Kovno (Kaunas) was Lithuania’s capital in the interwar period (1920-1939). The Jewish community numbered 35,000-40,000 – about a fourth of the city’s population – with tens of Jewish institutions, 40 synagogues, institutions of higher Jewish learning, especially the worldwide famous Slobodka Yeshiva, Yiddish and Hebrew schools, a Jewish hospital, Zionist organizations.
In June 1940 the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania and established a communist regime. A year later, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and two days later, on 24 June 1941, Kovno was occupied by German forces. Lithuanian nationals welcomed the German occupiers, seeing them as liberators from Soviet occupation. Local paramilitary groups were permeated with anti-Semitism, claiming among others that the Jews had been behind the Soviet repression of their country. Thus even before the Germans entered the city, Lithuanian mobs began to kill Jews. This was followed in the beginning of July by systematic killing by the Einsatzgruppen (the mobile killing units) and their Lithuanian auxiliaries. A ghetto was established in August, but over the next weeks the killing continued. On 29 October 1941 another 9,200 Jews were killed. A relative quiet reigned in Kovno until March 1943, when 1,800 babies, small children and old people were dragged out of their homes and killed in what became known as “the Children’s Aktion”. Some other Jews were deported to camps in Estonia. By that time Lithuanian enthusiasm for collaboration with Germany subsided, but hostility towards Jews and denunciation persisted.
In July 1944, with the advance of the Red Army, the ghetto was liquidated. The Jews were taken to the concentration camps of Dachau and Stutthof. As many as 2,000 Jews died in the ghetto while trying to hide from the perpetrators. The Soviet Army liberated Kovno on 1 August 1944. Of what had once been a bustling community only 2,000 Jews had survived.