• Menu

  • Shop

  • Languages

  • Accessibility
Visiting Info
Opening Hours:

Sunday to Thursday: ‬09:00-17:00

Fridays and Holiday eves: ‬09:00-14:00

Yad Vashem is closed on Saturdays and all Jewish Holidays.

Entrance to the Holocaust History Museum is not permitted for children under the age of 10. Babies in strollers or carriers will not be permitted to enter.

Drive to Yad Vashem:
For more Visiting Information click here

How the Jewish Police in the Kovno Ghetto Saw Itself

Dov Levin

  1. The primary sources for this chapter are: Leib Garfunkel, The Destruction of Kovno’s Jewry (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1959); Josef Gar, The Destruction of Jewish Kovno (Yiddish) (Munich: Association of Lithuanian Jews in the American Zone in Germany, 1948); Josef Rosin, “Kovno,” Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities – Lithuania (Hebrew), Dov Levin, ed. (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1996), pp. 443-455.
  2. “Democracy Square”―a large-scale area created from the natural addition to Demokratų Sreet of non-built-up areas on both its sides.
  3. The Lithuanians who volunteered to collaborate with the Nazis and enthusiastically took part in the massacres of the Jews called themselves “partisans.”
  4. Jordan was also a Hauptsturmführer in the SA.
  5. This was the name for the north-western part of the ghetto along all of Panerių Street, one of the ghetto’s four quarters (see note 14 ). It was excluded from the ghetto territory after the “Aktion” of October 4, 1941, when most of its inhabitants were taken away and murdered at the Ninth Fort.
  6. See Avraham Zvie A. Brown and Dov Levin, The Story of An Underground: The Resistance of the Jews of Kovno (Lithuania) in the Second World War (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1962), p. 30; Gar, Destruction, pp. 72-82; Garfunkel, Destruction of Kovno’s Jewry, pp. 73-76. Further horrifying details about the “Great Aktion” are cited in the police manuscript referred to below, pp. 7, 64-75.
  7. For details on this subject, see Brown and Levin, Story of an Underground, pp. 70-128, 210- 248.
  8. Dov Levin, Fighting Back: Lithuanian Jewry’s Armed Resistance to the Nazis 1941-1945 (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1985), p. 174.
  9. Some of those who hid during the Aktion were handed over to the Germans by Jews, including policemen. Some of the policemen agreed to do so after the Germans had threatened to execute them and murder their relatives. For details, see Garfunkel, Destruction of Kovno’s Jewry, pp. 180-181.
  10. For eyewitness testimony about the proud bearing of the policemen during their interrogations and torture prior to their execution, see Moreshet Archives, A. 571; cf. Hirsch Neiburger, “In the Kovno Ghetto” (Hebrew), Yalkut Moreshet, no. 18 (November 1974), pp. 159-161; Garfunkel, Destruction of Kovno’s Jewry, pp. 183-184; Brown and Levin, Story of an Underground, p. 355.
  11. In German this body was called the Ältestenrat der Jüdischen Ghetto-Gemeinde Kauen (“Council of Elders of the Jewish Community of the Kovno Ghetto”), in Yiddish, the “Eltestenrat,” and colloquially also the “Komitet.” In most of the ghettos this institution was known as the “Judenrat.” The “Ältestenrat” was also known in Hebrew as the “Committee of Elders of the Community.” A blue-and-white sign with this inscription was fixed to its office door.
  12. Officially, Dr. Elkes was elected at the same extraordinary meeting of August 5, 1941, to the office of “Head of the Jews” (Oberjude) as demanded by the Germans; see Garfunkel, Destruction of Kovno’s Jewry, pp. 47-48.
  13. Unlike Dr. Elkes, who was involved in the Jewish community and a greatly esteemed physician, Koppelman was among those who had been minimally, if at all, involved in the Jewish community. Nevertheless, as one of the heads of the largest insurance companies in Lithuania (Lietuvos Lloydas), Koppelman was very close to wide-ranging Lithuanian circles, in particular from the economic domain. Early discussions about this position took place on July 9, 1941, in the Komitet- the public committee, part of which became the Ältestenrat. Among other things, it was decided at that time to organize a group of young people to establish order in the apartment used by the Komitet. This assignment was given to Michael Bramson, an officer in the reserves and a senior figure in the association of Jewish front-line fighters in the Lithuanian war of independence, who, for many years, had been a senior teacher in Jewish educational establishments. He perished in a concentration camp in Germany. When Koppelman was chosen as commander-designate of the ghetto police, Bramson was chosen as his deputy. It was also determined that Koppelman would rank second in importance to Elkes vis-à-vis outside bodies. See “The Manuscript,” pp. 16-18; on “The Manuscript,” see below.
