The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Trial of Adolf Eichmann
Session 27
(Part 7 of 10)

Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann trial, holocaust, Jewish holocaust
Presiding Judge: Was he a Russian?

Witness Kovner: Yes. A Russian with the rank of general. When I asked "Why?" he replied that his intelligence officer complained that when Nazis fell into the hands of our partisans, the Jews, they knew what awaited them and it was impossible to get any word out of them in an interrogation. I wanted to reply to him and tell him that when such men fell into our hands - our men didn't greet them with cries of "Hurrah," but with each blow our comrades shouted: "For mein Estherle, for mein Rochele, for mein Moishele" (on account of my Esther, my Rachel, my Moshe). I wanted to tell him about my family and about the 60,000 Jews of Vilna and about millions. Instead of that I told him of my recollection of the baby being knocked against the wall. I remember that this Soviet officer's eyes filled with tears and he said: "Bog s'vami, rebiata" God be with you, boys, I am not in a position to pass judgment on you."

The memory of that baby on that night revealed to me some of the horror, but the atrocity inherent in the system still eluded me and many others. It was revealed only many days later, and it required many attempts on our part to believe it - and possibly this was one of the most tragic aspects - and to arrive at a real assessment of what the horror of the system was.

Attorney General: What was the horror of the system?

Witness Kovner: Let us go back to that day. On the following morning, this hypocritical announcement was published to the effect that soldiers had been fired upon. But what happened that night? On that night about 10,000 men, women and children were taken to Ponar to be put to death in order to vacate the area which had been planned in advance for the ghetto. I remember that, in 1944, in July, when we returned to Vilna and tried to find documents at the Gestapo, in the office of the District Commander, I found a document signed by the same Schweinberger which was a kind of "situation report" - "Lagebericht" they called it, which had been sent to the "SS und Polizei-Fuehrer, Ostland ,"in which he reported that on 1 September the area intended as a ghetto for the Jews of Vilna had been made ready; all preparations had been completed for the setting up of the ghetto. In this way the ground was prepared.

Presiding Judge: What happened to this report?

Witness Kovner: This report is kept in the archives of the Jewish Museum in Vilna.

Attorney General: Do you remember the name of the department that was on this report? This matter is most important, and you should only tell us if you positively remember it.

A. I don't remember it positively. But I believe that I saw, for the first time, this abbreviation of IVB4 - I cannot say for certain, but years afterwards when I learned what it was, I remembered as in a flash of lightening what it referred to. I cannot assert this positively, but it was a "position report" to the effect that the area had been readied. And it had been prepared by means of a provocation, as if Germans had been fired upon.

In the ghetto this thing was called "the night of the provocation." It was something which had been planned in advance - how to prepare an area for a ghetto. This was just a small aspect of the system that became apparent in the course of time.

Judge Halevi: Did you see this "position report?"

Witness Kovner: I had it in my own hand. In 1944 I was one of the founders of this museum.

Presiding Judge: There ought to be many more documents there.

Attorney General: Many thousands. We applied to the Soviet Union and requested authority to obtain documents. To my regret, we received no response.

Judge Halevi: Until now?

Attorney General: Until now. No reply was received to the application of the Government of Israel.

Witness Kovner: Perhaps I may be permitted, if we are talking about the system, to relate something of a particular personal experience on that night?

Presiding Judge: Please.

Witness Kovner: With the coming of dawn, when I was looking for a way of escape from the place, I saw the following picture before my eyes. In the streets which were bereft of Jews, the entire roadway was full with their abandoned belongings. Arrayed across the exit of the street stood a column of armed Lithuanians. Behind them and at their side, was a mass of men and mainly women from amongst the neighbours who had gathered from the vicinity, and mainly from the city's suburbs, with the scent of booty in their nostrils at the possibility of helping themselves to ownerless property.

