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About sixty thousand Jews from Wilno (Vilnius, Jewish Vilna) and surrounding townships in present-day Lithuania were murdered by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators in huge pits on the outskirts of Ponary. Over a period of several years, Kazimierz Sakowicz, a Polish journalist who lived in the village of Ponary, was an eyewitness to the murder of these Jews as well as to the murders of thousands of non-Jews on an almost daily basis. He chronicled these events in a diary that he kept at great personal risk.
Written as a simple account of what Sakowicz witnessed, the diary is devoid of personal involvement or identification with the victims. It is thus a unique document: testimony from a bystander, an “objective” observer without an emotional or a political agenda, to the extermination of the Jews of the city known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.”
Sakowicz did not survive the war, but much of his diary did. Painstakingly pieced together by Rahel Margolis from scraps of paper hidden in various locations, the diary was published in Polish in 1999. It is here published in English for the first time, extensively annotated by Yitzhak Arad to guide readers through the events at Ponary.
For generations before its liquidation during World War II, the Jewish community of Wilno was a major center of Jewish secular and religious culture; world Jewry referred to the city as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." From the second half of the eighteenth century Wilno was part of tsarist Russia. Then in 1920 it came under Polish control, until September 19, 1939, when the Red Army occupied the city in accordance with the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact apportioning Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. A few weeks later the district was transferred to Lithuanian control. The local Jews welcomed the Soviets and later the Lithuanians, thinking that these rulers would protect them from the German menace. Indeed, during the months of Lithuanian control, Wilno, sandwiched between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, offered a center of vibrant Jewish life, and about 14,000 Jewish refugees moved to the city from German-occupied Poland.
In July 1940, the Red Army invaded Lithuania, annexing the country to the Soviet Union as a Soviet republic. The Soviet authorities banned activity byJewish organizations and political parties. Jewish educational and cultural institutions were closed down and Jewish leaders arrested. The entire educational system was put under government control. In the state schools where Yiddish was spoken, classes in Jewish history and religion and in the Hebrew language were prohibited; the new curriculum was steeped in Communist ideology and sang the praises of Soviet rule and Soviet leaders. Jews, especially the recently arrived refugees (including several leaders of the Polish Jewish community) and the Zionist youth movements, which continued to function clandestinely, sought ways to emigrate to the Land of Israel (Palestine) or other countries in the free world. Between September 1939 and the German invasion on June 22, 1941, about 6,500 Jews managed to leave Soviet Lithuania.
At the same time, a handful of Jews who had been members of the former Communist undergrounds in Poland and Lithuania found places in the new Soviet regime, chiefly in lower- and middle-echelon positions of the sort that had been off-limits to Jews in independent Poland and Lithuania. This situation, plus the fact that the Jews as a whole were favorably disposed toward the Soviet regime (which they saw as a bulwark against Nazi Germany), intensified the antisemitism that had always been rampant among the local Poles and Lithuanians.
Another factor in the new surge in antisemitism during this period was the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF), established in November 1940 by exiled representatives of the political parties in Lithuania who had escaped to Germany when the Soviets occupied the country. The LAF had underground branches inside Lithuania, where they disseminated vicious antisemitic propaganda though leaflets smuggled into the country. The leaflets called for a popular rising if Germany attacked the Soviet Union and the elimination, by whatever means, of the Jews from Lithuanian soil. One of the LAF leaflets-headed "What Are the Activists Fighting For?"-stated, "The Lithuanian Activist Front, by restoring new Lithuania, is determined to carry out an immediate and fundamental purging of the Lithuanian nation and its land of Jews, parasites, and monsters.... [This] will be one of the most essential preconditions for starting a new life."
On June 14-15, 1941, a week before the German invasion, the Soviet authorities in Lithuania banished "anti-Soviet elements" to Soviet Asia. Almost a fifth of the 20,000 deportees were Jews, some from Wilno. Even though more Jews, proportionally, were being deported than Lithuanians, the action did nothing to diminish Lithuanian antisemitism and Judeophobia. The fear of further Lithuanian deportations heightened the tension among the locals and increased the animosity toward the Soviet regime and the Jews just before Germany attacked the Soviet Union.
We do not have precise figures for the population and ethnic composition of Wilno on the eve of the German invasion. The last prewar census was conducted in 1931, when the city was under Polish rule. It listed 195,000 residents of the city, including 128,000 Poles (65.6 percent), 54,600 Jews (28 percent), and 2,000 Lithuanians (1 percent). The remaining 10,000 (5 percent) were Belorussians, Russians, Ukrainians, and others. This enumeration distorted the true picture. Because Wilno was a bone of contention between Poland and Lithuania, the Polish authorities wanted to show that the Lithuanians constituted a negligible minority in the city by inflating the number of Poles. According to Lithuanian documents submitted to the Germans after the German occupation, Lithuanians constituted 30 percent of the population and Jews nearly 40 percent; the balance were Poles, Belorussians, Russians, and others. There is no doubt that these numbers overstated the number of Lithuanians in the city. But both the Polish and Lithuanian figures yield an estimate of some 60,000 Jews in Wilno on the eve of the German invasion, including refugees from Poland.