  14. On August 17, 1941, two days after the Jews’ incarceration in the ghetto, the boundaries of the ghetto’s four quarters were determined for administrative and other purposes. After an Aktion was carried out on October 4 of that year among most of the inhabitants of the first quarter, the “Small Ghetto” neighborhood, the area of this quarter was removed from the ghetto, leaving it with only three quarters. Accordingly, the ordinal numbers of the three remaining quarters were also changed from 2-4 to 1-3. This division continued up to January 1, 1944, when all of Quarter 1 was removed from the ghetto, leaving it with only two quarters of the original ghetto.
  15. See Aharon Weiss, “The Relations Between the Judenrat and the Jewish Police,” Yisrael Gutman, ed., Patterns of Jewish Leadership in Nazi Europe, 1933-1945 (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1979), p. 211.
  16. Garfunkel, Destruction of Kovno’s Jewry, p. 136. For various reasons, the Germans did not harm these hostages.
  17. For details, see Brown and Levin, Story of an Underground, p. 237; and cf. also Garfunkel, Destruction of Kovno’s Jewry, p. 175.
  18. “The Manuscript,” p. 133; on “The Manuscript,” see below.
  19. In fact, manpower was gradually reduced: 235 at the end of September 1941; 224 on March 17, 1942; 177 on May 15, 1942, and slightly over 150 in November 1942. From then until the liquidation of the police in March 1944 (see below), the numbers remained practically constant.
  20. This phenomenon is expressed in different ways in a considerable part of the historiography of the Kovno ghetto; see, for example, Gar, Destruction, p. 304; Garfunkel, Destruction of Kovno’s Jewry, p. 184; his above-mentioned book also quotes two ghetto songs (“When We Return from Work” and “Tell Me, Jew from the Ghetto”) that contain stinging sarcastic remarks about corruption and profligacy among the policemen; ibid., pp. 284-291. Also see below in this connection.
  21. No precise date for “The Manuscript” has yet been found. An authentic reference to this undertaking was given in the testimony taken by Mrs. Rivka Gutman in Munich, in 1946, from a former policeman in the Kovno ghetto, Hirsch Neiburger: “Thanks to the ghetto police, and in particular thanks to the police commander, Yehuda Zupovitz, a start was made on collecting material about the history of the ghetto in Kovno”; Neiburger, “In the Kovno Ghetto,” p. 156. Josef Gar wrote in his book, published in 1948: “The ghetto police also clandestinely kept lists of the events in the ghetto. Some of these lists fell into the hands of a ghetto inhabitant named Lippman, and as to what happened to all of this – nobody knows”; Gar, Destruction, p. 385. One way or the other, it is possible to determine that all the above sources refer to “The Manuscript” discussed here. There is no doubt that it was not the only such work in the ghetto, since in other sources reference is made to specific people (such as D. Itzkovitz, A. Balosher, Dr. S. Gringaus, Dr. R. Volsonok, B. Tubin, A. Cohen, Y. Kaplan, Ch. N. Shapira, and others) who recorded the events in the Kovno ghetto, whether with the blessing of the Jewish establishment or on their own initiative. Writing about one of them, Abba Balosher, “one of the senior Zionist figures in the city of Kovno, intellectual, scholar, and littérateur,” Garfunkel comments (Destruction of Kovno’s Jewry, p. 237) that “in the ghetto he was given the task of keeping the book of chronicles of the events in the ghetto.” Cf. also Gar, Destruction, p. 385; Pinkas Hakehillot Lithuania, p. 543; Dov Levin, Between Spark and Flame: The ‘Brit Zion Organization’ in the Second World War (Hebrew) (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1987), p. 31.
