Story of the Vilna Ghetto
Yudel Noar Branch
There were 100,000 people killed at Ponary Forest. Of these, 70,000 were Jews, mostly from Vilna. Ponary is located 3.7 miles from Vilna, Lithuania. The Soviets had dug large pits im the sandy soil of Ponary in order to install oil tanks. When the Germans took over, the pre dug pits were used as mass graves. At the end of this page are descriptions of the killing by eye witnesses from the book, The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystandersby Klee, Dressen, Riess, and Trevor-Roper. Victims were taken to Ponary by train, truck, or marched.
|Seen from near the pits, the train cars in the background show the rail lines used to transport prisoners to Ponary.|
The Jews had to climb down the sides of the pit and stand in a circle. They were then shot in the head. The bodies were covered with lime/sand and the next batch came to be killed. In this way the pits were filled with corpses.
When you visit the Ponary Memorial today, there are three pits where the
killing took place. The pits, today, are not as deep as they originally
were because they are filled with ashes.
When it became obvious that the Germans would be driven from the area by the advancing Soviets, efforts were made to destroy the evidence of the mass killings. Eighty Jews from the Kailis work camp were brought to dig out and burn the corpses. Piles were made of alternating layers of bodies and wood so that they could be burnt. The burning was done by or in the pits. If you look today, the trees by the pits are not old. The older trees had been used for wood to burn the bodies.
When people came after the war, there were ashes covering everything, like snow. After the war, the ashes were gathered and put into the pits.
The 80 workers from Kailis lived in a 4th pit. These workers knew
that in the end they would also be killed. They decided that they
must escape so they could tell the story of the pits. They dug an escape
tunnel, out of their pit, about 100 feet. The exit of the tunnel
was still in camp territory.
|The pit where the workers lived and tried to escape. Notice the sandy soil and the stones used to line the pits in preparation for oil tanks.|
They needed tools to cut the chains on their legs. They also had
to cut the barb wire around the camp. They found tools among the
corpses. Some of those killed in Ponary were workers of various trades.
When rounded up in an action, they were told that they would be sent to
work camps so they had brought their tools.
In order to dig they used spoons, hands, whatever they could. Fortunately it was sandy soil. To hide the sand dug out they would fill their pockets with the sand from the tunnel and distribute it as they worked in the pits. One problem was that the tunnel could collapse because it was dug in sand. They also needed to scavenge wood for supports. So, some of the wood of Ponary was used for something other than burning bodies. They also needed electricity to light the tunnel. The electricity came from a generator that was in their living pit used for heat and electricity.
In April 1944 they made their escape. They divided into groups of ten. They decided each must must scatter and keep going no matter what happened to the others. Silence was critical. There was no moon that night. They cut their chains and started to go. Suddenly, there was a crack of a breaking stick. The SS heard, shone a light and saw the road full of prisoners. Everyone ran. Of the 80 who tried to escape, only eleven made it to the nearby Partisans in the forest and two went to the Byelorussia partisans through the front line.
The Germans needed to continue to burn the corpses. They got more Jewish workers from the Kailis camp to finish the task.
accounts from soldiers of a German motorized column as they watch a massacre
Paneriai, Lithuania (The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystandersby Klee, Dressen, Riess, and Trevor-Roper.)
A driver's statement:
I cannot say whether we arrived in Paneriai on 5 or 10 July 1941.... While we were repairing our vehicles - I can no longer tell whether it was on the first or second day of our stay there - I suddenly saw a column of about four hundred men walking along the road into the pine wood. They were coming from the direction of Vilna [Vilnius]. The column, which consisted exclusively of men aged between twenty-five and sixty, was led into the wood by a guard of Lithuanian civilians. The Lithuanians were armed with carbines. The people were fully dressed and carried only the barest essentials on them. As I remember, the guards wore armbands, the colour of which I can no longer recall. I do remember that Hamann and, I think, Hechinger went off after the column. About an hour later Hamann returned to our quarters. He was very pale and told me in an agitated manner what he had witnessed in the wood. His actual words were: "You know the Jews you saw marching past before? Not one of them is still alive." I said that this couldn't be the case, whereupon he explained to me that all the men had been shot. Any of them that weren't dead after the shooting had been given the coup de grace....
