The Rediscovery of an Escape and a Reassessment of Tragedy
Ponar, as it was known the Vilna’s Yiddish speaking Jewish community, or Ponary in Polish and Paneriai in Lithuanian, had a tragic history well before the Holocaust. It was on this low sandy hill, 10 kilometres from Vilna, where Napoleon’s Grande Armée was routed in 1812 by the Russian Army. Tens of thousands of soldiers perished and were buried in a mass grave, only to be rediscovered and exhumed in 2002. In the interim century and a half, Ponar would become a sunny forested weekend retreat for the citizens of Vilna. It was here that many of the city’s Jewish youth would spend their summers in camps of the various youth movements, picking wild strawberries and mushrooms and picnicking amongst the trees of the forest. This idyllic setting would be disturbed in 1941, when Ponar would once again become a place of horror.
Firstly, we should roll this history back to the 19th September 1939. On that date Soviet armoured vehicles rolled into what was then Polish Wilno. By 1940 Vilnius was the capital of the Lithuanian SSR within the Soviet Union. The Red Army set up bases around the city in accordance with the Soviet-Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty. Hidden in the woods at Ponar, and near the main railway line, a huge aviation-fuel storage facility was constructed, to be close to a new military airfield. The fuel facility consisted of seven to eight round pits, between 12 to 23 metres wide and cut 5 to 8 metres into the soft sand. To support the sides of the pits, stone walls were built to shore up the sand and the walls were to covered with metal sheeting to form the inner walls of the tanks. . Between the pits trenches were dug to contain the piping to channel the fuel into and around the facility. The plan had been to erect fuel tanks in these pits but the Red Army had not completed the project when the Nazi Wehrmacht marched into Vilnius on the 24th June 1941 as part of Operation Barbarossa.
The Process of Execution
An Eyewitness - Kazimierz Sakowicz
Kazimierz Sakowicz was a Polish journalist who lived in the village of Ponary. From his window he could see the daily columns of condemned moving towards their death in Ponar; could clearly hear the shots, cries and shouting and could even see into the camp. For reasons that are not entirely clear, for Sakowicz shows little empathy for the Jews murdered at Ponar, he recorded the killings on paper scraps and an old calendar from July 11 1941 until November 1943, when he too was murdered by the Nazis. In his account, Sakowicz records dates, the demeanor of the victims, meetings with the killers, the sale of looted goods and valuables by the murderers to the local population, the methods of execution and more. The records were hidden in lemonade bottles and buried in his garden, only coming to light after Lithuanian independence.
Some excerpt from Sakowicz's account::
“11th July. Lovely weather. It's hot out; there are white clouds and a gentle breeze. Shooting can be heard from the forest. Presumably from training. The shooting started at 4pm. Then I was informed that many Jews were transported to the forest via the road to Grodno and were then shot. This was the first day of executions. A depressing feeling. The shooting stopped at about eight in the evening.”
“On Tuesday, the 2nd of September it was both windy and raining. On the road to the site I could see a long column of people that stretched almost two kilometers back to the church. The guards forced everyone to run all the way to the site, a journey that took around 15 minutes. Jankowski claimed there were around 4,000 people in all. Others said there were more than that. Most of the people in the column were women with babies. When they reached the path that led to the wooded area, they realized what awaited them and began shouting, “help.” A group of 80 Lithuanian murderers opened fire on them while another 100 stood watch to prevent anyone escaping. They were all drunk. Jankowski said that to make sure they had the guts to kill them, the murderers abused their victims first. They beat the men and women and then shot the men separately. They forced the women to strip down to their underwear. The victims believed they were being moved to a ghetto and had therefore brought all their personal property with them. Once they were dead, the fur coats and valuables began to pile up. The Lithuanians made each group stand on top of the row of corpses of the people that had been shot before them. People were literally trampling on the dead. Many of those who lay in the pit with gunshot wounds were still alive. One woman managed to escape to Dolna with only an injury to her hand. She saw her children being murdered in one pit and her husband in another…”
Rail Tunnel built below the Ponar Hills in the 19th Century
Happier Days - Pupils of the Vilna Jewish Gymnasium on a science field trip to the Ponar forest in 1939.
