There are places that seem to attract events. Historically significant events. Like geological layers, they pile on to each other, with sometimes nothing else but their geographical proximity in common.
The old road
Paneriai is on the outskirts of Vilnius, close to the highway going to Kaunas. And it’s one of the last remaining places, where the old pebble road leading to Kaunas can be seen. Today only a kilometer-long stretch remains, of the road that spanned more than a 100 kilometers between the two cities. A portion of it lies at the bottom of the Kaunas reservoir. Other parts were dismantled by locals after the new highway was built in 1970, which is a sad, because for a long time the road was very important for Vilnius. It was the main artery that fed the city with supplies, news and culture from Europe.
In June, 1812, this artery brought French blood in the form of the Grande Armée led by Napoleon himself. That summer the hills witnessed the emperor being welcomed by local authorities, all too glad to have gotten rid of the czarist Russian rule. The army, advancing to Moscow, brought hopes of a conditional independence and prosperity. Those hopes, however, along with the french army, dwindled in winter of that same year as the beaten, sick and starving troops started coming back from their failed attempt at glory. Paneriai was one of the last places, where the retreating french forces tried to mount a defense. They were overwhelmed by cossacks.
The 19th century was not a calm one. Revolutions rolling over the European landscapes eventually echoed in here too. And when a revolt against the czarist Russia erupted in Poland in 1830, torches were soon lit in Lithuania as well. Taken by surprise, imperial Russian troops soon found Vilnius to be their only remaining outpost in Lithuania. With the rebels moving in for a final battle, defenses were hastily assembled, additional troops were sent in from other parts of the empire. The battle took place in Paneriai, with the hills acting as a natural fortress. Like a wave that had rolled over the whole country, the uprising crashed against the defenses of Vilnius. This appeared to have been a decisive blow - it did not manage to recover after the defeat. What followed after was all too well known: repressions, censorship and eradication of local culture. In an attempt to eradicate the name of Lithuania, Russian authorities started referring to it as “the Western Governorate”.
The hills of Paneriai hold a dark memory that overshadows all battles that have raged over them. During the time of Nazi occupation, between the years 1941 and 1944, death had set up camp here. Over 70 000 Jews from the Vilnius ghetto (and other locations) were executed in Paneriai by German troops and local collaborators, eradicating an old and rich part of the capital’s history, culture and society.
It’s an interesting feeling to walk these hills, especially on All Souls’ Day. One can sense the history with all its hopes and pain surround you. And yet the place lies mostly forgotten.