July 19 to 21 we imaged structures beneath the Great Synagogue of Vilnius. This week, beginning Sunday, July 30, we will look for the “malines” or hiding places in the Nazi motor pool HKP 562. Discovery Channel and BBC will be producing a documentary.
In the intervening week, we have been in Kaunas trying to map mass burials at Forts IX, VII, and IV, as well as a possible mass burial at the Jewish Cemetery of Kaunas. In 1939, Kaunas was the capital of Lithuania, with about 40,000 Jews and 40 synagogues, about one quarter of the City’s population. The killing of Jews began on June 23, 1941, two days before the Nazis entered Kaunas. But it was between July 1941 and 1944 that the Nazis organized the extermination of the Jewish population of Kaunas, as well as of other Jews brought from as far away as France into the city to be killed.
Most of the killings occurred at 3 czarist period forts built be the Russians. These 3 forts, Forts IV, VII, and IX, were part of a system of 9 massive, but obsolete czarist forts ringing Kaunas and constructed between the 1850s until World War I. The Nazis viewed these structures as readymade extermination sites – outside the main town, with walls and prisons for concentrating Jews, walls against which victims could be shot, moats where victims could be buried. This was the beginning of the "Holocaust by Bullets", long before mechanized extermination by gassing.
The Nazis began their murders at Fort IV, with a few thousand executions of leaders of the Jewish community from Kaunas, other towns in Lithuania, and elsewhere – political leaders, educated persons, professionals, teachers, entrepreneurs, etc. But marching people up the hill to Fort IV was inconvenient. The killings continued at Fort VII, but this location was too close to the city and too far from the Jewish Ghetto.
Most of the killings occurred at Fort IX which was more isolated, but closer to the Ghetto. About 50,000 persons were executed there, with approximately 30,000 being Jews. 9,200 Jews were executed in a single day by the mobile killing unit German Einsatzkommando 3 and Lithuanian Police, termed the Great Action of October 29, 1941. Within 6 months of the Nazis entering Kaunas, half the Jewish population was dead.
As at Ponar, in 1943, the Nazis organized a “Burning Brigade” to exhume corpses, burn the bodies, and scatter the ashes. The Jewish slaves were given euphemistic names to their tasks: diggers, porters, and firemen. The field of corpse-filled trenches was called the battlefield.
On Christmas Day, 1943, the entire Burning Brigade of 63 Jews and one Polish woman made a well planned and daring escape. While the guards were drunk, they removed a pre-cut cell bar, opened all the cells with a key they had manufactured, crawled through a small opening in a heavy steel door they had previously cut over a period of weeks, traveled through 2 tunnels, passed underneath a guard tower concealed by white sheets, and scaled a 6.5 m wall with a pre-fabricated ladder they had made.
37 of the escapees fled to the forest and were eventually tracked down and killed. 27 returned to the Kaunas Ghetto and hid in plain site. 11 survived until the end of the war.
But the killing and the burning continued. One of the last group of doomed prisoners was Convoy 73 with about 900 French Jews. Their last words are scratched into the walls in the dungeons of Fort IX.
At Fort IX, we were trying to use aerial photography and non-intrusive geophysics to delineate the exact locations, lateral extents, and depths of the burial trenches so that they will be marked and remembered, but remain undisturbed.