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 Vilna, Shavli 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.