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 same wood. These too were accompanied by armed civilians. The delinquents were very quiet. I saw no women and children in either of the two groups.
Together with some of my colleagues from my motorized column I followed this second group. As I recall, the NCOs Riedl, Dietrich, Schroff, Hamann, Locher, Ammann, Greule and possibly some others whom I can no longer remember came with us. 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 metres from the entry. To the left and right of the entry stood an armed civilian. The people were then led into the gravel [sic] pit in small groups to the right by the guards. Running round 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 almost 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'm only a poor composer." The two civilians standing at the entrance started pummeling 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 from 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 the 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 were therefore able to confirm that the (approximately) 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 were 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.
This gave me an opportunity to talk to one of them. I asked him whether he could really do such a thing just like that, and pointed out that the Jews had done nothing to him. To this he answered, "Yes -after what we've gone through under the domination, of Russian Jewish Commissars, after the Russians invaded Lithuania we no longer find it difficult." During the course of our conversation he told me that he had been suspected of spying by the Russians. He had been arrested and had been thrown in and out of various GPU prisons, although he was in no way guilty. He told me he had only been a lorry-driver and had never harmed a soul. One of the methods they used to make him confess was to tear out his fingernails. He told me that each of the guards present had had to endure the most extreme suffering. He went on to tell me that a Jewish Commissar had broken into a flat, tied up a man and raped his wife before the man's very eyes. Afterwards the Commissar had literally butchered the wife to death, cut out her heart, fried it in a pan and had then proceeded to eat it. I was also told by comrades that in Vilna a German soldier had been shot dead from a church tower. For this another 300-400 Jews were executed in the same quarry. In this connection, I would also like to say that the very next day once again about the same number of Jews were led along the road into the wood. Apart from that one day I did not go to the execution area again....
I can only say that the mass shootings in Paneriai were horrific. At the time I said: "May God grant us victory because if get their revenge, we're in for a hard time."
As already mentioned, we arrived in Paneriai one afternoon in the first week of July 1941. The next day we heard rifle and machine-gun fire coming from the woods to the south of Paneriai. Since we were behind the front we wanted to get to the bottom of the matter. I can no longer remember now exactly whether it was during the morning or in the early afternoon that we went off to find out where the shooting was coming from. Anyway, I set off with Greule, Hoding, Wahl and Schroff, who were all members of my unit, in the direction of the woods where the shooting was coming from.
When we arrived at the spot, we saw people, who we subsequent learned from the leader of the squad were Lithuanians, in the act carrying out mass shootings of Jews. On the path which ran between the two pits there was a light-machine-gun, pointing to the left, being used by the Lithuanians. In front of the machine-gun, standing by t edge of the pit, were ten delinquents, who were shot with the machine gun straight into the pit. I actually looked into the pit and saw that the bottom was already covered with bodies....
In the ditch that had been excavated on the other side of this execution area were the Jews who had. not yet been shot. They we all men of different ages. I saw that they had to take off their shoes and shirts and throw them on to the side of the trench. The Lithuanian standing above were rummaging through these things. I also notice that at one spot in front of the ditch there was a big mountain of shoe and clothes. While the Jews in the trench were getting undressed the Lithuanians beat them with heavy truncheons and rifle-butts. The were then led out of the trench ten at a time to stand in front of the machine-gun.
