Located around 7 km from Vilnius
, and easily accessible
by car or train, the small village of Ponary and its surroundings were famous for their beautiful landscape.
It was there that the inhabitants of Vilnius
liked to spend their leisure time
in the days before WW2.
The first executions took place on 4 July 1941
(or even earlier). Groups of 100 - 1,000
Jews were brought from the city, made to undress, and then led, ten at a time, to the edge of the pit and shot.
In the twelve days following 8 July 1941
as many as 5,000 Jews from Vilnius were
murdered in this way. They had been led to believe that they were to be sent to labour camps. A Polish author,
, was a witness to the massacres. He described these events
in his book "Nie Trzeba Glosno Mowic" ("It Should Not Be Spoken Loudly").
By December 1941
the Germans had killed 3/4 of the Jewish population of
, at least 48,000 people.
Ponary was chosen for the mass-murder of Jews, Soviet POWs, and civilians because there were several large pits,
dug there by the Soviets between 1940 and 1941
, to serve as diesel or petrol supply
storage resources for the Red Army.
Three units of Einsatzkommando 3a
(led by Martin Weiss
) were normally utilised: the first transported and guarded the
victims who were brought in lorries, in railway cars or on foot from Vilnius
to Ponary. The second guarded the killing site; the third was responsible for providing the killing squads.
The victims were herded together in one of the pits, ordered to undress, led to the neighbouring pit in groups
of 10 - 20 people and shot. After the shooting in the pit was complete, the corpses were covered with sand,
and the next group was summoned. Not all shots were fatal. Some Jews were just wounded. Thus some people were able to
crawl out of the pit and return to Vilnius
and its ghetto.
(1897 - 1944 / a Jew from Warszawa who became stranded in the
at the outbreak of the war, a librarian at the Strashuna Library.
He kept a detailed diary, in triplicate, in which he made commentary on everything and everyone in the ghetto:
, the Jewish Police, the communists, the FPL - who was sleeping with
whom, who was collaborating with the Germans... Its all in his diaries. He was deported to Estonia in
, and ultimately perished the day before his camp was liberated by the
Red Army. His diaries (which he hid in various locations) were scattered over the world, with many parties
(ie the Soviets, the Lithuanians etc.) trying to destroy them) reported about escapees on
4 September 1941
, a 14 year-old Jewish girl, told him about the mass-killings.
wrote in his diary: "... it is my last wish: the words shall reach the
world of living people - will the world not cry then? Will the world take revenge one day?"
A Polish journalist, Kazimierz Sakowicz
, who lived at Ponary, noted in his diary:
|Mobile Ladder *
"27 July 1941: Shooting is carried on nearly every day.
Will it go on for ever? The executioners began selling clothes of the killed. Other garments are crammed into sacks in
a barn at the highway and taken to town. People say that about 5,000 persons have been killed in the course of this
month. It is quite possible, for about 200 - 300 people are being driven up here nearly every day.
And nobody ever returns...
30 July 1941: About 150 persons shot. Most of them were elderly people. The
executioners complained of being very tired of their 'work', of having aching shoulders from shooting. That is the reason
for not finishing the wounded off, so that they are buried half alive.
2 August 1941: Shooting of big batches has started once again. Today about
4,000 people were driven up...shot by 80 executioners. All drunk. The fence was guarded by 100 soldiers and policemen.
This time terrible tortures before shooting. Nobody buried the murdered. The people were driven straight into the pit,
the corpses were trampled upon. Many wounded writhed with pain. Nobody finished them off.
Later in his diary, Sakowicz
"Bonfires burn near the station. They were kindled by policemen. Again a train from
Vilna. They have arrived. The people were driven out from the carriages,
and immediately a small batch was taken to the pit. The ones with poorer clothes on weren't even undressed. They
were driven to the pit, and shooting began immediately. Another batch of people were standing nearby and, on seeing
what happened to their nearest, began to yell. Some started running. A little lagging behind the others with her hair
dishevelled, a woman is running, pressing her child to her breast. The woman is chased after by a policeman, he
smashes her head in with the rifle butt, the woman collapses. The policeman seizes the child by its legs, drags
it to the pit.
