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The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police

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As a force that had to serve two masters, both the Jewish population of the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania and its German occupiers, the Kovno Jewish ghetto police walked a fine line between helping Jews survive and meeting Nazi orders. In 1942 and 1943 some of its members secretly composed this history and buried it in tin boxes. The book offers a rare glimpse into the complex situation faced by the ghetto leadership and the Jewish policemen, caught between carrying out the demands of the Germans and mollifying the anger and frustration of their own people. It details the creation and organization of the ghetto, the violent German attacks on the population in the summer of 1941, the periodic selections of Jews to be deported and killed, the labor required of the surviving Jewish population, and the efforts of the police to provide a semblance of stability. The secret history tells a dramatic and complicated story, defending the actions of the police force on one page and berating its leadership on the next. A substantial introduction by distinguished historian Samuel D. Kassow places this powerful work within the context of the history of the Kovno Jewish community and its experience and fate at the hands of the Nazis.

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1. Introduction

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THE HISTORY OF THE Jewish ghetto police is, at the same time, also the history of the entire Kovno ghetto. All the shocks and grim experiences, the persecutions and bloody murders—the entire chapter of blood, pain, and tears—form the horrible background of the evolution of the Jewish ghetto police, from its first moment of creation to this day.

It is impossible at this time to sum up, to achieve what might amount to a comprehensive description of life in the Kovno ghetto, or to provide a summary of the activities of the ghetto institutions. First, to this day, we are still, regrettably, in the midst of “activity,” in the storm of events. The history of the Kovno ghetto is not yet complete; new pages are added daily, drenched in tears and blood. The future fate of the few Lithuanian Jews in general, and of the surviving remnants in Kovno in particular, is not yet known. There cannot as yet be any talk of summarizing. Second, too many events are still too close, too fresh, to allow for objective reporting of the behavior of this or that person, of this or that institution. We are too deeply immersed in the ghetto to rise high above it, as would be necessary to be able to objectively judge people and events.

 

2. The Prehistory of the Kovno Ghetto

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June 22, 1941, the day when the two giants—the National Socialist Germany and the Bolshevik Soviet Union—collided, is the turning point in the history of the world war, which will determine the fate of all the nations and of all the continents for centuries to come. June 22 is also a fateful day for Lithuanian Jewry—in the months to follow the destiny of eight- to nine-tenths of Lithuania’s Jews will forever be sealed.

On Sunday, June 22, on the very first day of the war, as soon as it became clear that the Soviet army was retreating and that the principal institutions were being evacuated from Kovno in a strange haste, a terrible turmoil began among the Jews of Kovno. As early as Sunday night, increasingly on Monday, and even into Tuesday, the Jews of Kovno began to flee the city. They traveled by train, by truck, by wagon, by bicycle, and on foot. They left behind and abandoned all their worldly possessions, taking along a bundle of necessities, a suitcase, and headed to the train station or directly to the highway that leads through Vilkomir to Dvinsk. Jews were trying to escape the black fate that had more than once descended upon them like a dark cloud. They knew that with the arrival of the Germans a terrible time awaited them. When we, the Jews of Kovno, attempted to look ahead, to make even a crude prediction as to what awaited us, we shuddered from the blackness and envisaged terrible things. Even so, the reality greatly exceeded in blackness and dreadful events anything the greatest pessimist could have imagined.

 

3. The Gruesome Period from the Beginning of the Ghetto to the Great Action

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The fast pace of the evacuation, and the approach of the deadline when ghetto life would begin, required the rapid development and expansion of committee activities. To bring order to the life of the Kovno Jewish community, which had been suddenly uprooted and transplanted into the cramped, fenced-in area of the Slobodka ghetto, required the speedy establishment of various municipal offices.

From the very beginning of the ghetto, the first and most urgent task was to create and maintain order in the ghetto. The Jewish ghetto police started its work on the first day.

As early as July 9, while the committee was still in Rotushke, besieged by thousands of people in connection with the forthcoming evacuation, the pressing need to create an entity for maintaining order in the offices of the committee had become clear. The reserve officer M. Bramson was assigned to organize a group of young men for this purpose. The same group maintained order in the committee on Daukshios Street, in the Housing Office and in the refuge.1

 

4. Ghetto Situation after the Great Action (The survivor must live . . .)

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Ghetto Situation after the Great Action (The survivor must live . . .)

