Ghostly remains of Tsar’s European army and centuries of attrocities

Collection with 13 media items created by Benas Gerdziunas

Lithuania 21 Jul 2017 15:49

A photoessay, exploring a unique snapshot of European history, stretching from the mighty symbols of Russian Empire’s oppression, to the Holocaust and KGB’s atrocities.Russian Tsar Alexander II, chose Kaunas, Lithuania as the location for the most modern fortress in the Russian Empire. Found in a strategic location in the middle of two rivers, the city has long stood as the barrier between East and West during the Teutonic conquests, Nordic Wars, Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars. Following the construction of thirteen forts - complete with weapons infrastructure, military hospitals and churches - every third man in Kaunas was a soldier in the Russian Tsar’s army. In the onset of World War One, the fortress fell in just over a week, taking the lives of 20,000 defending soldiers with it. Forward 26 years, the 13 forts ringing Kaunas served as a grim backdrop to Holocaust, where Nazis and local collaborators executed over 30,000 Lithuanian Jews. Intermittently, the forts served as German ‘stalags’ and later, sites of KGB prisons. In total, over 50,000 people were executed there. Today, the forts in Lithuania’s second largest city Kaunas stand mostly abandoned. Some served as temporary bases for newly reestablished Lithuanian military in the 1990s, some were fitted out for paintball tournaments and children’s playgrounds, as some continued to decay amongst empty bottles and cigarette butts - number of lives were claimed by the treacherous network of tunnels and wells inside. In December 2016, the forts were bought-out by the renewed Kaunas leadership, which plan to establish a tourist trail and properly mourn the tragedies, and the structural beauties of the fortresses.

Thumb sm
Title photo for the collection
Kaunas Forts-1
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
15 Jan 2017

Soviet-built memorial to Holocaust victims adjacent to the IX fort (out of 13), where about 50,000 people were executed, including more than 30,000 victims of the Holocaust. The forts were constructed and renovated between 1882 and 1914. II fort came under sustained attack from the German soldiers during WW1 in July, 2015. It was one of the first time mustard gas was used along the eastern front.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-2
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Jun 2017

Russian Tsar Alexander II, chose Kaunas, Lithuania as the location for the most modern fortress in the Russian Empire. Found in a strategic location in the middle of two rivers, the city has long stood as the barrier between East and West during the Teutonic conquests, Nordic Wars, Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-3
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Jun 2017

Original door to the entrance of II fort. Under bombardment, the defenders of the whole fortress sustained 20,000 casualties. During Second World War, VI fort was used by the Nazis as Stalag 336 - site for massive extermination, where over 35,000 POWs were killed. After the First World War, forts stood mostly abandoned. Some were used as housing for impoverished families, others as military prisons, central archives, workshops, gas chambers for executions, prison labour facility and warehouses.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-4
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Jun 2017

Bullet-ridden wall in front of a well. Only recently, holes were patched with iron bars. Over the previous decades, a number of children and other thrill-seekers were killed and injured in the treacherous, multi-storey networks. Some wells drop more than 20 meters below ground, with the sound of streams echoing in the empty corridors.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-5
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
15 Jan 2017

In 1915, the impact of howitzer shells punched through the fort ceilings. The invention of high trajectory, high explosive howitzer technologies rendered the forts obsolete, even before the first short of World War One was fired. Currently, 7 different types of protected bat colonies live in the forts, which are part of the protected species list in Lithuania. The rapid fly-by of the beasts add to the ghostly atmosphere deep inside the forts.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-6
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
15 Jan 2017

Children play outside III fort in December, 2016. Some sections of the fort were used as housing for the poor during the interwar years. They suffered from inadequate ventilation, water damage and virtually non-existent daylight. Historic photographs can be seen in the Fortress Museum, found in the IX fort.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-7
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
15 Jan 2017

During the expansion of Kaunas city, the highly developed drainage network of the forts was damaged beyond repair.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-8
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Jun 2017

A number of forts were drained, except for the VIII fort. The underwater debris, equipment and tunnel networks provide an exciting training platform for divers.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-9
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Jun 2017

Debris strewn underwater offer clues to the final days of fort’s active existence. In the II fort, oil on the water indicates mechanical equipment is still lying in wait underwater.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-10
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Jun 2017

Hardly legible, but authentic graffiti and paintings can be found deeper inside the tunnels. Notably, these are being overtaken by questionable present-day scribbles.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-11
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Jun 2017

Some of the entrances to the forts are hidden in overgrowth, stretching between built up areas of the city. To this day, fragments of unexploded ordnance pose risk to visitors.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-12
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Jun 2017

Destroyed fragments of the II fort. Germans brought 17 inch Gamma-Gerat rail howitzers, with each shell weighing about 1 ton.

Thumb sm
Kaunas Forts-13
Kaunas
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 Jun 2017

During the interwar years, moats in the forts were filled up when they stood mostly abandoned. Some were used as housing for impoverished families, others as military prisons, central archives, workshops, gas chambers for executions, prison labour facility and warehouses. Today, they may be once again revived as a unique tourist trail, offering a glimpse into military history of the continent.