  22. According to Esther Meirovitz-Schvarz, the senior archivist who dealt with the material in the state archive, in the box together with “The Manuscript” additional material was found, including files of documents and various objects of the Kovno ghetto police, dating from August 16, 1941, to November 1943. At the end of the 1980s, she helped researchers from YIVO, New York, to obtain some of this material, including “The Manuscript,” and when, in 1990, she immigrated to Israel she brought with her an additional copy, of which a copy is in the Yad Vashem Archives, S.N. 14391. Two chapters of “The Manuscript” (Chapters 6 and 11) were published verbatim under the title of “History of the Kovno Jewish Police (Excerpts)” (Yiddish), together with an introduction by Esther Meirovitz-Schvarz and notes by Dov Levin in YIVO Bleter, New Series, Vol. III (1997), pp. 206-295. See also the testimony of Azriel Levi, “Coming of Age Under the Soviets and the Nazis,” (Hebrew, unpublished ms., 1995), p. 12. Levi relates that he was one of three members of an underground squad of Irgun Brit Zion sent to retrieve two tin-covered sealed crates, containing the police ghetto archive, from the home of the murdered police officer Ikkah Greenberg on March 28, 1944. The squad buried the crates that night in the ghetto.
  23. Every page is headed by three running numbers, which are not identical. It may logically be assumed that the numbering was provided during different time periods. The last set of numbering― on the right-hand side of the pages― was apparently written many years after World War II by the staff of the State Archives of Soviet Lithuania. This numbering will be used from now on for reference purposes and for notes about various details in “The Manuscript”.
  24. Such as on page 89, where reference is made to the way that the inhabitants of the ghetto adapted to the ongoing suffering and a parenthetical comment is made to the effect that this referred to twenty months. From this it may be deduced that this sentence was written in June 1943. On page 158, it says explicitly that “these lines were written at the end of August 1943.” Elsewhere in “The Manuscript” (p. 243), it is noted that the money-less economic system, which was introduced in the ghetto in August 1942, has continued to today - November 1943.
  25. “The Manuscript,” p. 115 Most of them are referred to in “The Manuscript” by means of their first letter only. This applies also to institutions such as the Gestapo, referred to by means of the letter “G,” and so forth.
  26. Ibid., pp. 119-120. The quotations are on page 120.
  27. When this event became known in the ghetto, a committee of inquiry was appointed by the Ältestenrat, and several officers were removed from office; ibid., pp. 208-209.
  28. Ibid, p. 106.
  29. Ibid, p. 122.
  30. Sarcastic jibes at authority (police) figures in the Kovno ghetto are to be found in popular songs such as “Der Komitetshick” (The Ältestenrat Functionary), “Yalles” (Dignitaries), “Nit Ayer Mazel” (Your Luck Didn’t Hold), “Hoicher Mann” (The Tall Man), Gar, Destruction, pp. 407-412, and cf. also one of the commonest sayings in the ghetto: “Yeder yalle / hot zain kalle / un politsai / hot zu tsvai” (“every dignitary has his lovely / and a policeman has two”); ibid., p. 417. On a stern conversation at the end of 1943, between a Jewish policeman and a young ghetto resident whose relatives had been sent, by that policeman, to labor camps whence they never returned, see Dov Levin, “Ruins and Remembrance,” Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto, p. 227 (Boston: Bullfinch Press, 1997), and cf. note 20 above.
  31. “The Manuscript,” p. 5.
  32. Since January 11, the German ghetto guard (Ghettowache) had been located in the center of the ghetto in Stulginskio Street, in order to closely control its inhabitants. The guards, headed by the commander – the Ghettokommandant (whom the Jews called “the Kommandant”) – would not infrequently treat the ghetto’s Jews with brutality (including killings) even for the most minor “offense”, and so their mere appearance was terrifying. The guard personnel were stationed around the ghetto fence and therefore quite frequently interfered in what went on inside the ghetto. On numerous occasions the Kommandant would punish “criminal” Jews by means of complaints submitted against them to the Jewish police, including compelling the latter to detain them in the local jail.
  33. Yehuda Zupovitz, a former army reserve officer and active member of Betar and the Irgun Zva’i Leumi, and the commander of the third precinct, was appointed to replace Michael Bramson. Zupovitz steadily rose through the ranks of the ghetto police command, eventually reaching the position of police inspector and deputy to the police chief, Moshe Levin, after the latter replaced Michael Koppelman in this post. There is a great deal of material in “The Manuscript” about the central role played by Zupovitz in heightening public and national awareness among the Jewish police (see p. 249). At the end of March 1944, he was among the forty or so Jewish policemen murdered at the Ninth Fort for assisting the ghetto’s underground and refusing to reveal the hiding places of the ghetto’s children.
  34. Among others, the reference is to the ghettos of Kovno, Riga, and Zhetl (Żdzięioł; Diatlovo) on the one hand, and the ghettos of Vilna, Warsaw, and Minsk on the other. There is a relatively large amount of material on these ghettos.
  35. The full text appears in chapter 11 below (from page 251 of “The Manuscript”). The wording of the undertaking together with the signatures of all those who thus committed themselves first appeared in the article by Aya Ben-Naftali, “The Written Oath Sworn by the Jewish Police in the Kovno Ghetto” (Hebrew), Massuah, 21 (1993), pp. 271-274.
  36. According to the list of names cited in Brown and Levin, Story of an Underground, pp. 354- 355, thirty-nine policemen were murdered. A similar figure is also cited in other sources. See Garfunkel, Destruction of Kovno’s Jewry, p. 183; Gar, Destruction, p. 216. In contrast, Hirsch Neiburger, “In the Kovno Ghetto,” p. 156, refers to thirty-three.
  37. Ben-Naftali, “The Written Oath,” p. 274.
  38. This organization, comprising some fifty people, was formally headed by the Gestapo representative in the ghetto, Benno Lipcer, and run de facto under the command of Police Sergeant Tanhum Arnshtam, previously known for his brutal behavior. After the war the Soviets sentenced him to an extended prison term. Gar, Destruction, p. 218; cf. Brown and Levin, Story of an Underground, pp. 355, 360.
  39. On individual rescue acts by Elkes and Jewish Police Chief Koppelman during the Aktion, see also Avraham Tory, Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 52-54.
  40. Garfunkel, in Destruction of Kovno’s Jewry, p. 75, notes that the weak and ill that remained in the houses were loaded onto trucks and sent to the Ninth Fort. The version in “The Manuscript” seems more reliable. Garfunkel adds (ibid., p. 76) that twenty corpses of elderly people remained in the square after the selection. Tory, Surviving, p. 55, mentions in passing “several dozen bodies of elderly and sick people who had died of exhaustion.” Here, too, “The Manuscript” seems more reliable.
  41. 1Garfunkel (ibid., pp. 73-76), who oversaw the police on behalf of the Ältestenrat, hardly mentions rescue activity by Jewish policemen at this stage. This chapter relates rescue initiatives by policemen that seem to have been more effective than the known rescue attempts by individual policemen in other ghettos. Such was the case in Warsaw, Siedlce, and elsewhere. In contrast, policemen in the Będin and Kraków (second deportation) ghettos consciously avoided such rescue activity. See Aharon Weiss, The Jewish Police in the Generalgouvernement and Upper Silesia during the Holocaust, (Hebrew) Ph.D. dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1973, pp. 104, 150-151, 159, 178, 358-360. The Jewish police in the Otwock ghetto also had freedom of movement, but they were deceived and their families were included among the deportees. According to Calel Perechodnik, the police were “incapable of any act, thought, and even speech…”; Calel Perechodnik, Am I A Murderer? Testament of a Jewish Ghetto Policeman, edited and translated by Frank Fox (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), p. 37.
  42. This number seems to have been rounded off upward by a few hundred and has become the commonly-referred to number.
  43. Before the Great Aktion, the following offices (Amten) functioned in the ghetto, in addition to the police and the fire department: Labor; Housing; Health; Economy; Nutrition; Statistics; Social Welfare. Each office had various sub-divisions.
  44. Based on what is discussed in the following paragraphs, it can be surmised that the administrative and professional development of the police was halted in March-August 1942, as a result of a number of events, including the intervention of Gestapo-functionary Josef Caspi-Serebrovitz (see note 69 below).
  45. This unit is first mentioned in “The Manuscript,” p. 28. This was the highest-ranking unit in the ghetto police and was composed of the police chief, his deputy, the police inspector, field commanders, the head of the office’ and several assistants.
  46. According to “The Manuscript,” p. 29, the first death in the ghetto was recorded by the police on August 17, 1941.
