The Clan­des­tine His­to­ry of the Kovno Jew­ish Ghet­to Police

Anony­mous Mem­bers of the Kovno Jew­ish Ghet­to Police
  • Review
By – April 10, 2014

This unusu­al book was com­posed by mem­bers of the Jew­ish police force who served in the Kovno Ghet­to from August 1941 until March 1944, when the Nazis mur­dered its lead­er­ship. The writ­ers of this riv­et­ing doc­u­ment were deter­mined to pro­vide a tru­ly bal­anced his­to­ry of the Jew­ish police force as it inter­act­ed with ghet­to inhab­i­tants, the Nazi occu­piers, and their Lithuan­ian aux­il­iaries — vir­u­lent anti-Semi­tes whose vio­lence against Jews shocked even their Ger­man mas­ters. The chron­i­cle is also a refu­ta­tion of Raul Hilberg and Han­nah Arendt, whose works were high­ly crit­i­cal of the Jew­ish coun­cils and the Jew­ish police lead­er­ship in the ghet­tos. One dis­tin­guished Holo­caust his­to­ri­ans, Samuel Kas­sow, notes in his intro­duc­tion to the book that the chron­i­cle… serves as a cau­tion not to rush to blan­ket judg­ments of the Jew­ish police — or of the Jew­ish ghet­to lead­er­ship. Each ghet­to had its own con­text and circumstances.”

True, the Jew­ish coun­cil in Kovno was very dif­fer­ent than Rumkowski’s lead­er­ship in the Lodz ghet­to. Giv­en that the Nazis estab­lished more than 15,000 con­cen­tra­tion camps in Ger­man-occu­pied Europe, Kas­sow is on firm ground when he accus­es Han­nah Arendt of being sim­plis­tic when she wrote in Eich­mann in Jerusalem that had the Jews refused to estab­lish Jew­ish councils…and sim­ply scat­tered, many would have died, but far few­er than six mil­lion would have been mur­dered by the Ger­mans.” Else­where, Arendt wrote that To a Jew, this role of the Jew­ish lead­ers in the destruc­tion of their own peo­ple is undoubt­ed­ly the dark­est page in the whole dark sto­ry.” Kas­sow argues, as evi­denced in the Jew­ish police his­to­ry, that they had to func­tion with­in a zone of choice-less choices.”

These chron­i­cles offer a rare glimpse into the com­plex sit­u­a­tion faced by the Kovno Ghet­to lead­er­ship: caught between the bru­tal­i­ty of their Lithuan­ian and Ger­man cap­tors, the Jew­ish police­men attempt­ed to medi­ate between the demands of the occu­piers and the anger of the ghet­to pop­u­la­tion. The book describes the arbi­trary man­ner of the Ger­mans where­in, at a moment’s notice, the Nazis demand­ed that the Jew­ish coun­cil round up Jews for depor­ta­tion to the death camps. Sim­i­lar­ly, the authors illus­trate the cru­el­ty involved in the Ger­man demands for Jew­ish labor with the alter­na­tive of death for shirkers.

The secret his­to­ry of the Jew­ish police is both a defense of their actions as well as a crit­i­cism of Jew­ish lead­ers who took advan­tage of their posi­tions of author­i­ty. The chron­i­cle cap­tures an envi­ron­ment in which the irra­tional hatred of Jews by the native Lithuan­ian pop­u­la­tion and the orga­nized Nazi killing machine made it vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for Jews to avoid the wan­ton death desired by their ene­mies. The Jew­ish coun­cils and the Jew­ish police bought time for the Jews impris­oned in the ghet­to, always hop­ing that either the Mes­si­ah or the Sovi­ets would deliv­er them from the inevitable death that they faced on a dai­ly basis.

Relat­ed Content:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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