How I Survived the Kovno Ghetto
How a teenager carved out hiding places and executed a split-second escape plan.
During theSecond World War, June 1941, I was 15 years old. I was a high school student in one of the four Hebrew high schools in Kovno, the capital of Lithuania. Our community also had a Jewish theater, a Jewish hospital, a Jewish orphanage, two daily Jewish newspapers, numerous synagogues, a Jewish technical college, one of the most well known yeshivas in the world (Slobodka), and many other community organizations, such as Jewish burial services, Jewish fellowships for assisting the poor, kosher restaurants, etc.
The Jewish community in Kovno had about 40,000 members and constituted 25 percent of the population in the city. Many of its members were professionals, including some of the country's leading doctors, lawyers and business people. Other members of the community were skilled artisans, merchants, small business owners and laborers. All major political sections within the Jewish community had organizations and youth clubs in the city, including, the Zionists, the socialists, and the various religious denominations.
The first day of the war found me in a small town called Balbirishok, which was located about 40 kilometers south of Kovno. My brother Arie, his wife Rebecca, and their 3-year-old daughter, Esther, lived there. Since it was the end of June and I was on summer vacation, my father and I decided to spend some time with my brother and his family. My mother was visiting my older sister, Celia, who had just gotten married and moved with her husband to Vilna, the largest city in Lithuania.
June 22 was a Sunday. What does a 15-year-old boy do on a Sunday morning on his summer vacation? In my case, I went fishing in the nearest river. After about two hours of less than successful fishing, I suddenly heard the sound of distant bombing that didn't exactly fit the pastoral environment around me. I decided to pack up my fishing gear and run home.
We walked four days to get home.
When I got home, it was clear that the war has started. My father decided that we should go back to our home in Kovno as soon as possible. Public transportation was no longer available, so my father and I started walking back. The roads were packed with German armored trucks on their way east, and poor us, were walking slowly, with all our belongings on our backs on the road to Kovno. It took us four days to get home. About a week later, my brother Arie and his wife and daughter arrived in Kovno and joined us.
By the time my brother and his family joined us in Kovno, the city was fully occupied by the Germans. We heard about the massacres that the Lithuanians have undertaken against the Jewish population in the city and the surrounding areas, so we stayed at home and didn't go out at all for a while. We lived on food that we prepared in the house ahead of time.
Within days, the German occupiers had placed posters in public places around the city announcing that the Jewish people have to wear a yellow star on their clothes and that they are not allowed to walk on the sidewalk. Shortly afterwards, there were new posters announcing that the Jews are to leave their homes and move to one of the poorest suburbs of the city, Slobodka, where the Jewish Ghetto was to be established. We had to move before August 1, which gave us only a few weeks to prepare.
Moving into the Ghetto
This is how we found ourselves in the Kovno Ghetto, with a few clothes and a few pieces of furniture that we managed to take from our large house. In the Ghetto, we found ourselves in a tiny flat with two other families, with barbed wire and soldiers guarding us day and night. Our flat in the Ghetto was near the fence, not far from the synagogue and from the major entrance gate.
The synagogue was never used for prayer. The Germans organized classical music concerts there. They didn't have a problem finding musicians and other artists in the Ghetto. So I had the opportunity to listen to classical music of the highest quality right outside my home and I took advantage of this at every opportunity.
The food ration was 200 grams of bread per person per day, and 100 grams of horse meat once in two weeks.
Life in the Ghetto was not easy, to say the least. The food that was distributed to us was meager, 200 grams of bread per person per day, 100 grams of horse meat once in two weeks, and occasionally, a kilogram of potatoes. We starved most of the time and so it is no wonder that the black market flourished. This market was based on provisions smuggled into the Ghetto by those who worked outside the Ghetto during the day. We didn't have any money, so we exchanged gold coins, clothes, household items and anything else that the non-Jews outside the Ghetto were willing to take in exchange for food. Working outside the Ghetto was advantageous despite the harsh conditions and misery associated with it. You had to be up in front of the entrance to the Ghetto at 5 a.m. where the Appel (the counting and organizing into work groups) was taking place. About an hour after the Appel, in freezing cold, the work groups started to leave through the gate, accompanied by soldiers.
We walked slowly through the city on our way to various work places. We walked on the street, with the German soldiers walking on the sidewalk. Every Jewish person had a yellow star on his or her chest and on his or her back. As a matter of principle, Jews were not allowed to walk anywhere but on the street, with the horses. The yellow star had to be worn on one's clothes at all times, and a German was to guard the Jews at all times.
