Holocaust Encroaches Kovno, Lithuania

In his book The Origins of the Final Solution, Christopher Browning says “plans for the Vernichtungskrieg [that is War of Destruction] entailed the death of millions of people in the Soviet Union. In such an environment of mass death, clearly Soviet Jewry was in grave peril. Indeed, in the light of past Nazi actions in Poland, Nazi plans for the war of destruction implied nothing less than the genocide of Soviet Jewry” (p. 213). Testimony was corroborated at the Nuremberg Trials that “the Einsatzgruppen officers were given an order for the killing of all Soviet Jews” by either Bruno Streckenbach or Reinhard Heydrich (p. 227). And they carried out the order with SS-style precision, often times instigating pogroms carried out by the locals. This was the story in the Baltic States in 1941, namely Lithuania[1].

“When forward units of the German Army occupied Kaunas [or Kovno] in central Lithuania on 23 June 1941, a small advance detachment of Einsatzgruppe A entered the city with them and set to work immediately organizing ‘spontaneous’ attacks against Jews”[3]. Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes, in his book Masters of Death, details the scene in Kovno’s square that day in June ’41. Several groups of Jews were beaten to death by Lithuanian thugs wielding crowbars.

KovnoPogrom

The scene in Kovno's square 23 June 1941

“The SS had released violent criminals from prison…and put them to work murdering Jewish victims to make the ‘pogrom’ look spontaneous” [4]. This pogrom was followed by others like it under the watchful eye of SS-Brigadeführer Walter Stahlecker.

Just two days after the city was seized, “Einsatzgruppe A organized six hundred of the most reliable irregulars into an auxiliary police force.” The Lithuanian mob unleashed terror on the city, burning down synagogues and Jewish homes, plundering their treasures and murdering their inhabitants. “Einsatzkommando 1B reported to Berlin on 30 June 1941, ‘Lithuanian partisan groups have already killed several thousand Jews’” [5]. Following these organized raids, Jewish residents of Kovno were rounded up and taken to the notorious Seventh Fort, one of the Russian Tsarists’ fortifications utilized by the SS for imprisonment and execution of Jews. According to Rhodes, about 1,500 people died at the fort in the first week of July, alone. In October, another 10,000 of Kovno’s Jews were killed ostensibly to make room for more Jewish deportees from the west (Browning, p. 305)[6].  Those deportees arrived on five transports from Greater Germany and German-occupied Austria and Belgium in late November. All of them, some 4,934 men, women and children were murdered by Einsatzkommando 3 “the most prolific killers on the entire eastern front” who were waiting for the transports at Kovno’s Ninth Fort[7].  According to Sir Martin Gilbert, “The Ninth Fort became synonymous with mass murder.” By December 1941, an estimated 19,000 Jews had been killed [8].

SURVIVOR ACCOUNTS
Joseph Kagan, a survivor of the Kovno ghetto, recalls, “It was about four o’clock in the morning when the sounds of wailing and shrieking awoke most people in the Big Ghetto. Heavy lorries had begun to leave the Little Ghetto. The women who had left their houses to run into the streets of the Big Ghetto were wailing and pointing towards the lights of the lorries as they moved away. It was an eerie sight. The lights of the lorries were moving slowly up that hilly road leading from the ghetto valley to the Ninth Fort. The lights picked out the lofty trees on the ghetto side of the road. Thousands of people trudging up the hill. They were being hurried and forced along by armed soldiers and militiamen. It was a convoy of death” [2]. Jack Brauns, who was then seventeen years old, recalls the burning of a hospital in Kovno 4 October 1941. “I could see the hospital on fire with the windows and doors nailed shut and the patients and doctor and nurses were trying to get out. I remember how their screams got weaker and then it was quiet…The scene of the burning building with people inside trying to get out and the Lithuanian guards who made sure that no one would escape this horrible death played through my mind…”[2]
Dr. Dawidowicz, two nurses and 59 patients were asphyxiated and burned to death.

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Sadly, the Holocaust is not a focal point of remembrance or discussion in Lithuania today… and understandably so, considering the complicity of so many non-Jewish Lithuanians. Still, it is sad that many won’t even aknowledge this tragic part of the Baltic region’s history. The plight of the Jews is often overshadowed by that of Gentile Lithuanians who suffered brutality at the hands of the Russians. RamblingBrooke.com shares a unique perspective on this perplexing issue.

Never Again! pauses to remember the 135,000 Lithuanian Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.

Links:
Shoah in the Shtetls (great pictoral history)
We are 900 Frenchmen (The Story of Convoy 73)

Sources:
[1] Browning says that in Lithuania, Latvia and western Ukraine “locals were from the beginning of German rule until its end deeply involved in the murder of Jews” (The Origins of The Final Solution: the evolution of Nazi Jewish policy, September 1939-March 1942 by Christopher R. Browning, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, and Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2004, p. 268). Further, “since the occupation of Lithuania…executions were being carried out on a regular basis with the help of collaborators” (p. 285).

[2]Never Again: A History of the Holocaust by Martin Gilbert, Universe, New York, 2000, pp. 96-97 (see insets)

[3] Masters of Death: the SS Eisantzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust by Richard Rhodes, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2002, pp. 38-39

[4] Ibid, p. 41

[5] Ibid, pp. 42-43

[6] Rauca’s ‘Great Action:’
Gilbert says they were taken to the Ninth Fort on 28 Oct 1941 as part of Helmut Rauca’s “Great Action” (p. 97).  Because of his war crimes as an SS official, Rauca was extradited in the mid-80’s from Canada by West Germany and charged with the murder of 11,500 Jews. He died while awaiting trial in Frankfurt (Gilbert, p. 161). Watch this outstanding news clip from Canadian Broadcasting Co.

[7] Browning, p. 395

[8] Gilbert, pp. 96-97

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4 Responses to “Holocaust Encroaches Kovno, Lithuania”

  1. The article is really good! Thanks for linking to me 🙂 I’m looking forward to a future collaboration! From the link above: I found a picture of that on the internet, and I wanted to send it to you! Then, my fiance’s dad had some health issues, so I got busy. Let me know if you want me to send it to you, or maybe, you have already seen it 🙂

  2. …it is amazing how intertwined our stories become. You articles are, as I’ve said before, so compelling and your histories amazingly thorough.

  3. Very interesting reading.

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