• January 5, 2015
  • 311

Revitalization of Ponary has begun

Work has begun to revitalize Ponary, the site of the biggest mass genocide against Jewish and Polish communities living in the former Eastern Borderlands (eastern lands that formerly belonged to Poland). The place will be modernized over the coming years, and it is hoped that this will contribute to spreading knowledge about the tragedy that occurred there.

‘The contemporary group of monuments in Ponary, reminding about the murder of some 100, 000 people, is old-fashioned. The necessity for reconstruction of this place has been highlighted for 20 years. I am happy that the work has finally begun,’ said Markas Zingeris, the Director of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.

An international contest was held to choose projects to be used in the revitalization of the Ponary monuments. There were sixteen project entries, and the jury chose the three best ideas.

Zingeris points out: ‘It was a contest of ideas. Now we will prepare the final version of the project, based on the winning ideas.’

The director of Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, which manages the monuments in Ponary, highlights that the most important task is to ‘preserve the authenticity of this place’. ‘The tragedy occured in the forest, so this place cannot be adapted into a park,’ claims Zingeris.

The main aim is not to intervene to a large extent in the existing group of monuments. The existing monuments will be preserved and the paths leading to them will be cleaned and improved upon. The educational centre will be developed. According to Zingeris, the centre will be enlarged, but at the same time it ‘will not eclipse the place of the massacre’.

‘The task of architects will be to complete the project while maintaining the harmonious coexistence of nature, the monuments and the educational centre,’ says Zingeris.

Ponary, a district of Vilnius, was a forest bordering with Vilnius during the Second World War. Executions were carried out there between 1941-1944. In total, between 56, 000 and 70, 000 Jews with Polish citizenship (the number varies depending on different sources) and between 2, 000 and 20, 000 Polish people were killed in the Ponary forest. Other minorities and peoples were also murdered, including Gypsies, Tatars, Belarussians, Soviet prisoners and Lithuanian Communist activists.

‘The place chosen for executions met all the necessary requirements for such an action. The sentenced people could be brought from near-by Vilnius and delivered in lorries or railroad wagons from remote places. The forest prevented executions from being witnessed by anybody and muted the sound of gunshots,’ wrote Helena Pasierbska, the founder of the Association ‘Rodzina Ponarska’ (‘The Ponary Family’).

The people responsible for executions were Nazi Germans and those Lithuanians who collaborated with them. The victims were buried in seven holes. At the end of the war, about 68, 000 bodies were dug up and burned in order to attempt to keep the massacre a secret.

The first monument commemorating the victims of the genocide in Ponary was built just after the war, during Soviet times. Later on, the monument commemorating Jews killed in Ponary was built. Thanks to the effort of ‘Rodzina Ponarska’ and ‘Wspólnota Polska’ (“Polish Community”) associations, in 2000 a metal cross with plaques was unveiled. The cross is several metres high and the names of murdered Polish people are written on the plaques.

The area of the memorials in Ponary encompasses about 20 hectares. Apart from the larger monuments, there are also smaller ones commemorating particular people. Also highlighted are ‘the holes of death’. ‘In fact, this whole area is the one big grave,’ says Zigmas Vitkus, the supervisior of the Ponary monuments.

The monuments in Ponary are visited by about 8, 000 people every year. ‘The visitors are mainly from Polish trips, but also some people from the USA and Israel. There are very few Lithuanians among the visitors,’ says Vitkus.

‘In Lithuania, Ponary as an execution site is not very well-known. It is a difficult topic,’ says Zingeris. He emphasizes that the main objective of the renovation of the monuments is to ‘spread the truth’.

Translated by Joanna Stępińska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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