the Gayzhon swampy forests was very hard, and the people became sick with rheumatism and other illnesses very quickly.
Many Jewish workers worked at the Aerodrome. The Jews believed that the aerodrome work had great meaning for the existence of the Ghetto. However, the extermination Actions, especially the Big Action, completely crushed this supposition.
The ghetto population always needed some sort of anchor which gave the illusion that this Ghetto had some right to live. So, for the Ghetto, the prior importance of the aerodrome work was now ascribed to the Big Ghetto Workshops…
Because of that, this division now had to carry out such ungrateful tasks that it was also not very loved by the ghetto population. This negative relationship from the ghetto world continued its nourishment not only from the very difficult work relations at the Aerodrome, but also partially because at the head of this division from the Winter of 1942[l] stood a specific young Jewish man, Adv. Wolf Lurie (a former court investigator in the time of Smetana). He was a very energetic and very strong man, from whom the ghetto Jews would shudder like from a real despot. Not a single ghetto Jew, in general, and no aerodrome worker specifically, would dare come in a conflict with him. While relating with people he was like a court investigator with criminals … The Ghetto created a special folk song about his conduct.
During the liquidation of the Ghetto he decided not to cooperate in the deportation. He poisoned his child, himself and his wife. The poison however only worked on the child and he and his wife remained alive. Then he asked an S.S. guard to come to his home and shoot them both. As was told at the time, the S.S. man was not skittish, and he shot them both.
In the Aerodrome Division the following people were also active: Flier (died during the ghetto liquidation); engineer Goldman (a Warsaw Jew liberated in Dachau); Fritz Bernshtein (a German Jew, who because of his bad behavior as a Kapo in the Alexotas labor camp, and in Dachau Concentration Camp, he was punished after liberation by the Allied regime organizations); Davidovich (liberated in Dachau), and others.
D. City Brigades Divisions
The task of the City Brigade Division consisted of recruiting the male and female workers for the city work places, distributing work cards, confirming Brigadiers, etc.
At first, a total of a few hundred Jews worked in 10-15 city workplaces. Over time[m] approximately 50 larger and smaller city work brigades were created where over 5,000 men and women worked. The growth in this number of city brigades continued from Spring 1942 until Autumn 1943, when Goecke, with an urgent tempo, started liquidating the largest portion of the city brigades, to prepare the conditions for the conversion of the Ghetto into a concentration camp.[n]
As mentioned, working in a better city brigade was considered a great privilege, which only a small portion of the ghetto population could access. True, not all city brigades had the same value. There were good brigades where they were able to make a good package, that meant, they could create a livelihood for favorable prices. However, there were also many brigades which were far from good, and in addition, had very difficult work conditions or minimal possibilities to arrange for food products.
Mainly, those privileged ghetto Jews who had good connections with the leading persons from the ghetto hierarchy, got work in the better work brigades, or they would bring them products at city prices. For the simple ghetto Jew, it was almost impossible to get access to a good brigade. Most ghetto Jews would therefore work in the ordinary city brigades, where there was almost no difference between these and the workplaces at the Aerodrome.
It has already been stated many times that corruption, protectionism, etc. dominated in the ghetto institutions. The Labor Office greatly sinned also in this domain. It was no secret that with the help of bribery in this or another form, the leading functionaries of the Labor Office were able to achieve a lot. Therefore, the ghetto Jew without resources would never be able to attain a workplace in a good brigade.
Camps of men and women which had worked in bad workplaces the entire time, would in the afternoon hours besiege the Labor office, searching to get a better workplace. But this Jew did not have any Vitamin P,[o] so he would rarely be able to achieve his plea.
The City Brigades Division wanted to offer those who worked in a bad work brigade to, at least once, get into a better brigade to buy some food products there. So, they gave out a one-time permit so they could join this or another better brigade. To get one of these certificates was not the easiest thing. By the way, from time to time, such permits were also given to those who worked in the ghetto workshops, or in the ghetto hierarchy. It was the only way to create a livelihood for lower prices.
For a certain time there existed in the Labor Office a Shift Commission, which had as its task transporting workers from the Aerodrome to the city brigades and back. They wanted to compensate those ghetto Jews who worked at the Aerodrome for a long time with a workplace in a better brigade. But since most people from the better city brigades would be protected by one or another Yales,[p] so this shift had no practical meaning, because the better work brigades were monopolized by the protected elements.
