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The Shadow of Death: The Holocaust in Lithuania

Harry Gordon
Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 264
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jcqr8
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  • Book Info
    The Shadow of Death
    Book Description:

    " Holocaust survivor Harry Gordon recalls in brutal detail the anguished years of his youth, a youth spent struggling to survive in a Lithuanian concentration camp. A memoir about hope and resilience, The Shadow of Death describes the invasion of Kovno by the Red Army and the impact of Soviet occupation from the perspective of the ghetto's weakest and poorest class. It also serves as a reminder that the Germans were not alone responsible for the persecution and extermination of Jews.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4359-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    THEODORE S. HAMEROW

    To say that our understanding of the Holocaust has undergone a drastic change in the half century since the Second World War may at first glance seem obvious. Does not the collective perception of any historical event change with the passage of time, as bits and pieces of information begin to accumulate, as documents and memories gradually sharpen our insight into what happened? Why then should not the picture of the destruction of European Jewry fifty years ago change as well? The process appears entirely natural and normal.

    There is more to it than that, however. The way in which...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. 1. Before the War
    (pp. 1-8)

    My grandfather’s name was Moshe Ganckewitz. I lived with my mother and father in his apartment house at 23 Preplaukos Kanto in Kovno, Lithuania. My grandfather and grandmother (my mother’s parents) shared the first floor with us. When I was younger, my mother’s two younger sisters, Golda and Celia, lived there too, but after they married they lived with their families in two apartments across from each other on the second floor. An older sister, Ettel, lived with her husband, Abraham Gizelter, a few blocks away until my grandparents died, then they moved in with us on the first floor....

  6. 2. The Russian Invasion
    (pp. 9-21)

    One Saturday afternoon—it was in June 1940—we were going for a walk as usual down the main street of Kovno when suddenly we heard loud noises. From all sides there appeared military tanks. They came across the two bridges over the rivers, moving fast. They were closed so we couldn’t see anyone. We thought the Germans were coming. We didn’t know what was happening.

    We knew, from the newspapers and the radio, that the Germans were trying to take over all of Europe. They had taken Poland, France, everybody, so we thought these were Germans. Right away panic...

  7. 3. The War Begins
    (pp. 22-36)

    During the last year, when we were living under Russian Communist rule, some things remained the same. My father was still at the textile factory and had even gotten a promotion. Uncle Borach worked as a commissar, supplying the Russian army with food. And Uncle Yenchik was still in the cattle business. I went to school every day and we went toshulon Friday and Saturday. The rabbis never mentioned the political situation; they spent their time talking about miracles. We still ate and talked together in the evenings. We really hadn’t experienced any food shortages, and our financial...

  8. 4. The Purge of Slobodka
    (pp. 37-40)

    Slobodka was a suburb of Kovno, connected to it by a bridge. It was at that time the home of the pious, strict Jews, the important rabbis and students of the Torah. Many scholars came from there. When you mentioned Slobodka, the name rang all over the world. It was identified with theYeshivot(the Orthodox rabbinical schools) from which came very scholarly men, wellversed in the Talmud and the Torah. Approximately 6,000 Jews lived there, integrated with the Lithuanians. Most were working men—shoemakers, tailors, and butchers.

    On Wednesday, June 25, at 7:00 PM the purge started. Large gangs...

  9. 5. Moving to the Ghetto
    (pp. 41-42)

    The moving of the Jews to the ghetto started in the middle of the week. The sky was covered with very small white clouds through which the sun’s rays beamed brightly. Our community started to move as soon as the order was issued. We could see caravans of disheartened men, women, and children. They were still alive but their faces were dead. Everyone carried on his shoulders whatever he could; those who were more prosperous rented a cart or wagon and horse from the Lithuanians to move all their belongings. Those who could afford to rent a wagon and horse...

  10. 6. In the Ghetto
    (pp. 43-45)

    The ghetto fences were locked and no one could leave at all. There were a lot of people who didn’t have any rooms to move into, so many people were lying in the streets and many families were living all together in one room. But the Jews didn’t lose hope. Everybody thought this was not for long, that we would be left alive over our murderers. All our Jewish politicians (everybody became a politician) became colossal optimists. Everyone would tell you what you wanted to hear. Each was trying to cheer you up and to cheer himself up.

    There were...