Aware of the advancing Red Army, the Germans tried to destroy the evidence of the mass killings.
, who had previously commanded Einsatzkommando 4a
for the murder of 33,771 Jews over two days in September 1941
), amongst other
atrocities, was ordered to perform this task. His
(code-name for this massive operation)
arrived at Ponary at the end of September 1943
. Between that time and
, they exhumed and burned approximately 68,000 corpses at Ponary.
|Sonderkommando Pit *
(70 Jews from the Kailis Forced Labour Camp in Vilnius
and 10 Soviet POWs) had to exhume and burn the corpses, supervised by 80 heavily armed guards. A mobile ladder
was used to stack the corpses in huge piles.
, member of this Sonderkommando
, described the horrible work:
"There was a technique for burning the corpses: on the edge of the pit
was a small hearth, measuring 7 metres by 7 and built out of pine logs, a scaffold, one row of tree
trunks stacked across other tree trunks, and in the middle was a chimney made from pine trunks.
The first operation was to shovel the sand until a "Figur" (puppet) was uncovered; that is
what the Germans ordered us to call the corpses.
The second operation was performed by the "hook-man", which is what they called the worker who
extracted the bodies from the pit with an iron hook. The bodies lay close together. Two "hook-men",
who were usually the strongest men from the work unit, would throw down a hook and pull out a corpse.
In most cases the bodies came apart in pieces.
The third operation was done by carriers – the "Träger". They had to put a corpse on a
stretcher, and the Germans made sure that they had a whole corpse on the stretcher, i.e. two legs,
two arms, a head and torso.
The Germans kept a strict account of how many bodies had been removed. Our task was to burn
800 corpses a day; we worked from dawn until after dark. The "Träger" carried the bodies
to the wooden hearth. There the figures were piled up in rows, one on top of the other. When one layer
was stacked, spruce branches were put on top; a special worker, a "Haufenmeister", looked
after the fuel and added dry logs to the fires.
When the logs and branches had been piled on, black fuel oil was poured all over them, then
a second layer was piled on, then a third, etc. In this way, the pyramid would reach 4 metres in height,
sometimes even higher. A pyramid was considered ready when it contained 3,500 corpses.
It was thoroughly soaked with fuel oil not only from above, but also from the sides; the sides were
covered with special dry logs, which were amply soaked with petrol, one or two thermite bombs were
inserted, and the whole pyramid was set on fire…
A pyramid usually burned for 3 days. It had a characteristic short flame; thick, black, heavy smoke
containing large flakes of black soot would rise up… A "Feuermeister" would stand nearby
with a spade. He had to make sure that the fire did not die out.
After 3 days a heap of ashes would form, containing small bone fragments that had not burned through.
The very old men and people who were physically feeble were used to tramp down the ashes.
The burned bones were shoveled onto a huge iron sheet where they were crushed by the stampers
so that not a single piece of bone would remain.
The next operation was to shovel the ground bones through a fine-mesh metal net. This operation
had a double purpose. If nothing was left in the net, it meant that the bones had been well ground;
and secondly, this process uncovered metal objects such as gold coins and other valuable
items which had not burned.
One more operation should be mentioned. When a corpse was lifted out of the pit, a special
worker inserted a metal hook in the corpse’s mouth, and if he discovered any gold crowns or
bridges, he ripped them out and put them in a box…
was housed in one of four pits to which the only access was a ladder, drawn up each
evening. Permanently chained at the ankles and waist, the prisoners had no doubt about their eventual fate.
An escape was nearly impossible because the round stone wall of the pit was too high, and the guards observed them
from above. There could be no witnesses left alive to describe the horrors of Ponary.
Over time, the guards shot 11 of this command. The remainder determined to escape by digging a 100 feet escape tunnel
from the bottom of the pit to a point beyond the camp wire. The digging was easy because of the sandy soil. The
excavated sand was secreted in their pockets and distributed when they worked in the pits. On
15 April 1944
, they made their bid for freedom. 40 of them managed to get through the
tunnel before the alarm was sounded. In the ensuing chase, 25 Jews were shot, but 15 managed to reach the woods. Most
of them joined the nearby
(a few hundred members of the FPO, in two partisan groups) in the
Rudninkai and Naroch Forests
. Five days later, the remaining 29 prisoners of
the command were shot. Two escaped to the Byelorussian partisans through the front lines.
