The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police
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The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police

By Anonymous Members of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police

Samuel Schalkowsky, Samuel Schalkowsky, Samuel Schalkowsky

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eBook - ePub

The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police

By Anonymous Members of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police

Samuel Schalkowsky, Samuel Schalkowsky, Samuel Schalkowsky

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"Remarkable... provides a graphic and unparalleled description of the conditions under which the Jews of Kaunas tried to live and survive." — The Forward As a force that had to serve two masters, both the Jewish population of the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania and its German occupiers, the Kovno Jewish ghetto police walked a fine line between helping Jews survive and meeting Nazi orders. In 1942 and 1943 some of its members secretly composed this history and buried it in tin boxes. This book details the creation and organization of the ghetto, the violent German attacks on the population in the summer of 1941, the periodic selections of Jews to be deported and killed, the labor required of the surviving Jewish population, and the efforts of the police to provide a semblance of stability. A substantial introduction by distinguished historian Samuel D. Kassow places this powerful work within the context of the history of the Kovno Jewish community and its experience and fate at the hands of the Nazis. "No book I've read in recent time about the Holocaust has so moved me, evoking the utter helplessness of the Jew, the plight of the Jewish policeand the cunning cruelty of the German. This is a gripping story, page by page, and it reminds us again that there but for the grace of God go we all." —Marvin Kalb, Senior Advisor to the Pulitzer Center and Edward R. Murrow Professor, Emeritus, Harvard Kennedy School "A landmark of Holocaust historiography." — Slavic Review

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THE HISTORY OF THE Jewish ghetto police is, at the same time, also the history of the entire Kovno ghetto. All the shocks and grim experiences, the persecutions and bloody murders—the entire chapter of blood, pain, and tears—form the horrible background of the evolution of the Jewish ghetto police, from its first moment of creation to this day.
It is impossible at this time to sum up, to achieve what might amount to a comprehensive description of life in the Kovno ghetto, or to provide a summary of the activities of the ghetto institutions. First, to this day, we are still, regrettably, in the midst of “activity,” in the storm of events. The history of the Kovno ghetto is not yet complete; new pages are added daily, drenched in tears and blood. The future fate of the few Lithuanian Jews in general, and of the surviving remnants in Kovno in particular, is not yet known. There cannot as yet be any talk of summarizing. Second, too many events are still too close, too fresh, to allow for objective reporting of the behavior of this or that person, of this or that institution. We are too deeply immersed in the ghetto to rise high above it, as would be necessary to be able to objectively judge people and events.
The creators of this history are themselves policemen; they will, of necessity, look, so to speak, through policemen’s glasses. They will, however, try with all their might to preserve objectivity, to convey all experiences and events in their true light, as they actually occurred, without exaggerating or diminishing them. The time has not as yet come to make it possible to accurately investigate everything. Certain inaccuracies are therefore possible in some places, but they will not be significant. In any event, the future historian will find here sufficient verified material of the history of the Kovno Jews in the gruesome years of 1941, 1942, . . . and this is the most important objective of the lines that follow.

