Visiting the Paneriai Holocaust Memorial: Context and Nuance for the Past's Horrors
Updated: Mar 3
Visiting the Paneriai Memorial, one of many mass execution sites of Jewish people during the Holocaust, has never been on my fun list of things to do here in Lithuania. As an exercise in contrast, it's certainly nothing like visiting Vilnius's numerous coffee shops in hopes of finding my favorite one. (Still a fan of Caffeine, y'all!) No, more than anything, I've always viewed this memorial with a morbid curiosity - and never a hesitation. I understand how important it is for me to do the work and see these spaces, just as important as it feels to recognize Jewish life before and in between seismic moments of turmoil and trauma.
Truth be told, I must be a glutton for punishment, because my visit on Saturday was actually my second visit to this site. I don't even know if I mentioned it on this blog, but back in mid-May, I visited this memorial as Lithuania continued to wake up from a cold winter. And if we're being honest, the second I got there in May, I was overwhelmed with grief and compounding generational trauma - that is to say: I'm not even sure all the grief I felt was mine. It felt like collective grief.
And while I really appreciated getting to experience the memorial back in May, a couple of my friends had told me that tours sometimes happened through the area. I was very open to returning to this space with even more context on the 70,000 Jews executed here, but again - this isn't somewhere you visit with a whole bunch of whimsy.
And then it happened.
One day a few weeks ago, my social media began to light up as countless friends and acquaintances tagged me to damn well ensure I knew about a tour being put on by a guide from the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History, a place I haven't even visited yet that works to preserve heritage and share the Litvak experience. And honestly, it warmed my heart to see so many constellations light up as people - some who barely know me, but know what I'm about - got the information over to me. And then, a sweet friend of mine came over to watch the movie 'Everything is Illuminated' - one we'd never seen as Jews! - and she reminded me to sign up for it again. (Thanks, Sammy Davis Jr., Jr.!)
The whole Universe was conspiring to make sure I went to this event.
I didn't break down crying this time, but it was just as impactful. More than anything, I was coming for context to build on my previous experience: how could a forest so beautiful be the site of such immense and intentional horror? What did the locals think?
Well, I got my answers. Like so many places taken over by Nazi Germany, numerous locals in Lithuania collaborated to ensure the demise of Jews, Roma, and others were successfully, well, executed. If this makes you wince, just imagine what it was like standing there! A huge lesson to stand up for what's right. Why did so many Lithuanians and Poles collaborate? They were hopeful that the Germans would be better than the Soviets, but they soon found out this wasn't the case. Some backtracked on their previous beliefs, and others continued with their antisemitism. And truth be told, there were Jewish people throughout Europe who supported the Nazis, although I honestly can't understand it, even as someone who constantly deals in nuance. Collaborators and Nazis would often take the belongings of the murder victims into town to sell them and then go out to get drunk and brag about their killings. How did people in town not know something was going on - similar to Warsaw, they had to know. Some things just seem inexcusable, and I can only imagine the life review all of these people experienced upon their own deaths. (Oof!)
On the other hand, one Polish poet, in particular, lived in Paneriai and documented the atrocities he witnessed, but then he buried them in the ground so they could be discovered later. (The punishment for helping Jews was incredibly severe.) Who knows what he did in the short term to help these people, if anything, but he certainly provided a lot of context, factual evidence, and support in a longer game. Is one better than the other? I don't know.
Other Jewish people came to these forests being forced to clean up evidence and burn bodies strewn about, and some of them created a tunnel - an escape route. Only some of them managed to leave, attempting to return to the Vilnius ghetto, surprisingly the safest place for them at the time. And mind you, I walk around these ghetto quarters all the time. This is living, breathing history for me.
My family likes to remind me that I'm a sensitive, artistic soul, to the point that it begins to sound contrived. (They didn't like this so much when I was a teenager, similar to how their tune has since changed on my moving to Lithuania.) But they've got a point: I'm exactly the right type of personality to visit the Paneriai memorial twice in a few months' time, to be able to access everything I need in order to glean meaning. And, I clearly have no problem feeling my emotions.
So I guess the whole point of this post is to share these things: 1) Nothing excuses the murder of these innocent victims, here, in any of the Baltic states, in Europe, in the world. 2) I think it's important to return to these places more than once to get even more nuance into the failings of humanity. 3) I'm not looking forward to it, but I think this is planting an internal seed in me to visit a true concentration camp. (Gulp.)
But these people deserve to be remembered, just like it's important to remember the full lives of people and their ancestors, not just their horrifying deaths. So, even though I'm wincing as I write this, I think it's time to plan a trip to one of this continent's many camps. It's a blessing to be here in Europe - I have to continue to take full advantage of every single ounce of nuance here.
And with that, I'm off for this week. I'll see y'all on the flip side, but thank you for reading about this important topic. Even more of a reminder to treat each other with kindness, isn't it?