Introduction to Rescue in Lithuania


Kovno (Russian)/Kaunas (German)/Kowno (Polish) was occupied by Germany during World War I.  From 1920 to 1939, Kaunas became the capitol of the independent republic of Lithuania. 

When Kaunas became the capitol of an independent Lithuania, the city became increasingly important for the Jewish community.  A census conducted in 1933 indicated there were 38,000 Jews living in Kaunas, making up 33% of the total population of the city.  There were 81 Jewish banks in Kaunas by 1930.  Jewish culture, law, economy and learning in Lithuania was centered both in Kaunas and in Vilnius.  There were five Jewish daily newspapers in Kaunas.

From June 1940 to June 1941, Kaunas was under Soviet occupation and rule.  During this period, thousands of Polish Jews flooded into Lithuania for protection.  The local Jewish community helped maintain thousands of these refugees.

Foreign governments were able to maintain embassies and consulates in Kaunas.  The consulates of Japan, the Netherlands, and England were able to provide exit visas to thousands of Polish refugees.  Under the Stalinist government, Lithuanian Jews were now considered to hold Soviet citizenship, and were not able to leave the country. 

In the summer of 1940, Yeshiva students from Mir, Poland, approached the Japanese consulate, under Chiune Sugihara, and the Dutch consulate, under Jan Zwartendijk, for exit visas.  One of these students was Nathan Gutwirth.  Both Sugihara and Zwartendijk agreed to stamp visas for hundreds of Polish Jews, enabling them to leave the country.  A Russian consular official by the name of Poliakov also provided official stamps to allow Polish Jews to pass through the Soviet Union.  Thomas Preston, a British diplomat, provided visas to several hundred Polish Jews.

From June 1941 to July 1944, Kaunas was occupied by the Nazis. 

In June 1941, after the Soviets had departed the city, Lithuanian fascists went on a rampage, killing many Jews. 



Survival of Jews in Lithuania


Jews of Lithuania – 15-17% (25,000-28,000 survived, 140,000-143,000 lost)[1]. Pre-deportation Jewish population was 168,000. 891 Lithuanians have been honored for rescuing Jews.[2]





[1] Bauer & Rozett, in Gutman, 1990, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, s.v. “Estimated Losses in the Holocaust,” p. 1799; Hilberg, 1985, p. 1220

[2] Bender & Weiss, 2011, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous among the Nations: Europe (Part II).



Updated November 4, 2017