The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police

The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police

Anonymous members of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 04/14/2014
Format: Hardback 23 b&w illus., 3 maps
ISBN: 978-0-253-01283-8
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Bronze Winner, 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards, HistorySilver Medal, World History category, 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards2015 AAUP Public and Secondary School Library Selection

As a force that had to serve two masters, both the Jewish population of the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania and its German occupiers, the Kovno Jewish ghetto police walked a fine line between helping Jews survive and meeting Nazi orders. In 1942 and 1943 some of its members secretly composed this history and buried it in tin boxes. The book offers a rare glimpse into the complex situation faced by the ghetto leadership and the Jewish policemen, caught between carrying out the demands of the Germans and mollifying the anger and frustration of their own people. It details the creation and organization of the ghetto, the violent German attacks on the population in the summer of 1941, the periodic selections of Jews to be deported and killed, the labor required of the surviving Jewish population, and the efforts of the police to provide a semblance of stability. The secret history tells a dramatic and complicated story, defending the actions of the police force on one page and berating its leadership on the next. A substantial introduction by distinguished historian Samuel D. Kassow places this powerful work within the context of the history of the Kovno Jewish community and its experience and fate at the hands of the Nazis.

Author Bio

The anonymous policemen who composed this secret history were members of a Jewish police force that served in the Kovno ghetto from August 1941 until the Nazis murdered the leadership of the force in March 1944.

Samuel Schalkowsky, a survivor of the Kovno ghetto, is a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Samuel D. Kassow is Charles H. Northam Professor of History at Trinity College and author of Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (IUP, 2007).


“This secret history, buried by the Kovno Jewish ghetto police in tin boxes in the early 1940s, tells a dramatic and complicated story, defending the actions of those who served two masters on one page and berating its leadership on the next.”

“Almost all ghetto memoirs, diaries, and histories describe the ghetto police in harshly negative terms, as a corrupt and brutal force whose members went to great lengths to save themselves by assisting the Germans in the destruction of their fellow Jews. . . . Individual policemen, both during and after the Holocaust, tried to justify their motives and behavior, but we have little in the way of sustained narrative of the police, much less one from the perspective of the police themselves. The history of the Kovno ghetto police is a unique historical document because it was written by the policemen while the ghetto was still in existence. Significant with respect to ghetto police forces in general, it illuminates the special case of Kovno. The Kovno ghetto police were by no means exempt from criticism by ghetto inmates, however, the behavior and attitude of the police aroused less of the bitterness and scorn one finds elsewhere. . . . No better source than this detailed history of the Kovno ghetto police can be imagined.”
 — Solon Beinfeld, Washington University in St. Louis

“If this had been published earlier, I would certainly have used it in my work. For me, [among] the most enlightening passages are, above all, what goes on in the minds of people who lose a third of their community in a single day and then face an uncertain future. Noteworthy are also the self-evaluations by the police of their role, the manner in which they struggle to justify their acts, and their realistic descriptions of confrontations with ghetto inmates. No less significant is their recognition of the ghetto jail as a prison within a prison, or their characterization of the Jews as 'sheep.'”
 — Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews

“A comprehensive description of the origins of the ghetto police, its development, its leadership, and the relations of the police with the rest of the ghetto administration, with Nazi collaborators inside the ghetto, with German and Lithuanian guards and policemen in the ghetto area, and with the ghetto population generally. . . . Readers will be moved to reflections on the existential situation of the authors, their state of mind, psychology, and philosophical conundrums. It will clarify other questions about the policemen as a group: their social status prior to the war, their education, their ideological outlook, and their self-understanding. . . . We do not have a document of this kind, or such a full account of any ghetto organization, let alone the police—despised and hated in most ghettos as collaborators. And despite the particularity of each ghetto, many phenomena covered in this book were universal to all.”
 — Dalia Ofer, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police is an exceptionally important work!”
 — Martyrdom & Resistance

