Rabinoviches of Kovno

Image of Shulamit's 1944 letter

Among the artifacts in the Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto is a photograph of Shulamit Rabinovitch's June 1944 letter to her sons in Palestine. The photo is credited to Shmuel Elhanan. It is interesting that the date is given here as June 27, not June 6 as in the Ethical Wills book.

The caption includes this information: "Shulamit Rabinowitz was deported with her husband and child. They survived camps in Germany and eventually were reunited with their family in Israel."

With the new date information and the timeline, we can now place the letter as having been written 12 days before the start of the week-long liquidation of the ghetto, when the remaining population was rounded up for deportation to Stutthof and Dachau concentration camps.

Kovno ghetto timeline

Reading of the Rabinowitz family's terrible experience in Kovno under Nazi occupation, I realized that I needed a better understanding of the sequence of historical events. Looking online, I found a very wonderful multimedia exhibit The Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto, presented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The online exhibit is incredibly rich with photos and other artifacts, and so much well organized information that I have still not read it all. So I highly recommend that you check it out. Make sure you have the latest Shockwave plugin for your browser to view the multimedia content.

One useful feature of the site is a timeline of events, which I have borrowed below along with a few images. This content is a tiny fraction of the whole site, so please check it out.

1941 June 24
German forces enter Kovno at night, encountering Lithuanian "activists" engaged in pogroms against Jews.

1941 June 25
George Kadish takes his first photograph of the words "revenge" written in blood.

1941 June 25
SS Brigadier General Walter Stahlecker, Commander of Einsatzgruppe A, enters Kovno. Pogroms against Kovno’s Jews are accelerated.

1941 June 26
Lithuanian nationalists set fire to several synagogues, killing some 1,000 Rabbis and their followers.

1941 June 27
Lithuanian "partisans" kill 60 Jews at the Lietukis garage.

1941 July 2
SS Colonel Karl Jäger takes over security and police command in Lithuania.

1941 July 7
Avraham Tory begins working on his diary.

1941 July 10
Order issued for 30,000 Kovno Jews to move into the ghetto.

1941 July 24
Kovno municipal authorities confiscate property of arrested and murdered Jews.

1941 August 2
Einsatzkommandos lead mass shootings by Lithuanian auxiliaries of more than 200 Jewish men and women at Fort IV in Kovno. Most of the women held at the fort endure rape and other forms of abuse; some are released.

1941 August 15
The Kovno ghetto is closed under police guard.

1941 August 18
"Intellectuals Action" -- 534 Jews, including many professionals, are killed at Fort IV.

1941 September 15
Kovno Jewish Council issues 5,000 craftsmen certificates, also known as "life certificates," intended to protect holders by ensuring them work.

1941 October 1
Daily work brigades begin to Aleksotas military airfield.

1941 October 4
The "Small Ghetto" and the Hospital are liquidated. Some 1,800 people are killed.

1941 October 28
The "Great Action" in the Kovno ghetto.

1941 October 29
9,200 Jewish men, women and children, separated from the Kovno ghetto population during the so-called "Great Action," are shot at Fort IX

1941 October 29
Ghetto labor brigades resume.

November 1, 1941
A 22-month-long "quiet period" begins

1941 November 25
The Education Office is established under direction of cultural leader Chaim Nachman Shapiro. Shapiro also launches a secret archival project and encourages artists and writers to begin documentary efforts.

1941 November 25
Jews from Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich, destined for the Kovno ghetto, are shot at Fort IX.

1941 November 29
2,000 Jews (including 1,155 women and 152 children) from Vienna and Breslau are shot at Fort IX

1941 December 1
SS Colonel Karl Jäger reports that "our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved." He claims a total of 136,442 Jews are killed by Einsatzkommando 3 and Lithuanian auxiliaries.

1941 December 31
Communist resistance groups in the ghetto merge to form the Anti-Fascist Organization under Chaim Yelin.

1942 January 11
SS orders the evacuation of a portion of the ghetto in order to make room for transports of German Jews. The deportees never arrive in the ghetto; they are sent directly to Fort IX and executed.

1942 January 12
Ghetto workshops begin operations.

1942 February 27
Germans confiscate books. Ghetto inmates hide many books and Torah scrolls, but those not hidden are sent to Frankfurt.

1942 March 12
A shoemaking workshop is organized to repair military boots and other footwear.

1942 March 25
SS Colonel Jäger orders an area of Kovno ghetto evacuated by May 1; 3,000 persons are forced to moved to other areas of the ghetto.

1942 April 21
Jewish Council appeals to parents to send their children to the ghetto school.

1942 April 26
Jewish Council issues regulations regarding the vegetable gardens and the communal soup kitchen.

1942 May 1
Germans again reduce area of the ghetto by redrawing boundaries. Crowding worsens.

1942 June 2
73 people are sent to dig peat in Palemonas, six miles from Kovno.

1942 June 28
The Ghetto Police orchestra plays for schoolchildren in former yeshiva. Organizers asked audience to refrain from applauding out of respect for dead.

