Monday, August 17, 2009

The Killing Fields

On the various walks and discussions about the ghetto we’ve frequently heard of Ponar (also known as Paneriai), the location where the Vilnius Jews had been taken to be murdered. Knowing that was our destination today was coupled with a sense of trepidation. There is a heaviness that we are experiencing because of the cumulative effect of both seeing and hearing details of unthinkable atrocities that occurred to Jewish people. We knew today we would see the place where these horrors occurred. As we write this and try to convey our feelings we looked around our apartment and realized that the very people who lived here were probably wrenched from this home and taken to the Ponar forest and killed. While it is difficult to write this and to realize that others may find this difficult to read, we feel a responsibility to communicate the facts of what occurred. We have met several amazing people here who routinely tell the story of the Jews of Vilna. They are all in their 80s and we often wonder how these stories will survive without their voices. We feel that our small part is to tell the story.

There had been three Jewish cemeteries in Vilnius, but two were destroyed during Soviet times. Today we visited the one remaining cemetery. We began our visit with a stop at the memorial tombstones for the Jewish partisans. The cemetery had tombstones written in both Russian and Hebrew text. Often both were on the same tombstone. Fania, our guide, showed us the memorials for the doctors and teachers who died in the ghetto. These people in particular played an important role in the life of the ghetto. The tomb of the Vilna Gaon, the famous rabbi of Vilna, was moved to this cemetery to a mausoleum. People from around the world come to this gravesite to pay tribute to his memory. In each of the six niches were piles of stones left by visitors to honor his memory.As we stood before it, a man approached and began to chant a prayer for the dead. As I listened to the beauty of the prayer, I was overwhelmed by emotion and tears welled up in my eyes.

The cemetery appeared to be very active. Many of the graves appeared well tended. People were coming to visit the cemetery carrying flowers while others were planting at the gravesites. We were surprised at the number of graves for those who had died post-war and even very recently.

We continued on to the outer wall of the cemetery where our guide pointed out a memorial that marked the spot of a mass burial site of 400 children. She proceeded to tell us how the Nazis had drained the blood from these children to use for their soldiers. Afterwards they threw the children’s bodies over the wall into the cemetery. This was ironic in two respects. The Nazis didn’t believe in mixing of Jews with Germans, yet used the Jewish blood to sustain their soldiers. It was also puzzling that they threw the bodies into the cemetery as so many had no burial place. We couldn’t conceive of human beings acting so inhumanely, especially to innocent children. A rabbi who is part of our group sang a prayer, El Malei Rachamim. Together we all recited the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Afterward we all stood silently absorbing the enormity of what happened in this spot.

Ponar still loomed ahead. A short drive outside of the city we arrived at a wooded area with a stone memorial. Upon entering we were once again presented with the controversy over how these events are described. A monument was built for the Jews in 1945 and was in Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. The Soviets didn’t like it and destroyed it in 1952, rebuilding it to read that 100,000 Soviet citizens were killed by Fascists. The denial of their Jewishness as the reason for their murder felt like a second annihilation of the Jews. The Lithuanians had a different issue. Many Lithuanians were supportive of the Nazis and participated in the murders. After a fight, the language was amended to read “the Germans and their local helpers” around 1990. History is easily rewritten if there are no voices left to tell the true story.

People who were brought to Ponar were told that they were being taken to work in Kovno. Some brought sewing machines anticipating work. At first the people in the ghetto didn’t know what happened here. Finally a woman escaped and returned to the ghetto. When she told her story, people thought she was crazy until other people who had escaped corroborated what she told.

As we entered the forest we went by a grove of younger trees. Fania told us that after Independence in 1990, Jewish people from Vilnius began to move to Israel. When they left they planted a tree here.

We were then taken to the pit in which children were murdered. They identified it as such as they found children’s shoes, socks and toys. Usually children weren’t shot, but were thrown in. Newborn babies were also thrown in as women were not allowed to give birth in the ghetto.

People were undressed prior to their murder and their clothing sold. When the German’s were trying to cover their tracks they had a detail of Jews who were responsible for burning the bodies of the dead and crushing their bones. They first had to look for gold teeth or rings. One of the workers who burned bodies found his own mother, wife and children. He wrote notes about what he found and those are now in the museum. The workers used spoons and metal plates to dig a tunnel and escaped. Because the stench was horrible from what they were doing, they hid in manure in the fields so the dogs couldn’t follow their trail. The Germans offered a reward to anyone who found them and said they were dangerous criminals. Two of the men survived and gave testimony after the war. After the escape, no more bodies were burnt and the remaining bodies were found after the war.

At the end of the tour, Fania was asked how she can keep coming here and talking about what happened. Virtually all of her family perished at Ponar. She replied that she does it for those who lie here, since they can’t stand up and tell what happened. She is happy to speak Yiddish here as that was the language of those who died here.

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