When considering the immense nature of that historic tragedy known as the Holocaust it is easy to think of it in homocentric terms – as if it were one all-encompassing event stretching across Nazi-occupied Europe from the late 1930s to the end of WWII. Actually it was a “whole” made up of many sad and sadistic pieces. The little-known “piece” I write about today emerged from research started several years ago when I became interested in work carried out by the post-war nation of Israel for the purpose of identifying and honoring largely forgotten individuals from among all the nations who had stepped forward to help Jewish victims, such as Oskar Schindler, a Polish businessman, often paying with their own fortunes and very lives to do so. Those mostly lost and unheralded “heroes” are commemorated and remembered as The Righteous Among the Nations; and they number in the thousands.
The Ponary region of Lithuania, with borders which had been “re-drawn”, first by the League of Nations at the end of WWI, the Russians upon annexation in 1939, and the Nazis in 1941, was the scene of a particularly brutal chapter of history. The principal languages there were Polish and Yiddish reflecting the large (and unloved) Jewish population. To successive SS Einsatzenkommando units sent in following invasion with the mission of liquidating the Jews, the simmering hatred of the Christian population for the Jews seemed a ready-made tool worth making use of. Also just “begging” to be utilized were a number of large circular excavations dug for petroleum storage tanks which had never arrived.
With the promise of restored rule as a dangling “carrot” the Lithuanian Police, Militia and just ordinary citizens were “recruited” to do most of the “dirty” work, herding 3,000 Jews, intellectuals and other undesirables (men, women and children) each day to the edge of the excavations where they were disrobed, shot or clubbed to death and dumped in the holes. Observers who managed to escape the slaughter reported that not all were dead when covered with a light layer of sand in readiness for the next day. Between June and December, 1941, between 190,000 and 195,000 Jews were murdered in the Ponary massacre; 95 % of the Jewish population, representing the largest loss of life in a single location in so short a time period in the history of the Holocaust.
A Sergeant (feldwebel) in the German Wehrmacht named Anton Schmid deployed to Vilnius, Lithuania in the fall of 1941, observed first the sadness of Jewish families being forced into the Ghettos and then the grizzly carnage going on before his eyes in nearby Ponary. A former shop-owner in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss, he had been drafted into the German Army like so many other Austrians, and fitted into the hated gray uniform. Unable to reconcile his respect for human life with what he was seeing – especially the murder of children and babies - he began hiding away as many Jewish prisoners as he could, one-by-one and two-by-two and caring for them while he obtained documents for their escape. He is credited with saving the lives of some 250 before he was discovered and imprisoned. He was executed on April 13, 1942; 74 years ago this week as I prepare this column. He has been honored as one of those Righteous Among the Nations, both in Israel, where a street bears his name and in his homeland, where once his neighbors threw rocks through his mother’s windows because he was seen as a traitor.
Beginning at the end of September, 1943 the orders came to destroy all evidence of what had taken place at Ponary as the advancing Russians threatened discovery. Now the past horrors played out again – in reverse - as the burial pits had to be reopened, emptied, and the human remains burned in giant wooden “pyramids” (after gold teeth and other valuables had been removed, of course.) Bones and other pieces of evidence had to be pulverized, mixed with sand and reburied. 3500 sets of remains would be burned in each pyramid with the fires allowed to burn for three days. Once again, it was local citizens and militia members who did the work while 80 Nazi guards looked on.
As Edmund Burke reminded us: “all that is necessary for the triumph of Evil is that good men do nothing.” Now and then and here and there brave men and women such as Anton Schmid and others like him prove that humanity is not dead yet.