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Poignant Paneriai Memorial

The Ponary massacre or Paneriai massacre was the mass-murder of 100,000 people, mostly Jews and Polish intellectuals by Germans SD/SS and Lithuanian Nazi collaborators, (Special SD and German Security Police Squad units) during World War II and the Holocaust in Reichskommissariat Ostland. The executions took place between July 1941 and August 1944 near Paneriai (a suburb of Vilnius) railway station. Some 70,000 Jews were murdered in Paneriai along with estimated 20,000 Polish and 8,000 Russians, many from nearby Vilnius.

Background

Following the incorporation of the Republic of Central Lithuania into Poland, Ponary town became a part of the Wilno Voivodship. In September 1939, the region was taken over by the Soviets, and after about a month transferred to Lithuania. After Lithuania’s annexation by the Soviet Union, in June 1940, the Soviets began constructing an oil storage facility near Ponary in conjunction with a military airfield. The project was never completed, and in 1941 the area was occupied by Nazi Germany. The Nazis decided to take advantage of the large pits dug for the oil warehouses to dispose the bodies of unwanted locals. Their policy was to kill every Jewish in Lithuania, and the Baltic countries became the first place Nazis would en mass execute Jews. Out of 70,000 Jews living in Vilnius, only 7,000 survived the war.

Massacre

The massacres began in July, 1941, when Einsatzkommando 9 arrived to Vilnius, rounded up 5,000 Jewish men and took them to Paneriai to execute. Further mass killings, often aided by Lithuanian volunteers from Ypatingasis Burys took place throughout the summer and the fall. In September, the Vilna Ghetto was established. By the end of the year, about 21,700 Jews were killed in Paneriai. The pace of killings slowed down in 1942, as slave workers were appropriated by Wehrmacht. The total number of victims by the end of 1944 was between 70,000 and 100,000. According to post-war exhumation  by the forces of Soviet 2nd Belorussian Front the majority (50,000 – 70,000) of the victims were Polish  and Lithuanian Jews from nearby Polish and Lithuanian cities, while the rest were primarily Poles (about 20,000) and Russians (about 8,000). The Polish victims were mostly members of Polish Intelligentsia (teachers, professors of Stefan Batory University such as Kazimierz Pelczar or a priest Romuald Świrkowski) and members of Armia Krajowa resistance movement. Among the first victims were approximately 7,500 Soviet POWs shot in 1941 soon after the Operation Barbarossa begun. At later stages there were also smaller numbers of victims of other nationalities, including local Russians, Roma and Lithuanians, particularly communists sympathisers and members of general Povilas Plechavičius 'Local Lithuanian Detachment’ who refused to follow German orders.

As Soviet troops advanced in 1943, the Nazi units tried to cover up the crime under the Aktion 1005 directive. Eighty inmates from the nearby Stutthof concentration camp were formed into Leichenkommando  ("corpse units"). The workers were forced to dig up bodies, pile them on wooden boards and burn. The ashes were then ground, mixed with sand and buried. After months of this gruesome work, the brigade managed to escape on April 19, 1944. Eleven members of the group survived the war; their testimony contributed to revealing the massacre.

Commemoration

Information about the massacre began to spread as early as 1943 due to the activity and work of Helena Pasierbska, Jozef Mackiewicz, Kazimierz Sakowicz and others. Nonetheless the Soviet regime, which supported the resettlement of Poles from the Kresy, found it convenient to deny that Poles or Jews were singled out for massacre in Paneriai; the official line was that Paneriai was a site of massacre of Soviet citizens only. This Soviet generalisation and distortion, as well as the fact that it was one of the biggest massacres of Poles in the East, led some — e.g. Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek — to compare this to the Katyn massacre. On 22 October 2000, a decade after the fall of communism, in independent Lithuania, an effort by several Polish organisations resulted in erecting a monument (a cross) to commemorate fallen Polish citizens, during an official ceremony with the participation of representatives of both Polish and Lithuanian governments (Bronislaw Komorowski, Polish Minister of Defence as well as several NGOs).

The site of the massacre is commemorated by memorials for the Holocaust and the Polish victims, and a small museum. The executions at Paneriai are currently being investigated by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance.

References

The Paneriai Memorial Museum was opened in 1960 on the site of the mass massacre. According to various sources, the number of people killed there is magnificent – from 50 000 to 100 000, most of them being Jews. The museum was given a new face in 1985 when a new building was built and the local territory cleared. Paneriai Memorial Museum is a subsidiary of National Vilnius Gaon Jewish Museum. It is located just 16km (10 miles) from Vilnius city centre. It is a little building standing in the same place where Soviets decided to establish a military base during the Second World War. 7 deep potholes were prepared to store liquid fuel there. The same potholes, however, were used for other purposes by Nazis.

Paneriai Memorial Museum is often visited by foreign tourists and school groups as this is the only museum-memorial in Lithuania established on the site where terrible actions took place many years ago. Various events to remember the casualties are often held there, meaning that people do not forget the torment once felt by innocent people, and that terrible massacre left a deep scarf in collective memory.

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