We Shall Never Forget Kazimierz Sakowicz’s “Ponary Diary”


by Roland Binet (Braine-l’Alleud/Belgium)

Ponary Diary, 1941 — 1943. A Bystander’s Account of a Mass Murder. by Kazimierz Sakowicz. Edited by Yitzhak Arad. Foreword by Rachel Margolis. Yale University Press: New Haven and London 2005.

It goes without saying that a book of eyewitness Holocaust testimony penned at Lithuania’s largest mass grave site in the years 1941 to 1943, and first published in English in 2005, does not lose its importance for those who have not read it even a decade later; even if many other, much less important books, sport a more recent date of publication. Moreover, given the Lithuanian government’s campaign against the scholar who rediscovered and first published the manuscript in the 1990s, and against the scholar who edited the English edition cited above (both as part of its campaign against Jewish partisan survivors), the poignancy and human interest are even greater. It is indeed  a most appropriate time to pay tribute to that rediscoverer, Dr. Rachel Margolis (1921—2015), who passed away in Rehovot, Israel last summer, without realizing, in her nineties, her dying wish of visiting her native Vilna one last time, because of her fear of prosecutors’ threats and intimidation.

Having visited the infamous mass killing site Ponár (Polish Ponary, today Lithuanian Paneriai) in August 2013, after reading various history works and hearing a number of survivors’ accounts, I knew the basic facts and figures. But facts and figures remained for me somewhat abstract, even after having seen the place where the killing pits had been situated and that are now being marked by perpetual monument to the memory of the victims, a large majority of them having been Jews murdered for one reason: because they were Jews.

Sakowicz’s Ponary Diary is a remarkable book that must not be neglected in favor of many lesser works that are “newer” because it is a day-to-day eyewitness account of the massacres that took place there. The foreword is by Rachel Margolis (1921—2015), a native of Vilna who was incarcerated in the Vilna Ghetto, lost her entire family, and fled a short time before the ghetto’s liquidation to join up with the Soviet anti-Nazi partisans in the forests. After the war, she volunteered while a biology student at Vilnius University in the late 1940s to help out at the short-lived Jewish Museum.

It was during that period that the two Yiddish poets briefly in charge of the museum, Shmerke Katsherginsky and Avrom Sutzkever, told her where the Soviets had placed in their archives the jars with bits and pieces of manuscript paper that the Polish Catholic journalist Kazimierz Sakowicz had buried in his garden, overlooking Ponár, when he came to realize that he might not survive himself. After the war, his neighbors dug up the jars and gave them to the then Jewish museum. Sakowicz, who lost his Polish journalism career in late 1939 with the Lithuanization of Wilno as a result of Stalin’s transfer of the city to the Smetona government of Lithuania, retired to the “peace” and bucolic beauty of Ponary, outside town. In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Margolis went and searched and found the jars and meticulously transcribed the entire book, which appeared first in the original Polish, then in German, and finally, with Yitzhak Arad’s introduction and editing, in the 2005 Yale University Press English edition that is the subject of this article.

Yitzhak Arad, a distinguished historian on the matter of the Holocaust in Lithuania, was of course the first veteran of the Jewish partisan heroes to be accused of “war crimes” by antisemitic Lithuanian prosecutors in a sad saga which still awaits formal letters of retraction and apology from the Lithuanian government. Arad writes:

Kazimierz Sakowicz’s Ponary diary is a unique document, without parallel in the chronicles of the Holocaust. It provides a bystander’s view of the activities of the Nazi extermination machine in the restricted area of Ponary, a wooded area in the countryside some ten kilometers southwest of Wilno on the road to Grodno. (…)

Sakowicz, a Polish journalist who lived in Ponary, decided to keep a record of the atrocities taking place almost outside his front door. He was taking a risk in committing to paper his meticulous chronicle of the unspeakable crimes he witnessed: the genocide being perpetrated by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. Sakowicz was certainly aware that discovery of his diary would cost him, and perhaps also his family, their lives.

We can only conjecture as to what motivated him to continue his perilous task. Was it an intellectual urge to transcribe an event whose scope and atrocity were unprecedented in European history? Did he envision publishing his diary after the war, or using it as the basis for a book? Perhaps his goal was to produce a document that could serve as an indictment of the murderers.

The editing work by Arad is well-done and historically sound. Before each passage (there are no chapters in the diary as everything is edited in chronological order), there is a general historical commentary on the events in Wilno, Lithuania and the fate of the Jews.

The first entry and mention of a massacre at Ponary is on July 11, 1941, a mere three weeks after the German invasion known as Operation Barbarossa:

On the Grodzienka (The Wilno-Grodno high road, footnote 8), I discover that many Jews have been ‘transported’ to the forest. And suddenly they shoot them. This was the first day of executions. An oppressive, overwhelming impression. The shots quiet down after eight in the evening; later, there are no volleys but rather individual shots. The number of Jews who passed through was 200 (…)

“Executions continue on the following days: July 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19, a Saturday. The Shaulists [Lithuanians who manned the firing squad at Ponary], the Sauliu Sajunga [Riflemen’s Association] — had been a paramilitary nationalist organization (…). Many of its members rose up against the Soviet Army and then volunteered to serve the Germans an d do the shootings, striplings of seventeen to twenty-five years old.

