“This day remains extremely painful to all of us,” said Prof Vytautas Lansbergis, the founding head of state of the contemporary Republic of Lithuania, who opened proceedings. “What happened that hatred pervaded the souls of people and blood was spilt upon the earth?” he asked.
The gathering, which was attended by hundreds from Lithuania and abroad including Vilna Ghetto survivors and their descendants, took place on the very patch of land where thousands of doomed souls were marched to their untimely death seventy-five years ago. The mood was at first convivial, with old friends embracing as they reunited, laughing as they swapped dogeared black-and-white photographs from their family albums. Delegations from afar poured out of luxury coaches and joined the throng, some brandishing white and blue flags emblazoned with the Star of David. Others donned a red and white armband on which was inscribed “Rodzina Ponarsk,” the name of the association dedicated to the Polish victims of Paneriai. Many languages could be heard, including all those once ubiquitous throughout the streets of Vilnius.
The atmosphere shifted when a class of schoolchildren was ushered onto the dais of the Jewish memorial monument, thereby heralding the start of the ceremony. The hubbub fell away, leaving only the sound of wind through the pines and the occasional rattling train in the distance. One could not help but be transported to the time when carriages pulling in at the nearby platform unloaded not goods nor beasts but human cargo moments away from meeting a brutal demise. As the choir of adolescents filled the silence with song, some onlookers began to weep when they realised what tune it was: the strangely sweet Vilna Ghetto Hymn, composed by inmates at the height of the War. One or two elderly ladies mouthed the Yiddish lyrics, brushing away tears all the while.
The commemoration proper, which lasted two hours, consisted of speeches, the solemn laying of wreaths, and more musical performances. Dignitaries from across Lithuanian public life, including government ministers, bureaucrats, ambassadors, the military, religious leaders, and the representatives of NGOs, paid their respects.
“The memory of the Holocaust must be a bell that wakes everyone up for change,” Mr. Landsbergis told those present. “A world without love and compassion will perish,” he said, imploring the public at large to heed the lessons of history and “forgive each other, embrace each other: a Jew and a Greek, a Lithuanian and a Pole, a Ukrainian and a Russian.”
Mr. Landsbergis’s remarks were echoed by Alminas Mačiulis, Chancellor of the Lithuanian Government, who described as “extremely painful” the “dark pages of history” in which “people of Lithuania” were killed at Paneriai and other massacre sites across the country. Mr. Mačiulis said he was “sincerely pleased” to see public interest in the country’s largely vanished Jewish history increasing gradually. “More and more Lithuanian people are remembering their neighbours and friends, by walking a march, placing a pebble at the monument for the Jewish victims, or restoring items of Jewish heritage,” he observed.
Immediately prior to the Second World War, Lithuania was home to around 160,000 Jewish people, who lived in shtetlekh, towns and cities across the land. Additionally, Vilnius, which lay within the territory of the Second Polish Republic between 1922 and 1939, had a Jewish community of between 50,000 and 100,000 people which swelled with refugees from German-occupied Poland once the city was returned to Lithuania upon the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States in 1939-40. Vilnius, or Vilna, as it is known in Jewish culture, had for centuries been celebrated as a centre of Jewish learning and theology, Napoleon coining it the “Jerusalem of the North” when he passed through in 1812.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union on the 22nd of June, 1941, capturing the territory of Lithuania within days. From the beginning of the German occupation, the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators systematically killed Jews. It is widely accepted that approximately 200,000 Jewish people living in Lithuanian territory perished during the three years of occupation, or ninety to ninety-five percent of the pre-War Jewish population. The small number of survivors evaded death by being sent to concentration camps abroad that were liberated by the Red Army in 1944-5, by escaping to the forest to hide with Soviet partisans or on their own, or because they had been sheltered by non-Jewish Lithuanians who opposed fascist ideology.
What took place at Paneriai, or Ponar as it is known to many Jewish people, is a particularly barbarous chapter in the wartime history of Lithuania. A wooded area once used for recreation, the site had been cleared during the 1940-41 Soviet occupation to make way for a fuel storage facility. Pits had been excavated, and their proximity to the train line made the set-up ideal for a more sinister purpose under German rule. Over the course of the Nazi occupation, an estimated 100,000 people were brought there and killed in cold blood. While exact numbers remain a matter of debate amongst historians, it is generally agreed that seventy thousand were Jewish, around eight thousand were Soviet prisoners of war, between two and twenty thousand were Polish, and there were a smaller number of others such as local opponents of the Nazis, and Roma.
The first executions took place in July, 1941, immediately after the arrival in Lithuania of S.S. Einsatzkommandos. By the end of the year more than 40,000 had been massacred, the rate of killing having peaked around September when Vilna Ghetto was established. Victims were brought to Paneriai by train, motor vehicle or on foot, thinking they were to be interred in a labour camp. On arrival they were made to undress, led to the pits ten at a time, lined up, and shot. Bodies fell, writhed. Sand was scattered. Then the next group was led to the precipice. In many instances the trigger was pulled not by an S.S. henchman but a member of the Ypatingas Būrys, a special purpose killing squad comprising several dozen Lithuanians. Many in the detachment had been recruited by their German masters from the nationalist Union of Lithuanian Riflemen, and many were volunteers.
The sensitive issue of Lithuanian-Nazi collaboration was raised explicitly at Friday’s commemoration by Faina Kukliansky, Chair of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, who called on the nation to “work up the courage” to name Lithuanian citizens who participated in the Holocaust. The identity of more than one hundred Ypatingas Būrys members is known. Twenty were punished. But the extent of Lithuanian collaboration goes much deeper than Ypatingas Būrys at Paneriai, with scores of massacres having occurred across the country. “To remain silent about the Holocaust perpetrators, to forget the victims of the Holocaust and to disregard the living Jewish community is the same thing as killing the Jews again,” Ms. Kukliansky said.
Israel’s Ambassador to Lithuania, Amir Maimon, who also spoke at the memorial, was in accord with Ms. Kukliansky. “There are still many things that need to be done to bring Lithuania and Lithuanians to acknowledge, to accept, and to recognise the events that took place in the Second World War,” he told the Lithuania Tribune, referring to collaboration with the Nazis. He pointed to the education system as a way of engendering a greater understanding of the issues. “I’m travelling [around the country] quite a lot, meeting high school children, and they don’t really know much about history or the Second World War,” Mr. Maimon said, bemoaning the lack of knowledge about specifically Lithuanian Jewish history. “Sometimes I’m invited to a presentation on Anne Frank. My message [to Lithuanians] is that you don’t have to tell Anne Frank’s story. You have your own Anne—tell her story.”
One such tale did surface on Friday in a quiet speech by Dvora Rosenzweig, a Vilna Ghetto survivor who travelled from Israel with her son to participate in the ceremony. Speaking in Hebrew, Ms. Rosenzweig told of her dramatic escape into the forest around Paneriai, where she and her family had been brought by train from Vilnius to be killed. Upon arriving at the platform, she and her mother jumped out of the carriage and scampered frantically into bushes despite being chased by German guards. They camouflaged themselves by covering their emaciated bodies in fallen leaves, a strategy that ensured they went undetected as they made off deeper into the woods on nightfall. Although she was only a child at the time, the remarkably undemonstrative Rosenzweig said she now appreciates “how brave my mother was.” The nonagenarian concluded by expressing her pride “just to be here,” and her unyielding faith in the State of Israel.