3 Execution site(s)
Zygmunt, born in 1932, remembers that he was curious to see the railroad cars in which the Jews were being brought to the execution site. “I saw piles of bread, clothes, pillows, pans and other stuff. All this stuff was unloaded from the wagons. Some adults picked up those items and ran away. I picked up a boot, but couldn’t find its pair. Suddenly someone shouted: “The Germans!” I dropped the boot and we all ran away. /…/ There was a long row of wagons. They were unloaded and taken away, while the possessions were piled up beside the tracks. The Germans guarded them, probably because many local people were walking around.” (Eyewitness N° 48, interviewed in Žemieji Paneriai, on March 31, 2014).
Paneriai, also known as Ponary, is a village that is now a neighborhood to the southwest of Vilnius, located about 10 km from the city centre. Paneriai is divided into two parts: Aukštieji Paneriai and Žemieji Paneriai. Since the 14th century, the village was known for its brick factory that produced bricks for many buildings in Vilnius. Edward M., born in 1929, remembers, “Many villagers, including my father, worked in the factory. Before the Russian and German arrival in 1940-1941, the factory was owned by a Jewish man.”
Paneriai became part of Poland after World War I. After a railway line, a tunnel and a railway station were constructed at the end of the 19th century, Paneriai started to grow and attract more vacationers. In 1939, the town received the status of a summer resort. Apart from many visitors from Vilnius, there were around 500 local inhabitants (mostly Polish) before World War II. Edward M., who spent his whole life in Paneriai, remembers that there were many Jews who used to come from Vilnius to rest in Paneriai.
In 1940, in the forest near Paneriai the Soviets began constructing an oil storage facility for military aircrafts. As the area was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, they conveniently used the unfinished large storage pits as a mass killing site. In 1941-1944, around 70 000 – 100 000 victims were killed and buried in Paneriai, including Russian Prisoners of War, procommunist Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Roma and others who opposed German rule. The largest majority of victims (50 000-70 000) were local Jews brought from the Vilnius ghetto and other areas. The victims or their bodies were brought by trains, trucks or on foot.
In 1944, the bodies were exhumed and burned in order to hide the proof of the mass executions. A special ladder was used to move the bodies from the pit to the burning site. Edward M. recalls the “unbearable smell if the wind was blowing from the side of the burning bodies.”
After the war, an extraordinary forensic investigation team exhumed several hundred bodies. It provided important evidence about the scale of the mass execution. Georgy S., born in 1933, helped to dig out the bodies. He remembers, “There were no corpses left, we collected and carried bones, shoes and clothes. We received rubber gloves and boots to climb into the pit. The trench wasn’t deep, about 60-70 cm.
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