Bunker-pit of the ‘burning brigade’
After suffering its first significant defeats in the war with the Soviet Union, the Third Reich set up exhumation and burning brigades Sonderaktion 1005 from May 1942 till mid-1944. The brigades were to destroy traces of mass killings in the occupied territories. Sonderaktion 1005 was led by the SS officer Paul Blobel who organised the massacre of Babi Yar in Kyiv in 1941. The Sonderkommando 1005A of Paneriai, formed of the Jews of Vilnius and Soviet prisoners of war, was directly controlled by the SS technical sergeant (SS-Hauptscharführer) Martin Weiss.
There was no shooting in this 27-meter-wide pit. From October 1943 till mid-July 1944, 80 Jews and Soviet prisoners of war selected by the Nazis were imprisoned there; they formed the ‘burning brigade’ of Sonderkommando 1005A. Their task was to exhume and burn the corpses of the victims.
The embankment structure of the bunker-pit of the ‘burning brigade’ is different from the one of the mass killing pit. There are no shooting sites, holes or high embankments here. The northern part of the pit shows a larger rectangular trench, probably for guarding the pit, and a circular one-person site to guard the exit from the pit. Soldiers were located on the west side of the pit.
The lower part of the stone wall border of the pit is authentic, and the rest was built in recent years to recreate the pit as it would have looked during the war. The boarding ladder currently in the pit is not an original exhibit; however, it resembles the boarding ladder used to load the corpses on the bonfires, whose height was 4–5 m, by laying a layer of the bodies on the logs.
Konstantin Potanin, a Red Army soldier who was brought to Paneriai as a prisoner of war on 29 January 1944, remembered that the walls of the residential pit were paved with stones, the pit was 4–4.5 m deep and 15–22 m wide. The pit was partially covered with planks, with sand underneath. On the uncovered side of the pit, there were three ladders that were pulled up daily. Two ladders were used by inmates, while the third one was used by guards only. There were a small kitchenette and a pantry in the covered part of the bunker-pit. A guard barracks stood beside the pit. Mr Potanin remembered that the guards changed every two hours. The covered part of the pit also had three-storey bunks for prisoners and a shared table. Four Jewish women prisoners also lived in the kitchenette and did the cooking.
This task was well organised. The ‘burning brigade’ consisted of prisoners who unearthed the corpses and took them out of the pit. Another prisoner searched the corpses for gold teeth and hidden valuables. Other members of the ‘burning brigade’ took the corpses to the bonfires that had been built and maintained by yet other prisoners. The ashes of the burnt remains were sifted through a sieve by a prisoner specially appointed for this purpose by the SS; he had to hand over any gold found in the ashes. The ashes and crushed bones were then mixed with the sand and poured back into the pit or spread near it. Guards of the prisoners and the organisers of the Sonderaktion referred to the victims’ bodies as ‘figures’, and made the burners do the same.
According to one of the ‘burners’ Icchok Dogim, “on our workdays, when we were burning corpses, I saw a group of people being shot dead. Namely: 400 Jews from Vaivari, later 31 Poles and 50 Gypsies. During the shootings, we were released from work. We had to get down into the bunker and wait for them to finish their deadly deed. However, the cries and screams of the victims penetrated our bunker walls. Once, while putting bodies on the bonfire, I recognised my family: my mother, my wife, three sisters and two relatives. I recognised my wife from the medallion I gave her at our wedding. When my wife was on fire, I was able to remove the medallion from her neck. The fire had already destroyed our pictures that were inside the medallion.”
According to the testimonies and memories of the members of the ‘burning brigade’ who survived the atrocities, from December 1943 till April 1944 there were as many as 19 to 21 places for bonfires four to five meters high in Paneriai, and 56,000 to 68,000 corpses of victims could have been burnt there.
The idea of escaping through the tunnel was suggested by Abraham Blazer, who had twice been rescued from the Paneriai massacre and had experience in tunnelling before the war. Mordehai Zaidel and Ichaak Dogim actively assisted him. At the end of January 1994, they separated part of the pantry and began digging an escape tunnel. They tried to dig under the foundation of the sidewall of the paved pit and then started to dig a horizontal escape tunnel that was 65 cm wide and 55 cm high.
In 76 days, the prisoners dug a tunnel in the western direction, which was about 32 m long, 70 cm wide and 60 cm high. They took turns digging using their hands, boards, and spoons, when they came back after burning the corpses, from 5 to 8 p.m., and before starting the work, from 3 to 5 a.m. During the work, the top of the tunnel was reinforced with panels of an overlay, thus protecting against the collapse of the loose sand layer of Paneriai. Altogether 20 m³ of sand was secretly removed from the tunnel and spread over the bottom of the pit so that the guards wouldn’t see it.
One of the prisoners had a cable with a light bulb laid in the tunnel. It was discovered in 2004 when a Lithuanian archaeologist Prof Vytautas Urbonavičius carried out archaeological analysis of the bunker-pit of the ‘burning brigade’.
The escape took place on the night of 15 April 1944, at around 10–11 p. m. Mr Zaidel testified after the war:
“I could not breathe any more. I had an iron rod in my hands and tried to make holes in the soil surface, made one hole, two holes, and finally, I felt the air [there were 20 people in the tunnel at the time – editor’s note]. At the time we had just broken the power cord, we had electricity in the tunnel, and we removed it… we removed the chains, and I opened the opening, I widened it and went out into the open air. When I pulled out my head, I could already see the sky, the stars, but I also saw a group of German soldiers looking directly at the side of the tunnel <…>. I widened the opening and started crawling; my friends followed me <…>.”
Unfortunately, soon, the guards heard the escapees’ steps and began shooting in the dark. Twenty-two prisoners managed to escape the pit; however, only 11 (or 13, based on other sources) of them reached the Soviet partisan squads in the Rūdininkai forest. Rachilė Margolis, a former inmate of the Vilna Ghetto, who was in the Jewish partisan squad in 1944 in Rūdininkai forest, remembered the partisans being astonished not just by the story of the escape from Paneriai, but also by the terrifying stench, which could not be eliminated even by repeated washing.
The rest of the escapees were shot in the Paneriai territory while fleeing. Another group of Jews from the Vilna Ghetto were brought to Paneriai to replace the escapees and to proceed with the exhumation and burning of the corpses until the beginning of July 1944. They became the last victims of Paneriai along with the inmates brought from the Vilnius HKP and Kailis forced-labour camps.