The Ninth Fort

The Ninth Fort

Today was my last day in Lithuania, and thanks to a late flight home I was able to fulfil one last wish before leaving.

The Ninth Fort might not be on everyone’s list of places to see, but one of my passions, if that’s the right word, is to try and understand what caused the turmoil in Europe during the 20th century. I have always had an interest in the two World Wars as well as the Cold War: The Ninth Fort is one of those places that is uncomfortable to visit, but one that has left a profound effect on me ever since.

I don’t know if things have changed, but at the time I was here there was very little information about the fort and how to get there – certainly not in English.

Even though it’s located on the outskirts of Kaunas at Sargenai, and quite a long bus ride to get there, it wasn’t as difficult to find as I thought it was going to be.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire, and as relations deteriorated with Germany, it was decided to build Kaunas Fortress to protect its western border.

The Ninth Fort was part of this huge complex that surrounded the city covering an area of 25 square miles.

To learn more about the history of the fort there’s a museum housed in a soviet concrete monstrosity, which if they leave it as it is, could become part of the fort’s history itself in years to come.

The Museum

To see the fort, I had to go to the museum whether I wanted to or not because that’s where you get the entry tickets from.

Several ‘Babushkas’ seemed to be running the show here, and I was instructed – not asked – to wait in the museum until someone could come and take the money. If nothing else, at least it gave me a chance to find out more about the fort.

I was to learn that when WWI broke out it didn’t take long for the Germans to overrun the fortress – and Russia; but by the end of the war neither the Germans nor the Russians were in control of the country, but the Lithuanians themselves: The Germans had lost the war, the Russian Revolution had seen the end of the Tsars and Lithuania became independent again on February 16th 1918, but I was disappointed to learn that the Ninth Fort was used as a camp for political prisoners between the two world wars by the Lithuanians – but that was how life was back then I suppose.

The years between the two world wars were not easy for the new independent Lithuania (and too involved to discuss here), but the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany saw Lithuania under Soviet control by June 1940, and the fort was used by the NKVD for their own political prisoners who ended up being transported to the Siberian Gulag forced-labour camps.

As we know, the pact didn’t last long, and the Nazis were in control a year later with the fort facing the darkest period in its history.

Inside the Museum

While I was checking all this stuff out, the Babushkas were back, but this time with a younger member of staff who could speak some English and who also appeared to have gone to a better charm school, but it was all very confusing and I’m still confused now as to what I paid to see and how much it cost, and I’m not even sure what I saw was what I paid for. See what I mean about being confused?

Whatever I paid it wasn’t a lot and worth every Lita, because I ended up with my own personal guide. It’s only possible to visit the fort with a guide and as I was the only English-speaking person around, I had to wait until they found someone who could take me on the tour. (If it had been left to the Babushkas, I would have been on the next bus back into town).

The pictures below are of the Fort.

While I was waiting for the guide I braced myself for what was to come: I had already been to several camps associated with the horrors of war and they’re not pleasant places to spend a few hours, even as a visitor, but I feel that everyone should try to visit somewhere like this just for the humbling experience alone.

At the time of the Nazi invasion there were somewhere in the region of 250,000 Jews living in Lithuania: Many were killed straight away, before ghettos were set up in places like Vilnius and Kaunas.

The Wansee Conference of 1942 in Berlin gave Heinrich Himmler the authority to close the ghettos down and implement the ‘Final Solution’.

Inhabitants of the ghettos were either immediately murdered or sent off to concentration camps in Poland and Germany, but some of them ended up at the Ninth Fort.

Around 50,000 Jews perished here, some 30,000 of them from the Kaunas ghetto and surrounding area. This wasn’t a gas chamber, but a place where prisoners were lined up, shot and thrown into trenches – which are still here.

A Trench where bodies of those murdered were burned

When the guide turned up, she took me into the fort to show me around a place that I’m not sure that I would have wanted to visit on my own, even if I was allowed.

We went up and down corridors, through locked gates, up and down tunnels and into cells, and all the time she was telling me stories about the people who were imprisoned here.

One story I can recall is one about 64 Jews who managed to escape from the fort: She showed me how they did it, which was remarkable enough in itself, but she also went on to tell me how some of them made their way back into the ghetto instead of escaping out into the countryside. Those that went back to the ghetto survived, and those who went the other way were caught in the woods, captured and shot.

Photographs in the museum of prisoners who escaped

My personal tour lasted around an hour and a half and I haven’t got one photograph to prove it; there are times when taking photographs just doesn’t seem appropriate – and this was one of them.

Back outside, nobody can fail to miss the giant concrete sculpture standing sentinel over the ground where up to 50,000 Jews were murdered and buried.

This striking monument is a powerful example of Soviet architecture, and although Russians were amongst the victims, it was the Soviets who caused the next wave of misery for the inhabitants of Kaunas and Lithuania after the war ended.