On the side, elegant in their uniforms and their jackboots stood the Germans. Later on, I realized that more than the horror of the brick walls and the gate of the ghetto that confronted us was the horror of these three walls of wickedness. They succeeded in setting up between the murderers and us these walls, their armed collaborators and the mass of the people, incited city-dwellers and villagers who acted either intentionally, out of anti-Semitic incentive or because we were beyond the law and they could possess themselves of property left ownerless, in the event they became accomplices to the crime; and behind all this were those who planned it. To pierce these three walls was much more terrible than to break through the brick fence. How they, the architects of murder, managed to plan such an architectural structure of evil - it is not for me to explain.

Q. Even if the Jews managed to escape, to break through the walls, was the forest a protection for them?

A. Does the honourable Attorney General regard it as essential at this stage to ask me this?

Q. Yes. Please answer, since you spoke of...

A. Yes and no. The forest gave cover. The forests were large, huge, never-ending woods. In order, for example, to get from our ghetto to the forest which seemed to us to be a suitable base for partisan operations, we had to get away from the ghetto, in other words, to break out of the ghetto, to cross an urban and rural area held by the occupiers, collaborators and the general population, mostly hostile and intimidated, and to cross 200 kilometres until we reached the forest. We had to traverse 200 kilometres to reach the first forest, the forests of Narocz.

And when we arrived at the forest, it was indeed a hiding place. It could have provided cover. But when we tried to bring to safety, to that place, those who needed first of all to be rescued, that is to say not ourselves but those who were without protection and without arms - this was one of the most tragic episodes, namely that for those who were most in need of protection, for them the forest could not afford a protection.

Attorney General: [Handing him a written document] What is this, Mr. Kovner?

Witness Kovner: This is an original letter sent to the partisan commander, Markov, and the partisan commander Yurdis, Kom. Brig., the Brigade Commander. The letter is written in Russian - I shall read it in Hebrew:

"I am sending you an additional group of Jewish fighters from the organization of partisans of Ghetto N [in order not to reveal which ghetto] - F.P.O. [09Fareinikte Partizanen Organizatzie (United Partisans Organization - the name of the Jewish Fighting Organization of Vilna)] to the brigade that has been set up, the partisan brigade "Nekome" [Vengeance].

The commander of the detachment is Ziss [this is an abbreviation of the name of one of our commanders, Ziskowitz]; his deputy is Raff. Their strength is 32 [meaning 32 fighters]. The equipment - personal equipment robbed from the Germans. Their character: capable of fighting, loyal partisans. We are now engaged in the final days of the armed resistance in the ghetto. With battle greetings, Signed Uri, Commander. 10.9.43."

This was a letter which I myself sent. Uri was my underground name. I supplied it to the detachments that set out.

Presiding Judge: This will be T/280. Do you have a Hebrew translation?

Witness Kovner: No. I translated it into Hebrew on the spot.

Attorney General: Did you have to indicate that they were coming with arms? And if you had sent them without arms, what would have happened?

Witness Kovner: Instead of giving you a hypothetical reply, I shall answer with what happened.

Q. What happened when you sent them without arms?

A. Well, it depended. There was no single fate. There were some whom we were unable to send only with arms. We didn't have so many arms.

Presiding Judge: Is this the letter you wrote? How did this letter come back into your possession?

Witness Kovner: This is the letter they kept in their possession, since they didn't reach Markov, the brigade commander.

Q. And they returned it to you?

A. Yes, they returned it.

Judge Halevi: Your men?

Witness Kovner: Yes. This is taken from the archives of the command of the Jewish fighting force.

Attorney General: Generally speaking, were the Jews admitted into the partisans forces when they arrived at the forest without arms in their possession?

Witness Kovner: Yes, they were accepted.

Q. Why did you point out here that they were armed?

A. They were accepted. But here, in this case, that same Markov, with whom I was in contact, requested us to send the young people out into the forest. We repeatedly explained to him, both to him and to the higher command, that our purpose was to give a fighting answer to the murder inside the ghetto, for the sake of our honour, for the sake of the community amongst whom we were living. We, the youth, or a minority of it, were still able to save our lives. But we were not seeking to save our lives.