Map showing Vilna and Ponar. The Road marched by the condemned is shown in blue
(click to enlarge)
A fuel storage pits prepared by the Red Army
The guard's barracks at the gate of Ponar
The barbwire fence around Ponar
Immediately after the German occupation acts of anti-Semitic brutality commenced. Jews were snatched from the streets and taken to the Lukiszki (Lukiškes) prison in Vilna. Ponar was chosen as the execution site for the Jews of Vilnius and the surrounding area. Hidden in the woods, the pre-excavated pits were both ideal as mass graves and secluded from curious eyes. With clear pre-planning, the first group of Jews were transported from Lukiszki and murdered on the 4th July 1941 by Einsatzkommando 9 (a unit of Einsatzgruppen B) together with Lithuanian volunteers in these pits. Within a short time the extermination camp was formally organised. Around the pits an area of 49 hectares (120 acres) was cordoned off with a 4m. high barbed wire fence, upon which notices were posted to warn off the inquisitive, informing them that entry was forbidden and that the area was mined. The main gate to the camp was set on the north of the facility, just off the main road from Vilnius to Kaunas and Grodno. Just inside the gate were the wooden barracks of the guards, the path continuing through the camp towards the pits.
Over the course of the summer of 1941 the kidnappings and murder continued on a daily basis, now organized by the Einsatzkommando 3 (a unit of Einsatzgruppen A) under the command of Karl Jaeger. By September some 21,000 Vilna Jews had been exterminated.
Following the ‘Great Provocation’ of the 31st August 1941, the remaining Jews of Vilna were herded into two Ghettos. Housed in the Ghetto, the Jews were forced into slave labour, while a pattern of continual murder started in a consistent pattern. The Jewish population of the ghettos was constantly reduced by ‘Aktionen’ on the pretext of relocating Jews in the east. In reality this meant transportation for murder to Ponar. With the establishment of the Ghettos in September 1941, 3,700 Jews were shot in one action followed immediately by 6,000 more. In October 1942 the Germans liquidated the smaller ghetto. While this subterfuge tricked many, who simply could not believe that transport for work was in fact a death sentence, news of what was happening at Ponar was confirmed by the return to the Ghetto of a few survivors who had crawled out of the death pits and had returned to Vilna.
The executions slowed down in 1942, only to resume in earnest on the 6th August 1943. Between the 23rd to 24th September 1943 the Vilna ghetto was finally liquidated under the command of Oberscharführer Bruno Kittel. Most of the remaining Jews were taken and shot at Ponar, while others were sent to concentration and death camps in Estonia or German-occupied Poland. Horrifically, Ponar would continue to a site of death until days before the Nazi retreat from Vilna on the 13th July 1944. The final killings at Ponar, of slave labourers from the HKP 562 vehicle workshop and the Kailis Fur Factory occurred on the 7th July 1944. It was the bodies of these victims that the Red Army would come across when they entered the gates of Ponar.
Jews marched through the streets of Vilna by Lithuanian Police
Lukiszki Prison where Jews were held before tranportatiom for execution at Ponar
The Rudnicki Street gate to the Vilna Ghetto guarded by the Ghetto Police
An Eyewitness - The German Soldier
Evidence given by German soldier give clear testimony to the crimes at Ponar committed by Nazis and by the Lithuanian volunteers of the Ypatingasis burys.
