Ponary (Paneriai)

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A site of mass murder just outside Vilnius – in fact this is probably the darkest WWII and Holocaust-related site in the whole Baltic region: as many as 100,000 people, primarily Jews, but also Poles and Soviet POWs, were executed here from mid-1941 to 1944 by the Nazis (and their collaborators) during the occupation of Lithuania by Germany.  
More background info: Ponary – or “Paneriai” in Lithuanian (and “Ponar” in Yiddish and German) – is the darkest and most significant Holocaust site in Lithuania, and possibly the whole Baltic region. 
In the early phase of the systematic extermination of the European Jewry in the Holocaust, the victims were shot by Einsatzgruppen and buried in mass graves on the spot in this forested, secluded area just outside Vilnius, but close to the railway line.
For this, the Nazis utilized huge circular pits that the Soviets had dug during their occupation of the area in previous years. They were intended to house fuel storage tanks, but these were never installed.
Instead, the Nazi Einsatzgruppen now filled them with death ... on a scale that was elsewhere only matched by the death camps. But here there was no camp, just the pits.
Wave after wave of deported victims were forced to undress and line up in batches by the pits where they would be shot and covered with a layer of sand before the next batch came to the pits. This carried on and on until nearly all of the Jews of Vilnius were wiped out.
Not all of the victims were Jews, though. Members of the Lithuanian resistance and other political prisoners as well as members of the Polish AK and Soviet POWs were executed here as well. In total the number of people killed here is quite accurately estimated at 100,000. This makes Ponary one of the deadliest spots anywhere in the world (cf. Treblinka).
As the Red Army advanced in the later stages of WWII, the Nazis were (as usual) eager to cover up the evidence, and so a Sonderkommando under Paul Blobel, who had been the key figure overseeing for the Babi Yar massacres in Kiev in 1941, dug up and cremated the corpses, crushing and grinding up the remaining bones.
In order to manage the large-scale burning of exhumed bodies, a special contraption was constructed from ladders and wheels to bridge the fire and from where the Sonderkommando's “burner brigades” threw the bodies into the fires. At one of the pits a replica of such a structure can be seen today. 
Even amidst such an infernal setting there was an incident of hope and survival: on 15 April 1944, a group of prisoners from the “burner brigade”, made up of Jews and POWs, managed to escape through a 30m (100 foot) tunnel that they had dug from their “bunker” pit over the preceding months. Eleven of them managed to join the partisans in the forests. But this was probably the only positive story associated with this intensely grim site. 
When the Soviets returned, having "liberated" (i.e. re-occupied) Lithuania towards the end of WWII, they set up a memorial honouring only the "Soviet victims" of Hitler's terror … again, not at all an isolated case of not granting the majority of victims, Jews, any mention. Only after Lithuania achieved independence was this rectified.
Today, there is a whole set of different memorials at the site (Jewish, Soviet, Lithuanian, Polish), at different locations in the woods at and around the pits. There's also a small museum, which is a branch of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum (cf. Holocaust Museum). 
What there is to see: When you get to the car park you'll see a very large stone marker saying “Paneriu memorialas”. On the other side of the car park is a Jewish memorial stone in Hebrew, Lithuanian and Russian. Otherwise the site looks totally bleak at first. 
To the right, just beyond the car park you can make out the train line. On the other side of a level crossing is a small memorial stone for one particular Lithuanian victim (a publisher or writer, from what I could make out), while back on the main memorial side there's a circular stone memorial in Polish.
The main cluster of memorials , however, lies to the left, inside the forest. At the far end is the original first monument erected by the Soviets as early as 1948. Dotted around the area are further monuments added much later (mostly in the 1990s or early 2000s), commemorating specific groups of victims. 
And then there are the pits. In total seven such huge round hollows can be seen, each now marked with a memorial stone in Lithuanian and Russian. The bottom of the hollows are these days just covered by well manicured grass. But these are the actual sites of the mass executions as well as the later exhumation and cremation of the bodies. It may look a bit abstract but there is still an intensely chilling atmosphere here, if you know what you're looking at. 
The most moving single location is the one pit which still has a retaining stone wall at the back and in the centre of the hollow a replica of a “ladder ramp” of the type used by the “burner brigades” to throw corpses into the fires. 
But this is at the same time also the location of the only escape from Ponary, namely by a group of 12 prisoners (some sources say up to 15) from the “burner brigade” who had managed to dig a tunnel out of the site, which on 15 April 1944 they used to make their way into the forest to join the partisans. 
Unlike at other massacre sites of its type (e.g. Rumbula, Bikernieku or Babi Yar) there is also a small museum on site at Ponary. Its single-room exhibition displays many photos, as well as documents, clothes/shoes and other artefacts. The texts are in Lithuanian and English these days (the exhibition has seen various updates over the years, and in the past it is said to have been much more chaotic, especially language-wise). So you can get quite a lot of background information out of this compact but intense exhibition.  
The various text panels recount the prehistory of the site, the setting up of ghettos in Vilnius once the Nazis had arrived, and of course the actual mass killings at Ponary itself. There are detailed eyewitness accounts and some rather graphic images too.
Especially touching is the story of those prisoners from the “burner brigades” who managed to escape through the tunnel they had dug (see above).  
The eleven survivors of this escape were later able to tell the story of their gruesome task of burning the exhumed corpses for the Nazis who wanted to cover up their deeds. 