1942 July 2
German order requiring work for all men older than 15 and all women aged 17 to 47 with no children under 6.

1942 July 24
Germans issue order prohibiting pregnancies and births in ghetto.

1942 August 16
Jewish Council calls on women with children under 8 years of age to register for gardening in the ghetto.

1942 August 26
Germans prohibit all religious observances and order schools closed.

1942 October 23
Germans deport 369 Jews from Kovno to the Riga ghetto (Latvia).

1942 November 18
Jewish Ghetto Police hangs Meck publicly in ghetto. The next day, his mother and sister are shot at Fort IX.

1943 February 28
Burial of Rabbi Avraham Duber Shapiro, Chief Rabbi of Kovno, who dies after a long illness.

1943 June–July
Zionist and pro-Soviet underground unite under the leadership of Chaim Yelin.

1943 July 24
Exhibition of Esther Lurie’s drawings in the graphics workshop.

1943 September
In anticipation of forced retreat, Germans begin to use Jewish prisoners and Soviet prisoners of war to exhume and burn corpses from mass graves at Fort IX.

1943 September 15
Gestapo transfers of control of Kovno ghetto administration and workshops. The transfer signals the transformation of the ghetto into a concentration camp and signals end to more than 22 months of relative calm in ghetto.

1943 October 1
Jews in the Kovno area concentrated into 8 labor camps.

1943 October 26
Russian and Ukrainian auxiliaries assist Germans in deportation of 2,700 Jews from Kovno. Those of working age are transported to Vaivara and Klooga, Estonia, while very young and old are deported to their deaths at Auschwitz.

1943 October 19
Dr. Elkhanan Elkes writes his "Last Letter."

1943 October 28
43 partisans try to escape for Augustow Forest. Only two men succeed.

1943 November 23
Ten armed partisans escape on foot to Rudniki [Rudninkai] Forest, 94 miles away; six reach their destination.

1943 November 30
Some 1,000 are taken to satellite camp in Aleksotas

1943 December 2
Chaim Nachman Shapiro and his family are killed at Fort IX after being led to believe they were to have safe passage to Switzerland

1943 December 25
Prisoners who had been forced to exhume corpses at Fort IX escape.

1944 March 27
In an effort to obtain information about the underground, Gestapo agents arrest and torture some 130 Jewish ghetto policemen at Fort IX. Thirty-six men are killed after refusing to cooperate, including Police Chief Moshe Levin and his assistants, Joshua Greenberg and Yehuda Zupowitz.

1944 March 27-28
After work brigades leave the ghetto for daily work assignments, Gestapo and Ukrainian auxiliaries begin to round up those left behind, mostly children under 12 and adults over 55. The so-called "Children’s Action" continued another day, during which a total of 1,300 Jews were murdered.

1944 April 3
Final meeting of the Jewish Council.

1944 April 4
Germans liquidate all remaining offices in the ghetto institutions.

1944 April 6
Underground leader Chaim Yelin is arrested in central Kovno after an exchange of gunfire with police. He is executed in early May after being tortured.

1944 July 6
Germans surround the ghetto, in preparation for its liquidation.

1944 July 8-13
As the Soviet army nears, the Germans begin six-day liquidation of ghetto, evacuating the former ghetto’s remaining population by train and by barge for deportation to the Stutthof and Dachau concentration camps in Germany. The camp is set aflame to smoke out those still hiding in underground bunkers.

1944 July 19
Stuthoff concentration camp registers 1,209 women and children from the Kovno ghetto.

1944 July 26
Jews from the Kovno and Siauliai ghettos are transported from Stutthof to Auschwitz.

1944 August 1
Soviet Army enters Kovno. A few Jews who survived hiding in bunkers are liberated.

1944 August 4
Avraham Tory returns to Kovno and retrieves three of five crates he buried containing his ghetto diary and other ghetto documents.

1944 October 17
Chairman Dr. Elkhanan Elkes dies in Dachau.

Review of Hanoch Bartov's Beyond the Horizon, Across the Street

See below review of Hanoch Bartov's Beyond the Horizon, Across the Street sent to me earlier today by Dan, after we learned of the book in an email from Shmuel Elhanan.

At its core, the book is a history of the Spektor-Rabinovich-Elhanan family from the days of the Gaon of Kovno to World War II and the Holocaust. It tells the story of the two older Elhanan boys, Amos and Binyamin, who had moved to Palestine as youths in the 1930's and who Bartov came to know as comrades in the Jewish Brigade in World War II. The family was reunited after the war when Amos found them in a refugee camp in Italy, having miraculously survived the Holocaust in the Kovno ghetto and the death camps.