The leader of the Lithuanians spoke good German and we went up to him and asked what was going on, saying that this was a downright disgrace. He explained to, us that he had once been a teacher at German school in Konigsberg. For this the "Bolsheviks" had torn off his fingernails. Moreover, some of the members of the immediate family - parents, brothers and sisters - of this young Lithuanian who was doing the shooting had been captured at the station by the Bolsheviks before the arrival of the German troops and were to have been transported to Siberia. The transport did not take place because of the arrival of the German soldiers. As a result, all the people who were locked up in the wagons starved to death. Why they were now shooting these Jews, if indeed this Lithuanian's story corresponded with the truth, which I found highly improbable, and whether these particular Jews were the ones who had been involved in that action, he did not tell us....
On one of the last days - it was the third or fourth day of our stay in Paneriai, I can no longer remember exactly now - I went to the execution site once again. If I recall correctly, no more shooting could be heard that day and I wanted to look at the place again. I do not remember who went with me. When I reached the execution area there was a man in a grey uniform standing on the path between the two pits who had been gesturing at us to keep away from a long way off. We kept going, however, and when we got close to him I said to him that there was no need to make such a fuss, as we had already seen everything. As we approached I saw that he was wearing a dark- coloured band on his left forearm with the letters "SD" embroidered on it. I now saw that slightly to one side there was a coach with two horses, a landau. On the box of the coach stood a second SD man whom I did not look at more closely. In the coach sat two very well-dressed elderly Jews. I had the impression that these were high-class or important people. I inferred this because they looked very well groomed and intelligent and "ordinary Jews" would certainly not have been transported in a coach. The two Jews had to climb out and I saw that both were shaking dreadfully. They apparently knew what was in store for them. The SS man who had initially gestured to us to keep away was carrying a submachine-gun. He made the two Jews go and stand at the edge of the pit and shot both of them in the back of the head, so that they fell in. I can still remember that one of them was carrying a towel and a soapbox, which afterwards also lay in the trench....
I would also like to say that we all said to one another what on earth would happen if we lost the war and had to pay for all this.
A book-keeper's statement:
At about 3.00 in the afternoon on the day after our arrival, Wahl, a member of our unit, came up to me and said that a large column of Jews from Vilna had been sent down to Paneriai. We went to the road and I saw a fairly large column of civilians marching from the north, from the direction of Vilna. As I recall, they were walking four abreast and I estimated that there were at least three hundred of them. They were all men aged between about twenty and fifty. There were no women and children. These prisoners were really quite well dressed and most of them were carrying hand-luggage such as small suitcases, parcels and bundles....
Out of curiosity and to find out if there was a camp close by, Wahl, Corporal Dietrich and some other men from our unit - there must have been about five of us - set off about thirty or forty metres behind the column.... After we had walked for about ten to fifteen minutes -I would say we had not gone more than 1 kilometre into the wood -we came to a clearing which looked like a building site. I later learned - I no longer remember from whom - that this building site was the work of the Russians, who had been planning to build a petrol warehouse on it.
From where I was standing ... in between the other men I took a photograph of a part of the trench with the Jews inside (picture 1). I watched the first ten Jews being led out of the trench. One of the guards held out a club to one side which the first Jew had to hold on to with both hands. The other nine walked one behind the other, stooping and holding on to the man in front with their hands because they could not see. The guard led these ten Jews to the path where they slid down the steep embankment. Some of them lost their footing and fell. When they reached the bottom of the pit they had to line up as before and were then led by the guard to the semicircular embankment of the trench on the east side. I also photographed this situation from where I was standing (picture 2).
The Jews then had to get into a line side by side with their backs to the machine-gun on the path. The guards stepped back a little or moved a little to one side and the order to fire was given in Lithuanian by one of the guards, whereupon the machine-gun started firing. The ten Jews keeled over and those of them not killed by the machine-gun fire were finished off with a bullet in the head by one of the guards.
Exactly the same procedure was followed as each group of ten Jews was led to the execution point and shot. We stayed there for about one hour and during this time some four to five groups were executed, so I myself watched the killing of about forty to fifty Jews.
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