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Paneriai Massacre

20 Jul

Between 1941 and 1944, the Germans murdered over 100,000 people in this forest. The killings began when 5,000 Jewish men were rounded up in my Grandmother’s hometown of Vilnius and taken to Paneriai to be shot. By year-end 21,700 Jews has been killed, often with willing Lithuanian helpers. My Grandmother tells me that as her family was leaving the city, forever, they heard shots and screams from deep within Paneriai. She also says that the Lithuanians and Poles could tell who was Jewish and who wasn’t but the Germans couldn’t. They used to betray them, she said, not because their personal safety was at risk but for the reward of a bottle of vodka.

Also, among the first victims were 7,500 Soviet prisoners of war shot in 1941.

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Auschwitz – Birkenau

14 Jul

Auschwitz is simpler than I’d expected. In the barracks preserved to show to the public, a few photographs adorn the walls. In other barracks we find evidence–thousands of baby and adult shoes, pots and pans, and two tons of human hair. I look at it without much thought, but later that night I dream of one blonde braid atop the pile.

Auschwitz gate: "Work brings freedom"

“Bo” is our guide, steering us through torrential rain. She’s a short pudgy woman who dishes compliments like a pez dispenser. While overlooking a pile of hundreds and hundreds of suitcases, with like “Goldstein” and “Epstein” (my mother’s original maiden name, before it was anglicised), she tells us people were told they were starting new lives. It was all taken from them when they arrived.

Next, we walk to one of the only remaining gas chambers (of an original 10 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex). They were destroyed by the Germans who were retreating, though one was burned during a brief prisoner uprising.

The one we enter was used to kill 700 people at a time. (Most of them killed 1,500). There are square holes in the ceiling where the poisonous Zyklon B was fed through. After rigorous testing, the Nazis were able to perfect the method as such that in half an hour the whole room would be dead. Conveniently located next to the gas chamber, is the crematorium, where specially selected Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, or political dissidents were responsible for burning the bodies. These people were never permitted to live beyond six months.

Three kilometres over, in Birkenau, the larger part of the camp complex, the rain pounds down harder. I find out later that the Poles were worried about flooding. Bo asks if we want to walk the length of the track; it’s about 3km. My grandmother doesn’t, but I do. I walk until my jeans are glued to my skin and my shoes squeak with water. I walk until I’m in pain from the cold. This feels right, I think.

Men's Barracks

In the barracks, which consist of three rows of beds in each bunk, Bo tells me about living conditions. The healthiest would lay on the top and the sickest on the bottom. Often people would have diarrhea from the poor diet, she says, and since they were only allowed to use the toilet twice a day they would just go in the bed and it would drip onto the people below.

At every single stop, I ask a question, but I feel nothing. Even confronted with the evidence, it was unbelievable.

On the walk to the ruins of the gas chamber, the end of the railroad track, we stop at the halfway point. It was here people were divided–gas chamber or work. If you worked you could at least hope for 3 to 6 months more of life, for women and men respectively. If you went to the gas chamber…well, maybe you had another 30 minutes of life.

We trudge back to the main building to view a short film. When we emerge I look around a room filled with men and women of all nationalities and all ages. And in that moment I saw more men crying than I’ve ever seen in my 22 years of life. In a way, seeing the faces of the crying men made it more real for me than the physical evidence ever could.

In the car on the way back to the hotel my Grandmother turns to face me.

“Was it a mistake to take you here?” she asks, peering into my eyes.


Auschwitz – Birkenau Photo Gallery

14 Jul

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Auschwitz death toll: 960,000 Jews, 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Gypsies

Day 7

9 Jul

Today, my last day here, was spent wandering through the old city.

It took a while for me to warm up to this city, which seemed so neglected at first, but I’ve begun to see the beauty in what once was. Some buildings survived the war. Others were rebuilt after suffering direct hits. Others remain in ruins (like the street where my Grandmother used to live).

As I walk through the city and my Grandmother shows me where she grew up, where she went to school, where her friends lived, and the ghetto where she spent six weeks, I realise how much I’m going to miss her.

One of the things I love about my Grandmother is that she talks to everybody in Polish, Russian, or English (one of which usually gets her by). Her first question to each person is what language he speaks and the second is how they are doing.

I will also miss her strength.

The old property

When she shows me the building she fought for, and had returned to her, before selling it, she speaks matter-of-factly. There are stores on the bottom. They were never there before. The balconies did not exist. The windows were not as they are but were French glass. The grand staircase she hopes is still there is not.

Upon discovering the staircase is gone she says: “All I can say is thanks God my parents do not see it like this.”

I envelop her in a hug.

“No, it’s okay,” she says. “I’m glad I sold it.”

