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  • Writer's pictureGail Weiner

Visiting my Ancestors in Lithuania

This was written on 4 November 2019 in Vilnuis, Lithuania

Today I visited Panerei Forest Memorial.

I had spent days swaying from yes I am going, to no I most definitely will not go.

Panerei is the location where 100 000 people, of which 70 000 Jews from Vilnius, were driven, stripped and shot. Their bodies were dumped in pits throughout the forest. The murders took place between July 1941 and August 1944.

On arrival, the first thing I noticed is that the forest is strikingly beautiful, prior to the war it was a holiday resort for families from Vilnius. Conveniently it also had existing trenches from the Russia pre WW2 occupation, these trenches served the Nazis well.

My tour guide was a young student from the university, who chose to study Jewish History and was able to read all the signs for me in Yiddish.

An incredibly knowledgeable and friendly guy, he took me into the forest, to the execution grounds and areas that have not officially been set up as memorials. We walked past the trenches where they led Jews from the entrances and into this area, we stood under the trees where they waited for their death. We walked to the middle area where they were shot and buried.

We discussed humanity and shared stories about people that have taken their anger and used it to create good. We spoke about the Lithuanians lack of acknowledgement of the Genocide of the Jews and the guilt that is present but not spoken. We discussed opening our hearts and allowing love to enter, how those that participated and aided the nazis did so with lack of understanding and not enough heart. We pondered whether the murderers eventually felt the pain they had caused or whether they went to their grave with no remorse. We both agreed that over the years they must have felt what they have done, surely it haunted them at night?

We chatted about these things while walking through the forest.

My tour guide bid me farewell. We hugged. A Lithuanian and a Jew beneath the trees on the land that we both felt so much. We embraced with love in our hearts, for our ancestors and for the future generations.

After he left, I sat in an area next to the Sonderkommandos campsite, I had felt a strong energy at this location and my guide had told me this area still needed to be investigated, as they suspect it was another execution site. I sat and thanked our ancestors for the sacrifices they had made.

I heard some people chatting in the distance and three generations of Israeli/American men had arrived. I became their tour guide.

Afterwards, I stood next to the unexamined murder area and chatted with the younger of the three, he was from Brooklyn studying Jewish Law in Jerusalem. He told me he wanted to become a Rabbi and spoke excitedly about the Jewish youth. The irony was not lost on me. Here, over 80 years later, in a place where the aim was to obliterate our existence from the earth, stands Jewish people alive and excited for our future.

My ancestors smiled

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