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Killing Grounds of Paneriai PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

The Killing Grounds in the Forest of Paneriai
Near Vilnius, capital of Lithuania

Barry and Margaret Williamson
October 2009

Between July 1941 (when Germany invaded, occupied and repressed the Baltic Republics) and July 1944 (when Germany finally retreated in the face of the advancing Russians), at least 100,000 people were individually shot in the Forest of Paneriai. Only a few miles' enforced march from Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania where many of them lived their peaceful lives, these innocent people stood on the edge of pits dug in the forest floor, resignedly contributing their mortal remains to the inert heaps below.

What follows are extracts from information panels in the entrance to the small Memorial Museum in that still, remembering forest. Overall, these words give the best impression of this awe-full site, other than actually being there, among the pits, in the silent woods on a cold misty autumnal morning.

This is an introduction to the site:

“Here among the pines of Paneriai, where you now stand, after Lithuania regained Vilnius in 1939, Red Army soldiers began building an aviation fuel station and dug large deep pits to hold fuel. From the very first days of the Second World War in 1941, the Nazis who occupied Vilnius cold-bloodedly transformed this territory surrounded by barbed wire into the hell of the mass murders they engineered. Here in these pits in Paneriai, 7,500 Soviet prisoners of war went to their final rest. Here, from July 1941 till July 1944, the Nazis and local collaborators killed peaceful civilians, primarily Jews, who were captured on the streets of Vilnius and transported in trucks and led in columns on foot, from the Vilnius ghetto and the towns and villages of the Vilnius district.

Citizens of Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Latvia, Belarus, Hungary, Romania and other countries were murdered here. Here, in the pits of Paneriai, about 500 Catholic priests met their end. Here, 86 Lithuanian soldiers who refused to go to the front were shot. Here, from the second half of 1943, when the German army began to withdraw after having lost critical battles, giant bonfires burnt day and night as the Nazis erased the evidence of their horrible crimes. Several dozen prisoners exhumed corpses, burnt them, mixed the ashes and crushed bones with sand and poured it back into the pits of Paneriai. Exactly how many victims are laid here is not known. Based on the conclusions of medical specialists, testimony of witnesses and mathematical analysis, it was established, and announced by the Special Commission of the Nuremberg Process that 100,000 people were murdered at Paneriai.”

What follows is a list of the things you might see and experience, if you were to walk through the forest and around this scene of mass killing. Remember as you go that every one of the 100,000 people murdered here was killed with a single bullet to the back of their heads as they stood on the edge of one of the pits before you. Later victims exhumed the bodies, burnt them and pulverised the bones. No-one can possibly imagine such horror, but this is where it happened to ordinary people, like you and me. These were people of the 'wrong' ethnicity or religion; people who thought and questioned. Killed cold-bloodedly, systematically and individually by a fellow human being, while others waited nearby for their life to abruptly end.

Pit where 2,948 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered.

Bodies exhumed from the sites of mass murder were burnt here (3 sites).

Gravestone - This is where the body of Hilar Feigus, the only corpse recognised among the victims of Paneriai, was found.

Monument for Vilnius Jews imprisoned by the Nazis in labour camps at the Kailis factory, HKP and the military hospital and murdered here on 5 July 1944.

A large pit where, among others, Jewish patients of the mental hospital, children from orphanages and medical personnel were shot.

Pit where 80 prisoners were kept in chains, most of them from the ghetto, who burnt corpses. Over 2 and a half months they dug an underground tunnel about 30 metres long and on 15 April 1944 escaped. 12 of them managed to reach partisan units.

Memorial commemorating the death of the soldiers of the Lithuanian local squadron.

Monument commemorating Lithuanians murdered in 1941.

Commemorative stone for 7,514 Soviet prisoners of war of various ethnic groups who died of disease and hunger in 1941.

Cross and monument to soldiers of Armija Krajowa and Polish people murdered.

In this channel the condemned waited their turn to die.

Commemorative stone to mark the site where publisher Enzis Jagomastas and his family perished.

Not all pits containing corpses have been excavated.

The most chilling comment is that final one.

The Lithuanian poet, S Bistrickas, recently wrote the following to express and share his feelings:

“Please take off your caps and bend your heads! This is the land of martyrs with the blood of more than 100,000 of people soaked in. This land has seen the most awful crimes of fascism. This is Paneriai, a small railway station near Vilnius. A wonderful pinewood is soughing nearby and silence, unutterable silence, around … Now 7 large pits and 3 trenches still yawn as living witnesses of crimes. The fascist conveyor belt of death had functioned and shots had been heard here for 3 years. There are 10 bonfire places in which fascists tried to hide the traces of their horrible crimes. They tried but were not able to … Please look at the sand that turned grey. Even at present after a good many years it seems as if it were parched because of human blood and ash of the remains … Such is this former kingdom of death, as it was called by the condemned, and as such it will appear before your eyes during your visit to the modest Paneriai Museum. People, please remember what fascism means.”

The Lithuanian, Stele, wrote the following description in 1984:

“Here in the Paneriai Forest from 1941-44 the Hitlerite occupiers and their local collaborators destroyed 100,000 people. Hiding the evidence of their crimes, from December 1943 they burned the corpses of the people who had been shot. Among those killed were 70,000 Jews: men, women and children.”

It is hard to find the words to describe this kind of history, but another poet (Alfonsas Bukontas) put it this way:

 “They fell stricken by bullets,
Throwing their hands in the air
In the last moment
Like a bird flying through the night
And suddenly surfacing in light.
Like a handful of gravel to every slumbering
Like a core of steel for the bell, quiet until now
Like the only bud suddenly unfolding
Containing the sap of all roots,
Thrown directly at you,
At you, frozen here, where toll
In the green belfries of the pines
Shot lives.”