David P. Boder Interviews Ephraim Gutman; September 12, 1946; Hénonville, France



Lithuanian Jewry, like its counterpart in eastern Poland, encountered the Germans for the first time in June 1941. The principal difference was that Lithuanian nationalists, embittered by Soviet rule in 1940 and 1941, viewed the Germans as a lesser evil and the Jews as supportive of Communism. Ephraim Gutman had been born in 1917 in Ukraine, but he lived most of his life up to 1944 in the Lithuanian capital of Kaunas (which he calls by its Russian name, Kovno). He experienced the birth, life, and death of the Kovno ghetto. On the day of his interview at Hénonville Displaced Persons Home near Paris in September 1946 he was one of only about 2,000 survivors of a Jewish community that had numbered 40,000 before the war.

This interview documents poor relations between Lithuanians and Jews in 1941. Although Lithuanian contempt for the Jews is well known, Gutman’s sentiments suggest that it was heartily reciprocated by at least some Jews, who sneered at their neighbors as primitive "Lithuanian Klurnpes," named for the peasants' wooden shoes. Far more graphic, however, are his descriptions of Lithuanian nationalists lashing out at the Jews at the moment of German conquest. These extremists were exacting revenge for what they regarded as Jewish sympathy with the USSR during its brief occupation of their country. The Soviets had restricted Jewish religious and economic life but opened the doors to Jewish participation in higher education and politics, thereby attracting a following among young Jews. This association by Lithuanian nationalists of Jews with Communism had catastrophic consequences in the form of pogroms during the interval between the flight of the Red Army and the arrival of the Germans. Gutman and his family were spared only by the intervention of a sympathetic Lithuanian acquaintance. His recollections also show how the Germans subsequently were able to draw ordinary Lithuanians into measures against the Jews by permitting them to share booty taken from the victims. Lithuanian volunteers would continue to assist the Germans in actions against the Jews throughout the war, both in Kovno and elsewhere.

Gutman is most intent upon describing the initial acts of Nazi violence against the Jews in the first months of the Kovno ghetto, as well as the last, heartbreaking deportation of children and old people in March 1944. But he also shows how the Germans gradually whittled down the population of the ghetto to around 18,000 with executions and deportations. A close reading of his interview reveals that he and most others who survived in Kovno had, or were related to someone who had, a "Jordan card" attesting to the status of a skilled laborer working for the Germans in the ghetto. These were issued by SA captain Fritz Jordan, the superintendent of Jewish affairs in Kovno and from all accounts a thoroughly sinister figure. In September 1941 he delivered 5,000 of these "Certificates for Jewish Artisans" to the Jewish Council, led by Dr. Elchanan Elkes. Elkes and his fellow Jewish elders were divided over the wisdom of distributing the certificates, but they finally bowed to demands from the Jewish workers themselves, who hoped that possession of a "Jordan card" might enhance their chances of survival. Gutman, an electrician, had one of them.

Among the most interesting passages of his account are those regarding the involvement of at least a part of the Kovno ghetto's Jewish police force in preparations for resistance and establishing bunkers in which Jews planned to hide from future deportations. Sadly, the Nazis succeeded in turning the lower ranks of the Jewish police against their officers, resulting in reprisals and the discovery of many bunkers. Nor did such hiding places save many Jews when the ghetto was liquidated in July 1944. Using dogs and grenades, the Germans flushed out and killed or deported virtually all the survivors. Fewer than one hundred Jews were still in Kovno when the Red Army returned at the beginning of August, following which Gutman recovered the hidden ghetto archives that he had helped to organize.

Gutman abruptly terminated the interview before describing the ghetto's liquidation. Boder was perplexed. Was he called away by a legitimate emergency, or was he unable or unwilling to go on for some personal reason?

From FRESH WOUNDS: EARLY NARRATIVES OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVAL by Donald L. Niewyk. Copyright (c) 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu