9th Fort and Monument, Kaunas
The top dark site in the area of Kaunas
, hands down. In fact it's three sites in one, as it were.
First there's the fort itself, which was used as a prison and during WWII
also as a massacre site by the Germans in the Holocaust
. Today this part houses a museum about those dark days.
Then there's a new modern building featuring a separate museum that is mostly about the Soviet
times and Lithuania's struggle for independence.
And finally, and visually grandest of it all, there's the fantastically monumental Soviet-era memorial. It's one of the largest and most impressive (in the socialist
brutalist kind of way) specimens of its type anywhere in the world.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The 9th Fort retains it numerical name from the days when it was indeed the ninth part of a series of forts that together formed a whole ring of fortifications around the city of Kaunas
. Collectively these were called Fortress Kaunas.
Construction of the fortifications began in the late 19th century, the 9th Fort itself was begun in 1902. The work was only finished just before the outbreak of WWI
, when the territory of today's Lithuania
was part of the Russian
In 1915 the fort was indeed the site of a fierce battle between German and Russian forces. The defending Russians held the besieged stronghold for several days but finally succumbed. Casualties on both sides were significant.
After the departure of the Germans, following their defeat in WWI, the remaining parts of the fortress came under the administration of the newly independent Lithuanian state of the inter-war years. During this time the 9th Fort was for a while used as a prison/hard-labour camp.
This function was also resumed by the Soviet Union
after their take-over of Lithuania
in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
in the early phases of WWII
. Now it was the NKVD, the precursor of the KGB
, that used parts of the fort to incarcerate political prisoners.
When Nazi Germany
reached Lithuania in their eastward conquest of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) from 1941, the Kaunas Fortress was practically turned into a kind of concentration camp
Several massacres took place in Kaunas, including at least two large-scale ones at the 9th Fort. The details and figures given in different sources vary a lot with regard to the numbers of those executed. But it was certainly in the region of 10,000 or more (up to 50,000, according to some sources).
Most, but not all, victims were Jews, especially from the Kaunas ghetto, but also Jews deported from Germany
in the early phases, as well a transport of French
Jews from Drancy
that had been diverted here (instead of Auschwitz
) as late as in 1944.
In 1943, when the Nazis began covering up their mass murders of the “final solution”, the "Sonderaktion 1005
" ('Special Action 1005') that was set up for this purpose also came to the 9th Fort in Kaunas where special squads of prisoners had the gruelling task of digging up the corpses from mass graves and cremating them on big pyres … before they themselves were executed (cf. Belzec
In December 1943 one group of such prisoners managed to escape from the 9th Fort. Some of the (few) survivors were thus later able to testify what had happened here.
In 1958/59 the 9th Fort was declared a museum and a first exhibition about the Nazi crimes was established. This was expanded over the years. In 1984 the gigantic monument was added on a hillock just to the west of the fort. At around the same time the second purpose-built museum was set up down the hill.
The whole fortress remained, however, under Soviet military administration until the collapse of the USSR
and the withdrawal of its troops in 1993, after Lithuania
had regained its independence.
Since then the museum has expanded further to include exhibitions about the Soviet period and Lithuania's resistance and struggle for independence.
The original fortifications of the 9th Fort are by far the best preserved out of the whole of the old Russian-empire-era fortress (only the 7th Fort is also being preserved – see under combinations
), and as such is one of the most significant historical sites of its kind.
But it is especially the role it played in the Holocaust
that makes it such an eminently dark site on top of its military history. Thus it is one of THE most important dark-tourism sites in the whole of the Baltics region!
What there is to see:
a lot! Certainly much more than first meets the eye. The very first thing that does (and with some panache!) is the gigantic 1980s Soviet
This enormous ensemble consists of three separate poured-concrete structures that soar high into the sky at odd angles, almost as if frozen in the middle of collapsing (or perhaps erupting?). The tallest part is some 100 feet high (32m), so when you step up close it does make you feel very small.
At first it seems to be a purely abstract, brutalist kind of sculpture, but then you look more closely and see that parts of the concrete are shaped into crude human forms with boxy faces and arms with raised fists at the top. Presumably the latter represents the revolutionary or resistance spirit element.
At the end of the day, it is a case of size really does matter. The monument is so gigantic it simply cannot fail to impress for that reason alone. It was certainly one of the most awe-inspiring Soviet sculptures I had ever seen up to that point (possibly only topped by the Rodina Mat
statue in Kiev
Here's an extra tip for those into photography
: try and get there early if it's a sunny day because the light is best when the sun shines on the monument from the east. From midday, harsh shadows will make the more sculpted parts (with the faces) appear too dark. And in the evening the monument will be illuminated entirely from the back. That may be OK for a silhouette shot, but otherwise it's a restriction. No, trust me, early birds will get the best shots. Of course, on an overcast day, it won't be so important.
