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Dr. Elkhanan Elkes of the Kovno Ghetto: A Son's Holocaust Memoirs


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 ...

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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.

Original, previously concealed documents from the Holocaust.

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Editorial Reviews

Common Ground
We who live in a free country should honor Dr. Elkes. The 20th century witnessed a sustained attempt by a major Western nation to murder an entire people because of their ethnic background. That diabolical plan nearly succeeded. Never again! That is the best tribute to unsung heroes such as Elkhanan Elkes.
Jewish Chronicle
For a reviewer suffering from Holocaust fatigue, it is rewarding to be able to praise a work wholeheartedly rather than remark dutifully about its worthiness. Such is the case with Joel Elkes' powerful memoir. The penultimate section, "Conversations," which demonstrates Elkhanan Elkes' great dignity in his dealings with the Nazis, is particularly inspiring; he may well be a "luminous figure in the history of the Holocaust."
News The Canadian Jewish
This brief memoir is a tribute to a courageous giant of the spirit, Dr. Elkhanan Elkes, who served as the elected head of the Jewish Council of the Kovno Ghetto. At the heart of this searing chronicle is information derived from a secret diary by Avraham Tory, a former law student. In the face of relentless, murderous pressure, the council tried in every way possible to save Jewish lives. Dealing with the Nazi death machine on a daily basis was a fearful responsibility, and an ultimately hopeless task.

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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781557252319
  • Publisher: Paraclete Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/1999
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.42 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.44 (d)

Read an Excerpt

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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Table of Contents





Carnage: The Beginning


The Assembly




The Ninth Fort




Joys: The Day and Beyond


K.Z. Kauen


The Letter









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"The moment I met Joel Elkes, I knew I had encountered a remarkable human being. I knew nothing of his personal history, but I knew instinctively the most important thing one can know about another person: here stands someone who has suffered greatly, but in whom suffering has been transformed from bitter wound into abiding grace, deep compassion, and active, outreaching love.

Now, through this book, I have learned some of the historical facts behind Joel's suffering and that of his family. But I will never understand how their suffering, or yours, or mine, is transformed into love: There is an alchemy of the spirit forever hidden in the depths of the human heart.

Mindless cruelty, sweeping devastation, utter impotence in the face of evil: I do not know how a human being arises from such ashes with his or her humanity not only intact but enhanced. But I know it must be done, for if it is not we will spiral down more and more rapidly towards humankind's worst potentials and most tragic fate. And I know it can be done, for in this book I have learned about a man who did it in the midst of great evil - and in its author I know a man who did it in evil's wake.

Dr. Elkhanan Elkes knew what his values were, values rooted in the sanctity of human life - and he knew that those values must prevail over Nazi nihilism. He knew that he was not a man alone but a man embedded in community - and he knew that the common good must take precedence over individual survival. His story is that of a moral and spiritual giant who dared to lead, and continued to lead, against impossible odds, who never lost faith in his community - or in the common humanity that binds us all.

This book is an important contribution to the historical record of the bloody twentieth century. But it cannot and should not be read as history alone. We honor the memory of those who suffered, and the author's deepest intentions, only by reading this story as our story - as a challenge to find our own courage to confront and defy that evil. This is spiritual literature of the highest sort, calling us to resist with love the powers of darkness around us and within us.

If we who read this book are willing to learn more about ourselves even as we learn more about these remarkable people - willing to let their witness rid us of the fearful and ignoble habit of ignoring the evil around us - then the suffering this book records will be transformative. This book, and the spirit that infuses it, call us to embody the abiding grace, deep compassion, and active, outreaching love that the world so desperately needs." - Parker J. Palmer
Madison, Wisconsin
August, 1999

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