TW: This post describes a site of imprisonment, torture, and mass murder. Acts of the first stage of the Final Solution — the complete destruction of the Jewish people — took place here, outside of Kaunas, Lithuania.
Last fall my lovely friend Bri (of Home Base Belgium) and I trekked around the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, stopping at a number of memorial sites of historical importance throughout the region. One of the research interests closest to my heart, memory work — especially the intentions behind commemorating particular events and how those goals manifest physically in a landscape — intersects across power, memory, and inequality; analyzing not only the atrocities that took place here, but how organizations (including governments) reflect and present these complicated histories is vital to acknowledging the violence and repairing harm. This is certainly true in Lithuania, but particularly at the Ninth Fort, which has been placed among the most horrific sites of the first stage of the Final Solution — along with Babi Yar (Kyiv, Ukraine), Ponary (Vilnius, Lithuania), and Rumbula (Riga, Latvia).
“Here, however, the question of the relationship between official and non-official, social memory also arises: how did the victims’ associations, for example, bias the state’s politics of history with the stories of their suffering? It is therefore important to keep in mind that there are several actors in the field of memory culture – and state and society are developing a fascinating competition and/ or cooperation.”Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2020. “Between Heritage and (Identity) Politics: Dealing with the Signs of Communism in Post-Soviet Lithuania”. National Identities 23:6. 511-530.
Originally built by Tsarist Russia as a series of fortresses around the geopolitically strategic city of Kaunas (also known as Kovno), the Ninth is one of the few remaining forts somewhat still intact (the other being the seventh) of the entire system. Today, the site includes the fort itself with its own museum, the place of mass execution (and later added Holocaust memorial), a new building with a separate museum, and the Soviet-era memorial.
As with many countries occupied by the Nazis and the Soviets, memory work in Lithuania is complicated and intersectional; similarly to the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble, the intention behind the building of the Ninth Fort’s massive monument (one of its kind still standing today) and what it represents and to whom — along with the chosen exhibits located in the site’s two museums –requires a thorough unpacking of not only the recent history of this place, but how events became memorialized here over time.
As Russia continues its war in Ukraine — and the recent destruction of Soviet monuments in Baltic public spaces — what do these Soviet memorials in Lithuania represent? Lithuanian or Russian identity? Who ultimately decides what aspect of an occupying nation can be merged into one’s identity?
This is a long (and I hope not meandering) post discussing not only the recent history of Lithuania and events that shaped the Ninth Fort, but also how political actors have used this landscape to develop their own narratives of atrocity and responsibility over time. I hope you’ll power through with me!
An Extremely Brief & Not at All Comprehensive Overview of Lithuanian History:
Similarly to Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania’s history is imprinted by occupation. In 1569, the Union of Lublin established the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, which lasted until the Russian Empire annexed a majority of the country (1772 – 1795). Following a series of uprisings against Russian rule, a number of Russification policies were implemented: cultural and educational centers were closed, the use of the Lithuanian language forbidden, and the Lithuanian press was banned; however, these efforts ultimately failed as Lithuanians held onto their heritage, culture, and desire for autonomy through a large network of book smugglers and secret schools. In parts of the Lithuanian-speaking Russian empire, these text bootleggers were known as Knygnešiaĩ (the one who carries the books).
After WWI, the Germans occupied Lithuania and again, forbid the Lithuanian press and restricted rights. However, the elected 20-member Council of Lithuania was formed in 1917 as a first step to proclaim their autonomy from occupying powers. Lithuania — along with its Baltic neighbors — signed its Act of Independence in 1918. Vilnius was taken by Polish forces and Kaunas became the provisional capital. After three wars of independence (against the Bolsheviks, the Bermontians, and Poland), the first meeting of the democratically elected government was held on May 15th, 1920. Six years later, a coup of conservative authoritarians overthrew the government and a new constitution was adopted in 1928 that centralized power, banned opposition, enforced censorship, and eliminated the rights of marginalized groups within the country.
In August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which partitioned control of Central and Eastern Europe between the two governments. Originally under the German sphere of influence, Lithuania was transferred to the USSR after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. This change would later “justify” the Soviet occupation of Lithuania beginning on June 15th, 1940. After pressuring the Lithuanians (who attempted to maintain neutrality despite shifting control of their country to foreign powers) to sign the Soviet-Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty, Lithuania was given back Vilnius in exchange for the establishment of five Soviet bases within the country; Estonia and Latvia also signed similar treaties. On June 14th, 1940, the Soviets issued an ultimatum that Lithuania eventually accepted, leading the to occupation of the country’s major cities that summer. A number of staged elections provided “legitimacy” to the narrative that Lithuania willingly joined the USSR. As with most republics occupied by the Soviet Union, Sovietization policies were implemented.
