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Elchanan Elkes

Elchanan Elkes
From; The Terrible Choice
Some Contemporary Jewish Responses to the Holocaust

It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the Judenräte in general,
and their chairmen in particular, enjoyed, in the main, neither the
confidence nor the respect of the communities they supposedly
represented. There were, of course, exceptions. Not all Judenrat
chairmen had a messianic complex, were akin to collaborators, or had
been corrupted in other ways. Among the most distinguished of these
principled leaders was Dr Elchanan Elkes, chairman of the Ältestenrat,
the Council of Elders, in the Kovno (today, Kaunas) ghetto in
Lithuania, a man whose memory is revered for the dignity with which he
led his community in its hour of greatest need.

Elchanan Elkes, the son of a rabbi, was born in 1879 in the western
Lithuanian village of Kalvarija, at that time a province of Czarist
Russia. In part self-educated, he also received an extensive
traditional Jewish education. Whilst still young he was sent to school
in Kovno, before completing his medical studies in Königsberg (today
Kaliningrad), then located in the German province of East Prussia, and
which today is a city within the Russian Federation. He received his
medical degree in neurology and other specialties in 1903. For seven
years he practiced as a doctor in the village of Berezino in
Byelorussia. In 1912 he married Miriam Albin, who bore him two
children, a son, Joel, and a daughter, Sara. During the First World
War, Elkes served as a physician in the Russian Army and was awarded a
number of decorations. From 1923, he was head of the department of
internal medicine in the Bikkur Holim Jewish hospital in Kovno, as
well as practicing privately. Reputedly one of the best doctors in
Lithuania, his patients included the country's prime minister as well
as many diplomats, although he also gave freely of his services to the
poor. Ironically, in view of what was to come, for eighteen years he
had served as physician to the German embassy in Kovno, as well as
being the personal physician to the German ambassador to Lithuania.

Elkes was an active Zionist with connections to the Hehalutz youth
movement, and was also closely involved in Jewish cultural activities.
When Kovno fell under Soviet rule in 1940, he used his contact as
physician to the principal Soviet representative in the country to
obtain exit visas for thousands of stranded Polish Jewish refugees,
who had fled from Poland before the invading German army and sought
refuge in Lithuania.

On 24 June 1941, two days after the German invasion of the Soviet
Union, `Operation Barbarossa', was launched, Kovno fell to the Nazis.
The killing of Jews began almost immediately. Over the next weeks,
thousands were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian
henchmen at the Jewish cemetery and at the forts that surrounded the
city. As it had become apparent that Lithuania was to be occupied by
the Germans, foreign diplomatic sources offered Elkes safe conduct to
other countries, but he declined to leave Kovno. On 10 July, a decree
was promulgated by the mayor and military commander of the city, both
Lithuanians, declaring that a ghetto was to be established in the
suburb of Slobodka, a district also known as Vilijampolé. The ghetto
area was divided into two sections: the "small ghetto" and the "large
ghetto", on either side of the main thoroughfare, over which a small
bridge was later constructed. Nearly 30,000 Jews were ordered to move
into the ghetto by 15 August. The Jewish Committee, originally formed
to rationalize the transfer of the Jewish population to the hideously
overcrowded and dilapidated ghetto, was now ordered to transform
itself into an Ältestenrat and to elect a leader. This was a role both
difficult and dangerous for the person elected. It was clear that
whoever took up the position should be a person who, despite being
regarded as merely another Jew in German eyes, was both authoritative
and distinguished, a man who might even elicit a modicum of respect on
behalf of the persecutors. He would have to be clever, courageous,
highly moral, and of strong character, the kind of individual who
would defend the interests of the community he represented in the face
of merciless killers. Such a man was not to be easily found. The
leaders of the community therefore met on 5 August to elect an
Oberjude (Chief Jew), a chairman; nobody would accept the position,
including Elkes, whose nomination had been enthusiastically greeted by
those present. Elkes protested that he had no experience of public
administration, and was not qualified to occupy such a vital post. An
impassioned appeal was made to him by Rabbi Yakov Moshe Shmukler:

"The Jewish community of Kovno stands on the brink of destruction. Our
daughters are being raped, and our sons executed. Fellow Jews! The
German oppressor demands that we appoint an Oberjude, but what we need
is a faithful community leader. In this historic hour, the most
appropriate candidate among us is Dr Elkes. Therefore we appeal to
you, Dr Elkes: In the eyes of the German criminals you will fill the
position of Oberjude, but to us you will be community leader… And now
we beg you: Assume, without fear, the position as our leader, for
those who perform a holy mission shall meet no evil thanks to the
prayers of many. Amen."
Each person present approached Elkes, pleading with him to take on the
burden of leadership and promising their support. With extreme
reluctance, and despite his failing health, Elkes agreed to become
chairman, one of the few Judenrat leaders to be elected by his peers,
rather than appointed by the Nazis. "If this be the situation, and you
think that it is my duty to accept the post, then I shall do so," he
said. It was to be the final meeting of the Jewish community in Kovno.