The work places we went to were quite varied. There was hard digging in the airport at Aleksot, and maintenance work for German soldiers around the city. The most sought after places were those where one could have some contact with the local population. Such contact was an opportunity to exchange valuables and clothes for food.
Returning to the Ghetto at night was an ordeal. Again, we would walk slowly in a group, accompanied by German soldiers. This time, however, we would be stopped at the gate to be searched. The Jewish police at the gate would allow a small amount of food for personal use, but anything beyond this was confiscated.
The normal procedure was that just before the gate, one would have to take off his hat, open his bag and raise his hands so the guard could check him. My father had an ingenious idea that allowed him to trick the guard. He would open his coat and raise his arms, holding his hat in one hand. They never found anything on him. After the checkup, he would take half a kilo of butter out of his hat. Half a kilo of butter was worth more than 20 kilos of potatoes on the black market. This would be enough food for us to live on for weeks.
There was another advantage to going out to work. As time went by, we discovered that the Germans took advantage of the fact that some of the Ghetto's inhabitants were out at work to round up people for executions (Aksionnen). Those who were out working were safer and less likely to be seized than those who stayed in the Ghetto during the day.
Building a Hiding Place
Soon enough we realized that it was essential to build a hiding place. We called the hiding place "Maline." When the Germans announced that certain houses were to be evacuated and the inhabitants rounded up for selection -- which would be followed by execution -- it was important to have a hiding place. This is what happened during the great Aksionnen of October 1941, which resulted in half the Ghetto's population beyond Panerio Street being liquidated.
Because of the crowded living conditions, it was important to build the hiding place in total secrecy and to equip it with electricity, a toilet, and enough food for a long stay. How can one do this when there is another family living in the next room? Well, in our small room, we moved the sofa, and underneath we opened a small square hole in the wooden floor, about the width of one's shoulders. From this opening, my father and I started to take dirt out.
But then, how does one get rid of the extra dirt without anyone noticing? We managed to find a vacant cellar nearby and started filling it with dirt. We worked for many nights, very quietly so our neighbors and the soldiers guarding the fence just outside the house would not notice anything. Given that we lived right near the fence, this was quite an achievement.
Our spider hole was equipped with electricity, a toilet, and enough food for a long stay.
After many nights of working on the hiding place (after which we would go to work in the morning as usual), our hiding place was ready and fully equipped. Our plan was to use it not just while the Ghetto was in existence but also for the time when the Germans may decide to liquidate the Ghetto. The idea was to hide until the Russians came.
Actually I prepared a second, alternative hiding place. At the time, I was working with my father on Putvinskio Street. We worked for a German military unit that provided services to other units in the region. My father, who was a master electrician, made me his assistant. This allowed me to work with him and learn the profession from him.
The Germans established a small workshop for him in one of the huts, and this was his kingdom. No one ventured into it. So, we decided to open a hole in the ceiling, and in the gap between the ceiling and the roof, we built a small room from wooden boards. We equipped the room with everything that might be needed for a long stay, including a stove and wood for heating. We made sure that our hiding place had a second, alternative entrance, with a ladder that was always hanging outside in case there was no way of entering the hiding place from inside the workshop. Again, the idea was that this second hiding place could be used if we had to leave the Ghetto, and then we would be able to hide among the non-Jews in the city.
This was not the last hiding place that we built. Later on, when the Russians advanced closer to the city, the Kovno Ghetto became a concentration camp under the management of the German commander, Goeke. This meant that those who worked outside the Ghetto were housed in small camps closer to their work places.
As a result of this, our family was separated. My parents were housed in camps outside the Ghetto, while my brother's family and I were moved to one of the huts inside the Ghetto. All the work that we invested in building our first hiding place came to nothing...
The Germans were already withdrawing from Russia and we had no idea what was to happen. There was an urgent need to build a new hiding place. Since there was a pantry at the entrance to our hut, I decided to make a hole at the top of that pantry that would allow us to get into the gap between the ceiling and the roof. It was impossible to stand in that area, but one could sit or lie down there. I organized a sleeping place there and installed some equipment. It was impossible to get electricity there.
There were rumors that the Germans were withdrawing and that the front with the Russians was getting close. We didn't know what was really happening. Right at the very beginning of the Nazi occupation, the Germans announced that no one was allowed to listen to short wave radio. The whole population had to give up their short wave radios, and, instead, the authorities provided small radios that could only access local, censored channels. Jews were not allowed to have any radios at all. So all the news we heard came from the Lithuanians we met at our work places.
