- November 14, 2012
Get to Know the Whole Truth About Ponary
The Friday meeting of the representatives of a branch of Białystok Institute of National Remembrance and the Association of Rodzina Ponarska with students of Polish schools in the Vilnius region was an attempt to rescue from oblivion the Ponary tragic events and heroic attitude of young people forming the Association of Young Poles.
The facts about the Ponary events remain unsaid in the recommended books for history in Lithuanian schools. The Czas textbook for the 10th grade, written by Ignas Kaplerisa, Antanas Meištasa et al and published in 2007, contains only one sentence about the Ponary events: “Of those sentenced to death there were formed special units that dug out and burned the corpses in places of mass executions in Ponary and Fort IX in Kaunas.”
In the chapter “Are we responsible for our history?” we are being convinced that the “Jews murderers label” is unfair: “Persecution and extermination of Jews During World War II was organized by Nazi Germany, by which Lithuania was occupied. It is obvious that without the help of the Lithuanian authorities that collaborated with Nazis it would be impossible to murder so many of our Jewish people. Several thousand participants of the murders is a bloody stain on Lithuania’s name that cannot be removed.” There is not even a word about 20 thousand Poles who had the courage to stand up to the Nazis.
Waldemar Wilczewski, the head of the Public Education Office in the Institute of National Remembrance Bialystok, has shared with the students a different point of view. He was talking about other young people who were members of the Association of Young Poles and who were executed in Ponary by the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union that collaborated with German Nazis.
Waldemar Wilczewski said to Kurier that the lecture was not intended to be a spiteful reminder of events but a presentation of real events. There are no nations of traitors just as there are no nations of heroes: “The worst thing is that the longer we don’t say it out loud and keep pretending that it didn’t happen the more it is alive.”
As it was said during the meeting, we still talk very little about it and know very little. The list of the missing people is incomplete and most of those murdered will remain anonymous. Their relatives are still alive and they are asked to preserve the history by handing over the photographs and personal data of the murdered people to the Institute of National Remembrance. It will be possible to do it on the occasion of the projection of a film about Ponary on December 7 in the House of Polish Culture in Vilnius (Dom Kultury Polskiej w Wilnie). Waldemar Wilczewski briefly reminded the younger generation the facts about Ponary and underlined the heroism of the members of the Association of Young Poles youth organization. Before World War II Ponary was an idyllic village. Forested hills attracted young people to spring outings or in winter to skiing on snowy slopes. Resinous air and silence attracted people to the cottages that were built next to the railway station.
World War II destroyed this image. Since that time Poles and Jews associate Ponary with mass murder and with scheduled and systematic destruction of Polish and Jewish intellectuals. About 70 thousand Jews and about 20 thousand Poles were murdered here in the years 1941-1944 by the Nazis and by the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union who were collaborating with them. The victims were shot and buried in huge pits that were designed by the Soviet authorities as a store and base for liquid fuels.
After the seizure of Vilnius in June 1941 the Nazis drew attention to the deep pits of the failed fuel base and they found them suitable to perform a large scale extermination that would be well concealed. But it was impossible to hide the truth. In 1943 Józef Mackiewicz, a writer and a publicist, by accident witnessed the enormous execution. He saw the massacre of the Jews that already took place on the railway track. He described it as “a human slaughterhouse” when a speeding express train run people over, cutting them into pieces. In 1945 he published Ponary-base (Ponary-baza).
We also know a lot about the crime from Kazimierz Sakowicz, a journalist who had the opportunity to observe the incidents from the attic of his house which was near the place of execution. He carefully hid his notes in bottles and buried them in the garden next to the porch. After the war the materials were discovered and published in 1998. Helena Pasierbska also undertook rescuing the events from oblivion. She was working as a liaison officer in Armia Krajowa under the pseudonym “Nawoja.” She was denounced by a secret agent and she was imprisoned in Łukiszki where she stayed from May until December 1942. During the imprisonment she promised herself that if she leaves Łukiszki, she will provide documentation for the crime. She kept her word. She published among the others books entitled Ponary – Vilnius’ Golgotha (Ponary — wileńska Golgota), Vilnius’ Ponary (Wileńskie Ponary). The books are based on carefully collected archival materials, documents and reports.
Initially the execution in Ponary was performed by the operation unit called Sonderkommando. Later it was the Lithuanian special unit, Ypatingas Burys, created by the German Security Service. The unit consisted of Lithuanian volunteers that were characterized by enormous cruelty. They were recruited mainly from the Lithuanian nationalist paramilitary organization Lietuvos Šaulių Sąjunga (the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union) which was founded in 1919. The unit of Ponary riflemen had hundreds of Lithuanian volunteers. Firstly, it was planned to kill the Jews, from babies to old people, as a part of the fascist plan termed “the final solution of the Jewish question.”
The next step was the annihilation of all the enemies of the Nazi regime – mostly Poles and to a lesser extend Gypsies, Russians, the Communists-Lithuanians. A great number of Lithuanian officers and soldiers who were connected with General Povilas Plechavičius’ units, disgraced in the fight with the Polish Armia Krajowa partisans and dissolved by Germans, were also shot. Among those executed was Vilnius intelligence: Dr. Kazimierz Pelczar, a forerunner in cancer treatment and a professor at the University of Stefan Batory; Mieczysław Engiel, a respected lawyer and a member of the Vilnius Sejmas; Mieczysław Gutkowski, a lawyer a professor of revenue services and tax law science at the University of Stefan Batory; Stanisław Węsławski, a lawyer and a composer; Wanda Rewieńska, a geographer and a distinguished scout activist; and also the most important part of Polish society: scientists, clergy, teachers, lawyers, doctors and independence activists. In May 1942 the cream of Vilnius youth died. Gestapo pronounced a sentence concerning girls and boys aged 17-24 who were members of the Association of Young Poles, an organization subordinate to Armia Krajowa.