One of Elkes' first acts as chairman was to institute the creation of
an archive. Over the next three years, a wealth of material was
secretly accumulated, including artist's illustrations, photographs,
minutes of meetings, diaries, poems, historical records of the entire
ghetto as well as individual departments, and much more. A great deal
of the archive was destroyed with the liquidation of the ghetto, but
what remains provides an extraordinary record of the gradual
extinction of a vital Jewish spiritual and cultural centre.

In common with other Jewish councils in Nazi occupied Europe, the
Ältestenrat was placed in an impossible position. On the one hand was
the insatiable German demands for a steady stream of labour; on the
other was the desperate need to somehow keep the community alive in
the face of critical shortages. Housing, sanitation, health, but above
all food and fuel were a constant concern. Food rations for the ghetto
were half that of the Lithuanian population; only the provision of
council organised soup kitchens enabled many to survive.

On 15 September 1941, SA Hauptsturmführer Fritz Jordan, a sadistic
thug and the supposed "expert" on Jewish affairs in the German civil
administration (Stadtkommissariat), provided 5,000 certificates
(Scheine) to be issued to skilled workers. Nobody completely
understood the significance of this move, but it was clear that it
would be advantageous to possess one of these certificates. There was
chaos in the ghetto as the Ältestenrat debated whether or not to issue
them. They consulted Rabbi Ephraim Oshry for a Halachic ruling. After
due consideration, the rabbi concluded: "… It appears that taking and
distributing the permits is also a matter of rescue and it is not
appropriate to rule in this case according to the law for an
individual, and therefore the Ältestenrat is required to accept the
permits and to distribute them." The Scheine were duly issued, and
although they saved lives in some subsequent Aktionen, they proved of
little value at the "Grosse Aktion" in Kovno the following month.

By German command, all inmates of the ghetto, without exception, were
ordered to assemble at Demokratu Square on 28 October. Fearing the
worst, Elkes attempted to persuade SS Hauptscharführer Helmut Rauca,
in charge of Jewish affairs at the Kovno Gestapo, to reveal the
purpose behind this order, hinting that all wars must end one day, and
who could be certain of the identity of the victors? Previous Aktionen
had been disastrous for the ghetto. If Rauca would respond to Elkes'
questions honestly, the Jews would know how to repay him. Rauca
ignored the offer. There was nothing sinister about the order, he
lied. Intense debate ensued among the members of the Ältestenrat.
There were rumours that large pits had been dug at Fort IX. Should the
council publish the decree or not? A decision could not be reached,
and so the council approached Rabbi Abraham Duber Kahana-Shapiro, the
Chief Rabbi of Lithuania, for another Halachic ruling. After a
sleepless night and hours spent poring over his books, the rabbi
arrived at an answer: If the entire community was at risk, but part of
it could be saved by a certain action, the leaders of the community
should undertake that action and save as many lives as possible. The
decree was duly issued in the name of the Ältestenrat, although the
wording of the notice clearly indicated that the council had published
it by order of the Gestapo.

On the appointed day, Rauca directed a major selection at Demokratu
Square, as a result of which some 10,000 men, women, and children were
first transferred to the small ghetto, and from there were marched to
Fort IX and shot. Throughout the entire agonizing selection, Elkes
stood by Rauca's side, attempting to intercede on behalf of
individuals and even entire families. From 6 a.m. that morning until
darkness fell, Elkes remained standing, refusing to either sit or to
eat. "Terrible things are happening here," he said, "I must remain
standing on guard in case I can be of some assistance." When at last
the dreadful selection was completed and he made his way back to his
home, Elkes murmured: "It wasn't worthwhile living for more than sixty
years in order to witness a day like this! Who can bear all this when
you are being appealed to with heartrending cries and there is nothing
much you can do? I can't bear it any longer!"

In a desperate attempt to save at least some of the condemned, Elkes
persuaded Rauca to allow those who had been selected in error to be
removed from the small ghetto. Rauca magnanimously agreed, but limited
the number to be rescued to 100. Elkes was admitted to the small
ghetto, where he was besieged by people begging him to save their
lives. The Lithuanian guards driving the victims toward Fort IX
ordered Elkes to leave, threatening that they would take him together
with the condemned if he did not. He insisted upon exercising his
right to remove 100 men and women, as agreed by Rauca, at which point
the guards physically assaulted him. One of them hit Elkes in the head
with his rifle butt, causing the doctor to fall to the ground,
unconscious and bleeding. Other ghetto inmates carried him into the
large ghetto, where he slowly recovered. In trying to save who he
could, Elkes had almost lost his own life. It was an action typical of
the man – dignified, courageous, and with complete disregard for his
own safety; nor was it to be the only occasion upon which he was
beaten by the Nazis and their helpers.

