July 17, 2019
Kaunas, or Kovno, is the 2nd largest city in Lithuania. It was originally established as a fortress due to its strategic location. The Soviets had built a series of forts around the city during World War I and it was named the provisional capitol in 1920.
Once the Germans had taken the city in 1941, violence against Jews exploded around the country. Within weeks thousands were murdered in brutal ways, mostly by their neighbors. Fort 9, one of these forts established in 1914, had been used during the interwar period for Polish prisoners. During World War II, it was a place that Jews and resistance fighters were taken to be tortured and killed.
The fort itself is now a museum situated high up above the town in a beautiful large green space. As you walk from the arrival point up the sidewalks, the enormous memorial an already be seen. Three structures jutting out of the ground, each representing a different theme: pain – hope and independence – death. It has an incredibly looming presence as you walk closer and closer. Each structure becoming a kind of ghostly being.
Further along you see the plaques. For the Jews of Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Munich and Jews from various places in France, Poland and the Soviet Union, not to mention the resistance members murdered here. All of these people, left to rest in mass graves at our feet. It is known that 64 people escaped from this place. 11 would survive to the end of the war. 50,000 people would be killed here.
The fort itself is, as expected, in excellent condition and the exhibits are very moving and very extensive. The most moving was a room with an entire wall listing the names, ages and hometowns of the Jews murdered there. The exhibit also housed photographs and belongings of those killed. It focused on individuals while also addressing the sheer number of people whose lives ended in this place.
The cells in the fort are eerie, cold spaces and I do not mean cold in temperature. Even though they are filled with photos and information today, one could imagine a number of prisoners here would suffer greatly here.
Despite the suffering that took place here there is an exhibition dedicated to those Lithuanians named as Righteous Among the Nations. I was concerned by a plaque describing the exhibit. See the photo below: Saviors of the Jews? I appreciate their acknowledgement of local collaboration but I have never heard of anyone, righteous or not, to be the saviors of the Jews. Perhaps I have simply never come across it…
This is really an impressive museum with a wealth of information for visitors. Its message is powerful as are the memorials found at the site of mass graves. It is an emotional place to reflect and to promise the many buried souls that they have not been forgotten.