But the exhibition also points out who the perpetrators were, including the special unit of Lithuanians from Vilnius (cf. Genocide Victims Museum) as well as the key German Nazis mostly associated with Ponary, such as SS man Martin Weiss (not to be confused with a fairly well-known Holocaust survivor or the last commander of Dachau, both of the same name!). Weiss had been largely in charge of the mass executions at Ponary and is said to have frequently finished off victims personally with his revolver. He survived the war and was later put on trial in Germany.  
The exhibition is simple and old-fashioned in its style (no multimedia elements here) but still highly effective in conveying the story of Ponary. 
This addition of a degree of interpretative commodification is a valuable add-on to a site that would otherwise remain rather abstract and detached. Yet once you know what happened here the aura of this forlorn place is deeply unnerving. I was in some way reminded of my emotions at the Treblinka memorial (though that's probably yet another league of darkness). 
In short: this is a very special site, one of the darkest spots in Europe, a pilgrimage site for all with more than a passing interest in the Holocaust and thus also a prime dark-tourism destination – even though it will certainly not be for everybody. 
Location:  a good five miles (8 km) south-west of Vilnius, Lithuania
Google maps locators:
Car park: [54.6274, 25.1626
Museum: [54.6263, 25.1611]
More pits deeper in the forest:  [54.625,25.163]
Access and costs: remote and a bit tricky to find, but doable by car or train from Vilnius; free.
Details: to get to Ponary (or Paneriai, in Lithuanian) from Vilnius, you can take a train from central Vilnius (bound for Kaunas or anywhere in between). From Paneriai station, it's about three-quarters of a mile (1.2 km) to the memorial site. Walk along south of the railway tracks along Agrastu gatve heading west until the end of the road, where the paths through the forest to the individual memorials begin. 
Getting there by car is a bit tricky but also quite possible, and it can get you right to the site: first take the A3 (E85), Dariaus ir Gireno gatve, south of the central Vilnius train station, stay on it (i.e. don't take the turn carrying the A3 east) and then Eisiskiu plentas (the 5204). Stay on this road for some 5 miles (7.7 km) then turn right into Baltosios Vokes just before the train line and the A19. Drive past a small industrial estate and then deep into the forest and you'll eventually pass through a small, drab settlement. When you get to the  railway line turn left into Agrastu gatve, which takes you all the way to the car park by the main marker of the memorial.
The open-air parts of the site are freely accessible at all times (but I wouldn't go there outside daylight hours!).  
Admission to the museum is also free
The museum's official opening times are: Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but only in the summer months between May and September. Between October and April, the museum is only open by appointment. It could be, however, that you may need an appointment at any time, and that you may not get one out of season. The sources are somewhat ambiguous on this point (the museum website says one thing, the normally very reliable in-your-pocket-guide another).
In that case, to see the museum exhibition you have to phone the museum warden who lives nearby and will then come and unlock the door for you (if he's around). We were given the number to call by the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum: +37068081278. 
The problem here is that this warden at the site does not speak English, only Lithuanian and Russian (we didn't try German though). So once again I was lucky to have my wife, who is a Russianist, to make the phone call. But if you don't have either of these languages then get someone in Vilnius to tell you how to say this. As long as you're understood, that's all that's needed. You won't strike up a lively conversation anyway. The warden is a very quiet solemn old man (there may be a reason for this – cf. Genocide Victims' Museum). 
Alternatively you could try and organize a guided tour through the Jewish Holocaust Museum, with which the Ponary site is associated. 
Time required: between 30 and 45 minutes for the open-air parts plus perhaps half an hour for the small museum. 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Ponary can be visited as an excursion from Vilnius, which makes the city the most obvious combination. 
There you can also find a dedicated museum about the Holocaust in the region, namely the Holocaust exhibition part of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum. 
Furthermore there is a small room set aside within the “Genocide Victims' Museum” (which is otherwise about the Soviet-era repressions and not actually about any genocide) that covers the Holocaust as well. This has some sections on Ponary, including videos of interviews with an eyewitness (who may be the same person as the current warden of the Ponary museum!) as well as with archaeologists working at other mass grave dig sites.
Ponary can also be visited either just before driving into Vilnius when coming from the south, e.g. Grutas Park, or the west, e.g. Kaunas – or of course the other way round, i.e. when leaving Vilnius en route to such locations. 
See also under Lithuania in general. 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: nothing at all in the immediate vicinity, which isn't touristy in the slightest (unless empty forests bisected by rural railway lines float your boat). So rather head to Vilnius, which generally caters for tourists better than any other part of Lithuania anyway.
  • Ponary 01 - marker by the car parkPonary 01 - marker by the car park
  • Ponary 02 - memorial stones by the car parkPonary 02 - memorial stones by the car park
  • Ponary 03 - by the train linePonary 03 - by the train line
  • Ponary 04 - memorial on the other side of the train linePonary 04 - memorial on the other side of the train line
  • Ponary 05 - mapPonary 05 - map
  • Ponary 06 - museumPonary 06 - museum
  • Ponary 07 - in the museumPonary 07 - in the museum
  • Ponary 08 - shoesPonary 08 - shoes
  • Ponary 09 - one of the pitsPonary 09 - one of the pits
  • Ponary 10 - another pitPonary 10 - another pit
  • Ponary 11 - replicaPonary 11 - replica
  • Ponary 12 - Soviet memorialPonary 12 - Soviet memorial
  • Ponary 13 - another memorialPonary 13 - another memorial
  • Ponary 14 - forestPonary 14 - forest

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