In August 1942, the Ältestenrat was reduced to just four members.
Elkes remained chairman, as he was to be throughout the ghetto's
existence. "The fewer the number of council members, the more duties,"
he said. "We must be prepared for greater sacrifices." Personally, he
was willing to use every available means to save the lives of the
members of his community. Avraham Tory recorded that in the Kovno
ghetto, no Jew was ever handed over at the request of the Gestapo.
Such a thing was unheard of. Ephraim G., a survivor of the ghetto,
recounted a confrontation between Elkes and Willy Koslovski, a member
of the Gestapo, on 26 September 1941, shortly after Elkes had taken
office. Koslovski, who lived opposite the ghetto, claimed that shots
had been fired at his residence the night before. He demanded that 500
Jews be surrendered to him to be shot. Elkes replied that among Jews
it was forbidden to deliver people for execution. Even if the entire
community were threatened, they should all choose death rather than
deliver even one of their congregation. If Elkes would not deliver 500
people, Koslovski threatened, he would take more than that number.
Elkes replied: "It may cost [the lives of] all 45,000 Jews in the
ghetto, but I shall not deliver any Jews to you to be shot." 30
minutes later the Germans cordoned off a section of the ghetto. 1,608
Jews were rounded up and shot at Fort IV in the so-called "Koslovski

Elkes stature became such that even the Germans began to treat him
respectfully. In June 1943, he was granted an audience with SS
Standartenführer Karl Jäger, formerly commander of Einsatzkommando 3
of Einsatzgruppe A, and by then head of the Sicherheitspolizei and SD
for Lithuania, a man whose infamous report of 9 February 1942 had
boasted of killing 138,272 people, more than 98% of whom were Jews and
34,464 of whom were children. Accompanying Elkes at the meeting was
Hauptscharführer Schtitz, who had inherited Rauca's position at the
Gestapo. Astonishingly, Elkes was asked to be seated, whilst Schtitz
remained standing throughout the audience. Elkes enquired about the
fate of the ghetto in the light of the rumours that were circulating.
Jäger made suitably soothing noises; there was no plan to harm the
ghetto. "If the ghetto sky is clouded once more, I would like to ask
your permission, sir, to see you again," Elkes requested. "Please do.
I will see you willingly," Jäger replied.

Elkes moved on to another subject. Two Jewish doctors who had escaped
from a work party eighteen moths earlier had been arrested by the
Gestapo, together with the Lithuanians who had given them shelter.
Elkes pleaded for their lives. Without even allowing Elkes to complete
his appeal, Jäger agreed to the men's release. When Elkes thanked him,
Jäger responded: "There is nothing to be thankful for. I do it
willingly." It is doubtful if many other Jewish leaders were treated
as courteously by the SS.

Jäger was not the only person in a position of authority to deal with
Elkes almost as an equal. Gustav Hermann, who was in charge of the
German labour office in the ghetto, and who was that rarity, a Nazi
who treated Jews humanely, informed Elkes at a meeting on 30 July 1943
that able-bodied Jews were to be removed from the ghetto and sent to
labour camps. Only the elderly, the children, and the sick would
remain. Elkes asked of their fate. "Their future is bleak," Hermann
replied. "Before long they will be exterminated as expendables."
Hermann swore Elkes to secrecy. In imparting such information to a Jew
he was putting his life at risk. Elkes thanked Hermann and asked him
to do everything in his power to avert the disaster. In the event the
liquidation of the ghetto was delayed for nearly twelve months, but
the incident provides evidence of the kind of confidence in his
honesty and discretion that Elkes was able to arouse in others, often
in surprising circumstances. Despite the Nazi prohibition on medical
treatment of an "Aryan" by a Jew, when he felt unwell, Schtitz
consulted Elkes in the latter's professional capacity. At the
conclusion of the examination Schtitz shook hands with the doctor and
thanked him for his treatment.

Elkes' own health had been poor when he undertook the responsibility
of chairman. His duties did nothing to improve it. In January 1942,
the Germans announced that Jews from Vienna were to be deported to
Kovno. The arrival of the deportees train was awaited all night long
in bitter cold. Elkes was among those waiting and caught a severe
chill; later he was to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, taking more
than a year to recover.