“I cannot remember whether we arrived in Ponary on 5 or 10 July 1941. … The very next day - I think it was around lunchtime - once again I saw a group of four hundred Jews coming from the direction of Vilna going into the … wood. These were accompanied by armed civilians. The delinquents were very quiet. I saw no women or children in either of the two groups. …
After we had followed the group for about eight hundred to a thousand metres we came upon two fairly large sandpits. The path we had taken ran between them both. The pits were not joined but were separated by the path and a strip of land. We overtook the column just before we reached the pits and then stopped close to the entry to one of them - the one on the right. I myself stood about six to eight meters from the entry. To the left and right of the entry stood an armed civilian - the people were led into the gravel pit in small groups to the right by the guards. Running around the edge of the pit there was a circular ditch which the Jews had to climb down into. This ditch was about 1.5 metres deep and about the same again in width. Since the ground was pure sand the ditch was braced with planks. As the Jews were being led in groups into the pit an elderly man stopped in front of the entrance for a moment and said in good German, “What do you want from me? I am only a poor composer.” The two civilians standing at the entrance started pummelling him with blows so that he literally flew into the pit. After a short time the Jews had all been herded into the circular trench. My mates and I had moved up close to the entry to the pit from where we could see clearly that the people in the ditch were being beaten with clubs by the guards, who were standing at the side of the trench.
After this, ten men were slowly led out of the ditch - these men had already bared their upper torsos and covered their heads with their clothes. I would also like to add that on the way to the execution area the delinquents had to walk one behind the other and hold on to the upper body of the man in front. After a group had lined up at the execution area, the next group was led across. The firing squad, which was made up of ten men, positioned itself at the side of the path, about six to eight metres in front of the group. After this, as far as I recall, the group was shot by the firing squad after the order was given. The shots were fired simultaneously so that the men fell into the pit behind them at the same time. The 400 Jews were shot in exactly the same way over a period of about an hour. The shooting happened very quickly. If any of the men in the pit were still moving a few more single shots were fired on them. The pit into which the men fell had a diameter of about fifteen to twenty metres and was I think five to six metres deep.
From our vantage point we could see into the pit and was therefore able to confirm that the 400 Jews who had been shot the previous day were also in there. They were covered with a thin sprinkling of sand. Right on top, on, this layer of sand, there was a further three men and a woman who had been shot on the morning of the day, in question. Parts of their bodies protruded out of the sand. After about one hundred Jews had been shot, other Jews had to sprinkle sand over their bodies. After the entire group had been executed the firing squad put their rifles to one side.”
Jews captured on the streets of Vilna by the Lithuanian police and volunteers wearing white armbands known was hapunes (abductors), or those selected for death during the series of actions in the Ghetto, were marched under guard of the Einsatzkommando and the LithuanianYpatingasis burys (the ‘Special Ones’), the 14 kilometres from Vilna, through the gates of the facility and held in trenches, originally designed to hold the piping for the fuel tanks, prior to execution. Other groups were brought to Ponar by cart, truck or by train, stopping at the adjacent railway station.
In the first murders, in July 1941, the victims were then forced to stand in the former fuel storage pits and were then strafed with machine gun fire. However, this proved inefficient. Many of the victims were just wounded and the process consumed a large amount of ammunition. After falling into the mass grave, some of the injured even managed to crawl out. Realising the method was flawed, the murderers improved the system. On arrival at Ponar, the victims, concentrated in a trench, were ordered to undress and to hand over their valuables. Men were separated from women and children, the men being shot before the execution of their families. After covering the victim’s eyes with rags of items of clothing, the condemned were lined up and instructed to holding the waist or hand of the person in front. Under continual abuse, they were then led single file, in groups of ten to twenty by a Lithuanian guard to the chosen execution pit.
Two pictures joined to show the whole scene of one of the pits at Ponar, probably in the summer of 1941. At the left, Lithuanian guards with rifles stand over Jews crowded in a wood sided trench, the scaffolding for a fuel storage tank; on the right, and in the detail, a group of Jews, their eyes covered with pieces of clothing are lined up to be led to their execution.
Jews are run through a line of Lithuanian guards at Ponar towards one of the execution pits
In rare clandestine photographs, Jews from Vilna are lined up and them formed into groups before being taken by Lithuanian collaborationist guards of the Ypatingasis burys for execution.
Who Knew what was Happening at Ponar?
