Between September 9-13 I had the pleasure of exploring the beautiful city of Vilnius, Lithuania while simultaneously getting the opportunity to learn about the oppression and destruction of the Jewish culture that occurred here.
Our final day in Vilnius was also the heaviest of the four. We started out the morning by packing our lives back up into our suitcases and putting them on the bus. From there it was a short bus ride over to the Museum of Genocide Victims (KGB Museum). We ended up getting there before the museum opened, giving us time to explore the area some.
During this time I chose to sit in a nearby park and soak up some vitamin D with my classmates. It was nice having this free time to laugh and get to know each other. On many levels, it feels as if I have known my class for so much longer than 3 days. Traveling in this foreign place brought us together incredibly fast.
The KGB museum opened at 10am and our guide met us in the lobby. She started our tour with a short history of the building we were in. Built in 1899, the building was originally a courthouse until it was taken over by the predecessor of the KGB in 1940. The Gestapo were centered here in 1941-1944 until the KGB regained control of the building and kept control until 1991.
With this introduction, the guide led us into the basement of the building where the secret prison for political prisoners was kept. When prisoners were brought here they were first placed in very small rooms, referenced to as the “boxes,” where they waited for their documents to go through. From here they went to the search room where everything was taken from them and they were photographed and fingerprinted.
There were around 28 thousand prisoners that went through here during the second Soviet occupation. The prisoners here were only kept here long enough for interrogation and then they were shipped either to mental institutions, deported to Siberia, or executed.
The reason many prisoners ended up in mental institutions following their stay here was because of the torture they endured during their time. The most striking form of torture they mentioned on the tour, to me, was the solitary confinement in water. Prisoners were stripped to their underwear and then kept in a room that was filled with ice water (which eventually turned to ice in the winter). There was only one small bar in the center of the room not submerged in water that the prisoners could balance on to attempt to stay out of the water for the (up to) five days/nights they stayed here.
After seeing the deplorable conditions the prisoners were kept in, the guide showed us to the execution room. 1038 people were executed here after being sentenced for betraying the motherland. Most of these bodies were then taken to Tuskulenai, where they were buried in a pit.
Once we finished our tour of the KGB prison, our guide then took us upstairs where there was an exhibit about the Soviet deportations to Siberia. In 1941, the first year of these deportations, 17,000 people were deported from Lithuania to Siberia. These people mostly consisted of intellectuals and independents. Following WWII, deportations began to place every year until 1953. No fewer than 39,000 children were deported during this time.
With this, our tour of the KGB museum ended and we headed to Tuskulenai Peace Park, where many of the KGB prisoners were buried in a pit. The park was originally constructed by the Soviets to hide the bodies that were buried here. Despite their efforts, the burial site was found and a memorial was built for these people. The memorial consists of a large dome shaped room that is lined with the 724 boxes that each contain the individual remains of every body that they found on the park premises. The boxes are simply marked with a number and seem to be endless. It is a very powerful memorial.
Following our tour of the Peace Park, we loaded back onto the bus and drove a short distance to Paneriu Forest. Here is where the Holocaust truly began. Here was the start of the mass murder of Jews.
Prior to German occupation, the Russian army had dug pits here to store fuel and other necessities. Once WWII began, the Germans used these pits as a place to execute thousands of Jews. From the ghetto in Vilnius, Jews were marched to Paneriu, executed, and pushed into the pre-made pits. During the Holocaust, 100,000 people were murdered here. Of those, 70,000 were Jews. Men, women, and children alike were killed here. When the Nazis realized the war was coming to an end, they attempted to hide this genocide by burning all of the bodies in one pit.
When walking through this park, there are a smattering of memorials to different kinds of people (Lithuanians, Russians, etc) and the path leads to the different pits. While this is an incredibly tragic site of history, it would be difficult to get the full story without a guide. Unfortunately there is a severe lack of signs to signify what atrocities happened here. However, there is currently a competition going on to redesign the park to be more informative to the masses. I’m hopeful that a redesign will bring more people to this historical site and will hopefully aide in informing the public of this tragedy.
Following our somber tour, we loaded back onto our bus and finally headed on our way to Poland.
Until next time,