|Some days before the Great Action, rumors went round the ghetto that the Christians in town were saying that in the Ninth Fort, the Soviet prisoners were busy digging pits. Such rumors always aroused a sense of despair in the ghetto. People remembered the pits they had seen in the Ninth Fort during the action in the small ghetto on September 17, which was cancelled. Later on, these very pits swallowed up the Jews in the actions of September 26 and October 4.|
On Friday, October 24, SS Captain Heinrich Schmitz arrived in the ghetto together with his aide, SS Master Sergeant Helmut Rauca, who was responsible for affairs in the ghetto. They walked about the streets and stopped for a while at Demokratu Square.(29;52) On Saturday, October 25, SS Master Sergeant Helmut Rauca, arrived in the ghetto at noon and after consulting with the Jewish Council, informed them that the authorities had decided to separate the Jews working in the ghetto and those who were not working. The latter would be moved to the small ghetto. One must understand, continued Rauca, that one cannot distribute food to everyone indiscriminately, when some work hard and others do not work at all. Therefore no one would go out to work in the town on Tuesday, October 28, and a proper division would be carried out in Demokratu Square. All the Jews had to appear there on that day, at 6 A.M.
The Jewish Council was faced with a dilemma – whether or not to inform the community of this decision. The Council, which had already experienced the impact of Rauca’s earlier instructions, understood that this decision was wrought with danger. They knew the results of former actions, which were executed after similar pronouncements in the streets of the ghetto: the action against the “intelligentsia” on August 18, Kozlovski’s action on September 26 and on October 4 in the small ghetto. The Jewish Council also knew that in the Ninth Fort, new pits were being prepared. Rumors from town reached every corner of the ghetto and everyone knew of these rumors, so that the Jewish Council should also have been aware of the situation, particularly as they had a company of ghetto police at their disposal who should have informed them of what everyone suspected may happen.
“Order No. 45 issued by SA Captain Jordan
All inmates of the ghetto must forthwith leave their premises and assemble in Sajungos Square.
Signed: The Jewish Council”
Avraham Tory (Golub), who was secretary of the Jewish Council, writes in his book Ghetto – Everyday:
“Why did Rauca insist on the Council announcing this order, rather than doing it himself? Was he planning to abuse the trust which the ghetto population had in the Jewish leadership? And if so, had the Council the right to carry out Rauca’s order and publish it, thereby becoming an accomplice in an act which it knew might spell disaster?” (p.60)
“Order No. 47 issued by the SD Commander
All the inhabitants of Velionos Street are to leave their homes immediately and assemble in Sajungos Square.
Signed: The Jewish Council”
This was no longer a rehearsal. This action was not cancelled and the Jews who were taken to the Ninth Fort did not return.
When the Jewish Council received Jordan’s five thousand certificates for artisans (the same certificates which the Jews called “Licenses to Live,” which were indeed used for this purpose), a quantity intended to serve a population of thirty thousand, the ghetto was up in arms. The Jews asked, justifiably, who had given the Jewish Council the right to distribute thousands of these certificates among a populace of thirty thousand and in this manner, decide who should live and who should die.
The heads of the Jewish Council were faced with a dilemma: to publish the instructions relating to October 28, or not? As they did not want to take on the responsibility of “losing the trust of the Jews in the ghetto," they decided to place the responsibility on the shoulders of the old and ailing rabbi of Kovno, Rabbi Avraham Shapiro. He should decide! And they went to the rabbi to ask him what they should do.
The Jewish Council was very well aware of what would happen in the Demokratu Square on October 28. Lazar Goldshtein-Golden writes in his book From Kovno ghetto to Dachau (New York, 1985):
“Not only the Jewish Council knew that a selection between life and death but almost all the personnel of the council and its various departments knew it as did their relatives. One could offer excuses and interpretations for the manner in which it was carried out, but it was impossible to deny that the planned selection was known about.
