Friday, June 27, 2014 4:17 pm
Book review: The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police
Michael MacQueen

The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police, “By Anonymous Members of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police,” translated and edited by Samuel Schalkowsky, with an introduction by Samuel Kassow (Indiana University Press, in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Bloomington: 2014).

This book is the English translation from the Yiddish of a clandestine history of life and death in Jewish Kovno, composed by anonymous members of the Jewish Ghetto police force. The analysis presented at the end of the book deconstructs the likely sequence in which the history was composed, in the period January – September 1943, and then edited before being consigned to a hiding place where it remained until unearthed during urban clearance operations in 1964. Only since Lithuanian independence has this document and the wartime operational and administrative records of the Kovno Ghetto police been available to scholars.

The fact that so much of this journal was recorded at some remove from the most traumatic events – the horrendous public pogroms of June 1941 and the sequence of events which culminated in Great Action at the end of October 1941 – reduces the impact of the work as a document of contemporary history, to a limited extant. For readers not fully familiar with these dark pages of history I would first recommend Christoph Dieckmann’s Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941-1944, or, in Lithuanian, Alfonsas Eidintas’ Lietuvos Žydų Žudynių Byla.

For one thing, as a work in Holocaust historiography, the Clandestine History paints an agonizing portrait of the practically necessary but morally fraught ground on which the Kovno Ghetto police – and all other Jewish policing agencies Nazi-dominated Europe, in the ghettos and the concentration camps – had to function. The Clandestine History is perhaps the most extensive exposition of the horrible moral choices which faced the police, caught in the losing struggle in attempt to preserve what it could of the murderously diminished Jewish community while simultaneously serving the harsh requirements for Jewish labor imposed by the occupier. And as a historian I was most impressed by the knowledge I gained on how much coercion played a role in the function of the police in the Kovno Ghetto, from the first days, when the Jews had to be forced into the crammed housing units designated for Jewish habitation, to the grinding constant pressure the Ghetto police had to apply to fill the daily forced labor quotas.

For the Lithuanian reader this will be a difficult book, primarily for the reason that the Holocaust in Lithuania is presented, both in the Forward by Samuel Kassow as well as in the body of the text, as being almost a seamlessly joint Nazi-Lithuanian undertaking, with little emphasis on the Germans’ role as the prime movers of the genocide. Further, the very factography presented in the book is difficult, as has been the case ever since the reattainment of Lithuanian independence made research and writing on the Holocaust in Lithuania not only a much broader-based endeavor but one that most deserves description as an inconvenient truth.

I suggest that the Lithuanian (and other Baltic) readers might best use the tragic history of the events in the Kovno Ghetto as related by the Ghetto police as a tool to assist in the contemplation of the principal failures of Lithuanian society in the period of independence, 1918-1940. In my cursory summation, these would be (1) how the shift to an authoritarian form of government early in the time of independence stymied the development of civil society, to the extent that social organizations and movements in interwar Lithuania were more the tools of governance than of much-needed social development, sapping the moral resilience of the Lithuanian nation; (2) the fact that in the period of independence, the idea of citizenship and membership in the Lithuanian political nation remained rooted in the old peasant culture model of ‘Us’ (Lithuanian peasants, the ‘pure’ nation) versus ‘Them’ (the old Polish aristocratic class, the Russian imperial administrators, the urbanized Jews, the German minority); (3) and finally, for the purposes of this essay, how utterly weak these first two factors left Lithuania, to the point that when the Soviet Union imposed itself in 1940, what followed was an astonishing national demoralization which, in 1941, empowered the rise of the collaborationist elements who shabbily bartered the Lithuanian patrimony for Jewish blood and temporary enrichment by looting.

Another topic for thought which arises from my reading of the Clandestine History is how much the Ghetto police force itself represented a betrayal of Lithuanians (as identified by their personal paths) by Lithuanians: The Ghetto police force was drawn from the acculturated Lithuanian-Jewish bourgeoisie, men who had been volunteers in the cause of Lithuanian freedom in 1918-1920, or who had served in the interwar Lithuanian army, often as reserve officers. These were not members of the Yiddish-Russian Jewish proletariat, but the Jewish middle-class elite which matured in a Lithuania which they had helped bring into existence and served, even in the face of the increasing marginalization of the Jews in the late 1920s and 1930s. This is one of the richer topics covered by the book, from my perspective: the exposure of the stark divisions within the Ghetto population, not just by class (also substantial) but by position on the national-cultural spectrum.

I believe that these thematic questions should aid the Lithuanian reader in digesting the tormented history of the Kovno Ghetto, and should further bring into play some additional questions. Among these might be: how have the moral weaknesses exposed by the first Soviet occupation and the Nazi invasion persisted in the Lithuanian body politic? What are the real roots of the national tendency to rely on the cheap arguments of purported Jewish collaboration in the installation of Soviet power as a monolithic absolute which consequently diminishes the moral responsibility of Lithuania to confront the likes of Klimaitis, Lileikis and the rest of the gang of Schutzmannschaft, police personnel and the simple murderers who so greatly facilitated the eradication of Lithuanian Jewry?

And, finally, how did it come to be that so many Lithuanians, ‘national communists,’ were themselves in the second period of Soviet rule the inheritors of the morally fraught ground which the Kovno Ghetto police had occupied, torn between obeisance to Moscow and the struggle to preserve a national culture?

So it is that I recommend The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police as a source not only for understanding a watershed period in Lithuanian history, the destruction of its historic Jewish population, but also as a guide for understanding Lithuanian history in the period since the end of World War II.