And we hail a taxi back to the hotel.

Later she tells me it’s all over tomorrow.

Day 6

8 Jul

Today my Grandmother takes me to Panerei. It’s a peaceful place. Pine cones litter the ground and birds chirp. In this place there are four monuments to the 100,000 murdered by Nazis in this forest–a Polish monument, a Lithuanian monument, a Jewish monument and a monument for everyone.

In memory of 70,000 Jews killed here

There is one other car in the parking lot.

We meet four Polish women. One lives four kilometres away and has never been here before.

She looks at me and says: “Young people are not interested in history.” (My Grandmother translated this for me later).

My Grandmother laughs.

There are four large holes in the ground; I’m told there were originally eight. Pre-WWII Soviet troops had dug out these holes for fuel. In 1941 the Nazis found them and decided to use them to keep and kill prisoners. The last of these holes was four metres deep and was the home of the 80 odd Jews who burned and smashed the bodies of fellow prisoners before sifting their ashes for valuables (a gold tooth might reveal itself).

The brigade dug a tunnel and of about 80, and on Easter, they ran for it. Thirteen escaped and lived on as eyewitnesses.

At the entrance to the hole where the brigade resided I stand. I can’t say anything. The guide looks me up and down, but says nothing.

Entrance to the Brigade's hole

As we turn back toward the car, I ask my Grandmother if she knew anyone who died in this camp.

“Yes,” she says as if I should already know.

She tells me her mother’s mother and sister were killed in this place, as well as her father’s father. I don’t ask her about her friends.

Later she asks me if I have any questions. I change the conversation back to the present.

It’s too much for one day.

Day 5

7 Jul

Yesterday we came to Vilnius, Lithuania. It was part of Poland when my Grandmother lived here from birth to age 9.

Our city guide stops in front of the Lithuanian parliament.

“Okay,” she breathes out. She’s about to tell a story.

In 1990 Lithuania declared itself independent from the Soviet Union, much to the displeasure of Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the USSR. Between 1990 and 1991 there were many protests, she says, people fighting for independence.

“I was a student, so I participated in everything,” she tells us.

She says everyone felt sure the Soviets would attack the parliament in an attempt to squelch the movement toward independent. On 13 January 1991, thousands of people assembled outside the parliament. They linked arms. They felt sure no Soviets would fire on unarmed people and they wanted to protect their parliament. Everyone participated, with people bringing soup, bread and porridge to them. She smiles at this memory.

“We felt so sure of ourselves, so strong,” she says.

All was silent for a long while. At 11:00pm, on the radio they heard tank fire, but it wasn’t at them. It was at the TV tower. She says everyone began to run, but by the time they reached the tower (20 minutes away) it was too late.

Soldiers had fired into the crowd and even rolled their tanks right through it.

“One girl was caught under the tanks and crushed,” she tells us. “Doctors kept her alive for many hours, but they could do nothing because her insides were crushed, you know?”

“I remember blood. Fourteen people died and hundreds more were wounded, shot in their arms, their legs–I thought this would never happen, that soldiers would never fire on defenceless people.”

She begins to cry, apologising. She can see it all so vividly, she tells us.

My Grandmother hands her a kleenex.

“Freedom comes at a great cost,” she says.

How to find a Husband in Poland between 1925-1950

6 Jul

I thought I’d break up all my sad posts with something mildly funny. Since arriving, I’ve been told about various methods women used to ensnare husbands. Similarly, I’ve been informed of deterrents.

Here are my favourite three, in no particular order:

  1. Paint your house blue. En route to Auschwitz we pass several peasant houses (these are one-level bungalows all constructed in the same boxy style). Some were painted baby blue. Our guide tells us that women looking for a husband, who lived in a village, would often paint their houses this colour as a sort of subtle signal to passersby.
  2. Don’t let your hair go grey. This was the advice of my Great Great Grandmother. My Great Grandmother went grey as a school girl. Her mother apparently fretted that she would never find a husband, but according to my Grandmother, men always flocked to her. When she was a child, and they were trying to get home on a train being used to transport soldiers, her mother told her to hide while the officers welcomed my grey-haired Great Grandmother into their train. My Grandmother, once sighted by the officers, was sent to third class to sit with the orderlies.
  3. Don’t attract attention. My Grandmother was called a few names in the Lithuanian papers for fighting for the return of her property. (Out of pride, she keeps the accompanying picture in her wallet). Her grey-haired mother was horrified and told her daughter this: A lady only has her name in the paper three times, when she is born, when she is married, and when she dies. Much to the shock of my Great Grandmother, her daughter’s name continued to appear in the paper, and she still eventually landed a husband.

A single woman lives here!