Kovno (the Russian name; Kaunas in Lithuanian and Kauen in German) was, from 1920 to 1939, the capital of independent Lithuania. In 1939 the Jewish population of Kovno stood at 40,000 - about 25 percent of the city's inhabitants. In 1940 Kovno was annexed by the Soviet Union and during the period of Soviet rule (1940-41), most of the Jewish cultural, social and educational institutions were closed down.
On 24 June 1941 the Germans captured Kovno. Even before the Germans entered the city, there had been murderous attacks on Jews by groups of Lithuanians. With the arrival of the Germans the murder continued. Thousands of Jews were held in places such as the "Ninth Fort," where, after being tortured, they were shot. Approximately 10,000 were killed in June and July 1941.
The German occupying regime passed a number of decrees against the Jews, forcing them into two ghettos (the "Small Ghetto" and the "Large Ghetto"). In August 1941 the ghettos were sealed, with 30,000 Jews inside. Within two and a half months the "Small Ghetto" was liquidated and its 3,000 inhabitants were killed in a series of Aktionen (roundups). On 28-29 October a massive roundup (the "great Aktion") took place, in which thousands, including many children, were taken from the ghetto to the "Ninth Fort" and murdered. Then there was a long period in which the roundups and killings ceased, with 17,412 Jews left in the ghetto. Most of the adults were sent to forced labor, where they were worked almost to death under constant abuse and cruelty. Then, on 27 and 28 March 1944, 1800 babies, children and old people were taken from their homes and murdered. And on 8 July, as the Red Army approached Kovno, about 4,000 Jews were transferred to concentration camps in Germany, mainly to Dachau, Kaufring and Stutthof.
Repressive decrees were passed against the Jews throughout the period of the ghetto's existence. In February 1942 they were forced to hand over to the German authorities all books and printed matter. In August all the synagogues were closed, as were all schools - except those offering vocational training. In addition to the killing, thousands of people were transferred to the Riga ghetto or to forced labor camps in Lithuania.
Life in the ghetto was run by a council of elders known as the Altestenrat. This was headed by the prominent doctor and public figure, Dr Elkes. The council ran services and institutions for the ghetto - including clinics and hospitals, old age homes, soup kitchens and schools. In addition, they organized cultural events, such as concerts, lectures, literary evenings and art exhibitions. The Altestenrat encouraged one of the artist's in the ghetto - Esther Lurie - to devote her time to her art. They believed that her portrayals of ghetto life would one day provide a reliable testimony to what had taken place there.
(Dr Pnina Rosenberg)