Evidence, stolen by me and written on February 11, 1948, stated: I lived in the ghetto in the same house as Dr. Elkes, Dr. Gershtein, David Shapiro and a few other members of their families. The evening before October 28, 1941, Dr. Elkes invited us all to his apartment, where he made the following statement: You are not threatened by danger at the ghetto assembly in Demokratu Square tomorrow. All the inhabitants will be selected according to your work place.
You will all belong to Jewish Council’s group.” (pp. 34–5)
On Tuesday, October 27, Rabbi Shapiro told the Jewish Council his decision, which was that they should publish the announcement addressed to the Jews of the ghetto. Jacob Goldberg, who was then a member of the Council, writes in Issue no. 7 of the publication Fun letzn churbn (From the Last Extermination), published in 1948:
“Rabbi Shapiro explained to us that he had found in his books problems similar to the one we were facing. In such cases, the principle to be observed was that when an evil decree was being imposed on an entire Jewish community and it is possible to save only some of the Jews – the communal leaders must summon up their courage and save those who can be saved. Hence the council should publish the decree.” (p.56)
The chief rabbi of Kovno, Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, was well known for his knowledge of the Talmud and all its commentaries and the writings of Maimonides. It is therefore puzzling that he should have come to this conclusion which was the very opposite of that of Maimonides, who held that “If the heathens said to them ‘give us one of your people to be killed – if not, we shall kill all of you’ – all should be killed and not a single one of Israel handed over.” The writer Jacob Goldberg does not tell us on what source the Kovno rabbi based his conclusion.
In the same article, Jacob Goldberg continues, “And so the Jewish Council immediately held a meeting and decided to publish the decree.”
“Regarding the purpose of the meeting itself, however, no mention was made of the Jewish Council’s announcement to the community,” writes Joseph Gar in his book Umkum fun der Yiddisher Kovne on page 74:
"...and they were not given (the Jews in the ghetto), the slightest hint of the great danger, although they themselves knew that thousands would meet their death – was this not collaborating in their death?" asks Lazar Goldshtein-Golden in his book From Kovno ghetto to Dachau (pp.36, 37, f.) and on page 34, the author rightly asks: "...and if it was impossible to give them a hint, why did they not permit the spreading of the rumors as to their real intention towards the Jews assembled in this square?”
Why? And why could the Germans spread rumors in the ghetto through their own agents in order to fool the Jews in the ghetto while the Jewish Council, whose capacity for spreading rumors was greater than that of the Germans, did not do so?
On the evening of Monday, October 27, the following announcement was posted on the walls of the ghetto:
“Order of the SD Command dated 27.10.41
All the inmates of the ghetto without exception, including children and the sick, are to leave their homes on Tuesday, October 28, 1941, at 6 A.M., and to assemble in Demokratu Square. Those found in the apartments after 6 A.M. will be shot on sight.
The Jewish Council.”
That evening the ghetto was consumed by anxiety. What did the Germans want from us? What were they plotting? The Jews were restless, worried, running about the streets of the ghetto, whispering to one another, "what do you think? They say...." And so rumors spread that were finally accepted as being “serious” that the Germans were going to conduct a census of the population. One had to rest, wear clean and decent clothes, make a good impression on the Germans.
The mood at home was very grim. Everyone was busy with his own arrangements. Everything was done in silence or in whispers which were barely audible. I shaved my father’s recently grown beard which had made him appear older. My father was only forty-seven. We prepared the clothes to be worn on the following morning and went to sleep early. But no one could fall asleep. My mother was by far the most worried. Why didn't she say anything? Where was the inventiveness and energy she generally displayed in difficult situations and in which, despite everything, she would find a way out, a solution to every problem? Mother prepared two dresses and two coats, one a warm one and the other a summer coat, to be worn on the morrow. Did she know something that we did not know?
I did not believe the rumors about the taking of a census of the population. If they wanted to know the number of ghetto inhabitants, they had merely to go from house to house and register the name of each one. Why did the inhabitants have to leave their homes and gather in the square to be counted? In what way could this contribute to German bureaucracy or statistics? It was strange and illogical. There was something else behind the rumors. Who cared about silly rumors? Was it true what was said in those letters from people who had been expelled from their homes earlier on? These and similar thoughts worried me and gave me no peace and it was hours before I fell asleep.
