The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed on August 23 1939, and it led to the entry of the Russians into Lithuania in the summer of 1940. The entry of the Russians into Lithuania caused the feeling of frustration in the Lithuanian people to intensify and greatly increased the cases of incitement against the Jews, with injury to their persons and damage to their property.
The German forces invaded Lithuania in 1941. Many of the Jews made desperate efforts to flee into the territory of the Soviet Union, but most of them did not reach their destination.
When the Germans entered Lithuania, the Lithuanians began to riot against the Jews. In Slobodka, a suburb of Kovno, approximately 800 men, women and children were cruelly slaughtered on the night of June 25. They also burned synagogues. All told, during the initial weeks of the occupation approximately 3,800 people were murdered in Kovno. These atrocious acts were carried out by the Lithuanians, headed by ultra-nationalists from among the intelligentsia, and by the Einsatzgruppen of the German Reich. From then on the murder of Jews entered a systematic planning stage of major dimensions, and in this case the main actors were also the Lithuanians themselves. Concurrent to the systematic slaughter, a ghetto was established in Kovno, and the Jews were ordered to wear yellow badges and to hand over all their valuables. After an ultimatum, the Jews were placed in the ghetto, which was finally locked on August 15, 1941. At that time there were 29,760 Jews. The Jews were forbidden to have any contact with the surrounding population. On October 28, 1941 the Germans carried out the "big Aktion" [roundup]: 10,000 Jews were taken out of the ghetto and sent to be exterminated.
The knowledge that the work of the Jews was a factor in postponing their liquidation motivated the Judenrat to take the utmost advantage of the manpower potential in the ghetto and to initiate work places within the area of the ghetto as well. There was a pause in the roundups in 1942, which led to recovery in the ghettos and the awakening of social and cultural life.
Picture – Tens of thousands of Jews from Kovno were murdered in the yard of the Ninth Fort
Tens of thousands of Jews from Kovno were murdered in the yard of the Ninth Fort
Towards the end of 1943, the Germans began to transfer Jews of working age to concentration camps, and the people who were considered unfit for work were liquidated. The ghetto became a concentration camp, and its area was reduced. When the front began to draw near to Lithuania in July 1944, the Germans began to evacuate the Jews who had survived in the ghetto and the labor camps and send them to Germany. There were a total of about 7,000 to 8,000 Jews in the ghetto and the surrounding labor camps. The deportations began on Saturday, July 8, 1944. Several thousand hid in the malinas (hiding places) that had been prepared for this moment. When the SS man G?cke saw that he was short a few thousand Jews, he sent Gestapo and SS units into the ghetto, including sappers, and they blew up house after house; that was the liquidation of the ghetto and it was carried out on August 1, 1944. The majority of Jews who had hidden in the hiding places were burnt or suffocated inside them. When Lithuania was liberated by the Red Army in the fall of 1944, only a few hundred Jews were to be found there. Only about 4 percent of the Jews of Lithuania survived the war.
Three weeks after the destruction of the Kovno ghetto, Kovno was liberated by the Red Army.
A picture of the Kovno ghetto on fire.Original: Ghetto Fighters' Museum
Out of the 40,000 Jews who had been in Kovno before the war, only about 3,000 remained. Two thousand five hundred were liberated in Germany and another 500 were partisans and in various hiding places with Lithuanians. The names of the Germans and Lithuanians who took part in the murder of the Jews of Kovno are in keeping at Yad Vashem. The names of the small number of Lithuanians, Poles and Russians who helped the Jews in any way during the atrocious war are also kept there.
Dani Labanovski returns to his house in Kovno during the journey. September 1999
Yaakov Viz returns to his childhood home. While we were there he coincidentally encountered an old neighbor, who gave him photos of members of his family who had been murdered.