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Lithuania: U.S. Presents Exhibition On Kovno Ghetto

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 13 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The year is 1941 and a young Jewish man risks certain death by clandestinely photographing the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania where thousands of Jews were forced to live by occupying German troops during World War II.

At the same time, a young woman is protectively surrounded by fellow inhabitants of the Kovno ghetto as she hastily sketches images of her surroundings. She is determined to leave an accurate historical accounting of the difficulties and atrocities that thousands of Jews, including herself, faced.

Fearing for his life, a lawyer methodically creates an extensive archive of drawings, photographs and documents, including his own anguished diary, and buries them in five wooden crates beneath the Kovno ghetto to be dug up later and serve as a record of Nazi crimes against his community.

These stories and many others form the core of an exhibition, "Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto" presently showing at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The exhibition focuses on the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania which was created by the Nazis in 1941 as part of their effort to rid Europe of its Jewish population. The ghetto was in operation for three agonizing years before it was burned to the ground by the Germans in anticipation of the advancing Soviet army.

Exhibition curator Elizabeth Kessin Berman told RFE/RL that what is remarkable and unique about the Kovno exhibition is the sheer number and array of visual and written documentation that survived this little-known ghetto.

For example, one of the exhibition's mainstays is a unique display of haunting photographs taken by a young engineer named George Kadish.

Using a make-shift camera, Kadish risked his life daily by secretly photographing life in the Kovno ghetto mostly through a buttonhole in his overcoat. In the x-ray department of the ghetto hospital where he worked, he bartered for film and developed his negatives.

Kadish's photos provide a candid glimpse into the everyday life of the ghetto, capturing what Berman calls an "utter sadness that is not censored or fabricated."

One of Kadish's most disturbing photos is the one he took of a Yiddish word scrawled in blood on a door by a dying Jew. The single word is "nakoma" -- the English translation is "revenge."

Kadish's photographs are augmented throughout the exhibition by dozens of secretly-made illustrations drawn by ghetto inhabitants. Among the most prolific of the artists was Esther Lurie.

Lurie drew more than 200 sketches of life in the ghetto, many of which are on display. One of her most haunting images is entitled "Estonian Deportation, 1943." The deportation involved more than 2,700 people from the ghetto, most of whom were sent to labor camps in Estonia. However, others, especially the young and elderly, were sent instead to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

Another centerpiece of the exhibition is a diary written by a young lawyer named Avraham Tory. Tory, who worked closely with the Jewish leaders of the ghetto, wrote a remarkably detailed account of daily life there.

What is particularly fascinating about Tory's diary, says Berman, is that the lawyer not only meticulously chronicled life in the ghetto, but he also became something of an archivist. He collected photographs, documents, drawings and data, hiding all of it in five wooden crates he buried beneath the ghetto.

Berman says the exhibition material is "extraordinary" because it represents an "organized and determined act of defiance" by the Kovno Jews who refused to let their suffering be forgotten.

This theme is evident throughout the exhibition.

For example, Tory wrote in one of his last entries in his diary: "With awe and reverence, I am hiding in this crate what I have written, noted and collected, with thrill and anxiety, so that it may serve as material evidence -- corpus delicti -- accusing testimony when the Day of Judgment comes, and with it the day of revenge and the day of reckoning, the calling to account."

Photographer Kadish, who hid his negatives in milk cans and buried them under his ghetto house, also vowed that: "My camera will be my revenge."

Says Berman: "This exhibition is truly remarkable because it contains material that came from the victims themselves -- from inside the ghetto. For example, the photographs of George Kadish provide visual documentation that was taken in secret by a victim and was not censored, staged or permitted by the Germans."

Berman says that what happened to the Lithuanian Jews in Kovno was devastating. According to the exhibition, the prewar Jewish population of Kovno was about 37,000 people, or about 25 percent of the city's population of 152,000.

Of those 37,000, approximately 30,000 were crowded into the ghetto, located across the Neris River in a section called Vilijampole, although the Jews referred to it as Slobodka. The other 7,000 either managed to escape or perished in the early pogroms carried out against the Jews before the ghetto was established.

Berman says that during the three years the ghetto was in existence, the Jewish inhabitants suffered a series of "actions" or mass executions conducted by the Germans. She says the largest mass execution, referred to as the "Great Action," occurred on October 28, 1941.

The Germans assembled the entire ghetto population at a large square and forced them to stand in the sleet for the entire day without food or water. Each family had to walk past a German officer who then directed individuals to the left or right. By the end of the day, the officer had "selected" 9,200 people, more than 4,000 of them children, for execution.

Visitors to the exhibition can hear survivor David Pozaicer recall: "That was the end of the innocent time in the ghetto. In that two days ... nearly half the population of the ghetto was killed."

Survivor testimony is a critical part of the exhibition, says Berman. The exhibition houses four small theaters where visitors can hear first-hand accounts of life and death in the ghetto.

Among those who survived the Kovno ghetto were photographer George Kadish, illustrator Esther Lurie, and author/archivist Avraham Tory. Although Kadish died a few months before the exhibition opened, he played an essential role in bringing together the exhibits, says Berman. Lurie, Tory and many other survivors were guests of honor at the exhibition's opening last November.

But most Kovno Jews were not so lucky. According to exhibition data, of the estimated 37,000 Jews who lived in pre-war Kovno, only 3,000 survived.

Today, the Jewish Museum in Vilnius estimates that there are only about 5,000 Jews living in all of Lithuania, including Lithuanian Jewish survivors and Russian Jews who immigrated to Lithuania. Only 400 Jews live in Kovno today.

Says Berman: "We found that this is a terrible story, but it also encompasses the breadth of human emotions on almost every level."

The museum staff hopes that the exhibition will receive a large number of visitors. It is scheduled to run until October 1999.

Berman says she is grateful for the "warm" reception she received from Lithuanian officials and archivists while putting together the exhibition -- a task that took nearly five years. She says her staff was surprised by the enormous amount of material on the Kovno ghetto that had remained hidden or obscured for more than fifty years in the nation's state archives.

Berman says the Lithuanians were "eager" to share their collections and quite cooperative in helping her staff. The Lithuanian ambassador to the U.S. and the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel were both honored guests at the exhibition's premier, she says.

The two ambassadors may not be the only high-ranking official to view the exhibition.

Shana Penn, a member of the Holocaust Museum's media relations staff, told RFE/RL that the museum has also invited Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas to the museum this week during his visit to the United States. Penn says Brazauskas has tentatively agreed to visit the museum.

Brazauskas has been under pressure from Jewish groups to bring war criminals in Lithuania to trial. The Simon Wisenthal Center, a leading Nazi-hunting organization, claims that several alleged war criminals are living openly in Lithuania and are not being brought to justice.

Brazauskas told the Israeli Knesset in March 1995 that Lithuania would do all it could to see that war criminals were brought to trial.

But officials at the Wisenthal Center say Lithuania is not moving fast enough. Last week, the Center issued a statement urging the newly elected Lithuanian president, Valdas Adamkus, to speed up the process of trying war criminals.

Lithuanian officials are countering the criticism by saying they are getting ready to indict alleged war criminal Aleksandras Lileikis, who was head of the security police in the Vilnius region during the war. Lileikis, now aged 90, is accused of turning over hundreds of Jews to German execution squads. He denies any wrongdoing.

When asked whether the museum staff would also encourage Brazauskas to bring war criminals to trial during his visit to the museum, Berman said it is doubtful.

Adds Berman: "We are here as a historical museum and our only mandate is to present the story of the Holocaust."