  11. 7. The Collection of Valuables
    (pp. 46-49)

    We had hoped to hold onto what little property we had, but at the beginning of September an order appeared that all valuables must be delivered to the Jewish council on September 4, under an order from the Germans. After that the Gestapo would come with bloodhounds and go from house to house looking for any hidden valuables. If they found any at all, they would shoot not only everyone in the household but everyone on the whole block. It was the middle of the week. The sky was covered with dark clouds and that was how everyone felt at...

  12. 8. The First Practice Massacre
    (pp. 50-54)

    September 17, 1941, was a sunny but cold morning, and the roofs were covered with a thin layer of frost. We were still in our beds when we heard on the street past the fence the marching of Lithuanian partisans singing the Lithuanian national anthem. The tramping of boots and the singing scared us to death. Everyone was afraid to look through the window to see where they were going. We thought it sounded as if they were going past the fence but it also sounded as if they were walking in the streets of the ghetto. Uncle Abraham said...

  13. 9. The Airfield Work Brigade
    (pp. 55-58)

    When the Germans started the war with the Russians, they bombarded the airfield with the Russian planes, completely destroying it. Now the Germans wanted to repair the fields for their own use, so they would be able to land, fuel up, and take off again. Where do you think they got the manpower? The Jews from the ghetto. The work was very hard, and we were gone seventeen or eighteen hours a day.

    Every morning about a thousand people marched out from the ghetto under the guard of the Wehrmacht. The road from the ghetto to the airport was about...

  14. 10. The Liquidation of the Little Ghetto
    (pp. 59-62)

    Saturday, October 4, 1941. The ground was covered with a silvery coating of snow and the sky was overcast with grayish clouds. The whole city around the ghetto was still in a deep sleep. The little ghetto was surrounded by Germans, Lithuanian partisans, and Ukrainians who had joined the Germans when they took over part of Russia. Before we had time to get dressed there were soldiers in our neighborhood. We didn’t even have a chance to get our coats before we ran out into the street. They told us to get in line by families. I got in line...

  15. 11. Life in the Big Ghetto
    (pp. 63-64)

    The displacement to the big ghetto started a new life and new troubles for us. The Germans had taken us from the small ghetto without even a shirt. Even though life was miserable, one still needed a bed, a shirt, and socks, a pan to cook with. We had to go to our friends, to borrow from anyone who had a little extra. We had left our house in the little ghetto with only what we had on, and now had to go to our friends and beg. A lot of people didn’t have to be asked. They knew and...

  16. 12. The Big Liquidation
    (pp. 65-68)

    On the twenty-eighth of October 1941, ten thousand innocent people were taken from the ghetto to the Ninth Fort. It was a Tuesday. I was standing in line waiting to go to work. It got lighter and lighter, but our guards still did not come to pick us up. We were supposed to go out at six, but at eight they still hadn’t arrived. Everyone started to get uneasy. All at once we looked around and could see that there were more guards at the fence. The German commander of all the guards came and told us in German that...

  17. 13. The Workshops and the Small Brigades
    (pp. 69-72)

    The Germans decided that, as long as they were feeding the Jews, they might as well try to get the most work possible out of them, at least until the Jewish question was settled. This is why they started building a big factory in the ghetto with many different departments, including tailors, shoemakers, furriers, toymakers, and mechanics. When they were ready to begin production, it was up to the Jewish government leaders to supply workers for the jobs. They gave cards entitling people to work in the factory to their friends and relatives and to the friends and relatives of...

  18. 14. The Jewish Police
    (pp. 73-74)

    There were two groups of police. One kept order in the ghetto and the second, the fence police, stood by the ghetto fence with the Germans and Lithuanians, waiting for the incoming Jewish working brigades to inspect what they brought in in their knapsacks, to see if there was anything not allowed. Earlier in the war, we were permitted to bring food into the ghetto—say, one pound of butter, one bottle of milk, one loaf of bread, and two pounds of potatoes—but sometimes there would be an order that nothing was to come in, and if the police...

  19. 15. New Life and New Work
    (pp. 75-87)

    After the massacre my whole family and I saw that there was no hope of crawling out of the lion’s claws. It was only a matter of time. The moment would arrive when the bloodthirsty animal would tear us apart as it had torn apart ten thousand other Jews. We had no choice but to wait for death. We had no valuables, even if we could have found a trustworthy Lithuanian to hide us. We had come naked from the little ghetto and often went to bed hungry, so how could we think of saving ourselves? We had to tear...