Sakowicz then begins a sickening recount of everything he witnesses, often with precise figures. Often making a distinction between Polish, Communist and Jewish victims. And this is hard to understand. Because, when we shall be apprised thanks to his diary of the manner in which the victims were brought to death, often after having to take off their clothes, often after having been ill-treated, punched or kicked, carried wounded or dying to the pits, when we see how outrageous and brutal the killers sought to exterminate every single surviving person in the pits or those who had escaped before the shootings began, how on earth can an eyewitness care to distinguish between nationalities, creeds or ethnic groups? Is it because he was a journalist and wanted to be precise in his accounts? Or was it because of nationalistic tensions between the main communities in the Wilno region? Later in the diary, we shall see that he also had strong opinions about the different nationalities brought to death at Ponar.

Here are a few early examples of these ethnic distinctions the author made:

A nice day. About 500 people are transported. Executions until late; cries of ‘I am not a Communist! What are you doing?’ They began to escape; shootings throughout the forest the whole night and during the morning. They were caught, shot, and finished off. Many intelligentsia.

Two thousand Jews were brought here, among them men, women, and children.

(23 July 1941)

On 1 November [1941], God-fearing representatives of the Catholic Lithuanian nation liquidated four truckloads of Jews. They have already begun shooting in their military clothing.

Forty-seven people were executed, not Jews but Poles and Red Army men. 

(5 May 1942) 

Sakowicz is a very critical eyewitness, his views and descriptions have the sharpness and precision of a surgeon’s operating hand. Very soon, he establishes that the Lithuanian helpers and killers, as well as some of his neighbors, are intent on doing business with these heaps of discarded clothes and other possessions abandoned before the shootings.

Since 14 July [the victims] have been stripped to their underwear. (…) Brisk business. They buy clothes for 100 rubles and find 500 rubles sewn into them. Shaulists with bulging knapsacks, with watches, money, etc. Brisk business”.

Women get out, only women, mainly young ones, without chains. A Lithuanian gestures toward the forest (…) There is quiet but afterward sharp shots, small volleys. More than an hour passes. The Lithuanians return loaded down with the effects of the murdered.” 

(18 February 1943)

His entries in the diary are full of suchlike scenes, ad nauseam. His early conclusion:

For the Germans 300 Jews are 300 enemies of humanity; for the Lithuanians they are 300 pairs of shoes, trousers, and the like.

Note that he writes only about the Jews. Is this intentional or a proof of some prejudice other preeminent feature that strikes the reader is the extreme and intensive savagery with which the killers – often those mentioned are Lithuanians – pursue their victims in order to finish the job, be it in or around the trucks that bring them to Ponary (after the victims came by trainloads), in the killing pits or chasing down escapees in the forest or on the roads. Some examples:

Weeping arose in the ranks . The Jewish women began to fall back. Then, on the officer’s order (there were twelve of them – six at the front with a captain), the soldiers began to beat the women with their rifle butts”. “More than 200 women and children were brought {November 19, 1941}. It was cold, with a cool wind. They had no bullets; they went to the buildings to warm up. But instead of bullets they took the little ones from their mothers and killed them with rifle butts.

(25 October 1941)

At the same time, in front of the house, and by this time some of the arrivals are per train}, a Lithuanian chases yet another, shoots, and he falls. He jerks – a death rattle; then peace. The Lithuanian who stood over him puts down his gun, bends down, and removes the dead man’s shoes (…) Quiet. From the tracks five Lithuanians appear. They go to the forest facing the house and come upon a Jew who was lying wounded in the thigh. They kill him.

(5 April 1943)

A few times, while reading this diary, I had to stop for a long moment because what the author had described was way too horrible to fathom on first reading.

Next day a small child was found in the forest near the pit, playing in the sand. He was thrown into the pit and shot [recounted by Jankowski]. In another case an infant was torn from the breast it was suckling and shot [recounted by Krywkowa].”

(5 September 1941)

Among the clothing the Lithuanians find 2 children – to the pit (…) A little farther on is a man with a child in his arms, thirty to thirty-five years old, with his wife and two teenaged daughters. A shot is fired. The father falls, the mother seizes her husband, shouts something, forgets about escape; the children are next to her. Two Lithuanians overtake them – all are killed.

(5 April 1943)

A woman with a child in her arms and with 2 small girls hanging onto her dress: a Lithuanian begins to beat them mercilessly with a club.

(5 April 1943)

It is and remains unthinkable more than seventy years after the Holocaust, how human beings could have stooped and regressed so low in the evolutionary process as to bring themselves to coldbloodedly kill infants and young children, in such a savage and inhuman manner. Or club women, old men, wounded persons. Or any human being at all.

