We began our tour at the Ninth Fort which was built to protect the city. It was used as a prison by the Soviets and as an execution point by the Nazis. Even before we reached the site we noticed a large irregularly shaped structure, the size of a tall building. It appeared to be wooden, but on closer examination we observed that it was made of stone. We were told that it was designed to resemble the weathered wood that we see on the outside of traditional Lithuanian houses. It was composed of three parts, representing the victims of the Germans in three poses, standing, falling and lying on the ground. The three parts were positioned so there was a triangular area in the center representing the gateway to heaven.
The sculpture was surrounded by a spacious very green area where many Jews were executed. We followed a path from the sculpture past the museum to the fort. We approached the fort in disappointment assuming it was closed as was the museum. To our surprise we saw a man exiting the building. We entered the courtyard and our guide engaged in an animated Lithuanian conversation with him. It proceeded to get louder. She turned to us and told us that he said there were already Jews in there and would not allow us to enter. We were confused by the communication and found it strange that he would frame it in that way. Our guide turned to us and said she had told him that we aren’t Jews, we are Americans. He then wanted a lot of money to let us in. While this heated conversation continued, we observed various tourists entering and exiting the building. Finally several of us pushed past and entered the building. The voices of the man and our guide continued to escalate. The man smelled of alcohol and was quite verbally abusive towards our guide until she threatened that we would report him to the American Embassy. That resulted in a definite change in tone. "No problem, no problem", he repeated.
It felt like a time warp, as if we were back in the 1940s faced with the same prejudices and ignorance that the Jews encountered at that time. The fact that this encounter occurred in the very site where 50,000 Jews were murdered, made this even more disturbing.
The building was used as a temporary holding point prior to executions in adjacent killing fields. If the Nazis didn’t complete their murder in a normal workday they held the Jews to murder the following day. We later learned that the Jews were forcibly marched from the ghetto to the fort where they were killed.
We learned that the impetus for the exhibit on the Jewish experience was prompted in 1995 by the indignation of an Israeli Knesset member who came and saw nothing about the Jews. His threat to engage the mass media about this resulted in the creation of this exhibit.
In the fort we saw displays of the artifacts of the Jews that were found in the killing fields and the messages written on the walls prior to their deaths.
We also saw rooms devoted to the French and German Jews who were shipped into Kovno for execution. While most Jews were held for just a day or two, a small group had a more extended stay. This group of prisoners was responsible for digging up the bodies of the corpses and then burning them because the Germans were losing the war and wanted to hide the evidence of their deeds. These prisoners staged a successful escape on Christmas Eve when their guards were off celebrating. We felt as if we were escaping as well as we exited the building.
We stopped at a building that had been one of the three most significant yeshivas in Lithuania. The young men who studied there came from many countries across Europe because of its reputation. When stopping at the memorial at the entrance to the Kovno ghetto we learned that the yeshiva students and teachers lived in that area as it was close to their school.
Kovno is known for its especially brutal murders by Lithuanians, many of whom were university students. The students marched into the ghetto and murdered 1000 people prior to the Nazis assuming control. The nearby yeshiva students were the first victims. In another Aktion the hospital, staff and patients were burned together when the doors were barred shut.
Before making an extended stop at the Choral Synagogue we walked around the city and learned about the Jewish history of the area. One of the facts that we found interesting was that prior to WWII, 74% of the physicians in Lithuania were Jewish. Ironically they were banned from practicing medicine in the Lithuanian hospitals so worked in the Jewish hospitals. We stopped at the Chorale synagogue which was quite beautiful. Its name comes from the fact that it had a choir of boys and men. It had a very famous cantor who also sang opera. It was not damaged during the war as it was used as a storehouse by the Germans for the clothing of Jews who they killed.
We had the opportunity to walk through the city with one of our classmates who is from Kaunas. She pointed out the faded lettering from a Jewish orphanage and a former synagogue which was now an auto repair shop. We asked her when she became aware of the former Lithuanian Jews and the Holocaust. She told us that she did not learn of it until she was a university student. She read a book by a Lithuanian Jew about the town where her family came from and wanted to know more. She had been unaware that Jews had made up almost half of the population of her city. Interestingly she is now studying Yiddish literature. Before our return to the city we did a brief stop at the former home of the Japanese diplomat Sugihara. Sugihara saved the lives of 6000 Jews by issuing visas against the express orders of his government. He was quoted as saying,"I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn't, I would be disobeying God."
Our return to Vilnius ended on a lighter note as we helped one of our friends celebrate her birthday. We are feeling a strong connection to many of our new friends. Being thrown together as we fumble with the language and grapple with some very emotional topics is definitely a bonding experience.
If you would like to know more about the Ninth Fort you can read about it at http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/einsatz/ninthseventhfort.html. The Kovno Ghetto is discussed at http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ghettos/kovno.html