Historical Context

The Holocaust in Lithuania in 1941-1944

Dr. Arūnas Bubnys

With the ascent of the National Socialist Party to power in Germany, anti-Semitic ideology and persecution of the Jews became the state policy. Later, this policy was channelled to the European countries occupied by the Third Reich. The persecution and extermination of the Jews was initiated and organised by the Nazi Germany, but in many occupied countries including Lithuania, the Nazis managed to involve a part of local populations and collaborationist government institutions into their criminal enterprise. The Nazi propaganda succeeded in using the anticommunist and anti-Jew climate accumulated during the period of the Soviet occupation, and convinced a portion of Lithuanians that bolshevism is a Jewish regime and that the Jews bear responsibility for the misfortunes suffered during the Soviet occupation and annexation.
Genocide of the Jews (the Holocaust) in Lithuania may be relatively divided into the following periods:
1) End of July 1941 – November 1941;
2) December 1941 – March 1943;
3) April 1943 – July 1944.

End of July 1941 – November 1941

The second half of 1941 was the most horrible and tragic period for Lithuanian Jews. By December 1941, around 80% of the Jews living in Lithuania at the time had been killed. The occupational government was the initiator of the persecution and extermination of Jews. In making preparations for the war with the Soviet Union, the leadership of the Third Reich had planned from the start that the war in the East would be very different from the war in Western Europe. Even back in March 1941, Adolf Hitler emphasized, that war with Russia would be a do-or-die fight between two irreconcilable ideologies (Nazism and Bolshevism), a war of two mindsets. Every real and potential enemy of Nazism had to be eradicated without remorse. The Nazis saw Jews as the main enemy of the Third Reich. It was Hitler’s conviction that the Wehrmacht would be incapable of executing the objectives of the ideological warfare. This was primarily the job of operational groups (Einsatzgruppen), functioning in the rear of the Wehrmacht and under the control of the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, further – RSHA) in Berlin. In the preparations to attack the Soviet Union, the Nazis formed four Einsatzgruppen – A, B, C and D. The leaders of these groups were assigned directly by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. One Einsatzgruppe was assigned to each of the army groups (North, Centre and South). Einsatzgruppe A was assigned to the Northern army group, responsible for occupying the Baltic states and advancing in the direction of Leningrad. This Einsatzgruppe consisted of Einsatzkommando 2 and 3, as well as Sonderkommandos 1a and 1b. (1) SS-Brigadeführer Walter Stahlecker was assigned to lead Einsatzgruppe A. Einsatzkommando 3, which functioned in Lithuania, was commanded by SS-Standartenführer Karl Jäger. Einsatzgruppe A had around 990 officers. (2)
Stahlecker reached Kaunas as early as 25 June 1941, together with the first Wehrmacht units, while Einsatzkommando 3/A, lead by Jäger, took over the functions of the Security Police in Lithuania on 2 July 1941. Jäger set up his headquarters in Kaunas. Einsatzkommando 3/A took the region of Vilnius under its jurisdiction on 9 August 1941 and Šiauliai on 2 October 1941. (3)
The killings of Jews in Lithuania began on the first days of war with the Soviets. Even before the ghettos were established (August of 1941) thousands of Jews were killed. The earliest organised mass killings of Jews were carried out in those districts of Lithuania that had a border with Germany, as well as in the city of Kaunas. On the first day of war Stahlecker came to the town of Tilžė and ordered the leader of the Security Police Hans Joachim Böhme to begin killing Jews and Communists in the 25 km wide borderland strip. The Einsatzkommando, formed from Gestapo and SD members and German policemen from Klaipėda, soon began the killings in the Lithuanian borderland. The Tilžė Gestapo carried out the first massacre on 24 June 1941 in Gargždai. 201 people were shot. (4) The Tilžė operational group murdered 1,542 people in various parts of Lithuania, the number rose to a total of 5,502 people executed throughout the summer of 1941. (5) The absolute majority of the victims were Jewish.
After coming to Kaunas on 25 June 1941, Stahlecker began organising actions of extermination against Jews and Communists. One of the main Stahlecker’s concerns was involving locals in the killings of Jews and thus hiding the guilt of the Nazis. Stahlecker managed to carry-out mass pogroms of Jews in Kaunas by invoking and arming the platoon of Algirdas Klimaitis. This platoon (about 300 people) was not subordinate to the Lithuanian Activist Front (Lietuvos aktyvistų frontas, further – LAF), which organised the anti-soviet military coup d’état, nor to the Provisional Government of Lithuania (acting until 5 August 1941). Beginning with July 1941, when all of Lithuania was occupied by the Nazis and the country was subject to the occupational regime, the persecution of Jews changed in its nature. Instead of isolated pogroms, mass killings began. First, it happened in Kaunas. On 2 July 1941 Einsatzkommando 3/A of the German security police and SD officially took over security functions in Lithuania. On 28 June 1941, Kaunas partisan forces were disarmed. On the same day (June 28), the organisation of the National Labour Protection Battalion (Tautos darbo apsaugos batalionas, further – TDA) began in Kaunas. The TDA Battalion (usually the 3rd company) and German Gestapo officers began executing mass killings of Jews in the forts and the province of Kaunas. 7th Fort in Kaunas became the first place of mass killings. By the order of Einsatzkommando 3/A leader Karl Jäger, 463 Jews were shot there on 4 July 1941 and 2,514 Jews on 6 July. (6)
