Vilnius Jewish Community at Paneriai Forest Memorial
Every year the Vilnius Jewish Community, Lithuanian government, and guests from other countries congregate together at the Paneriai Forest Memorial. The meeting is to remember the hundreds of thousands of victims of Nazi atrocities during WWII. Seventy thousand Jews, two thousand Roma, Russians, Poles and Lithuanians.
I’ve been to this ceremony many times over the years–sometimes with my clients, sometimes with my family. Looking through photo albums on my computer, I found a folder from the 2008 ceremony. I thought I’d share them with you, ten years on.
In the picture above, are two war survivors. There are very few of them still alive. The woman on the left is Fania Brancovskaja. She fled the Vilnius Ghetto one day before the liquidation, joined a Jewish partisan unit in the forest of Rudninkai, and was lucky to survive the war’s hardships. Every year on Holocaust Day, Fania participates in the ceremony of commemoration. I’m so used to her presence, that it’s hard to imagine that one day, she won’t be there.
The Approach to the Holocaust in Lithuania has Changed
One of the most positive changes that I’ve witnessed in the past few years is the addition of Holocaust history taught in school curriculae. One such school activity is the “Live Stones” project. School children take stones, paint them and write Jewish names on them. Then they place the stones on a grave. You can find such stones in numerous holocaust mass graves around Lithuania. The idea is connect to one of our country’s terrible tragedies.
On this picture, you can see the late president of the Lithuanian Jewish Community — Shimon Alperavicius — with his deputy, Shimon Gurevicius. Every year, many Lithuanian and foreign politicians participate in this ceremony.
In the photo above, high school children prepare a short silent theatre performance holding a barbed wire. It was both moving and touching. I’ve been asking myself – “Do these youngsters understand about the Holocaust? Could they imagine what do Jewish families feel on this day?”
Lithuanian schools weren’t always so inclusive of Lithuanian Jewish history. It was only after the Soviet period that schools began to teach about the Holocaust, and it was only gradually acknowledged as part of Lithuanian history. I find this very important, and believe that only through dialogue and education can we make a step forward to peace and to prevent future acts of aggression.
About the Paneriai Forest
There were seven pits in Paneriai Forest, originally used in the construction of fuel tanks. Once World War II broke out, the construction halted. The occupying Nazi army chose the location as the site to imprison and murder thousands of innocents. Between July 1941 and August 1944, up to 100,000 people were mass murdered.
In the picture above, you can see one of the pits. This pit was used as a prison for a group of 80 men, whose duty was to burn corpses, exhumated from other pits. It is famous as a site of escape. In April 1944, men finished digging a tunnel and tried to escape. As 33 men pressed their way to freedom, guards heard the noise and took action. Out of 33 men, only 12 succeeded to flee, and of those, only 11 survived the war.
They lived in Israel and told the story of what happened to them.
Paneriai Forest Memorial is a usual part of our tour in Vilnius, as well as our Jewish Heritage tour to the Baltic States. It is a very difficult place to visit, but we fully support in this informal education and its tribute to the humanity.
By Daniel Gurevich