Hero of Kovno
To the Editor:
. . . No one can deny that the stories of the Jewish Ghetto leaders presented by Philip Friedman (“Two ‘Saviors’ Who Failed,” December 1958) and earlier by Solomon Bloom (“Dictator of the Lodz Ghetto,” February 1949) make vivid reading. However, from the historical point of view this selection of personalities appears too one-sided, tending to create a distorted picture in the eyes of the general reader. . . .
Allow me to present on the other side one of those Jewish leaders who was selected by autonomous processes of community organization rather than by outside (German) authorities, a man of high moral stature and deep sense of historical responsibility—Dr. Elchanan Elkes, Chairman of the Ghetto Council of Kovno. . . .
Dr. Elkes was selected at a meeting held in July 1941. About fifty Jewish civic leaders gathered for this tragic “civil function.” One of the participants has described it in his memoirs (Last Extermination, by Jacob Goldberg, Munich, 1948):
When the proposal was put forward to elect Dr. Elkes president of the Ghetto Council, he declined. . . . Then Rabbi Schmukler . . . arose and delivered a speech. . . . It was a tragic speech, delivered by a fervent Jew at a moment of fateful responsibility. He cried out: ‘The Germans say they need an Oberjude, but for all of us Dr. Elkes will be the Rosh-Hakahal in the greatest sense of Jewish tradition, and when the time comes it will be he who will lead us to Eretz Yisroel.’
Rabbi Schmukler’s speech left a powerful impression . . . after it no other candidate could even be considered. Deeply moved, Dr. Elkes said no more.
It goes without saying that Dr. Elkes was not able to stem the avalanche of Nazi extermination or to change the historic fate of the Kovno Jewish community. The history of the Kovno ghetto was as full of suffering and blood, of heroism and treachery, as the history of other ghettos. However, from the day of his election until his voluntary death at Dachau he carried the burden of his position with noble dignity and moral responsibility.
In my humble opinion it behooves us, above all, to preserve for generations to come the noble images of men like Elkes. . . .
New York City