The Germans, clearly aware of the gravity of their actions, attempted to keep what was happening at Ponar and at the thousands of other murder sites a closely guarded secret. Even up to the moment of their own death, many of the Vilna Jews taken to Ponar were under the impression that they were being taken to a work camp. Still, news of the atrocities made its way out and reached the Allies.
On 29th June 1942, before the liquidation of the Ghetto and before the Germans started to cover-up their crimes by burning the corpses at Ponar, Dr. Ignacy Schwarzbart, the Zionist representative of the Polish Government-in-Exile based in London, issued the following statement that was widely printed in the western press:
"Statement on German Crimes Committed Against the Jewish population in Poland
The specific side of the catastrophe of European Jewry lies in the fact that contemporary Germany under Hitler’s leadership is aiming at the complete destruction and annihilation of Jewry, its biological destruction ..., not at their subjugation and inclusion in the new German order.
... What is not to be achieved by starvation, diseases and natural death- is being aimed by the slaughter committed against Polish Jews and Jews from other countries deported by Hitler to Poland. The most horrible news about cold blooded slaughter were reaching us constantly. But news which recently reached London from reliable sources surpasses the most horrible examples in the history of barbarism. It is difficult to grasp that a human being could fall so low as did the contemporary German, educated by Hitlerism. It is difficult to believe these facts – and yet they are true. I wish to give you some details of this catastrophe, out of this ocean of suffering which has befallen a nation with thousands years of history. ...
Wilno - Out of a population of 65,000 about 15,000 remained alive. They are artisans, left alive because Hitler still needs them. All others, about 50,000 were slaughtered gradually by the Germans and Lithuanians in the Ponar mountains. ... "
What was happening at Ponar, including methods, perpetrators and numbers was known publicly in the west in 1942 and while the atrocities were occurring.
Testimony of Dina Baitler who survived the massacre at Ponar
Testimony of Shalom Shorenson who survived the massacre at Ponar
Plan of the Extermination Camp at Ponar after WWII
Murder Pits (former Red Army fuel storage tank bases) Leichencommando detention pit (former Red Army fuel storage tank base)
Escape tunnel of Leichencommando
Trench of former Red Army fuel storage used to hold victims before shooting
Trench of former Red Army fuel storage
Red Army Barracks (post WWII)
Areas used to burn corpses from 1943-1944
Massacre Pit located in 2016 and corpse burning area
Possible Massacre Pits
Post WWII railway line
The massacre at Ponar was conducted by Einsatzgruppe B, Einsatzkommando 9, Einsatzgruppe A, Einsatzkommando 3 and Lithuanian auxiliary policemen; of the Ypatingasis burys under command of Oberscharführer Horst Schweinberger and Oberstormrführer Franz Schauschutz of EK9; August Hering of EK3a and especially SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Martin Weiss from Gestapo Department 4 of the Security Police (Sipo).
The executioners themselves were almost all members of the Ypatingasis burys. Totaling probably no more than 150 Lithuanian volunteers, most were recruited from the paramilitary nationalist Lietuvos Šauliu Sajunga (Lithuanian Riflemen's Union), commanded by Juozas Šidlauskas, Balys Norvaiša, Jonas Tumas, Mecis Butkus and Antanas Granickas. Because of their origin, they were derisively nicknamed 'Shaulists' or 'Ponary Riflemen'.
Some of the Evil Butchers of Vilna
As Red Army troops advanced in 1943, the Nazi units, on order through Sonderaktion 1005, tried to cover up the crime. Eighty Jews captured in Vilna after the liquidation of the Ghetto and suspected Jewish POWs from the Stutthof concentration camp were formed into Leichenkommando (‘corpse unit’) and brought to Ponar.
The Leichenkommando were housed in one of the storage pits surrounded by a barbed wire double fence, accessed by a ladder that was drawn up at the end of each day. The slave-workers were forced to exhume the bodies of those executed during the previous two years, pile them on wood and burn them. The ashes and bones were then ground up, mixed with sand and distributed in the surrounding area.
