Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Dr Elchanan Elkes chairman of the Kovno Judenrat
Letters to London
1943 - the chairman writes to his children about life in the Kovno ghetto
My beloved son and daughter!
I am writing these lines, my dear children, in the vale of tears of Vilijampole, Kovno Ghetto, where we have been for over two years. We have now heard that in a few days our fate is to be sealed. The Ghetto is to be crushed and torn asunder.
Whether we are all to perish, or whether a few of us are to survive, is in God’s hands, we fear that only those capable of slave labour will live; the rest of probably are sentenced to death.
We are left, a few out of many. Out of the 35,000 Jews of Kovno, approximately 17,000 remain; out of a quarter of a million Jews in Lithuania (including the Vilna district), only 25,000 live plus 5,000 who, during the last few days, were deported to hard labour in Latvia, stripped of all their belongings. The rest were put to death in terrible ways by the followers of the greatest Haman of all time and all generations.
Some of those dear and close to us, too, are no longer with us. Your Aunt Hannah and Uncle Arieh were killed with 1,500 souls of the Ghetto on October 4, 1941. Uncle Zvi, who was lying in the hospital suffering from a broken leg, was saved by a miracle. All the patients, doctors, nurses, relatives, and visitors who happened to be there were burned to death, after soldiers had blocked all the doors and windows of the hospital and set fire to it. In the provinces, apart from Siauliai, no single Jew survives.
Your Uncle Dov and his son Shmuel were taken out and killed with the rest of the Kalvaria community during the first months of the war, that is about two years ago
Due to outer forces and inner circumstances, only our own Ghetto has managed to survive and live out its diaspora life for the past two years, in slavery, hard labour and deprivation – almost all our clothing, belongings, and books were taken from us by the authorities.
The last massacre, when 10,000 victims were killed at one time, took place on October 28, 1941. Our total community had to go through the “selection” by our rulers: life or death. I am the man who, with my own eyes, saw those about to die.
I was there early on the morning of October 29, in the camp that led to the slaughter at the Ninth Fort. With my own ears I heard the awe-inspiring and terrible symphony, the weeping and screaming of 10,000 people, old and young – a scream that tore at the heart of heaven. No ear had heard such cries through the ages and the generations.
With many of our martyrs, I challenged my creator; and with them, from a heart torn in agony, I cried; “Who is like you in the universe, my Lord!” In my effort to save people here and there, I was beaten by soldiers. Wounded and bleeding, I fainted, and was carried in the arms of friends to a place outside the camp. There, a small group of about thirty or forty survived – witnesses to the fire.
We are, it appears, one of the staging centres in the East. Before our eyes, before the very windows of our houses, there have passed over the last two years many, many thousands of Jews from southern Germany and Vienna, to be taken, with their belongings, to the Ninth Fort, which is some kilometres from us. There they are killed with extreme cruelty. We learned later that they were misled – they were told they were coming to Kovno, to settle in our Ghetto.
From the day of the Ghetto’s founding, I stood at its head. Our community chose me, and the authorities confirmed me as chairman of the Council of elders, together with my friend, the advocate Leib Garfunkel, a former member of the Lithuanian parliament, and a few other close and good people, concerned and caring for the fate of the surviving few.
We are trying to steer our battered ship in furious seas, when waves of decrees and decisions threaten to drown it every day. Through my influence I succeeded, at times, in easing the verdict and in scattering some of the dark clouds that hung over our heads. I bore my duties with head high and an upright countenance. Never did I ask for pity; never did I doubt our rights. I argued our case with total confidence in the justice of our demands.
In these hardest moments of our life, you, my dear ones, are always before us. You are present in our deepest thoughts and in our hearts. In the darkest nights , your mother would sit beside me, and we would both dream of your life and your future. Our innermost desire is to see you again, to embrace you, and to tell you once again how close we are to you, and how our hearts beat as we remember you and see you before us.
