Ponary: The Place of Human Slaughter
by Professor Piotr Niwiński
Institute of Political Science
University of Gdansk
Ponary is a special place. Not well known to Poles or people of other countries, it nonetheless symbolizes great tragedy and cruelty. Unlike Piaśnica and Szpęgawksie forests in Pomerania, or the valleys of death at Bydgoszczy, Sobibór and Treblinka, it has been relegated to oblivion over the years. Ignored by the Soviet regime, forgotten by our neighbors: the Germans and the Lithuanians. Seventy years after the executions began, it is time to revive the memory of Ponary in Vilnius.
Vilnius and the Vilnius region is a land which had once been the core of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, forming part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and after 1918 it constituted the so-called North-Eastern Borderlands of the Second Polish Republic. At that time, in the inter-war period, the city of Vilnius became the cause of a serious conflict between the newly formed Republic of Lithuania and the Republic of Poland, which resulted in mutual reluctance and even hostility between the two countries.
The Vilnius region was inhabited by several nationalities, the dominant one (almost 70 percent) being Poles. The second largest nationality was the Lithuanian minority (about 18 percent), the remainder accounted for mainly by the Belarusian and Jewish populations. There were also small groups of Russians, Karaïtes and Tartars living in the Vilnius region.
The demographics of the city of Vilnius were different. The largest group was Poles (over 60 percent), but the second-largest group was Jews (about 34 percent). Lithuanians represented less than 0.7 percent of the population of Vilnius. This testified to the Polishness of the city of Vilnius, but also the region, because one-sixth of the inhabitants of the Wilno voivoid (Vilnius region) were concentrated in the city, and all supreme government organs, intellectuals and the political elite were also found in the city. Poland's understanding of the ethnic character of these lands, "the Polishness of the Vilnius region," was opposed, however, by the nascent Lithuanian state and society. (see B. Makowski, Litwini w Polsce, Warsaw 1986, pg. 28; and H. Wizner, Litwa i Litwini, Warsaw 1991, page 201.)
Vilnius and Vilnius region constitute a land that is historically dear to both Poles and Lithuanians. For the latter, it represented their historical capital, the region where the rule of the Lithuanian Grand Dukes began, with a governance structure distinct from Poland's (Lithuanians retained independence even during the union with Poland). It is the hearth, the motherland [macierz] that nurtured their national rebirth and restoration of statehood.
From the Polish perspective, however, Vilnius was an integral element of Poland. In our history Vilnius has been understood as a land connected with Polish statehood. In fact, over the centuries this land was mostly polonized. Following the unions between Poland and Lithuania, Western civilization extended its borders eastward, extending its influence to Lithuania. In parallel with Latin and Old White Russian, Polish became the official language, mostly used by the nobility. Catholicism was the dominant religion. Famous and great Poles were born here, including Adam Mickiewicz, Joachim Lelewel and Jósef Piłsudski. This entire process led to Vilnius city and region being identified with Poland.
At the beginning of the 20th cnetury, when the Lithuanian state was forming, Lithuanians sought an identity distinct from Poland. The new elite of the state considered Poland their main enemy which could, if cooperation between the states began, overwhelm the nascent Lithuanian state and again polonize it.
This attitude caused a significant deterioration in international relations, and even open hostility. After the Lithuanian government refused to hold a plebiscite in Vilnius region based on the criteria of ethnicity adopted at the Versailles conference, a painful decision was made. The Polish army occupied Vilnius city and region in 1920, resulting the complete breakdown in relations between the two countries. Under pressure from Poland diplomatic relations were renewed only in 1938. (see A. Kasperavicius, Relituanizacija i powrót do marcierzy. Spojrzenie z Kowna in Tematy polsko-litewskie, ed. R. Traba, Olsztyn 1999; and P. Łossowski, Po tej i tamtej stronie Niemna. Stosunki polso-litewskie 1883-1939, Warsaw 1985).
