This week in Jewish history | Kovno ghetto liberated by Soviet Army - World Jewish Congress

This week in Jewish history | Kovno ghetto liberated by Soviet Army

This week in Jewish history | Kovno ghetto liberated by Soviet Army

Jews forced into the Kovno ghetto move their belongings into the ghetto. (c) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

On 1 August 1944, the Soviet army liberated the Kovno Ghetto in central Lithuania, now Kaunas, Lithuania. 

Prior to the Holocaust, Kovno had a rich Jewish culture with almost 100 Jewish organizations, 40 synagogues, many Yiddish schools, 4 Hebrew high schools, a Jewish hospital, and scores of Jewish-owned businesses. There were approximately 35,000-40,000 Jews in Kovno, who amounted to about one-fourth of the city's total population, mainly worked in the city's commercial, artisan, and professional sectors.  

However, Jewish life in Kovno was forever disrupted when the Soviet Union began its occupation of Lithuania in June 1940. With the occupation Jewish communal organizations disappeared almost overnight, as arrests of incidents, confiscations, and the elimination of all free institutions were common. Jews were blamed for the occupation, as the Lithuanian nationalist group the Lithuanian Activist Front disseminated antisemitic literature across Lithuania.

After Nazi Germany launched a surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, named Operation Barbarossa, on 22 June 1941, German forces quickly occupied Kovno as pro-German Lithuanian mobs continued to attack and murder Jews. 

Within a month, German Einsatzgruppe (mobile killing squads), began systematic massacres of Jews across Kovno. Within six months of the German occupation of the city, half of all Jews in Kovno had been murdered by Germans and Lithuanian collaborators.  

The remaining 29,000 or so Jews were forced into a ghetto in Slobodka, a suburb of Kovno. Enclosed by barbed wire and closely guarded, conditions inside the ghetto were awful as they were overcrowded.

Ghettos were used over the course of the Holocaust as a means of isolating Jews from the non-Jewish population and was a key step in the Nazi process of brutally separating, persecuting, and ultimately destroying Europe's Jews. The ghetto in Kovno provided forced labor for the German military, as Jews were instrumental in the construction of a military airbase in Aleksotas. 

In the autumn of 1943, the SS converted the ghetto into a concentration camp. The SS eventually sent those deemed fit to work to labor camps in Estonia, and deported children and the elderly to Auschwitz. 

The remaining 29,000 or so Jews were forced into a ghetto in Slobodka, a suburb of Kovno. Enclosed by barbed wire and closely guarded, conditions inside the ghetto were awful as they were overcrowded.

Of Kovno's few Jewish survivors, 500 survived in forests or in bunkers. Approximately 90% of the Lithuanian Jewry perished in the Holocaust.