As the Red Army approached from the East the Nazis began to close down the remaining Jewish ghettoes left in eastern Europe. There were tensions within the Nazi high command. Some argued that the remaining Jews were needed as a work force, others were ideologically committed to killing all Jews.
The survivors of the Kovno ghetto, the largest of the Jewish ghettoes established in Lithuania by the Nazis, knew that their only chance of survival lay in being able to provide a useful service to the Germans. The Germans had no space for anyone who could not work – the young, the old and the infirm.
Since 1942 pregnant women were threatened with being shot. Many babies and young children were smuggled out of the ghetto and sent to live with Lithuanian families. Every effort was made to find older children useful employment in the workshops within the ghetto.
Then on the 27th March 1944 the Germans came for the remaining children of the ghetto. The 130 Jewish police within the ghetto were ordered on parade on the pretext of receiving ‘air raid instruction’. Instead they were taken at gunpoint to the 9th Fort, a nearby SS base that had been previously used as an extermination centre. Here they were tortured in an attempt to discover the hiding places for children – about 40 men were eventually shot.
Meanwhile the SS and the Ukrainian militia hunted down the children within the ghetto. Most of the parents were absent, having been marched off for forced labour, part of the daily routine:
After the work brigades were taken out for forced labour the ghetto was surrounded by reinforced guards. Soon lorries full of gestapo guards moved into the ghetto. A car with a loudspeaker was cruising the ghetto; people were warned to stay indoors – he who dared to come out would be shot.
Jewish police ordered to gather for a fire drill were surrounded by SS tommy-gunners.
“Enough! You won’t have a chance to fool Germans any more!” Kitel declared and ordered Jewish police to get into armoured buses. Policeman Levner who refused to obey the order was shot on the spot. Three heavily guarded armoured buses with the Jewish policemen went towards the 9th Fort. Some policemen tried to jump off the vehicles on the move but were caught by machinegun fire.
Everyone who could, tried to hide somewhere – in lofts, in barns and basements. Gestapo bandits searched from house to house. With axes and crowbars they opened up floorboards, walls, searched every suspicious corner – they were looking for people hiding. Children, old and sick people, invalids were taken out of the ghetto in lorries. Bloodthirsty murderers searched house after house and gloated:
“Any kittens left here? “(Germans called children “kittens”…) Mothers who refused to let their children go were badgered with German shepherd [dogs]. To muffle the terrible screams Germans turned on very loud dance and march music and broadcasted it through the loudspeakers on the lorries.
Children were hidden in and under beds. Some had suffocated as a result of that. One woman from Lutaro Street had no place to hide her child. She did the following: wrapped up her child in a tablecloth, tied it up and hung it up on a nail. “When Germans come I shall be quiet” the four-year-old child promised his mother. The child kept quiet even after one of the Germans pushed the parcel and asked what was in it. The boy was saved.
In the camp in Shanchai, Germans managed to carry out their evil “act” with more ease. Here in one place about thirty children were kept. Two executioners came in and started a “game”. Pretending to be bears they tied up children’s hands and took the whole chain out into the bus…
The round-up lasted until evening. Around nine hundred children, old and sick people and invalids were put into lorries and driven under guard to the west. As it became known later the people were taken to Auschwitz where gas chambers and crematorium awaited the unfortunate.
But those figures did not add up. From the available to them data Germans knew that a large number of old people and children had not been found yet. The next day round-ups had resumed. Every suspicious place was carefully searched, hand grenades were thrown into basements and lofts. All newly discovered people were put into lorries and sent to the 9th Fort. In spite of all brutality Germans managed to find only a smaller number of victims the next day – just about two hundred people were caught.
See the Kovno Ghetto Diary. For more about the children of the Kovno ghetto see US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Sources vary on the fate of the children, some say they were shot at the 9th Fort, not deported to be gassed at Auschwitz.