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Memories alive for 80 years: the escape from Kaunas Ninth Fort through the eyes of relatives

“The experience of the Ninth Fort was reflected in the daily lives of the liberated prisoners throughout their lives. Despite my father’s positivity, the psychological impact of the escape was much stronger than one could imagine,” claimed Ya’arit Glezer, the daughter of Pinia Krakinovsky and the niece of Aba Diskant, as well as the relatives of other escapees, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the escape from Kaunas Ninth Fort.

“It is hard for me to imagine what my father went through in the fortress in Lithuania, the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, which hid the Nazi crimes and mass killings, but I am glad that he and his comrades found the courage to break free. A group of 64 prisoners escaped from Kaunas Ninth Fort in the cover of darkness and snow on December 25, 1943. Unfortunately, only a few of them survived. Among the survivals was my father,” tells Glezer.

She says that although her father managed to escape from the Ninth Fort physically, he could not escape the horrible memories he had experienced there: “I remember my father waking up screaming at night, and when my mum would ask him what happened, he would answer that he had dreamt the Ninth Fort again.”

Young prisoners

“At the outbreak of the Second World War, my father joined Kaunas Ghetto and was sent to the forest as a partisan. On the way, the group of young people was betrayed and, accompanied by gendarmes, locked up in Kaunas Ninth Fort,” tells Grisha Deitch, the son of another escaped prisoner, Mendel Deitch. Mendel Deitch, who was from Zarasai region, was only 19 years old when he got to the Ninth Fort.

The prisoners were greeted by ruthless Nazi guards, the brutal occupation regime and the pale faces of the people imprisoned in the Ninth Fort. In August of that year, when all the Lithuanian prisoners and guards were taken out of the fort, imperceivable things started happening. The necessary means for a covert operation were brought in and a group of 72 people – the future burners of the remains – was formed.

According to historical sources, in an attempt by the Nazi German government to cover up all evidence of mass murder, the exhumation and cremation operation “Sonderaktionv1005” was carried out in 1942-1944, led by SS officer Paul Blobel. The operation was carried out by three groups of burners, code-named “1005”, “1005A” and “1005B”, which were “working” in Kaunas Ninth Fort.

“The third group of burners consisted of people who had lived in Kaunas Ghetto or were members of the underground (anti-Nazi resistance) and, therefore, knew each other. The young prisoners who were forced to be accomplices in the mass murder had no one else but each other,” explains Glezer.

Plan – freedom

“The prisoners worked in groups: they uncovered the bodies of the murdered with shovels, pulled the corpses out of the pit with special tools, searched them, collected all the valuables and took them to the bonfire, where the burners were working,” tells Glezer.

“They realised that they were helping the murderers to destroy the evidence of mass executions and soon they would become victims themselves. There was simply no other choice – death or escape,” claims Deitch.

In his opinion, there was a number of liberation strategies: “Initially, the prisoners wanted to dig a tunnel in the ground, put sand in their pockets and this way secretly got it out of the cell, but this plan did not work.”

“The organisers of the escape did not give up and, after unsuccessful attempts, decided to drill 314 holes in the metal door of Kaunas Ninth Fort. This was the job for Krakinovsky. The gaps between the holes were cut with a hand file. The fateful night of the corpse burners was December 25, 1943,” explains Glezer.

Fugitives from hell

Through the opening made in the door, 64 prisoners left the fortress of death that night. Once free, they headed in 4 different directions: to the city, to the forests, to Kaunas Ghetto and to their relatives’ homes. Unfortunately, only a few of them survived. The others were caught and shot.

“Those who went to Kaunas Ghetto in Vilijampolė survived. Although my father was reluctant to talk about his memories of that night, he said that the people he met in Kaunas Ghetto gasped when they saw them and said, “You look like you have escaped from hell”,” Deitch explains his father’s painful memories.

According to the testimonies of the surviving burners and the remaining evidence, it was on the night of the escape that the prisoners in the hiding place in Kaunas Ghetto drew up a document testifying to the massacre carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators, and the secret operation of the exhumation of the remains and their burning.

“A group of those who escaped returned to partisanship after this event, joined partisan groups such as “Mirtis okupantams” (Death to the Occupiers), and after the end of the war dispersed throughout Lithuania, while others moved to Israel. The history they had to live through brought all those who escaped closer together, taught them unity, and December 25 was like a second birthday for them. The former prisoners stayed in touch for the rest of their lives,” tells Deitch.

Historical testimonies today

The survivors of the escape did not return to Kaunas Ninth Fort until after the Second World War, when a museum was established there.

“It is difficult to return to a place where you became an accomplice to crimes beyond your comprehension, but all those who escaped realised that their memories were an important testimony to the Holocaust. Paradoxically, at the time of this interview, I am in Israel and the air raid sirens are heard,” Deitch testifies.

Glezer agrees: “We perceive that memory must remain alive forever. The heroic struggle of the Jewish youth against danger and hatred can help to educate the younger generation and resist any injustice in the world.”

In order to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the escape from Kaunas Ninth Fort, on December 9 Kaunas Ninth Fort Museum will present an exhibition based on the story of the escape of the prisoners-burners of corpses. It was partly financed by the Lithuanian Council for Culture.

At the centre of the installation, one can see an attempt by artists Džiugas Karalius and Mindaugas Lukošaitis to convey the feelings of December 25, 1943 to visitors. They will be invited to experience the story of the “Escape from Kaunas Ninth Fort” through several layers of cognition: an installation made of burnt wood created especially for the exhibition, the artist’s drawings inspired by the artworks of escapee Anatolijus Garnikas (Granas) from 1944, the historical iconography stored in the Museum’s collections and the Museum’s valuables.