The Virtual Jewish History Tour
by Jono David
At the corner of Ariogalos and Linkuvos streets in the Vilijampole district of Kaunas, Lithuania, stands a simple, lone granite memorial to those Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis in World War II. It stands like a lone sentinel, keeping a 24-hour watch over the souls of the dead. Quietly but determinedly, it commands us to heed its eternal message of remembrance. It was here in this suburban district known to the Jews as Slobodka that on German orders, the Kovno (as Kaunas was once called) Ghetto was sealed on August 15, 1941 with 29,000 impounded people. The area had been a Jewish village for four hundred years.
Kaunas has a small though peppery congregation. In the sanctuary of the synagogue, I met an aging but spry group of men (no women were present) I had not expected to meet. The voices of the congregation were particularly boisterous, rising like a star on a Shabbat evening. I was also impressed with the synagogue's simple beauty, its stained glass, and grandness, though it appeared somewhat weary from the outside, fatigued by Soviet occupation. Built in 1871, it is today the only remaining synagogue in a city which once had some thirty-six synagogues and prayer houses (the shells of two other synagogues are located in the Old Town).
Kaunas' darkest side is IX Fortas, one of a series of forts built by the Russians but later used by the Nazis as a murder factory. Located in Kaunas' northwest outskirts, the fort failed the Russians in their attempt to defend their western frontier, falling to the Germans in only eleven days of battle. Inside, primitive bedding remains firmly behind double meshed bars covering the windows of the cells. The prison's fortified walls exude a stale coldness, creating an appropriate somber mood for viewing the numerous displays of photographs and reports of the gruesome events which took place here. In addition to the communal cells was the "Health Room," a 3 meter by 1 meter hole beneath a stairwell, and the "Wet Room," a fairly spacious but dank chamber of concrete without a crack of light. I was particularly drawn to an exhibit on Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Kaunas (1939-40) who was personally responsible for issuing 6,000 visas for safe passage out of Lithuania to Japan.
For those held captive in the IX Fortas, it was a short shuffle from the front gate down the Path of Death to the Wall of Death, a corner of a moat-like trench where people were lined up as targets and shot. Today, this wall is still riddled with bullet holes and is the fort's starkest reminder of the evil that was perpetrated here. In all, some 80,000 people from Lithuania, Austria, France, and other Nazi occupied areas, were slaughtered at the fort, including most of Kovno's population. Just behind the trench is a field where the dead were discarded. Today, it is a peaceful spread of green back-dropped by a new housing development. Adjacent to the field is the leviathan Monument to the Victims of Fascism, a concrete crush of desperate faces rising from the earth in immortal resistance. Behind the synagogue stands a memorial to the 1,800 children who were murdered here.
Kaunas became an important center of Jewish cultural life in the latter half of the 19th century. Distinguished Jewish leaders moved here from Vilnius, the capital, to establish yeshivas. Influential thinkers also moved to Kaunas.
When Vilnius was annexed by Poland during he inter-war years, Kaunas became the provisional capital of Lithuania. In 1928, there were 1,000 Jewish students at the Vytautas Magnus University. There was even a Semitic studies program.
In 1931, the Jewish Ethnographic Museum was opened. Within only a few years, it had collected some 3,000 Jewish art works and artifacts. By the mid-1930s there were successful Jewish writers, poets, and artists residing in the city. By 1938, the Jewish population was nearly 40,000 and the area was a booming hub for Jewish businessmen, entrepreneurs, artisans, doctors, and lawyers. Five Jewish newspapers were published daily. There were schools for all ages, adult training centers, theatres, libraries, sports clubs, and political groups. Even the Central Jewish Bank of Lithuania was centered in Kaunas.
The potent influence the Jewish community had in Kaunas before the war was snuffed out forever but, for their numbers, the vigor of the remaining Jews most certainly rivals that of past communities. I was able to discern that energy when Synagogue President Chatskal Zack zestfully shook my hand on the evening of my third visit, and eagerly invited me back for the following morning's Shabbat service.
As I exited, other men standing in the foyer warmly bid me a "Shabbat Shalom", leaving me with the impression that all is peaceful again. At that moment, I realized that those men are the true sentinels of Kovno.
Source: Jono David. "The Jews of Kovno: Text and Photographs." Jono David Media. Reprinted with permission.
Photos copyright Jono David HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library (Jono David Media)
Map from the CIA World Fact Book 2000.