“Without mentioning helping Jews leave the ghetto to join the partisans fighting the Nazis (for fear of their manuscript's discovery by the Germans), the policemen relate their struggles to implement directives of the elected Jewish council, hoping to buy time until liberation, nearly always following the demands of the German command while trying to keep their pledge to devote themselves "to the well-being of the Jewish community in the ghetto," a community doomed to annihilation...Of interest to readers seeking to understand the actions of Jews during the Holocaust.”
 — Library Journal

“Often, when reading about another episode of Holocaust horror, I instinctively pull back--I am unable to imagine myself in a similar situation. What would I do? What could I do? But I was in another place. They were there--this time, in Kovno: two groups on one side, two on the other, Jewish police and Jewish victims vs. Lithuanian partisans and German Gestapo.  The Jews lost. There was never any doubt. No book I've read in recent time about the Holocaust has so moved me, evoking the utter helplessness of the Jew, the plight of the Jewish police and the cunning cruelty of the German. This is a gripping story, page by page, and it reminds us again that there but for the grace of God go we all. Read, remember and, if we can, cry.”
 — Marvin Kalb, Senior Advisor to the Pulitzer Center and Edward R. Murrow Professor, Emeritus, Harvard Kennedy Scho

“The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police [is] a source not only for understanding a watershed period in Lithuanian history, the destruction of its historic Jewish population, but also as a guide for understanding Lithuanian history in the period since the end of World War II.”
 — The Lithuania Tribune

“The writers of this riveting document . . . were determined to provide a truly balanced history of the Jewish police as it interacted with ghetto inhabitants, the Nazi occupiers, and their Lithuanian auxiliaries. . . . Highly recommended. ”
 — Choice

“The detailed content as well as the analytical and critical quality of the report, combined with the superb introduction by Samuel D. Kassow, make this book a landmark of Holocaust historiography.”
 — Slavic Review

“[A] remarkable book, The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police, provides a graphic and unparalleled description of the conditions under which the Jews of Kaunas tried to live and survive during this tragic period.”
 — Jewish Daily Forward

“The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police is an unsettling document. It does not lead, at least for this reviewer, to compassion fatigue but to unsettling empathy: at the end of reading this document, we will look differently at the moral ambiguity in which the Jewish ghetto police found itself. ”
 — Holocaust Studies

“Carefully and unobtrusively edited by ghetto survivor Schalkowsky, the material chronicles the removal of Kovno Jews to the ghetto, the savage beatings and rapes and thefts along the way, and the grave and brave attempts of those confined to organize and to maintain some sort of humanity in the eye of the Nazi hurricane...The detail is extraordinary, and while the authors occasionally assail their tormenters (in print), the tone is otherwise grimly, wrenchingly expository. An introduction by Samuel D. Kassow tells what happened, and there is no light whatsoever in that dark story...Amid all the unspeakable brutality, cruelty, fear, loss and despair, hope somehow lingers until the final gunshot.”
 — Kirkus Reviews

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Table of Contents

Preface / Samuel Schalkowsky
Inside the Kovno Ghetto / Samuel D. Kassow
History of the Viliampole [Kovno] Jewish Ghetto Police
1. Introduction
2. The Prehistory of the Kovno Ghetto
3. The Gruesome Period from the Beginning of the Ghetto to the Great Action
4. Ghetto Situation After the Great Action (The survivor must live...)
5. The Elder Council, the Ghetto Institutions, the Police and the Ghetto Population: Mutual Interrelationships
6. Development of the Administrative Apparatus and of the Police after the Action
7. The Ghetto Guard and the Jewish Police
8. The Ghetto during the Time of the NSKK, Wiedmann and Hermann (Spring and Summer 1942)
9. The Police in the Spring and Summer of 1942 (the Caspi Period)
10. The Ghetto in the Times of Koeppen, Miller and the Vienna Protective Police (Schutz Polizei)
11. The Police in the Last Quarter of 1942
Appendix: Evolution of the Manuscript

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