  47. This was the name of the German decree of September 4, 1941, ordering the Jews to hand over all gold and silver items, silver currency and negotiable notes, and precious gems still in their possession. The items were to be delivered to collecting stations set up by the Ältestenrat and the Jewish police. Shirkers would be shot, together with their families and neighbors.
  48. Following the riots that erupted when many ghetto inhabitants broke into the remaining vegetable gardens in the ghetto in order to take potatos and other vegetables, the police issued a stern warning, on August 25, 1941, against such acts. Similar prohibitions were issued against dismantling wood fences and houses, which Jews were doing to get cooking fuel and, later, for heating fuel.
  49. Bracketed sub-headings are additions by the author.
  50. This includes 158 policemen and commanders, investigators, medical staff, registration office, and more.
  51. Although the date here is not complete, it can be surmised that it was December 18, 1941, as indicated in “The Manuscript,” p. 147.
  52. Part 1 addressed disciplinary regulations for the police and the ghetto population. Part 2 related the police ranks (policeman, sergeant, deputy precinct commander, precinct commander, commander for special matters, police inspector, deputy police chief, police chief) and the administrative workers. Part 3 detailed the functions of the Central Office headed by the police chief and his deputy, and the functions and jurisdictions of the various commanders. The police divisions were: the Central Office, three precincts, the criminal department, the population registry office, the prison. Parts 4 and 5 are in the text above.
  53. Ten rubles were worth one Reichsmark. A loaf of bread cost approximately forty rubles on the black market.
  54. Prior to this date sentences in Yiddish increasingly crept into the internal paperwork of the police. It is not clear why the full transition to Yiddish happened on this date, but it can be surmised that upon seeing that the Germans were not interfering with their partial use of Yiddish, and since this was the “quiet period,” the police decided to go over to Yiddish for a trial period. This was for internal affairs.
  55. These included a prosecutor, investigators, medical staff, administrative workers, and messengers.
  56. The German administration in the Kovno district – Gebietskommissariat Kauen.
  57. Apparently the reference is to the prison established in August 1941, on the edge of the ghetto, far from the main ghetto.
  58. Dabokle means detention room.
  59. This was the name by which the long, barrack-like building at 107 Krikščiukaičio Street was known, where homeless people, invalids without families, and social cases lived in the beginning of the ghetto period.
  60. During the Great Aktion, most of the people in the “Reservat” were taken to the Ninth Fort and shot.
  61. “The Manuscript,” p. 149, describes prison conditions as follows: “The prison guards were not in their places. The prison was neglected and filthy. Everyone did whatever he wanted…”
  62. Greenberg had been a reserve officer in the Lithuanian army and a senior member of the Irgun Brit Zion organization in the ghetto. He was among the forty policemen murdered at the end of March 1944, at the Ninth Fort for hiding the children and assisting the ghetto underground.
  63. These were the ghetto workshops established on orders of the Stadtkommissar in December 1941. Hundreds of Jews were engaged in work for the German war effort.
  64. This chapter includes monthly statistical tables on crime in the ghetto for the period August 1941 – February 1942. Six people were punished in August, and the numbers grew during this period, reaching 207 in February (see below). In October, twenty-one people were punished, seventeen of them for “resisting and insulting the police.” In November, 111 were punished: eighty-eight of them for “disobeying sanitation regulations,” and sixteen for “resisting and insulting the police.”
  65. This was Company 4 of a German police transport unit called N.S.K.K. (Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrkorps). It was assigned to guard the ghetto in January 1942. Its commander, until June 17, was Truppenführer A. Tiele.
  66. That was the term used by the ghetto inhabitants for packages of forbidden foods brought from the city.
