Eyewitness Report: ‘March of the Living’ at Ponar Killing Site near the Lithuanian Capital

E Y E W I T N E S S   R E P O R T  / O P I N I O N

by Geoff Vasil

I attended the March of the Living today at Ponár (Polish Ponary, Lithuanian Paneriai), the mass killing site outside Vilnius, Lithuania. It is Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. I had been to Ponár only once before, because a friend of mine was afraid she would get lost taking the city buses there and back.

This time chartered buses and vans brought participants there by another route, on the opposite side of the site and the Ponár railway station from the regular city bus route. I was told the march would commence from the railway station at Ponár and stop at the main monument inside the Ponár Memorial Park. The railway station is gigantic, although Ponár itself is just a few houses along a road. Without knowing that the railway facilities there were greatly expanded in order to deliver Jewish victims to Ponár for murder, you might wonder why the station including a bridge for pedestrians over many separate tracks is bigger than the actual village it serves.

I was wondering what would happen when March of the Living participants took pictures from the bridge, because a few years ago a friend of mine went there by himself, on the cheap but long city bus routes, and a security guard came up to him and told him it was illegal to take pictures of the railway station and infrastructure there. This was within the last three years.

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The way we arrived, the extent of the railway complex wasn’t even visible, there was no bridge to cross because we were already on the memorial side, and the march did not start at the station, it began in a parking lot close to where the pedestrian bridge stairwell reaches the eastern side of the village with its few small, one-storey houses along just one or two streets (depending on whether the street name changes as it rounds the final corner).

The first thing I saw was Lithuanian police, police cars and officers standing around. Disembarking I saw around 100 or 150 people standing in the parking lot. This staging ground had March of the Living participants in uniform, all wearing a sort of black rain slicker with logos printed in white, some carrying Israeli flags, others holding up the banner for the vanguard of the march. Around this core group there were people in small groups on the margins, speaking English, Russian and Lithuanian. There were a few children and I saw one woman with a black baby stroller as it began to rain lightly.

Mira Sutzkever, whose family has deep roots in Vilna, stood with friends from the March of the Living group. A group speaking English off to the side included what looked to be two priests. Familiar faces from the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum and the Lithuanian Jewish Community mingled here and there among themselves and with the Israelis. Some small groups of Lithuanian-speaking people who seemed to consider themselves important were smiling a lot and laughing a bit, which seemed a bit out of place at what was essentially a funeral march to honor the victims, and there were obnoxious Lithuanian cameramen and reporters with microphones trying hard to figure out who the foreign diplomats were between smiles and laughter.

The March of the Living people, Lithuanian Jews and people from the Community and museum were not cracking jokes and took the occasion seriously. One young man passed out buttons with a smaller Israeli flag superimposed on a larger heart with three stripes, of yellow, red and green, the colors of the Lithuanian flag.

I ducked behind a coach for a smoke before the march began. A woman was already smoking there. As I lit up, a young man with almost no hair was talking with a coach driver and they opened up the baggage compartment on the underside of the bus. The smoking woman said something in English and stopped them. The bald man had wanted one of the marchers’ signature rain jackets but the woman made him put it back. Then they began speaking Hebrew, and the man tried to explain it wasn’t for him, it was for someone else, but relented. The woman turned out to be Mickey Kantor, vice president of the Association of Jews from Vilna and Vicinity in Israel, and the only speaker to deliver a meaningful tribute to the dead after the march arrived at the memorial.

The black rain slickers and Israeli flags assembled behind the banner, then the rest of us behind them. A “shhhh” was given and the chatter died down a bit. We then marched toward the entrance of the memorial park, stopping twice. The first stop was apparently so some Lithuanian cameraman could get a better shot. As we walked a group of five men in orange vests on the tracks looked on. One held a telephone camera up and filmed. Some young people from the march also wanted to film one of the neighborhood dogs and followed it home, a house along the small asphalted street. The people inside the fence were very friendly and encouraged the young people to film all they wanted. Two teenage boys watched from the pedestrian bridge over the many tracks.

The second stop was at the parking lot directly at the entrance of the memorial park and took place so the “important people” could stand in front of the banner and pose, then lead the march into the memorial park, without having actually marched the 500 meters or so from the first parking lot. The important people were Lithuanian MP and head of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Emanuelis Zingeris; the deputy foreign minister of Israel, and a few others. There were probably just one or two bodyguards there for the Israeli diplomat.

Inside the park there were four police and a few more people who seemed to be bodyguards showed up here and there in the crowd, one or two near the Israeli diplomat and another standing off behind them some distance toward the entrance.