In families where there were multiple work duty persons, the Labor Office would strive to set it up so that a portion of them would work in better workplaces and the others, in worse ones. But even this attempt at equalizing would very often be violated by the privileged strata.
Aside from offering possibilities to acquire food products, there were various city brigades which were better or worse because they had easier or harder work-relations, proximity, or distance from the Ghetto, etc. But the kind of work the Jews would be doing was also very important. If it was a job which had to do with food or with factory-production, the Jews would already see it as something to cultivate how much and what it could lead to. By the way, it is interesting to note that, in general, women in the brigades were more skilled than the men and in many ghetto families the women were the only breadwinners.
As mentioned, the City Brigade Division would also give out work cards for the workers in the brigades and decide on the brigades.
The work cards would be distributed for a period of a few months. A few workplaces would be designated with a running number, which would be stamped with many stamps on the work card so that at the Ghetto Gate they would easily be able to recognize where the owner of the work card works. The entire procedure of finalizing the work cards[q] being signed by the Registry, taken to the respective files, and so forth, would take a lot of technical work.
We must say that the Brigadiers, especially in the better work brigades, had an opportunity to be well situated materially. The Brigadiers, the majority energetic young people, would consider the brigades as a source of grabbing as much personal use out of it, and as a means for making a good living. The Brigadiers would strongly exploit the brigade members from whom they would get a portion of their business in the brigade, or they would be paid well by those who wanted privileges at work, etc.
If the Brigadier was a quiet and honest person, the brigade would not function, and he would sooner or later have to leave his post. A brigade worker would seldom win by complaining to the Labor Office against various dealings by a Brigadier. Typically, for such a chutzpa the Brigadiers would find various ways to sideline him from the brigade. However, there were also a few Brigadiers and Column leaders who would strive to be helpful to the people of their work commands, only when it was possible.
The Brigadiers and the Column Leaders who led larger work commands were: Idelson, Berkman, Braz, Blatt, Engineer Blumental, Engineer Goldberg, Glickman, Dr. Grinberg, Nordau, Vinik, Jasvoin, Engineer Yellin, Charashtshenishok, Lubetzki, Lurie, Lipshitz, Laybzon, Mizrach, Engineer Mil, Nachumson, Ginsboim, Engineer Slonimski, Pikert, the brothers Friedman, Tzites, Tzipkin, Tzipin, Kogiuchovski, Carpus, engineer Reines, Shabashevitch, engineer Shachnovski, Engineer Shachat (all survived to liberation); Altman, Aylberg, Aks, Blumental, Hirsh, Yeshorin, Lint, Naftal, Srolovitch, Frenkel, Friedman, Kagan, Klompus, Shtein, Shafranski (all died), and others.
At first, the head of the City Brigade Division was Advocate Makovski (died during the ghetto deportation), then Advocate Zak[r] and later Advocate N. Girshovitch (liberated in Dachau concentration camp). As colleagues: B. Aretshkin (well-known Russian-Jewish journalist; was killed during the Stalingrad Action); J. Gar (editor of this book. Jumped from a train during the deportation to Germany and was later liberated); Dr. Wolf (a German Jew. Died in Dachau); A. Staravolski, D. Tamshe, S. Bloch (all died in Dachau concentration camp); Ms. Reiz (caught tuberculosis during the Action of the Children, Elderly and Sick); Ms. Lipshitz (liberated in a labor camp), and others.
Also in that Division was Amtirt Yatzkan (liberated in Dachau concentration camp), who was commissioned by Liptzer to oversee the activities of the Labor Office, especially for the City Brigades Division.
E. Vocation Division
The Recruiting Division had to organize the recruitment of artisans for the various workplaces in the city and in the Ghetto.
There was no independent division which had the right to distribute work cards in the Recruiting Division. Their task consisted only of collecting the needed artisans for all the workplaces and transferring the relevant artisan lists to the other divisions of the Labor Office. This included, for example, the City Brigade Division (when the skilled workers were needed in a city brigade), in Aerodrome Division (when they needed the skilled workers at the Aerodrome), in the Large Ghetto Workshops, in the Small Ghetto Workshops, etc.
These divisions would already give out the duty cards to the people.
The Recruiting Division owned specific set ups of various artisans and their recommended workers would be considered dependable for all the other Labor Office divisions as well as for the workshops. Even here protectionism and other unforgivable dealings would take place because this system was characteristic for almost all the ghetto institutions.
