July 16, 2019

Arriving in Vilnius it was 9:00pm and it looked like 4:00pm. Sunny, warm and with what seemed like so much life left in the day. After 20 hours or travel, however, I was very happy to call it a night.

A little context: over the last year and a half I have been teaching about Vilnius and its significance during the Holocaust in the Museum of Jewish Civilization at the University of Hartford. Voices of Hope is fortunate to have this partnership with the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and is able to use the space for middle and high school field trips.

The exhibit Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania follows a series of excavations carried out to discover remnants of a lost Jewish community. Needless to say it was so special to walk through the city and the former ghetto areas learning about Jewish life there before and during the Second World War.

Our first day we learned about the Vilna Gaon, Max Weinreich, scholarly movements in the city and Vilnius as the epicenter of Yiddish culture. Our walking tour brought us to the main Judenrat building within the former ghetto, the streets of the former Jewish quarter and the neighborhood of the intelligentsia. There was so much information to take in including the classical beauty of the city.

There was one experience, however, that struck me to my core: Ponar. It is a place of darkness, of pain and, for many, it became a final resting place. This forest was the site of incredible violence for the Jews of Vilna. I suppose it was appropriate that we reached this place in pouring rain. It suited the solemnity of the environment. This was the place where the Final Solution was first put into action.

Today I stood at the edge of where tortured, desperate yet courageous Jewish prisoners were forced to live after burning the bodies of their murdered loved ones, their neighbors and friends. I stood at a killing pit where men, women and children met their violent end. I saw where these prisoners attempted escape from the forest. There are very few words that describe being present in such a place, especially after teaching about it for a year and a half.

There is nothing left of the 100,000 people who were sent to Ponar. 70,000 Jewish lives were lost here. Some were marched to the area, others by train, but mostly people arrived by truck. Many Gypsies were murdered here as well. There are other horrendous details of this forest that need no mention. This platform will not be used simply to shock readers.

What was the one of the hardest things to swallow during the experience, besides the obvious horrendous killing that went on here, is that it was often carried out by local Lithuanian civilians. People who had lived amongst the Jews for so long were somehow able to become their neighbors’ murderers. These were ordinary people with various motives but, ultimately, these ordinary people found something within to become killers. One has to wonder how these people were able to cross that line form which you can never go back. However, my goal is not to comprehend the mentality or heinous actions carried out by locals and the SS. It is to take what I have learned, internalize it, be vigilant of warning signs and speak out against the oppression and dehumanization of people when I see it.

After teaching about Ponar, seeing it for myself was striking and so meaningful. After seeing the former ghetto, one can create a more vivid image of thousands of people, taken from crowded streets and transported to the woods. You can almost see their faces and hear their breath. Standing in Ponar you can feel the fear and despair that was left behind.

*To watch the NOVA documentary “Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” click here.