The killings of Kaunas Jews were organised in the 7th Fort in August 1941, and in the 9th Fort starting October 1941 until the end of the occupation. The largest killing action was carried out on 29 October 1941. On the eve of the massacre, the Gestapo conducted a selection of the Jews in the Kaunas Ghetto. About 10,000 Jews were selected for execution – mostly multi-child families, physically weak persons, the elderly and the sick. 29 October 1941, the condemned Jews were taken from the Kaunas Ghetto to the 9th Fort and shot in huge pits dug in advance. The massacre took place the whole day and ended at nightfall. The shootings were carried out by the 3rd company of the said TDA Battalion as well as about 20 German officers and soldiers. According to the Jäger Report, 9,200 Jews were massacred in the 9th Fort on 29 October 1941, including 2,007 men, 2,920 women and 4,273 children. Karl Jäger cynically referred to this slaughter as cleaning of the ghetto from useless Jews. (7)
The major number of killings of Jews that took place in Lithuania in 1941 (except the districts of Vilnius and Šiauliai) are associated to the Rollkommando, lead by SS-Obersturmführer Joachim Hamann. In his infamous report written 1 December 1941, Karl Jäger states that “extermination of the Jews could only be achieved thanks to the Rollkommando of selected men commanded by Obershturmführer Hamann who clearly understood my goals and was capable of ensuring co-operation with Lithuanian partisans and corresponding civil institutions”. (8) Hamman’s mobile squad was not a constantly active punitive unit with a fixed dislocation. Usually it would be formed of a few German Gestapo officers and several dozens of TDA soldiers to take care of some particular action. Often, Hamann himself would not even go to killing actions in the province, limiting his duties to handing out assignments to officers of the TDA battalion. The Rollkommando would go on a killing action only after all the preparations had been made: the condemned Jews gathered in one place, local policemen and auxiliary policemen (the so-called “white armbands”) assigned for their protection, a desolate spot chosen (usually in forests or remote fields), the holes dug.
Hamann’s Rollkommando was a very effective tool of the Nazi holocaust policy. It is responsible for killing at least 39,000 people – a number rivalled only by the German Security Police and SD special force in Vilnius and the 2nd (later called the 12th) Lithuanian police battalion lead by major Antanas Impulevičius organised in Kaunas. The latter, however, carried out mass killings in Belarus, rather than Lithuania (in autumn of 1941). Alongside the arrests and shootings of Jews, Jewish ghettos were being founded (ghettoisation). The order to establish the Kaunas Ghetto was issued by Kaunas military commandant Jurgis Bobelis and Kaunas City Governor Kazimieras Palčiauskas. All Jews of Kaunas City had to move to the ghetto established in Vilijampolė neighbourhood by 15 August 1941. Those defying the order were facing arrests. (9)
Even before the ghetto was founded, a few thousand Kaunas Jews were killed in June and July of 1941. (10) On 15 August 1941, the Kaunas Ghetto was fenced with barbed wire. The ghetto was protected by German and Lithuanian policemen. Fritz Jordan, the assistant of the Kaunas city county commissioner Hans Cramer, was assigned the commandant of the ghetto. Around 30,000 Jews were imprisoned in the Kaunas Ghetto. The internal administration of the ghetto was under the command of the Jewish Council and its chairman doctor Elchanan Elkes. Jewish ghetto police was formed in August of 1941 under the command of Michail Kopelman. Later, the number of ghetto policemen grew and reached 220–230 people. (11) The locked-in Jews were to be exterminated gradually, after being exploited for the German war effort.
The organisation of the Vilnius Ghetto was initiated by the commissioner of the Vilnius City Hans Hingst in the first days of September 1941. Practical organisational work was entrusted to Hingst’s adjutant and reporter for Jewish affairs Franz Murer. Murer, together with the Vilnius Mayor Karolis Dabulevičius, selected the site for the ghetto in the Vilnius Old Town. 6 September 1941, the Vilnius Jews herded into the ghetto. More than 10,000 Vilnius Jews were murdered by the German security police and SD task-force in Paneriai even before the establishment of the ghetto. About 30,000 Jews were moved to the ghetto No. 1 and about 9,000 to 11,000 in the ghetto No. 2. (12) Even after closing the Jews in the ghetto, actions of mass extermination continued until the end of 1941. After completing a few actions in October 1941, the second ghetto was liquidated. All of its inhabitants were killed in Paneriai. Before the beginning of the Nazi-Soviet war, around 60,000 Jews lived in Vilnius. Around 33,000–34,000 were killed by the end of 1941. (13) Over 20,000 Jews from the Vilnius ghetto were temporarily allowed to live and work whatever jobs were needed to be done for the Nazi government. Jewish ghettos were founded in other Lithuanian cities and towns as well, but most of them were liquidated during the summer and autumn of 1941. After 1941, only the Vilnius, Kaunas, Šiauliai and Švenčionys ghettos remained. According to the calculations by the Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad, around 164,000–167,000 (around 80% of Jews remaining in Lithuania) Lithuanian Jews were killed from the beginning of the Nazi–Soviet war to December of 1941. At the end of this period, only around 43,000 Jews were left in Lithuania: around 20,000 thousand in the Vilnius Ghetto, 17,500 in the Kaunas Ghetto, around 5,500 in the Šiauliai Ghetto and around 500 in the Švenčionys Ghetto. (14)
Keywords: Istorinis kontekstas
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