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Oral History with Avraham Tory

Avraham Tory describes Dr. Moses Brauns struggles to protect his patients from contagious diseases—and German authorities—in the Kovno ghetto.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The German military occupied Kovno (present-day Kaunas, Lithuania) days after the German invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941. German forces and their Lithuanian helpers systematically murdered thousands of Jews in the months following the invasion, and German authorities forced nearly 30,000 Jews into a sealed ghetto in a small section of the city without running water or adequate food rations.1 

Although the Germans had created the perfect conditions for an outbreak of typhus by concentrating thousands of malnourished people in unsanitary surroundings, Jewish doctors in the ghetto managed to prevent an epidemic.2 In the featured video testimony, Kovno ghetto survivor Avraham Tory describes Dr. Moses Brauns’ struggles to protect his patients from contagious diseases—and German authorities.3 

A noted epidemiologist, Brauns directed the Kovno ghetto’s sanitation program and its hospital for contagious diseases. Early on the morning of October 4, 1941, German police and Lithuanian auxiliary forces—who had sealed off that section of the ghetto—blocked Brauns from reaching the hospital. They locked all of the patients and medical personnel inside the building, boarded its doors, and set the hospital aflame. Fire and smoke could be seen throughout the city all day and night as it burned to the ground with its occupants inside.4

After the destruction of the contagious disease hospital, Brauns decided that all future infectious diseases must be hidden from German and Lithuanian guards and inspectors. As one translated passage from Tory’s ghetto diary explains, "We are not allowed to be sick. We must be healthy...If one is sick with typhoid or typhus, the Germans would use it to justify wiping out an entire district or maybe even the whole ghetto."5 Brauns managed to find isolated places in the overcrowded ghetto to treat contagious patients quietly, and he organized rigorous sanitation measures enforced by the Jewish ghetto police. 

Although he secretly treated dozens of cases of typhus, Brauns' efforts prevented a major epidemic from occurring in the Kovno ghetto. In this video testimony, Tory describes the challenges of Brauns' dual role as a doctor fighting disease and a ghetto representative concealing sick patients from German authorities.

For more on the Kovno ghetto, see Dennis B. Klein, ed., Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1997); Sara Ginaite-Rubinson, Resistance and Survival: The Jewish Community in Kaunas, 1941-1944 (Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 2005); and Avraham Tory, Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

Typhus is a devastating epidemic disease that is spread through lice. During World War II, typhus threatened all of the countries involved. Nazi propaganda falsely blamed Jews for typhus and attempted to equate Jews with lice, but Nazi policies actually created the perfect conditions for outbreaks of the disease during the Holocaust by forcing people into overcrowded spaces with insufficient food or hygienic arrangements. For more on typhus and the Holocaust, see Naomi Baumslag, "Typhus: War, Lice, and Disinfection," Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation, and Typhus (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005): 1–32.

Tory's accounts reflect his unique perspective as the former secretary of the ghetto council (Ältestenrat). He experienced events differently than most residents of the Kovno ghetto, and his membership in the administration of the ghetto raises questions of subjectivity.

For more on the destruction of the Kovno ghetto's contagious disease hospital, see Jack Brauns, "Medicine in the Kovno Ghetto," in Jewish Medical Resistance in the Holocaust, edited by Michael A. Grodin (New York: Berghahn Books, 2014), 160–3; and Avraham Tory, Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 39-43.

Tory expanded other entries of the original Yiddish version of the diary after the war, but it is not always clear what was altered in the different published versions. The quote above is from Tory's original Yiddish entry of February 25, 1943, as it appears translated into English in Dennis B. Klein, ed., Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1997), 180.