At the head of the path leading up to the base of the monument, there are various commemorative plaques set into the ground, including ones from Israel
as well as a couple from Germany
Next to this plaque ensemble is the main site of the massacres that the Nazis
committed here. On the wall leading to the main trench between the fort and its outer battlements hangs a bilingual sign, in Lithuanian and broken English, which declares that “there near this wall Nazis shot and burned people in 1943-1944” (the odd gaps are in the original – maybe it used to say something different to “Nazis” originally?). The fact that these “people” were mostly Jewish victims is left unmentioned, as is the fact that the massacres had actually begun much earlier than 1943. But never mind. As a marker of the location it serves its primary function.
You can see the fortifications of the actual 9th Fort from the outside, but to get inside you need a ticket from the modern museum building down the hill. So if you're parking down there make sure you first get your ticket to the two museums from there, even if you want to go and see the monument first and only then do the fort before finishing at the new museum. Otherwise you have to walk back up another time.
From the outside, the modern museum picks up the style of the big hilltop monument to a degree, being constructed from raw, grey concrete as well. Its low outer shape looks almost a bit like the monument as if it had collapsed completely. It's quite low-slung but inside the main exhibition hall a surprisingly cavernous space opens up which is somewhat reminiscent of hyper-modern cathedral architecture of the 1960s.
Content-wise the museum is subdivided into separate thematic sections. There's one on Lithuanian independence (in the inter-war years) and its end through the first Soviet
occupation in 1940. The background to this, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
, is given particular emphasis.
The occupation by Nazi Germany
from 1941 to 1944/45 is also given a small section (but the Holocaust
is dealt with in greater detail in the exhibitions in the fort up the hill). One subsection picks up the issue of Lithuanian intellectuals who were imprisoned in the Gdansk concentration camp
. Some of those typical striped camp inmate clothes are (predictably) also on display.
The period of repression during the second Soviet occupation from the end of WWII
all the way through the Cold War
is the next topic, as is the Lithuanian resistance against the oppressors.
One subsection in this context places particular emphasis on the story of Romas Kalanta, the student who “sacrificed” himself through self-immolation in the centre of Kaunas
in 1972. This most fatal act of protest is illustrated quite graphically in the museum – not only are there photos of his charred corpse, blackened pieces of his clothing, as well as a molten bus pass and watch that he had on him that fateful day, are also on display.
Surrounding this Kalanta section numerous heroes of Lithuanian history and especially resistance are also celebrated lavishly. For the non-Lithuanian outsider it gets quite tedious at this point. I ended up skipping most of this section.
Finally there's a room that serves rather as an art gallery than as part of the museum. At least at the time of my visit (April 2014) it was full of paintings, some of which seemed thematically related to the museum's dark topics, though this was not made so explicit.
Back outside you can then make your way (back) up to the 9th Fort. You approach it from the back, i.e. from the south-east, whereas the fortifications and the artillery face(d) north and west.
Through the main entrance you come to a forecourt with an old field gun, then you enter another courtyard that is surrounded by high walls with plenty of barbed wire at the top and watchtowers at the corners. Now it is indeed beginning to feel quite concentration-camp
-like … except that there is a large mural at the far wall that shows an artist's impression of an aerial view of the whole site, including the monument, which you can see towering for real over the wall in the distance.
A room to the side of the gatehouse was the former visitors' room during the times when the fort was a regular prison. Here, relatives would have had the chance to speak to their imprisoned family members through iron bars.
Then you enter the fort as such. You can walk around freely along dark and dank corridors, from which large vaulted rooms branch off. Some of these are furnished as reconstructed prison cells of different periods. Others contain thematically distinct exhibitions.
These cover the early history of the fort, including its fall during WWI
, as well as the the even darker chapters that followed: use as a hard-labour prison, the Soviet and Nazi German occupations during WWII
and the Holocaust
as well as the post-WWII Soviet
One of the most touching exhibitions is the one about the French contingent of Jewish prisoners who were deported here from the transit camp of Drancy
in 1944 (originally the transport was destined for Auschwitz
, but for some reason was diverted to Kaunas
instead). It became known as “convoi 73”. On one wall you can see the graffiti/scratchings that these French inmates left behind (now protected by a perspex plate).