1. A driver's statement (from: The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as seen by its Perpetrators
, by Klee, Dreßen, and Rieß):
"I cannot say whether we arrived in
Paneriai (Ponary) on 5 or 10 July 1941...
While we were repairing our vehicles - I can no longer tell whether it was on
the first or second day of our stay there - I suddenly saw a column of about
four hundred men walking along the road into the pine wood. They were coming
from the direction of Vilna. The column, which consisted exclusively of men
aged between twenty-five and sixty, was led into the wood by a guard of
Lithuanian civilians. The Lithuanians were armed with carbines. The people
were fully dressed and carried only the barest essentials on them. As I remember,
the guards wore armbands, the colour of which I can no longer recall. I do
remember that Hamann and, I think,
Hechinger went off after the column.
About an hour later Hamann returned to our quarters. He was very pale and
told me in an agitated manner what he had witnessed in the wood. His actual
words were: 'You know the Jews you saw marching past before? Not one of them
is still alive.' I said that this couldn't be the case, whereupon he explained
to me that all the men had been shot. Any of them that weren't dead after
the shooting had been given the coup de grace...
The very next day - I think it was around lunchtime - once again I saw a group
of four hundred Jews coming from the direction of Vilna going into the same
wood. These too were accompanied by armed civilians. The delinquents were very
quiet. I saw no women and children in either of the two groups.
|Ponary Assembling Site #1
Together with some of my colleagues from my motorized column I followed
this second group. As I recall, the NCOs Riedl,
Dietrich, Schroff, Hamann,
Locher, Ammann, Greule and possibly some others whom I can no longer remember
came with us. After we had followed the group for about eight hundred to a
thousand metres we came upon two fairly large sandpits. The path we had taken
ran between them both. The pits were not joined but were separated by the path
and a strip of land. We overtook the column just before we reached the pits
and then stopped close to the entry to one of them (the one on the right).
I myself stood about six to eight metres from the entry. To the left and right
of the entry stood an armed civilian. The people were then led into the gravel
pit in small groups to the right by the guards. Running round the edge of the
pit there was a circular ditch which the Jews had to climb down into.
This ditch was about 1 - 5 metres deep and about the same again in width. Since the
ground was almost pure sand the ditch was braced with planks. As the Jews were
being led in groups into the pit an elderly man stopped in front of the entrance
for a moment and said in good German, 'What do you want from me? I'm only a poor
composer.' The two civilians standing at the entrance started pummelling him
with blows so that he literally flew into the pit. After a short time the Jews
had all been herded into the circular trench. My mates and I had moved up close
to the entry to the pit from where we could see clearly that the people in the
ditch were being beaten with clubs by the guards, who were standing at the side
of the trench. After this ten men were slowly led out from the ditch. These men
had already bared their upper torsos and covered their heads with their clothes...
I would also like to add that on the way to the execution area the delinquents
had to walk one behind the other and hold on to the upper body of the man in front.
After the group had lined up at the execution area, the next group was led across.
The firing squad, which was made up of ten men, positioned itself at the side of
the path, about six to eight metres in front of the group. After this, as far
as I recall, the group was shot by the firing squad after the order was given.
The shots were fired simultaneously so that the men fell into the pit behind
them at the same time. The 400 Jews were shot in exactly the same way over a
period of about an hour. The shooting happened very quickly. If any of the men
in the pit were still moving a few more single shots were fired on them. The pit
into which the men fell had a diameter of about 15 - 20 metres and was I think
5-6 metres deep.
|Ponary Assembling Site #2
From our vantage point we could see into the pit and were therefore able to
confirm that the (approximately) 400 Jews who had been shot the previous day
were also in there. They were covered with a thin sprinkling of sand. Right on
top, on this layer of sand, there were a further three men and a woman who had
been shot on the morning of the day in question. Parts of their bodies protruded
out of the sand. After about one hundred Jews had been shot, other Jews had
to sprinkle sand over their bodies. After the entire group had been executed the
firing-squad put their rifles to one side.
|Execution Pit *
This gave me an opportunity to talk to one of them. I asked him whether he
could really do such a thing just like that, and pointed out that the Jews had
done nothing to him. To this he answered, 'Yes - after what we've gone through
under the domination of Russian Jewish Commissars, after the Russians invaded
Lithuania, we no longer find it difficult.'
