Few people have heard of it. Sadly, far too few. Before the war began in 1939 in eastern Europe, it was a place for picnics, where mothers pushed babies in strollers, where children romped on the lush grass underneath tall trees.
It was one of Lithuania’s great parks located only 8 kilometers from the capital city of Vilnius (Vilna) on a road leading to the city of Grodno.
But shortly after the Nazi invasion of the Baltic countries in 1941, in particular Lithuania and its neighbor Latvia, everything began to change.
For centuries, Lithuania, like Poland, had been a world center of Jewish culture. Some of the world’s greatest rabbinical scholars came from the cities, towns and villages in Lithuania. My own great-grandfather had served as a rabbi in Kupiskis for many generations prior to the war.
In 1941 the Jews of Lithuania were rounded up, mainly for extermination, not alone by Nazi troops but aided with the full cooperation of special Lithuanian forces who rounded up Jews and exterminated them. The round-ups began in July 1941 and continued until July 1944.
The Lithuanian forces were not coerced into cooperating with the Nazi storm troops. They willingly volunteered to help in the extermination of the country’s Jewish population.
This fact is clearly recorded in a newly published book in Lithuania by a non-Jewish Lithuanian writer, Silvia Foti.
Her remarkable history is like something made in a Hollywood film. In doing years of thorough research into what happened to Lithuania’s Jewish population, Ms. Foti discovered to her shame, that the leader and inspiration of the Lithuanian death squads was her own grandfather, Jonas Norieka, a member of the Lithuanian anti-semitic government and a supporter of Nazi Germany..
Streets are named for him even today. The murderer of Lithuania’s Jews is a national hero. And it was he, together with the anti-semitic Lithuanian troops, plotted the time and place of one of the Holocaust years worst massacres.
It was scheduled to take place in Ponary, the beautiful forest which was to become Europe’s largest forest of death. Ukraine’s Babi Yar suffered a similar fate.
More than 100,000 Jews from cities and villages across the Baltic nation were gathered up by the Lithuanian death squads with the cooperation of the Nazi troops who stood by and watched to their amusement.
The Jews were required to dig their own graves and when the graves were sufficient in numbers and in depths, more than 100,000 Jews, men, women, children and babies were all shot, their corpses falling into the graves which they had dug.
It is a known fact in Europe’s tragic history that Poland was the most anti-semitic country in the more than one thousand years in which Jews had lived in and contributed to the culture of the Polish nation.
As much as the millions of Catholic Poles hated Jews, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center in Jerusalem numbers Poland as the highest civic population who aided or hid and protected Jewish friends and neighbors. It was easier to hide young children.
6,992 Polish Catholics were honored by Yad Vashem and were awarded medals for their brave efforts to help their fellow Jewish Poles, always at risk of their own lives or being betrayed to the Gestapo by other Poles.
In contrast, the total number of Christian Lithuanians who hid, protected and saved Jewish lives, particularly the lives of very young children was only 904. Its Baltic neighbor, Latvia, had only 138 Righteous Gentiles who were honored by Yad Vashem.
In 1943, as the war in Europe was nearing its end, German military forces returned to Lithuania and to the site of the Ponary massacre. They dug up all the corpses and burned the remains to destroy all evidence of what took place in the forest of death in Ponary.
Silvia Foti, grand-daughter of a Lithuanian Nazi, has shed painful light on the tragic massacre of the country’s Jewish population, a population which had lived there for one thousand years and which produced some of the greatest rabbis in the world, in particular the Gaon of Vilna.
Lithuanians today will accuse the Jews of being supporters of Soviet communism. For Lithuania, the enemy was never Nazi Germany. It was Soviet Russia. And Russia’s Jewish friends had to be removed off the face of the earth to honor the glory of the Lithuanian nation.
Poland acknowledges crimes against Jews, mainly by some lunatic Polish citizens, but not ever at the instruction of the Polish government. And Poland was the only country occupied by the Nazis which did not have collaborators with the enemy.
We remember many of the Righteous Gentiles n Poland during the years of World War II. We can never forget the Polish social worker, Irena Sendler, who single-handedly succeeded in smuggling two thousand little Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto and finding Polish families to hide them (the equivalent of the German hero in Poland, Oskar Schindler who saved 1,200 Jews from the gas chanbers by providing them with factory work.
Another brave Pole was the diplomat Jan Karski who came to Washington DC to inform President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the genocide of the Jews taking place in Europe and urged the American president to bomb the railway tracks and lines leading to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
His plea to the president fell on deaf ears. Roosevelt only promised that Germany would be punished for its crimes of genocide once victory had won the war for the allies. Ambassador Jan Karski returned to Europe empty-handed
Sendler and Schindler are names to be remembered and honored. I can think of too few Righteous Gentiles among the Lithuanian nation.
Trees may grow in the soil of the Ponary forest but no blossoms will ever bloom again in the forest of death.
We will always mourn for our six million murdered martyrs.