Just one week before the Nazi invasion of Lithuania, 17,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia by the Soviet government. These deportations and ultimately, deaths, led to support of the Nazi regime within the country. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania and gained control of the country within a week. Many Lithuanians — sparked by anti-Soviet sentiment — supported the Nazi regime as a form of pro-independence. As a result (and as seen as events that later took place at the Ninth Fort), Lithuanians were also complicit in the carrying out of the Final Solution within their country. With the largest Jewish majority of the Baltic countries, most of the Livaks (Lithuanian Jewish community) were murdered in the first five months of Nazi occupation.
The extermination of the Jewish population began almost immediately. A quarter of a million Jewish people lived in Lithuania at the time of Nazi invasion and by the end of WWII, over 95% of the community was murdered, one of the highest rates of genocide in Europe. Collaboration between the Lithuanians and German authorities primarily enabled the scale and effectiveness of their executions; ten Lithuanian police battalions murdered 78,000 people alone. While a number of resistance organizations fought against Nazi control (including many Jewish groups — two uprisings took place at the Ninth Fort alone) it is important to recognize the often-ignored Nazi collaboration that took place in Lithuania.
The Soviets regained control of Lithuania in the summer of 1944. While the resistance to the USSR remained strong, it was not enough to stave off occupation. Deportations of Lithuanians continued until 1953; 5-10% of the population was exiled to Siberia (including Jewish people) and an estimated 50,000 people died. More ethnic Lithuanians died during the years of 1945-1953 than in WWII. For many Lithuanians, the western narrative of the Soviet Union “saving” Europe from the Nazis is largely challenged, even as we’ll see this historical revisionism reflected in the Soviet built monuments across the occupied republics following the war.
With the beginnings of glasnost in the Soviet Union, the Sąjūdis was established in 1988, eventually leading to the restoration of Lithuania’s sovereignty as the USSR dissolved. On March 11, 1990, following the the very public 600 km (370 miles) human chain of people across the Baltic states, Lithuania became the first Soviet-occupied country to declare their independence. Restoration of independence was implemented in 1993 and the final Soviet soldiers left the country in August of that year.
The Ninth Fort at Kaunas:
One of the most unique aspects of visiting the Ninth Fort is that so much of the history I just outlined physically took place in this one space; for the Lithuanians, the government and many communities are still attempting to come to terms with the dual legacy of their recent past — both as victims and perpetrators of violence — reflecting, unpacking, and making historical amends. It is undeniable that ethnic Lithuanians suffered greatly during occupation, particularly under Soviet control, but the collaboration with the Nazis to murder most of the Livak population is also undeniable, even if (as we’ll see) this partnership is less represented in comprehensive and just memory work.
In the interest of time and organization, here is a breakdown of the events that took place at the Ninth Fort from its construction to eventual site of memory:
Mass Executions during Nazi Occupation:
During Nazi occupation, the Ninth Fort was chosen in advance as an execution site due to its location near the newly established Jewish ghetto in Kaunas (Vilijampolė or Slobodka in Yiddish). After only three weeks, the site was transformed to a location capable of holding, murdering, and burying thousands of Jewish victims. On October 29th, 1941, the German SS and Lithuanian police murdered 9,200 residents of the Kaunas Ghetto at the Ninth Fort. Just one month later, the first systemic killing of German Jews during the Holocaust took place at the Ninth Fort after trains were rerouted from Riga, Lodz, and Minsk to Kaunas. In total, 45,000 – 50,000 Jewish people were killed in mass executions at the Ninth Fort. Testimonies collected from survivors tell the stories of the intense cruelty suffered by their victims before they were executed.
In 1943, in an effort to conceal the mass executions at the Ninth Fort, the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators enacted Aktion 1005 across Nazi-occupied territories, including Lithuania: sixty-four prisoners (sixty were Jewish) were forced to open the mass graves, remove bodies (and their gold teeth and any valuables), and cremate the remains. All escaped with help from the Kaunas ghetto underground, but only twenty-eight managed to find safety. The escape is one act of resistance that took place at the Ninth Fort.
Establishing Commemoration at the Ninth Fort at Kaunas:
One of the most unique aspects of the Ninth Fort is just how much this landscape physically represents and reflects the history of Lithuania over time. First established as a commemoration site by the Soviet Union, the construction and design here was not accidental; the Soviets intentionally created a memorial space that reflected their narrative.