Aside from the genuine artisans from pre-war times, there arose a level of ghetto artisans in the Ghetto. That meant, people who got their history changed to artisans. This inconsistency mainly took place in this way: after a short time working with genuinely skilled workers, the former shopkeepers, businessmen, people of the liberal occupations, very often equated themselves to the genuine artisans at the workplaces.
Aside from this, the Vocation Division also dealt with the vocational school where children learned a trade. In the end of Summer 1942, when the general schools were liquidated, students would unofficially also receive a bit of general education in the trade school. The trade school played an important role in ghetto life after the Children's Action, when the hidden children, aged 8 to 12 found shelter there and in this way could legalize their existence.[s]
Those who oversaw the Vocation Division were Agronomist I. Oleiski (liberated in Dachau); as colleagues: Engineer S. Ratner[t], S. Frenkel, Grinberg (both died in Dachau concentration camp), and others.
Active in the trade school were: Engineer Sadovski (liberated in Dachau); Felman (died during the ghetto liquidation), and others.
F. Division for Ghetto Labor
There were work duty men and women who, because of their condition, were not skilled to work either in the city work places, nor in the large or small ghetto workshops. So, the Medical Committee would give them a lighter workload in the Ghetto itself, for example, like serving the institutions, keeping cleanliness in the open places, etc. This category of work was called ghetto workers.
The ghetto workers would work 4-5 hours per day and the very sick would not work more than a few days a week. At work they would not be given any regimen that was too difficult, and the work would not strain them too much. In addition, they would get Medical Commission permits very easily. They didn't have anything to complain about, as they were not sent to forced labor.
Aside from the Jewish institutions, during Goecke's time, the ghetto workers also had to serve the Camp Commandant, which had its quarters just near the Ghetto.
We must admit that by enabling the very sick ones to be employed in lighter work in the ghetto itself, the Jewish Labor Office did a good thing. First, these unfortunates could get through the yoke of forced labor easier, and second, for such people the work card would be a source of encouragement, indicating that also they, the sick ones, were not just useless Jews usually the first victims at various decrees and afflictions.
The leader of the ghetto workers was B. Rabinovitz (died in Ghetto during the liquidation). We must mention the colleagues: Davidovitch (an invalid. Died during the ghetto deportation); Tzindler (during the Children's Action in the Palemon labor camp, he, together with his wife voluntarily went away with their children), and others.
G. Medical Division
The Medical Division of the Labor Office was actually a medical commission which had the following functions: first, to give the work duty persons medical help and permits when they were sick; second, to establish who among the work duty people cannot work a full work week due to their weakened health condition. They must not do very heavy physical work in a city workplace and must therefore work only lighter work in the Ghetto itself; third, to completely free the very sick, who suffered from serious chronic illness, from work duty.
Because of the inhumane living conditions and hard punitive labor, the number of illnesses was extraordinarily large, and the Medical Commission had much to do. It was specially beleaguered with work during the Winter of 1941-42 when, because of hunger cold and hard labor at the Aerodrome, the health condition of the ghetto population worsened.
In general, the Medical Commission had a difficult and unthankful task. On the one hand, it had to defend the interests of the Labor Office to which it belonged, and therefore it was stingy with permits for the sick when many sick were not freed from work duty, etc. On the other hand, in the Ghetto there were many people whose strength was destroyed by the inhumane forced labor. From the medical standpoint, these commissions had to guard the victims from punitive work and ease their fate, as much as possible.
Since the Medical Commission would strive to represent the interests of the Labor Office more than of the working people, it was not much loved by the working ghetto population. Most work duty ghetto Jews would relate to the Medical Commission with the same critical attitude, as for example, towards the Mobilization and Punishment Division, because the sick and physically weak ghetto Jew could not always find the needed understanding for his health condition there.
When a work duty person, due to his weakened health condition, would not be able to work a full work week, the Medical Commission would note how many days per week the sick person can do his work duty. On the work card of said person the day of the week he is on work duty would be visible. For the remaining days of the week, he would remain at home.
For everyone working at the Aerodrome, the most bitter and difficult of all the jobs at which the ghetto Jews worked was working at the Aerodrome. The city brigades had comparatively lighter work conditions. Thus, the Medical Commission decided whether the work duty person who was suffering from a chronic illness, could continue working at the Aerodrome, or should be transferred to work in a lighter city brigade.
