LJC Statement about the Seventh Fort in Kaunas

Statement by the Lithuanian Jewish Community concerning Cnaan Liphshiz’s article “This Lithuanian Concentration Camp Is Now a Wedding Venue” published at http://www.jta.org/2016/07/24/news-opinion/world/lithuanian-concentration-camp-is-now-a-wedding-venue

The Lithuanian Jewish Community thanks the author of the article and the news agency who have again brought attention to the problematic situation at the Seventh Fort in Kaunas. We also feel it is our duty to explain and add to some of the facts and circumstances brought up in the article.

In June and July of 1941 a concentration camp was set up at the Seventh Fort where up to 5,000 people were murdered, mainly Jews resident in Kaunas. During the Soviet era the fort was used for military purposes and the exact location of the mass grave was unknown and inaccessible to the wider public. In 2009 the Lithuanian State Property Fund, which had ownership of the complex, allowed it to be privatized. The Lithuanian Jewish Community never approved of this decision and numerous times wee expressed our position that this was a huge mistake which couldn’t be allowed to happen at similar sites. In any event, after the fort buildings were privatized, the new owner, Karo paveldo centras [Military Heritage Center], received the right to lease the land around the buildings, which belongs to the state. The mass grave site, whose exact location was not known then, thus fell within territory controlled by a private corporate entity.

Numerous times, and long before Rūta Vanagaitė’s book mentioned in the article, the Community has approached the Lithuanian Government, the Kaunas city council and the Karo paveldo centras corporation to insure the physical safety of the Holocaust site at the Seventh Fort and to ask for respect for the memory of the victims buried there.

The article relates a painful event when a few years ago human bones were discovered above ground while cleaning up the mass grave site. The author says when human remains were discovered, the owner, Vladimiras Orlovas, went to different institutions, including the Jewish Community, but without any result, and so implying responsibility lay not with Mr. Orlovas, who was conducting earth-moving operations at a suspected mass grave site, but with the Jewish Community which hadn’t taken care of their removal and reburial. Further on the author based on the local press states that in the end the municipal government of the city of Kaunas took care of reburial.

It did not in fact happen that way. In the spring of 2012 the Lithuanian Jewish Community received information human remains were discovered during clean-up work at the Seventh Fort in Kaunas. The Community immediately shared this information with the Cultural Heritage Department. A special commission of the Kaunas city council was supposed to adopt a decision on where to rebury the remains found. After discussions were drawn out for a long time for no good reason, the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Kaunas Jewish Community took the initiative in August of 2014 to solve the problem of reburial of those murdered at the Seventh Fort. After consulting with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, the proposal was made to rebury the human remains where they were found by adding a layer of soil on top of the existing layer, thus maintaining Jewish customs and not disturbing the eternal rest of the dead. The Cultural heritage Department and the Kaunas city council’s special commission approved this proposal. So on October 28, 2014, the human remains received dignified burial due to the efforts of the Lithuanian and Kaunas Jewish Communities in cooperation with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, the Kaunas municipality, the Cultural Heritage Department and the Karo paveldo centras [Military Heritage Center] corporation.

Following this event, the Lithuanian Jewish Community many times demanded of the Kaunas city government and Karo paveldo centras [Military Heritage Center] that a monument be erected at the mass grave site (in the Soviet era the site chosen for a monument was the only accessible part of the territory, although the most distant from the mass grave itself); that access for pedestrians be improved; and that a program be drafted for the long-term maintenance and commemoration of the mass grave. For its part, the Kaunas division of the Cultural Heritage Department under the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture demanded a halt to activities disturbing the eternal rest of, respect for and commemoration of the dead in a letter to Karo paveldo centras [Military Heritage Center] dated July 17, 2015.

“The Lithuanian Jewish Community believes Lithuanian institutions must make sure the memory of the victims of the Holocaust doesn’t become subject to private business schemes. Unfortunately, the Seventh Fort, the first concentration camp in Lithuania, has become an notorious example of this sort of exploitation, despite constant calls by the Lithuanian Jewish Community. We hope the international attention focused on this problem will encourage Lithuanian institutions to solve it in a final way and to operate more responsibly in the future. The Lithuanian Jewish Community has protested many times against these sorts of activities which disparage the memory of the victims of the Holocaust,” Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky said. “All conceivable manner of actions were taken against this barbaric behavior when dances were held on Jewish bones, but no one paid attention. I regret that the correspondents of the Jerusalem Post news agency are spreading information without checking the facts with the Lithuanian Jewish Community.”