During the course of our conversation he told me that he had been suspected of
spying by the Russians. He had been arrested and had been thrown in and out
of various GPU prisons, although he was in no way guilty. He told me he had
only been a lorry-driver and had never harmed a soul. One of the methods they
used to make him confess was to tear out his fingernails. He told me that each
of the guards present had had to endure the most extreme suffering. He went on
to tell me that a Jewish Commissar had broken into a flat, tied up a man and
raped his wife before the man's very eyes. Afterwards the Commissar had literally
butchered the wife to death, cut out her heart, fried it in a pan and had then
proceeded to eat it. I was also told by comrades that in Vilna a German soldier
had been shot dead from a church tower. For this another 300 - 400 Jews were
executed in the same quarry. In this connection, I would also like to say that
the very next day once again about the same number of Jews were led along the
road into the wood. Apart from that one day I did not go to the execution area again...
I can only say that the mass shootings in Paneriai were horrific. At the time I said:
'May God grant us victory because if the Jews get their revenge, we're in for a hard time.'
2. The co-driver's statement:
|Soviet Commission in 1944 *
"As already mentioned, we arrived in
Paneriai one afternoon in the first week of
July 1941. The next day we heard rifle and machine-gun fire coming from the woods
to the south of Paneriai. Since we were behind the front we wanted to get to the
bottom of the matter. I can no longer remember now exactly whether it was during
the morning or in the early afternoon that we went off to find out where the
shooting was coming from. Anyway, I set off with Greule,
Hoding, Wahl, and Schroff,
who were all members of my unit, in the direction of the woods where the shooting
was coming from.
When we arrived at the spot, we saw people, who we subsequent learned from the
leader of the squad were Lithuanians, in the act of carrying out mass shootings
of Jews. On the path which ran between the two pits there was a light-machine-gun,
pointing to the left, being used by the Lithuanians. In front of the machine-gun,
standing by the edge of the pit, were ten delinquents, who were shot with the
machine gun straight into the pit. I actually looked into the pit and saw that
the bottom was already covered with bodies...
In the ditch that had been excavated on the other side of this execution area
were the Jews who had not yet been shot. They were all men of different ages. I saw
that they had to take off their shoes and shirts and throw them on to the side
of the trench. The Lithuanians standing above were rummaging through these things.
I also noticed that at one spot in front of the ditch there was a big mountain
of shoes and clothes. While the Jews in the trench were getting undressed the
Lithuanians beat them with heavy truncheons and rifle-butts. They were then led out
of the trench ten at a time to stand in front of the machine-gun.
The leader of the Lithuanians spoke good German and we went up to him and asked
what was going on, saying that this was a downright disgrace. He explained to
us that he had once been a teacher at German school in Königsberg. For this
the "Bolsheviks" had torn off his fingernails. Moreover, some of the members of
the immediate family - parents, brothers and sisters - of this young Lithuanian
who was doing the shooting had been captured at the station by the Bolsheviks before
the arrival of the German troops and were to have been transported to Siberia.
The transport did not take place because of the arrival of the German soldiers.
As a result, all the people who were locked up in the wagons starved to death.
Why they were now shooting these Jews, if indeed this Lithuanian's story corresponded
with the truth, which I found highly improbable, and whether these particular
Jews were the ones who had been involved in that action, he did not tell us...
On one of the last days - it was the third or fourth day of our stay in
I can no longer remember exactly now - I went to the execution site once again.
