The Holocaust in Lithuania

The Holocaust in Lithuania is guilty of destroying one of the most vibrant, unique, and productive Jewish communities in all of Europe.  To examine fully the context of the Holocaust in Lithuania we must look at the years preceeding the events of 1941-1944, particularly at the Soviet occupation from June 1940 – June 1941.  Although anti-Semitism had been rife amongst Lithuanians prior to the occupation by the Soviets, there is no doubt that it took on a completely new and sinister tone afterwards due to the conflation of Jews with Communism.  The Russian occupation of Lithuania was brutal to citizens of all creeds, but the Jews were held responsible for Soviet crimes simply because they were perceived as being in favor of Bolshevism.  This is true: the Jews did greet the Soviet soldiers as heroes and liberators in the same way the Lithuanians would come to greet the Nazis one year later.  On the part of the Jews I can only speculate that they were not as much passionate followers of Stalin, no, they were simply relieved to be under the rule of any non-Nazi entity.  This was a major cleavage in the Lithuanian and Jewish compatriots in their geopolitical orientations: Jews preferred Soviet rule as a ‘lesser of two evils,’ and Lithuanians preferred Nazi rule for the same reasons.  

The perceived cooperation of Jews with Soviets resulted in the bloody pogroms that followed the German recapture of the Baltic countries in June of 1941.  One must remember that the first two weeks of bloody pogroms were carried out without the influence of the Einsatzgruppen as the SS trailed behind the Wehrmacht in its trudge eastward. 

(Pictured below: Scene from Gargzdai, Lithuania – the first shtetl to lose its Jews to Nazis.)

Why Lithuania?

Why did Lithuania have such virulent anti-Semitism?  It lost a higher percentage of its Jewish population than any other pre-war country that would come under Nazi control.  A main reason for this sentiment was the Jews were seen as traitors for welcoming Soviet rule – in actuality, though, the Jews only welcomed Soviet rule because it beat the alternative of Nazism. Another huge factor was the Lithuanians’ perception that they would be granted freedom and independence in Hitler’s new Europe, so they tried to impress their Nazi overlords by vigorously and fervently carrying out the murder of Jews.

In Spring of 1941 there were 250,000 Jews living in Lithuania. This included about 15,000 Jews that had fled Nazi-occupied territory in the years prior.

Phase One: (June, 1941 – November, 1941)

Part I: June and July, 1941

June 22, 1941: Jews in the city of Kovno are fleeing the city during the evening hours.  They are accompanying the retreating Red Army and their families. They took wagons; horses; trains; and cars; they were headed towards Vilnius and Dvinsk and beyond.

June 23, 1941: Jews overflowing the train platforms.  They are leaving from Kaunas (Kovno) and headed towards the border with the USSR.  When the Germans arrive they release political prisoners, who immediately stir up anti-Soviet sentiment.  Unfortunately, the conflation between Jews and Soviet terror was thoroughly engrained in the minds of the Lithuanians.  The Jews were attacked by ruthless and cruel Lithuanian militia.  Chaotic spree of killings continue all throughout the night and into the following day. 

June 24, 1941: The Jews in the cities were being jailed en masse and rural communities were being outright destroyed by the Germans as they blazed through the countryside. 

June 26, 1941: Mass suicides amongst the men who were arrested.

June 28, 1941: Lietukis Garage Massacre 

Part II: August – November, 1941

August: Jews are brought to ghettoes from their rural villages, effectively coagulating the Jews in the metropolitan areas. 

August 1-14, 1941: Operations are increased by the Einsatzgruppen and a unit under the supervision of Joachim Hamann, during this span of time there were 10 aktionen conducted and over 4,000 victims were killed.

August 16, 1941: Rokiškis: 3,200 Jews murdered and in Raseiniai: 298 Jews murdered.

August 18, 1941: The first largescale murder occurs in the Kaunas (Kovno) ghetto.  The guards of the ghetto ask for 500 intellectual men to help with translations, they are shot and never heard from again. There are additional Jews murdered, bringing the grand total in kaunas on that day to 1,811.

August 19, 1941: In Ukmerge 643 Jews are killed.

August 23, 1941: In Panevėžys 7,523 Jews are killed.

September 1, 1941: The extermination of the Jewish populations left behind in the countryside are murdered by Lithuanians under German supervision. 

September 15, 1941: The Official order comes down that all Jews in Lithuania that aren’t in either Kaunas; Vilnius; Šiauliai; and Švenčionys, are to be murdered.  

The first 6 months of the occupation saw more murders than the total number of murders seen for the entire rest of the duration of the war for Lithuanian Jewry.  The Holocaust in Lithuania is characterized by its absolute and swift cruelty, where neighbors turned on their Jewish fellows and blamed them for the hardships of Soviet Russian occupation.  The pogroms that ensued in the first few weeks were mainly initiated by Lituanian anti-Communists who blamed Jews for their hardships.

