During the week of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, which today commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and is different from the international day of Holocaust commemoration, there were several programs related to the Holocaust. Here is a brief review of two of those I attended.
An old friend from Netanya, Menno Cohen, talked about his own life in Holland during the Shoah in WWII from when he was 6 to about 10 years old, at Netanya AACI. It was entitled “I once was Jantje Bosch.” He told how his father who was a baker had to leave his business and the family had to hide, first with some poor people who had a small house, and then they contacted the resistance and moved again and again, until they moved 22 times in about 3 years. By moving to the southern countryside near the Belgian border they found an area where they could survive as non-Jews with false papers and his pseudonym was Jantje Bosch. He even went to school and they lived fairly well, while his father was part of the resistance and cycled for many miles all around the southern part of Holland, delivering false papers and helping people hide, both Jews and non-Jews.
Things got worse when the allied forces started bombing and attacking the Germans from the air. The Germans built fortifications nearby and ironically after the Germans left they used these concrete bunkers themselves for protection. They were finally liberated by the Canadian Army. Most of his immediate family survived, but Holland was notorious for the high proportion of the Jews, ca. 85%, who were murdered, mostly hidden Jews were given away for money. He and his family were exceptionally lucky.
Reuven Geffen spoke at AACI Netanya about the Shoah in Lithuania and particularly in Kovno (also called Kaunas). He has published a book in English entitled “The Story of an Underground: the resistance of the Jews of Kovno in the Second World War,” which is a translation of a book written 50 years before in Hebrew by two survivors of the Kovno Ghetto underground Dov Levin and Zvi Brown, who had escaped from the Ghetto and fought as partisans in the forest and after the War had moved to Israel. The former of these authors was also a cousin of Reuven and this was the first detailed academic history of a Jewish resistance movement under the Nazis. Their narrative is based on oral testimonies of their fellow survivors and fighters and written memoirs of witnesses as well as documentary material.
He described how even before the German Army entered Lithuania in June 24, 1941, the nationalists, who blamed the Jews for the previous Communist occupation by the Soviet Union, openly attacked and murdered Jews in the streets. Thousands were killed, but this was only a prelude to the German massacres that began immediately with the transport of thousands of Jews from the city to the Seventh Fort, one of the medieval fortresses that encircled the city. The Jewish population of Kovno had been 40,000 (ca. 25% of the population) but was down to ca. 30,000 when the the Germans established a Ghetto and forced the remaining Jews into it. The pace of the murders continued to increase week by week, until the last major massacre when 10,000 Jews were murdered in October, 1941. By then only 17,000 Jews were left in the Ghetto. Then there was a lull of over two years in the killings. The remaining Jews were forced to work and a Jewish authority, a Judenrat, was established. The Head of this Dr. Elhanan Elkes was a respected doctor who was sympathetic to the resistance (not the case elsewhere) and who gave them support.
At first there was no resistance, due to the unpreparedness of the Jewish youth movements for the pace of the killings. During this lull the youth movements became organized, but at first they largely engaged in theoretical discussions, what would be better, to defend the Ghetto or to escape to the partisans that they had heard were fighting in the forests. However, gradually they gathered weapons and gradually the many youth movements coalesced into a Jewish Fighting Organization (JFO) of ca. 600 under the command of the Communists who had access to weapons smuggled in from Russia (this never happened in the Warsaw Ghetto). They carried out minor actions against the German occupation, but were then advised by the Communists to move to a forest area near the Byelorussian border. A group of 100 and set out to travel the ca. 100 miles to this area, but most of them were detected and killed by the German forces.
The survivors returned to the Ghetto, and they and the other fighters were rounded up and imprisoned in the Ninth Fort, where the remainder of the Jews were being killed. The Ghetto was gradually reduced in size as these Aktions continued. In 1943 the 1,500 children of the orphanage were taken there and massacred, also the Jewish Ghetto police force was wiped out. Altogether ca. 70,000 people were murdered at the Ninth Fort.
Seeing the end was near the remaining resistance fighters formulated a plan and managed to escape from the Ninth Fort by secretly drilling holes manually in the iron door of their prison. Most of them escaped, but half were captured and shot and the rest managed to join the partisans in the Rudnicki Forest near Vilna. Of the ca. 350 Jews who formed the Kovno Battalion of the Partisans, only ca. 100 survived the war. Although the actual resistance was minor, it served to act as a bridge to the fighting carried out in Eretz Israel. Altogether ca. 95% of the Jews of Kovno and of Lithuania were murdered by the Lithuanians and Germans. Reuven’s book is dedicated to his son Idan who fell while fighting in the IDF.