  20. 16. Koshedar
    (pp. 88-98)

    It was October 1942. My second furlough ended on Tuesday night; I planned to go get an extension on Wednesday morning, but Wednesday morning turned out to be too late. At five in the morning two Jewish policemen came to the door with an order in hand for Hershke Gordon.

    I said, “I am Hershke Gordon.”

    “Get dressed and come with us.”

    “Where am I going? Already for about a week I haven’t been able to go to work and my leg is still swollen.”

    One policeman answered, “We can do nothing. You had to extend the furlough yesterday. As...

  21. 17. Back in the Ghetto
    (pp. 99-105)

    Here I was in the ghetto, but I was afraid to go home, feeling that a disaster awaited me. Whatever would be, I could not stay in the streets, I thought. I began walking faster, but my steps were uncertain. My heart was pounding. As I came close to my home and saw the little gray door, I came to a standstill. I could not go in.

    I saw a woman coming toward me. I waited until the woman was close and I saw that she was our good neighbor, Mrs. Resnick. She said, “Hershke, is that you? How did...

  22. 18. Escape from the Ghetto and Life with the Lithuanians
    (pp. 106-114)

    At the ghetto fence, all the working brigades were already standing in line waiting to go to work. I got into my brigade and waited nervously. We heard the cry that the airfield brigade should go through the gate. I moved quickly to the front lines as we marched through the gate. I asked the person in back of me to take off the yellow star. He did and gave the star to me. I tore the yellow star from my chest and waited for the right moment. As we came to the Slobodka bridge, my heart was pounding like...

  23. 19. A New Work Brigade
    (pp. 115-117)

    As I came through the gate I could see Uncle Abraham waiting for me. He was so happy to see me, so impatient, that he couldn’t wait until we got home to start asking me questions.

    “Hershke, why did you come back to the ghetto so soon? What happened? Did the Lithuanian throw you out?” I explained my reasons to him and he told me that I had picked a good day to come back. Since they had deported so many people the day before, the ghetto leadership didn’t know who was taken and who was left, so they wouldn’t...

  24. 20. Red Plantation
    (pp. 118-121)

    On April 15, 1943, an order came from the Gestapo to the Jewish Presidium that they should get ready one hundred healthy working men to be taken to a working brigade. If they didn't come up with the men, the Germans would take the Jewish police. You can imagine how scared the Jewish police were, so they started making lists right away, reporting people like me with no parents or connections, not caring whether they were healthy or not. They just wanted to save themselves.

    When the lists were ready, they went looking for the people on the lists. They...

  25. 21. The Obersturmbannführer
    (pp. 122-125)

    By the time I got home from the hospital, it was already dark. I knocked on the door before entering. When Uncle Abraham saw me, he cried out emotionally “Hershula is here!” As he told me to sit down and take off my jacket, he realized that my left sleeve was empty. I told him that a Russian guard had shot me and for that reason they had sent me home. He looked at me with wondering eyes and said, “It is a miracle! A miracle has happened. You have come back alive, back from the dead, alive! You should...

  26. 22. The Liquidation of the Helpless
    (pp. 126-130)

    On the morning of Monday, March 27, 1944, all the working brigades went to work at the airfield, in the workshops, and in the city and the ghetto. The only ones left home were the people working night shifts, the old people, the sick, the young, and some mothers. When all the brigades were out at work, about 8:30 in the morning, more guards appeared around the ghetto fence. This was not a good sign for the ghetto, but until this moment no one had thought anything bad would happen because everyone had gone to work. But this was a...

  27. 23. The Partisans in the Woods
    (pp. 131-134)

    A few days after the liquidation, everything that had happened to the police in the Ninth Fort came out. One hundred and thirty policemen had survived. Mr. Kittel kept forty in the fort and let ninety go back to the ghetto. The forty he kept were the higher ranking police, the captains and sergeants. They were eventually shot at the Ninth Fort. He tried to get information out of them and got money and valuables from their families as ransom, but didn’t let any of them go. After he shot them, their clothes were brought back to the ghetto to...

  28. 24. Kazlu Ruda and Escape
    (pp. 135-138)

    The situation in the ghetto worsened every day as the German losses on the Russian front grew and the Germans took out their disappointment on us. Rumors began to spread in the ghetto that the Germans would take the whole ghetto and put us in isolation, making us wear striped clothing like prisoners. When the Germans told the Jewish Presidium to get three to four hundred healthy men and women ready to go to work, it was the end of April, a Thursday night. Two order keepers came to my house and told me to go with them. My uncle...