The Germans entered Wilno on June 24, 1941, two days after the start of the invasion. In those two days about 3,000 Jews managed to be evacuated or flee to the Soviet hinterland, leaving about 57,000 Jews in the German-controlled city. Groups from the Lithuanian underground, calling themselves partisans, and soldiers from the 29th Lithuanian Territorial Corps of the Red Army, who had deserted en masse, attacked the retreating Soviet forces, murdering Jews as well. On June 23, after the Soviet authorities had fled, a provisional Lithuanian government, headed by Juozas Ambrazevicius, was established in Kovno (Kaunas). When Wilno fell, the Germans set up a military administration inthecity. At the same time, Lithuanian activists set up a council to run the city, with German consent. The council organized itself as a national and sovereign regime, with a police and military force, subordinate to the Lithuanian provisional government in Kowno.
The Jews of Wilno were not touched by the wave of pogroms perpetrated by Lithuanians that swept Kowno, Szawle (Siauliai), and other towns. Although there were attacks against Jews, and dozens were murdered in Wilno during the first days of the occupation, these murders did not compare in scale with what was taking place elsewhere in the country. Because the Lithuanians who had seized power in the city were a minority, they wanted to prove to the Germans that they could impose order; pogroms would have interfered with this goal. The Lithuanian leadership in Wilno also had an interest in painting the majority Poles as enemies of Germany and sympathetic to the Jews. A German report dated October 15, 1941, reads, "In the view of the Lithuanian population in the Vilnius [Wilno] district, the Jewish question ... takes second place after the Polish problem. The strongest argument of the Lithuanian populace in the Vilnius area against the Poles is that some of them are cooperating with the Jews."
A few days after the Germans entered Wilno, the German military authorities and Lithuanian civil government issued orders requiring Jews to wear the yellow badge forbidding them to use the sidewalks, subjecting them to a nighttime curfew, permitting them to buy food only at certain hours and in certain stores, and confiscating their property. On July 4, the Germans ordered the Jews to set up a Judenrat (council) and Jewish police force. The Jewish leadership selected Shaul Trotzki to head the Judenrat and named Jacob Gens, formerly a reserve officer in the Lithuanian army, chief of police.
One of the first anti-Jewish actions was a roundup of Jewish men on the city streets, conducted chiefly by the Lithuanian "partisans." Most of those picked up were taken to work for the Germans and sent home when their work was done. Some, however, did not return; rumor had it that they had been detailed to work at more distant sites. As became clear some months later, though, those who did not come back had been murdered by their abductors at Ponary.
The organized mass murder of the Jews of Wilno began with the arrival of Einsatzkommando 9, a subunit of Einsatzgruppe B, one of four German killing brigades, on July 2. Before they reached Wilno, Dr. Alfred Filbert, the Einsatzkommando commander, informed his men of their mission in the occupied Soviet Union: exterminating the Jews and key officials of the Soviet regime and the Communist Party. Filbert explained that the order came from Hitler and requested absolute obedience from his junior commanders and soldiers.
In early July the status of the Lithuanian administration in the city changed. The Lithuanian council, which had claimed sovereign power subject to the Lithuanian provisional government in Kowno, was abolished and replaced by a municipal government directly subordinate to the German commander in the city. The Lithuanian military units were disbanded; some of their members were reorganized into police units-both municipal police and mobile battalions-under the command of the German Ordnungspolizei (Order Police). Others were formed into a special 150-man unit, the Ypatingi Buriai (special ones). This unit was attached to Einsatzkommando 9 and helped arrest Jews and murder them at Ponary.
The roundups and murders in July targeted men almost exclusively, as was the practice of the Einsatzgruppen throughout the occupied Soviet Union. It was not until late July and early August that an order went out to begin the total extermination of the Jews, including women and children. In the initial roundups intellectuals and public figures were selected for elimination, and Einsatzkommando 9 ordered the Lithuanian police to draw up a list of such persons. Nevertheless, except for one or two Aktionen (killing actions) that targeted this group, all social classes were represented among the Jewish men picked up and murdered at Ponary from early July to early August 1941.
