May 31, 2018

Vilnius - Paneriai

A pit that was used for mass shootings in Paneriai.
28 May 2018

On the 31st of December 1941, Abba Kovner, who later became the head of the FPO (United Partisan Organization), attempted to rally the Vilnius Ghetto population around armed resistance against Nazi perpetrators 

by revealing the extent of the Nazis' plan and actions to make Vilnius, Lithuania and all of Europe “Judenfrei”. He was aware that the Vilna Jews were being taken, often forcefully and deceptively, to a now infamous place in Holocaust memory: Ponar (Yiddish)/ Ponary (Polish)/ Paneriai (Lithuanian), where they were being massacred by Einsatzgruppen squads and local collaborators, including the Ypatingasis būrys. In this haunting manifesto, Kovner pleaded to the ghetto residents: “All roads of the ghetto lead to Ponary, and Ponary means death...Resist, resist, to our last breath.”

On Monday, May 27th, our class walked the paths that tens of thousands of people took to their deaths. Those taken to Paneriai were mostly Jews from Lithuania and surrounding communities, but also Soviet Prisoners of War, Polish intellectuals, priests and resistance, Roma, and locals who resisted German occupation. Our class walked the woods of Ponar to contemplate and attempt to understand a place of mass murder with little remaining evidence and few witnesses, Paneriai’s role in Holocaust memory and how it is being rediscovered and memorialized.

When the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Vilnius on the 19th of September 1939, Paneriai, which was then a popular recreational spot 10 km south of Vilnius, was selected as an aviation-fuel storage facility. The Soviets began to dig large pits; however, on the 24th of June 1941 Nazi troops occupied Vilnius as part of Operation Barbarossa. When German troops entered Ponar, they found the pits that were left incomplete by the Soviet occupation and decided upon a more barbaric use of the space, adding barbed wire and warning signs to keep locals away. In the secluded woods of Ponar, close to a major railway junction and with pre-dug mass pits, Nazi forces and collaborators committed some of the most horrific crimes in history: the murder of the Jews of Vilnius and surrounding communities.

The massacres at Paneriai took place immediately following Nazi occupation of Vilnius, from July 1941 to July 1944. The number of victims was inflated to 100,000 during Soviet occupation, yet is now thought to be closer to 70,000. After the German loss at Stalingrad and realization that they may not win the war, they began attempts to hide evidence of their crimes. In late 1943, the Nazis forced a group of 80 Jews and Soviet Prisoners of War to burn the bodies of 68,000 people at Paneriai. These people, attempted to escape by digging a tunnel, and 11 succeeded and joined Partisans in the forest. Their testimonies have been crucial to the public memory and understanding of Ponar, ensuring that such massacres are never forgotten.

The most stark and difficult realization upon entering Ponar was how peaceful and verdant the woods were. Green, flowering, and filled with chirping birds, we were reminded of the face of evil that takes many forms and lingers not only in historical artifacts or remnants, but in the spaces themselves. These woods alone had seen the murder of tens of thousands of people, and it was complicated and, yet, eye-opening to observe such quintessential characteristics of nature at a place that has experienced some of the least natural destructions of the human experience.

As we walked through Ponar, we encountered numerous memorials to different groups of victims. Each memorial shared its own narrative and revealed information about the time it was erected, and by whom. As we travelled from the most recent Jewish memorial to the older Soviet obelisk to the Polish and Lithuanian memorials, we noticed a disconnect in the way the monuments interact with each other, memorializing many different groups yet following no real cohesive pattern of consolidation or togetherness.  As well as the presence of monuments, there was also a lack of memorialization at parts of the site, specifically around certain pits that were used for mass killings or for neglect of prisoners of war. The lack of pedagogical signs or memorials in these areas brings up interesting controversies about the goal of commemoration, specifically in Ponary, and reminded us of the necessity of memorialization, which we thought about and discussed in these spaces.

Despite the current abundance of monuments, the Jewish community faced great difficulty in attempting to memorialize the overwhelmingly Jewish suffering at Ponar. Due to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1944 and its attendant Stalinist antisemitsim, attempts for a permanent Jewish memorial at Paneriai were blocked for almost 50 years after the Nazis retreated from Vilnius. In 1945 survivors set up a memorial with Yiddish and Russian inscriptions that noted Jewish suffering; however, it was destroyed by Lithuanian-Soviet authorities. Only in July 1991, following the fall of the Soviet Union and pressure from the international community, was a monument erected that highlights Jewish losses and includes Hebrew and Yiddish paragraphs. Since then memorials to Polish, Lithuanian and other victim-groups have been added. We were intrigued by the way the memorials emphasized so-called nationality as a term for memory, and seemed to present different communities’ narratives instead of a cohesive picture.

Approximately 90% of Lithuanian Jews, many of whom were massacred at Paneriai, were murdered during the Holocaust. By visiting a site of mass-murder, where humanity’s horrors seemed to drag our feet and weigh heavily on our shoulders, our class was reminded of the abject terror of the Nazi genocide and fortified in our determination to ensure that Paneriai remains a part of public memory. We hope that, through dialogue, pedagogy, and commemoration, we can play a part in the continued memorialization of the Paneriai massacres and victims.


Group 3: Melanie De Lisa, Nicci Mowszowski, Abby Rodler (Author: Nicci Mowszowski)