In October, 1943, while trapped in the Nazi-occupied ghetto of Kovno, Lithuania, Dr. Elchanan Elkes, wrote a letter to his son Joel and daughter Sara. Dr. Elkes entrusted the last testament, an ethical will hand-written in Hebrew, to a friend, who smuggled it to his children, already safe in England. The son of a rabbi and a prominent neurologist, Dr. Elkes was sent the next year to Kaufering concentration camp, where he soon died of typhus. His son Joel later produced a book, “Dr. Elchanan Elkes of the Kovno Ghetto: A Son’s Holocaust Memoir.”
My beloved son and daughter,
I am writing these lines, my dear children, in the vale of tears of Vilijampole, Kovno Ghetto, where we have been for over two years. We have now heard that in a few days our fate is to be sealed. The Ghetto is to be crushed and torn asunder.
Whether we are all to perish, or whether a few of us are to survive, is in God’s hands, we fear that only those capable of slave labour will live; the rest of probably are sentenced to death.
We are left, a few out of many. Out of the 35,000 Jews of Kovno, approximately 17,000 remain; out of a quarter of a million Jews in Lithuania (including the Vilna district), only 25,000 live, plus 5,000 who, during the last few days, were deported to hard labour in Latvia, stripped of all their belongings. The rest were put to death in terrible ways by the followers of the greatest Haman of all time and all generations.
Some of those dear and close to us, too, are no longer with us. Your Aunt Hannah and Uncle Arieh were killed with 1,500 souls of the Ghetto on October 4, 1941. Uncle Zvi, who was lying in the hospital suffering from a broken leg, was saved by a miracle. All the patients, doctors, nurses, relatives, and visitors who happened to be there were burned to death, after soldiers had blocked all the doors and windows of the hospital and set fire to it. In the provinces, apart from Siauliai, no single Jew survives. Your Uncle Dov and his son Shmuel were taken out and killed with the rest of the Kalvaria community during the first months of the war; that is about two years ago. Due to outer forces and inner circumstances, only our own Ghetto has managed to survive and live out its diaspora life for the past two years, in slavery, hard labour and deprivation – almost all our clothing, belongings, and books were taken from us by the authorities.
The last massacre, when 10,000 victims were killed at one time, took place on October 28, 1941. Our total community had to go through the “selection” by our rulers: life or death. I am the man who, with my own eyes, saw those about to die.
I was there early on the morning of October 29, in the camp that led to the slaughter at the Ninth Fort. With my own ears I heard the awe-inspiring and terrible symphony, the weeping and screaming of 10,000 people, old and young – a scream that tore at the heart of heaven. No ear had heard such cries through the ages and the generations.
With many of our martyrs, I challenged my creator; and with them, from a heart torn in agony, I cried; “Who is like you in the universe, my Lord!” In my effort to save people here and there, I was beaten by soldiers. Wounded and bleeding, I fainted, and was carried in the arms of friends to a place outside the camp. There, a small group of about thirty or forty survived – witnesses to the fire.
We are, it appears, one of the staging centres in the East. Before our eyes, before the very windows of our houses, there have passed over the last two years many, many thousands of Jews from southern Germany and Vienna, to be taken, with their belongings, to the Ninth Fort, which is some kilometres from us. There they are killed with extreme cruelty. We learned later that they were misled – they were told they were coming to Kovno, to settle in our Ghetto.
From the day of the Ghetto’s founding, I stood at its head. Our community chose me, and the authorities confirmed me as chairman of the Council of elders, together with my friend, the advocate Leib Garfunkel, a former member of the Lithuanian parliament, and a few other close and good people, concerned and caring for the fate of the surviving few.
We are trying to steer our battered ship in furious seas, when waves of decrees and decisions threaten to drown it every day. Through my influence I succeeded, at times, in easing the verdict and in scattering some of the dark clouds that hung over our heads. I bore my duties with head high and an upright countenance. Never did I ask for pity; never did I doubt our rights. I argued our case with total confidence in the justice of our demands.
In these hardest moments of our life, you, my dear ones, are always before us. You are present in our deepest thoughts and in our hearts. In the darkest nights, your mother would sit beside me, and we would both dream of your life and your future. Our innermost desire is to see you again, to embrace you, and to tell you once again how close we are to you, and how our hearts beat as we remember you and see you before us.
And is there any time, day or night, when your memory is not with us? As we stand here, at the very gates of hell, with a knife poised at our necks, only your image, dear ones, sustain us. And you, my children, how was your life these past five years, so hard and full of sorrow for the Jewry of Europe? I know that, far away from this place, you have shared our anguish and, in agony, listened to every slight rumour coming from this vale of tears: and that, deep down, you have felt with us this unparalleled tragedy of our people.
P.S. – Please see part 2 tomorrow.