The Nazi-era crimes are further illustrated in a more general exhibition, as is the following Soviet
era. In addition to various photos, documents and accompanying explanatory texts (mostly in Lithuanian and English – the latter in somewhat shaky simplistic translations but sufficient to get the gist) there are also plenty of artefacts on display.
These range from individual pieces such as a pair of boots worn in the Siberian gulags
, to heaps of prison cell keys and other “amassed” items. Some rooms had whole life-size ensembles, such as a Soviet-era interrogation room (complete with a scary-looking restraining chair). Another has a reconstruction of ghetto living quarters, which looked a little too cosy to me, not especially grim … except that the whole arrangement was behind barbed wire.
Part of the ghetto exhibition consisted of unsettlingly familiar sights: display cases full of combs and spectacles that Jewish victims of the Kaunas Holocaust
had used/worn (you see heaps like this at the main exhibition in Auschwitz
One room is devoted to the good deeds of the then Vice Consul of Japan
, Chiune Sugihara, who managed to save countless Jews from the Holocaust before it arrived in Kaunas by issuing transit visas (against orders). You can also visit the former consulate building in Kaunas
(see also below
). There are photos, (copies of) documents and so forth. On one photo Sugihara's widow is pictured together with US
movie director Steven Spielberg! The Sugihara exhibition is complemented by small panels about similar heroes who have also been honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel
(see Yad Vashem
Yet another room had a special exhibition about a group of some thousand Jews from Munich
who were massacred here as early as in November 1941. Here, the bilingual panels switch the translations from English to German (so if you don't understand that language you won't get much out of this part).
One long windowless corridor with a locked door at the far end is marked as the place where a group of prisoners who were part of the Sonderaktion 1005
) managed to escape from the fort in December 1943.
Finally there is also a small section with photos of what became of the rest of the Kaunas Fortress in more recent years, i.e. it's mostly in ruins.
The fortifications at the 9th Fort, however, made from brick and concrete, are still largely intact (or have been reconstructed). You can enter the inside of the defensive wall tract of the fort, but only on a guided tour (for an extra 10 litas – at the time I was there). But since I had not arranged for this, I could not see these parts of the fort with my own eyes.
You can, however, freely walk all the way around the fort on the outside – and as you do so you can make out some of the armament domes on the top of the outside-facing battlements.
All in all, it is clear that the 9th Fort, its museum exhibitions and its oversized monument together form one of the prime dark-tourism sites in the whole of Lithuania
and the Baltics at large. Absolutely not to be missed!
on the western outskirts of Kaunas
, just south of the main A1 motorway heading west, some 4 miles (6.5 km) from the city centre as the crow flies (10 km by road).
Access and costs: out of town, but easy enough to reach by car (or taxi); admission fees to the museums are charged but it's extremely good value for money!
Details: It's a long way out from the city centre, so unless you have your own vehicle you may have to take a taxi (ca. 7 euros). While it may not be completely impossible to make it there by public transport, it's too inconvenient (and connections too infrequent) to be recommendable, at least that is what seems to be the upshot of various online reports.
When I went there I had a hire car so it was not a problem at all to make the stop coming in from the west en route to Kaunas
. The site was easy to spot from the A1 motorway, and to get to the parking lot all I had to do was take the exit to the A5 and keep right to get to the main car park. Coming along the A1 from the east it's practically the same. Fiddling through straight from the city centre is a bit more complicated. There is a second car park nearer the monument that can save you a little uphill walking – but if you then go to the museums you'll have the long walk back later.
It's best to start at the bottom in any case, as you have to get your ticket to BOTH museums at the ticket office in the modern museum closer to the main car park. You CANNOT get a ticket just to the old 9th Fort and its museum exhibitions at the entrance there. If you turn up there without a ticket you have to go down to the modern museum and back (like I had to because I had started at the monument).
Admission: 3 EUR, students and seniors 1.50 EUR (when I last checked in September 2018). For what you get to see for this fee, this is outstandingly good value for money!
You may also want to consider investing a little more for guided tours (in Lithuanian, English, German or Russian – they cost between 4 and 11 EUR, depending of length and coverage). There are separate tours for the modern museum and the museum parts of the 9th Fort, as well as a comprehensive combination tour. A tour of the defensive walls of the fort also gives you additional access to some underground passages not regularly open to individual visitors going on self-guided tours (also available seperately). Otherwise it is possible to more or less get by on your own just with the English translations of the museums' exhibitions' descriptions (even if they're not perfect). The modern museum also offers a free audio guide in English for its exhibition (I didn't use one, so cannot say anything about its quality).
