Truth Set Free New Holocaust Museum exhibit features words and images from a Jewish ghetto in Lithuania, kept safe from the Nazis by people who were not.

December 05, 1997|By MICHAEL OLLOVE | MICHAEL OLLOVE,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As the Germans began the final destruction of the Jewish ghetto in Kovno, Lithuania, during 1944, 11-year-old Helen Yermus helplessly watched SS soldiers lead her 7-year-old brother away. With one last, fearful glance at his sister, the little boy walked off with his executioners and disappeared forever.

Toward the end of a new exhibit on the Kovno ghetto at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Yermus' quavering, adult voice can be heard lamenting her lost brother, whom she fears will soon vanish even from memory. "There is not a trace that he ever existed," says Yermus, who now lives in Toronto. "There is not a photograph of him anywhere. Once I die, nobody will ever know that he existed."

Perhaps not. The Kovno exhibit itself represents a refusal by the ghetto's doomed inhabitants to be forgotten. Of the 37,000 Jews who lived in Kovno when the Nazis swept into Lithuania, barely 3,000 outlasted the Holocaust. Yet, as the catastrophe engulfed them, the Kovno Jews determined that even if they did not survive, their story would. In diaries, in works of art, in reports and maps and -- in the case of one intrepid photographer -- in pictures surreptitiously shot through the buttonhole of an overcoat, they would secret away a remarkably rich record of their existence and of their suffering.

They were leaving behind, they correctly believed, a posthumous testimony to the crimes against them.

"With awe and reverence," wrote diarist Avraham Tory, "I am hiding in this box what I have written, noted and collected with fervor and dread, in order that they should serve as material evidence -- corpus delicti -- accusing witness when the day of judgment arrives, a day of revenge and retribution."

The artifacts they clandestinely preserved, which will be exhibited at the museum until October 1999, provide a vivid glimpse of ghetto life, one produced not by the perpetrators (who themselves kept voluminous, self-damning records) but by the victims. They tell the large, monstrous story of Nazi atrocities, but along the way also create a testament to courage and creativity in the face of a pitiless brutality.

"It's not just an exhibition on a genocide but an exhibition about how the human spirit can emerge in the face of such horror," said Elizabeth Kessin Berman, a curator at the Holocaust Museum.

Much of the Kovno archive was the result of the concerted effort by the German-created Jewish Council in Kovno and its well-respected but reluctantly elected chairman, Dr. Elkhanan Elkes, who had once been the personal physician to the Lithuanian prime minister and the German ambassador. The Nazis established the councils in the East European Jewish ghettos to help administer them. Council members found themselves facing an unworkable dilemma with, as Berman says, "choiceless choices": how to help the Jews while also satisfying their sworn enemies.

"They were carrying out German orders all the time, and at the same time they were trying desperately to protect their own people," said Solon Beinfeld, a Washington University professor emeritus who was a consultant on the exhibit, which draws from collections around the world. "They walked this tightrope as best they could."

In a letter in 1943, Elkes captured the anguish in his role. "We are steering our battered ship in the heart of the ocean while everyday waves of persecutions and harsh decrees

hasten to drown it," he wrote to his children.

Elkes knew he couldn't solve the riddle, but until the ghetto was liquidated, he was able to put the council to subversive use: aiding the Underground, hiding orphans who would otherwise be exterminated and swelling the labor brigades to spare additional lives. Just as vital, Elkes believed, was creating a lasting record of life and death under the Nazis.

Keeping records

The preservation work took many forms, written and visual. Although the Germans gave most of their decrees verbally, the Jews kept a detailed record of their shrinking lives in Kovno: Jews prohibited from appearing on sidewalks. Jews not allowed to own property or to engage in trade. Jews forbidden from giving birth on pain of death to both mother and child.

Despite the gravity of what was happening to them, the records-keepers could convey a dark humor. The preface of their catalog of German decrees satirically states, "And these are The Laws -- German Style."

More often, though, they were passionately outraged. One preserved notebook is in the shape of a Jewish memorial tablet titled "The Numbers Demand an Accounting." With elaborate bar charts and color coding, it is a piece of art in itself, recording the mass killings committed against ghetto inhabitants:

June 25-26. More than 800 Jews slaughtered by pro-Nazi Lithuanian nationalists.

Aug. 18, 1941. More than 700 Jewish intellectuals executed at Fort IV, one of the ancient forts outside the city used as killing sites.

Sept. 26, 1941. Another 1,608 murdered at Fort IX.

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