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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.