Murder of the Jewish Community of Kaunas, Lithuania.
For the year between the summers of 1940 and 1941 there were Soviet troops stationed in Kaunas and it was under Stalin’s rule. This year brought much bitterness to the population and many, many people were deported or killed by the NKVD (Soviet police.) This reign of terror, which impacted all the citizens equally, was blamed on the Jews due to the common belief that all Jews were Communists. The German Nazis began bombing the city of Kovno on June 22, 1941. This caused the Russian soldiers to flee and they left behind the most vulnerable class of people – the Jews who would be blamed for their crimes. What ensued were multiple reigns of terror, first at the hands of their Lithuanian neighbors, then under the administration of the Nazi occupiers.
Abandoned items in the Kovno Ghetto After Liquidation
On this day the citizens of Kovno heard bombings overhead and were told that there was now a war between the Germans and the Soviets. Over the next 48 hours the Jews of Kovno will do everything they can to escape the city and make it to the Russian border where they will be safe from the encroaching Nazi forces.
Kaunas is bombed by the Germans, and the Russian soldiers flee the city in a mad scramble. Everyone with a car or means of transportation heads eastward and the train stations are clogged with people, most of them Jews. Germans bomb the city throughout the coming two days and some of the Lithuanians participate in attacks against Jews trying to flee. Jews fleeing are robbed on the road and the Jewish residents that stayed in Kaunas avoid going out almost entirely.
On June 24, 1941 the Nazis enter Kaunas and there is a massive pogrom in the Jewish suburban area of Viliampole(Slobodka.) Franz Stahlecker writes that at least 1,500 Jews were killed on the first night alone – multiple thousands would fall victim to the Lithuanian anti-Communist partisans in the coming days. Many Jews were imprisoned in the VII fort on the outskirts of Kaunas, where they were later tortured and shot.
During the years between 1920-1939 Kaunas (Kovno) was that capital of the country of Lithuania. Over 40,000 of its inhabitants were Jews and they made up approximately 25% of the total population on the eve of World War II.
Jewish Women’s group gets together for an event in pre-war Kovno.
Testimony of a German Photographer:
“I was confronted by the following scene: in the left corner of the yard there was a group of men aged between thirty and fifty. There must have been forty to fifty of them. They were herded together and kept under guard by some civilians. The civilians were armed with rifles and wore armbands, as can be seen in the pictures I took. A young man – he must have been a Lithuanian – with rolled-up sleeves was armed with an iron crowbar.
He dragged out one man at a time from the group and struck him with the crowbar with one or more blows on the back of his head. Within three quarters of an hour he had beaten to death the entire group of forty-five to fifty people in this way. I took a series of photographs of the victims.
After the entire group had been beaten to death, the young man put the crowbar to one side, fetched an accordion and went and stood on the mountain of corpses and played the Lithuanian national anthem. I recognised the tune and was informed by bystanders that this was the national anthem.
The behaviour of the civilians present (women and children) was unbelievable. After each man had been killed they began to clap and when the national anthem started up they joined in singing and clapping.
In the front row there were women with small children in their arms who stayed there right until the end of the whole proceedings. I found out from some people who knew German what was happening here.
They explained to me that the parents of the young man who had killed the other people had been taken from their beds two days earlier and immediately shot, because they were suspected of being nationalists, and this was the young man’s revenge. Not far away there was a large number of dead people who according to the civilians had been killed by the withdrawing Commissars and Communists.
While I was talking to the civilians an SS officer came up to me and tried to confiscate my camera. I was able to refuse since in the first place the camera was not mine but had been allocated to me for my work, and second I had a special pass from 16th Army High Command, which gave me authorisation to take photographs everywhere.
I explained to the officer that he could only obtain the camera if he went through Generalfeldmarscall Busch, whereupon I was able to go on my way unhindered”
The Kovno Ghetto
The Kovno Ghetto was to be created in the dilapidated area of Slobodka, an area where there had previously been only 8,000 residents would now need to hold a minimum of 35,000. The task of moving the Jews to this ghetto was headed by the well-known Dr. Elchanan Elkes, who established a Council of Elders for the Jewish community on August 8, 1941. The residents of the ghetto had to be moved in by August 15, 1941, and on that day the ghetto was sealed. For the first two months there was a “small ghetto” and a “large ghetto” connected by a wooden footbridge, but the small ghetto was liquidated on October 4, 1941 when all 1,845 of its residents (including 818 children) were killed.
On October 28, 1941 the Jews were to assemble in the Demokratu Square to go through a selection; this event is now known as the “large Aktion,” because 10,000 residents who were deemed unfit to work were murdered at the IX fort one day later. Of these 10,000 Jews who were murdered, half were children. After this the Kaunas ghetto entered into the quiet period for two years, where daily life in the ghetto went on without mass executions of its populace. Pregnancies and births were prohibited in the ghetto and there were a few incidents that disrupted the calm; such as the public hanging of Nahum Meck for smuggling or the execution of some men during the “Stalingrad Aktion” in February 1943. Throughout the calm time there were many transports from Germany and western Europe that came and were shot at the IX fort without any selections.
On October 26, 1943, the SS deported more than 2,700 people from the main ghetto; those fit for work went to Estonia, whereas children and elderly people were sent to Auschwitz.
The Soviet army liberated Kovno on August 1, 1944. Of Kovno’s few Jewish survivors, 500 had survived in forests or in bunkers. It is estimated that of the original Jewish residents of Kovno, only 2,000 survived the war.
Jews of Kaunas Ghetto going to forced labor duties.