The Soviet Monument

Nearby are smaller, but poignant reminders of the events that took place here. On October 28th 1941 the Gestapo entered the Kaunas Ghetto and rounded up about a third of the population. The next day at the Ninth Fort 2,007 Jewish men, 2,920 women and 4,273 children were lined up, shot and thrown into the trenches. October 29th is remembered as the Kaunas massacre.

Gravestone of around 50,000 victims

Coming to the Ninth Fort was a strong reminder, if ever I needed one, of how human beings can be so inhumane to other human beings. It always sends a shiver down my spine when I come to places like this, and I swear I’m not going to visit such places again, especially as the experience inevitably throws up more questions than answers. It was time to go home.

I headed back to the bus stop and caught the bus into town, but before I went back to the hotel, I got off at the Vytautus the Great Military Museum in Unity Square. I wasn’t going to have the time, or inclination, to go in here today. Instead I checked out the nearby Garden of War and the eternal flame guarding the tomb of an Unknown Soldier. It seemed the ideal place to end my visit to Lithuania somehow.

Vytautus the Great War Museum
The Garden of War

After a pit stop in Freedom Avenue I returned to the hotel, checked out, and made my way back to the airport.

I enjoyed my visit to Lithuania much more than I thought I was going to, but on board the plane I couldn’t help but notice how many Lithuanians were on board. I’ve no doubt that many of them were returning to the UK where they were hoping to make a better life for themselves. Whether they will or not, only time will tell, but one thing I hope they do find is the freedom that seems to have eluded their country for so much of its long and turbulent history. Visiting Lithuania was yet another reminder of why we should never let freedom be taken for granted.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
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24 thoughts on “The Ninth Fort

  1. toonsarah

    Very thought-provoking piece Malcolm. I confess I’d not heard of the Ninth Fort but I’m in general agreement with you that it’s important to visit at least a few of such places. We can’t undo history by pretending stuff didn’t happen but we can just possibly influence the future by trying to understand why it did. And that monument is impressive indeed!

    Reply
  2. Fergy.

    This is a tremendously interesting if harrowing read and, again, I agree with you. It is certainly hard work emotionally to visit such places but I feel it is worth doing. I felt exactly the same way when I visited the Tuol Sleng camp in Phnom Penh in company with a Khmer lady who had watched just about all of her family being marched off by the Khmer Rouge, never to be seen or heard of again. Sticking your head in the sand and not going does not change the fact that these things happened.

    Another brilliant piece.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks again Fergy. I’m really grateful that you’ve managed to find a way through the WordPress Reader jungle that is causing me a fair of grief at the moment

      Reply
  3. starship VT

    Malcolm, thanks for this great writeup. As much as I love history, I’m embarrassed to say that I never remember hearing about the “9th Fort” in Lithuania, and prior to reading this, knew nothing about it. I think the concrete sculpture memorial is a very impressive reminder of what happened here. Thanks for this very informative and sensitively written post about this subject.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for taking a look Sylvia. I understand that not everyone wants to be reminded of some of these events, but it’s also a good thing that they’re not forgottem either.

      Reply
  4. bitaboutbritain

    Quite a post, Malc. It had my attention from the word go. Excellent narrative and great shots – I’m ashamed to say I know little about Lithuania beyond a general knowledge that ‘they’ve had it v tough’. That memorial is incredibly striking.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for persevering with finding the post Mike. I realise that WordPress Reader isn’t friendly to my site, but those of you who do find it are genuine in reading what I have to say. That’s enough for me. Thanks!

      Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      I’m glad you found it interesting, even if it does make for some uncomfortable reading. Thanks for taking a look.

      Reply
  5. Alli Templeton

    You’re brave going to these places, Malc. I know I probably should too, but I think I’d find it very difficult to cope with. I studied the holocaust memorials and museums in France during the first module of my degree, and that was more than enough to hammer the point home. It always amazes me when people go on about how barbaric people were in the Middle Ages, but they were nothing like the vile creatures that operated in this period. There’s no comparison. Surely looking back through history, this is the very definition of barbaric and inhuman – and it was a period in 20th Century. It makes you wonder just how far we have evolved since the ancient past. This suggests we got worse.

    Well done for going though. I can absolutely see why you didn’t feel right taking pictures. It does look very stark – you can pick that up just by looking at the photos you did get. The monument is striking, and even that looks stark. Very interesting post with a tragic story behind it, and a sobering end to your trip to Lithuania.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for reading it Alli. I’ve been to places that I don’t think I could ever write about because they make me feel sick just thinking about them. Heaven knows what it must have been like to have been one of the victims.

      I still think if people can bear to visit just one of these places, then it would make them a better person.

      On a lighter note I went to see a chap this morning who helped me set up my website (and he’s an absolute guru) and he insists that everything looks fine from my end as regards the communication problems we’re having on WordPress Reader. In other words I think it’s out of my control, whatever the problem is. Thanks for finding a way around it. You’re a star 🙂

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        You’re probably right, Malc. I can certainly think of some sections of society that would be better people if they went to one of these places.