And is there any time, day or night, when your memory is not with us? As we stand here , at the very gates of hell, with a knife poised at our necks, only your image, dear ones, sustain us. And you, my children, how was your life these past five years, so hard and full of sorrow for the Jewry of Europe? I know that, far away from this place, you have shared our anguish and, in agony, listened to every slight rumour coming from this vale of tears: and that, deep down, you have felt with us this unparalleled tragedy of our people.
With regard to myself, I have little to report. Last year I suffered an acute and severe attack of rheumatoid arthritis, which kept me bedridden for nine months. However, even in the most difficult days of my illness, I carried on in my community, and from my bedside participated actively in the work of my friends. Now I am better, it has been about six months since I ceased being regarded as sick. I am not fully well, either, but I continue to work ceaselessly, without rest or respite.
We are desolate that during our stay here we could not contact you and tell you that we are still among the living. We know full well how heavily the doubt of our survival weighs upon you, and what strength and confidence you would draw from the news that we are alive. This would certainly give you courage, and belief in work and life with a firm and clear goal.
I deeply fear despair, and the kind of apathy which tends to drive a person out of this world. I pray that this may not happen to you. I doubt my beloved children, whether I will ever be able to see you again, to hug you and press you to my heart. Before I leave this world and you, my dear ones, I wish to tell you once again how dear you are to us, and how deeply our souls yearn for you.
Joel, my beloved! Be a faithful son to your people. Take care of your nation, and do not worry about the Gentiles. During our long exile, they have not given us an eighth of an eighth of what we have given them. Immerse yourself in this question, and return to it again and again.
Try to settle in the Land of Israel. Tie your destiny to the land of our future. Even if life there may be hard, it is a life full of content and meaning. Great and mighty is the power of faith and belief. Faith can move mountains. Do not look to the left or to the right as you pursue your path. If at times you see your people straying, do not let your heart lose courage, my son. It is not their fault – it is our bitter Exile which has made them so. Let truth be always before you and under your feet. Truth will guide you and show you the path of life.
And you, my dear daughter Sarah, read most carefully what I have just said to Joel. I trust your clear mind and sound judgement . Do not live for the moment; do not stray from your chosen path and pick flowers at the wayside. They soon wilt. Lead a life full of beauty, a pure life, full of content and meaning. For all your days, walk together; let no distance separate you, let no serious event come between you.
Remember, both of you, what Amalek has done to us. Remember and never forget it all your days; and pass this memory as a sacred testament to future generations. The Germans killed, slaughtered, and murdered us in complete equanimity. I was there with them. I saw them when they sent thousands of people – men, women, children, infants – to their death, while enjoying their breakfast, and while mocking our martyrs. I saw them coming back from their murderous missions – dirty, stained from head to foot with the blood of our dear ones. They sat at their table – eating and drinking, listening to light music. They are professional executioners.
The soil of Lithuania is soaked with our blood, killed at the hands of the Lithuanians themselves; Lithuanians, with whom we have lived for hundreds of years, and whom, with all our strength, we helped to achieve their own national independence. Seven thousand of our brothers and sisters were killed by Lithuanians in terrible and barbarous ways during the last days of June 1941. They themselves, and no others, executed whole congregations, following German orders. They searched – with special pleasure – cellars and wells, fields and forests, for those in hiding, and turned them over to the “authorities.” Never have anything to do with them; and their children are accursed forever.
I am writing this in an hour when many desperate souls – widows and orphans, threadbare and hungry – are camping on my doorstep, imploring us for help. My strength is ebbing. There is a desert inside me. My soul is scorched. I am naked and empty. There are no words in my mouth. But you, my most dearly beloved, will know what I wanted to say to you at this hour.
And now, for a moment. I close my eyes and see you both, standing before me. I embrace and kiss you both; and I say to you again that, until my last breath I remain your loving father.
Surviving the Holocaust – The Kovno Ghetto Diary by Avraham Tory published by Pimlico 199
Holocaust Historical Society
Copyright. Chris Webb and Irene Seymour H.E.A.R.T 2011