Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Revolt & Resistance
Acts of Resistance
The Gelpernus Diary
Resistance in the Kovno Ghetto
Chaim Yelin & Dimitri-Ghelpernus
IV BOLSHEVIK'S WORD
In February 1942 a five-lamp radio was installed into a shelter at 18,Vejeiu street. The entrance to it was masterfully concealed as an oven door. Considerable difficulties were involved in obtaining the radio. Great risk was involved in smuggling it through the ghetto fence. Death penalty was the punishment for any Jew caught using a radio, and discovery of it could lead to many people losing their lives.
The radio was linked to electricity supplies outside ghetto; a special moment was needed to make it work. During those moments a duty person put on his earphones and listened to close to his heart voice of a Moscow radio announcer which came from a long distance. Organization's committee informed all members daily of the most important events heard on Moscow broadcasts and arranged weekly bulletins which were copied and distributed to all cells. Articles on important issues for the organization were distributed at the same time. Two copies of leaflets were sent to the archive. Part of that archive was saved and now is kept in the State Archive of Lithuanian SSR in Vilnius.
Reading of books was forbidden in Kovno ghetto. On February, 27 1942 civil servants from "Rosenberg's headquarters" undertook "a book action". Agitators of the organization appealed to everyone not to give any printed material to Germans. Members of the organization and individual brave hearts hid books and saved many cultural valuables from destruction. In Kovno Germans liquidated public libraries and took materials from there to various storehouses and basements.
Germans used Jewish labour to do the work. The organization sent its members there who brought back to the ghetto many valuable books and mainly political literature by hiding it underneath their clothes. There were several histories of the communist party in Jewish and Russian.
The organization collected and then set up a whole section of Marxist-Leninist literature. Every member had a right to use the library via his cell secretary. In order to increase political awareness and to arm them with Marxist-Leninist science a short course on party history was read in each cell.
Ghetto residents were eager to hear a word of truth about heroic struggle of the Soviet army, about its victories, about the struggle of Soviet peoples against the invaders. The organization set a broader aim for its work than simply work with resistance fighters. The following comes from paragraph 4 of the "military programme":
"While wishing to fight our enemy openly we must not forget that the larger is the number of our friends, that the better these friends are prepared politically and militarily, the more we will be able to do, the higher our chances of success. There is no way for us to develop into a mass organization due to the difficult conditions in which we live. The following task arises from the above: without directly involving the masses into our organization we must prepare them psychologically and bring them up in a manner which would involve them into the fight against the invaders."
The organization hoped to achieve this aim via mass political agitation. Every member of the organization had to influence people with whom he worked and lived. He had to pass on news of the Soviet army, explain the aims of fascists' regarding the Jewish people in general and ghetto residents in particular, disclose German plans of genocide of different nations and especially the peoples of the Soviet Union.
Members of the organization quickly distributed among ghetto residents latest news from the front and orders of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief... Germans were surprised and perturbed: how ghetto residents could be so well informed when they lived in complete isolation from the rest of the outside world. A decree was passed -" Jews are forbidden to hold political discussions! People passing on political news face death!"
"We don't care a damn!"- these words became popular in the ghetto and political news continued to be passed from person to person with even greater enthusiasm.
Many people found a way to join the partisan movement and became brave fighters thanks to political work of the organization. It will be enough to mention Shmuel Martkovsky, Avram Faershtein, Jankel Kava, Jasha Broin. A circle close to the organization - the so-called "periphery" of the movement was formed from the masses. At times secret lectures on political, scientific and literary topics within the framework of political work among masses took place.
Special care was given to children who were left without parents. Children over 12 years of age were made to report for work by Germans. Their education was forbidden. Teachers Sonia and Shmuel Rosenthal with the help from teacher Esrachovich and comrades Leia Sher and Mania Barenblat set up and headed a secret primary school for the little ones.
Lessons took place in the ban of 101 Krikshtshiukaichio street. Light came from a hole in the roof. Instead of desks and chairs children used boxes. When a German went by the children quickly hid under boxes. An underground passage was dug out for an emergency.
Initially children were not involved in the underground work for conspiracy reasons. Later it became clear that thanks to their boundless loyalty and bravery of many of them could be of great use to the common cause. It was vital to change the difficult ghetto life for children and fill it with substance, hope for liberation. Pioneer groups were formed with Sheina Vechter, Leiser Silber and Pesia Karnovskaia at the head where they systematically educated children and inspired then with ideas of struggle.
Frequently it was dangerous for able-bodied people to walk through the ghetto during day time. On such occasions contacts were kept with the help of pioneers who did a wonderful job. Names of Taibele Leibes, Haim Kulvianski, Elia Lurie, Mark Moses, Haim Suraskin, Ilia Bloch - masters of providing contacts and avoiding Germans, brave collectors of necessary for the organization means -will always remain in our memory. Children got medicine and means of communication badly needed by the partisans as if from nowhere.