Unfortunately, the book itself is only in Hebrew. Just reading about it is very powerful as it so palpably connects our own family with the larger sweep of Jewish history of the past 150 years from Isaac Elchanan Spektor and the shtetl through the horrors of the Holocaust and the emergence of the Jewish state. And, of course, the review helps to answer many of the questions Dan and I had for Shmuel whom we hope to interview by phone in the coming days, though there will be plenty more to ask him.

The excerpt follows. Go here for the original.

2006: In an article entitled “Another Page from an Epic Chapter,” Danny Rubinstein reviewed Mihutz laofek, mi'ever larehov (Beyond the Horizon, Across the Street) by Hanoch Bartov.

"In 1943, at the age of 17, Hanoch Bartov, a native of Petah Tikva, joined the Palestine Regiment of the British Army, which was fighting Nazi Germany and which features prominently in his novel "Pitzei Bagrut" ("The Brigade"). In the Jewish soldiers' barracks at the end of World War II, one heard tales of emotional encounters between a Jewish soldier and a member of his family who had survived the Holocaust. At the time, Bartov heard, but did not have a strong recollection of, one story. It was about a man named Amos who had immigrated to Palestine, joined the British Army's Jewish Brigade and found his parents and younger brother, who had been in a displaced persons camp in Italy and had miraculously survived.

After the war, Bartov moved to Jerusalem, spending much of his time with a group of university students who were commanders in the Haganah (pre-state militia). One of them was Binyamin, nicknamed "Rabi," who was killed during the summer of 1948 in a battle in the Negev. Rabi was Amos' brother and he was also astounded to learn, after the war, that his parents and younger brother had survived the Nazi inferno after being thought dead for some time.

Many years later, in May 1978, on the morning of Israel's 30th Independence Day, the telephone rang in Bartov's home. He was busy completing a biography of David "Dado" Elazar, chief of staff during the Yom Kippur War, whom many see as one of its victims. The older man on the other end of the line introduced himself: "I am Rabi's father."

The reason for the call was the obituary Bartov had written about Rabi and the members of his generation - the "1948 generation," who fell in the War of Independence. Bartov recalls that he was surprised to hear from the bereaved father. "I was thunderstruck," he wrote. Following the telephone call, Bartov felt he must continue writing about and preserving the memory of his many comrades-in-arms who had died in that cruel year of 1948.

That call thus led to a connection spanning many years, between Bartov and the two parents who were Holocaust survivors. He began visiting their North Tel Aviv home and heard about their experiences in their native city of Kovno in occupied Lithuania. He interviewed relatives and friends of this couple, and perused letters and memoirs. The result is "Mihutz laofek, mi'ever larehov" ("Beyond the Horizon, Across the Street"), which has appeared 25 years after the conversation with Rabi's father and presents one East European Jewish family's fascinating story. The family's life revolves around the destruction of Europe's Jews and Israel's establishment - namely, what is sometimes termed "Holocaust and rebirth."

"Holocaust and rebirth" is an epic chapter in Jewish history, although many consider it to be an overused, anachronistic topic. Bartov relates the saga of an intriguing family that enjoyed considerable social status and whose history he finds moving. He has been able to convey some of that emotion to his readers. Although he avoids excessive emotionalism, some passages will cause the readers to feel goose bumps and a lump in their throat.

The family is Rabinowitz-Elhanan. The father, Yitzhak Elhanan, was a descendant of Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor, a prominent 19th-century Jewish leader who was Kovno's chief rabbi under the Russian czarist regime. In 1924, in Berlin, Yitzhak married Shulamit Rosenblum, daughter of a wealthy Jew who was proud to be a descendant of the great Rashi, loved Zion and was related to Israel's third president, Zalman Shazar, and to supreme Court chief justice Dr. Moshe Zmora.

While Yitzhak and his wife remained in Kovno to manage their extensive family business, Shulamit's elderly parents moved to Palestine in 1933, investing in private property and orchards (for example, the Rosenblum orchard, site of the present-day Givat Shmuel, adjacent to the Geha Highway). Their three sons were born in Kovno: Amos (1925), Binyamin "Rabi" (1926) and Shmuel (1930). When World War II broke out, the parents sent the two older sons to Palestine, where they grew up with their maternal grandparents in a spacious apartment on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard.

The parents and their youngest son remained in Kovno. Although Holocaust scholars are familiar with the story of the Kovno ghetto, readers will be stunned by the eyewitness reports on the insane cruelty of the Nazis and the masses of Lithuanian collaborators there. The book introduces us to a previously unknown document from the ghetto: a letter from the head of the Juderat, Dr. Elhanan Elkes, who considered it to be his last will and testament. He wrote it in Hebrew two days before his deportation to Dachau, where he later perished, and sent it to his children in London.