We were living as integral part of this people, including our mothers, our sisters and our brothers, and we were seeking a way to save them or their honour. To remove the few arms and the few young people that were there inside the ghetto and to abandon everybody else, this we wanted to do only when the last hour came. He ordered us to come only with arms. We did the opposite. We sent many without arms with an armed escort.

Their fate varied. Until the hard times came in the forests of the partisans, they found shelter. "Family Camps" they were called. There were very many there, thousands and tens of thousands. The fighting partisans supplied them with food, attended to them, protected them. But then hard times came to the forests.

After the Germans had managed to assemble large forces, they mounted a search in the forests. In a tragic period such as this, when we partisans were compelled to retreat from one forest to another, the bitterest fate overtook these unarmed family camps.

Judgde Halevi: At the hands of the Germans or of whom?

Witness Kovner: At the hands of the Germans. The partisans, the fighters wanted to rid themselves of this burden. There were also exceptional places where they did everything they could possibly do for the sake of helping the family camps as well.

Presiding Judge: Mr. Hausner, you must guide the witness.

Attorney General: Yes, I shall guide him. Mr. Kovner, you have shown me a number of documents. Perhaps you would kindly explain to us what these documents are. I shall, through you, submit them all. Two of those you produced to us I have submitted with the aid of the previous witness, Dr. Dworzecki [Points to some documents] What are these documents?

Witness Kovner: These are a few of the many papers with which they furnished the Jews at various periods, in order to disguise the system of extermination. This is the first "Passierschein" (Movement Pass) without which it was impossible to walk in streets. Afterwards one needed - and this is not here - a certificate like this with a photograph, and anyone who possessed one without a photograph, - was taken away.

Presiding Judge: Was this a refusal to give a certificate?

Witness Kovner: A refusal form.

Q. This document is numbered T/281.

A. [Holding a certificate in his hand] This is the only certificate which enabled the Jews to work. The police ordered the Judenrat and the Jewish police to give certificates such as these to persons in whom they were interested for work. This deceived many, as if their fate depended upon one commander or another, on this unit or another.

Presiding Judge: This certificate has been marked T/282.

Witness Kovner: [Holding a certificate in his hand] This certificate - some documents which were here are missing and not all of those were in this file.

Q. What file is this?

A. In the Vilna Ghetto we buried the main archives of the Jewish fighting force. When we returned we found only a portion thereof. In various ways our partisans brought this in, and part of it was handed to me. It was stored in the archives at Merhavia.

Attorney General: And these documents belong to the archives?

Witness Kovner: These documents which I took from the archives of Hashomer Hatzair at Merhavia, most, if not all of them are to be found on microfilm at Yad Vashem. This was the certificate which many believed to be a life certificate.

Presiding Judge: This certificate has been marked T/283.

Witness Kovner: [Holding a certificate in his hand] This is a document of the head tax: even to death they did not go without a tax.

Presiding Judge: This document has been marked T/284.

Witness Kovner: [Holding a certificate in his hand] This is one of many certificates.

Attorney General: Perhaps you would read this certificate aloud to the Court - it is not long. It discusses a maximum sum. How much was a Jew permitted to possess in property?

Witness Kovner: Thirty marks. And if anyone should be found to be holding more - his punishment was death.

Presiding Judge: Is this a copy of something?

Witness Kovner: No, this was posted on the walls. We took this off the walls, at the time, in the ghetto.

Presiding Judge: The notice by the Head of the Ghetto is numbered T/285.

Witness Kovner: [Holding a certificate in his hand] This is a less important certificate, to the effect that even in the ghetto it was permitted to move around until certain hours only by virtue of a certificate - the "Passierschein."

Presiding Judge: This movement certificate is marked T/286.

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