June 2, 2018

Veliucionys

Mass grave for 1,159 Jews killed near Veliucionys, Lithuania, on 22 September 1941
28 May 2018

In the small village of Veliucionys, Lithuania there lies a piece of history that is hidden away deep in a forest. Down a dirt path, over a quarry, through swarms of mosquitos and thick bushes one might come across a single stone marker commemorating the murder of over 1,159 Jews–a stone marker that reads in Yiddish and Lithuanian “Here, on September 22nd, 1941, Hitler’s henchmen and their local helpers murdered 1,159 Jews.” Although brief and to the point, these words only skim the surface of the horrific events that occurred that September. After doing some research I found that no one could really tell us exactly what occurred considering most research into mass grave sites are based off of eyewitness testimony and the memory of those who were present–a resource that is often unreliable or unavailable. However, taking the testimony of the residents of Veliucionys with a grain of salt, we can piece together a general outline of the events that occurred on September 22nd. About a week before the murder, Jews from neighboring towns such as Naujoji Vilnia, Rudamina, Sumsk, and many others were arrested and brought to a manor in Veliucionys. They were held in this manor until the perpetrators brought these people to a pit about 100 meters deep into the forest and began to shoot. The pit was loosely filled in after the atrocity was over, neglected for many years, and eventually had to be refilled in by local residents once they realized the ground was caving in and the smell had become too unbearable. 

There’s something quite different from learning in a classroom about the hundreds of mass gravesites that exist in Eastern Europe and visiting one for real. Trudging through the dense forest without even an inkling of a path in search of one single memorial somewhere in the forest opened my eyes to the reality of what happened those dark days in September 1941. Those victims were led blindly deep into that forest, not knowing where they were headed, no path to guide them, hiking the difficult path to their unknowing deaths. In addition to this, I found it easier to contextualize the arbitrary locations of these gravesites, and therefore understand why many of them around Eastern Europe have been neglected. Looking at Veliucionys in particular, it still amazes me that this site was ever discovered, knowing how deep into the forest it was located. But then again, although a large portion of Holocaust victims died in mass shootings similar to the one that occurred in Veliucionys, many of these mass gravesites have yet to be discovered, which in my opinion, only highlights the importance of Holocaust research. Without organizations like Yahad–In Unum or people like our tour guide (who does research for the Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania) who dedicate their time to investigating where these sites are and what happened, we could very well forget or never even know about these important times in history and the innocent people who lost their live. One thought that stuck with me after visiting the site was that the goal of Nazi perpetrators was to eradicate the memory of the Jewish population. So making an effort to visit these mass gravesites–some of which are rarely visited by anyone–is just one way we can and should preserve the memory of those who lost their lives. 

Group 1: Katie Hayes, Madeline Alburtus, Shayna Finkelstein, Ryan Nordheimer (Author: Katie Hayes)