In September, 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Poland's defense was defeated. Attacked by two large neighbors, Adolf Hitler's Third Reich and Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, Poland was occupied. WIthout regard to any international treaties (such as the Hague Convention of 1907), nearly half Poland's territory was annexed by the Soviets and the rest was incorporated into the Third Reich or occupied (the so-called General Government). A small portion of territory was annexed by the Republic of Slovakia. This was the result of the Sviet-German agreement based on the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Implementing its long-range plans, the Soviet Union transferred Vilnius with part of the Vilnius region to Lithuania in exchange for allowing Soviet bases on Lithuanian territory in October, 1939. Lithuanians approved this, perceiving the fulfillment of their long-term political aspirations. The land received was officially incorporated into the Republic of Lithuania. For the Poles living in these lands, the first brief but extremely brutal occupation came to an end.
Initially the occupation of Vilnius and part of Vilnius region took place gently. Interned soldiers and officers of the Polish Army were not brutally repressed, and not much effort was expended to stop them from escaping their places of detention, to keep them from escaping to England or France. By November of 1939, however, a policy of intense and painful lithuanization had been initiated against Poles. An aggressively applied policy of eliminating all signs of Polish culture (including churhc services, libraries and schools) escalated hostility between Poles and Lithuanians. A new citizenship law was adopted under which 150,000 of Vilnius's 270,000 inhabitants suddenly became "foreigners" in their own city, lost the right to citizenship, in turn resulting in job loss and the denial of many basic rights. In terms of the intenstiy of repression, the occupation was still relatively gentle (although around 1,500 Poles had been seized), and cosnpirational forces in the occupied territories laid the foundations for the future underground Polish state. The majority of Vinius residents, however, experienced many difficulties in their daily lives. (see P. Łossowski, Litwa a sprawy polskie 1939-1940, Warsaw 1985; and J. Wołkonowski, Litewska okupacja Wileńszczyzny, in Mars, 1995, issue 3, pg. 66.)
The new Soviet occupation changed the situation for both the Polish and Lithuanian populations. In June, 1940, the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic republics, introducing the rule of absolute terror. Numerous arrests and mass deportations (5,000 Poles from Vilnius were deported and another 5,000 were arrested) partially placed the Lithuanian-Polish dispute in suspense. The new occupier treated both peoples with equal cruelty. The difference in resistance against the Soviet occupiers consisted in different hopes for liberation. Poles, who from the beginning of the war were on the side of Great Britain and France, expected to liberate Poland by defeating Germany and forcing the Soviet Union to give up territory seized illegally. Lithuanians saw their hope for liberation in a war between Germany and the Soviet Union which they would enter as members of the Axis. [Liwini nadzieję na wolność widzieli w wojnie niemiecko-sowieckiej, kiedy mogliby się stać sojusznikami III Rzeszy.] (see L. Tomaszewski, Wileńszczyzna lat wojny i okupacji 1939-1945. Warsaw 2002, pp. 114-179; and R. Żekajtie, Okupacja Wilna przez Armię Czerwoną, in Społeczeństwo białoruskie, litewskie i polskie na ziemiach pólnocnowschodnich II Rzeczypospolitej w latach 1939-1941, Warsaw 1995.)
These hopes proved true only partially in June, 1941, after the actual outbreak of the German-Soviet war. German soldiers entering Vilnius actually brought liberation from the Soviet terror, while introducing terror in their own version. The reconstruction of the Lithuanian state was not allowed--despite the involvement of the Lithuanians, who even provided military support in the fight against the retreating Red Army. German military administative authorities were established.
Since the beginning of the occupation, however, German authorities relied upon the Lithuanian element, attempting to exploit it for the anti-Jewish and anti-Polish campaigns. The Citizens' Committee of Lithuania formed at that time representing Lithuanian interests (but not recognizing any Polish organization) was recognized. Local authorities created by the Germans, largely composed of Lithuanians, discriminated against Poles, removing them from all responsible positions and re-defining them as "foreigners." Lithuanian was made an official language along with German. Repressions by Germans and Lithuanians of the Catholic Church led to its lithuanization. The whole population of the Polish intelligentsia, including the entire faculty of Stefan Batory University, were persecuted. After recruitment for labor in Germany was announced, labor offices in Vilnius took mainly Polish youth. Newly promulgated administrative rights also favored Lithuanians. (see S. Lewandowska, Źycie codzienne Wilna w latach II wojny światow, Warsaw 1997.)