On the day after the action, October 29, 1941, all institutions in the entire ghetto were closed. The situation and mood in the ghetto were as if after a great earthquake. One did not know what was happening, where one was in the world, what one should say or think. We were completely paralyzed and dejected. People were running around from one to the other like wounded animals, asking what would be, what kind of affliction had befallen us, and what was going to happen next. It was completely impossible to take stock of the horror we had experienced. Had they really murdered the 10,000 who had been taken away? How could that be, what would happen to us? Were we better than they? Did the Germans value us more, were we privileged, when would they take us away? Was living and doing anything at all worthwhile when, in any event, we would soon be taken to the fort? Holding our throbbing heads in our hands, confused by the sad thoughts that were chasing each other, we asked the same questions for the hundredth time, unable to give an answer.

 

5. The Elder Council, the Ghetto Institutions, the Police, and the Ghetto Population: Mutual Interrelationships

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Relation of the Police to the Elder Council and the Labor Office.

Attitude of the Population toward the Police.

Moral Level of the Offices and Employees of the Ghetto Institutions and of the Police.

As noted, the police and the Labor Office were set up and organized during the very first days. According to the established order for such institutions, the largest organizations—in size and influence—were subordinated to the Elder Council. These were the organizations that, within the limits of their capability, had a say over the entire inner life of the ghetto.

The Elder Council is the highest organization of the ghetto; everything and everybody were subordinated to it. It has veto rights over all decisions of the various offices. But, customarily, the Elder Council does not involve itself directly with the daily issues of the police or the Labor Office, such that the police, as the implementing organization—the “eye” of the ghetto—and the Labor Office, as the organization dealing with the distribution of the Jewish work force, are largely autonomous in their fields of endeavor. These two organizations, although subject to the oversight of the Elder Council, are in fact the decision makers within the boundaries of their fields of activity, which encompasses the entire administrative life of the ghetto.

 

6. Development of the Administrative Apparatus and of the Police after the Action

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AS NOTED, WE SLOWLY entered a new period after the action, a time when everything began slowly to stabilize and calm down. At that time, it was not possible to observe the transition, the evolution period, but now, as we look back upon those days, we readily see that it was the beginning of a new time period.

New offices were being created, and existing ones were reorganized and stabilized.

The first office to be established immediately after the Great Action was the commission for the liquidation of the property of those taken away. By order of the Elder Council, all the houses of residents who had been taken away were sealed and transferred to the jurisdiction of the commission. By means of public announcements, the Elder Council made it known that it was forbidden to take any belongings of those taken away without permission from the commission, even belongings of parents, brothers, or sisters. The commission returned some of the property in the sealed houses to very close relatives, and the rest was transferred to specially arranged rooms in the clothing warehouses. The purpose of the Elder Council in arranging these warehouses was to distribute the belongings to those in need.

 

7. The Ghetto Guard and the Jewish Police

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As previously mentioned, until now there had existed a ghetto guard near the ghetto fence but outside its borders. The sentries guarded the fence but did not enter the ghetto itself; it was an external patrol carried out by the German police unit—the 3rd Company of the 11th Police Reserve Battalion.

The new ghetto guard, the NSKK, which was to be stationed inside the ghetto, arrived on January 15. They made their first entry into the ghetto with violence and commotion, casting fear and terror over everyone with their behavior, rudeness, and brutality.

From the name of the unit, which smelled of National Socialism, one could not expect anything good. Their first move in the ghetto was to select for themselves a location in the center of the ghetto—an entire block-house at Stulginskio 20.

Levrentz, a soldier of the NSKK who was later to become known as a famous hooligan in the ghetto, showed up with a big truncheon and immediately ordered all the neighbors out of their premises, entered each dwelling one by one, “honored” a few Jews with his whip, and chased them like dogs out of their dwellings. Within one hour all the neighbors were out, each grabbing and running with his meager belongings. But not everything was allowed to be taken. As the guards went through the dwellings, if they found a good sofa, cupboard, or buffet, they ordered it to remain in place and took it for themselves.

 

8. The Ghetto during the Time of the NSKK, Wiedmann, and Hermann (Spring and Summer 1942)

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Half the winter had passed and, in general, it was quiet and calm in the ghetto, everyone doing his work, settled in, adjusted, and getting on. At the end of January 1942, the ghetto experienced a shock associated with an action.

