At the end of the nineteenth century, relations between Germany and Russia took on a thorny intensity. The Russians decided to fortify their western borders. The city of Kovno also played an important strategic role at the time, for all the roads and railways connecting Germany and Russia had to pass through the city.
In July 1879, the Russian Tsar, Alexander II, authorized the military staff’s plan to build a chain of nine citadels around the city of Kovno and thus create a stronghold of the city. Work on the fortifications began in April 1882 and continued until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
In 1909, the Ninth Fort was built alongside the town of Sargenai, near the Zhemaitchu road, eight kilometers from the center of town. This fort was the central link in the series of citadels surrounding Kovno and completed the city’s defensive alignment with the intention of being able to withstand any attack on the part of the German forces.
At the outbreak of war, the citadels surrounding Kovno were manned by some ninety thousand soldiers. In 1915, the German army attacked the Kovno fortress. Its commander, General Grigoriev, abandoned his forces and fled. The Germans took Kovno on August 18, 1915. Not a single shot was fired from the cannons and machine guns of the Ninth Fort.
After World War I, the Kovno fortress lost its strategic significance and when Lithuania became an independent state, a branch of the “Yellow Prison” was set up at the Ninth Fort.
During the course of the German occupation in World War II, the reputation of the Ninth Fort became very dismal indeed. The Lithuanians had turned the Ninth Fort into the valley of death for Kovno’s Jews. With German assistance, the Jews of Western and Eastern Europe were annihilated at the Ninth Fort. This fort of death had become the site of mass murders. And we were on our way there.
Escaping from the fort was out of the question. Was this indeed the end? If we were about to be shot, the Gestapo officers would have been armed with rifles or machine guns but they carried only pistols. Was this perhaps a sign that we were being taken to work? Or to the ghetto? The truck was travelling down Kestutcho Street towards the old city. The sky was cloudy and a light rain was falling. The interior of the truck was dark and no one spoke. The Germans were not talking either. Everyone was deep in his own thoughts, whether we were sitting or partially stretched out. We were not permitted to stand but noted the vehicle’s route through the gaps between the Germans in the truck, and heard the sounds of life from the streets. There, beyond the backs of the Germans, was freedom. So near and yet so far. Forget about escape!
The Slobodka bridge. Were we headed for the ghetto? No. We passed Jurbarko Street and turned into Paneriu Street. Or perhaps we were being taken to the second entrance of the ghetto on Varniu Street? Our hearts beat more quickly – we passed the gate.
The truck turned to the Zhemaitchu road towards the Ninth Fort. We were on the road to the fort of death. I found it difficult to sit. My head felt as if it was filled with lead. There was nothing more to think about. In my right hand, I was holding the two hundred grams of bread we had received at the “Yellow Prison” but was not aware of my left hand crumbling it to bits. The crumbs fell around my feet. A strange numbness dominated my senses: an inexplicable apathy affected my memory. I could not even name the important parts of my body. Was this the end?
"Just don’t think what you have been thinking," one of the Gestapo men said to me and offered me a cigarette. "You are all coming to work."
I was so surprised that I could not utter a word. I took the cigarette with a trembling hand. The German lit mine with his lighter. This cigarette was my first. The blood returned to my brain. I came back to myself and began to analyze the situation. The German continued to stare at me.
At that moment, how grateful I was to this Gestapo man, Thisse, who was responsible for supplies to the Ninth Fort. His few words had returned my self-confidence and that of others who were within earshot. Later on, I learned that only those who were used to transferring people to their death can read in the victims' faces what their thoughts were. And the Gestapo official, Thisse, had brought not a few like myself along their final paths.
We went along the infamous Zhemaitchu road. How many tears had been shed on the stones that paved this road? Tens of thousands of men, women and children had driven past on their way to the Ninth Fort. Here was the winding ascent from which so many mothers had thrown their babies in the hope that their lives would be saved by this act. But the murderers had no pity for a single soul.
The truck slowed down and turned to the left. Behind us was a muddy road; to our left was a long stable with an officer armed with a machine gun standing on guard alongside it. To our right was the wall of the Ninth Fort. The truck stopped. The first to alight were the Gestapo officers. One of them ordered us to jump out quickly. We crawled along the interior of the vehicle without taking time to look around. We were told to enter the fort. We went into the corridor through a narrow entranceway and finally reached a smallish courtyard. The fort of death had opened its bloody arms to us.