After several months of Łukiszki prison ordeal where they were brutally tortured, beaten and tormented, they found themselves standing in Ponary, over the deadly pits. None of them betrayed their friends.
This organization was formed even before the war and it was about self-education. Initially it was called the League of Free Poles. It referred to Philomats and Philarets, there were a lot of talks about the need for defence against the pressure from the East. When the war broke the League changed its tasks. It transformed into the Union of Free Poles and initially they voluntarily helped refugees. They also organized clothing and places for them to sleep. Their next undertaking was issuing of the newsletter “Four Our and Your Freedom” in an edition of 400 copies. The aim of the newsletter was to inform and propagate. After the first leak, in 1940, 20 people who were distributors were imprisoned in Łukiszki.
They were taken from their houses by Saguma – the Lithuanian secret police. In March 1941 the leaders of the Union: Jana Mackiewicz, Stanisław Kulesza, Tadeusz Dworakowski and others were imprisoned. In 1942, in the three executions on 5th, 12th and 13th of May, 70 members of the Association of the Young Poles were killed. There were no more active, enterprising and conscious young people. Józek Michałowski, one of the oldest conspirators of the Association was 23 years old on the day of his death. He had a wife and a daughter. He did not want his family to live in an occupied country.
Egon Żaba came from a family with the patriotic tradition retained throughout many generations the members of which participated in national uprisings. He understood the fight with the enemy as a commitment. Czesiek Miotkowski was 17 years old. In Łukiszki prison he was tormented so terribly that he took the trip to the place of execution as a relief. The eighteen years old Heniek Pilść was a diligent student. On a preserved short note from the prison he wrote: “I know that if we meet a tragic fate, it’s only because we are Poles…”
Nineteen years old Józek Jaroszewicz whose father was a POW (a prisoner of war) wrote in the short note: “Thank you Mum that you thought me how to pray. Otherwise, I would not stand it…”
The key figure was Janek Mackiewicz, “Konrad.” He was born in 1921 in Vilnius. As a graduate from Zygmunt August junior high school, at the age of seventeen he inspired the establishment of the self-education group, the League of Free Poles. In early September 1939 he organized duties at the railway station in Vilnius. He was arrested by the Soviets in March 1941 and held by NKVD in a torture cell in Vilnius. He miraculously survived but was arrested again by the German-Lithuanian Gestapo. This time for good. In his farewell short note he wrote down his last verse: “I know three truths. Here they are: Homeland, Nation, Christ the King. Although the tortured body will die, the spirit itself will prevail the whistle of bullets…”
Maria Wieloch, a president of the Rodzina Ponarska Association, is a daughter of Stanisław Wieloch who was murdered in Ponary. “Poles are waiting for an expression of remorse from Lithuanians for the Ponary nassacre,” she said.
Rodzina Ponarska commemorates the victims of the crime by funding plaques in Poland what could be seen on the presentation. After the meeting the assembled company went to Ponary to honour the memory of the victims. The students lit the candles and put them at the place. Rev. Jerzy Witkowski prayed for the souls of the dead: “The prayer in this place is the expression of our grief and hope at the same time. An expression of grief because such tragic events took place here; an expression of hope because we hope that it will never happen again.”
The meeting was also attended by Anna Kasińska, the Polish embassy counsellor in Vilnius; Piotr Wdowiak, the first diplomatic secretary of the consular department of the Polish embassy in Vilnius; Barbara Bojaryn-Kazberuk, a director of the Institute of National Remembrance in Bialystok; Maria Wieloch, a president of the Rodzina Ponarska Association; Renata Cytacka, a secretary of the council in the local government of the Vilnius region; Edmund Szot, a manager of culture department in the local government of the Vilnius region; Jerzy Barkowski, a councillor of the local government of the Soleczniki region; and the directors, teachers and students of the Polish schools from the Vilnius and Soleczniki regions and the city of Vilnius. The meeting was organized by the Samostanowienie Foundation and it was led by its president, Stanisław Pieszka, in cooperation with Artur Ludkowski, the director of the House of Polish Culture in Vilnius.
There is still more reflection on the “aggravation” subject. The need for bringing those events to light can be questioned. Somebody may say that we should let bygones be bygones, that there is no point in going back to past. It is true that we have great friends who are Lithuanians and that we marry them and work at the same places. That is true but what happened in the Ponary forest was not just a small skirmish. In this forest, in the years 1941-1944, a deliberate and treacherous destruction of the cream of Polish intelligence by the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union took place. Do 20 thousand people deserve to be forgotten? Especially that Poles have not even heard a word “sorry” from Lithuania. If late President Brazauskas officially apologized to the Jews in Israel for the Holocaust, why wouldn’t Dalia Grybauskaite do the same for Poles? Concealing the crime and pretending that nothing has happened casts a shadow on the brotherly relations between Poles and Lithuanians. The expression remorse would be a step toward their improvement.
Tłumaczenie Monika Rak w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Monika Rak the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.