After months of this gruesome work, from December 1943 until April 1944, the prisoners managed to escape through a 30 m. long tunnel, excavated with spoons from their prison bunker to an adjacent pit on the evening of the 15th April 1944. Eleven of the group survived the war; their testimony contributed to revealing the massacre. Their account and our work to uncover the remains of the tunnel can be found here. To complete the burning of the corpses 70 Jews were brought from the Kailis forced labour factory in Vilna, who were then murdered before the German retreat from Vilna.
Attempting to Cover Up the Crime and the Tunnel Escape
The condemned were lined up on the edge of the pit facing an earth embankment that lined the pit’s edge. Ten executioners lined up on the other side of the pit and shot the victims in the back with rifles with a single, the bodies falling into the pit below. Older children stood with the adults to be shot, while infants were held by their mothers. To save ammunition, babies were often thrown into the pits alive. After a salvo an officer would check the accuracy of the shots according. If anyone gave signs of life, they were finished off. Due to the size of the pits, they filled up only after a larger number of executions. To make maximum use of the space, plank bridges were built into the pits. Victims were marched onto the bridge and killed when they reached to the right point. In this way, bodies evenly filled the pit, from its centre to the edges. On other occasions the Jews were forced to lie down directly on the dead and then shot in the pit. Sakowicz (see box) also reports the use of hand-grenades to kill the victims. With the number of rotting corpses and fearing epidemic, the bodies were covered with a light sprinkle of earth before the next group was brought in.
Meanwhile often hundreds of people waited for their own death, crowded in trenches. To maintain order, the Nazis and their Lithuanian volunteers terrorised the condemned, beating them with clubs and setting dogs upon them. To ‘ease’ their difficult working conditions, these sadistic murderers were provided with vodka during the executions This increased the brutality as well as their determination to participate in the atrocities. Meanwhile, the victim’s cloths and valuables were stolen. Though the executioners were formally obliged to deliver the booty to the Germans, the local market was flooded with stolen goods, a scene Sakowicz described in detail.
Shtiler, Shtiler - Smerke Kaczerginski & Alexander Volkovsky (1942)
Quiet, quiet, let’s be silent.
Dead are growing here.
They were planted by the tyrant,
See their bloom appear.
All the roads lead to Ponar now,
There are no roads back,
And our father too has vanished,
And with him our luck.
Still, my child, don’t cry, my jewel.
Tears no help commands,
Our pain callous people
Seas and oceans have their order,
Prison also has its border,
But to our plight
There is no light,
There is no light.
During the final days of the Nazi occupation of Vilna the last Jewish labourers were rounded up and brought to Ponar for execution. Their bodies, and those of Red Army prisoners-of-war, were still lying on the ground when the city was liberated on the 13th July 1944. In August 1944, the ‘Soviet Extraordinary State Commission to Investigate and Establish War Crimes of the German-Fascist Invaders’ initiated an investigation and autopsy at Ponar. The Commission determined that during the three years that the extermination site operated, from July 1941 to July 1944, more than 100,000 people were killed at Ponar.
According to a 2008 book by Monika Tomkiewicz, on the massacre at Ponar, the murdered included 72,000 Jews; 5,000 Red Army prisoners of war; between 15,000 and 20,000 Polish intelligentsia, priests and members of the Armia Krajowa resistance movement; 1,000 Russians; Lithuanians described as Communists or Soviet activists; 40 Roma and members of a local Lithuanian Detachment who refused to follow German orders.
Immediately after the liberation of Vilnius from the German troops, a small Jewish community of only 6,000 survivors came out of hiding and from the forest camps of the Partisans to reassemble in their destroyed city. Though most quickly moved on to new lives in Israel and in western countries, attempts were made to commemorate those who had died in Ponar. Shortly after the war’s end, on September 20 1944, the Fast of Gedalia, a memorial service was held at Ponar. At the gathering, the poet Smerke Kaczerginski and others read eulogies and Kaddish for that dead from the back of a truck.