When the organization needed some disguises the little ones provided shoulder straps, ribbons and Nazi badges for German uniforms. Often those children wanted to perform bigger tasks. They wanted to perform dangerous missions. Once during mass round-ups in the city when it was dangerous for a grown up to leave home the organization was to receive arms near the railway station, as pre-planned (from comrade Mustekis). Pioneer Benzion Leibes got through the ghetto fence to warn of a change in the plan. He fulfilled his mission to the letter. Though one admired even more children's ability to keep secrets...
The organization got hold of a photographic camera. With its help many scenes from the life in the ghetto, and German barbaric treatment of Jews were secretly shot on film. Executions of Jews were also shot - in the case of Mek and others. Carefully prepared material with necessary explanations was sent from the ghetto to the partisan headquarters in Rudnizky forest.
V. CLASS CONTRADICTIONS IN THE GHETTO
As it has been mentioned above "a council of elders" was set up in the ghetto from the very start. With time Jewish administration in the ghetto had developed and grown. Apart from "council of elders" there were also "Jewish police", "Jewish labour exchange", "accommodation bureau", "ghetto court of justice", other bodies with branches, managers, assistant managers, assistants, inspectors...
Ghetto administration was responsible for assigning people to do a particular job, temporary release from work, sending people to labour camps out of Kovno, etc. By bribing guards Jewish police were able to arrange for people to pass through the ghetto gates without a check of their clothes or belongings. Managers from the Jewish administration sometimes succeeded in hushing up cases of people braking "Jewish laws" thus preventing them from being passed on to a higher authority. In addition employees of ghetto administration could learn about German plans regarding ghetto itself and other information.
The majority of the Jewish ghetto administration were officials from bourgeois Lithuania: former industrialists, well-known businessmen, religious leaders - remnants of the former exploiters. These people often used the situation to their advantage. They stole food meant for ghetto residents and had an easy life - they drank, had good time, indulged in lewdness. While the masses toiled in forced labour under inhumane laws newly-appointed bosses were idle, they dressed in expensive clothes, arranged light or profitable work for their protégé. They sent poor workers to forced labour outside Kovno.
But there were also those people in the ghetto who believed that their work had to be in the interests of incarcerated Jews and refused to profit from their positions. One of them was chairman of the council of elders doctor Elkes who on numerous occasions acted courageously in his dealings with Germans : both during actions ("big action" and others), and also during the liquidation of the ghetto. However, people like Elkes did not understand that by carrying out invaders' orders they were also serving them.
Yet people like Elkes were exceptional. Unprincipled carrier-makers made up a majority in the ghetto administration, like, for example, Avram Golub - secretary of the council of elders who were leading a sumptuous life style at the expense of Jewish suffering...
Benia Lipzer, Gestapo agent, played a special role among ghetto bosses. Having started his working career as a repairman of electrical equipment in Kovno Gestapo Lipzer reached a position of power which allowed him to sign his orders to the ghetto residents as "SD representative" (Gestapo).
With his masters agreement Lipzer set up an office for himself where he received visitors on Sundays, resolved complaints against Jewish administration... He also observed the activities of the council of elders which Gestapo mistrusted as they saw it as a body representing Jewish interests and playing a dual role.
The military section of the organization made it their goal to use possibilities arising from ghetto administration in the interests of the resistance movement and not of a few chosen ones. It was decided that members of the organization should participate in the work of the Jewish administration.
True it was not possible for them to become bosses but strongman Haim-Dovid Ratner was honoured with a white strip with a blue star of David and a Jewish policeman's cap as he met all the necessary requirements. Gradually other members of the organization found jobs in various Jewish bodies (police and labour exchange). Members of the organization who served in the police helped to smuggle weapons and to get over wire fencing, guarded bunkers where military training took place.
At night during curfew such policemen under a disguise accompanied members of the organization delivering weapons, setting up bunkers, warning off forthcoming mobilization for forced labour outside town.
Members of the organization working in the labour exchange arranged for their fellow-fighters to be sent to places where they could be useful for the organization. On the organization's instructions such comrades obtained work releases for the members, removed files of the underground fighters who left the ghetto. Thanks to this act those who had left were not missed and their families went un-persecuted...
Reliable individuals appeared among ghetto administration personnel who worked in the interests of the resistance movement. Such people performed various tasks: sent people to work in accordance with the organization's wishes, helped to pass the gates unchecked, created opportunities for smuggling weapons. Sometimes they rescued resistance fighters from guards. They supplied them with false papers from the administration, enabled them to leave for the forest and most importantly helped to pass through the ghetto gates: for both individuals and whole groups.
We consider it necessary to mention those administration employees who helped the organization most - these are Moishe Levin, Judl Zupovich, Aisik Grinberg, Aisik Srebnizky, Girsh Levin. Moishe Levin who for a long time headed the work of the ghetto police carried out such operations which were requested by the organization. He paid for it with his life later.