“From the first days after the Second World War, the Soviets began an active commemoration program. Thousands of military monuments had been erected throughout the Soviet Union. At least one monument stands in almost every bigger village, not to mention small towns or regional centers. Although the first wave of monument construction in Lithuania had reached its peak in the early 1950s, construction of WWII memorial flourished almost throughout the whole Soviet period. As political circumstances changed, fashions changed, old memorial places were renewed and monuments became more sophisticated and diverse.”Petrulis, Vaidas. 2021. “World War II Monuments in Soviet Lithuania. From Political Symbols to Dissonant Heritage.” Masses are Dying: Ways of Remembrance for Two World Wars from a European Perspective [ed: Herausgegeben von Sigrid Brandt]. 20 – 31. Available here.
Two periods of commemoration took place in Lithuania under Soviet occupation. The first was the decade following the end of WWII — tributes to the victims of the war were established simultaneously with the Soviet Terror as more than 20,000 Lithuanians were killed and nearly 150,000 people were sent to GULAGS — during 1944 – 1953. The second period of commemoration by the state took place from the 1960s-1980s when the role of local architects and designers increased, but under the control of the narrative of the Soviet Union. The memorial at Kaunas is one of, if not the only, surviving monument of its kind.
Memorialization of the Ninth Fort:
The first competition to develop a memorial at the Ninth Fort was held in 1966 and three additional rounds took place until the final project was approved. Sculptor Alfonsas Vincentas Ambraziunas and architects Vytautas Vielius and Gediminas Baravykas worked on the design and its construction until the 32 meter (105 foot) high monument was unveiled in 1984. Located at the start of the “Path of Death”, this monument sits adjacent to the execution site.
Initially dedicated to the murdered “citizens of the Soviet Union”, the Memorial to the Victims of Nazism was hailed as a triumph when it opened to the public in 1984. However, it is important to note that the “victims of Nazism” here were in fact almost completely Jewish. For a Soviet-built memorial on a WWI-era fort, where thousands of Jewish people not just from Lithuania (including Kaunas) but across Europe were executed by Nazis and Lithuanians, the decision to not specifically name the victims or the perpetrators — calling them merely “Soviet” instead — demonstrates the intent of this memorial.
The Soviet government controlled all WWII memorization projects with the intent to establish a narrative of Soviet greatness — the “liberators” overcoming the evils of Nazism — while also liberating the Lithuanians both from the Nazis and those that fought against the Soviet government. While they may have incorporated aspects of ethnic Lithuanian culture, these monuments were usually associated with the Soviet Union first and foremost.
In the development of the memorialization at the Ninth Fort, we can see how commemoration and narrative have shifted over time (Makhotina, 2020):
- 1959: First Soviet museum opened with the purpose of illustrating German Nazi atrocities; a “hierarchy” of victims is presented with pro-Soviet prisoners at the top and Jewish people as a just another group.
- 1984: The new museum is opened and the permanent exhibition shares the same themes: the Lithuanians’ struggle against fascism and the liberation of the country by the Soviet Union. Again, Jewish victims are mentioned, but not as the intended group of racial extermination.
- 1990: The Ninth Fort transitions to a “double memorial” featuring exhibits on the Soviet Socialist Terror against Lithuanians from 1940 – 1990.
- Today: Themes of the memorial space are primarily national identity and the genocidal intentions of the Soviets on ethnic Lithuanians, although the mass executions as a part of the Final Solution are discussed.
Following the end of Soviet occupation, the narrative of commemoration at the Ninth Fort changed from the somewhat generically labelled genocide of the Great Patriotic War to instead reflect the Stalinist violence committed on ethnic Lithuanians during the period following WWII. As with many formerly Soviet-occupied countries, the victimhood narrative combined with national identity, can also obscure the memorialization of a place. As the focus shifted from merely Nazi genocide to Soviet mass murder, the 1993 – present narrative presented at the Ninth Fort is a combination of Lithuanian national symbolism and the victims of Soviet persecution; this shift from Nazi to Soviet terror suppresses the Lithuanian involvement in the mass execution of the Jewish population. The line between resistance and collaboration is thin and remains an issue in how history is not only represented, but celebrated. Jonas Noreika, for example, was awarded Lithuania’s second highest military medal following independence; he also signed orders pushing the Jewish population into ghettos.
“According to a law passed in April 1991, the crimes of the Nazi and Soviet occupation forces are both classified as ‘genocide against the citizens of Lithuania’. Lithuanians who suffered under the Soviets in 1940-1941 and 1944-1990, especially those who were deported to Siberian camps, are commemorated as victims of genocide… Since 2010 genocide denial, whether ‘Soviet genocide’ or the Holocaust, has been classified as a crime in Lithuania, punishable by up to two years in prison. The juxtaposition of these two historical events makes the coexistence of remembrance cultures inherently problematic. In the country’s national culture of remembrance, Soviet genocide takes top priority.”Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2016. “We, They and Ours: On the Holocaust Debate in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.
