6/24/2004:  The Holocaust in Lithuania and the Gaon of Vilna


  Church across from the Radisson Hotel.

The Holocaust Museum:

We started out the day at the Holocaust Museum in Vilnius (a subsection of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum).  Rachel Kostanian, Director of the Museum, gave us a lecture on the Holocaust in Lithuania, particularly horrible since the Lithuanian population in general were enthusiastic participants.   This has been one surprise of the trip,  first that the Lithuanians were so complicit in the genocide, and second the vehemence and anger towards them expressed by Rachel and some of the members of the tour.  At one point, an old woman (nun?) was begging on the street (the number of  beggars was another surprise), so I gave her some money;  one of the older women from the tour said "I will never give the old people money, they are most likely the ones who gave Jews over to the Nazis!"

Map of massacre sites in Lithuania.
Map of the German Blietzkrieg invasion path.

Interesting Statue.
Memorial monument to Cijune Sugichavai, Japanese Ambassador to Lithuania, 1900-1986.  He saved thousands of Jews in WWII, before he was recalled, by issuing traveling visas to Japan.

Letter from a woman living through the Holocaust.

Memomorial of victims at the Jewish Community Center.

The Paneriu Massacre:

Next, we went to the massacre site at Paneriu.  When the Soviets controlled Paneriu, they dug large pits to store oil for their army;  when the Germans took it over they turned Paneriu into a killing factory.    Every day or two, the Nazis would lead men in the morning, women in the afternoon, to the pits to kill them.  They made the victims wait in a trench, unaware of what was to come.  A loud machine was
grinding away all day, hiding the screams and pleas and gunfire.  Once the victims learned that they would be killed, they either pleaded for their lives or their childrens' lives, or destroyed their money and jewelry, to make sure that the murderers wouldn't profit from them.

A most unfortunate group of 80 Jews (men) were used to haul the bodies away after the slaughter, to burn the evidence.  They were kept in a separate compound, with 2 women to cook for them.  They couldn't do anything to stop their horrible fate, but began digging a tunnel on the sly to get away.   When the Allies came close Paneriu, the 80 decided to make a break for it;  16 got away.

In addition to the massacre of Jews, some number of Poles (hundreds?) were killed at Paneriu for refusing to fight for the Germans.

Death Row

Grave Pit

Bigger Grave Pit

Record of Massacre, Part 1

Compound of the unfortunate 80

Big Grave Pit Memorial

Record of Massacre, Part 2
During the Soviet rule of  Lithuania, Jews would come to Paneriu to pay their respects, and a memorial to the massacred Poles was built.  Now that Lithuania is a free country, memorial building has become a big business, so a number have been built.  Unfortunately, the Lithuanians are beginning to rewrite history, the first memorial only says that 70,000 "people" were killed.  The Israelis weren't satisfied with what they saw, so they asked for a better memorial to be built, stipulating that the plaque should be written in four languages.  The white-washed Lithuanian statement was put in the front of the monument; the other translations can be found in the back.

Israeli Memorial
Polish Memorial
Lithuanian Memorial
Back of Israeli Memorial
White-washed Memorial
Lithuanian Memorial
English Translation

The Gaon of Vilna:

The day ended with a visit to the grave of the Gaon of Vilna.   Who was the Gaon of Vilna?  Hassidism arose in Eastern Europe in the mid-seventeenth century, when large numbers of Jews and most Jewish institutions had been destroyed by Chmielnicki Cossack uprisings;  Lithuania was fortunate enough to remain relatively untouched.  Hassidism was a popular, decentralized, spiritual movement;
Lithuanian Judaism maintained its institutions and centered on the post of the Gaon of Vilna.   Elijah ben Solomon Zalman  (1720-1797),  the Gaon of Vilna, formulated a conservative reaction to Hassidism,
focusing on study and rationality.  He is especially notable for promoting secular learning (science, medicine, etc.), in addition to religious study.  The Gaon of Vilna represents the beginning a distinct Litvak Judaism, known for its rationality and sophistication, and the beginning of the hostillities between Litvaks and Hassidism.

  Gaon of Vilna Crypt
  Plaque above the grave of the Gaon of Vilna
  Gaon of Vilna Grave
  Plaque above the grave to right of the Gaon's grave.