Kovno (Lith., Kaunas; Pol., Kowno; Ger., Kauen)
City in central Lithuania that was an important spiritual and cultural center for the Jews of Eastern Europe. It was famous for its Slobodka yeshiva, its extensive Zionist activities, and its Hebrew school system.
In 1939, approximately 40,000 Jews lived in Kovno, constituting nearly one-quarter of the city's total population. During the Soviet rule, in 1940-41, the Hebrew educational institutions were closed down and most of the Jewish social and cultural organizations were liquidated; of the city's five Yiddish dailies, only one remained in existence, becoming an organ of the Communist party. On June 14, 1941, hundreds of Jewish families, among them factory owners, merchants, public figures, and Zionist activists and leaders, were rounded up and exiled to Siberia.
Even before the German occupation of the city on June 24, 1941, bands of Lithuanians went on a rampage against the Jews, especially those living in the Slobodka suburb. The murder of Jews continued when the Germans occupied Kovno and took charge of the killings. Thousands of Jews were moved from the city to other locations, such as the Seventh Fort (one of a chain of forts constructed around Kovno in the 19th century), where they were first brutally mistreated by the Lithuanian guards and then shot to death. It is estimated that 10,000 Jews were murdered in June and July of 1941.
When a civilian administration was set up by the Germans, with SA-Brigadefuehrer Hans Kraemer as city commissar, it issued a range of anti-Jewish decrees. The Jews were given one month to move into the ghetto that was being established. The area earmarked consisted of two parts (the “small ghetto” and the “large ghetto”), both situated in Slobodka, on either side of the main thoroughfare. A barbed-wire fence, with posts manned by Lithuanian guards, was put up around the ghetto, the gates of which were also watched by German police.
When the ghetto was sealed off in August 1941, it contained 29,760 Jews. In the following two and a half months, 3,000 Jews were killed. On October 28, the “Gross Aktionwas staged, in the course of which 9,000 persons (half of them children) were taken to the Ninth Fort and murdered there. The Aktionen were then discontinued and a prolonged period of relative calm set in, which lasted up to March 1944. Of the 17,412 Jews then left in the ghetto, most of the adults were put to forced labor, mainly in military installations outside the ghetto. Two thousand Jews, most of them skilled artisans, were put to work on jobs related to the war effort. Another 4,600 Jews worked in the ghetto workshops. Instead of wages, the Jews were given food rations, which in fact were on a starvation level. To stay alive, the ghetto inhabitants sold off their remaining possessions and used the proceeds to buy the food that was being smuggled into the ghetto at great risk.
Even during the so-called quiet period, the Jews suffered from punitive measures and unpleasant surprises. In February 1942, the Jews were ordered to hand in all the books, manuscripts, and printed materials in their possession; in August of that year, the synagogues were closed down and public prayer services were outlawed. The Bureau of Education and the schools were closed (except for the vocational-training schools), and the bans on bringing food into the ghetto and being in possession of cash were strictly enforced. Hundreds of people were deported to Riga, or sent to work camps in various parts of Lithuania.
Life inside the ghetto was administered by the Council of Elders of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Community (Aeltestenrat der Juedischen Ghetto Gemeinde Kauen), chaired by Dr. Elhanan Elkes, a well-known physician and public personality. Leib Garfunkel, a lawyer and veteran Zionist leader, acted as his deputy. The Aeltestenrat appointed and supervised the Jewish police, which was responsible for the forced labor and the maintenance of public order. Health, welfare, and culture services were provided by the Aeltestenrat in the form of a hospital and medical clinic, a home for the aged, a soup kitchen, a school, and an orchestra. There were concerts, lectures, literary evenings, and other cultural events. After public education was prohibited, it was nonetheless kept up under the cover of the vocational-training schools.