It is only fair to record that not all regarded Elkes as the ideal
leader of the Jewish community. Whilst acknowledging Elkes'
fundamental decency, Lazar Goldstein-Golden, a survivor of the ghetto,
commented that because of his exemplary character, Elkes was in fact
the wrong man to "have been in a position of leadership in such a
terribly cruel and critical time." Which, of course, begs the question
– who would have been the "right" man? Elkes' failing, if he can be
said to have one, was to believe that even amongst the savage
murderers of the SS, a spark of morality and compassion glowed. Many
would regard an abiding faith in the goodness of man to be a virtue
rather than a weakness. In truth, like other Judenrate leaders, Elkes
was helpless in the face of such fanatical persecution. Nor is there
any reason to suppose that any other leadership would have achieved
greater success in rescuing the doomed victims.

In autumn 1943, the ghetto was officially converted into a
concentration camp and renamed KZ Kauen. Over the next months the
ghetto population was gradually reduced, mainly by means of transfer
to labour camps. On 27 March 1944 the Ältestenrat was dissolved. Only
Elkes remained as Oberjude, by then merely a title. He had been a
constant supporter of the underground, supplying funds for the
purchase of weapons, organizing facilities for the production of
grenades and explosives, and providing assistance to Jews who wished
to train in the use of arms, or to escape to fight with the partisans.
But when the end came there was no dramatic resistance, as there had
been in Warsaw, Bialystok and some other ghettos.

On 8 July 1944, as the Soviets approached, the ghetto was liquidated.
Elkes confronted SS Obersturmführer Wilhelm Göcke, in charge of the
operation, once again attempting to save lives just as he had done
nearly three years earlier with Rauca, and on countless occasions
since. "I am old, I have no fear of death; you can kill me on the
spot," Elkes said. "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… 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." His appeal fell on deaf ears. About 2,000 Jews died in
the course of the ghetto clearance; another 4,000 were transported to
concentration camps in Germany, among them Elkes, who was sent via
Stettin to Landsberg, one of the Kaufering complex of Dachau
sub-camps. Although very ill himself, he was still dedicated to
healing and was placed in charge of the Lazarett, the camp "hospital".
He died there on 17 October 1944 after a hunger strike, having refused
to participate in "selections" in the camp, a man of principle and
integrity to the end.

Elkes' wife, Miriam, was separated from him at the time of
deportation. She survived incarceration in Stutthof to live in Israel,
where she died in 1965. They had had the foresight to send their
children, Joel and Sara, to complete their education in Great Britain
in 1938. On 11 November 1943, Elkes had written his last testament, a
letter to his son and daughter. He entrusted the precious document,
the only testament of a Judenrat leader that has survived, to Avraham
Tory, who escaped from the ghetto in March 1944. The letter remains a
fitting tribute to this remarkable, high-minded man:

"… Whether we all perish, or whether a few of us are to survive, is in
God's hands… We are left, a few out of many. Out of the 35,000 Jews of
Kovno, approximately 17,000 remain; out of a quarter of a million Jews
in Lithuania (including the Vilna district), only 25,000 live, plus
5,000… who… were deported to hard labour in Latvia… The last massacre,
when 10,000 victims were killed at one time, took place on 28 October
1941… With my own ears I heard the awe-inspiring and terrible
symphony, the weeping and screaming of 10,000 people, old and young –
a scream that tore at the heart of heaven. No ear had heard such cries
through the ages and generations.
… I doubt, my beloved children, whether I will ever be able to see you
again, to hug you and press you to my heart. Before I leave this world
and you, my dear ones, I wish to tell you once again how dear you are
to us, and how deeply our souls yearn for you… Remember, both of you,
what Amalek has done to us. Remember and never forget it all your
days; and pass this memory as a sacred testament to future
generations… The soil of Lithuania is soaked with our blood, killed at
the hands of the Lithuanians themselves.

… My strength is ebbing. There is a desert inside me. My soul is
scorched. I am naked and empty. There are no words in my mouth… And
now, for a moment, I close my eyes and see you both standing before
me. I embrace and kiss you both; and I say to you again that, until my
last breath, I remain your loving father."

More than 60 years after his death, the names of Elchanan Elkes and
his wife Miriam live on. They are commemorated by The Stanley Burton
Centre for Holocaust Studies at the University of Leicester in Great
Britain, who sponsor an annual Elchanan and Miriam Elkes Memorial
Lecture, given by an outstanding scholar of the Holocaust. Founded by
Sara Elkes, The Elchanan and Miriam Elkes Association for Inter
Community Understanding plays an important role in inter-faith
relationships, working to bring people of different cultures together.

In his final letter to them, Dr Elkes had advised his children: "Let
truth be always before you and under your feet. Truth will guide you
and show you the path of life." They are words for all to heed and to
live by - as he had done.



Sources and Further Reference:
Arad Yitzhak, Gutman Israel and Margaliot Abraham, eds. Documents on
The Holocaust, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1999

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews, Bantam Books, New York,

Elkes, Joel. Dr. Elkhanan Elkes of the Kovno Ghetto: A Son's Holocaust
Memoir, Paraclete Press, Massachusetts, 1999