A light tap woke me. Mother was standing beside my bed. She took a plain gold ring off her finger and gave it to me to put on. I looked at her in surprise, questioningly, but she did not say a word and pointed to my clothes. Everyone was already dressed, everything was done in silence, without a sound. It was already 5.30 A.M. I dressed quickly, drank a glass of tea and we left the house.
The commander of the Jewish Ghetto Police informed the chairman of the Council of Elders in Report No.443 as follows:
"I hereby inform you that on the 27th of this month [October 1941] nothing out of the ordinary occurred in the ghetto. Deaths – 2; births – 6.
The Commander of the Jewish Ghetto Police."
It was still dark outside. Snow was falling, mixed with rain. The streets were filled with people in a hurry, all of them headed in the same direction – Demokratu Square. I walked with my parents. My sister and her husband and their child walked behind us. The sky in the east was beginning to show signs of light – it was daybreak.
Demokratu Square, which covered a stretch of some 1000 to 1500 meters, bordered on Varniu, Liutavaro and Ramygalos Streets. Demokratu Street was parallel to Varniu Street, with Demokratu Square between them. There was a little lane, Mildos, leading from Varniu Street to Demokratu Square, from which masses of people were streaming into the square. All the Jews concentrated near Varniu Street.
The square was alive with the sounds of a large crowd. We were told to arrange ourselves in columns, according to the workplaces of the heads of families. Where would the airfield workers stand? Some of the columns were already in place. At the head of every column there was someone with a sign indicating the name of the workplace: the Jewish Council, the police, department of labor and the other Jewish Council institutions. Further on were the groups working for the Gestapo: the Waffen SS, Jordan and others. A crowd filled the square with no sign to indicate where they worked. These were the airfield workers, and they were separated from the others. On the previous evening, the 27th, the first shift was made to stay at the airfield as the workers of the second shift could not leave the ghetto to come on duty. They returned to the ghetto on the 28th at dawn, after having worked for two shifts. When they found their homes empty, they ran to Demokratu Square to look for their families. Here they were, running about in their dirty work clothes, unshaven and weary from their hard work, hungry and disappointed and looking for their dear ones. They were the heads of their families and should have been standing at the head of the columns! We joined the column without a sign. The snow stopped falling. The sky was gray and gloomy, as were the faces of the crowd.
At about nine in the morning, in full daylight, company No. 3 of the German police came marching into the square, headed by its commander, Captain Alfred Tornbaum, together with the first battalion of the Lithuanian police under Air Force Major Kazys Shimkus. The two companies surrounded the square. Some of them spread out into the streets of the ghetto in order to see whether anyone had remained in their homes.
It was clear that something was about to begin. One could not expect anything decent to result from such an assembly of forces. SS Master Sergeant Helmut Rauca, and the commander of the ghetto, SA Captain Fritz Jordan, appeared on the scene and the “census” was about to take place.
Rauca made a sign with his baton for the columns to move forward. After those of the Jewish Council, the police and a group of Gestapo workers had passed, he pointed to the columns of the remaining ghetto institutions. When they had passed, he pointed to the other columns. Now Rauca began to assign people to the right or to the left. This was no longer a “census"; this was a selection, in which Rauca signalled the young, the small families, and those who were properly dressed, to go to the left, to the authority of the Jewish Council and the Jewish police.
The elderly, the apparently ailing, and the large, poorly dressed and unclean families, and those who had no connection to a working group, were directed by a movement of Rauca's whip to the right where the Lithuanian police forces were standing. These Jews were hurried down Demokratu Street opposite Varniu Street. There they were lined up in columns, surrounded by the Lithuanian police and taken to the former small ghetto. To Rauca it did not matter whether he was separating families, sending the younger members to the left and the women and children to the right. The tragedy of broken families was terrible to see. From afar, we saw the columns marching one after the other to the ghetto. It would have been impossible to slip away and join those directed to the left. The columns which still had to be assorted and those directed to the left were separated by the Lithuanian police and they beat anyone who tried to reach the left side.