Preserved by a Holocaust survivor, this letter describes the events leading to Elkes' appointment as Judenrat head and notes how, with "shaking, worried hands," he and the other Judenrat members tried to steer the "mad ghetto boat in the middle of the ocean" to save as many Jews as possible. Elkes addresses his son Yoel: "My beloved Yoel! Be a loyal son to your people! Concern yourself with the welfare of other Jews, not with the welfare of the gentiles. In our long exile, they have not given us even a fraction of what we have given them. Try to settle in Palestine."

Elkes' children did not settle in Israel, but instead made their homes in the United States and England. Bartov believes this is the reason why they avoided publishing their father's last will and testament for so many years. Along with the letter, Bartov summarizes the debate in the Israeli public on the role of the Judenrats (many books and research studies exist on this topic).

In addition, he presents not only the memoirs of Elhanan and Shulamit; he also describes the adolescence of their sons Amos and Binyamin. The drama's climax is the chance meeting between Amos, a soldier in the Jewish Brigade, and his survivor-brother Shmuel. Amos was looking for his parents (who were separated when the ghetto was liquidated and did not know the other's whereabouts) and arrived one day in Pontebba in northern Italy to meet a friend.

That evening someone told him that a truck had just come in from Munich "and there might be somebody there who has heard something about your father." Amos approached the truck and that very moment Shmuel, his younger brother, jumped to the ground. Although in this passage Bartov tries to offer a simple description, without emotional clichés, there will almost certainly be a tear in the reader's eye.

Rabi, Bartov's comrade, was killed in 1948. Amos died from a fatal illness at age 40. Shmuel, who immigrated with his parents, fought in the War of Independence, serving with the elite Palmach strike force and participating in the battle of Malkiya. He may have been one of the "last ones on the ridge," to use a term coined by Yitzhak Tischler, who describes the battle in a book and is also mentioned by Bartov. Shmuel accompanies Bartov on his meetings with Shmuel's parents.

Certainly one of the most important of the "1948 generation" writers, Bartov has always been considered an excellent reporter. Few have perhaps read his superb reports for the Lamerhav newspaper, some of which appeared in books, which I enjoyed very much and made me laugh. In "Beyond the Horizon," the writing is somewhat heavy, perhaps due to a sense of awe for the book's contents. Sometimes Bartov burdens the reader with details that do not contribute to the protagonists' dramatic saga, which definitely deserves to have been written.”

Unexpected "will" in book from Shmuel's mother Shulamit

[Update: Following Walter's call with Shmuel Elhanan, we know there are errors in the original post, which I will leave to preserve the context for future posts. Yitzhak Rabinowitz did not change his name; his sons change theirs. Shulamit's family should be Rosenblum. Other spellings are in error.]

So after reading YES' will several times and reflecting that our family maybe held up his hopes in item 3 if having failed him in most of item 2, I began leafing through the other chapters of the book. Imagine my surprise in finding as the last item in the Holocaust section the text of the letter written by Shmuel's mother Shulamit Rabinowitz from Kovno on June 6, 1944 to her two older children just days or hours before she expected to perish along with her husband Yitzhak and eight-year-old son Shmuel.

This letter (and a shorter one that follows by Shmuel's father Yitzhak Elhanan Rabinowitz) is incredibly moving. She remains proud, though she is accepting of her likely fate. Her biggest regret is that Shmuel (whom she calls by the pet name Muka) will have his life cut short. Beyond that, rather than summarize I will let you read for yourself.

We know that in fact Shulamit, Yitzhak and Shmuel did not perish in Kovno. At this time, I do not know the full story of how they escaped and made their way to Palestine. I believe that Walter knows at least a short version of the story and perhaps he can fill us in. He may also follow up directly with Shmuel for more of the details.

What I do know based on Shmuel's 1996 correspondence with Morris Spector is that Yitzhak Elchonan (he later dropped the Rabinowitz name) died in Tel Aviv in 1992, Shulamit died in March 1996 in Haifa, and that Shmuel is alive and well in Rehovot at age 78 with his wife Zippora. They have two sons Benjamin and Ofra.

The two older sons to whom the letter was written both went to Israel as well. They were not in the United States when Shulamit wrote to them, but in Palestine. Benjamin was felled in the Israeli war of independence in 1948. Amos lived until 1965 and died in Tel Aviv of natural causes.

Here are the two documents, three pages by Shulamit and one page by Yitzhak. (Click to enlarge.)

By the way, Riemer's introduction to Shulamit's letter contains several errors. First, Shulamit became a Rabinowitz when she married Yitzhak, who was a great-grandson, not a grandson, of YES. Shulamit's last name was Rozenbloom before she married. When she mentions "your grandfather, grandmother and Aunt Jennie" in the letter, those are Rozenbloom family members.


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