Attempts to set up a permanent memorial to the murdered Jews at Ponar were ultimately blocked by the Soviet authorities. Though a memorial was set up in 1945 by survivors, with the Yiddish and Russian inscription, “Ponary, everlasting rest for the murdered saints, the Vilner and other Jews, exterminated by the Hitlerist Fascist murderers, hated by humanity. The blood of innocents cries out from the ground. Revenge the spilled blood of the saints. July 1941 - July 1944”, the monument was destroyed by the Lithuanian-Soviet authorities. It was replaced in 1948 with an obelisk that mentioned only the victims of Fascist terror, but failed to note that the vast majority were Jewish residents of Vilna and the surrounding shtetlach. In 1954 the authorities added wooden signs, again inscribed only in Russian and Lithuanian with the words “To the victims of Fascist terror 1941 - 1944”. In fact very few victims were in fact Soviet citizens, both Jews and Poles holding mostly Polish nationality. Slowly over time the site became overgrown and a railway siding sliced through the middle of the extermination site.
Commemoration at Ponar After the War
Bodies strewn on the ground of Ponar after liberation
The Soviet Commission in Ponar in August 1944
The official autopsy conducted during the Soviet investigation of the crimes at Ponar in August 1944
Only in 1985 did the authorities finally relent, as pressure mounted to properly recognise the massacre at Ponar. The small museum, originally opened in 1960 at Ponar, was replaced with a new building in 1985. The site was redeveloped with asphalted paths between the execution pits that sadly had little to do with the historical lines of movement through the site and new commemorative stones with Russian and Lithuanian inscriptions were erected inside each of the pits. Most stated that “Here the Hitlerite occupiers burned the corpses of those murdered”. Additional Inscribed stones were installed at the new entrance to the site, again noting in Lithuanian and Russian that: “Here in the Paneriai forest, from July 1941 to July 1944, the Hitlerites shot to death over than 100,000 Soviet people. To conceal the traces of their crime, the fascist occupiers, beginning in December 1943, burned the corpses”.
Only in July 1991, at the time the Soviet Union was disintegrating, was the fact that most of the victims were Jews given expression. An additional plaque, between the existing inscription, was engraved with the Star of David, and was inscribed finally in Hebrew and Yiddish stating that, “Here in the Ponar forest, between July 1941 to July 1944, the Hitlerist occupiers and their local accomplices massacred 100 thousand persons, among who were 70 thousand Jews - men, women and children”. At the centre of the site a large Jewish memorial was dedicated, inscribed with the words, “To the memory of 70,000 Jews of Vilna and the surrounding area, who were killed and burned in the killing pits of Ponar by the Nazis and their accomplices”. Over time further memorials have been added, including a memorial dedicated to the memory of many thousands of Poles and members of the Armija Krajowa murdered in Ponar; a cross devoted to Lithuanian victims; a memorial to the murdered workers of the HKP and Kailis slave labour camps; and to slaughtered prisoners of war of the Red Army. Custody of Ponar was also transferred in 1991 to the newly established Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. Presently plans are being made for the establishment of a renovated museum at Ponar.
The first remembrance service at Ponar after the Holocaust. Smerke Kaczerginski and other survivors read eulogies and recite Kaddish from the back of a truck.
The memorial erected by the Jews of Vilna
The Soviet obelisk set up in 1948 after the destruction of the Jewish memorial at Ponar
The entrance to the Paneriai Memorial (1985)
Inscription in Yiddish & Hebrew
Jewish Memorial ceremony after Lithuanian Independence
Memorial at the entrance to the site built in 1985. In 1991 a plaque was added in the centre noting the Jewish victims
One of the execution pits redeveloped in 1985
Memorial stone in an execution pit
Monument to the Jews of Vilna and the surrounding area murdered at Ponar (1991)
The inscription in Hebrew and Yiddish on the Ponar monument
Memorial dedicated to the 20,000 Poles and members of the Armija Krajowa murdered in Ponar