If I recall correctly, no more shooting could be heard that day and I wanted to
look at the place again. I do not remember who went with me. When I reached the
execution area there was a man in a grey uniform standing on the path between
the two pits who had been gesturing at us to keep away from a long way off.
|Exhumations in 1944 *
We kept going, however, and when we got close to him I said to him that there
was no need to make such a fuss, as we had already seen everything. As we
approached I saw that he was wearing a dark-coloured band on his left forearm
with the letters "SD" embroidered on it. I now saw that slightly to one side
there was a coach with two horses, a Landauer. On the box of the coach
stood a second SD man whom I did not look at more closely. In the coach sat
two very well-dressed elderly Jews. I had the impression that these were high-class
or important people. I inferred this because they looked very well groomed and
intelligent and "ordinary Jews" would certainly not have been transported in a
coach. The two Jews had to climb out and I saw that both were shaking dreadfully.
They apparently knew what was in store for them. The SS man who had initially
gestured to us to keep away was carrying a submachine-gun. He made the two Jews
go and stand at the edge of the pit and shot both of them in the back of the
head, so that they fell in.
I can still remember that one of them was carrying a towel and a soapbox,
which afterwards also lay in the trench...
I would also like to say that we all said to one another what on earth would
happen if we lost the war and had to pay for all this.
3. A book-keeper's statement:
|Memorial 1 Site *
"At about 3.00 in the afternoon on the day after our arrival,
Wahl, a member of
our unit, came up to me and said that a large column of Jews from Vilna had
been sent down to Paneriai. We went to the road and I saw a fairly large column
of civilians marching from the north, from the direction of Vilna. As I recall,
they were walking four abreast and I estimated that there were at least three
hundred of them. They were all men aged between about twenty and fifty. There
were no women and children. These prisoners were really quite well dressed
and most of them were carrying hand-luggage such as small suitcases, parcels,
Out of curiosity and to find out if there was a camp close by,
Dietrich and some other men from our unit - there must have been about five
of us - set off about thirty or forty metres behind the column... After we
had walked for about ten to fifteen minutes - I would say we had not gone
more than 1 kilometre into the wood - we came to a clearing which looked
like a building site. I later learned - I no longer remember from whom -
that this building site was the work of the Russians, who had been planning
to build a petrol warehouse on it.
From where I was standing ... in between the other men I took a photograph
of a part of the trench with the Jews inside. I watched the first ten Jews
being led out of the trench. One of the guards held out a club to one side
which the first Jew had to hold on to with both hands. The other nine walked
one behind the other, stooping and holding on to the man in front with their
hands because they could not see. The guard led these ten Jews to the path
where they slid down the steep embankment. Some of them lost their footing and
fell. When they reached the bottom of the pit they had to line up as before
and were then led by the guard to the semicircular embankment of the trench
on the east side. I also photographed this situation from where I was
|Memorial 2 *
The Jews then had to get into a line side by side with their backs to the
machine-gun on the path. The guards stepped back a little or moved a little
to one side and the order to fire was given in Lithuanian by one of the guards,
whereupon the machine-gun started firing. The ten Jews keeled over and those
of them not killed by the machine-gun fire were finished off with a bullet
in the head by one of the guards.
Exactly the same procedure was followed as each group of ten Jews was led
to the execution point and shot. We stayed there for about one hour and during
this time some four to five groups were executed, so I myself watched the
killing of about forty to fifty Jews.
At Ponary three killing pits are still to be seen today. Two memorials were dedicated after the war.
Mass Extermination Crimes by Einsatzgruppen
Hering, August life sentence
Weiss, Martin life sentence
LG Würzburg 500203
LG Würzburg 670921
Country where the crime was committed:
Wilna (Vilnius/Vilna), Ponary
Einsatzgruppen EK3a, Polizei Sipo Wilna
Subject of the proceeding:
Mishandling and individual killings of Jews from Wilna,
as well as participation in mass shootings in Ponary of a total of at least 30,000 Jews from the
Wilna Ghetto, the Lukischki Prison and from the surroundings of Wilna.
Published in Justiz und NS-Verbrechen Vol. VI
Gilbert Martin. The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy
, William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986
Ehrenburg, Ilya & Grossman, Vasily, eds. The Black Book
, Holocaust Library, New York, 1981
© ARC 2005