Only days after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Nazis began murdering Lithuania’s Jews.  In 1939, Lithuania had a population of approximately 160,000 Jews; by 1945, 90% of them were dead.  This highly educated and little-assimilated Jewish world served as a sort of testing ground for the Nazis’ genocidal plans, and they relied not only on their own technologies of mass murder, but also on the rabid antisemitism of Lithuanian nationalists, who had killed thousands of their own volition even before the German invasion.  By February 1942, the Nazis and their accomplices had killed the majority of Lithuania’s Jews: the rest remained in the three major ghettos of VilnaShavli and Kovno, maintained as a slave labour pool.

Since the late 19th century, Kovno had been a centre of eastern European Jewish life, famed for its yeshiva in the Jewish district of Slobodka and its Hebrew school system, as well as for being a centre of Zionist activity. Impressed by the size and confidence of the Kovno Jewish population, a Polish-Jewish visitor before the war remembered that

walking the Kovno streets you had the impression … that it was a completely Jewish city.  Perhaps it was – in every respect – the most Jewish city in the world.

The Kovno ghetto, built in the area of Slobodka, was divided into two sections and sealed on 15 August 1941, enclosing about 30,000 Jews. Within a period of less than five years, the Jews of Kovno had almost all been killed: shot in the city, dead of starvation and illness inside the ghetto or deported to concentration and death camps. The Nazis tried to leave the fewest possible records of the crimes they committed, and they forbade their victims from recording their own destruction.  Nonetheless, Jews imprisoned in the Kovno ghetto kept some of the most detailed and culturally rich records of Jewish experience under Nazi internment.

The story of this destruction of a community was documented, thanks in part to the efforts of Jewish Council chairman Dr Elkhanan Elkes, who encouraged Kovno's Jews to record their history and experiences.  He not only tried to protect the inhabitants of the ghetto, but also supported the underground resistance and allowed people to escape to join the partisans.  For modern-day historians, even more important was his commitment to 'immortalis[ing] … every aspect of ghetto reality'.

Avraham Tory, the Council's main secretary, was one of the primary recorders of ghetto life.  He wrote down the oral orders that the Nazis gave him, kept a diary and collected transcriptions of folk songs, poetry, maps and pictures.  Expressing the purpose of this mission, he wrote:

I have collected signs, symbols, works of graphic art, song lyrics and macabre jokes, which reflect as in a crooked mirror the life of the individual and the life of the community in the ghetto.

Tory managed to hide everything he had written before successfully escaping in March 1944.  Unlike Elkes, who was deported to Dachau in July 1944, Tory survived the war by hiding outside of the ghetto.

Musical performance in the Kovno ghetto, Aug 1942 - Mar 1944. USHMM (10920).
Violinists perform in the Kovno ghetto orchestra

The first weeks of the ghetto’s existence were marked by a wave of mass murders, which targeted in particular the ‘unproductive’ members of the community, especially the elderly and children.  The Nazis also aimed to destroy the cultural and intellectual strength of the community, targeting schools, synagogues, cultural centres and the ghetto intelligentsia.  The ghetto immediately began to rebuild, however, and several illegal schools, a hospital, a religious network and several musical and theatre groups were established.

In the summer of 1942, the ghetto police orchestra came into existence.  Made up of 35 instrumentalists and five singers, the orchestra was led by the conductor Michael Hofmekler.  Over the course of the ghetto’s existence, approximately 80 concerts were performed.  From their inception, these concerts, as well as the other forms of organised entertainment, were highly controversial.  In the early months, with most inmates still reeling from the loss of family and friends, many found the idea of entertainment in any form a sacrilege, disrespectful to the lives that had been lost.  They felt it was unseemly to hold concerts in what was now a permanent place of mourning and perceived these concerts as being solely for the ghetto elite.  The first concert opened with a moment of silence, followed by ‘Kol Nidre’, and the programme emphasised serious and solemn music.  The early objections gradually disappeared as inmates recognised the value of music for mourning and commemoration, as well as for raising morale.  Convinced of the importance of music for survival, the young inmate Tamara Lazerson wrote in her diary in December 1942:

As a diversion, concerts are being held in the ghetto … there are some excellent singers and poets, and that is how people forget where they are for one night, transporting themselves to an entirely different world.  Although some people object to what they are doing, they are wrong.

In addition to musical performances, a large number of songs were composed and sung in the ghetto, many of them consisting of new lyrics set to pre-existing melodies. Important songwriters included Avrom Akselrod and Moshe Diskant.  The songs express the suffering, hope, and despair of the inmates.  Although many were lost, thanks to the efforts of the council, several survived.  Reflecting on the importance of this ‘folk genre’ for the inhabitants of the ghetto, one young man observed in his diary:

A ghetto song most often begins with the pain and suffering of the Jewish people and ends with the hope of better things, of a bright and happy future.

The cultural activities of Kovno’s Jews were to come to an abrupt end with the final destruction of the ghetto.  Throughout the autumn and winter of 1943, thousands were selected for deportation and murder, and the ghetto was converted into a concentration camp.  Many resistance fighters found hiding places, and hundreds were smuggled out to join partisan groups in forests.  In July 1944 the camp was evacuated, its remaining survivors sent to Dachau and Stutthof.

The survivors of the Kovno ghetto played a central role in the post-war organisation of Jewish life, particularly in the Displaced Persons’ camps, and the meeting of Jewish DPs on 27 May 1945 included a concert by the former Kovno ghetto orchestra.

Performance of the Kovno ghetto orchestra, 1945. USHMM (81070), courtesy of Robert W. Hofmekler

Sources

Königseder, A. & Wetzel, J., 2001. Waiting for Hope: Jewish Displaced Persons in Post-World War II Germany, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.  

Laqueur, W. ed., 2001. The Holocaust encyclopedia, New Haven: Yale University Press.  

USHMM, E. ed., 1997. Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto, Boston, New York, Toronto, London: Bulfinch Press.