The Sto­ry of an Under­ground: The Resis­tance of the Jews of Kovno in the Sec­ond World War

Dov Levin and Zvie A. Brown; Jes­si­ca Set­bon, trans.
  • Review
By – June 16, 2015

This vol­ume was pub­lished in Hebrew by Yad Vashem in l962. Gefen Pub­lish­ing has per­formed an impor­tant ser­vice for aca­d­e­m­ic researchers and the larg­er non-Hebrew-speak­ing pub­lic by pro­duc­ing the first Eng­lish-lan­guage trans­la­tion of The Sto­ry of an Under­ground: The Resis­tance of the Jews of Kovno in the Sec­ond World War by Israeli schol­ars Dov Levin and Zvie A. Brown. After fifty-two years, Lev­in’s and Brown’s work remains the most com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry of the cre­ation of Jew­ish resis­tance in the Kovno Ghet­to. The authors, both mem­bers of the pre­war Hashomer Hatzair social­ist-Zion­ist move­ment, sur­vived the Ghet­to and fought against the Ger­mans and their Lithuan­ian allies in the forests of Lithua­nia for two years.

Uti­liz­ing the exten­sive Ger­man files at Yad Vashem and ver­bal tes­ti­monies of oth­er Jew­ish par­ti­sans, along with mem­oirs of oth­er sur­vivors of the Kovno Ghet­to, the authors describe the first steps of the orga­nized Jew­ish under­ground in the Ghet­to, the under­ground’s des­per­ate search for allies out­side the Ghet­to fence and its first efforts to estab­lish a base of sup­port for par­ti­san activ­i­ties in the near­by Rud­ni­ki forests.” The work pro­vides an excel­lent descrip­tion of the under­ground’s efforts to train select­ed youth inside the Ghet­to for par­ti­san war­fare, includ­ing lessons on how to use var­i­ous Russ­ian rifles and pis­tols, as well as Molo­tov cocktails.

In spite of the sharp polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences that divid­ed the Jew­ish par­ti­sans in Kovno — rang­ing from Revi­sion­ist Zion­ists (Betar) to the Jew­ish Com­mu­nists — Levin and Brown treat each fac­tion fair­ly. As for the Sovi­et par­ti­sans that would even­tu­al­ly absorb between 600 to 1200 Jew­ish fight­ers from the Ghet­to, what count­ed most was that Jews arrived at their under­ground camps ful­ly armed and trained.

To break out of the Ghet­to, the par­ti­sans required the close coop­er­a­tion of the Jew­ish Police, an agency of the Jew­ish Coun­cil of Elders. Here Levin and Brown por­tray the Jew­ish Police in large­ly pos­i­tive terms, obser­va­tions that have been con­firmed in the more recent work, The Clan­des­tine His­to­ry of the Jew­ish Ghet­to Police (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014). Unlike most Jew­ish police­men in the War­saw and Lodz ghet­tos, the Jew­ish Police in Kovno were strong­ly anti-Ger­man and often risked their own lives to per­mit smug­glers to bring weapons, med­i­cine, and food to the Under­ground command.

The Red Army lib­er­at­ed Vil­na in late July and Kovno on August 1, 1944. For the sur­viv­ing Jew­ish par­ti­sans, these vic­to­ries were bittersweet.

Relat­ed Content:

Carl J. Rheins was the exec­u­tive direc­tor emer­i­tus of the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research. He received his Ph.D. in Mod­ern Euro­pean His­to­ry from the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York at Stony Brook and taught cours­es on the Holo­caust at sev­er­al major universities.

Discussion Questions