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The Jewish Ghetto
Kaunas, Lithuania


Life in the Kovno Ghetto
as told by Ephraim (Ed) Gruzin


 In August 1941 the German High Commissioner of Lithuania, SA Major General Hans Kramer issued an order that all the Jews of Kovno (approximately twenty-nine thousand) must move into a small section of town called Vilijampole (Shlabodke in Yiddish).  We were allowed to bring with us only items that we could carry, or if lucky, those household items which could fit in a pushcart. My family was not able to obtain a cart, so we only brought a few blankets, pillows, and some food.  We left behind all our furniture, books and all other household items. Before vacating our apartment, I took a knife and sliced our sofa and mattresses, knowing that we would never return to this place again. We were placed in an apartment, which consisted of two rooms and a kitchen, without any sanitary facilities. There we found two additional families who shared this awful place with us. The Germans forced some Jews to build a barbed wire fence and an entrance gate. Anyone trying to escape was shot on the spot.  This was the start of the infamous Kovno Ghetto.  

photo, left:
 Ed Gruzin

Life in the Ghetto was terrible. People were shot for no apparent reason. When a Jew walked past a German guard, he had to remove his cap and walk in military manner; otherwise he would be beaten.  Our rations were also very meager: horse meat, margarine, flour, and potato peals. All men and women over the age of fourteen were forced to perform slave labor at the military airfield in Kovno.  Being only thirteen, I was not required to work; however, I used to work at the airfield as an “Angel,”(Malach in Yiddish) being sent by someone else to perform his day’s work.  For my efforts, I received two slices of bread and some margarine while the man I substituted for got his work card stamped.  Thus, we were both winners; I got something to eat and the other person had a day off from slave labor.

One night we heard loud banging on our apartment door.  As we opened the door there were several German SS soldiers and Lithuanians asking for me by name.  They took me to the Ghetto prison and the next day I was sent to a small town called Marijampole. Other young men my age were also rounded up at the same time. We were housed in the town synagogue. We had to dig trenches for an underground telephone cable.  I was unable to communicate with my family to let them know that I was alive. They kept us there for approximately three months. Each day every prisoner was expected to dig one hundred meters (three hundred feet) of the trench.  Anyone who did not complete the required task was beaten severely.  I remember a German SS guard who was not older than nineteen or twenty.  That soldier was the most vicious prutal person I have ever encountered, we called him the snake.  He was always yelling and foaming from the mouth.  If he did not like someone he just pulled him off the trench, and shot him dead.

     There were some Lithuanian laborers at that work site.  One day I befriended one of these Lithuanians who told me that we were going back to the Ghetto.  In addition, he gave me a little duck, already killed and cleaned, which I brought back to my family and my dear mother cooked us a delicious meal. Upon returning to the Ghetto I was assigned to work in the Ghetto laundry that was part of the Ghetto workshops.  My job entailed hand scrubbing and washing German uniforms with bullet holes that were returned from the Russian front. After the uniforms were cleaned they were sent to the tailor shop for repairs and re-issued to German soldiers.

     After working at the laundry for a few months, I was assigned to a clothing warehouse where I sorted out clothing removed from Jews that had been shot at the Ninth Fort.  One day, I found a pair of shoes that were my mother’s size.  I never forget the look on her face when I gave her those shoes.  She was happy to obtain those shoes and also very sad that a few days earlier they had belonged to some unfortunate woman whose life was taken by those despicable murderers. I had risked my life in taking those shoes; if I had been caught I would have been shot

     I recall a tragic incident, on Novemeber 18, 1942 German guards captured a man trying to escape from the Ghetto by digging a hole under the barbed wire fence.  They accused him of having a revolver and gold. The Nazis forced the Jewish Ghetto police to build a gallows and hang that man while the entire Ghetto population watched. He was left dangling like a rag in the wind for twenty-four hours as a warning that no one else should try to escape.  Before being hung he asked the Jewish Ghetto  policemen to give his love to his mother and sister, who were shot the following day. The man’s name was Nachum Mek.  Though many people like Mek failed to escape from the Ghetto, some people succeeded and joined the partisans in the forests fighting against the Nazis.

     August 16, 1941 the German governor ordered the Jewish Ghetto administration to supply five hundred intellectuals to work in the Kovno archives outside the Ghetto. My uncle Moshe Nisin volunteered to go, thinking that he may obtain some additional food rations for his family. Instead, they were all taken to the Ninth Fort and shot. That left my aunt Henna to take care of her four small children, yet there was no way they could have survived by themselves without my uncle to provide for them.