The Medical Commission determined whether the very sick could work in the Ghetto itself as a ghetto worker.
As was seen, with respect to the work, this was a very big relief.
The incurably sick people would be freed completely from work duty by the Medical Commission. However, those very sick persons who could work did not want to figure among the invalids of the Ghetto and thereafter be in danger of being captured during an extermination Action, as a ballast for the Ghetto. Most of these sick people would rather agree to go to work in the Ghetto itself, just to, at least, have the work card of a ghetto worker on him.
On the back side: Police registrations and other marks
All the determinations by the Medical Commission, like for example, permits, changes in the weekly number workdays of work duties, etc., were transferred to the Registry Division, so that these determinations would be noted in the Registry books.
Not looking at all the negative moments in the activity of the Medical Commission, it carried out a fairly positive role in the realm of protecting the health of the working ghetto population. Forced labor destroyed their physical strength.
Those doctors active in the Medical Commission were: Dr. Nachumovski, Dr. Vindsberg (both liberated in Dachau); Dr. Gilde, Dr. Friedman, Dr. Levitan (all died during the liquidation of the Ghetto), and others.
In addition to the Medical Commission, the Labor Office also had an active Sanitary Service which would be engaged in organizing medical stations at the workplaces, like for example, at the Aerodrome, and in the larger work brigades in the city. In such a large workplace, they would place a doctor, together with the permanent workers, to give medical help during unfortunate situations. The heads of the Sanitary Service were Dr. Goldberg (liberated after leaving the Ghetto); Dr. Ch. Finkelshtein (liberated in Dachau), and others.
H. Division for Social Welfare
There was also a Social Office in the Ghetto which organized the question of social help for the needy. Also, at the Labor Office there was a special division for social help. During this time when the Social Office helped all destitute ghetto Jews, independent of whether they worked or not, the Social Division at the Labor Office only took care of the destitute, specifically for the needy aerodrome workers.
It was also lamented at various other times, that mainly the destitute ghetto Jews worked at the Aerodrome. In addition, they were engaged in heavy work and their material situation was dismal. For these people the Social Division at the Labor Office would see to getting them a piece of clothing, a pair of wooden shoes, some food products, a bunch of wood, etc.
The Social Division did not demonstrate any greater tangible accomplishments because its resources were limited. These divisions would also deal with giving support to the needy workers through the general Social Office, whose possibilities for social help were much greater than their own.
The economic situation in the Ghetto became more stabilized with relation to the growth of the number of Jewish workers for the city brigades versus the Jewish work for the Aerodrome. Thus, the relevance of social help in ghetto life dropped. The possibilities to battle out a livelihood increased. This was the cause for a decrease in the number of people noted for support. When they started transporting Jews to the labor camps, the question about social support for the needy camp Jews was revisited, once again.
All appointments by the Social Division of the Labor Office were completed in the Small Ghetto Workshops which exclusively worked for the population in the Ghetto and in the camps.
Leaders in the Division of Social Help were Engineer Bargman (former Vice-Chair of the Labor Office) and G. Markovski (earlier was in another Labor Office Division, later transported to the Large Ghetto Workshops).
I. Ghetto Gates
Traffic between the Ghetto and the outside world would take place through the specially built Ghetto Gates. At first there were two Ghetto Gates: one in the area of the old section of Slabodka (on the corner of Krisciukaicio and Ayregoler streets), and the second, in the new area of the Slabodka suburb (on the of corner Varniu and Paneriu streets). However, the main traffic would take place through the first Ghetto Gate. Since December 1943, when Jews had to leave the area of old Slabodka, then the traffic between the Ghetto and the city took place only through the gate on Varniu street.
In addition to the large Ghetto Gates, in the early years the Ghetto also had a pair of smaller exits to the free world. These little gates were used by the guards of the Ghetto Guards, and a few Jewish work brigades, which worked in the neighborhood of the small exit. In the general traffic between the Ghetto and the city, these little gates occupied no distinguishable position.
Security guards would always stand at the Ghetto Gates. The following held watch around the Ghetto Fence and by the Ghetto Gates during the three-year ghetto existence: German Police, G.S.K.K people, Lithuanian Partisans and Police, Hungarian S.S. people, and at the very end, during the ghetto liquidation, Latvian S.S. men together with Gestapo people. A few ghetto guards had their work methods which had huge significance in the daily life of the ghetto Jew.