From time to time, a note was brought to Rauca bearing the number of people on the right and it was possible to see him pointing to whole families with his whip, including young and healthy people, ordering them to go to the right. Those who were standing near him could hear the words: “The number, give me the number, I want the exact number!”
Air Force Major Kazys Shimkus was the officer in charge of the right side where the first company of the Lithuanian police were taking count, and he would, from time to time, pass on to Rauca the number of Jews who had already been taken to the former small ghetto.
Half a day passed. A light snow began to fall again. It was bitterly cold and people were hungry. If only it would all end soon. Actually, what was the hurry? Rauca stood and waved his whip unceasingly: right and left, right and left! Someone brought him a sandwich. He swallowed the sandwich and gave orders to separate families simultaneously. He drank coffee but did not hesitate to use his whip at the same time. The heartbreaking cries of mothers who lost their children by a swish of his whip did not move him at all. He ate and gulped coffee, joking and shouting while tears were being shed all around him.
The long column we joined began to dwindle. Every once in a while I ran to see where we were standing, looking for an opportunity to slip to the side where the people of the Council were, but the Lithuanians stood there like a wall, with bayonetted rifles in hand, making it impossible to get to the left.
Suddenly the lines began to disappear and the column dwindled. We stood, my parents and me, and the whip was swung over our heads, over our faces that looked flushed and well-fed Rauca looked at us, measuring our worth from head to toe while the whip moved towards the left. The Lithuanians rushed my parents to the right. I looked back, trying to run towards them...and the result was something of a fiasco. Rauca turned aside and started to attack my head with his whip, with the Lithuanians coming to his aid with the butts of their rifles and pushing me to the left, all black and blue. I was separated from my parents and something in me broke in two.
I was stunned by the blows I had received. My sister and her family were standing beside me. People were trying to soothe and comfort me, but I could not take anything in. I was given water and a doctor examined me, treating my wounds and bandaging my body while I downed all kinds of medication. It was Dr. Zacharin, the well-known surgeon. He was standing by my side while writing requests in his notebook and listening to complaints. People said he could help return my parents to me. I described what had occurred and he took down the name of our family and my parents' individual names, trying to pacify me by saying that everything would turn out well.
The day passed. The snow became thicker. Here and there, people rushed about the square and no one seemed to pay any attention to them. They seemed to be petrified, mourning and broken. Permission was given to return to our homes. The route homeward was like a funeral procession. Very few families remained intact. There was at least one member missing from every family. Was this any comfort to me? People returned to their homes indifferent to what was going on around them. Perhaps there was a ray of hope somewhere. If those who had been taken were being kept in the small ghetto, perhaps we could see them, help them. But the bridge had been dismantled. And yet I tried to convince myself that perhaps things were not as bad as they seemed. Common sense sought a way out, but my heart told me that the sorrow that had engulfed me was not to be lifted so easily and that I had lost my parents.
I was worn out by my experiences and dropped off to sleep while still in my clothes. Loud knocking on the shutters woke me. The ghetto police were knocking at the windows and shouting: “To the airport, to the airport! Jews – off to the airport!” No one moved from their homes. An hour passed and none of the airport workers turned up at the assembly point near the ghetto gate.
Once again, there was knocking at windows and shouting: “Open up, to the airport, we are from the air force, we are from the air force, open up...” We did not reply. The Jews had carried out a spontaneous strike without any prior decision amongst themselves. No one went to work. Later it was said that the people from the labor office alongside the entrance to the ghetto suggested to the Germans from the air force that they employ the Jews from the small ghetto.
The Jews who had been taken to the small ghetto were instructed to occupy the empty apartments. Through the barbed-wire fence that separated us from the small ghetto, we could see how people ran around trying to find the best quarters and hastened to snatch bedclothes and other household goods. The women admonished their husbands for not being allowed to take their best clothes with them. Others discovered stores of vodka which had been stowed away by their former owners, and got drunk. This scene was described in Megilath Slobodka (The Slobodka Scroll) by the Polish writer, Michael Burshtein, who was in the ghetto at the time.