Many victims knew in advance what fate awaited them as the author recounts

When the railroad cars were opened and the condemned pushed out onto the tracks in front of the cars and arranged in groups, they immediately (practically all) rushed to escape in different directions. Chaos erupts, shooting, the shouts of the escapees and the trackers…

The sound of the shooting made a horrible impression on the rest of the condemned, who were no more than some ten to fifteen meters from the shooting…

“Three men and 2 women, one with child in her arms, run to escape. A Lithuanian overtakes one of the women and hits her on the head with a rifle butt. The woman falls. Le Lithuanian seizes the child and caries him by the leg. He approaches the pit and throws him in.

(5 April 1943)

We must forever be grateful to Sakowicz to have taken the enormous risk of writing this diary, of documenting the scope and horror of the crimes and genocide happening practically in front of his home. It is one of the most harrowing accounts of the Holocaust that I have ever read.

But, unfortunately, this great and courageous man was not exempt of prejudice. And this can be ascertained by a few entries.

After a while two Shaulists return from the base (17 September 1943). They begin to talk. It turns out that they shot “Polish lawyers and doctors.” They shot them two at a time, undressed. Their demeanor was exceptional. They did not cry and did not beg; they only took leave of one another and, crossing themselves, perished.

The Shaulists who came to replace the guard always say that the hostages, and in general all Poles, maintain themselves very ‘bravely’; they don’t cry like the Jews, who kiss the feet [of the murderers] and plead for their lives to be spared.”

(19 September 1943)

But, there is more in this trend as Sakowicz reports that the murderers have devised a Machiavellian manner in which to bring Jewish victims to grass on other Jews in exchange for the promise of safe life

Now the Lithuanians confirm the effectiveness of their tactic when they bring a [new] group . They separate 3-4 Jewish men and women and shoot the rest before their eyes. When it is the turn of these 3-4 they tell them ‘you will live’ but they must reveal hiding places. When one of them reveals one, he goes to the city, to the ghetto, but immediately returns and dies. At the same time a new ‘roika’ of Judases is chosen, as in a cycle, with excellent results for the executioners and a fatal ending for the Judases.

(6 October 1943)

Note the use of Judas.

Sakowicz had not much sympathy toward the partisans, calling them “bandits” be they Communist or Jewish, and this must have been a bitter pill for both Margolis and Arad to swallow as they had been active and armed opponents of the Nazis and their Lithuanian henchmen. A few examples:

More or less until this year (1943) the Jews banded together in the forest behaved correctly. Now however, in 1943, they have become bandits, attacking individual houses in the villages and even whole villages (Zwierzyniec).

The band appeared at 6 in the evening . In addition, some of the farmers were grievously beaten and several dogs shot. It is interesting that the Bolsheviks; who that night appeared at the farms, declared at the beginning that ‘by order of the Soviet authorities they demand the following be furnished immediately, etc.’ after which they named, among other things, small items, such as wristwatches…

(6 November 1943) 

In one instance, Sakowicz described what might only be termed as tourism:

The passenger car NV-370  had two amused Lithuanian “ladies” (dames) in the company of a certain “gentleman” who were on a day excursion to see the executions. After the shooting they returned; I did not see sadness on their faces.

11 August 1941

The last known fragment is dated 6 November 1943. Sakowicz was killed on 5 July 1944 while riding his bicycle from Wilno to Ponary. But it is said that he had continued to write his diary entries although no papers have been found on a later date than 6 November 1943.

This diary is a haunting indictment of the men who were responsible for these mass shootings and killings in Ponary, Nazis as well as happily volunteering Lithuanians, human beings deprived of every value and humane characteristic, intent on killing cold-bloodedly or drunk.

Well, we might say that it had all been carried out in the past and that in the meantime the lessons must have been drawn. Except that now, in Lithuania, as we have seen recently in Kaunas, there are still marches in honor of the collaborators in the Lithuanian Holocaust.

 And the European Union has nothing to say about that scandal, that throw-back to a no doubt wonderful time when the Germans and their Lithuanian partners were judges and executioners without due process of law, Gods and Devils in the same guise, robbers and businessmen, intent on destroying everyone deemed enemy of the Third Reich, handling and snuffing out tens of thousands of lives as if they had been mere candles in the wind…

For the rest, let us not forget that our knowledge of what happened remains in permanent debt to Rachel Margolis and Yitzhak Arad, two survivors who went on to become great Holocaust scholars. Instead of awarding them both the medal they deserve, the Lithuanian government launched criminal proceedings against both scholars who brought Sakowicz to the attention of the world. Hardly a coincidence.

This entry was posted in A 21st Century Campaign Against Lithuanian Holocaust Survivors?, Books, History, Legacy of 23 June 1941, Lithuania, Litvak Affairs, Memoirs, News & Views, Ponár (Ponary, Paneriai), Roland Binet. Bookmark the permalink.
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