A melancholy tour of Kaunas' fort of misery

  • 2008-10-01
  • By Justinas Vainilavicius

MISERY LOVES COMPANY: Both a fort and a prison, the Ninth Fort was once considered the most modern in all of the Russian empire

VILNIUS - Getting to the Ninth Fort can be stressful, but it's all part of the adventure. Located in the suburbs of Kaunas and isolated from the city proper by the Vilnius-Kaunas Highway, it's a challenge to get there by public transport 's use your own car unless you enjoy walking around lost. Luckily, an enormous monument built as a memorial for Nazi victims helps orientate.

 The underground passageway to the Ninth Fort museum is a prelude to the complex ahead. The creepy tunnel is dark and damp 's I kept turning my head back toward the entrance 's and it was a relief to emerge into the autumn sunlight, if only to face eerily Soviet architecture, which turned out to be the fort's new museum. It is dedicated to the Jewish genocide and the resistance movements against the Soviet and Nazi occupiers of Lithuania and the terrible policies these powers imposed on local people.

I headed toward the old fort, where I met my incongruously young and flamboyant guide, Rolandas. Showing me around, he told stories about the fort, like that of the largest escape from a prison in the country.
Built in the beginning of the 20th century, the Ninth Fort was part of greater Kaunas' fortification system and was considered to be the most modern in the Russian empire. Its principal goal was to defend the country from possible German attack, but the Germans invaded the city from the other side and drove Russian military forces out.

The fort served well as a prison after World War I. During the regime of President Antanas Smetona it gained a notorious reputation as a jail for political prisoners. Most of the cells were given names and were used to torture prisoners in some way.  The cell dubbed "the health resort" was relatively nice for a jail cell, but it's situated under the iron stairs; inmates probably either became deaf from the guards' heavy boots or experienced serious psychological side effects.

We continued wandering the labyrinth of spooky unlit corridors, tunnels and dead ends. It's no wonder that children sneak away from their groups and get lost in here. The guide mentions that in winter, the museum closes two hours earlier, at 4 p.m., as it becomes too dark to see a thing. Rolandas warns me not to step on a little toad calmly crossing our way. Toads are common here, as are bats.

After thanking Rolandas for his help, I went out into the sun once again. A foreign television crew was filming the surroundings. People hung out and picnicked in a park nearby. The sharply formed 32-meter monument stretched into the sky. Its frank inscription says that Nazis and their collaborators executed fifty thousand people here, brought from as far as France and Germany. The shadow of the tragedy still lingers in this place. I left the Ninth Fort in a melancholic mood that's fitting for the autumn day.