Sakowicz began keeping his diary on July 11, 1941. He did not refer to the executions of Jews and Communist cadres carried out by the Ypatingi Buriai and Einsatzkommando 9 during the previous two and a half weeks after the Germans entered Wilno. It is possible that these killings, some of which involved groups of only a few dozen people, did not attract his attention or were not perpetrated in Ponary. Fifty-four Jews were murdered on July 4 and 93 more on July 5. The Ypatingi Buriai was then placed under the command of Einsatzkommando 9, a reinforcement that made it possible for the Einsatzkommando to greatly increase the scope of its killing activities in Wilno. Einsatzgruppen Report No. 21, dated July 13, notes, "In Vilnius by July 8 the local Einsatzkommando liquidated 321 Jews. The Lithuanian Ordnungsdienst [Ordnungspolizei] which was placed under the Einsatzkommando was instructed to take part in the liquidation of the Jews. 150 Lithuanian police were assigned to this task. They arrested the Jews and put them into a concentration camp [Ponary] where they were subjected the same day to Special Treatment [Sonderbehandlung-aeuphemism for killing]. This work has now begun and thus about 500 Jews, saboteurs among them, are liquidated daily."
A witness to the roundups of Jews during the first weeks of the occupation later remembered: "Gestapo [that is Einsatzkommando] men come in cars and stop outside Jewish homes. They haul the men out and order them to bring along a towel and soap. The people are ostensibly being taken to work for a few days, but they never come back. Groups of young Lithuanians and Poles appear on the streets, wearing white armbands. They round up Jews and take them to the police or jail."
The force that carried out the murders at Ponary consisted of three subunits, each comprising several members of the Einsatzkommando and dozens of Lithuanians. One subunit brought the people to Ponary, generally in Einsatzkommando trucks. Another guarded the killing site, both outside-to prevent people, including German soldiers, from approaching the shooting pits-and inside, to keep the victims from escaping. Upon arrival victims were placed in a secure waiting area; here they were told to undress and hand over any valuables they had in their possession. They were then told to blindfold one another or to wrap their heads in a shirt and close their eyes. They were led, naked, from the waiting place to the shooting pit in groups of 10 to 20, walking single file, holding one another's hands. At the head of the line walked a Lithuanian, who guided the first prisoner to the shooting pit. As soon as a group left the waiting area the killers would begin preparing the next group. Members of the third subunit, at the shooting pits, lined up the victims up at the edge of the pit and shot them. The victims would fall into the pit, where any who showed signs of life would be shot again. The people in the waiting area, only a few dozen meters from the pits, could hear the shots clearly but could not see what was going on. At the end of the day's killing, the pits would be covered with a layer of sand. Sometimes this was done by the last group of Jews, who were then shot and covered with sand by Lithuanians from the firing squad.
In July 1941, while Einsatzkommando 9 was active in Wilno, about 5,000 Jewish men were murdered, along with a few Communists and non-Jewish Soviet officials. In July and August 1941, the Jews of Wilno still knew nothing about what was happening at Ponary. They believed that the men picked up in the roundups had been sent to work for the Germans. The fact that the victims were generally men of working age reinforced this belief. At the beginning of August, Herman Kruk, an inhabitant of the Wilnoghetto, wrote in his diary: "Yesterday about 400 women gathered in the courtyard of the Judenrat and demanded that the Judenrat bring back their husbands, who had been working for three weeks, and send others in their place."
The victims' clothes, along with any money and valuables they had taken with them-for they, too, believed that they were being taken to work sites and would need such things-were usually kept by the murderers. The money and valuables collected at the waiting area near the shooting pits were taken by members of the Einsatzkommando, who were supposed to hand them over to their superiors to be forwarded to the German authorities in Berlin. Originally, the victims' clothes and other personal effects were left as booty for the Lithuanian murderers. They took some things for themselves, their families, and their girlfriends; the rest they sold to the local population. Among the locals, brokers started buying Jewish articles from the Lithuanian murder squad for resale. Later, when the Aktionen became more organized and inclusive, instructions were issued to deliver all the victims' property, including their clothes and other effects, to various German authorities. Even then, despite the orders, some of the stolen goods remained in the hands of the Lithuanian policemen, who continued their illicit trade.
Beginning at the end of August 1941, when thousands of people were taken to Ponary in a single operation, the killing actions took place in three phases carried out simultaneously:
Phase 1: Jews were rounded up, dragged from the streets or their houses and hauled off to Lukiszki Prison.
Phase 2: The prisoners were held in Lukiszki: because it was not possible to kill the thousands of detainees in one day, the prisoners would remain at Lukiszki until the murderers were able to deal with them. As the roundups continued, the number of prisoners in Lukiszki increased; eventually there were thousands of Jews in the prison for days.
Phase 3: The prisoners, on foot or in vehicles, were transported to Ponary, where they were murdered.
Excerpted from Ponary Diary, 1941-1943 by Kazimierz Sakowicz Copyright © 2005 by Yad Vashem. Excerpted by permission.
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