It became known that 500 men and women from the Kovno ghetto were needed for work in Riga. There was a great commotion in the ghetto. Repeated, explicit assurances that the people would be taken to work in Riga were not believed. Most were convinced that the people to be taken out of the ghetto and led away would meet with the same fate as those who had previously been taken away. The Labor Office displayed announcements seeking volunteers for Riga, to report by January 30. Except for three men, volunteers were not to be found; they had to be recruited by force.

On the evening of January 31, Germans of the Third Company came into the ghetto, with the assignment of carrying out the roundup, together with Jewish policemen. The Labor Office assembled lists of the people to be taken, some of them work-truants, some simply shady characters; included in the lists were also single young men and women. The lists were sent out to the police precincts corresponding to the places of residence, and there the Jewish policemen went, together with the Germans, to take them out of their homes.

 

9. The Police in the Spring and Summer of 1942 (the Caspi Period)

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The recent change in life inside the ghetto was characterized by the fact that, following the departure of Jordan, we had commissars and commandants over us who—some more and some less—were approachable and could be talked to. Higher-up functionaries of the ghetto institutions, the general-secretary of the Elder Council, A. Golub, and others, would frequently come to the relevant city commissariats in order to be informed, to be given orders, sometimes to plead or to intercede—specific contacts were established. They, the official [German] institutions, treated our Elder Council like an official Jewish entity, turned to it, and, on some occasions, gave consideration to its opinions concerning various ghetto matters.

The entire stabilization, whether on an internal basis—in the sense that material conditions had significantly improved—or on an external basis—in the sense that our general condition had settled into that of a legitimate community—led to reorganization, rearrangement, and reform of the entire official life of the ghetto.

 

10. The Ghetto in the Times of Koeppen, Miller, and the Vienna Protective Police (Schutz Polizei)

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The financial regulation of the various offices of the ghetto institutions was arranged according to a municipal system designed to suit the ghetto conditions. All moneys received by the Elder Council treasury through the various offices—for example, the Food Distribution Office, Housekeeping Office, Housing Office, and so on—were dispensed through the Elder Council for payment to the various offices and institutions and to cover various obligations. The payments were always very large, and balancing the budget always entailed certain difficulties. Basically, however, an established financial system was in place and existing arrangements worked well.

The famous new decree of August 25 [1942] completely transformed the internal economic life of the ghetto and marked a new period of ghetto life—an economy without money.

Decree No. 1 stated: As of today, food products (rations) in the ghetto will be disbursed to the population at no cost. Bringing in supplies from the city, or in any other way obtaining food products beyond the rations, is strictly forbidden.

 

11. The Police in the Last Quarter of 1942

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After Caspi left us, the police revived somewhat, breathed a little more freely. Before, whatever one wanted to do, it was first necessary to ask what Caspi would say about it. If everyone said day, he said night—it was difficult to deal with him. Now, after his departure, one became somewhat revitalized, one could get something done independently, without regard to his craziness and capriciousness.

Throughout the fall and the beginning of winter 1942, various changes took place in the internal operations. In addition, new units were added, and the activities of existing units were rearranged. To some extent this was perhaps related to the ability of police management to pay more attention to direct, internal organizational matters, rather than being constantly preoccupied with Caspi politics. Basically, however, all the changes that took place were the result of daily activity and practice, requiring the introduction of modifications in order to make police activity more purposeful and practical.

 

Appendix: Evolution of the Manuscript

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SAMUEL SCHALKOWSKY

At the very beginning of the manuscript, in the introduction, the authors (plural) are identified as being themselves policemen. But why the anonymity of the authors? Is it because of caution, in the event the document should fall into the hands of the Nazis and documentation of their brutal crimes lead to retaliation? (The police history carefully avoids any reference to resistance activity by policemen.) On the other hand, the names of policemen—but more frequently their initials—are often mentioned in the text. Whether using initials was considered sufficient to obscure their identity, or whether it was simply a matter of writing convenience, there is no reference whatsoever in the text, by name or by initials, to the identity of the authors. Nor is there information to shed light on them in the extensive police document collection of which this manuscript is a part. (Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary by Avraham Tory, secretary of the Elder Council, and the book by Leib Garfunkel, vice-chairman of the Elder Council, also don’t indicate any awareness by these members of the Elder Council of the details of the police history project.)

 

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