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Yantarny, Russia - Village Haunted By A Hidden Holocaust Past

Published on: March 9, 2010 09:32 PM
By:  NPR
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Yantarny, Russia - The Holocaust memorial in the seaside Russian town of Yantarny is out of the way. A bumpy road leads down a hill, toward the chilly waters of the Baltic Sea. Climb over a rope, walk around a restaurant and there are a few stones arranged like a pyramid and, nearby, a long inscription in Russian.

The words recall a massacre on this beach in January 1945, described on the memorial as the last act of the Holocaust.

Some may debate whether it was really the last act, but what happened here did come several days after Auschwitz was liberated. The Nazis still had Jewish prisoners on the move. One death march, which began with 7,000 people, ended here in the town, then known as Palmnicken.

Frail women and children were ordered into the icy water and shot dead.

It’s been more than six decades since the end of World War II, but this village in the westernmost part of Russia is still coming to terms with its role in the Holocaust.

Even 65 years later, some in Yantarny are still unaware of what happened — like Vladimir Nikolaevich, who was leaving a fishing hole near the memorial.

“What Holocaust?” he said in Russian, when asked about the beach’s past. “It’s unlikely there were victims here.”

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A German who witnessed some of the killings has written a book about the massacre. But the memorial, dedicated in 2000, became the first tangible recognition of the Holocaust anywhere in a Russian province of 1 million people.

One reason is the area’s peculiar history: This Baltic coastline was East Prussia. After the war, the victorious Soviets seized the province, renamed it Kaliningrad and repopulated it with Russians. As the Germans died or left, so did their memories.

But Viktor Shapiro, a prominent voice in the Kaliningrad region’s small Jewish community, points to something else.

One of the hallmarks of Soviet rule, he says, was to downplay any ethnic or religious differences among Soviet citizens. And so, to single out Jewish people as special victims of fascism, he says, would have contradicted Communist policy.

As for the memorial on the beach, Shapiro visits it often. He says he hopes it begins to teach people that the Holocaust left its mark here.

‘Everyone Kept Silent’

The director of a history museum in Yantarny, Lyudmila Kirpinyova, was born in the town in 1958. She remembers her parents telling her to stay away from a beach close to her house. Looking back, she says her parents — and some others in the village — may have known about what happened in 1945.

“In those days, everyone kept silent; they did not reveal anything,” she says. “Even now, my husband tells me if I had a shorter tongue, I’d be of greater value. But since I couldn’t speak much in the past, now is my time to speak — a lot — at last.”

But only to a point. The history of East Prussia is represented in the museum, along with portraits of Vladimir Lenin and Soviet memorabilia. But it’s hard to find anything about the Holocaust.

The museum director says she will never force people to confront what happened here.

“There are people who would like to speak about those events and people who don’t want to speak or even think about it,” Kirpinyova says. “It’s not for us to judge.”

TRANSCRIPT:

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let’s go next to Russia, where some people are looking back on the atrocities of an earlier generation. A Russian village on the Baltic Sea is still coming to terms with its role in the Holocaust. NPR’s David Greene has our story.

DAVID GREENE: The Yantarny, Russia, the Holocaust memorial is out of the way. A bumpy road takes you down a hill, toward the chilly waters of the Baltic. Climb over a rope, walk around a restaurant, finally there it is - a few stones arranged like a pyramid and a long inscription in Russian.

My translator read in English for me. The words recall a massacre on this beach in January 1945.

Unidentified Man: That was the last Holocaust act in the Second World War.

GREENE: Some may debate whether what truly was the last Holocaust Act, but this event did come several days after Auschwitz was liberated. The Nazis still had Jewish prisoners on the move and one death march that started with 7,000 people ended here. My translator kept reading.

Unidentified Man: There were hungry women and nearly undressed - they were walking. It was minus 20 and - well, then it was decided in the end to destroy - to kill everybody who was still alive.

GREENE: Frail women and children were ordered into the icy water and shot.

Mr. VLADIMIR NIKOLAEVICH (Fisherman): (Speaking Russian)

GREENE: Sixty-five years later, some in this village are still unaware. Vladimir Nikolaevich was leaving a fishing hole near the memorial. I asked him about this beach’s Holocaust past.

Mr. NIKOLAEVICH: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: What Holocaust? he said in Russian. It’s unlikely there were victims here. There is a book about this massacre written by a German witnessed some of the killings. But this memorial, dedicated in 2000, became the first tangible recognition of this atrocity anywhere in a Russian province of one million people.

One reason is the area’s peculiar history. This Baltic coastline was East Prussia. After the war, the victorious Soviets seized the province, renamed it Kaliningrad and repopulated it with Russians. As the Germans died or left, so did their memories.

Mr. VIKTOR SHAPIRO: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: But Viktor Shapiro pointed to something else. He is a prominent voice in the Kaliningrad region’s small Jewish community.

Mr. SHAPIRO: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: One of the hallmarks of Soviet rule, he said, was to downplay any ethnic or religious differences among Soviet citizens. And so, to single out Jewish people as special victims of fascism, he said, would have contradicted communist policy. As for the memorial on the beach, Shapiro visits it often. And he said he hopes it begins to teach people that the Holocaust left its mark here.

Ms. LYUDMILA KIRPINYOVA (Director, History Museum): (Russian spoken)

GREENE: In Yantarny today, you can also visit a local museum. Lyudmila Kirpinyova is the director.

Ms. KIRPINYOVA: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: She was born here in 1958. And she remembers her parents telling her to stay away from this beach close to her house. Looking back, she believes her parents and some others in the village may have known what happened in 1945.

Ms. KIRPINYOVA: (Through translator) In those days, everyone kept silent. They did not reveal anything. Even now, my husband tells me, if I had a shorter tongue, I’d be of greater value. But since I couldn’t speak much in the past, now it is my time to speak a lot, at last.

GREENE: But only to a point. This museum director said she’ll never force people to confront what happened here.

Ms. KIRPINYOVA: (Through translator) There are people who would like to speak about those events and people who don’t want to speak or even think about it. It’s not for us to judge.

GREENE: And you do notice something in her museum. There’s the history of East Prussia, there are portraits of Lenin and Soviet memorabilia - hard to find anything about the Holocaust.

David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.


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 Mar 09, 2010 at 10:48 PM chaim Says:

i have met mr shaprio! a mentch! reb yirosel of salanater is buried in kalingrad!
dayan dunner of uk, father was the last rov there. today they have a chabad rabbi building the small kehilla, lots of nachas

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 Mar 10, 2010 at 12:52 PM Anonymous Says:

Kaliningrad is known as Konigsberg in Germany

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