In the Ghetto, the Germans would occasionally search for young people who were not working. The searches were usually carried out at night. When they found such young people, they would take them away and they were never heard from again. So I had no choice but to sleep at night in my hiding place. It wasn't much fun, but there was no other way.
Other than the searches at night, the Germans would also have sudden Aksionnen during the day. One of these was the children's Aksionnen in which they collected all the small children who were still alive in the Ghetto and executed them in the Ninth Fort (an area near the Ghetto where most of the Ghetto's inhabitants were killed during the three years the Ghetto was in existence). So we decided to get Esther, my brother's daughter, who was five years old at the time, into the hiding place during the children's Akstionnen. This saved her life, for then. At the end, when the Ghetto was liquidated, my brother, his wife and their daughter were all killed.
Building My Own Radio
I don't know who invented the transistor, but I invented a radio that worked without batteries or electricity. I had no choice. Lying for hours in the dark without electricity is not much fun. So if you take a regular three-point electrical plug that you put in an electrical socket, install a crystal on top of it and place an electric wire in front of it, and if you also add ear phones and start searching for some radio stations, you can actually hear a local station without using any batteries or electricity.
It was illegal for Jews to listen to the radio, but, then, it was also illegal for Jews to hide. I decided to ignore both. Hearing the news was very important because the rumors were that the front was getting closer. Even though the radio was censored, one could read between the words what was really happening. For example, if the Germans said that "our army has successfully pushed the enemy between Vilna and Minsk," one could gather exactly where the front was.
So here I was, lying in my hiding place for whole nights, enjoying classical music from the Kovno radio and following the progress of the war. When they no longer mentioned Minsk and only talked about "successful battles around Vilna," I knew that the last hour of the Kovno Ghetto was near.
My Miraculous Escape
Life in the Ghetto was actually quiet in the summer of 1944. From time to time we would hear explosions from a distance, but generally, things were very quiet. One day, the Judenrat (Jewish leadership of the Ghetto) announced that all the Ghetto inhabitants were to be transported by riverboats to Germany. We were to take only what we could carry by hand and be ready to leave immediately.
The first group was to leave on Saturday July 8, 1944. I didn't believe the Germans. My logic was that if the front were so close, they wouldn't bother to evacuate us to Germany. I thought their intention was to get the Ghetto population quietly into one of the ancient forts and then kill everyone just as they did in the preceding three years. I was determined to leave the Ghetto with the very first group, and once out of the Ghetto, to try to run away.
I decided not to take anything with me. Who needs to take anything when one is going to his death? I also decided to wear regular work clothes that would not arouse any suspicion, including attaching the yellow star to my clothes with a safety pin rather than with thread, so it would be quick and easy to remove.
I would have one moment to bend down and disappear under the parked vehicle.
So on July 8, 1944, I was at the collection area near the Judenrat building, waiting with the others to leave the Ghetto. I selected my place in the group carefully. I wanted to be five lines before the end of the group at the very right. My plan was as follows: When the soldiers surround the group, the soldiers at the very back would not be able to see me because there are five lines of people behind me. The soldier on the left of the group would not be able to see me because I would be on the right. Only the soldier on the right side would be able to see me because he would be walking next to me. However, if there were a car or a wagon by the side of the road, the soldier on the right would be walking on the sidewalk and would not be able to see the length of the parked vehicle. This would give me a moment or so to bend down and disappear under the parked vehicle.
And, so, when the group left the Ghetto and I saw a wagon on the side of the road, with pieces of furniture on it and a ladder next to it, I decided this was it: I either do it and succeed, or this would be my end.
Exactly as planned, I took off the yellow star, put on a hat that I had in my pocket, pulled out a sandwich that was in my pocket with the hat, climbed the ladder that was leaning against the wagon and started eating the sandwich.
The group walked around the wagon and the soldier, who did, indeed, walk on the sidewalk, saw a pastoral picture, a wagon full of furniture, a man, who was holding the reins of the horse, and his young assistant (me), sitting on the ladder and eating a sandwich. To reinforce the picture, I started talking to the man in Lithuanian. He didn't respond. He saw everything but remained quiet and continued to look ahead as if he didn't notice what was happening right under his nose.
Once the group was away, I went on the sidewalk, put my sandwich inside my hat and put everything back in my pocket. I knew I would need the food, as I had no idea where my next meal would come from.