The political parties were also active, in the first instance by trying to locate their members and come to their aid. This led to the formation of Matsok (the Hebrew acronym for Zionist Center Vilijampole, Kovno), which maintained contact with the anti-Nazi underground of the ghetto. The Aeltestenrat departments also provided substantive aid to the members of the underground who left the ghetto to join the partisans in the forests. In this, as well as in other social and communal aspects, the Kovno Ghetto was a unique phenomenon in the behavior of Jews under Nazi occupation.
Under an order issued by Heinrich Himmler on June 21, 1943, a concentration-camp regime was imposed on the surviving Jews of the Reichskommissariat Ostland ghettos. In the autumn of 1943, the Kovno Ghetto became a central concentration camp, KL (for Konzentrationslager) Kauen. Four thousand inhabitants of the ghetto were transferred to small camps, situated in Kovno's suburbs or its vicinity. On October 26, 1943, 2,800 Jews were moved to work camps in Estonia. An exceptionally cruel blow was dealt to the ghetto on March 27, 1944, when 1,800 persons -- infants, children, and elderly men and women -- were dragged out of their homes and murdered. Also executed were 40 officers of the Jewish police, killed for having given direct aid to the anti-Nazi underground in the ghetto. The remaining police became a Juedischer Ordnungsdienst (Jewish ghetto police) under the direct control of SS men. The Aeltestenrat was abolished, and Dr. Elkes was appointed Judenaeltester (senior Jew), a position devoid of any real authority, although he retained his moral authority among the Jews.
Many in the Zionist youth movements engaged in underground activities, especially after the inspiring visit to Kovno in July 1942 of Irena Adamowicz, a Polish woman who acted as an emissary for the underground movements in the Warsaw and Vilna ghettos. The Communists were also quite active in the anti-Nazi struggle through the Antifascist Struggle Organization, headed by Haim Yelin. In the summer of 1943, the Zionists and the Communists established a joint body, the General Jewish Fighting Organization (Yidishe Algemeyne Kamfs Organizatsye; JFO), whose purpose was to organize operational cells and facilitate their departure from the ghetto so that they could join the partisans. At its height, the JFO had about 600 members. Some were given military training, including instruction in the use of arms, by officers of the Jewish police.
In September 1943, the JFO established a direct link with the partisan movement in Lithuania thanks to the help of a Jewish woman parachutist, Gesja Glazer (“Albina”), who made a secret visit to the ghetto. The new connection enabled the JFO to send armed teams of members to the Augustow Forest] to set up partisan bases there. The price of this venture was heavy: Out of 100 JFO members who took part, 10 were shot to death, 15 died in prison, and 14 were taken to the Ninth Fort.
At the end of 1943, 170 JFO members made for partisan bases in the Rudninkai Forest, south of Vilna (which was nearer than the Augustow Forest) where most of them joined the Kovno battalions of the Lithuanian partisan movement. Altogether, some 350 Kovno Jews, most of them members of the JFO, left the ghetto in order to join the partisans. About 100 of them met their death en route, or were killed in action.
On July 8, 1944, as the Red Army was approaching Kovno, the German authorities began transferring the Jews to concentration camps inside Germany. Many Jews went into hiding in underground bunkers. The Germans used bloodhounds, smoke grenades, and firebombs to force the Jews out into the open; in the process, some 2,000 Jews died, by choking or burning, or as a result of the exp. Only 90 were able to hold out in the bunkers and live to see the Red Army enter Kovno (on August 1, 1944). About 4,000 Kovno Jews were taken to Germany, the majority going either to the Kaufering or the Stutthof concentration camps. In October 1944, they were joined by a number of Kovno Jews who had been held in camps in Estonia. When the camps were liberated, nearly 2,000 Kovno Jews remained alive; together with those who had held out in various hiding places in Kovno and the vicinity, they accounted for 8 percent of the 30,000 Jews who had made up the original population of the ghetto.
After the war, the survivors were joined by Kovno Jews who came back from the Soviet interior. In 1959, 4,792 Jews were living in Kovno, approximately 2 percent of the city's population. Until 1951, Kovno had a Jewish orphanage and a Jewish school, the last such school to exist in the Soviet Union. Many of Kovno's Jews emigrated to Israel.