Dr. Elkhanan Elkes of the Kovno Ghetto: A Son's Holocaust Memoirsby Joel Elkes
This memoir is a tribute to an extraordinary community and an extraordinary leader. Ghetto Kovno was one of the very few Ghettos in the Holocaust to be headed by a Council elected by the Jewish community, rather than one appointed by the Germans. In the face of relentless, murderous pressure, this Council attempted to maintain a civic structure and, by whatever means… See more details below
This memoir is a tribute to an extraordinary community and an extraordinary leader. Ghetto Kovno was one of the very few Ghettos in the Holocaust to be headed by a Council elected by the Jewish community, rather than one appointed by the Germans. In the face of relentless, murderous pressure, this Council attempted to maintain a civic structure and, by whatever means possible, to save Jewish lives. Despite terrible odds, it partially succeeded.
At the head of the Ghetto stood Dr. Elkhanan Elkes, a distinguished physician who is emerging as a luminous figure in the history of the Holocaust. This Memoir recounts the march of events from the initial German invasion of Lithuania on June 22, 1941 to the final destruction of the Ghetto on July 13-15, 1944. It is based on sources quoted in the text and personal papers in possession of the author. Also included are reproductions of extraordinary water colors and pen- and-ink drawings executed at the time in the Ghetto by the historic Esther Lurie, who served as artist-witness-recorder and visual chronicler to her community.
In accord with a Nazi order, 30,000 inmates assembled for the dreaded selection process in the ghetto square. "Dr. Elkes tried to intervene, responding to cries and appeals, moving this family, this group, this person from right to left . . .Now and then, when he was overcome by a fit of weakness, those near him asked him to sit down, to regain his strength, or offered him a piece of bread. He refused, muttering `Thank you, thank you, gentlemen; terrible things are happening here; I must remain standing on guard, in case I can be of assistance.'"
The next day, Dr. Elkes obtained permission to enter the small ghetto to save another hundred people. There, however, the guards fell upon him. Savaged, trampled, and beaten with rifle butts, he fell to the ground unconscious, bleeding profusely from a head wound. His efforts to save a small number of Jews had almost cost him his life.
In 1944, Elkes made the following astonishing statement (paraphrased) to Wilhem Goecke, chief of the camp: "I am old, I have no fear of death; you can kill me on the spot. However, I have this to say to you. You listen to the radio, and we listen to the radio. You and I know that Germany has lost the war. No miracles can help you. Your patriotism cannot serve your fatherland on your party -- certainly not by murdering thousands of Jews. But you can alleviate your conscience if you leave us alone. Don't supply trains for our evacuation. Postpone it until the Russians arrive...We are an ancient people with long memories and remember decency in times of peril. Whatever your answer, we will not forget." Unhappily, there was no positive response.
Reproductions of striking illustrations by heroic ghetto inmate Esther Lurie, as well as unpublished photographs from the author's collection, add poignancy to this depiction of Jewish suffering that is at the same time a tribute to a heroic and unforgettable human being. (The Canadian Jewish News, January 2000)
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I have told you a tale of life and death of a small community - a small statistic in the immensity of the Holocaust and the unimaginable tragedies with which our murderous century abounds. You and I will ask the same question. How is it that it survived for so long-long after other communities had been extinguished? Was there any quality to the leadership that prolonged survival? Or was it a freak of fate, a statistical play of the law of averages?
I suggest to you that the leadership contributed decisively to its survival as an organized community, and that the personal qualities of Dr. Elkes contributed decisively to the leadership.
Put simply, Dr. Elkes dared, and dared from an inner and unshakable conviction. As he wrote in his last letter - the only letter, I would remind you again, from a Ghetto leader to his children to emerge from the Holocaust - "Our community chose me . . . 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."
"Total confidence in the justice of our demands." I have tried to project myself into the awesome loneliness of that leadership, and the extraordinary qualities it took to maintain it. How many times, I ask myself, must he have cried out for relief from his most awesome of responsibilities. Yet, because he regarded his life as expendable, he could also use it as an asset in dealing with the enemy. Somehow, he managed to walk through the barriers of fear to an extraordinary personal freedom.
Dr. Elizabeth Maxwell asks the question, "Why should the Holocaust be remembered, and, therefore, taught?" It is not a rhetorical question. Revisionism and trivialization are afoot. The uniqueness and specificity of the event are being obscured by huge historical shifts that assault us week by week and tax to the utmost our capacity to comprehend and exercise informed judgment. Among today's fires, yesterday's fires appear less relevant. Yet no one - not even the most arrogant of intellectuals - will deny the crisis of spirit that is abroad, irrespective of continent or nation, affluence or destitution. People, ordinary people - "We the People," as we say in America - are looking for Meaning, derived not from without, but from within.
So the story of the Holocaust must be taught, not only as a stark and terrible warning for our dangerous times, but as an affirmation of our Humanity, and of Hope. I submit that I have told you a tale of Hope. For a community to persist and endure - as a community - in the face of the conditions that prevailed in Kovno Ghetto, sends a message that goes to that place in the heart where Meaning and Hope are conjoined. Hope is not disembodied. Values and Belief are the sinews and substance of Hope. There is a message for our times here, short and direct: "Hold on," it says, "it is possible."
These qualities never left Dr. Elkhanan Elkes; for to him, the heart of the Jewish Ethic was the universal Ethic of Man - the Menschlichkeit - of which he talked to Sara and me in our youth. I see a direct line between the Jewish officer in the Russian army who would not tolerate antisemitic talk in his presence, to the physician who talked of Judaism to the German and Russian ambassadors, or counseled, comforted, and sustained an anguished Prime Minister, or confronted professional killers like Jaeger or Goecke in the hour of mortal danger to his community. He never was in doubt about his values, and never for one moment lost his belief in his people. Put simply, Dr. Elkes knew who he was.
Chapter 13 (partial chapter text)
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The story of the Kovno Ghetto is a powerful and illuminating moment in the Holocaust . . .This memoir is a tribute to a courageously noble figure, and a powerful and unique contribution to our understanding of Jewish history and the durability of the human spirit.
A most impressive and touching account of the Kovno tragedy.
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