In the wake of revelations that Kovno’s infamous Seventh Fort, the site of the murder of tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, is being used as a recreation center, several voices have raised a hue and cry over the area’s misuse. Many critics point to the present situation as evidence of the country’s failure to deal with their collaboration with the Nazi occupiers and their murderous plans during the Second World War.
Since the war’s end, the fort was under the control of the Kaunas (Kovno) municipality and had been largely abandoned. However, since falling into the hands of a private organization, the Military Heritage Center, in addition to housing a history and nature exhibit, it is available as a venue for birthdays, corporate gatherings and other such events.
The Vilna community’s Rabbi Chaim Burshtein told Hamodia that he had met several times with those in control of the site to plead that it be treated with respect.
“I explained to them that in any normal country, such a place could not be privatized and that I expect [them] to behave properly,” he said.
However, protests by Rabbi Burshtein and other representatives of the local community have not elicited a response.
Tuesday, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of European affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, sent a letter to Kaunas’s mayor, Visvaldas Matijosaitis, in the hopes that international pressure will add weight to the outcry of the small local community.
“I urge you to immediately suspend such activities at the Seventh Fort and find a way to restore the site to the municipality or to an organization whose purpose will be to honor the memory of the victims, rather than insult them,” reads the letter’s closing paragraph.
The appeal is the latest in a series of attempts by Dr. Zuroff to push Lithuania’s government to confront its Holocaust-era record. Last year, a book that he coauthored together with Ruta Vanagaite, a popular Lithuanian author, stirred wide controversy for its blunt treatment of the subject.
“This does not surprise me,” said Dr. Zuroff of the activities at the fort. “There is an effort in Lithuania to manufacture their own narrative of what happened there during the war.”
Outcry over activities at the fort follows an exposé by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency revealing the nature of the events taking place at the site. Their reporter made inquiries into holding a wedding on the premises.
The Seventh Fort is one of several constructions built by Czarist Russia in the 1880s to protect the city of Kovno. During the Holocaust, the fortifications known as the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Forts were used by Nazi German occupiers and Lithuanian nationalist collaborators as staging grounds for mass murder. Harav Elchanan Wasserman, Hy”d, was among the thousands murdered at the Ninth Fort, which now houses an extensive memorial. In less than a few months of German occupation, over 6,000 Jews had already met their deaths at the Seventh Fort. The sites continued to be used for mass executions throughout the war, not only for local Jews, but also for thousands who were sent there from other countries.
In 2009 the site was privatized. It is presently under the management of Vladimir Orlov, who has denied that any entertainment activities are held where killings took place or where remains are present. The facilities have little mention of the murders besides a small wooden plaque.
Dr. Zuroff called the situation “offensive.”
“It’s a matter of decency… they have summer camps and treasure hunts there. What are they going to find, bones? I’m sure they can find plenty,” he said.
Holocaust scholar Dr. Michael Berenbaum told Hamodia that this and other instances of disrespect for similar sites is largely rooted in a lack of knowledge of the events that occurred in these places.
“If you are not doing anything to preserve these sites, they get forgotten. The property is valuable, and if people don’t know what happened there, any arguments not to use them [the sites] become null and void,” he said. “In Lithuania, it wasn’t something that was thought to be valuable to remember or to teach about. The older generation has selective amnesia; the younger generation was simply never taught.”