My wristwatch tells me it’s 10 minutes to the meeting at the Ninth Fort museum, yet I’m still standing somewhere in Šilainiai, which always looked like a whole different Kaunas – everything’s different behind Neris, isn’t it? I get into a cab only to realise a few minutes later that the driver doesn’t know where to go. An unseen neighbourhood of detached houses surrounds us.
“This’ll do, thanks,” I mutter after finding out that I’m on the other side of the Ninth Fort’s territory. Seeing people walking in the distance, I make a turn towards them and suddenly face a barbed wire fence. Having squeezed through it, I wade on into uncut grass. A thought makes me laugh in my head – this whole situation might look like “Getting into Shawshank”, a reverse edition of the famous movie. Upon climbing the hill, the reinforced ditch escorts me and makes me wonder how all this looked in the days of the prison being active. The hill is left behind, uncovering the most impressive part of the destination – a brutally imposing 32-metre-high monument to victims of genocide.
Karolis Sabutis, a guide at the museum, greets me and we start approaching the memorial while he’s telling stories of it. The fort’s history reaches the beginning of the previous century – this was the last finished construction of the Kaunas Fortress. Without seeing any major battles, the fort was basically untouched during World War I, and a department of the prison’s heavy equipment works was opened here in 1924.
Whilst passing the apple trees, Karolis notices me looking at them:
“The inmates had their own grove here and a garden nearby. The occupants of Lithuania used this fort as a prison: Soviets established an Entry Point for their commissariat here, and by 1941 the fort was turned into a death camp by Nazis.”
We come up to the essential object of the territory – a memorial counting its 33rd year. Despite this being midday, there are just several people here. I can’t remember a time when I saw a big crowd near this monument.
“The construction process of this memorial art piece was a long and complicated period,” Karolis explains.
“The project by sculptor Alfonsas Vincentas Ambraziūnas, architects Gediminas Baravykas and Adolfas Vytautas Vielius won the contest only after four stages, whereas the construction itself took eight years. Interestingly, the authors succeeded in avoiding Soviet symbols and I know the team had some troubles because of it.” [smiles]
Karolis mentions that metal constructions were used for the carcass while reinforced concrete was put on the exterior. Often people think it’s all made of wood – the guide believes this illusion is shaped by the memorial’s special texture which was selected to bring warmth to an otherwise strict artwork. The smallest part of the monument on the right is called “Pain” [“Skausmas”], the diagonally rising left one – “Hope” [“Viltis”], and the largest one with smiling faces and fists pointing upwards – “Breaking Free” [“Išsilaisvinimas”].
Around 50,000 people visit the fort each year; the guide notes that it’s mostly Jewish tourists from Israel, United Kingdom, the USA, Germany that come here apart from Lithuanians. Karolis shows a meadow close by that saw many massacres in the 20th century: “Almost fifty thousand lives were taken here over the period of three years – Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, Russians.”
We turn back, discussing how visitors see the fort, feeling amazed about their indifference to the monument – some of them come to take selfies here and start striking poses.
“The Ninth Fort is a place of tranquillity, almost like a cemetery, that’s why dogs aren’t allowed anymore. It’s perfectly fine to come here to take artistic pictures or even to fly your drone around, you just have to understand the place you’re at,” he sighs.
Coincidentally, we find ourselves back at the exact spot the conversation started. Before saying goodbye, I ask Karolis whether this gem of the city will begin to deteriorate soon. He replies:
“If the construction workers really put all the materials inside without stealing them for themselves as many of them used to in those days, we’ll be all right. The monument didn’t even start to crumble during the three decades, so I think it will be silently watching over Kaunas for a long time.”
Text by Motiejus Ramašauskas was originally published in the October issue of Kaunas Full of Culture magazine (find the whole issue here).
Photos by Gabrielė Jurevičiūtė
More gonzo texts by Motiejus Ramašauskas and his colleagues can be found at Interviewer.lt if you read Lithuanian
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