The Lithuanian police fired in the air all night long and at whoever tried to approach the barbed-wire fence of the small ghetto. On the morning of October 29, at the break of dawn, a riot broke out. People were running in the streets, shouting: “The Jews are being moved from the small ghetto!” The Lithuanian police were cruelly ousting the Jews from the apartments they had occupied only the previous day. They were aligned in columns and organized to be rushed to the Ninth Fort. Each column of Jews was surrounded by a Lithuanian police guard, which made it impossible to escape.
When Dr. Elkes returned to his home after the action, acquaintances whose families had been taken to the small ghetto were awaiting him. They begged him to save them. The following day, Dr. Elkes, together with the head of the ghetto police, Michael Kopelman, went to see what was happening in the small ghetto. The Jews, who were standing alongside the barbed-wire fence, begged Dr. Elkes to save them, for some were already on their way to the Ninth Fort.
Elkes asked that Rauca be found at once. Kopelman’s people located him at the German headquarters in the ghetto. Elkes asked his permission to take some people out of the ghetto who were there by mistake. Rauca allowed a hundred to leave. Elkes had prepared a list in advance whose relatives had asked for them to be rescued but the list contained many more than a hundred names. Elkes entered the small ghetto accompanied by two policemen but none of the Jews surrounding him appeared on his list. They fell upon him and begged him to get them out of there. There was a terrible to-do and the police demanded that they leave at once. Elkes claimed that Rauca had permitted him to take a hundred people out of the ghetto, but to no avail. The Lithuanian police began to shower him with blows, one of them beating his head with the butt of his rifle, and he lost consciousness. They succeeded in getting him out of the ghetto with difficulty and nothing came of the whole intervention.
Relating the above, Goldshtein-Golden gives the following account in their book From Kovno to Dachau: “A. Golub, the last secretary of the Jewish Council, describes the scene...that Dr. Elkes could not sleep the entire night after this, until the following morning when he received permission to go into the small ghetto in order to see with his own eyes what had happened to his brothers and sisters.” (p.38) (This quote also appears in Heichal she-Shaka, Tel Aviv, 1962).
Joseph Gar, in Umkum fun der Yiddisher Kovne says: “During the night, the Chairman of the Jewish Council, Dr. Elkes, received permission from the authorities to take one hundred Jews out of the ghetto." (p.80)
Dr. Lazar Goldshtein-Golden in From Kovno ghetto to Dachau: “Thus, it was not a move ‘to see what the Jews were doing in the small ghetto’ but to take out a group of Jews with special privileges...” (p.39)
I was one of the Jews who ran to see what was happening in Paneriu Street in the small ghetto. I witnessed how the Jews were being expelled from the houses, aligned in columns, and brought to the Ninth Fort. Any illusions they may have had that they would continue to live in the small ghetto vanished. It was clear that they could not expect to live. We had been duped – our near and dear ones had been torn away from us. We would never see them again. Even the list of separated families, which had been prepared by Dr. Zacharin, was merely a game, a horrid game, which was enacted in order to obscure the tragedy. One could say that he was prescribing aspirin when he knew that the patient was already dead.
A short time later, a poem about the Great Action was published in the ghetto. The song became very popular and was sung in different ghetto circles, especially among the youth when they met on various occasions. In the words of the song, entitled “The Great Action,” one could find an expression of the pain that the Jews were experiencing, their protest of helplessness and hopelessness, “until the time came," as in the last verse.
This song presents a graphic account of the tragedy of October 28, 1941. Whenever I read the poem, I am once again taken by the hand and led along the road on which I passed on that blackest of days together with the Jewish community of Kovno, who were caught in the ghetto and fated to die.
“The Great Action” was written by a young girl of sixteen, who from her very first day in the Kovno ghetto, wrote poems and immortalized the events in the ghetto until its elimination. The name of the girl is Sima Yashunski, and the following are her words: