Of the 32,000 Jews forced in to the Kovno Ghetto, over 90 percent were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the World War II.
The ghetto was established in the summer of 1941, and matters went from bad to worse after that, with continual mass killings, executions, tortures, and forced labor imposed by the Nazis.
Despite the horrific conditions, an organized underground movement existed in the ghetto, most notably an illegal school. Remarkably, I just came across a fascinating remnant of the ghetto’s defiant Jewish spirit this week: a Russian-Yiddish Dictionary. The volume contains numerous stamps of a Jewish bookseller in the ghetto with several stamps in Russian and German, “Bucherlader Bei Der Judischen-Ghetto-Gemeinde Vilijampolė.”
Vilijampolė – more often recognized by its Yiddish name, Slabodka – was the neighborhood in Kovno where the ghetto was located. That a bookseller opened shop in the horrific conditions of the ghetto tells us about the nature of the Jews, among whom intellectual pursuit persisted despite the horrors around them.
Was the sale of a Yiddish-Russian dictionary part of a hope that the Soviets would arrive and save them from their misery?
On July 8, 1944, the Germans evacuated the camp, deporting most of the remaining Jews to Dachau or the Stutthof camp. The Germans razed the ghetto to the ground and burned to death or shot Jews trying to escape. Several hundred Jews survived by hiding in the nearby forests.