At the Ghetto Gates, together with the guards from the Ghetto Guard,[u] there would also be functionaries represented by the Jewish Ghetto Police and from the Labor Office. Officially, the duty of the Jewish Police and of the Labor Office employees was to be helpful at the exit in the morning when the Jewish workers in the city went to work, and at night at their return from the city to the Ghetto. However, aside from that, as we will see, they actually carried out entirely different functions.
Approximately 6-7 thousand Jewish men and women worked at the Aerodrome and in the various City Brigades. At around 5 am, the city workers would start getting ready at the assembly place near the Ghetto Gate, grouped according to the individual brigades in the city, and according to the columns for the Aerodrome. In these hours inspectors would start arriving at the Ghetto Gate from the workplaces, together with military guards, to transport the Jews to work.
The eventual march out of the workers, who had worked in dozens of different workplaces, would take about one hour. The Jewish functionaries at the Ghetto Gate required much organizational work: lining the people up in rows, grouping the people according to their workplace, and counting the people or the passage through the Ghetto Gate. This was done to give the regime organization a daily registration of the number of working ghetto Jews and above all to ensure, on the spot, the recruitment of the daily missing number of people for the Aerodrome and other heavy workplaces. All of this had to be organized by the Jewish officials at the Ghetto Gate.
Like real slaves, the Jews would have to go through the Ghetto Gate with great speed and with uncovered heads. Nearby, the Nazis would address them not only with curse words and insulting expressions from the Hitlerite lexicon, but not infrequently they would let loose with their rubber sticks, their loaded guns, etc.
But not only the Nazis themselves were at the Ghetto Gate demonstrating their cruel relationship with the Jews. To our great shame we must state that also some higher Jewish ghetto officers, like for example the chief of the Jewish Police at the Ghetto Gate, T. Arnshtam, the people from the Mobilization and Punishment Division, P. Margolis, the people from the Aerodrome Division, V. Lurie, and others would very often show the Germans that they, too, can be harsh with the Jews…
This contemptible handling by the Jewish ghetto powers was much more painful to the Jews than the brutal behavior towards them by the Nazis. Shameful scenes, like how one Jew with yellow patches beats or curses another Jew also with yellow patches, would create a shattering and painful impression and would remain to illustrate the extraordinary situation of the simple ghetto Jew.
At night, when the Jewish workers from the city would start returning to the Ghetto, the real festival at the Ghetto Gate would begin again. First, they would have to count the Jews returning from work, to see if anyone remained in the city; second, a control took place to see if Jews were carrying into the Ghetto any rationed food products which they illegally acquired at work. The controllers would mainly be German guards from the Ghetto Security[v] and the confiscated products would be transferred to their authority.
The Jewish functionaries at the Ghetto Gate were very energetic young people. Despite the strongest controls, they set up such commercial relationships that for a price of a bribe, Jews could peacefully bring in their purchased products. A similar situation also took place in the morning when going to work. Jews would carry out of the Ghetto various items to exchange in the city with Christians. Also, it would then be necessary for the guards at the Ghetto Gate to check the Jews, who were unkosher.
The Jewish officers who negotiated with the guards at the Ghetto Gate made a thriving business just from these unique transactions. A few of them actually became rich from this and lived in such material prosperity that they never dreamed of. However, for the Ghetto, it was a mediation activity that was a very necessary. Thanks to this work with the guards at the gate, thousands of Jews could bring food products into the Ghetto daily. Therefore, the Ghetto was not slated for hunger rations from the official welfare for the Jewish population.
True, a huge amount of food product was confiscated at the Ghetto Gate each day, but according to the number of products which were brought in it was relatively small. It would be bad in those cases when during the search at the Ghetto Gate, an inspector from the City Commissariat or from the Gestapo would suddenly arrive, and the controllers would have to show their strength. Then they would not only confiscate the products but also the guilty would be punished with lashes, with jail, etc. This did not frighten anyone from bringing purchased livelihood into the Ghetto again the next day.
When the movement of the youth to leave to the partisans arose, the Jewish functionaries at the Ghetto Gate helped very much in getting these people out of the Ghetto, by bringing arms into the Ghetto, etc. Through various schemes, they would turn the heads of the guards, and in this respect never failed. Also, the carrying out of children from the Ghetto to give them to Christian families in the city or in the village would almost not have been possible without the mediation of the Jews who worked at the Ghetto Gate.
