Violinists perform in the Kovno ghetto orchestra.
Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives (Photo #81070)
Among those pictured are: Alexander (Shmaya) Stupel (front row, third from the right), a well-known German-Jewish violinist, and his brother Boris, standing behind the violinists. Pictured in the front right is Maya Gladshtein (later Kapit).
Boris Stupel survived Dachau and later immigrated to Australia. His brother, Alexander, perished in Dachau. Maya Gladshtein also survived and immigrated to Israel.
Following the German occupation of Kaunas, many of the city’s leading musicians, were forced to move to the Jewish ghetto. Most brought their musical instruments with them. However, on August 18, 1941, soon after the sealing of the ghetto, the Germans held a special “Intellectuals Action” which resulted in the murder of 534 of the most educated men in the ghetto. Afterwards, most musicians were afraid to publicly declare themselves as professionals. The Jewish council decided the best way to protect these musicians was to make them policemen and issue them uniforms. During the summer of 1942, when the killing actions had stopped and the ghetto was in the midst of its “Quiet Period,” the council felt it was safe to ask permission for the ghetto’s musicians to regroup into an orchestra. The orchestra consisted of 35 instrumentalists and five vocalists led by the noted conductor Michael Leo Hofmekler and the concertmaster Alexander Stupel. Performances were held bi-weekly, and a total of 80 concerts were given during the ghetto’s history. Performances were given in the ghetto’s Police House, the former building of the Slobodka Yeshiva. They were coordinated by the ghetto’s director of education and culture, the noted linguist Chaim Nachman Shapiro (who was also the son of Kovno’s chief rabbi). Though the first concert, which began with a moment of silence followed by “Kol Nidre” (the opening hymn of the Yom Kippur service), featured only serious music, many in the ghetto felt it was unseemly to hold concerts in a place of mourning. They considered these concerts to be solely for the ghetto elite and a desecration of the yeshiva. However, despite these criticisms, most felt that the concerts served a useful purpose in raising the level of morale in the ghetto. Ironically, though the musicians were initially made policemen as a form of protection, during the “Police Action” of March 27, 1944, only the musicians were spared transfer to the Ninth Fort.