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The Kovno Ghetto Orchestra

The Kovno Ghetto Orchestra

Following the German occupation of Kaunas, many of the city's leading
musicians, were forced to move to the Jewish ghetto. Most brought
their musical instruments with them. However, on August 18, 1941, soon
after the sealing of the ghetto, the Germans held a special
"Intellectuals Action" which resulted in the murder of 534 of the most
educated men in the ghetto. Afterwards, most musicians were afraid to
publicly declare themselves as professionals. The Jewish council
decided the best way to protect these musicians was to make them
policemen and issue them uniforms. During the summer of 1942, when the
killing actions had stopped and the ghetto was in the midst of its
"Quiet Period," the council felt it was safe to ask permission for the
ghetto's musicians to regroup into an orchestra. The orchestra
consisted of 35 instrumentalists and five vocalists led by the noted
conductor Michael Leo Hofmekler and the concertmaster Alexander
Stupel. Performances were held bi-weekly, and a total of 80 concerts
were given during the ghetto's history. Performances were given in the
ghetto's Police House, the former building of the Slobodka Yeshiva.
They were coordinated by the ghetto's director of education and
culture, the noted linguist Chaim Nachman Shapiro (who was also the
son of Kovno's chief rabbi). Though the first concert, which began
with a moment of silence followed by "Kol Nidre" (the opening hymn of
the Yom Kippur service), featured only serious music, many in the
ghetto felt it was unseemly to hold concerts in a place of mourning.
They considered these concerts to be solely for the ghetto elite and a
desecration of the yeshiva. However, despite these criticisms, most
felt that the concerts served a useful purpose in raising the level of
morale in the ghetto. Ironically, though the musicians were initially
made policemen as a form of protection, during the "Police Action" of
March 27, 1944, the musicians were spared transfer to the Ninth Fort.
Robert Hofmekler (1905-1994) was the son of Motel and Bertha
(Blinder) Hofmekler (spelled variously as Hofmekleris and Gofmekler).
He grew up in a highly musical Jewish family in Vilna, where his
father was a well-known cello player. Robert had three siblings:
Zelda, Michael (b. 1898) and Leo (or M. Leo, b. 1900). In the fall of
1920 the family fled from Vilna to Kovno. Michael was a gifted
violinist, who was decorated by the Lithuanian president in 1932 for
his cultural achievement in propagating Lithuanian folk music in
performances, recordings and transcription. Leo served as the
conductor of the Lithuanian state opera in the 1930s. After the
Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1940 he was appointed music director and
conductor of the National Radio Orchestra in Vilna. Robert emigrated
to the U.S. in the fall of 1938. Following the German occupation of
Lithuania in the summer of 1941, Leo, his wife and two children were
forced into the Vilna ghetto, where they all perished in 1942 or 1943.
Motel and Bertha and Michael and Zelda were forced into the Kovno
ghetto. Motel played in the ghetto orchestra. He and Bertha perished
in the ghetto early in 1944. Zelda's husband, David Kovarsky, was
dragged from his home and shot by Lithuanian nationalists during the
early days of the German occupation of Kovno. Zelda and her daughter
perished in an underground malina (bunker) during the final
liquidation of the ghetto. Michael served as the conductor of the
ghetto orchestra. He was probably deported to Stutthof during the
liquidation of the ghetto and then transferred to Dachau or one of its
satellite camps. In late April 1945 he was evacuated and ultimately
was liberated in the vicinity of Landsberg, Bavaria. Robert, who was
drafted into the U.S. Army in January 1941 and served in Europe with
the 9th Infantry and 10th Armored Division, found his brother at the
St. Ottilien displaced persons hospital camp in June 1945.for entire article and pictures go to