Jewish Kovna

Leah Goldberg described Kovna as a “destitute land of beauty” (ארץ נוי אביונה). Bounded by the Neiman and Viliya rivers, this beautiful city was once the home of the prolific Kovna Jewish community.

From the latter half of the 18th century until the Nazi occupation in 1941, Jewish life in Kovna blossomed spiritually and culturally. In the early 1930’s, there were 5 daily Jewish newspapers in Kovna and a network of Hebrew schools ranging from kindergarten to teachers’ seminaries. The Jewish population of the city was 38,000 in 1933 – 30% of the general population.

Among the spiritual leaders of Kovna were R. Yitzchok Elchanon Spektor — perhaps the most prominent halachic authority of his generation, R. Nosson Tzvi Finkel — founder of the Slobodka Yeshiva, R. Yisrael (Lipkin) Salanter — founder of the Kovner Kollel and the Litvishe Musar movement, and R. Avraham Dov Kahane-Shapiro — the last chief rabbi.

Other distinguished Jewish residents of Kovna include Avraham Mapu — the first Hebrew novelist, Leah Goldberg — the renowned Hebrew poet and author, and Eliezer Ludwig Zamenhof – the famous ophthalmologist and creator of the Esperanto language.

Needless to say, little remains of the magnificent Kovna Jewish community. The Nazis and their Lithuanian allies killed most of the Jews. Few of the survivors returned to Lithuania, many eventually settled in Israel.

From the writings of Leah Goldberg:

I will visit all your streets and corners/
every marketplace and courtyard and alley and garden./
From the ruins of your walls/
I will collect the small stones/
to keep as a memorial.

On this page, we have collected just a few of the pebbles from the ruins of Kovna…

The City of Kovna as Viewed From Mapu Hill

Aleksotas, on the bank of the Neiman river across from the Old Town of Kovna, was nicknamed “Mapu Hill” by the Jews, for it was here that the famed Hebrew author, Avraham Mapu, secluded himself in a wooden gazebo fantasizing that he is in the Land of Israel overlooking the Jordan river. Perhaps this view of the city was the inspiration behind his first Hebrew novel, “The Love of Zion” (אהבת ציון). The novel was later translated into Lithuanian by Prof. Chaim Nachman Shapira of the Kovna University, son of Chief Rabbi Shapiro, and became part of the university’s curriculum before the war. Prof. Shapira perished in the Holocaust.

The Aleksotas Jewish Cemetery

Officially opened under Soviet rule after World War II, this is the currently active Jewish cemetery of Kovna. Some of the graves have been transferred here from the older cemeteries which were destroyed or laid neglected. Notice that the writing on some of the gravestones is engraved on the back. This is because the original engravings had deteriorated and as part of a renovation project, the names of the deceased were rewritten on the backs of the stones.

Tomb of Rabbi Yitzchok Elchanan Spektor

Grave of Rabbi Avraham Duber Kahana Shapiro – The last chief rabbi of Kovna

Rumšiškės

Rumsiskes (Rumshishkes) is a small town east of Kovna. Before WWII, some 50 Jewish families lived here. 

Virtually all the Jews of Rumsiskes were murdered by the Nazis and their Lithuanian allies. The able-bodied Jewish men were shipped off to the Pravenishok forced labor camp and died there. Most of the women, children and  the elderly men were shot and buried in mass graves in Rumsiskes.

In the 1950’s, the Kovna municipality decided to build a hydroelectric power station in Kaunas and as a result flooded the area of the Jewish cemetery. The graves, including those of the Holocaust victims, were moved to the Kovna cemetery. This memorial was erected in remembrance of the Rumsiskes victims.

Here lie the deceased from the cemetery of Rumshishkes and the holy martyrs of the Rumshishkes community who were killed by the fascist murderers in the year 1501 (5/7/1941) and their bones were brought here in the year 5718 (1958)

Lietukis Garage Massacre

The Nazi occupation of Kovna on June 24, 1941, triggered a brutal wave of pogroms throughout the city. The most publicized of these was the Lietukis Garage Massacre, where some 70 Jewish men were brutally beaten and tortured to death in the presence of a cheering crowd of Lithuanian citizens. During the following days, similar massacres  took place in Slobodka (Vilijampole ) and other areas of Kovna killing thousands of Jews.

Memorial at the site of the Lietukis Garage Massacre

The Garage Massacre became the most publicized pogrom in Kovna because of the photographers that were present and recorded the event.

The Lietukis Garage Massacre

The Kovna Ghetto

In July 1941, all of Kovna’s remaining Jews were ordered to move into the Slobodka neighborhood – the Kovna Ghetto. Some 29,000 Jews had to move their belongings to the cramped,  over-crowded houses in the ghetto. 

Many of those houses are still standing today. Some were renovated, but a few remain more or less as they were then.

Entire families had to crowd into sheds and store rooms similar to these. 

typical shed in Kovno

Memorial marking the main gate into the Kovna ghetto.

Kovno ghetto memorial