A new book we published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) uncovers a history from World War II that remained hidden for several years. The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police tells the dramatic and complicated story of a police force that had to serve two masters: the Jewish population of the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania and its German occupiers. As a result, the Kovno Jewish ghetto police walked a fine line between helping Jews survive and meeting Nazi orders.
In 1942 and 1943 some of its members secretly composed a history and buried it in tin boxes. This history remained buried until 1964 when it was accidentally discovered during the bulldozing of the former ghetto. Soviet authorities suppressed the publication of this and other Jewish documents for several more years until Lithuania achieved its independence in the 1990s.
The USHMM obtained a microfilm copy of the Kovno Jewish ghetto police history collection in 1998. USHMM volunteer Samuel Schalkowsky was assigned to work with these documents because he was a former inmate of the Kovno ghetto. This work eventually led him to become the translator and editor of The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police. In this interview, he shares his experiences living in the ghetto and working on this book.
Was it difficult for you to work on this book since you were an inmate of the Kovno ghetto?
Not particularly. The events dealt with in the book took place some 70 years ago and emotional reactions to them are counter-balanced by a strong motivation to learn more details as they related to me and, particularly, to publicize conditions of ghetto life and their effect on its inmates.
What do we know about the authors of the Kovno Jewish ghetto police history and why they wrote it?
The manuscript states in the Introduction that "The creators of the history are themselves policemen..." and that their objective is to provide the future historians "sufficient verified material of the history of the Kovno Jews in the gruesome years of 1941, 1942..." Beyond that, very little is known, as the organizers and authors of the manuscript purposely maintained anonymity in order to allow for objectivity when writing about the leadership of the various ghetto organizations. As stated in the manuscript, they wanted to "try with all their might to preserve objectivity, to convey all experiences and events in their true light, as they actually occurred, without exaggerating or diminishing them."
The history was written in Yiddish. Describe your approach to translating it for the English-speaking reader.
My principal concern in translating the Yiddish text was to provide a faithful rendition of both the factual content and the emotional overtones of the original text. I approached this by preserving the sentence order of the original to the extent possible while adapting a sentence structure more familiar to the English-speaking reader. Sometimes the sentence order of an entire paragraph had to be rearranged in order to convey the information and/or mood of the original. On other occasions, a number of short consecutive paragraphs dealing with the same topic had to be combined into one paragraph in order to maintain continuity of the narrative.
How did you feel about the police while living in the ghetto? Did your opinion of them change after you read their history?
I and my mother lived in the Kovno ghetto from its inception August 1941 until our deportation to the Riga ghetto early February 1942. Although I knew Michael Bramson, the initial deputy chief of the Jewish police—he was my teacher in high school only a few months earlier, I had no contact with him. The prudent approach to the police during this period was to avoid them whenever possible in order not to be taken by them to unfavorable work details, particularly to airport construction.
Early February 1942 my mother and I were taken by two Jewish policemen off a ghetto street to the assembly point for transfer to Riga. Bramson was there, in charge of the Jewish policemen guarding us. Although we were being assured that this transfer was indeed for work, we did not believe it, as no other transfer before this ever returned alive; there was evidence of them having been murdered at the Ninth Fort. I shouted in the direction of Bramson, in Yiddish: "I want to live." There was no reaction and nothing was done to remove me and my mother from the group destined for Riga. I held this against Bramson for a long time, although it is quite likely that Bramson did not even hear me.
I learned from the description of the Riga action in the police history book that next to Bramson and his Jewish policemen were Nazi SS men waiting to march us to the railroad station for transport to Riga. A rescue attempt of anyone of the guarded Jews at this stage would have been quite unrealistic.
What new information did you learn from the Kovno Jewish ghetto police's history?
I learned a lot more detail about events that affected me since the police history covers the period that I was there and the people I was involved with in considerable detail; for example, about my former high school teacher turned into deputy chief of police.
What do you hope readers will learn from this book?
I hope the reader will get a sense of the realities of life under constant threat of pain and death in a ghetto dominated by Nazi rule. Also, how individuals and the leadership of the Kovno Jewish community dealt with moral issues and their life and death consequences. Remembering the victims honors their life.