    September 26, 1941 the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators rounded up several thousand people, took them to the Ninth Fort and shot them. Among those shot were my dear grandparents Joshua Yakov and Genesa Gruzin. They were the kindest people who never hurt anyone or spoke a harsh word against others. Before the war they lived in a storefront, which consisted of one large room without any facilities. My grandfather used to buy and sell empty vinegar and soda bottles. That one room served as a living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, and my grandfather's bottle warehouse.  they had absolutely nothing.  Why did they have to be murdered by those barbarians?

October 28, 1941 was the most horrifying day in the Ghetto.  An order was issued that all Ghetto inhabitants must assemble on Demokratu Square at 6:00 AM.  Once there, we were lined up in columns by work brigades.  My father, a World War 1 veteran was assigned to be a Ghetto policeman, yet the Jewish Ghetto Police were unarmed being available just to keep order.  We stood in the column with Police and Fire Brigade families. Several hours passed and then the selections began. Each family had to pass SS Master Sergeant Helmut Raucke, as he stood on a wood platform with a riding stick in his hand, motioning some people to the right side and some to the left, separating families and creating total chaos. We were sent to the left.  My uncle Chaim, my father’s younger brother, his wife Chiene, and their two sons Icik and Israel were sent to the right side. Suddenly my father happening to see that they were about to be taken out of the Ghetto to the Ninth Fort, ran over to a SS guard and told him that this were his family.  The guard slugged my father over the head with his rifle causing him to bleed profusely, but my father did not give up, grabbing uncle Chaim and his family and placing them with us, thus saving their lives by his action.

     My father told us later that he tried to find my aunt Henna and her four children; however, it was to no avail, they were already on the other side and were take to the Ninth Fort and shot.  On that horrendous day the murderers killed over nine thousand men, women, and children. I still remember the sight of those poor souls walking up the hill to the Ninth Fort with SS and Lithuanian guards at their sides.

     In July 1942 the Germans created a myth that the Ghetto hospital had typhus and infectious patients. The German SS guards surrounded the hospital, forced some Ghetto prisoners to dig a wide ditch around it so that no one could escape and set the hospital on fire. They burned alive all those inside including doctors, nurses, patients, and small infants. We could hear the screaming and crying of those unfortunate people After that tragedy there were just a few physicians without medical supplies left in the Ghetto to care for entire population.  People died by the hundreds from sickness and hunger.

    September 12, 1942 my brother Charles got close to the Ghetto fence.  A German guard beat him severely, but he somehow managed to get back to our apartment where he collapsed.  I will never forget the look in his eyes, as he lay there begging for us to help him.  He kept on saying in Yiddish Ratevet mir meaning, “save me, please save me”. On the last day he was stricken with dysentery  Three days later on September 15, 1942 my dear brother died.   He was only seventeen years old.  No one can comprehend the pain I felt for him, seeing him gasp his last breath and not be able to help as I sat by his bedside. Had there been medicine in the Ghetto, maybe he could have been saved.  We buried him in the Kovno Ghetto Cemetery and placed a wooden marker on his grave. After the war, I was planning to travel to Kovno in order to place a permanent monument stone on his grave.  But I was informed, that after the war was over, the Russians destroyed the cemetery, moved some of the remains to another place and built apartment houses on the cemetery  site.  This action by the Russians was an unforgivable inhumane act.  They did not even have respect for the dead, even though the Russians lost twenty million people during the war.

    March 27, 1944 the Nazis ordered all inhabitants to remain in their apartments, but leave the doors wide open. The Ghetto was aghast with fear.  We had no idea what was going to happen.  The German SS and their Lithuanian collaborators searched each apartment for children under the age thirteen.  They took the children to the Ninth Fort or Auschwitz Concentration Camp and murdered them all.  The SS went from door to door and dragged those innocent children and infants out of their parent’s arms, including two small children from our apartment. That murderous operation took two days. Being a youngster of fifteen, I could not imagine the despair the parents felt to have lost their children in such a brutal and tragic way.  After that horrendous day a decree was issued that any woman who becomes pregnant will be shot. Most women who were already pregnant had to go into hiding in order to avoid discovery.

     Life in the Ghetto became worse daily. The Nazis converted the Ghetto into a Concentration Camp, reduced our rations and continued rounding up people for deportation.  Out of the twenty-nine thousand Jews who entered the Ghetto in 1941 only two thousand five hundred remained.  To place this in perspective, ninety-five percent of Lithuanian Jews did not survive the Holocaust.

     As the tide of the war turned against the Germans and the Russian Army approached Kovno in July of 1944, the Nazis began to remove all the remaining Jews from the Ghetto.  Many attempted to find refuge in underground hideouts, but the Nazis flushed them out with killer dogs, grenades and dynamite. The murderers set the Ghetto on fire and burned it to the ground.  No one could have survived such an inferno. All that was left standing were smokestacks. The remaining Jews including my family were herded into cattle cars....


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