        Glad your website has got a clean bill of health anyway. It’s strange, as yours are the only comment replies I can’t respond to (from your posts) from my notifications, so goodness knows what’s caused it then. I have to come onto your site to reply to your replies. Very strange. Mine seems ok too, as far as I can tell, so maybe it’s something deep within the mechanics of WordPress. Still, it seems that we’re managing alright now. 🙂

        Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          I’ve thought right from the start that WordPress Reader, which is set up for WordPress.com websites struggles with other sites such as mine. Jetpack is supposed to aid communication, but something tells me that it doesn’t always work.

          I’m pretty sure that WordPress.com sites are all compatile between each other, and maybe one of the reasons I don’t get much interaction with sites that use the Reader. I’m not complaining because I want to try and get my SEO ratings higher on Google which seems to be happening gradually but it takes a bit of time. I also have a Facebook page where I get traffic from, so it’s not all bad news. Having said that, I do like to have interaction with people such as yourself. It would be a shame if you gave up.

          Reply
          1. Alli Templeton

            Thanks Malc. I’m not planning on giving it up just yet. I’ll have to see how my studying goes over the next few months towards Christmas. As these are the highest level modules of my degree I’ll have to be careful not to get too distracted. But if I can manage it I’d like to keep going. I’ll review it at Christmas after the mead-ieval quest… 🙂 I’m a bit phobic about social media, so I avoid the Facebook/Twitter etc platforms, but if you get traffic from yours that’s good. What are SEO ratings?

            Reply
            1. Easymalc Post author

              You have to get your priorities right, that’s for sure. I know somebody who was phobic about Facebook, but now you can’t keep her off of it 🙂 It all depends on how you use it. It can be very helpful for some people. I tend to use it purely for having some lighthearted interaction.

              For several years now I’ve been running various different groups on a ‘Where am? I’ theme. At the moment I’m running one called ‘Easymalc’s West Country’ where I post pictures, and people have to guess where they were taken. It’s a closed group of around 40 people and good fun.

              SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation which basically means that you try to attract people to your website. Commercial enterprises use it a lot to attract business. For me, it’s just a way of reaching a much wider audience – not that I’ve noticed much traffic yet 🙂

              Reply
              1. Alli Templeton

                Your friend sounds like a good example of one reason why I should keep avoiding social media platforms… 😀 Blogging is enough of a distraction as it is! Still, your group sounds fun, and I’m sure it is all about how you use it. I’ve just heard too many horror stories about it.

                Are there many effective ways to optimise your SEO then? I quite often get a notice in my referrals list of search engines, so I guess people are finding me through Google etc.

                And yes, it is all about priorities. I have to keep my eyes on the prize if I want to live the dream and be a medieval historian and end up in a castle in Northumberland! 🙂

                Reply
                1. Easymalc Post author

                  I completely understand how you feel about making sure that you achieve your goal Alli – and you know I’m right behind you. I wish everyone in the world was like you and your family – the world would be a much better place.

                  Just to put Facebook in perspective, I know people who wake up every morning to turn Facebook on because they’ve got friends on there they don’t have in the real world. They would be very lonely and isolated otherwise.

                  As far as SEO’s are concerned I’m a complete novice at it, but it’s worth considering using a plugin such as Yoast. If you’re anything like me you won’t want to get bogged down with the nuts and bolts of all this stuff, but it’s worth knowing about if you want to get more traffic to look at your site. I’ve got a car that I take to the garage to sort all the technical stuff out. I just want to drive it – and it’s the same with my blogs.

                  Whatever your plans are in the future I hope you still keep in touch even if you can’t access my website very easily.

                  Reply
                  1. Alli Templeton

                    That’s a lovely thing to say, Malc, you’ve made my day. Thank you. 🙂

                    I understand what you mean about Facebook being a positive thing in many people’s lives. It is, just as you say, how you use it.

                    I’ve never heard of Yoast, but I guess if people use it, it must do something to help.

                    I’m sure I’ll keep in touch with you now, whatever happens. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up doing another blog in the future about doing up a castle ruin in Northumberland! 🙂

                    Reply
                    1. Easymalc Post author

                      I hope I get an invite to that castle. If it’s not a ruin before, it will be after I’ve left.

                      Sorry to hear that Maddie’s birthday present was postponed, but enjoy it next Thursday and have a great weekend 🙂

                    2. Alli Templeton

                      Lol! Of course you’ll get an invite. I’m sure you could never be that destructive. 😀 I’m planning on doing it all up medieval-style, with tapestries and wall-hangings and roaring fires – the lot. And lots of mead, of naturally.

                      Maddie was gutted at missing the tall ship this week, but it’s due to be OK next Thursday, so fingers crossed we’ll be putting to sea at midday, and then she’ll get to take the helm and hoist the main sail. That’s her dream, just mine to worry about then… 🙂

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