The Prehistory of the Kovno Ghetto


The First Weeks

June 22, 1941, the day when the two giants—the National Socialist Germany and the Bolshevik Soviet Union—collided, is the turning point in the history of the world war, which will determine the fate of all the nations and of all the continents for centuries to come. June 22 is also a fateful day for Lithuanian Jewry—in the months to follow the destiny of eight- to nine-tenths of Lithuania’s Jews will forever be sealed.
On Sunday, June 22, on the very first day of the war, as soon as it became clear that the Soviet army was retreating and that the principal institutions were being evacuated from Kovno in a strange haste, a terrible turmoil began among the Jews of Kovno. As early as Sunday night, increasingly on Monday, and even into Tuesday, the Jews of Kovno began to flee the city. They traveled by train, by truck, by wagon, by bicycle, and on foot. They left behind and abandoned all their worldly possessions, taking along a bundle of necessities, a suitcase, and headed to the train station or directly to the highway that leads through Vilkomir to Dvinsk. Jews were trying to escape the black fate that had more than once descended upon them like a dark cloud. They knew that with the arrival of the Germans a terrible time awaited them. When we, the Jews of Kovno, attempted to look ahead, to make even a crude prediction as to what awaited us, we shuddered from the blackness and envisaged terrible things. Even so, the reality greatly exceeded in blackness and dreadful events anything the greatest pessimist could have imagined.
The Jews of Kovno ran, but they did not get far. The trains were bombarded from the air, the rail lines destroyed. On the highway, motorized military units caught up with and overran the Jewish refugees. The small group of Jews who managed to reach the Russian front line (to the extent that it is known in the ghetto), were not allowed in for fear that they might be spies. And so thousands of Jews began the return trip, which ended in prisons, at the Seventh Fort (in Kovno),1 in villages, or in ghettos (for example, in Vilkomir). Here they were “annihilated” along with tens of thousands of other Jews. An indeterminate number of the refugees did manage to sneak back into Kovno, but most were unable to reenter their homes: Germans and Lithuanians had already occupied them, or had, at least, taken all their valuable belongings.
Immediately, in the first days of the war, Lithuanian partisans2 began to grab Jews in the streets, to brutally drag men and women from their homes, and to take them to prisons and to the forts. At first it was thought that this was a passing event. Increasingly it became clear that the slaughters were organized and orchestrated from one place and carried out in pogrom style.
Before there was even a trace of Germans in Kovno, Lithuanian partisans were already raging and planning their bloody treat. Monday, June 23, around noon, there was an announcement on the Kovno radio station, which had already been captured by the Lithuanian partisans, that there were incidents of Jews firing from windows on Lithuanian “freedom fighters”; that for each such shot, 100 Jews would be shot. Numerous provocations started after this announcement. Lithuanian partisans would run into a house and announce that shots had been fired from this house, and the Jews from such a house would immediately be taken to prison or to the fort, or, in some cases, shot on the spot. Partisans would come looking for weapons, which might have been planted—a box of cartridges would be sufficient—and again, prison, fort, or finished on the spot. The original threat—“a hundred Jews for one shot”—was transformed into “hundreds of Jews—for nothing.”
The “yellow prison” (the large Kovno prison), which emptied out early Monday—during the interregnum—when everyone ran away, filled up again. Shortly afterwards (as reported by the newly baked Lithuanian newspaper Freedom) a “Concentration Camp for Jews” was established—the infamous Seventh Fort. To this place were transferred all the men, women, and children from the yellow prison, as well as families from the city, and the escaping Jewish families who were captured on the roads leading to Kovno.
The Seventh Fort! One shudders when hearing from the dozens of eyewitnesses, who by miracle or chance had returned from the fort, the horrifying descriptions of the murders that took place there. They tell of the four to five thousand Jews held there in 30-degree [87 degrees Fahrenheit] heat without water or bread, of the hundreds of women who were raped and then brutally murdered by the scoundrels. They tell of the four to five thousand young men—among them the best, most talented and intelligent that Jewish Kovno possessed—who perished there at the hands of the Lithuanian partisans in horrible ways.
The Seventh Fort was a “Concentration Camp for Jews” in name only; in truth it was a place where Jews were murdered. Jews would be led in groups to a pit at the fort and shot. Following one group, a second group would have to cover them, dig their own graves, and themselves be shot. One member of the last group would bring back the shovels.
The picture of the Seventh Fort is unimaginably horrible. Hundreds and thousands of people languishing on the ground, some of them having lost consciousness. Standing up is not allowed; those who disobey are beaten or shot on the spot. Those nearby are jealous of the few “fortunate ones” who have a bottle of water. All lie beaten and battered like whipped dogs, without energy or will power. No one even thinks about escape. A kind of instinctive apathy overcomes the people: When will this finally end?
