The Kovno Ghetto
by Cory Silken,

February 2001


Diversity in Lithuania was markedly changed during German occupation during World War II which virtually eliminated the Jewish population. When Lithuania was invaded on June 22, 1941, Jewish citizens throughout the country were rounded up and placed in ghettos. Community formed within these ghettos which enabled a small number of Lithuanians to escape murder at concentration camps.

One of the largest Lithuanian ghettos was in the city of Kovno, an industrial center which lies just 80 kilometers from the German border ( …). Kovno is located at the intersection of the Neman and Neris rivers and was named after the Lithuanian Prince Koinas when it was first settled in 1030. Kovno is both the Russian and Hebrew spelling and pronunciation but it is written and said as Kuanas in Lithuanian. It was the Lithuanian capital between 1920-1939 and the home to approximately 160,000 people, a quarter of whom were Jews. Among these Jews were several renowned scholars who established Hebrew schools such as the famous Slobodka Yeshiva which had augmented the city's reputation as an important cultural center ( …).


In the summer of 1941 the German Nazi command invaded Lithuania in "Operation Barbarosa." A couple of days later, on June 24, 1941 the German troops invaded Kovno, and on July 10th German decree established the ghetto, imprisoning the city's entire Jewish population. This ghetto was one of over 400 Eastern European ghettos created by the Nazis. On August 15th the ghetto was sealed with 30,000 Kovno residents, the other 10,000 of whom had either fled East, been killed in flight, or had been killed by mobs of angry Lithuanians( …). One recounts the invasion, "We were the first ones to experience the German invasion and occupation as we lived in the boarder region.

Having attacked the Soviet Union, Germans occupied Lithuania as early as the first week. Storm which is sweeping a country has a terrifying power. Many town and country people, having been accused of sympathizing with the Soviet power, were killed. Tens of thousands of Jews, who tried to escape further into the country, were caught and executed. Hundreds and thousands of Jews were incarcerated in Kovno forts, prisons and synagogues in other Lithuanian towns and villages. From there they were led to an execution point. The dead and wounded were thrown together into prepared pits" ( …).


When the Nazis set up the ghetto they also spread anti-Semitic propaganda which helped inflate the Lithuanian disdain for the Jews (…). This worked probably because most gentiles saw the Germans as liberators, and the propaganda  associated the Russian-speaking Jews with the Soviet occupation and made the Jews a symbol of Stalin's unpopular rule. Additionally, rules were implemented which stifled the Jew's daily activities. One example was, "Order No. 1, signed by Oberführer SS Kramer, the "German commissar of the city of Kauen" declares, 1.Jewish population is forbidden to walk along city pavements. Jews must walk on the right edge of a pavement one behind the other" ( …).


While in the ghetto all groups of Jews banded together for support and an interior society was created. Leadership came from Doctor Elkhanan Elkes of the Jewish Council of the Elders. Rabbi Schmukler spoke to the Jewish community about Elkes' appointment, "How terrible in our position that we are not offering the revered Dr. Elkes the respected position of head of the Jewish Community of Kovno, but the shameful and humiliating one of the 'Head of the Jews,' who is to represent us before the Germans. But please understand, dear and beloved Dr. Elkes, that only to the Nazi murderers will you be the 'Head of the Jews'; in our eyes you will be the head of our Community" ( …).


As the Germans required everyone in the ghetto over the age of 16 to work at factories supporting their war effort, the Council decided who was fit for which job. Additionally, the Council helped ration the limited food supplies and organize resistance groups. One part of the resistance was a secret job undertaken by artists, writers, and photographers within the ghetto who gathered information, made maps and took photos and other material to document the events and life in the ghetto. This material was placed in containers which were hidden and buried for preservation of the record. This was a phenomenal accomplishment, and these records remain today and provide an incredible account of the ghetto ( …).

In late 1943, near the end of the German occupation, a strong underground resistance group had formed. This group, the United Jewish Fighting Organization, was the remarkable union of two previously competitive groups, the Zionists and the Communists. Under the command of Chaim Yelin, the United Jewish Fighting Organization arranged weapons and transportation which ultimately aided the escape many of Jews ( …). Although Yelin was captured and killed by the Gestapo on April 6, 1944, his brother had written some of his diary accounts, which are now housed in the state archives of Lithuania ( …). When the Russian Army approached at the end of Kovno's three years of ghettoization the Germans ordered the liquidation of the camp. Many Kovno inhabitants hid in shelters to attempt escape but the Germans were persistent at annihilating the Jews and used dogs and smoke to force them out.


When the Russians finally rescued Kovno only about 2,000 of the original 30,000 Jews had survived. These Jews were left homeless and moved to settle in the new state of Israel ( …). The most amazing aspects of the Kovno ghetto are the organization and resilience of the Jews. It is impressive that even under the grotesque conditions leaders emerged to coordinate the people. Clearly not as many Jews would have survived without this type of community. In 1959 a Russian census revealed that only 24,672 Lithuanians were Jewish, which was less than 1% of the population (…).





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