Therefore, it is understandable why the Ghetto Gate played such an important role in the life of the ghetto Jew and why it took up such a distinguished position in the folkloric creations of the Ghetto. Actually, that's why the folk songs and sayings about the Ghetto Gate were very popular for the ghetto population.
From the Labor Office, the work at the Ghetto Gate was carried out by: Natkin (a German Jew liberated in Dachau) and Yankl Verbovski (he was the inspiration of the Jewish functionaries at the Ghetto Gate and he played the most important role in all the aforementioned issues. Saved himself in a malina in the days of the deportation). In addition to the above, the following were also active: I. Tarko (a Polish Jew liberated in Dachau); S. Shvartz (killed during the ghetto liquidation); Z. Shalitan (liberated in Dachau); I. Lurie (killed in the Ghetto during the liquidation), and others.
The Chief of the Jewish Police at the Ghetto Gates was Arnshtam[w]. All the other higher police functionaries at the Ghetto Gates like Aranovski, Chvales, Zshopovitch, and others were shot at the 9th Fort during the arrest of the Ghetto Police. Policemen who were active for a longer time at the Ghetto Gates were: Alexandrovitch (liberated in Dachau); Perkol (liberated by leaving the Ghetto); Isserlies (killed by a Christian in the countryside); Levenshtein (liberated in Dachau; as a Kapo he had a bad time with the inmates in the camp); Slonimski (liberated in Dachau), and many others.
After carrying out a cross section of the structure and foundation activity of the individual Labor Office Divisions, it is necessary to add that in the developing history of the Jewish Labor Office[x] we must differentiate the following stages:
A. Since the founding of the Ghetto in August 1941, until the eve of Spring 1942, the Jewish Labor Office carried out and provided Jewish work forces. These forces were received by the German Labor Office in Kovno through the mediation of the one responsible for ghetto issues in the City Commissariat.
B. Thereafter, an affiliate of the German Labor Office in Kovno was founded in the Spring of 1942. So, the Jewish Labor Office would receive orders for Jewish labor forces directly from the German Labor Office in the Ghetto.
The German Labor Office in the Ghetto would give the Jewish Labor Office only the general request to put together work forces. The official determination and the distribution of work cards was the job of the Jewish Labor Office. Such a situation continued until Autumn 1943 when the Ghetto was taken out of the jurisdiction of the City Commissariat and was transferred to Goecke's authority.
During the year and a half between Spring 1942 and Autumn 1943, at the head of the German Labor Office stood S.A. Captain Hermann, who, as noted,[y] didn't give the Ghetto too many big problems. On the contrary, for the price of frequent and nice gifts, he would attempt to comply as much as possible with Jewish wishes. His tenure was connected to the peaceful period in ghetto life, specifically free from Actions and other decrees, as well as with the ghetto prosperity, when the economic situation was tolerable.
C. When the Ghetto was converted into a concentration camp in November 1943, Goecke appointed S.S. Unit Leader, Ouer[z] as leader of the German Labor Office. The functions of the Jewish Labor Office then shrank even more than in the time of Hermann.
D. After the liquidation of the Elders Council and of the Jewish Ghetto autonomy almost all the Jewish ghetto institutions were closed, and among them also the Jewish Labor Office. The leading functionaries were then transported as technical workers to the German Labor Office in the Ghetto. Such a situation continued until the liquidation of the Ghetto.
As already mentioned, Dr. Itchak Rabinovich was appointed by the Elders Council to be a Jewish advisor to the German Labor Office. During the days of Hermann, he contributed a lot for the benefit of the Ghetto. During the Goecke period he manifested complete obedience to Goecke's plans which, in general, stood like a complete slap to Jewish life-interests and personally, he committed quite a few sins.
In addition to Dr. Rabinovitch (liberated in Dachau) in the German Labor Office, there were: Yotkowski (during the Kinder Action he went together with his child); Melamedovich (killed in a malina during the ghetto liquidation); Meris, Dr. Shlapoverski (both liberated in Dachau); Ms. Tchernow (killed in Ghetto during the deportation); Mrs. Sh. Rabinowitz (liberated in a labor camp in Germany), and others.
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