To shoot Jews was a sport and an honor. A basketball match took place during the first few days of the war between a select Lithuanian team and a German team. After the match, the winners—the Lithuanians—were honored by being allowed to shoot a group of a few dozen Jews.
Even more vicious than the heroics at the fort was the story of the garage on Vitautas Prospect opposite the Polish gymnasium. Many Jews were assembled there, but they were not shot—that would be too easy a death for Jews. Instead they were beaten with auto repair tools until they fainted, then revived with a bucket of cold water and beaten again until they were dead.
A similar scene also played out in the “Lietukis garage.” There the Jews were also beaten to death with tools, and the few who had not yet expired had to smear a rag in the blood of the dead and dance around the “red flag,” as the partisans called it. Partisans sat down on a pile of the dead and played Soviet melodies on a harmonica. We heard of a case in the “Lietukis garage” of a hose being pushed into the mouth of a Jew and the water allowed to gush until he suffocated.
The partisans sought to outdo each other in their cruelty to the Jews. To be ordered to clean the filth from the street with one hand, while holding a broom in the other hand, but not being allowed to use it—such tortures were heard of. But to be forced to lie on one’s stomach and clear the manure from the street by shuffling with the face on the ground—that was a new, apparently Lithuanian, invention.
Jews who by chance did not end up in the fort or in the garages, or in similar places, sat for weeks in their dwellings, afraid to stick their noses out into the street because of the ever-present danger of death.
When the capture of Jews on the streets became too meager, the “clearing” of the houses began. A number of them would surround a building, having previously contrived with the building superintendent that shots had been fired from within the building, and bring out the Jews. The storuzes3 played a decisive role in these events: if they interceded for the building, then all went well (some wardens would flatly deny that Jews lived in their building); if not—then the end result came quickly. Other wardens wanted to share in the material goods acquired by the Lithuanians—here, again, the fate of the building was sealed. The planting of weapons in these cases was widely practiced.
On Thursday, June 26, occurred the terrible, organized pogrom of the Jews in Slobodka. The Kovno suburb of Slobodka, particularly the old section, is—as is known—largely inhabited by Jews.
Organized groups of Lithuanian partisans, with the concurrence and blessing of the German authorities, went from house to house, particularly in the densely populated streets (Jurburker, Velianos, Synagogos, Mesininku, and others) and “searched for communists.” They stabbed and slaughtered in the most brutal ways, men and women, old people and small children, without distinction. With terrible sadism they struck heads with hatchets, stabbed and shot. The partisans went into the houses and chased the people out of their beds into the yards, where they lined them up against a wall and shot them. Or they would assemble a few dozen people in one room and blindly shoot them; those who remained alive they stood up against a wall and shot them (for example, in the dwelling of the well-known Jewish sportsman Mishelski, Mesininku 9).
The slaughter continued throughout all of Wednesday night. On Thursday morning the slaughter and shooting stopped. The partisans decided to make a public spectacle. They grabbed Jews—mainly men—on the streets of Slobodka, brought them to the “house of the shooters” (shaulists) on Raudondvario Street, and from there transported them over the Slobodka bridge to the bank of the Vilia (on the Kovno side), where a pit had already been prepared. They captured about thirty men, some from the bridge itself (they took Doctor Minz off the Red Cross motor vehicle and brought him to the pit). Altogether they assembled thirty-four men, gray-haired and young Jews alike. One rabbi was standing in prayer with talith [prayer shawl] and tfilin [phylacteries] just as the murderers entered. They dragged him, “the communist,” to the execution place at the river. There they were all shot and buried in the presence of an audience of Lithuanians who cheered and applauded.
The same day, Thursday, the partisans went around sealing the doors of all dwellings that contained dead bodies. Refuse carts were mobilized on Friday to carry the murdered people to graves that had been dug to the left of the bridge on the Slobodka side, and to the right—near the meadow.
The situation of the Jews in the first weeks after the Germans marched in can be quite simply characterized as follows: we, our life and our belongings, became hefker:4 Any non-Jew could do with us as he pleased. We were plundered, beaten, raped, shot, slaughtered. The most disgusting and shameful deeds were done to us in the suburbs of Kovno and in the center of the city (not to mention the entire province), and there was no one to raise his voice on our behalf. Dark powers assumed authority, the slumbering demon awoke. Many heinous deeds were done only to rob, to delight in Jewish possessions. Many murders crying out to heaven happened only out of sadism.
It would seem that there had been so many friends of the Jews among the Lithuanians. Where were they all? Did they all crawl into holes out of fear? Or did a substantial number of them secretly delight in the plight of the Jews? We observed on the part of many intelligent, previously quite decent Lithuanians such lack of understanding of the situation of the Jews, such lack of empathy, such la...

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