Opening times: daily except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; some sources also mention more restricted winter opening times (between November and March) when the museums close two hours earlier. Better check ahead.
The outside of the fort and the big monument can be seen for free at any time (during daylight hours).
Time required: much more than you may at first assume when seeing the site from the outside (remember, much of it is underground!). I spent about two and a half hours here. If you want to read everything and perhaps take guided tours as well, then you may even need quite a bit longer than that.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The only other part of the Kaunas
Fortress ring of strongholds that once ringed the city other than the 9th Fort that is publicly accessible today is the 7th Fort to the north of the centre.
There are some vestiges of some of the other forts too, but none of these are (officially) accessible to the general public (although you can find videos online taken by some really daredevil urban explorers who went diving (!) in the flooded underground remains of some parts of the other old forts!).
At the 7th Fort, in contrast, recent preservation efforts have yielded yet another regular tourist attraction. First opened in 2011, the inside of the 7th Fort now houses a military museum with exhibitions about the history of artillery versus fortifications, so it is less of a dark-tourism site than the 9th Fort, although according to their website they now also offer a guided tour with a focus on the Holocaust
The 7th Fort is open Wednesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; admission is 1.75 EUR (6Lts), guided tours cost 3.50 EUR (used to be 12 Lts) – info last retrieved in January 2015 (some sources still list more restricted opening times – so it would be a good idea to check ahead before going!). The site is located some 2 miles (3 km) north-east of the city centre and the War Museum
. Google map locator: [54.916,23.927
Unfortunately I did not have the time to visit the 7th Fort as well as the 9th when I was in Kaunas in April 2014, so I cannot report anything about it from first-hand experience.
The same also applies to another site in Kaunas that is related to the Holocaust history of the Kaunas Fortress, namely the Sugihara House museum. From here, the Vice Consul of Japan issued visas to save countless Jews from the approaching Holocaust (see above
and under Kaunas
The War Museum
in the centre of Kaunas also has a few (scant) elements overlapping with the darker chapters of Lithuania's history (which the 9th Fort represents more than any other in the Kaunas area). In direct comparison, however, the War Museum pales in significance as a dark-tourist destination, but may be worth visiting as an add-on if you have the extra time.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Kaunas
- Kaunas 9th Fort 01 - old fort and Soviet monument
- Kaunas 9th Fort 02 - view from the car park to the museum
- Kaunas 9th Fort 03 - at the Ninth Fort itself
- Kaunas 9th Fort 04 - massacre site
- Kaunas 9th Fort 05 - as signs point out
- Kaunas 9th Fort 06 - soaring Soviet monument
- Kaunas 9th Fort 07 - standing over 30m high
- Kaunas 9th Fort 08 - seen from the side
- Kaunas 9th Fort 09 - towering tall
- Kaunas 9th Fort 10 - stony faces
- Kaunas 9th Fort 11 - stone fists in the air
- Kaunas 9th Fort 12 - museum seen through the monument
- Kaunas 9th Fort 13 - modern museum
- Kaunas 9th Fort 14 - cavernous inside
- Kaunas 9th Fort 15 - artefacts
- Kaunas 9th Fort 16 - prison clothes
- Kaunas 9th Fort 17 - prisoner number
- Kaunas 9th Fort 18 - Romas Kalanta section
- Kaunas 9th Fort 19 - burnt clothes
- Kaunas 9th Fort 20 - corridor
- Kaunas 9th Fort 21 - back at the actual fort
- Kaunas 9th Fort 22 - going in
- Kaunas 9th Fort 23 - former visiting room for relatives
- Kaunas 9th Fort 24 - shoes in the floor
- Kaunas 9th Fort 25 - keys
- Kaunas 9th Fort 26 - cell
- Kaunas 9th Fort 27 - bunk beds and guard
- Kaunas 9th Fort 28 - exhibition
- Kaunas 9th Fort 29 - section about transport from Drancy
- Kaunas 9th Fort 30 - restraining chair
- Kaunas 9th Fort 31 - winter boots and barbed wire
- Kaunas 9th Fort 32 - ghetto life mock-up section
- Kaunas 9th Fort 33 - combs
- Kaunas 9th Fort 34 - bullets
- Kaunas 9th Fort 35 - cellar room and door through which some prisoners escaped
- Kaunas 9th Fort 36 - ovens
- Kaunas 9th Fort 37 - plan, but not disclosing what No 7 is