  29. 25. Deportation to the Concentration Camps
    (pp. 139-142)

    After they brought us into the ghetto, the German leader took us out onto the big field next to the German commandant’s headquarters, where I had worked earlier. Already on the field were many Jews from the ghetto or from other working camps outside the ghetto. We had to wait until they had the right number of people for the carloads so they could start deporting us to Germany. Every little while the Germans would bring in moles, people they had found hiding in the ghetto. While we waited, I wandered around to see if I could find my uncles...

  30. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  31. 26. Auschwitz
    (pp. 143-146)

    The sorting of the people took between four and five hours. They didn’t just consider age; they looked into the face and at the body to see if they could get a little more work out of it. Again, the finger pointed to life or death. A lot of young men fell into the nonworking group. If the Germans didn’t like the look on your face or any such thing, you could be put in that group. I fell into the group with the working men.

    They took us into the camp to the showers. Over the door was written...

  32. 27. Dachau, Camp Number One
    (pp. 147-151)

    In the beginning of September 1944, I was deported with a group of people to Dachau. It was also surrounded with a high electrified fence, but the barracks weren’t as big as at Auschwitz. These barracks had fewer people, fifty to seventy-five, but they were excavated into the ground. Each had one little window, and the only one allowed to stay by this window was the leader of that particular barracks. Our camp was men only; the women were held in a camp across from us. Most of the people in this camp were survivors from the Kovno ghetto.

    When...

  33. 28. The Sick Camp
    (pp. 152-156)

    We were moved to Camp Number Four at the end of January 1945 on a cold, overcast day. The commandant gave the order for us to march to the new camp, which was about twenty miles. The road was very bad and covered with snow. People started falling from hunger and cold. Uncle Borach and I tried to pick some up, but they were too heavy for us to drag. They couldn’t get up, so the guards shot them. Many people froze their hands and feet. My uncle and I, half-dead, made it to the camp.

    At the camp they...

  34. 29. Liberation
    (pp. 157-161)

    After the epidemic, the hunger became so fierce that, no matter how much grass I put in myself, hunger still cut my soul. The ration of bread was now two pounds of bread for fifty people, and there was no soup. During the last month before the liberation the Germans didn’t give us any bread at all, only a quart of water each.

    The bombardments by the American and English planes were daily occurrences. The planes would fly in and circle around our camp with white smoke, marking the camp so they wouldn’t bombard that area. They must have known...

  35. 30. In the Hospital
    (pp. 162-165)

    Even with my uncle’s help, I had to stop every five steps to catch my breath. On the one hand, I felt the pain in my stomach, but on the other hand, I felt great happiness that we were now free. Tears flowed from our eyes, and our hopes were so high as we reached Landsberg that we thought we would find our families and loved ones who had also been liberated from the murderers.

    In the streets were American soldiers with helmets and rifles and tanks, but there were no Germans. The only other people in the streets were...

  36. 31. The DP Camp
    (pp. 166-170)

    As soon as I moved to the DP camp, I went every day by train to Munich to the Jewish Committee’s office. Every time I went in there would be a new list telling who was still alive and where they were and who was looking for whom. I hoped to find somebody from my family. There would be long lines of people at the offices waiting to hear some news of their families. To our despair, 99 percent of those who waited each day went away disappointed. In spite of this, I didn’t give up hope. Every day I...

  37. 32. The Voyage to the United States
    (pp. 171-172)

    We boarded the boat on a Monday evening. There were about three hundred DPs in all. The women were put on one floor and the men on the floor beneath them. On the top floor were the captain and crew. After assigning us to beds, we were taken to the dining area, where there were tables set up, and told to sit down and eat. The food was delicious. There were delicacies like grapefruit that I had never seen. I had to ask the waiter how to eat it.

    We were supposed to leave the harbor that evening, but a...

  38. 33. The New Life
    (pp. 173-177)

    My uncle never met us. As Jean and I sat on the pier waiting for him we were surrounded by other passengers being met by their relatives and friends. Long hours passed. I began to feel anxious that Uncle Jack had not arrived. We waited into the evening. All the other DPs had left by then. I went to the Red Cross worker in charge and told her we were still waiting for my uncle. She took my name and my uncle’s name and came back in five minutes with a message that Uncle Jack was unable to meet us...

  39. Back Matter
    (pp. 178-178)