The March of the Living marchers followed the small road down to the main memorial stone. A sound system was already set up and a very fine violinist played some subdued music. Primary school-age children were standing next to him and the sound board looking over some pages with lyrics. The music recalled to me the orchestra greeting victims at Auschwitz, but I don’t think that was intended and the impression probably wasn’t shared by others.

The event then turned very strange.

First, a Lithuanian master of ceremonies, someone seen on television a lot with a bombastic voice, bellowed out some lines that didn’t seem sincere at all about the great tragedy of the Holocaust. A woman next to him then read the lines out in English. It was sort of like Bob Barker on The Price is Right telling us we’d won a trip to Ponár, except he lacked the gravitas of even a Bob Barker and was much too loud.

This was followed by a speech by the Lithuanian minister of culture. I guess the best thing you can say about it is that he actually wrote it himself and it reflected to some extent his own thoughts. In other words, he was being sincere, but what he said bordered on the idiotic. He asked rhetorically how people could sink to such barbarity, then he attacked the question philosophically, trying to determine the difference between beasts and men. He settled for saying animals don’t have the categories of true and false, they don’t have memory. All fine and good so far, so what if the man enjoys solving problems using a philosophical approach, and at least he wasn’t barking out the winners of the new Lexus coupe sedan. Then he says the Holocaust wasn’t a loss for Jews, it was a loss for Lithuanians, that lost the fine cultural heritage developed by the Litvaks. Admittedly, the woman translator, working from a prepared text, said it wasn’t just a loss for Jews but also Lithuanians. OK, perhaps I misheard, he was talking softly. He winds up by saying there comes a time to forget. We must learn to forget, he says, and forgive. I check my ears, they appear to be working. Later I ask an actual journalist, and not a Lithuanian one, who was there if I heard the Lithuanian minister of culture right. Yes, I did.

Next, the Israeli deputy foreign minister begins. Right away there is trouble: he has deviated from his prepared and submitted speech, and the woman translator stops halfway into the first sentence, gives out a long uhhhhhh, then apologizes, explaining she has something different on paper. Which is strange, because she appeared to be taking notes earlier, as if the translation was being done synchronously. Anyway, she does the best she can and starts on the diplomat’s next sentence. The deputy foreign minister talks about growing antisemitism worldwide and even mentions some recent antisemitic acts that made the news in Lithuania. He takes pains to call Lithuania a country friendly to Israel, singles out Emanuelis Zingeris as a friend of Israel and reiterates the idea that Israel and Lithuania are geopolitical allies. His speech wasn’t all about geopolitics, he also mentioned the victims, but didn’t pose any challenges to the Lithuanian status quo even in a relatively friendly and safe environment, surrounded by sympathetic Lithuanians and Israelis.

Emanuelis Zingeris said he had to express himself in English, although, he said, Yiddish was the speech of the place where we found ourselves (presumably meaning Ponár), because the memory of the victims demands the widest possible dissemination. He started out strong, condemning the recent antisemitic events in Lithuania, but then got stuck trying to express the need to battle intolerance, xenophobia and hate. At certain points the translation was clearer than his actual words. He ended on a somewhat strange note, it seemed to me, talking about how American and Pakistani forces had killed Osama bin Laden, who represented hate and the desire to murder Jews and Westerners.

Mickey Kantor, the lady smoking behind the bus protecting the raincoats, spoke in Hebrew and was translated by a Lithuanian man who speaks Hebrew. She focused on the victims of the Holocaust the victims at Ponár specifically. She evoked their cries screaming out from the pits behind her. Her words were fitting and somber though she projected hope for a better world, and her only slight excursion into politics was to support the State of Israel as a homeland for Jews, a safe haven in a dangerous world.

Students from Sholem Aleichem school in Vilnius then sang the Jewish Partisan Hymn, Zog nit keynmol, which was introduced in Lithuanian and English translation as something slightly different, but was known by most of the audience. As they sang young people placed stones on a ledge of the main monument and the Lithuanian media had a bit of a feeding frenzy trying to get it on video. This was followed by the violinist again briefly, then Bob Barker of Lithuania in a more subdued tone announced the event was over and people were free to walk through the park and look at the pits, which no one seemed to do. Instead people wandered back to the parking lot and into the bus, van or car in which they had come. As people were walking up the short drive to the entrance, a party of Poles walked down, in the opposite direction, from the small memorial to Polish victims of the Lithuanian Nazis nearer the entrance to the memorial. There were many more at the Polish memorial itself.

This entry was posted in Cemeteries and Mass Graves, Double Games, Geoff Vasil, News & Views, Opinion, Politics of Memory, Ponár (Ponary, Paneriai). Bookmark the permalink.
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