Ponary Death Pit (photo courtesy of Juliux from Wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Courtesy of my driver Boris and his lead foot, fueled by my Al Green cassette tape, our Russian Volga sedan resumed its cruise down the A4 highway towards my lunch appointment with my father’s family in Varena, Lithuania. We had just survived a traffic stop a few moments earlier where Boris effectively told the zit-faced highway patroller to go fuck himself. The USSR seemed to have a great surfeit of immature officers populating the police, immigration, customs, animal control, and doubtlessly numerous other constabularies.
My very first experience of the Soviet Union the previous week was instructive of this very point. It was upon my arrival into the USSR on an Air France nonstop flight from Charles de Gaulle to Sheremetyevo airports.
It was May 1985, and, as a student of history and world politics, I was excited to be flying into a very different kind of country. I had had some extensive experiences in Europe already, but this, the USSR was to be verily alien. As a kicker, I would be meeting my Father’s family in Lithuania after a week in Moscow.
In preparation for my trip, I read everything I could about Russians (inhabitants of the world’s largest country), Lithuanians (great basketball players), and the Baltics (I would also be passing through Riga, Latvia). Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians” had earned a prized place in my personal library, with dog-ears on the dog-ears.
The flight from west to east underneath me was a spectacular cloudless pageant of Europe. Over Germany, I saw beautiful, well-tended farmlands stretching from horizon to horizon. An hour later, I looked down on Poland to marvel at the patchwork of smaller irregular shaped, yet similarly intensively cultivated fields.
Then, a while later I knew we must have crossed over the border into Russia. Only dense forests marked by occasional small dirt tracks could be seen below. On final approach to Sheremetyevo, the plane took a deliberate turn over a stunning onion-domed church. A symbol of the Russian nation, it was obviously for show, and it worked, impressively!! There were oohs and ahs in the cabin.
Once we were on the taxiway approaching the terminal, I could see the great fleet of Ilyushin and Tupolev aircraft sporting the distinctive Aeroflot logo. I was reminded of looking at the Aeroflot airliner in the window of the Pan Am building as a boy. It was like seeing Delta everywhere at Hartsfield Atlanta Airport. Except of course for the hammer and sickle logo.
The customs agent who welcomed me to Moscow seemed to be no more than 19 years old. He knew not a lick of English and he gave me the immediate impression of someone who had been poorly schooled and trained. Inspection of my luggage consisted of him going through my luggage, all of it, and frequently thumbing through a large binder of at least 100 pages which I imagined to be the list of forbidden items. I was to keep him plenty busy as I was presumably bringing in lots, like Bibles, a Monopoly board game, a Playboy magazine, and a cassette tape of my favorite Al Green album.
He picked up the Al Green tape and asked me about it. “Al Green Gets Next to You album,” I explained. He shook his finger and said “nyet musik cassettas.” Who knew that Al was apparently flat-out verboten in this place; I feared that the gift of American music intended for my relatives would be taken from me. But when the boy saw my French Playboy, all of a sudden it seemed like he was due for a scheduled break in his busy schedule. He slammed shut his very thick book of prohibited articles, confiscated the magazine, and then stamped my paperwork as complete. I was free to enter the USSR, one periodical lighter, but with nothing else taken from me, including my Al Green tape!
As we barreled down the A4 at a resumed speed of 120 km/hour listening to “Lord have mercy sweet Jesus” from Al Green’s track “All Because”, I saw some kind of a monument by the side of road. Without much expectation, I asked Olga about it, who, to my surprise, commanded Boris to turn around and go back to whatever it was. Just like Starsky from the Starsky & Hutch TV program, Boris hit the brakes hard to pull off to the side of the road, and after a minimal wait, engineered a quick U turn to go back.
“It’s a war memorial,” Olga offered, confirming my initial impression. We stopped and got out of the car. My first surprise of the day, I was curious to see and learn of what had happened in this place.
It turned out to be a somber one. The USSR was (and the successor states today remain) full of these, along with the frequently stated fact that the nation suffered a death toll of 20,000,000 in World War II. (the greatest fatality toll of any war suffered by my home country, the USA, pales by comparison – 750,000 in the Civil War). It is likewise understood that Stalin’s purges added another million persons executed (the exact number remains a matter of dispute).
The small visitor center and the fields out back commemorated the Ponary Massacre, which took place under the Nazi occupation from July 1941 through August 1944. 100,000 people lost their lives here, primarily Jews from the nearby Vilnius ghetto.
The capital city of Lithuania had a complicated history during the 20th century and before. For hundreds of years, the city was in a tug of war between Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Prussia, Germany, you name it. Grand Duke Gediminas designated it as the capital in the 14th century and he magnanimously invited Germans, Jews, even the Pope, to come visit and settle within its walls. Come they did. By 1900, most residents in Vilno (Polish for Vilnius) spoke either Polish or Yiddish. It was even known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” by its Jewish residents in recognition of its cultural and intellectual reputation.
When the Nazis seized control of the Baltics from the Soviet Union in 1941, that Jewish community in Vilnius came under grave peril. It was to be persecuted following the model established by Hans Frank in neighboring Poland. As in Warsaw, ghettos were established and nearby killing grounds set up to service them.
This is what I saw in Ponary (today called Paneriai, a suburb of Vilnius). Originally built by the Soviets to be a military airfield, the site was repurposed by the Wehrmacht in 1941. Large pits originally dug for oil tanks were converted into mass graves for those transported from the ghetto to be shot there. The bastards even engaged in a cover up; as the Soviet army marched back to take back the territory in 1943, inmates from a nearby concentration camp were forced by the Nazis to dig up human remains, burn them, mix with sand, and rebury.
In this fashion, one of the most learned centers – for centuries – of European culture was savagely extinguished. “Purity” as a concept is almost always conceived of as a desirable goal, something to strive for, like 100% pure wool. How the Nazis twisted this notion into such an evil end is a lesson of human opprobrium. It makes you feel as if no one or nothing is safe, ultimately.
Small minds such as these have been with us persistently throughout human history. Don’t kid yourself, their poisonous whispers can be heard up to the present day. They’re all around us.
If relieving pain and suffering is the most noble human endeavor (as I believe), what do you call the purposeful imposition of same?
Just like the beautiful old streets of Vilnius, the peaceful fields out back behind the Ponary Massacre guest center stood in sharp contrast to the brutal history related by the monument’s guide. Inside the building itself was a sad assemblage of old shoes, spectacles, and other human artifacts, the last remains of a gentle people undeserving of carnage and suffering. What kind and wondrously bright people perished without humanity ever knowing of them? How many Anne Franks were unlucky enough to live in that European paradise in 1941?
On leaving the memorial, I was asked to sign the guestbook. I still remember my notation, and when it was translated for the benefit of the curator, a broad smile lit up across his face. He thanked me effusively in the Lithuanian (not Russian) language for it. I glanced at Olga and she shot a look back at me.
“Lesson of history: Those who oppress others are themselves the most oppressed of all.”