THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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Jews being marched from their ghetto in the centre of Vilnius (today’s Old Town) to the Paneriai (Ponary) forest outside the city for execution, 1942/1943. Paneriai is an area of wooded hills, where in 1941-1944 60,000 to 70,000 Jews from Vilnius were executed. - Drawing by Fajwel Segal
What happened to the Jews in Lithuania during World War II is a matter of grim record. Of the 250.000 Jews in 1939, only between 12.500 and 17.500 survived; of those, only about 200 remain today.
It has been estimated that of the 265.000 Jews living in Lithuania in June 1941, 254.000 or 95% were murdered during the German occupation. No other Jewish community in Nazi-occupied Europe was so comprehensively destroyed.
The Red Army occupied Vilnius on 19 September 1939. Lithuania and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of mutual aid, in accordance with which Vilnius and the Vilnius region were returned to Lithuania. In 1940, Vilnius became the capital of Soviet Lithuania.
Vilnius remained under Soviet control until 26 June 1941, when the city fell to the invading German Army (Wehrmacht). On 8 July 1941 an order was issued stating that all Jews must wear a special patch on their back; subsequently they were ordered to wear the patch on their chest. In addition Jews were forbidden to walk along the main streets of the city, and shops were ordered to sell them food in limited amounts. Jewish people were fired from their jobs, deprived of the means of personal transportation and radios, forbidden to use public transport, and prohibited from public places. Jews were arrested on the streets, at their work places, and in their houses.
Paneriai forest near Vilnius.
Jewish victims of execution before the mass burial, 1943.
The Vilnius Ghettos
The first shootings of Jews in Vilnius occurred on 4 July 1941 (or even earlier), after the military administration was replaced by a civil administration. On the same date the Germans ordered the establishment of a Judenrat (Jewish Council) which was intended to control the Jewish ghetto police and various departments of: work, health service, social welfare, food, housing, etc. Of special importance was the department of work.
The mass extermination of the Jewish people in Vilnius began at the moment when district commissar Hans Christian Hingst arrived, together with the "expert on Jewish questions", Franz Murer.
It has been estimated that between one-half and two-thirds of all Lithuanian Jews were killed by local militia, although it should be said that there were also some Lithuanians as well as Germans who assisted Jews. Even if few in number, their courage serves to highlight the barbaric acts of their compatriots.
Two ghettos were installed, separated by Niemiecka Street. This street was outside the limits of both ghettos and served as a barrier between them. A wooden fence enclosed each ghetto, and the entrances of houses facing the outside were blocked off. Each ghetto had only one gate for exit and entry, placed at opposite ends of the enclosed area, so that it would be impossible for those entering and leaving to cross paths.
29.000 people were incarcerated in Ghetto 1 and 9.000-11.000 in Ghetto 2. The living conditions were those common to the ghettos of countries under Nazi occupation - dilapidated housing, lack of sanitation, unbearable congestion. A doctor calculated that in the 72 buildings, which comprised Ghetto 1, the average living space was 1.5-2 square meters. The killing never stopped. Even on the day of the setting up of the ghettos, a day on which it was intended to lull the Jews into some sense of security, killings had taken place.
1941-43 was a period of relative quiet in the ghetto. Vilnius became a "working ghetto". The Judenrat’s policy of "rescue through work" was based on the assumption that if the ghetto would be productive, it would be worthwhile for the Germans to keep it going, for economic reasons. In this it shared a belief common to the Judenrat of many other ghettos. All sought, in their different ways, to preserve the precarious balance between work and death.
Few Jews wanted to be members of the Jewish councils. The Judenräte were instruments by which the Germans held control over the Jews. Since the council's functionaries were Jewish, the members felt as if they were betraying their co-religionists. The Vilnius Judenrat was initially established with extreme difficulty, as those who were selected as members by Rabbi Simeon Rosowski refused the position. Thus, the decision was made at a meeting in the prayer house, that if someone was elected, they were obligated to accept.
By the summer of 1943, the final death throes of the Vilnius Ghetto had begun in accordance with Himmler's order to liquidate the ghettos of the Reichskommissariat Ostland. All provincial work camps of the Vilnius Ghetto (in Baltoji Voke, Beznodys, and Kena) were dissolved, and several hundreds of their prisoners killed by the German police.
Under the supervision of Bruno Kittel, head of the Jewish section of the Gestapo from June 1943, the Vilnius Ghetto was liquidated on 23 and 24 September 1943.
