Ponary – The Vilna Killing Site

Reference: Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team

Prototype for the Permanent Death Camps in Poland

The first executions at the Vilna killing site at Ponary took place on the 8 July 1941 one hundred Jews at a time were brought from the city to Ponary, to a waiting zone. Here in what had been a popular holiday resort for Vilna Jewry, they were ordered to undress and to hand over whatever money or valuables they had with them.

 

They were then marched naked, in single file, in groups of ten or twenty at a time, holding hands to the edge of the pits dug by the Soviet Army to store fuel.

 

They were then shot down by rifle fire, after they had fallen into the pit, no attempt was made to see if they were all dead. If anyone moved another shot was fired.

 

The bodies were then covered from above, with a thin layer of sand and the next group of naked prisoners led from the waiting area to the edge of the pit. From where they had waited, the people had heard the sound of rifle fire but had seen nothing.

 

German soldiers described massacres in July 1941.

 

A driver’s statement

 

I cannot whether we arrived in Ponary on 5 or 10 July 1941. While we were repairing our vehicles – I can no longer tell whether it was on the first or second day of our stay there – I suddenly saw a column of about four hundred men walking along the road into the pine wood.

 

They were coming from the direction of Vilna. The column which consisted exclusively of men aged between twenty-five and sixty, were led into the wood by a guard of Lithuanian civilians. The Lithuanians were armed with carbines, the people were fully dressed and carried only the barest essentials on them. As I remember, the guards wore armbands, the colour of which I can no longer recall.

 

I do remember that Hamann and, I think Hechinger went off after the column. About an hour later Hamann returned to our quarters. He was pale and told me in an agitated manner what he had witnessed in the wood. His actual words were, “You know the Jews you saw marching past before? “Not one of them is still alive.”

 

I said that this couldn’t be the case, whereupon he explained to me that all the men had been shot. Any of them that weren’t dead after the shooting had been given the coup de grace.

 

The very next day – I think it was around lunchtime – once again I saw a group of four hundred Jews coming from the direction of Vilna going into the same wood. These too were accompanied by armed civilians. The delinquents were very quiet. I saw no women or children in either of the two groups.

 

Together with some of my colleagues from my motorised column I followed this second group. As I recall the NCO’s Riedl, Dietrich, Schroff, Hamann, Locher, Ammann, Greule and possibly some others whom I can no longer remember came with us.

 

After we had followed the group for about eight hundred to a thousand metres we came upon two fairly large sandpits. The path we had taken ran between them both. The pits were not joined but were separated by the path and a strip of land.

 

We overtook the column just before we reached the pits and then stopped close to the entry to one of them – the one on the right. I myself stood about six to eight meters from the entry.

 

To the left and right of the entry stood an armed civilian – the people were led into the gravel pit in small groups to the right by the guards. Running around the edge of the pit there was a circular ditch which the Jews had to climb down into.

 

This ditch was about 1.5 metres deep and about the same again in width. Since the ground was pure sand the ditch was braced with planks. As the Jews were being led in groups into the pit an elderly man stopped in front of the entrance for a moment and said in good German, “What do you want from me? I am only a poor composer.”

 

The two civilians standing at the entrance started pummelling him with blows so that he literally flew into the pit. After a short time the Jews had all been herded into the circular trench. My mates and I had moved up close to the entry to the pit from where we could see clearly that the people in the ditch were being beaten with clubs by the guards, who were standing at the side of the trench.

 

After this, ten men were slowly led out of the ditch – these men had already bared their upper torsos and covered their heads with their clothes. I would also like to add that on the way to the execution area the delinquents had to walk one behind the other and hold on to the upper body of the man in front.

 

After a group had lined up at the execution area, the next group was led across. The firing squad, which was made up of ten men, positioned itself at the side of the path, about six to eight metres in front of the group. After this, as far as I recall, the group was shot by the firing squad after the order was given. The shots were fired simultaneously so that the men fell into the pit behind them at the same time.

 

The 400 Jews were shot in exactly the same way over a period of about an hour. The shooting happened very quickly. If any of the men in the pit were still moving a few more single shots were fired on them. The pit into which the men fell had a diameter of about fifteen to twenty metres and was I think five to six metres deep.

 

From our vantage point we could see into the pit and was therefore able to confirm that the 400 Jews who had been shot the previous day were also in there. They were covered with a thin sprinkling of sand. Right on top, on, this layer of sand, there was a further three men and a woman who had been shot on the morning of the day, in question. Parts of their bodies protruded out of the sand.

 

After about one hundred Jews had been shot, other Jews had to sprinkle sand over their bodies. After the entire group had been executed the firing squad put their rifles to one side.

 

This gave me the opportunity to talk to one of them. I asked him whether he could really do such a thing like that, and pointed out the Jews had done nothing to him. To this he answered, “Yes – after what we have gone through under the domination of Russian Jewish Commissars, after the Russians invaded Lithuania, we no longer find it difficult.”

 

During the course of our conversation he told me that he had been suspected of spying by the Russians. He had been arrested and had been thrown in and out of various GPU prisons, although he was in no way guilty. He told me had only been a lorry-driver and had never harmed a soul. One of the methods they used to make him confess was to tear out his fingernails. He told me that each of the guards present had had to endure the most extreme suffering.

 

He went on to tell me that a Jewish Commissar had broken into a flat, tied up a man and raped his wife before the man’s very eyes. Afterwards the Commissar had literally butchered the wife to death, cut out her heart, fried it in a pan and had then proceeded to eat it.

 

I was also told by comrades that in Vilna a German soldier had been shot dead from a church tower. For this another 300-400 Jews were executed in the same quarry. In this connection, I would also like to say that the very next day once again about the same number of Jews were led along the road into the wood.

 

Apart from that one day I did not go to the execution area again. I can only say that the mass shootings in Ponary were quite horrific. At the time I said: “May God grant us victory because if they get their revenge, we’re in for a hard time.”

 

Co – driver’s statement

 

As already mentioned, we arrived in Ponary one afternoon in the first week of July 1941. The next day we heard rifle and machine gun fire coming from the woods to the south of Ponary. Since we were behind the front we wanted to get to the bottom of the matter. I can no longer remember now exactly whether it was during the morning or in the early afternoon that we went off to find out where the shooting was coming from.

 

Anyway, I set off with Greule, Hoding, Wahl and Schroff, who were all members of my unit, in the direction of the woods where the shooting was coming from.

 

When we arrived at the spot, we saw people, who we subsequently learned from the leader of the squad were Lithuanians, in the act of carrying out mass shooting of Jews. On the path which ran between the two pits there was a light-machine – gun, pointing to the left, being used by the Lithuanians.

 

In front of the machine-gun, standing by the edge of the pit, were ten delinquents, who were shot with the machine-gun straight into the pit. I actually looked into the pit and saw that the bottom was already covered with bodies.

 

In the ditch that had been excavated on the other side of this execution area were the Jews who had not yet been shot. They were all men of different ages. I saw that they had to take off their shoes and shirts and throw them on to the side of the trench.

 

The Lithuanians standing above were rummaging through these things. I also noticed that at one spot in front of the ditch there was a big mountain of shoes and clothes. While the Jews in the trench were getting undressed the Lithuanians beat them with heavy truncheons and rifle-butts.

 

They were then led out of the trench ten at a time to stand in front of the machine-gun. The leader of the Lithuanians spoke good German and we went up to him and asked what was going on, saying that this was a downright disgrace. He explained to us that he had once been a teacher at a German school in Konigsberg.

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