  67. Of these, 114 were punished for “disobeying registration orders.” This referred especially to those who were hastily removed from their homes on Vienožinskio Street, also known as the “Brazilke” area, on January 11. Thirty-seven were punished for “resisting and insulting the police,” and thirty-four for “disobeying the orders of the authorities as given by the German Kommandant.” This last item reflects the Kommandant’s intervention in the day-to-day affairs of the ghetto; see “The Manuscript,” p. 153.
  68. The contents of this chapter actually address a longer period―at least the last third of 1942, and the beginning of 1943.
  69. Josef Caspi-Serebrovitz had been a teacher and a journalist. He was known for his volatile personality and unstable behavior. Following the German conquest of Kovno, he worked openly for the Gestapo. He, his wife, and their two children were exempted from moving into the ghetto and from wearing the yellow star. He visited the ghetto frequently in the line of duty and often imposed his will on ghetto institutions, interfering with their work routine. For example, he pressured the police to fire Yehuda Zupovitz. “The Manuscript” devotes fifteen pages to Caspi (pp. 200-214). At the end of the summer of 1942, he and his family were transferred to Vilna, where they were executed.
  70. This refers to the practice by the Labor Office representatives at the ghetto gate of separating part of the people gathered there in the morning for work. These people would be moved from their regular work detail to a different one that was short of workers.
  71. This is the phrasing in the original. Apparently, the writers meant to indicate that the felons and the SD detainees were not sent to the same work sites outside the ghetto as were the labor shirkers.
  72. Due to the severe shortage of space, especially in the first period, each person was assigned 3 sq. meters of living space. This was later reduced to 2.5 sq. meters.
  73. The ghetto court that was opened on December 8, 1941, was closed by the order of the German authorities on August 5, 1942.
  74. The criminal department was established on December 5, 1941.
  75. The original includes a table with statistics through the end of December. In this period, the penal department dealt with 113 civil cases and seventy-nine criminal cases. Sixty-four criminal cases brought a conviction, and fifteen an acquittal.
  76. It was called “Ausweis” by the Germans, and this word was transliterated into Yiddish parenthetically here.
  77. Golub (Tory) was secretary of the Ältestenrat until he fled the ghetto during its last stage of existence.
  78. Peretz Padison had been one of the leaders of the Jewish veterans’ organization and a public figure. He assisted the underground extensively in the ghetto and joined the partisans as one of its members in January 1944. Years later he retired in Israel.
  79. “The Manuscript” contains monthly tables. The numbers cited here are the summary statistics for two months. There is no explanation given for the drop in crime at the beginning of 1942. It is likely that this was partially the result of the stabilization of conditions in the ghetto and the economic improvement.
  80. Misha Hofmekler was a policeman and a relative of the famed violinist of the same name. 81December 1, 1942, at 2:20 P.M.
  81. December 1, 1942, at 2:20 P.M.
  82. Leib Garfunkel had been a socialist-Zionist leader before the war and a member of the Lithuanian Sejm. He survived the ghetto and a series of concentration camps and emigrated to Israel after the war.
  83. Yaacov Goldberg was a lawyer and a leading member of the Jewish war veterans. He was arrested during the Soviet period (1940-41) and released upon the German conquest. He moved to South Africa after the war.
  84. Benno (Benjamin) Lipcer had been a travelling salesman before the war and was appointed soon after the German conquest to be the head of the Jews working in maintenance and services in the Gestapo offices in Kovno. He won the trust of his employers and used this in order to gain influence and to intervene in the work of the Ältestenrat, the police, and the labor office. He succeeded, with German backing, to accrue positions of power and titles. He also sometimes intervened on behalf of individuals. He was executed by the Germans prior to the liquidation of the ghetto.
  85. Klotz had been a General Zionist activist before the war. He was among the forty policemen murdered at the end of March 1944.
  86. Psalms 126:1-6.
  87. The writers sensed the decline in the conditions and safety in the ghetto. The creation of the Policeman’s Club and the related activities, such as concerts, were, therefore, indeed part of the peak of the “quiet period.”