Museum of Paneriai
In the late 1950s, the occupation Soviet regime in Lithuania launched a network of World War II museums, not so much to commemorate the victims but rather to establish a regime-friendly image of the past while legitimising the regime itself. In 1959–1960, the museum was established at the site of the mass killings to tell the story of the massacre of ‘Soviet citizens’ carried out in Paneriai by fascists during the ‘Great Patriotic War’.
Initially, the Paneriai Museum was a subsidiary of Vilnius Regional Research Museum, and as of 1965, it became a subsidiary of the LSSR History and Revolution Museum. Stanislovas Liučvaitis was appointed the first director of the museum and collected the material for the first museum exposition. Once the museum was established, the information infrastructure was arranged: metal information stands in Lithuanian and Russian were erected at the entrance to the territory and the pits of mass killing, and other pits were trimmed. During this period, several short propaganda films were produced about Paneriai.
The first exposition of the Museum of Paneriai was in a typical wooden pavilion which also housed the director’s apartment. The exhibit featured authentic artefacts found in the territory of mass killings and facsimiles of wartime photographs. Although most of the victims in Paneriai were Jews, their history was marginalised, i. e. victims were universally named as ‘Soviet citizens’, ‘citizens of Vilnius’, ‘civilians’, ‘men, women, children and the elderly’, with an emphasis on the occupation rather than on the nationality of the victims.
The Museum of Paneriai received little attention during the Soviet era. At that time, more funds were allocated for the development of the Kaunas Ninth Fort Museum, primarily because of the attractiveness of the place to the Soviet regime: during the interwar period, activists of the Lithuanian Communist Party were imprisoned there. Boris Rozin, a Leningrad translator who came to Paneriai in the late 1950s, described his impressions as follows:
I first went to the pits of Paneriai in September 1959. I saw forest, shrubs, large circles covered with earth and overgrown with grass instead of the death pits, which were slightly deepened and therefore looked like a circus arena. The autumn breeze lightly shook the grass, which surprised me with its shade: the grass leaves were bright green on one side and bright red on the other, just like blood. I asked the elderly curator, who was sitting at the door of the museum: “Have you planted this two-coloured grass on purpose in the memory of victims?” She answered: “Oh, no. It is growing itself; no one looks after it.”
The second time Mr Rozin went there was 20 years later, in the late 1970s:
“The heart-breaking memorial was just the same waste, and the museum – a wooden building – stood empty. A lonely visitor, accompanied by a dog, was standing on the opposite side of the pit. The monument seemed to be slightly crooked.”
In 1983, the museum burned down for no apparent reason. Two years later, the brick building was built in the same location. The new exposition in the rebuilt museum focused on communist resistance to the Nazi regime in the LSSR and Vilnius region. Some stories from the history of Paneriai, were highlighted; stories such as the escape scene of the so-called ‘burning brigade’ and its members. In 1983–1985, based on the 1968 design of architect Jaunutis Makariūnas, the entire territory of the mass killing was architecturally reconstructed for the first time: paths were built, lighting was installed, monuments and information boards were erected, and the shooting pits were reinforced.
With the restoration of Lithuania’s independence in 1989, and the re-establishment of the State Jewish Museum, the Museum of Paneriai and its exposition ‘Paneriai – the site of mass killing’ became a branch of the State Jewish Museum. During this period, the museum exposition was modified to reflect the stories of all the groups of people killed here, to reveal the multi-layered character of the Paneriai Memorial. Although the Holocaust aspect was more prominent in the new exposition, Paneriai was nevertheless represented as a World War II memorial rather than as a Holocaust memorial.
In 2018, the museum became the Paneriai Memorial Information Centre and featured an exposition presenting geophysical and archaeological surveys carried out at the site of mass killing in 2015-2018, and their results.