Memories rest not at a graveside, but in a Nazi killing field

In the first of a series, Robin Lustig visits the spot where his grandmother was shot dead


By Robin Lustig, July 31, 2014
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Memorial: Ninth Fort, Kaunas

Memorial: Ninth Fort, Kaunas

A sun-dappled meadow slopes gently down from the hilltop towards the city of Kaunas. The grass is freckled with yellow and purple wild flowers, a peaceful summer scene that belies an unimaginably brutal past.

On November 29, 1941, my grandmother, Ilse Cohn, was shot here, in this field, by the Einsatzkommando 3 Nazi death squad, under the command of a Swiss-born SS colonel called Karl Jäger. On that day alone, they murdered 2,000 Jews, deported by train from Vienna and from my grandmother's hometown of Breslau.

So I have come to honour her memory. My mother was her only child, and although Ilse had three brothers, she had no nephews or nieces. My brother and I, and my two children, are her only living relatives.

Kaunas (pop: 300,000) is the second largest city in Lithuania. Before the war, its Jewish population numbered around 32,000. Today, there are barely 300. In October 1941, the Nazis, who had invaded Lithuania four months earlier, murdered 2,007 Jewish men, 2,920 women, and 4,273 children from the Kaunas ghetto. By 1944, the rest of the city's Jews had either been deported to concentration camps or died when the Nazis burnt the ghetto to the ground.

One ghetto street remains; it leads from the railway station to the killing fields of the Ninth Fort. This is the street the deportees walked along, on their way to their deaths.

"Dressed in her finest -  that's how I imagine Ilse Cohn, at 44, on her way to her death"

"Dressed in her finest - that's how I imagine Ilse Cohn, at 44, on her way to her death"

An eye-witness at the time recorded: "Two hours ago, there passed in front of our eyes, before the windows of our houses, many thousand Jews from southern Germany and Vienna who were taken with their luggage to Fort IX … There they were killed with extreme cruelty."

I have come to Kaunas with one of my oldest friends, the journalist Stu Seidel, formerly of the US public radio network NPR. His grandparents on his father's side were immigrants from Belarus and Lithuania - by a macabre coincidence, his grandmother was born here in Kaunas. His great-grandparents on his mother's side were immigrants from Poland, so we are retracing our families' journeys, as they headed west from central Europe to Britain and the US.

Their stories will be familiar enough to many readers of the JC, but we are luckier than most to have the opportunity to make the journeys again ourselves, to see with our own eyes where our families came from and where they ended up.

I couldn't have embarked on this project while my mother was still alive. She didn't believe in looking back, especially on a past full of bad memories, and she discovered only 15 years ago exactly how her mother had died.

She remembered that as a child, she used to love singing with her mother, and going to concerts together. Her mother loved clothes, loved going out, always in high heels.

In one of her last letters, written in August 1941, Ilse wrote: "One has to take care of oneself for as long as possible … In my view, my courage to face life will disappear as soon as I no longer look smart and well-groomed."

There is a photograph in the Ninth Fort museum showing Jews from Munich before deportation, just a few days before my grandmother was deported from Breslau. Many of the women are dressed in their finest, some in fur coats. That's how I imagine Ilse Cohn, at 44, on her way to her death. Journalists get used to reporting atrocities dispassionately, and on my visit to the Ninth Fort, I slip into that coat of armour all too easily.

I compose images with my camera, I record interviews and make notes. But then I stop. "Ilse," I say, as I stand at the edge of the killing field, "I was here today. You are not forgotten."

And on the way back to the car, past the giant Soviet-era memorial to the 30,000 dead, we walk past a small lake with girls swimming and laughing. I am not offended. Life goes on.

Robin Lustig is a journalist and broadcaster. More about his project 'In the Footsteps of Our Families' can be found at www.wanderingscribes.com.

Last updated: 3:01pm, July 31 2014