And yet, despite this uncertainty, I was overwhelmed with the relative freedom that I suddenly had. At the same time, I was also curious to know where they were taking the group. So I decided to follow them from a safe distance, and on the sidewalk, like a free man. I saw them crossing the Slobodka bridge and advancing toward the Aleksot bridge. Just before that bridge, they turned left toward the river Niemen. I was relieved because up the river Niemen there was a small port that had riverboats leaving from it to the Baltic Sea and from there to Germany. This time, it seems, the Germans did not lie.
I turned around and went back to where I came from. When I reached Panerio Street, where the wagon was, I couldn't find it. It disappeared and so did the man on it. I decided to return to the Ghetto gate. I deliberately walked close to the Ghetto fence. I wanted the Jewish policemen, who knew me, to see me and let my family know that they saw me outside the Ghetto as a free man. So I continued to walk near the fence for a while, until the fence ended.
Helping on the Farm
Now, what does an 18-year-old boy do who suddenly won a new life and wants to celebrate? In my case, I decided to go down to the river Vilia. I took off my clothes and jumped into the river for a long and very enjoyable swim. I have never enjoyed a swim as much as I did then, and even though I still didn't know what was ahead of me, at that moment, I was intoxicated with my new-found freedom.
After the swim, I put my clothes back on, went back on the road, up a hill and under the shade of a tree. There I finished my sandwich and started to plan my future.
In Kovno, during the month of July, the sun sets at around 10:00 or 11:00 at night, and rises at about 3:00 in the morning. So I had just a bit of time to sleep and plan my next steps. It was clear that I should not stay in the city. It was much better for me to start walking toward the front instead of waiting for it to get to me. This meant that I had to go east toward the city of Vilna.
I knew that I had to be careful. I had to use side roads and avoid any major roads where either the German or the Russian army might be moving. The countryside was best. And so, on my very first day out of the Ghetto, I managed to walk on side roads for at least 30 kilometers. By night, I reached Jonava. I stayed in this small town for just one night, and on the next day, continued my roundabout journey east.
By night, having reached what seemed like a desert that I didn't even know existed in Lithuania, I decided to try my luck with a farmer. I offered my services as a farm hand, telling him that I knew my way around the farm chores. I assumed that in summer there is always need for extra help. I was successful. He took me in and offered me some food in exchange for helping on his farm.
I wasn't worried that he would turn me in to the German authorities, because I didn't look Jewish and my language skills were impeccable. After three days of work, the farmer came home sad, saying that just across the hill, he saw a convoy of Russian armored trucks. I told him that I wanted to see it with my own eyes. It was true. The trucks were, indeed, Russian, and I was truly a free man for the first time in three years.
I went back to the farmer and told him my story. He was overwhelmed and told me that I did, indeed, look too thin and should not continue to work. He asked that I stay with him just a bit longer until I got better. I was happy to oblige. As it happened, he was right. It was another month before the Russians took over Kovno, and by that time I was indeed much better and ready to take on the rest of my adventures.
What is success? Well, at the beginning, there is an idea and this idea comes from God. To make it successful, one needs to start working on it. One needs to do it immediately, with determination and courage. In my case, the idea was to escape at the very last moment. I planned my escape carefully and executed it exactly as planned.
Later I learnt that another man from my group tried to escape and was killed right then and there on the bank of the Niemen River.
My parents survived the concentration camps and lived a long life in Israel.
In the Ghetto we used to cheer ourselves up by saying "we will survive them," but most of us did not survive. I was lucky. In 1948 I was able to go to Israel, the land of my dreams, and I fought in all the wars that followed Israel's 1948 War of Independence. In 1955, I was able to find my parents and bring them from the Soviet Union to Israel. They survived the concentration camps in Stutthof and Dachau and lived a long life in Israel. I am fortunate to have four wonderful children and seven grandchildren, too. I am now waiting for my very first great-grandchild to be born one of these days.
But my brother, Arie, was not so lucky. He and his family, as well as, my sister, Celia, and her family, and several other close relatives died in the Ghetto and were not buried according to the Jewish law. Let this story of mine be their gravestone and may God avenge their blood.
In the Morning Prayer we say, "How happy we are, and how good our fortune, and how beautiful our destiny. We are happy that we are able to pray to You, God, every morning and every night." We conclude our prayer by saying, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." These words are not only in our daily prayer, but also the words that each Jew utters when he gives his soul back to his Creator.
I am happy that I was born a Jew and lived as a Jew. And when my time comes, I will die as a Jew, with the land of my forefathers under me. Despite everything that we have been through, we, the Jewish people, will live forever!
We regret to inform you about the passing of Ephraim Romm, on Friday Nov. 11, 2011. May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.