By 25 September 1943, only 2.000 Jews officially remained in Vilnius, in four small labour camps. More than 1.000 were in hiding inside the ghetto. Those in hiding were gradually hunted down and executed.
Between 2.000 and 3.000 of the original 57.000 Jewish inhabitants of Vilnius survived, either in hiding, with the partisans, or in camps in Germany and Estonia, a mortality rate of approximately 95% - almost exactly corresponding with that of Lithuania as a whole. The 2001 census indicated that the population of Vilnius was 542.287 of whom 0.5% or about 2.700 were Jews.
In post-war trials of the major war criminals of Vilnius, Franz Murer, the "expert on Jewish affairs" in the city from 1941 to 1943, also called by survivors "The Butcher of Vilnius" was arrested in 1947 and extradited to the Soviet Union. There he was sentenced to 25 years hard labour. In 1955 he was released and returned to his native Austria, where he became a farmer. He was eventually traced by Simon Wiesenthal. A further trial took place in Austria in 1967, at the conclusion of which Murer was acquitted. Soviet courts tried some Lithuanians. Most perpetrators were never prosecuted.
Map of the two Vilnius‘ ghetto districts.
The Kaunas Ghettos
Footbridge connecting the large ghetto and the small ghetto.
Kaunas (Kovno) ghetto, Lithuania, 1941.
Between 1920 and 1939, Kaunas (Kovno) was Lithuania's capital and largest city. It had a Jewish population of 35.000-40.000, about one-fourth of the city's total population. Jews were concentrated in the city's commercial, artisan, and professional sectors.
Kaunas was also a centre of Jewish learning. The yeshiva in Slobodka, an impoverished district of the city, was one of Europe's most prestigious institutions of higher Jewish learning, with a rich and varied Jewish culture. The city had almost 100 Jewish organizations, 40 synagogues, many Yiddish schools, 4 Hebrew high schools, a Jewish hospital, and scores of Jewish-owned businesses. It was also an important Zionist center.
Kaunas‘ Jewish life was disrupted when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in June 1940. The occupation was accompanied by arrests, confiscations, and the elimination of all free institutions. Jewish communal organizations disappeared almost overnight. Soviet authorities confiscated the property of many Jews. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian Activist Front, founded by Lithuanian nationalist emigres in Berlin, clandestinely disseminated antisemitic literature in Lithuania. Among other themes, the literature blamed Jews for the Soviet occupation. Hundreds of Jews were exiled to Siberia.
Following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 22 1941, Soviet forces fled Kaunas. Immediately before and following the German occupation of the city on June 24, anti-Communist, pro-German Lithuanian mobs began to attack Jews (whom they unfairly blamed for Soviet repression), especially along Jurbarko and Krisciukaicio streets. These right-wing vigilantes murdered hundreds of Jews and took dozens more Jews to the Lietukis Garage, in the city center, and killed them there.
In early July 1941, German Einsatzgruppe (mobile killing unit) detachments and their Lithuanian auxiliaries began systematic massacres of Jews in several of the forts around Kovno. These forts had been constructed by the Russian tsars in the nineteenth century for the defense of the city. Einsatzgruppe detachments and Lithuanian auxiliaries shot thousands of Jewish men, women, and children, primarily in the Ninth Fort, but also in the Fourth and Seventh forts. Within six months of the German occupation of the city, the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators had murdered half of all Jews in Kaunas.
The Nazis established a civilian administration under SA Major General Hans Kramer. Between July and 15 August 1941, the Germans concentrated the remaining Jews, some 29.000 people, in a ghetto established in Slobodka. It was an area of small primitive houses and no running water. The ghetto had two parts, called the "small" and "large" ghetto, separated by Paneriu Street. In the autumn of 1943, the SS assumed control of the ghetto and converted it into the Kauen concentration camp. On 8 July 1944, the Germans evacuated the camp, deporting most of the remaining Jews to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany or to the Stutthof camp, near Danzig, on the Baltic coast. Three weeks before the Soviet army arrived in Kaunas, the Germans razed the ghetto to the ground with grenades and dynamite. As many as 2.000 people burned to death or were shot while trying to escape.
Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania. The completely destroyed Ghetto, 1944.
In July 1944, the Germans blew up and burned down this Ghetto
in search of Jews in hiding there.
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