Einsatzkommando 3, a killing unit of Einsatzgruppe A, had 139 personnel that were used to kill thousands of Jews in the initial days. One notable location was the murder of Jews at the IX fort on the outskirts of Kaunas – over 50,000 Jewish people from around Europe would meet their end there.  There was also a “flying squad” assembled to scour Lithuania and look for Jews; this squad was made up of a few Germans and mostly accompanied by Lithuanians.  During the month of July this group killed 4,400 people, a majority Jews, in aktions of anywhere between one victim and three hundred.

(Above) Pre-war street scene in a Jewish neighborhood in Lithuania.

(Left) Lithuanians round up Jews during the early days of German occupation, 1941.

 

Phase Two: (December 1941 – March, 1943)

The Ghettoization of Lithuanian Jewry began in 1941, after the initial mass murder that ensued following the Soviet retreat.  The Germans succesfully orchestrated pogroms (Nazi involvement is still hotly contested as most of the killing was willingly done by local Lithuanians) and the Jewish population of Lithuania had been reduced and concentrated into ghettos.  The roughly 40,000 remaining Jews in December 1941 were put into the ghettos in Vilna; Kovno; Siauliai; and Svencionys; with a small fraction at various labor camps in the country.  This was all that was left of the once vibrant Jewish community of Lithuania. 

 

This period is known to be one of immense suffering; terrible living conditions; disease; and tragic death; however, the climate is comparably less murderous than the initial (June 1941 – November 1941) phase.  This is mainly due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Lithuanian Jews had been killed already – one had just a 20% chance of seeing 1942 if you were a Jew in Lithuania when the Germans came.  The German depended on Jewish slave-labor also contributed to the sharp decrease in chaotic blood baths. 

 

This “calm period” came to an abrupt end from time to time: the occasional public hanging; being killed for smuggling in extra food to supplement meager rations.  Despite the relative calmness, there was still calamity: the ghetto Kiemeliskes had 200 inhabitants and was liquidated in 22 October, 1942; over 400 elderly people were killed from the Asmena ghetto the very next day – but life in the main three ghettoes (Vilna; Kovno; and Shavli) was one of work.

 

By the end of 1941 over 80% of Lithuanian Jewry – about 180,000 souls – had already been murdered by Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators.

Rudnicki Street Entrance to Vilna Ghetto

In Spring of 1941 there were 250,000 Jews living in Lithuania. This included about 15,000 Jews that had fled Nazi-occupied territory in the years prior.

Phase Three: (April, 1943 – July, 1944)

The liquidation of the ghettoes started with Švenčionys, Ašmena, Mikališkės, and Salos – where a combined total of over 6,500 Jews had been living before their ghettos were liquidated on April 5, 1943. About 2,500 Jews were taken to labor camps and held in Vilna, while the rest were sent to Ponary Forest where they were killed in their entirety.

In September, 1943 the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto came: of its 18,000 remaining inhabitants about 3,000 were killed for being unfit for work, the rest were sent to concentration camps to perform slave labor.  The Šiauliai (Shavli) ghetto was formally changed into a concentration camp,and its total area was reduced. Out of the 4,500 inmates, about 1,500 weresent to labour camps around Šiauliai; 800 children and elderly were murdered on 5 November 1943; and all the others, around 2,000, remained in Šiauliai.  In the Kaunas ghetto there were still 18,000 Jews. 2,800 were shipped to forced labor camps in Estonia at the end of October, 1943; about 6,000 were sent to camps inside Lithuania; and 7,000 Jews remained in the camp in the area of the former ghetto.

On March 27, 1944, about 1,800 Jewish children were either murdered at the IX fort outside Kaunas or sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.

The new landscape looked as follows: Vilna completely liquidated; Kaunas and Shavli had some remaining Jews that stayed in the ghettos, but the ghettos had transformed into more of a concentration camp type atmosphere.  The regiment was strict and ruthless now, and there were no more illusions about the fact that the Jews were going to be worked to death.  The Vilnius ghetto was not allowed to survive because it was considered to be a nest of Jewish resistanc

Clandestine Scene of a tearful deportation from the Kovno Ghetto.
Scene of deportations in the Kovno Ghetto 1942.

Moving out of the Kovno Ghetto.

All the camps in Lithuania were destroyed before the Nazis retreated. Some of the Jewish inmates were killed and the rest were evacuated further inside the German Reich so that the Lithuanian Jews wouldn’t escape and join the partisans. Around 2,000 of the Jews still left over in the camps surrounding the Vilnius area were taken to Ponary on July 2 – July 3, 1944, and shot. From Kaunas (Kovno), Šiauliai (Shavli), and other camps the Jews were sent to Stutthof in East Prussia.  After Stutthoff the Jews would’ve been deported further towards the center of the Reich in the first half of 1944.  Of the 2,800 Lithuanian Jews who were deported to Estonia in October, 1943 (from Kaunas:) part of them were murdered and part were evacuated through the Baltic Sea to Stutthof and other camps in Germany in August – September 1944. In the camps of Lagdi and Klooga in Estonia, on September 18–19, 1944, about 3,000 Jews were murdered by the German SS guards just six days before the Soviet liberation.  Many of the Jews deported further inside the German Reich were either murdered in concentration camps or perished on the death marches.  That was the end of Lithuanian Jewry and the conclusion of the Holocaust in Lithuania.