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T: Yes. Uh...I mentioned in many occasions, the important role that...uh...your father, Dr. Moses Brauns, played in the ghetto from its very beginning because...uh...30,000 Jews were ordered to move in the small area of the suburb of Slobodka, which was inhabited about 8 thousand normally, and now 30 thousand Jews had be squeezed in an un...impossible density, and this created the first...the first big problem of contagious diseases because Slobodka was a very famous...uh...a very famous suburb from the point of view of big scholars were world famous. But it was one of the most neglected suburbs. There was sewage, no water, not any of the military installations and that's why there was no, for instances, toilets. There was not such houses....houses were small ones. story... story houses of wooden. There were all of Slobodka, were approximately two or three big...uh...houses of...of...three story houses with bricks. Others were mostly wooden of...of one story or two stories. So this in itself brought about it that many Jews were...fled from Kovno to the ghetto, didn't find there housing. And the housing department was...was...uh...was in...was not able to ...locate houses. When I talk about houses, we speak about a room. We speak about a part of a room, a dwelling. And this too was there were so many thousands were in the streets under the sky. And others...we used to... we used to house them the...the roofless we used to house them in previous synagogues or Yeshivites but they were packed to capacity and you to a former school as I did with the head of the department. At that time , we were looking for a place where we could install a hospital, a general hospital. So not only in the rooms, the family sleep but only in the staircase. Only in the...the toilets. In the... in the upper floor where it was only for storage, there also lived people. And this created immediately danger for contagious diseases. The...the Lithuanian sanitary department of Kovno was searching where they were spying in the ghetto just to look and pick up one case of a contagious diseases. It was typhus or something we've had. And there were such, because it was impossible, but also in this we called them reservats where hundreds of families lived in one place, a formal Shivot or formal synagogue. And when...the...happened such a thing, there was no possibility isolate the sick one, so Doctor Brauns was the one who had two tasks in one time. First of all, to help give medical care to the contagious sick person. Second to isolate him from the rest of the people in the reservat, which was full packed, and where to put him...put him at a bed that there was no such a bed even on the...on the ground, but to isolate him from the others. Second, he was the one who served as address for those Lithuanians, municipal spies I say, medical spies or sanitary spies who came to Dr. Brauns, and they asked him how the situation...where are your contagious diseases. So he said, "We don't have any." And he was duty bound as head of the...of the...the Department for Contagious Diseases to report to the municipality in Kovno, to the health department of Kovno, and they would have come. In addition German Police, the Gestapo, on their own initiative, used to come to the ghetto and search. On the spot they used to go into the reservot. They used to go used to go in the...

B: The houses? 

T: Private dwellings. Houses. Dwellings. Corridors. Court yards. They were packed. But Dr. Brauns used to take out of such places the diseases and found some other places in a a small hut, and it was much like as if it is just a hut, but inside the court yard, he used to...he built with them, and this separated them from the others. Always the night, he was the buffer, I could say to...he was to rebuff the attacks of the Germans,mof the Lithuanians, not less than the Germans from spying...from spying where the contagious ill people are. This was...this was supposed to be the motive to liquidate all the ghetto because if there is a contagious diseases in the ghetto, we wind on the other side of the...of the...of the part of the barbed wire, there was a Lithuanian population, also in the very same small suburb. So they...excuse that they would be a danger to the Lithuanian population. They would even be a danger for the German soldiers passing by. And he stood firm. First of all it was a very big morale responsibility to cure. There were excellent physicians in the ghetto. Surgery...and in out this is and out this is, and whatever not a very specialist in medicine. But not one of them was ready to take over the risk and deal with, cure this diseases of typhus and so on. The only who took it over and did hisself the very great, not only respect, but the trust of the Jewish Committee, the Council. Dr. Elkes, the head of the Jewish Council. We're great friends. They wrote for long years. It was a long standing, long year standing...uh...uh...friendship. And that's why they trusted him fully. He was the...the man, the doctor who was the only one whom the Jewish Council relied upon to protect the ghetto inmates from first of all contagious diseases themselves a danger, and for the other one to stand courageous...courageous and steady right reject and buff back all these questions, sometimes cynical questions, sometimes provocative questions, some provocative unexpected visits. And when Dr. Brauns was...went in the ghetto and he met on...on the streets of this and he recognized...and he recognized the Lithuanian physicians who came and they knew what they came for. And immediately just interfered, they told them, "Please, where are you. What are you doing? Please come. You ought to see my hospital. Please and so on." But he knew them. They wanted sometimes to a avoid meeting with him, and to reach exactly...uh...the...the...uh...the itself, the sick man who was sick with typhus. And this is a task that will be written always in the annals of the three years of the Kovno Ghetto. I don't know of any other such person, physician, who took upon himself the daily risk of life, his own life, in fight from...from both parts. This, you know, the..uh...the Czars emblem was a two...two heads...uh...two heads of a...of a...

B: Eagle.

T: Eagle. Two of them. And Dr. Brauns, I could say he had...he had two parts of Dr. Brauns. One part they wrote it to his fellow inmates in the ghetto. Protect them from the very diseases. He's a doctor, a physician. And on the part, the second Dr. Brauns who stood on the outlook everyday against the Germans, spies, against the warnings, the threats that they used to say Dr. Brauns, "You are the person who are responsible to report to us and if you will not report you bear responsibility yourself." And you know what it means responsibility? This means just death. No compromise. And I'm not exaggerating. 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
RG Number 50.030.0316
Date of Interview
September 7, 1991
Duration 00:11:36
Time Selection 6:37–18:13
Avraham Tory
Jack Brauns
Kaunas, Lithuania
Interview Type Interview
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