What remains here is a complicated reflection of Soviet and Lithuanian constructed narratives, both in the physical landscape (monument, exhibits) and what remains unsaid. The struggle to accurately represent dual legacies is not only a Lithuanian issue — a majority of European and Western countries have yet to come to terms with their genocidal and / or colonizing pasts — but is also one reflected here at the Ninth Fort space.
As an American I want to also make clear that many countries, especially the United States, have failed to accurately and justly represent the role of government in the genocide and continued marginalization of communities. Many communities have engaged in their own memory work to push for commemoration at sites of historical importance. The signage at the site of Emmett Till’s murder — and the continued vandalization of the signage — is just one example.
Visiting the Ninth Fort:
Located 8 km (5 miles) from the city of Kaunas, we briefly stopped at the Ninth Fort on our way from Riga to Vilnius. With less than an hour to wander the large area, Bri and I were unable to visit the two on-site museums and stuck to walking the path along the site.
While many Soviet-era monuments were either destroyed or moved to a different location in post-Soviet countries (Momento Park in Hungary for example), the monument at the Ninth Fort remains in place due to a number of factors, but especially as this is a site of mass burials and therefore moving any such memorials — particularly one as large as this and the disruption it may cause — is an extremely sensitive topic.
Adjacent to the monument is the Holocaust plaque and the site of mass executions of Jewish people here during Nazi occupation.
Visitors can walk the path the victims took through the building to the site of execution; writings and drawings by the prisoners remain on the walls today. Exhibits on Soviet occupation, Lithuanian resistance, and mass deportation are also displayed.
We then passed the newer building (closed at the time) and left the memorial site.
The intersection of narratives and power — Soviet, Nazi, German, Lithuanian, Jewish, occupation, perpetrator, independence, resistance, victim — in just 150 years of history in just one location. Our intent in memorializing public spaces matters.
Recently, efforts to come to terms with their complicated past has begun in Lithuania. A number of books researching the role of Lithuanians in the Final Solution have been published. Last year, the 80th anniversary of the Holocaust in Lithuania was commemorated with representatives from Berlin, Vienna, Munich, and Wrocław visiting the Ninth Fort. When we later spent the night in Vilnius. Bri and I saw both individual and organizational efforts to commemorate the suffering of Jewish people in Lithuania.
“According to Aleida Assmann, remembrance in dialogue – a model in which the suffering inflicted on one’s neighbors is assimilated into one’s own national memory – is a future opportunity of European remembrance. A prerequisite to this is overcoming mononational cultures of remembrance aimed at narratives of national victimhood and charged with myths of heroism. This includes recognition and empathy for the other victims of history and the willingness to assess one’s own role as a perpetrator.”Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2016. “We, They and Ours: On the Holocaust Debate in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.
Special ❤ to Bri for her patience and sharing her photos as I read, as well as my co-worker Marcus for providing one of my sources below ❤
Reading: Night of the Living Rez (Morgan Talty)
Watching: Loot (Apple TV+)
Listening: Sounds Like a Cult (All Things Comedy)
Ben-Naftali, Aya. 2004. “Collaboration and Resistance: The Ninth Fort as a Test Case”. Collaboration and Resistance During the Holocaust: Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania (ed: Favid Gaunt). 361-382. Available here.
Bertalius, Mindaugas. 2005. “Cultural Heritage Management: A Case of Kaunas”. The Issue of Protection of Historical Heritage. 146 – 151. Available here.
Davoliute, Violeta. 2018. “Between the Public and the Personal: A New Stage of Holocaust Memory in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.
Hohenhaus, Peter. 2015. “9th Fort and Monument”. Dark Tourism. Available here.
Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2016. “We, They and Ours: On the Holocaust Debate in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.
Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2020. “Between Heritage and (Identity) Politics: Dealing with the Signs of Communism in Post-Soviet Lithuania”. National Identities 23:6. 511-530.
Kauno IX Forto Muziejus. 2022. “Concrete Filled Brutalism and Historical Memory that Testifies Brutality” [Online Exhibition]. Kauno IX Forto Muziejus Official Website. Available here.
Kauno IX Forto Murziejus. 2022. “History of the Ninth Fort of Kaunas”. Kauno IX Forto Muziejus Official Website. Available here.
Petrulis, Vaidas. 2021. “World War II Monuments in Soviet Lithuania. From Political Symbols to Dissonant Heritage.” Masses are Dying: Ways of Remembrance for Two World Wars from a European Perspective [ed: Herausgegeben von Sigrid Brandt]. 20 – 31. Available here.
Veliute, Ingrida. 2012. “Kaunas Fortress Historical and Architectural Heritage and Its Animation Possibilities”. Vytautas Magnus University Summary of Doctoral Dissertation, Humanities, Art Studies (03H). 1-52. Available here.