Through their friends in the ghetto administration a special sector of the organization received information which allowed the members to predict future German moves in the ghetto and not to be caught unprepared. It was possible to make a list of the ghetto residents working for the Gestapo and people working for other German organizations. They obtained valuable financial and economic information. The gathered information was passed to the city by the underground leaders. A special sector had also the task of safeguarding the organization from betrayal and provocation.
VI. DEFENCE PLAN FOR THE GHETTO
More and more new groups joined the organization. The foundations widened. There were young people who without finding a way for joining it set up more or less sizeable groups on their own. The organization looked out for such groups and tried to involve them in their work, to raise their political awareness and prepare them for independent work.
Various bourgeois parties that had operated previously in the old Lithuania renewed their activity in the ghetto underground. For a long time their leadership concentrated on cultural work with the members. In practice they limited their work to making use of the ghetto administration in their own interests only.
It was not difficult to achieve as the majority of the administration either belonged to those parties or sympathized with them. Even the most radical of those groups believed that defending themselves or dying "honourably" was their contribution to resistance movement. The leadership of those groups, however, put real efforts into building bunkers in the ghetto where "their" people could get through the difficult times. They advocated keeping calm and order in the ghetto.
Ghetto resistance movement fought against such false and faulty attitudes and exposed them.The leadership of various groups influenced by events and under pressure from their members had to start solving daily issues - such as firstly, establishing contacts with antifascist movement whose influence was constantly rising and its active and organized struggle against the invaders was becoming more obvious and it inspired masses to joining the struggle.
Some leaders expressed their readiness to cooperate with the military branch of the anti-fascist organization. The Council for cooperation was set up with this aim. Later a military- technical committee - so-called "VTK" was set up, whose role was to oversee weapons acquisition. Unfortunately, the VTK activity did not last. The burden of this work fell solely on the military organization. Under its guardianship partisan membership increased thanks to people from other groups like Moishe Zalinger (a partisan leader who died heroically in a fight), Aba Diskant (he later join Komsomol), Jankel Kava, Faershtein and others.
Many people joined from group "SORG" ("CARE") which was headed by Moishe Milner, Shloime Broer and Ovsei Taraseisky. They saw their main aim the defence of the ghetto in case of a German attack or ghetto liquidation. Initially they did not aim at partisan work which is clear from the group's name; "self-defence organization".
Seeing their main task in organizing struggle outside ghetto -setting up partisan groups and taking them to the forest - the organization did not neglect their responsibility of defending the ghetto. In case of an attack on the ghetto the organization was preparing to resist courageously and to call on all residents not to give up their lives without a fight.
The committee prepared a detailed "military plan" for the ghetto defence. A part of it was found among saved organization's archives. "The military plan" analyzed possibility of an enemy's attack and pre-planned its reaction in various cases. There was a detailed plan for the ghetto residents mobilization. According to it the ghetto was divided into eight parts. Two gathering points were assigned to each. One was for rank and file residents and the second - secret one - for district's headquarters. The plan for mobilization also assigned responsibilities to named individuals who had to head those gathering points after an alarm was raised.
As there was a comparative shortage of arms in the ghetto, a large number of knives and axes were planned for manufacturing which then had to be distributed. It was planned for the armed ghetto residents to start a fight with the main German forces to divert their attention and to create a chance for other Jews to break through the wire fencing. An important role had to be played by a group of people whose task was to set fire in many places and cause havoc. Fire was to be started with pre-prepared petrol bottles.
Another important task was attacking ghetto guards' office. This had a dual aim of undermining main German forces and acquiring more weapons for the uprising. The primary goal was holding off for as long as possible in the tightest corner of the ghetto: so-called "bottle neck" (by the cemetery in Krickshchiukaichio street) in order to link the two parts of the ghetto.
Next shake up of the ghetto was expected in the summer of 1943. Because of that the organization committee issued an order, a part of which is given below:
"Very confidential! Committee memo to all group leaders and secretaries! Dear group leaders and secretaries! Days important for our future are getting nearer. Fascist beasts threaten to annihilate us. They try to achieve this by various means. We received a signal from our Lithuanian friends who cooperate in our fight against fascist tyranny. The signal warns us to be prepared - in the near future we can expect excesses in the ghetto.
There are other factors why we should be vigilant:
Critical situation at the front adds to it.
All above mentioned factors make us to take some precautions and to prepare for mobilization. We consider the following actions by the enemy as a possibility.
To avert any possible enemy action all organized comrades are expected:
1) Be prepared for an open fight with the enemy.
2) Be especially precise and aware in carrying out their responsibilities.
3) To have at hand at all times steel weapons and home-made primitive weapons (axes, hammers, long-blade knives, crow-bars, etc.).
4) To build new bunkers and to finish old ones as soon as possible.
5) To strengthen links between cells and groups.
Chaim Bargman: translator Yiddish-Russian (L) with Robin O’Neil: translator Russian – English. Kaunas, Lithuania 2007
(photos: GFH, USHMM, & Private Collections)
Copyright H.E.A.R.T 2008 [Page design by Carmelo Lisciotto]